Tuesdays with Morris, z”l, the Chabad Berserker
I received the death notice about Morris Merlin today from our synagogue, and my heart is broken.
I couldn’t take Morris on social media. He was too much. He hated Donald Trump and the people that voted for them. He hated libertarianism. He hated that I ran as a Republican for State House. I didn’t mind the disagreement with him. I didn’t even mind how vituperative he could be, but at one point he crossed a line and attacked my military service, as if I could resign from the service merely because I don’t like our Commander in Chief, and he was horribly insulting. We kissed and made up later, but I kept my distance on social media.
But Morris was, underneath it all, one of the most fascinating human beings I’ve ever met. He’d show up to shul, sometimes inappropriately dressed in a FUCK TRUMP t-shirt, but he knew his stuff. He could lane Torah and daven exquisitely. Sometimes his breath smelled like a gin distillery. He wintered in Germany with his German wife, and spent his summers at his house in Stetson. He loved his daughter, even if I got the sense he was a little estranged.
I don’t know why we bonded, besides perhaps that we both left Chabad Lubavitch. I don’t know why he took a liking to me and me to him in spite of our differences. He asked me to help write his autobiography, and we spent more than a few nights on the phone as he rambled. If he had been into the sauce, it was harder for him to focus, but it was still worth listening to. I took more than a few notes. He was incredible, and he lived a live most people could and should be proud of.
Morris came from Massachusetts. My notes didn’t mention much about his father, but his mother had been a Menshevik, and fled to the U.S., while the rest of his family perished in Shoah. He loved and missed his mother dearly. He had a top-notch education in his youth from Chabad Lubavitch. When the 1960s hit, Morris went “berserk,” as he put it, and I joked that would make the best title for his book. “The Chabad Berserker.” He loved it.
He got into drugs. He left home to join protest movements. He got involved with the Civil Rights movement, civil protest, and trying to register black voters in Mississippi and Louisiana. One time, when the Klan and others were looking to get their hands on out-of-state workers, they smuggled him and his peers out of Bogalusa, Louisiana, in coffins. After his efforts there, he became a vocal anti-war protestor.
Morris was proud to be a Jew, but he also wasn’t. He thought we navel gaze too much, and I don’t know that I disagreed with him. He believed with all his heart in an egalitarian approach. He loved and was proud of his German wife, Dorothea. They went on trips to Cypress together to help out Syrian refugees. His Jewish world in both the States and Germany was small, but he tried to be of consequence in helping out refugees and caring for the stranger.
He’d vociferously argue with the conservative members of our congregation. Hell, Morris would argue with his fellow liberals. Morris had an uncanny ability to turn agreement into an argument.
He once told me that he did a lot of drugs, drank too much, and was hard on his friends. It was worth sticking around, though. He loved in equal measure to the trouble he’d cause you, and you knew there was regret in his heart when he all-too-frequently crossed the line, but you both knew he was going to do it again.
I’ll look to Morris’ family if they’d like me to take up writing something more substantive about him. His background is worth a read, a quixotic mismatch that’s equal parts Walter Mitty and Timothy Leary, with a heaping helping of yiddishkeit tossed in for good measure.
The last time I saw him was one of his last times at shul over the summer. He slapped my face fondly, we hugged, kvetched about politics, and he drove back to Stetson. We spoke briefly in September by telephone, and that was it.
I’ll miss you, Morris, you intemperate little hobgoblin. Rest easy.