Last week, I spoke at the funeral of the finest teacher I ever had, Paul Max Rubenstein. Paul is the main reason I am a writer today. What follows are the words I spoke at his funeral on February 7, 2019.
There are those people in life who are truly larger than life itself. You expect them to just live forever. Paul Max Rubenstein was one of those people. I was lucky enough to have Paul Max as my professor in the mid to late 1980s. His wife Deborah asked if I might say a word about Paul as a teacher, mentor and friend. I am deeply, deeply honored. This is no small thing, you see. Paul changed the trajectory of my life completely and totally, irrevocably, forever. I extend my sincerest sympathies to Paul’s children and grandchildren and thank them for sharing Paul with me and so many others.
As I understand it, a Yahrzeit candle is lit during a time of mourning. It is re-lit, annually, on the anniversary of passing. When my mother passed away from cancer in 1992, my three siblings and I lit a candle. The light brought us some hope. It made us feel a tiny bit better. As Dr. Martin Luther King wisely stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
The candle we lit after my mom had died honored her. It symbolized driving out the darkness of our grief. Paul knew my mother and she had tremendous admiration for him and how he changed my life and the lives of so many other students in so many positive ways.
Paul was a remarkable teacher. Inspiring. Challenging. Riotously funny. And I’d never actually heard a teacher swear like they were in a Quentin Tarantino film. Paul would come into class, always fit and trim, in his khaki pants, an oxford shirt, a sweater, and a tweed jacket — the consummate professor. He always carried with him a steel canister of water and a bag of granola or nuts and he sat and he really listened. He made us all feel valued. Like we mattered. And that’s what any young college kid wants, at least I did, with our whole frightening life out there before us. Paul validated us. He empowered us. He recognized in each of us our strengths and encouraged us to take risks and believe in ourselves.
Ever since I was eleven years old, I wanted to be a writer and artist. And when I met Paul at the age of twenty, this was the first time I had actually met a real writer, like an actual published writer with actual books and actual film credits. The first time I went to Paul’s office, I marveled at the piles and towers of papers and utter and complete chaos stacked in every nook and cranny and corner. Did he ever throw anything out?! This was a real writer!
In August of 1988, Paul offered to do something sort of crazy. He had really connected with a cohort of students and he offered to lead us all on a short trip to Los Angeles where he would introduce us to his own connections, screenwriters, producers, even his agent. None of this was sanctioned, sponsored or approved of by our college, Paul just did it anyway. All by himself, he chaperoned thirteen students, a diverse, rag-tag lot of creative nerds and weirdos from multiple generations who all felt important because Paul said we were.
I’m sure that trip was a logistical nightmare for Paul, he set up all the meetings, our accommodations, he arranged for multiple rental cars—strangely, four Lincoln Town cars being driven by students on the 10 freeway that may as well have been the Autobahn.
There is a picture taken of us while in L.A. We are all standing by a fountain on a sun-drenched California morning, all together, Paul right there in the middle, wearing dark sunglasses, our teacher, our mentor, our guru, our leader, our inspiration, our creative papa. The future was all out there before us, an unknown road leading to unknown places and it was scary and exciting and mysterious and we had Paul so it would all be okay.
We all eventually graduated and moved on and went down different career paths. I went into journalism first and then wrote books and after a time, I became the authorized biographer of the legendary science fiction and fantasy author, Ray Bradbury. I worked with him for twelve years on four books and a graphic novel and as I stand here I realize I had the two greatest mentors ever. Ray Douglas Bradbury and Paul Max Rubenstein.
I was also given the chance to teach in a college continuing education program because, as I learned later, Paul Rubenstein had recommended me even though I had no teaching experience to speak of. Today I am the author of five books with a new one on the way and I am a full-time college professor at the very institution where Paul once taught me. I would not be a published writer or a tenured college professor if not for the belief that Paul Rubenstein had in me.
And, so, this leads me back to the Yahrzeit candle, the candle of mourning, and I realize that a light burns in me and will burn for all my days, it will never go out. It burns in all of us who knew and loved Paul. Because he loved us. This light was ignited by the greatest mentor I could ever hope to have, the wonderful, kind, inspiring and caring, Paul Max Rubenstein.