In order to tell the tale of Clarissa Johansen, we must tell the tale of her great mentor, Bethany Katz, for Bethany's story is the story of love - spiritual love, humane love, physical love, public love, personal love, self love, the strength which love gives, and the bridges which love cannot cross.
"It's like you get five religions in one" is what Barack Obama's grandfather said about Unitarianism. Unitarian Universalism, that great leveler of Christ, the great hope that religion and modernity can mix, that you can tame religion and all its demands for Holy War into a domesticated pet that lets you experience the holiness of divinity while not recognizing its primacy, lets you feel connected to the oneness of all things while still feeling yourself important enough to love and be loved, that guiltlessly binds the best of all religions together without considering how the people to whom these practices are life itself might feel it desecration.
And yet, Unitarianism is the best of us: The Adamses, the Alcotts, Susan B. Anthony, Bela Bartok, Ray Bradbury, e. e. cummings, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Buckminster Fuller, Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Jefferson, Tomas Masaryk, Hermann Melville, Isaac Newton, Paul Newman, Barack Obama's family, Keith Olbermann, Linus Pauling, Joseph Priestley, Christopher Reeve, Paul Revere, Benjamin Rush, Arthur Schlesinger, Albert Schweitzer, Pete Seeger, Rod Serling, Robert Gould Shaw, Adlai Stevenson, William Howard Taft, Kurt Vonnegut, Daniel Webster, William Carlos Williams, Joanne Woodward, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Wright.
There are less than 200,000 members of Unitarian Churches in the entire world, and less than 900,000 people who identify as Unitarian. No religion, not even Judaism, ever did so much in so short a time by such a large percentage of adherents to advance the causes of freedom and justice and beauty in the world. It is the religion of true miracles, in which the divine works are made manifest not in the skies, but here on earth - the place where in the end we find our happiness, or not at all.
At fifteen years old, few were happier than Bethany Felicity Katz. The younger daughter of Reverend Mary Katz, Senior Minister for the last three years of the First Unitarian Universalist Church and Center in San Francisco at the intersection of Geary Blvd and Franklin Street, herself the daughter of Matthew Williams, for thirty-seven years the Senior Minister at First Parish in Concord, himself the second son of Reverend Frank Williams, who was Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the flagship Unitarian Church on Farnsworth St. in Boston. After fifty-two years, Reverend Frank was succeeded by Reverend Frank Jr., who was Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in DC on Harvard St. and ran the Unitarian Lobby, DC Unitarians for Social Justice. The second son, Burke Williams, fried his mind with hallucinogenics in 1950's San Francisco and lived in a group home for thirty-five years for the mentally disturbed before Frank Jr. asked Mary to leave Boston for San Francisco to help look after Burke.
Bethany was also the younger daughter of Adam Katz, the most expensive, and therefore the best, invasive cardiologist practicing at Mass Gen, who left both his hospital and his still more lucrative private practice in Concord to live in a Victorian townhouse on Steiner St. across from Alamo Square Park that he joyfully repainted with bright primary colors when their new neighbors suggested that the Katzes turn the last remaining house on their block into one of the Painted Ladies. In his new practice, he worked thirty hours a week rather than seventy, he was paid handsomely, but he didn't need any more money than he had. His fiftieth was around the corner, and he had more than enough money to keep his family living handsomely in San Francisco's best neighborhood while his mother was safely in the Boston Area's best Assisted Living facility. If there was trouble, his sister could drive down from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
When Adam started dating Mary Williams, his parents were livid. Not because they particularly cared whether or not he married a Jewish girl, but because they both knew their widowed mothers would be furious. Fortunately, Bob's bubbies: Flora Katz (born Blumeh Levinson) and Mildred Spivak (born Menukhke Braverman) - were elderly and sometimes confused. His parents thought they could keep both their mothers in the dark about the relationship which their goldene eynikle who attends Harvard Medical School embroiled himself. Eight months into the relationship, Blumeh passed away. On the first anniversary of their first date, the lovebirds announced their engagement. Menukhkeh passed away a week after getting the news.
They moved to San Francisco when Bethany was twelve and her older sister was sixteen. Bethany's older sister, Marian, was bitter about the move let her parents know in no uncertain terms. She had a boyfriend in Boston she had to leave, seemingly hundreds of school friends, and was determined to hate every minute of her years in San Francisco. When it came time for college, she applied only to schools in Boston, and chose Northeastern. Six months after graduation she married her high school sweetheart, had four children, stayed at home to take care of them, and is now that the younger two are teenagers is wondering what to do when everybody leaves the house. Maybe she'll get involved with politics - she fancies that she always wanted to care about things, or maybe she'll just take an art class.
Bethany, however, was the type who knew how to be happy wherever she went. Like Marian, she was the most popular girl in her class at Cambridge Friends School, but unlike Marian, her popularity was not based on fear, and when she enrolled in San Francisco Friends School, she quickly became the most well-liked girl in her class - the teachers commenting on what a lovely effect she had on the other kids. A relatively unruly class of kids was suddenly nicer to each other, better behaved in class, and even the picked on kids who were falling behind were accepted by others because Bethany accepted them. In the case of the most particularly picked on and learning disabled kid, she would cheerfully volunteer to partner with him on group projects class and gently ministered with patient help and explanations to get him caught up with the class.
If Bethany's parents always figured that Marian would become a doctor, it seemed absolutely obvious that Bethany was destined for a life of service.
There was no third sibling, but as seemed tradition from time immemorial in every branch of the Williams family, the Bob and Mary would board a new student every year. In generations past, it would be divinity students, but in Jet Age of the late 20th century, it seemed especially exciting to host foreign exchange students. So every year, the Adam and Mary Katz would host a new foreign exchange student to Cambridge Friends School, and when they came to San Francisco, promptly founded a foreign exchange program at San Francisco Friends School.
Marian was, perhaps understandably, a little bitter about the experience of having to learn to communicate with strange people. One particular male exchange student from Argentina would make a pass at her every day while living under their roof, and twice was waiting in her bedroom for her when she came out of the shower. Her parents never seemed to take her particularly seriously, but after that experience they generally made it a practice of taking female exchange students when possible.
Bethany though, would take it upon herself to learn as much as she could about her new siblings' language, their cultures, their hometowns, their families and friends back home, and would stick to them like glue in public to make sure that their transition to America ran as smoothly as the day is long. After they went back to their home countries, she would write them long letters full of hearts to make sure they knew how much they were missed and how much love they added to the Katz family, inevitably ending with ample promises to visit them back home.
When Bethany was fifteen, the exchange student was Kristina from Dresden. A new adventure. Blond, five-feet eleven, friendly and outgoing, characterful English, and charmingly unable to get jokes. Every attempt to turn her smile into a laugh would be met with a brow that frowned while the smile stayed pasted on, and two seconds later an explanation as to why the statement Bethany just made was not true. It caused Bethany no end of delight. Kristina's father was once a member of the Communist party, his father before him a member of the Nazi party. Other various indirect ancestors were members of the Deutsche Reichspartei, the SPD, the Stazi, and the Waffen-SS.
But you would never know from such a troubled past by looking at Kristina, who resembled life itself. Nothing was too adventurous for Kristina, who insisted on taking Bethany, indeed the whole Katz family, all along the trails and rivers of Northern California. . . . . (the Katz's thought they were an outdoors family until Kristina took them to a new outdoor habitation every weekend)
It was during one of these outdoor habitations that a series of a dozen-and-a-half vans pulled up to the next door house. Driving through the entire block is prohibited, and traffic is blocked for a half-mile in each direction. Ten children emerged with two parents, and forty other men and women helped them move into the house parallel to the Katzes. The men wear dark suits and black hats which they only take off for the severest of labors, the women never take off their long sleeves or their long dark dresses or the hats atop their heads. The few women who show any hair look as though their hair is completely synthetic.
Within seven hours, all the furniture was properly deposited, along with an extra sink properly drilled and plumbed, two refrigerators installed, an extra oven installed with the previously installed thoroughly cleansed, two microwaves, two toasters. All able to be done because the wall between the two townhouses was thoroughly knocked down so that two townhouses become one large townhouse in the middle of the San Francisco Victorians. The multicolored hue of the Victorian paintjob was next thing taken care of, repainted not as a many-colored cloak but as a simple Blue and White, with a painting on the third floor of an old man with a very long, almost completely square beard with four Hebrew letters underneath that read "Mem, Shin, Yud, Khet." Moshiach.
The protests began immediately. The block was immediately wrecked, the
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