Ron Shlensky 1935-2006

by Rabbi Stephen Cohen

I would like to offer a few inadequate words about Ron Shlensky, this complicated, unpredictable, infuriating, gifted, tormented, deeply loving man who has been taken from us suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, in an apparent hit-and-run accident. In telling the story of Ron’s life, there are some important facts to set forth, and then there is the mystery of this man. Let me start with the facts.

Ron was born in 1935 and grew up on Chicago’s Southside. He and his sister Gerry were the children of Florence and Isidore. Ron’s father was a pharmacist and Ron worked as a soda jerk in the pharmacy. Ron’s childhood unfolded in a tough neighborhood in which a Jewish kid could get beaten up simply for being a Jew, but it was also a wonderful world, surrounded by a huge extended family.

In college, Ron was enormously popular — smart enough to do well without going to class (he often didn’t), dazzlingly handsome (his mother, by the way, was a candidate for Miss Illinois), witty, and powerfully charismatic. Resisting his father’s desire for him to become a pharmacist, Ron chose medicine instead and did his residency in psychiatry.

It was during his time as a psych resident that Ron fixed his eye upon Evely. She was a young college student on a summer internship in social work at a hospital, and her supervisor had sent her to observe a session of psychodrama. As Evely sat there, she realized that a young doctor was staring at her — relentlessly and not in a subtle way! At a break in the session, the intense young doctor said, “Miss Laser, would you come into my office please?” Evely was intimidated and awestruck. Ron was the most dashing man she’d ever met. On their first date, when she mentioned her fantasy of living out west on a ranch, Ron asked, “Could it be with a Jewish rancher?”

They married and by the time Evely graduated from college, she was pregnant with Lincoln. Ron entered the armed service and they were stationed in Germany, where Sheba was born. After two years, they returned to Chicago, where Aviva arrived, completing the family. After 12 or 13 years there, Ron became restless and, by sheer force of his will, uprooted his family, against all their wishes. In 1979, they moved to Santa Barbara.

Here we need to pause with the facts and turn to who Ron was — no easy task, since Ron himself became increasingly unsure of himself as he aged. But here are a few observations:

As a young man, Ron was immensely charismatic — powerful, expansive, and fun. In those days, he also had what his children have described as a volcanic temper. He could be brutally harsh, although never physically violent, and when they were young, they were terrified of him. Ron mellowed as he aged, and lost a large measure of his confidence. At the same time, he became more expressively loving.

Ron was a man of immense contradictions, and so he evoked vastly contradictory responses among his friends. Having been his friend for the past 20 years, I have heard the most silly, inane, and inappropriate things issue from his mouth. And yet no one has touched me more deeply than Ron has throughout the years, with a simple, honest, penetrating word of encouragement or love.

Ron loved to break rules; he would show up at any occasion dressed any way he liked, would say things that shocked or annoyed or infuriated. When Aviva and Andrew were looking for a site for their wedding, Ron discovered the Natural History Museum and climbed into a tree to take aerial photos of it. When Ron ran on the street — which he did constantly, and long before jogging became popular — he would wave his arms as though conducting an orchestra. I will always remember one comment Ron made about 13 years ago. A group of us was learning about an inspiring program for Jewish ex-convicts in L.A., called Bet T’shuvah. The rest of us were nodding our heads solemnly, moved by this organization that rebuilds lives. When we heard that representatives of Bet T’shuvah would be coming to Santa Barbara, Ron murmured, “Better lock up the silver.” This elicited Evely’s famous, exasperated “Ronnie!” But then, as the rest of us were rolling on the floor with laughter, she did not suppress a smile.

I think Ron and Evely have been our community’s most shocking couple. How could we not be struck by the contrast between Evely’s regal bearing and Ron’s wacky unconventionality? Yet we also saw, if we looked closely, that in their marriage, the two of them strove to unify opposing but equally essential sides of the human spirit: the noble and the comic iconoclast.

The struggle to live with contradictions can be exhausting, and it often was, for both Ron and Evely. But behold the fruit produced by that union: Aviva, Sheba, and Lincoln. They are clearly an awesome legacy of this long, difficult, marvelous marriage. As I sat with the three of them recently, I was struck by the miraculous blending of their mother and father in each of them: the honesty (at times brutal), the tenderness, the intelligence, the humor, and the love. I see in each of them their dad’s spirit alive and well. And let’s not forget the next generation: Jared, Eli, Solomon, and Celia. Ron loved being a grandpa; it was one of the few things that kept making him happy until the day he died. He poured himself into his grandchildren, and so he is alive in each of them forever.

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav taught about 200 years ago that human beings grow in stages. We spend years creating a solid sense of ourselves and our world, and then — if we are open and courageous — we encounter a person or idea that shatters that sense of our world. And we undergo a painful process of slowly constructing a new, more inclusive and truer picture of the world. Eventually, if we stay open and courageous, that process of shattering and recreating occurs over and over until we die. Rabbi Nahman’s philosophy did not make him peaceful or happy; his biography is titled Tormented Master. Yet his personality, his teaching, and his impact on the people around him continue to be with us unto this day.

In his life, Ron built worlds. He built the world of forensic psychiatry, and in his marriage with Evely, he built a world of a marvelous family. There is no question that everything Evely has given to the world, the country, and this community are due in part to Ron’s unconditional support and encouragement. But for most of his life, Ron Shlensky was a breaker of rules, to our irritation and delight.

In his final years, he was building a new world for himself, based on a single rule: “Thou shalt love.” In this rule, Ron kept growing stronger, expressing his love for Evely, his children and grandchildren, and all of his friends more and more openly. The tragedy of Ron’s life, if there was one, is that he died so suddenly and had no opportunity to step back and appreciate the new world he was creating. But for all of us who felt his love, and who know that there will never be another Ron Shlensky, his memory will be a blessing for the rest of our lives.

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