Thursday, September 23, 2004

Links to the Past

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Ariel's rebbe from Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Rabbi Dovid Gruman, visited with me. Rabbi Gruman was Ariel's 10th grade rebbe, but their relationship transcended that of student and teacher. Not a week went by when Rabbi Gruman did not visit Ariel here at home or in the hospital. I vividly remember that at the very hour Ariel was being prepped for surgery a few years ago, Rabbi Gruman's infant son was undergoing an extremely complex and dangerous surgery on his tiny heart. Right before Ariel was wheeled into the operating room he assured Rabbi Gruman that his son was going to be fine. Ariel had davened for him and he was sure that HaShem would listen to his prayers. The recovery room nurse told me that when Ariel's surgery was over and he regained consciousness, he groggily asked how it went. You're okay," the nurse told him. "No, no, not me," he muttered, "How is Rabbi Gruman's son?" The baby was fine, Thank G-d, and continues to thrive. Ariel's concern for others was deep and genuine. Ariel had no pretences; there was not a dishonest bone in his body. This absolute goodness is why people loved and respected Ariel. I was not the first person to call Ariel a Tzaddik Gamur, an Authentic Saint. No, I left that to others. Karen and I knew that it was true, but Ariel's deep sense of modesty prevented us from ever saying it out loud.
Rabbi Gruman and I talked about Ariel. We talked about Rabbi Gruman's children, the recent birth of his grandchild, his daughter's engagement. Then as Rabbi Gruman was leaving, he turned to me and hesitantly said: "Is it okay for me to go into Ariel's room?"
Ariel's room is, for the most part, the same as it was when he was alive. Karen organized his tapes and notebooks, I dust his books; his childhood toys. Sometimes I put my face into his clothing, his old Shabbos suits and take a deep breath. I can still detect his scent. It makes my head spin. I borrow his ties. Once, I tried on his black hat. He was so handsome, especially when he dressed so carefully for Shabbos and Yom Tovim.
A few years ago, Ariel struggled to put on a pair of cuff links. "Dad, can you lend me a hand?" I love helping my children with anything. It makes me feel, well, like a father from the early days of television, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons. I'm just the Jewish version. Ariel could not figure out how to get the cuff link through the holes. Never terribly coordinated, Ariel was positively defeated by this maneuver. "Take off your shirt," I said. Ariel did it. "Now, sit down on the bed, and put the cuff links through the holes." Ariel did it with ease. He smiled hugely and said, "Dad, that's brilliant." We laughed. Ariel could decipher the most difficult passage of Talmud, but he was often confounded by the most ordinary of tasks.
Rabbi Gruman touched the spines of a few books and nodded to himself, perhaps thinking, Yes, yes, this is the space, these are the objects that I will fix in my mind forever and ever.
Rabbi Gruman bid me a Gut Yuntif. I stood outside my home and watched him drive away. Back in the house, I returned to Ariel's room, sat down on his bed and got ready for this second Rosh Hashanah without my son. I took off my shirt and put on my cufflinks, just the way I taught Ariel -- just the way my father taught me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Self-Help

After Ariel died, several books were given to me by well meaning friends. These books, about Judaism and bereavement, are I was assured, deeply comforting and helpful. Over the past few months I have read some of these books, and put many down after just a few chapters. I'm sorry to say that I do not find them useful or comforting. In truth, I find them depressing in their reliance on New Age cliches.
Their main arguments seem to be that Judaism is "profoundly knowledgeable about human psychology." The learned men who write these books portray our sages as pipe smoking psychiatrists who just happened to put on tefillin. My wife Karen, the finest psychologist I know, has always held that the best psychologists are men and women who are able to genuinely empathize with their clients; psychologists who form deep bonds with their patients and are willing to discard any and all rigid schools of thought. In other words, the ability to listen and to care is paramount in successful therapy. Theories inevitably shudder and fracture under the weight of reality.
The authors of these Jewish self-help volumes proudly boast that our rituals of death and mourning are psychologically astute. This seems shallow praise to heap on a religion that brought monotheism to the earth. I care nothing for sophisticated psychology in this life of loss that I will never exit. The consolation I seek should and must transcend popular psychology. So I ask these learned and well intentioned writers: what happens if Judaism were not psychologically astute? Would that make it any less true? The answer is obvious. We are bound to Torah with love and duty and the chain of mesorah. In fact, the highest praise I could imagine for Judaism is not that we recognize its psychological integrity, but that we are able to see beyond it. Where a psychologist will see grief as the unresolved fear of abandonment, a Torah Jew will view grief as a necessary part of life, something to be confronted head-on, and struggled with, first among family and community and then inevitably alone. The Rav's Lonely Man of Faith is the paradigm that I turn to and find most heroic, and at the same time, realistic. I prefer Rebbeim who are Rebbeim, not Rebbeim who have turned into smooth talking pop psychologists.
As for the books, they sit on my shelves, comfortable beside the Whole Earth Catalog, The Big Book of Hula Hoops, and books about alternative medicine and holistic healing. I am alone with Karen, we are in a place only grieving parents inhabit; we are beyond self-help manuals, beyond ordinary words.
But your words have been extraordinary.
To all who read this blog, I thank you for your patience, and generosity. I am well aware that these pages are often difficult to reaqd, but for some reason you keep coming back. And your presence provides a measure of comfort. I feel that I have actually met you, even though I only know you in cyberspace. For this, Karen and I thank you. We wish you a Shana Tova Umituka.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Digging Through Garbage

Right before Shabbos, we receive a brochure from Ariel's Yeshiva. The pictures of the young men in the Beis Midrash are hypnotic: the boys in their dark pants and crisp white shirts, and their posture so familiar. I lean in and squint. Is that Ariel in the background? No, no, of course not. I turn pages, read each article. How come, I irrationally wonder, there's nothing about Ariel in the brochure? There should be a headline that reads: Ariel Avrech Is Sorely Missed. Is he already forgotten? I am hurt and angry. Ariel spent four years in the yeshiva and it's as if he was never there. He loved his yeshiva with the kind of love that Shlomo describes in Shir HaShirim. How can they go on without him as if nothing has happened?
Am I crazy?
What am I doing?
Do I expect everyone to grieve the way I do? Do I really expect his yeshiva, his Rebbeim, and his friends, to dwell on Ariel's absence with the same intensity that I do? Hadn't they supported, revered, prayed for him, and reached out to us, calling, flooding us with letters and tributes?
I exist in a world somewhere between supremely rational thought and utter looniness. When people ask me how I'm doing, I resent it. When people neglect to ask how I'm doing, I resent it. Some days I think it would be better for me to stay in my house, avoid all human interaction. It's too draining. A friend called and asked how I was.
"Some days I'm okay, some days I'm not so okay." I respond. "If your read my blog, you'll get a better idea of what's going on in my life."
"I don't want to read your blog," my friend responds testily. "I'm your friend, your blog is for strangers."
"Okay, sorry."
That's the end of that conversation. Gosh, I feel like I've committed a sin, suggesting that my friend actually read Seraphic Secret. One of the reasons I write Seraphic Secret is because it's simply too draining to explain how I feel. And besides,I don't know how I feel or what I feel until I write it down. This journal is not just for strangers. It's for me and Karen, foremost, and then everybody else.
Several times this past week friends have been offended by my suggestion that they read this page. But the truth is, the strangers who read and write to me probably know me better than the friends who refuse to be readers. My friend Surie Lazar intimately knows the convulsions of my heart. My Hasidic friend W, dutifully reminds me to maintain strict standards of tznius in my writing; I'm afraid I disappoint all too often. Yes, a whole new circle of friends, many grieving parents, have stepped into our lives and filled the awful vacuum that Ariel's death has created.
The other day, Karen cleaned up and organized Ariel's room. There are hundreds of Torah tapes in Ariel's library. There are boxes of micro-cassettes: Ariel taped his gemara shiurim so he could review them. There are dozens of tapes made by his friends of classes that Ariel was too sick to attend. Karen and I have decided to donate some of the tapes to a library in Lakewood dedicated to the memory of his friend Shia Twersky z"l who died tragically in a car accident. We know that Ariel would like to share his Torah with others. After organizing his drawers and dropping off the tapes, Karen broke down and cried. Between sobs she explained, "I just realized why I could do it; it was a maternal act, and that was the basis of our relationship, it was a way that I could do the caretaking that I would do normally. I felt that by letting his belongings accumulate dust and just pile up on his desk, I was neglecting my son."
Karen has a gift for organization. I have a gift for flight. While Karen was busy in Ariel's room I was locked away in my office making believe that I was not aware of what Karen was doing.
"Do you really want his room to stay exactly the same as the day he died, wouldn't that be disrespectful?" she asked me.
"No," I lied.
When I dumped the garbage from my office into the big garbage can at the curb, I noticed several micro tapes in the can. Karen has thrown away some of the tapes from Ariel's room. I reach in and grab them. I stuff them into my pockets, look around to make sure that no neighbors are watching,then scurry back to my office and hide the tapes in the bottom drawer of my desk. All the time, a little voice in my head is saying: Robert, this is really not normal.Karen has disappeared some of Ariel's tapes, but she has not told me because she knows how hurt I would be. But a few minutes later, I feel like a fool. I take the tapes and gently put them back in the garbage. Karen must have thrown them away for a reason. I have learned to trust my wife's instincts. If she believes that there's no reason to keep these tapes, well, I'll trust her. My wife is rarely wrong about the important things in our life.
And besides, I do not want to dig through garbage cans for the rest of my life.

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