Student Union opens ‘hasbara’ room in effort to fill public diplomacy vacuum.
Prologue: Oct. 2004. I am sitting at my desk holding a new book in my hands. It has just come from the printer. I should be happy. I am a writer and my first novel has just been published. But I am seized with a bottomless grief. For this book, The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden, would not exist if my son Ariel Chaim had not become ill, had not finally died a year and five months ago at the age of 22. It is a cruel calculus.
Scene One: Nov. 2002. Ariel is home from Ner Yisroel because he can no longer walk up the hill from his dormitory to the beit midrash. His lungs are failing – a side effect of chemotherapy. He needs a lung transplant. Today he is feeling particularly vulnerable and can’t concentrate on his learning.
‘Talk to me,’ he says. ‘Tell me a story, Daddy.’
And so, an idea that has been germinating in my mind is forced to declare itself as a narrative. I tell Ariel my idea, a story about a frum family in the Old West. We throw ideas back and forth and, before we know it, a plot has been outlined.
Ariel loves America. He loves American history. Over the next few months, I write a novel. It tells the story of a young man and his family who have fled the pogroms of Russia for the freedom of America. I name the young boy Ariel. My son Ariel smiles. He’s used to my naming characters after him – in my film ‘A Stranger Among Us,’ I also named the main character, a chassidic bochur, after my son.
Ariel is a gentle and scholarly yeshiva bochur. His greatest pleasure in life is learning Torah, but he is also most unusual in that he also greatly cares about literature. When Ariel was in high school he felt he was not learning enough English literature, so I hired a private tutor. Twice a week, Ariel and I would get together with the tutor and study the great works of English literature.
Ariel was crazy about Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice, he felt, was the funniest and truest book he’d ever read. Ariel was fascinated by Moby Dick. The symbolism of the great white whale set his imagination aflame. The contest between good and evil is clearly modeled on biblical structures. When the tutor assigned the works of the Irish writer James Joyce, Ariel plunged into Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but soon he came to me and said he could not continue reading Joyce.
‘The Catholic imagery makes me uncomfortable.’
‘What would you like to read instead?’
Ariel grinned. ‘Pride & Prejudice. Again.’
Scene Two: May 2003. Ariel is in the ICU. A lung is not available, and he is fading fast. My wife Karen and I take turns staying by his side. I’ve been writing The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden and reading the chapters to Ariel. He likes the book immensely and he is the only audience I care about. Building a story is a complicated process. It’s a house of cards – if one scene does not work, the rest of the book can collapse. Sometimes I feel like giving up; how can I concentrate on the book when my son is so sick?
‘Finish the story,’ he says. ‘I want to know what happens in the end.’
‘I’m not sure I can do it.’
‘Yes you can. I know you can.’
He also tells me, ‘Dad, you should start a publishing company for frum kids. They really have nothing to read.’
‘I’m a screenwriter, Ariel.’
‘Oh, you could do it if you wanted to.’
Ariel has more faith in me than I have in myself. This is the nature of fathers and sons.
Sons believe that fathers can do anything. But we cannot. And I cannot save my son from the malach hamavet. A few days later, Ariel’s soul leaves his body. Our son is dead and I am sure that a central portion of my soul has also died.
At least I was able to finish the draft of The Hebrew Kid and The Apache Maiden before Ariel was niftar. He loved the ending. The main character, Ariel, yearns to celebrate his bar mitzvah, but in the midst of the Apache Wars it’s difficult gathering a minyan. But because America is special, because Jews and America have a love affair going on, a bar mitzvah – a miraculous bar mitzvah – finally takes place.
Scene Three: July 2003. We are sitting shiva for Ariel. Someone asks me if I plan on starting a charity in Ariel’s memory. Karen and I glance at one another and I hear myself saying: ‘We’re going to establish a publishing company. We’re going to publish fine fiction for Jewish kids.’
Perplexed, Karen looks at me and says, ‘We are?’
That night Karen turns to me and says, ‘Seraphic Press. We’ll call the publishing company Seraphic Press.’ Once again I thank Hashem for my bashert. Without her, I am only half a person.
Karen and I talk about Seraphic Press. We sketch the outlines of a mission statement. We will publish a new kind of American Jewish fiction. In the past, Jewish writers in America, writers such as Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, have tended to focus on characters who favor assimilation. To be a true American, they say, the Jew must drop his Jewish identity and become a cookie-cutter American. The Jewish characters in modern American literature discard Torah with frightening ease. They move on to embrace a radical secularism that is, in essence, a substitute religion.
Karen and I recognize these writers for what they are: fashionable stylists who are selling nihilism. These writers have nothing but contempt for Torah Judaism and this self-hatred is reflected in their cool but soulless prose. The characters in The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden rely on their Judaism, rely on Torah for guidance in their lives. For without Torah, a Jew is but a shadow. Instead of renouncing their Judaism, the characters in our books will affirm emunah at every turn, and it is this very affirmation that will allow our characters to survive and, yes, to thrive under the most adverse conditions.
Scene Four: Nov. 2004. The Seraphic Press phone line rings. I am invited to give a reading and book signing at the Los Angeles Jewish Children’s Book Festival. The organizers are anxious to have a book that is truly Jewish. Most of the books in the festival have little or nothing to do with Judaism. The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden is that rare book, says the festival organizer, that’s not just written by a Jew, but that is Jewish to its very core.
I ask for the address of the festival. ’6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley.’ The address is more than familiar to me.
‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘but isn’t that the Mount Sinai Cemetery?’
‘Yes, yes, I hope it doesn’t bother you. The festival takes place down below, most people aren’t even aware that there’s a cemetery above.’
I hang up the phone and sit for a long moment staring at the photo of Ariel that sits on my desk.
Karen once said to me, ‘Ariel is watching over us; he’s watching over Seraphic Press; he is looking out for us.’ I am too much inside a cocoon of grief to allow myself the comfort of this insight. I resist such images. It’s not so much lack of belief as the pain it causes me. I want him here – in the flesh, not as a seraphic presence. But this phone call, this invitation goes right through me, directly t the very core of my heart, of my emunah. I am actually trembling.
That night, when Karen and I are alone and have a chance to talk, I tell her about the invitation to the book festival. ‘That’s wonderful,’ she says. Then I tell her the location of the book festival. She stares at me; it takes a moment for her to assimilate what I’ve just told her. She nods her head, just once, but with perfect conviction. For Karen knows, has always known, that our son Ariel did not vanish when his body ceased to exist.
Absence has become presence.
Scene Five: Nov. 2004. Karen and I drive to the Los Angeles Children’s Jewish Bookfest. It’s a forty-five minute drive to Simi Valley. This is a familiar route for us. I have driven it many times already. I recognize the terrain, the landmarks, even the very air has a quality all its own. It feels as if we are driving not just through space but through time. Normally, we play a Torah tape, some Jewish music, but this time we are both too wound up. Silence is the only suitable sound for this trip.
Karen and I have journeyed a lifetime together. I first fell in love with her when I was ten years old and we were students at Yeshivah of Flatbush. When no one believed that an Orthodox man could function as a working screenwriter and producer in Hollywood, Karen stood by me, believed in me, and helped guide me through the treacherous Hollywood landscape. It is Karen who has taught me how to be a good husband, how to be a good father, and ultimately how to be a better man. We have endured so much together.
And now, with Seraphic Press, the same pattern has repeated itself. I dream and Karen helps me make it a reality. But this dream is larger than any we have ever attempted. To build a publishing house as a memorial to our beloved son somehow feels more difficult than anything in our lives.
Scene Six: The highway exit swims up in my vision. I see a sign for the Jewish Children’s Bookfest. Karen and I exchange glances. I maneuver past the white tents where the festival is taking place. The car climbs the winding road to the cemetery plots.
Karen and I approach Ariel’s grave.
I know now that Karen is right. Ariel has been watching over this entire enterprise. Not one hundred yards from his grave I will be presenting the book I wrote for him for the very first time. Thick tears cut silvery channels down my beautiful wife’s face. I have been in love with this woman all my life. Her pain is unimaginable, and all I can do is offer some measure of comfort.
We daven. We recite Tehillim. We talk about Ariel’s kindness, his tremendous Torah knowledge. Soon we must leave Ariel’s grave and present the book. We don’t want to leave him, but we have to. Karen and I take our seats in the big tent for author signings. From my seat I can see Ariel’s kever. Several copies of The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden sit on the table in front of me. What happens if no one buys a copy? I feel myself sinking into myself. I am leaving my body, leaving the tent; it’s my only defense against rejection. I am afraid that I have made a terrible mistake.
People pick up the book, examine the dust jacket, put it back down. I tell Karen that I want to leave. I want to go back to Ariel’s grave. Karen urges me to stay, to be patient. Soon, the book begins to sell. It’s almost as if by osmosis. Buyers suddenly appear. They ask me what the book is about, what age ranges it’s suitable for, how much it costs.
By the end of the time given to me I have signed and sold thirty copies of the book. Several people have come back and bought multiple copies as presents.
A lovely young lady buys a copy of the book.
‘What made you write it?’ she asks with a bright smile.
‘I wrote it for my son, Ariel.’
‘Oh my, what a lucky boy,’ she says.
Smiling through my tears, I sign her copy.
Scene Seven: After the signing, Karen and I rturn to Ariel’s kever. Reflecting on our life with Ariel, the analogy of Moses leading the Jews in the desert comes to mind. The years that Ariel was sick were like the Jews’ wanderings in the desert. There were dark and terrifying dust storms; we trudged on almost blinded, struggling against the whipping unpredictable currents of illness. Then there were also the small miracles, the heavenly interventions that retrieved Ariel from the brink when he was in perilous danger. Then there were the oases – the stretches of time when we felt we were in paradise. Ariel was healthy, vibrant, lush with life, imbibing Torah with a ceaseless thirst, enjoying the bounty of Hashem’s earth.
Now the earthly journey is over. There is only drought; the thirst for Ariel intensifies each day.
Karen and I recently spent a Shabbos at the Chai Lifeline Retreat for Bereaved Parents. We were surrounded by parents who have lost children. It sounds grim, but in fact, was hugely comforting. Talking with other parents, Karen and I discovered that everyone was struggling with the same dilemma: how to preserve the memory of our children, how to make sure they will not be forgotten.
Each parent has his or her own way of repairing an unhinged heart, of preserving a memory. Some write sifrei Torah; others set up medical foundations; still others generously give charity to Torah institutions; one couple organized a sports tournament in memory of their son, who was a championship yeshiva athlete.
When Karen and I told these fine people about Seraphic Press, we were relieved by the unanimously positive reaction.
‘That’s a wonderful matzevah,’ said one chassidishe lady. ‘I’m sure that your son, a”h, is watching over and guiding you.’
I wonder if she realized the absolute truth of her words.
FADE TO BLACK.
Editor’s Note: ‘The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden’ can be found at your local Jewish bookstore. Read more about Seraphic Press and Robert J. Avrech and Ariel at www.seraphicpress.com.
Robert J. Avrech’s screenwriting credits include ‘A Stranger Among Us’ and ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic.’ His front-page essay ‘My Heart Unhinged’ appeared in the July 16 issue of The Jewish Press.
About the Author: Robert J. Avrech is an Emmy Award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and producer. Among his numerous credits are "A Stranger Among Us” and "The Devil's Arithmetic.” His novel "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden" won the 2006 Ben Franklin Award for Best First Novel and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award for Notable Children's Book of Jewish Content. His most recent book is a memoir, “How I Married Karen,” an eBook available at Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble, which Avrech is now developing as a major motion picture. His website is Seraphic Secret (seraphicpress.com).
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