I’ve been a screenwriter in Hollywood for over twenty years. But the focus of my life is my family: my radiant wife, Karen, whom I have been in love with since I was ten years old, and my two daughters, who, thankfully, look like Karen.
Not too long ago, we had three children. But our son, Ariel, died last year at the age of 22 from pulmonary fibrosis. I miss him terribly. I think about him practically every minute of every day.
Ever since Ariel died, I find myself crying in the most unexpected of places. I remember the last year of Ariel’s life. I drove him to pulmonary therapy three times a week. I drove him to his medical appointments twice a week. If he was strong enough, I would drive him to shul or to a Torah class. Sometimes we would listen to Jewish music and Ariel would tap his hand against his thigh.
I remember at one point thinking that Ariel might not make it and the song I’m listening to will always be associated with that unbearable thought. And now, in the car, I don’t have to put the music on. I hear it in my head. I see Ariel out of the corner of my eye. And I drive with tears pouring down my face.
From the very beginning Ariel was a magical child. Endowed with an amazing intellect, he was also gentle and so very kind that we often worried that he was not made for this world. How could he fight through the normal, everyday struggles that rule our lives? How could he deal with the truly unethical and vile people who are all around us? As it turned out, he does not have to. He is spirit now and Karen and I are left to struggle and fight our way through the long days and nights.
On Shabbos Ariel and I walked to shul together. We waved to the other men on their way to the various shuls. We said hello to strangers walking their dogs. Sometimes we talked, but often there was a companionable silence. Ariel was preparing to pray, adjusting his state of mind for a holy dialogue.
Ariel was often asked to daven for the minyan. He had a beautiful voice and his pronunciation of the Hebrew was perfect. Ariel usually was the last to finish davening. He spoke to G-d: a true I and Thou relationship. Everyone else was already gone, but Ariel was still shuckling, eyes closed, totally unaware that we were the only two left in shul. I sat and watched him daven and asked myself: How did this saintly young man spring from my loins?
The nights are the most difficult. Our routine is fixed. Karen continues to work until ten or eleven. It is her only escape; the only way she can block the pain from colonizing her mind.
As a psychologist, she evaluates tests, writes up reports, makes recommendations. Her patients are lucky; she is attentive, compassionate, realistic. She works with children and their parents. She listens to harrowing tales of domestic conflict, helps them cope with all sorts of conflict and anger.
Yet it is Karen who endures more pain than any of her patients. But Karen never lets on. She has never even hinted that all she really wants to do is lie down on her son’s grave and stay there until her bones mulch with his.
I read. I learn. I write. Sometimes I’ll go into Ariel’s room – unchanged since the day he died – lie down on his bed and smell his pillow, the sheets, feel his imprint in the mattress. I gaze at the room. There are the Transformers he loved as a little boy. There are the pictures of his rebbeim from high school and Ner Yisroel Rabbinical College. And there is his huge Snoopy poster. Ariel loved Charlie Brown. He always said there was a great deal of Torah to learn from Snoopy and his friends. I leaf through his notebooks and marvel at the clarity of his thoughts on particularly difficult tractates in the Talmud.
I head upstairs to our bedroom. I sit in the dark and listen to Karen breathing. Invariably, she begins to shudder. She cries out in her sleep, makes strangling, yelping noises like a frightened animal. I hold her. “What is it?” I ask. “Ariel, Ariel,” she sobs. “Where is he? He must miss us. We were so close.”
I have no answer. All I can do is soothe this brilliant and beautiful woman. Soon, Karen will drift off again, but the terrible moans and shuddering always accompany sleep. It is a tornado of grief. A woman’s body remembering the child that grew inside and is no longer. It is her body reacting to the hatchet-drop of tragedy. Karen’s womb is suffering a loss all its own, a phantom limb crying out and insisting on remembrance. The female body is remorseless in its ability to recall what it has nourished.
It is night and Ariel is dead. It is night and Karen convulses and all I can do is hold on, for if I let go I will fall off the bed and never stop falling.
No one could make Ariel smile and laugh like his two sisters. He loved the way they wrap me around their well-manicured little fingers, once saying to me: “Dad, you should see your face when the girls ask you to do something for them.”
“What do you mean??” I asked.
“You’re just so happy, so anxious to do anything for them, it shows on your face.”
“Well Ariel, that’s what being a parent is, you want to give to your children. The more you give, the more you love. You’ll find out when you’re a father.”
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I want to have children.”
“?How many?” I asked.
“Many, many,” he responded.
Well, Ariel will not have children. He will not know the joy of hammering together a shoe rack for a shoe-obsessed daughter. But when I do it, when I do anything for Lila or Chloe, I remind myself that I am lucky. My heart may be broken, but I am still blessed with two daughters and to forget this would be a sin. Karen and I are broken vessels, but Hashem works with broken vessels and we must learn from Hashem.
No matter how hard I try I cannot view my grief with any clarity. I remember. I write. I started this Internet blog to try to recapture my beloved son, but for every word written, a hundred, a thousand, a million are abandoned. And I fear that for every memory unearthed, dozens are lost in the funereal gray folds of my brain.
Sometimes I fear I will not be able to see the most simple elements of who Ariel was, of what our relationship was made of. And last night my fear was realized. Karen sat down and read my blog for the very first time. I waited, tense and fearing that she would despise what I have written. Karen has always been my harshest and most honest critic. When I give her a completed screenplay, I melt with the terror of a bad review. I was afraid that she would find this blog false and vain and self-absorbed; an insult to Ariel’s holy neshama; an exercise in new age narcissism.
Karen read and soon she was sobbing. “Oh, Robert,” she said, “you need Ariel’s love so badly.”
I was ten years old when I fell in love with Karen. It happened in fourth grade. The students buzzed with the news that a new kid had transferred from Ohel Moshe, a yeshiva in Bensonhurst.
I was playing punchball in the yard when I saw the new girl. I was smitten. What struck me about her, aside from her devastating beauty, was the fierce intelligence that flashed in her eyes. So, in the Yeshivah of Flatbush schoolyard, I stood frozen at home plate gazing fixedly at her, knowing deep in my heart that my life had just changed, that I would never be the same person.
Oh, I continued to be a gawky and awkward and painfully dopey kid with a paralyzing math disability (in those days we were just called dumb) but I was different, for I carried a secret in my heart, a secret that I shared with no one.
The secret was this: some day I would marry Karen Singer.
Karen and I barely spoke in all the years we were together in elementary school. We went to separate high schools. I would see her at basketball games, sometimes in the local pizza shop. But we never spoke; she had no idea who I was. Certainly, she did not know that I was still in love with her.
During my college years, every once in a while I would ask my parents if they’d heard anything about Rabbi Singer’s daughter. “Oh, she’s in Barnard,” they would tell me. “Is she married yet?” “Not yet, but that girl won’t be single long.” I agreed. Some smart Columbia pre-med student was bound to win her heart.
After college, I was living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. One day in shul I looked up from my siddur and my heart stopped. There she was. Karen was sitting in the women’s section.
And she was not wearing a hat.
Which meant that she was not married.
The very next day I saw her on the street at a Jewish street festival. I walked over and introduced myself. Baffled, she looked at me; she had no idea who I was. No idea that my heart was beating in my chest like a trapped bird.
Less than a year later, we were married.
Ariel was our first-born. Karen’s labor was difficult and finally a C-section was performed. I was there when Ariel was born. All births are miraculous, but this more so. The little girl I had loved so deeply from that first moment in the schoolyard was now mother to our child.
Twenty-two years later, Karen and I were with Ariel when his soul departed his body. Someone, please — please – tell us how it is possible that we have moved from the schoolyard to the graveyard in one short lifetime.
The first time Karen and I visited Ariel’s grave was right after shloshim. I was so filled with dread that I asked Karen’s best friend, Audrey, to drive us to the cemetery.
Ariel is buried in Simi Valley. The views are lovely and pastoral, and there is always a brisk wind whipping down the passes. We chanted the prayers, and we sobbed; we were all struck with a sense of unreality. Was Ariel really here? Was his body under our feet?
I kneeled and touched the ground, his eternal blanket. Karen said, “Maybe he’s cold, maybe he needs a sweater.” I said nothing. Karen is his mother and she wants to shield her child from all harm. The wind picked up and Audrey, a loyal friend, moved to Karen’s side. They stood like this for a long moment, staring out at the mountains, weeping and sobbing and shivering.
The death of a child is a grief that cannot be confused with others. Nothing in life has prepared me for this hammer-blow. No one has written a manual explaining how to keep breathing after the heart has been unhinged from its cavity.
I stand in shul, eyes closed, swaying back and forth, chanting the words with (I hope) perfect diction and true feeling as I recite the last Kaddish of the eleven months for Ariel.
There are at least another dozen mourners in shul, all with much louder voices than mine, but I hear only one sound. Is this my voice? I see Ariel as he used to be: sitting in shul beside me. I melt as Ariel’s lips move, savoring each syllable, whispering the sacred Hebrew text. I study his long tapering fingers as they turn the pages of the siddur. I lean over and bury my lips in the plush groove of his neck.
I am close to the end. I take three steps back and three steps forward. I finish the Kaddish. I open my eyes and I see light. I open my eyes and I am swimming through layers of memory. I open my eyes and I see splendor. I open my eyes and I see my son.
The unveiling took place on June 18. Rabbi Muskin spoke of his loving relationship with Ariel. My father, Rabbi Avrech, spoke movingly of all the meanings of Ariel’s name. Karen’s father, Rabbi Singer, spoke of the wrenching pain we all feel.
After I spoke, we recited Tehillim. I said Kaddish. People lined up to place small stones on the headstone. Karen and I waited for everyone to leave and then we lingered at the grave. We touched the granite. We wept and embraced.
On the way back to the car Karen and I halted in our tracks and went back to Ariel’s grave because we felt that we did not say a proper goodbye. Again we touched the granite, again we lingered and wept. Again, for the hundredth time, we said this can’t be real. How did this happen? Is this really our life?
We exist within the embrace of cruel questions: why, how, what if? Endless permutations of what could have been, what should have been. But in the end we are left with this awful reality and I wonder: How much longer can I go on without surrendering to nothingness?
Robert J. Avrech’s movie and television writing credits include “A Stranger Among Us” and “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” To honor their son’s memory, the Avrechs have founded Seraphic Press to publish high-quality fiction suitable for children with Torah values. The idea was Ariel’s.
The first book from Seraphic Press, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden,” written by Mr. Avrech, will be published in January 2005. A tale of grand adventure, the story is set just after the Civil War and features as its main character a young boy determined to celebrate his bar mitzvah despite Apaches on the warpath, marauding bands of scalp-hunters, and a father on a mission to find the Lamed-Vovniks in the wild American frontier. Mr. Avrech has named the novel’s main character…Ariel.
To read Mr. Avrech’s blog, go to seraphicpress.blogspot.com
Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Singer’
I’ve been a screenwriter in Hollywood for over twenty years. But the focus of my life is my family: my radiant wife, Karen, whom I have been in love with since I was ten years old, and my two daughters, who, thankfully, look like Karen.
As a former fundamentalist Protestant I extend kudos to Ben Noach Roy Neal Grissom, who touched on many significant issues in his Oct. 3 letter to the editor.
Here’s a news flash – Torah isn’t politically correct. What is this insanity of Orthodox Jews who are registered Democrats? The Democratic party - that left-leaning tower of pseudo virtue; a party that proudly supports abortion, gay marriage, etc. Last year I worked at the polls for the first time and saw the registration list. Of the 100 or so Orthodox Jews I know in my polling precinct, only five were registered as Republicans and none as Independents.
And then there are all those museums that claim to be devoted to Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish life, and so forth. But many of these are really (or also) devoted to ‘tolerance,’ multi-culturalism, etc. There are Jews who are destitute, shuls with no Torah scrolls, and soldiers and security guards without bulletproof vests in Israel. Yet there are a lot of Jews, some of them Orthodox, who are giving money to support these museums. And, sad to say, they are proud of themselves. It makes me sick.
Finally, regarding the Bnei Noach: In my 10 years of Jewish life I have never heard any rabbi stress from any pulpit our obligation to teach the Seven Laws of Noach. In fact, I have heard the Bnei Noach spoken of only once, at a Shabbos table in an Orthodox home with liberal, intellectual pretenses. The attitude of those at the table was benign amusement at what they felt was a rather quixotic movement.
We have failed, and are failing, in our responsibility to be ‘a light unto the nations.’ We can and must do better. When I was an Evangelical Protestant we use to talk about the problem of ‘bless me clubs’ - people who essentially prayed that G-d would bless them, their family, their friends, and the people in their church. Oh, they wanted others to be blessed as well, but never lifted a finger or prayed for it to happen. In essence they wanted their own little club:
G-d and themselves.
I’m afraid that Judaism too has its “bless me clubs.” Their prayer seems to be, “Bless my family, my friends, my shul – and don’t bother me with the rest.”
I’ve been a Roman Catholic, an agnostic, and an Evangelical Protestant. I can tell you that there are vast numbers of people who would eagerly become Bnei Noach, and some who would convert to Judaism (yes, I mean Orthodox Judaism) if they knew what it was about and that it were possible. But then we would have to enlarge our tents and our little club would not be so exclusive.
I hope that those who read this letter will open their eyes and hearts a little to the vast potential we have in this new year. The potential to shift American culture back toward traditional values by voting for conservative candidates, to prioritize Jewish funding, and to be “a light unto the nations.”
Talking Tashlich (I)
Mr. David Love (Letters, Oct. 3) laments the lack of attendance at the Tashlich ritual since, in his opinion, it offers an opportunity for social interaction. In fact the Aruch Hashulchan, in Hilchos Rosh Hashana, states that it is preferable to avoid the Tashlich ritual entirely since it leads to prohibited social mingling.
Talking Tashlich (II)
You say that it was “a twenty-year hiatus” since your last visit to Queens for Tashlich, Mr. Love. And yet you express surprise at the change in “scenery” that greeted you on Rosh Hashanah afternoon. Unless you’ve been stranded on a far-away island, you must know that within that substantial time frame there was much going on – much that affected us individually and as a whole.
Let me explain. While I do recall looking forward to Tashlich in my youth – or, to be truthful, to the latest in fashion, gossip, and to catching the eye of that cute guy - I somehow fail to remember feeling remorseful for the past year’s misdeeds, the tears threatening to spill, or the beseeching recital of the meaningful words in my Machzor that were composed and assembled centuries ago for this soul-searching occasion.
But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone. Its lessons, though, have served to carry us baby boomers to a higher plateau - so necessary to fight the temptations that surround us in this increasingly decadent world.
Ahh … the innocence of a bygone era leaves us filled to the brim with nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ along with a strengthened resolve to fight the ever-present yetzer hara – and to keep our own children from getting mired in its snares.
Tashlich is not about standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by. Nor was it instituted as a shidduch social event. Rather, it is an exalted opportunity to connect with our Maker and to cleanse ourselves spiritually before the day of reckoning. Somewhat of a challenging task, in view of the physical (gashmius) enticements that beckon to us from all directions.
That rebbe you mention in your letter, Mr. Love, is on to something. And you can bet he isn’t the only one. Today’s tzores (troubles) awaken us to the reality that our Father in Heaven is the One to turn to. A social gathering is hardly conducive to such solemn supplication.
Find a remote spot by the edge of a lake - a stream, a deserted stretch of beach – and allow yourself to contemplate the natural wonders of our Creator. Let humility and reverence wash over you. Those who’ve missed the opportunity to get in touch with their spiritual selves via this age-old lofty custom – take heart. You have till Hoshana Rabba to tune in, to hear the late autumn wind whistle its melancholy tune to your soul. Do let the sun catch you crying. It
will warm your heart.
Big Bad Bush
The Bush/Cheney team constitutes a danger to the U.S. For years after he leaves office, President Bush will continue to negatively impact our future with consequences that defy comprehension. Bush’s childish beliefs that the realities of the world should be defined by him alone have - and will – cost America dearly.
Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq are now different from what they were during his State of the Union address, and he would have us believe that things are going well over there. His sole concern is that the wealthy are not rich enough; providing tax cuts to the wealthiest is his definition of acting righteously.
America was the leader of the world. Under Bush, the U.S. is a feared superpower that appears to be a rogue nation. We are defined as a selfish oil-grabbing aggressor interested only in the spoils of Iraq. Reliable, dependable and faithful allies no longer trust America. We have made ourselves outcasts in a world we once led.
Praise For Community
One of the things a Jew must do is be grateful for what Hashem has given him or her. I just wanted to write this letter to sing the praises of the Jewish community of Dallas, Texas.
My husband and I have been warmly welcomed by this community. There are such lovely people here, and such wonderful organizations. We have the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA) which reaches and teaches no matter what your level. I’ve been taking classes through them for some time, and on a busy erev Shabbos Shuva one of my teachers took the time and trouble to call to see how we were doing and to offer his best wishes for the yomim
tovim. Often, as I take my lunchtime walk around one of the frum neighborhoods where I work, a rabbi will be passing in his car and slow down and even toot his horn to make sure I see that he is greeting me. (It’s very rare around here to hear anyone honking a horn!)
Some of the members of the community live in modest apartments; others live in grand, opulent homes. There is one lady of my acquaintance who lives in a breathtakingly beautiful home, and yet she is so down to earth. There is no arrogance about her at all. She attends the same classes I do. She and her husband are raising beautiful children, and I’m sure that has everything to do with the good middos of the parents.
One of our Dallas rabbis, Aryeh Rodin, graces the pages of The Jewish Press with his columns. We are so fortunate to have him here. He is a beacon of light that shines from here throughout the Torah world.
May this community continue to grow and prosper.
Phyllis M. LaVietes
Sorry For The Oversight
Re ‘Sixty Years Since the March of the Rabbis on Washington’ (Jewish Press, Oct. 10):
Not to take any luster away from Rabbi Eliezer Silver, but the sponsor and leader of the delegation that marched on Washington was Rabbi Israel Rosenberg (of blessed memory), who was at the time president of the Agudas HaRabbonim and who happened to have been my grandfather. There was no mention of his name in the article.
Kosher Twice A Year?
It is with great interest that I read the ‘Machberes’ column dealing with the Satmar Bes Din allowing an eruv in Williamsburg. It is something I have a tremendous difficulty understanding.
How is it that an eruv is permissible and kosher for two Shabbosim during the year and invalid the rest of the year? If the eruv is kosher for these two weeks, it is obviously kosher for the
other 50 weeks. If anything, we should be more machmir before Hoshana Rabba.
Has Yiddishkeit become a religion of convenience?
Making Enemies Over ‘The Passion’
I read with interest both Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s and Rabbi Tovia Singer’s op-ed pieces on Mel
Gibson’s movie ‘The Passion’ (Jewish Press, Sept. 26). They both agree that the chances of an
explosion of anti-Semitism in America is an unlikely result of the film, though it seems that
Rabbi Singer is focusing on the possible reaction in Europe while Rabbi Lapin feels that the Jewish backlash against the movie risks alienating and causing a rift with the American Christian community, possibly leading to less of a welcome in this land and less support of Israel from them.
While I agree with Rabbi Singer that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, I strongly feel that Rabbi Lapin’s scenario is a likely one in this country, and wonder how Rabbi Singer
would answer these questions:
1) Rabbi Singer implies that in the Mel Gibson film, “the Jews get all the credit for committing deicide.” I have read many articles about the film from people who have actually seen it, but I never learned this. He also expressed hope that the film not show Jews screaming “His blood
be on us and on our children” or “there will be celebrations on the streets of Ramallah.” Again, my understanding is that this line was cut from the film. Why raise hypothetical inflammatory
2) If the issue is Europe, why are American Jewish groups defaming Mel Gibson in American
papers like The New York Times? Perhaps if he had been approached with respect rather than assault, with an assurance that only European distribution was the issue, he might have worked with the Jewish community. But self-proclaimed representatives of the Jewish community are working on getting the movie stopped from distribution in this country, not abroad, and I’m afraid may be making enemies in this country by their strong-arm tactics.
3) Rabbi Singer has correctly pinpointed the location of today’s anti-Semitism in post-Christian secular Europe and the radical Islamist world. Does he really think that those anti-Semites are not already aware of the anti-Semitic interpretations of the Gospels along with the
“Protocols of the Elders of Zion?”
4) Most religious Christians put even yeshiva students, let alone uneducated Jews, to shame
with their knowledge of the Bible. Why are we acting as if they would not know what the Gospels say without a movie to inform them?
5) Rabbi Singer also correctly points out that the Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) “changed the way the Roman Catholic Church officially views the Jewish people” and “declared that the Jews, as a nation, are not culpable for the crucifixion of Jesus.” But what he left out is that the Church did not renounce or rewrite the Gospels. He appears to be confusing “scholarly” analysis of the Gospels by academicians with the actual words that remain in the Bibles found in every Christian’s home and most hotel rooms.
6) Why did organizations like the ADL give approval to and not protest movies like the just
released “The Gospel of John” which has the most anti-Jewish remarks of any of the Gospels while making such a fuss about the Passion, which I understand never quotes any of those incendiary lines? As Rabbi Singer states, “As far as the Book of John is concerned, it is the Jews who bare the sole responsibility for murdering Jesus.” Has Rabbi Singer also protested this film, which is in English and features major actors? Why only protest Mel Gibson’s film, which is in Aramaic and Latin and which at one point Gibson was planning to release without subtitles?
7) Rabbi Singer suggests that if Mr. Gibson disagreed with his father’s remarks he would say
so. But don’t Christians revere the Ten Commandments – including the one that says “Honor your father and your mother? - and aren’t they the ones fighting to keep them in public view
while Jewish organizations are fighting to remove them?
8) It is as insulting to say that American Christians care less about what happened to Jesus
3,000 years ago than what happened two years ago to the World Trade Center as it would be to say that Jews don’t care about what happened thousands of years ago to our forefathers. I bet Rabbi Singer cares, but he didn?t realize when he wrote that how patronizing and insulting it sounds.
I share Rabbi Singer’s concern for European Jewry, but I fail to see how causing ourselves to be hated in this country will help. And I can assure you, as an Orthodox Jew who talks to Christians regularly, that it is the attitude manifested by Rabbi Singer (and the groups maliciously criticizing Mel Gibson in the name of Judaism) that is responsible for creating the basis for a completely unnecessary backlash against Jews in our home, the United States of America.
Chairman, Toward Tradition