Michael and Deborah Tobin have been practicing psychologists in Jerusalem since 1988. They arrived there the first time around at the end of a six-month bike trip that took them through France, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and war-torn Lebanon. Michael began writing a book about their saga, a colorful and heart-wrenching search for identity and meaning, more than 30 years ago. The book went through periods of starting and stopping, sometimes with years of drought in between.
In 2019, Michael picked it up again and decided to rewrite and complete it.
In November 2018, at the age of 68, Deborah had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Michael spoke with this writer in December 2019. “I started writing and didn’t stop,” he said. “I was a man possessed. I would write a chapter and read it to Deborah, and it was a beautiful experience watching her reactions and her memories and talking about it. She was more communicative then, and I thought, whether this book is ever read by anyone else other than my dear wife, it’s already a success.”
The story begins in 1980; the place: Middlebury, Vermont. Deborah and Michael had burgeoning practices and an exquisite rustic home.
Deborah was an Arab American of Christian Lebanese descent, raised, as Michael writes, “in the Arab sub-culture of Charleston, West Virginia.” He grew up in Roslyn Heights, Long Island, in a family that were, for the most part, non-practicing Jews, though his mother was president of Long Island Hadassah and badgered politicians about supporting Israel. She died of breast cancer when Michael was 19.
Sparks flew when Michael and Deborah met in 1974, when they were graduate students. He was mesmerized, watching as she “spun around the Antioch dance floor like a G-d-intoxicated whirling dervish.” They began professional and personal lives together, but in 1980 they felt the need to take a break from their intense career paths for a path of uncertainty, in which they would open themselves to whatever might happen.
What unfolds in Riding the Edge, A Love Song to Deborah is a journey of adventure, of love, of discovery, of culinary experiences that will have you salivating, and of biking escapades.
But the core of the book is the lessons they learned along the way. The most deeply moving experiences were their encounters with people who had suffered and survived.
Michael spoke with us about some of those they met.
While in Paris, they visited a photo exhibit on the Holocaust at the Pompidou Center. A man named Jacob pointed himself out to them in a photo of male inmates in Theresienstadt.
“He shared his story with us,” said Michael, “about his extended family of 50 from Amsterdam, who were all wiped out. How do you recover from something like that?” He did, one day at a time. He married a survivor, and built a family and a successful business. “Jacob said, ‘The Nazi’s will not destroy me. They can take everything from me but they can’t take away my freedom to choose; I will rebuild my life from ashes.’”
A wrenching yet heartening encounter was in Lebanon, in Kab Elias, a small village in the Beqaa valley, the birthplace of Deborah’s maternal grandmother. After a crazy cab ride along a dangerous road, hoping to find the one relative they were aware of, “We found an entire extended family, religious Christians who had lived peacefully side by side with the Moslem population until the civil war in 1975. One of the boys in Deborah’s family died fighting with the Christian militia and others had left Lebanon for Australia or elsewhere.
What did he learn from these encounters?
“As a psychologist for 47 years, I’ve dealt with people going through multiple difficulties in life and helped them find the resources to get through them, so they won’t succumb to despair.” A big hit for him was when he had major spinal surgery on his neck, and it ended his “career” as a serious climber, runner and CrossFit enthusiast.
“But the biggest challenge is the one with my beloved wife, my life partner since our 20’s. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease right after we came back from climbing up to the Everest Base Camp. I have been learning to deal with her diminished capacities and cognitive decline. She had been the most emotionally attuned person I ever knew in my entire life. I lost my best friend and someone who I imagined I would grow into old age with together…”
He refers to Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. “I was deeply influenced by his experiences in the camps, and how he was able to identify, even in the most horrific circumstances, that what makes us most human is our ability to choose …that is what makes us free. I choose to be happy, to be positive, to not complain. I choose to be alive.
“In 1980, we felt that to discover ourselves we had to leave home, our families, our attachments to our professions. [Like] Avraham Avinu leaving Haran, leaving his birthplace, when G-d says, “Lech lecha,” (“Go!”) almost erasing personal history in order to really discover oneself.
“Fast forward 46 years later, we have four children and 17 grandchildren…
“Our family is so important and such a source of love and care, emotionally and physically. But that’s not where we were when we started this journey. We acquired a greater sense not only of who we are as individuals but a greater sense of family.”
The Tobin’s saga will have you sometimes at the edge of your seats, sometimes howling with laughter, and sometimes in tears.
Riding the Edge was published by River Grove Books and is available on Amazon and other venues. It is a recent Silver Medal Winner of the Non-Fiction Authors Association.