June 17, 2004
A Father, a Son, a Tzadik
A year after Ariel Avrech passed away at age 22 his father mourns.
They told us that we would move through various stages of grief, but they were wrong. There is only one stage. It is bottomless despair. They told us that as time passes, the pain eases. It is not true. The pain is a chronic sore that does not mend, will not go away.
It is hard to believe that almost a year has passed since our son, Ariel Chaim, died. It is hard to believe he is gone, for Ariel's presence, his ruach, or spirit, strongly permeates every aspect of our lives. When we sit down to the Shabbos table, seeing the empty chair makes for a tremulous Kiddush. At each meal, when I wash my hands before Hamotzi, I see the washing cup pouring water over his pale skin. The hum of the microwave stirs up memories of the countless meals I prepared for him during his last year at home. There are instances when I can hear the sound of his slippers scuffing against the floor and I look up fully expecting to see him. Most wrenching, is when I can laugh; I look for Ariel's concurrence, imagining his ironic acknowledgement, "Yes Dad, that was funny."
And all the time, my wife Karen and I agonize, asking the central question: How can we go on without him?
Ariel grew up and went to school here in Los Angeles. He loved this community and often said that, excepting Israel, he never wanted to live anywhere else. The Los Angeles Jewish community still has a small-town atmosphere, a warm provincial intimacy; it is a shtetl surrounded by strip malls. People here care for one another. Ariel attended Harkham Hebrew Hillel Academy from the age of 3. He was on his way to a life of normative Modern Orthodoxy. But as he was approaching his bar mitzvah, Ariel told us that he was bored in school, he was not challenged. He told us that he wanted to skip eighth grade and go right into high school. Karen and I agreed to speak to the administration of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School.
"No," Ariel said, "I want to go to Yeshiva Gedolah, and oh -- by the way," he added, "I'd like you to buy me a black hat."
From that moment, Ariel led our family into deeper realms of observance and Torah study. Yes, our lives changed, but only for the better.
The illness that would eventually rob him from us struck in the spring of his freshman year at Yeshiva Gedolah, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Facing this life-threatening illness with courage, Ariel endured massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation. He never complained, never asked: Why me?
Instead, Ariel continued diligently studying Talmud in the Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center. Ariel recovered from this first bout of cancer only to have a recurrence in his junior year. There was surgery and a stem cell transplant, two trips to Sloan Kettering in New York and more than 100 blood transfusions. Ariel lost his hair twice. Astonishing as it may seem, Ariel conscientiously continued with his schoolwork, studying his beloved Talmud with no thought of surrendering to the dreadful disease.
Even though he spent most of his high school career in the hospital, Ariel graduated as valedictorian of his class. His rabbis at Yeshiva Gedolah were more than teachers, they were like family. His friends did not shunt him aside; they embraced him as a beloved brother.
Although it frightened us, we allowed Ariel to follow his heart and leave town for his post-high school studies at Ner Yisroel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. Ariel's deepest desire was to be treated like everyone else. He continued to learn Torah, and a whole new Jewish community came to love and respect our son. The four years Ariel spent learning at Ner Yisroel were the happiest years of his life. The warm atmosphere, the rigors of night and day immersion in study and the camaraderie among the students provided the ideal setting for this gentle Son of the Torah.
Eight years after his initial battle, the ravages of chemotherapy caught up with Ariel. One of the drugs that saved his life in the short run caused fibrosis of the lungs, which eventually took him from us. Ariel bravely waited for the lung transplant. It never came.
In the last year of his life I was with Ariel for practically every minute of every day. We davened and learned together, I read Jane Austen to him. We laughed together as we watched Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies. Gradually I realized that my son was not only a brilliant and fine person, but that he was a genuine tzadik, a righteous person. I was humbled in his presence and his memory further humbles me. In spite of all his pain and suffering.
Ariel still never complained, never gave up hope; he endured the unendurable with breathtaking dignity. No matter how frail and sick he was, Ariel always said that he was lucky to have his family: his parents, and his sisters -- the sisters he adored -- Leda and Aliza, who could always make him laugh. He was also grateful to the members of our shul, Young Israel of Century City, for all they did for him. During Ariel's long and painful decline he was always cheered by good food. Ariel would ponder a menu as pensively as a page of Talmud. Ruchama Muskin led the women of the Young Israel in preparing exciting, delicious meals that highlighted each Shabbos. Ariel made each cook feel like she had hit just the right spot to please his palate.
Each compliment was genuine, and the food kept coming -- even into the intensive care unit.
Visiting the sick is a central mitzvah. I never realized how significant until Ariel was confined to the house, and then to the hospital. The members of our shul followed the example of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Elazar Muskin, and sat by Ariel's bedside, learned with him, laughed with him and davened for him.
Karen and I were present when Ariel's soul took leave of his exhausted body. We both experienced the moment in the exact same way: we felt an almost palpable separation of soul from body. The sensation of elevation, of a rising, was somehow transmitted to us with a surety that escapes definition. We just knew that his soul escaped the shell of physicality, ascending to Hashem.
My son taught me to be a better man, a better father and finally a better Jew. Now when people ask who I am, my answer is simple: I am Ariel's father.
And now we try and find ways to properly remember our child, for he was both man and child -- a child in his innocence, a man in his wisdom.
I recite the Kaddish. I learn Torah in Ariel's memory. I go into his room, lie down on his bed, breathe in the scent of his favorite pillow and feel the imprint of his body. Karen prays more conscientiously than ever before; she studies Tehillim. We write of our memories. We comfort each other.
The last eight months have been spent writing and editing "The Book of Ariel," a collection of essays and tributes written by family and friends to honor Ariel's memory, to record an amazing array of accomplishments for such a short life: 22 years.
During the last year of Ariel's life, he often spoke of the need for fine fiction appropriate for Torah-loving teenagers. He urged me to start a publishing company that would fill the void. Seraphic Press is now a reality. We have founded this small publishing company committed to issuing quality fiction for Torah Jews. Five superb books are in various stages of development. The first novel will be published in January 2005. "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden" is the tale of an observant Jewish boy in the Old West. It is the story of his determination to celebrate his bar mitzvah and his friendship with Doc Holliday the notorious gunfighter, and with Lozen, a legendary Apache warrior girl who rode with Geronimo. The main character's name in the book is ... Ariel. Seraphic Press is dedicated to Ariel's memory. We have also established the Ariel Avrech Yahrtzeit Lecture Series.
We do everything we can to honor Ariel and keep him alive in our hearts.
We remember his love of Torah, his intellect, humor and gentle sweet nature. But no matter what we do it never quite seems to measure up to the gifts he gave us.
It is hard to believe that almost a year has passed. Ariel's absence has become presence. We stand in the layers of memory, and in the remembrance of his all too brief life we experience a vast and splendid majesty that is his soul.
The unveiling for Ariel Avrech will take place on Friday, June 18, at 10 a.m. at Sinai Cemetery in Simi Valley. Call (800) 600-0076 for directions.
Robert J. Avrech, who won an Emmy for his screenplay of "The Devil's Arithmetic," lives with his family in Pico-Robertson. Among his numerous credits are "Body Double" and "A Stranger Among Us." If you wish to read more about Ariel and the Avrech family, visit seraphicpress.blogspot.com