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JewishJournal.com

September 13, 2007

And who shall die?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/and_who_shall_die_20070914

Marcy Asher from the 1978 Birmingham High School Yearbook

Marcy Asher from the 1978 Birmingham High School Yearbook

Whatever happened to Marcy Asher?

I know the answer to that question -- I've known it for a year now -- but I also don't know the answer, the one that helps us make sense not just of one woman's tragic arc, but of good and evil, of life and faith.

Marcy Asher was the first girl I French kissed (I'm not counting a girl named Allison D. -- she grabbed my face and tongue-kebabed my tonsils, which was about as romantic as really bad CPR). No, Marcy and I shared a true mutual kiss, and I walked around school the next day like I'd stolen home with two outs at the bottom of the ninth. Marcy Asher was beautiful, a slim girl with wavy brown hair and a thin, delicate face.

Smart? Marcy was by unanimous and uncontested assent the most brilliant girl at Portola Junior High and Birmingham High School. We met in Mr. Hanson's eighth-grade English class, shared two class trips and bonded over our simultaneous reign as teachers' pets. Our romance never went beyond that kiss -- well, maybe we rounded one more base -- then it came to a screeching halt when I fell for Dana O.

But we stayed friends through high school. We were just decent looking enough to get invited to the good parties, but too geeky to join in the heavy drinking and petting. So we ended up talking a lot, in the corner of some over-decorated Encino living room or another, about Greek mythology and Israel and square dancing.

After Birmingham High School -- Marcy was class valedictorian, of course -- we lost touch. I just assumed Marcy had become a doctor or professor somewhere, or was immersed in a new book project or too busy cracking the genome to even show up in a Google search.

Then, a year ago, a woman named Barbara Shulman called me from an assisted-living home.

"Do you remember Marcy Asher?" she said.

"Of course," I told Barbara, "she was the first girl I French-kissed."

"I'm Marcy Asher's mother," she said. "And I want you to write about her."

I spoke with Barbara for a while. Then I spoke with Mark Asher, Marcy's brother, who lives in Ashland, Ore., and with Nathan Wang, Marcy's first husband. The same question hung over each conversation: What happened to Marcy Asher?

"I had a chance to really know Marcy," said Wang, who spoke to me by phone from his home in Hacienda Heights. "She was the spunkiest, most vivacious person I'd ever met."

They found each other in college, at Pomona College in Claremont. She was a freshman; he was a senior. Wang, a music major, was taken with Marcy's talents.

"She was an exceptional singer, guitarist and pianist," he said. "She was extraordinarily bright."

Marcy started out as pre-med, then switched to languages. Eventually, she became fluent in Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese and French. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Claremont.

Marcy's graduation present from her mother and stepfather was a trip to China with Wang, for two weeks, in 1984.

"During that time," Wang said, "something kicked in. She couldn't sleep. She was always angry. I'd say, 'What's wrong, Marcy?' and she wouldn't tell me."

Back in the States, a psychiatrist diagnosed Marcy as paranoid schizophrenic. She was listening to the wind, talking to trees. Doctors put her on lithium. When the medication began working, Marcy would feel better and decide to go off the drug. Then the symptoms would kick in again. Despite her condition, the two decided to marry. Wang converted to Judaism. They were wed in 1989 at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard.

"I thought we could lick it," he said. "But it started getting really bad. Her stepfather took me aside and said, 'There's no need for you to suffer. You have our blessing to step aside.'"

After less than a year, the marriage was over.

Looking back, Wang realized Marcy was weighted with crushing challenges from her past. Some might have been the result of bad genes, others were surely put upon her.

The girl we knew as brilliant and vivacious was the child of a tough divorce. According to Wang, she struggled to find comfort and support in her family.

"She was always on her own," Wang said. "She was hungry for connection."

After her parents' divorce, and her mother's remarriage, the family fortunes shifted drastically. Her mother became successful running Flower Pavilion, a chic floral design business in Encino. Her stepfather, Gerald L. Schulman, grew rich in tax shelter investments until he was the subject of a very public fraud investigation. In 1988, a federal judge sentenced him to five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service for cheating the government out of $28 million in taxes.

Millions came and went; Marcy went from living in a luxurious house on Tudor Avenue -- the one I remember -- to an apartment on Magnolia Boulevard. Family members drifted apart.

"She wanted to feel like family, a family that lights Shabbat candles," Wang said. "She wanted that structure. There was no real family for her. Marcy said she always felt like an orphan."

The rootlessness infected her professional choices.

"She considered going to graduate school in languages," Wang said. "But she never had a purpose or intention. She never felt she could say yes to anything."

There are other sides to this story, even darker aspects that for a year I've wrestled over how and whether to report. In the end, I stuck to facts relayed to me by Wang, her brother Mark and her mother: And those are plenty mysterious enough. What is clear is that so many of the figures Marcy clung to for security and stability either abandoned her, used her or let her down.

In the end, some who loved her think her faith did the same. Around the time her marriage ended, Marcy turned to Orthodoxy. It was obvious to those who knew her that she sought in Judaism the comfort of community, structure and connection -- things her childhood so lacked.

She became deeply involved in Chabad of North Beverly Hills. She remarried into a prominent Orthodox family, taking her husband's name and living a traditional life. Marcy Asher became Miriam Meisel.

"I think it really helped," Mark Asher said. "That became her life."

But she also became sicker. While still undergoing psychiatric treatment, Marcy was also diagnosed with lupus. She would eventually undergo two kidney transplants and numerous medical treatments. "At one point she spent three months at Cedars-Sinai," Mark said. "They didn't expect her to live."

Her body and face swelled, her hands were crippled.

"She never complained," her mother told me. "She never said, 'Why me?'"

Marcy continued to visit and bring food to her mother, who was by now at an assisted-living facility. She donated money to charities and stayed active in her synagogue. On Passover holidays, she brought boxes of matzah and gefilte fish to a home for the mentally ill.

But as Marcy's medical condition worsened, so did her marriage. She and her second husband, who also suffered from severe health problems, did not mesh. In early May 2006, the police came to the couple's apartment, and Marcy was charged in L.A. Superior Court with inflicting corporal injury on her spouse. "Her anger welled up in her," Wang said. "It was such a turn from the Marcy I knew."

The couple split up, and Marcy moved into a small apartment across from Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills.

On Friday night, May 15, after Marcy had been there just a few weeks, she celebrated the Sabbath alone. On a small table in her kitchen, she lit the Sabbath candles. Marcy then turned around to get something from the refrigerator. Her long skirt caught fire. Her mother said Marcy's hands were too edemic to dial quickly for help.

She ran screaming down her apartment corridor as the flames rose up her body. She collapsed in front of the building manager, who rushed her to the hospital.

For seven days, Marcy lingered in a coma at County-USC Medical Center on life support. She had burns over 60 percent of her body. Her brother, Mark, called Wang and broke the news.

"Marcy's probably going to die tomorrow."

She did, on May 22, 2006, at the age of 46.

About 40 people gathered graveside for Marcy's funeral at Mount Olive Chabad Cemetery in Commerce. It was a very hot day, and Marcy's body lay in a plywood coffin by a couple of folding chairs.

Marcy was buried in a plot next to her husband's father, a man she had never met.

Her mother seethed over the circumstances of her daughter's death: How fulfilling the commandment to light shabbat candles, following the religion Marcy loved so much, could lead to her demise.

Wang despised the rabbi's eulogy, which he felt somehow twisted the tragedy of Marcy's death into a good thing.

"I just hated it," Wang said.

Mark put the feeling bluntly.

"To come through so much and die for this stupid religion," he said.

How crazy is it that a woman who turned to faith was killed being faithful? I understand their bitterness, but what's more, Judaism understands their bitterness.

The Talmud relates a story of a great first century rabbi, Elisha Ben Abuyah. One day he came upon a man who sent his son up a tree to fetch eggs. The son did as he was told, and also made sure, as the Torah commands, to first shoo the mother bird from the nest before taking her eggs. After fulfilling two commandments -- to honor his father and to be kind to the bird -- the boy slipped and plunged to his death. At that moment the rabbi declared, "There is no justice and there is no judge."

Ben Abuya renounced his faith and went immediately to a prostitute.

There is no justice and no judge: Has a greater indictment of religion ever been uttered? And this comes, not from today's anti-religious crusaders like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, but from the Talmud. Marcy's promise, her goodness, her beauty -- all were submerged in unendurable mental and physical pain and cut short by a cruelly ironic death. Is it so foolish to ask why? Is there anything more Jewish than screaming up at God: How can you be such a jerk!

This New Year, we will enter our synagogues to take the measure of our souls, to account for our actions, to seek forgiveness, to face the fact that God wants something better from us. Is it so unfair to want, in return, something better from God?

The answer is yes, it is too much to ask. My Judaism is not a faith of magical thinking; a faith that promises if you do or say x, some heavenly amalgam of Superman and Lou Grant -- cranky and all-powerful -- may grant you y. Our liturgy tells us we are given life and death, blessings and curses, and we must choose life. But we must, in choosing life, understand how much is beyond our choice, how random and demanding and unceasing are the curses and blessings of this universe. We must live with that knowledge, and act and love despite it.

Few of the people at her funeral knew the youthful Marcy: brilliant, poised, beautiful. One person who did was her first husband, Nathan Wang, who remarried in 1993, had children and went on to a successful music career.

"I felt like I owed it to Marcy to come," he said. "I really wanted to be there to say my goodbyes, to say I remember it how it was." As we spoke on the phone, Wang returned to those memories.

"Marcy embodied life and a thirst for knowledge," he told me. "When I first met her, she would take me to the quad at night, and she would do Israeli dances for me. 'I want to show you something,' she'd say, 'I want to show you some dancing.'"

For Marcy, lighting those Shabbat candles was a meaningful response to her darkness, even if it led to her death. The candles must have brought her hope, and comfort. Even when she was alone she didn't feel completely alone. She felt connected to God, to her People.

That leaves two answers to the question of Marcy's life. The first is the human one: Be kinder to those in your life, and to those who need your help. The second is: No matter what, we can always hope, we can always pray the universe will spin our way.

And this year, I will add another prayer, a prayer for Miriam Asher Meisel.

Shana Tova.

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