September 8, 2010
You don’t know Jack
Among the many people to whom I owe an apology this year is Jack Bielan.
Four months ago, I received a CD of new Jewish music called
“God Makes Mistakes,” which I put in my stack of CDs of new Jewish music, intending to get to it one day. After that, I got an e-mail from a man named Jack Bielan, who asked me if I had received his CD. After that came phone calls, more e-mails and two more copies of the CD.
What can I say? Hundreds of books, CDs and DVDs fly through our offices — Jews are a ridiculously productive people. Some are bound to fall through the cracks, passed from editor to writer to — anyway, that’s my excuse.
One day last month, while I was in the middle of back-to-back meetings and phone calls, a middle-age man walked into my office. Average height, thinning hair, captivatingly blue eyes, dressed in jeans and a work shirt.
“Did you have an appointment?” I asked.
“Hi,” he said, “Jack Bielan.”
He handed me a copy of his CD.
“I don’t need an apology,” he said, and settled into one of my chairs. “I just want to tell you a story.”
Fifteen years ago, on Sept. 17, 1995, Bielan’s 17-year-old stepson, Blake, whom he had raised from the age of 1, and his 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, were driving home from an errand in the family van. Blake was lanky, easygoing and had just returned from a trip to Israel that had turned his teenage life around. Samantha was the life of the neighborhood — bubbly and caring. It was the first time in his life as an over-protective father that Bielan had allowed them to drive alone together.
At 1 a.m., their van was hit head-on by a drunk driver, speeding along the wrong side of the road.
“My kids were killed instantly,” Bielan said; “14 and 17.”
Bielan saw I was beyond words, so he filled them in for me.
“There are no words,” he said.
Of course, I was thinking of my own children, who are 14 and 17. I couldn’t imagine how he went on after the crash.
Bielan described years of nightmares, screaming, weeks spent on the verge of suicide. An accomplished musician and music producer, for years he had served as music director of Valley Outreach Synagogue in Encino. But after all those years leading prayer services, he felt utterly abandoned, bereft, faithless. All that tethered him to the world was his youngest daughter, Megan, who was 8 years old at the time of the crash.
The years of agony that followed his children’s deaths led Bielan from one house of God to another, seeking answers wherever he could. He couldn’t believe his children were gone.
One Sunday morning, Bielan, despondent, staggered out of bed, then found himself dressed and driving on a freeway, close to pointing his car off the road and over a cliff.
Instead, he saw a church and drove into the parking lot. He staggered inside.
“I’m a choir director for a Jewish synagogue,” he said to the woman who stopped him at the door. “Two of my children were killed by a drunk driver. ... I think I’m in trouble.”
Without hesitating, the woman brought him to the elder. Bielan realized he had wandered into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon church.
The elder led Bielan to a small room, where he and the woman sat talking with Bielan for hours. What the elder said saved Bielan’s life — that for millennia, intelligent people of all faiths have believed that the soul goes on after death.
That moment was the beginning of Bielan’s struggle back. His children weren’t really gone. He returned to his music, and poured his grief and love into an album of original compositions. Music, he told me, was the way he knew he could reach them.
We talked for a while longer. After he left, I listened to the CD.
The music is beautiful — Bielan has worked with James Taylor and Seals & Crofts, among others. Superb singers and musicians grace the songs.
The lyrics are forged in pain, but somehow forgiving.
What struck Bielan along this godawful journey for answers was how, when it comes to ineffable tragedy, all the great faith traditions seem to point in common directions. No matter how great our suffering, we always have the opportunity to inspire, support, nurture, encourage and heal one another. That’s not the purpose of tragedy, but it’s the path back to life.
That realization doesn’t have to come from communities of faith. But religion, for all its rules, long services and silly hats, has actually thought long and hard about the questions Bielan asked, and has built a scaffolding of people, text and institutions to make sure those not-so-simple answers are transmitted and put into practice. That’s why, this New Year, Bielan will be back on the bimah, singing.
At the end of our visit, Bielan actually tried to apologize to me for appearing unannounced in my office.
“But,” he said, “I just thought you’d want to hear this. I believe I have something to teach.”
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