A year after Ariel Avrech passed away at age 22, his father mourns. Robert J. Avrech's blog Seraphic Press.
Remembering Ariel Avrech
I met Ariel Avrech four times. I've never forgotten him.
In the Spring of 2001, I studied Pirkei Arvot (Ethics of the Fathers, a part of Judaism's Oral tradition compiled around 200 CE) with him three times for three hours. I didn't get any shattering insights from him on the text I'd traveled through many times. The revelation, however, was Ariel.
I first ran into him at shul. He was easy to spot. Wearing his black suit and black hat, he took the longest time with his prayers. Most interesting to me, he seemed to actually believe what he was saying. If God ever answered my prayers and those of most Jews I know (to have fear of Heaven, love of Torah, reverence for the sages), we'd have to turn our lives upside down.
From the time I told him that I was friendly with his father, Ariel had complete trust in me. He never suspected my questions sprang from cynicism but only from the heart of a sincere searcher.
I was never going to let Ariel's religious garb and his strict observances keep me from cutting to the quick of what most preoccupies single men like us - shiduchim.
Walking home with him from shul, I demanded to know how the matchmaking scene worked at Ner Israel (fervently religious Orthodox yeshiva in Baltimore). Where does a yeshiva bocher go for a hot date? "A restaurant," Ariel told me. Do their rabbeim act as chaperones on these dates? No. After a few more such questions, I coaxed a smile out of the normally serious Talmud scholar.
I never could make him laugh though. Only his father could make him laugh.
Life was deadly serious to Ariel. He didn't treat it or people trivially. He believed that our every act had the possibility of holiness. Therefore, he chose his behaviors with deliberation. He didn't rush his words in casual conversation any more than he rushed his prayers to watch TV.
Our learning sessions would proceed like this: I'd let him go for five-to-ten-minutes with the text. Then I'd throw a challenge out of left field. "What about what Ibn Ezra said...?" I've long collected the best questions to provoke the religious. I let them loose on Ariel.
Most rabbis let me know that they don't have time for this foolishness but Ariel had the gift and curse of only seeing the good in me.
He'd sit there and listen. Then he'd think. Then he'd get up in the yeshiva or in his home library and start pulling down seferim and do battle with my questions. And the more he'd answer, the more I'd ask until our time was up.
When I'd come back for the next session, Ariel would have long notes to deal with everything I'd asked last session.
Ariel was light years ahead of me in Torah learning. It was like a college professor teaching a child. So we learned Pirkei Avot with a simple commentary. I found this frustrating. Even though my Hebrew skills were in kindergarten, I was worldly wise, and hence was not satisfied with the pshat of Pirkei Avot, which I had learned many times previously. So I wasn't seeking what he was ready to give.
I wanted to push him on the issues of interest to me, rather than the ones on the lesson plan. Ariel only likes to teach that which he knows. He didn't want to say anything that wasn't Torah true, and kind, and derech eretz. Those are a lot of demands to place on oneself when you are dealing with someone like me.
I piled on Ariel with fresh questions, most of which were not meaningful to me. I was operating out of my intuition. I wanted to push Ariel beyond what we were studying to try to uncover his essence. And so I kept up an unceasing stream of provocations until finally, exhausted, I realized the kid was a mentch.
Ariel always stayed in control and he took his responsibilities as a teacher seriously. It was as though he felt he was the living embodiment of Torah and his actions were not reflecting on himself as much as on the Torah.
I tried to break Ariel out of his yeshiva bocher persona and bring out the purely human in him. I tried through humor. I tried through intellectual challenge. I tried through camaraderie. I refused to believe that he was only a yeshiva bocher with perfect faith and I would not relate to him as only that. I was seeking the human in him outside of religion and for him there was no such realm. All of him was guided by yiddishkeit. So I was seeking for something in him that did not exist.
Ariel didn't seem to believe he was long for this world. He had only the fuzziest and vaguest answers to questions about his future. He had no idea about what he would do for a living, about getting married, about driving a car, about living outside of the yeshiva and of his family's sheltering presence. I never got any sense of his ego wanting to strut in the world. He just wanted to live amongst the sacred text.
Ariel didn't seem to take pleasure in anything that wasn't endorsed and prescribed by the Torah. He just wanted to do God's will, be with his friends and family and rabbeim, and his yetzer hara (inclination for evil) was for such trivial matters that he just seemed to float from this world to the next as a continuum that is described in shacharis, modeh ani... God gave me a soul today. Tomorrow he might take it from me. God's the True Judge. I'm his servant. It's all in his hands. So be it.
The months went by. Our lives went in different directions. I was running out pf a Sephardic shul one Saturday night in 2002 when I saw a poster with Ariel's picture on it. He needed a lung transplant. I volunteered.
The last two weeks of his life I stayed near my phone in case I got the call to donate. It never came. He was too sick.
I'm sorry I never got to give him a piece of my lung in exchange for what he'd given me years before - a piece of his heart.
Ariel, Luke, March, 2001
An Issue That Can Try Body and Soul
I read this novel by Robert J. Avrech straight through in two hours Friday night. I laughed out loud a dozen times. It is terrific and a much-needed contribution to fiction for religious Jewish kids.
[A soldier approaches the frum family.]
"You get back to your Cossack friends before I knock your head in, you dirty little sheygitz." Mama lifted a cast iron skillet.
"Please, ma'am, I'm not a sheygitz. My name is Schulman. I'm a landsman. A Jew."
[The mother yells at this Indian maiden Lozen.] "So you be careful who you call a witch. Let me tell you something, you might scare the goyim with your whoops and hollers and guns and knives, but to me you're just a little shicksah pisher. And a little advice, maidel: you should spend a bit more time on your looks... You think a man is going to want to marry a wild girl? You should be thinking about a shidduch, not riding around like you're on the warpath!"
Mama was practically shouting. Lozen nodded mutely.
It's clearly crafted by an accomplished screenwriter. All the scenes have conflict and move the story forward. Most of the chapters end with a hook that compells you to keep reading. The story often heads in the opposite direction of what you'd expect.
Dialogue is an Avrech strength. His emails are frequently hilarious when he paints his life with spare dialogue.
While Ariel is the book's most sympathetic character, momma and Doc Holliday are the most entertaining.
The book reminds me of Robert's movie A Stranger Among Us with its romantic view of Jewish mysticism. Both works have lead characters named Ariel who dabble in kaballah.
I love the absurd tensions of an Orthodox family trying to deal with the goyim in the Wild West.
The book comes out of a robust confidence that must flow from Robert's life that Orthodox Judaism is strong enough to tackle the wider world. I believe that Robert Avrech (who comes from a long line of Orthodox rabbis and his son Ariel would've carried on that tradition) is the first Orthodox screenwriter of feature films (with Brian De Palma's Body Double in 1984).
In the world in which he grew up, Hollywood was at best foolishness. So Robert must've learned at his secular college, and at his secular kibbutz in Israel, and in secular Hollywood, how to interact with non-Jews, righteous and otherwise, while maintaining his Orthodoxy.
Robert's life reminds me of My Name is Asher Lev, probably my favorite Jewish novel about a Jewish artist.
I read The Hebrew Kid for fun, but I reflect on it as an allegory of Robert's journey.
Robert directed his first and only film in 1980 (the -- the horror flick Blood Bride, aka Death of a Nun, "don't expect a slasher film").
Robert never wanted to direct again. Casting gives him migraines. All the needy actors, few of whom he could make happy.
Like the frum family in his novel, Robert has long struggled to practice Orthodox Judaism within a frequently hostile environment.
Avrech is not of the "Yossi Klein Halevi school of Orthodox Judaism," which simply posits that Orthodoxy is the language he learned to communicate with God. Robert is authentically Orthodox (literally means correct belief) in the sense that he truly believes in the Thirteen Principles of Maimonidies, and not just in some figurative sense.
I know. I've grilled him on these.
I believe that Yossi and Robert both went to Brooklyn Talmudic Academy, aka Yeshiva University High School of Brooklyn. Yossi writes about the high school in his Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: An American Story.
The lead Jewish characters in this novel have meaningful interactions with non-Jews. Their worldview divides people not just along Jew and non-Jew, but most significantly along the lines of moral and immoral. The Jews learn from the goyim and vice versa. The Jews constantly face pressures for which they know no immediate halachic answer, but instead have to search themselves and their sacred texts for direction.
[This is the opposite of the fretful Orthodoxy embodied by Gil Perl and Yaakov Weinstein, graduate students at Harvard and MIT respectively, in their pamphlet “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses,” which warns Jewish parents of the moral and spiritual corruption that awaits their children should they send them to elite secular universities.]
Because they live in the real world, the Jews in the novel sin. They're real. They're not cookie-cutter characters like much religious fiction for teens.
Three years ago, Robert told me he could never write a novel.
Three years ago, Robert didn't have a son who was dying.
As he worked on this novel, Robert used to read portions to Ariel, who laughed when he had the strength.
I asked Robert J. Avrech about Yossi Klein Halevi and his book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. Robert and Yossi attended the same yeshiva at the same time (BTA):
Robert has signed an exclusive distribution deal for Seraphic Press with the largest distributor of Jewish Books in North America, JD Books, who feel that these works should easily cross over into the general readership. JD are in every Jewish book store in the world and all the major chains.
The first novel is by Robert Avrech, "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden." Reviewers who want an advance copy should contact Marvin Sekler at JD Books: (718) 456 - 8611.
The layout, typeface and illustrations of the book are beautiful. "There will be an illustration for each and every chapter--22 in all," writes Robert. "The ones that are there now are not the final ones. They are just examples of Obadinah Heavner's work. She is my illustrator. I have hired a team of very fine and very sought after artists who work regularly for the big NY publishers. They love what I'm trying to do, love the book, and agreed to work for Seraphic Press. I am a lucky man. The font we are using is called Janson: it was originally cut by the great Hungarian typographer Nikolas Kis in the 1680's. It has a lovely humanist feel to it; the forms of the letters suggest older times. It is easy on the eyes and for children it is one of the best fonts you can use."
The official publication date for "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden" is January 2005.