Tuesday, February 8, 2011

15 years ago...

****I apologize in advance if I have forgotten to translate anything into English that is important - either leave me a comment or remember that Google can be your friend.****
My childhood friend, Matt, and his girlfriend/fiancee, Sara, were students in Jerusalem off to do some sightseeing. They boarded the Number 18 bus traveling down the Jaffa Road and before they arrived at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station a suicide bomber blew up the bus and killed them. A total of 26 people were killed and 48 were injured. I remember where I was when I found out, I still remember the daze I was in. That daze lasted several days, probably until and including the time it took for me to fly from Chicago to NY, take a bus to West Hartford for the funeral, head to the cemetery, I think stay the night, then head back again to Chicago. I know I took an exam in one of my classes - the Prof offered to give me a re-test later in the month, but I figured I knew the material cold and putting the exam off wasn't going to change the result that one of the brightest stars I knew was extinguished.

Matt wasn't just another guy. He was going somewhere. He was one of those people who was going to be someone someday. Well, he did, in a way, but not the way I expected. Not the way anyone expected.

The Jewish holiday of Purim is sometimes around now, being that the Hebrew date of the yartzeit (anniversary) is 5th of Adar I. This year is a leap year in the Jewish calendar and Purim is celebrated in the leap month of Adar II instead of the single Adar. (stick with me - even though this seems confusing.) There is a specific commandment to be happy in Adar: MiShenichnas Adar Marbim BeSimcha!! (translates to: When Adar Comes, Joy Is Increased!!) which is described more completely in the link above.

Now, how, might I ask you, is it possible to increase one's joy when a scholar is taken from this world in such a violent and un-natural manner? How is one supposed to be happy when a friend is lost? To this day I have great personal difficulty surrounding the commandment of being joyful. I go about my business, I take care of my halachic (Judaic legal) obligations, but even in a leap year where the anniversary of Matt and Sara's death is observed in Adar I and Purim itself is celebrated in Adar II, I still have great difficulty.

In 1996 all I could think was that the holiday of Purim should be cancelled as no one should be joyful in this time. (Purim is held on 14th of Adar, so 10 days after the yartzeit.) And I did all I could at that time to blot out any joy I could possibly consider having, however, I did have an obligation to hear the Megillah being read and so I found myself at the Chabad House in Evanston, IL that evening. I found myself staying for the social scene afterward hoping to somehow drown my pain and sorrow. I found myself talking to a guy who was wearing a Cornell University sweatshirt (I did my undergraduate work at Ithaca College and at Northwestern - where I was doing my graduate work - this was unusual.) While Larry couldn't take away the pain he was able to offer up a better way of living to honor Matt.

I think I had always known I would become more religiously observant as I grew up. In 7th grade a group of us began attending shacharit (morning) services everyday at our synagogue. Matt, Scott and possibly others I don't remember, along with myself would head to shul, pray and then get a ride to school. We had to stop at the end of 8th grade because the high school started too early for us to get there on time, but a seed had been planted. Our group went through high school together arguing philosophy and religion. I, at that time, thought for sure I would head to rabbinical school after college, and yet, instead it was Matt who headed there. We still debated religion through college when we were home on breaks. We would walk home from services on Friday evening and continue the discussion until he headed up his street and I headed up mine.

When I got my first apartment post college I started to keep a more strict kosher kitchen than I had previously. When I had moved to Chicago for graduate school I had become completely shomeret shabbat (literally guarding the sabbath.) Matt also continued on his journey and while I studied film and video production as a graduate student, he headed to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to become a Conservative Rabbi.

I don't remember the date of the last time I saw Matt, but I do remember our discussion. It was nothing light or frivolous and the conversation never really ended, instead it was paused because we had already been standing too long while our families waited for us at home to begin our respective Friday night dinners. We talked about how we make kiddush (bless the wine) in the synagogue as part of the Friday evening service, but we don't eat our meal there and Matt was concerned that too much time was elapsing before he got home to actually begin his meal and so he had brought with him a challah roll in order to wash and make the appropriate blessing and munch the roll while walking home, where he would then eat his meal. I don't recall my argument at the time but have subsequently learned that the kiddush made in the synagogue is really intended to serve as the kiddush for those who may not have the fortune of having a meal and kiddush of their own in their home. For those of us who were fortunate enough to have wine or grape juice to begin our meal at home, we didn't need to rely on having heard the kiddush in synagogue.

So, here I was, already shomer kashrut, already shomer shabbat, and feeling lost in the loss of my friend. Up until that point I had been following the guidelines of the Conservative Movement. It was what I had grown up with, I had been to their summer camp, I had grown up in their youth group. I knew I was unusual to a certain extent being as religiously observant as I was. Larry was offering something more, but within a halachic framework I was already familiar with. Moreover, it wasn't really Larry offering it, only introducing it. Because of the set up at Northwestern University I was already davening (praying) with the Orthodox minyan (prayer group) every other week as the Conservative minyan only met every other week and since I was shomer shabbat every week I needed a place to pray. I already knew "those people," they were my friends. What did I have to lose.

Larry picked me up from my apartment early on a Friday afternoon and deposited me at my host family's doorstep maybe 20 minutes before candle lighting. I rang the bell and the cutest little boy (maybe 10 years old) answered wearing a white shirt, dark pants, his tzitzit hanging out, kippah on his wet head. He and his brother were setting the table and his mother quickly came out from the kitchen to welcome me into their home for Shabbat. I knew then that I was home.

Wanting to honor Matt's memory has been life changing. Like I mentioned earlier, I think I always knew I would be more religiously observant as I got older not because I didn't like what I had grow up with, but because there was always something that drew me in to the spirituality, the holiness and the deep meaning. I had already begun the journey before Matt was taken from this world with his bashert, Sara. Of course, what I didn't know was what was to come.

In academic year 2000/01 I was living in the Boston area and the shul I called home was the Harvard Hillel. The week before Matt and Sara's yartzeit there was an announcement that the Rabbi would be giving a class in their memory. Huh? What connection could there possibly be between Matt Eisenfeld, a student at Yale and then JTS, and this Orthodox Rabbi leading services at the Harvard Hillel. Weren't Yale and Harvard rivals? The answer was yet one more example of hashgachah pratis or divine intervention. Apparently this Rabbi (whose name escapes me at the moment, sorry to say) had known Matt from Yale. Matt had begun to question some of the idiosyncrasies of the Conservative Movement and had been thinking that perhaps he belonged in a Modern Orthodox environment. These had been private conversations and I have no idea, nor does the Rabbi know, what direction Matt would have eventually taken. All I know is that I believe this was a sign that I was headed in the right direction for me and that Matt would have approved.

Living my life as a completely Torah observant Jew hasn't always been easy. There have been times when it might have been easier to walk away. But, I know in my heart I never could and I never would. Matt is never too far from my mind, in particular during life cycle events when his presence and guidance is sorely missed. In 2004 when I finally met my bashert and had my chuppah (wedding.) With the births of my two unbelievable children. But, I know that the movement that took him and Sara was trying to silence and destroy Israel and Judaism and so I am, in my own way, spitting in their faces.

Raising my children to be Torah observant Jews is more than I could have ever imagined. In many Christian faiths there is a movement to remember "What Would Jesus Do" in order to remind them in ordinary moments how to behave in a religiously dignified and appropriate manner. I am not attempting to elevate Matt to anything more than he was, a good man. A. Good. Man. who will never be forgotten by myself, and our circle of friends, and each ripple beyond. But, when it comes to a moment of internal struggle it will often come to mind, what would Matt do? And, the answer... LEARN. Go and study, the rest is commentary.

1 comment:

Audrey said...

Thanks for sharing Matt with me. I will miss him too. Much hugs.