It was a weekday evening and my wife Judy and I were enjoying an intimate conversation, recapping recent events and trying to re-connect after a few hectic days. We’d been trying to do that on a regular basis, as it is so easy to exist in parallel worlds – to live in the same house, sleep in the same bed and yet drift apart. So we’ve made a conscious effort to share, to look into each other’s eyes, turn off the Blackberry and the cell phone and just talk, without distractions.
Just then the phone rang. Neither of us planned to answer it, but Judy glanced at the caller ID and said “It’s Batya!” Batya, our oldest lives in Jerusalem. She is 25, married with two children, ages 4 and 2, and she is expecting her third.
My body immediately tensed. Why would she be calling now? It’s 2 a.m. in Israel.
The first words out of Judy’s mouth when she answered the phone were, “What’s wrong?” I hovered over her trying to discern the answer from the other side of the line. “Batya, Batya, what’s wrong?” Judy repeated, adding to me, “She is sobbing, I don’t understand what she is saying.”
My thoughts went to the worst possible scenario immediately. She
lost the baby, God forbid. Something happened to one of kids … something happened to Yoni, Batya’s husband.
But Judy, getting something out of Batya now, reassured me. “Everybody is okay – the kids, the baby, Yoni…” Instinctively, she knew what I was thinking. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – the phone call that something happened to one of their children or grandchildren.
I could hear Judy reassuring Batya. “Ohhh, I’m so sorry. How did it happen? When was the funeral? Are you okay? Try to get some sleep… I love you. Let’s talk tomorrow morning. Try to sleep sweetheart.”
After she hung up, Judy explained that Batya’s best friend from high school had lost her husband. He died suddenly while on a camping trip. He was only 25 years old. The couple had lived in Brooklyn, but they had flown the body to Jerusalem for burial. Now the young widow, her two small children, and her extended family were returning to the U.S. to observe shiva, the seven-day mourning period. Batya asked if Judy and I would pay a shiva call to comfort the mourners.
Judy and I looked at each other. We were saddened but puzzled. How is it possible that a young man of 25 should died suddenly, cause unknown? Without saying, we both were wondering if the actual cause was drug abuse, a problem that has been rearing its ugly head in recent years in the religious world, where previously it had been unknown. (We were unfortunately correct, as we later learned.)
Besides that we were feeling very vulnerable. Our worries always concern our children and their physical wellbeing. It is never far from our minds – the fear: What if?
Of course, I do trust in God that He will take care of my children,
watch over them and He has so far, but sometimes when I kiss my girls good-bye in the morning as they head for the school bus at the corner, an unbidden horrible thought flies through my mind: “What if?”
I couldn’t help but think that now one mother is no longer wondering, “What if?” Now that mother is asking, “How do I go on?”
Of course, if our presence could ease her suffering the tiniest bit, of course we would pay a visit to the house of mourning.
THE HOUSE OF MOURNING
I rarely get over to Brooklyn. I have been to Kiev, where I do business, more times than to Brooklyn, and I often joke that I need a passport to go there. It is a whole other world to me and the one-hour drive in New York traffic from my home in Monsey to Flatbush is not something that I relish. But to comfort the mourners is an important mitzvah, and in this case, one we wanted to fulfill for many reasons, not the least of which was the unspoken bond we felt with the mother of the young man who had died though we had never met her.
The house of mourning was her house.
We parked the car and slowly walked up to the little house, so similar to the other little houses on this street, except that inside a family was grieving.
The front door had been left open so that visitors could walk right in and not ring the doorbell and disturb the mourners. When we crossed the threshold, we were immediately transported into another world. Outside was a warm, sunny, cheerful day; inside dark clouds covered the sun – we had entered a dark, sad place.
I sat down near the young man’s mother, who was hugging the young widow, as the two orphaned children, four- and a one-year-old, hovered nearby. The widow looked much too young to bear such a heavy burden. Then the four-year-old, a gorgeous little girl with flowing blond curls, came over and scrambled onto her lap. She picked up a picture of her father displayed on the table in front of her and started to poke her finger at it. “Daddy,” she said, “Daddy is in heaven now.”
Tears started rolling down my face. Embarrassed, I looked up and saw the pain in the mother’s eyes too great to imagine. She passed me the tissue box, because she couldn’t cry anymore. Then I noticed that everyone else sitting there was crying. This little girl’s innocent act of poking her tiny finger – a touch of flesh against Kodak paper – pierced the soul of each of the observers of this act. We moved from passive visitors to sufferers, from bystanders to mourners ourselves. The simple act of an innocent child brought each one of us in touch with our own mortality.
I hardly knew the deceased. I had never seen this little girl, so why was I, and all the others, so moved?
In answer to all those philosophers and pundits who pontificate about whether or not there is a universal reality, an eternal soul that is common to all humanity, such a moment in time screams “YES! We are all ONE!”
This truth seared through me to the core. It cut me open, leaving me raw, vulnerable, exposed. I think all the people in that room, on one level or another, felt the same.
When we left, Judy and I talked about how moved we both were. We were glad that we had made the hour-long trip to Brooklyn to the house of mourning. It felt good to do something meaningful and real that touched others and reminded us of our common humanity.
There were other moments during that shiva call that I will never forget, because they drove home lessons I needed to learn.
When the young widow spoke about how great her deceased husband was with his small children – how they were the center of his life, how he played with them constantly, seemingly never tiring of their simple games – the guilt rolled in.
I don’t play with my little kids enough. On Shabbat afternoon, which should be my prime opportunity, I slink off to take a nap while the kids play by themselves or with Judy. I start off every Shabbat telling myself that this one will be different – this weekend I will hang out with the kids – but my weary body wins the battle and exhaustion wipes out my resolve. During the week, I am torn between work and kids, and work always wins out.
My kids notice, of course. They chide me constantly that I have missed each birthday at least once because of my business trips. I can just imagine what they will say when they sit shiva for me. “Dad never played with us. He missed all our birthdays because he was working too hard.”
At least for some of those years, they will be able to say that he worked too hard to help the Jewish people. Will it matter to them that their father started Aish LA and initiated programs like “Twenty Something” which brought thousands of young Jews back to the fold, that he raised funds for Russian Jews, and that he spread Torah values throughout America with “Words Can Heal,” that he worked hard to raise the profile of Israel in world opinion through “Honest Reporting” and many mission to Israel, that he wrote four books which touch a lot of lives …
Perhaps they don’t all have my books, I thought. I should gather them up while they are still in print and make a package for each of my children so they have something concrete to point to when they measure their dad’s accomplishments versus his absence from the family.
On the other hand, maybe that won’t help. Maybe they will only think of the price they paid for my struggles to get rich. The guilt again … That’s what a house of mourning does to you.
HUGS AND KISSES
Later on during the visit, when I walked down the hall in search of a bathroom, I saw the deceased man’s brother hugging the children. He was holding to them ever so tightly as if trying to replace the love and hugs they were already missing from their father. It was such a special moment. I could sense the strength of the feelings being transmitted in those hugs, and I wondered if from somewhere in the spiritual beyond, the father was channeling his love through his brother.
Right then and there, I told myself to hug each one of my kids when I got home. I’m generally a pretty good hugger, but just yesterday Sara came to ask me for a hug, and then she wanted to discuss her homework, but I was too preoccupied in my work to take the time to do more than hug her. I resolved to remedy that.
Another moment that spoke to me was when the young man’s Torah study partners talk about his commitment to learning – how he always pushed him to get up in the morning, how he was always ready to learn a little bit more. Will any chevrusa say that about me at my shiva? I know the answer to that one. For sure not. The last serious study partner I had, I left behind in Israel 25 years ago. Since then I have been dabbling in my Torah studies, but I have not had the serious commitment to learning like that young man.
I miss it. I also miss not being involved in my community the way I used to be when I lived in LA. There I had a lot of friends and contacts whose lives I was able to touch and who touched me in a meaningful way. In Monsey, I hardly know anybody. I have so few friends here. How many people would come to my funeral? I doubt that the people I am making business deal with would show up. Why should they? Of what value would I be to them dead?
Since I have left the non-profit world, I have felt a void in my life. In that house of mourning I resolved to fill it with meaningful stuff, to make a difference again, to leave an imprint when I am gone, so that my life would have counted for something.
I know that I went to pay a shiva call to comfort the mourners, but the visit turned out to be a look in the mirror – and the picture was not pretty. Am I overly guilt ridden? Well, wouldn’t you be if you were me?
As I was sitting there, my chairs – one of many delivered by a special non-profit organization that brings chairs and prayer books to the houses of mourning – suddenly collapsed under me. The screws holding it together let go, and it broke apart. It was as if the weight of the thousands of people who had sat in this chair became suddenly too much for it to bear, and it collapsed either from all that pain or from the added burden of my guilt. I knew right then and there that God was sending me a sign: Wake up before you collapse.
Thank you, God, but I think I got it.
Meanwhile, everyone got upset about my mishap. The young widow endeavored to help me up, and in that moment I saw the tear in her blouse. Jews wear a garment torn over their heart during the period of mourning. The tear is called kria, and it is a very moving moment during the funeral when this is done. It is as if the rawness of the pain is exposed in that act of tearing. I well remember doing this at the funerals of my mother and father. It was as if I wanted to tear my heart open, but since I could not, I tore my garment symbolically. Those were probably the most painful moments in my life. That memory brought my sympathy for the widow to a new level – she was much too young to be rent like this.
With great sadness, we left the house of mourning after an hour’s visit. Going out, we pronounced the traditional words “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” In Hebrew, a strange name for God is used in this salutation – HaMakom, literally meaning “the Place,” but generally translated as “the Omnipresent.” I have never really understood it why this is said here and nowhere else. Why does “the Place” comfort us? Why not Rahaman – “the Merciful One”?
After I got home, I research it and found that people who have lost a loved one often feel that they have been abandoned by God; that there is no God where they are. Therefore, those who come to comfort the mourners remind them of the omnipresence of God, that God is everywhere — He is the place and the context of everything.
The greatest comfort that the mourners can receive is to be again made aware of God’s constant presence and care. According to Rabbi Yisrael Rutman, “the name of God HaMakom asserts that God is everywhere and everything: physical and spiritual, matter and energy. All of this makes up the oneness of God. Thus, the contemplation of HaMakom during a time of pain can comfort the mourners with the realization that their loved one’s physical death is only a part of the bigger picture.” Just as a birth is a part of God’s plan, so too is a death.
A NEW LEAF
The next morning, I turned a new leaf. Instead of letting my girls take the bus to school, I decided I would drive them myself. “My work can wait,” I told myself. I woke them up with kisses and hugs, and I rolled out the family convertible to make this a really fun ride.
The day was warm and sunny. I put on a tape of Jewish A-cappella and let it blast out as I drove down the street with two of my most precious belongings sitting in the car with me. They were laughing as we drove with the top down on a beautiful spring day singing together to the music, waving our hands over the top of the car. We stopped for hot chocolate and bagels on the way, and by the time we arrived at the school, I felt so good – to be enjoying the simple things of life, time with my kids.
When we arrived at the school, I let them out, kissed and hugged them and sent them on the way to class, hoping that they will remember this day. Life is a series of moments. Nothing more, nothing less.
That day, inspired by the experience of the house of mourning, I tried to create a moment they will remember. It made my life a little bit more meaningful. I hope they will talk about it when I am gone.
I turned 52 years old yesterday. In celebration, I took all the kids out for dinner, and then we went home to enjoy a Carvel ice cream cake for dessert, and they all gave me their presents. Our family has a tradition, initiated by my wife, that we stage a scavenger hunt for everyone’s birthday. She hides presents all around the house, each one with a cute little card attached hinting at the next hiding place. We lead the birthday person from room to room, whipping up the excitement: “Oh, look what Yaakov got you,” as we go to Yaakov’s room and look for the present. “Oh, look what … etc.
We skimped the scavenger hunt in deference to my turning 52 and becoming ostensibly an old man. We just sat at the kitchen table and opened all my little presents which had been set up on each kid’s chair. It was kind of a joke, but really we were all pretty tired after getting home from dinner somewhat late, and we just wanted to dive into the ice cream cake.
I remember when 52 seemed ancient – and now I can’t believe that I am past 50 and relentlessly moving on. I have become a fanatic about what I eat and how much I exercise daily. I run on the treadmill five to six days a week, work out with weights, doing resistance training two days a week and a core training once a week. I go for regular semi-annual medical check-ups to monitor my cholesterol (160), my body fat percentage (15½% and dropping — it has dropped from 26% in the past year), and all the other signs of health (or lack of it).
One day a week I let myself totally pig out, and I eat whatever I feel like eating — usually that means a lot of junk food like licorice, candy, and cake, but the rest of the week I am pretty disciplined. I eat only whole grains, non-fat milk, lean protein like tuna steak, salmon and skinless chicken breasts. I am doing whatever I can to fight the relentless march of time.
I am fortunate, but genetically I happen to look younger than my age. My wife is similar. I think my parents were the same way, although they both died relatively young. I love asking people how old they think I am. It gives me great pleasure to hear people guess 35 or 40 yrs old. Silly, I know. I mean, it is genetics – I did nothing to accomplish that. Judaism teaches that we should value wisdom, which comes with age, and a sign of age is graying hair. Yet I am happy mine is still not gray, and it is still all there.
My obsession with staying healthy has led me to engage in considerable pill-popping. I take a multi-vitamin daily, a baby aspirin (since modern medical theory says that this is one of the easiest things you can do to avoid a stroke), two omega-3 marine oil pills (since modern medical theory says that it increases your good cholesterol and improves your overall cardiovascular health).
A year ago, my cholesterol was 201 — exactly what traditionally has been considered normal — but when I spoke to several of the top medical practitioners whom I got to meet on my biotech trips to Israel, I was told that, according to more advanced thinking, you should really be closer to 150.
One of my doctors, who is considered to be one of the top doctors in Manhattan (according to New York magazine) prescribed for me 5 mg of Crestor a day. Crestor is a statin, one of a class of miracle drugs that lowers cholesterol. Ten days after starting it — and at 5 mg, the lowest possible dose one can take — my cholesterol dropped to 150. And I have managed to hold it near there ever since.
Probably the most significant thing about this birthday was my trip to the pharmacy where I went down the aisles looking for something which I never thought I would be buying – “a pill caravan.” I had always snickered when I saw people take out these long pill boxes divided into seven compartments for each day of the week. The seven snap tops come labeled with the first letter as well as the full name of the day of the week. I am not sure why they need both the letter and the day spelled out, but that’s how they make them.
The pill caravans come in different sizes. For people who take one or two pills there are small ones, but because I take four pills a day, I needed the largest. To add insult to injury, it also came with bigger lettering on the top, as if the manufacturers assume that the more pills you take, the dimmer your eye sight is likely to be. I half expected the box to come with a discount coupon for the purchase of a cane or a walker.
Buying the pill caravan affected me more than anything else I did on my 52nd birthday. It felt like an “old person” kind of thing, even though most of the pills I am taking are really for preventive care and not for illness. After all, an ounce of prevention … Still, I was left wondering how much of my pill-popping was appropriate and how much betrayed my lack of trust in God. I mean if the Almighty wants me to be well, won’t I be well? And if I am meant to be sick, will all the miracle pills in the world make a difference?
At the same time, aren’t we responsible to take care of the vessel that God has given to us, to the best of our ability? Wasn’t I doing just that?
I walked around all day wondering about my pill caravan and what impact its contents had on my health and longevity. How much my exercise would really improve my quality and length of life? Then I began to calculate: “Lets say I exercised one hour a day, 300 days a year, and it all took really two hours of time (what with traveling to the gym and showering after) would the amount of time it added to my life really be significantly more than the actual time spent?
I began to worry that I did not spend enough time doing good deeds to merit a long life, especially that now I was no longer working full time for a charitable organization. I had led a very charmed life, and I always attributed that to the fact that I was immersed in doing God’s work all day long. I worried now that perhaps I would lose that grace. If I died tomorrow, would my life be fulfilled? Would I have done enough? What would people say about me at my funeral?
But as I sat there at the kitchen table waiting for the cake, I realized that I had accomplished quite lot while working at Aish that was truly meaningful. I felt good about that. I looked around at all my beautiful children and my beautiful wife as they brought the ice cream cake into the room. I huffed and puffed and blew the candles out. One came back on. Oh well, so much for my strong aerobic capacity.
To heck with all this worry. I dove into the cake and forgot about calories and cholesterol and just enjoyed the moment, the family, the beautiful smiles and the delicious vanilla and chocolate cake with the yummy sprinkles.
I was living in Los Angeles when I got the news that my mom (who was living in Montreal) was gravely ill. Her breast cancer had metastasized into the bones and central organs.
Considering the distance, my responsibilities to my family and my job, and the protracted nature of her illness, I worked out a plan to be with her as much as I could and kept in touch daily by phone.
Each morning, I would bundle the four oldest kids (they were ages 6-9 then) and drive them to school. On the way, I’d call my mom and put her on the speaker phone so all of us could chat with her. They would yell, “Hi Bubbie, we’re going to school with Tattie,” and invariably fight over who got to speak first. It kept us all connected, even though we were 2,500 miles apart.
I also hoped to show my children the respect and love I felt for my parents so that one day, when I became old and infirm, they would also show it to me. I heard it said that your children will treat you in your old age the same way they saw you treat your parents. So if you ship your parents off to an old age home because they are too much of a burden, you might as well reserve a bed there for yourself too.
Every two weeks, on Thursday evening, I would fly to Montreal and spend Shabbat with my mom (who was usually in the hospital) then fly back to LA on Sunday evening.
THE LOCKED DOOR
On one of those visits, I was sitting by her bed as she moved in and out of consciousness following an operation which determined that all hope was gone. I held her hand, caressed her forehead. Suddenly her hand jerked up into the air and started making small circles, round and round. She was working at something, trying to do accomplish a task but I had no idea what. After a while, her hand relaxed and dropped to her side.
She slept. I sat.
Then she awoke and looked up at me. She looked bewildered and sad. I asked her what happened – what was she trying to do. By then we had made it a habit of talking openly about her life and her approaching death.
She said, “I was trying to open the door. It wouldn’t open. I didn’t seem to have the right key.”
I asked, “What door? To where?”
“The next world. My mother and father were there and my sister also.”
She said they told her to come to them, but she could not figure out how to open the door and she was frustrated by this.
I told her it was okay. I held her hand tight and told her that when she was ready she would figure it out.
I didn’t want her to figure it out though. I didn’t want to let go of her hand. I was afraid she would reach for the right key this time. Perhaps if I just stayed there, never letting go of her hand, I could hold onto her forever.
My intellectual self knew I could not, but my emotional self simply refused to accept it.
JOY IN THE SNOW
When I made the trip to Montreal, I would often take two of the kids with me.
One trip during the cold weather months stands out especially. I had taken the two oldest boys, AY age 8 and Yakov age 7. Having been born and raised in LA, my kids had little experience with snow, and they were looking forward to this special treat.
We arrived at the hospital – Jewish General — Thursday night; we would sleep there in order to spend all Shabbat with my mom. During the day Friday, the hoped-for snow arrived in abundance, and we watched it out of her seventh floor window, accumulating down below. The boys, bored already by sitting around, were itching to make a snowman.
I suggested they go outside and play below my mom’s window, out in front of the hospital where the main driveway snaked around a large island piled high with snow. Thrilled, they bundled up in their borrowed snowsuits and rushed outside, promising to play in the designated area only.
Meanwhile, I set up a chair by the window for my mom, so she could watch the kids frolic. They rolled in the snow and made angels with their hands and feet. All the while they kept their eyes on us, waving every few minutes, and attempting to throw us a snow ball. Invariably it would arc upwards and fall back on their head, provoking much laughter. Then they had a snow ball fight, and when they tired of that, they started making a four-foot tall snowman. Their snowman was eventually complete, and they added some candies from their pockets for eyes and licorice for its mouth. They were so happy with the final result. They jumped up and down and danced with joy.
Their innocence and playfulness were very touching for me and my mom to see. We sat there with tears in our eyes — tears of joy, tears of gratitude for God’s blessings to us, tears of knowing we would never sit together again, watching my children and her grandchildren frolic in the snow. A bond was created between us in that moment that still binds us today – thirteen years after her death, I remember and the tears flow anew. If it was not for her illness, we would never have experienced that moment when we marveled together at the wonder of life captured in the snow.
I feel the pain of her loss now as if it was fresh. Fresh as that falling snow. The pain is as cold and stark. The pain envelops me in totality now as the snow filled the world of Montreal on that day. Falling nonstop, blanketing everything, bringing me to confront reality:
We are all going to die. We all know it. Yet we seem to need to be close to death to really face that fact. In Judaism, we are taught that only when we come to terms with death can we truly live. Why is this so? Because only death brings with it the awareness of just how special every moment of life is. Without that awareness, we miss so much of life as it whizzes past us; without that awareness we miss the simple joys all around us, infusing each second of existence.
A MOMENT IN TIME
I remember another moment with my mom. I had rolled her wheelchair onto the balcony of my parent’s home. We sat there together and a little blue jay flew by and landed on a tree. My mother, who was then in great pain and in the last days of her life said, “Look at the bird. It is beautiful!”
She smiled even though pain coursed through her dying body. I truly felt her words. She had become wise. I felt that in that one phrase she had captured the awesomeness of existence. It was a simple phrase but she said it with such conviction that I knew it meant a lot more.
The snow falling, the snowman, the kids in the snow, the bird on the branch. Life. Death. One. It is all there is and it is what we must grasp somehow. If only we weren’t so busy with our plans and worries, we would see it all the time. My mother saw it. At the end of her life she lived with full awareness of those special little moments, and I was lucky enough to share that awareness with her. Her parting gift to me was a richer understanding of what unites us in life – the oneness of God: “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!
And yet and yet … I do not understand why the pain at her loss is as fresh today as it was at the time of her death.
I think the most painful moment in my life was the first time I said Kaddish for her – the prayer in mourning, which is, in fact, a song of praise to God.
After the funeral, when I stood up to lead the prayer service, the reality sunk in. She was gone. At that moment, I thought I would die from the pain. It just hurt so much. What is that pain? Is it her loss? Is it the realization that I too will die? That those kids who were making a snowman will one day be saying Kaddish for me? Is it knowing that I cannot sustain that keen awareness and am missing so many moments in my own life?
It is all this and more.
And on the simplest of human levels: I miss my mom. I used to call her every time something exciting happened. And now she just isn’t there to call anymore.
I have yet to learn the hardest lesson of all.
In Pirkey Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), the sages teach: “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.”
In the midst of the economic meltdown, I spent a day with a powerful public figure from whom I learned not how to wheel-and-deal in the Washington power-plays but how to be more human.
John Ashcroft has led a celebrated life as a civil servant of the United States. He has served his country as the Governor of Missouri (1985-1993), then United States Senator (1995-2001) and most recently as U. S. Attorney General (2001-2005). In 2006, I invited him on one of my missions to Israel, and during our tour of the land I truly enjoyed his wit and easy-going manner and was impressed with his sincerity and his brand of spirituality.
During the trip, I mentioned my love of cars and speed, and he invited me to spend a day on his Virginia farm, where he had cut dirt-bike paths through the woods in order to speed around while doing little damage to himself or the environment. It took me eighteen months to take him up on his offer, because I am so work-oriented that taking a day off mid-week to play filled me with guilt.
But one day he called, and he said something which no one had ever said to me before. He said, “Come visit my farm. I just want to be your friend. I like you. Whether we do business together or not is not important. I want to be your friend.”
This touched me. Thinking about it, I felt it was an important thing to be able to say to others: “I want to be your friend.” I have since said that to a few people whom I have met and liked. It feels good to say it. And I think it is especially important in our goal-oriented and competitive world.
So, I decided to visit his farm, to hang out with him, ride his dirt bike and just “be.” It seemed strange to a workaholic like me, who doesn’t know how to “be,” but I was game to try it (for a day anyway).
Of course, I scheduled a day of meetings in D.C. the day before. Somehow this made me feel less guilty about spending the next day playing with John.
I slept over at a D.C. hotel and early the next morning drove to meet John in Alexandria, Virginia. The appointment was for 9 a.m., and he was standing on the balcony of his townhouse waiting for me as I pulled up at 9:03. When I got out of the car, John saw that I was wearing dress pants, and fearing that I would get them dirty, went into the house to search for some casual clothes for me to wear. Oh my, silly me, I didn’t think of bringing more appropriate clothes for a day on the farm. Such a city slicker I am! Always in work mode.
We climbed into his SUV and headed out to the parkway for the 90 minute drive to the Ashcroft farm in the Virginia countryside. He pointed to the cooler on the back seat and informed me it was full of everything he could find in his pantry with an OU symbol signifying it was kosher. I had explained that to him a week ago when he asked what we could eat together. He said that when he scavenged though his pantry, he was surprised how much kosher food he had: tuna, crackers, canned fruit-cup, and even his bottled water had the OU symbol. I explained that I had no idea why they put an OU on water, as all water is kosher, but nonetheless, it was included in his treasure trove of kosher food.
John had grown up in southwest Missouri, where his father had been a minister. He considers himself a devout Christian yet he has mezuzahs on his doors. The mezuzah – a small scroll with a Torah quotation inserted in a narrow box and attached to the doorpost – is the quintessential sign of a Jewish home. Why put up a mezuzah if you are Christian? John answered that when he learned that the purpose of the mezuzah was to help you think about God every time you passed through a door, he decided it was a good idea. “Anything that helps you bring God into your life on a more regular basis is a good idea,” he said. He reminded me to think of the mezuzah in that way. Of course, I knew that was its purpose, but I have let myself forget it.
We talked all the whole way up to the farm about the political climate, and time passed by quickly, as we left the D.C. environs and entered the gently rolling hills of the Virginia country side. But there was still a part of me saying, “What the heck are you doing?”
Several times during the drive, John said, “feel free to make any calls or take any emails.” But I felt it would be rude to do so, and I wanted to let go and just “be.” So I didn’t respond to several vibrations indicating incoming messages on my Blackberry but eventually succumbed – how could I not? – and did a quick check. After an hour, we turned off the main highway and started down a two-lane road that twisted and turned past farms and woods.
John told me that he knew he had to have a piece of the Virginia countryside when he became U.S. Attorney General and realized he wouldn’t be getting back to his Missouri farm very often – five times a year if he was lucky. His wife agreed, as long as he wouldn’t build a house on the property. He could have the land and enjoy the nature, but no more homes.
“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “no more homes, but what about bathrooms?” I didn’t say anything, but I wondered what was in store for me.
After much searching, John said he found 150 acres that included a rolling pasture, a forest and even a river, relatively close to D.C. As we turned onto a dirt path – no grand entrance, no sign, not even a mail box – John said, “Welcome to my farm!”
He led me toward the barn, which was a large rectangular structure with three walls and an open front, housing a tractor for clearing the pathways, two small mowers for cutting grass and four dirt bikes. John said that he had built the barn himself. I was amazed. I could never imagine taking the time, or for that matter, having the know-how or inclination to build such a structure. On the wall were two barbed-wire sculptures – a Statue of Liberty and a grizzly bear – both made by John. He explained that he did barbed-wire sculpture as a hobby. I thought to myself, “I don’t have any hobbies. Who has time for hobbies? How did the Attorney General of the United States have time to build a barn, mow the grass, ride a dirt bike and also make barbed wire sculptures?” I always thought I was good at managing my time, but I was beginning to wonder if I really was such a hotshot.
John pointed out a little shed next to the barn, which he had also built. “The facilities,” he said, using the polite term for “outhouse.” Hmm, this was going to be interesting. Good thing I had relieved myself earlier in the day. Better not drink too much of that kosher water. I never was one for outhouses.
SOUND OF SILENCE
The silence around us was stunning. Just the wind rustling the leaves in the trees. We walked along a short path that wound its way through the forest, and after while, my ears picked up the sound of running water – the river. We came to another clearing where stood a small wooden cabin. From a tool shed adjoining it, John took out a large American flag and mounted it on a stand, just like old-time Virginia settlers used to do. We went inside. The one-room cabin was furnished with a small plastic table, a few plastic chairs and a kerosene heater. It was cold and John took it outside to light it, as kerosene gives off a strong smell when first lit. A few minutes later, he brought it inside, and it started to warm up the cabin quickly.
Outside, John pointed out to me an unusual decoration to the cabin – a cow’s skull wearing a baseball cap. He had found the skull on the property and also the cap. When he lifted the cap, he discovered a litter of baby mice looking up at him in surprise. Clearly the cap had been turned into a home for a mouse family. It was the cutest thing and children visitors that year had enjoyed watching them grow up. When they abandoned the cap for better quarters, he hung it up as a memento. Near the cap, John pointed out the holes in the woodwork made by some woodpeckers; it looked to me like they had nibbled away at the cap as well.
We took a walk toward the river, gingerly ducking under an electrified fence put up to keep the grazing cattle away from the river as their dung is a strong water pollutant. Along the way, John showed me the carcass of a poor little deer. The bones was all that was left of it after the vultures had done picking it over. They’d had quite a feast.
At the river bank, John pointed out several trees felled by beavers. These trees were once mighty timbers, and if I didn’t know better, I would have said that a lumberjack had been at work with an exacting chain-saw. The lower trunks, some of them 4-6 inches in diameter, were neatly sawed on a diagonal from three sides, causing the whole tree to fall. I bent down to look at the markings the beaver had made, and they were smooth and clean cuts. It was hard to believe that they were not made by a human being and a 25-horsepower 150-tooth chainsaw. The cuts were so exact, so smooth and so deep. John said he never ceased to be amazed by the beaver work, even though he had seen it hundreds of times.
He brought me over to the river’s edge to look at the dam that the beavers had constructed. They had built it on a diagonal, aiming at a small island, and then back across, further down stream. Though some of the dam had since washed away, when it was new it had spanned 60-feet in length. The dam was intended to slow down the water and create a habitat safe from predators for the beaver clan.
We wondered aloud at the awesomeness of nature and God’s wondrous creations. How was it that the beavers knew how to do this, and even more impressive how was it that they all worked together. Amazing team work was required to build that dam. (We hadn’t seen such co-operation in Congress in generations, probably not since the Founding Fathers.) Who among the beavers decided to go on a diagonal across the river to the closest island, 30-feet away and then to double back to the other side? How did they communicate with each other about the direction, the angle, the location? How did they divide the work load and organize the subdivision of labor? Human engineers would have difficulty coming to the same unanimous conclusion and then following through in tandem.
I was amazed that here we were, the former U.S. Attorney General and me, trampling through the woods in the middle of a perfectly good, potentially productive workday, looking in wonder at a beaver dam. I felt guilty again. “This was fascinating, but shouldn’t I be answering some emails?” I thought. I found I was engaged in a constant battle with myself – feeling guilty yet wanting to enjoy myself, relax and just “be”!
BORN TO BE WILD
We wended our way through the woods, listening to the wind and the sounds of the river. Back at the barn, we got onto the dirt bikes, and John showed me how to work mine. First of all, he pointed out the “kill” button. “If you get into trouble, just hit this button and the engine shuts down,” he told me, adding that no one had ever been hurt on a bike in all the years he had brought people out to ride them. The he showed me the front and rear brakes, the accelerator in the right handle bar and the clutch in the left handle bar as well as the four gears were by the left pedal.
He put my bike into first so I could drive around the clearing and get used to it before we headed off for the wooded paths. That was a good move as I forgot how to shift as soon as I got on. I felt like an idiot until he showed me what to do again. I tried it once more and almost did a wheelie and flipped over when I released the clutch too fast. So much for my dreams of riding a Harley one day. It took some trial and error, but I finally got it right. It was fun biking around the clearing, chasing the two of them. It also felt relatively safe as there was nothing to hit.
John waved to me to follow him into the woods; the pathway was about five feet wide and framed by dense vegetation. At first, the curves in the path were gentle, and I was really having fun. I forgot my preoccupations and began to relax. We went up hills and down hills picking up speed, and I switched from first into second and even once into third. Then … whoops! I turned a bend and found myself heading straight for a tree. I fell backwards and the bike ended up in the bushes.
John, who was looking out for me the whole time, stopped to make sure I was okay. He told me I was doing great and not to worry about that little accident. It happened to everyone, and I was doing a great job. We went on until we came to a spot that seemed too steep for the bike to climb. We dismounted and walked up the mountain from where we could see the river below. The view was stunning. We stood there admiring God’s handiwork – the river wending its way down below, totally surround by a dense forest.
John pointed out a persimmon tree near us that was laden with fruit. He picked some and gave one to me. A wild persimmon? “Yuck,” I thought. It looked all shriveled up and not too appetizing. John said that you can’t eat them earlier in the season as they were too tart, but at this time they were sweet. Politely, I agreed to taste it. I said the Shecheyanu blessing and explained that this was a blessing Jews said when tasting something for the first time in a given year. And I haven’t had a wild persimmon yet this year. “Thank God, we arrived to this point in time …” Then, I took a bite. Sweet, yes it was, but somehow it just wasn’t my taste. Seeing my lack of thrill, John suggested I eat a wild pear next to clean my palate.
This was getting to be like wine tasting. Isn’t that when you clean your palate with cold sorbet (or was that after the fish course)? I wasn’t too sure but it certainly wasn’t what I expected out in the Virginia woods – a lesson in the etiquette of eating wild persimmons.
We got back on our bikes and continued to make our way through woods. I was quite comfortable now and even picked up speed a bit. It was fun indeed!
John stopped to point out that the heap of dung in the middle of the path had been left there by a bear. Oh my! Bear country! Yikes! I hoped that all that I would encounter would be fecal matter and not a large furry mother and her cubs. Then we came across another heap of bear dung. This one was certainly busy eating berries, John said.
We headed back to the little cabin for some lunch. The kerosene heater had warmed the place nicely, and it was very comforting to come inside. I surveyed the decorations on the walls for which his wife found no place in the Ashcroft home. For example, there was the flack jacket that a close friend had sent John when he was going through the Senate confirmation hearings. Being a staunch conservative who was pro-life, against stem-cell research, a believer in God and prayer, he had gotten a lot of flack from the liberal Democrats. Hence the flack jacket – a cute present.
Also hanging on the wall was a four-foot fake fish stuffed in a net. He had used the net to hang different knick-knacks, including earrings and a necklace, in a playful game with his wife Janet. Beside my chair was a slightly warped and crooked birch ladder, which went up to the loft above the sitting area. The loft was used for sleeping the few times John and his wife stayed overnight. He had made the ladder himself, which impressed me again. It was rudimentary but, nonetheless, it worked. More than I could say for anything I had ever made with my hands. I mean, I wait for my father-in-law to visit so he can change the light bulbs.
We took the food out of the cooler and started to prepare our lunch. John took a pot, put it on top of the kerosene heater and boiled water for us. This truly was a minimalist way of life. The water boiled after five minutes, and I added it to a cup of instant soup. John then made his soup, and I broke open a package of tuna, which we would eat together. John asked me if I usually said a blessing before eating, and he asked me to say it, and I did – both in English and Hebrew. John then sang his own blessing.
Behind me on the wall was a small musical instrument. I asked him about it, and he said it was an ukulele. It was one of the first instruments that he had learned to play, and it was his favorite. I handed it to him, and he started to play a song I hadn’t heard since summer camp, “Home on the Range.” Then he played and sang, “America the Beautiful.”
In the U.S. Senate, John had been known as a singer and member of an informal group of tenors that entertained the Senators on special occasions. He said he had learned in life that singing brings people together, because that’s when the soul comes through. I explained how important music was when the Temple stood in Jerusalem and how Jews always sing during Shabbat meals.
We finished our lunch and got back on the dirt bikes. I felt like a pro by this time and kick-started my own bike. I was ready to hit the open road! We reached a huge tree where John said he’d love to build a tree-house. Indeed, the tree was ideal for it as its branches were thick, firm and spread out like big embracing arms. We joked about how this could be the perfect getaway from the cabin when life there got too hectic. A getaway from the getaway.
After biking for another hour, I started getting antsy as we still had more than an hours drive back to his Alexandria home, where I would get into my car for a five-hour ride back to Monsey. At 3 p.m. we went back to the cabin, turned off the kerosene heater, took down the flag and headed back to the barn, where we put away the bikes. And we started for home.
We were just off the property when John remembered that one of his staffers loved the small wild pears that grew there. We found some of the pear trees, but the only pears visible were quite high up on the branches – at least 20 feet high. “They are too high,” I said in my impatience to just get going home. “No one would accomplish anything in life if all he saw were problems,” John countered. “This is an opportunity, not a problem.” I was beginning to think we would never get out of there.
John jumped out of the car and found a huge broken branch. We lifted up the branch and reached up into the canopy of the trees and knocked down a bunch of pears. Then we scurried around picking up the fallen pears, brought them back into the car, and we were off with our trove of presents, and oh yes – all of our garbage from lunch piled into the back of the car with the cooler and left over kosher food.
I turned on my Blackberry, and after a few minutes, it picked up a signal and started humming. I read my messages, but there was nothing urgent. I really didn’t miss anything while out for the day.
Back at the Ashcroft home, I went inside to use the regular “facilities,” and John sat down to the baby grand piano in his living room. The music wafted into the bathroom. At first I thought it was the stereo playing through a speaker system; it wasn’t until I returned that I realized it was him. What a talented guy!
A HUMAN DAY
We walked outside. I gave him a hug good-bye. I said, “Well, we sang together, we biked together, we ate together, and we prayed together. We covered all the bases. A human day. Thank you!”
I got in my car and started off on the long drive home. My mind wandered as I wended my way through D.C. rush hour traffic. It felt good to spend a day just being, not trying to accomplish. I was impressed with how diverse John’s interests were. In comparison, I was very one-dimensional. I called Judy and told her about the day and my thoughts. She suggested maybe I should try to do something personal on Sundays, instead of just working all day. She liked the fact that I was questioning my life.
I realized it was important to develop other interests. To take the time to experience the natural world, look at a beaver dam, a felled tree, ride a dirt bike, walk in the woods, even try to build something with my own hands, although I doubted I was ready to try that just yet. It was time to get back to the simple pleasures in life, especially in this tough economic environment when a lot of the things that used to provide distraction and pseudo-pleasure, such as shopping and vacationing in fancy places, was just not an option anymore.
I felt somewhat whole and complete in a strange way. The experiences of the day had left me feeling more at peace and – if I dare say it – more fulfilled. There was something uplifting about connecting to other human beings in a non-work setting. Just sitting and talking and exchanging ideas with no gain in mind.
I cranked up the music in the car and pondered my life as I drove home. Five hours later, I pulled into my driveway and ran into the house. I went into Sara’s and Ilana’s rooms and gave them a big hug hello. I am a rich man with such beautiful children. I hugged and kissed Judy also.
And later in the week, I snuggled into bed with Judy and the kids, ate popcorn and watched a video. A first for me. And on Sunday I took the day off and spent it with the kids.
Maybe a day in the Virginia woods had left its imprint. Now, was I ready to build a barn?
Stay tuned for my new blog!
Irwin Katsof has authored three books, and is currently working on his fourth. In 1998, he co-authored with Larry King, Powerful Prayers: Conversations on Faith, Hope and the Human Spirit with Todays Most Provocative People, which was ranked the tenth best-selling religious book of the year according to Publishers Weekly. His second book, How to Get Your Prayers Answered, was published in 2000 and reissued in 2002. His third, The Words Can Heal Handbook: How Changing Your Words Can Change Your Life, was released in 2001 and is still being used by thousands of students across America as part of the Words Can Heal Character Education Program. His fourth book a memoir tentatively entitled A Time of Living Dangerously: Trying to Get Rich While Staying Connected to God is in progress.This video shows why Irwin Katsof is such a sought after speaker, educator and seminar leader throughout the world to business leaders, schools and community organizations.
Words Can Heal is a national campaign to eliminate verbal violence, curb gossip and promote the healing power of words to enhance relationships at every level. Words Can Heal has captured the imagination and commitment of an unprecedented coalition. Our board includes top governmental leadership, Wall Street’s most influential CEO’s, America’s leading clergy, Hollywood celebrities and community leaders of every stripe.