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The untimely death of Reb Aryeh, my brother

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Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield
Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield

Seven years have passed since I stood by Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield’s open grave, the only open space on the Oregon hill. All the other spaces were filled by friends, congregants, his widow, an ex-wife from up San Francisco, his five sons, and me, his lone sibling, gauzy-headed from the long flight from New York.

The turnout, the bouts of biblical keening, would have pleased him. He drowned snorkeling at age 65 in a lagoon in Mexico. We were raised in the Bronx by an Orthodox mother and a chronically depressed irreligious father who seldom graced us with eye contact. Aryeh grew up feeling invisible, with the compulsive need to make himself visible. He played high school basketball, became a performing guitarist, and later in life a charismatic rabbi ordained by Jewish Renewal master Zalman Schacter.

I did not know him as a rabbi. I regret to say I did not know him very well as a brother either. But knowing the roots enabled me to some extent to know the man. We managed to maintain periodic contact over the years. He did not sing to me over the phone the psalms he wrote and sang for his congregation. I never read to him the travel stories I wrote for magazines and newspapers. Our words over the phone were like two pairs of feet navigating an ice field.

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We spoke, it always seemed, of the tragic distance between Israelis and Palestinians, our surrogates in estrangement. We, like everyone else, found no solution to their conflict, but going round and round in that companionable dance of dead ends infused our relationship with fleeting moments of closeness.

Like the sparring parties in the land of Israel, our problems began with issues of birthright and encroachment. I regarded his birth, almost four years after mine, as a hostile act. When Aryeh was nine, our chassidic grandfather died, and my brother, to the delight of many in our family, inherited his piety. He’d run after me Shabbat mornings when I was on my way to the park to play baseball and warn me like a little Jewish Taliban: “God will punish you!”

Contemplating those early years, when he loved me despite my Sabbath transgressions and punitive silences, fills me with the impossible urge to go back and inscribe a new narrative over that part of the tape. In my fantasy, I find the unspoiled, tender pieces of myself and brush them off.

As young men in the late-1950s, before Aryeh made a life for himself in California, and a name for himself in Oregon, we spoke of Ingmar Bergman’s films and Franz Kafka’s books and the long red shadow that followed Jews across time. Even then, our problem was we could only talk about large things. Large things external to ourselves.

We’d speak of Jews and suffering, but never of brothers and suffering. The suffering of the younger brother buried alive in his jacket of love by the older, the suffering of the older brother whose silences tied him tight and walked off.

At his memorial, people came up to me to tell me how Reb Aryeh comforted them when a loved one died, or sang them out of depression. The local imam shook my hand and said, “Your brother was able to listen to Muslims without being judgmental. We could talk deeply about peace in the Middle East because there was peace between us.”

It saddens me not to have known that person. But I do know something of his lonely, edgy journey to become that person.

During the 1960s, Aryeh ingested, snorted, injected every narcotic he could get his hands on. He did drugs in the morning, in the afternoon, “for midnight snack.”

“Thanks to Lenny (his given name),” our mother said, “I know that speed is mescaline, and weed is marijuana. I am so well-educated.”

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Once, on LSD, he appeared at the home of our parents, wild-eyed and flying. They recoiled in terror. But in quieter moments he would say to me, shaking his head of thick curly brown hair, “I feel like the donkey chasing the carrot, and the carrot is always beyond my reach.”

At some point during Aryeh’s second marriage he paid a visit to Shlomo Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. He may not have been looking for anything consciously when he went in, but what he found was the companionably ungainly shape of a spiritually turned-on Jewish community. Many, like himself, had been spat out of the crazed, illuminated tunnel of the drug-driven. Something in the old yeshiva bocher clicked. Roots were reawakened. He discovered a hidden vocation to teach. He delighted in the ecstatic fruit of Jewish prayer.

Reading Roger Rosenblatt’s Kayak Morning the other day, I came across these words of Philo that made me think of Aryeh with the bruised, dangling love I feel towards no one else: Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden. 


Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer.