After disaster, a thumbs up to life

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-22-10

I just returned from the strangest, most terrifying planet I ever visited.  It is a sterile, antiseptic version of hell, with smiling nurses and grim doctors doing the work of superheroes 24/7 under a florescent glow of bright lights. The epidemic cheeriness masks the patients’ and families’ misery, as they languish at the nightmarish intersection where Anguish Alley meets Uncertainty Boulevard.  It is a place of long vigils and short tubes, of unfamiliar words like “infarction” and bizarre acronyms like ICU and DNR, of unhappy choices and no free lunches.

My father apparently suffered a dizzy spell while on a fold-out ladder to his attic, and fell backwards eight feet or so onto the concrete garage floor. He underwent emergency brain surgery and is now recovering from a stroke, a fractured skull, a fractured pelvis, two broken ribs and possible brain damage. Seeing my magnificent father crumpled and limp, tethered by tubes and imprisoned in his own ailing body was the shock of my life.

In The Doctor and the Soul the psychiatrist Victor E. Frankl, wrote: “life can reach nobility even as it founders on the rocks.” A Holocaust survivor, Frankl never sought suffering, but he learned that suffering tests our values – offering opportunities to fulfill them.

My parents have had a remarkable 56-year run of success together, parenting three sons, welcoming our respective wives as three daughters, delighting in 11 grandchildren, collecting many friends – blessed with good health.  The values they instilled in us are now being tested by intense agony and unfathomable limits.

Growing up, evolving from Bernard Troyansky the youngest son of simple Jewish immigrants in New York during the Great Depression to Dov Troy, national mazkir – president – of the Zionist movement Betar, my father internalized Zeev Jabotinsky’s Zionist ethos. Jabotinsky preached about Hadar, Hebrew for “shine” or “glow,” nurturing nobility in the mundane, treating oneself, individuals and the world, with respect. My father did not talk about Hadar, but he lives it, in his dignified mien, in the particular ways he elevated life by ordering life.

By the time we Troy boys met my father, he had synthesized this Jabotinskyite chivalry with the intense rationalism tempered with a drop of Hasidic joy he learned from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in the 1950s. My father preached: “Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah,”  – a cheesy poster broadcasting that message hung on my wall, awash in Seventies-style blues and aquamarines. The phrase teaches that living properly is the way into Torah and knowledge, or, as my mother demanded: “be a mensch!”

As striving middle class parents, my parents pushed us to achieve – they asked where the two points went when we got 98s on tests. Still, being good was more important than achieving great things.  Instilling within us a sense of history, a commitment to the Jewish people, an engagement with the world of ideas, my father honed his “Derech Eretz” message. He taught that a life lacking a greater mission, a deeper meaning, broader engagement is missing something; a life without friends or family misses everything.

My father also expressed his Jabotinskyite-JTS synthesis in embracing “Hiddur Mitzvah,” beautifying commandments. My father loves Judaica. He loves his tallit clips. He loves the Troy Chalice, the antique kiddish cup he bought to mark family occasions. But he also beautifies the commandments rationally, JTS style, by sitting in synagogue with a dictionary, exploring etymologies, deciphering text after text.

Teaching during the day in a New York public high school then working in an afternoon Hebrew school for decades, my father bonded with certain students yet endured many frustrations. “I lived through a revolution,” he explained.  Respect for teaching, a noble profession in the 1950s so declined by the 1980s that when a student sucker-punched him, the principal did not want to press charges.

Fortunately, my parents experienced a most happy retirement.  Now, they have followed a third guiding phrase, Deuteronomy’s imperative:  “uvcharta bachayim,” choose life. My father chose life as he sipped his beloved wines – one disciplined glass a day. He chose life when my mother and he crisscrossed the world, never missing a simcha, a celebration.  He chose life with his nightly Royal Canadian Air Force Exercises.  And he chose life as he continued collecting friends, catering to my mother, devouring articles and books, reveling in his sons, daughters, and grandchildren.

His life circumstances – and ours – changed instantaneously, but the values and core commitments persist. He never wallowed in Jewish suffering but believes in Jewish redemption. He always emphasized life in Israel not the Holocaust’s dead, teaching us Hebrew, the living language, rejecting Yiddush, the martyrs’ stilled voice.

Now, we Troys must redirect much of the energy we focused outward for so long, engaging the world, and channel it inward, concentrating our love, our good thoughts, our devotion, our patience, on this one man, lying in this one depressing, lifesaving room, who means the world to us.

Since the accident we have become scavengers of hope, feeding off morsels of optimism. We rejoiced when a nurse taught him to give one thumbs up for “yes,” two fingers for “no.” My mother then asked him, “do you want extraordinary measures, to help get better.” He struggled, then, characteristically, gave an enthusiastic, tough, determined, thumbs up.

Just as we greedily hoped our parents’ good fortune would continue indefinitely, we hope the Western and Jewish healing blessings will be fulfilled. We wish him a speedy recovery. And we wish him, Dov Moshe ben Penina, a refuah shlemah, a full and fulfilling recovery, making him whole again, with the dignity of Hadar, free to pursue “Derech eretz” – good living — as well as “torah” – knowledge. Not just choosing life, but giving his enthusiastic, determined thumbs up, l’chaim.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

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