On the day that Jeff died, I drove to his childhood home. He had not lived there for 30 years, but I remembered the address—2907 W. Gregory—and it was almost as if my car took me there guided by some sort of mind-reading cruise control. I half-expected to see Jeff’s rusty ’69 Subaru in front of the house and Jeff shooting hoops in the driveway.
How many hours did we spend together, going one-on-one, practicing our crossover dribbles, shooting jumpers? We’d play without regard to the clock until, drenched in sweat, the dusk making it hard to see, we would sit on the stoop in front of the house and talk, sometimes until the street lights came on. And, then, we’d pick up the ball and play some more.
As I sat there on that awful day, wondering how I was supposed to mourn my best friend of 35 years, my sadness turned to rage. I couldn’t remember what we used to talk about nor could I summon Jeff’s voice. I shook the steering wheel hard enough to rock the car.
And, then, this silly line from Jabberwocky popped into my head and I laughed out loud: “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.”
Obsessed with poetry from the age of 12, I had this annoying habit of quoting passages from poems I was reading. Once, I recited that exact line to Jeff who thought it, and poetry for that matter, stupid. And, in that moment, I was transported back 30 years and heard his familiar voice assure me that I would “never…ever…ever” have a girlfriend. It was the second “ever”—ironically poetic—that made me laugh.
Jeff and I became friends during the first semester of our freshman year at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy. He called me one night around 10 o’clock and asked me to help him write a paper. “Sure,” I said, “When’s it due?” “Tomorrow,” he replied, “But not until 3rd period so we have plenty of time.” And he said this without an ounce of guile or sarcasm and with such great charm, that I wrote the paper for him.
Jeff, like anyone, experienced some difficulties in his life. He graduated from college but struggled to make a living. He married, but it was a terrible match and he spent years ensnared in costly and vicious divorce proceedings.
However, his life wasn’t all bad. He had two children, whom he adored, and after his divorce was finalized, he met a nice woman and they fell in love. At age 44, working full-time as a paralegal, he decided to go to law school at night and after five years was waiting for his test results from the California Bar.
And then he died.
Jeff loved to quote famous Jewish stories or aphorisms. He was partial, in particular, to Pirkei Avoth.
He appreciated the relatively simple language of the Mishna and the big ideas on virtually every page. This wasn’t endless, mind-numbing Talmudic sophistry about the consequences of, say, an ox goring another ox. There were, after all, few oxen roaming the streets of Budlong Woods in those days. No, Pirkei Avoth was about how a Jew ought to carry himself in the world. It spoke to Jeff’s innate goodness, to his spirit, to his Jewish soul.
I remember he liked to quote the following sayings:
- In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
- He who acquires a good name has, indeed, acquired something.
- You’re not expected to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
But his favorite passage of all was: “Ben Zoma said, And who is the wealthy one? He who is content with his lot.”
As much as Jeff aspired to be such a man, he sometimes wavered. We lived in different cities for 20 years but talked on the phone 4 or 5 times a week and I remember one call, a couple days before he died, in which he challenged me: “Why doesn’t God perform flashy miracles anymore? Has he lost his touch? Let God appear before me in a burning bush that does not consume itself!”
Annoyed by his theatrics but sensing his pain, I felt no need to engage him in debate. Instead, I tried to lighten the mood with a familiar joke each of us had offered to the other, countless times:
“What would Ben Zoma say?”
This time, Jeff’s answer scared me. He quoted the famous Talmudic legend of the 4 men who enter Paradise: Ben Azzai, Elisha Ben Abuya, Rabbi Akiva and our old friend Ben Zoma. Ben Azzai died, Elisha Ben Abuya became a heretic and Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed. But Ben Zoma, Jeff reminded me, went insane.
Uncomfortable and unsure how to respond, I quickly changed the subject and, soon, we said goodbye.
It was the last time we spoke.
I sat in my car for a long time, but before I drove home, I remembered the night before Jeff left for college. He was going to Yeshiva University and I was staying in Chicago. We had been playing ball in the driveway under the street lights, not keeping score. As long as we kept playing, we didn’t have to talk. As long as we kept playing, we could pretend this wasn’t the last time we’d ever be together like this.
It was close to midnight and Jeff asked if I still had the key to the Academy that I was given when I was elected president of the student council. When I showed him the key, which I had kept as a souvenir, never expecting to use it again, he got this look on his face that told me our evening was not yet over.
It was a 10-minute drive to the school. It’s unthinkable now, but in 1977 there was no alarm system or security detail, so we let ourselves in and raced to the gym. This was the place we were most at ease in the world; a sanctuary from our fears and doubts, from troubles at home or the pain of an unrequited love, the place where we pushed our bodies to grow strong and swift, where we took pride in the uniform, where we learned that, in this world, nothing worthwhile is given and that sacrifice doesn’t necessarily assure success. This was the place where we discovered that victory is never as rewarding as you think it will be, nor is loss as devastating. This was the sacred place where cheerleaders called out our names: “Jeffrey, Jeffrey, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, David can!”
We tried to calculate the number of hours each of us had spent there in practice and games and agreed it was far more than either of us had spent studying. But, this gym was no less a classroom than the others throughout the building, where we plodded through Talmud, Tanach, Hebrew grammar, math and science; subjects we tolerated during the interminable days because, at 5:30, when school let out, we were rewarded with the ball and the hoop.
We couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lights but our eyes soon adjusted to the dark. We found a couple of basketballs in the corner of the gym and began a game of H-O-R-S-E, talking only when describing the shot the other had to take: “Close your eyes. Half-court. Off the backboard.” We were relieved to concentrate on the game; to sublimate our emotions, which we couldn’t bear to discuss.
After a while, we decided to see whether we could find any food in the cafeteria. It was locked but Jeff noticed a large, white, bakery box in a garbage bin outside. He opened it to find a dozen giant sugar cookies, each one heavy with a mound of buttercream frosting. It didn’t matter that they were probably stale. It didn’t matter that our mothers would pass out if they knew their sons were eating pastries from a dumpster.
Jeff carried the box into the gym and I followed him. It was after 2:00am and we were exhausted. He placed the box at center court and laid down on his back next to it, propping his head up with the one of basketballs. I laid down on the other side of the box and did the same. Then, we stared into the darkness and ate until the box was empty; the buttercream frosting melting against the roofs of our mouths.
And, then, Jeff said, “It’s going to get hard now, isn’t it?” As close as we were, I didn’t realize, until that moment, that he was terrified of the future. I didn’t know what to say. Without thinking, I stammered a meaningless platitude, “It’s going to be great; you’re going to be great.”
He didn’t respond right away. The exhaustion, the emotion, the 3,000 calories he had just ingested, must have weighed on him. Or, maybe Jeff knew things wouldn’t be great at all.
I looked at him and could see he was struggling to stay composed. I was struggling myself. That either of us would cry in front of the other, at age 18, was simply not a possibility. And after a long while, without an ounce of guile or sarcasm, and in recognition of the enormity of the moment, he said:
“You know, Dave…this…you should really write a poem about this.”
And more than 30 years later, hardly able to believe he was gone, I did.
In my dream I hear the drum of balls
And am transported back across the years.
So simple then were my life’s protocols
And in the dream a memory reappears.
We sprint, we shoot, we run our drills,
Our sweat drips to the floor,
Hoping that the work instills,
The strength to fly, to soar.
A teammate passes the leather sphere,
I squeeze its pebbled grain to get a grip,
And all distractions round me disappear,
Amidst the humble joy of fellowship.
Boys fool themselves that they can fly.
Men know the truth and all such truth implies.
What else but a sonnet, for this boy that I loved?
When I consider the life and death of my friend, trying to make sense of it all, I always return to Ben Zoma.
Who is the wealthy man? He who is content with his lot.
For a long time, I thought Jeff found these words comforting because he never made much money. But, eventually, I realized I couldn’t be more wrong. He understood exactly what Ben Zoma meant, what so many of us fail to grasp; a person’s net worth has nothing to do with their self-worth.
Jeff understood the oft-quoted modern-day aphorism, whose language, syntax and substance sounds as if taken directly from Pirkei Avoth: “Every day is a bank account. Time is the currency. No one is rich. No one is poor. We each have 24 hours.”
Though the world had bruised him, Jeff was content. He knew his life had value.
And what was his value?
- He strived to be a man.
- He did what he could to acquire a good name.
- And, no matter how hard or endless the work, he never gave up.
And what of miracles, what of that burning bush? A few years ago, I came across a commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin on the miracles of the exodus from Egypt: “Just as there are no answers for the heretic,” he wrote, “there are no miracles for the skeptic.”
And I thought of Jeff. As sad as he was near the end of his life, as abandoned as he may have felt, I hope he understood that the burning bush is no more miraculous than the bush itself. That the fire that burns but does not consume, smolders deep within, even, the skeptic.
No miracle could’ve saved Ben Azzai from an early death, Elisha Ben Abuya from his apostasy, or Ben Zoma from losing his mind. And Rabbi Akiva needed no miracles to substantiate his faith. Each of them were on their own, personal journeys, expressing their respective free wills, in accordance with God’s intention.
God owes us no blindfolded-half-court shots, no fancy parlor tricks. And though the spirits of each of these four seekers of paradise resided deep within the reservoir of his doubts, I think Jeff knew that paradise isn’t a physical place or degree of material comfort; but a state of mind that we can enter at any time.
I want to believe that, even in his darkest moments, Jeff understood that life, life itself, is the miracle; precious and finite, sweet as buttercream frosting.