Friday, October 23, 2009

Meeting A Legend: Elie Wiesel

Earlier this week, my professor, the incredibly talented Peninnah Schram, wrote me to inquire as to whether I was in New York. Elie Wiesel was going to be speaking at the 92nd Street Y and his topic was Satan. As I, with the help of my best friend, had written my Honors Thesis on Satan and Elijah (Professor Schram had been my mentor), she thought I might enjoy going. What was more, she offered to personally introduce me to Elie Wiesel himself after the lecture. But the dream is not yet over. Despite the fact that the ticket was priced at $40, my professor took it upon herself to ensure that I received a complimentary ticket. All I had to do was show up.

Thanks to Josh Levy, who told me that the 1 train connected to the M96 bus, that is exactly what I did. I walked into the concert hall and sat down upon a plush seat, looking up at the stage. A mahogany writing desk stood there, a microphone placed discreetly upon it. The velvet curtains behind it were blue. I was thrilled, utterly excited. An opportunity like this! To meet the legendary Elie Wiesel, the man whose books are fraught with passion, sadness, tragedy and triumph, to see him face to face! I could not believe this was happening.

Wiesel is an absolutely brilliant speaker. His vocal control is unparalleled. He is dignified, regal, noble, his English accented but pure. He pauses, takes breaths, reads with different inflections and tones. The audience was spellbound. And what an audience! It mattered not whether you were religious or the farthest thing from it; all gathered together to hear him speak. He began by mentioning Satan within all sacred texts- Torah, New Testament, Koran and onward. He spun together obscure midrashim with more common Talmudic tractates, dancing through our texts and weaving them together in his own beautiful way. He engaged folklore, the literary greats (Milton especially); he spoke of imagination and its beauty. He also has a sense of humor. He explained, at the outset, that he knew we were wondering why Satan- and why at the Y? He answered, "It was either speak about me- or speak about him!" And humble as he is, he preferred to speak of Satan. His lecture was not aimed at offering answers, but, as always, at speaking the questions that are reflected throughout his life. He told over a Hasidic tale about the soul of the Baal Shem Tov. When this soul was ready to descend, Satan approached God and argued that should this man reign unopposed, the Messiah would come. Did God really wish for this? God therefore permitted Satan control of another soul which would reflect the exact same powers as that of the Baal Shem Tov; no one would be able to tell these two apart. Wiesel stated that he found this story terrifying. Can it be, he questioned, that we could not really distinguish who is who?

He cited from his book The Trial of God (I have read it; here is an excerpt) and explained that he believes "this play is actually there only to oppose fanaticism." Poignantly, he stated, "I know it hurts. The questions hurt- but how can one not speak up? One is allowed to question God. One may say, 'What are you doing?'" He spoke with such tenderness, the way a child would question a parent- not in anger, but in total bewilderment.

He cautioned us to "beware those who unconditionally justify someone else's suffering." He warned that Satan is to be found in the heart of the man who turns away, who has no problems, who refuses to feel for another. He stated, "I favor the art of questioning. The question of the believer is thankful (faithful?), of the non-believer, absurd." He closed the speech by stating, "Whoever tries to appeal to what is evil or ugly in the other, that person can be neither my ally or my friend." Then, with powerful self-possession, he rose from the stage.

We went to greet him in the adjoining Art Gallery. I had a copy of Messengers of God, one of my favorite books on Tanakh, that I hoped for him to sign. A kind woman spoke to me; she told me that Elie Wiesel loves students and that I should give him a copy of my Honors Thesis. He walked into the room, a sweet, slight man in a beautiful suit. It was impossible to imagine such a noble and dignified man being forced to live in filth in the camps, forced to bear witness to the dead. He smiled at everyone, graciously allowed us all to take pictures with him, autographed our books and accepted my thesis with pleasure. Professor Schram introduced me to him; he asked her whether she had enjoyed my thesis and she offered some statements that won't bear repeating but let's just say they were very sweet. He stated, "I will certainly read it" and smiled. I cannot imagine how busy Elie Wiesel must be and it confounds the mind that he could treat a mere student with such sensitivity but, assuming he does have the time to read it, I confess myself to be the most thrilled individual in existence right now.

Before he was ushered away by his attendants and members of the NYPD, I approached him once more and stated, "My grandparents are Holocaust survivors and they always taught me to ask anyone who was a survivor for brachot." He smiled at me. "I do not give brachot," he stated, "I am not a Rabbi." Seeing I looked a little disappointed, he added, "But you have my brachot anyway." I smiled.

Elie Wiesel is not merely a Holocaust survivor, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the founder of an organization to promote ethics and humanity throughout the world, an eloquent speaker. He is also, and perhaps most importantly, a mensch. He was gracious and charming and sweet. I wish it had been the proper forum for me to tell him of how much his works have meant to me, of how deeply they resonate, rather than to simply ask him for what he could do for me- inscribe my book, take a picture with me, read my thesis, perhaps give me a bracha. I hope that despite the lack of words, he nonetheless understood that- the reason we all want to be close to him is not because of his fame but because of who he is. We are a little awed by him; to see him is to witness incalculable strength.

I'm still a little overwhelmed. He asked me my name. I said, "Olivia- oh, or Chana." I had not thought he would do that; I had just assumed he would sign my book with his name. But no- the inscription reads, "To Olivia- Elie Wiesel." I hold a treasure in my hand. I met Elie Wiesel. Not only did I meet him, but he is, please God, going to read my writing! Can you imagine anything more incredible than that? I know that I cannot. Sometimes the world we live in is surreal- not because of its darkness, but because of the passion, the sweetness, the goodness that lights it, having been offered up by the men of truth. To have the honor to meet such a man is indescribable. I'm so happy Professor Schram thought to invite me.


Toviah said...

That is awesome

OliveOil said...

At what point did you drop your anonymity?

Anonymous said...

Good for you!!!

Chana said...

Toviah and Anon,
Yes, it was fantastic!

I'm pretty sure that happened when I came to Stern. But it was probably exacerbated when I worked on 'The Observer' last year.

slefkovi said...

I loved reading about this. I heard Elie Wiesel at the Y a few years ago and I was deeply moved. It's amazing that you got to meet him!

Northern Light said...

You write so charmingly, your excitement is contageous!