February 25, 2020

Yitzi’s light

I needed some good ideas for a talk I was preparing on the parsha of the week, so I asked my friend Yitzi Hurwitz if he had anything. I’m a big fan of his blog, where he weighs in every week with his unique insights on the Torah portion.

He hadn’t yet written his column for this week, so he pulled out last year’s column on Tazria and Metzorah and we discussed it.

This is the part that stood out for me:

“The real question is, what do you see when you meet a Metzorah? Do you focus on the ailment (a biblical-era type of leprosy), or on the possibility to reenter? How does the Metzorah view himself? Does he see himself as an outcast?  Or as a person who was granted the opportunity and the time to search his ways and refine himself to have a more meaningful existence upon reentry?”

One reason it stood out is because Yitzi is living that very message.

You see, Yitzi has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He can’t move his body. He can only move his eyes. He communicates by pointing his eyes at individual letters on a specially designed computer screen with eye-tracking software. It’s slow and painstaking, but it hasn’t stopped him from writing and sharing his words of wisdom with a growing audience.

Yitzi sees himself neither as an outcast nor a victim.

When I visited him last Wednesday night at his home in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, I could tell from the sparkle in his eyes that he was very happy to see me. These days, that is how Yitzi physically conveys his joy— through the sparkle in his eyes.

From that standpoint, nothing much has changed. Yitzi has always been a human joy machine. If you’ve been reading his blog over the past few years, you'll know that he didn’t allow his physical deterioration to undermine his love of life, of Torah, of his family, of the Jewish people, of humanity, of music, of laughter and of his calling to share his good vibes.

It’s just that now, it’s more difficult to see these good vibes. Whereas he used to be known for his dancing and singing while running for many years the Chabad of Temecula as the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissary, today his good vibes are transmitted through his words and his sparkling eyes.

For many people, that is more than enough.

I heard from one of his close friends that when one of his daughters feels a little down, she comes into his room and he tells her a joke to spark her up.

It must be working, because the vibe in his house felt pretty upbeat when I was there. At one point, one of his teenage sons came into the room to play a Chassidic niggun he just learned on his new guitar.

Yitzi and his wife Dina have seven children, ages 9 to 19, two of whom are away at school. Dina is the great love of his life, and Yitzi is the great love of her life.

Dina keeps everything going. She feels his energy. She can read his eyes, his mind and his mood. They have their own shorthand. When Yitzi typed out the word “Torah”—a voice software makes his words audible—she immediately knew he wanted her to tell me the story of how they got the little holy Torah that graces his room and faces his bed. When he typed out “hold,” she told me he wanted me to hold it—which I did.

That little Torah lies diagonal from the medical tubes that surround him. They both never leave him. They both provide 24-hour care. He has a nurse or his wife next to him at all times to manage the feeding and breathing tubes. And his beloved Torah is always there to remind him of his life’s purpose.

His room is rarely empty of visitors. Friends from the Yeshiva next door come in and out during the day to study Torah with him. On Shabbat, his family moves the table into his room and go through all the rituals in his presence. Feeling the family vibes of Shabbat nourishes him. He doesn’t use his miraculous digital machine on Shabbat, but they have found a Shabbat-friendly device– albeit much slower—to help him communicate.

He has an extensive support system, mostly from the Jewish world and his Chabad community. But because he has significant medical expenses (above what is covered by private and government insurance), not to mention his large family's living expenses, Yitzi and his family can use all the help they can get.

Hopefully, their support network will grow now that one of Yitzi's songs has gone viral on the Internet.

Yitzi wrote the song in 2008 and recorded it on his iPhone. A few months ago, his friend Chaim Marcus decided to gather some top Jewish voices and musicians from around the world to perform the song on a video. In just the first week, the video has over 300,000 views.

The title of the song is, “Shine a little light.”

It's also the story of Yitzi’s life.

To read Yitzi's blog, go to yitzihurwitz.blogspot.com.

To support the Hurwitz Family Fund, visit hurwitzfamilyfund.com.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.