In Ernest Hemingway’s Havana days, several young men from New York approached the gatehouse of the great writer’s home, telling the guard: “Will you please tell Mr. Hemingway that three rabbis are here to see him?”
Hemingway was at home with Mary, his wife, and the American ambassador to Cuba, and he was not expecting rabbis, and they were barely rabbis at that, still dewy from their recent ordination at Yeshiva University. Hemingway let them in, for the sport, if nothing else.
One of the rabbis was Benjamin Blech, an English major. Blech remembers, “He started to talk to us, to see if it was worth his while. After about 10 minutes it was as if a cloud lifted and he said, ‘OK, I’ll talk to you guys.’”
Blech recalled Hemingway saying, “I’m not a religious man, but I’ve tried to learn something about religion, and the one I thought the most rational, was Judaism.” Other religions, said Hemingway, were too much about the afterlife and rejecting the world, while Judaism, he said, “is the only religion I know that is primarily concerned with life rather than death.”
“Mr. Hemingway,” said Rabbi Blech, “the Kohanim, the priests, who were the original rabbis, you might say, were not allowed to come into contact with the dead.”
Hemingway thought that was great, remembered Rabbi Blech, “and gave me a memento, ‘to my friend Ben,’ as he did to the other two guys.”
More than 50 years later, in 2010, Rabbi Blech, in his mid-70s, came into contact with death. He went to a doctor who told him, “I need you to call in your wife,” and so his wife Elaine came in and they looked at each other. After all, doctors just don’t call in wives. He remembered looking at her for the first time “across a crowded room,” in Camp Maple Lake, in the mountains. Despite their years, they still had the aura of a summer couple.
She took out a pen and pad, to write down the doctor’s words, and the color of the ink — so blue — was branded upon her memory, as were the doctor’s words, “serious illness… no cure.” Her husband was going to die, “cardiac amyloidosis” — how do you spell that, doctor? — the heart’s muscle becomes hard, and then harder, until pumping blood becomes impossible…
She knew she had to be strong and say all the right things. “I put my hand on his shoulder,” said Elaine. “Benny, you do mitzvos every single day. You teach Torah…. Hashem can’t take you,” though God has been taking good people since Genesis.
“I couldn’t function without him for a day, for whatever reason,” says Elaine. “Was I scared? Of course I was scared.”
At home, Rabbi Blech looked up what he called his “verdict” online, “something you shouldn’t do,” he says. He had six months to live. He was too old for a transplant. A cure didn’t exist.
However, the God of hearts, who hardened Pharaoh’s heart poetically, and the rabbi’s heart medically, made His point, mysterious as it was, and then time stood still.
As the sun halted in the heavens, stopping the dying of the day to give Joshua the time he needed, Rabbi Blech’s six months have turned into 28.
Oh, he’s still dying, all right, but he was given a gift. The gift is that he knows he’s dying; most of the dying don’t. To Rabbi Blech, now 78, the world looks spectacular, and he looks terrific, too. If you see him on the Upper West Side, where he lives, don’t expect to see a dying man but a man who glows with revelation. As columnist David Suissa of the Jewish Journal said of his friend, the rabbi “has the face of a bright-eyed child who sees his first rainbow. He seems to always be amazed.” He seems to punctuate every sentence with a smile. Attitude can be an antidote, at least for a while.
“Not only do I say Tehillim (psalms),” says the rabbi, “but a lot of people say Tehillim for me.” His Jewish name is Binyamin ben-Gittle.
His davening has entered a new elevation, verses he’s been saying for almost 80 years have become almost three-dimensional, “Repha’enu Hashem v’nay’raphae,” in the Shmoneh Esrei, “Heal us, Hashem, then we will be healed. Save us, then we will be saved… Bring complete recovery… faithful and compassionate Healer. Blessed are you, Hashem, Who heals the sick of His people, Israel.”
Rabbi Blech says, “I don’t want people to meet me after this article and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were dying.’ Of course, I’ll be dying because everybody dies. However, there’s a lot that I’ve learnt from this confrontation.” The more limited his days, the more appreciated. To the extent that his soul contains the Divine essence, to that extent, as it says in the old bluegrass song, “the soul of man never dies.”
Nevertheless, what should he do with limited time in the here and now? “The more I thought about it,” says the rabbi, “I love what I’m doing, teaching Torah,” Talmud, and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University. “I write, and I want to write more.” He’s working on a book about spiritual encounters with death.
He’s the author of 13 books, about everything from the Sistine Chapel to three books in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide” series (on Judaism, Jewish history and culture, and Yiddish). In 2003, he wrote a book about the stock market, “Taking Stock: A Spiritual Guide to Rising Above Life’s Financial Ups and Downs.”
“I took what I had, 50 grand,” says Rabbi Blech, “and I turned it into $7 million bucks. I fooled myself into thinking I was a genius, and then I lost almost all of it.” The New York Times Sunday business section devoted a full page to his financial adventure, headlined, “Making A Fortune, Losing It, and Moving On.” The Times wrote, “Spend time with Rabbi Blech, and you quickly realize he practices what he preaches. His tale is woeful, but his eyes keep twinkling and his humor keeps flowing.”
A Young Israel rabbi for nearly 40 years before he retired, he told the Times, back then, tongue in cheek, “If I needed money I could always preside over another funeral.”
“But his ego was shattered,” added the Times, “and he was embarrassed to look his wife in the eye.”
No, he can no longer simply preside over another funeral. For nearly 40 years this 10th-generation rabbi counseled congregants about death, and now he counsels himself.
In his Upper West Side apartment, he and his wife look at each other, as if across a crowded room, filled with love and surely an angel or two. “B’li ayin harah [If all will be well],” she says, “we’ll be married 55 years this October.”