Learn­ing from a leg­end

Ariel Burger de­tails his own jour­ney and his ex­pe­ri­ences work­ing for Elie Wiesel in a new mem­oir

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • ELAINE MARGOLIN

Ariel Burger was drown­ing in the sad­ness of his own life when Elie Wiesel hired him as a teach­ing as­sis­tant and doc­toral stu­dent at Bos­ton Univer­sity. Burger was in his 30s, mar­ried and a fa­ther of three and a rabbi and ed­u­ca­tor, and had been floun­der­ing for longer than he cared to re­mem­ber. He would re­main with Wiesel for many years, look­ing for some­thing to lib­er­ate him from his own demons. His jour­ney is chron­i­cled in Burger’s new book, Wit­ness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Class­room.

Burger had a trou­bled child­hood and found him­self split be­tween his ex-hip­pie fa­ther and his more ob­ser­vant mother, and at­tended ul­tra-Or­tho­dox schools in Bos­ton. He re­calls hav­ing se­ri­ous doubts about re­li­gious life, think­ing much of it was “morally bank­rupt, noth­ing more than a pose, but still felt ret­i­cent to aban­don it.” He asked him­self “How could such rich teach­ings fail to trans­form peo­ple into agents of good­ness? Was it pos­si­ble for a spir­i­tual com­mu­nity to nur­ture in­di­vid­u­al­ity rather than con­form­ity?” These doubts lin­gered.

Burger was se­duced by the gi­ant shadow Wiesel cast – the con­trolled sad­ness and regal bear­ing, the sense of purpose that fu­eled Wiesel’s life, the aura of saint­li­ness and Wiesel’s abil­ity as a teacher to awaken his stu­dent’s eth­i­cal and moral pow­ers.

Wiesel seemed to pos­sess all that Burger longed for – the pos­si­bil­ity of an im­por­tant and mean­ing­ful life. He had read Night and knew that Wiesel had lost his par­ents and sis­ter at Auschwitz where Wiesel was im­pris­oned at 16. He knew his pro­fes­sor was mar­ried and had a son, and that he worked tire­lessly to use his pub­lic face as a sur­vivor of the Holo­caust to bring at­ten­tion to hor­rors be­ing per­pe­trated around the world. Pres­i­dents lis­tened to him. World lead­ers gave him an au­di­ence. Ev­ery­one knew about his work for Soviet Jews. He had won the No­bel Peace Prize for his ef­forts.

But Burger was most in­ter­ested in how Wiesel had re­turned to faith, a “wounded faith,” as he de­scribed it, af­ter the war. It was the strug­gle be­tween faith and doubt that trou­bled Burger. We sense he be­lieved Wiesel had an­swers, but when he writes about Wiesel’s in­ter­ac­tions in the class­room, he seems over­whelmed and cow­ered, strain­ing to see in the pro­fes­sor su­per­hu­man traits of re­straint and tol­er­ance and love. He has trou­ble imag­in­ing what Wiesel can’t see, but we can.

In their pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, there is a cryptic qual­ity to their in­ter­ac­tions that Burger in­ter­prets as his men­tor giv­ing him the space he needs to find his own an­swers. He writes that he be­lieves that Wiesel un­der­stood in­tu­itively that he must serve as Burger’s re­cep­ta­cle; a safe haven where he can share his thoughts and doubts.

But the reader senses that Wiesel was ill at ease in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions and caught off guard by Burger’s need­i­ness. When Burger men­tions the se­ri­ous prob­lems go­ing on in his fail­ing mar­riage and other pres­sures, Wiesel seems to re­sort to ba­nal­i­ties. But like so many of us who de­lude our­selves into think­ing that we can only heal through in­ter­ven­tion from an out­side source, Burger seems not to see his pro­fes­sor’s lim­i­ta­tions and rein­ter­prets them as quiet wis­dom and en­cour­age­ment. There is a wall around Wiesel that the reader senses, even if Burger can’t. A cer­tain dis­tance from those around him.

How could there not be? To look at Wiesel’s hag­gard face was to know that what­ever re­cov­ery he had man­aged to ac­com­plish was short-cir­cuited by the mag­ni­tude of his loss. Crit­ics who lam­basted Wiesel for his sub­mis­sive bear­ing to the gen­tile world at large seemed to cru­elly ig­nore the mag­ni­tude of his grief and the mir­a­cle of his re­cov­ery, with what­ever lim­i­ta­tions that ac­com­pa­nied it.

Burger seems ig­nited from within to strug­gle mas­ter­fully for a life he can rel­ish. In this com­pelling book, his nar­ra­tive di­gres­sions away from Wiesel’s class­room into his own au­to­bi­og­ra­phy soar with a won­drous sense of can­dor and au­then­tic­ity that is miss­ing from the rest of the book. He is a nat­u­ral writer; a man filled with heartache he is able to share and thwarted de­sires he is de­ter­mined to break free from. It is not an easy jour­ney. We learn about his love of paint­ing and mu­sic and how he aban­doned these pas­sions in his 20s when he went to at­tend an ul­tra-Or­tho­dox yeshiva in Is­rael where he al­most lost his mind.

He had in­tended to “dis­ap­pear in con­tem­pla­tive wa­ters, to pray until I lost my­self, to fi­nally let go of self-con­scious­ness,” but in­stead be­came se­ri­ously sick­ened by toxic strains that were run­ning through the yeshiva that left him dan­ger­ously fa­tigued and on the verge of col­lapse. He re­turned to the United States, and his po­si­tion with Wiesel, with his fam­ily in tow.

Burger be­gins paint­ing again with lav­ish col­ors and starts psy­chother­apy, hop­ing to make sense of his con­fu­sions. He starts to ex­hibit some of his work. He spends mean­ing­ful time re­con­nect­ing with his three chil­dren, who ap­pre­ci­ate the new sparkle in their fa­ther’s eyes. His mar­riage was still floun­der­ing. But God was still present for him, al­though their in­ter­ac­tion had changed dra­mat­i­cally. Burger de­scribes it eu­phor­i­cally as a sort of con­ver­sa­tion in­ter­rupted by tra­di­tional prayers. He feels his body re­lax and a new free­dom and gen­uine­ness take hold that feel closer to prayer than any­thing he ex­pe­ri­enced in any of his yeshivot. He al­lows him­self to ex­press anger at God, to say what he is re­ally think­ing, even free to be flawed.

One senses there is still so much more Burger has and needs to tell us. His story is not yet fin­ished. We ea­gerly await his next project, when hope­fully he writes of his own ex­pe­ri­ences un­shack­led from the need to do so un­der any­one else’s um­brella.

(Chip East/Reuters)

ARIEL BURGER spent decades work­ing closely with No­bel lau­re­ate Elie Wiesel.

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