My Late Brother: Fisherman, Addict, Holy, Hawk

My brother hurt people. Sometimes deeply.

And more often than not, they were the people he loved most.

Of course we all do that, don’t we? Hurt people we love.

But addicts usually hurt more often, and deeper; those they love, as well as themselves.

My brother had a heart as lustrous as any that has ever beat, here on earth, and there in the heavens. Half the people he ever met swear he was their best friend, their brother, the one person to whom they could bare their soul knowing they would never be judged, always be accepted for who they were, and loved.

To know him was to adore him, to be in awe of him, and to gnash your teeth in utter frustration.

Harry didn’t just live in a small, hybrid cabin-house in the woods with his wife Leslie and daughter Zoe, he was the woods; and the horses and the owls and the raccoons, hawks, fish, turtle, cats, goats and deer. His was a spirit that encompassed everything, and everyone. Including many like you and I, and like strung-out Spanish Carlos. You know the guy. The one people step over on their way to wherever, who probably couldn’t even recall how he got to Harry’s couch. Harry’s was a life of radiant light, and tragic darkness. The world’s lost were his found.

Allow me to tell you a few stories. Some are about his unusual, holy exploits in this world, and some are about the ways in which, well, he seems to ignore the barriers between this world and the one beyond. Come to think of it, he never was into things like rules, barriers and the way things are supposed to work.

I’ll Begin with the Beyond — 

Over the years Harry has “visited” us in the guise of an eagle, owl, raccoon, striped hyena, homeless beggar and deer. I’m going to tell you about the deer.

When we lived in Baltimore, my Shabbat walk to and from Rabbi Goldberger’s shul included a shortcut through the woods. Once, on the way home, I was thinking about whether or not I should encourage an old friend of Harry’s to take a trip to Israel. I lifted my eye’s skyward and said, “Okay Harry, if you want me to encourage Jeff to go to Israel, give me a sign.” And then I started to laugh at myself. What was I expecting, that the clouds would suddenly take the shape of the Israeli flag? Then, just as I entered the woods, a huge deer jumped onto the path in front of me, stopped, turned, and just stared at me. I had walked that path hundreds of times. This was my first deer encounter. Harry’s Hebrew name is Herschel, which means deer. And another name for the land of Israel is eretz ha’tzi; literally, deer land.

* * *

A couple years ago, in the middle of the night, my sister Ann felt compelled to open her bedroom window and let the breeze blow in. A normal thing to do, accept when it’s the dead of winter, and a frigid wind is whipping the snow everywhere. She lay there in bed, feeling peaceful, with the cold wind blowing over her. About an hour later, her California raised husband woke up in what felt like an igloo. “Are you crazy?!”

How exactly was she to explain that Harry made her do it? Oh, that Harry, he did have a history of getting people in trouble. You see, from the time he was in high school, and throughout his life, Harry could often be found sleeping outside. Most summer nights on a hammock strung between two trees, or in his little tent when it was cold, bitter Lake Erie blizzard cold.

The morning after Ann’s hey-honey-wanna’-sleep-on-an-iceberg episode, she realized that on the Hebrew calendar, the date of Harry’s death was that very morning. Go figure.

* * *

Last week I felt like I needed a hug from Harry, so I put on an old shirt of his. A faded, 100% cotton, rust-colored Cabela’s long-sleeve Henley. I took a selfie and emailed it to Harry’s wife Leslie. All I wrote was, “I’m wearing a hug from Harry today.” Her reply: “Oh Shimster, I so remember this shirt. Harry always loved it. Funny, the day you chose to wear it was our anniversary. Thanks so much for the hug.” Hmm, their anniversary. I had no idea.

There are more, lot’s more, but …

And Now for This World —

A few weeks ago my son Yitzie was watching an episode of a reality show called Secret Millionaire. The undercover millionaire was involved with street kids that had serious drug problems. In the middle of the show, Yitzie broke down crying. “The last time I spent with Uncle Harry was during the summer before I left to study in Israel. That week will forever be in my mind and heart. One day, he gave me the keys to his car and said that he would tell me where to go. We drove down to the inner-city, parked the car, and went into a run down house that I would have never entered alone. The man inside was very sick. I think he was dying of AIDS, or way too many drugs, or both. We took this guy to a store and Harry filled a shopping cart with clothes, shoes and other stuff. Why? Because Uncle Harry was doing what he did for so many people, making this guy feel like he was the most important person in the world.”

* * *

Twenty-five years ago, there were very few Jews living in rural Solon, Ohio. When Harry met the Chabad rabbi that moved out there, he immediately did what he could to help. One year, before Sukkot, Harry bought a bunch of esrog and lulav sets. The esrog (citron) is a fragrant, yellow fruit that is central to the holiday of Sukkot. From time immemorial, Jews have gone to great lengths to find a beautiful esrog for the holiday. Harry took his supply to the rabbi and said, “These are for you to give away to people that have no idea it’s even Sukkot.” The rabbi was very moved, and then Harry asked for a favor. “Rabbi, please look over these esrogs and tell me which you consider to be the ugliest one.” The rabbi carefully examined each esrog and finally held one up and said, “Harry, this is the worst of the bunch.” “Good,” said Harry, “Please give the others to people that need them, and I’ll keep this one. Once you finish giving those away, this one will be the most beautiful one.”

That was Harry. He absolutely believed that the more you give, the more beautiful things become. And that’s what he struggled valiantly to do, to turn what others saw as ugliness into beauty. Often he succeeded, sometimes not. With others and himself.

* * *

Harry and Leslie lived on about twenty acres, nineteen were wooded. A deer migration trail runs through those woods. Do you know what deer hunters call a migration trail? Heaven.

More than one hunter offered Harry a nice amount of cash to hunt on his property. He wouldn’t hear of it, accept for one guy, Ray. The price Harry charged Ray was a deal. The deal was that Ray could shoot two deer. One he could keep, and the second one would have to be slaughtered and the meat donated to a homeless shelter. Harry was always thinking of ways to help people. Ray was happy to oblige.

* * *

I’d love to tell you about Harry’s love for Israel, but I don’t have time for those stories now …

* * *

As the years went by, his Hepatitis C got worse. His liver was just about shot, as were my parents’ hearts. I tried to give my brother half my liver, but it turns out mine is lopsided, so I was rejected. Then, without consulting with anyone other than his wife, our son-in-law volunteered to donate part of his liver. After he had already undergone all the tests, they decided to let us in on the secret.

* * *

There were a number of things that Harry loved more than anything in the world. Really. That’s how much love he had in him.

But a case could be made that the thing he loved most, was fishing. From the time he was a kid, Harry and my Uncle Al loved fishing together.

Harry had this deep, raspy voice. During the last year of his life he would say, in a Rocky Balboa sort of way, “When I croak, I’m goin’ fishin’ with Uncle Al.” Not exactly what my mother wanted to hear.

* * *

The transplant was scheduled for Monday morning, Feb. 15, 2009. On the Friday before the surgery, Harry took a sudden turn for the worse. It “just so happened” that I was flying into Cleveland that morning to speak at a Shabbaton. My plan was to visit Harry at home before the Shabbaton and then stay in Cleveland for the transplant. When I arrived at the hospital, his condition had deteriorated, so I cancelled my plans and spent Shabbat in the Cleveland Clinic ICU with my brother. What transpired that Shabbat was exalted, otherworldly. Stories wrapped in stories, but for another time…

That morning, before undergoing an emergency procedure, Harry and I said the Shema together. Within hours, I kissed my deceased brother goodbye.

* * *

There were no plans for Harry’s burial. We expected the transplant to be a success. We expected him to live …

After Shabbat ended, I was sitting with Leslie in front of their wood-burning fireplace. It was an icy cold winter night. I raised the possibility of burying Harry in Israel. “Harry would love that, can we do it?” she asked. I assured her that we could, though I had no idea how to make that happen. If I told you that an angel made it happen you probably wouldn’t believe me, but it’s true. His name is Mendy. He lives in Miami, he took me by the hand, walked me through every step, made the whole thing happen, Zoe and I flew with Harry to Israel, a handful of friends and striped hyenas attended the funeral. To this day I have yet to meet Mendy. But again, that’s another story …

* * *

A couple months later, Ray, the deer hunter, stopped by to see how Leslie was doing.

While they were talking, Ray told Leslie how beautiful it was that she fulfilled Harry’s wishes. “What do you mean?” “You know,” Ray said. “I was here a few months ago and Harry was pretty lucid that day. (Liver failure takes a horrific toll on a person…). We were talking and he told me that he was going to be buried in Israel. He described the place where he would be buried, outside Jerusalem, in the woods. He described the beauty, the trees, the hills.”

Leslie told Ray that they had never discussed burial, not in Israel, not anywhere.

* * *

Harry passed away on a Shabbat afternoon. Shabbat is the essence of light, peace and wholeness. Death is the essence of darkness, of shatteredness. That was Harry, black fire superimposed on top of white fire. Whole and shattered at the same time. A healer and breaker of hearts.

That Saturday night, as Shabbat ebbed away, our Uncle Al’s yartzeit was just beginning. You know, the uncle that Harry planned on fishing with in heaven. That night also began a new Hebrew month, the month of Adar. Every month has a symbol. Adar’s is two fish.

* * *

Last year, Debbie, once a high school kid that Harry  rescued when she was tripping, was working out at a gym. She got to talking with a guy twenty years her senior. “He was an addict, defeated by life, in search of the kind of love my parents surrounded me with, the kind of love Harry once showed me when I was in a place few can understand, the love this guy never had … I told him he was capable, capable of anything …I got that from Harry. And when I left the gym that day, a low flying hawk led me home.”

Zoe once told me, “Uncle Shim’, my dad once said to my mom, “Hon, if there is such a thing as an afterlife, then I am going to come back in the form of a hawk.” And he did.

Tomorrow, we’ll be going to visit Harry.

In those beautiful wooded hills outside of Jerusalem.

* * *

In memory of Harry Apisdorf, Herschel Avraham ben Dovid.

And in case you’ve hurt someone you love, try to make it right. And if you need some help, well, don’t be surprised if a deer, an addict, a hawk, or a beggar, happen to cross your path.

About the Author
Shimon Apisdorf has authored ten books that have sold over a quarter million copies and have won two Benjamin Franklin awards. His family moved to Israel in the summer of 2012. His new website is currently under construction.