Please forgive the untimeliness of these meditations. The events described, now two years in the rearview, have haunted me since. With some emotional distance, I’m hoping to write what occurred so as to make belated apologies and offer a proper farewell.
When I met him, about seven or eight years back, Tzvi Mair Lewis—known as “Hesh (pronounced Haaysh) Halper”— worked at Kossar’s Bialys on Grand Street in the ever-smaller Jewish Lower East Side as a baker and sales clerk, a low paying gig that brought him into contact with a vast array of local characters. A better-looking member of the Jeff Goldblum tribe of Judaism, Hesh and his ponytail were themselves becoming local characters, connecting along two of the Lower East Side’s lineages: as Jew and as artist.
Naturally, I met him while buying bialys, but I got to know him at a series of art exhibits he set up in a small, fenced-off spot of alley behind Kossar’s. After he lost that gig, the exhibits took place in seldom-utilized rooms in local buildings and in real estate offices, among other untraditional gallery locations. Pursuing, inspiring, and facilitating artistic creativity animated Tzvi, drawing out his considerable charms – a million-dollar smile and taut build could well have landed him modeling or acting gigs.
As “Hesh,” Tzvi drew hearts in multi-colored chalk on sidewalks throughout the Lower East Side and the East Village, often adorned with positive messages in ways reminiscent of, yet not reductive to, the pop culture stylings of Keith Haring. With the acumen of someone who’d studied advertising, the passion of an artist, and the pizzazz to pull it all off, it seemed as if he and his “New York Romantic” tag were destined for something grand. Despite his growing popularity, however, he wrestled with personal demons.
Increasingly aware of a palpable rise in violence against American Jews traceable to the end of 2019, Tzvi openly expressed concern on social media and in interviews. Not long thereafter he was attacked at a public event. A man grabbed his ponytail and tried to rip it out, which Tzvi attributed to his speaking up on the topic. Two years later and into the lockdown, amid public health mania, gaslighting, over 100 days of rioting, rising anti-Semitism, and social media crackdowns, many were suffering from elevated levels of depression, anxiety, paranoia, stress, and substance abuse. Tzvi, a sensitive young man of 41, was not immune.
A few days before he took his life, I ran into Tzvi at a café. When I noticed that he was wearing tzitzit, which I’d never seen him do before, I became excited, as I was then attempting to take a spiritual lifepath. Approaching him with a hunger for comradery at shul, I asked him where he was davening. His reaction was hostile. In a loud, public voice, he castigated me for wearing a t-shirt featuring a modified version of the Motörhead logo, because its vocalist collected Nazi memorabilia. Embarrassed by his verbal assault, I reminded him that the band had no politics at all and that the vocalist never made any negative comments about Jews, Israel, or the Holocaust. Minutiae aside, the argument, it seemed, was meant to harm and humiliate me, as his words were accusatory, and his volume made it public. Taken aback at the sudden hostility of a friend, I reminded him who I was, in case he’d confused me with someone else. He replied straightforwardly that he knew who I was. I retreated from the ambush.
Soon after, I saw him eating outside at a different café. Ordinarily I would have greeted or possibly joined him. Instead, sensing but not processing something, I crossed the street to put a safe distance between us. That evening, while returning from a late-night jaunt in East River Park, amid a quiet park and an empty Delancey Street, the hissing of rubber tires behind me, I crossed back over the FDR drive to see Tzvi coming toward me. When I tell you that no one was around, I mean it seemed as if the rest of humanity was asleep or far away.
Under the house arrest of the pandemic lockdown, I was emotionally frail and felt the need to insulate myself from negativity. To protect myself, I retreated yet again, diverting my eyes and passing Tzvi as if he wasn’t there, as if he was already dead, a ghost, beyond language, beyond compassion, beyond time. I walked home, not turning his way, not turning back. The following day, I read that he had jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Whatever issues Tzvi may have had, I cannot help but wonder whether an attempt on my part to forgive and engage him, even if only with direct eye contact, could have helped. Since I did not look his way, I don’t know whether he studied my cold and distant affect for a sign that I was still open, willing, wanting to share this world with him. I will never know if he looked at me with a longing for togetherness, with anguish, or in another state I cannot guess.
What makes it worse is that I should have handled the situation better. In February 2020, just prior to the pandemic, I and my then-colleagues at the Jewish Learning Institute had flown to Los Angeles for training in suicide prevention at the Didi Hirsch Medical Center. For the next year, as part of The Wellness Institute of JLI, I conducted research into contemporary suicidology and contributed to publications. Despite the training and research, I failed to see someone directly in front of me who was clearly at risk and behaving inexplicably. Each of us carries burdens in life and it is easy to not see the travails of those around us. For this, I am truly sorry. Goodbye, Tzvi. I hope you have found the peace and love you were searching for.
* Thanks to Hana Halper and Simcha Gottlieb. Tzvi’s yahrzeit is 1 Tammuz, which will fall this year on June 20, 2023.