A Conversation on Love and Loss With Eitan Fishbane

Jewish studies professor whose new memoir recalls the tragic death of his wife at age 32.

In February 2007, Leah Levitz Fishbane arrived at a hospital in Hackensack, NJ, complaining of severe headaches and vomiting. Within hours, she was in a coma, and two days later, she was dead at age 32, killed by a tumor in her brain that had announced its existence with a swift and dramatic finality. She left behind her husband, Eitan Fishbane, and a 4-year-old daughter, Aderet, and was nine weeks’ pregnant at the time. Not long after Leah’s death, Eitan began recording his memories and meditations about their life together and his responses to the loss. Eventually, Fishbane became convinced that his ruminations might be able to provide comfort to others who had suffered similar losses. The result is the book “Shadows in Winter: A Memoir of Love and Loss” ‏(Syracuse University Press, 156 pages, $19.95‏). The couple had met as graduate students at Brandeis University, where Eitan completed his PhD in 2003, and where Leah, at the time of her death, was working on her own doctoral dissertation, in American Jewish history. The same month Eitan, an assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), published his memoir, Jewish Lights brought out an edition, which he selected and translated, of writings on Shabbat by early Hasidic masters, “The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time.” In 2010, Fishbane, today 36, remarried, to Rabbi Julia Andelman. Haaretz spoke with Eitan Fishbane by phone from his home in Teaneck, New Jersey.
When did you actually begin writing this book?

The process of writing began relatively early, within a month of the shivah. Initially it was more of a therapeutic anchor, a stable activity to return to during those fragile days. But the process of writing awakened in me the power of words to heal the writer and to hopefully bring the force of that experience to readers as well. It stretched out over five or six months, though the first three months were really when a lot of the white heat of my experience was flowing out through the writing. [Afterwards, I did] some editing, though I really tried to preserve the authenticity of those early hours, to capture the ferocity of early grief in a way that’s hard to conjure up from a distance.

Eitan Fishbane - February 2012

You do that, but am I right that anger isn’t a strong emotion here?

I didn’t feel anger as a dominant emotion. Certainly I did experience moments − I think that everybody in the swell of grief does − but when there was anger, it was less directed at something or someone in particular, more a surge of feeling.

You come across as very rational in the book. How does that reconcile with being a scholar of mysticism?

I would say these are different aspects of myself and my creativity, and yet they are related: my intellectual and spiritual path began with the study of the mystical material, and it was a journey for me to be able to come back to a passionate engagement with those sources and ideas. It took a while, and during that period of time I did withdraw somewhat from my academic work. It wasn’t an alienation from the subject, just a much greater need to take comfort and shelter in a different kind of reading and creativity.

Still, you seem very accepting of the finality of Leah’s death. And your conception of God seems almost Spinoza-like. Are you yourself a mystic?

I wouldn’t characterize myself as a mystic. But many of the ideas and images of mysticism have come to inform my own spiritual life, in a very contemporary kind of adaptation. I definitely stand outside of the traditional way that mystics have understood the universe and the religious meaning of death and life and the soul. That’s not my ontological reality or traditional belief structure. And yet theology and the spiritual life are part of me. I guess in that way I’ve been shaped by the thinking of my teacher, Arthur Green, and by others, including my father [University of Chicago Jewish studies professor Michael Fishbane]. I try to reconcile traditional mystical images or theological views of Judaism with my own situation and location as a modern person who was shaped by the university and by the critical study of history − I am drawn to the idea of Divinity as a force of universal life, as an immanent presence in the world, but I feel distant from the classic, omniscient, omnipotent notions of God, as the one who pulls the strings and determines the outcomes. That kind of theology is not meaningful to me, not resonant.
I guess that in the section of the book where I ruminate a little on faith, I definitely found myself rejecting the traditionalist answers to this kind of thing, and trying to integrate something more personally meaningful − whether it’s Spinoza, or a version of the mystics who argue that God is the oneness of all things − into my own understanding of the experience. It’s images like that that are spiritually resonant for me, not necessarily the belief that the souls of our lost loved ones reside in one particular place or another. And yet that is very true for many people, and I respect the power of that truth.

When you undergo something so unexpected and traumatic as the death of Leah was, do you throw caution to the winds, or, alternatively, have you become more worrisome and careful?

Certainly, one of the things that kept me going was the fact that I was responsible for this little girl. There was a sense of purpose, the power of a father’s love for his daughter, as well as the realization that she had to go through her own process of recovery. I was very aware that I was now her only parent. There were new things to learn, whether it was becoming a better cook, or learning to do this or that, things that were shared before, and having to balance my own process with hers − trying not to fall apart right in front of her, because that’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 4-year-old kid. But both of those emotions definitely surfaced at different points − whether it was suddenly becoming more aware of my own mortality and the need to try to protect Aderet, or whether it was the flipside − feeling that, well, if I’ve been though that, I can ...

− You can deal with anything?

There was this sense that if I could survive that, I can try to weather other challenges in life. Of course, there are even darker places that one can go to. Life never becomes easy, but having been through that kind of tragedy, you understand things in a new way, a different way.

Was there a moment when you realized that you could experience pleasure again, or even with a new dimension?

Yes. The weight of the past is always there, but I have been able to savor life and its joys and treasures − to be able to see how precious those times are and to try to be present to them. The paradox is that even in those moments of greatest happiness, maybe precisely in those moments, the force of memory can stir up the bittersweet nature of it. Still I am thankfully able to be deeply engaged in love and joy, to laugh and celebrate again.

I appreciated the honesty of the material moments you described, the connection of your memories of your love for Leah with shared appreciation of settings, of food or beautiful sunsets, for example.

For me, the eruption of memory is often quite a sensate and earthy thing, whether it’s a particular trigger or place that brings it back. My reflections on memory were very much an entering back into the textured way in which love and living emerge through the ordinary world, through the thickness of our senses. I definitely found, whether it was going back to a place that brought back those memories, or a particular object or smell, that those moments or things were often the most powerful in evoking both the bittersweet and the gut-wrenching feelings of love and loss. They make it all the more visceral and fierce. Grief has a shattering power to crystallize the emotions of love. Even though we know and can experience the power of love in life, the extreme force of grief holds it up to our heart and our mind in a way that we can’t quite experience in life.

What was Leah writing her dissertation about?

She was writing at Brandeis, under the guidance of Jonathan Sarna. Her topic was a group of young Jewish leaders and thinkers in late 19th-century Philadelphia and New York, some of whom went on to become the big players and makhers of 20th-century Jewry, including Cyrus Adler, who became chancellor of the [Jewish Theological] Seminary, and [physician and scholar] Solomon Solis-Cohen. She was studying them in their youth, either as teenagers or in their 20s, when they were involved in the project of trying to create a revival of Jewish culture and religious life. They created a weekly Jewish newspaper, called the American Hebrew, and they founded the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the YMHA. They were focused on trying to revive the influence and significance of Shabbat in the home, of Jewish social life oriented toward programs of learning. I’m really happy that two chapters of Leah’s unfinished dissertation have now been published in a volume that I co-edited with Sarna, entitled, “Jewish Renaissance and Revival in America” ‏(Brandeis University Press‏). It grew out of a conference that I organized at JTS a little after Leah’s first Yahrzeit. Leah’s two chapters are accompanied by the essays of various distinguished scholars, including an introduction by Jonathan Sarna. It came out this past November, within weeks of both “Shadows in Winter” and my other book, “The Sabbath Soul.”

I noticed that in the Sabbath book, Leah's name isn’t mentioned.

Yes. It was really conceived years after she died. It was researched and written while Julia and I were together and during the period when we got married. I dedicated the book to my parents, and my acknowledgments try to speak to Julia and to Aderet. It wasn’t a statement not to mention Leah, but a reflection on the more recent time in my life.

Is it difficult to enter into a new relationship and at the same time preserve your memory of Leah?

I think the heart is both an expansive and a complicated thing. I feel very blessed, and have been grateful that Julia and I have been able to develop a new wonderful relationship, filled with love, and that Aderet and Julia have developed a close bond of their own. My past and the memory of Leah are always there − and certainly Aderet is a beautiful reflection of that − and yet I find that I am very much able to be fully present and devoted to Julia as my partner. She’s very understanding and compassionate, knowing that there are multiple dimensions to who I am. Just as she has had her own life experience. It’s true, the inner life of the heart is a complicated journey, but I feel very lucky to have been able to build a new chapter in my life.