‘As a Ram Yearns for the Brook’
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‘As a Ram Yearns for the Brook’

Teaneck man writes memoir about his father’s death from cancer

Daniel Ritholtz described how he coped with his father’s death, and how the community helped him.
Daniel Ritholtz described how he coped with his father’s death, and how the community helped him.

The recent Zoom event where Daniel Ritholtz introduced his newly published memoir of the events surrounding his father’s death six years ago was not simply a book launch.

It was also an expression of gratitude to his audience, members of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, for their loving support of the Ritholtz family throughout that trying time.

“The rabbis, leadership, and community of Rinat really helped us so much while my dad was sick and even afterwards, and I know how much this community meant to my dad,” Mr. Ritholtz said. “We were only in Teaneck four years before he passed away, but he had deep ties to people here.”

Today, Mr. Ritholtz is a 24-year-old rabbinical student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary. He also hopes to go to law school.

In 2010, the family moved to Teaneck from Manhattan, where Bruce and Michelle Ritholtz had been active members of Lincoln Square Synagogue. They timed the move to coincide with Dani’s freshman year at Torah Academy of Bergen County. The high school’s dean, Rabbi Yosef Adler, also is the spiritual leader of Rinat Yisrael, and he grew close to the family.

Three years later, Bruce Ritholtz was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died the following year. He was 57.

“As a Ram Yearns for the Brook: The Journey of a Father and Son” went on sale on Amazon on September 22. The date corresponded to 4 Tishrei on the Jewish calendar, which was Bruce Ritholtz’s sixth yahrzeit.

Dani Ritholtz describes the book as “a two-year labor of love for my father. The story of my father and the relationship I had with him is told through the medium of letters, real and imagined, through the highs and lows of a normal Modern Orthodox upbringing and the extremes of a family fighting cancer and dealing with loss.”

The process of writing was cathartic and therapeutic, he said. It triggered “very honest conversations and amazing discussions” with his mother and with his sisters, Annie and Talia.

Several reasons led him to the decision to share his writing with the public rather than keep it within the family, he explained. “Giving a genuine account of my own experiences lets you get into the mind of someone going through something difficult and maybe you can relate more to another person suffering a tragedy.”

He also wanted to be upfront about his bouts of depression during the grieving process.

When he got the phone call that his father had died, Mr. Ritholtz was 6,000 miles away in the dorm at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, just beginning his first gap year. His maternal grandmother, whom he called Bobie, died — also of pancreatic cancer — as Mr. Ritholtz was starting his second year at HaKotel.

The book’s entry from August 31, 2015, relates: “I feel a weight . . . I can’t get out of bed. There’s a brick wall separating me from everything, including Him. Bobie passed away a few weeks ago, the day I finished the eleven months of saying Kaddish for my dad . . . hours after, actually. … Afterwards I tried to sit down to learn, but the realization of what had just transpired punched me in my gut, and I felt absolutely sick. Not physically ill like I’ve felt so many times, but emotionally.”

That brick wall would continue to bear down on him from time to time. His entry from December 8, 2018, reads: “I thought after my last excursion with depression, I had learned and gained the tools to fight it, to deal with the negative thoughts and the brick walls that fell on top of me. But they came again.”

With the help of professional therapy, as well as his family, friends, and rabbis with whom he was close, Mr. Ritholtz prevailed over the heavy bricks.

“Mental health issues are not talked about a lot, especially in the Jewish community and specifically in the Orthodox community,” he said. “I hope that what I wrote will be helpful for people who want to be there for friends and family members going through difficulties, whether physical or mental illness.”

He has pledged to donate 20 percent of the proceeds from the sales of “As a Ram Yearns for the Brook” to the Lustgarten Foundation and Refuat Hanefesh.

“The Lustgarten Foundation’s mission is to cure pancreatic cancer by funding scientific and clinical research related to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of pancreatic cancer; providing research information and clinical support services to patients, caregivers and individuals at high risk; and increasing public awareness and hope for those dealing with this disease. Refuat Hanefesh, a Jewish organization, aims to create a Jewish community that is more aware, respectful, and empathetic to people living with mental illness,” he said.

The title of the book is taken from a verse in Psalm 42, in which King David describes his instinctual yearning for God.

“There are many explanations for what this can mean, but at least for me, it means that our relationship with God is beyond explanation,” Mr. Ritholtz writes. “We yearn for Him from the depths of our hearts and souls but, just as the ram cannot conceptualize his thirst, so too, we cannot get to the core of our passion for God; we just feel it. This experiential way of connecting to God is something I saw my father regularly practice.”

He noted that his father had been thinking of writing a book about his experiences with cancer and how he managed to stay positive with the help of family, friends, community, and his faith in God.

While ultimately Bruce Ritholtz didn’t have the opportunity to write such a book, his son did.

“This was a story that was swirling in me and I wanted to tell it because my dad couldn’t. I hope it contains elements and themes he would have included in his own book,” Dani Ritholtz said.

“For me, the book doesn’t change anything. I wish I wouldn’t have written this, that my dad could have written a book himself. But there was so much good that came out of this tragedy, so much chesed and bikkur cholim” — acts of kindness and visiting the sick — “and so much Torah.”

For example, hundreds of people pledged to study sections of the Talmud hoping to effect healing for Bruce Ritholtz. Leaders and members of Congregation Rinat Yisrael held Shabbat services in the Ritholtz home for eight months, so that Bruce could continue to pray with a minyan as he underwent chemotherapy.

“That’s what I am trying to focus on in my book,” Mr. Ritholtz said. “It doesn’t change the bigger picture; it just acknowledges the good that the bad came with.”

He expressed gratitude to family friend Morton Landowne, the executive director of Nextbook, the not-for-profit organization behind the online Jewish magazine Tablet and the Jewish Encounters book series.

“I showed him the manuscript and he said I should get it published and got me in contact with a lot of people,” Mr. Ritholtz said. “I knew nothing about the publishing world.”

In the end, he chose to self-publish in order to retain control over the project, even though that entailed finding a typesetter, editor and cover designer — all in Israel — and learning the ropes of selling a book on Amazon.

“Thank God, I had a lot of guidance,” he said. “It was a lot of work, but it was a labor of love and I always found time for it.”

His sister Talia built a website for the book, asarambook.com. The paperback version of “As a Ram Yearns for the Brook: The Journey of a Father and Son” costs $18; the Kindle version is $9.18.

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