Lessons of a broken neck

Lessons of a broken neck

Joshua Prager’s fourth-grade teacher at the Moriah School of Englewood once brought her husband to meet the class. Dina Cochin wanted to impress upon the children that although her husband was blind, disability can have positive aspects.

“When we go to bed and turn the lights off, I have to stop reading, but my husband can keep reading because he has Braille books,” Prager remembers his teacher saying.

“We all thought that was so cool. It made a big impact on me,” said Prager, an award-winning journalist whose new ebook, “Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck” (Byliner, $3.99), describes coming to terms with his own disability.

Joshua Prager’s paralysis failed to dim his appreciation of life’s defining moments.

Prager spoke with the Jewish Standard about his modern Orthodox upbringing in Englewood and how Mrs. Cochin and other adults helped shape the person he was becoming on the day when everything changed.

“Am I paralyzed? Am I going to die?” Prager recalls asking an Israeli paramedic on May 16, 1990, after a careless Arab truck driver blindsided the minibus in which Prager and a friend were riding, just west of Jerusalem. Barely 19, he was finishing his gap year in Israel.

The paramedic assured him he was fine. But yes, he was paralyzed from the neck down. And without an emergency intubation, he would have died.

Flown back to New York, for two weeks he lay in the intensive care unit at Presbyterian Hospital, where his father, Kenneth, is a staff pulmonologist. Among his visitors was Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, where the Pragers have been active members since moving to the city in 1973 with 2-year-old Joshua.

“I remember when Rabbi Goldin came to our shul [in 1984], it struck me that here was a man who not only gave stimulating divrei [words of] Torah, but was also a remarkable community rabbi, and I saw that front and center when my accident happened,” Prager said.

“He came to visit me in intensive care every single day, and learned Talmud with me. I enjoy Talmud, but when you suffer an injury like I did, it’s hard to focus. He would sit beside me and hold up the text in front of me and learn with me. Every day for two weeks.

“I never forgot that.”

In the book, Prager mentions a later encounter with Rabbi Isaac Swift, Goldin’s predecessor. He recalls this rabbi as “kind of a god-like figure to a little boy: a tall man with white hair and a British accent, invested with importance. He was very good to me.” Every time teenaged Prager chanted the week’s Torah portion for the congregation, using the silver hand-shaped pointer, Swift would comment, “Your right hand has lost none of its cunning,” in reference to Psalm 137.

Soon after Prager’s right hand had regained its cunning, Swift came by and placed his palms on the head of the convalescing teen, who’d been wheeled from his room to an atrium along with other patients.

Prager writes: “Isaac Swift was tall and thin, with a white goatee and a varicose nose. His British accent underscored his bearing, and his voice now boomed clear through the atrium: “Yevarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha.” May the Lord bless you and keep you.

“I was mortified. No, rabbi! NO!

“But I, who one month before had wrestled a trio of classmates, pinning each, was unable to fend off a rabbi in his eightieth year. And as the litany unfurled – God asked to shine his face upon me, to be gracious to me, to lift up his countenance to me, to give me peace – I wished to disappear. But I saw over my stockinged feet that the congregation was not listening, the yellow man beside me, his saffron urine bagged between us, minding his tea. And so I succumbed to a blessing.”

Though Prager’s faith broke along with his third and fourth vertebrae, his appreciation of tradition grew stronger.

He writes: “It is tradition, the musical tells us, that balances each fiddler on the roof, each of us ‘trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.’ And when you do fall from the roof, tradition gives ballast then, too. For even when we have nothing else, we have each other. We can share a Sabbath or a ball game or a book. Or we can pray. It is the unconnected who waste away.”

He did not speak of these matters to Swift, Goldin, or any other rabbi. He found his own unorthodox, way.

“As a person who has had doubts and doesn’t believe, I nonetheless like practicing Judaism and it’s comforting to be in a religion that has room for a person like me,” he said.

“You practice Judaism because it’s a beautiful way of life, at least to my mind. To see it practiced as beautifully as I always did by my parents and my community has made me want to do the same – even if I don’t believe. I happen to love not only Jewish philosophy and learning, but also Shabbat and keeping kosher.”

And some prayer, too. Months after the accident, when Prager finally was freed from a urinary catheter, he agreed to his father’s suggestion of reciting “Asher Yatzar,” an ancient prayer of thanksgiving for the ability to eliminate bodily waste. In 1997, with his son’s permission, Kenneth Prager wrote about the significance of this moment in an essay published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“It became a sensation, translated into various languages, hung outside a gajillion bathrooms,” Prager writes in a footnote.

Last year, his 94-year-old grandfather was hospitalized. “I told him I’d put on tefillin everyday in his zechut [merit], and it meant a lot to him,” says Prager. “It’s been very nice. I decided to do it forevermore. It’s hard for me to wrap it because of my left hand, but I do it.”

Prager reflects that he was raised with an appreciation of cultural diversity. He was delivered by his father at 2 a.m. after the second Passover seder – before dawn on Easter Sunday – at a time when his father was the physician on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. A local resident named Sidney Walks Quietly designed the birth announcement. In Englewood, young Joshua played on a municipal Little League team and joined the local Cub Scout pack instead of all-Jewish alternate versions of these activities.

Now living in New York City, Prager was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal and has been published in Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and even The Jewish Standard, for which he wrote a 1995 report about the North Jersey delegation to a massive pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. His first book, “The Echoing Green,” was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.

Prager also is an up-and-coming public speaker. His latest TED talk, describing his reunion with the truck driver responsible for the accident 22 years earlier, will go online April 17. (Details on this, and on downloading “Half-Life” to computer or mobile device, are available at www.joshuaprager.com.)

His love of words may perhaps be traced to Dina Cochin, who promised membership in a book club to any fourth grader completing three works by one author. Eager to win a membership pin, he read three books each by Roald Dahl and E.B. White.

“When Mrs. Cochin died and I paid a shiva call, I brought my pins to show her family. I was then a reporter at the Wall Street Journal,” said Prager, whose father’s first cousin, Elliott Prager, is now Moriah’s principal.

Jane Wallace, a seventh-grade English teacher, further encouraged his literary bent. “We read one story that had a profound effect on me, about a man who committed suicide by jumping off a building – and only while falling did he think of the beautiful things in life that would no longer be available to him,” Prager said.

“Difficult points in life heighten your appreciation for the beautiful things. As a person who is paralyzed on half of his body, I’m forever aware of what I don’t have, so I’m also aware of what I do.”

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