Menorah Comes to the Hospital
With the purity of thought that perhaps only a child can produce, 7-year-old Yosef Eliezrie once approached his neighbors who’d been trying without success to have a baby. To help the process along, he told them, he was giving them a blessing.
By 15, young Yosef could fill in during his father’s absence and teach the elder’s Talmud class. “He’s a kid who always had a special spiritual quality about him,” his father, a longtime rabbi, says.
Yosef, now 19, has turned that faith inward more than ever. Last summer, while on a camp counseling trip to Lithuania, he developed a series of flu-like symptoms that wouldn’t go away. He wound up in the hospital and later was flown home to Orange County with a diagnosis no one wants: leukemia.
Ever since, Yosef has been in and out of UCI Medical Center and put through his paces of four rounds of chemotherapy.
July in the hospital is one thing. But for an observant Jew, to spend Hanukkah in the hospital and not light the menorah is unthinkable. In a normal year, Yosef says, he would have been taking part in charitable services with fellow rabbinical students or helping his father at his Yorba Linda synagogue.
“It’s been so frustrating,” David Eliezrie says of his son’s illness. “He’s always the doer, the one who’s helping. Instead, he can’t do it, because he’s stuck in this place. I’m really amazed by his frustration, because it’s rooted in his desire to do for others.”
If there’s one thing a hospital affords, it’s time to think. Young Yosef is unabashedly frank in discussing it. “For me, at first, I didn’t believe it,” he says of the diagnosis. “First reaction, shock. Then I decided if I was going to be upset, there’s no point, so I just surrounded myself with family and I’ve gotten through. I think it’s made me stronger in a way.”
The rotating family visits have been augmented by visits from a tight-knit Jewish community in Orange County and from Yosef’s Los Angeles classmates.
Serious illness often includes a duel between the patient and his thoughts. I ask if it has become a test of faith. “I’ll tell you like this,” he says. “It’s a really hard question to answer.”
In the early going, when things appeared bleakest, he didn’t have a lot of time for faith-based questions. Rather, he focused on his medical condition.
After the first round of chemo, however, he had time.
“It’s something I’m constantly struggling with,” he says. “The concept of why did it happen. I don’t think I can question God, so it’s not something you can really ask. But the question I keep asking myself more than why it happened is what I can take out of it now that it has happened.”
That led him to a simple truth. “God does everything for a reason,” Yosef says. “I think the reason he did it for me was to make me stronger. It really has matured me a lot. It’s a hard way to be matured, but I really understand a lot more.”
One deepened awareness is the power of family and friends. “I realized how many good, close friends I have,” he says.
But what about Hanukkah? For observant Jews, it is more than eight days on a calendar. And so, last Sunday, just as the ancient traditions dictate and with the blessings of the hospital and the fire department, Yosef lighted the first candle on the menorah in his hospital room with four generations of family members present.
On Tuesday night, David Eliezrie began singing just as six rabbinical students entered the room and joined in.
It is a Hanukkah season the family will never forget. David Eliezrie knows that faith is tested in adversity. You never know, he says, how a person will react.
Of his son, he says, “His courage has astonished us. Everyone can say they have a belief in God, but we’ve seen this young man so tested and so resolute, it has really impressed us. I don’t think any parent should want to see such a test, but we’ve seen it.”