Ben Prager Speaking at Amir’s Shloshim

The following eulogy was delivered at the Lopatin’s home on April 25, 2004, as part of an evening marking the (symbolic, religiously-mandated) end of the 30-day mourning period that commenced at Amir’s burial.

Click below for the video:



As you know, last September Amir’s father passed away. After the funeral service here in Englewood, I had a chance to talk to Amir right outside this home.

He told me three things that afternoon.

He told me he regretted not delivering a eulogy for his father (something, I should point out, he later did, and, I am told, did beautifully, at his father’s burial in Israel).

He told me that I should be proud of my father and mother for all they had done for his family during his father’s illness.

And, before heading back into his house to prepare for that evening’s trip to Israel, he told me something that I will never forget—he told me that it bothered him that the world would never again be able to hear his father’s side of the story.

I asked Amir what he meant by this, so he explained further.

It bothered him that his father could never again defend himself or commend himself when needed; that his good name and reputation would forever be in the hands of anyone who saw fit to speak of him; and, most troubling, that his father’s opinions and thoughts, his explanations and ideas, his intentions and desires, his arguments and beliefs—the full and nuanced expression of his father’s inimitable, complex perspective—now had to pass through the minds and mouths of others to be known.

I had never heard this perspective on death before, and it shook me. The thought was not a comforting one.

I asked Amir—so what are we to do then? How do we manage this void?

Before he could answer, he was summoned inside to get ready.

For the past month, I have thought a lot about what Amir told me that day and, suddenly, the questions he raised now seem terribly urgent—How do we fill this void of perspective when all we have now are guesses and speculation, presumptions and projections, interpretations and extrapolations? Are these really the tools we should be using to define Amir and sustain his identity? And must we define him, at all? Must we summarize Amir’s life?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I think that as long as we remain mindful of them—as Amir did—and accept that Amir’s perspective is NOT, in his absence, up for grabs, we won’t allow his identity to be reduced to convenient generalizations. We will dearly miss Amir’s voice and vision, and we will wonder and contemplate what he might have said or might have done, but in the absence of knowledge, ambiguity and uncertainty are sometimes more faithful representations of the truth.

Thoughts from Amir’s Shloshim

It was very difficult for me to speak at my brothers funeral. I have not been able to post what I had wanted to say. That will remain largely between my brother and myself. Let it suffice, that they are some of the things I wanted to say to him when he got married. They were my ways of letting him know how proud I was of him. How I admired, and looked up to him, even as his big brother. How I loved and love amir. (I wonder if you can hear me, Amir? It seems appropriate in this electronic purgatory. Perhaps you visit as a ghost in the machine?). Below is what I was able to say at his shloshim. 30 days (THIRTY DAYS!) after we buried amir.

When I die
I don’t care what happens to my body
throw ashes in the air, scatter ’em in East River
bury an urn in Elizabeth New Jersey, B’nai Israel Cemetery
But l want a big funeral…
………[forgive me for the large amounts exerpted here. It was too long to include. The poem continues…]
Then Journalists, editors’s secretaries, agents, portraitists & photo-
graphy aficionados, rock critics, cultured laborors, cultural
historians come to witness the historic funeral
Super-fans, poetasters, aging Beatnicks & Deadheads, autograph-
hunters, distinguished paparazzi, intelligent gawkers
Everyone knew they were part of ‘History” except the deceased
who never knew exactly what was happening even when I was alive

From Allan Ginsberg’s “Death and Fame.” You may not know that Amir received a book of Ginsburg’s poetry from Ramaz for being such a damn good poet himself.

Thank you, all, for coming to the siyum mishnayot in honor of my brother and his shloshim. I hope you understand that it is still difficult for me to say now what I could not say at his levayah, (the things I wanted to say at his wedding…) so I will say other things.

For those of you who are wondering why it still hurts? It hurts in direct proportion to love. The more a part of your life amir was, the more his absence is felt, the deeper and more raw the wound. How long will it hurt? It will hurt as long, as deep, and as wide as the thread that was Amir has been bound into our lives

CS Lewis, the theologian and children’s author noted in his “A grief observed”

“Why do I make room in my mind for such filth and nonsense? Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain. It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.”

“Why do I make room?” The only answer I can give is that the act of questioning, for me, helps. It provides a framework within which I can set the wheels in my mind, else they keep churning in the air. This gives me some dirt to grip. I don’t yet know which way I am going, but at least this way I am moving.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, one of the irrepressible traits referenced over and over and over again by many of my brothers friends and colleagues, (and my own observations will second this,) was his questioning.

He also loved to ask questions, some more appropriate, some less, but always AMIR questions.

Since my brother died right before Pesach, I had some obvious fodder for new questions when the sedarim came: Thinking about Pesach, the four questions, and the four sons.
This was to have been our first pesach without my father, and was our first without my brother as well.

We had expected my brother to read the four questions, which, with his own languorous style, he could always be counted on to do every year.
This year they were read by a friend, (which was very sweet, but not the same).

I was hoping to share with you what has been brewing in my head in one permutation or another ever since we read about the four sons…

First, it is important to note that the Seder itself revolves around questions, not answers. It is structured in a way to generate them, and has them as its central themes. Why?
The amazing thing about questions is that the act of questioning CREATES engagement with the material at hand. Answers are dismissals. They allow the material to be put away. Tucked under a rug. Conveniently ignored. That is why questions are so much more uncomfortable, and so much more wonderful. They force you to grapple. With a person. With an idea.

And, perhaps this is why my brother touched so many people, so deeply. I am still happily amazed by the numbers of people… He asked them questions. All the time.

Granted, there are different ways to ask questions.

I am not sure if the brothers in the haggadah of Pesach are 4 different types of people reflected in questions. I wonder if they are—rather—four different types of questions reflected in people…

How so?
There are wise questions:
What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem our G-d commanded you?” You should tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may eat no dessert after eating the Pesach offering.

To put it in terms I am comfortable with, he asks: What is the data. My brother was very good at asking these questions. “What do you believe? Why do you believe/do/think as you do.” He focused on the substance of beliefs. He was happy to challenge the establishment, but was usually respectful of it. He asked questions of the material.

Who is wise? He who learns from every person… and if asking questions of every person was a way of learning, he qualifies.

This stands in contrast to the Rasha, the wicked son, the wicked questions:
What does the wicked son say? “What does this work mean to you?” To you and not to him

These questions are not directed at the “chomer,” the substance, but rather at the people carrying out the actions. They attempt to undermine by targeting the most vulnerable links in the chain, the people comprising it. They are not about interest in the facts, nor the data, but rather strive to create emotional preturbrances. My brother, to his credit did not do this. You did not feel like he was attacking you. Just engaging your thoughts. This is musar for the rest of us to think about: What are we questioning, the message or the messengers.
What does the simple son say? “What’s this?” You should say to him “With a strong hand Hashem took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”
The simple questions. If I may be so bold, I will give my brother the credit for these also, as he always had this quality. Even when he was asking you very difficult questions… he himself, usually, had no guile in his questioning. He asked questions simply. Note, please, that nowhere does it say that simple questions are synonymous with easy ones.
And the one who does not know how to ask
And then there are the questions that we do not know how to ask…
And the one who does not know how to ask, you start for him,
And this is something many of you have tried to do… to start for us, to provide us with reasons, with answers, with new ways to ask the questions…
You have good company. In parshat Shmini, when Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu bring a korban to hashem and they are killed, moshe does an interesting thing….
[“Now Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan and placed in it fire, and placed on it incense, and brought it before the Lord; a strange fire which he had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before the Lord and consumed them and they died before God]
(nb. Nowhere does it actually say they did something wrong….)
And Moshe said to Aharon: this is what God said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored’, “Vayidom Aharon”and Aharon was silent.”
We see here one of the few times in the Chumash that Moshe states: “God said” without seeing god having said something first. Moshe says in god’s name: “By those close to tme I will be made kodesh…”

Interesting that Moshe felt the need to speak…. But Aharon, Aharon was silent (Vayidom Aharon).
We. My Family. Some of you. Understand.
Vayidom mishpachat Lopatin. And the snowflakes of memory cover Amir…