Monday, March 7, 2011

Back in NY Too Soon

Usually I look forward to being in New York, even returning so soon after I just left, but this time it was for an unhappy reason: My 25 year old nephew died suddenly on Thursday, and the funeral was in NJ yesterday, prior to the family bringing his body to Israel to bury him today.

For days we all wondered about the cause of death. Ilan Tokayer was a wonderful young man with a passion for lots of things, and a remarkable ability to connect with a wide range of people. His sister, who spoke at his funeral, said that he was her best friend from the day she was born. And his best friend spoke about how they were both ushers in a wedding last week, and Ariel told Ilan to "Slow down, you're leaving me behind." Which he did with a lot of us.

About 1000 people turned out for his funeral, and it was remarkable how much there was to say about a young man who, theoretically, would just have been starting to live, but Ilan had already done a lot. He was, as of the day he died, in the oenology program at University of California at Davis, studying the science and techniques of wine making, a field in which he had been working in New York, Israel and New Zealand. His plan had been to open a winery in Israel.

At the time he developed his passion for (kosher) wine, he was already an accomplished cook, having pioneered a technique of poaching salmon in the dishwasher (seriously!) He had also spent a year and a half in the Israeli army, as he felt it was his responsibility to do so as a Jew, and as someone who had both lived in Israel and planned to return there permanently.

Even as I was hearing his (accurate) qualities lauded, though, I was thinking about his mother, my sister-in-law Reva. There can be nothing worse than losing a child (one reason why I was so struck by the book and the message in "I Will Not Hate."), and hearing and seeing my sister-in-law's justified tears made my heart ache.

Yet, during the funeral, she managed to get up to speak to, and about, her son that, even through her tears, showed a lot of poise, and was quite loving and moving. I thought to myself, "I'd never be able to do that under comparable circumstances."

Since getting the news Thursday night, I kept reminding myself to put my own challenges in perspective, but even with my grandfather's, and my sister-in-law's, examples, I still find that hard to do. Are certain people better equipped to handle difficulties that would destroy someone else? Does it matter that some people have support systems that are outside themselves whereas others have to find it all from within? It's hard to assign a degree of difficulty to an experience the way sporting events are graded. One thing that is clear is that Ilan made a difference in the world. That's clear, not just because 1000 people showed up for his funeral in NJ, and another 1000 to the funeral/burial in Israel, but because the speakers were able to celebrate his short life, and not only that he was taken from us too soon. He was like an angel who was only on loan to us for a short time, not only to bring joy into our lives, but to demonstrate how to live fully, passionately, and to leave an impact. That's my personal definition of The Meaning of Life: To leave everyone you touch a little better off, and Ilan left his touch on many people.
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  1. I am very sorry for you and your family's loss.

  2. Thank-you for sharing a bit of wisdom and your impressions about Ilan at this very tender time. It sounds like his influence will be felt for many, many years to come.

  3. I studied wine in school with Ilan and only knew him for a short time, long enough to know he was a great guy. His energy for wine and baseball was addicting and it was always enjoyable to hear what he had to say. In our student wine club, he shared with us the wines of Israel with such enthusiasm. He will be missed in school and in the world of wine!