Mar 20, 2017
My Older Brother, Ari Halberstam
Sara Gutnick describes how she grappled with the terror attack on her older brother, Ari Halberstam, on his yartzeit.
By Sara Gutnick (nee Halberstam)
You may have heard the popular adage made famous by the late author and lecturer Richard Carlson, "Don't sweat the small stuff." Well, I'd like to challenge that notion and offer a different perspective on it.
I am the second child in our family of five siblings. I had an older brother by two years, named Ari Halberstam. In general, we lived our life filled with the average 'small stuff' that make up day-to-day living. Parts of our life was 'big stuff', like the fact that my father was the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka's caretaker and so we often spent time playing in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's house - that was not ordinary and certainly special. But most of it was all 'small stuff'.
One regular March day, in the middle of a freezing, blizzardly winter in 1994, I was in the ninth grade, sitting in my Tanya class. One of the girls who had been outside the classroom came in and started whispering, "Bochurim have been shot on the Brooklyn Bridge… one may be a Halberstam boy…" I heard it, but I didn't imagine for a second that it was my own brother. I sat there confused, a bit shaken, waiting to hear more. I continued to listen to my teacher teach the lesson.
A few minutes later, my aunt, who is the assistant Principal in my former High School, came to the classroom door and called me out. I knew then. I just cried and cried and went to my locker to get my things while she waited. We both didn't know exactly what had happened but I knew we were going home, going to a hospital and something really scary had just occurred.
The next few days were a blur of hospital visits, people coming and going in our home, me seeing my super-strong and handsome, 6-foot-tall brother wired up to machines in the trauma unit of St Vincent's Hospital. They said he was brain dead. He didn't look it to me. He was the same person. My mind couldn't comprehend such big stuff. Just last night we had been bickering over small stuff. He reminded me that I was being bossy as usual. I remember admiring that he was heading out into the cold to a study session late at night while I was staying put in our warm home.
There is so much of the big stuff. Like how Ari's heart didn't stop beating until all of us siblings had had a chance to come to the hospital to see him one last time…like how thousands of people came to his funeral and people stopped their cars on the highway to pay their respects. Big, big stuff. Like how then President Bill Clinton called our home to give his condolences and how we now know that Ari was killed in a premeditated terrorist attack that was meant to target the Rebbe in a revenge attack for the Chevron massacre that had occurred only days earlier in Israel. Big, big stuff. Federal-level stuff. International terrorism stuff.
But for little fourteen-year-old me, all I wanted was for Ari to come home and go back to doing normal small stuff. All I wanted was for life to go back to the way it was before all this big stuff had happened.
But, as things go, we were about to start a new normal. With new big stuff and new small stuff. Big stuff like criminal court cases, new State terrorism laws being drafted, and the building of a multi-million dollar Jewish Children's museum dedicated to Ari's memory (all to my amazing mother's credit) and small stuff like how to relate to my classmates who had no idea about such big stuff. And all the many small stuff that go into the grieving process of putting one foot in front of the other. Day by singular day. Moment by singular moment.
Many years have passed. A lot of water has gone under the bridge. I graduated, got married, had children, lived in three countries and grew to be a mother of teenagers myself and all I have learned is that it's all about the small stuff. Those are the moments we remember. Those are the things that count. Those are what memories are made of.
Sure, don't sweat the small stuff, but just know - it's really all about the small stuff. Make the small stuff count. Make them memory-worthy. The littlest things make the biggest impact. Every single day is made up of so many such moments. So many opportunities to make the small stuff matter. Look for them. Do the small stuff.
I can regale you with so many memories and stories about Ari. Small stuff that are really big, big stuff – life lessons. But I won't be prescriptive and tell you exactly how to notice the small stuff. Be a noticer. Grab those opportunities that present themselves to you to make a small moment, a great moment, a memorable moment.
On that fateful morning when Ari was going to Manhattan to pray for the Rebbe's health, Ari got up very, very early. Like, still-dark-outside early. As he was preparing to leave the house, my mother woke up to prepare a baby bottle for my little brother. She looked at Ari wordlessly as he left the house. They exchanged glances but said nothing to each other. She had her last, brief glimpse of her healthy, beautiful, teenage boy.
You never know when will be that last hello, good morning or good night. Make them count because all we want now is to say a simple hello to Ari.
Tuesday, 23 Adar is Ari's Yahrtzeit. Please do an extra mitzvah - good deed - in his memory.