The human spirit: Riding through the long night

Yarden Frankl and his wife Stella focus on how good the present can be, regardless of what life throws at them.

Yarden and Stella Frankl 521 (photo credit: Yarden and Stella Frankl)
Yarden and Stella Frankl 521
(photo credit: Yarden and Stella Frankl)
I’m talking to Yarden Frankl on the cellphone and watching his progress on Facebook while he’s biking in the dark through Gush Etzion on to the Western Wall and back again. But it’s not the technology that’s so thrilling. I’m moved by the love and devotion of this man for his wife.
He’s riding until dawn. Night, he says, is the worst time for him ever since he and Stella received their dire news.
They met 26 years ago in college, undergraduates at prestigious, bucolic Colgate University in upstate New York. He was Jewish, she was Japanese. He was majoring in African Studies, she was majoring in Asian Studies. They belonged to the same coed fraternity. By senior year, they were engaged. A justice of the peace presided at their wedding.
“My parents didn’t mind. We weren’t too religious at home,” he says. “They loved Stella.”
Her parents didn’t mind, either, she says. They weren’t religious. They’d immigrated from Japan to follow the American dream, which included blending in. They run a Japanese steak house and own a winter home in Florida. Stella liked Yarden’s ethnic identity. He ate bagels on Sundays, and his family made a Passover Seder.
When the first children were born, they were living near Washington, DC. Stella felt something was missing. Tradition, she called it. She began exploring Judaism.
“She dragged me along,” says her husband, adding that he’d never pressured her to convert. She surprised him one day by declaring her intention to do just that. Her nurturing Conservative rabbi insisted Yarden attend classes, too.
“There was a lot I didn’t know,” he says.
As they became active in the Jewish community, they met Orthodox friends and decided to become Shabbat-observant and stricter on kashrut. Stella undertook an Orthodox conversion. That meant the children also needed to convert again, and that she and her husband needed to have another wedding, this time with an Orthodox rabbi.
“It wasn’t such a big leap at this point,” says Yarden.
“A friend who had become religious took me through a lot of it and taught me to make cholent,” she says. She’s an enthusiastic cook. The recipes her Shabbat guests most frequently request are sesame chicken and Won Ton chicken – Chinese, she points out, not Japanese.
They visited Israel and decided on aliya. “We felt that Israel was the best place to bring up our children as Jews,” she says. “And it would be a chance for spiritual growth for us.”
Yarden got a job as a Special Projects coordinator for HonestReporting. Stella works for the WebYeshiva, as a dental assistant and as a caregiver for the elderly. They have four children and live in Neve Daniel, a mostly modern-Orthodox community in Gush Etzion. Close friends had moved there before them, and they liked the people and community-based lifestyle.
Both sets of parents had adjusted to Shabbat and the dietary laws. Having them move to Israel was harder. Her parents declared that they wouldn’t come to visit, but would send for them in the summers so they could know their grandkids.
Last summer, they were packed to go on one of those family trips to the US. Stella, 44, had been suffering from a stomach ache. Her family doctor didn’t think she had anything serious. Nonetheless, they turned to a hospital emergency room before getting on the plane. Instead of reassurance, tests revealed the unbelievable: Energetic, outgoing Stella, who walked the dog and did spinning twice a week, had advanced stomach cancer. It was inoperable.
Their lives changed overnight as she began chemotherapy. Wrote her husband in his blog, which he calls “Crossing the Yarden”:
“I have lain awake countless times at around two or three in the morning, when my strength is gone and keeping the nightmares at bay is just too much.
“Eventually, I give up on trying to get back to sleep and just ‘long for the dawn’ as the Psalm (Tehillim 130) says.
“On both a literal and figurative level, the battle with cancer is like one long night.
“You long for the sun to come up because usually you feel a little more in control when the sun is shining.
“You feel a little bit more hope with each new dawn. When Stella is up and we talk, I feel a bit more of a sense of normalcy and can often push the nightmares back into the box where they hide out.
“But getting through the night gets harder and harder.
“And I am getting really tired.
“I’m tired of feeling helpless while Stella fights her courageous battle with the cancer that has turned our lives upside down. Demonstrating love and support and comfort are a given. Of course I do that as much as I can. But I need to do more.”
“More” meant riding 12 hours through the night, a week ago Thursday. He would raise money for the Gush Etzion sick fund to help families meet medical expenses.
He knew he’d be tired and aching by 3 a.m. “Stella has chemo every three weeks. Maybe, maybe, I can feel a fraction of the pain she is going through and can come up with better words of encouragement to support her in her struggle. Or maybe I can’t, and it’s just some way I can focus on something where my own effort will do some good.”
The months of chemotherapy, prayers and support have improved her prognosis, she says.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic and living my life,” she asserts. The week of the chemo is enervating, but then she snaps back. She’s swapped yoga for spinning.
The Neve Daniel community came out to see him off. Young bikers did a first lap with him. His lone ride picked up speed on the Internet, and folks like me were following him from around the world.
“Colleagues in China are intrigued by this overnight bike ride,” wrote one follower on Facebook.
“We just took a family walk in the cold, wet, dark Potomac in solidarity,” wrote another from Washington.
Fueled by Stella’s banana bread, Yarden biked 231 kilometers in 12 hours. Pledges, still coming up, have totaled more than NIS 80,000.
But who could guess such a ride would be romantic?
Wrote Yarden to someone who apologized for not being fit enough to join him riding up the Judaean hills: “Stella and I would like nothing more than for all those who have been following our situation to go take a walk on the night of the ride. It makes no difference if you live in Neve Daniel, Maryland, Oklahoma, Ireland, or wherever. Go out for a walk with your spouse, child, friend, or anyone you love. Don’t talk about work, errands, elections, or so forth. Just focus on how amazing it is to love someone and be loved. Don’t think about the future or the past, for this walk – just focus on how good the present can be.
None of us knows what tomorrow may bring. So let’s take advantage of what we have. Leave the pedaling to me.”Yarden's blog is Stella’s Hebrew name is Tzuriya Kochevet Bat Sarah.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.