Learning from a legend

Ariel Burger details his own journey and his experiences working for Elie Wiesel in a new memoir.

Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
Ariel Burger was drowning in the sadness of his own life when Elie Wiesel hired him as a teaching assistant and doctoral student at Boston University. Burger was in his 30s, married and a father of three and a rabbi and educator, and had been floundering for longer than he cared to remember. He would remain with Wiesel for many years, looking for something to liberate him from his own demons. His journey is chronicled in Burger’s new book, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.
Burger had a troubled childhood and found himself split between his ex-hippie father and his more observant mother, and attended ultra-Orthodox schools in Boston. He recalls having serious doubts about religious life, thinking much of it was “morally bankrupt, nothing more than a pose, but still felt reticent to abandon it.” He asked himself “How could such rich teachings fail to transform people into agents of goodness? Was it possible for a spiritual community to nurture individuality rather than conformity?” These doubts lingered.
Burger was seduced by the giant shadow Wiesel cast – the controlled sadness and regal bearing, the sense of purpose that fueled Wiesel’s life, the aura of saintliness and Wiesel’s ability as a teacher to awaken his student’s ethical and moral powers.
Wiesel seemed to possess all that Burger longed for – the possibility of an important and meaningful life. He had read Night and knew that Wiesel had lost his parents and sister at Auschwitz where Wiesel was imprisoned at 16. He knew his professor was married and had a son, and that he worked tirelessly to use his public face as a survivor of the Holocaust to bring attention to horrors being perpetrated around the world. Presidents listened to him. World leaders gave him an audience. Everyone knew about his work for Soviet Jews. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
But Burger was most interested in how Wiesel had returned to faith, a “wounded faith,” as he described it, after the war. It was the struggle between faith and doubt that troubled Burger.
We sense he believed Wiesel had answers, but when he writes about Wiesel’s interactions in the classroom, he seems overwhelmed and cowered, straining to see in the professor superhuman traits of restraint and tolerance and love. He has trouble imagining what Wiesel can’t see, but we can.
In their private conversations, there is a cryptic quality to their interactions that Burger interprets as his mentor giving him the space he needs to find his own answers. He writes that he believes that Wiesel understood intuitively that he must serve as Burger’s receptacle; a safe haven where he can share his thoughts and doubts.
But the reader senses that Wiesel was ill at ease in private conversations and caught off guard by Burger’s neediness. When Burger mentions the serious problems going on in his failing marriage and other pressures, Wiesel seems to resort to banalities. But like so many of us who delude ourselves into thinking that we can only heal through intervention from an outside source, Burger seems not to see his professor’s limitations and reinterprets them as quiet wisdom and encouragement. There is a wall around Wiesel that the reader senses, even if Burger can’t. A certain distance from those around him.
How could there not be? To look at Wiesel’s haggard face was to know that whatever recovery he had managed to accomplish was short-circuited by the magnitude of his loss. Critics who lambasted Wiesel for his submissive bearing to the gentile world at large seemed to cruelly ignore the magnitude of his grief and the miracle of his recovery, with whatever limitations that accompanied it.
Burger seems ignited from within to struggle masterfully for a life he can relish. In this compelling book, his narrative digressions away from Wiesel’s classroom into his own autobiography soar with a wondrous sense of candor and authenticity that is missing from the rest of the book. He is a natural writer; a man filled with heartache he is able to share and thwarted desires he is determined to break free from. It is not an easy journey. We learn about his love of painting and music and how he abandoned these passions in his 20s when he went to attend an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Israel where he almost lost his mind.
He had intended to “disappear in contemplative waters, to pray until I lost myself, to finally let go of self-consciousness,” but instead became seriously sickened by toxic strains that were running through the yeshiva that left him dangerously fatigued and on the verge of collapse. He returned to the United States, and his position with Wiesel, with his family in tow.
Burger begins painting again with lavish colors and starts psychotherapy, hoping to make sense of his confusions. He starts to exhibit some of his work. He spends meaningful time reconnecting with his three children, who appreciate the new sparkle in their father’s eyes. His marriage was still floundering. But God was still present for him, although their interaction had changed dramatically. Burger describes it euphorically as a sort of conversation interrupted by traditional prayers. He feels his body relax and a new freedom and genuineness take hold that feel closer to prayer than anything he experienced in any of his yeshivot. He allows himself to express anger at God, to say what he is really thinking, even free to be flawed.
One senses there is still so much more Burger has and needs to tell us. His story is not yet finished. We eagerly await his next project, when hopefully he writes of his own experiences unshackled from the need to do so under anyone else’s umbrella.
ARIEL BURGER spent decades working closely with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.