I recently finished Joshua Prager's Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck. Prager was a young man of nineteen studying in Jerusalem when the bus he was riding in was slammed by another vehicle -- not an act of terrorism, as one might have assumed, (especially when a Palestinian driver hits a bus full of Jews), but simple carelessness and bad driving. His neck was broken, a moment of rupture which divided his life irrevocably into a "before" and an "after."
The book's narrative curls around and loops in on itself. We read about Prager as a hale and hearty student; we read about him paralyzed; we read about the morning of the crash, and the last bodily freedom he remembers; we read about physical therapy and the excruciating effort to regain bodily control. Learning to breathe and to sit again. From quadriplegic to hemiplegic to walking, albeit with difficulty, with a cane.
We return with Prager to Jerusalem, and as voyeurs on his shoulder we accompany him as he slowly makes his way through the city where his life changed. Navigating, for instance, the cobbled streets and uneven city curbs which I remember from pushing a stroller there in the summer of 2008 with my housemates' three-year-old in tow.
This book is full of poignant tension between what was, and what is, and what might yet be. The same could be said of Jerusalem, with its storied history and contested present and future. As Prager himself notes: "This ancient city is a palimpsest, its narratives written and rewritten on white stone." This memoir's structure evokes that quality. At the beginning of any new section, we might be in the now or we might be in the then -- or any moment in between. Even in the now, the then peeks through.
Prager approaches his subject with clear eyes and deft turns of phrase. I admire his ability to write so candidly about his experience, without sentimentality and without sparing anyone, including the reader. The scene where he goes to meet the driver of the minibus responsible for his injuries is a particularly fine example of that. He doesn't sugar-coat and he doesn't flinch from what is -- and he also resists the urge to demonize or oversimplify. (You can hear him tell that story in his TED talk, which I've linked to below.)
One of the book's most memorable moments for me (as a rabbi and sometime hospital chaplain) is the scene where the rabbi emeritus of his synagogue walks into his hospital room and loudly prays over his prone body. Prager writes:
I was mortified. No, rabbi! NO!
But I, who one month before had wrestled a trio of classmates, pinning each, was unable to fend off a rabbi in his eightieth year. And as the litany unfurled -- God asked to shine his face upon me, to be gracious to me, to lift up his countenance to me, to give me peace -- I wished to disappear. But I saw over my stockinged feet that the congregation was not listening, the yellow man beside me, his saffron urine bagged between us, minding his tea. And so I succumbed to a blessing.
In some ways this whole memoir feels to me like a book about succumbing to blessing with grace, and also a book about fighting for every inch of recovery and understanding. The two coexist sometimes uneasily, and that tension is part of what drives the narrative forward.
Prager resists the platitudes -- "everything happens for a reason" or "God only gives us what we can handle." (Two of the top sentences on my list of things never to say to hospital patients, by the by.) But he also resists, I think, the sense that if God doesn't have a "plan" then our lives is meaningless. I experienced this book as Prager's work at making meaning out of his own life, out of the lived Torah of his human experience. And in reading about his process, we join him in making, or finding, meaning too.
You can read an excerpt online here. To my surprise, the Kindle edition is only $3.99 on Amazon. Worth a read.
Joshua Prager's TED talk, In search of the man who broke my neck [video]
The Q & A: Joshua Prager: Reconstituting a Self, The Economist