Helping parents, teachers, and students of many faiths pursue Biblical wisdom.

October 17, 1992
"Medicine put aside for 'call' to storytelling"
The Milwaukee Journal
Written by Marie Rohde

Those who meet Larry Hurwitz often remark that he should be a rabbi or a teacher. But he protests that he's just a storyteller. The stories Hurwitz tells are known as midrashim. Throughout the ages, these stories -- or pieces of wisdom -- have been told to illustrate verses of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible that are sacred to Jews.

He and his son, Aryeh, worked together for more than a year to put 10,000 pieces of Midrashic wisdom on computer so the information can be used by anyone -- from young Sunday school students to advanced scholars.

How Hurwitz became a storyteller is as interesting as the stories he tells. A successful doctor who specializes in treating cancer patients, Hurwitz put his career on hold to finish the project. He believes God chose him to be a storyteller. "It scares me to say that sort of thing," Hurwitz said in an interview. "When I asked myself why God would choose me, I thought of the midrash of Noah asking God why he was chosen to build the ark. Noah was not chosen for his excessive holiness or saintliness. After the flood, he did some pretty stupid things. "But when he asked God why he was chosen, God said 'I need someone to tell the story.'"

Hurwitz, 51, began his study of religious literature when he was just a child and says he had read most of the great works by the time he was 15. The intensity of medical school forced Hurwitz to put the study of religion on the back burner. Then it was the demands of his practice. About five years after Hurwitz began his practice in 1973, the tension common to those who work with cancer patients got to Hurwitz. "I began to burn out," Hurwitz said. "To cope with it, I began to slowly make my way back to my old books."

Then, for a half-hour a day, he would go to his office and pretend to be a staff writer for an imaginary firm that he called Torah Productions. There, he began writing midrashim in modern language and situations. "It was just between me and God and the company," he said, adding he had not told his family, friends or staff what he was doing. "They were love letters to God." But his knowledge of midrashim became apparent in an adult study class he joined at his synagogue, Beth Israel. In 1986, an acquaintance asked him to teach midrash to fourth grade pupils and rabbinic argument to fifth graders. It was a wonderful escape, Hurwitz said. Aryeh, now 18, taught him how to organize the stories on an Apple computer.

Three-and-a-half years ago, everything was put aside. Hurwitz was diagnosed as having prostate cancer. The signs were all bad: It was a high grade of cancer and Hurwitz was only 48. The higher the grade of cancer and the younger the patient, the less likely one will survive.

By the fall of 1989, Hurwitz said he had become preoccupied with "company business." He could not practice medicine more than an hour or two a day and he began hearing voices of the people of the Torah, sometimes in the middle of the night. "It was as if it were simultaneous translations," he said. "The resources were short and cryptic. The voices told me how the story would be told now."

His family thought he was depressed. Some of his friends thought he was in a mid-life crisis. His accountant warned that his practice was going to pieces. Hurwitz said that it was Rosalie Kwiecinski, a Lutheran lay chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital, who gave the experience a name. "She said 'This is a calling,'" Hurwitz said. "I laughed and said 'Rosalie, Jews don't believe in callings.'"

Rabbi Peter Mahler was the first to tell Hurwitz that what he was doing was not blasphemous and that it was not much different from what had happened through the ages. "He said that God recognizes the 20th century need to dust off the old books," Hurwitz said.

Aryeh Hurwitz got a half day off from Nicolet High School each day of his senior year to develop the computer program for the midrashim his father was collecting. Sometimes the two worked well into the night. The program, "Torah for the People," is being tested at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School.

Torah Productions, once a figment of Hurwitz's imagination, is real. The program was demonstrated in Los Angeles earlier this year at the Coalition for Advancement of Jewish Education and the company has received calls about it from all over the country. In February, Hurwitz began going though the Torah verse by verse, creating an index of midrashim for each. Aryeh designed several ways to gain access.

"At the last sentence, I felt something physically draining out of me and I felt all the voices walking out," he said. "I haven't heard them since, except as echoes."