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
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
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."