Book of The TimesExclusive Excerpt

Half Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck, by Joshua Prager

“Am I paralyzed? Am I going to die?” Those were the questions Joshua Prager asked a paramedic on May 16, 1990, after the minibus he’d been traveling in during a visit to Israel was blindsided by a runaway truck. He had been an exuberant, athletic nineteen-year-old, an aspiring doctor and an all-star baseball player who loved the Yankees. The accident, in which Prager suffered a broken neck, instantly turned his life from “before” to “after.”

Chapter 2

When the haze of Haldol lifted, sedatives had taken from me seven days. I was numb and dumb and still. My chest rose and fell with the metronomic exhalations of a respirator. Nine stitches marked where surgeons had opened my neck across my Adam’s apple and fused my third and fourth vertebrae. I was a C3-C4 quad—shorthand for a thousand neurological quirks.

Not all broken necks beget paralysis. They do so only when the break damages the spinal cord—that rope of nerves that thread through thirty-three vertebrae from the base of the head to the coccyx. The higher the nerves damaged, the higher the region of the body they serve. The higher the injury, the worse it is. The first vertebra helps control the neck, the fourth the diaphragm, the eighth the hands.

I had known none of this in the back of the bus. But already, there in my red canvas seat, I understood the cruel instantaneity of spinal-cord injury. And I understood that its horror is magnified when its victim is swung from one pole of esteem to the other, from the musk of the young male to the impotence of the quadriplegic. Unlike the healthy thirty-something who after a first hamstring pull has years to make peace with his encroaching decline, or the victim of neurological disorder, who has months to steel herself after a first tingling digit, the person whose spinal cord is injured has no time to reconcile his lot, his flump immediate after the gunshot or dive or crash.

I am standing in the empty corner of a Jerusalem museum when this helplessness comes to mind. Before me are two rectangles of silver, bitty amulets that bear a biblical blessing in the faintest Hebrew lettering. The inscription is the oldest known citation of the Bible; it dates to roughly 600 B.C.E., before Babylonians destroyed the Jewish temple. It was then, in the temple, that priests, hands raised, bestowed this blessing:

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace.

The blessing was given to me once in my life.

I was between intensive care and rehab, in a hospital way station sponsored by Marriott. My father worked in the hospital, and so there I was alongside the infirm famous and rich—Liza Minnelli, John Lindsay, the vegetative Sunny von Bülow. This afternoon at three, a nurse wheeled me into the atrium in a recliner wheelchair. Here, the melanoma’d ate melon, the tubercular tinkled on a baby grand, a jaundiced man in a bathrobe to my right enjoyed a spot of tea. All was incongruous. And so, perhaps, as I readied for a chocolate-dipped strawberry, the rabbi emeritus of my synagogue walked behind me and placed his palms on my head.

Isaac Swift was tall and thin, with a white goatee and a varicose nose. His British accent underscored his bearing, and his voice now boomed clear through the atrium: “Yevarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha.” May the Lord bless you and keep you.

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.

I remember this as I stare at these exhumed pieces of silver. And I have the thought that, millennia ago, I would not have been blessed. For King David did not welcome the lame into the Tabernacle, the precursor to the temple. Nor, perhaps, could I have bestowed the blessing. For Jewish law deemed it distracting to look at a priest with blemished hands.

It had once been distracting to look upon me. Four of my visitors fell unconscious or became faint and were whisked away.

But there were those who came back to me over and over again. And in time, they were no more distracted by my blemished hand and all the rest—the red open oval in my neck that retracted with every swallow—than they would have been by an unblemished priestly hand. And so, it seems, that same Jewish law included a proviso: a priest with blemished hands could indeed bestow the blessing if he was known, if his townsfolk were accustomed to him.

As Herman Melville wrote: “Yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them.”

I have read that most beautiful sentence a hundred times. But only this last reading did it occur to me that love can bend internal discomforts, too. And even greater than the blessing of a rabbi or a parent or a community who have grown accustomed to the blemish of another is for that person to grow accustomed to it himself.

Joshua Prager is an American journalist and author. His first book The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World, is about a famous 1951 baseball playoff game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. His second book, Half Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck is about his recovery from a bus accident in Jerusalem. He has written for publications including Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, where he was a senior writer for eight years.

Read Joshua Prager reflections on writing this book in My destruction, my resurrection, a Times of Israel blogpost.

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