The Story Behind the Story

By Arlene Appelrouth | Featured Columnist AJT

Arlene Appelrouth

The last issue of The Atlanta Jewish Times contained my article about Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s talk about his best selling book “Rebbe.” Perhaps you read  the story about the inspiring, successful evening.

In today’s column, I want to tell you the story behind the story.

When asked if I wanted to write about the book festival, I was given a choice of authors.   I chose Joseph Telushkin for two reasons.

First, I admire his work. The prominent rabbi and best selling author is also a highly regarded speaker.  The second reason I chose Telushkin is my fascination with the Chabad movement. I had not yet read Telushkin’s newest book, “The Rebbe” a biography of the life and philosophy of Rabbi Schneerson whose vision has made Chabad as popular as fast food restaurants. Chabad is everywhere.

Telushkin’s book arrived in the mail, and I looked forward to a phone interview. Then something unpredictable happened.

I woke up unable to move my head. For no reason I could think of, my neck muscles were in spasm. On a Thursday afternoon, Rabbi Telushkin called. I asked if we could schedule the interview for Sunday afternoon, when I assumed my pain would be gone.

He agreed.

But on Sunday my pain was worse. None of my visits to a chiropractor, neurologist, or massage therapist brought lasting relief. I was alternating ice packs and a heating pad. The doctor gave me prescriptions for a muscle relaxant, a tranquilizer. The meds made my head fuzzy. I didn’t want to be under their influence when conducting an important interview.  Scotch worked better, and didn’t make me woozy.

I spent Sunday afternoon preparing for the interview by reading Telushkin’s books plus everything I could find on the Internet.

Three o’clock came but the phone didn’t ring.

Things happen, I told myself. I called his cell phone number and got his voice mail message which said he doesn’t listen to voice mail messages He instructed callers to call his office number.

I left a voice mail message there and looked at his website, where I found his email address.

“I thought we had an interview scheduled for 3 pm,” I wrote.  “Please let me know when you want to reschedule.”

I waited. My neck spasms worsened. I knew the muscle relaxant would help, but didn’t want it to affect my cognitive ability. I’d wait a little longer. At 6 pm I went to my athletic club to soak in the Jacuzzi. I took my cell phone and a notebook and pen. I couldn’t explain why I hadn’t heard from the author, and I was reluctant to take any medication. Just in case he called. I was home by 7 p.m.

At 8 pm I gave in. I took the medication. At 9 pm I poured myself some Scotch. Single Malt. Fifteen years old. The pain subsided and I turned on the television. At 9:45 pm the phone rang.

“I am so embarrassed, I just forgot,” said the famous man who explained he’s touring twenty cities in a short time.

“It’s OK. I understand,” I replied. The meds and liquor increased my empathy.

“Can you interview me now?” he asked.

“I might not be as sharp asking questions,” I replied. I explained why I was under the influence.

“Now I feel guilty,” he admitted.

“There’s no reason for you to feel bad,” I said, trying to remember how to normalize feelings the way I had been taught when learning to be a psychotherapist, “the point is you called. I’ll conduct the interview as best as I can.”

The next day I went to Florida, with my notes, to visit my mother who had been sick. I hadn’t finished my story and planned to meet my Friday deadline. When a family member died, I knew going to the funeral and meeting the deadline would be challenging.

Friday morning, the day of my deadline, I was in the rental car while my husband Dan was driving on I-95 to the funeral service. It was forty five minutes away, in Coral Gables. I sat in the passenger seat, writing on my laptop, which was bouncing up and down. My neck was still in spasms and neither the drive nor the position of the laptop was helping.

I finished the story and hoped there would be Wi-Fi in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth David, where the funeral service would take place.

I wanted to make my deadline.

I sat in the back of the sanctuary, hoping not to be noticed, while trying to send my story.

It didn’t seem appropriate to have my laptop open during the eulogy.

As it turned out, there wasn’t any Wi-Fi. I closed my laptop and cried when Herschel’s granddaughter talked about how much her grandfather meant to her. Once the service ended I went to Starbucks and sent in my story.

When I returned to Atlanta, last Monday, I emailed the managing editor saying I was able to attend the Telushkin lecture that night. “Do you want me to revise the story and include what happens tonight?” I asked.

The managing editor agreed, the story would be better if it included information about the talk itself.

I totally rewrote the story after the book festival event. I was more satisfied with the new version. I’m still using a heating pad and ice packs. And still making my deadlines. By the way, Rabbi Schneerson didn’t like negative word like deadlines. He called them “due dates.” I’m still making my due dates.

Arlene Appelrouth earned a degree in news-editorial journalism from the University of Florida and her career as a writer and journalist spans a 50-year period; she currently studies memoir writing while working on her first book.