Friday, March 4, 2011

Baruch Dayan HaEmet: Ilan Tokayer

Another friend of Ilan has written about his feelings of loss for Ilan here. Having heard so many stories over Shabbos about this New Zealander rabbinical student, I thought it might be healthy for me to follow his example. However, he wrote about the wonderful qualities of Ilan. For me, I think I need to speak about what Ilan was to me. Consider this post paying a shiva call to me (though I'm not in the group of people who will sit shiva).

This will be long and rambly because of a few reasons: a) I've never suffered a close death before, so this is the first time I'm "mourning." b) I'm very isolated, both physically and in the sense that I have few people in my life (hello, internet-user stereotypes), so I have few people to talk to. And even the people I have, I don't know what to say. c) The people who generally know Ilan as I do all live in NYC or Israel, and being awkward, I don't even know that I would feel comfortable speaking to them, at least right now. And for all I know, they have no idea who I am. d) I have been bawling crying (and I NEVER cry) for over 15 hours at this point, and two rounds of prescription sleeping pills have only produced two hours of sleep.

Ilan Tokayer passed away suddenly yesterday, Thursday March 3, 2011 (21 Adar I, 5771). It was his half-birthday, so he was exactly 25 and a half. Born and raised in the New York City area, he grew up in a frum home with a very lovely, loving family. He spoke constantly about them, and how proud he was of his brothers and sister. He moved to my community last fall to enter a 2 year graduate program. He knew he was leaving the safe Jewish bubble of NJ, but had no idea what a Jewish desert the rest of the country could be.

Here is where I enter. I had been Shabbat observant for almost 6 months at the time Ilan arrived in town, and I had spent every one of them alone. Ilan contacted the community to let us know that he would be moving here and was looking for help to find an apartment. As I had just secured my own apartment inside the eruv, I used the mighty powers of Facebook to begin talking to Ilan. While my suggestions didn't pan out, he still ended up living across the street from me. As is common with Ilan, we had the strangest Jewish geography connection. Literally weeks before, I had visited his hometown to visit my best friend, and I met Ilan's sister, who worked with my best friend. It was always a small world with Ilan. If you sent children to camp, I can guarantee he was their counselor at some point. I once wrote about this very "Ilan" phenomenon because I have always been good at Jewish geography (especially for only living in very small communities), but Ilan blows me out of the water every time.

He moved here, and it was nice to finally have company. I have a very nice community, but hospitality doesn't seem to be their strong suit. It doesn't seem to occur to them (and I really think it just doesn't pop in their mind) that people spend Shabbos alone. If visitors come, hospitality is easily found, but Ilan and me, the two single people, generally spent it alone. For me, this was the status quo. I'm an introverted kind of person, and I had accepted that that's just how things are. But for Ilan, it was un-Shabbosdich. He often chided me, "You CAN'T spend Shabbos alone! It's not allowed!" So Ilan and I began to celebrate Shabbat together each week. Eventually, we were even careful to make sure that if we were both going out of town, we would coordinate the weeks so as to not leave the other. This is what happened last week, as he went to a wedding and I spent Shabbos in Oakland. It's been two weeks since I saw Ilan face-to-face. I'm so thankful that two weeks ago, his parents visited him. I can't even imagine what things are like for them and their family right now.

Among many other things, Ilan taught me what Shabbos is. I knew it on paper, and I knew it as a guest, but for the first time, I had ownership of Shabbat. Several friends came into town over the year, with them staying at Ilan's, but me being "Shabbos Ima." Ilan and I weren't romantically involved, but we had made our own kind of family for Shabbat. When there were guests, I felt as though I was also the host, instead of a long-term guest. And because we're both busy grad students, Shabbos was normally the only time we saw each other face-to-face, though we talked daily. We were a strange pair, the FFB and the weird converting girl who knows too much. I'm thankful that I know how proud Ilan was of my Yiddishkeit, and he was always the most effective person at cheering me up when conversion issues had me down in the last few months. I wish I could remember the exact words, but they were very no-nonsense and along the lines of "Of course they're going to convert you. How could they not?" In all aspects of my life, he challenged me in a way that no person on this earth has so far. He wasn't afraid to call me out, and he was always right. Of course, this was a source of endless frustration to me :)

Ilan was very important to me because he showed me what things could be like in my life. As no one in my community (save one) has found out, I'm pretty alone in this world. I never had a support system until this last year, very much unlike Ilan. But like Ilan, I have many friends but few close friends. Ilan gained my respect and my affection, and I consider him as one of my two best friends. However, he "holds his cards close," so I was never sure exactly where I stood with him. I'm lucky that on Wednesday, we had one of those conversations that people always wish they'd had right before losing a loved one. While now I wish we had discussed more things, I'm smart enough to be thankful for the words I have. Due to a miscommunication, he had hurt my feelings, and it created a good conversation about what our friendship was. The context is that I'm getting ready to move to NYC (thanks to the helpful influence and advice of Ilan), but he's been upset that he would be "alone" after I moved away. Here are some of the parting words I have from Ilan:
"My point is that you're my best friend out here and I love having you around! I might hold my cards close, but you think too much and maybe don't give yourself enough credit. Just to be extra super clear, I don't want you to leave because I like you and I appreciate you and you've been an important part of my life since I moved out here that I would rather not lose if I had a choice. I choose my friends wisely and if there is one thing that you're not, it's replaceable."
And of course, now I'm the one saying those exact same words to him.

I'm both glad and worried that I'm about to enter Shabbos. I'm glad because I had the freedom to not go to work or school today (which is much less possible on other days), and I'll have the weekend and most of Monday to get myself back under control. However, Shabbos is so Ilan. I'm going to miss hearing the Tokayer family tunes each Friday night (they're tunes you won't hear anywhere else), his cooking, his conversation, his company. I was especially excited that we were both going to be in NYC for Shabbos in three weeks, and he was going to help me apartment hunt in my new neighborhood. On a selfish level, I'm much more afraid of this move without Ilan's guidance.

Even blogging is hard now because Ilan read my posts every day, and about once or twice a week, he'd have an opinion on something I wrote that was strong enough that he felt the need to email me immediately. (This guy had opinions, let me tell you. Thankfully, they were always insightful and amazing.) So every morning, one of the first things I do is check for Ilan's opinion in my email. It's hard to know it won't be there anymore.

I keep thinking of funny stories I was trying to remember to tell Ilan on Thursday night and how annoyed I was that he wasn't online earlier that day, and now I remember so many questions I've forgotten to ask him over the weeks and months.

Thanks to two particular east coast friends, I feel less crazy than I did 16, 12, and 8 hours ago. I worried because I've know Ilan less than a year, who am I to think I'm close enough to him to feel this terribly? Of course, being empathetic, I should have expected this to be bad, but I really don't think that's it. Empathy is feeling the pain of others, but this is certainly my own pain, minus some serious empathetic pain for Ilan. And so many things around me hurt me worse because even though I know better, I have this feeling that everyone should know about Ilan and should feel what a tragedy this is. Music and idle talk just seem so cheap.

And I still wonder when I'm going to stop crying and when I'll be able to sleep agin.

I miss Ilan. I'm going to miss him a lot.


  1. I can't imagine how you feel, a little tear escaped my eye just reading. I don't know you so there isn't much for me to say except I'm sorry.

  2. oh Chava!! It's like seconds before candle lighting here so I sped-read your post. I will come back after shabbos to give it a better read.

    I will be davening for your broken heart all weekend! ((hugs))

  3. chava,

    a friend of ilan's from jerusalem, i just wrote a response to your words--sharing my own loneliness as a new immigrant, the near and dear conversations i shared with ilan, the shabbat memories that ring so clearly from one of my most perceptive friends, and the empathy i share with you having a very close friend of my own who has recently traversed the up/downs of ortho-conversion.
    that message unfortunately got erased thanks to the mysteries of the internet. not having the koach to rewrite my words, yet knowing that just by writing them i already feel a small bit less empty with the lonely sadness that has been my own since hearing the rumors on Friday...

    may Hashem comfort you, they say, among the mourners of zion and jerusalem. i'm not sure what that means only that here in jerusalem your words have allowed me to mourn the wonderful friend we both have lost.

  4. Baruch Dayan Haemes.

    I'd never known Ilan, either in person or online, but this was as fitting a tribute as I've ever read. He seems like he must have been a wonderful person, and I'm glad for your sake that you were able to know him, albeit (too) briefly.

    May Hashem comfort you (and his family) among the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.

  5. I still can't believe he's gone.

    I first met Ilan 11 years ago when he and his family moved to Chashmonaiim- a little Israeli settlement smack dab in the middle between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Tokayers were an immediate success in Chashmonaiim- easy going and well liked. Since I had also just moved from America the previous year, Ilan and I became instant friends drawn together by our mutual love for animals music and movies (Wayne's World in particular). Even though he was a grade below me at school we still spent a lot of time together- hanging out almost every day. He, I and another friend would go out every Friday to a local kennel to help the lady who ran the place to feed and bathe the animals. We both adopted dogs from there- he named his Homie, and he was a big happy go lucky scoundrel of a dog (not very different from Ilan himself). At the end of the year Ilan and his family moved back to the US, but frequented Israel and Chashmonaiim as often as they could. We stayed in touch through emails over the years, and then after high school Ilan came to Israel for Yeshiva (two years), and then he enlisted into the IDF. Throughout that period he came to Chashmoaniim almost on a weekly basis, and even after that, he came a few times to visit during his breaks from university- I was lucky enough to see him quite often. The Tokayers are currently in the process of building a house right up the street from my parents place. In the past few years I have been very busy with school and beginning a life here in Israel, and I haven't really kept in close touch with Ilan; from time to time I've read the stuff he would post on Facebbok- enough to know that he's been in New Zealand, studying wine-making, but not much more than that. When I received word of the news i was shocked. "this must be some kind of mistake- how could Ilan be gone?" Although I would never wish it upon anyone else- I secretly hoped that they had confused him for someone else.
    How could this happen to him? He was one of the kindest people I know- he never said a bad word about anyone and had not one mean bone in his body! Everywhere he went he lit up the room and every day that he lived he was so full of life, but now...
    It devastates me to think that this is what had to happen in order for me to stop and appreciate what an amazing person Ilan was (and will always be in my mind)- and for me to realize how lucky I am to have had him as a friend (and I hope to be considered one of his). The last time I saw Ilan was in 2008, when my work with the jewish community in Montreal, Canada brought me to Teaneck, New Jersey for a 'shabaton' (a shabbos retreat). I called him up on Friday to let him know I was in town and to ask if he wanted to meet up. Of course he said yes and he drove out to where i was staying on Saturday night. We caught up for an hour or two, and when we got up to leave, he gave me one of his big bear hugs that last 30 seconds. I never could have imagined that that would be the last time I would ever see his big round face, with his smile that literally reaches from ear to ear.

    On Monday I will attend his funeral, still shocked and broken, in order to pay my last respects to him. I can only be comforted by the fact that I know he will be there too, the gentle giant that he is, jolly as ever, smiling down on us- most likely with glass of wine in one hand and a guitar in the other.

    I look forward to the day, when my time comes, to be able to meet him again.

    May his soul be raised with the souls of the righteous, and the kind.
    He will be sorely missed.

    Stay strong! Good luck with your new life in NY- You are not alone- I know there is at least one angel looking out for you...

  6. Crying for you now - wish I could give you a great big in person. I hope that you are able to get in touch with some of Ilan's other friends, as I think it would mean a lot to be able to share some of this with other people who "get it". I hope that you are eventually able to find some comfort in your memories of better times and in knowing that Ilan has changed your life for good and will live on through you and others who knew and loved him...

  7. Condolences. I met Ilan only last Shabbat, When he came for the wedding. Haval D'avdin. He was an impressive guy

  8. Thanks for your candor and words. They were not "rambling". I did not personally know Ilan but heard about his untimely and tragic death and my heart cries out for all who mourn him. I learned many wonderful things things about him from what you shared in the blog.
    I truly hope that his family and many friends will be comforted by their faith, loving memories of Ilan and knowledge that he obviously had a profound impact on the world.

  9. My G-d ... I'm so sorry. So very, very sorry. I'm here for you if you need it. I'll be around tomorrow, before and after the funeral. I would feel so strange going because I did not know him, but if you need an ear or a shoulder, please let me know.

    May his memory be for a blessing.

  10. You should know- anyone who knew ilan knew about you and ur shabbat times together You meant a lot to him and to us knowing he had someone to spend shabbat with

  11. I have only met Ilan once. We worked together at the Covenant crush this past harvest. Ilan was the future of the new Israeli wine revolution. More importantly, there wasn't a single thing about his personality that was unpleasant. I refuse to get over this loss. Our souls will never be seperated and that is how I will have to console myself.

    I remember Ilan's t-shirt. It said "Support Your Local Winemaker". Hashem, Ilan is now in Your locale and You should support his endeavors to advance Israeli wine. Support him by consoling his family and friends.
    May we merit to say Baruch HaTov V'Hametiv together with Ilan, when there will be no more blessings of Dayan HaEmet
    Gavriel Weiss

  12. I met Ilan when I was in Sacramento for the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in January. I actually met him in shul, but I had wished to meet him. We went out on Thursday morning after shul for a coffee, before the symposium, which he didn't attend that day, but had attended on Wednesday, but I had not seen him. A good fellow, a potentially great winemaker, doing necessary research for his thesis. We were both frum, we were both winemakers, we were both Davis involved (I had graduated in 1981, had taken 1 extra year, he had taken his undergrad at YU, and was working on his wine degree) but I had more interaction with him than I had with many other winemakers, and certainly more than with any other students of winemaking. I must say Itake his death hard. Baruch Dayan Emes.
    Craig Winchell

  13. Ilan graced our Shabbos table 3 weeks ago. We had 2 other couples here, one from the community I live in and visitors from Israel -- people who were thrown out of their homes in Gush Katif. I thought Ilan would round out the group perfectly and he did. From the moment we sat down the crazy conversation never ended. It was as if we were all old friends getting together again. My husband and I are a little shy about having people over because we have animals and we're worried how some will react so we're very careful about who we have over for Shabbos. It was very apparent Ilan was comfortable with animals and at one point in the evening he quietly left the table. I glanced over and he was sitting cross-legged on the floor petting one of my dogs and having a few words with her. Ilan was an exemplary young man. I asked him if he would give over some Torah (Parsha Tetzaveh) and he blew our minds - it was brilliant! No notes , no nothing, completely spontaneous. Most have to prepare to give over Torah like Ilan did that Shabbat.

    Ilan brought so much to this community. We benefited from his being apart of it. My husband and I would walk to shul on Shabbos morning and one of us would invariably say to the other "I hope Ilan leads services today" His voice and melodies elevated our davening. Ilan had a profound affect on people. Any adjective one could use that connotates human exceptionalism can be used to describe Ilan. It sounds trite - all the praise when someone passes from this earth but every bit of it is true in Ilan's case. He was everything good. It hardly seems possible we are speaking of him in the past tense.

    Since his passing the community has been speaking about elevating Ilan's neshama with prayer, tzedaka and acts of loving kindness and so we will. But in reality it is we who have been elevated having the good fortune, the blessing of having this vibrant, sweet, holy soul in our community for the short time we did. We should all be motivated to do t'shuva by examining our lives -- the natural consequence of suddenly losing someone so young and irreplaceable as Ilan Tokayer. May all of us find consolation for our pain through our deeds and ahavat Yisrael, by being better Jews and drawing closer to Hashem.

    My heart breaks for his parents and his entire family. I cannot fathom the pain they are going through. What a good son he was and what honor he brought to his parents! May G-d comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

  14. Ok, this may be rambling, but here goes:

    I know Ilan from a zillion places, never too well, but from high school, college, camp, T-neck, heights - a lot of "from around".

    anyway, my immediate rxn to hearing about something so sad as the death of a young someone i no is to go on facebook and their twitter account just to get a glimpse of what they have been up to lately. via Ilan's twitter, i came across your blog almost immediately.

    this may sound weird, but my immediate reaction was, wow, this woman (you) is someoen I don't know at all, but clearly someone who is in serious pain right now. problem is, its kinda awkward. bc obviously everyone immediately thinks of the family, but you, a person who has essentially been Ilan's family for the past year doesn't get that same support. they may make some rational sense to ppl, but it doesn't help you. And that is not fair.

    I don't know you at all, but i think its pretty special that you have been able to put into words the depth of your relationship with Ilan.

    So, I hope you recognize that you uncomfortable loneliness and wanting to mourn is totally normal and if needed, this blog can be that place.

  15. Hey Chava,

    I just read your post after I stumbled upon it from Google after searching Ilan Tokayer's name. I lost one of my best friends a few years ago after he passed away suddenly. I remember sobbing for days, and I know the way you must feel right now. I know nothing I will say will make you feel better. But one thing that always lingers in my mind, that I will not forget: Right before Rosh Hashana, I had called my best friend's parents to wish them a happy Rosh Hashana, and asked them how they were doing. The mother told me that they do their best to keep living, even if it sometimes literally means putting one foot in front of the other. I know how hard it must be, but just keep living, because that's how Ilan would want it. I can't help but tear for his parents and siblings knowing how much they are hurting. The shock, the confusion, and the feeling of helplessness. The feeling that it was all taken away so quickly. Any words wouldn't do you or his family justice. Just know that his family needs support. They need support from their community and friends, but they also need support from Ilan's friends. When my best friend passed away, every story, joke, or stupid thing my friend had said had proved to his parents just what an amazing person he was. You have to remind them of how unbelievable their son and brother was. You have to tell them what impact he had on your life and you have to tell them how much he meant to you.

    I've heard it all and nothing will help. Just continue on working on being the best Jew and person you can be bzchus your friend. Hes watching and smiling in gan eden knowing how much everyone loves and misses him. He will continue reading your blog posts and smiling knowing that you're continuing on.


  16. Hi,

    I don't know you, and I didn't really know Ilan either. I think I met him once and I saw him around because I went to Moshava, where his family goes every summer. I too found your blog by googling his name, after looking at his facebook to learn more about him.

    I actually found out about this tragedy from an email that YU sent out, and I was immediately saddened even though I didn't really know Ilan. From reading your blog and looking at his facebook, I feel as if I got to know him a little better and even that little has shown me how truly amazing he must have been. What you describe him as doing and being for you is an incredible thing. Jews in general form close knit communities, but it's one thing to join a community and it's another to befriend someone who may be considered an "outsider" when you yourself are trying to fit in and find your place. Clearly Ilan had his priorities in order and was able to transcend above this natural human instinct and reach out to someone who could use a friend.

    Realize as well, that as much as he gave you, I'm sure you gave to him a lot and that he appreciated that so much. You are very lucky to have heard that from him before he passed. You know how much you meant to him and you impacted him and changed him to become a completed person such that his neshama no longer needed this world.

    Now you know that you have someone up there rooting for you and advocating for you to Hashem. May Hashem comfort you, along with Ilan's family and other friends. Ilan will be missed, but he has impacted us all and inspired us to become better people. Even those of us who barely knew him.

  17. The news of hearing that someone so young died suddenly is always shocking. Its worse when it is someone you know and admire and even worse when it is someone so close to you with such influence on your life. I have know Ilan for many years but have not been so intouch with him in the passed years. We have many mutual friends and I don't think that I know of anyone who was so liked and appreciated by anyone who met him even if it was for just a few minutes. He was my brother's counselor on a 2 month program here in Israel, his brother was my other brother's counselor in camp. You are correct, if you are Jewish you must somehow be connected to the Tokayers. When he was in New Zealand I gave him tips where to go and I really hope that he got the most out of his trip there. I was so jealous that he got to spend so much time in the place that I love the most...
    He will be missed by all those that he has touched, with his smile, his sense of humor and his amazing knowledge.
    Good luck with your move. NY can be a scary place, just know that you won't be there alone. There are so many people that will be happy to help, just don't be afraid to ask.

  18. Dear Chava, I'm deeply sorry to read about your loss of such a rare and good, sweet friend. Truly, such a friend is a rarity; and this is a great loss. Treasure every moment and blessing you had with him. His effect on you will be part of his memorial in this life. I pray you will find comfort and peace in due time.

  19. I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. I have had many classes with Ilan and had just recently began talking with him. I barley knew him and he's unforgettable. You guys had a great friendship and I'm sure he's looking over you.

  20. I was so devastated to hear of Ilan's passing. I was fortunate to spend the year with him at UC Davis and I was continually amazed by his kindness, compassion, and integrity. My heart is with you and with everyone mourning the loss of a wonderful friend.

  21. May you find comfort in the mourners of Zion.
    Thank you for posting this, for sharing with all who read your blog, or who stumble upon it, who Ilan was to you, the strength of your friendship, and the impact he made in your life.
    Like someone earlier commented, I found your blog after googling Ilan's name. The other day I saw several people I knew were "attending" an event on facebook- "In Memory of Ilan, z"l" ( but I didn't know that it was *this* Ilan until I saw his name on a shul website today.
    I knew Ilan from SAR Academy where we both attended middle school/junior high. There's a lot I don't remember from way back then, but I remember my friends. Even though Ilan was a grade ahead of me, we were friends, I don't remember how or why... I'd like to think it was because of a shared sense of humor, or maybe because I was gullible and would fall for his silly pranks, but for whatever reason we became friends, I remember we used to laugh.
    A while ago Koshertopia had a "Meet our Bloggers" and one of the ones featured was Ilan Tokayer and I got so excited that I knew someone who did such a cool thing as winemaking. I started following him on Twitter and thought about friending him on facebook, but figured he would barely, if at all, remember me. I now sincerely regret that I didn't friend him on fb and try to catch up on the past 10+ years.
    May he live on in our memories, whether they be as mine- a friend I remember laughing with, or as yours- a friend who was so much more than that.

  22. The pain of losing a loved is the toughest thing in life. Ilan was a wonderful young man, a friend of my son's (a groomsman at his wedding last week), as well as the son of my friend. We hope that Ilan was welcomed into the next world by our son who passed only 6 months ago. I admire you for your journey and wish you luck with your move east. If you are lucky enough to connect with Ilan's friends in NY, you will be warmly welcomed and will feel Ilan's presence through them.