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A "Conversation" between NU Professor Emeritus John O. Hunwick and a little boy

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Thinking people of a spiritual, religious and philosophical nature agree there are occurrences in life for which there are no reasonable explanations.

A renowned Northwestern University academician, historian and author at the pinnacle of his career suffers a stroke that leaves him permanently disabled


No man can fathom the unfathomable. He can do nothing more than become one of its victims who can only ask but never answer "why" it had to happen to him..

There are those who, driven to understand the world solely in rational terms without any reliance upon religion, persist in their belief that Man's "limitless" human capabilities will lead them to higher levels of truth. They often seem frustrated and disappointed.

"No One's Life is Without Purpose"

A two-month old infant dies. Cause unknown. Some cite "SIDS" (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) for lack of any better explanation. A bereaved parent himself, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik is called upon to give over words of comfort to the bereaved parents and the sizeable assembly of mourners at graveside in what seemed a distant and muddy corner of Waldheim Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

'Why does G-d take such a young life?'

Reb Moshe has fought this battle before.

"I don't know," he began, laboring under an enormous emotional strain, but then reminds the mourners of something they really already know. "Too young to list any accomplishments, babies evoke unadulterated joy in us for which we thank G-d."

The value of a baby's life can be measured only on the scales of human emotion. Just seeing babies brings out the best in folks, awakening the nearly slumbering and turning frowns into smiles.

This sixty-year old writer and father of six children of which three are his nineteen-month old triplets takes particular delight in showing them off to passersby while taking our daily walk in the park. As a rule, I don't pass by anybody with whom I have made eye contact without acknowledging the courtesy they've shown me by marveling at the three miracles with which my wife and I have been blessed.

An elderly, wheelchair-bound man, wearing a floppy, wide brim straw hat, sits aside his caregiver, an attractive, middle-aged African-American lady, who holds his hand tenderly. I am struck by her gentle manner unlike the carelessness with which I have seen other caretakers treat their care recipients, an approach more befitting a large burlap sack of potatoes than a human being.

They enjoy the respite from the intensely hot midday sun in a shaded area of Skokie Park District's Terminal Park across from Old Orchard Junior High School. I had taken notice of them several weeks before but did not stop to chat with them.

"Another day," I thought to myself.

That day was soon to arrive.

My kids, riding in their "lateral triplets" baby buggy, my mother in-law and I saw them again in the same spot. My conscience advised me not to ignore this second chance to keep my promise to myself and not forget Reb Moshe's words.

Why would I not want to share with folks whose lives seemed joyless?

"He used to be a professor of history and religion at Northwestern University, a scholar of African Studies whose wife Uwa is a Nigerian dramatist and artist," Chesda, the caregiver, proclaimed as proudly as one might expect of a mother speaking about her only son.

"How invincible is Man?"

One day he stands atop the mountain. The next day he's already fallen. And it's only then that we're reminded of the frailty and brevity of his life, not unlike a visitor just passing through from this to the next world.

"He was on his way home from campus one day when he suffered a stroke which left him, well ... ", Chesda pauses to wipe John's mouth with a washcloth she has pinned to his undershirt, "like this."

John no longer speaks but seems quite taken with my triplets. Though slumped in his chair, he leans forward to look at them more closely.

Suddenly, out of the blue, my son Guriel, whom we've nicknamed "Guri" or "Gurigoo", uttered one of his many guttural exclamations. Just as unexpectedly, John O. Hunwick, professor emeritus of history and religion, responded with a remarkably similar utterance.

"Did you see that?" my mother in-law excitedly asked. "He lit up like a Christmas tree."

Guri speaks your language, right John?" Chesda was overjoyed.

I cannot be certain, but something tells me John O. Hunwick, professor emeritus of history and religion at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois hadn't been as happy for quite a long time as he was that afternoon in a "conversation" he held with my nineteen-month old son, Guriel Shemtov Busch, on a summer's afternoon at Terminal Park in Skokie, Illinois.

Author's Note: Professor John O. Hunwick is the author of four books, one of which "Jews of a Saharan Oasis" I hope to review in the near future. Translated from Arabic with commentary by Professor Hunwick, the text is a medieval "fatwa" (Islam-based argument) used to justify the destruction of a synagogue in a Saharan oasis.

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