I’ve been hearing about Abe Twerski since I came back here to go to grad school in 1988. A good friend at the time was doing a long-form nonfiction story on the Hasidic Jewish community here, and I remember her mentioning his name.
The first thing I noticed: Abe Twerski’s voice sounded different than I expected it to sound. I expected low-pitched, hoarse, somber. He’s been a rabbi since the 1950s. I heard a tenor voice, clear, energetic, engaged, humorous. I knew he was in his 80s, but he didn’t seem in the least frail. He was dressed in the orthodox manner: long gray coat, black trousers, black velvet yarmulke, and a long white beard that grew into two points.
(“That’s so cool,” my 14-year-old skinny-jeans-clad son said when I told him about it last night at dinner.)
Twerski said he has been going to AA meetings since 1960. “I haven’t been drunk, and I haven’t used drugs, but I go to meetings regularly,” he said. “I tell people, ‘Don’t hold my sobriety against me.’ I need these meetings as much as any of you do.”
We weren’t at a meeting. It wasn’t a couple dozen folks in a church basement. He was standing in front of more than 500 people. The room was silent. Twerski was obviously comfortable with this scene. At the same time, he was spontaneous and fresh, telling 50-year-old stories as if they had just come to his mind for the first time. The middle-aged call-girl-turned-street-hooker and low-bottom drunk, who had detoxed 69 times at his hospital, 23 times at St. John’s, and god only knew how many times at Allegheny General and McKeesport—he couldn’t get the records from those places. So she’d detoxed more than 100 times—medically detoxed. Who knew how many times she’d tried to quit on her own?
I thought of people I’ve known who have despaired of getting sober, who have quit maybe eight or 10 times. I thought of myself, detoxed just three years ago, outpatient, with the help of a doctor referred to me by Gateway’s people. (When I needed an outpatient detox doctor, I called the best in the city. I called Gateway. When my PCP recommended the same doctor, I knew I had the guy who would help me.) I thought of my parents, who tried many times to quit times and never could.
The big dude sitting next to me, 50-something guy with tattoos and tight faded jeans, wiped his eyes now and then. I thought he had something stuck in one of them, but no.
I was sitting at a table right next to Twerski’s. After the talk I shook his hand and asked if I could speak with him sometime. He smiled and waved at the mob crowding around him. “Yeah, give your number to my people out there,” he said and trudged through the crowd.
So I’ll be running an interview at some point with this very cool physician and rabbi who knows how to talk about God without freaking people out. I have questions lined up. Anything you want me to ask him, let me know.