Remembering Juris Jurjevics (1943-2018)

Juris Jurjevics in Viet Nam.

When I started the LABA fellowship in September, I had no idea how intensely personal the topic of “Life and Death” would become: on November 7th, Juris Jurjevics, my husband of almost 20 years, died without warning. (Read his New York Times obituary here.) 

I’d like to thank the LABA cohort and staff for their warmth and concern over the past three months.

As I struggle to understand how he could have disappeared from my life in an instant, I’ve been using my Facebook page as a kind of extended eulogy. (I should explain that I pushed my husband to join Facebook when his second novel came out in 2010. I rued that decision every time he gleefully announced his rapidly mounting number of Facebook friends: 4766 at last count.) What follows are a few of those posts. — Jeanne Heifetz

Juris said that after the hunger, the worst part of growing up in the DP camps was the humiliation. He came out of that experience with the tenderest of hearts. Every time he saw Betty, the homeless woman in the knit cap who’d found shelter in an alcove near Soho Press, he chatted with her and slipped her a $20. He routinely brought stacks of review copies to the homeless bookseller who set up his tabletop shop on the corner of 6th Avenue and St. Marks. When he discovered John, a Viet Nam vet addicted to heroin since the late ’60s, “quaking and using a walker” on the subway, he took him out for a hot meal and gave him the sweater he was wearing. Sometimes, of course, he got taken, wiring hundreds of dollars to a Facebook ‘friend’ claiming to be an impoverished Gambian student with a desperately sick mother. But as he said to a genuinely deserving friend he supported for years, in the end money was “just paper, like the paper I have burned at Buddhist funerals.” When in doubt, Juris always erred on the side of generosity.

Juris’s skepticism about religion started young. “As a child I wondered: if God did not have a sense of humor, how could he understand us? It always struck me as odd that the Bible would be without humor. Now I wonder if some editor took it out.”

Although he had little patience for organized religion, Juri found the inner life endlessly fascinating. As a child in the Bronx, he would sneak into the local Abyssinian Baptist church to hear their gospel choir, and in recent years visited our local mosque at the prompting of a Muslim friend. And he would light candles at the 125-year-old Catholic church on our corner for friends in need. “I’m not religious, but I’m not taking chances,” he wrote to a friend about to undergo surgery. “And not being Catholic, I can sneak in and set the place ablaze with votive candles.” (Not surprisingly, his taste in Catholicism ran to Dorothy Day, one of his great heroes.)

He was always particularly drawn to the mystical, including an odd soft spot for theosophy. He had witnessed a Montagnard shaman in Vietnam dip a completely porous basket into the river and raise it into the air. The open-weave basket was full of water, yet didn’t spill a drop.

Juri often said that of all the world religions, Buddhism made the most sense to him (as a pragmatist, though, he’d been shot at by too many Buddhists to believe it was flawless). But without question, the sacred object in he loved most in the world was this statue, which lives in Kansas City. He had five separate photographs of it in the house: Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the world’s sorrows.

Juris was reader and advisor to many: if you asked for his editorial help (and occasionally even if you didn’t), he was there, taking his red pencil to everything from full-length manuscripts to legal depositions to eulogies—and even, for one godchild, high-school homework assignments. His “clients” included a friend from basic training who’d written a two-volume biography of a Civil War general; his GP, who was writing a collection of essays; his own agent; our landlord; aspiring writers he’d met for an afternoon as a guest critic at a writing workshop; and recently, someone who’d met a friend of his at the dog park and just happened to be writing a memoir. One manuscript weighed in at 770 pages, the longest our local copy shop had ever seen.

“I’m practically running a bakery here,” he wrote to a writer friend who was wondering why Juri hadn’t yet read the manuscript of his friend, whom Juri had never met. “Take a number.”

He didn’t sugarcoat his editorial methods. “Just so you’re forewarned,” he wrote to one of the people waiting in line, “I was never known for my bedside manner. I took very seriously my responsibility not to be a cheerleader and give the writer as cold a reading as I could manage. At the editing stage I’m not at all mystical. I’m more like your friendly, not-so-painless dentist. Where does it hurt? I try to be as practical as possible once the muse gets out of the way. I’m the mechanic at that point, trying to rev up the engine so the author can win his race. But it isn’t tedious at all. Quite the opposite. I know it is working because I get sort of excited and zingy, humming like a cat with a live mouse.” 

No matter how excited and zingy Juri might get (and I don’t think it’s unfair to say he was addicted to the editor’s high), not everyone welcomed his input. “Years ago an author I’d just edited long distance showed up in my big-windowed office and tore all my huge plants out of their pots and left. Didn’t say a word to nobody.” 

Juris was an inveterate researcher. He estimated that for his two novels set in Viet Nam, he read over a thousand books. I catalogued over 500 on our shelves alone. I wanted to make sure they stayed together as a collection, and go to public institutions where researchers as passionate as he was would benefit from the years he had put into assembling them.

Today I received an email from a graduate student at William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and its Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which read in part: “I was born with physical and mental defects as a result of my parents’ exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. I just wanted you to know that because of your donation of books to the Joiner Center, I was able to incorporate their contents about the impact of the war that harmed everyone involved and indirectly harmed their children like me.”

Juri couldn’t stand to see children endangered. He would have been enraged by the idea of this young person suffering the consequences of Agent Orange exposure (as he had). But he also liked nothing better than helping young people, so I hope he’d be gratified to know that the books he’d amassed to help him understand and write about Viet Nam were already being put to use, helping this student make some sense of the war and its aftermath.

Twenty years ago today, Juris and I snuck off at lunchtime to City Hall and did the deed. There was an inexplicable delay in the waiting room, which was overseen by a somewhat officious bureaucrat in a pink suit. As more time passed without any names being called, one of our witnesses, Dan Simon, started making clearly audible and increasingly snide remarks about civil servants. This proved awkward when the bureaucrat stood up from her desk and transformed into the Justice of the Peace.

The vows themselves were so fast neither of us could remember what was in them. So over the course of our marriage we would make them up as needed, adding the words, “The Pink Lady said….”

Oh, Juris, the Pink Lady never said you could do this.