Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reading Slowly

When I was in college, the single most important skill necessary to succeed was the ability to read quickly and to retain all or at least most of what you were reading. In graduate school, that ability—which I cultivated assiduously, as did all my classmates—was even more crucial: there were weeks when we were expected to read hundreds of pages of material and somehow digest it all.  You were allowed, obviously, to take notes. That I did, and voluminously…but, in the end, there was simply too much to master solely by jotting things down: to succeed you needed to be learning the material as you were reading, after which you could rely on your notebooks to remind you about the details.
The very last skill anyone wished to cultivate was the ability to read slowly. And, indeed, why would anyone have wanted or needed to work on reading slowly anyway? Isn’t slowly how children read when they are just learning how to sound out words? That works well in second grade, but aren’t you supposed to transcend that part of your elementary school education as you grow older and learn how to read more quickly and with ever more successful retention of the material? That surely was the way the concept was sold to us as children. And college and graduate school merely reinforced the concept.

But I’m also a slow reader, at least sometimes, and that specific skill was taught to me by Professor Elias Bickerman. Like many of my Seminary professors, Professor Bickerman was a character. But he was also a remarkable scholar possessed of a truly supple intellect and, even in the context of JTS in the 1970s, remarkable erudition. Born in 1897 in Kishenev, he was a mere lad of six when the horrific pogrom of 1903 not too subtly presaged the violence of the Shoah. As soon as he could, he left…first for Germany, where he studied and later taught at the University of Berlin until 1932, escaping to France when it was no longer tenable for a Jew to teach in Germany. He lived and taught in Paris until 1940, when it was necessary to flee again. And so he came to New York, teaching at the New School, then at Columbia, then at JTS. (He lived and taught in Los Angeles at the American Jewish University, then the University of Judaism, in the early 1950s as well.) But it was in his final professional incarnation as a professor at JTS that I knew him and studied with him. When he died in 1981, I had been his pupil for years.

Readers unfamiliar with his work should start with his entry-level book, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees (published in 1962 and still in print more than half a century later), in which the author sets the larger picture of Jewish history in the centuries before the Chanukah story we all sort of know at least something of in the larger context of world politics and the military, social, and economic realities of the day. He also wrote many other historical works, including true classics in their field, but I’d like to focus on the man in the classroom here…because it was in that specific setting that I learned the art of reading slowly.

Very slowly! My first course with Professor Bickerman was in the Septuagint, the translation of the Bible into Greek commissioned by King Ptolemy II in the first half of the third century BCE and thus the oldest surviving translation of Scripture into any language at all. It was going to be, I thought, fascinating…to see how the ancients understood the Hebrew text, to feel them struggling to find ways to convey the way the Hebrew felt to them in their own language, to see them developing, even occasionally inventing, new terms to explain ideas that had no obvious parallel in the cultural milieu in which they were working.  And so there I was the first day, my newly purchased Septuagint on the desk in front of me, ready to wade into waters I had wanted to sample for quite some time. And in walked the professor. He looked a bit disheveled, but when he spoke—he certainly didn’t bother with anything as mundane as taking attendance, asking who we were, distributing a reading list or a syllabus, or assigning any specific work to us—when he spoke, he spoke with the clear, powerful voice of someone who knows exactly what he wants to say. And his first sentence on that first day stays with me still. “I am here,” he said, “to teach you how to read slowly.”

And “slowly” was to say the very least. Our classes were ninety minutes long. The first two, comprising a full three hours, he devoted to the first word on the first page, geneisis, the Greek version of the title we all know, “Genesis.” Where did this title come from, he asked. The Torah itself has the text of Genesis in it, obviously…but it has no title at all in the scroll we read from in synagogue. The rabbis made up names for the books of the Torah the more easily to reference them. But those names have mostly fallen away and will be familiar to almost no one. The names we do recognize (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) are the Greek ones. But where did they come from? And what of the “other” Hebrew names, the ones in use by Hebrew speakers today? Each is the name of the opening verse in the book, apparently. But where did that practice come from? And so he began to answer his own questions, leading us through—this was done entirely without notes, incidentally—through a thousand different side topics. Greek books and Latin books. The use of titles in Aramaic literature and even in Egyptian literature. Which books first had titles and what those titles were. The question of who named Homer’s ancient epic poems. The use of names to designate Sanskrit books in ancient India, and the endlessly fascinating (who knew?) question of whether the sages of Jewish Palestine in antiquity had any contact with India or with Indian literature.

You get the idea. It took two days…and then Professor Bickerman forced himself to move on…to the first word in the actual book after the title. Or rather to the first two words: en arkhei, “in the beginning.” Is that what the Hebrew b’reishit means exactly? Why two words instead of one. In the beginning of what? Is that normal Greek or were they mimicking the Hebrew? And to what effect? This all took another class or two. By the end of the semester, we had finished, maybe, eight verses. And that was with leaving out lots of side topics on which Professor Bickerman would have liked very much to expatiate, but which we had nowhere near enough time to consider even in what our teacher would have considered cursory detail. It was a year-long course. The second semester opened up, as I recall, on the third day of creation.

Somehow Simchat Torah, our annual festival of finishing the Torah and starting immediately to read it again—this closing festival in our long holiday season always brings Professor Bickerman and his class to my mind. I read a lot, as you all know. And I read quickly, as you’ve probably intuited by now. I rarely read books a second time. And when I do it is almost always to revisit some issue that I recall only vaguely and wish to remind myself about.  For all those reasons, Simchat Torah constitutes a kind of challenge for me…the challenge laid down for me all those years ago by my teacher at JTS who only wanted to teach me how to read slowly. And so we do exactly that in synagogue. We read slowly. Over and over, the same texts, the same stories, the same laws. As it is, we probably read far too quickly…but at least we never stop revisiting passages we have already read so many times that we almost know them by heart. There’s always something, always some ore hidden beneath the surface we have yet even to notice, let alone successfully to mine. Reading quickly is good for graduate students, I suppose. But reading slowly is the thing, the art that leads to the true pleasure of the text.

When Professor Bickerman died in 1981, I was working as the assistant to the librarian at JTS and it fell to the librarian, in those days Professor Menachem Schmelzer, and to me to visit Professor Bickerman’s home to get an initial sense of how many books the JTS library was about to acquire according to the terms of his will.  We did our work quickly, as I recall, just counting shelves and estimating the number of volumes on each. But as I wandered around in his space and looked at the books that were his lifelong companions, I could almost hear his voice challenging me to see this huge mass of printed books before my eyes, but not to lose track of the lesson he himself taught me: that reading quickly is useful, but reading slowly is sublime.

And that is what I would like to tell you as we approach Simchat Torah. It isn’t dull or uninteresting to hear the same text again. It is crucial—not because you may not recall this or that detail in the book, but because you haven’t ever heard it before at this specific moment in your life, at this particular point in your own intellectual and spiritual development. You’ve read it before, to be sure. But too quickly—trust me on this—and with too great an emphasis on completing the task at hand. Perhaps this year we should all focus on the far more difficult task of reading slowly…and finding in the slow, considered contemplation of Scripture a highway towards communion with the living God, whose divine spirit inheres in each sacred word of our holy Torah. Finding that possible is the challenge Simchat Torah—as we begin to read again—lays at our feet. Will we respond successfully and productively? That remains to be seen!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sukkot 5775

Is there something perverse, or at least bizarre, about celebrating the beginning of a new year precisely when the physical world is winding down, as its season of burgeoning growth ends and the earth itself begins its slow but inexorable descent through decay and decline into its annual experience of frozen, lifeless—or at least apparently lifeless—sleep?  A little bit, there is!

You’ve surely noticed the changes afoot in the world just lately, in our world. A flash of yellow or even red leaves here and there…not the full monty of autumnal color just quite yet, but the intimation of that riot of color that seems so alive and yet which, as any sober botanist will tell you, is actually a sign of decay and deterioration: healthy, growing leaves are green, not red!  A chill in the air early in the morning when you head out to retrieve the paper from the driveway or to put the garbage cans on the curb before the appointed pick-up hour.  (I found myself reaching for a jacket the other day without even thinking about it much as I headed out to minyan in the morning. And I was glad I did!) The neighborhood cats seem to be gearing up for the winter too, although even I am not entirely sure what I mean by that—they just seem to be out and about more obviously at dusk, perhaps gathering up acorns  for the cold winter months to come. (Do cats eat acorns? If I were a cat, I suppose I’d know.) I’ve seen a few more raccoons wandering around the neighborhood too just recently. The squirrels look a bit more plump than usual too, including the one with the huge tail who likes to sit on our deck and watch me work there in the late afternoon.

And so is born the paradox of our temperate climate: the physical world in these tepid latitudes is never more beautiful or more soul-stirring than when it is on the verge of its annual demise. 

Why do I love it so? And I do love it. In fact, I’ve always loved the fall colors, always felt myself stirred in a deep, visceral way by the yellow and reds of autumn. I like the way the world turns green in springtime and, like everybody, I like the warm summer weather. (For some reason, I particularly like swimming in the ocean. And that is definitely something that I only do when the weather is at its warmest.) But there is something in the fall…in the smell of the leaves as they fall to the ground, in the brightness of their colors, of the strange blueness of the sky particularly when the air is cold and the sunlight bright and yellow…there is something in all of that that moves my soul and makes me feel part of the natural world in a way that the other seasons suggest a bit but fail actually to stimulate in any truly meaningful way.

Sukkot is part of that set of ideas as well. It is, by all accounts, an odd holiday. We build sukkot that thin the boundary we generally wish to be thick and firm between indoors and outdoors, between the civilized world symbolized by our climate-controlled, electronically secure, comfortably upholstered homes and the natural world that exists uncontrolled by ourselves beyond the boundaries of our property.  And then, having thinned the boundary, we proceed to ignore it as we transgress (to use the word literally for once) in both directions: we bring our china and our stemware out into the natural world, into the flimsy hut that can barely protect itself, let alone ourselves and the treasures we casually deposit within its burlap walls…and we take the lulav and bind willow and myrtle twigs to it, then clasp the whole bundle to the etrog and hold it as we sing the Hallel in praise of the God Who made the world and its bounty, but we do so specifically not outdoors in the context of all that bounty but indoors…in our wholly indoor sanctuaries where, unlike in the sukkah,  we do not feel ourselves half-inside and half-outside at all, but fully and comfortably indoors.

It’s an outside/inside sort of festival the Jews celebrate as the world surrenders to putrefaction in a blaze of glory that itself symbolizes the degree to which life itself can only truly be loved by those who understand its brevity, its ephemeral evanescence, its essential transitoriness.  And so what we are left with as we contemplate our festival in the context of its season is the notion that, truly, nothing is ever as it seems. The security of inside and the insecurity of outside meet and coalesce in the even more basic truth that true security in the world can only come from within, from faith, from confidence born of the knowledge that there is a God in heaven Who watches over the world and Whose essential nature constitutes its moral core.  The beauty of the autumn leaves meets the underlying knowledge that what that beauty really signals is the beginning of the end, the death of life, the onset of the harshest season of the year…and those two notions somehow yield—or should yield—the realization that, far more than spring is birth and winter death, the cycle is the thing…and the notion that the world cycles through its seasons in an endless progression of birth and death, of growth and decline, of gorgeousness and bareness, has at its heart a deep truth that the wise will willingly embrace: that creation itself is meant neither to terrify nor to embolden, but to prompt feelings of deep gratitude and beholdenness to the Creator, author of the earth’s bounty and its cycles of life and death.


And so, with those confused, not fully congruent ideas embraced and proclaimed as simple truths (the hallmark of the successful preacher being precisely that ability to make incongruous ideas sound as though they fit together so well that only a fool would feel the need to choose one over the other), I wish you all a satisfying, meaningful, and spiritually transformational Sukkot this year. At Shelter Rock, we’re having about 350 to dinner in our beautiful and elegantly decorated giant sukkah. Tomorrow, lunch will be served serially (not cereally, or at least mostly not) in a succession of neighborhood sukkot including Joan’s and my own. Throughout the festival, we will be eating and drinking in these flimsy backyard huts that will paradoxically make us feel more, not less, secure that the world is a place of majesty and beauty, and that creation itself—and particularly in its lush gorgeousness—is the only adequate mirror in which mortals can catch even a fleeting glimpse of their Creator.  And in that thought rests the beauty and the profundity of one of the great festivals the Torah offers us as respites from our workaday lives. I wish you all a chag sameiach and, one last time, a shanah tovah for you and your families.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Yom Kippur 5775

As we approach our holiest day of the year, I feel myself possessed by mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I find the whole Yom Kippur experience cathartic and cleansing, and always deeply satisfying.  Yom Kippur is, after all, our national festival of being taken seriously, of being told carefully and thoughtfully to self-scrutinize even to the point of personal discomfort. And not just to consider the way we conduct ourselves in places that obviously matter like home or the workplace but even the way we behave in the market or at the gym, and further to consider the language we use when we are boiling over with irritation at the leisurely way the person at the front of a very long line that we are standing at the end of is conducting his or her business, the way we conduct ourselves when we are frustrated driving behind someone who seems to be taking some perverse pleasure in driving ten miles an hour under the speed limit, the self-control we do (or don’t) exert when we encounter those perky, intensely irritating phony voice-persons (or whatever you’d call them—those gratingly upbeat non-people who exist solely as disembodied voices who want to guide you through an automated system that doesn’t really do anything other than stand between you and the possibility of speaking to any actual human being when you phone the bank or some service provider that seems intent on providing no service at all, or at least not to you personally), or when we find ourselves enraged at people, usually a spouse, parent, or child, whose sole sin was not to be able to read our minds and magically know something we haven’t actually ever told them.

Am I speaking too personally? I’m sure I am! (I really do hate those voice-people things and their relentless—and relentlessly cheery—certainty that they can help you if you would only let them.)  So there’s that aspect of Yom Kippur—the celebration of the importance of the individual and the development of the foundational idea that deeds count, that casual gestures count, that inappropriate glances count, that words count, that even words spoken in haste and regretted instantly count. Or, to say the same thing differently, that we count not merely as members of humankind or even as the men and women of the House of Israel, but as individuals stamped with the divine image who have the infinite capacity to do good in the world…or to be personally responsible for the degeneration of society and the degradation of the moral foundation upon which society should and could rest.

From all that comes deep satisfaction: what could be more fulfilling than being told that it really is all about us, that we really do matter, that the history books may well be filled with stories about the feats of the famous, but when it comes down to God judging the world, the judged will mostly not be Olympic athletes or famous actors or politicians, but regular people like ourselves endowed with the capacity to do good merely by walking the earth as the living exemplars of the virtues the Torah considers fundamental and paradigmatic: justice, equity, generosity, kindness, societal responsibility, and the pursuit of peace.

But from all that also comes a deep, chilling sense of ill ease…and that too is part of what Yom Kippur means to me. Like all of you, I do not like being judged. At all, really, and least of all by an all-knowing Judge before Whom lying is not actually possible. I want to be important (doesn’t everybody?), but I also don’t want to be, don’t want to feel responsible for my own actions, let alone for the welfare of the world. When you come down to it (and for all I like feeling crucial to the fate of humankind), I also like feeling that nothing I do matters all that much, that the pursuit of justice is the job of the Department of Justice, that the mandate to guarantee that even the poorest among us have clean water to drink, nourishing food to eat, adequate medical care, and affordable housing is the job of the various government agencies that exist to deal with those issues as they relate to those people, and which I personally fund, although obviously not entirely, with my personal tax dollars anyway. The last thing most of us, myself most definitely included, want is to be made to feel responsible for the world! Most of us, myself also most definitely included, aren’t even that wild about feeling responsible for ourselves!

And so, as I said above, I approach this sacred day with mixed feelings. I relish the importance that our tradition attributes to me personally and I take pride and even pleasure in the sense that my actions matter not just in local terms but in cosmic ones. But I am equally sure that the very last thing I want is the burden of the universe to be set on my tired shoulders when I can barely keep up with my responsibilities to my family, to our congregation, and to our community! And that is the set of confused emotions I bring to the day.

This is not new for this year, but rather the way I tend always to approach the holiday. I suppose the real question is whether or not I have the courage to look deeply within, to identify my own flaws and errors of judgment, to deal productively and creatively with them…and then, cleansed of my own faults and shortcomings, to feel ready to take my place in the big world out there, the one that is only spinning at all because I personally make it spin, the one that is a place of justice and generosity because of what I personally do with the days of my life, the one in which the needy of the world are looked after because I personally look after them. There is both pleasure and anxiety in that kind of taking yourself seriously. Like all of you, I’m sure, I like it and don’t like it. I anticipate it and dread it, await it eagerly and hope against hope that the day will somehow come and go without me looking up from my Machzor long enough to catch an unwanted glimpse of myself in the mirror that is my personal page in the great Book of Life, that celestial tome that was written up on Rosh Hashanah and will be sealed b’yom tzom kippur, on the great Day of Atonement, that embodies our fondest hopes about the world and about ourselves…and also our deepest fears about the world and about ourselves. Will I be able to set my anxieties aside long enough to feel cleansed and happy when we go home after Neilah? Will you? We shall see soon enough!


I wish you all an easy fast and a g’mar ḥatimah tovah. May we all be inscribed for a happy and healthy year in the great Book of Life.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whose Woods These Are

Growing up, I never fully got the whole “dark, foreboding forest” thing in the stories my father liked to read to me at bedtime. In how many of Grimm’s fairytales, for example, is the woods depicted as the enemy of civilization, as a sinister remnant of the pre-civilized world? That motif is almost a commonplace in that kind of writing, yet the whole concept—that the natural world is dark and scary, that the forest is to the town as night is to day, that the dark woods constitutes some sort of middle ground between the land of the living and the dank, gloomy version of Sheol that is naught but the grave writ big and a place, therefore, in which only scary, creepy things happen—that whole notion seemed foreign to me, and strange. Instead, I loved the woods. Perhaps, because we lived in such a dense, urban area, I think I primarily connected the forest with summer camp…which experience was the highpoint of my year for as long as I was young enough to be a camper. I liked my dad’s stories well enough, but the woods I knew from camp were anything but menacing. Just the opposite was the case, actually: I felt happy and free hiking with my bunkmates in the forest, content amidst the trees that encircled Lake Oxoboxo in a way I specifically did not feel at home amidst the lampposts that lined Queens Boulevard, secure that nature was peaceful and safe…and that, by extension, I too was safe and secure in nature’s embrace.

Or, to speak more honestly, mostly safe and secure…because even back then I think I also sensed something powerful and enigmatic in the woods: this peaceful verdant setting felt almost alive to me, and not alive solely in the sense that it was filled with living plants and animals. (I don’t recall ever seeing a bear near camp, despite our counselors’ best efforts to convince us they were out there somewhere. But I did see deer many times, plus lots of smaller animals and birds.) It felt alive in a different way, in a strange, inchoate way that I believe I only sensed as a child but doubt I could have articulated even unsuccessfully. And embedded in that aliveness was a kind of restless power that paradoxically felt both benign—because the woods was for me essentially a place of tranquility and peacefulness—but also vaguely threatening, even perhaps potentially dangerous. I doubt I could have expressed any of this cogently as a child; yet I remember those conflicting emotions clearly even after all these many years.

Years later, I read P.D. James great 1992 novel, The Children of Men, probably my favorite of all her books (and, at least in my opinion, far better than Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie adaptation). In the book, the author imagines a world in which the human race suddenly becomes infertile. As years pass and no babies are born, the population of the world both ages and diminishes accordingly. Some adapt nicely to the new reality, figuring that they personally weren’t going to live forever…so why should their lives be substantially altered by the fact that sometime after they die human life on earth will cease to exist. Wasn’t that going eventually to happen anyway? Others rage against the situation, treating it like a decree enacted by an unseen God against humankind that needs to be undone through some combination of prayer and heartfelt supplication. And still others…well, you will have to read the book (or, I guess, see the movie) to find out what happens. But the detail that stays with me even twenty years after reading the book is the slow, menacing (and no one does menacing like P.D. James), inexorable way that the forest begins to encroach on civilization, gradually taking back the edges of suburbs in which no one any longer lives, then positioning itself (and you truly do think of the forest as a player, certainly as a living thing) to begin its final onslaught against manmade society as the population dwindles and fades.

It’s a great book, P.D. James’, one I think anyone (other than the obsessively optimistic) would enjoy. But the idea was carried forward, and magnificently, by Alan Weisman in his 2007 book, The World Without Us, in which he imagined a world from which humankind has somehow vanished and describes in detail how—and how quickly—the traces of human society would be erased almost completely from the face of the earth as nature, and particularly the forest itself, would manage to reassert its power and its natural tendency to dominate the landmass and to eradicate whatever might otherwise stand in its way. It’s a powerful, very provocative book, one I not only recommend to you now, but actually made the basis of a Yom Kippur sermon a few years ago. You all know that I have a special predilection for popular science books that make advances in science intelligible to non-scientists like myself, and particularly when they are provocative and stimulating as well. Wiseman’s book is both those things—his chapter about the Białowieża Forest that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus alone is worth the price of the book and remains one of the most interesting chapters about the natural world I can recall reading—and would also be a worthy read for anyone seeking to be challenged both emotionally and intellectually. It is a great book!

But the power of the forest asserted itself in my imagination this last week for another reason. Among Nazi death camps Sobibor, built on the outskirts of a town with that same name near Lublin, was fifth in terms of people murdered within its precincts even though the dead there numbered a full quarter of a million people, more or less exclusively Jews from Russia, Holland, Poland, and France. There were 58 survivors, 48 men and 10 women, almost all of whom survived because of their participation in an almost unprecedented camp-wide revolt that took place on October 14, 1943. There were similar revolts in Treblinka on August 2 of that year and one at Auschwitz-Birkenau a year later on October 7, 1944, but the revolt at Sobibor was by far the most successful and, whereas the revolt at Auschwitz led to the destruction of one of the crematoria, the uprising at Sobibor actually led to the closing of the camp. (To readers who want to learn more, I can highly recommend Richard Rashke’s Escape from Sobibor, republished just two years ago in an expanded and updated edition.)  And it was then, after the Nazis made the decision finally to close down the camp, that the forest began slowly to erase the unspeakable evil that occurred in that place. Himmler himself apparently ordered that the place be bulldozed and planted with trees. But the forest does not take orders from anyone at all, and least of all from the Himmlers of this world…and what began as an effort cosmetically to mask the camp’s location ended up with the gas chambers themselves disappearing…almost as though the forest, ashamed, wished to eradicate the signs of the evil perpetrated within its boundaries.

And those gas chambers were never again located…until this week when Yad Vashem announced that, after seven years of archeological effort, the forest has finally yielded the site. This means that researchers and historians will now be able to see for themselves how the camp was laid out, thus making themselves able to describe the fate of those sent to that place for extermination.  Many artifacts that the forest claimed have also been wrenched from its sylvan hand, mostly recently a simple gold wedding band hidden in the moss with the words harei at m’kuddeshet li that every groom says to every bride engraved on its inside surface. To my way of thinking, these artifacts—and there are apparently thousands of them, plus countless more that will now be discovered—are the forest’s gift to us as a new year approaches. Terrible things happened in that place. And then the forest took over the site and, in its silent way, watched over it until people worthy of knowing its secrets arrived…and then it offered its secrets to them, allowing them to clear away the underbrush, the trees, whatever else was keeping the history of that place from prying eyes.  Is that too romantic a way to understand the way the natural world interacts wordlessly, but also profoundly, with humanity? It doesn’t always work that way, obviously. But sometimes…sometimes it feel as though it truly does.

As we approach a new year, I feel myself taking my place in that no-man’s-land between society and the forest primeval, between nature and city, between the trappings of culture and the basic biology that ultimately unites all living people as children of God…and I wonder if the society I have helped construct is worthy enough to warrant the indulgence of the great forest that once covered this place in which I live—and not only Long Island either, but also the rest of North America.  The notion that the natural world, alive and sentient, merely tolerates the efforts of humanity to tame its excesses and to subjugate its very right to exist to human needs and wants…that is a very powerful idea to complete as we prepare to stand before God in judgment on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Are we worthy of this world God has granted us?  Do we see ourselves as living in exquisite harmony with our planet, laboring tireless to earn our right to displace the ancient forest and live as we wish to live on land that was once fully forested, thus the primeval paradise that the Bible calls Eden…and which we call home? Have we earned the right to live in this clearing?

Scripture speaks of Eden as a place, of course. But what if it were not place but time, not a garden in the east but the original state of the world before the evolution of humankind into it? The Torah says, after all, that God planted a garden in Eden mi-kedem. Most Bibles translated that word as meaning “in the east.” But that is not how you say “in the east” in classical Hebrew, and all the commentators know that the word could just as easily mean “in ancient, primeval times.” All that being the case, I invite you all to join me in looking out at the world as these holidays approach and Elul wanes…and seeing not buildings and roads, but the great green forest that once covered all that you can see in every direction, that once blanketed the earth in this place. And then, once you can see clearly all that was, asking if we are truly worthy to have earned the earth’s patient indulgence of all that we have wrought. It’s not an easy question to ask. But answering honestly…that will be significantly more difficult.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Forty Years On

Forty is a big number in Jewish tradition. During the great flood in Noah’s day, it rained for “forty days and forty nights.” Moses spent forty days atop the mountain…and not just once! The spies Moses sent out to reconnoiter the land spend forty days in the land before returning to base camp. Later on, of course, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years before finally arriving at the outer edge of the Promised Land. And eventually both David and Solomon ruled over their kingdoms for exactly forty years. But for none of those is the reason I have been thinking a lot about the number forty myself lately, but rather because this month marks the fortieth anniversary of my entry into the rabbinical school at JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary. How I can have been twenty-one (and, at that, just twenty-one) when I started school and only in my mid-forties now…it’s a mystery!

It was truly a different world. For one striking thing, a huge fire at JTS in the spring of 1966 had left the tower at the corner of Broadway and 122nd Street a hulking, uninhabited shell and the library that had previously been located there was now housed—less the 70,000 volumes that went up in flames, obviously—in a huge Quonset hut in what had previously been (and later on again became) the building’s inner courtyard. I actually have a clear memory of being bussed up to the Seminary that April—just a month or two before my bar-mitzvah—with our entire Hebrew School class to help in the herculean effort to put pieces of absorbent toweling between the pages of books that, although water-logged, were deemed salvageable. That was the first time I entered the premises and although I could tell you that I was so enchanted by the experience that I somehow knew I’d be back one day to study there, the truth is that I found the smell of all those millions of burnt and soaked books slightly nauseating and couldn’t wait to leave. If I had some advance premonition that I’d return one day as a student, it appears to have left no trace at all in my memories of that day.

But it wasn’t only physically that the Seminary was a different place than it is now. There were, I believe, one or two women on the faculty during my years at JTS, but I was never taught by any of them and had only male teachers, which gender-exclusivity mirrored the make-up of the student body as well: the Rabbinical School in my day was open only to men, and the few women in any of my classes—and they were very few—were Graduate School students who had been given special permission to enroll in Rabbinical School classes. Perhaps even more relevant—and certainly so in retrospect—was the fact that no rabbinical student was charged tuition in my day. (Technically speaking, attending the school wasn’t free…but every single student’s tuition was covered by the school itself, which raised monies in those days specifically so as not to have to charge rabbinical students for their studies.  In turn, we were expected to write to whatever benefactor the school assigned to us each spring to thank him or her—in my case, always him—for having made such a generous gift to the school.)

Housing was also free for most of my time at JTS.  I lived in a two-room suite within the complex for four years, but as far as I can recall only had to pay rent in my last year in residence. The rent was $200. Per year, not per month. Some of us understood what a sweet deal we had…but most, myself probably included, just took it as our due. What I remember clearly is some of the upperclassmen complaining when I first arrived that the maid service that had also been provided free of charge to students in residence had been discontinued. So it wasn’t that sweet a deal—we actually had to make our own beds ourselves by the time I arrived on the scene. (Or, of course, not make them. But that just wouldn’t have been me.) I did have a roommate, that’s true. But he was present only briefly and decamped after one single semester to pursue his rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University instead. But the problem would have solved itself even if Stanley hadn’t bailed during winter break that first year because only first-year students were assigned roommates anyway. The rooms were furnished too, and rather nicely. There were not one but two synagogues on the premises. And the cafeteria was so heavily subsidized that no one needed to budget more than $20 or $30 dollars a week for food, and that included the price of Shabbat dinner. The whole thing was, therefore, far more like paradise than the real world: strictly speaking, you never had to leave. (I recall at least some classmates occasionally going to class wearing bedroom slippers.) I conclude with a popular joke at the time: “One rabbinical student says to the other, ‘I hear it’s raining.’  The other replies, ‘How did you find out?’”

All of the above noted details have changed over these forty years since I walked through those huge gates as a first-year rabbinical student. (I’m not actually in my mid-forties. That was a joke.)  But I myself have also changed. In retrospect, I was probably too young for graduate school. I hadn’t ever lived on my own. Other than in summer camp, I hadn’t ever had a job. (That isn’t technically true: I worked as a high school student for the Queens Borough Public Library putting books back on the shelf in the Forest Hills branch until I was firedthis is actually very funnyfor excessive reading on the job. But I hadn’t ever had one that paid more than the minimum wage.)  In every imaginable way I was still a work in progress…and, yet, they took a chance on me and I was determined to live up to their expectations. I went to minyan every morning, afternoon, and evening. I was the first one, almost always, to be there when the library opened each morning. I spent hours preparing my classes, leaving the site only from time to time to travel downtown to one of the dozen Jewish bookstores on the Lower East Side (now all gone either from the world or at least from Manhattan) to buy even more books. (The dorm also provided students with an unlimited number of bookcases, of which perk I took full, possibly slightly excessive, advantage.) I found it irritating to be distracted even slightly from my studies. And I rarely was. If my friend Victor hadn’t met me for lunch in the Village every Wednesday, I might never have left the building at all other than to buy books. (This was, of course, before you actually could buy books—or anything—without getting up from your desk.)

More to the point, though, is that I came to JTS with no specific theological bearing. I was caught up fully in the romance of ritual, in the pleasure of study for its own sake, in the possibility of forging what I hoped would be long-term friendships with my classmates. I was an only child. I had very limited contact growing up with my extended family. I hated the Little League (and only lasted one season anyway), wasn’t ever a Boy Scout, never actually joined USY, belonged in high school only to clubs that never actually met (the kind that exist only as entries on college applications when they ask for extra-curricular activities and the school wants to give you something to write down), never joined a fraternity. I fell in love with the whole world of JTS, with the quasi-familial intimacy that living in that place at that time afforded those of us eager to take part in whatever the school had to offer. What I lacked—and lacked fully, I think—was the maturity to process what I was learning in class and make it into the stuff of the kind of personal theology that every rabbi needs to develop if he or she is going to be able to teach torah effectively in the real world of actual Jewish people. I was good at memorizing stuff—I still am—but I had only the vaguest intimation, if that, that I was supposed to be processing all that information I was acquiring not merely well enough to repeat it out loud but truly to possess it, not simply to learn it sufficiently well to pass tests on it but actually to use what I was learning to fashion a spiritual life for myself by building upon it meaningfully and productively. I was a good student. But what to do with all that information—that secret was only revealed to me eventually.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. In those days, JTS offered more or less no training in what was disdainfully referenced as “practical rabbinics,” i.e., in the skills that a rabbi working in the actual congregational world actually needs when dealing with actual people. That kind of nuts-and-bolts stuff, we were left to acquire on our own. The very fact that most of us were destined for work in the congregational rabbinate was considered a kind of secret, something we all knew but were encouraged not to admit out loud. Our professors almost to a man had no experience at all in the congregational world, and they all seemed to feel that work in “the field” (as it was disdainfully called) was for those of us not bright or clever enough to make it in academics. I fell for that line of reasoning for a while. I finished my Ph.D. and published my dissertation. I accepted teaching positions at Hunter College and at JTS itself. I spent a post-doctoral year at the Hebrew University—by then it was Joan and me, and before we left Israel it was Joan, me, and Max—then went on to teach in Heidelberg. These were all rich, satisfying experiences, particularly our years in Israel and Germany. But, in the end, I knew that the academy wasn’t where I wished to work…and that it was only the congregational setting that would truly satisfy.

Is it really forty years since I undertook this journey? Gerald Ford was president. Abe Beame was mayor. “I Shot the Sheriff”—Eric Clapton’s version, not the original by Bob Marley—played endlessly on the radio as I moved into those two rooms at JTS and undertook the journey from where I was then to where I somehow have ended up now. As I think back on these four decades of toil in my chosen vineyard, though, I feel nothing but certainty that I chose the right path. The world is full, I’m sure, of people who would not make the same choices with respect to their working lives if they knew back in college what they know all too well forty years later. But I am not among them. My choice of a life in the rabbinate has been one of the great blessings of my life. I have no regrets!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Fight at the Opera

I am not the most likely person to become too emotionally involved in the whole brouhaha that is swirling around the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to mount a production this fall of John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer, and for several reasons. For one thing, I am not a huge fan of opera. (I have been to the Met…exactly once. Joan and I received tickets to see The Magic Flute at the Met as a first anniversary present from someone who shouldn’t have spent that much on us, and I’ve seen many more operas in other, less exclusive venues.  But, although I am a great lover of music, and particularly classical music, I have somehow never developed a deep love for opera.) Nor am I one who feels that any great good can come, almost ever, from censoring artists or for banning the production of artistic exhibitions or performances that are edgy or which push their audiences beyond the natural limits of their comfort zones. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do, after all? Isn’t the whole point of the artistic enterprise to create a context in which the public can be goaded into reconsidering what they’ve always supposed to be well-accepted truths and attitudes, in which people are challenged to ask themselves if the way they’ve always understood things might not well be far more subjective than they previously thought…and thus open to discussion and re-evaluation in light of the insight provided by the artist’s work? Art without edge, after all, is mere entertainment.

My lack of enthusiasm for the operatic enterprise—and I should say from the outset that I formally exclude all of Mozart’s operas, and particularly Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro, from that general characterization of my musical tastes—and my general disinclination to approve of censoring any artist’s work merely because it is out of sync with accepted attitudes or tastes should, therefore, leave me uninterested in caring one way or the other whether the Met does or does not proceed with its plans to include John Adam’s opera in its fall schedule.  Yet, oddly, that is not how I feel at all.

The opera is about Leon Klinghoffer, the poor man murdered by Palestinian terrorists on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in October, 1985. The story itself you probably all remember at least in its broadest outlines. Terrorists associated with the Palestine Liberation Front, an organization associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, hijacked a cruise ship in the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt and headed to the port of Tartus in Syria, where they intended to trade the hostages onboard for terrorists being held by Israel. When the Syrians refused to allow them to enter the harbor, the terrorists responded by murdering Leon Klinghoffer, a wheel-chair bound American citizen. Then, after the crew was forced to dump him overboard while still strapped into his wheelchair, the ship then set sail for Port Said in Egypt where the hijackers finally agreed to leave the ship in exchange for passage to Tunisia on an Egyptian airplane. That was duly arranged, but the plane was later intercepted by American fighter aircraft and forced to land in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested and eventually charged with murder.

Many of us remember those dark days in October all too well. But not all who remember it are horrified by it; some appear to be fascinated by it…and put off neither by the terrorists’ savagery or their disrespect for human life. In 1991, John Adams, working with librettist Alice Goodman, created an opera they called The Death of Klinghoffer. It opened at the Met and received reasonably good reviews. That, in and of itself, is remarkable to me, not because I have an opinion one way or the other about the quality of the music, but because the book itself portrays the murderers of poor Klinghoffer not as pirates or thugs, but as noble freedom fighters, as “men of ideals.”  Eventually, the season ended and that, more or less, would have been that, until the Met announced earlier this year not only that it was going to revive the opera in New York, but that it planned to offer it as a theater-based simulcast in over 2000 locations in sixty-six different countries around the world. The protests began. The Met caved in a little and cancelled the simulcast. But the production of the opera itself was not only not cancelled and will no doubt enjoy the enormous amount of free publicity that the whole controversy has generated.

In explaining the cancellation of the simulcast but not the actual production, the general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, wrote that he remains “convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,” but that he has nevertheless become “convinced that there is a genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”  Let’s think about that statement. If the opera isn’t anti-Semitic, then how could it provoke an anti-Semitic response? But if broadcasting it in thousands and thousands of venues around the world feels inappropriate given the rising tide of anti-Semitism, then what could it possibly mean to say that the opera itself is free of the taint of anti-Semitism?

Perhaps Peter Gelb meant that the opera is not really anti-Semitic, but could possibly be taken that way by naïve listeners unused to the subtly of dramatic poetry set to music. That sounds reasonable…but the libretto doesn’t seem subtle to me at all, but starkly and vividly anti-Semitic…and in a visceral way that more or less uses the language of Nazi racism to tar the Jewish people as a nation of thieves, liars, and extortionists: “Wherever poor men are gathered,” the libretto reads, “they can find Jews getting fat. You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated, and break your own law with idolatry.” Very nice!  Is it relevant that the librettist was once a Jew from Minnesota, but later not only chose to become a Christian but was actually ordained as an Anglican priest? (She is currently the rector of a group of parishes in Cambridgeshire, England.) I’d like to think not, but part of me cannot keep from wondering where in her theological training Alice Goodman learned to think of her own people in terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in Nazi Germany.  Certainly (I hope), not at our parents’ feet or her grandparents’. And presumably also not at Boston University, where she received her Master of Divinity degree. Yet the language crosses the line from sharp and edgy to truly defamatory…and in a way that should make anyone familiar with Jewish history, even someone comfortable personally abandoning Jewishness, extremely ill at ease.

And so we end up on the horns of an interesting dilemma.  Art is supposed to raise hackles, to challenge, to unnerve.  But how far exactly do we take that thought? Should plays that mock black people or denigrate women be allowed to be produced merely because they challenge people to reconsider their values? What about artistry that insults gay people…or, for that matter, any recognizable group within society—should anyone be able to justify any sort hostile, bigoted speech by justifying it to the world as artistic expression? The First Amendment could not be clearer about the rights of citizens to speak freely, and that right must, for it to mean anything at all, include unpopular—including extremely unpopular—ideas or opinions.  Yet even our most liberal jurists and passionate defenders of the First Amendment do not question the reasonability of legislation that makes defamatory speech illegal. Constitutional lawyers, I’m sure, have their own sense of how this all works. But what should the rest of us think, we average citizens who are left by all of this unsure whether our best interests lie in permitting the occasional vile libretto to surface even in as posh a venue as the Metropolitan Opera so that the right we all enjoy to speak out freely is left intact…or if we have a sacred obligation to speak out forcefully against the abuse of the concept of free speech to permit the promulgation of depraved, repulsive, and defamatory language in as public a setting as the Met.  And what of the notion that the murder of Leon Klinghoffer was a political statement that can be justified as such, and thus not a criminal act at all—should that kind of perverse reasoning be given a pass because it is presented to the public as art? 

Leon Klinghoffer was not murdered because he was elderly or handicapped. Nor was he murdered because he was an American citizen, or not solely for that reason. He was murdered al kiddush ha-sheim as a Jew…and if his murder can be depicted as legitimate, then so can Treblinka. Indeed, if there is a profound difference between the death of Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro and the murder of any analogous elderly, crippled Jewish man in any one of the camps or in some random execution ditch, I fail to see it. And that is why, despite my willingness to excuse a lot for the sake of art and my general lack of interest in opera, I find myself very engaged by the decision of the Met to proceed with the production this fall.

I suppose one could argue that, given the cancellation of the simulcast, this is a tempest in a teapot. How many people are going to see the production at the Met anyway…and, of them, how many will buy into its repulsive premise? I suppose there must be some comfort in the obvious answers to those questions, but I think the issue goes deeper than the question of how many tickets will be sold and to whom. For me, the decision of the Metropolitan Opera not to care that the libretto of an opera they are about to produce is so deeply anti-Semitic that it dares to make a facile, grotesque comparison (and I read now from the graffiti on the backdrop against which the action unfolds) between Warsaw in 1943 and Bethlehem in 2005. (I must have missed something—when was it exactly that the citizens of Bethlehem were dragged from their homes, shoved onto trains, and transported to their deaths?) Nor does the Met seem to find perverse the hatred dripping from the lips of the terrorist-in-charge when he taunts Klinghoffer with the words “America is one big Jew.”  I could go on. There has to be a bottom line…and the use of Nazi-style imagery to defame the Jewish people—and by extension every single Jewish person—goes way beyond what any First Amendment supporter, such as myself, should find tolerable or defensible.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Missing

It’s interesting, the fate of the missing. Some famous few—like Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, Judge Joseph Force Crater, and the Roanoke Colonists—become almost mythological figures, people whose sudden disappearances from the flow of history have made them more famous in their absence than at least some of them were during their actual lifetimes. (The Roanoke people were last heard from in 1587, yet at least in some circles their name is still evocative of the possibility simply of vanishing into the swirling mist of history and never being heard from again.) Others, mostly those who would already have long since passed from the scene anyway, are simply forgotten. And still others—the explorers Henry Hudson and John Cabot come to mind—retain their fame, or at least their renown, but without it being recalled that they too disappeared and that none of us knows their ultimate fate. If asked what Henry Hudson and Amelia Earhart have in common, most Americans would guess that must be a parkway somewhere named for Amelia Earhart too!

In the end, though, it is journalists who determine who gets remembered and who gets forgotten far more meaningfully than historians.  Consider, for example, the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing on March 8 and was never heard from again. For weeks, the story was on the front page of every newspaper in the world. The story, as they say, had legs—a broad-based human interest angle (the plane had 227 passengers aboard who hailed from fourteen different nations) and an air safety angle (no one wants to imagine that huge airplanes can simply vanish into thin air), plus a dash of legitimate outrage (isn’t this precisely what the immense air traffic controllers’ world-wide network exists to prevent from happening?) and just enough rational fear (if this happened to those people...) to keep readers’ interest in the story alive for as long as new details could be added into the mix of data already received. But eventually that daily dose of new information stopped coming.

The search continued, but no actual debris was ever found. There were reports in the early days of the search that signals from the underwater locator beacons attached to the aircraft’s flight recorders (the so-called “black box”) had been detected, but those reports were never confirmed and are now considered unlikely to have been correct. At any rate, the batteries that power those locator beacons would definitely no longer be working by now, so there will be no further pings, faint or otherwise, from the depths of the Indian Ocean for anyone to analyze correctly or incorrectly.  And so the story of Flight 370 now fades into the background. We all remember the incident, at least so far. But it’s been weeks since I noticed any sort of official update on the situation in the paper or on-line media and I doubt, absent startling new developments, that any will be forthcoming.  The 227 passengers on board now join the 118 colonists at Roanoke in that special category of people who simply stepped off the stage of history and never returned. (Individuals can do this too, of course—the National Crime Information Center reports that there are active missing-person records for more than eighty-five thousand Americans, of whom more than eighteen thousand are children under the age of eighteen and another ten thousand are between ages eighteen and twenty. It’s just more dramatic when the exit is en masse, that’s all.)

More prominent in the news these days, although in a strangely muted way, are the missing girls of Nigeria. Abducted from the Government Secondary School in the Nigerian town of Chibok on the night of April 14-15 earlier this year, these 276 girls simply vanished into the night and have so far not been located. But that does not mean that their fate is unknown: according to reliable reports the girls were to be forcibly converted to Islam, then sold for a “bride price” of $12.75 each to members of the Boko Haram, the Islamic jihadist organization that has taken credit for the abductions.  Their story too seems to have vanished from our front pages and our screens.

Some Western countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and France, have sent teams of specialists to help the Nigerians search for the girls. There is reportedly a team of Israeli experts on the ground in Nigeria helping with the effort to bring the girls home. Michelle Obama has prominently participated in a Twitter campaign to signal her and the president’s outrage over the whole affair. But aside from all that…it’s been pretty quiet just lately on the Nigerian front. As was the case with the Malaysian Airlines flight, the girls’ story too was newsworthy for a while. But then it too disappeared, fading into the background simply because our print and electronic media ran out of new things to say about the case. And yet you’d think the fact that the Boko Haram (whose name in Hausa, one of the languages of Nigeria, means roughly “Western education is sinful”) are violent jihadists struggling to impose their extremist version of Islamic law in the area in which their organization functions in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger would make their story beyond interesting for American readers.  Or that the fact that the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, noted last month that Boko Haram attacks on churches, schools, police stations and other civilian targets have left at least 12,000 dead and 8,000 crippled over the last decade would. Even in a world as inured to violence as ours, those numbers are shocking!

You would think for both those reasons that the world would be outraged. And, of course, the world is outraged…a little. Americans generally strike me as peculiarly uninterested in Africa, but here, where the crime was so outrageous, so shocking, and so violent, you would expect the kind of public outcry that simply hasn’t materialized. It would be easy to blame this kind of blasé lack of interest on racism. But the response of black Americans too has been strangely muted. Journalists drive the bus here too, of course, and once there stop being daily developments the impetus to keep any issue on the front burner diminishes in direct proportion to the likelihood of people reading a story through to the end about the fact that there isn’t anything new to report. What the fate of the girls will be, who can say? The president, in an interview the other day on the Today show, said that our nation's goal in the short term “is obviously is to help the international community and the Nigerian government…[and] to do everything we can to recover these young ladies. But,” the president added almost remarkably understatedly, “we’re also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this that…can cause such havoc in people’s day-to-day lives.” I’m sure that means something formally, but what I fear it means practically is that we are going to send some experts over to Africa to assist the Nigerians, then allow the girls, as they leave the front pages of our newspapers, to fade into the general category of “people to whom horrific things happened” and, other than regret, offer them nothing at all. 

 And that brings me to the story weighing on us all, the story of the three Israeli teenagers who have gone missing.  For the world out there, the salient details are that the boys’ fate is unknown, that no terror organization has credibly taken credit for their abduction, and that the only official Palestinian voice that has lately been heard in the matter was that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas…and he condemned the abduction and revealed that he and his people are actively cooperating with Israel to restore the young men to their homes. For their part, the Israelis have indicated unequivocally, but without providing any real evidence, that this is the work of Hamas, the terror organization that recently joined its former rivals in Fatah in a national unity government to be led transitionally by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. It’s hard to imagine the Israelis making a claim like that with nothing to back it up…but no proof has actually been proffered and so we are left with the upsetting reality that these young men—Naftali Frankel (age 16), Eyal Yifrach (age 19), and Gilad Shaer (age 16)—simply disappeared into the night air.

Outside the Jewish world, no one seems too upset. On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an article about how seriously those of us inside the Jewish world are taking this, almost as though it were a newsworthy detail that anyone cared about the teenagers’ fate, not the fact itself that the three young men are missing. Secretary of State Kerry issued a statement noting that the three were in his prayers, but forgetting to remember that one of them, Naftali Frankel, is an American citizen and that his abduction should therefore be considered a crisis for America to deal with more substantially than with prayer alone. It seems remarkable to me that the Palestinians have taken a more vigorous role in searching for Naftali Frankel than has our (and his) own American government…and I say that fully aware of the degree to which President Abbas’ crocodile tears are seriously compromised by his willingness to tolerate a terrorist organization like Hamas in the government over which he presides. Still, I’d like to think that he really is appalled. I surely am, as I’m sure are all my readers. 

While we wait for the IDF to find the three, there are things we can do. We can surely join Secretary State Kerry in prayer. But we can also insist, as American Jews, that our American government exert itself maximally on behalf of an American citizen taken captive and not treat his plight dismissively or indifferently. As supporters of Israel, we need to make the point forcefully to all our elected officials that the war against terrorism will only succeed if we decline to make straw distinctions between terrorists, and that the abduction of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad by Hamas (or whatever splinter group turns out to be responsible) and the abduction of those poor girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram differ only in extraneous details but not in the ones that truly count. Terror against civilians is no better or worse depending on the gender, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion of the victims.

Before I became a father, my nightmares were mostly about myself.  I was the one falling, the one lost in the streets of a strange city where no one seemed able to see me, the one suddenly aware that he had forgotten to put his pants on before getting on the subway to go to work.  But once I became a father, my dreamscape shifted focus and my nightmares started to be about my children. I was the one having the dream, of course. So it was I who couldn’t find them, or who couldn’t save them, or who couldn’t prevent some horrifically bad thing from happening to them. But even if my dreams continued to unfold as though projected through my own eyes and onto my own field of vision, the actors in the worst of my nightmares were now the people I felt the most worried about possibly being unable to protect from harm or successfully to watch over and to keep safe…from the world, from the wicked, from whatever. Nightmares, of course, are just dreams, just projections of our inmost fears on the backdrop of our waking lives. But the nightmare shared by the relatives of missing persons—and particularly the parents of missing children—is not a nighttime fantasy that can be counted on to vanish with morning’s light.

Those poor people on Flight 370 will not come home again. That much seems clear, but when it comes to the Israeli teens and the Nigerian girls, there is no real option for people of good will other than to struggle against the influence of the kind of profit-driven journalism that loses interest in “cold” stories, against the natural disinclination we all feel to become involved in other people’s troubles, and against the politics of appeasement that considers abduction less heinous when the abductors present themselves as politically motivated.  If these were our own children in play, we would be mounting the barricades and with one voice demanding action. But they are our children, all of them.