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.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Out-Loud Reading

This week, I concluded a full dozen years of reading stories to the two-, three- and four-year olds in our Nursery School. Obviously, it’s a huge amount of fun. (How could it possibly not be?) And I’ve developed some important skills over all the years that I hadn’t previously needed even to acquire at all, much less seriously to hone. After all these years, for example, I can read almost as well upside-down as I can right-side-up, an indispensable skill if you want to hold a book up so your audience can see the pictures and still be able to read the text aloud. And I’ve perfected the junior version of the bimah-glare that makes it clear to my occasionally rambunctious young listeners that they’re not going to be listening to anything at all if they don’t quiet down and stop distracting themselves and their friends. Most of all, though, I’ve had a full twelve years now to observe children in the being-read-to state…and what I’ve learned from all those years of looking out at the boys and girls in our Nursery School while reading to them is what I’d like to share with you all today. (Sharing is a big part of what we all learn to do in Nursery School!)

First, let me describe the scene so you can have a clearer mental image of how this works. I sit on an adult-size folding chair. The children sit on tiny chairs they themselves bring from their classrooms into the atrium. First, I tell them about the book. I make a point of mentioning the book's title and its author’s and illustrator’s names, and I always try to make a point of reminding them if we’ve already read a book by that specific author or seen books illustrated by that same artist. And then I read the book. We pause for vocabulary that seems over the kids’ heads. (This last week we learned the difference between a rooster and a chicken, and between a hog and a sow. But we also learn more challenging vocabulary words. A few weeks ago, for example, we spent time trying to decide if “generous” and “kind” mean exactly the same thing. It’s that kind of Nursery School we run at Shelter Rock!)  We also learn how to say unusual, cool things in foreign languages. (A few weeks ago, we learned how to say “soup ladle” in Hebrew, Spanish, and Farsi.  This week, for example, while learning about roosters and chickens we also learned which in the Argentinian version of our story would be the pollo and which, the gallo. Each week, we try to learn how to say something in some language other than English.) Eventually, the story ends and then it’s book review time. Every week, I ask the same questions. Did you like the book? Would you like to hear more books by this author? Did you think the drawings suited the story? Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls your age? And, amazingly, they answer me. Sometimes, we are not all in agreement…and particularly when my young listeners feel the author stretched excessively the natural boundaries of credulity. (This seems particularly to be an issue when the book features talking animals, as this week’s book, Cece Meng’s Tough Chicks, did.) Still, even when we are not all in agreement, a consensus can usually be reached. And then, having completed our book, I play some songs for the children on the piano—this week I played Tumbalalaika and Tzena Tzena Tzena—and the kids run around in the Nursery School version of circle dancing.  And that’s it. The whole thing lasts about half an hour. Occasionally, I play a third song. If they ask nicely!

I think lots of people imagine that the concept of reading to children is basically a stop-gap measure designed to allow children to find pleasure in books before they eventually learn how to read on their own. According to this line of thinking, reading to kids is basically a favor, something akin to driving teenagers around before they acquire their own driver’s licenses and can drive themselves to wherever it is they need to go. In a sense, of course, that is exactly what it is all about. But there is another part to the exercise, and what I’ve come to realize over these years of reading to children is just how crucial and meaningful that other part actually is. Reading to children is not just a clever way to awaken a love of literature in children before they learn to read on their own, but a serious step forward towards training children in the dramatically underappreciated art of imagining.

I read picture books to our kids because they are still very young and my time with them is short.  But what I do should ideally only be akin to priming the pump, because the real goal is to read books to children without showing them pictures to look at, but only exposing them to words to listen to.  Think about what it is like for a child to hear a book without seeing any pictures, for example when being read to at bedtime when only the reader sits in the light.  As the story unfolds, the child sees nothing at all…with his or her eyes. But as the story progresses and draws the child in, a universe opens up that the child soon realizes he or she actually can see.  People, places, buildings, streets, even lakes and mountain ranges—these all become fully visible as the child lies back and hears the story. And I have come to think that that ability to imagine a universe that one cannot see is the key to academic and intellectual success later in life. It is certainly the greatest gift parents eager for their children to succeed in school, including years later in university and beyond, can offer their children.

The greatest scientists are the ones who take ideas that strikes them, even unlikely or outlandish ones, and then imagine an internally-revised universe unfolding around them as that idea crystallizes and clarifies, and as its implications alter the shape of such newly-imagined worlds either slightly or dramatically.  Surely, the same is true of authors as well: isn’t that exactly what it means to write a novel, to dream of a world that doesn’t exist to the point at which an author actually can see it and describe what is happening in it to people only the author can see and whose short- and long-term destinies only that single author can chart.  The greatest feats of human creativity derive directly from the ability to imagine, to see what at first only exists within the matrices of one’s own creative intelligence, to hear a word and suddenly to see a world.   And I believe that the fortunate among us acquire that skill as children when being read to over the course not just before they learn to read themselves, but for many years after that as well.

I remember my father reading to me at bedtime when I was a boy. Of all the books I heard in bed at night with the lights off, two—Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth—became so familiar to me that I still think I might remember some passages by heart. (Another feature that we pass by all too quickly in our world, by the way, is the intellectual good—not to mention the pleasure—that comes from reading our favorite books again and again. The whole point of learning to love books is to read the best ones many times over, seeing how familiar scenes morph along into more clever, or even darker, iterations of themselves as we ourselves age and come to know more of the world.)  But there were many others, including some books (like Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) that even now seem to me like odd choices for a young boy.  My father’s was a nineteenth century world of books—in addition to Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, my father favored stories and books by Mark Twain and Washington Irving—but that hardly mattered: what counted in the long run was not the specifics of the tale being told, but the challenge of conjuring up a universe in the dark (the lights were always off in my bedroom while the book was being read) to the point actually of being able, at least eventually, to see it in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it were the real world that would be there in the morning when I awakened to a new day.

We (and by “we” I mostly mean Joan, my synagogue duties so often calling me away at bedtime) read to our children for years, favoring latter classics like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and all the Roald Dahl books, not to mention the Lewis Carroll “Alice” books and the L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz series. Whatever other mistakes we made as parents, we produced three excellent readers! But even more the point, my kids all learned how to imagine a world in the dark…and how to conceive of things they couldn’t see but couldn’t imagine not to exist. If anyone were to ask what I think of as the greatest gift we gave our children when they were young, it would have to be their ongoing love of reading.

Our Nursery School graduation was Thursday and I was asked to speak. I’m writing this before then, but I already know what I’m going to tell the parents of our four-year old graduates. (By the way, if you haven’t ever seen four-year-olds in mortar boards, toy tassels, and graduation gowns made out of their fathers’ white shirts worn backwards, you haven’t even begun to see cute in your life!) Aside from imploring them to keep on building their children’s Jewish educations on the foundation we have labored so diligently to provide in our Nursery School, I plan to tell them that, in my opinion, nothing they can do for their children will lay the groundwork for future academic success than reading to them…and that it would be a huge error to imagine that that only applies for as long as the children do not know how to read well themselves. I believe that it is worth reading to children for years after that, taking them personally to the center of the earth or the secret garden, to Treasure Island or to Oz or to Sleepy Hollow…or personally showing them what’s going on twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea or teaching them how to go around the world in eighty days. (I forgot to mention Around the World in Eighty Days, but I should have: it was in some ways my favorite book as a boy, one I really still do remember as though my dad read it to me last month, not fifty years ago.)

That is what I’m going to tell them! Will they listen? I suppose some will and others will dismiss my opinion of the worth of reading aloud as exaggerated or too much rooted in my own personal experience.  But I know what I think! And what I think is that there are few pleasures in this world more satisfying for children than being read to. No one has read to me in a long time while I lay in bed at night and wait for sleep. I make do, obviously. But that pleasure, that sensation that I can still recall after all these many years of being ushered into an unseen world through the medium of the spoken word…that is one of the things I recall my parents offering me as a boy that has truly stayed with me over all these many years. I love to read and I really do read a lot…but even I can’t read in the dark! 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The True American

A few months ago, I wrote to you about a book I had read that I found particularly challenging: Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg, in which the author tells the story of the American army chaplains, and of one in particular, who were assigned to provide spiritual guidance to the Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946 both during their trials and, for those condemned to death, up until their executions. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to revisit what I wrote there.) The book itself is well-written and interesting in its own right, but what really engaged me was the challenge it constituted to my oft-trumpeted belief in the ultimate power of t’shuvah, of the ability of the human heart fully repentant and for once divested of its customary armor of arrogance, self-importance, and narcissistic overconfidence to turn back to God absolutely and really enough to make forgiveness for even for the worst sins plausible. I’ve said that aloud so many times, including from the bimah on the holiest days of the Jewish year, that it was unsettling to find myself asking not if I believe it enough, but whether I believe it at all. Here, after all, was the story of the world’s most depraved war criminals, men with the blood not of millions, but of tens of millions of innocents on their hands. If we take seriously the prayer book’s promise that even at the very last moments of our lives we retain the innate ability to return to God in repentance and reasonably to seek forgiveness for our sins through the sheer force of our desire to embrace goodness and to divest ourselves of sinfulness—and if we elect to take comfort in the dogmatic principle that some combination of repentance, prayer, and charity towards others always retains the ability to avert the severity of even the most dire decree pronounced against us in the heavenly tribunal—if we really mean any of that, then the real test is to set the idea not against the background of people who occasionally gossip about others or who eat the occasional questionably-kosher candy bar, but against the stories of these men to whom the Reverend Gerecke was sent by our own army to minister. Like chains, theology is really only as strong as its weakest link. And the way to test one’s beliefs, therefore, is to identify that specific link…and then to see how much weight it actually can bear.

And now I’ve read another book— Anand Giridharadas’ book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, which was published just a few weeks ago by W.W. Norton & Co.—that challenged me to reconsider that same set of ideas by inviting me to train my gaze on them from an entirely different direction. The author was known to me slightly as the New York Times columnist who writes very interesting, engaging pieces about his adventures trying to seize the essence of modern Indian culture, but none of his previous work prepared me for reading The True American, which, although it is also an example of true-crime writing at its best, struck me as a book akin to Townsend’s precisely because of its ability to pose challenging spiritual questions without asking them formally at all. For people who claim to embrace the concept of t’shuvah as one of the foundation stones of their religious outlook, Giridharadas’ book will be both provocative and unexpectedly rewarding. I recommend it highly. But, as my readers all know, I for some reason seem to like that experience of being smacked ideationally across the face, thus concomitantly being dared to say what I actually do believe…as opposed to what I think I believe or wish I could believe.

Giridharadas’ book is the story of two men who could not possibly have less in common. One, the hero of the book, is Raisuddin Bhuiyan, once an officer in the Bangladesh Air Force but as our story begins “just” a Muslim immigrant to these shores working in a convenience store in Dallas and trying, not really successfully, to make ends meet.  The other is Mark Stroman, an uneducated Texas redneck with a swastika tattoo whose response to 9/11 is personally to take revenge on our nation’s enemies by murdering some Muslims chosen at random by himself.  Driving around to gas stations and minimarts in Dallas, he finds two Muslims—although by Muslims he appears to mean people who speak English with non-American accents and whose skin is darker than your average white Texan’s—and, indeed, he murders them in cold blood. And then, not yet done, he drives himself to Bhuiyan’s minimart and shoots him too, in this one instance not fatally. Bhuiyan’s head is permanently going to be filled with metallic pellets and he will be permanently and irreversibly blinded in one eye, but he survives the attack and Giridharadas’ book is about decade that follows in both men’s lives. I found it riveting, and I think my readers will as well.

Both men’s progress through the years that follow are highly unexpected.  Stroman is arrested, tried, convicted of the murder of one of his victims, and sentenced to death.  (He was charged with the other murder too, but not tried after being convicted of the first one.)  The book traces his path forward from that moment until his execution on July 20, 2011, and it is highly interesting to see him growing both emotionally and intellectually in prison. He comes across a copy of Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which the author chronicles his experiences in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau from the vantage point of a physician.  And he becomes particularly enamored of one specific sentence in Frankl’s book: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”  And so, slowly, we see Stroman growing to the point at which, just before his execution, he renounces hate, accepts the reasonableness of someone guilty of what they call in Texas “capital” murder paying with his life, and embraces the brotherhood of all mankind. It sounds hokey. It sound unbelievable…and, yet, when you read the story, you are moved even despite yourself.

The real catalyst in Stroman’s conversion, however, is not Viktor Frankl’s book, but Raisuddin Bhuiyan’s own activities in the years that follow his near murder. His situation is grim in every way. He has no health insurance and so is discharged from the hospital to which he is taken after the attack after a cursory bit of attention. He acquires enormous, basically unpayable medical bills for treatments that don’t restore his vision. He has no family in the United States, and so must also combat loneliness and unwanted isolation. His fiancée back in Bangladesh, in the meantime, loses interest in pursuing their relationship and agrees to an arranged marriage her family has organized for her. He has no money, no permanent home, no reason not to think of our country as a hostile wasteland in which innocents are shot by crazy people because they “look” like terrorists.  And yet, in some ways, his transformation is even more surprising than Mark Stroman’s. He grows spiritually as he heals. He undertakes a pilgrimage to Mecca to reconnect with the wellsprings of his faith. He becomes more devout, and concomitantly more forgiving and kinder. Slowly, he comes to believe that the reason his life was spared was specifically so that he could guide his would-be assassin away from hatred and violence, and so that he could personally help Mark Stroman see him as a man and as a human being, not as a stick-figure terrorist tarred with the brush of criminality merely because of his Muslim faith. And this, improbable and unlikely as it sounds, he manages to accomplish. 

There is a wide, complicated cast of characters in the book including Bhuiyan’s parents, Stroman’s wives and children, an Israeli paratrooper-turned-film-maker, British and German anti-death-penalty activists, and the expected cohort of lawyers, judges, police officers, prison guards, psychiatrists, and journalists. Bhuiyan’s real mission, quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful, is to save Stroman from death so that his life might become a force for good in the world. His argument in court—that his own civil rights were going to be violated by Stroman’s execution since the death of his assailant without them ever having met in person would permanently and irrevocably deny him the possibility of closure, of coming to terms with the enormity of the violent crime perpetrated against him by seeing his would-be murderer renounce violence and accept him as a brother—was surely clever and is unexpectedly moving. He fails in that effort, of course—Texas is the state that has executed the most prisoners since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and is second only to Oklahoma in terms of executed individuals per million residents—but only in the sense that Stroman eventually does die. But Bhuiyan does manage to effect a truly remarkable transformation in a man who just years earlier thought it rational and patriotic to aim a shotgun at a stranger’s head and pull the trigger.

Just before he died, Stroman attributed his transformation to Bhuiyan’s work on his belief. Calling him Rais for short, he said, “In the free world, I was free but I was locked in a prison inside myself because of the hate I carried in my heart. It is due to Rais' message of forgiveness that I am more content now than I have ever been."  And, with those words hanging in the air, he went to his death as a free man…not free in the sense of being able to escape his own verdict of death, but free of the hatred and proclivity for brutality and violence that had earlier been the platform upon which he lived his life. Was he telling the truth about his transformation? We won’t ever know, but Giridharadas seems to take him at his word and I found myself convinced both by the power of his prose and by the essential unlikelihood of the whole story.

In a world in which so much happens in the thrall of stereotype and prejudice, it was refreshing—even a bit chastening—to read about a Muslim who finds in his faith not a pretext for violence but an obligation to work against hatred, against bigotry, and against senseless brutality. What I learned from The True American—and the title itself is a bit of a riddle, since the author leaves unsaid to which of his protagonists he is actually referring—what the book reminded me to remember is that goodness and decency are functions of character, not of ethnicity or school of spiritual endeavor. Every religion can serve as a pretext for cruelty.  But from the wellsprings of faith can also come remarkable goodness as well…and that is true regardless of the specific language that faith speaks or the rituals it recommends. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Memoriam, J.W.

My friend of more than thirty years, J.W., took his own life three weeks ago, at which point I felt I had stepped into a nightmare…and simultaneously into a Psych 101 textbook.

At first, I distanced myself from the misery I felt building in my heart by telling myself it was “just” a tragedy, just an example of someone standing at the epicenter of the kind of perfect storm of baneful vectors that no one could possibly have resisted successfully. According to this initial analysis, his death was no one’s fault at all: not J.’s and certainly not mine, but also not anybody’s. It was thus a tragedy that just happened, something like an unpredicted tsunami or a sudden earthquake. That approach was satisfying briefly, but it quickly lost its luster and I soon moved on—remarkably, just like the textbooks say is the case for so many—to anger. Since the whole world is about me, how could this also not be about me? And how could my friend do this to me, making me feel so terrible and leaving me with one less friend in the world when I already have so few pals left from those happy, carefree years when Joan and I were first married and still living on the Upper West Side? Sure, his problems may be over, I told myself, but mine…who was going to help me come to terms with this loss, so unnecessary and so theoretically preventable but also so devastating? I find it embarrassing now even to have written that last sentence out, but I did spend a few days in just that place. And then, fortunately, I moved on from wallowing in that kind of self-referential ridiculousness and moved directly into the third stage of grappling with this kind of loss, the stage of self-recrimination.

And now we get to the heart of the matter. My friend, ten years my junior exactly, suffered from alcoholism and, I believe, depression his whole adult life. We met when I was twenty-eight and a newly minted Ph.D. teaching in the Seminary’s undergraduate program and he was an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Friendship came later, but, in the end, I knew him for thirty-two years, more than half even of my life and well over half of his, and the tragic elements in his personality were visible, even if just barely, from the start.  But it was only years later that I gained the experience and insight fully to understand just how potentially destructive those dark features of his inmost nature could become, and did become, later on.

As the years passed, J. followed two paths at the same time.

He went on to rabbinical school and was ordained a rabbi, teacher, and preacher in Israel. He served congregations in New York State, then in Florida, then, after he lost his job in Florida because of a series of very poor decisions rooted in the fundamental problems that served as the soil in which all the rest of his disastrous choices grew, in Kentucky.  The thing that bears saying the most in this regard is that he wasn’t a man who couldn’t succeed because of his troubles, that he was a man who was enormously successful despite his difficulties. He was a fabulous rabbi, at his best one of the greats. He was funny and engaging, learned and smart. He spoke forcefully and inspiringly from the bimah, inviting his congregation to join him on the great spiritual journey through life that he himself had chosen to follow. He had a sharp wit, but (as is surely not the case for all) that sharpness lacked any edge of cruelty or nastiness. Instead, he allowed his charm and his well-honed sense of humor to serve as a vehicle for his message…and, because he was also handsome and had a lovely wife (also once one of my students) and three beautiful children, he presented himself for as long as he could not merely as a successful rabbi, but as the very model of the kind of learned clergyperson and likable family man that any congregation would naturally want at its helm.

But there was another path too that J. followed, a darker one that led away from professional success, away from successful family life, and away from the very spiritual goals that he was attempting to travel towards on the other path he was traveling.  He was, therefore, not merely undertaking two journeys at the same time, but two that led in diametrically different directions. It was thus not a journey that only a select few of the very best and most brave could manage, but one that no one could ever successfully undertake: if you want or need to travel north and east at the same time, you can try setting off in a northeasterly direction and see where that takes you…but none can travel east and west at the same time, not even the most clever or talented travelers among us. But that was exactly what J. was trying to do. Eventually, that riddle came to rest at the center of J.’s life—the insoluble riddle of how to be two people at the same time, how to travel at once down two roads that lead in opposite directions, how to lead a congregation upwards towards lofty goals while simultaneously being personally dragged along, slowly but perhaps inexorably, on the road to perdition. Eventually, his marriage ended. Lonely and unhappy, he made a new life for himself in a different state and eventually remarried. (He ended up losing that job as well and was trying to re-invent himself in Colorado when he died.) He leaves behind, in addition to his wife and his three older children, a one-year-old daughter.  And he leaves behind his first wife as well, who stuck with him for as long as anyone rationally could have and only played her last card when it truly was the only one left in her hand to play.

And so I turn to the next-to-last stage in the series I began by mentioning, the stage of self-recrimination. Like everybody who knew J. as a friend, I moved on—once I abandoned the stage of righteous self-absorption in which I ridiculously attempted to find comfort by casting myself as the victim in the story—to asking the questions that rest at the center of anyone’s effort to come to terms with suicide, with loss on this scale and of this specific variety. Did I do enough? Did I do anything that mattered? When I finally told him I didn’t wish him to call me when he was drunk, was I being helpful by creating a reward that he could conceivably have wanted badly enough to turn away from liquor to get? Or was I myself surrendering to an embarrassingly over-inflated view of my own role in his life to imagine that the possibility of talking on the telephone to me could outweigh a lifetime of addictive reliance on a drug as potent as any of the others that enslave the soul? Was I being kind and thoughtful by creating a context in which a reward—even as inconsequential a one as talking to me on the phone—might possibly have inspired better behavior? Or was I behaving like the idiot who notes someone floundering helplessly in the water and responds by suggesting swimming lessons?

Perhaps nothing could have helped. I realize that it would be helpful, even therapeutic, for me to come to that conclusion. There are a million details to this story I haven’t revealed. There are, no doubt, another million even I don’t know. I know that there are many people in the world who have learned to live with various forms of addiction and to master their problems rather than granting those problems ultimate control over their lives. Can everybody do it? We don’t blame people who, after giving their all to the struggle, finally succumb to cancer or heart disease.  We certainly don’t blame people who are in terrible airplane accidents because they could just as easily have bought a ticket for a different flight! You play with the cards you are dealt. You fly the airline that Expedia or Travelocity offered you the best price to buy a ticket on. You wrestle with the genetic heritage you are bequeathed even if it is unfair that others receive a different basket of heritable goodies from their ancestors.  Some people struggle their whole lives with depression and alcoholism (and different forms of substance abuse) and find themselves able to wrestle their problems to the ground. Others simply lack—not the courage or the principled willingness, but the simple ability—to do that. And, in my heart, that is what I think happened to my friend.

Jewish tradition has a deeply ambivalent approach to suicide. On the one hand, we teach that life is a gift from God and that suicide, the overt rejection of that gift, is thus primarily a statement of ingratitude and should be condemned as such. Ancient books discuss whether normal mourning rites should follow the burial of a suicide, even whether the death of such a person should be announced in public.  And, yet, accompanying those remarks come a cavalcade of individuals and groups who chose to take their own lives and whom Jewish tradition lauds, even valorizes. Samson. King Saul. The last freedom fighters atop Masada.  The martyrs of York in 1190. Even the man I personally consider the greatest hero, Janusz Korczak…did he not consciously choose death over life by getting aboard that train to Treblinka with the children in his charge when the alternative could have been safety for himself even if not for them?  But all of those people were of sound mind and made a principled choice to die as martyrs al kiddush ha-Shem.  The same could not be said for J.W., my friend of thirty-plus years. He died neither as a martyr nor as a hero, but as a man weighed down by sadness so intense that, in the end, it smothered him to the extent that he could no longer breathe. And so, in the manner of people who cannot breathe, he died…not arrogant, not ungrateful, not choosing Treblinka over freedom as a gesture of ultimate contempt for the banality of evil and its inability to prevent good people from acting righteously and kindly. He died, I think, simply because he could breathe no more.  And what happened to him is what happens to all people who cannot breathe.

A number of my colleagues spoke beautifully and movingly at his funeral, but if it had fallen to me to speak over his casket to the people assembled I would have said that here lies a man who struggled against demons named and unnamed for half a century but who, in the end, did good in the world and leaves behind a legacy of righteous deeds. He also leaves behind a list of missteps and errors of judgment that led him ultimately to where he ended up. Coffee has to be either hot or cold. So does tea. But the legacy of a man does not have to be good or bad. It can accommodate all sorts of details that feel like they shouldn’t all be part of the same story, yet are.  The J. I personally knew was like that. He was in many ways his own worst enemy, but above all he was kind and generous…and good to the core of his soul. I will miss my friend for the rest of my life.