Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Day

It’s always interesting to me how completely different the secular New Year’s holiday and Rosh Hashanah feel.

Rosh Hashanah, for one thing, is so much more about the inner self, about regretting the indiscretions and misdeeds of the past and resolving to do better in the future, about the conflict between being self-guided individuals who are—I just saw and enjoyed immensely Invictus with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon—the masters of their fates and the captains of their souls and owning up to the sometimes grim, always sobering, implications of that same thought.

New Year’s Day, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way at all. It’s not about the inner self as much as about accomplishments yet unaccomplished, about goals as yet unattained, about failing to live up to one’s own self-expectations. In our American culture, New Year’s resolutions are generally about lamenting all those things still left undone in our lives. They’re about weight not yet lost (or, to speak personally, re-lost), about novels not yet written, about foreign languages not yet mastered. New Year’s Day is about promotions at work still unearned, about great cities still unvisited, about dreams that languish unrealized, about golf or bowling scores still real only in the realm of self-flattering fantasy.

Rosh Hashanah is “how could I be my age and still so flawed, still so enslaved to my own baser inclinations, so little able to chart my own destiny?” New Year’s Day is “how can I still not have started those piano lessons, still have not found the time for that crucial second appointment with the trainer at the gym, still not have told my boss how I really feel about him or her and about this job?” Rosh Hashanah is about the heart within. New Year’s Day is about the world without. I actually find both experiences productive in terms of thinking about my life and about my future, just in slightly different ways.

Is it strange for a rabbi to admit to finding meaning, even pleasurable meaning, in the advent of a new secular year? The beginning of January, after all, doesn’t mean anything in our tradition. And even the alternate opinion voiced in the Talmud regarding the date on which the universe was created supports a date in early spring not in mid-winter. (The debate itself pits the first of Tishrei—the date of Rosh Hashanah—against the first of Nisan, the day the Bible itself calls the first day of the first month.) Still, our tradition does indeed nod to the concept of there being a government-sponsored new year that isn’t Rosh Hashanah: the Mishnah specifically makes reference to the “royal new year,” a date something like what moderns would call the secular new year. (It’s also interesting to note that it falls on the first of Nisan, the “alternate” creation date mentioned above.) So why shouldn’t I find some meaning where meaning seems to me to be findable? And, speaking honestly, don’t most of us take note of the passing years of our lives far more meaningfully in terms of the secular calendar than in terms of the Jewish one? Before answering, ask yourself what the Jewish year of your birth was and try to answer without running for a calendar or figuring it out with a pencil and paper. I thought so! (Even I had to think for a second before concluding that I was born in 5713.)

I find myself approaching the coming year wearing all my hats at once and looking forward to lots of different things. As a husband, I’m looking forward, please God, to celebrating my 30thwedding anniversary next December. As a dad, I’m looking forward to watching Emil, my younger son, march in his college graduation in May. As a rabbi, I’m looking forward to completing my eighth year of service to my congregation and embarking on a ninth. And as an author I’m looking forward to putting the finishing touches on The Observant Life, a behemoth of a book by myself and thirty-two other rabbis that’s been in the works now for more years than I care to admit to in public. As a reader, I’m looking forward to finishing the last of Kenzaburo Oe’s novels and telling you all about what I’ve found there and want to share—some other time—with my own readers.

But there’s also the larger picture that New Year’s Day inspires me for some reason to consider differently than does Rosh Hashanah. Do things change? It sounds like a bit of a klutz-kasha, the kind of thing undergraduates debate after a few beers. But it’s also the kind of question that actually does bear some occasional consideration even from the non-inebriated and long since graduated…and New Year’s Day is the perfect moment to have at it. Again.

The honest answer is that they do and they don’t. A few weeks ago, I quoted the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus to my readers and specifically the passage in which he famously summed up his worldview in two Greek words, panta rei, meaning that everything is in a constant state of flux, that nothing stays, nothing remains, that you can’t step into the same river twice because the water is constantly flowing, constantly moving towards you and away from you…and never returns and therefore cannot pass again between your feet even if you think that you are stepping into that “same” stream you stepped into a day or a week (or a lifetime) ago. I’ve always liked that thought. If I remember correctly (and, of course, I do) I quoted it from the bimah of the Park Avenue Synagogue on the day of my rabbinical ordination during a torrential downpour which added, if not profundity, then at least a lot of flowing water to the larger picture for the assembled to contemplate as they headed back out into the street with the philosopher’s words still ringing in their ears.

And yet…you can’t step into the same stream twice? Can’t you? With all due respect to the Greek, if the same you goes hiking along the same mountain trail you wandered a year earlier and that same you finds the same stream flowing in the same place, then why exactly is it that you can’t step into it a second time? So the water is different water…so what? Doesn’t context count for anything? If I were to sneak into your home tonight while you’re asleep, find your wallet, remove twelve one-dollar bills and replace them with twelve different one-dollar bills, wouldn’t you still have twelve dollars? The water is new water, but your feet are still going to be just as wet. The bills are different bills, but you haven't really been robbed. Content and context are different things…and that’s why New Year’s Day has some meaning in my life. Because although you can’t live the same day twice, you can still lose twenty pounds and keep them off. Because although you can’t be seventeen again, you can still learn Italian well enough to ask for directions in Rome or Milan. Because although you can’t now have gone to a different college from the one you actually did go to, you can still find the time for that third trip to the gym each week instead of constantly whining about being too busy to go. In other words, Heraclitus was right and he was also wrong. Right, obviously, because you clearly cannot get your feet wet a second time with the same water even if you are standing in the same place in the same stream at the same time of day. But also wrong…because, speaking honestly, why in the world would anyone care if the water cooling his or her feet on an unbearably hot summer’s day was the same water that cooled them a year earlier or different water? How could you even tell? And even if you could somehow tell…why would it possibly matter? Your feet, no less wet and no less cool than they would be even if you somehow could step in the same stream twice, your feet certainly would not care. And, speaking honestly, if your feet wouldn’t care, so why should you?

Somewhere in the warp and woof of those ideas is the part about New Year’s Day that I like. Rosh Hashanah is about the moral underpinnings that must be set right if we are to evolve into ever-finer iterations of ourselves as we grow older. But New Year’s Day is about doing more than being, about remembering that we inhabit the world of dust and mud just as really as we do the world of ideas, about understanding that for all our lives are characterized by the endless struggle between the appeal of doing good and the allure of corruption and sin, we can still will ourselves to keep our New Year’s resolutions. We don’t have to smoke. We don’t have to overeat. We don’t have to succumb to every bad idea that pops into our heads as though it would be an act of hypocrisy and moral self-betrayal not to do so. We can understand the cosmic value of teshuvah and the truly unending struggle it represents between the finer and baser elements of the human soul…and still go to the gym more often.

2010 doesn’t mean much to me as a number and whatever it does mean is rooted in the mythological understructure of someone else’s religion. So what? 5770 isn’t that much better, although it does have the advantage of being rooted in our own mythology as opposed to someone else’s. Still, what’s in a number? The bottom line is that whatever prompts us to notice the passage of time…and to respond to the inexorable flow of moments that characterizes our lives from cradle to grave not by wallowing in introspective dithering but simply by resolving to do some specific thing differently and better…whatever prompts us to act in such a productive, positive way with respect to our own lives and futures does not deserve to be condemned merely because it arrived on our calendars from beyond the outer reaches of our private Jewish zodiac. Sometimes, the best things come from outside our own cultural sphere, after all. Think egg rolls. And baseball. And opera. And, yes, New Year’s Day.

I wish you all a very happy New Year. May it bring us all the resolve to do better, to reach higher, and to strive to weave the values we already hold dear into the fabric of our fragile, brief lives. That’s an idea I can endorse, wherever the origin of the stream that brought it to us.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Chanukah 2009 (Iconoclasts)

Like shoes, iconoclasts come in all sizes and shapes. But unlike shoes, iconoclasts—people who either regretfully or gleefully attack traditional beliefs or practices they consider to be based on false information or mere superstition—mostly fall into two broad categories: those who direct their comments primarily towards the kind of religious leaders and scholars who study religion intellectually and (at least ideally) dispassionately, and those who address themselves to the faithful themselves. In both cases, however, the basic goal is invariably said to be just the same: to rid religion of the burden of fantasy, thus allowing it to flourish both in the pulpit and the pew in an atmosphere of unfettered intellectual integrity.

This two-tiered approach to spiritual skepticism is easily discernable out there in the world. And thus is it that the same Christian world that has to deal with Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan, the academic founders of the famous/infamous Jesus Seminar devoted to uncovering the truth about the historical Jesus, also has to deal with John Shelby Spong, one of my personal favorite authors on Christian theology (and one of the truly great iconoclasts of our or any age) whose books are almost exclusively directed towards lay readers. Within Islam, the situation—although less overt and dramatically less well known—is similar: the same Muslim world that has to grapple with the books of Nasr Abu Zayd, the great Quran scholar who was forced to leave his native Egypt and settle in Holland because of his insistent view that the Quran be read in light of the society and age in which it was produced, also has to deal with the writings of Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam whose writing about her faith is solely directed at a non-academic, lay audience. (The book is very well worth reading, by the way…and I think I’d think that even if the author hadn’t grown up in Richmond, British Columbia, where I myself served a congregation for thirteen years in the 1980s and 90s.)

And so do we too fit into this two-tiered concept: the ground-breaking, deeply iconoclastic 2008 book by Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, is written specifically for an academic audience and in a style that will be difficult for any non-specialist to pierce. (This is a special shame, I should add, because the book itself is just as stimulating as it densely written.) And then, writing for hoi polloi, we have people like David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, whose iconoclastic piece on Chanukah was published about a week ago.

Brooks apparently thought his readers (and, I can’t keep from thinking, especially his readers in the Jewish world) might be interested in hearing the “real” story about Chanukah. And so, basing himself at least partially on the writing of Jeffrey Goldberg (a staff writer for The Atlantic Monthly whose earlier work you may have read in The New Yorker or The Forward), he sallied forth into the mine field that is the effort to focus traditional observance through the prism of historical accuracy. A few years ago, David Wolpe, the rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, attempted to do the same thing with respect to the exodus from Egypt. The responses—vitriolic in Rabbi Wolpe’s case almost to the point of being violently so—were no less predictable than they were disheartening and distressing. And the responses to David Brooks’ piece in last week’s paper, although distinctly less ferocious, have been equally unsurprising. He’s ruined Chanukah. He’s destroyed our faith in Chanukah. He’s made Chanukah into something ordinary, something banal, something unworthy of annual commemoration. He’s denigrated our traditions by subjecting them to the unfairly harsh light of historical realism. He’s rained on our parade. And those are just the responses I myself either heard personally or read on-line!

And what was it that David Brooks wrote that was so shocking? He wrote that the “real” story of Chanukah is that the king of Seleucid Syria, the slightly mad Antiochus IV, was not just acting on his irrational, anti-Semitic own when he enacted his famous decrees outlawing the traditional observance of the most famous Jewish rituals. (“Seleucid” is the name historians have assigned to the empire founded by one Seleucus, a general in the army of Alexander the Great who seized the opportunity to have his very own country when Alexander’s death and the absence of any credible heir jointly opened the door to his seconds-in-command to set themselves up as the kings of any number of discrete pieces of their late master’s formerly gigantic empire.) And also that Antiochus was basically siding with one side in what was rapidly on its way to becoming a fierce civil war between two opposing groups of Jews: those who wished to embrace what they considered the finest parts of Greek culture—Greek drama, for example, or Greek gymnastics or Greek philosophy or poetry—and layer it over the foundation of Jewish culture as it had evolved to their day, and those zealots who wished to remain totally unaffected by alien culture and who wished to retain Jewish ritual and practice precisely as it had been bequeathed to them by their ancestors. For a while, people were able to agree to disagree. But both sides went over the top eventually.

It’s the rest of the story that seems truly to have rankled, however. The Hellenist types (that is, those drawn to Greek culture) didn’t find reading Homer and Sophocles to be quite enough and ended up insisting also on transforming the Temple itself into a kind of Greek sanctuary and, to take the books of their foes at face value, on worshiping totally in the Greek style. And it went even further than that—since the Greek ideal of the perfect male body did not include the absence of a foreskin, it became fashionable in at least some radical quarters to attempt surgically to reverse the effect of circumcision. And the traditionalists did their part to widen the gap as well, marring their devotion to tradition with real xenophobia, insisting that nothing of value could be imported into Jewish culture, that everything Greek—even the sublime works of Plato or Aristotle—needed to be wholly rejected by any who would see themselves as faithful to the Torah.

One thing led to another and soon enough the discontent each side felt when considering the other’s position morphed into real acts of violence. A civil war, if it did not quite break out, was clearly in the offing. And that, apparently, was when Antiochus chose to step in and to attempt to restore order. That he did so by issuing decrees intended to bolster the side in the dispute he considered more consonant with his own worldview was regretful (because it only sharpened the resolve of the traditionalists not to compromise at all), but not all that impossible to understand. And the rest, more or less, is history.

The irony, also referenced in David Brooks’ essay, is that the Maccabees themselves—the very family that produced the military leaders that defeated Antiochus’ army—that they themselves ended up unable to keep at least some trappings of Greek culture from insinuating themselves into Jewish life. They invented a festival to commemorate their military victory, which was certainly more of a Greek than a Jewish thing to do. The Books of the Maccabees report that they used the language of Greek constitutional law to establish their right to govern despite the fact that there was no precedent at all for that kind of secular governance in Jewish tradition. Within a few score years, their descendants had taken the throne of Israel for themselves despite the fact, as I mentioned last week, that they were neither of the tribe of Judah nor descendants of King David. But they never lost their inability to tolerate religious pluralism or to appreciate the concept of religion as a matter of personal choice. Eventually, the Maccabees’ descendants became so disunited that the Romans were able to annex their kingdom and make of it a part of the Roman Empire.

When it comes to war, the great perk of winning is that you get to name the conflict and write the “authentic” account of its outcome. If the British had beaten the colonists in the 1770s, the American Revolution would have been named the Colonial Revolt and it would be as little famous now as the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1610-1614 or King Philip’s War of 1675-1676, wars that led nowhere and have more or less long since been wholly or almost wholly forgotten. If the South had won the Civil War, it would now be called either the War of Confederate Independence or the Second American Revolution. And so the Maccabees, by winning the war, got to frame the story their way. And, indeed, so to this day we teach our children that the Maccabees were good guys fighting against an evil king out to destroy Jewishness, even to obliterate Judaism itself. Had they lost, of course, we’d be remembering things entirely differently...and we’d be celebrating the victory of culture over intolerance. And then, of course, there’s also the slightly unsettling question of which side we ourselves would have been the more likely to support had we been living at the time, we who have somehow managed to integrate baseball and the theater and secular literature and membership in gyms and health clubs into our traditional pattern of Jewish observance. (There’s an important thought there too, but I’ll leave it unexpressed. After all, I don’t want anyone to accuse me of ruining Chanukah for them!)

I liked David Brooks’ piece. I thought it was clever, interesting…and ultimately more or less correct. The great lesson of Chanukah—or at least the great lesson that Chanukah bears for adults—doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, come from contemplation of the Maccabees’ famous victory over Antiochus’ armies, but from a serious owning up to that victory’s distinctly less famous back story featuring an almost complete lack of mutual tolerance between Jews of differing opinions and the way that lack of tolerance quickly turned into violence. There’s a profound lesson to be learned here, but like most great lessons this one will only be heard by those willing to listen carefully and closely…and to allow what they learned about history to displace what they’ve always supposed to have been the case regarding events they imagined were clear-cut and simple but which turned out not only to be far more complex than supposed, but also to be incredibly more stimulating.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah 2009 (Miracles)

Who doesn’t know the story of the miracle of Chanukah? It’s a trick question. Everybody knows the story of the miracle. And even if some of the story’s details may be a bit obscure (and its historical background even more so), the one thing about the story that absolutely everybody does know is its much vaunted happy ending: the oil for the great menorah that only should have been enough for a single day somehow ends up lasting for a full eight days, Jerusalem rejoices, and the Jews agree to commemorate the miracle with an annual eight-day holiday. How many times have you heard that story? And it’s always about the oil! How else can cholesterol-conscious people like ourselves justify eating all those pan-fried latkes and deep-fried doughnuts? But it turns out that it’s also about something else…something unexpectedly interesting.

It’s true, as some readers may know, that the story of the miracle is mysteriously absent from the ancient Books of the Maccabees, both the one written in Hebrew towards the end of the second century BCE commonly called First Maccabees and also the contemporary, but unrelated digest of a much longer work by one Jason of Cyrene originally written in Greek and commonly called Second Maccabees. (Both cover the events of the 160s BCE that led to the rededication of the Temple, but neither mentions the oil story or appears to know of it.) Nor, even, is there any clear reference to the miracle even in the Al Hanissim prayer we add to our recitation of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals during the festival. (That passage, ancient in its own right, concludes just a bit vaguely with a reference to the Jews re-entering the Temple courtyard, cleansing the sanctuary of the idolatrous accouterments that had been installed there, then “kindling lights in the holy courtyards and appointing the eight days of Chanukah as an annual occasion to give thanks to God.”) And it’s also true that even the meticulous Josephus, the most important post-biblical Jewish historian of ancient times, includes nothing of the miracle in the account of the story he included in his magnum opus, The Antiquities of the Jews.

But who cares about any of that? And who needs fancy historians anyway when every Jewish school child knows that the Maccabees and their followers only found one single cruse of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest when they entered the Temple to purify and rededicate it? And that the Maccabees and their supporters, understanding that there was really only enough oil to burn in the great Temple menorah for one single day, resolved to light the menorah anyway. And that the most amazing thing then ensued as the single day’s worth of oil somehow managed to burn for eight days instead of just one.

Where this story originally came from, who knows? Its oldest attestation in any even remotely familiar form is in the Talmud, a work published six or seven centuries after the events under discussion. Still, the Talmud clearly serves as the repository of much older traditions, so the fact that a story was only preserved within the talmudic corpus hardly means that it isn’t very old. Or that it wasn’t told for centuries before being recorded. Or, supposing one believes easily in miracles, that it wasn’t true or that it never happened. The only thing is that the story as it actually appears in the Talmud is not precisely the tale as told. And that brings me to the story’s “other” point, the one I’d like to raise with my readers today for their Chanukah consideration.

The way the story is almost always told, the oil burns for eight days instead of only one. That’s definitely how it was told to me when I was a boy, so I checked on-line to see whether they’re still telling the story the same way. And so they are! At, I found a reference to “the famous story of the miraculous jar of oil that burned for eight days.” At Judaism 101 (which is a little hard to find because the address is actually, they inform readers that “there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah.” So far, it all sounds familiar. Even that repository of all human knowledge, the redoubtable Wikipedia, tells the same tale, noting that, “the oil (miraculously) burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.” So everyone appears to be in agreement that the miracle was that the oil burned for eight times as long as it ought to have. Only that’s not what the Talmud says. Not exactly.

In Tractate Shabbat, the volume of the Talmud in which the lion’s share of the traditions relating to Chanukah are presented, we learn that the Maccabees only found a single cruse of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest when they seized the Temple and that this tiny jug appeared only to have enough oil in it to burn in the great Temple menorah for one single day. So far, that’s entirely familiar. But then the Talmud moves on and explains that a great miracle happened when the oil didn’t run out after a single day. Instead, the Talmud says clearly but subtly (and you really could miss this easily if you’re not reading carefully or slowly enough), the oil didn’t run out…and the tiny jug somehow ended up having enough oil in its tiny interior to burn for eight days instead of just one. So that’s the miracle as it appears in its oldest literary source: not that the Maccabees lighted the menorah and it somehow remained ablaze for more than a week, but that the tiny cruse of oil didn’t run dry for eight whole days and that oil somehow continued to pour from it into the cups of the menorah for as long as it took—eight whole days—for fresh oil to be prepared under the auspices of the High Priest.

Does it make any difference? It does! For one thing, it’s not a story we haven’t heard before. Anyone who’s been in shul, for example, when Parashat Vayera was read and listened to the haftarah knows that there’s another magic jug of oil in our tradition, the one in the story of Elisha (the prophet Elijah’s less famous disciple) and the impoverished widow. The poor woman had no money to pay her debtors and was in danger of having her children seized as slaves by her creditors. And so, totally distraught, she sought out Elisha for his help (or at least for his counsel) and he offered her some of both. Did she have anything at all salable at home? She had, she said, a single cruse of oil in her house…and nothing more. Then that, he assured her, would suffice. She was to borrow as many pans and pots as she could from the neighbors, then begin pouring oil into them. What she thought was going to happen, who knows? But when she followed Elisha’s instructions and started pouring, the tiny cruse only ran dry when she ran out of pots to pour the oil into. And the rest was history: she sold the oil, paid off her creditors, and presumably lived happily ever after.

By telling this particular story about the Maccabees, the rabbis of ancient times were saying something subtle and very interesting about how they viewed the world. Everybody knows that the Maccabees are the heroes of the Chanukah story, but not everybody knows that they ended up a few decades later as self-proclaimed kings of Israel. The rabbis weren’t sure what to make of that—the Bible could not be clearer that the only legitimate king would have to be a descendant of David, which the Maccabees, a family of kohanim, certainly were not—but they weren’t quite ready to condemn a dynasty that had nevertheless somehow managed not only to restore Jewish sovereignty but also to maintain it for almost a full century. Could there be such things as kings that were authentic without being legitimate? It sounds like a complicated issue that only a political scientist could love, but the question has its own biblical pedigree…and that pedigree has to do with, of all people, the prophet Elisha. It seems that Elisha was the one who sent his disciple quietly to anoint Jehu ben Jehoshafat (sometimes confusingly called Jehu ben Nimshi, although the latter was his grandfather not his father) as king of Israel and to order him to assassinate the sitting monarch, King Jehoram. This, he did…and he became king too.

Was Jehu a legitimate monarch? He too was clearly not a descendant of David! And yet Elisha’s instructions were that the disciple was to anoint Jehu’s head with oil and say, “Thus said the Lord: I anoint you king over Israel.” It’s true that Elisha was only finishing up work left undone by his own master, Elijah, but the point here doesn’t have to do with who technically was first commissioned to make Jehu king, but with the fact that there apparently is such a thing as authentic, yet illegitimate, kingship: Jehu was ordained in the name of God by a prophet of God acting at the specific behest of the Almighty…and he still wasn’t a truly legitimate king from the House of David.

By bringing Elisha into the Chanukah story subtly, the ancient sages were saying something subtle too about the way Jews could think about the Maccabees: that for all the latter eventually turned into self-appointed kings who ruled without the requisite Davidic pedigree and thus illegitimately, it was not necessary for the pious to look down on them or treat them as renegades or miscreants. They could be admired if not fully endorsed, appreciated without being fully accepted. And that, I submit, is why they told the story of the Maccabees as though it were a latter-day midrash on the story about Elisha and the widow. Given that the back story of Chanukah has to do as much with internecine hatred than it does with resistance to tyranny launched at the Jewish people from abroad, what better lesson could the festival offer us than the one hiding just behind its most famous story, the lesson that in politics it is sometimes necessary to compromise, that you sometimes have to be a bit flexible regarding what you’d prefer if you truly wish to get what you want!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

R. Crumb's Genesis

I suppose the cleaning staff they hire to tidy up at the Louvre after hours must get used to dusting off the Mona Lisa as though it weren’t the world’s most famous painting, but it doesn’t always work that way. During the several years in the early 1980s that I worked as assistant to the Library at JTS, for example, I never quite got to the point at which I barely noticed the indescribable treasures just sitting around in display cases and on open book shelves. Actually, just the opposite was the case for me: each time I entered the Rare Book Room I felt amazed at where I was, at where I was somehow allowed to enter not as a sightseer or as a scholar but just as a regular person doing his regular day’s work who just happened to do that work in the company of the world’s most famous—and, in many cases, most beautiful—Jewish books. Readers who have been to my home easily see the evidence of my life-long love affair with books. But there are books and there are books…..

I think the single biggest shock I had when I began work at JTS had to do with my personal discovery of the illuminated manuscript. Obviously, I had known that there were such things in the world. Here and there I’m sure I had read about them, but my own field of scholarly research was completely unrelated to the topic and I was therefore more than just a bit green about the whole concept. So there are books with pictures in them, I would probably have said—so what? Growing up in a culture that encourages children to feel good about growing past picture books, I never paused to imagine just what it could mean for a book to be illustrated by a true master, by someone so skilled as an artist and so equally insightful with respect to the meaning of the text at hand that the result is illumination in the literal sense of the word: the shedding of light, the making deeper and clearer of meaning, the drawing of (living) readers and (long since deceased) authors together in a way they would probably never be able to manage absent the artist’s skill, talent, and insight.

But there I was nonetheless working day after day in the company of volumes that by their existence alone wholly contradicted whatever I might previously have thought about the reasonability of letting artists draw in books. I remember having once to retrieve the Rothschild Machzor, created in Florence in 1490 and possessed of the most gorgeous illumination I had ever seen (take a look for yourselves at, and pausing to open it for a long moment while still all alone, then feeling drawn into the prayer book in a way that I hadn’t ever experienced, that I hadn’t even known could be experienced. I had a similar experience with the Prato Haggadah, another JTS treasure. Written in Spain somewhere around the year 1300 and for some reason left unfinished, just the experience of peering briefly into the Haggadah (and especially while holding it in my own hands) helped me begin to formulate the ideas I ended up putting forward in the introduction to the Shabbat and Festivals volume of Tzur Yisrael about the ability of liturgy to create a world outside of time in which human beings anchored in an unstanchable flow of moments can encounter a God who by definition exists without reference to time past and time future. (You can check out the Prato Haggadah on-line as well at

And now I come to the real topic I wish to write about today, R. Crumb’s edition of Genesis published earlier this year by W.W. Norton. I’d just finished reading it when I mentioned it from the bimah last week, but I didn’t pause to explain why exactly I was so enamored by the book. And that is what I’d like to write about here today.

Readers of my specific generation know Robert Crumb primarily as the originator of 60’s icons like Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, and as one of the originators of the so-called “underground comix” movement. Crumb was the “Keep on Truckin’” guy and the illustrator of 60s album covers by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company, the artist whose erotic drawings—explicit almost to the point occasionally of bordering on the grotesque—offered an entire generation a new way (or so they thought) to think about sex. And he’s endured and remained creative and productive over all these intervening years as well. He’s in the New Yorker all the time. You can see a few images from the Genesis volume here:

By all accounts, he’s an unlikely candidate to provide much insight into the biblical text. And, indeed, I ordered the book when it first came out more out of curiosity than any real conviction that reading his book would deepen my understanding of Scripture. But I was wrong. I was completely wrong, actually. Reading Genesis as a graphic novel—and, at that, as a graphic novel with (as the banner on the book’s cover says) “nothing left out!”—has allowed me to understand some of the tales we all know almost by heart in novel, interesting ways…including in ways that now seem to me essential for any reader eager to encounter these famous stories in their own context and specifically not as they feel when encumbered by centuries upon centuries of after-the-fact interpretive baggage.

Crumb is a literalist. Therefore, he depicts the text as written. He does not bother asking himself what the text “really” means if that “real” meaning fails to correspond to the simple meaning of the words. The Bible says that Adam and Eve were both created in the divine image, so God is depicted fully anthropomorphically. (I should add that I’ve also just finished reading Benjamin D. Sommer’s terrific book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press, and that my thinking about biblical anthropomorphism has been drastically revised by the experience. Ben was my student in the JTS Prozdor program for high school students a million years ago and has gone on to become an exceptional scholar. I want to write about his book in detail on another occasion, but will pause here only to say that if there were ever two books to read simultaneously, it would be Ben’s book referenced just above and Crumb’s Genesis.) More to the point, however, Crumb sees things in the text that we generally nod to without really considering too carefully. But reading is reading…and although it is paradoxically entirely possible to read with your eyes closed, seeing things depicted graphically forces you to open those shut eyes and, to use the Talmudic expression, to let your eyes see what your ears have already heard.

The story, for example, about how Lot’s daughters, taking themselves and their father to be the sole survivors of a conflagration that they believe to have destroyed all humankind, conspire together to get him drunk and then to seduce him into impregnating them has always struck me as a kind of a literary bagatelle, a way for the text to say something vulgar and nasty about the Moabites and Ammonites who descend from this unholy union. (We generally skip this story in Hebrew School.) But when Crumb captures the image of ancient Lot, drunk, disheveled, and demented, in flagrante delicto with his own scheming daughters the picture is far more about Lot’s daughters than about the Ammonites…and the pathetic image Crumb draws leads me to think about that story in a different light, as a story not so much about the neighbors but about ourselves and our endless ability to self-delude and self-justify.

Similarly, we all know that Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born. The text says as much explicitly at Genesis 17:17 (“Then Abraham fell upon his face and, laughing, said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah bear a child at ninety?’”), but it was only when I got to Crumb’s version of Genesis 21—the chapter we read in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and mostly know by heart—and I saw his image of a ninety-year-old nursing a baby that it fully dawned on me just how the text almost demands to be read. (Yes, of course, I know Rashi’s comment that Sarah retained her youthful beauty throughout all the days of her very long life. But Crumb isn’t illustrating Rashi, he’s illustrating the text as written and as received. And we Jews have a long history of venerating the pshat, the simplest layer of meaning, above all else when interpreting a biblical story.) It was while looking at Crumb’s drawing, in fact, that I felt for the first time that I really got that whole story. And the same could be said about the devastating picture of Simeon (or maybe it’s Levi) preparing to kill a defenseless child while his mother flees in terror when the brothers choose to avenge their sister’s disgrace on the entire population of Shechem—that’s also a story I know inside out, but never forced myself to imagine clearly in terms of what it would actually have looked like, what it would have felt like to see such a thing happen and not just to read about it in a book.

Those are just three examples among many that I could mention. Reading Crumb’s Genesis was rewarding precisely because he depicts the text as written, thus insisting that, before all else, readers consider what the text says…and only then (if they must) what it means. The idea is not to ignore the work of our venerable ancient, medieval, and modern commentators, but to start not with their insights and observations but with the simplest meaning of the text. What Rashi would make of Crumb’s images—and especially his erotic ones—I have no idea. Or maybe I do have some idea…but what the father of all commentators would have to say about an effort to force readers first of all to encounter the pshat and only then to move on to the interpretative level, I think I also know. My guess is that he would have endorsed that concept wholeheartedly. As do I. As, I think, will most readers willing to take a leap into a kind of pshat-based commentary that truly is unlike any other.

The Israelites in Crumb’s Genesis are sturdy types, as have been so many of his characters over the years. These people—most of whom, if they were only dressed up in shul clothes, look as though they could be found in the pews of any synagogue on Shabbos morning listening to their own stories—are not prettified, not gussied up to look like “biblical” heroes. They are clearly real men and women. The men have broad backs and hairy legs. The women have bellies and breasts. Some are attractive, but most are not…or at least not in the Hollywood sense. But they are real. And that reality—and the clarity of the artist’s vision—makes reading this book a worthy undertaking for all who love the first book of the Bible and its vast pageant of history, myth, and saga. If any of you reads it, let me know what you think. I’ll be eager to hear!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

I have always been fascinated by the idea of time travel in general, but as I’ve grown older I’ve also refined my sense of what specific kind of time travel it is that attracts me the most powerfully and enticingly.

I remember reading Washington Irving’s story about Rip Van Winkle when I was in high school and liking it well enough. But I can recall even back then thinking that the story wasn’t really about time travel because old Rip merely falls asleep and then awakens twenty years later. It’s a good basis for an excellent story—and, incidentally, the book in which it appears, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, is still very worth reading and regretfully under-recognized as a true classic of American literature—but it isn’t real time travel because Rip doesn’t even begin to transcend the inexorable flow of moments that prevents human beings anchored in temporal reality from visiting the past or the future. In fact he doesn’t really do anything except sleep for an exceptionally long period of time and then wake up. More to the point is that he cannot return to the past, so he’s not really visiting the future at all other than in the sense that we all visit the future by waking up in the morning on the day after we went to bed. Nor is he is any more of a time traveler than our own Choni the Circle Drawer, whose story is told in the Talmud. Choni too falls asleep and wakes up not twenty but seventy years in the future. But unlike Rip Van Winkle whose daughter eventually takes him in and allows him to resume his life, Choni ends up so distraught that he can only think to pray for death. His prayer is answered and he dies, and it is precisely regarding Choni’s doleful fate that Rava, the great Talmudic master, is heard to apply the once-famous adage, “Give me companionship or give me death!” (As far as I can tell, Patrick Henry was quoting the Roman orator Cato, not Rava, when he offered the world his version of that thought.)

Other literary versions of time travel have also struck me over the years as coming up short. Scrooge is vouchsafed a glimpse into what may well eventually be the “real” future if he fails to respond morally and decently to what he has been shown of the present, but that ends up not being what really happens. And Scrooge doesn’t get to visit the future anyway, only to see one plausible version of what may yet happen. In that sense, he’s no more a time traveler than George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in It’s a Wonderful Life, who is vouchsafed an alternate vision of a past that might have happened had he never existed but which didn’t actually happen at all. Mark Twain came a lot closer to the concept with Hank Morgan, the title character in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, who somehow ends up living back in King Arthur’s day. But even Twain could not imagine Hank commuting back and forth between the sixth and the nineteenth centuries and at the end of the book Merlin has to cast a spell on Hank that allows him to him sleep for thirteen centuries and awaken back in nineteenth century Hartford where he belongs. And so, in the end, it was H.G. Wells who finally came up with the plot device that seems to me to constitute “real” time travel when he wrote in The Time Machine about a device that enables people to travel purposefully and intentionally back and forth to different eras and then to return home at will. Almost more to the point, Wells has his unnamed protagonist move into the future, not the past, first visiting the 8028th century, and then moving a cool thirty million years hence into an even more unimaginable time yet to come. And it is that specific core idea—that the future is not non-existent, merely inaccessible to people without time machines—that attracts me the most mightily.

You have to love it. I love it. Which of us doesn’t dream of dropping into the future for a few hours to find out about what is yet to be, to learn what will become of our children and grandchildren, to see with our own eyes what their grandchildren will be like. And, because this kind of fantasy is always at least a bit self-referential, we fantasize too about travelling to the future to discover what they—our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and their grandchildren—what they will know of us, what parts of our lives on earth will survive, what our legacy will actually be when enough time has passed for all the chaff to have long since washed away so thoroughly that only the sturdiest remnants of whatever it is we have wrought in this place remain for later generations to consider. I don’t dwell on these thoughts too regularly—I have more than enough on my mind as it is most days and I’m not that big a reader of science fiction novels—but these are still the thoughts that I feel possessing me as I sit here early—too early—on Thanksgiving morning in my too cluttered study and contemplate the notion of being thankful for the gift of my life. Just as I hope is the case for all my readers, I feel thankful and grateful for all that I have. But, man, if I could just spend a few minutes in the twenty-second century and see for myself that it all works out, that my kids and future grandkids (please God) end up okay, that all the little things in life that make me crazy really are just little things that I’m being wise, not foolish, to try to ignore for as much of the time as I can—how great would that be?

It’s just a fantasy. Who knows if the future does or even can exist outside the realm of fantasy? (And, more to the philosophical point, how can the choices we feel ourselves making in life possibly be more than illusory chimeras if the future is already out there somewhere and our choices thus already part of immutable reality?) But I find myself feeling differently about the past…and more secure in my beliefs in that regard than ever.

One of the greatest of all Shoah novels, André Schwarz Bart’s The Last of the Just, begins with the simple observation that we see at night by the light of dead stars. I took that phrase as the title of my second novel, Light from Dead Stars, because the concept was and remains so appealing to me: when we look up at the nighttime sky, what we are seeing is not anything even remotely related to current reality but the almost immeasurably ancient past that existed when the light now arriving on earth first left the stars we imagine ourselves to be seeing in the present. So we peer into the past nightly…but, like prisoners looking out at the world through the iron bars on their cells’ windows, we still cannot go there. It exists. It’s there. It’s real, and undeniably so. But even if interstellar travel were to become possible and we somehow could watch the distant past morphing into the present as we travel light-year by light-year closer and closer to our destination, wouldn’t we still be bound by logic to meet the present, not the past, just as we finally arrive in the starport? Is that right? It sounds right to me, but what do I know? I’m a rabbi, not an astrophysicist! But when I look out at the dinner table this afternoon, a different reality will be beckoning me…and one rooted in a firm sense of how things are in real life, not in fantasy. Or at least not solely in fantasy!

As I grow older, I see that the past exists not merely as recollection but as part of ongoing reality. I look at my children, as of last Tuesday all of them in their twenties, and I understand that their earlier iterations—the babies and the toddlers and the elementary school children and the high school students—that these all exist as part of reality not “out there” in some place called The Past, but as part of ongoing reality, as part of the present. The old Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously noted that everything is in flux, that you simply cannot stand in the same river twice because no matter how carefully you are about standing in precisely the same spot, you still cannot possibly have the same water wash over your feet. The water is flowing and, with all respect to King Kohelet, will not return…just as time is ever on the march and cannot, therefore will not, return. Heraclitus was a wise man, but what if he had spied a tree instead of a river as he formulated his most famous thought? Would he possibly have been visited not by the thought that no one can stand in the same river twice, but by the fact that the tree’s inmost rings were once its outer shell…and that the inner rings are all there, all present, all fully real despite being hidden from view? Readers who daven regularly at Shelter Rock will have heard me say many times from the bimah that time itself is just a midrash invented by human beings eager to develop a framework in which adequately to describe the world, but not much more than a literary frame for analyzing action and reaction, activity and consequence, deeds contemplated and deeds accomplished and unaccomplished. Time feels real, after all, but it is still only one plausible way among many to explain how things truly are in God’s world.

As I watch my children grow—and also as I myself grow older and feel earlier versions of myself to be as real as the inner rings of any fifty-six-year-old tree in the forest—I find myself possessed of the conviction that time travel is neither possible nor impossible, that the question itself is wrongly asked and thus inevitably also wrongly answered. Indeed, the more I ponder the idea the more clear it is to me that the idea of traveling to King Arthur’s court and there altering the course of history, an idea rooted in the thought that the past is “out there” and therefore could plausibly somehow be visited, is not the right way to frame the issue at all. The past, I finally see, is not out there at all. It’s within. Within us. And within our children and grandchildren. As such, the past is real…and it is not nearly as inaccessible as I once thought. Indeed, I plan to visit it this afternoon…when I sit down at Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by my twenty, twenty-two, and twenty-five-year-old children and visit—not in the realm of fantasy, but in the context of sober reality—both with the parts of them I can see and also with the parts hidden deep within. Their futures are before them, but their pasts are not behind them but in them. And that is why there is something mystical about this meal—this lone American yontif feast among all the other festive meals of my year—when I somehow acquire the ability to look through the bark and the blea at the rings closest to the core…and to come closer to understanding what it means to be a father not in the context of history, but in the ongoing reality of a full real present that is merely the outermost patina of a rich, textured past.

By the time most of you read this, Thanksgiving will have come and gone. I hope all was well for you all and for your families. I suspect that we ourselves are going to have a lovely day. Every so often, I take the time to look carefully up into the nighttime sky to see the past as it once was. But to see the past as it still is and always will be, I plan to look into my children’s eyes this afternoon….and see the future as history and destiny meet in my very own home over an overflowing platter of roast turkey.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Being A Rabbi

I had the most interesting challenge laid at my feet this week. Rivon Krygier, the rabbi of the Adath Shalom congregation in Paris, is a very good friend of mine. We’ve worked together on all sorts of different projects over the years, most of them related somehow to Conservative Judaism (the quarterly journal which I’ve now served as chairman of the editorial board for almost a full decade), and I have only come to admire him more and more as I’ve read and translated his work and watched him build something truly impressive in Paris over the years. (You can read about Adath Shalom at If you can read French, you can visit their own website at But the specific challenge Rivon inspired in me this week is only tangentially related to Adath Shalom and far more directly so to the business of actually being a rabbi.

A local newspaper in Paris invited Rivon to contribute five hundred words on what it means to him to be a rabbi. At first, it sounds like it must have been an easy assignment—five hundred words is about one double-spaced page printed out in normal-sized letters—so how hard could it be for any of us to write that much about whatever it is we do all day? But, of course, just the opposite is true. As any writer of worth will tell you, going on forever about something is infinitely easier than answering a question succinctly and clearly on a single, well-written page! And the simpler the question, the more daunting the challenge.

To frame his comments just a bit whimsically, Rivon chose to describe his life as a rabbi in terms of the three punctuation marks—a hyphen, a question mark, and an exclamation point—that he finds to suggest different aspects of his rabbinate and one, the period that marks the end of a sentence, that he doesn’t. I read what he wrote with great interest and it appealed to me so much that I thought it would be interesting to share his sense of what it means to be a rabbi with my readers this week.

Rabbis, Rivon wrote, are the professional equivalent of hyphens because they serve within their communities as agents of linkage, as the living bridges that attach the souls of discrete human beings to each other and bind them—as individuals and as a community of linked souls—to God. And rabbis are living hyphens in another profound way as well because, as teachers charged with linking the words of the Torah to each other gently and subtly, their job is also to create a context for individual congregants to feel themselves drawn into the world of religious observance as they come to perceive the fabric of revelation to an organic whole rather than a collection of disparate legal and narrative passages only tangentially related to their “real” lives. The ideal rabbi, therefore, is a not only a teacher, but specifically one who modestly finds his or her natural home in the narrow blank spaces between the words of the scroll, not someone who mistakes him or herself for a prophet or an angel possessed of secret information to be shared only with the sufficiently observant or educated or priorly committed.

Moving along, Rivon wrote that rabbis are also question marks because, at least ideally, they serve their communities precisely by stimulating thoughtful, respectful debate. Indeed, he writes, rabbis should strive always to feel totally secure in the belief that naïve credulity can never substitute for the kind of hard-won faith that derives directly from personal engagement with difficult, challenging issues. (Some of you, I hope, will recognize this thought from the introductory essay in the Shabbat and Festivals volume of Siddur Tzur Yisrael.) He quotes Martin Buber’s comment in The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism that true faith can always be recognized because it is the kind of belief that never stops challenging the heart and the mind. Indeed, it is precisely because faith exists in its finest guise as the diametric opposite of placid, docile acceptance of other people’s ideas that Rivon understands any rabbi’s greatest challenge to be the effort to bring Jews to spiritual maturity precisely by challenging them to grow into their faith naturally and honestly by toiling in their own vineyards to bring forth fruit they can truly claim as their own.

The rabbi-as-question-mark concept, however, is only truly meaningful when paired with Rivon’s model of the rabbi as exclamation point. A rabbi, so Rivon, can never be content solely with stimulating questions: there also have to be answers, even tentative ones. He firmly rejects the stale, over-cited notion that Judaism consists solely of questions without answers. Debate is healthy, he implies, but the kind of healthy debate that stimulates spiritual and intellectual growth is not to be confused with endless and directionless dithering. Impassioned dialogue, including the kind that takes place between the two sides of one’s own brain, is key, but equally crucial is that all that foment has actually to lead somewhere that the engaged parties can pitch their Jewish tents instead of just endlessly talking about it! This too is an idea I can embrace enthusiastically, having grown into it myself over long years of suggesting—to myself and to others—that just the opposite could well be the case.

And then there is the one thing that Rivon wrote that a rabbi isn’t and can never be: the period at the end of a sentence. By this, he meant something profound and also very engaging to me personally: that in his conception rabbis should specifically not have the final word on what people believe, but instead should feel charged with speaking the first word, the one that stimulates creative thinking and the kind of productive, ruminative introspection that prompts individuals to develop into finer versions of their earlier Jewish iterations. This is the model of the rabbi as catalyst, as initiator, as guide. And indeed from my own experience in the rabbinate I know all too well that rabbis should never entertain the fantasy that they can win the hearts of congregants by yelling at them or hectoring them or bullying them. Indeed, for rabbis to allow themselves to feel that they have successfully “taught” Judaism to their congregants simply by presenting themselves personally as examples of the model Jew to which others may hopefully aspire is to doom their efforts from the start. To be a successful rabbi, my friend Rivon concludes, one must first be a mensch.

So far, Rivon. It’s taken me almost half again as many words to describe what he wrote than he actually needed to express himself in the first place. But the real challenge is not to boil his comments down to precisely five hundred words, but to respond to what he wrote. Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to do my job. I’m not even sure exactly why I’ve moved into this reflective mode, but I find myself spending more and more time trying to formulate a sense of what the great goal of my rabbinate is, the idea being not so much to list my daily tasks and then honestly to say how well I think I am managing to complete them but to say clearly what the overall goal is, what it is that I want to be the hallmark of my life in the congregational rabbinate, what I want people eventually to remember about my work as a rabbi.

I agree with Rivon—and wholeheartedly—that the point is not merely to talk endlessly about unresolvable issues—and not even to do so intelligently and thoughtfully—but to use the friction between what we know of the world and what we want to believe about the world to generate the kind of spiritual energy capable of propelling us forward towards real growth. And it is the job of a rabbi to model this specific way to harness the tension between faith and reason for positive, productive ends. So I’m in total agreement that a rabbi needs to be both question mark and exclamation point.

And I agree as well that rabbis must be hyphens because the whole point of being a rabbi—and especially in the congregational setting—cannot merely be to demonstrate how successfully the rabbi in question has personally mastered the ins and outs of ritual observance or learned to analyze ancient texts, but must also be to show through personal example that spiritual growth can be attained by ordinary Jewish people using the simple tools our ancestors bequeathed to us all: careful reading, introspective study, thoughtful prayer, focused ritual observance, and the pursuit of charity, kindness, and generosity in our relationships with others. And it is that concept of rabbi-as-hyphen linking Jews to the Torah, to each other, and to God, that is at the core of the enterprise for me. Consequently, the obligation to model the kind of principled engagement with the world, with tradition, and with the Torah itself that can lead purposefully forward towards the redemptive moment without obliging pilgrims to abandon their wits or their principles is what it means to me—and apparently to my friend Rivon as well—to be a rabbi. And I suspect it’s also why we both chose early on to spend the years of our professional lives working with real Jewish people in an actual Jewish community rather than, say, lecturing about Judaism to disinterested undergraduates.

In the end, the journey is everything…but the job of rabbis is not to take congregants along with them on their own personal journeys, but to help those congregants find the fortitude to make their own individual way forward on their private paths towards their personal Jerusalems. A rabbi cannot be the period at the end of someone else’s sentence! And that too is something I enjoyed finding stated out loud in my friend’s column about our shared profession this week.

Even after all these years, I can’t think of a way I would have liked more to make my mark on the world, nor can I think of an avenue of personal self-expression that would have been more gratifying or satisfying. The old joke has it that being a rabbi is no way for a Jew to earn a living…but it’s been a good life for me, one filled both with professional and spiritual satisfaction. I’m occasionally asked if I would pursue a career in the rabbinate if I had the choice to make all over again, if I were somehow back to being an undergraduate contemplating the different career paths that were open to me. The answer for me is that, yes, I would. Even with knowing all that I’ve learned in the intervening years, I’d still opt for a life in the rabbinate. And I think my friend in Paris, Rabbi Rivon Krygier, would too!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Remembering My Mother

As I was preparing for my father’s tenth yahrtzeit a few months ago, I wrote to you all about what I have come from a decade’s distance to consider to be the most important parts of my father’s legacy to me. At that time, I had the idea that I would follow up in a few months’ time when I would be preparing to observe my mother’s thirtieth yahrtzeit. And now that time is upon us—her yahrtzeit, the thirtieth anniversary of hear death, falls next week on Wednesday—and I would like to write today about my mother and the specific way in which her memory is a blessing for me still.

More than even my father (which is saying a lot), my mother seemed to me when I was young to have come to earth from a different planet. When my mother was a girl, people were still flying around the globe in giant zeppelins. She was born before penicillin, before pop-up toasters, before Prohibition, before the Yankees won their first World Series, before Kellogg’s invented Rice Krispies. When my mother was born in the spring of 1915, Ford was still producing and marketing the Model T, Woodrow Wilson was president, and New York’s “boy mayor,” John Purroy Mitchel, was in office. Where it hadn’t been banned, D.W. Griffith’s silent movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation, was playing in theaters across the country. Workers in Washington were still building the Lincoln Memorial. The RMS Lusitania, soon to be sunk by a German U-boat, was still ferrying its passengers across the Atlantic. My mother was born before American women had the right to vote. You get the idea. A whole different world!

And, indeed, in many ways, my mother—her name was Mildred—in many ways my mother lived up to my boyhood sense of her being a guest from some other world…or at least from some other century. Like her mother and sister, she never learned to drive. She put on “shul clothes” to go into Manhattan even just to shop at Altman’s. She never raised her voice, never used profane language, other than during a blizzard hardly ever left the house wearing pants (which she invariably called “slacks”), put perfume on when she got dressed in the morning even when she wasn’t planning to go out anywhere. And my mother from a different planet lived in a home to match. We had one single telephone in our apartment for most of my life, a wall phone in the kitchen on which it was only possible to have a private conversation when no one else was home. I’m not even sure my parents had upgraded to color television before my mother died—we may still have had our ancient black-and-white set—nor am I entirely certain that my parents owned a car with automatic steering in my mother’s lifetime other than the white Cadillac convertible with red leather seats they inherited from my Uncle Herb. (Other than that Cadillac, which was also the only car of ours ever to be stolen, my parents certainly didn’t ever own one with power windows or brakes.)

I was fifteen when she became ill, then twenty-six when she died. As a result, my mother never met Joan or any of my children. She never heard me preach, never read even a single word I published, never knew me to own a home or a car or a dog. Of course my mother lived in the pre-modern world in most other ways as well, leaving behind when she died a world without cell phones, e-mail, digital cameras, or personal computers. When I think about her life and her death, it all seems like a long time ago.

And yet, when I think more carefully and allow myself to look past the inventions she didn’t live to see or the gadgets she never had a chance to own, I remember my mother as a woman possessed of the uncommon ability to grow intellectually and emotionally throughout the years of a lifetime. My mother entered the 1960s, her last full decade, as a child of her era. She had graduated from James Monroe High School, then earned her bachelor’s degree at Hunter College at age nineteen and went on from there to get an M.A. in Education from Columbia. She was dissuaded from considering law school (in most of which women weren’t welcome in her day anyway) and, forsaking her Columbia training, became a legal secretary instead. Then, when I was born, she left her firm and became, to use the demonized phrase, a housewife. Of course, looking after a home, a husband, and a child was considered a full-time job in those days. And that was how she herself saw it as well. When I was finally in school all day, she became a substitute teacher and worked for many years at Newtown High School in Elmhurst and at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. When she became too sick to work, she retired and looked after herself, my father, and me as best she could. She was sixty-four when she died on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1979.

But while all of this ordinary stuff was happening, my mother was also developing in unexpected ways. She was radicalized by the Vietnam War and began to attend anti-war rallies. She did not think much of President Nixon and eventually lost her reticence about saying so forcefully. Slightly to my father’s dismay, she began to listen to music far more in keeping with my own tastes than with his. (This, of course, I could barely stand—the last thing any fourteen-year-old in 1967 wanted was his mom borrowing his Jefferson Airplane albums—but now, after all these years, I find it more inspiring than merely charming to remember those incidents.) My mother joined the National Organization of Women after it was founded in 1966. She read—this also horrified me as a teenager—she read The Feminine Mystique and spoke openly and very admiringly about its author, Betty Friedan, and about Bella Abzug and the other leaders of the then-nascent feminist movement. She also had no compunctions about raising all sorts of women’s issues with girls I knew from high school when they came over to the house. (If that didn’t kill me, surely nothing else ever will.) And yet I remember it all with the greatest fondness now. Here was a woman who refused to be stuck in her own mud, who insisted on growing and on learning, who understood that education is only meaningful if it actually leads to new ideas and to the revision of old ones, who never became so old that she was afraid to embrace new ideas and new views. When I think of my teenaged self cringing as she gave forth to my friends about new ideas, about politics, about the war…it is myself of whom I’m ashamed, not her. Eventually, I got over it. But I wish I could revisit those scenes with her now and tell her how they seem to me from the vantage point of all these many intervening years, and how proud they make me to have been her son.

When my mother died in 1979, she was ravaged by her illness almost beyond anything I could have imagined was going to be the case when she first became sick. (My mother died of breast cancer, but I never heard her mention the name of her illness aloud, not even one single time. I’m not sure what that was about really, but it was common back then to refer to cancer either not at all or only obliquely with a euphemism or an abbreviation. So my mother was also a child of her times, even as she was busy transcending the norms of her generation in other ways.) But for all she seemed to be aging almost before my eyes, she retained her life-long ability to embrace life by learning new things and by embracing new ideas. She was teaching herself Italian that last year, hoping that remission would perhaps lead to a trip to Italy. A life-long artist—and quite a talented one at that, as was her mother before her—my mother actually realized at a certain moment that attempting to draw while she was just a bit detached from her regular moorings by the plenteous painkillers her doctors had prescribed for her could lead to new, interesting ways to see the world and to record the world in the context of art. I have some of the drawings from her “Demerol period”…and I treasure them almost above any others of her paintings or drawings. Here was a woman who knew how to find good in bad, how to squeeze something sweet out of even the bitterest lemon, how to find solace and comfort in artistic expression in a way most of the rest of us can only vaguely imagine being able to manage.

I don’t remember that much of my mother’s years of good health. I was, as I said, fifteen when she had her first mastectomy. And I was a young child for at least a third of those fifteen years, and really more than a third. I do remember her being healthy, of course. I remember her appearing at my bar-mitzvah in the most beautiful powder blue suit and looking elegant and striking seated in the front row of the synagogue with my father and her sister and her aunts and their husbands. And I remember many other happy moments as well. But the real legacy she left behind spans both eras, her years of health and her years of decline.

More than almost anyone else I’ve met, my mother was blessed with a supple intellect. She had no problem re-orienting herself in light of a new discovery made, a new book read, a new idea digested and accepted as reasonable. I’m sure there are people out there who remember her, but I myself am only in regular contact with fewer than a dozen who do. But that hardly matters…and what really does matter to me as I contemplate this thirtieth anniversary of her death is the hope that my mother’s memory inspires in me that it might one day also be said of me that I never grew too fixed in my ways or views to alter them in light of new ideas, and that I was truly a life-long lover of learning. My mom set the bar very high for me in that regard. I can only hope that I will live up to her fine example, and that it is in that particular way that her memory will remain a blessing for me and for my family always.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Travels with Clarel

Of all the truly great stars in the pantheon of American authors, Herman Melville’s story must surely be the most tragic. Simultaneously blessed and cursed with the great success of his first books, Typee and Omoo (both loosely based on the author’s personal adventures in the South Pacific both while working as a sailor on the Acushnet, a whaler that sailed out of New Bedford, and also after jumping ship in Marquesas Islands and living among the natives for a few weeks), these two early works cast a shadow over the rest of Melville’s career that he could never quite escape. I read both books years ago and loved them both. (What’s not to love? They’re both exciting stories filled with warrior cannibals, remarkably uninhibited Polynesian maidens, and tales of daring escape. Plus Melville knew exactly how to make readers feel like participants in the story being told rather than as spectators looking on from afar.) The book-buying public loved them too…and so was set the stage for an author to move through his own career dancing on two barrels at once, the one filled with the potential profit that comes from endlessly repeating yourself and the other filled with an author’s desire to grow intellectually by declining to spend years covering and re-covering the same ground. Mardi was a flop. White Jacket and Redburn, both sailors’ tales in the style of Typee and Omoo, re-awakened the public’s interest. (The author himself deprecatingly referred to his work writing both as “sawing wood.”) And then came Moby Dick.

Mostly underestimated by contemporary critics and selling fewer than 3000 copies in the author’s lifetime, the greatest of all American novels was a commercial failure when it was published and only gained widespread recognition decades after the author’s death. That did it for Melville. He published a few more novels, notable among them Pierre (a truly groundbreaking book both in terms of its psychological depth and its frank, if slightly weird, sexuality), but none was at all successful. By 1857, Melville was done with prose—his second most famous work, Billy Budd, was only published posthumously—and spent the last decades of his life writing poetry. And that, slightly unexpectedly, is what I want to write to you about today.

Because I’ve felt a deep kinship with Melville ever since reading Moby Dick when I was in college, I’ve always been interested in his other books as well. And I’ve read a lot of them! (One day I’d like to write to you all about my experiences reading Moby Dick as a college student, then again as a man in his mid-thirties, then a third time earlier this year. The book is still the same, so I must be the one who has changed!) In fact, I thought I had read all of his major works when just last year I came across reference to something by Melville that I had not only not read, but that I hadn’t even really heard of. I suppose it must have been mentioned in the Melville biographies I’ve read—probably it’s referenced at least in passing in all of them—but it was only last year when I was reading Andrew Delbanco’s truly magisterial Melville: His World and Work, published by Vintage Books in 2006, that I first realized how interesting it would almost have to be to explore Melville’s epic poem, Clarel, in depth. (Delbanco’s book is just great, by the way, and would be worth your time reading even absent any interest in Melville for the sake of being exposed to his truly encyclopedic knowledge of New York City in the nineteenth century.)

It’s a big read. Constructed as a kind of continuous narrative stretched out over 150 cantos and comprising almost 18,000 lines, Clarel is the longest American poem ever published. (Probably, it’s also the longest one ever written. Omitting whatever time it must have taken to produce Battle Pieces, Melville’s collection of Civil War poems, it took its author almost three decades to complete.) As would naturally be the case in a work of such immense length, it is hard to characterize its contents or style in just a few lines. But because the poem is essentially about the themes that eventually evolved into the issues that run endlessly through my own life—the possibility of faith in the modern world, the tension between religion and science, the mystic sanctity of the Land of Israel (and, more than any other one of its cities, of Jerusalem), the relationship between Judaism and its daughter religions, the reasonableness of building life in the modern age on a foundation of biblical values, the conflict between Zionist ideology and the reality of Jewish life in the diaspora, and the potential for harmonious relations between Christians and Jews—and also because its authors is one of the greatest figures in American literature (and, I might add, one who truly does deserve his place in the pantheon), it seems peculiar for Clarel to be as obscure a work as it surely is.

Mind you, it was fairly unknown in its own day as well. The reviews, such as they were, were scathing. The New York Times denigrated thirty years’ of its author’s effort with the withering comment that it should have been written in prose, i.e., as a “regular” travelogue based on Melville’s 1856 journey to the Holy Land. The reviewer in The World, a New York newspaper of the day, referred to getting “lost in the overwhelming tide of mediocrity.” Someone writing in Lippincott’s Magazine opined that there weren’t ”six lines of genuine poetry in it.” Modern scholar Walter Bezanson has concluded that it is highly likely that not one single one of Melville’s reviewers actually read the book in its entirety, but that conclusion—assuming it was one shared by the poet himself—can only have brought Melville scant comfort.

And so he soldiered on in the years following the publication and almost instant disappearance of Clarel, trudging from his home on East 26th Street to his day job as a deputy customs inspector at the foot of Gansevoort Street in what is today the Meatpacking District, then returning home on foot at dusk and working on Billy Budd in his spare time. I suppose he must have spent his time walking wondering what happened to Homer after the Iliad came out, or what Virgil did after he was done with the Aeneid. (Clarel is longer than both those works, by the way.) Eventually, he was more or less forgotten. His early successes were no longer in print. His flops were pulped, as were the majority of volumes in the first and only press run of Clarel during its author’s lifetime. Unaware that Moby Dick would eventually be acknowledged as a true masterpiece of literary art or that Newton Arvin (whose biography of Melville is also very interesting and worth reading) would one day refer admiringly to Clarel as “Melville’s great novel of ideas in verse,” Melville succumbed to a state of ongoing melancholy which reached its fullest literary expression in his final work. In an article about his life published shortly after he died, the Times got his first name wrong.

And so, Clarel. At face value, it is the story of a complicated pilgrimage from Jerusalem through the Judean desert to the Dead Sea, then to the Christian monastery of Mar Saba, then to Bethlehem, and then back to Jerusalem. At the center of the story is Clarel, a young American who falls in love with Ruth, a Jewish American woman living in Jerusalem. When her father dies and Clarel is told that he may not see Ruth during the mourning week, he embarks on a tour of the Holy Land in the company of a large number of varied and very interesting types, and it is the relationship between these pilgrims that forms the meat of the book. And they are a very varied lot. Ungar is a part-American-Indian ex-officer of the Confederacy. Celio is an Italian ward of the Franciscan monks in Jerusalem’s Terra Sancta monastery and very handsome, but also a hunchback. Margoth is a Jewish geologist who has renounced his religion. Mortmain is a Swede who was a revolutionary leader in Paris in the Revolution of 1848. Vine is a only slightly obscured stand-in for Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose relationship to Melville could be the plot of its own novel. Nehemiah is a Christian missionary whose life is devoted to handing out tracts to tourists visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem. Rolfe, an American adventurer, is probably supposed to be Melville himself. Abdon (who doesn’t actually go on the pilgrimage) is a “black Jew” from India who has come to Jerusalem via Amsterdam and who runs the inn in which Clarel stays before setting forth on his journey. And there are many, many other characters in the story, each interesting in his or her own right.

While they travel, they talk. Endlessly. About the issues of the day—and especially about issues facing men like Melville as they attempt to decide what future religion itself should have in the modern world—and about each other. About Zionism. About the Holy Land itself and especially about Jerusalem. And, as any road trip involving exclusively male travelers inevitably would, also about women and about love. And we, the readers, are invited to listen to their almost endless poetic banter and to learn from it about the characters Melville willed into existence, about the poet himself and, as would be the case with any truly great work of poetic introspection, about ourselves as well.

It’s a great book. Difficult, too. And maddening. It is a very slow read. (I should admit that I started and gave up at least half a dozen times before I finally made it through to the end.) The language is complicated and the style will be unfamiliar to most readers. On top of all that is the nineteenth century framework, the supposition that readers are conversant with the issues that faced the American reading public in Melville’s day, and the poet’s assumption that his readers know a good deal more about the New Testament than most non-specialist moderns can claim. Still, despite everything, I loved it. And I think most of my readers, if they are intrepid enough to wade into a very bracing stream, will love it too. Conveniently, I’m going to be teaching about it in the series of three lectures that I am giving as part of the Institute for Adult Jewish Studies that is sponsored annually at various venues in Nassau County as a memorial to the late Herbert Tarr by his friends and family. This year’s lectures are taking place at Temple Judea, located at 333 Searingtown Road in Manhasset. My own talks will be on November 16th, 23rd and 30th at 7:30 PM. All are welcome! If you’re free, come by and I’ll introduce you to Clarel and his friends. I’ll be very pleased to see you! And I hope you end up feeling as I do that Harold Bloom was quite right to find a place for Clarel in his American canon.