Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remembering My Father

My father has been on my mind a lot lately, especially now that we’re between the tenth anniversary of his death according to the secular calendar (he died on July 28, 1999) and his tenth yahrtzeit, which falls next Tuesday.

His death came at an impossible time in my life, among other things on the very day the movers were supposed to come to move us from Vancouver to southern California where I had taken a new pulpit. So the summer that year was incredibly packed as it already was—with new jobs for Joan and me, with new schools for the kids, with the sale of a house in one country and the purchase of a different house in another, with disposing of our cars and acquiring new ones, with dealing with the various issues surrounding Joan’s immigration to the States (the children were American citizens all along, even though they hadn’t ever lived here) and with a thousand other details connected with my move into a new stage of life in a new place in a new state in a new country. In other words, it was already a summer filled to overflowing with almost every major stressor life has to offer, almost all of which were present in my personal space in the form of little pieces of paper I was trying not to lose while between homes and shuls and offices: mortgages and contracts and passports and checkbooks and Canadian tax forms and American tax forms and car leases and insurance forms and the thousands of documents connected with emigration and immigration, including an extra ten thousand connected with bringing the dog permanently into the States. And then, unexpectedly and precisely in the middle of it all, my father died.

I somehow fit that into my schedule too. I bought a ticket for New York that same evening. (Joan was at Ramah in California and made her own travel plans.) In the meantime, I tried to organize my life around my new reality. I spent the day gathering up even more pieces of paper to try not to lose track of while I was away. I went to the airport, then wrote the eulogy on the plane, then slept for a couple of hours. When we landed, I went directly from the airport to my father’s bank on Queens Boulevard, where I somehow managed to extract the price of my father’s funeral from an unfriendly teller who could not possibly have been less sympathetic or interested in my story. I then went directly to the funeral home, handed over the cash, put my suit on in the men’s room, reviewed the eulogy and waited for Perry Rank, the rabbi of the Midway Jewish Center and my friend even then of twenty-five years, to arrive and be my rabbi. Soon enough, he appeared, followed by Joan (also directly from the airport), then the rest of my minuscule family and a respectable number of my father’s friends. The service followed, then the burial. I sat shiva in my father’s apartment, sensing strongly that I would never re-enter the space of my own childhood again once I left. As, indeed, I never have.

So, you see, it was all about me. Or at least in the beginning it was. I was the one having the horrific summer. I was the one whose life got put on hold just when things were the most complicated and the most busy. I was the one who had to write his own father’s eulogy out longhand on a pad of yellow paper while flying east to attend his funeral on maybe two hours’ sleep. And I was the one who couldn’t really calm down long enough honestly or openly to grieve in the way I have counseled an uncountable number of other people indispensably to do. It wasn’t my finest moment. But as the years have passed, things have changed. What was once all about me has become decidedly less so, and concomitantly more about my father. When I think back to the summer of 1999, I no longer focus instantly on how busy I was or how pre-occupied or how put upon. Instead, I think about my father, about his life and his legacy, about what it meant and means to me not just generally to have a father but specifically to have had the one I actually did have.

My father—his name was Joseph—was born in Brownsville in February, 1916, and he remained a kind of a Brooklyn guy his whole life. It was a long time ago. World War I was in full force. The Battle of Verdun, which eventually took over 650,000 lives, had just begun. Jackie Gleason and Dinah Shore were born the same week as my Dad. Woodrow Wilson was president. John Purroy Mitchel was mayor of New York. This not being his eulogy, I don’t want to tell the story of his life at length or in detail. But I do want to write on this tenth anniversary of his death about his legacy.

From my father I learned how to be a father. My mother died early on in my life, before I married or had a career or my own family. I learned a lot about parenting from her too, of course—I was in my twenties when she died—but it was primarily from my Dad that I learned how to be a parent, how to give children unstinting support and endless encouragement, how to find that elusive boundary between being tolerant and willing to allow a child to exist on his or her own terms and being complicit in that same child’s poor behavior, how to channel the best qualities of one’s own parents into the lives of one’s children without making that legacy more of a burden than a blessing.

It was also from my dad that I learned the benefit of being endlessly curious about everything, about feeling reasonable about being a lifelong student of everything. Even into his old age, my father was always reading, always listening, always making new friends. When he became less able to get around easily, he simply trained his gaze elsewhere and tried his best to bring the world into his space instead.

I also learned how to be a husband from my father. I suppose most children idealize their parents’ marriages, but I truly do think my parents had a perfect union. In their twenty-eight years of marriage—which seemed like a lot of years when I was younger, now less so—I never heard my father raise his voice to my mother, certainly never heard him ridicule her or speak to her with anything but respect. Even when they disagreed, they did so without raising their voices...and certainly without moving the discussion from the narrow confines of the issue at hand into the larger realm of each other’s personal worth or right to an autonomous opinion. That they loved each other went without saying. But that they were able to translate that love from mere sentiment into the stuff of respectful day-to-day discourse—that is the part that I once took for granted but which now seems to be a truly exceptional detail of their relationship.

And from my father I also learned how to be a friend. My father always had a large coterie of friends surrounding him. Some he knew from Brownsville and never lost touch with and others he met at work. (My father was originally a lumber and millwork salesman, then ended up teaching English at John Adams High School in Ozone Park for many, many years after that.) Still others he came across in different places and recognized as kindred spirits. I tried to organize them into categories as I looked out at them at his funeral—some he knew from the coffee shop on Queens Boulevard he had breakfast in for decades, but others were pool buddies (that’s billiards, not swimming) or newspaper chums. (My father wrote a monthly column for the North Adams Transcript in North Adams, Massachusetts, for years and years.) And still others were people most of us barely notice as we pass them by—in the chapel when I delivered my eulogy were, among others, the salesmen from several shops on Austin Street that my father frequented, the guy who delivered bottled water to my dad’s apartment, a waitress from the aforementioned coffee shop, the mechanic who worked on my father’s car from time to time, and the secretary that worked for the agent who handled my father's car insurance. That was my father’s special gift—the ability not merely to notice people, but to see them as human beings, to want to learn about them and from them, to find friends in people most of us walk by and hardly even notice as we pay them for some service rendered or for some sandwich ordered and eaten.

As the years have passed, I find myself missing my father more and more. Indeed, the more I think carefully about things, the clearer it becomes to me that I am made in his image in more ways than I would have thought possible when I was younger. Whether I am the father he was, or the husband, or the friend—that I won’t attempt to say. But whatever success I have had in those arenas, I owe to the example he set for me. As many of you know, I have almost no family other than Joan and the children—no parents or siblings, no aunts or uncles, fewer than half a dozen cousins I have any contact with at all. But although the ghosts of both my parents are real, if slightly elusive, presences in my life, it’s my father’s voice I hear the most often whispering a word into my ear to guide me forward in a way I might otherwise not be clearheaded enough to see for myself as the right path to take.

We always say that we hope that the dead become posthumous sources of blessing in the lives of those they leave behind, but I suppose we all mean different things by that thought. For me, though, as I prepare for my father’s tenth yahrtzeit, it is the simplest interpretation that is the most compelling: the memory of my parents truly is a blessing in my life and, truly, I have come to feel a thousand times over more blessed for having been raised by my mother and father than I feel cursed for having lost them both.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jerusalem as Shadowland

In his latest novel, Man in the Dark, Paul Auster refers several times to the Italian philosopher-priest Giordano Bruno, a name I hadn’t come across in years. Bruno, a Dominican monk who was burnt at the stake in Rome as a heretic at age fifty-two in the year 1600, held any number of religious, scientific, and philosophical opinions the Catholic Church found sufficiently untenable to warrant that he be silenced permanently. But the part of his thinking that Auster finds so appealing has nothing to do with religion or, really, with science—among other things, Bruno also agreed with Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun—but with an idea that appealed to me when I first came across it years ago and which still calls out to me: the notion that, if the Creator is truly infinite in nature, power and creative energy, then it must follow that there are an infinite number of created worlds. How could there not be?

It’s a terrific idea and, depending on where you’re coming at it from, either an unnerving or a supremely engaging one. This is how one of the characters in Auster’s book explains it: “There’s no single reality, Corporal. There are many realities. There’s no single world. There are many worlds, and they all run parallel to one another, worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind” (Man in the Dark, page 69). Who could not find that an appealing thought? Bruno clearly meant it to mean that there are whole universes parallel to our own out there that are populated by people—or by beings of some sort—as unaware of our reality as we are of theirs. And that’s how Auster understands it as well. (I think my readers will like Auster’s book, published in 2008 by Henry Holt and available through all the regular on-line sources and in bookstores. I haven’t loved all his books to the same degree, but they’re all worthwhile and the earlier ones are terrific.) But for Jewish people considering the concept, it provokes an entirely different set of ideas.

In our world, the notion of alternate universes has traditionally been understood temporally rather than spatially. In a remark cited several times in the ancient midrash on Genesis called Bereshit Rabbah (and here and there elsewhere as well), the famous Rabbi Abbahu, who lived in Caesarea at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries C.E., can be heard to comment that in his opinion the creation of the universe was not the first but the last of God’s creative endeavors...and that the Creator had, when our world was made, already (and for some time) been creating worlds and then destroying them when the results were not quite what the Doctor had meant to order. The obvious theological problem of how an all-knowing God could possibly create an insufficient world, Rabbi Abbahu deals with by imagining God almost whimsically scrupling to justify the process with the most laconic of all explanations: “This world (i.e., the world in which we live, the one being created in the first chapters of Genesis) pleases Me in a way those (i.e., the worlds made, demolished, then omitted entirely from Scripture) did not,” the rabbi imagines God musing aloud, rather in the manner of a potter smashing jug after jug until the “right” one finally comes off the wheel and not much caring that the uninitiated onlooker finds it surprising to learn that a master potter even could make an insufficient pot.

But that idea—that God created universe after universe until one finally appealed maximally—is not Bruno’s or Auster’s. Nor is their idea exactly the same as the astronomer’s assertion that the universe is ever-expanding, thus in a constant state of growth and self-generated flux. Instead, they have a different idea entirely, one far more challenging to conjure up: a universe in which an infinite number of worlds co-exist within the infinite Mind of the universe that is the Creator God of Israel rather in the same way an uncountable number of alternate universes come into being nightly as billions across the world fall asleep and dream up worlds that exist solely within the creative matrices of their own autonomous intellects. And the fact that those dreamers generally forget all about those worlds even before they are done brushing their teeth the next morning only makes the theory more interesting, not really any less likely.

These worlds constitute what William James coined the term “multiverse” to describe in his 1895 book, The Will to Believe, and the idea that the universe is a multiverse has only become more, not less, current in the century that has followed. If you are up to reading something challenging, but also incredibly stimulating, I recommend University of Pennsylvania physicist Max Tegmark’s essay, “Parallel Universes,” published originally in an academic tome entitled Science and Ultimate Reality: From Quantum to Cosmos (published by Cambridge University Press in 2003), but which you can very conveniently find on-line as a printable pdf file at It’s not easy reading—and that is really to say the very least—but it’s terrific work...and I say that as someone who feels certain that he only understood what the man had to say on the least profound level possible. Still, if you have been casting around for something truly stimulating (and, yes, slightly humbling) to read, this would be my best suggestion of the week!

And all that brings me to the nine days that stretch before us, the days between the first of the Jewish month of Av and the great midsummer fast day on the ninth day of that month (called Tisha Be’av, the Hebrew for its date) which falls next Thursday. In some ways, the Jewish people itself is proof of the plausibility of the multiverse theory. Or at least it feels that way as we allow history to fall away and journey instead into a parallel universe in which Jerusalem lies in ruins, life in exile is not something we have somewhat perversely chosen to endure but a horrific destiny imposed upon us by others, and in which there is no more monitory symbol of the fragility of the covenant that binds God and Israel than the smoldering ruins atop the Temple Mount. It is a world we enter briefly before it vanishes like smoke in the wind, like a nightmare dreamt just before dawn that loses its capacity to terrify almost instantly once we awaken and re-enter our “real” lives, like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee that vanishes immediately upon immersion and can only be tasted for as long as we linger over the cup and then is gone—except as a memory— wholly and without a trace.

This approach is, to say the very least, not a popular one. More liberal prayer books, their editors missing the point I believe almost entirely, have revised the liturgy to link the ancient destruction of Jerusalem to its modern rebirth as the capital of Israel. (The obvious question that arises directly from that kind of revision—why the Ninth of Av should still be fast day at all in our day—they leave for the most part unasked, so also unanswered.) More traditional prayer books, declining to nod even cursorily to the fact that the city the liturgy describes as desolate, uninhabited, and uninhabitable is in reality none of the above but is actually the vibrant, entirely built-up capital of the Jewish state, appear to require worshipers to seek God, the Truth of the Universe, along a path strewn with inaccurate statements, not to say lies, about how things actually are in the world.

But this theory of the multiverse seems to me to offer a third way, one neither piously inaccurate or blithely insensitive to the pain Tisha Be’av (to use the Hebrew name for the Ninth of Av) engenders in every sensitive Jewish soul. We live in the world we live in. Where else? But there are other worlds too, alternate worlds that our infinitely creative Creator has created as the anti-worlds and dream-worlds and shadow-worlds that grant the world we actually do inhabit its mystery and its haunting, not-all-you-see-is-all-there-is nature. In our world, in the real world, Jerusalem is the thriving capital of Israel. But Jerusalem also lies in ruins...and not merely in our recollective consciousness either, but in an alternate world, a dream world that we collective choose to enter slightly for the three weeks before the great fast, then more intensely for the nine days leading directly into it, and then even more intensely than that on the day of Tisha Be’av itself. And that is what lends Tisha Be’av its enduring worth, not the “mere” fact that it memorializes the day a bad thing once happened. Indeed, its true allure lies precisely within the momentary understanding the day vouchsafes the faithful that the world we perceive is just a midrash on the world God created. It is the thought that we live in one universe among uncountable others that draws us in, that encourages us to look past the tumult of modern-day Jerusalem and momentarily to focus our gaze on the b-side of existence, the part (and here I address myself specifically to readers that know what the b-side of a record is/was) that exists as fully and as really as the a-side, but which is just not the side playing at present.

Drawn into a world that doesn’t exist but somehow could, tradition offers a fast that should be passé but somehow isn’t. To me, Tisha Be’av is Multiverse Day, the one day a year that I allow myself just briefly to wander into the endlessly reverberative land of echo and fantasy in which our Holy City lies in ruins and we, condemned to exile, lift our hearts in prayer to God, the great Comforter of Zion and the Rebuilder of Jerusalem not because it says in some book somewhere that we are supposed to, but because, finding God to be our haven and the source of our strength, we feel ourselves to be unwilling, even perhaps unable, to do otherwise.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Waiting for Tammuz

There is no particular concept within our tradition of seeking out some sort of “perfect” gateway experience to pass through on our collective way into the three weeks leading up to Tisha Be’av, the midsummer memorial day to twice-besieged and twice-destroyed ancient Jerusalem. If there were such a concept, however, I do not think I could have gone to a better place to have it than the Roundabout Theatre on 54th Street where Joan and I were on Wednesday to see Anthony Page’s terrific revival of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Like most of you, I’m sure, I read the play in college. I didn’t get it. In the unbearable manner of the fully self-absorbed undergraduate, I found the play pretentious and hollow, its obscurity more irritating than challenging. Having no idea what the play was about, I supposed it wasn’t about anything. And, this being long before Seinfeld, I imagined that a play without a discernable plot must be nothing more than the conceit of a desiccated playwright bereft of any “real” idea how to move his own play forward. (Samuel Beckett was, after all, forty-seven years old when Godot premiered in Paris in the year of my own birth. I’m sure my undergraduate self would have considered him elderly.) I say all this not with pride but with candor: like all too-bright undergraduates, I was an idiot dressed up like a grown-up unburdened by any insight at all into my own intellectual pomposity. Nor, needless to say, had I ever heard of Clifford Odet’s great 1935 play, Waiting for Lefty, the drama about factory workers waiting for a union organizer who never appears on which Waiting for Godot is some sort of a mystical midrash.

Godot and I have grown up together in the intervening years: born in the same year, we were both less than half as old when I was in college as we are now. Since the play itself clearly hasn’t changed—although I truly would have loved to see Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall in the New York premiere in 1956 to compare their interpretation to this year’s cast’s—I suppose it must be me who has. Or perhaps this is just a play better seen on a stage rather than read out of a book. But, whatever, it spoke to me deeply and profoundly when we met again, both of us now well past our half-century marks, on Wednesday at the Roundabout.

The play is still not about anything. Two men, Vladimir (called Didi, played by Bill Irwin) and Estragon (called Gogo, played by Nathan Lane) are waiting for Godot. Who (or what) Godot is, no one seems to know. Whether the effete Pozzo, artfully and very convincingly played by a truly brobdingnagian John Goodman, is Godot, no one, not even he himself, seems to know for sure. Nor is it at all obvious why he keeps his slave Lucky (played by John Glover) on a leash that becomes noticeably shorter as the play progresses into the second act, or in what specific way their relationship as master and slave is intended to mirror the relationship between Didi and Gogo. But one thing is fairly clear: when the four principals interact, both separately as couples and together as a quartet of aimless, slightly shell-shocked wanderers in the barren, arid, wholly hostile landscape that itself functions as a kind of mute fifth player in the drama, they are clearly meant in some measure to represent the lot of a humanity plopped down by an unseen Creator onto a mute planet and left, if they can, to find some meaning in their existence, some purpose, some sense of mission....while knowing all along that their mission is self-imposed and self-conceived, thus possibly itself a mere function—and a slightly pathetic one, at that—of their own wish that there be some point to their existence in the first place.

To me, Godot (pronounced in this production with the accent on the first syllable to rhyme with Frodo) is God. And the four men on stage represent humanity seeking, waiting, find meaning in the quest for a God who, although said once to have been almost garrulous, has long since fallen silent. This being a Christian midrash, Pozzo is the Christ-figure regarding whose “real” identity the others can’t quite come to any firm conclusion. Nor does the fact that he controls fortune (here represented, luck not being a lady, by his sometimes eloquent, sometimes mute slave called Lucky) make him any more appealing than he might otherwise be. In a profound jab at traditional Christian belief, even Pozzo himself can’t say whether or not he is Godot. The others on stage are even more clueless. At one point, a weird little boy appears on stage to announce that Godot is coming...but not quite yet. (In that, he is almost quoting the oracle pronounced by Balaam about the future redeemer of Israel that we read in shul last week.) Of course, the boy has no further information and appears himself not really to understand the point of the message he has come to deliver. And so...the members of the bleak quartet live their lives out in the shadow of the boy prophet’s hopeful announcement, finding profundity (and even poetry) in the most banal of life’s experiences: taking off a shoe to find an elusive pebble, trying on a hat, eating a carrot, endeavoring to tell a joke one can’t quite remember, attempting to sing a song even though one can’t quite recall the melody...but also in quiet acts of kindness, of generosity, of friendship towards another even less well off.

The four men on stage are, in short, humanity itself condemned to wait for redemption, but never knowing with anything approaching certainty born of real knowledge if the wait is futile or noble, if the redeemer exists and is merely tarrying or does not exist at all other than as a projection of our collective hopes for a better future. No wonder I didn’t get the play when I was in college! What twenty-year-old could possibly buy into a play featuring a world teetering endlessly on the edge of purposelessness, absurdity, and ridiculousness? But I get it now. Believe me, I get it....and the fact that a Christian author composed a Christian midrash to encapsulate what he wished to say about the world doesn’t present me with any sort of problem at all. In what language should an author speak, after all, if not in his or her own? And my readers all know how much I enjoy reading novels in translation!

And so we come not to the resolution of Godot‘s meaning but far more prosaically to the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a fast day in the Jewish calendar so obscure that it only has its own date as a name. Widely ignored, the day is not without meaning however: it marks the day the Babylonian hordes first breached the walls of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E., thus enabling them just three weeks later to destroy the city and its Temple, and to send its surviving citizens into exile. The Seventeenth of Tammuz, then, is the anniversary of the beginning of the end, the day that Jews who live their lives against the backdrop of biblical history begin to take note of the fact that there is no bottom line, that nothing is guaranteed, that even the most holy of all sites, the Temple itself, cannot protect a people that has turned its back on its own covenant with God. But embedded in the willingness of a people to commemorate a debacle on that scale is more than just a trace of hope in the future. We remember the past because we wish to allow its lessons to guide us into a better future. Indeed, we remember Jerusalem in ruins (and look past the modern, thriving city that functions as the capital of a sovereign Jewish state) not merely out of antiquarian interest, but to encourage us to imagine Jerusalem as the capital city of a redeemed world, as the site of a rebuilt Temple, of a redeemed people celebrating its covenant with the God it celebrates as go’eil yisra’eil, as the Redeemer of Israel. In other words, we contemplate the past to find hope in the future…but that, it turns out, requires more than a bit of courage.

Like Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s play, after all, we cannot be sure that we haven’t made the whole thing up. Like the little boy who shows up to announce the non-arrival of the unidentified Godot, our prophets spoke of a messiah who would come to Israel at the end of time. We want to believe. We insist that we do believe. But hidden behind all that bluster is the fear—which in its own way lives at the confluence of humility and intellectual integrity that together function as the great axis around which authentic Jewish life honestly lived always and inevitably revolves—the fear that we have made this all up to suit our own hopes and wishes, that we are not actors and actresses in a play that an unseen director is directing, but just men and women hoping against hope that our lives have meaning behind the dull tasks of everyday life we all face on a daily basis. Yet, we persevere…fasting on our fast days and noting with gravity and sadness the anniversary of Jerusalem’s destruction. (That Jerusalem was again destroyed on the same date in the first century, albeit this time by the Romans, only adds a sense of urgency to the remembering.) Like Didi and Gogo, we won’t let go, seeking meaning and grandeur in even the most banal of life’s tasks. We too tell jokes we can’t quite remember, sing songs the melodies of which are mostly lost to us. We accept all that—and like them we too are occasionally beaten up for our trouble, sometimes mercilessly—and still we continue, living on day by day in the shadow of the great hope that animates us all: the hope for redemption in God, for salvation for the world, for the arrival of the messianic moment that will end history as we know it and bring us all together into a new age of peace and security.

It’s too late for any of you to see Waiting for Godot on the day before the Seventeenth of Tammuz, but it’s not too late to see it if you scramble. (The show is closing in just a few days.) If you can get there, though, I recommend it highly…and not only to those of you who read through it once quickly on the way to some undergraduate exam on modern theater and mastered its details not because they said anything in particular to your soul, but merely because someone was going to grade you on how well you had memorized them.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Choosing (Long) Life

Why is it, do you think, that we have created a society in which, for all most of us spend at least some day every single day contemplating matters relating to our health and pondering our potential longevity, it is still considered slightly tasteless actually to chat with another about death...and especially our own eventual deaths? I suppose the answer is simply that that kind of talk makes us feel vulnerable, uneasy, and defenseless, three sensations none of us enjoys even slightly. We joke about death endlessly, of course, but those jokes are almost always centered on the demises of other people. We go to other people’s funerals all the time, but we still find it inconceivable to imagine our own. And when someone inadvertently, or even not inadvertently, mentions a date in the distant future far beyond what we can reasonable imagine to constitute the outer boundaries of our own natural lifetimes, we generally respond by doing what we can to change the topic as quickly as possible. We talk vaguely about great authors or artists living on through their work, but none of us wants to escape death by being remembered fondly after we’re gone—we want to escape death (as Woody Allen didn’t say first) by not dying. We know no one gets out alive. We just can’t quite believe it.

All that being the case, I was fascinated by the website I came across the other day. Run by a Dr. Thomas Perls, the website is an outgrowth of the New England Centenarian Study, itself a project of the Boston University School of Medicine. (You can read all about the study, including some of its tentative findings, at The short version is that a group of professors and medical researchers at B.U. had the idea of identifying people who have managed to survive into their personal second centuries, then trying to figure out what they all have in common. Presumably, whatever it is they’re all doing, we should all be doing too! Nor is it at all clear that whatever these centenarians are doing is what people who live into extreme old age have always done: there are, the study says, over 50,000 Americans today over the age of 100, which is approximately three times as many as there were just three decades ago in 1980. So something has clearly changed, but isolating what exactly that something is—and thus deciding whether we are talking about environmental conditions or personal habits or some combination of the two—is not at all as simple as it might appear at first blush. Perhaps medicine has just become that much more sophisticated and people are simply living past 100 in larger numbers now because they aren’t succumbing to anything else before they get there!

You can consider the results of the study by reading a book authored by Dr. Perls and Dr. Margery H. Silver called Living to 100:Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age, published by Basic Books and available on-line at all the obvious sites. Or you can go to the website, as I did, and take a test that cooks up all the various relevant factors into a reasonable guess at how long you can actually expect to survive. It takes a little courage to sign on. I started three times before I finally pushed myself actually to continue on to the end. The test itself is not at all difficult—there are about forty questions to answer, none of them requiring any research (supposing you know your blood pressure and your cholesterol numbers, although you can also answer by saying that you’re not sure or don’t know)—but it is more than just slightly sobering actually to get started: as you click on that “Take the Calculator” link, you are signing on to allow someone who has devoted his life as physician, geriatrician, and researcher to analyze your data and guess how long you can reasonably expect to live. No wonder it took me a while to buy in! I’s one thing to sing along with the cantor that it’s written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur who will live and who will die (and who at the natural end of his or her days and who not), and another to agree to let someone with a reasonable right to have an opinion actually attempt to calculate how much time you have left.

It took some self-discipline actually to take the test, but I did it. (I’ll tell you the results below.) Mostly, my answers were the “right” ones, or at least not the wrong ones. I’m a married man. I swallow 81mg of aspirin daily. I eat my vegetables. I have a blood relative to lived to be over 95. (This is a big point, twice as meaningful as taking the low-dose aspirin daily. My father’s sister, my Aunt Molly, died at 99.) I go to shul a lot. I play games intended to keep the mind alert “like Scrabble or Soduku.” (I gave that to myself even though I hardly ever play Scrabble and am not entirely sure what Soduku is. Surely writing books and studying Talmud must count.) I don’t eat red meat more than twice a week. I don’t smoke. I don’t use IV drugs. I don’t have unprotected sex with multiple partners. (I heard that! Let’s just move on.) I don’t usually drink more than five cups of coffee a day. I have more than twelve years of formal education. I like nuts.

Mind you, I lost points too. I don’t wear sunscreen as often as I probably should when I’m outdoors. My father had diabetes. (It was a bit shocking to me that the only three diseases they ask about are cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. I lost points on all three.) I generally sleep less than six hours a night. I occasionally feel slightly stressed. I rarely eat five pieces of fruit on any given day. What can you do? I suppose I could eat more fruit or try to worry less about the future of the Jewish people.

The results of the study are very interesting to consider, although it’s hard to know how exactly to interpret some of the data. It doesn’t surprise me that very few people who live to be 100 are smokers. Nor does it strike me as illogical that the siblings of centenarians have a much greater likelihood of attaining extreme old age than other people, although I’m not sure why this should have anything to do with gender, which it apparently does: the male siblings of people who reach 100 are eleven times more likely than other men born around the same time to reach their upper nineties, whereas female siblings appear to be only 8.5 times as likely to reach their one hundredth birthdays. Nor is it at all obvious to me why a woman over age 40 who bears a child naturally simultaneously becomes four times more likely to live to be 100 than other women. These and many more statistics, plus a much fuller picture of the study, are available on the website and in the book, both of which I recommend to you.

In Pirkei Avot, Judah ben Tema is quoted as saying that people who reach the age of one hundred are, at least generally speaking, “as though they were dead, vanished, and gone from the world.” But the centenarians featured on the Living to 100 website at ( don’t seem half dead at all. Just to the contrary! (One of them, at age 102, plays eighteen holes of golf three times a week.) Maybe the world has changed. After all, if there are three times as many American centenarians today as there were a scant 30 years ago, so how many 100-year-olds could Judah ben Tema have actually known in his day? Or maybe we ourselves have changed, or society has. Whatever, there is something satisfying in knowing that, for all our long-term destinies are in God’s hands, our short-term chances of living a long life are not entirely a function solely of good genes and good fortune. We can affect the odds considerably and, in most cases, without too much effort or expense. How much does dental floss cost? (Did I mention that before? People who floss daily live on the average two years longer than people who don’t. It’s hard to imagine why that would be. Maybe people with good dental hygiene are generally people who take care of themselves in other ways as well.)

And now for the results. It took some courage to click the final button, but I did. According to Dr. Perls, I should live to be 98. That would be nice! (I suppose I should revisit that thought when I’m 97. But it feels encouraging now!) The bottom line: eat fruit, don’t smoke, and go to shul! You can’t do much about you family history. But you can still consider carefully what Dr. Perls and his colleagues have discovered and act upon their findings. And the Torah does command us after all to choose life!