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.