Thursday, July 29, 2010

Swimming in Other Seas

In 1916, Hermann Hesse’s life was troubled in several different ways. His father had just died. (Coincidentally, my own father had just been born.) And his grief weighed so heavily upon him that he was eventually dismissed from military service. His marriage was coming apart, yet his wife’s ever-worsening schizophrenia made him feel that it would be impossible for them to separate. Perhaps even more painfully, Hesse’s youngest son (with whom I myself share a first name) was suffering from an undiagnosed illness that appeared only to become more virulent and terrifying as the months passed. But true artists exist at the intersection of repression and creativity…and that year was also the year Hesse published his novella, “The Beauty of Youth,” which later was to become the first full-length literary work that the college-aged me managed somehow to read from beginning to end in German and (more or less) to understand.

I’ve been thinking about that novella lately, remembering especially a line in it that has stayed with me ever since. In the story, Hesse writes about a successful young man who returns to his parents’ home to spend the summer there before heading abroad to take up some position he has been offered. As he settles back into his childhood home, he embarks on a kind of mental experiment to see if it could be possible to return to one’s youth. He wants not merely to recall the past, but actually to revisit it…and, if possible, to alter certain specific aspects of it. It’s a bit of a complicated story, although also a very moving one that I recall liking very much, but the eventual conclusion is that the past is a place, as Hesse says explicitly, from which roads only exit. You can move back into your parents’ home if you wish…but you cannot revisit your own childhood by doing so any more meaningfully than you can re-see a play you’ve enjoyed by revisiting the theater in which it was performed after the show has closed. Away from the past lead only one-way streets, Hesse wrote, and the difference between adults with respect to their youths has to do only with the degree of regret they bring to that thought. But, he writes, even those the most beset by regret cannot go back in time to redo or undo what was once done.

Those lines must have meant something to me when I was in college. I do after all remember them all these many years later! And I’m sure I agreed with what Hesse wrote. (In those halcyon days of my late teenagedom, I basically agreed with everything Hesse wrote.) And yet…the issue turns out, at least for me, to be more nuanced and interesting than the almost simple observation that time only flows forward, that you cannot revisit the past, that time machines are the stuff of science fiction precisely because they don’t exist and can’t exist.

Over these last few years, Joan and I have been revisiting the scenes of earlier versions of our lives. (We didn’t undertake to do this consciously, but it’s turned out that way anyway.) We were in Jerusalem and Heidelberg three summers ago. We were in Vancouver the year after that. This summer we’ve been to Boston, where we lived for six months in the early 1990s, and to southern California, where I served a congregation for the three years before I came to Shelter Rock. And next week we’re on our way back to Toronto, the scene of Joan’s childhood, to spend some time with her family. I was even in Forest Hills the other week and found myself driving past the apartment building in which I grew up. I needed to make some phone calls and the blue tooth device I use to talk on the phone while I drive wasn’t working properly…so I parked, sat down on a shaded bench in the park next to my parents’ building where I played as a child and spent a lot of time reading when I was in high school and college, and began to make my calls. It may even have been the very same bench I was sitting on on when I first read Hesse’s novella as a sophomore in college! (And even if it wasn’t the same exact bench, then surely the more important detail is that it was the same me sitting in the same park. And I really did spend a lot of time reading in that park during my college years.)

There’s a certain nostalgic aspect to all this revisiting of the scenes of our earlier adventures. But it’s also more than that, more than mere nostalgia. You all know that I believe in ghosts, but mostly when we speak about ghosts we mean the ghosts of other people and specifically of other people who have died. But that’s only one version of the concept. Many non-Western cultures speak about the ghosts of the living, about the way that the physical body anchored in space and time exists in some sort of parallel way to the spiritual body that exists outside of both and with enduring reference to neither. It sounds like the kind of concept only an undergraduate could love, but the truth is that I keep catching glimpses of myself—or do I mean: my self?— in these places we’ve been revisiting. Most recently, for example, I had that experience last week in Boston. Joan was busy with her course all day long—she was training in some very complicated computer music program called Logic—and I was free to work out at the gym, to write at the library, to have lunch with friends (of whom we have many in Boston). We took a room for the week in the same neighborhood we lived in back in 1993. It was a long time ago. I was thirty-nine and Joan was even younger than that! Our sons were nine and six. Lucy was three years old. We were who we were and who we still are…but although physically we have all morphed into our current versions—the kids are 26, 23, and 20 now—I was amazed continually to notice traces of our former versions still haunting Beacon Street and Harvard Street, still present in that ethereal way of the non-existent that somehow impresses without threatening and which feels fully real. When I went to Congregation Kehillat Israel to hear Eicha on the eve of Tisha Be’av, for example, I had the incredibly peculiar sense that I hadn’t really been away for seventeen years, that in a sense I hadn’t been away really at all. Indeed, I had the strange sense that my own ghost had just left the chapel when Joan and I walked in and took our seats. I almost caught a glimpse of him too! (Was I really that thin at 39? Maybe I was!)

Does all this sound ghoulish and strange? It does, even to me! Well, maybe not ghoulish...but definitely strange! Nevertheless, I remain possessed of the conviction that I have shared with you on many occasions, usually during Yizkor, that time really is only a kind of midrash that we have invented to explain our lives…and that there is also the possibility of existence without reference to time past and time future. We affirm constantly that God in heaven exists in a way that is unrelated to the passage of time. But nowhere do we insist that what is true of God cannot also be true, at least in some paler, derivative sense, of ourselves. And so have I come to think things are in this world now that I’ve encountered my own ghost, if that’s the right word, in so many different places. They don’t linger, these spectral selves of ours. (The ghosts of the departed don’t linger either, of course. But that we surely all know!) And they almost never speak, or at least they don’t speak to me. But this strange progression of visits to the places we’ve lived—including over these last years more or less all of them: Queens, Toronto, Manhattan, Jerusalem, Heidelberg, Vancouver, Boston, and California—has only made me clearer on the concept that, for all time is the sea in which we swim as physically real people anchored in the physically real world, there is also the possibility of existing in others contexts and of swimming in other seas.

In the corner of my eye, I noticed my teenaged self just leaving as I sat down in that park in Forest Hills to make my calls. Was it really me? My first inclination is to say that the answer to that question depends on what the person asking it means by the word “really” in the question. But now that I think more carefully, perhaps the matter turns more precisely on what the asker means by the word “me.” We are, clearly, who we are. And, in that we are the aggregate of our own experiences and histories, we are also who we were. The only real question open to debate, in fact, is whether those earlier versions of ourselves exist independent of our own recollective consciousnesses as…whatever name we choose to label these spectral versions of our out-of-time selves. But I recognized both that guy who left the chapel at KI on Harvard Street when Joan and I came to hear Eicha and that teenager who was just leaving the park in Forest Hills when I sat down to make those calls…and, contrary to what you’d think, I was very pleased to see him (or do I mean them?) even if just for the briefest of moments.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tisha Be'av 2010

Tisha Be’av, the great midsummer fast day whose name is its own date, falls next Monday night and next Tuesday. (Tisha Be’av has no “real” name and is called simply by the Hebrew expression meaning “the ninth of [the Hebrew month of] Av.”) Like most of you, I suspect, I harbor a certain amount of ambivalence about the day. On the one hand, I know more than enough about the Jewish past to understand that both times Jerusalem was destroyed in ancient days, by the Babylonians in the beginning part of the sixth century BCE and by the Romans towards the end of the first century CE, were true threshold moments in Jewish history after which nothing was the same as it had previously been. And because both instances of mass destruction (and also, of course, the terrible loss of life both sieges entailed) coincidentally befell the Jewish people on almost the same date, the midsummer fast of Tisha Be’av has always been taken more than seriously. It is, for example, the only full dusk-to-dusk fast in our calendar other than Yom Kippur. (Other fast days begin at dawn.) And it is the only one with its own customs and ceremonies, and with its own scroll—the Book of Lamentations, called Eicha, written by the prophet Jeremiah who was himself an eye witness to the devastation and desolation of Jerusalem in his day, is read twice in the course of the day—and its own Yom Kippur-like set of rules and regulations. So clearly it is meant to be a big deal in our calendar and as such is it widely observed both in Israel and abroad.

On the other hand, we have the reality that Jerusalem is not in ruins and—just to the contrary—is the thriving, bustling capital of the Jewish state. Readers who have been to Jerusalem on Tisha Be’av, in fact, know that there is a certain absurd feel in the air as people walk through the streets of a vibrant Jewish city on their way to mourn the destruction of that very same city. If people we have lost came back to life, would we continue to say Kaddish for them? I suppose we wouldn’t! Of course, with respect to our parents and grandparents, it doesn’t seem like something we need to worry about too intensely. But when Tisha Be’av comes around we all face the urban version of that dilemma as we wonder if there is value or meaning in mourning for a city razed to the ground and then come back to life. So there is that set of issues to consider too…and it is, depending on one’s mood, either an amusing paradox to deal with or else an instance of cripplingly irrational conflict between history and reality.

And layered over all that is the history each of us brings to the fast. Other than when I have actually been in Jerusalem itself for Tisha Be’av, the most meaningful fasts I have experienced were usually in summer camp or at JTS. But as the years have passed I have occasionally spent the fast in unusual places that have added their own flavor to the mix of emotions I bring to the day. In 2004, Joan and I had the idea to drive from North Carolina to New York on Tisha Be’av and to mark the day, other than by reading Eicha and fasting, by stopping at the huge life-size model of the desert Tabernacle Moses and the Israelites constructed in the Sinai during their years of wandering (and which serves in Jewish history as the precursor to the great Temple in Jerusalem the was destroyed twice on Tisha Be’av) that the Mennonites have constructed near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It sounded like a good idea at the time! But it turned out to be inaccurate and cheesy—and, yes, in retrospect the whole concept seems peculiar to me too and even I don’t know what we can have been thinking as we planned out our route home—and we both ended up with huge headaches that even the gift shop with its wooden Aaron-the-High-Priest dolls and postcards did nothing to assuage. (We ended up sleeping in the car until nightfall, then breaking our fast and heading home in the cool of night.) And then there was the time shortly after we met that Joan and I had a tire blow out on us on Tisha Be’av right in front of Santa’s Village in Bracebridge, Ontario, and had to spend an exceptionally peculiar hour waiting for the CAA to arrive with a replacement. (The fact that Santa himself came over to chat—business was apparently not great in the 100+ degree July heat—only added to the Fellini-esque feel of our first Tisha Be’av together.)

But none of that is what I really want to write to you about today. The reason Tisha Be’av is meaningful to me, and the reason I encourage its observance and wouldn’t dream of not fasting myself, is not because Jerusalem isn’t the living capital of our Jewish state or because I really would continue to include resurrected relatives in my Yizkor prayers. What it’s all about to me has to do with the rabbinic lesson—meaningful and intensely monitory at the same time—that for all it felt as though Gentile armies of marauding invaders were destroying Jerusalem, the more profound truth is that the Jewish people were themselves responsible for the destruction of their most holy city because of sinat chinam, the sin of irrational loathing focused not on the enemy but on each other. (The Talmud passage I am thinking of, I should note, is speaking specifically of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and makes sinat chinam the functional equivalent of the three most heinous of all sins: murder, immorality, and idolatry. But I think we can broaden the scope to include all instances of devastation preceded not by inner-Jewish unity but fractiousness and internecine hatred.) And, regretfully, that is not something I think any of us can reasonably describe as an ancient memory or an antique feature of Jewish life we have long since moved past.

Two events in Israel last week will provide ample illustration of what I mean. First we were treated to the spectacle of David Rotem, a member of the Knesset who represents the Yisrael Beitenu party, introducing a bill into the Knesset that would undo the highly fragile compromise that has gradually emerged regarding the status of converted Jewish people in Israel by handing complete control over conversions to the chief rabbinate, a body that is almost entirely now under the unholy influence of the extreme right wing of the Orthodox movement. If this bill should pass—although Prime Minister Netanyahu said unequivocally the other day that it will never reach the Knesset floor, a pledge charitably interpreted as the expression of his fervently-held wish that it not do so—it will not only divide the Jewish people in two, but ineradicably demonstrate the contempt in which non-Orthodox Jews are held not only by the Orthodox establishment in Israel but also by their secular bedmates in the Knesset. We would not love Israel any the less if this bill passes. But it will be hard to feel that the Israeli government, by passing such a bill, has not taken a huge step forward towards encouraging diaspora Jewry to feel disconnected from Israel and uninterested in participating in its future. It’s hard to find words to say what an error of judgment the passage of this bill would constitute. And yet there it is, approved by the Knesset’s Law Committee for a first reading as though it were merely another piece of legislation duly to consider.

It is true, I believe, that MK Rotem’s bill has more to do with the 320,000 Israeli citizens, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are not fully Jewish according to Jewish law than with us or “our” converts. Many of these people have served in the army and almost all plan to make their permanent homes in Israel. So some solution has to be found…and the answer, apparently, is deemed to lie in finding rabbis lax enough not to care that the vast majority of these people are neither observant nor interested in observance but who themselves are still deemed pious enough rabbis enough for the chief rabbinate to accept their pro forma efforts at conversion. The hypocrisy behind such a solution to the problem would be breathtaking even if it did not entail alienating precisely the huge majority of world Jewry who do not self-identify as Orthodox and who reject Orthodox fundamentalism as emotionally untenable and intellectually unappealing. But given the possibility of the Knesset enacting a law that would create a two-tiered system of Jewishness that would have the potential to divide the Jewish people in two, our response has to be more than vigorous. To that end, everyone who cares about the future of Israel should write immediately to Prime Minister Netanyahu and encourage him to find the courage to fight back against the forces of sinat chinam that have brought us to this impasse. If you wish, you can simply sign the form letter available here: and that will suffice. If you wish to express yourself more personally, then you can write in English to the Prime Minister at But regardless of whether you choose to formulate your thoughts on your own or just to sign the prepared letter, all who care about Israel should find the time to send an e-mail to the prime minister as soon as possible.

The other event that occurred in Israel this week, also a stunning example of sinat chinam, involved the arrest of Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of the Women of the Wall group, for the crime of having held a Torah scroll in her arms. (The police explained afterwards that they had to move in for fear that she might actually read from the scroll, thus defying a 2003 High Court ruling prohibiting such provocative behavior!) So this is what it has come down to as we prepare to fast on Tisha Be’av. Jewish people who wish to worship at our holiest site, the Western Wall, can only do so if they obey the strictures of the ultra-Orthodox who have somehow become the lords of the manor. Women, even if they do knuckle under to the self-arrogated authority of the Haredim, risk arrest if they look as though they might wish to hear the Torah read aloud. In the Knesset, a bill that could well drive a permanent wedge between world Jewry and the State of Israel is introduced…and seriously discussed and approved for debate instead of being thrown out by the entire Knesset speaking with one voice in favor of Jewish unity and interdependency. I feel despair in my heart when I write of these things to you. And yet my love for the land of Israel, slightly paradoxically, is only heightened by considering these issues. And for the people of Israel as well—in both senses of the term—is my affection only heightened by these onslaughts against common sense and normal decency. Somehow, we will come through all of this intact. And Israel will not only do the right thing, but thrive and continue to be the beacon of democracy and hope in the Middle East as which it has served for more than sixty years. It will all be good…but fasting on Tisha Be’av to remind us that, should we allow it to happen, the worst can also befall us—that seems to me a worthy way to spend a day immersed in prayer, thoughtful consideration of the Jewish past and the Jewish future, and in renewed dedication to the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Isherwood Experience and the Jews

Sometimes life really does imitate art! And so, a scant three or four months after reading and enjoying Charles Isherwood’s piece in the Times about his apparently repeated experiences attending the theater and finding himself totally at odds with what everybody else appears to be thinking about the show being performed on stage, I had the same experience in the same theater at the same show just last evening when Joan and I went to see Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia in the Broadway revival of the 1989 hit, Lend Me a Tenor. Why anyone stayed for the second act, I can’t imagine. (We did because we had someplace to go afterwards, and the Music Box, to give it its due, was very nicely air-conditioned. And, yes, also because Joan wanted to stay and see what happened.) Speaking for myself, then, I suppose I can say that if I had come to the theater genetically predisposed to enjoy farce and if the show was not as stale and little engaging as I found it to be—and also if the plot made just a bit more sense and it were just a bit more likely that two men who look nothing alike and who must have eighty pounds’ difference between their weights could be made indistinguishable from each other by one donning a wig and both appearing in minstrel-show-style blackface make-up—then perhaps I would have found the show to be as much fun as the guffawing man wearing cut-off denim shorts and a New York Mets cap sitting just behind me clearly did. And also as his wife clearly also did. (Or was she his girlfriend? There weren’t any rings on her ring fingers that I could see, but she did take her shoes off her sockless feet during the performance and extend them over the empty seat next to mine during the twenty minutes or so that led into the intermission. Would a date still hoping to move the relationship forward to the next level do that? But, of course, who knows why people do what they do? And aren’t we so often our own worst enemies, especially when it comes to matters of the heart?)

The audience—not all of it, but clearly a serious cross-section of it—loved the show. Some people, although not many, actually stood up in their seats during the curtain call in an unsuccessful attempt to initiate a standing ovation. That far the rest of the audience clearly would not go—even the people behind us didn’t stand up—but, still, the applause was strong and the general response, as eavesdropped on by myself on the way out, seemed beyond favorable. So what’s wrong with me? I have a sense of humor. (I heard that!) I like light-hearted! (I heard that too.) But this show was just the opposite: not funny or clever, and not particularly entertaining. But it is the Isherwood experience I want to write about here, not our evening last night at the Music Box specifically. After all, people don’t like the same foods or the same kinds of music, so why should everybody enjoy the same kind of theater? But Isherwood’s piece was not about the reasonableness of disagreement, but about the phenomenon of being alone in one’s view in a theater filled with people applauding wildly at a show one feels beyond noble for having stuck out to the bitter end.

You’d think Jews would be used to marching to a different drummer. (Since the expression is so often misquoted and also since I mentioned only last week what a fan of Henry David Thoreau I am, I suppose I should give it correctly here. The sage of Walden Pond wrote, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”) And, in a real sense, the concepts of swimming against the current, of resisting the temptation to suppose that the majority must ipso facto be right, and of championing the right of the individual to march to his or her personal drumbeat is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. Is that why Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the emperor’s new clothes is as resonant as it is with so many of us? Much more a cautionary tale for adults than a fairy story for children, Andersen’s story is specifically about a little boy who finds it in him to resist the temptation to go with the majority flow and to assume that something must be so merely because everybody says it is. (In the context of the story, the boy sees that the emperor is naked but then everybody assures him that their king is not only dressed, but is actually wearing the kind of gorgeous finery the sovereign of an empire would naturally don to go out in public. The boy dithers for a while, but then finds it in himself to trust his own eyes and to resist the temptation to join the majority. But clearly the story is not about emperors and clothing and little boys, but about the obligation of every individual to trust his or her judgment and to speak his or her mind without reference to the majority opinion of how things are.) So the real question at hand is not whether we need consciously to evolve the Jewish ethos to include this willingness to take even the least popular opinions publicly when they seem to us just and right, but whether we—by which I mean, our whole generation of American Jews—whether we ourselves have kept faith with this particular part of our heritage.

It’s not as simple a question as it sounds. When, for example, the world races to judgment against Israel as it did in the case of the flotilla incident of a few weeks ago, it doesn’t take much courage to refuse to go along with world opinion. (Indeed, there’s nothing like the prospect of rockets and missiles being put in the hands of terrorists who think nothing of murdering Jewish children to help crystallize our thinking even in the face of a tidal wave of contrary opinion.) But in other contexts, it is more complicated…and far more daunting to be a single voice, or a single set of voices, shouting into the wind. When, for example, people who are in favor of capital punishment attempt to buttress their arguments with reference to the fact that Judeo-Christian tradition itself (whatever that is) appears to endorse the concept, it clearly takes more courage than our organized community appears to have to speak out forcefully and with one voice to say that that is entirely incorrect, that the Torah’s concept of the circumstances under which a convicted person may be sentenced to death are infinitely more narrow and unlikely ever to occur than anything reflected in the sentencing guidelines that prevail in any of our fifty states. The death penalty may or may not be a good plan for America…but if its proponents really wished for American law to mirror its Judaic counterpart, more or less no one would ever be executed in this country except, truly, under the most truly unimaginable circumstances. (What exactly American politicians mean when the refer, usually deferentially, to the Judeo-Christian tradition is something I’d like to address in another context.)

Similarly irritating is when opponents of equal rights for homosexual citizens root their opposition in a single verse of the Torah which they cite endlessly but which actually occurs in the context of a large number of laws and rules those same people not only openly ignore, but which they would not in a million years even begin to consider obeying or taking seriously. Yet I do not see our leaders forcefully insisting that it debases the sanctity of our Torah for it to be picked apart like a smoked white fish at Kiddush so that one specific morsel may be put on display wholly out of context by people who neither respect biblical law in its entirety nor have even the slightest interest in obeying any of the rest of the Torah’s legislation regarding human sexual conduct. The specific questions relating to the place of gay people in our society are complicated in some ways and simple in others, but what I wish to stress here is not how we should respond to any specific issue but how forcefully we need to react when people co-opt our own tradition to make points which are all too often wholly inconsonant with our understanding of the plain meaning of the Torah.

I can think of lots of further examples too that suggest that we have relinquished our role as the group within society that invariably speaks up when the emperor is not wearing any clothes. To my way of thinking, this is not a positive development. Diasporan Jewish culture thrives at its finest and most creative in the context of a host society that not merely tolerates its existence but welcomes our loud, dissenting voices precisely when the majority seems all too ready to ignore the emperor’s nudity and buy into the prevailing sentiment regardless of what they know or ought to know about how things really are in the world. In the past, Jewish community has ever played that role as successfully and as well as has ours. That being the case, it does not behoove us—nor is it in our best interests—to relinquish that role to others now. Indeed, just the opposite should be the case: we need to redouble our efforts to train our children to be proud of the traditional role of our community as the gadflies of secular society…and to understand that role to be basic to the Jewish enterprise as it has unfolded to date in this place. It feels ominous that I don’t know of any textbooks pitched at Jewish children that emphasize that particular part of our self-assigned heritage. And it feels beyond ominous to note the failure of our leadership to speak out strongly and clearly whenever our tradition is co-opted by people untrained in its detail and uninterested in knowing or caring how we ourselves define our own heritage. It felt relatively easy not to stand up during the curtain calls last night because I really did find the show wanting. To transfer that sentiment to the truly public arena, however, is another thing entirely…and one that we should not only be teaching our children to do proudly but that we should be undertaking ourselves with the vigor that once seemed natural for Jewish people to bring to the larger enterprise of moral and just living in a world all too often given over to injustice and immorality.