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.

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