Friday, March 25, 2011
People unfamiliar with the Bible who open up the Book of Psalms for the first time are generally surprised to notice that the book begins, of all things, with a definition of happiness. Nor is that opening effort, according to which happiness is best defined as success in avoiding the company of scoundrels and training oneself to delight in the study of the teachings of God, the only effort in the book to come up with a reasonable answer to the question of how best to define true happiness. There are, in fact, twenty-four different efforts in the Psalter to address the issue. All begin with the famous word ashrei (“Happy is” or “Happy are”) which word most worshipers will know as the word that begins the opening two lines in the prayer that generally goes by that name. Some are banal (“Happy is the one who trusts in God”), but others are more surprising (“Happy are those who know the sound of the shofar”) and still others are as unexpected as they are provocative (“Happy is the one whom God deigns to punish”). Nor are these twenty-four the Bible’s only efforts to define happiness. The Book of Proverbs has its own “Ashrei” passages, some ordinary (“Happy is the individual who finds wisdom”), others more challenging (“Happy are the ever-anxious”). The Book of Daniel ends with the hopeful thought that only in awaiting the messianic moment does true happiness lie. The author of the Book of Job, a dour type at the best of times, echoes the sentiment from the Psalter mentioned above that real happiness consists of being taken seriously enough by Judge God to be punished for one’s sins, thereby (presumably) being able truly to move past them and embrace a finer future. God may wound the righteous, the author of Job continues, but the same divine hands that chastise also make whole.
Different people will have different answers when challenged to say wherein the path to real happiness lies. Their answers could be as useful as they would certainly be interesting too, in that people still in search of happiness could then just choose one of the suggested paths and attempt to travel down it. Still, the more reliable path towards learning exactly wherein happiness lies would be not just to ask random people what they think but actually to examine society itself and then to analyze the results thoughtfully to determine which specific groups of people within society define themselves as being happy people and which do not. Presumably the larger the number of these groups to which any one individual might belong, the more likely that person would be to know true happiness. And from there the rest of us could go on, if we were so inclined, to attempt to emulate that person and in so doing to find the path to personal happiness for ourselves as well.
Luckily for us, the Gallup Organization has been compiling statistics regarding happiness and has come to some interesting conclusions, some that anyone might have anticipated in advance and others which no one, myself very much included, would have thought too likely. The methodology employed was simple enough: they telephoned one thousand people chosen at random over a period of three years and asked them all sorts of questions related to the levels of satisfaction and pleasure they get from the different things they experience in life: work, family, marriage, food, drink, sports, hobbies, etc. And using the results, they developed something called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index they then analyzed in terms of geography, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, number of children, state of residence, height, profession, and other factors. The New York Times, hearing about this undertaking and curious where it might lead, asked the Gallup people to utilize their data bank to determine what the happiest person in our country would be like in terms of the categories just mentioned. In other words, the Times challenged the Gallup people to use the data they had gathered about which segments of American society are the happiest to determine what someone would look like who fell into all the happiest categories.
The results were very interesting. It doesn’t surprise me particularly that married people are generally happier than single people or that people who have children are happier than people who remain childless. I was certainly not surprised, nor will any of my readers be, that richer people tend to be happier than poor people. Nor was I amazed that taller people generally tested happier than short people, although I’m not sure exactly why that doesn’t surprise me. (I do, after all, know plenty of happy short people. Maybe I was unduly influenced by Randy Newman as a younger person.) Other details were more surprising. The state reporting the happiest citizens was Hawaii. Is it the weather? All those pineapples? The distance from the rest of everybody else? Or is it simply the natural beauty of the place that makes happy its residents? Who knows? But other results were more surprising still!
Being a man, I was amazed that men appear to be the happier gender. Being a rabbi, I was surprised that business owners were the happiest people in terms of their profession, followed by professionals. (For some reason, I would have thought it would be the other way ‘round.) And being the age I actually am, I was very surprised to read that, as a class, senior citizens (in this case defined as people over sixty-five years of age) were happier than any other segment of the population analyzed by age. Certainly everything in our youth-oriented culture suggests that just the opposite should be true. Everybody wants to be young. Nobody wants to be old. Plenty of older people do what they can to look younger. No young people have their hair colored gray so they can look older! But when it came down to asking actual people how they feel, the media’s basic assumption that young is good and old is bad turned out to be wrong. Young people may have blacker hair and firmer bodies, but it was senior citizens across the board who reported that they were more content than people in any other age bracket. Go figure! And also surprising, at least to me, was that Americans of Asian origin tend as a class to be happier (and by far) than white people, black people, Hispanic people…and every other ethnic or racial group.
In its own class of amazingness are the twin statistics that, when analyzed by religion, Jewish people turn out to be happier than the members of any other religious group and that, when analyzed as a group unto themselves, observant Jewish people are happier than non-observant ones. We are a happy people? We are lots of things, to be sure, many of them positive: clever, industrious, resilient, (at least so far) indomitable, loyal, charitable, and many other good things I can think of easily. But happy? I grew up thinking crankiness, not happiness, was the quintessential Jewish trait. (In my parents’ house, the crankier and more disgruntled somebody appeared, the more intelligent they were presumed to be.) But there it is in black and white for all to read in the Times of March 6: Jewish people are the happiest of people who self-identify in terms of religion. If my father were only here to know that, would that make him happy? Not likely! But still, I find myself wondering what he’d think.
Anyway, it turns out that the Times went one step further and located someone who meets all the above-listed criteria for happiness: an observant Jewish person who is also an Asian America, who is married and a parent, who is self-employed and a top earner, and who lives in Hawaii. His name is Alvin Wong. He lives in a kosher Jewish home in Honolulu. He owns his own business, some sort of health care management firm. He makes a lot of money. He is married. He’s a dad. At sixty-nine, he’s old enough to be one of America’s happy seniors. And at five foot ten, the same as your author (!), he is tall enough not to be considered short by the Gallup people. When the Times contacted him and told him that he met every one of the criteria he laughed and said, “This is a practical joke, right?” Just what you’d think a happy person would say upon being told that he wasn’t just happy, but that he met the statistics in exactly the right way to be on the right side of every curve and thus to be, almost by definition, the happiest man in America. He also confirmed, once he realized the Times was on the level, that he was indeed a very happy person. Could there be other Jewish Asian-American husband/dads in Hawaii who are tall enough and who make enough money to qualify? I suppose there could be. But the Times couldn’t find one. Other than in Hawaii, I also wouldn’t know where to look.
At the other end of the spectrum were gathered the unhappiest Americans. West Virginia is the state whose citizens are least likely to describe themselves as happy people. Among religious groups, the least happy are American Muslims. Among workers, people employed in the transportation industry and in manufacturing are the most miserable. The Times, at least to date, does not appear to have made any effort to locate a short, unmarried, childless Muslim woman in West Virginia who works in manufacturing but makes less than $12,000 a year and ask her whether she is as unhappy as the Gallup poll suggests she should be. My guess is that she’d be making the best of her situation and that whether or not she self-defines as happy would be a function not of her faith, her job, or her gender, but of her sense that she is doing the best she can with what she has to work with. In terms of my own life, I’ve felt the best when I felt that I was doing my best, when I’ve felt that I was playing the cards I’ve been dealt (as well as those I’ve dealt myself) to my own advantage as cleverly and thoughtfully as possible, when I’ve felt that was being the best version of the person I actually am even if I could make up some fantasy version of myself that would outdo the actual me in every rubric people bring to bear in determining whether they are truly content with their lives.
I wonder if Alvin Wong is happier now than he was before the Times identified him or less happy. Probably, he’s some combination of gratified and embarrassed. Or perhaps he simply is too happy to let something like an article in a newspaper he probably doesn’t even read affect him one way or the other.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Who is the real fiend of the Purim story? I know, I know…but, really, there are—or at least should be—two contenders for the position.
One is a touchy prig of a man capable of seeking the destruction of an entire people because he took offense when one of their countrymen behaved laxly with respect to the honor he took as his due. A craven sort as well, he was not above begging for his own life when things went south. But until that unexpected turn of events takes place he does not seem at all the type likely to beg, least of all while lying prostrate before a woman…and a Jewish woman at that! The portrait of the man in question, the man whose name we drown out in synagogue, is thus both complex and interesting. Arrogant, cruel, self-absorbed, heartless, pompous, touchy, egomaniacal…that’s our Haman!
The other man is depicted equally unappealingly, just with a different set of unpleasant features. Lazy, stupid, unfeeling, childish, rash, and gullible, he is recalled by most as a mostly benign but also incredibly powerful dolt. Like Pharaoh far before him—far before him, that is to say, both in terms of history and also in terms of the book in which they both appear—this other personality too possesses all the trappings of great power. He commands armies, reigns over a palace filled with servile ministers tripping over themselves to do his bidding, rules a nation with the absolute power of the absolute monarch (which is precisely what he is), and appears to be able to act wholly without restraint or limit. And although his portrait is less complex than the first fellow’s (and for that matter also less complex than Pharaoh’s), it is equally interesting. Disrespectful to women in general and capable apparently of being generous with a woman only when he expects a subsequent reward for his trouble, the king of kings is depicted as being essentially a dunce whose fiendish minister manipulates him with the ease of a child training a puppy to fetch a stick. Readers get the sense they are supposed to find his gullibility and, even more to the point, the ease with which he can be maneuvered around by others more amusing than sickening. As a result, he comes across as essentially benign, as a drunk too involved with seeking his own pleasure actually to rule the country over which he reigns. And, indeed, there is no scene in the Megillah in which the king of Persia is actually depicted as governing his country, as doing what kings are theoretically supposed to do with respect to the people they govern. As a result it is he, King Achashveirosh himself, who is remembered as a sot and lecher, while Haman gets to be Hitler.
But how reasonable is that, really? Let’s read along as the plot unfolds. I’ll print the parts I would like to suggest for special consideration in italics. “And so it came to pass. The royal scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month and ordered to write up the edict Haman had prompted the king to have issued, which was then duly transmitted to all the king’s ministers and to the governors of each province, and also to all local officials within the kingdom. Nor were these edicts promulgated solely in Persian. Indeed, different versions of the text were prepared in the languages and alphabets of every province and ethnicity in the kingdom, every single one of which was issued in the name of King Achashveirosh and sealed with the king’s own signet ring. Furthermore, all of these documents were distributed by trained messengers to every province of the kingdom and all made precisely the same announcement: that it was the king’s will that every Jew, including the children and the elderly, even infants and women, were to be annihilated, murdered and exterminated on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, that is of the month of Adar, whereupon their personal possessions would be free for all to plunder. Nor was this a secret plan of any sort. Just the contrary, in fact, was the case: the formal written documents publishing this new law in every province were displayed publicly so that the peoples of those provinces could prepare the pogrom in a timely fashion for the date specified in the edict. Of course, no messengers were needed to promulgate the edict in Shushan itself. And so, as the messengers raced off to bring the document announcing the impending massacre to the provinces in accordance with the king’s order, the edict was also publicly posted locally in Shushan, Persia’s capital city. Indeed, that very night as the king and Haman sat down to get drunk, as they did every evening, the city of Shushan itself was in a state of complete upheaval.”
So we have wily Haman scheming to punish Mordechai’s people for a slight probably not even intended to be taken personally and offering the king an unimaginable sum of money—something like three hundred tons of silver by most estimates—to get the king to agree to act as Haman wishes him to. But, in the end, Haman, for all his preening megalomania, is powerless. He appears to have plenty of money, but no real power…and certainly not the power to condemn an entire people to death. It is the king who has the power, the king (therefore) who must act. And that is just what the Megillah says happens and why the text returns in the passage cited just above again and again to the fact that this was the king’s edict promulgated at the king’s command in the provinces of the king’s empire. Even the copies of the edict intended for the provinces, the text notes in passing, were not merely issued over the king’s name but specifically sealed with his own royal signet ring. The king, therefore, is the “real” author of the Jews’ misery, the promulgator of the edict that threatens to annihilate them. By describing him as gullible and Haman as wicked, but then by stating over and over that the evil but essentially powerless Haman could do nothing on his own and that the edict of annihilation could and did come only from the king, the text is prompting readers to ask themselves which, in the end, is worse: stupid or bad.
It’s not that simple a question to answer and it would clearly be best not to be stupid or bad. But behind the obvious debate such a question could inspire is hiding a different lesson entirely. Haman, acting on his own, could have accomplished nothing. On the other hand, the king, as unintelligent as he is all-powerful, also would have done nothing on his own. It may be possible to be either bad or stupid—and it clearly is possible to be both—but the real lesson to derive from the story as told is that the destruction of Persian Jewry was only plausible once stupid and bad met and aligned their forces to create the kind of malign havoc that could conceivably have led to true catastrophe. So perhaps the lesson behind the Megillah’s exciting story is that the way to protect ourselves is to combat both wickedness and stupidity. Combating wickedness means working vigorously to see to it that the perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts are not just condemned but punished, that Holocaust deniers are not merely chastised but pursued in our country within the criminal justice system just as vigorously they would be in (of all places) Germany, that people who publicly spread lies about Israel and the work of its armed forces be charged with libel and pursued just as would anyone guilty of calumny or libel, and that people who foment hatred of Jews, Jewishness, or Judaism be pursued relentlessly as promoters of hatred and not just ignored or tolerated out of misguided allegiance to the First Amendment. Combating stupidity is harder. Combating stupidity means working to make sure that Israel is represented fairly and honestly in the textbooks our nation’s schoolchildren read, working to guarantee that the lessons of the Shoah are taught widely and correctly, working to be certain that Judaism is presented fairly not just in our nation’s textbooks but also from the pulpits of our nation’s churches and mosques and, in some ways even more challengingly, in the lecture halls of our nation’s universities.
To my way of thinking, the relative benignity of stupid and bad when considered separately and their exponentially greater capacity to do evil when their forces are joined is the lesson that Haman and Achashveirosh teach jointly through the narrative of the Megillah. There’s an old rabbinic midrash about two guards, one blind and one lame, who were once hired to guard a precious vineyard by a king who was more afraid of his own staff pilfering his grapes than he was of outside thieves. Figuring that the blind guard couldn’t see the grapes and the lame one couldn’t run off with them, the king felt secure…but that was only because he forgot to remember that they were only impotent as individuals, but that they were going to be capable of robbing the king blind once the lame guard was seated atop the blind one’s shoulders, which is exactly what happened. In its own way, the moral of the story is the same as the Megillah’s: you can only be fully secure when you defend yourself vigorously even against enemies who, for all they appear unable to do much harm on their own, could wreak true havoc if they ever combined forces. The Jews of Shushan learned that lesson the hard way. May God grant that we learn it the far easier way by sitting back on Purim and listening to the Megillah. And may God protect our people as well, both in Israel and in the lands of our dispersion.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
I probably shouldn’t admit this at all, and least of all in print, but I’ve always been a fan of “angel” television shows and, slightly less embarrassingly, of at least some of the more popular “angel” movies of recent years as well. I didn’t even live in the United States for the five years that Michael Landon starred in Highway to Heaven, but it aired in Israel and Canada on “real” TV and was available in Germany on U.S. Armed Forces television network, and I don’t think we ever missed an episode. (We didn’t have anything to do with the army during our years in Germany, but we lived close enough to one of the big bases to receive their television signal easily.) Partially, I suppose I liked the show because Michael Landon is a landsman who hailed, albeit as Eugene Orowitz, at least originally from my old neighborhood in Queens, but mostly I liked it because it corresponded so precisely to one of deepest fantasies, the one that God’s governance of the world is not solely left in our hands, that it isn’t all about finding elusive and allusive signs of God’s presence in the world if and when we can, that there really are people who walk among us and who know (and not symbolically or metaphorically, but categorically and verifiably) what it is God wants of us all. Or rather not people exactly, of course, but angels, divine beings who only look like people but who travel the highway to heaven not by ruminating about it or fantasizing about it but actually by traveling on it in the manner of real people going somewhere on a road that exists fully and really outside the fertile imagination of the traveler.
The Bible, after all, is replete with such beings. One of my favorite biblical scenes is the one in which Joshua at Jericho suddenly looks up and sees a man standing before him. Naturally enough, he, Joshua, asks the man if he is friend or foe. The man answers that he Is God’s angel sent to lead the Israelites to victory and that he has finally arrived. For some reason I have always especially liked the words ata bati, the Hebrew words corresponding to the “Now I have come” part in that story, and wondered what it would be like actually to hear Michael Landon—or someone!—say them to me, then reveal some crucial, otherwise unknowable, piece of my personal destiny. Which of us hasn’t had some version of that fantasy? And therein, of course, lay the real secret of the success of Landon’s show, which took the form precisely of a weekly elaboration of that exact scene as Michael Landon’s character said those words or their equivalent constantly to people into whose lives he stepped in that great Hollywood style to share the One Detail That generally Changed Everything. Ata bati. I’ve come…and not just to earth (which would really be cool enough all by itself), but specifically to you!
Later on, there was Touched by An Angel. Different cast, same concept. The show, which ran for nine seasons, was far more successful than Highway to Heaven and it had a different feel to it—slightly grittier story lines, darker both in terms of the dilemmas its angels were obliged to attempt to resolve and also in terms of the way the human beings on the show behaved both towards their would-be saviors and towards each other—but the show appealed to me personally because it provided a weekly midrash on the same fantasy that earlier generated its predecessor’s plot lines. And so there I was, almost twenty years older when Touched by An Angel ended than I was when Highway to Heaven premiered, and I still liked the idea of there being malakhim among us guiding us forward through the mazes that are our lives, hinting to us which direction to take at which crossroads, even shoving us out of harm’s way when necessary. Like all rabbis, I like to think of myself as a sophisticated theologian who turns to the sacred classics of the learned sages of previous generations to find spiritual solace and guidance. But the allure of these kitschy, melodramatic shows featuring actual guides appearing out of nowhere to whisper precisely the right counsel into the ear of precisely the right person at precisely the right moment—how can reading even the greatest of old books compete with sitting on the couch and watching a show with that kind of seductive appeal?
Movies, I’m less sappy about. For some reason, I always find It’s a Wonderful Life more depressing than uplifting. Still, I loved John Travolta in Michael. Loved Ben and Matt in Dogma. Didn’t love Denzel Washington in The Preacher’s Wife. Truly loved Emma Thomson in Angels in America. Loved Prairie Home Companion, but couldn’t quite figure out what the angel thing was really all about. And then, just this last Saturday night, Joan and I went to see Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau. It got great reviews. It features great acting by some very talented actors. It will probably be a huge hit. I hated it.
The basic premise of the movie is that God, coyly called “The Chairman,” is in complete control of the universe and specifically of all the people in it. Indeed, according to the movie, we are only allowed to think that we make decisions that matter in our lives but are actually mere pawns in an elaborate game plan none of us knows or can ever can know. Free will is real, but trivial: we can decide whether to have oatmeal or corn flakes for breakfast, but when we make truly important decisions that might inadvertently lead us away from The Plan, God (or Whomever) sends angels, coyly called “case workers” in the movie, who work for the celestial Adjustment Bureau and whose job it is either gently or not gently to nudge, or occasionally violently to force, us back onto the right track. These angels are odd dudes. They carry around magic Kindles detailing in some sort of electronic hieroglyphics the plan God has evolved for every single human being. For some unexplained reason, they are powerless when surrounded by water. They don’t have wings, but for some reason they have to wear hats. (An angel in the movie notes en passant that even a yarmulke will do. So there!) And those hats really matter because they somehow allow the angels wearing them to travel around the world at miraculous speeds by opening magic doors that reduce the distance between their location at any given moment and wherever it is they wish they were to the width of a threshold. (There’s something about the direction you have to turn the doorknob too, but all that I could seize about that part was that it is really, really bad to turn the knob the wrong way!)
The movie also has a “real” plot that involves its two stars bucking the system—there’s a surprise!—and eventually either ending up together or not ending up together. (I don’t want to ruin the movie for those of you planning to see it by giving away the ending.) But what I wanted to write about today isn’t the movie’s plot per se, which was developed from a short story by Philip K. Dick, but the notion underlying that plot that free will is a chimera and that the real work of God’s angels consists of making us follow some pre-conceived plan without respect to the shape we ourselves may want our own lives to take or the path we wish them to follow.
The notion that we are all always on track, that some celestial creature dressed up like a regular human being is specifically in charge of keeping each of us on track, that none of us therefore is even capable of living life not according to God’s plan—this is a powerful set of ideas, one that will appeal on some level to more or less anyone who believes in destiny. How could it not? And yet…there is also something silly about the notion that these plans exist. And when we are not in the actual throes of succumbing to the pleasure of feeling ourselves so securely in God’s hands that no decision we ever make actually matters at all, I think most of us know that perfectly well. In any event, and Hollywood movies and television shows notwithstanding, our Torah teaches us that precisely the opposite is the case. That every decision a human being makes has the potential to further that individual along the path towards his or her destiny or to lead him or her off in the opposite direction. That deeds matter precisely because free will is real, because God rules the world specifically not by making us behave according to pre-conceived plans but by allowing us to make our own choices and then letting us bear the consequences of those choices for better or for worse. That the ineffable sanctity of life derives not from the sense that we only imagine ourselves to be free people but are actually marionettes endlessly being yanked along by invisible strings connected to the celestial Puppeteer, but from the sense that we are absolutely free and unfettered in terms of our ability to choose right from wrong…and also in terms of the ability each of us has absolutely to muck things up, to make a complete mess of our lives, and to turn our backs on our own ultimate destinies.
Movies like The Adjustment Bureau are popular, I think, because they play directly to the fantasy, no less soothing than pernicious, that none of us bears any real responsibility for our lives, that faith in God can be manipulated to yield the almost corollary belief that we are mere clay on the cosmic Potter’s wheel…and that we can no more make real choices that truly matter in life than can inert, lifeless clay. It’s a seductive idea and the challenge, therefore, is not to refuse to enjoy a good movie but to refuse to live lives based on the insidious supposition that moral decision making in life is hardly worth the effort because, in the end, our lives will be adjusted by angels wearing hats (and staying away from large bodies of water) who are responsible for making our lives play out according to some predetermined and divinely inflexible plan. Are we up to the challenge? It’s an excellent question, but one each of us will have to answer personally for him or herself.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
When I was a little boy of maybe seven or eight, I remember my father taking me to the Veteran’s Day parade in Manhattan and pointing out that there were veterans of the Spanish-American War marching right past us. I don’t recall being exceptionally impressed. Or maybe I was in some subliminal way—I do remember the incident fifty years later, after all—but I’m still almost sure it didn’t feel like a big deal to me at the time. This would have been in 1960 or 1961, I think. The Spanish-American War was fought more than sixty years earlier in 1898. Soldiers who charged up San Juan Hill in their twenties would have been in their eighties when I saw them on Fifth Avenue. So there were these old guys marching up the avenue, I think I would have thought…so what? Nor was I too impressed when my father attempted to set things into more interesting perspective by telling me that he himself could recall being a little boy in the 1920s—my dad was born in 1916—and seeing elderly Civil War veterans marching in the same parade. The parade would have been a new feature of New York life back then, the first one having taken place in 1919. But the Civil War ended in 1865, so, say, a nineteen-year-old at Appomattox would have been born in 1846 and then in his eighties when my father could certainly have seen him marching up Fifth Avenue most of a lifetime later. I don’t recall this revelation making that much of an impression on me either, however.
But the things our parents tell us when are children are never quite as gone as all that and I was brought back to that conversation with my dad a few days ago when I read the obituary in the paper of Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last remaining American veteran of the First World War, who died last Sunday at age 110. He had a long life and a correspondingly long obituary. Buckles, I learned as I read, was born on the first of February in 1901 and was just a boy of sixteen when he lied about his age and, after crossing the Atlantic on the S.S. Carpathia (the ship that a few years earlier had picked up the survivors of the Titanic), joined the American Expeditionary Force in France as an ambulance driver. So he only caught the tail end of the Great War, but had even worse luck years later when he found himself in Manila when the Japanese occupied the Philippines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequently ended up spending more than four years in Japanese custody, a harrowing experience that lasted almost until the end of the war itself. But what caught my imagination were not Buckles’ recollections of France or the Philippines as much as his comment, mentioned only in passing in his obituary, that even at the end of his life he could still recall meeting veterans of the Crimean War when he briefly landed in England on his way to France.
The Crimean War! Now that was a long time ago. Do kids in school even learn about the Crimean War these days? In its day, it was a huge deal. Fought from 1853 to 1856, the war pitted the Russian Empire against a strange alliance of Britain, France, Turkey, Sardinia and the German Duchy of Nassau, and was started by, of all things, Napoleon III attempting to seize control of the Holy Land (as he would have called it) from the Turks. The Russians for some reason, probably because they were hoping to seize the property themselves, declared themselves opposed. One thing led to another. By the time it was all over more than a quarter million soldiers were dead as were, by some accounts, at least that many civilians. And in 1917, when Frank Buckles passed through England on his way to France, he met veterans of that almost forgotten war. I remember reading Tolstoy’s Sevastapol Sketches when I was younger and being fully engaged by the book and its exciting story lines and very expressive prose. But, aside from Tolstoy lovers, who remembers that there even was a Crimean War these days, let alone who fought in it or what it was all about? But let’s focus on Buckles’ meeting with those veterans in London and from there move on, as readers know I am always predisposed to do, into the realm of pure fantasy.
In my mind’s eye, I imagine those Crimean veterans Buckles met as young men meeting British soldiers returning from the New World after General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. Why not? Men who fought in the Crimean War in their twenties would have been born in the 1830s and surely could have known veterans of the American Revolution in their younger years! (Didn’t Melville’s title character Israel Potter spend the fifty years following the American Revolution schlepping around England before he finally found the means to return home to America?) And so do the walls that generally separate the generations collapse slightly before us as America mourns a man who in his youth met at least some men who in their own youths could certainly have met veterans of the American Revolution. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so long ago at all that colonial soldiers were coming home from Yorktown and savoring their victory as citizens of the newly independent United States. Could Frank Buckles really have had personal contact as a teenager with someone who himself could have known someone who had fought under General Washington? It seems so!
Buckles was 110 when he died and it appears certain that he was America’s last surviving doughboy. He was, however, not the last living veteran of World War I. A certain Charles Choules, who served in the Royal Navy, and a woman, Florence Green, once a member of Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force, are still alive and are believed now to be the only living people to have served in any capacity at all during the First World War. (The women in the Women’s Royal Air Force did not fly planes, by the way. Instead, they trained as airplane mechanics and drivers, the idea being to free men who normally did those jobs for military service elsewhere. Florence Green is the sole surviving member of the organization, which was disbanded in 1920.) Who they may or may not have met in their lifetimes, who knows? But I find myself focused not on the detail that there are two other First World War veterans still among the living. Far more interesting to me is the thought that our last surviving American veteran was when he died not merely a very old man and one of the few surviving survivors of a terrible war that in the end resulted in upwards of sixteen million deaths, but that he was a link to the past in a way that is as romantic to contemplate as it is slightly hard to believe.
The words “from generation to generation” appear and reappear in our liturgy, always reminding worshipers that the experience of communal prayer is intended to link them not only to others in the world to pray but also to countless generations stretching back into the past and (in a way slightly more difficult to fathom) forward into the future. There is a certain satisfaction in that thought, but we rarely pause to consider the concept itself of generations being interlinked. Surely, we are linked to our great-grandparents and (please God) to our great-grandchildren through ritual and belief. But we are also linked to them by people like the late Frank Buckles who somehow transcend the normal lifespan of most people—the man was 110 when he died, after all—and through some unexpected combination of happenstance, good fortune, and opportunity serve as physical links to the past in a way that no monument or battlefield ever could. Did my father, who only died in 1999, really in his lifetime encounter Civil War veterans? The grandparents of those veterans could certainly have served in the Colonial Army as well!
I remember when I was in rabbinical school one of our professors saying that modern Jewish history—or at least modern Jewish intellectual history—begins in 1204 with Maimonides’ death. Now that feels like a long time ago. But if two full centuries could collapse in my mind into a handful of encounters simply by reading a single obituary, so, really, what’s another six? The great-grandparents of soldiers who fought with Washington in the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776, after all, could surely have been born a mere two or three hundred years or so after the great-grandchildren of Maimonides’ great-grandchildren could still have been alive!