Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bigger Picture

Towards the end of his life, my father became a vegetarian. This was not an expected development, at least not by myself. My father never displayed, at least not to me, any inclination towards vegetarianism, never expressed (also at least not to me) any specific disinclination to eat meat. But yet, somehow, there he was in his eighties frying up tofu and peppers for lunch and explaining himself with reference neither to his various digestive woes or to the price of kosher meat, but to the cruelty of the world. This, if anything, I expected even less. My father was a kind person. In some ways I would even say he was a gentle one. Certainly, he was goodhearted and good-natured. But he was the kind of person who generally accepted things as he found them in the world and never seemed especially perturbed by the way the world worked or by the way things were in the world as he was born into it. Once years earlier when I reported to him some horrific story I had read in the paper about the way veal calves are raised, he responded by observing that some people raise veal calves because other people eat veal and will pay for the privilege. If there weren’t purchasers, there wouldn’t be sellers. And if you have the misfortune actually to be such a calf whose future is bringing you directly to the abattoir, then ver-zhe heist dich zein a kalb? Who told you to be a calf?

But that attitude did not live on as long in my father as he lived on in the world and, as noted, towards the end of his life my father gave up not only veal but all meat. He seemed neither proud nor embarrassed by his decision, neither eager to spread the gospel of vegetarianism nor interested in defending his diet to others and least of all to me. He had, he said, grown weary of the misery of the world, did not want to be part of the machine that killed living creatures for profit. Mostly, he said, he did not want to be among the purchasers who justify the sellers. My father clearly did not expect his decision to alter the world and its ways. He barely told anyone. He only told me myself after I noted aloud that there didn’t seem to be anything to eat in the fridge that wasn’t made out of soybeans. But his conversion, for all it was private, was also heartfelt. And he never went back either, not from the day he made his decision to the day he died. My father, whose first job as a young man was as counterman in a deli on Church Avenue in Brooklyn, died years after he ingested his last piece of corned beef.

I’ve been thinking about that specific detail of my dad’s later years both while eating my way through Pesach and also while reading James Carroll’s exceedingly interesting and provocative book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. The Pesach angle is easy to explain because, interwoven throughout our yontif observance, is this effort to justify the misery of the world. As a way of nodding to the unimaginable suffering the plagues must have brought on innocent Egyptians, almost none of whom bore any direct (or, for that matter, any indirect) responsibility for the enslavement of the Israelites, for example, we diminish the wine in our cups by ten drops, one for each of the ten plagues. And then, as if that weren’t dramatic enough, we decline on the actual anniversary of the day on which Pharaoh’s minions drowned in the sea to recite the full version of Hallel and instead use the shorter version that is otherwise only recited on lesser festival days such as Rosh Chodesh.

It isn’t much. It’s actually hardly anything at all. But at least the notion that there should be no pleasure taken in the suffering of the innocent is in the mix, inspiring us to remember that there is nothing for us to celebrate in the death of the firstborn son of the indigent servant girl slaving away in her master’s mill whom the Torah goes out of its way specifically to mention in the context of the tenth plague. Could the Almighty not have wrought salvation for Israel other than at the cost of that innocent little boy’s life? The Torah doesn’t go there, but that does not mean we shouldn’t. Just the opposite is true, actually: why would that little boy, dead and gone from the world for more than three millennia, still be on our minds if the Torah did not wish us to contemplate his wretched lot and his untimely death…and to think of something to say. But what is there to say? Would any of us look at that doomed child, then steal a glance at our slightly diminished cups of wine, then respond by asking who told him to be a calf?

I wish to express myself in much more detail about James Carroll’s book in another letter to you later in the year, but what has been making the most profound impression on me as I have been reading his work this holiday are the staggering numbers the author tosses out to his readers effortlessly, numbers I seem endlessly capable of not remembering or even of feeling that I could not possibly ever have known, numbers suggestive of the capacity we human beings have to behave not merely violently but with almost indescribable violence towards each other. Normally, we voice this thought with reference to the apparently willingness of the world to forget the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. And yet we ourselves also forget…and not just on the rare, atypical occasion but so regularly as to suggest that what is truly human is not to recall at all but to repress. Carroll writes at some length about the World War I campaign called “the Somme offensive,” an ultimately pointless operation that took place over five months in the year my father was born. The campaign, which accomplished nothing at all other than obliging the Germans to regroup some forty miles to the east of their earlier positions, cost over 500,000 British and French soldiers’ lives alone, not to mention another half million enemy losses. How could I possibly not have forgotten learning about a battle in my the century of my birth in which more than a million young men died accomplishing…nothing of consequence at all? I must have learned about it somewhere…but my ability to forget death even on the unimaginable scale of our own losses during the Shoah is staggering to me now that I face it head-on. I certainly know that more than 1.2 million soldiers died at Stalingrad between August, 1942 and February, 1943, but did I forget or never know that the population of Mexico fell from 25 million in 1517, the year the Spanish arrived, to 1.5 million a century later because 94% of the indigenes were murdered by their European conquerors?

And then there are wars I cannot even remember having heard of. Do you remember ever reading about the French Wars of Religion? I don’t…which is something, since by some estimates 4 million people died in those wars (which also accomplished nothing of lasting consequence) between 1562 and 1598. We expect the world never to forget the Shoah, but four million people is a lot of people and not only haven’t I remembered to remember, but I can’t even remember forgetting that they lived or died. The list goes on. Carroll mentions, almost just in passing, that it is possible that a full one hundred thousand women were executed between 1560 and 1670 for the “crime” of being suspected of witchcraft. Did I know that? How could I not have? I think I wrote to you in this space last year that I was astounded when I read in James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise that by some estimates that a full million and a half civilian Filipinos died in the so-called Philippine-American War (which name I’m sure I also hadn’t ever heard spoken aloud) that followed on the heels of the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Other names are less unfamiliar, but still jumbled together in my memory. Surely, I must have learned in high school—this actually does ring a bell—that 24,000 American soldiers died in the first twelve hours of the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862. But who ever thinks of these people as individuals—and, for that matter, how many of us even know where exactly Antietam is or who actually won the battle? (The Union sort of won, at least strategically, but more realistically the battle was a draw. Antietam Creek is near Sharpsburg, Maryland.) Mind you, all the Civil War numbers are staggering. 24,000 soldiers died at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April of 1862. 20,000 died at the Second Battle of Bull Run in July of that year. 50,000 died at Gettysburg, which at least constituted a huge victory for the Union forces and a major turning point in the war. But who can fathom numbers like that? Each soldier—each individual dead young man—was someone’s son, someone’s husband, someone’s brother or friend. Each one was an entire universe, an idea we find natural to develop with respect to our own dead…but which we find it more than possible hardly to consider at all when we think of the almost indescribable losses we don’t ever think about, don’t know much about, don’t insist our children learn about, don’t erect monuments to prevent others from forgetting about, and frankly find it just a bit irritating to be reminded by others about when all we want to do is to focus on how easily the world looks past Jewish suffering.

Mind you, we’ve also forgotten most of own history. More than 100,000 Jews were murdered during the Cossack Rebellion in the Ukraine during 1648 and 1649, but who bothers remembering those people, each individual one of whom was also a universe, these days? Once we steer into Jewish waters, I’m on firmer ground…but even then the point is really how easily we forgot, how little human life—Jewish and not Jewish—really means to us, how simple it is for us to nod to that little boy whose mother worked as a slave in one of Pharaoh’s mills without accepting his monitory presence in our holy Torah as a spur to opening our hearts to the suffering of the world and its peoples.

Monday is the Seventh Day of Pesach, the day on which Pharaoh’s army drowned in the sea. When the angels on high noted their deaths, they began to sing hymns of praise to God. The Talmud imagines God, displeased in the extreme, turning to them with a damning rhetorical question. “Creatures that I myself created are drowning,” the text imagines God asking acidulously, “and your response is to sing songs?” To celebrate the deliverance of our ancestors from bondage in Egypt and their subsequent deliverance at the Sea of Reeds, after all, is one thing. But to ruin that celebration by looking past the suffering of the innocent that it occasioned, no matter how successful we might be at justifying that suffering with reference to our own yearning to be free is, to say the very least, indecorous and unworthy behavior on our part. To be part of the world, we have to be part of the world…and that means, at least when the death of other people’s children is involved, to consider the history of Israel in its larger context and in terms of its impact beyond the borders of our own narrative.

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