Thursday, June 30, 2011

Freedom Riders and the Flotilla

As all of you surely know, Israel is about to experience the arrival of a second flotilla of self-proclaimed humanitarian activists intent on “breaking” Israel’s blockade of the Gaza coast. There have been some interesting developments over the last few days—some shipping companies are refusing to allow their boats to be used now that it has become clear to them that they could potentially face prosecution for abetting a terrorist organization, while others are reporting acts of vandalism against their ships (particularly in Greece, where some of them are docked)—but the basic consensus, as reported in Thursday morning’s Haaretz, is that that a flotilla of about ten vessels will eventually set sail for Gaza from diverse European ports, possibly as soon as next week. Included will be an American ship capable of carrying thirty-four passengers. Signed on to travel along are the well-known American author, Alice Walker (who told NPR the other day that she was moved to participate because she is, and I believe I quote, “in favor of children and sunshine”) and about a minyan’s worth of Jews whose sense of Jewishness is apparently elastic enough to allow for the occasional act of succor and support to the murderers of Jewish children. It’s that kind of world!

Yes, of course, these people—and I reference here specifically the Americans and even more specifically the Jews in their midst—don’t say that they support terrorism. Just the opposite, they say that they are opposed to terrorism, that they hate terrorism. It is, they explain, not Hamas they support, but the Palestinian people themselves of whom they are trying to be supportive. Indeed, in this version of the narrative, the Palestinians of Gaza are not supporters of Hamas at all—this despite having voted them into office in 2007 and, by all accounts, openly approving of their elected leaders’ efforts to annihilate Israel and wage a war of terror against its civilians—but actually their victims! Observing that that version of the story appears to have no basis in fact seems unimportant. One of those planning to sail, a student at the University of Arizona cited in the Times last week, openly and apparently without any sense of irony compared the situation of the Palestinians of Gaza to the situation of black people in America that the civil rights movement of the 1960s came into being to address. According to that line of thinking, he said, those planning to travel with the flotilla are not supporting terror at all, but are continuing the principled work of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. And the demonized Israelis are thus cast as the unreflective, unrepentant descendants of the white-dominated power structure that refused to allow the federal laws demanding the integration of the races in public places and spaces to be put into effect. The pursuit of this line of thinking is not the mere silliness as which most of us would tend casually to deride it. It is insidious and dangerous in a different sort of way. And it is that specific aspect of the issue I would like to take up with you today.

Do you remember the Freedom Riders? I had to refresh my memory a bit, but once I started reading the story came right back to me. It was 1961. Previously, in 1960, the Supreme Court of the United States in a case called Boynton vs. Virginia had declared racial segregation in interstate bus and train stations and on interstate buses and trains to be illegal. This resulted in some progress, but the law was widely ignored in most of the states in which segregation was the rule rather than the exception. And so, in 1961, a group of thirteen individuals, seven black and six white, chose to test the law by leaving Washington, D.C., on buses headed for the deep south.

For several days, nothing much happened. But in the second week of the journey, the self-proclaimed “freedom riders” were dragged off their bus near Anniston, Alabama, and severely beaten. The bus itself was torched and destroyed. In the wake of that incident, most of the participants were evacuated by the federal government to Louisiana. Some, however, refused to give up, among them John Lewis who later became a U.S. congressman and who currently represents Georgia’s fifth congressional district. The Congress of Racial Equality, the organization sponsoring the operation, sent in fresh volunteers. For a while, while the group travelled from Birmingham to Montgomery, things were calm. But when the group arrived in Montgomery, its members were savagely attacked by a mob of over 1000 angry segregationists. The unwillingness of the local police to take meaningful action to prevent violence eventually prompted President Kennedy to threaten to use federal troops to calm the scene, a move that was headed off at the last moment by the decision of the governor of Alabama to use the Alabama National Guard to disperse the rioters. Eventually things calmed down. The freedom riders continued their journey, ending up in Mississippi. There was violence, but not on the level the riders encountered in Alabama. And then, in the fall of that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued the orders necessary to bring its institutions in line with its own guidelines—in response at least partially to a petition to do so drafted and sent to them by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy—which action brought to an end the era of segregated waiting rooms, buses, toilets, lunch counters, and drinking fountains for white and black people in America’s bus and train stations and, by extension, on America’s buses and trains as well.

I was only eight years old in 1961, but I remember learning about the Freedom Riders in school. It would have been part of our Current Events lesson, I suppose, but what exactly our teachers told us—and how explicit they were regarding the issues to which the Freedom Riders were responding—I don’t recall. I was only in third grade. Was Miss Zenowitz able adequately to explain to our lily-white classroom in P.S. 3 why exactly it was that black people could not use the same restrooms as white people in Alabama train stations? I doubt it! But—and I say this not because I had a slight crush on willowy Miss Z., which I believe I did—she did find some way to express her admiration for the effort. And I remember it to this day! And so it was with those thoughts firmly in mind that I read the comment of the University of Arizona student, one Gabriel Schivone, comparing the passengers signed up to sail on the Gaza flotilla with the CORE Freedom Riders of 1961. I suppose, being who I am, I find it difficult to believe that anyone not blinded by sheer hatred of Israel could not find such a comparison beyond odious. And yet I also feel the need to respond to it, at the very least here. So here goes.

Gabriel, is that really what you think? That the people who put Hamas in office and who continue to support its program of terror aimed at civilians, its absolute and unyielding rejection of Israel as a partner in negotiation, its endless detention and illegal treatment of Gilad Shalit, and its willingness to sacrifice the safety of its own people by placing military installations in civilian neighborhoods—that those people are in the Arab-Israeli context the people playing the role of black people in the American South in the unhappy days of segregation and overt, officially sanctioned racial prejudice? The black people of Alabama and Mississippi were victims of an uncaring system of organized discrimination directed directly against them and designed specifically to deprive them of their civil rights. It was an odious part of our American culture for as long as it lasted, something of which even those of us who obviously played no specific role in bringing it into existence or in supporting it or maintaining it should still feel ashamed to acknowledge as part of our national legacy. The people who got on those buses and risked life and limb for what now, in retrospect, seem almost like trivialities—being free to chose where one sits in a luncheonette or where one waits in a bus station—were acting nobly against an evil that needed to be eradicated. Is that what you think Israel is doing by trying to guarantee that no ships bearing missiles or weaponry intended for use against Israeli civilians dock without first being inspected in a port controlled by Hamas, an overtly terrorist organization, Gabriel? Is your hatred of Jewish children so intense that you cannot see the difference between Israel attempting to do what it can to prevent people from murdering the children of Sederot in their beds while they sleep at night and the principled effort of white and black Americans working together to bring down a pernicious system designed to degrade and dehumanize American citizens merely because of the color of their skin? Do you really think that Israel wishing to prevent Hamas from carrying out its dastardly work is the same as that mob in Montgomery doing its best to prevent the Freedom Riders from using whichever toilet in the Montgomery bus station they were standing closest to?

The comparison is beyond obnoxious, Gabriel. It is revolting to me personally to imagine someone like yourself, someone educated in an American university, daring to compare yourself to one of the 1961 Freedom Riders as you prepare to grant your personal support to Hamas. And, yes, I am rejecting the lame argument that the flotilla is apolitical and that it is supporting the Palestinian people and not their government. In the end, saying that you are not supporting Hamas and then joining the flotilla anyway is meaningless rhetoric belied entirely by your actions. If Hamas is valorized, legitimized, and strengthened by your actions, how is it you imagine that you are not supporting them?

I’m sure you’re all excited about the prospect of being part of the effort to demonize Israel or, at the very least, to cast the State of Israel in the worst light possible by daring its navy to oppose your effort to support its unrepentant enemies. Will you eventually regret your actions? I'd like to think you will...but whether you do or don't come to realize that you are acting basely will not matter much once you will have done your part to support the terrorist effort to delegitimize Israel. Regret alone will not undo that. In the end, you will be free to regret or not to regret your actions. But, please, leave the Freedom Riders out of it, lest you compound your sin by debasing the memory of truly noble people who, unlike yourself and your flotilla friends, selflessly risked everything to improve the world in which they lived.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thinking about Anthony Weiner

“Lift up your heads, O -gates,” wrote (except for the hyphen) the ancient psalmist, a poet possessed of the gift of deep and thoughtful insight into the future. And so we Americans, used since Pilgrim times to venerating the Book of Psalms, have responded and in spades…with more -gates lifted up and set down on the front pages of more newspapers than any of us could ever count or hope to keep track of. First and foremost, of course, there was Watergate. But then there was Nannygate, then Billygate, then Monicagate, then (looking overseas) Camillagate, then Squidgygate, then so many more here and abroad that no one could possibly keep them all straight. (If you’d like to test yourself, there’s actually a Wikipedia page called “List of scandals with “-gate” suffix,” which you can consult for your own slightly prurient edification. Bring a pad of paper to keep score. Most, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of.) And now, also of course, we are in the disagreeable throes of Weinergate, the scandal concerning Congressman Anthony D. Weiner, the representative of New York’s Ninth District in the House of Representatives.

The details, I’m sure you all know. Although apparently without actually breaking any actual laws, Representative Weiner has now admitted to having behaved in a vulgar, inappropriate way with a number of women he only knew as followers of his Twitter account and not in real life. He is therefore neither a criminal nor a real adulterer (except perhaps in the Carterian sense), just someone whose monumental lapse of good judgment may well have cost him his career. At first he lied about it. Then he came clean, more or less. I suppose that on some level he hoped that would suffice. It has in the past, after all: when the previous governor of New York State announced that both he and his wife had occasionally been unfaithful to each other, the public shrugged. Some, myself not among them, even commended him on his candor. But the bottom line is that there were, as I recall, no calls for his resignation or at least none that was loud enough for me personally to hear. (Mind you, Governor Paterson had the incredible good fortune to be making this announcement on the heels of his predecessor’s exceptionally indecorous exit from office. So perhaps it was merely by comparison that his confession failed to startle.) At any rate, Representative Weiner eventually owned up to having had a full half-dozen of these strange, physically contactless relationships with women he didn’t actually know and hadn’t ever met, some apparently involving the sharing of brief tweets and others, of tweeted briefs. (Am I the first person to think of that? It hardly seems possible, but I haven’t actually seen it elsewhere. At any rate, the psalmist—who moved on in his real poem from gates to doors—most definitely did not finish his poem off with the words, “and lift up too your everlasting drawers.” Maybe he should have. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t do stand-up for a living. Or do I?)

Is any of this funny? The New York Post apparently thinks so. So does the Daily News. Jay Leno and the other late-night talk show guys can’t get enough of it. But hiding behind the guffaws and the standard school-for-scandal stuff—the earnest denial (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”), the eventual owning-up, the stalwart wife standing by her man (or at the very least not denouncing him in public), the jokiness with which the press covers more or less anything that occurs below the waist that does not involve actual criminal activity, the calls for resignation followed by counter-calls accusing the first group of overreaction fueled either by some sort of innate bigotry or by politics or by some prior hostility to the individual at the center of the scandal—are issues that do bear talking about.

And that is the aspect of this particular story I would like to write about today. My colleague and friend of a quarter century, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, who serves as the rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, published an essay in the Jewish Week last week in which he focused on the role the so-called social media—Facebook and Twitter and the like—in the Weiner scandal. He pointed out, entirely justifiably, that the single greatest societal innovation of the first decade of the twenty-first century has been the arrival of the social media, these vast, almost limitless, countries outside of space and time that permit people to relate to each other also outside of time and space as friends or, apparently, as more than friends without every actually existing in the same place or, needless to say, ever coming into physical contact with each other. Is that a good thing? I suppose it cuts down on the possibility of STD transmission, but it also has created a weird netherworld in which people exist as sylphlike specters of their real selves as they make their way along a landscape that, because it does not really exist, is tolerant of vulgarity and aberration in a way that the real world would not or, at the very least, should not be. I don’t have a Facebook page. I don’t have a Twitter account. I’m as electronified as the next guy—and I can actually neither recall nor imagine what it was once like to write books and essays without a computer and without the internet at one’s disposal—but I have resisted wading into those ghostly waters precisely because, at least to a man of my age, the whole thing sounds just a bit silly. What can I do? I like having friends who exist in real space, not as seductive conglomerations of binary code. Man, I sound old even to me!

But the real issue in the Anthony Weiner story has to do with its aftermath. The world appears to have bought into the congressman’s explanation that there is something wrong with him, something that will require the intervention of a mental health professional to cure (or at least effectively to deal with). A statement released just the other day by his office reported, and I quote, that “Congressman Weiner departed [New York] this morning to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” I suppose only good can come from troubled people seeking the professional counsel, but it strikes me as a peculiar comment on our society that lewd behavior can only be explained, it seems, with reference to the individual engaging in it being mentally ill in some diagnosable, thus treatable, way. I’m sure there are people in that category—I know there are, actually—but I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our society for our default position on matters such as this to be that the individual at the center of scandal must, almost by definition, be mentally ill. Whatever happened to the notion of vulgar behavior being something that beckons to us all, that vulgarity is merely the best known latter-day equivalent of the “sin crouching at the door” that God explained to Cain was part of the human condition yet nevertheless something human beings—average ones like Cain, not tzadikim—can overcome by embracing goodness and resolving to avoid crudity and lewdness. In other words, our basic attitude towards the kind of vulgar behavior in which the congressman now admits to having engaged should not be automatically to suppose that he is an ill man who needs to be cured of his apparent propensity to self-destruct, but rather to take him as a man among the rest of humanity, all of whom (by which I mean: all of us) are constantly being drawn to inappropriate behavior. The yetzer horo¬—the inclination to behave poorly—is not a curse from heaven visited on the unlucky few, after all, but a basic element in the constitution of all human psyches.

To be drawn to vulgarity or to impropriety (or to loutishness or to boorishness or to any one of a thousand varieties of tastelessness) is therefore not a sickness at all but a basic part of what it means to be alive. All of us have all sorts of thoughts all the time. Most, we’d die a thousand deaths if anyone could hear. But that’s just my point—no one does hear them because we (mostly) don’t speak them aloud and we certainly (also, alas, most of the time) don’t act on them. The job of being a reputable human being consists not of somehow avoiding the experience of ever being drawn to unseemly behavior, but of facing down the inclination to behave poorly through some amalgam of faith, commitment, loyalty to one’s own standards, and internal resolve to be as fine a person as one possibly can be despite being constantly drawn in precisely the opposite direction.

I don’t know Representative Weiner personally and I have no idea what kind of person he is. That being the case, I have no interest in passing judgment on him or in expressing a thought formally on whether he should or should not remain in Congress. That should be decided by himself and by his constituents in Queens. But I do believe that society in general makes a huge error when it imagines that poor behavior is invariably the result of some sort of mental or emotional illness. Succumbing to the lure of the yetzer horo is the most basic of all human tendencies, not a symptom of disease. But it is, so the Torah (and also so common sense) one that can be combated successfully. When we choose our leaders, we should be looking specifically not for people who somehow, magically, have no yetzer horo, but for people who repeatedly demonstrate their ability to fight back the tendency to embrace vulgar or indecorous behavior and to embrace the qualities that will enable them to lead us forward in a manner consonant with the values they claim formally to espouse and which we ourselves too are proud to espouse.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Like most of you, I’m always inclined—possibly just a bit excessively, although I like to think not totally pathetically—to suppose the best in others, to imagine that other people, even when I disagree with them vehemently, are acting on principle and not out of sheer malice. And, indeed, one of the cornerstones of American democracy is exactly that basic assumption: that public debate about even the most important issues can be carried on in the context of discourse than is passionate and heartfelt without ever crossing the line from fiery to inflammatory. And so, with that in mind, I allowed myself to imagine that the benighted souls in San Francisco and Santa Monica who are spearheading the ballot-box campaigns in those cities to make infant circumcision illegal were being guided by principles that we clearly do not share and that their entirely reasonable interest in safeguarding the welfare of children was simply in this instance being applied insanely and unscientifically. And surely in this regard it also bears saying out loud that it is, at least generally speaking, the opposite of being in our best interests for us to see anti-Semites hiding behind every bush when policies that run contrary to the best interests of the Jewish community are proposed by people who simply feel otherwise about some specific issue than we ourselves do. But taking that as a guiding principle does not mean that there aren’t actually any anti-Semites out there, only that it does not behoove us as citizens of a democracy automatically to impute base motives to people with whom we do not see eye-to-eye on some specific issue without any actual evidence to support that assumption.

And then I started reading some of the literature these people are putting out, notably a comic book-style publication called Foreskin Man that features an Aryan-looking superhero who spends his days rescuing innocent babies from a series of mohalim and rabbis who look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Julius Streicher’s venomously anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer. I cannot print the images here—they’re under copyright and I would not reproduce them even if they weren’t—but you can find them on-line easily enough for yourselves at, where you can view all the pages of both issues that have so far come out. For people (unlike most of ourselves) who do not live with the Shoah on a daily basis, some of these crude, insulting images might almost be considered funny. But they would only elicit such a response from people unaware of the degree to which Der Stürmer laid the groundwork for the German people’s passive response even to the Nazis’ most overtly aggressive, violent, and virulent anti-Semitic policies.

Am I over-reacting to what is essentially a comic book? Maybe I am! But I also know the power of the printed word and the way that even the most innocent-looking documents, and especially those that appear “merely” to be aimed at children, can become cornerstones of a prejudicial worldview in which the “other”—in this case the Jew, but just as easily any other member of a disliked or misunderstood minority possessed of “weird” ways or too dark skin or peculiar facial features—eventually becomes identified with the forces of malignity in the minds of a populace that comes to believe “facts” about the minority group in question that appear to be part of the fund of shared public information, things that everybody somehow just “knows” to be true.

The effort to impede Jewish parents from circumcision their sons goes back a long way. Everybody knows of King Antiochus’ effort in that regard, as described in the First Book of Maccabees (a Jewish work written in the second century BCE), where we read that the king ordered his Jewish subjects “to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols and to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals and to leave their sons uncircumcised, thus making themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane so that they would forget the Torah and its ordinances (1 Maccabees 1:47-48). We all know how the Jewish people responded to that situation, but less well known is that the Bar Kokhba revolt, which followed the Maccabean uprising by most of four centuries, came on the heels of the emperor Hadrian’s two-pronged attack on Judaism whereby he both banned the circumcision of boys and also attempted to build a temple dedicated to Jupiter on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The revolt, under-recalled by Jews today but once a central pillar of the Jewish worldview, was bloody and awful: the Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote that, in his estimation, more than half a million Jews were killed by Roman forces in the course of the revolt and fifty Jewish towns and almost a thousand Jewish villages were razed to the ground. Yet even in defeat the Jews were victorious in one specific way: Hadrian’s successor, a man named Antoninus Pius (who was emperor of Rome from 138-161 CE) specifically exempted from the general ban on circumcision Jews who circumcised their sons (although not their slaves or their male servants).

The initiatives in California have gotten most of the space in the discussion to date, but a bill called the Male Genital Mutilation bill was submitted to Congress and to fourteen state legislatures last January. No member of Congress has endorsed the bill, but the very fact of its existence has opened the door to those who are inclined to consider religious rituals by their very nature suspect and who find it natural to condemn any effort to grant religion a stronger foothold in American culture than it already has. It goes without saying that at least some of the people who support the MGM bill are not motivated by religious prejudice. But regardless of any specific person’s motivation, any effort to curtain the rights of Jewish parents to circumcise their sons has to be viewed by us as an outright attack on the right of American Jewry to self-preserve and to raise up a generation of committed, engaged Jewish young people who will eventually take the place of their elders. And for that reason alone we need to respond vigorously and without undue fear of over-reaction. In my opinion, this issue has nothing meaningful to do with the welfare of children and everything to do with the future of the Jewish people.

Part of the problem is that many opponents of these anti-circumcision initiatives base themselves on medical evidence. And, indeed, in every specific case I have investigated, it is better—although sometimes only slightly so—to be circumcised than not to be. Circumcised men, for example, have ten times fewer urinary tract infections than uncircumcised men. Uncircumcised men, by contrast, have somewhere between 1.5 and two times the risk of contracting prostate cancer than circumcised men. Being circumcised also appears to impede a man’s ability to contract the HI virus that causes AIDS. And it is also worth noting that sleeping exclusively with circumcised men reduces a woman’s chances of contacting chlamydia or cervical cancer by up to five hundred percent. So, on the whole, it is healthier to be circumcised and it is healthier for women to have as their sexual partners circumcised men. Nor is there any evidence at all that circumcision impedes sexual performance or the ability to experience sexual pleasure. Still, the whole set of health arguments has the feel to me of a set of red herrings because, even granted that all the statistics given above are correct, should it still not be a basic civil right of citizens not to undergo optional surgery—and surgery that is not addressing any actual condition with which the patient is grappling and is solely intended to ward off possible medical problems that only may occur in the future should certainly be considered formally optional—without first having their formal consent solicited? Surely, they should! And that is why I find the whole set of medical arguments unconvincing—because, in the end, they only buttress the opinion that circumcision should require informed consent of the kind no child, let alone an infant, could possibly give.

Perhaps the most profound part of the problem has to do with a basic difference of opinion regarding the place of children in society. In the world out there, children are generally seen as mini-adults, as scaled-down versions even in infancy of the grown-up men and women they will eventually become. They are thus basically to be viewed as autonomous beings capable of charting their own course in life except in those specific ways that children cannot be deemed capable of making rational decisions in their own best interests. But this view of children as tiny, if slightly restricted, grown-ups, for all it is pervasive, is at serious odds with the Jewish way of considering things. For us, our children are the natural extensions of ourselves into the years beyond our own lifetimes, the ambassadors we create specifically to send into the future and to create there a perfected version of the Jewish world we ourselves inherited from our own parents and have worked through the years of our lives to perfect as best we could. According to our way of seeing things, our children are not autonomous beings who should be free to go off in whatever direction strikes them as desirable or rational, but links in a so-far-unbroken chain of generational endeavor to bring the world from the past into the future, from hoariest antiquity to the redemptive moment that our faith teaches us to spend the years of our lives seeking to bring about.

As much as our children are themselves, they are also ourselves…and the profound distinction between parents and children that characterizes so much of American discourse with respect to childrearing techniques and the rights of children to chart their own course forward in life is as a result just a bit foreign to us. To usher every one of our boys into the covenant that binds God and Israel is not only our right, but our sacred duty. It cannot be subjugated to the whims of passing fashion or to bizarrely exaggerated arguments about the rights of children to be free of their parents’ beliefs or commitments. In my opinion the real debate here has to do with the right of the Jewish people to be left in peace to practice our faith according to the dictates of our collective conscience and to raise up children so that “Judah shall forever endure and Jerusalem, from generation to generation.” Is that what this is all about? Speaking both as a rabbi and as a father, I think that it is!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Eruption Room

I write today to tell you about the Eruption Room, but I should start off by saying that our being there in the first place was a kind of a fluke born of the fact that Joan and I had matinee tickets for Wednesday afternoon at Lincoln Center and plans to have dinner in the city later on once our younger son got out of work. That left us with about two and a half hours to kill in midtown and somehow Joan (who is even worse than I am at wasting time unproductively) conceived of the idea of heading to Times Square to see the Pompeii exhibit at the Discovery Times Square Exposition space. I had only barely been aware the whole thing existed—the exhibition space itself only opened up in 2009 in the basement of the old New York Times building—and I suppose I imagined that non-museum exhibitions spaces in Times Square would be the kind of cheesy wax museums that cater solely to tourists wandering around the neighborhood between Broadway shows and the meals that precede or follow them with nothing to do and money to burn. And there is a bit of that here too—the space also houses at present an exhibit of Harry Potter memorabilia—but there we were nonetheless ! And in we went to see what was new, or rather what was once new, in old Pompeii.

The basic story, everybody knows. On the morning of August 24 in the year 79 CE, not even a decade after the sack of Jerusalem, Mount Vesuvius erupted totally unexpectedly, spewing enough mud, ash, and poison gas into the sky to create a twelve-mile-wide black cloud over the several adjacent towns that lined the Bay of Naples in those days of which Pompeii was by far the most famous and probably the oldest, having been inhabited at that point already for over seven hundred years. (Herculaneum is the other town people have heard of, but there were other villages, smaller ones, as well.) Amazingly, the site was eventually forgotten and remained unknown and unrecalled until it was chanced across by some local farmers in 1749. Excavations began almost immediately and an entire ancient city eventually emerged from the calcified dust, revealing antiquity at a level of detail that had been known only from literary works prior to that point and never actually seen by any living person at all since ancient times. Here, at last, was Roman life not as it was recorded in books by later authors but as it was actually lived by the people on the ground. There were wine bars and shoe stores, fruit stands and bath houses, bordellos (forty-one of them, to be exact) and public and private gardens, temples to the gods of Rome and huge, luxurious villas for the super-wealthy. It was, in short, a real place inhabited by real people. And they met their end almost instantly, some escaping but most remaining anchored to their homes and their wealth by some combination of inability to believe that life as they knew it could end on a dime (or, rather, on a denarius), unwillingness to abandon their homes and their wealth, and unfounded security that destruction on the scale that was almost upon them simply could not actually happen in real life. If you want to learn more, the best place to start would be with Robert Harris’s very exciting novel, Pompeii, published by Random House in 2005, which tells the story of the last days of Pompeii in a way I found terrifically engaging.

And that brings me to the Eruption Room. Like I said, Discovery Times Square is part museum, part gallery, and part amusement park. The artifacts on exhibit are mostly real, but some are reproductions. (To their credit, the items on display are clearly marked in that regard so there is no difficulty knowing which is which.) As you enter, you feel yourself drawn into a world like and unlike our own. There are pieces of gold jewelry and gorgeous wall frescoes to admire, and all sorts of kitchen artifacts and mosaic floors to compare to their counterparts in our world. And then—this is the theme park part—you are eventually escorted into the Eruption Room where a kind of multi-media movie is shown that depicts the eruption of Vesuvius and the ensuing destruction of Pompeii on an hour-by-hour basis. The floor shakes. The surround-sound speakers rumble. The computer-generated images on the screen move you forward hour by hour through the day Pompeii was destroyed, not too subtly challenging you to wonder if you yourself would have seized the gravity of the situation before it was too late to flee or only long after any viable avenue of escape remained open. And then the movie ends and the screen rises to ceiling height, revealing a door where you hadn’t noticed one previously. The room stops shaking. The door, actually a double-door, opens. You have been told that you may not revisit the parts of the exhibit already seen once you pass through the Eruption Room. Beckoned forward by some combination of circumstance, logic, and curiosity—and having in any event no other obvious option to choose—you walk through the door into the next part of the experience.

This is the part that I want to write about specifically. You are now in the truly creepy part of the exhibition, the one featuring the plaster casts. It turns out that the people and animals who died at Pompeii, or at least some of them, died so quickly that they were simply encased in white-hot volcanic ash. As the centuries passed, their bodies disintegrated, leaving empty spaces within the ash that corresponded exactly to their dimensions. It was first in the 1860s that an Italian archeologist, a man named Giuseppe Fiorelli, had the idea of injecting plaster into these spaces, then breaking down the surrounding ash to reveal a perfect likeness of the person or beast that a millennium and a half earlier had died in that specific place. The results were somewhere between breathtaking and indescribably eerie. Men and women, even dogs, emerged from the ash so perfectly preserved that even their facial features were visible. You can see the design on a dog’s collar, the earrings a woman was wearing, the chains around a slave’s wrists that prevented him from fleeing. Some are mere outlines, of course. But you get the idea: a girl grabbing for her mother, a man with his knees drawn up into his chest awaiting his imminent end, a man trying to shlep himself up a flight of stairs. The forms are depicting writing, groping, reaching out towards something that turned to dust millennia ago. In case that might not be enough, there is also a tableau from Herculaneum on display featuring thirty-two skeletal remains huddled together in some sort of vain hope for safety in numbers. Of the thirty-two individuals whose bones are there on display, a grim sign informs the viewer than nine belonged to children under the age of twelve. You get the idea. The skeletons are beyond horrific, but it is the plaster casts that are the more evocative. Here are people who ended up, as will we all eventually, gone and not gone, absent yet present, real yet unreal. They aren’t there, of course, but are represented by the space they briefly occupied. Is it a metaphor? I think that it is!

And that is why I wanted to write to you today about the Eruption Room and the magic doors that lead you from the contemplation of almost unimaginable destruction to an other-worldly walk amidst the absent/present dead. That did it for me. I had enough. It was my birthday last Wednesday, so I was already feeling more than mortal enough. We passed up the overpriced knick-knacks in the gift shop and headed up to street level. I wasn’t at all hungry, but for some reason I couldn’t wait to get to dinner.

What the whole experience left me with was a question that has been with me every since. If this happened to me…if suddenly, out of the blue, unexpectedly and without the slightest warning, the world as we know it were to come to an almost instant end, what exactly would we—or let me say it more bluntly, what exactly would I—leave behind for people two millennia in the future, say in the year 4011, to contemplate? What would archeologists unearthing the remains of my life, of my home, of my office, of our synagogue, what would they make of us? How would they reconstruct our values based on what occupies the places of the most prominence in our private and public spaces? What would some tourist from the forty-first century make of a plaster reconstruction of the space I personally occupy in the twenty-first? Would they get an accurate picture merely from inspecting the home I live in or the office I work in or the study I write in or the car I drive around in? Does my space, does the specific way I have constructed, designed, and decorated that space, reflect the man I truly am or is it far more suggestive of the man I wish I was or, even more gallingly, the man I feel I ought to be. What would an exhibit of this place we live in together look like to tourists wandering around Times Square in an almost unimaginably distant future not really any further from us than we are from the residents of Pompeii? Other than noting the presence of a lot of books and a lot of neckties, what would an archeologist make of the space I would leave behind in the volcanic dust once the real me was gone from the world and only that space once occupied remained?

These are sobering thoughts bordering on the dour. Yet they are also provocative ones. I came away from my visit to Times Square feeling challenging to wonder what it is I am leaving behind, what it is I am actually doing with my life, what I am making of it, what the substance of my things would say to a disinterested party thousands of years in the future who, lacking my running narrative and self-serving explanations and justifications, would only have the goods to inspect before coming to a conclusion about me and my place in the world. These are slightly upsetting questions to pose and, worse so, to try to answer. But the kind of ruthless introspection to which their contemplation leads is salutary, I think, and useful. If you have a chance to visit the Eruption Room, you won’t be sorry! But the thoughts it will engender once the movie ends and unseen hands open a door that leads directly into the kingdom of the dead—that is the thing of real value you get for the price of admission.