Friday, August 26, 2011

Walking in Space

Clearly, there are different ways to measure the passing of time. We count our birthdays. We keep track of family yahrtzeits. We celebrate the anniversaries of our marriages. It seems to me that a surprising number of people can say exactly how many years ago they finished high school or college without having to pause even briefly to figure it out. Mostly, these experiences involve looking out at the world and noting the degree to which things have changed since we were born, since we got married, since it was only twenty (and not thirty or forty) years ago that we finished college, etc.. And yet we ourselves, the people actually looking out at the changing world, generally feel that deep inside we are still who we always were, that—for all the many ways in which the world all around really has changed dramatically since some specific year in the past—our inner selves have somehow remained intact and essentially unchanged by the passage of time. On the other hand, I have now had the strangest experience of revisiting—and on three separate occasions, the most recent of them this last Wednesday night—scenes from long ago in which the movement forward was precisely in my own mind and not at all evident in what I was looking out at. Indeed, what I was looking at was not only unchanged but remarkably so! So if what I was looking at was unchanged and I myself am, as are we all, unchanged…so why was the experience unsettling? You’d think just the opposite would be the case! I’m being a bit obscure, I know—even I myself wouldn’t know what any of that meant if it hadn’t happened to me personally—so let me try to explain. Like so many New York stories, it begins on Broadway.

A few years ago, I wrote to you about my experience seeing the revival of Equus on Broadway starring Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe. It was an unexpectedly interesting evening at the theater, one I only had because Joan wanted to see the show but which I ended up enjoying immensely. I had seen the play before. In fact, I saw it on Broadway when it opened in 1974 starring Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth, and I liked it very much then too. But what I had failed to anticipate, and which really threw me for a loop, was the way I found myself relating to the play and specifically to its protagonists this time ‘round: when the show opened in 1974, I was just a little older than the Peter Firth-Daniel Radcliffe character, a young man in his early twenties trying to find his place in the world. Then, thirty-four years later, I was suddenly (suddenly!) the age of the Anthony Hopkins-Richard Griffiths character, the psychiatrist helping the young man grow past his issues into maturity. So if the whole point of theater is to allow the playwright to create a context in which audience members can deepen their personal self-awareness through the experience of peering into the playwright’s mirror and seeing themselves reflected in the personalities portrayed on the stage, you can understand just how disorienting this felt: my life’s trajectory in the thirty-four years between the original production and the revival took me from being a college student then to the rabbi I am now, from Firth to Hopkins, from Radcliffe to Griffiths, from seeing myself reflected (and not all that flatteringly) in the adolescent on stage attempting to wrestle with his demons to seeing myself reflected (also not especially flatteringly) in the portrait of the deeply unhappy doctor wrestling with his own related, but not identical, set of analogous inner demons. The play was about them, but somehow it ended up also being about me. I was partially enthralled, partially horrified, partially fascinated. Actually, I was entirely fascinated by the notion of thinking of my life as a journey from being the boy to being the shrink in the same play…and also by my realization that sometimes the viewer can be as much a part of good theater as the viewed. It was, as I wrote to you then, an unsettling experience.

And now it’s happened to me again. Twice. In the same week. (It’s been a very good week for theater going at the Cohens’.)

We started off seeing the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Daniel Radcliffe—again!—and John Larroquette. I wasn’t quite old enough to see the original show on Broadway, which opened in 1961 and ran until 1965. But I do remember seeing the movie when I was in high school—it came out in the course of my sophomore year at Forest Hills High—and feeling at least semi-identified with the Robert Morse character, the up-and-coming young man who starts as a window washer and climbs his way up to becoming the chairman of the board of a huge company (albeit one in which no one seems ever to have any actual work to do, somewhat in the manner of the television show, The Office). He was young, eager, and entirely self-confident. I was at least young and eager. The old guy—played by Rudy Valle in the movie, recreating his Broadway role—was ancient and a bit of a doofus. I didn’t think of myself as either of those things! And although I still don’t actually—think of myself as either of those things, I mean—How to Succeed is basically the jokey, sing-along version of the same story as Equus, only without the creepiness and everybody stays dressed: an older man takes under his wing a younger man and brings him from nowhere to somewhere, from immaturity to adulthood, from clueless to savvy. And again I found myself in that same time-space-theater thing. When I first saw the show I was that young guy wondering how to find a way forward in life, not exactly a window cleaner but the academic version of the Robert Morse/Daniel Radcliffe character: somehow who wants a place in the world and has no specific idea how to go about getting it. And now, forty-odd years later, I’m the Rudy Valle/John Larroquette guy wondering how I can possibly have colleagues in the rabbinate who were born after I myself was ordained.

And then, Wednesday night, I went to see Hair. It’s not exactly a revival of the 2009 Broadway revival, just a visit by the national touring company spawned by that revival breezing through New York for a few weeks. It was clearly not a “real” Broadway cast on the stage. But it was a very odd experience for me to be there nonetheless, analogous although not precisely the same as the other two I’ve been writing about.

I’ve seen Hair three times in my lifetime and I have yet to pay for a ticket. The first time was in 1967 when I made the indescribably ghastly error of agreeing to go to see the show with my parents. Not a good plan! The only real question in retrospect—whether they were more uncomfortable sitting there with the fourteen-year-old me or whether I was more miserable sitting next to them—can no longer be answered other than by conjecture. Probably it was a tie. What can I have been thinking? What can they have been thinking? It was, to say the very least, as weird an experience as any teenager in 1967 could have had, something along the lines of running into your dad at the Fillmore.

The next time I saw Hair was at Herricks High School. It was, by all measures, a spectacularly inappropriate choice for a high school production. Yet it was done with humor and very skillfully, and I found myself enjoying it immensely. To say I had a better time sitting next to Joan in 2006 than I did next to my father in 1967 is really to say the very least. The show itself, though, stuck me this time ‘round as very strange indeed. Purporting to be all about love and the eradication of traditional prejudice, the show features only black people as its generic minority group. Weirdly, given the make-up of the actual hippy movement in the 60’s, the show features no Jewish characters at all, nor is there any reference, even in passing, to anything Jewish: not a Yiddish word, not a joke about overbearing Jewish parents, not anything at all. The show’s sole reference to gay people consists of the one obviously gay character insisting to the tribe that he isn’t a gay person at all, just someone with some sort of heterosexually-explicable crush on Mick Jagger. (So much for “the mind’s true liberation, Aquarius!”) Nor is it clear why, for a musical set in lower Manhattan, there are no Hispanics in evidence. Even the women in the show, for all they purport to be models of radical liberality, are there basically to be in the thrall of the men they’re, to use the show’s own word, “stuck on.” (Honestly, when the young women who has fallen in love with Frank Mills, a man she met once for a few minutes in front of the Waverly, sings her heart out about her feelings for him, it’s played entirely straight, as though it were entirely normal for a woman to self-define in terms of a crush on someone she met once briefly and will never see again.) Still, for all its weirdness, I liked the show. The kids at Herricks, costumed out of the trunks in their own parents’ attics (it seemed), did a great job.

And then I saw the show again Wednesday night, this time sitting not next to my dad but next to my son Emil, the younger of my two sons. As did my dad before him, he bought the tickets. (So of the three times I saw the show, the only time I actually had to pay was for the Herricks High School production!) And there I was…on that weird trajectory again—somehow having moved effortlessly from being fourteen squirming (a lot) in my seat at the Biltmore (now the Samuel J. Friedman Theater) next to my father to being fifty-eight and squirming (less) in my seat at the St. James next to my son. The show is much the same. It wasn’t the same theater, but that hardly mattered. The music, the costuming, the plot (thin as a reed but vaguely present to tie the musical numbers together), the whole 60’s thing—it was all as it’s always been. Only I changed…and yet, as I wrote above with regard to Equus and How to Succeed, I haven’t really changed at all. The inner self, the sense of personhood, of individual-as-psyche rather than individual-as-body—in that sense it’s still me, still as I was, still interiorly who I was then and who, I suppose, I always will be. It was, to say the least, a strange experience.

In the second act of Hair, there’s a song featuring a line about finding the beauty of life by walking in space with eyes wide open. In context, the line is about how great it is to take drugs. (This was, as noted, an exceptionally poor choice for Herricks!) But for me the other night, I actually felt that I was walking in space as yet again the older me met the younger me in the context of a Broadway show that I had thought was far in the past, but which turned out to be ongoing and unchanging, only with new people playing the ongoing and unchanging roles. Just like in my life!

When Oscar Wilde wrote in 1883 that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” he was writing about something else entirely. But his insight hits the mark here too, a truth I’ve been discovering lately as I notice art—in this case, the theater—becoming the context again and again in which the strictures of temporal existence fall away and the various versions of myself can somehow spend an evening together liberated from the burden of impossibility.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Suddenly Jewish

I’ve always liked living in places like New York where the seasons of the year are so distinct and different from each other. But even more than the seasons themselves, I like the transitions from season to season. I like that first moment at the end of winter when it suddenly seems warm enough not to wear a coat. And I like that first day towards the end of May when it’s suddenly short-sleeve shirt weather even though the day before it felt entirely right to be in long sleeves. But most of all I like the bridge between the summer and the fall.

Are we there yet? Not quite so here, but just last week when Joan and I were up in Ontario I caught a glimpse, even now in mid-August, of the fall to come. The morning we left Lakefield, for example, there was a noticeable briskness in the morning air that hadn’t been there even a day earlier. I noticed an orange leaf here and there on an otherwise green tree. The water in the lake seemed a few degrees colder than even a few days earlier. I suppose I like those transitional weeks between summer and fall because they seem so perfectly to model how things are in the world, how the thick, green foliage of summer eventually fades to orange leaves, then to brown leaves, then to bare branches with no leaves at all on them not because someone comes along and takes the leaves away, but because they have within themselves the seeds of their own eventual destinies. And the first moment I catch a whiff of that process at work—that first time I notice an orange leaf where the day before there had been only green ones, the first time it strikes me while walking to minyan in the morning that I should have worn a sweater, the first time I notice Joan beginning to stockpile unusual quantities of honey for holiday baking—those first moments that I’m reminded just how flimsy the barrier between trees in full bloom and trees denuded totally of their foliage truly is, I am also reminded just how fragile it all is, how insubstantial the barrier between robust and frail, between success and failure, between having a great future and having no future at all. And that is also when it strikes me what a miracle it truly is that we have survived this long—as a people, as a community, and as Jewish individuals—and that we continue to survive despite the (apparently) endless cycles of ups and down, of successes and setbacks, of nightmarish degradation and unimaginable accomplishment that characterizes the history of our peculiar people.

I suppose all that made this exactly the right moment for me to read in the paper the other day the story about Ralph Branca. Do you all remember who he was? Now in his eighties, Branca pitched in the course of a long career in the Major Leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Detroit Tigers, and the Yankees. But he is best remembered for having been the pitcher who threw the pitch that Bobby Thomson of the Giants hit for the pennant-winning home run on October 3, 1951. If you can’t quite remember the incident, click here. (How cool is it that such moments are now available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection?) That home run is regularly called “the shot heard ‘round the world” by baseball mavens, but there’s a back story too that features the Giants, then based in upper Manhattan at the Polo Grounds before moving to San Francisco in 1957, coming up from about thirteen games behind to catch up to the Dodgers at season’s end. Playoffs ensued and it was with that home run, the one heard ‘round the world, that the Giants won the National League pennant and went on to the World Series, which they then proceeded to lose to the Yankees (who were that year featuring rookies Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle).

So Bobby Thomson was the hero. Ralph Branca was the goat. The expression “shot heard ‘round the world” comes from an 1837 poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson about the opening battle of the American Revolution, but the phrase is probably more widely known and by more people because of its association with the 1951 National Leagues playoffs than the Battle of Concord. Don DeLillo’s novel, Underworld, is more or less about the whole incident and the unimaginable string of events that the author imagines following from it. In The Godfather, Sonny Corleone is gunned down at a tollbooth on the Meadowbrook precisely as Branca is pitching the ball to Bobby Thomson. For better or for worse, that homerun became a quintessential American moment. ESPN named the game it ended as one of only two baseball games on the list of the ten greatest sports games of the twentieth century. (If you’re interested, you can inspect the list here.

So now it turns out that Branca, ostensibly an Italian-American and a Roman Catholic, has his own back story as well and is actually a Jew. Or at least some sort of theoretical Jew. I was amazed. The story itself is amazing, although also sobering. It was the perfect story to read about on the same morning that I first noticed a chill in the air as a world still in full bloom gave advance notice—it felt as though to me personally—of its inherent fragility. The story itself is interesting. Joshua Prager, a reporter for the New York Times who has written about Branca and his career in the past, began to wonder if Branca’s mother, whose maiden name was Berger, could possibly have been Jewish. Branca himself thought not, but encouraged Prager to find out what he could. And what he found out amazed Branca and amazed me. Perhaps it will amaze you as well! Kati Berger, it turned out, was not only Jewish in the theoretical way her son would eventually be, but in the real and unambiguous way. She was the daughter of two Jewish parents, for one thing. And, for another, she had seven unambiguously Jewish siblings. Her youngest brother, in fact, was murdered by the Nazis at Majdanek and his wife and children at Sobibor. One of her sisters, Irma, was murdered at Auschwitz along with her husband and children. This was hardly some theoretically Jewish family!

Let me quote from Prager’s article in the Times regarding the moment he shared all of this with Branca: “When I phoned Branca and told him that his mother, Kati, was Jewish and that thus, according to traditional Jewish law, he and his sixteen siblings were, too, the loud man was quiet. But when I told him of the murder of his uncle, Branca looked for words. ‘Uh, oh, boy,’ he said. “My mother never mentioned this to me.’”

The rest of the story is, in a sense, less interesting. His mother apparently made a conscious decision to raise her children as Catholics after, or perhaps even before, she married John Branca, an Italian American trolley car conductor. Some of the details seem hard to believe, specifically the story Prager heard from one of Ralph Branca’s sisters-in-law, who reported hearing from one of his, Branca’s, mother’s sisters—a woman who came to this country before the war and lived openly as a Jewish woman—that Branca’s mother sought and received their parents’ permission not only to marry a Catholic man but to raise her children as Roman Catholics. I suppose anything is possible, but the point of me writing about this particular story isn’t to ferret out the truth about Ralph Branca’s mother and her motives for abandoning her Jewishness, but to reflect on just how fragile the whole thing really is.

A normal Jewish family in mid-twentieth century Hungary. Parents married by a rabbi. Eight Jewish children, several of whom died as martyrs during the Shoah. And just a generation later, it’s all gone. Ralph Branca himself has sixteen siblings, all the children of a Jewish mother and all gone, almost certainly permanently, from the Jewish people. I suppose some of Branca’s aunts and uncles who survived produced Jewish children and grandchildren. But I don’t write today specifically to lament one woman’s decision to raise her children in somebody else’s faith, but just to nod—as Elul beckons and the final weeks leading up to the holiday season commence and as the very first, earliest harbingers of summer’s end begin to make themselves manifest subtly and (for the moment) fleetingly—to nod to the fragility of it all, to the degree to which not centuries but millennia of Jewishness can vanish, never to be restored or even ever again to be restorable, with a single decision taken either thoughtfully or in haste. Gone is gone! Of course, we welcome new Jews into our midst too, people who make the decision as adults to embrace our faith and to live their lives as Jewish people. That’s obviously a good thing! Nor is the point to hire a sociologist to figure out if we’re gaining or losing as conversion in vies with the efforts of the world’s missionaries to lure Jews away from Judaism. That would be interesting to know, and possibly even not depressing to find out. But I find myself focused elsewhere as I consider Ralph Branca’s unexpected Jewishness.

We’ve been here before. There’s even a book about it: Barbara Kessel’s Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots, published in 2000 by the Brandeis University Press. (I haven’t read the book although I’d like to. I even know the author, or I did years ago when she was working at JTS and I was a student there. I’ll read it and then report back to you on what I find.) I’m sure her book is filled with Madeline Albrights and Ralph Brancas and all sorts of other types who suddenly discover their Jewishness as adults. But how many of these people actually are there? And how many respond to the discovery by embracing Judaism and formally taking their place in the House of Israel? My guess is not that many. Not none, I’m sure. But my guess is there are just a few.

And so those are my end-of-summer thoughts as Elul dawns and with it the vague intimation of the holiday season. It really is fragile. A bit like a garden that you can tend for decades only for the flowers still to die once you stop watering them, Jewish civilization can thrive forever in a family and then suddenly stop thriving. We need, I think, to respond to that thought not depressively or angrily, but thoughtfully and creatively. With all due respect to William Faulkner (whose writing I admire immensely), the past may not be dead-dead but it actually is past. Gardens don’t thrive because they were once watered. And Jewish communities don’t thrive because people once tended to them and lovingly built them with their own funds and their own sweat. Nor do Jewish families thrive because they once did, or because previous generations hoped they would. As we start watching out for that first orange leaf…the challenge is to accept as a given the inherent fragility of it all, then to respond by building in this place a community that will be able to serve our children and grandchildren as a sturdy enough foundation for them securely and proudly to stand on as they go out into the world and plant Jewish gardens that in turn will only thrive if they can get the next generation to take on the watering.