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.

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