Friday, September 16, 2011

Elul 5771

Elul is our Janus, our god of looking forwards and backwards at the same time. Being monotheists, of course, we have no gods but God…but we still have Elul, this strange, holiday-less month that slithers through Jewish time at the end of the year as we prepare, yet again, to face the future by staring down the past, and then daring to advance the number of the calendar year by one and thus to wander forward bravely or timidly into whatever the new year brings.

It’s a strange month, suggestive in a dozen different ways of its (and our) native ambivalence about things in general. Is it the end of the year? Clearly, it is—by every reckoning Elul is the last month of the Jewish year—and yet it looks more to what lies ahead than to the past. Shul-Jews begin on the very first day of Elul to hear the shofar, the herald of the holiday season, being blown every morning in synagogue. The twenty-seventh psalm, the song singled out by our sages as the most supremely suggestive of the feel of the spiritual agenda of the yontif season soon upon us, begins to be read morning and evening. And, indeed, the faith-based bravery with which the poet recommends that his readers address the most daunting of life’s challenges—physical attack by vicious enemies, the death of our parents, the rage of people jealous of our successes in the world, denunciation at the hands of liars to whom the possible penalties for perjury mean nothing at all—is tempered by his wistful admission that only the fortunate few get only to see evidence of God’s justice and goodness in the land of the living, and by his dour understanding that one pays for the privilege to wait for God in this world with the years and decades of one’s life. It’s that kind of poem. It’s that kind of month.

So Elul becomes this strange mixture of things. Bounded on the one side by Tisha Be’av, the saddest (at least in the pre-Shoah world) of all Jewish days, the residue of Tisha Be’av in Elul is not melancholic at all but upbeat: all the haftarot that we read in synagogue during Elul during the weeks following Tisha Be’av are odes to faith, to hope, to confidence, and to the glorious destiny that awaits the Jewish people on the other side of the messianic moment. At the other edge of Elul, of course, is Rosh Hashanah, one of the happiest of holidays, an occasion for feasting, for family time, for apples and honey, But the run-up to the holiday is distinctly less merry that the festival itself: as we make our way through Elul we are all of us drawn to self-examine, to consider our flaws, our faults, our moral inadequacies, and our ethical shortcomings. So as we prepare to sit down to tables laden with the best foods and cakes, and with more wine than any of us should probably drink, we are also spending time on the dark side, visiting the chambers of our own hearts and either liking or, if we are being completely honest with ourselves, mostly disliking what we find there lurking. More ambivalence, more mixed messages, more crossed signals! That is what Elul is, I believe: a month-long festival of insecurity, uncertainty, and ambivalence out of which we come only slowly as the holiday approaches and we find it in us to place our faith in God, to resolve to grow into finer versions of ourselves, and, as ever, to hope for the best. Elul is my favorite month!

But this is not any Elul. Adding to our sense of ill ease in this specific year are a dozen outside factors, each of which all by itself would weigh heavily on all of our shoulders and all of which together feel beyond burdensome. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 last Sunday is in that category and has its own Janus-like quality: should we be more sad that so many innocents died on that horrific day or more happy that we have somehow managed to prevent any subsequent terrorist attacks of that magnitude on American soil for a full decade? The aftermath of the so-called Arab spring is in that category as well: as Americans we are obviously pleased by the fall of tyrants and the collapse of dictatorships. But as Jewish people whose hearts beat with Israel it is impossible not also to wonder what the future is going to bring. And if the recent events in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey are harbingers of worse to come, then the future seems somewhere between troubled and truly bleak…and that makes it concomitantly more difficult simply to declare ourselves pleased with fall of a Mubarak or a Kaddafi and be done with it. They were, by all accounts, bad men who deserved to lose their power. But how can my pleasure at seeing despots deposed not be tempered by the realization that I have no idea what may yet come…and that the specter of all or most of these liberated (if that’s the right word) countries coming under the sway of violent, radical Islamism must be part of the picture for all thinking people?

Weighing the most heavily on me personally is the debacle about to be upon us at the United Nations. As all my readers know, I could not possibly have a lower opinion of the U.N., an organization that lost any pretense of moral credibility decades ago and which exists, as far as I can see, simply to further its own malign agenda. I didn’t used to think that! When I was a child, we celebrated United Nations Day in school every fall on October 24. We collected money for UNICEF. We had school trips to the U.N., where we were told excitedly by tour guides wearing pins bearing the names of their exotic homelands that we had left American soil and were in the only building in the entire world that was actually owned by the entire world—or at least jointly by all the member states of the U.N.—and which existed solely to further the cause of peace between nations. I do remember asking my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. D’Antona, why exactly it was that the Soviet Union got three votes in the General Assembly while the United States and every other member state only got one, but I do not recall being as put off by the answer—which can only have been because they demanded it and the rest of the world lacked the courage to say no—as it seems in retrospect that I should have been. Mind you, I was ten years old in fifth grade, so what did I know? But as the United Nations now prepares unilaterally to reward the Palestinians for decades of counterproductive terrorism and self-defeating intransigency with a cloak of unearned respectability—a step that will somehow end up making it seem that it is Israel that is being unreasonable by not cheerfully agreeing to its own demise unilaterally by withdrawing from territory it won in a war that was foisted upon it by others absent a real, enduring peace on which generations to come can rely—I find myself not especially surprised by the hostility of the world towards Israel (which I am nowhere near naïve enough not to understand in its larger context as merely the latest gilgul of the same Jew-hatred that has stalked the world for millennia), but flummoxed nevertheless by it.

In this month-long celebration of ambivalence, I find myself—what else?—ambivalent. Surely, I tell myself, the U.N. only means well. Surely, they feel that by bringing the Palestinians into the family of nations, even in a way that lacks any actual importance in terms of actual geo-politics on the actual ground of the Middle East, they will be encouraging them to accept the dignity of national identity, to renounce terror, to agree finally to live in peace with the Jews of Israel in a corner of the world clearly big enough to accommodate them both. Surely, I continue in my happy reverie, when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon notes, as he did the other day, that he is “sympathetic” to the frustrations of the Palestinians,” he must imagine that he will make them less frustrated by encouraging them to refuse even more adamantly to negotiate in good faith with Israel. But why should they? (Why abandon a policy that has worked so well?) Has the Secretary-General noticed that Hamas continues openly to call for the destruction of Israel and continues to launch rockets against civilian targets? And that Hamas has explicitly distanced itself from the goings-on in Turtle Bay this week, the better later on to sound reasonable about continuing its terror war against the Jews of Israel? Perhaps the Secretary-General assumes that Hamas will just go away once the “good” Palestinians are rewarded for having been sufficiently impotent to prevent the bad ones from attempting to murder the children of Sderot in their beds in the first place. Sounds like a plan to me!

And so we attempt to gear up for the holidays. Elul is happy/sad and serious/joyous. What can I say? I’m a Jew—I like being off-balance! Even the weather is part of the larger picture, at least in the Northeast. Is this summer? Sort of, it is. (It was 87 degrees the other day.) But it’s also fall, also sort of. (There are leaves all over my backyard.) The ill ease I feel when I contemplate the murderous rage of the rioters in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey this last week is tempered by my faith in justice, in human decency, and in God’s watchful guardianship of Israel. The ill ease I feel in the pit of my stomach as I contemplate the glee with which the United Nations will act this week in its ongoing effort to delegitimize Israel in the forum of nations makes me queasy, yet I also feel filled with hope as I contemplate our current woes against the larger pageant of Jewish history. In every generation, people rise up who would be only pleased to finish us off for good, yet the blessed Holy One somehow manages for the Jewish people somehow always to endure, always to survive, always to bear witness to God’s presence in history. Pesach is a long ways off, but perhaps that is the line for us to hold in our hearts as the world prepares to help us prepare for Rosh Hashanah by reminding us just how fragile this sukkah is in which we live and hope to thrive in the course the year soon to be upon us.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Goodnight, Irene!

By the time all of you finally read this—or at least by the time all my local readers at Shelter Rock eventually do—I hope that power will have been restored to all of our homes. We ourselves lost our power at about 7 AM on Sunday and only got it back Wednesday evening. In the history of the universe, it was a blip of not even four full days. Speaking more realistically, the universe having been around for a really long time, it wasn’t even a blip. But irritating, slightly upsetting days they were nonetheless. Washing up at the gym. Downloading my e-mail in other people’s backyards or at Starbuck’s. Charging my phone in the car (but never quite completely, which led to even more irritation and upset). Shlepping the laundry to friends’ houses. Wandering around after dark with flashlights and never quite being able to find what I was looking for. Reading by candlelight and trying not to get wax all over the page. You get the picture!

Of course, there were also good things that Irene brought in her wake. I saw many instances of people being truly kind, generous, and hospitable to each other. We ourselves were invited for dinner each night that we were without electricity at home, as I know were many of you also, by people who hadn’t lost their power or whose power had already been restored. On our street, we actually spoke to neighbors from down the block with whom we hadn’t ever exchanged a word. (Okay, okay, so that was Joan engaging the neighbors, not me. But I could too have!) I noticed a noticeable upsurge in children actually playing outside in the street and in the park, children whom I’m guessing I hadn’t ever seen before in the neighborhood because they have generally been too glued to large and small screens of various sorts ever to venture forth into the daylight.

So, on the whole, it was a kind of a wash—good things and bad things, inconveniences and kindnesses, more stress than usual but also way more sleep than I usually get. And, of course, we were the lucky ones. Not as lucky as some, but still far more fortunate than many New Yorkers who are still flooded and uncertain whether their homes will ever return to normal in the simple way ours did the other evening when someone somewhere threw some unseen switch and the lights went on just as suddenly as they had gone off in the first place. And the damage outside of New York, both to the north and the south, was truly devastating to entire communities. On the whole, we should be grateful we came through this relatively unscathed!

But, as you know happens regularly, this whole incident got me thinking about things. Do you know the expression “the new normal”? I can’t quite figure out who coined the expression, which I do not believe I had heard until just a few years ago, but what it means is clear enough: society moves along quickly enough for things that would once have seemed instances of peculiar, faddish, outlandish, or at least highly idiosyncratic behavior quickly to become the norm. It happens all the time. Nor is this a feature particularly of our age. Cole Porter’s song, “Anything Goes,” from the 1934 musical of the same name, is specifically about how quickly things change, how patterns of behavior that once would have seemed scandalous or unimaginably vulgar can suddenly become respectable and reasonable in the minds of most neutral onlookers. And how the nature of society is such that not only do these things happen regularly and frequently, but how they also remain for the most part unnoticed and uncommented upon, how they do not merely become acceptable but how they become the actual norm, the “new normal,” the standard that people are considered to be acting outside of societal standards if they deviate from rather than if they hew to.

Watching myself flounder around all week racing back and forth from Starbucks to get my mail made me realize that what is true about the way people behave with each other is also true of the way they interact with the machines in their lives. There was a time, after all, not that many years back when I got mail once a day. It came, for readers too young to remember, printed out on pieces of paper or even handwritten and you found it in the mailbox when you came home at the end of the day from work or school or wherever. You could get mail at work in the Stone Age too, of course, but it also came once a day and was also available only in hard copy. You then answered it—reminding the person to whom you were writing what the issue at hand was that you were writing about, since there was no way simply to write a paragraph or two over the original letter unless you actually, physically, mailed the piece of paper itself back to the person who sent it to you in the first place—and then a few days later, or a few weeks if you were writing to someone overseas, it arrived in that person’s hands. And then that person could respond and that too would take a few weeks. Asking a question of a friend in Tel Aviv and getting an answer by return mail could easily take a month. It didn’t seem all that burdensome to wait, however. It was just what it was, the norm, the normal.

From there we moved on to e-mail. The letters could be transmitted almost instantly, but you still had to be sitting at your computer to get the mail. So I got my mail a few times a day—but only when I was at work or at home. People understood that. If an e-mail didn’t elicit a response, it usually meant only that the person to whom it was sent hadn’t found a computer to read his or her mail on, not that he or she was ignoring you. And then from there we moved on to Blackberries and other kinds of smart phones, so that your e-mail could follow you around. You could conceivably not have your phone with you…but, unless you were undergoing surgery (and then really only if you were fully, not just locally, anesthetized), why wouldn’t you have your phone with you? How quickly this all too became normal! Nor does it seem odd any longer to receive text messages instead of actual e-letters from people who for some reason can’t find your e-mail address but have your phone number, or who feel that texting is closer to actual communication and therefore to be desired not solely for its speed (which is no faster, I don’t think, than e-mail most of the time), but for its intimacy and its (perceived) immediacy. All of these things felt like huge advances at the moment they were first introduced, but then became features of daily life so quickly that it seems almost impossible to imagine how quickly they have become almost unnoticeable features of daily life. When I tell my kids that we had exactly one telephone at home and that it was on the wall in my parents’ kitchen, thus making it possible to speak privately on the phone only when no one else was home, they both believe me (because why shouldn’t they?) and don’t believe me (because how could someone only my age have lived, let alone survived, under such primitive conditions?) When I tell them the internet also didn’t exist, they respond roughly the way I myself would if some new friends were to tell me that they grew up in some shtetl somewhere where they didn’t yet have gravity and dropped things just floated off into the stratosphere.

And then, suddenly, it all goes away. No power means no computers, no cell phones, e-mail, or text messaging (at least once the phones die until you find some place to recharge them, if you do), no cold Coke in the fridge, no personal laundromat in the basement waiting for the next load of dirty clothing, no electronic security system guarding things while you’re out and about, no air conditioning, no television, no telephone, no internet. At first it really does feel as though gravity had somehow stopped existing. You tell yourself that people read by candlelight for centuries before Edison invented the light bulb, that candles themselves must have been an innovation somewhere along the way when the switch was made from smelly, dirty oil lamps to efficient, clean-burning, and scent-free wax candles. But for all you know that to be true, you still can’t quite believe that you can’t turn on the TV. Obviously, you can brush your teeth in the dark. But who ever imagined we’d have to?

So the first response, I think, for most of us was incredulity. This is how people used to live? Where did they wash their clothing, in the river? (The answer is, actually, yes. But that was before my day, so even I don’t really believe it.) From there we move on to irritation, then to frustration, then (depending on our sense of social equanimity) either to resignation or to rage. I myself experienced all of the above emotions, other than rage, over the four days we had no power. But I ended up feeling most of all amazed at the wonders of our world now that I finally had the opportunity to conceptualize life without them: without computers (like the one I’m writing this letter on and which I used just before to find out in about three seconds what year Anything Goes opened on Broadway by googling Cole Porter), without telephones, without electric lights, etc.

Instead of being depressed because our service was out for a few days, I found myself marveling at the world in which we live. And feeling grateful to live in the kind of world in which even in the year of Irene we are still likely to end up at year’s end having had 361 days of only-once-interrupted electricity powering up our indispensible machinery.

As we make our way through the month of Elul leading to the High Holidays, it would behoove us all to consider how fortunate we are, and in so many ways, and to ask ourselves how we can allow ourselves to take it all for granted…and then to be outraged when we are deprived of some small part of it for a couple of days. The correct emotion to cultivate during Elul is gratitude and beholdenness to God for all that we have, not irritation with LIPA for not working fast enough. In its own way, Irene wasn’t such a bad way to get Elul off to the right start.