Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Missing

It’s interesting, the fate of the missing. Some famous few—like Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, Judge Joseph Force Crater, and the Roanoke Colonists—become almost mythological figures, people whose sudden disappearances from the flow of history have made them more famous in their absence than at least some of them were during their actual lifetimes. (The Roanoke people were last heard from in 1587, yet at least in some circles their name is still evocative of the possibility simply of vanishing into the swirling mist of history and never being heard from again.) Others, mostly those who would already have long since passed from the scene anyway, are simply forgotten. And still others—the explorers Henry Hudson and John Cabot come to mind—retain their fame, or at least their renown, but without it being recalled that they too disappeared and that none of us knows their ultimate fate. If asked what Henry Hudson and Amelia Earhart have in common, most Americans would guess that must be a parkway somewhere named for Amelia Earhart too!

In the end, though, it is journalists who determine who gets remembered and who gets forgotten far more meaningfully than historians.  Consider, for example, the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing on March 8 and was never heard from again. For weeks, the story was on the front page of every newspaper in the world. The story, as they say, had legs—a broad-based human interest angle (the plane had 227 passengers aboard who hailed from fourteen different nations) and an air safety angle (no one wants to imagine that huge airplanes can simply vanish into thin air), plus a dash of legitimate outrage (isn’t this precisely what the immense air traffic controllers’ world-wide network exists to prevent from happening?) and just enough rational fear (if this happened to those people...) to keep readers’ interest in the story alive for as long as new details could be added into the mix of data already received. But eventually that daily dose of new information stopped coming.

The search continued, but no actual debris was ever found. There were reports in the early days of the search that signals from the underwater locator beacons attached to the aircraft’s flight recorders (the so-called “black box”) had been detected, but those reports were never confirmed and are now considered unlikely to have been correct. At any rate, the batteries that power those locator beacons would definitely no longer be working by now, so there will be no further pings, faint or otherwise, from the depths of the Indian Ocean for anyone to analyze correctly or incorrectly.  And so the story of Flight 370 now fades into the background. We all remember the incident, at least so far. But it’s been weeks since I noticed any sort of official update on the situation in the paper or on-line media and I doubt, absent startling new developments, that any will be forthcoming.  The 227 passengers on board now join the 118 colonists at Roanoke in that special category of people who simply stepped off the stage of history and never returned. (Individuals can do this too, of course—the National Crime Information Center reports that there are active missing-person records for more than eighty-five thousand Americans, of whom more than eighteen thousand are children under the age of eighteen and another ten thousand are between ages eighteen and twenty. It’s just more dramatic when the exit is en masse, that’s all.)

More prominent in the news these days, although in a strangely muted way, are the missing girls of Nigeria. Abducted from the Government Secondary School in the Nigerian town of Chibok on the night of April 14-15 earlier this year, these 276 girls simply vanished into the night and have so far not been located. But that does not mean that their fate is unknown: according to reliable reports the girls were to be forcibly converted to Islam, then sold for a “bride price” of $12.75 each to members of the Boko Haram, the Islamic jihadist organization that has taken credit for the abductions.  Their story too seems to have vanished from our front pages and our screens.

Some Western countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and France, have sent teams of specialists to help the Nigerians search for the girls. There is reportedly a team of Israeli experts on the ground in Nigeria helping with the effort to bring the girls home. Michelle Obama has prominently participated in a Twitter campaign to signal her and the president’s outrage over the whole affair. But aside from all that…it’s been pretty quiet just lately on the Nigerian front. As was the case with the Malaysian Airlines flight, the girls’ story too was newsworthy for a while. But then it too disappeared, fading into the background simply because our print and electronic media ran out of new things to say about the case. And yet you’d think the fact that the Boko Haram (whose name in Hausa, one of the languages of Nigeria, means roughly “Western education is sinful”) are violent jihadists struggling to impose their extremist version of Islamic law in the area in which their organization functions in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger would make their story beyond interesting for American readers.  Or that the fact that the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, noted last month that Boko Haram attacks on churches, schools, police stations and other civilian targets have left at least 12,000 dead and 8,000 crippled over the last decade would. Even in a world as inured to violence as ours, those numbers are shocking!

You would think for both those reasons that the world would be outraged. And, of course, the world is outraged…a little. Americans generally strike me as peculiarly uninterested in Africa, but here, where the crime was so outrageous, so shocking, and so violent, you would expect the kind of public outcry that simply hasn’t materialized. It would be easy to blame this kind of blasé lack of interest on racism. But the response of black Americans too has been strangely muted. Journalists drive the bus here too, of course, and once there stop being daily developments the impetus to keep any issue on the front burner diminishes in direct proportion to the likelihood of people reading a story through to the end about the fact that there isn’t anything new to report. What the fate of the girls will be, who can say? The president, in an interview the other day on the Today show, said that our nation's goal in the short term “is obviously is to help the international community and the Nigerian government…[and] to do everything we can to recover these young ladies. But,” the president added almost remarkably understatedly, “we’re also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this that…can cause such havoc in people’s day-to-day lives.” I’m sure that means something formally, but what I fear it means practically is that we are going to send some experts over to Africa to assist the Nigerians, then allow the girls, as they leave the front pages of our newspapers, to fade into the general category of “people to whom horrific things happened” and, other than regret, offer them nothing at all. 

 And that brings me to the story weighing on us all, the story of the three Israeli teenagers who have gone missing.  For the world out there, the salient details are that the boys’ fate is unknown, that no terror organization has credibly taken credit for their abduction, and that the only official Palestinian voice that has lately been heard in the matter was that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas…and he condemned the abduction and revealed that he and his people are actively cooperating with Israel to restore the young men to their homes. For their part, the Israelis have indicated unequivocally, but without providing any real evidence, that this is the work of Hamas, the terror organization that recently joined its former rivals in Fatah in a national unity government to be led transitionally by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. It’s hard to imagine the Israelis making a claim like that with nothing to back it up…but no proof has actually been proffered and so we are left with the upsetting reality that these young men—Naftali Frankel (age 16), Eyal Yifrach (age 19), and Gilad Shaer (age 16)—simply disappeared into the night air.

Outside the Jewish world, no one seems too upset. On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an article about how seriously those of us inside the Jewish world are taking this, almost as though it were a newsworthy detail that anyone cared about the teenagers’ fate, not the fact itself that the three young men are missing. Secretary of State Kerry issued a statement noting that the three were in his prayers, but forgetting to remember that one of them, Naftali Frankel, is an American citizen and that his abduction should therefore be considered a crisis for America to deal with more substantially than with prayer alone. It seems remarkable to me that the Palestinians have taken a more vigorous role in searching for Naftali Frankel than has our (and his) own American government…and I say that fully aware of the degree to which President Abbas’ crocodile tears are seriously compromised by his willingness to tolerate a terrorist organization like Hamas in the government over which he presides. Still, I’d like to think that he really is appalled. I surely am, as I’m sure are all my readers. 

While we wait for the IDF to find the three, there are things we can do. We can surely join Secretary State Kerry in prayer. But we can also insist, as American Jews, that our American government exert itself maximally on behalf of an American citizen taken captive and not treat his plight dismissively or indifferently. As supporters of Israel, we need to make the point forcefully to all our elected officials that the war against terrorism will only succeed if we decline to make straw distinctions between terrorists, and that the abduction of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad by Hamas (or whatever splinter group turns out to be responsible) and the abduction of those poor girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram differ only in extraneous details but not in the ones that truly count. Terror against civilians is no better or worse depending on the gender, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion of the victims.

Before I became a father, my nightmares were mostly about myself.  I was the one falling, the one lost in the streets of a strange city where no one seemed able to see me, the one suddenly aware that he had forgotten to put his pants on before getting on the subway to go to work.  But once I became a father, my dreamscape shifted focus and my nightmares started to be about my children. I was the one having the dream, of course. So it was I who couldn’t find them, or who couldn’t save them, or who couldn’t prevent some horrifically bad thing from happening to them. But even if my dreams continued to unfold as though projected through my own eyes and onto my own field of vision, the actors in the worst of my nightmares were now the people I felt the most worried about possibly being unable to protect from harm or successfully to watch over and to keep safe…from the world, from the wicked, from whatever. Nightmares, of course, are just dreams, just projections of our inmost fears on the backdrop of our waking lives. But the nightmare shared by the relatives of missing persons—and particularly the parents of missing children—is not a nighttime fantasy that can be counted on to vanish with morning’s light.

Those poor people on Flight 370 will not come home again. That much seems clear, but when it comes to the Israeli teens and the Nigerian girls, there is no real option for people of good will other than to struggle against the influence of the kind of profit-driven journalism that loses interest in “cold” stories, against the natural disinclination we all feel to become involved in other people’s troubles, and against the politics of appeasement that considers abduction less heinous when the abductors present themselves as politically motivated.  If these were our own children in play, we would be mounting the barricades and with one voice demanding action. But they are our children, all of them.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Out-Loud Reading

This week, I concluded a full dozen years of reading stories to the two-, three- and four-year olds in our Nursery School. Obviously, it’s a huge amount of fun. (How could it possibly not be?) And I’ve developed some important skills over all the years that I hadn’t previously needed even to acquire at all, much less seriously to hone. After all these years, for example, I can read almost as well upside-down as I can right-side-up, an indispensable skill if you want to hold a book up so your audience can see the pictures and still be able to read the text aloud. And I’ve perfected the junior version of the bimah-glare that makes it clear to my occasionally rambunctious young listeners that they’re not going to be listening to anything at all if they don’t quiet down and stop distracting themselves and their friends. Most of all, though, I’ve had a full twelve years now to observe children in the being-read-to state…and what I’ve learned from all those years of looking out at the boys and girls in our Nursery School while reading to them is what I’d like to share with you all today. (Sharing is a big part of what we all learn to do in Nursery School!)

First, let me describe the scene so you can have a clearer mental image of how this works. I sit on an adult-size folding chair. The children sit on tiny chairs they themselves bring from their classrooms into the atrium. First, I tell them about the book. I make a point of mentioning the book's title and its author’s and illustrator’s names, and I always try to make a point of reminding them if we’ve already read a book by that specific author or seen books illustrated by that same artist. And then I read the book. We pause for vocabulary that seems over the kids’ heads. (This last week we learned the difference between a rooster and a chicken, and between a hog and a sow. But we also learn more challenging vocabulary words. A few weeks ago, for example, we spent time trying to decide if “generous” and “kind” mean exactly the same thing. It’s that kind of Nursery School we run at Shelter Rock!)  We also learn how to say unusual, cool things in foreign languages. (A few weeks ago, we learned how to say “soup ladle” in Hebrew, Spanish, and Farsi.  This week, for example, while learning about roosters and chickens we also learned which in the Argentinian version of our story would be the pollo and which, the gallo. Each week, we try to learn how to say something in some language other than English.) Eventually, the story ends and then it’s book review time. Every week, I ask the same questions. Did you like the book? Would you like to hear more books by this author? Did you think the drawings suited the story? Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls your age? And, amazingly, they answer me. Sometimes, we are not all in agreement…and particularly when my young listeners feel the author stretched excessively the natural boundaries of credulity. (This seems particularly to be an issue when the book features talking animals, as this week’s book, Cece Meng’s Tough Chicks, did.) Still, even when we are not all in agreement, a consensus can usually be reached. And then, having completed our book, I play some songs for the children on the piano—this week I played Tumbalalaika and Tzena Tzena Tzena—and the kids run around in the Nursery School version of circle dancing.  And that’s it. The whole thing lasts about half an hour. Occasionally, I play a third song. If they ask nicely!

I think lots of people imagine that the concept of reading to children is basically a stop-gap measure designed to allow children to find pleasure in books before they eventually learn how to read on their own. According to this line of thinking, reading to kids is basically a favor, something akin to driving teenagers around before they acquire their own driver’s licenses and can drive themselves to wherever it is they need to go. In a sense, of course, that is exactly what it is all about. But there is another part to the exercise, and what I’ve come to realize over these years of reading to children is just how crucial and meaningful that other part actually is. Reading to children is not just a clever way to awaken a love of literature in children before they learn to read on their own, but a serious step forward towards training children in the dramatically underappreciated art of imagining.

I read picture books to our kids because they are still very young and my time with them is short.  But what I do should ideally only be akin to priming the pump, because the real goal is to read books to children without showing them pictures to look at, but only exposing them to words to listen to.  Think about what it is like for a child to hear a book without seeing any pictures, for example when being read to at bedtime when only the reader sits in the light.  As the story unfolds, the child sees nothing at all…with his or her eyes. But as the story progresses and draws the child in, a universe opens up that the child soon realizes he or she actually can see.  People, places, buildings, streets, even lakes and mountain ranges—these all become fully visible as the child lies back and hears the story. And I have come to think that that ability to imagine a universe that one cannot see is the key to academic and intellectual success later in life. It is certainly the greatest gift parents eager for their children to succeed in school, including years later in university and beyond, can offer their children.

The greatest scientists are the ones who take ideas that strikes them, even unlikely or outlandish ones, and then imagine an internally-revised universe unfolding around them as that idea crystallizes and clarifies, and as its implications alter the shape of such newly-imagined worlds either slightly or dramatically.  Surely, the same is true of authors as well: isn’t that exactly what it means to write a novel, to dream of a world that doesn’t exist to the point at which an author actually can see it and describe what is happening in it to people only the author can see and whose short- and long-term destinies only that single author can chart.  The greatest feats of human creativity derive directly from the ability to imagine, to see what at first only exists within the matrices of one’s own creative intelligence, to hear a word and suddenly to see a world.   And I believe that the fortunate among us acquire that skill as children when being read to over the course not just before they learn to read themselves, but for many years after that as well.

I remember my father reading to me at bedtime when I was a boy. Of all the books I heard in bed at night with the lights off, two—Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth—became so familiar to me that I still think I might remember some passages by heart. (Another feature that we pass by all too quickly in our world, by the way, is the intellectual good—not to mention the pleasure—that comes from reading our favorite books again and again. The whole point of learning to love books is to read the best ones many times over, seeing how familiar scenes morph along into more clever, or even darker, iterations of themselves as we ourselves age and come to know more of the world.)  But there were many others, including some books (like Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) that even now seem to me like odd choices for a young boy.  My father’s was a nineteenth century world of books—in addition to Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, my father favored stories and books by Mark Twain and Washington Irving—but that hardly mattered: what counted in the long run was not the specifics of the tale being told, but the challenge of conjuring up a universe in the dark (the lights were always off in my bedroom while the book was being read) to the point actually of being able, at least eventually, to see it in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it were the real world that would be there in the morning when I awakened to a new day.

We (and by “we” I mostly mean Joan, my synagogue duties so often calling me away at bedtime) read to our children for years, favoring latter classics like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and all the Roald Dahl books, not to mention the Lewis Carroll “Alice” books and the L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz series. Whatever other mistakes we made as parents, we produced three excellent readers! But even more the point, my kids all learned how to imagine a world in the dark…and how to conceive of things they couldn’t see but couldn’t imagine not to exist. If anyone were to ask what I think of as the greatest gift we gave our children when they were young, it would have to be their ongoing love of reading.

Our Nursery School graduation was Thursday and I was asked to speak. I’m writing this before then, but I already know what I’m going to tell the parents of our four-year old graduates. (By the way, if you haven’t ever seen four-year-olds in mortar boards, toy tassels, and graduation gowns made out of their fathers’ white shirts worn backwards, you haven’t even begun to see cute in your life!) Aside from imploring them to keep on building their children’s Jewish educations on the foundation we have labored so diligently to provide in our Nursery School, I plan to tell them that, in my opinion, nothing they can do for their children will lay the groundwork for future academic success than reading to them…and that it would be a huge error to imagine that that only applies for as long as the children do not know how to read well themselves. I believe that it is worth reading to children for years after that, taking them personally to the center of the earth or the secret garden, to Treasure Island or to Oz or to Sleepy Hollow…or personally showing them what’s going on twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea or teaching them how to go around the world in eighty days. (I forgot to mention Around the World in Eighty Days, but I should have: it was in some ways my favorite book as a boy, one I really still do remember as though my dad read it to me last month, not fifty years ago.)

That is what I’m going to tell them! Will they listen? I suppose some will and others will dismiss my opinion of the worth of reading aloud as exaggerated or too much rooted in my own personal experience.  But I know what I think! And what I think is that there are few pleasures in this world more satisfying for children than being read to. No one has read to me in a long time while I lay in bed at night and wait for sleep. I make do, obviously. But that pleasure, that sensation that I can still recall after all these many years of being ushered into an unseen world through the medium of the spoken word…that is one of the things I recall my parents offering me as a boy that has truly stayed with me over all these many years. I love to read and I really do read a lot…but even I can’t read in the dark!