Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whose Woods These Are

Growing up, I never fully got the whole “dark, foreboding forest” thing in the stories my father liked to read to me at bedtime. In how many of Grimm’s fairytales, for example, is the woods depicted as the enemy of civilization, as a sinister remnant of the pre-civilized world? That motif is almost a commonplace in that kind of writing, yet the whole concept—that the natural world is dark and scary, that the forest is to the town as night is to day, that the dark woods constitutes some sort of middle ground between the land of the living and the dank, gloomy version of Sheol that is naught but the grave writ big and a place, therefore, in which only scary, creepy things happen—that whole notion seemed foreign to me, and strange. Instead, I loved the woods. Perhaps, because we lived in such a dense, urban area, I think I primarily connected the forest with summer camp…which experience was the highpoint of my year for as long as I was young enough to be a camper. I liked my dad’s stories well enough, but the woods I knew from camp were anything but menacing. Just the opposite was the case, actually: I felt happy and free hiking with my bunkmates in the forest, content amidst the trees that encircled Lake Oxoboxo in a way I specifically did not feel at home amidst the lampposts that lined Queens Boulevard, secure that nature was peaceful and safe…and that, by extension, I too was safe and secure in nature’s embrace.

Or, to speak more honestly, mostly safe and secure…because even back then I think I also sensed something powerful and enigmatic in the woods: this peaceful verdant setting felt almost alive to me, and not alive solely in the sense that it was filled with living plants and animals. (I don’t recall ever seeing a bear near camp, despite our counselors’ best efforts to convince us they were out there somewhere. But I did see deer many times, plus lots of smaller animals and birds.) It felt alive in a different way, in a strange, inchoate way that I believe I only sensed as a child but doubt I could have articulated even unsuccessfully. And embedded in that aliveness was a kind of restless power that paradoxically felt both benign—because the woods was for me essentially a place of tranquility and peacefulness—but also vaguely threatening, even perhaps potentially dangerous. I doubt I could have expressed any of this cogently as a child; yet I remember those conflicting emotions clearly even after all these many years.

Years later, I read P.D. James great 1992 novel, The Children of Men, probably my favorite of all her books (and, at least in my opinion, far better than Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie adaptation). In the book, the author imagines a world in which the human race suddenly becomes infertile. As years pass and no babies are born, the population of the world both ages and diminishes accordingly. Some adapt nicely to the new reality, figuring that they personally weren’t going to live forever…so why should their lives be substantially altered by the fact that sometime after they die human life on earth will cease to exist. Wasn’t that going eventually to happen anyway? Others rage against the situation, treating it like a decree enacted by an unseen God against humankind that needs to be undone through some combination of prayer and heartfelt supplication. And still others…well, you will have to read the book (or, I guess, see the movie) to find out what happens. But the detail that stays with me even twenty years after reading the book is the slow, menacing (and no one does menacing like P.D. James), inexorable way that the forest begins to encroach on civilization, gradually taking back the edges of suburbs in which no one any longer lives, then positioning itself (and you truly do think of the forest as a player, certainly as a living thing) to begin its final onslaught against manmade society as the population dwindles and fades.

It’s a great book, P.D. James’, one I think anyone (other than the obsessively optimistic) would enjoy. But the idea was carried forward, and magnificently, by Alan Weisman in his 2007 book, The World Without Us, in which he imagined a world from which humankind has somehow vanished and describes in detail how—and how quickly—the traces of human society would be erased almost completely from the face of the earth as nature, and particularly the forest itself, would manage to reassert its power and its natural tendency to dominate the landmass and to eradicate whatever might otherwise stand in its way. It’s a powerful, very provocative book, one I not only recommend to you now, but actually made the basis of a Yom Kippur sermon a few years ago. You all know that I have a special predilection for popular science books that make advances in science intelligible to non-scientists like myself, and particularly when they are provocative and stimulating as well. Wiseman’s book is both those things—his chapter about the Białowieża Forest that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus alone is worth the price of the book and remains one of the most interesting chapters about the natural world I can recall reading—and would also be a worthy read for anyone seeking to be challenged both emotionally and intellectually. It is a great book!

But the power of the forest asserted itself in my imagination this last week for another reason. Among Nazi death camps Sobibor, built on the outskirts of a town with that same name near Lublin, was fifth in terms of people murdered within its precincts even though the dead there numbered a full quarter of a million people, more or less exclusively Jews from Russia, Holland, Poland, and France. There were 58 survivors, 48 men and 10 women, almost all of whom survived because of their participation in an almost unprecedented camp-wide revolt that took place on October 14, 1943. There were similar revolts in Treblinka on August 2 of that year and one at Auschwitz-Birkenau a year later on October 7, 1944, but the revolt at Sobibor was by far the most successful and, whereas the revolt at Auschwitz led to the destruction of one of the crematoria, the uprising at Sobibor actually led to the closing of the camp. (To readers who want to learn more, I can highly recommend Richard Rashke’s Escape from Sobibor, republished just two years ago in an expanded and updated edition.)  And it was then, after the Nazis made the decision finally to close down the camp, that the forest began slowly to erase the unspeakable evil that occurred in that place. Himmler himself apparently ordered that the place be bulldozed and planted with trees. But the forest does not take orders from anyone at all, and least of all from the Himmlers of this world…and what began as an effort cosmetically to mask the camp’s location ended up with the gas chambers themselves disappearing…almost as though the forest, ashamed, wished to eradicate the signs of the evil perpetrated within its boundaries.

And those gas chambers were never again located…until this week when Yad Vashem announced that, after seven years of archeological effort, the forest has finally yielded the site. This means that researchers and historians will now be able to see for themselves how the camp was laid out, thus making themselves able to describe the fate of those sent to that place for extermination.  Many artifacts that the forest claimed have also been wrenched from its sylvan hand, mostly recently a simple gold wedding band hidden in the moss with the words harei at m’kuddeshet li that every groom says to every bride engraved on its inside surface. To my way of thinking, these artifacts—and there are apparently thousands of them, plus countless more that will now be discovered—are the forest’s gift to us as a new year approaches. Terrible things happened in that place. And then the forest took over the site and, in its silent way, watched over it until people worthy of knowing its secrets arrived…and then it offered its secrets to them, allowing them to clear away the underbrush, the trees, whatever else was keeping the history of that place from prying eyes.  Is that too romantic a way to understand the way the natural world interacts wordlessly, but also profoundly, with humanity? It doesn’t always work that way, obviously. But sometimes…sometimes it feel as though it truly does.

As we approach a new year, I feel myself taking my place in that no-man’s-land between society and the forest primeval, between nature and city, between the trappings of culture and the basic biology that ultimately unites all living people as children of God…and I wonder if the society I have helped construct is worthy enough to warrant the indulgence of the great forest that once covered this place in which I live—and not only Long Island either, but also the rest of North America.  The notion that the natural world, alive and sentient, merely tolerates the efforts of humanity to tame its excesses and to subjugate its very right to exist to human needs and wants…that is a very powerful idea to complete as we prepare to stand before God in judgment on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Are we worthy of this world God has granted us?  Do we see ourselves as living in exquisite harmony with our planet, laboring tireless to earn our right to displace the ancient forest and live as we wish to live on land that was once fully forested, thus the primeval paradise that the Bible calls Eden…and which we call home? Have we earned the right to live in this clearing?

Scripture speaks of Eden as a place, of course. But what if it were not place but time, not a garden in the east but the original state of the world before the evolution of humankind into it? The Torah says, after all, that God planted a garden in Eden mi-kedem. Most Bibles translated that word as meaning “in the east.” But that is not how you say “in the east” in classical Hebrew, and all the commentators know that the word could just as easily mean “in ancient, primeval times.” All that being the case, I invite you all to join me in looking out at the world as these holidays approach and Elul wanes…and seeing not buildings and roads, but the great green forest that once covered all that you can see in every direction, that once blanketed the earth in this place. And then, once you can see clearly all that was, asking if we are truly worthy to have earned the earth’s patient indulgence of all that we have wrought. It’s not an easy question to ask. But answering honestly…that will be significantly more difficult.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Forty Years On

Forty is a big number in Jewish tradition. During the great flood in Noah’s day, it rained for “forty days and forty nights.” Moses spent forty days atop the mountain…and not just once! The spies Moses sent out to reconnoiter the land spend forty days in the land before returning to base camp. Later on, of course, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years before finally arriving at the outer edge of the Promised Land. And eventually both David and Solomon ruled over their kingdoms for exactly forty years. But for none of those is the reason I have been thinking a lot about the number forty myself lately, but rather because this month marks the fortieth anniversary of my entry into the rabbinical school at JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary. How I can have been twenty-one (and, at that, just twenty-one) when I started school and only in my mid-forties now…it’s a mystery!

It was truly a different world. For one striking thing, a huge fire at JTS in the spring of 1966 had left the tower at the corner of Broadway and 122nd Street a hulking, uninhabited shell and the library that had previously been located there was now housed—less the 70,000 volumes that went up in flames, obviously—in a huge Quonset hut in what had previously been (and later on again became) the building’s inner courtyard. I actually have a clear memory of being bussed up to the Seminary that April—just a month or two before my bar-mitzvah—with our entire Hebrew School class to help in the herculean effort to put pieces of absorbent toweling between the pages of books that, although water-logged, were deemed salvageable. That was the first time I entered the premises and although I could tell you that I was so enchanted by the experience that I somehow knew I’d be back one day to study there, the truth is that I found the smell of all those millions of burnt and soaked books slightly nauseating and couldn’t wait to leave. If I had some advance premonition that I’d return one day as a student, it appears to have left no trace at all in my memories of that day.

But it wasn’t only physically that the Seminary was a different place than it is now. There were, I believe, one or two women on the faculty during my years at JTS, but I was never taught by any of them and had only male teachers, which gender-exclusivity mirrored the make-up of the student body as well: the Rabbinical School in my day was open only to men, and the few women in any of my classes—and they were very few—were Graduate School students who had been given special permission to enroll in Rabbinical School classes. Perhaps even more relevant—and certainly so in retrospect—was the fact that no rabbinical student was charged tuition in my day. (Technically speaking, attending the school wasn’t free…but every single student’s tuition was covered by the school itself, which raised monies in those days specifically so as not to have to charge rabbinical students for their studies.  In turn, we were expected to write to whatever benefactor the school assigned to us each spring to thank him or her—in my case, always him—for having made such a generous gift to the school.)

Housing was also free for most of my time at JTS.  I lived in a two-room suite within the complex for four years, but as far as I can recall only had to pay rent in my last year in residence. The rent was $200. Per year, not per month. Some of us understood what a sweet deal we had…but most, myself probably included, just took it as our due. What I remember clearly is some of the upperclassmen complaining when I first arrived that the maid service that had also been provided free of charge to students in residence had been discontinued. So it wasn’t that sweet a deal—we actually had to make our own beds ourselves by the time I arrived on the scene. (Or, of course, not make them. But that just wouldn’t have been me.) I did have a roommate, that’s true. But he was present only briefly and decamped after one single semester to pursue his rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University instead. But the problem would have solved itself even if Stanley hadn’t bailed during winter break that first year because only first-year students were assigned roommates anyway. The rooms were furnished too, and rather nicely. There were not one but two synagogues on the premises. And the cafeteria was so heavily subsidized that no one needed to budget more than $20 or $30 dollars a week for food, and that included the price of Shabbat dinner. The whole thing was, therefore, far more like paradise than the real world: strictly speaking, you never had to leave. (I recall at least some classmates occasionally going to class wearing bedroom slippers.) I conclude with a popular joke at the time: “One rabbinical student says to the other, ‘I hear it’s raining.’  The other replies, ‘How did you find out?’”

All of the above noted details have changed over these forty years since I walked through those huge gates as a first-year rabbinical student. (I’m not actually in my mid-forties. That was a joke.)  But I myself have also changed. In retrospect, I was probably too young for graduate school. I hadn’t ever lived on my own. Other than in summer camp, I hadn’t ever had a job. (That isn’t technically true: I worked as a high school student for the Queens Borough Public Library putting books back on the shelf in the Forest Hills branch until I was firedthis is actually very funnyfor excessive reading on the job. But I hadn’t ever had one that paid more than the minimum wage.)  In every imaginable way I was still a work in progress…and, yet, they took a chance on me and I was determined to live up to their expectations. I went to minyan every morning, afternoon, and evening. I was the first one, almost always, to be there when the library opened each morning. I spent hours preparing my classes, leaving the site only from time to time to travel downtown to one of the dozen Jewish bookstores on the Lower East Side (now all gone either from the world or at least from Manhattan) to buy even more books. (The dorm also provided students with an unlimited number of bookcases, of which perk I took full, possibly slightly excessive, advantage.) I found it irritating to be distracted even slightly from my studies. And I rarely was. If my friend Victor hadn’t met me for lunch in the Village every Wednesday, I might never have left the building at all other than to buy books. (This was, of course, before you actually could buy books—or anything—without getting up from your desk.)

More to the point, though, is that I came to JTS with no specific theological bearing. I was caught up fully in the romance of ritual, in the pleasure of study for its own sake, in the possibility of forging what I hoped would be long-term friendships with my classmates. I was an only child. I had very limited contact growing up with my extended family. I hated the Little League (and only lasted one season anyway), wasn’t ever a Boy Scout, never actually joined USY, belonged in high school only to clubs that never actually met (the kind that exist only as entries on college applications when they ask for extra-curricular activities and the school wants to give you something to write down), never joined a fraternity. I fell in love with the whole world of JTS, with the quasi-familial intimacy that living in that place at that time afforded those of us eager to take part in whatever the school had to offer. What I lacked—and lacked fully, I think—was the maturity to process what I was learning in class and make it into the stuff of the kind of personal theology that every rabbi needs to develop if he or she is going to be able to teach torah effectively in the real world of actual Jewish people. I was good at memorizing stuff—I still am—but I had only the vaguest intimation, if that, that I was supposed to be processing all that information I was acquiring not merely well enough to repeat it out loud but truly to possess it, not simply to learn it sufficiently well to pass tests on it but actually to use what I was learning to fashion a spiritual life for myself by building upon it meaningfully and productively. I was a good student. But what to do with all that information—that secret was only revealed to me eventually.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. In those days, JTS offered more or less no training in what was disdainfully referenced as “practical rabbinics,” i.e., in the skills that a rabbi working in the actual congregational world actually needs when dealing with actual people. That kind of nuts-and-bolts stuff, we were left to acquire on our own. The very fact that most of us were destined for work in the congregational rabbinate was considered a kind of secret, something we all knew but were encouraged not to admit out loud. Our professors almost to a man had no experience at all in the congregational world, and they all seemed to feel that work in “the field” (as it was disdainfully called) was for those of us not bright or clever enough to make it in academics. I fell for that line of reasoning for a while. I finished my Ph.D. and published my dissertation. I accepted teaching positions at Hunter College and at JTS itself. I spent a post-doctoral year at the Hebrew University—by then it was Joan and me, and before we left Israel it was Joan, me, and Max—then went on to teach in Heidelberg. These were all rich, satisfying experiences, particularly our years in Israel and Germany. But, in the end, I knew that the academy wasn’t where I wished to work…and that it was only the congregational setting that would truly satisfy.

Is it really forty years since I undertook this journey? Gerald Ford was president. Abe Beame was mayor. “I Shot the Sheriff”—Eric Clapton’s version, not the original by Bob Marley—played endlessly on the radio as I moved into those two rooms at JTS and undertook the journey from where I was then to where I somehow have ended up now. As I think back on these four decades of toil in my chosen vineyard, though, I feel nothing but certainty that I chose the right path. The world is full, I’m sure, of people who would not make the same choices with respect to their working lives if they knew back in college what they know all too well forty years later. But I am not among them. My choice of a life in the rabbinate has been one of the great blessings of my life. I have no regrets!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Fight at the Opera

I am not the most likely person to become too emotionally involved in the whole brouhaha that is swirling around the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to mount a production this fall of John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer, and for several reasons. For one thing, I am not a huge fan of opera. (I have been to the Met…exactly once. Joan and I received tickets to see The Magic Flute at the Met as a first anniversary present from someone who shouldn’t have spent that much on us, and I’ve seen many more operas in other, less exclusive venues.  But, although I am a great lover of music, and particularly classical music, I have somehow never developed a deep love for opera.) Nor am I one who feels that any great good can come, almost ever, from censoring artists or for banning the production of artistic exhibitions or performances that are edgy or which push their audiences beyond the natural limits of their comfort zones. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do, after all? Isn’t the whole point of the artistic enterprise to create a context in which the public can be goaded into reconsidering what they’ve always supposed to be well-accepted truths and attitudes, in which people are challenged to ask themselves if the way they’ve always understood things might not well be far more subjective than they previously thought…and thus open to discussion and re-evaluation in light of the insight provided by the artist’s work? Art without edge, after all, is mere entertainment.

My lack of enthusiasm for the operatic enterprise—and I should say from the outset that I formally exclude all of Mozart’s operas, and particularly Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro, from that general characterization of my musical tastes—and my general disinclination to approve of censoring any artist’s work merely because it is out of sync with accepted attitudes or tastes should, therefore, leave me uninterested in caring one way or the other whether the Met does or does not proceed with its plans to include John Adam’s opera in its fall schedule.  Yet, oddly, that is not how I feel at all.

The opera is about Leon Klinghoffer, the poor man murdered by Palestinian terrorists on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in October, 1985. The story itself you probably all remember at least in its broadest outlines. Terrorists associated with the Palestine Liberation Front, an organization associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, hijacked a cruise ship in the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt and headed to the port of Tartus in Syria, where they intended to trade the hostages onboard for terrorists being held by Israel. When the Syrians refused to allow them to enter the harbor, the terrorists responded by murdering Leon Klinghoffer, a wheel-chair bound American citizen. Then, after the crew was forced to dump him overboard while still strapped into his wheelchair, the ship then set sail for Port Said in Egypt where the hijackers finally agreed to leave the ship in exchange for passage to Tunisia on an Egyptian airplane. That was duly arranged, but the plane was later intercepted by American fighter aircraft and forced to land in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested and eventually charged with murder.

Many of us remember those dark days in October all too well. But not all who remember it are horrified by it; some appear to be fascinated by it…and put off neither by the terrorists’ savagery or their disrespect for human life. In 1991, John Adams, working with librettist Alice Goodman, created an opera they called The Death of Klinghoffer. It opened at the Met and received reasonably good reviews. That, in and of itself, is remarkable to me, not because I have an opinion one way or the other about the quality of the music, but because the book itself portrays the murderers of poor Klinghoffer not as pirates or thugs, but as noble freedom fighters, as “men of ideals.”  Eventually, the season ended and that, more or less, would have been that, until the Met announced earlier this year not only that it was going to revive the opera in New York, but that it planned to offer it as a theater-based simulcast in over 2000 locations in sixty-six different countries around the world. The protests began. The Met caved in a little and cancelled the simulcast. But the production of the opera itself was not only not cancelled and will no doubt enjoy the enormous amount of free publicity that the whole controversy has generated.

In explaining the cancellation of the simulcast but not the actual production, the general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, wrote that he remains “convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,” but that he has nevertheless become “convinced that there is a genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”  Let’s think about that statement. If the opera isn’t anti-Semitic, then how could it provoke an anti-Semitic response? But if broadcasting it in thousands and thousands of venues around the world feels inappropriate given the rising tide of anti-Semitism, then what could it possibly mean to say that the opera itself is free of the taint of anti-Semitism?

Perhaps Peter Gelb meant that the opera is not really anti-Semitic, but could possibly be taken that way by naïve listeners unused to the subtly of dramatic poetry set to music. That sounds reasonable…but the libretto doesn’t seem subtle to me at all, but starkly and vividly anti-Semitic…and in a visceral way that more or less uses the language of Nazi racism to tar the Jewish people as a nation of thieves, liars, and extortionists: “Wherever poor men are gathered,” the libretto reads, “they can find Jews getting fat. You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated, and break your own law with idolatry.” Very nice!  Is it relevant that the librettist was once a Jew from Minnesota, but later not only chose to become a Christian but was actually ordained as an Anglican priest? (She is currently the rector of a group of parishes in Cambridgeshire, England.) I’d like to think not, but part of me cannot keep from wondering where in her theological training Alice Goodman learned to think of her own people in terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in Nazi Germany.  Certainly (I hope), not at our parents’ feet or her grandparents’. And presumably also not at Boston University, where she received her Master of Divinity degree. Yet the language crosses the line from sharp and edgy to truly defamatory…and in a way that should make anyone familiar with Jewish history, even someone comfortable personally abandoning Jewishness, extremely ill at ease.

And so we end up on the horns of an interesting dilemma.  Art is supposed to raise hackles, to challenge, to unnerve.  But how far exactly do we take that thought? Should plays that mock black people or denigrate women be allowed to be produced merely because they challenge people to reconsider their values? What about artistry that insults gay people…or, for that matter, any recognizable group within society—should anyone be able to justify any sort hostile, bigoted speech by justifying it to the world as artistic expression? The First Amendment could not be clearer about the rights of citizens to speak freely, and that right must, for it to mean anything at all, include unpopular—including extremely unpopular—ideas or opinions.  Yet even our most liberal jurists and passionate defenders of the First Amendment do not question the reasonability of legislation that makes defamatory speech illegal. Constitutional lawyers, I’m sure, have their own sense of how this all works. But what should the rest of us think, we average citizens who are left by all of this unsure whether our best interests lie in permitting the occasional vile libretto to surface even in as posh a venue as the Metropolitan Opera so that the right we all enjoy to speak out freely is left intact…or if we have a sacred obligation to speak out forcefully against the abuse of the concept of free speech to permit the promulgation of depraved, repulsive, and defamatory language in as public a setting as the Met.  And what of the notion that the murder of Leon Klinghoffer was a political statement that can be justified as such, and thus not a criminal act at all—should that kind of perverse reasoning be given a pass because it is presented to the public as art? 

Leon Klinghoffer was not murdered because he was elderly or handicapped. Nor was he murdered because he was an American citizen, or not solely for that reason. He was murdered al kiddush ha-sheim as a Jew…and if his murder can be depicted as legitimate, then so can Treblinka. Indeed, if there is a profound difference between the death of Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro and the murder of any analogous elderly, crippled Jewish man in any one of the camps or in some random execution ditch, I fail to see it. And that is why, despite my willingness to excuse a lot for the sake of art and my general lack of interest in opera, I find myself very engaged by the decision of the Met to proceed with the production this fall.

I suppose one could argue that, given the cancellation of the simulcast, this is a tempest in a teapot. How many people are going to see the production at the Met anyway…and, of them, how many will buy into its repulsive premise? I suppose there must be some comfort in the obvious answers to those questions, but I think the issue goes deeper than the question of how many tickets will be sold and to whom. For me, the decision of the Metropolitan Opera not to care that the libretto of an opera they are about to produce is so deeply anti-Semitic that it dares to make a facile, grotesque comparison (and I read now from the graffiti on the backdrop against which the action unfolds) between Warsaw in 1943 and Bethlehem in 2005. (I must have missed something—when was it exactly that the citizens of Bethlehem were dragged from their homes, shoved onto trains, and transported to their deaths?) Nor does the Met seem to find perverse the hatred dripping from the lips of the terrorist-in-charge when he taunts Klinghoffer with the words “America is one big Jew.”  I could go on. There has to be a bottom line…and the use of Nazi-style imagery to defame the Jewish people—and by extension every single Jewish person—goes way beyond what any First Amendment supporter, such as myself, should find tolerable or defensible.