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!

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