Thursday, January 29, 2015

Seventy Years On

Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, we cross a line—a personal, often private, always wholly idiosyncratic line—that leads us from being one tadpole among many to growing into the individual man or woman we eventually become. For many, that line is constituted by a discovery of some sort, by a moment of revelation that grants the child in question a worldview that, for all it might be (and surely is) similar in some ways to other people’s, is in its essence that child’s alone. As a result of crossing that line, we begin to see the world through our own eyes and thus, eventually, to become ourselves in a way that serves eventually as the hallmark of the kind of individuation that leads eventually to the assumption of true identity. In our American culture, this line is often presumed to have something to do with sex, with finding out about how that all works in the adult world, with taking first tentative steps towards romance and intimacy. For others, particularly for those who suffer grievous loss as young people, it has more to do with encountering death, with the experience of finding oneself face to face with the truth about life’s brevity and awful fragility. But for me—and I somewhat paradoxically see this more, not less, clearly as I become older—for me personally, the boundary line between tadpole and man had to do with learning the truth about Jewishness in the twentieth century, the century I was born just a few short years after the precise midpoint of which and which remains the foundational context, even now, for my sense of who I am and what I am to do in the world.

My initial exposure to the Shoah was through the large number of refugees who lived in the neighborhood in which I grew up. My American-born parents never spoke of the Shoah, but neither did the survivors in our midst. I knew they were from Europe, obviously. And I understood too that they had gone through “a lot” before landing in Queens. But that “a lot” was as far as my parents went when the topic came up, which it only rarely did. Were they protecting me from the truth about the world? I suppose they were, at least a little. Or were they willing themselves not to know something about the world that all of us would prefer not to know? That was surely part of it too. But it also bears saying that I think my parents felt that they were being kind and generous by allowing the neighborhood refugee types to “get past” (that was another of my parents’ expressions) their earlier experiences and embrace life in these United States without being endlessly burdened by memories of earlier misery. The bottom line was that the chasm between wartime Europe and post-war Queens was deemed unbridgeable by my parents…and they definitely considered that a good thing for all concerned.

I always knew there was something I didn’t know. How I knew that, who knows? But children are sensitive even to subtleties of language and inflection…and I always “just” knew that there was more than I was being allowed to know, just as I somehow knew that the numbers on the arms of some of my friends’ parents were not just “wartime tattoos” as my Dad once said to me vaguely when I screwed up my courage and asked. It’s hard to conjure up the precise feel of things after all these years, but my parents’ disinclination to discuss the Shoah was part of their general disinclination to discuss the past at all: the last thing my parents wanted to think was that they were somehow less than 100% American because they lived in a neighborhood (and belonged to a community) that included so many immigrants and refugees. Nor did they ever wish to discuss their own families’ origins in Europe—that too was a taboo topic in my boyhood home. My father occasionally mentioned the name of his parents’ shtetl in Poland, but only under duress and always with the clear sense that Nowy Dwór was Polish for “hell” and that only an insane person would wish to know more. My mother told me once in passing that she thought her father came from Odessa—I was too young at the time to realize how odd it was that she wasn’t sure—and it was only as an adult, after I undertook some research of my own, that I realized that she was more likely recalling the fact that the ship he took to North America left from Odessa but that he himself was more probably from the town of Zembin in Belarus. But these were isolated moments of unguarded recollection, and the far more general rule on Yellowstone Blvd. was that the past was gone forever and that that was a good, even a very good, thing. In a certain strange way, my entire adult life—and certainly my professional life—has been a kind of reaction against that will to forget what I have made it my life’s work to remember.

The entrance to the Hebrew School wing of the Forest Hills Jewish Center is on 69th Road, a street on the south side of Queens Boulevard that is exactly one block long. Upon entering, all the action was to the right—the school office, the Game Room where young scholars loitered over Nok Hockey tables until the beginning of class, the washrooms, the principal’s office and the rabbi’s, and the classrooms themselves. To the left was a door leading to the great sanctuary featuring the remarkable, slightly scary Ark of the Law created by the great artist, Arthur Syzk. But between the entrance to the building and the entrance to the sanctuary was a tiny library and it was there that I, even then proudly uninterested in Nok Hockey or Foosball (the other diversion provided to distract early arrivers from potential mischief), sought refuge when I arrived early for school, which was always.

Even today I can conjure up the peculiar, not unpleasant, odor of that room—some mixture of tobacco (smoking was allowed indoors in those days), old books, perfume, and coffee. It was there that I first began to read about Jewish history and about Jewish life in versions other than the one I knew from home. And it was there as well that I eventually noticed the books on the very top shelf just to the left when you entered, books stored so high up that even an adult, let alone a child, could not possibly have reached them without standing on a stool or a stepladder. We children were not granted access to those books, but the titles were visible. And it was there, in the contemplation of that shelf of books, that I first began to realize that there was more to being a Jew in the mid-twentieth century than I knew about.

The books were a mixture of famous and, even today, relatively unknown. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was there, but so was Jacob Apensziak’s The Black Book of Polish Jewry, a book published in the winter of 1943-1944, and chronicling the agony of the first million Polish Jews to die at the hands of the Nazis. And there was another book with a similar, but much longer, title on that shelf as well: Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the German Nazi Death Camps Established on Occupied Polish Soil During the War 1941–1945, a book that it took me almost a year to get through because I could only read it when the librarian was away refilling her coffee cup or using the washroom. (The book I read, I now realize, was an abridged translation; the full book was only published in English translation in 1970.) Shirer, I only skimmed. (I was only twelve or thirteen years old, after all.) But the other two books I read, page by page in the course of more than two years, in their entirety. And it was there that my own journey began, with those unimaginable stories, with the testimony of people whose experiences were not so much unbelievable as unimaginable, with accounts the details of which imprinted themselves on my consciousness so deeply that they remain there to this day, enhanced—but also unaffected—by decades of further reading on the topic.

I never told my parents about any of this, but I was as drawn to those books as I was repulsed by them. And yet I was powerless, even as a bar-mitzvah boy, to step back, to stop reading, to look away. In some ways, that was the seminal experience of my childhood, those stolen minutes of reading forbidden books…and I can see how reasonable it would be to see my life’s path reflected in that experience of finding out in that specific way what it meant to be a Jew in a world of horror from which my own family had somehow escaped.

This, then, is the background I bring to my consideration of the
seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, up until just recently a strangely unchronicled event. (By comparison, for example, Vasily Grossman’s account of the liberation of Treblinka, available now as a chapter in his remarkable A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army 1941-1945, is among the most powerful—and by that I mean powerful to the point of overwhelming—pieces of on-the-scene journalism related to the Shoah that I’ve ever read.) Until this week, that is…when the Russian Defense Ministry, responding to a bogus claim by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna that Auschwitz was liberated by Ukrainian troops, finally released—after seventy years of refusing to make them public—a batch of first-hand accounts by officers and soldiers of the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army who liberated the 7,500 survivors of Auschwitz that were still present in that place on January 27, 1945. (For more details about the release of these accounts and testimonies, click here.) None has been released in official or unofficial translation, and the photographs that were released are blurry and will be difficult even for Russian readers to decipher. But what counts is that these accounts exist and will now be available to all who wish to know first-hand what that day was like…not from the vantage point of the prisoners but from that of their liberators. I can’t wait for these stories to be published, and I will report back to you all when I’ve read them and tell what I’ve learned. Even if there are no surprises in terms of historical detail, though, the experience itself of communing with those present on that fateful day through the medium of their own recollective prose…that will be a prize for all those, like myself, whose lives have been informed and shaped by the experience specifically of reading about the Shoah and vicariously living through its horrors.

If it is true that life is a journey—and how could it not be?—then this is my specific journey, the path I have wandered forward from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. I am not a survivor in the sense that I was born after the war and am neither the child nor the grandchild of anyone who perished. But there is also a category of survivor to which I do belong: the category those who live their lives against the background of the Holocaust and who willingly or unwillingly bear the burden of history on more or less strong shoulders. The Shoah is not where I was, but it is who I am. As I contemplate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and anticipate the testimony of the liberators, that burden feels marginally lighter…as if those brave soldiers from so long ago join me, even if surely posthumously for most, in supporting the weight of history and thus in making it that much easier to bear.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Je Suis Lassana

There is no word in classical Hebrew for “hero” in the sense in which we use the term in American English. The usual translation, gibbor, derived from a verb that means   “to prevail” or “to overcome,” is used generally to denote an individual of remarkable physical strength or particular moral stamina. When Scripture labels King Nimrod as a gibbor tzayid (literally, a “hero of the hunt”), for example, it presumably means that he was a powerful, strong guy whose strength wielding his weaponry made him notably successful at the hunt. In Pirkei Avot, on the other hand, when Ben Zoma famously asks “Who is the [true] gibbor?”, his answer—that such a label can only be properly applied to someone possessed of the strength of character to master his or her own inner drives—reflects exactly the other definition of the term. In other words, Ben Zoma is teaching that while any run-of-the-mill Hercules can lift a car or wrestle a tiger to the ground, only those able through the sheer force of their own moral bearing to overcome their endemic inclination to sin, to behave poorly, or to turn from virtue are truly entitled to be called by the title gibbor. But that is not exactly what the word “hero” has come to mean in common discourse.

I’ve returned to this topic many times in my letters to you. As a teenager, I had two heroes: Miep Gies and Henryk Goldszmit, known to the world by his pen-name of Janusz Korczak. From the latter, we obviously heard nothing after his supreme act of unparalleled heroism: this was the man who chose to accompany the 196 orphans in his charge to Treblinka on August 6, 1942, where he and they were murdered upon arrival, rather than accept the offer of safe passage to the Aryan side of Warsaw credibly made to him by the then-active Polish underground. Would he have considered himself a hero? As a young man, I certainly thought so. And, indeed, it was in just that light that I read the various versions of his story obsessively in those years…always wondering if I could have passed that test, if I myself would have chosen service to the children in my care—children whose lives I could not possibly imagine being able actually to save—over the easy-to-rationalize decision to save my own neck and thus to be alive in the future to serve other children. (If any readers are curious to read more about this man who more than anyone at all shaped my sense of honor, the one-two punch is first to read Betty Jane Lifton’s excellent biography of Korczak called The King of Children: the Life and Death of Janusz Korczak, published in 1988 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, and then to read the man’s own Ghetto Diary, originally brought out in 1978, but now republished by Yale University Press with an introduction, also very compelling and well done, by the same Betty Lifton.) To finish with Korczak, I can only quote William Blake’s famous poem, “Auguries of Innocence.” The beginning, everybody knows: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an Hour.”  But later on, he gets to the part that stays with me still, the part that he could have written about Janusz Korczak: “He who mocks the Infant’s Faith / Shall be mock’d in Age and Death. / He who shall teach the child to Doubt / The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out. / But he who respects the Infant’s faith / Triumphs over Hell & Death.” Really, what else is there to say? For what it’s worth, Blake absolutely considered himself a kind of latter-day prophet…so maybe he actually was writing about Korczak!

Miep Gies, I’ve also written about before. (If you wish to reread what I wrote about her on the occasion of her death in 2010 at age 100, click here.) As many will surely recall, she was the woman who put her own life on the line to save Anne Frank and her family, as well as the others in hiding with them. (You can learn all you’ll need to know from her 1987 book, Anne Frank Remembered, in which of course she tells her own story as well.) Unlike Korczak, Miep Gies survived the war and so was able to comment on the way she was hailed as a true hero. And that is exactly how she was celebrated in the post-war years. Yad Vashem recognized her as a selfless rescuer and planted a tree in her honor on the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles on its grounds. Queen Beatrix of Holland knighted her for her bravery. Germany itself offered her the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic. Austria, her homeland, awarded her its Grand Decoration of Honor. I’m sure she was flattered by all the attention. (Who wouldn’t be?) But she balked mightily at being called a hero, writing in the introduction to her book words that stay with me still, “There is nothing special about me,” she wrote. “I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.”

I’ve cited those words to you before because they are so deeply resonant with me: here was a woman who apparently believed that doing the right thing, putting the needs of the persecuted first, acting forthrightly to save the lives of people in danger of being put to death for professing the wrong faith or embodying the wrong ethnicity, obeying the inner voice of virtue and justice that most of us prefer to drown out most of the time lest it lead us off the path of self-gratification and self-absorption—here was a woman who believed that it did society no good to apply the “hero” label to people who simply do the right thing…and that we would do better to create a society in which doing those things was considered not the province of the uniquely brave or the saintly, but the reasonable path forward for the common, average person raised from childhood to embrace virtue and to do good.

And that brings me to this week’s hero, Lassana Bathily. A Muslim originally from the West African nation of Mali, Bathily was working at the Hyper Cacher grocery store in the Porte des Vincennes neighborhood of Paris when Amedy Coulibaly burst in on January 9 in an insane attempt to divert the attention of the police from the pursuit of his fellow-travelers, the Charlie Hebdo murderers. Immediately upon entering the market, Coulibaly shot four patrons dead, all Jewish people doing their pre-Shabbat shopping in an unremarkable market in a distant suburb of Paris that none would ever have expected to be the scene of anything like what then ensued in that place. Acting quickly and wisely, Bathily led fifteen shoppers, including a two-year-old child, to a cold storage area in the basement of the building where he locked them inside, took the key with him, then managed to escape up an elevator shaft to the street where he was able to give the police the key, tell them what was going on inside, explain where exactly Coulibaly was holed up, and draw a floor plan of the store. Unsure if he was friend or foe, the police initially treated him hostilely, handcuffing him and forcing him to the ground. But the truth became clear soon enough, and Bathily was hailed a true hero, as someone who risked everything to save people whose lives might well otherwise have been forfeit.

To reward Bathily for his efforts, the French government acted quickly and dramatically, cutting through what might otherwise have been years’ worth of red tape to grant him French citizenship at a ceremony attended by the highest officials, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.  But it was Bathily’s reaction that caught my attention the most dramatically. (You can watch him deliver his very brief remarks by clicking here. He speaks in French, but NBC News provides English subtitles.) He had been hailed as a hero across all of France. Benjamin Netanyahu himself referred to him in precisely those terms in a speech praising his bravery and his selflessness. But the man himself chose to speak of his deeds much in the manner of Miep Gies. “People say I am a hero,” he said quietly, knowing the world was listening carefully. “But I am not a hero at all,” he continued, “I am Lassana. And I will stay the same. I would do the same again too, because I was only following my heart.” The video clip is remarkably moving and I think I’d think so even if I weren’t so emotionally tied to the whole incident in Paris and its aftermath. Here is a man who, like Miep Gies, felt right in rejecting the accolade “hero” for merely having done the right thing, for simply having behaved decently and bravely, for having seen people in terrible danger and having done what it took to make them safe.

I could not admire that approach to life more. I have spent my whole life wondering what kind of person I am, if I could have been a Korczak, a Miep Gies, now a Lassana. May God spare me from finding out in the way any of them did! But these individuals who rejected—and I’m feel sure Korczak too would have scoffed at the idea that he was properly to be labelled a Superman-style hero for declining to abandon terrified children to their fate—these three whose example suggests that the ability to behave extraordinarily is specifically not something best relegated to a handful of exceptional people but embraced by ordinary people like ourselves who, like it or not, absolutely are possessed of the ability to behave magnificently when, in the twinkling of an eye, the path to moral greatness opens before us and we must decide on the spot whether to flee or take that first step towards selflessness and virtue—these are my heroes, the people I wish the most ardently to consider myself up to following whose example. Listen to Lassana’s soft-spoken remarks—they last all of forty-five seconds—and, if you dare, ask yourself what you would have done, if you could have behaved in that way when, in the space of a second or two, greatness was thrust upon you…and the choice to embrace it bravely was yours to make. The question is not whether you could have shimmied up that elevator shaft. The question is whether you could have decided to risk everything…to do good, to save a child, to embrace virtue not as a superhuman hero…but simply and plainly as yourself. That is the question to ask…and, if you dare, to answer honestly.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Martin

Eventually, we all leave home. For most in our tiny subsection of the universe, we go to college. Some head off to participate in some gap-year program in a distant land. Others go to serve in our nation’s Armed Forces or in some other nation’s. Ideally, this is a gentle experience, this leave-taking, one in which the sense of caring parental oversight is delicately replaced by the less overtly watchful but no less real and responsible guidance of…someone: an R.A. in the dorm, a superior officer, a counselor of some sort. For many, the first big step away is presaged years earlier by an experience in summer camp where one leaves home physically, but acquires no actual responsibility for one’s life in any truly meaningful sense: even bedtime is pre-ordained in camp, as is the time you can swim in the lake and what happens if you’re caught smoking in the woods behind your cabin. You’re on your own, but also not on your own; your counselors are adults in a certain sense…but most campers have the insight, I think, to realize even at ten or eleven that their college-aged counselors are not quite adults in the sense their parents are. They too, it turns out, have a whole slew of rules to follow if they don’t want to be expelled from Eden on the next bus heading south. Or north. Or wherever….

I myself had a different experience, one that in retrospect still, even after all these years, seems odd for me to contemplate. Before I changed course entirely and set sail for the rabbinate, I was preparing myself for a career in the diplomatic corps. I was taking courses in French and German all along, then added in Russian and Chinese. I liked my studies, then liked even more the opportunity that was suddenly presented to me to spend a year abroad in a country unlike my own, in a place like the one to which I was still vaguely fantasizing our government would send me as a well-meaning torchbearer of American culture and beneficence. I should have gone to Israel. I wrote a letter to myself that I placed in my desk drawer at home in which I said that I hoped this worked out for the best, but that if it didn’t I wanted later on to remember that I went into it knowing I was learning the lines for a play that had already closed. The full force of my intellectual curiosity was focused on the Hebrew language at that point…and on classical Jewish texts. (Later on, when I returned for my senior year, I would have a wholly unsatisfying experience studying both—language and text—with a teaching faculty at Queens College that featured both highly qualified academics and totally unqualified others who simply got the job because they had the word “rabbi” before their name or could speak Hebrew adequately.)  But that was all to come in the future…and so, packing up my things, I said goodbye to my parents and, clutching my $200 round-trip, open-ended Air France ticket to Paris, I flew to Europe.

To say that I landed in a different universe is to say nothing. I grew up in Jewish Queens. Our elementary school was closed on Sukkot. Or maybe not closed closed…but de facto closed because no one went to school on Jewish holidays. I had no non-Jewish friends. The handful of non-Jewish families in our apartment house were not known to me as such; I remember being vaguely surprised when I asked my father why the doorman had to work on Yom Kippur and he explained to me that Joe wasn’t actually Jewish. I was amazed! Eventually, I figured things out a bit. (It turned out Pete, my barber, also wasn’t Jewish.) But this was an intensely ethnic neighborhood in those days, Forest Hills. I certainly never had to tell anyone I was Jewish! And, besides, who could I have told who didn’t know it already?

And then…I landed in France. I spent a few days in Paris in a hotel near the Gare du Nord, then headed to Reims for a two-week introduction to French university life. I was skating along on the surface, understanding every twelfth word, trying to be brave, to complete the assignments as they were handed out…and then that part of things was over and I was escorted to my new home, a men’s dormitory on the outskirts of Nancy not too far from the university. I knew no one. I could barely speak French. (I could read Corneille and Racine well enough, but there was no emphasis at all on speaking in college language courses in those days.) I was not only the only Jew, but also the only American. (This was la Francophonie in its fullest flower—my dorm mates were from Chad, Niger, Laos, the Seychelles Islands, Madagascar…places like that. Not a Quebecker in sight! There were a few English students, it turned out, but it took some time to locate them.) The city was plastered with anti-Israel posters, most showing one or two scary-looking fedayeen brandishing machine guns and the words Palestine Vaincra (“Palestine Shall Vanquish”) in huge black letters beneath their booted feet. I felt intimidated and alone, unsure of myself, insecure in the extreme. And then…about two days after my arrival, news came of the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich.

For my dorm mates, it was just a news story. No one seemed too upset, let alone devastated. Life went on. The guys in the dorm responded, I suppose, not unlike the way I responded the other day when I opened the paper and read about the massacre of twenty shoppers at a market in northern Nigeria the other day by a ten-year-old suicide bomber, a little girl: I felt awful, sickened, horrified…then turned the page and read about something else. The fact that I could barely understand the radio and was ashamed to admit it out loud…plus the fact that it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, that I really didn’t know what these people all around me did or didn’t think about Jews or about Israel, that I had no idea what any of my new neighbors thought of those posters—together those anxiety sources alone were enough to paralyze me and made me feel not only lonely, but truly alone. Eventually, I found my way to the city’s sole synagogue with the intention, maybe, of finding some kindred souls, of making some friends, of seeing what kind of Jewish life my new city had to offer.

This is the background I bring personally to the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher massacre. I was raised to find no complicatedness at all in thinking of myself as a full-fledged American and as a proud member of the House of Israel. My parents were both deeply patriotic; neither ever missed an election, in the case of my mother even when she was only weeks from her death. Our synagogue was packed to overflowing the Friday evening following President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 because we were responding to a horrific American tragedy by speaking in our own language, just as did the nation’s Catholics and Lutherans, and just as also did countless other groups within the warp and woof of American society. The debates others have reported to me experiencing in their youths between their American and Jewish identities were not part of who we were in Jewish Forest Hills; I think I would have thought it crazy even to ask there were some substantial issues to debate in that regard.

But what I found in France was different. I’ll never forget the pile of newspapers at the door to the sanctuary that the older men all used to wrap their tallis bags up in so as to carry them home unobtrusively. I never did that myself…but I eventually began to wonder if perhaps I should have been following their example. The supermarkets had kosher food, but it was a big secret: you had to know in advance which brands were kosher because they bore no “mysterious” Hebrew or non-Hebrew markings that might have identified themselves as such. Nor did the handful of kosher places in Paris that I was eventually directed to have any overt signage: you had to scrutinize the menu to get the idea. No one, not even the rabbi, wore a kippah in the street. (The rabbi wore a hat and everybody else, including the most observant families, went bareheaded.) And yet…the synagogue was a huge building, one so imposingly massive that even the Nazis eventually gave up on the idea of demolishing it and used it as some sort of storage facility. It was right there on the Boulevard Joffre, too, facing the city’s railway tracks and as prominent as any public building could be.

And so that was how it was in this new world for me, this strange combination of presence and reticence, of formidability and shyness, of being there proudly and prominently…and also not wishing to be noticed. Eventually, I settled in. I made some friends, began to be invited for Shabbat and occasionally for other things as well. I bailed out of all my French and German courses and registered solely for courses in Hebrew offered by the university’s Centre des Langues Sémitiques. I found myself in the company of a strange group of teachers and an even odder group of students, but I felt I had found my home. I liked going to class. I got to like living in the dorm. (My friend from the Seychelles Islands invited me to his parents’ home—in Paris, not in the Seychelles—for Christmas, which was quite the experience.) I eventually became a bit malnourished after trying to avoid unkosher food in the restaurant universitaire, which was basically impossible. It’s a whole story, that year I spent finding myself and deciding which course my life would take forward. Eventually, I came back to New York (a teenager no longer—I came back a day or two after my twentieth birthday), indicated my intent to start over and complete a major in Hebrew in my senior year, applied to JTS, was eventually accepted.

But the ill ease that now haunts the Jews of France is familiar to me. These were people whose communal ancestors have been present in France for far longer—for centuries upon centuries longer—than any of our ancestors have been present in North America.  And yet theirs is a host civilization that is Catholic in a way that our American cultural milieu is republican…a detail that mystifies outsiders a bit given the lack of commitment to Catholic dogma or ritual that characterizes secular French society as a whole. (For a survey of recent attitudes and practices, click here.) Or maybe it’s not the Catholic thing per se, but the notion that the nation itself is its own ethnic group, that outsiders are welcome but that there is no way to become French in the way Americans mean it when they talk about “becoming” an American. Tolerance towards others is laudable, but it doesn’t necessary make those others feel like they belong. And so the Jews of France are a kind of a puzzle: so totally integrated into the fabric of French society that there is no corner of French life closed off formally or de facto to Jewish citizens, yet also unsure how deep their roots in French soil would have to go for it to be physically impossible to uproot them or how willing their neighbors are to understand that tolerance and acceptance are not the same thing…and particularly in their extreme versions.

If any of you can understand French, click here to hear a remarkable clip of a longer speech by Manual Valls, the Prime Minister of France. He speaks boldly and clearly, very forcefully and articulately…and his message couldn’t be clearer: La France sans les juifs de France n’est plus la France (“France without the Jews of France would no longer be France.”) This is just the kind of life preserver that French Jewry needs now to embrace, shaken to the core by these attacks and worried about their future in a way that American Jews can understand intellectually perhaps, but not really emotionally.  It is a stirring clip—I wish I could find a way to present it in translation to you, although you can click here for a summary—and one that makes Manual Valls a true hero in my mind, someone who said what needed to be spoken aloud and was apparently unworried about the response his remarks might trigger, which response was at any rate warm and very supportive.

So I hope there’s hope. I feel very connected to the Jews of France, as connected as I am deeply concerned. My prayer is that the community there find the courage not to flee but to stand its ground, to deepen its commitment to its own self-preservation, and to find the strength necessary to raise a new generation of proud, young French Jews.  And if the events of last week serve as a wake-up call for the rest of France to the dangers of allowing Islamicist extremism flourish among home-grown, disaffected French youth, then perhaps some good can yet come from this horror.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Life After Death

The first time I saw a dead person, I was on the Q53 bus headed south. I must have been fourteen or fifteen. It was a hot Sunday in June and three of us—myself and two friends—were heading to Rockaway Beach. In the seat in front of me was a black woman whom I had noticed when we got on because she was suffering from some version of vitiligo, a skin condition that leaves those who suffer from it with large, pale patches of de-pigmented skin all over their bodies. She was an elderly woman too, someone I would have offered my seat to had she been standing (I was a peculiarly polite teenager), and she was wearing a huge sun hat. But she wasn’t standing at all—she was seated right in front of me when suddenly, somewhere near where Ozone Park turns into Howard Beach, she slumped forward in her seat and then, a moment later, fell to the floor of the bus. The driver pulled over, then came back to investigate, then called for help on the kind of two-way radio provided to bus drivers in those days  for use in emergency situations. (This was long before cell phones, obviously.)  

A few minutes later—it felt like hours, but can’t have been more than ten or twelve minutes—an ambulance and several police cars arrived. I was right there—the action was unfolding in the aisle next to my own seat—while they attempted to revive her, but, even though no announcements were made to the riding public, I could tell that they hadn’t been successful. A gurney was produced; her body was taken off the bus. The best part of the story is that the bus then continued on its route and we ended up spending the day swimming and sunning ourselves at the beach as planned. But that experience stayed with me and, in some extended sense, stays with me still.

More than anything, I remember being struck by how things really can change on a dime. You get up in the morning, decide to spend your day off at the beach. You gather up your things, put on a big hat with a large brim to protect you from the sun, make some sandwiches, fill a thermos with coffee…and then you fall over on the bus to the beach, draw your last breath, and are no more. A few days later, you are buried in the earth…and that, except for the hole your death has left in the hearts of those you’ve left behind, is more or less that. Or is it?

We all wonder about what comes next, if anything comes next. And, as we age, deciding whether death is a wall or a door is the question that comes to rest at the heart of how we think about life itself. As a rabbi, I’m supposed to be an expert on all sorts of things that regular people don’t or can’t know about. And, indeed, people ask me all the time what happens after death, a question made more, not less, poignant by the fact that it is almost invariably asked by people who have no real expectation that the answer they receive will be more than the answerer’s personal fantasy. And yet ask it they do, using a thousand different ways to express that same thought. Is death a gate in the fence, a door in the wall? Is it a transfer to the next bus, a portal to whatever lies beyond, a ladder to the next level? Or is it none of the above and just the last scene before the credits roll, the last chapter before you close the book, the final chord before the orchestra packs up and goes home? Our Jewish tradition is bit vague about the aftermath of the individual, preferring instead to train its gaze on the death of death itself that the prophets promised the messianic era will bring in its redemptive wake.  But what of the individual who lives and dies in a pre-redeemed world? Where does that person (or, to make the question sound less loony, that person’s soul or self) go, if indeed he or she or it goes anywhere at all? What, to ask the question slightly more sharply, do people mean when they say that they are saying Kaddish for some deceased person? For them, how?

I peruse the bestseller lists in the Times’ Book Review every weekend and have been long struck by the number of bestselling books by authors who purport to know exactly what happens after the curtain only appears to fall on human life as we know it, on our individual human lives. Some of these books are almost unbelievably successful: Pastor Todd Burpo’s book, Heaven Is For Real has sold a cool one million e-books since it was released in 2010 and is still on the Times’ list of non-fiction paperback bestsellers. I’ve been watching it there now for years—when it slipped off the top ten into the top twenty last month, it had been there for an unbelievable 206 weeks.  Dr. Eben Alexander III’s book Proof of Heaven spent 94 weeks on the list and keeps re-appearing in the top twenty even now. This week, I finally gave into my own sense of curiosity and read both books.

Heaven Is For Real is the odder of the two. Written by a pastor about his young son Colton’s experiences in heaven during an emergency appendectomy, the book has the strange feature of presenting the personal testimony of someone who only speaks to the readers through someone else’s voice. 
It’s an odd voice too, the father’s, one so given to using babyish euphemisms for basic body functions that it feels as though a shy child unused to speaking to adults were addressing the book’s readers rather than a grown man. It’s hard to take an author seriously who uses words like that in written prose, yet the enormous success of the book speaks for itself…and also for the degree to which it apparently addresses a need felt keenly enough by its million-plus readers to warrant actually buying the book and not waiting for a library copy to become available. Some of it is a bit silly—the author seems inordinately impressed that his son reported that he could “see” his father, a Christian pastor, praying for him when he was in the O.R. while his mother talked to someone on the phone in another room, two actions that he must have “seen” countless times before—and some of it sounds somewhere between ghoulish and delusional. (I’m thinking of the boy's parents’ ecstatic response to the news, delivered by their four-year-old, that while wandering around heaven he had run into the fetus his mother had miscarried before he was born, now grown up to be a happy little girl fully alive in death. But creepier still is the parents’ playful banter about how each now hopes to predecease the other so as to garner the right personally to name their heavenly daughter before the other one can get to it. Did I mention this guy has sold more than one million e-books?)

The rest of the story is what you’d expect. Little Colton meets Jesus. He runs into his dad’s late grandfather. (Pop has, and I quote, “really big wings.”) He comes across the archangel Gabriel and John the Baptist and gets a long, scary look at Satan. He has a brief sit-down with the Holy Spirit. In other words, he has all the “right” experiences that any child raised in his father’s church would be expected to have. He learns nothing surprising (except perhaps that miscarried fetuses grow up in heaven), nothing doctrinally suspect, nothing even remotely upsetting. In other words, he is the living embodiment of theory according to which heaven is where everything you believed but couldn’t prove turns out actually to be right, thus the living epicenter of self-validation that beckons to all in our doubt-riddled, uncertain, unbalanced world.

I also read Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven. A neurosurgeon exactly my age, Dr. Alexander had the misfortune to contract bacterial meningitis in 2008. The disease left him in a deep coma and it was while he was comatose that he found himself in a place that he later identified as heaven. It’s difficult to summarize the experience, which is described richly and fully, and at great length, in the book; part of it had to do with being mired in a kind of heavy, tangible darkness that was simultaneously brimming with light. There was a beautiful girl riding on a giant butterfly escorting him into an immense void. Different parts of the experience, the doctor labels the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View (it makes sense, sort of, in the book), the Gateway, and the Core. And this author also runs into a dead sister

in heaven, although the story here is more complicated: after finally making contact with his birthparents (Dr. Alexander was adopted as an infant), he discovers that he has a full brother and sister (his teenaged parents eventually married and had more children) but that a second sister had died. And, it turns out, it was exactly her, the late sister, who was the beautiful girl in the powder blue and indigo dress bathed in heavenly light on the butterfly’s wings. It took a while to recognize her when the author was finally out of his coma and saw her photograph for the first time, but he was eventually certain that his late sister, a woman whom he had never met and whose picture he had never seen, was the woman sent to lead him to the Core, to Om, to God. You get the idea.

So the question for me is why I find this all so hokey and unlikely. I am, after all, in the business of encouraging people to believe in the some version of life after death. I regularly chant the memorial prayer in synagogue that concludes with the wish, which I sing out fervently, that the soul of the deceased find repose in paradise, secure and safe beneath the protective wings of God’s fully present reality in that place. I unveil tombstones that have carved into them the prayer that the soul of the individual interred in that grave be bound up in the bond of life everlasting. I talk about ghosts all the time from the bimah, particularly during Yizkor. And, indeed, the notion of the durable soul is a bread-and-butter concept for Jewish theology, one of the foundational ideas upon much of the rest rests.

It is true that, at least technically speaking, neither Colton Burpo nor Eben Alexander actually died. Yet both perceived what happened to them as a kind of dying nonetheless and their perception of the state into which they entered as akin to what most pre-dead people think of as heaven, as the “other” world, as the ultimate reality of which this world of brick and mud we inhabit is the merest and least consequential shadow.  I should be proud that I was right all along, that there is a universe of light behind the door through which all must pass, that all you see is precisely not all you get. And, yes, a little bit I do want to believe that these accounts—and all the other Near Death Experiences you can read about in dozens of similar books—that the Christian symbolism in these books is merely an instance of people singing in their own voice, looking out at the world through their own eyes, interpreting the uninterpretable in terms of their own prior beliefs. But mostly it seems to me that these books, for all I want to believe, prove nothing at all. At the end of the day, neither book explains how its author knows that this wasn’t just a huge hallucination to which its author fell prey. A pleasant, endearing, very attractive hallucination, to be sure…but ultimately just a projection of prior beliefs on the blank slate of a mind at rest either artificially (like the boy under anesthesia) or tragically (like Dr. Alexander in his coma).

Of course, the fact that neither book is especially compelling doesn’t mean that there isn’t a world beyond the world, that death isn’t a door, or that the soul isn’t durable enough to outlast the body that houses it on earth. All of those ideas are part of our sacred tradition…but, at least for the time being, they can be cherished as prayers, as hopes, even as sacred promises, but not embraced as statements of proven fact that none but the wilfully obtuse could rationally deny. But that’s not such a bad thing…prayer is a powerful thing and surely none of us knows in advance which of all our prayers will be answered!