Thursday, February 25, 2016

Good Luck/Bad Luck

Luck has a bad rep these days and has for a while. Indeed, when Emerson wrote more than a century and a half ago in his essay called “Worship” (published in 1860 in his still-remarkable collection, The Conduct of Life) that only “shallow men believe in luck,” but that “strong men believe in cause and effect,” he was merely expressing a thought that most of us have regularly: that we are the masters of our own destinies far more meaningfully than we are fate’s victims, that the occasional serendipity or untoward happenstance do not come frequently or meaningfully enough to obscure the fact that Fortuna—for all she was beloved by the Romans—was, at the end of the day, a false god, a pagan bit of nonsense. And that Romeo is really just whining when he describes himself as fortune’s fool because, in the end, no one suffers merely solely because they are condemned to misery by the stars or the gods. We wish each other good luck all the time. But we don’t really mean it. Or do we?

I’ve just recently read two books, one about the world’s luckiest person and the other about the world’s least lucky…and the accidental juxtaposition of these reading experiences has made me wonder again about the whole concept.

The luckiest boy, now a man in his mid-eighties, is still working as a Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence at the George Washington University Law School. But once Thomas Buergenthal was a Jewish child in a small town, Lubochna, in what was then Czechoslovakia and today is part of Slovakia. He didn’t really grow up there, however, because his family was deported when he was just four to the ghetto in Kielce, Poland. Four years later, after the ghetto was liquidated and almost all its residents murdered, he was sent along with his father to a labor camp. (He was still only eight years old at the time. About his mother’s fate, see below.) In a short passage that it is almost unbearable to read, he writes clearly and soberly about the murder of the ghetto’s children. But what is remarkable is that he somehow manages to write about such unimaginable horror specifically from a child’s perspective: the greatness of his book is that he does not attempt to contextualize what befell him in light of what he now knows or learned later on, but tries always to describe what he saw and experienced from the vantage point of the child he then was. In the summer of 1944, when little Tommy was ten, he and his father were sent to Auschwitz. Most in the transport were murdered upon arrival, but he was somehow sent along with his father to the work barracks. Why that happened, he does not pretend to understand, preferring instead to say that he was merely lucky, that his survival was not a function of his virtue or his worthiness merely of his good fortune. You read this book, and you can believe it easily.

The book, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, was published by Little, Brown in 2009, after having first appeared in German and has subsequently been translated into more than a dozen languages. I have read countless books in this genre, each one moving in its own personal way…but I can’t recall reading one that was as remarkable as this one and which made such a deep impression on me. And Tommy’s story remained unusual after the war as well. He was “adopted” by a unit of the Polish Army and stayed with them until they finally realized that their company was not really suitable for a child then still only twelve years old and deposited him in the Jewish orphanage that had been set up in Otwock, Poland.  And there he waited until, amazingly, he learned that his mother was not only alive but that she had returned to her own hometown in Germany and was conducting her search for him and his father from there. The story of their reunion is beyond touching, as is the story of the way they learned definitively that Tommy’s father had been killed. But it is the chapters set at Auschwitz and on the Death March to Sachsenhausen, the camp within Germany at which he was finally liberated, that are the most compelling.

Tommy himself cannot explain his survival. He returns to this theme again and again, not attempting more than to marvel at the arbitrariness of it all, at the way life and death appeared to decreed based on nothing at all…and certainly not on merit. He tells the story of his mother’s visit to a fortune teller before their deportation to Poland and of her mother’s unshakable certainty that the fortune teller was right when she said that Tommy would always be a lucky boy. And he leaves it at that…allowing us, the readers, either to buy into the notion that luck is real and that it visits whom it will without reference to rank or worth. But, of course, he also belies his own argument by becoming not just a lawyer after leaving Germany for the United States in 1951 and eventually earning his J.D. degree from New York University and advanced degrees in legal scholarship from Harvard, but by becoming one devoted to human rights law in particular. He writes about his work passionately and movingly, and although he would not dare say (nor would any sane person) that he was somehow spared from death because of the work he would one day do, he does suggest subtly that he somehow earned his right to have survived ex post facto by becoming a force for justice and good in the world, and by working tireless to prevent others from facing the fate that met his family and more or less the entire world of his youth.

And then, on the heels of A Lucky Child, I read Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air.  To say that the author was unlucky is to say nothing at all. Here was a man on the threshold of a great career as a neurosurgeon, a happy married man just wrapping up his residency and about to embark on a lifetime of healing and helping others. He was an educated man too, and not just in the way all doctors are: this was a man with an M.A. in literature from Stanford and a Master of Philosophy degree from Cambridge…and who only then went on to the Yale University Medical School, from which he graduated cum laude. And he, to read his own words, was someone who chose medicine for all the right reasons too—because he was truly drawn to the idea of spending his life restoring the sick to health in a way that many dream of doing but few have the emotional stamina, the intellectual ability, or the physical skill actually to accomplish.

And then, in a heartbeat, the world changed. He didn’t feel well and, in the manner of busy people (and, I think, particularly busy men), he ignored it. But then his discomfort became ominous-feeling, and he finally sought medical counsel. One test led to another, and then to a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. In the end, he had twenty-two months left before he finally died at age thirty-seven. And in that time he wrote this book, published by Random House earlier this year with a preface by Dr. Abraham Verghese, whose book Cutting for Stone remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and an afterword by the author’s wife Lucy in which she describes his death and its aftermath.

In medieval times, there was a whole genre of books devoted to confronting mortality by suggesting how to face death. The most famous, the Latin-language Ars Morendi, which title literally means “the art of dying,” dates back to the fifteenth century. English-language words followed, notably The Waye of Dying Well, The Sick Mannes Salve, and, in a more overtly Christian vein, Holy Living and Holy Dying. All have in common the assumption that the way to deal with our human mortality is to dare stare death in the face without flinching, to refuse to cower in the face of our mortality, to use the brevity of life as a platform to stand on rather than a wall to hide behind, to revel in our fragile humanity rather than to despise it.

I’ve read an English translation of the Ars Morendi years ago, but never quite seized the concept fully…until I read Dr. Kalanithi’s book. It is beautifully and movingly written, but even more impressive is its wisdom, its almost lyrical sang-froid in the face of impending doom, and its deep, abiding humanity.  It is a wonderful book, one I could not recommend more highly. But reading his words induces a series of extremely disquieting questions. Why did the author become sick? Surely he didn’t deserve his fate, but is that all there is to say, that he was unlucky in the extreme and that this, among other horrible things, is what happens to people when their luck runs out? Does any of us believe that? We pretend not to, certainly. When we say l’shanah tovah tikateivu to our friends at Rosh Hashanah time, we mean what we say (or we sort of do): that we hope that our friends merit being written up in the Great Book of Life for good, that they be granted another year of life. But does that thought not imply that those stricken with illness somehow deserve their ill fortune, that God has apparently chosen not to forgive them their trespasses? None of us believes that for a moment, and myself least of all. But to chalk it all up to luck, to kismet, to fate, and to leave it at that sounds equally ridiculous.

St. Augustine dismissed Fortuna, goddess of good luck, as “that supposed deity.” I know how he felt. Like every rabbi, I spend much of my professional life encouraging people one way or the other to believe that life has meaning, that God is just, that the way people live their lives matters profoundly and meaningfully. Believing in luck, on the other hand, seems to fly in the face of all of the above. And yet, to read these books, to contemplate the indescribable good luck of Thomas Buergenthal (who survived against all odds when so many died) and to juxtapose his fate against the inexplicable bad luck of Dr. Paul Kalanithi (who had so much to offer the world and who instead succumbed to his horrific illness before his daughter reached her first birthday)—it makes you wonder how the world really does work. I used to think that believing in luck was wholly antithetical to faith in God, and particularly to faith in the just and loving God of Israel. But now—and particularly after reading these two books back-to-back—I find myself wondering if I myself am not proof positive that just the opposite is true, that both concepts can apparently co-exist within the same human breast and flourish, each bearing its own baggage, within the chambers of the same beating heart.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Joe at 100

In many ways, my father inhabited a private universe of idiosyncratic proclivities, speech patterns, opinions, and tastes.  Many of these were just personal quirks, for example his life-long insistence on pronouncing both the airport’s name and the mayor’s as though it were written La Gardia rather than the way everybody else pronounces it. Or his being the last living New Yorker to refer to the Hudson as the North River. Others, however, were more psychologically meaningful, for example his indelible sense of himself as a Jew from Brownsville—the neighborhood in south Brooklyn, not the city in Texas—despite the fact that by the time he died in 1999 he hadn’t lived there for well over half a century. (Nor did it seem to matter particularly that the Jewish Brownsville of his youth itself hadn’t existed for almost as long as he hadn’t lived there.) But in other ways, of course, my dad was a man of his time and place who deciphered the world in roughly the same way the rest of his generation did. That, surely, was his right! But it was both those aspects—the idiosyncratic quirks that were his alone and the values and opinions he shared with so many others of his time and place—that, taken together and gently stirred, created the unique being that was my father, born one hundred years ago next Tuesday. Happy Birthday, Dad!

My father, Joseph Cohen (how many times did I hear him explain that he was too poor growing up to have a middle name?), arrived in a world so unlike our own as to make it in many ways almost unrecognizable. But he also left a world behind that many today would find distinctly unfamiliar, albeit for a different set of reasons. My father never owned a cell phone. He died without ever having acquired an email address, let alone a Twitter account or a Facebook page. Those details alone make it sound like he should be turning a thousand years old next week, not just a hundred…but that is merely a sign of how dramatically things have changed—and how quickly—since he drew his last breath in the summer of 1999. I myself went to college, after all, before anyone had his or her own computer, before there even was a public internet, before memory was something you could buy more of, before the word “library” meant anything other than the building on campus where they kept all those books. But the world I wish to imagine is not the world of my father’s final years as the last century waned and the millennium loomed slightly menacingly (remember Y2K?) on the horizon, but the world of his first years, of his childhood.

The world was at war when my dad was born: he was actually born during the Battle of Verdun, now familiar mostly to high school students preparing for the Regents exam in Global History but at the time thought to be the bloodiest and most horrific battle imaginable, one fought between more than a million French and even more German soldiers. Well over 400,000 soldiers died at Verdun too, slightly more on the French side than the German, but even more stunning is that neither side won anything significant at all in the course of the battle’s 303 days and the battle, formally listed in the history books as a French victory, should far more reasonably be adjudicated a draw. When my father was born, however, there was still to be more than a year before our nation entered the war and all this violent insanity was still all “over there.” Indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, things were relatively calm as my dad entered the world. Woodrow Wilson was already busy campaigning for a second term in the White House. His Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall (our only V.P. to be the target of an assassination attempt, but today most remembered for his election-year quip that what America really needed was a good five-cent cigar) was campaigning for re-election as well. The mayor of New York City (of which Brooklyn had been part for fewer than twenty years on the day of my dad’s birth) was John Purroy Mitchell, the so-called “Boy Mayor.” (Mayor Mitchell was a full-grown man, of course. His nickname derives from the fact that he was elected mayor at age thirty-four, thus becoming—at the time and still—New York City’s youngest mayor. He is also Gotham’s only mayor to die after accidentally falling out of an airplane.) And so my father was born into a world at peace and at war, into an age of unprecedentedly mechanized violence sandwiched in between the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties.

What I know about Woodrow Wilson or the Boy Mayor I know almost exclusively from reading books. Those books, obviously, outline their careers, their accomplishments, their defeats, etc., painting their private and professional lives either broadly or, depending on the intended market for the book, in far more focused detail. About my father’s life, though, there are no major volumes to buy and read. And, indeed, when I think about my father’s life, I find myself amazed how possible it is simultaneously to know so much and so little about someone. Is that the way it always is with parents and children, that we somehow know everything and nothing about them? I knew my father beyond well. For decades, we corresponded—on paper, in the old-fashioned way—twice weekly…and I have the thousands of letters and aerograms to prove it. (Joan and I left New York for Jerusalem in 1983 and, although at the time we imagined we were leaving for a year or two, we only returned nineteen years later in 2002. In the sixteen years between our departure and my father’s death, we both wrote each other twice weekly. That would make a total of more than 3,000 letters—four for each week of sixteen years, excluding only those weeks we were actually present in each other’s company—and I have all, or at least most, of them. If we slacked off here and there, it wasn’t often.) In those letters were detailed the day-to-day lives we were living: when you write that often and at length, there’s plenty of room to expatiate about even the most picayune details. There’s one memorable letter of my dad’s given over entirely to a detailed report on the purchase of a necktie in the Macy’s on Queens Blvd in Elmhurst, for example. But the amazing thing isn’t that he once bought a tie in some store somewhere, but how truly interesting the whole experience was to read about once it was properly dissected and thoughtfully analyzed after-the-fact by as astute an observer of the human condition as was my father and by as good a writer. He wrote semi-professionally too, sharing with three other writers the authorship of the Berkshire Beat column in the North Adams Transcript for years and years. Nor was writing mere avocation for my dad—he actually was an English teacher, employed for decades at John Adams High School in Ozone Park and then, after his too-early retirement, at a yeshivah on 108th Street in Forest Hills.)

But what I don’t know about my father would fill up a much thicker book than the one I actually could write about his life. I knew him as intimately as any son could know his father…and yet I can’t name a single person with whom he went to Franklin K. Lane High School, not a single teacher who influenced him, not the title of a single book he read as an adolescent that altered the course of his life. Even his family story has large holes I suppose I won’t ever be able to patch up now. He had a sister who died long before I was born, for instance, but I’ve never seen a picture of her. He also had two older brothers who died before his parents came to this country, but I don’t even know their names. I know almost nothing about my father’s own father either—a topic my father intently, almost forcefully, avoided whenever it might otherwise have come up for discussion—and only a little about his mother, my grandmother. (She died when I was four years old and, although I don’t remember much of her, I am for some reason able to remember the sound of her voice.) And yet when I think of my father’s family, I think, not of a puzzle with missing pieces, but of a warm, loving clan of people I did and do know, people in whose homes I was a regular visitor and a welcome guest. So my father’s life is a strange pastiche of bright parts and dark gaps, of lots of this and less of that, of light and shadow. My father had a first wife too, but I only learned of her existence when I was in my twenties. And I only learned her name long after my father died when my Aunt Molly, figuring that it no longer mattered, offhandedly mentioned it to me. But of that entire episode in my father’s life, including what ever happened to that first Mrs. Cohen, I know more or less nothing at all.

Have I replicated that strange light-and-shadow thing with my own children? Do we all? (Or, to ask the question even more trenchantly, does anyone not?) Do my children know the name of the junior high school I attended? Do they know the names of any of the boys in my bunk at Camp Oakdale? They all know that I spent my junior year of college in France, but have I ever shared any of the things that befell me there with them at all, let alone in detail, to explain how that whole experience led me to apply to JTS for rabbinical school? I suppose the answer is that I haven’t. But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be, that we’re supposed to know our parents and also not to know them, that the whole idea is to be intimately involved in the stories of their lives and also to leave large swathes of that story unexplored so as to grant the people we love the most the privacy they need to create a life narrative that conforms to their sense of identity and personhood than to the harsh exigencies of historical reality.

Hiding behind all this rumination about my father are larger, deeper questions about identity. What does it mean to be who you are? Every life has a narrative, but is it supposed to be fiction or fact, myth or history? Is the identity you bear—the way you see yourself and the way you hope to inspire others too to see you—is that sense of yourself supposed to be something you fashion of the shards of your past…or is supposed to be the outer shell that forms naturally around the sum total of all that has happened to you in the course of the years of your life? For the record, I attended Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School from 1965 to 1967. Is that by definition part of who I am now, today? Or is it just a detail about the boy I briefly was. Even I don’t remember much of ninth grade, after all. Does that make my sense of myself scarred by recollective deficiency or unaffected precisely because the whole experience of attending ninth grade failed to earn a place in my ongoing sense of identity, in the ongoing narrative of my life to date as I tell it and wish it to be told? That is the unexpected question the contemplation of my father’s upcoming centenary brings to the fore as I contemplate his life and, by extension, my own.

My dad once told me he recalled as a boy having seen Civil War veterans marching down Fifth Avenue on Veterans Day. I found that unbelievable, but no more so, I’m sure, than my own children found it when I mentioned that I myself saw veterans of the Spanish-American War marching in that same parade when I was a boy. Some of those veterans my dad saw must have been born in the 1840s—they would have been in their eighties when my father was a ten-year-old—and so old enough personally to have known veterans of the Revolutionary War. That moment—seeing those Civil War vets and allowing them to symbolize the interconnectedness of events and the collapsible aspect of time as the past races through the present into the future—ended up being a profound piece of my father’s puzzle, an important detail that he cherished and passed on. It pleases me to pass it along to you as I think about my dad and wish I could somehow introduce him to you. The thing with the veterans is just a detail, of course. But it symbolizes for me a great truth: that we are the living embodiments of the portraits we fashion from the bits and pieces we somehow manage to hold on to as we pass through the twin landscapes of memory and event…and make ourselves into the people we wish our children to know and, ideally, to respect and to remember once we’re gone.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Who Is A Hero?

I was slightly embarrassed to realize that I hadn’t ever heard of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, whose story President Obama told at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington the other week and who is one of only five Americans honored by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” So I’d like to begin this week by telling the story of his great bravery in all its awesome simplicity. Edmonds was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and was the senior non-commissioned officer in the P.O.W. camp to which he and the other American prisoners were sent. When the German camp commander, a Major Siegmann, ordered the Jewish prisoners to step forward, Edmonds instructed all of his men to step forward. When the commander said, in English, that they could obviously not all be Jews, Edmonds responded coolly, “We are all Jews here.”  To this, the commander responded by raising his pistol and pressing its barrel to Edmonds’ forehead. It’s hard even to imagine the bravery that Edmonds then showed: he turned to face the man aiming a gun directly at him and responded with words that bear quoting. “According to the Geneva Convention,” Sgt. Edmonds said, “we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The commander, who presumably understood on some level that Germany had already lost the war, backed down; the two hundred or so Jewish prisoners among the roughly one thousand American soldiers present were safe, or at least as safe as any prisoner-of-war could have reasonably expected to be in German hands.

The story, which took place on January 27, 1945, in the Stalag IX-A prisoner-of-war camp near Ziegenhain, has been fully documented by eyewitnesses. The danger was real. The Germans routinely murdered Jewish prisoners-of-war on the Eastern Front, but by 1945 the death camps were not fully functional and Jewish prisoners were instead being sent to slave labor camps. Their chances of survival in such places were minimal, however, and Edmonds fully understood that, by refusing to allow the Germans to treat Jewish prisoners differently from non-Jewish ones, he was saving their lives. And thus did he fully earn his place in the Yad Vashem registry alongside the other 25,685 individuals honored for having risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis. He is the first American serviceman to be so honored, but not the first American: there were four who preceded him: Varian Mackey Fry, called the American Schindler, who was personally responsible for helping more than two thousand Jewish people escape from Nazi-occupied France; Lois Gunden, who, as a twenty-six-year-old teacher in southern France helped protect Jewish children from their would-be murderers (and whose story the President also told last week in Washington); and Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister , and his wife Martha Sharp who were responsible for saving numerous Jews, including the then-famous author Leon Feuchtwanger, from the Nazis. Edmonds died in 1985 without having fully told his own story; it fell eventually to his son, the Rev. Chris Edmonds of Maryville, Tennessee, to put the details together and then to bring them to the attention of Yad Vashem.

The story could hardly be more stirring, but it also awakens all sorts of ancillary questions in me that are as emotionally unsettling as the larger story is inspiring. It is, for example, not especially complicated for me to imagine myself as one of the Jewish soldiers interned at Stalag IX-A. Indeed, I can easily see myself consumed with anxiety while contemplating the range of things could plausibly befall a Jew who suddenly finds himself fallen into Nazi hands. As a soldier, I would have been well aware of the virulence of Nazi anti-Semitism. And I would surely also have heard about the camps, or about some of them—by December 1944, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec had already been liberated by the Red Army and at least part of their ghastly legacy been made public—and would fully have understood what they represented in terms of the depths of the enemy’s depravity. I don’t believe it was widely known in the winter of 1944 yet that the Germans were actually executing prisoners-of-war in the East, but the specter of impending doom would surely have been hanging over me. (I mentioned above that it was German policy to murder Jewish prisoners-of-war who fell into their hands, but it was hardly only Jewish POWs that the Germans were executing on the Eastern Front: 57% of all Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody, which works out to something like 3.3. million people. Of those prisoners, about 5% are estimated to have been Jewish.) In that sense, I find it not at all challenging to imagine myself in that place at that time, and to conjure up the set of complex emotions that would no doubt have seized me as I waited, filled with dread, to see what was going to happen next.

Dramatically more difficult for me, however, is to imagine myself as Master Sgt. Edmonds. He was, as noted above, neither a philosopher nor a professional ethicist, just a man with the cold steel of a German Luger pressed up against his forehead as he was ordered by his captors to do something that would not only make it seriously more likely that he himself would survive, but that would—or at least might—make it concomitantly more likely that the large majority of the men among whom he was the senior officer would also survive their incarceration. In other words, Sgt. Edmonds had every reason to believe that by separating out the Jewish prisoners, the remaining men would be far less likely to provoke the murderous rage of their captors. He had seconds, not minutes (let alone hours or days) to decide what to do. Yet he stood his ground, refusing to obey Major Siegmann’s order and instead putting his life on the line rather than abandon his principles or betray any of the Jewish men for whom he was responsible and whose self-appointed savior he had somehow, unanticipatedly, become.

What does it take to be a man like that, to be someone who chooses to risk death rather than to betray his comrades-in-arms, someone who willingly puts his own life on the line rather than abandon his own principles? To say that I would do the same is just blather; I’d surely like to think that of myself (who wouldn’t?), but, speaking fully honestly, which of us knows what he or she would actually do in such a situation? To say the same thing in different words, it isn’t at all difficult to find it appealing to think of myself as such a person. But to say with certainty, or even with near certainty, that I would do that thing if I were in that position…those are words that I find myself unable to say with the kind of self-assurance that really should characterize the kind of man I like to think of myself as being.

As noted above, Master Sgt. Edmonds died more than twenty years ago. A bit in this regard like David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the Struma whose story I wrote about two weeks ago, Roddie Edmonds too chose to keep his story close to his breast, telling his story only to his own diary and keeping the details of his bravery even from his own son. (How the son eventually heard the story is its own strange tale. After leaving the White House in 1972, Richard Nixon purchased a town house in Manhattan from a Jewish lawyer who was quoted in a magazine article about the sale as mentioning that his life had been saved by Sgt. Edmonds all those years earlier…and Sgt. Edmonds’ son happened to see that newspaper story posted somewhere on the Internet decades later. Amazed to learn something about his own late father that he hadn’t ever heard before, he proceeded to seek out the lawyerwho was fortunately still aliveand from there to uncover the details of his father’s bravery and to meet some of the men who were present on that day in the winter of 1945.) That Sgt. Edmonds declined to think of himself as a hero seems natural; the way of the truly virtuous among us is to find it natural and normal to behave nobly and to find it correspondingly peculiar to imagine that they should be singled out for praise merely for having done the right thing. In that regard, Sgt. Edmonds was more like Miep Gies (the woman who hid Anne Frank’s family until they were betrayed to the Nazis) or Lassana Bathily (the man who successfully hid the people who survived the Hyper Cacher massacre in Paris last January), both of whom refused to allow themselves to be referred to as heroes because it struck them as ignoble to take special credit merely for having behaved decently even when doing so could easily have cost them their lives. (I wrote about them both in a letter last year; if you’re reading this electronically and you want to see what I had to say about them then, click here.)

As I have often written in these pages, heroism has become a passé virtue in our day. We live in a world in which politicians are so routinely duplicitous that people do not find it odd to say that they are supporting a candidate because he or she seems like an honest person instead of expecting honesty and candor of anyone and everyone who would be considered for public office. So too with heroism: we live in a world in which people who merely do the right thing are called heroes and admired for their virtue. Whether or not it is healthy for society to upgrade what ought to be labelled decent behavior to the level of true heroism is a question for philosophers, but the bottom line has to be that I personally couldn’t admire Sgt. Roddie Edmonds more for his bravery in the face of Nazi evil more than seventy years ago. But—and this is key, I think—I admire him no less for not thinking of himself as someone whom the world should admire because he did the right thing, and for being someone who acted with great bravery not because he wanted a medal or a tree on the Avenue of the Righteous in Jerusalem but simply because that was what decency demanded and his position in the Armed Forces required him to do. Sgt. Edmonds himself may not have thought of himself as a hero merely for having done the right thing. But I do!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Compromise at the Kotel

It’s a bit hard to know what to make of this week’s historic compromise regarding the use of space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem by non-Orthodox prayer- and tour-groups. Certainly, that any compromise at all came about is remarkable. (The Ḥareidi types who run the show at the Kotel—the Western Wall—and anywhere in Israel where the Chief Rabbinate holds sway are not renowned for their willingness to cooperate when on-paper conciliation might conceivably lead to actual on-the-ground concession.)  And, yet, there they all were on the front pages of all the Israeli newspapers and on-line news sites agreeing not to make a ruckus about a significant portion of the Western Wall Plaza—nearly 10,000 square feet, double the size of the area currently assigned to non-Orthodox groups—being assigned formally to groups independent of the Chief Rabbinate and its minions for their liberal use. (An area that size can accommodate about 1,200 people, so this really is a serious amount of space.) Perhaps to suggest the fact that this compromise should be taken as a sign of unity rather than divisiveness, there will still be one single entrance to the site. Nor has it been made clear exactly how the different sections will be labelled on public signage—an issue that will seem unimportant only to people unfamiliar with the level of almost venomous dislike that characterizes more or less any situation in which ultra-Orthodox Jews and more liberal types in Israel are obliged to reference each other in print or orally. Yet signs there too there will somehow be…and they will have to say something.  (What they won’t say is “Fundamentalist fanatics to the left and heterodox iconoclasts to the right,” however, which is ironic since that is precisely what the average secular Israeli actually does think of both parties to this week’s agreement. Saying so on a sign, however, would be contrary to the spirit of the accord. And, at any rate, such a sign would only be half right!)

The Orthodox end of the Kotel, what most of us have always thought of as “the” Kotel, will, at 21,500 square feet for both the men’s and women’s sections, still be the larger piece of property. And it also bears saying that the feel to the Orthodox space at the Kotel—the size, the location, the demeanor of the people in charge, the strictly enforced adherence to Orthodox rules in terms of prayer and Torah reading, and the absolute segregation of prayer groups by gender—will remain unchanged. Indeed, the casual visitor dropping by once all these changes are put into place who isn’t specifically looking for them will probably miss the whole thing. And that, sadly, is why the compromise had a chance in the first place: not because the parties to it are eager to embrace each other as respected neighbors or cherished brethren, but precisely because the way things will be laid out on the ground will make it more or less possible for neither group to see or hear each other, or be obliged even to take begrudging note of each other’s presence. In our country, “separate but equal” was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1954 because the situation on the ground was so much more separate than equal that the concept was deemed to be meaningless. This week’s compromise too will yield results more separate than equal, but it is such a vast improvement over the situation that has prevailed in these last years that it’s hard to see why we should not embrace it. It’s not perfect and it’s certainly not the ideal—which would be for the entire Western Wall to be free and open to all without anyone insisting that anyone else hew to standards not his or her own solely to make the insister slightly more comfortable—but that will simply never happen. So this is what we’ve got and I say we should run with it. But why it matters so intensely to so many people…that is the more interesting question, I think, and it’s the topic I’d like to address this week.

The Western Wall was never part of the actual Temple, but was one of the support walls built to keep the Temple Mount from collapsing under the enormous weight of the stupendous structure that once sat atop it in precisely the space currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock. (The Dome of the Rock itself was built in that place in the seventh century C.E. by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik specifically to stress the ascendancy of Islam by positioning its most gorgeous shrine precisely on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple.) So the Wall itself wasn’t part of the Temple…but whether there actually are physical remains of the Temple in any of its iterations—the First Temple built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E., the Second Temple constructed on the spot of the first by the returnees from exile in Babylon, or the enhanced version of that same structure refurbished almost to the point of being rebuilt by King Herod towards the end of the first century B.C.E. only to be demolished by the Romans in 70 C.E.—hidden in the earth under the Temple Mount,  no one knows. Nor, mostly for political but also for practical reasons, will anyone ever know. And that leaves us with what we actually do have: the part of the western support wall that is visible to all at the Kotel Plaza today and from there south to the end of the Temple Mount and the part of the wall that is accessible to visitors only through the so-called Western Wall Tunnel that extends underground in the other direction as far north as the Via Dolorosa.

It sounds like an ancient artifact, something like the Jewish version of Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China, yet that couldn’t be less how it feels when I’m actually present in that place. And I should know because I’ve been there in almost every conceivable setting: late at night and early in the morning, in the bright sunlight and in the rain (but never in the snow that occasionally falls in Jerusalem), on Shabbat and on weekdays (and on every other holiday except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), on Tisha Be’av (the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction both by the Babylonians and by the Romans) and on Yom Ha-atzma·ut, Israel Independence Day. My first visit was in 1974 when I was a callow youth leading a teen tour to Israel only five or so years older than my charges. (When I first visited Israel in 1966, the Old City of Jerusalem was still in Jordanian hands and thus fully inaccessible to Jewish tourists who might otherwise have entered from Israel.) My most recent visit was the day before we left Jerusalem last summer and I went there to say my prayers before leaving. I’ve been called to the Torah there and I’ve dukhened there as well—many times, actually. It is the one place in which I find myself willing to put up with those people for the greater good of worshiping in that place. And it is the one place in which, despite my usual inclination to anchor any ruminative thinking about the future of the Jewish people in anxiety and fretful apprehension, I find myself unworried about the future and secure in God’s promise always and ever to watch over the House of Israel and the Land of Israel. This is not how I usually frame my thinking about the future, but it’s how I feel when I’m there. And that alone is why I generally gravitate towards the Kotel as soon as I arrive in Israel. Even after all these years, it’s still hard to describe the feel of the place or the power it somehow exerts on me almost as soon as I catch a glimpse of it from afar. But that power is real and I succumb to it always.

When I was in graduate school, I was very taken with the four-volume work called the Ḥemdat Yamim, a work of unknown authorship first published in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1735. Of a similar genre with other works of kabbalistic ethics that also appealed to me greatly in those days (and which haven’t entirely lost their allure for me even after all these years), the Ḥemdat Yamim managed to conjure up—for me personally at least—the image of a kind of Jewish life that was beyond appealing: rich, tolerant, intelligent, honest, fully observant without being exclusionary or arrogant, and at least theoretically attainable by regular people such as myself and ourselves. Here and there, though, the author asks a lot of his readers. For example, one of the most famous passages in the book describes the experience Rabbi Abraham ben Eliezer Halevi Berukhim (1515-1593) had at the Kotel in 1571. He was sick unto death in those days, sinking fast and unable to find a doctor to restore him to good health. And it was then, in what would likely otherwise have been his very last days, that his teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the holy Ari, told him to go to the Kotel and there to encounter the Shekhinah, the living embodiment of God’s presence on earth. And there he went and, amazingly, he had exactly the experience of seeing the Shekhinah wandering down from the Temple Mount, Her head uncovered as though in mourning for Her temple. Seeing Her in such distress, he burst into tears and ran for cover into a nearby house only to miss the doorway, run into a wall, and knock himself out. And then he awoke to find his head cradled in the Shekhinah’s lap as She dried his tears and told him to calm himself, that he wasn’t done with this life after all, and that he would recover. And that is what happened exactly: he returned to his master in Tzfat and lived another twenty-two years.

I’m not sure why exactly that story spoke to me so deeply, but it has stayed with me from the moment I first read it decades ago when I was first encountering the Ḥemdat Yamim. Admittedly, it sounds like just a folktale, like the kind of fable Jewish people once told easily about their rabbis and those rabbis’ disciples. It sounded that way to me too…until I returned to the Kotel for the first time after reading it on my honeymoon. Joan was in the women’s section and I was in the men’s. (What God had put together, the Kotel had no problem setting asunder.) And so there I was trying to daven, but all I could think about was that story and how entirely plausible it felt to me as I stood there in the shadow of the Wall and felt myself fully suffused with the palpable presence of the divine. It really is hard to explain what I mean. I’m not sure I can find the right words even to explain it to myself fully, let alone even not fully to others. But there is holiness in the world and then there’s holiness, the kind you can feel spreading over you when you find yourself in exactly the right place at the precisely correct moment. For me, it was that first visit to the Kotel on our honeymoon that sealed my fate: even though I was still working on my dissertation and was formally preparing myself for a career in academics, I knew at that specific moment that I would end up working in the congregational rabbinate. It took me a while to talk myself into acting on that decision—I accepted my first pulpit only six years later—but it was that specific moment at the Kotel as I filtered what I could remember of the Ḥemdat Yamim’s tale through the actual experience of standing before the Kotel as a married man and a rabbi and an almost Ph.D. that sealed my fate.

Over the years, people have often asked me when it was that I knew I wanted to be a rabbi. Now you all know. Is it odd that that moment came years after I was ordained, after I had already spent all those years in rabbinical school studying for ordination? I suppose it is! But that is how life truly is: sometimes a road to travel on, sometimes a barrier to be turned back by…and sometimes, if you are lucky enough to be standing in exactly the right place at the precisely correct moment, a gate to step through