Thursday, August 25, 2016

At Home and Abroad

Where does the self reside, that fully unique, private, idiosyncratic part of ourselves housed in, but wholly distinct from, our physical bodies? It sounds like the kind of question only an undergraduate could ask, let alone attempt to answer…but it’s nevertheless one I’d like to pose this week. And answer as well, if not definitively then at least with reference to some of my experiences this summer in Israel.

Some readers will surely have read earlier this summer about the wedding of Jeni Stepien and Paul Maenner, who were married on August 5 in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, a borough in Allegheny County just east of Pittsburgh. The wedding could have been, as weddings go, ordinary…but several factors made it remarkable. The first, the dour one, is that the bride’s father, a chef, was murdered one evening in 2006 as he walked home from work in a local restaurant. For a brief while, the family harbored some home that he might survive. But then he died of his wounds and, as a final, graceful gesture of letting-go, Michael Stepien’s family donated his organs, including his heart, to donors across the country waiting for transplants. A police investigation ensued. It took almost two years, but eventually an arrest was made. A trial followed that ended with the conviction of the accused, one Leslie L. Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Later, in accordance with a decision of the Supreme Court curtailing the right of lower courts to impose that specific sentence on convicted defendants who were minors at the time their crimes were committed, the sentence was altered to forty-years-to-life, plus a three-to-six-year consecutive term resulting from the defendant’s conviction on a firearms charge. The murderer was sixteen in 2006, eighteen when he was finally arrested, and nineteen when he was convicted; his victim was fifty-three. Both, coincidentally, were the fathers of two.

And that brings me to the second reason the wedding was remarkable. The bride, missing her father more than ever as she prepared to walk down the aisle without him, hit on the idea of inviting the man who received her father’s heart to accompany her instead. She knew his name—the specific organization that dealt with the donation and distribution of his organs allows donors and recipients to know each other’s identities and to establish some sort of relationship if they wish—but they hadn’t ever met in person. And so, not knowing how he would respond, she sent him an invitation. He accepted. It wasn’t too long a journey—Arthur Thomas, the man in whose chest now and for the last decade beats the heart that was originally the bride’s father’s, lives only one state over, in New Jersey—but it still can’t have been the simplest decision for him to make, and for lots of different reasons. But make it he did. And now we can fast-forward to the wedding and…there he is, standing next to the bride when she suddenly pauses halfway down the aisle to place her hand on his chest and thus to feel, if not exactly her father’s beating heart, then at least her father’s heart beating. I feel very moved by that image just writing this out—I can hardly imagine what it must have been like actually to be there and watch her place her hand on this stranger’s chest and sense her father’s nearness on her wedding day. What fatherless bride wouldn’t wish for the same thing?

Was Michael Stepien really there on his daughter’s wedding day? Surely none of us thinks deceased organ donors remain in some obscure way alive for as long as their donated organs function, much less that the people who receive those organs somehow, in some magical way, become—in addition to who they already are—some version also of the people whose organs they’ve received! And, yet, to dismiss her gesture as mere symbolism, as just a gesture of remembrance that effectively created the false but satisfying sense that her father was nearby when, of course, he was not there at all—that doesn’t feel quite right either. We all understand that the heart is the organ in our chests that pumps blood into our circulatory systems, not the seat of emotion or intelligence as which we regularly reference it in common speech: when lovers declare that they love each other with all their hearts, we understand well enough what they mean…but none of us thinks that their hearts are actually capable of loving independently of their brains…or, speaking honestly, at all. The heart is a muscle, a pump, a machine…not the seat of personality. But if the heart is not the seat of personhood, then where does the part of us that is who we truly and uniquely are, where does it reside? That’s the question!

I found myself thinking about these matters repeatedly as I wandered around Jerusalem this summer and marveled at how at home I somehow feel in a place that isn’t really home at all. Some few of you reading this have actually visited with us on Gad Tedeschi Street. But even without having had the actual experience of spending time with us in Jerusalem, all of my readers know how deeply connected we are to that place and how emotionally tied to it we are. Occasionally, people ask which is the “real” me, the one who lives here and vacations there or the one whose home is there and who works here? It’s a confusing question even to formulate, let alone honestly to answer. I’m not even entirely sure it makes sense even ask why the inner me needs to reside anywhere at all other than, like salt in a stew, invisibly but fully really within the confines of my physical perimeter. Don’t what-I-am and who-I-am have almost by definition to occupy the same space, thus to coincide neatly with where-I-am?

It’s me when I’m there, obviously. But it’s a slightly different version of me. In Jerusalem, I live in a different home. I drive a different car. I daven in a different shul. I have a different phone number (and, until we finally bought our own SIM cards this last year, a different phone as well). Indeed, not unlike an actor who looks like a different person in every show in which he is cast but who, beneath all that make-up and costuming, is essentially and always the same person, I too am the same person wherever I find myself. And so the answer is not that one is the more real me and the other, the less real version…because the true me is exactly the same in both places, maybe just dressed up a bit differently to suit the setting.

But for all it’s surely so that it’s me in both places, there is a dimension to life in Jerusalem that feels unique when I’m present in that place. I notice it in different ways. I sleep soundly there, and I have long, elaborate dreams that I can remember upon awakening with far greater frequency than I can here at home. I daven differently there too…finding different sections of the t’fillah to speak to me in different ways. Because the custom in Jerusalem is for kohanim to pronounce the Priestly Benediction with their arms aloft daily (and twice on Shabbat and chag, as opposed to only on weekday holidays as is our custom in the Diaspora), I feel a connection to my own ancestors—and to their specific stream within the larger river of Jewish consciousness that leads from history through reality to destiny—in a different, uniquely deep way. It’s me in both places. But there is a level of enhanced sensitivity to almost every aspect of my Jewishness in the Holy City that is hard to describe in mere words.

The other question we’re constantly asked—whether we intend eventually to leave North America and settle permanently in Israel—is also a question with no answer.  Like everyone, we have invented our own lives…and have dealt ourselves the cards we hold. When I’m there, part of me misses our “real” home on Reed Drive and our friends and our community. When I’m here, part of me misses the whole scene we by now slip into more and more effortlessly upon arrival. And yet I’m more of here than of there, in many ways more at home at H-Mart than at Supersol-Deal, more (and far more) rooted in the soil of the land I actually was born in than the one I could, in some alternate universe, have been born in had my great-grandparents headed east instead of west on their way out of Poland and Belarus.

It’s good to be home. I fall easily into my familiar ways here, reconnecting with the world that is our native setting here, slipping into patterns honed over years of service to the Jewish people and, more specifically, to Shelter Rock.  The real me is the only me there is: a man at home in two different places, whose Jewishness is rooted both in the diasporan experience and in the soil of Eretz Yisrael, whose sense of purpose derives alternately from the propagation of Judaism and Jewishness in the context of service to a community of like-minded fellow travelers eager to live rich, sustaining, profoundly Jewish lives and from a vibrant, meaningful connection to the Holy Land and the Holy City.

In the end, I’m a stew of many ingredients that combine to create the specific individual who I have willed myself to become. Being made of many things is not a sign of confusion or of indecision, however, as much as it is the natural human condition and, at that, the specific aspect of our humanity that reflects the one great thing that distinguishes humankind from the animal kingdom: the ability we all share to perceive the world and then to self-create along the landscape thus fashioned.

The bride in my opening story who felt her father’s presence as she put her hand to that stranger’s chest was not succumbing to self-serving fantasy…because the heart is as good a symbol as any for the constellation of attributes that create the individual. Her father was there because she willed his presence into being with her hand and her own beating heart…just as we all create ourselves through the sheer force of our desire to exist in the world along the lines we will into existence. And that’s my story as well: I am who I am because of my roots and because of my branches, because of what I do and what I am, and because of the specific feel to the settings in which I choose to flourish…and, for as long as I can, in which I hope to grow forward creatively and productively into the future.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Return to Alonei Yitzchak

Now that we’re back in the States, our whole time in Israel seems to me like a dream. But it wasn’t a dream, of course, just five restorative, relaxing, productive weeks in Jerusalem that went by all too quickly!

Over the year’s we’ve gotten used to some aspects of life in Israel—it no longer seems that odd to me, for example, when the plumber pauses in the middle of fixing the shower drain to tell you the story of his parents’ aliyah—and less used to others. (I still can’t quite figure out exactly why property has to be registered by its owners in twelve different registries, including one that even our lawyer says only exists in Israeli law as a relic of the Ottoman Empire and on the crucial nature of which the non-existence of the actual Ottoman Empire does not seem even slightly to impinge.) And whatever Israel lacks—it’s almost impossible, for some reason, to find a lime for sale in the nation’s supermarkets or a can of black beans—it more than makes up for with all the things you really cannot find anywhere else: shops in the shuk that only sell halvah, health clubs that open on Tisha Be’av afternoon but with the usual deafening music turned off out of respect for the fast, restaurants with one single main dish on the menu and people lined up around the block to get in, and more guns than I’ve ever seen anywhere in public (including, occasionally, in synagogue on Shabbat) combined with a murder rate lower than a full 117 of the world’s other nations. (Do I have to add: “including our own”?) It’s that kind of place.

I feel safe and secure in Israel. Contrary to the image of Israel constantly being broadcast by the news media in this country, the streets are filled with people out and about, the cafés are filled with people drinking coffee and watching the world go by, the shopping malls are filled with shoppers (including, at least in our neighborhood and also completely contrary to what the news media would want you to think, lots of Arab families shopping alongside Jewish families), and the synagogues—or at least the synagogues Joan and I frequent—are filled with an interesting mix of types who seem not to have heard about the much-discussed chasm between the religious and the secular in Israeli society and who are content to be themselves and to seek spiritual fulfillment where it might be found…and not according to some pre-ordained labeling plan devised by sociologists or, worse, the authors of op-ed pieces.

I want to return to the events of this summer several times in my letters over the next few months, but today, to inaugurate my tenth year of writing these weekly letters, I’d like to tell you all about a single afternoon we had in Israel a few weeks ago, one that stays with me still and was both remarkable, deeply satisfying…and as strange an experience as I’ve had in a long time.

When I was thirteen years old, my parents sent me to Israel for the first time. It was a long time ago. I hadn’t ever been on an airplane. I hadn’t ever been to another country, let alone one on the other side of the world. I certainly hadn’t ever left my parents other than to go to summer camp…and the camp I attended as a boy was owned by the best friends of my father’s oldest sister which meant that I wasn’t too far from their watchful gaze even in camp, or at least from their watchful gaze by proxy. And the decision itself to send me along to Israel with the American Zionist Youth Foundation, defunct since 1995 but in its day the major organizer of youth trips to Israel, was unexpected for another reason as well because my parents, Jewish to the core, were at best arm-chair Zionists who themselves hadn’t ever been to Israel. And, on top of all that, my parents were slightly over-protective types…and particularly when it came to matters concerning their only child, which led to the strange paradox of them being willing to send me off to Israel with the AZYF before they felt comfortable letting me take the subway into Manhattan by myself. But somehow it all came together and off I went.

The cost was $700 for seven weeks including airfare. Since camp in those days was $500 for eight weeks, the experience cost significantly more than another summer at camp would have. And yet my folks seemed not to care about that at all, only that I have this specific experience they for some unspecified reason wished me to have. And so off I went with a suitcase filled with all the wrong clothing (my parents seems to have missed the part about it never raining in Israel in the summer, nor about the temperature not really ever dropping down below freezing during August); an envelope filled with lirot purchased by my mother at the Bank Leumi on Queens Blvd. for me to spend on snacks and souvenirs; and, because it was, after all, Israel, a single yarmulke for me to wear if unexpectedly obliged to cover my head somewhere along the way.

We were lodged at a youth village called Alonei Yitzchak adjacent to Givat Ada, not far from Binyamina, Pardes Chanah, or Zikhron Yaakov. The program was far more like camp than the kind of tours kids go on today: we spent most of most of our days in our village, having classes in the morning and swimming or hiking in the afternoon. A few times a week we went on tiyyulim to different parts of the country, which part of the experience culminated in a three-day trip to Jerusalem. This was, of course, the bad old days. Jerusalem was a divided city. The Old City, the meat-and-potatoes of any tiyyul to Jerusalem today, was in a different country…and the Jordanian soldiers easily visible through the Mandelbaum Gate at the end of Shmuel Hanavi Street did not look at all friendly as we peered through the barricade and attempted to photograph them with our Kodak Instamatic 100s. Nor was this the Israel of today. Significant numbers of the amenities I had come to think of as normal parts of life—televisions in every home, public telephones that worked more or else always, free toilet paper in public restrooms—were not much in evidence. You could only phone home from a post office. Smaller roads, including the one that led from Givat Ada to Alonei Yitzchak, were unpaved. And yet I loved the whole thing. The pioneering spirit was alive and very well in our village. The landscape, the food, the laissez-faire attitude of our counselors (who slept apart in their own cabin, leaving the boys’ dorm solely to us boys after lights-out), the whole Jewish feel to the place (so unlike what I had previously encountered at home or in shul)—I loved the whole thing. And it altered my life, that summer: in a very real way, my journey through adolescence to the specific version of adulthood I ended up adopting as my own—that journey began that summer at Alonei Yitzchak.

I left at the end of August in 1966. I’ve never gone back…not because I couldn’t have figured out how to get there, but because the place itself somehow came to exist—for me personally, at least—on the cusp of memory somewhere across the insubstantial boundary between recollection and reality. I remembered the place clearly. I returned to it a million times over the years as something brought to mind some aspect of life at Alonei Yitzchak…but only in my mind, only as a journey through my own recollective consciousness to some shore beyond an uncrossable sea, not as an actual journey to an actual place.

And now this summer’s story begins. Joan and I were having lunch with our cousins Lionel and Joyce in Zikhron Yaakov. It was a hot day, but there was a nice breeze and I was fully relaxed as it somehow came to me that Alonei Yitzchak must be somewhere nearby. (I once wrote to you all about the strange experience I had coming to realize that my great-grandparents’ shtetl actually exists as a real place in today’s Poland, that it has a website and a football team, that you can actually go there. This was something like that. Click here to revisit that piece from 2009.) I took out my phone, opened Waze, and was amazed—truly amazed, as odd as that must sound—to learn that Alonei Yitzchak was all of eighteen kilometers from where we were sitting. We got in the car—our cousins are very good sports (plus it was our car) and Joan was intrigued—and off we went. Twenty minutes later, we were there.

I got out of the car and approached the guard. (There certainly wasn’t an eight-foot-high retractable gate when I was last there; I don’t actually recall there being a gate at all.) He asked what I wanted. I, slightly flummoxed, told him I had spent a summer there fifty years earlier and was hoping I could look around a bit. Unsure how to deal with someone who wanted to walk back into the place after being absent for half a century, the guard phoned the director, a young man named Yaakov who showed up after a few minutes and unexpectedly enthusiastically took us all inside. The place was mostly unchanged. The foliage was the same, including the peculiar (but not at all unpleasant) scent of the place that I suddenly recalled after all those years away. There had been improvements, obviously: a much nicer pool, a huge dining hall far larger than the one I recalled, many more cabins and bunks than were there in 1966. But, in every essential way, the place was the same as it was when I left. I eventually found my bunk, still standing (like myself) after all these years. As I approached that part of the place, I kept noticing boy-me slipping around the corner each time grown-up-man-me tried to turn around quickly enough to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the past. Whether or not he was consciously allowing me to see him at all, I can’t say. But he was there—not my ghost exactly or some spectral version of myself, but the boy-version of the man-version both present enough in the same place for long enough to make reasonable communion on some possible/impossible level outside the normal flow of moments. And then it was over. I stepped out of the twilight zone, rejoined Joan and our cousins, got in the car and drove back to Jerusalem. It was, to say the very least, a strange experience.

The rings of wood that date back to an old tree’s earliest years are right there beneath the bark and blea, invisible to outside observers but nonetheless fully present. Archeologists make their living recovering the artifacts of ancient civilizations lying beneath the sand and soil of the places in which they once flourished. But what becomes of the children we once were? Are they in there somewhere, like the rings of a tree or the clay vessels embedded deep within the tell? Or do they exist only within the barely-real realm of memory itself, the phantom landscape this side of the Lethe that only exists—to the extent it exists at all—within the mind? The boy I kept catching glimpses of at Alonei Yitzchak was clearly real…but what exactly even I myself mean by that thought is hard to say. I suppose he was as real as I myself am: a function of my conscious will to exist only tangentially related to the need for physical things to exist in physical space. All I can say with certainty is that boy-me was there no less really than man-me was. The whole experience, even with several sightings taken together, lasted seconds. The whole visit to Alonei Yitzchak was less than an hour. Less than five hours after we paid the bill at lunch, we were back in Jerusalem.

In one of his greatest stories, Hermann Hesse noted that youth is a place out from which lead only one-way streets. I first read that story in college—Hesse wrote in exceptionally clear, precise German tailor-made for people learning the language—and have forgotten most of the details. But that line stays with me still, and it was in my mind as we drove back to Jerusalem and, almost for the first time, it struck me that there might be more to Hesse’s story—and specifically to that single line in his story—than I thought when I first encountered it in college.