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.

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