Thursday, May 11, 2017


Jewish life is cycles inside of cycles: the daily cycle of prayer, the weekly cycle of Sabbath observance, the monthly sanctification of the New Moon, the annual cycle of festivals, the seven-year sabbatical cycle related to debt release and land use, the twenty-eight year cycle relating to the recitation of Birkat Ha-ḥamah, the Blessing of the Sun…and the granddaddy of them all, the fifty-year jubilee cycle that brings all lands in Eretz Yisrael back to their original owners and completes the manumission of indentured servants. But that’s it—no cycles are longer than that final one, a half-century being most of most people’s lives, I suppose, and the notion of having calendrical cycles longer than the average human life span just didn’t really make that much sense…and particularly in ancient times, when life expectancy was that much less than it is nowadays.

So fifty was a big number of years in ancient times. And, today, I’d like to write to you about three different fifty-year anniversaries that either just passed or are about to come up, each of which affected the fifty-year-younger me in ways that I am certain I didn’t understand at the time and perhaps even couldn’t have.

It was fifty years ago exactly that Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, was published in the spring of 1967 and became an instant bestseller, remaining on the Times’ bestsellers’ list for thirty-nine weeks. I read it that summer at camp and was completely taken with it. But although I was myself only one year younger than the book’s protagonists, Reuven Malter and Daniel Saunders, I could not possibly have been less like either of them—perhaps more overtly not like Danny Saunders, the son of a hasidic rebbe who in Williamsburg who is not only being raised in a hasidic community but who is also being raised by a father who refuses to engage in ordinary conversation with him and who only speaks to him at all about serious religious or spiritual matters…but also not at all like Reuven Malter, a boy being raised in a more “normal” Brooklyn Jewish home, but a strictly observant one nevertheless, under the aegis of a gentle father who is also a world-renowned Talmud scholar. I was neither of these boys! But, bringing to bear that peculiar Jewish ability to remember the future, I somehow understood, even at fourteen, that I was already on the path forward that would eventually become my life’s journey…and that successfully traveling its trajectory was going to require that, for all I wasn’t ever going to be either of them, I was somehow also going to have also to be them both.

The following winter, I read Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, the book which more or less guided me through my adolescence. It was a very popular book back then—I’m guessing not a few of my readers also read it in the course of their high school years—and it too featured two protagonists who were wholly unlike each other. Narcissus is the scholar who finds his greatest joy in intellectual achievement, while Goldmund wanders the world and samples its pleasures freely and with almost Dionysian abandon. But although the book is about how different and how similar the two of them actually are—in the end, each ends up wishing he were more like the other—and how each of us, to find balance and joy in the world, needs somehow also to “be” them both, I already had in place the antipodes that would delimit my life’s journey, and they were Reuven and Danny, not Narcissus and Goldmund. For better or worse, that is how I got to be me…if not precisely then certainly in broad terms. But the struggle depicted in the book between religiosity and scholarship, between losing yourself and finding yourself in Jewishness, between finding solace and guidance in other people’s books and writing your own story over and over in your own (the boys trade places with Reuven, the scholar’s son, becoming a rabbi, and Danny, the rebbe’s son, becoming a psychologist)—even at fourteen, I understood that this was to be my own slightly impossible path forward in life.

I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell myself, not really. But in retrospect I can see that I knew it clearly, and I think one of the first real intimations of my future life that I had came to me as I read The Chosen. I eventually read all of Potok, just as I eventually read all of Hesse. I liked all of both authors’ books too, although some more and others less. But nothing ever equaled either book in either author’s oeuvre in terms of the effect it had on the adolescent or post-adolescent me.

The second thing that happened a full fifty years ago that altered the course of my life forward was the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which the Beatles released on my fourteenth birthday. (You see, it really was all about me!)

Young people today, unused to the way things were in ancient times when music wasn’t free and certainly didn’t come to you by floating magically through the air into your “device,” will find it difficult to imagine the impact that single album had on an entire generation. It was the Beatles’ eighth studio album, not their first. And it wasn’t that there weren’t other bands out there recording innovative, interesting material. But there was something in Sgt. Pepper that changed everything, even despite its relative brevity. (The whole album, all together, isn’t forty minutes long.) But I knew every lyric to every song, as did more or less everyone I knew anywhere near my age. We used and re-used phrases from the album endlessly in our casual speech. We could identify every single one of the fifty-seven living people and nine wax figures on the cover. The music itself took on something of the sacred, each track being intoned endlessly by ourselves in ninth grade as though the album were a collection of hymns reverently to be chanted as part of daily worship. I still had a month left of junior high school when the album came out, but that was a mere detail…and I was so ready for whatever was going to come next precisely because Sgt. Pepper served as a kind of a gateway into an unknown future, and not just for me alone either but also for more or less an entire generation. To this day, I know every word of every song. At least until James Taylor released his Sweet Baby James album in 1970, I thought of “Within You, Without You” (the only non-Lennon/McCartney song on the album) as my personal anthem. I could identify any song from its opening second or two. If The Chosen was where I was going, Sgt. Pepper was where I was. And it opened up to me the possibility of traveling there under my own steam, propelled forward by the sheer power of my own will to be as I wished and to become who I wished.

And, of course, we are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the single most transformational event in post-Shoah Jewish history. I will have a lot more to say in its regard when we get to Yom Yerushalayim on Wednesday, May 24, the actual anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from Jordanian control and the re-unification of the city, but today I’d like to speak of the anniversary in far more personal terms.

My first visit to Israel was in 1966, the year of my bar-mitzvah. But that trip, transformational in every meaningful way possible, was only the prelude to what was to come. (For more about that trip and the effect it had on the adolescent me, click here and here.)

I loved Israel in 1966, but it was more than a bit of a third-world country in those days. The public telephones didn’t work too well. You could only phone overseas from a post office. Major roads were unpaved. The restrooms in the bus stations were by American standards unspeakable. Yet there was an intoxicating feel of newness and adventure everywhere, and the pioneering spirit our teachers spoke about endlessly in Hebrew School was fully tangible at every turn.  I was not only impressed, but, in the deepest sense of the word, I was overwhelmed. Nothing felt the same to me after that trip—certainly nothing back home in Forest Hills, but also nothing at all elsewhere in the world either—but, in the end, it was the Six Day War itself that sealed the deal and made me feel that Israel was not only a noble undertaking destined to have a profound impact on Jewish history, but that the future of the Jewish people was going to be indelibly and inextricably tied to the future history of the State in a way that was already making it impossible to think of one without simultaneously thinking also of the other and which would eventually shape my own sense of the meaning of Jewish history in our time.

And that was the story of my fourteenth year. Out there, the world was focused on the summer of love as it was unfolding in San Francisco, New York, and London. (I actually attended—or at least put in a nervous appearance—at the Be-In in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow that spring, which I remember as being remarkably like its depiction in Miloš Forman’s movie version of Hair. But that will have to be another story for another time.) But for me, it was the year of three things backed up by three other things—the Six Day War backed up by my experiences a year earlier in Israel, The Chosen backed up by Narcissus and Goldmund, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band backed up by every album I owned that came before it and which created the hole where the rain got in, and got my mind to wondering where it could go oh, where it could go. Oh! And where I went too, as it turned out. 

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