30 December 2009

The Holiness of Nowhere

I hadn't fully realized how in the middle of everything Wisconsin was until I got to Jerusalem for the first time in 1985. It was during an early morning of no-sleep, 4 or 5 AM, I don't remember which, that I wondered around the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus and felt, for the first time, that I was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I was right in the middle of something, with no horizon in sight. There seemed to be very little distinction between earth and sky, a feeling of great comfort and radical, religious terror. In the midst of that sense of aloneness, I felt God. Certainly not for the first time but in a way that would be inextricably linked to a sense of land and fate that, oddly, was similar to the sense of God I felt as a kid, in the middle of the night in Wisconsin, with a clear black sky lit by a stars and a moon and the voice of wind rattling windows. I used to think that if I were in a prairie teepee somewhere, I'd have been taught that these were spirits talking. But I am a Jew, and so, while reared in the prairie, I found my way the source. In Jerusalem, in the middle of the night, the Voice came through Psalms, articulated in the rocky poetry of the Bible, or, as Mel Brooks put it in the 2013 year old man, the "Sand Language."

A language that roots you to the earth.

I don't know what that is for you but for me it's language that is both visual and spoken. The spoken part, if you will, has two elements. One, there's what you hear. Cadence, intonation, accent, and in the case of where I come from, humor. I was so keenly aware of this yesterday, visiting with my uncle who turns 80 next month--a man of such indomitable spirit that every encounter with him since my youth leaves me in wonder at the soul and strength of those ancestors of ours who moved to America more than 100 years ago. While quintessentially American, this dear uncle of mine also represents an unbreakable link back to Europe, and therefore, to the navel of our existence as a people, Jerusalem. We talked football, fitness, and family, each of which were under-girded with the language of strength and honor, values that have remained unreconstructed in him these past 80 years. It's an amazing and humbling thing to see. I think we laughed every five minutes, an interpretive lens that can never be over-estimated.

The words in Hebrew that I associate with these encounters with my uncle are גבורה and כבוד--strength and glory, heroism and honor. He's my dad's younger cousin and I believe has outlasted him, in large part, because there's alot that he got right where my dad came up short, God love him. This is my uncle who boxed, played football, succeeded in business, and remains physically active, despite a stroke seven years ago that left him partially paralyzed. Yesterday, three minutes into lunch, he boasted of his ability to leg press 175 pounds at 60 reps--with his bad leg.

We were talking about that perennial obsession of Wisconsinites--Brett Favre--and my uncle summed up his views with perfect clarity: "It's not that I don't like Favre, it's just that he forgot about his loyalty to the team." Sublimation, one might say, is essential element to the understanding of גבורה and כבוד.

Being outside has always meant alot to my uncle. The open air, the place to be physically active. And yesterday he mentioned that when in Madison, he could never understand how my dad stayed inside playing bridge with his buddies on a beautiful day. And then it occurred to me that one of the essential elements of understanding strength and glory is found in our encounter with the horizon.

And last night, walking to the car after leaving my uncle's house, I looked up at the stars and moon hanging in a black and frozen Wisconsin sky, contemplating the middle-of-nowhereness of it all, and remembered doing guard duty on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem on a cold winter night in 1986. I walked around with my roommate, on the lookout, charged with the task of reporting suspicious activity. And at one point in the night, sat on the hard, cold Jerusalem stone and looked up at a thin sliver of moon hanging above the campus. The university buildings were hulking masses, blending into the earth, which seemed to be radiating a power greater than anything I had felt. "The holiness of this city is this irony," I thought. "It's in the middle of nowhere." My roommate, an African American from Harlem, turned to me, intuiting the moment, I guess, and said, "Where the fuck are we?" My own reverie broke and I said, "Jerusalem." And after a long silence we burst out laughing.

That's when language is visual: when what we see can be translated into an understanding that we can articulate with an approximation of what we had just experienced.

I find God in such moments. The הנני--hinneni--here I am--of God's encounter with those in Torah privileged to be called. Especially in the middle of nowhere. It's where true values emerge, like family, loyalty to a team, and the language of "home."

The ironic holiness of the middle of nowhere, my two spiritual centers, Milwaukee and Jerusalem.


Old First said...

I loved this. I've often thought of that Hebrew experience, in the TANAKH, of the individual, the landscape, the sky, and God. No gods and goddesses in between to get in the way. No Great Chain of Being. God, the ground, and the "adam". Calvin wrote that you can't separate the knowledge of God from the knowledge of yourself.

BZ said...

I met God
On the edge of town
Where the wind meets the stillness
Where the darkness meets the light
Where the ocean meets the sky
Where the desert meets the rain
Where the earth meets the heavens
On the edge of town
I met God

--Dan Bern

Andy Bachman said...

Calvin was a kind of early Hasid.