19 August 2010

Cup to Cup

9 Elul 5770
(Chaim Siegel, 1925, Milwaukee, Wis.)
I woke up with a headache.  As far as I can tell, it may be from falling asleep to an image of water pouring from one cup to another, back and forth, over and over, and feeling anxiety as I drifted off into darkened oblivion about the future of the Jewish people and my own individual responsibility in extending our time on Earth.

When I was a kid I used to drift off to sleep in late August listening to a ballgame, wind in the trees outside the window.  How things change.  Maybe part of the anxiousness came from the shifting images in my head:  sometimes the cups were broken and cracked, leaking water and losing a precious resource, drop by drop; and other times the cups were whole and robust, eternal vessels, an endless source.  With each pour I was never sure which cup I was going to see.  I fluctuated between hope and fear.  I don't know where in the exchange I lost consciousness but I remember desperately thinking, as if to assure myself of a more innocent pursuit, "How nice that the Brewers won today.  I witnessed one and listened to another of Adam Wainwright's losses this year."  I really don't enjoy another man's diminishment; however, simply noting the odd proximity of being witness to the rare losses of one of the game's best pitchers this year was something I never had happen before.  Worth noting in the review of the day.

Back in February we had dinner with my late father's first cousin in Los Angeles and met, for the first time, his children--each in their early twenties--who, because of living on different coasts and a variety of other inexplicable but common patterns in dispersed family structures, I had never met.  One now lives here and hopes to be a doctor; and another had just returned from a birthright trip to Israel and is considering a career in public service.  So we were very excited to get together last night and talk about family, identity, Judaism, and Israel.  I'm more than twenty years older than them, which made me particularly conscious of my own first steps down the road of examining Jewish history and identity when I was finishing college.  As greater observers of human civilization have long noted, I saw myself in them.  This is the cup metaphor coming into focus.

As a young man in his early twenties, I began asking the kinds of questions which led to more questions, more books, more conversations, more trips to Israel--all in an effort to both understand and be a part of an inexorable fate that reaches back more than three thousand years.  No mere rhetoric from a brochure on Why Be Jewish? here.  Just the facts.  And here I was at dinner last night, telling what I knew of dead relatives long gone and what I've learned about how we fit into the chain of tradition, cup after cup; drop by drop.

The young cousins are brilliant and kind.  And they look startling like their great-grandfather ( who is my great-grandfather as well ) who came to America from a town called Kapul in Minsk, settled in Milwaukee, founded a couple synagogues, was a Mizrachi Zionist, and is now buried on the Southside of Milwaukee among dead Jews, in a neighborhood where there are virtually no living Jews.  A daughter (my grandmother) never left Milwaukee and one son stayed as well.  Three other sons moved to California and Fayetteville, Arkansas and they rarely if ever made it back to Wisconsin.  Two sons were physicians; one was a podiatrist; a fourth was down on his luck all the time.  My grandmother married a doctor and struggled with depression much of her life.  She was beautiful and a great cook.

I told the brilliant and kind young cousins everything I could until we all agreed that we need to see each other soon.  The hour was late and we all needed our rest.  They took out their iPhones and took pictures of pictures to save and pass along, to share their legacy, to re-solder the links in the chain.  A couple minutes after we said our goodbyes and the door closed, we noticed that one cousin left her bag  in our kitchen.  Her wallet was there and surely she would need that for the cab ride home.  So I texted them quickly and then called, and in the cab, they circled back in front of our apartment.

As the cab pulled up and I passed the bag into the open window I said, "Check to make sure your wallet is there.  You'll need your ID."

Identities passing through open windows.

Water passing from cup to cup.

I pray it holds for another generation.

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