"The nether-world and Destruction are never satiated; so the eyes of man are never satiated."
The Soncino edition of Proverbs, from which much of this study comes, notes a great legend from the Talmud about Alexander the Great.
In his travels, Alexander the Great arrived at the Gates of Heaven. When his demand for admission was refused, he requested a gift to serve as a memento. It took the form of a bone which had the remarkable property of outweighing all the gold heaped upon the other scale of the balance. When, however, the bone was covered with earth, it no longer outweighed the gold. He was told that the bone was that which enclosed the human eye. Only in the grave it ceased to crave for riches.Another trip to the cemetery yesterday and this time, in the wind-blown, flattened land of Farmingdale, Long Island (a section of earth that conjures neither farming nor dales.) I was reminded of the harshness of death's final message, of the effort it takes to open the earth, to lay that burden down, and to cover, with grace, the enclosed body of those we love.
On the drive out to Long Island for the funeral service and burial, I drove through the heart of old Jewish Brooklyn, along Pitkin Avenue for a stretch, past Zion Triangle, and through the markers, as it were, of a Jewish life long gone. Park Slope is a new kind of Jewish culture, unlike anything Brooklyn has known before; and I was aware, as the car rolled over cracked pavement and navigated around the delivery trucks of the tired by-ways of East New York, of a kind of deep sadness for an unretrievable past. My eye caught Herzl Street while driving along and I imagined what it might have been like to be a Jewish kid in East New York, being recruited to go build the Land of Israel in order to escape the poverty of the city, recreate the self in one's own land, grab hold of the Zionist dream. The inherent melancholy--the necessary awareness of a kind of mass death of historical connection--clouded the view in its own gray haze the rays of light attempting to break through on a cold December morning.
Growing up in Milwaukee, my dad always insisted on getting from one side of town to the other by "taking the streets." That way we could see what was. "Here's the reservoir where we swam. Here's the neighborhood where your grandmother grew up. Here's the park where your grandfather held off the Irish and Italian kids from fighting with the Jewish kids." Even by the early 1970s there was his own nostalgia that was decades old, for another generation's narrative relegated to the grave. Today, I guess, the only difference is that the Young Ones figured out how to shine it up and put it on t-shirts or coffee table books about Jewish culture. You can even pay con$ultant$ to tell you how to do that.
"So the eyes of man are never satiated."
I return to a story that continues to guide my steps in life. Three months before Dad died, we had an argument about a meaningless subject. I was home from Madison and had arrived at his apartment to take him to the annual Christmas Eve party our family attended with all the other Jews in our neighborhood, most of whom were Jewish men married to Gentile women. This party, oddly, served as a kind of bulwark of Jewish narrative in the face of an overwhelming tsunami of assimilation. You could literally see Jewish culture seeping down through the floorboards and into the ground, disappearing in real time. The parties were always entertaining and if you hit the numbers right, you could get a circle of Jewish guys standing around with a drink in their hands talking about the old days. Always the best part of the night.
Anyway, Dad and I fought about what I was wearing (not a jacket a tie) and when the smoke cleared and we agreed that I wasn't a total disgrace to his sense of civility, we stared at each other for a long time. And in that face to face encounter, I knew he would soon be dead. Just something about the way his eyes reflected a reality he knew was bearing down on him. This moment has never really haunted me as much as it has served as a text to which I return each year, especially on Christmas Eve: the lights in the neighborhood really are quite beautiful and the music on the radio is full of good cheer. And I don't feel lonely as much as I feel grateful for the odd proximity of Christmas Eve, my father's descent, and my own dogged and determined decision to take up the mantle of Jewish narrative in our family line.
There are times in the nearly thirty years since that moment that I have felt like Alexander the Great--in possession of a memento that is a heritage of narrative riches; and there are other times when I am acutely aware that all the wisdom in the world cannot prevent us from experiencing the irreducible reality of death.
While walking toward the grave yesterday to complete the burial of the deceased whose funeral I was conducting, I saw a tractor to my left and the tear-filled eyes of her widow to my right.
"As a face sees a face reflected in water, so too does man see his own heart reflected in his fellow man."
The greatest strength of our rich and glorious past is the gift it affords us, however brief, to be present. The past is gone; the future, well, we know.
All we have is now.