08 February 2011

"All the Great Teachers Are Dead."

Walking home in the cold rain tonight, wool hat pulled down over my brow, a cover of mid-winter wetness dampening the shoulders of my corduroy coat, I relished every step up toward the Park and then down Seventh Avenue, late at night, reminding me of Park Slope's second generation revival, in the early 1990s, when everyone who lived in Manhattan refused to come to Brooklyn and the lonely walked the street past midnight.

My clothes clung to my body like a uniform of youth, a posture, as it were, I am loathe to abandon; though the conventions of my position or professional stature mitigate otherwise.   I dress up for Shabbos--that seems about right.  Most everything else feels like a pretension I just can't summon.  That seems to be the way it's gone for the last thirty years or so.

Glasses fogging; feet sliding along; rain drip-dropping on my arms and shoulders, I said aloud to no one in particular walking along:  "All the great teachers are dead."

And then I named them, like a nocturnal botanist identifying the ghostly plants of my midnight meanderings:  Irv is gone; George is gone; Arthur's gone; and, Stanley's gone.  The men -- the teachers -- I relied upon to uproot the staid and unproductive and to implant within me the eternal and redemptive -- all gone.  Dead and buried, the remains of whom are the words they once shared; the books they've written; and, at times like this, the beneficent rain, their sustenance of the students they raised symbolized in the gentle gravitational pull of nature's intellectual irrigation system.

I saw in my own steps tonight the steps of a young man of eighteen or nineteen, or twenty-nine or thirty, or thirty-nine or forty--choreographing my next move as I've done a thousand times before--with a teacher's words on my lips, or their prescribed actions encoded onto my arms, or their end-goals mapped out, pointed out, destinationalized, as expressions of an exceptionally well-developed aspiration:  be true.

Be true.

I took a class in rabbinic school with Rabbi Larry Kushner.  When he was a young rabbi, he worked in Chicago with Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, of blessed memory.  The story that Rabbi Kushner told us rabbinic students is that when Kushner was working for Wolf and Wolf had invited some members of the Nation of Islam to come dialogue with the Jewish leadership at Congregation Solel in Chicago, some of the lay-leaders were "up-in-arms" about the engagement.  The question of the invitation to speak was brought before the Board of the Congregation, at which Rabbi Wolf was questioned about exactly whom was invited to speak. 

His reply?  "Mohammed and his Black Motherfuckers."

I have to tell you--just remembering that story walking down the street tonight, I laughed my ass off half-way down Seventh Avenue.  I miss you, Arnold!

My teachers never had patience for pretense; they thrived on telling their truths; and they constructed a world in which the fundamentals of their teaching and the values of our own Jewish tradition were inextricably bound.  They spoke with one voice:  Be true.

This winter I promised to never complain about the cold; never complain about the snow; and never complain about the rain.  I did this because the darkness I felt descending upon myself at the final realization that during the season that I turn forty-eight, it has become undeniably true that all my great teachers are dead and that is dark, cold, and terrifying thought--best tempered, of course, by humor. 

Some of the greatest laughs I've ever had, I've had with Irv and George and Arthur and Stanley and even Arnold, cantankerous old man that he was.  Some of the greatest laughs and some of the greatest truths--cleansing, cool, sustaining. 

Like truth.


M. said...

Thanks, Andy. This comes at just the right time for me: this past weekend I attended a memorial celebration for one of my greatest teachers. Not everyone gets what it means to have had a teacher—really had a teacher—but you do, and it helps.

George Colligan said...

Now it's your turn to be a great teacher.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Thanks Andy. One thing comes to mind - "be true" doesn't apply as well when you're a woman. I mean, by all means, you CAN be true, but you will need to curb your professional aspirations. For now, at least :)

A Woman said...

@Anonymous -- why do you feel that "be true" doesn't apply equally to women, and why do women need to curb their aspirations?

Andy Bachman said...

@Anonymous: I too am looking for clarification on what you mean. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I mean, simply, that if you value being true, you will have a very rough time in the job market. It is true for everyone but twenty times more so for women. I should know. I am a woman rabbi who learned first hand, sadly, that no woman rabbi can get away with what Arnold Jacob Wolf did. Granted, it may have taken him a lifetime to get to a place of being able to say that and not get the boot; but my point remains: a woman, even if she got to his level of influence, WOULD have gotten the boot.

A Woman said...

I actually believe that very few people can get away with what he said (as described in Andy's blog), I don't think its a female vs male thing. I think it depends on the person.

While in many fields there is still a glass ceiling, I believe, that it is getting more brittle. I also think that people, in general, can't have it all (and this may be going in a direction you had not intended, but I think it related)...and if a women decides to make her family a priority (of if a man decides that) I think it will have an impact on one's career. I don't think that means one can't be true, but I think it means accepting reality and making the choices that you feel comfortable with.