15 June 2011

Chasing the Demon

Ah, Depression.
Certainly worthy of capital letters.

Dad was born in 1924 and was five years old when the market crashed.  His Pop was a doctor, so was able to muscle the family through and I have to say, I grew up hearing virtually nothing about tough economic times. 

Mom was born in 1933; born into it, you might say.  And by the time she was six, her father had been killed by a deranged man looking to "get his job back" in 1939, just as Hitler was invading Poland and Milwaukee was struggling with massive levels of out-of-work people, hardly the beneficiaries of the robust recovery that War would bring.

Her mother, a *single mom* is how you'd put it today, went to work.  Like the good woman of Anglo Saxon stock she was, she persevered.  Not a whole lot to talk about.  "Say little, do much."  She didn't know from Shammai, if you catch my drift, but what difference does it make? 
I loved her work ethic.

This winter I got depressed; and as summer approaches and I prepare to return to my center, Jerusalem, I want to reflect on its particular nuances.  If this saddens you or makes you uncomfortable, I apologize in advance.  I'm a man, a husband, a father, a friend and then a rabbi.  Also a jerk, an idiot, a wise-ass, a rebel, a runner, a reader, a writer.  I used to be a ballplayer.  Not so much anymore.

So, you know, in the scheme of things, rabbi coming in fifth place ain't so bad.  And I live in tawny Brooklyn--Park Slope--after all.  You don't want your rabbi ranking his state of existence at number one, do you?  That would be too intense--too religious.

I composed a list the other day for why the winter of 2011 depressed me.

Here's what I came up with.

1.  A friend in his fifties lost his job in November.  This threw me for a loop.  One, because he seemed quite happy and secure in his job.  I was surprised by the radical suddenness of it all.  But two, it unearthed a personal trauma from my own childhood when my dad, of similar age, lost his job.  This, as it were, messed me up.  Dad lost his livelihood; his manliness; his pride.  Ensconced in the harrowing and amoral bowels of television advertising, Dad was knocked off his pedestal as the Milwaukee CBS television affiliate's manager of sales and replaced by a young turk twenty years younger than he.  His fruitless age discrimination lawsuit went nowhere for a decade and in the intervening years he was divorced and lost both his parents to old age.  By the early eighties when I stopped growing past a passable age for playing college ball, I dealt with his economic spiral by taking out loans to go to college, got a job, got a degree, and struck out on my own.  When he died of a heart-attack at 58, I expected it.  His downward spiral is inextricably bound with my own core habit of survival, built on an edifice of a nearly heartless work ethic.  Nothing will ever get in the way of not succeeding precisely because he failed.  It's brutal, I know.  I'm not always proud of it.  And yet, I often hear his voice saying, "Goddamnit, son, yes!" 

When my pal lost his job this Fall, it messed me up.  Sent me back, reeling, into a despair for him, for his family, for the idea of loss.  And, simply put, it depressed me.

I lost myself in my work; became difficult to live with; confronted past demons.  Blech!

2.  America is a deeply narcissistic society.  Seriously.  Capitalism; Media; Pop Culture.  That stupid introduction to the Declaration of Independence, that pretentious, idiotic, self-absorbed nonsense about "certain unalienable rights?"  It's precisely where we went wrong!  I, I, I.  Me, Me, Me.  Individual rights as absolute are only valid, if you ask me, only in so far as they obligate us to fulfill words of Torah, which, let's face it, obligate us to serve a Master greater than ourselves.   In other words, don't oppress me:  I have to worship my God.  "I" exist only in order that I may fulfill the will of One Greater Than myself. 

3.  Not long after Dad died, I found myself in the Dean's Office at UW.   Paul Ginsberg, the dean of students, was the bulwark between me and the State of Israel.  He had run guns against the British as a Zionist rebel and was therefore heroic to me.  But he grabbed me by the lapels of my jacket and told me to calm down.  Take it easy.  Mourn.  Learn.  "Israel doesn't need another nut."  He literally said that.  So that's when I met Irv Saposnik; and George Mosse; and began to construct a moral and intellectual universe rooted in reverence and skepticism.  50-50.  Equal amounts of each.  They pulled me from the depths; gave me truth; redeemed me. 

From Irv, to George, to Arthur, to Stanley Dreyfus, my rebbe in rabbinical school who fed me Torah like no other at the yeshiva, I realized this past winter how much I mourn their mutually collective loss, their absence; and that this abyss of their not-there-ness is radically absenting.  The terminology is as ridiculous as it's necessary.

4.  On numerous Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, while "bringing the community together in prayer," I look out upon them and wonder how it all happened; marvel at how I got there; remain, stupefied, by the immediacy of my decision to heal and lead all at the same time.  The *twin-bill* or the *double-whammy* as it were of religious leadership:  To close the wound in the self and heal the rupture in the other.  This aspect of training in rabbinical school eluded our faculty.  It's not their fault.  We all get busy.  But the Winter afflicted me with its winds of discontent as I peered out among the prayers and struggled to connect.  I was forever leading but lonely in my pursuit of God, Whom I sought, like a desperate lover.

5.  And certainly not least:  Israel.  My home.  Like Wisconsin in the West, Israel in the East is the place of repose.  Of Fundamental Truth.  Here's what was, the Fifth Depression:  The inability of the most spectacular place on Earth to make Peace with itself.  As if some demon had occupied the souls of those who would try and in a devilishly subversive way, undermine every effort at creating, from chaos, a whole.  The self-absorbed atomization of American Jewry and its need to be righteous; the self-righteous anger of Israeli leadership to see an enemy everywhere and not dare, like King David, to "seek peace and pursue it."  And the Palestinian leadership as well, of course--it's failures are many.  But oughtn't I look inward first before assigning blame to others?

So today I prayed as if for the first time.

Gave it all to God.

He can take it--I certainly hope so.  Better:  I know that to be true.

And in a glimmer of hope, I felt, however briefly, relief.

Relief from despair and hopelessness; relief from the corrosive powers of cynicism; relief from the alloying smeltification of our religio-national meltdown.

"Happy are those who dwell in Your house; I will praise Your name forever."

Humility, appreciation, gratitude, eternity. 

As summer arrives I climb out of the pit.  Chasing the demon. 

Yet again.


yehudit said...

Thank you for your brilliant writing. Words of the heart. Words of love and truth.

bullseyebaby said...

Singular and universal--different stories, but your words are close to my heart. Thank you for being a rabbi fifth, a wise-ass, and for sharing this slice of real life.

Rich said...

Andy - I've stared now for about an hour at this post and written 4 or 5 different comments trying to structure a response apropos of your words and emotions and the feelings they stirred in me. Most simply, thank you for sharing this inner part of your self and please keep fighting to get out and stay out of the pit.

Old First said...

Thank you thank you thank you brother.

DebraNC said...

A dozen threads woven together and captured beautifully. My advice, Andy, is to find yourself a teacher of Torah, a study partner, someone with whom you can each week dive into the well of Torah and come up refreshed. Regular learning sustains me, though I need to find a new learning partner myself.

Andy Bachman said...

a new chevruta is an excellent idea--thanks dnc

jack moline said...


Rob Rosenberg said...

I'm speechless. I truly don't know what to say in response to both such heartfelt beauty and heartfelt pain.