04 August 2011

Even Your Play

that's me, bottom right; outfielder poet is second row, second from the right
Years after playing together on a Little League team (Bay Federal Savings and Loan Phillies) that had a nice run for championship in Southeastern Wisconsin during a summer in the mid-1970s, I was sitting with a former teammate in a dorm cafeteria, talking about catching flyballs.  He was an outfielder on our team who, in college, was an aspiring poet.  He spoke, rather spontaneously, about the weighted silence in the moment when the ball leaves the bat and moves upward, like mercury and then accelerates downward toward the fielder as a moment of Divine Reckoning.  "As if the silence of the grass wasn't enough, now I stand radically alone, a ball, my Fate, hurdling toward me.  In an instant, God's voice calls, judging me."

We burst out laughing.

Reading the Piaseczner Rebbe this afternoon, I came across a moving passage about recognizing the need to develop play and joy when teaching Torah to a child:  "You love to play with your friends, to be wild and mischievous sometimes.  Along we come and approach you with the intent of depriving you of your childhood, making you silent, sedentary, and old before your time.  This is absolutely not so.  You will remain young.  You will go on playing with your friends.  And you will still reach the spiritual goal we've portrayed.  You just have to know how to play and how to be wild and to realize and to have faith at the same time that God's kingship extends everywhere, and that he sees everything, even your play."

Though no longer children exactly, the Bronfman Youth Fellows, whom I have the privilege of teaching each summer, received some of this wisdom from the Piaseczner Rebbe when I subjected them to my heresies and playful remarks in the midst of addressing utterly serious matters of Torah, Prayer, Archaeology and Politics in the Land of Israel.  This idea suffuses what we are attempting to do with education in general at CBE--in Yachad, in our Israelis in Brooklyn program--making matters both joyous and serious at the same time.  Digging deep and laughing often is essential to falling in love with Judaism.  I think of my own teachers--Saposnik, Mosse, Hertzberg--and how radically funny each of them could be, the humor lighting up the darkness with wisdom.  Teaching young adults on the liminal road between childhood and adulthood, this transitional pedagogic awareness is essential.  A young adult needs to be guaranteed that becoming a serious Jew will not impede or even destroy the irreducible desire to have fun.

In re-watching "A Serious Man" with the Fellows this summer ( a movie I hated the first time and grew to like the second time ) it occurred to me that between "the goy's teeth" and Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" ("when the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies") there is both a searing critique of what happened to American Judaism in the Suburban 60s and 70s as well as kernel of hope for a return to joy, laughter, and play in the Field of Torah.

I was at third base during most of those years and when not there, in the driveway, shooting hoops after school while most friends were shuttled back and forth to Hebrew school.  Re-reading the Piaseczner Rebbe reminded me, however, of how present God actually was in those places.  How I joked with him in the field between pitches, slashed around his man-to-man defense on the asphalt.  All the while in dialogue with his Otherness, there, present, in the still solitary silences of my developing youth.  A silence that is wisdom, illuminated by laughter.

"You just have to know how to play and how to be wild and to realize and to have faith at the same time that God's kingship extends everywhere, and that he sees everything, even your play."

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