21 September 2011

"Lift up your hand"

I went looking for it and found it.

When does that ever happen?

Ambling through the mad press of human bodies exiting out onto the platforms of Grand Central Station, searching for the right cup of coffee before a morning teaching for board members of the JDC, making the correct and incisive decision to get my buzz at Aroma, the Israeli cafe on 42nd Street, a hyper-kinetic homage to the stuffed traffic scene of cops and private security forming a protective wall up toward the U.N. in preparation of President Obama's visit, I had a sense that something special might happen this morning.

The teaching was fun.  Energized.  I combined four texts I had never put together before--George Mosse diagnosing the end of Bildung in German Jewry; Franz Rosenzweig rebelling against said assimilationist utopias; Rabbi Akiva's decision to learn; and Ezra's mandate that Jews hear Torah.  It was a fortuitous alchemy.

Afterward I kibitzed with friends:  a mentor from my Hillel days; the mother of a bride I recently married; a philanthropic supporter arts and culture in Jerusalem.  A colleague from rabbinic school and I traded notes on pulpit work in the hallway of the hotel as trustees hustled off to their next morning sessions.  It all felt good.  

A man of few vices, I decided to celebrate the success of the lesson in the good old American way:  buying something.

So I took the local downtown in search of some hidden gem on a used bookstore shelf.  Emerging into the bright yellow light washing over the sidewalks of Union Square, a heroin addict caught between sitting and lying down, nodding somewhere between consciousness and the Pharaoh of Addiction to whom he was enslaved, kept missing the straw which sprung awkwardly from his can of Arizona Iced Tea.


I stepped around two cops who approached this poor soul, confident in their treatment of him, and stepped into the nearest bookstore.  Within moments, I found it:  the National Poetry Foundation's 1986 "Collected Poems of Samuel Menashe," a white, gray and black paperback.  Having recently bought online the Foundation's more recent hardcover edition of Menashe's work, more contemporarily designated as that of a "Neglected Master," I marveled at my luck.

For inside the front and back cover, besides writing a dedication in his own hand, the poet included his own versions, in deep blue ink, of his own poems.  And what's more, in several passages of the book, he amends his printed versions, often adding the letter "m" to emphasize a certain playfulness of sound, a vocal texture meant to ease the soaring ideas of his poetry to a soft and steady landing.

I couldn't believe it.

But such is faith.  Sometimes one must admit that there are guiding forces beyond us.  And he knew it himself--because this is what he wrote in the back of the book:

Stare at the sea
you on your chair
sinking in sand,
Command the waves
to stand like cliffs
Lift up your hand.

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