06 August 2012

A Bridge to Cross

photo credit:  will sherman
I did one of those long runs on Sunday.  Pipe cleaners, I call them.  Down Vanderbilt, past the Navy Yard, into Williamsburg, over the bridge, across the Lower East Side, to the West Village, Houston Street, Hudson River Park, re-cross the island, Brooklyn Bridge, Dean, Fifth, Park Place, home.  It was hot, to be sure, but there was a lot to think about.

The graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge is worth a look.  It might be the single most concentrated collection of Jewish graffiti in New York City--a mere imitation of Tel Aviv but nevertheless compelling in its own right.  Check it out.  One annoying aspect of the graffiti is that the written plaques that commemorate the building of the bridge are completely covered with the painted scrawl.  As a student of history, I find this annoying.  The city should clean that up.  These are important civic narratives that deserve our attention, especially since the story of the redevelopment of New York's waterfront is such a compelling story in our own era.

Bridges, structures, the architecture of infrastructure, were all very much on my mind as I slogged through the city's early Sunday morning streets.

It brought back to mind an experience I had at my great aunt Rose's shiva, nearly thirty years ago.  Over the usual shmear and a glass of whiskey, I had a conversation with a childhood rabbi--he served a community to which my grandparents and aunts and uncles belonged and though my parents were not members of any shul, I saw him as a deeply religious authority in my life.

I was struggling at the time with various issues of patrilineal and matrilineal descent in Jewish life and Jewish law; and during that period had made it a habit of arguing with as many authorities as I could.  The Reform and Conservative rabbis of Madison; the Hillel director in Madison; professors at Hebrew University where I had studied for my junior year and various rabbis from all walks of life across Jerusalem.  My shoulder was proverbially chipped.

At Aunt Rose's shiva I shared my dilemma with Rabbi Herb Panitch, to me a towering, powerful force of rectitude.  Of all the conversations I had over a two year period, I was most intimidated by this one.  At one friend's bat mitzvah in 1976, I saw him silence a gaggle of teens merely by raising an eyebrow, a feat I could never approximate in my own position today.

Anyway, after listening to my arguments and picayune analyses of history, text and tradition mulled into a peculiar mixture of my own Jewishness, Rabbi Panitch put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Andy.  I've known you a long time.  I look at you and I see a Jewish neshoma (soul.)  But the Jewish tradition is also about architecture, about building structures to house the soul.  You need to merely add a beam to your structure to make it more sound."  And then he paused, leaned even closer, and smiled.

Just like that, I stopped arguing with my teachers about the issue.  After three years of resistance, I agreed to go to the mikveh, deal with Jewish law's definitions of 'who is a Jew,' and move on to actually living in the house.  I had my bar mitzvah in my early twenties, Mom followed suit with her own conversion, and the rest is history.

Which leads me back to the bridge.

Sometimes our individuality covers up the greater civic narrative we're asked to submit to.  Dad was a Jew.  My grandparents were Jews.  My great-grandparents were Jews.  I come from them.  Who was anyone to question my lineage?  This was the thinking.  It makes sense on a certain level.  And yet.

And yet what is it to be a Jew other than to recognize through word and deed that first and foremost we're a people, with peculiar norms, a language, a narrative, a history?   I had been so afraid for those years prior to mikveh that the ritual would be an effacement of my uniqueness; but paradoxes have a clever way of showing the way--uniqueness sometimes has more room to grow when it sees itself as part of something greater than itself.

That was an important bridge to cross.

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