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.

04 August 2012

Good to Tell

Mom didn't really give up until the last six days of her life.  Prior to that, she had a keen ability to combine denial of her predicament with the hope that one of her doctors would barge into her room at the Jewish Home, pronounce a newly discovered cure for her cancer, and release her to prance through the garden outside--on the way to her car and back to her apartment in Shorewood.  Her ability to be in denial is how she overcame personal tsores* most of her life; if it worked, why change?  In six years of cancer, she never thought she'd actually die.  Except for her last six days of life, which seemed to make all the difference to her psychological condition.  Not really a wrap up of things as much as a quick glance at the clock, a recognition that time had run out, and a sportsman-like walk off the field.  Finish.

I return again to her father's murder.  The flash of a gun; the bullet's efficient and immediate death trajectory; the trauma's echo absorbing a child and reverberating throughout the rest of her life.  Denial eased the pain and paradoxically, perhaps, compounded its effect.   Death couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't happen again.  Growing up, I always knew Mom was thinking about her father's death when she'd stand at the kitchen sink, stare out the window into the orchard of our backyard, and watch her cry.  "What are you crying about Mom?" I'd ask.  "Nothing," she'd say.  Plausible deniability.  Not.

I'm the opposite.  Obviously.  I figure there's more to learn by staring the ugly truth in the face and talking about it.  Images float down the river of my mind:  Mom staring out the window and crying; Dad's mom throwing herself on Grandpa's grave and screaming, "A dead man!" Grandma hospitalized so soon after Grandpa's death (suicide attempt); Dad and I and that fight in December 1982 (I insisted on jeans and a sweater to a holiday party where he wanted me in jacket and tie) where the look in his eye, unspoken, was "I'm mortal, son."  By March a heart attack, at age 58, and he was gone.   For me these experiences were texts, no different from what liturgy may ask us to consider during the Days of Awe:
"Thou appointest the measure of every creature's life and decreest its destiny.  On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away, how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who shall complete his years, and who shall not complete his years, who shall die by fire and who by water, who by the sword and who by a wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by pestilence, who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall be at rest and who shall wander, who shall be serene and who shall be disturbed, who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exulted.  But repentance, prayer, and charity annul the severity of the judgment."  
Annuls the *severity* but not the judgment.  Did you catch that?

Sure beats what's on television.

On Friday July 13 I buried a 102 year old man in Brooklyn.  The next day, on Saturday the 14th, I flew to Milwaukee and when I kissed Mom on the head upon arrival, she said, "Are you finally going to call my doctor?"  I held her hand, reminded her that she had stopped treatment.  "Oh yeah," she said, and turned to the wall to sleep.  "Can I get some morphine?" she asked.  By Tuesday it was administered in small doses and by the following Sunday, the 22nd she was gone.

That's what the end of denial looks like when you can no longer outrun it.

In The Anatomy of Hope, Dr. Jerome Groopman talks about walks he used to take with his dad.  "When I was entering my teenage years, on weekends my father and I would take long slow walks in the early evening around our neighborhood in Queens.  We often spoke about school, or world events, or the family.  But on occasion my father would talk about death--specifically, his death.  These were frightening moments for me, but I knew he did it for a reason."  He goes on to write, "Uncertain of God, he looked to love and how it would shape the future of his family.  Uncertain of an afterlife, he believed in the persistence of memory to make his presence palpable when he was gone.  Was he preparing himself by preparing me?"

I'm so grateful for Dr. Groopman's candor here.  It's a great model for all of us in this unavoidable life event known as death.

Six years after Grandpa died, we buried Grandma on a freezing cold January day in Wisconsin.  By then I had my Learner's Permit and so was able to drive to the cemetery for her burial.  Feeling slightly guilty over my anticipation, I asked Dad if my enthusiasm was appropriate, given that I was getting in my first highway driving by following my grandma's hearse.  "Life goes on, son," he said.  "You don't want to dwell too long on the sad stuff, otherwise you'll be a sick, morose character."

Dad brought this stuff out into the open.  His disillusionment with God and Man following his service in the Second World War; his biting analysis of craven politicians; his acid pique at those who talk in movie theaters.  He even used to say, "You'll likely go bald, son.  You know if he'd have lived longer, your mother's father would have been bald; and this trait is apparently inherited through maternal grandparents."  In his complexity, he was always funny.

Last night I had a dream where Dad picked Mom up for a date.  They were in a metallic blue convertible, just the two of them, and though the car was from 1958, the year they got married, they were the age they'd be today if they were still alive:  Dad 88 and Mom 79.  They looked really happy--despite their troubles, their divorce, their illnesses and their deaths, they were really thrilled to be out together.

In the introduction to his work, the Periodic Table, Primo Levi makes reference to a Yiddish proverb, "Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseylin--Troubles overcome are good to tell."


*tsores=Yiddish for "trouble" or "sorrow"

03 August 2012

Destiny and Morality

Two salient ideas ground this week's Torah portion, ואתחנן/Va-Ethannan.

One, that through the human faculty of hearing (it is here, in this parshah, where the שמע/Shma is first revealed) we can learn of God's oneness and unity of all things by listening, discerning, patiently absorbing without speaking.  

And two, that the Land of Israel is central to the narrative of the Jewish people--both as an object of our aspirations that is meant to be achieved as well as an unattainable place of our yearnings that forever eludes us.

Moses opens the portion by pleading to God to be granted the privilege of entering the Land of Israel:  "I pray you, let me go over and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon."  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, teaches that "Moses prayed he'd be able to see the good of the land, and not the way the Ten Spies (who saw themselves as grasshoppers) had seen it. God does allow Moses to see the Land, to envision it, as it were, from the "summit of Pisgah," a bittersweet personal horizon of distance that is memorialized beautifully by the Sages throughout the Midrash.  God, however, reminds Moses that because of his earlier sin (losing his temper, smashing the rock to draw water for the complaining rabble of Israelites, not crediting the Source of Life for the sustenance) he is not to merit this achievement.  

A tension is introduced in our Tradition between national and spiritual aspirations and historical reality: the Land of Israel we want to see and the Land of Israel we see.  Bringing the two together is at times a bridge we are unable to cross.  

How to resolve?

Moses is awakened to the idea that what each of us learns throughout the course of living lives of reflection and meaning is that none of us can ever merit seeing into the future but rather must take comfort in knowing that if we've lived well ourselves and taught the next generation to uphold the values of Torah, then the future will be secure. 

Of course--whose values of Torah?  The Haredi/Secular divide in Israel has never been greater.  Vast distances separate contemporary communities in Israel.  Can there be hope in a Land so greatly split?

The German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches about this week's portion that whereas most people establish a nation and then write their laws, the Children of Israel first received their Laws--the Torah on Mount Sinai--and then entered the Land to establish a nation.  That is to say, the moral underpinnings of Jewish people in their land are critical to the conceptualization of Jewish nationhood.  That this week's portion is the source from which we derive the Shma (the statement of God's radical oneness) and a reiteration of the Ten Commandments (our fundamental moral code) emphasizes this view.  The Jewish people here represent a nation founded on the Oneness of God and all humanity as well as a basic moral guide for the foundation and sustenance of that national vision.  

It puts into a broader and vitally important context that questions of fair wages, minority &immigrant rights, women's rights, and housing policy (to name but a few) are among the many moral questions demanding resolution for which the Jewish state was actually established.  In coming together to build a nation in a Land, one must never shrink from the demands of one's moral destiny.

Closer to home here in America, one is challenged to ask in an election year to articulate what unifies the citizens of this land of freedom; what values are shared; and what grounds our shared mission for maintaining the moral structures of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  In this formulation, the Torah and the Constitution represent bold prescriptions for what ought to be, the measure against which we test our mettle as Jews and Americans.

01 August 2012


We walked around the block last night as Shiva for Mom came to an end and I realized, amidst the receding tides of memories leaving ephemeral impressions in the shore of this experience, that I felt grateful.

Grateful for a mother who raised me to appreciate life's simple blessings.

Grateful for a wife who makes a home where such moments are the rule, not the exception.

Grateful for my sisters and brother and their presence at Mom's side for so much of her battle with cancer these past six years; and especially as her breath diminished, her soul departed, and her body gave out.  One sister called to tell me "Mom is gone" and within minutes another sister texted me a photograph of the sun rising over Lake Michigan.  מי זאת עולה מן המדבר--"Who is it that arises from the desert?" That wilderness of suffering having ended; up she went, the Mother.

Milwaukee Sunrise:  7.22.12
Grateful for the staff and administration at the Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee, all of whom were extraordinary in their expressions of love and sympathy for the six weeks they took care of Mom.

Grateful for family and friends from all walks of life--Mom's life which predated her children; her work friends from the Boston Store; her friends from Gilda's Club; from the Shorewood Public Library; from old political campaigns; PTA meetings; bridge clubs; and the friends of friends and family who knew her kindness and quirks, loved them, and so came to offer her one last chance at being drawn into the experience of giving gentle love and kindness back to the world:  a shovelful of regenerative earth down into the grave, covering one life in order to give way to new life in a new form.  As for all the emails and the letters and the phone calls, I'm grateful for those, too.  I plan on writing you all back over the next month.  Please be patient.

I'm also grateful for open hearts:  for Mom's children and their spouses who've chosen different faiths; for grandkids that sing songs and recite Shakespeare; for the Jews and the Christians and the Atheists and the Democrats and the Republicans who gathered together to acknowledge that an unusual person, in her often frustrating meekness but startlingly graceful humility, had left her mark.

And I'm grateful for psychoanalysis:  When I was 20, Dad died.  He and I had been fighting for the weeks leading up to his heart attack and when he left in a predictable explosion of cardiac matter, it took me years to excavate my anger.  Here in Brooklyn, years after his death, one therapist set an empty chair before me and said, "Talk to him.  He's sitting there," and for several sessions, I did.  It took years but we made peace.  When it became clear that Mom would die, we spent January to July speaking to one another truthfully.  My current therapist helped me figure out how to do that.  Which I appreciate.  Sometimes it hurt to say certain things to Mom and to hear certain things as well, of course, but that was the point.  To take responsibility.  If you have the chance, I recommend it.

I'm grateful that Mom died in an Election Year.  The country's a mess.  I like that my year of saying Kaddish will be comprised, in some significant way, with fundamental political battles over the direction of our country.  My brother-in-law Mike summed it up quite well in his eulogy:  "And I know these last couple of months were miserable for you...what with Scott Walker winning the recall election.  Oh, and the cancer too."  She'd have loved that.

There's so much to say, so much to write.  No one can really close out a person's life so easily.

Yesterday afternoon, when it was clear that the seven days of Shiva were drawing to an end, I was watching guests talk to one another in my living room, my mind drifted away, and I had an image of myself floating down a river, its alluvial banks a deep, muddy comfort; its current steady and inexorable.  This is Jewish Law, I said to myself.  Submission to a structure beyond the Self.

While Mom was dying in the first weeks of July, I was back and forth on Airtran Air (the Milwaukee Airport on life-support is another topic altogether) and among the books stuffed inside my bags were those of Alison Bechdel, Janet Malcolm and D.W. Winnicott.

I had never been so acutely aware of Transitions like I was those weeks; and these three thinkers were my compatriots in this last battle, helping me make sense of the metaphoric war between regenerative life and cancerous death.  I'm grateful for those guys, too.

I leave you, now, with a photograph that captures, I think, what Winnicott referred to as the child becoming aware of himself as an independent object, distinct from his mother.  As he weans from the life-source (the breast, the bottle), his 'transitional object' (usually the blanket) eases him into the idea that he is independent of that life source.

As I mulled these ideas, I focused on a particular picture from my childhood, taken at one year, when we were living in Sacramento.  Mom and I are very happy in the picture and with sarcasm my dad had scrawled on the back, "Grumpy," a likely approximation of his own feelings about the Oedipal nature of things (which Uncle Siggy explicated back when Vienna was still respectably Jewish.)

Nevertheless, I present it to you, dear reader, with the title, "Smiling Into Separation."  It turns out we started saying "good-bye" a long time ago.  Mom loved to make things so easy.  She was generous in that way.

Smiling Into Separation, Sacramento '64
I'm grateful for that, too.