03 January 2013

(and yours)

Keats had carved into his gravestone at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, "Here lies one whose name is writ in Water."

But the Four who entered into the Orchard to study the meaning of God's existence were warned, "When you get to the place of pure marble, don't say, 'water, water.'"  God's name or face may be as elusive as water, always flowing, always changing; but when one seeks to quantify it for the purposes of rational inquiry, "don't say water."  Its molecular structure is subject to too much change.  Water freezes; water boils; water lays still.  But water also evaporates.  God is pure, like marble, with the illusion of movement; but a more stable and immovable force.

I encountered one such impressive rock outside a cemetery, perched on a garbage heap, in Tel Aviv.  It was an exceedingly hot day in July, three years ago.  I wandered about, aimlessly baking, and there found this stone:

The פ''נ means "here is buried."  Not "here lies."  Certainly not "here lies one whose name is writ in water."  And certainly not on that day.  The Mediterranean stones were hot underfoot.  "Here lies" implies the command, "Get up!"  But "here is buried" seems to hint toward a more permanent condition--certainly for the body in question.  A Jew, to be sure.  The Hebrew letters, the Star of David.  Here is buried a Jew.  Technically,*there* was buried a Jew, the exact location unclear, given that the small marble plaque had been broken off the original gravestone and tossed carelessly onto a Tel Aviv garbage heap at some interval before I came along and took it.  Back to my apartment; into my suitcase; onto the plane; and now: "Here it lies." In Brooklyn.

Rachel and I moved here in 1990 from Israel, where we were both former students living in Jerusalem. I had dropped out of rabbinical school only to eventually return.  She was figuring things out and traveling.  Brooklyn was meant to be temporary but has become permanent.  I'm at the age now where I read the travel section of the paper and occasionally say aloud, to no one in particular, "oh, we thought of living there once."  Pittsburgh, Austin, Chicago.  London, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv.

Brooklyn, given its powerful lean into the Atlantic seaboard, has nevertheless always been the front line.  Section One.  Row One.  That must explain why, along with my "here is buried stone," I also brought back from the Tel Aviv garbage heap, this gem:
Ad people call this "good placement."  Best seats in the house.  Everyone passes through Brooklyn and New York.  Friends and family; artists alive and dead fill concert halls and museums.  There's always something to do; always someplace to go.  "For wherever you go, I will go; and where you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried."

What Ruth was saying was she liked where she lived.  It worked for her.  Ruth, whose name in Hebrew, רות, connotes 'friendship' and 'companionship' with illusive hints to the pasture of sheep, to the care and feeding of life itself.  It is the language of evolving, even an itinerant permanence.  Not water but land, earth, rock.  There is evolutionary change but undeniable solidity.  You can lay your body down.  You can be buried.

My great-grandfather Chaim Siegel was a young scholar before he moved from Kapul, Minsk to Milwaukee in the late nineteenth century.  He founded an orphanage, a synagogue, a Mizrachi Zionist movement branch in his adopted home.  He oriented his heart to Jerusalem and the Hebrew language but his body is in the Wisconsin earth.  Before he died, he composed this poem about himself, an acrostic based on his name, and made stipulation that it be affixed to his grave.  It too was damaged and detached, lying on the ground nearby during one recent visit.  So I packed it up and brought it home.  I hope to one day solve the mystery of the missing middle verses, remake the piece, and re-attach it to the stone.  Maybe then my great-grandson will find it, take it home, and ponder its meaning.
It also opens with the letters פ''נ.  His body is there buried.  But his words travel, not in water but in stone--from Minsk to Milwaukee, from Brooklyn to Jerusalem.  From him to me to you.

Trusted friend.  Helping hand.  Lover of books.  Dreamer of his people's redemption.  If I could only merit a fourth of his poetic aspirations (and yours) then I'd be ready to lay my own head down.

No comments: