19 November 2013
Wherein Questions Part Seas
My grandfather was heroic. Monumentally so. As a Bachman, he soared past six feet in stature, a miracle no less compelling than the parting of the Red Sea. The "L"on his muscle-tee stood for Lapham Park, the ghetto hangout for Milwaukee kids in the early decades of the twentieth century. Charlie Bachman was a counselor to kids on the playgrounds, a peacemaker among those competing for attention and respect among the mixed assortment of immigrants that crowded this urban stew of new American narrative.
I know this because when he died in 1973, my fourth grade teacher read a letter to the Milwaukee Jewish Chronicle from one of those kids who called my grandpa his "knight in shining armor." Apparently he broke up a few fights and protected his own. He never mentioned it. Typical.
The son of immigrants himself, whose parents traveled from a region in Pinsk to Chicago and then to Milwaukee, Charlie went to Marquette University, a Jesuit school, for medical school.
Grandpa's Jewishness as a practice, as a theology, as a ritually-rooted commitment to the greater narrative and textual tradition from Abraham to the present, seemed to matter less than the reality of the present. Like our Biblical forefather Joseph (Abraham's great-grandson) who found himself a leader in Egypt as an Egyptian, Charlie was heroic precisely because he was so quintessentially American. It was his wife, my grandma, who spoke Yiddish, whose father founded shuls and organized Milwaukee Zionists.
Grandpa, my hero, had the hidden name: Charles Haskel Bachman. Haskel for Yehezkel, the prophet Ezekiel, mystic, chariot rider, Radical Seeker of the Name.
There was a burn there that went unspoken. If Ezekiel's chariot wheels burned; if Joseph's identity, after being sold by his brothers, burned; what fires roared in Charlie's soul? He never said. Both his sons inherited a kind of deafening silence that they in turn denied their sons. A muted, mutated patrimony.
But Joseph evolves, doesn't he?
This is the man I knew, in Kodachrome.
When Joseph goes down to Egypt, apparently the victim of his brothers' spite, we know, given his favored status by the father Jacob, that he'll be just fine. So fine that he'll thrive, adapt,and succeed--with his priorities in order.
But because he will have been sold down into slavery, as it were, he will have a ruthless individualism; a rugged and singular determination to make it on his own. I've always loved that about Joseph. He knows who he is, despite looking like the successful Egyptian that he is.
My only memory of going to Shul as a kid came from some year on a timeline, indecipherable, blurry and nondescript, in which I sat in a seat next to my dad and grandpa. The room was warm and I was transfixed by the Hebrew, by the tallises, by the windowed abstractions, by the mystery of it all. I fit myself, like a puzzle piece, between these two generations of Bachman men, asking questions in silence that would take years to vocalize and decades to answer.
It never ceases to amaze me how compelling their silence was. How present was their absence in the conveyance of Judaism's required transmission from one generation to the next.
On the other hand, I strove. I was an athlete. I led. And when it came to rooting those impulses in a value system, I came to realize that my own actions were derived from a narrative structure that they too embraced, albeit through the lens of the universal, the typical American strivings toward success.
Joseph comes to Torah each year to remind us that distance from the narrative is also redemptive; that future generations, especially those who at times "don't know how to ask," eventually ask. And their questions -- who am I? where do I come from? -- part seas.