08 January 2013

"Derouged by Kisses"

Ten years ago I was walking through Union Square one afternoon and a series of photographs caught my eye.  They were of discarded toys, found in the garbage in Tel Aviv.  The young artist selling her work explained pretty simply that she found some stuff in the trash, saved it, and decided to photograph the series.  I bought three of them.  Here's one:
davina, 2002  
And here's the triptych:
It's playful.  But serious.  Tragic.  And hopeful.  There was a feeling attached to the experience of buying the photographs.  It was a compound feeling, with many elements.  One, a feeling of encountering photographs on their own, objects encased in clear frames, their innocence captured in stabile time.  Two, the fact that they were not just toys but recovered toys, damaged once, yet brought back to life, resurrected by an artist, cleaned, arranged, and then shot, on film, to be shared, played with in a new way, by a wider circle of children than originally conceived by their maker.  Three, my own act of buying them--"supporting an artist"--who was Russian and Israeli and American, a triptych of her own identity, peddling her depictions of Tel Aviv refuse in a fashionable spot square where a hundred years ago immigrants fought for fair wages, humane work hours and conditions.  And finally, I was aware of the planned obsolescence, as it were, of the sentimentality attached to raising kids.  Their own dolls and toys already being memorialized, captured by the inevitability of the aging process, of maturation, of growing out of serving as playthings and becoming play objects.  Here the brilliance of the art seemed to really shine through.

I paid the money, put them in a bag, and hustled home.  

I occasionally dust them, set them in order, even play with their arrangement.  I marvel at their durability.  But I hadn't really thought about them very deeply until today, when back through Union Square I took a quick turn over to the Strand.  A found ten minutes had me digging through the stacks for a pleasant surprise, the first English edition of Nelly Sachs' O the Chimneys, a work of poetry I have always wanted to work through and never quite found the time.  But when news came through over the weekend that Gerda Lerner had died, I was so conscious of that loss of voice, that loss of yet another one who had triumphed over fascism, Nazism, the incomprehensible sense of Jewish dislocation of the twentieth century, that the thick volumed collection, published in 1967 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, called from the bottom shelf in the poetry section.  Like the photos from ten years ago:  Buy me.  Own me.  Leave me for someone else one day when you die.

Emails have been flying back and forth for the last few days since Gerda died.  Countless students she taught; others who swam in her wake; distant fans who marveled at the enormity of her resilience, her bravery, her tireless insistence on justice and equality.  And all that Jewish Viennese dignity.  We used to kid one of our kids that if she was a boy we'd have named her George for George L. Mosse of Berlin, via London, New York, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Madison and Jerusalem.  To keep the name, the connection back to a Jewry that will never again exist, to the giants who came before us, like Gerda, like George.

It feels important to capture a time, to try to get it right.  Doing so uncovers truths that often and regrettably get buried beneath the refuse of violence, oppression, or even quiet, long-suffering indignity.  So you dig them up, dust them off, and present them.

While jostling with other citizens on the train platform at Union Square before heading home, several compatriots prepared their kitbags for the journey to Brooklyn.  Papers, magazines, iPads, laptops, phones and books were unsheathed, their informational edges gleaming like steel, ready for battle.  I sat on a 4 train next to a guy playing a car racing game on his iPhone.  While he banged and crashed his car against virtual walls in hot pursuit of the ever-elusive algorithmic finish line in the mind of his all-powerful Gaming Conceiver, I muttered to myself a prayer that in some geek's room, somewhere in the future, is an app in development where the game is so real that when the car crashes against a wall, the player has to stop playing, get out of the car, call for a tow, bargain with the tow-truck, call his insurance agent, file a police report, check his bank account to cover the costs of repair, and then wait, several weeks, for things to be resolved before getting behind the wheel, only to joyfully smash it up all over again. 

It's just too damn easy to do whatever we want with our objects--our pads, our phones, our guns.  Where the hell are the consequences!  The book in my mind, its bricked cover, called out.
Nelly Sachs wrote:
O the night of the weeping children!
O the night of the children branded for death!
Sleep may not enter here.
Terrible nursemaids
Have usurped the place of mothers,
Have tautened their tendons with the false death,
Sow it onto the walls and into the beams--
Everywhere it is hatched in the nests of horror.
Instead of mother's milk, panic suckles the little ones.
Yesterday Mother still drew
Sleep toward them like a white moon,
There was the doll with cheeks derouged by kisses
In one arm,
The stuffed pet, already
Brought to life by love,
In the other--
Now blows the wind of dying,
Blows the shifts over the hair
That no one will comb again.
We are the generation that knew both the giants who conquered fascists and their grandchildren who rescued toys from the garbage.  "Dolls with cheeks derouged by kisses."  And we weep, on trains speeding through tunnels, "over the hair that no one will comb again."

Hagel and Steak

I have a friend from Nebraska.  He says about the way they like their steak out there, "I've seen cows get burnt worse than that and live."

That's how I feel about Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Secretary of Defense.  The opposition seems more to be posturing than anything really of substance.  Like Newtonian physics, for every reaction, there's an equal and positive reaction.

On NPR today, I heard Elliot Abrams talk referencing the "Nebraska Jewish community" on a few occasions, a veiled reference to innuendo that Senator Hagel might be anti-Semitic (and here, all along, we thought Florida's Jews would tip the 2012 election!  Nate Silver, where art thou?)  Senator Lindsay Graham, one of the best examples of a refusal to engage in meaningful bi-partisan politics for the last four years, is obviously so deeply concerned about the moral and spiritual integrity of the State of Israel that they have issued fierce condemnations of Senator Hagel before AIPAC has yet to utter a word.  The usual cries of protest from Alan Dershowitz and Abe Foxman and we're off to the races.

On the merits, it appears that Senator Hagel's voting record is consistently "pro-Israel."  He seems to have said three things that have earned people's ire.  Jeffrey Goldberg spends his life being on top of this stuff.  If there was something bad on Chuck Hagel, wouldn't he have been ready?  David Brooks slashes through the weeds, too.

1.  He referred to the pro-Israel lobby as the "pro-Jewish" lobby.  It's not?  While I recognize that others who are anti-Semitic see the pro-Israel lobby as insidiously Jewish, Hagel hasn't demonstrated that kind of antipathy vis a vis his voting record, which is what really matters--right?  What he has said, in effect is, that the Jewish leaders who lobby for Israel on Capitol Hill (and who are, on the whole, Jewish) are powerful.  But that he was elected to uphold the American constitution, not the Israeli Declaration of Independence, a prickly point of annoyance, especially since Senator Hagel has yet to demonstrate a comfort with the lyrics of Hatikvah.  But on the substance--that the Jewish lobby in Washington, DC is powerful?  DAMN STRAIGHT!  And how!  We earned it, too.  Fair and square!  With votes, hard work, brains and money--the American way.  I like that Senator Hagel named it.  It's good to know where he stands.  And if you want to examine his voting record, you'll generally find that the claim he's anti-Israel doesn't hold water.  In either case, he's being hired to work with the Pentagon and to take orders from President Obama, who won re-election as the most substantively pro-Israel President in recent memory and who won re-election by more than 3 million votes (including in Florida) despite attempts to paint him as an enemy of Israel.   Don't forget that in 2008, Bibi and his boys gleefully called Axelrod and Emanuel "self-hating Jews," then denied it, stoked flames of division with the White House, and nearly openly supported Romney in his bid to unseat the President.  And yet, in the first conflict to break out since the November election, President Obama was nothing less than totally pro-Israel in support of the Jewish state in its conflict in Gaza Strip.

2.  Senator Hagel has said that the United States should talk to Iran and talk to Hamas.  And talk to Hezbollah.  Okay.  They should.  Didn't Israel talk to Hamas?  If you bomb us, we'll bomb you back.  That's talking.  So talk.  It can only help.  And it certainly can't hurt.  And by the way, I bet they do.  We just don't know about it since it's official policy *not* to but does anyone out there honestly believe that we don't have agents, double-agents, triple agents and just plain old diplomats who don't have an ear to the ground in those places?  Beyond all the hyperbole, Senator Hagel's opponents seem to be attempting to exploit an opening for their own advantage in the game of Gotcha on Capitol Hill.  His verbal indiscretions, in a town known for getting remarkably little done in the past 12 years, are arguably an attempt to upset the status quo, question old assumptions, and provoke conversation.  If only to move things along.  Again, on the merits, we will thankfully rely upon the silver tongued smoothness of Senator John Kerrey, who will sail (or shall we say, swift boat) his way through the nomination process.  The Secretary of State is the nation's Diplomat in Chief, who, like the Defense Secretary, takes orders from the President--the most pro-Israel leader in recent memory.   This weekend Hamas and Fatah had what was effectively a joint rally.  Do we ignore that?  As Syria falls apart--do we not listen to signals from Iran and Hezbollah?  Beyond platitudes, does it kill us to have someone say something publicly unconventional but is, in practice de rigueur?

3.  There are those who say Hegel is anti-gay.  Turns out this really matters to Mitch McConnell.  However, it also turns out that President Obama over-turned "Don't Ask Don't Tell," legally eliminating justification for discrimination against gays and lesbians in the U.S. military.  Then he came out in favor of gay marriage.  God willing the Supreme Court will guarantee the Constitutional right for gay marriage nationwide.  Ergo, I don't really care what Senator Hagel once said about a gay diplomat.  On that issue he's on the losing side of history.  And again, he will have to obey the order of the President.  "I'm anti-gay but my Commander in Chief has over-turned the only bow in my quiver against gay people."  It's hard not to laugh.  And celebrate the most important civil rights victory since integration.


Finally, let me speak personally, as one who comes from the Prairie.  And you fellow Midwesterners, wherever you may roam, you know who we're talking about here.

There are three types of Prairie anti-Semites.  First, there are those who don't really know Jews, who aren't necessarily comfortable with them, but who nevertheless have enough of a sense of honesty, integrity and decency to grasp that all things being equal, we may disagree and we may find that disagreement disagreeable but we still wind up as allies on the causes that truly matter.   Second, there are the Gentiles who belong to restricted clubs and societies, who whisper indecencies about Jews, gays and blacks in their private quarters, and who practice bygone era of racial and religious segregation, all the while painfully knowing that the world is rapidly moving beyond them.  After all, their children belong to non-Jewish fraternities and sororities with predominantly Jewish university presidents.  I mean, let's face it:  the joke's on them.  And then there are those who join Posses and espouse an open hatred of Jews, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

I don't know Senator Hagel--I've never met him.  At the very least, he strikes me as a vocal contrarian of, at worst, the first variety, who will speak the soldier's language on behalf of the President as he seeks to reform a military that needs to define itself in the wake of the past decade of our incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He will tell *his* truth to the President and the rest of the cabinet about what he sees and thinks and then the President, as is his job, will decide.  He'll buck the unproductive posturing of an intransigent Republican leadership (that's a good thing) and stir the pot on the national security debate as a Republican who crossed over in an era of near total lack of cooperation.

When his verbal indiscretions bubble over, Jewish leaders inside and outside the White House (we're powerful all over that town!) someone will let him know.  And you know what Senator Hagel will do? He'll roll his eyes, sigh, and say, "I've seen cows get burnt worse than that and live."

Look at his voting record.  If we can't take criticism from an ally, how strong are we, really?

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.

01 January 2013

In Reverence No Senescence!

"This series of pictures should strike a deep emotional response in the heart of every Jew.  No matter how far we have traveled from the observances that were practiced by our fathers, we have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves, and a respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion."  --from the English translation of Dr. Leopold Stein's "Oppenheim Pictures," originally published in Frankfort, Germany in 1886.

As Richard Cohen has pointed out, in Jewish Icons, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, one of mid-nineteenth century German Jewry's most famous artists, used his work in "Scenes from the Traditional Jewish Family Life" to merge together "values of respectability, tradition and patriotism" showing "Jews loyal to home, family and country."  In "Die Jahrzeit," Oppenheim depicts a Shiva Minyan, a required prayer commandment gathering of ten men in order that a Jewish soldier in service can recite the Mourner's Kaddish.  For "Scenes from the Traditional Jewish Family Life" Oppenheim reproduced his color paintings in black and white so they could be more easily photographed for printing the books, which, in mass distribution, were meant to instill proper feelings among German Jews and their new, prideful membership in civic life.

One wouldn't really know the men were Jews but for the tallit worn by one of them and perhaps the presence of prayerbooks in their weary hands.  Two presumably Gentile children peer in from the window above the scene, bearing witness to the their neighbors' faith tradition.

What drew me to the picture today was the echo of Dr. Stein's words in my head as I drifted to sleep last night and awoke this morning:  "No matter how far we have traveled from the observances that were practiced by our fathers, we have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves, and a respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion."

I think of some of my work as a rabbi in fairly non-observant community.  The countless hours spent explaining the most basic of practices, over and over again.  Continually teaching fundamentals--sometimes, in the rarest of circumstances, as a coach to a kid who truly grows to love the game; but more often than not, perhaps like a high school math teacher, walking distracted students through formulas that for most are the grim requirements of getting through--the dreaded bar mitzvah comes to mind.  Each experience is special, to be sure.  Each is treated by the kids and their families with pride, nervousness, a measure of awe.  But then it's over so fast.  The onslaught of adolescence a Super Storm of Magnificent Proportions.  There's no telling what kind of Jews these kids will be--which is why booster shots like Summer Camp and Israel Trips are so important.

The content is less important in this latter example than is the "feeling of reverence" for what Stein called "the necessary part."  And it's the job of the older person to immunize the younger person with that feeling of immortality, an especially difficult task when we all know that kids generally see themselves as immortal already.  Try telling a kid "what really matters."  Then bang your head against a wall.

And how great is the challenge in the conveyance of that "feeling of reverence" today, with a near total saturation of image and immediacy, of memes traveling at the speed of light over corporatized air, into young minds so unfathomably impressionable, so malleable and yet so overloaded as to make it at best a crapshoot as to what will stick and what will be obliterated in time and mind by the flood of future indentations to brain matter and memory.

We trade in feelings.  In pride.  In connection to Peoplehood, the new buzz word of organized Jewish life, which has replaced Oppenheim's generational concern for Citizenship or Herzl's concern for State.  But whereas mid-nineteenth century Jewry has images for the conveyance of ideas of citizenship and statehood, our own era has little to offer in any kind of -- what do the kids say today, epic? -- way.

There is too much popular culture and too much irony and satire to be able to take any image too seriously.  Jewish tatoos, Jewish reggae stars, Jewish comedians, Jewish basketball players, rabbis on Harleys and surfboards, women rabbis, gay rabbis, Jews with guns, Jewish Democrats, Jewish Republicans--nothing sticks anymore.  And that's probably a good thing.  Since, after all, our supposed adherence to the Second Commandment is at least moderately predicated on the idea that the medium isn't the message--unless of course the medium is a stone with letters carved on its face.

It always comes down to carved stone.  Dr. Anne Pringle, a mycologist at Harvard who studies lichens on gravestones in New England, has gradually moved toward a theory of regenerative immortality.  What we know from fungi and their eternality is that fundamentally, they don't die.  "If you made me answer the question now," she said to the Times reporter Hillary Rosner, "I'd say there can be senescence of parts of an individual.  But I don't think an individual ever senesces."  Dr. Pringle records the life of a fungus by tracing it, tracking its changes as it evolves over time.  Her images, like Oppenheim's reproductions, are captured images of timelessness.

This makes me wonder what a fungus remembers:  Who dug the hole in the ground?  Who laid the stone?  Who came to mourn and remember?  Who cuts the grass?  Who plants the new flowers each spring?

Do the fungi have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves?

I have the perfect bumper sticker!  OMG!  "In Reverence No Senescence!"  And a small picture of Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's "Die Jahrzeit" in the center.  Every Jewish driver will want one.  We will drive with pride!  Observing traffic laws wherever we reside!  For at least the traffic law is a law.  Someone's law!  And as we all know, laws come from somewhere.  The source is ever-present.  It's always been there.  It never dies.

It's old.  Like a fungus.