30 November 2013

Hanukah Day Two: Peacefield

I had thought the crisp Quincy air would have earned me points but dumb luck.  After all, you should be freezing cold when you come to honor the soul of this Founder whose own internal fire protected him from those harsh Revolutionary winters.   But the lady at the church couldn't let me in and even after offering to come worship on Sunday morning, to pray in comity and national unity just a few feet above the crypt where the hero lies buried, the way remained blocked by a friendly but stalwart follower of the rules.  "You can't see the grave til April," she said.  "We're closed til then."

Imagine that.  John and Abigail Adams, bereft of visitors until the spring thaw.  And so I yearn for the greening, five months hence.

This need to yearn, this longing to remember, sent me packing back to the car, a coffee, and a second plan:  pay respects to the image and go say Kaddish where he died:  the Old House at Peacefield.  Though stripped of its garden growth for the usual Massachusetts winter, the paths were nevertheless an easy route to walk and take in the cantankerous spirt of this brilliant man.

I had the Macabees in mind, tangentially, in so far as I imagined their reconnaissance of Jerusalem before recovering the sacred center.  No access to graves; denied worship; left to look at the statue, an idol to memory, while barred from giving honor in my way, our way, as a people.

I know, I know.  I'm exaggerating; and having a little fun with it.  But it didn't escape me that this is what has become of national memory:  subjected to the arbitrariness of one person's will and budget cuts to the National Park Service while other displays of wayward national pride like aircraft carriers or tax rebates or inhumane budget cuts to shelters and feeding programs fatten the gusto of some while depriving others.  Our national spirit is too cold to remember correctly what truly matters.

Good grief.  And then, to add insult to injury, standing outside the doors to the Old House in Peacefield, where Adams drew his last breath, I thought I heard the driving leaves whisper Adams' last words, "Jefferson lives."

True--but only when the National Parks are open.

28 November 2013

Hanukah Day One: Path to Citizenship

These two men were talking to each other one day in Budapest in 1937.  They were captured by the photographer Ferenc Berko, the son of a Hungarian Jewish refugee who prior to 1937 had already made the decision that Hungary was a hostile place for Jews.  By the end of the Second World War nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews would be killed in concentration camps and ditches, victims of Hitler's Final Solution.
We have no idea as we look at this picture if the two men survived.  But their demeanor evokes anxiety.  Each with a walking stick--though the forces arrayed against them beyond mythic, der Führer an über-Pharaoh, rendering their Moses staffs powerless to part seas.  The man in the darker beard and glasses intently questioning the older man whose gaze is fixed westward, mid-stride, leaving.

I hope they made it out.  It's likely they did not, leaving their lives as a sacrifice to the idea that to be a 'stranger in a strange land' is fraught with danger.  And this is why our texts demand that we tell our story over and over again:  "The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you."  The ethical dimension to the emigre's reality is clear.

Despite its imperfections, America has been a place of refuge and blessing for the Jewish people.  It has been, without question, the safest Diaspora home for our people.  All the more reason, they say, that we ought to be sensitive to the strivings and yearnings for those contemporary emigres to feel a sense of welcome and opportunity in the face of a cruel world that challenges one's livelihood, safety and even existence.

On this first day of Hanukah, fortuitously coinciding with Thanksgiving, let's remember that we too were strangers in a strange land and that for many, our ability to immigrate and seek shelter and life has preserved us down to this day.

And HERE you can even do something about it.  The Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, provides an easy and helpful way for you to let legislators know that they should take up serious immigration reform to ease the path to citizenship that so many seek.

To be trapped in the no-man's land of statelessness is a terrible anxiety at best and at worst a threat to one's very existence.

Write a letter.  Put the pressure on.  Save a life.  Dedicate this first day to those strangers in our land and let the light of the first day be a beacon of hope and welcome on the path to citizenship.


25 November 2013

Even An Old Ring

Before you go off to war, you have to dress up for war, something little kids know, often forget as youth, and then, when necessary, remember.  Or, in wartime, are commanded to wear the mantel of honor and defense.  My dad was still 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked and by the summer of 1942 was enlisted.  His studies were suspended and his training took him to various points in the Lower Forty-Eight before he was shipped over seas to serve his country as an Army Engineer.  Nothing to glamorous--jeep and tank repair is about it.  A lot sitting around.  A quiet period; and, one which I have filled in over the years with noisy speculation about an imagined transitional time for Dad between boyhood and adulthood, wherein were made fateful choices, habituated into the sinewy stuff of his grown up life.

His posture is a deceit.  Look closely and you'll see that his shoulders rear back some, defensive against the inevitable onslaught of moral choice, career commitment, and the complex navigational systems required for building a career, a family, a life.  Nattily put together then, the tie perfectly knotted and tucked away, thumbs confidently holstered in his pockets, his fingers are, nevertheless, clenched, tensed, holding on to himself.

Dad loved this pose:  he'd demand the half profile throughout our childhood.  He thought it classy.  Here is in 1958:  boat, cap, cigarette.  It's a good look.
 But at enlistment there was the boy's smile with his lips peeping open and the faintest of squints into distance, his right side face is shaded and brimmed by the Army cap that never seemed to get passed down.

I had one of his dog-tags for many years, which included the famous designation of "H" for Hebrew and the small wedge at the top, for jamming into the dead's mouth to aid in speedy identification on the battlefield.  Thankfully, he made it home.  The dog-tags were stolen from my apartment one year in college by an oddball political campaign volunteer who I never was able to convince to return the i.d. despite my pleas for the sentimental value of the loot.

Jerk.

But his ring I got.

Actually, before it was his ring it was my grandfather's ring.  Ridged gold, classically modern, with an opaque jade stone setting.  It seems elaborate for my tastes.  Not something I'd ordinarily be inclined to wear.  On Grandpa it seemed just right.  He wore it well and it represented, to my kid's eye view, the adornment of a man who had earned it.  When Grandpa died, Dad started to wear it, though not on his ring finger where his father carried but rather on his pinky, given my father a kind of mobster chic that I think he relished.  Even though by that point his advertising career had bitten the dust and he was finding his way to make a buck through an anemic real estate market and discount shoes.
I don't know what Dad hated more:  selling shoes or selling real estate.  He had sold television time for the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee, led a team of young hotshots who worked and partied hard and took team trips with their wives to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, San Francisco and of course, New York.  In those days he could have chosen a ring of his own but for all I know, maybe he expected to receive the ring as a blessing, bestowed from father to son.  Maybe Grandpa never bought it but received it from his father.  If true, this bit of the narrative is lost forever.

So from Grandpa to Dad, the silent passing; and then from Dad to me.  After Shiva in the early spring of 1983, I took the ring (which was removed from his body by the funeral home) and his Clark Wallabees and headed back up to Madison.  With the ring in my pocket and his shoes on my feet, I walked up Bascom Hill in a kind of other-worldly march both backward and forward into time.
I was aware that time had shifted, tectonically, and that my steps were my own but were also being guided, by forces of history and memory that would no longer be exclusively my own.  Dad hadn't walked those prairie hills in those exact shoes, but he traveled the trails of Madison well and I had a sense of mission and purpose to the work that lie ahead.  Book spines, notepads, dialogue with faculty--each of these mundane expressions of campus life would be overlaid with an intentionality priorly unknown.

I became, as it were, a soldier in the battle to overcome silence; to reawaken a muted family narrative;  to reify a broken covenant with our Tradition; and to walk, intentionally, in the steps of our ancestors.

These dark days of the year, Kislev's cold, clear skies, paint hued truths in suspended rays of silver, orange and blue.  It's no wonder, I suppose, that we read of the Biblical Joseph in these days.  A man who wore his father's clothes, too soon.   He took them willfully, vaunting his favored status.  And paid a price.  Joseph's descent, a journey of years in another land, including jail, rescue and elevation, brought to bear the hard-earned truths of his most humbling characteristic:  what talents he had to use for the good came not solely from him but from his God.  His older brothers hated him for this and as we know, it was nearly a generation before he himself could fully grasp its depth dimensions.

Who among us would not admit that there is both the torment and the reward of hard-earned reconstruction in the trajectory of our lives, seen through the lens not of days but years?  Who among us--after an uncountable number of consecutive winters, years of waning light, withering cold, deadened branches and blown leaves--who among us would not count as one part merit and one part dumb luck the very ability to stand at the horizon and notice time pass with the wisdom one gains merely by surviving?

We are what we are and we are always what we say we are, over and over again.

And sometimes, to celebrate having made it, you get dressed up.  A tie with a crisp knot.  A new hat.  What the hell--maybe even an old ring.


20 November 2013

It's the Doing That Counts

According to what I was told, my grandfather's volunteer hours delivering free vaccinations, or not taking payment for services rendered, was a minor source of annoyance to my grandmother, who felt his working hours ought to be devoted to making money for the family.  If he had something to say about that difference of opinion, I never heard about it from my dad.  Charlie Bachman's quiet station got one's attention through doing more than saying.

This photograph, all that remains from the newspaper clipping it once was, is a cherished piece of archival material.  My grandfather's Roman head; that Mod paisley tie; his gentle hands; the child's bonnet-blindered gaze back at her doctor; the formal mother, dressed for a visit to the physician, a far cry from the way our casual age shows up in any manner of dress.  (Heck, these days, with health care in turmoil, I'd imagine a Miley Cyrus Twerking Jumper could get you to the front of the line in a crowded emergency room.)

"The health department's mobile clinic" begins the caption.  Diphtheria immunizations were in order in this yellowed Milwaukee paper; and Dr. C.H. Bachman was ready with the needle.  Edith Hastirman didn't look unhappy (despite reports) and her mother, "Mrs Ray Hastirman," doesn't seem to mind missing her first name.  Such were the structures in which we once built our lives.

Mobile medicine, food pantries, and legal clinics are still around.  My brother-in-law Mike Gonring, a lawyer in Milwaukee with a career long commitment to pro bono legal work, helped make one such mobile legal clinic come to be in our hometown.

Mike married my sister Robin long after Grandpa died.  But Grandpa went to Marquette University for medical school and I'm certain he would have appreciated his grandson-in-law's commitment to justice and the poor.  And I have it on good information that unlike Grandma, my sister doesn't bust my brother-in-laws chops about money.  So, you know, there's progress in the family.  Though apparently moments before my mother died last year, she pulled my brother-in-law close and whispered to him, "Get Robin a boat."  There's aspirational thinking for you.

Anyway, I've been playing with this image of my grandfather as the Biblical Joseph:  as the assimilated, diaspora exemplar.  The man who blends in and uses his success to do good.  And then, quietly, at the end, reveals the deep rivers of family narrative, passes on the story, releasing the next generation to make of their story what they will.  In the Biblical narrative, Joseph's revelation of Jewishness is deployed for two distinct purposes.  One, he exacts a kind of playful revenge on his brothers for their shoddy treatment of him by dangling fate before their eyes and then revealing his own true self to them, causing great emotional release and then grandiose justifications for his own suffering at their hands, effectively playing the same game he had played since his youth--namely, that he was the one touched by God to lead.  And while honorably carrying away his father Jacob's body to be buried in the Land of Israel, Joseph requires no such ritual for himself.  He dies at 110--an Egyptian age of achievement, a half-step beneath the 120 years allotted to the fulfilled Jew--and is essentially mummified and buried as an Egyptian.  It's a puzzling choice, sending a mixed message to his descendants:  he paid Jewish respects to his father but chose the assimilationist path for himself.  A paradoxical helix of twisted fate, left to future generations to unravel.

I remember Grandpa's voice; his agile and muscular hands; his gold band and jade stone that rode high, just beneath a knuckled finger; and at the end, his rough-whiskered kisses--playful, lasting.  When Jacob takes Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe and blesses them out of their birth order (exacting a karmic revenge over perhaps his own repressed guilt at having bilked the birthright from his brother Esau) Jacob enjoys some late-in-life mischief but effectively says little beyond "I know my son, I know" when Joseph queries him.  Jacob changes history, subverting primogeniture, disturbing presumed order, but conveying very little about it.  It's almost as if he presumes of subsequent generations the blithe colloquial, "they'll figure it out."

As I look back on my own visits with Grandpa, I too come up short.   There are very few explanations for why he did what he did.

Like an archaeologist of memory, I am left to conjure stories from faded pages, the ephemera of sensory recall, the echoes of a time past, occasionally knocked loose from the knotted gray corridors of the mind.

From the faintest of voices, we often draw the most meaning.  It's really rather extraordinary.  I'd imagine Grandpa would be impressed.  He'd raise a humorous brow but say little.

Why talk?  It's the doing that counts.




19 November 2013

Wherein Questions Part Seas

The young man, looking forward, westward, to the future.  The shovel, leaning against the tree, having done its work:  burying the past.

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.

This was his "Joseph" moment.  When one melds into the Disapora.  Finds success.  Vaporizes Jewishness.  In his medical school graduation program, for instance, from the spring of 1924, months before my father was born, Charlie is one of a couple Jews in his class; and had I known enough to ask then (echoes of the "child who doesn't know how to ask" from the Passover Seder) I'd have queried that experience as a lad of 9 before his second heart attack removed him from the world.  What was the thought process of eliding one's Jewish narrative?

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.
The confident lean. His beloved wife, the stocky looker from Minsk, and my mother, his non-Jewish daughter-in-law, on each arm.  His sons on the flank.  That mid-century wood-panelling, modernity's perfection, as background.  This is a statement.

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.


15 November 2013

Moon Over Rush Hour

I saw a moon over rush hour yesterday, in the early evening, hovering above buildings, winking confidently through the hues of a proud city sunset.  Cars lined up on Varick Street, nudging their way toward the Holland Tunnel:  slipping out of town just as that rounded lesser sun made a brief evening bow.

You have to be looking to notice, in the city; but when you do the reward is great.  It's not necessarily a benefit on the scale of descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky or sand of the sea but it's not chump change, either.

It's cognition.  The awareness that there is privilege in being after someone and before someone else.  And that maybe there's even a story to tell of how you got there and where you might be going.
Here's my father at age one, held by his grandmother Rebecca, almost cupped in her ample hand, while his grandfather Chaim towers over, the faintest of prideful smiles engages the camera, saying, "I am a man who came here, made a living, sent for my wife, and this child is our first American."  I don't think he ever said that but I imagine he did.  The pen in his pocket even hints that he may be writing the story in real time.

My father and his grandmother, on the other hand, are fixing their glance a bit up and to the left.  I haven't the faintest notion what it could be.  The photographer's elaborate flash mechanism?  A toy bird or monkey to distract the child?  We'll never know.  And that's the best part.  We get to keep making it up over and over again.

The night before Jacob meets his brother Esau, he lays himself down by the banks of the Yabok River.  His family is safe on one side and he goes to meet his fate, alone, on another.  When he last saw his brother he was running for his life, their rivalrous fire stoked by their mother's ambitious plan to elevate Jacob, not Esau, as the leader of the family.  Deep within his soul on that terrifyingly dark night of fratricidal fear, moral searching, military strategizing, or at best, simple, quiet confusion, Jacob dreams of wrestling.  With whom, we'll never really know.  The Torah says "a man" though after the dream he whom Jacob struggles with declares that "thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed."

It was never clear to me that the one wrestling Jacob was God or even angelic.  On the other hand, who is really to know?  What matters more is what Jacob said of the event himself:  "Jacob called the name of the place 'Peniel, for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.'"

The angel/man/God never said that.  Jacob did.  He ascribed to an event of the unconscious the strivings and perceptions of a spiritual seeker.  Like a baseball player who crosses himself before a 94 mile per hour fastball comes steaming across the plate, God is his invocation to power, his wish for success, his lucky rabbit foot on the dangling key chain to the many doors of life he will always walk through.

Another player on the scene might simply say, "Keep your eye on the ball.  And when it comes at your head, duck."

My sense is that my great-grandfather made the decision, somewhere either in Minsk, on the steam ship, at Ellis Island, or on his horse and buggy in Western Wisconsin--somewhere out there on rivers both mythic and real--to lose his faith and build his family.  To survive at all costs.  He hedged his bets, it seems.  A "learned layman" on the scene; a Mizrachi Zionist president.  But by 1942 when he died, with that first American grandson in the war to save human civilization from Hitler, not a single one of his children were living any kind of serious Jewish lives and his grandchildren would virtually opt out of anything but the most tangential connections to the Jewish narrative.  It's as if the dark night of those dark years of wrestling his own conscience, half a world away from the land he fled, yielded the end of the family line.

The Sages teach that according to one view, the man who wrestled with Jacob "threatened him with spiritual annihilation."  Forced to argue for his own existence in such a way that would tempt Jacob into admitting that the fight for survival simply wasn't worth it.   I know Jews like that.  I meet them all the time.  And it pains me, to be quite honest.  Cuts to the quick, as they say.  Not like a knife but like a baseball barreling down at you so fast you can't get out of its way.

But then again there's that moon over rush hour.  It reveals an outcome that is sometimes unexpected.

So there's that.

And then there's the other thing, too.  Like when people sit in the stands and watch a ball game.  There's the guy who sees the whole history of the game, from its inception to its latest iteration, with his revered players from his favorite eras, who have risen and fallen with every challenge along the way.  And then there's the guy who's there to just take in the game on a sunny afternoon.  Its rhythm soothes him; the sounds of the fans in the stands, the crack of the bat, even the lad in the aisles sustains him with the sentimentality of ballpark fare.  It's fun once in a while, nostalgic.

Jacob at the river is either a monumental spiritual hero or a spiritually annihilated forefather whose only surviving last resort is a nostalgia for crumbling sepia prints.

Or a moon over rush hour, storing secret light for an unforeseen future.

13 November 2013

Whenever We Can, Wherever We Are

A Jewish fraternity Purim Party.  1947.  Madison, Wisconsin.

Two years removed from the ashes of the end of the Second World War.  In the pastoral hopefulness of a victorious nation, young Jews dress up in costume and celebrate their innocence on one side of the earth while across the globe, young Zionists fighting for their lives and their survival in a British Mandate Palestine not yet legally partitioned by the United Nations wonder, legitimately, if they'll be the last Jews on the planet.  In fact, by February 1947 the British said they'd leave but in March there was no plan yet in place.

The way I like to look at my dad's frat party from this year is that despite the revelry, the Jewish future stood in the balance.  Despite what appeared to be a kind of silly, blithe, even banal carelessness was an apparent molten turmoil, just out of reach.

What a world we're always living in:  some lives torn apart, limb from limb, while others dress up, ape before cameras, delve into the carefree.  Whether the 1940s or today:  Why are we so lucky to be able to appreciate November's chill in Brooklyn while in the Philippines, all feels lost?

Not longer after Rachel and I moved to New York I met her Aunt Becky, who, as a secular leftist, stepped over the blockading body of her immigrant mother in Brooklyn in order to go study in Wisconsin in the 1930s.  Mythic, transcendent striving.  And then, after the war, wound up processing for relocation, to both the United States and Palestine, lives of Jews in Displaced Persons camps in Europe seeking better horizons than the typhoon of history that had obliterated what they previously defined, in the most mundane of terms, as "existence."

It's always been that way for us, hasn't it?  Like one body divided into at least two:  one of us enjoying an amber sun sinking into deep green hills while others run for their lives.  How to hold such dissonance except to never shrink from doing what we can, whenever we can, from wherever we are.

If I were a poet I'd try to make you cry over the inexplicably random power of nature and its cruel trajectories this past week in the Philippines.  Instead I'm merely a man with a broken heart at the loss of life, the loss of everything, and so simply ask you to join me in doing what we can, from a distance, while we live our fortunate lives, to help those in need, half a world away.

Here are two places you can give.

The American Jewish World Service

and

The Joint-Distribution Committee

Both are exemplary organizations who excel at getting what is needed to those in need.

Please do what you can.  And let's hope and pray that those whose lives can be saved and restored will be saved and restored, by the intrepid kindnesses called forth in such shatteringly humbling disasters.

Thanks.



12 November 2013

Less Discernible and Growing Greater

My grandmother was a beautiful woman with deep, dark eyes, soft hands and an ample breast.  She retained a slight accent, though had come to America at age 3 or 4, following her father Chaim Siegel, who had paved the way in the late 19th century.  From a small town in Minsk, obliterated of its Jews first by a wave of pogroms and then the Shoah, Grandma retained her Jewishness in her manner, her friendships, and her food.  Though her father Chaim was clearly learned and among the founders of a Milwaukee synagogue, the orphanage, and the Mizrachi Zionists in town, the family seemed to locate its Jewishness with a moderate distancing from faith, far as I can tell.

Like many immigrants at the turn of the century, he cobbled together a living selling things from town to town.  Here is a picture of him with his rig--"one horse heavey, one blind" while traveling upstate near Eau Claire.
The Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers run through town and a hundred years ago, the city was a lumber and milling center.  It's no wonder that a Jew from rural Minsk would gravitate toward business in the small industrial areas outside the big cities.  I once heard from an uncle that Chaim couldn't get out of New York faster after he arrived and even found Milwaukee too large and dirty.  I guess you'd have to hate the city if you'd be willing to peddle junk in the countryside just to get away.

Grandma once told me, while shoveling her sour kugle my way, that while roaming the country scouring up business, he taught a devout upstate Lutheran named Olson how to read Hebrew in exchange for lessons in speaking English.  Eighty years later when I was an aspiring student politician and went to Badger Boys State, I roomed with a kid from upstate named Olson.  He seemed less impressed with the coincidence than I but no matter; in those days I was already assembling the narrative in the manner of a kid who finds a precious toy ship, disassembled in the family attic, and endeavors to reassemble, piece by piece, what had been left in storage for a couple generations.  For a time, everything fit together perfectly.

Dad was silent on those visits, but devoted.  He was present each week when we went to see our grandparents, but somehow out of focus, not quite in view, as his mother told me stories about her father:  from Minsk to Milwaukee, the country peddler, the bag maker in Milwaukee, the community leader, a writer and poet.  "He davened with the Twerskys but kept Shakespeare folios inside his siddur."  I recently started really appreciating that.  (Take no offense, God.  The language soars!)

So while he didn't seem to say much about the Patrimony that was passed my way by his mother via his grandfather, he certainly condoned it.  And in some ways, I suppose, like Joseph bringing his sons Ephraim and Menasheh to his father Jacob for a blessing, perhaps Dad honored his Patrimony by giving that right of passage to a more worthy generation.   It worked.  At fifty I can still feel my grandmother's hands on my head, lovingly trying to fatten me up; and my grandfather, the doctor, lifting me confidently for a kiss from his stubbly chin.  The sheer physicality of the conveyance.  Judaism--the faith of action and deed.

Dad's reticence used to mystify me until I started studying pictures of his grandfather, who I began to understand must have been a kind of towering and moderately terrifying figure.  The sheer heroism of picking oneself up and making the journey across the sea; the fear of leaving your family behind; the singular focus on making money to send for them four years later; and the decades long drive to survive financially while establishing and leading Jewish institutions, creating the building blocks for a thriving Diaspora community in relatively welcoming, industrial, heartland city; and Americanizing your children and grandchildren to not only survive but thrive in the New Land.  When Dad went off to join the service, he wrote letters back home to his mother.  I have some of those.  I wonder if he ever wrote his grandfather, the Patriarch, who was alive until 1949.  If so, they're lost to history.  That's a dialogue one can only imagine in most families.  A chapter of time, etherized.

Sometimes I think Chaim Siegel was too much for my father to face.  Dad carried his middle name, he looked a bit like him, but that's where it seems to end.  It frustrates not to know, to fill in the blanks with speculation, to encounter the ellipses and be left, alas, with a shaky narrative built more on image than words.
Here's Chaim in 1925.  He cleaned up nice after the horse rides out in western Wisconsin.  He has the look of a man of success, steely focus and strength.  But in a curious twist of neo-Abstract Expressionism, the painted grays that surround him in this photograph have always represented for me that image of man quite conscious of his image, both covering up and making larger than life the precious few mundane details that, for whatever reasons, remain a mystery.  An absence: less discernible and growing greater with time.






11 November 2013

For the Cause

Here's where the smoldering begins.

In 1946, when my dad returned from serving in the Second World War, he finished his degree at UW-Madison on the GI Bill of Rights.  By the time I heard about these legendary events--fighting to save civilization and having a good time as a college student, there was more than enough myth-making to last a lifetime.  There were his buddies from the war--a collection of Americans from every corner of the country, identified primarily by their uniforms and only secondarily, in my dad's case, for example, by their religion (I used to marvel at the embossed "H" in his dog-tags that identified him as a "Hebrew" or Jew.)  There were stories of court martial trials for too much ping-pong, coffee and donuts; grabbing an extra case of beer for the journey home from the Philippines; ladies in Paris who loved American boys; and tender notes home to his mother, an immigrant from Minsk, who no doubt took pride in her patriotic son.

Back in Madison, certain unified myths broke apart a bit.  One such example, an iconic favorite of mine, are the annual pictures from my dad's fraternity, Phi Sigma Delta.  It was, as might be apparent from the photograph above, a Jewish fraternity, a relic from a time of restricted membership in social clubs throughout the country.  My dad was a statistician in high school (his slight, brainy frame necessitated finding any means necessary to get close to his love of sport) and as such, he kept meticulous notes on who was who in his photos.  The names themselves tell a story.  Dads row, in the front, seated:  Bob Sunder, Bob Epstein, Eddie Zimmerman, Jimmy Silverman, Steve Simon, Burt Sernovitz, Alvin Holzman, Mel Cohen, Stan Mohr, Monas Bachman.  In the second to last row, standing, sixth from the right, is Abner Mikva, US Congressman from Chicago, Federal judge, councilor to Presidents.  Of course, back then, he was just "Ab."
As a kid, I could look at these pictures for hours, thinking about the lives lived by these young men, their adventures and aspirations at the mid-century pivot of American history, and then wonder what came of them.  Dad kept track of most, as far as he could, caught up with them at reunions, on the golf course and at business gatherings; but once his own life imploded in professional failure and defeat, the silent migration transferred, almost wordlessly, to me.

He, the son of an immigrant mother who fled pogroms in Minsk, bow-tied and saddle-shoed into post-war American success; but haunted, I maintain, by the burning fires of a destroyed European Jewry.  Unable to really look back and a stubborn refuser of Jewish religious, linguistic, intellectual or cultural traditions, Dad punted, effectively, on developing a cohesive, hopeful, and rooted story to tell his kids.  Oh, I could sing his high school and college alma maters, recount his Langdon Street fights with anti-Semitic youth ("if he's drunk enough, son, you just grab his tie, keep him off balance, and punch his lights out!") and his world map of his service hangs on my office wall.  But it's as if a dark place precedes his own story, an empty grave waiting to be filled in, and once his name was made, his service, and his children were born, he realized, tragically, that that was all the gas he had in his tank.

On one hand it's sad, I'll admit.  The story of a man who did just enough.  A transitional man.  The first of his generation raised in English.  Navigating a new world for a mother who remained emotionally bound to a lost history in Jewish Russia.  An exemplary student.  A loyal, if moderately playful, soldier--and then the pivot.

The only real conversation Dad and I had about God was related to the war.  He didn't do battle.  He repaired jeeps and laid track as an Army Engineer.  But when I pushed hard at him in high school about why he chose to not educate his kids as Jews, he said with a resigned succinctness:  "After the Holocaust, it was clear there was no God."

He would be dead two years later, lost to self-neglect and a heart attack.  But if I could talk to him today, knowing what I know about the burdens of first-generation kids; mid-century anti-Semitism; the grand narrative of war, destruction, genocide immediately and incomprehensibly followed by the founding of the Jewish state and the accelerated path to assimilation for American Jewry, I might have said to his erstwhile theological crisis, "So what if there's no God?  Look at all those Jews you got to hang out with?"

His atheism, in other words, was a copout.  It was a rejection of the weaving and the work necessary to build a life of meaning, of narrative, of passing on the values and morality from the smelting pot of his historical experience.

I've grown more compassionate toward him over the years, and in my own work try to make the case that simply not caring about one's identity is not an option.  But I also remember, especially on days like today, Veterans Day, that some people, even those not scarred by battle, nevertheless return home from war as wounded soldiers, damaged by the cataclysm of battle, unable to withstand the enormous guilt of survival and the weighted responsibility to carry on.

But for a while, Dad, you looked good and you did good for the cause.  You got us through a hell of a mid-century, brought your children into the world, and now it's our job to take it from here.