17 July 2014

This Word Screams Out for Life

A few months after Dad died, I trudged up Bascom Hill in Madison, on my way to making up classes that I missed when I left school to grieve.  The entire year before had been shot academically--late teen crisis and depression, Dad's sudden death, and a paralyzing avalanche of questions about life's ultimate meaning.

I began to construct the scaffolding of personal narrative in George Mosse's history lectures, in after class bullshit sessions with his teaching assistant and now my dear friend Michael Berkowitz, in private Torah lessons with my Hillel director Irv Saposnik (of blessed memory filled with laughter) and a new group of friends who took Jewish civilization's questions of ultimate meaning seriously.  Not that my childhood friends who had all migrated to Madison from Milwaukee didn't; but there was a texture to the conversation, an immersion into ritual, a willingness to, as George put it, "confront history," that made this new group compelling in its own unique way.

Life not only had purpose but it possessed, was inherently suffused with, Jewish purpose.  "A Jew is an outside with a critical mind," George famously taught us in that first lecture.  And from that moment forward, my own intrinsic criticality, inherited no doubt from my father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on--the proverbial and quite literal chain of tradition--achieved lift-off.   It was validating.

"You're so cynical," someone once said to me in high school.  "Lighten up."  I didn't quite see that as possible and in fact took great offense at the charge, it being somehow an existential threat to my very being, such as I pretentiously understood it during those striving late teen years, drinking pressed coffee, reading the New Yorker, and desperately trying to see Kurosawa, Bergman, and Godard--expressions which Milwaukee's East Side fostered generously, along with an ample supply of beer.

But cynicism was a tool, or so I had been taught; and that Jewish civilization had actually figured out how to harness it, through argument, debate, plowing deeper into textual and historical reality, for the purposes of maintaining a covenantal relationship not only between God and the Jewish people but among Jews themselves--this was revelatory.  I was desperate for me.

What should have been my junior year was still, credit-wise, my sophomore year; and it was therefore agonizing to watch friends pack themselves up for various junior year study abroad programs--France, England, Spain, India, Italy and of course, Israel.  Oh, man, I was shattered at not being able to go.  I dreamed about it.  Talked about it.  Yearned for it, even.  And one day, when I could no longer take it, I went to see the Dean of Students, Paul Ginsberg.  A giant.  A bear of a man.  Psychologist.  Zionist.  Had even smuggled guns from Cypress in the pre-state years.  Heroic state builder.   He'd get me there.  Immediately.

My sense of anticipation for the blessing I was about to receive was nothing other than the overflowing self-importance of youth.  It was going to be like a noir novel.  I'd get my assignment, maybe even in a dossier, and head over on the next plane to join the chain of tradition's heroic pantheon.

An office on a campus hilltop.  Shelves overflowing with books.  The slow, calming hiss of a radiator on a cold day.  A bearded man, fiercely secular and wise.  His hand a mitt--an Eddie Matthews mitt, a Henry Aaron mitt--engulfed my own.

"Sit down," he suggested.  And I told him my story.  He listened.  The narrative arc of my youth, the tragically realized transformation of facing a parent's death, of the Sinai-like moment of receiving the tablets of critical thinking, of a son redeeming the narrative of a father, the journey from slavery to freedom.  It was a wonderful story.

"Israel doesn't need another dreamer, Andy," he said.  "It needs practicality.  It needs you to be productive.  There are enough dreamers there."  It was a year before I'd learn to inculcate those words with these words, written by Ginsberg's contemporary, the poet Yehuda Amichai:  "The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams, like the air over industrial cities.  It's hard to breathe."


That was thirty years ago.

It's a lifetime.  And much more than a lifetime when compared to the lives of children cut short in this latest, agonizing, repulsive war that chokes us all with grief, anger, sadness and pain. "It's hard to breathe."

I've heard my teachers' voices echo in my soul these past weeks, wondering what to do from here, in the West, while my heart remains, as it always has, in the East.  The persistence of hatred and war after all these years combined with a broader extremism on the march has the potential to confuse, to blind, to leave us grasping for the allure of dangerous totalities.  A land without Jews.  A land without Arabs.  Texts with my own child from a safe room in West Jerusalem.  Facebook messages from friends in East Jerusalem.  Macabre updates from safe rooms in Tel Aviv.  And the war of images and opinions, of deconstructed news biases from Gaza to Ashkelon, of the seemingly hopeless search for objectivity in a land where bombs are dropping, terror is looming, consensus is elusive--this war of images is taking place in the context of a region torn apart--not, mind you, by the sheer weight of good people everywhere merely wanting to survive but by bad people doing bad things and drawing good people into the line of fire; and good people being forced to do bad things in order to prevent more bad things from happening.

Relativistic nonsense you say?  Not in the least.  In fact, I remain a proud Zionist.  Fortified as ever, resilient with hope, faithful in my belief that the Jewish people need and deserve, like any other nation, a state of our own.  And, because of this, I recognize the necessity and legitimacy of Palestinians' right to self-determination and to a state of their own.  I both abhor the killing and admire deeply, enduringly, the quiet heroism of Israelis and Palestinians who are weathering, yet again, a seemingly intolerable descent into violence and madness.

During the course of the past few weeks, I have read more arguments over the rightness of each cause and the irredeemable sins of each side to convince me, yet again, that there is no path forward other than compromise.  The Jewish people will not get all they want in the historic land of Israel; and the Palestinian people will not get all they want in the historic land of the Palestinian people.  That essential truth has never changed, in my opinion, over the course of the past one hundred years.

Try as the most extreme elements on either side might, maximalist views lead in one direction:  to the grave.  And we'll just keep bloodying ourselves, defending ourselves, justifying our actions to ourselves, until there is compromise and peace.  Until we learn that in our own sometimes deluded efforts to carry out the will of our God who loves us like no other, or the will of a Godless God of hatred and death, we will simply be dealing with the continual collateral damage of our own self-destruction.  We will pay the price until we understand, fundamentally, that we are responsible for one another.  Period.  Anything other than that is a world whose very foundation we are apt to destroy.

What did Amichai say about the diameter of a bomb?  "And I won't even mention the crying of orphans that reaches up to the throne of God and beyond, making a circle with no end and no God."

There is no other way.  No other way than hope, paired with the practical decisions that derive from the belief and the knowledge that we all deserve better, not through the miraculous totalities of dreamers but the hardscrabble facts of builders.

As a Jew and as a human this word screams out for life:  Hope.

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