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June 11, 2012
Good morning, class. Our Yiddish words for today are “schlemiel” and “schlemazal.” The schlemiel and schlemazal are tragedo-comic characters who are perennially down on their luck.
Are the schlemiel and schlemazal synonymous? Ask any Yiddish aficionado, and he will resort to a word-picture to drive home the distinction: The schlemiel is constantly spilling his bowl of hot soup. The schlemazal is the one who is always getting the soup spilled in his lap. Many of us have our own stories to be told. Take this personal example, a cautionary tale of my own, starring me in both roles of schlemiel and schlimazel:
I am taking Minnie the Dog for her morning constitutional on a particular dank and rainy day. I feel particularly virtuous, because Linda usually does the morning run. This morning I play daddy, so Linda can get to a meeting on time.
The steps down to the backyard are made of railroad ties, the kind that get mercilessly slippery in the rain. There had been plans to install railings along the stairway, but as you would expect, the project dropped to the bottom of a lengthy to-do list.
So, I take two steps, and a moment later, I become the prototype schlemazal. My feet fly out from under me, and I land flat on my back, like in a Road Runner cartoon.
You want to know about pain? Oy! Such a schlemazal! Details are irrelevant. After two sets of x-rays and a CAT scan, we determine that I have fractured four vertebrae.
“It could always be worse,” my Uncle Izzy would say. Broken vertebrae aside, it could always be worse. The spine, they reassured me, was stable, so l could resume activities and watchfully wait for two month for another series of x-rays and CAT scans. And new railings have already been installed.
What kind of transcendent lessons can be learned from a schlimazel who slips and breaks his back on the proverbial banana peel? I need not reach too far:
First, be careful! Mother and father usually knew best when they cautioned and re-cautioned us about the perils we might confront when we’re out on our own.
Second, cherish the moment. The scant moment when I was transformed from schlemiel to schlimazel, I did see my life pass before my eyes. For whatever reasons, my first response was to try to wiggle my toes. Upon succeeding, I knew by instinct that everything would be fine.
God looked down on me with undeserved providence. But how many of our brothers and sisters do not share the privilege of cherishing the moment when they knew all would work out? Then think of starvation, of disease, of torture and genocide, and their victims who are belittled into hopelessness. What might we do?
Finally, but foremost: Ordinary people doing ordinary things bring extraordinary gifts. People in the hospital – techs, cleaning staff, transporters, nurses – people who work at their jobs and collect their pay, leave behind a smile, a laugh, a sensitivity, a concern, a wish and a prayer. And, I discovered the same in airports that are notorious for indifference. They now seemed only too quick to accommodate with a wheelchair, and to assist getting over a step, and helping navigate the concourses. Just everyday people who will help bear a load that might be too much for you to maintain.
I know what you’re saying cynically: Sure, that’s the treatment you get when you are a well-dressed guy, gray hair, the other side of sixty, in a wheelchair. To this I have no refutation. But I have intuition. My intuition tells me that, over all, people are getting nicer, and if we push a little harder we might actually foment a revolution for niceness. It’s almost as if we could see the brokenness of a person and be led to basic niceness. Then we would recognize that every one of us carries his/her own bag of sadness, and fear, and insecurities. We all need a gift of compassion, understanding, of basic niceness. And then dare we dream that kindness will explode and rain its beloved fallout over all the earth?
Schlemiel, schlimazel . . . there’s a role for each of us to play. Think about it, train your sights on it, do not despair, be known by your niceness. Most of all, be careful. The path can be slippery, and you might take a fall now and again, but if you are careful, you will make it. What a reward awaits.
March 15, 2012
THE THREE-INCH CROSS
Ian came home for break, halfway through his first year of college. He had been my student, pensive, serious, inquisitive. His questions were deep, and our discussions were lively. They would often overflow class time and continue at the local IHOP.
What a pleasant surprise, then, that Ian wanted to visit with me during his brief visit home. Looking across the table at him at IHOP, I noticed something peeking out from below the left sleeve of his tee-shirt.
“Did you get a tattoo?” I asked him. At the still-tender age of 18, that in itself was disconcerting . . . and, conditioned by my mother’s pronouncements in my youth . . . very goyische, a Torah violation that many pious people consider with special gravitas, a mutilation of the body and the stuff from which idolatry is spawned.
OK, but it was Ian, serious, pensive Ian, so I conveyed a look of grief and consternation, and was ready for the heavier conversation to ensue.
“At least let me see it,” I requested.
“Er . . . you don’t want to see it.”
“If you don’t want to show it to me, that is all right. But little in this world still shocks me.”
Wrong. He tugged at his sleeve and sheepishly displayed an elaborate three-inch Gothic-style cross. Emblazoned in the middle was the word “Shema” in bold Hebrew letters.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I hissed out the words. “How could you have done that? Have you renounced Judaism at the tender age of 18? Do you know enough to know what you’re renouncing?”
No, he said. He hadn’t renounced Judaism; he was still proud to be Jewish.
“And do you believe that you have been saved?” I asked him.
“Saved is too strong a word. Let’s just say that I feel more comfortable.”
“Comfortable.” Not too Jewish an aspiration, especially when the prophets and teachers of old maintained that the role of faith was to afflict the comfortable even more than it is to comfort the afflicted.
“Do you go to church?”
“No, it’s all in my heart.”
We sparred a little more, and then I reminded him that a tattoo is indelible, that he will have to go through his life with a graphic symbol of an indiscretion he committed at the tender age of 18. Would teshuvah remain a possibility? How will it feel one day to wrap his tefillin over that garish cross? I reminded him, too, that tattoos on the arms of Holocaust victims were the embodiment of immeasurable tears and grief and suffering.
As Ian departed, I did the “Jewish” thing: self-recrimination. What had I done wrong? What had we collectively done wrong, so as to sustain the oxymoron of Ian’s Jewish pride at the same time as his Christian comfort? The answer might be “nothing.”
Even so, Ian’s story, like too many others, should be a cautionary note as to what we are, and are not, doing to strengthen Jewish ties – Sustain our day schools and religious schools, provide substantive youth activities and Jewish camping through high school and beyond. Foster the vibrancy of community centers, adult education and Israel opportunities. Encourage the outreach work of Chabad and Kollel.
In schules, let Shabbat services enlighten and stimulate the spirit through robust participation. In homes, a real Jewish feel and substance: everyone together for Shabbat dinner, kiddush, motzi, birkat ha-mazon, no bolting from the table, leave the TV off.
Ian did not have many of these opportunities in “little Greenville.” But he could have had more and better than he got. Stories like his should be a wake-up call to strengthen Yiddishkeit, not a denial that “Sometimes things like that just happen.”
Would all things working for the best prevent stories like Ian’s from happening? Not entirely. But, a Judaism that assertively touches the mind, heart, and muscle – in family and community – would minimize the opportunities. For Ian, I will klop an Al Chet for not reaching out sufficiently, for not being a sufficient role model and teacher. It awakens me to give my students more and better. If Ian’s story means anything to you, let it shake you, too, and give you the impetus to cherish each Jewish soul and somehow be the guarantor of its safety.
February 19, 2012
I don't like going bald. In fact, good genes have given me bragging rights to not losing much hair whatsoever. In my sixties, I still have a full head of salt-and-pepper and a full ("too full," Linda would say) beard that is still tinged with the cayenne color of younger days.
So, the choice to voluntarily go bald and beardless is daunting to my vanity. Likewise is the thought of having a head that most closely resembles an oversized honeydew for the four or so months it takes my hair to grow back to fashionable length.
Why, then, tempt fate? The answer is empathy, solidarity. I look at a kid suffering from cancer, and I realize that his or her baldness is not some vain option. It is a price paid in tender years to be spared from a most sinister disease. Dare we even use the word "cured"? With the help of the Almighty and gifted, committed researchers and clinicians, cure is now a daily reality, not an elusive riddle.
I shave my head in unity with those kids for whom a head of hair is a deferred luxury. I shave my head as a conversation piece anytime a person asks a fool such as I why I have made myself look even more foolish. I shave my head because it is precious little I can do to draw complacent people not to avert their eyes, but to look with an open heart upon that suffering little kid.
But, I shave most of all to make money - lots of it. Along with 150+ other Greenvilleans, we will shave ourselves silly, because we find sponsors among benevolent people who know that our baldness is a trigger, a symbol, of deepest compassion for children who have already suffered too much.
We coalesce under the banner of "St. Baldrick's Day," part of an international effort which has raised more than $150 million in the last eleven years, including close to $250,000 right here in the Upstate in the last four. This year we will celebrate St. Baldrick's Day on Sunday, March 18, 1:00-4:00 PM, Downtown next to Larkin's on the River, part of the Peace Center complex. It will truly be a celebration, too. Activities for the kids, shock jocks to keep the party moving, food courtesy of Larkin's. And, of course, six barber chairs to accommodate the 150+ shavees, 15-20% of whom, by the way, are women!
How do you become involved? Become a shavee, of course. Assemble a team. Volunteer. Hold a fundraiser. Sponsor shavees. Don't give until it hurts; give until it feels good! You'll find all the information at www.stbaldricks.org or by calling 864-271-3715.
Shaving my head and beard does a trip on my vanity, I confess. But the price is negligible or less, compared to those precious little kids who lose their hair as the price of their cure. Join me, please, in balding-out for an honorable cause, or generously supporting someone who is.
February 11, 2012
Elsie, Linda's mother, has just died. She had been under hospice care in a nursing home. We knew that the chemo and radiation had lost their efficacy, and that her comfort, "palliation" they call it, was our only priority until death had its way. Her mind had been sharp until the very last, recognizing people, saying "Hi!" and even laughing at an occasional joke. The last days of her life were tragic for the onlookers, but for Elsie they were relatively free of pain, even comforting, surrounded by the ones she loved most.
But, it is not so for everyone in the nursing home. The Alzheimer's unit faces Elsie's corridor. Day after day, the people most severely stricken by the disease are wheeled into the commons area in front of the nurses station. A majority of them stare vacantly into the ether. In a way, they are better off than those who scream or babble or wriggle to get out of their chairs -- still contending with the struggle between wholeness and vacuousness, or so it seems. Every once in a while, a devoted child or spouse comes by to visit a loved one. Most of them speak toward their mom or dad about "normal" everyday things, hoping against hope for a sign of recognition, looking for some awareness in the eyes of their beloved.
A "survivor's disease." That's what they call Alzheimer's. The victim is seemingly impervious, while those nearest and dearest suffer the grief brought about by memories of more vital days -- Dad as Dad. Mom as Mom. This is how we suffered for four years with my father, once upon a time an army colonel, a forensic scientist, a man of letters, relegated to diapers and spoon-feeding by my mother or me. How could a decent man be dealt such injustice?? How could such a devoted wife be put to suffering so much grief?? If any theologian proposes a one-size-fits-all answer to the questions, run in the opposite direction. The ways of God may be inscrutable, but sometimes they are just downright cruel.
Call me narcissistic, but having passed midlife, I do not so much think instinctively of the grief I might suffer at the illness of others. Instead, I have found myself increasingly contemplating how my own possible appointment with Alzheimer's might look. After all, my father and two grandfathers were senile by age 70, just a scant eight years away. I fear my lapses of memory, my inability to find the right word in conversation, the foolish gaffes I commit in doing some trivial task.
I look into their vacant stare and wonder whether that will be my fate a decade from now, their contorted posture in their wheelchairs, their incapacity to recall their children's names, or worse, not even recognize their progeny. I look at them, and I see myself in however many years from now, sapped of my vitality and purported wit, relegated to my own wheelchair and bib at mealtime.
I know what you will tell me: Cherish my days and use them wisely, you would admonish me. Show love and share wisdom before it is too late. Try not to contemplate eventualities over which you have no control. Look positively toward the future. And, of course, you would be right. And, of course, I will do my best. But, none of that diminishes the disquieting feeling that when I behold a person numbed by Alzheimer's, I am looking into a mirror of my own soul.
If there is any escape from that soul-shaking image, it must be in my determination to make today all-meaningful, living honorably, as if there were no more tomorrows to achieve a decent life. So begged the Psalmist, "O Lord, teach us to number our days that we might attain a heart of wisdom." That alone, I am sure, enables us to transcend the fear of senility or of death, itself.
December 13, 2011
GIVE ELDERS A CHANCE TO SHARE THEIR STORIES AND WISDOM
Max Karelitz just celebrated his 101st birthday. He is quite a character, still extremely sharp, glib, and articulate. Until a couple of years ago he lived on his own and now resides in an assisted-living facility, requiring amazingly little assistance. He is beyond computer literate, and his emails are always masterpieces.
He is a wellspring of memories, growing up as part of the only Jewish family in Fountain Inn. He regales you with stories of the end of WWI, when the teacher sent all the kids home to get spoons and pans to bang as they marched down Main Street in a triumphal procession.
Then he tells you of his years as the only Jewish student at Clemson, when it was a bona fide military academy, drilling with rifles six days a week in the blazing sun. He recounts with relish the details of his army career as a colonel in WWII, the highlight of which was presiding over the surrender of a Japanese battalion at the War’s end.
He boasts about his children, all of whom are older than I, and talks about the good years in the little town of Fountain Inn, where the Karelitz’s were respected merchants and civic leaders, and where they experienced no anti-Semitism whatsoever. The Jewish life of his childhood was pretty much confined to the tutelage of his mother and attending synagogue in Greenville on holy days and other special occasions.
That’s just the slightest nibble at the rich century that Max has spent brightening the world. I know so many of the stories by dint of conversations that we’ve had over the last 13 years. Then it dawned on me that the children of the community knew little of Max and his fabulous stories. What to do?
I ventured to ask Max if he’d be receptive to being interviewed by my Sunday school teenagers. He was delighted. The kids and I outlined the questions and arranged for a volunteer videographer to film and edit the interview. Need I tell you that the experience was outstanding? The kids soaked up the information and stories, and asked more impromptu questions than were outlined on the script. They were at first astonished, then absorbed, by Max’s elaborate answers. Max, for his part, laughed with them and couldn’t wait for more.
I asked the class what changed and what stayed the same over a century’s time. They agreed that things on the surface had changed, but human nature and values pretty much remained constant. Interesting. They now await the opportunity to screen the interview for the adults and other kids in the congregation. Perhaps others outside Beth Israel would like to view it. Perhaps it can be archived in the History Museum or one of the universities. Clemson? (By the way, Max is on his third Clemson class ring!)
How much more could they and we learn from our elders? How much, indeed?
There are a number of oral-history projects with community seniors in process in the Upstate. I don’t know how many are conducted by young people in their formative years. My guess is that there are relatively few. I’m no curriculum “maven,” but let me recommend that faith communities, regardless of denomination or size, put their kids to the delightful, rewarding task of interviewing their elders. Then let them show the interviews to their congregations and beyond.
The symbiosis, you’ll excuse the cliché, is win-win: Elders being dignified by contributing their insights and wisdom, which we too often deem irrelevant, if only by omission. Kids being enriched and prodded to maturity by the sharing of ideals and values. Adults being engaged in affirming that generations either side of their own have their irreplaceable worth. Generations of a community being united by visions of tomorrow built on the enlightenment of yesterday.
Then, if it isn’t too optimistic, let’s share those interviews with each other, as integral to building what Dr. King referred to as the “Beloved Community.” I want to know the reality of what it was like growing up African American in the Upstate, or for that matter Indian, Catholic, Baptist, or Baha’i. I don’t need to hear only the stories of “great” people, but people who are made great by our simply paying attention to their unique histories and visions.
If there are similar projects going on out there, please let me know about them. If you aren’t making a record of your elders, what are you waiting for? Literally, what are you waiting for? Too much to lose, so much to gain.
October 21, 2011
AN AGING-OUT LIBERAL’S PAEAN TO TODAY’S PROTESTORS
On the eve of my 62nd birthday, I have attained another rite of passage into senior-hood. Wednesday, I’ll go into St. Francis to go under the scalpel – actually the laser – to have my prostate reshaped so that nature might more easily take its course.
I don’t fear the transitory pain or the possible aftereffects as much as the symbolism of being just one more once-upon-a-time hippie who now intrepidly clings to the liberalism of his youth. Now, watching a new generation of protestors march for social and economic justice – just as I did decades ago to protest inequality and an unjust war – makes the serendipity all the more ironic.
We are no surer of the purpose and motivations of today’s protestors than our parents’ generation thought of us. But, unlike so many Middle Americans of four-plus decades ago, I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. This, I believe, is the perspective that only an aging-out unrepentant liberal can provide.
Yes, we were naïve back then, too, easily co-opted by the shenanigans of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and largely incapable of perceiving the myriad shades of gray in a world that we insisted was stark black-and-white. And sometimes we were downright stupid.
Time has made us less naive. Experience has made us less gullible. Our own need to be understood has made us more understanding. And even our stupidity seems to be abating. However, I am not so much struck by the changes as I am by the ideals and impulses that time and experience have not changed. I think to myself, maybe just a little too smugly, that beyond my shiny new car and a couple of pinstripe suits, there is a lot about 41 years ago for which I do not feel a particular urge to repent. I pray that it will be the same for our kids.
We have, many of us 60’s liberals, turned our bleeding-heart inclinations toward feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and defending victims of racism and homophobia. We are the ones who are still committed to building bridges between black and white, Jew and Christian, Israeli and Arab, powerful and powerless. We are the ones who still wonder aloud whether it is better for Nazis and Klansmen to march in the open or to be shoved underground. We are the ones who still wonder aloud whether putting even the most hardened criminal to death has any redemptive value, and whether the reality of poverty at our doorstep is any less “real” than the “reality” of “reality TV.”
We are the ones who still have a healthy skepticism of authority and institutions and power and bureaucracy and political manipulation. We are the ones who are sometimes confused and frustrated by our children’s wavy ideals and quizzical causes. Yet, we, unlike our own parents, we are not so abhorring and judgmental of our children’s music, clothing, antics, and vague glimmers of individualism . . . memories of my Dad, who got up and summarily changed channels three notes into the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan.
For however stupid we might have been, I still believe that the world is better off for the presence of unrepentant liberals on their collision course with senior citizenship. And so, for the first time in the longest time I cue up my “Sergeant Pepper” album into the player. “I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade . . . “
Maybe and maybe not.
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
I think: I am a whole helluva lot closer to 64 than I am to those heady, deliciously naive days of 1970. I live vicariously through images of young protestors whom I watch on the news. Then, I review my pre-op instructions and pop a Flomax, just a bit more sure of all that has changed and all that must somehow, some way, endure.
August 25, 2011
When it was over, they stuck Samantha in the back of my now-grown daughter's closet. Even at 40, it was an ignominious end for a beloved companion. There she laid, floppy ears askew, along with the other castoffs – objects too meaningful to throw away, but too far beyond utilitarian purpose to be more than clutter.
It wasn’t always that way with Samantha. She was the one who greeted our newborn Chanie in her crib when she arrived from the hospital. She was the play-toy of a thousand toddler-fantasies. She was the object of endless childhood cuddling, an accomplice to hours of blissful thumb-sucking. She was a calming bedtime companion.
Forty years ago, Samantha the Dog was plump and soft, plush, bright pink species of stuffed animal, fluffy tail and luxuriant eyelashes. The years of loving wear and tear have not been kind to her, her fur now threadbare and gray, eyes sans lashes, giving her a slumbering look – bedraggled, one would call her.
How could I be such a sop to weep when I first saw her jammed away in the back of the closet? Need it be analyzed? Maybe it just made me feel old. Nah. I already know only too well that I am on a collision course with old age. After all, I am “Zayde” to 9.5 grandchildren
Then maybe this is it: It reminds me of innocent times, nearly a half-century ago, sweet innocence not yet tinged by deceit and cynicism. The innocence of your firstborn holding your finger with a chubby hand or sucking her thumb with Samantha in tow. Guileless youth, when potentials seemed limitless and as yet unsullied by disappointment and failure.
The innocence of my own youth seems to have been, not a lifetime ago, but just the day before yesterday. Now, ragged Samantha is tangible evidence that my adult daughter has also left the innocence of youth to become a successful physician and mother of three.
Chanie will be 40 soon. I thank God I have lived to witness the milestone. I gloat over her academic and professional successes, her idyllic marriage, her beautiful children. But don’t think for a moment that I wouldn’t turn back the clock and regain the innocence that the years and tears and fears have stripped away.
We would play Ring around the Rosie, and all fall down to hugging and laughing and tickling. I would make up the funniest bedtime stories and giggle along with her, Samantha by her side. I would simply be there for her, a real presence in her life, untainted by the abandonment of divorce, the terror of extracting myself from her life by dint of foolish and selfish mistakes. I would do all that and more, if I could only recapture the days of her innocence and mine.
Burying Samantha in the nether reaches of a closet was a rite of passage for all of us, I guess. It likely elicits far less sentiment and gravitas for Chanie at 40 than it does for me at 61. I warn her, though:
One day you, too, will, please God, be 61. You, too, will watch your own children move beyond their childish innocence. You will, please God, beam with pride at what they have gone on to become, as I do of you and Joey and Ben. But you, too, will long – no, ache – for those salad days, and each moment of joy will be tinged by an edge of wistfulness. You will encounter a bit of their childhood flotsam, as I encountered Samantha, and shed a tear, recollecting the innocent times that cannot, despite our pining, be replicated.
Then, remember what Paul Simon wrote:
Time it was and what a time it was,
A time of innocence,
A time of confidences,
Long ago it must be,
I have a photograph,
Preserve your memories,
They’re all that’s left you...
Happy birthday, my sweet baby.