For most of last week an odd looking truck was parked in front of my building with loudspeakers blaring music nearly nonstop. It was pretty much identical to the one that showed up in Bahia, Brazil some time ago:
These Lubavitcher Hasidim really have no intention of converting gentiles to Judaism. Their Chabad outreach activities mostly target prodigal sons. I say sons since the teenage boys who go out as missionaries are not really interested in talking to Jewish women who have lost their religion, as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe put it, but men like me.
At least three times last week I was accosted by one of the boys, who were young enough to be my grandsons, and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” The first two times I walked past without an acknowledgment but on the third pass I replied mostly out of curiosity to see how he would react: “Ethnically but not religiously.” He followed up: “Was your mother Jewish?” In Judaism, this qualifies you to be a Jew. This means that someone like the late actor and exemplary liberal Paul Newman did not qualify because his dad was Jewish rather than his mother. Does all this sound kind of stupid and backward? Guess what, you’re right.
Establishing that I had the right bloodlines, the youth—fresh-faced, wearing braces on his teeth, and a broad-brimmed Borsalino on his head—invited me to wave a date palm (lulav) in one hand and a citron (etrog), a sort of overgrown lemon, in the other while he recited a prayer. I begged off and went on my way for a jog in Central Park.
This is one of the key rituals of the high holiday of Sukkot and here’s an expert explaining it:
This sort of instruction was what I heard from my rabbi for the three or so years leading up to my bar mitzvah in 1958. Half our time was spent learning Hebrew but only phonetically. You could read a bunch of Hebrew words (going from right to left on the page) but had no idea of what you were saying. For us boys, this was necessary in order to recite our Bar Mitzvah speech, a torture for most especially me since it involved not only memorizing the words but using the proper “tune”. I can’t carry a tune to save my life (although I have a great ear.) Here’s pretty much what I went through back then in front of the Synagogue:
The Coen brothers, having went through all this nonsense themselves, made a typically snide movie called “A Serious Man” that was almost enough to drive me back into the arms of Judaism but not quite enough.
The other half of our instruction consisted of learning about Jewish holidays much in the manner of the Youtube clip above but with even less clarity. It must be understood that the very nature of Sukkot (or Sukkos) defies comprehension, most of all by a 12 year old not entirely sold on the god business to begin with. The Wiki on the holiday states:
The sukkah is intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Throughout the holiday, meals are eaten inside the sukkah and some people sleep there as well. On each day of the holiday, members of the household recite a blessing over the lulav and etrog.
The Osdoby’s lived down the street from us in our little shtetl in the Catskills. Ben, the patriarch, was a pilot during WWII and president of our synagogue. He was one of the few Jews in town that took the trouble to build a sukkah although I doubt he slept in it. There were a lot of things that mystified me about my religion but I doubt that anything came close to the shanties, the overgrown lemon, and the date palm all of which I would regard as fairly primitive by the time I got to college. Years later, as things turned out, the very fact that it was primitive stood in its favor even though there was little to connect modern-day Judaism with, for example, fertility rites among the Yanomami.
When I was working on my mother’s house to put it up for sale after she had relocated to a nearby nursing home, I stopped by to chat with Ben Osdoby, a man who I had always found intimidating when I was a schoolboy. Like my father, he was a WWII veteran whose amiability was left on the battlefields of Europe. I was on a much more even keel with him now that I had become a 60 year old man (and only wished that my father had lived to Ben’s age so I could have had the same kind of conversation.) Ben complained bitterly about how our little village had been taken over by the Satmar sect and especially how the local synagogue that he had been so devoted to was now Satmar as well. The Satmars had become more and more intrusive in these little villages in the Borscht Belt, especially with their push to incorporate eruv boundaries. The eruv was a cable that ran from telephone pole to telephone pole outlining areas where Satmars could bend the Sabbath rules. Just as is the case in Israel, the ultra-orthodox sometimes collide with the orthodox over prerogatives even if they are united in sticking it to the Palestinians.
Sukkot had more to do with fertility rites than the flight from Egypt that it celebrated, something that most archaeologists, including Israelis, think never happened. Kolel, a reform Judaism website, offers this take on the high holiday:
Meanwhile, on the week we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, and I don’t know about you, but I feel rather self-conscious about taking the central symbols of this holiday: a citron (lemon-like fruit) and a palm branch together with branches of myrtle and willow and shaking them. In discussing the ‘reasons for the mitzvot’ Barry Holtz has written in his wonderful book, Finding Our Way
The breast (or womb)-like etrog and the phallic lulav are probably vestiges of an ancient (pagan?) fertility rite, which makes sense since the Sukkot holiday and final harvest marks the beginning of the critical rainy season in the land of Israel. The Talmud makes this explicit: the waving ceremony in the Temple was to restrain harmful winds (Sukkah 37b-38a). Shaking the lulav is obviously an ancient and ‘primitive’ ritual– and therein may lie some of its transformative power, but as a highly rational, twenty-first century modern Jew, I have trouble performing acts that are so obviously rooted in sympathetic magic (shaking the lulav even sounds like rain!).
For the past four years since my mother’s death, I have been going to Yizkor services during Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish high holidays. Needless to say, I never would have considered going unless a very old friend suggested it. His Judaism, like mine, consists solely of going to this service each year. Yizkor is the occasion when you pay tribute to a dead relative (the word is Hebrew for remembrance), including the recitation of Kaddish, the prayer that Allen Ginsberg commemorated in one of his more memorable poems for his dead schizophrenic and Communist mother:
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking,
talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues
shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm–and your memory in my head three years after–
And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud–wept, realizing
how we suffer–
And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember,
prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of An-
swers–and my own imagination of a withered leaf–at dawn–
Dreaming back thru life, Your time–and mine accelerating toward Apoca-
the final moment–the flower burning in the Day–and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom
Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed–
like a poem in the dark–escaped back to Oblivion–
No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the Dream,
trapped in its disappearance,
sighing, screaming with it, buying and selling pieces of phantom, worship-
ping each other,
worshipping the God included in it all–longing or inevitability?–while it
lasts, a Vision–anything more?
Ginsberg’s poem is actually very closely related to the main theme of a Yizkor service, namely the inevitability of death and the need to accept it. The service was conducted mostly in English, a function of it being held in a Reform Synagogue. This year I paid closer attention to the words than I had in the past, no doubt a function of having reached the ripe old age (if not overripe–bordering on fecundity) of 67. Death is no longer an abstraction as it was for me 30 or 40 years ago.
There were a number of readings that the female Rabbi led in the service, half of which I would guess did not originate in the Bible. Most were in the spirit of Ecclesiastes I, the verse that included the words Hemingway borrowed for one of his masterpieces:
“Vanity[a] of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.
All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
An acquaintance of mine at Bard College named Fred Feldman became a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts. Unlike most philosophy professors, Fred seems to view philosophy as a tool for understanding the real problems of life as opposed to the shenanigans that goes on in most faculties in the name of linguistic analysis. It might surprise some of my regular readers, but Marxism does not have the answers to everything—particularly the eternal mysteries of life and death.
In 1992 Fred came out with a book titled “Confrontations with the Reaper”, a title that conjures up one of the most famous in cinema:
If you go to his website, you will find a list of articles that include some that reflect a very Yizkor-like preoccupation with death. Apparently the subject has been on his mind for a while. His tone is reassuring in a way that will be familiar to those who have read the Epicurean philosophers. Michael V. Fox has argued that Ecclesiastes was influenced by the Epicureans, hence the “earth abides forever” acceptance of death’s inevitability. Feldman writes in “The Termination Thesis”:
The Termination Thesis (or “TT”) is the view that people go out of existence when they die. Lots of philosophers seem to believe it. Epicurus, for example, apparently makes use of TT in his efforts to show that it is irrational to fear death. He says, “as long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.” Lucretius says pretty much the same thing, but in many more words and more poetically: “Death therefore to us is nothing, concerns us not a jot, since the nature of the mind is proved to be mortal; . . . when we shall be no more, when there shall have been a separation of body and soul, out of both of which we are each formed into a single being, to us, you may be sure, who then shall be no more, nothing whatever can happen to excite sensation.”
A considerably clearer and more economical statement of TT can be found in L. W. Sumner’s “A Matter of Life and Death.” Sumner says, “The death of a person is the end of that person; before death he is and after death he is not. To die is therefore to cease to exist.”
Of course, these words are much more of a consolation to a philosophy professor or his readers than they would be to a citizen of the Congo trying to figure out where his next meal is coming from or how he or she can dodge a bullet or machete from a militia plaguing the nation.
Oddly enough, despite my advanced age, I have been brooding a lot less about death than I have in years. I guess I went through the same kind of phase that Feldman went through but kept it to myself. For the longest time, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I would immediately begin to think dark thoughts about dying. How would it come? Cancer? Heart disease?
For some reason these dark thoughts have disappeared like a brush fire that has burned itself out. In its place there is a deep calm and sense of satisfaction attached to being in the prime of life, at least intellectually and politically. With reasonably good health and a fairly secure financial situation, I look forward to the next 10 or 15 years of life as I put my shoulder to the wheel of the world historical movement that can abolish the conditions that led humanity to look in the first place for consolation from a god that did not exist.