Monthly Archives: August 2014

Poetry

As my poems are published, I will be posting them on Hum(e)an Moments.  This may take some time (there are a lot of poems and publication is a slow process), but eventually I hope to have them all up here.  I begin with True North, which has just appeared in River Poets Journal.

True North     

Had only we but passed by in the night,

no flashing lights nor semaphoric grace,

if life had been just left to what we might,

no loss, for long passed waves don’t leave a trace.

 

Now moored together in a warm embrace,

true sailors paused, each fathoms far from port,

the blasted winds have led us to this place,

and charted course will lead us soon to part.

 

The morning’s fair, the breeze is strong,

your jib is full but mine still luffs behind,

you point your bow true north and run along,

sad smile of wake laps gentle on my mind.

 

Relentless sky makes wispy clouds seem dross,

I tack away, beloved albatross.

Lawrence Mitchell

Al Andalus: An Appreciation of Islam, and A Question

Unknown-1 The behavior of ISIS, Al-Qaeda before it, and Hamas have tarnished the image and reputation of Islam. And there does seem to be something that allows for their barbarity in G-d’s name that I simply don’t understand. Such behavior is unimaginable, at least to me, in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish culture. Christianity has had its ugly moments, to be sure, as well as its bloody infighting, but much of that at least is in the distant past. True, pretty much every religion has engaged in conflicts of various sorts, but what we have recently witnessed in the name of Islam is quite beyond comprehension.

All of this got me thinking. After all, from 711 to 1492, during much of which Christian Europe was a relatively uncivilized mess (see, e.g., Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “How do you know he’s the king? . . . .”), much of the Iberian peninsula was ruled by Islam, first by Arabs and later by Berbers from North Africa. During that period, although there is historical dispute, Christianity and Judaism at least were tolerated, and Jewish culture flourished during much of it. A truly interesting dimension of this period, however, was the extraordinary richness and contribution of Islamic culture. The gorgeous Moorish architecture that remains in Spain is tangible evidence of this. But in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, among other fields, the contributions of Andalusian Muslims were significant and enduring. Beyond that, relative tolerance permitted the flourishing of Jewish contributions in fields like philosophy and medicine, and Jewish Sepharad rivaled the glories of Jewish Babylonian culture.

I think it’s fair to say that Spain has never recovered from the expulsion of Muslims and Jews following the Inquisition (and, in the case of Muslims, the Spanish reconquest of the peninsula). But neither has Islamic culture. And the really interesting question is why. I am no expert here, and have not engaged in serious scholarship, but am sure the question has been addressed. The Ottoman Empire did, after all, have its power and was relatively tolerant of Christians and Jews. Persian culture is beautiful and rich. What went wrong? No doubt 19th century European colonialism had something to do with it, as did the creation of artificial nations following World War I, but that seems both too late, and too easy an answer. (Buddhist and Hindu culture continued to flourish despite colonialism, and Jewish culture thrived in the Diaspora. While the Balkan states – similarly artificial – have clearly had their conflicts, broader hatreds and extremism don’t seem to have developed).

I don’t know the answers. But something has gone deeply and seriously wrong. And it’s probably not too late to fix.

Lawrence Mitchell

Imagine

Brooklyn, NY.  It has been reported that the radical Jewish sect, the Shmeggegebobbers (known around Boro Park as the “Shmeggeges”) have been holding hostage for ransom shipments of schmaltz, thereby depriving the city’s delis of an essential ingredient for making kugel, knishes, and kishkes (the “3 Ks”).  Deprived of the ability to make the 3Ks, the delis essentially are out of business.  They have no choice but to pay the Shmeggeges to release the schmaltz for delivery.

Why has this occurred?  Investigative journalism reveals a plan by the Shmeggeges to establish a new Rabbinate, known colloquially as YISSAS (the Yiddish State of Schlemiel and Schlemazel)  to rule over large swaths of Brooklyn, the Upper West Side, Riverdale, Forest Hills, and the Rockaways, among other areas.  The ransom they receive will finance their operations.  Declared enemies of other Jewish sects, the Schmeggeges have vowed to stop at nothing to establish their Rabbinate.  A spokesman, Chaim Yankel, stated: “Oy.  These other Jews.  What do they know?  Not even from a good bagel.  Baruch Ha’Shem we will restore Yiddishkeit all over even if we have to pish in their mikvahs.”

Clandestine interviews with commanders of a variety of mobile conveyances designed to waylay other Jews on the streets and engage them in prayer have revealed that the Shmeggeges are willing to commit all sorts of atrocities.  They have even sworn to force-feed gefilte fish to secular Jews who might find the dish distasteful.  As for the goyim?  Mendel Rabinowitz, a spokesman, stated:  “Goyim, shmoyim, as long as they leave us alone.”

Christopher Goldstein, rabbi of the Reform Temple Bnai Apikoros, called upon Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and President Obama for help.  “They’re tossing yarmulkes at us like Frisbees, for heaven’s sake,” he said, between bites of a ham and cheese on white with mayonnaise. How do we defend our congregants from that?  They’re handing out toy Torahs to our children.  Somebody has to stop the madness.”

Further reports of the ritual beheading of chickens on the eve of Yom Kippur have created an international crisis.  Foreign leaders have been calling President Obama pledging their support to help contain the Shmeggeges along Ocean Parkway.  The French already have surrendered.

I think I’ve made my point.  Good Shabbos.

Lawrence Mitchell

In Memory of Armand Goldman: An Essay In Love And Vulnerabiltiy

This evening I watched The Birdcage. It is my favorite of Robin Williams’ movies.  I loved La Cage Aux Folle as well, but The Birdcage is special.  And it has nothing to do with the fact that Mr. Williams had me, like so many of us, at “nanoo nanoo.”

Over the past day or so, the press, the Internet, and the blogosphere, have been full of appreciations of Mr. Williams.  His rapier wit, his lightening-fast mind, his Gatling-gun delivery, his manic humor.  The tragedy of his unbeatable depression.  The anger, the outrage, the addictions that accompanied it.

But I have yet to see anybody comment upon the gift of his depression, a gift so apparent in The Birdcage as to be palpable.  That gift was Mr. Williams’ vulnerability.  It is that vulnerability, I want to suggest, that made him — in addition to all of the wonderful qualities that others have correctly attributed to him — simply lovable.  Lovable in a way that few public figures ever are.  Lovable in a way few people ever are.  For Mr. Williams’ expression of vulnerability in depression, I think, allowed him to wear his heart upon his sleeve in the most charming way. It allowed him to embody the need for love we all have, stemming at least partly from our deepest vulnerabilities, but that most of us can never show.

Yes, I know.  I’m no better than the millions of Americans who become bobsled experts during the Winter Olympics.  I didn’t know Mr. Williams.  I am not a psychiatrist.  But I am a human being, and one who I think is a bit more sensitive than the norm.  So bear with me.

This vulnerability is on excruciating display in The Birdcage.  Let’s start with the fact that, in that film, Mr. Williams played an outsider (which of course he did in almost all of his great roles but, except perhaps for Mrs.Doubtfire, in no more obvious a manner).  That status marks him as vulnerable from the start.  The brilliance of his acting is that Mr. Williams didn’t have to work at it– or at least it appears that he didn’t.  He inhabited that role of outsider so naturally.  His gay-Jewish-nightclub owner charms from the start.

But, as any demonstrably vulnerable person is, he was clear in his need for others.  The films pits him between his adored companion and his adored son, the love he needed, and the love he needed to give. And when their needs conflicted, he did what only a person in his position could do — he gave to both as fully and completely as he could, with little regard for himself. (By the way, Gene Hackman does a pretty fine job of displaying some vulnerability too in a manner that makes his unattractive character quite charming).

Is depression the necessary corollary of vulnerability? Of course not.  As I have written in these pages (pixels) extensively, vulnerability is the human condition.  But for most of us in 21st Century America (and I might say most of Western Civilization), that vulnerability is something to be concealed.  The beauty of depression — regardless of its horrors — is that it permits the unselfconscious revelation of vulnerability in a manner that those of us who are more repressed can access, identify  with, relate to, and ultimately find solace in the opportunity to channel our innermost selves and, having done so, return to our lives with our vulnerabilities masked and our souls refreshed.

The beauty of Mr. Williams in The Birdcage is that it is a role in which that vulnerability is about as unmasked as it gets.  Nobody — not even Mr. Hackman’s jerk of a Senator — could fail to love him.  Would that the gift came without the cost.

Lawrence Mitchell

Party Like It’s 1965, or Coming of Age in California

So, I just returned from a long weekend with my son who lives in Berkeley, CA.  No, he’s not a student there. My wonderful and brilliant child graduated from Swarthmore in 2008.  Just two weeks after graduation, he came to me to inform me that he and his best friends, x, y,and z, were going to drive out to Berkeley to live. (N.B.  None of them had even been to California.)

When I pointed out that x, y, and z all had trust funds, and my lovely child did not, but did have a wonderfully useful degree in English Lit., his simple response was:  “I know.  Don’t worry.”  Yeah. Right.

Well, that’s water under the bridge as they say.  Devoted Son not only has survived. He’s thrived.  (It is among the charms of Yiddish that the eldest male child is referred to by the father as “mayn Kaddish.”  Devoted Son will do, thank you very much.)

But, as I’ve written before about my return to NY, there are those of us to whom place is so fundamental as to be a part of one’s character. As I noted the first time I visited DS in Berkeley: “Of course you like it.  It’s the indolence capital of the world.”  Please note: DS is anything but indolent.  But somehow the atmosphere was suitable to a person whom I know as one of the most accepting in the world.

What he is, is a true mensch.  With his feet on the ground, an achievement that in Berkeley, CA, is not so easy.  And so I write.

Berkeley is magical.  There are pretenders to its throne. (Takoma Park in suburban DC comes to mind).  Ha!  Berkeley — just a short BART trip from the tip of the “creative economy,”  a view across the Bay from what rapidly is becoming a symbol of urban wealth excesses, survives in a beautiful, charming, hope-inducing, time warp.

Nowhere is this more evident than among Berkeley’s homeless. Yes, I know, the Bay Area, with its lovely climate (despite summer chill) and tolerant ways embraces those among us upon whom fortune has frowned, whether because of mental illness, drug abuse, other problems, or sheer sloth.  It doesn’t much matter. What does matter, is that on a three block stretch of Shattuck Avenue (Telegraph Ave. is too-perfectly-college-town-student, Shattuck — upon which Dustin Hoffman boarded the bus in The Graduate – is more hippy-style young-adult hip that Brooklyn will never be), a cast of characters that would challenge Hunter Thompson channeling Galt MacDermott channeling Ken Kesey channeling Timothy Leary arrays along the benches and by-ways.  The lovely thing is that, unlike any other place I know of on Earth, these people all are neighbors.

So, my having arrived fresh on the BART from SFO, we sat in a windowed corner of a sushi joint (yes, I think in Berkeley it’s ok to call them sushi joints) as DS smiled and pointed out the lady in the shimmering shining wrapping paper hat that looks like it was designed by Frank Gehry and noted that she walked the block every day. Not a few minutes later appeared the stately looking gentleman who apparently ordered all of his clothes from sub-Saharan Africa and changed outfits daily just for the purpose of promenading. Prior to joining my boy in his apartment for a pre-prandial cocktail, I sat beside a man who I would come to know as a neighbor interspersing his violent shouts and gesticulations with benedictions for a nice day.

The point is that DS knew them all  – at least by sight, routine, time of day, and the like.  In other cities, they might be rounded up.  They might be considered unsightly.  Or threats. Or dangers to themselves. Or others.  In Berkeley. CA, they were just the neighbors.

I am so glad such a place exists.  I was tempted to pick myself up and move right out there.

Lawrence Mitchell

To Be A Person: The Power of Now

So, I just finished reading Eckhart Tolle’s fine book, The Power of Now, which I guess has been around for about 15 years, and felt compelled to offer both some reflections on it and a recommendation that you read it.  I should note from the start that The Power of Now is not the sort of book I ordinarily would read.  I know, that sounds defensive or snobby, as if I would rather not sully myself by reading pop mysticsm (although as it turns out, the Oprah blurb on the back notwithstanding, there is nothing pop-mystical about it).  But that’s not what I mean.  I don’t read books that appear to be self-help books as a general rule.  I also tend not to read bestsellers.  That’s not a critique.  That’s my limitation, despite my knowledge that judging a book by its cover is dumb, and that sometimes the crowd knows what it’s talking about.  I am sometimes a literary jackass, and I know it. The Power of Now both is and is not a self-help book.  What it is, is a very smart and enormously helpful spiritual book.  It is also the type of book that is very easy to misunderstand and very hard to discuss without reducing it to something it’s not.  I’m very glad I read it.

Actually, it was not I who overcame my own literary limitations, but my son, the almost impossibly big-hearted and multitudinous (in a Whitman-esque sense) Berkeley yogi.  He gave me the book as a father’s day gift.  He has always been a great source of reading suggestions for me, but this one was quite personal.  He had read the book and been profoundly influenced by it.  Thus, when it arrived, I decided to read it whether I wanted to or not, for to fail to have read it would have been to dishonor the spirit in which it was given.  It is only recently, though, that I made the time for it.

It would be unfairly reductionist of me to summarize the book.  Suffice it to say that, on one level, Tolle tells us nothing new.  His primary referents are Buddha and Jesus, with some Lao Tze thrown in for good measure.  He could as well have drawn on Kabbalah and Kant, Martin Buber and the B’aal Shem Tov.  Or probably any number of other great thinkers whose work I haven’t read.

The main insight is that only the present exists for us, only the present is real, and that to achieve enlightenment one must learn to let go of the past, forget about anticipation of the future, and live in the moment.  That is not nearly as irresponsible as it sounds, and anybody who has read in this genre understands that.  What Tolle means, as simply as I can put it, is that you can do nothing about the past, the future has not yet arrived, and undue attention to each deprives you of your ability to live in the one arena that is certain — the present.  To understand the way in which life histories, life plans, and the like fit into this spiritual construct requires reading the book.  The beauty of enlightenment is not only the personal achievement of the release of pain, but the attainment of a peace, clarity, and power that not only enables you to live — and as Tolle tells us is the only way to live — but to be an actual force for good in a manner that otherwise is impossible.  It is to free yourself from attachments of ego that not only block your ability to live in peace but that operate as destructive forces in the world around you.  While it requires discipline and contemplation to achieve this state, while it requires inward focus to get there which can only be done in solitude, the book is called the Power of Now.  And that power is awesome.

As I noted, none of this is new. Tolle’s strength is as a teacher.  While I enjoy my periodic wrestling with Kant’s and Buber’s challenging philosophical approaches, Tolle’s goal is to teach us how to achieve the enlightened state (which, to be fair, I think Buber attempts as well).  And he does it very well, with a number of helpful ways of thinking about now– well, not thinking — as well as, in the back half of the book, providing a didactic series of questions and answers that help to clear away objections we might hold and clarify precisely what he means and doesn’t mean.  He is a very good teacher indeed.  Although I practice yoga and possess a deep religious spirituality that has allowed me to attain something like the enlightenment he describes from time to time, I found myself playing through some of his instructions at a most difficult point in my own life and finding that indeed it helped.

For me, perhaps the most profound insight in the book comes relatively early on:  “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”  Wow.  I can assure you that there is plenty in my own situation that I would not have chosen.  But that doesn’t matter.  It is.  The only thing I can change is my perspective on that situation.  By accepting it as chosen, you are given the enormous power to deal with it from a position of peace which is, ultimately, a position of strength.  There is much else like this in the book, places that encourage you to stop and to think.  And to stop thinking.

There is some silliness too.  I was not terribly persuaded by his chapter on women’s special pain.  It’s not that I don’t think it exists.  I have no doubt that it does.  It just struck me that the chapter read as a little too contrived.  It also struck me that Tolle, who takes the perfectly defensible if not uncontroversial position that man and woman each are half of a whole (which does not  mean that they need each other for enlightenment) is, no matter how enlightened as a man, not in much of a position to write this chapter convincingly.  But that for me is more in the nature of a quibble than anything else, although I imagine that some women might be annoyed or angered by it.

The great discovery for me — as it so often is — is that going outside of my comfort zone produced enormous learning.  The ideas in the book are timeless and profound.  Tolle’s teachings are smart and practical.  It is a book to which I suspect I will frequently return as I attempt to internalize his teachings in the turmoil of daily life.  I highly recommend it.

Lawrence Mitchell

Our Town, or, You Can’t Go Home Again

So, I might have mentioned that one of the joys of being home again is catching up with, and spending time with, friends from whom distance has kept me more or less apart.  There is nobody more special in this regard than Childhood Friend (he of the impulsive ferry ride).  How many people can you count (other than relatives) with whom you have been close for 52 years?  Right.  Not many.  (Bruce, who is also special and of the same vintage, and I have had major gaps, so the same time, but not the same continuity.)

In any event, CF was down from Boston and in the area again, this time in our home town in the northwest suburbs of New York.  (No, not Jersey.  And I wish people would stop saying that when I tell them where I was raised.  OK, it’s near Jersey.  But it is definitely not Jersey. Seriously.) Actually, it wasn’t really even our home town.  I know nobody among my contemporaries who actually was born there.  Some, like Bruce and I, are Brooklyn-born (I, proudly 4th generation Brooklyn).  Others came from the Bronx, some from Queens.  I knew nobody born in Manhattan.  Our town wasn’t that fancy.

But there CF was, checking in with his dad (whom I adore) and planning to attend a reunion for the high school created when our class was divided in two and they built it (the new one) when we were in ninth grade.  (We stayed in the old one but CF had some grade school friends in the new one and he is endlessly curious which is why he was going to the reunion.) And I, not having seen my own parents in too long, and attempting to forestall any assays in Jewish guilt, went up last evening and stayed over to spend time with CF today. (Now that I am a fancy Manhattan-type faynshmecker I don’t own a car but I’m not like a Goldman guy so don’t have a black car at my disposal and I didn’t feel like dragging my dad back here late at night to drive me (upon which he would have insisted) or shlepping on the bus to the Port Authority (on which I would have insisted)).  So I stayed.  And dad cooked the best meal I’ve had since moving home.  But I digress.

There was a reason other than my perfectly understandable distaste for the hideous fluorescence and urinary perfume of night-time Port Authority for me to stay.  CF and I were going to morning Shabbos services at our home town’s Chabad (which most assuredly did not exist when we were growing up and the Catholic kids got dismissed early on Wednesday and bussed in public school busses (which I now know to be a definite violation of the First Amendment — at least until Scalia is the lone justice — to their “release time” at St. Augustine’s when we had to wait until the end of the school day and then be shlepped by carpool to Beth Shalom for Hebrew School where I fell irretrievably and to this day still in love with the beautiful, raven-haired, and charming Mrs. Horowitz (whom I continue to visualize leaning over my desk) after whom I named my pet rabbit (who got offed by a neighbor’s dog while I was in summer camp and about which my parents informed me on visiting day rather matter-of-factly which — I hereby inform them — was not — I repeat — not — mitigated at all by the care package they brought)), in part because, well, both of us gravitated to more hard-core versions of Judaism as we aged (far different from the gentrified Reform Judaisim of our youth during which we both were conspicuously in trouble (conspicuous because at different times each of our fathers respectively presided over the shul and maybe because we were just a little loud) for too much humor and conversation during our Yom Kippur services at Ripples of Rockland (because the shul was too small) which, by the way, is where I had my bar mitzvah which was nothing like a Yom Kippur service — even a Reform one — replete with a Viennese Table and my grandmother frustratedly attempting to teach me to dance, and, where, when the morning service ended, I distinctly remember CF’s dad saying (when we were about 13) that it was time to go home for lunch which, to adolescent Jewish boys just obligated to fast, was nothing short of hilarious.)  Among the things I love about Chabad is that you simply can’t get into trouble for too much conversation and humor (except perhaps if you disrupt the Torah service, which by me is perfectly legit).

And we were going because, well, it sucks, but CF’s mom (to whom we all referred as my second mom, as my mom is to him, and whom I also adored), left us last November, and CF needed to say Kaddish, and we weren’t sure there would be a minyan, and it was good for me to go anyway, so we went.

We needn’t have worried about a Minyan. Chabad of New City is a fairly big operation as it turns out.  As it also turns out, there was an oyfruf that morning and both the bride’s and groom’s family and friends (although not of course the bride whom it is torn for the groom to see) were there which gave us the opportunity to engage in the charming custom of pelting the groom-to-be with candy after his aliyah as he attempted to use his tallis as a shield.  (Surprisingly, it’s evidently halachically OK if candy gets thrown (unintentionally) at the Torah. (I guess that’s simchas Torah.))  It also meant a really good kiddish.  With lox.

[For my gentile friends:  An oyfruf is a custom in Ashkenazic Jewry (I don’t know if the Sephardim do it) during which, on the Shabbos before the wedding, the groom is called to the Torah. And pelted with candy.]

Anyway, the service was lovely, although as usual I was left behind in the davening dust, having come relatively late to my observance with relatively halting Hebrew, which might have been less halting had I paid more attention to the Hebrew and less to Mrs. Horowitz (but there’s no way I’m gonna regret that).   When it was over, and we had enjoyed the kiddish, off we went for a bit of a ride (and to visit CF’s dad).

Now, here’s the thing.  My parents left hometown for the river when I was in law school where they have lived ever since.  By law school, most or all of my friends from high school had dispersed.  As a consequence, I had not set foot in hometown in literally 35 years.  CF, who had been there with some frequency, warned me that it had gotten smaller (a charming reference, of course, to the fact that we had gotten bigger, and thus our perspective on the monumentality of our town would be different).  That, I anticipated.  What I hadn’t anticipated was something else.

I barely recognized a thing.  Really.  Nada.  Nothing.  Bupkus.  Seriously.  As we exited the parkway I had exited countless times in my youth and headed down the hilly boulevard that bisects our town, I was confused.  I had never before seen this place.  As we approached the perpendicular hill on which Old Friend (with whom I had a drink this past week for the first time in 40 years and who, despite his charms, had become distressingly Republican) lived, I had a vague recollection of the topography.  I recognized the sign for our synagogue, but not the shul itself (even though I have memories of my dad on the roof hammering asphalt as it was being built). And, as we approached what we in our youth  referred to as “town,” I recognized not one building.  Not one.  Well, I did recognize the strip mall in which existed the Carvel that employed my brother at the bottom of the hill and supplied us with ice cream cakes on our birthdays, but that was it.

And on it went. It’s not because our town had changed.  Although CF had warned me that it had, the age of the buildings and a slow but gradual recognition of some of them led me to think it hadn’t changed much.  And the ages of the houses were a dead giveaway that it wasn’t them, it was me.  I just didn’t remember.  A place or two, perhaps.  But this was a town I had traversed constantly on foot, in which I had delivered newspapers on bicycle (and that for much of the town — CF and I used to help each other out on our respective paper routes which were, respectively, on either side of the great divide).

Now, to be a little fair to me, our town is rather anodyne.  There is nothing especially charming about it.  It lacks any form of monumentality or architectural distinction.  It was perfectly purely engagingly bland suburbia.  Not even the glitzy suburbia of John Cheever’s imagination, the suburbia of restrictive covenants (places like Bronxville and Tuxedo Park that wouldn’t have had us even if we could have afforded it, or the fancy suburbs that would take a Jew or two which I assumed was for kids born in Manhattan, like Scarsdale and Chappaqua), not the suburbia of martinis and illicit affairs about which everybody knew.  Nope.  Bland, developer-model house suburbia. With streets named after the builders’ wives and kids (which was really weird when we moved to the fancy part of town and the builder and his wife and kids lived across the street from us).

That said, you would think.  Wouldn’t you?

And, just as an aside, there is absolutely nothing wrong with my memory (or so I thought).  Nor my ability to visualize. (Just ask the artist, Native Companion, about my visual sense.)  Nor my sense of landmark and direction.  Seriously, I can (and have) gone to cities around the world in which I’ve never ever been and find my way all around them on foot.  But something was amiss.  I think I had a happy childhood, so traumatic repression can’t explain it.

There you have it.  I write this (at risk of personal embarrassment) not so much to explicate (for what have I to explicate?) but to posit and explore.  Has anything like this happened to any of you?

Please don’t tell me that it hasn’t.

Lawrence Mitchell