1. THE CHURCH AND THE HELICOPTER


A year after graduating college, I worked downtown in the immense shadows of the World Trade Center, and as part of my freewheeling, four-hour daily lunch break I would eat and drink my way past these two giants, up Broadway, down Fulton Street and over to the Strand Book Annex. In 1996, people still read books and the city could support an extra branch of the legendary Strand in the Financial District, which is to say that stockbrokers, secretaries, government functionaries — everybody back then was expected to have some kind of inner life. 

In the previous year I had tried being a paralegal for a civil rights law firm but that did not work out well. The paralegaling involved a lot of detail, way more detail than a nervous young man with a ponytail, a small substance-abuse problem, and a hemp pin on his cardboard tie could handle. This was as close as I would ever come to fulfilling my parents’ dreams of my becoming a lawyer. Like most Soviet Jews, like most immigrants from Communist nations, my parents were deeply conservative, and they never thought much of the four years I had spent at my liberal alma mater, Oberlin College, studying Marxist politics and book-writing. On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laser-jet and ink-jet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I’m not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach.

I graduated summa cum laude and this improved my profile with Mama and Papa, but when I spoke to them it was understood that I was still a disappointment. Because I was often sick and runny-nosed as a child (and as an adult) my father called me Soplyak, or Snotty. My mother was developing an interesting fusion of English and Russian and, all by herself, had worked out the term Failurchka, or Little Failure. That term made it from her lips into the overblown manuscript of a novel I was typing up in my spare time, one whose opening chapter was about to be rejected by the important writing program at the University of Iowa, letting me know that my parents weren’t the only ones to think that I was nothing.

[Read a Q&A with the author here]

Realizing that I was never going to amount to much, my mother, working her connections as only a Soviet Jewish mama can, got me a job as a “staff writer” at an immigrant resettlement agency downtown, which involved maybe thirty minutes of work per year, mostly proofing brochures teaching newly arrived Russians the wonders of deodorant, the dangers of AIDS, and the subtle satisfaction of not getting totally drunk at some American party.

In the meantime, the Russian members of our office team and I got totally drunk at some American party. Eventually we were all laid off, but before that happened I wrote and rewrote great chunks of my first novel and learned the Irish pleasures of matching gin martinis with steamed corned beef and slaw at the neighborhood dive, the name of which is, if I recall correctly, the Blarney Stone. I’d lie there on top of my office desk at 2:00 p.m., letting out proud Hibernian cabbage farts, my mind dazed with high romantic feeling. The mailbox of my parents sturdy colonial in Little Neck, Queens, continued to bulge with the remnants of their American dream for me, the pretty brochures from graduate school dropping in quality from Harvard Law School to Fordham Law School to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (sort of like law school, but not really) to the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning and finally to the most frightening prospect for any immigrant family, the master of fine arts program in creative writing at the University of Iowa.

“But what kind of profession is this, writer?” my mother would ask. “You want to be this?”

I want to be this.


Excerpted from “Little Failure” by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. David Hartman’s essay in “I am Jewish”


Dr. David Hartman was one of the most respected Jewish theologians in the world. He was the founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a frequent lecturer in the United States, and author of several widely acclaimed books, including two winners of the National Jewish Book Award.

“God has burdened human beings with the task of being the carriers of God’s vision for human history. The law and the commandments express not only God’s legislative authority but also, and above all, God’s need for human beings.”

Despite the varieties of lifestyles and outlooks among Jews today, there are certain organizing principles that cut across many of these differences and underlie the sense of common destiny and interdependence that so many Jews feel. From my own experience, the concepts of relationship and memory are two such fundamental categories. The Jewish concepts of God and of mitzvah (commandment) and the biblical narratives of creation and of history are interwoven into Jewish practice, producing a distinctive outlook that shapes Jewish identity.

[Remembering Rabbi David Hartman: Community voices]

RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND COVENANTAL CONSCIOUSNESS

In contrast to the self-sufficient God of Aristotle, the biblical God was considered philosophically “scandalous” because of the notion of a God who was vulnerable and affected by human history. Aristotle’s God was totally unmoved and oblivious to human beings, whereas the biblical God was, as A. J. Heschel wrote, “in search of man” or, as Professor Lieberman remarked, “the most tragic figure in the Bible.”

The idea that divine perfection is a relational category involving interdependence begins in the biblical story of creation. The idyllic description of an omnipotent God, whose unbounded will is automatically realized in the material world (“Let there be … and there was …”), abruptly changes with the creation of human beings, who challenge and oppose the divine will. In the Bible, the development of the notion of covenantal history is related to the transition in the character of God from an independent, unilateral actor to a God who recognizes that only through human cooperation can the divine plan for history be realized.

Abraham is the first covenantal figure because of the presence of mutuality in his relationship with God. Abraham’s appeal to principles of morality—“Far be it from You … to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty.… Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:23–25)—reflects his unqualified belief in his intuitive sense of justice and love. His ability to judge God’s intended actions without having to “quote Scripture” reflects the dignity and self-assurance of being in a covenantal relationship with God.

The covenants with Abraham and later with the people of Israel at Sinai express the principle of divine self-limitation that makes room for human involvement in determining history.

RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND INTIMACY

The God I meet in history is not an omnipotent, perfect, overwhelming presence that crushes my sense of worth and empowerment. Covenantal consciousness begins with the awareness that God has burdened human beings with the task of being the carriers of God’s vision for human history. The law and the commandments express not only God’s legislative authority but also, and above all, God’s need for human beings. In addition to the normative moral content of religious life—the pursuit of justice, love, and compassion in our personal and collective lives—the covenant at Sinai expresses the interpersonal intimacy of God’s relationship with Israel.

THE JEWISH YEAR: JEWISH IDENTITY AND COLLECTIVE MEMORIES

The notions of relationship and interdependence expressed in the Jew’s theological universe of discourse play an important role in defining the meaning of being a Jew and living a Jewish way of life. Being a Jew is first and foremost being part of the collective history of the Jewish people. In Judaism, you meet God within the framework of the collective history and practices of the Jewish people.

The individual’s journey of discovering the meaning of being a Jew begins with the collective memories of the foundational events of the Jewish people. By appropriating these memories, the individual becomes part of a Jewish “we” that precedes and shapes the emergence of his or her Jewish “I.” How you understand these foundational events determines the meaning of your individual Jewish identity within the collective life of the community. The Pilgrimage Festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, filter how a Jew understands the everyday meaning of being Jewish.

Pesach (Passover) negates the idea that the ultimate purpose of being Jewish can be realized by an individual’s “leap of faith” or by fulfilling the commandments at Sinai. The conventional notion of religion as private faith and good works is incompatible with the message of Passover, which reminds me that I must first identify with my people’s struggle for freedom and security before I can pledge covenantal allegiance to God at Sinai. We begin the annual pilgrimage of Jewish self-understanding by recollecting and identifying with the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. We begin by retelling the story of our struggle for liberation: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”—with the emphasis on the fact that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Empathy and solidarity with the political, social, and economic conditions of the Jewish people are necessary conditions for any “leap of faith” or spiritual journey within Judaism. We do not  approach the sacred moment of the Sinai revelation as individuals. We hear the word of God and receive the Ten Commandments as “we.” Heresy in Judaism is separating oneself from the collective experience of the Jewish people. The “wicked son” of the Passover Haggadah is he who addresses other Jews as “you” (“you and not him”). Jewish heresy is an existential state of excluding oneself from the destiny of the Jewish people.

Passover thus begins the yearly celebration of our collective memory by situating the individual within the historic drama of the Jewish people. Passover leads into Shavuot, the time of receiving the Ten Commandments, the normative way of life known as Torah and mitzvot. This festival is essentially a holiday of freedom, the freedom of living a disciplined, normative way of life.

While identification with the suffering in Egypt is necessary for developing a collective consciousness, the memory of suffering is not in itself constitutive of Jewish identity. Although our oppression in Egypt could have become the predominant motif of our collective identity, the tradition took the experience of victimization and transformed it into a moral impulse. At Sinai, the memory of Egypt becomes a compelling reason for aspiring to the collective ideals of justice and love and becoming a holy people. “And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19; see Exod. 23:9, Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:17). At Sinai, we are challenged by God to take responsibility for our daily lives and to aspire to the freedom of being claimed by a normative vision of life.

Freedom involves the capacity for self-transcendence, for being claimed by what is other than myself. For Jews, the law is not a source of guilt, as the Christian apostle Paul claimed. We are not paralyzed by the elaborate structure of Halakhah and mitzvot. On the contrary, the Law (our Torah) gave us a sense of personal dignity—the dignity of beings accountable before God. At Sinai, we heard a God address us as responsible moral agents in spite of our human vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It is for this reason that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is so central to Jewish life. Yom Kippur provides us with hope and renewed conviction to begin anew and not to revel in the failures of the past.

After Shavuot, the next Pilgrimage Festival, Sukkot, evokes the desert experience and the yearning to reach the Promised Land. The land adds the dimension of the realization of our values and ideals within the total life of community. God desires that the material conditions of history, the social, economic, and political realities in which we live, mediate the divine presence. God’s command to pursue justice and compassion cannot be fulfilled unless the public frameworks of communal life reflect these normative ideals. The land takes holiness, k’dushah, beyond the private realm of the individual, or even of the enclave, into the public marketplace, the factories, the hospitals, the welfare system, the military—the vast array of living frameworks that make up human society. Without the land, we are a family. With the land, we are a people in the fullest sense of the term. Our family circle of values, ideals, and responsibilities expands to embrace the total Jewish people.

By appropriating the memory of Passover, I learn that I can never forget Auschwitz or be indifferent to any manifestation of anti-Semitism in the world. Yet, no matter how powerful and compelling the experience of the Holocaust is for Jews today, we must not define ourselves as victims but must move from Auschwitz to Jerusalem. Like the movement from Egypt to Sinai, we must learn to celebrate our people’s yearning to build a new future by taking responsibility for our lives as individuals, as a people, and as a country.

Our return to Israel as a sovereign nation can be understood figuratively as a reenactment of the drama of Sinai, where we learned not to define ourselves as victims but to take responsibility for how we lived. In the Land of Israel, the voice of Sinai speaks to Jews, holding them accountable for all aspects of their lives.

THE CREATION NARRATIVE AND JEWISH IDENTITY

While the festivals indicate the importance of the historical narrative in organizing Jewish identity, there is another type of narrative, the narrative of creation, that informs Jewish consciousness every week through the observance of the Sabbath. The Jew’s perspective on life is nurtured not only by the collective memories of the Jewish people but also by awareness of the shared condition of all human beings.

The creation story is about the common source and condition of all humankind. The biblical description of the first human being as a creature is a graphic representation of the normative rabbinic principle “beloved is every human being who has been created in the image of God.”

The historical narrative develops a sense of intimacy with the Jewish people. Through it we become a family and embrace our particular identity with joy and love. But the family narrative is not our only living framework. Every seventh day we interrupt the flow of our tasks and ambitions and stand quietly before God the creator.

The dialectic between our particular and universal identities, between the God of Israel and the God of creation, is the fate and challenge of being a Jew.


The above excerpt by Dr. David Hartman is from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. © 2004 Dr. Judea and Ruth Pearl. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091 www.jewishlights.com.

Excerpt from ‘The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery’ by Captain Witold Pilecki


CAPTAIN WITOLD PILECKI’S 1945 AUSCHWITZ REPORT

Summer 1945

So, I am to write down the driest of facts, which is what my friends want me to do.

They have told me: “The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it all will be.”

Well, here I go…but we were not made out of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.

Therefore, now and again I shall insert a thought amongst these facts to indicate what one was feeling.

I do not know whether this must by definition devalue the description.

One was not made out of stone, though I often envied it; one still had a heart beating, sometimes in one’s mouth, and certainly, running around one’s brain was the odd thought which I sometimes with difficulty grasped…

I think that inserting a sentence or two from time to time about this is needed in order to present a true picture.


September 1940

The 19th of September 1940—the second street round-up in Warsaw.

There are a few people still alive who saw me go alone at 6:00 a.m. to the corner of Aleja Wojska and Felińskiego Street and join the “fives” of captured men drawn up by the SS.

Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.

On Plac Wilsona we were then loaded onto lorries and taken to the Light Horse Guards Barracks.

After having our particulars taken down in the temporary office there, being relieved of sharp objects and threatened with being shot if so much as a razor was later found on us, we were led out into the riding school arena where we remained throughout the 19th and the 20th.

During those two days some of us made the acquaintance of a rubber truncheon on the head. However, this was more or less within acceptable bounds for those accustomed to guardians of the peace using such methods to keep order.

Meanwhile, some families were buying their loved ones’ freedom, paying the SS huge sums of money.

At night, we all slept side by side on the ground. The arena was lit by a huge spotlight set up right next to the entrance. SS men with automatic weapons were stationed on all four sides. There were about one thousand eight hundred or so of us. What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles. All those

picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep.

A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.

I suggested to my comrade, Sławek Szpakowski (who I know was living in Warsaw up to the Uprising),1 a joint operation during the night: take over the crowd, attack the sentry posts while I, on my way to the lavatory, would “bump” into the spotlight and smash it.

However, I had a different reason for being there. This would have been a much less important objective. While he—thought the idea was total madness. On the morning of the 21st we were put onto trucks and, escorted by motorcycles with

automatic weapons, were taken off to the western railroad station and loaded onto freight cars. The railroad cars must have been used before for carrying lime, for the floors were

covered in it.

1 Pilecki is referring to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, not the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Translator’s note.

Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.

The cars were shut. We travelled for a whole day. We were given nothing to eat or drink. In any case, no one wanted to eat. The previous day we had been issued some bread, which we did not yet know how to eat or to treasure. We were just very thirsty. The lime, when disturbed, turned into a powder. It filled the air, irritating our nostrils and throats. We got nothing to drink.

We could see through the cracks between the boards covering the windows that we were being taken in the direction of Częstochowa.

Around 10:00 p.m. (22:00 hours) the train stopped somewhere and went no further. We could hear shouting and yelling, the cars being opened up and the baying of dogs.

I consider this place in my story to be the moment when I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.

This is not an attempt on my part to use unusual words or terms. Quite the contrary, I believe that I do not need to attempt to use any irrelevant or pretty little word.

This is how it was.

We were struck over the head not only by SS rifle butts, but also by something far greater.

Our concepts of law and order and of what was normal, all those ideas to which we had become accustomed on this earth, were given a brutal kicking.

Everything came to an end.

The idea was to hit us as hard as possible. To break us psychologically as speedily as possible.

A hubbub and the sound of yelling voices gradually drew near. Eventually, the doors of our freight car were wrenched open. Lights shone in, blinding us.

“Heraus!rrraus!rrraus!…,” the SS belabored us with epithets and rifle butts to our shoulders, backs and heads. The idea was to get out as quickly as possible.

I leapt out, managing somehow to avoid being hit, and joined the “fives” in the center of the column.

A larger group of SS was hitting, kicking and screaming: “Zu fünfen! [Form up in fives!]”

Dogs urged on by the crazed soldiery rushed at those on the outside of the column.

Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.

Blinded by the lights, shoved, beaten, kicked and rushed by the dogs, we had suddenly found ourselves in conditions which I doubt any of us had ever experienced. The weaker ones were so overwhelmed that they simply fell into a stupor.

We were urged on towards a larger cluster of lights.

On the way, one of us was told to run to a post at the side of the road; he was followed by a burst of automatic weapons fire and mown down. Ten men were then dragged out of the ranks at random and shot with pistols as “collective responsibility” for the “escape,” which the SS themselves had staged.

All eleven of them were then dragged along by leg straps. The dogs were teased with the bloody corpses and set on them.

All this to the accompaniment of laughter and joking.

We approached a gate in a wire fence over which could be seen the sign “Arbeit macht Frei” [“Work Liberates You”].

It was only later that we learned to understand it properly.


Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.

Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’


Walt Whitman

The Substance of Feeling

The poet writes the history of his own body.

— Henry David Thoreau

For Walt Whitman, the Civil War was about the body. The crime of the Confederacy, Whitman believed, was treating blacks as nothing but flesh, selling them and buying them like pieces of meat. Whitman’s revelation, which he had for the first time at a New Orleans slave auction, was that body and mind are inseparable. To whip a man’s body was to whip a man’s soul.

This is Whitman’s central poetic idea. We do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh. Whitman introduces his only book of poems, Leaves of Grass, by imbuing his skin with his spirit, “the aroma of my armpits finer than prayer”:

Our Favorite Jerry Goldsmith Story


Film composer Jerry Goldsmith, died July 21, age 75. The following is excerpted from a 1997 interview with The Jewish Journal.

“In the score for ‘First Knight,’ the final battle scene was temp-tracked with the ubiquitous ‘Carmina Burana.’ The director said, ‘We’ve got to have a chorus singing in this big battle of six or seven minutes.’ I didn’t know what a chorus was going to do. He said, ‘Don’t even bother writing it. We’ll just use the ‘Carmina Burana.’ At that time, it seemed rather a great idea, because I was so pressed for time. Actually, it was a combination of my agent and my wife who said: ‘Don’t do it. Don’t take the easy way out. Do it right.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do music for it, but the chorus has to say something.’ So I sat there for hours with the director, who’s also Jewish, and I said, ‘Give me some words for the chorus to sing, and I’ll get it translated into Latin, and we’ll be off and running.’ So we picked the Shema. So if you listen to the big battle scene, it’s the Shema translated into Latin with orchestra and chorus.”