Iconoclast


This may be just another useless explanation, the kind of futile attempt at finding meaning and logic that we all resort to in response to grief, but sometimes it seems life has it in for you in a very personal way. You go along for years feeling spared and protected, taking credit, even, for your relatively undamaged life. You go to bed feeling lucky one night and wake up cursed the next day. You tell yourself this is just a glitch in the road, the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to you, a deviation from the normal course of things. But then the pieces start to fall out in the most random, unexpected ways; the single crack in your once-gleaming good fortune grows branches and spread roots, and, before you know it, the litany of hard knocks has become a permanent soundtrack. 

So you try to make sense of it, and when you can’t, you sit up late at night and trace the long road  to despair back to its place of origin. When, exactly, did the bad stuff start to happen? 

We all know that no life is entirely charmed, no doorpost really painted with lamb’s blood. But we also know that the Pharaoh was doing just fine until he was sent the Ten Plagues. It wasn’t a random thing, the boils and locusts and death of the firstborn; something out there really had it in for the guy. There was that moment when his luck turned sour and, after which, nothing went quite his way anymore. I haven’t followed up of late, but I’m willing to bet the frogs have come back every year, dependable as the tide, centuries after he let the Hebrews go. 

I asked my cousin-by-marriage once if he believed that a single loss, however great, can alter a person’s luck. It was a Sunday afternoon during Passover, in one of those houses in Holmby Hills where you need a bus to get from one end of the dining room to the other in a reasonable amount of time. Our hosts were a young couple with a pair of beautiful children, the kind of family you think should be posing for pictures all the time. This was in the late ’80s, when many Iranians still lamented the losses they had incurred during the revolution. For some, the loss was mostly financial; for others, like this cousin, it cut much deeper. 

Before the revolution, my cousin-by-marriage, Farhad Nahai, was an English major at UCLA and just about the kindest, most authentic, innocent and funny young man you ever met. He was a writer and a poet and a genuine, reliable friend. He never forgot a birthday or closed his door on a stray, and he deserved all the love and attention he received because he gave it all back in spades. He had a house in Encino and a shiny new Trans Am, three very successful brothers and parents who would have looked out for him, stood between him and any of fate’s perfidies, to the last breath.

Before the revolution, Farhad survived a horrific car accident without major injury, drank cognac and told stories as rainwater rose above his ankles during a storm that flooded the house he was staying in with his best friend and cousin, Homayoun. The worst thing that happened to him was getting arrested for an unpaid jaywalking ticket in Los Angeles. There was no death or illness, no major loss, no reason to think they would ever occur. You could just see him going on like that — loud shirts and D.H. Lawrence novels and a Richard Pryor humor that made the ugliest reality somewhat palatable — for another hundred years.

In the heyday of the revolution, Farhad lost his 54-year-old mother to sudden illness. For him, something big and essential tore in the fabric of the universe and remained beyond repair. One Passover a few years later, he lost his 32-year-old best friend and cousin, Homayoun, to a long illness. Last Sunday, again during Passover, Farhad himself died after a long illness, at age 58. He had suffered more than anyone should, left behind a lovely, devoted and still-young wife, a delightful 14-year-old son, three caring brothers and their families, many a tender friend. 

We sat around last Sunday afternoon at Farhad’s aunt’s house in Los Angeles — “City of Cars and Creeps” is what he called it — and read aloud from his old essays and poems. We talked about him before and after the revolution, about his youth and middle age, how cruel fate had been to him at times, how lucky he was in marriage and fatherhood. I remembered that day in Holmby Hills, how he was convinced that his life would have been different had the revolution not happened. It occurred to me now that I had asked the wrong question that time: Instead of asking if he thought the revolution had changed his life forever, I should have asked if he thought he had changed because of the revolution. 

The one thing I can say about Farhad is that he was not — ever — like anyone else I’ve known. His English professor at UCLA once defined him as an “iconoclast.” To Farhad, this meant “a person who does things in his own way,” and he was very pleased with this, so fond of the title, he would write it into a video he made of his life for his 40th birthday party. He did do everything in his own, sometimes inexplicable, way. That’s how he was throughout, regardless of circumstances. It’s what made him so lovable most of the time, so difficult to understand at others, the one thing that remained constant in the midst of the storm. In the long run, I suspect it’s what will make him so uniquely memorable, the kind of person who never really dies because he never quite complies. 

In his 40th birthday video, Farhad appears in a yellow-and-white silk Versace shirt, next to a shiny new sports car, while the word ICONOCLAST flashes in giant letters on the screen. I’ve always found that image enthralling, but after last Sunday, I think I’ve found new meaning in it: Maybe there really is no purpose, nor a beginning or end, for all the bad things that happen to us; maybe life is just a series of disappointments that happen at random times to random people, and all we can hope for is to have the courage and forbearance to go through it with grace and humanity. 

Maybe defiance is our only hope, intransigence our best revenge.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

A collision of fate


The years turn and turn, slowly at first, like the wheels of a train as they roll from the station. Bit by bit, momentum gathers. In the window, scenery starts to flicker and flit. We catch glimpses of a gray mountain capped with snow, a shanty red barn long abandoned. The train hurtles by a lake so still that it casts an unearthly reflection of the heavens, and then it, too, is gone. Suddenly, the train lurches. It pulls up to a platform. We disembark. Behind the train, twin tracks of silver vanish in the distance. We’ve traveled far and traveled quickly. “It went by so fast,” we say.

But the tracks point the way back. We know the train’s path. We can retrace our steps and measure gain and loss, joy and ache. To search the past, though hard on the soul, is easy on the eyes. Hindsight is 20/20, we say. But what of the future? What of looking upon the tracks ahead — instead of those behind — and studying them like a travel guide before a journey? When we know what lies ahead, are there parts of life we savor more? Are there traps and pitfalls we might circumvent? 

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins with a prophecy. Rebecca, after 20 years of unrequited prayer, is finally with child — twins in fact: Esau and Jacob. But the pregnancy is unbearable. “The children struggle together within her.” Fearing she may lose the pregnancy, she cries out: “If it be so, wherefore do I live?” (Genesis 25:22; Malbim’s Commentary).

The Lord responds to her outcry: “In your womb are two nations; two peoples shall your bowels disperse. One people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Although her fear of miscarriage is allayed, another anxiety dams her heart: How does one raise two siblings who already contend in the womb and whose own children will contend long after they die?

It comes as no surprise that Esau and Jacob are nothing alike. Esau is a wild bear of a man, “a cunning hunter in the fields.” Jacob is an “innocent” who prefers to “dwell among the homely tents.” Yet, what does surprise us is how Rebecca and Isaac raise their sons. Instead of trying to bridge their differences, they widen the chasm and add bitter spices to the boiling stew of strife. “Now Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his venison; but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28).

Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, the medieval French commentator, points out that Isaac’s love was inconstant and conditional; he would express his approval of Esau in return for a helping of freshly hunted meat. In contrast, Rebecca’s love for Jacob was constant and unconditional, flowing to Jacob without preemption (Hizkuni on Genesis 25:28).

Atop favoritism and asymmetric love, there is the added sorrow for what each boy lacks. Jacob grows up longing for his father’s approval. Esau, on the other hand, is deprived the wholehearted love of his mother. Jealousies abound. Each train, it seems, has left the station, and the tracks are surely crossed.

Rabbi J.H. Hertz, the late U.K. chief rabbi, suggests that had Isaac and Rebecca raised their sons differently, spreading their love out more evenly, the whole saga of stolen birthrights and blessings may have been averted (Soncino, Genesis 25:28). But before we judge, we ought to ask ourselves if we are any better. 

When we think on the future, near and distant, can we, with a little effort, anticipate the mistakes we will undoubtedly make? Knowing our likes and dislikes, fears and faults, can we predict the pitfalls that will trip us up? And yet, though we know where the train tracks surely lead, how many of us still board the train, crowding the carriage with our lapses in judgment? 

Sometimes, though, we are afforded a second chance. The heart senses the wrongness of the way; the eyes search ahead and see what difficulties await. There is hope. Train wheels turn slowly at first; perhaps there is time to step back onto the platform.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com

Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


ALTTEXT

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.



From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.



Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?


These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

5766


A foursome was tramping the fairway toward the seventh hole at Hillcrest Country Club last Saturday when two coyotes appeared from out of the shrubs. The golfers were close enough to see that one animal was female and the other clearly male. That’s how close they were.

Every creature froze: the men gripping their seven irons; the coyotes watching, waiting for someone to do something stupid.

The thing about this encounter is that Hillcrest is about as urban as courses get. The wildlife corridor of the Santa Monica Mountains comes to a screeching halt at Sunset, five miles and who knows how many stoplights, intersections, animal control officers and speeding cars north. To the south are more homes, Interstate 10, more sprawl.

Hillcrest is a mid-city oasis. Acres of grass and trees and lawn sprinklers, with all the squirrels a wild dog could eat and the occasional Arnold Palmer left out on the patio to sip from. But I couldn’t imagine how any wild animal without wings could get there.

It turns out that in 2004 there were 1,100 coyote sightings in metropolitan Los Angeles and 955 for the Valley. There were 12 sightings in Beverly Hills — up from four the year before — and several on the UCLA campus. Amazing how much ground a creature can cover when it’s not stuck in Westside traffic.

There are a lot of places you can go –metaphorically — with these coyotes.

“The Sopranos” on HBO has developed a leitmotif out of wild things coming in and out of mob boss Tony’s life: a bear on the back lawn, waterfowl in the pool, a talking sea bass on his boat. Animals bring out the humanity in Tony, like for when he beat a guy senseless for sitting on a poodle.

You could also remark on how fitting it is that among the movers and shakers at Hillcrest, there are not a few who would meet their match in this animal.

“It’s not enough to be clever,” a wealthy and successful friend of mine tells me. “You also have to be lucky.”

Mark Twain called coyotes, “the most friendless of God’s creatures,” but clever and lucky works just as well.

And that’s the metaphor I’m sticking with here, on the eve of the New Year.

We learned four years ago, on Sept. 11, that the world is not a safe place. But evidently one lesson was not enough for it to sink in. If Sept. 11 showed that life can change in an instant, this entire year demonstrated that life’s very essence is unpredictable, ever-changing, unknowable.

Hurricanes, floods, terror attacks, terror threats — all around us we witnessed the ever-present danger and uncertainty that for most people, through most of human history, has defined human existence. Here today, wiped out tomorrow.

It took awhile, but the realization seems to have taken hold.

“I suppose after Sept. 11 some were a little Pollyanna-ish,” Fifth District Councilman Jack Weiss told me. “That is, some seemed to believe we could deal with this problem and it would go away. Some also believed that it couldn’t happen here again.”

If the raw fear has ebbed, the feeling of invincibility, of safety, has never fully returned.

Every year since Sept. 11, the High Holidays have brought heightened security concerns and more elaborate precautions, but this year even more so. An LAPD closed-door security briefing for synagogues at ths Simon Wiesenthal Center organized by Weiss’ office was better attended than in past years, and the questions were more direct, more palpably fearful.

Never in history have Jews been as economically, culturally and politically free and powerful. Yet our places of worship feel more vulnerable as ever. We have the freedom of prayer — behind security cameras and armed guards.

And just when we believe we have the hatches battened against man-made terror, here come the natural disasters to remind us that man plans and God laughs.

“Who shall live and who shall die?” we read in the High Holiday liturgy. “Who by fire? Who by water?”

We needn’t be resigned to our fates — or the fates others might wish upon us — but we may want to step back and acknowledge, for once, just how much of life is not ours to control. We can only do our best to protect ourselves and fulfill our promise, knowing all the while the hour is late, the future is uncertain and the coyote is at the door.

Happy New Year.

 

A Triangle of ‘Talking’


At one point in the Taper Forum play "The Talking Cure," Sigmund Freud warns the young Carl Gustav Jung not to needlessly stir up the enemies of psychoanalytic theory.

"One difficulty is that all in my circle are Jews," Freud explains.

"I don’t see what difference that makes," the non-Jewish Jung says.

Observes Freud, dryly, "That is a distinctly Protestant remark."

The Viennese Freud and the Swiss Jung, whose close relationship evolves from prophet and disciple to mutual competition and antagonism, are two sides of the triangle in Christopher Hampton’s drama.

Linking the two sides is Sabina Spielrein, a brilliantly neurotic young Russian Jew, whom we meet first as Jung’s patient, then his lover, later a patient of Freud and finally a doctor and psychoanalyst herself.

Spielrein was murdered by the Nazis in 1942, a fate she foresees in a brief flash forward during a love scene with Jung.

The triangular relationship is set in the decade between 1904 and 1913, when anti-Semitism was certainly rife in Europe, but that is a minor subtext of the play.

True to its title, "The Talking Cure" is heavy on dialogue, much of it weighty, but hardly boring.

The early evolution of psychiatry and psychoanalysis — which has had a profound impact on our thinking, perceptions and everyday vocabulary — is pretty gripping stuff, even for the layman or skeptic.

Add the intellectual infighting between two towering personalities and the sexual ardor of Spielrein, and one can accept the often lengthy and sometimes oversimplified expositions and the rather serious tone of the proceedings.

Fortunately, there is a brief appearance by one Otto Gross, a fascinating footnote in the history of psychoanalysis, who advocated, with equal conviction and flippancy, sex, drugs and

anarchy.

Director Gordon Davidson draws nuanced performances from actors Abby Brammell as Spielrein, Sam Robards as Jung, Harris Yulin as Freud, and Henri Lubatti as Gross.

Only toward the end are there prophetic hints of the fate awaiting the world 25 years later. Freud warns Spielrein, "Put not your trust in Aryans. We are Jews and Jews we will always be."

"The Talking Cure," in its American premiere, runs through May 23 at the Taper Forum. For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772.

They Also Serve Who Wait and Worry


Rabbi Mordechai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los
Angeles has devised a strategy to help his two young daughters cope with
having their big brother, Kayitz, fighting in Iraq.

Kayitz, 21, is a corporal with a front-line combat unit, the
1st Battalion of the 4th U.S. Marine Division, which has already waged bloody
battles against Iraqi units in Nasiriya, south of Baghdad.

Besides limiting the TV viewing of his girls, ages 5 and 9,
Finley said, “I tell them, ‘I’ll let you know when it’s time to worry.'”

“When there’s been a big battle,” the rabbi continued, “I
tell them the next day, ‘It was time to worry, but I forgot to tell you, so now
you don’t have to worry.'”

And so each day goes for the Finleys and thousands of
American families like them, who desperately hope to learn something about the
fate of their loved ones and try somehow to deal with knowing very little.

Kayitz is one of approximately 1,000 Jewish men and woman
serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They represent a fraction of the estimated
20,000 Jews among the 1.5 million in the U.S. armed forces.

The angst of Jewish families is indistinguishable from that
of all families with loved ones serving in the armed services. Jewish families,
though, are finding that the war is hitting home on another front — spiritually
— with the approach of Passover on April 16.

The Finleys usually host 30 to 40 people at their home for
Passover, but this year, the rabbi said, “I haven’t decided what we’ll do yet.”
One thing he knows: With Kayitz in Iraq, “his being there and fighting for
freedom is really a family theme” for the seder.

For her part, Judy Ledger of Atlanta is also sure about one
thing. “We’re not doing seder — I just can’t see doing it without them,” she
said, referring to her son and daughter and their fiancés, all of whom serve in
the military.

Ledger spends much of her time worrying. “It takes up a lot
of my time,” she said.

Her son, Matthew Boyer, 24, is a field artillery specialist
with the 101st Airborne, 3rd Brigade, and is now in Iraq. His fiancée is a
chemical and biological trainer with another unit of the 101st Airborne in Kuwait.

Ledger’s daughter, Ilana Boyer, 21, an Army medic, is
stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., but her fiancé is with the 82nd Airborne in Kuwait.

Not only does Ledger worry about her son’s safety, but the
images of allied POWs in Iraqi hands has not escaped her Jewish radar. When
Matthew was inducted, he originally did not list any religion on his dog tag,
but before going to Iraq, he changed the listing to Jewish.

“I yelled at him — it’s bad enough you’re in a dangerous
position, but I felt that was even worse,” she recalled. “But he said that if
he dies, he does not want a priest standing over him.”

Trying to glean information about their loved ones is
excruciating for these families. Ledger was buoyed late last week by a “cute”
postcard she received from her son, just a few lines scrawled on a torn piece
of cardboard.

In a way, Finley is lucky. He discovered that a reporter
with the Richmond Times-Dispatch is embedded with the 1st Battalion, and so he
studies the paper’s Web dispatches daily to glean clues about Kayitz.

After every battle, Finley, an ex-Marine, braces for the
possibility that within a few hours, military officials could arrive at his
home with bad news.

“When there are battles in Nasiriya, I feel horrible,” he
said. “The two hours after a news flash are the most horrible.”

Allan Rubin of Dallas has even less insight into his son’s
condition. Every day, Rubin and his wife, Linda, send their son, Daniel, 21, a
postcard that includes the phrase, “another day, no word.”

That’s because they have not heard from Daniel since
January, when he shipped out from Camp Pendleton to Kuwait and points beyond
with the Light Armored Vehicle 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Division.

“It’s a little hard,” Rubin said, his voice breaking. “He’s
just a wonderful young man.”

Daniel, a mechanic and technician, is very likely near Basra
in southern Iraq, from what Rubin has gleaned from news reports and an ABC News
reporter, who is embedded with what he thinks is his son’s unit.

While he’s worried, Rubin said, “I know he’s trained well,
and I know he’s doing all the right things, so in that respect, my heart is
settled with him.”

All of the families have turned to the Brave, a listserv —
kind of an e-mail bulletin board — that the Conservative movement’s United
Synagogue is sponsoring to help Jewish military families connect.

Jews in the military and their families sometimes have different
perspectives on the war. One member of the Brave listserv, who has not yet been
deployed, is Philip, 40, a member of the Army Reserve in Massachusetts.

Still, Phillip dreads leaving his wife and children behind.
“I don’t mind going — I mind leaving,” he said.

Unlike many whose kin are in the military, Becky O’Brien of
Lafayette, Colo., opposes the war. Her husband, Chris, 37, who is not Jewish,
is with the Air National Guard somewhere in the war theater. To find solace,
O’Brien attended a recent peace service at her synagogue, Congregation Har
HaShem.

“Judaism teaches you to question God, your rabbi, it’s the
rabbinic tradition,” she said. “You can have one text and 30 interpretations.
You should be able to question the president.” Â

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