25 November 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

And now it becomes Thanksgiving. The day, perhaps once sacred (though I question its true sanctity given the eventual massacre of the hosts) that has now become somewhat profane. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas buying season, and so, the feast on Thanksgiving, once interrupted by televised football games, now concludes with midnight excursions to the shopping malls. And this is called progress.
A vegetarian for almost 35 years, tomorrow I will with appetite and delight eat the traditional turkey. I will almost certainly eat more than I should and will suffer (not without some pleasure) from my surfeit for the next several days. I will in expiation go to the gym and try to exercise away the several pounds of excess I have consumed. After the meal we screen a movie on the wall of our home¾this year I have been forbidden to choose the film having in previous years made selections that were long¾very long, and sad¾very sad. The day will proceed with joy.
My girls return home. Well, they are my girls but they are women. And they are beautiful, and intelligent . . . and I consider now that I have moved into the status of a cliché: with pride I boast that my children have returned home for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I will sit at the table (almost in fancy dress) with interest and great pride and discuss with them their studies, their lives and their loves. I am an aging father and scholar; hopefully the two categories are not discreet. We will discuss¾with honored friends, of course,¾ the horrible news of the day and bemoan the Republican ascendancy and the democratic decline. (The lower case ‘d’ is intentional!) I probably will sit at the table’s head, though not as the head of the table.
When did I become this cliché? I swell (the Yiddish word is kvell) at the thought of my daughters holiday returning. I anticipate with great joy the heavy table at which is seated ourselves and our dear friends. I feel sympathy (and yes, a bit of horror) for the turkey I heartily consume. I will eat too much, too quickly. I will pour again the wine and empty the bottles. Is it somehow inevitable that to belong to community requires some participation in communal celebration?  But won’t I then be no different than all of those Republicans whom I despise? 

Isn’t the meal a form of communion? It is no body (except that of the poor turkey), nor blood I consume but the sense of belonging that I accept in the celebration of the day. I am sorry that shopping ends the Thanksgiving meal. There was a time (and what a time it was) when Thanksgiving did not partake of the mundane. But for me Thanksgiving retains its sacredness and I hope its reality achieves some part of my imaginings for it.

07 November 2014

Dylan: 6 November 2014

The woman sitting next to me asked if I had seen Dylan perform before. “A few times,” I said, but this wasn’t an honest response. I have been attending Dylan concerts with some consistency since 1965 and have been listening to him since 1962. He and I go back a long way. Last evening for his first encore he went back to the beginning and he sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ Probably I heard this sung first by Peter, Paul and Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio, but soon I owned the original performed by its author. It was the first hymn I carried in my heart and the first protest song I knew. The rest of my life followed suit, and the next I knew was that “The Times They Were a’ Changin.” Bob Dylan changed my life, and over the past fifty something years has continued to offer my life new perspectives. Emerson says that      “ . . . we can only judge safely of a discipline, of a book, of a man, or other influence, by the frame of mind it induces, as whether that be large and serene, or dispiriting and degrading.” Bob Dylan has always enriched my life; I cannot imagine my life apart from his voice.
I didn’t think it was a great concert last evening, and I didn’t like the arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I thought that if I had heard the song performed this way back then, I probably would not have held it to my heart. But I paid no mind because it was that he sang it and not the way he sang it that was important. I have always considered that Dylan didn’t talk to his audience but rather, sang to it, and that he had chosen that song to close the concerts spoke loudly to me despite the arrangement. We live in troublous times. He didn’t close with “Like a Rolling Stone” that focused on the individual, but with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” that focused on the communal.
But then to close the evening, Dylan sang a cover of a Frank Sinatra song: “Stay With Me,” and I thought, how much more open does the man have to be. Once, many years ago in his concerts with The Band he opened with “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Ways and I’ll Go Mine,” and I understood exactly what he meant in our relationship. Tonight he spoke differently, and I understood exactly what he meant dabout our relationship:
Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.
I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,
And though I grope and I blunder and I kneel and I'm wrong,
Though the rose buckles under where I walk, walk along
'Til I find to my wonder every task least to see,
Or that I can do it, pray, stay with me.
Stay with me.

This was a confession; this was an acknowledgement of a human life lived; this was the expression of a humility that recognized error but not mistake; frailty but not weakness, love but not dependency. Yes, this was the song of a man aging, who has recognized his vulnerability and weakness, the song of a man, I suspect, a bit tired. He did sing “Workingman’s Blues,” and he works harder than any performer I know. Dylan didn’t write the song¾itself an interesting comment on its position as encore¾ but it was his words he sang, and in the words he spoke of the life work in which I have trusted and from which I have learned.
Where else would I go? I’ll stay. 

04 November 2014

Election Day 2014

Another Election Day. And I will vote as I have for the past forty five years. When I began voting the legal age was twenty-one; it has since been lowered to eighteen—if you could die for your country at that age, you should at least have the right to vote for those who would send you to your death! I have great faith in democracy though over the years I have not voted for many who finally attained office, but this year, I maintain little hope in the discernment of the voters. Predictions are that the Republicans will gain control over the Senate and might even pick up further seats to increase their majority in the House. Were they intelligent; were they ethical; were they amenable to negotiation and compromise, I would be not content with their victories but at least not terrified at the prospect of their assumption of power. But the Republican denial of global warming, their attack on voting rights, on abortion rights, on raising the minimum wage, on health care and basic concern for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst, deeply troubles me and portends a world not conducive to the ability of our children¾of my children¾ to continue to thrive or sometimes I think, to even survive. My parents promised me a world that would be better than theirs, and somehow they succeeded. Or I succeeded in a world they gave me—imperfect as that world might have been. But I cannot promise my children a better world: indeed, with the dire warnings concerning global warming I am not certain what world I will be able to deed to them.

We have lived a privileged life, I know. But I am not certain that the quality of that privilege will continue to offer the children security. The Republican majority and the greedy and corrupt money that lies behind it threatens the securities and freedoms I have enjoyed and my children may not experience. I was appalled at the election of Ronald Reagan; angered at the election of George W. Bush, and I am frightened to learn the results of today’s election process.

24 October 2014

On Prophecy

In his essay “Natural History of Intellect,” Ralph Waldo Emerson argues for the priority of the truth-seeking of the individual over the truth-known of the prophet. Emerson says that the trained mind-that which has undertaken a course on philosophy, (and I recognize the idealist dismissal of the body here)-”will need no priest. And if he finds at first with some alarm how impossible it is to accept many things which the hot or the mild sectarian may insist on his believing, he will be armed by his insight and brave to meet all inconvenience and all resistance it may cost him.” Arguing for the primacy of the power of the individual-on self-reliance and on thought-Emerson disparages the self-aggrandizement and obfuscations that derive from the rhetorics of so-called scholars. He asks, “ . . . was there ever a prophet burdened with a message to the people who did not cloud our gratitude by a strange confounding in his own mind of private folly with his public wisdom.” By which I think Emerson wonders whether within the prophets words doesn’t there always lie some confusion between an idiosyncratic moment with a public movement. That is, doesn’t the philosopher/prophet in order to justify his own position turn the exception into his rule; or doesn’t the prophet confuse his own private thought with that which the public must accept as knowledge.
Now, Emerson doesn’t contrast “this besetting sin of sedentary men” to the wisdom of a public. Indeed, though in the public sphere the “overweening self-conceit” is suppressed, in that former arena only the popular is acceptable “for the entertainment of all . . . Great is the dazzle but the gain is small.” As in all of the comment and analysis on the news channels, and despite the thousands of words in critical commentary in the newspapers and journals, “ . . . here they play the game of conversation, as they play billiards, for pastime and credit.”
How well he seems to define the current practices of discourse in the United States.
I am led to Sanhedrin 89a and the Rabbis’ discussion of I Kings: 2-38. Ahab, the King of Israel, has asked the prophets to foretell whether he should go into battle and be triumphant, and in response four hundred prophets answer in the affirmative. Except for Michaiah, whom Ahab detests “because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune.” True to form, Michaiah does foretell defeat and Zedekiah, one of the majority prophets, slaps Michaiah and scolds him for assuming authority as true prophet despite the words of the other four hundred! And Ahab sends Michaiah to prison. Alas, Michaiah was correct and Ahab is killed in battle.
Now the Rabbis wonder: how can anyone fault Zedekiah when he had himself been deceived by the spirit of Naboth whom Ahab had had executed so that he might acquire his coveted vineyard. And Rabbi Johanan says that Zedekiah “should have scrutinized (the forecasts of the assembled prophets), even as R. Isaac said, “The same communication is revealed to many prophets, yet no two prophets prophecy in the identical phraseology.” It is argued that Zedekiah should have been suspicious that every prophet used exactly the same words, but a Rabbi suggests that maybe Zedekiah didn’t know of this criterion regarding difference. Alas, King Jehosophat (the very same one who jumps) seemed to be so aware: the Rabbis attribute to him this warning, “I have a tradition from my grandfather’s house that the same communication is revealed to many prophets, but no two prophesy in the identical phraseology.”
Thus it must be that truth is never contained in the words, and therefore, we must keep talking and never to assume ownership of truth. No two prophets prophesy in the same words! Emerson, too, warns against false prophets. “Yes, it is a great vice in all countries, the sacrifice of scholars to be courtiers and diners-out, to talk for the amusement of those who wish to be amused, though the stars of heaven must be plucked down and packed into rockets to this end!” And hence proceeds the anti-intellectualism in American society in the denigration of study. It is not action alone but action informed that concerns. “Yet, what we really want,” declares Emerson, “is not a haste to act, but a certain piety toward the source of action and knowledge.” Study as prayer.

20 October 2014


I gaze out of the oversized patio window door. The trees in the rear of the house lining the properties edge are bare, and behind them, perhaps one hundred yards distance, the brilliant color of the leaves has faded and display lingering shades of brown. My burning bush has lost its brilliant red leaves. The late afternoon cloudless sky is a very pale blue, almost white in shade, the high grass has fallen and the low grass has ceased to grow and begun to yellow. The Jewish Holy Days are completed, and Fall turns not slowly into winter.
            The first year I lived in the mid-West an enormous snowstorm blanketed the area on Halloween and remained on the ground until late April. That approximate length of months is about the extent of winter here. There was a time when I felt that I could tolerate the cold: during the winter months only temperatures below -20 degrees kept me from the roads and I wore overcoats and remained hatless. Today I have taken from storage my winter coat purchased from LL Bean that kept me somewhat warm last winter and that always adds ten pounds to my weight when I put it on, these days at earlier moments and (relatively) higher temperatures. I have at least two hats, several scarves and insulated gloves. Nevertheless, I do not think I will blow much snow this winter. 
            This late afternoon I do yet not smell snow in the air; indeed, the temperature is rather warm, but the air itself feels temporary, and seems to suggest, “Wear a sweater anyway!” Or it is me recognizing the time? Mostly, I remain indoors, and make only occasional forays out of the house. It is said that Thoreau would walk about for four hours per day, but in fact, the day contains twenty-four hours. He must have remained indoors for much of that time, then, writing and reading. “This only is reading, and in a high sense but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read, and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.” Hence, he must have spent a good deal of time sitting and reading. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he states, somewhat proudly I think. And yet, a whole chapter in Walden explores Society: I love society as much as the next! Winter invites society in.