"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Common Ties (and the People who Wear Them)

As some of you may know, I have taken lately to selling my life on the installment plan. That is, I am writing short memoirs of episodes in my life for the wonderful magazine called Common Ties.

The most recent is The Kindest Cut of All, where I describe a very unusual circumcision in which I participated. Have a gander.

What set me off today was a story by author Beverly Carol Lucey. It is yet another shallow rehash of a Jewish childhood without a Jewish education, a ubiquitous genre of surpassing superficiality.

In response, I sent this letter:

Much as I hate to be critical, I really don’t get this at all.

It seems to be the story line should have been: Hi, my parents took me to an Orthodox synagogue as a kid, but they were too cheap or too short-sighted to send me to a Jewish school. Pressing, I discovered they were ignorant themselves and oddly at peace with their ignorance.

One day I woke up and asked myself: wait a second, isn’t Judaism a 3300 year old philosophical system that changed mankind? Wasn’t King David the most powerful poet who ever lived - and writing that poetry 1000 years before anyone else? Aren’t there 24 books in the Bible that have fascinated billions of people through the ages and inspired most of the great art and science in history? Aren’t there 20 volumes of Talmud explicating the laws taught briefly in the Bible, including an entire civil law system still active today in Rabbinical courts? Isn’t this a religion that prophesied its people would retake its land at the end of history despite the land being desolate and the people dirt poor, and then amazingly, astonishingly, that occurred? Aren’t there Jewish schools from k-12, followed by Jewish seminaries and colleges; they must be learning something more than what to mumble in Hebrew at which cue? Why does Hebrew feel dead to me when in fact it is the most miraculous language, the only language in history to be revived as the spoken language of a country after over 2000 years? A language that in its revival has been rich enough to breed an entire new generation of evocative poetry and beautiful songwriting, both religious and secular? Could it be possible that a religious system that sustained a nation of brilliant, talented people through 2000 years of exile and poverty is nothing more than a few Hebrew mumbles and bad trumpet blowing?

I concluded that my relatives were neglecting their heritage and stifling mine. I dropped what I was doing and went to Israel to study Judaism intensively for four years. I was amazed to discover an entire body of thought and law, a philosophy of life, a mission of great purpose. Having used energy and intelligence in this diligent investigation I am now prepared to intelligently opine that… x. Whatever x may be: I love it, I like it, I hate it, I’m indifferent to it.

Instead we get this. No one taught me why. They didn’t even know why. So I walked. And I have a vague idea that what I left was probably flawed. But for a minute there it gave me a warm feeling. And that’s kinda cool.

Hmmm.

6 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Stirring, Mr. Homnick, and thank you.

I hope you can imagine, if secularized Jews are so ignorant of their heritage, not merely the jots and tittles, but that these immeasurable riches exist at all, how grateful the rest of us are to you.

Re modern Israel---I do hope it doesn't signal the end of history (and there is theological dispute within Judaism itself that it does), not only because I'm really looking forward to the coming baseball season because my Phillies have a real shot at the pennant after over a decade in the wilderness, but because humanity still has so much to learn.

Something's there. As Walker Percy asked, why are there no Hittites in New York City? And I must ask, can't the Phils get to the World Series once more before G-d closes the show?

Oh, well. These things have a way of working themselves out.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Jay, this is the best thing of yours I have ever read. It is a cup brimming over with affection for your roots, yet leavened with a keen eye for the ridiculous that always lurks just beneath our cultured surfaces.

As regards the rest of your post: I think I have mentioned before that my first husband was a non-observant Jew. One spring soon after we were married we went to his parents' to celebrate Pesach, and I, a fallen-away Methodist, was the only person in the house who took anything seriously. It was a profoundly disorienting experience, the import of which I did not understand until years later, after a divorce, a canonical annulment, and a conversion to Catholicism.

Jay D. Homnick said...

The Phillies, with Howard and Utley, are formidable indeed. I can certainly see how your novel theological theory took form: namely, the Messiah is enjoying himself too much hanging out at the ballpark.

Which reminds me, I have some good ballpark stories to sell. Stand by.

Jay D. Homnick said...

As to Walker Percy, I suggest you reread the world's first recorded business negotiation - between Ephron the Hittite and Abraham. Here I will record only Ephron's side, as if he's on the phone and we're sitting in his office.

"Oh, you want the cave. Hey, a man of your stature, and needing a burial plot - take the cave for free... along with the adjoining field."

"Oh, you insist on paying. Nah. Why should we let a 400 shekel property (now that we added the field which you never asked for) come between us and ruin a good friendship?"

"Oh, you insist on paying the 400 shekel. Okay, make sure to pay in shiny new currency so I don't have any trouble with it in the marketplace."

And you still insist there are no Hittites in New York City?

Jay D. Homnick said...

Thanks, Kathy. Just remember I can't use the leavened article on Passover.

Hunter Baker said...

I'm with Kathy. This is magnificent stuff. I'm going to keep this in mind for a long, long time.