I just read Sven Birkert’s meditation on his top-flight literary magazine, AGNI, casting its lot ever more definitively with online over print. The one thing that sticks out is online’s lack of concern for the future. When you send out print issues, you are lodging them all over the world. They are seeds. A central server, on the other hand, can go down. Its contents may not be able to be restored, even when there are backups. (Printculture is a case in point.) An organization may close, or go bankrupt, or decide that it is not worth transcoding old material to ever-newer media. At that point, all of what has been produced dies. The Wayback Machine shows almost no evidence that any of the websites I produced in the 1990s ever existed. If “the center will not hold,” there is nothing. So I look at Sven Birkert’s guardedly self-congratulatory message, and think that the words have a SELL BY date and that afterwards, the electrons will disband and go back to their chaotic realms in the universe. This is not a way to record our literary history.
I realize that “thoughts and prayers” are being widely mocked as superficial and thoughtless. Prayer is far from useless, though. In a situation like last year, in which our best friend died of a brain tumor, losing her mind by inches, there was nothing empirical that we could have done. We could not have increased the efficacy of her treatment or the expertise of her doctors; we could not have altered the course of her cancer. It is in this kind of situation that prayer is useful because it goes beyond the usual channels of causation. Prayer addresses our Creator and asks Him to provide what we cannot supply ourselves.
Prayer requires focus and intention; it is not a little thought that from time to time surfaces in one of the eddies of the mind. Sustained prayer takes a while. On Yom Kippur, for just over a day, we do nothing but pray (except for the congregants gossiping and the kids running around in the synagogue courtyard); if we take the day seriously, we pray for our very lives. Now we feel it; our own lives may be forfeit in the coming year. Sholem Asch’s story of a fool/sage, “The Village Saint,” makes the stakes no lower; in the end, the fool/sage, who does not know how to read, communicates with God on Yom Kippur with a whistle, and it is enough to avert God’s severe decree.
But prayer does not substitute for action. You did not see the religious leaders of the SCLC, in the late 1960s, immure themselves in their churches and assume that their prayers would change everything around them. They had to go out, to march, to sit in, and to stand up. They had to stand up to the worst our society had to offer them, and they did so without regret. They likely did pray for their own lives and those of their congregants, but they went out and faced the policemen, dogs, and water cannons.
Most of the prayers I have made, either from the prayer book or my heart, have not been “successful.” It may have been due to my intention being less than complete, or to my having sinned in various ways and not taking care of that before my petition. It may have been due to hypocrisy on my part, or due to my having told someone of my intention to pray. And as for the greater problems that affect us in this country and this world, God may have already decreed that they take place. As the angel Gabriel says in the Martyrology on Yom Kippur, “You must accept this, my righteous, beloved ones, for I have heard from behind the heavenly screen that you have been ensnared.”
And yet still I persist — as some friends would say, holding an imaginary dialogue with a nonexistent old man with a white beard. The greatest effrontery of the “thoughts and prayers” locution is that prayer seldom takes place, even for a second. Perhaps if the “thoughts and prayers” people took ten or twenty minutes to pray from the heart, not to comfort themselves but to offer something up whose chances are unknown, the balance of our merits would change. Perhaps they would realize that it was still within their power to go out and change things and that the old man with the long, white beard was waiting for them.
Il y a quelque trente ans, pendant que je faisais la queue devant Louis’s Lunch, le stand à hamburgers célèbre de New Haven, j’ai entendu deux chercheurs en langues antiques se plaindre de ce que le glyphe qui revenait le plus souvent dans la tablette qu’ils étaient en train de lire ce jour-là était “hépatoscopie.” Apparemment, les Hittites, ou c’était peut-être les Akkadiens, pratiquaient l’art de l’aruspice à tout bout de champ.
Le procédé consistait à ouvrir le corps d’un petit oiseau ou d’un animal pour étudier la conformation de l’un de ses organes. Ce soir, je me suis soudainement rendu compte que ces Hittites, au lieu d’être simplement superstitieux, étaient angoissés par l’avenir, et qu’ils l’étaient toujours en dépit du nombre de prédictions qu’ils faisaient faire. Pour eux la conscience de ce que nous appellerions des “événements au niveau d’extinction” persistait malgré tous leurs efforts.
Nous autres Modernes, nous nous occupons de notre temps, et nous n’avons plus d’aruspices. Pendant un temps nous disposions de sondages et de têtes pensantes, mais désormais nous nous débattons dans le noir. Nos dieux étant à usage privé, il est difficile de les voir à l’oeuvre dans le monde. Nous avons la capacité de faire ce que les Hittites n’auraient pas pu faire: détruire le monde, rompre son mécanisme. Aucune civilisation future ne prendra la relève de la nôtre pour déchiffrer nos disques, nos rouleaux et nos bandes sonores, pour se pencher sur l’énigme représenté par ce glyphe qui revient sans cesse, “Tr*mp.”
I will never make another self-referential MacArthur Foundation grant joke again.
On Sunday, September 11, 2016, it will be the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Sad to say, the terrorists did win. Not only did they demolish a piece of historic New York real estate, and kill three thousand people, but they also paved the way for America increasingly to resemble the autocratic Wahabiite kingdom from which they came. We saw it in the PATRIOT Act, and all the succeeding reauthorizations and expansions, which made it licit for not only the Three Letter Agencies, but local police, to delve into your past and present communications and interactions. We saw it in the retargeting of the Two Minute Hate away from the dimly remembered Communists and towards Muslims. We saw two unjustifiable and costly wars, and some less-documented quasi-wars, none of which made us in any way safer, and served primarily as a vehicle for turning our soldiers into mental patients. Our conduct of the first Gulf War led to the birth of ISIS, as all of Saddam’s generals and bureaucrats, barred by Rumsfeld from participation in the occupation government, needed jobs, and ISIS provided them. Our nominal “victory” — the assassination of Saddam Hussein captured live on video so that Obama and Clinton could view it in the Situation Room like tonight’s Netflix movie — led to no pause in our drone-enhanced military endeavors. And finally, let us not forget extraordinary renditions, “black sites,” intentionally inflicted US torture, at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — hooded figures, stress positions, sexual humiliation, waterboarding — that told the world that, yes, the Geneva Conventions were so much meaningless paper. So the terrorists did win. Their acts corrupted our essential nature, but we did have a choice, in the middle of our patriotism and jingoism, to preserve it. Some told us to do just that, and we rejected them, calling them unpatriotic and sympathetic to the enemy.
Now, fifteen years and $4 trillion later, are we doing any better? What have we gained? What are we celebrating? Our 33,000 military deaths, the 1 million Iraqis and Afghans killed as “collateral damage,” some new, symbolic real estate?
Despite the Kissinger-like Machtpolitik which will probably be emanating from Washington only a couple of months from now. I would say that we should bring the troops home. Spend a couple of trillion dollars on them for their mental health. Leave Afghanistan for the Taliban; we tried bribing the Afghans into democracy, and it was like feeding $100 bills into a shredder. Leave the Syrians, the YPG, ISIS, and the Taliban to work things out; they could hardly be worse than they are today. If Russia gets a toehold in the Middle East, just remember that we have had our toehold for over six decades, in Saudi Arabia and Israel, and think of where that has gotten us.
This Sunday, exceptional America will be celebrated with processions of men in uniform, candlelight vigils, and NYFD T-shirts. We are mourning the loss of our buildings and our people. We cannot see that we have lost what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and we do not know where they have flown.
So, about thirty-five years ago, my mother’s parents were alive and well, and in the summer, went to bungalow colonies in the Catskills. These were the abode of elderly people of modest means; the younger people went to the big hotels for nightlife. There was no development, no noise — just Jews in the country. As it happened, at one of these bungalow colonies, I noticed that most of my grandparents’ social interactions were with these strange, quiet people with numbers on their arms. They dressed modestly, but they didn’t cover the numbers up. And at some point, as a kid, I had to yell out the question, “Hey, Dad, why do Grandpa’s friends have numbers on their arms?” The resulting discussion was very brief; it had little to do with history, and dealt more with my asking the wrong question at the top of my lungs. But I was told that these were survivors of the Holocaust, and that they should be treated very kindly and gently. I think they adopted my grandfather because he had been very visibly maimed by the Cossacks in the run-up to the Russian Revolution, and they loved my grandmother, because she was so kind and was a wonderful cook; many of them ate very simply.
From these survivors, I learned a few things.
- Life could change very quickly.
- Hitler explicitly wrote and said what he was going to do, years in advance.
- People could not believe that Hitler could come to power in a democratic election
- The rich people sat the election out on the theory that they would make deals with Hitler once he gained power.
- Once Hitler gained power, he did everything he said he was going to do, and more.
- The day that they lost their citizenship and human rights dawned like any other.
- Everyone tried to save themselves, but most died trying — or of depression, or of disease, or of starvation, or of bullets, or of gas.
- They survived for a reason — to tell young people like me that it should never happen again.
- Always support the State of Israel, because it will be your home when America spits you out, as it will in time.
I believed them, little Zionist that I was. Now, of course, things look different. Israel is not a place for Jews like me. So, what’s left is America. And who appears when I check off the first few boxes on the above checklist? You know, exactly.
So, for me, this election is not about good or bad policies, ways of governing, styles of leadership. This is about life and death. And it’s about those elderly people, thirty-five years ago, who had a message to convey to me as a little boy. Never again.
On Yom Kippur, my former synagogue would substitute for the traditional Martyrology a Kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust. The words of the Kaddish were interspersed with the names and places of the victims of extermination. Today, I am interspersing its words with the names of unarmed black people killed by U.S. police in 2015. My source for this information is http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed/.
di v’ra khir’utei
v ‘yam’likh mal’khutei
uv’chayei d’khol beit yis’ra’eil
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh
l’alam ul’al’mei al’maya
Michael Lee Marshall
James Karney, III
v’al kol yis’ra’eil
hu ya’aseh shalom
Billy Ray Davis
v’al kol Yisrael
May the One who dwells on high make peace for us, all Israel, and all who dwell on earth.
And let us say, Amen.
This poem expresses what I think of as the Leaver mindset—the pastoral nostalgia of fascists.
Sally is gone that was so kindly,
Sally is gone from Ha’nacker Hill.
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly
And ever since then the clapper is still,
And the sweeps have fallen from Ha’nacker Mill.
Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation
Spirits that loved her calling aloud:
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.
Spirits that call and no one answers;
Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers
And never a ploughman under the Sun.
Never a ploughman. Never a one.
—Hilaire Belloc, 1923
After a year of my working with my Basic Literacy student, the program did an official evaluation of her progress. The main gain was in reading, on which I had focused pretty relentlessly. She’d gone up three reading levels; given the wide tranches of the evaluation system, this means that she started at about a third-grade reading level and ended up at a high school level. Other gains were less obvious, and there were a few goals we’d never gotten to, but on two hours a week for a year, I think she did well.
I mention this not to apply for a medal, but because it validates something I have believed since I started tutoring back in 2010: one-on-one tutoring is by far the most effective means of moving students ahead. It is one of those things where the apparent high cost of extending individual services is mitigated by the high cost of traditional remediation and the increasing penalties imposed by governing and certifying agencies for student failure and non-completion of degree. Tutoring puts a human face on a college or organization, and gives the student the idea that someone cares about him or her. There is no better way of giving a student confidence.
I am not a great motivator; I cannot make someone who doesn’t want to be there suddenly care. But give me someone who knows that they’re in trouble, and that reading and writing are barriers to what they hope to achieve, and I am good to go.
I am under no illusions about administrators’ search for a zero-ongoing-costs solution. There will eventually be robots in the tutor role, and that’s all students are going to get, because it’s easier for a bureaucrat to have a one-time-expense of $150,000 for a robot than to keep paying a few people what’s now $15 an hour year after year. But I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.
From 1993 until last week, I interviewed high school students for admission to Yale, under the aegis of a branch of the Admissions department called the Alumni Schools Committee (ASC). For the first twenty years, it was a rewarding experience, one where I saw immense possibilities for some students and hoped that Yale could help make those possibilities happen. I worked hard in my interview reports to convey who and what the students were. About five or six years ago, I got a Lucite paperweight and a certificate from the ASC, indicating that I had done better than expected.
In the year or two after, the students took on a different character. There were many fewer given to me, and those were most often students who had been programmed with activities and spurred to excel by well-meaning but desperate parents. I saw only one student from that time who actually seemed capable of changing the world. The competitive world of college admissions meant that many were now provisionally admitted, through a little bit of legalistic chicanery, before an interviewer ever came on the scene, rendering my role almost superfluous. And I had a shock when, after many years, I was put into the same room as my fellow interviewers and discovered that all the stereotypes of Yalies had instantly come true. Representative was one jowly man, slightly older than me, wearing a tailored navy-blue Brioni suit, who worked for UBS, and who was very concerned lest he and his colleagues be held responsible for the financial collapse of the country. “She’s going after our people!” he said of Elizabeth Warren, with no small outrage. As the prophet Hosea put it, “You are not my people.”
The final thing that made me think about leaving interviewing was that, due to new rules, quite sensible, I could not interview in my home. I am an independent contractor, and have no office of my own. The ASC local director was kind enough to ask a fellow interviewer, a very high-powered lawyer in an international firm, whether I could use some of the lawyer’s office space. It was palatial, taking up the top floor of a skyscraper. There were huge, marble walls, enormous volumes of space, marble topped conference tables, and a conference room looking out fifty miles to the mountains to the east. The office manager offered me food, soda, and water whenever I came in. I felt like an imposter whenever, at home, I put on my one acceptable suit, knotted my bulldog tie, and, a half hour later, ushered a student into the panoramic conference room. I felt as though I was conveying a rather Mephistophelean message: cast your lot with Yale, and all earthly success shall be yours. Given that I was a glaring example of that not happening, I felt completely out of place, especially given how deferential the students were after they gaped at the panoramic conference room.
Last year, I had to do something I had never had to do before: ask ASC to reassign a student. Foolishly, I had forgotten that the AAAS conference was at the same time as the crunch interviewing week. I was upset about it, but that turned to relief in a very short time. This year, I had one student reassigned due to my being sick, and realized I didn’t want to interview anymore. I got a nice note from the ASC director, but now I am free.
I am not sure how to give back to Yale anymore—I surely cannot do so financially. The Yale of today seems fundamentally different from 25 years ago. Perhaps Yale needs more interviewers from younger generations. Perhaps Admissions will rely more on computers to home in on the precise data that determine a successful applicant, and fewer interviews will be needed. For now, I can take off the wolf’s mantle of “success,” and try to be more consistently who I am.
“To make them fight the better, it seems they had been told that the Americans, against whom they were warring, were not (like the Europeans) Christians and gentlemen, but mere savages, a race of Cannibals who would not only tomahawk a poor Hessian, and haul off his hide for a drum’s head, but would just as lieve barbecue and eat him as they would a pig. “Vat! Vat!” cried the Waldeckers, with eyes staring wild and big as billiard balls, “Vat! eat Hessian man up like vun hock! Oh mine Got and Vader! vot peoples ever been heard of eat Christian man before. Vy! shure des Mexicans mush be de deble.”
“This was Hessian logic: and it inspired them with the utmost abhorrence of the Americans, to whom they thought the worst treatment much too good.”
I think we can see both British and Hessians in our own community — our community of Americans, who were the butt of such logic and such treatment centuries ago. So soon we all forget.
I knew that something was seriously wrong when KUSC, the classical radio station in LA, devoted yesterday to the music from Star Wars. Every hour on the hour, some evidence of John Williams’s inept theft from Wagner, Holst, and Walton was brought forth. Is there a difference between the Throne Room music from No. 4 and Walton’s Spitfire Prelude? Yes. The former does not even appropriate the latter; it just despoils its chords. Handel showed composers how to appropriate when he took an undistinguished Italian Magnificat and turned it into the eight-part antiphonal choruses of the latter part of Israel in Egypt.
But this whole Star Wars phenomenon is manufactured consent, mass games (in the North Korean sense) — the clutch of mass marketing to create a sacramental event, one which is partaken in by everyone the way we all partake of Christmas, whether we are co-religionists or not. Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 6 are pilpul — worthless commentary and padding on Nos. 4 and 5. Fans talk about “the expanded Star Wars universe” — which is essentially midrash, the agglomeration of prosaic explanatory content. In the same way as we do not need to know that Moses’s speech impediment was due to an angel’s providentially guiding him towards putting a hot coal in his mouth, we do not need to know that the spongy mystical Force of the universe is actually due to a physical factor in someone’s blood. The appeal of the first two movies was that they explained very little, being so very visual in their idiom and in debt to the laconic Western. Children could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. Very little was left to the imagination by the end of the prequels. It had all been spelled out, in video games and novelizations and fan fiction, so that now it was a canon that could be believed, taught, and confessed. There are few devotees now able to say “Credo quia absurdum” in the Augustinian sense. They may be reminded by the science popularizers of what kind of unit a parsec is, but since they are unaccustomed to measuring distances in parsecs, the word reverts to the way it is used in the script.
I think I am going to take a pass on this one and go to a Met HD broadcast before its audience dies out.
Earlier this week, Kathryn Stott, a junior New Yorker writer, experienced the most amazing succès d’estime. Her takedown of Henry David Thoreau, some 153 years dead, was so effective that virtually everyone of my Facebook acquaintance now has a visceral hatred of the man. It’s as if he had committed some unspeakable crime, like marriage with one’s own granddaughter. To mention a passage I had actually read – say, the one about “sleepers” from Walden – was akin to liking Woody Allen films. Needless to say, I made no friends that day or since on the basis of my getting through both volumes of the Library of America’s Thoreau, even though I was willing to admit that his poetry was not of the best.
I’m not going to make a pro-Thoreau argument, other than to say that if you have not spent a Sunday morning in a sunny alcove reading A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, you are missing out on a very pleasant and edifying experience. Rather, what all this brings up is mob mentality – I doubt that any of my acquaintances had his or her mind changed about the books – and the evergreen question of, if we have Thoreau cop a plea on Stott’s charges, can we allow the contributions of Bad People into our culture or our canon?
My sense is that if we expunged the Bad Chaps, we would have such holes in the tissue of our culture that all those missing Greek tragedies would seem a trifling loss. Certain high-achieving people, be they poets or CEOs, have a “Why do I care what other people think?” mentality, and that can lend itself to brilliant originality, despicable sociopathy, or both. Richard Wagner comes to mind. But just think of a world without musicians like Schwartzkopf, von Karajan, or Orff – or a world in which the U.S. had neither missiles nor a space program, courtesy of a von Braun who had been justly executed as the outcome of his denazification proceedings.
A Bad Chap, politically unsound, beyond the pale of civilized behavior – haven’t we seen these kinds of purges before? In Russia and China, they have been state-sponsored, but they have been taken up as amateur sport on the Internet and in academia. Eventually, when deciding to expunge someone’s work, you get to the same hollow justifications that they came to in Russia and China – “because he was in a textbook”; “because the previous generation valued him”; “because he told people what to do with themselves.” And at that point, it will be up to posterity to find the holes in the historical record.
For now, I am taking a vacation from Facebook and taking up my Thoreau again. “O Death, where is thy sting, O Stott, thy victory?”
The world’s terrors are without number, but none is more terrible than man.
Dr. Elizabeth Bennett
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697
Dear Dr. Bennett:
In the course of job applications, I have recently requested transcripts from my undergraduate institution, Yale, and my graduate school, UCI. Both were obtained through the National Student Clearinghouse. The Yale transcript cost $7, without a convenience fee. UCI’s cost $17, with an additional convenience fee of $2.65.
I realize that it may be a point of Anteater pride, but surely you do not believe that UCI’s transcript is worth two-and-a-half times the price of Yale’s! Insofar as I can tell, the quality of the data, paper, and ink is the same. Given that I may require a dozen of these documents in the next six months, the added expense is both real and onerous. Please consider this when setting your fees.
Respectfully, Jonathan Cohen, MA ’91
[I have received no response to this message.]
1. The things that make life most worth living are “cost centers.”
2. One is human exactly insofar as one does not fit into someone else’s “business model.”
A little over two decades ago, I signed a loyalty oath. In exchange for employment by the University of California, I pledged to “protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States of America and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The loyalty oath was a relic of the McCarthy era, and there is an entirely unpleasant episode in University of California history, from 1949-1951, in which non-signers were dismissed. It was entirely clear to me that to HR, the oath was a formality I was supposed to sign in an instant and hand over. But I thought for a long time about whether I could sign it in good faith, “without mental reservation.” In the end, I signed. Allegiance to a Constitution is allegiance to a principle, although I did not foresee the possibility of future amendments with which I might disagree. Allegiance to a flag is trickier — we are taught to pledge it every morning of our elementary school life, although I suspect for many children it is just a succession of syllables that one has gotten right if one has mastered the intonation. (I think Messaien, who notated birdsong, could have gotten a creditable piece out of the raw pitches of the Pledge of Allegiance.)
Loyalty to a flag is the subject of a kerfuffle at my alma mater. Some students in UCI student government patched together and passed a very poorly written piece of legislation removing all flags, but pointedly that of the United States, from a display area. What seemed like an enunciation of principle to them was anathema to others; I think that high in the minds of administrators was the awful prospect of being a Fox News headline for weeks or months. The Chancellor wrote the only letter he could have written, castigating the students and promising more and better flags at UCI “before too long.” Fox News approved. Unfortunately, its viewers did not get the message, and are now threatening the students with death.
Obviously, the students had their principles, enunciated them, and could do so freely — although their bill, once passed, was vetoed by another committee. But the question I have is counterintuitive: by choosing to go to a public university, did the students incur any obligation, however small, of loyalty to the institution, the State, or its symbols? If that obligation existed, was it large enough to be given any place in their thinking? Or was their attending UC a consumer choice, like selecting Levis jeans over Wranglers, and where one doesn’t give the jeans a second thought unless one has an unusually positive experience? Is attending a state school — the only Federal colleges and universities are military — any different in its requirements on the conscience than attending a private school?
The University of California has done its best to make the relationship between it and its students purely commercial. Its financial exactions on students are so great that there can be no reservoir of good will out of which loyalty might spring. Instead, students hand over their money (whether their own or the banks’), wash their hands, and move on. In exchange, say the Governor and the President, they will get a meal ticket to capitalist society. It is a quid pro quo transaction all the way; I can foresee a time when you can buy that meal ticket directly without the hindering formalities of professors and classes. As for the human emotion of loyalty, if it should still exist, the University has subcontracted its handling to its athletic department and its alumni association, both of which are here to extract still more money from students.
Because of this economic relation, which stunts the emotional relation, where can one find loyalty? In a world where the Presidentially lauded STEM disciplines do not, in fact, lead to jobs as a certainty — think of engineers after the “peace dividend,” or computer programmers deracinated and displaced by hungry H1-B visa-holders — is there really even an economic contract between student and university?
So, I think that there is a generational gap between me and the drafters of the anti-flag bill. Even before I signed the loyalty oath, I had a sense that the University had given more to me than I could possibly give it in return. If the United States and the State of California made it possible, I owed something to them. Despite the idealism of the drafters of the flag bill, I don’t think they felt they owed anything to the University, the State, or the United States. Thanks to institutional greed and governmental defunding, the drafters felt themselves to be free agents. That is a heady jumping off point from which to mount a critique — one from which it is too easy to fall.
Tim Parks is a man who is pissed off because he had to do the footnotes for his own book. Big whoop. “It’s all available on the Internet, so why give page numbers?” Answer: Do you know how many dead sites there are on the Internet? Do you know how many “big” sites we all relied on are either gone or will be gone? Do you know how terrible the Internet Archive’s coverage really is once you start trying to use it for something useful? Do you know how often the “redundant,” “distributed” cloud services like Amazon AWS fail? Do you remember when Google just dropped its news reader service, used by countless millions? You probably don’t, Mr. Parks. Books are the original distributed database, seeded throughout the world in “austere libraries.” Wipe out one library, burn one book, the rest are still there. So put in those page numbers, and STFU.
While flying late this summer, I noticed while boarding that most of the passengers were frequent flyers, of the Gold, Silver, Platinum, Titanium, Molybdenum, Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby, and Peridot varieties. They all boarded first, followed by customers of various airline alliances, followed by people who had paid $21 to follow them, followed by the ragtag rabble such as myself. My brother, who just missed out on Platinum this year, has explained that because all the airlines have merged, all their frequent flyer programs have merged as well. This has the effect of creating a permanent underclass of infrequent leisure travelers. I suppose, if there is anything to be thankful for, it is that the airline I flew did not arrange for passengers to deplane in order of rank, as I would have surely died of apoplexy.
When we first moved to Southern California, one of the biggest challenges was finding a synagogue. We found to our dismay that a great deal of the problem centered around money. Synagogues are not like churches, where the plate is passed every time worship happens. Rather, you give all your money up front, in the form of a membership, which includes the right to enter the synagogue and worship on the holiest days of the year: the High Holidays. We did not have that kind of money as graduate students — thousands of dollars — and so we were at pains to find someplace to worship on the High Holidays. The synagogue with which we have been affiliated since then was good enough to give tickets outright to those with university IDs. But on graduation, we ran into the same problem. Luckily, by that point, we had found the synagogue choir, and were enthusiastic participants. There were a few years of pushback from the Rabbi, as my wife is not Jewish, but we had a wonderful time singing with other members, who became our friends. Once we put on the white robes, no one asked us for tickets. But there were the occasional attempts to “make us legal” — to take us on as scholarship cases to whom membership was donated. I accepted this — it seemed to make people happy — until one night, the synagogue secretary called and said that we needed to send money — that the synagogue had been keeping track of the money it had spent on us and wanted more of a contribution from us. To my disturbance, I found out that our seats did not have a marginal cost, which was next to nothing, but that the charity the synagogue had extended to us was in “real money.” In other words, real donors had put in real money to pay for the synagogue’s list price for the seats. And at some point, we would be expected to pay the synagogue back. It was an impossible situation, but our friends in the choir smoothed it over, in the interests of our staying. So we stayed for a few more years. But one year, the nature, function, and experience of the choir changed in a permanent way, one which we could not accept. And my wife was simply too tired, after so many years, to get through the rehearsals. I struggled on for a couple more years, for my friends’ sake and for the sake of the seats, but I couldn’t do it. What finally ended it was that I lost my sense of pitch, and I could not hold a tune anymore.
In this way, our affiliation with the synagogue tapered off. One year, one of our friends asked the Rabbi why we weren’t there, and the next year we got tickets, but I am tired of living off charity. We’ve asked whether there’s some way of earning back our tickets in kind, but they are not set up for it. The truth is that we do not belong there; we will never have enough money to belong there and to pull our own weight. Everyone has been very, very kind to us — the Rabbi, the Cantor, our friends in the choir — but in the end, everything really is dependent on the money the synagogue brings in. They cannot operate the synagogue at the high level it’s attained, with a religious school, social action programs, a beautiful building, etc., if people get in for free more than once in a blue moon. We were in the choir for 15 or 16 years, but you can’t rest on your laurels forever.
So, this year, we’re going to do it ourselves, as we did in the past. We have the prayerbooks, we have the order of service, and we know where the singing goes, as choir members do. It is difficult to have the illusion of a communal experience, which these holidays truly must be. It is hard to pray alone, and to have a sense that it means what it did in the synagogue. But the fact is that charity, no matter how kindly offered, is double edged, and that someone always pays, somehow. We have gotten used to an experience that is better than we deserve, and now it is time to make our way according to our own deserts. In the end, perhaps we will be less distracted by the externals, and find in our own hearts and spirits that which we require. The U’netane Tokef prayer says, “But repentance, prayer, and righteousness may avert [God’s] severe decree.” One does not need infrastructure for any of those things, only an open heart and a willing mind. And it may be that God’s severe decree is coming for us, no matter how good our intentions, where we celebrate, or how much we pledge in the Kol Nidre Appeal. It would be so much simpler if we were an upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class all-Conservative-Jewish family with two great jobs and two kids. But if God had meant us to do things the easy way, and come in by the front door, he would have surely led us along that path. Our path is different.