Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom


By Leonard Fein

Published June 18, 2004, issue of June 18, 2004.
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Contrary to the prevailing sentiment — and, for that matter, very substantial evidence — the sky is not falling down, nor is the world fatally ill. There is, in fact, cause for rejoicing.

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not about to deny the dour assessment of where the world is these days. I will spare you a list of all the ongoing scandals and tragedies, pretty much the world over. They are inescapable, so why review them yet again?

So, then, what’s to rejoice about?

Why, the wonders of American Jewish life. Yes, indeed. We may be worried sick about this and that, but here in Boston, the community’s schedule of major activities for the next month has just come through on my e-mail, distributed by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, our local federation — and it is cause for rejoicing.

How can one not smile in delight that within the very same week, there will take place an “Erev Pride Liberation Seder,” which “features a retelling and handing down of the story of gay liberation” and, just six days later — at no less august a site than the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum — a lecture by the remarkable scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz on the 10th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And though I’d suppose there will be very little overlap in the audiences, it is utterly delicious to be part of a community broad enough to encompass both events — and to live in a community whose federation publicizes both.

Some will perhaps conclude that what I have chosen to celebrate should in fact be lamented, as it is evidence of the confusions that abound in our community. Here gay pride, there Lubavitch. Yes, we are a confused community. Perhaps some day, we will all share one coherent world-view, down to its tiniest details. For myself, I shudder to think of such a day.

In the meantime, while we are still sorting out the consequences of the Emancipation, the Holocaust and the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, I stand with Mao: Let a hundred flowers blossom. None of us knows The Truth — and my best guess is that there is no The Truth. There are partial truths, and there are different truths that work for different people. Not only does it look and sometimes feels like chaos, it is objectively chaotic — but the profusion of blossoms is compelling evidence that am yisrael chai, that the people of Israel lives. For sure, some of the blossoms will never reach full flower, some will be gone before they are noticed. But equally for sure, there will be new blossoms, some hardy, all the time.

And yes, sometimes what we behold are not blossoms, but weeds. So it is and has always been. There are, after all, boundaries, even if we cannot say precisely where they are. But beware precise boundaries; the clarity they provide comes at too high a price, for they would surely constrict our growth.

Plus: More prosaically, but not a whit less meaningfully, the e-mailed schedule also includes an information session on Me’ah, an adult education program now in its 10th year. Me’ah, which is co-sponsored by Boston’s Hebrew College and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ commission on Jewish continuity, meets in diverse location in the metropolitan area — as it must, given that it currently enrolls about 1,000 students, each of whom commits to 100 hours of study over a two-year period. Such programs, as well as far more demanding ones, are growing in popularity across the country, ensuring at the least the development of a functionally literate cadre in our community.

Then there’s a bone marrow drive for a local woman, the sort of thing that has by now become a fairly familiar event across the country. Whatever the results — and I wonder whether anyone has data on how many matches these drives have produced, how many lives have been saved — it is heartening, every time, to learn of the response.

The last of the listed items, albeit by no means the only other Jewish thing happening in Boston in the course of the next month, is a performance of “Light Is Heard In Zig Zag,” performed by Israel’s Na Laga’at, an ensemble of deaf and blind actors — the only such in the world.

I write of Boston, where I live, and Boston is, in some respects, the most interesting Jewish community in America. But there are any number of creative and worthy projects all across the country. Many of these involve study, many involve the enduring pursuit of justice, Music, liturgy, voluntarism, synagogue reform, innovative philanthropy — all this and much, much more.

So, be at least of intermittently good cheer. As oppressive as is the daily news, there’s cause to be grateful, cause — and expansive and expanding room, too — to connect.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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