‘Victory,” John Kennedy famously said after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, “has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.”
But that was in 1961, before we were able to test paternity by DNA. The illusory victory of which President Bush babbles daily is a fatherless chimera. The defeat toward which he propels us has a fester of fathers. A friend glumly said to me the other day, “Well, I suppose we are living in interesting times.” He was referring, of course, to the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” The trouble with the reference is two-fold: It turns out, according to Chinese scholars of such things, that the phrase is not Chinese at all; more important, these times are decisively not interesting. They are boring, tedious. Intended as irony, the curse misses the current point; we are beyond irony.
So (as if you didn’t know it) there is good reason to be glum. Still, November 7 draws near, and we appear to be on the verge of a changing of the guard in Washington. There’s some comfort in that; a change of power cannot come too soon. But a change of power does not necessarily mean a change in leadership, a rather more elusive quality. Whether a Democratic Congress, if that is the happy news on November 7, can actually accomplish good things for the American people, as also for the other nations where we today muddle and meddle, remains to be seen.
What to do in the meantime? I am not, by nature, a crotchety type. I smile frequently, laugh easily, try not to judge harshly (until that becomes impossible), look forward more with hope than trepidation, and so forth. When glumness hits, I roll with it; when it lingers, a more direct and detailed response is required.
Here is what I do:
These days, I read, with delight, a book called “Born To Kvetch,” by Michael Wex. I’d passed it up for months, thinking from its title that it was no more than yet another vulgar put-down of the Jews, only to find that it is an elegant combination of the learned and the funny, a long essay on Yiddish and Yiddishisms that is more than entertaining, though it is surely that.
And I browse, with pleasure, the long overdue 25th-anniversary edition of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks. (I know: It’s unreasonable to assert that a 25th-anniversary edition of something is long overdue, but this is a book that induces unreason. As is one of the many hundreds of jokes they present, this one from Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”: “The novelist, what’s his name, Markfield, has written a story somewhere that until he was fourteen he believed ‘aggravation’ to be a Jewish word. Well, this is what I thought about ‘tumult’ and ‘bedlam,’ two favorite nouns of my mother. Also ‘spatula.’ I was already the darling of the first grade, and in every schoolroom competition expected to win hands down, when I was asked by the teacher one day to identify a picture of what I knew perfectly well my mother referred to as a ‘spatula.’ But for the life of me I could not think of the word in English.”)
Google “Jewish humor” and you will see that there are 8,800,000 entries. What’s the point? The Novak-Waldoks book you could finish.
The world, as we are taught, stands on three things. Frivolity is one. It is not the only antidote to the world “out there,” but neither is it merely… well, frivolous.
The second leg on which the world stands is the continuing surprise of the devotion of so many of our young people to the pursuit of justice. This generation, after all, grows up in the shadows of the “me” culture. But on my desk just now, for example, are materials from Telem: Jewish Youth Making A Difference Together, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. Working with area synagogues, Telem recruits Jewish teenagers to take part in an elaborate service learning program, the goal of which is to make the experience — tutoring, elder care, working with the homeless and hungry, or with people with disabilities or special needs — “a transformational rite of passage” for the participants. Three hundred youngsters are now part of the program, which integrates its community service component with learning about Jewish values and social justice issues.
Telem is, for the time being, unique, but it is only one of many bursts of energy in the arena of social justice work, both within the Jewish community itself and in the larger world. Its support comes, in part, from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish federation, and it is a lively refutation of such miserably shriveled (I want to say “constipated,” but this is a family newspaper) expressions as we’ve been hearing lately from people complaining that the Jewish philanthropic community has earmarked some of its postwar support in Israel for Israeli Arabs. That complaint has been decisively and eloquently rejected by John Ruskay, the CEO of New York’s UJA-Federation.
The third leg of consolation, for me, is music. Abraham Joshua Heschel described himself as a man “smitten by music,” and I understand that entirely. “I am neither a musician nor an expert on music,” he wrote, “but the shattering experience of music has been a challenge to my thinking on ultimate issues. I spend my life working with thoughts, and one problem that gives me no rest is: Do these thoughts ever rise to the heights reached by authentic music?”
They don’t, but that’s okay. Just listen, and laugh, and pursue justice. Help is on the way, and hope is already here.