From the Hampton University website: “The year was 1861. The American Civil War had shortly begun and the Union Army held control of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. In May of that year, Union Major General Benjamin Butler decreed that any escaping slaves reaching Union lines would be considered “contraband of war” and would not be returned to bondage. This resulted in waves of enslaved people rushing to the fort in search of freedom…. In order to provide the masses of refugees some kind of education, Mary Peake, a free Negro, was asked to teach, even though an 1831 Virginia law forbid the education of slaves, free blacks and mulattos. She held her first class, which consisted of about twenty students, on September 17, 1861 under a simple oak tree. This tree would later be known as the Emancipation Oak and would become the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.”
Indeed, the Emancipation Oak still stands on what is now the campus of Hampton University, where President Obama was this year the commencement speaker. There, the Times reports, Obama was given by William R. Harvey, the university’s president, a seedling from the oak; that seedling will be planted at the White House.
Bear with me, please. Two more snippets from last weeks Times: The New York Philharmonic, in its 15000th concert, performed an all-Stravinsky program — as did Igor Stravinsky himself, as conductor, on the occasion of his American debut on January 8, 1925. Even cooler: Performing a largely Mendelssohn (1809-1847) program the other evening at Lincoln Center, Yo-Yo Ma (playing with Emanuel Ax and Itzhak Perlman), in the Adagio from the Cello Sonata in D, used the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius, the same cello used by Mateusz Wielhorski with Mendelssohn in the audience.
What connects these vignettes is the magic of associative memory, of being in the present but feeling there the presence of the past. That is rather different from the performance of ancient rituals, which can easily come to feel routine and which, in any case, give the past the upper hand. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with routine. There are times when it is most welcome, often times of distress or disconcert, sometimes of celebration. The routine of shiva is an obvious example, and so is the sound of the ritual glass breaking at the end of a wedding ceremony. But routine easily grows stale. Words that were powerful the first time and the second come to lose their punch by the 20th or 40th time you hear them, say them.
Some people have the gift (or skill) of kavanah, a capacity for intentionality even in the recitation of the most familiar and most often repeated prayers. But for myself, and I dare say for most of us, the meaning of the words — even if the words are rendered in English — has long since expired. Only in extremely unusual circumstances does their recitation provide the kind of eureka moment my introductory vignettes describe.
One cannot prowl about in search of eureka moments. Part of their sparkle is how they occur without warning, taking you unawares, something like encountering a dear old friend entirely out of predictable context (unless you have forgotten the old friend’s name). Often, as in the vignettes, the association goes unnoticed unless it is explained. Still, associations can be searched out, as we often do when we play “how many degrees of separation” or “Jewish geography” on making a new acquaintance.
Once, years ago, I was in a cab in New York with two friends — one a cousin from Jerusalem, one a businessman from Louisiana. It didn’t take long for us to discover that all three of us had roots in the same town in what we then called “Bessarabia,” now called “Moldova.” Pow! The cab driver stopped, looked at us, and introduced himself as from that town. And he was actually born there, whereas the three of us were talking about our parents and grandparents.
For that kind of thing to happen, you have to know where you come from. It’s said that if you don’t know where you are going, you can’t get lost. Perhaps it’s also true that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t connect past and present. That doesn’t mean you’re lost, but it does mean you lose. You can, of course, still have the vicarious pleasure that comes of learning that Yo-Yo Ma played a particular and memorable cello, that the New York Philharmonic at its 15,000th concert coincidentally recalled a concert performed 85 years earlier, that the seedling of a very special tree will be planted at the White House.
There’s yet another seedling scheduled for planting at the White House. It’s from the horse chestnut tree that stood outside the annex where Anne Frank and her family hid for more than two years. After describing the tree, Anne wrote, “When I looked outside right into the depth of nature and God, then I was happy, really happy.” Seedlings from that tree, which so helped raise Anne’s morale, are scheduled to be planted in ten additional American places: the Boston Common, thanks to a request to Boston’s mayor from an 11-year-old researching what project she might undertake for her bat mitzvah; the William Jefferson Clinton Library in Little Rock; Holocaust centers in Seattle, in Farmington Hills, Mich., another at Sonoma State University in California, whose exhibit was created by an Auschwitz survivor who attended school with Anne, and in Boise, Idaho, whose statue of Anne was vandalized by a white supremacist group; the World Trade Center in New York; the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; Central High School, in Little Rock; the Southern Cayuga Central School District in upstate New York, hard by the birthplace of the women’s rights movement.
And let us say, quietly, Eureka!