A Jewish Reflection on Christmas

Me with Rosa Christmas morning. I’m wearing Jack Kerouac T-shirt Barb got me. Got yarmulke on as it fits raving below. I got Barb bed sheets (we’ve been sleeping on schmattas) and cutting boards at Bed Bath & Beyond, and she’s taking it all back to re-buy with coupons! (The art of shopping has always been lost on me.) If I look a little pale here, I’m feeling a little raggedy trying to get over an illness. Best of health, y’all!

 

I don’t read much poetry and maybe that’s why I never taught it much. There are poems I love: Yeats’ apocalyptic “The Second Coming,” Gary Snyder’s zen “Hay for the Horses,” Frost’s pristine “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” among them. The poet is a magician smashing through common reality to find the crystalline truths and subtler complexities. Half the time I can’t get through a poem in The New Yorker, or I feel I’m reading with the foggy lens of the poetry-challenged. Except, as I say, for breakthrough moments, when a poem simply reaches out and grabs me.

I found out about “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” at Cleveland State University, where I girded my loins for the battle of teaching high school English.

As well as earn a post-baccalaureate teaching certificate, I had to take English courses. My Columbia transcript didn’t have enough of them. That dubious sheepskin, reflective of my New York dissolution, was bespattered with the acne of many poor marks, including an F in an Old Testament study class that was one of the first Religion courses I signed up for. At Cleveland State, during this new incarnation of Robert Gitlin, Scholar, I took school seriously. How hopeful I was, how naive, at 49, in my expectations of a career (a second one, after being a freelance journalist) that would finally suit me and come with a steady paycheck!

And what a reader I was! I had a day job proofreading legal documents. It was one of my three jobs. I also helped out on the cutter at my wife’s dad’s carpet warehouse, and was a barista at the Borders café. After getting out of Baker & Hostetler, red eyed from squinting at retirement plans and wills, I trudged through snow storms up Chester Avenue, humping a book-jammed backpack, from 9th Street all the way to Cleveland State. I did all the reading assigned in both Education and English courses. Not all the students did. I just didn’t want to blow this campaign to get a new career, there was some vindication riding on this new round of school, and furthermore I sensed that marvels lay in store, not just for the budding pedagogue but the Renaissance Man bent on learning about the world.

I took a survey course in American Literature, taught by the learned and congenial Prof. Gary Engel. He sat cross legged in his sandals on the desk at the front of the room as he casually lectured us. From our Norton anthology he directed us to a Longfellow poem inspired by the bearded icon’s 1852 visit to a moribund New England temple and adjacent graveyard.

I was never the same.

This poem — written by a gentile! — helped me learn about my own heritage.

My wife wonders why I’m so obsessed with being Jewish, or Jewish enough. I understand her perplexity. I don’t know Hebrew; I mumble phonetic transliterations from the siddur when I go to shul. My diet is a far cry from kosher.

But this poem reached out and grabbed me in my Jewish heart. It grabs me still, coalescing as it does my own understanding of suffering as well as my debt to my forebears.

It is not an intellectual gift that sustains this hoary tribe but a shared ancestral memory and an injunction to repair the world. This poem, memorializing a ghost race staggering through the millennia, prefigures the worst horror we would suffer. It prefigures Israel. Yet it’s fresh and contemporary.

See if you agree.

There will be no quiz.

 

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

by HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

 

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,

Close by the street of this fair seaport town,

Silent beside the never-silent waves,

At rest in all this moving up and down!

 

The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep

Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind’s breath,

While underneath these leafy tents they keep

The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

 

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,

That pave with level flags their burial-place,

Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down

And broken by Moses at the mountain’s base.

 

The very names recorded here are strange,

Of foreign accent, and of different climes;

Alvares and Rivera interchange

With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

 

“Blessed be God! for he created Death!”

The mourners said, “and Death is rest and peace;”

Then added, in the certainty of faith,

“And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease.”

 

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,

No Psalms of David now the silence break,

No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue

In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

 

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,

And not neglected; for a hand unseen,

Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

 

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,

What persecution, merciless and blind,

Drove o’er the sea — that desert desolate —

These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

 

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,

Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;

Taught in the school of patience to endure

The life of anguish and the death of fire.

 

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread

And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,

The wasting famine of the heart they fed,

And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

 

Anathema maranatha! was the cry

That rang from town to town, from street to street;

At every gate the accursed Mordecai

Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

 

Pride and humiliation hand in hand

Walked with them through the world where’er they went;

Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,

And yet unshaken as the continent.

 

For in the background figures vague and vast

Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,

And all the great traditions of the Past

They saw reflected in the coming time.

 

And thus forever with reverted look

The mystic volume of the world they read,

Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,

Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

 

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!

The groaning earth in travail and in pain

Brings forth its races, but does not restore,

And the dead nations never rise again.

(Poem courtesy of poetryfoundation.org, but it can be found in lots of other places.)

 

How well Longfellow intuits the long myth of the Jews.

And how uncannily his portrayal of a wounded nation staggering on, somehow indomitable, reflects my own struggle.

I am on the brink of deciding this will be my last year teaching. It is a rueful calculation. I have been served one degradation too many by literacy-challenged teens and helpless lapses in my own judgment. The plain fact is that I don’t know how to teach them. I have learned my lesson after years of getting my nose flattened in the arena of my incompetence. So, a decade and a half after that brave start studying for this very career in Cleveland, I’m getting out after next semester. Maybe it’s the not the career I was suited for after all. I tried.

I’ll work more at my other job, which is very physical.

It’s undignified to have to work so hard when you’re old. Sometimes I do flirt with bitterness. If I was on the cover of Forbes I’d be in L.L. Beans, hewing perfect canoes for sale and recreation in the Adirondacks, living the dream. My reality is I’ll have to ask Walmart to give me 40 or 32 hours a week to see me through, until I finally collect Social Security benefits. Suze Orman said in the AARP magazine you should try to slug it out till you’re 70 ½.

Next year I’ll start getting some help when I begin collecting my little teacher pension.

But I’m bedraggled. I’ve lost a step, had a few health scares. I fight fatigue and lately illness.

I surprise myself, hearing my voice share in AA meetings about how I’m happy.

But I am.

Happiness is not a “right” so much as an everyday miracle. I am happy having dinner with my wife, seeing her Sophia Loren cheekbones over our joint musings about our respective work lives. Happy as I lead my snuffling dog on a walk, communing with her simple zeal for the actual world. Happy when I realize that even when people hate me I can rise above it. Happy to realize there is nothing left but to forgive myself for all the stupid mistakes and regrets. Nothing can stop me from enjoying the gift of this life or sour my ability to love. I can snarl and kvetch with the best of them, but I’ll be there for you.

An old AA coot, a gruff old Jew who built a Twelve Step club here in Prescott, Arizona, once said, “God never answered my prayers for money or to win the lottery. But whenever I asked Him for courage or patience, I got it.”

I don’t know whether that’s sufficient lead-in for this, my Jewish Christmas wish, but here goes:

Let us come together to spread peace and good will over this tortured land. For with our resolve we will be, like Longfellow’s Hebrews, the unshaken continent.

Tikkun olam.

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