The tradition of my Fathers is an acceptance of a pre-existent reality. It may be hidden, but even obscured it is mysteriously active. The Thirty Six Righteous Ones opened my heart again. Then I realized I had been practicing all this time the acceptance that consciousness comes to us and that the reality beyond reality is the perimeter beyond which we cannot go. Except to live as a Righteous One.
My paternal grandfather and grandmother met one evening in a socialist coffee-house in the town of Czernowitz, in Bukowina, for a weekly gathering of poets. There my grandmother went to read her poems. She traveled eight hundred kilometers from Lodz to read. My grandfather saw her enter the coffee-house and would not let her alone until she would marry him. He was an early member of the polish-lithuanian Socialist workers Bund although he had been earmarked in the yeshiva for the rabbinate.
Called the little Vienna, my father used to say of Czernowitz, “A first class city with first chair violinists.” He then added “Not an Ellmann or Heifitz among them.”
It did have in its diverse population a great poet named Paul Celan and a remarkable one named Rose Auslander and hundreds more. By the end of the Great War its population contained 50,000 Jews. Its cosmopolitan character was defined by Jewish linguistic diversity, with German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Romanian as major constituents.
In 1908 a major conference of intellectuals gathered there to debate whether Yiddish would be the national language of the Jewish people, with participants coming from many communities and states, the majority from Czarist Russia. The congress ended with an agreement: Yiddish would be but one of the possible languages, along with Hebrew.
Here, at the easternmost prospect of German speaking Jewry, like Ovid on the borderland of Empire and barbarian, language nationalism laid claim to a dominant intellectual position.
Czernowitz exists in the memory as a dream. Of course it was,and is, a real place. It continues in the imagination of the Jew as someplace that embodies the authentic Jewish experience, a projection of possibilities other than that which occurred, and as a “vanished” world erased by what did occur.
The Hebrew name for Poland, Polin, can be split into two words po (here) lin (you should dwell). From the tenth century on Poland became the homeland of European Jewry then it vanished, kaput, like that.
The absence of Jews and their culture in Europe resulting from their torture, slaughter and murder by Germans has had serious consequences for the level of discourse in the world. It has put to question the most fundamental principles of modern European Enlightenment. The apocalypse came without redemption, neither for the dead nor the living.
What followed obliterates all hope. What should have instigated a complete transformation of modern existence, that which had been engendered by the Enlightenment, in which we now so ungainly stagger, has been obscured by the atrocity of a culture which knows no limit to its depravity.
I did not have bar-mitzvah, nor had my father. My grandfather said some words in Hebrew at the dinner table which I did not understand. I have educated myself to understand my religious connections, perhaps with grotesque results.All I know is the deep affection I have for the black letters running along the parchment scroll that I don´t know how to read. (Follow this link.)
Here is a story about the Hebrew alphabet. “It is told of the rabbi that in an auto-da-fe he was wrapped in a scroll of the Torah and set on fire. Just before his death his students called to him, “Master, what do you see?” He answered “The parchment is burning, but the letters, the letters are flying up to heaven.”
The Hebrew alphabet is not simply of pen and ink and paper nor is it a collection of signs for sounds to utter. They are symbols whose internal dimensions and shapes and placement to one another in the words they form have a precise yet mysterious existence. This manifold existence creates a vast spiritual realm.
From Lodz in Poland and Czernowitz in Bukowina my family came first to London, England, and then to Montreal, Canada. From Montreal they came to New York. I was born, the second first-born son in America.. I loved the yiddishkeit world I eventually found. My grandfather took me to the Garden Cafeteria on Rutgers Street, near where the Forvitz newspaper published at 175 East Broadway. The lingua franca was, of course, yiddish. And what a Yiddish! Russian Yiddish, Galician, and Polish. The signs on the shopfronts bursting with letters, Hebrew letters adapted to Yiddish, as though they could barely contain all the information they intended. My grandfather was, by trade, a barber. Later, when I had my first studio at the corner of Christie Street and Division Street in Chinatown when I had returned from Paris it was a short walk to the Public Library on Rutgers Street where the shelves bulged with books on philosophy. My grandfather had difficulty grasping the painting of pictures as a job. So he told me to learn a journeyman´s trade.He picked up his barber´s tools, handed the small leather bag to me, and asked, “Have you ever tried to carry a plumber’s bag? A barber.You can go anywhere, quickly.” On Hester Street eating a pickle from Guss´ Pickle Shop with my grandfather made me bloom with a sense of the divine; a rich man with forty-five cents in his pocket.
What do I mean by the world beyond the world? I mean neither something scholastic nor fantastic. When the Eternal One sits with Abraham and discusses how many worthwhile inhabitants it will take to spare Sodom its incendiary fate Abraham bargains. Hashem starts at fifty worthy souls, settles for thirty and subsequently, for ten, and Abraham, unable to produce one, gives up his request. Sodom burns. This is not a fable. Abraham lives in the world beyond the world. He is one who has seen the Shekhina. In the world beyond the world the Divine presence is revealed, illuminated as the essence of the thing but it is that thing as well. Being that is. The Divine is the reality behind reality and its presence is everywhere. “The last messiah will be the one who has fathomed life on its cosmic ground, and whose pain is the Earth´s collective pain.”writes the philosopher. Moses delivered his people from bondage, endured their perfidy, and then after forty years, wandering in the desert, had no entrance into the Promised Land. Moses understood. Even so his heart must have seized in anguish.
A messiah has come many times and there is no entry into the Promised Land.
I am not anything but a painter of pictures. In these paintings I bring myself in awe of those who are the righteous ones.
Before the world of truth can appear, says the Rabbi, the world of lies must disappear.
So I start with the lamed vavniks.In the Talmud it is said that at any one time there are thirty-six special people in this world, who each day are priveliged to look upon the face of the Shekinah, the feminine aspects of God, and by whose presence, all thirty six of them, the world continues.If one of them disappeared, just one, the world would come to an end. The suffering they endure staggers imagination. They are receptacles for all the grief mankind manifests. When they arrive in heaven their souls are frozen, petrified by the suffering they endure, and God must sit by their side and warm them for a thousand years before they can enter paradise. For some who never warm their grief at human woe so inconsolable that even God cannot warm them and then, from time to time, God sets the clock of the last Judgement foward one minute.
The Talmud also speaks of a light, another light that the Eternal One made so penetrating, so intense, that Adam could see from here to the end of time. This light, the light of full consciousness, cannot but burn the eyes not ready. The Eternal One hid this light, replacing it with a paler, a weaker light, until such time as it can be endured. Adam had the light for thirty six hours. Obviouly, it is the light of illumination. There are thirty six candles on the chanuka menorah, their light a reminder of the light of illumination and understanding, and that holy event of the oil lasting eight days occurred thirty six centuries after Adam saw the light.
In the dark night of the soul despair is also a cry for repentence. A hidden redemptive source awaits awakening. In the months that followed my daughter´s death I could not cry. I felt like it, always. The tears would flush my face and swell behind my eyelids and remain there. Occasionally a large, single drop coursed my cheek and disappeared. It was as if I were a Sahara and while her loss tore my soul to shreds my soul would let me give up only the tiniest bit of moisture. Had I known the following story I might have given myself over to a more lachmyrose duty.
The narrative takes place in Syria. Amidst a terrible drought the rabbi called the congregation to synagogue and they prayed night and day for rain. No rain fell. The rabbi called for a fast and they fasted. When they asked for relief none came. In the back of the synagogue sat a shabby man, isolated and stumbling in the prayers A cobbler by trade. One night a voice came to the rabbi, saying ¨ The Eternal one will send rain only if Rahamin will lead the prayers of the synagogue.¨The rabbi said, ¨But he is a fool, an ignoramous. He is illiterate and sits in the back of the synagogue saying words that mean nothing. Besides in his home he does not keep kosher, and he cannot read so he does not follow the prayers.” Only silence.
The Rabbi had Rahamin sent for and told him that the next day he, Rahamin, would lead the prayers for rain. Rahamin protested, saying that he did not know how to pray, that his illiteracy kept him from understanding anything. The rabbi responded, tomorrow you will lead the prayers.
The next day, in a packed synagogue, the congregation looked to the bimah and to the ark that stood on it. They saw Rahamin standing before the Ark. He held an earthenware jug with two spouts in his hand. ¨Now I ask you may pray with all your might¨he said to the congregation.. The Ark was opened and the cries rose in crescendo so plaintive, so bitter, for teshuva. Then the cobbler held the jar up and put one eye to a spout opening and then the other to his ear. Immediately there came the tremendous sound of thunder and a soaking rain poured down. The Rabbi later asked Rahamin why he had brought the jar with him.
¨Rabbi, I am a poor, ignorant man. What I earn as a cobbler barely feeds my children.. Everyday they cry for food and I have very little to give them. When I hear their cries my heart breaks I too cry, and I collect my tears in this jar. When you asked me to come here to pray, I looked into the jar and said ¨Eternal one, if you do not send rain, I will break the jar in front of the whole congregation. Then I heard a voice that said, Ask again, when you stand before the congregation.¨So I did and I heard a voice saying ¨Do not break the jar.
And then it began to rain.”
I should have taken a ceramic jug and cried my tears to fill it.
¨The Baal Shem Tov speaks of a special group of at least thirty.six unkown righteous people whose devotion to Judaism keeps the world from being destroyed. The Talmud indicates that there may be one thousand more who experience Schekinah with permission because of self-sacrificing Mizsvot (adherence to the laws of the tablets Moses came down from Sinai and good deeds) and hundred more by Mitsvot (good deeds) and the force of prayer. For other reasons we might consider from the Talmud that the number reaches eighteen thousand. So there may be thirty-six and eighteen thousand Jewish and Gentile righteous souls in the world in every generation. The number does not act as a barometer on the spiritual health of the world says a chasidic Rabbi. I disagree. The Reform rabbis tell us that there are eighteen male and eighteen female righteous souls.
I heard the stories of “the vanished world” my entire childhood. The old ones spoke in aggrieved murmurs of such things nightly in our kitchen. The war ground on with overwhelming bad news. My father volunteered for the U: S: Navy and left. The news of the barbarity in the east became more and more ominous. In 1943 at Passover there came news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leaving us with a momentary lift of morale that soon dissipated in anguish so great it could not be spoken aloud, Too young to understand, my sister and I could only feel the apprehension, the slight moments of elation that quickly fell to despair. Looking at photographs of Jewish life in Galicia and Poland overwhelms me with a broken sadness, a despair torn and rent in my soul. Then I stop and the bewilderment, the gross astonishment that a million and a half children, Jewish children, were murdered. This fact sinks in and sinks and sinks without end and vertigo in reverse takes hold. I mourn them along with the untold numbers of Gentile children who were murdered on the same bloody ground. A favorite little boy smiles out from the photograph. I recognize him in others, always smiling. What is there to do except to cry.. A theodicy of these events goes nowhere.
My grandfather, whom I called Grandpa King David, (my maternal grandfather was Abraham), used to say to me that we are born to suffer. When he was not present my father would remind me: “ÿou know what your grandpa says, “you are born to suffer. One day I said to my father, a very conceited and handsome man, that he did not seem ever to suffer and he replied, his elegant hand pointed at me, “oh no,no…..you are born to suffer. So it is so.”
How is the world to be saved? What happens if there are less than thirty six?
It is my understanding that what we call God means something ineffable and beyond comprehension; a universal consciousness immeasurable and outside the brain and the mind. And certainly consciousness is outside of us itself. We receive it but cannot send it without its mediation by something more numinous, something beyond thought, but perhaps not a dream.
The task is simple. Do good in this world.Repair the rent fabric of our existence.Be humble in the fact of the Divine Consciousness, that which we feel as Holy.
Exile is a spiritual and cultural existence, and an emotional experience. I live as a stranger in the world, and the rootlessness I feel has its counterpart in the acceptance I receive.Always a conditional experience, exile also brings with it a sense of being in a world of confrontation with total indifference and a wasteland of ashes.
Is the mark of Cain upon my brow? As a Jew my tentative sojourn wherever it is carries with it a condemnation. And how can I speak of the unspeakable when even the survivors say that they could not believe what occurred around them. A finger of accusation points out of the dark and implies annihilation,