Discordant Tombs

31_16-li-3_JosephRoth.jpg.6027788He said to his friend Stefan Zweig in 1933, just as Hitler took power, “now the word has died, and men bark like dogs.”

In the darkest of times “there are a handful who know, and they know everything”

Josef Roth knew everything. Everything except that he was a tzaddik nistarim and a lamed vavnik.

The most melancholic of men.he said. “I have no home…wherever I am unhappy that is my home.”

hofmann_1-122211_jpg_250x488_q85His alcohol consumption killed him. A constant cadger of debts he owed his closest friend for his constant support yet had no qualms about criticising him with a distinctive eloquence that would be crueler had he known of his friends suicide just four years after his own death in 1939.

Yet his most eloquent pleas for financial aid were for others than himself; a Polish seamstress whose work he admired; a German doctor facing the trip from Hamburg to Shanghai.

joseph_roth_photoAll very human in its sentiment, all with a comprehension of the catastrophic disaster tearing down the shredded edifices of western culture. He saw this clearly and wrote about it with pithy grace made more urgent by his disillusioned ardor for the remnants.





Jerzy duda gracz father


Some things that occur truly exhaust comprehension. Their addenda simply confuse and confound beyond any means leaving us blank at the barrier of our existence and that which proceeds beyond.

At the end of the Second World War, the father of the gifted Polish artist Jerzy Duda Gracz, arrested as a collaborator with the German assassins, was sentenced and executed. Eventually recognized by the Israeli nation as a Righteous Among Nations who had harbored seven Jews for several years under the pretext of collaboration, his life resurrected as a saint. Although the trade might provide but little consolation.


Franz Rosenzweig 2

A hundred years ago in October of 1913 Franz Rosenzweig prepared for his conversion to Christianity. Insistent that he convert as a Jew he attended Yom Kippur service. Adamant that ·he go through his Judaism into Christianity, not that he would break off from his Judaism.he said to his already converted cousins that he needed a little time longer to meditate on his decision. “I am a Jew”he said “and I want to understand the things from which I will be separated from by my conversion.” So for the first time he fully participated in the ten high holy days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. For him these became his ten days of return to Judaism

His journey to Damascus ended on the day of Yom Kippur. The call came like the sound of the shofar; suddenly and with a finality representative of authentic conversion. He remained a Jew, becoming the great philosopher of Judaism in the twentieth century.

On the Day of Atonement shrouded in his tallit, the ritual shawl, as he would be on the day of his death, the Jew stands alone before God, although he may be surrounded by others in prayer.The Jew stands resolutely as a man, nothing more, before a judgment that leads him to experience eternity within the confines of time. Rosenzweig said “To have found God is not an end but in itself a beginning”. To come to an understanding that consciousness establishes limits on our reason need not discredit the knowledge that the experience is a tremendum that can never be comprehended.   Rather it is a path to an intuitive grasp of the limitation of thought and an insight of the endless connection of all things.


In 1922 Frans Rosenzweig developed a degenerative paralyzing disease, ALS. In time he developed a tedious device for writing in which he would listen to his wife recite the alphabet and then blink at the correct letter for her to transcribe.

“And now it comes to me, the point of all points, which the Lord has truly revealed to me in my sleep, the point of all points, for which there-“ this was interrupted by a question from his doctor and shortly thereafter  Franz Rosezweig was dead, December 10 1929, and the sentence left unfinished.


Franz Rosensweig 1

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.

Death is not a thing many people wish to converse about. One starts to speak on it and the companion glazes over as though shot through with curare,their eyes flutter momentarily, instigated by the indignity of such a shadowing, the departure is swift, and the speaker left only with the faint odour of their anxiety.

“Love is only surpassingly sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object and the secret of this sweetness is only defined by the bitterness of death.”

Franz Rosensweig wrote this beautiful sentence.

F11511The thing is to bring a little bit of the Divine down to earth

Now I understand how aging affects every part of me and how transient is existence

My mother´s mother died, her heart worn too thin, when my mother reached fourteen. My mother died at age ninety, died on the second week after her birthday. My mother always spoke of her mother, Pauline, my maternal grandmother, with great reverence. I have seen a photograph of Pauline perhaps a dozen times, always the same photograph, so that I have come to believe only one existed. Who can tell me now who Pauline was, what she knew, what she did that wore out her pretty thin heart. Pauline is gone. Who actually viewed her exhaustion, fueled with frustration as she tried to organize transport out of the Pale for distant cousins and neighbors as well as for her family? My mother has the tenuous existence of the memory I possess of her. Soon I will die and my mother Rose will have no one left who remembers her.

I used to believe in forever, but forever is too good to be true  A A Milne

For I, who suffer a chronic, neurologic deterioration, sleep and its deprivation becomes the critical locus of an existential crisis. Deep in the black moments of the nocturnal wandering of sleep, one awakens in a moment and a choice arises-to sleep or not-that capriciously is not of our making. It becomes gradually clearer that the day is ours and the night is not. Sleep is god’s gift to us and in exchange we owe a gratitude we can only hope meets the largesse given us by the gift. What Rilke called the torn fabric of existence needs daily repair.

Given the frustrations and loss of functions wrought by age these present insurmountable impediment to any attainment of immortality. Even the inscription written by chisel on granite wears into oblivion. The tailor needs to refine technique and finesse in the tiny needle to hold the cloth intact. A terrible tremor seizes the withering limbs, their strength and architecture dissipate, frailty and enervation do not dispose themselves easily to mirth and contentment, and all, as the author of Ecclesiastes writes, is meaningless.

Even then the allure of vanity maintains its hold. Through ever dimming and clouded eyes, despite the evidence of an increasingly sharp odour of decay, the gentleman turns himself obliquely to the mirror and imagines, what? Certainly not the shadow that presents itself…”and he shall rise up at the sound of the bird and all the daughters of music shall be brought low.”


I seek to wander without burdens.We wear our mortality as a coat of strings and stones.

While my body begins to wither my heart grows massive.Or so it seems.  My daughter´s heart weighed two hundreds fifty grams at her death. I cannot measure the weight I feel in my chest

We need art, writes Nietzsche, lest we perish from the truth.

One of our greatest artists, the composer Gustave Mahler, lamented that he was three times homeless, as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew everywhere in the world.

Is this lamentation not a signature of the Jewish mind? Is there not a constant, the crisis of faith, and is not faith rightly to be carefully considered as a gnosis. So The Law becomes the essential, The Law defines our lives; It is neither doctrine nor religion.

Here is a Jewish story.

In New York City, I lived for many years in an exceptional building called the Belnord. Built in the early twentieth century by a consortium of wealthy Jews whose rejection from living space on Fifth Avenue had inspired them to construct the most illustrious building in New York City, they had succeeded magnificently, and the building on the upper west of Manhattan continues to stand as a classic of elegant architecture.its stature indisputable to this day. Built around an interior courtyard as large as a football field, its Florentine inspired design takes up the entire quadrant from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue between eighty sixth and eighty seventh streets


In my time it housed many illustrious and talented people in the arts; Joseph Heller, Bruce Davidson, Zero Mostel, Byron Browne, Theodore Upmann, Isaac Bashevis Singer. The management ownership for twenty years had worked to destroy its magnificence. While its infrastructure was a mess; (the elevators slipped continually, forcing my daughter to avoid them and to climb the ten floor up to our apartment); the elegance of the edifice was indestructible. The entire neighborhood declined into shabbiness. And the two avenues to the east became dangerous. So the rent was affordable. Bruce and Emily Davidson introduced me to Isaac Singer and his wife Alma. Alma worked at Bonwit Teller (I believe) and I had sympathy for her immediately. Isaac wrote in Yiddish, went down to the Famous Dairy cafeteria, and had a manner that intimidated me.

One day I came into the courtyard, my daughter on my shoulders and brown paper shopping bags in my fist. I had just seen the headline in the papers that Isaac had won the Nobel Prize, making him famous, rich and even more intimidating. Alma was rushing off to her floor clerk job when we met. She stopped me and said “Mr. Leventhal, what a wonderful man you are.” I congratulated her on the Prize. She repeated what she had said as though she had not heard me ,adding, “You always go everywhere with your beautiful daughter on your shoulders, and to the shopping and I know from an article I read that you cook for her too.”

Then she raised her chin and looked up at the sky as though searching there for a number she could just not make out. She sighed. “Mr. Leventhal, mine Isaac has never carried a shopping bag in his life.” And then she was gone.

I stood there for a few moments. Then it came to me that those who carry, shlepping we say, do not win prizes.