Shtissel, Chaim Potok, and Me

My husband and I are finally watching the long-awaited third season of Shtissel, an Israeli TV series about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family living in Jerusalem. It’s a world most of us have never encountered. Although once you’re hooked, and you will be, trust me, the family’s trials and triumphs are universal. Shtissel is an artist, a painter. In his community that’s well-nigh verboten. Graven images and all that. This is a community where the men are expected to devote themselves to studying and living God’s Torah. Painting? Anathema. Nevertheless Shtissel walks the difficult middle path between two worlds.

My husband and I were talking about Shtissel’s dilemma which made me think of Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev. The eponymous Asher Lev is a struggling artist. Like Shtissel, he is caught between his community’s expectations and his determination to answer his soul’s call to paint. Thinking of Potok’s novels reminding me of the days I worked as the receptionist for Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. which at the time was coming out with Potok’s book Wanderings, A History of the Jews.

Not all of Knopf’s authors noticed the receptionist as anything but a lowly cog in the finely-assembled publishing house. But Chaim Potok took notice. He was always kind, always patient. He had       a gentle smile and a gentle manner. I was over-the-moon starstruck to meet the author of the novels I had devoured in high school. Our paths crossed twice more. In 1998 the author’s short story collection, Zebra and Other Stories, had just come out. I took my son, then 14, to hear and meet Potok at our Barnes and Noble. After his book talk, he was every bit as gracious to us as he autographed his book and chatted with us for a minute or two.

A year or so later I took a chance and wrote the author, asking him to consider writing a blurb for my book This Jewish Life. I knew it was a long shot and indeed he demurred. I still have his letter a reminder of a gentle man who cared as much about Jewish life and art as he did about treating his publisher’s receptionist with dignity and kindness.

Photo of Chaim Potok by Monozigote is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Photo of Debra Darvick courtesy of Martin Darvick.

What Comes First, The Answer or the Question?

In synagogue last week, we read a passage from Samuel that left us stunned by the unfairness it recounted. Uzzah and his brother Ahio were charged with transporting the Holy Ark of the Covenant from one place to another. When the ox pulling the cart in which the Ark was being transported stumbled, Uzzah reached out and touched the ark to steady it. Touching the Ark, to which was affixed the Divine Name, was a no-no of Leviathan proportions. Immediately, God struck Uzzah down “on the spot.”.

What? Why? How unjust! How unfair! Would it have been better to let the Ark fall? To wait a beat or two to see if the ox would steady itself thus putting the cart before the Ark? The more my friend and I kept at it, I realized that perhaps the finding of an answer was less important than the actual search for an answer.

How could God do that? has kept students and scholars discussing this and other impenetrable questions for millennia. Arrive at an answer and you move on, putting the question aside once and for all. But if you are returned to the struggle time and again, different insights can arise. A conversation with a different friend can shed new light and/or perspectives. Pat answers close a door; the search for answers props doors, and minds, open for as long as it takes. Sometimes it takes forever.

Then again, some questions are simply unanswerable. I no longer grapple with, Why the Shoah?* God is either all knowing and powerless or powerful and indifferent. Neither option invites relationship. My answer to that question is this: my puny human spirit-mind is beyond understanding such impenetrables. Think Jack Nicholson on the stand in A Few Good Men. The answer is a truth I cannot, and have not been created to, handle. Some may call mine the coward’s way out. I prefer to think of it as setting aside the impossible to leave energy for taking on the possible.

God’s first question to Adam, indeed the first question in the Hebrew Bible is Where are you? The Divine had caught wind of Adam and Eve’s encounter with the snake and their alfresco fruit sampling. Centuries of answers grapple with that question. Where are you? invites a lifetime of answering, discovering within hidden wells of strength and potential growth.

One year our answer to Where are you? might be, “snared in pain and resentment.” Then one day, Where are you? comes at us again and we have a new answer, one sourced from compassion and forgiveness. Another year and perhaps we might answer from a place of understanding and empathy.

Answers matter. For me, however, the questions matter more.

 

*Shoah is a Hebrew word meaning utter and complete destruction. Holocaust is derived from the Greek word holokauston meaning a sacrifice that is consumed by fire, as was done in Biblical times. The preference for using Shoah reinforces the truth that Hitler’s murder of six million Jews was not a sacrifice to a deity but an incomprehensible destruction of human life

Sibling Compassion

From Cain and Abel to the March sisters, sibling relationships run the gamut. While I’m not well versed in siblit (sibling literature, anyone?), a recent encounter between our two granddaughters surpasses anything even Louisa May Alcott could write.

Because of Covid, fourteen-month-old Leah has not had the kind of social interactions a second sibling would’ve had by now. No Mommy-and-Me events at the library. No trips to the market. No playdates. Throughout Leah’s short little life she has been away from her mom for two hours max. By pandemic standards, we have seen her a lot — three one-week visits plus a mad-cap weekend when our daughter married last November. No matter; when they came for Passover earlier this month, Leah kept her pudgy-licious body Velcroed to Mommy. She peered at us curiously, as if trying to figure out why we were larger than our FaceTime personae, but would not venture too close.

With competent adults in their midst, my son and daughter-in-law took a much needed break. Their good-bye wave was preceded by copious hugs and kisses. Leah was distracted by four-year-old Olivia’s antics and a lot of shielding on my part. She was fine until she wasn’t. When the moment of realization dawned, Leah stood stock still as if testing the air for her mother’s scent. She looked around, didn’t see the one-who-is-always-there, and began to scream as only a bereft and furious toddler can.

Before we could even attempt to console her, Leah threw herself at Olivia, knocking her to the carpet. She lay atop her big sister and keened. Olivia, pinned beneath this tiny bundle of grief, patted her sister on the back and whispered, “It’s OK, Leah. It’s OK. Sister is here. Mama will come back.” Olivia wasn’t disturbed by Leah’s cries. She didn’t push her away. Secure in her own self, confident in her role as big sister, Olivia simply lay there embodying compassion. Leah wailed a bit longer as Olivia kept up her patter of comfort. Soon enough, Leah hopped up and she and Olivia began to play.

The kids returned from their errands. Mother and daughter were reunited, none worse for the wear. Martin and I remain awed by those moments of sisterhood. It was one of the most extraordinary interactions of love I have ever witnessed: Leah bereft and launching herself toward the one remaining soul who could comfort her; Olivia, calmly offering just the right words and touch.

Daily, we are bombarded with the worst that humans are capable of.   I wonder if instead we were offered a steady stream of similar acts of compassion? What a a world it could be.

With thanks to Martin Darvick for the photograph (circa 1988) of our kids.

It’s Not Spring Without This Poem

Sharing a poem in the Head-to-Toe drawer of the curio cabinet might seem, well, curious. But Robert Frost’s poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay, has been a part of my and my children’s spring experience for decades. I would recite it to them each spring when that delicious shade of newborn green appeared on winter-weary branches. Over the years, the poem has become a talisman of sorts, reminding us of Nature’s cycles and the gift of noticing them. In a way, the poem is a perfect specimen to share here because it indeed touches all parts of us: mind, heart, soul.

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

photo courtesy of Debra Darvick