PART TWO: THE GLASS MOUNTAIN
CHAPTER 19: TOWARD THE FAR THRESHOLD
My decision to convert to Judaism coincided with the demise of the Small World, version 2. The last piece written for the group is dated February, 1977. I sensed that my decision alienated the non-Jewish members of the troubled group, while the Jewish members may have understood it as a capitulation. I was now defined as a student of the tradition rather than the teacher of an inchoate alternative. One or two well-wishers expressed the hope that having accepted Judaism I would find peace. “Sometimes you have to ‘let go and let God,’” Rabbi L. said in his sermon on the Shabbat after Purim. It was not exactly what I had in mind.
I read somewhere a quote from Freud, to the effect that every woman marries her father and tries to turn him into her mother. Late in 1976 I had written a story called “The Perfection of the Torah” in which a rabbi has a dream about finding the entire Torah blank except for the letter Beth, which then enlarges to a house containing the entire Earth Household, seen in widening circles of association, and presided over by an authoritative female figure. The story builds on an image in Celan’s poem “Cottage Window.” By that time I’d found out the background for that image – the fact that the letter Beth (the letter-name means” house”) is the first letter of the Torah and thus “contains” all the other letters. I may have given this to Rabbi L., whose acceptance of me as a prospective convert thus showed considerable breadth of mind.
But the tradition is used to this sort of thing. The game of finding ancient proof-texts for whatever innovation one wishes to make is nearly as old as Scripture. And in the Talmud there is a story about a convert who wanted to be High Priest. And some of the stunts pulled by the prophets were as outrageous as a poem entitled “Domestic Love,” which I wrote between Purim and Passover, after clearing my choice of a Hebrew name – Esther, of course – with Rabbi L..
“Domestic Love” was addressed to Celan’s non-Jewish wife, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, though without the intention of sending it to her. To do so would have been to trespass on a domain I respected, even though the poem protests against it. I could not write to her of the connection that existed for me between his marriage to her (whose surname can be translated “the stranger,” “the foreign woman,” “the alien”) and the poem “In Egypt.” written several years before they met. This poem begins “Thou shalt say to the eye of the alien woman: be the water” and continues as a series of similar imperatives, nine in all. It can be read as a geasa, commanding him to marry an alien woman yet at the same time to keep remembering the murdered women of his own nation, to “call them forth from the water” of the stranger’s eye. In effect the poet is asked to transform the stranger into the lost kin; the “cloud-hair of the stranger” makes one think among other things of human smoke.
Like many of Celan’s poems, “In Egypt” has often been iinterpreted without acknowledging just how radical it is. In the tradition, relations with alien women are not favorably regarded. The poem is an act of defiance, heightened to blasphemy through the imitation of the form of the Ten Commandments! “I hope to be able to blaspheme to the last,” he once said to someone. Yet even as he defies the tradition of his murdered people, he is speaking to the stranger as their representative. An earlier poem had ended “I sing before strangers.” “In Egypt” is the apologia of Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor writing for a primarily non-Jewish audience. It was his task to convey to them what the dead were, if possible to re-form them in the image of the dead. And this indeed he seems to have regarded as a sacred mission, so that beneath the blasphemy there is another kind of reverence, that of the prophet who (the tradition admits this) may be told as a “horaat sha’ah” (an emergency regulation) to do something that contradicts the system of halakhah.
If I’m right about this, then Gisèle’s last name may have been as fateful for her as my first name was for me. Again, what I’m suggesting is in the tradition of the prophets, whose marital relations, like other aspects of their existence, could be turned into means of expression for their message. (I don’t say that Celan would have done this consciously; probably not; I imagine it as more a kind of somnambulistic following of suggestions.) Thus the poet could speak to his wedded wife and also mean the stranger, the one he didn’t know. And thus I had come into being as a shadow-sister of Gisèle. Another kind of stranger. I had once even chosen the name Ksenija (Xenia), in a conversational Russian class where we were asked to choose Russian names.
Curiously – or “meridianically,” as I gather the Celans used to say – a distant connection had been made between me and Gisèle by none other than Deborah G., my closest affine since Ismene, or perhaps ever. On a trip to Paris, Deborah had wandered into a gallery that was exhibiting some graphics by Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. She talked with the gallery owner, a woman who, Deborah said, “came across as a feminist,” and brought back for me a pasteboard folder, the catalog of the exhibition, with some deeply impressive drawings suggestive of glaciers.
Could I have taken that as a signal to get in touch with Gisèle? Again, that possibility seemed posted with a large KEEP OUT sign. And yet I couldn’t but relate that separation to the way in which marriage seems to separate women from one another, prevent them from thinking together. I had experienced this with Ismene (whose son, like the Celans’ son, was named Eric); and I was experiencing it, too, with Deborah G. My “Domestic Love” poem doesn’t mention Deborah, but it does mention Ismene; and it sounds as though, by relating my history with Ismene, I was trying to talk to Deborah about what was happening between us. All of these relationships are overlaid on one another, after that fashion of “seeing things into one” which I’d learned from“The Meridian,” where Lenz, Büchner, and Celan himself all appear like successive incarnations of the same figure. Similarly Gisèle, Ismene, and Deborah were all “duplicates” of myself, to whom I looked for reciprocal identification and commitment, but was disappointed. I had no status nor status in the scheme of social relationships, and in the literary world the name by which I’d been called was no longer one to conjure with – “Love has no business in the marketplace,” as the poem remarked. And words are not bonds there either. The only way I saw left for myself was to join the community from which Celan had set out, a community that was at least bonded by a word and a commitment to life. That word seemed to condemn me to silence, that life didn’t have a role for me; still, the tradition believed in miracles, in a possible redemption from the Egypt of this deterministic universe. Toward the close of the poem I imagined getting up after the fourth cup of the seder and reciting a poem I’d written for him, that began with the closing words of the seder: “Next year in Jerusalem.” “Domestic Love” ended:
... in your name, in my old name and my new
I walk and walk into the inner court
of the unalterable law against me,
and if I perish, I perish.
Thus the poem turned Passover into Purim. Actually – I may already have read this somewhere – the tradition does connect the two holidays; the sages calculate that Queen Esther’s appeal to Ahasverus occurred on the second day of Passover. I am not sure whether any traditional commentator has connected the unalterable “laws of the Medes and Persians,” which Queen Esther has to circumvent, and the unalterable character of the Torah! But I dare say that for the author of the tale, who named its heroine for the banished mother-goddess Ishtar, the connection must have existed, at least subconsciously.
In the event, I did not venture to recite a poem at the L.s’ seder. Did I send “Domestic Love” to Deborah, the birth of whose child was then imminent? I fear I may have. It would certainly explain why, later in April, when she called up to tell me that she had given birth to a daughter, I got the impression that she did not want me to attend the naming. So I did not go but sent a poem, which was read at the ceremony.
TO A NEWBORN DAUGHTER OF ISRAEL
May you grow free.
May superstitious slanders never darken
the clear light of your inheritance.
May the world be pretty for you,
extend to you warm winds and flowers.
May you see its flowers and its sorrows
as a pattern woven by the Divine Presence.
May you know what sorrow is
without tasting it.
Even in the city where the buildings
tower over you with the might of ingenious ignorance,
even in the shadow of war,
even if human faces should show you
fear or ignorance or coldness,
may you not be afraid.
May you remain serene in the knowledge of your nature,
steadily shining until eyes can gaze steadily upon you.
May you never bend your mind for favor
nor darken truth by speaking it in anger,
but be the truth before them as the blossoming branch,
as a tranquil blue-veiled sea.
May the wise of all generations address you,
and forgive their ignorance, child, if they knew you not.
May the old stories teach you the name of every pain,
and where the herb grows that cures it.
May the dream instruct you.
May the word flower soon on your tongue.
O may you find friends who speak and listen gladly,
answering song with song, wise words with wisdom.
May those who do not understand you trust in you,
may you heed and be heeded in counsel,
may the one you love behold you unchangingly
in the mirror of his soul.
And may you bear yourself to yourself again,
planted in the world like a tree
that cannot be uprooted.
And may you not forget what was before you,
this the ones who dwell in darkness have spoken:
even the ones who still lie bound in sorrow,
even the ones whose silence warns the living
from deeper night:
and the light shined in the darkness,
The penultimate line, from the Gospel of John, reflects the fact that Deborah’s husband was not Jewish. I was conjuring for their daughter a new world, a world to which the Christian and Jewish traditions contribute wisdom and memory, but where their oppressive tendencies (as I saw it then) are surmounted. I think Deborah liked the poem, and perhaps it helped our dialogue, so difficult from the start, to last another year and a half.
With Gisèle I had a further mental encounter a few weeks later. An album of Paul Celan reading his poems came out, illustrated with a magnificent and terrible work of hers, a landscape in which the sky was mainly black and the earth was mainly white. This inspired a fable called “The Separation,” which began by quoting a Quechua poem translated by W.S.Merwin:
Black and white,
Like the heart of that dark man
Who loves two women.
In my story the spouse and her double, called The Sorrow of the World, finally merge and are reunited with the poet – in the next world. But that summer (or was it the following summer? the dates in my notes are confused) something happened that eventually did lead to my meeting Gisèle Celan-Lestrange in this world.
The Sabbath was approaching, and I had just finished a letter to another poet who had sent me a poem about Celan. That poem had emphasized the pain and darkness in Celan’s work, its deathward orientaton. In response I had written that Celan, for all that, had believed in life and struggled on behalf of life. The letter was sealed, I meant to mail it before Shabbat on my way to Hillel, but forgot it at home. At Hillel I met a young man who introduced himself to me with the words, “I’m Chaim, from Paris.” The name “Chaim” means “life.” Just as I was wondering if this was a “sign,” I heard him say to someone else that his father was from Rumania. Celan’s homeland. That was all, for the time being.
For the time being, I went on making the acquaintance of my new religion. Rabbi L. had said I must attend conversion class for a year. Conversion class was being given by Rabbi Charles F. of Beth Israel Center. There was quite a bit of reading assigned; one title I remember was Rabbi Haim Donin’s To Be a Jew. By comparison with the sources that had lured me into this – Celan, Buber, Scholem, Weinreb – I found the assigned readings a bit pedestrian, and do not remember much about them; I understood, however, that joining the community meant accepting the seemingly-pedestrian as well as the visionary. And one of the readings may have told me that the rabbis sometimes referred to the Temple as the ’olam katan. The Small World. That information is contained in an essay on poetry and coincidence written the following fall. From somewhere else I gathered that ancient Middle Eastern temples were often understood as “microcosms,” models of the world. On my own, I read Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption. Rosenzweig was a friend of Buber’s and another important figure in the hopeful if ill-fated attempt at synthesizing German and Jewish culture. The Star of Redemption gives a synoptic view of the monotheistic religions, portays them as workings-out of a single spiritual destiny in different areas. It is organized as a meditation on the Star of David, which it perceives as two interlocking triangles. Each triangle, for Rosenzweig, stands for a triad – G-d-man-world and Judaism-Christianity-Islam. Also, somehow I ran across the lesser-known Erich Gutkind’s Choose Life. Gutkind was another associate of Buber. Choose Life is a wildly hopeful book. What that Deuteronomic title phrase meant for him was openness to infinite possibilities. I don’t remember many details; but the impression it made, reinforced by a terrific storm in which I felt as though Black Elk’s “thunder beings” must have been present, is preserved in a brief essay, highly exalted in tone, called “From the Eye of the Statue of Liberty.”
And then there were the homelier aspects, by which I was alternately startled and amused. In the Christianity in which I’d been raised, piety was associated with seriousness and solemnity. The hymns were sweetly dignified at best; saccharine or dreary at worst. Children were supposed to keep still during the services. I was thus a little shocked by the hymn “Ein Kelokeinu (There is None Like Our G-d),” which sounded remarkably like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” I was startled to see children sit with their parents for a while, then get up and run in the aisles! It also struck me how much of Jewish religious life is bound up with food – real food, not symbolic crumbs and sips – which was meant to be enjoyed. Shabbat, also, was celebrated as a “delight” rather than the repressive institution that Christians often seem to have made it. Shabbat was Christmas fifty-two times a year, without the presents but with singing and good will. Though I wrote a couple more rebellious texts that summer, and strained the attention of my Hillel friends with strange tales, on the whole I felt increasingly pleased with my purchase.
Prof. Mansoor had begun running out of things for me to do. That summer I was only working for him quarter-time. The rest of the time I devoted to revising The Web of What Is Written, along the lines that had been suggested to me by the reviewer in 1975. I read the secondary literature, cut most of the direct references to my personal experience, and gave it a new subtitle: “Relations of Writer, Reader, and Community.”
One thing that I did for this revision was to read Edmund O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, in order to “update” my remarks on Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Wilson does not mention Kropotkin and gives theories of “group selection” short shrift. I fashioned a tentative answer to Wilson, in the spirit of the tradition. But sociobiology (Jason had been the first to direct me to the field) would be a subject intermittently studied for a quarter-century. Another thing I noticed this time about Kropotkin, is that while giving examples of mutual aid from animal behavior and a wide variety of human cultures, he never once mentions Jewish culture, which brought mutual aid to a fine art! I couldn’t imagine Kropotkin being actively anti-Semitic, but the assumption that the world has nothing to learn from the Jewish tradition, appears to be a stubborn residue of the Christian heritage.
Another reference that got worked into the Web at this time was Leo Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing. Rabbi F. had free-associated to this work after I either showed him Folie à deux or told him about it. Strauss’ work analyzes the writings of certain medieval Jewish philosophers whose underlying views were not pleasing to the rabbinic establishment, and might have gotten their works burnt and themselves placed under cherem, or ban. These writers developed techniques of cueing the understanding reader as to their real views while seeming to assent to the established doctrines. Some of these techniques were remarkably similar to those of the “dream censor” as discerned by Freud. I found Strauss’ perceptions especially applicable to the work of Proust, who throughout the great length of his work appears to support certain premises of modern literature, but at certain scattered yet highly significant moments gives indications of much more archaic views.
Unfortunately, the editorship of the University of Wisconsin Press had changed since the first review of the manuscript, and I received from the new editors only a standard rejection letter. I sent the manuscript out to one or two other places but did not pursue it very far. I got the impression that the university presses were becoming less open to writers outside the university. Evidently the book would have to await the formation of a different intellectual community, for which I still hoped, but now within the framework of Judaism. But that would be a long road. Aside from showing the book to a few friends, I let it rest.
One of the few who read it was a woman whom I had gotten to know at Beth Israel, and who had found me a typing job at the Bureau of Health Statistics where she worked as a senior statistician. I began working there part-time in mid-October. The division chief, Ray Nashold, was open-minded and friendly. At midmorning and midafternoon there was a fifteen-minute break in which the entire staff, clerical and professional, sat down together. During the day there often seemed to be time for discussion. My inevitable attempts at organizing (from December there is a set of “Notes for a Co-Worker”) were taken in good part. Since I didn’t own a car, the salary was more than adequate for my needs. I had some notion of earning an honest living and being a Torah scholar in my spare time, in the tradition of “Torah im derekh erets (Torah with worldly occupation).” Besides the books that were assigned for conversion class, I began reading the Bible in Hebrew (with a bit of help from translations). Eventually I would get through most of it, except for Daniel and Chronicles.
My Conservative conversion took place as scheduled on March 21, 1978, two days before Purim. I had kashered the kitchen of my apartment and was now Sabbath-observant. I had asked the people at Beth Israel to call me Esther (though one woman protested: “But Beatrice is a Jewish name!”). The beit din (rabbinic court) consisted of Rabbi L., Rabbi F. of Beth Israel, and Jeremy Brochin, Rabbi L.’s assistant. I was not required to express a belief in the unalterability of the Torah, only a belief in the unity of G-d and the mission of Israel; an attitude of submission to the will of G-d and the judgment of the community; and a commitment to a pattern of observance. Rabbi L. added that I should think about spending some time in Israel. I nodded, though I was not thinking about it. Not yet.
After the ceremony there was a small party at Gilman Street, with my parents and a few friends from the congregation. Deborah G. was also there with her husband and their daughter, now a year old. A photo from that day shows me in that green checked suit, flanked by the guests, cutting the cake decorated with a blue Star of David which my mother had brought. At the Megillah reading, two nights later, someone snapped me in the blue velvet dress from Seattle. And a poem, written two or three days later:
Eternal People, my life is yours.
You princes, whose crowns the Torah wears,
I stand before the holy Ark,
the testimony of G-d's speech to me,
and, laying all rebellious will aside,
subject myself to His will, and to yours.
O may it be your will, and His, to look,
not to disdain the gifts of one who comes
Well I know these gifts must seem
a toy of peace proffered in hour of war,
this hour when crowding hates possess the earth,
man's soulless creatures fill the skies,
the folk disperse, its elders have no counsel
but day by day to bargain, at a loss,
with what reveres no right, can hear not word,
and none would know, to contemplate this world,
that the word Wisdom ever pierced the night.
Now it behooves us all to pray for might,
not listen to a song that seems
a dream of lonely hearts in separate nights,
an unarmed man's delusion as he falls;
who heeds it takes a moth's wing as his shield
and makes a blade of grass his spear.
so it may be; it is not mine to say;
I go where you go, share even to the end
this people's doubt, its fate.
To Israel's G-d I offer up a voice
that came -- from whence I do not know -- to say
those towers of hate, those arms of doom are not
more invincible than the slighting smile
with which men heard me; and what seems so frail
--Beauty -- is G-d's mercy and power combined,
the mother of Discernment, Judgment, Skill:
the gift without which prayer and righteousness
are as a scepter in a sinking hand --
and with this thought shall Israel's strength renew.
The reader will note, again, my personal riff on the Esther story. Whereas in the original version the Jewish queen must approach the alien king and risk death if the golden scepter is not held out to her, here it is the alien woman who approaches the majesty of the Torah.
A few weeks later my mother said to me, “Did you know that Great-Grandmother Bennett’s name was Esther?”
She had found the note in my father’s family Bible. I remembered looking, as a small child, at the family pages in the back of the Bible and being unable to read Grandma Cameron’s handwriting. I could not remember having heard the name Esther Jane Bennett. The one thing my mother remembered about her, from Grandma Cameron’s account, was that when she was out driving in the country she used to keep an eye out for a old tree stump, and when she saw one she would get out and dig up some of the earth around it to spread on her garden. When my father got home we questioned him. He remembered her, and his mother’s stories about her, well enough; she had spent her last years, after her husband’s death, in her daughter Jessie’s home. Her own mother – Great-Great-Grandmother Alderson, the earliest ancestor of whom I have a glimpse – had lived in Great-Grandmother Bennett’s home, a generation earlier; and because Great-Great-Grandmother Alderson was blind, everything in the house had to be kept always in the same place so that Great-Great-Grandmother Alderson could find it. Great-Grandmother Bennett was read her Bible a lot, and did many charitable works. When anyone in the community was in need of clothes, she and her daughters would find something in the attic to refurbish for them. My father remembered her as a tiny woman, and very strict, though not with others but mainly with herself; she taught by example. “We children adored her,” he said, and the verb came out with the force of long-repressed emotion. She always ate alone, and there were certain foods, such as potatoes, which she avoided. After her death the family doctor was puzzled by something and asked my grandmother’s permission to perform an autopsy. He discovered that she had been living for several years without kidneys. They thought that her strict, instinctive control of diet and daily routine must have had something to do with it.
And of this person I could not remember that my father had ever spoken! He did not speak of the past much in general. But I can’t help suspecting that her somewhat uncanny survival, and her whole being, had fallen for him into the domain of what is not talked about, as out of keeping with the materialist world-view he had adopted as a scientist. And now, thanks to my conversion, something of her memory had been retrieved. Celan would have liked to know that. There was even a picture of her in my mother’s archive, a portrait taken in her last years. The face is smiling, but cleft by deep lines, as if from an unceasing effort of endurance.
I am not like her. Not in the least. Any more than I am like Margarete Susman probably. Yet at times her admonitory presence has rescued me from the desperation and anger that was Plath’s and Celan’s inheritance. If I could not always feel her strength, I could know that, at some time, it existed. And that something had wanted it to find me. That has helped.
At the time of my conversion, I was still working for the Bureau of Health Statistics, but in the Vital Records division. A full-time, though temporary, position had opened up there in February. Vital Records was a big room in which eight or ten women worked, processing birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates. Computerization was just getting started; we read computer printouts but also had electric typewriters. Adjacent to the room where we worked was the record room with tall cases of binders, available for genealogical research. My co-workers were mostly older women. Several of them came from rural communities and had to drive in to Madison early each morning. I liked them for an air of plain common sense that emanated from them, individually and collectively, even though, around the Eastertime that fell shortly after my conversion, I caught some looks from them that were not as friendly as usual, and felt not for the first nor last time the split that divides the children of Sarah. The image of these recordkeepers (like something out of The Adolescent) has always stayed with me. The beauty of the banal. In June I wrote them a poem:
The sound of papers being counted
and women's voices, subdued
laughter, our comments
like computer messages, always
the names people choose, the carelessness
of doctors, slips of strange pens,
the prices of things and the reasons
of decisions somewhere higher that sift down on us.
We order the numbers of the nameless,
the names of the soulless;
we keep track of what is not understood.
In the hot afternoons time swells,
eternity knocks between the typewriter rattle,
and the high fans turning this way and that, like heads,
have within their soft whirring a ringing sound
like bells chiming no hour, far off in the wind.
The doors here open and close
each day at the same hour;
we are here;
we leave to give birth, we return
to tend the vast memory that forgets us
and await the coming
of the Messiah.
Possibly I might have been content to await the coming of the Messiah in the Vital Records office. But the position was not permanent. In August I was offered a permanent full-time position, back in the Health Statistics division. I hesitated. The work in Vital Records might continue and eventually become permanent, or it might not. And if I accepted the job in Health Statistics, perhaps I could get back to Vital Records someday. So I accepted the job in Health Statistics, and soon regretted it. The project I was working on was transferred to the third basement, to a lightless room where the air smelled of fumes from some engine. I developed a chronic backache that kept me awake nights. The bad light, bad air, and lack of sleep probably contributed to the increasingly dark view that I took of things in the ensuing months.
I felt more and more isolated. At some time late in 1978, the thread of communication with Deborah G. finally snapped. I could see nothing in the social milieu but drift, cynicism, increasing acceptance of brutality and injustice. The Torah itself seemed to me like an idol, frozen in time, powerless to energize repair. Then I heard of the death of my Doktorvater, Heinz Politzer. We had not communicated since 1973, but somewhere I had always cherished the hope of an understanding and a reconciliation. Also, in my progress through the Hebrew Bible I seem to have reached Jeremiah around the same time. A couple of jeremiads were written in that third basement.
During the year when I was attending conversion class, I had kept a relatively low profile, reading the books that were assigned and postponing confrontations. I wonder now what would have happened if I had held that attitude a little longer after conversion, instead of resuming shortly thereafter my career of rushing in where angels fear to tread. I shall draw a veil over some of the poems written shortly after conversion (the reader will recall that for me this had something of the character of a marriage rite ), and merely mention them so that the reader may not picture me as more reasonable, and others as less so, than was the case. I will not rehearse various lengthy prayers that adapted liturgical forms to the task of thinking about current issues, nor retrieve from oblivion the radical poetic statement of my own with which I concluded a reading of Celan's poetry in translation. Nor will I dwell on the vigil which I organized on the Fast of Esther the following spring, on the subject of violence against women and incitements thereto that were just then increasing (no doubt as part of the "backlash" against feminism), and which was attended by at least a minyan. All of these things led, as far as I could tell, to nothing, and my sense of frustration mounted. In retrospect, I realize that the congregation’s receptiveness to, or at least patience with, all this on the part of a newcomer was something rare and amazing.
It appears to me now the late '70's were a special moment, a moment of soul-searching, in the mainstream American Jewish community. And not only there, of course; analogous processes were going on elsewhere. I suspected that for many (as for Greg J.) the return to tradition was a retreat from confrontation with the difficult-to-insoluble questions that had been raised by the movements of the '60's and early '70's: feminism perhaps most of all, but also the movements for the environment and social justice. In those fields a sense of righteousness was hard to come by. People felt burdened by a guilt they saw no means of discharging. (I had tried to suggest a means of doing so, but had not managed to inspire confidence.) From this maze of uncertainties it must have felt reassuring to return to a framework of set religious obligations, which promised that one could be on good terms with one's Maker, without dealing with all that out there. But since all that could not be quite left behind immediately, the retreat was accompanied by attempts to make the tradition responsive to the new concerns. Thus there was a certain wrestling with the questions raised by feminism, and someone like me could gain the community's hearing for a certain time.
On Rosh HaShanah 5738 (1978), Rabbi F. devoted a sermon to the "The Challenge of Feminism." I noted afterward what seemed to me the four main points:
The Talmud admits women's spiritual gifts (examples: Sarah, Hannah), but on the other hand frequently denigrates women, and denies them access to religious practice. There are less restrictive attidues toward women in the Talmud, but in succeeding centuries the more restrictive views tended to prevail.
In many cases it is not that women are forbidden to do something, but that they are not commanded to do it. The Talmud asserts that the one who does a mitzvah voluntarily has less merit than the one who does it on command, and this makes sense, for an obligation has a deeper effect on the personality than a privilege one may take up or leave aside at will Women have suffered spiritually from the lack of challenges caused by an absence of a real structure of religious obligations.
The main reason for leaving women out of many religious obligations is to leave them free for mothering. Mother is an extremely important function. The relation to the mother is the basis for the child's future moral development. The de-emphasis on mothering today is a disservice to women and a threat to the human race. Judaism should beware of going along with this trend just because it is predominant in contemporary society.
The rabbis did not require women to assume the role of childbearer and childtender; the commandment to have children is imposed on men only.
Rabbi F.’s presentation, as I recall it, did not cover all the problems. There were other things, like the disqualification of women as witnesses in rabbinical court, that troubled me more than the exclusion from ritual activities. Nonetheless, Rabbi F.’s presentation gve me hope that an accommodation with the tradition might not be as difficult as I had sometimes thought. I for one had no ambition to assume men's traditional religious obligations; I did not care about wearing a kippah, tefillin, or tallit (though I would have liked some kind of ritual shawl); I did not care if I never got called to the Torah. About the importance of motherhood I was in complete agreement. All that was necessary was to recognize that motherhood is something broader than childbearing and childrearing, and to make a place in the community for women's thinking on matters that affect the future of the community and the world. To allow motherhood an intellectual dimension, to allow the kind of network I had envisioned to constitute itself. An association of “b’not Binah” (daughters of Understanding) could learn from the tradition and give to it as well.
But such a reconciliation would have gone against the tendency of feminism to dissociate itself from motherhood. Rather than build upon motherhood and expand its reach, it proved easier to seek such "egalitarian" concessions as being called to the Torah, putting the matriarchs into the prayer alongside the patriarchs, and so on. I have never been happy with the result. A tradition that, however one might argue with it, had been shaped by heroic creative labors and had consistency and consequence, was pulled apart and patched in a slovenly and trivial way, without the fire that might have forged a new design.
From time to time I would visit Chabad. The first time I saw the mechitsah (the screen that separates the men's and women's sections), I came away fuming. On the other hand, the young men I saw at Chabad had an air of spiritual intensity that appealed to me greatly. If only it would be possible to engage that intensity for the understanding of the feminine, the questions of modem society, the future of the earth! It seemed to be another case of “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today.”
On January 1, 1979 an Israel I met at the Conservative synagogue told me that in Israel no one paid any attention to the changing of the Gregorian calendar year, so people were not worrying about the' eighties. I was not ready to exit from the time of the world in which I had grown up to a perspective in which the events of that world receded toward meaninglessness; so I wrote an essay called "Facing the Next Decade," which summarized the failures of the '60's and '70's and concluded: “The ‘eighties confront us like the prospect of second grade to a pupil who should not have been promoted from first.” After Purim I wrote a song in which I tried one more time to address the culture –Jewish, Christian, counterculture -- as a whole:
O LOVE RETURN
O love return, love return and comfort those who await thee,
O love return, love return to faithful hearts that wait thy coming.
Dark is the night, without a star, without a moon, the sun forgotten.
This night is long, is morning near, O send a ray to those who dwell in darkness.
Shall we forget and be as those who never knew thy shining vision
But walk in fear and live for gain and never feel thy springtime breath upon us?
Shall earth be bathed in blood and tears once more and drown all hope of better?
Is there no light on some far shore to guide us home across these waters?
Show us one thing we can believe, one rule to guide, one path to follow,
Show us the pearl of such rare gleam we'd gladly give for it our mortal burdens.
O make us glad to do thy will, not rebels stand where the ground is burning,
O help us trust in thy sure hand that gropes for ours amid our blindness.
O let us see thy face at last, and in thy light let us see each other,
O let us dream and let us wake to make this earth the temple of thy dwelling.
O love return, love return and comfort those who await thee.
O love return, love return to faithful hearts that wait thy coming.
But there were no channels by which this song could get out to a world where there was, as a policeman put it in a newspaper story I read, “not enough love out there.”
On the eighth day of Passover Rabbi F. gave a sermon that deepened my discouragement. Contemplating the future of the American Jewish community, he noted that while in America we are not menaced by persecution, the effects of immersion in American culture are assimilation, intennarriage, and a drifting away from observance. One bright spot is that conversions seem to be increasing. But (as I summarized his remarks in my notes afterward) “converts bring dangers as well as promises. There is always the doubt as to whether they can really accept the Torah, and their cultural background is different from that of born Jews; their incursion threatens the ‘family’ feeling which holds the present Jewish community together.” The only answer, the sermon concluded, is for those who remain committed to give more and strengthen their commitment to the Torah, which is the foundation of Jewish life.
I took this as a response to my activities over the past year. Probably it was not meant as a personal rebuff. Rabbi F. was just speaking his thoughts, as was his wont. But then I did not receive it as a personal rebuff either – just as closing of a door in the face of the new life I had been trying to bring. I wrote down my response to this on the Sabbath, breaking the law against writing on the Sabbath for the first time since my conversion, justifying it by the dictum that the Sabbath may be broken to save life. As if my words could save anything. The poem I wrote around the same time began and ended “The universe is closing.”
A few weeks later, a woman who was known as an Orthodox Jewish feminist spoke at Beth Israel on Friday night. At one point in her talk she spoke in a hesitantly concerned tone about the “turn to the right” in the Jewish community. Over the past decade, interpretations of the sources had emphasized the imperative of social justice. Apparently we would need a different religious emphasis to suit this new orientation. It didn’t hit me until the next afternoon, when I came home from services and wept until exhausted. Another phase of existence had come to an end. So, where now? Well, there was Israel. I got up and walked the few blocks to the Chabad house. Yossi Hecht, the Chabad rabbi was there. I spoke with him about going to Israel. He encouraged me and showed me a booklet about women’s yeshivot in Jerusalem. I left with a sense of release and renewed possibilities.
As I said to my mother the following week, the soul of the Jewish people was in Jerusalem. “For out of Zion will come forth the law.” What was I doing trying to prophesy in Madison, Wisconsin? In the week or so after that conversation, two cards arrived in the mail, invitations to a bar mitsvah and some other function. One showed a child’s drawing in the shape of a heart, with the caption: “Jerusalem as the Heart of the Jewish People.” The other was a drawing of the Western Wall with the words “For Out of Zion Will Go Forth the Law” in Hebrew characters. I had received my orders.
I decided to seek an Orthodox conversion, from a mixture of motives. It would be necessary in order to study in an Orthodox yeshiva. And it was also a matter of wanting to withhold nothing, to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind, to confront the tradition at its most stringent. To cross the final threshold. Now I would have to make all those professions of faith which the Conservative conversion had softened for me. So be it.
Yossi Hecht did not do conversions; he referred me to a Milwaukee rabbi, Dr. S. of Congregation Anshe Sefarad. I called and made an appointment and went to see him early in the summer.
Dr. S.,of blessed memory, was a scholarly, gracious man with white hair and noble features. He was a man of secular as well as sacred learning, and seemed to know and respect both Rabbi L. and Rabbi F.. I told him my personal history very briefly, not going into detail about the encounter with Celan, and showed him one poem, “Invitation.” He seemed pleased with it, and said that it reminded him of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook; I must study Rav Kook in Israel. He said that I would need to study for another month, and take on the “yoke of the commandments.” I nodded.
The beit din was set for August 12; my flight to Israel, for August 20. In July I left my job at the Bureau of Health Statistics, probably to everyone’s relief. Tthe project to which I was assigned had been moved to the first floor of the building, but too late to improve my mood there. I needed time to prepare for the journey, to find someone to rent my apartment for a year, and to write down some final thoughts as a Conservative Jew in a collection of essays entitled Shadows on the Flames: Reflections in the Post-Holocaust Diaspora.
Shadows on the Flames had an epigraph from the Book of Job:
Because of the multitude of oppressions they cry out,
They cry for help because of the arm of the mighty,
But none says, Where is G-d my Maker,
Who gives songs in the night?
There is truly nothing new under the sun. Is not all of Celan contained in those verses?
The essays in Shadows on the Flames are hastily written. It was as if I was struggling to pull all I could salvage out of a burning building, not always in any particular order. For I felt as though, by going through an Orthodox conversion and going to Israel to study Torah, I would be leaving myself behind. I didn’t know who I would be in a year’s time, or what that person would think. As I now attempt to reread these documents, I am glad they did not turn out to be my final testament!
One of them dealt with the “signs” that over the years had seemed to me like evidence of continuing relationships with the dead. Among the signs I mentioned was the encounter with “Haim, from Paris.” The Shabbat after writing this down, I saw at Chabad a tall, very intelligent-looking young woman. After the service we got into conversation. Michal was from Israel, a student of literature, Celan was one of her favorite writers, and she was in Madison because her fiancé, Haim, from Paris, was again teaching here for the summer. Yes, it was the same Haim. Before I left Michal gave me the addresses of some people in Israel, among them that of the late David Seidmann, a friend of Celan’s from Czernowitz who was teaching French at Tel Aviv University.
The day of the beit din arrived. When, standing in the mikveh, I heard the question about “Torah from Sinai,” I had a spiritual sensation as if I had been shot in the back. I heard myself say “Yes.” Then I could climb out and put on my clothes again and receive the congratulations of the court. Had I lied to them? Had I broken faith with Celan? In any case it was done.