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MAKING STUFF

I keep coming back in my mind to Galsworthy’s “Quality”, and, as we speed further and further along the blind road of the technological revolution, the themes of that story echo more loudly in my ears.

In short, we don’t make stuff anymore.

That’s a broad generalization, of course.  There are people who make things still: not just hobbyists: the ship-in-the-bottle guys,  but crafts people on commercial levels.  I would, for instance, love to hang out at the Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania for a couple of days — not just to take the factory tour (of which, by the way, there are several very nice videos on youtube) — but to watch artisans work with wood and glue and lacquers to create a fine guitar.  To see the sawdust. To smell the perfumes.

But the truth is that artisanship like this is limited in a mass-production economy.  It started in the industrial revolution: cheaper products, mass produced.  And it has accelerated in an increasingly more integrated worldwide economy.  My wife once went into Toys ‘R’ Us and asked if there was something on the shelves that was not made in China or Taiwan or Korea.  The workers in the store could not think of anything.

And all of this was inevitable.  I am impressed by the concept behind Michelle Obama’s new book: if children plant their own vegetables, see them grow, pick them from the ground, put them on the table — they will be more appreciative of what these vegetables are, and it might help to improve their eating choices.  It’s a pretty idea, but it is not much more than a thin voice crying in the wilderness.  That time is past. We are riveted to new definitions of production and economics, and like virtually all technological change, there is no going back.

My generation still has trouble throwing out a computer every three-to-five years to make room for the next generation.  But I am old, and my generation was brought up by parents who had lived through the Great Depression.  My father ate whatever was on the table, no matter how much was on the table.  My kids know in their souls that what they bought last week for fifty bucks will be faster, sleeker and improved by next week when it will sell for thirty-five.

My grandchildren’s generation knows that meat comes in styrofoam, that instruction for toys and games come with Spanish, French, Dutch, and Chinese translations, and that books were what libraries had before they remodelled to fit in the multi-media labs.

All of this is neither right nor wrong but simply the dictates of progress which are also neither right nor wrong, but only inevitable.

And I keep hearing Galsworthy.

  copyright 2012 G.M. Levine

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SOME THOUGHTS ON SAFE SCHOOLS

I said in my earlier brief piece on Lookjed that as overriding as our concern for the safety and wellbeing of our students may be, we cannot allow it to strangle the joy and energy of learning, both in and outside of the classroom.

Several readers pointed out quite correctly that a key to the balance of those two important values lies in the positive encouragement of our students to be self-advocates, to take mature responsibility to bring to the attention of the school and, indeed, of people in authority in all spheres of their interaction, any concerns or observations they may have regarding how they and others around them are being treated.

Yet, crucial though this is, we should not see this training of our students as all that needs to be done. The school is an institution, and that makes it a bulky and unwieldy camel of a thing to oversee and control; sometimes it seems it takes as much lead time to get new ideas working as it takes to turn an ocean liner. But for all that, rules and structures are both necessary and helpful: the camel walks; the ocean liner turns.

And so we need to ask: what institutional structures are in place to help us to keep our kids safe? To reassure our parents and staff? To secure our reputations for excellence and responsibility?

Some of these changes happen organically, as reflections of gradual changes in societal norms. Thirty years ago, I heard an intelligent presentation on classroom management. The speaker pointed out that there were some thirty steps that could be taken to deal with a behavioural problem in the middle-school class before the teacher reached the stage of having to ask the student to leave the classroom.

“A pointed look at the student,” said the speaker. “A look combined with a brief pause in speaking. Raising a finger toward the child. Touching the child’s hair or head as the teacher passes by in the classroom…”

We don’t do that anymore: touching a child’s hair or head. Thirty years ago, it was an innocuous physical connection between student and teacher. It is no longer appropriate. Times have changed and with it certain understandings of what is appropriate student-teacher interaction and what is not.

My question is – and it is a question and not an accusation – how much of this change needs to be acknowledged by a formal listing of policies and practices? What, if any, administrative changes should be formalized to acknowledge and support appropriate interaction between students and staff?

I note some thoughts below. I do not mean to be in any way exhaustive. At best, I only scratch the surface. I mention only some areas which I think are worthy of administrative consideration. Some will seem too obvious to need to be noted. Some may seem to some readers extreme and even paranoid. Each school is different; each community is different. But I believe the questions are valid and the topic itself is of importance to consider so that we design proactively and not reactively.

  • Is there clear policy delineated for teachers which makes the school’s expectations clear regarding support for its teachers and their positive interactions with students outside the classroom, on the one hand, and the school’s definitions of appropriate behaviour, on the other?

  • Should there be a window in every classroom door? In every office door?

  • Are there stated policies regarding the protocol for private meetings of students and administrators? Students and guidance staff? Students and teachers?

  • What is the policy regarding teachers tutoring individual students in an empty classroom during lunch or school breaks? After school hours?

  • Should there be an administrator assigned to wander around after school hours, visiting clubs, teams, committees, rehearsals etc. taking place after classes?

  • What is the school’s guidelines regarding teachers inviting students to their home: for a meal? For a Shabbat? e.g. Is there a minimum number of students? A maximum? Kiddush on wine? May students drive/be driven on Shabbat? etc.

  • What are the school’s policies regarding Shabbatonim, overnights, sports teams out of the city? Must there be at least one senior staff member present on such a program? Under what circumstances if any may teachers of the opposite sex enter the rooms of students? What informal meetings, if any, may be held between students and teachers during these outings? Where may they be held? Are there ground rules for such meetings?

  • Should teachers lending a sympathetic ear or trying to help individual students with personal problems report regularly on the situation to a school guidance counsellor, administrator, or other assigned staff member? Are there clear procedures regarding when and how administrators should or must report to parents regarding such meetings?

  • Is there a clear procedure by which teachers should/must report concerns regarding appropriate treatment of students by any child or adult to the school administration and/or outside agency?

  • Does the school’s Student Handbook make clear both student rights and student responsibilities in terms of the respect due by all school members – staff, student, parents – to each other?

I note again here that school’s intention must always be for the positive encouragement of a sense of joy, excitement and freedom both inside and outside the classroom. Nothing I have said above should be misconstrued as desiring an atmosphere of fear or repression. Certainly, as observant Jews, we should be well aware that freedom is not licence; that the definition of boundaries is the first step to building a productive and happy sense of self and of community.

Thank you kindly for your attention. I hope the above may encourage some consideration by interested teachers and administrators.

Gary Levine,  Jerusalem,  Nisan, 5773

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SONCINO PRESS AND ME

booksIt should be noted at the outset that there are many fine things to say about Soncino Press. Soncino Press began publishing Jewish texts and translations in Italy at the end of the 15th Century. They are now located in London and New York and publish English translations of classical Jewish texts that are intelligent, reliable and generally very useful.

I have had a set of the Soncino Books of the Bible since it was given to me in 1978 by the principals of the school in which I was teaching. It is a fourteen-volume set, containing the entirety of the Old Testament, book by book, with a clear Hebrew text, a side-by-side excellent English translation (Jewish Publication Society, 1911) and a unique English commentary at the bottom of the page.

The commentary deserves further note. There have been, in fact, two editions of the commentary. The first, completed in 1952 was published into the 1990s. It was unique in that, while it was clearly meant to survey classic Jewish commentators, in was also open to some modern scholarship, including non-Jewish commentators and philosophers. Such breadth could not last unfortunately, and in the 1990s the commentary was revised to remove the non-Jews and to strengthen the adherence to traditionalism.

My set is of the first edition, and the access to the occasional philosopher and non-Jew is valuable to me. I have, it should be said, something like two dozen sets of The Pentateuch. I taught Tanakh for thirty plus years and I love the give and take, the occasional wrestling in the mud of two thousand years of commentators seeking the truth and the wisdom that can be gleaned out of a phrase, a word, a letter, a nuance. These commentators, from the most ancient to the most modern, are all of one cast or another of traditional Jewish, and so the occasional reference to a decidedly-other-but-not-too-other perspective has always been appreciated, occasionally refreshing.

I have used my Soncino Books of the Bible very well for the last thirty-five years, and, in the way of books that have been used very well for thirty-five years, some of the dust jackets have now gone a little faded, wrinkled, even ripped here and there; and it occurred to me a few years back that it might be nice to get a fresh set of dust jackets.

At the time I lived in Toronto, and I turned to the brothers Kaplan at Negev Book Store on Bathurst Street who told me that a new set of jackets might be ordered. As it turned out, I never got to it. Time. Tide. The flitful memory of a mind bouncing down the rocky road descending from middle age. So, as it turned out, when we unpacked our crates of books after moving to Israel four years ago and put all of the sets of Tanakh in the bookcases surrounding the 32” flat screen, I decided that I must do something about replacing the dust jackets on my Soncino Set.

I emailed Soncino. I found the email address of Soncino Books (www.soncino.com) and wrote a respectful letter, asking if I could purchase new book covers for my aging set. A Customer Relations person wrote back and said that not all covers were available at all times. I said that this was understandable, and that I would like to buy whatever covers I could.

He did not respond.
I wrote again. He repeated his non-response (or perhaps “continued” his non-response). I wrote two more times to no avail.

A year later, I wrote again. I even sent along a picture of my Soncino Books of the Bible, first to demonstrate that some of the covers were clearly in need of replacement and, secondly, to demonstrate that I actually did own a set of the books and was not attempting to buy classy Soncino jackets to put on my set of Heroes of the Comics, so that I might pretend to be learning in shul when I was only trying to avoid the Rabbi’s speech.

No response.

A year later, I wrote again. When Customer Service or General Office did not respond, I attempted to find a list of the Board of Governors of Soncino, so that I might write to the President or the Chairman or the Lord High Executive. Alas, I could find no such list, leading me to suspect that Soncino may be essentially unboarded and may be under the supervision of a parent company which is afraid to be identified.

I have wondered about this now for four years: why will Soncino not sell me dust jackets for my Soncino Books of the Bible. Several answers, all unsubstantiated, have suggested themselves to me in dream or vision:

-The Old Testament is being updated to be more in line with recent pop music accounts of the relationship of God and man, and the dust jackets for the old Old Testament have been trashed.
-The same forces that militated for the withdrawal of the first edition and its replacement by the more Religiously-Correct second edition have done an investigation of me and decided that I am not the right sort of Jew to be associated with the Soncino Books of the Bible.
-There are no dust jackets of the first edition any longer available, and it is feared that my putting second-edition dust jackets on first-edition books will lead someone leafing through my books on the assumption that they are properly-authorized into doctrinal error and sin.
-Soncino Press has too much money to want to bother with selling fourteen measly dust-jackets.
-I inadvertently included a photo of The Dixie Chicks with my first email.

I have no conclusion to offer to this narrative. My dust jackets still need replacement. Soncino continues not to respond to me. It seems to me entirely possible that my dust jackets may never be replaced. There have been disappointment before in my life, some of them of even greater ache than this one.

Dust jackets aside, the books themselves are still in fine shape and continue to be useful and appreciated. Would that such could be said of all of us retirees with receding hairlines and expanding middles.

                                                                  – copyright 2013 Gary M. Levine

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AN EMAIL TO MY STUDENTS

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I have the pleasure this year of teaching a course at a gap year school–the year between high school and college–open to girls who have graduated from Jewish day schools and are interested in focusing part of their time on art.  I wrote my students an email before Pesach this year, which I print here.

Greetings

I begin by thanking you all for joining us for lunch last Thursday.  As always, your thoughts and observations gave me much to think about.  I did notice that, for the first time, you did not finish the large apple cake or the kilo of ice cream.  I can only assume that I failed you in some way; I will certainly do my best to do better at our next opportunity.

I did, with your permission, want to make an observation or two on some of the comments you made regarding your earlier discussion with Rabbi D.  There was, it seemed, some conversation about the chronic use of cell phones but, I think, more fundamentally the discussion dealt with the need—or the habit—of students to do many things at once, all, it would seem, done at least adequately, but none receiving anyone’s full attention for any length of time.

In talking about this (with each other, mostly; I was really more interested in listening than participating), you implied that this was a learned strategy, made necessary by the sheer avalanche of school work, club and committee work, extra-curricular work, et al  that was expected of students in high school.

I understand this, and I think that, by and large, you are correct.  It is a problem that I have thought about and occasionally written about over the years.

{An anecdote.  Those of you who are finding long sentences and a structured essay rather too long to hold your attention, can skip this anecdote without losing the flow of my comments—although I think it a useful anecdote. 
Perhaps 30 or 35 years ago, a student in the school came to one or two of us: the Guidance Counselor, I think, perhaps one of the principals, me (I directed Student Activities at the time) to ask some advice.  He was starting his senior year and very much liked the study of Talmud.  Two teachers were available for the senior course, and he asked which teacher’s class he should sign up for.  One of the teachers was among the finest maggidei shiur in the city.  He was a demanding teacher, but his students both loved and respected him and came out of his class, not only knowing what he had taught, but also having learned the skills to learn Talmud on their own.  The other teacher was a knowledgeable and well-meaning Rabbi, but not very gifted as a teacher.  Students easily took advantage of him and managed to learn little while conning him out of high grades.  His most famous report card comment was “95. Shows no effort.”
We serious educators unanimously advised the student that of course he must choose the more serious teacher from whom he could learn so much.
And the end of the year, the student returned to us.
“You cheated me,” he said.
We were shocked and so forth, and demanded an explanation.
“You told me to take Rabbi G,” he said.  “I did, and he was as good as you said.  I worked really hard; I learned a lot; and I got the highest mark in his class: a 92.”
“But …?”
“But my friend took Rabbi A,” he said.  “My friend did nothing.  He learned nothing. He spent the whole year goofing off. In the end, he got a 97.”
“Do the couple of points get you so upset?” we said.
“The couple of points gave my friend the Talmud award at graduation,” he said. “The couple of points got my friend a slightly higher overall average, and he got the university scholarship that I didn’t get. You cheated me.”
And he was right.  We put on our serious educator hats when we gave him the advice we gave him.  But we were also the keepers of the grading system. We were the institution, and we withheld the institutional answer he had a right to. The right answer would have been: “If you want to learn, take Rabbi G.  If you want the mark, take Rabbi A.”  In failing to give him the full answer to his question, we had indeed cheated him.)

The school is both the keeper of the Educational Flame and the Enforcer of the Educational System, and as much as we would like to pretend that these two functions can co-exist in harmony, they can’t. One is about each person learning to best contribute to her/his own individual, personal growth, and the other is about measuring achievement by a formal system that holds everyone to precisely the same pre-defined standards. These two processes do not harmonize. Rather, they hold the students hostage between them.

Some of you noted over lunch that taking a full schedule of classes, especially in the double program of a Jewish Day School, requires more study/prep/homework/essay and product time than can physically be handled.  If you are in school eight hours a day and have “only two or two and a half hours a week” of homework from each class, you can expect to have to put in four hours a day and all day Sunday on homework alone—projects, test prep, clubs, committees, extra-curriculars, friends, and saying hello to your family aside.

So you are not wrong when you say that to succeed at school requires you to learn skills aside from the ones we generally say will help:  time management and prioritizing and useful study habits.  Instead—or, more properly, in addition—you will need to learn how and when to cut corners; how to look like you are paying attention in class when you really need class time to get other work done; how to play useful mind games and suck-up strategies with the teachers: in other words, how to develop “school success” skills which have nothing to do with learning the material or thinking about concepts or ideas.

And here comes my point—yes, it did take me that long to get to the point.  The price you pay to “succeed at school” is that you have no time to think in depth.

I need to try to explain that to you because it is important.

You are art students.  The truth is that I don’t know how serious any of you are about your art. I don’t mean whether you are good at it or not; that’s not the same question. I mean, how much it matters to you to get it right: the curve of the line just the way it should be; the right word in the right place in the sentence; the shading of the color exactly as you want it—how much the rest of the world falls away and time stops when you are working, how much you find yourself in a space where nothing else exists but that small curve of the line, the sound of the letters of the word bouncing off each other, the color being exactly the color of the lower shading of the purple on the edge of the horizon when the sun is just an instant away from being gone for the day.

That stuff, if you have ever been caught up in it, does not come from the logical thinking, time management and prioritizing.  It comes from…I don’t know…the left brain? the soul? the creative spirit? the hand of God? The grace of the universe?

Learning can be like that too: not every subject for every person, of course, although I am sure there may be the rare individual—the true student—to whom the act of learning anything is such an adventure.  But even for the rest of us, there can be a subject or two or three or four that speaks to us like the blank canvas to the artist: a hope for discovery and exploration, a gateway into a place without space or time.

But you have to be ready to approach it like the blank canvas: to find your way in slowly, thoughtfully, like choosing the right path up the hill.  It needs time and patience and some excitement and even some humility.  You can’t do it in 144 characters while making sure to ask four questions in a forty-minute class so the teacher will decide you are attentive. Time and patience, like the time it takes to decide where first to chisel the solid, square piece in the marble, how to form the first chord of the symphony.

And we have given you no time and trained you instead to cut corners so you can keep afloat on top of the churning flow of the workload.

Where it gets interesting for me is to see you here, this year, your gap year.  Some of you want to take some credits home with you and the end of the year; some of you don’t need them.  This is the year that you finally have the time.  You’re not taking ten courses.  The courses you are taking won’t get you in or keep you out of university.  You could take one or two of your courses, if they really speak to you, and finally spend the time to approach the ideas with some slow deliberation.

But you may not know how.  We have trained you too well to cut the corners and multi-task and order on line.  You have fine minds, my friends, many of you far better minds that I do (which, I am really sorry to say, doesn’t mean much); but you don’t know how to focus them deeply and seriously, even now that you finally have the chance to do so.

I think the challenge this year may be ours: the teachers, the school—to find ways to slow everything down for you as soon as you get here, to show you how to focus on the canvas of the texts, the sculpture of the ideas.

I have mentioned a story by Galsworthy, called “Quality.”   It has something to say related to some of these thoughts.

You can access the whole text at the following URL.

http://www.readcentral.com/chapters/John-Galsworthy/Quality-and-Other-Studies-and-Essays/002

And with that, friends, my best wishes for a chag kasher v’same’ach.  I look forward to seeing you after Pesach for whatever few classes they can manage to schedule for us before your year here is over.

G.L.

copyright 2016  Gary M. Levine

“WE DON’T KNOW”

take 2 I went to my local branch of the Post Office today. Yesterday, there was a “Second Notice” in my mailbox, informing me that a package was waiting for me and that if I did not pick it up in short order, it would be returned to sender or destroyed or placed somewhere in the black Qumran caves of abandoned packages.

It would have done me no good go to the Post Office yesterday because it was closed in the afternoon. My branch is closed Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons for important, secret Postal Conferences. So I went today.  I took a number from the machine, found a seat and waited.  I looked at the large screen to see what number was being served, but a small announcement on the screen explained that the numbers on the screen were not working at the moment. However, numbers were called occasionally that seemed more or less sequential, and, other than one young woman who rushed in and explained to a clerk that she could not wait because of circumstances too bizarre to explain, those of us around the room waited for our numbers to be called.  We bordered on the patient. We felt positively Canadian.

In just over a half hour my number was called.  I took my number and the dreaded “Second Notice” to a clerk who nodded sagely—she had seen all this before—and she raised herself carefully out of her seat to seek my package.  She came back several minutes later and told me, “It isn’t here.”  (This, and all further, quotations, are translated loosely from the original Hebrew.)

“What does that mean?” I said.

“We don’t have it,” she said.

“But I have this Second Notice!”  I would have waved it here, but she had taken it from me, and it lay quite visibly on her work area separated from me by the plastic window.

“Yes,” she said, “but we don’t have it?”

“Then where is it?” I asked.

A fair question, it seemed to me, and I believe the clerk would not have disagreed, but it was, in its complexity, above her paygrade, so she called for a supervisor to deal with me.  It took him a few minutes to reach me from several meters away, and I moved away from the front of the window to allow the clerk to serve the next number. But she did not choose to do so.  Obviously, she was interested in learning on the job; so she waited to see how the supervisor would deal with this difficulty.

The supervisor picked up the Second Notice and went back to look on the shelves.  In fairness, it must be said that the clerk had done a competent job of looking before, and the supervisor proved no more successful in locating the package than she had.

“It’s not here,” the supervisor told me.

“Yes,” I said. “Where is it?”

“We don’t know,” he said.

“Can’t you look up the number on the Second Notice?” I said.

“It wasn’t registered,” he said.

“There’s a number on the Second Notice,” I said, but I was losing the battle. It was clear to me.

“We only have the number if it was registered,” he said.  And then, a spark of insight hit him. “Did you get a package a few days ago?”

“Yes,” I said. “Three days ago.”

“Then this was it,” he said.

“What was it?”

“The Second Notice,” he said. “The Second Notice was a notice for that package.”

“But I already got that package,” I said. “Why would you send me a Second Notice for a package I already got?”

“We didn’t send it,” he said.

“Then who sent it?”

“There’s another office,” he said.  “They sent it.”

“Why?”

“Because they didn’t know you’d already received the package.”

“Isn’t there a record?”

“Not if it’s not registered,” he said.

There was nothing more to be gained here, and a wiser man—of which there are many—would have made a pretense of some understanding (something like: “Of course. Not registered.”), and would have assumed some dignified stance while moving toward the door.  But I don’t do dignity well, and I could not help but believe that there was some sort of logic churning around in the middle of all this if I could but find it.

“So do they send out a Second Notice to everyone whether they have received their package or not?”

He thought about that a moment.  “We don’t know,” he said finally.  “We don’t send them.”

“How am I supposed to know then,” I said, and I could have been whimpering just a bit at this point, “when I get a Second Notice, whether I’ve already gotten the package or not?”

“You mean if it’s not registered,” he said.

“Yes, if it’s not registered,” I said.

“We don’t know.”

“So this Second Notice could be to inform me that there is a package waiting,” I was in summary mode now, “or it could be to inform me that there was once a package waiting, but I have already picked it up, and there is now no package waiting.”

Too obvious to deserve comment. He merely nodded.

“This isn’t right,” I said.  The plea for justice; the last bleating of the defeated. “It’s taken me almost an hour to find out that I might have received a package a few days ago.”

“I know that,” he said, and he had the kindness to try to appear empathetic.

“They’re fixing that,” he said.

“Are they?” I said. “How?”

“We don’t know.”

“Do you know when?”

He shrugged. Better left unsaid.

“Well,” I said.  It was really the best I could come up with at the time:  Well. And then, because I really am Canadian, “Thanks for your time.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Copyright 2017, Gary M. Levine, Jerusalem

 

NORMAN’S STONE

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“…things had happened to their children from which one averts the mind.”
                                             -Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder, 1927

 

I did not know that my brother Norman had ever lived until I was told that he had died.

It was a story of terrible tragedy and, at one and the same time, just another of a million, million minutes, uncountable and uncaring, by which the world makes its way around its axis through space and time.

He was actually the second of three sons my parents would bury.  The first I knew only briefly—he died at eighteen months—and was buried in an available space in my father’s family’s plot. The third was my older brother, who died the year I was married, and was buried in an available space in my mother’s family’s plot.

But their lives and deaths and the illness and suffering that accompanied them is not my story.  Even more than my brothers’, it was my parents’ story. Each would have told it, no doubt, in a very different way. My mother told me only some of it; my father never spoke of it at all.  And, tragedy or natural course, it has passed on with them.

Norman was the oldest of four. As far as I can put it together, my mother’s doctor did not realize that my mother was pregnant when he prescribed some rather extreme medication, the effect of which was that the baby was born severely handicapped, physically and mentally. My parents then spent several years running to specialists until their doctor and their Rabbi convinced them that there was nothing that could be done and that the child would be better cared for in an institution. That there is more to this, I have no doubt, and while I have speculated about what else there might be to flesh out that story, I don’t really know any more than that.

So the baby, Norman, was institutionalized. For a while, they went to see him every Sunday until it drove my mother to something like a breakdown and, at the insistence of doctors, Rabbis, I don’t know who else, they stopped going.  My father never spoke to me about it; my mother never slept a full night again for the rest of her life.

I would have been fourteen years old when Norman died. He was 21 and died in the same institution in which he had lived his life.  I did not hear about it then, I don’t think.  I believe I was sixteen or seventeen when my Mom told me about it. Or perhaps I did hear it earlier. I am not sure. My facts are not reliable; only my stories are true.

Norman was buried in the cemetery which the institution used, but it was not a Jewish cemetery, and my parents insisted that he be moved to a Jewish cemetery somewhere in the area.

I think it was some time after my father died and my Mom needed help that we went through some of the family papers, and we found the name of the cemetery. It was one of a series of small adjacent cemeteries in Whitesboro, New York, somewhere in the region of Utica.  We lived in Toronto then, and in one of our road trips to visit the mothers in Brooklyn, my wife and son and I searched around until we found it.  It was a small plot of land with room for several hundred graves at most, but even with that, there was only a fraction of the land used.  The Congregation which owned the land would seem to have dwindled before the space was used up.  Norman’s stone was at the far end of the plot, alone in the middle of an empty row, a fair way back from the last of the rows of tomb stones: a gravesite, it would seem, bought by a non-member thirty years earlier, set off on its own to be sure that there would be enough room for the family plots that would one day be bought.  A reasonable plan at the time, I suppose.  We took pictures and developed them in New York to show Mom.

She appreciated seeing them and the fact that we had visited. We got the impression that no one had ever visited before.  By that time, Mom’s memory was not consistent, and so I cannot know whether we were the first family members to have seen Norman’s gravestone or not.

It was some years later, looking at one of the pictures I had taken, that I realized that the name on the stone was wrong. Norman’s Hebrew name, my mother had told me, was Nachman Shmuel and the Hebrew name on the stone was Nachum Shmuel, perhaps an easy enough mistake arranging a tombstone long-distance.   I checked the name in the list of yahrtzeits my father had kept in the empty last page of a chumash, and it confirmed that the right name was Nachman Shmuel.  I didn’t tell my Mom about it.

Fast forward. Mom has been gone now for more than ten years.  My wife and I have moved to Israel.  My son and his family are still in Toronto, and in one of their road trips to New York to visit friends—there is no more family in Brooklyn—they stopped at the cemetery in Whitesboro and emailed me the photo of Norman’s grave.  David, my son, did some research for me, and I managed to contact the office of the Congregation that supervises the Jewish cemetery, and a few calls later, I managed to order a new stone for Norman’s grave, there in the back row of the cemetery, with the name corrected and one or two more words added.

A few weeks after I made those arrangements, Joyce and I decided to go to Toronto for a short visit.  We no longer travel well, and that fact, combined with the knowledge that David and his family will be moving to California in a few weeks, suggests that this may be our last trip to the city where we lived for some forty years.  After we arranged to go, I called Mr. Morgan of the monument company that was preparing the stone to ask if the stone might be up by the time we were in Toronto, so that David and I might make the drive down to visit it.  He made some honest effort to have it up before we flew back, but, in the end, we are flying back home now, and since I have missed it, Mr. Morgan has rescheduled the stone for mid-August when he will have other work to do in the area.

David offered to try to get there before he leaves for Los Angeles, but he is going in less than three weeks and has rather a whole life to pack up, arrange, transfer and initiate in that time, and I don’t think that a visit to Wonderful Whitesboro is in the cards. I have asked Mr. Morgan to send me a picture of the stone when it has been set up.  When the picture comes, I will post it at the top of this piece, and I suppose these few words and the picture at the top may be Norman’s memorial.

I have no messages or moral wisdom to offer.  This is just the story of replacing a fifty year old stone for a brother I never met. It is the Jewish custom to place small stones on the tombstone when visiting.  We did so when we first found the gravestone. It may be—I don’t know—that we were the first ones ever to do so.  It may be that no stone will ever be placed on that tombstone again.

People seeking out the tombstones of great people or famous people, long dead, will place a stone as a sign of respect.  Norman was certainly neither great nor famous.  And even the tombstones of the great and famous will wear away sooner or later; the memory of them will fade; the cemeteries themselves will disappear.

Correcting an old tombstone is, then, of no lasting importance.  It rights no wrong; it signifies no victory.  It is a little thing done far too late.

But it was the best I could do, all things considered: an imperfect kindness in an imperfect world.  For my big brother.

Copyright  Gary M. Levine, 2017

RIVER

river

The river, when it is young, slaps and flashes its way against the rocks,
Shooting spray into the air like a cloudburst,
And crashes against the ragged shore,
Showering the short grass,
Punching at the stones and kicking up the mud,
And then laughing as it runs back to play with the rocks and the banks at the next turn.

When the river is older, it runs deeper,
Slower,
And the boats move like wagons on a road,
Swaying back and forth,
But steady and steered  true on the current
That sailors can feel moving
Under the wood beneath their feet,
To move them on,
To pass them over to the next road where the water bends.

An old river is quiet,
So still that even the air seems to wait.
And the currents move so far below the skin of the water
That only the oldest sailors know how to see the ripples
Or to read the little bubbles that pop up noiselessly here and there.
Some will mistake the quiet for death,
And some for wisdom.
But there are those who know how to look below and to find
What breathes and what churns in the darkness of the muddy river bed.

And no one who searches below
Ever returns unsurprised.

Copyright 2015  Gary M. Levine

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