5 (Very Jewish) Lessons I Learned from Cutting My Own Hair

It was 1:00 am, and I was done, just done. Done with screens and lights shining in my face. Done with trying to think of everything I might need or want from the grocery store and pharmacy for an entire week. (I gave up on the idea of planning for two weeks at a time a month ago.) Done with having a stagnant list of answers for a growing list of questions. But at this late hour on this particular night, all of my frustration had concentrated itself into one thing: My unruly, out of control, driving me crazy… hair.

It’s generally inadvisable to make rash decisions one cannot undo in the wee hours of the morning, especially decisions that involve scissors. I know. There is an entire professional force of stylists and hairdressers for a reason. In fact, when it comes to professionals I value for their experience and expertise, stylists are definitely in my top five — and not just any experience, but experience with my hair, which makes me a very loyal client. So I have only the highest respect and most profound appreciation for those who actually know what they’re doing in this field. (Even more so now!) But as I looked in the mirror, proverbial wrecking ball in hand, ultimately it was my confidence in their ability to eventually fix whatever damage I would do that emboldened me to take the plunge. That, and the ability of a flat iron to literally smooth over a multitude of sins. (Oh, if I could only return to middle school knowing then what I know now…)

So I did it. I cut my hair! And here’s what I learned:

(1) It wasn’t just about my hair, of course. But in a sea of variables I couldn’t control, this one had stood out. Maybe it was because salons were starting to open up and customers were able to avail themselves of that singular satisfaction of looking, and therefore feeling, like themselves again. I don’t begrudge anyone that experience. I trust stylists and customers are taking necessary precautions and we all have to determine how we are going to navigate our way through a sea of risk. But since I’m one of those with a suppressed immune system, the physical proximity of a haircut feels like a risk not worth taking for the foreseeable future, no matter how much I want one. (And I desperately wanted one!) So a haircut had become a reminder of all of the other risks it wouldn’t be worth taking — and it was weighing on me, literally.

One simple, self-actualized haircut, and that weight was lessened.

I have always found great power in the act of just doing something, one thing. I remember someone’s wise council when I once complained of feeling overwhelmed by a “to do list” a mile long. “So do something and cross it off,” she said. Ha, ha, I smirked, very funny. Why hadn’t I thought of that? But she was absolutely right. I did something, the easiest thing on the list, and as soon as I crossed it off I felt better. I felt energized and motivated to tackle item number two. It’s the same way Jewish tradition approaches observance. All of the strictures of a traditional Shabbat feel overwhelming? OK, start with lighting candles. Next maybe add Kiddush, challah. Then try unplugging your computer on Saturday; take a family walk. Halakha means “the way, the path.” A series of small steps, one foot in front of the other. Sometimes people call this just-do-something approach “baby steps,” but there’s nothing “baby” about them. Each one can be life-changing.

(2) No one noticed. Seriously, no one noticed. Not even the people I live with. Not even my mother. We are all doing everything we can right now to stay afloat, which is not to say we don’t care about one another — we absolutely do! People are making phone calls to check in, dropping off care packages, listening to one another as we take turns unloading the burdens of our anxieties and fears. We “see” one another. But for once — one of the shining spots of beauty in this challenging moment — we only see what really matters. Even as we scan from face to face on our screens, we don’t care what anyone looks like. I can’t remember a single outfit I’ve seen anyone wearing. I couldn’t tell you if someone who normally wears contacts had dug out an old pair of glasses. And it has honestly never occurred to me to notice (gasp!) if someone’s roots are showing. No one is paying attention to these things. They’re doing what we ask parents, grandparents, and little ones to do every Tot Shabbat: To look into each others’ eyes and see their neshama, their soulEveryone is looking past your outer shell, and it’s OK if you do, too.

(3) How did you do the back???” everyone (once I pointed out to them what I did) has asked. Answer: I have no idea. “But you can’t see back there!” they exclaim. Exactly, so who cares? God sees all and knows all, it’s true. But unless you’re Samson, I have it on pretty good authority that The Divine couldn’t care less about your hair. And since no one on Zoom can see the back of your head, it’s pretty much like it doesn’t exist right now anyway.

(4) Sometimes it’s good enough to go into something knowing you’re just going to do good enough. (Kind of like the grammar in that sentence.) One of my favorite teachings in the Mishnah pertains to getting rid of chametz before Passover: You do as thorough of a sweep — literally, with a feather — as you can, removing as much chametz as it’s possible to find; and then you burn it. Done. But what if you then see a rodent? asks the Mishnah. And what if that rodent came from a house that hadn’t yet been cleared of chametz? (Yes, in the Mishnah, the chametz is of greater concern than the rodent. I know… but stick with me.) And what if the rodent brought chametz into your ready-to-go-for-Passover house? One would think you might have to start your whole cleaning process over, right? Wrong! The Mishnah, with as much wisdom as I wager you will find anywhere in Jewish tradition, says: It’s good enough. Essentially, dayeinu. You did your best. You can’t control the rest. And if you tried to, it would never end. How’s that for a lesson for all seasons?

(5) Finally, and perhaps most importantly: When push comes to shove and we need to be, we are, each of us, far more capable than we realize. So whatever challenges this moment presents you with, know that you’re up to it. You got this! And there’s light (and a salon) at the end of the tunnel.

The Jewish Way of Counting.

Parashat Bamidbar

This week’s Torah portion begins a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar. The Hebrew word Bamidbar literally means “in the wilderness,” the location of all of the action in this fourth book of the Torah. Yet we usually refer to Bamidbar by a different English name, “Numbers,” drawing the title from the main part of this week’s Torah portion:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:2-3)

So then we get a list of all of those groups, from the tribe of Reuben and Simeon, from Judah and Issachar, from Benjamin and Dan. Large numbers — 46,000… 59,300… 45,650… — until we reach the total census, the figure of roughly 600,000 with which we’re most familiar, the number of Israelites tradition says wandered the wilderness for 40 years.

Of course, that 600,000 is not all-inclusive. It doesn’t include women. It doesn’t include children and teenagers under the age of twenty. It doesn’t include the elderly or physically disabled. The purpose of the census was to count the number of eligible individuals who could fight for the Israelites in battle. Among this wandering mass of probably over 1 million people, some 600,000 were capable of taking up arms.

The truth is Jewish tradition actually shuns the practice of counting people. It prefers instead to count things. When a previous census was conducted in the book of Exodus, the Israelites each brought a half-shekel to be counted in their place. When King Saul assesses the enrollment of his army, each soldier is instructed to bring one shard of pottery; another time, a baby goat.

And the practice continues in traditional circles to this day. Instead of counting people for a minyan (“Let’s see who do we have here… one, two, three, four…”), it is customary to use a particular verse from the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 28:10, instead: “Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” You might recognize those words from the song we sometimes sing for our healing prayer, Cantor Leon Sher’s “Heal Us Now.” The words mean, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them, and raise them up forever.” But more important than their meaning is their number — the verse has ten words, so by reciting it carefully one can count a minyan by word rather than number.

If you are early enough to a service, in a place where a minyan is counted, you might also hear someone saying, “Not one, not two, not three…” — another acceptable way to count without officially counting.

Why is this important? Why do we avoid counting people one by one? When a practice sounds superstitious, odds are it is, and this is no exception. Some have suggested that singling out a person, one at a time, invites the evil eye. It might be construed as a sign of ego or inflated importance. It also isolates individuals from the community, and it is precisely the community that protects us when we are vulnerable, that gives us strength.

But I think there’s a deeper reason, too. Whenever we count people we risk reducing them to a number, a datapoint, a statistic. We have been counting people since January of this year, when the first cases of coronavirus were documented in the U.S. As of yesterday, there were 1.61 million confirmed cases of the virus in the United States. We have counted so high, that we are rounding to the nearest ten thousand; a margin of error of over 5,000 people. As of yesterday, there were 95,087 deaths from the novel coronavirus in our country; 95,087 souls who have been counted — but have they been mourned? By their families and loved ones, certainly. Though in ways and with practices far different than those that have traditionally comforted us in our moments of grief. But have we mourned them? There has been no collective memorial service, virtual or otherwise, of which I am aware. The Post and Courier doesn’t daily list the names of those who have died in our state — 9 deaths yesterday, 8 the day before, 8 more the day before that. We know every store that is opening, every beach with or without access — yet we fail to account for every life, every soul. Appeals to the economy urge the opening of more and more activity, yet remind us that those over 65, those with preexisting conditions, those with compromised immune systems should still isolate. So are we just leaving them aside in our calculus, a nod to the similarly exclusionary census that begins our biblical book?

Jewish tradition says it’s OK to speak of communal numbers — that’s why the census in this book of Numbers does record 46,500 in the tribe of Reuben; 59,300 in the tribe of Simeon; 45,650 in the tribe of Gad. But it’s because those totals don’t represent numbers; they represent people, people who are named in the text:

“Not one” — Elizur.

“Not two” — Shelumiel.

“Not three” — Nahshon.

“Not four” — Nethanel.

As difficult as it is, when we see the big numbers that define the severity of the circumstances of this moment, we too need to count in this way. Like Echad Mi Yodei in the Passover Seder, “Who knows one?” we ask, “Who knows 95,087?”

“Not one” — Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, former White House cleaner, butler, and elevator operator to 11 presidents.

“Not two” — Nita Pippins, a retired nurse who cared for her dying son during the AIDS epidemic, and then for countless others struck by the disease.

“Not three” — Marie Pino; “Not four” — her son, Marcus, who were teacher and basketball coach, respectively, at a rural school in hard-hit Navajo Nation.

“Not five” — Robert Sears, North Charleston resident and longtime volunteer at the South Carolina Aquarium.

“Not six” — Alfredo Pabatao; “Not seven” — Susan Pabatao, married 44 years, frontline health workers in New Jersey.

“Not eight” — Barry Webber, a general surgeon who volunteered to treat virus patients.

“Not nine” — JoAnn Stokes-Smith, one of the first nurse practitioners in the state of South Carolina.

“Not ten” — Timothy Neal Bell, organist and minister of music for Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Starr, SC.

One minyan of souls, and so, so many more. This is the Jewish way of counting, at least where people are concerned. And that is my most fervent hope and prayer: That people will always be our first, last, and most enduring concern.

“Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” Save Your people, O God — all of your people. Bless us and tend us, and help us to lift one another’s spirits. May we count our days with purpose, our challenges with hope, and our blessings with joy, now and forever.

Amen.

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Nine.

As I bemoaned early on during this pandemic, though we have more time than ever at home, surrounded by books beckoning to be read, we also seem to have less energy and ability to focus on reading them. Which, if you ask me, is just patently unfair. So I thank Amanda Shapiro, whose article, “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book,” provided inspiration and a manageable project for this past week.

While I haven’t (yet) experienced a COVID-19-induced panic attack like the one Shapiro describes, I still found comfort in her strategy to calm down the ramped up anxiety I am most definitely feeling. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 method: “Find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste.” And cookbooks, it turns out, are incredible at all five! “My eyes are focused on a page,” Shapiro writes, “my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.” It’s a “soft-focus activity,” as opposed to the effort required by a heavy read. Like puzzles, crafts, and closet-cleaning, it’s the kind of activity “a lot of us are craving right now.”

The visually stunning Jerusalem: A Cookbook (by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) I found on my shelf fit the bill perfectly!

Winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for International Cooking.

Things to see: Just look at this book — it’s gorgeous! Full page, color photos of nearly every recipe are guaranteed to make your mouth water. But it also includes wonderful shots of Jerusalem itself — aerial pictures of the city; artistic photos of ingredients and delicacies in Jerusalem markets; evocative portraits of the people of Jerusalem, Arab and Jewish alike.

Things to feel: Bibliophiles know, how a book feels is often just as important as how it reads. Jerusalem is a large book, with a puffy cover, whose opened glossy pages lie completely flat… satisfying and comforting, like a weighted blanket.

Things to hear: Ottolenghi owns a group of restaurants in London; Tamini is his partner and head chef. Both were born in Jerusalem — in the same year, in fact — but Ottolenghi, Jewish, grew up on the western side of the city, and Tamini grew up in Arab East Jerusalem. It wasn’t until they were both settled in London that the two men met, but in this book they provide a joint trip down memory lane. With each recipe the reader hears a bit of background that weaves together family stories, as well as those of the many cultures who have come to call Jerusalem home and left their culinary mark there.

Things to smell: Mint, sumac, za’atar, tahini, pomegranate molasses, date syrup, lemon zest… shall I go on?

Things to taste: This one is self-explanatory, but also reader-reliant — unfortunately, as wonderful as this book is, the recipes still don’t cook themselves.

Yet there is even more to the activity of reading a cookbook, which I had never appreciated before simply because I had never done it before. Sure, I’ve skimmed cookbooks, flagging the recipes that interested me or looking up something that will make use of a particular ingredient on hand. But reading one cover-to-cover is different. It means you continue to read a recipe, even if it calls for an ingredient you would usually avoid, engendering a deeper appreciation of the sheer variety of ingredients there are in the world. It means you pay attention to how ingredients come together, the many processes and techniques that bring a recipe to life. It means realizing what can be broken down into smaller components (i.e. what you can make yourself) and what actually does need to be purchased in a market or store.

And one more thing — in a time when movement is limited and we’re all going a bit stir crazy, reading this book was a wonderful means of travel. I truly do feel like I spent part of this past week in Jerusalem — in her markets and stores, her kitchens and restaurants, among her diners and chefs — all accomplished from the safety and comfort of my own home. So, if you’re inspired and pick up a cookbook yourself this week, let me wish you B’teyavon and N’siah Tovah, or Bon Appétit and Bon Voyage!

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Eight.

I’m sharing something a little bit different this week — still from my stacks, piles, and shelves, but this time the book I pulled is a Torah commentary. My hope is that a few words of Torah might offer some inspiration for our current moment and common experience. Click on the photo or link below, and you’ll let me know: If it works, how it works, and if it’s worth doing again.

https://youtu.be/rPBavYRHcCA

Resources:

 

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Seven.

On a “normal” spring day as gorgeous as the one on which I sit typing these words, there would be several, perhaps dozens, of visitors touring the historic grounds of KKBE. Thousands of visitors come to our congregation each year and we can’t wait until we’re able to throw open the doors and welcome them once again. Second only to the privilege and pleasure of worshiping in our gorgeous sanctuary, is the pride in showing it off to others.

More often that not, each tour is marked by certain key moments: (1) when visitors realize there have long been Jews in the South, before some states in the North even; (2) when they realize that, far from dying, our congregation is a thriving, bustling organization of roughly 500 households; and (3) the take-your-breath-away moment of entering our beautiful worship space. Having just completed our restoration at the very moment our stay-at-home efforts to curtail this pandemic began — oh, to be able to hear those gasps now!

But there’s a fourth moment, too; a moment every one of our docents knows is coming in one way or another. The moment of wrestling with slavery.

Often we’re just asked for the facts: “Did the Jews in this congregation own slaves?” The answer is yes. Sometimes few, sometimes many. Sometimes they “offered” the labor of the individuals they enslaved as a contribution to the synagogue. It’s distressing and upsetting and shameful, but those are the facts. Other times we’re asked to rationalize: “How could Jews have owned slaves?” “How could Jews have supported both a synagogue and slavery?” For Sue Eisenfeld, author of Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South, the question is this: “How could the Jews, who celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt each year at Passover, have fought for the South, for the side of slavery?” (p. 5)

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It’s this question as much as any other that sets Eisenfeld on a journey across the South, seeking out stories of both Jews and African Americans, past and present. As a whole, I’m not sure all of the pieces come together. It’s a lot to cover — both geographically and thematically — and, at times, it seems she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Of course, I’m biased. Four of our KKBE congregants appear in the book: Anita Rosenberg, Michael Kogan, Robert Rosen, and Harlan Greene. And while each of them (the first three, especially) get quite a bit of ink, I know their views and ideas to be more nuanced than what is there.

Eisenfeld also loses the thread of her opening question, and the fact is her question, like the others we regularly hear about slavery at KKBE, is relatively easy to answer. How could Jews have participated in the institution of slavery? How could they celebrate their own freedom at Passover while simultaneously enslaving others? How could they fight a war to continue to have the opportunity to do so? The answer is this: They lost sight of, or willfully ignored, the humanity of others.

What makes someone fail to see the humanity in another, to recognize him or her as a brother or sister? Well, that is a much more difficult question. But we know it happens. It happens with refugees and asylum seekers. It happens with impoverished youth and the elderly. It happens with those of differing gender identities. And it continues to happen when people only see the color of another person’s skin, and when they refuse to see color at all. The better question is how do we train ourselves to see differently; to affirm and value the humanity in each and every person we meet?

Someday our congregation will once again open its doors. (It will happen!) Worship will resume in the sanctuary and tours will welcome visitors from near and far. When we do, it is my hope that a new plaque will be affixed outside our sanctuary and seen by all. A task force has been working on this for some time and while the language is still a work in progress, the sentiment is not:

There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other. (based on Mishnah Yoma 8:9)

This sanctuary, dedicated in 1841, replaced an earlier structure that burned in 1838. The first Reform synagogue in America, it was constructed by a Jewish builder, whose skilled workers included enslaved African Americans. Upon the renovation and rededication of the building in 2020, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim rededicates itself to recognizing the errors of the past and reconciling the beliefs of our faith with our actions, as we commit to spiritual growth and social justice for all.

I can’t explain to visitors, or myself, how our forebears lost sight of the humanity of an entire race of people whose lives were — should have been — just as valuable as their own. I don’t think any of us can. But we can do this: We can acknowledge it happened. We can recognize the ways in which it continues to happen. And we can commit to do all we can to chart a new course.

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Six.

This week I turned from my stack of Jewish books to the pile of books about my other religion: Baseball.

No, it’s not a different faith; and yes, still only one God. But baseball holds so many other significant components of religion that I wonder if it isn’t more than mere comparison, transcending metaphor. After reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, I think she might agree.

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Formative memories

Goodwin was one of those interviewed in Ken Burns’ magnum opus documentary on baseball, and noted a common experience among her fellow commentators: “The enthusiastic intensity of their recollections revealed that they were remembering not simply the history of a team or a group of athletes but their own history, and especially their youthful days.” (p. 9) It’s why she decided to write this memoir through the lens of baseball.

My own personal and baseball memories are similarly intertwined. My dad teaching me how to keep score in the stands. Ozzie Smith backflipping into place at shortstop. Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” blasting over the school loudspeaker when the Cardinals won the World Series. Talking with my parents on the phone as we watched, in different states, the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. These are memories rivaled only by family Seders, Rosh Hashanah services, and Chanukah celebrations in terms of power and impact.

Storytelling

Sacred texts not only teach us stories, they teach us how to tell them. The Torah gives us the bare bones of a story, and then each reader, through midrash and commentary, fills in the gaps and fleshes it out. But the story is always rooted in the text — just like a game comes to life from its scorecard. “See,” Goodwin’s father tells her, pointing to her scorebook, “it’s all here. While Robinson was dancing off second, he rattled the pitcher so badly that the next two guys walked to load the bases. That’s the impact Robinson makes, game after game. Isn’t he something?” (pp. 16-17)

It’s why it can take hours to cover both a single folio of Talmud or a newspaper page of box scores — not because of the relatively short text itself, but because of the endless commentary it can spark in our minds.

Sacred spaces

I remember the first time I entered KKBE’s glorious sanctuary. The first time I saw the Kotel in Jerusalem; the view of the whole city from the Tayelet. And I remember the first time I saw the field of a major league ballpark. Goodwin writes of seeing a game at Ebbets Field for the first time: “As we started through a tunneled ramp into the stadium, my father told me that I was about to see the most beautiful sight in the world. Just as he finished speaking, there it was: the reddish-brown diamond, the impossibly green grass, the stands so tightly packed with people that not a single empty seat could be seen.” (p. 48)

The sight of the “impossibly green grass” and perfectly sculpted pitcher’s mound and base paths still takes my breath away. Every. Single. Time.

Sacred rituals

Baseball, like all religions, is chock full of rituals and they govern every aspect of a game, before, during, and after. We often draw comparisons in Judaism between the Bar’chu and The Star Spangled Banner; standing for the Aleinu (which typically and conveniently comes after the sermon) and the Seventh Inning Stretch; and kippot/tallit and uniforms (sometimes they’re even one and the same).

This description Goodwin shares of savoring a victory, of holding onto the feeling of joy for as long as possible, feels so very familiar: “I experienced that night what I have experienced many times since: the absolute pleasure that comes from prolonging the winning feeling by reliving the game, first with the scorebook, then with the wrap-up on the radio, and finally, once I learned about printed box scores, with the newspaper accounts the next day.” (p. 51) Substitute ESPN highlights for the radio wrap-up and I often do the exact same things.

It reminds me of the Jewish ritual of Havdalah, of using the lingering sweet smell of spices and the brightness of a multi-wicked candle to try and savor the joy of Shabbat for as long as possible. When something makes your soul soar, you don’t want to let it go.

Sacred debates

Come on, every religious community has these, right? Which is the better matzah ball — sinkers or floaters? Which Israeli city should you spend more time in — Jerusalem or Tel Aviv? Who gave the right legal opinion about, well, anything — Hillel or Shammai? We know the debates well, and we each take a side. Baseball has them, too.

Exhibit A — Goodwin writing about her childhood as a Dodgers fan: “We spent hours arguing about whether Duke Snider, Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle was the best center fielder. … Who was the best catcher: Roy Campanella, steady behind the plate, unequaled in calling pitches, but a streaky hitter, or the short-armed swarthy Yogi Berra, the most dangerous hitter in baseball in late innings? Was Pee Wee Reese, the “Little Colonel,” who held the Dodgers together, a better shortstop than Phil Rizzuto, who led the American League in fielding?” (p. 66)

Exhibit B — Dr. Anthony Fauci (yes, that Dr. Fauci) reminiscing in a recent New Yorker article about his childhood as a Yankees fan: “We spent our days arguing who was better: Duke Snider verses Micky Mantle; Roy Campanella versus Yogi Berra; Pee Wee Reese versus Phil Rizzuto and on and on. Those were the days, my friend.”

The debates are eternal and you have take a side. It’s the rule.

Superstition

Every religion has a superstitious side, as well. I mean, what’s the value of religious practice if it can’t make an impact on our surrounding world? Some superstitions impact things for the better. Gil Hodges, the struggling Dodgers hitter, made a visit to a local sporting goods store during Goodwin’s childhood, and she went, bearing a special gift for the baseball star: a St. Christopher medal, patron saint of travel, that had been blessed by the Pope. “St. Christopher would watch over his swing so that he could return home safely each time he went to bat,” she reasoned. “[Hodges] accepted the medal with great solemnity. He told me that he, too, had once had a St. Christopher medal blessed by the Pope. But he had given it to his father, a coal miner in Indiana. Mining was a dangerous business, he explained, and his father had broken his back, lost an eye, and severed three toes in a series of accidents, so he thought his father needed the medal more than he did. He was thrilled, he said, to receive a medal of his own.” And immediately, on a road trip that began the very next day, Hodges began to hit. “Sportswriters attributed his miraculous resurrection to his ability to sleep soundly since leaving his [newborn] infant at home. But I knew better,” Goodwin says. (p. 139)

Some superstitions do harm. After trading the autograph of one player for another (the terms of which you can read about in the book, but suffice it to say left Goodwin feeling guilty), “the very next day, Clem Labine” — whose autograph she had traded away — “Clem Labine’s star began to wane. In the first inning of his fifth major-league start, he lost control of his curveball and loaded the bases. … The next batter hit a grand slam.” (p. 147) There is perhaps nothing worse than knowing you’ve done something, or failed to do something, that cost your team a game (…she types as she inspects her “Cardinals shrine” to make sure none of the bobble heads or other collected memorabilia are out of place).

Identity

But perhaps it all boils down to this: If baseball fandom is not a separate religious identity, it is at least on par with one. “My life had been held fast to a web of familiar places and familiar people,” Goodwin writes, “my family, my block, my church, my team, my town, my country. They were part of the way I defined myself. I was not only Doris Helen Kearns, but a Catholic, a resident of Southard Avenue, a Dodgers fan, a Rockville Centre girl. Everything was wonderfully in order.”

Same here! Except substitute Cardinals for the Dodgers. And Jewish for Catholic. And… well, most everything else would need to be changed, too. But don’t worry about it —- because really those are the only two that matter.

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Five.

How is it that books, especially good ones, wind up in stacks, piles, and shelves without ever having been read? There are a number of avenues, of course, but as good a bet as any for me is length. How can I commit to a book that will clearly take weeks, if not months, to read when my ever expanding “To Read” list grows at a much faster clip than that?

That is precisely why Herman Wouk’s classic, The Winds of War, found its way to my bookshelf and remained there for years after I received it (a hand-me-down from someone else’s shelf, in fact). Yep, its 885 pages got it benched — and this: Winds of War, along with its even heftier sequel, War and Remembrance, have been included among the greatest American war novels of all times, and that’s all well and good, but I’m just not a war novel (much less a WWII novel) person.

Except that now I don’t know… maybe I am.

What I certainly have tired of are the books in which WWII or the Holocaust serve as the background. I know this puts me a bit outside the pale as so many — so many — of the generous book recommendations I have received over the years take place during that time period. And yes, there are some wonderfully character-driven, plot-driven, prose-driven novels written against the backdrop of the 1940’s, but that’s just it. The background becomes so common, so familiar, that it threatens to dwarf the action in the foreground, and, for me, often does.

Wouk’s Winds of War is different. This 2015 piece by David Frum in The Atlantic captures it better than I can, especially when he quotes Henry Kissenger’s praise for Wouk’s writing: “It is the war itself.” Wouk takes you across the globe into all of the arenas of action, and into the confidence of the most renowned (and infamous) world leaders; into the nitty-gritty details of military planning aboard a battleship, and then up above it all to the eagle eye perspective of a fighter pilot. “Wouk never lets the reader forget that the Second World War was the biggest collective undertaking in the history of the human race,” writes Frum. “No movie could ever depict it, because no movie could ever have the budget.” Instead, Wouk gives us the details that allow us, the reader, to imagine it all for ourselves; to place ourselves in its midst.

With the war in the foreground, each generation, since the novel’s publication in 1971, is free to see its own context as the backdrop. Of course, my context was the current pandemic, and against that backdrop, a number of themes felt tremendously relevant: How much luxury and comfort are Americans willing to sacrifice for a greater good? Is unrestricted admittance and aid of “others” a threat to the American ideal or the realization of it? Leaving aside for the moment legitimate questions about calling this pandemic “a war,” how can we harness the competence of America’s military to identify needs, craft clear missions, and — more often than not — get the job done?

Then there were passages like this:

The mark of the amateur in any field is to lose one’s head when the going gets hard. What marks the professional is his competence in an emergency, and almost the whole art of the soldier is to make sound judgments in the fog of war. Hitler’s propensity to lose his head took two forms: calling a panicky halt to operations when they were gathering momentum, and changing the objective in mid-campaign. … But Hitler was incapable of listening to anybody. This undid him and ruined Germany.

I’ll let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions about the relevance of that one.

There was this, which in a sweeping novel that seems to accept war as necessary, even at times noble, made me pause and also consider its absurdities:

Gliding across an imaginary line that splits the Pacific Ocean from the north to the south polar caps, the sunrise acquired a new label, June 23 [1941]. Behind that line, June 22 had just dawned. This murky international convention, amid world chaos, still stood. For the globe still turned as always in the light of the sun, ninety million miles away in black space, and the tiny dwellers on the globe still had to agree, as they went about their mutual butcheries, on a way to tell the time.

Wouk is better known for the stories he tells than the turn-of-phrase with which he tells them. Nevertheless, there are now a few post-its in my copy marking passages like the above, and this one from his foreword:

Peace, if it ever exists, will not be based on the fear of war, but on the love of peace. It will not be the abstaining from an act, but the coming of a state of mind. In this sense the most insignificant writer can serve peace, where the most powerful tribunals can do nothing.

So when all is said and done (all 885 pages), how did I feel about this book? Well, let’s just put it this way: Blue Bicycle Books (who is offering free home delivery during this pandemic — buy local!) expects to have War and Remembrance on my doorstep in the next couple of weeks. I have to see what happens to the Henry and Jastrow families next!

Yeah, it was that good.