Friday, July 10, 2009

Remembering Nechamah

I was asked by Rabbi Shalom Berger to comment on an article by Yael Unterman that he posted on Lookjed. I read and then thought and then started writing. I entered magnum opus mode. I kept spinning ideas and sent in some to Shalom, which he posted. It's only part done, my mind - kind of ends in the middle. Once I started I kind of want to do the other part - about Nechamah as a story teller and about things I do in my classrooms and out that relate to the article.

For now I'll write some thoughts here at home base.

Years ago (when life seemed to move slower) I spent five years in Israel. I was blessed to be in Nechama Leibowitz’s class during that time, and more than the scholarship what I hope I’ll never forget is Nechamah's humanity. Nechamah used anecdotes liberally and was a master story teller.

On a hot summer day two men wait an inordinate time wait at a bus stop. One turns to the next and says, “Sure is hot, isn’t it?” If the second guy responds, “yes” then he hasn’t done right. The translation of the first man’s words is – let’s talk. To misunderstand that is a social crime. Her point was that when learning Torah we must recognize that direct translation betrays true meaning which hides in the subtext. The way she made the point was so human that the story became a thing itself.

I don't recall the context in which she told this next one. Nechamah was standing at an outside Chupah and next to her were two little girls. She overheard as one explained to the other what a wedding was all about: "Exactly nine months from tonight they will have a baby!" she explained, as if it was that simple.

Yaakov asked to be saved from being killed, also to be saved from killing. Nechamah told of a student that visited her after his army service. He was different, she could tell. After a while he told her what changed. He'd killed a man and would never be the same. He was in a tank and an enemy tank approached. He thought, how can I kill? And then - if I don't kill, I'll be killed. All this, in a split second. And he killed a man.

Nechamah told a story, which she tied in with VaYeirah, of a man who loved symphonies. She described a unique opportunity the man had to hear a live performance of a symphony orchestra in his apartment: The concert begins and the doorbell rings. Realizing it may be someone in need the man goes to the door, abandoning his beloved music. It's his neighbor. He wants to borrow a cup of sugar. The man happily fetches the sugar and wishes his acquaintance well. He sits back down with his symphony and the bell rings once more. His neighbor wants to know, if it's not too much trouble, if he could spare two eggs. No problem. He gets the eggs. He gives the guy the eggs. He sits back down and the needy fellow is at the door again. This keeps happening. With a smile, our hero provides the man with what he wants each time. He doesn't get to hear the symphony because he put helping another human being over his greatest personal pleasure of the symphony.

Nechamah used this anecdote to explain the extraordinary greatness of Avraham. His symphony was G-d, and it was playing in his home. And he let go of his pleasure, G-d's visit, to take in hungry, tired travelers. The Medrash comments "Gadol Hachnasat Orchim MaiKabalat Penai HaShechina" - "Taking in guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence." I like the way Nechama said it with a story.


Blogger Anne D. said...

"The translation of the first man’s words is – let’s talk. To misunderstand that is a social crime."

This, I think, is the (beautifully stated) distinction between people with a high "emotional IQ" and those who are less attuned to the needs of others. I initiate such conversations frequently with strangers in the supermarket, on the walking path, etc. Sometimes people respond with similar small talk; others ignore me totally (which amazes me!) or reply monosyllabically and move along. I am also one to reply in kind if so addressed.

It feels so mutually good to make even those small and fleeting connections with other human beings. I can't understand people who avoid them, unless they are afflicted with extreme social anxiety.

July 11, 2009 at 6:42 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

I think many people are afflicted with extreme anxiety, social and otherwise. I've been thinking about the presentation on self esteem I recently listened to and am more convinced than ever that most people are under a lot of unaddressed stress.

I really appreciate the attitude you reflect within your comment.

I've been thinking about a comment I had a few months ago that might be meaningful to others. I was vacillating over where to write it and your reference to emotional IQ provides a segue:

I was speaking with someone who is a teacher too about a class I once taught. I described one student in this class as more evolved that the other kids in that group. This other teacher became livid. He/she said that "evolved" is a term used about apes turning into people and that I was implying that the other students were monkeys and that I really shouldn't speak that way - as it's offensive.

The person whom I'm describing is the proud owner of an advanced degree from the paradigm place that comes to mind when you hear Ivy (I.V? I first wrote it that way in a Freudian slip) Leaugue University.

I tried to explain that this is a normative expression, used regularly in an inoffensive manner but this person would have none of it. Upon speaking to several like-minded friends I came to wonder if this person is not so evolved. It makes me sad.

July 12, 2009 at 7:38 AM  
Blogger Dani Schreiber said...

The story about the man in the tank reminds me of the book Ender's Game. Have you ever read it? One of the major themes of the series is about how a young boy doesn't want to kill but is forced to because other people want to kill him. He ends up bearing tremendous responsibility for something he didn't want to do in the first place.

July 13, 2009 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks Dani. I checked out the book at Amazon. It sounds interesting although sci-fi/fantasy is kind of a hard genre for me.

I was most impressed by what the author wrote on Amazon, which I will paste in a moment.

The way you described the book brought to mind something that happened to a friend of mine's uncle. He was a pharmacist, and shot and killed a robber who pulled a gun on him. The police were grateful as this man had been at large for some time. Never theless, my friend's uncle had killed another human being. It shook him up. And he was never the same.


Pt I

230 of 241 people found the following review helpful:

5.0 out of 5 stars

The Author Says a Few Words About Style, September 7, 1999

This review is from: Ender's Game (Paperback)

First, I'm embarrassed, as the author, that I have to give a rating in "stars" in order to comment here. But since I do have to do so, I'm not about to bring down the average by rating my own book any less than five (grin).
For those who didn't believe the storyline, I can't offer much help. It IS fiction, but people have different levels of tolerance for extravagant variations from their experience in everyday life. As Johnny Carson used to say, "Buy the premise, buy the bit."

For those who have commented that the reason the book is awful is because I don't describe, or my language is so very direct and plain, I must point out that there are several stylistic traditions available to a writer. I, for one, have little patience with writers who show off and try to dazzle readers with their language. The style I choose to use has been called "The American Plain Style," in which the author tries to become as invisible as possible, bringing the reader to see things as if experiencing them along with the character, instead of having a writer constantly commenting and interrupting the flow of the story. Moreover, ever since my days as a playwright I have preferred the bare stage to a realistic set: I found that the less I put on the stage, the more the audience would imagine a much more compelling set than I could ever build. Likewise, in my fiction I describe only as much as is asbsolutely necessary in order to understand what is going on; the rest, the readers create in their own imagination, if they're willing to use it. I try never to describe anything that the point-of-view character would not notice, because such extraneous descriptions take you out of the story. However, when I find it necessary I do describe, and when it is useful (especially at moments of denouement or release) I use more evocative language; some of my story endings (though not Ender's Game) are written as blank verse, though of course I run the lines together so as not to distract the reader. I am also constantly aware of the sound and rhythm of the language, so that it flows and remains pronounceable, since at an unconscious level readers all "read aloud" even if their lips don't move - the written word is inexorably tied to the spoken.

July 13, 2009 at 3:24 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Author of Ender's Game Comments On His Book

Part II

In short, there are many aspects to style, and while those who complain about the style of Ender's Game are entitled to their preferences, it's rather parochial to condemn a book because the author is following a stylistic tradition with which they are unfamiliar. Of course, they are hardly to be blamed for this, since so many literature teachers in American colleges and universities teach as if there were only one way to write well, and one kind of story worth telling.

Of course, those who approached Ender's Game skeptically or because they were "forced" to read it can hardly imagine their response is valid for those who read it as volunteers or with belief: No book, however good, can survive a hostile reading.

In the end, a storyteller tells the tale that he believes in and cares about, and the natural audience consists of those readers who are also willing to believe in and care about that tale. Naturally, I would like to engage as many readers as possible with each story I write; just as naturally, every story ever written pleases some and offends others. I do think, though, that it is possible to detest a book without attacking people who loved it, and I do wish that those who disliked Ender's Game would not personally disparage the readers for whom the story had some particular importance. Such judgments as "best I ever read" or "complete waste of time" are so utterly subjective that in my opinion, at least, one should only report one's own response, not condemn others for having a different one.

I thank those of you who have given your hearts to my story of Ender Wiggin; I also thank those who, while you did not like the book, wrote your negative views with dignity and with reasonable respect for others - including, I might add, the author, who, while he might have written a bad book, did not thereby commit a crime or unnatural act. (grin) If America can forgive Bill Clinton, surely there's room for a bit of forgiveness for the imperfections of a few bad writers now and then.

- Orson Scott Card

July 13, 2009 at 3:25 PM  

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