My Therapist is a Horse

My Therapist is a Horse

By that I don’t mean that it’s healthy for me to relax and do something different, rather than “think” all the time.  I mean Cali [aka California], a tall pinto, is my therapist.

Last Friday, I was having my lesson in natural riding.  Cali decides what path to tread going round the arena.   This time, she was traveling in small, intricate loops that frequently changed direction.  This in contrast to the wide arc, circling the whole arena, that her path normally describes.

My trainer’s intelligent assumption is that the horse is reading Abigail accurately.  When Cali stopped in her tracks, my trainer asked me what was going on in my life just now.

Inside the arena, I’ve learned to respond from the heart.  So I mentioned the cascade of tasks now summoning and descending on me from every quarter.

I’ve connected with a wonderful designer who can prepare the MS of Confessions of a Young Philosopher for publication.  She’s reading the book now and we had a lengthy conversation about the sorts of readers I should seek and related matters.

I want it to have illustrations, like the books I loved from youth – nineteenth-century novels like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.   Why do I want that?  Because I think words and images go together naturally.  Words don’t dwell in empty space.  They live in worlds.  Pictures help locate the world for the words.

Besides preparing the MS, there are things one does nowadays that give the author what is called a “platform.”  One tries to get to be familiar and recognizable to people out there in the great world.  (In contrast, the Bronte sisters, Anne, Emily and Charlotte, disguised their sex by pseudonyms, and I’m with them.  Jane Austen pretended she was writing letters, and I’m with her.)

Be that as it may, one writes to reach people.  At the present time, that means being heard over the pervasive static.   Today people get to be alone when they’re driving.  In their cars, they listen to podcasts.  So I’ll be putting this column on podcasts.  For that you need background music — for the preamble and the “outgo.”  There’s a 1954 French rendering of les feuilles mortes, “Autumn Leaves” that I like.   There’s a whopping fee for the permits.  Otherwise, the French will have you guillotined, just for openers.

Meanwhile, how about a video labeled, “About Abigail Rosenthal”?  How ‘bout that, Currer and Acton Bell (Bronte pseudonyms)?

So why is Cali doing these intricate to-and-fro loops?  Because, my trainer inferred, while you’re being drawn left and right in your efforts to reach readers out there in public space,

DON’T FORGET WHERE YOU’RE HEADED.

What a deep, deep insight!  The human therapist who could match it could name her fee!

The trouble is, I’ve spent a lifetime staying out of public space.  I had work to do.  I had no time to be “a success.”

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not sour grapes.  I “coulda been a contender.”  Omitting tell-tale names, there was the esteemed French philosopher who was clearly looking at me throughout his crowded lecture.  Nothing prevented my going up to make friends after the lecture.   Since I was a beginner in philosophy, I had nothing to tell him that would’ve been worth his valuable time.  If he had other reasons for his interest, I didn’t want to know what they might be.

Thanks to my mother’s cousin, who was Israeli ambassador to Paris, I could’ve met Charles de Gaulle.   I managed not to, since I had nothing to say to de Gaulle.

I shared an office with future opinion-shaper Susan Sontag when we were both assistants at the Columbia Religion Department.   Together we went to a Fair Play for Cuba Committee meeting, back when I was a fervent Fidelista — me and Susan and her friend Irene.  I stopped being Fidelista when the mass executions started, and I don’t recall how Susan parsed that one.  By then I was transferring to Penn State where I finished my graduate studies in a more interesting Philosophy Department than Columbia’s, though it had sub-zero prestige at the time.

When I was an assistant professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, I got an offer from a senior colleague, a man whose shoulders were heavy with international honors.  It was a gig directing a program in feminism.   I said (truthfully) that the gig was not my style.  He answered (truthfully) that I was being “very foolish.”  Golly, when I think of it, I could have spared myself the seven years that followed, fighting to get my job back!

During the seven-year job struggle, a collegial friend introduced me to Hannah Arendt.  She was very cordial and clearly well-disposed.  When my name was mentioned to her later, she recollected me as “that lovely girl.”  I believe she would’ve been happy to take a nice Jewish girl under her wing.  But I wasn’t going under the wing of a public intellectual who had written a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, that whitewashed the Nazi official charged with implementing the Holocaust while blaming his Jewish victims.

Being a “success” is a full-time job.  I didn’t have the time.  I needed to seek the truth of my life through the medium of philosophy.  For that, it was vital to keep my molecules together, rather than dispersed into the public arena.

Given all this, my present efforts to reach a wider public are a reversal of the whole strategy of my life.

Well, my trainer commented, you need to find the rhythm that will include time to recall and renew your real purpose.  You ought not to drive yourself in a way that neglects any present sources of rest and refreshment.

Cali noticed that we had arrived at a good understanding.  Accordingly, she resumed her

supple,

stretched-out,

wide-arc stride

round the outmost circle of the arena.

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Time and Me

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”
Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Time and Me

 When I was a little girl, I didn’t worry about Time at all.  I pretended I was a deer and roved the forests.  I pretended I was a boy raised by wolves and roamed the jungle.  Back then, it wasn’t called trans-genderism or trans-speciesism.  It was the reality of my childhood.  I didn’t raise philosophical questions like, “What’s the difference between the real and the imaginary?”

Sometimes, as when you climb up some tree and can’t get down, or say the wrong thing unwittingly, grownups would point out the difference.  Otherwise, provided you kept within the imaginary boundaries, the difference gave no trouble.

Until one day, you found yourself unable to believe the unbelievable.  You had lost the talent.  Grandpa died, who was (at least in my mind) the king of the Jews.  Mother was away a lot, clearing her parents’ apartment.  Something unpleasantly called adolescence stood at the door.  Anyway, for whatever reason, my imaginary worlds vanished.

Where those worlds had been, a great dark vacancy loomed instead.   And into that emptiness came Time.  As a problem.  It felt to me like

a torrential wind that

carried everything before it.

Suddenly reality, which till then had not been a problem, became an insoluble one.  Take any scene in which I found myself, scene filled with people – so palpable, so multi-textured and many-colored – and let the company depart.  What had happened to that scene?  Where did all that real-life go?  It had become mere memory-traces — almost nothing at all!

It was here.  And then it was not-here.  It was now.  After which it was then.  There was no holding it back or pinning it down.  Everything was either gone — or about to be gone!

How did I get cured?  Time was superficially “cured,” if that’s the right word, by other scenes, non-imaginary, that began to populate my days.

Like for example adolescence, which for me meant being a wallflower.  Or, if a youth finally asked me to dance, well… boys were no longer fun.  They’d become self-conscious and sweaty and were often trying to take some kind of advantage.  Relations with boys were now asymmetrical, out of joint.

My mother hadn’t taught me how to flirt in America because she knew nothing about it.  She knew about coquetterie, in Europe, what the dictionnaire de francais Larousse calls le desire de plaire aux autres: the desire to please others.  It was not the same as being kind or nice.  And it was not second nature.  It was something you learned.  Renee, her French woman friend, gave interesting hints about what it was.  But in America, all that was useless.

What finally tamed Time for me were the intentions that, gradually, by trial and error, I came to recognize as my own.  If you have learned the purposes that belong to your life, Time is the medium in which you can work them out.

It takes Time to realize your purposes.  Without Time, the lessons you need to learn, and the work-in-the-world you need to do, remain unreal — merely hypothetical.

There’s another question that looms the more one gets some idea of who one is and what one is to do here.  That question is,

will I get it all done?

I’ve read somewhere that Michelangelo’s last words were, to his young assistant,

I am dying, Giulio,

and my work

is still unfinished.

From Michelangelo, it sounds like a joke, almost.  Had he shaped one more masterpiece in stone, the world would have staggered under the added burden of appreciation therewith bestowed on us.

One thing his case makes clear however: we don’t know when our work is done, or which thing we did counts most importantly as “our work.”

The other day, I had an insight about Time that was new to me.  It’s hard to explain.  It was more like an image than a string of words.  The words by which I can share it go something like this:

Time is the medium for my thinking and doing, sensing and saying, in the world.

And it’s filled, right now.

All that I was and am and will be

are in it with sufficiency

right now. 

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The Worse, the Better?

“The Fallen Jockey”
Edgar Degas, c. 1881

The Worse, the Better?

In the 1930’s a political strategy known as “worsism” was in fashion.   Worsists believed that

the worse, the better!

This meant, the more desperate people became, the closer we got to the revolution that would bring … whatever it was supposed to bring: a new heaven and new earth, I suppose.

I dunno about that.  When I need to chill out in the evenings, I’ll sometimes watch an old-time western movie.  What I like about them is the way everything works out in the end: the bad guys finish dead on the barroom floor, the good guy rides into the sunset in his well-creased Stetson hat, alongside the prettiest girl in the West.  They’ll start a new life in happy-ever-after country.  It NEVER fails.

So you can imagine my dismay the other night when, at the end of a well-acted, well-scripted, technicolor western film, the Arapahoe kill every last defender, burn the fort, put a lance all the way through the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, put an arrow in the bosom of his true love, and that’s … The End?  The credits come on.  I couldn’t believe my eyeballs!

My inference?  If you think, “the worse it gets, the better it will get,” you might be wrong.

Here’s another example that comes to my mind.  Among the most influential thinkers of the last hundred years is the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger.  One awkward fact about Heidegger is that, in the 1930’s, he joined the Nazi party.  When the dust settled after the War, nobody quite knew what to think about that.  However, one of his former students was a respected political philosopher named Hannah Arendt and she vouched for him; it had been a brief episode, she wrote.  He’d been out of his depth, but hadn’t meant anybody any harm.  We all make mistakes.

Recently, Heidegger’s private journals are beginning to see publication.  The first set, dating from the 1930’s, has been published as (appropriately enough) The Black Notebooks.  The newly available material makes clear that Heidegger was – in the run-up to the War and post-War to the end of his days – a deeply committed Nazi.  So Arendt was certainly wrong when she wrote that his Nazism had been a mere “escapade” before he returned to his native residence, the “residence of thinking.”  Apparently, at the hearthside of his residence of thinking, the flame of Nazism was kept lit and burning.

Since he is considered a very profound metaphysician, Heidegger’s was (his defenders claim) a metaphysical Nazism, not just the crude empirical kind.  And his enmity toward Jews wasn’t mere biological racism.  Oh no.  What he repudiated was the metaphysical Jew.  Not surprisingly, the metaphysical Jew had virtually all the traits that anti-Judaism ascribes to the actual Jew.

Bad enough?  There’s worse.  After a brief pause while the shock of this news sank in, articles currently posted on academia.edu give us an array of philosophers writing about the “Jew” of Heidegger – as if it were now intellectually respectable to discuss this imaginary entity!  What’s being admitted into polite philosophic discourse are the oldest calumnies, familiar to anyone who knows how the oldest-hatred-in-recorded-history sounds!

What do I think about all this?  First, I notice how rapidly – almost instantly! – the unthinkable becomes thinkable (and of course, the thinkable becomes doable).

Second, I notice what happens to me as I take in this kind of information.  The “mystic chords of memory” are plucked and, in this case, the memories are extremely frightening.  They actually include a weird (if you like) “memory” of a past life in Germany in the 1930’s, in the run-up to the Holocaust.  I remember exactly how I died and what I was thinking as the sealed truck filled up with carbon monoxide.  Could it be a false memory?  How would I know?  I only know I have it.

And of course, the Holocaust was not just a great big massacre.  It was the end result (predictable retrospectively) of roughly 2000 years of theologically-originated demonization.

Now let’s just rise vertically above that sad scene for a few moments and see how the current epidemic of anti-Israelism fits into the bigger story.   Functionally, it evens the moral score.  If Jewish suffering – the Holocaust — makes a person feel some kind of guilt or compunction, well, not to worry!  The Israelis are just as bad!  They’re worse!  They’re the very worst thing on earth!  Blah, blah and blah.

Anti-Israelism has little to do with Palestinian suffering.  As ex-terrorist Kasim Hafeez put it, if people really cared about Palestinians, they’d be incensed by the leadership’s embezzlement of funds raised internationally to support the Palestinian population, for one example.  The pro-Palestinian placards have as their aim delegitimizing the Jewish state – and, increasingly, the Jews who walk that gauntlet to get to class.

And that’s about curing the discomforts of inherited guilt?  By incurring fresh guilt?  Get out of a hole by digging in deeper.  What could be more logical?

From my lessons in natural riding, I’ve learned the power of intention.  You can get a horse to move if you focus your intention on how he is to move.  Without any physical aids!

In the 1930’s, the liberal answer to worsism was meliorism: step-by-step, incremental social improvement.  Would that cure the latest wave of anti-Jewish feeling?

While I have nothing against meliorism, in my experience, that’s not the way the cure for this syndrome works.  Anti-semitism can take over a person, a political party, a social climate, overnight.  And from what I’ve seen, the recovery from anti-semitism is equally sudden.  Somehow one sees that one has been boxing a shadow — one’s own delusion.  It looks silly.  One just stops.

But how to bring that about?  The Jewish tragic sense – “It’s back!” –  only incites the defamer.  How can one respond to these energies so as not to whip them up?

The anti-semite, working himself into a lather of phony indignation to camouflage inherited guilt – could surely be induced to see the comedy of himself.  If I could only get way high above the battle,

I’m sure I could find a joke funny enough.

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Androgyny?

Androgyny?

“The Lure of Androgyny” is the title of an article I just read.  It reports that the trend to downplay biological differences between the sexes is now world-wide.  This is different from giving women equal opportunity.  More like:

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A WOMAN.

The writer, Mary Eberstadt, gives many illustrations.

Of late, physical qualifications for serving in the military, the police and fire departments have been (as Eberstadt puts it tactfully) “altered.”

Yeah, altered.  Having myself been caught in a very bad city fire, where one woman died, I would not have liked to peer down at the floor of flames below, only to see a fire-woman climbing toward me up the rescue ladder.

In the entertainment fields and the arts, prizes are no longer awarded to actors and actresses.  Everybody’s an actor now, Hamlet and Ophelia both.  (Okay, as long as she can drown like she used to.)  Pop music is following suit, but I don’t know enough about that to recognize Eberstadt’s examples.

Blue jeans (as it happens, my garment of choice) have been unisex for decades of course, but now high fashion designers are turning out unisex outfits for every occasion.  Could be cute; what do I know?

Bathrooms are going unisex.  (No need to go there; I have a whole column about the effects on my bladder.)

So are sports, to the manifest disadvantage of women athletes.  (One of the beauties of sport is its truthfulness.  The question of who won and who lost can’t be fudged.)

Why did all this happen, some of it fairly recently?  The writer offers her own explanations.

For one thing, the sexual revolution – from Woodstock to now — urged women to make unencumbered “pleasure” their objective.  Make love like a man – you can do it, girl!  This purportedly liberating desideratum came with a tacit social threat:

“if you, little girl, are looking for security,

trust, respect, etcetera,

 you’re probably INHIBITED.

And God forbid you should be inhibited.”

Another factor, possibly related, was the proliferation of single parents, usually female.  What with one thing and another, women had to learn to defend themselves and boys, raised without protective fathers, grew up without the influence of that role model.

When Jerry and I fell in love, one of the things he said to me was that he wanted to protect me.

Protect me? I thought indignantly. 

Why would I need protection?

I’m a New York girl!

In the years we’ve been married, I couldn’t begin to enumerate the times when Jerry’s world-wise, steady, intelligent protection proved to be absolutely necessary for me.

Eberstadt’s article also covers the corresponding pressures on men and boys to act less obviously male.  In the past year, The New York Review of Books reviewed a book that dealt with the effects on boys of this new devaluing of maleness.  Although the review avoided polemic and dealt tactfully with this delicate subject, it must have drawn some push-back.  This in turn prompted the management to issue a formal apology.  Which in turn led the staff to protest the apology as censorship.  (Naturally, I’m with the staff.)

Chewing on all this, I retrieved the essay, “And God Created Woman,” by the widely respected and influential French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas.  He is commenting on a rather intricate rabbinic discussion of the relations between the sexes.  The upshot, for Levinas, is that the highest relation between men and women is as one human being to another – NOT as man to woman.

Here he sums up his view.

Woman is not at the summit of the spiritual life

the way Beatrice is for Dante.

It is not the “Eternal Feminine”

which leads us to the heights.

Hmn.  One human being to another?  One reason that a truthful woman who’s been victimized by a man will be reluctant to come forward is that her very complaint draws unwanted attention to her vulnerability.  The woman hopes that her complaint will summon gallant men to defend her honor.

What she fears is the debased response to her report that she’s been treated as a target.

The debased man will treat her complaint

as a prompt

 to target her again.

The vulnerability of women has not gone away.  What has been discouraged and derided is the urge to respond to that vulnerability honorably.

What’s the moral?  Debased homo sapiens sapiens will see in weakness the opportunity to exploit and misuse it.

By contrast, seen through the lens of ideality, vulnerability prompts protectiveness.  Ideality prompts even more than that.  The poet put the matter plainly:

I could not love thee, Dear, so

much,

Loved I not Honour more. 

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What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?

“Head of Christ”
Rembrandt, c. 1648-1656

What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?

The other night this question kept me up half the night.

I’m not concerned with his orthodoxy.  He allowed healing on the Sabbath and held that what you said could be more polluting than what you ate.

He sounds like a Reform Rabbi.

He couldn’t stand people so fixated on “doing everything right” that they let nobody else through the gates of heaven and weren’t getting in themselves either.

He sounds like someone who

could tell crap from clay.

Was he differing from his co-religionists when he criticized Pharisees who “thanked God that they were not like other men”?  Actually, he was quoting one of the Pharisaic parables of self-criticism.  The Pharisees themselves had drawn that distinction, between the good ones who prayed in secret and the bad ones, the show-offs, who didn’t practice what they preached.

So far, it seems, he was a perfectly recognizable kind of Jew.  So what was keeping me up half the night?

Well, let’s start with me.  What do I mean by a Jew?  Why, if someone nails me as “a Jew,” do I agree that that is indeed what I am?

It’s not like getting a big social promotion.  It’s nothing like getting knighted by the Queen.  To what am I agreeing?

I wasn’t raised in such a way that Jewish practices got to be second nature.  I sometimes say that I belong to a Reform temple because “they’re the only ones who would have me.”

Here’s my general sense of it.  Everyone is in the midst of living his or her nonfiction life story.  At some point along one’s particular plotline, one might notice that God is there as a Witness and can be the Unseen Partner in one’s story.

It’s what Abraham discovered: that he had this kind of partnership with God.  It’s the Ur-Story (literally!), the paradigm case.   And Jews?  They are God’s pilot project – the paradigm case of the story we all live.

As everybody knows.

So what exactly is it that puzzles me about Jesus as a Jew?  Abraham had a story.  Jacob/Israel had a story.  King David – they all had stories.

What sort of story did Jesus have?  By now, Jewish readers are no doubt put off by any protracted discussion of the man in whose name co-religionists have been pitilessly persecuted for about the last 2000 years.

Me, I don’t blame Jesus for what was done in his name.  But meanwhile, Christian readers must be waving the four gospels at me and repeating with exasperation,“Here!  Isn’t that a story?”

My answer would be No.  The stories I mean, stories of a Jewish type, are situated within the real constraints of a particular culture, a given juncture in history, and a local context in nature.  Storied people have health problems, cosmetic problems, romantic longings, economic concerns, social and psychological vulnerabilities, and so on.

Here’s an example of Jesus seemingly riding through concerns like those.  Jesus says:

If a man takes your coat,

run after him and

give him your cloak too.

As I write this, as it happens, I can’t find my favorite, demi-saison, brown coat with the French cut.  Don’t think I’m not depressed about it.

About coats and the people who grab them, the rabbis have a different saying:

Justice without mercy is cruelty.

Mercy without justice is promiscuity.

In other words, the rabbis think that the secret of living is to maintain a balance while you move forward along the plotline of your own story.  To avoid other-worldly extremes at the top or at the bottom.

If you stay in that mid-zone — or keep trying to — you will live a story: the story of how you stayed there, losing your balance, finding it again, and going forward.

I’ll omit the Messiah Question, but if Jesus was expected to bring about Isaiah’s vision, it is still inadvisable for lambs to lie down with lions.  That’s not a pussycat lookin’ at you.

What kind of a Jew was this man from Nazareth?

I don’t have the Christian answers because I don’t pose the Christian questions.  For me, the Jewish question is,

what’s the story

with Jesus?

What’s he doing and what does he expect me to do about it?  Well, of course I don’t know, but here’s what came to me the other night at about 4:00 a.m.

He had a heart so full, so full-to-the-bursting with love, that his words went to extremes, as a way of signaling his own filled-up-ness.  How to interpret it?  I think it’s a mistake (except in rare instances) to take it literally.  You can’t walk off a cliff and expect not to fall just because Jesus said, “Take no thought for your life … God’s eye is on the sparrow.”  The sparrow has wings.  You better look where you’re going.

But it is a way of signaling … a certain largesse …

in the Region of Trust.

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Red Letter Day

Red Letter Day 

In recent columns, I’ve alluded to reversals of fortune, a succession of them, coming in the form of rejection letters.  Two came from senior editors who turned down an article, controversial and breaking new ground, which was on a topic closely attuned to their readers’ concerns.  When I read a version of that article at a panel last year, a fellow panelist turned to me and said that you could hear the silence crack in the room and that, based on what I had read to them, he would have to change his course curriculum.

So the recent emails were disappointing, but I did not internalize the editors’ rejections.  Too bad.  Still, I knew the worth of what I had submitted to them.

The third editor was different.  She turned down my book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  Let me set that in context.  Confessions was recommended to that editor by a person held in highest esteem at that university press and recognized as knowledgeable in the areas relevant to my book.  Confessions is also the focus of an entire chapter of different book forthcoming at that very press.  It’s quite unusual for an unpublished book to be described in detail and liberally quoted in a book that’s on its way to publication.  The editor of the book on-its-way-to-publication that cites mine is the same editor who just turned down Confessions!

Nor is this the first time something of this kind has happened with Confessions.  In four previous instances, it has been recommended by highly-regarded, well-connected, experienced book people, who had reason to think their words carried weight with the publishers or editors they volunteered to contact. Sometimes they were simply rebuffed.  When the rejections came to me in writing, they praised the book but said it did not fit their lists.

I have run out of big shots.

Previously, a long tally of university presses also said that Confessions didn’t fit their list.  The trade presses (like Random House & Simon & Schuster) will not look at a submission unless it reaches them through an agent.  I have knocked at the door of every agent remotely suitable for this book.  It didn’t fit their lists either.

A word about Confessions itself.  As the title indicates, it’s a memoir, a personal journey, thus a feminine journey.  But the journey is not merely personal.  It traverses current worldviews, philosophical, political and religious.   Nevertheless, it’s not an “abstract” book.  It’s novelistic.  In the true story I tell, contending worldviews were not just worked out on paper.  They were lived through thoughtfully, as a test of their truths and their untruths.  The book offers an original take on a spectrum of issues hard for most of us to escape: the asymmetrical relations of men and women; love, sex and seduction; marxism, existentialism, millenarianism, and anti-humanism; relations between the races; identity politics and anti-semitism.

Readers can learn from it.  It sheds light on lives we are all living, and issues all of us encounter nowadays.  So my concern for this book is not just personal.

After a week or so of mulling over the whole situation, it came to me that – barring some surprise development – by now I have pretty much turned over every rock.  What remains is self-publishing.  For various reasons, I’m told that’s no longer viewed with disdain in the publishing world.  Self-published books sometimes get literary prizes.  It’s a little like going to a ball without a partner.  If you have other qualifications, your dance card might fill up just the same.

If you self-publish, you own the book.  You can offer it and advertise it on any terms you choose, sell it on amazon and continue to do so as long as you desire.  If you want a certain font, you won’t have to convince your editor.  If you want illustrations by original artists, you can hire one.  In the nineteenth-century novels I have loved, words and images were paired.  They should be in this book too.

Since reaching this decision,

I’ve felt lighter,

more at home in the world.

I went for a riding lesson last Friday, at the stable where natural riding is taught.  You don’t use crops or spurs.  You communicate with your body and your intentions.

Before mounting, my trainer instructed me to lunge California.  At one point, Cali stopped, broke the circle and came over to stand in front of me.

“What’s she doing?” I asked my trainer.

“She’s saying that she messed up and she’s coming over to acknowledge you as her leader.”

All my life, I’ve respected horses, while knowing perfectly well that they did not respect me.  Our relationship has not been reciprocal.

So this — respect from a world-wise pinto — is a first in my life.  After this, who needs a tacky old Nobel Prize?

For me, let’s face it.  This is …

 A RED LETTER DAY.

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The Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna

My mother, a schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher

The Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna

The book I’ve just finished reading had an impact on me greater than any book I can remember.  By impact, I don’t mean long-term influence on my heart or mind.  I mean something like being kicked in the chest by a horse!

The author, Edmund de Waal, is a young man of mixed background, Jewish on his mother’s side, and the book’s title is The Hare with Amber Eyes.  It refers to one of the tiny Japanese figurines (netsuke) that de Waal — eventually and by a circuitous route – inherited, long after the Nazis had thoroughly pillaged the art works once owned by his mother’s people.

Because Nazis are conceded – even by people who deem all values subjective and relative – to be evil, they have a continuing fascination.  We don’t have experience of anyone or anything that is good unqualifiedly.  But thanks to Hitler, we have at least one moral certainty:

Nazis or Nazism

 — what they believed and acted on —

was evil.

Inevitably, three chapters of my book, A Good Look at Evil, deal with Nazis and Nazism.  In preparing it, I read trial transcripts, memoirs, propaganda, and many of the major works dealing with the Holocaust.  I found this research depressing.  Once, talking in French to a survivor whose large eyes signaled indelible surprise and the permanent anticipation that no one would believe her, I was in tears.  Sometimes, reading about the clergy that went along with Hitler, I was angry.  But I never once felt that I’d been kicked in the chest by a horse.

The Ephrussi, maternal relatives of the author, were among the great Jewish banking families of Europe.  Like the Rothschilds.  They emerged out of Tsarist Russia in mid-nineteenth century, stopping long enough in the port city of Odessa to slightly alter their names along lines more elegant and international.

My mother was born in Odessa.  Her father, my grandfather, was chief rabbi in Odessa, probably some decades after the Ephrussis had emigrated.  I never asked mother about Odessa, though I have a sepia photograph of her from Tsarist days, a soulful Russian schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher.  By the time she was in her teens, the family had moved to Switzerland.  Mother went to high school and university in Lausanne.  But that’s another story.

So my family brushed by the Ephrussi, but we were never as rich or as secular as they.

The Ephrussis had branches in Vienna and Paris, with great mansions in both cities.  The eldest son in each branch was dedicated to the firm.  The younger ones could pretty much march to the beat of their own drummers, personal and idiosyncratic.  Typically, they became avid collectors and, to some extent, tastemakers.  In Paris, Charles, the youngest son, was probably the model for Swann, the hero of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Quest of Lost Time).  The family mingled with the beautiful people in the best circles.  They gave stupendous dinners.  They changed clothes three times a day.  Charles patronized and advised the new painters: Degas, Renoir and the rest.

That is, they did all that until the Dreyfus Case, wherein a young French Jewish officer was convicted — on charges later shown to be fabricated — of treason.  L’Affaire divided France.  Needless to say, in the best circles, the anti-Dreyfusards predominated.  Suddenly and uniformly it was “discovered”: the Ephrussis were, after all, Jews!  Their sumptuous dinners, their tasteful at-home teas … were declined.

Meanwhile, all the while, a dull, muffled growl of resentment at Jewish success –in all the walks of life where Jews had any presence – was growing louder.

How predictable!  By any sociological measure, a foreign people — who show more skill than the natives in mastering the arts, sciences, manners and attitudes of the host culture – will be resented.  Now factor in two thousand years of rancor theologically rationalized, but struggling to find new channels in a newly secularized Europe – and one knows that this cannot end well.  It will only be a matter of time.

The kick in the chest to which I allude occurs in the Vienna chapters, where the Nazis have taken over the government and public life … more or less from within.  Here, for want of time and space, I have omitted the author’s loving portrayals of that branch.  The break-in, first by wild, raucous mobs, then by the more orderly Gestapo, is described only in Vienna.

To watch the hate-filled mob tramp through the meticulously ornamented portals and stairways, wresting paintings from their frames, tossing out a collector’s library, throwing majestic pieces of furniture down the stairwell, confiscating or smashing items precious and rare – was extraordinarily shocking.  It sent my whole system reeling.

What does it all mean?  I omit the author’s description of a family terrorized and deprived of every social help.  One has read such stories.  How should the unique features of this one be comprehended?  Why am I so kicked in the chest?

Should it not have been obvious to these faux-Parisians and faux-Viennese that their way of life wasn’t prudent?  If outsiders emulate the mores of the ancient families of Europe – no matter how perfectly they do it – they invite a day of reckoning.   Certainly my grandfather would have known it, intuitively and thoroughly!

But the secularism, the aestheticism, the European-ness of these newly-arrived families was quite sincere.  It was not an affectation.  They were happy to change clothes three times a day and they did it well.

In thy name shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

In what did “the blessing” that God laid on Abraham consist?  Precisely in this: to be a witness to the world of what happens between God and humankind.

The Ephrussi family was situated in one peculiar sector of the European scene — to which they were present unreservedly.

Their presence helps

to make what happened

intelligible.

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