Stories, as I see them, are supposed to come out right. And here’s what I mean by “right.” It’s nothing deep, mysterious or esoteric. Our romantic couple rides off into the Western sunset. They have the time for their trip, because the bad guys – with their unshaven jowls, concave hats and swayback horses – have been left lying dead on the barroom floor. Or else taken off to face Justice in this world.
They won’t try that again – whatever that was. Life should have a rhythm to it. Things should come out right.
That’s how our story had gone by the time Jerry and I first met in person. For half a year at least, we’d been in contact by phone, strategizing (from his position as head of a higher ed organization in D.C. and mine as philosophy professor at Brooklyn College) about how to thwart the college administration’s plan to degrade its award-winning liberal arts program. Against all the probabilities, we succeeded in saving the core curriculum, finally met in person, fell in love and married. Some of the press that had reported our rare academic victory featured our romance as the sequel a year later. The only things missing were the horses.
Some time passed and there were further sequels. Brooklyn College no longer has the core curriculum that we “saved.” More recent reports, from a well-regarded professor whom I trust, tell that the college has become a stamping ground for the new campus anti-semites. Jewish students – who in my day were at ease and self-assertive – now face a situation that is past protesting. They keep their heads down and simply try to survive.
For another example of stories that fail to come out right, let’s take my local temple. I have a history of constructive engagement with it that’s as long as your arm. When I became a temple member over twenty years ago, what was foremost in my mind was concurrently joining its Adult Education Committee.
The first thing I did was bring the great warrior Phyllis Chesler to speak on “The New Anti-Semitism.” Our then rabbi told me that the congregants didn’t like to hear about anti-semitism and I won’t go into the struggle that ensued – a struggle that incidentally did not surprise Phyllis. Over opposition of other kinds, I brought Stephen Spector to speak on his award-winning book about evangelicals and Zionism. For audience, we had about five Jews (not including the rabbi) and thirty-five evangelicals. Anyway, I think the five congregants were at least satisfied that their Christian supporters were not there to try to convert them. I made friends with some of the evangelical attendees and, through them, first encountered Kasim Hafeez, the extremely intelligent and effective former terrorist who now lectures on behalf of Israel. It took me two years to track him, but finally secured his consent to come and speak at our temple. (For that one time, a hand-written card of thanks came in the mail, signed by every member of the Board.)
I was asked to speak in farewell for two rabbis, each departing for different reasons, and I did that. After the first rabbi departed, I served on the search committee that found a successor. When (because it turned out the temple could not pay him) he left, I farewelled him too and we have stayed friends.
When the local museum put on an exhibition that included anti-Jewish cartoons, I got our rabbi to write her – a correspondence that ended with her agreement to get his input on future “controversial” exhibit pieces. I was active in getting the Israel Consul in Philadelphia to participate in a public debate with the local Quakers who, once a week, were holding a one-sided “vigil” against Israel in the center of town. Though, because I’d written about it in my column, I was blamed for the breakdown of a “dialogue” between the vigilantes (my term for them) and some of our congregants – meanwhile the weekly “vigiling” continued on and on.
How did it end? It ended by a miracle, I would say. I joined two of my evangelical friends and Jerry for coffee at the outdoor terrace of Starbucks, fronting the same town square as the vigilers. We read psalms quietly and discussed their meaning, not looking at the vigilers holding their placards nearby. Finally, the four of us joined hands and I addressed the Lord, which I don’t generally do out loud, explaining that I had tried everything – to protect Jewish congregants and townspeople from this weekly defamation ritual – and nothing I tried had changed hearts; all had only gone from bad to worse; everything had failed; now could the Lord please help? I can’t explain what happened but, when we looked up, the vigilers had disappeared quite suddenly and they’ve never returned.
Back to our story: after BDS (the movement to “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” – but only do it to the Jewish state) got approved at the highest levels of the Presbyterian Church USA, a few of us went over with our rabbi to talk to the local Presbyterians. Their historic church included a fine minister and his bellicose congregants. First, our rabbi took questions – like arrows one after another – with grace, humility and candor. From my seat in a front pew, I too made a short speech. It began with the question, “Why did God give the Jews a Land?”
For our young people, there was also my strenuous but unsuccessful attempt to get the temple to invite expert speakers from StandWithUs to brief them on the hurdles they may well have to face on college campuses today.
The last fight I fought for the temple went better, but not in the way of the old Westerns. It was my fight to oust a predator who was relating “inappropriately” (as they say) to women congregants. With Jerry’s help and God’s, we were eventually successful, but not before suffering one of those classic reprisals that get delivered to the whistle-blower – particularly if she is a woman – they saw me as the problem.
When, over time, I began to feel more and more acutely the traumatic effects of this not-so-fine finale, I decided to stay away from all temple activities for some months. Finally, encouraged mainly by the temple’s new and gifted woman rabbi, I felt it would be okay to return – at least for the weekly study by Zoom.
And the leadership? The woman rabbi who had been so encouraging was not reappointed. So far as I can tell, by now there is no one who can or would remember the not-so-short story I just told here.
Over brunch this morning, I shared with Jerry a summary of these broken-off-stories-that-didn’t-end-right. Prompted by my recollections, he had his own tales to tell – that could easily match mine.
It seems there is no necessary connection between a good story and a happy ending! Eternal vigilance isn’t just the price of liberty. It’s the sine qua non for happy endings – and we can’t keep watch over every story in which we may have played a good part.
What’s the moral, then? The rabbis say that righteous deeds raise a barrier against what would otherwise be the floodtide of chaos. They tell of 36 righteous people for whose sake the world is … what? Allowed to continue!
Not to be redeemed, only to continue! Because of acts that put things back in order – the world we live in remains intelligible. We can see how it ought to go. Or how it should have gone. We have a metric: the mitzvah or righteous deed. Absent the mitzvah, we would not know the difference between
how things are
and how things ought to be.