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Holy Amnesia 2010

April 6, 2010 by Reader's Connection


I explained the Season of Holy Amnesia and the symptoms with which I´m afflicted, last year, so I´ll move right on to the reading I´m doing in 2010 to deal with the problem.

Leon Wieseltier’s father died in 1996, and he observed the traditional year of morning, going to the synagogue every day–usually in Washington, D.C., but elsewhere if he was on the road–to recite the prayer called the “Mourner’s Kaddish.” He kept a record of his feelings, his studies, his experiences; and that record became Kaddish.

So it’s a scholarly study of a tradition, but also a highly personal work. Wieseltier dislikes the word synagogue–for reasons that he spells out–and he explains his preference for another word. “Shul” is a Yiddish term, originating by way of the old German scuola from the Latin scola, and it denotes what is, for me, the significant and saving feature of the house of worship as it developed in Jewish life: it is a place of study as well as a place of prayer. “Shul” is a warm word, a Jewish word. I have always found it to be the friendliest of Jewish words, even when I have spurned its friendship. 

I don’t know how much Wieseltier rearranged the chronology of his book–that might be explained as I read on–but it reads like undated intellectual diary, moving from personal reflection to scholarly assertion to the reporting of humorous incidents, without my feeling that a thread is broken.

Years ago, when I stopped praying, the disappearance of the religious structure seemed to bring with it the promise of possibility: every day would begin differently. The adventure of self-creation! But really, was every day begun differently? I didn’t create myself. I merely acceded to other platitudes and other habits. It is not only religion that lives by repetition.

Every morning, a few minutes before seven o’clock, a yellow school bus passes me as I turn onto Massachusetts Avenue on my way to shul. Bless the sameness of days!

In shul, on a swampy morning. A young man in shorts wants to know whether a certain prayer is said with a blessing or without a blessing. “With pants,” he is told.

The Red TentWieseltier combs through ancient texts in his search for the sources of the tradition of the Mourner’s Kaddish. He treasures these works, but challenges their  assumptions. I find his book invigorating, moving, funny, the perfect read while (on my son’s spring break) sitting on a bench in Chicago’s Union Station, or way up in a Megabus, peering down into the cabs of semis.

It’s possible, of course, that you are stricken during this amnesia season and yet don’t feel ready to join Wieseltier on his scholarly journey. Why not read a best-selling novel? Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent reopens Genesis and gives a voice to Jacob’s daughter Dinah, in somewhat the same way that Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia gives a voice to that otherwise speechless young woman from Virgil’s Aeneid.

I have learned from book reviews that Dinah will give a different version of some violent events that develop around her in Genesis; but I’m only on page 54 and already spellbound by her account of the matings of Jacob and the conceptions of his sons.

With best wishes for the season, I close with a quote from Wieseltier.

Abjection, I mean genuine abjection, is not a disorder, or any sort of soul-storm; and there is nothing morbid or glamorous about it. Abjection is just an inference from experience, a conclusion calmly drawn from the commonplace observation that there is a difference in scale between yourself and the universe.

I study the old texts because I hope to be infected by their dimensions. to attain the size of what I read.

Lowliness is not a feeling. Lowliness is a method.


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