Friday, September 25, 2009

In Between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur

In between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), we were all treated to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's continuing tirade against Israel and his portrayal of the Holocaust as some mass delusion created by Jews and encouraged by Western governments. All of this from the podium of the United Nations. While many of us inside and outside Israel worry deeply about Ahmadinejad's intentions, we can but hope saner heads and hearts denounce not only his words, but also his deadly intentions toward Israel.

Of course, belief in irrational and extreme ideas goes far beyond the boundaries of Iran or those opposing Jews, the US, or the West. Rationality is not always humankind’s strongest suit. Apparently 1 in 12 (8%) Americans believe President Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. Another 13% aren’t sure. My brother, meanwhile, keeps telling me that Obama is ‘God,’ tongue in cheek to be sure, but my hope is that his assertion provides some counterweight to those other just-as-ludicrous beliefs. Anyway, if you're shocked by those stats, remember just how many Americans think the apocalypse is right around the corner. In a poll from earlier this decade, 17% said they expected the world to end in their lifetime.

So, as I think about those statistics, and as I revisit recent speeches at the United Nations, I'll add my plea to that of Adrienne Rich, one of America's greatest poets (and a Jewish lesbian, to boot, which means she is probably not on Ahmadinejad's short list for a dinner invitation) from a poem she penned in 1950, “At the Jewish New Year,” “May the taste of honey linger / Under the bitterest tongue”.

At the Jewish New Year

For more than five thousand years
This calm September day
With yellow in the leaf
Has lain in the kernel of Time
While the world outside the walls
Has had its turbulent say
And history like a long
Snake has crawled on its way
And is crawling onward still.
And we have little to tell
On this or any feast
Except of the terrible past.
Five thousand years are cast
Down before the wondering child
Who must expiate them all.

Some of us have replied
In the bitterness of youth
Or the qualms of middle-age:
"If Time is unsatisfied,
And all our fathers have suffered
Can never be enough,
Why, then, we choose to forget.
Let our forgetting begin
With those age-old arguments
In which their minds were wound
Like musty phylacteries;
And we choose to forget as well
Those cherished histories
That made our old men fond,
And already are strange to us.

"Or let us, being today
Too rational to cry out,
Or trample underfoot
What after all preserves
A certain savor yet--
Though torn up by the roots--
Let us make our compromise
With the terror and the guilt
And view as curious relics
Once found in daily use
The mythology, the names
That, however, Time has corrupted
Their ancient purity
Still burn like yellow flames,
But their fire is not for us."

And yet, however, we choose
To deny or to remember,
Though on the calendars
We wake and suffer by,
This day is merely one
Of thirty in September--
In the kernel of the mind
The new year must renew
This day, as for our kind
Over five thousand years,
The task of being ourselves.
Whatever we strain to forget,
Our memory must be long.

May the taste of honey linger
Under the bitterest tongue.

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