Saturday, January 26, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Via Leila Abu-Saba's blog I learned of Bernard Avishai who posted for the occasion a personal remembrance of the late Ilona Karmel Zucker, holocaust survivor and faculty member at MIT.

Yesterday's mail brought me a complimentary copy of Krista Tippet's book, Speaking of Faith from a publicity company that contacted my small-potatoes blog because I have mentioned her a few times in passing. I'm looking forward to reading Krista Tippet's book (trying all the while not to hear her mellifluous voice in the background...trying to pay attention to the content more than the form).

As I read Avishai's recollections of his old friend Ilona Karmel I thought of Tippett's program Speaking of Faith. Going on several years now, this program is building an archive of interviews which will be a treasure for future historians wanting to listen as movers and shakers of faith of our time explain and elaborate their ideas. In the same manner, Avishai describes how Ilona Karmel became the center of a small group of seekers who set out to read and study scripture, meeting together bi-weekly over a six-year period. This is a delicious piece of prose that I highly recommend.

The smallest mystery, perhaps, was what Ila loved so much about the Bible. Nevertheless I hesitate to speculate about this alone. I like to think there could be a group conversation about this love, with each of her interlocutors contributing a part, which would probably wind up as much a debate revealing our own individual hearts as a body of thinking about hers. But that is precisely the point about the Bible, is it not?, its cragginess and grittiness, its many voices, its stories and projections, its mixture of sublime vision and everyday observation, a chronicle inhabited by unmistakably true human beings, which lends itself to the kind of conversation we were having and was itself that kind of conversation. The books were a first chronicle of other people’s efforts, so obviously failed, to think themselves into greater certainty than they had any right to. Ila loved how earthy and flawed the characters of Genesis were, how God was Himself like that (she hated political corrections of that particular hegemonism). She loved God’s rebuke to Jonah, and aloofness from Job. She loved watching God mature along with His creation, and then have the good sense to pretty much get lost. She loved reading accounts of the Lurianic Kabala, where God collapses and limits himself as an act of compassion. She loved Moses’ charisma, the kings’ tragedies, the prophets poetic daring. She loved Jesus' teaching skill. She resisted any kind of orthodoxy, but quoted often from the codes and chants that became orthodox, from the Shulchan Aruch, or from Dante. The orthodox also had writers, and they deserved a kind of honor on that account. Most of all, I think, she loved the Psalms. Esa eniei, el heharim, meayim yavoh ezri. “My eyes look to the hills, from where comes my help?” She loved Jesus’s example, especially in Gethsemane: “If this cup can be passed let it be passed, but if not Thy will be done.” Hope from nothing. Later, when the Bible group moved naturally to Shakespeare, the echo of this love was for Lear on the heath, and she spoke about the great storm, where one strips oneself to the skin, and saves one soul by throwing the trappings of power to the wind.

There was a time, long ago, when I was in a handful of readers who met regularly to discuss what was then called "the Great Books." I'm sure similar groups meet today but I the demands of work and rearing a family have crowded out whatever discretionary time I might have had for such activities. If blogging doesn't take too much time, I may in retirement allow myself to join or start another such group. I hope so. In the meantime, this gem from the Internets will more than compensate for the loss.


It's now January 27 and this morning I read the opening pages and first of six chapters in Krista Tippet's little book. The book, unlike her programs, reveals a person behind the words. As a journalist she knows and respects the role of an interviewer as someone who holds the spotlight on her subject, asking only as many questions, making only as many comments as necessary to reveal to a listener what her guest has to share. She never reprimands, argues with or embarrasses anyone, being no more important to the program than the paper on which a book is printed, a facilitator, not a gadfly.

I was expecting the same cautious, reluctant writer to be at work in her book but I was way wrong. She exposes for all to see the roots of her faith, from the beloved memories of her Baptist maternal grandfather, whose categorical understanding of right and wrong was so unbending that even her parents saught ways to dilute it, to her matriculation at Brown University and subsequent professional life as a budding journalist assigned to Europe...significantly, it turns out, in East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. She speaks almost reverently of her "wondrous Western passport" which allowed her to compare and contrast in real time the impact that political separation had on two populations of Germans and their non-German visitors. Already I understand how bathing in the same streams as Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, literally, she was marked as their child forever. This book will be a pleasure to read.

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