I’ve thought a lot about Isaac Babel’s lovely characterization of the Jew as a man with “[s]pectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” The first part is easy: the man is an intellectual, a scholar, a thinker. He is frail, fallible; his eyes are weak and his touch, perhaps, is tender.
The second part is sexier, and more open to interpretation. What does it mean to have autumn in your heart? Is this just an aesthetic flourish, a fancy way of saying that Jews have the souls of poets, that our insides glow amber like sunlit leaves? Would the effect be different if Babel had said, instead, that the Jew has spring in his heart?
Perhaps I’m staring too closely, ignoring the forest for the view of a single tree. But ours is a culture of close reads and commentary–think of the Talmud, think of the overflowing comments section on almost any Jewish blog. This is why we wear spectacles on our noses–we study, we struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible. Think of the sages up all night in Bnei Brak, arguing over the haggadah. Think of what Hillel said — “the rest is commentary, now go and study” — who understood both the simplicity of morality (Do unto others…) as well as the infinite tessellations of its applications.
There is something about autumn. In autumn, we celebrate the new year. In autumn, the book of death is unshelved, left open for a week; the prospect of unwritten death hangs above us. As the leaves fall and the plants die, we face mortality. We savor the sweetness of life and humble ourselves before nature.
My favorite holiday growing up was Sukkot. Beginning five days after Yom Kippur. The harvest festival, Sukkot, reminds us of our history as itinerant agrarians. Our ancestors would sleep out in their sukkahs during the final weeks of the harvest, before the winter frost. They would sleep under the stars and celebrate the bounty of the harvest. We are meant to do the same.
My family wasn’t particularly religious — we occasionally, but rarely, attended a gaudy synagogue I found spiritually void. But we did have a sukkah every year. My mother, an artist, built one out of wood and painted it blue with white polka dots, and inscribed it with lines from Amichai poems. We would decorate the structure in hay, corn, gourds, and flowers. Friends and family would come over to feast and drink wine. When the crowd had dispersed and the sun disappeared I would make one last trip to the sukkah. I would lie on the grass floor and stare at the stars. I would feel the wind on my face. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I remember feeling small, dwarfed by the universe. Perhaps what I felt was autumn in my heart.
There’s a great Seinfeld episode–and one I relate to–in which George Constanza worries that he must have cancer because his life is going well for the first time ever. “I knew God would never let me be happy,” George tells his therapist.
Like many secular Jews, I don’t believe in God, but I do fear His wrath. Whenever something good happens to me I can’t enjoy it because I’m waiting for retribution. Some of the best moments in my life have been ruined this way; achievements–both professional and personal – have been mired either by illness, or fear of illness. I’ve had the flu at every one of my birthday parties since the age of five. Whenever I’m taken to a nice restaurant, my overactive stomach won’t let me enjoy the meal. The year I was supposed to be the opening day starting pitcher for my little league team I injured my finger during pre-season and never pitched again. Like George, I don’t think God will ever let me be happy.
All my life, I have wanted to publish a novel. That dream will become a reality on Tuesday, so of course I’ve been sick in bed for the past two weeks with an unbeatable cold and a really uncomfortable throat infection. All I want is to enjoy my book party, and now it doesn’t seem like that will be possible. None of this surprises me. I don’t believe in God, but I do think he’s pre-emptively punishing me for the hubristic attitude I would have if I was healthy.
I often think of God not letting Moses into the Promised Land. Sure, maybe Moses was being a bit cocky from time to time, but didn’t he deserve to celebrate? I mean, they were in the desert for forty years! The punishment didn’t fit the crime. And then there was Job, whom God punished just to make a philosophical point.
Is this why even the secular among us fear God so much–because the Old Testament God could be cruel and vindictive?
I’d like to think it has nothing to do with God, that it’s not God punishing us for our hubris and moral shortcomings, but ourselves. I’d like to think it’s because we hold ourselves to high moral standards, and feel we must humble ourselves. We’re not being punished, so much as remembering our own humanity, our own mortality.