Sunday, April 1, 2007

Why Is This NIght Different?

I come from a number of cultures.

In lovely, delicious ways, I am of all of them.

In other, lovelier, even more succulent ways, I am of none of them, alone in a sense, but connected by a high-speed, broad-band network of incredible sophistication.

In one of the cultures I am from, it is fast approaching that time of year. Sunset tomorrow. The lights go down, the candles go up. We gather, and someone--in years past, it was me--the youngest of the gathering, asks the first question: Why is this night different from any other night? And we are off and running on the things of which ritual is made.

Here, at this very point, is an indelible memory of an even greater treasure. In the scenario of the Passover Seder, the answer to that question is invariably: Because on this night, we eat unleavened bread.

I can remember any number of occasions, including the ones where I finally got to ask the question, the battles that ensued, the pilpul,or Talmudic hair-splitting, if you will of which was in fact the youngest. Who had the credentials to ask the question? I also remember a jealous cousin trying to disqualify me with the distracting argument ad hominem, He skipped fifth grade.

The only thing of relative weight for me was the scene in Michael Chabon's memorable novel, Wonder Boys,in which the only participants in a Seder able to read and recite the Magilla, (The Book of Esther) were native Koreans; the Caucasians present were, alas, limited to American English.

Although at one time I could read and speak Hebrew, I can no decipher the Hebrew words in the Yale emblem attached to the blazer Barnaby Conrad sometimes wears. And yet, I am of that culture and, as Huck Finn said in another context, rotten glad of it, because I was raised in it, of it, and for it. As anyone from any culture must inevitably feel, I am sometimes embarrassed by it. Try, for instance, ignoring what some of my brother and sister culture-ists are doing to Palestinians. Try, for instance, hearing contemporary accounts of the activities of the extremists in my culture, arbitrarily deciding which of us "belong" in the culture--are, indeed, a legitimate part of it. Further indeed: All outrages against humanity may be found within the culture from which I emerge. The reason being that this particular culture is populated with human beings.

The late great philosopher, George Santayana, himself from a particular culture, said of it (The Catholic Church), "I love her, though I know she lies."

Leonard Tourney, a man more devoted to the ritual of his culture than I of mine, also a man with whom I have co-hosted writing workshops and acted in mystery plays for twenty years, and I are able to smile warmly at the lovely anomaly in which each can with legitimacy consider the other a gentile.

Some of my best friends are of cultures.

I am also of the writing culture of which I may--and do--express the same dismay as with my religious culture, each of my two major ethnic cultures, and certainly of my educational culture. I not only feel about UCLA the way George Santayana felt about the religion he was issued at birth, I feel it morally wrong for UCLA to have lost to Florida in the semi-finals.

In some ways I am a walking package of bigotry, carefully nurtured in each of the cultures I represent. The Vaishnavas, well, they got rights, too, but the Shaktas rock! Somebody has to write plot-driven stories, but character-driven stories are clearly more plausible and textured. Swing was okay, but from the moment Gillespie and Parker began flatting fifths and running chord changes so that "Back Home in Indiana" came out sounding like "Donna Lee," jazz came of age. High baroque was righteous enough, but if J.S. Bach had lived long enough, he'd have invented be-bop.

I keep thinking of my friend, Janet, in beautiful downtown Pennsylvania, who during one of our arguments, referred to me as a sleeper, a step either right above or just below one of our faith who attends services on The Day of Atonement and the occasional wedding or Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah. Not her; she knows a thing or two about lighting candles at sundown, how to give thanks in Hebrew for wine, bread, and a few other of life's essentials. Mind you, it is all done without show; it is simply her ticket into the circus tent.

And yes, I used that metaphor with some deliberation because of my belief that all these cultures of which I emerge, all these different, clamoring egos, demanding to be the youngest, the most senior, the most humble, the least likely to use an adverb, are in a circus with an infinitude of rings, acts, illusions. See Dylan Thomas's poem, "I in my intricate image."

See also what the culture wants from us as a price of admission, then see is there is some way to work--water for the elephants, raising the tents, sweeping up after the monkeys--our way in with our own effort.

Like maybe being a writer, a painter, a sculptor, a photographer.

Did John Coltrane work his way in? Did Carmen McRae? Did Diz? And hey, Wayne Shorter?

You bet they did, and because of it, every night since has been different from every other.

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