Taking stock

Our lives are mapped out - but not by the Fickle Finger of Fate.

By ALEX BERLYNE
October 3, 2005 19:27

 
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The following article, written for Rosh Hashana 1993, appears five years after the death of this widely-beloved Jerusalem Post columnist. This is traditionally the time to take stock not to fake stock, I hasten to add, like the deputy chairman of Nissan UK, the car importers, who has just been given eight years for his part in cheating Britain's Inland Revenue of some 17 million. The question is: How to go about it? I feel somewhat like Eeyore standing in a corner of the forest thinking about things. "Sometimes he thought sadly to himself 'why' and sometimes he thought 'wherefore' and sometimes he thought 'in as much as which' and sometimes he didn't know quite what he was thinking about." Dimly, I seem to detect some leitmotifs, even grand thematic passages, though the net result resembles an amalgam of Beethoven's Ninth and "Colonel Bogey," in the events which have shaped my life and the conclusions I've arrived at. These include poverty and rejection, which are more or less the same thing, war and anti-Semitism, and last but not least the overwhelming importance of the family, an institution which has been under attack lately by a broad coalition of trendies. I suppose I ought to take the advice of Portnoy's psychiatrist and begin at the beginning. This takes us back to 1924, the year that Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was performed for the first time, Shaw's Saint Joan opened in the West End, and Mrs. Berlyne's first production wowed the audience, well, Dr. Hirson, actually, in a room above the watchmaker's shop on Waterloo Road. It was also the year that girls crammed their bobbed hair under close-fitting cloche hats, skirts were shortened and, as my nearest and dearest had occasion to observe, diapers were being worn fuller. My first memory is of returning home after recovering from diphtheria in an isolation hospital to find I'd acquired a brother. I was three at the time and was convinced that my mother had replaced me, damaged goods, as it were, with a brand new model. It is best, I think, to draw a veil over most of the events of my childhood, especially over rheumatic fever and other diseases of poverty which returned me to Monsall Hospital; the mastery of plasticine and then of irregular French verbs; and the more or less permanent background of guttural threats issuing from our old Philco radio from Reichsenders Hamburg, Zeesen, Bremen and station DJA on the 31 m. band. Worst of all was the seemingly endless Depression during which my father, a sort of Micah with a sewing machine, tried to bring us up to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you-know-Who. This unemployed schneider not only gave us warmth and love when he must have been half out of his mind with worry, but made unimaginable sacrifices to keep me in school, trained me to wax sewing thread, to remove cotton basting with an ivory pick and to recognize how a sleeve should be set into a shoulder. To this day, I am only too well aware that both ITV's newsreaders and Yitzhak Rabin's cabinet appear to be dressed in Salvation Army cast-offs, and I frequently accompany their appearances on Mabat with a few bars of Fred Whitehouse: You made the peak lapel look so swell So who am I to say you're wrong? But Sam, you made the pants too long. During my elementary school years, Mrs. Berlyne's "damaged goods" gradually came to resemble one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit after a ragamuffin called Molloy regularly used me for practicing straight lefts, uppercuts and short jabs. Actually, there wasn't much to choose between us; we were both the sort of scruffy urchins Who take their manners from the Ape, Their habits from the Bear, Indulge the loud unseemly jape, And never comb their hair. Molloy, who was built like the proverbial brick privy, was one of a bunch of older kids from St. Chad's, the Catholic school inconveniently situated near the Jews' school I attended, who used to lie in ambush and then jump up and down on us with their hobnailed boots, not to mention the occasional pair of clogs. It was only when Molloy noticed my newly acquired Scout's badge one unforgettable day that a haymaker was suddenly transformed, halfway through its trajectory, into the three-fingered salute. I've been a fervent admirer of Baden-Powell ever since. There had been nothing personal in Molloy's frequent bouts of assault and battery and, in fact, I am grateful to him for forcing me to face the uncomfortable fact that I belonged to an endangered species. To tell the truth, my experience of anti-Semitism has been limited if we discount the diligence and application of the Luftwaffe and some of our Arab neighbors to verbal abuse. "I refuse to work with a bloody Yid," a teacher at Manchester Grammar School once told the High Master when I joined the staff. To his eternal credit, Eric James asked him to write out his resignation on the spot and collect his money from the Bursar's office. "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous," Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." I have italicized "the human race" because ever since I first read it half a century ago, this phrase alone has helped clarify my position in the general scheme of things. While I was imbibing Roman history at school, I was learning Jewish history in heder and at home, and the vast gulf between the two versions of the same events taught me that to be Jewish is to be considered subhuman or, at the very least, to be hors de concours. Gibbon's Golden Age (81 CE to 192 CE) began with Domitian's decree ordering the slaughter of the Jews; included the massacre (by the Greeks) of the Jews of Alexandria; the crushing of the Second Revolt; the fall of Betar and the subsequent edict forbidding the Jews from even burying their dead; the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem; and the new wave of massacres that followed Hadrian's death. And that's just for starters. In April, visiting one of those Prague synagogues which have been turned into museums, I found myself gazing at a framed prayer on the bima which was originally intended to prompt those members of the congregation who were called up to the reading of the Law. The words "Thou hast chosen us from all peoples" took on a terrible new significance since those who had been given this honor had been exterminated 50 years ago and, in the Pinkas Synagogue, even their names some 36,000 in all which had been painted on the walls had been whitewashed over at some time during the communist regime. Erich Maria Remarque dedicated All Quiet on the Western Front to those who, though they survived WWI, were destroyed by it. In a curious way, I feel that though I survived the Holocaust, thanks to a 32-km. strip of water, I was irrevocably changed by the war. After living through innumerable alarums and excursions, including approximately seven wars, I have come to date the big change in my life to the years leading up to the Holocaust, to September 27, 1938, in fact, when we were called out of class to try on gas masks and then marched into the adjoining park to dig trenches, following the Fuehrer's bloodcurdling threats to bomb Prague and crush the Czechs. I learned then that, in the words of Keynes, "civilization is a thin and precarious crust," and I don't believe I've known real peace since. The Holocaust and its postwar aftermath in Kielce and other Polish hellholes was the main motivation for my decision to settle in the newly founded State of Israel, a country which, from the moment I stepped ashore, seemed strangely familiar. I was bothered for months by a nagging sense of deja vu. Then the penny dropped. I had once come across a letter written by James Fenimore Cooper to his friend Horatio Greenough as long ago as 1820. "You are in a country in which every man swaggers and talks, knowledge or no knowledge, brains or no brains, taste or no taste," he wrote. "They are all ex nato connoisseurs, politicians, religionists, and every man's equal and all men's betters." James Fenimore Cooper was, of course, castigating the rude inhabitants of the infant United States. Looking back, I see that people with monocular or blinkered vision those who see everything in terms of Betar vs Hapoel have added immeasurably to my difficulties. Now that the Knesset proceedings are broadcast live on TV, I have found abundant confirmation of something that my brother, a shrink, once told me: The absence of doubt is a definite indication of poor mental health. These monsters, who have had a great deal to do with mapping out the events that have shaped my life, are our local version of the Truthful Baptists. In 1804, the original TBs, members of a Christian sect who had settled in Long Run, Kentucky, were involved in a celebrated dispute with the Lying Baptists. The latter had claimed that a man who had been captured, together with three of his children, by an Indian war party was justified in lying to his captors in order to save the fourth child, who was hidden nearby. The Truthful Baptists, basing themselves on Kant's dictum that truthfulness cannot be avoided no matter how serious the consequences, disagreed. I met the first Israeli Truthful Baptist in the kibbutz and, in a short time, came to realize that though we shared a room, worked together, ate together and even went to see the latest Farid al-Atrash movie together in Safed if I should ever fail to toe the ideological line, he would hand me the last cigarette personally, tie the blindfold and give the order to the firing squad. Shakespeare wasn't the only scribbler to have a go at The Ages of Man. Sir Walter Raleigh once made a very creditable analysis before he lost his head to the Virgin Queen, describing the Sixth Age, which he himself unfortunately failed to attain, as "when we begin to take account of ourselves, and grow to the perfection of our understanding." It is also a time, I'm afraid, full of other imperfections which Byron who himself never made old bones mourned: For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul wears out the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest. According to my imperfect understanding, our brief lives are mapped out by Nature, the Celestial Watchmaker, Necessarily Existent Being, the Holy One blessed be His name, or whatever you choose to call it, but most definitely not by the Fickle Finger of Fate. Our only significant role, according to this grand design, is to propagate the species which, presumably, is why I was so busily preoccupied as a young man in what seem to me now to be the most extraordinary activities. What could I have been thinking of? It really doesn't matter. We are eventually rewarded for undergoing this period of temporary insanity with the greatest joys life has to offer the love of a true helpmeet and, eventually, the arrival of children and grandchildren. All the rest is a snare and a delusion or, rather, a distraction like a baby's rattle, to help us forget the inevitable dissolution. It is also an essential part of our programming that gradually we are made to perceive the world around us as increasingly unattractive, if not decidedly repulsive, as we grow older so as to make it easier to let go at the end. This is the main reason why old fogeys firmly believe that everything is going to hell in a handcart and always have done. Yet it is frustrating for increasingly irrelevant old farts to watch avoidable mistakes being repeated all over again. "Si jeunesse savoit," Henri Estienne complained in the 16th century, "si viellesse pouvoit." The last paradox of all, the reason why we tend to hang on despite everything, must be a vestige of the early progenitive programming, the love that is stronger than death. It has been described by Harold Monro in a few lines that derive surprising power from their sheer economy: I cannot bear the thought/ You, first, may die,/ Nor of how you will weep,/ Should I.

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