Who Does Not Want to be Perfect?

Perfectionism as a personality trait may have many causes, but only Jews have their tribal history as justification. Rather than power, our neurotic aspiration is towards a semblance of perfection so that we will be endured, accepted, loved. Not by God, but my our neighbors. I myself am helpless against it. Hatred of the Jews had been growing in German soil for long centuries before I came to be, a weed among weeds. Hitler came to power in 1933, when I was barely two, so it is not stretching the truth to say that I grew up knowing that Jews constituted an unacceptable segment of society. All around me there was evidence of the general opprobrium in which we were held: the overt antisemitism among teachers at school, the aversion of my company by certain children and whole neighboring families, the cautions that were early urged on me to protect my safety. Staying out of trouble therefore was more than a casual desire. There were people who could hurt me, I knew early on. But why? Why was this so? Even as a small child, I had a great need to know. I asked a lot of questions to which I usually got satisfactory answers, but to this question I received none. My mother said she did not know; my father said he wished he knew, and I believed him – he was like me. Both my parents relied on hemming and hawing to satisfy my excessive curiosity and circumvent my difficult questions, in order to shield me from ugly truths and to protect themselves from making actionable statements against the government. The walls, everyone knew, had ears, and the actions taken by the government in such cases were severe. As I grew older in this stifling atmosphere, I developed my own theories. Jews, I saw, were not perfect. I had observed my relatives and friends. Some were occasionally mean and nasty, some committed secret misdeeds, some were mistrustful of their leadership. Maybe it was our own shortcomings that caused our troubles. Maybe that dear God in Heaven was punishing us for our falling off the path. Maybe, maybe, if we strove to be better human beings, perhaps other people would like and respect us more. Unconsciously rather than determinedly, I set my childish self on a righteous path. I chose to act in such a way that no one could find reason to hate me. I worked hard. I followed orders. I did what I was told to do as I tried to make sense of the world. One day last week, the New York Times featured on its front page an investigative article about two unscrupulous entrepreneurs who managed to be each paid more than a million dollars a year – out of Medicaid funds – for administering a large number of programs for developmentally challenged and disabled persons. Crimes were committed, though no charges have yet been filed. The two are brothers, Jews, with no shame. Reading the article detailing their activities and their imperial life style, I felt ashamed on their behalf, and furious at them on my own behalf, furious that they could act in such self-serving, greedy and antisocial fashion, enriching themselves at public expense. I was surely not alone in that reaction....

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A Good Death

When my mother died several months ago, I was aware of both sadness and a selfish concern over the inevitability of my own death. As I watched her slip away towards the end of a long dying, I saw not my mother, but a corpse struggling to breathe. When at last she lay in morphine-induced sleep, she was fragile and thin, bones I never knew she had protruding sharply from her chest, framing her chin. Her chest heaved slightly with the effort to bring air into her lungs. I saw no other motion. She lay quiet, her body still, her hands finally unclenched. Her mouth often stretched open, as if aping Munch’s Scream, that slanted O we all recognize as expressing the essence of existential angst. No more of the anguished cries of Mutti, Mutti, that broke our hearts bit by bit as we listened; the morphine had quenched that. Now and then there were tiny sounds accompanying the expiration of air, but never a rattle, no, nothing like that. While once she had looked at peace while she slept, at the end, the concept of peace or contentment became altogether irrelevant. She was too close to being matter only. Estimating the duration of the dying process is difficult even for the most experienced of physicians. Several times her excellent doctor gave her less than a week to live, and she kept on living, and dying. He stopped making estimates. A strong woman, she attained the ripe age of ninety-eight for a reason; she was a fighter. Her body’s instinct was to keep on keeping on, no matter what. Her spirit held another view. I remember how we talked almost a decade about her feeling that reaching ninety would be enough for her. She had no desire whatsoever to go further. “I’ve had a good life,” she said more than once. “And I have had enough.” But she didn’t have a choice in the matter. Nor do I, when I reach the same point. The sadness triggered by watching her die has the unfortunate concomitant of making me realize that I am myself trapped in the same choiceless system. Our society’s quasi-religious attachment to ancient doctrine means that I too have little control over the form of that end towards which we all move once we leave the womb. It strikes me as grossly unfair that public policy demands that intelligent persons, with decades of experience in making judgments regarding all kinds of serious matters that affect their own lives as well as the lives of others, are denied the right to call an end to living when living is no longer sustainable at a meaningful level. Is it too much for a person of eighty or more to ask to want to live only as long as it is possible to do so with a functioning brain? And without resorting to extraordinary remedies like radiation, dialysis, heart and lung machinery, and ex¬traordinarily expensive medicines that only prolong the dying? I, for one, don’t think so. I want the right to choose my own end-of-life life and the option to opt out, if necessary. Having an option is the essence of liberty. Society has an interest in this question that goes beyond the philosophical desire to honor life. The...

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Book Review: A Morning Star

A Morning Star by Andre Schwarz-Bart Recently I read, and then bought so that I can reread and reread, a book that’s been calling out to me: A Morning Star, written by the French novelist, Andre Schwarz-Bart, and posthumously finished and published by his wife Simone, also a novelist. The first novel that he wrote, and finished on his own in 1959, was the prize-winning The Last of the Just, a masterpiece of Holocaust literature in which a moving and mystical account of one family’s tribulations is written in the framework of an ancient Jewish legend. Schwarz-Bart had sufficient talent and the experience to enable his becoming a universally accepted voice of the victims of the Holocaust like his friend, Elie Wiesel, had he not been blocked by his lasting inability to find appropriate variations on the one theme that had significance for him. He searched but could not find a better way to tell the story he had already told. Simone tells us in the foreword to the new book, a semi-autobiographical account of the Tragedy, that it was years in the making. This incredibly fine writer wrote draft after draft of his story and, finding them all wanting, rejected them all. He could find no language to adequately convey the true horror he and millions of others had experienced. Although what he saw and heard and smelled as a child surviving alone in Nazi Poland was seared into his brain forever, he feared that sharing those sensations with the world in a less than perfect way would have dishonored his lost loved ones. As he says, in an epigraph to Chapter VII: Staying silent is not enough and talking is too much: we need to find the right cries, mutterings, or start singing a new song that encompasses all words, all silences, all cries. That is what he was seeking but could not find. His sense of inadequacy to do the task justice, his reluctance to put his observations into words, is shown in the ironic understatements Schwartz-Bart uses to report the nature of the protagonist’s experiences. His descriptions of the tragic events are lean, spare. Close relatives disappear in a sentence and are never heard from again. God-awful things happen in parenthetical phrases. For me, reading Schwarz-Bart is like communing with a likeminded soul. I get him completely and feel his sadness in my bones, with no need for details of the horrors. On the contrary, I am relieved by the lack of specificity. A reader who can’t read between the lines or doesn’t know the underlying history will not like the book, as I do. An epigraph for Chapter VI quotes Moses pleading with God: If you have reserved such a fate for me, ah! please, let me die instead –if I’ve found favor in your sight – so I may no longer see all this affliction. ………. Numbers 11:15 The writer might have meant this cry for his own epitaph. He could not bear his role as witness to the suffering. And yet he kept struggling to deliver the message in just the right words for the distasteful task until he died, leaving behind only disjointed pieces and scraps of paper waiting to be assembled into a book. Fortunately for us, the pieces were...

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Kristallnacht Wiedermal

Friends ask when I write, Again? Again, the Holocaust? Aren’t you ever done with that? I guess not, I say. It’s with me, like a jagged scar that doesn’t heal but stings and aches, forever.   Novembers specially open up the scabs, images of Kristallnacht rising to freeze my heart – black-shirted, black-hearted SS men trampling our poor belongings, — vivid as ever, frightful as ever.   Forget it, yes. That’s what they say. Even my mother urged it. Forget. Why not? We suffered no harm, running off with our lives and some of our things and, really, what’s the point?   We were safe soon enough, though without our fatherland, our relatives, our innocence. Can I really forget that horrific November day and blot the painful years that followed from memory? Who will tell me how? by Miriam Raskin [12/25/11; rev....

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Questions Without Answers

I thought I was done thinking about it all, but then I came across an article on the Internet about Minsk that made me remember my maternal grandparents again. And wonder. It took a good chunk of the twentieth century to teach my grandparents how small the world is. Their own ancestors had wandered from Iberia towards Germany after the Inquisition and had stopped wandering when they found a safe base in Hamburg. They never considered wandering again. Certainly not as far as Minsk, which, in the early 1930’s when the Josephis considered themselves firmly settled in Hamburg, was a large, predominantly Jewish city in Belarus a continent away. Nor did they learn from their heavily censored newspapers that Stalin’s Russification strategies had shrunk the Jewish population of Minsk to just 30% of the population by 1939. Shocking as it is to us, in retrospect, that Stalin was methodically killing Jewish intellectuals whose views did not coincide with his, the murders did not bring Minsk to their attention. Truth be told, my grandparents might well have felt no sympathy for those distant Russian Jews. From the sample they confronted in their own city, they knew eastern Jews to be unsympathetic characters: dirty, uneducated, vulgar, garlic eaters, Yiddish speakers who could not speak the German language properly and were generally un-Germanic in their habits and customs. That was perhaps the worst thing, that in their dark and gloomy clothing reminiscent of seventeenth-century shtetl life, they could never be fully assimilated into the sophisticated modern country in which they lived. As it was, their appearance made it likely that real Germans might misapprehend them as representative Jews, typical of their co-religionists. And that was bad for everybody. Barely in the middle class, the Josephi family never had much money, which deficit did not stop them from having cultural and social aspirations. My grandmother especially admired the lifestyle of the upper classes, both Gentile and Jewish, and tried within her means to emulate it. If one did not have the money to buy books, one could, after all, still read reviews and be knowledgeable. If one could not afford theater tickets, one read the plays themselves. One tried to fit in and not make trouble. During the same years that Stalin was decimating his Jewish community, that notorious fourth decade of the last century, the Germans were also – was it in the air? — implementing their own anti-Jewish bias by means of restrictive laws so my grandparents had more than enough antisemitism in their own neighborhood to have to worry about what was happening to the far-off Jews in Minsk. But things got worse in Germany. There were arrests of Jewish men on the streets, followed by violence against Jewish shops and institutions, and, then, far worse things. My grandfather, reading the handwriting on the wall, packed his old leather suitcase with his toiletries and other necessities and stationed it at the door to be ready when the dreaded knock at the door sounded for him. He was realistic. He knew they would come for him. He may have feared the worst, but I think not. He did not have so cruel an imagination, so black a worldview, nor so evil an intellect as to be able to imagine the fate...

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Being Something

I thought I was familiar with the degradations that even short hospital visits can inflict, so, when my doctor recently ordered a stress test for me at the hospital lab, I walked in with a certain devil-may-care attitude that was meant to pass for medical sophistication and answered, over and over, the usual questions about my age, address, marital status, medical history, insurance history, my mother’s medical history, my father’s medical history, and the nature of the symptoms I was presenting for analysis, most of which information was already, or should have been, in the hospital computers. Having passed those tests, I was directed to sit in a chair outside the radiology lab, smack dab in a hallway traversed by snappily dressed doctors and patients en route to other areas, while I was graced only with one of those cleverly abbreviated hospital gowns, half open in the back, that hospitals use to instill low self-esteem in patients who might otherwise insist on their rights. Sitting there and waiting meekly for further humiliations, I got one I was not expecting. The technician took me by surprise. He was young, good looking, affable and extremely considerate of my psychic and physical comfort. While he was checking my blood pressure, he cocked his head to one side and said, thoughtfully, “You look like you might be a professor. Are you?” “No,” I said, laughing, but feeling the sudden torrent of ice water flood my heart with the shock of having to admit once more that I had failed to fulfill the high expectations I and others had of me. I hate to confront this fact. I keep myself serene by pretending it does not matter. “No,” I said and could think of nothing to add to identify myself to a perfect stranger. “So what are you then?” he insisted. “I am nothing,” I said, awkwardly, having to say something but failing to come up with a saving phrase. My instinct is always for the truth, but even I recognized that this unthinking response had gone too far. I didn’t mean to sound so self-deprecating nor to make this very nice person feel guilty for embarrassing me. But what could I have said? How could I explain, in ten words or less, that I still have not found my niche in the world? Should I admit that I have done a lot of things over a lot of years and still don’t know the answer to that simple question? What am I? A writer who does not write? A teacher who doesn’t teach? A housewife that does not keep house? What? A reader? A mom? A grandmother? A volunteer? A do-gooder? A thinker? Or just somebody too smart to be nothing, but nothing nonetheless? Not many months ago, my friend the poet said to me in a hushed and very caring tone, she not meaning for one instant to do what she did, “You know, I am kind of surprised. Of all the people I know, I always thought you would amount to something.” I cringed but revealed nothing. Why should that hurt me? She is my friend. She had expectations that I did not fulfill. She did not tell me anything I did not know. Would it have helped if she had...

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