Saturday, May 21, 2011

Coffee with Hertzberg

Arthur Hertzberg (June 9, 1921 – April 17, 2006) was a rabbi, college professor, international scholar, writer, and political activist. Born in Poland, at the age of five his family immigrated to the United States, where he remained loyal to his traditions while embracing the American spirit. Raised as an Orthodox Jew in Baltimore, Maryland, Hertzberg strayed from his traditional upbringing to become a Conservative rabbi, though his love of Judaism and the Jewish texts remained the center of his life as a scholar, educator, and Jewish communal leader. I recently picked up a copy of his memoir at the Free Library of Philadelphia, A Jew in America: My Life and a People’s Struggle for Identity (Harper San Francisco 2002). Although I never met Rabbi Hertzberg and knew of him only from a distance, his writings inspired me to write the following fictional conversation, one that I imagine may have occurred in some form between Professor Hertzberg and many of the young people he taught and influenced over the course of six decades. Some of the quotes and comments attributed to Hertzberg below were adopted, literally in some instances and loosely in others, from A Jew in America.
The first time Mike Wilkerson encountered Professor Hertzberg outside of class was in the student lounge. He had sought sustenance in his afternoon cup of Joe before heading to the library, adding a touch of cream and heading for the exit, when he spotted the professor seated in a lounge chair and reading a copy of The New York Times. The professor looked in Mike’s direction and greeted him with a friendly nod. Sensing an invitation to conversation, Mike walked on over.

“Hi Professor,” he said. “Anything interesting in the news today?”

“Ah, Mr. Wilkerson,” the Professor replied. “Have a seat.” He glanced at the inside pages of The Times, frowned, and folded the paper in two, placing it next to him on his armrest. “All the usual stuff. War, famine, poverty, inequality.”

“Thanks for brightening up my day, Professor,” Mike said with a grin as he sipped on his coffee. “But I have enough problems on my own.”

“To compete with war and famine? These must be large problems.” The professor smiled. “So what’s on your mind, Mr. Wilkerson?”

“Well,” Mike hesitated, momentarily reflecting on the professor’s war and famine remark, “I’m having trouble making an important decision.” Mike took another sip of coffee and glanced at his shoelaces. “I have a good job offer from a large accounting firm and, well, I know I should be grateful and all, but . . . I’m just not sure. When I entered college four years ago, I was hoping that I could graduate with a decent job. But now, I’m not sure that’s enough. I don’t want to wake up in twenty years wondering if there was more to it than that.”

“You want to know what to do with your life,” the professor stated rhetorically. “How to make the most of the gifts God has bestowed on you?”

“Yes, precisely,” Mike replied hopefully.

“Welcome to America, my friend,” the professor said nonchalantly. “I can still remember the opening lecture in a course I took in American history my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins. The professor was discussing Frederick Jackson Turner and his thesis on the uniqueness of American society.”

Mike was not certain where this story was heading, or its relevance, but he was intrigued. Professor Hertzberg had a compelling presence. When he spoke, people listened. He possessed an air of authority.

The professor continued, “Turner pointed out that the early immigrants who came to the New World discovered they had a whole wilderness in front of them. Most had left their previous lives behind. When they arrived on the shores of America, they found they could reinvent themselves, begin life anew. You see, the men and women who came here lived on the frontier of Western civilization. If things went badly in Philadelphia, or New York, or Boston, they could pick up and move west, where the land was untamed and unspoiled. If the circumstances demanded, they could move still farther west, as far as the eye and the imagination could take them.” He gestured with outstretched arms and looked in both directions. “Americans were shaped by the frontier. We are a country of second chances.”

“That’s very interesting,” Mike said, “but. . . .”

“The point of this story is not Turner’s thesis,” the professor stated patiently, sensing Mike’s bewilderment, “but the question it raises.” He stared at Mike as if waiting for him to fill-in the blanks.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the question,” Mike said, somewhat embarrassed at his inability to match the professor’s gift of philosophical discourse.

“Ah, but I think you do,” the professor insisted. Mike looked at the professor and took another sip of his coffee, hoping a jolt of caffeine would inspire his brain. The professor continued, “It is the question that all of us must confront at some point in our lives.”

“I’m sure you're right, professor, but I’m still not sure of the question.”

“Well,” the professor said, “think of it this way. If a man comes to this country to reinvent himself, if he leaves his past and his heritage behind, as millions of American immigrants have done over the course of our history, by what compass does he steer?” He looked at Mike as if expecting an answer.

“By what compass does he steer?” Mike repeated the question to himself. “I guess that depends on a lot of things.”

“Precisely, and it is different for everyone. It all boils down to the values by which he chooses to live his life. How else to keep from turning in the wrong direction?”

“Yes, yes, exactly,” Mike said with some excitement. “But how does one find the answer?”

“I wish I could provide you with an answer, Mr. Wilkerson. However, I am just a lowly professor and rabbi. I can only ask the questions and insist that the questions be asked. If the last half century has taught me anything, however, it is that only a lucky few dare address these questions while they are still young. Most confront the meaningful questions only after the frustrations of life have beaten them down, often when it is too late.”

“But how do I find my compass?”

The professor smiled ever so slightly. “Aristotle taught that we dare not live the unexamined life. But I am afraid, Mr. Wilkerson, that there is no alternative to the difficult journey of questioning and self-questioning. The task of the inquiring mind is to ask all the questions, and to keep asking them.” The professor paused and looked around. “It is much easier to live by the accepted clichés and standards of the day, to not ask questions of ourselves. It is easier still to not upset others by raising questions. To go against the larger culture can be a lonely journey.”

“How so?” Mike asked.

“Take our common patriarch, Abraham. He was the first to break with idolatry, to insist that there is only one God. But when he came to this conviction, he was the only person in the world who believed this. He was alone, a man truly steering by his own compass.”

“OK. I think I understand,” Mike said. "But can I ask," he decided to turn the tables on the professor, “by what compass do you steer?”

“I thought you might ask me that, Mr. Wilkerson. Well, let me explain that, first and foremost, I am a Jew. It is the core of my identity. This hardly makes me unique, of course, but unlike many of my fellow American Jews, I do not consider myself a Jew because I like bagels and lox, or Borscht Belt humor, or because I occasionally speak a little Yiddish. My most serious act as a Jew is that I continue to study the historical literature of the Jewish people: the Torah, the Talmud, and the Tanach.”

“What is the Tanach?” Mike asked.

“The Hebrew Scriptures,” the professor replied, “Or, as some of you Christians like to call it, the Old Testament. But there is nothing old about it to me, you understand. No offense.”

“None taken,” Mike offered.

“It is the literature of my people, and it presents a set of ethical and moral precepts by which I measure my conduct each day, values and standards taught in these books. This is my compass. I have insisted all my life that being a Jew is rooted in the values that you affirm and not in the food you eat or the enemies that you fight. The prime teaching of the Jewish tradition is why I have spoken out on behalf of the poor, why I fought so passionately for the civil rights of blacks and minorities, why I opposed the Vietnam War. It is why I helped found the Peace Now movement and advocated, as a Zionist and lover of Israel, for the creation of a Palestinian state and for the rights of Palestinian refugees under Israeli occupation. My positions have not always been popular, but I am steered by my Jewish compass. It is my moral duty to be on the side of those who struggle for respect and dignity, even at the expense of some longstanding friendships.” The professor paused as if to further collect his thoughts.

“I’m not Jewish,” Mike offered. “I mean, does that matter?” Mike shook around his coffee cup to see if any steam was left.

The professor looked directly at Mike. “Of course not, Mr. Wilkerson. You need not be a Jew to contemplate these things. Perhaps your compass is in the teachings of Jesus or the writings of Paul. Perhaps it is in the inspiration of the great Prophets of the last half century, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama. There are many others.” He took a last sip of his coffee, which was undoubtedly getting cold. “It can be a lonely journey, but it is not an empty one. You must find your compass, Mr. Wilkerson and, like Abraham, lead your life by its guide.”

Mike suspected the professor was right, but he remained uncertain, paralyzed almost, of trusting his instincts and examining his values. Life’s demands and daily pressures too often stood in the way of a contemplative, morally pure life. Was he strong enough to live his life by the principles and values he holds dear? Was he all talk and no action? He would need to confront these questions for a long time to come.

Mike thanked the professor for his time and his thoughts, stood up and said goodbye. His journey had begun.

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