Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Choosing life in the face of death

A transcript of my remarks at Congregation Torat Emet in Bexley, Ohio, on July 17. 2014.

I never wanted to be known for having a fatal disease. But you don’t get to choose your reputation any more than you get to choose your fate. Several years ago terminal cancer called to me and I answered Hineni, “Here I am.”

The religious language may seem blasphemous, as if I were claim­ing to be a prophet, but that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is Hashem places you in your circumstances, and even the most ordinary of persons can discover his unique role in life, his calling—he can help to complete creation—if he recognizes and accepts where he has been placed.

Etty Hillesum, a 28-year-old Dutch Jew who voluntarily reported to the Westerbork transit camp in 1942 to work in the social-welfare depart­ment there, explained her reasons like this:This much I know: you have to forget your own worries for the sake of others, for the sake of those whom you love. All the strength and faith in God which one possesses must be there for everyone who chances to cross one’s path and who needs it. . . . You must learn to forgo all personal desires and to surrender completely. And sur­render does not mean giving up the ghost, fading away with grief, but offering what little assistance I can wherever it has pleased God to place me.[1]I was diagnosed just before Sukkot in late September of 2007. My doctor phoned to say that an “opacity” had shown up on my chest X-ray after routine physical exam. A biopsy at Methodist Hospital in Houston about ten days later revealed Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer with a Gleason score of nine, meaning the cancer would be extremely difficult to treat. I was given one to three years to live.

I hungrily compared myself to other men with the same cancer—the literary critic Anatole Broyard got 14 months, the rock musician Dan Fogelberg three-and-a-half years, my friend and mentor Denis Dutton, editor of Philosophy and Literature, two years—and so I was vigilant for death, although I never knew when it would arrive. Naomi and I planned our lives as if the cloud of uncer­tainty were not hovering above us. We moved to Columbus and joined Torat Emet in August 2010, hoping that my cancer would remain dormant. By spring, however, it had awakened from its slumber and begun to spread again. By last fall the cancer stopped responding to drugs and invaded my bone marrow. I began pal­liative chemotherapy, to improve my quality of life, and I was taken under the wings of hospice care. It is now just a matter of time.

The facts are vulgar, and perhaps even a little tedious. This year some 233,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and about 29,500 will die of the disease. Between diagnosis and death, however, many cancer patients linger for a number of years. [My wife] Naomi points out that the term life-threatening disease is not always appro­priate. A lot of patients like me have what should be called a life-limiting disease.

That is, for many people cancer has become a chronic condition. The biblical span of their lives—seventy years, and if with strength, eighty years—has been limited, but so too has the scope of their lives, what they can do and can’t do any more because of their cancer.

Because of my hip, which has been destroyed by cancer, I can’t play catch or one-on-one basketball with my three boys. I can’t pick up my six-year-old daughter; I can’t dance with Naomi. Perhaps most unhappily for me, I can no longer travel. I have never been to the state of Israel, and now I will never go.

But here, here on the downslope of life-limiting disease—here exactly is where I can offer a little assistance, since here is where God has placed me.

I can remember exactly when everything changed for me. It was more than six years ago now. We were still living in Houston. I was sitting in the back bedroom, rocking in a rocking chair between cycles of aggressive chemotherapy, and I was strug­gling to read some hefty book that would have caused me no trouble in my pre-cancerous days—The Adventures of Augie March, I think it was.

Chemotherapy had left me with “chemo brain,” a state of mind in which everything was fuzzy and no idea ever wandered. I could not make any sense of Bellow’s book. I felt profoundly sorry for myself. “Oy, I can’t think any more,” I moaned; “I can’t think any more.” Suddenly I stopped rocking. “Hey, wait a minute,” I said; “that’s a thought.”

From then on I decided that, if I could no longer think as sharply as I once did, I could still think. If I could no longer play with my boys as I once did, I could still play with them. If I could no longer be married to Naomi “for­ever,” as I once promised, I could still be married to her for as long or short a time as remained to me.

Since then I have become something of a public advocate for the view that even a person with terminal cancer, for whom it seems as if only death is real, can nevertheless choose life. As I wrote in a recent essay called “The Mercy of Sickness before Death”:Hope is not . . . what the terminal cancer patient needs. What cancer patients need more than anything is to take responsibility for their disease. From their doctors, from their family and friends, and especially from themselves, they need simple honesty about their condition, their treatment options, their chances. They require exactly what [anyone] requires if he is to grow as a human creature: the “square recognition of his being as he is, without minimizing or exaggerating.”Responsibility, honesty, facing reality—if my oncologist is to be believed, most cancer patients find these very difficult to achieve. Denial and despair are the more usual long-term reactions to a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

But denial and despair are merely refusals to accept the responsibility of finding, under the sign of death, a new purpose and meaning to life. Denial and despair are rejections of what the great American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor calls “one of God’s mercies.”

In what way, though, can a diagnosis of terminal illness and a long sickness before death possibly be merciful?

Some of you know that Naomi’s and my brother-in-law Scott—her younger sister’s husband—died last year just six months after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. By comparison, living for six-and-a-half years with a slowly wasting disease is a lenient sentence, even if it is a death sentence.

But there is more to God’s mercy than that.

On the same day I was diagnosed with cancer, the same day, Naomi learned that she was pregnant with our fourth child—our only daughter, Mimi. The coincidence was a miracle. Both Naomi and I saw God’s hand in it. It was as if God were saying, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, the birth of your daughter and your death from cancer. Now, there­fore, choose your daughter—she is my blessing—choose life.”

Last Shabbes, my eye was snagged by David’s lines from Psalm 30, the shir for the dedication of the Beit HaMikdash, which we recite before Pesukei d’Zimra. The Psalm has long baffled our commentators, because nothing within it has anything whatever to do with the Mikdash. Instead, it is David’s reflection upon life-threatening illness. He cries out to God:Mah betsa b’dami,
b’ridti el-shahat.
Hayodkha afar,
Hayagid hamitekha.

What profit is there from my death,
from my descent into the pit?
Can the dust praise you?
Can it declare your truth? (v. 10)
What do these lines have to do with the Mikdash? The answer is this. For David, the Temple represents—and for me, who finds such comforting warmth within it, shul represents—an ascent from the pit, a respite from death, the opportunity to praise Hashem and luxuriate in declarations of his truth.

What a mercy it is to have that opportunity!

It is also the opportunity to prepare oneself for death, to lay back in the love of your friends and family, to live in absolute spiritual freedom.

This, by the way, is why I hate being advised to “fight” my cancer. I am angered by obituaries which say that so-and-so “lost his battle” against cancer. It’s bad enough the military metaphors imply that those who die of cancer have put up a weak and pathetic fight, as if they were sad sacks like the Polish Army overrun by the German Wehrmacht during World War II.

But what is worse, to seek to “fight” my cancer is to struggle fruit­lessly against physical necessity. There is nothing I can do to fight my cancer. It is going to kill me, and within the next few months. To rage against the verdict is a waste of my inner resources. It is another form of denial.

But if the language of “fight” and “battle” is not the right language, what is? What should people say to terminal cancer patients?

The frum [Orthodox Jewish] impulse is to say Refuah shlema, “may you have a complete recovery.” But this is hardly fitting for some­one, like me, for whom there is no refuah, no recovery.

Not knowing what to say, then, many people say nothing at all. Oh, they will tell themselves that they wish to spare me, because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing, but the truth is they are only sparing themselves. It is a real problem, what to say to the dying, but the problem is not solved by not solving it.

What I have found most consoling is the knowledge that my wife and children will be looked after—they will not be left alone, even after I leave them. The best thing anyone has ever said is what Joni Schottenstein said to me: “Don’t worry, David. I already have someone picked out for Naomi.”

The quiet and firm assurance Joni’s husband David gives me, that he will be my sons’ surrogate father whenever they need him, silences my deepest fears. Kenny Steinman and Rafe Wenger decline the obligation of pulling long faces and being solemn—they treat me as if I still have a sense of humor and might still enjoy the human comedy. A friend who is a music critic [Terry Teachout], hearing that I was too beaten by chemo­therapy to do more than listen to music, recommended the blues singer Jimmy Rushing, who lifted my spirits like Mimi’s butterfly kisses.

The thing to remember is what Naomi and I have learned from this six-and-a-half-year journey: life is not a matter of peak experiences, of amazing sights and even more amazing thrills, but of small pleasures—a good meal, a good book, good company, good conversation. Right there is where life needs to take hold of the gravely ill again.

We who are dying need from you what we should be demanding from ourselves—responsibility, honesty, the courage to face reality squarely. It matters less what you say to us than how you talk to us—face-to-face, as Moses spoke with God. And after all, who knows but that you might be the one, by your kindness and faith, to give us the strength to choose life in the face of death?

[1] Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941–1943, ed. Klaas A. D. Smelik, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 477–78.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Again, he is very old

Note: Last night my synagogue, Congregation Torat Emet in Bexley, Ohio, held a tribute in my honor. Several friends spoke, and several more friends, who could not attend the evening, wrote small things about me. The most unique—far and away the most amusing—was written by my former student Michael Schaub, one of the best young literary critics in the country. A regular contributor to NPR whose work has also appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other journals, Michael graduated from Texas A&M University in 1999. He now lives in Austin.

by Michael Schaub

I first met David in 1996, when I enrolled in a class he was teaching about the American novel at Texas A&M University. David, who is a master of self-deprecation, would argue that this was the first of many bad decisions I made as a new adult. He would be wrong, however. I had already made several bad decisions that year. But taking a class from David was the only one that didn’t end with the involvement of police officers or doctors. And it was the only one that worked out in the end. Despite David’s best efforts—he mocked my politics; rolled his eyes at my brilliant teenage analysis of Henry James, who I considered quite the square; and not-so-gently criticized my tendency toward rambling sentences (this one’s for you, David!)—I loved him instantly. I still consider him to be like a father to me—not just because he taught me how to be a human being, but also because he is very old.

Those of you who have never taken one of David’s classes might not fully appreciate the experience of being his student. Imagine a fever dream, with a slight, well-dressed, bespectacled man constantly screaming at you, sometimes in Yiddish. He would smile slightly when he agreed with your analysis of a book, and smile hugely when he didn’t. I think he truly preferred the latter. If you were wrong, he would launch into a perfectly-reasoned, erudite discussion of everything you had just said, and then close with making great fun of your Clinton-Gore ’96 button and urging you to read more Commentary magazine. (I had never read Commentary before I met David; I had only heard of it because of my reactionary Jewish grandfather. By which I mean David. Again, he is very old.)

I can’t say that I was David’s best student, but I like to think I was one of his favorites, although he’d deny it. I am, I believe, the only student who inspired him to throw a book across the room (and directly at my head) twice. I am a large and unathletic man, not capable of sudden movements even when faced with imminent heard injury, so the only reason I escaped unscathed is because David has pretty terrible aim. (A little-known fact: Sandy Koufax actually once asked David either to stop throwing things or convent to another religion.)

When I learned that David had cancer, I reacted the same way I’ve always reacted to bad news: with denial. That’s why I’m writing this the same way I wrote all of my term papers for David’s classes—at the last minute, trying not to cry, while my roommate smokes marijuana and listens to Sublime. (OK, not the last part.) If I get too sincere, too sentimental, David will literally board a plane to Texas right now and start throwing books at my head, so I’ll keep this short: He didn’t just teach me how to be a good person, and he didn’t just teach me to love literature, he also, quite literally, saved my life. I really do love him like a father, and that’s not just because he is very old (which he is), but because he taught me how to be brave. I’m not there yet, obviously. But when I do get there, It will be because of him.

He taught us all so many lessons, and it’s impossible for me to thank him adequately. I wish I could be with him tonight, not just to tell him this in person, but also because I just bought a “Ready for Hillary” t-shirt, and I would love to see his reaction when I walked in wearing it. He would, of course, start throwing books at me. And I would just stand there, because he couldn’t hit the Great Wall of China with a ping-pong ball, even if he was standing one foot away. I mean, I can only imagine his aim has gotten worse. Because, as you know, he is very old.

And he’s also one of the best people I’ve ever met. I think I can speak for all of us (excluding a few dozen university deans and administrators) when I say that my life is better because of him. David, I know you can’t abide this sentimental stuff, but you’re just going to have to deal with it tonight. Thank you for everything. I promise I won’t press changes for the flying books, and not just because the statute of limitations has expired. You are a great man, and I love you.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The 10 best novels of the 1940s

New York Post critic Kyle Smith’s series over at PJ Media on the best films of the decades has been entertaining to follow, especially when you disagree with the choices. Smith’s latest, an inventory of the best films of the ’forties from Double Indemnity (#10) to Citizen Kane (#1), got me to thinking. What are the best novels of the ’forties?—a decade that lies just outside my critical expertise. What follows is a preliminary listing: not a ranked order, but a chronological one.

Richard Wright, Native Son (1940). Not only the classic fictional treatment of race relations in America, but a novel that is more compelling for its very contradictions. The ’forties were a great decade for discursive fiction—novels that discuss ideas which are embodied in men’s obligations and commitments—and Wright’s was one of the decade’s great examples.

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (1940). More recently praised by the novelists Jane Smiley and Jonathan Franzen, Stead’s novel owes its fame to the 1965 reprint edition with an introduction by Randall Jarrell, who called it “one of those books that their own age neither reads nor praises, but that the next age thinks is a masterpiece.” It remained neglected in Stead’s native Australia until 2010, when it was finally reprinted with an introduction by the more fashionable Franzen instead of the more distinguished Jarrell.

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1941). The classic fictional treatment of Moscow show trials and one of the great works of anti-Communism. A member of the German Communist Party for seven years, Koestler wrote the novel in Paris while his lover Daphne Hardy translated it into English. She smuggled her translation out of Paris just ahead of the Nazis and published it in England in 1941. It was not released in Germany until 1948.

Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). If I were going to rank these books in order of greatness, Lewis’s novel, only slightly longer than a novella, would be my first choice. I have written about it elsewhere. The Wife of Martin Guerre is the perfect historical novel. Lewis understands Bertrande de Rols, her heroine, wholly in the customs and conventions of 16th-century provincial France. Unlike later retellers of Martin Guerre’s story, she does not permit modern values to stain her closely woven fabric.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisted (1945). In my recent Books & Culture essay on the young Catholic novelists William Giraldi and Christopher Beha, I said that the “greatest religious novels are written out of a religious discernment much the same way that surrealistic poetry is written out of a particular vision of reality: it soaks the work from top to bottom.” Brideshead Revisted is the model for this approach. The account of Charles Ryder’s conversion to Catholicism is so subtle that many readers fail to notice that it is happening.

Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (Serbo-Croatian, 1945; English, 1959). Anyone still interested in the former Yugoslavia must read two books—Rebecca West’s magisterial two-volume travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) and the masterpiece of Serbian literature, published four years later. Compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude for its multi-generational sweep, Andrić’s novel is a hundred pages shorter, scrupulously avoids the magic in magical realism, and might be more accurately described as The Painted Bird with a conscience.

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946). The ’forties were a decade for political fiction, but none of the decade’s political novels is like any of the others. One of America’s greatest poets, Warren wrote a lyrical account of an American populist demagogue modeled upon Huey Long (and played by Broderick Crawford in Robert Rossen’s 1949 film version). The novel is narrated by an onlooker whose own corruption is restrained by his prose style, which is Warren’s promise of something better in the American polis.

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone (German, 1947; English, 2009). One of the decade’s best novels had to wait sixty years for an English translation. In the New York Times, Liesl Schillinger called its long deferred publication in English the “signal literary event of 2009.” A harrowing account of two German anti-Nazi resistance fighters, based on the actual experiences of Otto and Elise Hampel (pictured above), Fallada’s long 500-page novel is as exciting as anything by Eric Ambler or Alan Furst, with the added dimension of a powerful vision of human freedom.

Albert Camus, The Plague (French, 1947; English, 1948). While The Stranger seems a product of its time (and confined to it), The Plague remains as fresh as any of Amazon’s recommendations for this month. Marina Warner has testified to how much more she saw in the novel when she read it again years later than when she first read it as a young ’sixties woman, basking in “existential disaffection.” If you think you already know this novel, reread it and think again. What never molds is the purity of Camus’s style.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Perhaps the most obvious book to include on this list. With the rise of a new style of totalitarianism in our time to rival Nazism and Communism, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains timely—even thirty years after the dystopic future in which it was set. Readers who are more animalistically political than I will never tire of Emmanuel Goldstein’s “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” But I, I will need free my mind of Winston Smith’s greatest horror, which finally breaks him down into helpless love for Big Brother.

Honorable mention: William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940); Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941); Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth (1944); Saul Bellow, Dangling Man (1944); Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (German, 1947; English, 1948); Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (1947); James Gould Cozzens, Guard of Honor (1948); Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (1948).

Reader recommendations: Eric Ambler, Journey into Fear (1940); Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940); Rex Warner, The Aerodrome (1941); Wright Morris, My Uncle Dudley (1942); Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (German, 1943; English, 1949); Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers (German, 1943; English, 1948); Jean Stafford, Boston Adventure (1944); L. P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda (1944–1947); Henry Green, Loving (1945); William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf (1945); R. K. Narayan, The English Teacher (1945); Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding (1946); Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946); J. F. Powers, Prince of Darkness (stories, 1947); Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country (Japanese, 1948; English, 1956); Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm (1949).

Sunday, July 06, 2014

An open condemnation of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir

Cross-posted from Elder of Ziyon

We unequivocally condemn the horrific murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. It was unjustifiable under any circumstances. The killing was reprehensible and we hope that the criminals who did this sickening act are found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Israel is a country run by the rule of law. There are reports that Jews have been arrested for this crime. If a trial finds that Jews are indeed guilty of this unconscionable killing, our condemnation is redoubled. The idea that Jews could do such an act fills us with shame and horror.

The people who murdered Mohammed do not represent us in any way. It is not enough to dissociate ourselves from the dreadful act; we must also ensure that crimes like this are never repeated.

Just as the appalling murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar do not in any way justify the hideous murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, neither does Khdeir's murder justify the violence, terrorism, destruction and incitement we have seen over the past few days against Israelis and Jews.

We hope and pray that everyone, Arab and Jew, lives in peace and security in the region.


Elder of Ziyon
Daphne Anson
CiFWatch - Adam Levick
Internet Haganah - A. Aaron Weisburd
Liberty's Spirit - Elise Ronan
Mike Cohen
Zach Novetsky
Beer Sheva
Edgar Davidson
Ray Cook
5 Minutes for Israel - David Guy
This Ongoing War - Frimet and Arnold Roth
Israelkompetenzkollektion Shelly
Dr. Sharon Chard-Yaron
Always Write Again -Natalie Wood
Avi Eisenberg
MS Wallack
British-Israel Coalition - Harvey
Israel Matzav - Carl in Jerusalem
Joe Settler
Yid With Lid - Jeff Dunetz
A Commonplace Blog - D. G. Myers
Mystical Paths - Reb Akiva
Erika Dreifus
Meir Solomon
Is The BBC Biased - Sue and Craig

Note: Go to Elder of Ziyon to sign the open letter.