Saturday, March 21, 1998

The Mark of Abel (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, 3/21/98

I was flying back from Israel last July, sitting by the window as the dawn arose. Our red-eye route took us close to the arctic circle, where the summer's sun never sleeps. The sun chased us across the horizon, but it never quite caught up. The sky was filled with gorgeous hues of pink, light and royal blue, gradually brightening, then receding as we turned south across Newfoundland. Soon it was all blackness again.

No wonder Jewish days always begin with evening, I reflected. No matter how hard we try, night seems always to overtake us. Light cannot penetrate the darkness in our hearts.

Like it or not, we Jews are the Sons of Darkness, and we can never go long without confronting that perpetual shadow that envelops us. If you are looking for happily-ever-after, if you want quick and easy answers to life's perplexities, it would be best to avoid the Judaica section of your local bookstore. We Jews trudge through existence straining to elevate ourselves from the depths of victimhood; but we can't fully douse the embers of Auschwitz.

Never was this more apparent than last month, when virtually the entire Jewish people whipped itself into the utterly nonsensical belief that an apocalyptic disaster was about to befall Israel. Even the most rational among us became caught up in a Saddamized hysteria that had little basis in fact. Against all reasoned analysis, despair took hold. Of course, we figured, the Jewish people would be afflicted again.

I was in Israel again during the recent Iraqi crisis and the air was filled with fatalism. As people over there scurried for plastic tape and gas masks, my friends back here couldn't believe I would voluntarily join them -- with my family, no less. Even the El Al security guard at Newark airport asked us incredulously, "Of all the place to go in the world for a vacation, why choose Israel?"

As the crisis unfolded, the Victim within began to emerge yet again.

This is our Mark of Abel, that segment of our collective soul filled with shame, guilt, fear and a dose of neurosis. We try so hard to sugar-coat the Jewish experience; this darkness is such a turn-off, after all. It petrifies people right out of the Jewish fold. So we write lots of happy books and Jews of all denominations conjure up many happy Messiahs who can give us happy endings. And we stress joy, above all: happy-faced, have-a-nice-day saccharine, shallow smiley stuff that doesn't fool anyone and comes out looking like almost every other religion but ours. Those faiths all give us happily-ever-after, most of them without much travail. Our ending will be happy too, I believe, but not without incredible struggle -- a struggle that is primarily internal. To deny our dark side is to deny who we really are.

The gas mask is a piece of the Jewish experience now, like the gas chamber before it, and the blood libel, and the Black Plague and expulsion after expulsion that we have tried and failed to expel from our psyches. My generation tried so hard to suppress it, from the moment the feel-good Jewish Catalog appeared during the Woodstock era, but a quarter of a century later the dybbuk still hasn't gone away. That is why the Face of Jewry looks so dour, so aged right now.

We cannot neglect our dark side. If we acknowledge and even embrace the fear that pervades, perhaps we can keep it from controlling us. For this dark side, unleashed, not only brings us to premature panic; it drags us down in so many other ways. The Mark of Abel turns board meetings into screaming sessions and causes us to terrorize our closest friends with malicious gossip; it prompts us to humiliate our women and emasculate our men. The Mark of Abel unleashes hatred against those who are different, including other Jews. The Mark of Abel inevitably turns us against ourselves. Woodie Allen is the Mark, personified. Rather than celebrate or villify him, we must see in his work a significant part of ourselves. We are the Children of Darkness.

But we are also the Children of Light.

Moments later, I turned to the window again, and not only did I see another spectacular rising dawn, but beneath it, in a single panorama, the entirety of southern New England, from Gloucester to Cape Cod to New Haven, a breathing map, glittering below.

It was magical, so much so that I searched for a prayer. And then I wondered, when could I say the morning prayers, anyway? If morning comes twice, when does morning really come?

Sometimes we don't really know when the dawn really begins and ends. The very term for dawn is fraught with darkness and ambiguity. Shachar is derived from the term Shachor, which means black, and it also means "to seek" or "to long for." Shachar is the time when the angel who wrestled with Jacob turned, blessed him and fled. Shachar is when David lamented in Psalm 22, "Oh Lord, why have you forsaken me?" The break of day is our most vulnerable time, when dreams melt into reality, when we often awaken with great fear, sorrow and loneliness. But Shachar is also when new hope arises with the sun. It is the fuzzy passage from past to future.

This ambiguity of passage is instructive as we confront many changes in the world around us. Every day, it seems, someone is proclaiming the beginning of a new era, a "sea change," a "break from the past." Jews should know better. Yes, the new day will come, but we're not exactly sure when it will begin. Or perhaps it has already begun and we've just been too busy living it to notice. The dawn will always have some darkness left in it and sometimes the sun will recede before returning for the long haul. Our souls will continue to retain some darkness too, even as we struggle to forge a feel-good Judaism for the New-Age '90s. In the meantime, we might as well enjoy the ride, whether from 30,000 feet up or with both feet planted firmly on the ground. From either vantage point, the colors of dawn are equally scintillating.