Friday, September 21, 2007

My Father-in-Law, Days of Awe, Philip Roth & Pipe Tobacco 5768

I am finishing Philip Roth's short novel "Everyman," but resist the final pages, although the protagonist has already died. He is still alive, but it's much later in his story and that of the tale itself. It's as the title shows the same story we all must act in, and we never quite will have our closing speech memorized in time.

The narrative began with his relatives and colleagues watching as each adds a handful of dirt into the open grave. They gather in a decaying Jewish cemetery near the New Jersey turnpike's hum. The neighborhood long ago became a ghetto, the Yiddish has faded except perhaps for a Hasidic enclave within the diamond trade, and the dead man's brother enjoys a palatial ranch in the hills above Santa Barbara. How far has he come from the shetl of his own parents. Roth and his main characters in his fiction-- well, I've read now seven of his books but by no means count myself among even his regular devotees-- often marry and re-marry and even more frequently couple and cavort among the gentiles. They wander far from their ancestral past, and in becoming American they assimilate and try to "pass." But, as Roth in his "Roth" novels battles with, and in his "Zuckerman" novels confronts, the difference matters and endures, crumbling yet persisting.

How does this relate to Al Drebin? My wife showed me an essay he wrote for a college course in 1940. Already, the writer laments the war that has killed so many, ponders his distance from his parents' faith, but insists that he remains a Jew and can never countenance a God who if existing remains so detached from an agonized and cruel humanity. He also argues against a fundamentalism that depends on outdated notions and literal applications of outdated texts, employing of all passages Samuel Butler's "The Way of All Flesh" and the clever argument that St Paul would have condemned tobacco if he had known about it! And, Al addresses familiarly his professor, who apparently has made his own Christian beliefs quite known at the U. of Washington.

Certainly, like a Roth protagonist, Al made his way from poverty and city life that labelled him as a minority and an outsider into the mainstream. The same year he wrote that essay, he left for Hollywood to join family who'd already been working in the film industry, and he never left it. He too married thrice, and managed to the first time around produce my wonderful wife and lifelong companion. I never met his second spouse, but his third, Aliki, became utterly if demonstrably devoted to his needs during his long heyday and his slow decline. Like the Everyman in Roth, Al faced the end with the same amount of resignation, courage, and frailty.

Thinking about the upcoming memorial we will have for Al the day after Yom Kippur, I know what I will (I hope briefly) recall. It's his pipe tobacco. A scent that reminded me of my own great-Uncle Leo. When I was introduced by his daughter to Al, it was at Budget. His office was full of this fragrance although he was not behind his desk, but out roaming among the stacks of reels, his mind alert and his memory recalling the exact frame needed among thousands of canisters and hundreds of thousands of hours, perhaps, of film moments. The smell of pipe tobacco stays with me, long after Al gave up smoking and long after that office was demolished.

This for me symbolizes the passage and duration, in Jewish terms, of a life. Rabbi Jedaya Penini in the 14c provided a striking analogy that I used to meditate upon each Yom Kippur in our softly illuminated little temple. I looked for it this Rosh Hashanah in the new machzor donated for our current use, but it's not in the new edition. So, let me resurrect it, like the smell of tobacco, to drift again for the last time there in that same shul where we will remember his life, where the thought from six centuries ago first moved me nearly to tears, fifteen years back when Al still puffed his pipe.

"And remember that the companionship of Time is but of short duration. It flies more quickly than the shades of evening. We are like a child that grasps in his hand a sunbeam. He opens his hand soon again, but, to his amazement, finds it empty and the brightness gone."

{Image: It's hard to find an illumination of "child + sunbeam" even Googling, so forgive the one that I did like with its playful if Christian application. Blame my medievalist training. I think Roth would accept and Al would bless my ecumenical spirit meant well. The realm of light surrounds us all. Early thirteenth-century illumination, Christ Child on Sunbeam, from Enfancie de Nostre Seigneur, Bodleian Library MS. Selden supra 38, fol. 24.}

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