Erecting walls of floppy-headed laughter (acertaindoebear) wrote,
Erecting walls of floppy-headed laughter

standing up

"a large silent audience has gathered, after all. usually there is lively chatter before the evening's diversion. not tonight. they have turned out in surprising numbers, but the mood is funeral. behind the crude lectern, off to a side, stands the curtained puppet theatre. as natalie takes the vacant seat beside udam, he gives her a little smile that cuts her heart.

aaron places his notes on the lectern and looks about, stroking his beard. softly, in a dry classroom manner, speaking slow formal german, he begins.

"it is interesting that shakespeare seems to find the whole story of the Iliad contemptible. he retells it in his play, Troilus and Cressida, and he puts his opinion in the mouth of thersites, the cynical coward -- 'The matter is only a cuckold and a whore.'"

this quotation aaron jastrow cites in english, then with a prudish little smile translates it into german.

"now falstaff, that other and more celebrated shakespeare coward, thinks like emerson that war in general is nothing but a periodic madness. 'Who hath honor? He that died o' Wednesday.' we suspect that shakespeare agreed with his immortal fat man. Troilus, his play of the trojan war, is not in his best tragic vein, for madness is not tragic. madness is either funny or ghastly, and so is much war literature: either The Good Soldier Schweik, or All Quiet on the Western Front.

"but the Iliad is epic tragedy. it is the same war story as Troilus, but with one crucial difference. shakespeare has taken out the gods, wheras it is the gods who make the Iliad grand and terrible.

"for homer's hector and achilles are caught in a squabble of the greek deities. the gods take sides. they come down into the dust of the battle field to intervene. they turn aside weapons hurled straight to kill. they appear in disguises to make trouble or to pull their favourites out of jams. an honorable contest of arms becomes a mockery, a game of wits among supernatural, invisible magicians. the fighting men are mere helpless pieces of the game."

natalie glances over her shoulder at the listeners. no audiences like these! famished for diversion, for light, for a shred of consolation, they hang on a literary talk in theresienstadt, as elsewhere people do on a great concert artist's recital, or on a gripping film.

in the same level pedantic way, jastrow reviews the background of the Iliad: paris's awarding of the golden apple for beauty to aphrodite; the hostilities on olympus that ensue; the kidnapping by paris of helen, the world's prettiest woman, aphrodite's promised reward; and the inevitable war, since she is a married greek queen and he a trojan prince. splendid men on both sides, who care nothing for the cuckold, the whore, or the kidnapper, become embroiled. for them, once it is war, honor is at stake.

"but in this squalid quarrel, what gives the heroes of the Iliad their grandeur? is it not their indomitable will to fight, despite the shifting and capricious meddling of the gods? to venture their lives for honor, in an unfair and unfathomable situation where bad and stupid men triumph, good and skilled men fall, and strange accidents divert and decide battles? in a purposeless, unfair, absurd battle, to fight on, fight to the death, fight like men? it is the oldest of human problems, the problem of senseless evil, dramatized on the field of battle. that is the tragedy homer perceived and shakespeare passed over."

jastrow pauses, turns a page, and looks straight at the audience, his emaciated face dead pale, his eyes large in the sunken sockets. if the audience has been silent before, it is now as quiet as so many corpses.

"the universe of the Iliad, in short, is a childish and despicable trap. the glory of hector is that in such a trap he behaves so nobly that an almighty god, if he did exist, would weep with pride and pity. pride, that he has created out of a handful of dirt a being so grand. pity, that in his botched universe a hector must unjustly die, and his poor corpse be dragged in the dust. but homer knows no almighty god. there is zeus, the father of the gods, but who can say what he is up to? perhaps he is off mounting some bemused mortal girl in the disguise of her husband, or a bull, or a swan. small wonder that greek mythology is extinct."

the disgusted gesture with which jastrow turns his page surprises an uncertain laugh from the rapt audience. thrusting his notes into hi spocket, jastrow leaves the lectern, comes forward, and stares at his listeners. his usually placid face is working. he bursts out in another voice, startling natalie by shifting to yiddish, in which he has never lectured before.

"all right. now let us talk about this in our mother language. and let us talk about an epic of our own. satan says to god, you remember, 'naturally job is upright. seven sons, three daughters, the wealthiest man in the land of uz. why not be upright? look how it pays. a sensible universe! a fine arrangement! job is not upright, he is just a smart jew. the sinners are damned fools. but just take away his rewards, and see how upright he will remain!'

"'all right, take them away,' god says. and in one day marauders carry off job's wealth, and a hurricane kills all his ten children. what does job do? he goes into mourning. 'naked i came from the womb, naked i will return,' he says, 'god has given, god has taken away. blessed be god's name.'

"so god challenges satan. 'see? he remained upright. a good man.'

"'skin for skin,' satan answers. 'all a man really cares about is his life. reduce him to a skeleton -- a sick, plundered, beraved skeleton, nothing left to this proud jew but his own rotting skin and bones--'"

jastrow loses his voice. he shakes his head, clears his throat, passes a hand over his eyes. he goes on hoarsely. "god says, 'all right, do anything to him except kill him.' a horrible sickness strikes job. too loathsome an object to stay under his own roof, he crawls out and sits on an ash heap, scraping his sores with a shard. he says nothing. stripped of his wealth, his children senselessly killed, his body a horrible stinking skeleton covered with boils, he is silent. three of his pious friends come to comfort him. debate follows.

"oh, my friends, what a debate! what rugged poetry, what insight into the human condition! i say to you that homer pales before job; that aeschylus meets his match in power, and his master in understanding; that dante and milton sit at this author's feet without ever grasping him. who was he? nobody knows. some old jew. he knew what life is, that's all. he knew it as we in theresienstadt know it."

he pauses, looking straight at his niece with sad eyes. shaken, perplexed, on the verge of tears, natalie is hungry for his next words. when he speaks, he looks away, she feels he is talking to her.

"in job, as in most great works of art, the main design is very simple. his comforters maintain that since one almighty god rules the universe, it must make sense. therefore job must have sinned. let him search his deeds, confess and repent. the missing piece is only what his offense was.

"and in round after round of soaring argument, job fights back. the missing piece must be with god, not with him. he is as religious as they are. he knows that the almighty exists, that the universe must make sense. but he, poor bereft boil-covered skeleton, knows now that it does not in fact always make sense; that there is no guarantee of good fortune for good behavior; that crazy injustice is part of the visible world, and of his life. his religion demands that he assert his innocence, otherwise he will be profaning god's name! he will be conceding that the almighty can botch one man's life; and if god can do that, the whole universe is a botch, and he is not an almighty god. that job never concede. he wants an answer.

"he gets an answer! oh, what an answer! an answer that answers nothing. god himself speaks at last out of a roaring storm. 'who are you to call me into account? can you hope to understand why or how i do anything? were you there at the creation? can you comprehend the marvels of the stars, the animals, the infinite wonders of existence? you, a worm that lives a few moments, and dies?

"so the drama ends. god rebukes the comforters for speaking falsely of him, and praises job for holding to the truth. he restores job's wealth. job has seven more sons and three more daughters. he lives a hundred and forty more years, sees grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and dies old, prosperous, revered."

the rich flow of literary yiddish halts. jastrow goes back to the lectern, pulls the notes from his pocket, and turns over several sheets. he peers out at the audience.

"satisfied? a happy ending, yes? much more jewish than the absurd and tragic Iliad?

"are you so sure? my dear jewish friends, what about the ten children who died? where was god's justice to them? and what about the father, the mother? can those scars on job's heart heal, even in a hundred and forty years?

"that is not the worst of it. think! what was the missing piece that was too much for job to understand? we understand it, and are we so very clever? satan simply sneered god into ordering the senseless ordeal. no wonder god roars out of a storm to silence job! isn't he ashamed of himself before his own creature? hasn't job behaved better than god?"

jastrow shrugs, spreads his hands, and his face relaxes in a wistful little smile that makes natalie think of charlie chaplin.

"but i am expounding the Iliad. in the Iliad, unseen powers are at odds with each other, and that brings about a visible world of senseless evil. not so in job. satan has no power at all. he is not the christian satan, not dante's colossal monster, not milton's proud rebel, not in the least. he needs god's permission to make every move.

"then who is satan, and why does god leave him out of the answer in the storm? the word satan in hebrew means adversary. what is the book telling us? was god arguing with himself? was he asking himself whether there was any purpose in the vast creation? and in reply pointing, not to the dead glittering galaxies that sprawl over thousands of light-years, but to man, the handful of dirt that can sense his presence, do his will, and measure those galaxies? above all, to the upright man, the speck of dirt who can measure himself against the creator himself, for dignity and goodness? what else did the ordeal establish?

"the heroes in the Iliad rise superior to the squabbling injustice of weak and contemptible gods.

"the hero in job holds to the one almighty god through the most senseless and horrible injustice; forcing god at last to measure up to himself, to acknowledge that injustice is on his side, to repair the damage as best he can.

"in the Iliad there is no injustice to repair. in the end there is only blind fate.

"in job god must answer for everything, good and bad, that happens. job is the bible's only hero. there are fighting men, patriarchs, lawgivers, prophets in the other books. this is the one man who rises to the measure of the universe, to the stature of the god of israel, while sitting on an ash heap; job, a poor skeletal broken beggar.

"who is job?

"nobody. job was never born and never existed,' says the talmud. 'he was a parable.'

"parable of what truth?

"All right, we have come to it now. who is it in history who will never admit that there is no god, never admit that the universe makes no sense? who is it who suffers ordeal after ordeal, plundering after plundering, massacre after massacre, century after century, yet looks up at the sky, sometimes with dying eyes, and cries, 'the lord our god, the lord is one'?

"who is it who in the end of days will force from god the answer from the storm? who will see the false comforters rebuked, the old glory restored, and generations of happy children and grandchildren to the fourth generation? who until then will leave the missing piece to god, and praise his name, crying, 'the lord has given, the lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the lord'? not the noble greek of the Iliad, he is extinct. no! nobody but the sick, plundered skeleton on the ash heap. nobody but the beloved of god, the worm that lives a few moments and dies, the handful of dirt that has justified creation. nobody but job. he is the only answer, if there is one, to the adversary challenge to an almighty god, if there is one. job, the stinking jew."

jastrow stares in a stunned way at the still audience, then stumbles toward the first row. udam jumps up and gently helps him to his seat. the audience does not applaud, does not talk, does not move.

udam begins to sing.


so there will be no puppet show. natalie joins in the chorusing of the tragic refrain. udam sings his song for the last time in theresienstadt, driving it to a heartrending crescendo.

when it ends, there is no reaction. no applause, no talk, nothing. this silent audience is waiting for something.

udam does something he has never done before; an encore; an encore to no applause. he starts another song, one natalie has heard in zionist meetings. it is an old simple syncopated refrain, in a minor key, built on a line from the liturgy: "let the temple be rebuilt, soon in our time, and grant us a portion in your law." as he sings it, udam slowly begins to dance.

sheh-yi-boneh bet-hamikdash
bim-hera b'yomenu--

he dances as an old rabbi might on a holy day, deliberately, awkwardly, his arms raised, his face turned upward, his eyes closed, his fingers snapping the rhythm. the people softly accompany him, singing and clapping their hands. one by one they rise to their feet. udam's voice grows more powerful, his steps more vigorous. he is losing himself in the dance and the song, drifting into an ecstasy terrible and beautiful to see. barely opening his eyes, twisting and swaying, he moves toward aaron jastrow, and holds out a hand. jastrow gets to his feet, links his hand with udam's, and the two men dance and sing.

it is a death dance. natalie knows it. everybody knows it. the sight both freezes and exalts her. it is the most stirring moment of her life, here in this dark malodorous loft in a prison ghetto. she is overwhelmed with the agony of her predicament, and the exaltation of being jewish."

--yiddishe kop aaron jastrow, "Heroes of the Iliad"

(copyright Herman Wouk. go read his writings)
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