Simple gifts

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Feb 02, 2007 12:01 AM

A Russian once told me that the great thing about getting drunk in the morning was that it cleared your whole day. How Russian.

That was back when there was still a Soviet Union of late, unlamented memory - a regime capable of driving anyone to drink and worse. The Russian wrote for Novosti, Pravda or some such "news" agency. No wonder he drank.

Poor fellow, he was what we soon learned to call a Sovjournalist - as opposed to a real one.

There is no more Soviet Union, but one suspects things haven't changed all that much under the newest tsar. The suspicion is confirmed every time a real journalist is killed in Russia.

The great challenge, there and here, remains just to reflect the ordinary, everyday truths of life. And not let our own journalism block the view.

In a free country, readers provide a healthy corrective, which is what letters to the editor are for. In countries not as free, the criticism takes the form of censorship. Or an assassin's bullet. Some killers act under cover of law, others are moved by their own fanaticism.

In any society riven by hatreds or suppressed by iron rule - the two tend to go together, like some kind of fatal syndrome - a rare writer may come along who lets the reader see the ordinary truths of life through prose as clear as plate glass. And the sight is enough to enrage those who want him silenced.

Such a writer is living on borrowed time. See the murder of the Armenian/Turkish/just human Hrant Dink in Istanbul.

He knew it would happen one day or another. "I feel like a pigeon," he wrote in what would be his last article. "Like a pigeon I wander uneasily amidst this city, watching my back constantly, so timid and yet so free."

Fresh flowers now mark the spot on the busy street where he was shot down. His funeral goes on every day.

If you want to really clear up your day so you really see it, rather than just go through it in a fog, start it with a funeral. It puts things in perspective. It carves the rest of the day in bas-relief. The trivial is gently blown away, no longer worth bothering with. The vital leaps out: friends, family, and those ordinary courtesies and delights of life that are anything but ordinary, like the presence of love. All are heightened after a funeral. How could we ever have overlooked them, lived without them?

At 11 o'clock Wednesday morning, I was hurrying into Temple B'nai Israel here in Little Rock for the funeral of a great lady who had no great airs. Yes, there are still such; just look around. This lady's name was Bea Marks, and I thought of her as the last Yiddish speaker in Arkansas.

Whenever I saw her, I would try to refresh my poor, neglected, faded-beyond-hope childhood Yiddish. She was patient but exact. She expected you to do your part.

Yet the most eloquent thing about Beatrice Brint Marks was her silent glance, which took you in at once. If you pleased her, it was apparent, and you were rewarded by just being able to stand next to such as she, and share the same wordless bond. If not, poor posturing thing, you could tell she hoped you would do better in the future.

It was the final tribute to Bea's presence that the crowded glass-walled main sanctuary of the temple, which was made to worship the Lord of Hosts on high holidays with blasts on a ram's horn and sonorous injunctions, had the air Wednesday morning of a quiet conversation around the kitchen table. How very much like Yiddish, that most diminutive of languages, that kitchen language.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize for his writings in Yiddish, said it was the only language on earth he knew about that was never spoken by people in power. Naturally most of its speakers, millions of them, were murdered. There's a lesson in that: It is a terrible thing to be powerless. I hope my pacifist friends are listening.

It is the simple, ordinary human truths that most provoke the violent, and most alarm the empty, abstract, secretly insecure thing called The State.

They are also the truths that most affect us, and that we most need to hear.