BOSTON, Mass. - Azoy geht es,my father used to say at funerals. So it goes. In his immigrant's Yiddish, he was using the same phrase Kurt Vonnegut would make the refrain of his "Slaughterhouse-Five." It's one of those all-purpose observations suitable for any occasion - happy, sad or in between. Much like "This, too, shall pass." It sums up the transience of the human condition.
The message was waiting on my answering machine: "Daddy, we've had a baby girl!" Seven pounds, 14 ounces. Full head of hair. Delicate features. Fingers and toes all there. Definitely a girl. After two grandsons, I hadn't dared hope.
Just in case it'd been a boy, I'd been practicing a cheery "That's wonderful!" out loud. And it would have been. Just not as wonderful as a girl.
"What are you going to call her?" I ask when I call back. The happy mother won't say, not before the name is announced at morning services later in the week. It's a tradition.
Ah, yes - tra-dition! I keep learning new ones ever since my daughter got pious on me some years ago.
Be careful what you wish for. I always wanted her to marry a nice Jewish boy. Now I can't call her on Saturdays because she doesn't pick up the phone on the Sabbath, when the world is turned off. When she visits, she carries most of her own food - my kitchen isn't kosher - or we go out and stock up on kosher canned goods with the U in a circle on it, the rabbinical Seal of Approval.
And so it goes. Her grandfather on her mother's side - Robert E. Levy - was raised in Marlin, Tex., which was something of a spa at the turn of the century.
My father-in-law remembered riding into nearby Waco on a wagon every year for the Jewish high holidays. In the absence of any synagogue in Marlin, he went to Methodist Sunday School - so he shouldn't be a complete heathen. Now his granddaughter was telling me her baby's name wouldn't be announced till after the Torah was read in their synagogue. Š And so it goes.
When I was young, it was simply assumed that in each generation the old ways would fade a little more, with English replacing Hebrew in services, the old rituals disappearing as customs gave way to bright shiny modernity, till we wouldn't be all that distinguishable from UnitariansŠ.
Oy, were we wrong. The pendulum has swung the other way as the old ways attract a whole new generation. Across the whole religious spectrum, the old is new again. People are returning to the fundamentals.
I remember when the grandfather from Texas attended my daughter's wedding, complete with segregated dancing. (Men with men, women with women - none of that lascivious mixing!) The hall was full of black-hatted young men with sidelocks and beards wishing us well. My father-in-law took me aside and whispered: "She's marrying into a cult!" She was. It's called Judaism.
And now there would be no announcing the baby's name till the proper time and place. "That's wonderful!" I said. That way the parents of the newborn avoid a lot of stress just when they really don't need any more: the needless negotiation, the general wheedling and pleading and usual family dysfunction. Instead the naming is put on hold. What a sensible tradition.
The baby's grandmother - my late wife - would surely have approved. Carolyn Levy Greenberg had developed a strong religious streak herself as a young woman, perhaps to scandalize her parents, products of the flappers-flivvers-and-Freud 1920s.
So whatever the kids wanted to name their little girl, listen, it was fine with me. They're the parents. I wasn't going to say a word. Me, interfere? Moi? Never. They could call their baby anything they liked. (But me, I'm calling her Carolyn!)
Thursday morning, I was in their synagogue here in Brookline for morning prayers. Two shifts are required for all the worshippers - one at 6:20, the next at 7:20 for the late-risers. (Toto, I don't think we're in Arkansas any more, where Jews are a rare minority.)
The baby's father is called up for the reading of the Law in honor of the occasion. After he finishes, the men in their phylacteries and prayer shawls gather around the Torah scroll up front and break out singing "Mazeltov!" Congratulations!
Oh, yes, the baby will be called Carolyn.
Her middle name? Sara, after my mother.
And so it goes. Sometimes very well.