High holy days: a call for the work ahead

Posted: Sep 16, 2002 12:00 AM
The first anniversary of 9/11 fell in the middle of the High Holy Days of the Jewish people. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur falls the shadow of death. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arise celebrations of life. This Holy Week carries a spiritual message for all regardless of faith. It's a short season filled with awe and dread, mercy and judgment, visions and revisions, memories of past lives, hopes for future ones. When the ram's horn sounds its bitter sweet notes as the sun goes down tonight (Sept. 16), it expresses a groaning lamentation that pierces the air triumphant with possibility, universalizing human aspiration fused with sorrow and suffering. We're bound together in sadness and hope. Jews empty their pockets of papers and coins on Yom Kippur. We fast to purify our bodies and to free our minds to consider ways to be better people, to learn from the loved ones who have died and who continue to challenge us to follow their ideals. The days fall hardest on those who have lost someone dear to them in the last year, but we can all seek solace and wisdom in the Bible or in a vast literature of stories of other religions that set examples for us to follow. We can draw insights from history and the great books to find those places where courage and virtue triumph over cowardice and evil, where humility rises above hubris. The ancient Greeks said a person needs to "know thyself" to understand the meaning of happiness, to know thyself in relation to precepts of morality in relation to others. Not an easy thing to do. The Greeks wrote tragedies about man's fate that appealed to popular audiences. They not only had a common language, but a common culture. Schoolchildren and college students in America once studied them. Fewer do so today. Multicultural studies, the current didactic mode, emphasize differences, and education no longer looks for the universal that binds us together. Young people have only a scant knowledge of the great books, and they don't know their own history. Survey after survey makes that clear. They have few references outside of immediate, contemporary issues. When 9/11 brought Americans together in a common experience of tragedy and danger, we had only a limited vocabulary to rise artistically (i.e. universally) above the simplest sentimentality. The greatest solemnity emerged in moments of silence and prayer. Under the headline "The Old Days Never Looked So Good: Yesteryear's Cultural Symbols Are Today's Hot Tickets," the New York Times describes the lack of freshness and originality in contemporary pop culture and illustrates it with a large photo of Rita Hayworth, the 1940s movie icon. Critics from editors at Rolling Stone to college professors observed that teenagers are so bombarded with schlock on the current CDs, videos, movies and the Internet that they lack the ability to tell the difference between what's good and what's bad in what's "hip," to say nothing of high art. Their historical context is limited to something less than 20 years - nothing much happened before Prince, Bruce and Madonna. The fault is not only in education, though it is in that. Cultural media mavens in search of the newest star or music have short memories, too. Nostalgia offers comfort food for an older generation, but the richness of a culture is determined by informed seriousness across an aesthetic spectrum, whether in fine art or pop art. Americans are in search of cultural "attitude." When Jennifer Harper, writing in The Washington Times, compared the coverage of the first anniversary of 9/11 with that of the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor - "No flowers, no teddy bears, and no exploration of the national angst, no presidential admonitions to think of Shinto as a religion of peace, no appeals to understand the frustrations that drove the misunderstood Nazis to rape Poland and bomb London" - she was showered with hundreds of e-mails from readers thanking her for recognizing the differences. We can imagine the average age of those readers. In her newspaper column on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt opposed any commemoration of the day. "It is not a date for a holiday," she wrote. "It is a date that should make us work." On the day after we mourned the innocent lives murdered on that clear September morn a year ago, George Bush spoke to the United Nations about moving on to "the urgent duty of protecting other lives, without illusion and without fear." When the ram's horn blows at sundown tonight, all Americans can heed the call: We have work to do on many fronts.