Monday, July 16, 2012

What Isaac Bashevis Singer Could Teach Mr. Obama And Mr. Romney

What Isaac Bashevis Singer Could Teach Mr. Obama And Mr. Romney

The great storyteller I. B. Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature,  but my personal favorite is a small non-fiction volume, “In My Father’s Court”, in which he tells of his own childhood in Poland.

The “Court” is Singer’s father’s rabbinical court, a single room in his house, as much a concept as a physical place, where congregants and members of the community go for religious decisions, advice and guidance.  Singer’s father isn’t just a devout man, he’s a profoundly moral one.  He lives in a world of absolutes of right and wrong, he abhors the coarseness of everyday life, but he has empathy for the frailty of the soul.  

There is the story, early in the book, that seems almost inconsequential. It sneaks up on you in memory afterwards.  In “The Secret” a middle-aged woman comes to unburden herself about a horrible act.  Decades before she had been seduced and abandoned.   Fearful and without resources, she had left the baby on a church doorstep.  Now, she is haunted by what he may have become-a thief, a bully, maybe even a murderer.  Singer’s mother, highly educated and the daughter of a prominent Rabbi herself, speaks to the woman first.  While the sin is grave, she makes various references to religious tracts, and speaks of penance.  The woman is unmoved and inconsolable.  She wants to see the Rabbi. And a small miracle happens between them.  Singer’s father also refers to the texts, but while he acknowledges the enormity of the sin he also speaks of the value of every human life, offers comfort, suggests penance in a manner that is strict but compassionate, not too much for her strength.  Her tears turn to those of joy and relief, and she leaves, pronouncing blessings on everyone.  The gates of redemption are rarely closed.

I wish Mitt Romney and Barack Obama would read this story, and then hand it out to each and every Senator and Representative.  Right now, Congress’s approval rating stands at 17%, which is lower than either Nixon or Bush II at their nadirs.  Lower than public caning.  Lower than Tiger Woods in the middle of his scandal, or Barry Bonds in the middle of his.  One point higher than BP during the Gulf Spill.  In fact, Congress has only one clear cut victory.  It beats, hands down, John Edwards.  Alert the media.

Why does everyone disapprove of Congress?  Because these folk deserve it.  The Democrats excel in drift, and the GOP in obstruction. 

Last week was a case in point.  With all the crises, real or imagined, that we are faced with, here’s what John Boehner and Eric Cantor decreed had to be at the top of the agenda.  The House voted on party lines to repeal Obamacare.

Wow.  What courage.  If only they had thought of this before?

Actually, they had.  This is the 33rd time that the GOP-controlled House has voted to repeal Obamacare.  Of course, there’s the pesky matter of the Senate, and the fact that the “Obama” of “Obamacare” still occupies the White House.  But, nonetheless, the House gathered in all its austere dignity and voted once again. 

They acknowledged it was a symbolic vote.  The symbolism escaped me at first, so I checked into the importance of the number 33.  It turns out that Eisenhower, when sworn in as President, rested his hand on the 33rd Psalm while taking the Oath of Office.  Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord: and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.”  Coincidence?  I think not.

As to the actual battle for the White House (forget Eisenhower, he could never get nominated by the modern GOP) it’s getting ugly and a little infantile.   One might hope that Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama,  who are actually both very intelligent and talented, would debate the great issues of the time. No.  Right now, the two campaigns are locked in a “did not”, “did too” argument about the duration of Mr. Romney’s Bain tenure that’s more suitable for third-graders.  Mr. Romney claims he was out of Bain by 1999 (before some of the worst of the outsourcing and job and pension-killing) and has demanded an apology from Mr. Obama.  Unfortunately the public record says something different, so Mr. Romney sent an adviser out there on Sunday to announce that Mr. Romney retired “retroactively”.

It is fascinating that Mr. Romney spends so much time “retroactively” running away from his past.   His time as Governor of Massachusetts?  Nothing that wasn’t the distilled essence of strict conservatism occurred.  Bain?  Yes, he has great management skills that should qualify him to be President, but the damage done to the workers, the planned bankruptcies, either didn’t happen, or didn’t happen on his watch, or if they did happen, were a positive good. Retroactively, of course.

Could this possibly be more tiresome?  Is there anyone in Washington who doesn’t see the other side in terms beyond pure sin?  Anyone who possesses enough self-knowledge to realize that perhaps they aren’t perfect? If redemption is possible for the woman who left her illegitimate child on a church doorstep, surely these people can do a little better?

There’s another Singer story, “Why The Geese Shrieked” that has Singer’s devout but spiritual father facing off against his devout but intellectual mother.  A woman brings in two dead geese, who, when smacked together, make an unearthly sound.  His father sees the supernatural, but his mother has a more corporeal explanation (the windpipes weren’t removed).  Mom removes them. The woman is sent home with her quiet geese, and Isaac and his father are left to contemplate the triumph of logic over faith.  “Your mother takes after her Grandfather…he was a great scholar, but a coldblooded rationalist.  People warned me before the betrothal...”  He then gestures as if to say: “It is too late now to call off the wedding.”

Mr. Singer’s father was on to something.  Right, left, or center, we’ve all been married for 235 years.  It’s too late to call off the wedding.