NORTH MIAMI BEACH — The confluence of two stories in Tuesday’s news, one from Japan and one from my neighboring state of Georgia, reminded me of an amazing story from my father’s youth. My Dad was born in New York City in 1937; his mother was born there in 1900. But both of her parents came from Poland, so my father liked to spend his spare time at the Polish Synagogue located up the block on Henry Street in the Lower East Side. He was a studious teenager and often sat up past midnight at the synagogue as he “pondered over many a quaint and curious volume.”
Then there was a robbery in the neighborhood and the synagogue board voted to latch the doors after prayers each evening, about 10 p.m. One fellow advised my Dad that there was another Polish Synagogue about a half-mile away and they left their doors open. He took to walking there at night and immediately felt at home, even finding a favorite chair that became his nightly headquarters.
After a few nights, one of the elderly gentlemen there approached him and asked his name. When he heard it, he responded, “Wasn’t there a pharmacist named Aaron Homnick who married the daughter of Moses Aaron Glogover?” My father acknowledged that that was his father. The man went on to tell that Mr. Glogover (who died before my father was born) was a member of that synagogue and had willed it part of his library. He picked some books off the shelf and showed my Dad his grandfather’s signature on the inside page.
“What’s more,” the old man concluded, “you’re sitting in his seat.”
TWO STORIES YESTERDAY. The first comes from Japan, where the Prime Minister has taken the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II to issue a national apology for his country’s unwarranted aggression. He acknowledged that it had triggered a great deal of conflict and brought much misery into the world.
The second emanates from Georgia, where the State Board of Pardons has decided to rectify a 60-year injustice and pardon a woman who was executed wrongfully in 1945. She was a black maid who claimed that the white man who employed her was actually holding her in slavery by threatening her life constantly. One day, she had grabbed a gun and killed him. She did not deny the act but claimed self-defense. The jury found her claim of self-defense to be unproven, as indeed it wasn’t proved except by her testimony. But most of the people involved with the case believed that she was telling the truth; they were just not ready to let a white person be killed by a black without the black paying the ultimate price.
Six full decades after these events, with most of the parties long dead, we have apologies and pardons. Instinctively we recognize these gestures to be of profound importance, as in some way serving to restore balance to the cosmos. But why? Isn’t this the most primitive form of animism?
No. Deep down even the nominally less religious among us sense that there is a continuity in the world. We believe that there is such a concept as a nation and it is a reality that transcends the generations. When a soldier dies in Iraq or Korea or Germany or Bosnia or Afghanistan, representing the beliefs and interests of the United States of America, it stands as a declaration that the nation is a historical entity whose past and future merge into a single unit of achievement. So much so that he or she is willing to forgo one precious life in the present.
This applies as well in more mundane things, such as corporations or organizations. When the Boston Red Sox finally won a World Series last year after 86 years of drought, a skeptic could have shrugged and said that only this one group won while all the other teams lost. Yet the vast majority of us sense, even if we cannot establish it logically, that there is an encompassing Red Sox history and that Manny Ramirez winning down here is a victory for Ted Williams too.
People always ask: How did it help the Israelites who were born and died in slavery for hundreds of years when their descendants were finally liberated? This is the answer, engraved deep into our very souls. Time is not really vertical; that is only an illusion that enables us to proceed through the stages of daily life. In truth it is horizontal and there is one world that extends throughout history. It has joy and sadness but in the end the good prevails.
And one day when our soldiers return from Iraq to join us in a world in which terrorism has very little place, they will finally get a chance to sit back and relax — in Thomas Jefferson’s seat.