essays kaddish in two-part harmony tzaddik stories

closure, or something like it — a kaddish for milton g. nobler

People say you need closure.  But does that mean that there are no more stories to be told?

I woke up this morning with two imperatives: 1) a sense of real or imminent closure, and 2) the need to tell this tale.  It’s a tale biofather told me, and I’m pretty sure he never told another soul on earth.  It was because he couldn’t shake it.  Because he knew I’d understand it.  Because he himself was shaken to the core.  He had to give the story out in order to get rid of it himself.

He was a good story teller.  He was a meticulous painter.  I was about to say ‘magnificent’ — which clearly oversteps.  By his own admission, he saw painting — Chinese painting — a lot like chemistry.  Follow instruction, practice due diligence, and you’ll be fine.  He saw it as an entirely technical skill.  And despite all those visits to Buddhist temples and shrines, he was adamant that he didn’t have a spiritual bone in his body.  Not even one of the little bones.

He’d been doing Chinese brushwork for about thirty years when this thing happened.  Could be more.  As I recall he was 72 at the time.  He’d already completed his PhD dissertation in Art History on “The Art and History of the Jewish Traders on the T’ang Silk Road” (1989).  So this was after.  His hands were already shaky by then — I can see that in the notations of his dissertation draft.  It must have taken tremendous force of will to keep on painting.

Does closure include forgiveness?  Or just a sense that there’s nothing else to do or say?  I don’t have any of those things. But what I did wake up with was a certain degree of peace.  A quiet ripping asunder (I guess that’s the expression) that says, okay — that’s your separate life, and this is mine.

I spent so many decades feeling sullied by him.  Contaminated.  Not just the radiation.  But that lack of empathy for others.  I just didn’t understand it.  He’d show me his photo albums, that he kept out on the coffee table, proudly.  Not a human in sight, just art.  Statues and statues of Bodhisatvas, Kuan Yins, and Buddhas.  Ceramics and some scrolls.  Most of the scrolls were just rolled up in the attic.  So much art, he didn’t know what to do with it.

Turned out (I discovered this morning) that he did have ‘family photos.’  And one whole volume were pictures of me and my family.  They were all the pictures I’d sent him year after year, event after event — he’d kept them after all.  Just like all the letters that I’d written.  He kept every single one.  Sometimes with notations, maybe even drafts of possible replies.  He just didn’t answer them.  How was I to know?

I’m not saying maybe-he-was-a-better-person than I thought or knew.  I had only a glimpse of who he was.  His friends all thought him grouchy.  The old lefties thought he’d more than sold out.  But they’d stayed friends.  His wife thought all the grumpy snarky comments were his sense of humor.

“You don’t feed a dying dog,”  Ha ha ha ha ha.

So.  No, that didn’t help.

But this story.  This story shows a small crack in his certainty about the world.  His adamance.  His conviction he was right.

He was on a trip to Thailand.  Or Burma.  But this was Borobudur, I think.   Central Java.  Magnificent ancient temples.  I had remarked how, for a solid former Soviet-style communist and atheist he spent an awful lot of time at temples.  It’s all technical, he would reply.  He was interested in architecture too.

So.  There was this little Buddhist monk there.

Milton was walking around taking pictures with his fancy cameras that he kept slung around his neck.  He was a large man with a large voice.  He looked over at the monk, who was surrounded by a small crowd.  As a scientist, he was interested.

This is how he told me the story.  I am not making this up.

“It looked like the monk was giving something out,” he said.  “And if there was something to be given, I was going to get some too.”

So.  He strode over to the little crowd, and it parted like the sea as he walked through it.  When he reached the monk, he was ready.  He stuffed a dollar bill in the monk’s hand, and snapped a picture in the monk’s face.  I have a feeling you can see this quite precisely.

There was absolute silence as the monk took his hand.

A silence beyond a worldly silence.

He began traveling back through time.  He met the monk’s teacher.  And the monk’s teacher’s teacher.  Further back and further back — to the great beginning.  To the Buddha himself.  And each teacher gave him a teaching.  All the way back, to the Buddha himself.

How often is it that those who receive such visions are undeserving?  Or is it that they just so need it the most?

At some point, the monk let go the light touch on his hand.  The little crowd was there again.  Each person eager to hold for just one moment the little monk’s hand.  They all slowly veered off someplace different through the ruins.  Milton stood there.


What just happened?

How and why?

When he got back to West L.A. he tried to write about it, but he couldn’t.  Tried to understand it, but it made no sense.  It undermined his entire cosmological understanding.  How he thought the universe worked.  How he thought painting worked.  How he thought human experience was designed.  He was strongly committed to the materialist argument (no matter from which side of the argument you explored).  He couldn’t make the pieces fit anymore.  He struggled with it for a while.  At least long enough to share the tale, and shake his head.  Not in awe.  Not in wonder.  But in lack of comprehension.

I wanted him to write it up.  What else can you do with things like this?

He woke up, or was it, from a Buddhist perspective, just the opposite?

Acchh,” he said.  He shook out his shoulders.  Shrugged off the event.  And it was gone.


So.  A kaddish for Milton G. Nobler.  Who claimed not a spiritual bone in his body.  Yet practiced a spiritual practice — of Chinese painting for over forty years.  He, in his last decade, was given a glimmer of another possibility.  Too late, perhaps — but he was scientist enough to admit that life just might not be as it appears.

And I understand now my need to tell this story.  I’m afraid, in this regard, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the Tree.


By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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