essays kaddish in two-part harmony Seymour Fromer z"l tzaddik stories

my father’s favorite boys speak up

Did the tzaddik walk into a bar? Did he drink a beer? Did he watch the World Series on that day? So. The answer appears to be (I’ll cut to the chase) — no, he did not.  The whole tzaddik walks into a bar story that I told, turns out to be almost completely off.   Don’t get me wrong — the event in the car did actually take place. Malkah asked the tzaddik if he’d ever been in a bar…  It was his answer, they said, that was off.

This is what happened when I sought out some independent verification from my father’s favorite boys.  And from Mrs Tzaddik as well. And they all concur. The way the tzaddik told it is not at all what happened.

One of my father’s favorite boys had the whole thing transcribed in his diary.  He has kept his diaries of the 25 years of adventures with the tzaddik!  Why hadn’t I done that with my own adventures with my father?  Of course, he (unlike me) is an historian. It just never occurred to me to take notes until it was too late.

The story of the-tzaddik-walks-into-a-bar turns out to be much funnier and much more significant than I could have imagined.  And I do have the real story now, just as I was after. Or — I have a story corroborated independently by three separate individuals. Which still doesn’t make my father’s story wrong. Maybe their tale was a different story. And how likely is that?

But the favorite boys concur: their revisionist tale is not for broadcast on kaddish in two-part harmony or anywhere else the internet or in print media either. The ‘real’ tale is not for public consumption at all. In other words, it’s a very good story.

And I’d like to tell it.  I think it would demonstrate the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, for starters.

How is a tzaddik supposed to behave? And doesn’t that hold for his boys?  Or: what was the life of the tzaddik like — particularly with his boys? Both questions are raised, I suppose. I was just never very interested in the first question. It just never occurred to me. But that’s where my father’s favorite boys went with my inquiry.

There’s something in anthropology called ‘protection of human subjects.’ I know. You’d think it existed in all disciplines, but no, it doesn’t. And protection of human subjects  trumps any desire of the anthropologist or the public right to know, and certainly it trumps our desire just to hear a good tale. Our code of ethics states that when the telling or transmission of events becomes even a potential danger to those involved, or if anyone involved objects to the telling — we simply keep our mouths shut.  There is, of course, the public interest.

When I was in grad school I got a graphic illustration of this.  I was interviewing all 33 professors in the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology  to discover —and write about— the culture of our department at the time. I was a first year grad student at the time. Anthropology was in a crisis, and our profs made it clear that there just weren’t going to be the same old jobs out there for us when we got our Ph.D.s.  So. Then. What did our professors see as the task at hand for us? What did they really value? Must you do fieldwork, let alone fieldwork abroad (which was a major question in those days)? Must you become an academic? What about local languages? Is participant-observation really the best methodological strategy? What advice did these luminaries have for the soon-to-be unemployed next generation?

One of the professors that I interviewed called me back day after day, pouring out the lore (read: dirt) of the department. Hour after hour — I could not believe how forthcoming he was, how revealing. He made all the relations within the department transparent. He pointed out the significance of alliances and rivalries, (not to mention things I should definitely know nothing about). He mentioned.

And I took notes. On everything. And he named names.

After months of these internal tales of the department, I was approaching the deadline for writing up my results. And he knew it.  When he told me his last juicy tidbit (for it seemed at last he’d come to a close), he had this to say:

“… and for all that I have told you, I do not give you permission to publish or share any of it.  It has been for your ears only.  Now, we’ll see if you are a real anthropologist or not.”

And he smiled sweetly. And puffed more cigar smoke in my face.

And I looked up stunned, stood up, shook his hand, and walked out of his office. I remember not looking at him. I remember only looking at the fire merrily blazing in his privileged Edwardian fireplace.

“No problem,” I stammered, confused as hell, as I walked out his door.  I had maybe 60 pages of notes just from him alone.

Of course he was right. And with those words, he gave me by far the best lesson in anthropological fieldwork that I was to get in grad school.  We couldn’t just go out there and collect whatever we wanted. We couldn’t just write it up. We had to think about consequences.

Publishing any of what he had told me would have done more harm than good.  And that turned out to be the case for even what I thought was the much less innocuous material that I’d collected as well.

But how do we know what might cause harm?

Anything can be controversial. Anything at all.  As it was demanded, I never spoke a word of what I’d been handed by my Berkeley prof. Never published even the smallest tidbit. Never told a soul. But I did understand the dynamics of the department a whole lot better. For over 35 years, I’ve kept my mouth shut. I trusted that my informant knew what was best for all concerned.

And now. I have to trust my father’s favorite boys, I guess, although I think they’re wrong. Not just trust that they and Mrs Tzaddk have told the story exactly as it unfolded. No, not that. Clearly, the real tale reveals so much more about the tzaddik and his favorite boys than my little tale did.

And I want to tell the tale. And I want to tell it properly.

What I can report, is only that there was no beer. No beer at all. That the tzaddik just did not drink beer. And, there was no bar at all. And it was not the World Series yet either, but the playoffs. And that those parts of the story are the least interesting and least significant. The story is rich, complex, and speaks volumes to the nature of the tzaddik and his disciples. And the world will never have it! Major bummer.

This sort of thing does actually drive me crazy.

And then I think, can storytelling itself really do more harm than good? And is this one of those cases? When all I want is—

I’ve been writing down as many of my memories of my father as I can in the hopes of saving the fragments of the tzaddik’s undocumented life.  Not the formal man, but the man behind the scenes.  I want everything. I want it all. And people tell me these amazing stories and then will not commit them to writing. Or when they put them in writing, the humanity of it all just plain washes away. The humor disappears. The tale seems less than an anecdote, not even worth the telling.  It loses its importance, it’s so cleaned up and lacking spontaneity. Or — it’s too controversial to tell.

I don’t buy it.

So. The tzaddik’s favorite boys have started to speak up at last. They promised to write down their own tzaddik tales. To record them for posterity. But not, it appears for the public. That is: not, it appears, for you. They want the tzaddik to remain seen in his beatific light. While I, on the other hand, I want the truth. Or as many different versions of the truth that I can collect or conjure. Not the cleaned up tales, but the tales with all the warts.  So much to tell!  So little that gets told.

And that’s the way, I guess, it has to be. There’s a line somewhere between the need-to-know and the need-to-tell. And here I’ve been guilty of wanting every tale to be unearthed, dusted off, and given over to the world. It’s what my father taught me: collect, research, display. I’ve wanted my portrait of the tzaddik fleshed out as fully as possible—with many different voices. But my father’s favorite boys are so much more protective of him than I am. They savor and hoard their own tzaddik stories like jewels in a safe deposit vault. And me, I want to follow the tzaddik’s directive.

I hate prescriptivist stuff.  The ‘this-is-how-it-should-have-been.’  I want what happened. My father’s reputation will not suffer from the truth, it will be embellished. I know he can stand up to it. I know that he’d just chuckle, nod wisely, or scratch his chin.  He was exactly that non-judgmental. He stood apart and watched it all unfold.  He was both bold and modest.  A touch of humanity never made a tzaddik less tzaddik. That would be somebody else’s religion. It sure as hell isn’t mine.

So. This is me, keeping my mouth shut. At least in this regard. Making my father look like a flipping saint. No. He never walked into a bar, they say. And that’s the portrait they want me to paint.




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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