Funny, the things you remember from years back with a clarity that includes the color of sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree. I recall, for instance, a hazy summer afternoon in 1956, watching the light sculpt the shade of an enormous willow that dominated the front yard of my best buddy, Schild.
After a morning of stickball, our gang of three (me, Schild, and Wolinsky, who always smelled of egg salad), had flopped under that tree to debate the main topic of the day: Who was the best center fielder in the City?
Willie Mays had just begun to own the outfield of the Polo Grounds and was showing the power that would crank out 660 career homers. Now he was on his way to one of his first great years: 36 over the fence, 84 RBI, and an average of .296. In the meantime, the beloved Duke of Flatbush, his hair silver even in the bloom of youth, shagged down would-be doubles and triples without a drop of tobacco juice dripping from his bloated cheek. At the plate that season, Snider would top Mays’ home run count with 43, surpass him in runs driven in with 101, and just barely fail to equal Willie’s average with a handy .292.
But say what you will on behalf of Willie and the Duke, in my humble opinion neither of them could touch the Mick, heir to DiMaggio’s centerfield kingdom in the House that Ruth Built! In 1956, Mickey Mantle made his first great assault upon the Babe’s single season home run record, falling short with a “mere” 52 dingers. He would win the Triple Crown, leading his league’s batsmen in the crucial offensive categories of homers, runs batted in (130) and batting average (.353). And he saved as many runs with his glove as he drove in from the plate. He was my guy!
For a time, at least. By the time Mickey had hung up his spikes in 1968, my adolescent infatuation with muscular Oklahomans had morphed into an equally intense devotion to new divinities — the counter-cultural gurus of “anti-suburbia” best embodied, to my unformed mind, in the grand satirist of “ugly radio,” Frank Zappa, whose Mothers of Invention regularly played East Village dives such as the Balloon Farm. Some folks swear by The Dead, but I doubt they’ve dervished under strobe lights as the Mothers segued from “Suzy Cream Cheese, What’s Got Into Ya” into “The Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin.”
Whatever. Both Mickey and Frank have long ago passed on to Valhalla. And I was not even gracious enough to await the inevitable twilight of their godhood before transferring allegiance to a whole new pantheon of culture heroes — the middle-aged refugees from liberal Protestant seminaries who, in the throes of the Vietnam era, were creating Religious Studies as a unique, American, academic discipline.
Now these guys — most of whom had the personal charisma of William Macy or Wally Cox — knew everything! I encountered them at college — Syracuse University.
In their classes, a lecture on Mesopotamian ziggurats might include a comparative riff on the shamanic incantations of Siberian herbalists, with a brief stop, for the sake of thoroughness, at the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. What hadn’t they read and contemplated?
Truth be told, if I have managed any accomplishment in Jewish Studies, I owe much of it to the inspiration of these Gentile men of wisdom, who gently cultivated in me a curiosity about — of all things — historical Judaism.
I first heard about Elie Wiesel from one such professor, James Williams. He concluded his lecture on the problem of “Evil in the Book of Job” by intoning the last paragraphs of Wiesel’s Night.
From another, David Miller, I learned about the integral role that the Kabbalah played in the creation of Christian Renaissance culture in Italy.
Yet another mentor, William Hall, first explained to me how the West’s distinction between “myth” and “history” was inspired by the Tanach’s critique of the seasonal, cyclical rhythms of Canaanite fertility rites.
What? The religion of my grandparents was more than a collection of quirky superstitions (pu, pu, pu!) and night terrors about Cossacks? There was a millennial tradition beyond the suburban Bar Mitzvah-mill “temples” in which the Frustrated lectured the Bored about the Forgotten? If my learned goyish professors took Judaism absolutely seriously — well, then, maybe I should take another look?
So I did.
Of course, like a vine seeking its trellis, I soon found more appropriate heroes: the Jewish scholars I needed to guide me.
Prof. Richard L. Rubenstein was notorious in the ’60s for having been interviewed about the “Death of God” in, of all places, Playboy. To me, he modeled the heroism of the “man of faith” who, cheerfully and without despair, respectfully declined the comforts of “organized religion.”
And, finally, Prof. Jacob Neusner, now the author of perhaps 2,000 books (that’s right, three zeros, and still counting!), who showed me how the academic study of Judaism had become, in some mysterious way, the religion of many who could no longer practice Judaism.
Even now, in the course of some professional event, when I am introduced as “Professor Jaffee,” a part of me stands apart, wondering — who is that guy impersonating Professor Jaffee? I’m not sure I know.
But it’s a safe bet that, at some level, he’s the product of the vast spaces that yawned between himself and his heroes: a fat kid yearning to roam centerfield at Yankee Stadium; a dorky accordion player fantasizing about rocking the house at Woodstock; an American-Jewish am ha’aretz desperate to gaze upon the Dynamics of the Divine Chariot.
Award-winning columnist Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.