Saturday, April 1, 2017

Tales From the Old New Land - Tale 5: Five in One - A Little More

In order to tell the tale of Clarissa Johansen, we must tell the tale of her mentor, the warm and wise and perceptive and ceaselessly self-draining Bethany Katz, blessed and cursed by nature to always protect whether or not she's protected in return, to give without being given. Bethany's is the story of love - spiritual love, humane love, public love, personal love, the strength which love gives, and the bridges love cannot cross. The only love she never possessed is self-love. There always seem to be certain women with a preternatural intelligence for protection, and where there once was sand, they build whole cities of people blessed to come into their orbit, yet the only person who could bless them is themselves, and they are too busy blessing others to ever know how. They are not only masters of protection but also persuasion. One well-placed word can make a hundred people realize they've always liked is someone they hated or that someone they always liked is an asshole. Were they different sorts of people, the gift could make them President of the United States, but the heart matches the brain, and they become determined to use their perceptive, persuasive, protective powers for virtue, yet always underestimate just how difficult the world makes it to be virtuous. Bethany works, and she works, and she works, and she waits, and she waits, and she waits, but we're always thrown out of the Old New Land.

"It's like you get five religions in one" is what Barack Obama's grandfather said about Unitarianism. Unitarian Universalism, that great leveler of Christ, the great hope that religion and modernity can mix, that you can tame religion and all its demands for Holy War into a domesticated pet that lets you experience the holiness of divinity without recognizing its primacy, lets you feel connected to the oneness of all things while still feeling yourself important enough to love and be loved, guiltlessly binding the best of all religions together without considering how the people to whom these practices are life itself might feel it desecration.

And yet, Unitarianism is the best of us: The Adamses, the Alcotts, Susan B. Anthony, Bela Bartok, Ray Bradbury, e. e. cummings, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Buckminster Fuller, Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Jefferson, Tomas Masaryk, Hermann Melville, Isaac Newton, Paul Newman,  Barack Obama's family, Keith Olbermann, Linus Pauling, Joseph Priestley, Christopher Reeve, Paul Revere, Benjamin Rush, Arthur Schlesinger, Albert Schweitzer, Pete Seeger, Rod Serling, Robert Gould Shaw, Adlai Stevenson, William Howard Taft, Kurt Vonnegut, Daniel Webster, William Carlos Williams, Joanne Woodward, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Wright.

There are less than 200,000 members of Unitarian Churches in the entire world, and less than 900,000 people who identify as Unitarian. No religion, not even Judaism, ever did so much in so short a time by such a large percentage of adherents to advance the causes of freedom and justice and beauty in the world. It is the religion of true miracles, in which the divine works are made manifest not in the skies, but here on earth - the place where in the end we find our happiness, or not at all.

At fifteen years old, few were happier than Bethany Felicity Katz; younger daughter of the Reverend Mary Katz, Senior Minister for the last three years of the First Unitarian Universalist Church and Center in San Francisco at the intersection of Geary Blvd and Franklin Street, herself the daughter of Matthew Williams, for thirty-seven years the Senior Minister at First Parish in Concord, himself the second son of The Very Reverend Frank Williams, who was Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the flagship Unitarian Church on Farnsworth St. in Boston. After fifty-two years, Reverend Frank was succeeded by Very Reverend Frank Jr., whom until then was Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in DC on Harvard St. and ran the Unitarian Lobby, DC Unitarians for Social Justice. Frank Sr.'s second son, Burke Williams, fried his mind with hallucinogenics in 1950's San Francisco and lived in a group home for thirty-five years for the mentally disturbed before the San Francisco Chronicle published an expose about fifty years of physical abuse perpetrated on their patients - choke holds that killed half a dozen patients, illegal frontal lobotomies, deliberate misdiagnoses to justify violent restraints, not notifying next of kin of about shock treatments, solitary confinement for weeks at a time, ice cold high pressure water jets, and dozens of unreported sexual assaults. Frank Jr. and Burke had not seen each other in forty years. Burke was a stranger to the family who had last been mentioned by anyone when Mary was a teenager.

On one sleety day before Christmas of 1990, Mary was summoned into Frank Jr.'s office where she was informed that she would not in fact take over her father's parish but was, rather, being reassigned to San Francisco. Frank made it clear to his niece that she would be expected to look after Burke, who'd been moved to an assisted living facility, and as a woman, was the family member best equipped to provide the nurturing Burke needed. Six weeks after their arrival, Burke hung himself in his new room, but the Katzes had already put so much effort into making the best of their new life that they decided to stay.

Bethany was also the younger daughter of Bob Katz, the most expensive, and therefore the best, invasive cardiologist practicing at Mass Gen, who left both his hospital and his still more lucrative private practice in Concord to live in a Victorian townhouse on Steiner St. across from Alamo Square Park that he joyfully repainted with bright primary colors when their new neighbors suggested that the Katzes turn the last remaining house on their block into one of the Victorian Painted Ladies. In his new practice, he worked thirty hours a week rather than seventy, and he didn't need any more money than he had. His fiftieth was around the corner, and he had more than enough money to keep his family living handsomely in San Francisco's best neighborhood while his mother was safely in the Boston Area's best Assisted Living facility. If there was anything serious, his sister could drive down from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

When Bob started dating Mary Williams, his parents were livid. Not just a goyisher girl but a textbook shikseh, not just a textbook shikseh but the daughter of a minister, not just the daughter of a minister but a divinity student who'll be a minister herself. You can forget about Jewish grandchildren. There'd be a tree in the house every year, some years they wouldn't even be at the Seder because Easter would fall on the same days, and there's no question who'd win in a contest between Sunday and Hebrew School. It's not that Phil and Essie particularly cared themselves whether or not Bob married a Jewish girl, but they knew that both their widowed mothers would be furious.

Bob's bubbies: Flora Katz (born Blumeh Levinson) and Mildred Spivak (born Menukhke Braverman) - didn't much care for each other, but both of them doted upon their goldene eynikle who went to Harvard Medical as though neither had five other grandchildren. They didn't become slaves to the kitchen and the corner store and the schmatteh factory and the supermarket and the nursing home just so their spoiled kinder and eyniklach could become accountants or podiatrists or go into their father's business. They both vanted a r-r-rich doktah, and they finally had one. Bob was a naches machine. You would never know this nice Jewish boy was brilliant if you spoke to him, but he was valedictorian at Boston Latin, Summa Cum Laude in Harvard undergrad, and soon to be the speaker in his year at its med school graduation. If only they would live to see Bob deh cahdiologist ver makhten zechs hundert teusen thaler a jahr. And sechs hundert teusend thaler a jahr was what Bob would make in his new practice, in Boston he would bill with an eye to clearing the million dollar mark, some years he made it, one year he didn't but his partner did and never let him live it down. When he was leaving, his partner, Sunil Malhotra, shrugged and jokingly said 'more for me.'

 His parents thought they could keep both their mothers in the dark about the relationship which their goldene eynikle who attends Harvard Medical School embroiled himself. It would be at least a good three years before they'd have to talk about marriage, and at some point Bob would realize, as he always eventually did, that he wasn't doing the sensible thing. Eight months into the relationship, Blumeh passed away. On the first anniversary of their first date, the lovebirds announced their engagement to the family. Menukhkeh passed away a week after getting the news.

They moved to San Francisco when Bethany was twelve and her older sister was sixteen. Bethany's older sister, Marian, was bitter about the move let her parents know in no uncertain terms. She had a boyfriend in Boston she had to leave, seemingly hundreds of school friends, and was determined to hate every minute of her years in San Francisco. When it came time for college, she applied only to schools in Boston, and chose Northeastern. Six months after graduation she married her high school sweetheart, had four children, stayed at home to take care of them, and is now that the younger two are teenagers is wondering what to do when everybody leaves the house. Maybe she'll get involved with politics - she fancies that she always wanted to care about things, or maybe she'll just take an art class.

Bethany, however, was the type who knew how to be happy wherever she went. If Bethany's parents always figured that Marian would become a doctor, it seemed absolutely obvious that Bethany was destined for a life of service. Like Marian, she was the most popular girl in her class at Cambridge Friends School, but unlike Marian, her popularity was not based on fear, and when she enrolled in San Francisco Friends School, she quickly became the most well-liked girl in her class - her teachers commenting on what a lovely effect she had on the other kids. A relatively unruly class of kids was suddenly nicer to each other, better behaved in class, and even the picked on kids who were falling behind were accepted by others because Bethany accepted them. In the case of the most particularly picked on and learning disabled kid, she would cheerfully volunteer to partner with him on group projects and gently ministered with patient help and explanations to get him caught up with the class.

There was no third sibling, but as seemed tradition from time immemorial in every branch of the Williams family, Bob and Mary would board a new student every year. In generations past, it would be divinity students, but in Jet Age of the late 20th century, it seemed especially exciting to host a foreign exchange student. So every year, Bob and Mary Katz would host a new foreign exchange student to Cambridge Friends School, and when they came to San Francisco, promptly founded a foreign exchange program at San Francisco Friends School.

Marian was, perhaps understandably, a little bitter about the experience of having to learn to communicate with strange people. When she was fourteen, one particular male exchange student from Argentina would make a pass at her every day while living under their roof, and twice was waiting in her bedroom for her when she came out of the shower. Her parents never seemed to take her complaints about the students particularly seriously, but after that experience they generally made it a practice of taking female exchange students.

Bethany though, would take it upon herself to learn as much as she could about her new siblings' language, their cultures, their hometowns, their families and friends back home, and would stick to them like glue in public to make sure that their transition to America ran as smoothly as the day is long. After they went back to their home countries, she would write them long letters full of hearts to make sure they knew how they were missed and how much love they added to the Katz family, inevitably ending with ample promises to visit them back home.

When Bethany was seventeen in 1993, the exchange student was Kristina from Dresden - a new adventure. Blond, five-feet eleven, friendly and outgoing, fluent and accented English full of wonderful malapropisms, and hilariously unable to get jokes. Every attempt to turn her smile into a laugh would be met with a brow that frowned while the smile stayed pasted on, and two seconds later an explanation as to why the statement Bethany just made was not true. It caused Bethany no end of delight. Kristina's father was once a member of the Communist party, his father before him a member of the Nazi party. Other various indirect ancestors were members of the Deutsche Reichspartei, the SPD, the Stazi, and the Waffen-SS.

But you would never know from such a troubled past by looking at Kristina, who resembled life itself. Nothing was too adventurous for Kristina, who insisted on taking Bethany, indeed the whole Katz family, all along the trails and rivers of Northern California. The Katzes thought they were an outdoors family until Kristina took them to a new outdoor habitation every weekend.

It was during one of these outdoor habitations that a series of a dozen-and-a-half vans pulled up to the next door house. Driving through the entire block is prohibited, so traffic was blocked for half-a-mile in each direction. Ten children emerged with two parents, and forty other men and women (mostly men) helping them move into the two house to the east of the Katzes. The men wear dark suits and black hats which they only take off for the severest of labors, the women never take off their long sleeves or their long dark dresses or the hats atop their heads. The few women who show any hair look as though their hair is completely synthetic.

Within seven hours, all the furniture was properly deposited, along with an extra sink properly drilled and plumbed, two refrigerators installed, an extra oven installed with the previously installed thoroughly cleansed, two microwaves, two toasters. All able to be done because the wall between the two townhouses was thoroughly knocked down so that two townhouses become one large townhouse in the middle of the San Francisco Victorians. The multicolored hue of the Victorian paintjob was next thing taken care of, repainted not as a many-colored cloak but as a simple Blue and White, with a painting on the third floor of an old man's face with a very long, almost completely square beard with four Hebrew letters underneath that read "Mem, Shin, Yud, Khet." Moshiach.

San Francisco is always looking for a cause to protest, the more senseless the cause, the greater the agitation. No sooner had every townhouse on the Painted Lady block become Painted Ladies than two of them were desecrated completely. There could be no more perfect storm for San Francisco.

If Unitarian Universalism is Christianity without the Messiah, then Chabad is Judaism with it. The Chabadniks, or Lubavitchers, believe that Moshiach has already arrived, but he unexpectedly died in his nineties, and we await his second coming. Who is this great Messiah? He is the seventh Rabbi of Lyubavitchi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, great-grandson of the Third Lubavitcher Rebbe, also named Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and son-in-law of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, who was accompanied on his journey to America by none other than A. C. Charlap's great-grandfather, Yehuda Leib Gordon. There were six Lubvitcher Rebbes before this Rav Schneerson, and there will never be another.

In a letter from Rabbi Schneerson to Israel's longest-serving President, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Schneerson wrote "From the time that I was a child attending Cheder, and even before, the vision of the future Redemption began to take form in my imagination -- the Redemption of the Jewish people from their final Exile, a redemption of such magnitude and grandeur through which the purpose of the suffering, the harsh decrees, and the annihilation of Exile will be understood."

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