Monday, March 23, 2015

800 Words: The Origins of Shoah Bet Part 2

But it was the very perilousness of Israel’s situation that made Netanyahu’s attempts to create a securer Israel so extraordinary in its danger. There were many right-wing administrations before Netanyahu, some brutally so, but the Netanyahu administration was the first in Israel’s history to so covet an honored place among nations that he would attempt to take it by force.

Benyamin Netanyahu’s relationship to the West, and particularly to America, was Shakespearean in its tragic depth. He was a modern-day Saul whose premiership followed a long series of Davids and Solomons. Like his biblical antecedent, he was the king nobody wanted - a Nixonian figure, anointed by whatever god controls destiny as a leader of convenience, isolated upon his throne and beloved by nobody. If the ‘founding generation’ of Rabin, Peres, and Sharon inspired their followers with pre-1948 visions of what Israel could become, then Netanyahu, Prime Minister for nearly as long as those three leaders combined and the first and only Prime Minster born after the State’s founding, represented with eerie exactitude what Israel seemed to be. Netanyahu exemplified everything with which the modern Israeli was stereotyped - intransigent, overachieving, bellicose, temperamental, brilliant in precisely that low cunning sort of way that history falsely associates with Judaism from time immemorial, and symbiotic with turn-of-the-century America to the point that he seemed to control it like a puppet.

And yet the ironies of how he came to exemplify the modern Israel are stupendous. Netanyahu was descended from Israel's intellectual royalty. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was one of his era’s most eminent scholars of Jewish history and served as personal secretary to Ben-Gurion’s most eminent right-wing rival, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. His uncle, Elisha Netanyahu, was a famous mathematician and dean of Israel’s once-famed science institute - the Techniyon. His aunt, Shoshana Netanyahu, was an Israeli Supreme Court Justice, and his grandfather, Nathan Mielikowski (later Netanyahu), was a writer who moved in the earliest Zionist circles and was widely known as early Zionism’s greatest orator. As an older man living in Palestine, Mielikowski broke so definitively with mainstream Zionism that he personally defended the two men accused of assassinating the eminent left-wing Zionist leader, Chaim Arlozoroff.

Still more ironic is that Netanyahu was perhaps more American than he was Israeli. Until he turned forty, a full half his life was spent in the United States. So privileged was Netanyahu’s upbringing that he lived the majority of his formative years not in scrappy early Israel but in then-prosperous Philadelphia, where his father was a tenured professor. After five years of army service, he spent the majority of his twenties as an architecture student and economist in Boston, and spent the majority of his thirties as a high-ranking ambassador - first in DC as Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to the United States, and then in New York as Ambassador to the United Nations. From the beginning of his career, Netanyahu was fast-tracked because of his Americanness during a period when Israel began to look to America as its sole ally of consequence. Like the far more diplomatically suited Abba Eban before him, Netanyahu spoke an English so beautifully eloquent that he easily out-orated most of his American allies in their mother tongue. In time he became, in so many ways, the right-wing leader turn-of-the-century Republicans desired for America. But only an Israeli intellectual could covet an honoured place among American conservatives at the moment when the American Conservative was the most hated person on the planet.

Whereas Yitzhak Rabin presonified a "Sabra" who seemed just as comfortable on a Kibbutz as he was with a rifle (even though he grew up in Tel Aviv and his knowledge of farming was purely by academic training), and Shimon Peres's elegant polish personified the 'Yekke' - one of the sophisticated German Jews of intellectual bent who were so important to giving Israel credibility in the world's eyes during its early years (even though he was actually from Polish peasant stock), and Ariel Sharon seemed like the ultimate 'Chayyal', the soldier who exemplified the fighting spirit that was so crucial to Israel's establishment (even though he grew more obese with every promotion), Netanyahu seemed to have nothing of Israel's pioneer spirit about him. To Israelis, he exemplified the 'Yordim,' Israelis who left Israel in the 50's and 60's and were heavily looked down upon because they left Israel at its time of greatest need. But once the Yordim and their children began to return, richer and with extremely valuable work experience, the wisdom from the outside world which they accumulated made them re-embraced. To the world, Netanyahu was Israel, but to Israel, Netanyahu was the world - the wider world they longed to see and take their place among as an equal member. 

But to Netanyahu himself, he was Israel's conscience - all that stood between Israel and the second Holocaust he unwittingly helped to facilitate. The more he saw of the wider world, the more afraid he became of it, and the more determined he became to protect Israelis who slept soundly in their beds, not knowing the horrors which could await them without his protection. At the heart of Netanyahu's worldview was his father's. His father lived to the ripe old age of 102, and in his many years, pronounced so many apocalypses that some of them had to come true. At Benzion's 100th birthday celebration, the son recalled his father uncanny prescience about antisemitic elements - having predicted the European Holocaust in 1937, the attack by Islamic fundamentalists upon the World Trade Center in the early 1990's, and towards the end of his life, the nuclear attack in Israel arranged by the Iranian government.   

In an era that saw the height of the Bush family, Osama bin-Laden, Vladimir Putin, Kim-Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Viktor Orban, Tayyip Erdogan, and the toppling of Qaddafi and Mubarak, there was not a single world leader who inspired the vitriol heaped upon Netanyahu. The more hated he became by the wider world, the more determined he became to isolate Israel from her remaining allies. The more Israel’s Arab neighbors grew militant, the more his heart was hardened to match them militance for militance. The greater the gulf between the world’s criticism of Israel and its excusal of her neighbors’ intransigence, the more determined Netanyahu became to show his contempt with actions that seemed designed to make his people all the more hated.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

800 Words: The Origins of Shoah Bet - Part 1

Chapter XVIII

By 2015, the rational postwar liberal was not quite deceased, but he was very much a dying breed, and he could almost sympathize with the worldview of Prime Minister Netanyahu. For every moment from its founding to the unspeakable manners of its destruction, the State of Israel was an encircled, besieged state; never a refuge from Diaspora but an extraordinarily compromised part of it.

For the entirety of its existence, Israel was a state that strove mightily to be a democracy, yet with every year it seemed to fall farther short of its goal. This Jewish country which never contained more than a few million Jews was encircled upon every side by three-hundred million Sunni and and Shia Muslims, and every poll indicated that the vast majority of their neighbors, at times nearly a unanimous majority, viewed Israel as an enemy combatant whose very existence should be extinguished at the nearest possible opportunity by any and all means.

Like every country, Israel was enabled to exist because of an unspeakably terrible original sin, and its original sin was to forcibly and violently relocate more than half a million native Arabs into still tinier corners of its tiny territory. Jeffrey Goldberg, a famous journalist of the time, posited the analogy that twentieth century Europe of the was a burning building out of which the Jews had to jump lest they be destroyed, and they fell onto an innocent bystander on the street - the Palestinians. It was a horrific act born of the most extreme desperation, enabled by more prosperous Arabs all too willing to allow violence upon their impoverished brethren for their own benefit, perpetrated by Israelis mostly with regret, sustained and consented to by most Israelis with a fervent hope for its eventual end. But colonization born of desperation is still colonization. Israelis grew ever more comfortable with this arrangement with each passing generation, and as Israel grew into one of the most reliably prosperous countries for business in the entire world, she saw no reason to compromise her prosperity for a people who never passed up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity. If generations of Arab despots in every Arab country were categorically unwilling to embrace greater political freedom for their Arab citizens, why should Israel embrace greater freedoms for her own? Had any neighboring state been a functional democracy for any period, they could have absorbed a Palestinian population as hungry for opportunity as anyone in the world had ever been.

At the twenty-first century’s commencement, nearly half the world’s countries suffered from authoritarian rule, and many more had authoritarian leanings that threatened their democracies at their very foundations. But not a single one of these countries earned more than a fraction of the international approbation continually heaped upon Israel - a state that always imagined herself democratic to the marrow. Israel’s actions vacillated between extreme principle and extreme opportunism, its leaders were everything from lions of liberalism to war criminals, yet criticism and censure of her remained at the highest possible level for the entirety of her lifespan.

The original Zionist dream was built upon sand both literally and figuratively. It is a fool’s errand to create a parochial state that is absolutely committed to the primacy of one religion over others, yet also to the most liberal values of secular democracy. But the doomed attempt to fuse these two concepts was the only way in which millions of Jewish lives would ever be saved, for a time at least. The tension between Israel’s religious dictates and secular aims was the tension which enabled the unprecedented worldwide prosperity of the Jewish people. No longer were Jews a people without a land, and after two thousand years, there was finally a dear price to pay for persecuting Jews.

At the same time that Israel was a triumph for Jews, it was a triumph, perhaps the ultimate triumph, of liberal principles. In nearly every conceivable sense, Israel was the vital center of worldwide discourse - geographically positioned at the absolute cross section between Asia, Europe, and Africa; politically positioned at the exact center between secular values and religious, legally positioned at the exact place between a liberal democracy and an authoritarian dictatorship; economically positioned between capitalism and socialism, and historically having a strong claim at being both the most obviously colonized and most obviously colonialist people on Earth. Upon every issue which the world debates, modern Israel was the ultimate experiment to see if the modern world, with all its contradictions, could long endure. Israel, alleged to be an exclusionist society for every day of its existence, was in its way the most pluralistic country in the world.

Absolutists of nearly all stripes - Islamists, pan-Arabists, Christianists, Libertarians, Marxists, Socialists, Libertarian Socialists, Libertarian Communists, Anarchists - decried Israel for its many sins with a viciousness it reserved only for Zionism as though Zionism was a more totalitarian ideology than any of theirs. Most of them claimed that their motive was human rights, but in fact, their enemy was the permissive modernity that allowed a state as contradictory as Israel to exist. Such worldviews cannot allow for accommodations to pragmatism, and therefore the Jewish state always struck a terrible wrench into their absolutist worldviews. Zionism was always a practical compromise to reality, an ideology as corrupt as any other, allowed to govern a country only because the world is too imperfect to allow any other way to maintain the Jewish people’s security. And for a time, Zionism did ensure that the Jewish people remained fundamentally safe from persecution.

Because of its many contradictions, Zionism was a venture destined to fail from its inception. But so long as it was permitted to exist, the modern world, with all its permissiveness, its imperfect liberties and equalities, knew that it could survive and fight another day to better itself. Jews have long been the petri dish by which the world could gauge its health. A society that allows this consistently overachieving people to flourish is a healthy one, a society that segregates its Jews is an underachieving society, and a society that kills Jews is killing itself. When a society mistreats its Jews, it is not long before every other underclass is still more mistreated. Judaism, a portable religion grounded not in faith and authority, but upon book learning and debate, has always been the yeast by which all the societies which make space for them are allowed prosperity far greater than they would ever have had without them.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck? Seriously Unserious Judaism

So, ultimately, Why Schmuck?

Every time I start a new project, I feel a manic, massive, messianic overflow of confidence that this is what my truest self yearns to express, only for the rapture to come crashing down to earth in a hail of logistical difficulties. Eventually, it always seems to happen - defeat, shameful, ignominious.

Every time I begin anew, I come up with an idea that speaks to me, and tells me ‘I was born for this.’ But this one feels the truest to myself yet. It is a mission deeper than the simply musical. And that mission is…

To tell the truth, unadorned, to people whose world and customs I have less good to report about than they no doubt would like to hear. I have no idea whether it will be successful in any regard, but in my mind, Schmuck is both a parody and a satire of Jewish music, and therefore of Jewish culture itself. Like all parodies, it comes from a place of love - you have to love and care about the source material enough to devote so much attention to it. Like all satires, it comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction and anger. No community that has so much so easily mocked, and is so ripely deserving of mockery, should ever emerge unscathed.

The Jewish community my parents have tried their lives long to preserve does not exist, and the reality runs almost completely contradictory to the ideals with which they raised my brothers and I. I’ve watched my lifelong as a community into which they’ve put so much effort has done so little to reward their efforts. They would never say that, they might not even believe it ultimately, but I will say it, and I believe it....

What are those ideals? I’ll use my father’s phrase to describe it: Seriously Unserious Judaism. Or to put another of his syllogisms in place: There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Our religion is a religion without religion: a religion of doubt, of hedging bets, of questions rather than answers, a religion that trusts science on questions of science and God on questions of God, a lifestyle that can take ecstatic enjoyment in the traditions and customs of Judaism but understands in the face of overwhelming modern evidence that religion can never be used as an answer to any of life’s problems. A religion that accepts in the face of the Shoah and the Doctor’s Plot that whether or not we ever wish to identify as Jews, the world will ultimately always remind us that we are Jewish. We are a Judaism of conscription, which accepts that complete assimilation is never an available option. It rejoices in the benefits of Judaism: the cultural achievements, the music and especially the writings, the maintenance of Yiddish and Hebrew, the rituals that bond families together, and the endless discussions of the meaning of Jewish history. Such a life has its drawbacks, I have never agreed or appreciated my parents belief in a Jewish life so cloistered in Pikesville from goyisher influence, but it is nevertheless the most fundamentally sound orientation toward life I have ever come across. Perhaps I'd feel differently if coming from a different family, but I'd like to think I'm more than aware of my family's limitations in other areas...

My parents made me understand, sometimes through terrible trials, that to chase after a life outside of religion is usually to chase after religion itself. Whether your God is Hashem, or Jesus, or Capitalism, or Social Justice, or anything else, it is worshipped with exactly the same sort of fanaticism. And ultimately, there is no evidence verifiable enough to elucidate that any of them is the correct way to live a life. So in the face of so much reason to doubt, it is best to live life according to the modest consolations which a religion you don’t much believe in allows for you. At least we know the paths we’re treading, it’s been handed down since the God who doesn’t exist knows when, and at least we’re not straining our hearts to chase after gods which our brains know are false.  

The implications for this sort of religion are too numerous to document thoroughly, but what is easy to understand is how pathetically inadequate modern Jewry has been to this modest ideal by chasing after ideals so much more ambitious than it.

The Judaism in which I grew up had three main branches: not Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, but three separate Jewish religions, one committed to religious fanaticism, one committed to social justice, and one committed to hyper-achievement. There is a smaller fourth branch committed to neoconservatism, but that branch is the current establishment - the ground level Judaism beneath which all three of the other branches grew their roots. It is so well-known, well-documented, and disproportionately influential that it there’s little reason to comment on it. It will suffices to say that it is stuck in the liberalism of fifty years ago, and never knew what to do with a world that long since moved into new eras. It sees moral relativism as a crime, and any talk of diplomacy as weakness in the face of a world that still wants nothing better than to see us all dead. It has preserved Judaism’s unimpeded growth in success and influence in America, but the future will reveal that it came at a terrible price.

In my thirty years of memory, a different person than me might call the revival of Ultra-Orthodoxy miraculous. But it is not miraculous, it is apiece with parallel revivals in fundamentalist Islam and Christianity. If Judaism had as many adherents as those religions, ultra-Orthodox Judaism would be just as dangerous. It views Israel not as a sanctuary from anti-semitism, but as the God-bequeathed land of Jews from biblical times. At Israel’s founding, it forged an uneasy partnership with Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists. It has now formed a much easier partnership with Israel’s almost perpetual right-wing governments, and with the American-Jewish establishment’s blanket support for Jewish causes, support which never questions if such causes are good for Jews. Within the communities is a veritable arms race of self-denying religious observance in which its adherents compete for who can most appease the ridiculous, and sometimes hilariously outdated laws of Hashem - delaying flights because of the men’s refusal to sit next to women, buying glasses that blur their vision so they can’t be tempted by women; finding the proper - God mandated - order to cut nails, sucking the penises of babies who were just circumcised (itself a disgusting custom that has no place in modern life), swinging live chickens around their heads; eating no food that is not blessed by Rabbis - including bottled water - in the extortion racket known as kosher food, paying upwards of $50 for matzoh and $100 for lemons deemed suitable by a Rabbi for a particular holiday; owning four sets of every dish - milk, meat, and a similar two for Passover, thinking that women who don’t take ritual baths after their periods are ‘unclean’ yet showing women’s dirty underwear to Rabbis for ‘inspection’; dressing in 18th century Eastern European winter garb all year long ,spending thousands of dollars on wigs since women must shave their heads so as not to tempt any men but their husbands; throwing bread in the water so as to cast away your sins, refusingto mix linen and wool  for garments; refusing to allow divorce unless the man consents, and blow torching parts of the house so that all bread crumbs can be eradicated before Passover. Some of this is evil, most of this is downright hilarious.

The second religion, the Religion of Social Justice, is no less ridiculous, and sometimes no less evil. Even at their most mock-worthy, they never fail bring to mind the famous quote from George Orwell: The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.”

If one substitutes Britain with Israel, one has the nature of the contemporary climate among so many self-styled fighters for the greater good. Israel’s sins are numerous, perpetuated by the neoconservative establishments both of the United States and the country itself, and need no repeating here. What bears repeating is how selective their approbation is. How is it that the majority of the world’s human rights concern is focused on this tiny country, while so many countries accumulate far worse human rights records than Israel on its worst day. The only explanations for this can be anti-semitism, and the complete naivete of antisemites’ fellow travelers.

The Religion of Social Justice purports to have a Jewish edge in the concept of Tikkun Olam. But there is nothing more Jewish about it than any other religious fanaticism. It is an alternative religion that abandons traditional religious practice in the name of making a better society here on earth. But where is this better world? Its sole success is the dismantling of a liberal alternative to conservative rule. Since the left’s divorce from liberalism in the Vietnam era, liberalism’s gains have only been short-term and incremental. Obamacare, the greatest liberal American triumph in two generations, is perpetually on the verge of dismantlement from the American Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the bulk of leftist anger has not been focused on conservatives, but on traditional liberals, whose lack of militancy is considered nothing more than conservatism with a human face.

In the name of equality, it has wrecked the progress of cultural self-improvement, and purported to show that the aspirations of middle-class people toward greater learning is nothing more than stepping on someone else’s aspirations - usually because the culture we so appreciate was created by white men. The texts of our great books are no longer to be appreciated for what’s great about them, they mere pins onto which pseudo-profound thinkers deconstruct, anatomize, conceptualize, hermeneuticize, paradigmize, feminize, queer theorize, mythopoeticize, collective unconsciousize, poststructuralize, postcolonialize, semioticize, semiologize, intersectionalize, de-eroticize, and self-referentialize. If you don’t understand what most of those terms mean, don’t worry. That’s the whole point. Like religions of the past, it forms concepts so simple that enacting them can only result in fanaticism, and then disguises these basic concepts in a thrush of torrential verbiage so that its adherents don’t understand how destructive they are. Just as in the old religion, everything about this new, materialistic religion, is ridiculous from its core to its crust. Everything is the same as of old: the meetings at which you preach to the converted, the jargon which you have to be fully initiated to understand, the ostracization of heretics and unbelievers, and the sense of moral superiority with which it infuses believers. To police its adherents, it has all the same tricks. It uses the language of political correctness: terms like ‘microaggression’, ‘intersectionality’, ‘trigger warning’, ‘patriarchy,’ are not used as protection for the victimized - however well-meaning the terminology may have been formed to be - but as a means of inflaming mob rule among adherents and intimidation among non-believers. It’s a culture that even has slang terminology like ‘mansplaining.’ It utterly perverts the liberty which it claims it espouses.  This culture will be with us well into our future, and probably only gather momentum as the internet gains power. But the only real power its ever shown is to kneecap secularism from mounting a worthwhile challenge to religious power. And while it might seem unlikely today, who knows? In a century, or a millenium, it could be the ancestor of a culture just as much history of repression as religion itself. It replaces the perfect celestial kingdom with the perfect material kingdom, and its results are no more verifiable, and no less funny.

But the Jews sane enough not to fall into either crap pile must face two religious tests. One is not to fall into old school Jewish nationalism, the neoconservatism represented so well by the Netanyahu administration in Israel, and men like Abe Foxman, Norman Podhoretz, Martin Peretz, and Malcolm Hoenlein in America. They don’t much believe in Judaism or Halakha, but when it comes to issues of Judaism’s place in the world, what they believe is simply Meir Kahanism with a more gentile varnish. It’s an irresponsible Jewish jingoismin that crows with provocation to the wider world during the first period of true Jewish security since King David. It borrows from the clearly unstable Jewish future for the sake of inflating present prosperity. It would have us believe that bellicose behavior - the bombing of Iran, the eradication of anti-semitism in the media, the unconditional support of Likud-era Israel, the use of the Shoah to justify any and all actions, ignoring the rights of a soon to be Palestinian majority on Israeli land - is the only way to ensure Jewish survival, when their views clearly put Israel, and Judaism, at calamitous future risk.   

But in some ways, even more alarming is the apathy of the most successful Jews - the apathy of my illustrious generation, who graduated Schechter and Beth Tfiloh and Pikesville High, in the separatist Jewish environ of Pikesville, only to desert their community at the first sign of more prosperity elsewhere. Rather than focus at all inward on the community that created them, the smartest, best organized, most capable Jews of my age group give nothing back, get out at the first opportunity, and leave the inmates to run the asylum. It would seem that it doesn't bother them at all that the community which birthed them is running so far off the rails. They got what they needed from the rest of us, and then they left the rest of us to rot. But what's worst about what they're doing is that nothing in their upbringing ever instructed them that such a mentality is morally wrong. Schools like Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh were Potemkin Villages where normal kids were presented as though they were geniuses: designed to inflate their children's successes with projects that could never be done without parents help, and making sure that every single child had a bright shiny award for their college or high school application.

You’ll simply have to trust me on this, but I’m sure I’m hardly the first to think this. The result of this mentality is that my generation of American Jews is the first for whom literally anything is possible, and the most successful among my peers have used that success to be virtually valueless. Three thousand years of repression have taught them to chase their dreams perhaps as no one ever has before, but they are nothing more than their dreams and achievements, and long experience with them causes me to wonder how many of them have any idea why they covet what they covet. Too many of my Pikesville peers are utterly boring people - achievement machines who understand nothing about the world and care to understand even less. They move to Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even if they’re involved with a Jewish community, the communities are more boring for their presence. They can do calculus, write a coherent essay, play an instrument beautifully (but not expressively), and no doubt they’ll cause medical miracles and will one day argue before the Supreme Court, but if they didn’t do that, would they be anything at all?

We all have ambitions, we can’t avoid them. But long, painful, experience taught me that if at all possible, don’t be defined by your ambition. Whether the ambition is to be closer to God, or to effect an equal world on Earth, or to make Jews a light unto nations, or to rise to the top of society, ambitions can easily spoil into sacred beliefs. They are the most convenient pathway to future suffering, self-delusion, and humorlessness.

For these reasons and many more, modern Judaism’s become a ridiculous phenomenon. All the things which make this heritage great and proud have to be sifted through miles and miles of deluded, humorless bullshit.

In the face of hilarious self-delusion from people you care about, the only response that keeps you sane is to mock it, mercilessly. If you didn’t care, you’d just walk away and try to avoid it. Take it seriously enough to address it, but don’t take it seriously enough to give tacit approval.
I hope that every good childhood memory of the holidays, every deeply moving moment visiting Jewish sites and talking to older Jews about good and bad days gone by, every moment spent intellectually engaging with a tradition that did so much to challenge me in the best of all possible ways, will be reflected back to the audience. I also hope that every childhood memory of bullying, of boredom, of pettiness and bickering, of tyrannical overseeing, is reflected back as well. It will hopefully be my balance sheet after thirty-three years of being a Jew from Baltimore.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck - Part 3

Last week, I was sitting with my Bubbie and Sarah, my new girlfriend, and at Sarah's insistence, we looked at an old photo album. For the first time in my life, I was struck by the fact that we're all a generation older than we once were. I'm thirty-two, and for the first time, I felt truly close in age to my parents' generation. It's probably been five years since I'd looked at these albums, and suddenly, the people in those albums who used to look to me as they always looked now looked a generation older. Bubbie looked Mom's age, and Mom looked like a contemporary of mine. The older generation from when I was a kid now has seventy-five year old children. My uncle Nochem looked like he could be a younger friend of mine. My always ancient looking Tante (Great-Great-Aunt) Edna, who lived until I was two, but I only knew from pictures, died when she was roughly ten years younger than Bubbie currently is. And in a picture taken in roughly the year I was born, my 88-year-old cousin Harry Lerman looked barely middle aged - looking almost exactly like a healthier version of his younger son.

Late last night, my girlfriend and I were cuddling in my apartment when my dad called to tell me that Harry Lerman died. Hearing the news was surprisingly devastating to me. Perhaps there were warning signs to closer relatives, but to me it was quite sudden and without warning. Harry always seemed to me like a very healthy older man, and in my mind, he always looked to the end almost exactly the same as he did when he was ten years younger than my father is now. Which is why it was such a shock to see him in that picture, looking at least a full generation younger.

We've lost a number of older relatives recently. Three years ago, we lost the first of the Paramus relatives: Harry's brother-in-law, Joe Fried. I remember seeing him at my grandmother's ninetieth birthday party in 2010, and thinking as he slept on the couch in my parents' den that he looked not long for this earth. As far as I know, it was the last time anyone in my immediate family ever saw him. I wish I had gotten to know Joe better, like me he had an interest bordering on the obsessive in family lore, and I wish I could have plumbed his brain for the 150 years of memory he must have had - some of which no doubt is lost forever.

Last year, we lost Aaron Gordon, my Bubbie's almost exact contemporary (six weeks younger than her) and my favorite elderly relative, whom I only grew close to around the time he turned ninety.  He seemed to delight in hearing stories of my latest musical adventures and plumbing through at least a bit of my musical knowledge's minutia, and I delighted in hearing stories about the old New York and the Brooklyn in which he lived in until the late 90's. I apparently reminded him of his long-dead twin brother, who was also obsessed by music. David Gordon was a regular and seemingly fanatical audience member at the old Metropolitan Opera, a program director at a radio station that programmed every musical genre in conjunction with one another, and a singer who sang in the chorus of none other than Edgar Varese. Unfortunately, David was run over in a New York street sometime around 1960 - even Aaron's children barely knew him. For my whole life, I savored hearing details about this family of whom I always seemed to be an aberration, a bohemian black sheep lost among a sea of Jewish Yuppies. And yet, here was a long dead somewhat distant relative who seemed almost exactly like me. A few weeks before he died, Aaron awoke one morning in his Arizona home to find his second, much younger, wife dead in their kitchen. Shortly thereafter he had a heart attack, and we knew it was not long. A few months later, he was dead from cancer at the age of 93.

It's weird to say that the loss of an 88-year-old cousin whom you see once a year feels devastating, but in a sense, this one feels that way, simply because Harry seemed like he might live forever. The last time I saw him, he looked in much better health than his younger brother, who is 11 years younger than him. Harry always reminded me so much of Dad, who's now nearing seventy and older than his father-in-law was when he died. Both Harry and Dad always had the same inexhaustibly manic energy, which blithely railroaded through everybody's sensitivities and at times could seem like arrogance. But in both cases, it made them all the more charming (to anyone who isn't their son...), and all the more entertaining company so long as you weren't the one at the receiving end of their roasts. In the last years, Bubbie and Harry had a falling out because of the not quite sycophantic, and extremely entertaining, speech Harry made at Bubbie's ninetieth birthday. Bubbie, like her grandson, has always been a bit oversensitive, but it's a horrible reminder that Bubbie could also go at any moment, and there's no way I'll ever be prepared for the enormity of the loss of one of my best friends.

The family as I've always known it is living on borrowed time. The next generation is beginning to take shape, and one harvest gives way to the next. This side of the family, which somehow stayed in close touch for nearly a hundred years after its arrival in America, with enough time in between for all manner of feuds and reconciliations, is never going to be the same again.  The feuds which used to seem so important now seem ridiculous, eventually many of them seem hilarious, and then will simply be lore about people nobody ever met, and in a while, all these stories will evaporate in the way of all flesh. All these relatives whom I remember as being a little older than me will now appear old to the kids just as their parents appeared to me, and their parents to my parents.