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A Dialogue on Loneliness and Immortality

[As told to Harley Schlanger]

April 2010

EIRNS/Sharon Pearson

Harley Schlanger, with his wife Susan in 2009.

Zvi had to admit it – he was a bit out of sorts, a little dazed.  The normal clarity he expected from his mind was absent, replaced by a mild buzzing in his ears, and a deepening sense of detachment.  Another sleepless night, another airport, lines of surly passengers, and even-more surly security personnel....

He was puzzled about feeling detached.  He was, after all, going home, at least for a few hours.  What is it they say, “Home is where the heart is”?  Maybe that was part of the problem, that he now has two or three homes, and his main home no longer seems like “home.” 

If so, then where is his heart?

He chuckled, as he pondered his predicament.  As his friend back in Kasrilevke, where his “real” home is, Tevye the Dairyman – you remember Tevye, a wise man with no real learning, a heart of gold, too many daughters, a lame horse, lazy milk cows, and a wife with a sharp tongue who was always right?  Yes, that Tevye, the man who so intrigued our beloved Sholom Aleichem, that he made him immortal?

Ach, where was I, thought Zvi – you see, my mind is wandering, my thoughts are veering from hither to thither.  “I am not myself,” he blurted out, momentarily startling himself.
Sholom Aleichem 1859-1916, creator of the Tevye the Dairyman and the Yiddish Renaissance.

Oh yes, Tevye.  When he last saw Tevye, he told him of his vague presentiments, that he might be losing his usual sense of confidence, perhaps even his optimism.  Tevye was immediately concerned, telling Zvi he was worried about his more-than-ever peripatetic lifestyle.

“Zvi,” he said, “I've always heard tales about `wandering Jews,' but you are ridiculous.  Stay home for a while, sleep in your own bed, come over to dinner.  My wife, Golde, she's not much of a cook, but at least she serves small portions.”

Maybe Tevye was right, maybe he was spending too much time on the road.  One day he was here, the next there, soon he didn't know whether he was here or there!  He had a nice house, it was very comfortable, and he could always visit Tevye, who lived close by.

But Zvi knew there was something not quite right when he was home.  At times, when he was there, he was engulfed by a feeling of such loneliness, that it almost hurt, physically, with angry butterflies in his stomach mingling with pinpricks in his heart.  He had always thought of “heart ache” as a silly product of romantic fantasy, an extreme form of self-indulgence, an ultimate expression of self-absorption and self-pity, which would afflict only those who were immature emotionally.  Never would he have pictured himself, a man, his friends would attest, who possessed the most firm resolve, who was known for his nerves of steel, his relentless optimism -- in short, the one sought out by others in need of reassurance -- curled in a chair by his fireplace, quietly, in the dark, hugging his ribs to lessen the pain, in need, himself, of some comforting words.

He resolved to go and have a talk with Tevye as soon as he returned home.

Alas, Tevye was not there when Zvi arrived.  Golde answered the door, bustling as usual, yelling at the girls to come to dinner, lamenting, to no one in particular, that her meshugener husband had not yet returned from his routes.

“You'd think he'd call, no?”  The look on her face told Zvi this was not the first time Tevye's tardiness had been a source of tsouris.  “Maybe he's lost his cell phone again, he complains he can't hear it ring, anyway.  He knows I hold supper til he's here.  The girls are hungry, the food is getting cold.  I ask you, Zvi,” she concluded, “what kind of a mensch is that?”

Zvi knew, from her tone of voice, that she meant he was no sort of mensch at all!
Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847

He told her to tell Tevye he had stopped by, and scurried out the front door, to return home, when he heard some music coming from the barn.  He recognized it immediately: it was Mendelssohn's String Quintet #2, Opus 87, a favorite of his.  But since when had Tevye turned to Mendelssohn, instead of his usual klezmer or zydeco?

Poking his head in, he saw Tevye twirling around the barn, head slightly tilted back, eyes closed, a rapturous smile on his face, dancing to the heavenly sounds.  As the melancholic third movement began, he sank to the ground, eyes still closed, swaying, the smile replaced by a look of pain.  Soon, Zvi noticed tears streaming down his cheeks.

As the final motiv of the movement faded, Tevye leaped to his feet, again moving, as the pulsating contrapuntal finale, the allegro molto vivace, began.  It was electrifying, and the tears were replaced by an almost beatific grin.

It ended, all too soon, and Tevye opened his eyes, to see Zvi standing there, his mouth agape.

“Nu,” he asked, “what do you think of the new speakers on my MP-3?”

As Zvi continued to gawk, in stunned silence, at what he had just witnessed, Tevye continued.

“I know, I know what you're thinking -- when did that poor schlimazl Tevye discover classical music?  You know, King David once said that music tames the savage breast....Well, I think it was King David, or it might have been his cousin, Mogen David.”

He pointed to his cows, and said, “I was thinking that maybe Mendelssohn would inspire them to produce more milk, or at least make them more cultured.  Then it hit me -- maybe I should be more cultured, maybe that will cause the cows to give more milk.”

Zvi remained speechless.  In fact, he was more than speechless, he was dumbfounded.  For once, he could think of nothing to say.

Tevye again broke the silence.  “Do you think, Zvi, that Mendelssohn knew, when he wrote this Quintet, that he would soon be dead?  I think I hear that in the third movement.  Is it true that artists are more sensitive about such matters as their own mortality, that they make it a subject of their art?”

Zvi was struck by Tevye's question, as he had often wondered the same.  Did Bach know the end was near, as he worked on the “BACH motiv” as the conclusion of the “Art of the Fugue”?  Did Mozart know that his divine Requiem Mass was really for his own death?  Could one hear Schubert's impending demise in his wonderful Great Symphony?

“Tevye,” Zvi said at last, after clearing his throat, “these are most profound questions.  I have spent many an evening recently, pondering such matters.”

“Well, have you reached any conclusions?”

For years, Zvi had studied the lives and music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, and had recently turned to their successors in the nineteenth century, Mendelssohn, the Schumanns and Brahms.  He was drawn to them, in particular, because there was something almost other-worldly about them.  Though they all lived full lives in the present, they were not bound by the cultural and mental practices of their time.  In fact, for the most part, they were engaged in personal struggles against the constraints of their society, while pursuing creative work aimed at opening a different realm of human potential, for generations yet to be born. 

In doing this, they were often judged harshly by those around them, those with less talent, a weak work ethic, or a lesser love toward mankind.  Bach had been called too formal, too academic, even too lazy – a man who revolutionized music, who produced a masterpiece every week for his St. Thomas Church!  Haydn was treated as a mere servant, and Mozart's enemies in the Hapsburg court in Vienna plotted against him constantly. 

Zvi was particularly impressed by Beethoven, whose body of work shows deep reverence for those who preceded him -- especially Bach -- as well as a certainty that, in spite of the degeneration of his contemporaries, under Austrian censorship and the continent-wide supremacy of British empiricism, there would be better days ahead for mankind.

There was one story which particularly impressed Zvi, about a group of Beethoven's friends, sight-reading one of his late quartets.  Beethoven, who could hear nothing, looked up from the music, and noticed they were not playing.

He asked them, “Why did you stop?”

One wrote in his book, “We don't understand this piece.”

Beethoven waved them on, saying, “Don't worry, just play.  It is not for you.  It is for the future.”

In Zvi's mind, these great artists were all honorary Jews, as they believed, in spite of all the evidence at their disposal, that things would get better, that a Golden Age still beckons, if mankind can be uplifted to live according to higher principles. 

What is that, he thought, if not a belief that the Messiah will one day make His appearance!

His reverie was broken by Tevye, who asked, again, if he had an answer to his question. 

Could he discuss this with Tevye, he wondered, who was as loyal a friend as one could have, but not necessarily renowned as a deep thinker?   

Zvi then remembered why he had come to talk with Tevye in the first place: he wanted to discuss HIS problems, his anxieties and insecurities.  And he had come here, because he trusted Tevye. 

He decided that Tevye might be the one man who could help him think beyond himself, so he presented his thoughts on the matter at hand.

“Our inquiry, Tevye, seems to be about recognition of death, are some individuals more aware of the end than others, and is this reflected in what they do?  But that is not really the question.  I think the matter is really about life.  Do some people spend their lives better, precisely because they know they are mortal, and that they must develop and use their gifts to the fullest, while they are still among us?”

Tevye nodded, and signaled, impatiently, that he wished Zvi to continue.
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750

“In the days of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, life was more fragile than today.  Each of them saw family members die at a young age, Mozart, in particular, saw his children die.  Death was not a distant concern, but was among them, at all times.

“As human beings, they were no more conscious of this than others.  But each of them, as an artist, was more conscious of their responsibility to their society, aware that they could act to improve the quality of people, to aid them in their mental and emotional development, so they could prepare for the future.  They were not entertainers, they studied their craft, but they also developed their souls, to produce art which would touch those less acutely tuned to the harmonies of the heavens.  It was their conscious duty -- one which they embraced -- to transform the notes of musical space into glimpses of eternal ideas, to enable those who played their music, and those who listened, to  become participants in an investigation into their creative minds.  They understood that their individual creativity was a reflection of the power of the Creator, and by composing, they were continuing the act of creation, by increasing the creative power of everyone who was moved by their music.”

Zvi paused.  He was getting emotional, especially as he saw the look of wonderment on his friend's face.

“Tevye, for them, a commitment to their immortality was not an accident, or the result of a flash of insight as they prepared for death, but a conscious decision, which shaped how they lived.  By rejecting the standards of their society, and choosing, if necessary, to live a life on the outside of their society, they were not making a sacrifice.  They were only being true to their artistic sense of identity, and to the future.

“In that way, everything they wrote possessed an understanding of the finality of their physical existence, but they would not allow themselves to be bound by that physical `fact.'  Instead, they were truly free.  That's what we hear in their music, that's what moves us.”

Zvi looked at Tevye, who was beaming.  This drew a big smile to Zvi's face.

“I think I understand,” Tevye said, throwing an arm around Zvi.  “Those of us who produce, Zvi -- like me, for example, who works with my poor animals, to make them happy, so they will help me produce food to nourish people; or like you, who produces ideas, to nourish peoples' minds, so they may grasp what drives such great artists, and find some of that in themselves, so they may better shape their own mission on this earth -- that is why we live.

“Believe me, it's not always easy.  Have you ever tried to argue with a stubborn cow, about how many quarts of milk a day she is supposed to produce, on average?

“But life is never easy.  As the Good Book says, `If things were easy, everyone would end up in Heaven, and it would be just like Earth.'  And then, God wouldn't need us Jews, to show people that a little perseverance is good for them!”

Zvi, as usual, was amazed by his friend.  First, by his new found love for Mendelssohn, and now, by his special teaching from the Book of Tevye, on why God created the Jews.

But Tevye was right.  Zvi's detachment was not detachment at all, but his anxiety about pursuing the Good, in spite of every impediment to do so, even if he is alone. 

Tevye was not through.  As if reading Zvi's mind, he added, “We are never really alone, Zvi.  We have Bach, Mozart and Beethoven with us, and now I and my animals have Mendelssohn.  These great composers are not dead, they have a living presence, as you will one day, long after you are physically gone -- provided you chose to be bold, take risks, and always remember that those still to come, need you, today, to create new pathways for them.”

Tevye, with his arm still around Zvi, started moving toward his house.

“Come with me, for dinner.  If you are with me, my Golde will wait until dark to remind me of my many shortcomings.  In the meantime, we can ask her what she is thinking about.  The other night, Zvi, you know what she brought up?  `Tevye,' she asked me, `What do you think is the role of destiny in love?  Were we destined to be together, or did we make our own destiny?'

“I ask you, Zvi, is that a wife, or what?”


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