Sunday, January 26, 2014

Quinzaine de Job

Today was the first day of a fifteen-day flurry of Job-related activity, which all told will include three talks, a sermon, a radio interview, and a performance (not by me). This morning saw my first talk on the book - at St. Michael's Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side. And this afternoon, I attended a second performance of Outside the Wire's Superstorm Sandy-Job project - this one hosted by the JASA (Jewish
Association Serving the Aged) in Long Beach, Long Island. (That's LB's newly rebuilt boardwalk above, its partly frozen beach below.) I don't have time to give you details right now, as the new semester begins tomorrow morning, 8 am, and a syllabus needs finalizing before then. But I took copious notes, so I'm sure I'll give some report eventually! Suffice it to say I am once again filled with gratitude at all I learned.

Okay (it's Monday night now), something from each.

In the talk at St. Michael's (below) I surprised myself by gathering together all the bits of the book that are actually my ideas. I wasn't going to do that - all messenger, all the time - but somehow it came together that way as I finalized my notes in the subway on the way over. So after framing things in terms of how Job makes every reader or interpreter or user "make a book" of it, I offered two images I'd found helpful for understanding the Book of Job, and two morals of the story:

1. a mobile, different parts of which are in the foreground at any given time (and some perhaps hidden), but whose life and role in people's lives involves just that movement; 
2. a mousetrap, tempting people to try to fix its meaning and then challenging that meaning with some other part which just doesn't fit - a little naughty, perhaps, for a book that demands that we make a book of it! 

1. the "patience of Job" shouldn't be thought to refer only to the Job of the frame story, but to all of the book, showing that "patience" doesn't exclude protest; 
2. the importance of Job's friends - but that you know! 

I'm not sure why this proved my focus (there were, of course, cameos from Jerome to the Midrash to Aquinas to Calvin to Simone Weil to contemporary interpreters like Zuckerman and Newsom); people usually ask for my reading of Job but I usually change the subject. Maybe in the non-academic setting it's easier to own one's voice.

And at "Job in Long Beach," stories of real devastation (far more than we heard in Red Hook): houses, cars, boats lost, and the terrifying sound of a dislodged wooden deck knocking farther and farther into your house with each wave as you cower upstairs. These people have been struggling daily for the last year, some still living with family far away or in substandard rental apartments, frustrated by insurance and other bureaucracies, but also moved by strangers' outpouring of care from the time of Sandy on. For many, the last year has brought new hardships - family members diagnosed with cancer, deaths in the family - and many recounted the moments when they'd felt like Job. (One told of a man behind her in the line for gas who, when her car couldn't make the curve, rolled his eyes and looked heavenward and said, loudly, "Really?!" to which she replied "You tell him!") Many can't trust the ocean, their
erstwhile friend. Ever expecting the next devastating storm, some are still afraid to put things away.

But the reflection which really blew me away came from a rabbi who works in health and human services. Job is different from her clients, she said, because he knows he's innocent. But we mortals are not, all of us are flawed. We all have histories. And when terrible things happen, these histories come back. We wonder if it's because of particular things we did. "We live not just today's traumas." This was a revelation to me - something that makes perfect sense when stated this way, but something I'd not heard anywhere else. (And of course even Job, with a little help from his friends, is doing this, too.) I should add that the Long Beach community is home to many children of Holocaust survivors. The rabbi observed that for survivors she worked with, Sandy brought all that back, too: "Did I fail there too?" People were "overwhelmed, almost to the point of cursing the day they were born."    (Above picture from here)

Bryan, the director and moderator, barely had to ask people to talk about the story of Job. It happened by itself, and not just the woman who said she'd read Job "at least eleven times" since superstorm Sandy. The Book of Job is part of the culture of this community, offering recognition as much as - perhaps more than - comfort. Nobody's waiting for twice the flocks and a new lineup of children. This is very simplistic, said one octogenarian, but the way to move on is to put one foot in front of the other. "Where there's life there's hope," she added.

Again, what a humbling honor to be present for the discussion.

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