Commentary Magazine

Of Time and the River Jordan

In Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, the middle-aged Kath, eager to suggest an innocence she doesn’t possess, assures Sloane, the homicidal young hustler, that in her youth she was more familiar with Africa than with her own body. Even in these cynical times, that still gets a laugh. In fact, when I first saw the play in London, it touched off a shock of recognition; only in my case, the expertise concerned not Africa but the map of the Holy Land. Later, when I interviewed Orton after Sloane had flopped on Broadway (Walter Kerr hated it), he told me he could as easily have used that image.

It comes to the same thing: the kind of religious training which avoided the realities of the world at all costs, concentrating on Our Missions in the Dark Continent or Palestinian geography of 2,000 years ago. Sunday after Sunday, we intently studied the map of the Holy Land, tracing the holy family’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or locating the Pool of Bethesda—which I thought was in Maryland—or marveling at the placement of the Dead Sea. And yet, though we lived only fifty miles from Sacramento, where I was born, that city was—and remains—a mystery to me. I knew where the River Jordan was flowing, but I certainly could not have found the American river on a map. Bakersfield and Visalia were only names to me, not real places. But Bethlehem was very real, especially in its peculiar connection to the North Pole and Santa Claus.

As for famous names, King Saul, David and Jonathan, Moses, and other Old Testament luminaries were as familiar to us as our next-door-neighbors—who, as Roman Catholics, were on more intimate terms with St. Christopher, St. Anthony, and most often St. Jude than with the Hebrew potentates. The irony of this obsessive interest in the leading personalities of the ancient Middle East—including one who was merely called Pharaoh, with no regard for his proper name or dynasty—was that important people much closer to home, such as Governor Frank Merriam, were only names, vague conceptions. Curiously, Lola Montez, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain were very real, but then they had all lived for a time in my hometown, Grass Valley, where they were still regarded as the most exciting thing that ever happened there, aside from the discovery of gold-bearing quartz.

The fact remained—painfully clear as we memorized ten Bible verses a day to earn those little Bible pictures which, collected in tens and exchanged for larger pictures, could win us our own Bibles—that the Holy Land of long, long ago was the greatest reality in our poverty-stricken lives. The Depression was at its lowest point; the farm was deeply mortgaged; the pear orchard was hopelessly blighted; the chickens were dying of a mysterious disease. We had, it seemed, pinned all our hopes of survival not on Franklin D. Roosevelt, “that man!”—but instead on believing as fervently as we could in everything connected with the biblical history of the Chosen People, though none of us had ever met a living, breathing Jew. We were of course told of our superiority to them—even in poverty—since we had accepted the messiah they had rejected. It was left unclear why people who had been so ardently waiting thousands of years for his coming hadn’t recognized him when he appeared on the scene.

It was certainly difficult to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to admire and emulate him. I was, however, very puzzled by his behavior at that fabled wedding feast at Cana. Why had he turned the water into wine? Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Turn the Almaden Chablis into Shasta water? Fundamentalists do not drink. Why should their Savior? Our Sunday School teacher was really embarrassed at my question. Perhaps, she ventured, the wedding guests didn’t know any better. After all, they hadn’t had our American advantages. She thought about this a bit and found another, more logical, explanation: “In those countries, the water just isn’t safe to drink!”

Unfortunately, she had no expertise to offer on the real nature of the sins of the Woman Taken In Adultery. I thought it must have had something to do with being mature, being an adult. All we could learn from our teacher, though, was that it wasn’t nice, whatever she had done. I also wondered why the woman had to be stoned to death and not the man. Or why stone anybody?

Stop it! Leave your body alone and get back to the map of the Holy Land!



Recently, all this came back to me, not just because Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane had been revived in Manhattan, but because I went to California to visit my eighty-seven-year-old mother, hopelessly trapped by senility in a strange, shifting world where the memories of Pacific Grove in 1902 jostle those of Blue Tent in 1941—and those of five minutes past. I am always her son—that much she remembers clearly—but at times I am also her teasing brother or her much-loved father, both of whom are long among the legions of the dead—or of the saved.

I found my feeble, shaking mother, once so strong, stern, and striving, bent over in a wheelchair in the day-room of what Southern Californians, with a fine sense of the ridiculous, call a “healthcare center.” She was trying to pay attention to an aggressive young woman who was scolding the assembled old women, most drifting in a haze of half-forgotten images. The topic of the sermon, for sermon it was, appeared to be the pressing need for humility on the part of believing Christians. Just why these unfortunate senior citizens had to be reminded of the virtues of humility was unclear to me. God, time, and genetics had already conspired to render these women hopelessly humble before even the most inexperienced nurse’s aide. Was this a message my mother needed to hear?

The lady preacher continued. She asked the old women to bow their heads and beg God for the gift of humility. She was, she said, already humble, and she thanked God rather loudly for that blessing. And then she got to the meat of her message: a blow-by-blow account of King Saul’s failure to be humble before God, as opposed to King David’s outstanding record of humility. I yearned to ask her about King David’s humble behavior in regard to Susan Hayward, or was it Bathsheba? Was it, in fact, humble of him to have had so very many concubines? Or was it wise old King Solomon who had all the concubines? (Menachem Begin may lack humility, but you certainly cannot accuse him of supporting a lot of idle women.)

But I was—unusual for me—humble and kept my mouth shut. I looked around the room at these decent but doddering old folks—all Christians, all straining to relearn what they’d heard decades ago when they were young, all hearing about Saul and David and the Holy Land for the first time.

And I thought how odd this is. There’s not a Jew in the room; at the moment, Israel is threatened, as never before. Yet the concern of the sermonist is entirely with Jews who died centuries on centuries ago, not with the perils of Jews today. Nor is there a word uttered about the dangers of war or the virtues of peace. Not even—which might be expected from a fundamentalist—a mention of the forthcoming battle of Armageddon, which has long been awaited as the necessary prelude to the messiah’s Second Coming, a joyous event for the saved and a perdition for the wicked. It was as though Israel did not exist; that the only reality in the Middle East is that of the dim distant past.

The biblical Bethlehem and Nazareth—however faintly remembered—are still real to my mother and the others. But who among them, incuding the lady preacher, could find modern Tel Aviv on the map? And to what end such biblical study anyway? All my mother now needs is hope of Heaven.

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