Early in June of 1956, the summer in New York burst forth temperate and bright, the colors deep, the wind promising. This was the beginning of the summer that was to see the culmination of a chain of events that had begun, like everything else, at the beginning of the world, but had started in a practical sense in March of the previous year, when the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer.
A heavy wet snow had snapped some telephone lines in Brooklyn, many of which at that time were carried on poles above the ground. When these went down, the magnetic effect coursed its way through the webs of copper and steel in the telephone exchanges and made oceans of static that flowed like backwash into every telephone in Brooklyn. The Saromsker Rebbe had intended to use the telephone to propose a meeting with Rabbi Moritz of Breel, who lived on Ocean Parkway with his followers, who trimmed their hats in mink, whereas the Saromskers lived in Williamsburg and trimmed theirs with sable. The Saromsker Rebbe wanted to discuss a theological difference that now appeared reconcilable.
The Saromskers had taken in many survivors of the Holocaust, mostly children who had been babies when their parents were murdered. Their devotion to mothers and fathers they had never known was fiercer and more concentrated than anyone might have dreamed, except perhaps for the parents themselves in the very moment they were parted from their children. The parents’ prayers for the union of souls, and their silent and intense petitioning of God had the strength of all the winds of the world, of its invisible magnetism, of oceans and seas. But they were petitions that, for all their power and urgency, and though perhaps answered in time or beyond the limits of time, were not answered then.
A few of these children had been old enough to remember, some even to have begun serious study before their world was destroyed, and to these the Saromsker Rebbe would listen when, on a point of division, they held that things had changed, that movement was possible, especially in the New World and in the eyes of the young. Thus, soon after the war, the Saromsker Rebbe had swallowed his pride and begun to speak to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, who had also taken in a number of mysteriously intense young refugees. Theological reconciliation moves at a pace that makes the advance and recession of glaciers seem like the oscillation of a gnat in the golden light of a summer evening. Braced for a lifetime of cautious exchanges, the two rabbis had discovered that the telephone, more urgent even than the telegraph, was the most complimentary way for one to get the full attention of the other.
But because of the snowstorm the telephone was not working, and the only thing audible within it was something much like the experimental music then in vogue, of which neither rabbi had even the slightest inkling. The Saromsker Rebbe held the handset and tapped at the little button on the left side of the base, first three times, and then five. “Hello? Hello?” he said to the static. He repeated this six times over the space of an hour and a half, after which he gave up. Instead of talking on the telephone, he would do what came naturally and what was holy: he would write.
He wanted to write a short note, but with fountain pen in hand the Saromsker Rebbe was a dervish. Possessed of undying momentum and driven not by his own hand but by the ancient operation just of picking up the pen, he filled it, applied it to paper, and began moving it about. It then began to drag him after it like a plowman who had attached himself by a strong harness to a gigantic young plow horse before hitching it up to the plow, which horse was then stung by a big and very angry bee, and had run until he had crossed all of Bessarabia—through rivers, over fields packed with wildflowers so that the plowman emerged looking like a huge bush in full bloom with windmill legs, in long flights off cliffs, through startled towns, breaking fences that exploded like wheat on a threshing floor, through houses, skipping across the decks of boats, following the sun so that its light fueled him and he pulled the plowman without exhaustion. The plowman as he ran shouted prayers, and the horse, having long forgotten the sting, raced the sun as if to overtake it. Horses cannot be expected not to have such notions, or rabbis not to write all night.
In the morning, when the snow had fallen off the wires because of strong winds from the Ramapos, the Saromsker Rebbe found himself with forty densely imprinted pages that left him vibrating like a piano wire and that had to be delivered as soon as possible to Rabbi Moritz of Breel. Shaking not from fatigue but from having followed his pen all night, the rebbe rang his nickel-plated bell, and one of his students, who had just started the day shift outside the study door, instantly appeared.
“I have written a little letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel,” the Saromsker Rebbe said, holding the forty pages up to the light. “It must be delivered to Ocean Parkway as soon as possible. Who is the fastest and most nimble of our students? Who is smart but not so immersed in his studies that he would be crushed by a truck? Who knows the map, and will be able to come back? Who speaks English well? And who will make a good impression on Rabbi Moritz of Breel?”
The student said, “It’s simple.”
The Saromsker Rebbe knew that nothing is simple. “Really?” he asked.
“That’s a name?”
“That’s his American name—Roger Reveshze.” Stepping forward, the student said, “Rabbi, he’s so fast he bounces off the walls. He speaks English perfectly, and he will impress Rabbi Moritz of Breel. He’s one of the ones from Majdanek.”
The children of Majdanek were the cause of many problems. Like other children of other camps they had their terrors and incurable sadnesses, but, for whatever reason, they even more so. For whatever reason, Majdanek was worse.
“He spends a great deal of time praying for his parents. He was just old enough to know them. He might study more, it’s true. He could be a better scholar. . . .”
“Who are we to say?” the Saromsker Rebbe asked. “When he prays, is it recitation?”
“No,” said the student. “When he prays, white light bathes the walls. You can see it through the cracks.”
“Why did no one tell me this?”
“It just started. He’s only fourteen. We wanted to let him calm down before we told you. He’s a kind of wild man.”
“And you want me to send him to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, a man of ninety-six?”
“Rabbi Moritz will know if he’s a baal shem.”
“Shall I send for him?”
“How is he at maneuvering through traffic?”
“Nothing can touch him. He could be a snake fighter.”
Roger Reveshze had run through the halls and up the stairs, his robes and fringes trailing him like battle flags in a strong breeze, and when he presented himself to the Saromsker Rebbe, so excellent was his blood oxygen that he did not breathe hard. Many people can do physical feats and afterward suppress the need to take deep breaths, but Roger, who did not need to suppress an urge he did not have, stood quietly before the rebbe, his eyes semi-skeptical.
Like many fourteen-year-old boys in hasidic costume, he had the sweetness of a lamb and the mischievous air of an owl. At the same time, though possessed of a slight and awkward body that had not yet solidified as it would in time, he seemed to have extraordinary gravity, or perhaps, the Saromsker Rebbe thought, I am just imagining it.
He was not imagining. In Roger’s wild eyes, big ears, and big teeth, was a face, framed by blond peyess, that led with instant speed to the Pale of Settlement the Saromsker Rebbe had known in his childhood. He merely had to look in the eyes of this boy to see the heart of Eastern Europe, and there, rising against a field of black and gray, came a fume of gold in which, like smoke, souls in transport spiraled upward.
Roger had something about him forever sad but forever indomitable. The rebbe decided to ask a question or two. He allowed them to spring whence he knew not, like an egg coming from the mouth of a magician.
“What is your Hebrew name?”
“Elchanan ben Mosheh ben Arieh.”
“What do you see, Elchanan ben Mosheh?”
“When you close your eyes.”
This was for Roger an emotional subject, but one with which he was familiar on a daily basis, so he closed his eyes, raised his arms in a gesture of surprise, for what he saw was different every time, and said, “I see a courtyard in falling snow, people wrapped in blankets and shawls, wood that is broken and steps that are worn, a man standing in a square. He is dressed in black silk robes, his shtreimel almost covered with snow, his beard white. My heart cannot convey his expression. And I see houses that are lit weakly but brightly, their windows glowing yellow.”
“Do you imagine this?”
“I don’t imagine it, it exists.”
“Do you pray?”
“Who generates the prayers? Do you?”
The boy smiled.
“And what happens when you pray, physically?”
“You don’t daven?”
“I begin to daven, and then I twirl.”
“Like a dancer, spinning?”
Roger shook his head in the negative. “No, head over heels.”
“Head over heels,” the rebbe repeated, “no gravity.”
“I’m blinded,” Roger reported matter-of-factly.
“By light: white phosphorus, pinwheels, stars on a field of fire. It’s an illusion. An ophthalmologist could tell you why. Nerve endings.”
The rebbe was not convinced. Vision and skepticism are man and wife, bride and groom. “How do you know it’s an illusion?”
“Because I prayed for the life of a bird that had flown against the window and was dying on the sill, and though I was swept up beyond the world, so was he. It’s an illusion.”
“Maybe it was supposed to die.”
“I didn’t want it to die.”
“Since when is what you want central to the scheme of things?”
The boy nodded in acceptance. These matters would have to be deferred, and the rebbe decided to return to the business at hand. “Roger, please take this letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, on Ocean Parkway. Do you know how to get there?”
“Yes, we went there two times.”
The Saromsker Rebbe put the forty pages in a manila envelope. Then he opened the top right-hand drawer in his desk and took out a box of matches and a thick candle. He lit the candle. In his left hand he held his seal and in the right the end of a little stick of saffron-colored wax. But, as the wax melted, he burned his fingers, and he withdrew the flame. “I lost my tongs,” he said.
“Tongs,” Roger repeated, fascinated by the word.
The rebbe went to get a fresh stick of wax from lower down, but he opened the wrong drawer. As soon as he saw what was in this drawer, he slammed it shut. Flushed as red as if he had just climbed a sixty-foot rope, he found the saffron-colored wax elsewhere and nervously started to soften it in the flame.
“What was that?” Roger asked.
“What was what?”
“What was that in the drawer?”
“Wax for sealing envelopes.”
“In the other drawer.”
“The one you opened before you opened the one with the wax.”
“I saw it.”
“Saw what?” The rebbe’s eyes were now beady.
“In the drawer.”
“What is Lindt?” Roger asked.
“What is Lindt? What is Lindt?” the rebbe repeated.
“Yes, what is it?”
“I don’t know,” the rebbe said, now looking at Roger with panic.
Roger successfully delivered the Saromsker Rebbe’s letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, whom he did not see, and who could, therefore, make no judgment as to whether Roger was a baal shem. Everything settled down and returned to normal, except for one thing.
What was Lindt? Roger’s teachers, all unterrabbis and nachmollers, didn’t know, and his classmates didn’t know, either. He went to Rabbi Eisvogel, who was second to the Saromsker Rebbe, and his designated successor.
“Rabbi Eisvogel,” Roger said, captivated by birds perching on icicles hanging from the eaves of the rabbi’s study, “What is Lindt?”
“Lint?” Rabbi Eisvogel asked back. “Lint is cloth shavings or other material, little fibers that collect and combine. Why?”
“No, not that. It was written on the box: L-i-n-d-t.”
“I don’t know.”
“But you saw a box?”
“I don’t know.”
Rabbi Eisvogel asked, “Did you see a box in a dream?”
“Are you all right, Roger?”
“I’m all right.”
“Good. Lindt, whatever it is, I’ll think about it,” the rabbi said.
Roger thought that he would never find out what it was. The world was full of mysteries, and he had much else to think about, having been immersed in moral questions day after day, like metal annealed, since he was three years old. He returned to his studies and forgot about what he had seen in the Saromsker Rebbe’s drawer. But, then, when the next Sabbath was over, a lighthearted Rabbi Eisvogel, in the presence of students and disciples, asked the Saromsker Rebbe point-blank, “Reb Hayim, tell me, what is Lindt?”
The Saromsker Rebbe’s face turned as red as the flag of the Soviet Union. “I don’t know,” he said, with a Cheshire Cat smile, “but it may be a kind of Swiss chocolate.”
Rabbi Eisvogel said, “Ah, I see. Is it kosher?”
“How would I know?” asked the Cheshire Cat, disappearing into the semidarkness, where, amid chanting and singing weakly illuminated by the light of only a candle or two among the coal-black sateen robes and dark sable hats, a passage had opened to the East, and such questions disappeared in a dim whirlpool that shattered time and revived the life of a hundred generations rising like a bonfire. The black coats, sable hats, and hallucinatory prayer were a stage setting in which light and darkness were intertwined for the coaxing, temptation, and entreaty of countless spirits that, somewhere in the closed and darkened rooms of time, existed still. And though these were as shy and delicate as fawns, they did come, in the mind’s eye. And, when they did, they floated before the speechless scholars, not in whitened afterimages but with the strength and color of figures in Renaissance paintings, for it was not death that had been summoned but life, and life came as if the sun had risen and shone through the blackness of night.
Roger thought that only he knew the Saromsker Rebbe to be imperfect. Though the Saromsker Rebbe was constantly making protestations of imperfection, Roger now understood that these were only a cover to shield from the eyes of his followers the real imperfection. The Saromsker Rebbe had lied, directly and by omission, and with what the Sage of Minsk, the Koidanyev Gaon, called “dreadful unholy serpentines.” Lying was an unsolicited insult to the divine order.
And he ate something that wasn’t kosher—not once, not twice, but over time. He concealed sin. He hid evidence. He misled his followers. Although because of the nature and scale of the offense all these things may have been morally forgivable, aesthetically they were not. The balances of the universe are precise and delicate. Depending upon the consequences, lying may be morally condemnable in varying degree, but aesthetically it is impossible in the absolute. One uncourageous lie destroys the core of the imagination. Roger hated lying, and knew that it was the outrider of malevolent forces, which come first with a lie so that they might not have to fight to subdue you. They declare what is true, how to order the elements of truth, and what is false. They ridicule, oppress, and—if you do not bend to them—they kill you.
Roger would never yield to pressure, to false commandments, or to threats, for he had something for which he could gladly die, something that he would proclaim without embarrassment, that was the root, the rock, and the holy place of his life. This was the truth of the death of his mother and father and of so many other people’s mothers, fathers, children, wives, husbands, brothers, and sisters, in the holocaust into which he was born and to which he would, until the end of his days, bear witness—even as others might forget, ridicule, dismiss, or demean it.
This was the hook with which the small, slight Roger Reveshze grasped at the robes of God in the hope of holding Him accountable. And though he was told not to, though it was illogical, a presumption—perhaps a blasphemy and a sin—Roger Reveshze knew his position and held fast. For him, this holocaust was a barrel in which the whole universe rolled. He cared little but to look forward to a life that might in a single place touch upon perfection as confirmation that blind persistence and love would lead to eventual reunion.
There was no great consequence in defying the Saromsker Rebbe: Roger had his compass, and nothing could turn him. But now he could no longer trust the Saromsker Rebbe to sense an impending holocaust, which was part of the rebbe’s responsibility as the leader of a community immersed in the study of ancient texts and without the time to read newspapers and journals. Perhaps the rebbe’s regular reading of the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, and the Forward had led him to nonkosher chocolate, but, despite the risk, now Roger had to read them, and to study the politics of nations, as he could no longer trust the Saromsker Rebbe to do so honestly. This required as well occasional listening to the radio. But what radio? And the newspapers, being so thick, were almost impossible to conceal. You could hardly slip them between the pages of a book. Why was so much space given to advertisements for malted milk balls and brassieres—the claims for which obviously were self-serving lies—when a psalm or the Ten Commandments could be written on a diaphanous piece of parchment the size of a postage stamp?
For a boy who was used to four-hour exegeses of a paragraph, a sentence, a line, or even a single word, the prospect of reading every day a newspaper the size of a life jacket was terrifying. Perhaps, to ease his way into such things, and so he would not be faced with the problem of hiding such a big bundle of paper, he would start with the radio. He had heard radios when he passed by open apartment windows. Once, he had stopped short before an unattended parlor as a Brahms string quartet flowed like an invisible river past curtains lifting in the wind. He had not been allowed to listen to the radio, because nothing on the radio stayed still, and a lie could appear and disappear before anyone could know. A country that listened to the radio would have no way of knowing, therefore, what was true. Roger understood the reason for the prohibition, but now he had his own dispensation. And not only did he have a dispensation, he had a mission.
“Luba,” he whispered to one of his classmates, another lamb-and-owl combination, “where is a radio?”
Luba found this entrancing. “You want to listen to the radio?”
“If I could ask a Jew a question, and not have it answered with a question . . . ,” Roger began.
“You would be the Czar. There’s a radio in the butcher shop,” Luba said like a Roman conspirator. “Schnaiper can’t turn it off.”
“The switch is broken. It plays day and night.”
“Why doesn’t he pull the plug?”
“It’s plugged in behind the giant refrigerator where he keeps the liver. If he pulled the plug he would have to move the refrigerator, and if he moved the refrigerator he would have to take out all the liver.”
Roger nodded. “It’s on all the time?”
“Day and night. The cats listen to it when he leaves the store. And he can’t change the station, or he doesn’t want to. Roger, he listens to . . . boogie voogie.”
“The tubes will burn out,” Roger said authoritatively.
“No, they won’t,” Luba answered. “It doesn’t have tubes. It has new things called trahnzeestores, which never burn out. It will go forever.”
“He’ll sell the liver.”
“Not as fast as he puts new liver in.”
“How can that be? Eventually the refrigerator would expand until it was as big as the universe.”
“No, sometimes he puts in an onion,” Luba said. Luba had been born in a town, recently wiped from the surface of the earth, where logic was not held in the highest esteem when it was held at all.
“How do you know all this?” Roger asked.
“On erev shabbes I get the gribeness and other chicken stuff from Schnaiper. In the morning the truck gets the meat, but the gribeness are never ready then, so in the afternoon Rabbi Eisvogel sends me for them. I carry twenty-five pounds in a wicker basket strapped to my back.”
“That’s what that is,” Roger said, “and that’s why it smells that way.”
“Yeh,” Luba said.
“Can I take your place?”
“For how long?”
Roger thought. “Five years.”
Luba’s eyes crossed, and he rocked his head from left to right.
“I’ll give you all my hamentashen.”
Luba raised his eyebrows and looked to the side.
“And half my jelly doughnuts,” Roger added.
“All of them.”
“Okay,” said Luba, “but you’ll have to wait until May. I have a subdeal with gizzards. I bring them to Rabbi Glipsin of Foin, but in May he’s going to Neshville.”
“I don’t know.”
Schnaiper the butcher looked up. “Why suddenly a new boy? Where’s Luba?”
“He’s in training.”
“To become a polar rabbi.”
Schnaiper narrowed his eyes.
“Canada,” Roger said, pointing straight up. “Completely full of ice.”
“So?” asked Schnaiper. “We have winter, too. What would a polar rabbi have to know?”
Roger slowly and intolerantly moved his head, as if to say, “What an idiot,” but, then, instead of jumping forward with an explanation, he said nothing, and let the butcher beg for it.
“What? What would a polar rabbi have to know?”
“Tell me,” Schnaiper commanded.
“You’re a butcher, right?” Roger asked. This was a carefully plotted question to ask a man, in a white apron, with a huge knife in his hand, standing at a giant butcher block next to a case filled with ten tons of chicken liver.
“What do you think?”
“So, tell me, Mr. Butcher,” said Roger, “What walrus.”
“Walrus. Kosher for Passover, or not?”
Schnaiper’s eyes darted. “How am I supposed to know?”
“I’ll tell you.” Roger beckoned for him to lean forward, and the butcher did. “Ask a polar rabbi. He would know. At this very moment, Luba is deep in studies of precisely this kind of question. Penguins.”
“Who’s his teacher?”
“Eisvogel. Good man. Still wants twenty-five pounds of gribeness?”
“It’ll be fifteen minutes. I apologize for the radio. I can’t turn it off. It’s goyish, but if you daven you can drive it out of your mind. I myself like it. It has pretty music called boogie voogie.” He went to package the gribeness, taking the wicker basket with him like an alpine guide.
Left by himself in the ice-white interior of the butcher shop, Roger lifted his eyes and listened. The radio had been on of course, as it was an eternal radio, when first he had walked in, but it had been just noise. Now he cocked his ears to listen and decipher. He expected to hear, perhaps, an interview with a famous rabbi. No. He thought the next most likely thing would have been an interview with the Pope. No. News about wars, Germany, ships at sea, the President’s health. No. Whatever it was, however, it was as slow and deliberative as a talmudic exegesis. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised by the unhurried pace, for he had expected thoughtless gushing, and this was careful, tranquil, with long calming spaces between the words.
“Two on,” the voice said. “Two and one . . . Miller at bat. You know, Mel, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen . . . the pitch, low, ball three. It’s been a long time since a rookie, like Miller . . . winding up . . . ball four, he walks. Bases loaded.”
This desultory conversation, the epitome of a summer afternoon, and one of the most soothing things Roger had ever heard, went on and on. “A three-two pitch to Hollins . . . line drive . . . base hit. The pitch was up and Stanky jumped to get it. So he has a lead single in the bottom . . . in the bottom, of the third. He was zero for four . . . in last night’s game. The pitch, swing . . . on the way to Allen. Foul over the Yankee dugout. Allen came to the majors by way of Richmond, Virginia—a good place to play ball. . . . The pitcher winds up. Ball, low on the outside.”
In the spaces within the narrative Roger heard a lovely and persistent sound, like the sound of the ocean, and within that sound were others. Sometimes the speaker would get excited and the ocean would roar, and then, uncharacteristically, he would yell numbers and say how great it was, or how dangerous. For fifteen minutes, Roger listened to this, mesmerized, with absolutely no understanding whatsoever of what it was. Then Schnaiper returned, his pluglike body hauling the alpine basket of gribeness.
“What is that?” Roger asked, pointing up.
“On the radio?”
“That? That’s the best part. You could listen all day. I do.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s baseball,” said Schnaiper, “from the House That Ruth Built.”
“From the House of Ruth?” Roger asked, stunned.
“Live,” Schnaiper said.
“Where is it?”
Evidently, rabbis kept certain things from their students. Wonderful things. Exciting things. If Schnaiper could be believed—and never had he overweighed a chicken—there was a place in the Bronx that—symbolically? actually? miraculously?—was a direct link to the Israelites. Roger knew that such places could be found in Eretz Yisroel, but never had he heard that they existed in the Bronx. Immediately he wanted to go there, to see. The problem was that he did not understand its language, which seemed as dense and impenetrable as his studies in the Talmud, which, after all, had not come on the instant.
So he inquired of Luba, because Luba had been fetching gribeness from the outside world for so long, “Luba, what is the House of Ruth, that’s in the Bronx?”
“The House of Ruth?” Luba closed his lamb-like eyes. He had no idea what Roger was talking about, but as a direct descendant of Rabbi Vogelsblume of Hivnis, he didn’t have to know. He closed his eyes, spread his arms, and waited for the answer. This was the way of the Jews in countries where for lifetimes they had been forced to the ground, where fact was never better than dreams. Later rationalists, even among the Jews themselves, mocked this, because they had never been so long in extremis, and did not understand art, ecstasy, or the parting of seas. They did not understand that, for those who have nothing, dreams are real. Luba began to speak as if possessed: “The House of Ruth . . . is in the Bronx.”
“I told you that,” Roger protested.
“Did I say you didn’t? It’s a palace bigger than the temple or the baths of Babylonia. People dance in the aisles, and its four-hundred-foot-high walls are hung with gold and purple draperies. Lit by divine light that showers down from heaven, beautiful women work in a field in the middle, harvesting wheat, like their great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Ruth. In galleries as high as the Empire State Building, legions of rabbis read the Talmud, and klezmer bands in the vast celebration areas play for dancing as in Simchas Torah. And the food! The food! Vegetables! Roasts! Fat pieces of halvah! Poppyseed cakes! Wine. Every day at sunrise and at sunset the rabbis dance in the wheatfields with the Ruths, like daughters. And, someday, the students will marry the beautiful Ruths, and have babies.”
Luba was still vibrating with longing when Roger asked, “How many women work in the wheatfields?”
“A constant supply. As fast as boys are born, so are girls. They come together as the rivers flow. That’s the way it is. But there’s a catch.”
“What’s the catch?”
“You can’t go there.”
“You just can’t.”
“So what’s the good of it?”
“After you die,” Luba said, opening his eyes, “you’re taken there on a holy sled.”
“Luba, it exists in the world. I heard it.”
“But you’ll never get there,” Luba said, holding his finger up the way Rabbi Eisvogel did when he drove home a point, “unless . . .”
“Or,” Luba said.
“Unless you die, or they are in peril and need a champion to save them.”
“What kind of peril?”
“Defeat. Such a place is always under siege, but sometimes a champion prays and prays, and then maybe the Holy One, blessed be His name, allows him to champion the House of Ruth. But the champion must have great virtue, for he will carry in his hand the very staff of the Lord.”
“How will he know that it is the staff of the Lord?” Roger asked.
“It will be passed to him in the fields, and it will be as if of gold, and it will shine in the light.”
Until the next erev shabbes, Roger dreamed of the House of Ruth. He knew in his American mind that what Luba had said could not be and that no such place could exist, just as he knew that people, even the holiest mystics, could not fly. But in his Eastern mind he knew that the ancient rabbis of Breel and Talakreblach actually did fly, even if in earthly terms they did not leave the ground. How was this? To say that they flew, they would have had to have made, in defiance of gravity, a vertical distance between themselves and a point of reference. When Rabbi Vimy of Breel and Rabbi Canopy of Talakreblach concentrated, their point of reference was not the mere earth. They envisioned the limitless universe, in which they floated as freely as sparkling fish. And was it not true that they did float amid the phosphorus-glistening stars? That the earth came between them and what kept them otherwise afloat was a fact and not a dream, but it was not much of a fact in comparison to the gravity-less infinity in which it existed. The earth was just a speck, less than a speck, and Rabbis Vimy of Breel and Canopy of Talakreblach were, in fact, flying at blinding speed through space, as are we all, but at the time of their visions they were the only ones who both knew it and felt it, which is why they did fly, and which is why Roger could picture the House of Ruth in the Bronx: a place that, even were it not real, God—having hinted to trusting imaginations—would be obligated to make real in one way or another, such as by having Ruth build it.
The rabbis let Roger be—even Rabbi Eisvogel, who was something of a cold bird. When a student suddenly didn’t pay attention and fell off in his work, the rabbis looked carefully in his eyes. If his eyes were as eyes usually are, they brought him back around in various ways. But if within the eyes they saw a fire, they left him alone. In fact, they asked him what he required—food in his room, a certain scroll, time to pray, a trip to the ocean, music, a conference with a mystic—and they tried to supply it, to breathe air into the fire for the express purpose of keeping it alight.
Rabbi Eisvogel asked the question, inquiring about what Roger might need.
“I want to go to the butcher’s and listen to the radio,” Roger said decisively.
“Which butcher?” Rabbi Eisvogel asked.
“Schnaiper. He’s the one with a radio.”
“Go,” Rabbi Eisvogel told him, trustingly. “We’ll keep your book open where you left it.”
From Schnaiper’s radio, which had never ceased playing, came the same, languorous, slow, Southern conversation once again. “Do you know what they’re saying?” Roger asked Schnaiper, who was very busy.
“What?” Schnaiper asked back.
“This conversation on the radio.”
“Baseball,” Schnaiper said, cleaving a veal chop. “You know, the game.”
“Do you understand it?” Roger asked.
Schnaiper rested his cleaver on the butcher block as if he were a stork resting a broken leg. “Of course I do.”
“Tell me how it works.”
“The whole game? The rules?”
“It’s simple. I’ve never seen it, but I know from the radio.”
“First, there’s a peetch-hair,” Schnaiper said, breaking into their exchange of Yiddish with an English word.
“A peetch-hair? What’s that?”
“I don’t know, but without the peetch-hair they can’t play the game. I heard once how a peetch-hair was hit by a flying object of some sort, and they stopped the game until they brought in another peetch-hair. From this, don’t ask me.”
“But what do they do?”
“Well, they run around besses, and sometimes they steal the besses.”
“What are besses?”
“Puffy white things they stick in the ground.”
Roger was nowhere. “So what’s the point?” he asked. “And what are all the numbers for?”
“I don’t think the numbers mean anything, really. Anyway, I pay no attention to them. The point is that there are two teams, and the winner is the one that can stay the longest.”
“What prevents them from staying?”
“When they miss.”
“You never said anything about a ball.”
“Oh yes, there’s a ball. They throw it at each other, and hit it with a stick.”
“I don’t know. They don’t know either: ever since I got the radio, they’ve been losing.”
“The Yenkiss,” Roger repeated.
“That’s one of the teams. They used to be the greatest team in the world, Mel said. Now they’re dying. They won’t win this year, even with Mental.”
“Mickey Mental,” Schnaiper replied, knowingly.
“A person, the greatest baseball player of our time. But the Dodgers, unless a miracle will happen, are going to kill them.”
“Really kill them?”
“What could help them?” Roger asked.
“Nothing. One more game and they’re finished. But for next year, if they had a champion, another one like Mickey Mental, but better, well, that would be a different story, maybe.”
From the top floors of the building where Roger lived, and through the gaps in ocher and brown buildings and within the steel cage-work of bridges brushed with cool sunshine, the East River was visible in wide segments of blue. From the roof, the blue patches were larger, for one could see over some of the buildings that had blocked them from below. And from the top of the stair shed, yet another story high over the roof, the river was freed. You could see all the way from St. George on Staten Island, along the cliff faces of lower Manhattan and midtown looming rocklike in the day and sparkling like galaxies at night, to the Triborough Bridge. River traffic arrived suddenly on the swift current and departed with equal speed, or fought north as slowly as a man carrying a desk. Sometimes Roger saw a boat gliding out into the harbor at dusk, its stern light bobbing in recession until it became a star. The lovely light making its way into the vastness of the ocean, like the dead in their quiet departures, grew ever fainter.
That fall and winter when it was neither too wet nor too cold, he ascended the incline to reach the small rectangular space at the top of the stair shed, and there he spent many hours in prayer. He recited nothing. He sought nothing. His prayer was the hopeful resurrection, in his heart, of those who were gone. It was the dissolution, in his mind’s eye, of all elements, colors, and sound—until, lighter than smoke, they formed a picture as full of glory as the patient astronomical photographs that he had never seen and that, in later years when he would see them, would bring to his face a smile of recognition. All was grace and perfection there, all just and redeemed, all prayer answered, ratios exact, rhythms perfect, laws obeyed.
He had known such things, somehow, since infancy. And he understood that, as he grew, his responsibility was to make sense of them: not to adopt them for his purposes but to take a tiny fraction of the light of perfection for use upon the imperfection of the world, like a match that for an instant brings a little daylight to a dark hallway.
Between the Yenkiss’ loss of what Schnaiper called the Verld Series to the Dodgers, and the opening of the next baseball season, Roger concentrated upon a single obstruction that he wished to burn through, a single request, a single question. It did not come, and it did not come, and it did not come. The fall’s lucid shadows deepened the colors of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and its cold air enlivened the stars. Winter froze all emotion. Sometimes he would sit in the cold until his heart hardly beat and he was blind, and he would strain, sweeping the darkness in search of a blaze of power, but he would find nothing, he would see no light. Spring came violently and ended in soft air suffused with the scents of flowers and warm brick. Baseball season had started in April. No one was happy. Then came summer, promiscuously scattering great volumes of light, dashing it up streets that had long been in shadow, touching the undersides of bridges as if the sun were boiling in the rivers beneath. Nothing happened, but he refused to give up, and then, on the fourth of June, something did happen.
That day, as sunburned as a strawberry, Roger came down from his perch for the last time. Upon seeing him, they went to get the Saromsker Rebbe, for Roger had the pellucid eyes of a tzaddik, and the Saromsker Rebbe, whose eyes were unclouded with age, was the only one who could properly look into them. He knocked on Roger’s door. Inside, the boy was packing a small suitcase.
The Saromsker Rebbe closed the door behind him: there were many people in the hall breathing respectfully.
“I’m leaving for a while,” Roger said, “but I’ll be back in a few months.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the House of Ruth, where a miracle will come, a splinter of light, a flicker.”
With everyone following him, the Saromsker Rebbe hurried through the passageways. A thousand people packed into the assembly hall, where dust was dancing in beams of sunlight. The Saromsker Rebbe stood on a high platform. “It could be,” he said, “that there is a baal shem.”
Before the musical instruments were taken from their cases and the locks pulled on the schnapps cabinet, Roger carried his butterscotch-colored suitcase down the brownstone steps and disappeared into streets that had begun to darken and glow red with alien neon. Never had he been to the Bronx, he had no map, and did not know the subway, but he was carried as if on a puff of wind through roaring tunnels and white-tiled stations full of the temptations of kosher hot dogs prepared with nonkosher utensils. While the express idled with open doors in the green curve of the Fourteenth Street station, he listened to a saxophone. The notes for which the player of this instrument was reaching, and would never attain, were the notes Roger had just heard, and even after the doors closed and the train rumbled uptown, he heard them still.
That night, Roger slept on the roof of the 161st Street IRT station, under faintly visible stars that would have blazed but for the emanations of electric light that make the sky above the City of New York the color of a jonquil. He slept neither on a park bench nor on the pavement, because had some Irish bullies tried to beat him silly and been struck by lightning it would not have been a mitzvah for Roger. The air in his resting place was relatively cool and dry, and he was so young and flexible that the washboard indentations in his back vanished ten minutes after he left the corrugated roof.
Soon the sun was high and people were streaming from nowhere to the aquarium-dark spaces under the El to buy puffer-fish-shaped fried things the color of apple pie that were filled with potatoes and cheese, triangular slices of pizza (a new thing) from which the ingredients had tried to slide and been killed during their escape, armies of nonkosher fried chicken parts arranged in golden ranks as in the Napoleonic Wars, and candied apples that you could buy only if you signed a statement stipulating that you wouldn’t sue after you ate the paper that stuck to the flat place on the top, had all your fillings pulled out, and were stabbed by the stick. This offered neither the prospect of lunch nor any other meal for a boy whose idea of bliss was herring and dilled potatoes. What did it matter? He wasn’t hungry, and he stepped from the shadows of the El into the bright sun, where the House of Ruth loomed as white as chalk, a Pleistocene cliff against which swirled the gray-black exhausts of the Major Deegan Expressway.
Hours before the game, he approached a ticket booth. “Is this the House of Ruth?” he asked.
“This is it.”
“This is it, just like that? This is her house?”
“His,” the ticket seller said.
“His?” Roger asked.
“Ruth was a woman,” Roger stated.
“Ruth was a Babe, but he wasn’t no woman.”
“That’s not true,” Roger said, “but it doesn’t matter. I’ve come to save the Yenkiss.”
“You still need a ticket.”
“I shouldn’t just go in?”
“You have to buy a ticket even to save the team. But you’re in luck. If you buy even a cheap ticket now, you can go to the best seats for the pre-game practice. Mantle is batting this very minute.”
“Yeah, Mickey Mental.”
“He’s the one I’m supposed to replace, I think.”
“He’ll be so disappointed!”
“He can be on the team. I’ll just hit for him.”
Not having any money was no discouragement for Roger, who pivoted away from the ticket booth, faced the massive concrete walls and iron gates, and, with Moses and Joshua in mind, threw out his arms. His chest was expanded (which wasn’t saying much), his fingers spread, and his face upturned in expectation of a miracle, but no breach appeared in the walls. So he repeated the gesture, and said “Lifto’ach!” Curiously, no breach appeared this time, either, or any of the dozen times thereafter. Still, Roger had no doubt that he had been commanded upon a divine mission.
Like Joshua, he circled the walls. Unlike Joshua, he came to a truck bay into which vendors were carrying trays of freshly baked pretzels, jelly doughnuts, and other things. Stepping up to an immense Armenian who was carrying sacks of roasted peanuts to a baggage trailer inside, Roger said, “Mickey Mental sent me out here to help you because he wants all these beans inside before it rains.”
“Mickey Mental. He sent me.”
“He can’t do it. A pain in his back, from playing the violin. Get those beans in right away. You know what Rabbi Belknap of Mazlow says about beans in the rain.”
The Armenian looked at the slight, blond, hasidic Jew, and said, “Rabbi Belknap . . .”
“Let’s go!” Roger commanded.
In a kind of trance, the peanut czar of Yankee Stadium agreed. “Okay. Let’s go! You take these beans from the truck. Go ahead! Take them. Take the beans!”
After working for a half-hour, Roger was in. Not only had he found the House of Ruth, he had breached its walls without slinging a single stone or slaying a single Boabite. Gliding up a ramp in search of June daylight, he came out on the first tier near left field. Looking east toward the bladder neck of the Bronx and into the vast right-field decks rising unto the crane of his neck and topped by rows of flags and formations of lights like the radars on a cruiser, he realized that although it did not fit Luba’s description exactly—gone were the purple hangings, the maidens, the grapes—it was close. You could fill it with every rabbi in the world and you would still have room for more.
He looked at rows and rows of seats as neatly folded as laundry, lacquered hard and beerproof. Remembering the oceanic sounds on Schnaiper’s radio, he filled in the crowd. In his vision of what he heard, he saw whole steppes of people whose faces were like seeds peering from sunflowers, and whose changes of position and sudden cheers were like wind sweeping high grass. Legions disappeared in the shadows, from which a roar echoed like a hurricane. How many places like this, he thought, would it take to hold six million people, and his answer, quickly calculated, was one-hundred-twenty. Stadiums packed with fifty-thousand people could be placed in a line down both sides of Manhattan from Washington Heights to the Battery, with no space in between, and if the souls within could break their silence, the roar would be unlike anything ever heard.
“One foot at a time,” he said to himself, with no idea why he said it. “One foot at a time.” He sighed. If only his father and mother could see him, standing in Ruth’s house, about to save the Yenkiss. They would not know of either of these things, but if only they could see him.
A young hasidic boy in a black coat and a fur hat on a hot June day had no idea how to save the Yankees, but his moving feet carried him to the rail. At the elliptical center of the field a man in a white suit stood on a barrow of dirt and would periodically throw something at two men who faced him. One of the men was in turtlelike armor, squatting. The other stood, with a weapon.
When the thing that was thrown at the man with the staff would come at him almost faster than the eye could see, he would strike at it, and there would be a crack as in the breaking of a cable, after which the thing that was thrown would fly out into the air, along varying trajectories, and land in the grass. Then someone would throw the man on the dirt a new thing, and the process would continue. Sometimes the man who held the weapon missed, and the thing that was thrown was caught by the turtle, who threw it back. Who knew? But this was baseball.
On the back of the man with the weapon was the number 7. This meant, according to Schnaiper, that he was Mickey Mental. It was a good place to start. If you are going to help the needy, help those in most distress, and those in most distress are those who have fallen furthest. Roger was sure that it was no accident that the only thing between him and Mickey Mental, the greatest baseball player of the age (according to Schnaiper), was a hundred feet of perfectly clear air through which sound could easily carry.
This was at a time in the morning when the field was most like what a field is supposed to be, swept clocklike by golden legs of sun stilting across it as time progressed, insects busy in flight against the huge foils of black shadow. A white blur that is not mist but a condition of the light, a lost and miscellaneous glare, covered the empty stands and bleachers in which, to Mantle’s delight, virtually no one had yet appeared. And those who had come early kept as respectful a distance as pilgrims in St. Peter’s who have stumbled upon the Pope in the dry runs of investiture. Fragrant breezes from the field alternated pleasingly with cool downdrafts of leftover night air rolling off the second level like a waterfall. It was the perfect time for the great player to concentrate on the attainment of perfection in hitting the ball. To allow his gifts free rein, he needed something like the flow of a river. In the mornings, when Yankee Stadium reminded him most of the fields his forebears had farmed, that river flowed best. He was deep in concentration, and doing very well, when he became aware of a distraction.
From behind, from the left-field fence out toward third base, came a kind of squeak. At first he thought it was a bird or a cricket. Then he realized that it was an imploring voice. Once every great while, coarse people got into the stadium before a game and stood at the rail calling out his name, hoping for acknowledgment, a conversation, or an autographed baseball. This he had learned to ignore.
But though he tried, he could not ignore the squeak. He screwed up his face, rested the bat against his shoulder, and held up his left hand as a signal to the pitcher to hold off. What was this squeak? He lifted his head, hand still held out, and squinted, which was what he did when he wanted better to hear something behind him. He heard the calling of his own name, after a fashion. “What?” he said, as if asking why the perfect morning had to include this.
Roger had been squeaking as regularly as a tree frog in heat. For ten minutes, without even a hint of self-consciousness—indeed, with miraculous happiness—he had been calling out: “Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental!”
Convinced that he was being mocked, the champion turned his head somewhat like an ostrich and stared over his own broad back as if it were a wall. He was expecting to see a large disorganized lout with a face oriented in many directions at once, or possibly a bland-looking idiot with eyes only inches from his hairline. But he saw nothing, because he was looking too high. When he dropped his aim a fraction he spied a small, funny-looking thing in black. Not budging from the plate, he leaned back slightly on his heels and focused on the object, laboring to understand what it was, while all the time it squeaked at him, shouting, “Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental!”
By this time the turtle had stood and removed his carapace. “What is that, Mickey?” he asked. “It’s not a monkey, is it?”
“Monkeys don’t talk, Yogi.”
“Maybe it’s mechanical.”
“It’s making fun of me,” Mickey Mantle said. “I’ve got to take care of this.” He strode angrily toward Roger, bat famously in hand, as irritated and as polite as a steambath attendant. Halfway there, he saw that his tormentor was a boy in hasidic dress and a shtreimel. The face of this boy was, in fact, oriented in many different directions, but lucidly so, so intelligently in fact that it gave Mantle pause, for in Roger’s young eyes was a depth that, even though they were young, Mickey had never seen except in the eyes of the very old. Roger had stopped squeaking, and was smiling, because everything was going according to plan.
A foot taller than Roger, Mickey bent forward, squinted with his left eye, opened the right very wide, and said, “Are you . . . calling me?”
“You’re seven,” Roger said in his accented English.
“What a number! What I could tell you about that number!”
“Is that what you wanted?”
“Why did you call me that?”
“What?” Roger inquired.
Roger shrugged. “That’s your name.”
“What’s my name?”
“Mickey Mental. Isn’t it?”
“Say Mantle,” Mickey commanded.
“Mental,” Roger said.
“Mantle,” Mickey repeated.
“Mental,” Roger echoed. He could not hear the difference, and wondered at this strange form of introduction.
“Mickey Mental,” Mickey said. “Are we done?”
“Oh no,” Roger said, “not by a lung shot.”
“Not by a lung shot? Look, kid, I’ve got batting practice. Do you want me to sign a glove or something? I’ll do it, but leave me alone.”
Roger looked at his hands. “Glove.”
“Whadaya want? I’ll give you a minute.”
Now, like clouds dappling the sea, the thinking moved perceptibly across Roger’s eyes. “I’ve been sent to help you,” he said.
He spoke with absolute seriousness, with a gravity of unknown but arresting origin. Mickey forgot the passage of time. Thinking that he was losing his mind, he asked, “Who sent you?”
“Boruch HaShem,” Roger said, which means, “blessed be the Name.”
“Boruch HaShem,” Mickey Mantle repeated. “Who’s that?”
“It’s forbidden to say the Name.”
“But you just said it.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Boruch HaShem, right?”
“So, you said it.”
“I would never say it,” Roger said, “Boruch Ha-Shem.”
“Well, you tell Boruch HaShem that I’m not interested.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Roger said, in a way that indicated a nervous apprehension and his absolute certainty that one dare not do such a thing.
“Okay,” said Mickey, “your time is up. That’s it.” He turned and began to walk back to home plate, hoping that he would hear no more squeaks and that the next time he looked back Roger would be gone and would not appear again.
But he had taken only a few steps when Roger shouted, “God. I can say it in English.”
Mickey stopped, turned around, and went back. “God sent you?”
“He Himself, personally.”
Eyes closed, Roger nodded unambiguously.
“To do what?”
“To lift you from the darkness of defeat.”
“And how, did He tell you, are you to do that?”
“I was not told how,” Roger said. (The problem for Mickey, as he himself saw it, was that he believed Roger.) “Specific instructions I didn’t get, but I was watching, and as usually happens, it came to me.”
“Okay,” Mickey said, “save me.”
“I will,” said Roger. “You were repeatedly hitting that object which was thrown at you, with that axe.”
Mickey looked at the bat and rolled his eyes.
“And I noticed that you hit the object out to many different places, and that people expressed approval or disappointment depending upon where it landed. Is there an ideal place to which to direct it?”
Mickey laughed to himself a little like a crazy person. “Yeah,” he said, “there is an ideal place to which to direct the object.”
“Where?” Roger asked.
Mickey took the bat in his left hand, turned his head to the right, and extended his right hand, pointing up and away. “You see that clock over there, above the sign?”
“That says Longeens?” Roger asked, pronouncing it with a hard G.
“Longines,” Mickey corrected. “The ideal place to which to direct the object is over that clock. No one’s ever done it. No one’s ever directed a ball out of this stadium.”
“I’ll show you,” Roger said.
“You’ll show me.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Kid, we have the best batting coaches in the world. I’m supposed to be the best batter in the world. How can you show me?”
“Listen,” said Roger, losing his patience. “That’s what I was sent here to do. Let me show you, and if I can’t, I’ll go.”
Mickey stared at Roger. “What is this?” he asked.
“The goat can butt because he has horns,” Roger said, as if that settled it.
And, as if it did, Mickey said, “You wait here. I’m going to see.”
“Talk to my friends.”
Mickey walked quickly back to home. Roger prayed. Davening, he was pulled into the clouds of galaxies and stars, the explosion of suns united and uniting, the greatest glory bleeding perfectly into the smallest thing, the smallest thing assuming effortlessly the greatest glory. It was not that he imagined this or summoned it to appear, but, rather, that his prayer was that the curtain be lifted.
An agitated Mantle took up the batter’s position and tapped the plate with the end of the bat. Berra pulled down his mask. Mantle raised the bat and made eye contact with the pitcher. To dispel his confusion, he wanted to hit one into the stands. The pitcher, Martin, wound up, released, and a slow ball came down the chute, precisely in the middle of the strike zone. Mantle swung to smash the ball, and didn’t even touch it.
“Stee! Rike!” Berra said.
Knowing that his friend didn’t talk this way, Berra flipped up his mask. “What’s the matter?”
“That kid. He’s got me shook up.”
“What did he want, an autograph?”
“No. He’s come here to save us. God sent him. He says he can show me how to hit a ball over the clock.”
Berra thought. “Let him come to the plate. That’s what he wants. Let him hit one. Why not? What can you win?”
“You mean, ‘What can you lose?’ ”
“No. ‘What can you win?’ It means, ‘Grab the bell by the broom.’ Maybe he can save us.”
“How can he teach me? He’s a kid. I don’t know, twelve? He’s a hayseed,” by which the great slugger meant Hasid.
“Mick, maybe he knows.”
“I don’t think so, Yogi.”
“You were a hayseed before you got into baseball,” Berra said, expressing the almost universally held impression that Mantle was, somehow, the paradigm of American agriculture.
Mantle looked sharply at the catcher. “I was not.”
“Sure you were. Everyone knows it.”
“Yeah. Ask any baseball fan in America.”
“With the hat, and the sideburns and everything?” Mantle asked.
“That’s right,” Berra said, thinking of straw hat and rural aspect.
“I was not!”
“Yes you were,” said Berra, bobbing his head up and down in confirmation. “You’ve got it written all over you.”
Mickey thought this was a dream. “How come no one ever told me?”
“Because it’s so obvious.”
“In the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you look. Your accent. Your face. It’s part of why you’re such a hero. I’m Italian. People look at me differently. It’s a different attitude.”
“Wait a minute,” said Mickey, “wait a minute.” He turned to the pitcher. “Hey, Billy,” he shouted. “Billy. Do I strike you as a hayseed? Do I look and talk like one?”
The pitcher said, “Yeah.”
“How come you never told me?”
“Why should I?” the pitcher shouted back. “Who am I, your girlfriend?”
Mickey stared off into space.
“Mick, get the kid,” Berra said. “Bring him out onto the field. We’ll put the guys in position; it’ll be the thrill of his life. Look at ‘im. There’s no one with him. If you’re alone, you’re all by yourself.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t know anything about baseball. He calls the ball an object and the bat an axe.
He says that he doesn’t know how, but that God will provide.”
“Get him anyway.”
“You believe him?”
“I’ll get the guys,” Berra announced.
As Mickey Mantle lifted Roger over the fence, the Yankees loped out onto the field. Maintenance workers looked up. What was this? The whole team, in an empty stadium, set up for a game?
“How much do you weigh?” Mickey asked Roger after he set him down and they were walking—Roger’s black costume flowing with the breeze—because the airborne Roger had seemed to Mickey to have had no weight.
“Thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles,” Roger answered.
“How many pounds is that?”
“I don’t know. There are eight beyngaluchs in a shvoigle.”
“Did you ever play baseball?”
“Until a little while ago, I never heard of it.”
“Well, here on the field, awaiting your direction, are the New York Yankees.”
“You know,” said Roger, almost at the plate, “God shifts an untold number of birds twice a year from the top of the earth to the middle, and from the middle back to the top—geese, herons, fingelehs, robins, chickens, starlings, woodpeckers, kibniks, stvittles, albatrosses, sprites, doves. . . .”
Mickey awaited what was next.
“If He takes the trouble to shift a goose from the North Pole to Havana, He could easily have set me in proper motion to end up here, and He did. Here are the Yenkiss, all spread out, as He intended, and here am I. Hand me the axe.”
Mickey gave him the bat. When it came into his hands, the sun, purely by coincidence, hit it in a peculiar way, and it appeared to glow. Roger held it almost at arm’s length, like an upraised sword, and stunned the Yankees as he swayed back and forth and twirled around, for the bat seemed to them—as it seemed to him—to be a staff with a power beyond that of the maker or the wood. That he would dance so, in front of them, as if unaware of their presence, or not caring, they found extraordinary. He was, in fact, momentarily unaware of them, because his thoughts had been seized, and flowed in only one direction, where the staff pointed, up. The only thing in his heart at that moment was love, and the only thing before his eyes a passage from the book of Ruth: “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead.” What the Yankees did not know was that this boy who knew nothing about baseball had come into their midst to test an ancient compact that of late had been broken. The Yankees did not know that their stadium had been turned into a court of justice in which the prosecutor was an odd little boy and the defendant was the Creator of the universe. In Christian theology—and the Yankees were Christians—this is inconceivable. God does not appear in the dock. He does not dispute with those over whom He holds absolute sway. In Jewish theology, however, He does.
When he finished, Roger looked about and realized that everyone was staring at him in absolute silence, and that now he had to do something big. Praying internally nonstop, he stepped into the position in which he had seen Mantle, and tapped the plate with the bat.
“What do you call the object that is thrown toward you?” he asked of anyone. At a distance, he had not seen that it was a ball.
“Ball,” said Berra, leaving out the article, dropping his mask, and crouching into position.
Roger looked at Berra’s segmented armor and said, “You must be trayf.” Then he turned to the pitcher and said, “Throw ball!”
“Hit it above the clock,” Mantle said matter-of-factly. After all, they had discussed this already.
Roger nodded, but Wylie, one of the coaches, who was mean and small of soul, mockingly said, “No, first knock off the hand.”
“Which one?” Roger asked.
“The minute hand,” Wylie answered, delighted. The clock read 10:20.
“Okay,” said Roger, choking up naturally on Mickey Mantle’s heavy bat.
Martin began to wind up for an easy pitch—he didn’t want to hit a small hasidic boy—but Roger stopped him, and turned to Mantle. “Mickey,” he said, “when I knock off the minute hand it will fall to the seats below. It’s pointed and it must weigh many shvoigles. The sign on the left,” he said, meaning the sign to the left of the scoreboard, “says ‘Anyone interfering with play subject to arrest.’ Does that mean me?”
“No,” half a dozen people said in unison. This broke the spell. Now they realized that he wasn’t even going to connect with the ball, and they began to think of ways—such as biting their lips—not to laugh at him so as not to devastate his pride, although they knew Wylie would.
“Hey, Mickey,” someone said, “after the kid finishes, let him keep the bat.”
“Okay,” Mickey said. It was a good idea. The kid wouldn’t feel so bad.
Roger pointed at the minute hand. This was so much like what Babe Ruth used to do, uncannily so, that even though they thought he was imitating (which, never having heard of Babe Ruth, he was not), they were troubled. They assumed that the strikeout would take quite a few pitches, with Martin kindly throwing a ball or two, and they shifted from foot to foot.
Martin wound up relaxedly. He was hardly going to throw fast or fancy. He leaned back and threw.
If you had seen it in slow motion, you would have seen a baseball traveling like a planet in orbit, precisely and languorously, though behind its sharpness the rest of the world would have been a blur. Then you would have seen the bat moving back ever so slightly, like the hammer-cock of a Colt .45. And you would have seen Roger’s left foot elevate minutely above the ground. Then you would have seen the bat itself making an arc as certain and as powerful as a comet’s, and you would have seen the flow of his muscle and the light in his eyes, and the astronomical powers fed from the billowing fringes and folds of black cloth into the almost-glowing staff. You would have seen, in Roger’s face and eyes, a battlefield look, an expression that comes only when impossible outcomes are guaranteed. And then you would have seen the impact—so tremendous that the ball shattered into a hundred thousand minute particles filling the air with a cloud of dust that disappeared on the wind.
The Yankees had never seen anything like it. No one had.
“What happened?” someone asked.
Berra flipped up the mask. “The ball was pulverized. I saw it. I’ve seen the skin come off a ball, but I never saw a . . .”
“Was that a trick ball?” Coach Wylie yelled to Martin.
“It was the ball that Mickey hit into center,” Martin answered.
No one spoke.
“I’m sorry,” said Roger. “I guess I hit it too hard. Next time, I’ll hit it more gently.”
“He hit it too hard,” Mickey said to himself, dazed.
The coach got a ball, inspected it, bounced it against the plate, and threw it out to Martin. “Try this one.”
Now no one breathed except Roger. The pitch was thrown. The same astronomical conjunctions occurred. The bat connected explosively with the ball but, this time, just under the limit beyond which the ball would have been destroyed. Leather was stretched as far as it would stretch, thread too. It traveled in a straight line, leaving behind it a brief trail of orange flame and then a hardly perceptible line of white smoke.
Mouths dropped open and bodies froze as the ball slammed into the minute hand of the clock that said World’s Most Honored Watch and blew it from its axle so that it windmilled through the air, corkscrewing, eventually, into the ground in front of the wall that had written on it the challenging notation, 407 Ft. The field of Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees standing upon it, was still.
Even Roger stared at the javelin- or propeller-like minute hand stuck perpendicularly in the ground. A seagull dipped down to examine the broken clock, and then, taken by a gust of wind, rose like a rocket and disappeared into the clouds.
“That didn’t happen,” Wylie said “It was a trick. I’ve seen it a million times.”
“Seen what a million times, Wylie?”
“They put an explosive charge in the clock, and somebody watching with a telescope pushes a button, which sends a radio signal to the detonator, which explodes the hands off the clock. It’s the oldest trick in the world.”
“And you’ve seen it?” Mantle asked.
“I saw it in the minors in North Carolina. I saw it in Florida. I saw it all over. You know, they do it.”
“I hit the object, truthfully,” Roger stated.
“I’ll bet you did, kid. Let’s see you do it again.”
“He can’t, the hand’s down already.”
“Now that the charge is gone,” said Wylie, “let’s see you knock off the other one.” He had to believe his own theory.
Roger tapped the bat against the plate. He had a grim, insulted look. “Throw ball,” he said to Martin, who was already on the mound.
Before the pitch, Wylie shouted, “Don’t go so easy on him this time!”
Martin shot back, “What’s the difference? It’s how he hits.”
“Anybody can hit a slow pitch. That’s just giving it to him.”
“Throw ball!” yelled a peeved Roger.
“You say, ‘play ball,’ or, ‘pitch it in,’ ” Mantle told him.
“Pitch it in!” Roger shouted.
Martin wound up, and the ball came in toward the plate fast but straight.
Now that the motions were familiar, Roger was unconcerned about missing, and looked forward to the sharp crack of the bat. He worried only about hitting the ball gently enough not to pulverize it. Once again, he connected. Once again, the ball smoked toward the clock and struck it, this time breaking the hour hand off at the base. It fell, bumped against the scoreboard, and landed flat on the bleachers.
The Yankees were awed, but wanted reassurance nonetheless. Knowing that there was no wind, and that the field was dead silent, Mantle almost whispered, “Kid, can you put a hole in the clock?”
“Sure,” said Roger. “Where?”
“At the two o’clock position.”
“Pitch it in!”
The ball came in, and left like an artillery shell. A crunch sounded shortly after a hole appeared near the two.
“Get Stengel,” Mantle commanded, his voice almost shaking (Mickey Mantle’s voice never shook, at least not in Yankee Stadium). “I think the kid’s just about to hit the ball out of the park.”
In no time at all, Stengel emerged from the dugout. He had already been on his way, having been told by a choking assistant manager that Babe Ruth was back, reincarnated as a kid who was fresh and could do things the Babe had never done. Stengel believed this to be an elaborate joke, and he didn’t have time for jokes. “What’s going on here?” he asked belligerently. “Why’re you guys on the field? It’s not enough that Kansas City is going to completely run over you, you want to be tired, too?”
Mantle shook his head. “Casey, this kid is going to hit the ball out of the stadium,” he said, and then laughed like a deranged person. “Really, he is!”
Stengel focused on Roger for the first time. He tried to speak, but the sight of Roger, so small and slight, in a black hasidic cloak, a shtreimel, and peyess, made him unable to. Then he said, “All right. You got me. Now let’s get back to work, okay?”
“I’m serious,” said Mantle, a little angry and a bit trembly.
“Have you been drinking, Mickey?”
“He destroyed the clock,” a Yankee said. “He did. Look.”
Stengel looked up at the blasted clock. “Who did that?” he asked.
“He did,” Mantle said.
“It’s a trick,” Wylie shouted. “I saw it in the minors.”
“Okay, jerks,” Stengel said, never known for being unimpulsive. He paraded back and forth for a moment or two, thinking. “If that kid can hit a ball out of this park . . . gimme a break, will ya . . . if he can do that, and he’s gotta do it more than once” (the businessman in Stengel could be cautious, too), “I’ll sign him for a million dollars a year and I’ll double your salaries, every single one of you.”
The Yankees were ecstatic with the prospect.
“But,” Stengel went on, “if he can’t—in fifty pitches—I won’t sign him for anything, and I’ll cut your salaries in half for a year.” Stengel loved this. Unlike his current season, it was win-win.
“All of us, Mr. Stengel?” asked an outfielder who had just risen from the farm team and had a baby to feed.
Now Stengel nearly glowed. “No, you’ve got a choice here. Everyone who thinks the kid can hit it out, get behind the third-base line. Everyone who doesn’t, get behind the first-base line. If you’re behind the first-base line, your salary stays the same, no matter what. If you’re behind the third-base line, it’s double or half. Ha!” He was sure that not one member of the team would walk north beyond the third-base line. He had brilliantly transformed their joke on him into a joke on them.
For the next few minutes, the Yankees were deep in thought, and no one moved. Then Berra stood up and, with his left hand, removed his mask in the practiced gesture that he had accomplished many thousands of times. Stengel thought he was giving in. But Berra took a breath, pulled the mask back to his right shoulder, and hurled it like a pie plate beyond the third-base line. “That stands for me!” he shouted, and squatted down, confident that he would not have to catch the next pitch.
Mantle smiled the smile of someone who, though he may be about to lose grievously, will feel a deep satisfaction even in loss—as if the things that people do, all the hundreds of millions of different things, were measured not merely in the visible and apparent accounts of the world, but in another ledger of far greater import. He crossed the third-base line, and waited. Just standing there made him feel like his ancestors who had crossed oceans, knocked down forests, and fought wars.
Then the others followed suit, until only Stengel, the new outfielder, and Wylie were left behind the first-base line. Stengel was irritated beyond measure, but delighted as well. “Wylie, you don’t even count. You’re not a player, get away from me.” He looked at his team. “Okay, nuts, you want to mutiny? Okay. You’re outa your minds. But, look, I like it! You know why I like it? I like it because it’s justice. You’re doing so badly, you deserve a cut in pay. That’s why.”
He turned to Martin, still on the mound. “What about you?”
“I’m with them,” Martin said, pointing to the team.
“And so am I, goddammit!” yelled the new outfielder, crossing over.
“You mustn’t say that,” Roger scolded as the outfielder ran by him.
“Let’s go, then,” Stengel said. And then, to Roger, “Did they put you up to this, kid? Did they pay you?”
“No one ever paid me anything,” said Roger, “in my whole life.”
After assessing Roger, Stengel turned to Martin. “Billy, don’t hurt him. Gentle pitches, nice and easy, all of them.”
“You haven’t seen him,” Martin said.
“But I have seen him. He’s standing right there. Look at him. Can you believe it? Kid, if you can hit the ball out of the stadium once in fifty pitches, you can have as many more pitches as you need to hit it out again, and then I’ll sign you as a Yankee for a million dollars a year.”
“It has nothing to do with money,” Roger said, and tapped the plate with the bat. “It can’t have anything to do with money. I don’t want the money. I just want to teach you,” he said earnestly, “to hit these objects, these . . . balls, with perfection.”
Because there was no other sound except the dim roar of traffic on the Major Deegan, even the slight luffing of the flags in the June sky was audible. The Yankees knew that what they expected was not possible, but they believed that they were going to see it.
“What lies behind the wall, past the tall white building?” Roger asked.
“The Bronx,” Berra answered.
“And what lies beyond the Bronx?”
“Long Island Sound.”
“Are there many boats in Long Island Sound?”
“On a day like today,” said Berra, “there are.”
“Beyond Long Island Sound, then?”
“Of course,” said Roger, unhappily. “And then the ocean.”
“Then the ocean,” Berra confirmed, “like water off a duck’s back. Why?”
“I wouldn’t want to hit anybody,” said Roger. “Play ball.”
As Martin wound up, Stengel was filled with joy, because, if Roger could do this, doubling salaries would be nothing compared to the revenue that would pour in. To see a ball hit out of Yankee Stadium, people would come from Borneo. If Roger couldn’t do it, the pay cut would free up funds for hiring some new players with blood in their veins. But, most of all, Stengel, like his team, like everyone, loved being at the threshold of great events.
The ball flew in, expressly. Roger now had the look of a professional, the Mantle look, the forward-oriented, concentrated gaze, the ease, the love of action. It was the attitude of the kind of racehorse that lived above all to run. Shtreimel tilted, he stepped forward and leaned gracefully into the pitch. The bat connected with the ball, this time with a sharp up-angle that every experienced batter and all the coaches deemed impossible for propelling the ball over the wall. It was simply too steep. Even had Ruth hit a ball so steeply it would have flown gloriously high but not even reached the bleachers.
This ball, however, left a faintly white trace and seemed to accelerate as it climbed. Everyone except Roger shielded his eyes and followed the trajectory. The ball made no parabola, but kept going up. They waited for it to lose power and head down, plopping into right field, but it didn’t. Only when it disappeared from sight did they realize that it was not going to come down in the stadium. They didn’t know where it was going to come down. It was gone.
It had never happened before, and no one knew what to do. So Stengel dropped to his knees and said “Holy cow,” more softly than people usually say holy cow, and he kept repeating it, as if he were in conversation with himself, a conversation limited to those two words spoken with different emphasis and intonation. It went something like this: “Holy cow. Ho-ly cow. Ho-ly . . . cow! Ho-ly . . . ca-ow! Holy? Cow?” and so on, quietly, madly.
The Yankees gave no thought to their new wealth, for as Roger hit four more pitches, one after the other, into the distant Atlantic, and Casey Stengel made an opera out of just two words, they could think only of how lucky they were to be there at that very moment.
Roger turned to Stengel and said, “You see?” “I see,” said Stengel. “I see.”
“I have a suggestion,” Roger went on.
“Sure, we’ll do it.”
“I was watching Mickey hit the balls here and there.”
“Yes,” Stengel said. (Not “Yes?” but “Yes.”)
“Three people wait out in the grass to catch them.”
Stengel nodded as if seeing the game through new eyes. “That’s right. They do.”
“They shouldn’t. The one in the middle should stay, but the others should come closer in.”
“Who would cover left and right field?” Mantle asked.
Roger pointed to both, and said, “The one in the center can go to either.”
“Uh,” said Stengel, most timidly, “we’ve found that, given the depth of the field, the most a man can cover is a third. You see, the most he’d have to run would be a sixth, which would then give him a chance to cover the field back to front.” Stengel paused. “You have another way?”
“Yeh,” said Roger. “Cover from the center. I’ll show you. Give me one of those kreplach,” by which he meant a fielder’s mitt. (They wouldn’t have known had he not held out his left hand and slapped it with his right fist, as he had seen Larsen do with his glove.)
“Get the kid a kreplach!” Stengel barked, and Mickey Mantle—Mickey Mantle—ran to the dugout as eagerly as a batboy, and emerged with his own glove to give to Roger.
Roger jogged to center field. He didn’t go particularly fast, but he seemed to rise as high with each step as if he were wearing kangaroo shoes. Mantle took the bat that had just made history and positioned himself to hit pop-ups.
“Hit one right to him. See if he can catch it,” Stengel commanded.
“What?” Mantle asked. “He just hit a ball out of the park, five times in a row, Casey. You think he can’t do what he says he’s going to do?”
“He’s probably never caught a ball,” Stengel insisted.
“So what,” Berra said. “The start of the middle is the end of the road for the beginning.”
“That may be so, Yogi,” Stengel said, “but let’s make sure to start where he is.”
“I’ll do that if you want,” Mantle agreed, and hit one toward Roger. Mantle was so good that Roger didn’t even have to shift his feet to position himself for the catch, which he accomplished swimmingly.
They weren’t expecting what happened when Roger threw the ball in. Never having thrown a baseball, or even held one, he overthrew. The ball sailed into the back of the upper grandstand. “This has gotta be a dream,” Stengel said.
“It isn’t,” said Berra. “You know how, when you’re dreaming, there’s a sign that says, ‘You’re Dreaming’? There’s no sign.”
“Yeah,” said Stengel. “You’re right. There’s no sign, so we know we’re not dreaming. Okay, Mickey, let’s see if he can do this. Hit him one as far back on the third-base line as you can.”
“I have a feeling he can do it,” Mantle said, hitting with newfound strength.
The ball went deep into left field, and Roger followed—no, preceded—it with inexplicable speed.
His run had nothing about it of gravity. He just burned across the grass, like a fast train, and waited for the ball to come in. This was astounding, but not impossible.
Stengel continued to direct. “I want to see this. He’s standing on the third-base line. Hit one right along the first-base line. If he can cross the field . . . if he . . .”
The ball went high into right. Roger kept his eye on it as he ran. He ran so fast that one of the players said, “Look at that! Look at that!” and Roger arrived in right field in time to catch the ball.
They motioned for him to come in, and as Roger glided toward them along the first-base line, this time carrying the ball with him, Stengel turned to the team and said, “This is a whole new situation.”
Because of the many complications that ensued, Stengel knew it wasn’t a dream. Dreams are notable not for their complications but for their lack of them, which is not to say that they aren’t complicated. Precisely because it wasn’t a dream, everyone who had seen what had happened had to be bribed, threatened, begged, or cajoled into silence. This meant the Yankees themselves, including a few coaches and assistant managers, four groundskeepers, and a hot-dog-roll contractor who witnessed the remarkable events while wheeling in several thousand pounds of rolls. Stengel (who, as Berra said, was the smartest jerk who ever lived) enlisted those in the conspiracy not only with huge amounts of money but with roles to play. The hot-dog-roll man was retained at $5,000 per week to provide covert transportation for Roger in a hot-dog-roll truck. The groundskeepers were promised, if they kept mum, new lawns and new houses. The Yankees themselves had everything to win.
The problem of secrecy wasn’t overwhelming. The real trouble was that Roger would have to quit a week before Rosh HaShana, which meant he couldn’t play in the World Series. This was unbearable, and as the Yankees played—brilliantly, if losingly—against Kansas City that same afternoon, the conversation in Stengel’s office went as follows.
“You’ve got to play in the Series, Roger. You can have anything you want. What do you want? Money? Broads? A car? A trip to Israel?”
“I want the Yenkiss to win.”
“So do I, Roger. That’s why you’ve got to play in the Series.”
“Roger, this is important here, really important. Who exactly says that you can’t play in the Series?”
“I understand. You want to be a good guy. You want to be devout. You want to follow the rules. But God wouldn’t mind if you played in the Series. I’m sure many famous rabbis would uphold my statement.”
“He would mind, He told me.”
“What passage says that? We’ll get the best rabbis to look at it.”
“There’s no passage. He told me.”
“He told you directly?”
“I mean He actually . . . He . . . told you Himself? You spoke to Him?”
“I always speak to Him. But this time He came down to the roof.”
“Mr. Stengel”—which Roger pronounced “Sten-geleh”—“I weigh thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles. I’m two yumps tall. How do you think I hit the ball out of the house? Do you think I could do such a thing alone? Who do you think is in charge here? You? Me?”
Not only would Roger have to quit a week before Rosh HaShana, but because of study requirements and holidays he could play only in five games. Also, he had to have kosher food, and a place to live. Even had Roger been willing to accept money (Stengel foolishly told Mantle that the Yankees would have signed Roger for $10,000,000 a year—contingent on performance), the Yankees would have put him up in the presidential suite at the Carlyle anyway. As they didn’t even have to pay him, this was almost effortless. No one in the world, Stengel reasoned, would ever make the connection between Roger Reeves, the new rookie fresh out of the Carolinas or possibly Georgia (who knew?), and Winston Wilgis, a neurotic and reclusive rubber heir whose aides paid the hotel staff large amounts of cash to be discreet, and who was never seen and never left his room, although his adopted son, a hasidic teenager who sometimes wore a baseball uniform, came and went regularly in a hot-dog-roll truck that pulled up to the loading dock.
Roger had bodyguards—two huge couches in bulging suits and bowl-like haircuts, whose enormous Magnum revolvers were like giant swellings under their coats. They stood in front of his door whenever he was there, and checked the rabbis who brought carts of kosher pancakes and chocolate milkshakes for milk meals, and Bessarabian shish kebab and chopped-liver sandwiches for meat meals. They shook the Cel-Ray celery-tonic bottles to make sure they were not bombs (which, when Roger opened them, they were), and kept all maids and waiters in total ignorance of the occupant of the hotel’s best accommodations. Roger was rather alone.
The first night he was brought to the hotel, after ten hours of unwritten contract negotiations in which he was totally inflexible and got exactly what he wanted, he was tired. At his insistence they had stopped at a delicatessen at 100th Street and Broadway, where he ate like a cow and drank six bottles of Cel-Ray, his favorite drink in the world, that he had had only once before in his life, during a raucous and disorganized Simchas Torah when he had mistakenly grazed at the rabbis’ sweet table.
They popped him into the hotel room as if he had been in a hotel before, which he hadn’t, and there he was, in the presidential suite of the Carlyle, on the day that he had hit five balls out of Yankee Stadium, but luxury meant nothing to him, and this kind of glory little.
The furniture was so European that Louis XIV might not have noticed had he by some miracle been transported to the Carlyle from his own time and place. The carpets were soft and dense, the walls smooth and solid, everything clean and well lit, the colors bleeding into one another like wounded comrades in the French foreign legion. Roger wandered from room to room, but only in the living room did he fully realize what was happening, for there, as high above the earth as an airplane, huge banks of whistle-clean windows opened out on Manhattan, which roared and glowed, fading into the distance in never-ending avenues of a million flares, draped with necklaces of bridge lights, and banked high with massive buildings twinkling like starshine on a lake.
Someone else standing in the same place, a president perhaps, a tycoon, a movie star, or even a baseball player, might have felt a feeling of power and vindication. To be high and to see the world marked out below you in cool fire is, after all, the dream of angels, but Roger felt neither pride nor vindication. Instead, his heart swelled at the great expanse of lights and a blood-red pennant left in the sky by the setting sun. He had no thought of what he had accomplished or where he had come. Looking over the miraculous work that stood before him he saw no reflection or reminder of himself, but only the kind of high glory that rides from place to place and time to time on a shower of sparks.
June was hot, perfect, and strange. It started magnificently and was slowly transformed into the initial bakery days of summer, tolerable for their novelty, when the beaches are as hot and white as molten glass but the ocean is blue and numbingly cold. A day of prairie heat would surrender to a northern European evening with cool breezes veering off the Hudson and sailing down the avenues like Dutch sloops. Morning fogs as thick as cotton could burn off in a minute, leaving behind them a newly shining world. It was a gorgeous month, but its brilliances were a foil for many peculiar things.
For example, a Mr. Winston Wilgis, rubber heir and recluse, called the Hotel Carlyle front desk to ask for a complete set of the Babylonian Talmud and sixteen cases of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic on ice. The next day, he asked for deep-sea fishing equipment, and if you had been walking on the street below his suite and had had occasion to look up, you would have seen, at various times, tarpon lures, bagels, socks, and a banana flying with dampened grace ten feet above you, a pendulum suspended by semi-invisible line.
As much as he caused others puzzlement, Roger himself was puzzled. Worked with great skill into a fruitwood enclosure in the living room of his suite were two televisions and a high-fidelity radio. One television played in black and white, the other in experimental color. Neglecting these wonders on his first night, Roger awoke early the next morning and turned the knobs. He had never seen a television. At first, nothing happened, but then a white dot appeared in the center of the pudding-gray glass, soon to move and intensify like a supernova, and then, like the opening of an umbrella, to expand into what became a picture accompanied by a hardly bearable tone. The picture was of something that looked like a spiderweb, and had written in the corner, WPIX-TV, Channel 11. Utterly useless. The one in color was not much better, though it looked like a Herschel Trixie, the only abstract artist Roger had thought he had heard of, though he had actually not heard of any.
The radio played more than just one station, and because no liver-filled refrigerator case interfered, you could turn it on or off whenever you wanted. The quality of its sound far exceeded that of the butcher’s radio, and the first time Roger turned it on the most extraordinary music filled the room, music such as he had never heard. He listened in wonderment as someone sang a lyric that sounded like, A wop bopa loobop a pop pop pop, a hop poppa loopa, a wop bop pop, and so on, with a pace and excitement that, though entirely foreign, seized him and made him dance around the room in abandon. Not even a Memphis lounge lizard could have done a better number, or swiveled his hips, bit his lips, and raised his cheeks until his eyes were slits, than did Roger, who, when the song ended and was replaced by a jingle that went, Brusha brusha brusha, new Ipana toothpaste, healthy for your tee-eeth!, stopped dead in delight.
Roger was not the only one that June to be astonished as both the sports and rabbinical worlds were thrown off balance by inexplicable changes to the New York Yankees. The only plausible explanation, that the Yankees wanted to draw new fans from the perhaps-underrepresented Orthodox Jewish community, was fairly unsatisfactory in that it did not actually explain the extraordinary measures. First came the announcement that all hot dogs sold at the stadium would be kosher. They were mainly kosher anyway. Then the revelation that on “ice-cream days” (a new term in baseball), hot dogs would not be served, and vice-versa. This caused quite a stir.
At the press conference called to announce the food plans a reporter asked Stengel if and when peanuts would be available. “I’m told that peanuts are parve, and will be available at all times,” he answered. Most of the reporters thought that “parve” was a Stengel word (perhaps picked up from Berra, who was always inventing new ways to say things) that was the equivalent of the beatnik “cool,” or the now dated “swell.” This quickly infiltrated the sports press, and announcers began to talk about “the really parve double-header,” in Baltimore, or Y.A. Tittle’s “parve new contract.”
The nation became aware that now before every game in Yankee Stadium the stands echoed with Hebrew prayers, and that hasidic rabbis stood behind the umpires at each of their positions. Disputes that had once taken seconds or minutes now sometimes took hours, with boys in black running to and fro to fetch or return leather-covered tomes for support. Stengel began to pronounce his own name with an “eh” at the end, and no longer referred to his team as the Yankees but as the Yenkiss, with the last syllable pronounced as in the last syllables of “hocus pocus.”
Speculation was that all of this was an inexplicable commercial strategy of the management, and as long as people credited the theory the inexplicable seemed explicable. Even when the team refused to play on Saturdays, everyone thought it was simply a disastrously stupid move somehow designed to increase attendance. But the changes were not solely the work of management. Some of the players now wore what everyone in New York called yamakas, a strangely Japanese way of referring to what Roger called kippehs, or, in the singular, a kippeh. When the press finally got up enough nerve to ask Eustis Jackson Jr., the second baseman, why he was wearing such a thing, he said, with some heat, “I’m a colored man, this is a free country, and I can do what I want.”
When Berra was asked, he responded with a long and phenomenally disjointed essay about freedom of speech, the free-enterprise system, and his ancestors. What did that have to do with his wearing of a yamaka? With a twinkle in his eyes that the press never saw, he said, “They would, had they could, because the least obvious reward for labor is hard work.” But that was not the end of the encounter.
“Hey, Yogi,” a reporter said. “What are those threads, those, uh, fringes, sticking out of your pants?”
Yogi tucked them in, saying, “Frayed threads. It happens when it’s washed a lot.”
“Yogi,” they asked. “What is all this stuff, suddenly?”
“All this Jewish stuff.”
“What Jewish stuff?”
“You know, kosher stadium food, Hebrew prayers, rabbis behind the umps, yamakas, fringes. What’s going on?”
“Jewish stuff?” Yogi asked. “As Eustis said, it’s a free country, right? Look, guys, when you have a choice, there’s only one way to go.”
They accepted this, and went on. “But closing on Saturday is nuts. Aren’t you worried about attendance?”
Berra laughed. “Just be there for the game against Kansas City.”
The rematch against Kansas City was also a home game, as the A’s played solely away games that June because their field had been invaded by locusts. In New York at the end of the month it was hot and nearly everyone was either at work or at the beach. That the stands were half-full might have been worrisome to management as a sign that the Yankees had lost their touch, but they were worried only about Roger.
Roger was fine, had kept up his extraordinary record in numerous practices (although, to keep the strategy secret, he hit balls out of the stadium only in the dark), and assured them that the presence of a crowd and the press would have no effect on what he could do. But they had seen too many confident rookies turn to swamp mush at the roar of the crowd to be reassured, and they breathed apprehensively all through June, especially Stengeleh, who thought that perhaps he was having an epic dream.
Just striving to imitate Roger had made the Yankees hit better, run faster, and throw harder. They were losing by lesser margins, and although no one expected them to get to the Series, there was hope that they might hold their own enough to come back the next year. In fact, the sportswriters hoped for the agonizing comeback that would give them a great theme for the rest of the season. In the bottom of the ninth inning in the Thursday game against the A’s, the score was Kansas City 3, New York 0, which wasn’t so bad, and might be good for stimulating eight-hundred words of drivel about a Yankee revival. The radio announcers, however, were used to filling dead air in any circumstance, albeit with a languor that would have been the envy of Oblomov. No matter what, they would broadcast their perfectly timed descriptions in wonderful baseball-afternoon bursts.
Thus, Red and Mel—Red from Alabama, and Mel from Alabama, Red thin and Mel stocky, Red red-haired and Mel blue-black, Red high-strung and aristocratic and Mel what you might call a garage guy, Red a prima donna and Mel a prima donna, and both as comfortable to American ears as the sound of the lines whipping against a flagpole on a windy day. Red was looking forward to catching the train up to Briarcliff, and Mel was going to dinner that night with a broad. They thought the game was more or less over. So, apparently, did a lot of other people, who were headed to the subway and the parking lots. The voices of the announcers, arrowing over the air, conveyed a yearning for scotch on the 5:06 as the sun beat off the brackish Hudson, and the anticipation of the relaxed clink of glasses and ice at “21.”
After some light opera in service of Rheingold Beer, Mel summarized: “Yankees versus the A’s, Yankee Stadium, bottom of the ninth.” The word ninth had an upward intonation, like a rising pheasant. “A’s three, Yankees nothing, Koswick on third, Miller on second, two outs.”
“Folks,” said Red, “there are two outs, and Mantle is up. Or will be . . . in a second. What do you say, Mel?”
“It’s pretty clear, Red. Mantle has to go for a homer, and Zelinka has gotta walk him.”
“And strike the next batter out. . . . There’s potential drama here, Mel. Mantle has been hitting well.”
“You’re right, Red. If he hits now the way he’s been hitting in practice, the Yanks may have a chance today.”
“I know what you’re gonna say is strange, Mel,” Red interrupted.
“You’ve seen it, too?”
“I have. He’ll hit one into the bleachers, and you’ll see a pained expression on his face, as if that’s just not good enough.”
“That’s what makes a champion, Red. Never satisfied.”
“Okay, Mantle is up. Zelinka can’t take the chance. He’s gotta walk him.”
“There’s Mick. He brushes the dust off his left leg. A few practice swings.”
“He looks intent. He’s gotta hit for the bleachers. Look, people have stopped leaving the stadium. They’re poised at the ramps, their feet toward the exits, their bodies twisted so they can look over their shoulders at the field.”
“I’ll tell you, Mel, I would not walk out of this ballpark if Mickey Mantle was up at bat, or, if I did, I’d stop just like these folks.”
“The pitch,” said Mel. “Ball one. So far on the outside that maybe it was for the Dodgers.”
Red added, “Some people are booing Zelinka.”
“Zelinka doesn’t care. The game could ride on this. He can’t let Mantle drive in three runs and go to dangerous extra innings.”
“Zelinka hasn’t fared well against Mantle in the past. He knows. . . . He winds up . . . the pitch.”
The pitch was a slow boat to the outside, so far to the outside that it had to be slow to give the catcher time to get to it. But that was not something to be taken for granted, as the pitcher and the catcher had. Most uncharacteristically, Mantle ran after the ball.
“He’s running!” the announcers shouted. “He bunts! Oh boy! He’s halfway to first already, and there’s no one there to pick up the ball!”
Koswick, the runner on third, started toward home but the third-base coach called him back. “I coulda made it!” Koswick said. The coach just looked away, as did the rabbi behind him. Meanwhile, the catcher went for the ball and found himself in the middle of the infield while Zelinka rushed in to cover the plate. The catcher frantically threw the ball to Zelinka, who almost didn’t catch it, and, when he did, stood on the plate in a state of shock, looking out at bases loaded and knowing that his options were getting fairly narrow. As he returned to the mound, the fans at the exits went back to their seats.
The radio announcers forgot what they had been thinking of, because here was what they lived for. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three nothing, two outs. Of course they and everyone else hoped the next batter up would go to a three-two count, the ultimate precipice of baseball, but even without that, what they had was good enough. A home run would win the game, a triple would tie it, a double would put the Yankees one down, a single or a walk two down. They were still alive, and no one knew what would happen.
“Morgan is up next, Red. With his batting average . . .”
“The only question, Mel, is who will be the pinch hitter.”
There was a delay, during which an argument in the Yankee dugout was overshadowed by the inevitable Kansas City conference with Zelinka, which was very animated.
The announcers commented on the pressure, and set the scene for their audience across the nation. “It’s been a really hot day in New York. The first subways, windows open, are rolling past, taking home those lucky enough to have gotten off work early. A shadow has just begun to move across the field, and although it’s an ice-cream day in the stadium, you can smell hot dogs and hamburgers cooking in the restaurants beyond the fence. The question remains, ladies and gentlemen, who will hit for Morgan? Mantle’s not moving from first. It was a strange thing to see him bunt.”
Then, over the radio, in every town and minuscule junction in America, from Caribou to the Everglades, Norfolk to San Francisco, came the following question: “Reeves? Who’s Reeves?”
The sound of paper being shuffled was heard across the nation as Red and Mel pulled out the back pages of the roster.
“Roger Reeves,” said Mel. “A rookie out of Georgia. His first day in the majors. This is unbelievable, Red.”
“It sure is, Mel. I’ve never seen it . . . in all my life. Reeves has never played before a crowd this large, never faced a pitcher like Zelinka. The Yankees . . . well, something’s come over the Yankees.”
Mel had been reading. “He’s only eighteen years old,” he said, astonished. “He played for half a season. On a team called the Milledgeville Crab Legs. That has since been disbanded.”
Red hushed down into his portentous voice. “All I can say, Mel, is that I’ll bet this boy is seven feet tall and weights two-hundred-fifty pounds.”
“Southern boys are short, Red.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they’re short and light. Look at you.”
“A lotta colored boys are Southern boys, and they’re big, Mel.”
“Yeah, Red, but this is a white boy.”
“How do you know?”
“Because there he is.”
Roger walked onto the field, with the crowd primed for the most generous cheer of their lives, but the cheer was drowned in shock.
He was not even five-and-a-half feet tall, he was so gangly that it seemed he could not have weighed much more than a hundred pounds, and his quaquaversal gait and quaquaversal eyes made him look like someone who might indeed have been on a team called the Milledgeville Crab Legs. As a physical specimen, he was easier to associate with a hospital than a major-league baseball team. Even from far away you could see how thick his glasses were, how white and delicate his hands. The baseball cap capped his head like a mixing bowl, but did not stem the wild flow of peyess.
“You know he’s from the South,” Mel said, “because he’s got those Johnny Reb sideburns. But he’s so small. Why is that, Red? Why are people in the South so small?”
“Yes they are. What is it, nutrition? The Civil War?”
“Yes they are. Look at Reeves.”
“I think Reeves will acquit himself well,” Red offered, “no matter what the impression you have of him.” As far away as the docks of Galveston, they could tell over the radio that Red would have killed Mel but for the fact that a baseball game intervened. It was strange, in that both were from Alabama.
Roger took his position and raised his head to look at the huge stadium, now completely silent and still, with tens of thousands of people looking back at him. He looked left, and there was Zelinka, three times his size, smiling with contempt. Even the rather large Orthodox contingent in the right-field stands was quiet. They knew in their bones that Roger Reeves of the Milledgeville Crab Legs was one of them, and their overwhelming emotion was fear that he would be the reason for the defeat of this otherwise invincible Gentile team (they were somewhat behind the times), and that this might result in a pogrom.
Zelinka decided to drive a fastball right down the middle, square in the center of the batting picture. He had done this many a time before to rookies, who always had swung after the ball was in the catcher’s mitt. When pitched without complication, his fastball was so fast that no inexperienced player would ever be able to connect with it. And given Reeves’s size and weight, even if he did it was possible that the force of the ball would push the bat back rather than vice-versa. In the few cases of this that Zelinka had seen, the batter was shocked to find himself, absent his own volition, back in the ready position. The only drawback was that such balls veered up or down, and sometimes bounced off the catcher and rolled into play without anyone realizing that the batter hadn’t hit them. It didn’t matter. Zelinka wanted to make every pitch to Reeves a recoilless rifle shot. He was enraged that they would put such a batter up against him, and wanted to make the ball smoke on its way in.
The stadium was like an ocean of angry rabbis. The whole world at that moment seemed to depend on Roger, and he had no confidence that he could hit a baseball, much less one thrown by an enraged major-league pitcher, much less send it out of the stadium and thus make in the world of baseball an explosion like that of a hydrogen bomb. Roger could not even see the ball. He had no illusions. What was he? Nothing. He was, as both Gentile and non-religious Jewish children of the era called each other in derision, a “spastic.” True, he could run, and his reflexes were live wires, but, from hitting? Jews couldn’t hit, never could. Their job in the mystery of things was to take on the kidney a baseball thrown by a tall Irishman or a giant Pole like Zelinka—people who were not afraid to punch, or jump off a waterfall, or ride a bicycle on a rope stretched between the Woolworth and Municipal buildings.
It didn’t matter. Not only that, but what no one ever knew or could know was that, after the pitch, Roger always closed his eyes. It was then that he felt the arms, fluttering and feathered, golden and shiny, reach from behind him and slowly, viscously, take hold of his hands on the bat. The joy that this brought him, knowing that it was not he that held the bat, but an angel, made him float. No one ever looked at a batter’s feet at the swing, but had anyone peered stereoscopically at the photographs of record, he would have seen that Roger’s feet were held a quarter of an inch off the ground. He floated, and was happy. An angel supported him in his arms and gently held the bat, and, with eyes closed, Roger would swing with the angel.
He felt that, even were he betrayed, even were he to be abandoned, even were he to be humiliated in front of tens of thousands of Gentiles, it would be enough that he had had so intimate a discovery of so unpredictable a God. It would be enough that he had been promised, even were the promise not kept. It would be enough that in the House of Ruth, he had been clasped by an angel’s wings and raised from the ground.
“The pitch!” Mel and Red said to the nation simultaneously.
Even with eyes closed, Roger could see the ball coming in, as white as the foam of a tidal wave, moving like a cannon shell, a piston, or a comet, with a power that made the air around it roar. Then this ball slowed most graciously into an almost rhythmical stillness. It glowed, pulsed, and seemed to grow to the size of the moon, and then dutifully stopped one foot in front of home plate, with glistenings, luminous rings, showers of ice, pinwheels of diamonds, and leaping sparks spinning from it. “Hit me!” it shouted, in the visible language of stopped and floating baseballs. “Hit me!”
Feathers pressed in unison against the limitlessly powerful wing, and the bat moved like a jet as the wings grew taut to slow it lest the ball be hit too hard, and when the two connected, the ball fled like a cat on fire. It went just slowly enough so that everyone in the stadium could track the flame, and track it they did, up at the angle of a useless fly, but so far up that its trajectory seemed aimed at the huge daylight moon loitering impudently above the Bronx.
Thirty thousand people dared not breathe. Their heads lifted and their eyes opened to the maximum as the ball flew from the stadium, clearing the flagpole by six-hundred feet, headed perhaps to Africa or Rio de Janeiro, over Orchard Beach. And as everyone followed it, Roger began to walk quietly toward first.
As the Yankee runs came in, the crowd grew hysterical on account of the frail unknown Yankee who brought up the rear and ran from third to home with uncanny spastic grace to win the game for the Yankees by one run, the only one of its kind in history. In the stands the Gentiles shook the pillars of the world with their shouts, and the Jews prayed silently, thankful to have been spared.
Someone brought champagne to the locker room, and it was spilled wastefully over everyone. They picked up Roger and, dancing between the benches, carried him from place to place. One of the team held the bat and kissed it; then he elevated it above his head and marched around in triumph. They chanted in unison: “Ro-ger! Ro-ger! Ro-ger!”
Roger squiggled out of their grip and slid to the floor. “No!” he said, retrieving the airborne bat. “No!”
“No?” they asked.
“No,” he said, pausing to regain his breath. He held the bat out in front of him on display. “This is the bat of God,” he told them.
“The bat of God,” they repeated in awe.
“No!” he said again.
“It isn’t?” they asked.
“Is it,” they asked, “or isn’t it?”
“It is,” he confirmed, “but you may not worship it.”
“Why not?” Berra asked. “God! It’s the bat of God!”
“Yes,” said Roger, “but you can’t. If you worship it, you are worshipping only a thing that He made. He didn’t even make it, He caused it to be made.”
“He made everything, so if you worship only one of those things, or any of them, or all of them, you are worshipping your own choice, and thus you are worshipping yourselves, which you must not do.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do with the bat of God?” Mantle asked.
“Treat it,” Roger said, remembering a song he had heard on the radio, “like a lady.”
As the Yankees tried to assimilate this, everything was frozen, and amid the stillness, the doors of the locker room began to stretch inward with wavelike changes of pressure against them in advance of the sports press, which no force in the world could stop.
“Quick, Roger,” Mantle said, “jump in the laundry cart.”
Roger flew into a wheeled canvas hamper, and the Yankees covered him with towels. Then the doors burst open and what seemed like a thousand men with tickets in the brims of their gray hats flooded in like the tides of Fundy.
“Roger! Where’s Roger Reeves!” they screamed.
“Who?” the Yankees asked.
The great crush of press was driven into a kind of seizure, which the Yankees much enjoyed. “Roger Reeves! He’s a legend! He hit a ball . . .”
“Yes?” Mantle asked.
“He hit a ball . . .” the reporter repeated, sweeping his left arm across an imaginary horizon, “out of the . . . out of the . . .”
“He went home for the weekend,” Berra said. “He wants to spend the weekend with the former Crab Legs.”
“In Milledgeville?” they asked.
“Yup,” Berra said.
The wave that had burst in now evacuated with a sucking sound of withdrawn air, and the rest was silence. Roger popped up from the towels like a chick breaking out of an egg, and said, “I’ve got to get back to the hotel; I’m way behind in Mishnah.”
“If this is a dream,” Berra said, “then let it be your wishbone.”
Roger refused to play away games, not only because of the difficulty in getting kosher food (which, like kosher food itself, was surmountable), but because he wanted to hit balls out of Yankee Stadium each time he was up at bat. He suggested, and Stengeleh agreed, that this might be good for the Yankees. The whole country was already in a fever, the press had ravaged Milledgeville and come up with not even one former Crab Leg, and the greater the mystery the more people wanted to know. There was no Roger Reeves in Milledgeville. Never had been. No one knew him. Who was he? Was he a robot? Had Roger Reeves shown up in public, anywhere, he would have been torn apart by gushing hands, but Roger Reveshze was free to walk about, entirely ignored.
As the fervor built, the Yankees played at Cincinnati and Roger rested for a Thursday game against Chicago. Every seat in Yankee Stadium was sold, and scalpers were disposing of tickets for a premium of one-thousand percent. The front pages of the tabloids for that entire week would be devoted to Roger: Who Is Yankee Miracle Boy?; Reeves to Field Thursday; Never Again?; Stengel Says, “Watch!”; Reeves Unknown in Milledgeville; and so on. Pictures of his face, many times enlarged, like photographs of the moon, appeared in the newspapers. Television ran slow- and stop-motion films of him again and again. Industries were born putting his name on mugs and cards, though not his image, for which they needed his permission, and would have paid dearly had they been able to receive it. The President was asked about him at his news conference, prompting the normally good-natured general to snap, “How the hell do I know? He’s not a secret program. He doesn’t work for the government. Why are you asking me?”
Such fame, even pseudonymously, might have worked upon anyone other than someone who had received as the answer to his prayer the embrace of an angel. This coursed through Roger’s veins like life itself. It put the world in a very clear light, even literally, illuminating in the texts Roger studied, for example, each Hebrew letter as if it were caught from every angle by miniature suns shining on it like spotlights. This gave the letters depth, and never had the texts themselves seemed so profound, brilliant, and beautiful. He was astounded to discover that these readings, which normally were only words, were now accompanied by music. The letters and words on the page, formerly black and black-gray, now shone like bright sun on burnished brass.
Though Roger had not seen the angel, he had felt its embrace and sensed a coolly burning orb. He guessed that this would be surrounded by souls of similar perfection gliding gracefully and unseen throughout their days.
The White Sox were a repulsive bunch of taciturn midgets whose throwing arms seemed attached to stolid blocks of steel. Whereas most pitchers were like supple human flyrods, the Sox were like trench mortars or doughnut machines. They never looked anyone in the eye, they had flat heads, and although they did everything to win, as long as they belched forward like steam shovels they really didn’t care if they won or lost, which was lucky for them, because, after Roger took to the field and single-handedly prevented a single ball from touching the grass, they had to decharter their airplane and go home on a bus. The final score for this, Roger’s second game, was Chicago nothing, Yankees 147.
The Yankees were regretful but too stunned by the whole situation not to accept that Roger would play only three more games. Sure to lose him, they yearned to know how he did it, so Stengel gingerly asked if he would hold a clinic for the rest of the team.
“A clinic?” Roger asked.
“A baseball clinic,” Stengel said. “You know, teach them how to hit, how to field, how to run. You’re only going to play three more games, and we thought, well, it’d be great if you could leave behind some of what you brought. We’re doing okay now—I mean, look at the score against Chicago—but you never know. The way we were going this year, before you came. . . . We could lose it.” He laughed nervously, not daring to bring up money, which he knew Roger would refuse.
“I don’t know from baseball,” said Roger, “not a thing.”
Stengel bowed his head. “Really,” he said, in awe.
“Then how did you . . . how did you . . .”
“That?” Roger asked.
“Yes, Roger,” Stengel said politely, “that.”
“I could tell them what I do know.”
Stengel looked at Roger, who was illuminated in fading reddish-brown light. He was less than half Stengel’s size. He didn’t know the rules of baseball, much less the subtleties. By rights and the laws of physics he should not have been able, even had he connected with the ball, to have hit it beyond the diamond. A child of his size and underdevelopment would not be able to throw the ball from home to second, much less leap twenty feet in the air (as he had done in the Sox game) and then get the ball off on a flat trajectory to burn into the catcher’s mitt at home plate before the thrower was back on the ground. “Yes,” said Stengel, “tell us what you do know.”
“Okay,” said Roger, “but I’m telling you, I don’t know anything.”
That was not quite true. He had begun to think about the game. For example, he liked very much that the ball was an object descending from heaven, and he thought of it, therefore, not as an object to be captured for the glory of the captor but as a gracious gift that brought with it in train a bit of the loveliness of the sky.
For the seminar, the Yankees went to their secret practice field at Lake Honkus, near Mohonk, in the Shawangunks. The Yankees had bought a secluded estate and set up a baseball field on what had been a cow pasture, where they could practice in secret their surprise plays and coded signals. The lodge where they stayed was filled with wrought iron, Indian blankets, and buffalo heads. In fact, in Roger’s room, he and a moose had a staring contest for at least an hour.
The next morning, Roger and the Yankees put away a huge breakfast, during which Roger discovered that the maple syrup the Yankees used on their pancakes was kosher, and made an interesting sauce for pickled herring. Then they went outside and sat on benches facing a portable blackboard. The weather was wonderfully cool and clear at Lake Honkus. Stengel brought Roger up to the front, stood him next to the blackboard, gave him a piece of chalk, and said, “Kid, we’re totally secure.”
Roger looked at the Yankees, who looked at him expectantly. What could he possibly say that would enable them to hit a ball out of the park or jump twenty feet in the air?
“From baseball I know nothing,” he began, “but what’s a lock?”
“What’s a lock?” Mantle echoed.
“You mean like a lock on a door,” Larsen asked, “or a lock in a canal?”
“Both,” said Roger.
“A door lock is a metal thing with a lot of really smart junk in it,” Berra said.
“Okay,” said Roger, “and the lock of a canal?”
“A chamber for raising and lowering boats, with water from the river or canal to run it.”
“Yes,” said Roger.
Time passed. The Yankees stared at Roger. More time passed. Then Roger said, “Both illustrate the mechanism of the world.”
The Yankees inched forward. No clinic had ever begun like this.
“God is perfect,” Roger said. “His creation is perfect. It doesn’t seem so to us—we who suffer and die, who must live with sadness and terror—because we can’t see it in its entirety. If we could, we would see that it is in perfect balance. The counterweight for which we long—to right wrongs and correct injustices—is sometimes far away from us in space, time, or both. But, taken as a whole, from far enough afield, all is in balance, all is just.
“Good. What does this have to do with baseball and locks? As set out in the teachings of Rabbi Pepper of Biloxi and Rabbi Goldfinch of Barnevelt, the modern-day disciples of Rabbi Yoel ben Isaac of Zamosc and his grandson Rabbi Yoel ben Uri (whose last names I will not say), each a baal shem, and their descendants, et cetera, in God’s eyes, in fact, and in truth, all souls, absent the deficit of sin, are equal. For example, a wise and brilliant king has no higher rank in the view of the Almighty than a beggar who has not even the comprehension to speak his own name. At the final judgment, both souls can glow equally in the same circle of continuous light.”
The Yankees nodded slightly. They understood; they had all deeply loved those who were far from perfect.
“Okay,” said Roger. “So here is the question that Yoel ben Isaac put forth and Yoel ben Uri answered. If these souls occupy the same level at the end, equally beloved of God, and if God’s creation is perfect, how can an imbalance exist in their lives on earth? How can one suffer all the miseries of this life, and the other know all the glories, if in the end every account is to be reconciled and they come to the same reward? In a perfect universe, how can such a shortfall exist? How can God allow it?”
Not even the entire Yankee lineup could answer this question, though they strained to do so. Roger again challenged them. “Tell me, how can God allow it? Do you know?” He surveyed them. They didn’t. “I’ll tell you, then. It’s simple. He doesn’t. What is equal in the end is equal also in the beginning and in the middle. There is no deficit even on this earth, even in the smallest picture, the tightest section of view. But how can this be? The king and the beggar live vastly different lives. Ah! That’s what you think. That’s what may be apparent. But it isn’t true. Why? Because,” he said to the Yankees, their eyes unblinking, “the mechanism of creation is like a lock.”
The Yankees waited. How was it like a lock, both kinds?
“Both kinds. The metal lock has a cylinder that, for the door to open, must turn. This cylinder has a row of holes drilled in it, in which rest pins. In the barrel inside of which the cylinder turns and is encased, is a line of holes spaced exactly like their counterparts in the cylinder, with its own set of pins. In the locked position, the pins from the barrel fall into the holes in the cylinder and prevent it from turning, because they cross and block the interface. When the key is put in, it raises the pins exactly to the points—at a different level in each hole—where the barrel pins are above the line and the cylinder pins are below it. If all the pins were raised indiscriminately, sometimes the cylinder pins would block the interface, and sometimes the barrel pins would. If they were not raised at all, the barrel pins would block the interface and, thus, the rotation. To allow the turning, each pin must be raised according to what it requires. Some are raised more, some less, which is why the key is jagged. In the end, its unevenness makes a perfect equality that allows the lock to open.
“And a lock that lifts or lowers a boat is a mechanism that gets its power from the urge of all water to find its own level. Only that way can things flow, rivers run, and the world function—when the disparate forces of the universe are conjoined, and rest easy in an equality of perfection. Every force that exists is held in balance by a counterpart with which it must be united, and with which it is united, even if the connection be not apparent to us.
“Like the pins in a lock, the beggar and the king are lifted by God variously and invisibly, but equally, even in this world, so that the perfection will not be broken, for, by definition, the perfection cannot be broken. They ride unseen waves and are held aloft by unseen supports. Were they not so lifted, the world would not work.
“Only those who have suffered can know the strength of the compensation they acquire. The emissary that comes to them is all-embracing, and though some may deny or mock this, it is many times more real than the world itself, for next to this working of perfection the world itself seems only a tinsel of the imagination. God compensates even in this world. He must. He does. And the reception of His compensation, like a quantity of physics, is the certain though insubstantial thing we call holiness. Those who would deny it would do so simply from lack of having received it. Perhaps the king, gifted in other ways, has no knowledge of holiness, while for the beggar with no gifts, it is overflowing. You may wonder what this has to do with baseball.”
“It seems clear to me,” he said, as a breeze brought resinous air from a thick pine forest that bordered the practice field as evenly as a crewcut. “I have been able to do what I did because my arm was guided, my strength supplied, my speed achieved, by the ever-present will of God for balance and perfection. Perhaps a Phoenician ship listed too much to port, thousands of years ago; or it was too cloudy, for too long, over a glacier in the Himalayas; or a woman’s heart was broken for a day by her suitor in Montana. I don’t know. I do know that it is important to know that such balances exist, and that, if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t have the heart to continue.”
“Can we hook into this stuff?” Berra asked.
“Not if all you want to do is win games,” Roger answered.
“But wait a minute,” Berra demanded. “Let’s say someone cheated in chinese checkers a thousand years ago in Peru. If I could hook into that, I could run twenty feet back to the plate even though Zelinka is just an inch from it, and put him out, right?”
“No,” said Roger. “It doesn’t necessarily work that way, and God is not fond of games.”
“Games can become, because of their closed set of rules, an independent universe, a distraction from the seeking of perfection. If they are taken as a universe in themselves, what a meager universe that is. This offends God, who worked for six whole days to make the universe we have. Can you imagine what would come of the work of an omnipotent being for six whole days? What is the infinity of detail, the infinity of extent, the infinity of connectedness, and the infinity of surprise, times six?”
“It doesn’t apply to baseball?” Stengel asked, not quite sure of exactly what it was.
“If your object is merely to play baseball, it doesn’t.”
“What’s your object, then, Roger?” Mantle asked.
“Because of the imperfection I have seen, I live for the hope of restoration. That’s all I live for, even if it be a sin.”
“What imperfection?” Stengel asked.
Roger’s expression was incomprehensible to the Yankees as anything but some sort of nervous ailment, because boys his age who are not afflicted with a crippling disease do not show on their faces the pain of old men. “I was born during the war,” he said, to answer the question, “in a place called Majdanek. I knew nothing else. The physical privation of this place, the terror of the selections and the frequent killing of people around me, seemed natural. Until I was three, I existed in the aura of my parents’ love. I don’t know what they did to keep us alive, but I know that whatever it was it was done for me. I stop abruptly when I begin to imagine what they must have suffered, especially my mother. For this I pray with love and gratitude, every day. I wish it were they who had lived and I who had died, although that would have taken from them what they wanted most.
“Just before the liberation, when I was three, we were marched out and made to stand at the edge of a pit. In the pit were thousands of bodies. Bulldozers had compressed and shaped them. They were as white as snow, and beneath them was a lake of blood. Even among the crushed forms and severed limbs, some people remained alive, though not for long.
“My mother and father told me that they loved me. They tried to shield me with their bodies. When the firing began, the force of the machine-gun bullets caught them and the other adults and they were hurled into the pit as if a wind had blown them away. The firing had been over the heads of the children, who stood on the rim untouched and unable to move. The guns were not lowered, because bullets were scarce.
“A soldier came by and picked me up by both ankles. My head hit the ground, and then he swung me around like an ice skater swinging his partner. I remember the blood rushing to my head, and the world blurring into blue and white. Even as I was twirled, the soldiers were laughing. After I was released, for a moment, I flew. Undoubtedly, I passed over my mother and father, and though I thought I was going to fly forever, I fell into the center of the pit, face-to-face with a dead woman upon whom I had fallen, whose mouth was open.
“I thought I was dead, too, until the bulldozers drove over us. The sound of bones breaking was like the sound of burning kindling. Many times, the bulldozer drove right over me, but though I was too frightened to move, I found myself each time between the treads. Then I was caught in a wave of tumbling bodies that, pushed by the blade, washed up at the edge. The bulldozer no longer came near me. I lay quietly as it worked, and then slept.
“After nightfall, I was awakened as I was wetted with gasoline. Choking on it, I climbed over the rim and walked into the darkness. I thought that this was death and that I was dead, but when I looked back and saw the huge blaze of the fire in which my mother and father were burning, I knew that I was still alive. I knew the difference. I wanted to die, I wanted very much to die, but, not knowing how, I lived.
“That is the imperfection I have seen,” he said, “and all I want from the world is some indication or sign that, forward in time, or where time does not exist, there is a justice and a beauty that will leap back to lift the ones I love from the kind of grave they were given.”
The poor Orioles. They had no idea what was going to happen to them when the Yankees took the field in Roger’s third game. Though they knew to be concerned with Roger himself, they had closely studied the first two of his games and saw hope in the fact that in these the other Yankees had played only marginally better. If they could isolate Roger, the rest of the Yankees would still be the Yankees Brooklyn had beaten in the Series the year before. Their rivals in the Bronx, they thought, still lacked focus.
But when the Yankees returned to the Bronx from Lake Honkus they did have focus, albeit of an unusual sort. They appeared to be bent on a certain kind of vengeance that was entirely alien to and had never been seen in baseball. True, baseball had its fierce moments, and sometimes teams were arrogantly knit together into bands of primitive warriors who pressed their case in a way that knocked the wind out of their fans. When the outfielder Whitey Koski was deliberately struck in the head, or so it seemed, by the pitcher Chick Perkasky, so concentrated and angry were Koski’s teammates that they burned up the rest of the game. With home run after home run, and fielded balls thrown back with the force of cannon fire, they astonished the spectators, of whom they had become totally unaware. When Doug Little and Kevin Small, two Giants, were attacked by drunks hurling coconuts during an exhibition game in Sarasota, the Giants came alight with heavy hitting and flame-thrower pitching. For two weeks they beat every team they played, and then, when their anger dissipated, they returned to their losing streak.
Such things were expected of teams whose players had been struck by fastballs or kneed when sliding, but why the Yankees? The Yankees were in the midst of the most spectacular rise baseball had ever seen. Why would they be angry? Why would they be grim? No one had suffered indignity or abuse. If anything, they could be expected to be sheepish and self-conscious about their inexplicable good fortune and the fact that now they all had Cadillacs.
This is, anyway, what the Orioles had been counting on. Nonetheless, the Orioles saw out on the green lawn the faces not of baseball players but of soldiers. When he didn’t smile, Berra looked even more like a turtle, and he refused to be engaging. The Oriole batters felt pure concentration emanating from him as he crouched at the limit of their peripheral vision. Mantle looked no longer like a farm boy but rather like the ruthless head of a giant steel corporation. The boyishness in his eyes had disappeared and been replaced by a metallic coldness. Larsen didn’t bother to touch the brim of his hat or adjust anything before his pitches, each of which seemed designed to break Berra’s wrists. All the Yankees—except Roger, who remained mild (because the world into which they had just entered, and in which they would stay for only a short time, was his forever)—had an intense impatience that changed their timing to something such as no one had seen.
Baseball is like a clock, in that its wheels turn at different speeds and all its moves require waiting. Eventually, everything pops at once: the detents lift, springs decompress, arms rise, and hammers strike twelve times, even if only twice a day. Most of the time, however, is spent waiting for one wheel to align with another. So it is with baseball and its glorious pauses, which cannot be rushed and which even the announcers mimic with genius. Were the empty spaces to be compressed or done away with, the game would die.
Driven by emotion, the Yankees played a game with few spaces, little hesitation, and no rest. To describe just a small part of the Orioles’ nightmare, which took place within the span of a hot-dog transaction, Larsen pitched without a warm-up, firing the ball across the plate at a hundred miles an hour. The batter swung late, and before he was finished with his swing Berra had thrown the ball back to Larsen as fast as a pitch. Immediately after the ball ploughed into Larsen’s glove, he pitched it, and the batter, who had barely taken up position, swung again. This was repeated, and, within twenty-three seconds of the first pitch, the batter was out and gone.
When the next Oriole hit a fly to third, Rocky Babis, a new guy covering the base, harvested it and instantaneously rammed it across the diamond to first, where the Oriole Brutus Evans was tagged before he got back to base, making three outs. At the instant Evans was tagged, the Yankees sprinted in, and the next Yankee up stood impatiently at the plate before the Orioles were even out of their dugout, which, not surprisingly, gave the Orioles an incurable case of the heebie-jeebies.
The Daily News now referred to the Yankees as “the Invincible Engine.” Although Larsen was not pitching perfect games, his pitching was astoundingly quick and deadly. As a team, New York had become the model of a grim and efficient army that fights an unspeakable enemy and is reconciled and devoted to its tasks. Roger’s last three games and quite a few afterward were played not as games but as tributes. The Yankees no longer cared about their standing in the league or their chances for the pennant or in the Series. They did not care about their salaries and bonuses. They did not care that children ran up to them in the streets and women watched glowingly as they passed. They did not even care about winning: winning, for them, became joyless. They wanted only to play to perfection and to rush it on, as symbol and sign, to speak directly to God, and to face like men the fact of evil and sorrow in the world.
And they played so beautifully, so well, and so apparently with something higher in mind, that the announcers really did not know what to say—except that they would always remember, and that something had turned that summer to gold.
Roger’s last game was in late September, on the dry cloudless day that confirmed to all that summer was finally over. October would bring some heat now and then, but this was the signal that New York’s bejeweled fall had begun, when sharp shadows brought depth and reflection, and because of the declination of the light the rivers looked their bluest. Sounds, too, were sharper, and better sustained on the cool dense air, and no longer was everything blurred by the summer vapor that fills-in the channels of sight and sound.
Everyone knew that the Yankees would be on Detroit like a tidal wave. Bookies were giving odds of ten-thousand to one. And for a team on its way to face a firing squad, the Tigers were in a festive mood. They looked forward to the exhibition, to watching Roger hit balls out of the park, and to winning, perhaps, if not the game, a rich pool based on the point spread: the most daring Tiger had placed his stake on a spread of nine-hundred runs.
Buoyed by the summer’s place in history and coffers overflowing from the unprecedented gate since June, not to mention the miraculous improvement of the team and the likelihood of its coming back to beat the Dodgers in the Series, Stengel simply announced that this would be Roger’s last game. As Berra always said, “The middle is the end of the road for the beginning,” and Roger was going back to the South (Milledgeville, Stengel had confessed to the public, had been a feint), to a small town that, to preserve his and its privacy and peace, would remain unknown.
When people heard this, they ached. Although the sports press had never stopped trying, Roger had never been interviewed, and the public had exactly the image of him it wanted. He was the ideal and paradigmatic American—lanky, side-burned, taciturn, unmarried, young, rich (they thought), mysterious, and devout. Had he run for President he could have won by a landslide even in a non-election year, and that fall the presidential campaign was in full swing. Harvard invited him to be its president, the Treasury to be on medallions, Wheaties to be on the box. Commercial offers were so lucrative that, had he taken all thousand of them and bargained well, he could have been the richest man in the world.
But all Roger wanted to do was go home, where no one would know anything about what had occurred in baseball that summer—except that a Jewish player had been a brief sensation. Even Schnaiper would not grasp the significance of what had happened, and would not in any case realize that its agent had been the new boy who fetched gribeness for the rebbe. The Yankees would keep his secret and never call on him, content that he had helped them this one time, because this was what he had asked of them.
After the game, he would stay in the locker room until early evening. Dressed again in hasidic clothing, he would shoulder the books he had not already sent home by book post, and walk out of the deserted main gate, as obscure as he had been when he walked in. He would get on the subway and go back to Brooklyn, where he would continue doggedly the task of his life. But there was one more game to play, the most unusual game ever played in the history of baseball.
The Yankees were up, and because everyone knew the Tigers would never come in from the field, chairs were brought for every Tiger player except the pitcher. Next to the chairs were little tables with ice buckets, bottles of Coke and lemonade, and snacks. A hundred thousand people filled Yankee Stadium, double its capacity, and in the South Bronx and upper Manhattan millions had gathered, packing the avenues, cramming into all the empty spaces, their faces turned toward home plate, even though the three television networks were broadcasting live. Inexplicably, the rules had been changed, and Roger would pinch hit for everyone on his team, even Mantle. After the national anthem and ten minutes of prayer, Roger walked onto the field.
He was greeted with the longest, loudest, most extraordinary cheer that had ever been raised, a hundred-thousand voices amplified by the hornlike shape of the stadium, and a million more following on in the street. Though he knew he deserved no such thing, he was pleased nonetheless—because he understood that they were not cheering for him even if they did not know it—and he bowed his head to honor what they were cheering. Not mistakenly, they thought that this was a sign of humility, which set alight a self-sustaining, self-replicating, waxing roar that rose for a half-hour and tumbled from the stadium on waves of thundering air that could be heard from Kingsbridge to Canarsie.
Mantle gave the bat to Roger, who walked gangly-legged to the plate. When the umpire shouted “Play ball!” the cheer went up again and did not die for fifteen minutes. Then, when all was quiet, Roger turned crisply to the pitcher. The pitcher wound up and sent a one-hundred-mile-per-hour fastball screaming at the umpire, for the catcher, who was eating poppyseed cake, sat on a chair off to the side.
The ball that came in at a hundred miles per hour left at quadruple that speed, whining briefly through the air before it disappeared in the pure blue, forty degrees above the top of the flagpole. The fans were wild, but then settled in to simple euphoria as Roger hit pitch after pitch high over the Bronx toward Africa and the South Atlantic. The pitcher was supplied with one ball after another by teammates standing next to huge bins of baseballs on the sidelines. After a hundred desperate throws, his relief came onto the field and stood behind him, and when his arm gave out the relief pitcher took over so as not to break the rhythm of Roger’s drives.
Roger was lost in the soundless incantations that affirm the truth of truths. The pattern of the vast numbers of baseballs streaming over the wall was like a cloth of ghostly white threads, or seeds sown in a light and helpful breeze. Four-hundred-mile-per-hour baseballs pierced the air and whistled over the Bronx in a song, while the announcers said virtually nothing. “Let’s just look on as this unfolds,” they had said, forgetting that they were on the radio and that people listening could not see what they saw, “for it will never be this way again.” And, then, counting under their breath, they joined their audience in subdued amazement as the balls flew by in steady procession, like raindrops speeding sideways in a gale. Two thousand of them were shot from the stadium that day. There might have been more, but Roger stopped at the even number, which he thought might be a record. It was.
The players, the management, the professionals, the sportswriters, and the fans were aware that, before Roger, they had never seen a ball hit from the stadium, and that they never would again. To see two thousand in a row, without a miss, without hesitation, pause, or variations in path or timing except those that he willed, was as if God had chosen that moment to make His presence known, and they reacted accordingly in wonder and delight. For the moment, at least, they felt as if the deepest circles within them had been squared, their ragged doubts knit smooth, and the world were ablaze with the light of perfection.
Roger had long since tired of the suite in which he lived in deadening luxury on the Upper East Side. It was now empty, as it was empty before his arrival, a rosewood and alabaster tomb without even a body, a columbarium without ashes. In that neighborhood it was fairly easy to get a Fabergé egg but almost impossible to get a kosher chicken. True, the dwellings were well kept and well appointed, they often were as high as birds’ nests, and you could look out and see a half-million windows and not a foot of fire-escape iron, but the difference between this place and where he lived in Brooklyn was like the difference between a wool suit on a hanger, and a lamb. There were those who would instinctively choose the suit, and those who would instinctively choose the lamb. It was not for Roger to criticize anyone who would take the suit, but he himself would gather the lamb into his arms.
So with the place where he lived, a jumble of ancient brick in a basket weave of black iron that lay upon the tenements like fishing net sprawled to dry across a city of crates. The streets had no prospect and were tight and twisting. Only from the rooftops could you catch a glimpse of ships and blue water, and the trees, being so few and rare, were achingly beautiful.
Roger’s affection for the awkward and homely way in which he lived had not diminished, and it began to enfold him graciously even as he headed out of the stadium’s main gate. It was the way his parents had lived, and the way their parents had lived, and so forth, and so on, very far back. But it would be a sin to carry on habit for its own sake, or to venerate the old merely because it is old. After all, given the expanse of the infinite, all that occurred did so within less than the duration of a spark, so everything was new and had to be judged for what it was. Tradition was an illusion, an afterimage—comfortable, yes, but unjustifiable in itself.
The ancient ritual, the black coats, the way of speaking, the languages, the revelations and commentary, the candles, the cuisine, the marriage customs, and the fur-rimmed hats, were things as new as if they had just burst upon the world like the first rays of light. Pop. There they were. To think that they were old would be only a mistake of perspective. What made them what they were, and so different from everything else, was that each one carefully and deliberately put the things of the world in their place. Each was a declaration and vow, each the outcome of a battle in which reason strictly assigned them a post. And thus subdued, the things of the world were sweet, and the world rose, like a planet in ascension, to its proper position.
The subway, inexplicably elevated aboveground, rolled down its track, taking Roger home. It made many turns indirectly in directions different from the one in which he was headed, but the sum and subtraction of the departures would constitute the precision of the aim, and had the train gone merely in a straight line, it likely would have missed. It went noisily amid the appearance of a million gently burning lights that gradually took the place of the bright scales with which the setting sun had armored the face of every building. It went left, it went right, it lurched north, south, east, and west, but then it began its last dash toward Brooklyn like a dog following a trail.
Roger closed his eyes, and a world that once had been came alive in all its tender detail. His mother lived again in moments so taxing to him that it threatened his young heart. His father lived again. They moved in color and dimension, and as the train rushed forward the world doubled back upon itself, twisting immeasurably, confounding time. In these moments, when it was as if he were observing them, unseen, they were, somehow, observing him. He could neither explain nor understand, but he was sure they knew.
When the train rose gracefully onto the bridge and sped with immensely complex clacking over iron rails in an open box of steel held in the wind a hundred feet above the river, the sound made Roger open his eyes. There was the world clear in the night, its sparkling towers piercing a band of brilliant orange light. For a moment, and just a moment—for he had work to do—he thought about what had happened. What had happened was but a single, lovely note in an always urgent song that he had been brought up to sing, like those before him, in protest of mortality, hope of survival, and love of God. It had happened here, in the New World, and why not? If Ruth could, among the alien corn, begin the line in Judah that led to David, then what was not possible here, and what perfection would be disallowed?
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Perfection: A Story
Must-Reads from Magazine
Sex and Work in an Age Without Norms
In the Beginning Was the ‘Hostile Work Environment’
In 1979, the feminist legal thinker Catharine MacKinnon published a book called Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Her goal was to convince the public (especially the courts) that harassment was a serious problem affecting all women whether or not they had been harassed, and that it was discriminatory. “The factors that explain and comprise the experience of sexual harassment characterize all women’s situation in one way or another, not only that of direct victims of the practice,” MacKinnon wrote. “It is this level of commonality that makes sexual harassment a women’s experience, not merely an experience of a series of individuals who happen to be of the female sex.” MacKinnon was not only making a case against clear-cut instances of harassment, but also arguing that the ordinary social dynamic between men and women itself created what she called “hostile work environments.”
The culture was ripe for such arguments. Bourgeois norms of sexual behavior had been eroding for at least a decade, a fact many on the left hailed as evidence of the dawn of a new age of sexual and social freedom. At the same time, however, a Redbook magazine survey published a few years before MacKinnon’s book found that nearly 90 percent of the female respondents had experienced some form of harassment on the job.
MacKinnon’s views might have been radical—she argued for a Marxist feminist jurisprudence reflecting her belief that sexual relations are hopelessly mired in male dominance and female submission—but she wasn’t entirely wrong. The postwar America in which women like MacKinnon came of age offered few opportunities for female agency, and the popular culture of the day reinforced the idea that women were all but incapable of it.
It wasn’t just the perfect housewives in the midcentury mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver who “donned their domestic harness,” as the historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in her social history Homeward Bound. Popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Redbook reinforced the message; so did their advertisers. A 1955 issue of Family Circle featured an advertisement for Tide detergent that depicted a woman with a rapturous expression on her face actually hugging a box of Tide under the line: “No wonder you women buy more Tide than any other washday product! Tide’s got what women want!” Other advertisements infantilized women by suggesting they were incapable of making basic decisions. “You mean a -woman can open it?” ran one for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps. It is almost impossible to read the articles or view the ads without thinking they were some kind of put-on.
The competing view of women in the postwar era was equally pernicious: the objectified pinup or sexpot. Marilyn Monroe’s hypersexualized character in The Seven Year Itch from 1955 doesn’t even have a name—she’s simply called The Girl. The 1956 film introducing the pulchritudinous Jayne Mansfield to the world was called The Girl Can’t Help It. The behavior of Rat Pack–era men has now been so airbrushed and glamorized that we’ve forgotten just how thoroughly debased their treatment of women was. Even as we thrill to Frank Sinatra’s “nice ’n’ easy” style, we overlook the classic Sinatra movie character’s enjoying an endless stream of showgirls and (barely disguised) prostitutes until forced to settle down with a killjoy ball-and-chain girlfriend. The depiction of women either as childish wives living under the protection of their husbands or brainless sirens sexually available to the first taker was undoubtedly vulgar, but it reflected a reality about the domestic arrangements of Americans after 1945 that was due for a profound revision when the 1960s came along.
And change they did, with a vengeance. The sexual revolution broke down the barriers between the sexes as the women’s-liberation movement insisted that bourgeois domesticity was a prison. The rules melted away, but attitudes don’t melt so readily; Sinatra’s ball-and-chain may have disappeared by common consent, but for a long time it seemed that the kooky sexpot of the most chauvinistic fantasy had simply become the ideal American woman. The distinction between the workplaces of the upper middle class and the singles bars where they sought companionship was pretty blurred.
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it. They had some success. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced elements of MacKinnon’s reasoning when it ruled unanimously in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that harassment that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued rules advising employers to create procedures to combat harassment, and employers followed suit by establishing sexual-harassment policies. Human-resource departments spent countless hours and many millions of dollars on sexual-harassment-awareness training for employees.
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment: (Anita Hill’s testimony about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991; Senator Bob Packwood’s ouster for serial groping in 1995). There was, however, still plenty of space for men who harassed and assaulted women (and, in Kevin Spacey’s case, men) to shelter in place.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did it?
Sex and Training
What makes sexual harassment so unnerving is not the harassment. It’s the sex—a subject, even a half-century into our so-called sexual revolution, about which we remain deeply confused.
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem? In 1998, Steinem wrote of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey: “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” As for Monica Lewinsky, Steinem didn’t even consider the president’s behavior with a young intern to be harassment: “Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising. As for Steinem, she’s gone from posing undercover as a Playboy bunny in order to expose male vice to sitting on the board of Playboy’s true heir, VICE Media, an organization whose bro-culture has spawned many sexual-harassment complaints. She’s been honored by Rutgers University, which created the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. One of the chair’s major endowers? Harvey Weinstein.
In place of older accepted norms or trusted moral arbiters, we have weaponized gossip. “S—-y Media Men” is a Google spreadsheet created by a woman who works in media and who, in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, wanted to encourage other women to name the gropers among us. At first a well-intentioned effort to warn women informally about men who had behaved badly, it quickly devolved into an anonymous unverified online litany of horribles devoid of context. The men named on the list were accused of everything from sending clumsy text messages to rape; Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker confessed that she didn’t believe the charges lodged against a male friend of hers who appeared on the list.
Others have found sisterhood and catharsis on social media, where, on Twitter, the phrase #MeToo quickly became the symbol for women’s shared experiences of harassment or assault. Like the consciousness-raising sessions of earlier eras, the hashtag supposedly demonstrated the strength of women supporting other women. But unlike in earlier eras, it led not to group hugs over readings of The Feminine Mystique, but to a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused. Writing in the Guardian, Jessica Valenti praised #MeToo for encouraging women to tell their stories but added, “Why have a list of victims when a list of perpetrators could be so much more useful?” Valenti encouraged women to start using the hashtag as a way to out predators, not merely to bond with one another. Even the New York Times has gone all-in on the assumption that the reckoning will continue: The newspaper’s “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, launched a newsletter, The #MeToo Moment, described as “the latest news and insights on the sexual harassment and misconduct scandals roiling our society.”
As the also-popular hashtag #OpenSecret suggests, this #MeToo moment has brought with it troubling questions about who knew what and when—and a great deal of anger at gatekeepers and institutions that might have turned a blind eye to predators. The backlash against the Metropolitan Opera in New York is only the most recent example. Reports of conductor James Levine’s molestation of teenagers have evidently been widespread in the classical-music world for decades. And, as many social-media users hinted with their use of the hashtag #itscoming, Levine is not the only one who will face a reckoning.
To be sure, questioning and catharsis are welcome if they spark reforms such as crackdowns on the court-approved payoffs and nondisclosure agreements that allowed sexual predators like Weinstein to roam free for so long. And they have also brought a long-overdue recognition of the ineffectiveness of so much of what passes for sexual-harassment-prevention training in the workplace. As the law professor Lauren Edelman noted in the Washington Post, “There have been only a handful of empirical studies of sexual-harassment training, and the research has not established that such training is effective. Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage.” One specific survey at a university found that “men who participated in the training were less likely to view coercion of a subordinate as sexual harassment, less willing to report harassment and more inclined to blame the victim than were women or men who had not gone through the training.”
Realistic Change vs. Impossible Revolution
Because harassment lies at the intersection of law, politics, ideology, and culture, attempts to re-regulate behavior, either by returning to older, more traditional norms, or by weaponizing women’s potential victimhood via Twitter, won’t work. America is throwing the book at foul old violators like Weinstein and Levine, but aside from warning future violators that they may be subject to horrible public humiliation and ruination, how is all this going to fix the problem?
We are a long way from Phyllis Schlafly’s ridiculous remark, made years ago during a U.S. Senate committee hearing, that “virtuous women are seldom accosted,” but Vice President Mike Pence’s rule about avoiding one-on-one social interactions with women who aren’t his wife doesn’t really scale up in terms of effective policy in the workplace, either. The Pence Rule, like corporate H.R. policies about sexual harassment, really exists to protect Pence from liability, not to protect women.
Indeed, the possibility of realistic change is made almost moot by the hysterical ambitions of those who believe they are on the verge of bringing down the edifice of American masculinity the way the Germans brought down the Berlin wall. Bennett of the Times spoke for many when she wrote in her description of the #MeToo newsletter: “The new conversation goes way beyond the workplace to sweep in street harassment, rape culture, and ‘toxic masculinity’—terminology that would have been confined to gender studies classes, not found in mainstream newspapers, not so long ago.”
Do women need protection? Since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been considered unacceptable to declare that women are weaker than men (even physically), yet, as many of these recent assault cases make clear, this is a plain fact. Men are, on average, physically larger and more aggressive than women; this is why for centuries social codes existed to protect women who were, by and large, less powerful, more vulnerable members of society.
MacKinnon’s definition of harassment at first seemed to acknowledge such differences; she described harassment as “dominance eroticized.” But like all good feminist theorists, she claimed this dominance was socially constructed rather than biological—“the legally relevant content of the term sex, understood as gender difference, should focus upon its social meaning more than upon any biological givens,” she wrote. As such, the reasoning went, men’s socially constructed dominance could be socially deconstructed through reeducation, training, and the like.
Culturally, this is the view that now prevails, which is why we pinball between arguing that women can do anything men can do and worrying that women are all the potential victims of predatory, toxic men. So which is it? Girl Power or the Fainting Couch?
Regardless, when harassment or assault claims arise, the cultural assumptions that feminism has successfully cultivated demand we accept that women are right and men are wrong (hence the insistence that we must believe every woman’s claim about harassment and assault, and the calling out of those who question a woman’s accusation). This gives women—who are, after all, flawed human beings just like men—too much accusatory power in situations where context is often crucial for understanding what transpired. Feminists with a historical memory should recall how they embraced this view after mandatory-arrest laws for partner violence that were passed in the 1990s netted many women for physically assaulting their partners. Many feminist legal scholars at the time argued that such laws were unfair to women precisely because they neglected context. (“By following the letter of the law… law enforcement officers often disregard the context in which victims of violence resort to using violence themselves,” wrote Susan L. Miller in the Violence Against Women journal in 2001.)
Worse, the unquestioned valorization of women’s claims leaves men in the position of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Consider a recent tweet by Washington Post reporter and young-adult author Monica Hesse in response to New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo’s self-indulgent lament. Manjoo: “I am at the point where i seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared. the real world turns out to be a legit horror movie that I inhabited and knew nothing about.”
Hesse’s answer: “Surprise! The answer is that we do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared. That’s why we cross to the other side of the street at night, and why we sometimes obey when men say ‘Smile, honey!’ We are always aware the alternative could be death.” This isn’t hyperbole in her case; Hesse has so thoroughly internalized the message that men are to be feared, not trusted, that she thinks one might kill her on the street if she doesn’t smile at him. Such illogic makes the Victorian neurasthenics look like the Valkyrie.
But while most reasonable people agree that women and men both need to take responsibility for themselves and exercise good judgment, what this looks like in practice is not going to be perfectly fair, given the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior. In her book, MacKinnon observed of sexual harassment, “Tacitly, it has been both acceptable and taboo; acceptable for men to do, taboo for women to confront, even to themselves.”
That’s one thing we can say for certain is no longer true. Nevertheless, if you begin with the assumption that every sexual invitation is a power play or the prelude to an assault, you are likely to find enemies lurking everywhere. As Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about male behavior: “It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once. How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some? …We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.”
But women are part of that “entire universe,” too, and it is incumbent on them to make it clear when someone has crossed the line. Both women and men would be better served if they adopted the same rule—“If you see something, say something”—when it comes to harassment. Among the many details that emerged from the recent exposé at Vox about New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was the setting for the supposedly egregious behavior: It was always after work and after several drinks at a bar. In all of the interactions described, one or usually both of the parties was tipsy or drunk; the women always agreed to go with Thrush to another location. The women also stayed on good terms with Thrush after he made his often-sloppy passes at them, in one case sending friendly text messages and ensuring him he didn’t need to apologize for his behavior. The Vox writer, who herself claims to have been victimized by Thrush, argues, “Thrush, just by his stature, put women in a position of feeling they had to suck up and move on from an uncomfortable encounter.” Perhaps. But he didn’t put them in the position of getting drunk after work with him. They put themselves in that position.
Also, as the Thrush story reveals, women sometimes use sexual appeal and banter for their own benefit in the workplace. If we want to clarify the blurred lines that exist around workplace relationships, then we will have to reckon with the women who have successfully exploited them for their own advantage.
None of this means women should be held responsible when men behave badly or illegally. But it puts male behavior in the proper context. Sometimes, things really are just about sex, not power. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bluntly noted in a recent debate in New York magazine with feminist Rebecca Traister, “I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming. Saying ‘It’s power, not sex’ excludes too much.”
Social-Media Justice or Restorative Justice?
What do we want to happen? Do we want social-media justice or restorative justice for harassers and predators? The first is immediate, cathartic, and brutal, with little consideration for nuance or presumed innocence for the accused. The second is more painstaking because it requires reaching some kind of consensus about the allegations, but it is also ultimately less destructive of the community and culture as a whole.
Social-media justice deploys the powerful force of shame at the mere whiff of transgression, so as to create a regime of prevention. The thing is, Americans don’t really like shame (the sexual revolution taught us that). Our therapeutic age doesn’t think that suppressing emotions and inhibiting feelings—especially about sex—is “healthy.” So either we will have to embrace the instant and unreflective emotiveness of #MeToo culture and accept that its rough justice is better than no justice at all—or we will have to stop overreacting every time a man does something that is untoward—like sending a single, creepy text message—but not actually illegal (like assault or constant harassment).
After all, it’s not all bad news from the land of masculinity. Rates of sexual violence have fallen 63 percent since 1993, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and as scholar Steven Pinker recently observed: “Despite recent attention, workplace sexual harassment has declined over time: from 6.1 percent of GSS [General Social Survey] respondents in 2002 to 3.6 percent in 2014. Too high, but there’s been progress, which can continue.”
Still, many men have taken this cultural moment as an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of masculinity. In the New York Times, essayist Stephen Marche fretted about the “unexamined brutality of the male libido” and echoed Catharine MacKinnon when he asked, “How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal?” He would have done better to ask how we can raise boys who will become men who behave honorably toward women. And how do we even raise boys to become honorable men in a culture that no longer recognizes and rewards honor?
The answers to those questions aren’t immediately clear. But one thing that will make answering them even harder is the promotion of the idea of “toxic masculinity.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society. A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
And so we come back to sex and our muddled understanding of its place in society. Is it a meaningless pleasure you’re supposed to enjoy with as many people as possible before settling down and marrying? Or is it something more important than that? Is it something that you feel empowered to handle in Riot Grrrl fashion, or is getting groped once by a pervy co-worker something that prompts decades of nightmares and declarations that you will “never be the same”? How can we condemn people like Senator Al Franken, whose implicit self-defense is that it’s no big deal to cop a feel every so often, when our culture constantly offers up women like comedian Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana of the sketch show Broad City, who argue that women can and should be as filthy and degenerate as the most degenerate guy?
Perhaps it’s progress that the downfall of powerful men who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior is no longer called a “bimbo eruption,” as it was in the days of Bill Clinton, and that the men who harassed or assaulted women are facing the end of their careers and, in some cases, prison. But this is not the great awakening that so many observers have claimed it is. Awakenings need tent preachers to inspire and eager audiences to participate; our #MeToo moment has plenty of those. What it doesn’t have, unless we can agree on new norms for sexual behavior both inside and outside the workplace, is a functional theology that might cultivate believers who will actually practice what they preach.
That functional theology is out of our reach. Which means this moment is just that—a moment. It will die down, impossible though it seems at present. And every 10 or 15 years a new harassment scandal will spark widespread outrage, and we will declare that a new moment of reckoning and realization has emerged. After which the stories will again die down and very little will have changed.
No one wants to admit this. It’s much more satisfying to see the felling of so many powerful men as a tectonic cultural shift, another great leap forward toward equality between the sexes. But it isn’t, because the kind of asexual equality between the genders imagined by those most eager to celebrate our #MeToo moment has never been one most people embrace. It’s one that willfully overlooks significant differences between the sexes and assumes that thoughtful people can still agree on norms of sexual behavior.
They can’t. And they won’t.
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The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking
A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.
Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.
To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.
But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.I n an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.
The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.
America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.
If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.
Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism.
First, hegemony. The myth of America as an innocent isolationist country during its first 170 years is powerful and enduring; it’s also wrong. From the outset, American statesmen understood that the country’s favorable geography, expanding population, and enviable resource endowments gave it the potential to rival, and ultimately overtake, the European states that dominated world politics. America might be a fledgling republic, George Washington said, but it would one day attain “the strength of a giant.” From the revolution onward, American officials worried, with good reason, that France, Spain, and the United Kingdom would use their North American territories to strangle or contain the young republic. Much of early American diplomacy was therefore geared toward depriving the European powers of their North American possessions, using measures from coercive diplomacy to outright wars of conquest. “The world shall have to be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1819. The only regional sphere of influence that Americans would accept as legitimate was their own.
By the late-19th century, the same considerations were pushing Americans to target spheres of influence further abroad. As the industrial revolution progressed, it became clear that geography alone might not protect the nation. Aggressive powers could now generate sufficient military strength to dominate large swaths of Europe or East Asia and then harness the accumulated resources to threaten the United States. Moreover, as America itself became an increasingly mighty country that sought to project its influence overseas, its leaders naturally objected to its rivals’ efforts to establish their own preserves from which Washington would be excluded. If much of America’s 19th-century diplomacy was dedicated to denying other powers spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere, much of the country’s 20th-century diplomacy was an effort to break up or deny rival spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia.
From the Open Door policy, which sought to prevent imperial powers from carving up China, to U.S. intervention in the world wars, to the confrontation with the Soviet Empire in the Cold War, the United States repeatedly acted on the belief that it could be neither as secure nor influential as it desired in a world divided up and dominated by rival nations. The American geopolitical tradition, in other words, has long contained a built-in hostility to other countries’ spheres of influence.
The American ideological tradition shares this sense of preeminence, as reflected in the second key tenet: liberty. America’s founding generation did not see the revolution merely as the birth of a future superpower; they saw it as a catalyst for spreading political liberty far and wide. Thomas Paine proclaimed in 1775 that Americans could “begin the world anew”; John Quincy Adams predicted, several decades later, that America’s liberal ideology was “destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Here, too, the new nation was not cursed with excessive modesty—and here, too, the existence of rival spheres of influence threatened this ambition.
Rival spheres of influence—particularly within the Western Hemisphere—imperiled the survival of liberty at home. If the United States were merely one great power among many on the North American continent, the founding generation worried, it would be forced to maintain a large standing military establishment and erect a sort of 18th-century “garrison state.” Living in perpetual conflict and vigilance, in turn, would corrode the very freedoms for which the revolution had been fought. “No nation,” wrote James Madison, “can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Just as Madison argued, in Federalist No. 10, that “extending the sphere”—expanding the republic—was a way of safeguarding republicanism at home, expanding America’s geopolitical domain was essential to providing the external security that a liberal polity required to survive.
Rival spheres of influence also constrained the prospects for liberty abroad. Although the question of whether the United States should actively support democratic revolutions overseas has been a source of unending controversy, virtually all American strategists have agreed that the country would be more secure and influential in a world where democracy was widespread. Given this mindset, Americans could hardly be desirous of foreign powers—particularly authoritarian powers—establishing formidable spheres of influence that would allow them to dominate the international system or suppress liberal ideals. The Monroe Doctrine was a response to the geopolitical dangers inherent in renewed imperial control of South America; it was also a response to the ideological danger posed by European nations that would “extend the political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere. Similar concerns have been at the heart of American opposition to the British Empire and the Soviet bloc.
Economic openness, the third core dynamic of American policy, has long served as a commercial counterpart to America’s ideological proselytism. Influenced as much by Adam Smith as by Alexander Hamilton, early American statecraft promoted free trade, neutral rights, and open markets, both to safeguard liberty and enrich a growing nation. This mission has depended on access to the world’s seas and markets. When that access was circumscribed—by the British in 1812 and by the Germans in 1917—Americans went to war to preserve it. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans also looked askance at efforts by other powers to establish areas that might be walled off from U.S. trade and investment—and from the spread of America’s capitalist ideology.
A brief list of robust policy endeavors underscores the persistent U.S. hostility to an economically closed, spheres-of-influence world: the Model Treaty of 1776, designed to promote free and reciprocal trade; John Hay’s Open Door policy of 1899, designed to prevent any outside power from dominating trade with China; Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy in his “14 Points” speech of 1918 for the removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations”; and the focus of the 1941 Atlantic Charter on reducing trade restrictions while promoting international economic cooperation (assuming the allies would emerge triumphant from World War II).
Fourth and finally, there’s exceptionalism. Americans have long believed that their nation was created not simply to replicate the practices of the Old World, but to revolutionize how states and peoples interact with one another. The United States, in this view, was not merely another great power out for its own self-interest. It was a country that, by virtue of its republican ideals, stood for the advancement of universal rights, and one that rejected the back-alley methods of monarchical diplomacy in favor of a more principled statecraft. When Abraham Lincoln said America represented “the last best hope of earth,” or when Woodrow Wilson scorned secret agreements in favor of “open covenants arrived at openly,” they demonstrated this exceptionalist strain in American thinking. There is some hypocrisy here, of course, for the United States has often acted in precisely the self-interested, cutthroat manner its statesmen deplored. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism has had a pronounced effect on American conduct.
Compare how Washington led its Western European allies during the Cold War—the extent to which NATO rested on the authentic consent of its members, the way the United States consistently sought to empower rather than dominate its partners—with how Moscow managed its empire in Eastern Europe. In the same way, Americans have often recoiled from arrangements that reeked of the old diplomacy. Franklin Roosevelt might have tolerated a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II, for instance, but he knew he could not admit this publicly. Likewise, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which required Washington to acknowledge the diplomatic legitimacy of the Soviet sphere, proved controversial inside the United States because they seemed to represent just the sort of cynical, old-school geopolitics that American exceptionalism abhors.
To be clear, U.S. hostility to a spheres-of-influence world has always been leavened with a dose of pragmatism; American leaders have pursued that hostility only so far as power and prudence allowed. The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Americas, but the quid pro quo was that a young and relatively weak United States would accept, for a time, a sphere of monarchical dominance within Europe. Even during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers generally accepted that Washington could not break up the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe without risking nuclear war.
But these were concessions to expediency. As America gained greater global power, it more actively resisted the acquisition or preservation of spheres by others. From gradually pushing the Old World out of the New, to helping vanquish the German and Japanese Empires by force of arms, to assisting the liquidation of the British Empire after World War II, to containing and ultimately defeating the Soviet bloc, the United States was present at the destruction of spheres of influence possessed by adversaries and allies alike.
The acme of this project came in the quarter-century that followed the Cold War. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, it was possible to envision a world in which what Thomas Jefferson called America’s “empire of liberty” could attain global dimensions, and traditional spheres of influence would be consigned to history. The goal, as George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, was to “create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” This meant an international environment in which the United States and its values were dominant and there was no balance of power whatsoever.
Under presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, this project entailed working to spread democracy and economic liberalism farther than ever before. It involved pushing American influence and U.S.-led institutions into regions—such as Eastern Europe—that were previously dominated by other powers. It meant maintaining the military primacy necessary to stop regional powers from establishing new spheres of influence, as Washington did by rolling back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 and by deterring China from coercing Taiwan in 1995–96. Not least, this American project involved seeking to integrate potential rivals—foremost Russia and China—into the post–Cold War order, in hopes of depriving them of even the desire to challenge it. This multifaceted effort reflected the optimism of the post-Cold War era, as well as the influence of tendencies with deep roots in the American past. Yet try as Washington might to permanently leave behind a spheres-of-influence world, that prospect is once again upon us.B egin with China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region. The sources of Chinese conduct are diverse, ranging from domestic insecurity to the country’s confidence as a rising power to its sense of historical destiny as “the Middle Kingdom.” All these influences animate China’s bid to establish regional mastery. China is working, first, to create a power vacuum by driving the United States out of the Western Pacific, and second, to fill that vacuum with its own influence. A Chinese admiral made this ambition clear when he remarked—supposedly in jest—to an American counterpart that, in the future, the two powers should simply split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, echoed this sentiment in a moment of frustration by lecturing the nations of Southeast Asia. “China is a big country,” he said, “and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. The Chinese have warned U.S. allies they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino-American war unless Washington accommodates China or the allies cut loose from the United States. China has simultaneously worked to undermine the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the mighty U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic coercion, Beijing has also successfully divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through which the United States has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. And in the background, China has been steadily building, over the course of more than two decades, formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and give Beijing a free hand in dealing with its weaker neighbors. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts over the region will only grow longer.
To that end, China has claimed, dubiously, nearly all of the South China Sea as its own and constructed artificial islands as staging points for the projection of military power. Military and paramilitary forces have teased, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines; China is likewise intensifying the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those not willing to bow to its demands. It is simultaneously advancing geoeconomic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP) that are designed to bring the region into its orbit.
Strikingly, China has also moved away from its long-professed principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics by extending the reach of Chinese propaganda organs and using investment and even bribery to co-opt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier-killer” missiles. Finally, far from subscribing to liberal concepts of democracy and human rights, Beijing emphasizes its rejection of these values and its desire to create “Asia for Asians.” In sum, China is pursuing a classic spheres-of-influence project. By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing aims to sunder its neighbors’ bonds with America and force them to accept a Sino-centric order—a new Chinese tribute system for the 21st century.A t the other end of Eurasia, Russia is playing geopolitical hardball of a different sort. The idea that Moscow should dominate its “near abroad” is as natural to many Russians as American regional primacy is to Americans. The loss of the Kremlin’s traditional buffer zone was, therefore, one of the most painful legacies of the Cold War’s end. And so it is hardly surprising that, as Russia has regained a degree of strength in recent years, it has sought to reassert its supremacy.
It has done so, in fact, through more overtly aggressive means than those employed by China. Moscow has twice seized opportunities to humiliate and dismember former Soviet republics that committed the sin of tilting toward the West or throwing out pro-Russian leaders, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. It has regularly reminded its neighbors that they live on Russia’s doorstep, through coercive activities such as conducting cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and holding aggressive military exercises on the frontiers of the Baltic states. In the same vein, the Kremlin has essentially claimed a veto over the geopolitical alignments of neighbors from the Caucasus to Scandinavia, whether by creating frozen conflicts on their territory or threatening to target them militarily—perhaps with nuclear weapons—should they join NATO.
Military muscle is not Moscow’s only tool. Russia has simultaneously used energy exports to keep the states on its periphery economically dependent, and it has exported corruption and illiberalism to non-aligned states in the former Warsaw Pact area to prevent further encroachment of liberal values. Not least, the Kremlin has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through political subversion and intervention in Western electoral processes. And while Russia’s activities are most concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it’s also projecting its influence farther afield. Russian forces intervened successfully in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean, and demonstrate the improved accuracy and lethality of Russian arms. Moscow continues to make inroads in the Middle East, often in cooperation with another American adversary: Iran.
To be sure, the projects that China and Russia are pursuing today are vastly different from each other, but the core logic is indisputably the same. Authoritarian powers are re-staking their claim to privileged influence in key geostrategic areas.S o what does this mean for American interests? Some observers have argued that the United States should make a virtue of necessity and accept the return of such arrangements. By this logic, spheres of influence create buffer zones between contending great powers; they diffuse responsibility for enforcing order in key areas. Indeed, for those who think that U.S. policy has left the country exhausted and overextended, a return to a world in which America no longer has the burden of being the dominant power in every region may seem attractive. The great sin of American policy after the Cold War, many realist scholars argue, was the failure to recognize that even a weakened Russia would demand privileged influence along its frontiers and thus be unalterably opposed to NATO expansion. Similarly, they lament the failure to understand that China would not forever tolerate U.S. dominance along its own periphery. It is not surprising, then, to hear analysts such as Australia’s Hugh White or America’s John Mearsheimer argue that the United States should learn to “share power” with China in the Pacific, or that it must yield ground in Eastern Europe in order to avoid war with Russia.
Such claims are not meritless; there are instances in which spheres of influence led to a degree of stability. The division of Europe into rival blocs fostered an ugly sort of stasis during the Cold War; closer to home, America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere has long muted geopolitical competition in our own neighborhood. For all the problems associated with European empires, they often partially succeeded in limiting scourges such as communal violence.
And yet the allure of a spheres-of-influence world is largely an illusion, for such a world would threaten U.S. interests, traditions, and values in several ways.
First, basic human rights and democratic values would be less respected. China and Russia are not liberal democracies; they are illiberal autocracies that see the spread of democratic values as profoundly corrosive to their own authority and security. Just as the United States has long sought to create a world congenial to its own ideological predilections, Beijing and Moscow would certainly do likewise within their spheres of dominance.
They would, presumably, bring their influence to bear in support of friendly authoritarian regimes. And they would surely undermine democratic governments seen to pose a threat of ideological contagion or insubordination to Russian or Chinese prerogatives. Russia has taken steps to prevent the emergence of a Western-facing democracy in Ukraine and to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere; China is snuffing out political freedoms in Hong Kong. Such actions offer a preview of what we will see when these countries are indisputably dominant along their peripheries. Further aggressions, in turn, would not simply be offensive to America’s ideological sensibilities. For given that the spread of democracy has been central to the absence of major interstate war in recent decades, and that the spread of American values has made the U.S. more secure and influential, a less democratic world will also be a more dangerous world.
Second, a spheres-of-influence world would be less open to American commerce and investment. After all, the United States itself saw geoeconomic dominance in Latin America as the necessary counterpart to geopolitical dominance. Why would China take a less self-interested approach? China already reaps the advantages of an open global economy even as it embraces protectionism and mercantilism. In a Chinese-dominated East Asia, all economic roads will surely lead to Beijing, as Chinese officials will be able to use their leverage to ensure that trade and investment flows are oriented toward China and geopolitical competitors like the United States are left on the outside. Beijing’s current geoeconomic projects—namely, RCEP and the Belt and Road Initiative—offer insight into a regional economic future in which flows of commerce and investment are subject to heavy Chinese influence.
Third, as spheres of influence reemerge, the United States will be less able to shape critical geopolitical events in crucial regions. The reason Washington has long taken an interest in events in faraway places is that East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are the areas from which major security challenges have emerged in the past. Since World War II, America’s forward military presence has been intended to suppress incipient threats and instability; that presence has gone hand in glove with energetic diplomacy that amplifies America’s voice and protects U.S. interests. In a spheres-of-influence world, Washington would no longer enjoy the ability to act with decisive effect in these regions; it would find itself reacting to global events rather than molding them.
This leads to a final, and crucial, issue. America would be more likely to find its core security interests challenged because world orders based on rival spheres of influence have rarely been as peaceful and settled as one might imagine.
To see this, just work backward from the present. During the Cold War, a bipolar balance did help avert actual war between Moscow and Washington. But even in Europe—where the spheres of influence were best defined—there were continual tensions and crises as Moscow tested the Western bloc. And outside Europe, violence and proxy wars were common as the superpowers competed to extend their reach into the Third World. In the 1930s, the emergence of German and Japanese spheres of influence led to the most catastrophic war in global history. The empires of the 19th century—spheres of influence in their own right—continually jostled one another, leading to wars and near-wars over the course of decades; the Peace of Amiens between England and Napoleonic France lasted a mere 14 months. And looking back to the ancient world, there were not one, but three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage as two expanding empires came into conflict. A world defined by spheres of influence is often a world characterized by tensions, wars, and competition.
The reasons for this are simple. As the political scientist William Wohlforth observed, unipolar systems—such as the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order—are anchored by a hegemonic power that can act decisively to maintain the peace. In a unipolar system, Wohlforth writes, there are few incentives for revisionist powers to incur the “focused enmity” of the leading state. Truly multipolar systems, by contrast, have often been volatile. When the major powers are more evenly matched, there is a greater temptation to aggression by those who seek to change the existing order of things. And seek to change things they undoubtedly will.
The idea that spheres of influence are stabilizing holds only if one assumes that the major powers are motivated only by insecurity and that concessions to the revisionists will therefore lead to peace. Churchill described this as the idea that if one “feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Unfortunately, today’s rising or resurgent powers are also motivated—as is America—by honor, ambition, and the timeless desire to make their international habitats reflect their own interests and ideals. It is a risky gamble indeed, then, to think that ceding Russia or China an uncontested sphere of influence would turn a revisionist authoritarian regime into a satisfied power. The result, as Robert Kagan has noted, might be to embolden those actors all the more, by giving them freer rein to bring their near-abroads under control, greater latitude and resources to pursue their ambitions, and enhanced confidence that the U.S.-led order is fracturing at its foundations. For China, dominance over the first island chain might simply intensify desires to achieve primacy in the second island chain and beyond; for Russia, renewed mastery in the former Soviet space could lead to desires to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel, as well. To observe how China is developing ever longer-range anti-access/area denial capabilities, or how Russia has been projecting military power ever farther afield, is to see this process in action.T he reemergence of a spheres-of-influence world would thus undercut one of the great historical achievements of U.S. foreign policy: the creation of a system in which America is the dominant power in each major geopolitical region and can act decisively to shape events and protect its interests. It would foster an environment in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, and mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes. And rather than leading to multipolar stability, this change could simply encourage greater revisionism on the part of powers whose appetite grows with the eating. This would lead the world away from the relative stability of the post–Cold War era and back into the darker environment it seemed to have relegated to history a quarter-century ago. The phrase “spheres of influence” may sound vaguely theoretical and benign, but its real-world effects are likely to be tangible and pernicious.
Fortunately, the return of a spheres-of-influence world is not yet inevitable. Even as some nations will accept incorporation into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as the price of avoiding conflict, or maintaining access to critical markets and resources, others will resist because they see their own well-being as dependent on the preservation of the world order that Washington has long worked to create. The Philippines and Cambodia seem increasingly to fall into the former group; Poland and Japan, among many others, make up the latter. The willingness of even this latter group to take actions that risk incurring Beijing and Moscow’s wrath, however, will be constantly calibrated against an assessment of America’s own ability to continue leading the resistance to a spheres-of-influence world. Averting that outcome is becoming steadily harder, as the relative power and ambition of America’s authoritarian rivals rise and U.S. leadership seems to falter.
Harder, but not impossible. The United States and its allies still command a significant preponderance of global wealth and power. And the political, economic, and military weaknesses of its challengers are legion. It is far from fated, then, that the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe will slip into China’s and Russia’s respective orbits. With sufficient creativity and determination, Washington and its partners might still be able to resist the return of a dangerous global system. Doing so will require difficult policy work in the military, economic, and diplomatic realms. But ideas precede policy, and so simply rediscovering the venerable tradition of American hostility to spheres of influence—and no less, the powerful logic on which that tradition is based—would be a good start.
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What does the man with the baton actually do?
Why, then, are virtually all modern professional orchestras led by well-paid conductors instead of performing on their own? It’s an interesting question. After all, while many celebrity conductors are highly trained and knowledgeable, there have been others, some of them legendary, whose musical abilities were and are far more limited. It was no secret in the world of classical music that Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, found it difficult to read full orchestral scores and sometimes learned how to lead them in public by first practicing with a pair of rehearsal pianists whom he “conducted” in private.
Yet recordings show that Koussevitzky’s interpretations of such complicated pieces of music as Aaron Copland’s El Salón México and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both of which he premiered and championed) were immensely characterful and distinctive. What made them so? Was it the virtuosic playing of the Boston Symphony alone? Or did Koussevitzky also bring something special to these performances—and if so, what was it?
Part of what makes this question so tricky to answer is that scarcely any well-known conductors have spoken or written in detail about what they do. Only two conductors of the first rank, Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, have left behind full-length autobiographies, and neither one features a discussion of its author’s technical methods. For this reason, the publication of John Mauceri’s Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting will be of special interest to those who, like my friend, wonder exactly what it is that conductors contribute to the performances that they lead.1
An impeccable musical journeyman best known for his lively performances of film music with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri has led most of the world’s top orchestras. He writes illuminatingly about his work in Maestros and Their Music, leavening his discussions of such matters as the foibles of opera directors and music critics with sharply pointed, sometimes gossipy anecdotes. Most interesting of all, though, are the chapters in which he talks about what conductors do on the podium. To read Maestros and Their Music is to come away with a much clearer understanding of what its author calls the “strange and lawless world” of conducting—and to understand how conductors whose technique is deficient to the point of seeming incompetence can still give exciting performances.P rior to the 19th century, conductors of the modern kind did not exist. Orchestras were smaller then—most of the ensembles that performed Mozart’s symphonies and operas contained anywhere from two to three dozen players—and their concerts were “conducted” either by the leader of the first violins or by the orchestra’s keyboard player.
As orchestras grew larger in response to the increasing complexity of 19th-century music, however, it became necessary for a full-time conductor both to rehearse them and to control their public performances, normally by standing on a podium placed in front of the musicians and beating time in the air with a baton. Most of the first men to do so were composers, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. By the end of the century, however, it was becoming increasingly common for musicians to specialize in conducting, and some of them, notably Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini, came to be regarded as virtuosos in their own right. Since then, only three important composers—Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez—have also pursued parallel careers as world-class conductors. Every other major conductor of the 20th century was a specialist.
What did these men do in front of an orchestra? Mauceri’s description of the basic physical process of conducting is admirably straightforward:
The right hand beats time; that is, it sets the tempo or pulse of the music. It can hold a baton. The left hand turns pages [in the orchestral score], cues instrumentalists with an invitational or pointing gesture, and generally indicates the quality of the notes (percussive, smoothly linked, sustained, etc.).
Beyond these elements, though, all bets are off. Most of the major conductors of the 20th century were filmed in performance, and what one sees in these films is so widely varied that it is impossible to generalize about what constitutes a good conducting technique.2 Most of them used batons, but several, including Boulez and Leopold Stokowski, conducted with their bare hands. Bernstein and Beecham gestured extravagantly, even wildly, while others, most famously Fritz Reiner, restricted themselves to tightly controlled hand movements. Toscanini beat time in a flowing, beautifully expressive way that made his musical intentions self-evident, but Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan often conducted so unclearly that it is hard to see how the orchestras they led were able to follow them. (One exasperated member of the London Philharmonic claimed, partly in jest, that Furtwängler’s baton signaled the start of a piece “only after the thirteenth preliminary wiggle.”) Conductors of the Furtwängler sort tend to be at their best in front of orchestras with which they have worked for many years and whose members have learned from experience to “speak” their gestural language fluently.
Nevertheless, all of these men were pursuing the same musical goals. Beyond stopping and starting a given piece, it is the job of a conductor to decide how it will be interpreted. How loud should the middle section of the first movement be—and ought the violins to be playing a bit softer so as not to drown out the flutes? Someone must answer questions such as these if a performance is not to sound indecisive or chaotic, and it is far easier for one person to do so than for 100 people to vote on each decision.
Above all, a conductor controls the tempo of a performance, varying it from moment to moment as he sees fit. It is impossible for a full-sized symphony orchestra to play a piece with any degree of rhythmic flexibility unless a conductor is controlling the performance from the podium. Bernstein put it well when he observed in a 1955 TV special that “the conductor is a kind of sculptor whose element is time instead of marble.” These “sculptural” decisions are subjective, since traditional musical notation cannot be matched with exactitude. As Mauceri reminds us, Toscanini and Beecham both recorded La Bohème, having previously discussed their interpretations with Giacomo Puccini, the opera’s composer, and Toscanini conducted its 1896 premiere. Yet Beecham’s performance is 14 minutes longer than Toscanini’s. Who is “right”? It is purely a matter of individual taste, since both interpretations are powerfully persuasive.
Beyond the not-so-basic task of setting, maintaining, and varying tempos, it is the job of a conductor to inspire an orchestra—to make its members play with a charged precision that transcends mere unanimity. The first step in doing so is to persuade the players of his musical competence. If he cannot run a rehearsal efficiently, they will soon grow bored and lose interest; if he does not know the score in detail, they will not take him seriously. This requires extensive preparation on the part of the conductor, and an orchestra can tell within seconds of the downbeat whether he is adequately prepared—a fact that every conductor knows. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” Bernstein once told an interviewer. “I work extremely hard and all the time.”
All things being equal, it is better than not for a conductor to have a clear technique, if only because it simplifies and streamlines the process of rehearsing an orchestra. Fritz Reiner, who taught Bernstein among others, did not exaggerate when he claimed that he and his pupils could “stand up [in front of] an orchestra they have never seen before and conduct correctly a new piece at first sight without verbal explanation and by means only of manual technique.”
While orchestra players prefer this kind of conducting, a conductor need not have a technique as fully developed as that of a Reiner or Bernstein if he knows how to rehearse effectively. Given sufficient rehearsal time, decisive and unambiguous verbal instructions will produce the same results as a virtuoso stick technique. This was how Willem Mengelberg and George Szell distinguished themselves on the podium. Their techniques were no better than adequate, but they rehearsed so meticulously that their performances were always brilliant and exact.
It also helps to supply the members of the orchestra with carefully marked orchestra parts. Beecham’s manual technique was notoriously messy, but he marked his musical intentions into each player’s part so clearly and precisely that simply reading the music on the stand would produce most of the effects that he desired.
What players do not like is to be lectured. They want to be told what to do and, if absolutely necessary, how to do it, at which point the wise conductor will stop talking and start conducting. Mauceri recalls the advice given to a group of student conductors by Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony: “Don’t talk to us about blue skies. Just tell us ‘longer-shorter,’ ‘faster-slower,’ ‘higher-lower.’” Professional musicians cannot abide flowery speeches about the inner meaning of a piece of music, though they will readily respond to a well-turned metaphor. Mauceri makes this point with a Toscanini anecdote:
One of Toscanini’s musicians told me of a moment in a rehearsal when the sound the NBC Symphony was giving him was too heavy. … In this case, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and took out his silk handkerchief, tossed it into the air, and everyone watched it slowly glide to earth. After seeing that, the orchestra played the same passage exactly as Toscanini wanted.
Conducting, like all acts of leadership, is in large part a function of character. The violinist Carl Flesch went so far as to call it “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” While that is putting it too cynically, Flesch was on to something. I did a fair amount of conducting in college, but even though I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and spent hours poring over my scores, I lacked the personal magnetism without which no conductor can hope to be more than merely competent at best.
On the other hand, a talented musician with a sufficiently compelling personality can turn himself into a conductor more or less overnight. Toscanini had never conducted an orchestra before making his unrehearsed debut in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 19, yet the players hastened to do his musical bidding. I once saw the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, whose knowledge of classical music is profound, lead a chorus and orchestra in the score to Gloria, a dance he had made in 1981 to a piece by Vivaldi. It was no stunt: Morris used a baton and a score and controlled the performance with the assurance of a seasoned pro. Not only did he have a strong personality, but he had also done his musical homework, and he knew that one was as important as the other.
The reverse, however, is no less true: The success of conductors like Serge Koussevitzky is at least as much a function of their personalities as of their preparation. To be sure, Koussevitzky had been an instrumental virtuoso (he played the double bass) before taking up conducting, but everyone who worked with him in later years was aware of his musical limitations. Yet he was still capable of imposing his larger-than-life personality on players who might well have responded indifferently to his conducting had he been less charismatic. Leopold Stokowski functioned in much the same way. He was widely thought by his peers to have been far more a showman than an artist, to the point that Toscanini contemptuously dismissed him as a “clown.” But he had, like Koussevitzky, a richly romantic musical imagination coupled with the showmanship of a stage actor, and so the orchestras that he led, however skeptical they might be about his musical seriousness, did whatever he wanted.
All great conductors share this same ability to impose their will on an orchestra—and that, after all, is the heart of the matter. A conductor can be effective only if the orchestra does what he wants. It is not like a piano, whose notes automatically sound when the keys are pressed, but a living organism with a will of its own. Conducting, then, is first and foremost an act of persuasion, as Mauceri acknowledges:
The person who stands before a symphony orchestra is charged with something both impossible and improbable. The impossible part is herding a hundred musicians to agree on something, and the improbable part is that one does it by waving one’s hands in the air.
This is why so many famous conductors have claimed that the art of conducting cannot be taught. In the deepest sense, they are right. To be sure, it is perfectly possible, as Reiner did, to teach the rudiments of clear stick technique and effective rehearsal practice. But the mystery at the heart of conducting is, indeed, unteachable: One cannot tell a budding young conductor how to cultivate a magnetic personality, any more than an actor can be taught how to have star quality. What sets the Bernsteins and Bogarts of the world apart from the rest of us is very much like what James M. Barrie said of feminine charm in What Every Woman Knows: “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”
2 Excerpts from many of these films were woven together into a two-part BBC documentary, The Art of Conducting, which is available on home video and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube
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Not that he tries. What was remarkable about the condescension in this instance was that Franken directed it at women who accused him of behaving “inappropriately” toward them. (In an era of strictly enforced relativism, we struggle to find our footing in judging misbehavior, so we borrow words from the prissy language of etiquette. The mildest and most common rebuke is unfortunate, followed by the slightly more serious inappropriate, followed by the ultimate reproach: unacceptable, which, depending on the context, can include both attempted rape and blowing your nose into your dinner napkin.) Franken’s inappropriateness entailed, so to speak, squeezing the bottoms of complete strangers, and cupping the occasional breast.
Franken himself did not use the word “inappropriate.” By his account, he had done nothing to earn the title. His earlier vague denials of the allegations, he told his fellow senators, “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” How could he have confused people about such an important matter? Doggone it, it’s that damn sensitivity of his. The nation was beginning a conversation about sexual harassment—squeezing strangers’ bottoms, stuff like that—and “I wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Well, not all women. The women with those bottoms and breasts he supposedly manhandled, for example—their experiences don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’ve got Al’s word on it. “Some of the allegations against me are not true,” he said. “Others, I remember very differently.” His accusers, in other words, fall into one of two camps: the liars and the befuddled. You know how women can be sometimes. It might be a hormonal thing.
But enough about them, Al seemed to be saying: Let’s get back to Al. “I know the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” Franken said, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I have used my power to be a champion of women.” He has faith in his “proud legacy of progressive advocacy.” He’s been passionate and worked hard—not for himself, mind you, but for his home state of Minnesota, by which he’s “blown away.” And yes, he would get tired or discouraged or frustrated once in a while. But then that big heart of his would well up: “I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back on my feet.” Franken recently published a book about himself: Giant of the Senate. I had assumed the title was ironic. Now I’m not sure.
Yet even in his flights of self-love, the problem that has ever attended Senator Franken was still there. You can’t take him seriously. He looks as though God made him to be a figure of fun. Try as he might, his aspect is that of a man who is going to try to make you laugh, and who is built for that purpose and no other—a close cousin to Bert Lahr or Chris Farley. And for years, of course, that’s the part he played in public life, as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. When he announced nine years ago that he would return to Minnesota and run for the Senate—when he came out of the closet and tried to present himself as a man of substance—the effect was so disorienting that I, and probably many others, never quite recovered. As a comedian-turned-politician, he was no longer the one and could never quite become the other.
The chubby cheeks and the perpetual pucker, the slightly crossed eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, the rounded, diminutive torso straining to stay upright under the weight of an enormous head—he was the very picture of Comedy Boy, and suddenly he wanted to be something else: Politics Boy. I have never seen the famously tasteless tearjerker The Day the Clown Cried, in which Jerry Lewis stars as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, but I’m sure watching it would be a lot like watching the ex-funnyman Franken deliver a speech about farm price supports.
Then he came to Washington and slipped right into place. His career is testament to a dreary fact of life here: Taken in the mass, senators are pretty much interchangeable. Party discipline determines nearly every vote they cast. Only at the margins is one Democrat or Republican different in a practical sense from another Democrat or Republican. Some of us held out hope, despite the premonitory evidence, that Franken might use his professional gifts in service of his new job. Yet so desperate was he to be taken seriously that he quickly passed serious and swung straight into obnoxious. It was a natural fit. In no time at all, he mastered the senatorial art of asking pointless or showy questions in committee hearings, looming from his riser over fumbling witnesses and hollering “Answer the question!” when they didn’t respond properly.
It’s not hard to be a good senator, if you have the kind of personality that frees you to simulate chumminess with people you scarcely know or have never met and will probably never see again. There’s not much to it. A senator has a huge staff to satisfy his every need. There are experts to give him brief, personal tutorials on any subject he will be asked about, writers to write his questions for his committee hearings and an occasional op-ed if an idea strikes him, staffers to arrange his travel and drive him here or there, political aides to guard his reputation with the folks back home, press aides to regulate his dealings with reporters, and legislative aides to write the bills should he ever want to introduce any. The rest is show biz.
Oddly, Franken was at his worst precisely when he was handling the show-biz aspects of his job. While his inquisitions in committee hearings often showed the obligatory ferocity and indignation, he could also appear baffled and aimless. His speeches weren’t much good, and he didn’t deliver them well. As if to prove the point, he published a collection of them earlier this year, Speaking Franken. Until Pearl Harbor, he’d been showing signs of wanting to run for president. Liberal pundits were talking him up as a national candidate. Speaking Franken was likely intended to do for him what Profiles in Courage did for John Kennedy, another middling senator with presidential longings. Unfortunately for Franken, Ted Sorensen is still dead.
The final question raised by Franken’s resignation is why so many fellow Democrats urged him to give up his seat so suddenly, once his last accuser came forward. The consensus view involved Roy Moore, in those dark days when he was favored to win Alabama’s special election. With the impending arrival of an accused pedophile on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats didn’t want an accused sexual harasser in their own ranks to deflect what promised to be a relentless focus on the GOP’s newest senator. This is bad news for any legacy Franken once hoped for himself. None of his work as a senator will commend him to history. He will be remembered instead for two things: as a minor TV star, and as Roy Moore’s oldest victim.
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Review of 'Lioness' By Francine Klagsbrun
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, moved to Palestine from America in 1921, at the age of 22, to pursue Socialist Zionism. She was instrumental in transforming the Jewish people into a state; signed that state’s Declaration of Independence; served as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union, as labor minister for seven years, and as foreign minister for a decade. In 1969, she became the first female head of state in the Western world, serving from the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and through the nearly catastrophic but ultimately victorious 1973 Yom Kippur War. She resigned in 1974 at the age of 76, after five years as prime minister. Her involvement at the forefront of Zionism and the leadership of Israel thus extended more than half a century.
This is the second major biography of Golda Meir in the last decade, after Elinor Burkett’s excellent Golda in 2008. Klagsbrun’s portrait is even grander in scope. Her epigraph comes from Ezekiel’s lamentation for Israel: What a lioness was your mother / Among the lions! / Crouching among the great beasts / She reared her cubs. The “mother” was Israel; the “cubs,” her many ancient kings; the “great beasts,” the hostile nations surrounding her. One finishes Klagsbrun’s monumental volume, which is both a biography of Golda and a biography of Israel in her time, with a deepened sense that modern Israel, its prime ministers, and its survival is a story of biblical proportions.Golda Meir’s story spans three countries—Russia, America, and Israel. Before she was Golda Meir, she was Golda Meyerson; and before that, she was Golda Mabovitch, born in 1898 in Kiev in the Russian Empire. Her father left for America after the horrific Kishinev pogrom in 1903, found work in Milwaukee as a carpenter, and in 1906 sent for his wife and three daughters, who escaped using false identities and border bribes. Golda said later that what she took from Russia was “fear, hunger and fear.” It was an existential fear that she never forgot.
In Milwaukee, Golda found socialism in the air: The city had both a socialist mayor and a socialist congressman, and she was enthralled by news from Palestine, where Jews were living out socialist ideals in kibbutzim. She immersed herself in Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a movement synthesizing Zionism and socialism, and in 1917 married a fellow socialist, Morris Meyerson. As soon as conditions permitted, they moved to Palestine, where the marriage ultimately failed—a casualty of the extended periods she spent away from home working for Socialist Zionism and her admission that the cause was more important to her than her husband and children. Klagsbrun writes that Meir might appear to be the consummate feminist: She asserted her independence from her husband, traveled continually and extensively on her own, left her husband and children for months to pursue her work, and demanded respect as an individual rather than on special standards based on her gender. But she never considered herself a feminist and indeed denigrated women’s organizations as reducing issues to women’s interests only, and she gave minimal assistance to other women. Klagsbrun concludes that questions about Meir as a feminist figure ultimately “hang in the air.”
Her American connection and her unaccented American English became strategic assets for Zionism. She understood American Jews, spoke their language, and conducted many fundraising trips to the United States, tirelessly raising tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds. David Ben-Gurion called her the “woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Klagsbrun provides the schedule of her 1932 trip as an example of her efforts: Over the course of a single month, the 34-year-old Zionist pioneer traveled to Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and three cities in Canada. She became the face of Zionism in America—“The First Lady,” in the words of a huge banner at a later Chicago event, “of the Jewish People.” She connected with American Jews in a way no other Zionist leader had done before her.
In her own straightforward way, she mobilized the English language and sent it into battle for Zionism. While Abba Eban denigrated her poor Hebrew—“She has a vocabulary of two thousand words, okay, but why doesn’t she use them?”—she had a way of crystallizing issues in plainspoken English. Of British attempts to prevent the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, she said Britain “should remember that Jews were here 2,000 years before the British came.” Of expressions of sympathy for Israel: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” And perhaps her most famous saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Once she moved to the Israeli foreign ministry, she changed her name from Meyerson to Meir, in response to Ben-Gurion’s insistence that ministers assume Israeli names. She began a decade-long tenure there as the voice and face of Israel in the world. At a Madison Square Garden rally after the 1967 Six-Day War, she observed sardonically that the world called Israelis “a wonderful people,” complimented them for having prevailed “against such odds,” and yet wanted Israel to give up what it needed for its self-defense:
“Now that they have won this battle, let them go back where they came from, so that the hills of Syria will again be open for Syrian guns; so that Jordanian Legionnaires, who shoot and shell at will, can again stand on the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem; so that the Gaza Strip will again become a place from which infiltrators are sent to kill and ambush.” … Is there anybody who has the boldness to say to the Israelis: “Go home! Begin preparing your nine and ten year olds for the next war, perhaps in ten years.”
The next war would come not in ten years, but in six, and while Meir was prime minister.
Klagsbrun’s extended discussion of Meir’s leadership before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is one of the most valuable parts of her book, enabling readers to make informed judgments about that war and assess Meir’s ultimate place in Israeli history. The book makes a convincing case that there was no pre-war “peace option” that could have prevented the conflict. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal before negotiations could even begin, and Meir’s view was, “We had no peace with the old boundaries. How can we have peace by returning to them?” She considered the demand part of a plan to push Israel back to the ’67 lines “and then bring the Palestinians back, which means no more Israel.”
A half-century later, after three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the disputed territories—with the Palestinians rejecting each offer, insisting instead on an Israeli retreat to indefensible lines and recognition of an alleged Palestinian “right of return”—Meir’s view looks prescient.
Klagsbrun’s day-by-day description of the ensuing war is largely favorable to Meir, who relied on assurances from her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, that the Arabs would not attack, and assurances from her intelligence community that, even if they did, Israel would have a 48-hour notice—enough time to mobilize the reserves that constituted more than 75 percent of its military force. Both sets of assurances proved false, and the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack took virtually everyone in Israel by surprise. Dayan had something close to a mental breakdown, but Meir remained calm and in control after the initial shock, making key military decisions. She was able to rely on the excellent personal relationships she had established with President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and the critical resupply of American arms that enabled Israel—once its reserves were called into action—to take the war into Egyptian and Syrian territories, with Israeli forces camped in both countries by its end.
Meir had resisted the option of a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria when it suddenly became clear, 12 hours before the war started, that coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks were coming. On the second day of the war, she told her war cabinet that she regretted not having authorized the IDF to act, and she sent a message to Kissinger that Israel’s “failure to take such action is the reason for our situation now.” After the war, however, she testified that, had Israel begun the war, the U.S. would not have sent the crucial assistance that Israel needed (a point on which Kissinger agreed), and that she therefore believed she had done the right thing. A preemptive response, however, or a massive call-up of the reserves in the days before the attacks, might have avoided a war in which Israel lost 2,600 soldiers—the demographic equivalent of all the American losses in the Vietnam War.
It is hard to fault Meir’s decision, given the erroneous information and advice she was uniformly receiving from all her defense and intelligence subordinates, but it is a reminder that for Israeli prime ministers (such as Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin with the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981, and Ehud Olmert with the Syrian one in 2007), the potential necessity of taking preemptive action always hangs in the air. Klagsbrun’s extensive discussion of the Yom Kippur War is a case study of that question, and an Israeli prime minister may yet again face that situation.
The Meir story is also a tale of the limits of socialism as an organizing principle for the modern state. Klagsbrun writes about “Golda’s persistent—and hopelessly utopian—vision of how a socialist society should be conducted,” exemplified by her dream of instituting commune-like living arrangements for urban families, comparable to those in the kibbutzim, where all adults would share common kitchens and all the children would eat at school. She also tried to institute a family wage system, in which people would be paid according to their needs rather than their talents, a battle she lost when the unionized nurses insisted on being paid as professionals, based on their education and experience, and not the sizes of their families.
Socialism foundered not only on the laws of economics and human nature but also in the realm of foreign relations. In 1973, enraged that the socialist governments and leaders in Europe had refused to come to Israel’s aid during the Yom Kippur War, Meir convened a special London conference of the Socialist International, attended by eight heads of state and a dozen other socialist-party leaders. Before the conference, she told Willy Brandt, Germany’s socialist chancellor, that she wanted “to hear for myself, with my own ears, what it was that kept the heads of these socialist governments from helping us.”
In her speech at the conference, she criticized the Europeans for not even permitting “refueling the [American] planes that saved us from destruction.” Then she told them, “I just want to understand …what socialism is really about today”:
We are all old comrades, long-standing friends. … Believe me, I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over twenty Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are the decisive factors in Socialist thinking, too?
After she concluded her speech, the chairman asked whether anyone wanted to reply. No one did, and she thus effectively received her answer.
One wonders what Meir would think of the Socialist International today. On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, the World Socialist website called it “a sordid deal” that launched “a nakedly colonial project.” Socialism was part of the cause for which she went to Palestine in 1921, and it has not fared well in history’s judgment. But the other half—
Zionism—became one of the great successes of the 20th century, in significant part because of the lifelong efforts of individuals such as she.
Golda Meir has long been a popular figure in the American imagination, particularly among American Jews. Her ghostwritten autobiography was a bestseller; Ingrid Bergman played her in a well-received TV film; Anne Bancroft played her on the Broadway stage. But her image as the “71-year old grandmother,” as the press frequently referred to her when she became prime minister, has always obscured the historic leader beneath that façade. She was a woman with strengths and weaknesses who willed herself into half a century of history. Francine Klagsbrun has given us a magisterial portrait of a lioness in full.
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Back in 2016, then–deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed how President Obama exploited a clueless and deracinated press to steamroll opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told journalist David Samuels. “They”—writers and bloggers and pundits—“were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes went on to explain that his job was made easier by structural changes in the media, such as the closing of foreign bureaus, the retirement of experienced editors and correspondents, and the shift from investigative reporting to aggregation. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
And they haven’t learned much. It was dispiriting to watch in December as journalists repeated arguments against the Jerusalem decision presented by Rhodes on Twitter. On December 5, quoting Mahmoud Abbas’s threat that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would have “dangerous consequences,” Rhodes tweeted, “Trump seems to view all foreign policy as an extension of a patchwork of domestic policy positions, with no regard for the consequences of his actions.” He seemed blissfully unaware that the same could be said of his old boss.
The following day, Rhodes tweeted, “In addition to making goal of peace even less possible, Trump is risking huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans. For no reason other than a political promise he doesn’t even understand.” On December 8, quoting from a report that the construction of a new American Embassy would take some time, Rhodes asked, “Then why cause an international crisis by announcing it?”
Rhodes made clear his talking points for the millions of people inclined to criticize President Trump: Acknowledging Israel’s right to name its own capital is unnecessary and self-destructive. Rhodes’s former assistant, Ned Price, condensed the potential lines of attack in a single tweet on December 5. “In order to cater to his political base,” Price wrote, “Trump appears willing to: put U.S. personnel at great risk; risk C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] momentum; destabilize a regional ally; strain global alliances; put Israeli-Palestinian peace farther out of reach.”
Prominent media figures happily reprised their roles in the echo chamber. Susan Glasser of Politico: “Just got this in my in box from Ayman Odeh, leading Arab Israeli member of parliament: ‘Trump is a pyromaniac who could set the entire region on fire with his madness.’” BBC reporter Julia Merryfarlane: “Whether related or not, everything that happens from now on in Israel and the Pal territories will be examined in the context of Trump signaling to move the embassy to Jerusalem.” Neither Rhodes nor Price could have asked for more.
Network news broadcasts described the president’s decision as “controversial” but only reported on the views of one side in the controversy. Guess which one. “There have already been some demonstrations,” reported NBC’s Richard Engel. “They are expected to intensify, with Palestinians calling for three days of rage if President Trump goes through with it.” Left unmentioned was the fact that Hamas calls for days of rage like you and I call for pizza.
Throughout Engel’s segment, the chyron read: “Controversial decision could lead to upheaval.” On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “World leaders call the decision dangerous.” On CBS, Gayle King chimed in: “U.S. allies and leaders around the world say it’s a big mistake that will torpedo any chance of Middle East peace.” Oh? What were the chances of Middle East peace prior to Trump’s speech?
On CNN, longtime peace processor Aaron David Miller likened recognizing Jerusalem to hitting “somebody over the head with a hammer.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed: “Deaths are coming.” That same network featured foreign-policy gadfly Steven Clemons of the Atlantic, who said Trump “stuck a knife in the back of the two-state process.” Price and former Obama official Joel Rubin also appeared on the network to denounce Trump. “American credibility is shot, and in diplomacy, credibility relies on your word, and our word is, at this moment, not to be trusted from a peace-process perspective, certainly,” Rubin said. This from the administration that gave new meaning to the words “red line.”
Some journalists were so devoted to Rhodes’s tendentious narrative of Trump’s selfishness and heedlessness that they mangled the actual story. “He had promised this day would come, but to hear these words from the White House was jaw-dropping,” said Martha Raddatz of ABC. “Not only signing a proclamation reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. policy, but starting plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one else on earth has an embassy there!” How dare America take a brave stand for a small and threatened democracy!
In fact, Trump was following U.S. policy as legislated by the Congress in 1995, reaffirmed in the Senate by a 90–0 vote just last June, and supported (in word if not in deed) by his three most recent predecessors as well as the last four Democratic party platforms. Most remarkable, the debate surrounding the Jerusalem policy ignored a crucial section of the president’s address. “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues,” he said, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” What we did then was simply accept the reality that the city that houses the Knesset and where the head of government receives foreign dignitaries is the capital of Israel.
However, just as had happened during the debate over the Iran deal, the facts were far less important to Rhodes than the overarching strategic goal. In this case, the objective was to discredit and undermine President Trump’s policy while isolating the conservative government of Israel. Yet there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical toward the disingenuous duo of Rhodes and Price. Trump’s announcement was bold, for sure, but the tepid protests from Arab capitals more worried about the rise of Iran, which Rhodes and Price facilitated, than the Palestinian issue suggested that the “Arab street” would sit this one out.
Which is what happened. Moreover, verbal disagreement aside, there is no evidence that the Atlantic alliance is in jeopardy. Nor has the war on ISIS lost momentum. As for putting “Israeli–Palestinian peace farther out of reach,” if third-party recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forecloses a deal, perhaps no deal was ever possible. Rhodes and Price would like us to overlook the fact that the two sides weren’t even negotiating during the Obama administration—an administration that did as much as possible to harm relations between Israel and the United States.
This most recent episode of the Trump show was a reminder that some things never change. Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump routinely ignores conventional wisdom and expert opinion. And whatever nonsense President Obama and his allies say today, the press will echo tomorrow.