Vision and Memory

The second day of Passover is my mother's yahrzeit, and I observed it by lighting a candle in her memory and taking a few moments to think about her role in my life. I thought about her again today as I was rummaging through old books, many of which I inherited from my parents. And I want to say a few words about how my parents' legacy had shaped my views on the world today.

Mom was born on the eve of the stock market crash in small-town Maine. She was raised by a domineering and very conservative mother, who - she believed - favored her older brother (a grudge my mother would bear against my uncle until very late in her life). She must have seen the horrific newsreels from World War II, with their scenes of the German death camps, just as she was entering adulthood, and I believe it influenced her deeply. Looking back on those years, she would wonder bitterly why somebody didn't "do something".

My mother was a staunch liberal, but no friend of communism. She objected strenuously to what she saw as attempts to impose Christian practices in the schoolroom, but she didn't care for Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whom she considered an intolerant extremist. Mom wasn't against religion - she placed a high value on the individual's right to his or her own belifs. I think she would have appreciated Wafa Sultan's words: "You can believe in stones, just don't throw them at me." And she loved the Russian writers - Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin - but never confused Russian culture with the brutal Soviet regime. One of her greatest heroes, and a name I heard often in our home, was a Soviet dissident who then went by his Russian name - Anatoly Shcharansky.

Mom was an idealist, but enough of a cynic to know how easily, and how badly, good intentions can go wrong. (My father, on the other hand, was mild-mannered and a bit more utopian in his outlook. He had a congenital allergy to anything that smacked of elitism, recognizable even in his days as a young soldier: even at the remove of many years, he resented his eviction from the officers' recreation area. That's my Dad. I don't believe he was ever pro-Communist, but I think he had a sneaking admiration for socialism - or at least, for socialists like Bernie Sanders.)

I remember my mother well, and you might think that I had a good relationship with my parents and a happy childhood. No. Mom drank heavily and suffered from mental illness; she could be incredibly cruel to those closest to her. Even in the best of times she was usually imperious and aloof. One of the things we must do in life, as we grow older, is to sort out the things we have inherited and try to pick out the good from the bad. I believe that the clarity we are able to bring to this task largely determines the clarity with which we are able to find our way into the uncertain future.

We have to do this, not only with our families of origin but with the ideas we have inherited - religion, political ideology, and so on. Unlike many neoconservatives - David Horowitz, for example - I never went through the "road to Damascus" experience or the wholesale repudiation of an old belief system. (Well, I never went through the Communist thing either, so that probably helped.) I believe it was my mother's uncompromising commitment to her own ideals, and her healthy mistrust of any kind of missionary extremism - that has shaped my experience and my beliefs as they are now.

Thanks to Judith at Kesher Talk for prompting this post. I plan to write more about my experiences with liberalism - and with Judaism - in the near future. So stay tuned.