recently read an interview with a writer who is, like me, in her mid-eighties. I was surprised by how vehemently she insisted that she never allowed herself to think about death. For even before my brush with death five years ago, at the age of eighty-one, thinking about my ultimate end had been an ordinary aspect of my life. Nothing seems so elementary, and nothing seems more natural.
As we grow old, we all must bend toward the sense of an ending. Imagination tunes itself to how we will face mortality when it is no longer merely a word, but the moment at which being becomes nonbeing. Imagining my own ending has had the effect of making its inevitability more acceptable. Don’t get me wrong. I am not, like Keats, “half in love with easeful Death.” Nothing gives me greater pleasure than the naked physicality of the life I see around me, even if I am more a spectator than a participant. However physically drawn down, I am still thrilled by the sight of a beautiful woman. And I kvell (only the Yiddish conveys what I mean) when I hear my nine-year-old grandson’s joyous laughter as he discovers that his poor old Pop-Pop is incapable of distinguishing between DC Comics superheroes and Marvel superheroes. Apart from pain and ailments, I find my life surprisingly pleasant. At times, it strikes me as absolutely delicious. But that does not mean I can or should avoid thinking about what I know is coming—perhaps tomorrow, perhaps the day after tomorrow, perhaps in a year, perhaps in two or three years, but coming, as we used to say in the Bronx, as sure as God made apples.
I fantasize about my final moments in much the way I used to fantasize, as a polio-crippled fifteen-year-old, about succeeding my baseball idol, “Pistol Pete” Reiser, in the pastures of heaven known as Ebbets Field. I saw myself with dead legs miraculously restored to life, bat or glove in hand, ready to respond heroically to the thousands who cheered me on. But now I look in the mirror and see an old man moving toward his end. And for old men, the dreams and fantasies are different. Think of James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo rising toward his last sunset to tell Nature and Nature’s God that he is ready. I think how I might emulate Natty’s death—except for me it is not my last sunset but the Shema, the Hebrew prayer acknowledging God’s oneness, that I hope will be on my lips.
The fantasy came to me five years ago, when I was hospitalized and expected to die. Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: “Hear Oh Israel, The Lord Our God, The Lord is One.” I had memorized the words during my first week in Hebrew school. It was September, 1941, I was eight, and a war was being fought in Europe. In Poland, my cousins, uncles, and aunts were being murdered because they, too, had memorized the Shema. Later, I would learn that religious Jews—“true Jews,” as we boys thought of them—were obliged to recite the Shema twice daily, in the morning and evening. I would be taught that the Shema was not complete without the further declaration of loving God “with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength.” I learned the words for that, too: Veyorhavta Ess Adonai Elohecha Bechal Levnecha Oovehal Nafshecha Oovehal Moecha. But they remained merely words, whereas the Shema echoed with defiance, a way of insisting upon the oneness of a God who was a protector who did not protect, and who yet demanded acknowledgement.
I am a man who struggles with belief. I call myself a believing nonbeliever, in part because I find the self-righteousness of atheists more callow than the assurances of the Seventh Day Adventist who urges me to save my soul as he offers me pamphlets at the subway entrance on 25th Street. He, at least, is polite. He does not mock my inability to believe, as atheists mock the religious impulse. Nor does he care that my inability to believe is not merely because God chose not to answer my prayers for a ballplayer’s legs or because of the devastation God allowed to be let loose on the world over the past two centuries. Nor because the greatest of those devastations, the Holocaust, counted among its victims my family. There are many other, more recent devastations I could bewail. This world has never lacked for terror. That personal God whom Moses and Jesus and Muhammad knew may have created this world. But he appears either to have lost control of it or to have parted company with it.
Perhaps I should purge the Shema from memory and call upon the deity I took for my own in college, the God of Spinoza. But the omnipresence of Spinoza’s God now seems to me not large but meager. A god who is everywhere may be a God who is nowhere. And so, I call myself what I remain, a believing nonbeliever.
I have this fantasy of dying with the Shema on my lips. I can dismiss the desire as no more realistic than my teenage fantasies of playing centerfield for the Brooklyn Dodgers, yet it fills my heart and will not leave. It speaks to the intimacy of a personal history that is now beyond theology and beyond belief and disbelief. It may be beyond explanation. When T. S. Eliot wrote that history has many cunning corridors, he didn’t have Jews like me in mind. Our “free-thinking” was not part of what Eliot thought a society needed. But the desire to affirm what is beyond everyday life is a desire he would understand.
He understood, too, the hold that ritual exerts upon imagination. God has a habit of creeping up on us, even on those of us who call ourselves nonbelievers. The Shema is not a call to heal the world, like the Tikkun Olam invoked by secular Jews on the left who shrink from acknowledging any God not in the guise of a divine social worker. The Shema is a demand for attention, an insistence on the solitary oneness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not intended to make us comfortable, but adjures that all hear and believe what it invokes. It asks us not to heal the world but to declare the unique mystery of the God before whom we should tremble in awe.
I cannot remember a time when the Shema did not strike me as mysterious. Perhaps this mysteriousness explains the rebirth of its appeal when I lay near death five years ago. I learned other prayers at the Mosholu Jewish Center Hebrew School that more easily recommended themselves to a young boy trying to feel at ease with a God whose existence he already doubted. But no other song, no other prayer—not the joyous Adon Olam with which the Saturday morning service concluded, nor the somber plea of the Kol Nidre with which the Yom Kippur service began—could match the power of the Shema. It was a prayer that presented the awesome majesty of a God who was as far removed from the God I had encountered in graduate school, Blake’s Nobodaddy, as from the indifferent watchmaker of eighteenth-century Deism. No eight-year-old has ever conceived of God as anything other than a divine Superman, with no need of Lois Lane to help him shape the universe.
No matter how distant I claim to be from the idea of God, no matter how insistent I am on denying a deity’s existence, the Shema maintains its hold. I suspect it will until the actual moment of my death. I may present myself to the world as thoroughly secularized, one of those twice-a-year Jews who goes to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I may tell myself that even such minimal observance is done to honor the memory of a father for whom the synagogue was not so much a shelter from an America he loved but never understood as God’s literal domain on earth. Yet in some curious way I do not understand, the Shema pulls me back, again and again, into the world I used to think I had long ago left. And when I allow myself to be truly honest, I realize that the Shema does not hunger for me so much as I hunger for it.
Leonard Kriegel is the author, most recently, of Flying Solo.