The Passover/Easter weekend ended well, or at least entertainingly.
I enjoyed the latest version of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” live on NBC, even with all the commercials.
The music took me back nearly five decades and the production was modern and energetic, with great, careful harmonies from the large cast – performing on the move in an armory in Brooklyn.
John Legend played the title role, transported at the end into the heavens, or at least the rafters, and to my relief he emerged in one piece for the curtain call.
To my hearing in the year 2018, this version emphasized the doubts of Judas Priest – or maybe I was sensitized by Jon Meacham’s thoughtful take on Easter in Sunday’s NYT Book Review.
Mainly, this version of “Superstar” was entertainment – and I was entertained. Legend was, in a way, out-rocked by Brandon Victor Dixon (best known for his friendly little salutation to Vice President Pence after a performance of “Hamilton.”)
Bouncing his way cynically and energetically through the melee of Jerusalem, Dixon owned the stage.
Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene? Let me just say that I am a few decades past it for pop music (most of it sounds like calisthenics)-- but that strong, lush voice and gorgeous Levantine nose on Sara Bareilles? Where has she been all my life?
Then there was the mincing presence of Alice Cooper, performing the song he was born to sing -- that Vegas-English-music-hall mixture, “King Herod’s Song.” He said he was channeling Elvis; I thought of the late, great Tiny Tim on speed.
(I read in the Times that Alice Cooper got religion when he sobered up. So we had a born-againer playing a mad king. That’s show biz.)
The performance came after news that, on Easter morning, the great white hope of the Evangelicals could not even fake “the spirit of Holy Week,” as Laura Ingraham said in perhaps her final days as a creature of the cable. (It has come to my attention that Ingraham and Ann Coulter are actually two different people. How long has this been going on?)
Last week Ingraham trashed one of the young people who survived automatic weapon fire in Florida and then, watching her sponsors vanish, she cited religious impulses to take it all back, sort of.)
From his tropical Berchtesgarten, Trump tweeted out that he was going to enact new horrible penalties on Mexico and Mexicans. When questioned outside the church, Trump brayed affirmations of his intent on a weekend when Jews and Christians were honoring survival, celebrating outsiders, the others, in our world.
The Four Questions had been asked at Seders, the extra place set for Elijah; the agony of the “carpenter king” noted in sacred and profane ways in church and on the stage of the armory in Brooklyn.
And at my wife’s lovely Easter dinner, somebody at the table recalled a recent holiday when most stores were closed -- but a Latino bodega in our town was selling coffee and pasteles and more.
The outsiders are now part of us. God bless them. And the President wants to expel them.
That bad actor is still performing a role for which he never rehearsed -- not channeling Elvis or Alice Cooper but something more camp, and at the same time more vile, more ominous.
* * *
(A friend sent this in the Jesuit magazine, America:)
(In case you missed Alice Cooper: )
“It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” -- Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Hindus celebrate Diwali at different times of the year. We once saw uniformed bobbies dancing with celebrants in Trafalgar Square, London. Very sweet. This October, 35,000 people celebrated in Leicestershire, England, my mother's ancestral roots.
This year Hanukkah begins the same evening my family celebrates Christmas Eve. We have had a menorah in our home for years.
In the next few days we will go for a good meal at a modest Halal restaurant near us – and celebrate the diversity of this blessed country.
This came over the electronic transom, a mass posting by Bishop Sally Dyck of the United Methodist Church, about the symbolism of an inverted tree, in a store near her:
“Jesus’ birth over 2000 years ago was in the midst of unrest, oppression and violence as the people of Israel labored under the Roman Empire. He brought a message of hope, peace and justice in the midst of a time and place where there was no hope, no peace and no justice. Jesus came to turn the values of the Empire upside down!”
My wife and I watched the BBC documentary on Pope John Paul II and the female philosopher.
His long intellectual and emotional friendship reminded us of a Sunday picnic at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in 1971.
The most famous member of that abbey, Thomas Merton, had died nearly three years earlier, in Bangkok, on his journey outward from the rolling hills and cheese production and long silences, but he was still a presence, the reason we were there.
A few members of the Merton society, new friends who had welcomed us to Louisville, invited us to visit the abbey on Sunday, when the Monks, Merton’s peers, were allowed to speak, to meet visitors.
We were not prepared for the rush of energy from five monks, who mingled with us on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon.
They were polite to me, eager to talk to my wife, who had packed a picnic basket.
“They wanted to talk to me, not formally, just ‘It’s my turn now.’” Marianne recalls. “I probably spent 10-15 minutes alone with each of them, one on one.”
I remember being escorted on a tour of the abbey – the sparse rooms, perhaps a chapel, the rooms where they made cheese. They kept me busy. I understood.
“They all said how much they missed talking with women,” my wife remembers. “They said they laughed differently with women than with men. They talked about their mothers and their sisters. One man said he felt sad that he would never be a father and wanted to know what it was like to raise children.”
Four decades later, she fondly remembers these men acknowledging the gap in their lives, the part they had given up for their spiritual mission.
Merton was the man in the room who wasn’t there. He was the worldly member, born in the Catalan corner of southwest France, shuttled around Europe, studied at Columbia University in New York City, lived, explored, thought, wrote, was refused the priesthood because of his worldly past, so he became a monk, seeking peace and quiet.
He became a celebrity through his writings, met the Dalai Lama, and then, quite apparently, while recuperating in a hospital in Louisville, had a brief affair with a young nurse. He was in Bangkok, when he died, electrocuted by faulty wiring on a fan, as he left the shower, far from the quiet abbey in central Kentucky.
There is no moral to this, no talk of sin or weakness, no screed against celibacy, against monasticism. Merton needed to speak out against war, against injustice.
The former Karol Wojtyla from Krakow expressed himself in a complicated relationship with a worldly married woman, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who lived in America. The documentary said there is no reason to believe they had a physical relationship, and I believe that, from my impressions of him, up close. He was a strong man, in every sense.
I first saw John Paul II in person at a dude ranch outside Mexico City in 1979, on his first journey as Pope. He told us we should regard journalism as a vocation, a calling. I have never forgotten that. He was a force, even when I did not agree with his politics.
I saw him up close again in the fall of 1979 when he was striding across a heritage farm in Iowa, greeting Lutherans. As he moved across the turf, his strength, his stride, his jutting jaw, reminded me of a linebacker stalking a quarterback. (That’s when the security guard elbowed me, said I was getting too close.)
I believe that Karol Wojtyla was quite capable of being Pope and dear friend at the same time, although it sounds as if his friend had other ideas.
The documentary showed their letters and also his sturdy face, even in old age and illness, visibly happy whenever he saw his friend. He reminded me of the monks at the abbey, who told my wife they missed women.
Donald Trump thinks Pope Francis is “too political” because he will visit a camp of migrants during his stop in Mexico.
This comes while Trump is seeking – and getting! – support from Christian voters. I bet he hates the idea of the Pope building showers and toilets in Rome for the homeless – those loafers – and speaking with tolerance about gays, asking “Who am I to judge?”
It seems clear to me that Trump does not have normal human compassion. His success with Americans as a sneering tyrant on a reality television show has further emboldened his unchecked infantile impulses.
Yet some Americans, professing religious values, fall for him.
He’s their kind of guy.
Trump’s criticism of Pope Francis reminds me of another papal trip to Mexico, which I covered, oh my goodness, 37 years ago.
The new Pope, John Paul II, in his first overseas trip, arrived in the Zócalo, the center of ancient Mexico City.
The Pope issued a call for the Catholic clergy of Latin America to get back in uniform and deliver the sacraments and not bring some semblance of self-determination to the poor. Don’t be political, in other words.
The coded words sent a message all over Latin America, allowing governments to clamp down on activism toward the poor, including in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s native Argentina. This Pope has seen repression up close, has been deeply scarred by it.
The latest Trump outburst reminds me of Mexico in February of 1979 when I twice met Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who spurned luxuries and slept in a peasant hammock and encouraged help for the poor.
I wrote about my encounters with Romero a year ago:
I asked Romero whether the words from Mexico City did not put religious activists in trouble all over Latin America. His response was a somber yes, without any sign of fear or weakening. A year later he was assassinated while saying Mass.
Trump has surely never heard of Oscar Arnulfo Romero. I assume he knows nothing of the desaparecidos, the thousands of Argentines who were taken away, never to be seen again.
Trump knows gold-plated bathrooms and tactical bankruptcies and serial marriages.
The Pope builds toilets and showers for the homeless. In an ancient ritual of humility and service, he washes and kisses the feet of Muslims and convicts.
Trump wants to build a wall. Boasts that Mexico will pay for it.
And many Americans professing religious leanings are charmed by him.
* * *
(Terrific article about Trump's world view:)
There is something ancient about the National Pastime that evokes the spiritual, the other-worldly. I submit “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams.”
Now two friends of mine have written topical essays about the overlap between baseball and the Jewish holy days.
In New York, we are used to glorious weather for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Last Sunday, the rain stopped right around sundown on the Jewish New Year to let the United States Open begin, albeit three hours late. Tennis fans did not have to be Jewish to benefit from the cessation.
The baseball season is always in its crucial days when the holy days arrive. My friend Mendel Horowitz, rabbi and family therapist in Israel, who often contributes insightful comments on this site, has written about the intersection of the sacred and the profane. Here is the link from the Washington Post the other day:
And my friend Hillel Kuttler from Baltimore has written about an event half a century ago, when Sandy Koufax chose to not pitch the opening game of the World Series on Yom Kippur. Kuttler discusses the message Koufax sent to Jews (and others.) The link from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:
I covered that World Series in Minnesota, when Don Drysdale, the second ace, was hammered. Kuttler repeats the anecdote that when manager Walter Alston came to the mound to take him out in the third inning, Drysdale said, "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too." Everybody low-keyed that observance, including Koufax. He just never worked on that day. The Dodgers won the Series anyway.
Woe to people who ignore the holy days. In 1986, Major League Baseball scheduled a night game and a subsequent day game -- not one game but two -- within the 24 hours of Yom Kippur. In New York.
I’m not Jewish, but I know from chutzpah. My column on Oct. 1, 1986, predicted a deluge:
The Sunday night game was rained out. Of course. Mendel Horowitz and Hillel Kuttler understand.
The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor was 96 and in retirement in North Carolina. Once he was a giant in the pulpit of Brooklyn, the entire world. He was an intellectual who made bells ring when he spoke.
I was just thinking about Dr. Taylor Sunday afternoon as I pondered the closeness of Passover and Easter this year, remembering seders at the Kelman household on West End Avenue and the sermon by Dr. Taylor in Harlem during Holy Week. How lucky to be part of so many worlds.
To my chagrin, I had never heard of Dr. Taylor until 1978, when I was covering religion for the Times, although he was a pillar of religion and civil rights (if one can separate them) as pastor at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I heard about a gathering of black pastors every Monday, when one preached and later they all went out for lunch, uptown.
It was the day after Palm Sunday, and Dr. Taylor was preaching to the committed, about the ordeal of Jesus Christ during Holy Week. For a time, he was intellectual, measured, logical, but then he raised the amps. I described the mood in the church:
“I say to every Christian, You have not even wrestled with temptation the way Jesus did. Where are the blood marks? What pain have you undertaken in the name of Jesus? What sacrifice...? We cannot even know the misery of our Lord.”
Then, with most people leaning forward eagerly, Mr. Taylor retold a basic truth of Christianity – that Jesus came back on Easter morning.
“He won!” Mr. Taylor exclaimed, and his own colleagues began chanting at the end of every sentence. “He won!” until he finished with the urgent, emotional message of the Resurrection, and ended abruptly.
I can still hear his voice pealing. Later I came to know how he and the Rev. Martin Luther King had formed a progressive black Baptist denomination to advance civil rights, and in 1993 Dr. Taylor preached during the inauguration of President Clinton. I grieved from afar in 1995 when Dr. Taylor’s wife, Laura Scott Taylor, the unsalaried principal of the church elementary school, was killed by a truck as she crossed a street in Crown Heights. (He later remarried.)
He was a great American, graduate of the School of Theology, Oberlin College , and lecturer at Princeton. He was on my mind the afternoon he passed.
Óscar Arnulfo Romero seemed like a holy man -- including his very real danger of martyrdom. Now the Roman Catholic Church has confirmed the late archbishop of El Salvador as a martyr, a major step toward sainthood.
I met him in Mexico in February of 1979 when I was covering a regional conference of bishops and cardinals in Puebla. My colleague Alan Riding, who was based in Mexico, knew Romero quite well, and sought him out.
Standing on a street corner, they spoke and I tried to follow with my poor Spanish. My impression was of an austere man who was unafraid to speak with a reporter from The New York Times. I later learned that he spurned all luxuries back in San Salvador, insisting on a modest apartment, where he slept in a hammock, peasant-style.
Archbishop Romero was associated with Liberation Theology, the concept that Christ’s teachings must be applied in an option for the poor. Romero said, “There are two theologies of liberation. One is that which sees liberation only as material liberation. The other is that of Paul VI. I am with Paul VI.”
But what did the new Pope think? John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, was making his first trip out of Italy since his selection the previous fall. The world was awaiting his vision, which was delivered in the crowded Zócalo, the ancient center of the Aztec city, once named Tenochtitlan.
The Pope's views can be interpreted many different ways. It sounded to me that he had suggested priests and nuns get back into uniform and stick to administering the sacraments. If so, it seemed quite likely that Oscar Arnulfo Romero had been set up as an enemy, a radical, although the cardinals tried to deny the Pope would ever be so overtly political.
The Pope went back to the Vatican and the conference began in Puebla, on the other side of the twin volcanoes. I requested an interview with Archbishop Romero, and was honored when he slipped out of a conference for a few minutes. In the wintry sunshine, I asked him, as best I could, if he thought the public interpretation of the Pope’s message could be dangerous to people working with the poor in Latin America.
I have lost my notes -- and the brief conversation never got into print – but the Archbishop understood my question. The danger had been ratcheted up.
On March 24, 1980, I was driving in Florida and heard that Archbishop Romero had been shot once in the chest while celebrating Mass in San Salvador. Tears in my eyes, I had trouble staying on the road. That December, four American nuns were raped and killed by soldiers in El Salvador. I had met heroic nuns like that in Mexico; I think of them often.
For over three decades, people have been compiling their memories of Romero – how he climbed hillsides to deliver Communion to the peasants, how he dealt with Vatican bureaucrats while watching his priests get knocked off.
The current Pope, Francis I – who saw murderous activity up close in his homeland of Argentina – has encouraged the process to honor Archbishop Romero. The Pope has asked “Who am I to judge?” about gay people and is currently installing bathrooms and showers for the homeless off St. Peter’s Square. He reminds me of the cleric I met in 1979, the man with the kind, fearless eyes.
If the Roman Catholic church needs spending money – and what religion doesn’t? – I have a modest proposal: brand the tolerant words of Pope Francis about gays and sell t-shirts and ball caps with the revolutionary phrase, which sounds like the sayings of the Jewish preacher of two millennia ago.
The new Pope’s words on his trip home from Brazil suggest an inclusivity not always seen in the era of the various hand hand-choppers of modern religions. You’re not like me? Whack!
Speaking of judging, how about the interview by Lauren Green of Fox, apparently the occupier of the Glenn Beck Chair of Philosophy at the network of fair-and-balanced?
Green was interviewing Reza Aslan, author of a new book about Jesus, called Zealot. She asked how he, as an American of Iranian descent, who is Muslim, could possibly write a book about Christianity. (He had been Christian for a time, but she did not seem to know that.)
In the official Fox judgment, this rule would disqualify Hindus from writing about Islam, Christians from writing about Judaism, and so on. Academic research and opinion, be damned. The academic was forced on the defense, to stress his degrees and past work. In Beck-ish, O’Reilly-ish tones, the Foxite asserted her position: Stick to your own kind.
The good news is that Zealot is selling very well. In appearances with Chris Hayes and others, Aslan has come off as wry, complicated and earnest. Perhaps he should have done the Fox interview with a t-shirt quoting this new Pope.
The babble from the American news media is that the new Pope is from Latin America and is a Jesuit, therefore this must be good for the poor and sorting out the scandals.
I am three years younger than the former Cardinal Bergoglio, in pretty good shape, and write four or five hours a day.
Having been around one conclave, and covered religion for four years, when I hear the expectations being projected from afar on the new Francis I, my first reaction is: I need a nap.
Take it from me, since I was around a Conclave, the Vaticanologists do not know what they’re talking about when they predict the new pope.
Better you should consult a Roman housekeeper from Sardinia, named Grazia. She will know.
I discovered this in August of 1978, when I was dispatched to Rome upon the death of Pope Paul VI. (The first thing I learned is that journalists in Rome do not refer to the popes by number but by their original family name; Montini had just passed, for example.)
Every expert was talking up the most famous candidates – Baggio, Maldini, Baresi, Del Piero. (Those are actually soccer names; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. The point was, the favorites were all Italian.)
As soon as I got to Rome, the Times promptly went on strike. Our bureau chief departed for, I think, the beaches of Sardinia, lending his flat in the Piazza Navona to me and a colleague and our ladies. This gift included his Sardinian housekeeper, well under five feet tall, named Grazia. Her sister, also under five feet tall, was visiting. They wore black all the time.
Since I was the only one of our group who spoke any Italian, Grazia ran the household through me, but mostly she divulged her predictions for the upcoming conclave:
Signore Giorgio! Cardinale Luciani! Venezia! Famiglia Socialista! Uomo di Popolo!
I recited to her the names of all the Italian favorites. She wagged her index finger at me like a defender telling the referee not to give a yellow card.
Since I was on strike, my wife and I took a side trip to Vienna and Budapest. We came back when the conclave began. Grazia repeated her assertion that the Venetian cardinal would win.
Then one afternoon, while I was taking a blessed nap with the shades drawn, I could hear bells ringing all over Rome. I heard bustling in the hallway. Grazia and her sister, in their finest black, were heading off to church to pray for the new pope.
Grazia paused in the doorway and delivered her punch line:
Signore Giorgio! Cardinale Luciani! Venezia! Famiglia Socialista! Uomo di Popolo!
Albino Luciani lasted only a month. He was succeeded by a Polish prelate named Karol Jósef Wojtyla (whose name emerged from the first conclave; maybe I’ll tell that story in a day or two.)
If you want to know the identity of the next pope, ask a Sardinian under five feet tall. Or her sister.
Ever since last Sunday night, I have been thinking how cool it was that Barbra Streisand sang “The Way We Were” in tribute to Marvin Hamlisch. She had not sung at the Oscars in 36 years but showed up with immense energy for her friend.
* * *
Having covered one conclave and a few papal trips, I’d like to express my admiration for the way Pope Benedict XVI resigned. I am sure he was giving an intentional signal that the human part of his organization is not working so well. He showed the world that six centuries of tradition did not have to continue – a good reminder in our lives, public and private. .
* * *
I never thought I’d see the day when the Yankees would not spend money to improve their team. With Curtis Granderson out for a few months, The Boss would be trying to buy an all-star level outfielder, no matter the cost. He was insatiable. I’m not a Yankee fan, but I got used to his zeal for perfection. His sons want to cut the payroll. They must not be making money in their theme park in the Bronx.
As a huge fan of The New Yorker, I was interested when a saw a long piece by the estimable Ryan Lizza with a photo of Rep. Eric Cantor, but the current article is mostly about the mechanics of ominous politics and economics. I wanted to find out how somebody so low in personality could possibly get elected to public office, but the article gave no clue. What produced this sour and inarticulate human being? The only thing I learned was that he gets along with his mother-in-law, apparently a liberal Democrat. That’s nice, but in his public appearances, lurking behind the shoulder blades of John Boehner, there is no trace of a mensch.
Happy New Year. I can say that, having been pronounced an honorary Jew by our departed friend, the rabbi.
Happy New Year. We all need new years, new beginnings, days of atonement. They purify us, even by osmosis.
Happy New Year. I remember a lovely young woman telling me with great enthusiasm about the spiritual glow from her family's fast at Yom Kippur.
Happy New Year to friends all over the world, and particularly Jen and Sam in Tarn-et-Garonne. We stayed with them once at Yom Kippur; their home was still, the weather hauntingly gorgeous in France, just as in New York.
Happy New Year.
The most overtly religious thing I do, aside from prayer, is take out the family menorah every December.
I love to handle its sturdy stem and graceful arms, and I love the ritual of lighting it, when we are home, when I remember.
I am a Christian; we have two or three Ganeshas around the house; I still glow from interviews with the Dalai Lama years ago. It all flows together, particularly in this country founded on freedom and multiplicity.
The menorah stirs feelings that are ancient – the same connections I sense in Brooklyn when I gaze at the Hasids who, of course, make no eye contact whatsoever. I feel they are kin, somehow, through my father, who was adopted, but I spare them from telling them so.
The menorah touches deeply because it speaks of survival and courage. When the candles flicker through our front window, they say, Here Too, More of Us, whatever us means.
The past year, lights have been glowing in parts of the world where it takes extreme bravery to congregate, much less protest. Light a candle for people of courage. Happy Hanukkah.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.