Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Zen Of Beijing

Although it’s been 30 years, it’s always stuck with me. Back in the 1978 television miniseries “Holocaust” (our answer to “Roots”), the brother who survived did so because he was stronger. The other, weaker one, played by James Woods, perished.

In some ways, their brotherhood is a microcosm of the ongoing, universal, yin-yang in all Jews — one is Jacob, the other Esau. On the one hand we cherish our bookish, intellectual heritage. On the other, we are exuberant when one of our own excels at strength and endurance.

Watching the Olympics and the amazing athleticism from so many members of our tribe, including Jason Lezak’s triumphant relay finish with fellow Jewish swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale, was inspirational; as are Dara Torres’ medals and kayaker Rami Zur. And along with the aquatically fearsome chevrei, there are fencer Sara Jacobson and distance runner Deena Kastor.
I can’t remember an Olympics with so many Jewish athletes. And while Mark Spitz was a hero for so many of us, he was one guy. Now we practically have a minyan.

But it’s that persistent, sustaining spirit of endurance that fascinates.

In that’ 70s show, Spitz’s 6-pack abs were forever etched in my memory on a poster, not unlike the famous one of Farrah from that same era (you know the one). He and his medals glistened at me, hypnotically tossing me into the pool and the varsity swim team. I would shape myself in his image (OK, I couldn’t grow a mustache), but everyday I’d swim ’ til I couldn’t feel my arms. Like that other ’ 70s bionic icon of strength, Steve Austin, I got better, stronger and faster. And I discovered … swimming is incredibly boring.

What kept me going was more than the strength and endurance, but a Zen-like state, because the repetition is so endless. Back and forth I’d go for two hours, hardly speaking to anyone, aside from an occasional foggy stare through goggles.

Ironically, perhaps that’s part of the Jewish appeal. It’s a lot like prayer. The repetition, persistence and individuality among peers are not unlike a service.

In their book “Swimming in the Sea of Talmud,” Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz convey that sense of frustration many of us feel when confronted with the vastness that is Judaism, swimming endlessly in search of a better understanding and how it can relate to “me.”
What keeps us going? For many of us with children, they do it. They are our hope, our future scholars and Olympians.

Over the summer, my two children began taking karate. Rather than sitting for an hour waiting for them, I decided to join in. So, at 47, I donned the white belt and began lessons, knowing that to continue onward, like studying Talmud, there was a very long road ahead.

What I’ve learned is that very combination of strength and endurance, combined with a deeper spiritual aspect — that concentrated Zen quality that swimming possesses, but with the cool reward of actually breaking through a hunk of wood and everyone in the room cheering!

I kept asking the black belts if they’d ever had to use karate and they said, “No.” They’ve devoted their lives to a form of self-defense spending countless hours at their craft and never had to whack a hoodlum. What talmudic sea were they swimming toward?

Getting back a little of my old edge, I realized watching the Olympics that the physical endurance of survival allows the spiritual half to blossom — just like in Judaism.

And as with the TV series “Holocaust,” without the strength of the younger Rudi Weiss inside of us, the older bother, Karl Weiss, can’t live on.

Both Jacob and Esau are a necessary and essential part of us.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of Judaism and popular culture. More of his work is at abenovick.com