Jay Mendelsohn: Hero, Rosh Hashanah 2019/5780 Rabbi Roger C. Klein





          Let me introduce you to Jay Mendelsohn: 81 years old, a retired research scientist while nursing a life-long disappointment that financial and family needs kept him from completing his Ph.D. in mathematics; a devoted but critical husband and father of five.  As for personality, Jay is crusty, supremely … even tiresomely … self-confident, tough, opinionated, humorless, severe, precise, hard-nosed, self-absorbed.  He also had “strict codes that governed his thinking and [which] held the world in place”.  [Note to the reader: phrases and sentences in quotes are drawn from Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic.]  He had the habit of uttering, as if they were delivered from on high, truisms like “Your father is your father;” “Excellence is excellence, period;”  Smart is smart” … and, there’s no such thing as being a ‘bad test taker.’”  In a “real” poem, he would say, a rhyme is a rhyme [and] you can’t approximate!”  In this iron-clad logic we discover a man who is all head, all brain, all thinking and cogitating.  For Jay, moreover, “the more difficult something is to achieve or to appreciate, the more unpleasant to do or to understand, the more likely it is to possess the quality that for him was the hallmark of worthiness.”  In addition, throughout his life, this rigid perfectionist would have long periods when he was not talking with his parents and each of his three brothers.  And his son Daniel reports, in his book, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic, the terror he felt as a child, standing “nervously in the doorway to his [father’s] bedroom … getting up the nerve to ask for his help with a math problem … only to have his father fill him with shame at his incapacity to understand something so obvious.”  Jay’s motto, in sum was this: “difficulty is the hallmark of quality, pleasure [is] suspect, and toil worthy.”  Yet, as his son acknowledges, Jay was a “good man.”

Now, this son, Daniel Mendelsohn, teaches classics at Bard College in eastern New York State. And one fine day, Jay told his son that he would like to sit in on the undergraduate seminar that he was teaching that semester on Homer’s Odyssey.  The Odyssey is about a journey, Odysseus’s ten-year journey, from Troy back home to Ithaca in Greece.  The Odyssey describes a journey filled with adventure and with loss and pain.  In fact, the word “Odyssey” and the name “Odysseus,” the Odyssey’s hero, come from the Greek that means pain.  Odysseus is the one who travels; and he is the one who suffers.  Journeys, if they are real journeys, involve pain … the pain of leaving something known behind and the risk of facing something unanticipated, even frightening, ahead.  This is the journey Odysseus took in “real” time and this is the journey father and son, Jay and Daniel, took, as well.

That father and son journey began in the classroom.  Here is how Daniel, the instructor, describes it: “At ten past ten each Friday morning, Jay would take a seat among the freshmen who were enrolled in the course, seventeen-or eighteen –year olds not even a quarter his age, and [with them] join in the discussion of this old poem, an epic about long journeys and long marriages and what it means to yearn for home.

Now, an hour into the first session of the class, it became clear that Jay, sitting in a corner of the room and not at the seminar table, didn’t think much of Odysseus.  “I just don’t see why he’s supposed to be such a great hero!”  This, from the man who said in advance that he would only sit in class and listen … and not speak. “What kind of leader loses all his men?”  At this point, Daniel thought to himself that “This is going to be a nightmare.”

And in subsequent classroom discussions, Jay regularly led with his crusty and his critical nature: Odysseus, he would intone, isn’t a hero at all because he is a serial liar, often acts foolishly, loses all his men, and regularly cheats on his wife … cheating, most especially, during one long seven-year liaison in her cave with the nymph Calypso.  And, with heightened exasperation, Jay shouts, “And [Odysseus] cries!”  And he goes on: “I was in the army, and I knew some guys who were real heroes.  And I can tell you, nobody cried.”  Which reminds Dan that “I never saw my father cry,” because he hated signs of weakness – even of illness, for which he displayed a kind of contempt, as if being sick were an ethical rather than a physical failing … as if a case of flu or chicken pox were the beginning of some irreversible moral decline.”

And at that moment, true to form, Jay becomes bellicose.  “Another reason I can’t call Odysseus a hero … is that he keeps getting help from the gods!  Everything he does, every bit of success he has, is really because the gods help him.”

“I’m not so sure, Daniel replied.  The poem also makes clear that even without the help of the gods he’s very clever –

“No,” Jay said, with a vehemence that made some of the students look up from their note-taking, “No. The whole poem happens because the gods are always helping him.”

“Well, yes, Daniel said, but …”

“Let me finish”, Jay said, in a tone I recognized from many years earlier.  “So it’s really just the gods,” my father pushed on, the dismissive rhythm of his argument, the jackhammer emphasis on certain words, familiar from other, much-older arguments, arguments whose climactic, clinching phrases I could remember years later, like, “Oh, what do you know, that’s just a college –boy argument” or … “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about, numbers aren’t your strong point.” And now … “It’s really just the gods.”

After repeating “He gets a lot of help from the gods,” my father sat back in his chair and frowned triumphantly.  And, at this point, Daniel observes, Jay was getting a lot of support from the students.

“And so, yes,” Daniel responds, “Odysseus cheats, loses his men, lies and cries.  But [he] also brave, resourceful, eloquent and persistent … a fighter, a leader, and a man who can exhibit self-control.  “So, which,” Daniel asks, “is his true self?”

Which raises two questions for us: Which is my true self? And what does it mean to be a hero?

And so, as the story of Daniel and his father unfolds, we notice that it is the story of several overlapping journeys: of the Greek hero’s journey home from the Trojan War; of the journey father and son share in the classroom, wrestling with each other over the meaning of an epic and of a hero; and then … another journey … a journey which Daniel intimates became a kind of homecoming. .

So, five weeks after the course ended, Daniel and his father sign up for a “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise.  Travelling from one site to another on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea … sites that are associated with the epic … the exhilarated but increasingly exhausted tourists come to end their day by returning to the ship, showering and changing and eating dinner and then. around nine o’clock, gathering together in the ship’s bar and regaling one another with singing and talking … including reflections on the day’s adventure.

And, behold, another Jay Mendelsohn begins to appear, one that Daniel had never seen before, as either a son or as a teacher.  He became “a lovely old man filled with charming tales about the thirties and forties … [and] showing [the others] only his kindly face.”  “If only they knew the real him,” [Daniel] thought, “those expressions of contempt that we all knew so well …”  “Just how many sides did my father actually have,” I asked myself, “and which was the ‘real’ one?  Perhaps this expansive and charming person, so different from the crabbed and coiled man whom my students had come to know … now this song-singing old gentleman who could be so affable and entertaining with total strangers on a ship in the middle of the sea … perhaps this was the person my father [truly was and] had always been meant to be”.  Who exactly is Jay Mendelsohn?

And so, one day during their journey, the group visits Calypso’s cave, that cave where Odysseus had spent the first seven years of his ten-year journey.  And we travelers saw immediately that the descent into the cave was “rocky and difficult,” a cave whose entrance was so narrow that only a few people could enter at a time, given how cramped it was.  Elderly people and people who had ‘mobility issues’ were advised not to visit the site.  And, Daniel relates that “When I heard all this, I was determined not to go.  I suffer badly from claustrophobia: simply being in an elevator sets my teeth on edge. … So there was no way I was going to go into Calypso’s cave.”

“What are you talking about?” my father exclaimed when I told him.  “You have to go!  Seven-tenths of the Odyssey takes place there!  … You can’t argue with numbers! You [simply] can’t miss it!”  “[And so,] we got on the bus and went.  As the big coach rattled and bumped along the rocky roads, it was touchingly clear that my father was trying to distract me.  “Look at those beautiful blue flowers!” he would say, pointing. “But I looked without seeing; I was thinking about the cave.  Already, flickering at the edges of my consciousness, there was the familiar prickle of panic.  As I do when waiting for the elevator doors to open or after fastening my seat belt on a small plane, I was focusing on pushing back against the prickly feeling … which required an almost physical effort.  I was sweating.”

We pulled up at the site and everyone got out of the bus.  We were standing on the brow of a brown, lifeless hill. … A narrow stair descended steeply from where we were standing to an uneven rocky surface fifteen feet below.  Below, the face of the cave looked like a sheer wall of stone with a low, dark cleft in the middle; it was clear you’d have to stoop to get in … A clammy terror seized me.  I shook my head.  “No, I said to my father.  “Nope, sorry.   I’m not going.  You go, you’ll tell me what it’s like.”

“Oh, come on, Dan,” my father said.  I’ll be with you, it’ll be fine.”  I felt like I was five years old.  I said again, “No. You go. I’ll stay up here.”  Then my father did something that astonished me.  He reached over and took my hand.  I looked at him and burst out laughing.  “Daddy!”  “You’ll be fine,” he said, holding my hand lightly, a thing I couldn’t remember him having done since I was a small boy.  His own [hand] was light and dry and slender.  I looked at it awkwardly.  “I will be there with you every step of the way,” my father was saying.  “And if you hate it, we’ll leave.”

And so it was that I visited Calypso’s cave with my father holding my hand.  He held it as we made our way gingerly down the stairs.  He held my hand as we crouched down low to squeeze through the opening; he held my hand as we shuffled around inside, my heart thumping so hard that I was surprised the others didn’t seem to hear it; held my hand as I said firmly that, no, I didn’t want to go through a passageway in the center of the rock to see the spectacular views of the bay below, visible from the other side of the cavern; held my hand as I shuffled at last out into the dry hot air, not even bothering to conceal my panicked haste.  Only after we reached the top of the stairs again and started walking toward the waiting bus did he let go of my hand.  “You okay, Dan?” … Then he looked at me and said, “You did good, Dan.”

That night, after dinner in the lounge, people were talking about Calypso’s cave.

“So?” Ksenia, one of the tour leaders, asked, turning to me. [Earlier] that morning, as people were gathering in the reception area for the excursion, I’d told her about my claustrophobia. “You know,” she had said, “you really don’t have to go!  A lot of people are staying aboard because for them it’s too difficult.” … [Then] later, after we’d returned from the excursion, I bumped into Ksenia on deck and told her what had happened: my panic attack, Daddy holding my hand.

“Wonderful!” She cried.

Now, as people sat sipping their cocktails in the lounge, she was looking at the two of us warmly.  “See? You survived!”

Some of the others glanced at her quizzically.  “Survived”? someone asked.

I was trying to think of something funny to say when my father cut in.

“We had a great time,” he said loudly.

I looked over at him, but he was leaning forward, facing into the ragged semicircle of armchairs like a teacher addressing a study group.

“I didn’t want to go,” my father said to them.  The stairs are hard for me.  I thought it would be too much for me physically.  But Dan helped me, and I’m glad I went.  After all, Odysseus spends seven-tenths of his adventures there!”

He paused and said, not looking at me, “It was one of the more impressive things I’ve seen, actually.”

The pianist was playing the song he’d sung the night before: “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”  Daddy closed his eyes and started humming along.  I didn’t know what year it was/ Life was no prize …

Ksenia smiled.  “Your father is a very charming man,” she murmured.

And so, in those very moments in the lunge after a long, tiring day, Jay Mendelsohn discovered an unexpected, unacknowledged part of himself … part of who he really was, deep down. “How many sides did my father actually have … and which was the ‘real’one?” Dan had asked himself earlier in the story.  The “expansive and charming person” who delighted everyone on the journey?  Or the “crabbed and coiled man” Daniel’s Odyssey students had come to know?”  And why not both … and even more selves … selves not yet revealed, even to Jay himself?  We’re complicated   How many selves does each of us have?  And are there even better selves, better versions of ourselves, hidden, unconjectured, unexplored?

Jay Mendelsohn, a good and responsible father, though gruff and impatient and severe and self-absorbed, found in himself the capacity for self-transcendence, the capacity to put aside his need for self-display in order to save the face of his beloved son. To discover within himself the resources to see what that very moment in the ship’s lounge actually called for. And what it called for was, first, empathy … and then, generosity … and finally, a kind of self-sacrifice.  What it called for was an instinct that, I imagine, even stunned Jay … the instinctive recognition that, at that moment, his son was in pain … the pain of vulnerability, the pain of embarrassment, the pain of being exposed.  The pain that only he, the crusty old father, could save him from.  Perhaps, at that moment, Jay Mendelsohn surprised even himself … surprised by what he was able to do, what had been in him to do all along.  The courage, for example, to put aside his customary behavior … the behavior that was surely the result of his own pains, the pains he had experience along his own long, life-long journey. At that moment, Jay Mendelsohn became a larger person.

Who, really, was Odysseus?  Who, really, was Jay Mendelsohn?  Who, really, are we?  Here’s my answer: we are, ever and always, more than we think we are.  We can do, ever and always, things we never thought we could do.  And we must remember, ever and always, that we are unfinished beings who have the capacity, ever and always, to make a difference to ourselves and to those around us … in any given moment, in any now.  And when we do make that difference, drawing out from our many selves yet another, unexpected self … then, in those moments during our life-long journeys home, we are heroes.