Boxing, Daf Yomi and my Mom.
Something about extreme events from hurricanes to political upheavals to the strange and extraordinary in one’s life brings me to the point where I want to call my mother. Lord knows we had our issues and I admit to a genuine cringe factor as I listened to the refrain of the opening gambit on her voicemails that always went “hi, this is your mother.”
What, I wouldn’t recognize her voice? (Said out loud with all of the inflection that implies.) Let’s face it, I’d been hearing her since I was in utero which was a very long time ago. So, yes, I did know that it was my mother calling without the need to prompt my auditory memory.
When we did finally speak, and after establishing who was who, there was the rhetorical mom-is-presenting-me-with-a-huge-seemingly-insurmountable-but-ultimately-resolvable-problem-if-she-only-listened part of the conversation, followed by her multitude of what-are-you doing questions, the here’s-what-I’m-doing part of the call (what she bought that Saturday on her rounds through the tag sales, what happend at the pancake breakfast in Red Rock, NY, the latest deer tick count in Columbia County, recycled news about my brother followed by assorted complaints …), and finally the how’s-my-granddaughter finale where we found our common ground and lots of kvelling. Sounding familiar anyone? (And no comments allowed from the prodigal who will eventually read this.)
Oy is all I can say, though I must recant a bit of that “oy” to say that I have my mother to thank for being the Jewish mother I’ve become and for allowing me the joys of her mother sans editorial comment considering Grandma was as classic a hysterical Jewish mother as ever lived. And that is the space I most miss my mother in. The indefinable space of cultural shtick that we shared as true friends and allies, and not in the traditional sense either because in our tiny island of a family we were not exactly observant or even identifiable Jews.
We never went to Synagogue (except the few times my Grandmother grabbed me to go), never talked about it (except the time when I was nine years old and started sneak-reading her copy of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) and never went to High Holiday services. Even Hanukkah was an afterthought as I was well into my teens before we ever acknowledged it. Our only discernible “duty” if you will was to Passover which included the trek from Manhattan to Queens and back in the early days via a combination of subways and buses and as I got older, hitching a ride in the back of my Uncle’s car.
In Mom’s case Passover meant (a) helping her mother, (b) Grandma bonding for me (and getting a red ribbon tied to me at some point to ward off the evil eye), (c) Mom sneaking milk for her coffee in my grandmother’s otherwise kosher home and (d) lots of snickering with me as the panoply of remote Long Island cousins dropped in (hence the red ribbon to ward off the jealousy my Grandmother knew they harbored for us).
Fast forwarding a million years, my mother wrested with the effects of terminal lung cancer. In the last few days of her life, Mom would sit upright in her hospital bed and with a mixture of calm and cheerful wonder would eye the two large gold embossed leather-bound books on her bedside table, one neatly covered in plastic with an embroidered bookmark peering out from the back pages and the other a pristine copy lying in wait for the completion of its sister volume.
The books were part of the Daf Yomi series, a seven and a half year cycle of daily readings of the Babylonian Talmud*. Given the irreligious life my mother had lived, and given her genuine lack of interest in formal worship and the accompanying rigamarole, the contradiction of the embrace of such disciplined daily religious study may have seemed out of character, but even though she had eschewed the outward trappings of worship, her deeper search for meaning had led her to embrace the rigors of an intellectual life deposited into one sheet of paper per day.
I bring this up as a long way around the idea of boxing and boxing study as a temple of experience. One works and works and works at one thing such that the practice in its purest sense is down-right monkish.
Jab, Jab, Jab. Jab, Jab, Jab. Jab, Jab, Jab. Jab, Jab, Jab. Jab, Jab, Jab.
Straight right, straight right, straight right. Straight right, straight right, straight right. Straight right, straight right, straight right.
Left hook, left hook, left hook. Left hook, left hook, left hook. Left hook, left hook, left hook.
Slip left, slip left, slip left. Slip left, slip left, slip left. Slip left, slip left, slip left.
Just how many ways are there to throw a punch or to slip a punch? Talk to a trainer about the art of the left hook and Trainer A will insist on a twist of the fist at the end while Trainer B will scream out “what are you doing, why are you turning over your hand?”
As is true for a lot of deep things about life (and not to sound too Hegalian,) it’s often in the argument itself that we find the essence. Much as my mother found the essence of Judaism in the cross currents of Rabbinic argument over the meaning of whether one cow or two is appropriate for reneging on a small contract, a boxer will find the essence of the jab through repeated argument with the mirror.
One day, it just sinks in … Jab.
As with most moments of that sort, they pass quietly, much as my mother passed her simple daily reading on to me the morning of her death. By then, she was in a coma, breathing easily and steadily, the edges of her mouth relaxed. Looking at her books, I picked up the volume she had been reading and read her the day’s passage aloud. The book, though well-read, still had a new book feel and though I passed a few difficult moments, found in the reading a connection to her I’ve only just begun to discern.
It showed me that beneath the many battles my mother and I fought over the years, at our essence, we were in fact, two willing partners in the engagement that was our relationship, and as with the moment a hook stings the heavy bag with an extra something that says “hook,” Mom and I were a pair after all: mother and daughter with some stories to share.
*The Daf Yomi is a seven and one half year cycle of readings from the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of religious commentaries on Jewish oral law, known as the Mishnah, and discussion of the Mishnah known as the Gemara. The Gemara also incorporates a broad overview of topics from the Tanaka (Jewish books of the bible), as well as particular (and avid) discussions of the meaning of varying biblical passages. The Babylonian Talmud dates from 500 AD (CE).
What a marvelous post! Puts me in mind just a bit of Binnie Klein’s book about rediscovering her Jewish roots through learning to box.
We have a similar set of readings in the Protestant church called the Lectionary. It’s a nine-year set, 4 readings from scripture for each week. In my far-far-back past as a preacher, I actually “preached the Lectionary” for a total of nine years before realizing it didn’t actually cover *all* of scripture, and that I could branch out a bit… Hah!
Great post, GB. I’m building on that jab.
Thanks, Lisa. I don’t know what got me on that tangent, other than the fact that I am still rather amazed that she had gotten through almost six years of readings when she died. Kind of an amazing thing, and in a way inspirational vis-a-via the notion of a daily something.
I hadn’t known about the Lectionary — and how funny nine years of readings didn’t cover *all* of scripture! With the Talmud it’s like reading a bunch of footnotes by a bunch of legal scholars. Except that they’re footnotes on footnotes that wind around the page, and in some cases, literally about the merits of a “fine” (one cow or two) which of course is not what it’s about at all on the deeper level. Very interesting stuff … and as I said to my brother (who was doing the readings with my mother) — perhaps I’ll start them when I get to my senatorial years, provided that I actually reach 80 and have enough marbles to read.
As for the jab … there’s nothing better in the world when it actually sinks in.
I have to tell you — my all-time favorite class in seminary was Midrash, which I took from the sexy Rabbi Sager. We called him Rabbi Hollywood. But it was an incredible class, and really opened my eyes to the rich traditions of writing all those teeny notes in the margins. There was no class more compelling to me. Of course, I come from (German Jewish) Scharffs and Lowenthals.
I hear your jab and raise you one. (If only I could put two really satisfying jabs together! Why should this one little punch be so very very hard to do well?)
I’m still wrapping myself around the idea that you went to Seminary! You certainly must have some tales to tell. (BTW, when *are* you coming to NYC???)
As for Rabbi Hollywood, that is a great story. It’s the teeny tiny margin notes that get to me every time as well.
Somewhere in my later 20’s I began a religious sojourn that lasted to my late 30’s. At some point it led me to the door of Rabbi Richard Chapin who was an associate Rabbi at Temple Emmanuel at that time. One thing he said that struck me was that the essence of Judaism (and I guess all religion) was not the holidays or the big show stuff, but the little things. The kindnesses in a family or the keeping of even one ritual of a weekly sabbath. It took me years to work that one out — and like the illusive perfect jab — religious knowingness shows up from time to time out of no where only to duck under when the other parts of life intrude to take up the space it had occupied.
You have a knack for combining topics and somehow relating them to boxing, and it always works out and is very powerful. I really enjoyed this.
Thanks! Coming from you, who writes such amazing posts, means a lot to me!
your lesson is one regarding Judaism and religion itself; shift right; shift right; shift right (perhaps the same mitzvah/commandment, or a different one each day), and after several weeks or months…..who knows?
By the way, I write a daily in-depth summary and insight of the Daf.
Thanks so much for your comment. It does feel that way doesn’t? Tiny steps that build and build and build. Thanks adding the link to your site. I’ll definitely check it out.