Thursday, March 20, 2008

In Memoriam Isaac J. Meyers

"Quis desiderio sit pudor, aut modus
Tam cari capitis?"
What shame can there be, or measure, in lamenting one so dear?--Horace, Ode, i. 24, I.]

Today is the Jewish festival of Purim, a time for rejoicing – a time, indeed, when we are commanded to rejoice – a celebration of Jewish survival. But it is difficult to rejoice this year. Because on Monday my friend Isaac Meyers was hit by a truck, and he did not survive.

Isaac was a man of the most exacting standards, of clear moral and critical vision. He would not enjoy having a fuss made over him (which is not to say that he would be unhappy to be instrumental in a fuss being made.) And so I’m a bit hesitant about broadcasting these thoughts into the ether. Surely grief should be private; and what can one say in this situation that’s worthy of Isaac himself, or that can comprehend his loss? But friends and human beings like Isaac shouldn’t go unlamented; and lamentation is a public act of honouring the dead, as well as an expression of personal grief. I just hope that he would forgive me this emotional exhibitionism (I tend to think he would. He’d probably mock it, and probably rightly; but he’d ultimately forgive it. I hope.).

It also seems fitting to revive this blog, however briefly, to note and deplore Isaac’s passing. For Isaac is the one who first got me into the blogging. Our venture, called YDN Box Watch, was characteristic of Isaac. It was created not for publicity, or even for public consumption, but as a venture among friends – one which was deliberately unpublicised. And so I don’t think anyone but we the contributors ever read it. Yet at the same time, while the blog was ventured into light-heartedly, Isaac – and the other contributors (our friends Alison Hornstein and Andrew Koss) – took our discussions seriously. Political, and therefore moral, matters were at issue; questions of right and wrong, of incisive or (more often) sloppy thinking, of truth and falsehood and evasion of even confronting questions of truth and falsehood, were at stake; and even if these happened to be raised in the opinion pages of a student newspaper, and even if the debates about them were not known outside a small (4 people!) circle of recent alumni – well, that was beside the point.

Few people I have known have combined passionate moralism, intellectualism and aestheticism as Isaac did. This is to say that he was committed at once to goodness, truth, and beauty. Few have managed, in the process, to be so truly good, truthful and beautiful themselves. And few have managed to simultaneously avoid the sanctimony of the moralist, the emotional coolness of the intellectual and scholar, and the moral frivolousness of the aesthete. But Isaac did.

Our blogging venture was truly a venture – there was an element of risk in it. Isaac and I were acutely aware of this. He undertook this risk humorously, even boisterously; I undertook it dubiously. For Isaac and I realised that we disagreed pretty strongly on a lot of things; that about some of these things we were rather touchy, and so that there was a potential we’d get on one another’s nerves in expressing our views – and that, when it came to that, we would probably be unable to resist expressing our views robustly. Isaac, as I’ve said, did not seem uncomfortable or anxious about this possibility. I’m sorry to say that I was more hesitant; and I fear that this hesitancy may have reflected a less great trust in our friendship, and in both his and my capacity for tolerance and magnanimity, than Isaac had. In his case, this lack of trust was unfounded, and thinking about it now is painful. Even when he held and expressed views I deplored, he did so in a more truly liberal spirit than many of the liberals. I’m sorry that political (or religious, or cultural) disagreements – or rather, my own anxiety about such disagreements creating conflict – occasionally prevented us from being as close as we might have been. I’m glad that I was able to overcome these unfounded worries often enough to nevertheless benefit from Isaac’s incomparable wit, and learning, and sense of fun, and friendship.

Isaac and I met, if I remember correctly (I probably don’t, but this might be true nonetheless) when he was a junior and I a sophomore. So he was part of my life for 8 years. Over that time he grew a great deal; and yet he didn’t seem to change much. The same basic qualities were always there; but they seemed to unfold in ever-new, ever-surprising directions, to embrace more and more. Somehow – a piece of good fortune I now wish I’d appreciated and exploited more than I did – we kept winding up in the same places: Yale, Oxford, Harvard. Wherever he went, Isaac made friends – with all sorts of different people – and created communities of friends around himself. One remembers the barbeques, the birthday parties, the movie screenings, the performances of his incomparable, ukele-driven, Jewish power-pop act The Rothschilds.

But for me the memories that come most immediately to mind – and now they pour forth, and are painful as I realize how wonderful and how few they were, and that their number will now never be increased – were those moments when it was just the two of us. Many of these took place in Oxford – his visit to my room, in the course of which he got lost in the building in which I lived (I thought I had given him good instructions to find it; and they were good instructions – if you already were familiar with the building, and so knew exactly what they meant. Isaac pointed out what I had come to overlook – that the building in which I lived was like a warren; and for the rest of the year I couldn’t help but see my surroundings as, indeed, warren-like); our lunch in a dingy cafe on St Giles in which Isaac typically restricted himself to junk food (his devotion to abiding by Jewish dietary laws throughout his time in the UK permanently damaged his teeth and gums), and talked inquiringly and mockingly and lovingly about various people we knew. And then there was the time when, in the course of flying from his beloved Bulgaria (even in countries, Isaac’s tastes were unusual, but – once explained by him – perfectly sensible) back to the US, what should have been a brief stopover at Heathrow was prolonged by a terrorism scare. And so Isaac unexpectedly found himself returning to Oxford a year after completing his studies there, and I found myself unexpectedly hosting him, and feeding him on an improvised and inadequate meal of crackers and nutella (at least, I think that was it. The shops were closed, and neither of us had much money), and staying up into the wee hours watching videos (courtesy of Youtube) of the Go-Gos and Oingo-Boingo (advocated by Isaac) and Klaus Nomi (my contribution) and the Go-Betweens (a shared favourite; I correctly guessed Isaac’s favourite line from ‘Head Full of Steam’. Now, I suppose, I’ll always think of Isaac when listening to the Go-Betweens, or Magnetic Fields, or any of the other bands we avidly discussed). Other particularly vivid memories come from rare meetings in New York – at an upper-West Side (I think) diner, or at his parents’ apartment, or at the Jewish Theological Seminary when he was working there.

This last, of course, invokes Isaac’s heart-and-soul-and-mind devotion to Judaism and the Jewish people, to the full richness of Jewish tradition, the warmth of Jewish community, the comedy of poignancy of Jewish life. This was inseparable from all that he did and was; but his involvement – no, the word is inadequate; participation comes closer, though it is still imperfect – in the Jewish community was not a facet of Isaac’s life that featured heavily in my relationship with him, and so I do not feel qualified to write about it: save to say, now, too few the Shabbat dinners I spent with him, too few the conversations about ancient Hebrew translation and modern Hebrew poetry; and why did I never take him up on his invitations to Wednesday night dinner at Harvard Hillel? Suffice to say: Isaac lived the life of a Jew, with joy and scrupulousness and an all-giving generosity to his community.

He was on his way to be part of a shiva minyan – to allow others to say prayers for their dead – when he was killed. A tragic irony, which is truly heartbreaking. So much goodness – and this was its reward.

The obituary notices have been coming out, and they all make mention of Isaac’s brilliance, and his quirkiness. This is of course correct; and it is what most people noticed about Isaac. But it is also something that many of us came to take rather for granted. What, looking back, impresses me more is his loyalty, his delight in people, his mixture of unfailing poise with a sense of humour – and a delight in the ridiculous and incongruous – which was somehow at once boisterous and refined, and of relish of life with an exacting self-discipline and purity.

It is especially cruel that someone who got so much out of life, and put so much into it, should have life taken from him so suddenly, and senselessly, and early.

The last time I saw him, for more than a moment in passing, was at his birthday. There was so much that should have been ahead of him.

Isaac’s death is a source of stabbing regret, as well as desolating grief, for many people. Regret for our loss, and his: for all the joy that he might have had and given others, for all the things he might have done, and for the black hole that has been created in the lives of all those around him. As more than one person has remarked to me, it’s like a light has gone out. There’s an area of our lives – for some, an encompassing area, at the centre of their hearts – that has been plunged in blackness.

As for me, there’s this regret, and something of this grief. But there’s another regret, which is inspired by the recognition of that grief. I regret not having made better use of the time I was blessed with knowing Isaac – for not having spent more time with him, discussed more things with him (why, oh why, I now wonder, didn’t I send him that email about whether he had heard of The Wedding Present, and if he wanted me to burn a CD of an album of theirs? Why didn’t I ask him if he’d read Cold Comfort Farm, or about what poets he’d been reading recently and could recommend, or if he knew anything – as he probably did – about translations of Tacitus into various languages?), sought his advice more often on all the matters that he might have spoken incisively about (which is to say, most matters). But I also regret that, while he always meant a great deal to me, while I enjoyed our meetings and thought of him fondly, it is only now that I am actually aware of how much he meant – of how important to me he was, of how I loved him – all along.

As it is, now we are left with memories – painful and joyful, inadequate but undying and enriching. I think of the timbre of his voice, his expression, his manner of speech; I remember what he said, and try to imagine what he might have said about various things. And I find myself smiling, even as the tears run down my cheeks. But then the tears come heavier; and, for the moment, I cannot smile, and I cannot write, anymore.

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