Sunday, May 6, 2012

Celebrating Thoreau's 150th Yahrzeit

Henry David Thoreau
Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of American writer and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau (after whom this blog is named).  In Jewish tradition, the anniversary of a death is called the Yahrzeit, and it is traditional to honor the life of a person whose Yahrzeit you are observing.  So, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about why this blog is called "Notes from a Jewish Thoreau,"  and what effect the life of Thoreau has had on me.  (For my nature-loving readers, that should be obvious.  Unfortunately, it might not be so obvious to my Orthodox Jewish readers, who may or may not have read Thoreau in yeshiva.)

As I have written on this blog and elsewhere, I grew up as an outlier in the Jewish community.  As a [then undiagnosed] person on the autism spectrum, I was always a loner who preferred being in nature to being with people.   When, in high school (during the early 1960s), we read Thoreau's Walden as part of the curriculum, a whole new world opened up for me. Here was a rugged individualist much like myself, who "marched to a different drummer" and found joy in the beauty of the natural world. He also understood solitude. "What sort of space is that," Thoreau asked, "which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another." Well said!  Reading Thoreau made it OK to be different.

Walden Pond, Massachussetts,  in 2010
(Photo by Ekhabishek, courtesy of Wikimedia)
I embraced Thoreau's philosophy of voluntary simplicity (to this day I have little regard for society's status symbols), and longed to live in the woods as he had done. Part of that fantasy was fulfilled through hiking, campcraft and nature study.  Today, it is even more fulfilled by my wife and I living on a 15-acre hobby farm in Minnesota.   We have a lot more amenities than Thoreau did, but his message to "simplify, simplify, simplify!" still affects our lifestyle.

Appended to my copy of Walden was Thoreau's famous essay, "Civil Disobedience." That laid the groundwork for my involvement in the anti-war movement. In the fall of 1966, I went to college and jumped head first into political activism. The local YMCA had a basement coffeehouse, where I read my protest poetry, listened to local folksingers, and met interesting people from across the country. I missed out on Woodstock, but did ride a bus to Washington D.C., where I held hands and sang "give peace a chance" with a quarter of a million flower children. Those were idealistic times, when we all believed that a new age of peace and love was just around the corner. Although it has been a struggle sometimes to keep my idealism, I have never given up hope for a better world. To this day, I remain a peacemonger and a pacifist.

Thoreau was primarily a writer, not an activist per se, but that one night of protest he spent in jail -- and what he wrote about it -- eventually sparked a whole resistance movement that continues today. Single acts of heroism have a way of reverberating down through the years. Who knows what the ripple effect will be, and how many lives will eventually be touched, through one person's willingness to break ranks and heed the voice of conscience? And would you be willing to do it?

*  *  *

December 30, 2014: I recently ran across this interesting article, Torah and Thoreau, by Joseph Bornstein, who describes it as his "enthralling discovery that Henry David Thoreau’s ideas have their roots in Jewish consciousness."  Thoreau was not Jewish, of course.  He was a Transcendentalist.  But Bornstein does provide a lot of parallels between Thoreau's life and philosophy and Jewish thought.  A good read.


Shunraya said...


I very much look forward to reading your blog updates, not least because I too find comfort in being close to nature. This one did not disappoint.

More, it hit a nerve. You wrote:

'Who knows what the ripple effect will be, and how many lives will eventually be touched, through one person's willingness to break ranks and heed the voice of conscience? And would you be willing to do it?'

No, I was not willing to do it. I have to admit that I failed this particular test. What's worse, בשעת השמד. (And yes, I do know the implications).

And as you say, we can never know what the ripple effect might have been. We know only how the failure to try has impacted our lives. It is easy to blame the circumstances: We were afraid of pain or death. We were hungry and weak. But in the end, what is any of that when measured against the possible ripple effect that our resistance might have had, on our own people and perhaps even upon our enemies?

Well, the moment has passed for all of this, and most would prefer to forget. But I understand how great an opportunity was lost. I am very fortunate in having been offered a second chance.

The lesson, as far as I can tell is that Thoreau was right - there is a time and a place to do the right thing and that moment must be seized with every fiber of our being.

Perhaps we can put this lesson into practice by seeing each and every encounter with another human being as just such a moment?

Thank you for posting such a thought-provoking piece.

-Ovadya ben Malka


rifka said...

Remembering the lovely day I spent at Walden pond with my Rebbe.
Be well.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Ovadya, you are welcome. We all learn from our failures. I was not always a paragon of bravery in my life, either. You might like to check out a book called "Beautiful Souls" by Eyal Press (just came out this year) about four ordinary people who went against the grain in dark times. I'm not sure I would have been able to do that under thier circumstances, either. I guess we never really know until the events are upon us.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Hi, Rifka -- that memory sure takes me back a couple decades! That was a wonderful day for me, too. The t-shirt I bought at Walden Pond finally got too old and ratty to wear, but it got passed on to my grandson't Cub Scout troop to use for a paint smock. A good case of re-using:)