Kabbalah in Winesburg, Ohio

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When I studied Integrated Kabbalistic Healing, my teacher Jason Shulman told us about the Hebrew word yesh. One way to translate the word is simply as “there is” or “there are.” But a yesh is also seen as something in opposition to ayin, or the nothingness from which the world emanates.

So, as Jason explained, a yesh is something that solidifies. It may be a chair, a table… or it may be an idea, a belief, a prejudice. In my thinking, yesh (and the word is both singular and plural) are what lead us to stereotype others and see them through the eyes of prejudice.

Yesh don’t allow room for ambivalence or chaos—the stuff that IS life’s richness and beauty.

Mostly, I think, we hold onto yesh for safety. We may need to see ourselves, or others, in a certain light in order to navigate our days. I think we often attempt to forge our identities through yesh instead of learning to stand, flexible and open-hearted, in the always-running river that life really is.

I first read Winesburg, Ohio in high school. It became one of my all-time favorite books. Recently, I asked my writing students to read four of its short stories, beginning with “The Book of the Grotesques.”

If you’ve read this classic, published by Sherwood Anderson in 1919 when he was 43 years old, you may remember that the book opens with a narrator describing a book written by a writer, “an old man with a white mustache.”

“The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

“That in the beginning when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were beautiful.…

“And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

I think Sherwood Anderson just described the mystical Jewish concept of creation and the formation of yesh. Because that’s what he’s describing—a thought/idea/belief we cling to for preservation.

Anderson’s characters in the other stories are seen as “grotesques”—though lovably and understandably so.

There’s Wing Biddlebaum with his fluttering hands, frozen in a moment of terror that defined his life when he was falsely accused of inappropriately touching boys.

Elizabeth Willard, who allowed an unfulfilled dream of becoming an actress—“the thing I let be killed in myself”—to warp her life, marriage and motherhood.

Doctor Reefy who fills his pockets with scraps of paper on which he wrote “thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts.”

“One by one the mind of Doctor Reefy had made the thoughts. Out of many of them he formed a truth that rose gigantic in his mind. The truth clouded the world. It became terrible and then faded away and the little thoughts began again…

“After he had read them he laughed and stuffed them away in his pockets to become round hard balls.”

I think Doctor Reefy recognized the fluidity of life and the danger of holding too tightly to any one perception of it.

My writing students weren’t as enamored of Winesburg, Ohio as I was. I suspect it seemed old-fashioned to them. But as I re-read the stories to prepare for class I found myself underlining and drawing stars in the margins, saying Yes, yes, this is life as I understand it, too.

The truths that Anderson so deftly and gently laid out for us remain. Ah, that we could all see when and how we are becoming a grotesque (and we all do), could see when and how we hold on to frozen yesh and avoid “going as a river” through life and its chaotic complexity.Screen shot 2014-03-08 at 10.14.47 AM

5 COMMENTS

  1. Exquisite. Thank you for this long overdo appreciation of a truly great novel.

    Sounds are important. Dr. Reefy reminds me of the Hebrew “rapha”, healing, restoring wholeness. And then there’s Molly Bloom, “Yesh yesh yesh yesh yesh…” LOL.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Fred. It is truly one of my all-time favorite books. That’s an interesting connection with Doctor Reefy and “rapha.” And … though I didn’t watch Seinfeld much… when I googled “yesh” I discovered they had their own use of the word, more along the lines of Molly Bloom’s vibrant and continuous YES 🙂

  3. “…the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” Nobody seems to have any idea what this means. I find it quoted and requoted, and you yourself quote it without any indication what he’s talking about. War is peace, ignorance is bliss, slavery will set you free… Doublespeak. Nonsense. Maybe the rest of the book reflects a reality you recognize (what I’ve read of it is just depressing) but honestly, nobody seems to really understand what he’s saying, because I suggest it doesn’t make sense.

  4. @Swiss422:disqus – I don’t think “the truth he embraced became a falsehood” translates into “War is peace,” “Ignorance is bliss,” etc. To me, what Sherwood Anderson is saying in that quote is that if we hold too tightly to a belief, if we don’t allow it room to breathe/grow, if we don’t allow it to be fluid and accepting of other peoples’ truths perhaps, that original belief we saw as truth no longer holds. To me, he is saying that life and beliefs change. And that when we don’t change, we become rigid. To me, the characters he describes in the book become “grotesques” because they let the fluid, alive part of them die. Either because of heartbreak or loss or attack. And so they wither. I agree the stories are sad but to me they are also beautiful because the author sees people so clearly and well. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Here’s the whole paragraph that quote comes from: “It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”