A Story of Sevens

When it comes to time cycles, the Torah had some unnervingly accurate things to say. Just in Genesis, we find the seven days of creation, the seven years that Jacob worked for Rachel (getting Leah, and then working again for Rachel), the seven cows and the seven ears of corn in the dreams that Joseph interpreted. The stories take a personal meaning because they helped me view my own life over the last 35 years as a series of seven-year cycles. Or, more accurately, I’ve lived through major life changes come around every seven years. I’m sure deeper thinkers have more to say on the Judaic significance of these cycles, like this guy.

The seven-year cycles began in 1980. In the most fateful decision of my life, I moved to Brooklyn a week after I graduated from Princeton University. I was starting a job at Forbes magazine as a reporter-researcher and needed a place to live. A Forbes editor had just left a share situation in a brownstone on State Street so I moved in. My hometown of Mission, Texas receded into my personal history as Brooklyn and a high-pressure job in publishing set my future. As soon as I moved, I began a quest for a Jewish experience that I had lacked in my life. My quest took me through every mainstream branch of Judaism, with stops at the Village Temple, the Flatbush minyan, Lincoln Square Synagogue and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, before I finally settled on the Kane Street Synagogue.

1987: After three fun but poorly paid years as a freelance writer, I join Video Store Magazine. As the same time, the glorious summer of 1987, I start dating my own Rachel, whom I would marry two years later in the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn. After months of diligently studying Russian at the American-Soviet Friendship Society I embark on an epic tour of the USSR with two college friends, with stops in Moscow, Tblisi, Sochi (yes, the Olympic Sochi, which I’ll always think of as a seaside resort) and Leningrad. Life is extraordinarily good.

1994: I’m still at Video Store, and that summer my wife and I become the parents of Samuel, with the Hebrew name of Reuven Yisroel. A bris on the eighth day welcomes him into the covenant. I’m a work-at-home dad — not so easy to do as I imagined. What did I expect? A year later, Video Store lays me off from what became my last job in journalism. Good-bye reporting, hello (eventually) corporate communications!

2001: Seven years later and everything falls apart rapidly. I’m laid off a writer/editor job by a consulting firm as the economy tanks, then 9/11 happens six weeks later and 45 miles away from my home in Connecticut. Sam is at a Jewish day school iwhen I learn of the attacks, and I recoil with fear at the thought at his school could be an unprotected target. Then my marriage finally reaches its end. Life reaches a nadir of personal and professional bleakness.By early 2002 I have a job as a proposal writer for an accounting firm, and by October I move out of the house as the divorce process picks up speed.

2008: By the time the next cycle turns, the wreckage of 2001 had been gradually repaired. In 2008,after five years of thrashing around in the online dating world, I meet Naomi, a graphic designer, and we start building a relationship that looks very promising, built on a sturdy foundation of indie music and film and ice cream. I weather the financial crisis that hits in September in my new job doing proposals at another accounting firm.

2015: A new cycle, a new place. After seven years as a couple, I moved in with Naomi. I’m in a new town in a new state — or rather, I returned to New York after 24 years in Connecticut. In a nifty bit of cyclical magic, I celebrated my 35th Princeton reunion in May, gong back to the launching pad from which I started my adult life in 1980. Sam is doing a senior college project in Kyoto, Japan and will return in early October. I’m now visiting shuls in my new area to find one that works for my partner and me. I’m at a Modern Orthodox shul for the High Holidays, a place with services remarkably similar to Beit Chaverim, the Modern Orthodox shul I attended in Westport. We’re checking out a range of places, with no denominational restrictions. Indeed,  The year 2015 will no doubt find me settled into a new shul with a liturgy that now sounds very familiar to me.

2022: To be continued.

American Sniper Déjà Vu

I recently watched American Sniper and responded strongly to it. The Texas culture of sports and faith that gave rise to Navy Seal Chris Kyle felt accurate, as did the American wrath after 9/11.

What also struck me was how familiar the scenes and emotions felt when lined up against another film about an elite military unit dropped into a different world in the Middle East, where the men were fighting to protect each other. That movie was The 9th Company, a 2005 Russian movie about Soviet troops in Afghanistan near the end of the Soviet incursion into the country, which started in December 1979 and ended in early 1989. Like American Sniper, 9th Company had a factual base, about a 39-man Soviet unit pinned down by mujahadeen attackers in a mountain outpost.

While 9th Company deviated farther from history for its dramatic punch, the two movies track closely in their emotional arcs. It starts with bravado and tough training, the families left behind, the arrival in an Asian country (Afghanistan for the Russians, Iraq for the Americans) where the foes don’t wear uniforms and use children for attacks, and where the local culture sometimes shows an eerie and chilling politeness to the military forces. Both movies feature tough operational lectures by commanding officers. 9th Company is especially striking with the in-country professional outlining what’s “haram” — forbidden — in Afghanistan and he stresses the women. That’s not an issue in American Sniper, but the cultural context is similar. Out against the enemy, the geopolitical forces that drove the interventions vanish into the background and the motivation force narrows down to protecting your squad and yourself while executing the mission. The western technology edge, especially the helicopters, looms large.

The films share a climactic battle, with Russians stranded on a hill, Americans isolated in a building under attack. The Russians get the worst of it in the movie (although the reality wasn’t quite as Alamo-like as film version with the Russian version of the Lone Survivor) and the Americans, with Chris Kyle, do what Americans do in a howling sandstorm.

I wondered what the discussions would be like if U.S. and Russian veterans met to talk about their war experiences. The U.S. government opposed the Soviet invasion and imposition of a Communist regime in Afghanistan, and funded the mujahadeen, with fateful results. The Russians came and went, and then 12 years later the Americans came and threw out the Taliban, but we’re still there. What would they say? What did they accomplish, what bonds, if any do they share?

I won’t push the parallels too far; The U.S. Army is by no means the Red Army in training or combat approach. Still, the overlap of the experiences as strangers in a strange land is striking. I can only hope the genre does not grow larger.