I am what you may call a Seussian. I learned my English mainly by rhyming fox with box and mouse with house. I made my pilgrimage to the master’s museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, and grinned widely, like a Zable, when I stood in front of his drawing table. I’m the sort of chap who knows that it’s pronounced Zoice, not Soos, which is a fact you should mention often if you’d like to prune your social circle to a minimum. In short, I have nothing but the deepest love for Dr. Seuss’ books.
All, that is, except one.
It’s the one that, as David Brooks noted in his column this week, “members of the educated class give their young” when the latter graduate college, the twirly-swirly covered Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Don’t get me wrong: It’s a lovely book, and it takes a real beaked demon—a Vlad Vlad-i-koff, if you will—to quibble with a torrent of affirmation that ends with the all-capped assurance “KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!” But quibble we must, because we Americans—and we American Jews in particular—have a big Oh problem.
In short, it rests on two dangerous fallacies: We believe adults can succeed only if they engage in mountain-moving, and we believe that moving mountains is something each of us can—must!—do on his or her own.
As Seuss’ yellow-clad kid saunters through the book’s Technicolor dreamscape—the sort of vision of adult life the Waltons might’ve conjured if they all got together just before bedtime and dropped a lot of acid—he is blissfully alone. The bright vistas are his to explore, the dark fears his to conquer, and no threat is more grave than getting stuck in that Purgatorio of Capitalism, the Waiting Place, where the damned, have mercy on their souls, do nothing but linger as they yearn for their luck to change. Black and yellow and pink and terrible, the double spread dedicated to the Waiting Place is the only one in the book in which more than a solitary human being appears, and yet the louses who crowd the page aren’t too thrilled to be in the presence of others. Instead of engaging, they fix their deathly stares on nothing in particular, eager to join the Seussian Übermensch in his determined drive to go the distance.
It all fits in snugly with the famed American taste for individualism, and it’s not too hard to imagine the yellow-clad boy, having gone to all of his places, accept a major party’s presidential nomination by stating, without bothering to find a rhyme, that “I alone can fix it,” whatever it may be.
Setting aside its myriad other achievements, Judaism has served, throughout the ages, as a safeguard against Oh-ism. When we pray, we must do so in a quorum of our peers. When we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, we plead not with God but with each other. Rather than move mountains, the mountain moved us: We huddled at the foothills of Sinai together and entered the covenant as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, not as individuals. Only God is an I; the rest of us speak as a we.
Or at least we used to: The story of the last six decades of American Jewish life is, to a large extent, the story of Oh. Miffed by the itchy demands of communal life—all this congregating at inconvenient times, all that putting up with people we don’t really like—we placed the old ideas on the shelf and gravitated to whatever cosmology promised us that we were the rock around which all things orbited. We took pleasure in Philip Roth, that caster-off of ancient yokes, for giving us a vision of life unencumbered by those pitiful fools who just happen to be our mothers and our fathers and by that sorry story that just happened to be our faith. We did away with every institution, from the shul to the community paper, that required a coming together. We challenged our traditions to fit our tastes rather than considering that religion, by definition, is in large part about putting aside personal preferences in order to establish a togetherness as large and as tight as possible. And instead of telling our children to strive toward a kehillah kedosha, a holy community, we handed them the Oh and told them that their own private success was more or less guaranteed.
You can find plenty of folks in the Seuss universe who behave in more or less the same way (I’m looking at you, Once-ler), and you can ask any 4-year-old how they end up.
And so, as our young, becapped and begowned, march toward maturity this graduation season, let’s spare them this most un-Jewish of books, and tell them instead that the places they’ll go aren’t worth the going unless we all go together.
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