I try to read a couple of bestsellers every year, trying to understand America’s mood by reading what everyone else is reading. One of the books I read this year was The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. I want to talk about this novel tonight as a way to get into how we think about our lives, how we think about our Judaism and the way we think about the people in our families.
The Dutch House is a mansion located in a suburb of Philadelphia. It was built in 1922 by the VanHoebeek family from the Netherlands who had made their fortune in cigarettes, It is a grand mansion, with an ornate dining room ceiling, six bedrooms on the second floor, and a ballroom on the third floor.
Cyril Conroy was a self-made, extremely successful, very driven real estate man, who bought the mansion in 1946 to surprise his wife Elna. Their children, Danny and Maeve, were raised in the Dutch House. But Elna hates the Dutch House, aesthetically and ethically, and, when Maeve is 10 and Danny is 3, she abandons the family to work with the poor in India.
Cyril remarries and their stepmother Andrea comes in and makes them give up their rooms for her own daughters. After their father dies, just like the characters in the worst part of a fairy tale, the two siblings are forced out of their home by their stepmother. Left with no one else, the two siblings rely on each other. They always will be so close that no other relationship in their lives will even be a close second, not even when Danny gets married. Maeve never does. Maeve discovers a scholarship trust and uses it to send Danny to the best schools and then to medical school. He goes to medical school because Maeve wants him to, not because he wants to be a doctor. What he really wants to do is to work full time in real estate, because many of his best memories are when he would go with his father to collect rents and explore new properties.
Maeve and Danny are obsessed with the Dutch House. They often sit in their car near the house, for hours, looking at it from the street, and talking about the past.
This is the scene I want to focus on. They are sitting in a car, staring at the house where they were raised. Their mother had left them when they were kids, at last partly because she hated that house so much. Their father was not a warm and fuzzy person. And as soon as their stepmother got the chance, she threw them out altogether.
Why do they keep coming back to the Dutch House? They are obsessed with the past, and the Dutch House symbolizes their past.
They pretend that what they had lost was the house, not their mother by abandonment, not their father by death. They pretend that the stepmother who still lived inside the house had taken everything from them.
They do not want to be dislodged from their suffering; they have fallen in love with their sadness.
After many years of this, they begin to ask healthy questions. Danny asks: “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”
Over the course of many years, they keep thinking about the past, and they eventually realize that it had impeded their efforts to be fully present in the present.
And that’s when the change comes. Danny says:
“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”
But as scary as it is, they make the hard decision to change. They step into the river that takes you forward.
Stay focused on the two adults, sitting in a car, staring for hours at their old house. They are deep in nostalgia for their past.
Think about the word nostalgia. Do you know what the word really means?
It is a combination of two Greek words, nostos, homecoming, and algos, pain.
Pain in coming home.
Pain in thinking about the past.
When the word nostalgia was coined in the 17th century, it described a special type of homesickness associated with soldiers fighting wars in far-off countries. Doctors worried that if a soldier suffered from nostalgia, it would drain his energy and put him at risk.
Modern neuroscience is trying to decide whether nostalgia is positive or negative. In imaging studies, neuroscientists can show that the emotion of nostalgia is co-produced by a brain’s recall and reward systems, and that the mental effort makes the happy hormone dopamine.
Individuals who are nostalgic are more likely to socialize and feel empathy and find life meaningful. The same neurology that makes us long for people and places we’ve left behind, may have evolved from a more primitive purpose. Think about a prehistoric human longing for the warmth of the cave. If longing for warmth, and remembering that warmth, can make you keep going, maybe you will make it home to safety.
When you feel anxious or unimportant, memories can be a source of comfort. Cherished experiences, like a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony, when accumulated and nourished over time, can make our lives more meaningful.
Centuries of doctors thought that nostalgia was a painful disease. Today’s doctors think that longing for a lost time can help us make it through today.
Van Morrison has this wonderful song called “Magic Time “where he encourages us to go back in our minds into the past:
Don’t lose the wonder in your eyes
I can see it right now when you smile
Let me go back, for a while
To that magic time
You can call it nostalgia, I don’t mind
Standing on that windswept hillside
Oh the road it never ends
Good to see you my old friend
Once again we sit right down and share the wine
… When we go back for a while
To that magic time
We had magic times in our lives. Go back for a while. On this sacred holiday, allow yourself to go back.
Part of what makes this holiday special are the memories of High Holidays in the past, long before you ever heard of Covid-19 and Zoom.
But we have to find a balance. We can’t be like the characters in that novel that take years to start living in the present. Nostalgia is ok, but don’t live inside it. Live in the now.
I want to use the story of the Dutch House to talk about us, and the way we think about our pasts. In the story, the characters lived in the house, they were the hosts, and then someone comes in and takes over. They become guests in their own house. They spend part of their lives after that on the outside looking in.
Think about your life as a house. When we were children, and our parents were teaching us good manners, we were often told that we’re supposed to be good hosts in our homes. If we had a friend over, we had to make them feel at home and be polite. If we had guests for dinner, we were told not to eat too much so that there would be enough for the guests. And if we went to a friend’s house, we were taught to be a good guest, to say “Thank you,” to look the friend’s parent in the eye and call them Mr. Kaplan or Mrs. Rabinowitz.
Judaism gives us models for being good hosts. Abraham hosts the three angels, even washing their feet.
Lot hosts two angels and then risks his life to protect them.
Every Shabbat evening, we welcome the angels of the Sabbath and the Sabbath Queen.
Every Pesach, we open the door for Elijah.
Judaism has taught us a lot about being good hosts.
But no one taught us about unwanted guests. Unwanted guests were the subject of literature like the Odyssey, where guests take over Penelope’s house and eat her out of house and home, or a Saturday Night Live routine about “The Guests who Wouldn’t Leave.”
But this year above any other, we’ve been dealing with unwanted guests. A virus is an unwanted guest, a parasite that comes into your body and takes over.
That’s how a virus works. The virus, the unwanted guest, becomes the host. It is something from the outside that takes over our insides.
There was a stage play by the French playwright Andre Gide about Saul, the first King of Israel. In the Bible, Saul is afflicted by an evil spirit. Gide puts actors on the stage representing Saul’s demons; there is a character called Jealousy and a character called Anger. Saul is tormented by these external, unwanted guests who torment him every night when he tries to sleep.
In ancient and medieval times, that’s how people thought about the emotions and mental processes that afflicted people; they were from the outside, like people you can see on a stage.
Sigmund Freud taught us that there are no external demons, no evil spirits, but instead there are internal, unwanted guests who torment us just as much when we’re trying to sleep or just cope with life.
Of course Freud was right
There are no external demons
Gide was just doing this for the dramatic purpose of his play
But we can relate to what Saul was going through
There are no voices from the outside, but there are voices from inside us that are just as loud if not louder.
Some of these internal, unwanted guests are from the past.
The parents who thought they were helping but hurt us
The teachers who told us what we couldn’t do
The bosses who put us down
The people who are renting space in our minds
I said to a friend of mine whose late mother was a strong and tough presence in her life that her mother may be gone but she is still renting space in her mind.
My friend got the analogy but said: “She’s not renting; she owns a condo.”
You have to ask yourself: Am I going to let this unwanted guest take over my house?
Am I going to let these bad thoughts take over my mind so that I hurt myself?
Why do we do things like this?
Why do we dwell in the past?
Just like the characters in The Dutch House, we let ourselves fall back into the past because it is known, as opposed to the unknown future. Even though it’s painful, at least we know what it is. The present is so complicated and the future is so scary.
We have to do better in the way we think about our pasts.
We cannot be like Danny and Maeve who sit there for years, staring at the house that represents the pain of the past.
We have to find ways to focus on our pasts in constructive ways so that we are not haunted all the time.
There is a passage from The Dutch House that is painful but suggestive. Danny says:
That night in my sister’s bed I stared at the ceiling and felt the true loss of our father. Not his money or his house, but the man I sat next to in the car. He had protected me from the world so completely that I had no idea what the world was capable of. I had never thought about him as a child. I had never asked him about the war. I had only seen him as my father, and as my father I had judged him. There was nothing to do about that now but add it to the catalog of my mistakes.
He did not know his father. He was too young to even know the questions he would want to have answers to someday.
But this thought is suggestive of a strategy:
Don’t only think of the person as an older person
Get a picture of them as young people with all of life still ahead of them
Do you remember that beautiful movie Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner sees his father, in a baseball uniform, young, before the world had defeated him?
We’re all doing DNA tests and finding out about our ancestors.
But can we make our ancestors more than just names on a family tree?
I found an old black and white photograph from 1937 of my grandfather, who I never knew, who I was named for, standing in the big yard in front of the Bialik School in Tel Aviv, where he was the principal of a girls school, with maybe a hundred Israeli and Arab girls. And my young thirty-seven year old grandfather, in his white shirt rolled at the sleeves and khaki pants and wire-rimmed glasses, in his thirties in the thirties, was saying goodbye, explaining that he was going back to America with his wife and daughter to serve the American Jewish community and be with his family.
Why am I telling you about that picture from 1937? That one picture made him come alive for me in a way his portrait and his books and his gold-lined desk in my office never did. And I thought: “Wow. What a vision that school was! A hundred Jewish and Arab girls are standing there, holding hands. What a pioneer? What an exemplar of the original Zionist dream!”
I looked again at the photograph. My grandfather’s face is conflicted. The girls are all sad. And then I thought: If he would not have come back to America, it’s unlikely that my mother would have met my father, and then there wouldn’t be me and my siblings and my children.
So that decision to come home, illustrated in that incredible photo, made me.
Try to see the past from another perspective. A sibling, an uncle, a cousin may have memories and insights that will expand how you see that loved one.
When you think about the past, realize that you have a limited perspective. Talk to others about what you might have missed.
The Dutch House is a story about obsession and forgiveness, about what people acquire, keep, lose or give away, and what they leave behind. At the end of the book, Danny’s daughter May buys the Dutch House. A new generation takes the Dutch House and re-does it in its own manner. The house takes on new meaning for Danny, for the family and for us. The Dutch House is a symbol of the past that will now be part of a vibrant present.
On this Yom Kippur, I want you to think about your past, and ask some complex, personal questions:
What should I bring forward from the past, and what should I leave behind me?
Are there memories I’m obsessed with to the point that I have never moved on?
Are my memories even real?
What voices do I hear inside my mind?
Who is occupying space in my mind?
And as for the things we’ve done that we’re not proud of, at a certain point, if you haven’t repeated this mistakes and you are truly repentant, maybe it’s time to forgive yourself.
Isn’t that what Yom Kippur is for, forgiveness?
You forgive others all the time.
Now would be a good time to forgive yourself.
And as for the good times, the magic times, take a few moments to wander happily in the wonderful parts of your past. And try to build a house of your life that takes the best from the past so that we can face this crazy present and the uncertain future with everything we’ve learned about life.