In one of my fictional lives (one of those born as I try to keep my cool during bumper to bumper morning traffic) I am a 40-something father, whose wife has dumped him the same week I am unfairly fired from my job; and the only consolation in this made up tragedy is that my thirteen-year-old son wants to go to Israel to track down Harpo Marx's harp.
The next move is a no brainer: as a fictionally free man, devoid of obligations, I go and dig out the passports, book cheap flights on El Al and take him out of school. As I am constantly complaining at dinner parties or Saturday soccer games that he is not learning anything worthwhile at his middle school, I can now spare us of the school stuff without any remorse and justify his time away as an enriching educational experience. At the same time, it is a perfect opportunity to get far from a different sort of no brainer, meaning the Republican primary circus (though I am not sure if "no brainer" and "brainless" work the same way here).
For the past year or so, my oldest son and I have been watching Marx Brothers films after everyone else has gone to bed. Laughing our heads off deep into the night helps balance out the reprimands for failing to complete his bland insignificant homework, though it also increases the chances he will complain he is too tired to get up and go to school the next morning. What can I say? He has taken a particular liking to Harpo, which is an encouraging sign that in spite of their obsession with militaristic video games there is hope for today's adolescent boys. Somewhere, most likely in Wikipedia, we discovered that Harpo had gifted his famous harp to the state of Israel in his will; this seemed a bit surprising, for after reading his autobiography Harpo Speaks, he came across as more of a country club nudist than a Zionist.
But, even before I get a chance to go and grab my suitcase from the garage, I am struck by the memory (a memory that belongs to the real me, the one that still has a lovely wife, a rewarding job and three sons) of the six months spent in Jerusalem after finishing college. This trip was different than the one my oldest son and the wifeless-jobless version of me are supposed to be going on. I can see those daily afternoon pilgrimages to the Old City, walking like a possessed madman from one religious quarter to another in a labyrinth of shadows and narrow pathways smelling of incense, lavender and falafel, all the while seeking to get high on all the sacredness. It was all so heavy, intense and plain unlivable; the desire for a religious experience at every turn was consuming, and after six months there was way too much light from above to handle. Why did it have to be this way? Why did the sacred and the holy, the search for a "Profound Religious Experience" have to be imbued with heaviness, solemnity and a total lack of humor?
Looking now, as I write this, at a photograph of Harpo playing his harp in Night at at the Opera, with his beatific upward glance (whether to the skies above or the sight of his next gag is deliciously uncertain) it is clear that an alternative experience of the holy is a possibility. Who needs otherworldly earth shattering religious experiences, starving saints, wailing walls, weeping virgins, Opus Dei backlashes, pious beards, guilt-ridden mandates or right-wing hypocritical moralizing when you have the life affirming, spiritually nourishing, generation-bridging mischievous antics of Harpo and his harp-playing delightful interludes? So maybe it is not so far-fetched that Harpo's holy harp would find its final resting place in the Holy Land, not too far but far enough from the Western Wall, the Church of Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount.
In the meantime, as my son and I get ready for our trip to Israel, his younger brother seems to want to get in the action too, and has been wondering where Harpo left his other magical instrument, his horn. That quest, however, will just have to wait for another one of my traffic-induced fictional lives.