The other day I noticed one of my old university textbooks on a shelf and it got me thinking about all of the things that I once knew. I say knew and not know because the sad truth is that I have probably forgotten more than I remember. Facts are gone and mere essences remain. It’s more of a case where I can remember that there is a theory that explains this situation and I think it kinda’ goes like this… than remembering the name of the theory and who thought it up. Sometimes I’m only left with the thought that, I think I once learned about this.
I really want to talk about one course and one professor that I had. In all of the courses that I took and all of the professors that I had nothing was as fascinating and no one was as intimidating and memorable as this course and this professor.
After my second year at university I decided to take a year off. I travelled to Israel, did an ulpan on a kibbutz and fell in love with the country. I returned home certain that I would make aliyah. Before I left my mother told me that she knew that once I left university I would never go back and I would not get my degree. I assured her otherwise and she of course did not believe me. I had no choice but to finish my degree. I absolutely knew that I would go back but the added bonus of proving my mom wrong was irresistible. I decided that I would change my major to help me on my road to aliyah. I switched to Jewish studies and started studying hebrew. My second year in to the programme I decided to take a course on Jewish mysticism. This was not to study mystical texts but to study the study of mysticism. It was a fascinating course taught by a brilliant man.
I had been warned about Professor Talmage in the past. He was known to be as demanding and as cantankerous as he was brilliant. He was very sick at the time and due to his illness we had the occasional class in his apartment as he could not always make it down to class. His appearance was other-worldly, slight, wizened with piercing blue eyes. He would impart information to us and tantalize us with mystical concepts. I could feel my mind stretch in front of him. We understood that mysticism was not something to be taken lightly. Not just a matter of red strings and chanting gibberish. This was something only to be attempted by the truly learned, after years of preparation. If successful the ultimate achievement was unity with the Divine.
One class he asked each of us what our majors were. When I stated ‘Jewish Studies’ he responded with, “You know that’s like going into a restaurant, looking at the dessert menu, seeing ‘assorted pies’ listed and saying O.K. I’ll have a piece of one.” Professor Talmage was not to be trifled with. He taught us how to look at information critically, how to judge someone’s credentials. He taught us how to think.
I can no longer remember the techniques of mysticism, much of anything about the Zohar or the Likutei Amarim. I don’t even remember all ten of the Sefirot or any of their attributes. But I do know, in this day and age of Wikipedia, that knowing the source of your information is as important as the actual information itself.
I think I did alright in the course, I don’t remember my final grade. What I do remember, and this was the highlight of my years at university, was that on the final exam in a comment on one of my responses to an essay question he wrote, “I laughed so hard at your answer that I was in tears. I’m glad that you have that sense of humour it will come in handy.” You know, that one comment means more to me than my actual degree.
I believe that we were the last class that he taught. He passed away not long after. I will always be grateful that I took his class and that I got to have the quintessential experience of a being taught by Frank Ephraim Talmage.