Thursday, April 09, 2009


“One of the most frequently recurring words in [Samuel] Johnson’s work is the verb `fill.’ It appears in many psychological contexts: `filling the time’ alternating with `wearing out the day’; `filling’ the imagination’; `filling the mind.’ To some extent, these years [1766-1781] were now `filled’…”

Few readers would note the frequency of so common a word as “fill” in so prodigious a writer as Johnson; particularly of an Old English word in a writer renowned for Latinisms. W. Jackson Bate, author of the Johnson biography that rivals Boswell’s in thoroughness and literary merit, was one. This throwaway observation comes from Bate’s first book on the good doctor, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955). As I was rereading it I recalled, with strained memory, such a use: “Such was the Scorn that fill'd the Sage's Mind, / Renew'd at ev'ry Glance on Humankind…”

The first definitions of fill in Johnson’s dictionary are “To store till no more can be admitted; to store abundantly; to satisfy; to content; to glut; to surfeit…” To be filled implies plenitude, copiousness, bounty – and by implication, generosity and thankfulness. One must be grateful for the overflowing gifts of creation, which reminds me of Passover. Often, I’ve been the only goy present at Seder, and I’ve always been made to feel generously welcome. That seems an essential quality of the ceremony. According to one Haggadah:

“So, as we fill our cups, we also fill a special cup for Elijah. According to the ancient legend, one day Elijah will join us at the Seder, and when he arrives he will bring peace to all the world.”

The italics are mine. One fills a real cup for a potential guest – this is true welcoming. The funniest literary account of a Seder I know, and it involves a lone goy as a celebrant, is in Isaac Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home (1946). Willy is the guest. His antagonist is the narrator’s father – a stern, almost humorless man. The narrator, a boy, is tipsy on three cups of wine – the third one slipped to him by Willy. “It was to wine,” says the boy, “rather than the history of my people, that I owed my sense of reverence.” The ceremony continues despite the boy’s well-mannered drunkenness and the tension between Willy and the father:

“He and Willy came into conflict at the very point where the Seder is as gay as comic opera. The point, that is, where the Israelites offer up their great digressions, the better to sing their deliverance. We extol the Lord’s virtues one by one and list the blessings bestowed on us, claiming, after each, that had this been the only blessing, it would have been enough: Daiyenu.”

There follows, as the narrator says, “a song in the manner of The House that Jack Built. It grows like a rolling snowball, picking up verses on its way, each devoted to a cat, a dog, a stick, fire, water, an ox, and a ritual slaughterer – until the angel of death comes and with the stroke of the fierce and tribal Jehovah sets things right by ending them.”

Enter Willy, who keeps time striking a wine glass with a knife. (“`Careful, you’ll break the glass,’ said my father.”) There’s a pause in the song and Willy pipes in:

“I believe in the good old Bible,
I believe in the good old Bible,
I believe in the good old Bible.
And it’s good enough for me.”

It’s “Old-Time Religion,” a song I first heard in Stanley Kramer’s film version of Inherit the Wind. Willy sings more verses and almost everyone revels (the grandfather “beams and melts”). Rosenfeld continues:

“Willy got up and stomped around the room, the children after him. The wine glasses trembled; the decanter threw off its rainbow in a fury of winking.”

Everyone but the father (“diminished, defeated, utterly dispossessed”) is filled with joyousness. Daiyenu.


Bettina Snyder said...

This is my first time on your blog. I read about it in the UK Sunday Times from 15 Feb 09 where it was refered to as "formidable literary blog". Well, I enjoyed your musings on FILL, Passover and the scene from Rosenfeld´s novel. Good to learn new things such as goy, seder, Haggadah, Daiyenu etc.
Thanks for writing. Best wishes from Bettina

Patrick Kurp said...

Dear Ms. Snyder, Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I normally reserve the comment section of my blog for readers. I've already had my say. Please, if you feel comfortable doing so, pass along your e-mail address. Mine is I'd like to hear what you are reading. Best, Patrick