'A Web of Affection'
Wed, 12/17/2008
Managing Editor

E.B. White, the lyrical New Yorker writer and children’s book author, knew a thing or two about heroes, especially the unsung kind. He knew the power of the small, yet profound, human gesture, the tender mercies extended from one person to another in need. And he suggested that in the realm of human relations, only one metaphor really mattered: the web. Our differences aside, we are all tethered to one another, as if to a web, tied by invisible — even mystical — strands. Heroes understand this more clearly than the rest of us.

Charlotte’s days were coming to an end. The heroine-spider in White’s classic tale of friendship and miracles, “Charlotte’s Web,” has managed, with her graceful words, to save Wilbur the pig from slaughter, and to lay her egg sac. Her work is done, and her shot at immortality — the fresh perfection of a new generation of spiders looming in the sac — is assured. “Why did you do all this for me?” Wilbur asks. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you?”

In an elegant passage that you could live the whole of your life by, Charlotte replies: “You have been my friend. That in itself is a wonderful thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway. We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

This edition of our annual magazine, Directions, is about the ties that bind us to one another, the impulse to reach out a hand. It is about a group of everyday, yet remarkable, people — call them heroes — who lift up our messy lives a trifle. Some are known; most are not. We stayed away from the Michael Steinhardts and the Edgar Bronfmans, Jewish philanthropists whose generosity makes them, in a certain way, heroes with a capital H. We were more interested in those who are closer to the ground, heroes with a lower-case “h.”

Our cast includes educators, rabbis, activists, writers, unofficial matchmakers and do-gooders of all sorts. “Trusting in the power of love,” as Aaron Neville sweetly sings, “we must be fearless” — and our cast is: fearless in their work, fearless in the conviction that an outstretched hand can make all the difference, fearless in expressing the richness of the Jewish experience in America. Some are courageous, illuminating corners of our community that have long been dark. Some are pushing through the barriers that separate liberal and Orthodox Jews. Some are just plain sweet, a quality in short supply these days. Some are tapping into the zeitgeist, pulling us along in their wake. Some, we admit, we just really like — such as Eli Evans, the bard of the Southern Jewish experience — for reminding us that gentility can indeed have a home north of the Mason-Dixon.

Given these anxious times, we thought it a good hour to profile some inspiring souls, and 18 seemed like a number with some Jewish resonance. There are many inspiring stories here: a blind rabbi helping people with disabilities navigate a treacherous subway system; a filmmaker whose response to Kosovo and 9/11 and Katrina is a lesson in human caring; an unlikely rabbi who, in the hushed quiet of a Borough Park funeral home, recites Psalms for the dead. Soul to soul, our shadows roll, Bob Dylan sings.

One particular story touched us deeply, that of Dr. Neil Goldberg, a clinical psychologist with the heart of a clown — a therapeutic clown. What would move a suit-and-tie psychotherapist to put on a red foam-rubber nose and screaming plaid pants and head into cancer wards to cheer up sick, sad-eyed kids?

And what would make that doctor go a step further and actually begin teaching at-risk teenagers the tricks of the therapeutic clown trade, handing down the healing work to a new generation? Just a coming together of his two passions, doctoring and clowning, that doctor would say. But we suspect he’s being modest. What moved him is likely as unquantifiable and magical as Charlotte’s web. And the words Charlotte used to describe Wilber in order to save him from a cruel fate seem apt for such a doctor-clown: “humble” and “radiant.”

The web is all around us. Our destinies are inextricably linked. It’s what the wise old sheep tells the selfish rat Templeton, who balked at helping Charlotte find some new words to help save Wilbur. E.B. White knew it. Each of our cast of 18 everyday heroes knows it. And Albert Einstein knew it. “There is one thing we know,” the great physicist said. “That we are here for the sake of each other, above all, for those upon whose smile and well being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.”

We are all just humble weavers, our webs catching the morning light.