Thursday, August 25, 2011

In Memory of Samuel Menashe; Poet Extrordinaire

Sad news! My good friend of almost 70 years, the world famous poet Samuel Menashe died monday. A well written obituary appeared today in the August 25th NY Times.. Sam and I met at Cornell Univrsity when we were 17 in 1943. There was an instant bond of frienship. We had both enlisted in the Army Specialized Training Progrm which turned out a hoax to entrap 17 year old  boys as canon fodder in the war with Germany. On that occasion 68 years ago Sam, his lifetime friend John Thoornton and me were waiting in line for lunch. I was chatting away about God as usual. John, a fallen away Irish Catholic, grabed me by the shoulders swung me around and shouted: "If there is a God, let him strike me dead! Oh John, Sam responded what makes you think God would take orders from you? I instently felt friendship toward Sam.[Fortunately, Brendan Fay recorded Sam and my last meeting where we reminesced about WWII as part of my documentary: Taking a Chance on God, which will debut at the Woodstock Film Festival on September 24]
Sam, John and I ended up infantrymen in the 348 regiment of the 87th dividion. We crossed the ocean on the Queen Elizabeth, converted into a troop carier and when into combat just at Christmas time,1944. As we marched up  in pitch darkness to our positions on the front lines Sam's platoon and mine passed each other in the dark, I heard Sam's distinctive voice. We called back and forth to each other wishing each other well until our voices faded in the distance. The next day we both went into combal across the border into Germany and ran into fierce opposition from the German army who used the canons on their Tiger tanks as rifles. After two days of battle, what started out as a troop of 190 eighteen years old boys only 39 remained alive.
I will never fotget the debrt of gratitude I owe to Samuel. After the battle was over with great courage he went out at night into the battle field and searched through the corpses to make sure I was not among them. He then wrote to my parents in Buffalo who had received a notice that I was "missing in action" to assure them that I was not among the dead. .
After the war  Sam returned to his walk up flat on Thompson street in the Village and remained there until he moved to an assisted living facility a year ago. Every day Sam took the sudway to Central Park and composed his poems as he walked around the park. Every evening he met with  John Thornton for diner and then returned to the flat on Thompson street to jot down the compositions of the day. [Fortunatly if you google Samuel Menahe there are several  delightful videos of Sam doing readings around NY city].
Sam's memory will be immortalized primarily by his poetry. Brenday Fay was able to catch the essence of Sam's larger-than-life character in his interview with him for my documentary.
On another occasion in the late 50ies while I was dpoing my docctorate studies on the thought of Maurice Blondel in the south of France, I had a call from Sam in New York asking me if I would do him a favor and meet him in Barcelona.. So I flew to Brcelona and met Sam. H explained to me that he intended to propose marriage to a very wealthy young woman and just learned that she had converted to Catholicism. He thought it might enhance his chances if she knew that among his best friends was a Jesuit priest. The next day Sam and I showed up at the woman's penthouse. After a brief conversation, the woman dismissed Sam to have a private conversation with me. She told me she knew what Sam wanted but that was now impossible. She had made the decision to give her fortune away to the poor and enter the Carmelite monastery.
She told me that to make sure that my trip was not in vain, the next day she would send her chauffered Rolls Royce to our hotel to take Sam and me to Manresa and the monaastery of Mountseratte.  So the next day Sam and I went to Manresa, the locatuon of the cave where St Ignatius wrote his Spiritual Exercises. The Jesuits at the shrine greted us warmly thinking that Sam potentially was a wealthy benefactor. After lunch and visiting Ignatius' tomb we continued on to the monastery at the top of the mountain. The Benedictim monastery of Montserrat was an extraordinary place of prayer. Hermits lived in caves high up in the mountain. The abbot greted us warmly and we attended the singing of the divine office by the monks. At the end of the day Sam told me he intended to stay at the monastery as a guest for a while. So I returned alone in my Rolls Royce to Bareelona recalling that Ignatius arrived at the monastery several centuries before me riding on a donkey.

Sam's poetry had a mystical dimension. especially those in his first published volunn: No Jerusalem But This.  Several of them so inmpressed me that they became an important part of my prayer life for nearly fifty years. Here are two examples;

Oh Many named beloved
Listen to my praise
Various as the seasons
Different as the days
All my treasons cease
When I see your face!

The silence is vast
I am still and wander
Keeping you in mind.
There is never enough time
To know another.

I am so grateful to God for sending Sam into my life.
I will never forget you Sam.
God bless you!