is out of his mind.
Euripides, Herakles, 1425–26
Ancient Greek literature is replete with stories about, tributes to, and reflections on friendship. It might be said that, for any Greek with his or her head screwed on tight, friends, not diamonds, are forever. My parents, while not Greek, were convinced of this and passed this conviction on to me. To this day I own no diamonds, but I have been blessed with many friends who meet the classical standard.
Herakles was a friend who went to hell and back for his friends—literally, for Admetos in Alkestis and for Theseus in Herakles. It is what friends do for each other, and not only in myth. It is what my dad did for his friend Manny.
Emmanuel Jacobson was a Holocaust survivor who owned and ran the Morse Avenue pharmacy on the north side of Chicago in the late nineteen forties and fifties. It was the city’s first dollar store, because when I was a child nothing in Manny’s store cost over a dollar. When I would shop there for Father’s or Mother’s day or for birthdays or Christmas, I would pick out cologne, cigars, perfume, a wristwatch or whatever for my parents and ask the price. Everything I wanted was a dollar or less. Manny knew that a dollar was pretty much my limit. Manny, an orthodox Jew, and my father, who had come within a year of ordination to the Catholic priesthood, were close. In that neighborhood, at that time, it was an unusual friendship.
The crisis came when Manny asked my father to take part in his eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. My father, from his seminary years, knew Hebrew as well as Greek and Latin. The barrier to his participation, however, was not linguistic in nature. Catholics at the time, and perhaps even now, were excommunicated—in other words, consigned to hell—for taking part in non-Catholic religious services; and that clearly meant Bar Mitzvahs. I was only seven at the time, about to make my First Communion, the same communion from which my father was to be banned forever if he crossed the street to Temple Mizpah on the next Sabbath. I remember his torment as he made his decision, between friendship in hell or heaven without Manny. My father was a strict Catholic, nearly a man of the cloth, who used to sing Gregorian chant in the shower; but he knew what Herakles knew. He knew he would be out of his mind if he didn’t sing “Aleinu” with his friend and his friend’s boy-become-young-man. So he did.
–Bob Meagher, Professor of Philosophy, Hampshire College