No Words, Only Jokes: “The Afterlife” according to Paul Simon (and the Talmud) (and Pop)

May 21, 2012 at 10:23 am, by

“There was no sign of God… to usher me in,” sings Paul Simon of his prophetic memory of “The Afterlife.”

Simon recalls the emergence of “a heavenly light” and “a voice from above sugarcoated with love.” With that lovely voice, the first half of Simon & Garfunkel is welcomed into life-after-death in literally formal terms: “You got to fill out a form first. / Then you wait in the line.”

This is typical of the wisdom and humor found on So Beautiful Or So What. On this album full of Paul Simon’s musings on Divinity and existentialism, the singer-songwriter reflects on how we might interact with and relate to the Divine. Most poignant is “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” when God gets very close to the microphone and tells the listeners a little secret about the Big Bang, along with our existence: “That’s a joke that I made up / Once when I had eons to kill… / Most folks… / Don’t get when I’m joking. / Well, maybe someday they will.”

If life is all a joke, then maybe we should play along when God’s secretary tells us, “You got to fill out a form first. Then you wait in the line.”

Listening to So Beautiful Or So What over the past two and a half weeks has been very calming for me. I’ve been pretty stressed out lately, and more to the point, I’ve been depressed in light of the news of my grandfather’s passing on the morning of May 11.

In his eschatological fantasy, Simon was “a new kid in school” who still had “to learn the routine” of the afterlife. When he tried to spark up a conversation with a girl with “sunshiny hair, like a homecomin’ queen,” she took no interest. “You got to fill out a form first. / Then you wait in the line.”

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Meir stressed that the world we live in is different from Olam Habba (the Coming World of the afterlife). There are different rules, in fact: “In the Coming World, there is no eating or drinking, no being fruitful and multiplying, no sales or purchases, no jealousy, no hatred, no competition–just righteous people sitting with crowns on their heads, basking in the splendor of God’s Presence” (Berakhot 17a).

Paul Simon, once the only living boy in New York, became just one of billions of dead people who all “had to stand in the line just to glimpse the Divine.” And just to make death even deadlier, he had to wait. “You got to fill out a form first. / Then you wait in the line.”

I don’t remember my grandfather ever discussing the afterlife with me, except for in one joke he told me when I was really young. Although I’m convinced it’s one of those classic Jewish jokes, I’ve never heard anybody else tell it aside from him–and now me:

Morrie Goldberg was a very religious Jew, and he was known for having always davened (prayed) very fast. He could daven Shaharit (the morning service) in 8 minutes. He would daven Minhah (the afternoon service) in 4 minutes. And he davened Arvit (the evening service) in 2 minutes. No matter where he prayed, Morrie always davened faster than anybody else around him.
Morrie lived a good life, and then, as happens with all people, his time came.
When Morrie arrived in Heaven, Morrie saw God before him. And God spoke.
“Wlmtvn,” said God.
“Pardon?” replied Morrie.
“Isdwlmtvn,” clarified God.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” said Morrie.
“For 95 years,” said God in a crystal-clear voice, “that’s what it always sounded like when you talked to Me!”

Neither my grandfather nor the Talmud talked about the whole waiting-in-line business that occupies Paul’s visit, but some Jewish myths teach that it might take the human soul up to a year after death to become pure enough to enter Heaven finally. These myths see Gehenna or Gehinnom as a kind of Purgatory (and nobody goes to Hell; they just hang out at Gehinnom for a while).

Paul recalls that time when he finally approached God. Once “the Lord God is near / Face to face, in the vastness of space, your words disappear… / All that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song.”

At this point, there is no more filling out forms and waiting in line. This is the real afterlife. Wordless. Speechless. The chorus changes into the only thing one can utter before the Presence of the Holy One: “Be Bop A Lu La / Or Ooh Poppa Do.”

For the majority of his life–even beyond retirement–my grandfather Marvin Simson worked as an accountant. In his final years, when his health had declined to a point where his productivity mostly took place at a computer, I can’t say that I honestly know what he was up to, but he would daily print large quantities of paper: records and forms for all sorts of financial, personal and business matters. While I’d like to think that they all had a reason for being printed out, I’d also like to think that scientists will one day reconstruct a small rainforest with these papers alone.

Until the end, my grandfather Pop was a real socialite. He could talk to anybody about anything, he was sharp, he was witty, and he was deeply concerned with being honest and always doing the right thing. My grandfather never lost his lucidity or his humor (he always had a joke to tell), but the Parkinson’s Disease that weighed him down in his final years made his speech increasingly hard to hear and hard to understand. I can only imagine that, as frustrating as it was for a listener to ask him to repeat himself, it was even more frustrating for Pop to know that whatever he would say would have to be said multiple times.

In the coming year, as Kaddish is recited in my grandfather’s memory, I wonder how many forms Pop will be filling out and printing in Heaven’s waiting room. I wonder if God will greet my grandfather by mumbling something my grandfather will ask God to repeat several times. I wonder if my grandfather will have words to say to God and if he will have the power to say them.

But most of all, I have faith that it doesn’t matter.

Our world is not like Olam Habba. In Olam Habba, you don’t have to worry about a paper trail, there are no ailments to weigh you down, and no words are needed to express what you think or feel.

If my grandfather is not yet basking in the splendor of the Divine Presence, something tells me that he’s standing in line. But he’s killing time and telling everyone jokes.

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