Alan Segal, A Polite Tribute

Alan Segal graced us for a while -- to teach and inspire, but, most of all to befriend those who shared his mortal journey. Whether or not he was conscious of it, he did his part to heal, repair and transform this world.
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Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase that suggests humanity's shared responsibility (with the Creator) "to heal, repair and transform the world." I've always thought of the world as divided by two kinds of people: those that respond to needs with advice and words, and those who lend a hand. Alan Segal was clearly the latter, and my recent film, "A Polite Bribe," was born of his spirit.

A World Spirit, as academic and author, Segal was a trader of words, yet, first and foremost an investor in people. Filmmakers, pastors, professors of religions of all stripes, and the guy next door, Alan could find his way into any conversation. And as a bit of a talker myself, we were never short on words.

Our first conversation, came as the result of my reading his book, "Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee" (1992), which appeared in the footnotes of another work I reviewed, John Gager's "Reinventing Paul," some time earlier. "Paul the Convert," knowing Alan, made perfect sense because it explored Paul with slightly more psychological depth than the average Pauline expert.

Alan's insights came partly because of his Judaism. He was a pivotal figure in the New Perspective, though, not overly committed to one perspective, which allowed him to cross boundaries. His books, "Two Powers in Heaven" (1977) and "Rebecca's Children" (1986), as the man himself, were crossing over to a largely Christian audience to explain that Paul's thoughts and life were largely based on being a Jew, not a Christian. A fact most demonstrated in 2001, when I was taking his world religions class, in NYC, with Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the backdrop of smoldering rubble that was the result of 9/11. It was a rare opportunity that Alan used for some insightful exchanges, though, when it came time for assigning subjects, he anointed me, the "lapsed Catholic," with the honor of delivering a paper on Thomas Aquinas, who I had to make relevant to the time.

Aquinas was in fact the name of a few high schools in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, where I was born Catholic in Maimonides Jewish hospital, to a father raised in Borough Park, and mother from Bay Ridge. Growing up in the hub of many Jewish and Italian families, the reality of Jewish-Christian relations was very familiar to me. Brooklyn was the image of an ethnic polis, or at least, a co-existence of diverse peoples. You had your Jews, your Irish, your Polish, etc. In the end they were people, and the extremists were left on the fringe. In this sense, Alan, from Worcester, Mass., and I had some common ground.

Our relationship developed on the upper west side, over sandwiches and numerous cups of coffee, at the Columbia University Cafeteria, where I had shared much of my journey with him, which at that point, included a drift from my Protestant faith, a new family (Alan had two children in college), and a documentary I was developing on Apostle Pau l- -one that would capture the Paul and his pathos in much the way Alan had captured Paul in his book.

And as I reflect now, I wonder, why did Alan feel so passionate about Paul? Or for that matter, why did I? And more importantly, how did an Apostle from 2,000 years ago become one of the central talking points for our lives? Some of the reason, I'm sure, was the sport of it. How academic discussion can be the chess game of minds, where certain moves call upon other counter moves, and one tests the opening and end games of other players. But, now with some distance, I'm thinking there was something more going on here, and I think that part was related to identity.

Both of us believed, for different reasons, that Paul was never given a fair shake or was never fully understood. Perhaps for Alan it was because of Paul's mysticism, his insights that were born of his deep Jewish faith; and for me, perhaps, it was because of Paul's independence, a quality that, at times, defined my relationship to institutions and conventional thought. Alan was similar, and perhaps, for us, like actors desiring to enter an ancient stage, as Jew and Gentile, for us the lone Apostle became the costume we could wear to meet our deeper selves.

Paul is so many things to so many people, not only due to his teaching, but because, like Michelangelo's Moses, his protean voice remains trapped beneath the polished stones of history. Perhaps in our joint uncovering, we were not only unearthing the facts, but finding ourselves -- the Jew, Gentile, Mystic, Outsider -- accessible once again.

Yet, the Apostle, who had occupied much of our time, was only one part of a multi-faceted dialogue that also unfolded over the years that included a few day trips to his home in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., where Alan told of his backyard trees, and his enviable study. Alan joked that he lived on the "other" side of town, across from the more upscale and elitist Ridgewood. I argued that it also seemed impossible to have a really sad day living in a place called Ho-Ho-Kus, a fact, I insisted, we should keep from the more sophisticated crowds.

Alan was quite an accomplished Jewish scholar, attended Amherst College (B.A., 1967), Brandeis University (M.A., 1969), Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Bachelor of Hebrew Letters, 1971), and Yale University (M.A., 1971; M.Phil., 1973; and Ph.D., 1975). Yet, despite his impressive academic bona fides, over a sandwich or behind a cup of coffee, like the Apostle, he seemed to become all things to all men. Perhaps I imagined him that way, but, I think it is also how he saw himself, as a man writ large, using language to connect people.

After Mel Gibson's "The Passion" came out in 2004, with all the controversy, Alan also came to the fore in some religious circles and with the media to speak out on the slanted characterization of the first century Jews. A voice I clearly understood, and that had never been placed under the microscope of Paul's letters. Alan called me to say, I think you need to make your Paul movie.

Agreed, we knew it would provide a more critical perspective. Later that same year, Alan, along with other scholars, appeared in Peter Jennings' "Paul and Jesus, The Word & Witness" special, to the likes of Elaine Pagels (and John Gager), a scholar who would be my initial talking heads, and who had worked with Martin Scorsese on a Pauline project some years earlier, before his "Last Temptation of Christ" was panned. At the time, I was still exploring my themes, and my film was called "Through a Glass Darkly" and "Greatest Story Never Told."

Over the next seven years, Alan witnessed my fits and starts, including my heightened expectations when the film was contracted by the Don Buchwald Agency to turn my documentary into a feature film, or when I was called in by Hallmark Channel, or PBS, but left without a deal. The film did not fit any molds or agendas, or styles, and was proving "independent" even beyond typical TV models.

For a period of time after I had moved to Princeton, N.J., and had been working at Lifetime Television, raising a family, and still developing movie projects, it became harder to continue my coffee sessions with Alan. However, a phone call or e-mail was occasionally exchanged. By 2010, I had accumulated a full-length screenplay, more than 50 hours of footage from 30 scholars, from all over the world, and all over the political map. I believe in no small part because I had planted the initial seeds from Alan's friendships, which allowed me to move freely across a diverse spectrum, one that felt right.

Having some success in my commercial media business, and self-aware that I was approaching 30 years since my own Pauline quest had begun, I decided it was time to finish the film. In early 2011, the first step was to contact Alan, because he was to come in for a final interview. I e-mailed but didn't hear back. At first, I assumed he had changed his Barnard e-mail address because he had others. Before I called, I went online to see if I could find out if he had changed addresses or even moved to a new institution without my knowing.

My heart sank. Within seconds of starting my search I discovered the gut-wrenching news that he had died.

Some people, when they go, leave a hole in the universe. Alan left a gaping hole. He had been such a vital sounding board, for me and many others, yet I would never be able to show him the Paul narrative I had created. He would never be able to see the dedication, to him, that fades up at the end of the documentary, my finished book, or epic film screenplay soon to follow.

Now, my documentary is finally out -- seven years after I began to shoot it and 30 years after I began to imagine it. I am reaching the end of my Odyssey, and though I have dedicated the film to a mentor and friend, I miss the opportunity to share the accomplishment. How I would have enjoyed having him participate in the dialogue my film has created; to see him introduce it at a screening at Columbia or Union (Theological). I like to think he would be proud of the pupil that he prodded to continue on his cinematic and theological quest so many years ago.

Crossing between the academic, psychological, and, in my case the creative worlds, is why I call Alan a World Spirit, a quality I very much identify with. He had a quest for shared empathy, not a defense for group particulars. I think, the edge that frames a World Spirit's perspective starts with human frailties, existence and even death, as Alan's final book, "Life and Death" (2004), showed, a topic we were discussing with his publisher for my next documentary.

Alan Segal graced us for a while -- to teach and inspire, but, most of all to befriend those who shared his mortal journey. Whether or not he was conscious of it, he did personify tikkun olam, doing his part to heal, repair and transform this world. I am forever indebted to what I learned from him as we crossed paths along his journey.

A Polite Bribe is now out in select theaters

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