Roger Sterling, one of the central characters of Madmen, turns to Don Draper, the main character and one of his partners in the ad firm they work for and co-own. Sterling I think is around 60 and Draper just turned 40. It is 1965, and all kinds of things are going on for them professionally and personally. And of course it’s the beginning of the Vietnam War and the blossoming of the civil rights movement. Sterling is a product of the WWII era, a roué and a bon vivant. If it were up to him, nothing would change: the moneyed class would continue to rule the board rooms and the bed rooms. The Jews, the blacks, and the ‘everyone -who -isn’t –rich- white and privileged’, would continue to feed on the scraps left behind by him and his exclusive team.
Don Draper, a Korean War vet straddles Sterling’s world and the Kulturkampf of the 60s. He’s old fashioned, yet realizes the world is surely changing. A part of him loves the drinking and the high life of the ad exec, yet he also sees it for what it truly is: a decadent life of excess.
After a particularly tough experience at the hands of a younger colleague of theirs, Roger turns to Don and asks him, “When are things going to get back to normal around here?” Don rolls his eyes and the episode ends. We the viewers know the answer: things aren’t going to be returning to normal. Ever. Their world is forever in flux.
There is no “normal” anymore. The myth of normal, a time when everything was better and calmer and easier is an old dream. In fact, it’s historically a messianic ideal. Gershom Sholem, the 20th century master of Jewish mysticism studies, called this yearning for the old days ‘restorative messianism.’ This belief suggests that when the Messiah comes the world will return to the glorious past. But what is the past for a downtrodden people? What’s it worth for a woman or an African American or a poor, underprivileged person? One cannot, in the words of Firesign Theatre, go “forward into the past.”
There is no normal anymore. Things are not going to get easier. Things are not going to get less complicated. Things are not going to quiet down. We are all on an E ticket ride, moving ever faster as we live ever longer. Our restorative messianic ideal will forever be a dream. Our technology has changed so much around us. Our compassion and progressive spirit have brought millions of people out of the chains of the past to a present sense of openness and freedom. When President Obama finally spoke in support of gay marriage, I thought it one of the most presidential of announcements he’s ever made. It was not a statement from the past. It could never have been made from inside the past.
We live in a world of change. And even as we Reform Jews revere our ancestors and their lives, we do not and cannot glorify the past. We learn from the past. We admire various things of the past. But we’re right here, right now. Steve Miller once sang, “Time keeps on slipping into the future.” That’s the stream to follow.
There is no normal anymore. That’s nothing to be sad about. It’s something to acknowledge. And celebrate.
Shabbat Shalom

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