Thursday, April 24, 2014

Judaism under the Sword and Cross

The Sefer Chasidim is supposed to be a paradigmatic book of the early German Jewish Pietistic movement, called the Ashkenazi Hasidim, who flourished from the twelfth and thirteenth century (and not to be confused by the later Chasdic movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the late eighteenth century).
Known for its ascetic customs and other-worldly orientation, the German Pietists have been given only a grudging acknowledgement by subsequent generations of religious Jews.  With its calls for fasting, rolling around nude in the snow, and dips in ice cold mikvehs, there was something too extreme in this movement for later, more temperate Jews.
Sefer Chasidim will not help this image.  While there are passages that admonish Jews not to be too holy, fast too much, or deny their bodies, there are other passages which revel in this.  This is a harsh form of Judaism and not for everyone.  The book also abounds with passages that can only be called superstitious.  The book is filled with invective against superstition, yet delves deep within bizarre speculations of supernatural cause and effect.
But don't get me wrong; the book is interesting.  Its shows Judaism during the crusader time period, when Jewish life in middle Europe was in great peril.  This work reflects that crouched, perilous position.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Who Started the Great War?

In Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? David Frumkin attempts to answer who started World War One.   

He comes to a novel conclusion.   Austria-Hungary started the war, but they did not mean to start the war that the German Empire had in mind.  Germany wanted to start a world war because of it perceived that it was losing an arms race against Russia, and, to a lesser extent, France.

Austria-Hungary simply wanted a limited war against Serbia, which it saw as a Slavic threat to the German ethnic supremacy of the Empire.
German took Austria-Hungary’s little war and created a world war.  Or more precisely, it took two wars, and molded them into one; creating a seeming cause and effect where none existed.
I am not conversant enough in this topic to know if Frumkin has valid points.  But I like how he takes our preconceived notions of the Great War and turns them on their head.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Slavery in My Backyard

Before we had kids, I used to cycle around the roads of the town of Caroline, southeast of Cornell University.  I was intrigued by a slave cemetery sign on Ellis Hollow Road.  Years later, we moved from Caroline, and when I returned, the sign was gone.

It turns out the sign was hit by a car.  With the excellent help of Barbara Kone, the Town of Caroline historian, after about three years the sign was finally back.

Many are surprised that New York State had slavery.  But there were Africa slaves in New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, and only in 1827 was it legally abolished.

The slaves of Caroline were buried without lasting markers, so this historical sign is all that signifies their existence.  If it disappears, their memory might very well fade away. 
In fact, not even their names or owners are known.  According to Ms. Kone, “...we have no idea who they were. We believe they were the slaves of the Boyer and Jansens, who brought slaves to the Slaterville area.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

It is hard to not bring a great deal of baggage when reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.  There are all the iconic images to deal with: the fence painting, the cave, the runaways to Jackson Island.  Like T.S. Eliot said about the Hamlet, there is the play Hamlet, and Hamlet, the character, the idea, the substance.  This Hamlet, just like this Tom Sawyer, lives quite beyond the pages of this book.
So, the reader coming back to this novel as an adult must do some work.  We must keep the two Tom Sawyers separate in our minds.  Otherwise, the Eliot Tom Sawyer can swamp one of the pillars of nineteenth century American fiction.  Then we are no longer reading a book, but an ideal.


Monday, April 14, 2014

The Garden of Paradox: The Essential Non Dual Kabbalah

The Garden of Paradox: The Essential Non Dual Kabbalah, does just what sets out to do.

Rabbi DovBer lays out a program of non-dual mystical Judaism, easy to understand and concise.

It is easy to understand, but not easy to conceptualize! One of the primary paradoxes of the Kabbalah, and mystical non-duality in general, is that if everything is One, if all things are connected into some greater whole, why do we seemingly perceive  a world of vast diversity and even strife?

And to further compound the problem, the Kabbalah’s primary epistemology, the sefirot, are ten 'divisions' of the entity we call God, or HaShem, who is really one.

That is the essential paradox in the title: how to live with seeming diversity in the midst of unity.  How to understand what is the primary ground of Being, and what is merely a temporary mask of that being?

This book takes the plunge into this difficult topic, and provides some provocative answers.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Likutey Moharan Vol IV


As I have reviewed before here, Likutey Mohran, the collected writings and teaching of Rebbe Nacham, published by the Breslov Research Institute, is an invaluable series of books for an understanding of Rebbe Nachman’s special take of Yiddishkeit.

These volumes are not for the rank beginner.  Despite the notes, and the lucid English translation alongside the Hebrew original, these are not beginners Bratslav texts.  But not to worry, these exist in abundance.

So, if you want to get into Rebbe’s teaching, this is the book for you.  Sure, it passed through a few hands, has been redacted and edited, but that is the way with all early Chasidic masters.  This was still primarily an oral culture, and often the best material was presented at a Sabbath tish, when taking notes is prohibited.

So what you get is a fractured text.  Not so much as by design, as by circumstance.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Sad Hungarian


Jewish Fiction.Net has published my story “The Sad Hungarian.”

I believe I wrote with the simple idea of having two characters caught in a web of their own agreement, and having no way out.  When I gave the story a Holocaust theme for that deal, I felt the guilt of exploitation.

But after I saw Claude Lanzman’s 9 hour documentary “Shoah,” I realized that anything was possible during that terrible calamity; that the normal law of human nature were suspended.  And that my story did not so much have to be true, as ring true.