Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Three Things

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד--על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Poet Without A Country; Facing the Sea

I have been re-reading David Vogel's (1891-1944) novella Nokah YaHam, Facing the Sea.

In order to fully appreciate Vogel, Hebrew poet, the author of two novels, a novella, and a series of diaries in Hebrew, many poems, you must understand that except for one year of living in Palestine, Vogel never wrote in a Hebrew environment. He was the last of his kind: the Hebrew writer in Europe.

And the setting of his novella, Facing the Sea, is intimately European. Barth and Gina are a young couple taking a vacation in a steamy southern town. They are entinced by the sensualism around them. Barth succumbs with another woman and Gina with Cici, the Dionysian Italian lover of brute, short proportions and powerful passions. The plot line is modernist in the sense we find in D.H. Lawrence. The passions can save us, can be a new religion, but they can tear us apart with their power.

There is nothing particularly new here. The plot line and concerns fit with the 1920s. What is new is that the writing is in Hebrew; the characters speak and write in a Hebrew which for the author were not his native tongue. We can presume that everyone in Facing the Sea would be speaking French.

Vogel created a naturalistic and modernist Hebrew in a place and time where it did not exist. In that sense, he was the precursor of Israeli writers who would take Hebrew into uncharted territories. But for Vogel, Hebrew was, oddly, quintessentially European. It could express the shades and nuances of conflicting impulses in modern life in a Western setting.

Vogel anticipated Hebrew linguistic normality. When he was killed by the Nazis in 1944 he was little known. A later generation of Israeli writers and readers discovered him because his project was a precursor to their own.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Composite Friend

You are many people I have known, but you have one thing in common, you have let me down.

Really, how can it be your fault? We are dealing with a mistaken apprehension. With a tangled epistemology. You are you and I am I and nothing can change that. But in my memory, you are part of me, and therefore I have expections, and you have dashed them.

What have you done? It is simple: people exist to fail you, so inevitably, as a person, as all people, as a composite of all the people I have know, you have failed me and fail me still. There are no phone calls. No visits. The wedding I wasn't invited to by you, my old old friends. The distance you created. The posts you won't answer. My published stories you never read or comment upon, my books you have never read. And more.

There is no way out. That is why you peer in the fog of something else, something beyond all of this. To find the ALL behind the many.


Alexis Santi offers a unique service in the battering world of literary journals.

He and his staff at OUR STORIES provide a critique of each and every story that is submitted. For seasoned submitters, the standard response is the form rejection. If you are lucky, or unlucky (depending if you see degrees of rejection as good, which I do) you get a note about the story from the editor/reader. In it, there is usually an expressed admiration for the story. There is not enough admiration, however, to take the story. Only enough to make everyone feel very bad about the outcome.

OUR STORIES provides crucial advice for the developing story. Santi and the staff will comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the piece, and provide a guide map for improving the story.

The my story part of OUR STORIES was a piece called "And Moses Made a Serpent of Brass." OUR STORIES took it after some simple alterations. It was the first story that I published (more came later, as if OUR STORIES was a key I picked up along the way).

The fact that OUR STORIES, a journal that takes a tender and loving treatment of our writing, took my first work of fiction, made it all the more satisfying.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Religious Syncretism

My first book, Religious Syncretism, gestated for about a decade before it became an active work of research and writing. It was published as a textbook with SCM-Canterbury in 2006.

I had been thinking over the years about the curious customs of pagan origins that continue in our day to day lives. Tossing coins in fountains (a variation of a Celtic practice of tossing coins to the dead in marshes to gain their favor). Knocking on wood (again, another Celtic practice, done to stir up the soul in a tree for protection). Our daily lives, and especially our monotheistic holidays, are studded with pagan holdovers. The obvious ones, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, the Sukkah, are only the most evident expression of religious borrowing.

My book shows the pervasiveness of borrowing. It takes examples of hybrid varieties of Islam, Christianity and Judaism to show the fluidity between these religions and so-called paganism. The three great carriers of syncretism in religion are saint veneration, mysticism and folk practice. My book illustrates that all three pervade Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and offer interesting and compelling examples of how the three Abrahamic religions share among one another and paganism.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Other Zions

I wrote the Other Zions because there was a hole in the historical work about Jewish nationalism.

During over a decade of reading works on Jewish history, I came across scattered references to Jewish states, nations, kingdoms, tribes, and autonomous regions. I was suprised to find that there was not a single work about these unique Jewish communities. So, I set about to formally research this neglected area, and the result was The Other Zions: the Lost Histories of Jewish Nations, which was published by Rowman & Littlefield late last year.

The work details attempts to create Jewish autonomous political life away from the land of Israel. These examples in Jewish self-rule have been as varied as the Jewish experience. I tried to pick examples that satisfied at least three criteria: that the Jewish community be as independent as possible from foreign rule, i.e. that the state be ruled by Jews. Second, a Jewish community had a military and was capable of defending itself. Third, that the Jewish state be historically verifiable and was not some Utopian scheme that never led to any results.

In some instances, these three criteria were relaxed. Some of the examples could not be said to adhere strictly to all three. This is because of the complexities of Jewish diaspora life, and the difficulty of dealing with some of the primary sources.

That said, I believe that the work can be an important companion to any study of Jewish ethncity, nationalism, and the study of ancient and modern Jewish communities.

The Other Zions was written for a popular audience and meant to expose readers to groups of Jews who have only been written about in specialized books and professional journals. As a new pathway in Jewish history, it is my hope people will find the work illuminating.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Meta Review

I'll be forty in two days.

Looking over the sweep of it, I am struck by the rapid changes that have taken place in short periods of time, and those longer periods of stasis. It is like the theories of evolution; gradual versus sudden. When I have changed, it has been sudden and dramatic.

Some numbers stick out as major ground swells: 18, 21, 27, 29, 32, 36, and even 39. At each of these ages, life's sudden and implacable pull toward transformation made me something that I am no longer. Perhaps it was a move, or an illness, or a publication, or a child born, or a major unsettling emotion that came and would not depart.

Perhaps my 40s will be the decade when I let my anger (at what? at whom? who owes me anything?) abate? Perhaps it will be the time when I break the switch of my inherent judgementalist stance. Who am I to judge? What I have done that warrants a high and mighty attitude toward people?

If the embrace of HaShem means anything, it means placing myself in the place where I belong. It means taking it all as all: the pain, joy, the shortcoming and accomplishments. They are all me. I own them all. No one else is to blame. No one else can take credit.

Monday, January 4, 2010

God Has Mercy on Kindergarten Children

אלוהים מרחם על ילדי הגן,
פחות מזה על ילדי בית הספר.
ועל הגדולים לא ירחם עוד,
ישאירם לבדם,
ולפעמים יצטרכו לזחול על ארבע
בחול הלוהט,
כדי להגיע לתחנת האסוף
והם שותתי דם.
אולי על האוהבים באמת
יתן רחמים ויחוס ויצל
כאילן על הישן בספסל
שבשדרה הצבורית.
אולי להם גם אנחנו נוציא
את מטבעות החסד האחרונות
שהורישה לנו אמא,
כדי שאשרם יגן עלינו
עכשיו ובימים האחרים.

Here, I don't believe that Amichai believed that God has mercy (מרחם, sometimes translated as pity, but I think mercy has a better divine intonation) on kindergarten children. I think he did not have the heart to say that God would let them suffer. So he wrote the line, with a wink and a nod, and we are to believe that perhaps in that one enchanted year we are protected. But we know that we are not.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

People of the Land and other things

The draft of the novel is done. Now all that is left is a close edit by my wife. She had a great eye for my errors. I am like a painter who must draw many studies before working on the large canvas. And even on the canvas, I must paint over, scratch away.

There is nothing to be done about it. The habits that start one writing and keep one writing are what is important, not the process by which the final product is rendered.

And how else should it be? Generally, readers are forgiving if they love a book. They forgive its faults as they do the people they love.

If this novel is taken, I can only hope this turns out to be the case of People of the Land. Somone needs to love this book.