Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Growth and Depth During the High Holidays: Rabbi Alan Lew

Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l was a pulpit rabbi (conservative) and a long time practitioner of mediation.  For a decade before he became a rabbi, he practiced Zen type mediation.

His other two works, One God Clapping, and Be Still and Get Going, reflect this ongoing commitment to being halakically Jewish and also practicing mediation techniques that are inspirited by Buddhist tradition.

This work, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared is his most Jewish in the sense that he takes the specific content, practices, ideas and liturgy of the time period from Tisha b'Av and  Sukkoth and provides a conceptual framework that allows for growth and depth to the High Holiday experience.

The book in informed by his eastern religious background, but not dominated by it.  When Rabbi Lew expresses that this world is but a fleeting thing, a narrow bridge with darkness on either side, he simply expresses very well-known rabbinical dicta about existence.  

Our existence IS fleeting.  Our time is short.  Rabbi Lew reminds us that waking up to the reality of our transitory nature can make us see reality and ourselves for what it/we truly are; it can help us to see what is important in this little crack of light between the two zones of darkness that is our life.

Sadly, Rabbi Lew passed away in 2009.  Reading this book with that in mind places the work in an almost prophetic light; several times Rabbi Lew expresses how close he feels to death based on his experience as a pulpit rabbi.  He realized, watching so many people die, that death awaits us at at anytime.  Sadly, he was right.  But he left us some deeply intelligent and humane works as a legacy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Give me those Old Time Days of Awe, it was good enough for me

S.Y. Agnon, the Israeli writer of fiction and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, compiled a book in 1948 called Days of Awe: A Treasure of Traditions, Legends, and Learned Commentaries Concerning Rosh Ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, and the Days Between. Agnon combed through numerous texts to provide an outline of the High Holidays from the perspective of religious observance, custom, and communal and individual intention.  

The book is interesting, but the overall feel and tone of it is very old, and very orthodox.  Of course, that is the point.  These are old sources that Agnon is accessing; he is just giving us them in a new format.  But the translation, made in the 60s, feels too Protestant Old Testament-like to have an authentic Jewish voice.  No doubt the Hebrew original, which Agnon says he reworked in certain places to make it easier to read, doesn’t suffer from this archaic touch.  

All and all an interesting book, but not particularly compelling to real; it is a compendium which suffers from the illness that many compendiums do: it is uneven and sometimes flat out boring.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Modern Hebrew Stories

In October 1971 Bantam published a dual English/Hebrew edition of a series of short stories by contemporary Hebrew writers.  This was part of a series of other dual language books published by Bantam.  The justification of such an odd book, original text on one side, translation on the other, is that we can have a sort of running dialog with the original language (if we know it) and the translation.  We don’t have to accept the translation as writ.  We can argue and tangle with the two texts. 

I do this with the JPS translation of the Tanakh.  I constantly scratch my head at the translator’s choices.  Instead of rendering the Plains of Moab the Plains of Moab, they are called the Steppes of Moab.  How justified is this translation? Maybe steppes is closer to the Hebrew original, but in English it conjures up images of snowy, vast Russian open spaces.  Something is lost here in this choice.

You will find this and more in the translations of several short stories by Agnon, Hazaz, Yizhar, Megged, Amichai, Aloni, Appelfeld and Yehoshua.  If you can find this old book scarf it up.  Read it and tangle with it.  Make meaning out of this fraught enterprise called translation.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Coetzee Light

Dusklands strikes a minor note in J.M. Coetzee's works.  His first “novel” it is really two long short stories combined into one volume.  The first story “The Vietnam Project” is a clumsy work, trying to make the connection between the violence of the colonizer over the colonized, and violence closer to home, linking this chain of war from the perspective of an American researcher who goes mad.  

The second work is a faux historical document called “The Narrative Life of Jacobus Coetzee” detailing the travels of (what we presume is) a Coetzee ancestor into a “Hottentot” region to hunt elephant in the early eighteenth century.  The trip degenerates into  senseless acts of violence and reprisal raids against the natives.  In this story Coetzee is on firmer ground.  The tale has more clarity and resonance than the first one; he is on firmer ground here writing about his Afrikaner past, even in a fictional form.

Later, Coetzee could tackle a subject like the Vietnam Project, but he was not up to it yet in this volume.  Of course he would return to the colonial venue again, and to much greater effect in later novels.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Humanities Blues

The Cornell Daily Sun ran a story today about the sad state of the job market for  graduate students in the humanities.  I heard this  long ago, when I was a graduate student at Boston University in philosophy in the early 90s.  The lament goes something like this:

There are too many students for too few jobs.  The pay is bad.  The teaching load heavy.  The colleges and universities where students get jobs are low ranked.  This goes on.  It was really quite a depressing business.  Yet every year we had a class of some dozen or more philosophy students, eager to get into the program, believing, somehow, that they were made from a different cut of intellectual cloth than the rest; that the conditions would not apply to them.

One day The Boston Globe ran an article about the extremely low rate of job placement for  graduate students in the humanities, particularly in philosophy.  The number was somewhere around a 50% failure rate.  Very grim odds indeed.  If you had a cancer with this kind of morbidity, best to get one’s papers in order.

I photocopied the article, and secretly (I did most things in secret in those days as a grad student, for ruffling professorial feathers is so unwise it is not even spoken about privately) put it in the mailboxes of every student and professor.  It caused a stir.  In a month, a committee was formed to deal with placement (for amazingly, in this difficult employment field, there was no system in place to help students get jobs!)

I suppose, nearly twenty years later, the story is much the same at the Department of Philosophy at Boston University.  More and more people fight for less and less reward; professors put on a brave face, may very well be complicit in this sad deceit, and hope no one looks behind the curtain.  

And there is an urgent question that begs to be answered.  Why go through it?  I got out, and have never had serious reservations about this decision.  The idea to jump off the sinking ship and into the waters of a lesser form of chaos seemed eminently rational.  I took my humanities elsewhere.  To my surprise (and probably to the surprise of many of the professors at BU, if they care to look) it has flourished by my rubric.  And I did not have to enter into their lottery.  And I did not have to beg.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Hasidic Finnegans Wake: Likutey Moharan Vol 2

Rabbi Nachman is best known for his tales, for the most part as retold by Martin Buber.  But he left behind a large body of direct teachings, here provided by the Breslov Research Institute out of Jerusalem and New York

This multi-volume series is presented in a bilingual edition: Hebrew on the left, English on the right.  It is structured as a Hebrew book (i.e. the “back” cover is the front).   Surprisingly for Hasidic Hebrew, Rabbi Nachman’s prose is fluid and easy to understand, with none of the cramp short hand and stilted diction of much of Hasidic prose [Saying this, I don’t know how much of the text was cleaned up by the editors, and how much is actually Rabbi Nachman].

This is a great collection if you want a crack at some religious Hebrew directly from the source, without mediating elements.  You don’t have to read the notes provided by the editors at the bottom of the pages.  You also get to see how Rabbi Nachman connect ideas across a wide range of sources and texts.  One thing flows into the next, making these teachings a kind of Hasidic Finnegans Wake.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Problems with Plot: No Country For Old Men

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men certainly doesn’t let the reader down in several crucial areas of novel construction. Tone, setting, character, are impeccably drawn.  McCarthy has a unique way of situating his characters in a time and place, so much so that pulling them out of it would not only be absurd, but stupid.  Sheriff Bell’s soliloquies are an excellent example.  From them, the novel gets much of its moral,temporal and local tone.  Sheriff Bell gets to comment on the general action, providing a mooring frame for the reader.  It really couldn’t have been done any better.

If the novel slips anywhere, it is on the level of plot, and to a lesser degree, character motivation.  Why do the bodies of the drug dealers stay so long out in the desert, and why must be return to them three times?  Why does Carson Wells essentially hand himself over to Chigurh?  Why does the novel turn away from Moss’ killing, smothering it in remembrances and the chatter of other characters? 

These are small flaws, perhaps, but they do mar this novel.  They prevent No Country from Old Men from being a great novel; they knock it down a peg to the ranks of the very good novel.

Monday, September 19, 2011

On Wells and Origins

Michael P. Carroll writes scholarly works on popular or folk Catholicism, primarily in Italy.  In Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Devotion, Carroll delves into folk religion in Ireland, in particular the once popular activity of "rounding" and pilgrimages to holy wells.

First Carroll takes the cudgel to the idea, long held by scholars, that rounding, moving in a circular patter around sacred sites such as collections of stones, is an ancient Irish practice.  Carroll compelling shows that there is no evidence that these practices existed in ancient Celtic culture.  The scant historical record simply does not show it.  This is also the case with visiting sacred wells.  Although the ancient Celts  invested considerable spiritual energy in places with flowing water, most of the sources which quote this are not for Ireland.

Carroll does not believe rounding and sacred well pilgrimages are an ancient practice, but a more modern innovation based on the reactions of Irish Catholics to the reforming elements of the Council of Trent.  It is a fine argument, but in the end it is based on just as much scanty or meager evidence as the “Celtic” hypothesis of the origin of these practices.  The argument from silence can run both ways in this case, and the reader is left wondering what conclusions can really be firmly made about the origins these practices.

Despite this difficult, the book is well-written and argued, and replete with fascinating examples of modern Irish folk practice.  Carroll is a scholar who is very adept at showing how creative rank and file Catholics are at adapting the faith to their particular needs; and as they needs evolve, so do the practices.  There are no static entities here; practice and belief and in constant flux.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Read it for Anna

Despite its bizarre and even roughshod ending, Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is a thrilling, although difficult book to read.  Coetzee’s Dostoevsky is compellingly rendered, complex and rich in his observations of human life.   

But it is the inn keeper, the widow, who really steals the show.  Anna is Dostoevsky’s unexpected lover, and each time he is with her, “he finds something new and surprising in her.”  She becomes the counter-point to Dostoevsky’s sense of loss and turmoil.  A woman who can, despite her setbacks in life, still see the hope and glimmer of transformation in things; yet she sees reality for what it is, and experiences it fully.

The relationship between this enigmatic woman and the master of Petersburg is reason enough for reading this well-crafted novel.  Coetzee writes complex, psychological and philosophically driven novels, and The Master of Petersburg does not fail on either front.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Yes, writing about writing again: Elizabeth Costello

In Elizabeth Costello J.M. Coetzee plays more post-modern games.  What is most interesting about this novel is that it plays very fast and loose with the truth as we know it.  Most of what the Elizabeth Costello of the title preaches are speeches and lectures Coetzee himself has delivered.  Costello becomes a kind of aged priestess of his work, expounding on some of his well-worn themes.

This can be interesting, at times it can be very dull, which is part of the design.  What Elizabeth Costello is saying is often very boring to her audiences, and we, as her readers, get to participate in this as well.  She is most interesting when we get glimpses of her past and present, how she lived her life, her biography, her loneliness.  Coetzee gives us little of this.  He wants us to see the life of Costello in its totality, and this cannot be divorced from Costello the writer.

So this novel about writing has some very interesting things to say about writing, the author and their collective place in the wider scheme of things.  Coetzee views the writer as an increasingly marginal figure in today’s world (a view shared by many).  And this novel shows just how far this estrangement has gone.  We can’t help but feel sorry for Elizabeth Costello by the end of this novel.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Miracle or the Victory?

If anyone thinks of the Maccabees, or the Hasmoneans, they think of the soccer team (if they are Israeli) or the festival of Hanukkah.  With a little more knowledge, people may realize that the Hasmonean era (roughly 164 BCE to 63 BCE) was one of the three times that Jews have excised autonomy over the land of Israel.

The lesser known of the three, Hasmonean rule has always been viewed by the rabbinical tradition as suspect.  The Hasmoneans were just too realpolitik for the rabbis.  They exercised power and control in the world in military and religious matters, combining them to a dangerous degree.  Rabbinical Judaism, by and large, worked to keep political matters out of Judaism, at least in all but a mythological form.  The Hasmoneans were up to their knees in politics, and worked with gentiles to secure their power, fought against fellow Jews when they were against them, and in general, did all the things people in power do to maintain their power. 

Joseph Sievers shows this and more in The Hasmoneans and Their Supporters: From Mattathias to the Death of John Hyrcanus I.  He explores the problem of sources at our disposal for understanding the Hasmoneans.  He tackles the thorny problem of just how independent the Hasmoneans were, and when they finally achieved complete independence from the Seleucid-Greek  rulers they revolted against (and often worked with).

John Hyrancus comes across as the most fascinating figure in this study, since he did things that are not widely known to people who do not study this topic.  He expanded the Hasmonean empire across the Jordan; he forced non-Jews to convert to Judaism or be forced with expulsion (most notably the Edomites, or Idumeans).  He destroyed the Samaritan temple (never to be rebuilt) and subjugated this people completely.

As we said, these accomplishments were never much touted by religious Judaism.  All we get is Hannukah.  And that holiday celebrates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory of the Hasmoneans in capturing Jerusalem and its Temple.  The supernatural wins out over the natural.