Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Soul - Eric Maroney

The Soul

The soul of men and women
Housed in stone
Pounding forth
Going out
To make a world
With hands and feet
A head, a world
Where sounds
Can live, without
A fear
Without breath

Monday, August 27, 2012

Amichai's Hebrew Irony

Yehuda Amichai has the distinction of being one of the first Hebrew language poets to write in the spoken vernacular, rather than in the poetic register that marked most modern, Israeli poems.  More Love Poems, a collection of his poems on topics amorous does show this in many particular examples.  Yet he still holds an ironic attachment to the biblical text.  His poems are not yet the kind of ethnicy, street verse we find, for example, in Ronny Someck’s The Fire Stays Red.

In “I Dreamed a Dream,” Amichai connects his poem to the biblical story of Joseph’s dream interpretation of Pharoah’s cows,  both fat and sleek, to seven maidens, one group heavy, one group thick.  The thin ones swallow the leans ones with their “hungry thighs” and the narrator of the poem, making love to them all, gets swallowed by the voracious thighs in turn.

So, the picture of Amichai is far from clear.  Some of his poems are startling clear, and empty of biblical allusion.  Others hop and play along with the biblical text, borrowing from it both as a form of connection and distance to the text, which has been done for millennium with the words of the bible.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Comprehensive Volume

Peter Cole is a prolific translator of Hebrew and Arabic texts, and he brings to his translations the deft hand of a man who writes his own English language poetry.  So it should be no surprise that his The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition is a very readable and accessible volume.

Cole wants to reach a wide audience, and walks the line between an academic and popular treatment of the subject.  Different topics are discussed before texts are introduced, giving the reader a key into the significance of the translated verse.  For those who wish to delve into the details of the translations, and further historical information, there is an extensive notes section (which occupies about a fourth of the book).

So, Cole has compiled a comprehensive volume on the poetry of Jewish mysticism that should satisfy almost any interested reader.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Same Spark of Creativity: The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night

Comparisons between Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby are inevitable.  Both are viewed as his most complete artistic visions; and both are in the enviable position of being on the Modern Libraries list of the 100 best pieces of fiction of the twentieth century.

Gatsby is gorgeously written, and the language is expressive, nuanced, and multi-leveled.  One can read and re-read Gatsby and find new things with each reading.  A better definition of a classic I cannot find.  Gatsby is also a radically economical novel.  Coming in at just 50,000 words, it is nearly a novella.  A short book, it seems long due to its reputation and genius.  But in the end, it is petite, and Fitzgerald had to work within the confines of this short narrative structure.  

Not so with Tender is the Night.  At 108,000 words, the novel allows Fitzgerald to sprawl; in the course of the novel, we see far less compressed development of the characters than in Gatsby.  There are far more graphic representations of scene, the flow of time, and the outcome of events.  Tender shows the reader how good Fitzgerald could be in a longer form.  He stretches his wings, and the results are astonishing.  It is a moving and tragic novel of love and life gone astray. 

Even with some of the novel’s problems (does the text really give us enough of Nichole’s insanity?  Is Dick Diver’s descent given enough grounding) Tender is the perfect accompaniment to Gatsby and Gatsby to Tender.  For writers, it shows that if lighting does not exactly strike twice, similar results can be produced by and expressed by the same electric charge.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Heart of Summer - Poem

Well known August
Always begotten
The sign: the dry mat of clover
The signal: a shag of brunet grass
As scorched as the nape of my neck

This is the realization of a dream
That one day, the grass will die
That one day, we will weave it into mats
That one day, we will ask
“What else is left?”

August writes its poem:
A woman must leave something behind
A man must justify his rage
The turn of August brings this down
This passing, this burnt redemption
Of all that fades away

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hemingway New

The Garden of Eden was Hemingway’s attempt to move beyond his literary and public persona toward a new, fuller level.  The fact that he did not complete the book,  and left the work in a confusing manuscript form with multiple endings and a lack of cohesive force, shows how hard this project was for him as a writer and a man.

The Scribners 1986 version of The Garden of Eden gave readers a view of what Hemingway in part wanted to accomplish.  The manuscript is over 200,000 words, while the novel comes in at 70,000.  Much was cut out, and the ending gives a more sanguine view of the story than Hemingway perhaps envisioned.

This novel should be read, and Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: Twenty-Five years of Criticism.  For the committed reader, this collection of essays explores all the problems associated with this novel and its manuscript.  It gives a glimpse of what the full intention of Hemingway may well have been.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Jewish Magic Mountain

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Retreat has shades of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a bit of Kafka’s strange realism, and Appelfeld's patented sense of looming, uncertain doom.

Jewish residents of a mountain retreat, sanatorium, or prison (we are never sure which one) struggle to rid themselves of their Jewish traits.  They attempt to stand up straight, to be less argumentative, to be fair in their dealings with others.   These all fail, and in the end the intimates of the retreat are forced to pawn their possession just to remain in the place where they have failed.

A trenchant critique, it is difficult to say what, exactly, Appelfeld is critiquing.  The inmates may simply be Jews living in a European retreat on the verge of World War II, and are subject to all manner of discriminatory measures.  Their attempts to rid themselves of their intractable Jewishness are then ironically wrong.  They will never rid themselves of Jewish traits, for their enemies will not let them do so.

This book could also be a commentary on the Zionist ideal of the Jew.  The inmates of the retreat are 'typical' Diaspora Jews viewed through a Zionist lens.  This view accepts much of the anti-Semitic rhetoric about Jewish parasitism and corruption.

Either way, this strange, even twisted novel keeps the reader slightly off balance.  Appelfeld has written us into an odd world, where the unsettling is all too true.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Appelfeld's Cattails

Aaron Appelfeld has a well-established narrative pattern in many of his novels: the son of a beautiful mother traveling to some destination.  In their progress, many odd and disjointed things are seen and heard, and harbingers for some terrible event that will happen later in the novel are found throughout.

To the Land of the Cattails follows this pattern exactly.  For frequent readers of Appelfeld’s fiction, there is not much new here, or much to learn.  I do not know much of the secondary literature about Appelfeld; no doubt this trend is commented upon by Hebrew language critics.  I know that Appelfeld lost his mother early in the war, while his father survived.  In all the novels along these narrative lines, the father is a distant figure.  He is either not present, or an infrequent guest.

In the end, there is only doom.  Even if Appelfeld does not name the Holocaust or Nazis in his novels (and in Cattails he does not) frequent readers know what will happen.

The take away: only read a few Appelfeld novels, or grow accustomed to watching an author work out a primary theme many times, trying to perfect it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Do What You Can: Rebbe Nachman's Meditation Practice

People have been cherry picking passages from Rebbe Nachman’s writings for a long time.  We see this in Outpouring of the Soul, called in Hebrew Histap’kuth HaNefesh. It was complied in 1904 by Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Bezishianski, known as the Reb Alter of Teplik.  Reb Alter combed through Rabbi Nachman’s writings and found passages particularly suited to meditation, and its allied pursuit according to the Bratslaver Hasidim, prayer.

What we get in this small distillation of the Rebbe’s work is the rock hard center of his thinking about mediation and prayer.  How to do it, how to keep it up, and what to expect from it.  Translated by the noted expert on Jewish mediation, Aryeh Kaplan, this small book is really indispensable for an understanding of Jewish meditation in a condensed form.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Irvin Faust, writer, 1928-2012

My former high school guidance counselor and writer, Irvin Faust, who I have written of here, has died.  This is the link to his obituary in the NewYork Times.

Friday, August 3, 2012


For years I've wanted to watch CSA (Confederate States of America). A mocumentary from 2004 about the South winning the Civil War. Finally did this afternoon. I love alternate histories, and mocumentaries, and this one, oy, packs a major punch. Can't say it is funny. Its moments of humor make one cringe. But it is worth an hour and a half of your time. It is satire with a capital S. So, that is Satire.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Garden of Eden

Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: Twenty Five Years of Criticism is a finely edited volume exploring Ernest Hemingway's  posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden, in 1986.

This book handles many aspects of the publication and reception of the novel.  There are essays about the state of the manuscript and the radical trimming done by a Scribner’s editor.  The problem of publishing posthumous (and in the case of Eden, unfinished) books is given much needed detail.  Feminist, post-colonial, and various other “post-modern” perspectives of the book are provided.  Some are well written and clear, other rich in the comic jargon that post-modernism churns out in abundance.

All these explorations lead to the most important aspect of this book, and The Garden of Eden.  The novel was an attempt by Hemingway to transcend both himself and his art as previously rendered.  He worked to create a novel which raised difficult questions about sex, art and identity that are only explored obliquely in his other works.  How difficult this was is seen in the sprawling, 200,000 word manuscript (toned down to 70,000 for publication) housed at the Kennedy Library in Boston.

That Hemingway did not succeed by finishing this novel is a tribute to the enormity of the task, and the many physical and mental challenges he faced in the post-war period.  But he left much work for scholars; and scholarship demands that a critical  edition of The Garden of Eden be published so interested readers can see what the complete vision of Hemingway might have been.  Then we can judge for ourselves. We can see, perhaps, how a great artist can always extent the reach of his or her vision.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law

Rabbi Zemer’s Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law, takes a novel and I think very fruitful method and applies it to Jewish law.  Rabbi Zemer is a progressive Rabbi in Israel (as the branch of Reform is called there) and is well versed in the vast literature of Halakhah, or Jewish law.  As such, he does not simply play the Reform card by saying “Halakhah is no longer valid” and endorse a spiritual, cultural, or ethnic Judaism.  Rather, he takes Halakhah on its own terms, using its very rules and precedents to show that in the past lenient, more humane rulings were far more common than today. 

As an Israeli rabbi, much of Rabbi Zemer’s book applies to Jews living in Israel, where such matters as marriage, divorce, and ‘who is a Jew’ are handled by an established religious body.  In America, things are much more fractured.  Issues such as these come up, but are treated quietly within the confines of particular American communities and denominations.  In a way, American Judaism is far more like the kind of Judaism that Zemer espouses:  pluralistic, open to disagreement, fluid.

Perhaps the meta-conclusion that this books shows, but which Rabbi Zemer never quite spells out enough, is that more often than not Halakhah is decided based on political considerations.  When all Jews were observant (and largely poor) rabbis tried to take a lenient approach for the sake of compassion.  There was nothing riding on allowing a couple to marry, for instance, rather than the pain or suffering caused by their inability to marry due to mamzer, or illegitimate issues.  Today, strictness in Halakhah has become a way for the Orthodox to both differentiate themselves from secular Jews, and from other Orthodox groups.  Strictness becomes a way to prove one’s Orthodox credentials and in some instances have gone so far as to become mannerist in appearance.  

Rabbi Zemer offers a well-reasoned and detailed book on the rationale behind more liberal, humanistic halakhic decisions.  As much as possible he tries to take the politics out of religious Jewish law, and place it on a more humane footing.