Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Austerity, vii, the end

             

               
           “You’ve disgraced me!”  Arye’s father yelled, holding up the newspaper inches away from his son’s face and shaking it menacingly.  
            “How can I show myself at the office?  A son who buys eggs on the Black Market… from that swine Mizrahi.  It’s attracted attention.  There is a story in every newspaper.  ‘Fourteen year old boy buys eggs on the Black Market!’  They say if a boy like you buys on the Black Market, than the rule of law does not govern the Jewish State.  Ben-Gurion’s had it with the Black Market, and he has seen fit to comment on your arrest, he is quoted, listen: ‘Jews have been thieves for 2,000 years.  But here it will end, with this generation.  Yet nearly three years after the founding of this Jewish commonwealth, Jews are still thieves!  And this, from a boy from a good family, with a father with an important post in the Jerusalem municipality.  This boy will be made an example…’  And there is MORE!”  
            Arye’s father was screaming, shaking the paper in his clenched fists like a flag of dishonor he was forced to unfurl, explaining how Israel was a tiny country, and even the most minor infraction were written in the public record of misdeeds.
            “Yaacov, leave him alone,” Giveret Levin pleaded. “He's suffered enough.. he was only trying to help…”
            “Stay out of this,” Mar Levin continued to yell.  He turned to Arye, his eyes bloodshot and bulging, as if his rage had reached some absolute threshold and become fully internalized.  “Go to your room!”  And for the rest of the night, until he fell asleep fully dressed, Arye listened to the barrage of his parent’s denunciations.
                                                                              

         This was a crisp, early spring Jerusalem day.  On the hillside a crowd of several hundred had gathered.  In front were the entire cabinet, flanked by Ben-Gurion, Mar and Giveret Levin and little Haim.  Reporters surrounded them, and every now and again a flash would explode, despite the blinding sunlight.  Ben-Gurion stepped forward to speak.
            “This nation will be built from many tribes.  It is necessary to melt down the debris of Jewish humanity which is scattered throughout the world and will come to Israel in the melting pot of Independence and national sovereignty.  It is necessary to create a Hebrew character and style which could not have existed in the Diaspora, among a people without a homeland, without independence and national freedom. 
            “And this New Hebrew will not steal from the public trust, but redeem the land and the people.  These go hand in hand.  Redeem the land and you redeem the people.  Redeem the people and the land will be saved.  One follows the other.  Sometimes they are grand acts of heroism on the battlefield, but more often they are simple acts, like obeying the smallest of laws of this state’s democratically elected government, one meant to distribute food and clothes according to need.  And sometimes it is as simple as planting a tree in a wasteland, making a land that is a desert into a forest or garden. And so ladies and gentlemen, with this tree, Arye Levin will redeem himself and his nation.”
            There was a smattering of applause and a shovel was placed into Arye’s hands.  He began to dig in the indicated spot.  Flash bulbs exploded.  But the soil on this hillside west of Jerusalem was rocky, and a general in tan uniform stepped forward to help the boy remove fist sized stones from the spot. 
            When there was something resembling a hole, a workman brought a tree, its roots packed in burlap.  But the hole was not big enough, so the tree was removed and Arye was compelled to dig more.  Tears began to whelm in his eyes, so he dug even more feverishly, pushing up soil and stones, creating hillocks of sand and pebbles.  Ben Gurion took a step forward but the boy bade him back.  The Prime Minister smirked, and after ten minutes of this limbo, this point between redemption and its opposing state, the tree was fitted neatly into the hole and the crowd erupted into great applause.

            Arye back filled the hole with dirt and the tree stood alone, solitary on the uneven, stone-strewn hill.  There was a great clamor as people rushed the boy.  They spoke but he could not hear, as his ears were clogged with the dust of this land.  He tried to scream ‘No! No!’ but his voice was muffled, for a cake of Jerusalem dust had settled in his throat.  The Holy Land wavered before him through the film of his drying tears, an indistinct entity of deformed trees, sharp tall stones, groping hands and loud voices clamoring more more.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Austerity, vi


                           




           Arye tosssed a rubber ball against the courtyard wall.  Little Haim Levin had come home from his youth group, once again caked in mud and dirt. 

            “I planted three trees today Arye, all by myself,” he told his
brother joyfully.

            “Great,” Arye said, deflated, continuing to bounce his ball without specific intent.  “Get away from me. Go inside and eat.”  Haim, seeing the dark shadow across his brother’s brow, walked up toward the flat.

            Arye threw the ball again and again, trying to erase the sound of his mother’s soft, heartrending sobs.  She had done it again:   In her rush from home to work to the grocer the egg coupon had fallen from the flimsy ration book.  There would be no eggs in the Levin house for at least two weeks. 

            His mother sobbed less for the loss of the coupon or the eggs, and more for her own complicity in carelessness.  So Arye Levin threw the ball harder against the wall, trying to banish all thoughts of food which would never be eaten, but he could not exile Ezra Mizrahi’s words from his mind.  The boy’s mocking litany about the government, his imitation of the Romanian minister’s heavy accent, the conspicuous patting of his rounded belly, even his mocking of Joseph from the bible, formed in Arye the desire to destroy something precious and unique, to remove a keystone from the foundation of the Jewish State.  Instead, the boy let the ball drop from his hand and strode purposefully to the Mizrahi flat.

            Once the door was open, Arye quickly realized that Giveret Mizrahi did not speak Hebrew.  Arye continued to ask for Ezra with clipped words, but the woman just looked at him, her palms outward and empty, as if she had nothing to offer but an empty brown hand.  Then Arye took a different tack.  He asked for eggs.  He formed the shape of an egg with his index finger and thumb.  He made a cracking sound and pantomimed flipping in a skillet.  Giveret Mizarhi looked behind Arye and then beckoned him into the flat.  She gestured for him to stay near the door and disappeared in a back room, where a baby was crying.  When she returned she asked for one lira in serviceable Hebrew.  Arye dug it out from his pocket and handed her the money.

            He could not bring the eggs home, as he had no legitimate excuse for possessing them.  But he couldn’t just throw them away, being precious in themselves and having just spent his entire monthly allowance on their purchase.  So, Arye Levin impotently walked around the block of flats, the carton of eggs in his outstretched arms, holding them as preciously and conspicuously as a sick infant. 

            “Hey you,” someone said behind him.  “Hey boy, stop!”

            Arye turned around to see a policemen and a man in a suit behind him.  They examined Arye Levin through narrow, skeptical eyes.

            “Where did you buy those eggs?” the man in the suit asked crisply.  Arye gave the name of the local grocer.

            “Don’t lie,” the man continued, moving closer to Arye, his chest nearly crushing the eggs. “We can check that out easily, you know.  Where is the stub?”

            “What?”

            “The ration stub!  Stop playing games,” the suited man said, raising his voice and holding out a red tinted hand.

            “I lost it,” Arye said, the words catching in his throat. 

            “Bullshit,” the policemen in uniform answered, grasping Arye firmly by the arm.  The plainclothesman seized the eggs from Arye’s trembling hands.

            “My parents…” Arye mumbled.
 
            “Don’t worry, we’ll call them from the station…” and they led Arye away

Friday, December 19, 2014

Austerity, iv

   
      

                   “You muzt try to understand dis,” the man said, his bald head gleaming with sweat despite the drafty auditorium.  His great brown glasses were crooked on his face, like a seesaw which had broken irrevocably to one side.  His Hebrew had a strong Romanian accent.
            “It iz vvery important, children,” the man continued, blinking excessively.  “Hherr in Izrael, the new comer muzt get the zame dings az the nnative born.  Iz it fair, den, children, for you to get two pairz of zhoes and the newcomer one?  Oor for you to eat two eggz, and the immigrant one?  Only wit de rationing will dere be fairness in Izrael.  Only den will dere be fairnezz…”  The man paused to remove his lop sided spectacles.  His large round eyes were now small and pink without the refracting glass, as if shrunk from the incantation of his words.
            “Aand de criminalz who zell food and clothez – and I will uze da word because you are older boyz and girlz and can underztand – on the Black Market are ztabling a knife in the heart of the Jewizh Ztate.  Dey defame de six-thousand dead who fought to make dis land free two yearz ago.  Dey fight for the Arab who wishes to crush uz and drive uz into da zea…”
            When the man was finished the teachers let the classes play in the yard.  Arye sat on a stone, contemplating the high sweep of the blue, Jerusalem sky, clear for the first time in nearly a month, the hint of spring lightly kissing the damp air.  The sun sent plumes of light down upon the earth which landed, Arye imagined, somewhere over the Jordan River, on the Plains of Moab, like broken pieces of the firmament.
            “It iz vvery important,” a voice behind Arye Levin proclaimed.  “Dat hhere in Yizrael, the new comer muzt get the zzame as the nnative born…”  Arye turned, thinking that the Ministry man was behind him, watching the sun perform its ballet over the Holy Land.  Instead a short, brown boy, a fine mesh of black hair over his upper lip, which quivered with delight over his feat of imitation, was next to Arye Levin, standing squat but firm.
            “What an ass,” the boy added, sitting beside Arye on the broad stone.  “That fool can’t even speak proper Hebrew and he comes here to lecture us about who deserves what, and when.  Fucked up.  Hey, don’t I know you?”  The boy asked.  Arye recognized the facial features: the reconstituted parts of Mar and Giveret Mizrahi. 
            “Yeah, I do know you,” the brown boy continued, leaning toward Arye, his face awash with the type of placid curiosity one often finds in a dog.  “You live in our apartment block.  The Levin kid.  The older one.  I’m Ezra Mizrahi.”  The boy wore a tan sweater and short brown pants.  He had two bandages on his knees and a hole the size of a fist in the very center of his sweater.  His arm thrust out as if to shake Arye’s hand, but then it dropped, as if he thought better of the gesture.
            “You know there is a Hungarian Restaurant my father goes to for his business.  And it is well known that this place does not take ration coupons.  And who does my father see, sitting down to a plate of gulasch, but Levi Eshkol….”
            “The Minister of Agriculture?”
            “The one and only,” Ezra Mizrahi answered, his hand outstretched as if to accept a well earned bit of bakseesh.  “If the highest members of the government, the cabinet itself, don’t respect austerity, what kind of example is that for regular people?  Both da nnew commer and de nnative born, as our friend in there said.  This is a small country.  Everyone knows everyone’s business, from the Cabinet members to the street cleaners.”
            The boys stopped talking as a group of children kicking a scuffed football across the pitted asphalt. 
            “Your father is in the Black Market, right?” Arye asked, just as the group disappeared from sight behind a tree at the far end of the yard still clinging tenaciously to the shards of last year’s leaves.
            “It’s all bullshit,” Ezra Mizrahi answered, his jaw firm, his eyes cast low.  “This whole country.  This is the Promised Land, my father says, the land of milk and honey.  Milk and honey are rationed, you know, and can be found on page lamed and dalet, and are available in section 17 this week.  Shopkeepers do what they can to get around the regulations, just like that crook Eshkol.  They water down milk and put breadcrumbs in ground beef.  I heard of one manufacturer who was hired by the government to make a certain kind of boot for the army, and he figured out how to use less leather, and he sold the rest on the black market.  And this man was a millionaire! 
            “It’s all crap, and my father has a thousand stories like this.  Dov Yosef, the austerity man, is worse than Joseph in the bible, lording his hoard of food over the people, making them bow and scrape.  Joseph’s brothers in the bible were right in getting rid of him, only they should have killed him instead of selling him to those Ishmaelites.  This whole place is a sham.  When some small fry gets caught buying a coat on the black market, they force him plant a tree and the newspapers make it front page news.  What kind of country is that?  What good is a goddamned tree if it doesn’t give you fruit or if you can’t cut it down to make a house?”
            “Why do you say such things?” Arye asked, aggrieved.  “Its  unpatriotic. Israel is a desert.  Planting trees redeems the land.”
            “You sound like that cheap Jew in there,” Ezra flicked his thumb backward, as if the Romanian from the Ministry was standing behind them, breathing down their necks with his litany of collective sacrifice.  “A man needs bread and a roof, and the government makes us eat the same kind of thin black bread and forces us into their damp apartment houses, Block Alef, Section 11, Flat Gimel blah blah…”
            “Your father told you all this!” Arye spat, standing up.  “He’s fed you lies.”
            The boy chuckled.  “At least I’m fed.  Well fed…” and he patted his round belly. “Come to our flat, eggs are stacked up to here, chickens hang from the rafters… we’ll feed you lies and we’ll feed you eggs and delicious cookies from overseas…” and the boy continued to talk ebulliently of his hoard of plenty, but Arye Levin had already walked away.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Austerity, iii


   
 
        Arye Levin sat in the court yard beneath his flat, under a low, tattered awning.  The rain had diminished to a slow trickle, but it was strong enough to make the boy still press deeply against the cold masonry of the apartment building.  In front of him, in a flat on the ground floor, music with a Levantine flavor was seeping through the closed windows and sealed shutters.  Apartment Block Alef-Gimel was occupied by Ashkenazim -- Jews from Europe – with the exception of the Mizrahi family -- Jews of Syrian origin.

            Their Middle Eastern quirks and mannerisms were mocked by the residents of Apartment Block Alef-Gimel.  Arye’s mother repeatedly admonished him not to play with any of the hoard of Mizrahi children. 
 
           Yet the very questionable nature of their origins, the stink of impropriety about their status, carried an unquestionable appeal.  Arye imagined that in Syria both Arab and Jew alike carried long curved knifes and were not shy about using them to solve a dispute.  The women, who covered themselves with brightly covered flowing robes studded with gold and silver coins, were hoarders of great beauty and allure, all the more so because it was concealed.

            The reality was otherwise.  When Arye saw Mar Mizrahi he viewed a portly, squat man in an opened collar shirt and stained tan pants.  In the winter this outfit was supplemented by a coat with the lining ripped out.  He had deep lines beneath his eyes and a cigarette, either lit or unlit, dangling between his plump lips.  The man was constantly coming and going out of his flat.  Sometimes a truck would pull up on their side street entrance, away from prying eyes, idle for a bit, before rumbling off again.  Giveret Mizrahi indeed wore a head scarf but it did not cover her face.  It was loosely draped over her head, as if she was doing mere lip service to the customs of her homeland.  A gaggle of children dangled off her like spare appendages.

            Arye never saw Mar or Giveret Mizrahi with ration books.  They were never spotted on line at the neighborhood greengrocer or the dry goods store.  The residents of Apartment Block Alef-Gimel whispered that Mar Mizrahi was a big time black marketeer.  And just this rainy afternoon, as Arye’s belly was beating the slow tempo of hunger which pounded with the beat of his heart, he saw Mar Mizrahi coming up the path with a box full of egg cartons, a ration for a family for nearly two months. 
 
           Beneath his bushy eyebrows the Syrian Jew spied the fair-haired Levin boy and did not bother to conceal his cache.  His eyes smiled jubilantly, with an unassailable spark of victory, which seemed to say to the world, fixed with its rules and statutes, ‘fuck you.’  Yet for all the glee on his mobile, fleshy face, his lips were set firm on his smoldering cigarette, and did not budge an inch toward the arch of a smile.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Austerity, ii


          

 
        Arye Levin knew full well that his mother suffered torments in the market.  He did not wish to make it worse by eating too much, by adding to her already unbearable burdens of work, shopping, cooking, cleaning.  She had a full book of ration coupons at the top of each month, and the Ministry of Supplies and Rationing forced her, as they did everyone in Israel, to shop at a certain stores in their neighborhoods.   Supplies were low.
            In the morning the newspapers would announce which items were available in what district: Radishes being distributed in area 10, which was the location of the Levin flat in West Jerusalem, price – 95 mils per kilogram.  Coupon – Page Gimel # 26.  Giveret Levin would dutifully trudge down to the greengrocer for the radishes. 
            There was always a line which stretched around the corner.  Sometimes she would stand for three hours for radishes, eggs, fish, and by the time Giveret Levin reached the counter the last radish, egg or fish was sold.  A crowd of disgruntled Jerusalemites would empty out into the cold winter streets, grumbling about the government, spewing Dov Yosef, the “Minster of Austerity,” the architect of the ration system for the Jewish State, with curses of biblical dimensions. 
          “Is this how we live, in Israel, in 1950!” one woman cried.  And no one had an answer.  This was the seven years of famine predicted by Joseph to Pharaoh, but not a soul could remember the seven years of plenty.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Austerity - a short story I wrote in 2008, part of my Land of Israel series




If the Lord delights in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey – Numbers 14:8

           
            “Are you full?” his mother asked.  When he didn't answer, she asked again, and grudgingly, he answered.  “Yes, I am.”
            Then Arye Levin, distracted, a little woozy, stepped away from the table and out onto the covered balcony.  A smothering, cool rain blanketed Jerusalem.  He felt a gnawing pit in his stomach, taut and unforgiving, like the tightening of a tourniquet by an unkind hand. 
            While no one in the Levin family was hungry, no one could say they were sated.  When Arye Levin refused a second helping from his mother, he did so to leave more for his little brother Haim, due to arrive back from his Zionist youth outing. The group had been planting trees in the hills to the west of Jerusalem, creating forests over the ruins of Arab villages razed in 1948.  Little Haim Levin would return filthy with the mud of Greater Jerusalem and a hunger ill suited to a time of austerity.  

            Yet there was always breakfast and supper in the Levin flat.  But when the family arose from each meal for whatever appointed task their lives demanded, each retained a pit in the hollow of their bellies, a reminder that no one could eat their fill.  His mother, the keeper of the larder, jealously guarded her ration coupons bound in a flimsy book of cardboard, as insubstantial as the food it allowed them to purchase.  
           On two occasions, Giveret Levin had lost a coupon from the delicate book; it had slipped from its binding during her workaday journeys, and her sorrow at the loss was as if she had abandoned a child.  So when it was not in her purse on the way to the market, she hid it in the cupboard beneath the unused copy of the Shulchan Aruck a religious uncle had purchased for the Levins with the dim hope that they would keep a kosher kitchen.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Bride for One Night




Ruth Calderon’s “A Bride for One Night” was titled  Market, House, Heart in Hebrew, which is probably a better title than the English translation.  Overall, Calderon takes extremely short stories from the Talmud which present gender and sex in some sort of problematic light, she translates the passage, then writes a sort of modern Midrash or expansion of the passage, and finally, examines it from a variety of interpretive angles.

For anyone familiar with some of the Talmud’s more provocative tales, Calderon’s book presents these stories in a new and fresh light.  They are about men, women, and their complex interactions. That is why Market, House,  Heart, is such a great title.  These are the three arenas in which men and women in traditional societies would meet, fall in love, fall into conflict, and resolve or live with those conflicts.
  
Calderon’s work is a refreshing read on some old stories.  She also abides by Jewish tradition by the very Jewish act of questioning it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gaha: Babes of the Abyss



Gaha: Babes of the Abyss showcases Jon Frankel’s unique talents and vibrant imagination.  Frankel creates an entire world, down to the nuts and bolts.  It is this attention to detail that makes this novel a standout.  Frankel does not cut corners or skimp; he gives you a complete world that is both a brutal and enchanting.

While giving us this detailed world, Frankel does not ignore the big picture: the arc of the story and the development of the characters.  Elma, Irmela and Bob start off as somewhat conventional hard-boiled, dystopian figures, but under Frankel’s steady hand, they become fully fleshed characters, going through transformations both good and bad, lending them credibility and vibrancy.


So, Frankel’s novel holds a great deal of fulfilled promise.  He exploits Elma, Iremela and Bob to the fullest.  At the end their experiences have transformed them into new beings. Reading this novel will give you, the reader, a similar experience.  It is a dive into a powerfully disturbing and exciting new world.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Great English Short Stores





Great English Short Stores, part of the Dover Thrift Editions, is an odd assortment of stories which certainly reflect the time and place of their composition.  

Many of the tales here present the dark underbelly of Victorian and Edwardian England.  There is an obsession with ghosts and the occult.  As English society grew more industrialized, rational, and secular, the need for the occult grew in proportion.

The stories in this collection are deeply concerned with class, a very English preoccupation, repressed sexuality, an undefined but ever present misogyny and fear of female sexuality.  In fact, if anything can be said to hold his collection together, it is this constellation of English anxieties which run through each story to a greater or lesser degree.


So, although this collection often reads as very staid, in actuality there is a great deal of tension brewing below the surface.  It is worth reading, especially for the final story by George Eliot which brings many of these anxieties to the light of day.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Taking Failure for a Walk: An Essay Never Sent


           

                    Walking the streets of a new city is sadly instructive. Especially when there is no aim, no destination, and when we carry ideas, particular bits of cumbersome baggage in tow. Boston was such a city with its dim gray light, tangled streets, biting cold air, and filtered sense of things at uneasy rest. Boston was an ideal place to realize that something was profoundly wrong.
                 It was on one of these walks in Boston’s laden winter air that I discovered that there was a gap between my expectations and this reality. Here was a bellwether moment, a pivot point, a place where life was turning around a central argument. But I was too involved in the technical details to see. The broader picture was all but concealed in a miasma of now. What now? I would ask this ever-present-question. What happens next? I would insist on an answer.
I find it instructive that in four years as an undergraduate in a liberal arts college only two professors ever spoke about getting a job.
There was one professor, particularly disdainful of practical life, who once told us that not one of us would have to live in our parent’s garage. But really, what assurances could he give that this would not come to pass? Americans have slept in far worse places. No doubt in downy youth they never expected to sleep on a park bench or a cardboard box. This professor spoke from the position of certainty where tenured faculty make unequivocal pronouncements. He was not the subject to the pressures of people who must gain a job or could lose a job. He suffered from want of imagination. In this life, no one of us knows exactly where we will sleep. We do not know what the future will bring.
Again, at a reception after my graduation, the subject of a job was broached when I told a professor I had entered a PhD program in philosophy. He said he admired me and quickly added he hoped I would find a job. It is very difficult, he said, and the pay is not that great. Here was a warning, the first of precious few. I ignored it. The myth of my election, my special status, was just growing its wings, and I did not need clumsy things like facts to tangle its projected flight.
Walking was a remedy for imperfect information, the kind of postponement of questions I would rather not answer. I would forget the PhD program, the books by Kant and Heidegger and Locke, and walk the length of Commonwealth Avenue, beyond the empty lots (no filled with glass, high rise dorms) and down the tree lined streets of Brookline.
I would walk among spacious homes, imagining myself sitting in grand picture windows, or behind the tinted glass of attached greenhouses. If it was cold or snowing then the contrasts were all the more acute: I was on the outside, cold; they, on the inside, warm. I could savor the feeling of oncoming failure and give it lavish proportions. Making it larger somehow made it sting less. The failure was so gigantic that it was tectonic in scale. So, I could distance myself from it: Like two stars colliding, how could such a colossal failure be mine?

I would walk along Beacon Street, where the Green line trolley waffles along the divider of the road, to a small nature preserve. There was a tiny patch of woods and pond. I would follow the trail which skirted along the pond, then dip into the woods. The woods were hemmed in by backyards; views of windows, swing sets, slumbering flower beds. There was the feeling of being a violator, of not belonging, of being afraid of everything, everyone. A sense of detachment was growing. Here I was in a city; here a student in that city; and yet, it left me untouched. I was making myself lonely, and grooming myself for far greater acts of isolation to come. In terms of tending an emerging state, there was no better way to do so; the feeling was like betraying a lover, providing the driving, dual force of forbidden excitement and self-righteous guilt.
There was yet one more bell to chime in my ear. In a class by a professor near retirement, a man who had long ago shed the party line of the department for a counter-narrative stewed in burning resentments --- he explained that there were really no jobs in philosophy. He said that many of us would have to find something else to do.
It was odd to hear a voice speak of practical matters like employment, and stranger still to hear it stated in so shockingly negative terms. Once again, someone was telling me that failure was all but certain. A very important fact was being whispered to me in asides. One in the course of a conversation at an undergraduate farewell party, and another during a discussion in graduate school of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. An important topic sandwiched between small talk and the sociology of science.

But what did it matter? There was not much to be gained by telling someone set upon a path that that path was wrong. What should I do? Walk out of the room and just start fresh elsewhere? More work needed to be done to convince someone who had not yet failed that they would certainly fail.
Disentangling me from my dream was hard work. Simple facts are not sufficient. A tide of resentment had to thaw and flow before action could be taken. Only when a person on the other end of the failure of the dream, an agent personifying disappointment, doggedly determined to prove my unworthiness appears, does the stirrings of failure’s recognition mobilize.
The Chair was such a figure. He walked the fine line between broad condescension and narrow charm. For a man so fixated by defining terms and conditions of thought, he was deceptively vague in drawing the parameters of the future. Should he say that more than fifty percent of us who would not get jobs in academia? Why should he? He had nothing to gain by contracting the PhD program, especially when so many intelligent, willing young people like me arrived on time for their intellectual extinction. But I could see in his face the lie. You see, he was a consummate liar. And his lie granted me a great boon: I woke up.

So I was moving through a city, I was studying at a university, I was sitting in class rooms, but by walking down the street, by escaping to some road I had never walked down, I was shunting it off. I was, when walking through Boston, creating memories with a magical immediacy. I was instantaneously taking experience and transforming it to an already hazy past. And I couldn’t stop this motion. I did realized how my life was a fantasy, a ploy at escape, and that all escapees are eventually caught. But I wanted to go on for as long as possible.
And the only way to reach that point, to get caught in the act of fleeing, was devastating self-admissions, such as:
You are not special at all.
There is no reason to suppose you will ever succeed.
You are very much destined to fail.
You must admit this all.
There would be times on these wintry Boston walks when I would imagine that I was immune from the consequences of actions considered inevitable. Sometimes I examined the merely formal requirements of my program. For instance:
How to pass the translation exam in Ancient Greek, when I only took one-fourth of a class in that language? How will I pass the formal logic qualifying exam, when I have never taken a class in the subject, and then parlay all of this to prepare for a massive, free floating exam which covers the entire three-thousand year history of philosophy and guarantees my movement up in the program?
I took appropriate steps. I arranged my books, from Plato’s dialogues to Heidegger’s Being and Time, taking copious notes. I wrote in a meticulously neat hand on lined loose leaf paper. I outlined the different ways love was portrayed in the Symposium. I searched for the illusive meaning of angst. This notebook ran to hundreds of pages, and that I still have it is a testimony to an effort to reach a legitimate conclusion. I keep this black binder to show how hard I courted failure.
Most people think of failure as something that happens to those who do not try, or do not try hard enough. We fail from lack of effort, or some fundamental flaw in character, actions, or follow through. But really, it is the exact opposite: failure is the reserve of those who continuously strive; and the bigger the failure, the larger the tower of our treasured efforts to collapse. Looking at the monumental effort of this notebook, and the stacks of books with dog eared pages, I suspected it was over. This book was my death spasm.
There was a short time when I pushed back. I came in from the cold of the street for one last, fruitless offensive in a lost cause. I would sit in academic offices, listening to my shortcomings.
In all likelihood, all those professors in all those academic offices were correct. After all, I had come here to be critiqued, judged, to have my intellect weighed on some scale of overall worth. I should have allowed myself to suffer their words. But there was something skewed about their judgments. Some part of the equation was missing. They would add up my abilities, arrive at a sum, and then act according to that formula. But I resisted their outcomes, feeling that I was more than the product of their narrow conclusions. I held out hope that they were wrong about something as profound as my abilities, my skills, the thing I loved which made me ineradicably me.

On the large front, the professors erred in their less then forthright attitude toward any future at all in teaching the humanities. If more than half of all PhD students were not getting jobs following their conferral, then half as many students should be admitted to programs. Even then the market would be tight, but it would not be like cleaning the Augean stables. The fantasy outcome, the delusion of wrong thinking, an organization stacked suspiciously like a Ponzi scheme --- this was there for all to see, but most ignored these exposed facts. But my eyes were now open. I was just one more student who arrived, tried, and failed in a fixed system.
Finally, a clause for the verb walking with a great deal of explanatory value:
— walk away from
1: to outrun or get the better of without difficulty
2: to survive (an accident) with little or no injury
3: to give up or leave behind willingly: abandon
To outrun, or get the better of without difficulty. This is off the mark, since in my case nothing was outrun without a great deal of difficulty. I earned every failure by jumping through hoops of great difficulty and missing.
To survive an accident with little or no injury has resonances, yet I can say that graduate school hurt me. There was great deal of short term damage that was difficult to eliminate. Failure lingered around me like an aura for years. Even now I can sometimes catch sight of its misty glow, trailing me like vapor.
            To give up or leave behind willingly. Abandon. This is what I did! After getting a Master’s degree I got up and left everything behind. I abandoned academia in the concrete sense of the word. From my vantage, the scandal of the humanities, its bloated PhD programs and few jobs, the disconnection from what could happen and what was going to happen, invited no sense of loyalty.
But in a final moment of irony, the professor who administered the required formal logic exam, and who told me I had passed, but just, invited me to stay when he learned I had taught myself formal logic. The man had no idea who I was or what I had gone through. Why heed the advice of a man cloaked in ignorance?

So I was leaving. And I walked away from formal academics to pursue work that I could undertake alone, without the cumbersome drag of the professional class of scholars. And this provided a good lesson in movement. When something is bad, when it has passed the border of possible redemption and entered a zone of certain ruin, it is best to just leave. In this, there is no disgrace.
Walking on the streets of a new city is sadly instructive. Boston was such a city, and the long hours of wandering, the moping on Beacon Hill, the meandering down Newbury Street, not doing much at all, became a high water mark in my life for what I would take in terms of situational anxiety. Never again would I place myself in the hands of others with such abandon, with such a bevy of trust. From now on my walks would be more guarded, my stance more closed, and the hand I held out to the world would be a little less open and far more closed.
A time of life was simply over. And of course it would never return again.



Monday, December 1, 2014

Mecca: The Sacred City


 
It is hard to laud too much the accomplishment of Mecca: The Sacred City by Ziauddin Sardar.
Part memoir, mostly a well-written, accessible history, Sardar has written a book of great scoped and accessibility.  He explores the history of Islam’s most sacred city from its pre-Islamic roots to its contemporary place in Saudi Arabia.  In the process, he does not flinch from showing both the sublime and the ugly side of this important city.
Like all “holy” cities, there is a considerable gap between the Mecca of the religious imagination and the actual city.  Sardar’s work really shows how large this gap is, and how harmful it is to Islam.
Finally, this book answers the call of many people of “where are the Muslim liberals?”  The answer is right here, in Sardar and his book.  Read it and enjoy this splendid accomplishment.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas





Rabbi Arthur Green’s short book, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, will hold no surprises for the person well versed in Judaism.  

Green goes over very common, but essential notions.  These are Simhah, Joy, Tzelem Elohim, creation in God’s image, Halakah, walking the path of formal, rule orientated Judaism, Tikkum Olam, repairing the world, Shabbat, Tesuvah, returning to G-d, Torah, Talmud Torah, or education, L’Hayyim, accepting death and affirming life, and Ehad,  Hear O’Israel, the affirmation that God is One.


His exploration of these key ideas bears his indelible stamp.  Even if you are very familiar with religious Judaism, this book is still a bright and fresh look at some common notions.  If you are a beginner, this is a great place to start and also a compliment to any ongoing studies.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Great Russian Short Stories: Dover Thrift Edition



Again, the lure of the Dover Thrift Book catches me...  

This time, it is "Great Russian Short Stories."  Featured here are some of the heavy hitters in Russian literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Dostoevsky and others.  

Some are very familiar, like the frequently anthologized Tolstoy story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and the heartrendingly simple story of love out of reach in Chekhov “The Lady with the Toy Dog.”

There are also some surprises.  Dostoevsky’s feverish “White Nights” arrives in the collection like a punch to the jaw.  His stamp is so indelibly printed on this story that it stands nearly alone in the collection.  Perhaps the other story that comes near to its dark vision is Andreyev’s “Lazarus” a strange tale of Lazarus’ post-resurrection life that very much resembles death.


Again, for the price of a cup of coffee, you can have all these stories .  These are the greats of a previous era in Russian literature at your finger tips. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Six Easy Pieces




Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman, the noted, Nobel Prize winning physicist, becomes an interesting case for the reader.  They are ‘easy’ in there is not much elaborate mathematical detail about the topics Feynman discusses (atoms, quantum physics, astronomy, etc.) and the beginning essays are, in fact, quite easy. 

But as one reads, the 'easy' pieces get harder, and my late high school and early college science classes quickly failed me.  Interesting, this is what is said in the preface.   

These lectures were prepared for a freshman physics class and Feynman prepared them as introductory material.  But as the semester went on, we are told, more and more freshman dropped the course, and more faculty and graduate students attended.  They wanted to see Feynman explain complicated topics in a simple way, in itself a difficult task.

So, unless you have a decent background in physics, these lectures will leave you way behind at the mid-point.  This is not to say that the lectures fail (although they did not accomplish their original purpose) but it is to say that this is not a great introduction to physics for the novice.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Social History of Hebrew


 
 
William Schneidewind’s “A Social History of Hebrew” attempts a very difficult task, to take create a social history of a language that exists only in text form.  The author gives reasons why this is a difficult task, and they seem legitimate.  He also gives other reasons why this is possible. I am not qualified to judge if he is correct.

After reading much about the history of Hebrew, it strikes me that despite major discoveries in archeology, the discovery and examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and advances in the historical study of the bible, how little certainty exists in the field.  Things like dating, influences and the social context of Hebrew in various pre-modern eras are not know, and new discoveries do little but create more questions which may never be known.

Despite this, the non-specialist can read Schneidewind’s book and get a great deal out of it.  It is a semi-technical explanation of the history of Hebrew, and with a bit of background, a reader can gain much insight into the social context of the language from its formation until its rebirth as a living language in Israel.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Speaking Torah, Volume I




I’m a tremendous enthusiast for the work of Rabbi Arthur Green, so it is really no surprise that I found his Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table a deeply informative and engaging book.

For years Rabbi Green has been a leader in the so-called Neo-Chasidic movement.   Deeply engaged in Chasidic texts, this group of rabbis and writers find the spiritual teachings of Chasidism informative, but downplay their firm commitment to halakah, religious law, and the social organization of their lives.  Green and others are trying to capture the original commitment of Chasidism, which was designed to innovate and stir Jews to reaching higher spiritual levels by radically reinterpreting Jewish teachings and life.

So for Green and his co-editors, the spiritual in the subtitle is a very operative term.  They take elements of Chasidic teaching where Torah portions are given "spiritual" rather than strictly phyiscal interpretations.  Really, it is fascinating to watch the interpretative work that Green lays out for us.  It is part allegory, part metaphor, a strong element of Hebrew wordplay (which is pointed out in the text) and a dose of religious creativity.

After every chapter there is a short explanatory paragraph laying out the salient points of the passage. After each major section, Green and his editors break out and discuss the text, sharing their sometimes conflicting opinions.  This adds yet another layer to the book: modern scholars of the Torah are taking nineteenth century Chasidic texts meant to be applied to real life and applying them to our time. 

This book is an excellent way to navigate the difficult realm of early Chasidic literature.  If you can’t read Hebrew and catch the wordplay, a book like this (in two volumes) is essential to understanding what is going on.

And what is going on?  Simply put, that God is everywhere, that his Torah is everything, and we are all connected.  If we understand the Torah correctly, if we obey not just its physical demands but also its spiritual meaning, this door opens up for us. Of course this sounds easy.  Getting to this understanding and living with it is the challenge. 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Everyday Jews


 
 
Yehoshue Perle’s Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life carries with it the full weight of its subtitle.  Published in 1935, Perle would die in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.  So it becomes hard to judge this book without that the tight, constricting lens of the Holocaust as its unwritten end point. 

Like so many writers who perished in the Shoah, their work takes on a new glow, because we read each word with the full awareness that the end is near.

Despite this, and despite its depressing passages replete with poverty, ignorance, and struggle, Perle manages to write a novel that is not without humor.  The creeping darkness of the novel's world is lightened by Mendl, the twelve year old protagonist’s observations of life.

So, despite the expert eye of the Mendl, his keen observations of life around him, this novel becomes a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel, and this is fully confirmed by the end. 
 
No doubt Perle was setting his character up to deal with the competing and harsh demands of the Eastern European world between the wars.  And these demands, no doubt, would have murdered him.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Things They Carried.



Probably one of the more powerful collections of short fiction I have read in some time, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is by this time a well-known collection of stories dealing with the Vietnam War and it’s after effects.

But these are not just war stories.  O’Brien turns his attention to the nature of storytelling itself, its functions, what it can and can’t do, especially about such weighty topics as war, love, life and death.

Simply compelling and fascinating, The Things They Carried has much to teach writers about the inherent strengths and limitations of their craft.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East







In Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East Scott Anderson takes a look at the enduring legend of T.E. Lawrence, probably one of the few authentic heroes to come out of the First World War.  For a conflict known for its mass anonymous slaughter, Lawrence appeared to be a figure from another age.  Riding with Arab horsemen or on camels, his myth harkened back to an earlier age of warfare.

But Anderson quickly disabuses us of this notion. Lawrence was a complex man, by turns kind and cruel, affectionate and aloof,  he committed treason and war crimes.  Far from being a fully commanding figure, he was guided by the events of the time as much as he guided them.  Anderson does an excellent job portraying a complex man in a complex manner.

Anderson also investigates three other adventurers in the Middle East at this time to give Lawrence some context: a German spy, an American oilman, and a Jewish agronomist. With the exception of the agronomist, all are in their twenties.  They are young men in the Middle East because of the call to adventure, but also because they fail to fit in to the upper levels of their respective societies.  In the Middle East they can remake themselves.  They were not as successful as Lawrence, but he paid a very heavy price for his transformation.

All in all, Anderson provides a gripping account of the time and the place.  Perhaps he spreads the material too thin at times, and the narrative thrust of the book falls flat.  But these times and places are few.  Overall this is a compelling read, giving an excellent sense of the time and place and people.