Monday, April 28, 2014

Leaves of Grass

One can’t say too much about Leave of Grass, because it says so much about itself. 
Reading it again, now, as an adult, I’m struck by the feverish pace of the poem.  It hardly lets up; its speed is unrelenting. 

No idea is too profound or trivial to be thrown away.  So the poem loops and weaves its way into themes and topics grand and small. 

In the end, we don’t have a poem so much as a tapestry of American life filled with relentless, mystical, fleshy optimism and hope even in the face of the awful realities of life.

This book should not be read, but re-read.

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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Colloquial Yiddish

Uriel Weinreich “College Yiddish” was once the go-to book for students interested in breaking ground in mame loshon.  Now we have Lilly Kahn’s Colloquial Yiddish, part of the “Colloquial” series by Rutledge, poised to take Weinerich’s place.

It is probably time.  College Yiddish is out of date in many respects, while Kahn’s effort is very up-to-date, including references to computers, the internet, and other post-modern paraphernalia.  While Weinreich’s textbook is important and honest, it already has the moribund feel of a marker of the death of Yiddish.

Colloquial Yiddish at least gives the language the feel that it is just that, colloquial and secular.  This is not a primer for Yeshiva Yiddish, but a tour through the language as it is or would have been had World War II and linguistic assimilation not occurred.

So, the reader gets to learn Yiddish while at the same time playing out a fantasy with a dormant, nearly dead language.

Monday, April 7, 2014

At Once Universal and Very Particular


Well, Tevye the Milkman and the Rail Road Stories are classics, and rightfully so.  Not only are Sholem Aleichem's stories first rate, world class literature, something that someone from any culture can read in translation and understand, but this work also captures a particular time and place for Yiddish speaking Jews.

The fact that Tevye and the other stories are secular tales written in Yiddish already signals that great changes occurred in the ranks of eastern European Jews.  At the turn of the twentieth century they had a secular literature in a language  used primarily at home.  In Teyve, Sholom Aleichem uses the Jewish vernacular as a fitting vehicle to show the stresses, strains and changes occurring in Yiddish speaking communities during his time.

As such, the stories strike a rare note in the history of literature; his work is at once universal, and very particular.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Saving a Schtickle of History

Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History presents an interesting counter-trend to modern habits of reading: in an age when physical books are being less and less read, Lansky has spent his whole life rescuing Yiddish books.

Lansky’s account of rescuing the literature of a quickly dying language has both sad and triumphant overtones. As he first starts collecting Yiddish books, many Yiddish writers and readers are alive, if not old, and Lansky gets to see glimpses of their world. As an American Jew, Lansky knows what he has missed: the world of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish, working together to form a seamless world.

Through Herculean effort, Lanksy and others eventually create the Yiddish Book Center, a home to a million and a half Yiddish books. Yet that world is gone, and after the Center is built, Lansky has some interesting and sad things to say about Jewish continuity, or the lack thereof.

All in all, this is a fascinating book that documents the steady decline of a civilization and in relatively short space of time, and a group of people’s determination to save a piece of it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Strong as Death, XI - End

Dear Father,

                        I will be taken out tomorrow.  This paper is supposed to carry my confession (I will get better ‘terms’ if I confess) but I’d just the same write to you, for it is you who I wish to offer my confession. You are the only one who I have sinned against.  I knew full well the extent of my failures. I was accustomed to disappointing you, Father, and now I see the circle of my disgrace has grown wider, larger.  I have failed Samson, Miriam, Maimonides, Abner, Esau, Laban… the Jewish people and their “nation” (which does not yet exist!)  I could have continued to pick oranges and visit that little red haired girl, and shoot over the heads of Arabs in the night, out among the trees… but I came here, to do this, and what have I accomplished?  Perhaps I did this for the wrong reasons.  I wished to be among Arabs again in an Arab country. Why, then I should have stayed in Baghdad. Perhaps I was trying to please you by pleasing Samson. Then why did I not return and live my life as you saw fit? Why please a substitute when you can please the real thing?

 The long shadow of your neglect, your influence, your awful weight, is cast even here, in a gaol in Damascus. Why should I care what you think of me at this moment?  Actually, it is all I care about.  If you leave for Palestine, you said, you will be dead to me. Oh, how prophetic were your words, Father!  How, even at the very end, I act the script you wrote me long ago, down to the very final act.  But I have failed you Father, even in this…


                                                Your son,

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Strong as Death, X

             “Who is ‘Father,’” the Syrian held out a letter, and Shemesh tried to look at it through his one unbloodied eye.  At first, Shemesh misheard him.
            “Who is Samson?”
            “No, you dirty Jew, ‘Father,’ here look,” the Syrian thrust the paper within an inch on Shemesh’s face.  The hand trembled with rage.  David then realized that they had not intercepted the coded messages from the American Consulate.  They had a stack of letters to his father, letters he had never posted or meant to post, but had left in his desk drawer.
            “He's my father.  He lives in Baghdad.”  Shemesh’s answer brought a blow.
            “Dog!” hissed the Syrian.  “Jews don’t know who their fathers are.  They are all sons of whores.”  The Syrian picked a letter, and went over it word by word.  He believed that every phrase, ever word, was a mask for some concealed identity, some covert event. 
             Every time Shemesh answered, there was a fist.  Who is Aaron?  My brother.  A fist.  Who is Rebecca?  My sister.  A fist.  Who is Abdullah?  My childhood friend.  The Syrian, his hand numb, took off his shoe and as a sign of disrespect, beat Shemesh with the heel.  Fifteen more minutes of this line of questioning, Shemesh thought, and I'll be dead.
            “Who is Abraham?” the Syrian screamed, spit flying out of his mouth.
            “Another brother, my eldest, a great man…”
            “Abraham was a prophet, and the beloved of God.  He was the first Muslim,” the man was now on his feet, gesturing threateningly near David’s face. “A Jew should not defile his name by placing it on his tongue, let alone naming a bastard after him!”  And Shemesh expected yet more blows.  But another man entered the room and whispered something in the Syrian’s ear.  And in a short time, David Shemesh was carried out.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Strong as Death IX

7-1-47 Samson: Jezebel met with Faisal F.  He is trying to secure an arms purchase of three thousand mounted machine guns from Czech arms dealers… 


Dear Father,

            I find myself among Arabs again and it lulls me to distraction.  They are so familiar: the voices, the smells, the texture of their daily lives. How they walk.   It’s odd.  When I was young, I felt not Jewish at all.  I felt like an Arab.  It was the language of my nanny, my nurses, my friends at school.  Here in Damascus, I feel very much the Arab again.  When I am speaking or thinking in Arabic, I often forget that I can say this or that in Hebrew with equal capacity...   

7-6-47 Samson: Boaz reports that Abimelech is meeting with the French… I can confirm this; Maimonides treated the French attachĂ© for gout... 


Dear Father,

            I think I have fallen in love.  I know you do not believe the concept of romantic love is suitable for a successful marriage (as your three marriages were arranged) but each generation must do as it sees fit.  We Jews must now marry for love and love only. She is a Syrian Jew named Miriam (she has not told me this, but I suspect it from her way of speaking, and her manner with things, very much in the Jewess in an Arab land) and she has begun to capture my heart and it makes me feel the appeal of love, its powerful, unrelenting force.  As the Song of Songs says, Love is stronger than Death! 

And what she sacrifices for the birth of the Jewish nation!  I have never seen such a thing, Father.  She runs her body through a sewer for the cause of Jewish political autonomy, but keeps her spirit aloof and proud.  What she provides us is priceless. No one could even suspect such a creature of guile.  A man would look at her and think: she exists simply for my pleasure, she is all form, a placeholder for my pleasure, but how wrong he would be!  She is crafty and wise, cunning and audacious.  I had the temerity to take her to a cafĂ© the other day. When I asked her, she hesitated, and then consented, and I took this to mean some form of admiration.  I should not have done this, but I needed to see her outside of these dim rooms.  But it was a terrible risk.  As is this letter… 

7-23-47 Samson: The Syrian Dealer, Aladdin, met with the Scotsman, Macbeth.  We think ammunition in great quantities was purchased…  

 7-24-4 Samson:, confirmation from Abner, who is in a position to know such a detail… 


Dear Father,

            I actually kissed her.  She let me, and when our lips parted, she said, in fine Hebrew (you see up to that point we had only spoken in Arabic or French), you should not have done that, but without real anger.  And after the kiss, her features, usually cold and ridged, softened.  I felt as if a tourniquet was being wrapped around my heart. I knew from her expression that she felt something for me… perhaps it was only pity, but at this point, I crave any emotion I can elicit from her.  And I need human pity.  Something of the pathos of her situation must have been reflected on my face, for suddenly she grew angry and said “I’d do anything for my people.  Anything.  Wouldn’t you?”  I said yes, or perhaps I just nodded.  I lied to her Father.  For there is a line which I would not cross, even for my benighted people… 

8-5-47 Samson: Jezebel missed her meeting of 8-3-47.  She was scheduled to see Mohammad the Arabian… 


Dear Father,

            Yesterday, something terrible happened.  After I left the American Consulate, I went for a shoeshine.  When I sat at the stool, the man at my feet looked up.  He was an older man, with one eye (the socket was empty).  He looked at me and said: “Palestinian, no? I know the shop in Jaffa that makes these…” and I told him I had bought them there on business.  He asked where I was from and sticking to my cover, I said Beirut.  “Funny,” he answered, “you speak like a Baghdadi.” And then “Something is wrong with these shoes.  They seem too light in the heel.”  I over tipped him.  This was not wise.  It will only bring more attention to myself… 

8-8-47 Samson: No Jezebel. No Maimonides.  No Laban.  All failed to meet me at the appointed times.  I am working to leave Damascus