Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Ineffable Name of God

I must admit, I enjoy Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ideas far more than his writing.  Generally, his writing lacks thrust and drive.  When you see interviews of Heschel, you can understand his appeal among his students and associates: he had a vibrant, persuasive personality.  Without the man behind them Heschel’s writing get a bit repetitious… even… blasphemy… boring.

These early poems have a certain vibrancy to them, and the original Yiddish next to the translations, for those able, adds an element of solidity.  Despite the title, these poems run the range of topics; there are strictly religious poems, secular poems, and ones in between.  Of course, the secular poems can be interpreted as religious, especially those devoted to the imaginary woman.

That said, some are right on religiously non-dual, such as “The Most Precious Word” were we find these lines: “I’ll make every word a name for You! / I’ll call you: Forest! Night! Ach! Yes! / And collect moments, / weave a bit of eternity, a gift for You.”

Here Heschel plays with themes he will fully exploit later.  And he does so in a more compact, condensed form.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Zen Rake

I know that rake 
A mocking tool
It notes my hurt
Without a word
Keeps a register
Of all my fears
And wishes me ill

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga

When I attended shul on Friday night, our rabbi, who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, called Trump’s victory an reassertion of a white supremacist state.  One gentlemen, from out of town, collared the rabbi afterward to vocally disagree.

Perhaps that wayward man should read Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga.  Newkirk documents how anthropologists and scientists exploited an African “pygmy” taken or stolen from the Congo. Oto Benga was displayed at the turn of the century at the St. Louis World Fair, and eventually in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo, where he was forced to “attend” to the primates.

Voices at the time, especially African-American clergy, protested, but it was a hard and bitter struggle to wrestle Oto Benga from the control of his captors.  That his life ended in ended in tragedy is hardly a surprise, given the harrowing experiences he had in the Congo and America, and the violent dislocations he suffered.

Ota Benga was not considered fully human by most of white America. This was not an abnormal view in early twentieth century. Pseudo-scientific race theories were gaining currency, and Africans, and particular Africans of Oto Benga’s tribe, with their short stature and distinctively sharpened teeth, were considered a lower form of human being.

Outward forms of American racism may have changed in a hundred years, but the underlying premise remain.  The man in the shul should read this book and read it well.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ease my suffering with a tall tale

The young woman that we found on the side of the road, unresponsive, last summer, has died.  I made a few efforts to contact her, get her some help, friended her on FB, and then nothing. On the side of the road she said she was eighteen.  Now at nineteen she is gone.
Below are her words. I read here a powerful and emerging voice, struggling to write about unrestrained emotions.  I read here the voice of a writer negotiating the rough terrain of expression at a very deep, painful level.  At nineteen, a difficult task.  But I hear that voice in these poems and entries. They are powerful, particularly the entry from July.  She would have been a powerful writer. So, her words:

August 16:
You woke up today, I'm so happy. You got out of bed, I'm proud of you. You made it through another day, let's celebrate!
You may not always be able to beat your demons, maybe one day they might even win the war. But the point is, you fought.

People seem to think there's intelligence underneath. Please believe when I say that although I might not be completely stupid, I am not very smart either.  I say and do the things I do simply because I can. There is nothing underlying that, no deep thoughts, no brilliant ideas

August 6:
I've come to realize how many people will never mean the same to me as they once did. I'm not sure if I should applaud them, be indifferent, or break down in tears.

August 4:
Whenever someone leaves, grab their arm with a solemn expression. Bow your head and whisper, "you might not make it back"

August 3:
I'm done. 
I'm done with pretending, I'm done with truth. 
I'm done with hope, I'm done with fear.
I'm done with life, I'm done with death.
I'm done with love, I'm done with hatred. 
I'm done with dreams, I'm done with reality.
I'm done with humanity, I'm done with people.
This is not a suicide note, this is fact.
I'm just done.

August 1:
That secret you almost shared.
Those tears you almost cried.
The scars you almost revealed.
Those emotions you almost showed.
The words you almost spoke.
They killed you and you almost didn't feel it.

July 27:
Tell me a lie. Comfort me with a falsehood. Ease my suffering with a tall tale. Help me get over you with empty words. Change my mind with fables. Let me move on with fairytales. Hold me in the embrace of deception. Send me forth into a world of myths. Show me that nothing and no one is what they seem. Because the only truth you will find, is that everyone lies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Berlin is an utterly absorbing book which details the cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district in 1854.

The book follows the investigations of Dr. John Snow, a local physician and the local Soho Anglican priest, Henry Whitehead. Together they provided convincing evidence that the outbreak of cholera was due to contamination of the Broad Street water pump and ushered in the modern science of epidemiology.

The book has many merits.  Berlin understands that the discovery of the cause of the epidemic was a crossroad in medicine, urban planning, demographic studies, municipal and public policy. The outbreak and the discovery of its source made large scale urban living, without massive outbreaks of deadly disease, possible. 

So although the title contains the hyperbole of so many recent non-fiction books, the case examined here really does deserve credit for ushering in the modern field of health care and its related policies and the most salient feature of modern living - mega cities.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Scoured : a poem

Ghost trees scrubbed
Scoured by swags of snow
Already I feel numb to this
Why and how
Of season’s cycles
The brown the gray the blue
Circle back to bleached
And I strive and scrape
Exhausted of bounded life
Burnished by dull cold.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Green Bus : a poem

The late bus and its light
Like a neuron dissolving into
Green and blurry haze 
Some light from alternate minds
Gathered on the late, late bus
And the woman in the blue coat
Inside this world staring at what?
The ruddy sun trying to hide
Behind nude trees
Thinking what?
Maybe a lonely thought
Just the faded impress
Of some hurt healed long ago
But still felt

Monday, November 7, 2016

Winter Wheat : a poem

Winter's tenant has arrived
Speaking the testament of frost
The rows of blades like soliders
Guarding the once burnt field
This year the corn ravenous 
Nitrogen mad, enraged
Their roots like ribcages
Leaf and stalk bedraggled innards
Laying stool in the earth's mouth
Now this winter wheat is
A blanket for dry furrows
Sleeping, cleansing, hiding
The secret of rebirth for
Winter's dark night
Of snow and ice
Frost and freeze

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide of the Perplexed

Micah Goodman’s Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide of the Perplexed was a best seller in Israel.  The English translation was published in 2015.  

I learned Rambam primarily from Leo Strauss’ writings and his students.  The ‘secrets’ of the guide for Strauss were the dramatic depictions of G-d (allegorically) engaged in reproduction in the so-called Account of the Chariot and Account of Creation.  Untangling this mystery was the prime focus of Strauss and his students.

Goodman defines secrets far more broadly.  So much so that I am not exactly sure what the secrets of The Guide are under his rubric; perhaps there are many, and his broad approach is in keeping with that.  Goodman aptly says that the Rambam complied halacha from the confusing array of rabbinical sources to create one rational, easy to approach source - the Mishnah Torah.  

When he wrote The Guide he purposely took rational, logical philosophical accounts and broke them into pieces.   The Guide is a book that conceals more than it reveals.  And according to Goodman, whereas the Rambam is certain on matters of Jewish law and practice, he allows philosophy to be a highly equivocal pursuit, open to uncertainly. And that is the Rambam we get in this book.  Both Goodman’s The Guide of the Perplexed and Maimonides are very post-modern.  They are not comfortable with meta-narratives.  The subjects under study are uncertain and equivocal, and so are our conclusions.  Maimonides comes across as non-dogmatic and within constraints even pluralistic.

Although Goodman presents a solid summary of The Guide, I can’t see how, with this conclusion, the book changed Judaism.  Oddly, Goodman does not provide a summary of this claim.  What changed after The Guide?  For the most part, Jewish philosophy is a backwater of Jewish history.  The Kabbalah and its various incarnations have changed Judaism far more than the Rambam’s intriguing work.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs: A Novel

I do not want to condemn Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs: A Novel because it all works out in the end.  An adolescent desire to have all fiction descend into a scenario of gloom, with the accompanying doom, is a trap I try to avoid in life, so why not in the fiction I read and write?

The problem is less with the tying up the loose-end ending, than with some of the predictable turns of the plot.  Even in Rebecca Winter’s sorrow and stress, Quindlen never wants to cause her readers too much pain.  That said, Winter’s despair during her long period of solitude is disquieting, and something most have experienced.  

But overall, Quindlen does not want to tax us too much.  In the end, this leaves us with a novel that does not expand our horizons as readers, or stretch the possibilities of the novel.