Sunday, December 16, 2018

What I've Learned: Teacher, Rabbi, Human Being


What I’ve Learned

by David Hartley Mark

There is no blowhard politician so outrageous in his actions, speeches, or beliefs, that he cannot attract people dumber than he is, to support him.

The difference between Heaven and Hell:

In Heaven, they assign you an angel to fill out the paperwork and other forms.
In Hell, you must do it yourself.

Nowadays—perhaps for the last thirty years—people, when asked, will reply, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.”

“I’m not religious either,” I answer, which often gets raised eyebrows.

Although I believe in God—and such a belief is neither logical nor consistent, just as God is—I am not always comfortable with the forms that Judaism requires to symbolize or express that belief. If they don’t work for me, I don’t do them: better a sincere belief than the practice of empty forms.

I am happiest when I am teaching. There is something highly satisfactory in showing willing students how to write and how to understand literature. In the temple as rabbi, I teach how Judaism can be self-fulfilling and contradictory, all at once.

All my life, I have been gaining and losing the same forty pounds. I have a closetful of too-thin clothing to show for it. And the diets! After a certain point, one must accept that weight is the product of genetics, environment, how much movement one does at work, and the ability (or lack thereof) to resist temptation.

I grew up amid rabbis who were God’s police, and I didn’t like them, even as I obeyed their strictures and prohibitions.

It remains a vast cosmic mystery to me as to why I became a rabbi. After a young lifetime of running away from them, I ran in the bosom of the synagogue—not for those gimcrack “spiritual reasons” other rabbis may give; I was well-educated, in spite of myself, and enjoyed the teaching part—not the politics, the sucking up, the enormous competition between rabbis (“How many scalps on your belt?”—that is, how many members do you have? How big is your shul? etc.), and the total lack of privacy or professional distance. (I once knew a rabbi who came all the way home from a trip to Israel to bury one of his big donors.)

There is also the complex and complicated relationship that people have, or feel they should have, with rabbis. Suppose a rabbi no one knows, who has been hired to perform a funeral or wedding, comes into a roomful of attendees.

“Oh, there’s the rabbi,” someone says.

I daresay that half the people there love her, and half despise her, all because they are doing a psychological transference from rabbis they knew in the past.

I have also met rabbis who became so because their fathers were rabbis: next generation into the God Business. This, to me, always seemed ludicrous and unnecessary.

Finally, as for placement, or joining rabbinical organizations—I met a Methodist minister who told me, “They always take the biggest SOB they can find, and make him the Bishop—the one who decides where we ministers move to, every five years. Such is the case with placement directors in the larger rabbinical organizations.

This is not to say that I have not met rabbis who were hard-working and admirable in both intellect and soul. One of my favorite rabbis from rabbinical school had two Ph.Ds, and most of the Talmud by heart—he taught us Practical Rabbinics with both feeling and wit. He never got the favor he deserved—he served small congregations all of his life. Still, he looms large in my memory; not as a role model, but a mensch.

When I was fulltime, I had an older congregant who had built submarines all of his career: Mike Levy. I was young, idealistic, and naive. I asked my daily minyanaire attendees, Mike among them,
         
“Which is more preferable : youth with its worries and cares, or old age, with its serenity?”

Mike stared at me for a beat before answering: “Rabbi, old age is not serene.”

On another occasion, Mike told me some of the secrets of submarine construction: “When we built submarines during WWII,” he said, “We would put pieces of zinc in the propeller housing. The prop spun so fast, that it might have vibrated itself to bits, had the zinc not absorbed the vibrations.”
          “Rabbi,” Mike finished, “In this congregation, you’re the zinc.”

          In his spare time, Mike also volunteered for several civic organizations: he was partly responsible for fixing up one of the river islands, and turning it into a picnic area, with a large field in the middle, suitable for playing catch or frisbee.

 I was proud to officiate at his funeral.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Vayigash: The Price of Assimilation


Vayigash: Hebrew or Egyptian?

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: The Egypt of Seti I, Light of the East, Lord Crocodile of the River Nile, Conqueror of Canaan and Africa. The Israelites under Father Jacob have made the long trek from the famine of Canaan to the plenty of Egypt, invited by Joseph, the Hebrew boy made good, having risen from slavery, prison, and an attempted seduction (by Zuleika, Mrs. Potiphar), to become Vice-Pharaoh, Secretary of Egyptian Agriculture and Land Reclamation, and Royal Minister Plenipotentiary.

As the scene opens, three children are playing in the streets of Goshen, the Jewish District of Egypt—Shuni and Etzbon, of the Tribe of Gan, and their girl-cousin Serach, of the Tribe of Asher. The boys are running down the street, using an old chariot-wheel that they have found, as a hoop. Serach comes running up:

Serach: Can I play too, Shuni? Etzbon? Can I? Huh?

Shuni: No, you can’t. We are mighty charioteers of His Majesty, Seti I’s Army, pursuing the Semites, and driving them from our land!

Serach: So, why can’t I be a charioteer, too?

Etzbon: ‘Cause you’re a girl. There are no girls in the Royal Army.

Serach (reaching for the wheel, which the boys yank out of her reach): Why can’t there be? You two better let me play—

Etzbon: Or what?

Shuni: Yeah, what are you gonna do, Girly-Girl Serach?

Serach: I—I’ll tell your mothers! There now!

(The boys are abashed, and shrug.)

Shuni: OK, you can play.

(The three take turns pushing the wheel around their neighborhood courtyard—and, truthfully, Serach is much swifter and more skillful than the boys at running and pushing the heavy wheel with a stick. The boys are frustrated at Serach’s skill—after all, she is only a girl.)

Etzbon: This is boring.

Shuni: Yeah. Let’s stop.

(The three sit in the shade of a tamarisk tree.)

Serach: How are you boys doing in school?

Shuni: Um—fine, fine.

Etzbon: Yeah, fine.

Serach (proudly): My teacher Yachin says that I’m probably the smartest one in the class! He says I am best at telling the stories of Isaac and Jacob. What does your teacher say?

(Shuni and Etzbon look embarrassed.)

Etzbon: Our teacher is Master Ho-Tep. And he says—

Shuni (finishing for his brother): He says we better study our lessons harder, if we want someday to serve in the Royal Egyptian Army. We must learn our Egyptian History better.

Serach: But you’re Hebrews—like me! Why don’t you go to Hebrew School?

Etzbon: Papa says we must learn the ways of Egypt, if we are to fit in. (whispering:) The Egyptians hate foreigners. The Egyptian boys in class call us names, but we don’t care.

Serach: How can you say that about foreigners? Great-Uncle Joseph is a proud Hebrew, and he is at the top of the Royal Government Pyramid!

(The boys look around, guiltily)

Etzbon (whispering): Can you keep your voice down, you noisy girl? The Pharaoh’s spies are everywhere!

Serach: Why should I care? My Hebrew God, God-the-Mighty-One, will protect me. But, cousins—who will protect you, if you don’t know anything about our religion, our culture?

Shuni: We don’t need your old-fashioned God—we have our Pharaoh, Ra save him! (He and Etzbon strike their chests in salute)

Serach: But how do you expect to keep our ways? How will you serve God?

(Both boys laugh, with a touch of bitterness)

Both Boys, Together: We will serve the Pharaoh alone. Ra save His Majesty, Seti I!

(Serach, downcast, begins to walk away)

Serach: Good-bye, Boys. Good luck in your—or your father’s—choice. I will remain a Hebrew.

  

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Keep the (Feminist) Lights Burning: Queen Salome Alexandra, Hasmonean Heroine


Queen Salome Alexandra, Heroine of Chanukah

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            I have often said that Judaism, like its two sister faiths, is a “Boys’ Club,” in which the Boys, or Men, get the best parts, and the women are relegated to baking challah, lighting holiday and Shabbat candles, and going to mikvah. I do hope that, as more and more women enter the rabbinate (even among the Modern Orthodox, in which several women serve as rabbis in all but title) and the cantorate (where they have dominated for decades), this situation will change for the better. In the future, Jews should not say, “She’s a woman rabbi,” or “He’s a male rabbi,” but rather, “She’s a very good and skillful rabbi.”
            This Chanukah 5789, we ought to remember a woman heroine of yesteryear who singlehandedly preserved, protected, and extended Judaism, during a time of court intrigues and civil war among the Jews, as well as other nations invading Judea. This was Salome Alexandra (Hebrew: Shlomzion), descended from the Hasmonean Maccabees. It is tragic that her only memorial is a street named after her in the artists’ district of Jerusalem.
            Shlomzion, unlike many other aristocrats of her day, came from a religious background—her own brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who was head of the Sanhedrin, the High Religious Court of the Seventy Elders, and the supreme religious authority of its time. I regret saying that the Hasmoneans, despite their mettle during the War Against Greece which led to Chanukah, were fearful that their own relatives might assassinate them to gain the throne of Judea, and hence infamous for assassination of one another.
            Against this murky and evil political backdrop, Shlomzion was a shining light. Her entry into politics began under a bloody cloud: her husband, Aristobulus, used his becoming king as an excuse to imprison all of his brothers as potential rivals, including his own mother, whom he starved to death. Fortunately, he caught a disease and perished, leaving no children. Using the Jewish law of yibum (levirate marriage), his brother Alexander Yannai married Shlomzion—it is crucial to state that this was a marriage of politics, not of love.
            At this time, the rabbis of Judea were all in hiding—the Hasmoneans were noted for favoring the Sadducees, who shunned Judaism, but emphasized Temple worship. Luckily for Shlomzion and the future of Judaism in those calamitous days, Alexander Yannai was conceited, as well as ignorant of Jewish sacrificial law. During one Sukkot, he donned the robes of the High Priest—a violation of his role as secular monarch—and, during the service before the Holy Altar of the Temple, derisively poured the libation water onto his feet, rather than the Altar itself.
            In anger at this act of chutzpah, the Pharisees attending the service (who hated the Sadducees, anyway), pelted the foolish monarch with their etrogim, holiday citrons. Alexander’s personal bodyguard moved in to save their king from “assassination by etrog,” and murdered six thousand people in the Temple. This atrocity led to Alexander’s declaring civil war against the Pharisees.
            I have often stated that Jews make the best antisemites, and this disastrous war proved it: the brutal conflict, pitting Alexander’s Sadducean Jewish Army against the Pharisees, lasted over six years, and killed 50,000 Jews. Shlomzion did not hesitate to take steps to save her people, and Judaism in particular. She hid the Sanhedrin’s leadership, among them her brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach. And she undertook to negotiate a peace treaty between the two sides, ending by favoring Rabbinic Judaism.
            As a result, Alexander kept his kingship, but the office of High Priest and control of the Temple Service reverted to rabbinic control. Slowly, Shlomzion removed Sadducean influence from the state religion.
            Fortunately for the future of our religion, Alexander Yanai died soon after the peace was signed. No longer obligated to marry some useless, headstrong man, Queen Shlomzion herself took charge of the kingdom, and began a reign which shines through the dismal light of this historical period.
            Shlomzion wasted no time: she summarily transferred control of  Judea’s educational and judicial systems from the Sadducees to the Pharisees. She also extended royal protection to the rabbis, who had the Mishnah, the next stage in development of Torah Law, by heart—that is why it was called “The Oral Law.” Had Alexander succeeded in murdering all the rabbis, Judaism would have vanished as a legal system and religion. Ironically, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, brother of the Queen, is called “Restorer of the Law” in the Talmud, another example of favoring male leadership at the expense of courageous women, such as his sister, Shlomzion. She instituted a system whereby Torah scholars were paid to study and teach, thereby becoming the great scholars of the Mishnah. Together with Rabbi Shimon, she established yeshivote, Hebrew Schools, in the larger cities. Every time we send a child to religious school, or learn Talmud, we have Shlomzion to thank.
            In addition, the Queen was solely responsible for restoring Judea to a sound economic footing, which was recorded in the Talmud. During her ten-year reign (76-67 BCE), she worked to increase harvests and commerce, and ended (sadly, only temporarily) the Jewish Civil Wars. With all of her triumphs, why do we know so little about her? Why are Hebrew Schools not named in her honor, or even one monument dedicated to her hard work and resultant glory?
            Queen Shlomzion’s reign is a shining light amid civil wars, invasions by other kingdoms, and Hasmonean family debacles. During this Season of Lights, she deserves to be better remembered. Often, it takes a woman to right the situation. Remember Queen Shlomzion!

References

Bader, S. (2017, Jan. 2). The forgotten women of Jewish history: Shlomzion HaMalkah. Retrieved from https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-forgotten-women-of-jewish-history-shlomzion-hamalkah/

Domnitch, L. (1995). Queen Shlomtzion: In the spirit of the Maccabees. Retrieved from http://www.aish.com/print/?contentID=285746681&section=/h/c/s/g

Taitz, E. (n.d.) Salome Alexandra, the first Hasmonean queen of Judea. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/salome-alexandra/




           

Monday, November 26, 2018

Books to Cameroon


Books to Cameroon

By David Hartley Mark

I am sending books to Cameroon, which is in Central Africa
A large cardboard box appeared some weeks ago
Between the Deans’ Offices and the Bookstore
Of the university where I teach English
With a sign: “Any books welcome to go to Cameroon.”
I put in some books,
Which were cleaned out every Thursday
And never wondered where they went.
I brought in old novels which people donated to the temple
Some Jewish, some secular
And I have been cleaning out my home bookshelves
My rule is, “If you haven’t read this book in over a year,
“Send it to Cameroon.”
I wonder what some enterprising schoolboy or schoolgirl
Working on their English
(Cameroon is really La Republique de Cameroon)
And it is a “Unitary dominant party presidential republic”
Which sounds very nice,
But the next line reads,
“Under a totalitarian dictatorship,”
Which bothers me

Cameroon is a mixture
Of Highlanders, Bantu (Both Equatorial and Northwestern),
Fulani, Eastern Nigritic,
“Other African”
And <1 mostly="" non-african="" p="" white="">

I hope they get along

Still, I want to believe
That some Cameroonian child over there
Will benefit from
Robert Fulghum,
Or Rabbi Shlomo (ne Steven) Riskin’s
Commentary on Genesis;
“Words to Live By: Inspirational Stories”
By Rabbi Sidney Greenberg
(Who was responsible for a number of my sermons,
Back in the Age of Books)
“The Yellow Wind”
By David Grossman,
Which discusses oppressing another people
And wishing they would disappear
(Which they never will do)
“Loving One Another”
By Leo Buscaglia,
A therapist quick with a hug
Who died too young

Yes, it would be nice indeed
If that child were to loan
“Loving One Another”
To President-for-Life Paul Biya
(I found him in Wikipedia),
Or to any other of the
23-and-a-half million
Cameroonians

In need of a book
                                                               

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Vayayshev: Joseph and Others--Another Side of the Torah Story


Joseph and Others: Another Side of His Story

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Joseph (Enters grandly, to the sound of trumpets; stands haughtily, as to the manner born): You will note, Readers, that I am wearing my royal robes as Regent, Vice-Pharaoh, Minister of Agriculture, and practically every other Egyptian Government office; that pharaoh, Thutmose II, is an oaf who cares about nothing but hunting, hawking, and—well, never mind. You ask, what happened to my Coat of Many Colors? It is long gone, but I do not miss it. Papa meant well, but that colorful rag only got me into trouble with my brothers—bloodthirsty, vengeful scoundrels that they are.
God is with me, I suppose, even here in Egypt, this seething cauldron of international intrigue. It is hard to remain faithful to a single Tribal God, when Egypt’s pantheon offers so many enticing alternatives. For now, I would wish for a Shawabti, a wooden Robot-Joseph that could assist me in my many duties. I see by my power of prophecy—mine, not those charlatan Egyptian soothsayers—that my brothers will be along any month now, to purchase grain for their starving families. Ha! I will give them a warm welcome; you can bet on that.

(He exits; enter Reuben, looking tragic)

Reuben: My life has been nothing but misery since the day I was born. First, my mother was Leah, despised by her husband and my father, Jacob the Perfect, whose every deed is blessed by the LORD GOD. Secondly, am I not entitled, as the firstborn, to the lion’s share of the inheritance, when that time comes? After all, Papa will not live forever—though if he did, I would not be even slightly surprised. He is God’s Favorite, as Joseph was his. Thirdly, when I tried to rescue Joseph, that braggart and blowhard, from the wrath of our brothers, my every attempt was stymied, either by poor choices or sheer bad luck. Never mind: I have one more trick to pull off, to establish my rights of primogeniture, the biggest slice of Jacob’s gold and the inheritance—I will not say it in mixed company, but it concerns Aunty Bilhah. To what desperate ends will you drive me, O’ God? Or are you simply Blind Fate?

(Reuben slouches off; enter Judah, secure in his tribal position and confident in his rightness.)

Judah: Yes, yes; I did sin, but it was inadvertent. What, do you accuse me of being unfaithful to my own wife, and choosing instead a woman of ill virtue? I admit it, and repent me of my sin. There: is that enough? It was a failing, but I was immensely happy about  my successful bargaining in the sheep-market in Beersheva. I decided to treat myself to a little—something. Something standing at the crossroads, wearing a veil. Something they will never teach in Hebrew School, in whatever future our tribe finds itself.
Later, having heard that Tamar (That hussy! How dare she entice me?) was pregnant, doubtless by adultery, she being a widow, I did the right thing, as sheikh of my family: I commanded her to be dragged outside, and burnt. There, now! That was my decision, and I stand by it.
But when the strumpet presented me with the signet and staff I had left with her—or the courtesan she was pretending to be—I backed down, immediately. And now, she has given birth to sons, to whom I am both father and grandfather. I am also shocked (in the midst of this altogether shocking story) to find that one of them is named Peretz, who will be the ancestor of David, everyone’s hero, come the future. Imagine—and all from a petty dalliance at a crossroads!

(Potiphar’s Wife, known as Zuleikah, sashays in.)

Zuleikah, Wife of Potiphar: Centuries of rabbinical commentary have dumped blame and disgrace on my hapless head, and it is completely unfair. Yes, I admit that I attempted to seduce that young Hebrew, Joseph; why would I not? He was handsome, inexperienced, and I needed a new toy—being a noblewoman in Imperial Egypt was luxurious, but dull, dull, dull. Yes, again, that I lied to my husband, that idiot, about the episode. I told him that the Hebrew had attempted to seduce me—as if a teenager could succeed in enticing an older woman of maturity and experience. And finally, it is true that I arranged to have the scamp tossed into jail. But do not be too hasty to condemn me: I was merely a part of the story, which I understand resulted in that Joseph’s becoming Grand Vizier and Vice-Pharaoh. Reader! Perhaps you should thank me?

(Enter the Butler and the Baker, looking about, sneakily.)

Pharaoh’s Ex-Cup-Bearer and Chief Adviser, known as The Butler: Please, do not harass me with accusations that, in return for Joseph’s kindness—he interpreted my Dream of Grapes by telling me that His Majesty would return me to my former high eminence, that of being his main counselor—at least, until that Joseph came along. Imagine: that nervy Hebrew, thinking he would  replace me at Pharaoh’s ear! Consider: Thutmose II is an absolute ruler, able to have a man executed as easily as I would crush a mosquito. I still don’t know why he tossed me into that beastly prison—was there a grapeseed in his cup, or what? I admit that I strove to forget that ambitious little Israelite, but I had my own position to consider. I certainly did not wish to be hanged, the second time around.

Pharaoh’s Baker: I was never political; why should I have been? I was more concerned with making certain that my dough rose and the bread was tasty, than whether a new ruler rose over Egypt—which I see from the Afterlife has turned out to be that little, pushy, overreaching Hebrew, Joseph. Did he misinterpret my dream, the better to climb over me on his way to the top? Well, it hardly matters now—Osiris, god of Death, is beckoning to me, and I have no idea where I will spend the Afterlife. Ah, well. Consider, Reader: the only goal of life ought to be the performance of good deeds, not spending one’s existence grasping at ephemeral power. All else is dross.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Post-Thanksgiving Day Thoughts, 2018


A Thanksgiving Day Wish, 2018

by David Hartley Mark

“Neighbor, how stands the Union?”

--Daniel Webster, in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”

A long long time ago, before mass shootings occurred in the streets and malls of America; before trade wars eliminated American jobs, alienated allies, and sent mixed messages to the Chinese Government; before America ceased to stand for petty things like “the rule of law”; before we ceased to be a beacon for immigrants; before over-zealous religious types did away with the Separation Clause of the Constitution; before our foreign policy did away with its moral component, so that power-mad despots could simply chop up their opponents and, when confronted, blatantly shrug off responsibility—

America stood for something. Something in some ways real, in some ways intangible. America meant—or was supposed to mean—the equality of genders, races, ethnic groups, and religion. It meant that kids were supposed to live safely with their families, and not have to worry about where their next meal came from. Schools were places in which to learn, not hide from shooters.

Members of Congress remembered why and by whom they had been elected. For the good of all the people whom they represented, they were unafraid to cross the aisle and work together on bipartisan legislation. Congress got things done, albeit in a slow, Congress-like style, because they were an independent branch of government, not a sounding-board for a megalomaniac.

I am not speaking about the “Good Old Days.” I don’t believe they ever existed: not in a country fraught with racism, hate groups, social ostracism, glaring differences between rich and poor, and internecine strife. I am speaking about the America of the Dream: that, one day, all would dwell in peace and safety, with or without a vine or fig tree. And so, this Thanksgiving Day, with our “president” ranting like a four-year-old to, against, or wherever he can gain an audience (I felt particularly bad for our troops; I have many veterans in my college classes, and they and their comrades-in-arms deserve better), I offer the following words, from a long ago time, by a man who helped to found our nation.

Yes, he was white, and he probably oppressed the Native Americans, but his words, for the most part, ring true, yet again, today. He was John Winthrop (1587?-1649), longtime governor and political leader of Massachusetts. (I am certain that his Puritan leanings did not help, but we cannot change history.)

I look forward to the America of the future, governed by men and women of all types, races, and ethnicities, to bring us to a time when the US Government was not an oppressor, but a help to one and all.

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man.We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. “Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity.

John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in A Library of American Literature: Early Colonial Literature, 1607-1675, Edmund Clarence Stedman and Ellen Mackay Hutchinson, eds. (New York: 1892)304-307.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

This Thanksgiving, Thank God You’re American: The Tale of Asser Levy, New Amsterdam Jew, 1654


This Thanksgiving, Thank God You’re American:
The Tale of Asser Levy, New Amsterdam Jew, 1654

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Sholom Aleichem, Stranger! My name is Asser, Asser Levy, of—so many places! First Spain, then Holland; Brazil after, and now, America. And you know, something about you made me take you for a Jew. Keep your voice down; Governor Pieter Stuyvesant’s spies are everywhere—not unlike the Inquisition, which I, and belike yourself, escaped. Never mind: come inside—the winds blow coldly across Mannahatta Bay at this time of year, and my missus will prepare a cup of hot tea to warm your bones—(shouts) Gertruida, my dear! Tea, for our guest!
            How did I know that you are Jewish? I will tell you this: my old father, God rest his soul, would tell me from an early age that we Jews appear—different from other folk. Not that I wish any harm to the gentiles, regardless of what they may think of me. And, to speak truth, my gentile neighbors and I have worked together to build this little piece of Holland, here in the New World. I consider most of them to be friends. Ha! (laughs bitterly) Even those who denigrate our kind for being usurers and blasphemers of their Saviour’s Name, are first at my door when I butcher a cow or goat, and my dear wife, Gertruida, cooks her famous stew. The delicious smell permeates the neighborhood!
There are, indeed, dangers: plague, Indians, and even nature, which plots against us, especially in the winter. I cannot remember such a cold, or so much snow, in Old Holland, let alone in Spain. We huddle together beneath bearskin blankets and wait for spring to arrive.
            How is life here? The Dutch people are fair enough: some better, some worse than others. I have found that most Jew-hatred stems from ignorance, and fight it by being, simply, the best human being I can be. It seems to work—that, as well as there simply not being very many of us here. That fool (whispering), Governor Stuyvesant, only grudgingly accepted our twenty-four Jews to enter his colony. It’s not his—it’s the property of the Dutch West Indian Company! After the French captain tossed us off the ship like trash, after the riskiest voyage of our lives, we huddled on the dock like water rats. Imagine: first, escaping Brazil when the Portuguese Navy—with those devil-priests of the Inquisition undoubtedly on board—suddenly appeared in Pernambuco Bay.
We narrowly escaped, on a French ship, the Sint Catrina, whose thieving captain, one Jaques de la Mothe, thought we were rich—are not all Jews rich? He was disappointed in our poverty, and we were disappointed in his seamanship—my little boy Solomon could have escaped the pirates that attacked us, but de la Mothe panicked and ran up a white flag. We lost everything! Still, I thank God that we are all alive and well, except Isaac Carmiel, who was so fearful of the pirates, that he leapt overboard and was eaten by sharks. No great loss: he was a drunkard and cheated at dice; he defamed the Name of God.
As for Stuyvesant—pah! (spits on the ground) I have met Jew-haters before, but he is paramount. He first refused to let us Jews into the colony—does he think that Europeans are flocking to this icy, godforsaken place? He wrote to the Board of Directors of the West Indian Company—and so did we. Luckily, the Company ordered him to allow us entrance—there are a number of Jews on the Board, and still more own shares in the Company. Ha! Still, Stuyvesant has spurned our every petition for equality—he refuses to let us build our own houses, construct a synagogue, open various shops—I am a skilled butcher; my friend Jacob Barsimson is a baker—or even join the town guard, despite the ongoing danger of Indian attack.
The first time that Jacob and I presented his Governorship with a petition, Peg-leg Peter presented his most frightening mien—he is a tall man, of muscular build—well, he has been a soldier for most of his life. He roared at us, shook his fists, and whacked his silver-headed walking-stick on his desk—so hard, we were surprised it did not break. Of course, he knew nothing about what he was speaking—stuff and nonsense about how we were all on welfare. We waited for him to take a breath, and then explained, politely, that, as former Spanish subjects and current Dutch burgher-citizens, we are entitled to the same civil rights as any other Dutchman. Never mind: another letter to the Board, another petition to the Court—it all builds our position here in New Amsterdam, little by little. Not to be disloyal, but (whispering) my friend Chaim Henriques saw a small sloop with the British Union Jack scouting our coast, just t’other day—we suspect that the English may be planning to take over our little colony, and soon.
Must you leave so soon, Stranger? Ah, you are headed north, to Massachusetts? Is that a good idea? After all, neither Puritans nor Pilgrims are, despite their love of Scripture, particularly fond of us folks who wrote it. Sit, stay a while! I have a little jug of rum in the cupboard for emergencies, and, with the snow falling outside, this seems as good an emergency as any—Sit! Gertruida—fetch those wooden cups, and join us for a nip of toddy!
Nothing like rum for thickening the blood. A question? About me? Ah, but Friend, I am but a simple butcher, an American—dare I say it?—who happens to be Jewish. Why do I fight so hard against that petty tyrant, that old Peg-Leg (He teases up his hair to cover his Royal Baldness, too, he does; my Gertruida does laundry for his missus, and they talk), that rotten excuse for a Governor? Because I want—I want—(drinks) to see our people free. Yes: free, in this New World. There is room here enow for Jews, Christians, agnostic, atheists—yes, and Blacks and Indians, too! All free. You ask, and I answer: that is all I want, and I will spend my life fighting for it. Drink, Stranger—l’chaim!

Asser Levy, among the first twenty-four Jews to enter the New World, never hesitated to fight for his rights as an immigrant to New Amsterdam. An Ashkenazi, rather than a Sephardic Jew, he tirelessly petitioned the governor to allow the Jews to participate in the Town Guard, rather than pay the “Jew Tax” customary in Europe. This succeeded, but Jews were not allowed to run for public office until Francis Salvador of SC in 1775, who later died in the Revolution. The Jews never did get their synagogue during Levy’s lifetime; Cong. Shearith Israel (The Remnant of Israel) was not built until 1730, long after Levy’s passing. (A Jewish Cemetery was founded in 1756, however; death was a near and frequent visitor, regardless of religion.) Levy did, eventually, get his butcher shop, on the understanding that he was not allowed to dispatch pigs. He is buried in an unknown grave, but both a public school and a public park in NYC bear his name.