Sunday, December 14, 2014

Miketz: The Tent of Joseph's Brothers: Reuben and Judah Tussle Over Who Shall Lead--and What About Young Benjy?


An Egyptian Night, approx. 1895 BCE, during the reign of Pharaoh Senusret II. The tent of Joseph’s brothers. Reuben and Judah sit at the head of a tribal council. The other brothers, all except Shimon, who remains a hostage in Joseph’s jail, are assembled in a half-circle.

Reuben: It is all happening as I said it would: because you fools could not keep yourselves from killing Joseph, we are all suffering the consequences. I myself had to return home to care for Papa, and could not leave you alone and leaderless. Jealous wretches! How could you?

Judah: Do not vaunt yourself over us, Brother. We all know of your pretensions to Power. That business with Father’s concubine, Bilhah—did you think you could take the tribal leadership from him so easily?

Dan (drawing a dagger, and coming forward): Yes, Reuben, defend that action! My brother Naphtali and I are ready to fight you for our loving Mother’s honor, at a time and place of your choosing. Or, it could come—the knife could slip into your back—at any time, or place, dear half-brother. You, you mother-violator! (All the Brothers murmur angrily)

Reuben (retreating to a corner of the tent): Peace, Brothers, Peace! Can you not see, this is the plan of that Egyptian Sorcerer, that kohl-eyed grain merchant, to sow dissension amongst us, and make it impossible for us to unite against him? I—I—(he stops, stammering helplessly)

Judah (rising, coolly): Perhaps this is where a better speaker than the Eldest Brother might take over, Reuben. Step down.

Reuben (sweating, nervous, looking about wildly, and seeing no one supporting his leadership): I—I protest! I—

Judah (eyes narrowing, in a menacing whisper heard by all): Step Down!

(Reuben does so, shamefaced, hanging his head, and slumping to his knees)

Judah (continuing, more cheerfully): Now, Brethren all, little birdies in their nests agree—who will have me as Leader? (Hands go up) Let me count—yes, yes, that’s a fairly solid majority. Good. Any objections? (Levi raises his hand.) Brother Levi?

Levi: I am older than you, by a year, and have already proven my mettle, along with Brother Shimon.

Judah: Proven it, you mean, by killing helpless Shechemites recovering from their own, self-induced, deluded Brit Milah, Covenant of Circumcision, and then abducting Sister Dinah from Prince Shechem’s harem? You call this warriorhood? Leadership? What say you, Brothers All?

(The Brothers mutter dissent.)

Judah: So that’s done. Sit down, Levi. Your part’s already been played out.

Levi: I—

Judah: Sit. Down. Now!

(Levi reluctantly sits.)

Judah (continuing): Now, Brothers, this Egyptian Necromancer requires a firm hand. We are Hebrew Shepherds; let us make a sheep out of him. We are many; he is but One; a wise and clever man, but we have the wisdom and cunning of our father Jacob, and the assistance of El-Shaddai to guide us through. We have enough grain to get us home, and can certainly come up with a means of bamboozling this man into giving us more, when this is gone. We must protect our Dear Little Benjy-Boy with all of our might. He is, as you know the Apple of Papa’s eye. (The Brothers collectively groan) Oh, enough of that; deal with it. Hm. (Looking about.)
Where is Zebulun? I sent him to the Pharaoh’s Palace, to see if the Grain-Master had changed his mind….

Asher: About what?

Judah (frowning): About requiring us to bring Benjamin next time ‘round, Camel-brain. It will kill Father, and we don’t yet have a solid Line of Succession—not with Reuben over there thinking his little thoughts of leadership (points to Reuben, sulking in a corner of the tent), and I am certain that Shimon, once he gets out of Egyptian Jail, will have an Opinion about that, too. Let me think. Let. Me. Think.

(Zebulun rushes in, out of breath.)

Zebulun: Judah! That Egyptian Lord is willing to forgo Benjamin’s coming down to Egypt—on one condition.

Judah: Which is--?

Zebulun: That he executes Shimon on Suspicion of Espionage.

Judah: That, we cannot do. Well, Boys, the die is cast. This might kill the Old Man. Close your grain-bags, and saddle up. What to do? What to do?

Gad (examining his grain bag): God of the Wilderness! Great Baal!

Naphtali: What is it, Brother?

Gad: My money—the money I had bought grain with—is all here?!

(The Brothers all cry out, as they make similar discoveries, and then begin to sing and rejoice.)

Reuben: Quiet! Don’t you see, you Fools, that we are now caught by that ugly, evil Vice-Pharoah, in his kohl-eyed Spider’s Web? Now, he has us, for a few pieces of silver, and we will never escape…. Oh, woe, woe—what shall we tell Father? Poor Benjy—poor, poor Benjamin….

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Vayayshev: A Visit to the Offices of Joseph, Adviser Plenipotentiary to Sesostris III, 1650 BCE


A mildly balmy Egyptian night, c. 1650 BCE. Joseph’s office, adjacent to the Throne Room of Pharaoh Sesostris III, most important king of the 12th Dynasty, Intermediate Period of the Middle Kingdom.
Joseph, Vice-Pharaoh to Sesostris III, Minister of Farms, Provisions, and Agriculture, Chief Adviser Plenipotentiary to His Majesty, has been finishing up some grain orders for Nubia. His desk is awash in papyrus scrolls, which he is somehow able to wade through with ease, searching with knowing hands and eyes until he is able to pick out the one he wants. He pauses only to sip at a cup of herbal tea.
At his feet, seated in a nearby corner, is his secretary and batman, Retjenu. He is a young man, nearly twenty, his head shaved bald in the stylish manner, seated Indian-style, with his kilt firmly stretched by the position of his legs, so that he is able to write on a fresh papyrus-roll, using a reed stylus. He is speaking to his lord and boss, Joseph.

Retjenu: “And forty thousand minae of wheat grain, along with eight-hundred-sixty barrels of rice, to be delivered by skiff and trireme to the warehouse of Uribaal the Phoenician tradesman.” And what percentage, Milord Joseph, will he deduct for handling costs?

Joseph: The usual tariff; you know how to calculate it; use the tables, as I showed you, clever Retjenu. You know almost how to run the office in my absence, were I to take a holiday off, could you not?

Retjenu (tapping the reed against his top teeth, thinking): I imagine I could; yes, Milord, I believe I would be able to, at that. Thank you for placing your trust in me.

Joseph: But that will never happen. (whispering) His Royal Majesty will never consent to my leaving the Capital City Heliopolis, let alone the palace. I am a moth, albeit one full of advice, fluttering around the Pharaoh’s head, truth to tell. I am lucky to get home to see my wife and two boys, Ephraim and Menashe, but once a week. A cage may be gold and ivory, but it is still a cage. And how can I teach my boys my heritage? They know Egypt; they know pyramids, sphinxes, and can write hieroglyphics backward and forward—but what do they know of their Papa’s home and family?

Retjenu (looking about tiredly; yawns): Have you more orders for me, Milord? The hour grows late.

Joseph: Why are you in such a hurry? Is it that young lady-in-waiting of the Queen’s Chambers—the one I saw you speaking to, this Royal Assembly Day last? Clever Retjenu! To snare a pretty she-ibis, one must bait the trap with shining jewels.

Retjenu (stretching, rousing himself): I protest, Milord (yawning, in spite of his best efforts to resist) my every waking moment is of work. (Stiffly) I live and breathe to serve only Ra and Milord and My Pharaoh, who steers the Sun-god’s Chariot across the heavens, pursuing the Great Scarab-Beetle in its flight!

Joseph (teasing): O come, Retjenu, old friend: I speak to you of love, and you come back at me with a dung-beetle (laughing). Besides, sun-chariots and scarabs aside, you know there is but One True God, the Invisible One! (whispering, again) Have I not told you how He rescued me from the Pit of the Prison, and raised me to this high and enviable Eminence, and how I speak to Him softly, in my heart, day after day? Were it not for Him, my brothers—brothers, indeed! (bitterly)—had it not been for weak-kneed Reuven, I would be dead in the ditch of the desert today, rather than wearing fine linen and cloth-of-gold, and bestriding the narrow earth like a Colossus—but for the rest of my brothers? Pah! I spit on them: would that they were here, to admire my greatness….

Retjenu (rising, and picking up a stray papyrus from Joseph’s desk): It seems, Milord Joseph, you might be seeing them, sooner than you think. I see here from the Border Troop Patrol that famine has stricken the Canaanite Wastelands—the place you have told me is your Native Land.

Joseph (taken aback; then, slowly and thoughtfully): Famine, you say? Then my predictions from El-Shaddai, God-of-my-Father-Jacob, were correct.

Retjenu: Yes: unlike us luckier folks here in Egypt, the round-headed, dark-eyed savages of Canaan, Ra curse them!—Oh, I forgot they are your family and native people, Milord Joseph (begins to fall to his knees to genuflect, but Joseph waves the insult away)—suffer famines from time to time. Here in Egypt, Mother Nile rises regularly to moisten our Blessed Earth, year following year, and we enjoy a steady growth of grain. In Canaan, the dark-eyed, savage gods are angry, and they often withhold their bounty of water-from-heaven, so the ugly Canaanites must come south, to our Heaven-Land-Kingdom, and we can sell them grain.

Joseph: So I was right to build the great storehouses and silos, and Sesostris, my Pharaoh and Master, correct in giving me Powers Plenipotentiary. As always, O’ God (he looks heavenward), I, like my father Jacob and great-grandfather Avraham, am in the Right Place at the Right Time. Come, Retjenu!

Retjenu (confused): Come where, Milord? Is it not still the middle of the night?

Joseph: Yes: but we need time to make ready to sell grain to Outlanders. If I am correct, there will be a virtual parade of petitioners from Canaan come to us to purchase wheat, beginning tomorrow, and we must be prepared—rouse the palace staff, and have them come to me, to arrange a Room of Reception, with ropes to line them up, tables to register their names, and barrels of grain to fill their gunny sacks! I will be seeing my Dear, Lost Brethren soon, and Sweet Revenge will be mine, or my Egyptian name is not Tsafnat-Paanayach….

Retjenu (picking up on Joseph’s energy): I am with you all the way, Milord! And I am not in the least bit sleepy. What was that you said about Revenge being sweet?

Joseph (as he ties up his Royal Robes, and sweeps grandly out the door of his office chambers): The time is out of joint. O Cursed Spite, that ever I was born to set it right!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Vayishlach: Esau, Chieftain of Mount Seir in Canaan, Speaks about Family Values After Meeting with Baby Brother Jacob


Night on Mount Seir, the tribal portion of Esau, also called Edom (Hebrew, “red”) for his red hair. He is chieftain of a large clan, intermingled with Canaanite sub-clans; we will never learn the time or place of his death, or his age at his passing. He is inconsequential to the remainder of our Genesis Story, which will focus on Jacob, his sons and grandsons, which will become the Children of Israel.

As we enter the tent, we see Chieftain Esau, sitting alone. Near him are his weapons of war: a short sword of beaten bronze, arrows in a quiver next to a five-foot-long bow, an oaken staff which he uses alternately as a walking stick, shepherd’s crook, or fighting weapon. He wears a short dagger in his belt. A wooden shield, with dull-copper boss in the center and hammered rim of that same metal, full of dents and cracks attesting to its battle-usage, leans in the corner, against a tent-pole.
Next to Esau is a low table, containing an empty clay beaker and a half-filled jug which, judging by its odor, contains grape-wine flavored with cinnamon. The beaker lies on its side, showing that it has not been used for some time. He drinks, but he is not drunk; not tonight.
Esau has aged: his face is wrinkled, his beard goes down half of his chest: it is still red, both dark and light, but shot through with grey, in many places. He appears to be mumbling, but, upon listening to him, to your amazement, you realize that the Mighty Warrior, the stumbling blunderer of mountain, field, and brook is praying. Praying?

The Warrior-Chieftain speaks:

            Hm? Oh, come forward, Stranger. They told me you were here, seeking hospitality from me. You are welcome. Sit. Some wine? (He pours.) I was just speaking to El-Shaddai, the Mountain-God, the God of my Father Isaac, and of Grandfather Abraham, whom I never knew, but admire greatly—why do you look surprised? I am older now; I am not the clumsy dolt of your campfire stories.
Did you see my Brother, my know-it-all, hard-dealing, fast-talking brother, God’s Favorite, I call him? He was looking mighty self-assured when I had seen him last—when? Where? Our father’s house, when?—must have been, oh, over twenty years ago. The years did him good: long, strong sinewy arms he grew—all that chasing after camel and sheep droppings for his father-in-law Lavan!
Ai me—I, too, met Master Lavan one day—that one meeting was enough for me. He tried to sell me a spavined she-donkey: I tell you, Man, I am no judge of humanity, but animals I do know. I laughed in his face, drank his wine, and was out the door before he could summon his guards. I suppose it took Jakey a mite longer to realize that his father-in-law was a thief and a robber—yes, and a bigger robber than Jakey himself could ever aspire to be.
As for today, Jacob and I had our meeting, I kissed him—couldn’t resist: after all, it was a lifetime since I saw my Baby Brother…. I modestly accepted his gift, and little enough it was for all the aggravation and care his shenanigans cost me, years ago—we went our separate ways. Yes, separate (he muses a bit)…Hm.
Am I jealous of Brother Jacob?  No, why? God, Praised be His Name, has filled my fields and my family with bounty: I have three beautiful wives (counting them off on his fingers)—there is Adah, my comely one; Oholibamah, the schemer, and Baseh-mat, my sweet-smelling girl—certainly, there is sometimes quarrelling in the boudoir, but it’s nothing compared to that endless roundabout of romance that poor Jakey must deal with! Two wives, two concubines: jealous, fertile, God-blessed Leah, and poor Rachel unable to bear for all of these years—it’s the talk of the shepherding folk, don’t you know?
And Jacob’s favoring Rachel’s little Joseph—that will come to no good, surely—I would have warned my Little Brother myself, but he always bragged that he was a prophet, and knew what was going to happen, before it happened.
I remember trying to teach him, once, how to stalk a wild gazelle. We were hunkered down behind a sabra-plant, out there in the desert. It was the heat of the day, and, being brainless youngsters, we had already drunk up our water-skins—plain water in mine, sweet apple-juice, courtesy of our dear Mother, in his, of course….
I was trying to teach him, in a whispering voice, of course, how to tell the difference between a heat-vapor rising up from an oasis-pond, and a mirage caused by that selfsame heat, just as Old Uncle Ishmael, Yah-Eli rest his soul, had taught me, when I was very young, and you know what that whelp Jacob said to me?
“Ne’er you mind, Big Brother,” he pipes up, in a good loud voice, sufficient to be heard by every wildebeest round about us, “I will spy the gazelle when the time is ripe. For the Lord of Hosts will show it right to me, He will.”
I tell you, I was speechless.
See Jakey again? Again, why? We were never the best of friends, and our families are so large— my three wives, his four—I just get the thought (laughing) that holiday meals would be out-of-control, what with his Reuben bucking for leadership, and Shimon and Levi always so bitter and vengeful—I heard about that massacre in Shechem, and, let me tell you, I kept my Boys standing-to-guard for a few weeks after that; after all, the Tribes ‘round here know that he and I are blood, though I don’t make an explicit statement about it.
No. I will never see him again. And, Stranger, I’m no fool. I know the evil things he says about me: calling me Edom, the One Whose Hands are Red with Blood, and how I will be blamed, in the Future, for all the punishments and woes his people will suffer. Jacob is not the only prophet in the family; I have a touch of prophecy myself, from Papa, El-Elyon guard his soul! I protest it isn’t true. I will swear to it.
I will swear to you, O’ Stranger, in the Name of the God of my Father Isaac (whom I loved so dear; Jacob never loved him as I did) and my Grandfather, Abraham, that I did love Jacob, once. I would have, could have, been his friend—but he wronged me greatly, on the Day of Papa’s Blind Blessing: he stole my Birthright; that he did, with Mother’s aid and approval, which I can never forgive, never forget….
Why? Well, what would you do? “Blood thicker than water”? Well and good: but what if a relative took something from you that was immensely precious, and you were simply not smart or bright or quick enough to realize you were being fooled?
I am much smarter now. I have my family, my sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, trained men-at-arms, around me. Jacob and I are separate; we are apart. I prophesy that, until the End of Time, we are meant to be locked in combat, and there will never be Peace between us. Never Peace—until—well, this is Prophecy, too, if you are prepared to hear it: until Leaders come, Brave and Strong Enough to break the Chain of Hatred between our clans (I do not say Tribes; we are one Tribe, the Tribe of Abraham, that is clear). But the Chain is mighty, for it was forged in Hell. Then, and only Then, will, may, there be Peace.
God’s will? Here, I cannot say. But I know that Jacob’s will has made it so, and that this will endure through Time and Space. Who can end this Earthly-Cosmic Rivalry?  
Leave me, Stranger.
The Conflict strengthens me
And No End to this Struggle can I see.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Life as a Small Boy, Eating Ice Cream: Memories of the Old Neighborhood, and a Popular Confection

My Life as a Small Boy, Eating Ice Cream

By David Hartley Mark

“Let be be finale of seem.
“The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”
--Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream”

            I grew up in a time and place when ice cream was neither as common nor easy to find as it is today. We did not have the vast array of “super-premium flavors” or ice cream parlors competing for our calorie counts or pocketbooks. Ice cream was a simpler treat; for me, it was a daily reward. Every weekday, after the East Side Torah Center, the Hebrew Day School I attended from kindergarten through 8th Grade, dismissed at 3:30 pm, my mother, who taught there, took me around the corner to Gilbert’s Pharmacy, which was an old-fashioned, dark-cornered emporium packed full of treasures.
Gilbert’s was not only a pharmacy—we never got prescriptions there—but it had an entire selection of penny candies, a freezer full of ice cream confections on sticks, and wonderful shelves of cheap toys: metal airplanes that shot sparks out of their tails, toy cars, trucks, and tanks, dolls that went “Mama” when you punched their tummies, decks of playing cards, children’s board games, craft sets, puzzles, and more.
           There, I could buy a bag of blue and grey plastic soldiers, one cannon included, for just one dollar, or a plastic ship’s model to build with airplane glue. The glue was a restricted material, I recall, and the clerk—his name was not Gilbert; I don’t believe he had a name—would not sell me more than one tube at a time. In fact, if I came in alone, I had to bring a note signed by my mother, in order to purchase the tube, which cost a dime. Those were the days when J.D.’s, our term for juvenile delinquents—a wayward child or teenager of the sort we young Jewish children most certainly were not—were likely to take a bunch of tubes of glue, squirt them ‘til empty into a brown paper bag, and snort the contents until they became “high” on the fumes. We knew well enough not to do such a foolishly dangerous act; it would destroy our precious brains, and our parents required us all to take our brains to college one day. They had to remain intact and in good working order.
But, the ice cream: that was important. For a single, thin dime, I could buy a favorite—and there were so many from which to choose: I could get an ice cream cone, always vanilla, wrapped up in paper, with a cardboard top, specially designed to protect the ice cream, though the cone itself would always have become soft and pliable from being wrapped-up in the paper, hardly the crisp and crunchy type one could buy from an actual ice cream store.
We had no such stores in the immediate neighborhood, and anyway, the rabbis probably would not have considered them kosher. There was always some sort of issue with the gelatin, which certainly would have been manufactured from the hooves or bones of animals which were not slaughtered properly, in the kosher manner. Keeping kosher was simply one of those things we did. We were Orthodox Jews; we did not question the why or wherefore; we simply followed whatever laws the Torah doled out to us, as interpreted by our rabbis. And, whenever in doubt, the answer was probably “No.”
For this reason, our school principal and synagogue rabbi, Rabbi Nunberg, required that all school lunches we brought from our homes had to be dairy. He supposed that all of our mothers’ kitchens were being kept kosher, but he was a realist, and dairy was the safest compromise when one doubted the kashrut of others. Since my sister Pearl attended public school and could bring whatever she wanted for lunch, she often got kosher baloney, which I adored but could not have in school. On those rarest occasions when we grabbed the wrong bag from the fridge and accidentally switched lunches, my classroom rabbi, Rabbi Rifstein, ruled that I was to eat alone in the chapel while my friends ate communally in the lunchroom. This didn’t bother me; I could savor the baloney longer, and enjoy a book, rather than participate in my friends’ inane conversation. They often discussed sports; I didn’t care for sports. I preferred to read.
As for the ice cream cone, that was just one of my choices from the freezer case in Gilbert’s Pharmacy: there was also the vanilla pop, encased in its thin shell of chocolate, which I had to lick carefully, lest the chocolate all crack and fall off, thereby necessitating my quickly wolfing it down, hardly enjoying it, then. There was also a variant of the pop, known as the “Cho-Cho Bar,” named for the solemn-looking polka-dotted clown on the wrapper (I didn’t care for clowns, and tore off and discarded the wrapper as soon as I left the store), and whose ice cream had a malted-milk flavor, tasting more exotic than plain vanilla.
Beyond Gilbert’s, ice cream opportunities in the neighborhood were slim. In those days, buying ice cream from the supermarket was an uncommon thing; we rarely kept it in the house. I don’t believe it was as readily available as it is today, and certainly not as tasty. But in the spring and summer, the Good Humor Man and the Bungalow Bar truck were fixtures in our neighborhood. It was always magical to hear the Bungalow Bar truck coming down Grand St., and we kids would come running when we saw it: the truck resembled an actual bungalow, a white truck with its roof covered with faux brown shingles, curving up at the end, like a fairytale cottage. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the ice cream choices, though: I believe it was mostly vanilla pops and ices.
For sheer exoticity of choices, one had only to wait for the Good Humor Man. Our local functionary was named Hymie; that was the only name he had: just Hymie. He was a bit chubby, but not in a jolly sort of way. I suppose he liked children well enough, and he was patient enough to deal with us small people, but he was no Santa Claus type. We knew him to be Jewish—everyone in our immediate neighborhood was Jewish—but that was all. He would reach deep down into the hand-cart labeled GOOD HUMOR on the side, and magically extract whatever treat a child desired, and it only cost a quarter.
Hymie also had a scar on one cheek, starting right below his eye, and ending at the corner of his mouth. This gave him a sort of dangerous, yet exotic look, like a pirate playing the part of an ice-cream man. He never spoke of it; he rarely spoke at all, and so we never learned how he got the scar. Obviously, we made up all sorts of tales about its origins: Hymie the pirate chief; Hymie the romantic lover, defending his girl against an army of miscreants by throwing ice-cream pops at them, ninja-style. We could go on for hours with our Tales of Hymie’s Exploits.
The only person not impressed by Hymie’s talents or his scar was my Nana, of course. She loved all of us, her darling grandchildren, but lacked patience in dealing with our desires and personality quirks. Nana was a no-nonsense sort, and considered us to be, not children, really, but Miniature Adults, and treated us as such. I recall one afternoon when she was babysitting me; it was a balmy, early-springtime, perfect New York day, and we hurried out of the courtyard between the buildings—we never called it the courtyard; we called it, simply, “Between the Buildings”—and Hymie appeared, in his customary street position, near the Grand St. mailbox.
I stood and studied the pictures of the various products on the side of the Good Humor wagon, while Nana waited for what seemed to her to be a Long Time. She waited; I kept deciding. When, in her judgment, I took too long in making my ice cream selection—I recall it was the Choice of a Lifetime (or so it seemed to me) between a Strawberry Shortcake and a Chocolate Éclair (or was it the Chocolate Candy Bar, which had a piece of genuine chocolate sandwiched in the middle, an extra treat after licking off all the layers of vanilla ice cream and chocolate cake-crumbs?), Nana finally turned to me and asked, a bit crossly, “Can’t you just get a vanilla pop?” Which was all well and good, since that was probably the only choice you could buy, back in her day—if they even had ice cream available off street carts, ‘way back when she was a youngster. I could not, absolutely, even conceive of Nana as a little girl. It seemed as though she had always been just Nana: grown-up, straightforward, and hardly one to suffer fools, or vacillating grandsons, gladly.  
In the end, of course, I got my ice cream, and we walked off, my holding it in one hand, contentedly licking, the other hand grasping hers, tightly. Nana and I always got along; she was happy that I read so much, and encouraged my questions, even when she couldn’t answer them.
As for Hymie, he, background, scar, and all, remained a mystery. Years later, in the early 1970s, when I, like Alfred Kazin, loved to wander about my City, I began to curiously explore the seedier, but tantalizing neighborhoods: in particular, the strip joints on 42nd St., near 8th Ave. Of course, I never went in, though it wasn’t because of the yarmulkeh-skullcap I used to wear; I had long ago relegated that bit of ethno-religious identification to my pocket, not wishing the world to ask, “Now, where is that yeshiva boy off to?” since I believed that it was, frankly, None of the World’s Business Where I Went, and Why.
So it was a great surprise one day when, walking near one particular strip joint, I saw and heard my old friend and Good Humor procurer, Hymie, standing in the entrance of the establishment, calling out its attractions and advantages to the public. He held the questionable office of “puller-inner” to the Pink Pussycat Gentlemen’s Club, a sad eminence, indeed.

“How the Good Humor Man has fallen!” I thought to myself, or words to that effect. I did not rush up to Hymie to renew our acquaintance—I doubt he would have remembered me, or the many Strawberry Shortcake and Chocolate Éclair bars he had tendered me, years before—but I did reflect that, in New York City, his rise and fall in life might not be, at all, unusual. Truly, Hymie was still in the Good Humor business: he had moved from selling Good Humor from an ice-cream wagon to pandering for good humor in a sex club. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Vayaytsay: An Angelic Escort, as Jacob Pulls a Duddy Kravitz Move on Brother Esav and Absconds 'Til the Heat is Off


Jacob had a dream: a ladder was set into the ground; its top reached up to the Heavens, and there were Angels of God going Up and Down on it (Gen. 28:12)

            Call me Ketaniel, the “Wee One of God.” I’m a little angel, not even a Cherub yet—not a pink-cheeked, bewinged fat boy on a Valentine (that’s not Jewish, anyway), but a rip-snorting, eagle-winged, lion-clawed, woman-faced Chimera. I am not that. No. I’m just a tiny fella, newly-born of Heavenly Aether. You don’t get born as an Angel, either; you just kind of pop into Existence, and you live for as long as your Mission takes—
            So there I am, one of a Coming of Angels, all of us moving up-and-down a Ladder, fast as we can—I’m going down, it seems. I want to stop, take a Look around—never been in this Place before; Heavens, I’ve never been Anyplace before—but there’s no time to waste; as soon as I dawdle, the Seraph-Flame above scorches me, and the Ophan—that is, Divine-Chariot-Wheel— below, tries to run over my fingers—
            “Move, can’t you, youngster?” asks the Ophan, twirling and whirling—that’s all those Heavenly Wheels can do; they spin so fast that Divine Sparks fly in all directions, but they get precious little done, and they go nowhere; they just make a Blessed Holy Racket doing it—
            “Down! Be climbing down with you!” crackles the Seraph, all-aflame with Sacred Fire, “Else I’ll be toasting your wing-tips, see if I don’t!”
            --So I keep on climbing down—falling down, really, and a good thing it is that my Newly-Fledged Wings are working, or I’d’ve tumbled straight down, sure—instead, to escape my climbing-partners, I let go the Ladder, and float-fall-freely down, to Jacob himself, right where he’s standing, all Center of Attention, he, Young Prince-Master Jakey. He can’t see me—he’s not on a High Enough Plane of Prophecy as yet, but I can take a good look at him—
            He favors his Mother Rebekah, that I can tell: he has her high brow, grey eyes, and he’s blinking up at the Sky, where the Ladder-Top disappears into the Cloud-Bank; it’s night-time, but he’s shading his forehead, and squinting those Shepherd’s eyes of his, to see where it goes—but of course, he can’t see into Heaven; he’s mere Mortal, he. We angel-folk are all around him, but we might as well be moths on a summer’s eve, for all he’s not seeing us, our being mostly invisible—but then, as we’re flittering and fluttering away, up, down, and about, all like a bunch of lightning-bugs on a hot August Eve, the ground shakes, and the heavens turn darker still, considering that it’s Night, and we hear the Voice, the Voice that can only be—
            God’s. And God says, in a Still Small Voice, but still rumbly enough so that only Jacob can hear, for the First Time (but certainly not the Last) in his Life:
            “I am the Lord your God, Jacob. You do not, as yet, know Me, but I am God to you, as I was to your Grandfather Abraham, and your Father Isaac. I will reveal My Self to you in due time. This land that you lie upon—cherish it; it is Holy Ground, which your ancestors will possess, but only if they are worthy of it, and agree to live upon it in Peace.”
            Jacob steps back, all-trembly-like, and puts his hand on that little knife he carries—the selfsame one his mama gave him—not to protect himself—poor, lost, friendless Boy, out in the World alone, for the first time in his life!—but to cut his bread and meat. He is no Warrior, this one: he must live by his wits. But then, God continues:
            “And to protect you, as you go off to the Land of Aram, to be with your Family—and I warn you, my Son, My Jacob, that you be careful! For, though they be Family, there will be those who love you, those who desire you, and those who will fear and hate you—so, be wary. I am with you, but you will need some closer help, some bodyguard, a little Divine Cherub to be with you, always—and let that be—let Me see—hm….
            One would not think that a God so Mighty would have to think, but then, this is a God of Old, and sometimes forgetful; it’s understandable; He’s got a lot to remember, after all—the heavens stopt in their tracks; the stars ceased to spin; the rushing waters some distance away ended their babbling—and then, God spoke again:
            “As you are new and entering into the World, so do I have a new Guard for you, and he will dedicate his protection to you: my Cherub-in-training to watch you—let it be Ketaniel; let him fly forward.”
And God smiled upon me: nothing anyone could see with their eyes, but I could feel it—a warmth in my Angelic Innards, of Divine Approbation and Approval. One never knows when it will come, but all of us, Angel or Mortal, have their Time and their Place; we must be always ready for the Summons from the Holy One.
And then, Jacob spoke: “Surely, then, is the Lord God in this Place?”
And I answered him, in his Mind, “If God is here, this place is awesome, indeed.”
He trembled again, and said, “How full of awe is this Place! This cannot be anything less than the House of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.”
And before I could get out of the way, that silly sot had popped a cork and poured olive oil on my angelic head. Did he not know, not realize, that God wants the heart—God wants deeds of lovingkindness, not mere outward show? But then, what he said next—you must understand, he’s just a Boy, this Jacob—truly bothered me:
He got a look in his eye—a look I did not like. It was—it was a mixture of fear, but some of the Old Jacob beneath it: the same, tricky fellow who had stolen the Birthright from his clumsy, foolish Brother Esau, who had wrapt goatskin about his arms and fooled his own Father Isaac (granted, at his Mother’s suggestion, but still), and who was off to impress the Distant Relatives with his Shepherding Erudition.
“If God will favor me, and protect me, and prosper me—why then, I will worship God. And if He returns me safely home to my Mother and Father, why then, I will give Him a portion of my goods.”
It was a Young Man’s Prayer, an Innocent’s Prayer, a Prayer of Nerve and Chutzpah; but Fate, and Sad Experience, and Family (both Good and Evil) would turn the Prayer Upside Down, and soon enough…
My work as Guardian Angel, I could see,

Young Jacob’s Prayer had quickly cut out for me.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Toledote: An Interview with Isaac the Blind: The Burden of Being a Son of Abraham


Scene: The inner tent of Isaac, husband of Rebekah, father of “twins” Esau and Jacob, only son of Abraham and Sarah, the late founders of Judaism. The Second Patriarch of the Faith lies on a cushioned mat in a richly caparisoned corner of his tent, with a food dish containing raisins and almonds within easy reach, as well as a wooden beaker containing fruit juice mixt with well water. He is blind with cataracts, but is able to feel his way over the bedclothes to shake hands with you, the visitor, having an instinct sure as sight. You ask him about his health, and then, out of curiosity, about his Family History. He smiles and responds, in a quiet, gentle voice, appropriate to his retiring nature:
I really don’t mind all the time that I spend in bed, nowadays. Rebekah is my Rock; she learned the Cattle Business, almost from the day she arrived here in Canaan, and I was able to rest easy. Sharp girl, she was, sizing me up from the time I was wandering in the fields, awaiting the arrival of the “beautiful girl” that Papa had promised me would arrive soon from Aram-Naharaim, his old home village. Mama Sarah was already gone, and Papa, after a later twilight romance with that wild-eyed concubine, Keturah, was also gathered to his ancestors. And now? My eyesight is going, and my hearing has never been very good, but it is cool here in the tent, and I get whatever I wish to eat, so Life is basically easy….
My childhood? You ask me about it? Well, I never realized my parents were different from those of other children until I got a little older, went out into the World, and made friends—some of those Hittite and Canaanite boys, and then, of course, there was my half-brother, Ishmael—at least, until my mother Sarah went all apopleptic about his mother Hagar’s special relationship with Papa Abraham, and Mama felt it best if “That Egyptish Wench and her half-breed brat” were sent off packing, with just a tiny leatherskin of water to keep them alive in the desert heat. Luckily, the Lord God, Papa’s God, kept an eye out, and sent an angel to rescue them. Angels? Do I believe in them? Well, why not?….
            But all was fine, growing up, though it was more like having grandparents for parents, do you understand me? They gave me all I wanted, spoiled me even; it was a fine thing, being the Ben Z’kunim, the Son of Their Old Age—all, all except for Papa’s Moodiness, his “Spells”….
            That was what Mama called it, when Papa would take Long Walks Alone in the Desert, late in the Afternoon, when the sun was off to the side of the horizon, not overhead, so the air was not quite so baking hot—
“So I can be alone with my thoughts,” he used to smile at me as he parted the tent-flap with his walking-stick, and I would smile back;
What was the harm, after all? He was an Old Man; he needed to stretch his limbs and walk, from time to time….
            But that One Time, when he came back from Two Days and a Night Alone with His God, with that strange, Musty Misty Mystical Light in his eyes, as though there were a Fire Burning Back of His Brain, and he grabbed me by the arm after bustling about, snatching up wood and fire and tinder and reins for the donkey, along with ordering Ishmael to chop wood and load it on the beast—all the necessities for a Burnt-Offering, just as I’d seen him do a thousand thousand times, out there in the Hinterlands, far from our Home Tent; nothing odd about that, save the One Little Missing Absent Thing:
            No Lamb for the Offering; no lambsheepgoatcow—Nothing. And, once we left the Donkey and Ish-my-Brother at the Mountain’s Foot, that tall Dark-Capped Forbidding Mountain—
            We climbed together, in Silence, I but a little child, playing, hopping from Rock to Branch to Boulder, happy to be with My Papa, delighted with Any Adventure; Papa, Poor Fellow, full of his Dark Thoughts, clutching the Big Knife in his hand like a talisman—until my Curiosity got the better of me, and I queried him:
“Papa,” I said
            “Yes, my Son?” he asked, and his Voice sounded strange: that rough burr beneath his fatherly tones; different, somehow, from how I’d ever heard him speak, Before….
            “Here they are,” I said, sweeping my arm, to include the Sun & Mountain & Sky & Clouds, the Knife in his Great Right Hand & the Flint & Steel & Wood & Donkey & Rope; lots of Rope….
”But where is the Lamb, Papa, the Lamb for the Burnt-Offering?”
            He stopt walking, rubbed his eyes, squinted into the Sun, as though reading it; lookt about, into the Clouds, felt for the Wind (there was none); pulled at his beard, all Tangled and Grey, and said, looking away from me, in a half-sobbing-voice—what was it, what could it be, in Heaven and Earth, to make my Father so Sad, so Grieving?
            “God—the Lord God—will provide Himself the Lamb for the Offering, my Son, my Son….”
 –and blindly, he stuck out, reached out, his hand to mine—
            And the two of us, walkt on, Together….
            And so, is it any Surprise, that Now, (here, he suddenly grows serious, cold, leaning forward, squinting those clouded-over, misty-blue, sightless Eyes in the direction of his Visitor) I should favor Esau, that Hunter, that Tramper-through-the-Woods, that Master of Nature, that Big-Bellied-Red-Headed, Fear-Nothing, Can-Do-It-All Son-of-Mine, rather than Jacob?
            I favor Esau, because, because—Jacob, Jacob is weak! That Dweller-in-Tents, that Heel-Clutcher, Trickster, Smooth-skinned and Smooth-tongued, Live-by-your-wits-Jacob—No; if you please, I favor Esau, because—I favor his strength, his daring, his courage; besides—
            Jacob reminds Me of Me.
            And I—I do not like myself—

            Something of Me died, and was burnt, upon that Mountain….

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Chayay Sarah: Eliezer's Visit Back to Abraham's Old Neighborhood

Chayay Sarah

Scene: c. 1400 BCE, give or take a century. A mud-and-straw house in Aram-Naharaim, or “Aram on the [bend of the Euphrates] River,” known to its inhabitants as Mitanni, the hometown of Bethuel, the nephew of Abraham the Hebrew. Bethuel is seated on a cushioned divan near the fire, holding a cup of watered date-wine; opposite him is Eliezer, chief servant to Abraham. Off to the side is a servant-boy, named Artama, holding a clay pitcher, which he uses to fill the cups. Outside, the night-wind howls, and jackals cry to the moon.

Bethuel: So, Eliezer, servant to my Uncle Avraham, tell me: what happened on the Mountain called Moriah? You were just in the middle of the story. I do love a good story; we Hurrians have many. Do you know the one where Gilgamesh, the mighty hero, visits with the sailor who built an ark to survive the world-flood? His name—the sailor’s, that is—was Ut—Utna—I forget. Boy! Artama—what’s-your-face!—more date-wine. (Artama complies, filling his cup.) Shame about my poor old Auntie Sarah, though—(lifting his cup) To Aunty Sarah! May her soul repose beneath the wings of the goddess Inanna, and may we know no more sorrow.

Eliezer: Amen. (To the boy, waving off the proffered jug) None for me, thanks. I have a long camel-caravan ride tomorrow, and I must tell my boys that we’re saddling up before crack of dawn.

Bethuel: Why leave so fast? I can entertain you and your men for days, yet. We so rarely get family visitors. I will miss my little baby Rebekah, but—perhaps you would like a bride, too? I have some new female slaves from Kizzuwadna, near the coast. They are built very powerfully—Ha! You know what I mean. Many babies.

Eliezer: Master Bethuel, you have been very good to me and my men, with your hospitality, but may I ask you a question?

Bethuel: Ask, ask, Servant Eliezer! Any servant of my uncle is a—no, that’s not right. Well, ask anyway….(He blinks, and rubs his eyes, in a vain attempt to clear his head)

Eliezer: Why did you never come to visit my master, Lord Abraham? Or even to stay in touch?

Bethuel: Oh. That. Well, there were—there were—issues.

Eliezer: Issues? Perhaps it’s better for me not to query—I am but a humble servant, you know—

Bethuel: No, it’s a perfectly fair question; family matters, after all, and you’ve been servant, man and boy, to my uncle; I consider you family, too, Elly—do you mind if I call you Elly? (drinks deeply; smacks lips) Ah! That’s good; deep and sweet. Well, let me tell you. Years ago, back in Ur, that Mighty City, before he and Aunty Sarah left, when my Uncle Abie started having his fits—his deep-dark-silences, y’know—

Eliezer: Fits? What fits?

Bethuel: Well, all of that—that—God-talk, of his. Talking about an “invisible god.” The neighbors, the authorities, got to talking amongst themselves. An invisible god? Ridiculous! How could there be a god whom one couldn’t see, or feel, or touch, or sense? Never happened before, you know. People felt uncomfortable around him. And some were making fun of him, behind his back. I felt embarrassed; bad for our family cattle business. Our whole tribe was getting a bad name, I thought. And so, it was time to put some distance between us. I never meant it to go so far, but what is a man to do, when one’s relatives kind of go off the deep end, you know? Elly?

Eliezer (with fervor): The God of my Master is great; He alone made the Heaven and the Earth, and is Greatly Exalted; He maketh the sea roar, and the mountains to dance; He—

Bethuel (as if soothing a religious fanatic): Yes, yes; I have no doubt. But you know, try to downplay that God-talk here in Mitanni. We don’t want to excite the neighbors. They pray to whomever they pray to. We don’t make a big deal about it. And the king likes it all to be quiet, and for folks to get along; he expects to be prayed to, as well. Nothing wrong with a little, occasional dove sacrificed on His Majesty’s behalf. To get along, one goes along; that’s my motto. And now (stretches and yawns) perhaps it’s time to get some shut-eye—particularly since you and your people can’t stay; it’s all for the good in the end; all for the good….

(Enter Laban, a sharp-eyed, sharp-eared young rascal of nearly twenty; he is breathing heavily, and trembling with eagerness about Something Suspicious)

Bethuel: What, Laban, you hyena’s whelp! Where have you been, out in the desert so late, in the dark, in the blackness? Were you not told to go abed, not three-four hours ago?

Laban: Yes, Papa, but the camels—all their baggage, Papa, all the golden wonderment of a caravan, such as I never saw in my life!

Eliezer: Well, My Lord Bethuel, I am happy that your son admires all the riches my Master has sent to adorn Your Daughter Rebekah, who is to be My Mistress, when she marries my Young Master, Isaac.

Laban (hesitantly): Um, y-yes, that is what I have been doing: admiring, admiring… (he accidentally walks into the wall, and a bag slung from his belt jingles)

Bethuel: Been saving up that copper-coin allowance I give you, hey?

Laban: Yes, Papa; every groat of it, so I do; well, Good Night, Gentlemen…. (he leaves, quickly)

Eliezer: That was a pretty heavy mass of copper he was carrying there. Hm. (He stands, gazing thoughtfully after Laban, tapping his dagger hilt)

Bethuel (standing and stretching): Well, a good night to you, Eliezer. You are a good man, and, doubtless, a good servant to my uncle, Baal bless him.

Eliezer (taking his hand): And you, Master Bethuel. May the God Most High bless your work and your field, your family and table. Good night.