Sunday, November 24, 2013

Were the Maccabees Political Liberals or Conservatives?

            My first encounter with the Maccabees involved opening a box of Barton’s Chocolates: I was seven years old. There they lay, flat little Jewish soldiers wrapped in blue-and-gold foil, smiling smugly, each one brandishing a sword and a shield emblazoned with a Star of David, ready to take on the fiercest foes—also, presumably, made of chocolate. Hardly a sentimentalist, I wasted no time: humming “I had a little dreidel, I made it out of clay,” I unwrapped my doughty little warrior and bit his head off. Barton’s chocolate was very Jewish: it refused to melt in your mouth, and only a few strong chews made it palatable enough to swallow.
            Later in my life, there were the heady days of the 1960s, when Judaism, like most American Religions, was finding ways to adapt to the heady aura of Liberalism. Rabbis were heading south to join the struggle for civil rights; Jewish college students, like their gentile comrades-in-arms, were marching against the war in Vietnam, and even we busy Yeshiva High School boys were being bused to midtown Manhattan—during school hours!—to picket the Soviet Mission to the United Nations. We truly cared about our Soviet brothers and sisters, but it didn’t hurt that we were marching within sight of the young ladies of our Orthodox sister school, Manhattan Central High School for Girls. Though we could see them but from afar, the young maidens of Central Yeshiva made our manly hearts beat a bit faster, as we walked around and around and around, chanting
            “One-two-three-four—open up the Iron Door!
            “Five-six-seven-eight—let my people emigrate!”
            Oh, we were dedicated, we were, and we hated the Soviets with a passion. We had no idea what a Russian apparatchik looked like, but we despised them.
            When Chanukah came, we learned that the Maccabees of long ago had, like us, fought for religious freedom: had the Kremlin existed in 165 BCE, barring the doors against our Russian brothers and sisters, forbidding them from learning Judaism and praying in Hebrew, or receiving precious gifts of tefillin and prayerbooks with Russian translation, we never doubted that Judah Maccabee and his bold troops would have taken swords in hand and beaten down the barricades of refusal. Just like us, the Maccabees were religious liberals, fighting the powers of segregation, ignorance, racism, and an unjust war in Vietnam. Our fight was their fight, as well.
            Today, I am not so sure. Having read the First and Second Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha—called in Hebrew the Sefarim Ha-Chitzoniyim, literally, “The Outside Books,” meaning those books which were not accepted into the Hebrew Biblical Canon when the Talmudic Rabbis decided which books should be included, which not—I realize now that the Maccabees, far from being the religious mavericks I had taken them to be in my youth, were, instead, conservatives, holding on tenaciously to time-honored ancestral practices, when many upper-class Jews with names like Jason and Menelaus were deliberately aping Greek ways as The Next Big, Popular Thing. It was called Hellenism.
            These strange, outlandish, and downright un-Jewish practices included wrestling naked in the Greek gymnasia; learning Greek philosophy, which doubted the existence, not only of our Jewish God, but of any god whatsoever; and, horror of horrors! Undergoing a painful and disfiguring operation on one’s phallus to eradicate the traces of circumcision and make it look more Greek. The enemy of the Chanukah story was, therefore, not the Greeks: it was other, trendier Jews.
            Against this veritable tidal wave of assimilation arose the Maccabees, to preserve their vision of Judaism. Their forceful campaign included kidnapping Jewish babies in order to circumcise them, killing the Jews who followed Greek ways, and, of course, removing the “Abomination of Desolation”—the statue of Antiochus IV Epiphanes from the Holy Temple, which the monarch had placed therein, identifying himself with Zeus, king of the gods—hardly an unusual step for any Greek monarch.
            The Maccabees succeeded in establishing a monarchy which kept Judea independent for about 500 years, before Imperial Rome turned it into a Mediterranean backwater colony. The last Maccabee brother, and the oldest, was Shimon, known as Simon in Greek. He was proud, and combined in his person the dual offices of both kohen gadol, High Priest, and ethnarch, regional ruler. The question remains, however: were the Maccabees liberals or conservatives?
            Does it really matter at this point? History is a river: it flows endlessly, and we can interpret it only up to a point. What matters is that we derive what we need from it. As Jews and students of Western Civilization, we combine the best of what our faith, our culture, and Greek and Roman civilization have left us. I like to think that, when those tired, sweaty Jewish warriors watched the last remnants of Antiochus’s army retreating, stumbling, defeated,  from the Temple Mount, they were thinking, “Our Torah, our way of life, is safe.” Their struggle remains ours, and the struggle goes on, forever.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Joseph and the Pharaoh's Dreams: The Secret Egyptian Diaries of Scribe Muwatallis

To my knowledge, no Egyptologists are aware of the following manuscript, said to have been discovered by an Arab shepherd-boy who had gone wandering after a lost lamb into the caves surrounding the Valley of the Kings in Abydos, Egypt, around the remains of the Temple of Ramesses I. It is still a mystery how it arrived in the shop of the Jerusalem artifact-merchant, Ploni ibn-Almoni, whence I was able to acquire it, and have its curious hieroglyphic code translated by a specialist, Dr. Dentons Brown, in the Dept. of Archeology of the University of Erewhon.

            I, Muwatallis, Royal Court Reporter and Recorder to Ramesses the First, called “Ra, the Sun-god has fashioned Him,” do hereby set down these secret diary lines, known only to myself, apart from the Imperial Histories which I pen daily for the greater glory of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms—here, I may be more candid, as one writing for my own amusement.
            O Ra, Osiris, Ptah! Protect your servant, Muwatallis, his wife and children! For these are perilous times for Egypt—we are not what we were, and the shadow of Semites stretches over the land: Horites, Hivites, Girgashites, and such. We are polluted by this riffraff! No eyes save mine must see these clay tablets; if they were to fall into the hands of my enemies, I could be executed forthwith. But I must record my protest, O gods, for the sake of my king and nation. I will explain.
            I have my friends at court—one needs one’s friends at court; I grapple them to my soul with hoops of steel—among them, Tusret, cup-bearer to the king, and Setnakhte, royal baker. The first, I need to keep me informed of Ramesses’s moods: when he reflects, and requires his thoughts to be set down; the second, for the state of the royal stomach, by which I mean his temper. Imagine my surprise, and my fear also, when I heard my friends arrested, placed in jail! I couldn’t imagine why—Tusret was freed, poor Setnakhte hanged—charges of attempted poisoning, I believe, poor fellow—probably just some moldy bread—
            Even so, it was a greater still surprise when I witnessed the strangest event ever to be seen in an Egyptian royal court! For there I was, seated, cross-legged on the floor, stylus and soft clay plaque in hand, before the throne just yesterday, recording some dull legal protocol—a conquest, division of booty, exchange of prisoners, etc., etc.—
            --when His Royal Majesty stands up, stretches, scratches, takes off his crown and ornamental beard!—I’d never seen him do that before in public—and places both his hands atop his eyes, and rubs them—well, you couldn’t think—
            “Are you all right, Sire?” asks Tusret, being ranking major-domo there (not just a butler; he’s adviser, too; and closest to the Royal Ear is he).
            “A headache—sleeping badly—dreams of cows,” mumbles Ramesses, and, yawning, collapses back onto his throne, tossing the crown aside (It’s heavy, I know; but still—adhere to protocol, you’d think! His father never would have acted thusly!)
            “Yes, cows, I say—Tusret!” calls out His Royalness, “Can you find me an interpreter? I mean, of dreams.”
            “I—I—without fail, Sire!” calls Tusret, snapping his fingers at one of the guards (which one never does in front of the king; he’s a god, you know), “Fetch Joseph, the prison-trusty’s boy!”
            Well, fifteen minutes later, there’s a Hebrew standing there—some skinny shepherd-kid, with hay coming out of his ears—and smelly! Face full of tiny cuts—probably never shaved before--I can smell those Hebrews miles away, you know—and Ramesses bending over, listening hard, to every word—
            And now, he’s made that scamp his Grand Vizier! I can’t abide it—no wonder Egypt’s going to the dogs. Protect us, O ye gods!


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Vayishlach: Jacob's Soliloquy, After Crossing the Yabbok River

            Once I got away from Lavan, that leech, that bloodsucker, I thought we were in the clear—I could settle back, let my donkey do the walking, while I rode up and down the caravan, proudly beholding my family and property, like a desert chieftain ought to do: there they were, my wives, all bedecked properly, covered up to their faces with their chadors, so that no Bedouin riffraff might cast a wayward eye and try to attack me—I had very few men-at-arms, you understand, and just an invisible God to protect me; not that He hadn’t shown His true worth toward me up to that point, just as He had promised, years before, but you can’t be too careful….
            And I had sent out scouts; a big luggage train like ours—women, slaves, babies, cattle!—that would be a great prize for any pack of desert brigands, and I had worked hard enough for them, all those years away from Ma and Pop in Charan, living with Lavan, that thief….
“Lord God of Grandpa Abraham, Father Isaac, Mysterious God,” I asked the scudding clouds overhead, “When do I get a chance to enjoy my family and the little wealth I have been able to build up?”
            Suddenly, there he is, that little Asher, one of—who?—Zilpah’s boys—can’t tell them apart, really—saying to me, “Ta, I’ve been forward, about three mil, and there, they’re coming.”
            I couldn’t tell what he was saying, little fellow like that, mumbling, though it turns out he’s about sixteen years old. Who knew? Short, like his mother, same dark hair and eyes—I thought he was saying, “There, there,” but he was telling me about other people coming at us—
            “Who?” I asked him, reaching for my goatskin waterbag, “Who? Just straighten up, Boy, and get the sand out of your mouth: take a drink, spit it out, there! Now speak, loud and slow, speak directly.”
            “Coming,” he gasped behind the water, “Coming.”
            “Who’s coming?” I said again.
            “Esau,” he said, “Big Uncle Esau. Him, you told us about. With four—“
            “Four men?”
            “Four hundred.”
            Which made me pause, and wonder, and shudder. What was I to do? And my mind, the way it works, it goes automatically to, survival mode—split the wives and livestock; get Eliezer to set aside the better cows and goats and sheep; get him to choose five men to help, with some of the  bigger boys, and clean off the road slop from their hooves—make them presentable-like.
            “We’re sending these off,” I tell Eliezer. I like him: big, bluff, can-do fellow.
            “Who to?” he asks, looking at me, confused, knitting his big, hairy brows.
            “My brother. To Esau.”
            He understands; he’s been with me from the start, has Eliezer. One of Lavan’s Hittite slaves, but I bought his freedom, and he’s my overseer. Good detail man, the kind I like.
            It all goes pretty quickly after that: split up the cattle. Divide the women and the kids: four groups. Concubines in front: Bilhah, Zilpah. Leah and her boys behind, with Dinah—my poor little Dinah! The only filly in the herd. And Rachel, and Joseph. Poor little Joey. He cried a good deal when he saw me staying behind, and stretched out his baby arms. But now, they’re all gone, and Eliezer himself is leading the men who bring the gift to Brother Esau. I shudder to think of my brother: Big Red, from years ago. That sword he wore: it makes my shepherd’s crook look like a toothpick.

            I watch them all go, turned, cross the river—Yabbok, I believe it’s called. I will wait for Esau to arrive. He will come when he comes. Is God here? I cannot feel His Presence. I bend, and pull a bit of swamp grass to chew. I smooth down the earth beneath me, squat down, and sit back against a terebinth-tree, alone. The sun is setting. It feels too quiet, here.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

When Bernard Madoff Came to My College English Composition Class

            I am a college English teacher, one of the thousands of adjunct lecturers, untenured, dedicated, and harassed, who commute from college to university to community college all over this great nation, to make certain that the youth of today are able to write, or at least attempt, a Simple Declarative Sentence, albeit not as well as Hemingway or Raymond Carver.
For thirty years, I was a fulltime pulpit rabbi, leading services, counseling people, teaching Hebrew School, and conducting lifecycle events, but I got tired of the 24/7 on-call nature of the work. The final straw was learning that, in order to avoid being called back to do a funeral (“Because, Rabbi, no one does a funeral like you do, and no one knew Mr. X as well as you”), I had to take my vacations at least two hours away, with the result being that my wife and I ended up relaxing in Providence, RI—not exactly the vacation capital of the world—because MapQuest measured it as being exactly 2 hrs. and 2 min. from our home in New Hampshire. I still rabbi on weekends here in Florida, speaking before a lively, intellectually-stimulating and involved senior congregation, and running two discussion groups, one on Jewish Current Events (I’m preparing for one now, downloading articles from the Web), and the other on Great Jewish Thinkers and Books, following services on Shabbat.
            But I love what I do: my students are mostly South Florida typical: African-American and Hispanic; they are young, most of them frightened and uncertain over what the future may hold, many of them the first in their families to attend college, and nervous about being in an environment of higher learning, after the knockabout, assembly-line education they received, or did not, in the public school system—which is not a snide put-down at my high-school-teaching colleagues: my sister taught high school for decades, and it’s not easy. Teaching is a difficult art, and it’s always easy to blame teachers when society fails our youth.
            Besides teaching my students how to write, I consider it a sacred trust to share with them my ethnicity, my religion. Because I am usually the first and only Jew they are ever likely to meet up close, I want to break down stereotypes.
            “College is not a sausage factory,” I tell them, “We are not stuffing you full of knowledge and launching you out into the world. This is (or ought to be) a community of scholars. You are learning how to write because, one day, you may discover something that will improve or develop your own particular area of study. You will need to know how to express yourselves clearly in English, so that you can write an article describing what you have found.”
            I tell them that I am Jewish. I tell them that I am a rabbi, a Jewish minister, despite not having sidecurls, wearing a big hat, or even covering my head at all times. I am dedicated to the American Ideal that all people in this country are, indeed, equal, and that everyone deserves a shot at a college education. I tell them about my Zayde, my Grandfather Jacob, who came to this country from Poland in 1905, a youth of 18, because he didn’t want to fight the Japanese for the Czar, whom I call the king of Russia. I tell them how their decisions, no matter how minor they might seem at the time, will have untold repercussions for future generations—whom they decide to marry or live with, whether they decide to have children or not—and many of them have children already; some are single parents.
“My father was the only one in his family to go to college,” I say, “and he went on to get his Master’s degree. I only hope the same for you. You can do this thing. I have faith in you. I am here to help you succeed. You must ask me if you have any questions. Do not fade away, back there in the classroom.”
Slowly, these young people lose what I call their “ghetto faces,” the masks of artificial toughness that they have created to survive in their world, and they warm up to this strange, loud, old white man, who gesticulates as he talks, paces around their desks, and tries to make the world of words and books come alive for them. The other day, while discussing an essay of Maya Angelou’s, I mention why she named one of her autobiographies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—she was memorializing the nearly-forgotten master poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), whose life and poetical career were stunted and nearly broken by the intense racism he encountered during his life. I give them extra credit, despite this being a composition course, for our reading his poems “Sympathy” and “We Wear the Mask.” We discuss them; they are what I call “Descriptive Essays in Poetical Form.”
            Bernard Madoff came to my class because English Comp textbooks try mightily to be trendy and, at the time that this particular one was written, Madoff was all over the news—but now, about a year since his downfall and well-deserved incarceration, he has faded into a well-deserved oblivion, though his name is still recognizable. There is an essay about him in the text—not my first choice, but necessary.
            “Who was Bernie Madoff?” I query. They do recognize his name. “He was Jewish,” I press them further. “He was rich. Are all Jews rich?” Two students respond, “Yes.”
            “No,” I reply, soberly, “Not all Jews are rich. That’s a stereotype.” I go on from there, to describe how and why Madoff preferred to approach his own people when looking for suckers—how he even took money from Elie Wiesel’s foundation dedicated to helping Holocaust survivors. I stress that every people has suffered their own form of genocide—the African-Americans going back to Columbus, for the 200-year-long experience of slavery; Irish-Americans, during the Potato Famine of the early 19th Century, which drove thousands of them to America, and, of course, my people’s Jewish Holocaust.
            “Why did Madoff favor cheating people from his own people, his own tribe?” I ask. I explain that people from your own race, ethnic group, color, are more likely to trust you. I tell them how a pyramid scheme works, how it’s named after an Italian-American, Charles Ponzi, and what he did in 1920.
            “If a get-rich-quick idea sounds too good to be true,” I say, “it probably is.”
            These young people are streetwise in their own, limited way, but they are preparing to enter a larger world, where the temptations will be greater and the dangers more subtle. My mission is to show them how to survive in this bigger world: their language and writing must be up for the task. And, more importantly, my job is to break down stereotypes, to teach them to take people as individuals.

            It is an honor, a burden, and a privilege. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Parshat Vayetse: In Lavan's Man-Cave with His Drinking Buddies; or, What Jacob's Father-in-Law Really Thought of Him

Scene: A stucco’d mud house in Paddan-Aram, in the country of the East, where Isaac and Rebecca sent Jacob to live among the people of her brother Lavan, fearing the wrath of Jacob’s brother Esav. Lavan is sitting with his cattleman-cronies before a fire, eating dried dates, salted olives, and drinking Egyptian-style beer. A hookah/nargeelah/water-pipe is making the rounds. As the scented smoke rises and the liquor takes hold, the men tell stories and swap gossip.

Ben-Hadad (a middle-aged neighbor of Lavan’s, and an old friend): So, Lavan, what news of your son-in-law?

Lavan: Jacob? Who tells me, with his nose in the air, ‘I’m not an Aramean, Father Lavan, I’m a Hebrew’? How he puts on his other-godly-airs before me—Pah! I can’t figure him out. From the day we first met, I thought I had his number—beautiful girls and sheep, many flocks of sheep, that was all he wanted. It was fate that sent that wet-behind-the-ears scamp to me—fate, or the workings of Baal, my favorite god, the one who rides the clouds—how Baal plays with my life! Fleece of sheep, young Jacob wants? Hah! I’ll fleece him, yet—pass me a drink, Rafa; this water-pipe sears my throat.

Rafa (a young shepherd; he is Lavan’s foreman and chief gofer): Here you go, Lord Lavan; this Egyptian beer will straighten you out. But, didn’t I see young Jakey running home, tonight? He had that glint in his eye, and was shouting to us about a warm bath, a quick meal, and a night of—something about—mandrakes?

Lavan (sighs): O yes, that will be my poor little Rachel’s mandrakes; poor thing, the gods have closed her womb. (Muses) I must send one of the serving-girls over to her with the Ishtar-goddess-idol, so she can burn some incense before it. That will make her fertile; that will give me grandsons with her eyes and her smile. Ai, my poor Rachel. (Broods briefly, but then smiles) But you take Leah, now—she is a stout, healthy girl; she has been pumping out those babies with regularity; let me see (drinks and counts on his fingers)—Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Judah—yes, a fine tribe; and good, strapping babies, too.

Ben-Hadad: But didn’t I hear that Rachel gave her maidservant to Jacob as a concubine?

Lavan (puffs the hookah thoughtfully): Yes, by Shamash! Let my poor baby girl, my favorite, play midwife to her maid; that Bilhah has wide hips enough to birth an Amorite army, and may Rachel pick up some fertility from her. That is all to the good, friend Hadad; all to the good. Rafa! Why is my glass empty?

Rafa (coming over with the beer-jug): Here again, Lord Lavan; cool yourself (Pours Lavan more beer). You know, I had wanted—had wanted—

Lavan: Spit it out, man! You know me all your life: I am a straight talker, and I stand behind what I say. Am I not an honest man, and known throughout this town as such? (His cronies nod and mumble in agreement; he is paying for the beer, after all)

Rafa: W-well, Lord Lavan, I had thought to ask you for Zilpah’s hand in marriage, since she is a slave, and by Hurrian law her dowry rights belong to you. I would give her a good home, buy her freedom, and make her my wife—my first-class wife, not concubine. I cannot afford but one, on a shepherd’s humble wages. But now, I hear that your Leah has—perhaps—made other plans?

Lavan (Narrowing his lids and eyeing Rafa like a prize chicken, about to be plucked): I cry woe, but yes, Young Rafa; she is spoken for, by Leah, my no-less-loved elder daughter. My poor Leah—with all those husky boys nibbling at her dugs, she needs as much help as she can get, and so I gifted her with Zilpah! Ha! (Rafa sighs and turns away, disappointed; Lavan reaches out and touches his arm) But stay, good Rafa—let me offer you Anat, that Philistine wench whom we purchased two weeks ago from the Midianite caravan—she is a bit thin, ‘tis true, but you can fatten her up on the lambs and goats with which I pay you, and she will bear you many sons. What d’you say?

Rafa (uncomfortable): Let me think on it, Lord Lavan—I have seen Anat, and she is no Leah; that’s certain. Let me think.

Lavan: Do so, but quickly, for Shafat the smith asked me about sweet, juicy Anat just this afternoon, there in the market-place—did he not, Hadad?

Ben-Hadad (willing to be part of the ruse): Yes—uh, yes, indeed, he did! Pass us the water-pipe, old friend, good Lavan.

Just then, the room-curtain parts, and a young maidservant, breaching purdah, protocol, and manners, rushes in:

Girl: Lord Lavan! Jacob and his family have left Charan, and are now halfway to the Yabbok River.

Lavan: What?! That rascal! Rafa—gather my shepherds, and arm them! Ben-Hadad—saddle the camels! I’ll catch that scamp and his cursed brood, or may the rays of Shamash, the sun-god, strike me dead!

(The company, fuddled from the drink and smoke, gathers their weaponry and stumbles out, the best they can, in pursuit of the Lord’s favorite.)