Friday, January 31, 2014

Two Handy Jews: Bezalel, Builder of the Mishkan--God's Sacred Dwelling-Place, and My Uncle Izzy a'h

            While this week’s Torah reading, Terumah, does not mention him by name—indeed, he does not appear until Parshat Vayakhel, three parshiyote/Torah portions farther on—the Torah ascribes the building of the Mishkan, the Sacred Dwelling-Place for God in the Wilderness, to Bezalel ben Uri (lit., “Shadow-of-God son of Light of God”) of the Tribe of Judah, and Oholiav ben Ahisamach (“Tent of My Father son of My Brother will Claim/Lay Hands on”), of the Tribe of Dan. These men, primarily Bezalel, are considered to be artists par excellence, expert in all manner of plastic arts: not only carving and casting metal, but also weaving, carpentry, both rough and fine, architecture, and in organizing groups of people to work on a project—a lot harder than it sounds; ask any Brotherhood or Sisterhood Committee Chairperson. Hey, ask any Temple Board Member why it’s so hard to find someone to serve as Temple President. Any one of today’s synagogues would lay itself down at their feet to have Bitsy or Oho on staff, or even to hire them temporarily as consultants for a renovation project. So skilful was Bezalel, that there is, today, an Art School in Jerusalem named after him. (Poor Oholiav has faded into the mists of undeserved obscurity.)
            Who is Bezalel’s artistic heir? I choose to believe, not in the myriad ranks of Jewish artists, sculptors, or weavers of the past up to the present day—though they certainly deserve a great deal of kavod, honor—but those relatively few members of our tribe who are “handy,” this being a designation relatively few Jewish men or women possess. (I know; we may not know how to do the task, but we all “know a guy” who does—not that we rush to share his name with inquirers.)
            In the case of my family, the designated “handy guy” was Uncle Izzy a’h, who was married to my father’s sister Bea (names changed, due to family politics), the best cook in the family, having inherited her recipes from Bubbie, our Polish grandma—though Bubbie, truth to tell, was more of a thrifty cook than a good one—her particular talent lay in being able to purchase a mere pound of farmer cheese for Shavuote, the Dairy Festival, and, from it, bring forth cheese kreplach, cheese kugel, cheese blintzes, and cheese Danish—not that any of those delicacies tasted in the slightest like cheese. And don’t get me started on her gefilte fish—we knew there had to be fish in there somewhere, since a live carp had been swimming ‘round Bubbie’s bathtub for all of the previous week, prior to her dispatching it to Carp Heaven by means of an Indian club she kept in the closet—and how did an elderly Polish-Jewish lady acquire an Indian club? Don’t ask.
            Returning to Uncle Izzy—he was a dour man, about whom family legend told that he had been a mine detector during World War II, until comrades played a joke on him by removing the batteries from his mine-detecting apparatus. Luckily, he discovered this lack before going out on patrol. His own father had been a builder, from whom Izzy had learned to be “ah shtickle” (Yiddish, "a little bit of a") carpenter, locksmith, and electrician, among other skills. Professionally, he worked in the US Post Office, but family and friends knew that they could call upon him if they needed anything of a construction nature done.
            Having my own, decidedly non-handy father, and living in an apartment dwelling where, if anything mechanical went awry, Dad’s first reaction was, “Call Maintenance!” This became the mantra on which I was raised, so well that, when B and I moved into our first parsonage, and discovered a problem with the bathroom tile, I uttered those same, magical words. The problem was that subsequently, nothing happened: I had left the Maintenance Dept., along with so many other childhood comforts, back in NYC.
            Uncle Izzy’s dour nature taught us all that he required special handling. When B and I moved into our first apartment—a cozy little basement in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, just big enough for newlyweds—we decided that the doorknob-style locks on the two street doors were insufficient. Could Uncle Izzy come by one Sunday afternoon and install big, heavy Segal locks, the legendary burglary preventers? This entailed some family political negotiations.
            “When Izzy is done, B,” said my mother, “Ask him, ‘Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?’ If he says, ‘Yes,’ then give him a sandwich. Any kind of sandwich. Put it down on the kitchen table, with a cup of coffee and a napkin. He will sit down and eat it. Then, he will leave. I’ve already paid him for the Segal locks. That’s it.”
            “OK, Ma,” said B.
            She even rehearsed the line: “Uncle Izzy, are you hungry? Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?” Julie Andrews could not have done better.
            Uncle Izzy showed up, exactly on time, with tool box and heavy, brass-plated Segal locks in hand. He took a measured look around the apartment.
            “Welcome to our house, Uncle Izzy!” I greeted him.
            He looked at me and said nothing, but set immediately to work.
            When he was done, the locks gleamed strongly and efficiently against the wood; they made us feel safer immediately.
            B knew what to do next: “Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?”
            Uncle Izzy looked at her. Just looked.
            Again: “Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?”
            Izzy turned, bent down, gathered his tools, waved briefly, and left. We heard him tramping up the stairs.
            B turned to me, almost in tears: “What did I do wrong?”
            Eventually, the following week, the news trickled back via the family grapevine: Aunt B told my father, who told my mother, who told us.
            “You didn’t do anything wrong. Aunt Bea told us that B should have just made a tuna sandwich and put it on the table, and said, ‘Uncle Izzy, eat!’ That would have solved everything.”
            Tragically, B had learned the wrong line of monologue. It was years later before we found out what else Izzy had said.
            “Those locks are ridiculous,” he had told Aunt Bea. “The locks are great: solid brass Segal. But the doors are plain, hollow-core, as thin as paper. Any burglar who wants to get into that apartment can just kick them in.”
            I imagine that here, he had paused, taken a bite of his sandwich (the one that Aunt Bea had made him: the way he really liked; she did make a wonderful sandwich, Aunt Bea did) and a sip of coffee. Great coffee.
            “No one will rob those kids,” he said, “They’re newlyweds; they don’t have two nickels to rub together. They don’t have anything there a burglar would want.”
            I’d like to believe that Uncle Izzy and Aunt Bea are in heaven, now. Aunt Bea is helping the angels cook all types of wonderfully toothsome dishes for the Righteous who live in Everlasting Splendor. (No one gains weight in heaven, and there’s no cholesterol.)
And Uncle Izzy? He’s standing in front of God’s Throne of Mercy—the Throne God sits on most of the time (I hope), when He’s offering kindness and understanding to this tough, sad old world—not the Throne of Judgment: that’s where the tragic things come from.
            And Uncle Izzy is closing one eye, and squinting at the Throne, and telling God:
            “You know, God, that throne doesn’t look right. If You’d just get up a minute, I could take my saw and a power drill and some screws, and make it level for you.”

            And God is saying, “Izzy, are you hungry?”

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Little Beige Tabby Cat, A Shul in the Jersey Hills, and a Torah Saved from the Storm: Student Rabbi Days

            Our first cat, Hofstra, was our baby. We found her wandering the campus of Hofstra University; hence, the name. She was a half-grown tabby kitten, tan with stripes, and so young that her “meow” was only half-in: she would start off “mee—“ and end with a high-pitched squeak. We took her home to our little apartment—the back of a two-family home in Canarsie, Brooklyn—and she became our furry child. She loved to perch atop the hamper in the foyer: it gave her height, and, from there, she could reconnoiter any place in our little doll house.
            We believed that she was the cleverest and most intuitive of cats; when we got Chinese takeout, we always made her up a portion on a little paper plate, which she would eat slowly and gravely; these were her just deserts, after all. Then, she would lick herself all over, and go to sleep, doubtless to dream of Chinese temples and giant bronze gongs summoning cats to worship.
I used to drive B to her job as a resource-room teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant in those days. One day, driving home, I saw another stray, with a near-resemblance to Hoffy; she was slightly more orange. I took her home, and we named her Milton, after the main topic of my English Literature studies—sort of a “dead white poet guy” joke.
            Milton turned out to be far less sweet-tempered than Hoffy; we ascribed this to her background as a street cat, but the two of them got along wonderfully well. And then, there was the matter of my student pulpit. Those were halcyon days for my budding rabbinate; I was uncertain what sort of Jew I wished to be, far less than the sort of rabbi I was to become, and the beauty and freedom of the Academy for Jewish Religion was that it allowed me room to grow, explore, and flourish, under the kindly and gentle tutelage of its principle mentors, Rabbis Stephen Leon yeebadel ba-chaim, and Robert Aronowitz, Ph.D, z’l. Our classes were small, and student participation was a given: it was more collegial than lecture-based; among the group of us, we had more background than your average group of rabbinical tyros.
            My little shtelle-student pulpit in Warren, NJ, numbered fifty families, tucked away amid the hills—they told me that the area had been a stronghold for the German-American Bund during the years leading up to World War II, and it was sweet revenge for our little group of Jews to conduct services in a converted farmhouse with attached garage. The congregation has grown considerably since then, and my influence must have been considerable; almost immediately after my departure, their affiliation switched abruptly to Reform.
            It was a wonderful experience, nonetheless; I can recall my first Friday Night Service, when three beepers went off (this was the blessedly cellphone-less 1970s) during the service, and three Jewish physicians, all on call, went to debate Who Should Have First Dibs at the Temple Phone. It was also bliss to be able to work out my post-Orthodox ya-yas; I remember offering a Creative Service featuring a Responsive Reading cribbed from a T.S. Eliot poem, my way of forcing that anti-semitic High Modernist to do penance for his anti-semitism.
            I also remember tutoring my b’nai mitzvah under the apple trees in the orchard—the place had been a farm once, after all, and it was a blessedly bucolic setting, a far cry from the city. I always looked forward to my visits there.
            The only challenge I ever faced—working in the NYC Board of Education as a substitute teacher taught me that life gives us, not problems, but “challenges”—that means you’re stuck with it, so you might as well grin and bear it—was when we had an actual simcha—joyful event—to observe, usually a bar/bat mitzvah. Since the farmhouse-garage-temple was too small to host an authentic Jersey-style catered affair, the families usually hired the Rolling Hills Caterers for their service and party, using the bridal chapel for the service. I would take home one of the Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls)—we had two, one of which was an Orphan Torah saved from the Holocaust—it was not, strictly speaking, kosher, lacking some letters due to old age and wear, but I favored it, considering all it had experienced.
            I would wrap the scroll in two tallitote (prayer shawls) and put it into the trunk of my Dodge Dart, nestling it gently so it would roll as little as possible. Once home, our cramped, tiny apartment had little room to spare, and I would place the Torah on the old Danish Modern couch we had salvaged from my parents. Hoffy seemed to sense that there was something special about the scroll, and she would lie down next to it, like a small tan sphinx, a Guard of Honor. She would never touch it or lie on top; God forbid! Herself a goddess—the ancient Egyptians had worshiped cats; their cat-goddess, called either Bastet or Pasht, was the origin of our word, “pussycat,” and I was happy that she could share her godliness with a different sacred object. They did make a pair, the little tan cat and the old, battered scroll, but looked oddly spiritual together. I would like to think that God was pleased.

            

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Parshat Terumah: Electrical Arks, Sphinxlike Cherubim, and Pharaoh's PTSD: Just Another Day with the Israelites & Their God

As long as there have been Jews, it seems, there have been synagogues. We may read about the Holy Temples; we may even pray for their rapid restoration! But our collective tribal memories cannot go back so far as to hear the lowing, baa’ing, or the stifled chirps of the beasts and birds which the busy kohanim/priests spent their time butchering and offering up in smoke to a mysterious tribal God. Since then, the sacrificial period has either ended or been suspended (depending on your belief or politics), and, in Hosea’s words (14:2), “the words of our lips have replaced the lambs and bullocks.” We turn, therefore, with quaint and curious interest, to this week’s Torah portion.
It gives a detailed description—one always longs for a chart, there enshrined in the Torah!—of the very first worship-center Jews ever built, to Divine specifications, before which the Israelites prayed and made offerings to God, and in which Moses received Holy Prophecy, the Ohel Mo’ed, or Tent of Meeting. It was designed to be a portable shrine, easily broken down and transported in covered wagons across the desert wastes, during the forty-year sojourn in the Sinai wilderness.
Among its central features was the Holy Ark, a wooden box lined inside and outside with plated gold (making it a powerful conductor of electricity, thereby accounting for the abrupt death of one unfortunate, Uzzah, who died of electric shock, for the “sin” of simply reaching out a hand and steadying a wobbly Ark, trying to prevent its falling off a wagon, when a team of oxen pulled it into a pothole—II Samuel 6:6-7).
This Ark bore upon its lid a pair of cherubim—not the fat, bewinged babies of Valentine’s Day cards, but brooding, sphinxlike creatures who, in ancient times, were believed to carry human prayers to God on their backs. They faced one another with their eyes downcast, wings outspread, as if to furnish a footstool for the invisible God who was “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalms 99:1).
Seen in this light, the Israelites’ later transgression, that of building a Golden Calf, while not excusable, becomes easier to comprehend. Their sin was not in building the calf: they intended it to be a footstool (or mount, really) for their invisible God. Their transgression resulted from building the wrong kind of footstool: a Babylonian-style calf similar to the bull which the pagan thunder-god Baal rode, not the pair of cherubim which the Israelite God requested: sort of a divine ottoman.
As for the festival celebrating the Golden Calf mentioned in Ex. 32:6, that might be blamed on the erev rav/mixed multitude of petty sorcerers, orgiasts, lunatics, and assorted scapegraces which accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. I suspect that Pharaoh, suffering from the worst kind of God-induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), callously opened his prisons and lunatic asylums in order to rid Egypt of all social undesirables en masse, along with the escaped slaves, once and for all, urging them to join the Israelite Exodus, much as Castro did in sending his ne’er-do-wells to join Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
            Besides the contents of the Ohel Mo’ed/Tent of Meeting described above, there was a fence made up of white linen sheets which divided the sacred precincts from the remainder of the camp, as well as an ordered pattern for how the Israelite tribes were to camp around it. Every Israelite had a clear view of the Mishkan/shrine, and could ponder the place of the Holy in his life—a lesson we Post-Modern Jews ought to follow more often.
As we journey through our lives’ wilderness towards Purim, marked by our blessing the New Month of Adar Rishone/Adar the First this Shabbat—Purim being our happiest holiday,  ironically celebrating (yet another) of our people’s narrow escapes from mass destruction—thereby embodying the ongoing “diceyness” of being Jewish, which I derive from the holiday’s literal name: pur, or the casting of dice—let us ponder the place of Fate, Karma, Serendipity, or Purblind Luck in our lives, along with our Free(?) Will—and God’s. Who wins, who loses? Who will wear the royal crown and robes, to ride the king’s stallion? Who will lose, to twist and dangle from a gallows? The path of our people’s troubled history has never run smooth, but we survive, nay flourish: only God knows how.


In the Midst of Grading Papers, A Thought About God

I am spending a typical Sunday afternoon at home, grading papers. 77 degrees outside, and sunny; the study is full-to-bursting with scattered papers, books, and me.
Two schools down, thusfar: I have finished grading the papers from my Everglades English Comp class, and the hard copy from my Southeastern. The Broward College papers loom: classes began last Thurs., and twenty-five students hand-wrote on the topic, “All About Me.” I will momentarily become acquainted with their ideas about themselves.
During a ten-minute break, I munch an apple and steal a few pages of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (NY: Harper, 2013), a gift from a congregant. It has been slow going for me: my usual technique for reading books is to leave strategic piles around the house—at my bedside, in the bathroom, the study, other places I can steal a few minutes to read. I am fond of saying, “I have no time to read books; I’m too busy reading Books”—that is, Books I must read: Torah, Chumash/Pentateuch, college texts….
 I have just about finished David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (NY: Penguin, 1997), a history of the Harlem Renaissance. It is crucial for me, as a teacher, scholar, and New Yorker, to become acquainted with that bittersweet, magical, faraway time, and how it progressed, until crashing onto the rocks of the Great Depression. As a Jew, I am particularly concerned with the African-American-Jewish connection—Arthur Springarn, who served as pro bono counsel for the NAACP, his brother Joel, who was Board Chairman, and the owner of Sears, Roebuck, Inc., Julius Rosenwald, who had himself known persecution, and became the principal backer of the Negro Urban League. And, of course, there was literary and musical cross-pollination, from songwriters and singers, to writers.
In Dreamers, I am just at the point where the 55th Paratroopers Brigade is penetrating Old Jerusalem and about to liberate the Kotel/Western Wall, which was not even their prime objective. The overall commander of Central Sector, Gen. Uzi Narkiss, had fought with the Palmach during the 1948 Independence War, and witnessed the shameful defeat of Israel’s few, but underequipped and dedicated fighters by the professionally-led and British-equipped Jordanian Arab Legion under General John Glubb. Although the paratroopers’ primary mission was to reach and protect the Israeli garrison on Mt. Scopus, Narkiss told Motta Gur, the 55th’s commander, “Be prepared to take the Old City. I hope you will erase the shame of 1948.”
            As I read of the brave Israeli paratroops using Bangalore torpedoes to blast a hole through the Jordanian barbed wire and minefields, falling before their machine guns, and of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their shelters assisting the wounded—“modest women who never exposed their knees and elbows in public [tearing] their dresses for bandages (p. 76)”—and of one of the soldiers calling to his comrades as the wire and minefields were breached, using the Hebrew words for “breach”—Pirtzah pirtzah pirtzah—I recalled that same word being used in the Friday Night Lecha Dodi song, welcoming the Shabbat Queen:

Rightward and leftward you shall spread out
And the might of your God you shall praise
By the hand of Messiah, son of Peretz, (The one who broke through)
And we shall rejoice and bring gladness (translation mine)

It brought me to tears—that same word, that same verse, being a reference to the Coming of Moshiach, Messiah, and a paraphrase of Isaiah’s Messianic Promise. What sort of God is this? What does God intend for His people? What does God intend for me, and what ought I to be doing?
And all this, in just one afternoon. But now, I must go back to grade more papers….


Friday, January 24, 2014

A Noiseless, Patient Spider: A Lesson About Existence & Survival



            I am a great believer in what I call Whisper Theophany—meaning that God is all around us, and continually sending us Divine Messages: we simply have to be alert to them. Today, walking Mr. Kirbles in the back yard (no, he didn’t do his Business, and we always have to second-guess him; he hasn’t yet evolved that particular method for telling us when he would like to go out), I noticed a smallish, orange-toed spider in the corner of the yard, who had spun a veritable Verrazano Narrows Bridge of a web there, and was waiting, patiently, for his next meal to fly into it.
            “Good morning, Brother Spider,” I greeted him. He said nothing, but swayed slowly back and forth, quietly and confidently hanging onto his home and place of business, remarkably steady on a somewhat windy Florida day, with the sun shining, secure amid his ingeniously planned-and-executed network of guy wires, stays, and buttresses.
            I remembered the legend of Anansi, the African Spider, and how he was the wisest of jungle creatures, able to outsmart the other beasts. Looking at my new neighbor—and who knows for how long?—it was easy to tell why.
            I believe that Anansi’s reputation for cleverness and trickery must have appealed to the African slaves, and how they longed to reverse the power structure which kept them on the bottom. I remember a short tale from the Civil War, when a former-slave-turned-freeman was proudly marching with his comrades into the South, musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, when his regiment passed a line of defeated Confederate soldiers, marching North into captivity. There, amid the prisoners, the African-American saw his former master, looking dejected. He waved gaily to his former master, and greeted him:
            “Hello, Master!” he called, “Bottom rail on top, now!”
            I saw from my research about Anansi that he originated among the Ashantis of West Africa, and spread to the Caribbean, along with various name changes. Here is a fundamental tale of this spider-god-human-survivor which I believe will resonate with any reader who values human freedom and survival:

How Anansi got his stories
There is an Anansi story that explains the phenomenon of how his name became attached to the whole corpus of tales:
Once there were no stories in the world. The Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. Anansi went to Nyame and asked how much they would cost to buy.
Nyame set a high price: Anansi must bring back Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, the Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia the dwarf.
Anansi set about capturing these. First he went to where Python lived and debated out loud whether Python was really longer than the palm branch or not as his wife Aso says. Python overheard and, when Anansi explained the debate, agreed to lie along the palm branch. Because he cannot easily make himself completely straight a true impression of his actual length is difficult to obtain, so Python agreed to be tied to the branch. When he was completely tied, Anansi took him to Nyame.
To catch the leopard, Anansi dug a deep hole in the ground. When the leopard fell in the hole Anansi offered to help him out with his webs. Once the leopard was out of the hole he was bound in Anansi's webs and was carried away.
To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.
To catch the dwarf he made a doll and covered it with sticky gum. He placed the doll under the Odum (Tree of Life) where the dwarfs play and put some yam in a bowl in front of it. When the dwarf came and ate the yam she thanked the doll which of course did not reply. Annoyed at its bad manners she struck it, first with one hand then the other. The hands stuck and Anansi captured her.
Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him by making him the god of all stories.

Aardema, Verna (2000). Ananse does the impossible. Aladdin Paperbacks. ISBN 0-689-83933-2.



Sunday, January 19, 2014

Parshat/Torah Portion Mishpatim: Torah Laws, Past & Present-- Indentured Servants & Women's Right of Choice Vindicated


            The Torah’s author—whether Moses or another—interrupts the narrative of the theophany at Mt. Sinai to introduce a set of seemingly unrelated mitzvote/commandments, fifty-three in all. This reminds us that the Torah is not only the story of our ancestors, and, by extension, ourselves, but also a Book of Laws. As a child, I recall the word “Torah” being translated as “Law”—something lofty and ponderous, but also fundamental to our right to call ourselves Jews; that is, a set of responsibilities, several of which made no sense to me. Today, the favored translation is “Teaching,” a softer, vaguer word, implying a sense of choice. Indeed, we Jews make choices about how we practice our faith every moment of our lives, deciding what mitzvote we will practice, or not. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters (who are, themselves, hardly monolithic or in agreement about which mitzvote they practice, and to what extent) have a saying: “There are two kinds of Jews in the world. Those who are religious, and those who are not, yet.”
            Where can we find God in this parsha/Torah portion? It contains a plethora of mitzvote and folkways, beginning with the laws of the Hebrew indentured servant. This refers to a poor soul (literally) whom the courts sell into slavery as a means of paying off his debts. (Imagine how the credit card companies would utilize this penalty, were it still in effect!) He is to serve his Hebrew master for no more than seven years; during that period, should he marry a maidservant of the master’s and have children by her, both his wife and children remain in servitude to the master when the servant departs at the end of his term. Should he elect to remain with his family, choosing to be a slave in perpetuity (a Hobson’s Choice, for sure), his master is to take him to a doorpost, and there pierce his ear with an awl—that same ear which, symbolically, failed to hear God’s message at Mt. Sinai, “Be servants to Me alone, and not to one another.” That sounds to me like an unwinnable proposition, no matter how you view it, and I wonder how many American rabbis preaching in the antebellum South used it as a gloss to “prove” that God approved of African slavery.

            Perhaps the most striking law in this compilation is that of the two men who, in the midst of fighting, inadvertently hit a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry (Ex. 21:22). Because of a mistake in translating one of the words when the Hebrew text was translated from Greek (Septuagint, 132 BCE) to Latin (St. Jerome’s Vulgate, 405 CE), the meaning was changed (Goldman, 1978, p. 40). In Jewish law, abortion is not considered murder, and the mother’s physical and mental health take precedence. This puts the lie to the right-to-lifers’ insistence on human life’s beginning at the moment of conception. It does not mean that we Jews do not take the fetus’s right to exist lightly, but the mother’s health overrides that of the infant. Why should women not have the right to decide about their bodies, and their lives? We see, therefore, that parts of this Torah portion continue to resonate for us Americans, even today.

Goldman, Alex J. Judaism Confronts Contemporary Issues. NY: Shengold, 1978.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

At Sinai with Moses's Family: A Few Words from the People Left Standing at the Foot of the Mountain



Jethro: I remember when I first saw him, standing in the courtyard in front of our house in Midian—a tall, dark, bearded stranger, filthy and mud-spattered from the road, thorn-brambles in his feet—clearly a man who did not know how to find his way through a desert, and Who knows how he got clear past the Egyptian border guards without being arrested as a fugitive from Pharaoh’s justice, or worse. Bit of a snob about him, too—born to the purple, I would say, but still, enough of the common touch to make a man like him, once you got to talking with him. Still, there was always that far-off look in his eyes—as though he couldn’t be staying long; he had somewhere to go, Someone he was taking instructions from. I knew we were just a way-station on his journey, and was not surprised, the day he took my Tsipporah, my favorite, darling girl, and went his way….

Tsipporah: What drew me to him? He was certainly gentler, and far more educated, than the run of shepherds and country louts I knew from the village well, and even from the little school that my father, High-Priest Jethro, tried to run in Midian—those thickheaded know-it-alls who made fun of Papa when he would ask, “But where did the Sun come from? And do we all, indeed, ride the back of a Great Turtle set deep in the mud? Perhaps there is an Invisible Spirit that rules us all, that wants us to love, and for the different tribes not to fight with one another….” And when Moses, this Man with No Tribe, came along, suddenly, out of the desert, I was drawn to him. We would talk, and he would speak about his people, and how it hurt his heart to see them slaves. I wanted to help him. We married; we had our two boys, whom I love so much. But then, one day, he said, “Tsipporah! I must go.” And he was gone. It’s so, so hard to bear (she begins to weep).

Miriam: I always loved Moses, my baby brother—from the time he was just a tiny mite, looking up from the cradle—he never slept so much as Aaron did, when he was a baby; when Mama Yocheved would say to me, ‘Miri, watch our Baby Moshey,’ I was happy to stop whatever I was doing and go to play with him—he never slept! There he would be, eyes wide open, as though he were waiting for something to happen and didn’t want to miss a thing. I taught him all I knew, about the God, the One-Who-Is, Who stands—behind the brook, behind the trees, behind the sun, even. I taught him all I knew. And now, he tells me, ‘Miriam, I must climb that mountain—that one, there.’ He pointed, and, before I could ask, ‘But who will watch the people?’ He was gone.


Aaron: Ai, Moses—what have you given me to do? I was happy to be your spokesman, even to carry out the first few plagues—what was an Egyptian sorcerer before the might and power of our El-Shaddai? And how He beat back the stubbornness of Pharaoh, that long-tall-Ramesses the Second, himself, of the long nose and enormous pride, even to killing his son (voice drops to a whisper) though I never approved of that last plague, even though it was the one that finally freed us—what sort of God needs a human sacrifice? I cannot fathom it—but now, my brother is gone, and the people are pushing me to build them a god—or a place for our Invisible God to sit. I do not know what to do; I cannot bear the people not liking me; me, Aaron, the peacemaker! Will they threaten my life? I am afraid—I know; I’ll ask the women for their gold and jewels—they will never hand it over, not if I know women….

The Cars & Mechanics of My Life, Part I--How A Misdirected Romance Inspired an English Major to Purchase a 1971 VW Super Beetle Which Was, Decidedly, Not



            I am sitting in the showroom of the local Nissan dealer. My Nissan Maxima, the grey chariot which carries me from college to temple to college to home, is ill—its catalytic converter, an esoteric part which has something vaguely to do with a concept known as Emissions Control, needs a new Intake Valve, or something. I am a Jewish Male, and, like most Jewish Males, am not Mechanically Inclined; I live in Books. I have not the faintest idea how these contrivances of metal, plastic, rubber and fiberglass interact to ferry me from place to place, but, when I get into my car, turn the key, and the car starts up, I always thank Vulcan, Hephaestius, Talos, the Nibelungs, or whoever is responsible. On those rare occasions that I burrow beneath the hood, only to add windshield washer fluid (known universally to my people as “shpritz”), I stop to admire and silently bless the dark, sturdy-looking metal blocks and heavy wires that propel me from place to place.
Recently, one of them decided to cease working properly, causing a small light to flare up on my dashboard: SERVICE ENGINE SOON, it read, an oddly-worded warning suggesting that I ought to bring my car a valentine, or some other keepsake; a vehicular nosegay, perhaps; only don’t hurry, my car is patient, and will doubtless understand if there is a delay.
            Only in this case, little did I know that the nosegay would cost almost four hundred dollars, with the 10% discount I was able to wheedle out of the Nissan Technician, an earnest-looking young man in official NISSAN shirt and Dickies chinos, the photo of whose baby daughter and young wife before their living room Christmas Tree I complimented, despite mistaking the baby girl for a boy (the head was smaller than I first thought, now that I realize).  Worse: in hopes of saving money by not visiting the dealer, I took the car to a generic mechanic yesterday, whose obviously subpar IDENTIFIX machine mistakenly diagnosed my Maxima (a pretentious name, indeed, but I have been happy with the car, overall) as needing a new gas cap, for which he charged me a paltry $20. For that, a lube-oil-filter and some new belts (the old ones were emitting a sad, shrieking noise each morning), Mr. Generic charged me $200, and I believed I was getting off easy.
            No such thing: yesterday morning, en route to my morning College English class via the Florida Turnpike, the SERVICE SOON light lit up again; the gentle warning had returned, but the Nibelungs were becoming urgent. A phone call to the generic mechanic informed me that my $200 had been spent in vain; my car required the attention of a Nissan specialist, which sent me to the dealer; only dealers, it seems, have the Nissan-sensitive-machinery to plug into my Old Grey and figure out what is ailing—Him? It? I hesitate to personify my cars; more about that, below.
            Generic told me that he had done what he could; when I protested the $200 outlay, he offered to take back the gas cap—a paltry $20 saving—but it was clear that he and I had reached the End of Our Particular Vehicular Road. I am presently sitting in the Nissan Auto Showroom, surrounded by gleaming hunks of Shiny-New Japanese Rolling Steel, as if to mock my automotive dilemma. Four Hundred Dollars! How many college classes, how many rabbinical services must I conduct, to pay for this strange, small bit of plastic-and-metal esoterica which a faceless mechanic, back there in the bowels of Nissan Technicians’ Central, will insert into Old Grey? I wonder, and go back to grading my papers: it’s time to earn more money. Inhaling deeply that finest of American Male perfumes, the Scent of New Auto, I muse, and remember:
            I have had a car since the age of 23—late for most red-blooded American Men, but about average for city-dwellers, and then, mostly due to the Sad, Thin Librarian I was dating at the time. She lived in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, New York City; I, as many of my readers know, on the Lower East Side. I was aching—desperate, really—for feminine companionship; my male hormones were peaking; I was attending both rabbinical and graduate school, so my brain matter was fully engaged, but there are parts of a young, 20-something male which must be kept occupied in a wholesome fashion, or they will lead him astray.
            I cannot recall how we met, but her being a librarian meant that we could speak on a certain cultural level, a degree of snobbishness, really. She dwelt among the untrodden ways in Kew Gardens Hills, which meant that I, her carless swain, had to take the “F” train to the last stop, and then board the Jewel Avenue Bus. It was a long, dull ride, even for a young man armed with a paperback copy of The Sonnets of Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or The Anchor Bible.
            Her apartment was in the basement of a two-family house; it was no Vale of Arcadia for a Passionate Shepherd and his Lass. Our Lover’s Nook had all the charm of a boiler factory. Suspended from the ceiling, steam- and water-pipes coursed and criss-crossed over our heads. A pair of timeworn, dented laundry machines stood in the corner opposite; both front-loaders, their door-windows stared at us like accusing eyes. Her sad little cot stood against the wall, a glum-looking, red-and-white little Valentine’s Day teddy bear propped against the worn pillow—she never told me who had given it to her; perhaps she had bought it herself, for company—and there were two high transom windows in the wall above the bed, through which we could watch the sullen and apathetic feet of passers-by, tramping through the muddy piles of late-fallen Queens snow, who had no idea of us, subterranean lover-wannabes, hunched there in the cavelike darkness below.
            I would sweep my Librarian off to Midtown Manhattan, to Greenwich Village; I was able to get Student Rush Tickets to Off-Off-Off-Broadway Plays—detestable, indecipherable drivel by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, but mostly Unknowns—but all of our encounters ended in that Sad Little Basement Apartment, on that tragic, tiny bed, where I attempted desperately to embrace her, and more. I was majoring in 17th Century Literature, grappling with the ghosts of John Donne, that Passionate Lover, and John Milton, who wrote love-poetry to the Holy Ghost and mocked at Parliament and the English Church. One of my two minors was the Romantic Poets; I drank deeply at the same font as Byron, Shelley, and Keats. In my poetry-addled brain, this girl—call her Sharon—had become La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and I, the knight-at-arms lost in her thrall, pathetic though it was.
            Sweating there from the heat of the overhead pipes, I hugged her, in vain, as hormones raced turgidly through my poet’s veins.
            “Just hold me,” she would moan, and push me away. Things were not going well.
            The situation was desperate. Clammy and twisted both within and without, I lightly kissed her cheek farewell—all the while thinking dark and tangled thoughts of mayhem and platonic assault—and stumbled out of her humid underground grotto, to breathe the foggy air of Kew Gardens Hills.
As I stumbled towards the bus stop, a bit of doggerel poked through my English-Literature-belabored brain:
                                               
I am His Highness’s Dog at Kew;
                                                Pray tell me, Sir,
                                                Whose Dog are You?

I was Sharon’s Dog, indeed; I was trapped at her beck and call, only she was neither beckoning nor calling, damn it! I thought.
Thick-legged baleboostehs, Jewish housewives swathed in babushkahs and shaitels (Orthodox wigs) glanced at me suspiciously and moved away; I veered like a drunken man, so full was I of unreleaseable passion. I made my way to the bus, panting, and swung aboard like a demented Pony-Express Rider switching mounts. The driver moved back away from me, suspiciously, as I poured my quarters into the farebox. They jangled hollowly, mockingly.
            Homeward bound on the F train, breathing that foetid underground smell of electrical sparks mixt with pee, I came to a resolution. Two rival driving schools were running TV campaigns: the US Auto Club and the Automobile Club of America. In the series run by the latter, a moaning, desperate pitchman, unable to pry the car keys away from his new-driver wife, looked heavenward towards God, the Ultimate Driver, and wailed, “Automobile Club of America—did you have to be THAT GOOD?”
            Accordingly, once home, I sat down and promptly phoned—the wrong driving school, the rival US Auto Club—our family has never been good at following directions. In this, I take after my mother a’h, who, when we presented her with a gift parakeet, intended to name her after a president’s wife, the redoubtable Dolley Madison.
When I came home the next day, the bird, a blue-green-yellow chatterbox who make short work of cuttlebones and was fanatically anti-social, pecked at my finger when I tried to wave “hello” through the cage bars.
“What’s the bird’s name, Mom?”
“Oh, you know, that President’s wife’s name—Abigail Adams.”
Which is why, intending to call the Automobile Club of America, I called the US Auto Club. It is a genetic failing; when all else in society breaks down, blame one’s parents; Sigmund Freud would applaud.
            Oh, and I broke up with Sharon, the Grieving Librarian. I was but flesh and bone, and could bear no more basement gropings.
            At my first driving lesson, entering the Dodge Dart, my car instructor told me, “My name is Mr. Smith (It really was.). I am a college graduate, and I will be teaching you to drive.”
            This seemed obvious, on the face of it, and I would have been surprised, indeed, if he had offered to teach me to whip up a souffle in the front seat of the car. I did fight down the urge to tell him that I had two Bachelor’s Degrees (one English, One Bible and Jewish Education) and a Master’s in English. He held the keys to the Automotive Kingdom, and I was not about to tick him off at our first meeting. I noted with reassurance that he kept both feet planted firmly on his brake pedal; I would not trust me, either.
            As we cruised amid the highways and streets of Manhattan, Mr. Smith proved to be a patient and thorough teacher. I learned to look over the traffic ahead of me, to assume the worst, be ready for sudden changes, and Leave Myself an Escape Route. When panel trucks and tractor-trailers loomed ahead on the highway, he said, “We refer to these, affectionately, as ‘billboards,’” I understood his point, but failed to share his affection. These monstrous objects served only to obscure what I needed to see; I would yield to them, and try not to get too close.
            In the end, my investment in driving did pay off. Mr. Smith got me my license—at the relatively advanced age of 23. I had lost a girlfriend—no great loss, there—and gained a sense of mobility.
            What remained was to get a Set of Wheels. Having no idea whatsoever about how to acquire them, I made a common Young Man’s Error: I purchased a car from a friend—in this case, Aaron Dursh, whom I had known since we were in Yeshiva High School together. We were not particularly close; he had a habit of coming into my college dorm room and bragging to me where he had found a parking spot, but mostly to mooch a cup of coffee; I was one of those rare individuals who had his own electric percolator in those days. Remember percolators?
            Aaron did have, and wished to sell, a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle. I knew nothing about the car, or any other; all I knew was that VWs had a reputation for lasting forever. What was super about this car I had no idea, but soon discovered that it had a shift lever, but no clutch pedal, which was fine with me; I had learned to drive Automatic.
            What I did not know was that the transmission of a Super Beetle was a delicate as a fine Swiss watch, and that the car’s second owner—Aaron, of course—had driven it like a Indianapolis race car driver, keeping his hand on the shift lever at all times, which the instructions for the car expressly stated Not to Do. I was naively unaware of this fact. All I knew was that he was asking a mere one thousand dollars for the car, that I had that much money in one of my hard-earned bank accounts, and that I wanted wheels, as quickly as possible.
            Phone calls to both my brother-in-law and my father gained me nothing in terms of support, and I was determined to express my personal independence and maturity in getting a car. In two seconds, Aaron had his check, and I had my car keys.
            “I have a good feeling about this car,” I told Aaron.
            He smiled. This was, ought to have been, a warning. It wasn’t that Aaron was trying to cheat me. He honestly did not know that the Super Beetle was a Super Lemon: that was for me to find out. Benjamin Franklin warns us, “Experience keeps a harsh school, but a Fool will learn in no other.” I should have listened to him.
            I ought to have been warned when, shortly after picking up the Beetle and following Aaron in his new car, the beast stalled out and refused to re-start in a busy intersection. I blew the horn as loudly as I could, which wasn’t very, until Aaron pulled around and came to assist me. The shift was not in neutral, a problem which would return to bedevil me in the six months I would go on to own the Beetle.
            A young man’s first car is an experience unmatched by any other in his life. This pile of metal, plastic, leather and wires is no mere machine. He may personify it with a loving nickname; he may adorn it with all sorts of gewgaws. I did neither of these things, although, in the months that were to follow, I was to call the car “that damned piece of sh*t” on, perhaps, more than one occasion. I loved that car; I cherished it; I simonized it to a fare-thee-well, and, in return, it gave me nothing but aggravation.
            The first problem I faced was where to park the car in the neighborhood. The Co-op Buildings where I lived had parking lots, it was true, but, having been built in the 1950s, an era of car scarcity, there were hardly enough spots for the larger number of motorists who lived there by the 1970s, and there was a long waiting list. I would come home at all hours of the day or night, and inevitably end up cruising up and down the long neighborhood streets, parking wherever I could find a spot.
            One night, tired and worn-out, I made the mistake of parking in a particularly dark corner of the City Projects that adjoined our development. I assumed that no one would be particularly interested in stealing my little car. Unfortunately, I had made the mistake of making it attractive; I loved it so, and had polished its bright, fire-engine-red chassis until it gleamed.
            Approaching the car the next morning, I was taken aback to see the windows rolled partway down, as if someone had been driving it. When I got in, I was further nonplused to see that the ignition lock cylinder had been jimmied out; someone had tried to hot-wire my car. What had saved my trunk from being broken into was a bit of Aaron’s advice: I had gone to Modells-Davega and bought a $5 bike lock, which I wrapped around the trunk handle and the front bumper, preventing anyone from opening the trunk—which was, if my readers recall, in the front of the car. It was the best $5 I ever spent.
            As for the thieves being unable to steal the car—luckily, Aaron had installed an ignition cut-off switch, which was mounted on the passenger seat just behind the driver, and, in the dark, they had been unable to find it. Still, I had a dilemma: I could not drive my own car. AAA towed me, but I had to pay for a new lock cylinder and keys. The car was rapidly becoming my bottomless Money Pit—and my limited student’s funds, built up by piddling jobs going back to my junior-high-school days, were sorely taxed.
            It was the clutchless shift and Aaron’s heavy-handed driving that led to the Beetle’s downfall. I used to believe, and still do, that the car “always wanted to die in the country, because whenever I drove it out of the five boroughs, it would break down.” This was not entirely true; there was one memorable occasion when I was teaching English at Queensborough Community College, and the car would not start. It was, obviously, the automatic shift lever, again, but I had no way at the time of knowing this.
            I called AAA, which, in accordance with the rules of those days, towed the car to the nearest mechanic nearby. He, knowing that he would never see me again, proceeded to run up an estimate running into the hundreds, from tuneup to new gaskets, drivebelts, and other esoterica. In desperation, I turned to my father—no driver, but he could tell a rook job when he heard of one.
            “Do you have a local mechanic that you trust?” he asked me.
I nodded.
“I will pay for AAA to tow your car from Queens to your own mechanic,” my father said.
“I would rather pay the tow than have that goniff (thief) in Queens take advantage of you.”
The car was towed into the city, and it arrived at Houston St., where Pedro, my—Portuguese? Brazilian?—mechanic, took charge of it. His “boys” swarmed all over it—they were all family, a strange, mustachio’ed, long-haired assortment of cousins, brothers, nephews, and uncles—and fixed it, to the tune of a mere $18. Without going into a rabbinic explanation of the numerological significance of that price, I wrote Pedro a check.
“What was wrong with the car, Pedro?” I asked, desperate to know why there was such a great disparity between his price and that of the Queens goniff.
Pedro looked up from his counter. I can see him there, today, amid FIRESTONE posters, girlie calendars showing pneumatic blondes draped over GOODYEAR tires, and piles of greasy, indescribable metal incunabulae piled in the corner. He opened his great brown eyes and peered at me, from beneath his mass of long, black hair, and above the handlebar mustache that concealed most of his mouth and lower jaw. Behind him, in the Work Area (BEWARE! Insurance Regulations forbid customers coming beyond this point!) I could see the boys swarming over yet another car, working their automotive legerdemain. In my mind, they were Portuguese Nibelungs, storing up treasure in a manner known only to them; they were Keepers of the Golden Hoard…. I took a deep, oil- and gasoline-scented breath, and waited for Pedro to pass along to me, a Mere, non-Automotive Mortal, the Ineffable Wisdom:
“Was broken,” he said, in his deep, slow voice, “We feex.”
I took the keys he proffered me, stepped out into the sunlight, and entered my Super Beetle. Turning the key, it answered, with its high, Germanic whine. We drove away, into the sunset.
What spelled The End for my Beetle was, sadly, Nana’s Fall. My Nana was not, in Dylan Thomas’s famous phrase, “going gently into that good night”; no, she was, instead, staying up late, watching TV, and stuffing herself with her favorite delicacies—matzo with butter and salt, and navel oranges. Her balance was shot—some Grandmother’s Gyroscope had gone out of balance—and she was falling, heavily, onto the floor of her apartment. My mother, a member of the Co-op House Committee, had been able to arrange moving Nana from her longtime eyrie on the 17th floor to our own, the 7th, where Mom could keep an eye on her errant, obese mother, but the strain of eldercare was beginning to tell. I remember her 17th-floor apartment: she had a balcony: the view of the courtyard and the East River beyond, with sightings of the bridges and parts of Brooklyn, never failed to take one’s breath away….
Finally, Nana’s brittle bones gave way: she broke a hip, and her health insurance plan placed her into a rehab facility ‘way out on Long Island, accessible only by car—and and I was the only driver in the immediate family; I, who had, ironically, purchased the Beetle, against parental wishes, using my own money.
“You will drive us out to the Rehab this Sunday,” my mother told me, in no uncertain terms. This did not bother me, though the only family member I had carried, up to that point, had been my sister Patti, who expressed a certain sense of awe, or perhaps fear, when we sat in traffic, my baby niece Jill strapped into the rear seat of the Beetle, with Patti noting how close we were able to approach the cars in front—the Beetle’s decided lack-of-hood gave that impression; one felt as if one could reach through the flat glass of the windshield and caress the trunk of our traffic neighbors.
There was no choice: that Sunday, the three of us—Mom, Dad, and I—embarked. My old friend Sam told me later how he saw us, that morning, jouncing and bouncing down Grand St. in the red Beetle, myself at the wheel, my father clinging to a forward strap, and my mother clinging for dear life to the rear seat. I must state that the rear seat of a Beetle was a universal joke—it was roomy and comfortable, only if one had no legs below the knees. We hit the Long Island Expressway, and made it out to Peninsula Rehab in due time—the “semi-automatic shift lever” that was the pride, joy, selling point, and chief bane of my existence could only be engaged if one were driving over 50 mph, and the Beetle, with its high profile, could reach that exalted speed only if it caught a strong tailwind.
The visit to Nana went well; she was on her way to recovering, but entered a nursing home soon after—sad, but necessary. Homeward bound, as if by Act of God, we somehow managed to get a flat tire. My poor parents, never having been in this sort of automotive dilemma, stood forlornly on the shoulder of the road, while I set about changing the tire. It was no difficulty: I had already rotated the tires of the Beetle single-handedly; its wheels were only slightly larger than bicycle tires. It was mid-Autumn, and a stiff wind was blowing from Long Island Sound; my mother, unfortunately, was turning blue with cold and panic. To calm her, I gave her Something to Do—I handed her a hubcap with the lug nuts in it; this would serve both to concentrate her attention and weigh her down. My father stood, wrapt in his hat and overcoat, hands thrust down in his pockets, in deep thought.
At one point, a police car cruised by, slowly; my mother began waving, in the manner of a demented mariner lost at sea, who spies a far-off sail. The police slackened not at all, did not even wave, but continued on their way.
“Why didn’t they stop?” my mother asked me, almost tearfully.
“It’s New York, Ma,” I told her, “they would only stop, maybe, if one of us were lying bleeding on the ground.”
In no time at all—at least, it seemed to me—we were on our way, bouncing back to Manhattan. My parents sat in silence, warming up after their open-air LI Expressway experience. I played the radio, which got only AM stations, and tuned in to the NewsRadio station to cheer my father’s mood.
The next evening, I looked up from my reading to see Dad in my doorway.
“Sit down, Dad?” I asked, turning away from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which never failed to brighten my mood; we seemed to have much in common, gloomy old Burton and I.
“Your mother and I have decided,” said my father, “to buy you a car.”
Realizing that this was less an act of generosity on their part than an admission that I was soon to be promoted to Family Chauffeur, I allowed myself a smile, as a feeling of happiness and gratitude began to arise in my bosom. Volkswagen had recently come out with the VW Rabbit, and I had seen a brochure featuring a lovely example, in a sort of sky-blue, with white upholstery.
“Can I get a VW Rabbit?” I asked, hopefully.
Dad gave me a baleful glance.
“You will get a Dodge Dart,” he intoned, “Your sister has a Dodge Dart, your uncle has a Dodge Dart, your cousin has a Dodge Dart. You will get a Dodge Dart.”
About a week later, Dad and I drove out to New Jersey, and sold the Super Beetle. The salesman took Dad and me out on the highway, floored the gas of the Beetle, got poor, abused old car to as fast a speed as it would go, and took his hands off the wheel. The Beetle veered alarmingly back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until the man grabbed it at the last minute.
“$400,” said the man.
“Done and done,” I said.
“You should have held out for more,” said my father, later; he had sat in the back seat—how he got himself in and out of there, I will never know.

But the Beetle passed out of our lives, and I was not sorry. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Bar Mitzvah Memories: Crossing the Sea of Reeds in a Blue Sharkskin Suit with Moses, Rabbi N, & My Family, While Holding Schnapps in a Wax-Paper Cup


            One of the best things Rabbi N, my childhood rabbi, ever did in my life was assign me the Bar Mitzvah Torah portion of Parshat Beshallach, with its famous Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea of Reeds which Moses sings after Pharaoh’s defeat by water, featuring a special trope (Yiddish, “trup”) I was required to learn. My parents hired as my tutor the Baal Koray/Torah Reader’s son, a Progressive-Orthodox (Yes, there was such a thing in the mid-1960s) sort named Irwin, to tutor me. He was a fine young man, combining a strong knowledge of Torah music and Yiddishkeit from his father, as well as the ability to play guitar—something unheard-of in our insular neighborhood of the Lower East Side, despite living in New York City, with its plethora of cultures. This was the era of Peter, Paul, and Mary, when we sang “Kumbaya,” “Four Strong Winds,” and “If I Had a Hammer” on the Educational Alliance Day Camp bus, zooming off to Staten Island every summer morning, but we had no idea we were singing anything leftist—it was just good music.
            Irwin was patient and thorough—I will never forget the time he had to miss a lesson, but made up for it by standing on the “F” train subway platform and singing to me on a pay phone, with the trains roaring back-and-forth in the background.
His only small omission was in sending me off to Orthodox summer camp the season before my Big Day, giving me strict instructions to learn to chant the Song of the Sea itself, and come back in the fall with it firmly implanted in my head. On the face of it, this was a small request: all Jewish camps in those days featured a “Jewish Culture Hour” during which a zealous counselor would meet with a group of kids, to study Torah, Perek/Ethics of the Fathers, or another Jewish topic. (Camp remains the Jewel in the Crown of American Judaism—kids learn about being Jewish, only they’re having fun, so it’s painless—try it with your children or grandchildren: it works.)
            The problem was that we pre-bar-mitzvah boys were considered mature enough (yeah, right) to be left as an independent, counselor-less group, and could be trusted (right again) to work by ourselves. Instead, we shot the breeze for an hour every day, our Torah and Haftorah books remained firmly shut, and we accomplished nothing related to bar mitzvah that summer.
            When I returned home in the fall, Irwin called me, in a panic.
            “Did you learn the Shirat HaYam?” he asked.
            “Uh, no, Irwin—I’m sorry, but I—“ I was faltering in my excuse-making; I was never a good liar, which is certainly a good character trait for a rabbi.
            “Thank God!” he laughed, “I forgot to teach you the special music for singing it.”
            That was the only time in my life that not studying something actually paid off.
            I had a black suit that I wore regularly to shul, but needed something more impressive for my Big Day. My parents took me to Howard Clothes on Delancey St., just around the corner from the legendary Orchard St. Ironically, though we lived a short walk from Orchard, we rarely shopped there. My mother preferred to go uptown, to Macy’s and Gimbel’s.
            It was the heyday of polyester (a Greek word meaning “many Esthers”), and the salesman put me into a light-blue sharkskin suit. With its padded shoulders, I resembled a small Mafiosi. Seeing myself in the mirror, I pointed an imaginary .38 special at my image, and practiced saying, “Awright, Louie, drop da gun.”
The salesman had no sense of humor, and the suit passed my mother’s inspection, so the salesman led me before the three-directional mirror and directed me to stand on “The Box,” so that the store tailor, a thin, chain-smoking, long-fingered man in a vest stuck full of needles and thread, could take my measurements and shorten the pants.
            “Could you take it in, a little, here--?” my mother ventured, but the tailor rolled his eyes and bellowed,
            “He needs it, HERE!” smacking me on the posterior. Big backsides have always been the trademark of us Polish Jews; I believe that we used them to store fat during the long, East European winters, much as camels do. They were also useful when anti-semites pushed us over; we could just bounce back to our feet, like Weebles.
            In the end, wearing my sharkskin suit, white tab collar shirt, and narrow, dark blue-and-black-stripe tie, I looked like a cross between a small gangster and Rod Serling’s younger brother, but without the eyebrows.
            On my Big Day, Jan. 16, 1965, it snowed, but that did not deter us Orthodox, who were used to walking to shul in all sorts of weather. My aunt, uncle, and two cousins from Far Rockaway drove in, but parked around the corner, so everyone assumed that they had walked, as well; superhuman feats by Jews are taken as routine.
            It was the heyday of James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the Cold War was very much a reality. Nikita Khrushchev had only recently visited the United Nations, where he and Ambassador Kosygin entertained the General Assembly by taking off their shoes and banging them on their desks, so Russian Chic was very much in fashion. My winter hat was a flat, black, furry affair that I wore rakishly tilted to one side. My coat was a dark-grey herringbone affair with a fake-fur collar that matched the hat. Together, I looked like a character from a John Le Carre juvenile novel. We slogged off to shul in the snow, as if to a prisoner exchange between East and West Berlin.
The shul was packed, hot, and humid. Orthodox b’nai mitzvah get to face the Holy Ark, not the congregation, and so have no one to make them nervous. I read prayers, chanted Torah, and made my speech, shook hands like a politician running for office, heard dozens of wellwishers saying “Mazel Tov!” and was gifted with some hefty books: some good, some dull.
At the Kiddush following the service, in the Social Hall beneath the “Big Shul”—I did not learn it was called the Main Sanctuary until years later, in other synagogues—the old men (though they were, probably, in their forties and fifties) urged me to chug about an inch of Canadian Club or Four Feathers, after crunching a “kichel,” sort of a Jewish hardtack made without sugar, whose only purpose was to absorb the schnapps/whiskey. They pounded the table and sang zemiros/tunes without words; after a few more drinks drunk from wax-paper cups, they sang with more abandon.
Then, Rabbi N, who had had a few manly drinks himself, got up and made a longish d’var Torah in Yiddish, the greater part of which I missed, but caught some allusions to my Torah portion, as well as praise given to my parents and me. I could not catch any connection between my family and the Splitting of the Red Sea, but, in my whiskey-addled thirteen-year-old mind, somehow imagined the four of us, my sister Pearl included, standing on the brink of the Sea of Reeds, waving our wax-paper cups (my Mom and Pearl’s held Sabra, the more-sophisticated Israeli liqueur), and cheering while Moses, waving his shepherd’s staff, went mano a mano with a Pharaoh exhausted from a surfeit of plagues. Then, the triumphant Israelites processed into a brilliant sunset, worthy of Cecil B. DeMille’s Special Effects Dept., circa 1956….
We had lunch following the service, but played no music—my father was still in the Year of Mourning for Bubbie, a’h. My party was certainly nothing like the bacchanaliae that occur today: I mostly remember running up and down the stairs after my friends. I also got a Roget’s Thesaurus—two copies, in fact, one of which I gave away—a Book of American Humor, and a tape recorder, which I adored. Oh, and Rabbi N gave me a spice box, which I still have.
            Most importantly, I kept going to shul—mostly because Dad required it. Every Shabbos morning (there was no Shabbat then), he would tenderly (brusquely, really) shake me awake, with a “David! It’s 9 am. I’m going to shul now. Don’t get there any later than 9:30!” And I knew, when I breezed in at a leisurely Gentleman’s Hour of 9:30, that Rabbi N would scowl at me and tap his watch. Ah, memories….

Nonetheless, during my years in that shul, I learned the davening in the best way possible—by hearing it read and sung—and, every year, when my piece of the Torah rolled around, I did the Torah laining/chanting. That is, you see, the most important aspect of bar/t mitzvah: earning and keeping Your Own Piece of the Torah. Bar/t Mitzvah isn’t an inoculation; it doesn’t protect you from assimilation. It’s an introduction to the beauty of this Glorious Adventure we call Judaism—too precious a possession to be left only to Rabbis, Cantors, and Education Directors. It belongs, not only to our children, but to every Jew. Come to shul and see!

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Camel-Driver's Story; or, Parshat/Torah Portion Bo from Another Point of View


            Ishbaal had tied hobbles around the two left legs of the camels, and he and Raam, that quiet young fellow we picked up in—Dotan? Beer-sheva?—had collected enough of their dung to build a smelly, but respectable fire—enough to keep the jackals at bay, and to roast what we had left of the fat sheep we slaughtered yesterday. We were traders, bringing olive oil from the village of—well, Stranger, what do you care? The wilderness is big enough to swallow up small merchants like me.
            After we ate, I passed around a small goatskin I carry: it is honey-wine I bartered off a Sicilian sailor back in Tyre, months ago, and I hide it under my saddlebag; it is a treasure, and unheard-of in these parts. But there were none left of our party since the Bedouin attack, save me and the two I already mentioned. We had our short swords, bucklers, bows and arrows, and I had a long dagger, a sicarius, I believe it is called, in my left boot; we felt secure enough against further bandit attacks.
            But, then, all of a sudden, HE appeared: smeared with mud and blood, gasping, he fell down, about three cubits’ length from our fire, like a jackal himself, almost: from that distance, I could tell—I am not so old yet, and the desert sharpens your eyes, if the sun does not blind them—that he was Egyptian—but what would an Egyptian be doing out in these parts?
            Never mind: we wilderness-travelers must all hang together, or hang separately, my father used to tell me, and so we carried him to our fire, slapped his cheeks, worked his arms and legs back-and-forth, and put olive oil on his forehead—don’t ask me why: I only know that my mother, Ishtar rest her spirit, used to do it—and he soon opened his eyes.
            “Stop all that!” he cried, “you’re hurting me.”
            “So you live, thanks to us, and to Baal,” I said, “here, have a sip of this”—offering him the honey wine—“This will restore your life-force,” which I believe the Egyptians call their air-soul, the one that breathes. Never can tell the difference between one fellow’s life-beliefs and another, out here in Baal’s country, but you know what? It really doesn’t matter to me; we all have to get along, all of us riding on the Back of the Turtle which carries us beneath the stars in the firmament.
As for beliefs, I’m a Baalist—I’m an outdoorsman, and do love a thunderous, bossy god—but Shinaar—the girl I have my eye on to take as a wife, and a fine, black-eyed, strapping wench she is, too—she follows Ashtoret. Something to do with bonfires and the harvest gods. Don’t know how we’ll raise the kids, though—well, we’ll travel that caravan when the gods decide….
            Anyway, this Egyptian—Seema, his name was—had a tale to tell: the all-mighty, all-powerful Pharaoh Ramesses—which one? First? Second? I get them all muddled up; they are a powerful lot, here in this part of the world, always going off to fight the Hittite folks, or the Assyrians up north—too cold, for me; I never get there—Brrr!
            Something about a lot of—what did he call them? Plagues?
“Don’t tell me about locusts, or flies, or even brackish water,” I told this Egyptian, this Seema, “I was in Thebes for the hurricane of ‘002, and that was a gully-washer. For months after, we had to boil our water, just to rid us of the pissy stench. And drink? Well, I had wine, mostly. Made it hard to think. But Thebans don’t do much thinking at the best of times, and I managed to fool ‘em, trading off some spavined female camels for a couple of good, hard-working onagers, and a Spartan eunuch thrown in, as a bonus. Good dealings, there, in Thebes, I recall….
            “You don’t understand,” said Seema, “there was another god involved. A big, big One.”
            “There are all sorts of gods,” Ishbaal put in, “and most of them are testy, or even angry, most of the time. I mind my business, try not to rile them up. Honest dealings among folks like us, and a sacrifice—a dove here, a young lamb there, given to the cult-prostitutes—that keeps ‘em quiet. Otherwise, out here in the desert? We’re beyond all that foolishness, and that’s the way I like it. Let the townsfolk deal with their gods.”
            While we were arguing about gods, the Egyptian fellow was draining the rest of my honey-wine—not polite or neighborly of him, but we had just rescued him from the icy grip of Osiris, his people’s god of the Dead, so I let it go.
            “Let me explain,” he said, leaning back, taking a deep breath, and closing his eyes. “This god—this Big One—he made the waters, the Great Swamp of Reeds, swallow up the Pharaoh’s Chariots.”
            “What’s such a big fuss about that?” I said, snatching my goatskin from his now-feeble grip, and sniffing it, just in case some few drops should remain. “My grampa, Baal rest his spirit, was a charioteer in—who was that fellow before Ramesses II?—Seti’s army. He would have been the first to tell his Sergeant-Major of the Horse, ‘Ohoo, Sergeant, rainy day today: “Grey sky at morning, Charioteer take warning.”’ But you can’t tell these Pharaohs anything. Gods, they all think they are. So much so, they don’t make water like us normal folks.”
            “Let me speak, you know-it-all!” protested Seema, “The riverbed was dry when the escaped slaves came upon it. The king’s scouts had seen it; they swore it was dry. It only flooded when the slaves’ leader, that Moses, raised his rod. That was the oddness of the whole thing, I tell you. How could a slave-leader make that happen?”
            “What were you, a freeborn Egyptian citizen, doing amid a slave rabble?” asked Ishbaal.
            “I was in prison when all the plagues erupted,” said Seema, “put there by Potiphar’s orders, for claiming to be a dream-interpreter. But Pharaoh went—(here, he dropped his voice to a whisper)—crazy, do you hear? When Moses, the slaves’ leader, made all the Egyptian firstborn die, all at midnight. We don’t know how it happened—disease? Plague? Some of the people panicked and felt that, if they killed their firstborn themselves, the Israelite god might change his mind. In the end, it didn’t matter….”
            “Why didn’t it matter?” I asked. Seema’s voice had gotten lower; his face had the look of a man who has seen Death, and wishes to see no more.
            “Because Ramesses went mad,” Seema said, turning his face to the sky, “when his boy, the little prince, died. He stalked around the palace, bearing his son, I heard, crying, beating his head with his fists, laying the little corpse before the statue of Ra, begging Ra to bring him back to life when the day would break. When it didn’t, he ordered his officers to let the Israelite slaves go; and not only them, but all of us Egyptians, in the prisons, the madhouses, the prisoners of war—the whole mixed rabble of us. We all ran, to the north; it was all madness.
            “I only remember standing there, on the banks of the Great Swamp, very early in the morning; mothers were holding babies; old people were praying, in that language of theirs; they  were calling on their god, calling him “Adonoi! Adonoi!” It all went silent went Moses stood, his brother Aaron next to him. I heard the thunder of hoofbeats in the distance; I turned, and saw Pharaoh’s chariot leading his cavalry; the lance-points twinkled in the early morning sun; I saw the Pharaoh’s Household Cavalry, all agleam in purple and gold.
            “The people began to wail, but Moses shouted, ‘Stand still: the Lord your God will fight for you, and you will be silent!’”
            Seema stopped speaking. Ishbaal and I looked at one another.
            “Well? What happened next?” I said.
            “Speak, man!” said Ishbaal.
            Seema smiled—a lopsided, embarrassed sort of smile.
            “It all gets hazy for me, there—you see, once the swamp-water-levels descended—nothing unusual there; swamp waters rise and fall, but the strange thing here is, Moses knew exactly when it was going to happen—what sort of prophet can do that? And there is no kind of trickery that can determine that! Magic will not answer. This is, indeed, a powerful god. When I crossed the swamp, the Sea of Reeds as we call it—driven through, actually, by that crowd, that mob of panic-stricken people, all of them fearing an arrow or lance in the back—I made it to the other side, dry-shod. But then, some lout of a wagoneer clouted me in the head with his wagon’s crosspiece; I must have fallen or been dragged to the side of the road, for when I awoke, the people were gone, and the moon had risen. Thank Osiris I was not eaten by jackals!”
            Raam, the young man, spoke, for the first time.
            “Where are the Israelites now?”
            Seema turned to him. “And who are you?”
            “That’s not important.”
            “Well, I heard two Israelites—Datan and Aviram, their names were—bellyaching about Moses leading them via Sukkot, whereas, had they been leading, they would have followed the Way of the Sea, straight up, into Canaan. So Sukkot is the way to go.”
            Raam arose, and turned to Ishbaal and me.
            “I hate to say goodby, Gentlemen, but I have done the best I could as a camel-driver, and ask for my wages, here and now. It seems that I must meet up with a certain group of people—my family, and some others. So I’ll be leaving.”
            There is nothing wrong with that, mind you; one of the things I like about desert-life is the casual nature of it: people come, people go, and one does not have to worry about social niceties. It keeps manners to a minimum.
            I took out the small bag of gold coins which I keep hidden in my belt, as did Ishbaal his. We are old friends, but don’t entirely trust one another, as it should be. Each of us counted our two gold denarii from our stash, bit them to prove them genuine, and handed them to Raam.
            “Baal guard you, Young Raam,” I said, and shook his hand, grasping it from wrist to elbow, as the Romans do.
            “And you, Lord Bahari,” he smiled, and, for the first time, I saw, beneath all the soot and grime, what a young, good-looking youth he was. Strong teeth; fine young fellow, indeed. Not much of a talker, though.
            “Where are you off to?” asked Ishbaal.
            “To join the Israelites—they are not a slave rabble, as Friend Seema describes them, but a free people, and they are my family,” said Raam, “I go now to reclaim my inheritance, my parents, and my people.”
            “What inheritance is that?” I asked.

            “None but a name,” said Raam, “and my name is Gershom ben Moshe oo’Tsiporah.”