Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Prayer of Shamira, Philistine Mother of Samson: Making Peace Between Enemy Peoples

Haftorah of Naso: The Prayer of Shamira, Mother of Samson

Author’s Note: Biblical scholar James Kugel (How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then & Now, NY: Free Press, 2007) sums up Modern Biblical Criticism by stating that the Samson story is unique in the Book of Judges. Most of the judges/tribal chieftains are charismatic leaders (Gideon, Jephtah, Deborah) whom God appears to select to deal with a momentary crisis, but who disappear just as quickly, once the crisis ends.
The Israelites’ enemy, in the Samson and throughout the David stories, is the Philistines, a people originating from the Greek isles, called the “Sea-Peoples” who fight the Egyptians during the reign of Pharaohs Merneptah and Ramesses III (late 13th and early 12th Century BCE); they are mentioned in other sources, as well. Kugel and other scholars believe that the Samson saga may well be a Philistine legend that the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible borrowed, since there are overlaps between Samson’s testy personality and that of the Greek Heracles/Hercules. Here, I attempt to give voice to what I call “cross-pollination” between the Israelites and the Philistines, by creating a backstory/biography for Samson’s mother, who is not named in our Haftorah text:

            Call me Shamira, “Guardian of the Israelite God.” It is not my real name—you, Stranger, could not pronounce the name my parents gave me, and it makes no difference, now. You would not realize it to look at this sun-baked old crone, but I am still a young woman, only twenty years old.
Manoah is my husband, the Danite man who captured me, who came to my father’s Philistine ship on the seacoast in the dead of night and carried me off,  his filthy, chapped farmer’s hand covering my young mouth so I could not cry out. I was too young to resist, and too sleepy to complain—I was only twelve years old. Such are the ways of the Israelites, to capture maidens from alien peoples, to marry and raise up sons thereby, bulking out their scanty tribe here in Canaan, and to please their mysterious, thundering Sky-God, He Who dwells amid the clouds (whispering), not in wheatfield or sea-scape, like our sensible Philistine god, Dagan. Why do I whisper to you, Stranger? Because I am Israelite, now, at least in name, as Manoah’s father, chief of the Tribe of Dan, pronounced me, when he changed my name to Shamira.
            Still, I do believe that Dagan, my true Philistine god, was angry with me for leaving my people, although I was kidnapped—for now, I cannot have any children; my womb is tight-shut—so says my lord-and-master, Manoah (whispering) that blockhead! Believe me, Stranger, when I tell you that, had my own father (whom I barely remember) chosen a husband for me, he would have been strong and potent, making me bear a legion of sons, of warriors—but Manoah? He is weak, in both body and mind….
            But I have a tale for you: come sit by the fire, and listen, while I pound the barley-grains to flour, and hear a young woman’s talk. It is dull here, in the desert, not like the seashore, where my Philistine sisters smell the salt-air, and dream of sailing on the waves, back to the Aegean islands, whence we came (sighs)….
            The tale? Oh, yes: I had a Visitation. What is that? It came to me—was it a dream? No: I saw—I saw—a winged creature, clothed in white samite, crystal clear, with silvery hair all flowing, flowing, and a voice of sweetness, that bade me leave the tent, that smelly, goatskin hovel which Manoah calls our home—his, perhaps, but not the clean and airy seaside lodge I lived in, years ago, the happy time, when I lived beside the Great Sea….
            What did he say? Manoah? Ah, the Visitor: he said that I would bear a child. A son! But there were rules to follow: no wine or strong drink; no grapes, even, and no unclean food—I have foresworn all meat; one never knows how fresh it is; I see the Israelite women, my sisters, they call themselves—they soak-and-salt the goat-meat, before they serve it; I will eat only fish, as do my people—what else did the Visitor say?
            My Son! He will be Samson, “Little Sun,” after the brightest god in the sky, my Helios, who rides the Heavenly Chariot from one end of the sky to the other, and lights the fiery dawn, the whole day long—
            But can you imagine how that fool, Manoah, doubted me? He said there was no Visitor, no angel, no Heavenly Messenger, no Winged Glory, come to me; he had not seen Him, or It, himself, though I reassured him, so many, many times—
            “If you saw an Angel,” he said, looking at me with his goggle eyes (he really is not bright, My Lord Manoah, wood-for-brains), “you would be dead; the celestial fire would roast you whole!”
            I took his hand—how it shook!—and placed it on my heart, to calm him, hugged and shushed him, the way one would soothe a nervous child—
            “Had your—that is, our—Israelite God sent an Angel to destroy us, why would he bring us such good news? How good this is, how sweet, Manoah, dear—“ I patted his back, embraced him close, the silly oaf, until his heart stopped pounding; besides, the Angel had promised us, he would come back; he’d reappear—
            And so he did! All ablaze, on fire, hovering there, wings moving slowly, smiling brightly, hair adrift, like the waves of Nereids, sea-nymphs, coming close to shore, as in my people’s tales….
            “Let me make a roasted offering to You!” shouted Manoah, and made a run for the flock, but more fool he, tripped over his own feet, and scared the sheep and goats away, to the far reaches of the pen, all meh’ing and baa’ing….
            “Though you delay me, I will not eat your offering,” whispered the Angel, in a voice like waves of gold, “But make a Thanksgiving Offering to the Lord your God”—
            And vanished. O Israelite God, let Shamira, Mother of Samson, pray: I will forsake my Philistine-god, Dagan, if You let my Unborn Son become a Hero to his people! And may God grant him the wisdom to make peace between his mother’s people, the Philistines, and his father’s people, Israel! Amen!


Friday, May 23, 2014

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Moses, and My American Literature Survey Class

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Moses, and My American Literature Survey Class

            Classes at the university where I teach last one month. The philosophy is that classes are kept small, the professor is able to give individualized attention to each student, and we are able to cover vast tracts of subject matter in a small amount of time. When the students of a particular class are superior, reaching the fourth and final week is always, for me (and, I assume, for the students), a bittersweet experience.
            I have taught American Literature Survey many times—beginning with Columbus, and ending with Toni Morrison’s racially-based story, “Recitatif.” Racism pervades American History; in the words of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), pioneer sociologist, historian, fighter for African-American Civil Rights, and a hero of mine, “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.”
            My students are, for the most part, African-American and Hispanic; they are also, usually, the first member of their family to attend college. They are young and ambitious; most have children, jobs, and outside responsibilities, but they are determined to get what my father a’h called “the piece of paper”—their college diploma. I urge them on; I am their cheerleader. I tell them how my father, the son of immigrants, was the first in his family to attain the BS and MS degrees, in Chemistry. “Nobody can take the knowledge away from you,” he used to tell my sister and me (she took after him, teaching Math and Science; I took after our mother, with English).
            After break, today (it is a twice-weekly class, meeting for a marathon 8am-2pm, with a recess and lunch break), one of my students asked me about Dr. DuBois; she wanted to write about him for her “Lit Crit” (Literary Criticism) paper, which involves finding a library article about the subject. What did his life stand for?
We had read about the “Great Controversy” between DuBois and Booker T. Washington, whose speech at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition led to the infamous “Atlanta Compromise,” wherein he promised that African-Americans, particularly in the racist-haunted South, would put aside any hopes for racial equality, the vote, political power, or even property ownership, provided they could get a pittance of menial jobs, against the onslaught of white immigrants who were coming off the boats and flooding the labor markets.
DuBois boldly spoke and wrote against Washington, saying that this devil’s bargain, this Compromise, would cripple any African-American attempts at equality, and eventually force the closing of Washington’s own school, the famed Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, for want of either students or faculty.
            DuBois was a pioneering sociologist, I told the class; he was curious about the behavior of people in groups—specifically, he wondered what caused racism. How could a person hate another human being without knowing them, simply because their skin color, religion, or nationality were different? This, sadly, remains a question we Americans are still grappling with today, in the Age of Trayvon Martin a’h.
            I went on to tell this group of bright and curious young women—the American citizens, consumers, and voters of today—about what I called their “two behaviors”—that is, what I call their tribal and universal behaviors. Tribal behavior, I explained, involves their people, their language, customs, foods, religion, and other habits which mark their distinctive identities stemming from a particular country—either Haiti (most of them hail from the city of Cap-Haitien, which I am certain has a particular municipal aura different from other parts of the island, as New York City differs from, say, Chicago). As for my Hispanic students, I would never presume (as do many white Americans) to lump them together; a Colombian is different from a Cuban or a Chilean; when I mentioned my preparing, as a rabbi, to officiate at a funeral, we discussed cultural differences—using, for example, an open casket, and the waiting period between death and the funeral service.
            Then, I mentioned our universal behaviors—the roles we play as Americans, as citizens of our country. We meet in classrooms and discuss our differences. I am the first, and usually only, Jewish person they have ever met; as such, it is crucial that I discuss and identify any and all stereotypes they may have heard about my people, including monetary habits, nose size, religion, and Whether We Killed Christ, all of which I discuss freely and openly. I explain why I, as a Jew, can tell an anti-semitic joke, while if someone else does it, it becomes racist; I tell them, as an example, a joke I heard George Lopez, a Mexican-American, tell about his people when he emceed a show on the White House lawn, and why I can tell it, but only in his name.
            I think about my class now, as I look at Bamidbar, the opening Torah portion in the Book of Numbers. It discusses all the Israelites walking through the wilderness, in nice, tight rows, and I wonder if it truly ever happened. Jews are notoriously independent-minded—did the twelve tribes encamp according to the plan given in the Torah portion, or is this wishful thinking laid down by an exacting editor, years after the fact?
            Young American women of different tribes, young and newly-liberated Israelites, following an elderly leader through an uncharted wilderness—did they not have time to question, wonder about their future, argue about tenets of Torah Teaching, strain at the bit, perhaps? It is significant that the Revolt of Korach will come about in a few weeks, and I truly wonder whether the Order of March was as neat and tidy as the Torah Portion makes it out to be….
            In both cases, young American women, and young Israelites freed from an Egyptian yoke, we see traces of an Old Order, and a yearning for a New. My students, in one more, short week, will take whatever bits of literature they retain of my teaching, and go off to another subject. I am uncertain as to how much of my work, my teaching, they will remember.

            As for the Israelites, reading again of the too-neat-sounding Order of March, I shake my head—I have my doubts. These are Jews, after all, we are discussing, and Jews are notoriously independent-minded. No: they must have, indeed, questioned poor old Moses. The editor wrote down, not what happened, but his own wishful thinking, of What Ought to Have Been. As for What Really Happened, we are still living it, today. How much of the Torah do you yourself follow, Reader? How much do you plan to undertake in the future? And how much will you never follow? The Questions stand…. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Counting Jews, or Counting On Them? Moses Takes a Census: Parshat Bamidbar


            I was grading my college class papers, when I realized I had yet to write my essay for the Parshat HaShavua—the Weekly Torah Portion, Bamidbar, “In the Wilderness.” Quickly finding a synopsis online, I was not heartened to see that it appeared, at first glance, to be Biblical Boilerplate, Scriptural Statistics: all Census and Tribal Placement; no Narrative, little Law. Reading and re-reading the Text, I felt my eyes growing heavy.
            “You could push the computer keyboard out of the way for just a couple of minutes,” my Yetzer Ha-Ra (Evil Inclination) whispered into my ear, “And take a nap—just a little nap. Then, a Brilliant Idea will pop into your head. Just try it!”
I took his advice, laid down my weary head, and dreamed….
Such a loud “Oy!” I had never before heard, ever in my life! I snapped my head upward, and saw him: sort of a cross between the picture of Moses in the Arthur Szyk rendering, with some of the determination of the Michelangelo statue (lacking, I was happy to see, the Infamous Horns). Moses, in the Flesh (or, at least, in my Vision).
He sat there, poor man, poor Prophet, his shepherd’s crook in one hand, the one he was to strike against the flinty rock
--Should I warn him? What, and change the course of Biblical pre-History? I quickly decided against it--  
leaning precariously against my bookcase, its knobby end almost tipping over God in the Teachings of Conservative Judaism: Twenty Opinions, Plato at the Googleplex, and The Thurber Carnival.
“Can I help you, Rav Moshe?” I asked, rubbing my eyes with one hand, and taking a hasty gulp of water. It is not every day that one encounters the first rabbi, the greatest prophet, and the man who spoke with God face-to-face (or, more exactly, face-to-Back).
“Israelites,” he muttered, pulling his long, grey beard, and shaking his head, “They are crazy-making. God says, ‘Count them,’ so I count. Not easy to count these people; they refuse to stand still. I got the other Levites to help me—they were supposed to be counted separately—but it was still hard. When I got all the numbers together, it seemed a little low—after all, didn’t God promise Father Abraham that Our People would be like ‘the stars of the heaven, and the sands of the sea, which cannot be counted’? So I did what I had to do—“
“Which was--?” I prompted.
“Was--?” he asked me back.
“I fudged,” he sighed.
“Yes, fudged.” Moses rose to his feet, his leg-bones cracking, as if he were carrying a heavy weight. Kirby, our Shih Tzu, who had been sniffing the Prophet’s sandals—there must have been an agglomeration of prehistoric desert waste and cattle miscellania affixed to their time-worn soles—jumped back. “I did the best I could. It was, like so many other tasks the Holy One, the Ineffeable One, He-Who-Exists sets me to do, almost impossible, even for a Prophet—and I’m not bragging, mind you, I’m humble, very humble—but I came up with a number close enough to the Truth. 603,550. Close enough, but with symbolic meaning, as well. Six to show we are incomplete, not yet ready for seven, the Sacred Number. Zero to show we are naught, save with God’s help. Three for the Patriarchs. Five for the Books of Torah; Five again. And Zero at the end: we will never succeed, without God….”
“And you are here, because--?” I queried.
“Because I need to know that there is a Meaning and Reason behind what I do. Can you show me a Future Commentary on my actions? Because I’ll tell you, some days, I just don’t know why I’m doing all of this—I could have stayed in Egypt, after all: I could have had Poppa Pharaoh’s job: do you know that? I could’ve been Somebody—oh, don’t listen to me; it’s late, and I’m tired, and rambling….”
I was honored—amazed, and honored that this Prince of Israel, this Humblest of Men, should inquire this of me.
“You know, Rav Moshe,” I said, “That Census-Taking is not recommended by our Tradition; indeed, it is bad luck.”
The great grey head nodded; his shepherd’s staff tapped against the bookcase; Kirby’s tail wagged as the Prophet held him gently in his lap.
“I know. It is the Kinnehurrah, the Evil Eye.”
“But not in this case,” I said.
“And why?” he asked.
My thoughts were racing. Was the great Moshe Rabeinu playing with me? There could be nothing on earth or in heaven, nothing Jewish, that this man could not know.
“Because here, God is counting them,” I improvised, desperately, remembering a Midrash, a Torah-legend from a rabbinical-school session of long ago, “Not only counting them, but counting ON them, for a Higher Purpose—that of bearing His Mishkan, His Sacred Dwelling-Place, and carrying His spirit, throughout the world. That is why God needs to know their number—He needs to know that He has sufficient people to count on, to do the Holy Work.”
A smile creased the myriad wrinkles in the Prophet’s face.
“And are they doing so, yet today? Tell me that they are, young Rabbi.”
Again, thoughts raced through my brain—the epidemics of guns, wars, and hatred—the issues in the Middle East and Africa—the ongoing lack of understanding between human beings—what could I tell him, what news could I bring the Prophet?
Kirby sneezed.
“Bless you!” We both said. R’ Moshe’s smile grew broader, as he gently handed Kirby into my arms.
“Perhaps that is my answer,” Moses said, “Perhaps it is no different in your world than it was in mine. There is Evil—Evil will always remain—but there will also be those people who, in ways both big and small, try to Work for the Good, in order to Bless One Another. Thank you, Young Rabbi. You and your Little Dog here have given me some comfort.”

He vanished. I looked out the window: the sun was rising. I stretched and yawned: time to walk the dog, give him his water and food, dress, and Go Teach. There was Sacred Work to do, as must we all.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Tales of the Old Neighborhood: Our Candy Store, Cozy Corner

            The center of our neighborhood on the Old Lower East Side, at the intersection of Grand Street and Rivington, was the candy store, called Cozy Corner. Pat was the owner. He sold newspapers, magazines, and comic books, along with candy and ice cream bars. There was a soda fountain, but hardly anyone I knew ever ate there. Pat kept his old Army .45 under the counter, just in case. The Neighborhood wasn’t safe.
Once, when I was little, I was walking alongside my mother up Grand St., when I started to choke on a piece of Cracker Jack. I felt a burnt sensation in my mouth, and believed I had swallowed a piece of soot from the building incinerator chimneys that belched black smoke into the air at all hours of the day and night. My frightened mother schlepped me by the hand into Cozy, and bought me a fountain Coke for a dime; it came in a conical-shaped paper cup, in a metal stand. It was the first and only fountain Coke I ever drank there. I realized later that I had probably just greedily stuffed a slightly-burnt piece of Cracker Jack into my mouth, but the important thing was that my mother had bought me a fountain Coke from Cozy Corner: now, that was something. I bragged to all of my friends who kept kosher; Cozy was not, of course.
Cozy Corner’s central location made it the perfect hangout for young and old. Old men stood under its canopy light and discussed politics, sports, and religion; young boys and teens talked sports and cars. I never hung out there; I was always busy, going to school and later commuting to Yeshiva High School on the subway, coming and going at odd times and in all weathers. But I would jealously watch the groups out of the corner of my eye: who had all the time in the world to just stand and schmooze there at Cozy, day after day?
When I went to bed in spring and summer, before it got hot, there was an A Capella Group of singers that hung out at Cozy, too. They would sing the then-popular tunes that we heard on the AM band of the radio: WMCA, with Dandy Dan Daniel, and B. Mitchell Reed, “Two in a Row on Your BMR Show.” Later, WMCA was eclipsed by WABC, with Cousin Brucie (“Cousin BROO-cie!”)  and the others. FM radio didn’t become popular until the late ‘60s, and I was amazed at how clear and static-free the music sounded. But the early ‘60s were the heyday of AM Radio.
I didn’t know who the A Capella Boys were, but their voices were young, sweet and high, and the schmoozers at Cozy all got quiet—indeed, the whole neighborhood did—when they sang. They sang all the old songs, by the Penguins, the Platters, and the Moonglows, even some early Temptations, and a Jewish group called Jay and the Americans. There were no color lines in music, then: we white folks and the black folks listened to Little Eva doing “The Loco-motion”; some of us even knew that a couple from Brooklyn named Carole Klein, who changed her name to King, and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin, had written it for Eva, who was their then-babysitter. We didn’t know that Doc Pomus was Jewish, and that he would turn out to be one of the greatest songwriters to come out of the Brill Building, the ‘60s’ answer to Tin Pan Alley. We just loved the music, and the way the boys sang it, clear and sweet.
Then, Vietnam came to the Neighborhood: first, 1966, and then, the first big troop buildup ordered by LBJ, in 1967. I didn’t pay much attention; I was suffering through Sophomore Algebra, and my teacher, Dr. Rapaport, was a crazy Orthodox rabbi-Ph.D, stalking through the classroom while we struggled through one of his pop quizzes. But the Cozy Corner Schmoozers changed.
The A Capella Group was gone: Vietnam had snatched them away. They never came back. One boy did come back, though: he hadn’t been one of the singers, but he was a member of the group that leaned against the wall of Cozy Corner—indeed, he, like me, had graduated from the East Side Torah Center. His name was Steve Ginzberg. He had not been a good student; he had been a bit of a troublemaker—a redhead, acting out. His teachers hadn’t liked him; they had predicted that he would get into trouble.
He didn’t; he went to Vietnam, instead. And, when he got back, he was never the same. He had used to joke around, discussing the Yankees’ lineup, and whether they had a chance against their hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox. Now, he no longer stood and joked; he stood alone and apart from the crowd instead, with a dreamy, faraway look in his blue eyes.
After a while, he disappeared from the corner. I continued hurrying back and forth, school to subway to home, home to subway to school. But I watched the standers, and slowly realized that Steve, the redhead, the dreamer, was no longer there.
“What happened to Steve, that guy, the redhead?” I asked my parents at dinner one night.
They looked at each other, not knowing, or not wanting to answer.
Finally, my mother said, “He—he went away.”
“That’s not true,” I said, “You know, and you’re not telling.”
My father looked at me.
“He killed himself,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.

We went back to eating. The windows were open, and I could smell the cut grass. Early spring. But the A Capella group wasn’t singing. They weren’t there to sing, not anymore. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"Walk According to My Laws"--Rashi, The Chofetz Chaim, and My Folks


“If you will walk according to My laws….” (Lev. 26:3)

            Torah study is one of the most important mitzvote, commandments, for Jews to pursue in their lives. In explaining the above quotation which begins our Torah portion, Rashi (1040-1105), prince of Torah Commentaries, says that it means, “You will study much Torah.” It is customary for B’nai Torah/Torah scholars who learn in yeshivote/Jewish academies to recite the following prayer, called the Hadran, upon completing a masechta/tractate of Talmud:

הדרן עלך מסכת ____ והדרך עלן דעתן עלך מסכת ___ ודעתך עלן לא נתנשי מינך מסכת _____ ולא תתנשי מינן לא בעלמא הדין ולא בעלמא דאתי
(Transliteration) Hadran alakh Masekhet _____ ve-hadrakh alan da'atan alakh Masekhet _____ ve-da'atekh alan lo nitnashi minekh Masekhet _____ ve-lo titnashi minan lo be-alma ha-din ve-lo be-alma deati
(Translation) We will return to you, Tractate ____ [fill in the name of the tractate], and you will return to us; our mind is on you, Tractate _____, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Tractate ______, and you will not forget us – not in the world of judgment and not in the world to come.
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) states that, unlike ordinary laborers, those who study, or labor in, Torah, do not receive any tangible reward. A shoemaker or computer programmer, for example, receives a salary for what they produce, but the reward for Torah study is more Torah study. Furthermore, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) takes a verse from The Book of Job, “Man was created to labor” (5:7), and interprets it to mean that the main purpose of Man’s creation was for him to labor in Torah. There, a Rabbi Yeruchem argues that God created most flora and fauna in their complete, or near-complete, state, and that they need to grow only in size to become what they were meant to be. Human beings, on the other hand, must continually strive toward perfection, while aware that true perfection is unattainable. It is the striving, not the goal, that counts.
            And here, we return to the verse above. “If you walk according to My laws” represents the Journey. We must never cease in our striving toward spirituality, with Torah study as our chief means and reward.
            Still, I must dare to gently disagree with the giants of Torah—Rashi, the Chofetz Chaim, and Chazal, the Talmudic Rabbis—whom I quoted above. I am not worthy to shine their shoes scholastically. But, writing this on Mother’s Day, and with Father’s Day still to come, I recall the example of my parents z’l, who managed to combine their love of Torah with the need to provide for their families, my mother as an English teacher on both the elementary and later college level (she got her Master’s degree while in her 70’s), my father as an industrial chemist, who, when I was young, ran a Science Club on Sunday mornings at my Hebrew Day School and our family shul, the East Side Torah Center. Under his guidance, we kids peered through a microscope at slides of fly blood and bees' wings, and learned about an amazing new invention called a laser. He also brought home a glow-in-the-dark tube, painted with luminous paint, and an early transistor radio, with a wire and alligator clip that we attached to a schoolyard fence to hear it play Radio Station WABC, with Disc Jockey Cousin Brucie. 
            After the rabbi of the shul passed away in the mid-1990s, my father, for many years president of the shul, did his best to maintain Shabbos and weekday minyanim/services, fundraising, serving as parttime shammes/caretaker-sexton, and doing whatever was necessary for the good of the shul he and my mother loved so much, until he passed in 2000 and she in 2005.
As with most synagogues we know, there was a “Big Shul” (the Main Sanctuary), and a downstairs “Bais Medrosh,” a small chapel/study hall. Someone suggested to Dad that they rent out the Bais Medrosh to a Kollel, which I would describe as a sort of Perpetual Learning Society, consisting of young men who sat all day and learned Talmud, going home on weekends to spend Shabbos with their families and make babies. During the week, they sat and learned, while their in-laws supported them, or their wives held down a job and cared for the babies.
            “We’re getting a Kollel in the Bais Medrosh,” Dad told me when I phoned him from NH, where I was then serving as rabbi at Temple Israel of Portsmouth.
            “What do you think of a Kollel, Dad?” I asked him. Dad was an Industrial Chemist, as I said before; he had gone out to work as a young man during the Depression, when jobs were hard to find, while attending first City College of NY for his BS in Chemistry, the first member of his family to do so, and, later, Brooklyn College for his MS. He told me once about one chemical factory where the acid on the floor of the lab was so deadly and powerful, it ate through the very soles of his shoes; he had to buy new shoes every couple of weeks.
            “David,” Dad said to me, “A young man who has the strength and ability to work to support his family, and doesn’t, and sits on his tuches all day, reading a book while his wife works and takes care of his children—David, I don’t care what that young man is doing. David, that man is a bum.”
            “If you will walk according to My laws,” says God. Walking means that you’re going somewhere; you’re not just sitting and studying. Walking can mean, walking to work, and doing a job in an upright and ethical manner. God doesn’t want us to just study His Torah; God wants us to live it. Thanks, Dad. Give Mom a kiss, this Mother’s Day. We love you.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Where Did America Come From? Where Is It Going? Columbus, Capt. John Smith, and My American Literature Survey Class

            I just finished teaching my first session of American Literature Survey. Each class is different; each class is a blessing. These students—in this particular and unique case, all young women—are a cross-section of South Florida: mainly Haitian-American and Hispanic-American, full of energy, ambition, and eager to learn. They will mainly enter Health Sciences fields, and I am quick to inform them, only half-joking, that, as a member of the Baby Boom Generation, my cohort, the largest demographic bulge this country’s medical infrastructure has ever sustained,  will be privileged to use their services. Then, we buckle down to our task: to master a good portion of American Literature—hundreds of years of writings—in a month’s time, wherein a panoply of American Writers will attempt to “explain ourselves to ourselves”—that is, What is America?
            “America is unique,” I tell them, “A country founded by, but in reaction to, Europe.”
 I tell them my personal story—how, in 1904, the King of Russia drafted a young, 18-year-old Jewish man named Jacob into his army, and told him, “Jacob, go fight the Japanese.”
            “Jacob did not want to fight the Japanese,” I tell them. “He had never met any Japanese people; he had no quarrel with them. He was already in the army camp. But one night, someone he knew—a cousin, an uncle, someone—helped him to jump the fence. He made his way to Hamburg, in Germany—this was long before the Nazis—and he got onto a steamship, and came to America. That young man was my grandfather. And because of the decision he made, I am standing here in front of you, speaking in English. I could be speaking Hebrew in Tel-Aviv, Israel; I could be a sad little pile of ashes in Poland.
            “The decisions you make in your lives,” I continue, “Whom you marry—where you live—what sort of job you decide on—will have an amazing effect on the future, on everyone’s future. And so far, you’re doing the right thing: you’re in university, studying to better yourselves. I know you may have heard that a college degree isn’t worth it: believe me, it is. My father was the first one in his family to go to college, and he went on to get a Master’s. You might want to think about that, as well. Do it while you’re young; if you can, do it before you have a family (I have no way of knowing how many of them already have a family.). You’re doing the right thing.”
            I tell them that I’m both a Jew and a rabbi, a Jewish minister—probably the first one that they’ve ever had a conversation with. We talk about stereotypes; I write the word on the board, and we talk about what it means. One student talks about when she worked in a Jewish restaurant; it wasn’t a good experience. We talk about that.
            “Those of you who have worked with older Jews, and saw that they have jewelry, may think that all Jews are rich,” I say. “That is not true. Those Jews worked very hard for their money. When you get out there in the world, you will also work very hard, and you will one day have the money to buy jewelry; I promise you. America is different.”
            I tell them about how, in Europe, it was not unusual for Jews to go home after a day’s work and find a sign on their door that said, “All Jews Out!”
            “If you found such a sign on your door,” I said, “Would it be better if you owned land, real estate, or jewelry?”
            “Jewelry,” they say, “Because if you have land, it takes time to sell it.”
            “Yes,” I say, “because if you have a diamond, or a bracelet, maybe you can sew it up in your sleeve, to hide it. You can’t do that with property. That’s why some Jews became jewelers. It was the only thing they could do to survive. That’s why some Jews have names like Goldberg, or Silverman, or Sapphire.”
            They nod their heads. Somewhere within their minds, the sun is breaking through the clouds of stereotyping. They begin to understand anti-semitic persecution, and survival.
            One persistent student, a young woman who attends church, raises her hand. And she asks the Who Killed Christ Question.
            I explain that the Jews could not have done it; the Romans were in charge at the time. I ask how Jesus died: that, they all know (it’s all over bumper stickers in SoFla: “He died for me; I will live for Him,” is typical.). I tell them that Jews never did executions in that manner. I also say that, by the time the stories were written down, the Romans were becoming Christian, and had to blame someone. I talk about scapegoating.
            “Obviously, there were Jews who liked Jesus, and Jews who did not, but for a Jewish High Court to meet at midnight on the Eve of a major holiday like Passover, would be like the US Supreme Court meeting at midnight on the Eve of the 4th of July. It would never happen; they would all be out watching the fireworks and listening to the bands play.”
            I think they get it, and it’s time to get back to the literature.
Pointing to my desk, I explain the position of the Communion Table in church (only a couple of students are familiar with this; Catholicism is no longer the norm for many students). I briefly review Transubstantiation—the Catholic belief that, during the Lord’s Supper, the wafer and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, vs. Consubstantiation—the Protestant viewpoint that these items symbolize the body and blood.
“These are differences,” I say, “Are you all OK with the differences?”
They are, and these won’t be on the Final Exam.
I go on: “Would you be willing to go to war, and kill someone who disagreed with you about putting the table somewhere else?”
They are amazed.
“That’s why, in America, we have separation of Church and State. Because in England, people were killing each other over these things.”
It’s time to turn to Columbus’s first letter. The man was a thief, a murderer, and a liar. I tell them how, in my childhood, Columbus was considered a hero, a courageous explorer who went on when all hope seemed lost. My main source of information, though it tends to over-exaggerate, remains Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States (NY: HarperPerennial, 2003), which tells the story of the Spanish Conquistadors from the viewpoint of Bartolome de las Casas, who first helped to subjugate and kill the Taino-Arawak Indians, but afterwards repented and recorded the genocide. Here is one of Columbus’s logs about the Indians:

[The Arawak Indians] brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features….They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. … They would make fine servants….With fifty men would subjugate them all and make them do what we want (Zinn, p. 1).

I explain how, within five years, according to De las Casas’s demographics, the entire population of Arawaks was annihilated, either through Spanish genocide, or their committing suicide so as not to have to slave digging for imaginary gold or on the encomiendas, giant plantations set up by the conquistadors.
In the meantime, Columbus, a master navigator but a lousy governor, made up all sorts of lies to impress King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, claiming that the Caribbean islands featured all sorts of exotic flora and fauna. His famous “Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage” (Santangel was the Royal Treasurer, and possibly a Converso, but I do not tell them that; it’s not relevant.) has the following:

…[The] nightingale was singing and other birds of a thousand kinds in the month of November there where I went. There are six or eight kinds of palm, which are a wonder to behold on account of their variety, but so are the other trees and fruits and plants. …[There] is honey, and there are birds of many kinds and fruits in great diversity. In the interior are mines of metals, and the population is without number. Espanola is a marvel (Columbus, 2013, p. 26).

It is noteworthy that neither honeybees nor nightingales are native to the island of Hispaniola, which today contains both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Furthermore, if there were a gold mine on Haiti, would its contents not have benefited the inhabitants of that longsuffering nation by now? Columbus, to repeat, was a thief, a liar, and a murderer.
As for Capt. John Smith, mercenary, freebooter, and creator of romantic legends, using a PowerPoint projector, I contrast the Mel-Gibson-voiced, blond-haired cartoon-handsome Disney leading man who falls in love with Pocahontas with a portrait of the real Smith, a short, homely, bearded, fortyish slugger who, desperate to market his travelogue and self-promoting autobiography (parts of it written by others), The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (i.e., Bermuda) (1624), did American immigration a service by “promising” that any likely lad or lass “of thirteen or fourteen years of age” who boarded a ship to the New World could expect to improve themselves, if they did not fear hard work, and were willing to farm or do other manual labor. (Smith, p. 72)
Hearing that the “Indian Princess,” Pocahontas, daughter of the fierce Chesapeake Chief Powhatan, had been baptized a Christian and was touring Europe, Smith fabricated a story about how he had been taken prisoner by the Chesapeakes, and, about to have his brains bashed in by the war-club of the tribal executioner, was saved at the last minute by the happy intervention of Pocahontas herself. The fact that he was in his upper thirties at the time of the imagined incident, and she barely thirteen, did not take away from the drama and romance of the tale; indeed, it has entered into American folk-history, along with Smith’s other exaggerations. A painting of the event is, I believe, displayed in the halls of the US Congress. It’s certainly not the first time that self-aggrandizing lies have besmirched those august chambers.

Towards the end of our session, I moved the class into the computer lab to write our first Journal. The subject was to be Themselves: Their American Story. I am eager to read—in complete confidence, of course—what motivates them in their American Journey. We may all have begun our voyage with the likes of charlatans such as Columbus and Capt. Smith, but our vision has moved away from Eurocentrism now, and I look forward with curiosity and alacrity to reading their sagas. America belongs to them, now, and I am proud to be their teacher. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Visit from Jeremiah: From Anatote, 606 BCE, to a Rabbi's Study, 2014 CE


            Racked as I was with worries over the fate of Israel—would there ever be peace with the Palestinian Arabs? And wondering what sort of d’var Torah (Torah commentary) to write for this week’s Temple Sholom newsletter, I sat up ‘til late, reading and re-reading the Parsha/Torah Portion—what could I possibly have to say about Sabbatical years or Jubilees? I was no farmer, nor a farmer’s son. The hours crept by, and it grew late; my head started to nod….
            Off to the side of my book-crammed study, in the worn grey chair that had accompanied me down from New Hampshire, I suddenly saw I was not alone. There, there he sat: brown-eyed, long-bearded, but not old: indeed, he resembled the yeshiva-bochur type I knew, from the Arthur Szyk paintings of him that I had seen. His right hand held a scroll: even from the short distance, it looked official—parchment, and bearing a great clay seal. The Prophet’s eyes were closed; did I dare awaken him? I looked at the clock; it was almost midnight, and I had to teach the next day. Kirby, our little brown Shih Tzu, lay on his pillow by the file cabinet; he smelled the fresh-leather-cardamom-cinnamon scent of the Shuk, the old Jerusalem Market, on the stranger’s clothing, and wagged his tail.
            I had no choice; I reached out and gently touched the Prophet’s knee. He stirred, opened his eyes, yawned, and saw me. And smiled.
            “Is this Anatote, my home village?” he asked, in the accents of a Jerusalemite.
            Amazingly, I could understand him, despite his speaking Hebrew in the style of 605 BCE.
            “Lord Prophet, Jeremiah, you are far from home,” I said, as calmly as I could, so as not to startle him.
            He frowned slightly, looked around, his glance lingering on the computer screen, electric lights, bookshelves, and, in particular, the rotating fan above—he shook his head slowly at that—but turned back to me.
            “All things are possible; all is in the Hands of God,” he said, “And I, a Prophet of God, am compelled to speak, in His Name. Who are you?”
            “Also a servant of God,” I said, “And David is my name. I am one who is eager to listen and learn. Will Israel survive and go on?”
            “Of course!” he said, “But there will be—wars. And rumors of wars. I wish—I wish I could have stayed, a simple kohen, a priest, in Jerusalem. But the soldiers came; first, those of Asshur, Assyria. And now, Bav-El, the Babylonians, under that maniac, Nebuchadnezzar….They are many; we, but few. God ordered me to become His Prophet; who can resist the Call of God? But our king will not listen to me….”
            He brightened, suddenly. “But I have faith, faith in the Lord God. And look you, look at this!” He thrust the parchment at me: despite its being in K’tav Ivri, the ancient Hebrew script, I could see that it was, most clearly, a Bill of Sale, for Jeremiah’s cousin Chanamel, having sold his field at Anatote, Jeremiah’s hometown, for 17 silver shekalim.
            “This is the proof, Sir David,” Jeremiah said, his hands shaking slightly, as he brandished the parchment at me, “for who would be so bold—or foolish, as to purchase a field, in a country about to be invaded? Answer me that! And I will deliver this deed, when the Lord God shall deem me ready to return to my own time, to Baruch ben Neriah, the scribe and notary, who shall place it in a sealed jar, as is right and proper. For no Chaldean, no Babylonian, shall place a foul hand upon the Holy Land of Israel.”
            “But what of those who have no land of their own, O Prophet?” I begged, “Answer me that! Is there no balm in Gilead? Will there always be fighting and dying between the Children of Isaac and the Children of Ishmael?” (And I knew, in my heart of hearts, the cruel fate that was in store for my dear, my idealistic Jeremiah—to be swept down to an Egyptian darkness, to die in exile there. But I was not to let him know.)
            Instead, there in my little, book-lined study, there at Midnight on the eve of the week’s beginning, the Prophet of the One True God took his parchment, his deed to his own little, hopeful piece of Israel, and stood. (Kirby hid behind my chair, poor little fellow.)
And Jeremiah declaimed with full voice and open throat: “Thus speaks the Lord, God of all Israel, God of the Universe: I am the Lord, God over all humanity. Is anything too hard for Me? As surely as I will bring the evil of Babylonian captivity upon this people, so surely will I bring upon them all the future good that I promise, through the words of this, My Prophet, My Jeremiah. In this land, desolate and barren, handed over to Babylon, fields shall again be purchased. People shall buy fields for money, property deeds shall be sealed and witnessed, in the places about Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judah, in the highlands and in the lowlands. And I will ensure a place and a holding for all. For I will, by My Name and the Power of My right arm, cause all to return from their captivity.”

            And he vanished. Here endeth the Visitation of Jeremiah. Amen.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Fine and Gentle Art of Shmogging; or, Doing the Least Amount Possible, Save What One Wishes To Do

B & I have this weekend off, and have spent a lovely Shabbat afternoon, shmogging. We spent the past week in St. Augustine, there learning about the history of “America’s Oldest City,” with its Spanish explorations going back to 1565; in particular, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, from which we quaffed two drafts of Historical, Youth-Restoring Water in paper cups—the bouquet and taste were of sulfur mixt with mineral water, heavy on the minerals. It was almost crunchy-tasting, with the added tincture of rotten eggs, and so undoubtedly very healthful. One quaff was plenty, thank you, Poncey.
Oddly, the Park Ranger in charge of the exhibit (no, Oddly was not his name), which also featured the requisite hanging banners giving Banner Days in the Spain-Timucuan Indian Encounter, as well as historically-accurate mannequins wearing Spanish morion helmets and steel back-and-breast armor, was himself no youngster; indeed, he resembled an Aging Hippie, though he was very informative. He told us how unusual it was to find a source of fresh water so close to salt (i.e., the Atlantic Ocean), and, while the water was easily accessible in Ponce’s day, needing only to dig down 11 feet, it was necessary to burrow down a good 220 feet in ours. B pointed out to me, later, that Aging Hippie might well have been 100+ years old when he began his Fountain Tour of Duty, but might now be, Benjamin-Button-like, gradually growing younger; being in his 70s might be considered youthful, at least, for him.
I will write at greater length about our time in St. Augustine on another occasion; here, I would like to share the Gentle Art of Shmogging. Shmogging is a term which B and I invented; it consists of Doing Nothing One is Required to Do; rather, One Does Whatever One Wishes: reading, computering, feeding matzah to the fish and birds down by the pond, watching Kirby Do His Business, Scratching Kirby’s Tummy, and so on.
I am currently reading several books, as is my customary habit; while packing paperbacks for the trip, I discovered a canvas bag in the back of B’s SUV, and was happy to discover both Jack London and Stephen Crane among them. I will begin teaching American Literature this week—at Keiser University, where the approach is somewhat more intensive—and decided to broaden my study of Crane, a minor writer of the Realism-Naturalism Era, which also includes Mark Twain, the Gigantic Presence of the time.
In England and America, Victorianism held sway—the laws of morality dictated that women’s bodies be covered up, to the extent that women sewed little dresses to cover up even piano legs(!), lest randy men become sexually inflamed. Crane’s first work, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), about a young Irish-American girl forced into prostitution for lack of any other sort of job, was banned from publication, until he paid for it out of his own pocket. Ironically, the story takes place in my old neighborhood, the Lower East Side and the Bowery of  NYC.
As a Naturalist, Crane agreed with Darwinian Theory of Survival of the Fittest, what Jack London termed “red tooth and bloody claw”—that the wealthy oligarchs held sway over the millions of poor and downtrodden.  Some things don’t change very much, even 121 years later. My particular interest is not in Maggie’s struggles, but in another, shorter work of Crane’s, “The Monster,” a novella, which is unique in American Literature.
It is the late-nineteenth-century tale of a young, handsome African-American ostler and coachman, Henry Johnson, who works for a country doctor, Dr. Ned Trescott, and is good friends with the doctor’s very young son, Jimmie. The story takes place in a town which Crane invented, Whilomville, made up from his own imagination, but based on Port Jervis, NY, a place where he had lived briefly with his mother, but visited frequently in later life—his older brother , William Howe Crane, lived there.
In “The Monster,” the doctor’s house catches fire, and little Jimmie is trapped in the flames. His father is returning by horse and buggy from a home visit. The several fire companies, all horse-drawn hook-and-ladder wagons, are on their way, but the fire is raging. Meanwhile, Henry heroically breaks into the house, fights through the flames to wrap the six-year-old Jimmie in a blanket, and carries him to safety. Overcome by the smoke, Henry collapses, unfortunately next to a table on which the doctor has left several deadly experimental chemicals, which the fire’s heat causes to boil and bubble over, searing Henry’s face and body, and burning both in a most horrific fashion.
Eternally grateful to Henry for saving his son’s life, Dr. Trescott performs a series of operations to save Henry’s life, but, in the course of doing so, is forced to render him a scarred, enormously ugly “monster,” whose looks and appearance frighten the townspeople. Worse, they begin to shun the doctor and his family for protecting and preserving Henry. 
The story’s setting is all the more significant: Port Jervis is the only place in the history of New York State where a lynching has ever occurred. On June 2, 1892, an African-American man named Robert Lewis was arrested for allegedly assaulting a local white woman. While being taken to the Port Jervis jail, a mob of several hundred men dragged him through the town, beat him, and hanged him from a tree.
Stephen Crane’s own brother, William, as well as the town chief of police, was one of the few men who dared to intervene and try to save Lewis from the mob, in vain. Although Stephen himself was not present, both the Port Jervis Gazette and the New York Tribune gave extensive coverage to the atrocity, and noted African-American civil rights activist Ida B. Wells launched a campaign to investigate the lynching.
While the style of the story is controversial—Henry Johnson is hardly well-developed as a character, and exhibits too many aspects of the “stage Negro,” being both simple-minded and good-hearted—the story itself points to a maturing of Crane’s style, beyond that of both his Maggie and The Red Badge of Courage. Many critics believe that Crane was displaying the direction his career might have followed had he not died of tuberculosis at the age of 29.
The novella deals with morality, race, and the question of the “Other”—issues we continue to grapple with in American Society today (and, perhaps, in Israel?) and I look forward to completing it, and adding more richness to how I deal with Crane in my teaching.
Another book I am re-reading is Robert Harris’s Fatherland (NY: Random House, 1992, 2006), whose morbid theme is a German triumph in World War II. The “hero” is one Xavier March, a detective called in to examine the finding of a corpse in a lake near the district where the Nazi highest-ups live. It is twenty years following the victory: 1964. On the Eastern Front, the Russian Communists continue a dogged guerrilla warfare against the Germans, not-so-secretly funded by the Americans. And a young President Kennedy is due to visit Berlin. I am not so far into the book, but there ought to be a Yiddish expression for the sort of morose, pessimistic literature Jews indulge in when things are going relatively well in the Real World.
And soon, tomorrow, I will be revamping my time-honored American Literature Survey Syllabus for a twice-weekly, six-hour-session time frame. (It will include a forty-minute lunch break.) What I most enjoy about this course, aside from the material itself, is how each class of students, most of them new to the American Experience—and what is the American Experience, anyway?—interpret each work. It is difficult to really work up any sort of excitement for the material amid the self-aggrandizing letters of Columbus or the God-loves-us-‘cause-we’re-His-People-and-that’s-why-we-can-steal-from-the-Indians-style of Gov. William Bradford of the Pilgrims, until one encounters Jonathan Edwards, that Puritan paragon. 
Edwards stands on the boundary between the Age of Religion and Superstition, with its witch trials, prejudices, drawing-and-quartering, beheadings, hangings, and dunkings-in-the-lakes of gossipy goodwives, and the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, when such a luminary as Alexander Pope reduces all wisdom and rationalism to easily-memorizeable couplets. Finally, we are eternally grateful to a group of bewigged, white, largely Episcopalian, educated, property-owning merchants, clerics, craftsmen, tradesmen, and country nobility, who got together in a hot meeting hall over a stable in Philadelphia, and Invented America. We are still continuing their work, today.

One never stops inventing America.