Sunday, June 29, 2014

Balak: Pagan Prophets, Talking Donkeys, and Nervous Shih Tzus: the Spirituality of Animals, Great and Small

            This parsha/Torah reading, one of my favorites, is one of three in the Chumash/Pentateuch named after gentiles, the other two being Noah and Jethro—we are uncertain as to whether the latter, Moses’s father-in-law, converted himself to Judaism: the Midrash/Legends say yes, but the text itself is silent on the matter.
Since earliest childhood, the dialogue between Bilaam, the purblind pagan prophet, and his clear-sighted donkey, has fascinated me, though it is not too far a stretch of the imagination to conjure up a scenario where an animal shows far more sense than its owner. For centuries, dogs and cats have been believed to be in touch with the spirit world, so why not donkeys, as well?
In the story, after pagan-prophet Bilaam’s greed and fear of King Balak persuade him to undertake the mission of cursing the Israelites who are passing through Moab, Balak’s kingdom, he saddles up his donkey and rides off, still uncertain What to Do: Listen to the Israelite God and Honorably Beg Off the Errand, or Take Balak’s Money, and Curse the Israelites? So deep in thought, so indecisive is he, that he fails to see the Angel of God, sent to block his path. Instead, his sharp-eyed donkey sees the seraph, and veers off the road to avoid a collision. Still daydreaming, the enraged Bilaam beats his donkey for going in the wrong direction.
After the angel disappears and re-appears three times—each time missed by the purblind prophet, who keeps beating the poor beastie—God miraculously grants the hapless donkey the power of speech.
“What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” She protests to her master.
Instead of wondering why and how his mount can suddenly speak, the muddleheaded seer replies, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword, I’d kill you.”
“Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all these years until now!” says the donkey, “Have I ever disobeyed you before?”
To which Bilaam must answer, “No” (Num. 22:28-30; paraphrase mine).
At which point he lifts up his eyes and finally sees the angel; he tumbles off his donkey, prostrates himself, and worships. And, of course, the angel gives him instructions….
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all lift our eyes and get instructions directly from God?
This is a beautiful vignette about smart beasts and foolish people—we mortals who are all wrapped up in our own affairs, and unable to see the beauty around us. Animals live in the moment: we could learn a lot from them (As I write, our little brown rescue Shih Tzu, Kirby, is frantically running up and down the stairs and around the house, trying to find a proper hiding-place to stash a new chew toy, certain that a Mysterious Army of Shih Tzu Warrior-Dogs will be invading presently to steal it from him. It hasn’t happened yet, but You Can Never Be Certain.)
            Finally, Bilaam is overcome by his admiration and love for the Israelite God, and changes his planned curse to a blessing—a prayer so beautiful, that part of it, the Mah Tovu, “How Goodly are Thy Tents, O’ Jacob,” has become part of our early-morning liturgy. As the prophet beholds the tents of Israel, agleam in the morning dew like a string of pearls, he compares them to divine sanctuaries. This becomes the verse we recite upon entering the synagogue every morning. It is both charming and divinely ironic that it was composed by a Moabite who, like Ruth, became a friend of our people. All it took was a talking donkey.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Fail-Safe" the Movie (1964) vs. Today's Terrorist Threat

I am watching the old 1964 movie “Fail-Safe,” which I first saw in a movie theatre as a child of 12—I remember being bored. Its black-and-white, TV-theatrical-style, the high moral dudgeon of its characters, and lack of eye-catching special effects—whatever that meant, back in the early ‘60s—left me cold. Now, it holds different meanings for me. Growing up with “duck-and-cover”—believing, in the 1st Grade, that a quarter-inch of formica could possibly protect me from sure death if an A- or H-bomb exploded outside my classroom window, near the corner drugstore where my mother bought me a Cho-Cho malted ice cream bar for a dime on the way home from school—my classmates and I could never really conceive of what a Nuclear Armageddon might be like, nor could anyone else, from the President on down.
            Instead, we saw the world through the eyes of “Dr. Strangelove,” or “The Twilight Zone,” which dealt with such themes regularly. Living in New York City, we did not experience the spectacle of neighbors building quaint and handy fallout shelters in their backyards. We did have surplus cans of peanut butter, marked PROPERTY OF US DEPT OF AGRICULTURE NOT FOR SALE, but these, we believed, were simply Uncle Sam’s largesse, nothing more. And it was, truth to tell, tasty peanut butter—Smooth only, though I preferred Crunchy.
            We believed Pres. Kennedy, his tousled hair blowing in the wind, when he announced to the world, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and the embattled West Berliners believed it too; only years later did we non-Deutschers discover that our martyred young president was announcing to the world that he was not a doughnut. Eventually, Pres. Reagan’s arms race, proposing to make even outer space a battleground, caused the old Soviet Union, panting to follow our massive expenditure for soldiers and new weapons systems, to collapse of its own rottenness, eventually becoming the anachronistic near-czarist near-democratic dictatorship it is today.
            As I watch my TV screen, the crew of the movie’s Convair B-58 Hustler has just learned that their designated target is nothing less than Moscow. And I wonder: have we lost something, moving from those bygone days of Overkill and the universal threat of Nuclear Winter, to our current state of Terrorism Nerves? As peaceful, law-abiding Muslims the world over continue to be subject to suspicion, the result of hundreds of young, misguided men flocking to the colors of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, as well as other, less-well-known terrorist groups, should we long for the comforting security of a steel-and-concrete-lined bunker, waiting for the “all clear” signal to come over our klaxons?
            In short, have we traded the end of the World War III threat for a never-ending series of brushfire wars throughout the world?

            Come take my hand, Beloved: we will crouch beneath the coffee table, as Pres. Henry Fonda discusses his nuclear option with his Soviet counterpart, and we will dream of Armageddon days gone by….

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Were Miriam and Aaron Discussing in Heaven? Torah Portion Chukat


Miriam and Aaron: A Dialogue in Heaven

Note: This Torah Portion includes the deaths of both Miriam (related in one scant verse, Num. 20:1) and Aaron (eight verses, 20:22-29), as well as the tragedy of Moses, whom God commands to speak to a rock, which will split and bring forth water for the thirsty, quarrelsome Israelites. Losing his temper, something he does rarely but here fatally, Moses strikes the rock, not once but twice, which splits, allowing water to gush forth. God punishes Moses’s seemingly mild infraction by predicting that he will perish in the Wilderness, rather than merit to lead the people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. After the people continue to complain, God sends a plague of seraph-vipers, whose fiery bites kill many, until Moses performs a charm of casting a brazen cobra and hanging it from a pole; those who gaze upon it recover from the plague; the idol is later placed into the Holy Sanctuary, a mythic relic, until the time of King Hezekiah’s (739-687 BCE) anti-idolatry reforms. Finally, Moses leads the people in battle against the Emorite Kings, Sichon and Og, and conquers their territories.

Miriam: It was hard for me, as a woman in those days, to make my mark on my family and my people. I did love them so—only after my death did the legend begin about my miraculous well, which supposedly followed the people through the Wilderness, slaking their thirst until the time of my death. Well, it is true, up to a point: never did anyone who visited my tent go away hungry or thirsty; I fed them all, and I was a good cook. And, today, many Jewish families put a “Miriam’s Cup” on their Passover Seder Meal table, which they fill, to honor me—but I choose to believe it means they are also giving tsedakah-charity to feed and nourish the hungry.

Aaron: Miriam, my Sister—can you finally forgive me for not having been stricken with tsaraat, the same skin-disease with which God punished you, when we were gossiping about our baby brother, Moses?

Miriam: Aaron, you must stop thinking about that; I forgave you, long ago. It is clear that, in those days, men were favored in our religion, even by God. I was not gossiping about our sister-in-law, Tsiporah; I was speaking on her behalf. Our brother Moses was wearing himself out, like a candle! Jethro, his father-in-law, had helped him greatly, by setting up a system of judges, magistrates, and bailiffs, so that Moses himself did not have to go from trying a capital case to determining whether a housewife’s chicken was kosher. But, as soon as Jethro left, and Moses climbed up Sinai, the people began their orgy—

Aaron: --and so, you blame me for that? I lost control; I tried to delay; I—

Miriam: Aaron, let me finish. It is clear that your control of the people could have been better. But we do know this, for a fact: the system of judges broke down; no one could trust them after the Sin of the Golden Calf, since so many supposedly “learned” men had participated. Even the Council of the Seventy Elders did not work; they ascended in a prophetic vision with Moses; they saw the pavement of Sapphire Stone up in Heaven (Ex. 24:10), but the experience altered their minds so that they were unable to return to the petty, day-to-day affairs of judging the people. And so, in the end, Moses had to do it all, again, by himself. He became a workaholic, rarely going home, never spending time with Tsiporah, not to speak of their boys Gershom and Elazar, who ran away. That was what I was protesting. Aaron, you were a good man, who did the best you could. You will be remembered well.

Aaron: Yes: I was a peacemaker, a “lover of peace, and pursuer of peace.” At least, I tried to be…the work in the Sanctuary was so hard; all those animals to slaughter….

Miriam: But do not forget your wife, Chochmah, whose very name means “Wisdom”—after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu at the hand of God, she grieved, but then, she worked through her grief, in the same way that bereaved parents have done, all through the millennia—she went out, to help you serve the people, by making peace. And, truth to tell, Aaron, she made peace between families more often than you did. You were always busy at the Sanctuary, making offerings to God, while your wife—

Aaron: Yes: Chochmah, my Dearest One, was making peace between people, even of warring tribes, like Benjamin and Ephraim (Book of Judges, chap. 12, 19-21). But my dear Sister, never forget your own, illustrious relatives: you are the mother of Bezalel, the master planner, architect, artist, and sculptor of the Mishkan, the Wilderness Sanctuary, and you are also an ancestor of King David, in the far future. Perhaps there really was a Miriam’s Well, a well of peace and of harmony, and all would prosper who drank of it. Amen!

The Lost Boys and the Hebron Crisis: 6/22/14

“Where there is no vision, the People perish.” –Proverbs 29:18

            I am a New Yorker, the son of New Yorkers, as I have said many times before, and though I will never live there again, it bred into my bloodstream a love for and understanding of diversity. When I read of the strife, suffering, and lack-of-understanding between Israel and Palestine—and there are many different Israels, different Palestines—I inevitably hearken back to the Lower East Side of my childhood, where we Jews lived in our enclave, Hispanics and African-Americans in theirs, Italians in Little Italy, Chinese in Chinatown, and then, you were in Greenwich Village, where the Beatniks and Bohemians first lived, and then, after, the Hippies, and anything went and nearly everything was accepted: it was New York, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
            I went to high school and a few years of college, before I dormed in Washington Heights—another Orthodox Jewish enclave surrounded by a sea of suspicion and hatred—Dominican, this time—carrying a can of pepper spray in my pocket, but never “fired it in anger”—it was my personal security blanket, in all senses of that word, which I caressed whenever feeling threatened. The only time it was used was when a close, nameless relative, of a scientific bent, squeezed it in the house, of all places: she and I coughed and were teary-eyed for hours afterward.
            And I was never, thank God (He was G-d, in those days) mugged, excepting one instance when, on a rainy night, I ducked into a half-phone-booth to call home, and a skinny Hispanic youth came alongside me—unnecessarily close, but it was raining hard—and asked me for money. I am uncertain, to this day, whether he was shaking me down or simply begging; in any case, the call did not go through, and I let him have the quarter from the change slot.
            What is happening as I write is that an army—a Jewish Army (not counting the Druze and, likely, Christian Arabs) is holding the West Bank, in particular Hebron, hostage, “punishing” them, innocent civilians and suspected terrorists and terrorist supporters alike, on suspicion of having kidnapped three yeshiva boys, who ought not to have been hitchhiking at 10 pm in Hebron; they should have used their cell phones to call a taxi, or a friend, to come pick them up. As a New Yorker, growing up in a dangerous, and mostly unfriendly city, I could have told them this.
            A word about Hebron. During my graduate school days, when I was mostly unemployed—it was the Jimmy Carter Recession—I was working as a substitute teacher in the NYC Board of Education. English High School Teacher’s License in hand, I would travel all over the city—Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, West Manhattan—lousy, dangerous neighborhoods one and all—I used my “street antennae” to avoid dangerous places. Someone who grows up in a Big City learns about these things, or, if they are country bumpkins in the City for the first time, it is the duty and obligation of their teachers and peers to warn them. Why were these three boys not warned?
            I visited Hebron in 1972, the guest of a loving aunt and uncle, who had hired a guide. These were the halcyon days following the 1967 War, when Israel had an iron grip on all the Occupied Territories, and it was still sufficiently a novelty to make Palestinian resistance not as common. We emerged into the main square of Hebron, stopped the car, and got out—clearly American, festooned with bags, cameras, and the trappings of wealth.
            A crowd of un- or under-employed Arab men and boys stared at us with looks of pure hatred. It was a large, open square, and they were bored; they undoubtedly saw tourists from time to time, but Hebron was not as popular then as it is now, among Jews. My “Jew-hatred antennae” were twitching madly, though we had just arrived. As I said above, I have been throughout all of New York City, in all different kinds of neighborhoods, but never in any other place had I seen such clear and unmitigated hatred as I saw in Hebron. And, even if I were a fundamentalist Jew of the strongest stripe, of the “not-one-inch” brand of Zionism, I would not live in Hebron; no, not there, nor anywhere near.
            And though I know, as a believing and literate Jew, that in our Holy Tradition, Everyone who was Anyone, from Adam and Eve through Jacob and Leah (poor Rachel died on the road; she has her own tomb, which is—you guessed it—a magnet for infertile couples) is allegedly buried there, I would not beard the Palestinian lion by contesting their claims to the Cave of Machpelah. The game is not worth the candle, as they say: let them have it, and welcome. I am a Jew; I do not pray to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs; Judaism may have its saintly leaders, but we do not pray to them. Leave that to other faiths. I pray to God Almighty, and my strongest, staunchest prayer would be to “Get Me Out of Hebron.”
            Beyond this, I saw recently a video of Palestinian youth attacking a Palestinain Authority Police Station, charging them with colluding with the Israeli Army in their search for the Lost Boys. It was unique in that, following a massive rock-throwing bombardment by the Palestinian teens and young men in their twenties, I heard the sound of one gun firing, which I later read was a PA policeman using live ammo against the mob.
            This is a dangerous trend: it shows that more and more of the shebab, the youth and their elders in the Palestinian Street (both literally and figuratively), are rejecting both the PA and its titular leader, Mahmud Abbas, as outdated and treacherous, and will undoubtedly drive more and more of them into the arms of Hamas. Ironically, the lockdown policies of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet have turned them into a Recruiting Office for Hamas. Nothing will popularize an issue more for young people—in this case, Palestinians—than making it forbidden.
            Finally, what would defuse the Situation? Sadly, I believe that the Israeli side has moved far beyond this possibility, and, besides, it takes very little manpower to move three young boys from house to house to house—I only hope and pray that they are still alive, although I believe they are; dead, they are useless as a bargaining chip in a prisoner swap.
            The only solution would be to bring in crisis negotiators and social workers, to begin a process of dialogue on both sides. Then, it would be necessary to re-start the Peace Talks, again, using professional social workers familiar with the psychology of Jews and Arabs (I think of the late Raphael Patai’s books on The Jewish Mind and The Arab Mind; his conclusions may be outdated, but there are massive universities in Israel, and there must be experts on this topic, who have studied it for decades.)

            In the meantime, having adrenaline-charged nineteen- to twenty-year-old Israeli soldiers walking the length and breadth of the West Bank, blowing their way into civilian homes, frightening and often wounding babies with the shrapnel, will only compound and worsen the Situation. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jewish Summer Camp in 1963 Was Not for the Faint-Hearted: Camp Galila, South Fallsburg, NY

            It’s summer, and, all over America and other countries too, Jewish parents are packing their kids’ stuff, getting ready to send them off to Jewish Summer Camp. Camp is more expensive these days than when I was a kid—I sensed that when they started calling the camp fees “tuition,” as though sleeping on a rusty bedspring left over from the Civil War were comparable to a semester at Harvard—but the overall camp experience remains the same, with the addition, I suppose, of computers, horseback riding, and some other, tonier activities.
            My first camp experience, back in the summer of 1963 when I was eleven years old, began when my mother realized I was too old to attend the day camp run by our local Jewish Community Center, the Educational Alliance, mother of all Jewish social-service-day-camp-arts-and-crafts-school-dramatics-programs now existing in America, and possibly the world, today. This was fine with me; I had gotten tired of the school-bus-and-ferry-ride out to Staten Island every day, and the minimal activities that went with it. The “Edgies” was my first encounter with canned pineapple juice (sweet, with a metallic taste) and overdone mac-n’-cheese (leatherlike and smelly). I was ready for Something New, and my mother believed she had discovered it.
            “You are going to sleepaway camp,” she announced to me, “You are not going to hang the around the house all summer and bother me.You will go to Camp Galila, in South Fallsburg, in August—one month only, so you can get your feet wet.”
            It took me a split second to realize that my mother was, once again, trying to get rid of me. Since I had been very young, I had become convinced that she kept on trying to lose me, usually in a large crowd of strangers, somewhere in midtown Manhattan. This would inevitably occur whenever I stopped to read a historical plaque on the side of a building—I adored history—or stare at a statue. I had an ongoing love-hate relationship with statues, and there were a lot of them in midtown. (This relationship is material for another essay.) As for Macy’s and Gimbel’s, well, didn’t store management want you to stop and stare at a display, and buy the thing? And when I stopped staring, looked up, or reached out a hand, she would be gone. For a short person, my mother walked briskly.
But camp was different: this was to be long-term.
I immediately got nervous at the prospect—camp? Me? Mom was, to her credit, being positive about the upcoming experience—a plus in our family, where Negativity ruled; Negative Thinking was practically a member of the family. She stressed how much fun I would have, making new friends, living in the woods. It didn’t matter if I protested; the Die was Cast. Briskly, efficiently, my mother purchased a large, black steamer trunk, a shiny-black affair with large, business-like brass fittings—I could have traveled to Australia, or Africa.
She spent endless evenings watching TV while sewing red-letter-on-white-background DAVID HARTLEY MARK nametags into my underwear (I wore boxer shorts in those days, a rebel against the majority.). Every bit of white-cotton thread she bit off, I thought, was another nail in the coffin of my banishment from my beloved Manhattan for the entire month of August: I was to go live on a Catskills Mountain, somewhere, an eleven-year-old hermit, like Heidi’s Grandpapa, along with the white goat and the black, Shwanli and Barli. I would toast my goat-cheese over an open fire, and blow my alpenstock-horn until the valleys and hills echoed…. Truthfully, Mom sewed my name-tags onto so many T-shirts and skivvies, that I believe I threw out the last of them, stitched with an iron thread, with my name in capital letters, perhaps a mere two years ago; that was how efficient she was, in Getting Rid of Her Only Son….
My departure date came: Mom took my hand, and schlepped me, unwilling, to the Bus Stop: the Trailways bus pulled in, and there I was—packed, dressed in a T-shirt that read CAMP GA-LI-LA like a real-life Paddington Bear, and loaded onto the camp bus, I was off to the Catskill Mountains; like Henry Hudson and his Enchanted Crew, I was off to Parts Unknown, and the Prospect was not Good.
            My thoughtful mother, concerned lest I die of hunger on the bus (this had never before, and would never, ever happen), had supplied me with a large bag of Pretz’l Nuggets, with which I stuffed my face during the trip—never underestimate the power of food to relieve anxiety. Unfortunately, the combination of my choosing to sit on the bumping-and-thumping back wheel of a diesel-powered bus, noxious fumes and all, added to a bellyful of pretzels, did have its inevitable outcome, and I made full use of the handy pretzel bag when I was done.
            Pale, shaken, and with cold perspiration bespangling my brow, I arrived in Greater Downtown South Fallsburg—the saddest, sorriest mountain townlet one could ever wish for, but one which became Greater Transplanted Jewburg every summer. Farther up the block, a small clutch of my fellow campers were happily getting into a large station wagon the camp had thoughtfully sent out to collect them. I, dazed, stood looking about at Nothing in Particular on the sidewalk, until a local cab driver—call him Slick—full-toothily-smiling, businesslike, and expert at marketing his services in a slick, greasy sort of way, approached me, spitting precisely on the sidewalk just between my wobbly legs and the brand-new steamer trunk my mother had purchased, its shiny black sides and golden-brass fittings gleaming in the late-afternoon sun. My chauffeur-to-be smelled New York money, and was eager to collect.
            “Need a lift, Sport?” asked Slick, drawing a large comb from his jeans pocket and dragging it through his Elvis-like pompadour.
            I nodded numbly, still queasy from my pretz’l binge, and waiting for the world to stop spinning.
            “Whereya goin’?” Slick pursued, an errant toothpick moving from side to side in his shark’s-tooth mouth.
            “Camp Galila,” I whispered, through vomit-and-pretz’l-embossed lips.
            “That that Jewish camp outside a’ town?” asked Slick.
            I nodded again.
            “Let’s saddle ya up,” said Slick, seizing hold of my trunk and hoisting it onto his cab’s roof as if it were gossamer, “and get ya t’Camp Gonorrhea, or wherever it is yer goin’.”
            I held on desperately to the worn-out grey leather of the back seat while Slick floored his De Soto Airflow Taxi, working the wheel and shift expertly with one hand, while the other combed his coif, so thoroughly shellacked with Bryllcreme that it refused to move in the breeze. We sped along so quickly, it seemed to me, that even the little Hawaiian hula dancer on the front dashboard hid her eyes in fright. The combination of squealing tires, flying pebbles, and airborne dust was too much for my overworked stomach, and I closed my eyes, praying for it all to end—which it did, quickly. Spinning madly and with a shriek of its worn-out tires, the De Soto executed a full-on one-eighty-degree spin, ending right in front of the main cabin on the campgrounds. Slick leapt out of the driver’s seat and opened my door with a flourish, and I saw a prominent sign whose bold red-on-white letters read, “Camp Director’s Office” in Hebrew and English.
            I slowly eased my aching frame out of the back seat of the De Soto—it wasn’t easy; the seats were cushy and deep, and a used condom had somehow stuck itself to the seat of my pants—I didn’t find out what it was until later—but I emerged to see a small delegation of camp personnel, and was grateful to see them happy to welcome me; that is, until I noted the puzzled look on everyone’s face. Slick yanked my trunk off the roof of his cab and lowered it gently to the ground, where it landed with a dull thud, sending up a cloud of yellow camp-dust. His toothpick quivered as he grinned and stood, expectantly, right hand out, palm up.
            “Thank you,” I said to him, weakly, and went to shake his hand.
            Slick withdrew his hand, used it to smooth his hair, bent over, and said, slowly, as if he were speaking to a cretin,
            “You don’t have to thank me. You have to pay me.”
            I stood, horrified, looking at Slick: was this part of the deal? I had no money, and was truly unaware of any services I could offer him to pay for the ride. I had no Pretz’l Nuggets left, either: digested or undigested, they were gone—luckily, an officious-looking gentleman stepped forward, smiling and nodding at Slick, and wagged his hand at me. I was saved.
            Hours later, this same man—Uncle Sy, the Camp Director—told me that he called my mother.
            “Did David arrive safely at camp?” she asked.
            “Oh, yes, Mrs. Mark,” Sy replied, “he came by taxi.”
            My mother was amazed. I had never even taken a bus, or subway, alone before.
            Uncle Sy called my Division Head, or “D.H.”—I was soon to become acquainted with all sorts of camp incunabula—Louie, who took me to my bunk.
I must explain here that Camp Galila had not begun its existence as a camp; it was originally one of the many Catskills demi-hotels, a “kuch-ah-lain,” literally, “cook alone,” or “cook by oneself,” or bungalow colony, which a small group of Jewish entrepreneurs purchased, and turned into a summer camp. Camp standards were lax in those days, and food was cheap, and the growing demographic of Baby Boomers to which I belonged was in need of summer recreation.
            The bunk was actually a former bungalow. I met my fellow eleven-year-olds, all, or most, of whom, it seemed, were named Al. We shook hands, and they all crowded into my room—two guys to a room—to watch me unpack my stuff. I did not know it then, but, having arrived midseason, I had the dubious status of being The New Guy, or Fresh Meat, in a den of young He-Wolves.
When I took my most Precious Possessions—my set of six paperbacks comprising “The Best of Mad Magazine” out of the trunk, their joy was unbounded. Mad Magazine was more precious than Torah or Bible for young American boys in those days; we memorized and recited its every line to one another, and the fellow who knew every clever phrase was highly esteemed. Not being athletically gifted, I made up for it by knowing Mad routines and articles by heart. My books of Mad collections, therefore, were my Keys to the Kingdom, but I did not know this then. I became at once popular. My newly-found friends were pleading:

            “Can I borrow them?”
“Oh, Dave, can I borrow them?”
“I’ll be your best friend!” Etc.
Speechless, I stood, holding out the books, like a bucket of guts to a murder of vultures: my joyful bunkmates seized the precious paperbacks from my grasping hands, and they vanished. I never saw them again—the books, that is—with one exception. As I was packing to go home, weeks later, a counselor I did not know came into my room, holding one—just one, volume of my collection. It lay limply in his hand, half its pages missing, looking as if it had been kicked and tossed and used in some diabolical game of ringalevio—he held it out to me, and said,
“I found this book, with your name in it. Do you want it back?”
            Dumbly, I reached for it: it lay in my hand like a dead thing. All I could do was stare: you must understand that books, in those days (and, to some extent, today) were my best friends. I did not like to loan them, to run the risk of losing them. And now, here, one of my friends had returned to me, torn and nearly destroyed. I stared at it, at its remains. I could not speak.
            The counselor waited, and said, crossly, “The least you can do is say, ‘Thank you’ to me for returning it to you!”
            “Thank you,” I said.
            He left. I know he didn’t understand. No one could understand.
            From the time of my arrival, I was in for hazing and teasing—I could not know, going in, that this was the fate of the New Guy, and I was ill-equipped to withstand it. I had no athletic abilities, no skills or talents that were marketable in the bourse of Boyhood. Years later, I mastered the art of Humor, and, to a greater extent, the Art of Sarcasm, and of the Putdown. This was not really hard: I learned it from an Expert, my Mother. Indeed, I was an adult before I learned that Humor and Sarcasm were not the same thing. I believe now that this a particularly Jewish trait—or, perhaps, that of the weaker person who wishes to defend himself against those more powerful. To be sarcastic with a deadpan face is particularly deadly, and one must learn How, When and Where to use it. It becomes an Art.
            In the meantime, I quickly learned the Camp Routine, and discovered the pecking order of the bunk. The athletes were on top, while nerds like me were somewhere in the middle—we could defend ourselves verbally. Those who could not shine either athletically or verbally were at the very bottom, and all, myself included, dumped on them—or, as I preferred, ignored them. It was a harsh existence, but this was the price of Being a Boy.
Camp was a Life-Lesson in definitely crucial ways. I learned to:
            1. Sweep the floor of my room, first tossing some water on the wood floor to dampen the dust.
            2. Make a bed using straight sheets, including hospital corners—this particular skill has disappeared, in a world of fitted sheets, but time was when a finicky counselor might deliberately toss a quarter onto a bed, to see if the sheets were truly stretched tightly, and, if the quarter did not bounce, the counselor would strip the bed. Again, this happened rarely, except during Color War, for which, see below.
            3. Swim. I am convinced that, had I not gone to camp, I would not have learned to properly swim. If walking is controlled falling, then swimming is controlled drowning.
            Camp was also a fine place to be—well, a boy. I had never really been physical, unless carrying home tall stacks of books from the local Branch Library could be considered a physical act; for me, it was a pleasure, and the paramount act of my week. At camp, I learned to roughhouse. One day, I was playing with a bunkmate in the narrow hall of the bungalow—one of the ubiquitous Als—when he threw me against the wall, with all of his might.
            To our mutual amazement, when I picked myself up off the wall, I saw that my posterior part had gouged a hole in its fragile, plastered surface. We both started to laugh—not at me, but at the utter delicacy of our dwelling. After we stopped our giggling, we went to fetch one of our counselors, who did not share the humorous nature of the occurrence.
            “How did you do that—I mean, bash a hole in the wall with your butt?” he asked.
            Without hesitating, I threw my hefty hindquarters against the wall a second time—and gouged out another hole.
            There was much to be said for the construction of camp bunks at Galila, but little about their durability. Luckily, my parents were not charged.
Besides the sports events in which I was forced to compete, and in which I inevitably sucked, there were also all-camp events. I remember the time that our camp played host to another Jewish camp—one whose philosophy was not religious. Our camp rabbi gave us a lecture in which he stressed that Derech Eretz kadma l’Torah—Good manners precede Torah—meaning that, if any of us noticed anything strange or out of the ordinary about our visitors, we should keep it to ourselves; if we had any questions about their behavior, we could either consult with our counselors, or go directly to him.
Our visitors were from Camp Ha-Bonim, “The Builders,” which I discovered later were affiliated with Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsa’ir, the “Young Guard,” the left-wing American branch of the Jabotinsky Party in Israel, Menachem Begin’s Herut (Liberty) Party, from which Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party is descended, for better or worse.
As we watched, the HaBonim bus pulled up, and our visitors disembarked, wearing identical workmen’s denim-blue workshirts, and matching shorts. They were a well-drilled group of miniature right-wingers, it seemed, with no kippote (skullcaps) among them. Wordlessly, as though they had rehearsed their parts in perfect unison, they took the field, and our baseball game began. Our teams were somewhat evenly matched, until one of their players got on first, at which point, all of their players got into a circle, hunched over, and, in a deep, group voice, called out their special team cheer: “Ka-DI-ma, Ha-bo-NEEE-EEM! Ka-DIM-ma, Ha-bo-NEEE-EEM! (Forward, Builders of Israel!)”
This shamanic utterance totally flummoxed and frightened our pitcher, “Hawkeye” Mintzenberg, who muffed his pitches to the next three HaBonim batters, and we lost the game. It could not be considered an Act of God; HaBonim were all atheists, or, at least, agnostics. But when we were forced to line up for the traditional “Good Sport” hand-slapping ceremony, I distinctly recall how the HaBonim players gave each of us an evil look and went out of their way to give an extra-hard slap to our tender, scholarly palms. Several of us flipped them the middle-fingered bird as their bus went coughing and lurching out of our camp grounds.
There was also Color War, in which the Entire Camp was divided into two teams, made to march in Perfectly Straight Lines, and compete in Athletic Contests for three days, following an esoteric Scoring System known as “Olympic Scoring,” where both the Winning and Losing Teams still managed to divide the points between them, making scoring each event a Solomonic challenge, subjecting each counselor-judge to waves of hatred emanating from both teams, not just the loser.
The entire Three-Day Experience culminated in a Major Sing Event, with both sides using songs as weapons to demoralize and demolish their foe. Judges paid close attention to the “banners” each team produced, which were actually elaborate, 3-D mannequins of each team’s symbol. After a couple of events, in which I was made to march in lockstep from my bunk to the basketball court to the baseball field to the lake for a Group Swim, with every event measured, scored, and written down, including fines for those Who Dared to Talk in Line, I concluded that this was nothing more than Organized Fascism.
I witnessed at least one of the two Color War “Generals”—the counselor who headed one of the teams—become so involved, overwrought, and near-manic over this foolish group experiment, that he almost suffered a nervous breakdown. I pledged to never be involved again in such a ridiculous group experience.
Still, it was useful to study, from a distance, the sociological effects of forcing young children to march, sing, and dedicate themselves to oddly-named teams—that year, we had the Grey Buccaneers and the Blue Cavaliers; the Buccaneers took Color War, which taught absolutely no moral lesson whatsoever:
Cavaliers (clap)
            Cavaliers (clap)
            We will beat those
            Everybody now!

            Being the woods, for a City Boy, meant going into the Woods—an experience I would have missed, and gladly, but for most campers and counselors—the fools—the culmination of the summer at Camp Galila was the Nature Hike, with an Overnight in the Woods. As a City Boy, all of my early life, I had developed certain ideas about Nature.
Nature existed in two places: Central Park, where it was sensibly kept within certain boundaries—the Sheep Meadow, the Pond—and the American Museum of Natural History, where my mother took my sister and me, to observe dummies made up to look like cavemen, early explorers, dinosaurs, mammals, and the like.
            In the Museum, I saw Nature, from behind glass. A dummy sabre-toothed tiger threatened dummy cave-people, and I had no idea who triumphed: the action was static. Certainly, my hopes were for the cave-people, but the tiger seemed to have the weight and fighting advantage. It was amusing and quaint to watch the little, make-believe fire, composed of a small bulb held under red-and-yellow painted plastic cubes, flickering away.
            The resultant problem was that I saw no need to enter or even visit an Actual Woods. I knew, or at least assumed, that Walt Disney’s Bambi, Thumper, Flower and their friends inhabited real-life (or, at least, cartoon) woods, but I felt no great urge to visit or spend time with them. How would I benefit from this? But then, I went to camp, where Nature assumed an exaggerated importance I did not believe it deserved—partly because of Earl.
            The Nature Counselor was a thin, serious-browed fellow named Earl Vinecour, who was inevitably nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” for his tragic mien. He announced after breakfast one day that nearly the entire camp, my bunk among them, would be going on an overnight “up the river,” to some mysterious destination, which he chose not to name. If he had told us we were marching to Tibet, armed only with toothbrushes, prayerbooks, and a Torah scroll, the destination would not have mattered to me. I had only recently grown used to sleeping in my bungalow, listening every night to the chirping of crickets, the hooting of owls, and the sounds of various small animals in the underbrush; as long as a sturdy, or not-too-holy screen separated me from the various Forest Creatures and Bugs, I was content.
            Now, it seemed, the tables were turned. No longer was I to be safe within four sturdy walls, between sheets and blankets. I was going to enter into Nature’s lair, for no sensible reason. Why should I go on a Nature Hike? What was I to learn from this experience? What had Nature to do with me, or I with Nature?
            I had no time to puzzle over these questions, since Earl ordered all of us boys and girls to immediately return to our bunks, and pack suitable clothing, whatever that was. We took shorts, long pants, sweatshirts, hats, flashlights, and assorted forest-appropriate paraphernalia. And we were off, to encounter Nature.
            I next remembered standing by a small river, balancing on a surface of river rocks made up of small and medium-sized round pebbles whose chief purpose is to trip me up or make me twist an ankle. The rushing rivulet nearby was cold, and totally unappetizing. The sun seemed to have gone behind clouds—strange, for mid-August, but this was, after all, the Catskills, and a fairly high mountain elevation. I idly wondered if Rip Van Winkle might make an appearance, followed by the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his Crew, as I had read in Washington Irving’s stories.
            I was thoroughly bored, and, like the other campers, was walking alongside the rivulet, poking at the stones with a dry stick. Was this the great Introduction to Nature that Earl had promised us? Apparently, Earl sensed our boredom, because he suddenly had the idea that we ought to cross the stream, for reasons I could not figure out. The other side looked just as boring as this one, but we all knew not to cross him; he was the Mighty Woodsman, after all (We found out, later, that he was majoring in Accounting at college, and his knowledge of woodcraft was just a front.).
            “Campers! All campers, line up—we’re crossing the stream!” he shouted. This was Vinegar Joe, the Mighty Earl, himself: apparently, we had achieved the first objective, of studying the wilderness stream, and it was time to strike out boldly, into the woods. The water was cold and uninviting, if bare of any fish save a few minnows; the tall pines which blocked out the mid-August sun contributed to the unseasonable cold.
            There was no dry path to cross the stream: a few rocks, moss-covered, slippery, and rounded by the winter’s swollen waterflow, were the only way to get over. The thinner, more agile kids, giggling and calling out to one another, had no trouble maneuvering across; I chose to hold back, studying where they placed their feet. I had never been graceful in any way, a family trait I shared with most every immediate relative I could think of.
            Finally, it was my turn: I placed a careful foot on a green-bearded boulder, and started across. It was like stepping on sharpened ice cubes, and I felt every step through the thin soles of my U.S. Keds sneakers.
This was not going to be easy, I told myself.
Across the stream, the other kids, bored, were tossing pebbles into the sluggish stream. A few of them, grinning sadistically, winged a couple in my direction, not aiming directly at me, but close enough to give me something else to worry about.
I looked down, focusing on my progress: One foot, other foot, one foot, other foot….
It all happened very quickly: while I was concentrating on moving my left foot forward, my right foot, which I thought I had planted firmly on a fairly solid rock, started to move sideways, as the stone, unaccustomed to the unusual weight (I was a chunky fellow, who tended to relieve my camp-related worries at the dinner table, and camp meals leaned toward meat and potatoes), moved into the stream, and away from its fellows—
--Trying to regain my foothold on the right, my left zipped up, and I fell backward with a mighty splash into the chilly water, going beneath the surface once—
--And came back to the surface, choking and sputtering. As I struggled to my knees and stood up, soaked to the skin, I looked at the little mob on the opposite shore. They stared; to my relief, no one laughed, but the waves of Schadenfreude, their unexpressed joy at thinking, knowing, “Thank God that that fall happened to the Fat Boy, and not to me”—radiated across the span of cold water, as I splashed to the shore, shivering.
No one said a word; no one asked if I was OK, or offered me any sympathy. I took up my place at the rear of the group, and we trudged off into the forest, my dripping blue Keds protesting, it seemed, with every step.
When we halted for the night, and spread out our bedrolls, which a truck from camp had pre-delivered at the campsite, I noted that many of my fellow campers—boys and girls were segregated, in accordance with Modern Orthodox practice—shucked off their pants, and hung them on a clothesline to dry.
I was shy, and did not join them; I kept my long pants on, though they were clammy and uncomfortable, soaked with river water from my fall.
It was a long night, and I shivered in my soaking-wet clothes. Lying there, deep in the woods, with stars twinkling overhead, I wondered at what sense it all made; why leave civilization for the dubious pleasure of lying on a woods-covered ground, with twigs, leaves, and assorted thorns poking oneself in the back? No answer came, either from God or the various woodsy creatures, and I finally, exhausted from the day’s exertions, slept.
I awoke feeling chafed (I have always been a delicate sort), but happy to find my pants dry. We lined up for the ubiquitous dry cereal boxes—the ones that opened like a double-door, using a plastic knife. I got on line in time to find the pre-sweetened brands all gone: vanished were the Frosted Flakes, the Raisin Bran, and the Frosty-O’s; I had to content myself with Rice Krispies, which were dry and tasteless. Perhaps this cereal penance, added to my cold, stiff jeans, might have made me think of ancient monks living on pillars or depriving themselves of other earthly joys: I was a sort of Simon Stylites, Jewish version, had I been aware of him, at the tender age of eleven.
The day began apace, with our group, for reasons unclear, returning to the very stream where I had come to grief the day before. Earl, our seasoned woodsman, showed us where the moss grew, and lectured us far too long about different varieties of tree bark. He then led us down to the side of the stream, and began pointing at the minnows and explaining their particular differences; I was far from the group, and chose to stare at the water nearby, so his bits of woodsy wisdom were, unfortunately, lost on me. I had already resolved to keep as far from the forest as possible for the rest of my life, so I had no need of any information he might provide.  
The stream’s passage, combined with the rays of sunlight playing on its surface, was mesmerizing. I did not notice that Earl had led the rest of the group across via a drier path of rocks, and stayed, along with other bored and uninvolved campers, on the quieter side of the stream. Camping was turning into a more pleasant, restful experience, and I began to look around for a relatively soft place to sit and gaze upon the stream, somewhere I could appreciate nature’s beauty and ignore the plaintive voice of an accountant-cum-trailblazer.
Suddenly, once again, Earl’s strident voice cut into my reverie:

“WATER MOCCASIN! COTTONMOUTH! POISONOUS SNAKE! Drop what you’re doing, Kids, and run across the stream! RIGHT NOW! Omigod, it’s right next to you! MOVEITMOVEITMOVEIT! That’s one of the deadliest—no, THE deadliest—snakes I know!”

Without hesitation, my fellow-dreamers and I sprang into adrenaline mode, and went splashing across the turbid, chilling waters, even as a little Voice of Conscience in my head, went, “What? This crap, again?” and my nether parts quickly ascended into my lower abdomen.
To Earl’s credit, there was, indeed, a Water Moccasin, scourge of Jewish campers, in the water, though we never learned if it was, truly, a Hazard to Our Existence.
The only view I had of the Beastly Reptile was of its Headless Form, writhing on a rock in the sunlight, after Fearless Earl had beheaded it, with his handy hand-ax. For years afterward, I believed the entire affair was a set-up, but could not figure how Earl managed to plant the snake in the water: how does one bribe a snake into getting killed? I have since given up trying.
I spent the rest of the day squishing through the woods in my twice-soaked jeans and submarined Keds, until we mounted school buses, and went back to camp.
And that is why, Reader, I have never, since, re-entered any woods, anywhere, for any reason. Moses, our Original Nature Counselor, led the Israelites through the Wilderness for forty years; I spent one night in the forest with Earl Vinecour, the legendary “Vinegar Joe,” as well as Wet Underwear and Jeans, Squishy Keds Sneakers, and, as Piece de Resistance, My Own, Personal, Deadly Serpent. I have done my share of Wilderness Exploring, and my pants are finally dry, thank you very much. If you need me to go camping, you may call the nearest, mid- to high-range motel. Leave any errant creepy-crawlies outside. I’ll leave the light on for you.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dad and I Play Basketball, Not Well

            My father was Saul Mark. He went to college, the only one in his family to do so, and got his BS and MS in Chemistry. He worked very hard to put bread on the table for my mother, sister, and me. I think about him doing three of his favorite things: sitting at the bedroom window of our seventh-floor apartment on Grand Street, Lower East Side, New York City, with the window open so he could get some fresh air, looking out at the people sitting on the courtyard benches, listening to the News Stations on his little black-and-gold plastic transistor radio—either WINS or Newsradio-88, and reading The New York Times. He also loved to go to shul, but I will write about that somewhere else. He also yelled at me when he tried to tutor me in Math, but that’s another subject, too. I’m going to write about Dad and Sports.
            Dad didn’t really like sports. There is one story from when I was a baby about how he propped me up on the couch with pillows and told my mother we were watching a Yankees game, but I don’t really think either of us were watching. Sports wasn’t much of a big deal in our house. He would read his papers—the Times, The Daily News, and The New York Post, and I would read books and comics.
            I belonged to a Sports Club from the shul, where they made us go to the East River Drive every Sunday and either shoot hoops or play softball, depending on the season. He did go with me to Haber’s Sporting Goods Store on Essex St. to buy me a baseball glove—a lefty’s glove, at that—but he never showed me how to use it. I actually thought you had to catch the ball in the palm, not the webbing. And he never showed me how to throw a ball properly; I don’t think he knew how to do it, himself. This did not help me in baseball, but I didn’t really care; I spent more time reading at home or in the library, and he spent most of his time on the subway or in buses going or coming from work. We didn’t really see that much of each other, except on weekends, or in shul.
            I do remember getting really frustrated over my inability to shoot hoops. Basketball was an urban Jewish game. I had a basketball, and I would go around the neighborhood looking for a place to practice, but every time I found a vacant place to play, a gang of local kids—this isn’t racist; it isn’t intended to be racist, but they happened to be Puerto Rican—tried to take my ball away. One time, I ran into the Co-op Supermarket to hide from them, and had to stay there for almost a half hour. This was, to me, a terrible waste of time I could better spend reading, so I quietly gave up basketball practice. I relegated the basketball to my closet.
            There was one particular Sunday, I recall, when I was upset about my inability to practice shooting hoops—it was clear that a guy my height (5’8”) and girth was not going to be a basketball star, but I felt I should, at least, have some kind of respectable foul shot. I was jealous of other short guys who played decently—one guy I knew from Yeshiva High had developed a style where he jumped up and folded up his legs like a frog—the other guys laughed at him, but he made his shots. I could not sink a basket, froglike or not.
It was clear that I needed to visit the best and most tantalizing basketball courts in the neighborhood, which were also the most dangerous: the East River Drive Park, down by the river. Everyone knew that you took your life into your hands if you went to the East River Drive by yourself; THEY—meaning the nameless, bloodthirsty, indescribable gangs of anti-semitic hoodlums that nobody had ever seen, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist—would cut your throat, steal your ball and money, and dump your lifeless body into the East River—and so, I went to my poor father and poured out my bitter heart on him, like a True Jewish Son:
            “You never want to play ball with me,” I said, pouring on the Parental Guilt in High Style, “and, because of you, I will never, ever be able to play basketball, for my Entire Life,” or words of this nature.
            Dad was shocked—truly shocked. He had never heard me speak about sports, not at all, and he felt truly guilty. It was a gorgeous spring day, and all he wanted to do, poor man, was sit by the open window, read his paper, and listen to the radio. But I was his son, and Duty was Duty. He sighed, put the paper down, I took my basketball in hand—I might even have dribbled it a little; you know, to impress him—and we went together to the East River Drive, my feeling safe and protected because my Old Man was with me, to fight off the Bloodthirsty Gangs of Anti-Semites.
            We went to one of the deserted basketball courts with the holes in the chicken-wire fences, shot hoops, dribbled, passed the ball back and forth, and played for about an hour. We both worked up a sweat, and got thoroughly bored. I missed my books; he missed his paper, window view, and radio news.
            Finally, as if by silent, mutual agreement, we went home, and washed up, in separate bathrooms. Mom and my sister were out, and I don’t know if we ever told them about our Dad & Son Adventure. I do remember feeling relieved as I sat down to whatever book I was engrossed in, and I know Dad was very happy to get back to his paper and sit by the window, again.
            We never spoke of it, ever. I wonder now what sort of relationship Dad had with his Dad, my Zayde Yankel from the Old Country, where fathers certainly didn’t play ball with their sons. I know that Dad loved me, and the last twenty years of Dad’s life, after he retired and didn’t have to slog from home to work day after day, were much more relaxed. We spoke on the phone at least once a week, and said “I love you” a lot more to each other. Oh, and we hugged. That always felt good.

            So, this is a “Happy Father’s Day,” to my Dad. Thanks for shooting hoops with me, that day, even though you didn’t want to. Neither did I. But I’m glad we did it.

Korach: All Appeared Quiet at the Egyptian Border-Garrison on that Fateful Day, 1209 BCE


Royal Egyptian Army Military Dispatch: Official Eyes Only

Garrison Report, Fortress #14, South-West Boundary, Kingdom of Pharaoh Merneptah, Year 1209 of the Reign of Sacred Pharaoh-Father-Ruler Merneptah-Baenre-Merynetjeru.
Greetings! I, Horemheb, Lieutenant-Colonel Commanding, 57th Battalion, “Battle-Falcons,” Royal Egyptian Infantry, do submit the following Monthly Report of Our Troop Activities Guarding the South-West Boundary of Merneptah’s Sacred Lands, Canaanite Territories:

Item: Ten Canaanite Terrorists, probing our positions: repulsed by Patrol from “Osiris’s Revenge” Chariot Troop, Major Khafre Commanding. Results: five Terrorists killed; three wounded, two escaped—two Canaanite terrorists dispatched, one captain, held for ransom; no losses to our troops, by the Grace of Sun-God-Re

Item: Two Troop-Probes of Canaanite Territory as Retaliation for Their Violation of Our Border: Treacherous Canaanite Archers Attempt to Ambush our Chariots, but Our Men retired in Good Fighting Order; No Losses to our Glorious Soldiers; One Horse Killed

Item: Four Wagon-Loads local provisions received by our Cook—fruit, vegetables, wheat; payment made, bills enclosed for Royal Commissary’s Receipts; See Attached

Item: Sergeant Muwatallis found Guilty of Drinking Alcohol While on Night-Watch; Jailed Two Weeks as Punishment, Reduced to Private; Lance-Corporal Amennemhet Promoted to Acting-Sergeant in His Place; His Promotion Ceremony to follow when our Unit returns to Barracks during Rainy Season, Sun-god-Re Willing

Item: One Israelite Refugee, Ziphron ben Abiram by Name, Wandered into our Garrison from Wilderness Direction, Coming from North-Eastern Territory; Fear of his Being Hittite Spy; Interrogated by Capt. Meryibre with Lt. Nebkaure as Interpreter.
 Transcript Follows: Sgt. Merenre, Scribe, Recording. Note that Hebrew is designated as H; our Questions as E.

E: Before we begin, Hebrew, let me state that you are in no danger, if you answer all of our questions fully and truthfully. If you lie to us, your punishment will be swift and terrible. Do not forget that your ancestors were our slaves, years ago. For the Record, Hebrew, state your full name, family, and tribe.

H: My name is Ziphron ben Abiram. My father, Abiram, is a Levite, and dared to rebel against the leader of our people, one Moses.

E: Moses? I recall hearing this name, during History Class in Egyptian Officers’ School. He was a wizard who angered our ancestor, Ramesses II, and was speedily driven out of our land, but not before stealing much gold, silver, and precious raiment, as well as taking with him a few common Habiru slaves. We heard stories of your god, as well, but our god, Pharaoh Ramesses, was mightier, and was able to chase him away, despite losing two or three chariots at the Reed Sea.What brought you to our Canaanite Border Garrison, Hebrew? Are you a spy?

H: My father, Abiram, dared to challenge Moses for leadership of our tribe, our people.

E: Was your father a more powerful wizard than Moses? What was his challenge?

H: Moses spoke to our God, and He told us all to appear before Him the next day, with special priestly tools and fire-pans for incense.

E: Were these—fire-pans?—the weapons you were to use to fight this Moses?

H: All we had were fire-pans and prayers.

E: But you believed Moses was a more powerful god?

H: He is but a man, able to speak with our God as I am speaking to you. We were challenging his leadership. We believed that any of us, of our tribe, the Levites, could lead the people, as well as he. Why should he raise himself up over us?

E: And what happened the next day?

H: As we stood before Moses and his brother Aaron, the sky grew dark. We waved our incense-pans; we prayed to God, as he did. I heard my father call to Korach, our leader, “Look, look at the sky! See there: Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire! Who can tell whom the Mighty God of Israel will choose?”

E: Did your god favor you, or Moses? Speak, Hebrew, speak! (At this point, the Prisoner seemed to freeze, unable to speak further. Capt. Meryibre slapped the Prisoner across the face, to break his trance.)

H (began to shake and cry; we stopped the interrogation to fetch him some wine, to calm his mind): The sky went black, and it began to lightning and thunder. The ground opened up; I turned, and dropped my fire-pan—but before I started to run, I thought I saw Korach being lifted up into the air, and I called out, “My Father! My Father! The Chariots of Israel and Its Horsemen!”—it was as if the ground was splitting under my feet; there was a burning sulphur smell, and I heard screams—I ran and ran (Prisoner began to sob and cry uncontrollably, and would not speak further; we called soldiers to take him under guard).

Note from the Commander, Fortress #14, to Main Army Base Commander, Heliopolis:
This Hebrew has gone mad; he would not further answer any of our questions. Recommend he be placed in the Hospital-Annex of the Temple of Aescelapius, god of Healing, and appropriate incense-offerings and prayers be made on his behalf. We cannot contact the Israelites by messenger or via signal-smoke; they cannot be found. The Wilderness, it appears, has swallowed them up; they are lost. Here ends our Report. All Hail our God-King-Father-Ruler, Pharaoh Merneptah-Baenre-Merynetjeru!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Spying Out the Land of Canaan: What Really Happened

Shlach: The Tale of the Spies

Scene: A tribal harvest-feast, in Canaan, c. 1380 BCE. Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin have celebrated with food, barley beer, wine, dance and song, thanking their Desert God, Adonoi, or He-Who-Is, for a bountiful harvest and large flocks of cattle, sheep and goats. The cooking-fires have died down, hearts are warm and bellies are full, and all are feeling well-content in the bounty granted them by a beneficent, if demanding, God. As the desert night settles over their farms and fields, they settle around the fires to warm themselves, and call for a story from one of their Elders, Palti ben Rafu, of the Tribe of Benjamin, the only remaining member of the spying-party which Moses, their earliest and greatest leader, rabbi, and teacher, sent out to explore this strange and challenging land, some generations ago. As yet, these stories are still being passed down literally—orature, rather than literature, and it is important that their young people listen to the tales of their past.

            Before I speak, give me a drop of that barley beer—you, Even-Ezer, you son-of-a-sheep, where are you hiding it?—thank you; no, don’t fill it up to the top; I am old, and am better served with the plain, cold water of this Israel, our native land, and inheritance from God, blessed be His Name! And where is Kessem, my littlest great-granddaughter? Ah, there you are, sweet little brown-eyed one; come, come sit by Savta, your great-gran’ther, and hear this story of how I carried the Great Bunch of Grapes over the Jordan River—bless me, how long ago was it?
A Voice from the back calls, “Ten years, Lord Palti!” Other Voices object: “What do you know? It was at least twenty rains—I recall how the floods came, when my boy Sodi-el was but a babe!” “Silence, All! We must hear the story,” etc.
            So: Rabbi Moses was old, and he assured us that we would conquer, certainly conquer the Land, for his Lord God would go before us, as He did at the Reed Sea, and shatter the stone houses of the Mighty Canaanites—
            Voice: I wish He would, and welcome. My Canaanite neighbor throws trash from his Idol-Offerings over his fence into my yard.
Another Voice: Will you not be quiet? I told you before, to bring that complaint to the Philistine Chieftain in charge of your District! Silence!
            --But we doubted; we were free in name, but slaves in mind, still, and He-Who-Is had threatened us, because we Doubted Him—this we heard from Moses, by way of Aaron (he was no young man, either; he could no longer go out nor come in, and his sons had to lift the heavier carcasses of the offerings), by way of Joshua and Caleb—that we were doomed to wander in the Wilderness of scorpions and serpents, to toughen us up; that was what God said—but Moses agreed that we, princes one and all of our tribes, should spy out the land; yes, that was to be our task—and so, we packed matzos for the trip, and dried fruit in leathern bags, and crossed via the mountain-range, the better not to leave a trail; the Egyptians, y’see, had fortresses and sentry-posts and checkpoints all along the boundary-lines ‘twixt them and Canaan—and suspicious folks, they are, too, the Egyptians, always checking us innocent farmers, shaking us down, to make sure we weren’t bringing in any contraband—
            Voice: tell us about the cities walled-up-to-the-sky,Great-Uncle Palti, and the Giants you saw!
            Hm? What? Cities? Well, there were cities—not walled that high, I must admit; that was a story Shammua ben Zakoor, of the Reuben-tribe, cooked up in his head; those Reubenites—well, you can’t trust ‘em—they always have to make a big deal of everything, they do; they never liked being passed over to lead the People, their ancestor being the Firstborn Son, but what with Judah being the biggest tribe, and God choosing Levi to serve in the Mishkan-Sanctuary—it’s a family-tribal-thing with the Reubenites. (Moses said God made the Choice, but, betwixt you and me and tent-flap, I call it Politics, and Who Y’Know, not What Y’Know.) And it only ended up by getting us all in trouble. Me, I agreed with Joshua ben Nun of Ephraim (a small tribe, that one, but still, my Joshua managed to become Our Leader ‘til his death; a good and honest man, God rest his soul) and Caleb ben Yefuneh of Judah, but somehow, the records weren’t kept, and it wasn’t ever written down in the final Report. It doesn’t figure anyway, because Moses tore it up; God was unhappy with what we said….
            Voice: Why, Cousin Palti?
            Hm? Why? Well, we were country bumpkins, d’ye see: a bunch of scapegrace slaves, herding goats and such, going up against a settled, advanced, farmer-folk, living in fortified cities—fifteen cubits or “up to the sky,” I believe the Report said, well, it didn’t matter; we had no way of storming any city. No ladders; nothing for a siege, not even a shovel to dig a ditch. Besides, they had iron weapons—wonderful metal, iron is, so strong and sharp, and we were still wielding ours of bronze, silly and soft—I tell you, there was no way we could beat them. We needed to use a subterfuge, in the end.
            Voice: And what did you do, Neighbor Palti?
            Do? Well, we spies did all we could. But later, when Joshua led us, there was no such rigamarole as marching ‘round Jericho’s walls seven times and blowing shofarote, I can tell you, with “The walls come a’tumbling down.” Nonsense. It was like the Conquest of the City of Ai, more like: we fooled the warriors and their king into an ambush; when they chased after us, they left the city gates open, the fools; one squad of our boys ran into Ai and set the city ablaze, and then, when our pursuers gasped and gaped to see their houses afire, we turned about, surrounded ‘em, and massacred ‘em all. A bloodbath, ‘twas—I feel bad about it, to this day. They never had a chance….
            Voice: But Ai is a thriving city today!
            What? Is it? Well, perhaps it was a different city we sacked and burned—Beth-El, or some such. My memory fails me, here and there. It’s old, like me.
            Voice: What about the punishment from God, the forty years of wandering in the wilderness?
            Oh, that. Well, we shouldn’t have gone against God’s judgment, bad-mouthing the Land like that. But we never heard about the forty years, y’see: Moses kept it to himself. He believed that another few years in the wilderness would toughen us up, give us a better outlook, not on his leadership—poor man was getting too old, after all, and he was never much of a warrior; yes, I know, he killed that Egyptian, but that had been long ago, and he was angry, full of fight—Moses wanted to make certain that the younger folks and babes born in the wilderness would be born into freedom, and follow only God and our brave Joshua. That was the main thing. Any beer left? I’m dry, and tired. Story’s done. Bless you all, my children….
            Voice: Thank you, bless you, Lord Palti. Nitza, Ish-Baal! Give us a song, while Divri and Achva play the drum and flute. A Harvest Song, All! Now, everyone sing: Halleluya L’Adonai, Ki Tov—O Give Thanks to the Lord, for He is Good….

Monday, June 2, 2014

Have You, Reader, Ever Thought About Converting to Judaism? Working with Rabbi David Mark: an Introductory Essay

I try not to make it hard. I can't say how many people I've brought into the Tribe, but I prefer to meet with them, one-on-one. People who have attended classes and then meet with me personally prefer the personal approach, where I can tailor the lessons to their mindset and interests. I stress that this is an "Introduction to Judaism," and they have the rest of their lives, God willing, to emphasize whichever Jewish subject (and there are a lot, you know) they enjoy. I break it down to four basic areas: Jewish Holidays, LifeCycle, Bible, and History. My concern with the first two are that my Conversion Candidate, whom I counsel to begin thinking of themselves as a Jew as soon as possible, should know three reasons (at least) why we blow shofar, the five prohibitions of Yom Kippur, how old a boy baby is when he has his brit milah/ritual circumcision, and so on. I do not stress Bible and History as closely, except when there is a Bible book closely related to a particular holiday; e.g., Ruth, connected to Shavuote. The last two are the hardest, and impossible to cover completely, so I have a couple of texts that I recommend. My go-to Jewish History remains Chaim Potok's "Wanderings," which ends in 1978, but, because Potok was a novelist and wrote very well, it is far superior to the classic histories, which are dryasdust. Anyone wishing to continue this conversation, and possibly connect with me for private lessons, I refer to my email and/or website: email--, or http://deitychaser/, so you can start to see who I am, what my background is as a rabbi and English professor, and how and what I think and believe about this remarkable faith. It really is amazing and remarkable to be part of the Jewish people, faith, and culture, even when they do, speak, and act in aggravating ways, and, despite my studies in other faiths, could never see myself joining another. As for being or becoming an agnostic-- during all my crises of faith after leaving Orthodoxy, I never stopped believing in God. Someone, I believe, has got to be Running the Show; there is an Intelligence behind the Universe. Yes: I guess all those Orthodox rabbis did a good job, after all. Call or contact me; let's talk. --Rabbi David Mark, M.A., M.Phil.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Questioning Jewish Male Authority: Tsiporah, Wife of Moses, Visits Miriam in Her Banishment-Tent--Parshat Behaalotecha

Behaalotecha: Miriam and Tsiporah

                        What are we doing
                        In this dark land with its
                        Yellow shadows that pierce the eyes?
                        (Every now and then someone says, even after forty
                        Or fifty years: “The sun is killing me.”)

                        What are we doing with these souls of mist, with these names,
                        With our eyes of forests, with our beautiful children,
                        With our quick blood?

                        Spilled blood is not the roots of trees
                        But it’s the closest thing to roots
                        We have.

                        --Yehudah Amichai (1924-2000), “Jews in the Land of Israel,” trans. Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell

            The hot, angry disc of the sun burned from an unforgiving sky over the Israelite camp. Tsiporah, wife of Moses, dark-brown of eye and skin, drew her head-covering more closely over her long, black curls, which were only beginning to be streaked with tinges of grey, as she shouldered a tall clay jug of water out of the Israelite encampment, which lay, baking, in the still desert heat. Her sandals kicked up tiny sandstorms of dust as she went on her errand—to the black goatskin tent that had been pitched one mil out of the camp—close enough to supply with dry bread and water; far enough away to signify that the occupant was banished.
            The jet-black tent felt steaming-hot to the touch, though she knew it to be well-insulated from the noonday desert sun. As Tsiporah lowered the jug and knelt at the tent-flap, she heard a Voice sobbing from within, while slowly whispering a prayer from between dry, heat-cracked lips:
            “O’ God my God—I believe with perfect faith—hear the prayers of a simple woman, my God—that You, Who work wonders, are the Cause of my suffering—and I accept it (sob) with love—You have acted truthfully, while I, a foolish, silly woman, have caused wickedness—Ai!—forgive me, God, for my sins are many….”
            Reaching forth a long, graceful, but muscular arm, Tsiporah used a finger to gently open the tent-flap and called softly, “Miriam, my sister—Miriam—it is I, Tsiporah. I have brought you cooling water, on this hot, hot day. Reach forth your hands, and I will pour some over them.”
            The Voice stopped, but then, there was a moment of hesitation, as if the hearer were mentally overcome by heat and the loneliness of banishment, and uncertain what to do. Finally, the tent-flap opened slowly, and a pair of hands, all blistered and reddened from the sun, reached out, seeking human contact, shaking with a palsy of fear and aloneness. Tsiporah took them gently, oh so gently, in her own, kissed them, and poured cooling water over them. She then poured more water into a pottery cup, and passed it to the hands; they disappeared, and she heard the sound of the water being gulped down.
            “Not so fast, my Sister; not so fast; you will get a griping in your guts,” said Tsiporah softly, “May I come in?”
            “It is forbidden, Tsiporah, as you well know,” croaked the Voice, as if rusty from disuse, “I alone have sinned, and the redness and blisters the sun has wrought on my skin might well spread to you. I must stay here, until my Brother, Moses the Wise  and the Seventy Elders, determine when my quota of banishment is complete.”
Still whispering, Miriam managed to say Moses’s name a bit sardonically, while Tsiporah smiled to sense Miriam’s continuing rebelliousness. It’s still my Miriam in there, Tsiporah thought; You can lock her up, but she’ll never stop pushing, fighting back.
            “And what was your sin? What was its nature?” asked Tsiporah, her voice beginning to rise in anger, “Was it to dare question the judgment of my husband-your-brother, Moses?”
            “Hush, Tsippi,” said the Voice, “Or you—(here the Voice permitted itself a bit of a laugh) may find yourself alongside me, or taking my place, in this goatskin bower my prison.”
            “Here is olive-oil lotion for your burns, my Sister,” said Tsipporah, handing Miriam a small, covered pottery cup through the flap, “And I care not whom you tell that I gave it to you: tell even the God-Most-High who judges both men and women alike—though I believe He judges us women more harshly. Where is Aaron, your brother, he who is equal in the Sin of Gossip, if gossip it be to wonder why the most-high Leader, our Moses, my husband, is always working at the Godly Tent-of-Meeting, communing with He-Who-Is, and never to be found in his home tent with She-Who-Is-His-Wife? Where, indeed, is punishment for Aaron the Priest, the hearer of gossip, if gossip it be to protect my marital rights?”
            The Voice, refreshed now with two more cups of water, came forth from the tent, more patiently: “Tsippi, you know; you, more than anyone else of our Levite tribe, know full well. Aaron’s suffering—not to speak of that of his wife, Chochma, without whose help he would be but a ritual slaughterer, not a Mighty Peacemaker; she is, truly his closest and best adviser and counselor—that is, the loss of his two boys—is enough punishment, in the eyes of the Most-High-God. And so I, and I alone, bear this punishment.”
            “And your sin, my Sister?” asked Tsiporah, with a bitter edge to her voice.
            “It remains Gossip, my Sister. Gossip, Lashon Ha-Ra, my sin, and mine alone. I cannot question His judgment—”
            “To languish here, in this tent of fire—“ Tsiporah did not finish; she saw a shadow lying across her own, turned quickly—her hand on the dagger she always carried in her belt—stood up, and faced a man standing behind her, “You are--?”
            A young man, bright of eye and black-bearded, white-toothed, grinning, proud of himself and his mission, stood before Tsiporah, arms on his hips, legs spread wide, triumphantly. He carried a newly-rolled parchment in his belt. “I am a Messenger—from God, if you will—sent by the Council of the Seventy Elders, to tell Mother Miriam that her Sentence of Banishment-from-the-Camp is done. She may return to her family, and her tent in the midst of the People of Israel.”
            “That is good news,” said Tsiporah, and went to open the tent-flap, gently guiding her sister-in-law out, out into the sunlight of freedom. The older woman, weary, dirty-faced, with froth around the corners of her mouth and unsteady of foot, sagged in her arms, blinking in the sun like a mole. Miriam’s bones protruded, like a skeleton’s; she had been given little food during the week of her Banishment-Prison, and had eaten only enough to stay alive. Putting a steadying arm across her sister-in-law’s shoulders, Tsiporah turned toward the camp, almost dragging Miriam behind, but determined to get the older woman there quickly, for fear of sunstroke.
            The young messenger raised his hand, blocking the path of the sisters-in-law: “Hold, Women! I neglected to say—that there are Conditions,” he said.
            “And what are they?” snapped Tsiporah testily, gently lowering her sister-in-law to the ground. Miriam modestly covered her legs as best she could with her filthy, stained robe, and, blinking, looked up, puzzled, at the Messenger, who drew a scroll out from his belt and unrolled it, briskily, self-importantly.
            “Is my sentence not yet complete--?” she began, but the Messenger, glaring at the helpless crone on the ground, stamped his foot to get their attention, and cleared his throat loudly.
“In the Name of God the All-Judging, the All-Compassionate, I, His Messenger, will read the further sentence of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved,” he began, holding the parchment, with his arms straight out before him, like a king’s herald. Watching his self-important antics, Tsiporah expected to hear a blast from the silver trumpets of the Sanctuary, but none came: she saw a largish lizard poke its head out from behind the young man’s heel, wag its tongue at her, and then disappear. This heat is getting to me, she thought.
“Speak your piece, Young Man,” she said, impatiently, “I must be getting my Miriam back to camp. She needs food, a bath, and rest.” The Messenger knitted his brows at her, and scowled. He read:
            “From the Lord God’s High Council of the Seventy Elders: Hear the Sentence of Miriam!
“She is no more to offer sacrifices for the women, whether for harvest, birth of babies, or other thanksgiving offerings. She is no more to interpret Jewish Law for them; no more to question male authority. She may, however, lead the women in song—not so loudly that it leads the men to lascivious thoughts—and, occasionally dance, but only behind a screen, and only in such a way and place as will not distract the men. These are the orders of the Seventy Elders which I bear, signed and sealed by them, and, soon, we hope, by Rabbi Moses.”
            Tsiporah bristled, “And who is the author of these paltry, confining laws? Where would the Elders be without the strength of us women reinforcing theirs? This will not stand, young Messenger, and you may tell them back: besides Miriam our Prophetess and me, Tsiporah bat Yitro, there is a mighty army of Israelite women, we who will birth and raise generations of Israelites yet to be, both female and male, who will not submit to your dominating proposals. Our daughters in particular will read Torah; they will study it, and lift it banner-high, and Israel will glory in their deeds. They will both dance and sing, as only women can. Take that back to your Elders. Tell them I dare, in Miriam’s name and my own, to challenge their authority. And what, pray, is your name, young Messenger?"
            The boy-man smiled, licked his lips slowly, and folded his arms, as if ready for a fight: “I will return your words, Aunt Tsiporah. As for my name, I am Korach ben Yitzhar. Remember it.”


Drorah O’Donnell Setel, “Exodus: Liberation Theology & Central Female Characters” in Carol Newsom & Sharon Ringe, Eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Rabbi Aharon Roth, “Prayer for Accepting Suffering with Love,” in Rabbi Yaakov Iskowitz, Trans. Aneni: Special [Women’s] Prayers for Special Occasions: A Book of Tekhinote. Nanuet, NY: Feldheim, 2003.