Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ha'azinu--I Love Poetry. Just Not This Piece of Poetry. Is that OK? I mean, it's from the Torah, and all....

            Is one permitted to not like a piece of Biblical poetry? I have been reading, chanting, and studying this parsha/Torah Reading for all of my life, and, to speak truth (I can’t lie; I’m a rabbi, after all), it continually grates on me, year after year. Why? Because it illustrates a basic tenet of religious theodicy with which I disagree: that if bad things happen to us, we must have misbehaved in some way, either known or unknown to us, and that God is always waiting to inflict pain on us backsliding human beings, like some Celestial Policeman, armed with a Truncheon of Wrath.
I am not speaking of deliberately breaking the law or dealing falsely with one’s neighbors, or with God; those are clear violations of the human and divine compact which rules us all. I am speaking of the mindset which says, “I am suffering, therefore God is surely punishing me; I must have fallen short of His expectations in some major way.” Poor mortal! God has enough to do in running the universe, than to single you out for torture and punishment. We live in a world, I hope and believe, in which God’s mercy outweighs God’s tendency toward strict judgment, and should live our lives accordingly. All the more this year, immediately following Rosh Hashana, should God be willing to grant us all second chances!
            This poem preaches the opposite: once Israel is settled in the Promised Land, fat and happy, they will immediately begin to backslide and pursue idolatry, says God. Why so? They simply cannot resist temptation, like a Weight Watchers member walking past a Dunkin’ Donuts (I’ve been there myself, and know what it’s like). And when that happens, God will be forced to send pagan nations to conquer and punish them for their lack of faith or gratitude. I agree that pagan nations—Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and, most horrifically, Rome—did indeed conquer Israel, but I choose to see it as part of our tragic history, rather than payback for disloyalty to God. There will always be stronger nations picking on weaker ones: in a paraphrase of Isaiah, we find Woody Allen’s words: “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” And here is Moshe Dayan: “When the lion lies down with the lamb, I want to be the lion.”
Ha’azinu’s verses may have effectively frightened Jewish congregations into submission and acceptance centuries ago (and among simple-minded Jews today) when people sought a slam-dunk reason for Jewish suffering, but I choose not to agree with it. Our people are linked to God by an inextricable chain of love and destiny which will endure: so may it continue for all time, despite the inevitable course of human events and misfortunes. Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live—yes, naysayers, we live and flourish, now, and forever!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fantasy Boys XXX: FB3X Drabble Cascade #78 - word of the week is 'de...

Fantasy Boys XXX: FB3X Drabble Cascade #78 - word of the week is 'de...: Welcome to FB3X Drabble Cascade #78 - This week's word of the week is 'delta' . Suitable for all. The Way A Casca...

Autumn 1969, Greenwich Village, NYC, Drabble

            A coolish-warm Autumn night—delta of 10th St. & 6th Ave: Bookstore on the corner—Erich Segal’s Love Story perches on its shelf-summit, mocking its siren-song to us young Orthodox Jewish college freshmen strolling, trolling for college girls.
(O Hope forlorn!)
Bell bottom jeans, leather jackets with fringe; long hair. The sweet smell of maryjane pervading the air. Incense, peppermints, lava lamps undulate, slowly, in head-shop windows….
            In night-darkened Washington Square Park, groping gaggles of NYU students lust in the darkness, kiss fiercely in shadows, mount on benches. We girlless men of Yeshiva, aching-loined, ritually skullcapp’d, unwillingly celibate, look on in envy.
            “Where are you Boys from?” a voice whispers, gentle as new-fall’n dew;
            We look up, startled:
            Two College Girls; behold! The Tone of the Night has changed.     
            O Stars, dilate!
            G-d, bite Your nails!

            What will ensue?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Standing Before God Drabble

Standing before God Drabble

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God…all the men of Israel…from woodchopper to water-drawer—to entire into the Covenant of the Lord your God….”—Deut. 29:9-10

            Yossi Water-Drawer shambled into the Israelite Camp, laid his humble Burden down: one water-bucket, sloshing out its contents—some brown, turgid turbid aqua, scoopt from a desert-beast’s pawprint, pailful of a late-morning’s wadi-gulley-washing; mud, mostly, mainly.
Drawing water in joy from the wellsprings of salvation….
            “Does God exist,” he wondered-positing, gazing within his catch while Moses spoke, “amid this floating aquarium of auburn aqualife, smelly goat pellets, and bird-droppings? Is it my fate to be a water-drawer, Aquarian on Earth?”
            “Shh—quiet, Man,” said the Fellow next him, bending down; his Ax slipped over, and cut off a bit of Yossi’s ear—Cosmic punishment, no doubt, for his not listening to Moses—poor Moses, passionately pilpuling on, about Canaanite nighttime orgies!

            Give it a rest, the Israelites murmured, Give it a rest. We all need a rest….

To Be a Jew is to Exist, Out of Earthly, and Into Spiritual, Universal, Time: The Power of Nitzavim-Vayelech

Here, Moses reaches the epitome of his speaking powers, commanding all Israel to remain faithful to the sacred covenant with God as described in the Torah. To whom exactly does he address his words? Attempting to answer this question, the text reels through time, its audience first appearing to be the Dor Haye’tsiah/Exodus Generation, which escaped Egypt and died in the wilderness, afterwards shifting to the Dor HaMidbar/Wilderness Generation, which was born after the sin of the Golden Calf, and grew up, free, in the Wilderness, knowing Egyptian slavery only from their parents’ stories (as we do, on Pesach), and faithful only to Moses and Joshua. Moses’s prophecy moves both backward and forward in history, from all Jews who were ever born in the past, into the as-yet-unknown future history of our people, far beyond our lives today, as we strive to keep our people active and faithful to the Eternal Covenant with God.
What I love about this God-language is that Moses addresses, not only our Wilderness ancestors, but all of us Jews—we are truly a People who dwell, not only within, but outside of human history. His speech is so appropriate for this time of year, as we approach the holidays which depend on Time, more than any others in the Jewish calendar. In our modern world, Time dominates our lives in myriad ways, from the daily schedules we follow, the cellphones we carry and covet, the computers we depend on, and the machines which we believe we control, yet which inexorably dominate our lives. These timeless words of Moses—“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God” (Deut. 29:9),—speak, not only to tribespeople living in a cloudy, distant Past, but to all of us, Today. We are not bound by cellphones or human schedules; we are truly bound only by the holy laws of Torah and God.
            Beyond the standard conditional warnings of prophecy—“If you fulfill God’s will, then God will ensure your prosperity”—we find an idea fundamental to Jewish thought, especially around this time of year: that of teshuva, doing repentance, and returning to God. When Israel crosses over the Jordan and abandons God for the idolatrous, but attractive, cults of the Canaanites, God may punish them for a time, but will never totally abandon them, instead hoping that they will rediscover how much God loves them and desires to draw them near. In a world of materialistic tawdriness and gimcrackery, let us always make time to bring the lasting and sacred into our lives.
“I have never lived a Godly life before,” you may say, “How can I begin now? How can I make keeping Shabbat, lighting candles, coming to temple, part of my life? I have gone too far in the opposite direction; I am lost….”
No: there is always Hope. Indeed, our tradition teaches that a repentant sinner is more precious to God than someone who has always lived a religious life, because the former has succeeded in taking the evil of his previous existence and converting it to spiritual light.
            Moses then addresses his primary disciple, Joshua, who will lead Israel after Moses’s death. The aged prophet despairs: God has granted him a vision of the Israelites backsliding in the future. Are we therefore always doomed to fall short of God’s expectations?

I believe with all my heart that the Jewish relationship with God today continues as strongly as it has been, iron-plated and copper-sheathed, despite our tendency to doubt and quibble about the details. God may well have questions about us, but loves us, nonetheless, as a parent does an erring child. “If you come towards me even one hand’s-breadth,” says God, “I will come from miles away, and cover the remainder of the distance between us. I am as close to you as your heart and soul.” Remember this. Always remember—and Shana Tova—a Happy and Healthy New Year. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Beer with Stephen Crane: The Bowery, NYC, May, 1893: Flash Fiction

            A Sunday in May, 1893: stale cigar butts, gutter garbage, horse manure droppings, and a mild breeze blowing—I was on my way to Donovan’s Tavern on the Bowery to meet with Stephen Crane. It was a crisp Spring day in New York City, with a hard-working New York Sun trying to burn through a clutch of coal-scuttle clouds.
            “Show yer a good time, Dearie?” an old-young prostitute leaned out of a slummy doorway—I could smell her cheap perfume—her showing a bit of bosom to my eye—far more than was Proper, back when a naked ankle, all that could be seen beneath a long skirt, could turn a Gentleman’s head—that, and “a goodly pair o’ poonts burstin’ out o’ a bodice” as the organ-grinder’s song went….
            But I was late: I skidded ‘round an omnibus-horse-car, narrowly missed an old, bearded pedlar (perhaps a Jew; so many Jews thereabouts) selling warm, soft salted pretzels off long wooden sticks, stuck in a cane basket, as I almost tripped over a stray pug dog and fell onto a pushcart laden with buttons—buttons of all kinds, from tiny black buttons for ladies’ high-button shoes, to big brass frogs for the double-breasted scarlet greatcoat of the doorman at Luchow’s German Restaurant on 14th Street (Wiener Schnitzel und Bock Bier fur Two: Wunderbar!).
            “Mark! My writing friend! Over here!” called a raspy, young-man’s voice, and I saw him, there, at a scuffed-and-scarry table outside of smoky Donovan’s, out in the innocent air: natty carnation in his buttonhole (from his brothel-keeping young-madam friend, Cora Taylor, back in their coldwater rooftop tenement flat), long black handrolled Cuban panatela clamped in one corner of his gleaming young smile, well-creased-and-battered fedora on his head: the King of New York, my muckraking tyro comrade, the Methodist Minister’s son (14th child, and baby of the family) from Newark, New Jersey: Stephen Crane.
            I will always remember how he pluckt the cigar from his mouth, grinned like a boy who’s stolen an apple from a grocery-stand, stood up, and saluted me, beer-stein in his hand, and gave the slightest ironic bow, before taking a long swig, and laughing; laughing!
Seven short years, hundreds of newspaper articles and short stories, and two novels later—he would be dead, at age 28, and off to—where? No Heaven or Afterlife for him; he was a Realist: “There is no God, and He hates you.”

Rest in peace, my grinning, forever-young Friend; O Stephen! What promise we lost in you!

Free Will vs. Divine All-Knowing: a Jewish Medieval Philosophy Flash Fiction

            In the cardamom-scented evening, 11th-Century Egypt, turban on head, holy scroll before him, reclining on’s divan just-so, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, called Maimonides, reclined on his right side. Tall, cool drink in his hand: sherbet, of cinnamon-ice, mixt with snow packt from Mount Abora.
            He writes: The way God sees the World. Unlike us Humanity. God above Time. Above Space. While we, Mortals, live along a Time-Line: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Hence, God knows all, while we live to discover, create, discern, what does the Future hold?
            He lay back, lay down his stylus, read the scroll, smiled.
            Thereafter: later 14th Century, France, Perpignan, Jewish community, occasionally protected by the Papacy; otherwise, caught by the Medieval Power-structure, like mice in a trap: here is Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, called Gersonides; like Maimonides, Aristotelian, but a Man with a Gloomy World-View, and why not?
Feather quill in hand, flickering candle, a night of clouds and rain: God knows generalities, not particulars.
For me, e.g., D.M., the writer of these words: rabbi, teacher, college instructor: God knows weekdays I go to college, why? To teach. Wearing what? Dress shirt, chinos, necktie. This outfit, God knows.
            God does not know details: the color, fit, ensemble: the blue, the brown, the grey, the black—here fits my Free Will: Absolute, but within a Limited Sphere.
            Maimonides limits Man; Gersonides, God.

            The World spins on….

Friday, September 12, 2014

Steampunk Drabble: A Short Voyage on the Nautilus

Steampunk Drabble

By David Hartley Mark

            “Man Overboard!” cried Starbuck, amid shifting the teak-trimmed wheel of the Nautilus north-nor’-west, and peering murkily through the isinglass watershields off the bow.
            “Where away?” asked Marlow, replacing a steaming cup of blackadder tea, and pushing back the Stereoptiscope that showed the safest path through the billowing darkness of the Spitzbergen icebergs.
            “Let a man see, can’t yer?” asked young Sam Clemens, pushing his hat back of his head, and rushing for’ard, pulling the bowline he had been trailing out the back’s’il hatch and into the submarine’s wake, whilst chaunting: “Mark One, Mark Twain, Mark Three….”
            “All is under control, Gentlemen,” said Captain Nemo, calmly, leaving his brass-and-mahogany library in the unterseebooten’s bow, and advancing, firm of step, toward the Main Piston-Thrusters, which reciprocated on: pocketa-thweep, pocketa-thweep, pocketa-thweep, “It is Lady Ophelia, out for a swim. Mr. Christian! See her safely into the Pressurization-Chambers; have her dried and enveloped in Chinese Silk, and shown to my boudoir. I have use for her….”

            In a quietly coppery corner, the Cheshire Cat flickt his tail, then winkt wisely at the Dormouse, who groaned and disappeared into the teapot, pulling the lid to, behind him.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dream Drabble: Athwart the Roof

Dream Drabble: Athwart the Roof

By David Hartley Mark

            A sound like nails screeching along a chalkboard; a smell like molten lava—the curious mixture of rotten eggs, bloodlike copper, with an undertone of—dark chocolate, almost, and the faintest crispness of burning Autumnal leaves: passage of Time; calendar leaves….
            Lanthorn in hand, I walkt softly, tiptoed, along a mansion’s mansard roof, passing a monk perched thereupon who, quill in hand, asked,
            “What is your purpose, here?”
            “Who are you?” I replied, recalling Alice’s Caterpillar. The air grew closer, smelt more foul.
            “I am, Young Man,” he said, unsmiling, “The Manciple, the Provider.”
“What provisions have you made?” I asked.
“Nothing less than God, the Universe, and Every Thing. Be so good as to turn out your pockets."
I did; they were lined with Woe; and I awoke.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On the Eve of 9/11, I'm Afraid for My Muslim-American Friends

            I was listening to NPR that morning, getting dressed to go to the temple where I was rabbi; I had a few appointments. It was a beautiful New Hampshire morning in late summer.
The radio announcer said, “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”
I assumed it was a light plane, a Beechcraft, perhaps; what did I know about planes? I remembered the time after World War II, before I was born, when a B-17 Flying Fortress accidentally flew into the Empire State Building. No great harm had occurred.
            “I’ll just turn on the TV,” I said to B.
            We watched the Horror that followed, along with Everyone Else in the World. Evil had struck America, and the Towers were burning, and crumbling….

            Tomorrow is the Anniversary of that Horror. I can’t believe it was thirteen years ago. I was always glad that my father had not lived to see it; he had died some years before. My father loved this country. I don’t know how the Horror would have affected him. I suppose now that he would have gotten through it: he was always the Rock of the Family. Now, it was my turn to be the Rock.
            But what bothers me, now, tonight, is all the pictures I’m seeing online, and all that I’m hearing, in light of the President’s words, about “Radical Islam” and how “Radical Islam is endangering us, America, the West, and Israel.” That’s what they’re saying; that’s what I’m reading, all over the Internet.
            I don’t know “Radical Islam.” I do know some folks who practice Islam. There’s my friend, from work: she’s just about the most religious person I know; call her Asfa. She’s a short, chubby, sweet-faced woman in her thirties. I don’t know what color hair she has; she wears the hijab all the time, which I respect. We talk about the similarities between her faith and my Judaism.
Asfa fasted all through Ramadan; that meant getting up before six am, eating a tiny meal, and fasting all day—no food or drink—until 8 pm that night, when she would meet her family and friends at the mosque, and they would have a simple communal meal. I can understand that; we Jews believe strongly in eating together; most other faiths do, as well. She goes to her mosque regularly, she prays to Allah, and she works hard. She’s a single mom, raising a little boy—is he in First Grade, now?—all by herself, is close with her parents—her dad converted to Islam to marry her mom, before they immigrated to America—and her office cubicle is next to mine, at the university where I teach.
She’s in charge of keeping in touch with the online students; she receives and makes about a hundred phone calls a day. She’s very good at what she does: she has to be the students’ mother, big sister, counselor, financial adviser, and on and on. It’s not an easy job.
            She’s not “Radical Islam.” She’s my friend, and she happens to practice Islam. It’s her faith, and it gets her through the Good and the Bad in her life.
            I know other Muslims, as well. They’re Americans, just like me. They mind their business, pay their taxes, and love their kids. They treasure their privacy, drive their cars, go out to eat, take their kids to the mall, and do all the other things that Americans do. They may have friends and relatives in the Old Country—the Arab Countries, that is; they may discuss politics, but, frankly, their feelings about the Middle East Situation are their own business.
            In this country, we have the Right to Privacy. It’s not so easy to protect and preserve, given the prevalence of cell phones and the need for security cameras everywhere we go, but it’s something we Americans hold very near to our hearts.
            On this thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, with America and our president getting ready to face yet another Middle Eastern enemy, I want to make certain and feel sure and confident that my Muslim-American friends and neighbors are safe, secure, and free to practice their faith, or not, as they wish.
            Because if we lose that sense of safety, and the right to practice what we believe, then all the security in the world will mean nothing. The Bad Guys will have won. It’s not only that they hate us, you see: a lot of the reasons behind their hatred, beyond all the strutting and screaming and hate-filled YouTube videos is a very simple schoolyard emotion: Jealousy. They want what we have—democracy, freedom, abundance—and they know they can never have it, and they hate us, because we do. It’s that simple. The rich leaders among them have robbed them of any chance they ever had of taking power peacefully, as in a democratic society, and so all they know is to rob, kill, and frighten innocent (and some not-so-innocent) people.
            And one more thing: if you are uncertain about the neighbor you live near but have never met—the one you suspect may be Arab, or Indian, or Pakistani, or Middle Eastern of some kind—don’t report them to the police. You have a very simple device you can use to find out what kind of people they are.
            Just say to them, one morning, “Good morning. How are you today?”
            Let me know how they respond. Maybe they’ll smile. That would be good; that will be one battle won; we Good Guys need to win as many battles as we can. Say it again, so you’ll remember:
            “Good morning. How are you today?”

            That’s all it takes. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Deep Woods Drabble: Just for Fun

Deep Woods Drabble

By David Hartley Mark

            Mortimer Owl walked over the glen.
            “Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!” cried a motion of field-mice, tuxedo-colored, as they scampered by. The last one in line, barely two days old, thumbed her nose at the wily old hunting-bird as she trotted past him, and stuck out her mousy tongue, before ducking under a rotting, old moss-covered barrow….
            --Which was the last thing she did, on this earth, in this life.

            “Tastes like chicken, and a good thing, too,” cogitated Mortimer, burping up a few slippery whiskers of rodent, and preening his face-feathers, as he spread out his wings and took to the evening air. A late-harvest’s, bulging refulgent moon was rising. 

Drabble Cascade at FB3X - Every Tuesday

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Kee Tavo: Blessings & Curses: Bubbe Mysehs/Superstitions, Passing Geometry, & Tailor's Tales

Kee Tavo

“Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe all the Mitzvah/Commandment that I command you this day. …Silence! Listen, Israel! Today you have become the People of the Lord your God: hear God’s voice and perform His commandments and laws. …After you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mt. Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken…. And for the curse, the following tribes shall stand on Mt. Ebal….” (Deut. 27: 1-13, adapted).

            Here we find the entire People of Israel divided into two groups and assembled on the slopes of two opposite mountains, one to hear the blessing, the other, the curse. If they perform the mitzvote properly and follow the Torah to the letter, God will bless them; if not, they will be cursed. How dramatic this portion is, and yet, how ineffably sad! Is God, then, only a Judge, a harsh Cosmic Policeman, who waits for us to fail? Or is He a loving Mother or Father, who wishes for us to succeed in our divine service of Him and his Creation, and rules us with compassion, the better to do so?
            Indeed, this particular section of Torah is so harsh, that it is known as the Tochacha, the “Rebuke,” and, traditionally, is read in a softer tone than the remainder of the Torah, since it is considered a major “kinehurrah,” or Evil Eye. One does not read bad tidings aloud, because, Jewish superstition holds, that might cause them to take place. It is curious indeed that a people who boast so much education—indeed, 80% of Jewish youth of college age are, indeed, attending college, and many of their parents have, not only college degrees, but post-graduate ones, as well—still rely on these age-old superstitions, which we nonetheless deride as bubbe mysehs, “grandmothers’ tales.”
            Still, old habits die hard. I recall how, as a teenage high school student at Yeshiva University HS, having difficulties in Math class, my mother would instruct me to sleep with the Math textbook under my pillow, which, presumably, would cause the pesky Geometry proofs to filter into my overtaxed brain. Of course, all that resulted was a headache. During Final Exams Week, she would instruct me to put money into the pushka/Tsedaka/Charity box, and to leave the house in the following manner: kiss the mezuzah with my right hand, holding my bookbag in my left, and step out the door on my right foot.
            In the end, this all came to naught: I barely squeaked by in Geometry Class, although, to my credit, I did better in Geometry than I did in Algebra; perhaps the shapes and forms of the former subject gave me something solid on which to focus, unlike the “Rate X Time = Distance” of the latter. I would also point out that my mother was hardly a peasant in her thinking: she herself was a college graduate, a teacher and administrator, and earned a Master’s degree in her 70s. Still, old superstitions died hard.
            With the approach of the High Holy Days, we may well ask how to take the “curses,” or sins, from our lives, and turn them to good deeds which will speak in our favor. I remember the Tale of the Poor Tailor—call him Reb Bayrish—who approached his Rebbe, the great Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, to tell him what sins he had confessed to God, prior to the Days of Judgment: the Holy Day of Rosh Hashana, when the Lord God judges the entire Universe, and Yom Kippur, the Sacred Fast of Atonement.
            “So, Nu, what sins did you confess before God, Reb Bayrish?” asked the Rebbe, when they were alone in his kloiz, his study.
            “Oy, Rebbe,” stammered the tailor, “I am just a poor tailor. Once or twice, I may have kept the scraps of cloth that the rich Poyretz, Squire Dominik, gave me to sew him a new hunting-cloak. But I needed to sell it, to buy food for my poor wife and five skinny children. And once or twice, I perhaps ate food that was not exactly kosher. But I was so hungry!”
            “And what else did you say to God?” the Rebbe asked, leaning forward and stroking his beard.
            “What else? What else, Rebbe?” asked the tailor, losing his stammer and growing angry, “Well I said—I said, ‘Look at you, O God! I may have done these few sins, but look at You, and Your sins! You cause storms, and suffering and death, and oppress the poor and needy. Tell you what, God: let’s make a bargain: You forgive me, and I’ll forgive You!”

            “Ah, Bayrish!” smiled the Rebbe, “You let God off too easily. Imagine: you could have made God forgive, not only our entire Jewish People, but all of humanity!”