Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lech-Lecha: Avram's War of the 4 Kings Against the 5--Can There Ever Be Peace?

Lech-Lecha: The War of the Four Kings Against the Five
(Loosely Based on Gen. 14)

            I am Eliezer, Chief Steward to my Master, Avram ben Terach, follower of the Invisible God. My Master is a good man—most of the time, that is: sometimes, he has what my Mistress Sarah calls his “moods”—when he must be alone; that is, when we know to leave him be, and the other servants come to me (and not to him) for directions: what to do, where to go. It is not hard work, shepherding; I have been doing it all my life. We are up with the dawn—with the livestock, that is, and we alternate staying awake all night, armed with stout sticks and slingshots to ward off any wolves, hyenas, or even the lions we have seen prowling about.
            But this is the Wilderness, which belongs to All, and to None; that is what my Master Avram says; it is where his God speaks to him, out there, in the Lonely Places. Sometimes, he will take a few pieces of matzo in his leathern pouch; perhaps some cheese, if Mistress Sarah can prevail upon him, and a bottle of water—water, only, for my Master never drinks wine; he says that it clouds his Vision. Mistress Sarah will plead that he not go out alone, that the Desert is dangerous, but he will shout against her fretting, and stamp out in anger—
            But then, my Mistress, who raised me from boyhood, who was almost a Mother to me, will beckon, and say, “Go, go, my Eliezer—go and follow your Master Avi, lest he do something harmful, something foolish, all alone, out there in the Darksome Night—“
            --And I will smile, and nod, and put my hood upon my head, take my oaken staff, and follow—but at a distance. I am My Lord Avram’s Protector; let no one come near him, for he is a Follower of the Invisible God, and I—I follow—him.
            That was fine; that was all well and good. But our little family—and here, I include my Master’s Concubine, Hagar the Egyptian—she and Mistress never did get along, with that wild little boy, that hellion Ishmael, who was full of tricks and jokes from his day of Birth, it seemed, and could never hold still long enough to learn the God-Wisdom his Father Avram had to teach—though he took greater interest in my showing him the life of a Shepherd, ‘til he grew old enough to know his own mind better, and chose to hunt, instead—I say, the Outside World crept in—
            For the Four—or is it Five, or Six?—Kings—Chedorlaomer, he of the unpronounceable name, and the massive Girth, and a Sow’s-Belly that could hold fifty se’ahs of barley beer (for I visited him once, in his war-tent, with a massive peace-offering of fine fat sheep and goats, a tun of beer, and a salutation from my Master, that His Exalted Majesty might please leave Avram’s kin alone from his depredations)—and all the others Kings—their names I do not know, nor do I care; we wish only, our Avram-Clan, to live in Peace—
            --But Lote, the Nephew of my Master, foolishly chose to live in Sodom and Gomorrah; or, should I say, his Wife—what was her name?—did the choosing for him; “City Living is the best!” I recall her saying, while I bowed, and scraped, and kept the beer and wine and food-platters full to the brimming before my Master’s guests, that Harvest-Feast, when Lote and his Family deigned to visit us—but, see now! What his lazy urban way-of-life has gotten him! For, caught between the warring forces, Lote’s been kidnapped!
            Which is why we, my Master, and our men—three-hundred-eighteen be our number, a band of fighters skilled, tough, and deadly, yeomen strong and loyal to our Master and his God—were encamped here, beneath the Stars, and waiting, ‘til the Battle-Won Victory Caravan from King C’dor, and Tid’ahl, Am’raf’el—and—I cannot remember their names—but on they came, laden heavily with booty, with prisoners, women, children, beaten down—including Lote, his wife, and his two daughters, ragged, filthy, bloody, crying, wailing—we watched as the long parade passed by, in the Siddim Valley below, carefully skirting the tar-pits there, and, when the armed warriors in the front passed by, we fell upon the rear, surprising them, garroting sentries, beheading spearmen, stealing war-mules, smote them, hip-and-thigh—
            And freed the Captives, hurrying off, into the Night. We were not there to defeat a major Force of Rebel Kings, y’see: we were there to free our kin, our Lote, and his family. Mission accomplished!
            When we returned, much joy! For Mistress Sarah, Hagar the Concubine, and all the Womenfolk turned out, and made a Victory Celebration—with a Surprise Guest: one Melchizedek, a Priest of El-Elyon, who blessed our Master, “Blessed be Avram of God-Most-High,” he said, while we all bowed. And then, the drinking began! Health! Freedom! L’chaim!

            And now, our swords are sheathed, our shields are stacked, and we repose from battle. May El-Elyon, God-Most-High of Avram and Melchizedek, ensure that Eternal Peace reign o’er this Land, that Battle Not Be Heard Herein, Forevermore! Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Noah & The Neighbors: A Late-Night Neighborhood Watch


“Noah—oh, for the love of Ishtar—Noah! Wake up!”
I had been walking in a sunny vale, chasing after yellow-golden butterflies; I could not catch them, though I swear, my feet felt as light as when I was a little boy: the breeze ruffled my hair, I heard birds singing sweetly; not too far-off, there, amid the trees, there was a little mountain stream—perhaps I could take off my broken sandals, and bathe my poor, aching feet in it. Ah, what bliss! I—
I woke, pulling my beard out of my night-sleeping- mouth, to see Xantippe, my wife of—forty? Fifty? Years, her hair done up in those—those—ribbon-things, she puts on every night; they make her look like a startled mugwump. The breezes and birds flew away, and I squinted at her in the half-darkness; she didn’t look happy. I tried to smile through my foggy-headedness, trying to speak without mumbling; she hates when I mumble—
“Yes, my dear?”
“It’s those people.”
“Yes, across the way. Loud, they are. Always fighting, drinking, complaining. Now GO, Noah. Tell them you can’t sleep. Go, and tell them. Now.” She flounced back down, under the eiderdown, there in the black Nippurian night, leaving me in my stocking feet, hunting for my robe, scratching, half-awake, and thinking: O no, my girl, my lovely onetime love, it’s not you can’t sleep; it’s me now, and that’s what I was doing—sleeping, I was, that is….
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
“Waiting, my dear?”
“Yes, yes, go and tell them!”
And so, I sighed, got up, wrapped my shawl around me, took my stout, knotty terebinthy-wooden walking-stick—who can tell what manner of man or beast one meets at night here in Nippur, with the king’s guards all abed? And as I creaked along, knees and elbows crackling, I heard Him talking to me—He talks best at night, He does:
Noah,” He said, and I replied, “Yes, Lord?” for that’s how He likes to be addressed, He does. No one can hear Him but me, and He told me that’s how He prefers it; He says I’m the only one who deserves to be spoken to, anyway….
Noah,” He said again, and, as I opened the door, trying not to make it creak—the Boys—my Sons, that is—and their wives all live with us, now, on the ground floor—couldn’t make it in the Big World, apparently, and have all come home, with their wives and kiddies, all moved in with us—
Noah, you must build an Ark; for such is My command.”
This was something big; He had never asked me to build anything before. Build what? How? Before, all He’d done was complain to me: bellyaching about the neighbors, the government, stuff such as I could agree with. Yes, the neighborhood has gotten worse; that’s true. But it wasn’t always that way. When Xannie and I moved in, years ago, people were friendlier; they said hello. But now, people don’t even care where their dog makes dirt. It’s just too bad.
As I left our door, and went across to—what’s his name? Amibaal the cobbler, I believe; we met last month at the big autumnal orgy, the one where Xannie warned me not to join in; I could watch, but mostly make sure that everyone there had a taste of her potato salad—they did seem to like it, there amid everything else they were doing—and I knocked on Amibaal’s door. There were musicians there; I could hear them, and some young girl’s voice, going on and on, starting off low, and then louder and louder—perhaps a song; perhaps she was just very happy about something: I couldn’t make it out. Screaming, yelling. It’s all the same to me; I’m just an old man needs his rest is all.
The door opened. Face with a beard. Smell of barley beer.
“Hm?” the voice.
“Hello there,” I began, in my most neighborly tones, “I’m Noah, live across the way. I believe we met, last month. Are you Amibaal?”
“His son. Help you?”
Man of few words, that one. Someone’s hands around his neck: too dark to see. Candles in back, there, with the music. Incense-smell. Meat roasting, barbecue. Made my mouth water.
“Yes, well. Think you can keep it down a bit, folks can sleep? Work in the morning, and all….”
The door was already closing.
As I turned to cross over to my side, I almost tripped over a cat. Poor thing: I bent over and picked it up. Scrawny little beastie. I tried to stroke its fur, calm it down; I could feel its tiny heart beating, beating. And I heard His Voice again.
You see, Noah? That is not how neighbors should behave. Its reek has reached Me, yea, to My nostrils is the stench therefrom; I  think, therefore, that I should wreck it, upset it, end it all, start over.”
I was petting the poor little thing, didn’t quite hear Him. Hard to pay attention all the time.
“Say again, Lord?”
A flood.  Big rain. No invading armies, no host of Babylon, no enemy sweeping down like a beast on the fold. Leave no mess to pick up. Your thoughts?
“Kind of drastic, no?” I was opening my door. There was Cham—fine boy, that one—and his wife—what was her name?—snoring away in the corner. I covered them up; too much of them was showing. I wish they could afford their own place, but this Nippurian recession is killing—
That’s it. That’s what I’ll do.”
“What, Lord?”
End them all. And start over with you.”
“Shouldn’t we talk about this some more?”
I held the kitty under one arm, went to the pantry—didn’t Xantippe have some goat’s-milk there? Poor beast was meowing so loudly, and trying to scratch at my shawl—and then, Himself kept talking, talking there in my ear:
            “No help for it; no help at all. You must save—two—no, seven. Seven is My Command. Of the unclean beasts. No, the clean; yes, that way you can make offerings to Me afterward….”
            “Will there be an Afterward, Lord? What with this flood-thing, and all—“
            He was off again, silent; thinking, I suppose.
            Back to the bedroom—I realized how bone-tired I was, and had to get up early the next morning; off to that construction site: Prince Nimrod wanted that tower built—big ‘un, too. Wouldn’t tell me what for. Ne’er mind; he paid on time, and that was the important thing. Imp(yawn)tant thing. Stretch out—arms crackling, again—so tired!—im—por—tant—thing. Ah,z-z-z….
            “Yes, Lord?”
            “Lord? Who’s that? That tall drink of water in your office? I swear by Ishtar, Noah, if you ever—“
            “Oh, Xannie—no, I was just thinking—of course—not of her, my dear—what, my love?”
            “Did you talk to Amibaal?”
            “He wasn’t home—his son was.”
            “And I asked him to keep it down.”
            “Hmph,” she said, and turned over, and moved away from me. I shrugged—it was late—we could certainly settle this in the morning which, judging from the early-light-rays coming in under the windowshade, wasn’t that far off….
            Blessed Marduk! Will this night never end?—“Yes, Lord?”
            “That will be—I’ve decided—seven clean beasts, and two unclean.”

            “I’ll write it down. Soon.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Teaching English, Smiting Dragons: Daydream Flash Fiction

Teaching Daydream Flash Fiction

By David Hartley Mark

            “Mr. Mark?”
            The words floated into his ears, and eased slowly into his mind, as if from afar.
He had been brandishing his vorpal broadsword, twirling it in the bright noonday sun, while his knightly comrade, Sir Galahad, called to him, “Come, Sir David! Come, and we will conquer the Castle Perilous!”
            “Mr. Mark? Can you help me here, please?”
            He opened his eyes—that is, his eyes were already opened, only focused within—but Galahad had thundered off, castle-bound, leaving him forlorn. The student—she of the thick glasses and thicker ankles—was calling to him, staring at him, puzzled, blinking, owl-like, poor thing.
            “I don’t understand this writing exercise—what’s the difference between connote and denote?”
            He sighed, and pushed away from his desk. Galahad was gone. He stood, turned, and walked over to the hapless young woman.
Denote is what the word means,” he said to her and the class, slowly, “Connote is the mood it creates: ‘I defeated my enemy,’ is one way to denote a victory, but ‘I smote the dragon, fang and claw,’ is a better way to connote it.”
            The girl listened, thought, and nodded, knitting her brows. She picked up her pen, and bent her head down over the book, beginning to write.

            Far far away, off in Faeryland, Sir Galahad was smiling

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Genesis/Beraysheet--Is God Having Second Thoughts? A Debate with an Angel

            It had been a long day in my little study, grading papers, preparing midterm reports, and other clerical college work, and I had yet to write any Torah Talk—anything about the Majestic Beginnings of the Universe—God’s Bringing Forth of Light from Chaos (which He had also specially created; there had to be Disorder first, for Order to spring therefrom). Beresheet/Genesis was a matter of Great Import, but the Hour was Late. My head nodded, and I dozed—
            --Only to be awakened—what time was it? 2am? 3? A great clatter and clanging of bells: coppery-, gold- and silver-sounding, with some brasses thrown in, like an admixture of cymbals and kettledrums, with some hand-clapper-castanets for the topmost-octave. Kirby, my hapless Shih Tzu, who had been napping beneath a lowboy on which stood a bust of Shakespeare, whimpered, and crawled closer to the computer-tower that rested on the floor, seeking its protection.
            There, sprawled on the crampt, close-quarters-carpeting of my study was an Angel—but angel such that Tintoretto or Botticelli never painted; no. He was garbed all in white Samite, flowing robes; true, with gold-and-silver-tipt wings, beauteous and splendid, but surrounding him were helter-skelter Scrolls of Heavenly Documents, and Divine—computer-discs?—sparkling with Heavenly Light, lay all about his Feet, which seemed to have very large toes.
            The Angel blinked—he had the most beauteous, round-brown eyes, deep and dark as a chocolate pudding; he shook his head, all flowing with auburn curls, as if to clear it of Heavenly Cobwebs, straightened his Halo and Kippah (I had marked him as being a Jewish Angel; they are a particular, deep-thinking breed), looked about himself, and, satisfied that he was in the Correct Locale, marked me, and grinned. He had rows of small, but perfect, white teeth.
            “Veekoochiel,” he said, extending a long, pale-white hand, “Archangel. At your service” (This, he spoke, in the Purest Biblical Hebrew I had ever heard, and I mentally thanked my legions of hard-working rabbis and Bible professors of years before, that I was able to comprehend him.)
            “Veekoochiel,” I said, numbly, “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that name before, not among the Archangels who are listed in the 17th-Century Book of Angelology by Launcelot Andrewes, and certainly not in Kabbalah, either.”
            “It means, ‘The Debater of God,’” said my Visitor, hovering to his feet, and floating easily over to the old grey office chair near the Eastern wall of my study—which only made sense, it being closest to the Holy City of Jerusalem. He folded his wings expertly, and perched on the edge of the chair, like a great Dove of Peace, “I am the Angelic Advocate who debates Satan, the Prosecutor, in Matters of Celestial Import.”
            “And what matter has sprung up, lately?” I ventured, in lugubrious tone, “The enormous suffering of humanity? The attacks by terrorists against innocent victims? Ongoing civil wars? Humanity’s enormous talent for despoiling the Environment in its never-ending quest for fossil fuel? Violence in Society? Racism? And what about--?”
            “Yes, yes; that’s really enough,” said the Angel, puffing as he reached down to gather his various papers and computer paraphernalia, “The fact is, Reb Dovid, I am here on a Mission. The Old Man—God, that is—is in a Quandary, and he sent me to gather some Information. He’s really of Two Minds, and, when You’re Monotheistic, it does make matters difficult.”
            “It’s a little late in history for us Jews to go Dualistic, or Zoroastrian,” I answered. “What exactly is God hesitant about?”
            “Well,” said the Angel, hesitantly, “with Beresheet, the Book of Beginnings, coming up again, and it looking as if He has another chance to get things right, this time, God is—is—“
            “Is what?” I said, a bit impatiently, it getting later, and my having classes to teach in the morning.
            “—Is thinking about, perhaps, NOT creating Man and Woman, this time ‘round. He—God, that is—might go with a highly-functioning-animal of some sort—maybe a parrot-gorilla-blend, with a working voice-box and opposable thumb, or perhaps a computerized android. Yes. That was the last proposal of the Heavenly Junta, when I left the Gathering.”
            “No Humanity?” I asked, in shock.
            “Yes. I mean, No. No More Humanity.”
            “But where will that leave all of us?” I whisperered in horror.
            “Well, you’ll all die out, eventually,” said the Angel, in a business-like tone, “and, frankly, the way things have been going—regressing as they are—it looks as if that might happen pretty much sooner than later. And God is, as you know, Infinitely Patient.”
He shuffled through his papers.
            “What would change His mind?” I asked, thinking all sorts of desperate thoughts, and no longer tired.
            “It’s not that easy. God has two natures, you know: the True Judge, as well as Kind and Compassionate. But, lately, Humanity has been taking advantage of the latter—I’m just an Angel, hence not subject to human feelings, but how did you folks ever let Evil get the upper hand so thoroughly? You really must try to regain control—angels of your better natures, you know….”
            “Well, how much time do we have, to—to—turn things around?”
            “Oh, I can’t say, R’ Dovid; I’m not God, you know—but you all should be aware, that you’ve been placed On Warning. God is patient, but His patience is not infinite. He was insistent about One Thing, though.”
            “And what was that?”
            “You must begin to make honest efforts toward Peace, Shalom, Salaam, beginning this very Shabbat. It is, after all the Shabbat of Beginnings. The Clock—the Universal Clock of Human Destiny—is ticking. So, all of you, all of Humanity, should Be Aware: Improve Yourselves, in Every Way, both Big and Small. Every Mitzvah, no matter How Insignificant it may appear to you, is another tip on the Scale of Good against Evil. God will wait, but for how long, I cannot tell. I will debate Him for as long as I can, but the Prosecutor grows more powerful with every Evil Deed which Humanity performs. You are all placed on Warning, on Warning. Well; that’s my time; I must go—must be off….”

            And vanished. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Tale of the English Sailor: A Victorian Flash Fiction, with a Macabre Touch of Francis Marion Crawford & Bertholt Brecht

Scene: Newgate Prison. A Cell, Solitary Confinement. A Prisoner, chained hand and foot, looks up as you enter, and Speaks.

Back in my seafaring days, when I hove into port for a spell, I would stay in a rat-trap of a place down by the scabrous, steamy, chill-yer-bones quays of London. It was all cobwebby and stink there: most of the guests—and I use the term loosely, mind ye—were seadogs like me, who would bed the poxey doxeys for an hour at most, toss ‘em a handful of coppers, and throw ‘em out. They laughed, and call’d’t “an hour’s rent.” I never slept with a dox, though: not for any high-and-mighty morality—who speaks of Morality to a loveless, orphaned, take-yer-pay-and-damn-yer-eyes sailor lad?—I was fearful of catching the pox, Lord’s my witness. My room—if ye’d call that four-by-four closet a room—was a dank and dreary den of darkness, all moist and muggy; I kept the windows wide whene’er I slept, with the blowy bursts of London fog all through my chambers, if chambers I could call them.
            Lonely, d’ye ask me? Aye: lonely and alone ‘twas I; that is, ‘til I met Polly Peachum, the landlord’s daughter. He was a greasy, thieving sort, not to be trusted, even in that den of thieves, hugger-mugger men, and Resurrection-dealers, all penny-grasping and curvy-clawed; she, contrariwise, was a merry minx, young as a day in spring, pink-cheeked, laughing like a robin’s trill, crimson hair all flowing down, larruping light and high-breasted, always a-wiggling her rump just out o’ my eager, reaching fingers, and I, a landsman for only a month or two, betwixt and between sea-voyages, like—well, I was taken by the curl of her saucy lip, and the curve betwixt her bumpers when she’d bend over, pretending to be buttoning her high boots, forgetful-like. Pretending? Ha!
            One night, I’d drunk a bit more rum—leastways, rum was what the barkeep called it, though ‘twas flavored like whale-piss mixt with lampblack, if’n you ask me—at that sailor’s bar, the “Admiral Nelson’s Scabbard” between Oakum Lane and King George’s Cove, down by the docks, and I stumbled home, more drunk than sober—some thieving scalawag had slipped me a Mickey Finn, sure as death, and I felt nothing below my hips—could barely move ‘em—and went stumble-bumble up the stairs to my sodden saloon of sadness—all alone, the bedsprings sagged; all alone, Poor Jack Tar; all alone….
My head hit the headboard, an old dollop of deal from H.M.S. Erebus, no doubt, until, tossing and tremblous, I slept, in a fit o’ near-madness: the rum mixt with the Mickey, all through my pounding brain and liver and lights, ah me….
            ‘Til, long around three in the morning, I woke, to hear what sounded like two—alleycats?—fighting, just outside the splintered-and-crazed isinglass of my attic window. I threw a shoe at them; they did not, would not, stop their hellish caterwauling. Head a-spin and temples pounding, I heaved myself up and towards the porthole, its crackleglass shining w’the earliest rays of dawn, and saw—
            Once back to bed, I stretched to my fullest length—and I am not so tall, but can reach above my head, to touch the main-s’l halyard, in my bare feet, I’ll have ye know—and smelled—
            A smell of—violets, as if of Polly’s scent—for so she was oft to wear; yes! A sort of cologney-water, which her father’d bought off a Chinese merchantman, had sailed back from Peking, in the land of the mushroom-hatted men—
            Kiss me, Bart, I heard a whisper, and reached out with both hands—into—
            It felt—it felt—
            Like Slime—and, screaming, I rose up, and jumped to the opposite wall, where a poker, left to stoke the fire (now grown cold, so many months since any fire had kept alive that brazier, it having been the summer’s end, but with fall now come) I grabbed, and waved before me—while
            The Slime, making a Horrible Gobbling Noise reached out, and reached and reached and
            While I stabbed at it, again and again and
            Until my arms grew weak, and It
            Retreated—I was able
            To put my sea-trousers on, and run run run
            Out of that foul
            Hellish Place
            I cannot
            But that
            only I am escaped to tell thee…
            They found Polly’s body, lying, lifeless, the next day,
            Covered in stab wounds—
            And coated in some
            Monstrous—phlegm? Pus?
            As if from a—What?
            No one would believe my Story;
            I was accused…
            And now, I am
            To hang.
            But I


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kohelet, the Cynic: An Israelite in Autumn, the Season of Death


Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
And the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
To bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
To one’s own self, and find an exit
From the fallen self.

--D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), “The Ship of Death” (poem)

            In most ancient cultures, autumn was the season of death. The god or goddess of spring, Proserpina or Persephone for the Greeks, along with her mother, Ceres; Freya or Frey for the Norsemen, would either die or go to sleep for the winter, and all of nature would reflect the loss. Leaves would fall, cold winds would blow, and the snow would cloak all of nature in a mantle of white. (It is no accident that Jesus is born in the winter and “dies” in the spring; the early Christian evangelists were taking the spring-god myth and reversing it, thereby making it easier for the pagans they targeted for conversion to identify with the new faith they were publicizing.) Our Israelite ancestors’ pagan Canaanite neighbors were little different: for them, autumn was a time to gather in the harvest, drink deep of wine (or beer, which the Egyptians were the first to distill), and settle down to some serious orgies.
            Israel was unique. As the world’s first ethical monotheists, our ancestors greeted seasonal change by thanking the One God who had blessed their crops. They would gladly close down their farms and vineyards and turn either to their local shrine, or, during Solomon’s reign (c. 970-931 BCE) the Holy Temple of Jerusalem (a minor Jebusite city which David chose, chiefly for its centralized, mid-tribal location, much as our Founders chose Washington, D.C.), there to present either their finest produce or the firstlings of their flocks to the kohanim, the priests, who would offer them to God in thanksgiving. It is highly significant that our American Pilgrim forefathers (despite being antisemitic to the Jews of their day) identified closely with the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible, and took their Thanksgiving observance from the Sukkot festival.
            And yet, surrounded as they were by the spectacle of withering grass and leaves falling from trees, our Israelite ancestors asked questions about the dicey nature of human existence: was all of their getting and spending but a “vanity of vanities, an emptiness of emptinesses”? And, in the final analysis, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they strive under the sun? A generation goes, and a new generation comes, but the earth remains forever….All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full….All things are wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. What has been will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun!” (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, 1:2-9, adapted).
            Of all the books in the Hebrew Bible, Kohelet (the term means “Convoker,” as one who gathers crowds to teach them practical wisdom, i.e., how to live) stands out for its cynicism, its world-weariness, in the very absence of God as a speaking or acting character—a feature it shares, ironically, only with Esther, a far more imaginative and fanciful tale. Kohelet is realistic, true-to-life, and cynical in the extreme. A great deal of it is truly painful to read as the years go on: one person may be wise, and yet suffer in this life; another may be dishonest, and yet profit, scot-free, from his cheating.
Still, of all the biblical books I have read, this is the one to which I return most often: it is cynical, yes, but also hard-headed and honest in its appraisal of our human condition. Although it is attributed to a “son of David,” and tradition considers its author to be Solomon, modern scholarship denies this; many of its words derive from the Persian language, including pardes (“orchard,” but later to gain kabbalistic significance elsewhere), Eccles. 2:5, and pitgam (“a royal decree”), Eccles. 8:11 (Kugel, 2007, p. 513). Its cynicism and lack of “Trust in God and all will be well” also points to some Greek influences.
            I always recommend Kohelet/Ecclesiastes to adult readers. Like all great literary works, one can return to it, year after year, and always profit greatly. Our attitudes and beliefs about Life may change, but Kohelet remains static, much like the Grecian Urn in John Keats’s celebrated Ode. As we enter our beloved, but short, cooler season of autumn here in South Florida, Kohelet is a fine book to curl up with.

Works Cited

Kugel, James. How to Read the Bible: a Guide to Scripture, Then & Now. NY: Free Press, 2007.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Bibi n’ Boo Share a Quick One

Scene: A quiet, dark basement bar on E. 49th St., New York City near United Nations Headquarters. The bartender, Louie, is wiping the bar with a fresh white towel. It is an early autumn day in the city; through the closed door, street sounds may be heard: ambulance sirens, buses, people’s heel marks tapping. It is a lovely, breezy day.
One man sits at the bar: we cannot see his face. He is short, white-haired, hunched over, nursing his drink. He leans back, finishes his drink—we can see it is a scotch-and-water—and taps the glass, signaling for more. Louie obliges, pouring until the customer signals him to stop.
The door opens, and Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu enters, alone. As he goes down the stairs, he turns and talks to unseen persons, his Bodyguards:

Netanyahu: Yossi, Shmuel—just guard the door. Chaim—take the submachine gun and go around back; I know that you sent the first car on ahead. I’ll be safe here; there’s no one except that fellow over there, and Louie the barkeep knows me from before. Tell my wife I’ll be back at the consulate in about an hour. I just need to de-compress a little—oh, never mind. You know.

Voices: “Good speech, Mr. Prime Minister. Good job! You told them,” etc.

N: Yeah, yeah. When I was done, they all stood up and applauded (sarcastically). (To himself:) Why did I have to put in that dumbass line about Derek Jeter? God….(He goes down the remaining stairs and takes a seat at the bar, signaling to Louie) Hey, Louie.

L: Hey, Mr. Prime Minister—I mean, Ben.

N: Right, Ben.

L: The usual?

N: Right. (L pours him a double Seven-and-Seven. N takes it, salutes the unseen face of the man sitting down bar)—to you, my friend, and fellow New Yorker—L’Chaim!

Unseen Man (heavy foreign accent): L’chaim to you, my friend.

(N drinks deeply, puts the glass down, inhales, signals for another, loosens his belt, leans back, turns to the Unseen One)

N: Do I know you?

Unseen: Perhaps yes, perhaps not.

N (suspiciously, reaching to speak into his wristwatch): Then I—

U: That will not be necessary (He gets off his stool, walks over into the light, where he reveals himself as Mahmud Abbas, Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestine Authority.)

N: Well—Shalom!

M: Ahlan Wah’sah’lan. Come; let’s sit down, and chat (they sit in a booth).

N: This is a surprise. I didn’t know you were still in New York.

M: I decided to stay on a bit. One of my boys has family on Atlantic Avenue, and there is a wonderful Beirut-style restaurant down there. Excellent duck a l’orange, to die for.

N: I must try it.

M: So, outside the Holy Land, you don’t keep kosher? (N gives him a sharp look, and turns morosely to his drink.) So, how did your speech go?

N: What, you didn’t hear it?

M: Of course, I did.

N: Then, you know. Those who love me, continue to love me; those who don’t, also continue….

M: Same with me.

N (sighing, sitting back): I really thought I could kill them, there (quoting from himself): “ISIS and Hamas share a fanatical creed, which they both seek to impose well beyond the territory under their control.” Tell me, Mahmud, what do you think of that? I wrote it myself.

M: Well—(N gives him a sharp look) Can I be honest?

N: Please.

M: It rings a little hollow. You know that it isn’t true.

N: But I had to say it. Dammit, you know that I had to say it!

M: I know: we both are playing to our extremist wings.

N: And there’s someone else….

M: You mean God?

N: No: my Papa, God rest his soul (he gazes raptly heavenward).

M: Oh. Sorry. Well, what did you think, when I said, “No one will wonder anymore why extremism is rising and why the culture of peace is losing ground and why the efforts to achieve it are collapsing.”

N: Do you really believe that?

M: Well, I’m not altogether sure.

N: So why say it?

M: Well, it’s—you know—

N: Politics?

M: I suppose so. (Silence; they both sip at their drinks, and cogitate)

N: (looking at his watch) I’ve gotta go. Wife’s waiting; we’re supposed to go see that new—I mean, old—Kaufman & Hart show. I’ll never understand these American plays—two American Jews trying to explain American gentiles. But she does love Broadway, my wife.

M: I understand. So: do you think we’ll be getting together for peace talks anytime soon?

N: I don’t know—you know, Mahmud, if it were up to me, we could settle the whole deal, but I have all of these other people to deal with—you know? I’m really not in total control of things. I’ve got those two guys—Richie-Rich Bennett, and that crazy Russian—and there’re guys in my own Party who keep screaming for my head, if I make a move in the wrong direction.

M: Well, what am I supposed to do? I’m not getting any younger, here.

N: Well, I wish I could give you some encouragement, but my hands are tied. Hey, nice seeing you.

M: Tell your wife I said Hi. And hey, I’ll pay for the drinks.

N: Are you sure?

M: Hey, it’s not my money. The European Union is picking up this one. I hope you got quality booze, and not Louie’s house dreck.

N: Dreck? That’s cute. You really are picking up the lingo, Mahmud. Well, take care of yourself. Watch your back—we can’t always be protecting you everywhere, you know.

M: You too, Ben. Peace. (N leaves. M watches, and goes back to the bar.) Louie, howzabout one more for the road?