Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Shemote: "Eliminating" the Hebrews, 15th Century BCE: Pharaoh Tuthmosis's Secret Conference


Reign of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1504-1450 BCE), possible Pharaoh of the Israelite-Slavery-Period. Meeting of the High Court Privy Council, consisting of Officers and Advisers to His Royal Majesty. Item One on the Royal Agenda this fine Spring Morning is Population Control: namely, the preponderance of Apiru’, or Israelites, a Foreign Nation once welcomed into Egypt by the Late Vice-Pharaoh Joseph, known as Tsafnat-Paanayach, Secretary of Agriculture and Plenipotentiary to an earlier Pharaoh, the only Female Pharaoh, possibly Hatshepsut (1498-1483 BCE). But Circumstances have changed, and the Stranger Apiru/Israelite/Hebrews are no longer welcome in the Kingdom.

Present at this meeting, in the Summer Palace, are

--Tuthmosis III, Pharaoh of Egypt; son of Hatshepsut, a vain but intelligent ruler concerned with keeping his subjects content and in thrall to his power, as well as retaining Egypt’s position as top Middle-Eastern-Northeast-African Power, against regional upstarts Hatti and Northern Syria
--Senenmut, Royal Cup-Bearer Lord; that is, Chief Adviser to His Royal Majesty, a holdover from the regime of Hatshepsut;
--Unas, Minister of the Interior and Chief of the Security Services, a Secret Police Chief dedicated to the Survival of the Egyptian Empire, regardless of Methodology;
--General Kamose, Commander of the Royal Egyptian Army and Cavalry, a loyal career soldier; and
--Apophis, Minister of Census and Population Studies, whose Job it is to Number and Sort all Subjects of the Pharaoh—the Egyptians are notoriously xenophobic, which is to say they have a fear and suspicion of Outsiders, including the Hebrews, late their Neighbors and Friends, but not now; surely, not now….

Tuthmosis: What say you, Royal Cup-Bearer Lord Senenmut, about this Issue? We wait upon your words. As you advised our Mother, the late Empress Dowager Hatshepsut, so do we drink your words with eagerness.

(The Assembled Officers smile at His Majesty’s attempt at Wit, since Lord Senenmut’s Official Duties include being Cup-Bearer, or Butler, to the Pharaoh.).

Senenmut: Your Majesty, I can only state now, as I did to your Mother, Osiris rest her Soul! That these Apiru, or Israelites as they term themselves, are a Blight and a Scourge upon the Land, and must be dealt with immediately, in no uncertain terms—that is, to kill them off, entirely, like the vermin they are. Left alone, they might align themselves with an Invading Enemy, and fight with them against us. So much for their gratitude over our Benign Rule, and for all we did for their Forebear, that Joseph!

Unas (Secret Police Chief): I must say, Sire, that, with all due respect to Milord Senenmut, I must disagree. These Hebrews, or Israelites, or whatever they or we choose to call them, are hardly warlike. My secret agents in the field tell me that they are quiet and peaceful, and wish only to be left to dwell among themselves in the Land of Goshen, the district which Tsafnat-Paanayach, their late leader whom you call Joseph—

Senenmut: So do they call him themselves, in their filthy tongue!

Unas: --so do I beg your pardon, Milord Cup-Bearer; I was not yet done speaking, if you will grant me leave. (The Cup-Bearer sits back, fuming) Well. I would advise that, if we view these People as a Threat to the Kingdom, we do as we have always done in such a Situation: I have already placed among them Spies—not only our own Secret Police Agents, but turncoats from among themselves—I mention to you, in particular, agents such as Datan, Aviram, and a young up-and-comer, one Korach, himself a Levite, of their leading tribe—those Apiru whom we have compromised through promises of leadership and advancement—all false, of course. They are our Eyes and Ears in their own community, bringing us any information we may require about possible revolts, revolutions, or the slightest beginnings of resistance to our rule.

Tuthmosis: Hm. What is your thought, Commander of the Army?

Kamose (He is a burly, one-eyed, battle-scarred Warrior, wearing the back-and-breast body-armor of a charioteer, having only just come from Military Maneuvers on the Western Plain, and he speaks bluntly in a deep bass voice, as befits a Career Soldier, used to shouting orders on a battlefield): I have no time for subtleties, Your Grace. I have devoted my life’s blood to defending both my Sovereign, that is, Your Royal Self, and that of Mother Egypt (he sits up, and smites his left breast with his right fist), and will do whatever is necessary to bring these—what-d’ye-call-‘em? Ah-PEE-roos?—into line. I know well the Land of Goshen where they dwell, and I have already torched a score of their hovelly little shacks, before you could say, “Great Scarab Sun-Disk!” Just as a lesson to any of them, in case they might have thought of sabotaging a Pyramid or Sphinx or some such. My men and I have drilled a battle-line of Your Majesty’s finest chariots; we can draw up from twenty to fifty war-wagons within a quarter-hour, and then, Osiris help the rabble who stand in our way! As we smote the Hittites, as we ground the Syrian pike-bearers beneath our chariot-wheels—you recall, Sire, what a splendid day that was, although I lost my eye to an accidental arrow-shot, Ra save the mark!—I looked up at the clouds of heaven, and thought I bespied me a Divine Hawk, that of Horus himself, circling above, and screeching its plaudits to our brave boys! Why, I—

Senenmut (sarcastically): You wax eloquently, General Kamose. Have you submitted this report to your regimental marching band, to have it set to music?

Kamose (embarrassed, he sputters, rises, salutes): I live only to serve my Liege Pharaoh and my Homeland. May Ra, the Sacred Sun-god, save Egypt! Save the Pharaoh! (He salutes again and again)

Tuthmosis: Be seated. Please. (Kamose sits, muttering. Tuthmosis turns back to Unas.) So, Milord Police-General Unas, do you think that Subjugation, a Separation Wall, perhaps, and an Increased Workload upon the Apirus will destroy this Scourge, this Curse that Ra has laid upon our Land? I wish only for a Sense of Security, so that Egypt may flourish. We do have an Image to Project upon the World. The Hittites and Syrians lie in wait; any Sign of Weakness, and they shall be upon us. Reputation, reputation, reputation! Egypt cannot afford to lose its reputation. Our power over Foreigners living in our Midst must, shall, be Absolute.

Unas: Oh, surely, we are proceeding, Your Grace. Spies, torture, increased labor, and, of course, night-raids and arrests by our Special Night Squads. Prison for any and all Rabble-rousers. Everything and Anything to keep Civil Protest down and under control. General Kamose may trust in his Horses and Chariots; I call upon the Name of State Security, and we have suspended any legal niceties in dealing with these Barbarians; jail the Lot of them, I say. They are baking mud bricks and building for us. It should bear rewards. Our Slavery regimen is going well; less food, more buildings; less freedom, more pyramids; less kindness, more treasure-houses. We are flourishing, while they must, and shall, diminish—that is, die, via Natural Selection. Freedom for—what did Kamose call them, Ah-PEE-roo? Pah! I spit on them. They’re not like us; if they were, they would be Egyptian. They are mortals, true; but mortals of a lesser breed.

Apophis (Minister of Population, Main Office, Heliopolis): Oh, excuse me, M’lord Unas. Except for One Thing.

Tuthmosis: Ah, Population Minister Apophis! I have not heard from you, yet. What have you to add?

Apophis (he is a cheery old duffer, has served long in his office, and loves to contradict the younger men): In spite of Milord Secret Policeman Unas’s plans about the tight screws he has placed on our Guests from Joseph’s Time—and I am older than you Gentlemen, including, pardon me, Your Majesty; I have Good Memories of the Fine Work that Joseph did for us, and for our Kingdom, during the Seven Years’ Famine. Yes, I can well recall when there was not a grain of wheat to be had, between here and Memphis—

Tuthmosis (The meeting is going on too long, and he has a new horse to inspect): What is your report, Lord Apophis? Give us your Report, if you please. Now.

Apophis (Coming back from his Memories): What? Report? Oh, yes. (Rustling his papyrus scrolls, and squinting down at them) M-h’m. Yes. Well. It seems that, in spite of Lord Unas’s best efforts at torturing, killing, and otherwise keeping down the Israelites—I continue to call them that; it’s more Respectful, y’know—Population, they are increasing. Gentlemen, the number of Israelites is growing, by leaps and bounds.

Tuthmosis: What?

Unas: Impossible!

Apophis (happily): No, the numbers don’t lie. And I was speaking to the Two Chief Midwives just yesterday. Delightful young women they are, too: lively, and full of life. What were their names—Pifra and Shuah? Something like that—

Unas: Well, this is Totally Unacceptable. I—that is, we—must take Stronger Measures.

Tuthmosis: Well, could you have a report ready for me—let’s say—tomorrow, at Noon? This meeting has already gone on far too long. Let’s see: you, Police Chief (pointing at Unas) and you, General Kamose, should get together with the Captain of the Guard, and see if you can get ahold of those midwives. What, only two? Then this problem should be manageable. But I must go; my new gift horse won’t wait…. No, don’t get up—where’s my Royal Escort? Guard!

(The Officers rise; Tuthmosis exits, in a swirl of Royal Robes, and leaving the faintest scent of sandalwood hanging in the air.)

Senenmut (smiling evilly at his younger colleagues): Well, there you are. So you thought you could dispose of the Apiru so easily? Milady Hatshepsut couldn’t do it. I recall one night—

Unas: With all due respect, Milord Cup-Bearer, could you keep your stories to yourself? We have a Real Problem, here, and not that much time to solve it in.

Senenmut: Let me finish. We were sitting—this was, what? Ten, twelve years ago? And Joseph had just died. Hatshepsut was not all that sad about it. Oh, certainly, Joseph had been a fine adviser, but he had had these—she used to call them, his “spells,” when he would get all, far-away-eyed, and she wouldn’t be able to speak to him. He explained to her that that was how his God spoke to him, how this God-spirit would tell him what to do. It always gave her the shivers; at least, that’s what she told me. That’s the thing with these Hebrews. You can’t just wish them away. There’s Something about them.

Unas (he has been only half-listening to Senenmut, that pest; now, he looks up, startled): What’s that you said?

Senenmut (crossly): I said you can’t just wish the Hebrews away. Why don’t you ever listen to me? You young people—

Unas: I thought you said, “wash them away.” That’s what we’ll do. General Kamose!

Kamose (he has been daydreaming, but is instantly alert): Here, Milord? Sir?

Unas: Assemble your officers and noncoms. Tell them there is a new Order of the Day, to be in effect until I, the Minister of Internal Security, rescind it. All male children of the Hebrews, as soon as they are born, are to be washed away—that is, tossed bodily into the Nile River, as—as—offerings.

Kamose: Drowned? Until dead?

Unas: Yes. Drowned. Is there any other way, you armored ox? (Offhandedly) You may let the girl-babies live. They are no threat to us.

Kamose (saluting): I live to serve (He exits).

Unas (turning to Senenmut and Apophis): And now, we shall see. I will set my wits against this People, this puzzle you and that Old, Dead Woman, your False Pharaoh (he says the name through clenched teeth, as though distasteful), Hatshepsut, found so Difficult. We at some time are masters of our Fates, and I will be Master, now. I will beat those Hebrews yet. Now, go!

(All Exit. Blackout.)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vayechi: 1000 BCE: Two Royal Davidic Scribes Write Down the Text of Jacob's Blessing His Sons.


1000 BCE. The Royal Scriptorium, a writing-office/warehouse more pretentious in name than reality, in King David’s Palace, Jerusalem: it is a cavernous room chock-full of clay tablets, animal-skins in various stages of tanning-preparation for writing, clay jugs ready for inscribing with the names of their contents, rolls of papyri stacked in every conceivable corner, and even a stack of stone plaques next to several hammer-and-chisel sets, which will be used for more-permanent legislative displays.

In one corner badly-lit by a flickering olive-oil lamp, two Royal Scribes, Tsuribaal and Kuttav, are having a quiet chat over some herbal tea, during a break from sharpening their reed pens, which they will dip into vegetable-dye-ink and apply to parchment-scrolls. They are, as Hebrews have done since time immemorial, discussing vigorously—that is, arguing over—the content of the Blessing of Jacob, this week’s Torah portion, but, back then, merely a section of prose-poetry recording the pre-monarchical tribal saga of the Israelites.

Tsuribaal: Kuttav, you have it all wrong. Reuven was Jacob’s firstborn, way-back-when, and there remain large numbers of Reuvenites still living in their hereditary tribal portion. See here (flourishing a chart which he plucks expertly from a pile in the corner): the Royal Census of the first year of King David’s reign, peace be upon him! I know there was a Census, for, my word upon it, a plague followed. Plagues always follow, whenever there’s an official count of anything. That is why I have never given the Chief Scribe, Pedahtzur (whispering)—that fat, oily fish of a  bureaucrat, who loves to order us about—an exact count of the fresh papyri and bags of clay for tablets, that we acquired two months ago from the Ashdod Scribal Suppliers.

Kuttav (speaking with exaggerated patience): I cry you pardon and mercy, Master Scribe Tsuri—Judah is the biggest tribe. I am a Judahite, as is our King, God preserve him! And that is what I will write Jacob’s Blessing to emphasize. Now, leave me, Tsuribaal; I work better on poetry when I am left alone. You go count the bags of tablets in the other storeroom; that will keep you busy, and away from us honest workers. Where’s my Text on Poetical Parallelism--?

Tsuribaal: Not so fast! Did you forget that we were both assigned to write the Blessing? It is most important that we write a smooth transition in leadership from Reuven to Judah. And what shall we do with Shimon and Levi? You can’t just have two major tribes disappear like that.

Kuttav: Hmph—where are your mighty Tribes of Shimon and Levi today? Just this morning, I saw a Levite-laborer at the Tent-of-Burnt-Offerings here in Jerusalem, all covered with cattle-soot and blood,  hardly impressive! Why is our Royal David not allowed to build a Holy Temple to our Invisible God? Perhaps it is that matter of sins being passed down, from generation to generation—that business with Dinah and Shechem, back in the Jacob-Saga. I’ve heard the story time and again, and we are charged with writing it down, finally, M’Lord Tsuri, so tell me, please: was it a seduction, rape, or what?

Tsuribaal: As I live, Brother Kuttav! You’re going to have to clean that story up—there may be small children reading this Book! Can’t have any shenanigans like that in a Holy Scroll, my friend. And it’s a Royal Chronicle, as well.

Kuttav: I write what I have heard of our Traditional Tales. We are not mere record-scratchers on clay lumps, Lord Tsuri; we are the Royal Historians, and, as such, are obligated to record our People’s History, as well as the dictates of He-Who-is-Above-the-Cherubim.

Tsuribaal (shaking a finger in Kuttav’s face): Don’t get all High-and-Mighty with me, Master Kuttav. I sat next to you during Scribal Arts Class, and even slipped you some answers on the Phoenician Language Short-Answer part of the Final Exam, when the Proctor was nodding off. In fact, Kuttav, were it not for me, you would be a mere Royal Customs Clerk, sizzling beneath the hot sun on the Jaffa docks, counting barrels of olive oil and Mei Raglayim naphtha being sent off to Ethiopia and India, instead of sleeping on cool marble and fresh linen in the Palace Dormitory and—and—canoodling with that little kitchen-wench of yours from Lower Issachar! (He stops, fuming)

Kuttav (soothingly): Now, Tsuribaal, calm yourself. I’m sure we can work something out about Dinah. You certainly cannot argue with the long-standing Tradition that Shimon and Levi took up arms and attacked the men of Shechem when they were—shall we say—indisposed.

Tsuribaal (tapping his lip): Yes, that’s true. Indisposed. That’s a good phrase, that one.  

Kuttav: Nor that Reuven made his move on leadership by claiming Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah, and that Jacob was—was—(hesitates)—the word escapes me—?

Tsuribaal: Can we not say, “Jacob heard of it”? Meaning, he did nothing. We play the entire incident down.

Kuttav: Yes, that is a fine compromise; I agree. Vague though it is.

Tsuribaal (smiling triumphantly): Agreed, as well. This is a Royal Chronicle, after all, not some Arabian Nights Harem Tale. Vague is good.

Kuttav (writes): Done and done. Now, how are we to leave in no uncertain terms the unassailable fact that Judah, the Royal Tribe of our Awful Sovereign and Liege Lord, David the Most-High-King, Peace be Unto Him! And his Progeny (whosoever that Progeny may be; there are so many of them, what with all those Wives and Concubines), may reign forever?

Tsuribaal: I am there, M’Lord Kuttav, once again, ahead of you, with a nice bit of poetry I recall from our late Writing-Master Achikam, in Scribal Arts Class, you may recall: “The scepter shall not depart from—what’s that tribe, again?—Judah”—yes, Judah.

Kuttav: To which I will add, “…Until Judah reaches Shiloh.”

Tsuribaal (suspicious; he gives up nothing without a fight): “Shiloh”? What’s that?

Kuttav: A nice distinction. We may understand it many ways—it can be Shelah, one of the Judahite clans, and the one to which I myself belong—I consider it an honor, and a bit of poetic license, to insert myself into the text—sort of an echo of my—I mean, our—own labors on this royal-tribal-memorial project. Or, it could be “shai lo,” meaning, “until a tribute is brought to him,” that is, to the ruler at the time, that ruler being a descendant of David, which will help to shore up the Davidic House against any rivals—one never knows; remember the tussle David had, seizing the Throne away from Saul and the Benjaminite Tribe? Beyond that, David and his descendants will solidify their hold on power, so much so that the other tribes, indeed, all the tribes and nations of our known world, extending all over the Back of the Land-Turtle and from one corner of the Firmament to the Other, will bring him tribute, and all Humanity will pledge their loyalty to him.

Tsuribaal: H’m. A nice bit of poetry, that. (Puts down his reed quill, bows, and says, half-mockingly) I defer to your poetical and political skills, Master Kuttav.

Kuttav: Thanks; (bowing, as well) couldn’t have done it without your assistance (Tsuribaal narrows his eyes and glares); I mean, help. Any more of that herbal tea left—or, if we’re done, my mind and throat are dry. M’lord Tsuri, the workday’s almost done. Could I interest you in a mug of barley beer?


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

A Romance in the Kovno Woods, 1942

A Romance in the Kovno Woods, 1942

By David Hartley Mark

            I call him my Buchmendel, after his most famous story. He is short, with longish black hair, and wire-rimmed spectacles that fog in the snow. He is helpless in these woods—the same woods I grew up in, all of my life. He is the most brilliant man I have ever met. I am his forest wildflower, as he calls me. I am his protectress.

We will move to Palestine soon. I have seen this in a dream. We will live on a kibbutz. I will bring him an earthenware pitcher of warm, fresh milk from the dairy, and stir it into the Earl Grey tea he tells me he liked, before the War. I will knock gently on the door of his study; he will look up from his typewriter, and smile at me. I will come in, rumple his hair, and give him a kiss. There, in the halfdarkness, surrounded by the brown leather of books. His library. Our home, together, safe.

            He will smile at me, “Nu, Liebchen?” he will ask. I will perch on the arm of his chair. He will read me his verses. They are beautiful, like his eyes. The warm Palestine sunlight reflects off the yellow flowers on the tan-colored pitcher. We kiss there, slowly, among the books and papers. His face smells of pipe tobacco and bay rum.

The cold wind blows through the treetops. Will the Enemy come today?

We will have a small apartment in Tel-Aviv, near the seashore, designed by the same architect who built the Bauhaus. We stroll after sunset on the beach. He takes off his heavy German tweed jacket, rolls up his slacks, and I run back-and-forth, back-and-forth, into the water, splashing him, while he laughs and tries to stay dry. Our pet dachshund is named Rollo. He barks. We laugh.

Later, we drink brandy at a small bar on Allenby Street. He smokes Gauloises and tells me stories of Berlin, in the old days, before the War.

            We will live in Jerusalem. Together, we find treasures in the Arab shuk. I buy him scented pomegranates, a Turkish ottoman of fresh-smelling leather, a packet of cinnamon. We sit together in a café and drink Turkish coffee. We will explore the alleyways of the Old City. He whispers Heine’s “Lorelei” into my ear.

            He kisses me, in the dark. He is my lover, so patient and tender.

            I will defend him; he is helpless. I have my Shpagin submachine gun; I am very good with it. I have killed five Nazis, so far; one was an SS officer who would not surrender. If he had surrendered, I would have killed him anyway. Why not? They show us no mercy; we will do the same to them. They are scum. He—

            “Hesia,” says Stefan to me, “I’m cold. Hold me closer.”

            Our tiny campfire is dying down, and the snow is falling harder. I hug my Stefan closer. He is helpless—so helpless! He puts the book of Kant’s Philosophy down, and I kiss his cheek. It is rough with the beard he cannot grow in well, but tries. He thinks that it will keep his face warm. It won’t.

We whisper in the dark, until Big Zelig comes by, and says, “Hesia, I’m tired. Here is the machine gun, locked and loaded. You and your intellectual boyfriend, go now, and kill some subhumans.”

            Big Zelig laughs.

“What time is it?” I ask him.

“About three am,” he says, and spits into the fire. It crackles.

“Good night, Hesia Strom, Comrade Curly-Head,” Big Zelig says, “I’m going to sleep for two hours. Wake me when the bastards are here, just before you run out of bullets. I will bring you some more. Perhaps I will shoot, also, or just fart on them.”

He laughs.

“Good night, Comrade Zelig Grossbaum,” I answer, “Try not to snore too loudly. The Nazis are complaining.”

We both laugh. I get up and stretch my cramped legs and arms. I catch a little of the snow on my tongue, just as I did as a little girl.

I nudge Stefan; he has fallen asleep. The snow covers his head like a blanket, over the fedora that he has jammed over his head, over the blanket he wears like an Arab. He is cold, when I wake him; he is always cold.

            The stars are very bright. “’When it is darkest, the stars are brighter,’” he once quoted to me, “Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher—that is who said that. He was a Transcendentalist.”

            “What is a Transcendental—what?” I ask.

I did not have the same education Stefan had. He teaches me a lot. In the night, in the dark, on the hill watching the road, guarding our partisans’ camp from the Germans and Lithuanians, there is time to whisper, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, remembering that we come from a world of books, of learning, of philosophy, and so many other things I have forgotten—forgotten while we try to just survive, day to day, like animals in the forest.

I sniff my armpit, there inside my quilted Soviet Army uniform. I took it off a dead woman soldier. She didn’t need it anymore—Phew! I don’t believe I will ever be clean, really clean, again. I wish I could have a bath, just once. With scented bubbles….

            “Transcendentalism?” Stefan repeats, but I know that he is not talking to me; not now, not any longer—he is talking to himself, inside, yes, deep inside his mind, far far away from the snow and the forest and the dirt and the partisans and yes, especially the death and the Nazis—he is remembering. He is thinking of a time and place where there were books and learning.

He can do that. He can escape, that way. Yes. It is a good thing. But it is bad, as well; all at the same time, because it means that he will be thinking Transcendentalists, about this man, this American philosopher—what was his name?—Emmerstein?—when he should be thinking practical things, like I do, like,

            Where is my next meal coming from?
            Am I safe in this place? I may be safe now, but will I be, any longer?
            Can the Enemy find me here?
            Perhaps it’s time to move—is that a plane I hear? They are searching, and will certainly find me, from the air—it is time to look for cover….
            When will we attack next? We must be always attacking. It is better to attack than to wait and to die here, like rats in a cage….

            “…And that is Transcendentalism,” Stefan finishes, and smiles, like a schoolboy ready for a pat on the head. And that is why I love him; he is so wise, and so tender. I will protect him, my Stefan Zweig, my Buchmendel, my dear little professor, my lover.

            The stars look down.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Vayigash: c.1886 BCE: Two Little Israelite Boys Discuss their Invisible God Whilst on the Great Tribal Trek from Canaan to Egypt.


An Israelite Caravan, c. 1886 BCE. A Hot, Dry, Dusty Day in the Sinai, descending from Canaan to Egypt. Men shouting directions and ignoring one another, Women comforting their Children, a Solid Mass of Cattle—goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, camels—all united in a loud cacophony of animal-cries rising up to Heaven. In the midst of the Tumult, Two Small Boys are walking, holding short sticks, and trying to guide an Elderly She-Donkey, named Duvdevan (Hebrew, “Cherry”), which is mostly ignoring them. They are cousins Yoni ben Pallu and Dov ben Zerach, of the Tribes of Reuven and Judah, respectively. Yoni is ten; Dov is eight.

Yoni: Move, Duvdevan! You’re slowing us down. We will have to stay back in Canaan, for sure, and never get to see Egypt. Move along, or I will use my mighty donkey-whip on your bony backside, see if I don’t!

(He waves his little branch menacingly in the Donkey’s face. The Donkey brays, tosses its head, and pays no attention.)

Dov: Yoni, will we see the Pyramids? Granny says that they are built of mud-brick, and reach from the Earth to the Sky, all the way up to where the Great God Elohim has placed the planet-wanderers in the Rakiah, the Firmament. Is that so?

Yoni (uncertain): Granny tells a lot of stories. Is this your Granny or mine?

Dov: I don’t know; I’m not sure; there are so many Grannies….

(The Donkey begins to veer off the path, and Both Boys scramble to grab its rope-harness, and pull its tail back, lest it barrel into the cows before it.)

Yoni: Poor Old Duvdevan! She’s almost blind, you know.

Dov: Is that why Poppa gave her to you?

Yoni: I suppose so; Poppa won’t let me have a dog; he says they’re unclean. (The Two scuffle along in the dust, for a few steps)

Dov: I hear that there are Giant Statues in Egypt, too. And Cousin Joseph is the King’s Special Assistant.

Yoni: What’s a Statue?

Dov: I don’t know. Are we to live in Egypt forever?

Yoni: Last night, after you went to bed with the other babies, Grandpa Reuven let me stay up. He took me to Great-Grandpa Jacob’s tent. He is old—so old! He made—that is, whispered—a speech, and Reuven repeated it after him, in a loud voice. Great-Granny Leah and Aunty Zilpah were moving their lips—I suppose they were remembering it; my Papa said they are the Rememberers for all of us, and will pass the Story down, so it’s never forgotten.

Dov: What was the Story, Yoni? Pass it down to me!

Yoni (frowning): Have I forgotten it? No. Great-Grandpa said something like, ‘All of us, My Children, will leave tomorrow. I must go down and see my son, Joseph, before I die.’ And he clenched his fists and moved his hands in the air, as if he were arguing with Someone, only there was No One there. And then, he said, ‘I will not fear to go down to Egypt, for Elohim, the Judgment-God, the God who has forever brought me down and up throughout my life, who has blessed me with my many sons, especially my beloved Joseph and Benjamin, the sons of my heart’s-chosen-one Rachel, God rest her soul!—will make my great-grandsons and their children into a Great Nation, and will bring them out of Egypt with a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm.” And then, he began to cough, suddenly, and Leah and Zilpah laid him back on his sleeping-mat, and Papa carried me out; I was so tired….

Dov: Does the Judgment-God Elohim have hands and arms? Where can I see Him?

Yoni: You can’t see Him, Little Fool! The Great Elohim lives in the Mountains of Moab, beyond the Sea of Salt. That’s what Great-Uncle Levi told me. Uncle Levi knows a lot; he has the Sacred Scrolls.

Dov (thoughtfully): If Egypt is so wonderful, I will never leave; I will build a great house, as big as King Pharaoh Senostris’s Palace, and live there forever.

Yoni (patronizingly): Says you. But Grampy Jacob said that the Great God Elohim told him there will be a day when we must leave. Egypt will not be our Home forever.

Dov: How can you live in a Place and it not be your Home?

Yoni: A Home is—a Home is—where it belongs to you, not to Someone Else. A Home is where you look around, and all the tents belong to you; the people are either relatives or close neighbors, and you all speak the same language. No one can come into your home and force you to do something you don’t want to do. That’s not the Main Idea of a Home, but that’s an Important Part. Canaan will always be our home, and Egypt will never be—not entirely. It’s so hard to explain to you, Dovvy!

Dov: But the Egyptians will be nice to us. Uncle Joseph has promised it, and he is the Second Most Powerful Man in Egypt. Why would that ever change?

Yoni: I don’t know—but don’t forget what Great-Grandpa Jacob said: “I will take you out,” says the Great God Elohim.

Dov: I just don’t understand—Watch out, Duvdevan! (The Boys chase the Donkey, as it shambles off)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Evolution of Chanukah: Whither Maccabees?

Whither Maccabees? The Evolution of Chanukah

By David Hartley Mark

            The Maccabees were religious liberals. They fought against the status quo, boldly asserting their right to choose how they wished to worship, protesting the Syrian Greek regime’s insistence on idolatry and paganism. They did not rest until they drove the enemy from their soil, and crowned their military victory by cleansing the Sacred Shrine, which had been defiled. They were fortunate to locate a tiny bottle of oil, which miraculously burned for eight days, giving them time to crush olives from the sacred store and make fresh oil for the mighty candlelabra, the Menorah.

            The Maccabees were religious conservatives. They fought against the Syrian Greeks’ attempts to change the status quo, and restored the previous modes of worship. They kidnapped Israelite male babies and forcibly circumcised them in the tradition of their forebears. Their battle was not so much against enemy Greeks, but rather the Hellenists, those among their people who adopted pagan ways. When the Maccabees achieved military victory, they celebrated the return to the Old Ways by cleansing the Holy Temple and kindling the age-old lights of the Menorah, using a sacred cruse of precious olive oil, which miraculously burned for eight nights.

            The Maccabees were Jewish heroes. When their land, Israel, was invaded by pagan evildoers, they took a stand against them. The Syrian Greeks did not wish to destroy the Jews physically, but spiritually. Were it not for the Maccabees and their struggles, Judaism as we know it might have vanished. Glory to the Maccabees!

            The Maccabees committed a near-fatal error in their choice of military allies. Realizing that they themselves could not overcome the power of Greece, they invited in the next, up-and-coming world power, Rome. With Roman strategic and material help, they were able to drive the Greek occupiers away.

            Postwar, they had this conversation:

Maccabees: “Hey, Romans, thanks! You can go home, now.”

Romans: “Hey, Jews, nice country! We’re staying.”

            Which is why the First and Second Books of Maccabees never made it into the Biblical Canon: they were too pro-Roman in tone, and the Rabbis hated Imperial Rome, which forbade Torah Study and tortured and killed rabbis for doing and teaching Torah. And the Rabbis decided which Books made it in (Genesis, Exodus) and which stayed out (Maccabees, The Rest of the Proverbs of Solomon).

            By the way, the Oil Miracle does not appear in I & II Maccabees. In those books, Chanukah lasts for eight days because it’s a delayed celebration of Sukkot, which, added to Simchat Torah, equals eight days. The Maccabees were fighting in the hills and mountains, and had no time, given combat conditions, to build Sukkot. The Oil thing is mentioned in the Talmud, casually and off-handedly, in the midst of a rabbinic conversation regarding how to make Shabbat candles, and of what materials.

            The Talmudic Rabbis disliked the Maccabees intensely, because of the Roman invite, and because they:

            1. Went to war; as Priests, Kohanim, they should not have borne arms
            2. Set themselves up as the Hasmonean kings—despite their having kept Rome away from Israelite rulership for about 100 years

            Because of these reasons, Chanukah was relegated to second-class-holiday status for centuries. Only when the Zionist Movement got started, in the late 1800s, did it get new impetus. The Zionists were looking for a holiday, an excuse really, to get the pasty-faced, skinny, tubercular-lunged Yeshiva bochrim (scholars) out of the study halls and out into the fields, kicking around a soccer ball, or, better, farming or learning how to use a rifle, preparing for the eventual conquest of the Land of Israel.

            Chanukah was made to order, featuring a fighting family of scholar-priest-warriors, the Maccabees. Songs were written (Maoz Tsur—Rock of Ages) and others, that extolled the sacrifice and dedication of the Maccabees, in particular, its last stanza, with its emphasis on strength, willingness to fight, and universal peace:

                                    Children of the Martyr Race
                                    Whether free or fettered
                                    Wake the echoes of the songs
                                    Where ye may be scattered
                                    Yours the message cheering
                                    That the time is nearing
                                    Which will see all men free
                                    Tyrants disappearing

            Finally, in the post-World War II era, Chanukah gained yet another lease on life, as the “Jewish Christmas.” As a pulpit rabbi for 35+ years, I can attest that the same modern rabbis who decry what a Festival of Materialism this has become, are also thanking God and Jewish History for it—for, were it not for this relatively minor, postbiblical holiday, there would be a lot more Christmas trees in Jewish homes.

            I recall seeing a picture of the Dray-Dell, a four-foot-tall giant dreidel, manufactured by the Dray-Dell Co. of Paramus, NJ, back in the 1950s, “Suitable for stacking the children’s Chanukah presents around, on Chanukah morning. Send for one, today!” Sort of a non-Christmas Tree, Jewish Christmas Tree, if you get what I mean.

            Nowadays, Chanukah has morphed and expanded, to the extent that it is the only Jewish holiday most gentiles are familiar with, and they believe it to be the most important. I would state, however, that, as far as Christmas is concerned, there is more linking the two festivals that one might believe.

            The fact is that the Greeks who opposed the Jews did not wish to destroy them physically; that is the theme of the Purim Story, in February. Rather, they were against Judaism, the religion; they wished for the Jews to take upon themselves Greek mores, philosophy, and beliefs. Had they succeeded, triumphed over the Jews, and assimilated them into the majority, then, when Jesus was born in 4 BCE—a mere 164 years later—he would not have been born a Jew; he would have been a Greek. And, notwithstanding the influence of Greek culture on the early Church, Christianity as we know it today might never have begun.

            So, perhaps we owe more to this minor, postbiblical holiday than might appear at first glance.

            That’s Chanukah: sort of a reflecting-mirror in which Jews and gentiles can see whatever image they wish. Holidays and historical origins are like that. The important thing, in the end, is that families come together to celebrate, that they light candles, eat latkes, sing the songs, and spin the dreidels—regardless of how, why, or when these customs evolved. In the end, holidays are not just dates on a calendar, or events in a dusty history book or Bible. They are people—enduring, surviving, and evolving. People laugh, and cry, and live. People.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Miketz: The Tale of Djerby, the Royal Egyptian Prison Warden


In my continuing series of examining archeological documents from the Past, here is a piece which I acquired from the antiquities dealer, Ploni Ibn-Almoni, in the shuq-marketplace of the Old City of Jerusalem during my year abroad many decades ago. Almoni swore that he had secured it from a reliable source: one Dr. Tennessee Smith (1889-1948), an explorer and archeologist who claimed to have located the tomb of Seti I (reigned 1291-1278 BCE), thought to have been the Pharaoh during the viziership of Joseph the Hebrew. It is supposedly a diary-fragment written by one Djerby, a prison guard during that time, and was found in a clay jar in the southeastern corner of the Valley of the Kings. Dr. Smith translated it from the original hieroglyphics and sold it to the antiquities dealer, prior to his death in a plane crash, while flying a surplus Czech ME-109 fighter plane to join the nascent Israeli Air Force in 1948.

            I, Djerby, Chief Prison Warden to the Benevolent-Pharaoh-Seti, He-Who-Manifests-Amun-Re, and who have served faithfully and without fault to my god-and-father the Pharaoh for five full rain-seasons, do state wholeheartedly that I am tired. Tired of the whole business of watching after these imprisoned court officers, these piddling lickspittles who somehow manage to run afoul of His Majesty’s pleasure, and wind up in the Royal Egyptian pokey. When these high-toned, demanding Royal Courtiers come into the prison—MY prison—do they think to lower themselves, to comport themselves as prisoners? No, no indeed.
Instead, all they want is Executive Prison Service, which really doesn’t exist. It’s a PRISON, Osiris help me! We don’t offer a 5-Star menu, or deluxe mattresses, lined with fine Egyptian cotton, stuffed with goosedown, if you please. That’s what the Royal Cupbearer, Herihor, requested, his first night in our Royal Egyptian Prison.

“Surely you’re joking, Lord Cupbearer,” I said to him.

“Why, where and how do you expect me to sleep?” he asked me, looking down that long nose of his. I wanted to swat him—just once!—with my ring of keys; that would have given me much pleasure.

Who dares complain in a prison? And yet, these noble nabobs keep me and my prison guards running to and fro, fetching them wine, fresh fruit, and other treats.

Well, I’ve had enough; I’m sick of it. Or I was, at least, until Potiphar brought in his young, former chief-of-staff, a head-of-household Hebrew, some kid who had apparently run afoul of his wife—what’s her name?—Zuleika? Well, everyone knows what sort of cheap sort SHE is, always throwing herself at—well, I’d rather not say. I’m a rough sort, but I have my standards of conduct, too.
“Leave this boy—named Joseph, you say?—leave him with me,” I told Potiphar, “I’m sure I can find a place for him.”
“Not in a dungeon, please, Djerby,” said Potiphar, “I beg you. He’s a delicate sort. And he’s bright—give him a job where he can use his mind. He’s a quick study. Trust me.”
            Well, what could I do? Potiphar’s a friend. And he was right: right, indeed. This Joseph was smart: in just two weeks, he had the prison running like a water clock, all humming along. He knew exactly how much fresh straw to order for the royal prisoners’ cells; knew when to get the fresh water so that they could have their baths—yes, believe me; they insist on bathing, not like your common, scrummy, marketplace thieves; that’s why we have the special wing for “Deposed Court Officers.”

It’s all Pharaoh’s fault, you see: he’s a changeable sort—ever since he got that terrific bump on his head when hit by a slingshot in that battle with the Hurrians. Hasn’t been the same since, they say. You never know when some well-meaning court officer is going to get His Royalness into a tizzy by putting the wrong number of poppyseeds into a cookie, or give him his beer in a mug adorned with lapis instead of mother-of-pearl. He’s that changeable, I can tell you. I hear rumors….

            There was that business with the Cup-bearer and the Baker—they had dreams, I recall. Dreams of danger, mystery, and portent. No one could interpret them. Myself, I’m a realist; I don’t put too much stock in dreams. Just live your life, and Amun-Re will look after you; he will, or, perhaps, Osiris. Don’t put too much faith in one god; that’s why there are several. But these two—Herihor, the Cup-Bearer, and Smedjem, the Baker—they were obsessed. So I sent them Joseph; if anyone could cheer them up, it was he. And I was right. In just one week—Herihor, was back in the Pharaoh’s court, whispering advice into Seti’s ear.

As for Baker Smedjem, poor fellow—well, I really shouldn’t say; speaking of the dead is bad luck. He was hanged, you know. Terrible; such a friendly, talkative fellow, but a really, really, bad baker: always burning the bread; his cake, just hard, like a miller’s stone. Don’t understand how he got the job in the first place. Must have known somebody. One time, he even ruined the Pharaoh’s third Royal Daughter’s Birthday Cake. The crème frosting supposedly tasted like soap. Tsk, tsk.

Well, poor Baker’s dead now; just flesh for the birds. Ah, well. Doesn’t matter now, really.
And now? Joseph just sits and waits. Moony-eyed fellow: eyes like big, brown pools. Wrinkled brow, though he can’t be but nineteen at most. Old before his time. Sad story, no doubt, though I’ve no time for it. Everyone in this cage has a tale to tell. Sorry, no time to listen: I have a prison to run. Still—

 “What’s the matter, my Joey?” I asked him, just today.

“The Cup-Bearer, Master Warden Djerby,” he said to me, smiling, though there were tears in his eyes, “I am in jail for false reasons. Mistress Zuleika—she lied about me. And now, the Cupbearer has not remembered, but has forgotten me.”
“Well, don’t fret,” I said, and patted his back, “Amun-Re will watch out for you.”
“Yes,” he said, “My God will look out for me.”
            Which god is that, I wonder?

(Here ends the fragment)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Another Day in God's Universe: 12/2/15

Another Day in God’s Universe: 12/2/15

By David Hartley Mark

                                    I have to be out of here in one hour
                                    To meet my bar mitzvah boy for his lesson
                                    He sings the best he can
                                    Though the twelve-year-old male adolescent voice
                                    Is not the most reliable instrument
                                    And his haftorah is Jeremiah
                                    Who is not the cheeriest prophet
                                    But he (not Jerry) loves to sing from the amud
                                    Which is the podium on the bema
                                    And the bronze lions on both sides
                                    Smile down on his twelve-year-old head
And it makes me happy.
And God,

                                    They shot the Planned Parenthood People
But I have papers to grade
                                    For American Literature Survey
                                    My students write about Phillis Wheatley
                                    Who was meant as a white couple’s lapdog
                                    But she wrote the most wonderful poetry
                                    And blew the White World away
                                    And I just want to hug her
                                    Though we don’t know where she’s buried
                                    She’s singing in the Heaven of Heavens

                                    The candidates are all bleating
                                    And the terrorists are hiding
                                    Except when they come out
                                    To make a video
                                    Like genocidal rock groups
It’s very 21st Century

                                    I will be meeting with my Senior Bat Mitzvahs
                                    I love them They cheer me up
                                    We all sing the Shma Yisrael
                                    Because God needs a reminder
                                    That His universe needs work
We sanctify Your Name in the World
                                    This World we share with Others
                                    Some people we get along with
                                    And others that we don’t
                                    But most people are trying hard
We turn the page Amen

                                    I’m getting back to grading
                                    There’s always another paper
                                    I’m grading them online
                                    I acknowledge that print is dead
                                    I used to use my red pen
                                    But now it’s all computer
I think I know what Hell is
                                    Satan gives you forms
                                    You have to fill them all out
                                    And then you get your pitchfork
                                    You have to fill some more out
                                    To collect your pile of coals

                                    I pray we all reach heaven
                        Where all will be enClouded
                        They'll have the Forms already
                        A Universe of Forms
                        Where All will be as One

                        Can I do Tikkun Olam?
                        Not now, I haven’t time; thanks
                        But if you need a minyan
                        I’ll Amen you on my cell

                        Dear God of Beast and Human
                        Kind Lord of Spark and Diode
                        Make all of our Connections
                        And raise up all our Light.