Monday, August 31, 2015

The Parasol: New Flash Horror Fiction

Chloe loved the umbrella-- she preferred to call it a parasol-- from the moment she saw it in the corner of the Parish Thrift Shoppe. 


She was down on her luck-- just having lost her job as a server at that diner, the one where the boss kept trying to pinch her bum, or made suggestions about how, if she wore a push-up bra, she might get better tips.


"Hell, Chlo'," he would guffaw, "I'll tip ya, meself, sure I would, if'n ya'd slip behind the pop-bottles with me. Ha!"
She slapped his face, kicked him in the essentials, leaving him moaning on the floor, and ran out into the rain, not forgetting her little parasol, which she had left alone in the corner. 


She had begun to think of the little thing as more of a pet, a friend, not just an umbrella, and often whispered to it as she walked in the rain.... She began to love the rain, to prefer it to the sunny days which were so rare in London, in the late fall, when the days grew so short, and the cold came so early. 


The umbrella-- parasol!-- sheltered her; it was her friend, her only friend. 


She spoke to it: "Just a little bit more walking, Parry, and then we will go home; I promise."


But she didn't want to go home-- back to her sad little flat with the thin walls, and the neighbors always quarrelling on the other side--she was certain that they drank. They were always either screaming at one another at all hours, or having sex-- she would never call it making love; no. Not with their mattress, that old bare, smelly bedspring skrawking and squeaking away, over and over and over again.


So she walked. In the rain. It splashed and plashed atop her friend, her Parry, and underneath it, she was safe. 


It seemed to make a drumming noise, the rain, and she could hear it-- almost as if it were speaking to her:
DONT GO HOME
DONT GO HOME
WALK SOME MORE
WALK SOME MORE


Where was that coming from?


It must be-- yes!-- her friend. Parry was speaking! How lovely-- at last!


"I will walk with you, Parry; don't you worry," Chloe said, smiling for the first time in many days, through the rain-spatters on her face.


It was raining harder now: would it ever stop?


TO THE BRIDGE
WALK 
TO THE BRIDGE
CHLOE WALK


"Why, yes, I could do that," Chloe answered her friend, her only friend, her parasol, Parry, "We will cross the bridge together-- and, perhaps (she added, philosophically), find new beginnings on the other side!"


And so, they slogged on--her shoes were damp clear through, and even the extra-heavy socks she had put on that morning, expecting to walk from store to restaurant to shop, seeking work, were two enormous balls of soaking-wet wool and cotton.


They reached the bridge.


CROSS THE BRIDGE
CROSS THE BRIDGE
CROSS CHLOE
She heard Parry saying.


"Yes yes, I am doing that," she said, gaily, kicking at the enormous puddles, the rain pouring down on her parasol, as if it would never stop.


They were at the center of the bridge now; she could see the Thames rolling hard and fast, on both sides. Dark water dark.


And the voice of her parasol, Parry, in her head:
JUMP CHLOE JUMP
JUMP CHLOE JUMP
JUMP CHLOE....


"Why, I--" stammered Chloe.


She threw the parasol down, and began to run, to the bridge's edge....

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Parshat Kee Tavo: "Everybody, Get in Line"--Not Always a Good Idea.

Kee Tavo

“Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe all the Mitzvote/Commandments 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, translation mine).

            Here, Moses divides the entire People of Israel into two groups and assembles them on the slopes of two opposing 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, He will curse them.

Moses was no youngster, and, even with the assistance of his home tribe, the Levites, maneuvering all those people like chessmen must have been enormously challenging, added to the Absolutely Good vs. Evil nature of their destination. Who would willingly choose to climb Ebal, the Mountain of the Curse? Would not everyone wish to ascend Gerizim, the Mountain of Blessing? Who made the final decision, which tribespeople received the blessing, which the curse?

Reading this portion year after year, have we ever imagined how difficult it must have been for our ancient leader, Moses, to choreograph the movement of thousands of Israelites to go left or right? Consider his ordering their steps, and telling them, “You, Chaim, go left with your family; you, Zev, go right”?

It reminds me of the very end of a funeral interment (God forbid), where it is customary to ask the mourners’ family and friends to divide into two lines, leading away from the grave, so that the mourners may pass between their lines of supporters. The idea is for the grief-stricken mourners, having heard the sound of the shoveled-earth-clods striking the casket—there is no sadder sound in all this lonely world—to be comforted by the sight of the many people who love, admire, and cherish them, and have come to be with them in their darkest hour. Imagine: friends wherever they turn! As the mourners pass through the double-line, I stand behind and chant consoling words: “May God comfort you with the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

How dramatic is all of this marching, teetering atop mountain-slopes, double-lining at the time of burial, and how ineffably solemn and sad! Is our God, then, mainly a Judge, a harsh Cosmic Magistrate, who lies in wait, certain that we mere mortals will fail? Or is He a lovingly patient Mother-Father, Who wishes and hopes for us to succeed in our divine service to Him and his Creation, and rules us with compassion and forbearance?
           
Sadly, this Parsha bears strongest evidence of God as Judge. Indeed, this particular section of Torah is so harsh, that it is known as the Tochacha, the “Rebuke.” Traditionally, the Ba’al Koray, or Torah-Chanter, sings it 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 that we Jews, a people who boast so much education—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.”
           

I grew up haunted by superstitions, and recall when, as a teenage high school student at Yeshiva University HS, having difficulties in Math class, my mother a’h would instruct me to sleep with my Math textbook under my pillow, which, she was certain, would cause the pesky Geometry proofs to magically filter into my overtaxed brain while I slept. Of course, all that I got was a headache from a hard pillow. During Final Exams Week, Mom would instruct me to put money into the pushka/Charity box, and to leave the house in the following manner: kiss the mezuzah with my left hand, holding my bookbag in my right, and step out the door on my right foot.
           
In the end, despite my mother’s Jewish voodoo, I barely passed Geometry. I would also point out that my superstitious mother was herself a college graduate, a teacher and administrator, and earned a Master’s Degree in her 70s. She remained superstitious all of her life. You never know.

 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. Being a good Jew is not a matter of superstitions, spitting three times, or kissing the mezuzah upon leaving or entering the house. This last is not a bad habit to develop, but only if it reminds us to perform as many mitzvote as possible, when progressing through this wicked old world.

During this month of Elul, try performing a Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh, a Soulsearching, at the end of each day, or at least, before Shabbat: have you done something today which brought you closer to God? How many times did you help someone else? Did you remember to pray, whether verbally or physically? Did you thank God for all that is good and rare and true in your life? Did you accentuate the positive, and learn to endure the negative? It is easy to thank God when things are going well, but do you have the courage and gumption to turn to God for support when the day is long and the weather (either literal or metaphorical) not in your favor?

Not by words alone, but by our actions, will God judge us. A new year is coming, a new chance to improve. “As long as the candle burns, there is a chance to get the job done,” said my great-uncle, Velvel the Shoemaker. As the years go by, I realize, more and more, the wisdom of his words.






Monday, August 24, 2015

A Midnight Walk: Taking a Stroll with Edgar Poe. New Flash Fiction.

A Midnight Walk

By David Hartley Mark

            When I awoke, I found myself—walking. The night was clear, the air brisk, and I felt myself unusually invigorated. I strode along, whistling—I never whistle; it is not my habit.

I found myself telling myself, “Here now, stop that whistling; it won’t do. You never whistle. Stop it, this instant!”

But I couldn’t stop. There was something so simply ravishing—yes, that was it; ravishingly beautiful, in a melancholy sort of way, about the night, the way the clouds wrapt about the moon, like a Dark Prince around a faery lover, like my arms around my poor Sissy, my Virginia Clemm Poe, God and Heaven rest her soul—
           
            What could it be, making me so positively happy? I, usually so melancholy.

            And, more than that: where was I? I seemed to have lost my way. This was not like the times I had grown ill—that is, with drink; like the time I applied to my fellows in the writing trade, and told them, “My wife and Mrs. Clemm, my mother-in-law, are starving,” and so, kind-hearted fellows that they were, they immediately got up a collection for me, their fellow-starving-artist—of fifteen dollars! A king’s ransom, indeed.

            And I, wretch that I was!—caught myself off to Decatur Street, that horrid boulevard, where all the grog-houses were, all those nasty dives that advertised, “Mint Juleps, Cobblers, Egg Noggs etcetera.” And drank it all away—that was my sickness. And my shame.

            It was also disappointment—I knew, as did so many others, writers and readers both, that I, and I alone, was the best writer in all of America—and perhaps Europe, as well. Indeed, Graham, one of my publishers, who was bold enough to take yet another chance on me, brave fellow! Had brought out a number of my “prose romances,” including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” featuring my champion of rationcination, as I called it, my masterly C. Auguste Dupin, along with yet another, little-noticed gem of my writing, “The Man Who Was Used Up” (which might well have applied to myself, and my talent). The entire affair was to be issued in pamphlets, easily affordable, easily acquired by my panting public—for the easy price of twelve-and-a-half cents.

            But it failed. Can you blame me now, can you truly blame me for turning to drink? How could I face my failure? And I cannot help but believe there was some sort of family curse on us Poes—for my Mama’s family had it; yes, and surely Papa’s, as well—and my own dear brother Henry died of it, along with the Red Death, consumption, which was to take off my own dear Ginny….

            And she did die, in a very short time. I was maddened by her illness, and her passing. I was maddened—and driven, even harder, to succeed. Which is why I walk, and walk still. Where am I going? Oh—

            I just caught a glance of myself in a shop-window as I passed, as the moon crept out from its jealous clouds, and lit the street as fully as if it were day—whose suit am I wearing? And whose nasty straw hat is this? And whose cane? It is Malacca-wood, and very fine—far too fine for me to afford, or own—and heavens, it is a sword-cane!

            I must sit down, and rest—here’s a bench—luckily, the Town Watch isn’t about, or he would ask me to move on—heavens, this ragged old suit is not mine! It’s far too big for someone of my slight size.

            Let me think—where have I been, these hours, these days? I honestly cannot remember….

            I can vaguely remember riding a train—buying a ticket—yes! I was gathering subscriptions for my proposed magazine—a magazine to outstrip, outwrite, out-subscribe any other writings in America, and to overshadow any other English-language, or any-other-language periodical in the entire World—to be called, The Penn—no! The Stylus. Yes. No longer would I be subject to the whims of some empty-headed businessman, or tycoon. I would be my own publisher, my own editor-in-chief, my own writing staff, my own man.

            My. Own. Man.Yes.

            After Virginia’s passing (God rest her soul in that purest Heaven, far beyond our earthly vision), I set out to visit the wealthy widows who admired my work, and whom I could charm and impress into bringing my lifelong dream to fruition. I was off to Philadelphia—but did I ever arrive?

            I seem to recall lying down, and then, after a short nap—I do find napping so refreshing! Arising, and seeing a stone monument near my head, containing the word, “Baltimore.” So that fool conductor, or engineer, must have taken the wrong railroad crossing somewhere. Fools! Everyone needs my guidance—must I do everything, out in the world?

            And still I walk—armed with my? Someone else’s? Malacca cane, a fine weapon for defending myself—but I am uncertain where I am—Baltimore? Philadelphia? It cannot be Richmond or New York; the weather of either of those fine cities I have graced with my presence and writings in the past, is clearly not evident here—

            Wait! There stands a hooded figure at the street-corner! I will tug at his sleeve, and inquire of him, where I am—Sir! Mister! I beg your pardon—Can you inform me, please, where I am?

I am Mr. Edgar Poe, late of Fordham Village, north of New-York, that fine city, and a visitor to yours—what is its name? I note the raven on your shoulder, Sir—tell me the name where we are, Sir, I beg you! I note a body of water nearby—is it the Chesapeake Bay, which would make this Baltimore?

            Why, why, Sir, are you turning away? Why are you walking away, so fast?

I note there is a raft close-by, a raft full of other folks—why do they look so saddened, so grievous, and stare, and beckon in my direction? What is your name, I beg of you? I gave you mine—Mr. Edgar Poe. And yours is—is—

            Charon? And the River—Lethe? And the place—Hell?

            I see.


             

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shoftim: Will Breaking a Cow's Neck Suffice for Allowing God's People to Die?

Shoftim

A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
--Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), “Renascence”

This parsha/Torah reading deals with appointing judges and magistrates in every Israelite city. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20), Moses commands the people, irrespective of class or wealth.

The most curious aspect of this parsha is the ritual of eglah arufah—the “cow whose neck is broken” (Deut. 21:1-9). Should an anonymous corpse be discovered in a field between towns, the elders and law-enforcement officials of both towns are to measure the distance from the crime scene to their boundaries, in order to decide which municipality is responsible for the death. Then, the officials of that town are to bring forth a cow, lead it into a ditch flowing with water, and there break its neck. After, they are to wash their hands over it, to symbolically show that their hands are not guilty of the blood of the murdered person.

According to the Talmud, this practice was, indeed, carried out until the 1st Century CE, when political persecutions and internecine rivalries increased assassinations to an unmanageable level, and it was abandoned, presumably because there were too many homicides and not enough cows to go around—I am being ironic, here. The ceremony symbolizes that all of the human community is, indeed, responsible for one another’s maintenance and welfare.

In our Digital Age, the world grows smaller and smaller, yet we fail to acknowledge our responsibility for one another. Religious fanatics machine-gun civilians in the name of their dark, bloody god; insane infants reduce to rubble the treasures of History. Desperate refugees take to the seas aboard leaky vessels, after paying blood-ransom to human wolves.

People die, while we sip coffee, munch croissants, and speed off to work or play.

We are all one human family and should behave as such: in the words of Millay, “No hurt I did not feel, no death/ That was not mine; mine each last breath/ That, crying, met an answering cry/ From the compassion that was I.”

Scientists and philosophers call this interdependency the “Butterfly Effect,” after a 1952 science fiction story of Ray Bradbury’s, “A Sound of Thunder.” In it, safari hunters from the year 2055 journey back in time for the ultimate big-game experience: that of stalking and killing a Tyrannosaurus Rex, king of dinosaurs. Eckels, the hapless big-game hunter, loses his nerve as the beast is charging, and fearfully stumbles off the path; Travis, the experienced guide, kills it in his place. Shortly thereafter, a huge tree falls on the T-Rex’s body, which was meant to happen: by shooting the animal shortly before the branch falls, they have not altered the past in any way. Still, what of Eckels’s misstep?

On the way back, the hunters are horrified to discover a tiny butterfly mashed into the mud on Eckels’s boot. They wonder what effect this will have on civilization, so far into the future. I will not ruin the story’s conclusion for you—the story is available on the web, if you type in its title—but will say only that every human action has consequences—“wheels within wheels, and fires within fires!” (Arthur Miller, The Crucible)—and that we are all truly interdependent.

That is why it was so crucial for the strange, but seminal, ceremony of the eglah arufah to take place: to show that all life—not just human—on this planet is holy, and that we are all interlinked, in far more ways than we can ever comprehend. Or, perhaps, no cow is needed: we have human sacrifices enough. Enough!




Sunday, August 9, 2015

Re'eh: How to Accept the Blessing, and Avoid the Curse....

Reeh

“See, I give before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day. And the curse, if you will not listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, and you turn from the Way which I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you have not known” (Deut. 11:26-28, translation mine).

            The Sefat Emet (Pen name, “The Tongue of Truth,” of the Chasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905), in commenting on these verses, states that “[In] the blessing it says, ‘that you listen,’ but in the curse it says ‘if.’ Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. …Even if there is some sin—and indeed ‘there is no one so righteous as to do good and never sin’ (Eccles. 7:20)—it is only passing” (Green, 1998, pp. 302-3).
            
             Rabbi Arthur Green, from whose masterful The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Phila., PA: JPS, 1998), the above is taken, universalizes the above reference by stating that, although only we Israelites can claim the Covenant dating from Mt. Sinai, all of Humanity “must contain that essential goodness.” In other words, all mortal beings who profess to follow a moral code have a share in the above statement, even if their God-belief, or lack thereof, is not Jewish. To progress as a species, we must take pride, not in the Machinery of War and Destruction, but in a slow, steady progress toward the Light of Peace.
           
When speaking to my college classes, young people who are mainly Hispanic- or African-American, I strive to point out the irony that we cell-phone-connected, computerized, 21st Century human beings, who enjoy more efficient communication tools than ever before in history, ought to be more connected with one another’s thoughts and feelings. Instead, we are, tragically, like blind people groping in Darkness, and more divided  by War and Suffering than ever before.

Whether throughout America or the World, we fail to see one another’s essential Humanity— those traits we share in common: the same drives for survival, happiness, success in life, and safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Instead, we fall back upon our familiar, yet divisive classifications of tribe, language, religion, and politics. As a Jew, perhaps the first one whom these young people have ever met or spoken to, I challenge their stereotypes of my people. Rather than reinforcing what divides us, I seek what unites us, as human beings, with common feelings, hopes, and aspirations.
           
At the time that Moses gave the above speech, he was mortally concerned that the Israelites were about to enter a society in which they would be a minority. As free men and women, nomadic in heritage, able to make their own decisions about where to live and whom to marry, he worried that they would swiftly assimilate among the more settled, agricultural peoples of Canaan. Within a couple of generations, they would cease to be a unique people. Ironically, this remains a major concern for us Jews, thousands of years later—still separate, still asking the same questions.
            As Jews, we are proud of our tribal, religious, cultural, and nationalistic differences, but, as human beings, we must always search for commonalities with others. As we aspire to political freedom, so must we work to understand similar yearnings in others, provided that the debate and resolution take place peacefully. The Golden Rule which we gave the World must guide the steps of all humanity: if we cannot love all of our neighbors, let us, at least, respect them, and ensure that we receive that same respect—neither as victors or victims, but as equals.
           
There is an old story about an older Jewish woman—call her Ms. Levine—who invites her rabbi to visit her home, serving him a cup of tea on her best china, while they sit in the sun room which faces the back yard. Making small talk, the rabbi notices the fence separating the woman’s yard from her neighbor’s, Ms. Jones; he remarks about the freshly-washed sheets and clothing Ms. Jones has hung in the yard, and asks if they are friendly with one another.
           
“That Jones woman?” scoffs Ms. Levine, “I wouldn’t give you the time of day with her. Why, look at the laundry she hangs out there, on her line. It’s filthy!”
           
The rabbi gets up, walks to the window, runs his finger along it, and replies, gently,
           
“Ms. Levine, there is nothing wrong with your neighbor’s laundry. I’m sorry to tell you that the problem is your windows: they’re dirty.”
           
When we look at the faults of other people, other nations, are we too quick to judge their shortcomings for ill, or should we take the trouble to look beneath the headlines, beyond the shrill cries of their politicians, and see that, beneath the “dirt” which separates us, they are, perhaps, just people—not far different from ourselves, hoping for a Better Tomorrow for themselves and their children?

Or are we satisfied with simply looking at them through a dirty window of stereotyping? It’s not easy: we are, after all, all human beings, not Angels—but God gave the Torah, His Divine Law, to us. What shall we do with it?


The Question stands….

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

And So, We Made Aliyah... to Pluto: New Fiction

And So, We Made Aliyah to Pluto

By David Hartley Mark

Beit Alpha, YisraelHehChadasha/NewIsrael, Charon IB, Nisan 4, 5813:

I wish we hadn’t come. We might still be living in Ashdod to this day—Savta tells Nirit and me all about the beautiful park with the roses and carnations that grew in the spring, and the way the songbirds would perch in the palm trees. Here, all we have is the Dome. Sure, there are trees, but they are all hydroponic, and if you want to go out for a shpatzir, as Uncle Moishe calls it, a stroll in the PlanetActual, you have to wear a DrySuit with oxygen and weighted boots. The solar wind blows dust all about, there is nothing to look at, and the sand sucks at your feet.

It’s just Pluto.

“It is what it is,” says Uncle Moishe, “What can you do? We’re lucky to be alive, Uri—‘Better a living dog than a dead lion,’ as the Rabbis of Blessed Memory tell us.”

I don’t know what that means. I have never seen a dog or a lion, only pictures.

Nothing has been the same on OldEarth since Year 2026, when Iran—where was that, exactly?—next door to Yisrael Ha-Ateekah, Ancient Israel, that is, Israel on OldEarth—got The Bomb, and some Meshugenah named Lieberman—was he the Prime Minister, or the Defense Minister, or both?—together with a fellow named Bennett—and blew it up over Teheran.

We were gone by then. We were safe. Some guy, a rich American named—Babelson? Shmadelson?—got us out, by building a spaceship big enough for most of his home town—Las Vegetables?—and all of us Israelis, too. We were lucky to make it.

Shmadelson didn’t; he and some other billionaire fellow named—Bump? Thrump?—tried to build a big dome in the desert, full of other rich people, alongside another dome built by Nazarenes called End-Timers, but, in the end, a horde of radioactive zombies broke into their domes and ate them all.

That’s what we heard, through the static, until Itzik the Inventor perfected the Radio Antenna, and got us a better signal. Cable, or something.

I wonder what OldEarth looks like now. Well, it doesn’t matter.

Here on NewIsrael, we have it all nicely divided up. The Haredim, the Ultra-Orthodox, are on the Right Side of the planet, the part that’s always in Sun; the Reform are next door. They meet and argue every Monday and Thursday. I don’t know why. And then, they go off and daven in their separate ways. If they need to make a minyan, they help each other out. It’s strange, but it works. The Mesoratiim, who used to be called Conservative, back when there was something to Conserve, live on the boundary-line between, and try to help both sides out, but no one listens to them.

Most of us are Chiloneeyim—Secular. We keep to ourselves, mostly, and build computer parts to add to the radio telescopes and computer search programs that the HiTechies are developing, with Itzik at the head. Abba goes to the weekly, sometimes nightly, meetings—he used to be on the Board of the IsraelAircraft-Space Authority back on OldEarth—but he really can’t talk about anything that goes on there. Big Secret Stuff. Deep Black, they call it.

I think that’s what got us into all that trouble the first time. Deep Black.

I love going to school. The only sad part is when the teacher dims the lights and plays hologram-videos from OldIsrael. She usually cries: her family did not come along on the AdelArk, and so was lost to the Iranian Bomb. In between her sobbing, she reads from a long scroll, which she calls the Torah. It’s all chipped, shredded, and losing parts and stitching.

She also adds a printed book she calls the Commentary Lau oo’Netanyahu, which was written by a former Chief Rabbi and Someone Else; something about Never Returning the Liberated Areas.

I don’t know what any of it means.

We supposedly have Chief Rabbis now, but no one listens to them. Except the Haredim. I don’t know their names.

Abba was very angry the other night. Apparently, a group of Haredi Settler Militia entered the Plutonian Zone, which is forbidden by Treaty, and took over a section of Contested Land. The Plutonian Natives were angry, and used their Ionization Rays to atomize one of the Settlers, some young Haredi hothead named Naftali Bennett IV. It took a lot of negotiations between us and the Plutonians to settle the matter peacefully, but the Militians are still there, living in a TempDome. The New New Israel Fund was very helpful, but there are still rumblings.

Two Weeks Later….

Abba came in from a secret meeting of the Star Telescope Committee; he was very excited and upset. Apparently, a SpaceArk called ABBAS III has landed in the Asmodeus Crater. It was a hard landing; three people were injured, and our EMTs flew out quickly in a pair of Mogen David AmbulanSkimmers. Luckily, no lives were lost.

There was even a baby born, a native Plutonian Humanoid. Most of our women were sterilized by their inhaling radioactivity, so this is an occasion for mazel tov. Rabbi Zar, our neighbor rabbi, seemed very happy; he was hunting for a bottle of Adom Atik Wine he had squirreled away with his sefarim, his holy books. I passed him in the dorm hall, whistling “The Glory of Israel will Never be Lost.”

“Were they Jews, Abba?” I asked. Nirit and I would be very happy to have new friends to play with, and it would be nice to have new students in school; perhaps one of the adults is a teacher.

“Um, not exactly, Eli,” he said, and I saw him catching a glance at Ima, who was slicing hydroponic tomatoes on the kitchen counter. She frowned and went on cutting.

Chop, chop, chop went the knife on the tomatoes.

“What sort of people are they?” I said, wondering why he was being so cagey. “Are they aliens, or humanoid?” We had gotten used to the Plutonians among us, and one or two were meeting with Rabbi Zar for conversion. They had gotten good at reading Hebrew; one was practicing to chant Torah. It was strange to hear a Plutonian accent singing from across the hall about escaping from Egypt, but the Rabbi explained to us that all of us, Humanoid and Plutonian, had stood at Mount Sinai, to receive the Torah.

They do have a bit of trouble wearing a kipah; the Plutonians don’t really have heads, just a sort of memory-stalk growing up from between their bodygel, and they plash along on suckers. It’s all because of millennia living underground in the DeepBlue Sea; they’re practically blind, but Itzik the Inventor made them DayVideo Goggles, so they can see us and read our materials.

Where and when was that, anyway?

“People we used to know on earth,” said Abba, “Cousins, really.”

“Cousins?” I said, eagerly, “You mean like Basha and Simcha, from Rishon Le-Tsiyon?”

“Then, who?” I asked, “Tell us, Abba!” Nirit was nodding her head fiercely.

We really could use new friends.

“They are called Palestinians,” he said.

That’s how it all began. Again.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Rocking-Horse Man: Tel-Aviv Beach, August, 1973

The Rocking-Horse Man: Tel-Aviv Beach, August, 1973

By David Hartley Mark
           
The ovenlike Tel-Aviv sun beat down on the beach. It was high noon in August, 1973, the time of the hamseen, the searing scirocco-wind that blows in off the desert. I had just finished oiling Anat’s back, smearing the cheap shemen ehgozim—“nut oil”—that we bought in the Israeli five-and-dime at the corner of Yarkon Street and Dizengoff.     She was dozing off on her back, her fine, high cheekbones darkly tanned, making that odd breathing noise that sounded like a cat’s purring.

I lay back, propped on my elbows, gazing through my California-style Ray-Ban shades at everything and nothing. The blistering heat glimmered up from the sand, as desultory Mediterranean waves lapped at the ragged beach. Our tiny transistor radio blared The Doors’ “Light My Fire” from Ici, Beirut!, the little French-speaking radio station that played the best rock-and-blues in the entire Middle East. Maronite Catholics owned it. Supposedly, they were friendly to Israel, but we didn’t care.

Israel was a tiny island of Jews, surrounded by killer enemies. We lay on Tel Aviv Beach and worked on our tans.

All around us, Israeli mamas and grandmas dispensed hugs, slaps, and kisses to their toddlers, along with brightly-colored plastic shovels, buckets, and sliced, smoked turkey sandwiches on thickly-cut rye bread. Anat’s mom had packed us a “little snack”—tiny matzo balls with a spicy chopped meat filling—her Iraqi delicacy—fresh sliced tomatoes, and bottles of mitz tapuzim, the syrupy artificial orange drink that Israelis guzzled by the gallon—

Strange, coming from a country that exported real oranges by the ton, I mused, as I wiped the orange, paint-tasting stuff from my chin. I slowly rolled onto my stomach and turned to a sleeping Anat, cheered by a glimpse of twenty-year-old cleavage showing out the top of her bikini.

Have you seen your mother, Baby, standing in the Shadow?
Have you had another, Baby, standing in the Shadow?

--asked Mick Jagger and the Stones, as I blinked the sweat from my eyes.

A busty, young Israeli girl walked by, wearing a too-small bikini, her shiny black hair swinging, like a tiger’s tail. I watched her tush wiggling along.

The day was going well. Later, we would take the bus to her parents’ apartment in Ramat-Gan to shower, and then, back to Tel-Aviv for a stroll on Allenby Street, a late coffee, and another walk on the beach. Moonlit, this time. Anat would wear her white miniskirt, my favorite.
Not a bad graduation gift for a hard-working college man: two months in Israel—long enough to see if this long-distance relationship had any staying power. I silently thanked Mom and Dad, who were, no doubt, sweltering away this same summer in the concrete canyons of New York Town. I grinned, a fool in the sunlight, and started to doze off….

Anat sat up, abruptly. “There’s a bug on me!” she cried out, in that charming, British-inflected, language-lab-induced accent of hers.

There was a lot to be said for this girl I had met in Prof. Zev Schwartz’s “Twentieth Century American Playwrights” course at Bar-Ilan University, where I was the only guy in the entire class of twenty-five, and where she and I had been the only students who didn’t return to class pregnant after spring break. (Israeli women generally attended college following army service and marriage; hence, the urge to reproduce.) She had had the chutzpah to leave a note on my sagging dorm mattress on the very same evening I had broken up with my American girlfriend: “As long as you have some time until you go home to America, why not give me a call?”

I snapped to attention from my reverie, Anat’s champion, a gallant knight in swim trunks, ready to fend off any tropical boogers.

“Where? Where?” I asked.

Finally, I located it: the tiniest of sand fleas, poised between her lovely, golden-brown shoulder blades. A quick flick, and I was the hero of the hour. We laughed; she kissed me, and lay down again, closing her eyes.

Near us, a little boy in a TSAHAL-Israel Defense Forces sunhat and drooping diaper was furiously digging a ditch to contain the ocean, but the incoming waves kept collapsing his canal.

What a very Israeli thing to do, I thought, as my eyes began to close again, but then I saw him.

Just a man, at a distance: thin and wraithlike, dragging a worn wooden rocking-horse on springs with one hand, a child’s nursery-toy. He was carrying an ancient-looking camera case in the other. As I watched, he stopped and spoke to one pair of young mothers, pointing first at their toddlers, and then at the rocking-horse. They smiled and shook their heads “No.”

He stopped by a grandmother who was bouncing a fat, pink-brown baby in a bonnet on her lap; she also shook her head, “No.” Then, another refusal.

Finally, he came to us. He was breathing hard, from the heat. Sweat was coating his brow, beneath the worn, woolen fedora.

“Would you like your picture taken?” he asked, hopefully, in European-accented Hebrew. “Only two Israeli lira.”

It was about fifty cents; not much.

“Would you like a drink?” I asked.

We had a spare bottle of mitz. He dropped the horse, whose springs quivered slightly before resting on the sand. Its brown-hair mane swirled lightly in the breeze, and its battered painted-ivory teeth grinned in the shimmering air, as if mocking its owner’s futile attempts to earn a living. Like him, the horse’s best days were done: it belonged in a child’s playroom, not out in the heat of a Tel Aviv beach on a searing summer’s day.

“Thank you, I will,” said the man.

Despite the heat, he wore an old, light-wool suit jacket over a light-blue T-shirt, along with shorts and sandals, the better to tramp long distances over the hot sands. He wearily shifted his camera case to the other shoulder, pulled a yellowish-looking bandana from an inner pocket, and wiped the sweat off the inside of his battered grey fedora hat.

Who wears a fedora on the beach? I thought.

“Sit down for a bit, please, Sir,” said Anat, sitting up.

She pulled back her lovely brown legs and made room for the man on our blanket. This might have seemed strange in another country, but in Israel, where everyone was Jewish (well, nearly everyone, if one discounted the Arabs and the few Christians), it seemed as though everyone was family. The man seemed too old and frail to be dragging a heavy child’s toy across Dizengoff Beach in the heat of the day.

“Thank you,” said the man. His Hebrew had a European accent. “My name is Dorfmann.”

He squatted down nimbly and gently on the edge of the blanket, making scarcely a mark. As the breeze turned, we caught a bit of his smell—not only old-man sweat, but some Old-Worldly smell, like an antique shop with its door left open and the aged contents there to view.

He reached for the bottle, whose condensation left tracks of wetness on his long, worn fingers, and I watched his adam’s-apple move as he drank: long, deep swallows. When he finished, he went, “Ah!” and smiled.

He placed the empty bottle carefully in his pocket—“To save you returning it,” he explained—and I caught a glimpse of the number on his forearm.

“You have an unusual job, Mr. Dorfmann,” I said in Hebrew. “Were you a photographer in Europe?”

“I was,” he said. “In Warsaw. Before the war. Before they came.”

He gazed off over the water. A few miles out, we could see a little sailboat tacking before the wind, fighting to make its way against sea and sky.

“Warsaw?” I asked, “What did you do there?”

“I had a photography studio. Taking pictures of children was my specialty,” said Dorfmann, dreamily. He wiped away a droplet of sweat that had coursed down to his eyebrow. I saw that the tip of his right index-finger was missing.

“Families came to me from all over Poland. Once, I even photographed the Polish president’s children. It was a wonderful career for me: I loved my work; I was building a reputation. People said that I had the gift to make even a crying baby smile, so that my camera captured their true soul. It was not merely a photographic image, they said: it was a work of art.”

His face had gotten a far-away look. Though he spoke almost in a whisper, we could easily hear him over the ocean sounds and the babies playing all around us.

“When they invaded Poland, their air force concentrated their bombs on our Jewish neighborhoods. My studio and home were destroyed, and I was lucky to grab only this one camera. I held on to it through all the days and weeks and months that followed. My wife died in the bombing. We had no children. They sent me and thousands of other Jews to the Warsaw Ghetto.”

We sat silently, and listened. In our Jewish minds, a black pall had fallen over the sun; the day became dead to us. Instead of laughing children and lapping waves surrounding us, enemy tanks growled over the sand dunes, and dive-bombers dropped screaming death.

“They wanted documentation of what they were doing—God alone knows why,” whispered Dorfmann. “They found out I was a photographer, and gave me special treatment. They forced me to take pictures of the women and children who were dying in the street. Children were begging for food. They killed children for smuggling in two, three potatoes.

“But what could I do? I had to take pictures of the dead and dying children, in order to live.

“I could not take it any more. I had gotten a small vial of poison from a pharmacist friend, and was going to kill myself. But then, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, on Passover of 1943, and I was able to escape via the sewers. I was, again, lucky: perhaps God spared me because I had made so many children happy. I ran off into the woods: I dug a hole with my hands and lived in the forests like an animal. Two years, in a hole, like a beast, fearful of every sound.

“Then, the Americans came: big, strong soldiers, and all dark-skinned—I had never seen a Negro before. I lay on the ground before them and cried, for my wife, for the children, for all the Jews who had died. I cannot remember exactly how it happened, but now I am here.

“Since that time, I have decided to make my teshuva, my repentance, for the souls of those dead children, by walking back and forth along this beach and trying to make these new little children happy. If I can take pictures of happy Jewish children, I will also regain my self-respect. Now, if you will excuse me….”

He rose, and dusted off his pants. I stood up, as well.

“Mr. Dorfmann, it is an honor to have met you. May I take your picture?”

The man took hold of his rocking-horse, prepared to go his way. When I focused my Instamatic, he was already beginning to walk, to resume his job, but waited just a moment to give me a shy smile: the smile of a man who has seen much more than he is telling.

I have the picture still: the Man who Drags the Rocking-Horse day after day, on Tel-Aviv Beach.





            

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ekev-- Dear God, We're Only Human

Ekev

“When you have eaten and satisfied your appetites, and built fine homes to live in, and your cattle and sheep have increased, and your silver and gold has grown, as have all of your possessions, be careful not to let your hearts become haughty and forget the Lord your God, who took you out of Egypt, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its burning serpents and scorpions, a dry land without water, who brought you forth water from the flinty rock…lest you say in your hearts, ‘My own strength has wrought these deeds for me.’…If you forget the Lord your God and follow idols, I warn you that you shall surely perish…because you did not hear the Lord your God.” –Moses to Israelites, Deut. 8: 11-20, adapted

            One of the first things prospective teachers learn in Education classes is the concept of Positive Reinforcement. Children’s egos are so delicate—isn’t it better to accentuate the positive, rather than point out their multitude of mistakes? (“You did a great job with most of those math problems, Sarah—now, let’s just try and smooth out the ones where you went wrong!”) When teaching, lecturing, or speaking about Judaism, I like to remind my listeners how they may not remember everything they learned in school, but they can easily and quickly make a list of their Most Embarrassing Moments, as well as the name of the teacher who caused them.
           
And yet, here are the Israelites in the wilderness, being led by Moses, who should know better—after all, he’s been leading them for nearly forty years—and all he has to say about them, it seems, is negative. I’ve been chanting, studying, and reading Torah for decades, and I always feel uncomfortable about this part of the Torah.
           
The traditional excuse for why Moses and God are so hard on the Israelites is that the tribespeople had a slave mentality; they were used to being told what to do, and when to do it. Therefore, it was necessary for Moses to crack the whip, and for God to be as exacting and definite as possible when giving directions, mitzvote, and prohibitions. Unfortunately, that excuse just won’t cut it at this point in the Torah, simply because this is a new group of Israelites: rather than the Dor Ha’Yetsiah, the “Generation of the Exodus,” who have, presumably, all died off for their sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, this is the Dor Ha-Midbar, the bright-and-shiny Wilderness Generation, born into freedom, and loyal only to God, Moses, and Joshua. So, why was God so quick to doubt their faithfulness to Him?           

Blame it on human nature and temptation. People can forget that God is watching, and will often risk their good name and reputations, just for material gain. Ever since Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (and Jewish tradition holds that it was simply a serpent, not Satan in reptilian form), human beings have wilfully pranced down the primrose path toward Instant Gratification, even when it is surely dangerous, illegal, or habit-forming.
           
There’s the old story of the rabbi who hires the wagon-driver, a balagoola, to ferry him from Minsk to Pinsk, back in the days before car services. There was no great love between the balagoolas and the scholars in the Old Country; teamsters were forced to go out to work at a tender age, were often illiterate, and could not understand how men with sound bodies and minds could seemingly waste their lives, sitting around all day and reading books. As for the scholars, they considered the balagoolas to be ahmay ha-ahretz, ignoramuses. Still, they relied upon one another, and accorded each other a grudging tolerance, if not respect.
           
It was a beautiful day in mid-autumn. As horse, teamster, and rabbi trotted along, they happened to pass a beautiful apple orchard, its trees laden heavily with scarlet fruit. The teamster’s nose smelled the heady scent and his mouth watered, thinking of the tasty apples dangling there, ripe for the picking—or stealing. He pulled his horse to a halt, and turned to his passenger, who was engrossed in a sefer, a holy book.
           
“There’s no one on the road but you and me, Rabbi,” said the balagoola, “I’m going to take some apples. Keep guard and call out to me if someone is watching.”
           
The rabbi opened his mouth and closed it again, speechless. Too late—the sturdy peasant had sprung off the wagon seat, and was running toward the field. He dashed quickly from tree to tree, stuffing fat apples into his shirt and pockets.
           
Then, the rabbi found his voice: “Someone is watching! Someone is watching!” he shouted.
           
The balagoola panicked; he raced back to the wagon, shedding apples with every step. Leaping onto the seat, he whipped up the horse, and the wagon flew down the road. Miles later, the driver pulled up the lathered, winded horse, wiped his brow, turned to the rabbi and demanded, “Who was watching? I didn’t see a soul!”
           
Silently, the rabbi pointed up to heaven.
           
That is the attitude we should cultivate: Someone is, indeed watching, and we should always be careful of our actions. Princes and presidents, candidates and commoners, Fortune 500 CEOs and theA humbler folks who scrub their offices—wouldn’t the world be a finer and more honest place? Don’t tell me; ask God.