Sunday, August 28, 2016

Re'eh: The Rewrite. In Which I Imagine God's Restating His Oracular Utterances....


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

In Which I Imagine a Rewrite of the Blessing and Curse of This Parsha


As Humans, the only earthly creatures whom I, the Lord your God, have gifted with Free Will, you have the right to choose to do Good or Evil, provided you accept the direct consequences of your actions. For this is the Law of Life, even though I, the Lord your God, do involve Myself in human activities to a large extent, in a manner which divines, philosophers, scientists, and skeptics will all find difficult to explain. Many will choose, therefore, not to believe in Me, which is fine, I suppose. After all, I gave them free will to do so.

But what if their activities force me not to believe in them? We’ll just have to see what develops.

How will they treat one another? That will be the Ultimate Test. But I digress:

O My People! Upon your Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land for which you have prayed and yearned these Forty Years, I command you to stage a Grand Ceremony of Holy Covenant between the People Israel and Me near the City of Shechem. Why Shechem? It was the dwelling-place of your ancestor Jacob, who became Israel (unlike Abraham, who settled in Hebron, and Isaac, who lived in Beersheva). It is also the locale of Mt. Gerizim (the Place of the Blessing) and Mt. Ebal (the Place of the Curse).

Please note that the Land is already inhabited by Canaanites. These are not to be confused with the Palestinians who will live there in the Future, and with whom you will have both good, but mainly bad, relations. Dealing with, controlling, defending yourselves from, and, sadly, subjugating them, will involve a great deal of your time, existence, defensive and offensive activities, expansion, and survival. I will say no more about that; your politicians, rabbis, generals, and spies will have a great deal more to say, useless and self-serving, in the main. Politics and religion often result in a destructive mix. Such acrimony was certainly not My original intention, but, to quote My later, lugubrious servant, Jeremiah, “The heart of man is exceeding deep; who can know it?” And then, there is also that free will thing….

A centralized shrine, such as a Holy Temple, creates a national feeling and allegiance to a Deity (that is, Me) as well as to whichever king you decide upon—and my own position on kings is decidedly ambivalent; am I not your King? I therefore order you to destroy the local Canaanite pagan bamote, their idolatrous sacrificial places. No “religious” mixing with the Canaanites, either, although I know you will do whatever you decide; I can’t really stop you. Still, rest assured that if you go looking for trouble, trouble will find you. There will be Divine Retribution for your backsliding. Isn’t there always?

Be sure to keep kosher. Preparing and eating your meat in a particular manner will also ensure that you remain socially separate from the Canaanites. This will be a good thing, both in the eyes of the Kohanim/Priests, who will receive their 10% tithe of cattle and produce and amass a great deal of both economic and political power thereby. Never underestimate the connection between possession of food and possession of Power. It will persist, forevermore.

Let Me reiterate: by all means possible, avoid Paganism. It involves child sacrifice, divination, false prophecy, and other assorted disloyalties to Me. I do not take such offenses lightly, being a jealous God. You people need to be punished with an occasional plague, now and again; it will keep you in line. I did it to your ancestors, who, at least, appreciated My freeing them from slavery, and I can do it to you. That means, no gashing your flesh as a sign of mourning, and no eating icky things. Domestic quadrupeds make fine meals: split hooves, chewing the cud—you remember that, from Leviticus, and this Book of Deuternomy is a refresher course.

As for fish, fins and scales is the way to go. I don’t understand this eating fish in a traif restaurant, but it has evolved into a neutral zone. Well, let’s move on to poultry. Again, domestic fowl—no birds of prey—is permissible. Who would want to eat an owl or buzzard, anyway?

Most importantly, support Levites and Kohanim; they are My designated servants. Rabbis won’t become official teachers and religious leaders until the 6th Century BCE, around the time of the Talmud, which comments upon this Written Law, and tries to make it congruous with social conditions of the day. Actually, Judaism will be moving in this direction from the 2nd through the 6th Century, but that’s ‘way in the future. In the meantime, don’t neglect the poor and needy among you; leave them the corners of the field, and the gleanings of your harvest.

On the topic of food, don’t forget the Three Pilgrimage Festivals—Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuote, albeit not in their chronological order. They are all harvest-based, and represent gratitude for having enough to eat in a country where rainfall is unreliable and, indeed, represents the visible sign of My grace. I choose to identify Pesach with the Exodus, not the Harvest Season alone.

Please try to be nice to one another. Give My poor folk both respect and sustenance; by so doing, you honor Me, as well. Before you do something harsh, evil, or ill-spirited to another person, ask yourself, “Is this what God would have me do?”

It’s called having a Conscience—a little Divine Whisper I have emplanted within you all. So have I blessed you all; so will you bless Me in return. Amen! 

Dear Marvin Kaplan, Goodbye: The Death of a Comic Actor, 1927-2016

Dear Marvin Kaplan, Goodbye

By David Hartley Mark

Sunday, August 28, 2016: My Last Day of Intersession Vacation

            I had time to read the Sunday paper, an old pleasure, forgotten, but now re-discovered. I see that comic actor Marvin Kaplan has passed, at the age of 89. He was, according to Emily Langer in The Washington Post,

 “a comedic character actor—immediately recognizable for his thick glasses, thicker eyebrows and Brooklyn accent—who had been a fixture of TV and movies since his scene-stealing film debut in “Adam’s Rib” with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, [who] died Thursday at a hospital in Los Angeles.”

            I read the entire obit with great interest, despite never having seen the movie. Nor did I clearly recall Marvin’s most notable TV role, that of Henry Beesmyer in the 1970s-80s situation comedy, “Alice.”

            My own, best memory of Marvin’s onscreen career was in the 1963 comic blockbuster movie, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Never before or since have so many comic actors, male and female, been crammed into one single epic chase comedy. I saw it at the age of eleven. I eagerly turned to YouTube, which, among its other functions, is a repository for never-dying cinema moments, and was able to locate the scene in which Phil Silvers narrowly escapes the wrathful (don’t ask why; instead, watch it) Jonathan Winters. Hapless co-gas-station-owners Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang attempt to tie Winters up in cloth electrician’s tape, but he, like King Kong, escapes, and the three proceed to lay waste to the gas station. It is a miracle of physical comedy, building on the examples of Mack Sennett, the Three Stooges, and the Marx Brothers.

It is comedic nirvana.

            Better than that, it is timeless. My busy ten-year-old grandson came in while it was running, and, like his ancient grandfather, dissolved in laughter. There was no need to explain the premise, the McGuffin, or the purpose of the scene. It was comedy, pure and innocent.

            There was another dimension to my fleeting acquaintance with Marvin Kaplan: that of Local Boy Makes Good. I recall a Shabbos Service at my old, childhood shul, The East Side Torah Center, back in the 1960s, probably around the same time that “Mad World” was released. We were in the midst of davening—the same, endless monotony that comprised every service I ever attended there—were we about to read Torah, or just finished with it? I don’t recall, and it doesn’t matter.

            Suddenly, the doors of the “Big Shul” opened, and HE entered—Marvin Kaplan, himself. The Rabbi himself descended the steps of the bema (podium) to greet him, and he shook hands, all around. I imagine that I, even I, was honored with a handshake, though I don’t believe I was entirely sure who the honoree was, or the conquering hero. He and the rabbi appeared to be old friends, but our rabbi claimed to know a good many people. And, judging from the birth year given in the article, Marvin was in his mid-thirties back then—a young character actor on the rise. It was early spring, 1963, the heyday of Camelot. America was the strongest nation on earth, the cultural icon of the universe. We American Jews were proud and eager to take our place as citizens of the last, greatest hope of humanity.

            Marvin smiled at us all benignly, as if saying, “You see? We Jews have made it, and will continue to make it.” Perhaps he was prophesying my own speaking and teaching career—not on the screen, but making my students and congregants laugh a bit as I taught them. One could do worse.

Then, he was gone: vanished, into American Jewish History, and my personal memory. Today, I read with sorrow that another person from my Old Neighborhood is gone. Indeed, the Old Neighborhood itself is but a memory. Still, I carry it within me, and share my memories with a quiet joy.

How do I choose to remember Marvin Kaplan?

            There is a Midrash-Legend about a rabbi who prays to God, “Show me someone who will, without doubt, ascend after death to the Kingdom of Heaven.”
            God sends Elijah to the rabbi; Elijah, who, at the end of his life, was carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses, never truly died (along with Enoch). He, therefore, is regarded in Jewish legend as “God’s messenger,” carrying missives between earth and heaven.

            “Let us go to the marketplace,” says Elijah to the rabbi, “and I will show you those whom you seek.”

            In the crowded marketplace, the downtown or mall of its day, Elijah points to two men at the center of a crowd, and says to the rabbi, “There are people who will, most assuredly, go to heaven when they die.”

            The rabbi accosts them and asks, “What, pray, is your profession? What do you do?”

            They smile and answer him, a little abashed, “We are jesters and comics. When we see someone who looks depressed or melancholy, we try to cheer them up.”

            “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” Elijah says to the rabbi.

            Goodbye, Marvin Kaplan. Rest in peace, comic actor and funny man.

I will be honored to say Kaddish for you. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

On The Closing of Gaza's "The Worst in the World" Zoo

The Closing of the “Worst in the World” Gaza Zoo

By David Hartley Mark

(Based on poem by Thomas Hardy, “Drummer Hodge”)

Please read the news article from before reading the poem. Thank you.

                        A nameless lion and chimpanzee
                        Who died of hunger and disease—
                        We mourn stuffed carcasses, set free:
                        Thus, cover, Earth! And rest at ease
                        From Israel-Palestine rift you flee,
                        And a bit of Heaven now, may seize.

                        An emu and a porcupine:
                        No politics at all had they
                        But suffering they drank like wine
                        While Jews kept terrorists at bay
                        (An emu with bombs strapped to its spine
                        Could blow half Tel Aviv away.)

                        So: tiger, emu, monkeys five
                        Tramp deeper into your Galut,
                        With Palestinians still alive,
                        Both peaceful and those who thirst for loot,
                        Israelis wishing peace to thrive,
                        And those who build their West Bank hive….

                        What quarrel could there ever be
                        With animals whom God hath made?
                        Why should there be greater sympathy
                        For beasts over humans we degrade?
                        No peaceful ending will there ever be,
                        For mortals nor beasts, eternally.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Beach-Walker: New Gothic Flash Fiction


by David Hartley Mark


Since retiring from my job teaching Home Economics for Small-minded Bachelors at Deweydonthe University, I have taken my small pension, added the trifling inheritance which my Uncle Porson left me from his glue factory, and purchased a small bothy by the seaside of Blackpool. Deweydonthe was located on the Moors of Skiffleton, North Barts., and I have always enjoyed the Sea.

I betake myself to a short stroll amid the sands of Dee (the Beach is named Dee) of an evening, and never fail to find solace in the cooling breezes. An arrant gull may deposit some guano on the shoulder of my seersucker blazer, or perhaps on the brim of my jaunty straw skimmer-- I am partial to fin de siecle attire-- but never mind. I take the bitter with the sweet. Indeed, prior to my evening's walk, I always take my stout blackthorn stick with me to fend off any goblins or ghoulies which may abound on the foggy sands, as well as stuff wolf's-bane in my trouser pockets.

"One canna be tae careful, Laddie," as my Uncle Jock MacTavisher used to say. Poor Uncle Jock was later ravished too death by an Embarrassment of Dugongs (You may know them as Manatees) in heat. We found him only by his tam o'shanter, which the beasts left behind, since his head was inordinately small.

On this particular evening, I betook myself up a short hillock of sand, thinking I would, perhaps, go clamming in the shallows, prior to the return of the tide, which I knew would fall precisely at 9:06pm, give or take a few seconds. I had my "Farmer's Almanac & Tide Tables for the Seasonal Year" to guide me.

I must avow that I had never been in that quarter of the beach before, and my heart beat a bit faster to think of an incipient Adventure.

As I clomb the slope of the sandspit, I heard a catch of music-divine, heliotropen, and celestial- or demonic?-- in nature. I recognized bits of it-- it was the Danse Macabre, by Lizst, only played on angel trumpets, as it were.

My curiousity fully aroused, I quickened my steps, fanning myself with my skimmer, and clutching both my plastic bucket and my clamming rake, along with my faithful flask of Hare & Hounds Energy Drink, laced with just the slightest touch of Kenilworth Twelve-Year-Old Scotch Whiskey. I walked faster; almost into a run.

From afar, I saw a young woman, her hips gyrating, her bosoms heaving-- though a lifelong bachelor, save for one brief liason with an Italian chanteuse in Milan in '04 during Intersession from University, I must confess that she warmed me in a way I had never felt before-- nor was it the strange touch of both Energy and Scotch that caused it-- no, not them alone; it was Old Dan Cupid, tickling my-- but, never mind.

The Danse Macabre was sounding louder; the Maiden was dancing, with mad abandon-- Ah! Ah! How she tript so daintily amid the waves; she wore a broad-brimmed hat, so fiine and fair-- reflecting the moonlight, glimmering off the waves, and catching the every spark and spangle of the wavelets--

I was almost upon her--

"Fair Maiden," I called out, astonished at my own audacity, "Would it please you to dance a bit, with an Old Bachelor, on this fairest of spring nights? I mean you no harm."

She turned to me-- the fairest of faces, with dark, dark hair flowing around a sweet, pink face, with sea-green eyes that sparkled in the moonlight, and spoke to me in the mildest of accents--

"I will do more than dance," she said, beckoning to me, "for I am Neptune's daughter, and mean to cultivate my children-- but I am swift to appear, and faster to vanish-- come! Our time is nearly done!"

She cast herself upon me-- and the heliotropen smell caught me in its snare-- I confess, I grew dizzy from its effects--

We spun, we danced; the Danse Macabre boomed in my ears, with the Ocean itself keeping time--



"Fairest of Women," I gasped into her pink seashell of an ear, "If we are to spend the night together, may I ask your name, O' Daughter of Neptune, soon to be my Lover?"

"Let no one ask my Name," said my Consort, and I was caught unawares to note that her mild voice had grown ragged and worn, like the beach-glass, like the driftwood, like the scraps of metal that drift up on the beach, no one to claim them--
"No one may ask; no one will know-- no one will learn, save You, O' Professor!"

I tried to push her away, feeling an iron grip of bone in place of soft flesh; a grip of steel in places where her softest bosoms had lain against my chest not-two-minutes before--

And that is why a Dead Man speaks to you here;
That is why a Dead Man writes these words;
That is the Meaning
Of words a Dead Man has placed in this Bottle,
Written, Rolled Up, and Inserted into
A Lonely Bottle
Sent to Drift Upon the Tide....

For I danced with the Daughter of Death,
And I lie, Drowned, at the
Bottom of the Sea.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Making Aliyah to Pluto: New Jewish Fantasy

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—Bannetson? 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? Drumpf?—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.
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.


Eikev: Is God Waiting for Us to Fail?


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

If you will surely listen to [and obey] the mitzvote-commandments which I give you this day, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and soul, then I will give the dew of your land in its time, [as well as] both the early and latter rains; you will harvest your plenitude of grain, wine, and oil. I will make fresh grass sprout freely in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.

Guard yourselves strictly, that your hearts not be turned to rebel [against Me] by worshiping other gods…. For [if you do], the LORD’s wrath will burn hotly against you, and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain; the earth will not give forth its crops. You will indeed die off quickly from the good land which the LORD gives to you.

--Deut. 11:13-17, “Second Paragraph of Sh’ma Prayer,” Rabbi Jules Harlow, Ed. Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat & Festivals. NYC, NY: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1998 (Translation Mine).

            How shall we Modern Jews understand this paragraph? Many scholars and laypeople choose to interpret it in the light of Environmentalism, which is certainly a popular topic, in these days of Global Warming. Simply put, if we destroy the earth by fracking it to cause earthquakes, strip-fishing the oceans to remove millions of tons of fish and plants, and pumping poison into the air, then God, or Nature, will be unable to make it yield its bounty. This certainly applies to South Florida, where I live, with our local practice of air-conditioning every enclosed space available, so that one goes from the air-conditioned house to the air-conditioned store, public place, or office, via an air-conditioned car.

            That was not, however, the original meaning of this prayer. It asks us to struggle with the question of theodicy—namely, why do bad things happen to good people? Will God send us blessings or brickbats, depending solely on whether we perform commandments or not?

            Of course, our moral education begins in childhood—“Children will listen,” as Stephen Sondheim tells us, and they do—but how should their parents teach them how to face life’s challenges and struggles? It is elementary that we give our children food, clothing, shelter, and an education, but encouragement is crucial, as well. Pat them on the back; say, “You can do it, Kid!” Hug them when they present you with a hand-painted Father’s Day mug or a slightly-tilted clay dish for your spare change, with the words “I heart you” spelled out a bit crooked—because you know that they did it with love.

That is one way to raise a child or grandchild. That is a good way.

            There are other ways to do it, as well. When the child messes up, you can yell at them. When the child becomes a teenager and perhaps loses a job or has some other minor setback, you can tell them to laugh it off, or you can say something totally wrongheaded but well-meaning, such as, “Well, what did you expect? They were laying for you. The world’s a crummy place, didn’t you know that? Now, you’ll know better.”
That way, you are laying a series of emotional landmines in the child’s fragile eggshell mind, so that they will learn not to fully trust anyone anymore; they will become older and wiser, very fast, and suspicious, even faster. You will have ensured that it will take them years of study and discussion of both theology and psychology to undo your well-meant advice.

            Or, perhaps, they will disregard your advice—the second kind, that is. They may persist, and persevere, and go on to achieve great things, things requiring strong efforts on their part, but also a modicum of trust in their colleagues and the profession they finally embrace. They will first have to unlearn your theory of paranoia, and then, they may construct a foundation of cautious trust in their fellow human beings, and, in God. But it will take time.

            That is the spirit in which we can approach this parsha, this Torah reading called Eikev. I am no apologist; I am a scholar of Torah. In particular, I approach the above paragraph which anonymous editors appended to our prayerbook, centuries ago, and which later editors of other Jewish prayerbooks (Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal) have quietly removed.

However, we are a Conservative temple, and our prayerbook retains it. What are we to do about it?

            Let us accept as a given that prayer comes in three categories: 1. Request 2. Thanksgiving 3. Praise of God. This particular prayer—quotation, really—cannot fall under any of these categories. We must consider it a challenge—a challenge to our most common sensibilities, as we sit in temple on a given Shabbat, full of our worries, joys, and various problems, ah groiseh peckeleh (full sack) of issues to dump on the Almighty—it’s all right; He has broad metaphorical shoulders, and can well handle it.

The question stands: does God reward us when we are good, and punish us when we are bad?

            I say, “No.” I say, “My God is forgiving, longsuffering, compassionate, and just, as well. But my God will always give me another chance—because my God is not finished with me, just yet.”

            This, in spite of the world’s evils.
            This, in spite of our lives’ setbacks and disappointments—as well as our times of triumph and happiness.
            This, because we have rejoiced in the past, and look forward to equally joyful times in the future.



Friday, August 19, 2016

Over Coffee: Jewish Flash Semi-Fiction (2013)

Over Coffee: Jewish Semi-Fiction (2013)

            The rabbinical student’s phone rang. He was groggy with sleep.
            “Rabbi? Is this the rabbi?”
            “Yes.” He didn’t like to correct them, tell them he wasn’t a rabbi yet. He had a student pulpit in Jersey.
            “Rabbi, you know my father, Stan Schiff—I, uh—that is, uh—we had, my wife had—a baby—a dead—a—can you come out? Can you--?”
            He had done two funerals before, both for old people.
            The driveway was slippery. He kicked the snow off of his shoes before knocking on the door. There was a wreath on the door. No mezuzah.      
The man looked young: early thirties, maybe. He smelled of cigarettes; the ashtray was full. The wife was very thin, wearing a black sweater. Her hand when she shook his was cold; long thin fingers. She tried to smile; one of her right side teeth was missing.
            “I’m Joe Schiff; this is Ann-Marie.”
            “I’m sorry, sorry for your loss,” the student said.
            There was a pumpkin-colored crocheted throw on the sofa, a mantelpiece clock, a wedding picture of them by the ocean. It was a tiny apartment; little Christmas tree. No Chanukah menorah.
            “Can I get you coffee, Rabbi?” the man asked.
            “Water—water is fine.”
            The glass had the Hamburglar on it. He turned it in his hands, not knowing what to say.
            “We thought he was going to be OK. Ann-Marie carried him for seven months. Lucky seven. They can do wonderful, great things. Baby in the incubator. St. Bonaventure’s in Passaic, you know?”
            Joe took a long breath; she put her hand on his arm.
            “We were going to name him Jacob Christopher, after my grandfather, and her brother, her brother died in Vietnam. Things moving along, moving along, great. And then, poof, just gone.”
            Joe was crying now. Ann-Marie hugging his arm, reaching up for him.
            “The priest said—he said—he wasn’t sure.”
            “I’m sorry?” asked the student.
            “The priest,” said the woman. “The Catholic priest. He said he wasn’t sure if Jacob-Christopher would go—would go—“
            She was crying now.
            “What do you say, Rabbi?” Joe was talking now.
            The phone rang. Joe reached for it.
            “Yes,” he said, “yes. That’s me. All right. Yes, thank you.” He hung up and turned to Ann-Marie.
            “We have to—“ He took a long breath. “Go to the hospital, and get the baby.” He turned to the student. “Thanks for coming, Rabbi. Thanks a lot.”
            It was very dark. The roads were icy; the wind drove new snowflakes into his windshield. He kept yawning. The dashboard clock glowed 1 am. He pulled into the Denny’s and parked near the side door.
            Inside, a young man with a shaved head was mopping the booth area. The only place open for customers was the front counter. The student sat on one of the round stools, near a young man with long hair in a cowboy shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons. He ordered coffee: light cream. Four packets of the blue stuff.
            Radio first talking about a Christmas Truce in Vietnam; then, the Eagles were singing “Get Over It.” Longhair next to him was singing along, softly. The waitress poured more coffee into the man’s cup.
            What the hell does Judaism say about the Afterlife? Thought the student. What the hell?
            “You using that sugar?” asked Longhair.
            “No, here, that’s OK,” said the student.
            Longhair put in three spoonfuls, stirred, tapped the spoon on the cup edge. He sipped, put the cup down, looked around at the big windows holding back the night.
            “Big mess out there,” he said.
            “Yeah,” said the student.
            “I’m OK, though,” said Longhair, “name’s Steve, Steve Mackey.” He held out a hand; the student took it, still thinking about hell.
            “Crazy thing, though,” said Steve Mackey, “I’m in this tractor-trailer, nice warm cab I got there, all my stuff. Gotta locked-up safe in that tractor trailer, dunno the combination, can you believe it? I thought it was one thing, my boss goes ahead changes that sucker. Goddamn. Can you believe it? I’m warm, but my wallet’s in the safe. I had fifty, even thirty bucks for gas, I’d be OK. All I need. Get to Wilmington tomorrow late, call my boss from the relief station, he’d wire me the money, the combo. All I need. Just that thirty tonight, get me on my way.”
            He lit a cigarette, blew out the match.
            He turned to the student.
            “You got any money, my friend?” he said. “Tell you what. You loan me—that is loan, not give—me thirty bucks, thirty’s all I need get me to Wilmington. I give you my address in Sparta, South Ca’lina. I get you that thirty back. I send it back tomorrow night, Thursday for sure, guaranteed overnight mail. I give you this for security—“ he reached into his shirt pocket, took out a heavy nickel-plate watch—“my grandfather’s watch, he give it to me just before he died, this past year. I want that watch back, my friend. That’s the deal you trust me I get that watch back, you get your thirty bucks.”
            The student said nothing. He was thinking of the young couple. He was thinking of how he would have liked to help them.
            Steve Mackey sipped his coffee. He left the watch on the counter.
            The snow was coming down.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why a Loving Father Slapped His Daughter's Face

Why a Loving Father Slapped His Daughter’s Face

By David Hartley Mark

            My mother, Ethel Katz (Mark), was born in 1919. It was an odd time—raccoon coats, jazz, aeroplanes, the singer Rudy Vallee, and “23 Skiddoo.” The soldiers, white, black, and brown, were coming home from “Over There,” and determined to overcome their “shell shock” by getting high on gin or whiskey (some on cocaine; not too much on marijuana, unless you were a young jazz trumpeter from New Orleans named Louis “Satchelmouth” Armstrong).

            My mother lived in Gramercy Park, a quiet neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, with her parents, Henry and Celia, and her baby sister, Charlotte, whom everyone called Cheivy. Her own childhood nickname was Etty. One sad, evil aspect of the times was the “Red Raids”—then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was obsessed with the Communist takeover of Russia, which trumpeted that it was going to foment similar revolutions all over the world. Anarchist organizations from Italy and other European nations seemed to be threatening the democracies of Europe, and their shrill cries were being heard in America, too. Thousands, millions, of Jews, Italians, Poles, Greeks, and others had immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920, and the US Congress rushed to shut the “golden door,” hoping for more Scandinavians—a policy aided by racist beliefs similar to those of the later Nazis.

            Anonymous bombers mailed lethal packages to Palmer’s own Washington, DC, home, as well as to certain senators. Alarmed, Palmer established the FBI, hiring an ambitious young lawyer, J. Edgar Hoover, to set it up, which he did with a will, often taking advantage of the grey areas of the law to do so. As the 1920s progressed, immigrants and their children remained nervous over the growing power of the federal government and its courts to interfere in their private lives, thoughts, and activities in what they had thought was an open and free democracy. After all, Emma Goldman had been deported to “Red Russia” in 1919, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1920.

            It was a nervous, dangerous time.

            In the midst of this all, Ethel, the little girl who was to become my mother, and Cheivy, who was to be my aunt, were growing up in the greatest city in the world. The Twenties roared along—fast cars, skyscrapers, subway trains, buses, and enormous department stores were never-ending sources of wonder and amusement. All of the City’s museums were free, back then. Their mother, Celia, and other relatives provided an atmosphere of love and nurturing. Father Henry was a self-made success as a Certified Public Accountant; he owned some parcels of real estate, as well. For the family, it was a wonderful time.

            My mother, a city girl for all of her life, loved the sounds and sights of the metropolis. In particular, she favored fire engines and parades—they held her attention like nothing else—I never understood why. Brass bands and merry-go-rounds: she passed those loves on to me. And New York City was a neverending panoply of such amusements, despite the occasional tinge of danger. In those days, it was relatively safe: you just had to know where to walk, and where not to.
            One particular day, in the late 1920s, she was on her way from school, going through the park that lies to this day at the juncture of the buildings and stores that make up Union Square, above 14th Street—I can see it in my mind’s eye as I write; it was always a favorite destination of mine, when I myself was a walker in the city, Alfred Kazin-like, during my school days. The Flatiron Building, that storied “skyscraper” whose height was so quickly surpassed by other, statelier buildings, but whose remarkable shape remains unique. Mays Department Store, now gone, where I had my weeklong bout with retail (and will write about elsewhere). S. Klein, on the Square, another old department store, also gone, now, alas….

            There was a parade that day: May 1st. The International Day of the Workers: May Day. It was not a parade with uniformed musicians, trumpets or bass drums: just a few, shabbily-dressed workers, with cardboard placards or wooden signs, reading, perhaps:




and so on. My mother had no understanding of what they meant, if she read them at all; she was always a voracious reader. But it was a beautiful day, with a breeze blowing, no doubt, and she walked a block or two with the people, ignoring the men in the slouch hats and long black coats who were taking many pictures of the marchers. Then, she went home.

            That night, over dinner, father Henry smiled at his wife, Celia, and his two beautiful daughters, and thought about what a lucky man he was. He loved to ask his girls what they had done that day.

            “Cheifela,” he said to his younger daughter, “how was your day?”

            And Cheivy smiled her gorgeous smile, and told Daddy what her day had been like: school, friends, the weather, and what her teacher had said.

            Next, it was Etty’s turn. “And you, Etty?”

            So, my mother, no slight talker, she, proceeded to tell her Daddy about her day—school, the teacher, the other children. Everything was fine, until she got to the part about “the parade.”

            Now, it was Henry’s turn to knit his brows, and look concerned. May Day, a little voice went off in his head.

“Parade? What parade?” He asked.

            “Just a parade, Daddy,” said Etty. And she smiled. “It was very nice. I walked along, and watched the people with the signs, and some people watching waved at us, and I waved back. Some men were taking pictures, and I waved at them, too. And then, I came home.”

            And Henry, her father, reached across the table, and slapped her face.

She began to cry. He rose from his seat, hooked his thumb in his vest—I always imagine him doing that, although I never met him; he died when I was two years old—and he gave her a lecture about “walking in parades for no good reason.” Which probably confused her, all the more. She was just a little girl, after all….

            Now, why would such a loving father, do such a thing? Because Henry—that is, Herschel—Katz—was not born in this country. He had come here at the age of seven, from Austria-Hungary, which became one of the enemy countries against which Henry’s beloved America fought during World War I.

Because of the evil nature of the times, because of his “alien origins,” and because his little daughter marched in a Communist- and Anarchist-led parade, the FBI and the US Justice Department might consider him, Henry Katz, an enemy alien. They might suspect him of being an enemy spy. They might imprison him, deport him, or worse.

            I wonder how many Muslims, or Hispanics, or other Americans have that same fear, these days. We are never so far from those evil days, from the sadness and suspicion of other Americans as we are now—and my readers know to whom I am referring.

            This is not the America we want. This is not the America we desire for our children or grandchildren. It has happened before, and my grandfather slapped my mother because of it. A slap is nothing, but deportations and walls and concentration camps are something.

            Something very dangerous.

            And it’s happened before. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Notes of a Backsliding Jew: Kofer Ba-Eekar--"Denying the Essence" and Other Accusations

Notes from a Backsliding Jew: When Your Childhood Rabbi Calls You a "Kofer Ba'Eekar," or Denier of the Essence

            “If you become a Conservative rabbi,” said Rabbi N, leaning back against the pillows of his sofa, “you will be a kofer ba’eekar—a Denier of the Essence [of Torah and God].”
            This was not the way the evening had been supposed to go. Ostensibly, I had come to Rabbi N’s apartment for premarital counseling—all was in place; I was marrying a beautiful Jewish girl; we were to be married in a temple with a Glatt Kosher catering hall attached (or, contrariwise, a catering hall with a Glatt Kosher temple attached) in Brooklyn. Our parents were footing the bill, and there was the rub: for, instead of one of my friendly, amenable AJR rabbi-professors conducting the ceremony, we were to be married by my Childhood Rabbi, the formidable and uncompromising Rabbi N.
            As I had outgrown, outpaced, and outlearned the Orthodoxy of my youth, so had I left Rabbi N behind: but there he was before me, unchanged and unbending as ever. Any suggestion or proposal we made to him regarding the marriage ceremony, any innovation or personalization—I will say this for him: he listened carefully; he even nodded once or twice, before saying, “No.”
            Finally, knowing full well my plans to attend a non-Orthodox rabbinical school, the Academy for Jewish Religion (although, in point of fact, there have been Orthodox rabbis at AJR, both as teachers and graduates), he took the opportunity to let me know his opinion of my deserting the Orthodox camp. I might as well have been joining a different faith, as far as Rabbi N was concerned. And, truthfully, I was not surprised: it was just that I had never expected to be called such by such a bitter label: it was like a curse, and bore the anathema of a curse.
            As I say, I was not surprised. During the 1960s, my high school years, there had been whispers, in class and outside, of the Conservatives. We boys knew nothing of Them personally, but we knew, even if we did not fully understand, the Threat they posed to our right little, tight little Island of Orthodoxy, there in Washington Heights, or in Teaneck, NJ, or my own little enclave of the Lower East Side—where, rumor had it, a small group of pioneering Jews had gone so far as to attempt to establish a Conservative congregation of their own. They had quietly approached a local Jewish landlord and asked to rent space in one of his properties to establish such a congregation.
            When the Lower East Side Orthodox rabbis got wind of this heretical development, they wasted no time: they immediately contacted the Jewish property owner, discreetly and directly, informing him that, if he proceeded to deal with “that Conservative group,” he, his family, and their businesses would be thoroughly blackballed and shunned by all the “decent and loyal” Orthodox neighbors and friends; they would have to pull up stakes and move elsewhere, perhaps under an assumed name. The plan died a-borning, and was never again attempted. Indeed, the failure to establish a non-Orthodox alternative to the various synagogues and shtieblach (little brownstone shuls) in the neighborhood probably hastened its demise as a religious Jewish enclave: younger, less traditional Jewish families hesitated to move to the Lower East Side, knowing that the closest Conservative, let alone Reform, temples were only as close as Greenwich Village.
            My own encounter with Conservatism consisted of two events: in the early 1960s, New York newspapers were filled with the news of a near-tragedy: a fire at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary was successfully doused by the swift action of several fire companies, but the resultant moisture threatened the Rare Jewish Books Collection held in their library. Jewish students from all over the city hastened to JTS to assist in putting blotting paper and other absorbent material between the pages of the books.
            It was a great surprise—a shock, really—when Yeshiva University students answered the summons, and joined Conservative, Reform, and secular Jewish students in assuring the rescue of the rare books and manuscripts; supposedly, one of the higher-ups on the YU rabbinical faculty gave them some sort of dispensation to assist.
            But this was a small thing for me, personally. What happened in my sophomore year of high school was not life-changing, but certainly opened my eyes. I was assigned some sort of Hebrew research paper that required me to visit the JTS Library. I remember feeling a certain amount of trepidation prior to my journey—this was, after all, the seat of Conservative Judaism in America, and I was a loyal, young, and highly impressionable Orthodox Jew. I wore no payess (side curls) and my tsitsit (ritual fringes) did not show through between my shirt and slacks, but I certainly davened three times daily, and the food I ate was strictly kosher. How would I fare in the Satan’s Den I had been led to believe was the Jewish Theological Seminary? Even the name “Seminary” sounded ominous, while the more familiar word, “Yeshiva,” sounded homey and comforting.
            Nothing daunted, I took the subway—even the IRT seemed strange, and the station names and numbers were different—YU was a stop on the IND line. Though a native New Yorker, the subway was always a trial for me, with my non-existent sense of direction.
            Leaving the subway, I set out in an eastern direction. I truly did not know what to expect. As I came ‘round the corner and beheld the main JTS building, I was, frankly, disappointed. I don’t really know what I had been expecting—a Gnostic Dragon? The Whore of Babylon? But the Main Center, a tall red-brick tower with a granite entrance, was bland beyond my expectations. There did not even seem to be a Jewish Star, the familiar six-sided Mogen David, in sight.
            Sighing, I pushed open the metal front door: here again was strangely-familiar blandness. An ancient book was displayed in a showcase. A large, modernistic chandelier hung from the ceiling. The interior did not even have that exotic red-stone-and-coppery-brass-Scheherezade-Ali-Baba-tone that my own, personal Yeshiva lobby did. Shaking my head in disbelief, I mounted the stairs; a middle-aged secretary with an odd resemblance to a YU secretary—did Jewish women administrators come in only one size, shape, and style?—directed me to the Library. I did my research, returned to the books on the shelves, sneaked a few, furtive glances at the other students in the library—they appeared boringly ordinary; not a sorcerer or heretic among them—gathered my papers and pens, and left.
            Years later, when I was uncertain what Sort of Jew I Wanted to Become, and knew only that I no longer wished to be Orthodox, I found the encouragement, warmth, and strong support of Rabbi Stephen Leon and—yeebadel baChaim—Rabbi Dr. Robert Aronowitz—so, so crucial to me, at that crossroads in my life, and welcoming beyond measure. I had had enough of Unreasoning Authority, meaningless forms to fill out, sitting on benches in waiting rooms, and visiting megatemples throughout New York City. I did know that, in spite of myself, YU had given me an excellent education, for which I am forever grateful, but I also knew that, as a scholar, a sensitive spirit, and a Jew, I could no longer, in good conscience, be Orthodox. I was too full of questions, and tired of the answers the Rabbis of my past had been giving me: “We do this because—because Jews have always done this!”
            I knew then, and still know today, that Judaism is the product of many hands and minds, that there are anthropological as well as religious, cultural, superstitious, Talmudic, sociological, soteriological, and other reasons for how, and why, we do things. I like to say that I became a rabbi because I was asking questions and I wasn’t getting answers—and, somewhere along the road to seeking answers, I found that I had become a rabbi. Another aspect of my search has been my contrarian nature—in Jewish circles, I found an English literary aspect; in English classes, I would offer a Jewish insight. I like to believe that I strive to live the YU motto, “Torah oo’Mada”—Torah and Secular Learning, with no contradictions. And I love to teach; God, how I love it. Just stand me up and point me, and I will teach. (In honor of my wife, in memory of my mother a’h; as well as my sister and my sister-in-law; we are all, all teachers.)
            But there I was, on Rabbi N’s tufted and luxurious couch, being told that I denied the Essence—of what? God? Torah? It might be that I denied God’s giving the entire Torah (except the last few verses, which speak of Moses’s death, and no prophet, not even one as great as Moshe Rabeinu, who spoke with God panim el panim, face-to-face, can, or should, know the date of his own death—that would be altogether too depressing, and, certainly, Moses already had enough to be depressed about), but a small portion of my brain still accepted that—no.
            What disturbed me was being judged by Rabbi N. Judaism has no Inquisition. Judaism has no Set of Absolute Beliefs. Yes, Maimonides came up with the “13 Principles,” but I like to say that, on any given day, I can disagree with six or eight or even thirteen of them, and that does not make me any less of a Jew.
            What did I say to Rabbi N’s—accusation? Assessment?
            I was able to look at it in context. Orthodox rabbis, I understood in the 1960s, disliked and suspected Conservative rabbis worse than they did the Reform. While the Reform were beyond the Pale—no kippote while davening, no tallitote (excuse me,talleisim), many English readings, and so on—the Conservative rabbis davened, preached, learned, and usually practiced like the Orthodox; it was just that “they let their congregations get away with murder”—that is, driving on Shabbos, eating tuna in traferestaurants, and the like. Yes, indeed: as if the rabbi could stop them….
            In other words, Rabbi N was accusing me, not of personally becoming a backslider, but of Joining the Enemy. Backsliding was a charge, but not the Main Charge.
            So: what did I do? I thanked him. He did go on to perform the ceremony at our wedding: the only one who enjoyed it was my father a’h, who was able to preen before his shul cronies (“My wedding, my rabbi”—his exact words—I still love him, but that was not his finest hour). Ah, what one does for family….

            And I am happy to say that I have had, thank God and Israel, a lively, rewarding, and educational career as a rabbi. One lives; one learns.