Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Bencher of Babel

The e-mail altercations reached crisis proportions today among the members of the Bencher committee, the five of us who are working to create a new book of Shabbat zemirot. J wrote that he thought the Bencher should include every song in any bencher anywhere; the other J wrote back that this would be impossible; the third J insisted that if we did not try to do the impossible, our Bencher, too, would inevitably be surpassed like every other. The e-mails came fast and furious, with several ad hominem attacks and no shortage of hurt feelings. Since I am in a different time zone, I received all these messages a day later -- a day that is, most fortuitously, Rosh Chodesh Adar. Hence my response to the four of them, which I paste here:

Dear J, J, J, and D,

The universe (which others call the Bencher) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of pages. There are twenty-six orthographic symbols in the Hebrew alphabet. That discovery enabled mankind, five thousand years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Bencher and therefore satisfactorily solve the riddle that no conjecture had been able to divine -- the formless and chaotic nature of virually all zemir ot. One zemer is a mere labyrinth of letters whose every stanza closes with the phrase "As a meal-offering on a fire pan"; another with "Geese, quail, and fish." This much is known: for every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency. Geese, quail, and fish indeed.

When it was announced that the Bencher contained all zemirot, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men [sic] felt themselves the poss essors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no zemer, no short song or long song or holiday song (even Pesach songs, for centuries the province of Haggadot alone) whose eloquent arrangement was not included -- somewhere on some page. Thousands of greedy individuals rushed out to purchase the Bencher, spurred by the vain desire to sing every zemer. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors of West Side Judaica, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceivingly incomplete benchers (B'kol Echad, NCSY, Ramah) down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men [sic] of distant regions. Others went insane….

That original unbridled joy was succeeded, naturally enough, by a similarly disproportionate depression. The certainty that some page in the Bencher contained precious zemirot, yet that those zemirot were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable. One blasphemous sect proposed that the first thing to do was to eliminate all worthless zemirot: Atkinu Seudata, Baruch Hashem Yom Yom, etc. They would invade the pages, show credentials that were not always false, leaf disgustedly through a volume, and condemn entire sections of zemirot. It is to their hygienic, ascetic rage that we lay the senseless loss of millions of zemirot. But fortunately, the Bencher is so huge that any reduction by human hands is of course infinitesimal.

I have just written the word "infinitesimal." I have not included that adjective out of mere rhetorical habit; I hereby state that it is not illogical to think that the world of zemirot is infinite. If an eternal paytan should leaf through the Bencher, he would find after untold centuries that the same zemirot are repeated in the same disorder -- which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.

With all due apologies to Borges,

DISCLAIMER: I am no more the author of this post than Pierre Menard is the author of the Quixote!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Aharon Appelfeld and Craniosacral Therapy

I just read Aharon Appelfeld's memoir, The Story of a Life (in English). And now I think I have more of an appreciation for a profession that I once dismissed as total kookiness.

I have met, on separate occasions, two women in Israel who describe their line of work as "craniosacral therapy." They tell me this is a method of using the touch of the hands to help the body heal from trauma. "Just as the mind remembers, the body remembers what it has been through," one of the practitioners I met told me. "Craniosacral therapy heals the body of its memory of trauma."

"But how does the body remember?" I asked this woman, thinking that this sounded like the twentieth-century equivalent of phreno-mesmerism.

"How does the mind remember?" she shot back. "We have cells all over the body, not just in the brain, and cells register impact."

I was convinced that all of this was total bunk until I read Appelfeld, who describes the trauma of living in the forests of Poland at the age of ten during the war years. Again and again he returns to this theme of how the body remembers, as the following two excerpts attest:

"Of the war years I remember little . . . this is the limit of conscious memory. But the palms of one's hands, the soles of one's feet, one's back, and one's knees remember more than memory. Had I known how to draw from them, I would have been overwhelmed with what I have seen. On some occasions I have been able to listen to my body, and then I would write a few chapters, but even they are just fragments of a pulsing darkness that will always be locked inside me."

"I do not remember entering the forest, but I do remember the moment when I stood before a tree laden with red apples. I was so astonished that I took a few steps back. More than my conscious mind does, my body seems to remember those steps backward. If ever I make a wrong movement, or unexpectedly stumble backward, I see the tree with the red apples."

Appelfeld's sense of awe at the body's capacity for remembrance is accompanied by a tremendous distrust of words. In wartime, he writes, only madmen speak. In the face of hunger, thirst, and the terrible physical reality of bodies dropping left and right, words are rendered superfluous. I shall save this passage for a drash on "lo ish devarim anochi":

"I've carried with me my mistrust of words from those years. A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion within me. I prefer stuttering, for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet, the effort to purge impurities from the words, the desire to offer something from inside you. Smooth, fluent, sentences leave me with a feeling of uncleanness, of order that hides emptiness."

But like Moshe, Appelfeld is nonetheless a master of words and language. I had no interest in reading a Holocaust memoir--I have read more than my share already--but I fell in love with Appelfeld spellbinding rhetorical ability when I heard him speak at Yad Ben Zvi last month. The story he tells in his memoir is essentially the same as the story he tells in Tzili, and probably in all his other books as well. But no matter. It is not what he is telling us but how he tells it to us that is the source of his genius. Here he says so himself:

"Even then, I was labeled a Holocaust writer. There is nothing more annoying. A writer, if he's a writer, writes from within himself and mainly about himself, and if there is any meaning to what he says, it's because he's faithful to himself—to his voice and his rhythm. Theme, subject matter—all these are by-products of his writing, not its essence. I was a child during the war. This child grew up, and all that happened to him and within him continued into his adulthood: the loss of his home, the loss of his language, suspicion, fear, the inhibitions of speech, the feelings of alienation in a foreign country. It was from these that I wove my fiction. Only the right words can construct a literary text, not subject matter."

Appelfeld has the right words, for sure. They crawl underneath your skin and stay there for a long time, for as long as the body remembers.

From the journal of Mary Anning

[Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion and, more immediately, Chet Raymo's forthcoming Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. ]

I am haunted by images of Father slipping on the rocks, but I know that if I do not go out again today, I never will. Mother says it is especially important to find more items for the curiosity shop now that we will not have the income from Father's cabinet-making. Yesterday we sold a whale's tooth and some faded copper coins, but we have very little left. Mother sits outside manning the shop and Richard is in London sorting out matters with the uncles. I feel the wait of the world on my shoulders as I lift up my voluminous skirts and head out to the cliffs.

It is a warm summer day and I expect I shall other visitors to the Cobb. I shall try to work undisturbed with my hammer in the rock. Richard found the skull of a great creature here a few months ago, and ever since then, I have been hoping to make a discovery that will rival his in magnitude. We are keeping the skull in Mother's room for now in the hope of selling it in London for a large sum, perhaps when we have other great findings as well. It is a sight to behold -- four feet long, its jaws filled with sharp interlocking teeth, its eye sockets wide as saucers. I do not like to imagine the creature it once was, though sometimes it haunts my nightmares, along with Father's ghost.

The warm spray lashes against my back as I gaze out to the horizon past the sea ramparts. Here is where the ships set sail to greet the Spanish Armada, and here is where the Duke of Monmouth landed, and maybe someday they will say that here is where Mary Anning gathered fragments of bone. But no matter. I do not care what they will say. I simply want us to have food on the table, and so I keep my eyes fixed on the task at hand, treading carefully on the slippery rocks.

After about two hours, when the cloud cover clears and Ware Cleeves looms up in the distance, I stop working to eat the bread and jam in my lunch pail. The jam is fresh, made from the berries that ripened while we were still mourning Father's passing. For days I could not eat anything so sticky-sweet, but now I savor the return to the familiar tastes of childhood. Childhood, I say with such a clear sense of time's demarcations. Childhood was then, before Father fell. The "after" does not yet have a name.

Again and again I imagine how Father lost his footing on these treacherous cliffs. I imagine him excited by the glint of something shiny protruding from the rock in the distance; I see him lurching forwards, then stumbling. I hear him cry out more in surprise than in fear; I hear his voice echoing back off the empty cliffs; and then I hear the silence once more.

Here, now, it is suddenly no longer silent. Below me there is a party of eight out on the rocks, four women in bonnets and great skirts accompanied by four men, all elegantly dressed. I watch them from my perch and hope that they cannot see me in all my shabbiness. But they continue to approach, and soon I can hear every word.

"Miss Elliot, you have done a good deed in making that poor fellow talk so much," says one of the older men to a woman not much older than myself, though a bit more plump and rosy-cheeked. The woman shrugs her shoulders as if she does not deserve his compliment, and they walk on. Behind them, another of the young women skips across the rocks, her eyes always following the handsome man beside her. I want to tell her that she ought to walk more carefully, that these cliffs are slippery, that it was in just such a spot that Father lost his life. Soon they will come to the craggy stairs that we call Granny's Teeth. Should I call down to her to proceed with more caution? I am reluctant to reveal my presence here; I so much prefer to be an anonymous observer of human society than to take part in all its messiness. I am, after all, a fossil gatherer. Still, she skips so lightly, and the cliffs of Lyme are so steep....

"Don't talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell!" --Alfred Tennyson

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Parshat Mishpatim: The Mumim of Milah and Mitzrayim

It is 2:30am and I am half-asleep, but I want to quickly jot down some reactions to Aviva Zornberg's parsha class this evening...

Aviva called our attention to Rashi's comment on Shmot 22:20, one of the verses about the proper treatment of the stranger: "You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Rashi says, "If you vex him, he can vex you by saying to you that you also descend from strangers. If you have a defect, don't point it out in your friend."

In Hebrew, the final line of Rashi's comment reads as follows: "Mum she-becha, al tomar l'chaverecha." So we are back to mumim, my favorite subject! Aviva noted that it was strange to refer to the experience of Egyptian enslavement as a "mum"; why should having been slaves constitute a blemish? She answered that this terrible experience served as a wound in us as a people, such that we will never be fully intact. We will always bear the scars of our history inscribed in our national consciousness.

When I heard her interpretation of Rashi's mumim, I began to think about the real physical scars we bear as well, i.e. Brit Milah. Perhaps the pain of circumcision is an attempt to reconnect ourselves with the formative scars of our people. Just as our first experience as a nation was one of wounding, so too is our first experience as individual human beings.

The Torah teaches that only those who are circumcized were allowed to eat of the korban pesach (Shmot 19:6), thereby linking the metaphorical wound of slavery with the physical wound of milah. According to the midrash in Shmot Rabbah, God had to reiterate the commandment of circumcision because Bnei Yisrael had abandoned this rite while in Egypt. Perhaps, I would like to suggest, the reason they did not perform circumcision in Egypt is because they had no need to inscribe a wound on their flesh when they were already in the midst of such a terrible national experience of wounding. Just as we do not wear tefillin on Shabbat because Shabbat is an "ote" in and of itself, so too did Bnei Yisrael not need to perform brit milah in Egypt -- the enslavement was enough of a reminder of national wounding.

The parallel to tefillin reminds me of the Gemara in Brachot 6a that I discussed a couple of days ago, in which we learn that we wear God's tefillin and God wears our tefillin. Perhaps our way of wearing God's tefillin is through Brit Milah -- we inscribe our covenant with God in the flesh. And perhaps God's way of wearing our tefillin appears in this week's parsha after all the mishpatim:

Exodus 24:9-10 states: "Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended, and they saw the God of Israel: Under His feet there was the likeness of a brick of sapphire [livnat ha-sapir], like the very sky for purity." Rashi explains that this brick had been before God during the period of Egptian slavery "as a symbol of Israel's woes -- for they were subjected to do brick-work." God keeps a brick in front of him to remind him of the pain of Bnei Yisreal's enslavement. The brick binds him to the suffering of His people living, alas, in an unredeemed world. And this, I would suggest, is the way that God wears our tefillin.

We wear God's tefillin in the form of Brit Milah. And God wears our tefillin in the form of the livnat ha-sapir at His feet. The milah and levenah are thus counterparts of one another. Parshat Mishpatim might put it this way: Ayin tachat ayin, shen tachat shen, milah tachat levenah.

King David's Aeolian Harp

Last night, I fell asleep at 1am while in the middle of reading an editorial about human sleeping patterns throughout history. Here is the piece, which appeared in this week's NY Times:


The author, A. Roger Ekirch, contends that until the modern period, most people slept in two intervals. They would retire between 9 and 10pm, and then wake up around midnight "to smoke a pipe, brew a tub of ale or even converse with a neighbor." The period of "first" sleep was followed by "second" sleep, which lasted until morning. Ekirch connects this pattern of "broken" sleep to the absence of artificial lighting, which has significantly altered our circadian rhythms. In our most natural state, he contends, we sleep in two distinct intervals, as confirmed by clinical research among subjects deprived of light. (Note: Apparently Ekirch is also the author of a book on this subject, entitled At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.)

When I woke up this morning, I dashed off to Yeshiva and did not think further of the article. But it must have made an impression on me, because I found myself possessed by the compulsion to learn about patterns of sleep in rabbinic times. If Ekirch is correct that pre-industrial people slept in two intervals, then there should be evidence of this practice in the Gemara. And sure enough, there is.

The first mishnah in Masechet Brachot deals with the proper time for reciting Kriyat Shma in the evening. The rabbis refer to the time when the Kohanim would conclude their shift in the Temple, which leads to a discussion in the Gemara of the divisions of the night. (As usual, I have nothing but a Tanach in front of me -- so don't quote rabbinic sources without verifying!) They note that David HaMelech would wake up in the middle of the night to praise God, as we learn from Tehillim 119:62: "I arise at midnight to praise You for Your just rules." (Note: Perhaps this is the source of the kabbalistic idea of Tikun Chatzot, which I discovered last week when reading Michal Govrin's crazy novel The Name.) The Gemara quotes David as having said: "Me'olam lo avar alai chatzot layla basheyna" (I was never sleeping at midnight.) This line immediately resonated for me because Coleridge said the very same thing in "Dejection: An Ode": "'Tis midnight but small thoughts have I of sleep." So both Coleridge and David HaMelech were accustomed to being awake at the witching hour. Who would have guessed?

The Gemara in Brachot (3b) then goes on to relate that David used to sleep like a horse (m'namnem ka-sus) until midnight, and then grow stronger like a lion (mitgaber ka-ari) until dawn. Rav Ashi then claims that actually David did not sleep at all; rather, he would learn Torah until midnight, and then pray from midnight onwards. In any case, though, it is clear that David's night was divided into two parts, like that of Ekirch's pre-industrial man.

The Gemara next asks, "But how did David know when it was midnight in order to get up?" After all, says the Gemara, even God didn't know the exact time of midnight, as we know from Exodus 11:4: "At about midnight, I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first-born among the Egyptians shall die." God says "at about midnight" (ka-chatzot ha-layla), which suggests that He did not know exactly when midnight would fall. So how could David possibly know? Ahh, answers the Gemara: David had a primitive alarm clock in the form of his kinor (harp), which the midnight wind would blow upon to wake him up.

So David HaMelech had at his bedside an Aeolian harp, the sine qua non of the Romantic poets! According to classical mythology, this instrument was thought to have belonged to Aeolus, the Greek god of wind. (To hear Aeolian harp music **on the computer**, thereby causing several Romantics to turn over in their graves, go to this site: http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/Strasse/7353/Aeolian.html.) Both Wordsworth and Shelley used the Aeolian harp as a metaphor for the mind in perception and for the poetic mind in composition, as M.H. Abrams explains in his classic work The Mirror and the Lamp. Coleridge immortalizes this image in his poem "The Aeolian Harp":

And that simplest Lute,
Plac'd length-ways in the clasping casement, hark !
How by the desultory breeze caress'd,
Like some coy maid half-yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong ! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Faery-Land. . .
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill'd ;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

Perhaps there is a Faery-Land out there where the Kohanim are returning from their midnight watches as Coleridge and David HaMelech sit side-by-side listening to the strains of the Aeolian harp. How's that for a vision of Olam Ha-Ba?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Vivian Gornick: "Injected like dye into the nervous system of my emotions"

I was going through a stack of books at the literary agency today when a slim volume by Vivian Gornick caught my eye. I had heard of her before, perhaps b/c she once blurbed a title I worked on at Random House. I flipped through her collection of essays and stopped at "What Feminism Means to Me," thinking that maybe I'd find something to recommend to Ariella. Instead, I fell upon the following passage, which is so good that I typed it up by hand in an effort to "write" it myself:

"Loving a man, I vowed, would not again be primary. Love-as-I-had-known-it was something I might have to do without. I approached this thought blithely, as though it would be the easiest thing in the world to accomodate. After all, I'd always been an easy belligerent, one of those women forever complaining that men were afraid of "women like me." I was no good at flirting, it was a relief to be done with it. If love between equals was impossible--and it looked as though it probably was--who needed it? I pressed myself against my newly hardened heart. The thrill and excitement of feminist reality made me glad to give up sentimentality, take pleasure in tough-mindedness. The only important thing, I told myself, was work. I must teach myself to work. If I worked, I'd have what I needed. I'd be a person in the world. What would it matter then that I was giving up 'love'?
As it turned out: it mattered. More than I had ever dreamed it would...The idea of love, if not the reality, was impossible to give up. As the years went on, I saw that romantic love was injected like dye into the nervous system of my emotions, laced through the entire fabric of longing, fantasy, and sentiment. It haunted the psyche, was an ache in the bones; so deeply embedded in the make-up of the spirit it hurt the eyes to look directly into its influence. It would be a cause of pain and conflict for the rest of my life. I love my hardened heart--I have loved it all these years-- but the loss of romantic love can still tear at it."
--Vivian Gornick, "What Feminism Means to Me"

I relish her resigned acceptance of the impossibility of renouncing the dream of romantic love. We can give up the reality of love--we may have no choice in the matter--but the idea will forever haunt us. The ability to romanticize is akin to the ability to imagine, to speak in counterfactuals, to say "what if." If we could not conceive of a reality other than the one we know, we would all go insane. It is our curse and our salvation as human beings who have a "dimension too many" (Hermann Hesse); it is the lifeline we are "ever un-reeling, every tirelessly speeding" (Whitman). And though the bridge may never be formed, and though the gossamer thread may never catch, we will continue to fling out filament, filament, filament. It is ironic that the essence of our humanity is best captured in animal metaphors: We are like the noiseless patient spider, and we are like the bird with the thorn in its breast. Still we do it. Still we do it.

Poem from last summer

Cupboards of dishes and closets of clothing—
I am weighed down by things.
Bookcases creaking with spine-uncracked still new books
Desk lamps and dusters and duvets galore
Broomsticks and bedsheets and brown paper bags;
No one to sweep for and no one to sleep with
No one to wrap for and no one to weep with
My hurt-heavy heart spilling over to give.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Feeling Strapped: Why Tefillin and Depression Don't Mix

Sunday was a trapdoor day. Woke up and wanted to fall through the floor.

I was supposed to lead shacharit, but the moment I opened my eyes, I knew it wouldn't happen.

I made it to minyan in time for the middle of Yishtabach. Guilt, then relief. There was no way I could have handled having everyone's eyes on me when I felt like a blight on the universe.

I stood there and tried to put on my tefillin. Tried and tried again. No luck. And I realized: You can't wear tefillin when you're feeling this way.

Even the Gemara agrees. In Moed Katan 15a we read: "A mourner is forbidden from putting on tefillin from what God said to Ezekial: 'Put on your splendor' -- from which we deduce the general principle that it is forbidden to the rest of the world."

Moed Katan, which deals largely with the laws of mourning, frequently draws on Ezekial 24 for proof texts. In this chapter, God announces to Ezekial that He is about to take his wife from him. But Ezekial is commanded: "You shall not lament or weep or let your ears flow. Moan softly, observe no mourning for the dead." God proceeds to enumerate all those activities that Ezekial should not perform, which the rabbis interpret as a list of activities prohibited during shiva. Among them is the mysterious injunction "pe'ercha chavush me'alecha." JPS traslates this as "put on your turban," though "pe'er" is most commonly translated as "splendor." The rabbis understand pe'er to be a reference to tefillin. This understanding is reflected in the Artscroll translation of Anim Z'mirot, where "pe'ero alay" is translated as "His tefillin-splendor is upon me." This image is drawn from Brachot 6a, where we learn that God adorns Himself with tefillin as a sign of His love for Israel, and Israel wears tefillin as a sign of its love for God.

A mourner, in his tremendous grief and sadness, is relieved of the responsibility of adorning himself with tefillin. And now I think I understand why. In wearing tefillin, we bind ourself in devotion to God. We also convey the sense that we believe our bodies are worthy of adornment. In some ways, laying tefillin reminds me of putting on a fancy necklace or some other accessory; it's not necessary, but it's an added ornament. (NOTE: That is not to say that tefillin is not halachically mandated; it's just that it has always seemed to me like something additional, sort of like musaf in that sense -- hence the "musaf walk," etc.).

In order to put on tefillin, you have to be in the right mood to adorn yourself. If you're in mourning, or even just feeling down, it's a great struggle. Just like I can't bring myself to go through the effort of putting on a funky necklace when I'm feeling blue, I also can't bear the thought of putting on tefillin. It's just not where I am. To sit there and wrap those straps round and round...ugh, the sheer pointlessnes of it all, God help me....

And so every so often (and often more often than knot), I accept that His tefillin splendor will not be upon me. So it goes.

The Holocaust in Israeli Fiction

The following information is distilled from a 2/20 interview with Dr. Rachel Korazim, Academic Director of Long Distance Programs at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Literature about the Holocaust written by Israelis falls into two main categories. The first consists of works set in Europe during the war. These books, by authors such as Aharon Appelfeld and Dan Pagis, deal with the ghettos, the deportations, the concentration camps, the partisans, and the liberation. The second category of Holocaust fiction consists of works set in Israel. These books, by David Grossman, Savyon Liebreht, and others, deal with the attempt to incorporate the tragedy into the Israeli national and historic consciousness. This literature review focuses primarily on the second category of works, since Walk on Water belongs to this same artistic genre.

Immediately after the war, most works of Holocaust fiction set in Israel dealt with the attempt to rescue young Jewish children who had survived the war. In the classic narrative that underlies these works, a male fatherly figure who served in the Jewish unit of the British army stays on in Europe after the war to work with survivors. This man becomes attached to one particular child survivor, often named Yankele or Channele, and brings him or her home to integrate the child into Israeli society. Invariably, this Yankele or Channele is pale and thin and dresses funny. He or she speaks Yiddish, which is anathema to the sabra. The other students make fun of the European import until one day, on a big school hike, an accident happens and it is Yankele or Channele who emerges as the unexpected hero, armed with survival skills from years in the forests. By the end of the story, the father figure comes to visit the child he rescued and barely recognizes the newly-christened Koby or Chana – above all, because the child is now suntanned, which is the mark of the true Israeli.

Books in this genre include Leah Goldberg's The Lady in the Castle and Yemima Tzernovitz's Echad Mishelanu, both published in the 1950s.* A similar set of books came out in the 1960s, but with a twist – the now-suntanned European child realizes in the end that although he or she can dress like an Israeli and speak Hebrew, he or she will never really be like one of the sabras. The sixties also witnessed the emergence of a "literature of guilt" by survivors who felt that they did not deserve to be saved when so many others were not. These works were heavily influenced by the debates about Holocaust reparations money. Many Israelis felt that they could not accepted "tainted" German reparations, or felt too guilty about having survived to be able to accept compensation.

In the 1970s, questions arose about the legitimacy of drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and other instances of victimization and genocide. In 1974, the Israeli Iraqi writer Sami Michael unleashed a stream of controversy when his novel More and More Equal drew an explicit comparison between the treatment of Holocaust survivors and the treatment of new Iraqi immigrants to Israel, who were humiliatingly sprayed with DDT to "detoxify" them upon their arrival in the promised land.

The 1980s witnessed the rise of a "second generation" of Holocaust writers. This term refers to those Israelis who are children of survivors. Do they inherit a "Holocaust gene" that makes them different from everyone else? What does it mean to carry around a terrible historical legacy? Classic works of this genre include David Grossman's Momik (famous for its literalization of the "Nazi beast"), Savyon Liebrecht's Apples from the Desert, and Gila Almagor's Summer of Aviya.

In the 1990s, writers of fiction began to examine the relationship between the Holocaust and Israeli national politics. Two of the most outstanding works to emerge are Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust and Lysie Doron's Lama Lo Bata Lifnei Ha-Milchama. These titles raise difficult and serious questions about the relationships between victims and victimizers, an issue that has come to the fore once again in the wake of the disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005.

For whatever reason, the writers in the upper echelons of the Israeli pantheon—Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Meir Shalev—have chosen to avoid the subject of the Holocaust altogether. Nonetheless, a rich Israeli literature has emerged in the aftermath of one of the greatest historical nightmares, and continues to emerge and to evolve in our own day as well.

*Books whose titles appear in Hebrew have not yet been translated into English.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Some thoughts on the parsha:

18:1 Vayishma Yitro -- He came, he heard, he converted.

18:9 Vayichad Yitro -- Rashi puns on vayichad, saying that Yitro broke out on goosebumps (chadudin) when he heard that the Egyptians had suffered. Even though his mind was happy for Bnei Yisrael, his visceral reaction was a sense of horror at the Egyptian suffering. He was, after all, not one of us....

19:4 Al Kanfei Nesharim -- God is romanticizing the Exodus from Egypt. In truth, it was not such smooth sailing (I mean, flying), but this is how God retells the story in an effort to seduce His bride.

19:17 Vayotze Moshe - Aviva Zornberg points out that according to the midrash, Moshe had to forcibly lead BY out towards God like a reluctant bride who is urged along by her accompanying bridesmaids. The midrash explains that on the night before Matan Torah --the night before their wedding to God-- BY were sleeping soundly. This is why we have a tikun leyn shavuot -- l'taken for BY's having slept.

20:14 Va'yanu'u va'yamdu m'rachok - Rashi comments that BY were so startled by God's kolot that with each commandment, they moved back startled twelve miles, which was a distance equal to the entire length of the camp. AZ, as she is wont, concludes that BY therefore moved a distance of 240 miles during Matan Torah, in an oscillating movement that may be the origin of "shuckling" when davening. I instead see it as an enacting of the entire historical cycle of sin, repentance, sin reptentance -- an oscillating movement of straying and returning.

20:14 Kolot -- What were they? What are these voices of God? I think they were waves coming from all parts of the spectrum -- including those parts that we cannot hear. Don't they say that dolphins are always emitting high-pitched sounds that are inaudible to human ears? Well, maybe God is too -- it's just that at Matan Torah, we were able to tune in to a few of those extra wavelengths. Are there audible waves as well on the electromagnetc spectrum? E.g., can infrared be HEARD even if not seen? That would explain the synesthetic "ro'im et ha-kolot"....

B. Talmud Sanhedrin 89a -- "But he who suppresses his prophecy, or disregards the words of a prophet, or a prophet who transgresses his own words is slain by heaven, for it is written, 'And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not harken' -- now this may be understood as implying 'to proclaim' and 'hearkening himself' unto my words, and the verse proclaims 'I will require it of him,' i.e., he shall be slain by heaven."
Will he really be slain by heaven? No, rather a part of him will die if he does not actualize his talents. As Milton wrote: "And that one talent which is death to hide / lodged with useless though my soul more bent / to better serve my maker...."

Shmot Rabbah (can't remember where) -- At the moment of giving over Torah, God held two tfachim of the luchot, Moshe held two tfachim, and there were two tfachim between them. The need for this degree of specificity reflects the tremendous erotic intensity between God and Moshe at this moment, as if they stood "palm to palm in holy palmer's kiss."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ketubot perek zayin mishnah zayin

Ha-mekadesh et ha-isha al menat she'eyn bah mumin....
Al menat, al menat, al menat.
All summer they told me: One does not get married on condition.
You love her? Then you love her.
Mumin and all? Mumin and all.
Kol ha-mumin ha-poslin ba-kohanim --
I stand here before you in full blemished regalia.
You stand there before us, your fingers in V's, blessing us all from on high.
Can anyone see you beneath there? No matter.

And then it is as that moment at the end of anim z'mirot
I stand poised, waiting for the ark to close
The melody hangs in the air, then this:
Poslin ba-nashim, and I stand there no more.

White flowers

There are brides of light and brides of darkness; tonight I heard a story from a bride of light.

She has long shimmering hair that covers the corners of her eyes and falls over her face like a curtain of light. She comes in from the cold and we can hear the crackle of the static when she removes her coat and straightens her skirt. "Flowers," we tell her. "We are telling stories about flowers. Come join."

"Ha-emet hi," she says, scanning our faces to make sure that we understand. We do, and she continues: "Yesh li sippur al white flowers." A story about white flowers? We listen, rapt, as the bride begins.

She still remembers, she tells us, the day her father told her mother that he was going out "liknot white flower." She was thrilled -- that he would purchase this! How romantic! Perhaps he would get two, or three, or a whole bouquet, and they would decorate the house. Her childhood imagination mounted its steed and galloped off into the sunset...until, to her consternation, her father walked in, no flowers in sight. "Eifo ha-white flower?" she asked, refusing to let her spirits deflate. "Hineh," said her father, holding out a bag of something powdery, white, and most disappointing. The child began to cry: "White flower, white flower." Her parents could not understand what she was expecting, and so they were at a loss to console her. And so the child continued sobbing: "White flower, white flower," for days on end.

She stands now before us, wearing the light like a gown. "At the wedding I'll carry white flowers," she tells us, scattering her smiles like petals in the wind.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Shakespeare and the Tosefta

Today I found a brayta that echoes a quote from Shakespeare. Or, perhaps more accurately, I found a quote from Shakespeare that corresponds to a brayta that we studied in Gemara class.

Here is the brayta, from Tosefta Ketubot perek zayin, appearing also in B. Ketubot Ayin Bet: aleph:

He who vows forbidding his wife to borrow or to lend a rafa? or a chvara? or a millstone or an oven must release her and give her the ketuba money because he is causing her to bear a bad name among her neighbors.

The Tosefta is dealing with the limits of a husband's right to restrict his wife's activities. What sorts of vows is a husband permitted to take, in cases where the content of those vows will infringe upon his wife's liberties? We are told, for instance, that he is not allowed to take a vow that will forbid her from going to weddings or funerals; nor is he allowed to take a vow forbidding her to dress in colorful clothing. Here the brayta stipulates that a husband is forbidden to prevent his wife from borrowing from or lending to her neighbors. A husband cannot say, "I swear to God that you are forbidden from lending any utensils to the neighbors," because he will be causing his wife to develop a bad reputation. If his wife is forced to abide by such restrictions, the neighbors are likely to deem her antisocial or stingy or just plain rude.

Now why would a husband make such a vow? Why would he not want his wife to borrow or lend? I was thinking about this during chevruta today, when suddenly a quote popped into my brain: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." Where is that from, I asked myself? And then suddenly I remembered: Hamlet! When Laertes announces his decision to travel abroad ("my thoughts and wishes bend towards France"), his father Polonius gives him a valedictory benediction filled with some rather long-winded advice. Included among his Mishlei-style (i.e. proverbial?) wisdom is the following:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Hachi garsinan: Polonius tells Laertes that he should neither borrow nor lend, because these types of behaviors tend to destroy friendships. That is, they will cause one to develop a "bad name among her neighbors," as the Tosefta puts it. Moreover, "borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry": if a person can rely on her neighbor as a source of goods, she has less of a need to maintain an efficient household economy – any time she is out of an egg, she can always just knock on her neighbor's door. When read in conjunction with the Tosefta, this "husbandry" takes on a double entendre, as it is quite literally the man's status as husband that is endangered by his prohibition on borrowing and lending.

But the most famous part Polonius' speech comes in the lines immediately following these warnings about borrowing and lending:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Though canst not then be false to any man.

The woman whose husband forbids her from borrowing or lending is prevented from being true to herself. She may wish to be a good neighbor and lend a cup of sugar to the woman down the hall (or in the adjacent courtyard), but she is bound by her husband's vow. This is quite an untenable situation, given that one "canst not then be false to any man." Therefore her husband is obligated to release her from the marriage (and from his vow) and to give her the monetary value of her ketuba.

I conclude in iambic pentameter: Kach piresh rabeinu Shakespeare zal.

The Idea of Order at Yam Suf

I have long harbored a suspicion that Wallace Stevens wrote "The Idea of Order at Key West" with Shirat Hayam in mind.

In Shirat Hayam (Exodus 15), Miriam leads the women of Israel in a poem/song praising God for miraculously delivering Bnei Yisrael from the hands of the Egyptians. The Israelites are passing through the Red Sea on dry land with the waters piled up on either side of them as the Egyptians, hot on their trail, drown in the waters that close in upon them. It's all rather devastating and dramatic, and one has to wonder: Did the Israelites turn around and see the terrible human catastrophe behind them, as Lot's wife (let's call her Eurydice) surely would have done? Could they see the Egyptians gasping for breath and hear them crying out for deliverance? Or did they have their sights firmly fixed on the path before them, believing steadfastly and unwaveringly in God and Moshe His servant? And when exactly did they start to sing: After they had already crossed the sea and they were assured of their victory? Or while they were still passing through, at a time when their fate still very much hang in the balance?

Both Ramban and Sforno suggest the latter: Bnei Yisrael were still walking through the split sea at the moment when they began to sing. As Sforno puts it, "The Az Yashir occurred when Pharaoh's horses went in with his chariots and horsemen into the sea, and God, the Blessed One, drowned them while the Children of Israel were still walking on the dry land in the midst of the sea. Before they came out they began to sing." Aviva Zornberg points out that according to Sforno's reading, Shirat Hayam was not a victorious exaltation, but rather an expression of deep faith. At the time when BY began singing, they still did not know that they would survive. For all they knew, the waters that had begun to engulf the Egyptians would then creep up upon them. After all, they were used to a Pharaoh who was notorious for his changes of heart; why should their new Ruler be any different? And yet they believed in His steadfastness, at least enough to begin singing a song of thanksgiving even before there was anything concrete for which to be grateful.

I want to suggest a somewhat different reading of Sforno. As I see it, Bnei Yisrael (and then the women among them) were not singing out of faith in God; they were rather singing as a way of "drowning out" the sounds of disaster behind them. As the Egyptians were crying out in utter horror (picture the blockbuster film Titanic), Bnei Yisrael were trying to impose some sense of order amidst the chaos. And so they sang out in very measured, crafted speech –i.e. poetry—as a way of creating some sense in the midst of the mighty waves and gales engulfing the Egyptians who stood only a few feet behind them. The scene recalls Meg Wallace reciting the multiplication tables in the face of IT: when confronted with horror, a person copes by creating a different rhythm, any rhythm that is not the rhythm of the horror. And so the women took out their drums.

But it is not just any song they sing. They depict in vivid detail their miraculous deliverance in the hands of God, a deliverance which, as Sforno tells us, has not even happened yet. I tend to think that it was the singing of the women that delivered them, in the same way that the "va-yehi or" of God created light. The utterance was performative: The women sang that "He cast Pharaoh's chariots and his army into the sea," and lo and behold, God cast Pharaoh's chariots and his army into the sea. And then they sang "You made the wind blow; the sea covered them," and lo and behold, the wind blew and the sea covered them. Their very expression of faith was what enabled God to stretch out his mighty hand and bring His people forth on dry land.

Wallace Stevens depicts a similar scenario in "The Idea of Order at Key West." Here we have a poem about a woman who walks beside the sea and sings a song: She sang beyond the genius of the sea… She sings of the tragic-gestured sea, and of the mayim la-hem chomah: the sunken corral water-walled. It is a song of water and wind, much like Shirat Hayam:

It may be that in all here phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind. . .

Moreover, her singing creates the reality around her, much as Bnei Yisrael's singing creates (rather than merely depicts) the conditions for their salvation:

But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.

Stevens' poetic subject is the maker both of the song and of the world, just as Miriam's singing creates the split sea. This is evident even visually in the Torah scroll, where the words of the song are printed in two columns like two walls of water facing one another. Stevens tells us that "the song and water were not medleyed sound," and yet I cannot help but wonder: if all the heavens were parchment and all the seas were ink, wouldn't poetry have the power to split the waters?

Like Miriam, the woman of this poem sings to an audience that recognizes the power of her words and her melody:

Whose spirit is this? We said "Mi chamocha ba-elim HaShem?"

It was the spirit that we sought and knew "Zeh Eli v'anvehu!"

By singing out in call-and-response to Miriam, and by invoking God's omnipotence, the Israelites are able to make some sense out of Stevens' "meaningless plungings of water and the wind." These sounds become no longer meaningless plunges, but rather the sounds of God's enemies "sinking like lead in the majestic waters." And so although "terror and dread descend upon them [the Egyptians]," Bnei Yisrael are able to manufacture some degree of order, i.e. some "seder," as we say on Pesach. Stevens captures this "rage for order" at the end of his poem:

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Led by Miriam, Bnei Yisrael are able to "make" order, both by singing out amidst the horror and by narrating the story of themselves and of their origins as a people chosen by God:

You will bring them and plant the in Your own mountain,
The place You made to dwell in, O Lord,
The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established.
The Lord will reign for ever and ever!

With this triumphant declaration, Miriam of prophetic voice and vision sings beyond the genius of the sea and creates the idea of order at Yam Suf.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Confessions of a book lover

I committed another book crime today.

I was at the library and really wanted to take out a few novels. But I don't have a card, nor am I eligible for one -- only affiliated students are allowed to check out books. I begged the librarian ("I really really really love to read and am desperate for new books..."), but to no avail. Finally I asked her if I could check out the books on the card of a friend of mine, and she conceded. The only problem was that I didn't really have any such friend in mind. I racked my brain and finally thought of someone I know who would probably have a library card at this institution. I gave the librarian his name, and sure enough, he came up on the screen. And, rather sheepishly and somewhat guiltily, I proceeded to check out three books on his card, unbeknownst to him...

I know, I know. You don't need to be Randy Cohen to tell me that this was not quite ethically above-board. But I so wanted those books....

I have noticed that this is a theme in my life: I am willing to take liberties in situations that involve books and reading that I would never otherwise take. I will carry books on Shabbat in places without eruvim because I'm convinced that books were not really meant to be physical objects and therefore should be considered massless. I will turn on a light on Shabbat if it is the only way that I can read (though I won't then turn it off). And I'll walk in the middle of the street with my head in a book and not look up, convinced that traffic will stop while I finish the paragraph. And this too: I'll read an entire novel in the bookstore if I really don't want to spend the money on it.

This al chet list could go on until my chest is sore. And I do feel bad about it, even if I'm not likely to mend my ways. Though perhaps today was a step in the right direction: As soon as I left the library, I called up my friend and confessed that there were three books checked out in his name. "I don't usually do this kind of thing...I'm sorry...."

He forgave me. In truth, I think he was kind of amused.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ketuba and Get

I am the only woman under the age of 50 in my Gemara class, and today was one of those days when that really mattered.

We're up to Ketubot daf ayin gimel, although we spent most of the day on a machloket in the Yerushalmi. If a man does Kiddushin on a woman (to say "with a woman" would imply too much reciprocity) and then discovers that she has "blemishes" (mumin), does he have to give her ketuba money upon dismissing her? Resh Lakish says yes; R. Yochanan says no. But then later amoraim clarify that Resh Lakish, too, thought that the woman was not eligible to receive her ketuba money in the case where her husband had done "knisa" but not "be'ila," that is, if he had taken her into his home but not yet slept with her. The stam of the gemara (Yerushalmi) explains that if he slept with her, it is a sign that "nitratza da'ato" -- he wanted her fully. Once he accepts her as she is, Resh Lakish holds that he can't hold her blemishes against her and withhold her ketuba money.

In class we had a long discussion about how the husband's act of sleeping with the woman signifies a shift in his attitude towards her. Once he has slept with her, it is a sign that he wants her enough to take her "warts and all." But no one mentioned anything about the woman's subjective experience. Surely for her, it would be dramatically different to be dismissed after he has already slept with her rather than before, no? The emotional connection that would be forged as a result of their physical union would be far stronger, and it would be much more difficult for her to bear his dismissal. And so it makes sense that if he has already done be'ila (i.e. "mastered" her?), the very least he could do is give her ketuba money. But sadly, I had to be the one to make this point in class, and no one else (except Reb S, it later emerged) seemed to have thought that this was an important part of the picture. Arghh.

Oh, and by the way, this whole legal ruling only applies in a case where the woman had "mumin she-b'seter," that is, blemishes in a concealed place on her body. But if she had "mumin she-b'galui," then the husband cannot claim that he did not know that she was defective. And if they lived in a town with a public bathing house, then the husband cannot hold even "mumin she-b'seter" against her, because he had the responsibility of asking his relatives to check out her body before he agreed to marry her. (You can read this for yourself in the mishnah: Ketubot 7:8.)

The moral of the story? Don't marry a woman until you check out her blemishes. Make sure you know all of her faults and her weaknesses and her insecurities, and make sure you can love her in spite of them. Make sure. Make good sure. If you make a mistake, you're going to have to pay for it. But far more importantly--at least as I see things--you're going to hurt her a lot.

Kiddush L'vana

"Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms ;
And I fear, I fear, My Master dear !
We shall have a deadly storm."

It was a fairly clear motzei Shabbat with a waxing moon peeking between the clouds which meant...kiddush levana! In truth, I had never participated in such a ceremony before, though I remember seeing men gathered outside batei knesset on Saturday evenings on my way back from long walks around Rehavia last year. I'd be rushing home to make havdalah and they'd be howling at the moon. At the time, I wanted no part of it.

But then today B invited me to participate in one of her kooky feminist rituals, a "reclamation" of kiddush l'vana, and I thought, what the heck? I'll go once and call it a chavaya. I'm not sure what exactly she's reclaiming, though apparently only men would do kiddush l'vana in the past. That in itself is surprising, since everything lunar is generally considered to be the province of women. If we can have Rosh Chodesh groups, shouldn't we have kiddush l'vana groups as well? Furthermore, according to my Artscroll siddur, one who greets the moon is considered like one who greets the shechina -- and B is just crazy about the shechina and the whole feminine aspect of God thing. So maybe that is what it was all about, at least for her.

When all of us had assembled in her backyard garden and located the wayward moon ("Wait, is that it?" "No, that's an airplane"....), B began one of her breathy spiritual chants. Thank goodness this one was in Hebrew; I would have died if we had started singing a Debbie Friedman-esque "Mother moon, mother moon, you are with us, mother moon" or some such. I think we were singing the lines in El Adon about the creation of the m'orot, which, come to think of it, is a rather nice kavana. Anyway, we next recited a bunch of relevant tehilim, including #148 (halleluhu shemesh v'yareach) and #121 (esah einai). And then it was time to rise on our toes, "kadosh kadosh" style, and dance towards the moon. How does one dance towards the moon, you ask? Exactly.

This dancing part was accompanied by a lot of lines about the enemies that are pursuing us, e.g. "Just as I dance toward you but cannot touch you, so may none of my enemies be able to touch me." B felt the need to change the word "enemies" to "internal demons," though as usual, I preferred to remain faithful to the liturgy as written. Each of these verses was recited three times, as if it were an incantation: "Thrice the brind'd [ubiquitous Jerusalem] cat hath mewed." I kept my eyes fixed on the moon above, and for a moment I thought that when I lowered them I'd be peering into a cauldron with frogs and lizards: "Double, double, toil and trouble..." We really did look like a bunch of weird sisters out there.

I suppose that if I were truly into it, I would have closed my eyes in holy dread, but instead I was too busy being amused by the bizarreness of it all. When I felt like I was about to start laughing, I tried to distract myself with sobering thoughts of Coleridge holding baby Hartley up to the window to see the icicles "quietly shining beneath the quiet moon." "Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee" -- was that his Birkat Hachodesh? And goodness, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much Coleridge there is in kiddush l'vana. Macbath captures the weirdness of it all, but "Dejection: An Ode" is a reminder that it is romantic, too, to peer skyward on a cloudy evening to find divinity in the heavens.

For lo! The New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
With swimming phantom light o'erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread.