Sunday, August 27, 2006

Making Fish for Shabbat (Yoma 75a)

Friday afternoon, two hours before Shabbat. I am preparing salmon in my little Jerusalem studio, listening to a Daf Yomi shiur on my computer.

I am now in the home stretch of Yoma, the only chapter that has anything to do with Yom Kippur as we observe it today. (The first seven chapters are about the Avodah service in the Temple – the slaughtering of goats, the sprinkling of blood, the donning of gold and white vestments with breastplate and tinkling bells.)

The fish is frozen – I still can’t bring myself to buy the scaly slimy creatures that flap around in the big wooden buckets, happily oblivious to their dead relatives hanging to dry just meters above.

I unwrap the fish and run out the door to throw the packaging in the green garbage bin outside the apartment – no fishy smells in my home, thank you very much!

I rinse the soft pink flesh under the tap, but the running water makes it hard to hear the voice coming from the computer, which seems, suddenly, to be talking about fish:

“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free.” (Numbers 11:5)

How did we get from the self-denial of Yom Kippur to the subject of fish? On Yom Kippur we are commanded to engage in self-affliction (t'anu et nafshoeteichem). The manna we ate in the desert was a form of self-affliction as well (l'maan anotcha), since the children of Israel had to have faith in God that new manna would fall every day. Instead of the manna, the Israelites really wanted fish, which is the reason that they complained to Moses about the fish they remembered from Egypt.

But did they really get free fish in Egypt? Weren’t they slaves? Rav and Shmuel try to make heads and tails of the verse. While listening to their machloket, I slice the salmon fillet in two halves. I sprinkle some oregano and lemon juice on Rav and put him in my tiny little toaster; Shmuel will have to wait on the counter for a while.

Rav says, “Fish means fish.” Shmuel says, “Fish means illicit sexual relations.” I close the toaster door, but they keep at it.

Rav says, “It says ‘the fish that we ate’” – this must be a literal reference to food." Shmuel says, “It says ‘for free’ – did we really get free food? It must mean the illicit sexual relations that the Israelites were free to engage in before they received the Torah.”

Rav defends himself, flapping his half-tail vigorously: “When the Israelites were in Egypt, they used to dip their jugs into the Nile. God would cause a miracle to happen: fish would get swept into the jugs as well, and they would have food to eat.”

Shmuel insists that eating is a euphemism for something else. He quotes a verse from Proverbs: “Such is the way of the adulteress. She eats, wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong’” (30:20).

Shmuel, what a dirty mind you have, I scold the piece of fish lying limply on the counter. I cover him up with a piece of foil and hope that my neighbors cannot hear.

Rav, modestly browning in the oven, has his come-back prepared. “The daughters of Israel were not adulteresses! They were not loose women! After all, as it says in the Song of Songs: ‘A locked garden is my beloved bride’” (4:12).

Shmuel is not so sure. “But it says that when the Israelites were in the desert, they were crying for their families! What do you think that means, ‘for their families’ (Numbers 11:6)? They were bemoaning the fact that now that they had the Torah, they could not just sleep around with any woman they wanted.”

“Bing!” The toaster tells me that Rav is ready to come out. I unwrap Shmuel and rest him gently on the oven tray.

“Ha v’ha havay,” says the voice on my computer, making peace between the pieces. The Israelites were crying both because they missed the fish, and because they missed the illicit sexual relations they enjoyed in Egypt.

“Ha v’ha havay,” I sigh placatingly, placing the two pieces of fish side-by-side in a pyrex dish. I pick up the phone to call a friend. “Do you want to come over for dinner tonight? I just made fish.”

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

If Einstein Had Studied Yoma 68b: A Thought Experiment

22 August 1934

Dear Boris,

I just received Nathan’s latest results, and needless to say, I am dismayed. He suggests we publish now, as “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?” The Physical Review will take it for Spring. But I am not ready to give up just yet.

The non-local effects remain deeply worrysome. Again and again, it comes down to this: Either the result of a measurement performed on one part A of a quantum system has a non-local effect on the physical reality of another distant part B, in the sense that quantum mechanics can predict outcomes of some measurements carried out at B; or QM is incomplete. There’s no way out of it. Two horns of a dilemma.

Speaking of horns – I have one more thought experiment, based on recent readings in the Babylonian Talmud. (Did Elsa mention I was studying? A pleasant diversion.) On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest performs a lottery to choose two he-goats, one of which is designated to be sacrificed as a sin offering, and one of which is sent off to the wilderness as a form of collective communal expiation. The goats must be qualitatively identical – of the same appearance and size, and purchased simultaneously. (Again simultaneity! – Minkowski would be pleased.) They are distinguished from one another only from the moment that the High Priest performs a lottery—playing dice, again--to determine which one will be for the sin offering (let’s call it A), and which one will be sent off to the wilderness (B).

Until the instant the lots are drawn, A is both A and B; and B is both A and B. Or, as E.S. would have it, the goat is both alive and dead. The wave (“tenufah”) function does not collapse until the instant the lottery is performed in the Inner Innermost.

If, following the lottery, one goat dies, the other goat automatically loses its status. A is not A if not for B. They exist thus in quantum entanglement. The consequences are manifold. For instance, if A dies, we must perform another lottery to yield an A’ and B’. (The no-cloning theorem, like the rabbinic principle known as “sh’vut,” does not exist in the Temple.) By virtue of the existence of B’, A is restored as A. (Others say A’ replaces A – an unresolved dispute.)

The goats remain in this state of quantum entanglement until death, though they are separated far from each other and all effects are non-local. B is sent to the wilderness, accompanied by a special messenger. The messenger’s job is to push B off a cliff, where it is smashed to the rocks below.

At the moment that B is torn limb from limb, A also loses its spin singlet; it is, at that very instant, slaughtered by the High Priest. But how does he know the exact moment in which to slaughter? Several of the rabbis resist the possibility of a hidden variable, claiming, for instance, that the other priests in the temple would time the distance traveled by B by the speed of their own pacing. (This is the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda.) But Rabbi Yishmael maintains that there is spooky action-at-distance in the form of a crimson thread hung from the door of the sanctuary. At the moment that B tumbles to its death, the thread turns white and the goat is slaughtered. As it is written: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall whiten like snow” (Isaiah 1:18).

What to make of this spooky action-at-a-distance? Have we no choice but to resist the conclusions of special relativity, allowing for the travel of information from B to A faster than the speed of light? Can the quantum-mechanical description of reality only thus be considered complete?

Boris, my friend, I cannot abide by Nathan’s decision. The Physical Review may have its submission deadlines, but I insist we wait. Elijah will come from a distance and resolve the quantum quandaries.

Cordial greetings, yours,

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Noiseless Patient Spider

I abhor connections. When asked to identify myself, I offer only my first name unless pressed. I will not try to figure out how many acquaintances we have in common; I will speak of my friends using pronouns and deliberately avoid mention of anyone we both might know.

I am not ashamed of myself or my past or my family; but in a world of increasing interconnectedness, I have come to realize that it is far more likely to be known than unknown, and familiarity breeds (within me) contempt. I am not excited to discover that you went to the same high school as my brother; that my sister was your counselor at camp; that you leased your apartment from my former chevruta. These connections do not impress or surprise me.

When sitting at a Shabbat meal among a group of total strangers, I can be almost 100% certain that at least one person at the table knows at least one member of my family. I am always told that I look "so familiar; are you sure we haven't met?" No, actually, in all likelihood we have. But I have developed a standard response to deflect these curious questioners: "Oh, people often tell me that I look familiar. I've decided that I have a generic face." (God in His heaven lend her grace.)

Everyone else around me seems compelled to seek out these points of commonality as if they were rare gems buried beneath our superficial exchanges of pleasantries. Nearly every gathering of peers that I attend devolves into a game of "Jewish geography." I can play out the scripts in my head by now; they inevitably make me groan. The moment you tell me you are from Ottawa, I know you know Dina Fine; do I really need to prove that to you? My world is so small; what is the sense in making it any smaller? Can't we at least pretend that there are still new connections to be forged; new possibilities to discover; new chances to prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet?

I long for a world where all the strings are cut loose and we are not bound to labels and expectations. I wish to be free to remake myself in the moment; to be what I will be. To say that I-will-be has sent me. I want you to know me only as the person who is standing before you right now; I wanted to be taken at face value; I want to be the one to determine what comes into your head the next time you think of me.

If I deliberately avoid drawing connections; if I do not let on that I know the person you are describing; if I fail to identify you by name in your absence – please do not take offense. It is not because I dislike you; it is not because you embarrass me; it is not because I wish to renounce any association with you. Most often this could not be farther from the truth. I am blessed with many wonderful people in my life; I am honored to be known by them all. Several of nature's people / I know, and they know me; / I feel for them a transport / Of cordiality. When you smile at me, I will always smile back with a full and bursting heart. But this one direct connection is enough. If you seize the other end of the filament I am unreeling, I can stop ever tirelessly speeding them. Once the bridge between us is forged and the gossamer anchor holds, I feel no need to weave an elaborate web. The ductile thread has already caught somewhere, O my soul.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Supermarket is Not A Place to Buy Groceries

Repeat to self: The supermarket is not a place to buy groceries, but a place to observe culture; The supermarket is not a place to buy groceries, but a place to observe culture.

I shop at a huge (by Israeli standards) "super" in Talpiot. It's called Superdeal, so as not to be confused with "Superclean" (the laundromat) or "Supersano" (the floor cleanser) or "Super Hamoshava" (the ritzy upscale overpriced market designed to trap American tourists who don't know that if they walk six more blocks, they'll pay a fifth of the price).

Superdeal is clean. It's cheap. It's well-stocked. The only problem with shopping there is that the checkout clerks are very friendly. A little too friendly.

Take earlier tonight, for instance. It was 11pm on a Thursday – the usual time I do my shopping. I was standing in line with my groceries piled in my Best American Short Stories, JOFA, and Houghton Mifflin canvas tote bags, waiting to pay. By some miracle, only one person stood in front of me. Hurrah, I thought – maybe it would take only five minutes to get out of there!

No such luck, of course.

The man in front of me was a "French bread" guy. (Note: Israelis can be divided into two groups: Those who buy French bread for Friday night dinner, and those who buy challot. Otherwise known as "chilonim" and "dati'im.") Mr. French Bread was leaning on his right palm with his elbow resting at the edge of the conveyer belt, chatting with the clerk. The clerk, a woman with bleach-blonde hair, plum-colored lipstick, and huge silver rings shaped like flowers and bugs on each of her ten fingers, was cackling. (Not laughing; not chuckling, but cackling – I promise.) "Ramon, Ramon," he kept saying. "Ramon, Ramon" she kept repeating hysterically. The clerk in the next aisle over heard them and started gesticulating madly, though she was laughing too hard to get a word in edgewise. Ramon? What are they talking about? Ilan Ramon is hardly a laughing matter, and old news at that; who was this Ramon? Clearly there was something I was missing.

I leaned over to the woman behind me, who was growing increasingly frustrated. "What are they talking about?" I asked her (in Hebrew). She explained: Apparently a member of the Knesset named Ramon has been having an affair with some woman named Edna. News to me. Mr. French Bread and the clerk were trying to figure out how MK Ramon, who is apparently quite advanced in years, could possibly be having an affair. How long had it been going on? Where did he meet her? Was she enjoying it? How much was she enjoying it? Was she enjoying it as much as he was? Mr. French Bread and the clerk did not see eye-to-eye on this last question, which resulted in a whole other argument. Meanwhile, there were now four people behind me in line all shouting at the clerk:

"Hurry up, hurry up!"
"What is this, a coffee shop?"
"A coffee shop, but no coffee!"
"We're waiting!!"
"Mashiach will come before you stop!" (This came from a challah-buying Israeli with a big black hat, three kids who were clambering all over two overflowing shopping carts, and a nineteen-year-old wife with a baby on her hip.)

The clerk mostly ignored the rabble-rousers, though every so often she would wave her silver fingers at them and yell, "Ani k'var itchem." [I'm already with you.] This is one of my favorite Hebrew expressions. It can mean anything from "I'm down the hall and I can see you even though we're still talking to each other on our pelephones" to "I'm on Pluto and you're on Earth, but I'm about to step into my spaceship and it's only a five light-year trip."

When the clerk finally leaned over to give the man change, she realized that she had no more 20-shekel bills. (This happens to me every time I am in Superdeal: The clerk runs out of a particular coin or bill while ringing up the person in front of me.) So after a few more exchanges about Ramon, she got up and strolled over to the customer service (Ha!! I don't think that phrase exists in Hebrew) desk to restock. On the way, she stopped to chat with the guy who was manning the bread-slicing machine; then she leaned down to tie her shoe; then she solved a few quadratic equations in her head (or so it appeared). By the time she came back, the erev rav behind me was about to mutiny. I ducked to avoid their rage; any moment there would be cans of chick peas flying overhead like candy at a Bar Mitzvah or katyushas in Tzfat. But Mr. French Bread, thank goodness, was getting ready to leave. Just as he was packing up his last bag, he looked at me and said, with a totally straight face, "Did you hear about Ramon?"

I took a deep breath. I was not going to scream. I was going to answer him calmly.

"Well you know what it says in the Torah," I said. "Acharey v'loti hayta li Edna."

Unfortunately, he found this so amusing that he had to repeat it to the clerk, which resulted in another five-minute exchange. But it's OK. I could handle it (even if the people behind me could not). After all, as I always say: The supermarket is not a place to buy groceries, but a place to observe culture.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

You Were My Someone to Run With

Eulogy delivered by David Grossman for his son Uri Grossman
Har Herzl, 15 August 2006
[translated by me]

At twenty to three on Saturday night, they rang at our door. Over the intercom, they announced that they were the city officials. Already, we had been through three hellish days in which almost every thought that entered our minds began with a "no." No, he won't come. No, we won't speak. No, we won't laugh. No, there will be no more of that boy with the ironic grin and the crazy sense of humor. No, there will be no more of that young man with wisdom beyond his years. No more warm smile and no more healthy appetite. No more rare combination of determination and delicacy, no more sharp-mindedness and wise-heartedness. No more of the infinite gentleness of Uri, and no more of the silence in which he could calm us all down. No more watching The Simpsons and Seinfeld together, and no more listening to Jonny Cash. No more of your strong hugs, and no more seeing you walking with Yonatan, gesticulating wildly as you speak. No more hugs for your beloved sister Ruti. No more. No.

Uri, my love, throughout all of your short life, we all learned from you. We learned from your strength and your determination to go about things your own way. To follow your own path even if there was no chance that you'd succeed. We looked on in astonishment as you fought to gain acceptance to a tankers' course. How you were not prepared to be satisfied with giving any less than you knew you were capable of giving. And when you succeeded, I thought, here is someone who knows his abilities so simply and so soberly. Someone with no pretenses and no pride. Who is not influenced by what others say to him. Someone whose source of strength is lodged firmly within himself.

And you were like this from childhood. A boy who lived in harmony with himself and his surroundings. A boy who knew his place, and who knew that he was beloved, and who knew his limitations and his talents. And indeed, from the moment you overleaped the entire army and became a commander, it was clear just what sort of commander you would be. We heard today from your friend and fellow soldier that you would always wake up before everyone else to begin organizing the equipment, and that you would go to sleep after everyone else so as to make sure that everything was in its place. Yesterday at midnight I looked at our house, which had become a total mess as a result of the hundreds of people who had passed through to offer condolences, and I said: Nu, now we need Uri to help us sort it all out.

Uri, you were the Left-winger in your regimen, and everyone respected you because you held fast to your word without ever abdicating a single military responsibility. When you left for Lebanon, Ima said that the one thing she was most afraid of was your “Elifelet Syndrome” [reference to poem by Natan Alterman – INK]. We were worried that like Elifelet of the poem, if someone would be needed to run and save a wounded soldier, you would not hesitate to run directly through the line of fire; and you would be the first to volunteer to restock the supply of ammunition when it ran low. And just as you were all your life, at home and at school and in your army service, and just as you always volunteered to give up your furloughs because there was someone else who needed a break more than you did or because someone else's situation was more difficult --- so, in just this way, would you fall in Lebanon in the face of terrible warfare.

Uri, you were a person who was whole with himself, a person whom it was good to be around. I can't begin to express just how much you were, for me, someone to run with. During every visit home you would say to me, "Abba, let's go talk," and we would go together, usually to a restaurant, and sit and talk. You would tell me so much, Uri, and I felt so proud that I had the merit of serving as your confidante. That someone like you chose to confide in me.

You lit up our lives, Uri. Ima and I raised you with love. There was simply so much to love in you. I know that your short life was good. I hope that I was a fitting father for a son like you. But I know that to be the son of your mother meant to grow up surrounded by infinite generosity and loving-kindness and love. You received all of this in plenitude, and you knew how to appreciate it, and you knew how to be grateful, and nothing that you received was ever taken for granted.

I am not saying anything at this moment about the war in which you were killed. We, your family, have already lost in this war. The State of Israel will make her own reckoning. As your family, we will retreat into our pain, surrounded by our good friends, enveloped in the strong love that we feel from so many people, the majority of whom we don't even know. I am so grateful to them for their boundless support. I only wish that we Israelis could give this amount of love and solidarity also in better times. This is, perhaps, our only common national aspiration. This is our great human resource. If only we knew how to use it. If only we could extricate ourselves from the violence and the enmity that has permeated our way of life. If only we could know how to save ourselves now, at the last minute, because even more difficult times await us.

Uri was very much an Israeli – even his name is very Israeli. He was the essence of Israel as I would like to see it. That essence which is almost forgotten now. That which is sometimes regarded as a curiosity these days. What's more, Uri was principled. That word, principled, is often scoffed at in our times, because in our crazy, cruel, and cynical world, it is not "cool" to be principled, or to be a humanist, or to be empathic towards the other -- especially if the other is your enemy on the battlefield. But I learned from Uri that it is possible to be both principled and cool. We have to be accountable for our own souls. We have to both defend ourselves and uphold ourselves. We have to uphold ourselves against brute force, and against the destructiveness of cynicism, and against the constricting scorn that is the greatest curse of everyone who lives in a disaster area like we do.

Uri had the courage to be himself all the time and in every situation. He had the courage to find his voice in everything he said and did; this is what saved him from scorn and destruction and constriction of the soul.

On Saturday night, at twenty to three at night, they rang at our door. Over the intercom, they announced that they were the city officials, and I went to open the door, and I thought – that's it. Our lives are over. But five hours later, when Michal and I went into Ruti's room and woke her in order to break the news to her, Ruti, after the first cry, said, "But we will still go on living, right? We'll still go hiking like before, and I want to keep singing in the choir, and I want to keep laughing as always, and I want to learn to play the guitar." And we hugged her and told her that yes, we'd still go on living.

We will take our strength from Uri. He had strength that will carry us forward for many years. He radiated a sense of life, of warmth, and of love. And the light of that radiance will continue to shine for us, even if the star itself has been extinguished. Uri our love, it was a great merit for us to live with you. Thank you for every moment that you were ours.

Love – Abba, Ima, Yonatan, and Ruti

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sugya Sonnet Sequence (Yoma 38a-39a)

Nicanor Unto Whose Doors Miracles Were Wrought (Yoma 38a)

A tale is told of one named Nicanor
Who sailed to Alexandria intent
To bring back something nice, perhaps a door
--Or two--for it seems both were heaven-sent.

When sailing back, the waves began to crash
Against the ship; the crew cast out one door
But Scylla and Charybdis, still a-thrash
Cried out, "It's not enough! There's still one more!"

Then Nicanor wept, sad to lose his find
Until the shipped reached Akko, where, behold!
The sea belched out the door, as if a kind
Of covenant-by-sea had been foretold.

Of whales and gourds old sailors weave their lore,
But no one captivates like Nicanor.

Maaseh b'Doeg ben Yosef (Yoma 38b)

A tale is told of Worry – Joseph's son
Whose father gave his wife a baby boy
Named Worry, who was widely doted on,
His mother's dream-come-true; her pride and joy.

Each morning she would measure Worry's length
In handsbreaths – counting off with just her hand.
Each morning she would gauge her baby's strength
By how he hollered -- did he know God's plan?

She'd give his weight in gold unto the priests
A sacred off'ring at the temple mount.
When enemies arrived, those barb'rous beasts,
The starving woman had no more to count.

Eicha! She sits bereft; her harp is hung.
There are no words when mothers eat their young.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Yoma 39a)

Said Shimon Ha-Tzadik, "This year I'll die,
My fellow Kohanim – my time has come."
Said they to him, protesting, "Shimon, why,
Our years are God's; how can we know their sum?"

Said he, "Each Yom Kippur I go inside
The kodesh kodashim, that holy site.
Each year, enters and exits by my side,
An old man wrapped from head to toe in white.

But this year, Kohanim," Shimon went on,
"God sent a new sign, frightful, free of doubt:
A man in black (not white) I chanced upon
Who went with me inside (but came not out)."

They counted seven days; it seems 'twas fated;
Reports of his death -- unexaggerated.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Villanelle -- Upon Witnessing my Neighbors' Wedding Through the Window of my Jerusalem Apartment on Tu B'av

Eicha yashva in ashes six days past
A widow wond'ring weary and forlorn
Will voice of bride and groom resound at last?

The roads were dead where pilgrims once amassed
A city clad in sackcloth could but mourn
For how she sat in ashes six days past.

When children looked to mothers all aghast
And begged for bread, sweet faces heaped in scorn,
Would voice of bride and groom resound at last?

The yoke of our offenses bound us fast
We thought – was this the city once adorned?
Sigh! How she sat in ashes six days past.

Her crown fell off, her enemies had cast
Her to a pit from which she cried, "Forsworn!
Let voice of bride and groom resound at last!"

Now friends and lovers gather in repast
And spread their hands to greet the city's dawn.
For though she sat in ashes six days past,
Now voice of bride and groom resound at last.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Creak of the Doors Leading in to the Temple (Yoma 39b)

The creak of the doors leading in to the Temple
--The intimate chamber, the Holy of Holies--
Resounds for a distance--for eight times the distance--
That one is permitted to walk on Shabbat.

The scent of the frankincense burned on the altar
--The cinnamon, saffron; the cassia, myrrh--
Is smelled for a distance--a ten parsa distance--
Jerusalem-Jericho, traveled by foot.

The goatherds of Jericho's gated-in grazing ones
--Speckled and spotted, give Glory to God!--
Sneeze tickled in nostril--a goat-a-choo nostril--
When breathing in frankincense wafted on high.

The brides of Jerusalem's sages and scholars
--The henna-haired gazed-ats, gazelle-like in womb--
Purveyed not a perfume--forewent every fragrance--
The cinnamon, saffron; the cassia, myrrh.

My father raised goats in the high hills of Michmar
--Raised he-goats and she-goats and get-at-your-goats--
Who sneezed in a tempest--a lift-your-lamp tempest--
Who shuddered in pleasure from frankincense, myrrh.

An old man once told me: I went once to Shiloh
--The city of ruins, the mishkan dismantled--
I rested my face (My) between her two walls (God!)
The cinnamon, saffron! The cassia, myrrh!