Monday, October 23, 2006

Pomegranate Nectar

"Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates
And of all luscious fruits….
I will let you drink of the spiced wine,
Of my pomegranate juice." (Shir HaShirim)

My journalist friend Ramona brought pomegranate wine for Shabbat dinner yesterday. "It's a new Israeli product," she told us as she uncorked the slender long-necked bottle with a flourish. "I just wrote an article about it." Ramona poured a small amount into each of our shot glasses and we marveled at the deepness of the red. I thought of Marilla Cuthbert's notorious raspberry cordial and took only a very small sip, savoring the dry sweetness.

The next day, as is our custom, Ramona and I met in San Simon park two hours before the end of Shabbat to read aloud and translate from Ari Elon's Alma Di. We decided to skip ahead a few chapters to read the piece entitled "Nectar Rimonim," which begins with a passage from Masechet Brachot (57a):

A person who sees pomegranate halves in his dreams--
If he is a Torah scholar, he should anticipate Torah,
as it is written:
"I will let you drink of the spiced wine,
Of my pomegranate juice."
If he is an ordinary Jew, he should anticipate doing good deeds,
as it is written:
"Your brow behind your veil
Gleams like a pomegranate split open."
Even those who are empty among you
Are filled with good deeds like a pomegranate.

Elon explains that this passage reflects the rabbinic understanding that there are two Torahs: the Torah that is learned, and the Torah that is commanded. Torah scholars are the custodians of the Torah that is learned. They immerse themselves in Torah all day and all night, a love affair that knows no ends and no bounds; they cannot be interrupted to bless or to pray or to kindle a lamp. The ordinary Jew, however, does not understand the love affair of the scholar. This Jew builds a life around good deeds, incorporating Torah into the fabric of his or her own body.

For the scholar, Torah is not the incorporated self but the body of the beloved. The left hand of Torah is under my head. The right hand of Torah caresses me. Torah leads me through its hills and valleys, and keeps me up all night until I am sick from love.

Late at night, when I am too tired to read or write, I review my day's learning while shelling a pomegranate. I put on an old t-shirt and stand over the kitchen counter as the red juice spurts on my hands and arms and runs in rivulets down to my sticky elbows. The kitchen, even long before I am finished, looks like a crime scene: The red stains on the white walls cry out from the earth, "Someone was murdered here!" But even those who are empty are filled with good deeds like a pomegranate.

Pomegranates have a very long season in Israel. From August to March I eat pomegranate seeds in yogurt for breakfast each morning. I bring the 200-gram plastic Danona containers to the Beit Midrash and store the seeds in a tupperware container in the refrigerator. Before we start learning, I open the yogurt, stir in the seeds and watch as the milky whiteness becomes streaked with pinkish-red.

I taste of the sweet tang of my pomegranate yogurt all week, but not on Shabbat. On Shabbat I hide my paperback masechet in my siddur and pretend I can learn and daven at the same time. By the time shul is over, it is too late for breakfast. By the time Ramona and I reach the last page of "Nectar Rimonim," it is too dark to see the pages in the book we are holding. It is not night yet, but it is nightfall. The sky is a deep red and the orb of the sun is suspended on the horizon like a ripe pomegranate.

Divrei Breishit

Perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted words from Parshat Breishit are spoken by Cain after God rebukes him for murdering his brother Abel. Cain says to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9). Cain's response is not just disturbing, but also deeply repugnant to our moral sensibilities. How could anyone be so cruel and callous towards another human being – and to a brother, no less?

Rabbi Benny Lau offers a fascinating explanation of Cain's statement. He points out that when God places Adam in the Garden of Eden, He charges him "to work it and to keep it" (l'ovdah u'l'shomrah). Adam's purpose is twofold: to work the earth, and to keep watch over God's creation. Rabbi Lau explains that these two charges find expression in the division of labor between Adam's two sons: Cain was a farmer who worked the land (l'ovdah), while Abel was a shepherd who kept the flocks (l'shomrah). And so when God rebukes Cain for killing his brother, Cain responds, "Since when am I the keeper? That's Abel's job. I'm the worker!"

Cain is cursed and punished by God: He is fated to become a ceaseless wanderer across the face of the earth. Apparently, God does not accept his attempt to absolve himself of the responsibility of being his brother's keeper. We all would do well to learn from Cain's mistake. No one is allowed to be a worker without also being a keeper. We may till the earth, but we also have the responsibility to tend it. We may work hard to advance our careers, but we still have to make time in our lives to care for other people. And, as we learn from the first story in this week's parsha, we may work for six days, but we still have to keep Shabbat.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Frankfurter Buchmesse

I am sitting in the Hessicher Hof in downtown Frankfurt. I am dressed in tight black pants (Target), black leather shoes (Payless), and hooped metal earrings (the midrechov) – an attempt to look savvy, sexy, and sophisticated. I flew out of Jerusalem last night on motzei Yom Kippur – I still have the piyutim of Neilah ringing in my ears as I talk up elegant blonde publicists in cocktail dresses and heavyset red-faced publishers in pinstriped suits and neckties. I have not yet acclimated to the Frankfurt scene. I hold my glass of wine uneasily; I choose “fish” over “flesh” at the fancy Suhrkamp luncheon, and then leave the shrimp lying idly on my plate; I hope no one notices that I will be wearing the same clothes tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, until I fly back to Israel on erev Sukkot.

During the day, I have meetings scheduled every half hour with foreign rights agents from around the world. I drag my bad foot from the American hall to the German hall to the French hall and then back to the American hall again, making my way from one publisher’s booth to another. I am supposed to be reviewing rights guides and listening to agents pitch their upcoming titles; but having just finished the first perek of Masechet Sukkah, I find myself unconsciously examining each booth to see if it would qualify as a kosher sukkah. And so instead of thinking about world rights, pre-emptive bids, and multiple submissions, I am estimating dimensions in amot and t’fachim, counting walls, and hollowing out imaginary holes in the ceiling above.

Contrary to what I might have expected, there are indeed several kosher sukkot at this Frankfurt festival of booths. If you hold by dofen akumah, the notion that a right angle may be considered as constituting part of a single wall, then the Harper Collins booth, with its small skylight, would be kosher. On the other hand, Hanser and Editions de Seuil, with their two walls completely open, are certainly pasul. The Random House booth takes up a full row in the American hall, and is decorated with framed full-color book jackets of all the Spring 2007 titles – definitely noi sukkah! Penguin Putnam has a giant black-and-white penguin painted on one of its walls. Since it is only a drawing and not a live animal, I conclude that it is a kosher wall – but just to be safe, I wouldn’t write a get on it. Farrar Straus is featuring several leading fiction titles, so I think it is only fair to apply the halakhic fiction of gud asik and fill in the missing space in the three waist-high walls. And so it goes, from booth to booth, as I wander through the wilderness of the Buchmesse….

At night I am obligated to attend the fancy Berlin Verlag reception in an elegant upstairs salon. All around me, women with beehive hairdos and men with curly moustaches lean in to kiss each other on both cheeks. I try to blend in with the beige curtains, hoping that I can hide in the corner by the Swiss chocolates and read my novel. (It is startling how few people actually read at a book fair, I am sad to report.) I am choking in a cloud of cigarette smoke and longing to return to Jerusalem, where the ananei kavod – the clouds of God’s glory – are supposed to envelope us on Sukkot just as they sheltered us when we wandered through the desert. I look forward to eating a home-cooked meal in my friend’s sukkah when I get back. Here in this city of the hot dog, kosher food is hard to come by – it’s basically sausages or starve. Fortunately, I brought four boxes of Chewy granola bars with me, which I nibble on in between meetings. I have not eaten a regular meal since I got to Germany – it’s all been “achilat awry,” as I’ve nicknamed my granola bar diet.

At my boss’s suggestion, I brought an empty suitcase with me on this trip. Sure enough, I will be returning with hundreds of book catalogues, rights guides, galleys, advance reader’s editions, and pre-publication copies. When I go back to the office on Sunday morning, I will no doubt find about three hundred unread e-mail messages from Israeli publishers requesting the titles that I have been hearing about for the past three days. Beware! The final lines of Kohelet echo in my ears as I head towards the airport. The making of books is without limit, and all is vanity and pursuit of wind.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Adrift at Dover Beach (Sukkah 23a)

Tonight is the first night of Sukkot. In just a few hours, I will be eating dinner in the sukkah of my friend Yael, who lives on Rehov Yordei HaSirah. The name of this street literally means "those who disembarked from the ship," and refers to the TK. I am excited for the meal, because I think it is the closest I will come to eating in a sukkah built atop a ship, as described in a tannaitic passage on Sukkah 23a:

One who builds a sukkah on top of a ship: Rabban Gamliel says it is not kosher, but Rabbi Akiva says it is fine. There is a story about Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva who were once sailing aboard a ship. Rabbi Akiva stood up and built his sukkah on the ship. The next day, a wind blew and overturned it. Rabban Gamliel said to him, "Hey Akiva, where's your sukkah now, eh?"

Rabban Gamliel disagrees with Rabbi Akiva's decision to build a sukkah aboard a ship, presumably on the grounds that such a sukkah is inherently unstable. When Akiva's sukkah indeed collapses, Rabban Gamliel says "I told you so," knocking the wind out of Akiva's sails. The subsequent amoraic analysis deconstructs the nature of the disagreement between the two tannaitic sages:

Abayey said: Everyone agrees that if a sukkah is unable to withstand regular land winds, it is surely not kosher. And everyone also agrees that if a sukkah can withstand even raging sea winds, then it is surely kosher. But there is disagreement about a sukkah that can withstand land winds, but cannot withstand raging sea winds. Rabban Gamliel maintains that a sukkah must be a permanent structure, and thus it must be able to withstand even those winds that are not generally found on land. But Rabbi Akiva holds that a sukkah is intended to be a temporary structure, and thus so long as it can withstand a regular land wind, it is a kosher sukkah.

I have been thinking a lot about this disagreement between R. Gamliel and R. Akiva. At first, I did not quite understand R. Gamliel's position. What does he mean by saying that a sukkah is a permanent structure? After all, isn't the whole idea behind the holiday of Sukkot that we are supposed to live in temporary booths to remember the time when we were traveling from Egypt to Canaan, lacking any sort of permanent dwelling place? The state of being in the wilderness is inherently one of instability and uncertainty. And so of course a sukkah is a temporary structure and not a permanent one; how could R. Gamliel possibly think otherwise?

But then I looked more carefully at Rabban Gamliel's words. He says that a sukkah must be able to withstand "even those winds that are not generally found on land." Essentially, then, R. Gamliel is asserting that a sukkah must be capable of more than it is likely to have to confront. Even though raging winds are unlikely on land, a sukkah must be strong enough such that if such winds were to blow, the sukkah would still remain standing. Otherwise, according to R. Gamliel, all is just futility and pursuit of wind. R. Akiva, in contrast, holds that a sukkah need only be strong enough to withstand the everyday winds that are likely to blow in the immediate vicinity. So long as a sukkah does in fact remain standing, it is kosher – regardless of any hypothetical situations we might conjure in eye of the mind-storm.

We all go through phases in our lives when we would much rather hold like R. Akiva than like R. Gamliel. For all of us, there are times when we wander through our own wildernesses, not sure exactly where we are heading.Why are we in our current jobs?

Why do we live where we do? Why do we find ourselves so close to some people and so far from others? We cannot exactly say. But we also know that we cannot go back to college or to our childhood bedrooms or to any of the worlds we once knew. Where does that leave us? In a sense, we are like Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey, "more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved." We are in that protracted period of in-between-ness which is, as I see it, the essence of Sukkot.

In my own protracted period of Sukkot, I relate very much to the machloket between R. Gamliel and R. Akivah. It is one I play out in my head all the time. "OK, Ilana, you are managing your life right now; but what if your chevruta were to suddenly pack up and leave? What if you suddenly had to give up the job you are enjoying so much? What if something terrible were to happen to someone you love, and you had to put aside this life you have constructed for yourself?" I realize just how shaky that life is; how flimsy are the foundations on which I have constructed this routine that seems to be working for the time being; and how utterly devastating things could become if the rug were to be suddenly pulled out from beneath. Again and again I say to myself, "OK, Ilana, you are in a place where you can withstand the little breezes that destabilize you every so often – but what if another gale were to blew? Where would your sukkah be then, eh?" These are the questions that haunt me on Yom Kippur, and when I lie awake late at night, and when I cannot, for whatever reason, get up in the morning.

When it comes down to it, though, I still agree with R. Akiva. It is OK, I think, if we are in a place in life where we can withstand only those winds that are blowing right here and right now. Perhaps there are stronger winds that would knock us over – perhaps they have knocked us over in the past, and we know that were they to blow again, we'd be flat on our backs flailing helplessly. And yet they are not blowing now. We are not giving up in the face of the storm and saying, "Lift me up and cast me overboard." We are past that dark period of being swallowed in the darkness of the belly of the whale. We have been spit out; we have built our sukkah; perhaps we even have some gourds to keep us occupied.

If the gales were to swirl again, we would surely say, like Jonah, "My death would be better than this life." The rough and raging sea winds would surely sweep up everything we know "with confused alarms of struggle and flight." And yet for now, we are still standing. "The sea is calm tonight. / The tide is full, the moon lies fair / Upon the straits." This is reason enough, I daresay, to declare "the time of our rejoicing." This is the sukkah that we have built. Let us rejoice and celebrate in it.