Thursday, December 27, 2007

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Ketubot, Prakim 1-2

Perek Aleph: B'tula Niseyt

On Wednesdays the virgins should marry
So their husbands can wake and not tarry
To go Thursday to court
(If need be) and report:
"There's no blood on the sheet that I carry!"

(2b, 3a)
Said the man to his wife, "Have no fear
Have this Get if I do not appear
Back within thirty days."
There were dreadful delays
O'er the river, he called out, "I'm here!!"

Virgins marry on Tuesdays as well
For the rabbis knew danger befell
When the Romans could come
Every week and say "Hummm,
Let's go kidnap that bride – she looks swell!"

If you've mixed all the wedding feast wine,
Cooked the meat, baked the bread very fine.
Then the groom's father dies--
Close the room where he lies
First get married, have sex, and go dine.

There are intimate labors we cite
As a wife's tasks for he-she-holds-tight :
Mix the wine to his taste
Wash his hands, feet, and face
Make the bed where he lies every night.

"You shall be with a spike on your gear"
Said the rabbis, "We read that as 'ear'"
If you hear something crude
(Though you might appear rude)
Stick your fingers in so you don't hear.

Rabbi Yishmael's famous aside:
Why are tops of the ears tough as hide
With such soft flesh below?
So a man need not know
All that's said. Stick that soft part inside.

If it chances a little girl's wed
And her husband finds blood in their bed
Any of those four nights
He assumes it's all right:
Menstruation it's not, though it's red.

(6b; Brachot 16a)
A groom need not say the Shma prayer
When he gets into bed with his fair
Bride. Why not, you might ask--
He's concerned with task
Yup, it's only of sex he's aware.

Rav Zvid said: Virgin sex is OK
On Shabbat, on that most holy day--
Though you might tear some skin
The first time you go in
Still, Zvid did it himself, so they say.

Even babes sang the Song of the Sea
In the womb they kicked jubilantly
"I will sing to the Lord"
Well, perhaps they were bored
Or like slaves they too longed to be free.

Tell us, how many blessings are said--
Sheva brachot – or just six are read?
It depends how you hold:
What's the story we're told?
Adam then Eve? Together instead?

All of course know the reason a bride
Stands there under the chuppah; but chide
Anybody so crude
As to say it – how lewd!
(There are things that we all know but hide.)

If a man says, "The door feels ajar
I suspect, ere my time, she went far."
That's a bold thing to say!
Still, we trust right away
In his claim, and his wife becomes barred.

(9b, 12a)
If a man eats with his fiancée
In the home of her folks, far away--
He cannot bring then defame
With a "not virgin" claim
He was there! Perhaps he made her stray!

If a man wanders through a dark night
And the doorway is blocked from his sight
Like a groom with his mate
Perhaps he'll penetrate
If he veers to the left or the right.

How to know if a woman's had sex?
On a wine barrel seat her, and check:
If you can't smell the wine
In her breath, she is fine
And intact. (Does it work? What the heck!)

Said one groom: "Rabbi, I did the deed
But I swear, my new wife did not bleed!"
Said the Rav: "Understand
She's a Dortki, whose clan
Don't shed blood, though their women bear seed."

My mom said: Eating dates before bread
Is like taking an axe to a head.
After bread, though, a date
Is a well-oiled fate:
Eat your dates for dessert, then, instead.

If a girl's of the wood-beaten sort
Her ketubah sum will be cut short
Since she's not all intact
(It's a sad but true fact)
She'll get less than a virgin in court.

Tell us: How do you bring a bad name?
What exactly must be the groom's claim?
You must stand up in court
Say, "Your daughter falls short
Of a virgin." You'll heap her in shame.

Two wedding guests would go to sleep
In the newlyweds' home. They would peep
To make sure all went well
Just in Judah. They tell
Jokes in Israel: "What customs they keep!"

(12b, 13a, 16a)
If an unmarried lady grows fat
And the rabbis ask, "Whose kid is that?"
And she says, "It's that priest,"
The kid's kosher. At least
We trust she knows with whom she begat.

If the rabbis would chance to espy
An unmarried gal flirt with a guy
They would ask, "Who is he?"
"He's a kohen" (her plea).
Eliezer trusts she wouldn't lie.

If a girl asserts, "It was a tree
That has taken my virginity."
Do we hold be her words?
Yehoshua: "Absurd!
We assume bastard rape, naturally!"

If a captive girl comes with the claim:
"They did not sleep with me! I'm not maimed!"
We say, "Most non-Jews would
Rape a girl if they could
And so sadly, we can't trust the dame."

Before wedding a widow, one checks:
"Is she pure? Should I make her my next?"
But a rapist would not
Care what woman he got
Do you think he first stops and inspects?!

A young girl went down to a lake
Someone saw, and decided to take
Her by force. If the town's
One where kohens abound--
One may marry her (risking mistake).

If ten butchers market their meat
Nine are kosher; one's not fit to eat
A man says I ought
To know from which I bought
It's an error I will not repeat.

Nine frogs that go "ribbet" and "croak"
And one treyf creeper. Up came a bloke:
"I touched something slimy
But which one? Oh blimey!
Assume I'm impure," so he spoke.

If a poor helpless baby is found
In a town where it's Jews who abound
We assume it's a Jew
(Do we cut off what grew?
It's so odd. Who leaves babies around?)

Perek Bet: HaIsha SheNitarmela

Says the bride, "Back when we got engaged
Still a virgin I was – at that age
I was thrown to the bed
By some guy, ere we wed.
His field flooded." But what rules the sage?

There's a "cup of good news" that is passed
In front of a bride who has cast
Off her white wedding gown
Once her husband has found
Her a virgin. Drink quick! It won't last.

How to dance before a bride
Who is lovely, but on the inside?
Hillel says: "Say she's pretty"
Says Shammai: "A pity
To lie." "But you must!" Hillel chides.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzchak would dance
On three myrtle leaves he'd up and prance
"He shames Torah," one said,
But not so. For when dead
Stopped the pillar of flame, not by chance.

Dancing with brides is quite lewd
Don't we think that it should be eschewed?
If she looks like a post
(As do some? As do most?)
You can boogie with real attitude!

What's a "Hinuma"? we ask
Taking all virgin brides to the task.
A chuppah of myrtle?
A scarf for the fertile
So she could doze behind the mask?

A man claims, "I owe just a bit."
Do we trust what he says? Not a whit.
For a man would not dare
To deny every share
That he owes. Rather just part of it.

If a witness says, "True, 'twas my hand
That signed there. But you must understand:
I was under duress
When I signed, I confess."
There is no further proof we demand.

Nothing comes before saving a life
Except spilling a man's blood in strife
Serving gods of bad nations
Improper relations
(Like bedding another man's wife).

If two from the shuk say, "Their hand
Signed there. But you must please understand:
They were under duress
When they signed, we profess."
There is no further proof we demand.

If a man says, “That’s signature’s mine
Though I signed it before a long time.”
If, on his own,
He remembers the loan
You can trust him. The document’s fine.

Cemeteries are where dead are lain
But not all dead. A woman in pain
May not wait for a tomb
For her babe lost in womb
She’ll just hide it in nearby terrain.

Sign your name on a pottery shard
Do it not on a scroll or a card.
Lest a criminal who
Prefers “false” over “true”
Steal that page and write more. It’s not hard.

(21b, Rosh Hashanah 25b)
If three folks see the moon in the sky;
Two cry, “It’s the new moon we espy!”
The third, with two more
Make a beit din, for sure.
“Sancified is the month!” they then cry.

A beautiful maiden-girl said
To the suitors who flocked, "But I'm wed!"
And once every last dope
Had abandoned all hope
She married her heart's choice instead.

Two witnesses say "Her man's dead."
Two say, "No, he is living" instead.
She can't marry anew
If she did, what to do?
We do not force divorce on her head.

When some captive girls came back to town
Shmuel's father said, "Keep guards around
To ensure they stay pure."
Shmuel said, "Are you sure?
For who watched them until they were found?"

If two girls taken captive come back
Each one swears, "I was in no man's sack!"
We cannot abide
Their claims. What if they lied?
Each must vow that the other's intact.

Two ass-riders come into a town
One says, "He's got the best grain around
Mine's new, hence not so good."
Do we trust him? We should
Not. For they might switch off in each town.

A non-Jew leaves the tools of his trade
By a river and goes down to wade
Or to take a long drink.
Are his tools, do we think,
Pure? The inner ones, yes, every spade.

There are things only cohens can eat
Like the truma and kodashim meat.
If we see someone nibble
Then should we still quibble?
He might be not a priest but a cheat!

"Yehoshua ben Levi, I swear
It's a Levi who's standing right there
How do I know it's true?
Aliyah number two
Is the one that he took. I was there!"

Said a man who was chatting away:
When a young lad, my classmates would say
When they called me from class
To eat truma, alas:
"Yochanan who eats challah." Oy vey.

If your woman is carted away
And it’s ransom they hope you will pay
You may then take her back
But we don’t cut such slack
If their goal was to lift axe and slay.

If soldiers come tear through your town
In peacetime, with bottles around
Your wine’s not all right
If ‘twas open. They might
Have poured it for libations unsound.

Reb Zechariah, the butcher’s own son
Said “I swear by the Temple” (which one?)
“That nobody came near
To my wife, who was here,
By my side, ‘til the non-Jews were done.”

“As kids, we’d stop here on Shabbat.”
Do we trust in this claim? Do we not?
Can a man testify
“Dad, when we were small fry
Wrote like this”?? For perhaps he forgot.

One guy married a woman and found
She was not quite the best catch in town.
His brothers then shattered
A barrel, and scattered
Its fruit to show she was unsound.

Friday, December 14, 2007

My New Bookcases

The move to a new apartment is traditionally sanctified and celebrated with the hanging of a mezuzah. For me it was otherwise: Though I moved into a new apartment over two months ago, it was only last week, when I finally bought and erected bookcases, that I felt I had truly established residency in my new home.

For the past two months, my books have sat in boxes on the floor of my bedroom. Well, that's not exactly true: Each time I needed to find a particular volume to quote from or reference, I would empty several boxes quickly and haphazardly without bothering to put anything back properly -- so most of my books were strewn across piles of boxes and overflowing onto my floor. It was not a pleasant sight, and I was frustrated by the disarray.

I knew exactly what had to be done -- in fact, I had chosen this apartment largely because of the little alcove beyond the kitchen which seemed to cry out to me, "Books belong here!" The alcove was just the right size for two wooden bookcases, and in a spurt of uncharacteristic materialism, I spent a series of Saturday nights wandering from store to store in the industrial area of Talpiot comparing models. I finally found what I was looking for at Ace Kneh U'vneh, a store whose rhyming name (especially when compared to its alliterative English equivalent "buy and build") I loved almost as much as its furniture. So I bought and built (along with two friends and their trusty toolkits), and I began the profoundly pleasurable activity of arranging my books on my shelves.

As I pondered what should go where, the possibilities seemed nearly endless. I had twelve shelves in total, each 80cm long, which fit about 35 books per shelf, assuming an average spine width of just over 2cm. My Steinsaltz gemarot would go on one shelf, along with any related reference books. All the books I have bought from Yediot Achronot's series Yahadut Kan V'Achshav would go on another, along with Avivah Zornberg, Shulamit Elizur, Ruth Calderon, and Yona Frankel. Poetry (Hebrew, English, and bizarre hybrids of the two like ee cummings in a language that knows no capitals and no vowels!) would have to go at eye level, so they would flash immediately on the outward eye. Nonfiction books relating to history of science (most of them ordered through my literary agency account from MIT Press under the pretense of trying to sell them to Israeli publishers) would stay together, perhaps mixed with the few other non-Jewishly related books of nonfiction I own: Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza, and Victorian Literary Mesmerism (in which my senior thesis was published). On the bottom shelf, where no one was likely to bend down and look, I would put all the books I am embarrassed that I own – Vegan with a Vengeance, The No-Gym Workout, How to Behave in Dating and Sex, and the ones I can't even mention.

I remember in the glory of late-night arranging and rearranging one moment of panic, when I realized that I had grouped siddurim, machzorim, and bentchers with Keter's "Ktzarim" short story series simply because they were all the same height. I suddenly remembered my favorite part of Amos Oz' A Tale of Love and Darkness when the author relates how, at age six, his father cleared a space for him on his bookcases and let him put his own books there: "It was an initiation right, a coming of age: anyone whose books were standing upright is no longer a child, he is a man." Oz describes how, in an effort to conserve space, he arranged his books by height. That night, he was made aware of his error: "Father came home from work, cast a shocked glance toward my bookshelf, and then, in total silence, gave me a long hard look that I shall never forget: It was a look of contempt, of bitter disappointment beyond anything that could be expressed in words, almost a look of utter genetic despair. Finally he hissed at me with pursed lips: 'Have you gone completely crazy? Arranging your books by height? Have you mistaken your books for soldiers?'" I felt like Arieh Klausner was glaring at me from his position on the top shelf -- had I gone completely crazy?

Still, I knew there was rhyme and reason to the organization of my poetry and nonfiction (respectively), and no shortage of imagination when it came to the fiction. I have one shelf for my thirty-six novels by Israeli writers: Michal Govrin, Yael Hedaya, Savyon Liebrecht, David Grossman, etc. I have an entire shelf filled with all the novels I own by four authors of whom I can say I'll read anything they write: Alexander McCall Smith, Jacqueline Winspear, Dara Horn, and Nicholson Baker. I have another shelf for novels I have not yet read. This shelf is intentionally low down, far beyond eye level -- when I chose it, I was reminded of a piece on the Back Page of the New York Times Book Review several years ago, in which another avid reader commented that she wishes should could put the books she has not read with spines facing inwards, because she doesn't feel that she deserves to display them yet. Another shelf features novels I read and didn't like so much, and would be happy to give away. And then there are two empty shelves for the books that are still in my office at work, which I have to bring home now that I have the space.

These two empty shelves remind me that there is another bookcase, too, that is waiting to be bought and built. This is the bookcase that someday, Godwilling, I will fill with the twelve gigantic boxes of books that are sitting in my parents' basement on Long Island. These include classics from childhood and high school: the complete works of Austen and the Brontes, all the Norton poetry and literature anthologies, the novels of dear Madeleine L'Engle. There, too, are the scores of books I took with me when I left Random House b'richush gadol after three years as an editorial assistant -- each with the Knopf rough trim and the handsome Borzoi on the spine. I miss them all like dear long-distance friends: How often I have ached to reach out for one of them -- to quote a favorite passage to a friend in distress, or reread those delicious final paragraphs that send shivers up my spine each time afresh. The reality of my longing in all its poignancy, like the corners left unpainted in religious homes, carries with it an important reminder: Although I am the proud owner of two beautiful new bookcases, all the exiles have not yet been ingathered, and our world is still not redeemed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Chanukah in Jerusalem

On the first night of Chanukah, I was in a coffee shop when the candles were lit; on the second night, I was in Ace hardware, awaiting the movers who would pick up my new bookcases and bring them to my home. I don’t know anywhere else in the world in which Chanukah candles are lit publicly at nightfall in coffee shops and hardware stores, but then again, there is no place in the world like Jerusalem.

I suppose I forgot, when I planned my week, that the custom in Jerusalem is to light candles immediately at nightfall. I forgot that everyone rushes home to light between the afternoon and evening service, “before the last feet have returned home from the market,” as the Talmud puts it. And so I was meeting my friend Daniel for our weekly date to read poetry together on Tuesday at 5pm in a coffee shop, when all of a sudden, a group of men burst through the door, placed a menorah on the counter next to the espresso machines, and began reciting the blessings over the candles. Everyone in the shop, from the freelance writers with their laptops to the awkward couples stammering through blind dates, looked up, and many sang along. I confess that I was mostly annoyed -- we were in the middle of a Tennyson poem, and the rousing chorus of Maoz Tzur was ruining the rhythm!

When it was time to light candles on the second night, I was standing by the entrance of Ace hardware with a giant shopping cart filled with the wooden panels that will hopefully become my new bookcases. The movers were due to arrive at 5:30pm; I still had ten more minutes to kill. All of a sudden, a group of workers in their red overall uniforms passed by me with trays of jelly donuts. They grabbed one of the display picnic tables, spread some aluminum foil on it, and placed a menorah in the center, surrounded by the trays of donuts. A public service announcement blasted over the loudspeaker: “Attention customers! All are invited to light candles with Ace at the front of the store.” A group of workers and customers gathered around, and one of them began to recite the blessings. He clearly wasn’t religious, both because he had to put on a kippah and because he lit the candles in reverse order. Still, it was more of a “moving experience” than I had expected….

For the third night of Chanukah, I hope to go to Nachlaot, a neighborhood with narrow twisted alleyways in the northern part of the city where you can find at least one menorah outside the doorway to each home, and sometimes many more. They are all Jerusalem menorahs – that is, they consist of a glass box with a copper top, inside of which are eight shot glasses with oil and wicks. I have heard that the Jerusalem menorah originated with nineteenth century Christian pilgrims who would use these boxes to carry fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre back to their neighborhoods. I love watching the flames dance in the pool of oil, as if the candles are communicating with one another as they light up the night.

Many of my American friends are surprised that Chanukah is such a “big deal” in Jerusalem -- they assume that Chanukah is given pride of place in America only because it is regarded as the Jewish Christmas. I find this comparison strange. Chanukah falls out close to Christmas, but also close to Thanksgiving, which seems like a far more fitting comparison. Chanukah might even be considered a Jewish Thanksgiving – a holiday on which we thank God for the miracle of keeping us alive as a people in spite of a difficult and scary period when we were not quite sure we’d survive. The words of the special prayer we recite, Al Ha-Nisim, emphasize this theme of thanksgiving: “And (we thank You) for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time…..” And so we celebrate Chanukah heartily and fully -- with the fried donuts of all varieties (jelly, caramel, chocolate, etc.) that are sold at all the bakeries, and the singing of Hallel (psalms of praise) each morning, and of course, the lighting of the menorah in places I can only hope I will continue to discover as the subsequent nights of Chanukah unfold.

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Yevamot (Prakim 2 and 3)

Your dead brother's wife had awaited
You to marry her. Her death created
A case hard to decide:
If her mom does reside
Nearby – can you wed mom? Too related?

If your brother's not born when you wed
Then you find yourself suddenly dead
May he marry the wife?
Rabbi Shimon says, "Sure, go ahead."

Can two events just coincide?
Can two brothers fall dead side by side
At one instant in time
In a single clock-chime
(Perhaps Einstein alone can decide?)

A eunuch or one who's too old
To have kids may yet still be so bold
To do yibum with she
Who would then never be
Pregnant. (Life sucks when women are sold.)

Shlomo said: You may also not sleep
With some others. Thus "do not" rules keep
Multiplying. They act
Like the handles intact
On a basket, And like orchard-keep.

The Chaldeans said I'd be a teacher
If by that, they mean "great preacher"
I'll know how to explain
Laws of when to refrain
From one's son's wife, and when to beseech her.

Tell me, why can't I bed my half-sister?
Would my father's wife care if I kissed her?
Tell me what desecration
Is in this relation
And thanks to which rule I've dismissed her?

I have married a twin, but which one?
Such confusion is surely no fun.
For the Talmud will teach
That I must divorce each
Then chalitzah by brother is done.

If a salesman is leaving the house
When I come back to greet my dear spouse
I don't want do be vicious
But hey, it's suspicious--
For why was he with her, that louse?

The Get is brought by one who said
"I am sure that the husband is dead."
Then he himself marries
She whose Get he carries
The Mishnah rules "No, they can't wed!"

Women visit each other a lot
And if one bed is all that they've got
They will sleep side-by-side
Not so men – petrified
They are; therefore, they rather would not.

Is a woman whose husband has died
To the brother of spouse strongly tied?
Does the zikah bond mean
Brother's like one who's been
Engaged, thus barred from those on her side?

Three brothers, two of them wed
Then the latter two die! Now they're dead.
But the third may not do
Stuff with wife one or two
They've both fallen, but not to his bed.

What is "Ma'amar"? Sanctification
To one's yavam (before copulation).
Shammai says: It's like marriage!
Says Hillel: Disparage
Their bond! It is still in formation!

Not every mishnah is needed
There are some that they should have deleted
But no mishnah will move
From its fixed-in-place groove
That's why some rules are taught, then repeated.