Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Radio in this City

On Friday morning, I was cooking for Shabbat and cleaning my Jerusalem apartment while listening to a radio station that shall remained unnamed. While I cut up cauliflower, I listened over the airwaves as someone leyned selections from the Torah portion and haftarah. (This is generally good review for my own leyning the next day in shul – except when the radio rabbi leyns in Sephardi trope!) Then, while chopping onions, a new program came on: a d'var Torah about the leadership skills we can learn from Moshe Rabbeinu in sefer Shmot. This was followed by the 11 o'clock news, which concluded with, "Shabbat begins at 4:32 and ends at 5:49. The times for Shabbat this week are sponsored by Hepi diapers. We remind you that Hepi diapers have special adhesive that can be used on Shabbat. Make your baby a Hepi baby all week long!"

By the time my vegetable kugel was in the oven, it was time for my favorite program: Chidat Haparsha, a trivia question about the weekly Torah portion. The question this week, in honor of the Ten Commandments which were inscribed "from one side and from the other side," was about a palindromatic word that appeared in the parsha. As soon as the riddle was announced in full, listeners began to call in with answers. It turns out that there are a lot of palindramatic words in this parsha, as I learned, though no one gave an answer that met all the qualifications. I stayed tuned.

I was surprised at what happened next: A woman called in, Shulamit from Bee'r Sheva, the first woman I'd ever heard on this program. She answered, "The word is Hineh," and then proceeded to explain how this word answered each part of the riddle. The radio announcer heard her out, and then asked, "And what is the verse in which this word appears?" Over in Be'er Sheva, Shulamit paused. "I'm in the kitchen," she said, "I don't have a Tanach in front of me." The radio announcer apologized; the answer had to be accompanied by the full text of the verse. But it seems that woman had made an impact, because the next caller was also a woman – Chedva from Netanya. Chedva gave the same answer as Shulamit, but cited the verse, albeit incorrectly. "I'm sorry," said the announcer. "That's not the verse." She had just one or two words wrong, I noted. Chedva sighed. "I'm also in the kitchen," she said, and I felt the weight of thousands of years of Jewish women's kugels bearing down on her shoulders as she sighed and hung up.

Not surprisingly, a man called in next, gave Shulamit's original answer with the correct text of the verse, and the Hasidic choir on the air broke out in a round of rousing zemirot. And so, as happens each week, a man won Chidat Haparsha, and the radio announcer moved on to the pre-Shabbat traffic report.

I was not planning to travel anywhere that afternoon, so I turned off the radio and went back to my cooking. I have nothing against women in the kitchen--someone has to cook for Shabbat--but I do wish that more women leyned the parsha. The secret of leyning well is that you really do learn the Torah by heart. This means that you can cite the right answer to Chidat Haparsha even while your hands are stuffing a chicken. Who said women can't have it all?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Extempore Effusions on the Comlpletion of Masechet Ketubot (Prakim 3-4)

Perek 3: אלו נערות

These are women for whom there's no fine
If you force them to bed (not a kind
Thing to do): the one taken
Captive, then forsaken
The convert, the slave for a time.

Shimon Hatimni announced
If a woman could not be one's spouse
Because she's forbidden,
Then, though one was smitten,
There's no fine (but one's still a louse).

Jacob said to his sons: Be on guard
Against hot and cold winds, they are hard
To withstand. And beware
Thieves and lions that tear
Human flesh. I don't want my boys scarred.

When the Temple stood tall, one could be
Killed in four ways, unmercifully.
We today don't burn, kill
Stone or hang. But we will
Wait for these fates to come naturally.

If on shabbos an arrow is thrown
And it lands on some silk that you own
And the silk then gets ripped --
Though the thrower has slipped.
Is it two sins, or one sin alone?

If a man steals some cattle but ere
He has taken the beast anywhere
There's a blow to the head
It drops suddenly dead.
Is thief guilty? He's not. (Is that fair?)

Ulla said: If a man should get lashed
For his crime, and pay also in cash
It's enough just to pay
We do not also say:
Beat the guy 'til his bones are all smashed!

Rabbi Yochanan said: If one beats
His friend – just a small tap on his feet.
There is not much to pay
So instead, should we say:
Give him lashes? How much would be meet?

For the pleasure of sex, one who rapes
And gets caught for it ere he escapes
Must pay dad fifty zuz
That's not all he must lose:
Shame and damage. Whip him into shape!

If a man steals an ox that was slated
For stoning (this ox was ill-fated)
He drowns ox. Can he say:
"For soon-dead ox, why pay?"
He's still punished and incriminated.

If you cook on Shabbat by mistake
When the food's finished, can you partake?
Need you wait 'til Shabbat
Ends, or do you need not?
Can you dig in right now to your cake?

If a man drops dead leaving a cow
He had borrowed to his sons, so now
It's the sons' loan. It dies
Now the brothers surmise:
Is it our fault? Need we pay? And how?

The Torah lists these side-by-side:
Killing beasts, killing men. Both we chide.
Does this mean then that we
Rule both absolutely?
Do we care 'bout intent? How they died?

If a wombless girl gets raped one day
There's no fine for the rapist to pay
For it's only a lass
One can't rape. She can't pass
For one. She won't mature though she's gray.

Until what age can orphans refuse
To wed the young men fathers choose?
Until she has two hairs
Or more black than white there—
What makes women mature, for the Jews?

A girl about whom people tell
Lots of rumors, about what befell
Her. A rapist might get her
But like a forged letter
We don't collect charges. Oh well.

A prostitute turns upside down
After she has been sleeping around
A form of abortion
This strange, strange contortion
Lest she bear sons to the whole town.

If a man has been sentenced to die
Slay him right at the neck (do not try
Methods experimental.
Though you can't be gentle
Still, please try to feel for the guy.)

A woman’s engaged. Ere the time
Comes to wed, she’s divorced in her prime.
Does she get any cash
Does it go to her stash
Does her father instead say, “All mine!”?

Does a person mature once he’s dead
Do we freeze age, or add years instead
Do we say: He was five
When he last was alive
But he’d now have white hairs on his head.

Three women may use birth control
One still nursing (for this takes its toll)
One’s who’s pregnant already
One young and not ready
For babies. They’re not quite her goal.

The first time a woman has sex
She feels pain – but not as you’d expect.
Abayey’s mom quips
“Like when warm water drips
On a bald man’s head.” (Yes, we’re perplexed.)

How much is the payment for shame?
It depends on the one who’s defamed.
A slave who threads pearls
Will get more than the girls
Who do needlework simple and plain.

A girl’s earnings go to her dad.
We know this from a reason quite sad.
If she’s sold as a maid
He’s the one who gets paid.
(‘Twould be different if she were a lad. )

Says a man “I’ve seduced your dear daughter
She looked to me great, so I caught her.”
He pays “shame” for his deed
Although he doesn’t need
To pay fines -- he admitted he sought her.

Do not keep a dog in your house
(It could bite off the head of your spouse)
Or a rickety ladder
(It might slip and shatter
And injure much more than a mouse.)

Perek R'vi'i: נערה שנתפתתה

"You've seduced my 'lil girl," yells a dad,
"It's the first time she's ever been had.
And now for your crime
Please hand over the fine."
"But I did no such thing!" balks the cad.

If the dad drops dead before the time
He's collected the rapist's full fine
Who receives all the funds--
The poor girl, or his sons?
This took twenty-four years to divine.

If a girl with no dad and no spouse
Lives out her sad days in the house
Of her brothers. Do they
Get to take all her pay
May she tuck it away like a mouse?

If a woman's had husbands die twice
We suspect her of some sort of vice
For if both husbands die
We can't help asking why
(Is it poison she puts in their rice?)

If a convert's young girl goes astray
Then we strangle the girl right away.
Since her dad's not a Jew
There is no reason to
Stone her out in her father's doorway.

If an orphan is falsely accused
Of seducing a man, he won't lose
Any coins that he had
For she hasn't a dad
And it's fathers who get paid these dues.

If your body begins to change form
After you commit sin, is the norm
That your punishment's changed
Is a new death arranged
Do we take what was once by a storm?

"May God save us from that which you think!"
Rabbi Elah said, making a stink.
Said Chananya, "I see
Things quite contrarily:
May God save us from that which YOU think!"

If a man says, "I vow half my worth"
Does he mean half his length? Half his girth?
He refers to his brain
Or his heart, something main--
It's like all that he's got on this earth.

A father's entitled to all
That his daughter finds, every windfall.
He may cancel her vows
Bring her Get to their house
Wed her off to a man dark and tall.

A young girl who works for spare cash
Must turn over all of her stash
To her dad, who we learn
Could have sold her to earn
Quite a hefty lump sum -- in a flash!

Every wife is entitled to three
Things. Her husband must these guarantee:
She has food she can eat
Clothes to wear in the street
And great sex with him regularly.

Says a man: "I can't get in the mood
To have sex when my wife's in the nude
Like the Persians, unless
We are both fully dressed
I don't want her." He's out of here, dude.

The messengers sent by the groom
Travel with the bride from her dad's room
After she has walked out
Not yet there, but en route
She is in the domain then of whom?

Daughters quite young will still need
Someone else who can help them to feed
But their dad's not required
Until he's expired
To give them their food, we've decreed.

In Usha they fixed that a man
Must feed daughters who live from his hand
If even crows care
For their young, we should share
In the burden, those rabbis command.

The Torah is learned at age six
At ten you get your Mishnah fix
At thirteen you fast
And then once you move past
That age, you can do all sorts of tricks.

If your son's sent to school when too young
He will find that the place is no fun:
His classmates will chase
Him right out of the place
But worse still is the one who gets stung.

Rav Himnuna said: Just as the guys
Don't inherit land when their dad dies
So the girls can't partake.
How the whole earth did shake
When he said that, for all were surprised.

A virgin's ketubah must be
At least two hundred zuz, standardly.
If he got her for less
Then the rabbis profess
That he took her promiscuously.

If a woman is taken by force
By a man who is cruel, harsh and coarse.
If she brings to him bread
Does that mean she was led
To sleep close to him without remorse?

I won't sleep with him, is one wife's vow
If her husband does not disallow
He puts fingers inside
Her teeth. Can he then chide
If she bites? No, he can't have a cow.

A father should dress his girl well
So a suitor will think she looks swell
He will glance at her rump
And then up he will jump:
"I must marry her! Please, will you sell?"

Rav Yehuda of Big Teeth: Don't go
To inheritance meetings. You know
It is not good to be
There when much property
Is passed on, dad to son, with a row.

She inherits until she's engaged
That is, 'til the day she comes of age
If no man takes her hand
Sucks for her! Understand
She can't feed off her dad at that stage.

A widow who colors her face
With make-up, and dresses in lace
She no longer merits
The right to inherit
She wants a new man in his place.

D.H. Lawrence: favorite passages discovered upon re-reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the first time since high school

The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few, in most personal experiences. There’s lots of good fish in the sea – maybe! But the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are inclined to find very few good fish in the sea.

She could sift through the generations of men through her sieve, and see if she couldn’t find one that would do. ‘Go ye into the streets and by-ways of Jerusalem, and see if you can find a man.’ It had been impossible to find a man in the Jerusalem of the prophet -- though there were thousands of male humans. But a man! C’est une autre chose!

It’s no good trying to get rid of your own aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it -- all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.

Was it actually her destiny to go on weaving herself into his life all the rest of her life? Nothing else? Was it just that? She was content to weave a steady life with him, all one fabric, but perhaps brocaded with an occasional coloured flower of an adventure. But how could she know how she would feel next year? How could one ever know? How could one say yes! for years and years? The little yes!, gone on a breath! Why should one be pinned down by that butterfly word? Of course it had to flutter away, and be gone, to be followed by other yeses! And no’s! Like the straying of butterflies.

Even if the kiss was only a formality, it was on such formalities that life depends.

And dimly she realized one of the great laws of the human soul: that when the emotional soul receives a wounding shock, which does not kill the body, the soul seems to recover as the body recovers. But this is only appearance. It is, really, only the mechanism of reassumed habit. Slowly, slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise which only slowly depends its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible after-effects have to be encountered at their worst.

Her body was going meaningless, going dull and opaque, so much insignificant substance. It made her feel immensely depressed, and hopeless. What hope was there? She was old, old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh. Old through neglect and denial: yes, denial. Fashionable women kept their bodies bright, like delicate porcelain, by external attention. There was nothing inside the porcelain. But she was not even as bright as that. The mental life! Suddenly she hated it with a rushing fury, the swindle!

She was thinking to herself of the other man’s words: Tha’s got the nicest woman’s arse of anybody! She wished, she dearly wished she could tell Clifford that this had been said to her, during the famous thunder-storm. However! She bore herself rather like an offended queen, and went upstairs to change.

Well, so many words, because I can’t touch you. If I could sleep with my arm round you, the ink could stay in the bottle…But a great deal of us is together, and we can but abide by it, and steer our courses to meet soon. John Thomas says good-night to lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.

* * *

From the author’s A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

English publishers urge me to make an expurgated edition, promising large returns . . . So I begin to be tempted, and start in to expurgate. But impossible! I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds.

The man who finds a woman’s underclothing the most exciting part about her is a savage.

Marriage is the clue to human life, but there is no marriage apart from the wheeling sun and the nodding earth, from the straying of the planets and the magnificence of the fixed stars. Is not a man different, utterly different at dawn, from what he is at sunset? And a woman too? And does not the changing harmony and discord of their variation make the secret music of life? And is it not so throughout life? A man is different at thirty, at forty, at fifty, at sixty, at seventy: and the woman at his side is different. But is there not some strange conjunction in their differences? Is there not some peculiar harmony, through youth, the period of childbirth, the period of florescence and young children, the period of the woman’s change of life, painful yet also a renewal, the period of waning passion but mellowing delight of affection, the dim unequal period of the approach of death, when the man and woman look at one another with the dim apprehension of separation that is not really a separation: is there not, throughout it all, some unseen, unknown interplay of balance, harmony, completion, like some soundless symphony which moves with a rhythm from phase to phase, so different, so very different in the various movements, and yet one symphony, made out of the soundless singing of two strange and incompatible lives, a man’s and a woman’s? This is marriage, the mystery of marriage.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sonnet: Ketubot 23a

When Nehardea's captive girls came back
Sage Shmuel's father set guards at their door
To watch them lest the local men attack
Shrugged Shmuel: "What's the point? Who watched before?"

His wizened father sighed: "Would you cast scorn
If they were your beloved girls?" And so
It came to pass. His daughters wept, forlorn.
And when released, they knew right where to go:

Chaninah's study house. Each lass stood tall
And cried with all her heart, "I'm pure, I vow."
Chaninah let them marry one and all
Their captives came, but no one had a cow.

"A sage's daughters, these," Chaninah knew--
And sad but wiser, Shmuel proved it true.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Vaera: Plagued by the Parsha

I knew it was a mistake to take on so much Torah reading this week. I ought to have learned my lesson by now. But when the minyan gabbai (who is thankfully no longer myself!) called to ask me if I would read the majority of the ten plagues this week, I got excited about the drama of the story and agreed, perhaps too readily. Since then, I have been afflicted by the Parsha Syndrome – the events I am leyning have started to shape my life in ways that are most unwelcome….

Let’s see, where did it begin? First, I woke up early in the week with beating, pounding tooth pain. I felt like someone was dropping several pounds of mortar and bricks on me, all of which were landing squarely in the tiny surface area of one of my top left teeth. The more I felt oppressed, the more the pain increased and spread out, so I came to dread eating anything other than yogurt and chocolate pudding.

Finally I appeared before the dentist, who had been in the middle of a root canal treatment on one of my other teeth. “What would you like me to do about the pain,” he asked. “Take it away!” I pleaded. “And when would you like me to do that?” he asked. “Tomorrow!” I cried. (I still haven’t figured that one out. Tomorrow?) He said, “I will do in accordance with your word, so that you know that there is no one like your great dentist.” His fingers were in my mouth during much of this conversation, so I was of impeded speech, though I think I got the message across.

The dentist prescribed antibiotics, and I promptly filled the prescription. The next morning, I woke up with a few red spots on my legs. It looked as if someone had taken soot from a kiln and thrown it up to the sky, so it all landed on my thighs. By the afternoon, the red dots had spread all over the surface of my lower body, so that no one was able to see my lower body. Then it spread, and only in the region of my face were there no dots. I itched all over, as if infested with lice or with a very severe pestilence.

Then I summoned the doctor at Terem and said to her, “I plead with you to remove these spots from my lower body.” The doctor told me that I was allergic to the antibiotics, but I should keep taking them lest the tooth flare up again. To relieve the itching, she prescribed antihistamines. When seven days had passed, she told me, I would finish with the antibiotics and be myself again.

The doctor did not tell me, though, that antihistamines make you drowsy. And so I got into bed and stayed awake itching, but then slept late into the mornings. I would try to wake up in the morning and feel a very heavy darkness surrounding me, a darkness so heavy that I could feel it. For three days I could not get up from bed, and I missed daf yomi and swimming and arrived bleary-eyed at work. I began to wonder: How long would this continue to be a snare to me?

Today I had to make another dentist’s appointment to deal with the infection that led me to take the antibiotics in the first place. I was supposed to go as soon as possible, but I know better than that. I scheduled it for two weeks from now, parshat Beshalach, when we are safely out of Egypt and free of the plagues. Given that I’ll probably leyn next week too, I’m not taking any chances.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Running Commentary

I was jogging in Jerusalem on Rehov Yaffo on Saturday night when I was harassed by a hasid. Well, I’m not sure if it was really harassment proper (by which I mean harassment improper), but it was an unwelcome comment. The man, who was wearing a long robe and a streimel, called out to me, “Why do you have to do this? Where are you running to?” grunting disapprovingly. I was modestly dressed in long pants (to the extent that pants can be modest) and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and I even had my hair braided underneath a kerchief. And yet my presence still disturbed him.

I was about to quote to him from Pirkei Avot and ask him why he was talking to a woman (which is discouraged by R. Yossi ben Yochanan), but I had a better idea. Having recently completed a masechet of the Talmud, I knew by heart the formula for the Hadran, the prayer traditionally recited upon completing a significant unit of text study. Much of this prayer compares “us” to “them” – “we” study Torah, while “they” engage in idle pursuits:

We express gratitude to you, God, that You have established our portion with those who dwell in the study house, and have not established our portion with idlers. For we arise early and they arise early; we arise early for words of Torah, while they arise early for idle words. We toil and they toil; we toil and receive a reward, while they toil and do not receive reward. We run and they run; we run to the life of the World to Come, while they run to the Well of Destruction.

“To the Well of Destruction” in Hebrew is לבאר שחת, which is what I hollered over my shoulder to the Hasid who asked me to where I was running. I wish I could have seen his face, and I wonder if he shared this story when he arrived, surely less breathless, in the World to Come.

Cross-posted to, the Lilith blog.