Monday, July 21, 2008

Juliet's Balcony

As a teenager, I attended a public high school on Long Island where I was the only observant Jew. I quickly got used to explaining to my teachers and classmates about the various Jewish holidays, which were the reason for my poor attendance record at various points throughout the year. The only holiday that I never had to explain was Tisha b’Av, since it always arrived in the summer, when school was not in session. And so the story of the destruction of the Temple, which is the reason we mourn and fast on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, was unknown to my classmates, who had otherwise received from me quite a comprehensive Jewish education.

One summer, when I was training for the high school track team, I made a plan with my friend Katie to go running three days a week. She would pick me up in her car at 7 a.m. and we would drive to the school track, where we would run laps for 45 minutes. It just so happened that during that particular summer, there was construction work being done on our synagogue, which we would pass in the mornings on our drive to the school. One day I realized that our next scheduled morning run coincided with Tisha b’Av. I called Katie on the phone to inform her that I’d have to miss a day. “Why?” she asked. “Oh,” I explained. “It’s a day of mourning tomorrow because of the destruction of the Temple.” Katie paused for a moment, and then responded in astonishment: “The Temple was destroyed? I thought they were just doing construction!”

This story still makes me laugh, but I think it also hints at a more serious issue, namely how difficult it is to understand the significance of Tisha b’Av in today’s day and age. Why was the destruction of the Temple such an incredible tragedy for the rabbis, even for those rabbis living hundreds of years after both the first and second Temple (destroyed in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively) were no longer standing? Why is it that this day took on successive levels of sadness—to the point that the Mishnah in Taanit (4:6) explains that five of the most devastating tragedies in Jewish history took place on this date? Not only were the two Temples destroyed, the Mishnah asserts; also, this was the day on which the spies sent to scout out Canaan brought back a negative report, and Bar Kochva’s revolt failed, and the Romans razed Jerusalem. The rabbis convert Tisha b’Av into a general national day of mourning, unquestionably the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

In the absence of the Temple, rabbinic Judaism proceeded to engage in the creative process of inventing a decentralized, prayer-based form of Jewish worship; but the rabbis never stopped missing the Temple and longing to return to its glory days. The Talmud is filled with statements and stories that give voice to these sentiments. We are told, for instance, that Rabbi Yosey reports that God Himself mourns the destruction of the Temple, wailing like a dove and crying: “Woe to the children -- because of their sins I destroyed my home and burned my sanctuary and exiled them among the nations” (Brachot 3a). Elijah goes on to teach that God mourns this loss frequently:"Whenever Jews enter into synagogues and study houses and answer, 'May the great name be blessed,' the Holy One Blessed Be He nods His head and says, “Blessed be the king who is praised in his home, and woe to the father who exiled his children, and woe to those children who are banished from their father’s table” Elijah compares the destruction of the Temple to the banishing of children from their father’s table, since the people of Israel, lacking the system of sacrificial worship, can no longer attain the same degree of closeness to their heavenly father.

It has been nearly 2000 years since the second Temple was destroyed, and yet still we are obligated, each year, to mourn this loss. But, try as I may to get into the right mindset for Tisha b’Av, the metaphors traditionally invoked just don't do it for me. And so I prefer to conjure a different image—one that reflects my own associations with loss and longing. I think of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet is standing at her window leaning her cheek against her gloved hand, and Romeo gazes up at her under cover of darkness. Juliet sighs (“Ay me!”), and Romeo hangs on to her every sound and gesture (“She speaks! O, speak again, bright angel”), wooing her from below her balcony in language reminiscent of the Song of Songs, which Shakespeare seems occasionally to invoke (“Stony limits cannot hold love out”). I imagine the balcony as the site of many subsequent late-night trysts, as it is the one place where the lovers can speak freely to one another without risking the wrath of the Montague and Capulet clans. I think about how Juliet must long, each day, for night to come, so she can go out on her balcony to speak to her Romeo.

And then I imagine that one day, Juliet comes home from school to find that her parents have boarded up her balcony. Her window is covered with wooden planks fixed rudely to the wall; her balcony has been hacked at with axes and spades; and pieces of the railing lie strewn on the street below her window. “Her gates have sunk into the ground, he has smashed her bars to bits.” (Lamentations 2:9). Juliet is utterly distraught: how will she see Romeo that evening? How will she communicate with her lover? “See, O Lord, the distress I am in! My heart is in anguish.” (Lamentations 1:20) It is not only her balcony she has lost, but the whole elaborate system of semaphores and scheduling that she and her lover have constructed to ensure that they see each other regularly. Juliet wails. “Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheeks wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends” (Lamentations 1:2).

It may seem surprising that I choose such a romantic image, but this kind of analogy is not without precedent. In the rabbinic imagination the Temple was, indeed, the rendezvous place between God and Israel. As Rav K'tina says in the Talmud, "At the time when Israel would go to the Temple on the festivals, they would roll back the ark curtain to reveal the cherubs, who were hugging each other, and saying: Look at how beloved you are of God, like the love between a man and a woman" (Yoma 54a). That very same passage compares the poles that protruded through the ark curtain to the breasts of a woman, using a proof text from the Song of Songs: "My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh, lodged between my breasts."

And when it comes to the loss of the Temple, the rabbis invoke similar images. In a passage in the Tractate Yoma that pulses with lyrical poetic intensity, they take turns reminiscing about the Temple. Rabba bar bar Channa recalls that the smell of the incense in the Temple was so fragrant that a bride in Jerusalem during the time of the Temple would not need to wear perfume. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha responds with a story: “An old man told me: Once I went to the city of Shiloh [where the portable sanctuary used to reside], and I breathed the smell of the incense from between the city walls” (Yoma 39b). This imagery is deeply passionate, if not overtly sexual. Who said the rabbis were not romantic? It is true that the tractates dealing with marriage are preoccupied with brute economic facts, and that marriage in the Talmud is essentially a business transaction; but when it comes to the Temple, the rabbis wax more poetically than Romeo, Don Juan, and Cyrano de Bergerac combined.

And so although I do not personally desire the restoration of Temple worship, it is these images I invoke to get me into the right mindset on Tisha b’Av. I think of Juliet pouring out her heart like water as she cries, “My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult, my very being melts away” (Lamentations 2:11). The language of Shakespeare flows into the language of Lamentations and then I, too, am able to mourn and weep.

Books Recently Read, and Recommended

Ghostwalk – Rebecca Stott
The Book of Dahlia – Elisa Albert
Second Fiddle – Mary Wesley
The Camomile Lawn – Mary Wesley
Maisie Dobbs (entire series) – Jacqueline Winspear
The Keep – Jennifer Egan
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Outcast – Sadie Jones
Glass, Irony and God (esp. "The Gender of Sound") – Anne Carson
Beaufort – Ron Leshem

Hebrew Books:
בשכבי ובקומי אשה – Mira Magen
רצח בחוג לספרות – Batya Gur

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Wedding Night

My translation from Ruth Calderon's
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

In the West [that is, in Israel] when a man married a woman, everyone would then ask him: “Found or find?” He in turn would respond with one of two words, both taken from verses in the Bible: “Find” as in the verse, “I find a bitterness worse than death in women,” or “found” as in the verse, “One who found a woman found goodness.” (B. Brachot 8a)

A warm clay candle rests in my palm, the weight of the oil passing from the front to the back of my hand with a quick flick of the wrist. In the evening the oil was congealed, with a small warm puddle of liquid gathered just around the flame. Now the entire candle is warm oil -- the flax wick is light and floating and the flame appears as if suspended in midair.

The room is cold and the man standing across from me has his head buried in a notebook. The pages are tied together haphazardly. He reads while half-asleep. Occasionally the chant of his learning breaks forth from his throat; then he plunges back into quietness like a whale diving back into the ocean. It is the second watch of the night. This man is my new husband. This is not how I imagined my wedding night; this is not what the women told me to expect when they stood over me to remove the hair from my body with oils and lime. Why did they bother? What is the use of my soft skin, my plucked eyebrows, my colorful nightgown? Outside cats and beggars devour the remains of the wedding feast. If only everyone knew the real reason I went under the wedding canopy. I am a pillar of fire, not a bride.

And my mother, what would she say? At the beginning of the evening, I was so happy. My wedding dress was tight against my waist, a veil hung from my head, and a circle of candles illuminated the courtyard like stars fallen down to earth. Under the wedding canopy, under the dome of the sky, I was enveloped in the happiness of everyone around me and in the display of honor towards the family I was joining. I did not feel homesick. I was excited as if I had found a lost object by the roadside. Familiar expressions of blessing fell upon my ears, and during the wedding benedictions I mustered the courage to look at my bridegroom. I had not seen his face since our engagement. I found him attractive. Then there was dancing, and when he danced with the men his eyes shone. He captured my heart with his awkward steps.

The groomsmen accompanied us until our rooms, and for a while we could still hear them singing the familiar wedding song: “With neither eye make-up nor blush nor braids in her hair, she radiates grace.” I thought that he had chosen to remain silent until we could no longer hear the voices of the merrymakers outside. I also remained silent. After the voices had faded off into the distance, I sat on the bed in my wedding dress. I was secretly grateful that he was not too close to me, and I was pleased that he did not seize upon me suddenly. But then I grew flustered, unsure what to do. Beside the wall, between the shadows, I took off my dress, folded it carefully, and rested it beside the bed. I climbed into bed and covered myself with a sheet. I knew the reason a bride enters under the wedding canopy. I lay on my back and waited for a sign. He took off his clothes slowly, and folded them in a neat pile under the bed. The light of the candles illuminated the two of us between the shadows. I unfastened the barette in my hair and peeked out from between the sheets. The smell of jasmine filled the room. “Bring a candle so I have light,” he said evenly. Was I supposed to get up?

While I was lying there, my nakedness was covered and enveloped. My body disappeared in the bed and only my face was visible. If I stood up, I would bare my flesh; he would see me from all sides. He waited. His prayer shawl functioned for him as a sort of nightgown. Its whiteness was soft and pleasant against the dark night. I heard once that in the Torah scroll belonging to Rabbi Meir, it was written in Genesis that God dressed Adam and Eve in "garments of light" instead of "garments of leather." Now I saw a dim light from the whiteness of the candle. As in a dream, I stood on my feet and took the candle from the column in the wall. I approached him, the candle in my hand. The candle defined a small circle of light in which we could see: Cheeks, lips, eyes. He extended a strong but gentle arm and positioned me as he wanted me, facing him. I took the candle and stood before him. He picked up his book and continued learning.

The hours passed. I lost track of time. I stood with the candle in my hand, my mind wandering back to our wedding earlier that night. All evening, my eyes had been drawn to his mother. When I sat with the women, covered in a veil, I saw her making her way uncomfortably through the wave of well-wishers and guests which rose up around her. Her beauty was still pronounced, her eyes bright. She carried herself proudly. The toughness and anger from her long days of loneliness did not disappear when her husband returned home and she became, once again, the wife of the great rabbi, his footstool. She did not exude warmth like my mother, but I thought I could grow to love her nonetheless.

All through my childhood, I heard the stories: How he betrothed her in secret, and how her father cut her off from his possessions when Rabbi Akiva traveled far away to study Torah. My mother and the other women, when they would sit together sorting lentils, used to talk about her sadness. They, too, would wait at home for Torah scholars who spent most of their days in the study house. Rabbi Akiva's celebrated return should have compensated for the hard, lonely hours, between a crying baby and an unlit stove, with no adult company except for the neighbors.

It seemed to me that my husband was much more the son of his mother than his father. Would the son also devote himself to study like his father? Would I remain a "living widow," raising children who would not recognize their father? Now, in the room, I steal a glance at his book. Back when we were young, my grandfather used to reward us with nuts when we could recite a chapter by heart. I was good at such recitations, before they shut me out of the study house, along with the other girls. "Rabbi Akiva says: One lights a candle from another's flame; one gains light, and one stays the same." How do you light one candle from another? I am embarrassed by what I am picturing in my imagination. But his eyes are in his book; he does not see me.

The candle is no more than a spoonful of oil. The wick juts out from the lamp and the smell of the burning olive oil is pleasant. Will the oil last? I do not know how much time he still needs, but it is clear to me that I am responsible for the candle. I shift my hand gently to conserve the oil as best I can.

Maybe I have forgotten something about how brides are supposed to act? Did I do the right thing in removing my gown? Am I supposed to say something? I try to remember my mother's words. When she came to speak to me about the wedding night, I saw how embarrassed she was and had mercy on her. She averted her glance and said, "Anything a man wants to do with his wife, he may do – you be good to him, and then all will be good for you." She went on about the subject of the mother-in-law, and spoke about pain. She instructed me to recognize that he would be preoccupied. "A groom is exempt from reciting the bedtime Shma on the first night."

Now everything is a riddle or a big mistake. Maybe I ruined my marriage? Maybe I will not be found a virgin? My heart is pounding; such things have been known to happen. A girl may lose her virginity by means of a beating or a plank of wood. I once heard of someone who stained her clothing with the blood of a bird to redeem herself with her blood.

I look at him, his eyes glued to his page. My hand trembles. A stream of oil drips behind the candle, towards the wick, and the candle is nearly extinguished. And maybe he too does not know what to do? After all, he is still a boy. Is he waiting for a sign from me? I come closer to him, holding the candle so he can see, following his movements with the book. We sway in place, almost dancing. My nakedness through the sheet does not ruffle him. We are like two small boys who have undressed before bed. When the chanting once again escapes his lips, his voice is pleasant, on key.

Morning comes and we are still standing there. I look at him in the first light: His face is lovely. His eyes are honey-colored with flecks of green. When I pretend to fall asleep, my eyelashes flutter and he casts a cautious glance in my direction. Examining me. When I open my eyes as if I have just awoken, his eyes retreat back between the letters.

When the sun rises higher in the sky, I put down the candle. The oil has nearly run out and the wick is resting on the underbelly of the wet candle. The mouth of the candle is filthy and disgusting, encased with charcoal. My hands are also filthy, and I wipe them on the clothing that should have redeemed me with my blood. One way or another, my clothes have become stained. I sit back on the bed, and it seems I fall asleep. When I open my eyes, I do not see my husband. Through the shutters, striped rays of light penetrate the room. I hear his father's voice: "Found or find?" I listen with intense concentration.

"Found," says his sweet voice in the night, and his words fall softly like morning dew.

"Amen," I murmur, and sink back to sleep.

This story is based on a passage from Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 18, translated here:

A story is told about the son of Rabbi Akiva who got married.
What did he do? When he brought his bride home,
He stayed up all night reading the Torah portion.
He said to his wife: Hold a candle and illuminate my page.
She held a candle and stood before him.
She illuminated his page until morning came.
In the morning, Rabbi Akiva approached his son.
He said to him: "Found or find?"
He said to him: "Found."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Roman Holiday

And do the heavenly angels not understand Aramaic? (Sotah 33a)

We are preparing for a trip to Rome. You are reading the Lonely Planet guide and Time Out Rome; I am finishing up today's daf, Sotah 33, which alludes to the edict by the Roman emperor Caligula (called Gaskalgas) who decreed that an idol be erected in the Temple in Jerusalem. At the very last moment, as the Jews were in a panic about the fate that awaited their sacred place of worship, the high priest Shimon HaTzadik heard a voice from within the Holy of Holies that cried out in Aramaic, "The decree of the hated one has been annulled, for Caligula has died." The Talmud cites this incident as proof that angels in heaven can understand Aramaic. In the background, I hear you trying to pronounce some words in Italian, poring over the page of helpful phrases in the back of the guidebook. Parla inglese? Non capisco.

The public buildings and baths and streets which this wicked kingdom makes, were their intentions for the sake of heaven, they would have been worthy to possess the world. (Mid. Hag. to Gen. 44:24)

Our very first stop after dropping off our bags in our tiny hotel room near the Termini, the train station, is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Of the scores of churches we will visit in the next two days, this one has pride of place – it is our "home church," you might say, since Gerusalemme is the same Jerusalem from which we hail. The church was founded in 320 CE by Emperor Constantine's mother St. Helena, who brought back relics of crucifixion cross from Jerusalem. On the façade is a statue of St. Helena herself, who appears to be swaying with the cross in the way that a woman might dance with a broomstick. We take a photo that we will print in Jerusalem, thereby bringing the cross back home.

From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: "Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt….We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells…if our cattle drink your waater, we will pay for it. We ask for only passage on foot. (Numbers 20:14-19).

We decide, perhaps in homage to the next week's parsha, that we will walk all over Rome, taking not a single bus, train, or cab. But our three days in Rome coincide with a three-day heatwave, and everywhere we go we sweat. Each time you pause to look in your guidebook, I sink down exhausted onto the ground, grateful for a moment to rest my aching legs. But relief comes in the form of the free-flowing fountains all over the city. I am referring not just to the great fountains: the Trevi Fountain (Salvi, 1762), with its great statue of Neptune flanked by two Tritons; the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Bernini, 1651) in which the four great rivers--the Ganges, Danube, Nile, and Plate--are represented by four giants; the Fontana del Tritone (Bernini, 1642) on Via Veneto, featuring the Triton and his conch shell. These fountains capture our imaginations, but physical salvation comes in the form of the small hydrant-shaped fountains on many of the street corners, which flow constantly with water. We carry our Mei Eden bottles and refill frequently. Coming from Jerusalem, where we turn off the water while soaping in the shower and half-flush the toilet, it is hard to adjust to the abundance of fresh water so freely and generously available to us as we make our passage on foot through Edom/Rome.

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs….
(John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale")

For me the most special place in Rome will always be the Keats-Shelley Museum, housed in the very rooms where the greatest of the English Romantic poets John Keats died of consumption in 1821, at the age of 25. There he wrote, in his last days, a letter to a dear friend: "I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow." I peer out the window of his bedroom, which overlooks the grand and majestic Spanish steps which lead from the Piazza di Spagna (named for the Spanish embassy located there in the seventeenth century) to the Trinita di Monti church. Shivers run up and down my spine when I learn that so many of my favorite writers stayed in this area at one time or another. Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth. I decide that if we make it to the Forum in the afternoon, I will stand on the Rostra, the platform used for public oratory, and declaim to you one of my favorite odes.

The restaurant, five minutes from Giovanna's apartment, was next to the Portico d'Ottavia. There were of course hundreds of other restaurants she might have tried, hundreds of versions of cacao e pepe and carbonara and deep-fried artichokes she might have eaten…At the restaurant the waiters knew by now to bring her a bottle of acqua gassata, a half-litre of vino bianco, swiftly to clear the second place setting away. They left her alone with the book she would bring, though mostly she sat and looked at the remains of the Portico, at it chewed-up columns girded with scaffolding, its massive pediment with significant chunks missing. (Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth)

Late Friday afternoon we wander through the alleys of the Jewish ghetto, first created in 1556 by an edict of Pope Paul IV, who forced all the Jews to live inside a high-walled enclosure. It is 7:30pm and the sun is beginning to sink in the sky, but Shabbat does not begin until 8:30pm. We find a small vegetarian pizzeria right next to the Portico d'Ottavia, part of a monumental pizza built in honor of Augustus' sister in the first century CE. I am convinced that we are eating in the same restaurant mentioned in the breathtaking Jhumpa Lahiri novel I am reading, which I carry with me all over the city even though it is hardcover and heavy. I read you the passage to see if you agree, staining the white pages with my oily hands. While we are eating, we notice two men in black gabardines passing by, presumably on their way to shul. We pay quickly for our meal, musing at the bizarreness of calling this Shabbat dinner, and then follow the passersby.

Perhaps you will say: They have statutes and we do not have statutes?… there is yet place for the evil inclination to reflect and say: Theirs are more suitable than ours!… (Sifra to Aharei Mot 13:9)

The synagogue in the Jewish ghetto is not quite as ornate as the city's finest churches, but the high ceilings, painted walls, and decorative columns were clearly built with the ecclesiastical model in mind. I walk up two flights of stairs to the women's section, where I sit in the last row by an open window near a sign that reads: "Si prega di FARE SILENZIO durante le tefilloth." A gentle breeze blows from the Tiber river below, and I find my place in the siddur. It is strange to read the Italian stage directions printed inside, which remind me of a musical score: After the Shma, "Baruch Shem K'vod" is to be recited in sotto voce; and the Chatzi Kaddish is labeled "Mezzo Kaddish." The women around me are dressed in tank tops and jeans, indistinguishable from the other Italian women I have been seeing on the streets. It is strange for me, coming from Jerusalem, to see such women in shul – where are their kerchiefs, their long skirts layered over lacey pants, their double strollers? They chatter in Italian to one another, though they stop talking to take three steps back before the Amidah, aware, then, of what they are doing. Below us all the singing comes from an operatic chazzan whose voice fills the entire building, and from the choir that accompanies him from their hiding place behind the bimah. I sit quietly, taking it all in.

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
Wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hill towns….
How much better to command the simple precinct of home
Than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.

(Billy Collins, "Consolation," from The Art of Drowning)

We are eager to get home because my sister will be arriving in Jerusalem right when we return, and we are supposed to pick her up at the airport. I have not seen my niece in eight months, and I am counting down the moments until our reunion. But when we get to Fiumicino airport at 7am, we learn that our flight is delayed. A one-hour delay stretches to a four-hour delay, and El Al tries to console us with a voucher for lunch at an Italian pizzeria. There is nothing we can eat there, so I exchange my free pizza and pasta for six bread rolls and a bottle of soda. All around us the Israelis on our flight stack their trays with plates of hot food, crying "voucher, voucher" to the bewildered cafe clerks. In the end, we return to Israel just when my sister's flight lands; she spots us in the Israeli passport line and runs in our direction, greeting us with a bear hug and a giant grin. That night I unpack and begin going through our pictures; my sister tells me the next morning that she and her husband celebrated their arrival in Israel by going out for dinner, to a restaurant called Little Italy.