Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sheer Nonsense

When I woke up from a Shabbat afternoon nap today -- which may, given how crazy the next two days are looking, be the last time I sleep before Rosh Hashanah -- I was bathed in a cold sweat. I had just had a terrible nightmare in which I had accidentally done a Heicha Kedusha on Rosh Hashanah! Horror of horrors! There went Zichronot, Malchiyot, and Shofarot, down the tube! (I mean, down the shofar.) Mourning over the hours of wasted piyut practicing, I slowly awakened to the realization that it had all been but a fleeting dream, like man's life – its origin in dust, its end in dust.

Calmed by this notion, I fell back to sleep, only to wake up once more with another strange idea burrowed inside my brain, this time in the form of a song I seem to have composed in my sleep. The words were set to the "K'vakarat roeh edro" part of the U'n'taneh Tokef, and they went something like this:

God is counting sheep.
God is Big Bo Peep!
God is counting, God is counting
Maybe God can't sleep.

Lying in bed, I tried to analyze these bizarre lyrics. Apparently I had been thinking about the words of the U'n'taneh tokef, one of the central prayers of musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Drawing on the imagery from the mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah, this prayer compares God to a shepherd who is counting the members of his flock as they pass, one by one, underneath his rod. I must have been dreaming about God counting sheep, an image that I associate with being unable to fall asleep.

On Rosh Hashanah, of course, we are told we should not fall asleep in the daytime. The Talmud Yerushalmi states that "if one sleeps at the year's beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps." And so we should not let the image of God counting sheep lull us into a pleasant midday mid-shul slumber. Perhaps we would fall asleep at the very instant God was counting us! How would we ever recover from that one?

I am not the first to write about sleeping on a holy day of judgment, a notion that has inspired such poems as Jane Mayhall’s “Sleeping Late on Judgement Day” and Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” (where “complacencies of the peignoir” are privileged above the “the holy hush of ancient sacrifice”). Certainly for me, though, the thought of sleeping on judgment day inspires more anxiety and trepidation than for either of these poets, shaped as I have been by the awe-inspiring liturgy of the Machzor.

After all, as we read in the U’netana Tokef (again from the Mishnah), God is able to count us like sheep because God is one "who fashions all people's hearts together, who knows all their actions" (Psalms 33:15). In other words: There is no pulling the wool over God's eyes!

Shana tova – may we enjoy a rousing tefillah and a year of spiritual awakening!

Books Recently Read, and Recommended

Enchanted Night - Steven Millhauser
How is This Night Different From All Other Nights - Elisa Albert
Evening is the Whole Day - Preeta Samarasan
The Elephant Vanishes - Haruki Murakami
The Sister - Poppy Adams
An Imaginative Experience - Mary Wesley
Bird by Bird - Anne Lamott
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - Wells Tower

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ten Ways in Which the "Selichot Season" Concert of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra Differs From a Concert Anywhere Else in the World

1. The concert begins when a world-famous clarinetist enters from the back row playing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), encouraging the audience to sing along as he makes his way through the aisles.
2. In between musical pieces the aforementioned clarinetist uses his instrument to blast a Tekia, Shvarim, Truah, Tekia, sounding even better than a real shofar! (Could've fooled me.)
3. Three cell phones go off during the slow, quiet mandolin solo, destroying the audience's rapt concentration.
4. Each time the conductor speaks (which is often), someone from the back row yells out "Lo shomim" (we can't hear!!); and then someone from the front cries out, "Az lo tishmeu" (so you won't hear!!).
5. The conductor announces that he does not plan to play the pieces in the program – as far as he is concerned, the program notes are more or less incidental.
6. In between movements, half of the audience claps, and the other half hisses at the clappers for this apparently egregious violation of concert etiquette.
7. The pianist inserts a few bars of Hatikva into the cadenza of Haydn's piano concerto, and the audience members remain unfazed.
8. The clarinetist stamps his feet and begins dancing with wild Hasidic-like gestures during his solo.
9. The address of the theater, which happens (aptly) to be "5 Chopin St.," is spelled "5 Shop-in St." on the concert program. Shop in, stop in, drop in, and hear some music while you're at it!
10. When the mandolin soloist is introduced, the conductor says that "not only is he the best mandolin player in the world – he is also still single!" A quick glance at the concert program reveals, alas, that he lives in Padua....

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Heleni and the Seven Dwarves

The development of a Talmudic sugya at times resembles, to my mind, the development of our conception of the cosmos. I found this to be the case today in a sugya I was learning in the first chapter of Masechet Sukkah, which deals with the particular laws governing the structure of the sukkah. How tall may a sukkah be? How wide? Must the walls reach all the way up to the top? The rabbis say a sukkah may be no taller than 20 amot; Rabbi Yehuda sets no maximum height. Various later sages suggest that actually, Rabbi Yehuda disagrees with the rabbis only in the case of a very particular sukkah – one whose walls do not reach up to the top, or one which is as small as the minimum area requirement for a house; or one which is only large enough to contain a person, the majority of his body, and his table.

To delimit the exact disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and the rabbis, the Talmud cites an early text about Heleni, a queen who ruled in a small kingdom in what is now Syria over a generation before the destruction of the second Temple. Heleni converted to Judaism and became an important patron of the Temple. In the first chapter of Sukkah, we are told that she sat in a particular kind of sukkah that, although perhaps of questionable halachic status, nonetheless did not arouse the suspicion of the rabbis:

A story is told of Heleni the Queen whose sukkah was taller than 20 amot, and the sages would pass in and out of it, and they did not tell her anything [i.e. they did not rebuke her for having an unkosher sukkah].

Apparently, this story serves as evidence for Rabbi Yehuda's claim that a sukkah has no maximum height. Yet, as the rabbis question in this very passage:

You call that proof? She was a woman, and women are not obligated to sit in the sukkah.

Rabbi Yehuda then defends himself on the grounds that Heleni had seven sons, who were surely obligated to sit in the sukkah. And if you should say that perhaps her sons were too young to be obligated in the commandment to sit in the sukkah, keep in mind that she had seven – surely at least one was old enough to be obligated to at least begin learning to sit in the sukkah! And yes, it is true that the commandment to educate boys about the sukkah is only a rabbinic one, and not a Biblical one; but still, Heleni (who was, after all, a convert) lived in accordance with rabbinic Judaism as well as Biblical Judaism, the Talmud goes on to assert.

Is this proof for the sage who says that Rabbi Yehuda only disagrees with the rabbis in the case of a very small sukkah? After all, it is hard to imagine that Heleni was sitting in a tiny sukkah – she was a queen! Ah, perhaps she was sitting in sukkah made up of many tiny little chambers. But would a queen sit in a sukkah of tiny little chambers? Unlikely. Perhaps she was in one tiny room within a large sukkah, and her sons were sitting in the big proper sukkah. But weren't her sons with her? Well, perhaps she was in the small room within the sukkah with a table was protruding out, and her sons, each tiny enough to fit in a space of seven tfachim by seven tfachim, were all stacked up there on the table, such that technically they were beside their mother while still sitting in a proper sukkah.

At this point, my imagination runs haywire as I continue to adjust my picture of Heleni and her sons in the sukkah in accordance with the rabbis ever more bizarre and far-fetched propositions. I am reminded of Ptolemy, the second-century Hellenistic astronomer who tried to make Aristotle's earth-centered model of the universe conform to the reality of the observational data of his time. According to Aristotle, the earth lay at the center of the universe, with the sun and all the planets revolving around it in uniform circular motion. Yet by Ptolemy's time, this model was deeply problematic. It did not explain, for instance, the retrograde motions of the planets. In order to account for irregular planetary motion, Ptolemy developed a deeply complex system involving complicated mathematical principles including epicycles, or small circles in which the planets move while tracing a larger circle. The epicycle model was powerful, but its inability to account for certain planetary motions demanded the creation of another model, the epicycle-on-deferent model, which in turn was followed by the equant model – each ever more mathematically complex than its predecessor. The Ptolemaic universe may have remained true to the concept of uniform circular motion, but at the expense of simplicity and elegance.

The addition of epicycles and equants in attempt to render the geocentric model consistent with observed phenomena reminds me of the successive attempts to refine the story of Heleni and her sukkah in order to explain the basis of the disagreement between the rabbis and Rabbi Yehuda. Several successive "epicycles" are added to further complicate the story:
1. It wasn't just Heleni – she had seven sons!
2. Heleni, though she lived several generations before the sages of the Mishnah, followed the laws of rabbinic Judaism!
3. Heleni wasn't sitting in an ordinary sukkah, but a multi-chambered one!
4. There weren't a series of equal-area chambers, but a few small chambers within the larger big sukkah!
5. Her sons were not in the chamber with her, but they were nonetheless beside her, all stacked on the table!

The final image of these seven babies stacked up in the very small space of a table (which distresses Rashi as well) reminds me of the bend-over-backwards acrobatics that Ptolemy had to engage in to preserve the geocentric model of the universe. The only difference is that in the Talmud, there is no Copernicus to do away with the hopeless commitment to the earth at the center, and no Kepler to replace circles with ellipses and develop new laws of planetary motion. Where are the sixteenth-century astronomers when you need them?

It would be a fitting role for Elijah, who seems to be the Talmud's choice deus-ex-machina. I can imagine Elijah busting in on the scene with his own De Revolutionibus and presenting a more simple and elegant model for Heleni's sukkah, thereby freeing this poor queen from her tiny chamber and restoring to their proper size her seven dwarves. May it happen speedily in our day!

Monday, September 08, 2008

On First Looking Into Chapman's Hebrew

The great Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik is famously quoted as having said that reading a poem in translation is like a kissing a woman through a veil. For this reason, I did not read Bialik in translation, nor any other Hebrew poet for that matter. In fact, when I first came to Israel and started reading in Hebrew, I began with poetry. This made sense to me: Poems are short, so I could have a complete aesthetic experience in the reasonable space of fifteen minutes. Moreover, in a poem every word matters – since there are so few words, each one is enormously dense, packed with more units of meaning per square syllable than in prose. And so I did not mind looking up any word I did not know, because each additional word was weighty and laden in the context of the poem I was reading.

Since I refused to read Hebrew poetry in English, my first experience of reading poetry in translation actually involved reading English poetry in Hebrew. This began due to a rather ironic turn of events. I was at one of the book fairs sponsored by National Hebrew Book Week a few months ago when I noticed a new book by Jorge Luis Borges. In Hebrew it was called M'lechet Hashir; the title in English was The Craft of Verse. Given my love of poetry, this was definitely a book I wanted to read. But in Hebrew? Then again, I reasoned, the original was surely written in Spanish, so if I read it in English, I'd be reading in translation anyway. And how would I ever find such a book in Israel in English anyway? Steimatzky's carries the bestsellers like Tom Clancy and Khaled Hosseini, but they would certainly not have Borges on poetry. So taking my chances, I bought the book in Hebrew, and delved in.

I refer to this as an ironic turn of events because I later learned that Borges actually originally delivered these lectures in English, as part of a series of lectures given at Harvard University in 1967-8. The tapes were discovered less than ten years ago – at that point they were transcribed and published by Harvard University Press. The Hebrew translation, which we sold through our literary agency, was published this summer by Babel (the name of the house is another irony); this is the copy that I purchased at the book fair.

In these lectures, Borges discusses metaphor, epic poetry, the origins of verse, poetic meaning, and his own poetic creed, as well as the philosophy of translation. He draws on a wealth of examples from literature in modern and medieval English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese. But it was the English poems that most excited me as I read these lectures in Hebrew translation. For the first time I discovered Keats, Byron, and Poe in Hebrew! For me this was utterly astonishing and mesmerizing, as if – well –

Rather than try to invoke my own metaphors, I will quote from one of the first poems that Borges quotes in this book, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" by John Keats. Keats wrote this sonnet when he read Homer in a new translation, finding it familiar and at once infused with something entirely new. When he read Chapman's translation, he felt "like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken; / Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men / Look'd at each other with a wild surmise-- / Silent, upon a peak in Darien." I too, in discovering Keats for the first time in Hebrew--both familiar and at once infused with something entirely new--felt like an astronomer who has just discovered a new planet, or like an explorer who has stumbled upon the Pacific Ocean. I knew by heart the poems that Borges was quoting, but all of a sudden, I was discovering them all over again!

As I read on in the Hebrew translation of Borges' lectures, I came upon many familiar English poems in Hebrew. Each time, I could hear the English pulsing underneath the surface, beating in my brain without any conscious effort on my part. The line that most struck me was from Frost, "And miles to go before I sleep." In Hebrew this became, "u-MIlin laLEchet b'TERem i-SHAN." I capitalize the stressed syllables to show how the Hebrew keeps the exact rhythm of the English, where the dactyls capture the heaving and falling of heavy footsteps in the snow. I was dazzled by this, as if the snow had suddenly begun to fall all around me on that hot June Jerusalem afternoon. Because only snow in the summer in Jerusalem would have been as strange and wondrous as Frost in Hebrew, I daresay.

Since first looking into Borges' Craft of Verse, I have read many other poets in Hebrew. My two most recent acquisitions are Gerard Manley Hopkins HaLev, Lev Harim Lo ("O the mind, mind has mountains") and Mark Strand's Ha'Sha'a HaMeucheret (The Late Hour). I particularly enjoyed reading Hopkins in Hebrew because the poet was a Jesuit priest who frequently invoked lines and phrases from the Bible. I was astonished to see that the word m'rachef was not used for "brood" in the line, "Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." This seems to me so obviously a reference to Deuteronomy 32:11: "Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, broods [y'rachef] over his hatchings." Apparently the translator did not agree. These, and other issues, preoccupy and fascinate me when I read favorite poems in Hebrew.

It may be, as Bialik said, that in reading Keats and Frost and Hopkins in Hebrew, I am kissing a woman through a veil. But I have kissed that woman many times by now – I know her lips and her eyes and the contours of her face so intimately after long hours holed up with my Norton anthologies. Now this woman comes out to me at once familiar and utterly new, walking behind veils of shimmering silk that are ever changing from purple, to red, to blue. Now they are opaque and now, for one moment, they are blessedly transparent, and I gaze like a watcher of the skies.

Personal ad (Sukkah 2a)

Looking for a temporary girlfriend, just for Sukkot

A woman who is taller than 20 meters is too tall for me.
(But my brother Yehuda, who is a giant, is OK with that.)
If she's shorter than 10cm,
Or is she does not have at least three friends she can lean on,
Or if she is not happy more often than she is sad,
Then she is not for me.

Ten Ways to Know that Summer is Over in Jerusalem

1. You can no longer find cherries anywhere, but the first blood-red pomegranates are in all the markets and even on some of the trees (like the one in my backyard).
2. You hear the sound of the shofar (if you are jogging in the streets at 7am, or, um, attending Shacharit – I guess).
3. The pizza parlors and ice cream shops are crowded with frum 18-year olds from America in knee socks (knee socks!), all just arrived for a year of yeshiva study, playing with their cell phones/Ipods/cameras (who can tell the difference?) while chewing big wads of bubble gum and chatting in loud Brooklyn accents….
4. The honey jars are by the cash register in all the supermarkets – the impulse buy of the season.
5. Colleagues start using the excuse, “Oh well, it’s nearly time for the holidays, when nobody does any work anyway.”
6. You can eat Shabbat dinner at a normal hour again.
7. The billboards on all the streets are plastered with ads about lectures on repentance: Tshuva! Tfillah! Tzedakah!
8. If you swim after 10am, you will not be splashed and bashed by the rowdy campers who hijack the pool all summer (hurrah!).
9. After a three-week lull, people start getting married again (like the very young and innocent-looking Hasidic couple whom I inadvertently bumped into last night on their way from the chuppah to the yichud room, when I took a wrong turn out of the cell phone shop in an otherwise deserted business complex in Givat Shaul that apparently also contains a very modest wedding hall….)
10. You open your daily planner to jot down a note for next week, and discover that you have come to the end of the book. Time to copy all the names and addresses into a new planner – whose names will be written in that book? Whose will not? Who by fire, and who by water? Yes, the holiday season has arrived…..

Monday, September 01, 2008

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Gitin Perek Aleph: המביא גת

You deliver a Get from afar
On a wagon, a goat, or a car.
When you hand it to her
You must clearly aver:
"Saw it written and signed, here you are!"

What's the reason for that declaration?
"There they mind not the dame's appellation,"
Raba says. "I say no,"
Rava says. "It is so:
Scarce are witnesses in those locations."

A woman may bring her own Get
Though not common, it's something we let
Her do, but she must state:
"They wrote, signed off my fate
In my presence, for my sobriquet."

If the witness did not see the scribe
Write the whole Get, but he can describe
Both the sound of the quill
And the scroll, if you will,
That's OK (if he's part of the tribe).

"I was home while the scribe did his thing
Though I left for the market to bring
Some food back while he wrote
Out the parchment Get note
Does my test'mony still have its zing?"

Is Bavel like Israel? Not so?
Must a witness say, "Saw, here you go"?
Bavel has many nooks
Filled with scholars with books;
They won't break to be witnesses, though.

How far does Bavel extend?
Does it reach to the river's last bend?
The second arch of the bridge
Is the outermost ridge --
Know this if it's a Get you must send.

The famed Hill Concubine went astray—
But what was her crime? Well, some say
'Twas a fly in his soup
That threw him for a loop
Or a hair (which is gross anyway).

Says Rav Chisda, "No man should instill
Excess fear in his household." Men will
Come home before Shabbat
Say, "Did you light or not?"
But their tone must be calm and not shrill.

Says Abahu: "No man should instill
Excess fear in his house." It could kill!
One man scared off his wife
And she gave him a knife
To dice up living limbs from the grill.

A groom may not wear on his head
Any crowns – though the bride may, instead.
With no Temple now stand-
Ing, the rabbis command:
We who sinned must now carefully tread.

If you see that you don't have much food
Do not sit around hungry and brood
Give some of your stuff
To those poorer; enough
So you'll be saved from hell. Ain't that shrewd?

If you're sailing atop a big ship
Into Israel (now that's a long trip!)
If there's some dirt aboard
Must you tithe for the Lord?
Must the seventh year's planting be skipped?

Every non-Israel land is impure
If you step there, you are too, for sure.
If you come in a box
Or a chest that has locks
Are you safe because you are immured?

If you hear when they hand you the Get
Then you turn deaf before you have met
Up with that fellow's wife
This is no cause for strife
Find the witnesses – they'll fix things yet.

A non-Jewish witness may sign
On a Get, on the dotted black line
If his name is not Roni
Or Yitzchak or Yoni
But James the Third, Lord Valentine!

Most Jews living outside of the land
(That is, Israel, so we understand)
Have the names of non-Jews
Because what would you choose
For your kid – Fruma Malka, or Fran?

Says a man: "Give this Get to my wife.
Nope! I now change my mind! By your life!"
May the husband retract?
Can he take the Get back?
If he's causing her gladness, not strife.

Rabbi Yirmyah was part of a group
Of men learning. His head soon did droop
He heard something not smart
And woke up with a start
He said: Kids! It's a good thing I snoop!

May a slave say (please don't think him rude):
"Give me liberty or give me food."
In a time of bad drought
Must the slave sit it out
With his master (and his attitude!).

If a sick slave is cured in a flash
We ask: Who gets to keep all the cash
That they now do not need
For medicinal weed?
Add it in to the master's great stash.

Many slaves do not want to be freed
If it means it's a wife they now need
Because they'd much prefer
Any servant girl – her,
Say, to sleep around with and thus breed.

The mom of some peddlers was ill
She said, "Here is what you must fulfill:
Give my daughter my pin
That I love, she's my kin."
And the sages complied with her will.