Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Code Orange: Towards a Theory of Romantic Love

My friend Dave showed up for our weekly midrash chevruta with stars in his eyes. His face was glowing and he seemed to be reeling as he stood there before me inside the doors of the coffee shop where we always meet. "Ilana, I'm in love," he told me, holding on to a table as if to prevent himself from falling over.

We did not learn very much Breishit Rabbah that day. Dave wanted to tell me all about his beloved – where he met her, what makes her so extraordinarily special, and why he is sure that she is "the one." I listened patiently, smiled at the appropriate moments, and registered my (genuine) happiness at seeing my friend in such good spirits. "Ilana," he told me, still gushing. "I always thought that relationships had to be difficult. Now I realize that they are only difficult when you are with the wrong person. In the two weeks we've been together, I've totally revised my theory of relationships. I'm just so happy!" I resisted the impulse to raise my eyebrows, and continued to smile.

The next morning at work, our assistant Mara knocked on my office door. "Hi, I'm here," she told me, and I noticed a new lilt in her voice. "You look good today," I told her, as indeed she did. "Yes, I'm good, I'm very good. I met a man yesterday!" she told me, and once again. I submitted to the blow-by-blow account.

In listening first to Dave and then to Mara, it was clear to me that they are in the Orange stage of their relationships, as I like to refer to it. This term is a reference to a poem by Wendy Cope, which by this point I have emailed to Dave and to Mara and to countless other friends who have come to me with glowing eyes and with romantic reports. I paste it here in full:

The Orange
By Wendy Cope

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all my jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.

Cope describes those glowing first moments of romantic love, in which we feel a newfound "peace and contentment" and even the smallest pleasures, like a huge orange, can bring a smile to our faces. This is a feeling familiar to many, I would hazard. Psycho-pharmacologists tell us that when we first fall in love, the brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that contribute to increased energy, rapid pulse, a sense of heightened perception, and a more positive outlook on life. Romantic love is thus not just an intense emotional experience, but a somatic one as well. Our body chemistry shifts when we fall in love, to such an extent that suddenly the very simple fact that we manage to complete all our chores can make us want to affirm how happy we are to be alive.

As well we should. We all reach for the proverbial orange when it presents itself on the Tree of our Lives. We all offer slices to those around us, regaling them with our rosy romantic reports. We relish the newfound peace and contentment, and we delight in saying those words for the first time yet again: "I love you."

Sadly, though, you can't have your orange and eat it too. The sweetness lingers on our lips for a while, but at some point the fruit is no more and we are left with pieces of peel, and thin white strings, and perhaps (if we have high standards) the transparent membrane that we've carefully removed from each individual slice. How many of us, at this stage, can still recite wholeheartedly the final line of Wendy Cope's poem?

I am an ardent believer in the miracle of romantic love, but I believe that it is, by necessity, short-lived -- even if the relationship itself turns out to be a lifelong one. It's impossible to see the world through orange-tinted glasses forever. And so as a counterpart to Wendy Cope, I offer the following poem, which I have read over many lonely lunches with no oranges to eat and no one to share them with:

By Kevin Young

Quite difficult, belief.
Quite terrible, faith

that the night, again,
will nominate

you a running mate–
that we are of the elect

& have not yetfound out.
That the tide

still might toss us up
another–what eyes

& stars, what teeth!
such arms, alive–

someone we will, all
night, keep. Not

just these spiders
that skitter & cobweb,

share my shivering bed.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Whore of Babylon (Kidushin 81b)

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

Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi lies on the stone floor, spreadeagled. He is praying.

There is no one else at home. It is market day, and his wife is out. He enjoys being alone in an empty house. Only this way does he find peace. It is strange, since the whole world lies open to him: the study house, the courtroom, the inn where he sometimes sleeps on fair days. She, his wife, is quiet and earnest, always in her corner between the stove and the stove, in a kerchief and gown. Twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, she goes out to the market.

"May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse!" This is a prayer he utters frequently. His body lies close to the foundation stone of the house, his limbs still sprawled out around him. His face is to the ground. He seeks to ward off untoward thoughts. He prays with great fervor and concentration, until his heart pulses to the rhythm of his prayers.

One day she came home by chance. In the morning she had prepared bread as was her custom each day, and as it was Monday, she set out for the market. When she left home he was standing in prayer, wrapped in his Tefillin. Shortly thereafter, she realized she had forgotten the basket of fish, and came back to retrieve it. The basket was not particularly important; she could have easily put the fish somewhere else. But it would contain the smell of the fish, which would otherwise stink up the fresh fruit. In any case, she returned at that very moment when he did not intend for anyone to see him. He thought he had the house all to himself when he cried: "May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse! May the Merrrcifful One saaaave meeee from the eeeevil impulsse!"

She was shocked to see her husband looking like a different man entirely. His body lay naked on the floor. He was without his usual pride and glory, without his characteristically even tone off voice. "And to think," she mused, "For several years he has not slept with me. What evil impulse could he possibly be so afraid of?" A sense of insult flared up inside her. Was there another woman?

She crept out of the room quietly and retreated to a side room. She stood in front of the mirror, passing her hand over the lines of her face. Her reflection was like the face of an elderly woman. Her kerchief was drawn tightly over her forehead, concealing her hair. Her eyes were sunken. Deep wrinkles lined both sides of her nose. She tried to smile, but her cheeks were like stones. Each Friday evening she would hope for him to approach her bed, which was carved into the wall, but each Friday evening she was once again disappointed.

"Bless you for reaching this point, for not clucking at one another like chickens," said the rabbi when she came to him somewhat embarrassed. She wanted to know whether they were still obligated in the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply," and whether her husband was still obligated to satisfy her sexually. The rabbi set her mind at ease or at least got rid of the pain, like dirt swept hastily into the corner of the room. But now the dirt was visible again.

She fled outside, without the accursed basket. She walked distraught nearly all the way to the market. The color fled from her pale cheeks and her heart beat rapidly. She thought only of her pain and shame.

When she returned back home her face was restored to its natural color. She set a pot to boil on the stove, rinsed fruits and vegetables, preserved the leftover quinces, sliced cucumbers for pickling. All the while, she concocted a plan.

On Thursday she left the house for market as usual, early in the morning. But instead of turning towards the western part of the market, where her fellow housewives made their way among the stalls, she continued on, as if in a daze. She headed in the direction of the caravans, towards the foreign vendors whose stalls lay beyond the purview of a proper woman. These vendors came from far off and sold clothes, spices, and jewelry to simple, ordinary women. Bangles jingled on their ankles. She approached, and with clenched hands she counted out her coins. She handed over half the money reserved for fruit and all the money set aside for fish, as well as the small sum she saved from week to week to buy a new cloth for the Sabbath table. As if in a dream, she selected a dress, jewels, sandals, and a belt, as well as a bundle of myrrh. She unfolded her sack and placed everything inside, and then left without saying a word.

At an earlier hour than usual she set her steps towards home. Nothing felt normal. The world was awry. "The honor of the king's daughter is within" (Psalms 45:14), she hummed to herself until she came to the alley that led to their house. In a secluded corner she put on the revealing dress, fastened the belt, freed her long hair from her kerchief, tied a dangling jewel around her wrist and a bangle around her ankle. The bangle set a new rhythm to her stride and her temples pulsed. "How lovely are your feet in shoes" (Song of Songs 7:2). She tied the bundle of myrrh around her neck so that it swayed between her breasts. After she finished getting dressed, she applied eye shadow to her eyelids with an unpracticed hand. When she approached the water cistern in the yard, she saw the face of a different woman entirely reflected in the water: the face of Libertina, she who instilled fear in all married women. "I am Libertina, the great whore of Babylon" she whispered. "May the Merciful One save you."

At that very moment, Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi was learning in the garden. A light breeze passed among the branches of the pomegranate and olive trees. The mishnah he was learning was difficult and his mind was unfocused. Suddenly he saw before him the image of a woman -- and what a woman she was! "What, who are you?" he asked, as if spellbound. "I am Libertina. I just returned," she replied indulgently, enjoying the game. She was surprised to find that she knew the rituals of courtship. She made her way towards him to the garden, at once close and distant, familiar and foreign. Her movements aroused him, quickening the pace of his heart.

He demanded that she sleep with him there on the dust among the weeds and thorns, where small rocks would cut into his flesh. He undressed like a man possessed, his body exposed to the world as if he were a dog. He scratched, he licked, he lusted; he craved the taste of her breath but she eluded his grasp again and again, until he pressed her desperately against the trunk of the tree, his hand on her nipple, and penetrated her like a sharpshooter. Then he moaned. It was different from anything he had ever known with his wife, with any woman ever. It brought him closer to the Merciful One than all of his prayers.

When he caught his breath again she asked, her expression firm, that he bring her a pomegranate from the top branch. He did not dare refuse her. His legs were covered in scratches from the tree branches, and when he climbed down the branch beneath him broke and he tumbled down after it. She took the fruit from his hand, casting a scornful glance at his open robe, his unkempt beard, the sweat on his brow.

When he limped into the house his wife was already lighting the stove. He felt as if his torn clothing and his scratches betrayed what he had done. He worried that the scent of Libertina clung to him and to his hair, which was still disheveled even after he combed through it with his fingers. His heart and soul felt undone too. There was no way to take back what he had done. He was consumed by guilt.

As if he were setting out on a long journey, he looked over at the bench beside the stove which seemed suddenly so inviting. He cast a parting glance at the carved beds, the washing corner, the good woman who had borne him his children, who had once made his spirit dance when he peered at her through the lattice from the men's section of the synagogue. The fire in the stove burned high and red, until the coals calmed to a steady blue. He entered the stove and sat inside.

With her two strong arms she pulled out his faint body, and it was as if he was being birthed from inside the stove. When he awoke, his legs were wrapped in rags soaked in oil. She asked quietly, "Why?"

For a moment he remained silent, and then he told her the whole story. The words flowed from his mouth as if he were feverish, as if he could not hide anything from her now. He had decided earlier that there was no point in confessing to her, that it would only cause her pain, that it was better to stay silent, that she would not be able to understand. She listened calmly, and when he finished she said, "It was I."

He knew that this was his opportunity for love, even redemption, but he averted his glance. "But in any case, my intention was to sin," he told her.

She raised her arm as if to object, and her wrist jingled. She unfastened the jeweled bracelet and placed it on the kitchen table.

This story is based on a sugya from Kidushin 81b, translated here:

Rabbi Chiya ben Ashi,
Whenever he would prostrate himself in prayer,
Would say: "May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse!"
One day his wife heard him.
She said: "Given that for several years he has not engaged in sexual relations with me,
Why is he saying that?"
One day he was learning in his garden.
She adorned herself, passed by, and came before him.
He said to her: "Who are you?"
She said: "I am Libertina (Cheruta). I've just returned from a day of work."
He demanded that she sleep with him.
She said to him: "Bring me that pomegranate from the top of the tree."
He jumped up and brought it to her. When he came home, his wife was lighting the stove.
He went and sat inside it.
She said, "What is this about?" He said, "Such and such happened."
She said to him: "It was I."
He said to her: "But in any case, my intention was to sin."

Striking passages from Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches (read on Shabbat Chanukah)

"When I lit the fire this morning, a pompadour styling of flame came forward from underneath and swooped back around a half-detached piece of bark. Right now there is one flame near the front that has a purple under painting but a strong opacity of yellows and oranges and whites: it is flapping like one of those pennants that used to be strung around the used-car lots. You don't see those so much anymore: multicolored vinyl triangular flags on cords that hopeful sales managers hung from pole to pole to offer a sense of carnival."

"I would like to visit the factory that makes train horns, and ask them how they are able to arrive at that chord of eternal mournfulness. Is it deliberately sad? Are the horns saying, Be careful, stay away from this train or it will run you over and then people will grieve, and their grief will be as the inconsolable wail of this horn through the night?"

"Our bedroom was still quite dark when I got up. I felt for my glasses on the bedside table in the tender way one uses for glasses, as if one's fingers are antennae, so as not to get smears on them."

"What you do first thing can influence your whole day. If the first thing you do is stump to the computer in your pajamas to check your email, blinking and plucking your proverbs, you're going to be in a hungry electronic funk all morning. So don't do it."

"'You've got to get cold to get warm,' Phoebe said. Now that is the truth. That is so true about so many things. You learn it first with sheets and blankets: that the initial touch of the smooth sheets will send you shivering, but their warming works fast, and you must experience the discomfort to find the later contentment. It's true with money and love, too. You've got to save to have something to spend. Think of how hard it is to ask out a person you like. In my case, Claire asked me to go on a date to the cash machine, so I didn’t actually have to ask her. Still, her lips were cold, but her tongue was warm."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Gittin: Perek Gimel כל הגט

A man wrote a Get, changed his mind
Then that same Get another did find
The men had the same names
And so too did their dames
But the Get can't be reused, re-signed.

A man cannot say to his scribe
"Write a Get for some wife in my tribe."
No, he must clearly state
Which wife. Must designate
By her name -- or at least must describe.

Write a Get for the wife who comes first
Through the door. Is that poor woman cursed?
Which is former, which latter
This is not a matter
In his hands. It could be reversed.

Said a father: We'll now have a race
And the child that comes in first place
For him I will slaughter
(What if it's a daughter?)
The Paschal lamb in God's home base.

Shmuel says: Every Get must have space
For this line to be written some place:
"Behold you're permit-
Ted to all men befit-
Ting." Or else she's still his to embrace.

Don't put names on a Get in advance
To avoid some such bad circumstance
Of a dame who walks by,
Hears her name on the fly
Spoken by a Get-scribe, just by chance.

A Get's like a gun. Do not keep
One around in the house where you sleep.
For you might have a fight
With your wife late one night,
Hand it over, and oh! How she'd weep.

If you drop your wife's Get in the street
And then find it beneath others' feet.
May the Get still be given
Though it has been ridden
Over by most people you meet?

If a lost Get turns up in a box;
In the wallet of one with gray locks
In a fact'ry for flax
In the market stall sacks
Is the marriage now still on the rocks?

How long may a Get go astray
Such that it if it is found, it's OK?
For as long as no man
Passed; or no caravan
For the time 'til you read it, you say?

When the Get-giving man is quite old
At the age of strength (eighty, we're told)
If he hands you the Get
He may die while you've yet
To deliver. Think he's not yet cold?

If the court proclaims: "Husband is dead."
Do you let the wife go and re-wed?
He might not yet be
Dead indubitably
Even courts have at times, yes, misled!

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!!"

Death is more common than wealth
People sadly can lose their good health
But they don't find a stash
Often of lots of cash
Got rich quick? We suspect you of stealth.

Check your Truma wine three times a year:
When the gust of the east wind you hear,
When the grape clusters show
When with water they grow
Make sure it's not now vinegar, dear!

God sent a big wind that beat hard
Down on Jonah's head. Thereby it marred
His day. Jonah grew faint
And quite full of complaint
That's the east wind – against it do guard!

You may think of the wind as quite mild
But the "Shadya" wind grows very wild!
It can make a pearl rot,
Make one's seed go to pot
Cause a woman to lose her next child!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Parashat Vayetze: An Edible Midrash

Marshmallow angels with split pea eyes
climb up and down a candy ladder
above a pile of chocolate avnei hamakom
flanked by gummy dudaim
and white (Lavan) Elite chocolate cows

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Poem for Parashat Vayetze

ותאמר לאה ליעקוב

נפגעתי, נרדמתי על מקומך הקשה
גופי נפרש כסולם
שתי ידיך, כמלאכים, עלו וירדו בי
ודשו את קרבי לאינספור גרגרי חול
לא ניתן להבחין ביניהם—
לא ניתן להבחין ביני לבינה
(אכן הייתי במקומה – ואתה לא ידעת)
מכל שתתן לי, בתי היא לך.

Monday, December 01, 2008

You're Invited to View My Photos!!!

I'm invited to view your photos!!!
But maybe, just maybe, I couldn't care less?
Your swaddled new infant, in pink cap or blue cap
In mom's arms, then dad's arms, then still, fast asleep.
I've seen it before, far too many times over
First smile! First bottle! First eyes open wide—
Well I can't be wide-eyed! Your blah blah baby bores me.
I can't ooh and ahh when you cry "He adores me."
So thanks for the photos, and sorry to Snap-
Fish around for another to view the whole slide show.
Though I'm sad to miss out on what Baby just did now,
Delete! To the trash! He's a garbage pail kid now.
The phone rings. It's you: "Did you look at my beauty?"
I grimace. I pause. I squeal: "Oh what a cutie!"