Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Trouble with Poetry

(in homage to Billy Collins)

Most of the truly beautiful poems I know
Go something like this:
I was about to give up on life
When suddenly I saw (fill in the blank:
You, the beauty of nature,
The glory of God), and decided
That maybe it was worth it, after all.

I’d tired of that.
What happened to poetry’s golden rule:
That which others do unto their poetry,
Do not do unto yours?
Where is the valorization of despair,
The darkness devoid of divinity,
The clink of the coin at the bottom of the empty wishing well?

Late at night I scribble away
And morning does not always come.
The last line is a railroad terminus:
Graffitied walls,
Low ceilings,
Nobody going,
And nowhere to go.

Frogs, Friendship, and other Fairy Tales

"Acquire for yourself a friend," say the sages, and I have been going about this business dutifully. Needless to say, I would prefer to have one friend who renders all other friends a frivolous distraction, like Rabbi Akiva's The Frog. For Rabbi Akiva, who takes literally Exodus 8:2, the second plague in Egypt consisted of one giant frog that covered the face of the land. The other rabbis were not too keen on this idea, and responded dismissively: "Akiva, what are you doing making up stories? Desist from this nonsense and go back to studying the laws of skin blemishes and enclosed tents" (Sanhedrin 67b). I, like Akiva, cannot stop making up stories. I fall asleep conjuring The Frog who will once and for all overlook my blemishes and come to my tent in the guise of a handsome prince.

In daylight hours, I desist from this nonsense and go about making new friends. Heavy of heart, I find it easier to start from scratch, not becoming closer with casual acquaintances (who, not having just been through the loss of you, seem as foreign to me as aliens on Uranus) but with those who work in all the places I frequent. There is Anwar at Aroma, who prepares my coffee every Sunday and Wednesday afternoons and has made a pact with me to speak only in Hebrew, though it is neither of our first languages. There is Carlos from Colombia, security guard by day and yeshiva student by night, who struck up a conversation on the bus when he noticed me learning daf yomi, and whom I stop to greet in my rudimentary Spanish whenever I pass by the store he guards. There is Rona behind the counter of the wine shop, who gave me fancy ribbons with which to wrap the colorful spices that I buy in bulk at the shuk and then package as gifts for friends. And there is Igor, the Russian dry cleaner, who showed me how to fashionably cuff my pants over my boots. These new friends know nothing about my past. They take me as I am, on my own terms, happy to see me whenever I show up at their respective posts.

Of course, my new friends do not afford me the pleasures of deep conversation; nor can they offer me a shoulder on which to cry. But for now, that is not what I need. In these rawest of moments I relish the hours alone. I think of a quote attributed to Balzac that was pasted in my locker way back in high school: "Solitude is fine. But you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine." These friends serve to legitimate my solitude (which is not even a total solitude, thanks to my beloved family and friends in m'dinat hayam). We are all, in some moments, alone; and in that sense we are all in this together, like millions and millions of frogs dotting the surface of the earth in anticipation of the promised redemption.

Reviewing the Reviews

When I was growing up, The New York Times Book Review arrived on our doorstep every Saturday morning with the rest of the paper, and I was always the first to read it. I had little interest in the front-page news; each week, I cast aside headlines about wars and elections and dove straight into the book review. I was excited to see what new books had come out, which of the authors I had already read had published a new book, and how readers had responded to the previous week's reviews. Later, when I began working in publishing, I had other reasons for my addiction to the Book Review section: I wanted to see whether any of the books I had worked on had made it to the bestseller list (um, never), and how the books published by rival companies had fared. I wouldn't leave the breakfast table until I had read the whole section cover to cover, which meant that on most Shabbat mornings, I arrived quite late to shul….

In Israel, where I live now, the book review section arrives as part of the Wednesday paper, and so I am finished with it long before Shabbat. Haaretz Sfarim has replaced (or, more accurately, supplemented) The New York Times Book Review in my reading diet, but I devour it just as voraciously. Haaretz, too, has a bestseller list modeled after the New York Times list (with all the same data, categories, and even the same layout); and Haaretz, like the Times, reviews about a dozen books in each issue. But that is where the similarities end, and the peculiarities of Israeli publishing and the Israeli literary community set in.

First of all, over half the books reviewed in each Haaretz Sfarim section are translated titles. Likewise, a significant number of the bestselling titles are Hebrew renderings of English, French, German, Spanish or Italian titles (in roughly that order of frequency). Often I find myself reading reviews of titles that were reviewed in the New York Times Book Review two years ago. It is a bit of a strange experience to read a Hebrew article about a biography of John Adams; though I suppose it feels no more incongruous than my Israeli friends' experience of reading books about Torah in English. And speaking of books about Jewish subjects, there is often at least one of those per issue; my favorite recently-reviewed Jewishly-related title was a book of recipes corresponding to the various weekly Torah portions, with lentil soup for Toldot and quail egg salad for B'haalotcha. Imagine seeing that one in the New York Times!

Other features of the Haaretz Sfarim section include a cartoon on the third page of every issue, which always involves at least one person who is reading a book. (A recent cartoon during the Gaza war was of a couple sitting in their living room absorbed in their books, oblivious to the air raid sirens blasting on the radio.) There is also the section on libraries, in which the owner of a vast home library somewhere in the country is profiled and asked several stock questions: How many books do you own? In which languages? What is your policy on lending books? Like the equally-fascinating "family" section in the weekly Haaretz magazine, which profiles a different Israeli family each week, this library profile is a reminder that in a country of seven million inhabitants, it is easier to depict the variegated whole by means of once-a-week samplings. Finally, each issue includes a literary riddle, in which the bookish detective A. Tzofia cracks a case by means of her familiarity with a particular work of literature. The identity of that work is left to the reader to figure out, and the answer is printed in the next week's issue. You can be sure that come the following Wednesday morning, I am one of the first people to check.

Written for The Jewish Agency for Israel's Makom:

Friday, January 23, 2009

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Kidushin, Perek Aleph (האשה נקנית), Dapim 1-20

How is a woman acquired?
When one of three things has transpired—
Give money, a writ,
Or just go and do "it"
("It" is sex. Should that be your desire.)

You can go buy a woman with cash
(Buy a few if you've got a big stash.)
We know this from the field
Bought by Avram (whose shield
Was God). This purchase should not be rash!

Is "Derech" a masculine noun?
Or feminine? Cases abound.
On matters semantic
The Talmud's pedantic.
"No way!" "Way!" This word gets around.

The way of a man is to court
A woman. He does this for sport.
If you lose something dear
You go hunt far and near
It does not hunt for you. Men, cavort!

The money that's paid for a wife
Does not go to the girl. She'd cause strife
If she kept all the bucks
It's for Dad. (Yes, it sucks—
He gets all, though she gives her whole life.)

Can a woman say, "I hereby make
You my husband." That is, can she take
Him instead of vice versa
Say, give him her purse. A
Fair trade. But the deal would not take.

A woman would rather be wed
Than lie all alone in her bed.
Better two bods than one—
Is it really more fun?
(She could buy a warm blanket instead?)

"Half of you is now wed unto me"
Says the groom. Bu can such a thing be?
No, a woman's not fit
To be midway down split
If she weds, she weds full-bodily!

"I will give you a penny right now
For your daughter. And also your cow."
Is the coin for the chick
Or for both? It's a trick--
Half a penny is never allowed.

"With this coin I thee wed unto me"
She then tosses it into the sea.
The coin's gone forever
Is their bond now severed?
"I did it to test him!" (her plea).

"Be my wife with this loaf of fresh bread."
A dog's chasing her! Soon she'll be dead!
She throws bread to the beast
It slows down for the feast
She escapes. Is she single, or wed?

A man's picking dates from a tree.
She says, "Throw down two dates please for me"
He said, "If I so do
Will you then be my true
Wife?" "Throw fruit, please" she cries, eagerly.

"Say, how much would you give for your son?"
"I have two dollars. I'd give you one."
"And how much for your gal?"
"That's about right, my pal."
They are wed! Raise a glass, everyone!

An engaged woman waits to be wed
Ten men come and they rape her instead
When they get in her sack
They go in from the back.
Never mind! Stone them 'til they are dead.

A girl's spouse-to-be starts penetrating
She accepts Kiddushin from one waiting
Patiently by her side.
Now we need to decide:
During sex, do we say they're still dating?

Said Ben Bag Bag, "I don't understand—
All the sages say you're a smart man
That you know Torah's rooms--
Yet it's you who assumes
Eating truma – engaged women can."

You discover a blemish. You say:
"I will not keep you, wife. Go away!"
If the servant's thus marred
You'd still keep her. Not hard
To see why. Wives are for work and play.

If a woman takes as Kiddushin
Coins at night, when not much can be seen.
If she thinks it's a pruta
Then morning comes: "Shoot! A
Half pruta? That guy is obscene!"

"You're my wife with this fine myrtle mat."
Cries the woman, "You think I'm worth that?"
He says, "Look deep inside
There are four coins that hide
There. Take those." Does the whole deal fall flat?

There once was a woman who sold
Lovely ribbons. There came a man bold
He stole quite a few
She cried, "Give them back, you!"
He said, "Marry me." How do we hold?

Chalitzah is done with a shoe
Take it off him, then throw it. You do
It with sneaker and sandal
But don't cause a scandal
With footwear he can't fit into.

A slave may not wish for a wife
But his master may say, "Make new life!"
Then he must procreate
With a Canaanite date
Lest the master accuse him of strife.

A Canaanite slave lost his arm
While plowing his master's great farm
The slave then goes free
Yes, indubitably--
It's the price he gets paid for his harm.

When a Canaanite slave girl goes free
After six years laboriously
Spent, she gets some nice cash
At her big send-off bash
Hey girl, pocket the dough and then flee!

A master may say to his slave-
Girl, "Fantastic are you! How I rave!
I shall make you all mine
In my bed, you'll fit fine."
Is she wed or engaged to the knave?

Can a master say, "Servant girl, you
Are not quite right for me, it is true.
But I'll give you my son,
He's a minor, but hon'
He'll be yours someday." Can he thus do?

All your slaves must be treated with care
With good mattress, good wine, and good fare.
Say, if you eat fine bread
Don't give stale cakes instead
To him. Ye who buy slaves should beware!

Waiting at Lights

I have joined the community of people who wait at traffic lights.
Curbside I stand, shuffle my feet—
Glance at the red—still red—and obey.
Strange for these moments, no rush and no bustle
No hazarding vainly:
Because I could not stop for lights
They'd kindly stop for me.
Off in the distance, the screech of a stop short, the rustle of trees in the wind.
Is this what it's like
To wait at a light?
Who knew?
Still. Red. I will not be cross,
Will not cross.
I smile and lift up my arm
To wave at the man on the other side
Waiting like me – does he think me a stranger?
Oh welcome me sir
To the community of people who wait at lights,
Greet me, entreat me
To enter this stillness, this silent suspension
This wondrously new world of waiting at lights.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Women of Seder Nashim: לקראת סיום

We just finished Sefer Breishit and said Chazak chazak v'nitchazek -- these words have special resonance for me today as I mark my completion of Seder Nashim.

Nashim of course means women, but the connection between Seder Nashim and women is not necessarily obvious. The Seder consists of seven tractates – Yevamot (which deals with levirate marriage, that is, the plight of a woman whose husband dies leaving no heir), Ketubot (which deals with marriage contracts and the rules and regulations governing married life), Nedarim (about vows), Nazir (about the Nazir, the individual consecrates himself to God for a period of time), Sotah (about a woman suspected of adultery), Gittin (about bills of divorce) and Kiddushin (about the laws of betrothal). Five of these tractates deal with marriage and its dissolution, that is, the laws governing male-female relationships. But this does not explain Nedarim and Nazir. One possible explanation for the name Nashim is to be found in the Cambridge manuscript of Seder Nashim, which calls the first tractate of this Seder by the name Nashim (rather than Yevamot), since it begins with the phrase חמש עשרה נשים. If so, then the name Nashim may be as relevant to the actual content of the material it encompasses as the name Chayey Sarah is relevant to the content of that parsha -- that is, not very relevant at all.

To better understand the connection between the content of Seder Nashim and women, I thought I might look at how women are portrayed in this Seder. Here, though, I found two very different pictures, depending on whether I focused on the realm of halacha or aggadah. When it comes to the halachot of this tractate --which treats such questions as Which women are exempt from levirate marriage? How is a woman acquired by a man? May a woman deliver her own Get? When can a husband nullify his wife's vow?, among many others-- we find ourselves presented with a view of how men want social relations to work. In fact, I have heard that Nedarim is generally considered to be part of Seder Nashim because so much of it deals with the way women attempt to control men through their vows, and the way in which men respond by annulling them. In the normative world of the halachot of this Seder, we are confronted with a legal and social system created by men to control and domesticate women. But if halacha is the world as the rabbis thought it should be, then its counterpart, aggadah, gives us a glimpse of the rabbis' world as it actually was – filtered, of course, through the ever-delightful, ever-surprising rabbinic imagination. Here, the picture that emerges is startlingly different.

In the world of the Aggadah, we meet the women who carried their baskets of fish through the marketplaces where the rabbis shopped, tended the fires where they warmed their feet in the evening, and showed up in the rabbinic courts with claims against their neighbors. In the richly-imagined aggadot of Seder Nashim, we meet a young girl who, while sitting on her father's lap, announces to him who she wants to marry; and a woman who defiles herself during her period of Nezirut when she learns that her daughter has died; and a woman who comes before the greatest sage of her day to complain about the way in which her husband has intercourse with her. And then there are the women who are mentioned by name. With the help of Tal Ilan's book Mine and Yours are Hers, I counted twenty women in total who are mentioned by name in the aggadot of this Seder. In the hope of becoming better acquainted with the women of Seder Nashim, I have divided these women into four categories. Today I'd like to quickly run through each of the four categories --Dutiful wife, Aristocrat, Seductress, and Fabricated, Fantasy Woman-- and present one woman from each category through a story in which she is featured.

First, the Dutiful Wife. The most obvious example of this category is Rabbi Akiva's wife Rachel, discussed in both Ketubot (62b) and Nedarim (50a). She is the daughter of a wealthy man who marries the poor Akiva and allows him to leave her for 24 years to study Torah, a quality that the rabbis regard as praiseworthy. But in neither of these sugyot is Rachel mentioned by name, so I will focus instead on another figure, Imma Shalom, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.

In Nedarim 20a-b, amidst an extended discussion of the techniques of married sex between a man and his wife, a group of students ask Imma Shalom, "How is it that your sons are so exceedingly handsome?" She responds, "He does not make love to me at the beginning of the night or at the end of the night, and when he does, he uncovers one portion and covers another portion and appears as though possessed by demons." The word used for "make love" here is מספר, which conjures the image of Rabbi Eliezer whispering in his wife's ear during their cohabitation. Imma Shalom does not seem to have any problem with the fact that her husband sleeps with her while she is covered by a sheet -- she is quite obliging about the whole matter. When she asks Rabbi Eliezer why he acts in this manner, he tells her, "So that I do not lay my eyes on another woman." Imma Shalom serves, in this sugya, as a source for information on rabbinic sexual practices; though as the continuation of this sugya shows, these practices were probably not normative. Still, it is interesting that a woman was not afraid to speak openly about such intimate matters, and seems to do so with a degree of pride and self-assuredness.

The next category I would like to consider is the aristocratic woman, namely the case of Marta bat Baytos, who is introduced in Masechet Yevamot as the wife of the High Priest Joshua ben Gamla. The most extended treatment of Marta bat Baytos appears in Gittin 56a, which she is portrayed as a heartless millionairess of the period prior to the destruction of the Temple. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, when provisions were scarce, she insists that her messenger bring her the choicest flour. But nothing he brings her satisfies her highly refined tastes, and so Marta decide to set out on her own in search of food. When she walks out, a piece of dung sticks to her heel and she dies instantly.

Marta bat Baytos is what we might call a priss; she cannot handle the sight of anything unrefined or undignified or beneath her station. I personally invoke her name any time I don't want to walk in the mud because I am wearing good shoes, or any time I step in dog poop (which happens quite often on the sidewalks of Jerusalem to those of us who read while walking). At these moments, I find myself reciting the verse that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai recited about Marta bat Baytos: "The most tender and delicately bred woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her food upon the ground" (Deut. 28:56).

Next, the woman as seductress. Here I briefly consider two examples, Cheruta and Choma. Cheruta is the infamous whore of Babylon, known to be sexually irresistible. In Kidushin 81b she is invoked by the wife of Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi, who is frustrated that her husband has not slept with her for several years. This is presumably his attempt to become more pious, yet each day he prostrates himself and cries, "May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse." Chiya bar Ashi's wife has had it with her husband's tortured piety, so one day she dresses up like Cheruta and seduces her husband in the garden. Her husband succumbs, and then, wracked by guilt, walks in the door of the house and climbs into the burning hot oven, where he will not be consoled. Although Cheruta herself does not figure in this story, it is clear that she exerted a powerful hold over the imagination of both men and women in the Talmud's world; it is not surprising that her name, from Cherut, suggests total sexual freedom and licentiousness.

The other seductress whom I find too irresistible to omit from this discussion is Choma, the widow of Abayey, who insists that the court grant the allotment of wine that she feels is due to her upon her husband's death. Instead of elaborating on this story here, I will simply read a sonnet that I wrote about the sugya in which she figures, Ketubot 65a.

Sonnet: Ketubot 65a

Abayey's wife, named Choma, came to court
She barked, "Dole out my food!" So Rava did.
She then said, "Next my wine – now be a sport."
Fair Rava said, "I can't do as you bid."

"But hubby dear served wine in glasses tall!
How tall, you ask? I'll show you." Choma raised
Her hands above her head; her sleeves did fall
Revealing shoulders bright. So Rava gazed.

Quick, quick ran Rava home, his loins aflame
And laid his wife to bed. She gasped: "Explain!
Who was in court?" "Er…Choma was her name."
His wife's eyes flashed in envy, rage, disdain.

So Rava's wife beat Choma to the ground:
"You've killed three men," she screamed. "Now leave this town!"

Choma is an example of an Isha Katlanit, a deadly woman – that is, a woman who has been married to a series of men all of whom have died in her lifetime. This is what Rava's wife alludes to when she cries out, "You've killed three men!" This sugya suggests that for all that Abayey and Rava may have been Bar Plugta, any debate in the domesticated world of the Beit Midrash would have surely paled in comparison to this vicious confrontation between their wives….

Finally, the fabricated, fantasy woman. Here I am referring to midrashim about women's names, in which the name of the woman is the very essence of the story in which she is mentioned. The classic example in Seder Nashim (in Nedarim 66b) is that of Lichluchit, a woman who husband says to her, "I vow that I will not enjoy sexual relations with you unless you can show me one fair aspect of your physical appearance." The case is brought before the sage Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose, who tries to find a way of forfeiting the man's vow. He asks, "Perhaps her head is fair?" But he tells her it is round. "Perhaps her hair is fair?" It resembles stalks of flax. "Perhaps her stomach is fair?" It sags. And on and on. In the end, the rabbi says to the husband, "Perhaps her name is fair?" and the husband responds that her name is Lichluchit, which means "filthy" or "soiled" (and is the modern Hebrew name for Cinderella). The sage rules, "It is fair that she is called Lichluchit since she is filthy in every aspect." And thus the vow is forfeited, and the woman is permitted to her husband. This sugya reminds me of Shakespeare's sonnet 130, "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun," which ends with the speaker declaring that although his mistress is flawed in all her features, she is redeemed by the fact that at least she is described accurately: "And yet by heaven," reads the sonnet, in the language not of a Neder but a Shvua, "I think my love more rare / as any she belied with false compare."

In dividing these women into four categories, I aim to create some sort of typology of the women of the Talmud, though of course this classification system is by no means exhaustive. So often, when the Talmud teaches one thing, it then goes on to teach its opposite; and thus no statement and no classification system can exist independent of the larger matrix of the corpus it represents. I think this point is well illustrated by referencing the Tosefta at the end of Kidushin, the last Masechet I learned and the one with which I will conclude my siyum in a few moments. The rabbis state on the final daf of Seder Nashim, "It is impossible to have a world without both males and females, but blessed is the one whose sons are male and woe to the one whose sons are female." The Tosefta discusses Avraham, who, as we know from Sefer Breishit which we also concluded this morning, had two sons: "And thus we see with Avraham our Father, whom God blessed in his old age more than in his youth, as it is written, 'And Avraham was old, coming on in years, and God blessed Avraham with everything [Bakol].'" The rabbis go on to discuss what is meant by "with everything" -- what was the nature of Avraham's blessing? Rabbi Meir says, "That he did not have a daughter." Several other opinions are offered. The final opinion, cited anonymously, is: "Avraham had a daughter and her name was Bakol." This is Talmudic subversiveness at its best -- הפוך בה והפוך בה, and Avraham's blessing becomes not his lack of sons but his daughter whose name was Bakol.

From here we move to the final sugya of the masechet, which is about the value of learning Torah, an activity which is declared as being preferable to all professions and trades. Here too, we hear echoes of Sefer Breishit – specifically of God's curse to Adam that he shall have to make his living by the sweat of his brow. I will read this final sugya through, as is traditional in a siyum, and then recite a sonnet on it:

Sonnet: Kidushin 82b

Shimon ben Elazar said: "No such thing
Is there as deer that take out figs to dry
No heavy burden bears the lion king
No cunning fox sells goods for men to buy.

Nay, only man doth plow and till and hoe
And work from dawn to dusk just to afford
His food. Though beasts serve man, they do not know
Of toil. Why must man, who serves the Lord?

For labor is man's punishment for sin."
Nehorai thought, "Well, that's a rotten lot.
I'd give up every job, I'd trade it in
And train my son in Torah. Heck, why not?

A job may suit a young man when he's spry;
But Torah gives old men the wings to fly."

I feel fortunate to have a profession that enables me to study Torah, and a community that supports me in this pursuit. May Torah be a source of strength for all of us – Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek.