Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Elmallah, Bouk 3, image 6

I have been working for many months preparing the illustrations for an edition of Bouk 3 of The Song ov Elmallahz Kumming. Last night I completed the 6th image. It shows Dumuzee, the Sumerian shepherd king. Captured by Areyan invaders, his spirit has escaped into the sky. It is based on an Assyrian bas relief in the British Museum.

Here are the lines that accompany the illustration:

Awl hiz serven herd the kruel lamment.
Thay herd the dry north wind
Wining thru the fouthillz.
Thay herd the kish-kish russelling
Ov leevz along the foutpathz.
Thay saw the hunter-king
Fawl owt ov the nite-time sky.

Thay saw the ram assend
Tu skip along the star-kragz.

    "Dumuzee haz eskaept!"
Hiz serven awl howl.
Now the bitter lamment iz thaerz.  Thay say:
    "He haz gon free
    "Wile owr chieldz ar made slaevz by hiz kurs."


And here are 4 variations of the completed image. Click on an image to expand it, and you should be able to scroll thru the images. That's the only way you'll be able to differentiate them. Your comments and preferences, as always, are much valued.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sam Kleinman: A memorable fancy

Sam Kleinman zt"l was an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, who owned the Schuylkill Book and Curio Shop in a very dreary and rundown section of the city (Lancaster and Belmont Avs). From the first time I stepped into that book shop I knew it was mythic, and I was stepping up a plane or two in the esoteric levels of reality. Titans and demons were lounging around in his shop, inside of boxes, behind staggering piles of old books that were supported by other leaning and staggering piles, up in the dirty light fixtures. They were telling old tales and smutty jokes, smoking cigars, and sniping at the way things are.

I met Sam in 1970 as a sophomore at Penn, and spent untold hours in his "store". 'Store' is in quotes because it wasn't a normal bookshop with volumes arranged in some kind of order on shelves. There were a couple of locked metal cabinets, a shelf or two, and the rest of the space was full of piles of books and piles of boxes of books. I was allowed to rummage thru them, looking for poetry, old mythologies, medieval and modern psychology, and undiscovered Blakean geniuses.

It was in this kind of unpretentious (to say the least) chaos (to say the least), that one day after I'd been showing up at his door sporadically for a couple of years, he opened one of those locked metal cabinets and showed me an original Blake, possibly Songs of Experience (gasp!!!). As unknowledgeable as I was, I about fell on the floor. It was the most notable (by an exponential factor or 2) of the many treasures he showed me over the years, treasures I was mostly unable to appreciate or understand at the time.

I guess Sam liked me for some reason, me an unkempt hippy living on the edge. Indeed, he was profoundly kind to me, generous in every meaning of the term, and I remember more than once walking the mile and a half or so back to Penn (I had no money to throw away on buses or streetcars, especially after dropping $10 or $20 in his shop) with a *large* box of books hoisted on my shoulder.

I remember once, while I was searching thru stacks of boxes in a back room, someone knocked on the door. Sam didn't want walk-ins so he kept the door locked and usually just shooed people away. (Was I the only exception??) After a few moments he came back to me in a back room, where I sat on the floor, face streaked and hands black with dust after a long session of hunting thru boxes. He was chuckling.
"The guy wondered if I had any dirty books. I told him I had hundreds of boxes of them, but not the kind he wanted."
I was so clueless I didn't get the humor! He had to explain it to me, probably with a look of wonder and pity on his face.

Sam Kleinman. May his memory be a blessing. It is to me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969 (well actually, 1973)

Over the weekend I had an intense, remarkable, and troubling dream. Here’s the background, and then the dream:

The dream occurred during an approximately 36 hour period where I was immersed in a fairly powerful LSD-like experience. I did not choose to enter into this experience, it was often anxiety-inducing, and it remains unexplained, or unconvincingly explained. There is the possibility that it was caused by eating a particular kind of blue cheese. I ate an ounce or 2 of the cheese before the experience came on, and another ounce or 2 during the experience, not realizing it might cause such a reaction.

Naturally, it is very hard to describe the experience since it was outside of what we call “normal consciousness.” Here’s an attempt.

Primarily, my thoughts were being elevated so that I was experiencing them like they were, somehow, independent threads of reality, threads that didn’t “bubble up” from my brain, but rather, my “brain” was tapping into these threads that were brief segments of a full reality independent of me. I would melt back and forth between these semi-parallel realities. If we use the metaphor of a bubble to describe a brief thought, we might describe it as 1) momentary, 2) brain-centered, and 3) stimulus generated, and like a bubble that emerges and then dissipates-bursts and is gone, so our normal thoughts seem to emerge and disappear (although, of course we know that they do have some kind of subconscious continuity and independence).

These thoughts seemed very different. They were not momentary but seemed to be enduring; not brain-centered but seemingly independently created beyond the brain; and not stimulus-generated, but rather, somehow, embedded in the stimulus, whatever that stimulus might be; which is to say, released/exposed as a part of the stimulus-experience. The stimuli could be a sensory impression, an emotion, a related thought, a biological need expressing itself (like hunger, etc). I would find myself emerging from these threads back to my physical-centered awareness (say, sitting in a room reading), and it would be unclear how long I had been diverted into these thoughts, though generally it was not long, measured by a clock.

There was a strange but distinctly “effervescent” quality to consciousness, something between bubbles bursting and bubbles dissolving, as I moved from one state of awareness to the next. Normally consciousness is smooth, textureless, fluid, and continuous. In this state, however, there were thin “membranes” that distinguished between passing states/thoughts/moments, and as I crossed through these membranes, it would be almost like waking up to a new reality, with the awareness of crossing a “border”.

That is at least an attempt at an accurate phenomenological description.

Now here’s the dream, or rather, the thin fragment, much stripped down and reduced to knowable images, that I remember:

I was down on the national mall. Much activity. People were playing sports. Professionals? I got some document and had to separate it into pieces along perforations. But as I began, the perforations began to disappear, causing the document to tear unevenly. And then it merged into a kind of plastic, layered, rectangular, thin box, maybe 1'x2'. Hard to describe and unlike any object I’m familiar with. But the realization was that it was multi-layered and that my document was now submerged into this object, and now the surface was becoming sealed and the layers inaccessible. I could still feel them. The surface was thin and malleable, and as I ran my fingers across the surface, I felt a lumpy interior. Then it became like the mall, or it was the mall all along, and all this activity was also submerging and disappearing. Then almost nothing was left but a smooth surface, as people disappeared; a smooth brown plastic surface.

As I woke, or perhaps while still in the dream, the plastic rectangle/mall became the symbol/image of my life, and then all human life, emerging and disappearing, leaving no trace in the end. And I saw that all my ambitions were in vain, and even meaningless or useless. Even the great names -- I thought of Milton, the poet, and biblical Abraham and Moses -- even they were but momentary bubbles, eruptions that re-shaped the surface momentarily, and then were gone with no trace. Even the whole human species was such: a momentary phenomenon. I was torn in agony at this.

Thus, on one level, this dream represented my thoughts that had become distinct and independent entities, one emerging from the next, and then submerging into each other and becoming indistinguishable and buried beneath a surface of continuity and “uniformity” when, for a moment, my consciousness would once again feel semi-normal; and then ultimately when the altered experience, finally, slowly dissipated over the course of about 4 hours.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Two myths about Jews; Part 1

Two myths about Jews that distort nearly everyone’s thinking about Judaism and Israel.

The following essay discusses two important ideas that shape the myth of Jewishness. Those ideas are defined in Part 1 and their impacts on thought and behavior are discussed in Part 2. The core issue I discuss in Part 2 is how these myths are operative in nearly everyone’s mind, but that the more unconscious they are, the more likely they are to incline one towards anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. (Anti-Zionism: the compulsion to hold Israel to double standards and to blame Israel as the cause of many or most problems in the Middle East. Anti-Zionism culminates in the belief that Israel does not have the right to exist.)

1. The Myth of Chosenness
This can be summarized with the two canards that “1. Jews are chosen and others are not chosen; 2. that being chosen means Jews are inherently better than non-Jews.

2. The Myth of the Jew-As-Victim
This can be summarized with the canard that “Jews are supposed to be victims,” and when Jews don’t act like victims they need to be blamed, punished, and suppressed to return them to the status of victims. Sometimes the blame and suppression is a response to Jews being successful in various fields, but just as often it is simply a matter of a society that is failing or dysfunctional that needs to divert attention away from itself towards a scapegoat.

Part 1.

The Myth of Chosenness:
Discussing this concept, a friend of mine said:
“I grew a soft spot for Judaism after sharing hearts with [a friend]. But a Buddhist bud grew in me because they (Buddhists) don't choose, certainly not themselves, for the best jobs!”

My friend just put his finger on one of the great historical myths, and it looks like he didn't even know his finger was on it -- the idea that only Jews are chosen, and/or if you want to be chosen you have to be Jewish.

Jews as a ‘chosen people’ has its origins in the Bible, and it has become an important theological pillar in Rabbinic Judaism.
Here’s how I see it:

I do believe Jews are a "chosen people" although that's a term widely misunderstood and often used as a stick to beat us or a stick we use to beat ourselves. When someone hires you to do a job (teach a class, build a house, write a book), they've chosen you. They think you can do the job, and assume you'll do it well, but they may be critical along the way about your work or attitude, and perhaps even be unhappy in the end with the job you do.

So, we Jews believe God chose us. Those 7 simple words imply a vast mythology that has been translated into millenia of living history. We Jews have been chosen to do a job, NOT because we're inherently or genetically better than other people, although history and oppression may have done a fair amount of natural and unnatural selecting over the last 2000 years to make us into a fairly formidable intellectual cohort. We've been chosen (which translates existentially into "we have chosen ourselves") to be a priesthood people, to be a holy people for the sake of upholding and elevating our God and that God's morality, and in bringing that God and that God’s morality to the rest of the world. And if you want to strip God from the picture, nothing much changes. We’ve chosen ourselves to advocate for a universal morality, and for the principle that organizes that morality (a Divine “organizer”).

This is the basic idea, but it doesn’t mean that all or most Jews are actively pursuing these goals. It does mean that for 3000 years this has been one of the principles driving the thoughts and actions of many Jews, especially the rabbis and leading thinkers of most Jewish communities throughout most of these years.

The theology of chosenness and the existential act of self-choosing evolved together. We Jews took on the job (and continue to take it on). Others, mostly, didn't (and don’t). Christianity absolves the individual of the need for works and law. This is one of the primary arguments of the Christian Bible – Christians are absolved from carrying the law (eg. Epistle to the Romans). Instead, Jesus, as Savior does it all once you accept Him. Nonetheless, plenty of Christians, in spite of that, realize that even if Jesus does it all for them, they still have to do it all, too! Read your Kierkegaard, Barth, Niebuhr. Or read your Epistle to the Romans carefully - it still requires being good (law) and doing good (works).

Nonetheless, most Christians (and Muslims, etc) realize that they have to do at least SOMETHING for their own salvation. When they choose to devote themselves to being ethical, compassionate, educated, and/or helping the weak and the poor, they are choosing themselves in a specifically Jewish way even though they do not self-identify as Jews. In the end, history confirms that Christians have chosen themselves to promote virtually the same universal morality as that defined by Jews and the Hebrew Bible.

Buddhists, also are serious self-choosers in this Jewish sense, even though there’s absolutely nothing (to my knowledge) about being “chosen” in Buddhism, and there is little evidence that Judaism has had a significant influence on Buddhist theology. One chooses this particular Buddhist path for the sake of seeking higher states. And those higher states ineluctably include acting with higher standards of morality and compassion. Buddhists who choose this kind of path are not choosing to be Jewish. They are choosing to be Buddhists in a way that broadly overlaps with the Jewish sense of being chosen.

Thus, it is obvious both theologically and existentially that the Jewish idea of chosenness is not limited to Jews.

Now, some Jews will argue that the idea of being chosen is uniquely Jewish, and one can only be chosen by being part of the Jewish people. I disagree. I am distinguishing between the general act of taking on spiritual/moral leadership (chosenness) with the specifically Jewish form of this act. Paul sought to open the Jewish doors of chosenness to Gentiles. Although I don’t agree with Paul on many matters, I think he got that right. (See John Gager’s The Origins of Anti-Semitism, Part IV: The Case of Paul for a careful and insightful analysis of this position.) Just as the Torah is a text for all humanity, and not just for the Jewish people, so the task of chosenness, though spearheaded by the Jewish people, is not, nor should it be exclusive to Jews.

And let me repeat, the Jewish sense of being chosen has NOTHING to do with a belief in genetic or religious superiority. And unlike Muslim and Christian aspirations for establishing their faith as the one, true, and only faith, the Jewish sense of being chosen utterly rejects religious coercion. Nor does it depend on popular acclaim for its substantiation. That Jews are a distinct minority is irrelevant to the importance we place on the idea of chosenness.

In sum, Jews didn't take the best jobs (ie the priesthood tasks, and particularly the jobs of promoting one law and one moral standard for all people), leaving none for anyone else. There are as many “best jobs” as people to take them. Indeed, there’s a “best job” waiting for every single human on the planet. All you have to do is step up!

Nonetheless, the Jewish idea of being a chosen people is bound up with an extremely negative and hate-filled set of counter-ideas. As with every powerful, world-changing idea, chosenness casts a dark and dangerous shadow behind it. From it devolved the idea of Jewish superiority and its negative amplification, that Jews are diabolical and seek world domination. It is bound up with the belief of Jewish spiritual arrogance, as expressed in both Christian and Muslim texts; that Judaism is intolerant of other faiths; that Jews seek to eliminate other religions; that Jews believe there is only one way to know and find God. All of these are false theologically (and also, for the most part, existentially), but they nonetheless maintain a psychological grip on our thinking, Jew and non-Jew alike. The psychological and social impact of this reality is discussed in Part 2 of this essay.

The Myth of Jew as Victim:
Unlike the former myth, this one does not arise from any theological foundations. It is a product of the long history of Jewish exile, with Jews living in a state of social otherness and political disenfranchisement. And in that sense, this is not a myth at all. It has been a primary theme in Jewish reality, a theme that only fairly recently has began to be challenged by the counter-history of modern Zionism. But Zionism has not brought an end to the history of Jew-As-Other and Jew-As-Victim. It has simply brought on another chapter in the story, with different dynamics. The Jew remains vulnerable to victimization around the world, as we read in the newspaper regularly, from the bombing of the Argentine Jewish Community Center in 1994, to rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel (a daily matter for over 10 years until the Gaza war of 2014), to the targeting and murder of Jews from Mumbai to Kenya to Bulgaria to Belgium to France to the US. This is all ugly living history. It is not myth.

The Jew-As-Victim becomes a myth when it morphs in the human mind to “the Jew is supposed to be a victim.” This insidious transformation has taken on a life of its own, distorting nearly everyone’s thinking. From this perspective, Jews are not supposed to act with self-confidence, and Israel is expected to tolerate Arab terrorism and hatred, and is held to be inherently blameworthy when it responds militarily to such violence.

In Christianity this myth had taken hold by the time of Augustine, who at least in part helped establish as dogma the belief that Jews should be allowed to survive, but as a subjugated and humiliated people, as an example of Christian supersession. It took nearly 1400 years for Christians to begin to seriously question the morality and integrity of this position. It still remains an active ingredient in much Christian thought and in some Christian attitudes towards Israel.

In Islam this myth has been institutionalized in the apartheid-like laws of the dhimma (in which Jews and Christians have a legally inferior status to Muslims; also note that in the dhimma some other religions have an even lower status than Jews and Christians), and I would argue it is a central factor in the Muslim world’s intolerance for an independent Jewish nation.

In the west we see this myth working in the widespread popularity of Woody Allen’s movies and the way he caricaturizes Jews. We also see it politically in the left’s and far right’s double standards for Israel, and in their aggressive misrepresentations of Israel and those who support Israel.

In Part 2 I will expand on the way this myth subtly and unconsciously distorts our understanding of Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A conversation with the apostle Paul

This scene is taken out of my long narrative poem about the Eternal Jew, The Atternen Juez Talen. I have converted the text to prose and translated it into "old English", that is, the English you're used to reading, since it seems my poetry can be hard to read.
The dialog (between Saul/Paul and the Eternal Jew) is based on a close reading of the Epistle to the Romans, along with the new analysis of Paul's position of Judaism, as presented by John Gager and others.
Here it is:

Funny how memories just pop in your head. I met that Saul on this road (Damascus Road) awhile back, maybe twenty five years before Jerusalem fell, in a mikdash*, I can’t remember where. Mumblin’ prayers like the rest of us. Wouldn’t a guessed he’d make such a name. Cranky he were with a sand paper edge, like the sugar in his tea has a bitter taste and his tallit* weighed like an iron yoke on his narrow shoulder and knobby arms. Hard to stand straight, harder to bow.
* synagogue
* tallit: prayer shawl

After kiddush* and motzi* over bread we stood talkin’ among the vines in the courtyard, lush in summer bloom, crownin’ the courtyard walls. Typical me, without no walls between my sparkin’ thoughts and my tongue. (With an oven like that you’ll burn your house down.) I says to him, “From what I hears you ain’t prayin’ with Jews no more. I’m surprised to see you here today.”
* kiddush and motzi: two prayers, the first over wine, the second over bread

He looks at me with a bit of a sneer, like, ‘Where’s your manners?’ and ‘What did I do?’
and ‘You only think you know who I am.’

I see that I hurt him. He turns to leave.
“Don’t go brother. I said that wrong. I meant to open a door for you to let you in, not to chase you out.”

“My fault too,” he say with a frown. “I make a stir wherever I goes. Some cry, ‘apostle!’ and wash my feet. Some cries, ‘apostate!’ and want me beat. I seen the inside a many a jail for nothin’ more than talkin’ of God. And I’ve tasted the dust a half the known world; shipwrecked and damn near drownded as well. The rod of the Lor driven me on.

“Truth is, I can’t hardly tell no more who is deliverin’ these bruises and welts, the Infinite One or the impotent ones, or where one ends and the other begins. But to answer the question you didn’t ask, I’m an Israelite, and I’m proud of it. What an honor to be a Jew! And so I prays whenever I have the chance to slip myself in, unnoticed, unknown, just another graybeard under his shawl.

“But just now, you spoke well, my friend. We Jews are required to open the door to these sons of Rome whose faith has failed; these orphans of gods turned ugly and cruel; no-gods whose future is no-good works; these orphans who finally face the truth – their guardian gods are failing them. They looks in our window and peeks in our door and sees a people inspired with faith by a God of justice and a Lor of love. Bring these lost and childlike souls into our brit* and up to our Lor. We must open our doors now and bring on the world!”
* brit: covenant, community

I looks around this little place. For a moment it seemin’ like Eden to me. Together, Roman, Greek, and Jew without our sharp and poison words, without our jagged-edged thoughts, just sippin’ tea and quiet talk, a moment of peace in a tohu* world.
* tohu: from Genesis 1:2, formless, chaotic

Then he pulls out an epistle writ to Rome. “Read,” he says, and gives it to me. Long it were. I squinch my eyes.
“You want to hear my thoughts on it or you just testin’ your writing craft to see if you can snag some fruit, a gift to bring to your Jesus feast.”
A wince of a smile, but he just says, ‘Read.’

We walked a ways to a shop he knows, owned by a Greek diplomat. All neat and tidy, arranged on shelves, books and scrolls and artifacts he come across servin’ the throne. He lock the shop and we leave thru a door in the rear. Eden, a garden 8 steps square. Carob and fig trees, viburnum, and palm.

I reads his letter while the 2 of them chats. Heat a the day begun to pass by the time I’m done. His eyes leap when he see me lay the papyrus down.
“So will you join me on my way?”

“Saul, your say ain’t writ to me. I’m a man of law and works, a Jew like you, well circumcised. But you cast law and works to the wind. Me, I’ll blow in the wind with them.

“But I likes your preachin’, urgin’ Greece and Rome to throw their idols down and find our Lor. And then you go and swerve away into a patch of brambly thoughts on grace and sin and God will save – as if you know how God will judge – and then you turn it all upside down, exhortin’ us to know good and do good. That’s the law and that’s our works, plain as any eye can see. I’ll let your philosophic Greeks sort their way thru that thorny stuff.

“And then you end with noble advice, bright and gentle, wise and kind – how to make their community strong with trust and love and humbleness, and callin’ all the worlds to God. Isaiah would be proud of that.

“In sum, it ain’t a work of art, and all our words will soon be lost, but still it stands as fair advice. Send it. It might do some good.”

He turns to his friend like I’m just a fly.
“There it is as I’ve said before. The law is a curse, enslavin’ the mind. Egypt it is. I’m glad to be free.”

And they walks away into the house, me standin’ there like a stump of a tree.
“No one will ever believe that stuff. He’ll turn around,”
I thinks to myself, as I makes my way back into town.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Flowers for Nancy

Struggling with my next illustration for The Song ov Elmallahz Kumming, Bouk 3. Ecchhh. What to do? Pulled out the camera, of course, and took yet another picture of the snow. And then, well, I decided to have some fun...

8 bunches of flowers for Nancy and then 5 pictures of the snow, looking out my study window. If you click (or double click) on an image it should display all the pix as a slideshow.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mendocino photo journal

Last December Nancy and I traveled thru Northern Cal down to San Francisco, staying in Mendocino along the way. Ahhh. Heavenly Mendo. Rivals Provincetown as the best place in the world (in my little world, anyway).

Here are a few pictures I took. Enjoy.

On the road in Oregon, about 10 miles west from Grants Pass.

Sigh. That North Caly coast. Rain and fog and the thunder of surf.

Our cottage, from the back yard.

Looking out thru the front gate of the cottage. Mid December colors.

A Mendo high rise.

Another one.

Some interesting hardware, reinforcing a house.


A house on Heeser owned by some geezer. Nice yard, eh?

This is my dream house, or a close approximation.

Looking up to Main from the coastal headlands.

Among the shops and houses...

Down to the Mendo Hotel.

Old hippies don't die. They just keep on truckin'.

Now, THIS is a lumber yard!

The coastal headlands. Ocean is off to the right.

From Lansing and Main.

View from Headlands Park, lazing on a sunny afternoon.

That's all fokes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book repair - caution with Japanese paper

Siddur Repair Team:
To avoid the Japanese paper hinge pasting itself shut, simply place a piece of wax paper in the hinge. Here are 3 pictures showing what I mean.

Lay the wax paper in place, right up to the fold in the hinge; close the cover; and apply weights. Simple!

Friday, February 06, 2015

Parashah Yitro - an exploration

The following is a short discussion, aka a dvar (a word), or a drash (an exploration), on the Torah portion Yitro, Exodus/Shmote, 18:1  to 20:23. I will be presenting this discussion to my congregation, Shirat HaNefesh tomorrow, 2/7/15.

Yitro and the building of national identity

Yitro, Jethro, is a parashah, a sidrah that most of you probably know quite well, although it often gets mixed up with Ki Tisa (tablets, golden calf) 4 sidrahs later. What are some of the salient things that happen in this sidrah?

Yitro comes out to meet Moshe, acknowledging the God of Israel as the greatest deity.
Yitro advises Moses on how to govern better, building a judicial hierarchy.
In the 3rd month, on the 1st day, the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai.
Moshe goes up Sinai, and God informs him He wants Israel as His special people.
Moshe returns to inform the people and they/we agree to the terms.
Moshe again ascends and is told to prepare people for experience of God on peak of Sinai.
Moshe instructs people to purify themselves for 3 days, and set a boundary around Sinai to keep people away.
God appears at peak amidst clouds, thunder, ram’s horn blasts, and summons Moshe up.
God tells Moshe to go back down to warn people to stay away.
God declares the Ten Commandments while Moshe is among the people.
Moshe enters mist of God’s Presence and God tells him not to make idols but to make an altar for sacrifice.
In sum, Moshe goes up Sinai 3 or 4 times, but the Commandments are given when he is down with the people.

A traditional drash starts with something far, something apparently unrelated, and then shows how it is near, that is, relevant.

I would like to start with a mashaal, a parable. It's about a king who wanted to marry a beautiful and strong and wise and noble woman. When she gladly accepted his offer of marriage, he had a very special ketuba, a marriage contract, prepared.  In it, among other things, he described all the wealth he was transferring to her.  Such and such tracts of land; thus and many chieftains for an honor guard; what well-trained handmaids and servants; which buildings in the capital city; abundance of garments of this and that sort; special cuisine and cooks; and so on.
The problem was, just after the wedding the king was called away to a distant land across the sea. After many months, he hadn't come back yet, and secret desires began to stir. 

How do we complete this mashaal, this parable? Of course, before you can complete the parable, you need to postulate what the nimshaal, the underlying story is, since a parable is a story meant to illustrate and clarify another story. Take a few minutes to postulate the ending to this parable. If you already know the parable, imagine a new ending.

While your mind is composing the parable’s ending, let me seed your imagination with some ideas.

First, what is illogical about Yitro’s advice about forming a hierarchical judiciary?

This is hard, so let me give you another mashaal. A parent said to her 5 year old, “I want you to obey all the laws of this household.” The five year old of course agreed, but a moment later she did something that angered the father, and he yelled at her. Sound familiar? What’s illogical here? Do you have a written set of household laws that you can refer to? Do you read those laws to your 5 year old every night so that she will know them well?

So now, what’s illogical about Yitro’s advice? [My answer: Israel does not yet have a body of laws to adjudicate!]

So the rest of the sidrah is about getting the Laws, right? Wrong! All that Israel obtains is 10 laws, not even a bare minimum to actually govern a functioning society. There’s no civil or business law here, and only a couple of the most extreme criminal issues are covered, without any discussion of procedure or punishment. Further, one commandment is about outlawing certain thoughts, coveting, which is unimplementable and was never intended to be implemented (it seems to me), at least in a human court.

So what’s missing here? What remains illogical?
1. The build-up of case law over 40 years is what ultimately becomes the Law of Moshe.
2. Much of the law emerged as a response to human need in the face of human conflict and confusion about what to do.
3. A nation needs to build an identity if it is to implement a functioning judiciary. The values that form a nation’s identity also shape a nation’s laws, and vice versa, a nation’s laws, and the way they are implemented, shapes a nation’s identity.

So when does Israel really assume a national identity?

The issues of national identity building are ongoing. Read the news. Much of what you read is about national identity building. Look at the problems in the Middle East, in Africa, in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Look at our national debates about abortion, immigration, racism and affirmative action, corporate profits, history textbooks. The list of issues concerning national identity building is endless. Yitro is the first sidrah in which we, the Jewish people take the first steps towards our national identity building.

The rest of the Bible and then the compilation of our other canonical texts, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, and now in this era, all the documents and historical events leading to the establishment of Israel, and now continuing in the building of Israel, are mostly about national identity building.

So let us return to our mashaal of the king. Now that you have composed your version of the ending, let me tell you how the original author completed it:

After a year, the king still hadn't returned, and the whispering grew louder.  After 2 years people began to be bold enough to ask the queen why she didn't seek out a new royal husband. There were many to be had! But this noble and devoted queen cast them out of her presence.
    The king didn't return for a very long time. But finally he did return. And his wife rushed out to greet and welcome him. The truth is, the king was amazed, and he asked her, "You are truly more noble than I could have imagined! How were you able to withstand your doubts and remain loyal to me?" And she answered, “every time I worried or despaired, I pulled out our ketuba, our marriage contract, and I would read about all the gifts that you bestowed upon me, and my faith in you would return."

    Naturally, it is the nature of a parable that the story refers to something other that its literal meaning. So, who is that king, and who is that queen, and what is that ketuba?

    The king is God, and the queen is the Jewish people, and the ketuba is our Torah. Throughout the ages people have tried to claim that our God has abandoned us, and that we should turn away to another faith, or to no faith, but when we study our Torah, we realize what an incredible privilege it is to be Jewish, to be chosen to be a priesthood people. And that has renewed our faith and courage, in spite of everything.

In sum, parasha Yitro may be seen as a wedding ceremony, in which the Jewish people are married to God, and the Torah is our ketubah. It is in this sidrah that the idea of the nation of Israel is born. It is here that Jewish peoplehood starts to emerge, both through law, and through the willingness to take on an enduring purpose -- to be a priesthood people, to be a holy nation.
This drash was composed in honor of the new ketubah, the new Torah scroll that Shirat HaNefesh is getting, that is indeed being repaired and prepared right now, and which we will take possession of in the coming months.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A book repair manual

The synagogue I belong to has a problem: all its prayerbooks (siddurim; siddur - singular) were poorly bound by the publisher, and are in desperate need of repair. I took a look at them, and saw that they were quite fixable. I was given permission to run a class on book repair, to teach congregants how to repair them. Since I want to pass on the skill, I felt everyone would need a DIY booklet with the specific steps and methods for repairing these books.

Naturally, I underestimated how long it would take to make the booklet. 12 or 14 hours later I had 2 booklets in pdf format. I decided on 2 so I could limit their size to something manageable to make, download, and view

I thought my blog readers (or anyone searching Google Drive, for that matter) might also be interested in learning a little about the structure of a book, and some repair skills. While the directions are targeted for a specific set of books -- our congregation's siddurim -- with a specific set of problems, the methods may be applicable to other non-valuable hard-bound books. Kid's, adults, seniors: DON'T try repairing any book that you think is valuable or important (to you or anyone else).

By the way, you will notice I never mention the use of tape of any sort in these booklets. Why? Because taping up a book to fix it is like drinking arsenic to make a headache go away.

So here are the links to view the pdfs in Google Drive:



Sunday, January 18, 2015

My 5 ebooks

For those of you who may be interested in finding out about the ebooks I've published, and perhaps even purchasing one or more of them (they cost less than $5 each), below you can find brief descriptions of each of them. Enjoy!

Atternen Jewz Talen:
This book contains the opening pages of the diaries of the Eternal Jew (aka the Wandering Jew). In the opening scene he describes Jerusalem in his youth, as it was in 30 CE. He then recounts his meeting with a revolutionary named Jesus. Realizing he has left out some critical information, he turns back to the origins of humanity, telling what he knows about those early days.
This is not the Eternal Jew you might have heard about from unreliable or hate-mongering sources. He is a wise and engaging fellow, proudly Jewish, with a biting wit, and a wry but mystical view of worldly events and his place in them.
The story is told in two versions. The original text is an altered English where words and ideas morph, one into another, using a strictly phonetic spelling. To help the reader, however, a translation into standard English follows each stanza. As a further help, each stanza is followed by an embedded reading, so one can listen to the story, and read along at the same time.
The story is further enriched by images produced by the author, and selected scans taken from the author’s notebooks. The final chapter of the book is a collection of useful source material and links for further study and exploration.

A Pilgrimmage tu Jerusalem:
A young pilgrim hears that the place to which he is making pilgrimage is not what he expects. Truth or illusion? Redemption or damnation?  What do we really know about our journey and its end? This short remarkable tale, rich with illustrations by the author, and supplemented with images of the original hand-written text, will challenge the mind, delight the eyes, and bring genuine pleasure to the reader.

The Song ov Elmallahz Kumming, Bouk 1:
Elmallah, a divine messenger, is sent to Ertha to awaken her. Although she dwells as a shadow in a shadowy wilderness, Elmallah is instructed to liberate her latent beauty, power, and desire. But can Elmallah lift her from her wild state, or will she overwhelm his spirit and drag him into the darkness of her world?
The Song ov Elmallahz Kumming is the epic story of the man of God whose heart is captured by the one he is sent to redeem. The book contains many illustrations produced by the author, and also includes audio recordings of the author reading the text.

The Song ov Elmallahz Kumming, Bouk 2:
In this, the second book, Elmallah enters into Ertha’s prehistoric wilderness. He is unprepared for its danger and cruelty. He is equally unprepared for the passion and love he feels for Ertha that heightens and clouds his thinking. Ertha is as wild as the world she lives in. Can Elmallah survive in such a place?
The book’s many illustrations, produced by the author, are based on Mesopotamian bas reliefs. The book also includes 13 audio recordings of the author reading the text.

Ottoman Beachcomber:
The world was a very different place in 1983, at least in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey. In this book you will go on travels in a simpler time to places innocent and charming. Join me as I outrun demons that are chasing me, dance in morning dew with unknown women, walk across borders in the dead of night, find my estranged wife in a 15th century Ottoman marketplace, and explore delightful villages far off the beaten trail.
This ebook is also enriched with photos from the author's wife's archive, and liberally sprinkled with links to related websites and photo archives.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Elmallah, Bouk 3, Image 5

About 2 weeks ago, on Nov. 29, I posted some preliminary images I was creating for the fifth image in my latest ebook now in production: The Song ov Elmallahz Kumming, Bouk 3. The image illustrates Dumuzee's servant betraying him to jackel-headed invaders. The two stanzas describing the scene can be found here:

At the time that I created the images in the previous post, working from Assyrian bas reliefs, I assumed I'd use the following image (in one form or another) for Dumuzee. It is a Sumerian bas relief of the god Enki. I had already begun working on it, as is obvious:

However, I then came across a remarkable wall carving from the Assyrian obelisk of Shalmaneser, showing King Jehu of Israel bowing to Shalmaneser. I decided to take some liberties with the Elmallah text (in the poem the servant is not described as bowing to the invaders), and use this detail from the obelisk for my servant. Here he is:

Merging the dogs into this image wasn't so easy, as the colors and backgrounds were not originally compatible. Hammer and chisel; chisel and hammer. I then chiseled in some cuneiform text (sure wish the soft clay hadn't hardened into limestone...), put on a little border of semi-precious stones, and here's how it turned out. Actually the original image is a png about 5mb and 2000x1200 pixels, but to post it here, I had to reduce it to a jpeg, 800x250, which still doesn't fit on this page. Click the image to view it:

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Eternal Jew, beginning of the Crusades

Here’s a new scene, my pen still smoking, for my poem The Atternen Juez Talen.

This post embodies a new modality for me. Usually I present the poetry in my standard voice, MetaEnglish (or more affectionately, stevetok). Then I present a standard English (“oel Eenglish”) version, also in verse. For the first time I am instead presenting 1) a prose version 2) in standard English 3) first, and then the MetaEnglish poetic version. The prose version is totally accessible, and perhaps it will inspire the intrepid among you to forge on into the MetaEnglish version.

Please realize, tho: MetaEnglish is like a higher dimensional view of reality. As with any reduction in dimensionality in a system, the gain in accessibility will come at the cost of 1) lost information, and more critically, 2) lost context/connections. What remains is, I hope, an amusing and historically viable tale.

Some background: This scene takes place at the beginning of the First Crusade, as armies are just amassing in Northern France and the western German states. Our hero, the Eternal Jew, has been ordered to accompany Godfrey of Bouillon as a translator. Bouillon himself has just joined forces with the infamous Count Emicho (a temporary alliance, as it turns out, and as such, not out of the realm of historical possibility).

As derived from Jeremy Cohen’s book Living Letters of the Law, a new and virulent form of anti-Semitism was arising in Europe about the same time that war with the Muslim world was beginning to percolate in Europe. Christian competition with Judaism had long taken the form of distortion and defamation, and when politically feasible, oppression, but now we see a hatred emerging that would lead to a millennium of ethnic cleansing and genocide.


Oel Eenglish, proze verzhen:

When Emicho heard there was a Jew in the train, he shouted a line he repeated so much his men started to call him ‘Knees and Humps’:
    “No need of our humping a thousand miles to find and wipe out infidels. There’s plenty of Jews right here in our midst.”
Then he sent a sergeant to cut me down. (The word of his coming outstripped his feet; otherwise a different axis would have twisted this tale.)

Up swaggered a cutthroat, ax in his hand. The hair on his head and the bush of his face were dense and matted like a billy goat’s. With a foreign accent that I knew well, he threatened the cooks and the clean-up boys.
    “Where’s that little snipe of a Jew, that cowardly dog what hides in his house defyin’ the order of popes and kings, and refusin’ to convert to the true faith. Where’s that weak and ugly gimp, that seduces our girls and wives. Show me that womanly beggar of a guy who wastes all day just readin’ his books, those magic verses and devilish prayers to switch our gold into rotten beets while he fills his purse with the coin he steals. I’ll pluck his stony heart from his chest.”

Standing up on the cook’s cart waving a knife of my own, I said,
    “You’re talking ’bout two Jews. Which one you want?”

That put his little mind in a stir – a Jew talkin’ back with a knife in his hand. And what’s this talk of more than one Jew? He looked around to assay the turf  -- who would spin with him, and who would resist, and who was just edging into the bush. But no one was moving; just staring at him. Still more confused, his mouth agape, he sputtered like thief with a chicken in his hand.
    “Where?... two Jews?... anyone seen?... What are you starin’?... Emicho says...”

     “You’re talkin’ ‘bout two Jews, one is God and one is a devil. You wanna kill God? Or you wanna look in satan’s eyes and be swallowed up like a beaker of beer?”

    “What do you mean?? No Jew is God! And I weren’t talkin’ ‘bout two damn Jews. Just you! Come down so I can skin you alive.”

A snarl returned to his bushy face and he started toward my cart when a voice rang out,
    “Pedro, that one is a man of mine!”

Well, no one moved or said a word because Buyon (Godfrey of Bouillon) was sitting on his high horse just behind Pedro, watching this show like a circus event or a wrestling match, with an edge of danger, better to amuse.

    “Have you ever met a Jew before, Pedro? Let’s sit and talk with one.”
And there was Pedro, shock and fear overlaying his anger, his hate, his posture of courage, and his bullying soul, like he’d just been told by the pope himself to kneel and serve old Beelzebub.

Buyon called for a pitcher of wine.
    “Tell me, my Jew, and don’t mislead like your nature inclines, like your fathers all teach. Tell me, who is this other Jew hiding in our camp? Is he spying on us?

    ‘These men are as dense as a pile a stones,’ I thought. ‘And now they’re digging a trench to throw me in and pile on that stone.’

Said I,
    “No sire, you misheard. I said that Pedro here seems to  think that there’s two of me. And not just an everyday Jew am I, but an angel with powers dreamy and  vast, and a devil, ugly, and meaner than an asp. Think about what he’s saying. Bat-faced me, unshapely and course, but all your girls come running to me. Trembly me, hiding in my house, but I have no fear of the king or the law. And lazy me, who has never worked -- I just read and pray and your gold comes my way. Sire, none of these things is true. I’m a God-fearing man, honest and straight.”

    “Hear that Pedro! An honest man! The only Jew that ever was. And we two sitting in Eden’s midst, happy as babes at nurse’s teats. We see one thing, hear one thing, and he just turns it inside out. Poof! Our memories disappear. Magic, Pedro. And he’s my Jew. He’s a knotty man, Pedro. Beware of him.”
And one last guzzle. The wine dribbled down through his grizzled beard, and he up and went.

No tellin’ what that was all about, but Pedro, he looked at me with many blinks, then tripped on a stool as he ran away.


Stevetok version

Wen Ummukko* eerz thaerz a Ju in the traen
            * oel Eenglish: Emicho
He showtenz a line he repeet so much
Hiz menz start a kawl himz ‘Neez an Humps’:
    “No need a humpenz uv a thowzen mile
    “Tu fine an wip owt infaddelz.
    “Thaerz plennee a Juwerz niy heer in ar mist.”
Then he send uv a sarjen tu kut me down.
The werden iz kummen owtstrippen a feets
Or a differn axxez wil twis this tale.

Up swaggern a kutthroet, ax in iz han;
The haeren iz hed an a boush for a fase
Dens an matten like a billee goet.
With a forren aksen az I knowen wel
He thretten the kouks az the kleen-up boyz.
    “Waerz that littel snipen a Ju,
    “That kowwerlee dog wut hiedz a-hows
    “An defiyen the order uv papen az keeng,
    “An refyuze a kunvert tu the truwen faet*.
            * eka d’omray: faeth
    “Ware iz at weeken uglee gimp,
    “Him that sedusen ar gerlzen wive.
    “Sho me that woumennee beggennes giy
    “Hu waesten awl dayz a reed uv him bouks,
    “Them majjek verzen a devvellee praerz
    “Tu swich ar goel intu rotten beets,
    “Wile he fil him persenz with iz koynee steel.
    “Iel pluk iz stanee harts uv iz ches.”

Stannen up on the kouks kart
Waven a nive a my oenz, I sez,
    “Yur toks abbowt tu2 Juez. Wich iz yur wonts?”

That pout iz littel mien in a ster --
    A Ju tokken bak with a niven iz han.
    An wuts this tok uv mor an wun Ju?
Hiz louken arrownz tu assay the terf  --
Hu iz spin with him, an huze a rezis,
An huze jes ejjen intu the boush.
But no wun iz a muve; jes starenz at him.
Stil mor kunfyuze, iz mow a-gape,
He sputter like theef with a chikken han.
    “Waer?... tu2 Juez?... enneewun seen?...
    “Wutter yur starenz?... Ummukko sez...”

     “Yur tokkenz bowt tu2 Juez, wun az God
    “An wun iz a devvel. Yu won a kil God?
    “Or yu wont a louk in satenz iy
    “An be swawlo up like a beeker a beerz?”

    “Wut a yu meenz?? No Ju iz God!
    “An I wern tokkenz bowt tu2 dam Juez.
    “Jes yu! Kum down for I skinz yu allive.”

Az a snarrel retern tu iz boushee fase
An he start tu my kart wen a vois reengen owt,
    “Paydro, that wun iz a man uv mien!”

Wel, no wun muev or sez a werd
Kawz Buyon* sittenz on hiz hi hors
            *Godfrey of Bouillon
Jes behien Paydro, wochen this sho
Like a serkus evvent or a resseller mach,
With an ejjee daenjer, better tu ammyuze.

    “Hav yu evver meet a Juez befor,
    “Paydro? Lets sit an tok uv wun.”
An thaerz Paydro, awl shock an feer
Overlayen iz aengerren hate
An hiz poscherren kerrij an bulleyen seel,
Like heez jes bin toel by the pape himsel
Tu neel an serv oel Beelzebub.

Buyon kawlz for a picher a wine.
    “Tel me, my Ju, an doen misleed
    “Like yur naecher inklienz, like yur fotherz awl teech.
    “Tel me, hu iz this uther Ju
    “A-hid in ar kampen? A spiyen uv us?

    ‘Theze menz az densen a pile a stane,’
I theenks. ‘An now thay dig uv a trench
    ‘Tu thro me inz an pile that stane.’
Sez I, “No siyer, yur a mis-herd.
    “I am the say that Paydro heer
    “Seemenz a theenk thaerz tu2 a meez.
    “An not jes evverday Juez I am
    “But a aenjel with powwerz dreemee vas,
    “An a devvel, uglee, an meener an asp.
    “Theenks abbow wuts in hiz say.
    “Bat-fase me, unshaepee an kors,
    “But awl yur gerlenz kum a-runnenz tu me.
    “Trembellee me, a-hid in my hows,
    “But I hav no feeren a keeng or law.
    “An lazee me, hu nevver az werkt --
    “I jes reedenz a pray an yur goel kum my way.
    “Siyer, nun uv this theeng iz truez.
    “Iem a god-feeree man, onnes az straet.”

    “Heer that Paydro! An onnes man!
    “The onee Ju wut evver wuz.
    “An we tu2 sittenz in Adenz mist
    “Happlee az baebz at a nersen teets.
    “We see wun theengz, heer wun theengz,
    “An he jes ternz it insiedz owt.
    “Poof! Ar memmerz ar a dissappeer.
    “Majjeks, Paydro. An heez my Ju.”
    “Heez a nottee man, Paydro. Be waerz a him.”
An wun las guzzelz. The wine dribbel down
Thru iz grizzel beerd, an he up an goez.

No talen wut that wuz awl abbow,
But Paydro, he louk at me with mennee a bleenk,
Then trips on a stool az iz run awway.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Conservation of an old prayerbook

Cindy Arnson asked me to repair a siddur (prayerbook) that belonged to her grandfather, Jacob Fishman (zt"l). A little over 100 years old, and probably a bar mitzvah gift to him, this siddur was once a beautiful book. It had a carved ivory front cover with inlaid brass decorations, and a plain ivory spine and back. The covers were rimmed with brass, and there was a brass clasp. It was now in pieces. Of most concern, it's covers and spine had broken off. The paper of the book body had become brittle and discolored, and a few were torn. One signature (sewn section of the book) had broken out. What to do??

The book could not be fully restored. The paper had deteriorated badly and that is a process that can't be reversed. The binding itself was still tolerably good, and the loose signature could easily be tipped in (glued back in place). The boards of the covers were also in bad condition, but to remove the ivory, inlaid brass, and brass rims would be a long, difficult process that could very well end badly. Especially problematical would be re-attaching the brass rims. At least one corner would have to be opened and then re-soldered after being re-fitted to the new board. Given that the book had no meaningful public value ($100; maybe $200), a 30-60 hour restoration at standard restoration rates would involve a cost of some number of thousands of dollars.  Like I said, what to do?

One reasonable answer would be to tread softly, and do 4 fairly simple things: document the book's condition before restoration, re-attach the covers and spine, tip in the loose signature, and then document the book's condition again. That's what I did.

I carefully photographed the book when it came into my shop, and I photographed the stages of restoration. I used those photos, along with descriptive and explanatory text, to make two pdf booklets, a before and after. Here are a few photos from those booklets:

Here's the book as it came into my shop, in a plexiglass box (a good way to store it).

The 4 pieces of the book, from top left: book body, ivory spine, ivory back cover, brass and ivory front cover. The brass rim and clasp are easy to see.

The back of the spine, with rotten paper and the remains of the old, original cloth cover (purple-ish).

Detail of front cover, showing brass rim pulled away from board.

Another view of the brass rim and board.

The clasp on the back cover.

The first step in restoration: clean the spine of old paper, glue, cloth, crud.

Here you can see the cloth flange (left side of book) attached to the spine, that will be used to re-attach the covers. In the center is a cloth tube to be attached to the spine so the book can flex when it opens. Waxed paper extending from the top and bottom of the tube assure that glue won't fuze the front of the tube to its back (thus disabling its tube function).

Attaching the tube to the spine using PVA glue. The blue material is latex, wrapped tightly around the book to assure steady pressure to all parts of the tube, given that the spine has an uneven surface. The bars are weights made of lead poured into square aluminum tubes (nice square edges, safer to work with, and less maleable than lead alone). Pencil gives a sense of size.

The book, completed.

Clasp works again.