Tuesday, March 30, 2004
Here in the local press we are often treated to photos of proud 'Hamas settlers, rallying at a funeral for one of their leaders, wearing a pseudo-guerilla costume that conceals their faces, save for crudely cut eye and mouth holes. This one, from 24 February 2004, struck me as different because it is fully white, rather than dark green or brown, and features mock suicide-bombing belts. (Of course they are fake. Why should they risk their lives when they can promise beautiful women and rivers of honey in heaven to a 15-year-old who will do it for them?) Again, their faces are concealed.
I put this together on a whim after seeing very early footage of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Two conflicting thoughts are running through my mind:
Is there some historical symbolism that traverses civilisations (the Spanish Catholic Church and its Latin-American offshoots; the KKK; 'Hamas) that brings significance to such a similarly garbed group of people? Is there some Jungian archetype in the subconscious of men who want to rally for a common (racist, militant) cause that compels them to dress from head to ankle in white robes?
Or have I fallen prey to false association, the kind that Roland Barthes demystified in his Mythologies?
Your comments, please.
From Josh Share
dimanche 11 avril 2004 10:46:15
Muslims, like Jews, are buried in white sheets. Most
of the losers wrap themselves in some sort of white
cloth before they go blow themselves up with Jews. One
was caught while wrapping his [evar] up to protect it
for his afterlife.
Why don't you have the option to print comments in
your blog like other beople do?
Thanks for your comments. The reason I don't have self-posting comments is that my blog is too ghetto. Since it is built in Israel, it is required to be missing certain useful features and be busted at least twice a month due to shotty arab construction. Occasionally, too, it goes on strike.
The truth is I haven't bothered to find out how to do it yet. With your permission I'll cut-and-paste your message as a comment.
From Josh Share
mardi 13 avril 2004 02:06:10
and keep up with the humour, no matter how
sarcastic/cynical. The people I've met who are sick of
Israel and want to leave have all a single common
denominator; they've all lost it :-)
Monday, March 29, 2004
And the z'man [study period] is over at the yeshiva. As of Friday mid-morning, when the gemara shiour ended, my friends and I have been free. Most of the yeshiva world shut down for the beginning of the new month of Nissan last Tuesday, and will resume a week or so after Pessa'h. This is probably the biggest break we will get until the end of the summer.
And this is just as good a time as any to take my dishpan hands away from the apartment scouring for a short while and describe my first full day in Israel, last summer. We're getting to some juicy stuff, the stuff that has ultimately gotten me into trouble, including the story of The Girl. Not to mention first my impressions of the country.
First steps in the Land
Tuesday 10 June 2003. My hosts, the Sheans, were a young American couple in their last few days of living in Israel. The husband, Gary, was studying in a yeshiva there in Har Nof. The wife was a sister-in-law of one of my guy friends at my synagogue in Atlanta, Moshe. Moshe had also studied in Har Nof, and it was he in the first place who had sold me on the idea of coming to Israel for Jewish studies, before trying to jump into the world of career, dating, marriage, etc.
The Sheans had generously offered me their guest room and gave me many pointers for getting started in Israel. They mercifully spared me the game of Jewish Geography, so I shall spare you. But I do have to mention that the wives' younger brother was in one of my French classes back in Athens. Small world? Keep that observation in mind for the juicy part of the story.
Despite my jetlag, and a late evening, I slept till just after sunrise. Now, you have to understand that it was summer in Israel: the break of dawn is something like 3:00a.m. For those who do not believe me, check a lua'h for Yerushalayim on this date, and you will see that Aloth HaSha'har for this date is 2:41a.m. The sunrise was at 4:30. So I "overslept", rolling out of bed at the hedonistic hour of 5:45, and was thus too late for the first minyan. Not to worry. Gary had told me the night before that I would be able to find minyanim at any time, even (inexplicably, because it's against Jewish law) at noon. "I don't know how they do it, and I don't agree with it, but you'll find a minyan even at that time."
But I kind of wanted to find a Sepharadi synagogue, not just a minyan. The hunt lasted a short while. First of all, there was a yeshiva just across the street from the Sheans' apartment, its name clearly French: "Yechivat Ner Schmouel". Why French, you may ask? Because an English speaker would have spelled the name "Yeshivat [or Yeshivas] Ner Shmuel". It's a subtle variation, but it makes a world of difference. That was a good start, but unfortunately the doors were locked.
Later in the day, when I tried to check it out, I was greeted by a surly guard who didn't want to open the door for me. "Mata rotseh?!" he snarled ["What do you want?!"]. I asked if he spoke French. Negative. English? Negative. I asked if he knew what time was sha'harith. Negative. And he wasn't about to let me in to find out. After all, I was wearing a blue shirt, khakis, and a tweed jacket, and was carrying an attaché case -- nothing could be more suspicious. So, exiled to the street, I got the attention of some bakhourim [yeshiva boys] on smoking break. They didn't speak French, but they fetched one of their friends who did. He spoke poorly, with a native accent but with little vocabulary. And he didn't exactly know at what time sha'harith started, or he didn't know how to say the time. Okay, so this blind alley had finished at a dead end.
Back to the morning. Further down the street, I next found a synagogue with Spanish wording outside. Something told me to keep looking, though. And the feeling paid off. At the end of the street I found the Yehavé Da'ath synagogue. Bingo. Now, Yehavé Da'ath is the name of a popular siddour, which was the one I preferred at the time. But once inside, it got better. I discovered it was Rav Ovadia Yossef's synagogue. Rav Ovadia Yossef, mind you, is the Gadol HaDor sepharadi, the greatest Sepharadi Rav of this generation, and I am more than a big fan of his. I arrived there at sometime around 6:15. The sun was already scorching.
"If you have the time", said the kind man I asked (who I now realise was the gabbai), in careful and repeated Hebrew, "You can come back for the 7:00 minyan." So I decided to roam around the neighbourhood a bit.
This was my first view of Jerusalem at daytime. And I was overwhelmed. As I said last week, those of us from 'houts le-arets [outside of Israel] are often fed the "beautiful" sights of Jerusalem, all photos and paintings taken from inside the Old City. The thinking of someone seeing a map of modern Jerusalem without having seen the place itself could be, as mine was, that there was nothing noteworthy outside those Turkish, Renaissance-era walls. (Another impression might be that those walls date back to the Second-Temple era. And both impressions are highly incorrect.)
"Har Nof" means "hill with a view", and that's an understatement.
Not only does it have an impressive view of the Judaen hills to the west of Jerusalem, but in another part of the neighbourhood you get a gorgeous view of the city itself. Between every apartment building on Kablan street, which is where I was, there is the backdrop of a landscape that is... well, quite a sight to awaken to when you had spent the previous day in the cabin of a jet.
Another equally surprising finding: just as beautiful as the scenery is, and as nicely as the neighbourhood is built, the landscape is trashed. Litter and garbage are strewn everywhere. Some cognitive dissonance set in. Are we in a Palestinian neighbourhood? I thought the people living here were in love with Erets Yisrael. So why would they allow this to happen? Later when asking the Shean's about it, I was told that the residents here "just don't get it". It's not uncommon to see a child get an ice cream (or more accurately, a frozen bar of sugar water and food colouring on a stick), peel off the wrapper, and drop the wrapper right there on the ground.
They obviously have a great deal of faith in the biodegradation process.
Having missed the opportunity to kiss the tarmac at Ben Gurion the previous evening, I remembered the custom now. I'd have to get off the street. So I climbing to the top of a hill. I was attempting to find something looking clean, but it was pointless. Litter and dirt are strewn everywhere.
Back to the synagogue. Rav Ovadia wasn't there, but the service was beautiful. Now, in America I had often had a problem keeping up with the man who reads the Psalms and tefilloth [prayers] for the congregation, known as the shlia'h tsibbour. I originally assumed it was because I had the Hebrew skills of a young child, but even when I knew the prayers well, I still couldn't manage to read the words as quickly as those in charge.
Of course, in this religion, we are not just supposed to read the words, but also think about them, or at least let them register on a slightly conscious level. I couldn't know how the others could do it, even if they were masters of the Hebrew language. And if I would ask, they would tell me, "This is nothing; in Israel things go much faster." So of course, I didn't have much hope.
But nothing could be further from the truth in Yehavé Da'ath synagogue. Not only were the prayers read at a comprehensible pace, there was a pause between the Ta'hanoun and Ashrei, so those who wanted to put on Rabbeinou Tam tefillin could do so (or in my case, finish ta'hanoun). It was great. Nothing like in America.
Several weeks later, in yeshivah, I was recounting this incident to some friends at lunch, including one who himself was a proud shalia'h tsibbour. "Bad example!" he objected. "Bad example! Go to a balabos synagogue, and then you'll see how fast they can go." By "balabos" synagogue, he meant one that was frequented by husbands and fathers, those with little time to waste, and whose prayers are therefore dispensed with as rapidly as possible.
No, my friend. They are the bad examples.
Next step: find a mikvé
You can tell me my priorities were out of order. Usually one goes to the mikvé (if one ever does) before prayers. Well, I didn't know where to find one, but I knew that it would be good to do so during my first day here, before getting any further. I headed out again after breakfast.
The search was funny. The first one I found was in rich part of the neighbourhood, at the Vizhnits complex. But it was coin operated, and I still only had American money in my pocket. There was no one to bargain with. So I kept searching.
Trying to ask directions here and there, I had short and cheerful conversations with 'harédim, who were intrigued at seeing this guy, out of uniform and with bad Hebrew, looking for a ritual bath and declaring that this is his first day in the country. They enthusiastically wished me a welcome. One 'hassidic rabbi gave me his number and told me to call him if he ever needed anything.
My search eventually ended, sometime around 11:30, at what was apparently a yeshiva. It shall remain unnamed in order to avoid lashon hara. I walked in the front door to find a group of guys standing in a hallway, wearing tefillin. One, without speaking, urgently signaled to me to put mine on, by making a winding motion around arm. I dismissed the suggestion and looked for someone who looked in charge. "Mata rotseh?!" was again the question. When I told him, he pointed me to the money box and yelled that he wanted "kessef, kessef!", and made a few more observations that were lost on me. He asked the man inside, who was apparently in charge of the mikvé, if he would unlock the door so I could use it. They let me in.
As I undressed, the man inside if asked me if I speak Yiddish. No, I told him, asking him about French, Spanish, English... nope. I continued. "Yehoudi," he said, "I am very happy."
And why shouldn't he be? He is helping out a fellow Jew, his first day in the Arets, to approach the land with a bit less spiritual crud than before. "Toda raba", I answered [thank you very much].
"Mah toda raba? I am very hurry, hurry!"
So I got in and out, and got on my way. But the joke's on them. The kessef I left was a dollar.
Into the big city
During the day I walked into Jerusalem proper on an industrial highway (Kanfei Nesharim), finding my way but making the mistake of not taking water with me. Your body dries off quickly in the summer heat here, and there's a nice breeze, so the heat doesn't feel too bad. But dehydration sets in quickly, and before you know it you have a headache. What a hangover.
Whenever I needed help, as I said, I would stop 'harédi men and explain in my bad Hebrew that I was new here, and that I needed help finding something. Despite their austere appearance, they were more than helpful and friendly. I certainly did not look the part. But they did not seem to mind. One man even lent me his portable phone when I asked him where to find pay phones.
I needed not just water, but also coffee, and found a café called Mokafé in what appeared to be a major intersection (the Binyan Klal). The barista said he didn't know how to make filter coffee, but attempted something close to Caffé Americano with Turkish coffee grounds. Okay, at least he tried.
And last night I dragged myself wearily into the Yahavé Da'at synagogue again, guessing when Arvith [the nighttime prayers] might be. I was a bit early, by something like 45 minutes. But they had a guest speaker: none other than Rav Ovadia Yossef. I don't know quite what he said, except that he was speaking on the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot that "All of Yisrael has a share in the world to come". Besides the poverty of my Hebrew, the fatigue was finally catching up to me, and I was struggling to keep away. When he left he was surrounded by a cortège, and it was impossible to approach him. Never mind. I felt about as lucky as a guy could be in his first full day here.
Sunday, March 21, 2004
I'm in a bit of a calm rage this evening, following one of the many debates with my 'hevroutha on the subject of... clothing.
As is usually the case with this subject, there's more than meets the eye. There's a whole system of typologies, metameanings, signifiers, and signified. Un symbolisme, quoi. Not just a symbolism but a mythology -- a world of imagination, but which is just as real in the minds of those who inhabit it as the imaginary world of those who play rôle-playing games (e.g. Shattered Isles and the like). At least these weekend gamers make their own costumes, and each one plays a different rôle in the community. Imagine that in a yeshiva-world setting.
At issue, as you may have guessed by now, is conformity vs. individuality. And though one may be, incorrigeably, an individual, should he submit to the common will and dress like everyone else (who is concurrently imagining himself becoming like the others)?
My 'hevroutha says yes.
I'll spare you my opinion for now. I'd better calm my rage before making my case, and then do so in a rational way, presenting arguments and counterarguments. The sad truth is that it's myself I'm arguing with as much as anyone else. It's just unfortunate for poor folks like my 'hevroutha that they take the side I'm not favouring.
We have two opposing dictums in Western civilisation :
Vestis virum facit -- "Clothes make the man"
L'habit le fait pas le moine -- "The frock doesn't make the monk" (otherwise in English, "One can't judge a book by it's cover").
Typically, as best I understand the consensus, the first is not valid literally, but only inasmuch as the person's clothing fosters his attitude and thus his ability to fit into a certain social or work environment. For example, a lawyer wears a suit, and a soldier wears fatigues. Anything else would be unacceptable to her or him, at least to the extent that she or he wants to live the rôle that he or she has chosen to live.
And typically the second is supposed to be wholly true, since we know that the monastic vocation takes a good deal of training, dedication, fear of God, etc. (Do I have to say l'havdil somewhere here? I'm not going to bother.) An imposter with alterior motives can put on a frock and call himself a monk, but that doesn't make him one. Enough persons have pulled that stunt that we don't trust that any more. And enough publishers have designed brilliant packaging for works of literature which are, objectively, stinkers. We all agree that you can't judge a book by it's cover.
But in yeshivish society you can, and apparently should, judge a man by his cova.
Friday, March 12, 2004
I remember Yoplait entering the American market during my childhood. In the television commercials, famous actors (such as Hotlips from M*A*S*H) would eat the yoghurt and then begin spontaneously to speak French, with obviously no educational background in the language. I can just imagine how that would go over today on American television -- what a draw, huh? Eat Yoplait and get impaled by a good ol' patriotic type who doesn't appreciate a certain country's stance on the war with Iraq. No thanks.
In retrospect, I wish I had used the Hotlips method in teaching. Worth a try.
Yoplait's strategy, apparently, is to market their stuff in each of the 60 countries where it's sold by using slogans and images that will work in that country. In Australia, Yoplait's slogan is, "You lick it, because you like it!" Get it? Like it / lick it / like it / lick it? It's a pun! Or something like that. Did Australians just learn English? Is that really so catchy to them? That slogan seems to me something that would work back in 1957. Maybe it seems just as outdated to the Australians, but there, the yoghurt contains ecstacy.
In the U.S., the company's most recent product is "Exprèsse" for (according to them) "on-the-go adults". You know, the American kind. The kind who, if they are to learn a French word, must learn one that doesn't exist or that is spelled incorrectly. I poked around at the web site hoping to learn about this new product, one that must be consumed more quickly than a small cup of yoghurt, but found no more info. I'm guessing, though, that it contains coffee, in order to compete with the Frappuccino and its ilk. A one-ounce shot of distilled coffee, perhaps -- you know, expresso.
Here in Israel, as I was saying, Yoplait hit the ground running, appealing to kids first of all. I sadly don't have a shot of those bus-stop billboards, but they basically portrayed a young boy in a baseball cap with a goofy grin of surprise on his face, on a backdrop of a psychedelic swirl of colours. While one hand presumably held his kid-marketed Yoplait product, the other hand seemed to be picking his nose. The caption, "Zeh lo okhel!" "It's not food!" Ponder on that a minute, and you can see the challenges faced by the food industry here. In order to appeal to the secular Israeli, you must make your eating product (a) not real food, or (b) cleverly disguised as not real food. Yeah, it's a veritable culture of health and gastronomy I'm living in over here.
I said "secular Israeli" not to unintentionally reveal my deep-seated bigotry, but to point out that at that time, there was no heksher [symbol of kosher supervision] on Yoplait products. Now there is, and so the marketing must change accordingly. And not because 'haredi children don't pick their noses, because they certainly do. But because they need to appeal to an adult market, too. The mass influx of immigrants coming from France in the last few months, for example.
These are not so great photos, but you can get the gist of what we've been seeing here, outside and inside of various neighbourhood macolets [tiny grocery store].
The first ad campaign featured an apparently Litvak yeshiva type, a smile on his face, his black hat inexplicably on fire. The smile is genuine, since the slogan is, "Joy gone too far!" You see, he has eaten new "bio" Yoplait yoghurt, and his Borcelino has gone up in flames. ("Bio", completely by the way, is short for the French "biologique", meaning organic. I don't know if the French have applied the word more liberally than it should be, but I know that's the basic translation on foods that actually are organic. It's quite the buzzword. Notice, though, that in this advert it is written in Roman letters, not Hebrew.)
The marketing department put a lot of thought into this one, in everything from the Concept to the choice of actor. I can just imagine the telephone call between him and his agent.
Poster model: Hallo!
Agent: Shimi! mah nishma?
Shimi: Dudu! mah koreh?!
Dudu: Shimi, I've got a gig for you.
- Yeah? What is it?
- It's yoghurt, you know, like Tnuva.
- I'm going to do an ad for Tnuva?
- Yeah, but it's for a French brand they're marketing. Never mind that. What I need to know is, do you have a black hat?
- Uh... (spits out a sunflower seed shell) I got one for my bar mitsvah... It was three sizes too big at the time...
- They usually are. That's how those black hats dress their children. The little rug rat has a 3-gallon head but he's got to wear a 10-gallon hat. Shows he's a talmid hakham [Torah scholar] already. The question is, you still got it?
- Yeah, probably so. They want that for the ad?
- That, a black jacket and a white shirt. Gotta show the stuff's glatt kosher and all. Mehadrin min-haMehadrin min-haMehadrin. [The kosherest of the kosher.] The rabbis blessed it.
- Black hat and frum suit, check. So what's the setup?
- Okay, you're the guy who just ate the yoghurt. And because of its creamy delicious goodness, your hat spontaneously catches fire. And you're smiling.
- Do you mind?
- You're going to burn my hat.
- What were you going to do with that hat anyway?
- Good point. But tell me, why is the hat on fire?
- Because you're so joyful at the taste of the kosher yoghurt! Obviously!
- Joy gone too far. That's what the sign says. You know, boundless joy.
- Yoghurt is served cold, correct?
- So explain to me, please, how eating the delicious creamy yoghurt with boundless joy causes my hat to catch on fire?
- See, that's why you have your job and not mine, Shimi. It's all in the symbolism. We're aiming for a frum market. They'll see the guy in his black hat, okay. That's what will catch their eye. "One of ours? And he's eating this previously non-kosher French concoction?" So they'll realise it must have a heksher now. Ah, but there's more than meets the eye. The flames, you see, the flames from the hat are culminating in a perfect upward surge of devotion. It's pure kavannah. The incense from the altar. A pleasing fragrance to HaShem. They won't think about it, but it will register with them on a subconscious level. They'll be coming in, licking up that yoghurt in no time. Provided they didn't eat leftover cholent for breakfast, of course.
Shimi sighs. He is resigned. What other gigs does he have anyway?
- b'seder [ok].
- And let your beard grow in the meantime.
- A beard?
- I know you're working on a bad moustache. Just don't shave till the shoot. b'seder?
- (sigh) b'seder.
And so that beautiful poster came into being.
A few weeks later, Yoplait got a call from the 'hassidim. They felt left out. They wanted a piece of the action. What, and we should let the world think that the only people who eat creamy delicious French yoghurt are Likvaks?
The marketing department knew it was a gamble, but they knew time was on their side. Pourim was approaching. Bizarre costumes are de rigueur on Pourim. 'Hassidouth means boundless joy, right?! Nothing says bizarre and boundless joy like Toldot Aharon 'hassidim in their zebra-stripe outfits wearing Turkish tarboush hats. We've got a concept, boys! Just get them excited, really excited, and then everyone will know that Yoplait is for all persuasions.
And the X in the yoghurt didn't hurt, either.
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
"Poor Purim. It has become the Jewish mardi gras, a day of revelry, drinking, and masquerades. But it is much more than this.... Gradually we begin to understand the role of masks in the Purim story. The entire deliverance of the Jewish people is masked. It is a story wrapped in a disguise, hidden behind a costume, concealed behind a mask.
Even that strange dictum in the Talmud (Megillah 7b) that ordains us to become intoxicated on Purim ad delo yada, "until we know not the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai" -- even this is part of the theme of hiddenness. For how strange is the Talmudic advice. Ours is, after all, a tradition that abhors drunkenness. We are a people of the mind, discernment, analysis -- all those things that fall under the rubric of data, knowledge. But on Purim we are bidden to become intoxicated and conceal our vaunted data -- to the point of ad delo yada --"until there is no data" -- and to enter a universe where reality has no meaning and we begin to realize that it is not our intellects that guide the world but the One Intellect above that guides the world."
-- Rav Emanuel Feldman, from "The holiday in hiding"
"When we sit in a theater, we willingly suspend our disbelief. We know that everything that is happening on the stage isn't real, but the playwright, the actors and the audience all enter into a conspiracy of poetic faith in an attempt to bring to life a quasi-reality that will transcend and communicate some perception about life in this world.
Unlike other religions, there are no leaps of faith in Judaism. Maybe a couple of steps at the end of a long well-lit boulevard, but no leaps into the dark. Judaism is not so much about belief as the willing suspension of disbelief.
This world is a cosmic drama littered with tell-tale clues. The Protagonist, however, is hidden. Judaism is not so much a matter of belief; rather it is taking positive action to remove those forces that bring to disbelief. It's not difficult for a Jew to believe. We are all natural believers. We come from a long line of believers, all the way back to Avraham. "
-- Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair, from "The Willing Suspension of Disbelief"
"This was not Jeremiah's city of destruction, not a city in mourning. It was the city of the Zechariah filled with people and light. An open, free, unwalled, sovereign City of God with half a million residents; a city which the prophet said would one day reach all the way to Damascus. Here was the crown of the Judean hills and the Land of Israel. True, it was not yet complete, this vision of Jerusalem. The Temple Mount is still empty; the crown jewel still missing. But in due time, that too will come. And what better time than Purim to hope and wait and prepare.
This is the season when the unexpected becomes reality.
For Purim is the time of Venahafoch Hu, of sudden reversal, when the world turns in dizzying circles and nothing is what it seems. This is the season when the unexpected becomes reality. Even Jerusalem is 'disguised'. But our contemporary costumes will turn into Bigdey Kehuna -- the clothes of the High Priest. And Har Habayit -- the Temple Mount -- will shed it's foreign structures. A new Beit Hamikdash, Temple, will rise up as a beacon of light for the Jewish people and the world. The empty places in the Land of Israel will once again be filled with Jews and the glories of ancient Shushan will fade into oblivion before the glory of the future Jerusalem."
-- Yaffa Ganz, from "From Shushan to Jerusalem"
"The writers of the Megilah left us with a message that would accompany us throughout our long exile. You will not always see G-d's signature openly emblazoned upon every circumstance. However, throughout persecution and deliverance, He is always there. And just like on Purim His obvious interference is undocumented; but we know and feel it -- and we search for it, and we find it! So, too, in every instance we must seek His name, find it, and recognize it. It may not be emblazoned on the bumper; it may be hidden on the console -- but it is there. For Hashem is always speaking. All we have to do is listen."
Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky, from "Hear Conditioning: A Purim Story"
"Among the most distinctive features of the Purim festivities are the special pastries known in Hebrew as oznei Haman, literally 'ears of Haman'. We may ask why particularly this body part was chosen -- the triangular shape of these cakes could just as easily correspond to Haman's nose. We may also ask why specifically Haman's ears were chosen for this eponymous pastry and not those of some other figure from the Megillah....
Consuming the ears of Haman at the Purim meal symbolizes eliminating wicked opinions -- the evil da'at, which is symbolized by the hearing ears. This is the particular spiritual danger of Amalek, who was the progenitor of Haman....
Through the joy and abandon of Purim we do not seek to escape from this world but rather to rise above it. We consume and overwhelm our lower faculties in order to focus on our higher powers of perception, to rejoice in the Divine plan in which the threats and schemes of the wicked are ultimately turned to eternal good."
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, from "The Deeper Meaning of Hamantashen"
"A recurring theme throughout the story and holiday of Purim is the idea of seeing beneath the surface. The Book of Esther tells the Purim story and is the only book in the Bible which never mentions the name of G-d; yet at every turn in the story one can't help but sense a transcendent presence. Purim is the only holiday in which we are told not only to eat and drink, but to actually get drunk! (See page 30 for a discussion of this issue.) Yet, while the observance of the holiday includes eating, drinking, costumes, and parties, both the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria and Maimonides, the renowned sage and philosopher, assure us that Purim is a day whose spirituality is rivaled by no other. And the Hebrew term for the Book of Esther, Megillat Esther; when literally translated, means to reveal (megillat) that which is hidden (esther). From all sides the holiday of Purim calls out to us, in fact challenges us, to look beneath the surface.
The wonders of the world around us are without end. Majesty and awe are commonplace in nature, but there is more to this awe than meets the eye. The complexities of the human organism are just beginning to be understood. Yet, this homo sapien is not just another genus or species. There is far more to the human being than meets the microscope. In all aspects of life, Judaism looks at one level and then proceeds to perceive and reveal quite another. In every detail of living, Judaism sees a dimension of an ever-deeper life form, and a richer quality of potential. It is to these depths of perception and living that Purim calls us."
-- R' Shimon Apisdor, from The One-Hour Purim Primer
Saturday, March 06, 2004
I am a resident of Jerusalem (a.k.a. Yeroushalayim), the capital of Israel and the centre of the world. I am a student at a yeshiva which shall remain unnamed because I don't want to besmirch its reputation. (And yes, I meant to spell Yeroushalayim that way. We'll get to that in a bit.)
In my spare time, which I have no more of, I'm also a student in Romance Languages at the University of Georgia in Athens. That's Athens, Georgia, in the U.S., not in Greece or in the former Soviet empire. You think it's silly for me to specify, but you'd be surprised how many times I get asked. I shall forever retain the title of U. Ga. student since it is very likely I will never graduate.
And for those who don't yet know, but were wondering, the Romance languages are those that evolved from Latin into Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and all the in-between dialects that are languages in their own rights. I hardly know them all, but I know the mechanics behind them, and my major language is French. I've been into it for many, many years, impassioned by its literature (especially the old stuff), culture, and yes, even its grammar. Love can do that to you.
I took some time away from Athens to live for a year in Lyon, France. It is, so to speak, one of the foci of my spiritual existence. (And this photo doesn't even do justice). I was teaching English at the University of Lyon III / Jean Moulin as part of a doctoral-student exchange.
Before now, it was the most beautiful year of my life. Alas, only a year. Studies and beckoned back in Athens. It was obviously providential to go back, to pass my comprehensive exams, to help start a French-speaking dorm, and so forth. But I greatly miss life in France.
For the last two years I lived in Atlanta, teaching French and Spanish at a non-denominational Jewish high school, which shall remain unnamed because I don't want to besmirch my reputation. Heh heh. It is really not such a bad place at heart, and my tenure there was an enormous growing experience, but there were definite reasons I left. Maybe we'll share the story someday.
I also spent some time as a mashgia'h haKashrouth, i.e. a kosher-food supervisor for a gourmet catering joint in Atlanta. And I might as well say I was a chef-in-training as well, for most of the time was spent picking up gastronomic expertise from the chef, Hector.
Atlanta is not my home, but many more people have heard of Atlanta than of Athens. That is indeed unfortunate.
Athens is a magical city, and another one of those foci of spiritual existence. That's saying a lot since there is little overt Jewish religion going on there (especially per capita). What you don't see and have a hard time accessing is still there. It's in the air, man. No, really. It was there for me, and it can be there for everyone who seeks it. Many do. Most decide after a while to move elsewhere. That is indeed unfortunate.
Unless, of course, you decide to work on growth as a member of a large community rather than as an individual within a small community. Or unless you decide to come to a place like, say Israel. Then it's worth it to leave Athens. My point is that if you are going to chose to live in galouth [exile -- i.e. Jews outside of Israel], you had might as well stay in a well-rounded environment and build a community there. There are something like 3000 Jewish university students in Athens. And yet it's difficult to make minyan. Hmmm. But I digress.
By now you may be preparing to write me a ticket for mixed metaphors, or at least confused geometry. Two foci of spiritual existence and one centre of the world? Can't be. The world is round. Foci belong to an ellipsis.
But indeed that's how it is. A circle and an ellipsis both, in constant imbalance. That's the struggle of the soul. That's the lunar calendar and the solar calendar. That's the life of a Jew. Constant imbalance, constant fluctuation, but an exciting existence.
Thursday, March 04, 2004
- My class is nearing the end of a sugiya (topic) in Gemara, and there's a test tomorrow
- Preparation for Pourim, such as making gift baskets and trying to figure out how much of the holiday I will spend with the yeshiva, and how much of it with Israelis
- I've been tweaking the Blog in hopes of inviting a bigger public
- Unseasonably hot weather since Shabbath has left everyone lethargic,
- especially today, which was an fast day (the fast of Esther)
Tonight we are getting some respite from the heat, as strong winds are blowing through the apartment, cooling everything off and overturning furniture. They are nothing compared to the fierce, vengeful winds of several weeks ago that brought in winter chill, but they are doing the job.
Monday, March 01, 2004
That ubiquitous song "Mishé nikhnas Adar marbim besim'ha" (or more accurately, "Mishé Mishé Mishé Mishé Mishé Mishé Mishé Mishé Mishé nikhnas Adar..."), which means "Since Adar has come in, we have more joy" (from the Gemara in Ta'anith) is often sung to the same tune as the American slave song,
"Jump down, turn around to pick a bale of cotton
Jump down, turn around to pick a bale a hay.
Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton,
Oh Lordy, pick a bale a hay."
Try it yourself.
"Mishé Mishé nikhnas Adar
Marbim Marbim besim'ha."
The complete lyrics, including the "N" word (explicit lyrics), the music (to prove my point), and the correction "pick a bale a day" by some revisionist can be found at this site.