Why the Book of Jonah?

book-of-jonahWhen you write a novel called The Book of Jonah, when you base that book on the biblical Book of Jonah, one thing is for sure: People are going to ask you why you wrote a novel based on the Biblical Book of Jonah. Why not, say, Job? Or Daniel? Aren’t there some juicy parts of Kings? (Yes, there are.)

For the record, I think there are many stories in the Bible that could form the basis of a successful novel, or play, or poem, or what have you. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a nearly matchless compendium of human drama, portraying our mythic forebears with far more recognizable fallibility than we typically acknowledge.

But ever since I first encountered the Book of Jonah—probably as a third grader in Hebrew School—I’ve been especially intrigued by it, and the more I’ve returned to it, the more intrigued I’ve become. There is quality to text that defies easy interpretation—and I believe it is just this quality that makes it particularly well suited to our own times.

While the Book of Jonah is grouped among the Prophets, the text in fact contains only five words of prophecy. The bulk of the story chronicles a sort of on-going feud between Jonah, a most reluctant Biblical protagonist, and God: When God orders Jonah to “preach against” the distant city of Nineveh, he promptly flees in the opposite direction; when Jonah finally does acquiesce to God’s instructions, he does nothing but complain about the outcome. The story follows Jonah from one end of the ancient world to the other, with a sojourn in the belly of a “great fish” (not, in the original Hebrew, a whale) in between, and features characters as varied as kings and cattle, sailors, and worms. The story is rife with humor, satire, ironies, and ambiguities.

Tellingly, the book is also rife with questions: Every speaker in the book poses at least one, and often several. And just as most of these literal questions go unanswered, the Book of Jonah by implication raises far more questions than it answers. Why does Jonah flee from God’s commands? Why do the Ninevites repent so dramatically when Jonah finally delivers his prophecy? What are we meant to make of the strange analogy with which the book ends, in which God compares a dead bush and a city?

While the Bible is generally thought of as a font of certainties, the Book of Jonah stands out as tantalizingly equivocal.

Predictably, scholars and sages of many religious stripes have done their best over the centuries to fill in the book’s perceived blanks. Jonah has been characterized as heroically self-sacrificing or hypocritical and cruel; the story has been read in the context of ancient Judaic political concerns or as a prefiguration of the narrative of Jesus. More recent thinkers have argued the book should be treated as fable, or allegory, or parody, or parable.

To me, the reason these interpretations ultimately fail in their attempts to dispel the book’s central questions is the same reason the Book of Jonah has remained so compelling over the two-thousand-plus years since its composition: The Book of Jonah’s ambiguities, its gaps, its questions, are neither incidental nor resolvable. Rather, they are integral features of the work as a whole. Like unresolved chords in a symphony, the omissions are what give the book its power. This is a tale that embraces uncertainty, that acknowledges the unanswerable.

And this is precisely why I think the Book of Jonah is so relevant in our time. Like Jonah, we can’t escape a confrontation with the complexities of our world—be they moral, political, scientific, or spiritual. We are bombarded every day through a myriad of technologies with examples of injustice across the globe: sin going unpunished, virtue unrewarded. That many, Jew and Gentile alike, are unsatisfied with attempts to account for all this within a theological framework can be seen in the dwindling participation in religion generally.

The Book of Jonah offers the reassurance that perplexity at the world around us is not new, nor is it irreligious. It is, rather, a sometimes inevitable part of engagement with the world. Further, in Jonah’s troubled relationship with God, the story suggests that our relationship with the divine will always be characterized by some degree of incomprehension. The Book of Jonah does not present lessons to dispatch spiritual dilemmas. Rather, it affirms their essential mystery.

These are the qualities that drew me to this particular Biblical story—and these are the qualities I tried to bring out in reimagining it in our own, so frequently confounding age.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Woody Allen’s Jewish Soul

woody-allen-take-the-moneyLike Woody Allen, I can remember a childhood when being Jewish caused me a certain deep unease, partly because of the shadow caused by the Holocaust and partly because of the anti-Semitism of some public school teachers. My parents whispered when they spoke Yiddish and even when using the word “Jew.” As I write Allen’s biography, I continue to be astonished at how boldly Jewish he has been in his films from the start, even constantly invoking his feelings about the Holocaust. And perhaps that is why a younger Jewish generation, more removed from those anxieties and memories, takes this aspect of him so casually and even may regard it as just an aspect of his neurotic comic persona.

The reality is that this candor was—and continues to be—revolutionary, just as ground-breaking as Allen’s other writing and comedic gifts, which burst upon the scene in the 1960s and have remained as astoundingly fresh and revelatory today as they were then. (Allen had good company in Lennie Bruce, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman.) Allen’s work has deepened with the years, just as its Jewish content has continued to grow and unearth windows into his soul—but nowhere more so than in his most avowedly Jewish film, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)in which his Orthodox Jewish past was treated (despite Allen’s religious skepticism) with a certain reverence and love. Sometimes that reverence is expressed with comedy, as with the compassionate but luckless subject of Broadway Danny Rose; but who can doubt not only the affectionate Jewish show-business ambiance of this heartfelt film but also the haunting words of simple wisdom that Danny ascribes to his Uncle Sid about how to conduct a moral life: “Acceptance, forgiveness, love.” (Words which are repeated twice, first by Danny/Woody and later by Tina/Mia.) A love for Israel has recently been expressed by Allen in his statement of support last October in the Jerusalem Post. Speaking of the double standard applied in the barrage of criticism of Israel, he said:

“I do feel there are many people that disguise their negative feelings toward Jews, disguise it as anti-Israel criticism, when in fact what they really mean is that they don’t like Jews.” Continue reading

Posted on January 29, 2014

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The Jewish Hall of Fame

Joshua Max FeldmanI once heard Sarah Silverman tell a joke about the pride Jews inevitably take in the accomplishments of other Jews. To paraphrase, she said there are even Jews out there who will state, with nodding satisfaction, “You know the Son of Sam killer? A Jew!”

It does seem that for us Jews, every accomplishment casts a glow of achievement on the community as a whole. Albert Einstein didn’t revolutionize our understanding of the mechanics of the universe—we did! Maybe it’s because there simply aren’t many Jews out there—just under 14 million globally, as compared to, say, 1.2 billion Catholics—and every triumph strikes us as a feat of chutzpah over demographic gravity. Or maybe it’s because Jewish history is pocked with so many attempts to terminate Jewish history, every Nobel Prize or even Golden Globe stands as an affirmation that not only are we still here, but, hey look!, we’re thriving. I can’t fully explain the phenomenon, but I certainly share in it. And I believe it’s one of those particularly Jewish traits that cuts across all flavors of Jewish identity. When a Jewish child wins a spelling bee, it’s like every Jew from Boca to Crown Heights to Beijing wants to both give the kid a hug and brag about what great spellers the Jews are.

I touched on this collective pride in individual achievement in my novel, The Book of Jonah, in describing the protagonist’s outlook on his own Judaism. The Jonah of my book, an ambitious young lawyer who is suddenly beset by inexplicable visions, never goes to synagogue and has only the vaguest ideas about God. Not atypically, though, he still thinks of himself as fully Jewish: “He liked the community of Judaism: the instant bond he felt toward any -berg, -man, or -stein he encountered—the connection he could claim to the familiar litany of distinguished Jews*.”

The familiar litany of distinguished Jews is what I want to try to catalogue in this post: the go-to list of folks that Jews most often name when they’re blowing the shofar of Jewish accomplishment. These names get tossed around so often in synagogue and at BBYO regional events, there really ought to be a Passover song for them—maybe to the tune of Chad Gadya. I can’t offer that, but I can at least compile their names. Think of this as one’s man’s effort to chisel out the Jewish Mount Rushmore.

(One caveat: I chose to limit myself to Jews who made their mark in the 20th century or later. I did this, first, because the names I most often hear fall into this category, but more so that so that I wouldn’t get angry Tweets from rabbis for including the Rambam but not the Ran or something.)

Albert Einstein: The undisputed champion of the world of Jewish pride. I mean, he’s popularly regarded as the smartest man who ever lived: That’s going to win you some acclaim in the tribe.

Sigmund Freud: The father of psychoanalysis. You really can’t overstate the impact Freud has had on the way we think—and if you disagree, I think you have daddy issues, and ought to be in therapy.

Golda Meir: Before there was Hillary, before there was Margaret, there was Golda, one of the first democratically elected female heads of state, and further proof that yes, your grandmother could if given the opportunity win a war.

Sandy Koufax: In the galaxy of Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax is the sun and seven of the planets. Bonus points for that time he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.

Bob Dylan: Probably the most accomplished musician of the twentieth century, Robert Zimmerman also owned his Jewfro like no one before or since.

Philip Roth: On the short list of greatest American writers of the last century and the source of innumerable awkward book club conversations.

Stephen Sondheim: Okay, okay, I know this is an idiosyncratic choice, but if you care about Broadway, you—right, moving on.

The Coen Brothers: Even the movies you forget when you’re listing all their movies (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, A Serious Man) are classics. Walter Sobchak gives them the edge on this list over Woody AllenShomer Shabbos!

So, that’s my list. Who did I leave off?

*I made a slight edit to this sentence to avoid redundancy, but hey, it’s my sentence, right?

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Lessons of a Broken Heart

How to Woo a JewIt’s amazing how your first broken heart feels like the end of the world. Until your next broken heart which makes the one prior feel like a farce. I can recall how completely crushed I felt when my college boyfriend transferred schools and dumped me. Little did I know at the time that he was doing me a huge favor, but in the moment I was utterly obliterated. I didn’t know what to do with myself or who I was without him. I kept in touch with his family as a way to feel connected to him and as a way to delay having to deal with what was next for me. I had immersed myself into us as a couple and had not spoken to my friends at length in many months. I had to swallow my pride and call them. Of course they all understood as everyone goes through that relationship phase at least once in their lives. They allowed me to commiserate and I’m sure were bored to death when all I could do was talk about my ex, but they stayed by my side until I got it out of my system.

Finally, I had recovered. I had gotten to the point where I realized that him breaking my heart was the best thing he could have ever done for me. I was over him and moving on—just in time for him to come home on winter break and call me. Eight times over a two-hour period. Didn’t he know about Caller ID? I was flattered and quite pleased with myself. He wanted me back and I now had the power, but I also had the strength to tell him to bug off. I pondered what to do for a few hours, I admit, and even called those girlfriends to confirm my decision to not call him back. I knew that he was not right for me, and I knew that I deserved better. He hadn’t set a high bar for the next boyfriend, but at least I knew I would never settle for something that low again either. Of course, I went on to have heartbreaks much, much worse than I could have ever imagined back then but I learned that I would survive and go on to be stronger regardless of the circumstances. This proved itself when my marriage was crumbling. I experienced massive heartbreak once I realized that my marriage couldn’t be saved, and so I mourned the marriage and gained the strength to leave—partly due to the lessons I learned as an innocent twenty-year-old. I had learned that I would survive, that the bar was set higher once again, and that I wouldn’t settle even if it meant being a divorced, single mother.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 24, 2014

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Faking the Big A — Attitude!

tamar-caspiDating is all about attitude. If you’re in a pissy mood about something totally unrelated to your date, or if you were forced to go on a blind date by your overbearing mother and you arrived and knew instantly that this was not your beshert, it would behoove you to still smile and try to enjoy yourself. Nothing is worse than indifference. What’s a Jew to do?

1. Smile. Smiling sends positive signals to your brain and tricks it into thinking you’re actually happy. And then you might actually find yourself having a good time.

2. Be nice. Remember that your beshert could be around the next corner. So be nice to everyone because you don’t know who they know. Your dud of a date could have a friend who is perfect for you. That girl who is checking people in at that singles mixer your friend dragged you to could catch your eye.

3. Have faith. We’re Jews, which means we are persistent people. Dating is a numbers game so you may have to kiss a few or a lot of frogs before you meet your prince or princess.

4. Take a break. If your attitude is just so down in the dumps, whether it’s dating-related or not, that you can’t bring yourself to have anything positive to say, then take a break from dating. You aren’t going to yourself any favors by having a negative attitude.

5. Fake it. Some people are not naturally peppy, but when creating an online dating profile or going out on what feels like your thousandth first date, you need to crank it up a notch. Ask questions, be a good listener, and open up. Having too big of a guard up is a huge let down.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 22, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Finding My Jewishness

How to Woo a JewAt birth I was blessed with not one, not two, but four Jewish names. Tamar Avital is the name my parents gave me, and then they also bequeathed upon me a Hebrew name because apparently Tamar Avital isn’t Hebrew enough. To honor my great-great aunts I was also named P’nina Yafa. And with the last name Caspi I didn’t have a fighting chance to be anything but Jewish. People would know I was a Jew before they would meet me and for most of my life that was fine as I always identified as Jewish, an identity which was only further ingrained via the Jewish Community Center for preschool, private Jewish elementary school, Jewish sleepaway camp, temple youth group, Hillel in college and so on. My first kiss took place during my birthday party when I turned twelve, during a game of spin the bottle with the nice Jewish boy from the neighborhood who previously was my “husband” in Kindergarten at the San Diego Jewish Academy. My first real make-out session happened beneath the redwood trees of Saratoga, California at Camp Swig—with a nice Jewish boy from Northern California.

I never thought twice about having a Jewish family until midway through high school when I subconsciously and unintentionally decided that I didn’t need a Jewish husband to make that happen. None of my high school boyfriends were Jewish, nor were my college boyfriends or any of the guys I dated through my early twenties. I was planning an interfaith family in my head. I knew there were rabbis who would agree to officiate at an interfaith marriage, and I even once had a discussion with my college boyfriend about allowing future children to celebrate Christmas at his parent’s house just not in our house. Eventually, as I matured and gathered more life experience, I came to the realization that I did indeed need and want and desire a Jewish husband. As my Jewish girlfriends were getting married and starting families, I realized that having a Jewish husband who was raised similarly made these milestones all the more meaningful and that awareness changed my mindset completely. Suddenly all I saw were Yids. In fact, I would ask if a guy was Jewish before even wondering if he was single. Non-Jews were persona non-grata and I had zero attraction to those who were not members of the tribe. Not only did I want a Jewish home with a Jewish family, but I wanted a Jewish husband too—bonus points for having multiple Jewish names.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 21, 2014

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A Jewish Atheist’s Prayer

Leah VincentWhen I was little, I talked to God constantly. There were prayers for waking up, for the morning, for the afternoon, before eating, after eating, after using the bathroom, on hearing thunder, on seeing lightening, on a long trip, on wearing new clothing, on going to bed. These were the required Hebrew prayers, which I augmented with personal updates in silent English, checking in with God like a modern kid sends texts: a staccato barrage of shorthand messages bracketing every emotion and event.

When I left ultra-Orthodoxy as a teenager, I brought God with me on my journey, a silent and watchful companion in those turbulent years. Even as I tried cheeseburgers and kissing boys, I could still drench the pages of my prayer book with tears. But eventually, about eight years ago, when I read enough science to squash the last of the mystical stories I had been raised on, my growing skepticism evolved into a firm comfort with Atheism and I stopped talking to God.

I went to yoga, the other day. My mind wandered down my to-do list as I planted my legs in the postures for Warrior One, Two and Three. After a sweaty hour, as we lowered to corpse pose to end the class, I glanced at the woman next to me. Her shorts had ridden up, revealing a series of scabby scars on her thigh. I lay back with my palms up, eyes closed and stinging with tears.

Maybe it was the yoga, unfolding the pieces of my body, unhinging the stuck places, opening my heart, but to my surprise, I found myself talking to God in my head. Screaming at him.

“Where were you? Where were you, God?”

My throat closed as I tried to swallow my sobs.

I knew the scars that the woman beside me carried. As a teenager, I had taken a razor to my arm. Releasing blood gave me relief from the terror and confusion I felt after leaving my religious family and finding myself alone in the world. My cutting has long healed to Braille, but the woman’s fresh wounds suddenly brought me back to that time in my life that now seems so long ago.

“Where were you God? Why didn’t you save me from myself, from everyone, from everything?”

The anger piled on top of my supine body, a mountain of rocky fury hovering over me. It felt real, three-dimensional, my forgotten emotions solidifying above me as I railed at God.

There was no answer. But suddenly, I saw myself, a little naked creature, emerging from a door in the anger, walking out, away from it, onto a vast lunar plain. My shoulders sank into the yoga mat, as I felt the relief of being free from all of that bitterness. It was so simple, in this strange little vision I had. I just walked away from the anger and was free.

“Roll up to sit,” the yoga teacher instructed us, and my vision faded. But a sense of lightness remained, along with a strange aftertaste from having struck up a conversation with someone who no longer existed.

There is no God for me, in my understanding of the world now, but perhaps, I mused, as I rolled up my mat, there is still some place for me to send my hopes and fears. I can’t deliver my words to a Divine listener, but maybe there is still relief in sending my messages out to a psychic space beyond myself, in giving myself permission to pray, even, as an atheist.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Passover in Pakistan

Rachel CantorIn 1990, I worked with Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, then the site of the largest refugee population in the world. Specifically, I worked with a program that theoretically hoped to prepare Afghan women to work in “public administration,” perhaps in that longed-for time after they were able to return home. Our actual aims were more modest: we taught mostly “business” English and basic computer skills to women, who in their homeland might have been doctors or lawyers, so they could find receptionist-type jobs with the only workplaces that would take them, which is to say, other refugee-assistance agencies. It is a measure of their extremely limited opportunities and their love of learning that our students (it still hurts to call these grown women “students”) were thrilled to be there.

As was I, despite the difficulties of living in Peshawar, and of working with Afghan women, who were viewed by the more conservative elements of the refugee population as belonging at home. A housing program was destroyed because someone believed the widow “beneficiaries” of that program were being corrupted. The van that brought us to work was swept for explosives each day before we could enter our work compound; our program was shut down for a not-inconsiderable amount of time because of death threats; female Afghan staff were evacuated to Europe for that same reason. Expatriate aid workers did not receive such threats, to the best of my knowledge, but our movements were highly restricted: we could not go to many public places (the movies, for example) for fear of bombs; we had to be driven everywhere; there was no chance we might simply take a walk around the neighborhood. I dressed in modest shalwar kameez when at work or in the community. More subtly, I think we were always on edge, our behavior as largely unwelcome expatriates always scrutinized. The environment in Peshawar was considered so hostile that it was, if memory serves, one of only two locations in the world (the other being Sudan) where non-embassy staff could join the American Club, an embassy-run bar where we could drink, play darts, compare notes about jobs we’d held (well, which my colleagues had held) around the world, and relax.

Complicating this already challenging milieu was a steady tone of official anti-Semitism. I still have a clipping from the local English-language newspaper about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, presented as description of fact! There was anti-Christian sentiment as well (a favorite feature of that same English-language newspaper was stories about Christian Pakistanis who’d converted to Islam), but those stories were celebratory, not virulent, not (to me, anyway) frightening. And there was the ever-present sadness—the sadness of our Afghan colleagues, our Afghan students—as they mourned their lost homes. It seemed their exile would last forever.

It was in this charged environment that I experienced one of my first Passover seders. My family had never celebrated Pesach, not even in watered-down form. I had gone to a seder once in high school—this one in Peshawar could easily have been my second. I don’t remember where the matzoh came from, or even if we had any. All I remember was that the seder was led by an American man who was widely believed a spy (a not unreasonable conclusion in those days), and that there were many, many people there. And that I felt a sense of belonging, and relief, in their company—surpassing that which I had felt even in the privacy of our shared staff houses, or when we let our hair down at the American Club. We sang songs I didn’t recognize; I assume we tasted bitter herbs. Did we talk about freedom, and the return of the exiled? I like to think we did.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Ultra-Orthodox Backlash

Cut Me LooseWhen a former ultra-Orthodox Jew publicly reveals her story, she often faces ferocious attacks from her community of origin who will claim that she is “crazy” and a liar. As a former ultra-Orthodox writer and activist, I’ve experienced some of this backlash on blogs and online chatrooms, but I received my most public dose of it when I appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show last spring to share a bit about my life and promote the work of Footsteps, an organization that empowers former ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The Katie producer called me the day before the taping, frantic. She had contacted my father for a counter-statement to my recounting of my parents’ abandonment and the difficult years I went through after that. “It is clear to us” my father’s statement said, “that she (Leah) does not (or perhaps is not always able to) separate her imaginings from the facts. The allegations contained in your email are simply false, every single one … Come what may, we will continue to love her always.” (His love, of course, moving him to issue this statement, but not to contacting me after the birth of my child two years ago, or since.)

The producer was afraid that perhaps, despite my extensive prep with her, I was, in fact, a delusional liar. I directed her to my brother, who confirmed my account and shared the story of his own, similar, experiences.

Many of my friends who leave ultra-Orthodoxy have faced this type of personal attack from family, former friends, former rabbis, and internet trolls. With the publication of my memoir, I expect a fresh and heated batch of claims that I am crazy and that I am a liar. There is a grain of truth in these accusations. If “crazy” means experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists, I have, as my memoir recounts, spent time on a psych ward. I don’t lie, in my memoir, but I do, as I note in the book, work within the conventions of the genre. My book is not a multi-volume investigative journalism essay on my entire existence; it explores one narrative thread from a vibrant life. As I state in the opening pages, “[s]ome events have been compressed or rearranged in time to more concisely convey my experience” and “[n]ames and identifying details have been altered.”

I’m weary of the insults that will come, but more than that, I am bitterly disappointed by this de facto reaction. It’s a letdown to see that the community that I cherished for so long seems too often to have no more substantial engagement with the concerns of those of us who chose to leave beyond ad hominem attacks.

The community I knew was a community that prided itself both on deep immersion in complex philosophical studies and generous investment in charity and support. The community that I grew up in was a community that strived to follow a Godly path, that constantly issued exhortations to personal improvement, that engaged in intense recruitment of outsiders to what they claimed was a more elevated life. I would expect more depth, more compassion, more pensiveness, in their engagement with these issues. The cognitive dissonance is unsettling.

My hope for my memoir, and others that will surely be coming in the next few years, is that the ultra-Orthodox community will reject the tired script of “you’re crazy, you’re a liar” and instead enter the conversation with valuable ideas about how to make the ultra-Orthodox community more tolerant of those who choose a self-determined life and more embracing of personal expression. Both for my peers and for those I left behind.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 14, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Power of the Aleph

A highly unlikley scenarioI don’t speak Hebrew and, despite a few semi-earnest attempts to learn my aleph-bet, I don’t read it either. I recognize enough spoken words of biblical Hebrew that I can more or less follow an English translation when someone reads Torah, but that’s about it. And while I’ve studied some Kabbalah, I am no scholar: I know that individual Hebrew letters are associated with specific mystical qualities, but I cannot tell you what they are. Still, I am fascinated by the aleph.

Toward the end my novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, the thirteenth-century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia appears before my hero, the hapless Leonard, in the old medieval basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Known for his meditative work combining Hebrew letters, Abulafia hovers over Leonard (literally: his feet do not touch the ground), juggling Hebrew letters in fantastic, unfollowable patterns. He wants to impress Leonard with his message, and he does. But unbeknownst to him, he drops an aleph as he dematerializes. The remainder of the book hinges on this aleph. Leonard can exchange it for something he badly needs (his seven-year-old nephew Felix!). It also, not incidentally, allows him to save the world. Phew!

The aleph! I know of it what you probably know: first letter, no sound, the beginning of the words echad, referring to divine unity; ein sof, the infinite which is the divine source of all manifestation; and emet, or truth. Powerful! But if I must be truthful, it was not my rabbi teachers who drew me to the letter, it was the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges may or may not have been descended from Portuguese Jews, but his interest in Jewish texts, symbols, and ideas defined a sizeable portion of his life and work: he translated Kafka, loved Buber’s Hassidic tales, and lectured on the Kabbalah; he wrote stories with Kabbalistic and other Jewish themes, and searched his ancestry (in vain, apparently) for Jewish forebears. Whatever his “pedigree,” I love his work and, in particular, his 1945 story “The Aleph.”

In this story, a horrendously pedantic poet by the name of Carlos Argentino Daneri is writing an epic poem that seeks, basically, to describe everything on the planet, or maybe even the universe. He is aided, it turns out, by an aleph in his basement, which, he explains to the story’s narrator, is a point in space that contains all other points. Looking into it, one can see everything that is—clearly and at the same moment. The narrator is allowed a glimpse; he describes the resulting vision necessarily as a succession of images, though of course he sees them all simultaneously. What follows is a beautiful paragraph listing some of these images, both enormous and minutely specific (deserts and each of their grains of sand, his own bowels, horses on the shore of the Caspian Sea, the obscene letters his beloved had written to this pedantic poet …).

One of my favorite writing exercises when I taught for one brief year was to assign students this story and ask them to write such a list of images—just the list: they didn’t have to create a story about or around it. I guessed that freed from the rigors and constraints of narrative they too would write astonishing paragraphs—and they did! I startled them by asking to keep those lists (at a time when teachers still received hard copies of student work!)—they were that good. I have them still.

In my book, the aleph (which, naturally, quivers and vibrates) is more focused: it does not allow viewers to see the entire universe from every conceivable angle; rather, it enables them to see scenes from their own lives, past and future; this, in turn, helps them understand and embrace their destinies. The vision is no less transformative, however. A variation of Reb Borges’ aleph, to be sure, but a heartfelt homage nonetheless!

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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Posted on January 13, 2014

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