If one listened only to the avalanche of political ads during the recent election campaign, one might believe that Americans were being crushed under the heaviest federal tax burden ever, and that raising taxes on the wealthy (the “job creators”) was tantamount to national economic suicide. This view, bolstered by much of the record $4-6 billion raised for the Presidential and Congressional campaigns, was heavily supported by a small group of billionaires, perhaps topped by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly made contributions of a record $150 million himself. In total, billions of dollars were spent by people who claimed that they were forced to spend too much in federal taxes.
In reality, Americans today have the lowest federal tax burden since 1950. Historically, in the 1950s and early 1960s the economy was very healthy, and the top income tax bracket paid around 90 percent. When tax rates were dramatically reduced for the wealthiest Americans, as in the 1920s and over the last decade and a half, brief prosperity resulted, followed by a catastrophic economic crash and the greatest inequality in wealth between the very rich and the rest of the population.
The Jewish tradition has much to say about fairness in taxation, and consistently endorses the principle that those who benefit the most from society have the greatest obligation to pay for the support of the community. For example, Deuteronomy 15:4 states: “And there shall be no needy among you.” In addition, farmers were instructed to go over their fields and vineyards only once, and not to reap the corners of their fields: “Leave them for the poor and the foreigner” (Leviticus 19:9-10). According to the Mishnah, the community was expected to support a communal kitchen, burial society, and other needed infrastructure (Peah 8:7). Later, more defined funds presided over by prominent members of the community were set up to deal with the poor. In order to achieve this, citizens were taxed in proportion to their ability to pay. Thus, Jewish law has consistently upheld the idea that a fair taxation is necessary for the maintenance of the community. Continue reading
Every December, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of Jewish celebrations taking place across the United States. This is a continuing testimony to what I document and espouse in my recently published book A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish. We Jews can rejoice in Jewish ways beyond the Hanukkah festival and embrace the goodwill generated by Christmas to find Jewish meaning in the December holiday season.
Saturday night marked the first night of Hanukkah. Menorah lightings will abound in homes and in public places. I presided over the menorah lighting at East 35th and Park Avenue in New York City at 5:00PM. We were crammed onto the median with cars whizzing by! Exciting but a bit on the dangerous side. I had never officiated at the lighting of a menorah in a public space!
Just overhead was the ethereal spire of the Empire State Building glowingly lit in blue and white and wrapped in mist! As with everything of import, there is a story surrounding the Hanukkah lighting of the Empire State Building. In 1997, nine-year-old Mallory Blair Greitzer wrote a letter to the management of the Empire State Building in Manhattan requesting that the color of the building’s tower lights be changed in honor of Hanukkah. This request was steadfastly rejected on the basis that the management’s policy limited the lights to honor each religion on one day per year. (The landmark’s lights are blue and white for Israel Independence Day.) Upon receiving this answer, Mallory asked her parents if she was Israeli. They explained that she was not, which prompted Mallory to write a second letter to Leona Helmsley, the management company’s owner. Mallory explained that she was not Israeli and therefore wondered what this policy meant for her and the other Jews in the country who were not Israeli. Against the advice of her staff, Helmsley granted Mallory’s request. In celebration of Hanukkah in 1997, the Empire State Building was (and each year thereafter) set alight with the colors blue and white. Grass roots campaigning at its best!
The Rabbis teach (Ta’anit 11a) that “at a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, ‘I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.'” To effectively aid those who are suffering, we need the cooperation and collaboration of each and every individual. We need strong individuals, effective non-profits, and committed states. However, we also need to recognize the most powerful collective body available to address the suffering. In our society, the mechanism that represents the people is the government, and it must be effective. Government does not always have to be big to be effective, but oftentimes it does, especially when responding to disasters on a large scale.
Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast in October 2012, was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second-costliest, behind only Hurricane Katrina. At least 253 people were killed and an estimated $65.6 billion was lost due to damage and business interruption. For weeks, many in this, the wealthiest country in the world, were suddenly lacking the basic necessities of life, such as shelter, heat, power, and water. The most dramatic damage occurred in southern New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area. In New Jersey, the historic Seaside Heights roller coaster was carried out into the Atlantic Ocean, where its tangled ruins remain today. Video of the famous Jersey shore area revealed miles of destroyed boardwalks and beaches that had virtually disappeared, along with hundreds of demolished houses and boats. To the north, nearly 100 people died within a 65-mile radius of New York City as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Manhattan had never before flooded, but Hurricane Sandy’s waters were nearly 4 feet higher than the city’s 10-foot walls. Scores were killed in their homes on the coasts of Staten Island and Queens. Some ignored mandatory orders to evacuate, others were elderly and infirm, but all were victimized by a flood surge that filled houses with water within minutes, allowing no escape. Others were killed by falling branches and trees. Millions of people were without power, and received little-to-no information from their utility companies about when power might be restored. The catastrophe was reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many feared a repeat of the government’s feeble response to that storm might occur again. Continue reading
Festivus, the secular December holiday credited to a screenwriter of the 1990s television sitcom Seinfeld, grew in popularity beyond its television roots as a secular societal celebration that allowed participants to express their feelings and frustrations with the holiday season. Festivus parties take place across the United States, serving as magnets for younger generations of Americans, among them many Jews. The celebrants of Festivus have stripped the holiday season of any religious meaning, instead relying upon irony and parody to carry the day.
Festivus Chai! And at Whole Food’s no less! While rambling around the aisles of the Whole Foods at Union Square in Greenwich Village, my wife, son and I encountered an entire wall of Festivus Chai! According to its online marketing materials, Festivus Chai is a limited‐edition seasonal holiday chai made with real cocoa, holiday spices, and organic ingredients.
Made by Third Street, Inc., a beverage company in Colorado, 5% of the proceeds during the holiday season will be donated to the Whole Planet Foundation, a nonprofit which attempts to alleviate poverty through microloans in the third world. So there is a tzedakah component to the Festivus product.
These tales of Deborah, Ruth and Hannah are wonderful stories, full of vivid characters and human drama — a pleasure for all of us to read them and for me to make (and share with you) pictures expressing them. But these are more than great stories; they embody our national mores, and those mores are why they were included in our great record of our folk history, beliefs and laws, the Hebrew Bible. The challenge of expressing these mores is my motivation in composing the pictures. So, how do I go about expressing these ideas in my art?
Throughout our history, we have sought to find the roots of our values, laws and lifestyle in our biblical texts, the stories of the creation and growth of the nation of Israel. Centuries of rabbinic efforts at deriving rationales for Jewish life and law from Biblical text resulted in the bodies of law called the Mishnah (by about 220 CE) and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds (about 500 CE). But all this analytic energy resulted in kinds of thought and writings other than straight legal codes alone. Interspersed among the legal writing, the halakhah, the Talmud includes aggadah, storytelling expansions upon biblical text or other related tales meant to elucidate points of law and other related Jewish customs and values. These story-telling portions of the Talmud, which by the 11th century were compiled in collections of such aggadah, along with a host of other kinds rabbinic legends developed over centuries before and ever since, comprise the vast body of midrash. Much of the midrashic literature was either designed for, or eventually used to inspire homiletics (synagogue sermons), and so midrash became the source for many of our best-loved folktales.
Now, as I said above, one of the really wonderful challenges in my visual interpretations of biblical texts (or couples’ relationships in ketubot, for that matter) is to dig out and express the larger complexes of values that we have derived from, or read into these stories. As you can guess, the midrash provides a splendid source of ideas and images (the latter often utilizing archaeology of the era I’m working with) to express these constellations of ideas. Arise! Arise! draws upon many different kinds of midrash to express the religious moral and legal, and national values embedded in these very human stories. But I like my paintings to make some kind of narrative sense, not just assemblages of disembodied, out-of-context “symbols.” In my own method of composing scenes that both make sense and express higher ideas, my teachers have been the masters of late medieval Flemish painting – I explain this in my introduction to the book. Now, since I’m drawing upon sources that are often unfamiliar to the generally educated reader and I want you to be able to understand the paintings, I include commentary for each painting. I’ll talk more about the complex of values expressed in Arise! Arise! in my next post. And so, my work is often described as “visual midrash.” Continue reading
So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomena of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking!
In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years!
Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an Orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah.
Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn—it’s a living.”
The underpinnings for playing Santa Claus are myriad. Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christians, or whether from a yearning to be a participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.
I’ve adored illuminated manuscripts all my life — as a child and teenager, these were the postcards I’d take home from museum trips. I’ve done hundreds of ketubot and this is my third book project published in 7 years, and as absorbing as each of these projects has been, Arise! Arise! has the deepest claim on me.
Arise! Arise! is a memorial to my late husband, David, who passed away in March 2009 after a long struggle with a unique spinal cord cancer. A couple of afternoons before he died, my father-in-law, Arnold Band, a renowned scholar of Hebrew literature, and I were sitting and talking quietly beside David’s bed in our family room, which had now morphed into a home hospice. “So, you know what your next project is going to be?” he asked. I rolled my eyes and said something like, ” know you’re going to tell me.” He knew perfectly well that I’d been working on Esther insofar as the illness allowed. “Yes,” he said, “your next project is going to be ‘Shirat Devorah’ and do you know why? Because you are the Devorah.” The real reason, however, the one that neither of us could yet bring ourselves to say, was that this would be a memorial to the son and husband we were about to lose.
The period immediately after your book comes out is a wonderful and strange time. On the one hand, the work you’ve done—which for most of its existence just hung out on the hard drive of your computer, feeling not quite real—is now in front of you, in a very concrete form, between two covers. Your work is a book, a thing with mass and substance, an object that other folks can find and get and read—maybe even folks you don’t know! In that way it’s the joyous culmination of perhaps years of work and efforts to get the work published.
On the other hand, it’s definitely a weird time. The main weirdness is that, when your book comes out, suddenly you’re probably doing all kinds of unusual things to help the book succeed: you may be giving readings, driving from one bookstore to another, sitting on panels, Googling yourself way too much and checking your Amazon Rank (please don’t, if you can help it)—and also perhaps doing what I’m doing here, which is writing about writing. Every one of these activities is the result of very good fortune—you couldn’t be doing them if you hadn’t gotten that book into print—and they’re generally a lot of fun (aside from Googling and Amazon Ranking, the dangers of which I cannot stress enough). Yet you’ll notice that there’s one thing missing from that list of activities: aside from writing about writing, you may not be doing very much writing at all—not the kind that probably led to the actual book you’re now holding in your hands.
It can sneak up on you. If you’re anything like me, spending too much time away from writing means getting more and more irritable, and getting on your loved ones’ nerves. Often it’s my wife who, finally fed up with me, demands that I find some time to write or else. In those moments, it’s even possible to get a little resentful of your own good fortune—I would be writing if only it wasn’t for all this author stuff! But I don’t recommend embracing that resentment. These author activities are not only fun, not only the fruits of tremendous good fortune—they can also be an important part of the creative cycle.
Writing about writing (like I’m doing right now) is a great example of that. When I’m in the midst of writing short stories or poems, I’m not thinking a lot about what I’m doing. First drafts come out in a sort of unplanned, raw way, and even revision involves some specific strategizing, but not much thought about big questions, like Why do I write? or Why am I writing in this particular form? or What’s the best way to get work done? or any of a variety of other possibilities. The time after a book gets published is actually a rare and valuable time to sit back and get some perspective on what you do. It can add layers of meaning to your work, and it can make you a better and more purposeful writer.
For example, this fall, my writing about writing has helped me to: finally understand the basic difference between a novelist and a short story writer; to get clear on how a short story collection comes together successfully; to really appreciate the fact that I use writing to understand things that initially confuse me; to explore the Jewishness of my work and my process; and—right here—to value the very writing about writing that I’m doing now. It has also helped me participate in a larger conversation between writers and readers—a conversation I first encountered as a little boy learning to read. I want to be a part of that, and I’m glad that I get to be.
Of course, none of this replaces the real writing, the stuff that you’re most passionate about. And it makes sense to get a little agitated if it’s been a while since the last story or poem, and it makes sense to get back to it as soon as you can. But in the meantime it’s probably worthwhile to pay close attention to all you’re doing as an author, because, even in the middle of all the strangeness, you have an enormous opportunity to grow as a writer.
And really—just leave those Amazon rankings alone.
Is my fiction Jewish? In my last blog post I came to a firm conclusion: yes—and no. Well, I think I can make the same bold claim for the creative process I go through when I’m writing. On the one hand, I have to do the things all writers do, whatever their background: I have to start with some promising, mysterious, uncertain thing (a line, a character, a mood), and work with it until something more whole develops, and keep things open so that I can revise and revise and revise, as drastically as is required, until I have a piece that I can comfortably call done. Again, this is what all writers do. Yet, when I look at it more closely, I have to say that I do those things pretty Jewishly.
What do I mean? Well, the creative process is a basically dead thing if it’s just a bunch of pre-ordained steps that you follow from start to finish. Creativity becomes powerful when it’s infused with purpose and meaning and direction—the distinct purpose, meaning, and direction brought to the work by each author—and that infusion, in my case, comes from the wisdom of Judaism.
There’s an old, old story (we’ve got some very old stories) that suggests that, when God was figuring out how to make the universe, God read the Torah for instructions. I love that. I also love the old wisdom of the Pirkei Avot, which says of the Torah, Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it. What all that tells me is that artists—folks who boldly engage in the act of creation—could get a lot out of that foundational text of ours.
As a matter of fact, one of my big recent projects was a book called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books), an attempt to take on the Torah, portion by portion, to see if each weekly reading had something—insight, reassurance, even instruction—to offer artists. I pretty much expected the project to fail. And yet it didn’t; portion after portion I found valuable ideas, images, and stories that were immensely relevant to my work as a writer. I found insights about the ties between creation and destruction; about how abundant inspiration and also the lack of it are both part of the process; about speaking out and silence; about the need to appeal to the senses in our work; about why we bother to create at all; about the dangerous attractions of publication and fame; about the close relationship between content and form; about fearlessly taking on difficult material; and so on.
I mean, the Torah is a rich and complicated book; you might be able to write something called The Lawyer’s Torah or The Parent’s Torah just as easily. (Take those ideas and run with them, someone.) So I’m not saying that the Torah is secretly just a message to artists, and that all other interpretations are misinterpretations. What I’m saying is just that artists have every reason to turn to some of our oldest sources of wisdom for aid and understanding in our own lives and work. One of the telling things was that I was simultaneously reading a lot of biographies—Jewish painters, choreographers, writers, etc.—and I saw them echoing the very things I was uncovering in the Torah, so I threw them in alongside the more ancient words and let the echoes speak for themselves.
I’ll make an example of the story that stands out the most for me: Adam and Eve. Not as traumatic a tale for us as for Christians, but still—it’s kind of a big deal when they eat the fruit and get kicked out of the garden. But why do they get kicked out? Because, so goes the story, they’ve eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what do they do right after they set up a new camp? They “know” each other and make a baby. In other words, as soon as they know the full range of potential in the world—good and evil both—they right away get started on the very first act of human creation. Which means our creativity might be fueled by the same kind of knowledge.
I carry that tale with me. As a Jewish writer, I think my job is, first and foremost, to come to know that full range of good and evil, beauty and brokenness, creation and destruction—to see it and to know it, and to start writing.
And that’s just the beginning.
I think most Jewish writers, at one time or another, face the question of what makes them Jewish writers, as opposed to just writers. For example, consider Joshua Henkin’s blog post, “Are You A Jewish Writer?” posted on this very site, back in June. I personally run into this kind of question in panels at just about every literary conference I go to, during question-and-answer sessions at readings, in interviews, and so on. And I think it makes sense; ours is a history of, on the one hand, segregation from non-Jews, which tends to make a people very aware of its identity, and, on the other, it’s a history of needing to hang onto that identity across an enormous diversity of time and place. Without a doubt all of this tends to produce a mindset that wants to ask, “But is it Jewish?” It also tends to produce literature full of Jewish characters doing clearly Jewish stuff, super-Jewishly: rabbis, bar mitzvahs, bagels, and so on.
But a writer can get tired of the question. As Henkin pointed out, “No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.” Indeed. In America in the 21st century, we Jews are still a somewhat identifiable community, with our rabbis and bar mitzvahs and the like, but let’s face it: a day in a (non-Orthodox) Jewish life is largely the same as a gentile life. We don’t spend all day saying: Oh, my G-d, I’m Jewish! I’m taking a Jewish shower! I’m doing my Jewish walk to work! What a Jewish day I’m having! For that reason, a lot of the stories (and poems, for that matter) I write are just intended to be stories, and not particularly Jewish stories. In other words, we live in a situation where we have the option of writing past our labels. And yet….
First of all, I do sometimes write really obviously Jewish stories. In “Jewish Day,” one of the stories from my new collection, Into the Wilderness, a family goes to a baseball game on “Jewish Heritage Day,” and the situation does bring up all kinds of identity issues for the characters. And even when my stories aren’t so obviously tied to my heritage, I think that heritage still matters. I think it does for all Jewish authors. Our history, our upbringing, our life cycle events, all come together to shape who we are, and we write out of that. (The same could probably be said for writers who are Hindu, Mormon, and so on.) Even when our characters are not Jewish, it matters that we are; it means that, instead of talking about our own community, we’re reaching out toward another one. In my story, “Is Any Thing Too Hard for the Lord?” there are two Christian characters praying to Jesus in a car; this is necessarily more an exercise in empathy than an exploration of my own identity.
When the characters are Jewish, we’re doing something else. For example, my story “Person of Interest” concerns a couple with a baby, staying in a shady rent-by-the-week building for the summer; one day, officers from the Department of Homeland Security stop by to arrest one of their neighbors, a young man from the United Arab Emirates. Now, anybody could have rented the apartment next to this guy, and you could argue that my characters just happened to be Jewish. (There are a few signs of their Jewishness, here and there, though it’s not trumpeted from the rooftops.) And so the story isn’t about Jewishness—yet I have to admit that their Jewishness does affect the story. First of all, the narrator’s sense of dislocation in the Midwest reflects the coastal urban origin of a significant number of Jews. More importantly, this incident involving an Arab man is more charged, because of the ongoing Middle-East conflict. It’s more significant. It changes what the events mean to the narrator, and to me. In these senses it is a Jewish story; Jewishness matters. And yet I insist: it’s also just a story, where I’m taking on broader concerns of security and purpose and responsibility.
And so, for me as an author, Jewishness does not have to be the question, or even a question, in every story. I ask any question my fiction leads me to ask. But I also recognize that, when I do so, I’m doing it sort of Jewishly. Bagels or no bagels.