Armistice Day

Letter from my grandmother to her sweetheart in the army, sent the day after Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Nov. 12, 1918

My dear Shleima,

Yesterday was a great day. Never yet was our house filled with so much joy and enthusiasm. Papa almost went back to childhood, with a “red white and blue” ribbon on his hat he was marching through the streets on an automobile truck (of course he was not the only one) waving a flag and cheering. Then he bought brandy and wine, called together every body, even strangers and we all…well I’ll tell and we got drunk. Now dear must I tell you how I missed you ? Liebman made a toast, Shlypsin sang ”shu, shu chapzunim?” Katz drank wine and Rosie set on the couch. My face was full of smiles and mirth, any time of the day I could not have felt any anger to anybody then, I did not believe then that there is such a word as hate in existence. And if you were only here I would have loved you five times as much. Don’t be angry dear and say that my love is so small that it could be increased five times. It isn’t this. Only I could not explain it. If you were here then you would understand.. I was very much down hearted with the size of your letter, and only when reading of your promise to write a big one tomorrow I became more cheerful. So now I am waiting impatiently for tomorrow.

With love
Lena

Lena_Simon

Thanks to Miriam Forman for finding this letter.

Loosely Bound

A packed Torah portion this week—The Malachim visit Abraham and promise Sarah will bear him a son. Abraham negotiates with God. Sodom and Gemorrah are destroyed. Lot’s daughters are offered up to placate the mob, and later have sex with their father. Isaac is born. Abraham is commanded to bind Isaac for sacrifice. If they had only spread the dramatic stories out a little more, they could have livened up six portions during the dry part of the year.

It’s week four of twelve weeks reading Bereshit (Genesis) in Yiddish. I again find that after our reading group, I end up thinking more about the Torah content than about the Yiddish language. When you do religious stuff with a group of Jewish people, you inevitably end up thinking about the Jewish religion. Being a Jewish atheist, it turns out, cuts both ways.

How is that? The Christians I know who are atheists do not call themselves Christians, nor do mainstream Christian churches think of them as such. But the Jewish atheists I know almost all still consider ourselves to be Jews. Judaism is not just a religion, but is also a nationality, and a cultural identification, and for some people, an ethnicity. And the religion embraces this multiplicity. You can become part of the community by birth, or by choice. If you’re born of Jews, you are a Jew. If you believe, and want to become a Jew, you can, but there are no belief tests, and there is no codified creed that everyone is supposed to endorse.

When our group reads together, there is a range of familiarity, and interest in, the Torah, and a also range of beliefs and levels of religious observance. Some read the word יהוה as ‘hashem’. Since ‘Adonai’ is not the pronunciation of God’s name, יהוה, but just means ‘Lord’, this means they aren’t just avoiding saying the name of God, but won’t even say the word ‘god’. This carries over from Hebrew to Yiddish. But they have no such compunction in English.

Religion is not intended to be rational or consistent. I would go farther and say that it cannot be rational or consistent. It is a system for appealing to the emotions, and to our yearning for meaning beyond what we can rationally understand. It is precisely about (as the Taoists put it) the Name that cannot be named.

So my avidity in pointing out logical inconsistencies is not always appreciated. The cry over Sodom and Gemorrah has reached the Lord, who says, “We better go down and check that out, and see if it’s all as bad as the cry would have it.” What’s the mechanism of that? (I ask). How does the cry reach up? Does God really have to come down (so now he’s located in space…) and see for himself?”

“The stories are to benefit us,” says T. “If they wrote it from God’s point of view we would not be able to understand.” I agree with her that it does benefit me. Because I like to be skeptical and cynical, these inconsistencies in the text make me happy. She rolls her eyes.

Then we come to Abraham bargaining with God to save the cities. Abraham asks whether, if there are fifty innocent people in Sodom and Gemorrah, God would really destroy the innocent along with the guilty. Halayleh dir tzu tun aza zakh. Strange of him to say, “God forbid” that you do such a thing, to God. But that’s the whole point. The argument Abraham is making is that there should be moral consistency. Zol der rikhter fun der gantzer erd nit ton gerekhtikayt? [Shouldn’t the judge of all the earth do justly?]

“We are meant to question God,” says T. And then she turns to me she says, “And that’s why you are welcome.” She is pleased with the story and with herself.

And rightly so. She is a great resource to the group because she knows her Torah and because she has complete command of the Hebrew. When we’re not sure why something in the Yiddish is worded the way it is (bay Sarahn hot oyfgehert tzu zayn der shteyger vi bay veyber, “For Sarah was no longer in the manner of women”) we can ask T what the Hebrew original does. But she has also has just demonstrated the two features of a healthy (as opposed to fundamentalist) person of faith. First, with the bit about God coming down to check, she asserted the obvious – that the stories are not meant to be taken literally. Second, she is relaxed with unbelievers and with challenge because her belief does not require that other people think the same way she does.

These widely-held attitudes among Jewish believers are a big reason why Jewish atheists stay Jewish. The Torah needs interpreting, which means that it can change and improve as human understanding changes and improves. Argument is not merely tolerated, but welcomed.

When I started by saying that being a Jewish atheist cuts both ways, this is what I trying to get at. Recently I quoted Kaplan’s definition of Judaism as the religious civilization of the Jewish people. I said then that this means the stories belong to us (secular Jews) too. But it would also be accurate to say, “we (secular Jews) belong to the stories, too.” The community will engage flexibly and will welcome the skeptic. Their openness to contradiction, the toleration and even celebration of dissent and argument, exerts a pull. The stories themselves are terse, open-ended and dramatic, and can be looked at from many different points of view, including the idea that there has to be some moral consistency and the idea that we shouldn’t expect literal or logical consistency.

———————-
Even so, the stories of Lot’s daughters and of the binding of Isaac probably strain modern morality and rational argument past the snapping point. I will just say something brief about the binding of Isaac here. The other is a much deeper problem and will have to wait for now.

No God worth worshipping would command his prophet to sacrifice his son. Yes, in the Torah, Abraham’s hand is stopped. But no entity that could be described as ‘good’ would suggest such an act, even as an object lesson or a test of obedience.

But here’s where the open-ended nature of the stories, the encouragement of retelling them in a living tradition, and the tolerance of skepticism make our heritage such a treasure. In the 1980s, I twice had the privilege of hearing the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai read his poetry. At the second reading, I remember he talked about the binding of Isaac as an elaborate piece of theater, where Abraham was in the know the whole time. With a wink at Isaac, he brought him to the mountain for this rite of passage. See how Amichai’s poem turns the narrative on his head, and see how one cruel story can give birth to a new story, whose retelling becomes a new lesson about compassion:

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and manicured in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a party
in a long silk gown,
both of them empty-eyed, looking
at two empty places,

and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter.
The thicket was his last friend.

The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.

But the real hero of the Isaac story
was the ram.

.
–Yehuda Amichai. Translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai

Avrom

For this week’s portion Lekh L’khah, I had originally planned to write about wandering, about exile and about place. It’s a subject I’ve thought and written about before. There are the usual conditions of exile, but then, there is exile from the exile. There is modern exile, and the condition of never having had a place to be in exile from. On the flip side, any exile implies home: A real or an imagined home of the past, or a promised home to come.  Finally, there is the ubiquitous experience of otherness, of being a stranger in one’s one home. This exile has been called the native condition of the poet.

Besides the fact that it would be hard to write about all that, three things stopped me from using Lekh L’khah to talk about exile. First, Avrom’s leaving Babylonia, and the story of his moving around with his entourage is NOT the story of an exile. He left willingly, apparently with no second thoughts or nostalgia, and is traveling towards something. He is beginning, through his personal narrative and his political and military dealings, to carve a place for his people. Second, no Yiddish words were sticking themselves to me this week. Third, there was my ambivalence about Avrom himself. Finally, I decided to leave a fuller exploration of the topics of home and exile for another day, and give myself a break. I would focus on that ambivalent character Avrom and express myself in my more native tongue: Poetry.  Sometimes poems change in the process of writing them.  To invoke a Leader implies followers, as figure implies ground.

Avrom

Who would lead his people to the wilderness?
Wherever he stopped, a pile of stones,
fire in the night, the deed to a tomb, a well
where blood will never cease to flow.

Who would be the father of multitudes
who does His Will,
whose children will be plentiful
as dust, and also know the taste of dust?

Who the canny businessman
who came to Egypt hungry, sold his wife to Pharoah
and then left, keeping his flock
and his wife, intact?

Jealous his wife of his child’s expectant mother,
jealous his nephew’s servants of his herds.
Those who bless him will be blessed,
but only partition would keep the peace.

Who brought sacrifice to our living flesh
originator of the Jewish Man
who’ll surrender to history, meditate
on tenderness, and on the power of a brand?

You must leave the land of your father and his house,
the city of your birth is wicked,
for it knows Me not. Follow the path
of his Promises. Don’t look back.

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Addendum

Moments after I posted this, someone shared a link with me to some Yiddish resources out of the University of Haifa.  As it happens, among the literary works shared on this website in both Yiddish text and audio, are some Itsik Manger poems from the series “Medresh Itsik”. These are his poetic commentary on Torah. Several concern Abraham, including the poem Avrom un Soreh.  For those whose Yiddish is already a little more advanced, here are the pdf of the Yiddish text, and an audio recording, read by Sara Blacher-Retter.