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Archive for the ‘Jewish’ Category


118b1da2d9a6c0d2fa61a19bbc348d4a--the-map-ancient-egyptRecently I heard about a fascinating community of Hebrews who lived on a small island in southern Egypt around the years 495–399 BCE.

They are a tremendously important community to anyone interested in early Israelite history because of how much we have been able to learn about the inner-workings of their society, their legal codes, and their Jewish practices, thanks to the near-perfect preservation of thousands of papyrii written in Aramaic, buried when the community was wiped out, and slowly unearthed over the last century.

The presence of the community is also narrative-shattering for Jewish historians because of the fact the Hebrews there unabashedly built a temple to YHVH in a time when building any place of worship for the Hebrew god outside of Jerusalem was utterly forbidden (think of the angry admonitions by Ezra and Nehemiah—same time period).

I began reading a great scholarly book on the topic The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD and then bee-lined for Youtube hoping to find a video that might show pictures of everything I was reading. That is how I found one lone video on the topic, produced by a British video company NWTV. They pride themselves in being the first “free-to-view TV channel online”.

I must say, however, that I was quite dismayed by the casual anti-semitism and sexism of the narrator, who never identifies himself. Suffice it to say, he’s basically the kind of old white man who that gives all the decent white men of the world a bad name.

Oh Those Stiff-Necked Jews

First, our narrator  describes the destruction of the Jewish temple in Elephantine by their Egyptian neighbors with the remark, oh those “Jews often have a knack of upsetting people.” (9:20) “The Jews here at Elephantine also made themselves unpopular with their fellow mercenaries.”

At the time these events took place, around 500 BCE, there had been a fraction of the anti-Judaism that would later flourish around the world. So to suggest this is just another case of Jewish victimization is historically completely incoherent.

But what is worse is this: If the narrator were to do even the most cursory scholarly research, he would discover that there are three very simple explanations for why these two particular groups got into conflict—and none of them have to do with any notion of “pesky” Jews reigning destruction on themselves.

No 1: The act of a majority group rising up against the minority group living among them is found in every corner of every country in the world for all of human history. It is truly endemic.

Human beings are profoundly xenophobic; even today, hundreds of years after the Enlightenment and the birth of DNA and genetic science and the scientific understanding that all human beings are interchangeably the same, we humans are still killing, marginalizing, or demonizing the “other” among us, every chance we get. (Anyone care to notice what happened in the US presidential election in 2016!?!?)

The Bible is filled with stories of one group sacking another group—oftentimes it even being the Israelites doing the sacking. That’s what human societies do. Is it so hard to imagine why, for various political reasons, the Egyptians might suddenly turn on the tiny minority living among them? Of course it isn’t.

No. 2: In the case of these two groups—the Egyptians and the Israelites—there are particularly simple explanations for the enmity.

bible-archeology-Elephantine-Egyptian-papyrus-letters-Bagohi-governor-Judea-Sanballat-governor-Samaria-Delaiah-Shelemiah-Arsames-Vidranga-rebuild-YHWH-temple-site-plan-536-410BCAt the time of the temple’s destruction, the entire region was ruled by the massive Persian empire; southern Egypt was the outer-most region of its empire. We don’t have any records of what brought the Israelites to the region initially—they were probably the poor remnants who had been left behind when Babylonia sacked the Jerusalem Temple and carted the intelligentsia off to Babylon. Rather than live under severe oppression, the survivors probably fled south.

But whatever the reason for their initial migration, what we do know is that their main purpose in Elphantine was as mercenaries—hired militiamen living in a military garrison alongside their wives and children, hired to defend Persia’s rule.

325px-KhnoumTempleElephantine

The Egyptians’ Khnun Temple.

The two communities co-existed peacefully for 200 years. In time, however, Persia’s power began to wane, and Egyptian nationalism and desire for self-independence began to blossom. The Israelites were then perceived as just a “tool”—hired guns helping prop up an occupying force. Is it really any surprise, then, that the Egyptians would turn their swords against the Israelites – the hired army that was keeping them from self-independence?

Put another way: What else could the Egyptians have done, in light of these new desires? Kindly ask them to quit their jobs and just leave!?

Then there is an important No. 3: The main form of Israelite worship and practice at the time was to sacrifice animals, mostly bulls, which, in a terrible coincidence was the same animal their Egyptian neighbors revered as gods!

The book The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD explains it like this:

“It wasn’t as if the Jewish rites were easily ignored. There would have been constant activity from within the walls of its compound: smoke, blood, chants. And as if angrily elbowing their irreverent neighbors, the priests of Khnum [the Egyptian temple right next door] were expanding their own premises, pressing against the narrow boundary separating the two ritual houses …

At some point the priests of Khnum mobilized resentment against the Jewish troop as the hirelings of the Persians to be rid of their temple, if not of their soldiers and families. They compelled the “wicked’ commander of the island to act …”

Yet our narrator ignores all of this. Instead of pointing out how this was yet one more example of religious leaders using their faith as an instrument of terror, to grab land and resources from another group, instead he would have the audience believe this is just another case of those stiff-necked Hebrews pissing everybody off!

Khnoum temple

Because the settlement was so swiftly destroyed, the archives left behind have been a treasure trove for historians, much like the Cairo genizah.

The question of why Jews have been so maligned and targeted for so long in Western civilization is certainly a valid one—but it is one that is incredibly complex. Scholars have devoted many full-length books to the topic. To reduce such a complex question to little more than a victim-blaming statement akin to “Oh, those Jews are so good at making others hate them!” – well, it is flat-out grotesque.

It’s even more obscene given that the bulk of the real answer to that question rests with the scriptures that Christianity and Islam revere. For the narrator – a man I can only presume is a believing Chrisitian—to point the finger at the victims rather than his own church’s scripture and institutions—well, its gross. And inexcuseable.

“Oh What A G-I-R-L”

Given that bigotry usually goes hand-in-hand with other types of prejudice, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to hear what this jackass would then have to say about women. But alas, I was unprepared for his next verbal bombshell …

When speaking about the ability of Elephantine’s Hebrew women to divorce their husbands—a concept pretty novel for the Ancient Near East and not something their sisters over in Palestine could do—this anecdote is relayed with both dismissiveness and contempt. (22:20)

th

The rocks lining the Nile look a bit like elephants, hence the modern name of the island.

With a smirk on his face, the narrator recounts the case of one woman, Mitbahiah, who is reported to have married three times, making the snide remark that she “must have been quite some girl!” (22:37) Oh what a nightmare she must have been to go through so many men! he implies. (And a “girl” not a “woman” no less.)

Well Herr Jackass, Mitbahiah is also written about in the above-cited book and you have your facts wrong. Yes, she married three times, but she divorced once, not twice. Her first husband died. It was only her 2nd husband she divorced, thus leading to a 3rd marriage (the documents of which were found among the Elephantine papyrii.)

But even if she had divorced twice, what of it?! Is it so hard to imagine that a person could make a bad choice in marriage more than once?! That never happens with women who grow up in abusive households especially, right … the pattern of being abused as a child, so then you get into a series of abusive marriages as an adult. Who has ever heard of that phenomenon, right!? (And yes dude, that is SARCASM.)

The point is: Would you have EVER made such a snide remark about a man who is recorded as having divorced twice?

Of course you wouldn’t.

It’s a completely sexist double standard.

51BHqWS7Y1L._AC_US218_(Oh and one more thing: The name of the Hebrew month isn’t Chisleu—it’s Kislev. Given you English-ized all the other words from Aramaic, I can only imagine leaving the Aramaic name for the month was an editing error).

The saddest part of this video is not that the narrator alone could be so pig-headed to make remarks like these—it’s all the script writers and editors who processed this film and did nothing about it along the way. How many people went through the process of making the film and thought nothing of these bigoted statements?

I don’t know when this video was made, but it was uploaded only 2 years ago, and by NWTV itself, so it’s a reasonable guess it was made around 2016. If this were made in the ’60s, heck even the ’80s, it would be too unremarkable to warrant comment. But it wasn’t. Not even close.

Dear NWTV: You folks really need to join the 21st century. Take a serious look at your implicit biases and prejudice, because they destroy whatever credibility you might otherwise have.

Dear Readers: Run out and buy Schama’s book today. It’s a wonderful, exciting read!

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Okay, okay, I admit, the headline is a little misleading. I haven’t found out a way to bring an actual bona fide cartoon into a wedding ceremony. But I can think of few humorous ways to bring cartoon humor into the wedding program!

How about adding some of these classic funnies onto your program? Credit due to The New Yorker magazine — of course.

 

wedding cartoon eye dew_cropgay marriage

 

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Now, an artist has posthumously given Sendak the wedding he never had. Gay marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania in fall 2015.

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Maurice Sendak lived with his partner psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn for 50 years, though he never told his parents that they were a couple. Artist Ella German chose to posthumously give them the wedding they never had. What a lovely tribute to man who still makes children (and their parents) happy!

Born to Jewish-Polish parents, Maurice’s childhood was affected by the death of many of his family members during the Holocaust. Besides Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak also wrote works such as In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There.

Sendak described his childhood as a “terrible situation” due to the death of members of his extended family, which exposed him at a young age to the concept of mortality. His love of books began when, as a child, he developed health problems and was confined to his bed. He decided to become an illustrator after watching Walt Disney‘s film Fantasia at the age of 12. He spent much of the 1950s illustrating children’s books written by others before beginning to write his own stories.

Sendak mentioned in a September 2008 article in The New York Times that he was gay and had lived with his partner, psychoanalyst Dr. Eugene Glynn, for 50 years before Glynn’s death in May 2007. Revealing that he never told his parents, he said, “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”[17]

Sendak’s relationship with Glynn had been mentioned by other writers before and Glynn’s 2007 death notice had identified Sendak as his “partner of 50 years.” After his partner’s death, Sendak donated $1 million to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in memory of Glynn who had treated young people there.

Sendak was an atheist. In a 2011 interview, he stated that he did not believe in God and explained that he felt that religion, and belief in God, “must have made life much easier [for some religious friends of his]. It’s harder for us nonbelievers,” he said.

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From ‘Einstein,‘ by Walter Isaacson, read by Edward Hermann

(buyable on Amazon Audible. Five stars!)

Albert Einstein bristled at all forms of tyranny over free minds, from Nazism to Stalinism to McCarthyism. Einstein’s fundamental creed was that freedom was the lifeblood of creativity. The development of science and of the creative activities of the spirit, he said, requires a freedom that exists in the independence of thought from the restrictions of authoritarian and social prejudice. Nurturing that should be the fundamental role of government he felt, and the mission of education.

There was a simple set of formulas that defined Einstein’s outlook. Creativity required being willing not to conform; that required nurturing free minds and free spirits, which in turn required a spirit of tolerance. And the underpinning of tolerance was humility — the belief that no one had the right to impose ideas and beliefs on others.

The world has seen a lot of imputant geniuses. What made Einstein special was that his mind and soul was tempered by his humility. He could be serenely self-confident in his lonely course, yet also awed by the beauty of nature’s handiwork. “A spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble,” he wrote. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.

For some people, miracles serve as evidence of god’s existence. For Einstein, it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence.

“The fact that the cosmos is comprehensible, that it follows laws, is worthy of awe. This is the dalbert_einsteinefining quality of a God that reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.”

Einstein considered this feeling of reference, this cosmic religion, to be the wellspring of all true art and science. It was what guided him. “When I am judging a theory,” he said, “I ask myself whether ‘If I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way?’ ” It is also what graced him with his beautiful mix of confidence and awe.

He was a loner, with an intimate bond to humanity. A rebel who was suffesed with reverence. And thus it was that an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.”

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Rachel and Jacob meet at the well.

Rachel and Jacob meet at the well.

When Rachel met Jacob at the edge of the well,
in that moment of their salty union,
did she divine that like the well,
there would now be no bottom to her pain?
The love.
The hate.
The separation each fortnight like the shearing of a lamb? The sons that would grasp and clamp in terror as they slid down her womb, leaving her gait forever off-kilter; like a clay plate that the Cosmic Potter could never again make lie flat.

Oh Potter of my youth; I think you forgot to warn me about the pain.
Remember? That last time we were together in the back seat of that yellow Buick LeSabre, turned brown by all those years of dangling children and muddy soccer cleats? That was the last time my soul still imagined it knew where to find you.

But your salty lips, too, stayed silent. Of course you could not have warned me. Losing my dream of you was the last act, and then, the grand entrance, to adulthood.

The heart is weak.
It can lose but one sweet fantasy at a time,
lest it break completely.

 

+ genesis 29

 

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As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.’

Still he delayed. So the angels seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in God’s mercy – and brought him out and left him outside the city.

When they had brought them outside, one said to Lot, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away!’

But Lot argued with the angel, ‘Evil may take hold of me if I flee to the hills,’ he said. ‘Look — there is a small town nearby. Let me go there and save my life!’ The angel relented. ‘Go quickly,’ the angel said, ‘for I can do nothing until you get there.’

As the brimstone and fire then rained out of the heavens onto Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked behind him and became a pillar of salt.
(Genesis 19:15-26)

 

 

I confess, I have always had a certain affection for the woman in the Bible we know only as “Lot’s wife.” Any way you look at it, she got the raw end of a really raw deal.

For starters, she was married to a dolt — and even that descriptor is too generous when you look at just how incompetent Lot really was.

First, in Genesis 19:8, he offers his two virgin daughters to the men of the town to “do with as you please.” It is only thanks to the intervention of the angels that the young women are saved. Then, in verse 20, when the angels urge Lot to take his family and flee the city before it’s too late, he dilly dallies so long, the angels have to physically take his hand and lead them out of town.

Once outside, the angels urge him again to flee, and what does Lot do? He stands his ground and argues with them! “It’s too far!” he complains. “Can’t I just go to that town over there instead!?!” The angels acquiesce again, holding back the brimstone and fire until the family has reached safety.

Then, in a final act of irresponsibility, Lot fails to tell his wife and daughters the warning one of the angels had given him in verse 17 — that crucial piece of information about how, if they look back at the destruction, they too will be swept away. The text states clearly that the angels warned him — “al tavit achareycha” — in the masculine singular. These crucial words of warning were only spoken to Lot, not to the rest of his family. And Lot, being the kind of guy Lot was, never relayed them. We all know how this tragic series of events ends. Lot’s wife looks behind them and turns into a pillar of salt.

The question that has been occupying rabbinic commentators ever since is: Why did she look? Some have answered generously.

Writing in 12th century Egypt, Maimonides said Lot’s wife was looking behind her husband to see who might be following him, acting as a rear guard for all his household, who were hurrying to be saved.

The  late 14th century agaddic collection Midrash ha-Gadol says she felt concern for her married daughters, whom they had left behind, and she was turning to see if they were following.

Other commentators, overlooking the crucial fact that she had never heard the angels’ warning, concoct far more damning explanations. The 3rd century midrashic collection B’reishit Rabba said she had once refused to give salt to a poor person, so being turned into salt was a punishment ‘measure for measure.’

Jacob Chinitz, rabbi emeritus of Beth Ami Congregation in Philadelphia, now living in Israel, imagines that she looked back only to delight in the destruction of her townspeople. “She could not resist enjoying their failure and her success even though it was only her good fortune to be married to Abraham’s nephew,” the USCJ explains.

Good fortune!?!? Being married to this schlemiel was good fortune!?!

To my thinking, the question isn’t why did Lot’s wife look back — it’s why wouldn’t she!?

Here she is, the world literally raining down on her in flames, and her future, her fate is entirely dependent on this man who has proven himself paralyzed by indecision. And when he finally does make decisions, they are disastrously bad ones!

Lot’s wife may very well have been looking back out of concern for her other daughters, or out of sorrow at the destruction of the people she knew. We can never know because the text doesn’t give a clue about her inner life.

But what I do know is that I would have looked back — if for no other reason that to make sure we were on a safe path, that we weren’t being pursued, that flame and fire were not lapping at our heels. I would have not only looked back, I would have looked forwards and sideways too, to check, and recheck, that this course of action was the right one. To make sure my inept husband was not leading us into disaster.

When you are tethered, without recourse, to an unfortunate man, you can never be too careful.

I respect Lot’s wife for not following her husband blindly. I admire her for being cautious in a perilous situation in which she had no power. I love the woman depicted by 20th century American poet Shirley Kaufman, who offered this to say about a person so brave and so resolute, whom our history-writers never saw fit to even name:

But it was right that she
looked back. Not to be
curious, some lumpy
reaching of the mind
that turns all shapes to pillars.
But to be only who she was
apart from them, the place
exploding, and herself
defined. Seeing them melt
to slag heaps and the flames
slide into their mouths.
Testing her own lips then,
the coolness, till
she could taste the salt.

Original artwork by Charles Dickinson.

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On Friday, the twilight of a summer day

While the smells of food and prayer rose from every house

And the sound of the Sabbath angels’ wings was in the air,

While still a child I started to lie to my father.

“I went to another synagogue.”

I don’t know if he believed me or not.

But the taste of the lie was good and sweet on my tongue

And in all the houses that night

Hymns rose up along the lies

To celebrate the sabbath.

And in all the houses that night

Sabbath angels died like flies in a lamp,

and lovers put mouth to mouth,

Blew each other up until they floated upward,

Or burst.

And since then the lie has been good and sweet on my tongue

And since then I always go to another synagogue.

And my father returned the lie when he said:

“I’ve gone to another life.”

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