The holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, falls this year on Wednesday in Israel and on Wednesday and Thursday in the Diaspora. It falls every year exactly seven weeks after Passover. The latter holiday celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt; Shavuot (which means “weeks”) celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, which followed some arduous trekking through the desert.
Shavuot, though, has a whole other, agricultural dimension. Also known as the Festival of the First Fruits, in ancient Israel Shavuot marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. Theorists of these matters believe the agricultural layer of the holiday is the older, original one, and the commemoration of Sinai was added later.
In any case, the Sinai dimension of the holiday is more portable and can be practiced in synagogues anywhere; the agricultural dimension is more tied to the land of Israel. In fact, growing up in a secular Jewish family in upstate New York, I didn’t know about Shavuot at all. We had a Passover meal every year, and I thought it pretty much ended with that.
It makes sense, then, that during the period of Zionist resettlement of the land of Israel, the agricultural aspect was intensely revived. In fact, it was revived particularly by the kibbutz movements — which, at the time, were doctrinally socialist and mostly atheist, but seeking roots in the soil of the land.
Abraham, in becoming a patriarch in Canaan, also becomes a sort of political entity. He has “flocks, and herds, and silver, and gold, and menservants, and maidservants, and camels, and asses.” Like the restored political entity known as modern Israel — a distant descendant of that of Abraham — he has to conduct a sort of “international relations” with the surrounding peoples.
Israel’s conduct of its affairs, of course, seems to arouse more controversy than that of any country except the United States. The political Left — within Israel, in the larger Jewish world, and in the non-Jewish world — accuses Israel of immorality; the Right — mostly within Israel and the Jewish world — accuses it of weakness and cowardice. In fact, upholding a democracy while dealing with rough surroundings is not at all simple and requires a constant balancing act between moral standards and self-preservation.
It wasn’t so different for Abraham. On the one hand, God expresses confidence in him to “do justice and judgment”; on the other, he has to interact with tribal leaders and others who are sometimes decent and sometimes ruthless. Living in Zion, asserting independence, means being connected to the spiritual realm while at the same time having one’s feet firmly on the ground of the “real world.”
Running from Genesis 12 to 25, the story of Abraham is, among many other things, a cliffhanger drama of Jewish continuity. It starts with God telling Abraham, when he’s still a Mesopotamian:
Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
And I will make of thee a great nation….
But even though Abraham goes to live in Israel as he’s bidden, serious complications arise. It turns out this putative father of a great nation and his wife are an infertile couple. God, miraculously, solves that problem for them only when Abraham is a hundred years old and Sarah ninety, evoking incredulous laughter from them both.
Their son Isaac is born; but some years later the troubles continue when God again comes to Abraham and says:
Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
Since Abraham — whose identity, as I discussed last week, is based on obeying God — has no choice but to comply, it appears again that the future of the “great nation” has been lost, until God again intervenes and rescinds the terrible decree.
The next major event is Sarah’s death. Abraham, who is “old, and well stricken with age,” knows that the issue of Jewish continuity has still hardly been solved, since in all of Canaan there isn’t a single “Jewish” girl whom Isaac can marry.
Instead Abraham tells the “eldest servant of his house”:
I will make thee swear by the LORD, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:
But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac.
So begins one of the Bible’s loveliest tales.
Last week I maintained that the patriarch Abraham is in certain key ways a paradigmatic figure for today’s Israel. A paradigm, though, would be expected to show some consistency in his conduct. In at least one important regard, Abraham seems to engage in behaviors that radically contradict each other.
When God prepares to leave Abraham’s tent encampment for Sodom, having heard that “sin is very grievous” there and in Gomorrah, Abraham rightly infers that—should the rumors turn out to be true—God intends to do away with these dens of depravity. Yet, at that point, Abraham seems to show incredible chutzpah: he confronts God with a series of questions that seem to challenge the morality of “the Judge of all the earth”—as Abraham, who appears well aware that he’s on shaky ground, takes care to address him.
Yet later in the story, when this same God, whom Abraham has had the audacity to challenge, commands Abraham to “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest” and turn him into a burnt offering on a mountain–Abraham meekly, humbly, and unquestioningly sets out to do exactly that.
How can the same Abraham who seemed to stand up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the point of morally accosting the deity, immediately accept the decree to sacrifice his son?
Last year a study of Israeli Jews found that 84 percent of them believe in God. It came as a surprise to many. Israeli Jewry is commonly divided into “religious” and “secular” sectors, with the former making up only about 20 percent. It turns out, though, that a large majority of the “secular” are theists.
The “religious-secular” division of Israeli Jewry has roots in the Book of Exodus, which introduces laws about Sabbath observance, kosher eating, personal and ritual purity, and so on. “Religious” Jews in Israel are those who follow these laws — as further elaborated in subsequent books of the Bible, and interpreted and codified by the rabbinical tradition. “Secular” Jews in Israel usually follow some of the laws but are not committed to them as a whole.
For instance, and maybe most prototypically, “religious” Israelis stay home on the Sabbath, observing both the injunctions to “do no work” and “kindle no fire” on this day. Secular Israelis kindle their car engines and go for family outings, their Sabbath in some ways more similar to Sunday (the Jewish Sabbath falls on Saturday) in majority-Christian countries.
“Secular” Israelis, though, are mostly theists; they live in the Land of Israel and are usually committed to doing so, not infrequently to the point of life-threatening forms of army service; and they are generally responsive to the holiness of Jerusalem and other aspects of Jewish tradition. A “secular Israeli” myself for almost three decades, I’ve long thought that the “secular” or “nonreligious” tag fails to do justice to a more complex, interesting reality.
Looking beyond the Book of Exodus to the book that precedes it — Genesis, and especially one of its central characters, Abraham — may offer richer and more affirmative ways to think about the issue.
In the summer of 2003, I spent about one morning a week in a stifling Tel Aviv apartment. It’s very hot and humid in Tel Aviv in the summer. As is generally the case, there was an air conditioner in the apartment; but it couldn’t be used. Simone forbade it.
Simone, as I’ve recounted, was a stunning French Israeli I’d met on a blind date in the spring. It seemed to be going well with her. I’d come from Jerusalem once a week, during the week, for an overnight; she came to Jerusalem on most weekends because close relatives lived there, and she’d stop by.
But I not only had to endure the heat those mornings, lying in bed in her stuffy room; I also had to stay there (naturally, not all of this was unpleasant) till early afternoon before returning to Jerusalem. For a freelance writer-translator, this was possible; but it wasn’t preferable. But I complied.
The natural response is: “What do you mean you had to? Why couldn’t you tell her you preferred to leave by, maybe, ten, and get back to your computer and your clients?”
The answer is: I could have, but I feared to cross her in any way. I was in people-pleasing mode with Simone. She didn’t need to get to work (customer relations for a fashion firm, calling clients in North America) till mid-afternoon, and her morning sleep was close to sacred to her. I complied.
As for the heat, I’d ask her—exasperated, incredulous—if she really felt comfortable like this. The question seemed to bounce off her.
I moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on a day at the end of August, 2006. The move was hot, stressed, and nightmarish; yet I felt, all the time, a strange sense of anticipation.
It made it no easier that I was taking my cat with me. In the morning, after eating part of a tranquilizer I mashed into her food, she turned woozy and cuckoo yet still managed to jump out of her cage — poorly secured by me — while I was standing outside trying to flag a taxi. She ran far up a tree, and there were terrible moments when I thought—with the movers already on the way to Tel Aviv—I’d have to leave her there, then come back and look for her.
Eventually, drugged as she was, her strength gave out and she came down the tree in reverse.
At the Tel Aviv flat we were both in a state of near-collapse, the furniture and boxes strewn around us where the movers had thrown them, the air conditioner only slowly contesting the stifling heat. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both hot in the summer, but the latter is much more humid. When I finally went out to find something to eat, it was a steam bath. At that moment the city—after so many years on my quiet, shady, serene street in northern Jerusalem—seemed to me alien and teeming, the opposite of what I could ever call home.
And yet, on another level, I had a sense that the magic time was drawing nearer.
At nightfall I went down—it was only a 20-minute walk from the new flat—to the shoreline. The red and orange cone-lights, part of the beach cafés where you can sit outside by the sea, already glowed against the deep dusk—like in those nights three years earlier when I’d sit out there with Simone (not, of course, her real name).
The wonder was that this was where I now lived—so close to this place of legend and mystery.
It may be too stark. If it’s true, there are legions of blockheads out there — people who publish works in literary journals that pay in contributor’s copies; people who publish on websites that have considerable readerships but do not pay their writers for their efforts (there are not a few of those).
I would modify it to: No man but a blockhead ever wrote short stories so that he could send each one to ten or twenty literary journals until one accepts and publishes it, and then have no sense at all that anybody is actually out there reading it.
At least, that was the dictum I arrived at after years of doing just that. As I’ve described, about a decade ago I decided I’d had enough and stopped writing fiction.
That is, “I’ve” stopped; but that doesn’t mean my subconscious has. It still comes up with stories and presents them to me, requesting that they be written.
In most cases these notions quickly fade and are almost totally forgotten. Some, though, persist — in some cases even for years. It’s a standoff: the idea remains somewhere in my head, and I know it’s there but keep declining to execute it, to translate it into typed words on the screen and see what grows from that.
I can think of three of these ideas that particularly won’t go away, like a stray dog who parks himself on your doorstep and mournfully refuses to budge. I thought it would be worth giving a peek at these. They’re probably representative of a larger phenomenon—people who have given up certain kinds of writing but whose “minds” haven’t.
I can tell you that this morning in Beersheva, before it even started to get light, birds were singing in the dark. From my open, fourth-story kitchen window I saw the utter calm, felt the remarkably mild air, made out the forms of the buildings without a single window lit by a light.
Remarkably mild, because we’ve been having an intrusion of summer into what should be — at best — spring.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come….
The Song of Songs remains a detailed and reliable guide to spring in this land — or at least its more rural parts. Where I live — as could be made out as the light slowly grew — a hodgepodge of older, smaller houses and more recent apartment buildings that were thrown up hastily for immigrants makes for a grim, cluttered effect. But it is the land; as birds start to wheel in the sky against a dull silvery color.
Thomas Sowell: “One of the infirmities of age is omniscience.” I’m far from aged, and I’m not omniscient. But that line — from a writer who comes up with a lot of them — has special resonance. If I’ve achieved any knowledge, it’s what I feel now in this hushed, almost secret hour.
In the first phase of my life my “Jerusalem” was a pond. It lay along the golf course in Clifton Knolls, a development near which I grew up. (It was in the town of Clifton Park, New York. You can see the pond here down on the left.)
For the wild bunch I hung out with in my teens, the golf course was a haven—at night. The cops—though their cars roamed the streets of the development assiduously, the bright beams splitting the night—almost never bothered with the golf course. You could get drunk out there under the stars, feeling the world was yours, spacious, endless.
That wasn’t, though, what made the pond a sacred place. That happened later at night—past midnight, when the silence out there was total except a sound a frog made like a bass string being slowly, pensively plucked. This was something even more clandestine than the drinking with the buddies; it involved sneaking out of a bedroom window, a tryst at a street corner, and making our way in the darkness to the “place by the water” (a paraphrase).
This went on for a few weeks during one of the summers. In an adolescence bedeviled by shyness and frustration, I had somehow found someone to go there with, alone. The magnificence, for me, of the intimacy; the beauty of the setting—breezes rustling the leaves along the pond—all this was overwhelming. The girl went away; I never understood why, until e-contact with her—over the past couple of years—provided some clues.
But the memories did not go away. A sort of religion of the pond—of itself, without my prompting—formed in my mind: the deep, ineffable tranquility, the sense of a different dimension, secluded, peaceful, and final. In the coming years I would drift back to it often.
My main solace and support during an unhappy adolescence was my radio. I remember it as good-sized and rectangular with a wood finish. It sat on the little night table by my bed, and was always set to the same channel — WRPI, the station (still in existence) of the nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, staffed and run by college students.
WRPI played what was then called progressive rock — rock songs that were outside the Top 40 hits that the commercial stations played. These could be songs, available only on albums, by performers who had Top 40 hits, or songs by performers considered esoteric or “experimental” enough that they were outside the Top 40 sphere altogether. Among other things, “progressive rock” offered me more introspective, poetic music that knew something about the deeper world of my feelings.
Since then my tastes have expanded, from ultra-introspective Mahler and Bruckner to wildly joyous Sonny Rollins and much in between (I also attempt my own contribution). The advent of YouTube some years back led me, in a sort of hushed curiosity, to search and find songs that in some cases I hadn’t heard since those distant days of adolescence. And in some striking cases I discovered that a song had not lost—or had even gained—power over me compared to back then.
All of the four songs I’ve picked below use only voice and acoustic guitar. All are from the late sixties; my WRPI-listening years were 1969-1972.
I was never, even back then, a particular fan of Pink Floyd—except for the Roger Waters number “Grantchester Meadows.” It was considered experimental because it uses taped background noises of a skylark, a goose, and a fly. In fact, gimmicky though it may seem, it works well; the nature sounds fuse beautifully with the pensive guitar chords and idyllic lyrics.
For me this song was a refuge, an induction into a dreamy realm where serenity and even eternity —
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea….
flickered. I was also struck by the lyrics:
Basking in the sunshine of a bygone afternoon,
Bringing sounds of yesterday into this city room…
They added a nostalgic overlay, saying the tranquil scene was not happening in the present but, rather, a recollection, weaving its enchantment out of the past.
Trying to locate people I knew long ago through Google and other searches is something I seem to engage in when I’m at a standstill, unable to come up with something else to do. And that situation, since I’m excessively busy, tends to occur late at night, when I should be going to sleep but feel the day is not quite finished, still lacking something.
The problem here is that late at night, before going to sleep, is not the best time to engage in searches that may be emotionally risky.
As a few nights ago when — rather suddenly, without really thinking about it — I Googled “Bill Wiley” (not his real last name) and the name of the high school we both went to, Shenendehowa. It’s in Clifton Park, New York, a small town a bit north of Albany.
Boom — I found his obituary. Shown on the original page of the newspaper of the small California town where he’d been living. Dated March 21, 1994.
So his death was not exactly breaking news. Bill no longer played a huge part in my thoughts, but memories did come up occasionally, and I had even told Tami some stories about him. Memories and stories, it turned out, of someone long gone from this world.
There is an afterlife, and a benign deity. At least, that’s the testament of tens of thousands (some say it’s now millions) of people all over the world who have had near-death experiences (NDEs) (an online collection of these reports is here).
Two books now at or near the top of the New York Times bestseller list are about NDEs. One is by Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon whose brain was attacked by a rare bacterial meningitis. It plunged him into a weeklong coma during which he had an extraordinary NDE involving an encounter with the deity. Alexander says the NDE had to be real because his brain was severely incapacitated by the meningitis and far from having sufficient capacity to produce such a vivid, elaborate experience. (His Daily Beast article based on the book now tallies 115,000 likes.)
The other current NDE bestseller is by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, the former being the father of Colton Burpo, who, when he was four years old, had an NDE during emergency surgery that also involved contact with the divine. Todd Burpo is a pastor, and his son’s NDE had a strongly Christian cast to it; Alexander, while formally Christian, was a pronounced skeptic before his NDE, and it had a decidedly nonsectarian character.
During his NDE, Alexander was guided by a mysterious, heavenly young woman, already something of an urban legend known as the butterfly girl. Four months after the NDE, he saw for the first time a photo of his biological sister (Alexander was adopted) who had died in 1998—and had an overpowering sense of recognition.
Not long ago the top shelf of the pine hutch in my bedroom collapsed under the weight of its books. I stared at it, helpless. Fortunately Tami (she lives near me, not with me) advised me to remove the slumped books and put them, for now, in a pile on the floor; later we’d see about getting the shelf fixed.
And that — unfortunately — is where the matter still stands, weeks (months?) later. I haven’t had the motivation to fix the shelf, and the heap of books doesn’t significantly worsen the disorder of the room.
This pile is, however, on the way to my clothes closet, so I pass it a few times a day. And I spy titles: Twelfth Night; William Carlos Williams, Selected Poems…. It is, you see, a literary pile. Of the hundreds of books I still have, and have carted with me — I’m never certain why — from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to Beersheva in recent years, a considerable portion are literary books.
That, in turn, is because literature was the main thing in my life from before college until about ten years ago. Both reading it, that is, and attempting to write it. Even while working as an editor and translator of nonliterary works, and so engrossed by Israel’s affairs that I moved here from the U.S., I somehow continued in what I saw as my main calling: writing fiction (and, as a byproduct, some poetry), and exploring the literary treasures that it behooves a serious fiction writer to explore.
What changed? I wasn’t publishing my stories anywhere too impressive, or attaining a name. I had lost my foreground of American people, places, and language; the stories I wrote seemed more and more abstract — even sort of lonely and pointless. Meanwhile the intense drama of Israel surrounded me, and when I wrote about that — in the form of an op-ed in a newspaper — I got real, immediate reactions; I felt alive, instead of like some relic washed up on a shore.
So I finally made my break from literature, almost ten years ago; I decided to focus on political writing — and reading, more or less dismissing great fiction and poetry from my life. Looking back, it was a good decision; I no longer write in a near-void, my articles are a means of connection to people instead of ever-growing isolation.