Thursday, December 1, 2016

Stuck in the Middle: Isaac Speaks Up

My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don't. I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father Abraham and my son Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as "the offspring of Abraham" or, more commonly, "the children of Israel" (Jacob’s adopted name). You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac. It's not that my name isn't mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else's point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.

When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother Hagar out of our house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my half-brother who I was playing with. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we together buried our father Abraham.

Not long after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the "big test." You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, "The Binding of Isaac." The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that the story isn't really about me at all. It's all about my father: "After these events, God tested Abraham." Not once throughout this "big test of faith" is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: "God will provide." So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father's knife to my throat. Yet when it's all over and God's angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I -- Isaac -- felt throughout this ordeal. In case you're wondering, I'll start by asking if you ever noticed that after the ropes were loosened from my hands and feet, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let's add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother died from the shock of hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, this story crowned my father the "ultimate hero of faith." As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite an "all's well that ends well."

My father's last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, you’d think I might have a say in who I would marry? I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son Jacob to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been "Isaac Blessing His Sons" became "Jacob Deceiving Isaac." My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. Once again, I had no say in the matter.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me. As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and as a result, both of them left Canaan and “went down to Egypt.” I, too, was faced with a "famine in the land," but I did not leave. I chose to fight it out and stay in Canaan…and I dug wells. I think being bound with a knife to my throat on Mount Moriah actually gave me something I would call “the survivor’s instinct.” I became a survivor, and despite the trauma I experienced, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave our Promised Land.

Throughout our history, my family's descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on "staying in the land and digging wells," despite "the famine." So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story -- the story of a survivor -- that is really our collective story.

So, I may not have much a voice in all of this, but my gut instinct tells me I have lots to do with why we are still here.

It was nice speaking with you, and sorry this talk is just a few thousand years late. Funny, something deep inside of me said that even if I waited this long to speak up, my people would still be around to hear me.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Immigration, Thanksgiving, and Fiddler on the Roof

Last February I saw the recent revival of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. For those in the audience who have seen this show a million times (probably most!), we all noticed two additions to the show, at the very beginning and then again at the end. At the beginning, before the fiddler begins to fiddle and before Tevye begins singing “Tradition,” the character playing Tevye comes onto the stage to a train station, looking to take the train to Anatevka. He is dressed in modern-day clothing, and is without his traditional cap that covers his head. The lights then dim, and the show as we all know it then proceeds. At the very end of the show, as the inhabitants of Anatevka are being forced out of the village, the lights dim again, and the Tevye in modern garb re-appears, and the fiddler sees him and invites him to walk into the line of the Anatevka villagers being forced out.

Who is this modern-day Tevye, and what does he represent? When the villagers are leaving Anatevka and sharing with each other where they are going, we find out that Tevye and his family are going to live in America. This modern-day Tevye that appears on the stage in the beginning of the show is an American-born descendant of Tevye. He is taking a train to Anatevka to explore his family’s roots so that he understands from where he came. At the end of the show, when his ancestors are being forced out of Anatevka, he joins the line so that he can experience what it was like to be forced out of a home – a concept he has experienced as an American.

Those who see him without a head covering mistakenly jump to the conclusion that he represents the assimilated American Jew who is no longer religious. While the phenomenon of assimilation indeed is a reality for American Jews, in this specific instance, his being without head covering is not a message about his religious observance. A quick reminder of some of the show’s dialogue on the subject of head coverings forJewish men points our discussion back to the immigration issue.

In Tevye’s opening number “Tradition,” Tevye tells the audience that in Anatevka the men always keep their heads covered. “Ask me why,” he says, “I don’t know! But it’s a tradition.” At the very end of the show, when the Russian constable announces the edict of eviction to the Anatevka villagers, one of the villagers asks the rabbi why it is that Jews are always wandering from place to place. Before the rabbi could respond, Tevye says, “Maybe that’s why we always keep our heads covered.” In many cultures, when a person would set out on a journey, they would wear a head covering as a sign of protection, and upon arrival, the first symbolic sign of settling down was to remove the head covering. Tevye’s reflection was a reaction to the eviction, saying that being evicted from our homes is nothing new for us Jews, and that maybe we always keep our heads covered because we are always prepared to face the next eviction notice.

Enter Tevye’s American descendant, noticeably without a head covering. As opposed to his ancestors who were evicted and wandering from place to place – thus always having their heads covered – this man is born in the United States, a place where he can permanently say “I’m home.” He does not ever need to cover his head, for he is not going anywhere, and he knows that he does not live with the threat of eviction looming over his head. He is the descendant of those who “always had to keep their heads covered,” whereas he, by contrast, has never known of the need to do so.

Different than a Passover Seder, Thanksgiving lacks any text or formal discussion topic. It is an evening where we give thanks for the basics – family, food and shelter. As a genuine “American” holiday, many Jews use this meal as a special opportunity to appreciate and give thanks for living in America, a country where we have enjoyed freedom and protection from day one. Whether our ancestors came from Eastern Europe or the Middle East, we are all “descendants of Tevye.” We are all descendants of those who sought these shores seeking freedom, escaping persecution or in search of a better life. We all come from families who always had their heads covered, and for those of us born here, we are the ones who never had to keep a head covering on. If the traditional Jews amongst us choose to now keep our heads covered, it has nothing to do with a fear of eviction. It’s simply an outward expression of our religious identity, and in the context of the United States, it’s actually the opposite of Tevye – it’s an open declaration that we feel at home enough here to openly say who we are, without fearing any repercussions.

As we sit down as Jews to our Thanksgiving dinner tonight, we do so with a collective consciousness as “those who came from elsewhere” and were blessed to find shelter and protection in this great country. We do so knowing that many of our ancestors, like Tevye, were given three days to leave their villages or countries. We do so as “descendants of Tevye,” who have never known a day of persecution and have never lived here with any threat of eviction. We sit down to our beautifully adorned tables and our delicious foods, thankful for the life that America has provided for us. Finally, we sit down to our tables and pray that America remains a country committed to the same values and ideas that made it possible for Tevye and his family to find a permanent home here.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bygone Images of the Kotel


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reflections on Agnon from A Jerusalem Cafe

Writing to you from Jerusalem, I’ve got S.Y. Agnon on my mind. There are many reasons for this. First, the obvious – Agnon lived most of his life here, wrote the bulk of his literary output here, and is one of Jerusalem’s great modern-day figures, bringing pride to Israel and Hebrew Literature by winning the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. Whenever I sit down to write in Jerusalem, the shadow of Agnon hovers over me. The spirit of his charming, intimidating and awe-inspiring little home on 16 Klausner Street in Talpiot follows me from my room at the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) in the Old City to every café where I sit and write.

Speaking of cafes, one my favorite writing spots in Jerusalem is a café named Tmol Shilshom, located in the Nahalat Shiva quarter near the center of town. This literary café is named after one of Agnon’s greatest novels - Tmol Shilshom – Only Yesterday. It is an inspirational café lined with books, and it is the café where I am currently sitting to write this article.

A few nights ago, I sat in this same café -- Tmol Shilshom -- with some of my students, and we were discussing the beauties and complexities of Israeli society. “There is the Israel that we fantasize about as the ideal Jewish society, and then there is the real Israel, which indeed we love, but often falls short of the perfect Israel we fantasize about,” I told my students. As I said this, one of my students responded, “Exactly, just like that novel you taught us about, Tmol Shilshom, by your favorite Israeli author, S.Y. Agnon.”

We proceeded to discuss Agnon for the next hour, with a particular focus on Agnon’s unique religious and theological orientation.

What was S.Y. Agnon’s religious orientation?

In her personal memoir, Emunah Yaron, Agnon’s daughter, addresses the question of her father’s religiosity and faith: “There are many who did not believe that my father was an observant Jew, even though a big black kippah always covered his head. There are those who said that this kippah was simply a mask, a deceiving appearance intended to fool the public into believing that he was actually a religious Jew who observed the commandments.”

What could possibly account for this wide held perception amongst many of Agnon’s readers and critics? Yaron continues: “Perhaps the lack of belief by many in my father’s religiosity stems from the fact that in reading my father’s works, they often detected in his plots and characters subtle or even overt theological speculations into religious matters, which many of his readers interpreted as outright heresy.”

To better understand, let’s explore some of Agnon’s “theological speculations” in his stories.

In the story Afar Eretz Yisrael (The Dust of the Land of Israel), the narrator proclaims:

“The doubters and skeptics, and all who are suspicious of things -- they are the only people of truth, because they see the world as it is. They are unlike those who are happy with their lot in life and with their world, who, as a result of their continuous happiness, close their eyes from the truth.”

In his signature story Agunot, Agnon boldly plays with a Rabbinic Midrash when describing the divorce proceedings between a couple whose marriage was arranged, and who were mismatched from the very beginning: “Our sages of blessed memory said that when a man puts his first wife away from him, the very altars weep – but here the altars had dropped tears even as he took her to be his wife.”

Yom Kippur plays a central theme in Agnon’s writing, as does the harsh reality of the physical destruction of Eastern European Jewry. In his story At the Outset of the Day these two themes come together, as the narrator and his daughter (whose home has just been destroyed) come to the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur. As the father tells his little daughter that they will soon bring her a “little prayer book full of letters,” he asks his daughter “And now, dearest daughter, tell me, an alef and a bet that come together with a kametz beneath the alef – how do you say them?” “Av,” answered the daughter.

The word “Av” means “father,” but it is also the name of the darkest month on the Hebrew calendar. By asking the daughter to spell “Av,” Agnon is alluding to the fact that this particular Yom Kippur (a fast day) closely resembles the gloom and darkness of Tisha B’Av (also a fast day). The theological irony is that the narrator goes on to tell his daughter “And now my daughter, what father (Av) is greater than all other fathers? Our Father in heaven.” In his typically sarcastic fashion, Agnon employs a linguistic double entendre linking the Av in heaven (God) to the mood of the month of Av (the destruction of the father and daughter’s home) on this Yom Kippur.

In one of his most controversial short stories, K’neged Otam Shekov’im Yeshivot Shel Ts’chok V’Kalut Rosh (Against Those Who Establish Gatherings of Laughter and Frivolity), Agnon tells of a woman who sits at home alone knitting on the Sabbath instead of gossiping with her neighbors. Moses happens to pass by her house and notices that God’s spirit hovers over the house (something only Moses can recognize). Moses is shocked to find that the woman is actually “working” on the Sabbath, violating one of the 39 prohibited Sabbath labors. He instructs her to sit with her neighbors so that she would not violate the Sabbath, yet the following week, when he once again passed by her house, he notices that God’s spirit no longer hovered above the house. Moses understood that her original practice was better, and he instructs her to return to it. Agnon boldly challenges the notion of “violating the Sabbath,” and through the character of Moses – God’s Lawgiver – Agnon suggests that gossip is more of a legal violation of the Sabbath than are any of the 39 prohibited labors (knitting included!). This is a direct challenge to the conventional notions of religious tradition and authority, using the very figure of religious authority (Moses) to challenge the tradition from within.

Is God actively involved in the affairs of the world? Particularly, is God actively monitoring the lives of His “Chosen People”? Agnon handled this question throughout his literature, often with subtle ironic hints that smack of sarcasm and cynicism.

In the story Ha-hadlakah (The Kindling), Agnon tells the story of the great pilgrimage and kindling of bonfires on the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on Lag Ba’Omer (the 33rd Day of the Omer Period). The Omer period is traditionally associated with collective rites of mourning (no shaving, no weddings or celebrations) due to the tragedies to have befallen the Jewish people during this time period (plagues, pogroms, massacres). Agnon frames the turning point of the story – when the situation starts to improve -- in sarcastic theological terms: “With the passage of time, the Holy One Blessed Be He returned His head into the place from where it was removed, and He saw what had happened in
His world.”

In one of his most daring pieces of modernism, Agnon wrote a meditation on the Kaddish, the prayer recited by Jews when in mourning. The Kaddish has always been a peculiar theological concept, having the mourner praise and exalt God while weeping in grief for a departed loved one. In this Peticha L’Kadish (Introduction to the Kaddish), Agnon states: Therefore all brothers in the House of Israel, who are gathered here in mourning, let us turn our hearts towards our Father and Redeemer in Heaven, and let us pray for ourselves – and for Him, as it were, Yitkadal V’Yitkadash Shemei Rabba…etc., etc.

Agnon places the narrator as one who is eulogizing the dead of Israel after yet another war. Following his introduction to the Kaddish, the eulogizer begins to recite the Kaddish, a praise of God, and then continues by saying “etc., etc.,” as if to say – “you know the rest, you’ve heard it so many times, I am tired of reciting it.”

There are many commentators and literary critics on Agnon’s works, but Israeli author Amos Oz is one of the rare few that dared to explore Agnon’s theological ruminations. In his semiautobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz devotes an entire chapter to Agnon, where he writes, “Agnon himself was an observant Jew, who kept the Sabbath and wore a skullcap. He was, literally, a God-fearing man: in Hebrew, ‘fear’ and ‘faith’ are synonyms. There are corners in Agnon’s stories where, in an indirect, cleverly camouflaged way, the fear of God is portrayed as a terrible dread of God: Agnon believes in God and fears him, but he does not love him.”

So what type of writer was S.Y. Agnon? Was he a “secular writer masked in religious garb?” Was he a “traditional Jewish writer with modernist tendencies and styles”? Emunah Yaron writes that in response to these sorts of questions, her father would respond that he is “an author of truth, who writes things as he sees them, without any ‘make-up or rouge’ camouflaging the face of things, without any décor trying to deter the eye from the core issues.”

“For these very reasons” writes Yaron, “my father – who was a religiously observant Jew – refused to join the ‘Union of Religious Writers’ in Israel.”

In the words of Amos Oz, “it is in this paradox, the tormented tension between one tenet and its opposite,” that we truly come to understand Agnon’s theological universe, that is, a world where faith and doubt were eternal roommates.

In The Silence of Heaven: Agnon’s Fear of God, a work which Oz devoted in its entirety to investigating Agnon’s theological soul searching, Oz writes in his introduction that Agnon’s heart was “tormented by theological doubts,” and that Agnon’s characters often treat their challenges in life as “religious issues – providing that the term ‘religious’ is broad enough to encompass doubt, heresy and bitter irony about Heaven.” Oz aptly captures Agnon’s tormented religious soul, and is one of the few commentators on Agnon who refrained from looking at Agnon’s “kippah and observance of mitzvot” as a “mask.” Instead, Oz recognizes that it is possible for Agnon – or any Jew -- to observe God’s commandments while simultaneously struggling with that same God.

In fact, it is even possible to sit in prayer -- fully wrapped in Tallit and Tefillin -- with questions of faith on your mind as you address God.

In his famous story Tehilah, Agnon has the narrator standing at the Kotel – Judaism’s holiest site -- reflecting on his feelings towards prayer: “I stood at times among the worshippers, and at times among those who question.”

That’s life in an Agnon story. In fact, that’s life.