Halloween: A Jewish Perspective

Today was a Holiday for non-Jews, Halloween. Little children got dressed up in costumes and went door-to-door saying, “Trick or Treat,” for candy. I recall in my pre-Jewish existence watching a Garfield cartoon where the feisty feline discovered buried treasure on a deserted island, and had to relinquish it as a group of pirates–perhaps ghost pirates–came after him. I believe he even chose keeping Odie over the gold. It was a rare moment of selflessness for the lovably selfish cat. Of course, Halloween is only sort of a religious holiday. I don’t know if it is on the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox calendars. Who knows what its real significance is? I’ve even heard people suggest witchcraft or devil worship. Nonetheless, I helped Mom–who is Christian–distribute candy to trick-or-treaters on our doorstep while we ate our supper and afterwards.

It is at times like this that I am reminded that though Jewish I live in an un-Jewish world. Even my family did not prepare me to enter the Jewish fold. Yet as a rabbi told me, “It is your tradition,” to have a tree up at Christmas and give gifts to relatives. So I “celebrate” the Holidays with my Christian family, down to Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I have even baked roasts for Christmas Dinner… and bought presents to go with it. Yet there is a line: I never enter a Church.

If I ever have a family of my own–a husband and children (they would have to be stepchildren or adopted children at this point)–than I would do things differently. First and foremost, I would try to marry a Jew, be he born or converted. Second, we would admit in our home we would celebrate only Jewish Holidays and Jewish Shabbat. Instead of Halloween, I would make costumes for Purim. Or so I hope. Thirdly, we would keep Kosher.

Yet for now I live with Mom, who is Christian. And it is fun to see the children in costumes. I sometimes feel like half of me is in the Jewish world and half in the Christian. When I worked at Breakthrough–a club for the mentally ill–I celebrated Christian Holidays with the members, but I also made it possible for the members to celebrate Jewish Holidays with me–the High Holidays, Hanukah and Pesach. I served traditional foods, sometimes played music, and told them about my Jewish self. And it was okay because I had been a part of their Christian self–as when exchanging White Elephant Gifts for Christmas or baking and decorating chocolate cupcakes for St. Valentine’s Day. (The latter, mind you, is now a secular Holiday according to the Vatican.)

At the same time, I make sure my Jewish self is alive by going to shul each week and keeping the Holidays. Being a Jew is not just about food (Kosher); its about that large extended family we call the Jewish people, one that stretches all the way to Israel. Apart from attendance, I occasionally have done things for the synagogue like make horseradish and charoset for Pesach. I am teaching a class–three sessions long–in January. I don’t know where that last will lead, if anywhere. And I am still working on my Hebrew, if haphazardly. I believe Judaism has helped me connect with other people and learn skills I never knew I had. More, it makes me feel loved.

All of this is important on Halloween, that decidedly un-Jewish day on the secular calendar. Jews don’t go out on that day in costume. Yet with my mother I can celebrate family and eat candies we bought for the children who visited our doorstep. The kids did get most of the loot.

The Real Dickens

I remember seeing the movie, Saving Mr. Banks. The skinny of it is that P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the book, was a terrible person to work with. She was exacting; said cutting things to people; and their was no logic to her demands. Why not include the color red in the picture, for instance? And why “no cartoons” (though they got slipped in anyhow)? Or “no love interests in the story”? Yet Disney had to make the movie as a promise to his children. He must have had to remind himself at times, “The real Mary Poppins is in the books; this importune woman has nothing to do with her.”

Years ago I started reading Charles Dickens. Ironically, I started by reading his worst books, Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend. Yet as I read through book after book I fell in love. Of course, I had been a little smitten as a kid watching Disney’s version of A Christmas Carol. I have met people I loved and people I detested since who have mirrored my love of Dickens back at me. There is something so universal in his books that it demands love. Of the people who got him canonized as “Great Literature,” George Bernard Shaw was a Communist and G.K. Chesterton a devout Catholic. Dickens was the writer of “the common man,” writing about the tragedies and triumphs of “the little people” in society.

That said, I recall in high school being disappointed by the Dickens’ biography I was given, ironically, for Christmas. It was written by Fred Kaplan, and even the titles of Chapters like “Charlie is My Darling” seemed tinged with sarcasm. At the time I was heart broken, because I felt that Dickens was my idol, not just because I wanted to grow up to be a writer, but because with his expansive view of humanity he seemed to portray a world in which love and kindness defeated greed and cruelty. Though Quilp might destroy Nell (in the unusually sad The Old Curiosity Shoppe) he could not get away with it… and Nell’s gentle ghost would never truly leave the world, either. Yet to Fred Kaplan, Charles Dickens himself was more of a Quilp than a Nell.

Since then I have run across other descriptions of Dickens which have shown as little faith in the goodness of the author. Whether they judged the “Fezziwig Morality” as being to limited to have substance (that is, of the private owners of business to do good for their employees) or claimed his views on heroism dwarfed mortal human beings (the Nobel Prize winning Out Stealing Horses claimed the insightful reader of David Copperfield knows that none of us are the heroes of our own lives). It doesn’t matter that David in the book by his name is a man who is less than heroic, whose sentiments drive him into mistakes with results bad for him and for those he loves. Just as his poor mother marries Mr. Murdstone, his love for Steerforth leads to the fall of Little Em’ly and in his loving Dora he acts in ways which imprison them both in a miserable marriage. It is true that the pitiful Dora wins our sympathy more than David himself, despite Dickens’ best intentions. Yet for Dickens this is purging: he knows he can never make it up to his real wife Katherine Hogarth (whom Dora is based on) that they are unhappy together.

In this age when “the personal is political” all to much attention is placed on Dickens’ private life. It is ironic that this age with its large numbers of divorces and one-parent families discovered Ellen Ternan, who previous generations chose to leave in the shadows, or who found it embarrassing, as if one’s grandfather in senile old age walked of the house partially dressed. To me it is even hypocritical. I refuse to care whether the real Fred Kaplan is happily married and has healthy children: the truth is that with the modern upswing of crimes and sexual mores, one man’s private tragedies and inability to live up to an unrelenting standard appear like window dressing for the Modern Age.

I am not saying that I automatically oppose divorce itself. My own parents were divorced, and I am convinced that it was for both my own and my mother’s good that such was the case. What I am saying is that to make a spectacle of it: this one person did wrong, this one person’s whole life was a waste because of it. This is wrong. I am not convinced that at the end of the Dickens’ marriage, he and Katherine did not part friends. And for the record, Dickens’ friend Forster (in Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph) did tell him that he believed Dickens was wronging Kate. He was not the shameless suck up that Kaplan wants to believe. The point is, we live in an age where social standards have slackened considerably, and I think Kaplan might as well admit that he is the panegyric for every businessman who wants to leave his wife for a younger women. If Dickens did, he says to himself, so can I.

Now, I said by implication, “The real Dickens is in his books” just as Walt Disney, for all his flaws, saw that “the real Marry Poppins is in the book” and made into a masterpiece of children’s filmography. So is my proof merely in reading the words of Dickens?
Actually, I have more. I worked at a mental health club for years. I helped patients–and I know this is bragging, but I have to tell it to make my point–learn to read and write and do rudimentary math. I have a picture of my first patient, Larry, because though he died a few years back, our work with Kelly Kincaid’s (now defunct) workbooks got him to where he had been intellectually before a car wreck late at night when a drunk smashed into his car. I was moral support to a woman who taught herself to type, so she could get a job. I helped one woman do a collage so she could get her high school degree (though it turned out she had to work with a different teacher to get the bulk of her homework turned into diploma itself). I worked with other students, I can’t remember them all. Most of them were success stories; a few were not.

When I got burnt out teaching–and I am afraid I did–I did smaller jobs involving Jewish Holidays: making horseradish and charoset for the Passover Seder; latkes to serve with jelly donuts for Hanukkah; and Honey Cake to serve with whipped cream and coffee for the day before Yom Kippur. I wrote speeches on the value of forgiveness or the History of the Maccabees. I never dwelt on God per se, lest they be uncomfortable. Yet I felt I was sharing Chesed, kindness Jewish style. I celebrated one secular holiday no longer deemed “religious” by the Church: St. Valentine’s Day. I made mini-chocolate cupcakes and decorated them using a book, Hello Cupcake!

All of this seems like “small stuff.” And some of it was. Yet I firmly believe that it had a lasting effect on the members’ lives. Why? Because many of them get sad and lonely. They are all mental patients, and they mostly live below the poverty line. The unfortunate fact is, they don’t all have a lot to live for. Yet if I can make one day happy–well, that is one happy memory. And when they are sad, they will remember that happy day and say, “My life isn’t so bad after all.” I know there are people who think I “spoil” them, but this isn’t so: the grind of their every day lives is so unspoiled that they need a little happiness to lighten their load.

I think Charles Dickens would approve. He did charitable work himself, and I believe the charity his books teach is remarkably close to Jewish Chesed. The idea that little Tiny Tim needs a Turkey once a year so he will grow up to be big and strong–that is what Dickens would say the poor and down-and-out need, too. For all of his flaws, I believe Dickens practiced Charity all of his life; I am not convinced, having read Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, that he was not even a good father. It was only his wife and he who had the problems.

So when I have worked with members of Breakthrough–people worse off than me–I practice that love I know Dickens believed was based in Popular Christianity but which for me is based in Judaism. That is the real Dickens, for me.

On J.D. Vance

A few years back, when Donald Trump ran for president for the first time, I saw a show on MSNBC where a man portrayed what I guess you could call, “the people the left left behind.” It probably wasn’t intentional, but shows like All in the Family made lower middle class males out to be the racist, sexist, worst of any people in the United States. Now, I’ll admit something. I had a teacher from the South who said, “My mom and dad and we–the kids–would watch it together. As bizarre as it sounds, he found reaffirmation for his awful views watching. As for us–we were laughing at our father.” Now there was a newscaster who put it best: the problem with this show when people understand the bigot is them and a loser, is that it hits a raw nerve. They feel “picked on” and rejected by the left. By contrast, he pointed to Robert Kennedy, who tried to be a healing figure both to African Americans and to the White Working Class. I personally believe that the poorest white people and the poorest black people have things in common that they don’t even realize. I see in places like Dodge in the late Victorian era the same ethos in the “Old West” that the inner cities have with their poverty and crime. Jesse James and Dr. Dre might have something in common.

Now, I will make this disclaimer: I was very sorry to learn that J.D. Vance went on to support Donald Trump in recent times. Yet I believe I learned something from him anyway. I saw him on TV, describing his book as being about his own family and the lower class “white trash” with its feelings of resentment and the fact that many of them have the same chronic problems as poor black people. Though he did not mention it, I remember reading Frederick Douglass saying that these two groups were natural friends, but that slaveholders kept them apart for fear of them overthrowing the system that keeps them poor. Poor white people were encouraged to think of black people as “the only worse off people than us” and look down on them as a result. Correspondingly, slaves–and now, perhaps, their heirs–were encouraged to look down on non-slave owning whites in the south, especially places like Appalachia as “poor white trash,” or “crackers.” I am not trying to justify “white grievance” but I am saying that for America to be made whole, we need to look at the wounds of all of the have-nots and not just the black ones. That is why–even though I regret what J.D. Vance has converted to–I still like Hillbilly Elegy, his book.

I realized something even as a writer reading it. I worked at a mental health club which served all kinds of people, but most of them under the poverty line. I realized I could write about these people–not by describing them themselves, but writing about their problems less as mental patients than as a class. It didn’t matter that they were suffering in Kansas and not New York. And yes, some of them were black or Hispanic. So I wrote “their” stories into a book, Poor Folk with a beginning autobiographical story, “Daughter of the Middle Class” because I have never been poor myself but only wrote about other people’s poverty. I also wrote a story–again based partially on a clip I saw on television, “The Liberal Redneck,” about a boy from Appalachia who moves to Kansas and eventually works with the mentally handicapped. That story will–I hope–be in a collection, This Land Belongs to Me, based on the Woody Guthrie Song written during the Dust Bowl.

Anyway, because I learned about J.D. Vance’s family, I was encouraged to find out the History of my state (Kansas) and even my own family history (which I found particularly dull until then).

Folks, Get Your Shots

Last night a doctor appeared on the 11th Hour who said that because people were not getting vaccinated, it could be years before the United States is the same place to live in that it was before COVID-19.  I fear he may be right.  Why would people commit mass suicide this way?  Does Donald Trump claiming that a deadly virus is no more dangerous than the flu make it true after over 740,000 people have died?  How can anyone imagine him to be anything but a villain?  Has our entire country gone mad?

          I don’t like every leftwing idea that has come up in recent years, either.  I had no problem with Dr. Seuss or Laura Ingalls Wilder, two children’s book authors whom I always loved. I resented the erasure of America’s past that banning these books represent. More,  I thought MSNBC’s documentary on the Civil War was the sickest thing I ever saw. 

But right now people are dying in the thousands.  More, there are people who lost their jobs or have other economic problems because of it. Surely a person’s “culture war” problems can be put off to another day. Dr. Seuss is not dead. You can still read the Little House on the Prairie books to your kids. Yet if you really think about it, isn’t it more important that your children live, that they eventually have children of their own, that America have a future and not just a past?

For Gosh sake folks. You need to take your COVID-19 shots.

President Joe Biden isn’t lying to you on that one.

The Patron of Hebron

I finished reading the portion about Abraham in “Legends of the Jews.” Now, this is a retelling of midrashim about the Bible. However, I found to folktales about a mysterious visitor–the Father of the Jews–who came just when his children needed him, in Hebron. And I thought I would place these stories here, separated by a few words of my own. The first one is about the need for a minyan–I hope that isn’t too much of a spoiler.

Once upon a time some Jews lived in Hebron, few in number, but pious and good, and particularly hospitable. When strangers came to the Cave of Machpelah to pray there, the inhabitants of the place fairly quarreled with each other for the privilege of entertaining the guests, and the ones who carried off the victory rejoiced as though they found great spoil.

On the eve of the Day of Atonement, it appeared as though, in spite of their efforts, the dwellers at Hebron could not secure the tenth man needed for public Divine service, and they feared they would have none of the holy day. Toward evening, when the sun was about to sink, they descried as old man with silver white beard, bearing a sack upon his shoulder, his raiment tattered, and his feet badly swollen from much walking. They ran to meet him, took him to one of the houses, gave him food and drink, and, after supplying his name was, the stranger replied, Abraham.

At the end of the fast, the residents of Hebron cast lots for the privilege of entertaining the guest. Fortune favored the beadle, who, the envy of the rest, bore his guest away to his house. On the way, he suddenly disappeared, and the beadle could not find him anywhere. In vain all the Jews of the place went on a quest for him. Their sleepless nights, spent in searching, had no result. The stranger could not be found. But no sooner had the beadle lain down, toward morning, weary and anxious, to snatch some sleep, than he saw the lost guest before him, his face luminous as lightning, and his garments magnificent and studded with gems radiant as the sun. Before the beadle, stunned by fright, could open his mouth, the stranger spake, and said: I am Abraham the Hebrew, your ancestor, who rests here in the Cave of Machpelah. When I saw how grieved you were at not having the number of men prescribed for a public service, I came forth to you. Have no fear! Rejoice and be merry of heart!”

I believe I saw a version of this story in Dan Ben-Amos’ Folktales of the Jews (but I don’t recall which of the three volumes it is in; I am not sure). Anyway, in the book I am quoting now, there is another story, which is like so many stories in which the Jews are miraculously saved (the most famous being “The Golem” of the Jews of Prague, or arguable, the Biblical book of Esther, or the apocryphal book of Judith). However, I suppose that is another spoiler.

On another occasion Abraham granted his assistance to the people of Hebron. The lord of the city was a heartless man, who oppressed the Jews sorely. One day he commanded them to pay a large sum of money into his coffers, the whole sum in uniform coins, all stamped with the same year. It was but a pretext to kill the Jews. He knew that his demand was impossible of fulfillment.

The Jews proclaimed a fast and a day of public prayer, on which to supplicate God that He turn aside the sword suspended above them. The night following, the beadle in a dream saw an awe-inspiring old man, who addressed him in the following words: “Up quickly! Hasten to the gate of the court, where lies the money you need. I am your father Abraham. I have beheld your affliction wherewith the Gentiles oppress you, but God has heard your groans.” In great terror the beadle arose, but he saw no one, yet he went to the spot designated by the vision, and he found the money and took it to the congregation, telling his dream at the same time. Amazed, they counted the gold, precisely the amount required of them by the prince, no more and no less. They surrendered the sum to him, and he who had considered compliance with his demand impossible, recognized now that God is with the Jews, and thenceforth they found favor in his eyes.

Anyway, these two stories, though not about the central moments in the life of Abraham, were particularly fun to read to me.

Manic Monday: A Writer’s Life

I am calling this blog “Manic Monday” for two reasons. One is that it was my sister’s favorite song when I was a kid. She is thirteen years older than me, and I guess she liked the weekends around the house better than working at Hallmark. The other reason is that it is the perfect song to express the ordinary worker’s angst about her having a job to pay the bills and doing the things she truly loves. Most people, alas, tend to work jobs where the primary incentive is the money. Feminists talking about how great jobs are forget that while it is liberating to have your own income, having to juggle work with a home life is a heavy work load for most women. Don’t get me wrong. Women do it. Yet it is not really all glamor and glitz to work an ordinary job.

That is why I guess I have a person’s dream job: I am a writer. It involves creativity, whether in the actual process of writing and typing and editing or research for a work I am going to produce later on. These are the basics of writing: you write down ideas when you have them, and then you find a time to work on your “best” idea. After you have a story or poem (or book), you go to the computer and type it up, editing it as you write. I never go to the computer–except for blogging or writing journal entries–without something already hand-written, usually a felt tip pen on a yellow tablet of paper. The point is, I am doing what I love. It is more than “getting the bills paid.”

Alas, I have not gotten the bills paid well. I live with my mom. Yet I have one book published (The Bible According to Eve) and am waiting for another publisher to put out the three sequels. Will I make my fortune? Who knows. Yet this is not a 9-to-5 job. It is more hectic, more dangerous (what if I never make enough money to live?), and more exciting.

There are writers who need a cushion of a steady income to write. T.S. Eliot literally worked as a vacuum salesman, and–strangely–never wrote about his feelings about his work in any fictional thing he wrote. Other writers say they need the structure of work even while they write. They can’t just get up in the morning and start writing.

I am the other kind of writer: I need regular writing time, and if I come home tired from work I will only get so much writing done. This sounds selfish. Yet I remember when I was a kid, my Mom told my stepdad that she wanted to stay home to write. She worked as an English teacher at South High, and people rarely appreciate this: it is a lot of work to teach school, involving grading papers after coming home from rambunctious kids.

“Real writers write,” he said. “If you really wanted to write you could get up at 5:30 AM in the morning to write and then go to school to work afterwards.”

My theory is he just wanted the money from her job to pay off the mortgage.

So Mom didn’t get to write her book and Jim got his bills paid.

After that I am prepared to be selfish. Writing is a full time occupation for me, and I spend the bulk of my time either writing or doing research for it. The only exceptions are the weekends, when on Shabbat (Saturday) I go to shul (my synagogue) and loaf the rest of the day, and on Sundays, which I spend doing pleasure reading. My concession to niceness to Mom is grocery shopping online and fixing the food. Still, I am not a great housekeeper, and I spend the bulk of my time doing things I consider “creative.” My life is what I want it to be; I am never sorry when Monday comes.

Covid-19 and Influenza

At odd junctures of my life, I will find myself thinking of history, which as Mark Twain put it “never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” At this moment I think of the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, Influenza, which claimed 675,000 people in the United States alone. It was a devastating, unpredictable disease, because the cure was never discovered. True, like today with COVID-19, people could wear masks. For all that there was tragedy and people abandoned those they loved to escape the disease, there were also heroes, particularly as doctors and nurses.

The book The Great Influenza by John Barry indicated that President Wilson–the disease struck during World War I–was one of the villains and victims of Influenza. He did little to stem the tide of the disease, so bent on winning the War that we were in. On the other hand, at Versailles he may have been suffering from the then mysterious ailment, and that might have been why he was unable to make good on the promises he made the United States and the World–for a world filled with peace, unlike how it had been under the Great Power system leading up to World War I. He died when he got back to Washington, D.C. and could not get the Versailles Treaty ratified in the United States–crippling the new “League of Nations” from its onset.

Barry also says that little is written about Influenza–but that is only half true. Katherine Anne Porter’s classic Pale Horse, Pale Rider is about suffering from the deadly disease. Porter and her fiancé at the time both caught the illness, and he died of it (she survived to tell the tale). I recall reading it a few years back. I have several other books–but I forget the names–of books referred to by Barrie of Influenza survivors. He said they said little about the illness itself in their books, though one of them lost parents to the epidemic. Though I read Pale Horse, Pale Rider before COVID-19 by several years, I may read it again just because of the absurd claim that illness is never treated well in books, that illness like Influenza can even dwarf man-made catastrophes.

At the beginning of COVID-19, I started writing a COVID-19 Journal to record day-to-day life during the epidemic. I write just under 500 words each day. Well, I forgot to today. Yet usually, I write each day. I believe I began around March 2020. I called it Hard Times in 2020, and am now working on Hard Times in 2021. Aunt Margaret says that when it is all over–and I am certain that it will be over soon–people will want to forget the illness and the tragedy that came with it. She told me, however–she is a librarian–that I should work on it for posterity’s sake. People will want first hand accounts sometime in the future.

For now I am relieved that I have all of my shots, including the third booster shot. One thing I am pleased about is that President Biden is sending extra medicine to 3rd World Countries, where it is hard to produce. I know we are supposed to do this for selfish reasons–creating herd immunity–but I believe that this is a challenge of the spirit that Americans must accept. I encourage anyone who has not gotten their shot to get it, and each person who has gotten it to write to President Biden to spread the medicine to all those who need it, at home and alive.

Maybe there will be an opportunity to gain back our credibility as a world power because of this devastating illness. Perhaps we can use this as an opportunity to create a Marshall Plan for the 3rd World, focusing not only on medicine for COVID-19 but also birth control and malaria. Perhaps we can find a new way of living, a way in harmony with both our fellow human beings and the earth. We should always see tragedy as a doorway to do good for others. Remember that after World War II, the United States rebuilt Europe and Japan. Now, surviving a terrible illness, we can burst forth like the Phoenix once more.

The Grimm Brothers’ Portrayal of Jews

We all know these days of how children’s stories can be “weaponized” for political purposes. From Dr. Seuss to Laura Ingalls Wilder, children’s literature is under attack–and also being used by politicians to forward their own pro-traditional agendas. Yet some of the most notorious–and most loved–stories are the oldest, the Grimm Fairy Tales. They have been called “patriarchal,” “racist,” and even “capitalist.” Yet what seems most damning of all is that in their German-ness they are judged “anti-Semitic.” Of the criticism that they are patriarchal, we will only observe that 2/3 of them were gathered from young girls whom the Grimm brothers knew personally. One of the women whom they gathered stories from, Dorothea Viehmann, was even a model for what they falsely claimed was the source of their tales: a peasant virtuoso at storytelling, representative of the (sorry) Volk or “peasantry.” In reality, most of their storytellers were middle class friends of the family, and a few of them went on to write in German for themselves as adults (although I’ve checked and their writings are not in English). All I can say for the claim that the Grimm brothers wrote “capitalist” stories is that most stories told reflect the societies in which they are told, and I guess honest, thrift, kindness and hard work are virtues in our society in part due to capitalism. To me it is a bit of a stretch, but if I argue about it, I will do so another time.

This leaves the most deadly charge, that the Grimm tales are “anti-Semitic.” I say deadly because to this day the Grimm fairy tales are blamed for the Holocaust, and were used to sell anti-Semitism by the Nazis. I remember hearing that Adolf Hitler himself regarded Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as his favorite film. Creepy as that thought is, I want to argue that is not the tales themselves that are anti-Semitic but how people use them. And to prove that, I am going to include two stories, which we will call one anti-Jew and one pro-Jew, both taken from Jack Zipes’ The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

The first is the “Jew in the Thornbush. ” Forgive how long it is:

A farmer had a hard-working and faithful servant, who served him for three years without receiving any wages. Finally, it occurred to the servant that he really didn’t want to work for nothing, and he went to his master and said: “I’ve served you honestly and tirelessly for a long time. That’s why I trust you’ll now want to give me what’s due to me, in keeping with God’s commandments.”

However, the farmer was a sleazy man and knew that the servant was simple-minded. So he took three pennies from his pocket and gave him a penny for each year. That’s how the servant was paid. Meanwhile, he believed this was a fortune and thought, “Why should I put up with drudgery anymore? I can now take care of myself and be free and have a merry time in the world.” So he stuck his huge amount of money in a sack and began traveling cheerfully over hill and dale.

When he came to a field, a little man appeared and asked him why he was so merry.

“Oh, why should I be gloomy? I’m healthy, and I’ve got an enormous amount of money and don’t need to worry. I’ve saved all that I earned from working for my master three years, and its all mine!”

“How much is your treasure?” asked the little man.

“Three whole pennies,” answered the servant.

“I’m a poor man. Give me your three pennies.”

Now since the servant had a kind heart and took pity on the little man, he gave him the money.

Then the man said: “Because you have a pure heart, you are to be granted three wishes, one for each penny. Now you may have what your heart desires.”

The servant was satisfied with this and thought, “I prefer things to money,” and he said, “First, I wish for a fowling gun that hits everything I aim at; second I wish for a fiddle that will make everyone dance when I play at it; third I want people always to do what I request.”

The little man said, “All your wishes will be granted,” and he immediately gave him the fiddle and the gun and went off on his way.

Well, if the servant had been happy before, he thought that he was now ten times happier, and he had not gone very far when he encountered an old Jew. A tree was standing there, and a small lark was sitting on top of the highest branch and sang and sang.

“It’s a miracle of God that such a little bird can sing like that!” said the Jew. “I’d do anything to have it.”
“Well, if that’s all you want, the bird will soon come down to us,” said the servant. Then he took aim with his gun and shot the lark dead so that it fell from the tree.

“Go and pick it up,” he said to the Jew.

However, the bird had fallen into some of thorn brushes that were under the tree. The Jew crawled into the bushes, and when he was stuck in the bushes, the servant took out his fiddle and began playing. Then the Jew started to dance and couldn’t stop. Instead, he jumped higher with more force. Meanwhile, the thorns ripped his clothes so they hung in shreds on him, and he was scratched and wounded, causing his entire body to bleed.

“For God’s sake!” the Jew screamed. “Stop playing your fiddle. What crime have I done to deserve this?”
“You’ve skinned enough people,” thought the servant, “so you are getting the justice you deserve.” And he played a new jig. Meanwhile the Jew began pleading and making promises and said he’d give him money if he stopped. At first, however, the servant didn’t think the Jew offered him enough and drove him to dance even more until the Jew promised him a hundred solid gold coins that he was carrying in his bag and that he had just obtained by cheating a good Christian. When the servant saw all the money, he said: “Well, given these conditions, yes, I’ll stop.” So he took the bag and stopped playing his fiddle. Then he calmly and happily went on his way.

Meanwhile the Jew broke out of the thorn bush. He was half naked and miserable and began contemplating how he’d avenge himself. He cursed the fellow and wished evil things would happen to him. Finally, he ran to a judge and complained that, without being at fault, he had been robbed of his money by a scoundrel and that he had been beaten mercilessly, and the fellow who had done this was carrying a gun on his back and a fiddle was hanging on his shoulder. So the judge sent out some courtiers and officers who were supposed to track down the servant and see where they could find him. Soon the young man was discovered and brought before the court.

The Jew accused the servant of robbing his money, but the servant said: “You gave the money to me so that I’d stop playing the fiddle.”

The judge made short matter of all this and sentenced the servant to hang on the gallows. Well, soon he stood on the platform of the gallows with the noose around his neck, and he said, “Judge, please grant me one last request.”
“As long as you don’t ask me to spare your life.”

“It’s not about my life. I’d like to play my fiddle just one last time.”

The Jew started screaming: “For God’s sake, don’t let him do that! Don’t let him do that!”

But the judge declared: “I’m going to allow him to do this one last time, and let’s leave it at that.”

Also, since he had such talent, nobody at the marketplace wanted to refuse or have his request refused.

“For God’s sake,” the Jew shouted. “Tie me up!”

Then the servant took the fiddle and stroked it with the bow. Everyone started to shake and sway–the judge, the clerk, and the officers. Nobody could tie up the Jew. Now the servant stroked the fiddle a second time and the hangman let go of the rope and began to dance himself and the servant really started fiddling, everyone really started dancing together–the judge and the Jew at the head of all the people who had come to the marketplace to watch. At the beginning it was quite merry, but since the fiddling and dancing didn’t end, they all screamed miserably and pleaded with the servant to stop. However, he refused to do it unless the judge granted him his life and also promised to let him have the hundred gold coins. In addition he yelled to the Jew: “You swindler, confess and tell us where you got the money from, otherwise I’ll keep playing the fiddle for you only.”

“I stole it. I stole it!” he screamed so that everyone heard him. “And you earned it honestly.”

So the servant stopped playing the fiddle, and the scoundrel was hung in his place on the gallows.

Now, I’m sure the reader need not be told this: the tortured Jew in the center of this story is held up for derision more for his Jewishness than any real dishonesty he may have had. In fact, it seems rather too convenient that the servant claims he has robbed “good Christians” where as the (presumably Christian) servant is considered justified in taking everything he owned, and ultimately has him killed. It is kind of interesting that the person who really did rob the servant–his employer–is never punished. Perhaps the Jewish person is being punished unjustly for the just rage the servant ought to have for his employer, the farmer. Nonetheless, I am going to argue that there is another Grimm tale that is fairer to Jewish people. It is appropriately called, “The Bright Sun Will Bring It To Light.”

A journeyman tailor was traveling around practicing his trade. However, at one time he couldn’t find any work and became so poverty-stricken that he didn’t have a single cent for food. Just at this point in his travels he met a Jew, who, he thought, probably had a lot of money with him. So he abandoned God, went straight toward the Jew, and said, “Give me your money, or I’ll kill you.”

“Spare my life!” said the Jew. “I don’t have much money, just eight pennies.”

“You’ve got more money than that! Out with it!” the tailor responded.

Then he used force and beat the Jew until he was nearly dead. Just as the Jew was on the point of death, he uttered the last words, “The bright sun will bring it to light!”

Upon saying that, he died.

The tailor searched the man’s pocket for money but couldn’t find anything more than the eight pennies that the Jew had told him about. So he picked him up, carried him behind a bush, and continued on his travels, practicing his craft along the way. After he had been traveling a long time, he came to a place where he began working for a master tailor who had a beautiful daughter. He fell in love with her, married her, and had a good and happy marriage.

Some time later, after they already had two children, the father-in-law and the mother-in-law died, and the young couple had the house to themselves. One morning, as the man sat at the table in front of a window his wife brought him some coffee. He poured it into the cup and was about to drink it when the sun shone upon coffee and cast a reflection on the wall so that the little rings flickered here and there. The tailor looked up and said, “Ah the sun wants very much to bring it to light, but it can’t.”

“Good gracious, my dear husband,” said his wife. “What’s that? What do you mean by that?”

“I can’t tell you,” he answered.

But she said, “If you really love me, you must tell me.” And she spoke very sweetly, swore she would never tell a soul about it, and gave him no peace.

So he told her how, many years ago, he had been traveling around in rags and without money, when he had met a Jew and had killed him. Then the Jew had said in his death throes, “The bright sun will bring it to light!” Now the sun wanted to bring it to light and cast its reflection on the wall, where it made rings. But it was not able to bring it to light.

After telling her this, he implored her not to tell anybody; otherwise, he would lose his life. She promised him not to, but after he sat down to work, she went to her neighbor, told her the story in confidence, making her promise not to tell a soul about it. Yet after three days had passed, the whole city knew the story, and the tailor was brought before the court and convicted.

So, after all, the bright sun did manage to bring it to light.

This story about a murdered man’s vengeance, after his death, partially balances the ill-effect of the other story. Yet I do not know of a single anthology that includes it. There is no reason to believe that this story could not have been used (it might still not be P.C. for today’s children) instead of “The Jew in the Thorn Brush,” and have an equally German or Grimm-inspired storybook. It is tragic that nobody thought better of including a story within these realms that taught that what a person does in the dark to a person despised by society will finally be brought to the light of day.

Nathan tells King David of the murder of Uriah the Hittite,

For thou didst it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.

“This thing” is the vengeance of the Lord through the revolt of David’s son Absalom for the killing of Uriah the Hittite. Similarly, anti-Semitism is now a covert sin among all kinds of people who say bad things about Jewish people as people. It is a thin line to hoe, but those who criticize–say–Israel must be careful not to fall into the old habits of using anti-Semitic jargon, regarding Jewish faith itself as barbaric (ala Voltaire, whose anti-Semitic works were passed around France during the time of the Holocaust).

With that in mind I am going to quote a story about Jews from the German Canadian Anna E. Altmann in The Seven Swabians and Other German Folktales. I think it should be given to all children, Jewish and non-Jewish, today.

In Worms there lived a righteous man named Bezalel to whom a son was born on the night of Passover. It was the year 5273 after the creation of the world, and Jews were suffering terrible persecution. From the moment of his birth, it was shown that the son of Rabbi Bezalel was a blessing to his people. When his mother’s labor pains began, the others living in the house ran out to fetch the midwife. They surprised a man with a burden on his back and prevented him from carrying out a wicked plan: the man had a dead baby in a sack and intended to throw it into the street where the Jews lived, so that the Jews would be accused of murder, for the people among whom the Jews lived accused them of using human blood to make the Passover blood.

Then Rabbi Bezalel prophesized about his son, saying, “This one will consolue us and free us from the plague. His name in Israel will be Juda Arje, according to the verse in the blessing of Jacob that says, “Juda is a young lion. When my children were being torn apart, he rose.'” And the boy grew up to be a scholar and a wise man acquainted with all branches of knowledge and with a command of all languages. He became rabbi of the city of Posen, and soon after that he was called to Prague to be the highest judge in the community there.

All the thoughts and endeavors of Rabbi Löw were aimed at helping his afflicted people and freeing them from the blood-libel. He asked heaven to tell him in a dream how he might defend his people against the priests who spread the dreadful lie. And in the night he was given this advice: “Make a man out of clay and you will confound the intentions of the evildoers.”

So the Rabbi Löw called his son-in-law and his oldest student to him and told this answer. He also asked for their help in carrying out the work. All four elements were necessary to create the Golem: earth, water, fire, and air. The rabbi said he held the power of the wind; his son-in-law the embodiment of fire; the student was the symbol of water; and so he hoped that three of them might succeed in making a man out of earth. He made them promise to tell no one what they were doing and to prepare themselves for their task for the next seven days.

When the seven days had passed, on the twentieth day of the month of Adar in the year 5340, at the fourth hour after midnight, the three men went to a clay pit on the bank of the river that ran outside the town. Here they kneaded the soft clay pit on the bank of the river that ran outside the town. Here they kneaded the soft clay into a human being. They made it three ells high, gave it a face and hands and feet, and laid it on the ground on its back. Then all three of them stood at the feet of the image and the rabbi ordered his son-in-law to walk seven times around it reciting a certain formula that he had devised. When this had been done, the clay figure glowed like a hot coal.

Then the rabbi bade his student also to circle the image seven times while reciting a different formula. When this had been done, the clay figure cooled down, became damp, and began to steam. Its fingers grew nails, its head grew hair, and the body and the face looked like those of a thirty-year-old-man. Then the rabbi circled the image seven times and the three men together recited the sentence from the creation story that said, “And God blew living breath into his nostrils and man became a living soul.”

When the sentence was completed, the eyes of the Golem opened and looked at the rabbi and his disciples with a gaze that expressed astonishment. Rabbi Löw said to the image, “Arise!” and the Golem raised itself up and stood on its feet. Then the men dressed the image in clothing and shoes like those worn by the servants of the synagogue and the rabbi spoke to it: “Know that we have created you from dust on the earth that you may guard our people from the evil that our enemies put upon us. I name you Joseph; you will live in the room where I sit in judgment and will do the work of a servant. You must obey my orders in all things, even if I were to order you through fire or jump into water or throw yourself from the highest tower.” The Golem nodded its agreement, for it heard and understood what was said but was denied the power of speech. And so it happened on that remarkable night that three men left the home of the rabbi, but four returned to it.

To others in his house the rabbi said that he had met a beggar on the way to the bath who seemed to be a simple and blameless man, and so he brought him home to employ as a servant in his study but that they were forbidden to use him for housework.

And the Golem sat always in a corner of the room, his head proposed on his hands, as motionless as a creature who had lost both spirit and wits and cared for nothing for the world around it. The rabbi said of him that neither fire nor water could harm him and no sword could wound him. For he had named him Joseph in memory of the Joseph Scheda mentioned in the Talmud who had been half spirit and half man and had served scholars and often saved them from great affliction.

The High Rabbi Löw used the Golem only to fight against the blood-libel, which was the greatest cause of suffering for the Jews of Prague. When the rabbi sent him to places where he should not be seen, an amulet written on deerskin made the Golem invisible to others although he himself could see everything. In the time before Passover, the Golem was sent to roam through the city every night to stop anyone carrying a burden. If the burden was a dead child that was to be thrown into the street of the Jews, then the Golem tied up the man and the corpse with a rope and led them to the town hall. There he gave them over to the officials. The power of the Golem was supernatural, and he did many deeds.

This story is a needed corrective to generations of anti-Semitic myth. However, for all their flaws, there have been Jews and not just non-Jews who have loved the stories of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. They should not be cast aside like rotted vegetables.

Sacrificing My “Favorite” Ones

I continue reading for my class–“Abraham, Then and Now.” I find myself wondering about the meaning of the Akedah, about the fact that, as Bruce Feiler says, it is such a personal story. What could be more personal a sacrifice than the sacrifice of a man’s son? Of course, in modern times people have questioned whether the sacrifice of the son is not a cruel, barbaric act (worsened rather than otherwise by the reading of Søren Kierkegaard). During World War I, Wilfrid Owen wrote that the Abraham’s back home were sacrificing their Isaacs to the battlefield. Bob Dylan wrote the similar words, “God said, “Abraham will you kill me a son…” Both imply that the blood stains of Isaac are unjustifiable even if they were made at God’s command. The Question is put even more forcefully in Ellie Wiesel’s Messengers of God, because as a Holocaust victim he finds the sacrifice of a single child to God inexcusable. Yet as Ellie Wiesel also comments, Isaac’s name means “laughter” because it is by laughter that we survive the pain and war-torn world.

Despite the doubts that these three and others bring up, I find myself believing there is a deeper meaning of the story, which both Bruce Feiler and Jon Levenson hint at. It is the idea that a person may be required–we don’t ever know for sure–to sacrifice what she loves best for God. This is the real meaning of the scripture. Jon Levenson insists that the Akedah is an act of love for God. Both mention that Isaac’s sacrifice in rabbinic and Christian thought comes to see suffering not as a punishment but as a sign of chosenness. She who suffers is drawn closest to God. Because of this at critical times in my life I have found meaning in the fact that I have a mental illness… it is not because I am chastised or blamed but because I have been picked for some special purpose that I have Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder. I know this sounds egotistical, and yet I believe the private pain I have felt due to my illness is a gift. It is perhaps this chosenness which led me to Judaism.

In Bruce Feiler’s book he emphasizes the fact that in Genesis the first words spoken directly about Abraham (as opposed to his family) are about his dream from God. Abraham was the type of person that as an old man would follow a dream, leaving all he knew behind him… I recognize that in myself, because there never was any way of knowing that as a Jew or as a writer I would succeed. I could have, I suppose, gotten a nine-to-five job like most people. Yet I wouldn’t have been happy with it. I don’t blame the person who works that ordinary factory job so he can live for his wife and kids on evenings or during the weekend. I just couldn’t do it. I really couldn’t. I needed to do God’s work first. This is despite knowing that both kinds of people need to exist to make a world, but the people who keep the system going and the people who question how the system works. There has to be both the mystic chasing God and the farmer planting his crops in the ground–without both a civilization dies.

However, I do not believe I have ever been asked, “Give me your son, your favorite one.” I do not know how I would answer if it were asked of it. Perhaps that is because outside of my dreams of God and writing, I am not sure what my “favorite one” is. I live in my Mom’s house, but calling Mom my “favorite one” except that I already know she will die before me. Similarly, there will be no estate in particular: I have one sister and four stepsiblings, and the money–such as it is–will be split six ways. Yet, there is a freedom to this, I admit. In a sense I could leave my mom’s house at any time without losing much. People don’t realize it, but there is a freedom to having “nothing to lose.” But that means I do not know what I would give God if he demanded a sacrifice. I guess I could complain of this fact, as Job did. Yet it does not seem all bad, I have the freedom to live for God.

“Sacred Reading” and Folklore

I remember in Tulsa, Oklahoma I was at a writer’s conference. In one group we were asked, “Can any of you recite the story ‘Hansel and Gretel’?” Now you would think this would be a pretty easy thing to find a person to recite. Yet when I raised my hand, I was the only one who claimed this story as one I heard in childhood. I told the story–I will not copy it here–and people seemed amazed at this accomplishment. Now, looking at the paper which had been handed out, there was the poem. I believe it was Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness,” but I am not sure. I believe it was influenced by the Holocaust. I was ambivalent about the poem. I have the same feeling about Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” and–though I haven’t finished it– “The Robber Bridegroom.” It is not the fact that the moral of the poem or story or novel is bad. It is that I fear these stories being erased and leaving humankind alone in the darkness of having no past and perhaps no future either. I really believe the echoes of ancient stories fill this world with meaning. Perhaps this is why John Milton, the devout Puritan, used pagan imagery in his Paradise Lost. Without this voluptuous past, perhaps Protestantism with seem barren.

Perhaps without being able to recite “Hansel and Gretel” I would not be whole. And the present age of children seems not to learn that there ever was a past… or if there was it was “all bad,” filled with slavery and wars and the Holocaust… but nothing creative and no new ideas before 1965. I sometimes wonder why I watch MSNBC rather than CNN (though FOX is rather too conservative and Trump-y for me). I find great spiritual comfort in “old stories” whether Biblical (for me usually the Hebrew one) or in old children’s books… or in the works of Milton and Shakespeare; Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, and the Brontë sisters; the Elizabeth and Robert Browning and Lord Alfred Tennyson; Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and T.S. Eliot; Hawthorne, Twain, Cather, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Faulkner, McCullers, and more. My current favorites include Robert Morgan… but I admit that I sometimes feel I ought to be more aware of the writers who write now… The point is that it is stories that fill the world with meaning…

At my synagogue I remember learning that there were scholars who called Moses a “folkloric figure,” a figure who may never have lived but who lives on through us. I have trouble telling my Christian friends that I have my doubts about there ever having been an Abraham or a Moses. Whether we have the materials to construct the “historical Moses” I don’t know. I simply believe that in somewhere in the Mountains of Canaan the Hebrew God “spoke” to the Jewish people, making sacred what was once profane. I believe–as do most scholars–that the early Hebrews were slaves. That is part of why their testimony to believe in the God who spoke through them is so moving. The Egyptian religion was based on justifying the status quo in Egypt, the Hebrew religion was based on justifying the people who would be free. I believe that rather than the people Joshua is said to have lead in conquest in the Holy Land, the Egyptian slaves met up with the Canaanite ones in the mountains and the two tribal groups fell in love with the LORD…

I have Christian friends who want to believe the Bible is “all true” or at least “all the people who wrote in it were good people” or judge the Bible through the lens of the New Testament. I don’t really blame them. I suppose most of us want certainty… How else do we know, we think, if there is a God or an afterlife? How do we know that we shall see deceased friends and relatives again in the World-to-Come? How do we know that the feelings we have for these things are not simply delusions? It is easy to see why people want to believe the fallacy that for some of their traditional beliefs to be true, they must all be. Yet in insisting on the “letter of the text” we ignore its spirit. It is not truly important that there was a literal Abraham whom the invisible God spoke to (as Bruce Feiler explained the relationship between the two): it is important that there is an invisible God who speaks to us all… and as for Abraham, whether God speaks to us or we speak to him first is a mystery.

How does all this information about the Bible (which I have been reading lately to set up a class) relate to folklore? It is that Perrault’s Cinderella and Pus in Boots; the Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel and Snow White; Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast; Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid; and Joseph Jacob’s Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Little Pigs; are in their way as archetypical as Abraham’s being called; Isaac being sacrificed; Jacob wrestling with an angel; Joseph and his multicolored coat; and so forth. (Of course, this list leaves out the women.) As such they are constantly retold… and are worthy of making more complex stories out of then they at first appear…