The Active Life

As those keeping track know, I have been reading the Sefer ha-Aggadah. Right now I am on page 503, and there are 816 pages of the book. I am hoping that–somehow–I can read the final final 300 pages of the book by next Sunday. However, in studying the Sefer ha-Aggadah I found a defect in my character described as the person who studies but never does anything with her knowledge:

He who studies Torah but does not teach is like a myrtle in the wilderness [from whom no one benefits].  He who studies Torah and teaches it in a place where there are no disciples of the wise in like a myrtle in the wilderness, which is particularly precious, because whoever wishes to take instruction from him can do so. (Sefer ha-Aggadah page 114, #118)

On reading it I felt I was robbing God.  As much as I read books like the Sefer ha-Aggadah, I rarely discuss them with anybody.  Of course, they might not listen to me.  I can’t very well teach hard core Judaism at Breakthrough: I don’t want to impose my religion on a captive audience, and the people there are largely Christian with a few atheists or agnostics thrown in.  Yet as much as I read the Torah, surely I should be teaching it—to somebody. 

Well, I talked the matter over with my rabbi. We discussed my teaching a three-session class on Abraham. At first I thought I would teach about the sources of his story–Biblical, Midrashic, historical critical, fictional. But then I came to the conclusion that I would put together, using these sources, the life of Abraham:

  1. The Call–Lekh-Lekha–Abram has a dream. He and his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot travel forth to find the promised land. In this section I will include the Midrashic stories about Abraham as a boy; how he was the son of an idol-maker and discovered monotheism. Also included in this section is the part where Abram pleads with God to save the City of Sodom.
  2. Sarah–This part is about the seamy side of Abraham’s seedy side. First: Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister to “marry” Pharaoh and Abimelech; Second) Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael. Third: The visitors and the renaming of Abraham and Sarah. Levenson and the claim that the three monotheistic faiths have fought for the status of the “beloved son” of Abraham. Other authors who claim that Abraham can bring the three faiths together. The complex picture of the Bible: ultimately Isaac and Ishmael will bury Abraham together.
  3. The Akedah and It’s Aftermath–One: the Binding of Isaac: heroic climax or tragic mistake? Two: Sarah dies shortly after what happens. Three: Ellie Wiesel’s comment on the deed. Four: Sherwood Anderson’s story from Winesburg, Ohio, “Holiness.” Five: Open class discussion about what the Abraham story has to tell us today.

I actually find the story of Abraham compelling, but like any good story, it is a “double-edged sword” as Jesus said in the New Testament. (I hope it is okay for a Jew to quote Jesus.) There is something deeply moving about Abraham’s willing to sacrifice his son, but also something disturbing. Are there some things too precious to destroy for any reason? Like a son? Or do the ends justify the means? Is the story itself sure that Abraham should have hearkened to God’s voice. Of course, one of the names of God afterwards would be “The Fear of Isaac.”

Baking Blueberry Muffins

Today I did not keep Shabbat. I know, it is a guilty moment to reflect on that: only yesterday I wrote about the importance of our keeping our rests (as a member of our synagogue put it). Mom and I went to the Art Museum to see the work of Nordfelt, a Swedish-American. I will not comment on the Art extensively, I enjoyed it but my views on painting and sculpture may not be the best.

Regardless, when I got home I napped; read pages 419-440 of the Sefer ha-Aggadah; and fixed supper–potatoes. Yet I also had some blueberries and so right now baking in the oven are blueberry muffins. I will not supply the recipe–I got it out of “Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book.” It is ironic: I am the one in my family who loves to cook. Mom never enjoyed cooking, and neither did her mother or my sister. My Grandma Alderson was a good cook; her chocolate chip cookies were proverbial. I sometimes wish my sister could give me the credit of saying my cookies were “just like Grandma’s” but she never does. No, for her nostalgia’s rosy haze makes even my best food unworthy to be compared to Grandma’s. That said, I admit that my cookies are made as squares in a cakepan. Why? Because they bake more evenly that way, so that they are all done to the same degree.

Yet this is supposed to be about blueberry muffins. I used to love the muffins I ate as a kid, but the irony is they always came from the box. I hope mine are better: I make them from scratch, using ingredients like sour cream as well as the blueberries.

The point of all this is that cooking is an Art, as much as glassblowing or pottery. Perhaps it is not as grand as Painting or Sculpture or Photography. Yet to the really talented cook, food is a medium. The only reason people forget this is because the results of the chef are always soon gone after being produced. Yet to quote my stepdad, “If you take a day’s salary and by your day’s bread, you are fed for a day. But if you buy a song and a dance, they last you a life time.” Fine food is “a song and a dance” for those who imbibe it. Truly talented cooks are like Lemuel speaks of as virtuous wives “being a price above rubies.” True, not all cooks are or need be women. Yet this was once a feminine accomplishment, and women should not reject it because there was a time when they were “locked in the kitchen.” A person can be a good cook and accomplish other things as well.

On Taking a Break

Jews are bidden to “keep the Sabbath.” According to Jewish sources, the Romans found this habit the height of indolence: surely a person should work all seven days a week if they want to get things done. Yet in modern times, Jews are noticed as hard workers, and anti-Semitism is sometimes inspired by the fact that they are so well known for their “success” resulting from their hard work.

Now, I look at it from an interesting vantage point: I was raised a non-Jew and converted to Judaism. What I noticed when I first was around Jews was that even those who were not particularly devout seemed to be very hard working at their jobs. In fact, I felt embarrassed, because as non-Jews went I was only average in my work skills. I remember the rabbi commenting that when he was a young he was a ne’er-do-well. He didn’t want to work so he told his parents he wanted to be a veterinarian. Now, in today’s world being a vet takes more hard work sometimes than being a M.D. So the fact that he “never used it” didn’t make it look like he was lazy in one sense: he had his own farm and knew how to do things like kosher butcher cows. As you can tell, I soon learned that it was not just their religion that people like the rabbi could teach me: I also learned their study and other works skills.

Now, a Jewish religious service for Shabbat (the Sabbath in Hebrew is Shabbat) if it is Orthodox or Conservative is 3 hours long in Hebrew, and afterwards we have lunch with the other Jews. This may not sound very restful, and in a sense it is not, but then you go home and “rest” for the rest of the day. The idea is that you do not change anything about the world. You can study or sleep. You can even have sex (if you are married). But you are not to mow the lawn or play golf or make phone calls. So it is that usually I go home and for the rest of Shabbat (it begins Friday evening and ends Saturday night) sleep.

Now, I will admit a secret: I also “rest” on Sundays. I am not saying that I do nothing that could not be considered work, but I try not to write or do research for those books I write. I do pleasure read, watch TV, and do recreational activities (I could golf on Sunday if I wanted to). I just veg out. I know having a “long Shabbat” seems lazy, but I believe it makes it easier for me to work during the rest of the week.

It is true that the Romans looking at the Jews thought we were a bunch of lazy mashugana (crazy) people. But on the other hand, they used to have circuses with gladiators and chariot racing to keep their own citizens from thinking of revolt. Jews, dedicated to the law, needed a day off from the work in the fields rather than spending the bulk of their time being entertained. Of course, I believe they took one day off–not two.

So since I have written so much about work lately, here is to rest: take one or two days a week, no more, and spend it taking drives, going to the symphony, or watching TV… don’t do anything constructive. That is how God intended it to be for human beings.

The Will to Write

When I wrote in high school, it was dreadful stuff. It wasn’t long poems about suicide or death that I wrote–imagine an Anne Hathaway character as a teen writing verse–but it was bad. My best two–I will spare you my worst–were “The Brother’s Bond,” “Dodd Meets Dodd,” and “Sir Kyle of Kenton.” All of these were primarily pieces of juvenile humor, and the last a failed attempt at tragedy, because in the end it turns out Kyle (a young boy) have died. “The Brothers Bond,” of course, is about James Bond’s little brother Luke, who hates his older brother and had to house him once because James seduced the head of the KGB’s daughter–at the end of the story, Luke’s apartment is blown to bits. As for “Dodd Meets Dodd,” (which a friend suggested I call “Reflections”), poor Dodd has a life in which he feels nothing exciting is happening–only for his reflection to step out of the mirror and say the equivalent of “I can live your life better than you,” and the two swap places.

I prefer to believe these stories were funny in an immature way, and “The Brothers Bond” had a friend who loved it, but I am forced to admit that none of them were great works of art. Nobody was going to publish them. They were funny but nothing more: they had cartoons’ appeal. More, I think I had friends who got sick of my handing them my stories.

However, I can brag one piece of high praise that I hold with me to this day. My Creative Writing teacher said, “You seem to enjoy writing more than anyone I know.”

That is the key to understanding the writer’s life when they are young. If a person enjoys writing, they can become a writer. I remember reading that Charles Dickens in high school wrote what amounted to “dreadful stuff.” His love poetry to his first love, Maria Beadnell, was equally mediocre. Yet by author’s standards he blossomed young when at 24 he published Sketches by Boz–but even this was prescient rather than on the level of his mature work.

More typical among writers are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Hawthorne’s best work was published in his forties, and Herman Melville is the Grandma Moses of writing: though he wrote several best sellers when young, most critics agree it was shallow compared to the work of his old age, Moby Dick.

Yet here is the key: they were always writing. Hawthorne in his youth wrote a book called Fanshawe, which is lost to us because he burned every copy after it was published.

To use a different art form: Mozart was a meteor who as a child composed his own music and played the piano beautifully; Beethoven’s first few symphonies were only so good and were written in adulthood, and yet his “Ode to Joy” in his Ninth Symphony is considered one of the finest pieces of music ever written. When the Berlin Wall was torn down, the word “Joy” was changed to “Freedom” by joyous participants in its destruction.

To quote the New Testament, the journey to create great work is “Though many are called, few are chosen.” On the other hand, anything worth doing isn’t easy.

The primary way to get good at writing if you are an adult is to put aside time each day to write. However for a child, adolescent, or high school student, even sporadic work is a sign. Children do not have the discipline yet of adults.

A Writer is a Reader

A few years back I read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Adrian Leverkühn–a composer–begins his interest in music by studying music theory rather than music itself. This is not wholly his fault–the province he lives in is one where musical instruments are not easily come across. Yet it does have the deleterious effect of making his music less about what it sounds like (which could be terrible) and more about the “why’s” behind why it was played. Near the end of the book, Leverkühn confesses that he sold his soul to the devil to produce his art and its success. Nobody–because of the spiritual malaise of the time–believes him. They assume he has gone insane, because of course there could be no devil for him to sell his soul to. According to Mann, Adrian Leverkühn’s selling of his soul is like Germany’s betrayal of its soul by selling out to Hitler.

Now, I do not accuse writers who do not read of being akin to Nazis. However, I have to say that I do wonder why they bother write at all. If you do not truly love literature, if you do not truly love language, then what is the point of writing a poem or a play or a novel? It is like reading so many literary critiques on the novel and then trying to produce one, when you should be reading William Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or Willa Cather or Ernest Hemmingway or Joyce Carol Oats.

This is not the only thing it takes to write–it also takes practice and learning how to edit. Yet the heart of literature is in books. There is a scene in Hamlet which shows the depth of what art is: Hamlet has a play put on to catch “the conscience of the king.” In that scene, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude watch the play, and Hamlet and Horatio watch them watch the play–and we watch Hamlet and Horatio. There are literary levels of observation–and the result is the illusion that we are watching real people watching real people watching a play. In reality, we are only looking into Shakespeare’s head.

“There is nothing either good or bad,

but thinking makes it so…”

And hence Denmark is a prison. It is true that in these lines we see the feelings and beliefs of William Shakespeare. Yet he read books before he wrote; his Julius Cesar is almost certainly based on Plutarch’s, and in his Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a parody of the Greek “Pyres and Thisbe” taken from a Medieval translation of Ovid. Of course, he did write stories that were not “knock-offs” of other people’s work. Yet people forget how much he wrote was inspired by other writers. His talent was interpretation as much as creation. (His talent was that also, unlike most Medieval writing, his creations were marvelously realistic.)

Now for a writer to write without having read any of the writers I have listed–this is folly. Though the greatest writers–like Hemmingway–often break with tradition in their writing, they are also subtly influenced by it. Hemmingway makes fun of Shakespeare in Julius Cesar,

‘The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one’…. (The man who first said that) was probably a coward…. He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave.

Yet if he had not read Shakespeare, and no doubt for himself, he could not have written his taut ellipses half so well. Writers should remember that they are writing Art, not the equivalent of literary junk food.

I know this sounds harsh, but I have met “writers” who when I mentioned Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, they had no idea who they even were. This is embarrassing. So remember, to be a writer is to be a reader. The writer asked, “Which do you prefer, writing or reading?” should answer honestly, “I can’t pick. I love them both too much.”

The Sefer ha-Aggadah

This year for the high holidays I wanted to read the Sefer ha-Aggadah. I know this sounds excessive to those who know what the Book of Legends (its name in English) is. I had a rabbi tell me once, “People don’t really read the Book of Legends, they go to it like an Encyclopedia to find out about a certain subject.” This may be true, but this is my second reading of the Sefer ha-Aggadah. I am embarrassed to admit, however, that though I have read to page 340 or so, I am not even half my way through the 800+ page tomb. More, reading it takes time away from other things I could be reading. Why is this so important?

Well, as a writer, reading is more than recreation. Firstly–though in this instance there is nothing wrong with reading the Sefer ha-Aggadah–any writer worth his or her salt is a reader. If somebody doesn’t like reading, they shouldn’t write. So the books we read are our sustenance, they are food and inspiration at the same time. Second–and this is the crucial point–for some projects a writer has to do research. And the book I was in the middle of researching when I took time off for the High Holidays–like Christmas in terms of its importance, unlike it in its significance as a solemn holiday in which do penance for past wrongs and present forgiveness–is now delayed further.

That said, if by Sukkoth’s end I am not finished with read the Sefer ha-Aggadah, I shall read from it on the weekends only. I have been reading twenty or even thirty page blocks–but no more. I will need to get back to my “secular” work.

God gave human beings the Sabbath to rest, but on the other days we still have to do our non-religious duties. Similarly, though I took time off for the holidays, I must return to my labors when they are all over.

Kansas City

I have not been writing very consistently since I started. This is largely because I publish “personal” accounts only; I need some money to publish publicly. So it is that I plan to get a debit card on Wednesday so that I can 1) pay a doctor bill; 2) pay for an ad with Hadassah; 3) pay for publicly publishing WordPress.com. I hope to have some money left over to go to the bookstore with my friend Cynthia. However, looking over my bills and such, I had better not spend too much money at the bookstore… some of what I shall buy I shall buy in September. What I believe I shall buy is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and Cinderella Tales from Around the World by Heidi Anne Heiner. Angela Carter, I admit, is a bit on the dark side. While alive she was friends with Salmon Rushdie. It takes a lot in a writer for me to put up with views as anti-religion as hers. Yet the folkloric style of her work fascinates me. I guess you could call her work “dark fantasy.” As for Cinderella Tales from Around the World, I honestly believe there is no dark side here: I simply love folktales, and the history of Cinderella (beginning in Africa and ending in both Europe and China) is fascinating in and of itself.

However, there is more important news: on Tuesday I am going to Kansas City to talk to a surgeon. I have a precancerous cyst on my liver. I have been told that I shall not need surgery for fifteen years–and yet I am going to speak to a surgeon. I have also been told that we should delay surgery as long as possible, as surgery in and of itself can create cancer in my liver. Yet I am not as worried as I could be.

I believe that no matter what, God will be with me. If I need to have the surgery, God will watch over me, and even (though it is unlikely) if I die, I know God will be on the other side, waiting for me. There are projects I wish I was finished with, but I put all that in God’s hands, because some of what I wanted to do with my life is already done. Not everybody can say that. So many people put off what they want their lives to be about until later only for it never to get done. Me, I have a four-book set, The Bible According to Eve; Discovering Wonderland; and other novels (Faust in Love and Brazil) written. I also have books of short stories partially written (Poor Folk and Maybe the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, the only two finished; Fraud on the Fairies; This Land is My Land; and Lost Tales). True, only the first book of The Bible According to Eve has been published… but I can hope beyond hope that the rest of the set shall be published, and that at some point they shall sell. As for Discovering Wonderland it was the beginning of a set of books in which I tried to write about my unhappy relationship with my father; Brazil is a rewrite of a Talmudic story set in a third-world country; and Faust in Love is an anti-Trump spoof… I hope it is not too late to do any good… I wrote it in his first year as president.

Anyone reading this–if there is anyone–keep me in your prayers. Both for when I see the surgeon (whether I need surgery or not) and after seeing him (the work I long to finish on my writing). I still hope to finish Oz Revisited and, about my Grandma, A History of Frances Westin Williams.

Why Did I Write ‘Eve’?

I wrote a book I’ve referred to before, “The Bible According to Eve.” I am sure people will ask me “How did you get the idea to write it?” or even “Why did you write it?” Of course, there is a certain amount of egotism in this: it has only today been advertised in Hadassah Magazine, including on Hadassah’s website.

Yet I do have a story. I was at work one day and the funniest thing happened–I have Bipolar Schizoaffective disorder, so perhaps it is not as weird as I wish I could say it was. I “saw” myself in a hallucination with one of my closer male friends. I saw God and Aher, as opposites. It was not Satan but “Aher,” the anti-rabbi of the Talmud of whom there are various stories about how he lost faith in God. Anyway, I wrote it all down as a poem, adding here, subtracting here. As I did I had the inspiration–if that isn’t saying too much–that I could write a whole book of all the Women of the Hebrew Bible. It would honor both God and Woman–and hence be necessary today in light of the challenge that modern feminism poses to religious tradition, resting as much of it does on male authority. So I wrote the book.

I have always believed, when taking on a task, that it is best to set my sights are “big.” As Teddy Roosevelt said,

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

I believe in writing–when I can–“big books” and not slim volumes.

I republished this because I wanted people to be able to read it on my author’s page with Amazon.com.

Jewish Identity

When I was converting, a rabbi told me, “According to a Midrash, all of the Jews swore allegiance to God at Mt. Sinai. This included not just all the Jews living then, but all the Jews who ever were or would ever be. More, it included converts. Because of that, if a person converts to Judaism, they are not just converting to something new but recovering their lost soul.”

I have often felt that whatever my childhood might have been, I have the nashama (soul) of a Jew. I know this sounds like a form of predestination. Yet I feel that God gives each person a destiny, and it is up to them to live up to it. I remember hearing Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson speak, and he said his Grandfather felt early on in his life a sense of vocation, a sense that God had a special task that he had to perform. I don’t pretend to be as noble as Gandhi–I know my limitations, I have needed credit for my writing to live in my imagination. Yet I believe in the poem Invictus,

Out of the night that covers me,   
  Black as the Pit from pole to pole,   
I thank whatever gods may be   
  For my unconquerable soul…  

It matters not how strait the gate,   
  How charged with punishments the scroll,   
I am the master of my fate:
  I am the captain of my soul.

William Henley was a World War I veteran, and this his best remembered poem (or rather, two stanzas in it). It was a favorite and quoted poem of both Churchill and Mandela.

However, to get back to my point–I felt in my bones that I must be a Jew. I also felt in my bones that I must write. That destiny, I believed, came from God. Well, at least the Jewish part. My writing may be self-willed.

So next month I will finally make it so my blog can be read by anyone–I have no money at the moment.

I am republishing this because I just got my webpage and authorcentral.pub page to work together instead of separately.

My Vocation as a Writer

I want to explain a few things pertaining to this blog. It will be a month until I can have this blog run through my author page on Amazon.com. This actually depresses me a great deal. Still, my finances are a bit crunched, so that is the way it is.

In the meantime, if anyone can read this, I am happy.

How did I become a writer? People wonder this. I think it all began before I even entered kindergarten. My Grandma used to read me stories, stories about handsome princes and beautiful princesses, but also stories of beneficent elves, helpful dwarves and wicked witches.

The morals in these stories were deceptively simple: they emphasized kindness, honesty, and hard work. The motivations are clear-cut, and for a child clear-cut morals are easier to understand than complex nuances. When a person is older they discover with Hamlet, “There is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” As a young person they discover that it is wrong to lie, steal, or be cruel to animals. I heard a quote somewhere, “It is from the boy that the man is born.”

The plots were more complex–the task of saving a beautiful princess is given; the hero (the third son of an average family) waits for the chance to prove himself; while traveling the hero finds a beneficent dwarf; they eat together; coming to the castle the king finds his apples changed; they cure the Princess; the king wants a second task done, or a third; the beneficent dwarf helps him each time; finally the younger son gets to marry the Beautiful Princess, who has fallen in love with him.

To a child this is a complex, action-based plot. Yet there is a hidden meaning in it all: if you develop the characteristics of the hero, you too will win your Princess and find happiness. Or in my case, my Prince. The good times will come someday, says each story, you just need to be resilient. This resilience isn’t taught as much as it used to be; yet people need hope to live.

I mention fairy tales (the plot is taken from “The Little Iron Man,” probably a Grimm Fairy Tale). The reason is simple: before reading the children’s Bible I read at ten, I learned so many fairy tales–as an adult I found the main sources to be Perrault; the Grimm Tales; Hans Christian Anderson; and the little known English Jew Joseph Jacobs (who edited “The Three Little Pigs”; “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”; and “Jack and the Beanstalk”). The last one emigrated to America.

Listening to these stories I wanted to tell my own. I wanted to come up with the characters and what they would say.