Life is a Timed Test III

Today I finished reading This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. It was… an unusual book, attempting to blend Judaism and, I think, Buddhism. I rarely know what to make of such attempts; on the one level I appreciate I appreciate their ecumenicism. I think that two things are vital to keeping this world going: 1. Religion; 2. Mutual respect within and between religions. I honestly have no problem with a person for whom these disparate elements gel. Yet I cannot honestly understand how they make sense together.

However, I will mention one of the few attempts at Buddhist outreach to other religions in general (not just Judaism in particular) when I found great personal meaning at the monk’s attempt to explain his faith to mine. I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation and did find one insight that has kind of stuck with me: According to Hanh, a person must embrace the seeds of suffering in order to turn them into joy. I find this idea emblematic to an underplayed aspect of Judaism: redemptive suffering, both on the part of the Messiah (for those who believe) or the Jewish people (for those with a more liberal understanding). My own theory is that while not all great leaders die like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and George Bell (who visited Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a supporter of the “Confessing Church” and who ploughed the seeds of the World Council of Churches), it is often the case expressed by Martin Luther King about Moses, “I can see the Promised Land,” that land they envisaged, just out of reach. The fact that their level of holiness is impossible for most of us should not depress us: we should be inspired by their efforts in order to further our own. And I am sure there are advocates of the Buddha or Krishna who realize sainthood in their practicing the faith.

I must confess here that though I have tried, I have never successfully meditated. Despite this, reading Hanh has helped me in my prayers: I have come closer to God by praying to God about personal hurts and disappointments as much as joys and successes. If mere contemplation of past hurts with feelings of love and acceptance–and I know that’s a little mushy–than the belief that the feelings resulting is God’s answer is helpful to my faith. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the works aspect of my faith. For Jews, it is practicing of Judaism that makes a good Jew. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in faith, too. Yet I cannot believe that faith which is unenforced by works will not simply die of grief.

Life is a Time Test II

I read up to page 175 of This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared today after my Shabbat afternoon nap. The portion that strikes me is about a man who had “made it all” until his children’s drug addiction brought his, his wife’s, and his children’s lives all go to pieces. He spoke of how the man himself yelled at his daughter that he had given her “everything,” only to get the response that he had not given himself. And that answer struck him hard… eventually, they set up a PBS special about the family hoping that by publicizing their pain they could bring healing to others as well. It turned out that even this synopsis belies the pain at the heart of this family: the man had committed numerous adulteries, and there were other problems, too.

For Lew what was most moving was Pat, the wife and mother in the story. It was numerous episodes before she finally broke down and admitted that she was less than the perfect mother. He said there were critics who said that this was something to be ashamed of, but Lew could not feel she had done anything that was worthy of shame. I myself do not know, not having seen the show.

Yet perhaps the pain Pat felt in opening up is something I have felt over the years. I never know “when it is okay to open up” or “how much is appropriate to say.” I have lost friends over this. Yet at my synagogue and at my mental health club I have found healing in this sense: I can be around people who are my friends. And sometimes I can open up. I had troubles regarding things like that in East High School and Friends University.

Life is a Timed Test

I have read up to page 113 in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared but hope that I shall read up to page 125 by the time this evening is up. Tomorrow I shall not read from the book, instead favoring The Last Unicorn. However, since we are having a Tuesday night class, I hope to read the 288 pages of the book read.

At first I had trouble relating to the book. I don’t mean to criticize; it just didn’t gel. However, finally I got to the portion where Lew discusses how he and his wife wanted a “spiritual” experience in her giving birth. He said that it was already hemmed in from the start: the doctors insisted she give birth in the hospital because she was older than most mothers. It got worse within the hospital, though: Lew’s wife had to leave the room because of complications in her pregnancy. Nonetheless, I guess they rated their “spiritual experience” rating high on how Lew’s wife gave birth.

I hate to admit to some cynicism when other people expect spirituality in terms of life cycle events. Or at least, so I thought at first. Then it occurred that I had a similar experience. When I went to the hospital for gallbladder surgery–and I know this doesn’t seem like extreme pain–during the month towards the surgery and afterwards, I felt as though I felt pain. I read the Jewish Publication Society Bible from Jeremiah to Chronicles and I read the Catholic “Old Testament” from surgery on to Yom Kippur (which was, admittedly, after the month after the surgery). I was told I was a good patient, but that I had complications in my surgery.

Next, about a year later and during COVID-19, I had similar pains in bed. It turned out–when I went to the doctor–that I had precancerous cysts on my liver. I might need surgery in 15 years, and in that surgery there was a possibility the surgery might itself create cancer. And of course, cancer kills. Right now because of this, I am taking walks and such because if I can reduce the size of my fatty liver I might be able to get a different surgery that will help cure me.

Both of these two instances involved pain. I know the reader thinks I am exaggerating… yet I did feel pain. And in my pain I did pray to God. And I admit that while praying I did not feel the pain eased, but that afterwards, when the pain was gone, I felt that God had been with me. I am not sure exactly how that helped me, but I believed that it did. I hope none of this is too mushy or sentimental for the reader.

It is that the experience Lew felt with his wife’s pregnancy–perhaps I felt it with the pain I felt in the emergency room, wishing the morphine would kick in–was something like what I thought.

Justice, Justice, Seek Ye Justice

I did read 58 pages of This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. Tomorrow I plan to read more of it, too. Yet I also began the 1st 50 pages of The Last Unicorn. I suppose having read so little of either book it must seem strange that I am naming this Blog after one of them. Yet for the longest time I have wanted to read The Last Unicorn and Thomas the Rhymer. In fact there are several other books I have dreamed of reading and yet have found too little town: Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Tasso’s The Liberation of Jerusalem; and Camões’s Lusiadas. I also long to read Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. Next there will be The Dog Master by W. Bruce Cameron; and Overstory by Richard Powers.

All that being said, after finishing This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared–hopefully by Tuesday–and then The Last Unicorn and Thomas the Rhymer–I shall go back to The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History and then Napoleon: A Life. I want to include the two fantasy novels to read because of my friend’s continual harping at me in order to read for “fun.” As for the three “epic” poems, I have often wished I could squeeze into the time to read them–but still have no idea when it would be. I have however read the first canto (20 pages) of Tasso’s The Liberation of Jerusalem. As for the others–The Ring and the Book; The Dog Master; and Overstory–I will need to wait until I have a juicy amount of time.

I admit that my near constant need to work is because of Tales of the Land of the Firebird and A History of Frances Westin Williams. Reading about the Napoleonic Wars is important for both Russian and Swedish histories. While reading The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History, I decided to get biographies Napoleon: A Life and Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon. Next I shall read considerably on other subjects, from Peter the Great: His Life and World and Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman to countless books on Stalin and Putin. And of course, I have a copy of Das Kapital; a 3-volume Russian Philosophy; and Main Currents of Marxist Thought. I believe both Peter and Catherine made it so that Sweden was no longer a “Great Power.” Having finished Renia’s Diary and planning to reread The Diary of Anne Frank and Anne Frank Remembered, I shall read the following on weekends:

Raoul Wallenberg (another biography);
Letters and Dispatches 1924-1944: The Man Who Saved Over 100,000 Jews, Centennial Edition;
The Secret Holocaust Diaries;
The Girls of Room 28;

We are Witnesses: Five Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust;
Surviving Theresienstadt: A Teenager’s Memoir of the Holocaust;

Ester and Ruzya;
Haggadah of the Holocaust Survivors.

During the week, I shall read more histories of Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Chechnya, and the gypsies. Next I shall read about their folklore, and the “high literature” of Russia. I wish I knew more about the “high” literature of Poland, Ukraine, and (if there is any) Chechnya. Yet I don’t know how to go about finding it if it does exist, and time is of the element.

Yes, time is of the element… I hope to be read “up-to-speed” by next year… and though, God willing, it will be late enough that my work will not be necessary, I must keep writing towards the goal of bringing justice to Ukraine, but also Poland and even Chechnya. I hope some day I shall write a Tales of the Land of the Firebird Part II featuring the Balkans and Central Asia. As the Prophets say, “Justice, justice, seek ye justice.” By reading about the Holocaust I help bring about the messianic age.

Renia Spiegel’s Diary III

All I can say–selfish and immature though it sounds–with whom I share a special friendship like Renia shared with her beloved Zygu. For years after her death, Zygu could not part with the diary, keeping a photocopied version of it as a shroud in his basement, writing his notes back to his beloved,

Another month of May is coming, the month of love… Today is 23 April 1989. I’m with Renusia’s sister–Jarusia. This blood link is all I have left. It’s been 47 years since I have lost Renusia. When I think after about her, I feel so small and unimportant. I owe her so much. Thanks to Renia I fell in love for the first time in my life, deeply and sincerely. And I was loved back by her in an extraordinary, unearthly, incredibly passionate way. It was an amazing, delicate emotion. our love grew and developed thanks to her. And it will never change until the end… [Zygmunt]

Despite its tragic end, this is the perfect book to read when you are in love. I ought to know: I am in love with my Zygmunt. His name is Vlad. He is everything a “tall, dark, and handsome” can be and more: he has a genuinely honest and brave heart. When I look at him I see “everything I want to be.” And I will include the words of Renia’s after “God saved Zygu”:

June night


with dense darkness

night… stretches

above my head.

Night of solitude

Came. The irresistible one stood

at the end of the bed

with a tormenting face

dug its claws

into the sticky brain

and I dream…

My naked thoughts

stripped of clothing

stretch under my skull

in silence

and for mercilessly long

the night goes on.

Heavy black shroud

dropped and clings

to the body

silent and stubborn

I shuddered.

The flower opens

in quid

open lips

whisper words

fragrance of jasmine

of maturing buds.


exasperating slowly easing

sense sigh with relief

sweet fantasy


I hope that unlike Renia my love’s sun turns out to be a rising and not a setting sun.

How to Take a Rest

I had an elderly Jew at my synagogue read his grandson’s bar-mitzvah’s speech to us, telling us how though larger society has now adopted the Jewish notion that a person needs days off from work, it “has yet to recognize the importance of how it keeps its rests.” Though not always a fan of the particular Jew who read this speech, I do totally believe that to work hard enough during the week to justify a day or two off, so that those two days include one religious day and one day to relax only, has been a great service to my life. Anyway, it turned out this week things are not going exactly as planned. The Cantor at my shul is having a class based on a book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, a book roughly 300 pages long. More, I want to finish Renia’s Diary. So it will be next week when I turn to The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History. Yet I am thinking before The Napoleonic Wars I will do some “fun” reading: The Last Unicorn and Thomas the Rhymer. At some point I plan to read The Dog Master and The Overstory. Yet I plan to finish The Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts before getting back to The Dog Master.

Without going into my next “research” book, my friend Cynthia is always dogging me that I need a “rest” book. She is always getting on me about reading only historical books and classics which are widely known. Or at least, that is her perception. I tend to think history is particularly important when I research for novels because I want to get the time and place right in my descriptions and commentary on the times. The ideal writer about Russia speaks Russian, the second order of novelist researches. A person should never assume that because things work a certain way in America, in Russia it is the same story. More, I have researched Russia’s folklore, and I am convinced that it is as central to understanding of the Russian Heart as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and Solzhenitsyn. More, it is the only literature which could in part have been written by Russian women. To study Russia it is necessary to study A.N. Afanas’ev.

Anyway, my “break” from researching for Tales of the Land of the Firebird Part I represents a “break” of sort… perhaps not the kind of break the grandson of my fellow synagogue congregant member had in mind.

Renia Spiegel’s Diary II

I have put down Renia’s Diary, a Holocaust diary, having read to page 220. I read to page 167 yesterday. I am somewhat embarrassed: I pride myself on being able to read 100 pages a day, 50 pages in the morning and 50 pages in the evening. However, I shall finish it tomorrow (the diary portion itself is a mere 273 pages itself, though the Afterwards is contained in pages 277-289 and the Notes are held in pages 293-310). I am sure of it. This is despite the fact that my reading of Renia’s Diary and The Napoleonic Wars is being interrupted by a book my cantor is having us read for a book talk: This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. This last book is one I still don’t have–a bad thing since tomorrow is our first book talk.

As for Renia… since I talked to you last. Renia and Zygu are very much in love, but a reader has to be aware of the signs that their world is shrinking around them. For Renia this is only because she cannot always see Zygu as often as she would like to, but the why occurs to adult readers aware of her ultimate fate. The reader does wonder how she is going to avoid pregnancy; she has–I believe–had sex with Zygu though she is trying heroically to avoid his advances without giving up on him as a boyfriend. They do intend to get married, and given what I know, I think they would have married if she had lived in real life. Her emotions–and I assume his–were very strong.

Despite being moved by Renia’s story, I have a confession to make: I have never had a Zygu. There never was that romantic obsession with a man who reciprocated in my life… There is a man in my life at the moment, but I fear he may never really understand my feelings for him. No, all too often, unrequited love is what I have… By contrast, I want to believe that Renia and Zygu were right for each other, and that their love would have lasted if they had married. Of course, first love always burns to last in the mind of the person who feels it… Yet Zygu kept Renia’s Diary and it was a relic that the Smithsonian says Zygu’s post-Holocaust wife was jealous of.

The Man I Love, A Revision

I have been told that my last version of “The Man I Love” was excessive, fulsome, and too extreme in its expectations. Therefore I shall try again to put together an ideal man who I might acquire. He must, as I said, be brave. A soldier or a man with a soldier’s virtues is what he must be. He must be honest, a man who never steals and seldom lies. He must be soft-hearted, the type of person that takes in stray cats. He must support me in my dreams, as I hope he also has aspirations of his own worth supporting. And he must read books, whether Don Quixote, Little Dorrit or Jane Eyre. He must appreciate fine poetry, whether written by the Brownings or Emily Dickinson. He must possess imagination.

I have been told that I ask for the moon in the men I want. I am not down to earth or realistic. Yet I hold onto this Gershwin song expressing all that love is for me,

Some day he’ll come along
The man I love
And he’ll be big and strong
The man I love
And when he comes my way
I’ll do my best to make him stay

He’ll look at me and smile
I’ll understand
And in a little while
He’ll take my hand
And though it seems absurd
I know we both won’t say a word

Maybe I shall meet him Sunday
Maybe Monday, maybe not
Still I’m sure to meet him one day
Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day…

And so all else above
I’m dreaming of the man I love

The Man I Love

I decided for a blog I would do something I always prided myself in NEVER doing. I would write about my perfect man, the kind I hope to marry. I want to believe that it would not matter “if he wasn’t what some girls think of as handsome,” but I want him to be “big and strong,” brave and able to say, (like Galahad in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King) “my strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.” He must be a faithful lover, and he must be a tender one, too. He is not a Lancelot with all his complications (sleeping with his best friend’s wife). Perhaps he is a Galahad, winner of Holy Grails, the prizes which no other can aspire to. He must have a heart which beats for me, but also for larger causes like Ukraine. They are the Camelot which he would die to defend.

In the Arthurian legends, Lancelot had a liaison with the saintly Elaine, who knows that despite his relationship to Guinevere he is incomplete without a son. Despite what happens, Lancelot swears he cannot marry Elaine. Yet perhaps Elaine honored their son Galahad all the more for the boy missing a father. Perhaps if the Oedipal Complex will be allowed, I can be Elaine to my Galahad. I don’t want to say I will be “the power behind the throne,” but perhaps I shall be the one who believes in my Prince Charming as though I were his own mother. After all, perhaps at my age it is not unlikely that his mother will be gone soon–as I sometimes fear my own mother may not have many years to live.

I wonder if my beloved–my Galahad–is like Israel’s Lord “a Man of War.” The royal house of Britain is said, after all, to be descended from King David. Yet I cannot really claim my Galahad from the line of Kings. It is only virtue that made him good, just as Lancelot entered the Kingdom as a stranger supposedly. My beloved is a man of the Earth, like Abraham was according to Thomas Mann in Joseph and his Brothers. Like Abraham he is a dreamer, and like Jacob he climbs from the role of being an ordinary man to a man “who wrestles with God and man and prevails.” Jacob’s ladder shined bright the night he was born. Of course, my beloved must be a Jew, and not just any Jew. He must be From. He must be kind. He must be good. He must be more faithful than Hamlet’s Polonius in the words,

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

All of this and more he must be to be my beloved Bashert: kind, honest, loyal, fair, just and brave.

Renia Spiegel’s Diary I

I am on page 156 of Renia’s Diary, the diary which Holocaust victim Renia Spiegel kept until she was shot by the Nazis. I hope to read up to page 200 tonight and finish it tomorrow. It is, at heart, a tragic love story. Why? Because in its pages Renia falls in love with Zygu (Zygmunt) whom she hopes to marry and who was the one who managed to save the diary and send it to America before getting sent to Auschwitz himself. Miraculously, he lived, and he got the diary back in America. Her sister also lived, and after Zygmunt’s death she received the diary. It was, however, Renia’s niece who published it and then translated it into English and other languages so people could read it who did not read Polish. And so I am reading it. The happy days Renia spent with her Zygu are best recalled in her words,

I’m in love, which is my explanation for writing all this nonsense.  You forgive a person in love, you forgive them everything, and the apropos the sad party I escape.

This encapsulates my view on love… and my view on the guy I love, though I am not sure I have the courage to mention his name. This diary, despite its tragedy, is the perfect book to read if you are in love. Why? Because Renia and Zygu were so perfectly in love, and because their love’s end was because of the outside world and not flaws intrinsic to the relationship. I admit that ordinarily I am not big on love stories. Yet this one moves me as though it were Romeo and Juliet, or Jane Eyre. The only difference is that at the current moment in the book Zygu is graduating from high school, and Renia is worries about the fact that they are now all wearing armbands with a Star of David on them. I admit that Renia is–unlike Anne Frank–largely oblivious to the outside world till now, because she does not even question the why she had to move to her grandmother’s house. I am not putting her down. Anne Frank was a special sort of person, but so is she. Both of them added so much to the world just by writing their diaries down on paper to be preserved by people who loved them and then handed to people who although they did not know them personally preserve them as a part of what was lost.