A Holly Jolly… Hanukkah?

I made a terrible mistake last week in my Hebrew Bible class.

The course is actually called “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.” “Old Testament” comes first because most of our students have never heard of the “Hebrew Bible.” The latter is a respectable academic effort to avoid sectarian bias in naming biblical scriptures. Calling the Jewish scriptures the “Old Testament” assumes said scriptures existed only to give rise to the New Testament. For Jews, this is a pretty perilous proposition. It makes them grind their teeth.

Jews call their texts the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah-Neviim-Ketuvim. The Torah includes the Five Books of Moishe. These, in turn, are also known as the Chumash, Hebrew for “five” and/or the Pentateuch, which is Greek for the same. Neviim is Hebrew for “prophets” and Ketuvim is Hebrew for “writings.” The former includes prophetic texts and histories like Joshua, Judges, and Kings. The latter includes, among other writings, Psalms, Proverbs, the books of Esther and Ruth, Lamentations, and Job.

Academic types call all this stuff of ancient times the Hebrew Bible because the vast majority of the texts are written in Hebrew. A very small portion is written in Aramaic, which can look and act like Hebrew, but isn’t. The name “Hebrew Bible” is neutral. It makes no sectarian statement. It has no religious connotations.

Religious connotations, as I tell my students, are inadmissible in a secular classroom. “This class,” my syllabus reads, “assumes a scholarly attitude to religious beliefs and texts. We will look at religion scientifically as a historical phenomenon. We are not here to talk about personal beliefs, or to make moral judgments about the text. This is not the setting to deal with our own views on God or spirituality; the setting for that is a nice, comfy chair with some good coffee, and maybe a Danish.”

Or a bialy.

But, hey, I was in a silly mood last week. It was our last day. The students were about to take a final exam in which, among other things, they would have to explain intertextuality at work in Numbers 22 and Genesis 22. (That meant comparing the seer Balaam, who converses with his donkey, to Abraham, who doesn’t seem able to talk to his own son.)

I decided to let down my hair.

“Let’s sing some Christmas carols while we wait for everyone to get here,” I suggested brightly. “How about ‘Winter Wonderland’?”

You would have thought I had announced that the final was going to cover Sumerian hymns, insist on intimate knowledge of Ugaritic, and test knowledge of ancient Persian governance. There was a loud and raucous outcry. There was an “Occupy UNC-Charlotte” spirit adrift in the room. The peasants were revolting.

“Whoa,” I said. “Wassup? I was just trying to bring a little seasonable cheer into the room.”

I teach many students who have to work their way through college. A good many informed me in no uncertain terms that they had been forced to listen to Christmas carols since Halloween as they bagged motley plastic goods. They were mortally, thoroughly sick of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Little Drummer Boy.”

Some may have heard “Silver Bells” as many as fifty times in less than six weeks.

They threatened to gag, upchuck, or make rude noises if I so much as jingled a bell or decked the hall.

I demurred, of course. The room assigned for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible last semester is already dark and dank. It has no windows. The artificial light, as Shakespeare would have said, sucketh. We had studied in a version of Sheol all semester long, the gray and wretched place everyone lands after death according to Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t matter if you were naughty or nice in life – that’s where you go when you kick off. It’s like a nursing home with tenure.

Had said students done as threatened, the next group to trudge in would be met with gory smells and sights unbecoming to the student body. Any of them.

Sadly, I handed them their final exams. I watched them stress and worry, gnash their brows and furrow their teeth.

I mightily resisted the temptation to cheer them up by dreaming about a white Christmas – a song written by a Jew, by the by. I did not conjure up the image of old Frosty, who could have been Jewish. (He reminds me a lot of my Uncle Max – incessantly cheerful, that man and oy, the shnoz). I most certainly did not think of Scrooge. He evokes terrible associations and clichés about, well, Jews.

Instead, very softly – very softly indeed, I hummed a song that could not possibly offend anyone.

“I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay…”

P.S. Chag sameach to clay-handling readers!

P.P.S.  A list of my Top Ten Christmas Songs Written or Composed by Jews is provided for general edification below, as is a link to explanatory materials.

  1. Silver Bells
  2. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
  3. Winter Wonderland
  4. I’ll be Home for Christmas
  5. Let it Snow
  6. White Christmas
  7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  8. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
  9. A Holly Jolly Christmas
  10. Sleigh Ride

http://www.interfaithfamily.com/arts_and_entertainment/popular_culture/The_Jews_Who_Wrote_Christmas_Songs.shtml

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Eternal Light, Love Everlasting

I am sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through a cardboard box piled with papery contents of my old desk. What I keep will go into the new and beautiful desk in our repainted office. It is my first real wood desk, claw-footed, with drawers that slide, buttery and smooth.

I pick up a handmade Valentine’s card. The letters inside are rounded, large and childish. He took care, my boy. Some words are missing capitals; others have been given them unnecessarily. “I love you Dear mom and Dad Erik.” Was he five or six when he wrote this? I did not date it.

Sorting through a small stack of Erik-things, I rediscover a love note my little boy received from a very blond Jessica in first grade. I remember her bangs and blue eyes. I suspect my now twenty-year-old son does not remember her at all.

I find and I find. I find letters from my husband, Ralf, reminders of my good luck. I find a postcard picture he bought me of a lovely Rodin sculpture. A naked woman curls over and into rock as if it were sand welcoming her every curve.

I pick up notes scribbled in the night. One describes a dream. It is only partially coherent, like all dreams. I find laminated Torah blessings to lend to my students when they come to my house to study with me.

I finger finely-made bookmarks given to me by well-meaning friends. They do not know that I stuff Kleenexes or junk mail into my books to mark my place when I am interrupted in the process of reading, my heart’s joy.

I pick up the paperweight I made as a very small child for my father. It contains a picture of me dressed in a pink leotard and tutu. I am about as old as Erik was when he wrote us the note that lies on the counter nearby.

I reread a column I wrote in 2005: “Why become a rabbi?” In it, I explain that studying is an act of prayer for me. Then I point out that the love of learning is not enough to warrant becoming a rabbi. But people, and the love of people does. The rest of the piece describes the people of my little congregation. My descriptions are tender.

Then I find a picture from 1967.

I know this picture well. I have rediscovered it intermittently – repeatedly – over the last fifteen years.

My teen-aged sister sits on a flowered sofa. I sit on her lap. She is smiling in this picture. I wonder (again) at the miracle of that smile.

Suzie hated having her picture taken. When she died of breast cancer in 1996, she was only forty-two and her youngest child just three. No one could find a picture for the obituary – Suzie routinely turned away when a camera was clicking. In the end they found one of the two of us together, my arms wrapped around her. My son was not yet born. Neither was her youngest daughter.

Naturally, they cut me out of the picture.

In the picture from our youth, Suzie’s arms are wrapped around me.

The past is a source of longing and a well of anguish. Old wishes bubble into my heart. If only. If only we had known sooner. If only she had lived. How would it have been to share stories of our children into an old and fragile age?

In the dark of the year, sorting and cleaning and making sense of my history again, I find my husband’s love letters and our son’s first Valentine’s card and my sister’s picture.

Love and love and love. It lives ever on despite our frailty, our mortality. Grief does not die, either. No wonder: It is wedded to love, an expression of it.

I miss my sister.

Perhaps we celebrate festivals of light and hope in the dead of winter because the darkness outside reminds us of shadows inside.

My child is grown. I am a lucky woman – loved and free to love altogether, wisely, I hope, with the sweetness of years.

I miss my sister.  It is not too long after her birthday, and almost Chanukah.

The tiniest flame of a little chanukiah candle casts widely, unexpectedly in dark windows. I anticipate the first night, each succeeding night with ever more candles burning, shedding light. I will put a chanukiah in every room, in every window that will hold one. I will sit before the tender flames, remembering my losses and holding hands with my joys.

I will open the drawer of my new desk and find Erik’s note there, and Suzie’s picture and the postcard of the Rodin sculpture Ralf and I loved.

The light of love is eternal, everlasting.

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The Key to the Treasure is the Treasure

Sita Singing in the Rain, Copyright Nina PaleySita Sings The Blues is a full-length feature film produced by Jewish superwoman artist-cartoonist Nina Paley (available for free download at http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html). In the film, Paley mines an ancient Sanskrit epic to retell an archetypal story: Devoted woman gets done by the egocentric man she loves.

The narrative of the epic (Sita and Rama love, lose, and love again only, in the end, to lose big time) is Paley’s comment on her own ex-husband-bum’s behavior, but the film is ever so much more than that. Envision diamonds and rubies and sapphires, golden tiaras and cascades of silver filigree. Sita Sings the Blues is so dazzling you simply can’t take it in in one go.

The key to the treasure is the treasure, as John Barth’s Scheherazade points out in Chimera. The key to Sita Sings the Blues is not – appearances aside – the wild display of color or the imaginative jazz soundtrack, but Paley’s willingness to ask questions, to provoke her audience. Sita and Rama are not All Nice, and their actions cause pain and suffering – even death. The shadow puppets who narrate events also comment on the epic, noting the difficulties with standard interpretations that paint the hero and heroine as paragons of virtue. One narrator points out that Sita’s demands cause a terrible loss of life for those who would save her (she’s a bloodthirsty woman, the narrator exclaims). Another counters immediately: “Don’t challenge these stories!”

When I visit churches to speak about biblical texts, when I unpack them in university settings, I often find folks in the pews or students in my classroom growing nervous. I ask questions, and they proffer the formulations they learned in Sunday school, interpretations that will reconcile difficulties.

They’ve been taught these readings as if they were the text itself. But the interpretations they offer are often designed to obscure contradictions, to paper over ambiguities, to create more comfortable characters and a reassuringly omnipotent deity. They don’t want to challenge God.

I don’t think God would fear the challenge, though.

The God of Tanakh is compassionate and mothering, tender and loving. But YHWH also bumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. God complains. God worries. God roars.

YHWH is a moody deity, even murderous.

In Exodus 3-4, God entreats Moses to agree to take on the mission of saving his people. Almost immediately after Moses finally sets off for Egypt, God launches an inexplicable and vicious attack on his prophet. Of course, there are many readings attempting to make sense of this bizarre passage, including the claim that Moses is threatened with death because he has failed to observe an important Jewish ritual. (Just guess which…)

But seriously, now. God first commissions Moses for a really big job, and then, in the middle of the night, reminds him of forgotten obligations? This particular divine reminder comes in the form of a direct assault on Moses’ life.

Seems just a tad over the top, no?

Interestingly, it is Moses’ wife, Zipporah, who figures out how to propitiate the deity. She takes a flint and manages to circumcise their son — in the middle of the night, no less. Tanakh is dark in places.

It’s also hilariously funny.

Take Genesis 2:5 – 3. In the entertaining second version of How Things Worked (Genesis 1 tells the story of creation quite differently), God creates Adam, decides he needs a helpmeet and parades a slew of animals before him for inspection. Turns out, our presumably omniscient deity is a bumbling yenta.

Imagine the scene: God and Adam just hanging out, being guys together, checking things out.  Both are strangely unaware that chickens and porcupines are not appropriate playmates for the recently created man-person. Woody Allen would have a field day with this material. He should, actually.

Adam, so the rabbis say, tries out each and every creation God produces. But the plumbing isn’t compatible.  No “fitting helper” was found. The rabbis conclude: “Adam attempted to have sex with all the beasts and animals, but his sexual desire (knowledge) was not cooled off by them” (see b. Yevamot, 63a).

You can imagine the response of my students and church audiences to rabbinic interpretations of this sort.  You can imagine their response when I point out that our Bible is – at least sometimes– awesome burlesque.

What I love about Tanakh and, in fact, any great literature, is the refusal to offer pat answers, to make life’s questions easy. The whole point is to challenge these stories, to ask questions, to wonder, to laugh out loud. Curiosity is a good thing – a great thing. No religious tradition should be without it.

Sacred stories can and ought to bear challenges of all kinds. That’s what keeps them alive.

It’s the questions that give us the rewards we seek. The key to the treasure is the treasure.

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