Monday, February 25, 2008

From the grandparent files

Apparently, ever since they've had candles to light for yahrzeit memorial, my grandparents have been saving the little glasses after the candles burn out. They rinse the glasses and use them for drinking.

I can just see them, in all of their wisdom as children of immigrants during the Great Depression, saying "Nu, vy should ve vaste perfec'ly gud glass? Is still useful, no?"

The funny thing is, yahrzeit candles are small, only slightly bigger than tea candles. The only way they could really use those glasses would be for taking shots.

I'm sure it goes something like this: "May my mother, of blessed memory, rest in peace and may her soul rise up to heaven, if we believed in that sort of thing, L'CHAIM!" *takes a shot of vodka*

There's more to it than humor though, drinking from the empty shells of memorial candles. It just goes to show, once again, that memorial rituals are for the living, not for the dead.* And why should the living waste the glasses once the ritual is over?

See, the ritual, not the memories are made of candles and jars. Saving the glass and drinking out of does not blaspheme the memory; it's another way to move on. We remember not only on the yahrzeit and on Yom Kippur. So, how does it sanctify the memory by throwing the glass in the garbage?

There's more than this, but it's not coming just yet. Maybe later...

*I went into more detail on that in this column:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Baruch Halpern discussion

Tonight the Jewish Studies lecture was entitled "Method and Disenchantment: The Birth of Science and Religion," delivered by Baruch Halpern.

I didn't have time to go, but I'm glad I went anyway.

He argued that an intellectual revolution occurred in the 8th/7thc BC in the Near East and in Greece, in which elites defended local identity by rejecting markers of foreign culture.

Halpern pointed out a historical pattern we're already familiar with: Renaissance --> Reformation --> Enlightenment and then applied it to the writing of the Pentateuch.

We tried to figure out the astronomy of Genesis 1. It was basically crazy, but in the end, he showed us that despite how crazy it sounds to us, there is a logic to it. It's logical, and it becomes more and more complicated with each "there was evening, there was morning." He drew diagrams on the board and explained the logic with Greek philosophers and steam and fire and light and evaporation and domes. I can't replicate it, but oh it was nuts...

In the end, he'd made quite a case...the rational, logical, methodical creation story involving a highly rational God was created to support the beliefs of an intellectual elite, who were trying to prove that their creation story was correct. "Science" and "religion" and the birth of "western thought" against pre-existing, traditional polytheistic religions.

The Bible, in other words, played the same role we now grant to science in debunking other myths.

I wish I could explain it better, but all I can say is that when he finishes his book, I've got to read it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

History of Languages

(my reinterpretation of the Tower of Babel story):

History of Languages

Before the Age of Misunderstanding,

The early people built a tower

They started with nouns:

Person--place--thing, held together with

Thick layers of verbs, question marks,

Colored bricks effusive

With figures of speech

“YOU” stuck to “HERE” with “ARE”

ORANGE” described “MUSIC” and “SUNRISE

Words begat sentences begat paragraphs, higher and higher

In the evening, lovers

Climbed to the top, dangled

Their feet in the clouds, breathless

Before the dizzying view

“I hope we never stop building,” he said,

“Who knows what we’ll create?”

The woman smeared his body with verbs

They sanctified each other

Worshipped the tower

And in the morning, everyone wondered

Who had laid more foundation


But God had witnessed the lovers

As they witnessed Creation

Praying to the paragraphs

On which they stood

Before God’s eyes, it became

Epidemic, people blessing the tower,

Its adjectives and songs,

Hallowing skyward metaphors

Until at last, God regretted,

It was time to teach people

To misinterpret

So when the man said “Please pass the adjective; will you marry me?”

His lover laughed at the string of useless sounds

“What do you mean?” she babbled

It was a brick no one could answer

People clamped their hands over their mouths

As brave new words grew inside, struggling to escape

Foundations shook

Mortar cracked

Language collapsed

The man and woman touched each other’s faces

Searching for words that were no longer there

At last, they decided it was better

Not to speak

And learned to communicate

Without sound

The early people went on to misinterpret

God’s words, they told each other

“We climbed too high, God

Has punished our pride

With confusion”

Some finally stopped talking to God

Certain that God, too,

Would misunderstand

But people have always struggled

With foundations, mortar, and God

Didn’t mind the human desire

To build higher towers

It was their belief in language

That God punished

Some words felt

Like marbles on her tongue

But they stuck to her lover’s teeth

Refusing to tumble to the floor

And some verbs tasted nostalgic

While certain questions set his mouth on fire

Still they were convinced that sounds

Meant the same thing in different mouths

That one language meant

One way of hearing

So the Tower of Babel collapsed

On its faulty foundations

And some people learned

To search for meaning in the din of sounds

While others still shout brick after brick

Trying, in vain, to be understood

(adva ahava, copyright 2008)