Hebrew word of the week: Balagan


Words indicating chaos are quite common — often there’s more than one in every language,* such as tohu va-vohu* in Genesis 1:2. Balagan is used in several Slavic languages, but it originated with the Persian bala-khane “top room, attic” (a place where things are stored in a disorderly fashion).** Such words tend to be somewhat slangy and obscene, as with snafu, which comes from U.S. military slang, an acronym for “situation normal, all f***ed up.” 

Other such words in Hebrew: bet-zonot “brothel”; bardaq “brothel; chaos” (derived from Russian); bordel “bordello” (from French); and the more formal, ’i-seder “disorder.” A derived verb: levalgen “confuse, be confused; disorderly.” A humorous Israeli gardener advertises himself: ba’la-gan “comes to-the-garden.”

*As in English: topsy-turvy, helter-skelter.

**Compare to the Yiddish (Israeli Hebrew) boidem, for attic, a crawlspace, where things not in daily use are stored.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA

The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?


For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at fsafran@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.


Combining fact and fiction confuses peace event


On June 5, the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, two years after standing side-by-side with friends in Gush Katif in an attempt to ward off the evacuation of Gaza, I attended an Israeli-Palestinian peace event marking “40 years of war and occupation” at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque.

I have not converted to the left; I applaud the achievements of the Six-Day War, yet I cannot deny that the situation in the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – the territories, is a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians live in a virtual cage, and Israeli soldiers spend the best years of their lives checking Palestinian identity cards at checkpoints to sift out terrorists.

I decided to attend the event with an open mind, to approach it as an opportunity to learn more about the occupation, to show my solidarity with my leftist brethren and to express my appreciation for their humanitarian instincts. While we may disagree on how to end the occupation – I believe in Palestinian disarmament, not reckless Palestinian empowerment –we agree that the status quo is untenable.

The event was like an annual conference for anti-occupation groups. Card-carrying far-leftist organizations were represented by different booths: IPCRI, Machsomwatch, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, Yesh Din, Combatants for Peace, Students for Equal Rights and the Arab-Hebrew Theater.

I arrived a little late, as people onstage were reciting testimonies of acts of Israeli aggression in the West Bank. One man described a group of maverick settlers grabbing an old Palestinian man’s cane and beating him, sending him to the hospital. An Israeli border policeman described the mutual hatred and distrust he had witnessed at checkpoints.

But probably the most moving testimony was that of a Palestinian woman named Jamilla. Wearing a beige hijab, she emotionally described how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) once prevented her from passing a checkpoint while she was in the middle of labor contractions – she gave birth to a boy in a car, only to watch him die on the way to the hospital.

I was deeply saddened and hurt by these stories and grateful that they were being told. We can’t afford to hide from the truth, and I intended to confront my settler friends about such events, because I thought they would share my sadness.

In the middle of the courtyard, Machsomwatch (an organization that monitors IDF behavior at checkpoints) had created a makeshift checkpoint for people entering the Cinemateque building, where films documenting Palestinian hardships were to be shown. I waited inside the caged corridor leading to the revolving metal exit, and Jamilla was standing just in front of me.

We were trapped together, and I felt a need to say something, to apologize for her baby’s death. I knew at the height of my anger during the intifada – when a terrorist attack hit my favorite cafe and a friend got moderately wounded in another – I might have been guilty of bashing Palestinians, calling them horrible names and wishing upon them ugly things, but no one deserved her kind of suffering.

After all, we are all human beings, created in God’s image.

I mustered my courage, tears forming in my eyes – this was a big moment for me – and I said: “I’m sorry about what happened to you.” She nodded sympathetically, and I continued, “Not that sorry is the right thing to say. I don’t know what to say.”

She continued to nod, and I asked her how many children she had. Then she perked up and said: “It was an act!”

“What?” I asked, stupefied.

It turned out that some of the people who gave “testimonies” were actors from the Arab-Hebrew Theater, reciting monologues based on real-life testimonies. Jamilla was not an Arab but an Israeli, because Palestinians generally can’t enter Israel and “play” themselves.

She said she didn’t know whether the exact story she told was true but that similar things have happened.

At that moment, I really wanted to cry. My moment of reconciliation and empathy was killed and with it my open mind – I didn’t want it to be played with.

Waiting at the fake checkpoint actually became strangely enjoyable as I watched thespian “soldiers” in army uniforms dramatize the “humiliation” at the checkpoints. When it was my turn to pass, I went up the steps and they shouted, gruffly: “Don’t move!”

I laughed.

“Don’t smile!” one demanded.

Finally, I showed them my press card and passed through. One of the soldiers eventually smirked, too, and I told him that I write for a Los Angeles paper and joked that I can make him famous. It was all sadly comical, defeating the purpose of the installation, at least for me.

I remained outside and passed by the booth of Combatants for Peace, an organization consisting of IDF soldiers and Palestinian Fatah fighters now working toward peace through nonviolence.

A handsome 28-year-old Israeli student, Yonatan, a former tank officer who refuses to serve in the territories, told me that the organization was founded to bring together the “fighters” of Palestinian and Israeli society, considered the elite of their respective communities.

“Israelis should meet Palestinians and not rely on what they see on television,” he said.

Taking his encouragement, I jumped at the chance to speak with a Palestinian member of Parents’ Circle – Family Forum, which had an adjacent booth. The organization fosters dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis who lost family members in the last round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Dark, thin Ibrahim Halil, 41, spoke fairly good English as we sat on plastic chairs in the courtyard. Finally, I got the chance to meet the “Palestinian future,” the “moderates” with whom we’ll eventually make peace and live side by side.

He joined the organization because he believes that “the most suitable meeting ground for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians are those who are paid the highest price.”

D-A-T-E is just a four-letter word


I’m not sure why this never made any of the 2006 year-end lists, but it seems that — at least for singles — the most confusing question of the year wasn’t “How do you
pronounce ‘al-Zarqawi?'” but the more mundane “How was your date?” To be specific, the confusing part would always be the word “date,” as in, “Was I even on one?”

Because in today’s modern world, a guy and a girl looking for love can make plans, rush home from work, wash extra carefully in certain areas, put on nice clothes, spend three hours in flirtatious conversation at the local sushi joint, say a warm good night and still come home wondering whether what they just experienced was a date or two people who wanted to be on a date but were instead simply “hanging out.”


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I’ve lost count of how many times in the past year I’ve innocently asked friends — male or female — “So, how was your date?” only to get the response, “Well, I’m not sure it was a date…” followed by some analytical drivel I can’t quote here because I wasn’t really listening to the nonsense that came between “And then he said … ” “So I said … ” “But then he acted like … ” “So I couldn’t tell if he thought….”

As a single mom whose social life in the first half of 2006 was as nonexistent as sleep, I couldn’t understand why everyone had suddenly become so squeamish about using the word “date.” Why wouldn’t anyone call a date a date anymore? Like other neutral words that became linguistic pariahs (“Well, I’m not sure I’d call myself a feminist”) had the word “date” acquired a negative connotation during the time I’d been parked in a rocking chair breast-feeding and reading back issues of Parenting magazine?

Then, as soon as I started wearing a bra and reading The New Yorker again, I asked a guy out and the semantic “date” problem became utterly clear. We met for dinner, shared some calamari and banter, and took a quick walk before ending up at my car. I thought it was fairly obvious that there was some platonic but not romantic chemistry between us, which I guess is also why I thought it was fairly obvious that when I hugged him goodbye, it was the same hug I give to all of my friends and even some random strangers.

Admittedly, he did say, “I’d like to take you out again,” which under other circumstances might suggest the words “on a date,” but this is a guy whose neighbor is one of The Beatles. I mean, with that kind of financial picture, I thought, maybe he takes everyone out.

Sort of like the way I hug everyone. In any event, I assumed he knew that although we’d indeed gone on a date, if we got together again, we would be “hanging out.”

Just in case, though — and believe me, I’m not proud of this — when we did make plans the following week, I felt the need to explain that while I was definitely interested in him, I wasn’t interested interested in him. In other words, we’d be setting a date but not going on a date date.

It was a rather unfortunate e-mail, one that still makes me blush with mild regret and severe mortification. Especially since it ultimately turned out that he had zero interest in me — “as a friend” or otherwise. Date schmate.

I realized, in retrospect, that there were good reasons for my never having asked a guy on a date before (or since).

Unconsciously, even before my friends started substituting the verboten words “going on a date” with “having a drink,” “meeting for brunch” or “doing a hike,” I must have known that regardless of whether you used that four-letter D-word, the concept alone could get you into all kinds of trouble. For instance, if I asked a guy out on an explicit date, and he wasn’t interested, he’d have to find a tactful way to reject the offer — and as a woman, I know what an oxymoron “tactful rejection” can be.

On the other hand, if I made a more casual offer, how would he know it was a date? Would he interpret “Want to come to this party on Thursday night?” as “with me” or “to meet other women”? Even worse, what if he knew it was a date and I realized midway through the evening that I just wanted to be friends (or never see him again)? How could I convey my lack of interest in dating him (other than not returning his calls, which he’d interpret as me “playing hard to get,” since I, after all, was the one who expressed interest in the first place)?

My friend Kevin (a friend friend, no dating) said that to avoid this kind of confusion, he goes on what he likes to call “stealth dates.” As he put it, “Most women don’t know I’m asking them out, and 70 percent of the time, they won’t know I’m on a date with them. But I’m having a lovely time.”

It’s an interesting strategy, but my wish for 2007 is that we singles return to the real thing. We may be looking ahead toward a brand new year, but I’m already nostalgic for a good old-fashioned romantic d-a-t-e. If only somebody would be bold enough to unambiguously ask me on one.

Lori Gottlieb is a commentator for NPR and her most recent book is “I Love You, Nice To Meet You” (St. Martin’s Press). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

There is God in this place


Jacob departed. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who went forth, lech lecha, in response to God’s command, Jacob departs, vayetze, from everything he knows to
escape his angry brother and find a wife in Haran. He leaves a comfortable, established life to find himself in the chaos and confusion of exile. Jacob enters the void.

In November 1992, I departed from Santa Fe, N.M. I left my home of more than 20 years, and a network that included a job, family and friends, and stepped into the void. In response to a vague job offer and a stirring inside of me, I piled my most treasured books, plants and paintings into my aging Toyota and left New Mexico for the unknown reaches of Los Angeles.

As the sun rose outside of Needles, Calif., I reached back to cover the asparagus fern I had placed just behind the front seat. (At that time I was told no out-of-state plants were allowed.) The car swerved, ran over the embankment and careened down a ditch at top speed. I felt my world lose all boundaries as the car rolled over twice before landing on its side.

My angels were working overtime that day as I stumbled out of the car bruised but unharmed. Only now can I see the irony of the smashed poster that was hanging off of the back seat. It was Georgia O’Keefe’s “Ladder to the Moon,” which features a ladder hanging in space over New Mexican mountains.

My world had moved, but I was immobile, transfixed to the spot until rescued some hours later by the CHP. They never mentioned the plant.

Like Jacob, I had stopped in “a certain place” for at least the day, which was unfolding hot and cloudless before me.

Two miles outside of Needles, I was nowhere, lost in the void. I cried. I prayed, or at least begged God to rescue me. My world had turned upside down, which, it turns out, is integral to the process of truly leaving, or departing from one place to another.

Lost in the “no-place” on his first night way from the familiarity of home, Jacob prayed.

According to Midrash Rabbah, Jacob established that in the evening one should pray: “May it be thy will, O Lord My God, to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

Jacob prays in the gathering darkness of sunset, establishing evening prayer for all time.

The only difficulty with this is that it was not sunset at all, but closer to high noon, according to the Midrash. So God, who wants to speak to Jacob in the intimacy of darkness, changes the day into night.

According to rabbinic tradition, the certain space, hamakom, is synonymous with Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Rashi states that God wanted to show Jacob the place where prayers would ascend to heaven, the site of the earthly Temple, which stands opposite the Heavenly Temple on high. God wanted to reveal the entire future of the Jewish people to Jacob, their exile and their return to this very spot, the axis mundi of the world.

The problem — Jacob is not in Jerusalem, but on the road to Haran. Therefore, it is said, “the earth jumped beneath him” and Mount Moriah moved, for the moment, to where he was. Prayer, indeed, can move mountains.

But hamakom is much more than a specific site on earth or in the heavens above. Hamakom is another name for God, and God is not limited by time or space. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “There is no place without God.” Hamakom, God’s presence, is everywhere, surrounding us, infusing us, enveloping us with its essence.

When someone dies in our community we say, “May the Holy Place, The Divine One, bring you comfort and consolation.” We cry out, in the darkness of our loss and despair, and pray that God will bring us to the light. While the familiar place of our community provides comfort, only The Place of God can bring us true consolation.

God’s presence, however, is not limited to physical, grounded space. The Torah’s commentaries show us that time can change and mountains can move as long as we are connected to the Source. By returning to that place within, what the Gerer Rebbe, calls the inner space, we are able to connect with the presence of God, which is everywhere.

Although it may seem easier to access that connection in places that we hold sacred, such as the Wall in Jerusalem, or the mountains of New Mexico, the “place” is infinite and universal. Wherever I am, God is with me. I just need to be able to stop, breathe, rest, sleep, meditate and open my inner eyes.

We are now at the darkest time of the year, when the sun seems to set not long after noon.

“Please God,” we pray, “may it be Thy will to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

The month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah, is dedicated to prayers that bring the light. We reach out beyond time and space to the “place” of the Holy Temple, in order to bring its light into our homes, lighting our menorot against the darkness.

Angels, dressed as the CHP, came to rescue me. I was towed into California, and have found God at every step along the way during these past 14 years. My “place” is now here. Now, I can say, along with Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

To Tell the Truth


Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised, tucked into a secret room in the dark corridors of Hogwarts, allows the person who looks into it to see what they most desire to be. There seems to be a similar notion in the world of online dating.

A computer becomes a tool to create a “new and improved” version of yourself.

Short people become “not overly tall,” shy people become “pensive and thoughtful,” unemployed becomes “self-employed,” and living with the folks becomes “family oriented and saving for the future.” Delusional becomes creative. And dating reaches some desperate lows.

A little embellishment here and there isn’t so bad — creativity and a sense of humor are always great things. But there are just certain things that you should never lie about.

1. Physical attributes.
How many times have you opened the door to find a person 4 inches lower to the earth than what they had told you? One person I agreed to meet told me he was 5-foot-6 — exactly my height — so I was a bit annoyed when, even wearing lip-flops, I turned out to be a good 2 inches taller than him.

“My eyes are only blue with certain outfits” is actually a buyable lie. But height is pretty much set in stone once you exit the teens.

Then, of course, there is the touchy subject of weight. Most people probably post their wishful driver’s license weight, thinking at least they have “proof” in writing.

One guy admitted to me that although his profile said he was 170 he was more like 190, and honesty is a good thing, right? So how was he to explain the additional 45 pounds that followed him to my door on our first date? Did he think that I just wasn’t going to notice, or believe that he went on a crazy pre-date jitters eating binge that made 45 pounds show up overnight?

2. Pictures
There are those online who are honest and upfront enough to post recent and un-Photoshopped, untouched up, non-photo shoot, actually-looks-like-me pictures. And then there are those who are not.

I’ve had too many dates start with a smile and confusion as I have an inner dialogue: That’s who I’ve been talking to? Did I remember to ask him if his photos were recent? How fast can I eat this ice cream and leave without getting brain freeze?

3. Age
Like it or not we were all born on a certain day of a certain year, and that (along with your height) is set in stone. The people who have lied to me about their age all have their own reasons. Usually it’s the younger guys who make themselves a few years older so that they will show up in my search preferences. Then three or four dates down the road they give me the, “Oh, by the way….”

One guy who was already four years older then me lied and made himself even older! When I asked him why, he said that he looked older anyway so he changed his age to match what people usually said. Excuse me? I mean I’ve been told oodles of times that I have a baby face, but you don’t see me telling people that I’m 300 months old to somehow get that infantile sense.

4. Personal Habits
I had one man tell me that he was a nonsmoker, though four conversations later he divulged that he did smoke, just not cigarettes. Then another told me he was a nonsmoker, to later go into detail that he was actually just “working on trying to start convincing himself that he should really begin to seriously think about” quitting. Or some other equally far-fetched story that left me rolling my eyes and politely declining plans to meet.

5. Odds and Ends Details
One of my personal favorite stories was a man who told me that he had never been in a serious relationship before, so one could understand my confusion when during our first date he mentioned his exes. When I finally asked him what he meant, he said that since he wasn’t with them anymore it just didn’t count. Oh, if only the world worked that way.

The bottom line is just don’t do it. Do you really think people aren’t going to notice those few inches, those extra pounds that cloud of smoke around your head? What do you expect will happen when you start a relationship by completely misrepresenting yourself?

Most of the men I’ve confronted about it just got mad, hoping that I would “give this a chance.” Give what a chance? The delusional version of yourself that you created in your own Mirror of Erised? I don’t think so. The next upgrade that online dating needs is a giant red stamp saying liar that a person can vote to place over your profile, warning the next innocent online dater of what is really going on.

Caroline Cobrin is a writer living in Van Nuys and can be reached at carolinecolumns@hotmail.com.

 

Is the ‘Wicked Man’ Just Misunderstood?


Last month I took my family to see the Broadway musical, “Wicked,” a recasting of the “Wizard of Oz,” where all the supposedly good people turn out to be self-centered and the Wicked Witch is revealed to be a sensitive iconoclast battling a malicious smear campaign. “Fractured Fairy Tales” haven’t been this popular since the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. Hollywood has most recently brought us the “Shrek” series, various modern remakes of Cinderella, and now, “Hoodwinked,” a takeoff on Little Red Riding Hood, in which extreme snowboarder Granny and thoroughly modern Red team up with the wolf, who turns out to be an undercover reporter and all-round good guy.

Such moral ambiguity has a home in Judaism, which revels in the hidden complexities of life. The Bible paints few of our heroes in bold, simplistic strokes.

Arguably, Judaism’s most towering figures, Moses and David, are among the most flawed. There are no “happily ever afters” to be found. No one is purely good, nor is anyone entirely evil.

Except for one. Oz had the Wicked Witch, and we have our Wicked, Wicked Man: Haman. Jews are expected to have sympathy for just about every enemy, with the exception of Haman.

Admit it. Don’t you feel just a little uncomfortable on Purim night, beating the tar out of Haman, shouting him down, cheering ecstatically at his demise? Doesn’t it bother you just a little bit that the same tradition that encourages us to spill drops of wine at the seder in memory of suffering Egyptian slave drivers also encourages us to drink ourselves silly while hanging Haman and drowning out the very mention of his name?

With Haman being painted with cartoonish evil clarity, however, the Talmud throws us another zinger, calling upon us to imbibe on Purim not to ignite more anger, but to create a very “wicked”-like confusion, according to one interpretation. We are to drink until we cannot tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai.” This custom seems to undercut the Bible’s assertion that Haman, simply by virtue of his Amalekite roots, as well as his own deeds, is the pure embodiment of evil. It introduces the possibility of moral ambiguity, or worse, a moral equivalence between Haman’s intentions and those of his accusers.

If the Book of Esther were to be rewritten the way “Wicked” recasts Oz, it would make for a great Purim shpiel. Essentially, the inverse story of Haman would begin at birth, where his parents reject him. As a child, the neighborhood bullies beat him up, poking fun at his three-cornered hat given to him by Mordechai, the Big Man on Campus, as a prank.

“Tri-corner is this year’s kaffiyeh,” Mordechai tells him.

Haman then wallows in self-pity with a show-stopping number titled, “My Life Is Bad Noose.”

He hopes against hope that some day maybe he will make it so big “that they’ll name a pastry after me.”

Finally, he is granted an audience with the king, but he is forced to wait outside for hours on end.

“Why does the king leave me hanging?” Haman laments.

While he is waiting, he overhears Mordechai plotting against the king. The plan is to place Esther on the throne and force all the royal subjects to become life members of Hadassah. Mordy also plots to create a diversionary smoke screen by accusing Haman of scheming to annihilate the Jews. The plan works to perfection and the “wicked” Haman is hanged. But it turns out that Haman gets wind of the plot, substitutes a scarecrow effigy at the last minute and while the scarecrow swings, Haman escapes to Hollywood to produce morally ambiguous movies for Steven Spielberg.

Jewish tradition teaches us that no human being is either totally evil or completely good. Spielberg has been maligned for his recent film, “Munich,” because he meddled in the moral complexities of our contemporary Purim saga involving Israeli good guys and terrorism’s evildoers. With hundreds of specialized cable channels and millions of Internet sites to choose from, people focus on only one side of any story. Spielberg’s attempt to break through the caricatures is refreshing and commendable in this polarized world, as long as the terrorism itself is not minimized or justified.

Am I being too forgiving of Judaism’s Wicked Wicked Man? Not at all. I’ll be out there on Purim night raising a ruckus like everyone else. But I’ll do so with the understanding that Book of Esther is only part of a long and complex story whose end has yet to be written.

Joshua Hammerman is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and author of “thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace.” He can be reached at rabbi@tbe.org.

 

Safire Says Book of Job Political


The Book of Job is commonly — and mistakenly — seen as a story of the “patience of Job.” And sometimes people have trouble locating its place in the Bible.

Asked by reporters last January to name his favorite book in the New Testament, Howard Dean answered, “The Book of Job.” He was one testament off, and returned later to tell reporters he knew it was in the Hebrew Bible. He said he liked it because it “sort of explains that bad things happen to very good people for no good reason.”

Dean’s confusion about the location of the Book of Job generated a fair amount of ridicule at the time from commentators — but not from William Safire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of The New York Times, who is speaking next week about Job at Sinai Temple.

In his column that week, Safire said that Dean, in his description of Job, was “on to something.” The book, Safire wrote, is the “most controversial book in all theology” — the outraged cry of a blameless sufferer, a call for someone to “take God to court on a charge of moral mismanagement” (and perhaps breach of contract).

The story of Job is one of a righteous man from whom everything is taken — all his sons and daughters, all his wealth and then his health — and who rejects the comfort and counsel of his friends, with their established wisdom about God.

Job’s friends tell him he must have done something wrong (“Happy is the man whom God corrects”), that the experience should lead to greater piety (“If thou wert pure and upright, surely now God would awake for thee”), that in the end everything will be all right (“though there be darkness, it shall be as the morning”).

But Job is not consoled. On the contrary, he is outraged at the injustice. “The tents of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure.” But as for him, “I looked for good, and then evil came. When I expected light, then came darkness.”

Job curses his life and dreams of escaping God: “For now I shall lie in the earth; thou wilt seek me, but I shall not be.” Above all, he wants it known that “God has wronged me” — and that God should respond.

At the end, after a series of speeches by Job of unusual power and eloquence, God does appear. In the longest speech by God in the Bible, Job receives his response — and it is a non-answer. God simply invokes sheer power and superior knowledge: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have the understanding.”

As Safire noted, not everyone thinks God comes off well in that response. Others fault Job for his confrontation with God, or for his subsequent response to God’s speech. The ending to the story is controversial. But what is indisputable is that the confrontation caps a literary, religious and political story that is among the greatest of all time.

Even if viewed only as literature, the Book of Job is extraordinary. Thomas Carlyle said there is “nothing written, I think, in the Bible or out of it, of equal literary merit.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson called it the “greatest poem of ancient and modern times.”

Cynthia Ozick went even further. In an essay devoted to Job, she says the words in the book spring from “an artistry so far beyond the grasp of mind and tongue” that we think of the Greek plays; we think of Shakespeare — and still that is not marvel enough.”

Safire added a new perspective on Job, interpreting the book as a political parable. Since his college days, Safire had been collecting books about Job, and in 1992 he published a remarkable book titled “The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics” (Random House). Reviewing Safire’s book in Commentary, Edward Luttwak called it a “profound discourse on politics and theology.”

Safire viewed the story as a victory for Job — because Job called the Lord of the universe to account. It was the archetypal dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority — a model for the miraculous things that, in modern times, powerless individuals had achieved, standing only on the moral questions they raised: Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, Ghandi in India, Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States.

Job’s questions of God — why do the wicked thrive, why do the innocent suffer — endure (in Ozick’s words) in “death camp and hatred, in tyranny and anthrax, in bomb and bloodshed.”

In Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B,” a character notes how many modern Jobs — blameless sufferers caught in unspeakable conditions — there have been:

Millions and millions of mankind

Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated

Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking!

For walking round the world in the wrong

Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids:

Sleeping the wrong night wrong city —

London, Dresden, Hiroshima.

And after Sept. 11, we can add: for going to work on time in Manhattan on a beautiful fall day; for boarding a plane in Boston on a trip to the coast; for dancing in a discotheque or eating at a pizza parlor in Tel Aviv. The world is not just. It is not Eden. But that awareness is the beginning of the story, not its end.

Safire’s book drew from Job a message about political injustice: It need not be accepted. On the contrary, justice must be pursued, and established authority confronted. One person can make a difference — and ultimately justice in this world is not God’s responsibility, but our own.

In his 1999 book, “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” (Riverheads), Rabbi David Wolpe drew a similar message from Job about confronting life’s inexplicable injustices. His book did not seek to explain God, but rather mapped a path to making our inevitable losses meaningful, even absent an explanation for their origin or cause. He saw in Job a larger lesson about the nature of our lives and our relationship with God.

Written thousands of years ago, with literary beauty, religious insights and political lessons still relevant today, it is hard to think of a more remarkable book than Job, or more important books than the ones Job has inspired.

On Nov. 20, William Safire will speak at a luncheon at Sinai Temple on “The Book of Job and Today’s Politics,” followed by a dialogue with Rabbi David Wolpe. He will speak at a brunch on Nov. 21 on “The Significance of the Election on the Next Four Years.” Reservations are required. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 474-1518.

Limits Needed to Set Path for Youths


A few weeks ago, three students at Milken Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles were expelled for making a sexually explicit video of themselves that was eventually seen by members of the student community. Many parents and teachers in the Jewish community have expressed confusion at how educated Jewish students at a school like Milken did what they did.

But to think that what happened at Milken is isolated to the particulars of the parent-child relationships of the families involved is myopic — and too easy. To be sure, such behavior is not widespread in our children’s communities. But we can be relatively certain that for every incident brought to light, many more are hidden in the shadows.

Parents and teachers — really all adults — owe it to those three teenagers to take some responsibility for what happened. Those teenagers grew up in the society we created.

We are the adults. They are the kids. We owe it to them to enter the darkness of our confusion and investigate the source of what happens in our midst. We must ask whether what happened is indicative of other things gone awry.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of Piaseczno, in early 20th century Poland, wrote a book of educational philosophy called, “Chovat Hatalmidim” (“The Student’s Obligation”) to address the problem of young Jews leaving the yeshivot for the tempting world of modernity. He shared our problem: How do we teach children to be their best selves amidst a culture of overwhelming power?

His diagnosis of the problem is as follows: “Today’s youth consider themselves grown up before their time … they have come to see themselves as grown up and independent — in their opinions and in their desires — though their mind is still upside down and their desires unripe and bitter…. This trait causes harm [because] it causes the child to see any guide, teacher, or educator as a foreign overlord who has come to rule over him with a strong hand, and to strip him of his independent mind and will.”

Relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, adults and youth, this generation and the next are complicated. Each of us wants to nurture teens, to help them navigate the complex web of ideas and emotions that define adolescence. Helping them is hardest when it means risking our children’s friendship so we can keep being their parent.

I remember having a fight with my father when I was 15 years old. As happens in most parent-teenager relationships, it was not unheard of for us to have a disagreement turn heated and eventually end with us yelling at each other.

But this fight ended differently. At the end of this fight, I got so upset at something my dad said (sadly, today I do not even remember what it was he said or even what we were fighting about), I told him, “screw you.”

What happened next I do remember: My father started to kick me out of the house. I managed to apologize quickly enough to avoid eviction, but my dad made it very clear to me that if I was going to speak that way, I was not going to stay in his home.

“You may speak to your friends that way, but you will not use that kind of language with me. I am your father. I am not one of your friends.”

“That’s right!” I screamed, “you’re not my friend.” I said these painful words with all the self-righteous accusation I could muster, hoping to win the argument by making my dad feel that he had failed me. His response was one I never expected and have yet to forget.

“That’s right,” he said. “I’m not your friend. But I am your father. You should feel lucky that you have a father and not just a friend.”

I believe Rabbi Shapira would have agreed. Now, so do I. I was growing up too fast, and though I craved someone who would make me feel understood, what I needed most in that moment were limits, even at the cost of friendship.

I saw my father as “a foreign overlord” (and tried to treat him like one), but I did not need another person with whom to be lost. I needed someone who knew who he was, against whom I could begin to see the contours of my own self becoming.

But to say that I needed a father, not a friend, was also a false distinction, a straw man I made up to win a petty argument. True friends — like our parents — must teach us, love us and help us to grow not by accepting who we are but by sensing something of our essence, our hope, something of who we can be and lifting us beyond ourselves. They succeed not by shying away from a fight, but by being willing to risk what is for what can be.

Parenting this way is painful and tiring. The midrash teaches that words of critique are like bees — they hurt the one who is stung but kill the one who stings.

I love my sons from a place of indescribable depth and they know it. When I rebuke one of them, I feel it for days. I simply hate it. It takes a heavy toll I bear with me as I walk on the street.

I am not alone — it is a burden we must all help to bear: parents, grandparents, teachers and God. But we must do so because we are neither our children’s parents nor their friends if we fail to tell them when they are wrong.

“As children become adolescents, even the best parents struggle as their teenagers are influenced by their peers and the popular culture we adults are creating for them. A few weeks ago, three Jewish teenagers learned that it was unacceptable to make a sexually explicit film of themselves. They learned our society has limits about what is acceptable to do with our bodies at a young age in public. They should have known better. But could it be that they were only doing what our society never told them was wrong?


Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah and the Max and Pauline Zimmer Conference Center.