Month: June 2014

Finding Shekhinah

AISJ June 2014

It’s raining. Not the deluge, more the “gentle rain from heaven”. Having recently returned, this is indeed a bracha. As Jerusalem turns brown, Paris is greened. Parting – the “sweet sorrow”- was not exactly painful, more like a necessary disengagement, although the pull is almost electromagnetically strong.

A modern ocarina
An ocarina is a small, ancient clay flute which, if correctly intonated, makes a pure, perfectly pitched note. My time in Israel in so many ways felt like that. With little effort, something beautiful could be achieved, something lasting could be left behind. My presence had resonance, if you will, I did not fetch up accidentally on Israeli shores as if vomited out by a great fish. I am often asked questions at home about why I went – wherein lies the attraction in a dusty little Middle Eastern country with a few ancient tourist attractions? At first thought, it’s easy to answer. I could reply in the context of its being the birthplace of the Old Testament stories, or the New Testament renditions of the life of Christ. To those whose belief systems are not consonant with these ideas, a trip to the Kinneret is just a visit to a lake. A walk around the Old City is a pleasant diversion into the medieval, much like Lucca or Florence. Here, however, there is a cry, a source of hope or “makor ha-tikvah’ down through the ages which I am romantic enough to want to hear. 
The Pope’s prayer is still there
Beside the Western Wall, or Kotel, the last remaining stones of the outer retaining wall of the Second Temple, there is an explanatory sign briefly narrating the building and destruction of the First and Second Temples. It points out that the Temple Mount is the resting place of the foundation stone of the earth, and above it rested the Ark of the Covenant. It then concludes, paraphrasing, “the Presence never moves from the Western Wall. Jews have prayed here for centuries.”In Hebrew, the word for “presence” is transliterated “Shekhinah” – from the root verb ‘to inhabit’, often used in the context of the nesting place of a bird. The place where, if anywhere, God ‘is’. In a very Jewish sense, I found myself asking the question to which I already knew the answer. ‘Why are you here?’ I am here because I am bereft, poor, miserable, cold, hungry, naked, tired and lonely and I want to go home. Not literally, but metaphorically, God has made a way for all to find home, scanning the night for the pinprick of light to guide their path.
Judi Dench as ‘Philomena’.
For some time, I had wanted to watch “Philomena”. It is the story of an Irish Catholic girl in the early 1950’s who, after sinfully experimenting with sex, finds herself pregnant and in the care of Catholic nuns with a taste for the retributive aspect of penance. With the help of a famous British journalist, she attempts to track down her fifty year old son, taken from her without her consent and put up for adoption by the convent. Being an adoptee myself, I know about the strangely shaped holes it leaves in one’s personality. I know something of how a mother might have felt when her flesh and blood was snatched away, and how cavities remain in the hearts of us both, she and I. Good adoptive parents notwithstanding, there is an indefinable psychological cord which binds us to our genetic history. Many spend their lives trying to find it, sometimes with no idea what they are really looking for. Being in Israel is a lot like finding the cord. Judaism is the bedrock of Christianity – those who trumpet replacement theology need to look more carefully at their source material. Until the fourth century, distinguishing a Jew from the pejoratively named Christian was not straightforward, indeed, perhaps, impossible. The multiple facets of both faiths even today blur the edges of both. When I was in Israel, I felt as if I belonged. Not to the land, the state or the people, but to the cultivated olive tree into which I was able as an adopted son to be grafted. Even vagabonds have resting places somewhere.

Kissing Jewish

Ha. Haven’t put a word down in weeks. And what captured my attention? No, not the West Bank abductions, the Ukraine, the Unity Government. No. Not at all. Sitting here on Shabbat with nine days left, they put a movie on TV. And furthermore, not even a new one.


“Kissing Jessica Stein” (2001) is ‘a heartwarming romantic comedy’ which celebrates every New York Jewish stereotype you can imagine and with an all-Jewish cast it was real, not made-up. I watched it and actually enjoyed it. Me. The little blue donkey.
Being Jewish is both a lifestyle and an art form. You get a nuance, a whisper just walking around on the Upper West Side, but this was up-close and full-frontal. Cheap shots to clever dialogue; it was all there. These people are some of the smartest, most creative individuals on the planet, full of angst, hormones, gush and delight, much of which was simply displayed like a nude, blushing portrait on the screen. The IMDB quotes page is full of slick dialogue and well-timed riposte; the Jewish sense of timing is without equal.  Couldn’t help comparing to Barbra Streisand in “Meet the “Fokkers”, or Woody Allen minus death wish.  Jerusalem is full of people like this and I sometimes feel lumbering, almost Neanderthal by comparison; perhaps goyim have a hard time keeping up. Jessica is Jewish, sensitive, a little neurotic and a journalist by profession but an edgy, risk-taking artist by temperament who impulsively answers a W4W ad after a series of nightmarish dating interactions. Helen is the non-Jewish director of an art gallery with the sex drive of a Lamborghini, given to random encounters with everyone and anyone, including the delivery boy. They meet and the chemistry is explosive. They make up the rules as they go along, neither having any experience of how a gay couple are supposed to behave and their courtship is both earnest, fresh and quite hilarious.
Judy is Jessica’s mother – do I have to draw a diagram? Shabbat dinner is Helen’s first exposure to the whole tearingly invasive self-congratulatory drama of Friday nights in a Jewish household.
I think you’re supposed to be Jewish to catch all of the jokes – I was quite glad that I was able to laugh in most of the right places. I still can’t work out whether the dedication “for our parents” was ironic or not.

Words Endless

It’s been a while. Here I am, ashamed and guilty. I have been editing, examining and doing odd jobs like voice-overs – as well as opening algebraic mysteries to the unwilling, unenlightened and sometimes uneducable. Senior students have flown the coop – as ready as I can make them. I worry they’re not ready enough; insouciance, youth and optimism make uncomfortable bedfellows sometimes. 

It takes its toll. Imagination, even here, looks plane-flat, dun-coloured, wan.

Perfectionism is a curse beyond endurance since for the last considerable time it has slyly looked over its eyes at me and told me that whatever I write won’t be good enough, witty enough, funny enough. 

Of course it won’t and I’m beginning not to mind. The comedic is for the others for now

and clowns are the saddest creatures on earth. Not everything can be just so, just as one might wish, special and unique, words unrolling like liquid gold across  a virgin page. 

I read a lot of bloggers’ work, some of which is inspirational, much of the rest is tepid, almost like practice, flexing muscle, rehearsal without dress.

It seems strange to think so, but I am almost – but not quite – sorry for big bucks authors who have to squeeze new plots out of their familiar characters every six months, otherwise their publishers wave breach of contract suits over their heads. And, it shows. People’s early, unfettered work has a breath of bravado and risk about it and as they have been ground down by the cockchafer of publishing deadlines, their original spark takes more and more tries to ignite against the sweat-dampened tinderbox of their imagination.

And yet, we do. Perhaps because we must. Like Maya Angelou’s caged bird, sing we must – clipped wings or not, standing on the grave of dreams.

And then; there’s this…

…but words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled Stepdame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite;
“Fool,” said my muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Astrophil to Stella, Sonnet 1

Sir Philip Sidney