Thursday, December 31, 2009

good and evil

Mazdanasyans, worshipping Ahura
Mazda, felt regarding evil, surer
than Jews and Christians, who do not explain
that it exists as something that’s as sane
as good, but as an aberration, evil
the product of God’s enemy, the devil,
whom God could, if He wanted to, abolish.

Mazdanasyans claim, with far more polish,
that evil comes from a most godlike master,
a theory proposed by Zoroaster,
thought by Jews and Christians to be
not just a heresy but fallacy,
because they think that God produces what
is bad, but we persuade ourselves is not.

This poem, written in two parts which are in antithesis with one another, was inspired by thoughts concerning Zoroastrianism that occurred to me during the course of a paper that I am writing, proposing that the pericope of the broken-necked heifer (Deut. 21:1-9) is in part derived from a Zoroastrian law found in a Pahlavi Vivedad text. According to Zoroastrianism “together with Ahura Mazda in the beginning, and likewise uncreated, was another being who was opposed to him, the Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainu” M. Boyce, “A History of Zoroastrianism (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 1.192).


thoughts I'v chosen to hold back

Fierce, unfallow, always bleak,
my mind, when it starts looking back
at what is older than one week,
is unprepared for the attack
presented by the past. Fun-shy,
I find but little solace in
my poetry, in which I try
to sublimate my thoughts of sin.

Verses cannot make up for
the absence of what I most lack,
the penetration to their core
of thoughts I’ve chosen to hold back,
and those emotions that, suppressed,
make my imagination bleak,
unfallow as a milkless breast,
and fiercer than an unturned cheek.

Writing about the third-persona narrator in J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, “Summertime,” Katha Pollitt writes in the NYT, December 31, 2009 (“Any Relation to Biography Is Pure Fiction (in a Way)”):
So what kind of a man was the secretive young writer? To his former lover Julia, he was “not fully human,” “like a glass ball,” sexually “autistic” — creepily, he insists that they make love by acting out the instrumental lines of Schubert’s string quintet. His earth-motherly cousin Margot, with whom he shared an intense childhood bond, describes him as cold, possessing a “Mister Know-All smile” and uses an Afrikaner vulgarism meaning lacking in determination. Adriana, a fiery Brazilian dancer, is still irritated to have been pursued by this “soft,” unmanly man. Sophie, his colleague and lover at the university, is similarly underwhelmed: “I never had the feeling I was with an exceptional person, a truly exceptional human being.” Another colleague, Martin, says of him that as a teacher, as a friend, “Something was always being held back.” Readers of Mr. Coetzee’s books know what that something was: the fierce, bleak, imaginative life running in his head. The notebook fragments with which the book begins and ends give us the man the interviewees didn’t know, the one who writes in the third-person voice, at once flat and intense and remorseful, of “Boyhood” and “Youth.” There, he portrays South Africa pitilessly: the staggering violence, the aridity and complacency of Afrikaner culture, the moral corruption of apartheid.


Sunday, December 6, 2009


Some people say that hokey-pokey
refers to Catholics’ loss of focus
when priests do things that seem most hokey
in the mass’s hocus-pocus,
for when put their right hand in,
and after this their right hand out
they claim to cleanse you of all sin,
raising hokey-pokey doubt
not just for Puritans, but me,
for though I really love to joke
I find it very hard to see
the point that priests who hokey-poke
are making when they claim that bread
is Jesus’ body, and that wine
becomes his blood and then is fed
into their mouths, their final shrine.

In a different ritual, I
put on my arm and head tefillin,
and if perchance you ask me why
I do this I’ll explain. I’m willin’
to do the hokey-pokey, but
quite differently from priests. My mind
is open and is never shut,
because the leather straps I wind
around my left arm, that is weak,
binds me to words the Torah states,
reminding me that God’s unique,
declaring this each day near neyts,
without tefillin on Shabbat,
a day that supersedes this ritual,
and takes all Jews out of their rut
that binds them to this weekday ritual.

Inspired by an obituary of Robert Dagen by Bruce Weber in the NYT, December 4, 2009, which drew my attention to the origin of the term “hokey-pokey”. The conjecture put forward by Tillotson reads: “In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation”. The Anglican Canon Matthew Damon, Provost of Wakefield Cathedral, West Yorkshire, has claimed that the dance as well comes from the Catholic Latin mass.[3] The priest would perform his movements with his back to the congregation, who could not hear well the words, nor understand the Latin, nor clearly see his movements. This theory led Scottish politician Michael Matheson in 2008 to urge police action ‘against individuals who use it to taunt Catholics.” This claim by Matheson was deemed ridiculous by fans from both sides of the Old Firm (the Glasgow football teams Celtic and Rangers) and calls were put out on fans' forums for both sides to join together to sing the song on 27 December 2008 at Ibrox.

Neyts is the Hebrew word denoting dawn’s early light, the best time to recited the amidah, the 19-prayer long “Eighteeen Benedictions” that are recited shortly after the Shema, which begins with the words: “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord” (Deut. 6:5).

Bruce Weber writes:
Somewhere along the line — at a wedding, at a child’s birthday party, in third-grade music class — everybody has done the hokey pokey. Admit it: you sang the silly song, you did the silly dance.
You know the one
You put your right hand in,
You put your right hand out,
You out your right hand in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about.
Popular as the song is, its authorship has long been in dispute, with the credit usually going to Larry LaPrise, who as part of a musical group, the Ram Trio, is said to have created it in Sun Valley, Idaho, as a novelty number to entertain vacationing skiers. The trio, whose other members were Charles Peter Macak and Tafft Baker, recorded the song, “The Hokey Pokey,” in the late 1940s. There are many reasons to question this version of the song’s provenance, however. Among them is that a very similar song, “The Hokey Pokey Dance,” was copyrighted a few years earlier, in 1944, by a club musician from Scranton, Pa., named Robert Degen. Mr. Degen — who claimed for decades that Mr. LaPrise had stolen his song — died in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 23, his 104th birthday. (Mr. LaPrise died in 1996, and the two men never met.)…A similar song, called variously “Hokey Cokey” or “Cokey Cokey,” was reportedly a favorite of English and American soldiers in England during World War II, the authorship attributed sometimes to a popular Northern Irish songwriter, Jimmy Kennedy, and sometimes to a London bandleader, Al Tabor.
Some Roman Catholic churchmen, meanwhile, have said that the words “hokey pokey” derive from “hocus pocus” — the Oxford English Dictionary concurs — and that the song was written by 18th-century Puritans to mock the language of the Latin Mass. Last year the Catholic Church in Scotland, concerned that some soccer fans were using the song as a taunt, raised the possibility that singing it should be prosecuted as a hate crime. “This song does have quite disturbing origins,” Peter Kearney, a spokesman for Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who leads the Catholic Church in Scotland, was widely quoted in Britain as saying. He added, “If there are moves to restore its more malevolent meaning, then consideration should perhaps be given to its wider use.”


orthodox mores

Jews who’re orthodox make forays
into areas where mores
emphasize an education
where the Torah brings elation,
doing so far more than Jews
who feel that it’s OK to lose
the halakhah. They tend to marry
Jews and do not hari-kari
the Jewish gene pool choosing “others,”
who don’t resemble sisters, brothers,
far more than Jews without this label,
and travel more, when they are able,
to Israel than the Jews who’re less
committed to what they profess,
and act as though their peoplehood
extends beyond the ghettoed hood.
To all Jews loyal to the core,
they don’t exclude ones who aren’t Or-
thodox, but try to bring them back
into the fold. They don’t attack
their mores, but believe that less
is not enough to share largesse
the Torah offers. More, they think,
works better, so they do not shrink
the halakhah that’s their tradition,
and of their mores first edition.

Of course we shouldn’t have schism
about the issue “Judaism.”
With such an issue we will lose
what we don’t want to lose, more Jews,
which we cannot afford to do
however we are labeled Jew.

Inspired by a letter in Forward, November 27, 2009 by Neil W. Schluger of Millwood, NJ:

Ben Dreifus writes: “We need to eliminate the idea that Orthodox Judaism is more anything and liberal Judaism is less anything.” Of course he is correct, but for the liberal movements, the issue is not Judaism, but Jews. There are many important and meaningful ways in which Orthodox Jews are in fact “more.” They are more likely to devote time to serious study of Jewish texts, and to be able to rad them in Hebrew, they are more likely to provide a serious Jewish education to their children; they are more likely to visit Israel regularly, and even to move there; and they are more likely to marry other Jews. These are critical behaviors, and they should not be more characteristic of one denomination as opposed to the other, but the fact is that they are. All of these “mores” are challenges to the liberal denominations, which are numerically larger, but which have not managed to create the same depth of attachment to Jewish history, tradition, leaning and people hood among their members…