Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Madame Bovary and the Second Day of Yuntif

Sometimes we find solace in the strangest places. I have often wondered why it takes me so long – up to two weeks – to write my articles, which range from three to seven pages in length. Then I found an article in a recent weekend section of the international edition of The Wall Street Journal – one of the few voices of sanity in the print media – entitled “Madame Bovary meets the mouse click,” which made me feel a lot better about the sluggish pace of my writing. The article details the efforts of team of 130 volunteers in deciphering the 4,500 page manuscript of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and placing the whole kit-and-caboodle on the internet for the whole world – or at least, that section of which that cares and can read French – to see. It took them two and a half years to complete this project, two years less than it took Flaubert to write his novel, working four or five days a week, upwards of twelve hours a day. In other words, it would take him a working week to produce a single completed page. As journalist Brigid Grauman described, “Flaubert was obsessed with concision, the repetition of sounds, the elimination of transitions and direct speech, and the effectiveness of his sexual innuendo. He hated his natural ability to think in comparisons. He said that metaphors attacked him like fleas, and cut three-quarters of them out of his final draft.” Her description of his writing and over-writing all over the page, under and over the lines, in the margins, on the back of the page, in an indecipherable scribble, reminded me of the process which Marcel Proust employed in producing his masterpiece A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which took him a lifetime of preparation and the last fifteen years of his life to almost finish. Now these guys were writing full time; they weren’t concerned with cooking and shopping, trying to learn a very foreign language, answering the phone, being constantly interrupted by a cat that has just woken up and is hungry and won’t leave me alone until I feed her, let alone that I spend many hours a week editing stuff for my buddy Mordy for Rav Aviner’s yeshiva. Also few writers have to share their writing pad with members of their family. I imagine that a ‘technical difficulty’ for Flaubert would have been if he ran out of ink! So if I take a little time to make certain that I at least am satisfied with what I have written, so be it. Of course, fifty years from now, no deranged graduate student in English Lit., desperately in search of a research project, would be able to go through my manuscripts. Writing on a computer, there is usually only one glorious final version, so no one will ever know how often I have replaced a “the” with a “that,” changed the order of words, or deleted an entire paragraph. An entire ‘cottage industry’ of research is being ‘industrialized’ out of existence!
But while I slowly wend my way through these articles, I am faced with a serious problem: memory loss. Do I remember with any certainty what I did or saw or read or heard a month or more ago? Can I recapture the flavor that excited me at the time? Maybe yes; maybe no. But you can’t knock a guy for trying. So what follows are my recollections of this Pesach past, five or so weeks after the fact, but who’s keeping track? It occurred to me the other day that if I picked up the pace, I might get my article about Pesach finished and out before Shavuot, which led me to consider the following motto: “Never more than one holiday behind.”
First of all, I remember spending all day Wednesday in the kitchen, cooking as much food as I could fit on our four burners and cram into the oven. In the course of our preparation, Barbara had asked me to locate a certain recipe. I could not find the one she wanted; instead, I found a recipe for a Syrian dish made with ground beef, potatoes, prunes, and tomato sauce, a recipe I had been trying to locate for several years. The recipe had initially intrigued me because it said that one would need a big, heavy pot, and, sure enough, some people we know had just given us a really big, heavy, enamel-covered pot which they had used for Pesach. But there is a special poignancy to this business. I had made this dish for some friends one Pesach; the woman was so excited about the dish that she asked me for the recipe, which I why I remember the incident. Recently, the man suffered a tragic accident and is pretty much paralyzed, and all the time I was layering the meat and the potatoes and everything else, I kept thinking about him. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is: if you can make a tasty meal for friends, do it while you can and while they can enjoy it.
Anyway, the plan, which we carried out flawlessly, was to spend as little time as possible during the next seven days in the kitchen, and do as many fun things as we could fit in during the intermediate days when things would be jumping in The Land. Of course, we were cheating a little, because we were not preparing the Seder. We were invited to our friends Ron and Esther, as we had been last year. All we had to do was supply some good Israeli wine and four kilos. of shmurah matzoh, a relatively simple task.
I like Ron’s Seder. We start on time, we don’t dawdle, we move along at a respectable pace taking turns reading the text, either in Hebrew or English depending on one’s comfort zone – but not first Hebrew and then English, which takes forever. I am proud to say that my ability to read the Hebrew has improved markedly since I have been in The Land; I no longer sound like a third grader reading the Haggadah. But there is something else that I have begun to notice, a very interesting phenomenon. I don’t know what to call it, but I can give you an example of something similar. Last year, Barbara and I were at one of the many outdoor festivals that go on in Jerusalem in the summer – of course with lots of food. A man came up to us and started talking, and it was obvious from what he was saying that he knew us. Barbara and I were drawing a complete blank, and we were in that awkward situation that you never, ever want to be in when you have to say to someone who knows you that you have no idea who he is. Turns out the friendly gentleman was Dr. Baum, our Maccabi physician, whom we see at least six times a year! It wasn’t our fault: he wasn’t in his office. How were we supposed to recognize him in a different setting?
There are words in Hebrew which those of us who daven (pray) regularly come across once, twice, dozens of times each day in the siddur, but when we see them on a sign, or in a paragraph in an ulpan workbook, we do not recognize them. I say “we” because this phenomenon occurs with alarming frequency with the religious young people in my ulpan classes. There was one young lady who did not recognize the word “leshabe-ach,” and it was all I could do not to start singing “Alenu leshabe-ach la’adon hacol” (‘It is incumbent upon us to praise the Master of Everything,’ the beginning of a prayer which concludes every service – often sung, sometimes by children, usually to the same annoying melody, but at least recited, three times a day. But just as we do not recognize our doctor, our bank teller, our bus driver, once they leave the narrow compartment to which we have mentally assigned them, once we have finished praying and leave the confines of the synagogue or ‘temple,” the words we have just read in our prayer books may get lost in our memory bank. One of the miracles of modern Hebrew is that words that were formerly confined to our texts have taken on a meaning that would have startled the Men of the Great Assembly. For example, one of the first prayers in the morning ‘blesses’ G-d who has commanded us “laasok b’divrei torah,” to busy ourselves with words of Torah, has in it the same root as in the words for the Israeli equivalent of a business man’s lunch, aruchat iskit.) I am delighted to say that I am beginning to make the necessary connections, so that whether I am looking at a prayer book, a menu, or a billboard, I realize that I am reading the same language. No doubt this would gratify Eliezer Ben-Yehuda immensely.
And so we read the venerable text, drinking our wine, performing the required activities: pointing to things, holding them up, putting them down, etc., eating the meal and the afikoman, finishing the text, saying good bye, walking home, going to sleep, secure in the knowledge that we mercifully would not have to repeat the performance until next year; and that, if by next year, Yerushalayim would be b’nuyah (rebuilt); i.e., the Temple rebuilt, we here in Maale Adumim would be amongst the first to know.
It’s never ‘good form’ to rub it in that we here in The Land have only one day at the beginning and one at the end of Pesach which are formally ‘Yuntif,’ but I am as guilty of this lack of compassion for you Westerners as the next guy. Friday, Natania and I were going on a tiyul to Shilo, the first site of the Mishkan (the tabernacle). Barbara and I had already done a tiyul there with the same outfit, Tanach Tiyulim, but our daughter had limited time off from the army for Pesach and wanted to do something. And so it came to pass that the two of us, with loads of time to spare, were walking from the Jerusalem’s tachana hamercazit (the central bus station) to the OU Center on Keren Hayisod, a hefty walk. We were on King George, a block or two past The Great Synagogue, when we came upon a family of Exilers, a man, his wife, and two kids, all in their Shabbat finery, the man clutching his talit bag and a siddur, obviously on their way to the Great Synagogue, one of the few places in town set up to accommodate the crowd from the Galut. I can only hope and pray that I will be forgiven for this, but as we passed this family and I sized up the situation, I began singing to myself, “Second day of Yuntif, na na na na na na.” I am proud to say, however, that Natania was appalled at my hubris and gave me a good talking-to.
No question: it’s considered to be a mitzvah to be in The Land, especially during one of the three pilgrim festivals, but there is definitely a down side as well. It’s bad enough in most places in The States, and it’s a ‘weekday’ and you are walking to shul the first day of ‘yuntif’ and it’s painfully obvious that ‘everyone else’ is going about his normal business, and, boy, are you in a minority. But there, you are among the gentiles of the world; what do you expect? Here, you are amongst Jews, religious Jews at that, and all around you on the second day, the stores are open, the buses are running, and everyone else is either working or partying. On this beautiful spring morning (and it was a fine day), you are leaving your hotel room, going to the one place where there will be a minyan – where of course you will probably know almost no one – after which you will return to the dining room of your hotel for your pre-paid but over-priced meal, where you will huddle with similarly shell-shocked tourists, many of whom will be remarking that it just doesn’t feel like ‘yuntif.” You will, of course, repeat this routine for one more day, Shabbat, making it a “three day yuntif,” just as if you were back in The States. But by then, all or mostly all of Jerusalem will be joining you, and you will remember the special magic of Shabbat in The Holy City, something which you will never experience anywhere else in the world – sorry about that.
Ezra Rosenfeld was running several of his English language tanachtiyulim during chol ha moed (the intermediate days of the holiday); the others were already sold out. Because so many of his potential customers would be sequestered in the gloom of the Central Synagogue, this wonderful tour was undersubscribed, barely enough people to make it financially feasible – so I was definitely glad that Natania wanted to go. Our small group boarded the large bus, and we were off.
The whole purpose of a tour guide on a trip like this is to help conjure up what you cannot see. As is the case with so many ancient sites in Israel today, there is really very little left in Tel Shilo, that is, if you are looking by yourself. What’s there are the ruins of a town that flourished for several hundred years as the home of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in which the Ark described in the Torah was placed, and was during that time, the period of The Judges, the happening place for the Jewish people. You need someone to help you create a mental image, (without overwhelming you in a mass of facts and details) while you are climbing around what seem to be just piles of rocks, actually the foundations of homes and workshops and mikvaot, so that you can try your best to imagine that people lived there once and Judaism existed in a way very different from what we experience today.
As we were walking around, it occurred to me that even though Barbara and I had been here before, it was like seeing it for the first time, at least in part because the truly wonderful tour guide, Margalyt Friedman, gave a different emphasis to things, and also in part because it was a different time of year, and now the wildflowers were blooming in a sea of reds and blues, sending Natania hither and yon with the digital camera (one of the pictures is now the wallpaper on our computer), whereas months before there was hardly a weed to be seen between the rocks. I had asked Ezra why he had chosen this day for a tiyul to Shilo. He replied that by Sunday, the place would be ‘crawling’ with tourists and that on this day, at least, we would have the place to ourselves. This conversation jogged my memory: I remembered that the first time Barbara and I came, the place was filled with buses and there was a large contingent of Christian tourists who were waving large flags, perhaps from their countries of origin. I did remember the combination coffee and gift shop as well as the building which contained a scale-model replica of the Mishkan, and in which one can see a short film recreating the episode in which Eli, the High Priest realizes that a) his two wayward sons have lost the Ark of the Covenant which they have taken into battle, and b) that the real Philistines will destroy everything in their path (may we also remember and learn from our past mistakes). It goes without saying that I remembered the exact location of the ‘facilities,’ a mental feat which I have always been able to perform. On a more spiritual note, I remembered the layout of the beautiful synagogue in the modern Shilo with its breathtaking view which we visited later, built to roughly replicate the Mishkan. The one thing I didn’t really remember was the most important thing of all, which was the purpose of the tiyul. Every time Ezra goes to Tel Shilo, he goes to a particular deserted non-descript area which is contained within a set of low-set boundary walls, and he measures the dimensions within. The place in question, now completely level, is the exact dimensions of the Mishkan; and if these calculations are correct, this field is where the Mishkan, containing the Ark which contained the second set of tablets which Moshe received on Mount Sinai, stood for 390 years. And that is where we were standing. Talk about past glory. I’m sure that somebody will want us to give away this piece of property – something to do with Iran, no doubt – but I’m not ‘buying’ it. I, for one, do not want to do a live reenactment of the film I had just seen, so that the modern day spiritual descendents of the Philistines can destroy us again.
(Part 2 coming up momentarily)

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