Dedications

Medieval commentary on the holiday of Chanukah asks, “How many dedications [channukot] were there?” The answer is that there were seven, and we are offered two lists.

Seven Dedications:

  1. heaven and earth,
  2. the wall of Jerusalem, in the time of Nehemiah,
  3. the Second Temple, “those who came up from exile,”
  4. of the priests — the Hasmonean re-dedication,
  5. the world to come,
  6. of princes (Bamidbar), and,
  7. finally, the First Temple: “The dedication of the Sanctuary [v’chanukat hamikdash, וחנוכת המקדש], which this is speaking of ‘A psalm; a song of dedication of the House, of David’ (Psalm 30:1).”

Immediately following, we read, “Another explanation. There are seven channukot,” with a slightly different list:

Another explanation:

  1. creation of the world,
  2. completion of the Mishkan by Moses,
  3. the First Temple: “The dedication of the House [v’chanukat habayit, וחנוכת הבית], as it is written “A psalm; a song of dedication of the House, of David” (Psalm 30:1).”
  4. the Second Temple,
  5. the wall of Jerusalem,
  6. the “current one of the House of Hasmonean,”
  7. the world to come, “because even that has lights.”

— See Pesikta Rabbati Chapter 2 for both lists, associated citations, and more commentary on Chanukah.

The second list above includes “dedication of the House” (“chanukat habayit“) in what seems like a chronological order, from creation of the world, to world to come. The first uses the expression “v’chanukat hamikdash,” translated as “dedication of the Sanctuary,” in a list that looks less chronological — its ordering is obscure to me — but culminates with Sanctuary.

Jewish tradition includes many notions about “sanctuary,” from the metaphorical — understanding mikdash as a symbol of the covenantal relationship with God or a representation of the human body-soul, for example — to the concrete/political, as in Mikdash: The Jewish Sanctuary Movement, protecting today’s immigrants. Many Jews see Chanukah as an opportunity to rededicate sanctuary, however that is understood.

Tonight we light the first candle. As the eight nights progress, we’ll consider more about dedication and the words of Psalm 30, Chanukah’s psalm for the day. How, and to what, are you rededicating?
twocandles

21 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month (NoLoNaNoWriMo?), but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE: This post was updated on the evening of 12/3/18 with corrected lists of the dedications, with help from Norman Shore.

Mouse and Menorah

In Perek Shira, as noted in the previous two posts, verses from Psalm 30 join a chorus of praise in which “each of God’s creatures, plants and animals, mountains and rivers, sings out to its Creator in a special way.” Our prayers, are part of a “cosmic symphony” says Rabbi Arthur Green:

The prayers of Israel are recited in a special language and a distinctive form. There is a way in which they belong to the Jewish people and to us alone. But prayer is also a universal act, one that binds the whole human community together with all of nature, calling forth in us an appreciation of life as an ongoing celebration of the gift of being.
— from Kol Haneshemah (citation below)

This idea leads to the commentary in Pesikta Rabbati — medieval commentary on the holidays — which tells us that there were seven dedications, channukot, from dedication of heaven and earth in Breishit to the “dedication of the world to come, because even that has lights…”

More on the seven dedications as November (National Novel Writing Month) ends and Chanukah begins.

20 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

Mouse and Menorah.jpg

NOTE:
Comment appears on page 704 of Kol Haneshemah: Shabbat V’chagim, the prayerbook published by Reconstructionist Press, 1996. Full citation at Source Materials. For more on Art Green, visit his website.

Kol Haneshemah includes select verses from Perek Shira as an alternative P’sukei D’zimrah. Among them is the first Mouse verse, translated as follows:

The mouse says: “I shall exalt you, O REDEEMING ONE, for you delivered me, and gave my enemies no joy on my account.” (Psalm 30:2).

Kol Haneshemah does not include the verse-conversation when the mouse is captured by the cat. See “And the Mouse Says” and “Glory and the Swallow” for more on Perek Shira.
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Dedication

The previous post looked at some of the “bridge” concepts employed to explain Psalm 30’s function in its regular liturgical spot, at the close of the morning blessings, and before the psalms/verses of song. Another explanation for the placement of Psalm 30 is that it was the “psalm of the day” for the holiday of Chanukah and then crept, perhaps by printer’s error, into daily prayers. But how is it connected to Chanukah in the first place?

Rededication and Superscription

Marc Brettler, professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University and co-founder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship), notes that the expression “chasidim” — translated as “faithful ones,” “righteous” or “pious” — was used at the time of the Maccabean revolt for those loyal to the Hasmonean cause. Because of this word choice and the psalm’s focus on rescue from a desperate situation, he argues:

…someone (on the wining side) after the Hasmonean victory in 164 BCE could have read Psalm 30 and imagined: “David prophesized this about us!” The psalm, for that very reason, may even have been recited as part of the dedication ceremony on Chanukah in 164 BCE since it was seen as broadly appropriate—or even prophetic—to what had happened.
— Brettler, “Reciting Psalm 30 on Chanukah: A Biblical Custom?

Brettler hypothesizes a timeline that goes like this:

  1. The original superscription was מזמור לדוד, “a psalm of David,” with no particular association with the Temple;
  2. During the Maccabean revolt, the winners identified themselves as the “chasidim,” whose success was prophesized by David in this psalm;
  3. The psalm may have been incorporated into the Temple rededication;
  4. At this time, the words שיר חנכת הבית, “A song for the dedication of the House,” entered the margins of a manuscript, noting that Psalm 30 was recited at the rededication and “that, perhaps, Jews were supposed to recite each year during Chanukah”;
  5. Eventually, the words entered the Psalter, awkwardly placed between the words מזמור, “A psalm” and לדוד, “of David.”

— See article cited above for a much fuller explanation and argument


Superscription and Rededication

The Jerusalem Commentary assumes the converse of Brettler’s conjecture:

We do not find anywhere in rabbinic literature that a special psalm was recited by the Levites in the Temple on Hanukkah. The passages in [8th and 9th Century sources] refer to synagogue customs after the destruction of the Temple. If we assume that this psalm was recited on Hanukkah in the Temple, it would stand to reason that the Hasmoneans said it on Hanukkah because they interpreted the dedication, “a song at the dedication of the house,” as an allusion to their own rededication of the Temple.
The Jerusalem Commentary (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2003), p.228

The Jerusalem Commentary adds that assuming Psalm 30 was recited at the (re)dedication of the Temple is based on the belief “that the psalm is the prayer of the entire nation.” This means interpreting “healing” as “deliverance from enemies, for each dedication of the Temple was preceded by God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from their enemies” (p.229).

Many commentaries on Psalm 30 focus on an individual’s healing and rescue — that of the psalmist, the person reciting, or a person whose healing is sought. In Samuel Barth’s interpretation (cited in the previous post and linked again here), “rededication” of the “inner temple” can also apply to an individual.

Rabbi Folger’s study (quoted in the previous post and linked again here) offers an interesting sidebar: His review of older prayer books suggests that the opening line, “A song for the dedication of the House,” of Psalm 30 might have been recited only on Chanukah, while the body of the psalm, beginning with “I will extol…,” was regularly recited in the morning. Perhaps the psalm is read differently on different occasions.


12 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…apologies, again,for multiple-post days; almost caught up.

The House and First Fruits

The Mishnah reports that Psalm 30, or at least its opening verse, was recited by the Levites when worshippers brought First Fruits:

THE FLUTE WAS PLAYING BEFORE THEM TILL THEY REACHED THE TEMPLE MOUNT; AND WHEN THEY REACHED THE TEMPLE MOUNT EVEN KING AGRIPPA WOULD TAKE THE BASKET AND PLACE IT ON HIS SHOULDER AND WALK AS FAR AS THE TEMPLE COURT. AT THE APPROACH TO THE COURT, THE LEVITES WOULD SING THE SONG: ‘I WILL EXTOL THEE, O LORD, FOR THOU HAST RAISED ME UP, AND HAST NOT SUFFERED MINE ENEMIES TO REJOICE OVER ME’.
— Bikkurim 3:4
[not meant as shouting: all caps printers’ custom distinguishes Mishnah from Gemara]

The First Fruits ceremony also included the recitation beginning “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5-10) now included in the Passover Haggadah (Bikkurim 3:6). This passage recalls years of affliction and oppression before getting to “Now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, God, have given me.” Together with Psalm 30, these verses convey the theme that all wealth, success, and well-being come from God.

Together, the “Wandering Aramean” passage and Psalm 30 warn against the kind of complacency described in Ps 30:7: “When I was well, I said, ‘Never will I falter.'” They also convey the theme that struggle, too, is part of relationship with God.

Struggle and God

Sometimes, as in the Pesach recitation, we relate what sounds like a positive conclusion to troubles that were part of a divine plan. And, in the context of First Fruits, Psalm 30 also rings a note of ultimate triumph and praise, concluding with “I will praise You forever.”

In the language of Psalm 30, however, we see at least three models of suffering and response: First, God assists before any call; next, suffering and joy are entwined in a regular cycle; finally, the psalmist calls out and God responds:

  1. I extol You, GOD,
    for you have lifted me up,
    and not let my enemies rejoice over me. (30:1)
  2. …One may lie down weeping at nightfall;
    but at dawn there are shouts of joy. (30:5)
  3. …When You hid Your face, I was terrified.
    I called to You, GOD; to My Lord I made appeal….
    You turned my lament into dancing…(30:8-12)

In the third example, “You hid Your face” is sometimes understood as intentional on God’s part and sometimes opaque, best:

God’s presence is very reassuring, while God’s absence creates panic. The psalmist shares the biblical idea that God sometimes “hides His face” from us….This hiding of God’s face may result from human misbehavior, but equally, God sometimes hides His face for no clear reason at all and needs to be “called back.”
My People’s Prayer Book, p.195 (full citation)

In the context of the morning liturgy, any triumph over anxiety and suffering seems very fragile. We’ll be back at this spot tomorrow morning — not unlike Bill Murray repeating Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993). And, in the end, this is not all that different from the recitation at First Fruits and Pesach, with its seemingly triumphant conclusion. After all, a good harvest is never guaranteed, and at least some portion of the Jewish people will likely be at a seder table again next year.

fruits market

Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

8 of Thirty on Psalm 30

As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)….apologies for days with multiple posts, as the blog catches up with my notes.


My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries
Vol. 5 — Birkhot Hashachar (Morning Blessings)
Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2001. p.195
Comment is from the “Bible” thread provided by Marc Brettler
Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University.
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The House: Bricks and Mortar?

Psalm 30 begins with the superscription: “Dedication of the House” —

מִזְמוֹר: שִׁיר-חֲנֻכַּת הַבַּיִת לְדָוִד.
mizmor: shir-chanukat ha-bayit l’David
A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David.


Which House?

Some bricks and mortar possibilities, per The Jerusalem Commentary:

  • First Temple: “The commentators disagree about which dedication and which “house” the psalm is referring to. Some say that it refers to the dedication of the First Temple, and that David himself composed the psalm, and instructed his son Solomon to recite it when the Temple was dedicated.”*
  • Second Temple: “Some commentators suggest that the dedication means that this psalm was recited by the Levites at the dedication of the Second Temple. See Ezra 6:16-18 and 3:10, though in the latter context we are dealing with the laying of the Temple’s foundations and not its dedication. See also Nehemiah 12:27, though there we are dealing with the dedication of the city wall.”**
  • David’s House: “Others suggested that the “house” mentioned here is not the Temple, but rather David’s house, mention in II Samuel 5:11 and 7:1-2.”*
  • Private Home: “Other commentators maintain that the house mentioned here refers to privately owned houses, for there was an ancient custom to celebrate the dedication of a new house (see Deuteronomy 20:5).”**

The Jerusalem Commentary, full citation
*p. 228, **note 14, p.228

Some argue, as noted above, that David wrote the psalm and then instructed Solomon to recite it. We’ve already touched on additional commentary reconciling “Of David” with “the House” as the First Temple. Other teachers take different approaches to its physical and temporal location largely in support of commentary on its emotional content.

And When?

The Mishnah, Bikkurim, reports that Psalm 30 was recited in connection with First Fruits. Other text links the psalm to Chanukah, and it is psalm of the day during that holiday. For several hundred years, Psalm 30 has also been recited first thing in the morning, leading to other associations and interpretations of “house.” More on these ideas to come.

6 of Thirty on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…

…For anyone wondering: I am writing each day in November but not necessarily posting every day. Sorry if this is confusing anyone and hope days with multiple posts, as the blog catches up with my notes, are not too annoying.

 

Note

The Jerusalem Commentary, The Psalms: 1-57
Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2003.
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Say Uncle for the High Holidays

I found the poetry collection, Say Uncle by Kay Ryan, at my local library and thought two of the pieces useful for the season of returning and repentance:

“Failure 2”
There could be nutrients
in failure–
deep amendments
to the shallow soil
of wishes.
Think of the
dark and bitter
flavors of
black ales
and peasant loaves.
Think of licorices.
Think about
the tales of how
Indians put fishes
under corn plants.
Next time hope
relinquishes a form,
think about that.
— p.69

“Don’t look back”
This is not
a problem
for the neckless.
Fish cannot
recklessly
swivel their heads
to check
on their fry;
no one expects
this. They are
torpedoes of
disinterest,
compact capsules
that rely
on the odds
for survival,
unfollowed by
the exact and modest
number of goslings
the S-necked goose is –
who if she
looks back
acknowledges losses
and if she does not
also loses.
— pp. 32-33
Say Uncle. NY: Grove Press, 1991

Also of possible interest, as we prepare to begin anew in head the book of Genesis, “A Certain Kind of Eden.”

Here is general information about the poet and the Library of Congress resource page. The latter includes a video farewell reading program, from the conclusion of Kay Ryan’s term as poet laureate.

Finally, just because it tickled me — A previous reader of the library volume I borrowed had circled three phrases in red. Together they form a sort of meta-poem or mangled haiku:

elfin tailor

weakness and doubt
are symbionts

that’s water under
the bridge, we say

Maybe there’s a message for the new year in this odd mash-up of Kay Ryan lines.

May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet year to come.

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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Now What? Exploring Babylon Stage Two

I launched the “Exploring Babylon” project on this blog in October 2017. Stage One was to run for roughly 40 weeks, from Sukkot through Tisha B’av. WordPress statistics tell me that I’ve posted 40 times in the category, “Exploring Babylon,” although not entirely on the weekly schedule I’d originally planned, and Tisha B’av is fast — no pun intended — approaching (eve of July 21 through dark July 22).

Not sure yet what shape Stage Two will take. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Where Exodus Metaphors Fail

Meanwhile, a recent interview with the author of Black Power, Jewish Politics returns us to the basic challenge that impelled me into this project.

When I talk generally with white Jews about why Jews are involved in social justice or civil rights or racial equality, they’ll talk about this shared history of oppression.

And the problem is that American Jewish history and African-American history are 180 degrees opposite on that question. One of my African-American colleagues, he said, “If I ever go to a Seder and the Jews say that they know what it’s like because they too were once slaves in Egypt,” he’s gonna punch ’em.

Because if Jews have to go back to ancient Egypt to get the slavery metaphor, then they’ve kind of missed that American Jewish history is a story of rapid social ascent, and African-American history is the legacy of slavery. That argument is insulting, and it’s very elementary.

And, of course, I found that the people actually involved in the movement in the 50s, they knew that. And they were quite clear that they were not buying into that.
— Marc Dollinger, 6/4/18 NPR interview

In the struggle for racial and other forms of social justice, might the language and history of Exile serve where Exodus metaphors sometimes fail?

And, as we move through the month of Av and on toward a new year, how might we use ideas about exile and Babylon, in particular, to inform us?

As the source of a long intertextual journey, Psalm 137 generates the poetic vocabulary of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and cried as we remembered Zion.” The pleonastic “there,” repeated in the third verse, calls attention to itself by its very redundancy; syntactically superfluous, “there” defines exile as the place that is always elsewhere. Being elsewhere, being far from Zion, is the pre-text for poetry….(p.9)

With the (re)territorialization of the Jewish imagination in the twentieth century, a radical shift takes place in the relative position of ends and means, of original and mimetic space, of holy and profane, of ownership and tenancy. If exile is narrative, then to historicize the end of the narrative is to invite a form of epic closure that threatens the storytelling enterprise itself–an enterprise that remained alive, like Scheherazade, by suspending endings. Conversely, to claim an absolute place for the exilic imagination is to privilege the story as the thing itself; the map for the territory, language without referent; and to regard “nomadic writing” as the inherently Jewish vocation…. (p.14)
— Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage

Again, comments and suggestions welcome.

May the mourning of the weeks ahead bring us some new light.

NOTES:
Pleonasm
Although it’s pretty clear from context, and maybe everyone else knows, I did look up “pleonasm” for my own edification. Here’s a useful and not overly ad-filled explanation of pleonasm.
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Citation
Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
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Monsters, Exile, and Storytelling

UPDATE: The event described here, including the brief interview with Díaz, took place on March 15, 2018. The piece below was posted on April 1. The New Yorker article, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” — which has a LOT to say about monsters and trauma — was not published until April 16. See also, “More on Monsters and Storytelling.”


Exploring Babylon Chapter 19

A new picture book, by Dominican-born author Junot Díaz, has a few things to tell readers of all ages about trauma, exile, memory, and the importance of storytelling — good topics for Passover and #ExploringBabylon.

Islandborn

Islandborn relates the tale of young Lola — who attends a school where “every kid…was from somewhere else” — trying to draw a picture of her native country for a homework assignment. Having left “the Island” before she could remember, she enlists help from community members, and one older neighbor tells her something shocking:

“A long time ago, long before you were born…a monster fell upon our poor Island.

“…For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.

“[Eventually…] heroes rose up…got tired of being afraid and fought the Monster….The Monster tried all of its evil tricks but in the end the heroes found the Monster’s weakness and banished it forever.”

Islandborn, Díaz’s first children’s book, is illustrated by Leo Espinosa, originally from Columbia. (NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018). See Random House and Publisher’s Weekly.

Islandborn

(c) Diaz & Espinosa.Islandborn. Dial 2018.


“The Monster”

The name of “the Island” is not specified. The name of the Monster is also omitted, along with those of heroes who “banished” the Monster.

Many readers will undoubtedly think of the Dominican Republic, where Díaz was born, and the dictator who ruled ruthlessly from 1930-1961, before the author’s time. But the book itself and publisher’s descriptions deliberately do not offer any historical details.

Díaz has explained in public events that he intentionally left the island unnamed so that the reader could bring their imagination to the story. He adds that there are monsters in many countries and there are many kinds of monsters (not all are dictators); he wanted this story to be about more than one place or experience.
Social Justice Books

In addition to allowing for readers to use their imaginations, though, the idea of leaving “the Monster” unnamed has a particular resonance for Jews and other Hebrew Bible readers: After an enemy attacks the most vulnerable members of the community during the Israelites’ trek through the desert, God gives Moses the strange commandment to remember to forget the enemy’s name:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
— Exod 17:14

…thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.
— Deut 25:19

When I told fellow Jews, over a recent Shabbat, about Islandborn and how the book relates its tale, each one mumbled some version of “blot out the name!” And that heritage has raised many questions over the centuries about what and how we remember and what and how we re-tell.

Legacy and Response

Social Justice Books suggest that “one place where young readers could handle a more accurate narrative, than what is offered in the book, is in the description of what happened to” the unnamed heroes:

Lola was told, “No one knows really [what happened to them.] It was so long ago.” The truth is that we actually do know what happened to the Mirabal sisters and countless others….A response that children could handle would be “Sadly, many were killed, but others survived. Their children, like you, continue to work for a better world today.”

Some social studies teachers and individual parents may want to discuss the specifics of Dominican history around Islandborn or use it to discuss motivations behind much immigration. Díaz, however, prefers to steer the conversation in more universal directions.

At a recent Islandborn book talk for young readers and writers — 1st through 5th grade, accompanied by a few pre-schoolers and adults, at a DC Public Library branch — the first young person to speak declared: “Monsters aren’t real.” In response, Díaz spoke generally, first agreeing with the student and then explaining that his home country was, in fact, once “taken over by a very bad man who was kinda like a monster.” The author never mentioned the Dominican context again and never got more specific.

After the event, I asked Díaz if he ever addressed young readers — like those at Capitol View Neighborhood Library, where we met — by helping them name monsters in their lives. Again, he rejected a more specific path: “I don’t think [local youth] need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face….If their lives are anything like mine, they know.”

Instead, the author argues: “The key is to help them confront and work through their experiences, forge friendships and solidarities.”

Toward that end, Díaz asked young readers to look at how the people eventually defeated the monster. He drew attention to the illustration above, noting that all monsters have a weakness that can be used against them, and that people joining together is essential….Students at Capitol View noted, based on the illustration and their own experience, the role of singing in uniting people.

How We Tell the Tale

The tenor of the Islandborn youth discussion at Capitol View remained largely philosophical and literary, rather than historical. Several young readers asked questions around why monsters do what they do. The author suggested several reasons, including the example of an older sibling wanting more than a fair portion of a treat meant for sharing. In response to another student, Díaz raised the concept of literary tropes around monsters.

Still, one ten-year-old did wonder, “What about the good people who are killed by the monsters before it’s defeated?” Díaz suggested, given that the age range present and how close to the end of the allotted time the question arose, that the young person talk to him following the group gathering.

In a similar vein, a local rabbi recently shared that his very young children do not know about the tenth plague [death of the first-born], despite its prominence in the Passover story. Of course, age and maturity of audience must influence content or emphasis in storytelling. Beyond age-appropriateness, however, the question of what to tell and what to omit is a deeper issue:

  • If we don’t relate the horrors, how will we ensure that victims are remembered and future generations informed?
  • How do we ensure memory and sensitivity, without perpetuating trauma?
  • Depending on the depth of our storytelling, how do young people — and the older people they become — relate to our state of exile?

At one point in Islandborn, after neighbors have opened up to Lola about the good and the horrible on “the Island,” child and grandmother have a key exchange:

Abuela, did you know about the Monster?”
“Of course, hija. Why do you think so many of us are here in the North?”

— on this second day of the omer, 5778

The Five Powers, part 3

Exploring Babylon Chapter 11.2

A few notes on Rome, the last of the five foreign powers associated with Chanukah, to round out the discussion of “Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge].”

Chapter 11.1 outlined the structure of the 13th Century piyyut:

  • an opening stanza calling for future restoration of the Temple and for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe”;
  • four stanzas recalling past-tense rescues (Chanukah, Purim, Egypt, Babylon); and
  • and a final, present/future-oriented stanza asking God to “Aveng​e the blood of your servants from the evil nation” and “Push Edom into the shadows and bring the seven shepherds.”

This structure follows a regular, ancient pattern which recalls previous rescue from foreign powers while calling on God for help now, from the ever-present power of “Rome” in its many forms over the centuries. And this piyyut’s history illustrates another pattern associated with “Rome.”

See below for a note on the “seven shepherds” (hint: not average, peaceful flock ovine-tending folk).

The Persistence of “Rome”

When the Talmud and many early midrashim speak of “foreign powers,” rescue from Egypt and from Babylon, Persia, and the Seleucid empire is past tense, while the Roman Empire — often called “Edom” or “Esau,” sometimes “the evil nation” — remains a present danger. We saw this, for example, in midrashim on the Akedah, Jacob’s dream, and “in the beginning.” The same trope is repeated for centuries, with “Edom” or “the evil nation” standing in for the Catholic Church and non-Jewish political powers.

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire and its successors influenced various aspects of Jewish worship through official censorship by the authorities, intimidation and violence, and related self-censorship by Jewish communities. This dynamic is often cited to explain why the narrative of Chanukah shifted from the military-centered tale (Maccabees 1 and 2, usually dated 2nd Century BCE) to the story of one cruse of oil lasting eight days (B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, hundreds of years later, during Roman rule). This is also a key part of the story of how Ma’oz Tzur‘s presentation in various prayer books changed over the years.

For several hundred years, the harsh sixth stanza of the piyyut disappeared from prayerbooks, although the first stanza remained and garnered many musical settings. (See Notes 2 and 3 below.) The evil nation/Edom verses can be found today in Orthodox prayer books today, while non-Orthodox prayer books and musical collections continue to omit them — very often including even more abbreviated versions of Ma’oz Tzur or and/or substitution of the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.”

The sixth stanza’s disappearance is now thought to be the result of self- censorship by Jewish communities during periods when relations with “Rome” were troubled at best. Deciding whether and how to (re-)include the sixth stanza is part of the on-going development of relations between Jews and “Rome.”

Singing with Gusto?

A few years ago, the London-based Jewish Chronicle posted a discussion on including, or omitting, the sixth stanza.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, from Borehamwood and Elstree (Modern Orthodx) United Synagogue, argued for using the existence of harsher prayers, like Ma’oz Tzur, as teaching moments:

As a responsible teacher you cannot hide this fact from your students. Instead, use these prayers as a springboard to discuss the turbulent nature of Jewish history. These are not speeches calling on faithful Jews to commit violence. They are desperate prayers to God asking Him to remove the threat of danger that hangs over our people.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain from Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue argued to the contrary, noting that “we ask others to remove passages that offend us — such as sections of Christian liturgy that insult Jews,” and declaring that the sixth stanza of Ma’oz Tzur “hardly reflects our understanding of the festival or the positive message of Jewish identity that we derive from it.”

Romain concludes:

The prayer book is the manifesto of Judaism. It is said that the Bible is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and the prayer book is our gift back. It reflects what we believe and stand for. If we are to pray it, then we should mean it.

We should be able to sing Ma’oz Tzur with gusto and without grimacing at the end. Religious values means ditching verse six.

…The two teachers were asked only about the sixth stanza, not about the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe” line in the opening stanza. Many progressive congregations do cheerfully belt out the first stanza in Hebrew, with or without a literal English translation nearby; I don’t know what is included in British Reform Jewish siddirum…

Brawer’s position is quite different:

Ma’oz Tzur in particular demonstrates that persecution is unfortunately a recurring theme in our history. Jews must never gloat when an enemy falls and vengeance for vengeance’s sake is distinctly un-Jewish. However, that does not mean we must shy away from asking God to eliminate our enemies. Nor for that matter should we hesitate to celebrate when that happens. That is, after all, the whole story of Chanucah.

But this brings us back to the topic of Chanukah and the ways we tell the story: the Maccabees’ might? Zechariah’s “but by spirit”? The Talmud’s story of lights? And this has always depended, at least in part, on who else might be listening.

Epilogue

This, finally, is the last of three originally-planned posts on Chanukah and the “five powers.” (Apologies for delay and any confusion occasioned by it.) The holiday has been over for awhile now, most likely the wax and wicks finally cleared away as well. But the real point of the holiday — as Gila Sacks writes here — is what we take forward from it:

The lighting of the menorah stands in direct contrast to the dramas of war…..it emphasizes the power of the regular, consistent practice of ritual and law to bring meaning into our lives— rather than waiting for miracles, waiting for enlightenment to find us.

Mai Hannukah? [What is (the reason for) Chanukah?] We focus on the lighting of the menorah, rather than the war that preceded it, to remind us that the real miracles came afterward—in our ability then, and our challenge now, to create an emanating light through small, simple, regular acts of service.
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day”
Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice




NOTES

NOTE 1: Seven Shepherds
The Book of Micah — dated to the last part of the 8th and first part of the 7th Century BCE — focuses on a the time period around the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria. This prophet is read only once in the liturgical year, as haftarah (5:6-6:8) for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). The haftarah includes the famous line (6:8), “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The haftarah begins with a positive-sounding message: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the LORD, as showers upon the grass…” (5:6) but goes on to speak of violent retribution, wrecking chariots and destroying idols, fortresses and cities (5-8-14). And just preceding the haftarah are more sword-centered, messianic visions:

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah, From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me— One whose origin is from of old, From ancient times.
“Truly, He will leave them [helpless] Until she who is to bear has borne; Then the rest of his countrymen Shall return to the children of Israel.
“He shall stand and shepherd By the might of the LORD, By the power of the name Of the LORD his God, And they shall dwell [secure]. For lo, he shall wax great To the ends of the earth;
“And that shall afford safety. Should Assyria invade our land And tread upon our fortresses, We will set up over it seven shepherds, Eight princes of men,
“Who will shepherd Assyria’s land with swords, The land of Nimrod in its gates. Thus he will deliver [us] From Assyria, should it invade our land, And should it trample our country.”
— Micah 5:1-5 (1985 JPS, posted by Sefaria)

Rabbi Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz discusses the “seven shepherds” in the context of Sukkot’s ushpizin [mystical visitors to festival booths]. Micah’s messianic verses are much more popular among Christians. In fact, FWIW, the My Jewish Learning article comes from a Christian press.

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NOTE 2:

Cantor David Berger, of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, gave a 2010 presentation for the Union for Reform Judaism which presents many musical settings and includes history and commentary. His presentation to the URJ used an orthodox source (Koren Sacks siddur) for the six stanzas of Ma’oz Tzur, as well as Reform and other sources for the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.” (More on this in the previous chapter of #ExploringBabylon.)

NOTE 3:
Although some scholars suggest that the harsh sixth stanza was a later addition, it seems of a piece with the first stanza’s call for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe,” as well as with the “You saved us before, get us out of Edom” trope described above. Berger (in above cited webinar) reports that scholars now believe the sixth stanza original and self-censored.

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