The Man He Should Be: Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret”

Maimonides wrote that we should avoid extremes and aspire to the middle way. He was referring to virtues and vices, not poetry. But in encountering a poem that does not adopt any of the classical forms, one good way to grasp its structure is sometimes simply to count the lines, figure out which one falls precisely in the middle, and begin working out from there.

One poem that can be puzzled out this way is one of my favorite contemporary pieces of verse, Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret, from his 2002 collection Different Hours (read the poem here ). I used two of its lines as the epigraph to my memoir Company C . The name of my new monthly column in The Jerusalem Report, “Necessary Stories,” comes from those lines, and is the name I originally wanted for my book.

The poem is in free verse, with no rhyme structure or stanzas to clue us in to how the poet built it. But it has an odd number of lines, 37, which means that one line stands in the middle-line 19: “he was a man. Lightning, high winds” The caesura in the middle of the line-the full stop, with four syllables on either side, is further evidence that this middle line is indeed the axis around which the poem is built.

Read moreThe Man He Should Be: Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret”

Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

Haim Watzman

If, like me, you are a Jew who grew up in America in the second half of the twentieth century, your Jewish identity was molded by a set of what seemed like self-evident propositions. First and foremost, Jews are different from other people in that they belong to a community that was both a nation and religion. That means you could be a Jew even if you didn’t buy into the God and mitzvah stuff. Second, only racists and Nazis maintain that Jews are racially (that is, biologically) distinct in any significant way from other people. Indeed, “race” is a bad word used mostly by people who want to deny equal rights to Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Third, Jews straddle the great racial divide in American society. We are white of skin, but black in spirit. Sharing a history of oppression and slavery with the blacks, we have a peculiar ability and duty to emphasize with their plight-empathy that the blacks appreciated at first, but strangely stopped appreciating as the century progressed.

Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006) is a fascinating account of how Jewish identity in the United States was formed in the context of American race relations. In the process, Goldstein shows that our self-evident identities are self-evident only in the framework of the peculiar American experience. That’s one reason why American and Israeli Jews so often miscomprehend each other’s sensibilities.

(Goldstein and his book were awarded a Choice Award in the framework of this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. My book, A Crack in the Earth, received an honorable mention.)

Read moreBlack and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

Is It Easier to Get Published in Hebrew?

Israeli book editors are less likely than their American counterparts to demand major manuscript changes of an author. For better or worse-and it’s both-that has been clear to me for a long time. And it was confirmed by four emerging novelists who spoke Wednesday night at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom literary café in the framework of Jerusalem’s International Writers Festival.

As both a writer and an editor, I have mixed feelings about this. Like all writers, I get annoyed when an editor tells me that parts of my pieces are unnecessary or uninteresting, and that other things are, in his or her opinion, missing. Like all editors, I almost always see faults in manuscripts that come my way, and believe that if my clients will take my advice, the works will be better. I had very productive and pleasant experiences with the editors of my two books, and I think the manuscripts were improved by their suggestions. But from the stories I hear, my experience is not necessarily typical.

Read moreIs It Easier to Get Published in Hebrew?

Arabs at the Counter

Go into a trendy clothing store, sports outlet, or home improvement warehouse emporium in Israel these days and, as often as not, it’ll be an Arab who helps you find just the right jeans, running shorts, or the doohickey you need to fix your leaky faucet. In today’s Ha’aretz, Ruth Sinai documents this social phenomenon and asks whether service jobs like this represent progress for Israel’s Arab citizens, or just another way to get exploited.

I won’t weigh in on the economic benefits or lack thereof, but this trend is certainly a step forward for ethnic integration in Israel. Historically, Israel’s Palestinian citizens have worked in agriculture, construction, and behind the scenes service jobs like washing dishes in restaurants. In such jobs they were largely invisible, and where visible their jobs marked them as unskilled, alien, and quite often physically dirty.

Compare that to the fashionably-dressed, tastefully made-up, and high-spirited young woman who has become my favorite sales clerk at my local Golf clothing store. I’m not exactly a walking display of the latest fashions-I don’t have a native instinct for choosing the threads that look best on me. So I need the advice and encouragement of a patient and sympathetic attendant. The process involves conversation and interaction with a very visible member of my country’s minority.

Read moreArabs at the Counter

Geneva Jive: Menachem Klein’s “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine”

What if you make a peace agreement and nobody comes? That’s the fundamental story behind “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative.” It’s a fascinating look into the conflict and the “peace industry.” Contrary to the intention of its author, political scientist Menachem Klein, it raises more doubts than hopes about the future of the peace process.

(Caveat lector: I translated this book, and two previous books by Klein into English. He’s a neighbor and friend and fellow-member of Kehilat Yedidya.)

Read moreGeneva Jive: Menachem Klein’s “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine”

Running from the Siren, Biking the Green Line

The siren last night caught me backing up my hard disk. I’d planned to be at the neighborhood ceremony or upstairs with my family at the beginning of Memorial Day, but I kept procrastinating. When I got upstairs, the television broadcast of the official ceremony was just coming to an end. I had something to eat and watched the segments about fallen soldiers and their families.

“I need to talk to Asor,” Ilana said. So I called him on my cell phone, figuring that he wouldn’t answer. He did. “We needed to hear your voice,” I told him. Ilana tried to take the phone but started crying. Asor was impatient, said he had to go. Should we be thankful that we’re watching the Memorial Day programming rather than being part of it, or brood over the possibility that in some future year we might be on the screen?

When this morning’s siren went off at 11 a.m., I didn’t even hear it. The same unconscious repression mechanism that was at work last night did it again-I was in an elevator in the Malha shopping mall. The door opened and everyone was standing stock-still with their backs to me. For a second I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized that I’d again tried to avoid the moment.

Read moreRunning from the Siren, Biking the Green Line

Make Films, Not War

Three days left to apply .

Reena Lazar of Peace It Together tells me that her organization is accepting applications until May 10 for this summer’s peace camp: A small group of Israeli, Palestinian and Canadian teens will spend three weeks together on an island near Vancouver learning leadership and communication skills and making films together. The follow-up program lasts for the full year afterwards.

I kid you not: You (or your 16-18-year-old kid) have been sitting around thinking about how adults have messed up the world,

Read moreMake Films, Not War

Purely Wrong: Judah Leib Magnes and the Jewish State

According to a legend, the sage Rabbi Shimon bar-Yohai and his son spent twelve years hiding in a cave and delving into the esoteric truths of the Torah. When they emerged, Rabbi Shimon was so immersed in divine truth that he raged when he saw Jews plowing their fields. His anger was so fierce that his mere glance burned up every working man he saw. God ordered him back to the cave.

The publication of the diary of Judah Leib Magnes, the leading Jewish pacifist and peace activist in Palestine in the years leading up to Israel’s War of Independence, offers an opportunity to consider another man whose attempt to adhere to absolute truth and purity led him to misunderstand entirely the world around him.

Read morePurely Wrong: Judah Leib Magnes and the Jewish State

Socks and the Man

Israel Independence Day is coming up next week, and I’m feeling very patriotic. So I went out this morning and bought $93 worth of socks for the Israel Defense Forces.

Often, however, I have to buy the socks without the inspiration. Every month I shell out sums like this for hats, scarfs, t-shirts, underwear and other gear that the IDF does not supply to its soldiers. And socks. My son is in combat training in a commando unit, so he goes through a lot of them.

Read moreSocks and the Man

The Oud Plays for Peace

It’s become dangerous to play the oud in Baghdad, the New York Times reports today. Religious extremists of all stripes apparently agree that secular music is unacceptable. No matter that the oud has been part of Islamic life for centuries. Fundamentalism (in all faiths) is a modern creation claiming to be old – a sort of Piltdown Man of the spirit.

One flaw in the article: Reading it, one could think that the oud is purely an Iraqi instrument, threatened by extinction – when in fact the voluptuous pear-shaped lute reigns from Morocco to Iran as the queen of music. The beauty of the oud may be the one thing that Greeks, Armenians and Turks agree on.

The article also cites a legend that the oud was invented by a descendant of Cain named Lamak. The basis of that legend is obviously the verse in Genesis 4, referring to Yuval, son of Lemekh, as the "father of all who hold the harp and pipe." One way to understand the story is that Yuval created a salve for the tear in the human soul that Cain left. I’m sure there’s a scholar out there willing to write a doctorate on whether the legend linking Lemekh to the oud is more Jewish or more Muslim,

Read moreThe Oud Plays for Peace

The Parting of the Red Sea: Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

Contrary to the common wisdom, the Israelites were not liberated from slavery at the time of the Exodus. Many midrashim and commentaries stress that what actually happened was a change of ownership: they had been slaves to Pharoah, and then they became slaves to God.

When I was younger, this interpretation rang false to me. The opposite of slavery is freedom, and freedom means being able to do whatever you want, with no master to tell you otherwise. The claim that true freedom lay in subjugation to God seemed oxymoronic. But later I came to understand the rabbis’ meaning, in part with the help of Robert Frost’s exceptional poem “The Silken Tent.” (You can read it here and hear it read here.)

Read moreThe Parting of the Red Sea: Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

More on Misunderstanding Identity: A Response to Bernard Avishai

Dear Bernard,

I’m delighted that you found my previous post worth a response. If a little summary judgment (isn’t that what blogging is all about?) can promote a lively exchange of ideas, then I think it’s for the best. If we weren’t doing this at our keyboards, when would we have found time for this conversation?

I’ll look forward to reading your book and having my misconceptions corrected—although I’m not convinced by your response that I have misunderstood where you stand.

I’m posting this on Erev Pesach; I’ve burned my hametz and will soon be setting out with my family to celebrate the Seder with close friends in Zikhron Ya’akov. So let me here focus briefly on your view of religion. I’ll address the nature of national identity in a future post.

Read moreMore on Misunderstanding Identity: A Response to Bernard Avishai