Monday, 19 December 2011

Fiddler on the Roof at Forty and Footnote (Spoilers)

As if my prolonged absence from Blogger and Twitter weren't already deserving of chest-beating enough, during that period of radio silence was a truly significant event that I had hoped to blog about - namely, the fortieth anniversary of the UK release of the film of Fiddler on the Roof (FotR) (December 8 1971). Now, I find most anniversaries and whatever quite silly and generally meaningless, but I was going to use it as a hook to introduce what will (assuming I actually write anything) be a significant part of this blog, i.e. writing about FotR, which I consider to be a true masterpiece, both cinematically/theatrically and Judaically.

I was going to open the run with an examination of the musical's place in a more recent film, Footnote, a stunning piece of Israeli cinema of astonishing sophistication and depth. If you haven't seen the film yet, you may want to delay reading this until you've watched the film. Or just watch the film. I can't stress enough how important it is that you watch the film.

Anyway, FotR features in the film when the family goes to see the musical in Hebrew, and then Prof. Eliezer Schkolnik (the father), who at the beginning of the film had refused a lift in his son's car, happily gets in, humming one of the melodies from the show. I may be leaving myself open to the charge of over-analysing the film, but I believe this small vignette goes to the heart of the theme of academic and cultural worth expressed in the film.

Other critics have picked up on the inclusion of the FotR scene, but to my mind only scratch the surface of the many implications. Kurt Brokaw, it seems to me, is miles off the mark when he says: "there’s Tevye the milkman, striving to maintain a balance between tradition and change, struggling to love his children in a world he trudges into, heavy with doubt." Not only are the last two points, I would argue, complete nonsense (does Tevye struggle to love his children? is he heavy with doubt?) or at least gross simplifications, but I don't think he quite gets the point with his vague and platitudinous "balance between tradition and change". Certainly Footnote does deal with tradition and change, but Brokaw's subsequent points demonstrate that he doesn't understand how the FotR reference enhances it - or, to be less harsh, doesn't sufficiently explore the relevance.

Meanwhile, Niv Shtendel's (superior) article contains the following (excuse the shoddy translation, which is mine):

שנים אחר כך, בחזרה מטקס של האקדמיה למדעים, בוחר האב לחזור הביתה בגפו, בנפרד ממשפחתו. במקרה אחר, כשהמשפחה חוזרת מהצגת תיאטרון ("כנר על הגג" - ישן מפני חדש יוצא ואב שמפיל את סולם ערכיו בפני צאצאיו), סגור האב בתוך עצמו, מפזם לעצמו את אחד משירי ההצגה
Years later, when returning from the ceremony of the Academy of Sciences, the father chooses to return home by himself, separate from his family. On another occasion, when the family is returning from a theatre performance ("Fiddler on the Roof" - the old departs in the face of the new, and the father who drops his value system because of his children), the father shuts himself off, humming to himself one of the songs from the performance.
I absolutely agree with Shtendel here about the specific parallelism of the father forsaking his beliefs in light of his children's behaviour, and I'm amused to note that he picked up on the same echo as I did (from ceremony to performance), but I think he's interpreted the two occasions wrongly in understanding the father's behaviour as the same both times. To me it's clear that the first instance exhibits exactly the alienation and isolation that Shtendel identifies, but the second, surely, is meant to demonstrate a transition. Instead of frowning, he smiles; instead of walking, he rides. Rather than alone, he is squeezed into the car with his family.

For my interpretation, it is crucial to point out that FotR, when it first came out, was panned by high-brow critics for being sentimental and vulgar. Stephen J. Whitfield of Brandeis has compiled here quite a comprehensive list: Cynthia Ozick deemed it "naive [and] pre-modern"; Robert Brustein, in a metaphor of which Shkolnick Sr. might be proud, pronounced that the play "bears about the same relation to its source as unleavened cocktail wafers do to Passover matzoth"; to Irving Howe, it was a "tasteless jumble", which almost is the metaphor used by the older Shkolnick when describing his son's work.

We would expect Eliezer Shkolnick, the serious philologist, to despise FotR as a bastardisation of the original short stories of Sholom Aleichem, which were proper literature. FotR (he might think) is to those acclaimed Yiddish stories as Professor Uriel Shkolnick's (the son's) scholarship is to his father's work: dumbed down, generalised, popularised, smoothed out, spoon-fed.

But, like Tevye in FotR, the father of the Shkolnik family abandons his old belief that the Israel Prize is worthless, and takes on his son's belief that it is indeed a huge honour. Previously as intractable and stubborn as Tevye, he now, like Tevye at the end of FotR, accepts the supplanting of his own value system (you will remember that Tevye says, "And God be with you" to his daughter, despite claiming that she was dead to him).

Here's the juicy part: that last scene, where Tevye accepts Chava, is only in the stage and film adaptations. Sholom Aleichem's stories contain no such acceptance. That is, in fact, one of the key examples given by critics when slating the adaptation as a sentimentalisation and distortion of the source material. So the very parallelism between Eliezer's and Tevye's respective yieldings to the new world order exists only because of the transition that Sholom Aleichem's Tevye has undergone. This is a new Shkolnik, just as FotR portrays a new Tevye. His capitulation is encapsulated by his humming of the tune in the car, by his decision to get in the car rather than keep himself separate - by his preference of the easier mode of transport, riding over walking.

To conclude, the scenes involving FotR in Footnote are key to understanding Eliezer's character progression as a gradual selling out of his supposed principles, exposing the high-minded statements (especially as made to the journalist) as mere posturing. He has made the transition from Sholom Aleichem's Tevye to Broadway's Tevye, but shows no self-awareness regarding the change.

As further food for thought, mull over these quotations from FotR (which, may I remind you, I consider to be a spectacular work, and by far my favourite musical):

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack,
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern Wall
And I'd discuss the Holy Books with the learned men
Seven hours every day
And that would be the sweetest thing of all...

They would ask me to advise them,
Like Solomon the Wise
If you please Reb Tevye...
Pardon me, Reb Tevye...
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!
And it won't make one bit of difference,
If I answer right or wrong:
When you're rich, they think you really know.

For Papa, make him a scholar,
For Mama, make him rich as a king...

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Definition of Censorship - Doublepluscharedi

There has been lots of discussion in the blogs and on Twitter recently of schools "not encouraging discretionary internet use" even for their students' parent, burning cell phones in a Chareidi Israeli yeshiva, and most recently the "war on technology" implied by some speakers at the Agudah convention.

In Britain, as reported by the Jewish Chronicle, the great organ of the British Jewish community, and as commented on by Geoffrey Alderman, the great organ of the Jewish Chronicle, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations has published a dictionary that omits any problematic words. I hope to get access to the dictionary at some point, and write a fuller post on some of the words that are missing, but as Alderman notes, a child would look in vain for the words "homosexual" and "prostitute".

This is, quite simply, the most horrific story I've ever heard of coming out of the Charedi world. It's one thing to try to limit people's access to ideas and information, but as Orwell made abundantly clear in his masterpiece 1984, the truest form of censorship is when one seeks to limit the very vocabulary with which they can discuss and disseminate ideas and information. If one has no knowledge of the word "homosexual", it surely follows that one cannot be homosexual! (One can be "gay", but only in the way that is a mitzveh gedoileh.) No bochur will ever visit a prostitute again, because he won't even know that such a thing exists! This is as preposterous as it is disturbing.

This is surely the logical, indeed the inevitable result of the totalitarian trend within the Charedi world. And just as we are encouraged to do when reading 1984, and Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 (and so on), we have to stop and wonder exactly how the redactors (if that's not too dirty a word), the "team of Charedi rabbis" knew what to censor. To illustrate the point, and in conclusion, I will quote that great British Jew, Christopher Hitchens, who in a speech on free expression (with transcription, quoted below) related the following anecdote (often quoted, but here I think particularly apt):
About the censorious instinct: we basically know already what we need to know, and we’ve known it for a long time, it comes from an old story about another great Englishman – sorry to sound particular about that this evening – Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, complier of the first great dictionary of the English language. When it was complete, Dr Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him. Of the nobility, of equality, of the Commons, of the Lords and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London who attended on him in his Fleet Street lodgings and congratulated him. 
"Dr Johnson," they said, "We are delighted to find that you’ve not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary." 
"Ladies," said Dr Johnson, "I congratulate you on being able to look them up."
Hat tip IfYouTickleUs, who has a photo of the back cover - particularly amusing is the claim that "Pronunciation guides show the correct way that words are to be spoken".

P.S. That Samuel Johnson story is all very witty, but on second thoughts I also want to repeat the classic (British?) joke about censorship and obscenity:

What is obscene?
Whatever gives the Rabbi Judge a hard-on.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Let whoever is without sin post the first video

Many Jewish blogs have been gleefully playing this clip of brawling Lebanese politicos:

...along with other videos of similar events in the past, presumably because they reckon it reveals a fundamental lack of civilisation among the Ayrabs, citing other similar occurrences. Notwithstanding the fact that similar political fights, in supposedly civilised contexts such as debates on television and in parliament, have broken out in the Ukraine, South Korea, Russia, Italy, India, Pakistan, Czech Republic, the United States of America and, of course, lest we forget, Israel, in this post I want to discuss some of the instances of Jewish and rabbinic violence that we know about, which might give some of these cheery gloaters some pause for thought.

There are a couple of examples of the stresses of Jewish communal life leading to an outbreak of violence, such as the scuffle that took place in Chicago in November 1903 due to tensions between Rabbis Album and Willowsky, or the one that necessitated summoning the police in Manhattan in 1906, surrounding the ambitions of Rabbi Weinberger (both reported in 'Orthodox Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook'). And lest you think these fights are a thing of the past, almost exactly a year ago, a fight broke out in San Francisco between left-wing and right-wing Israel activists.

But what I want to talk about is the literary precedent for violence in the Jewish canon. The Biblical stories of Pinchas' vigilantism, the people's lynching of the Sabbath-stick-collector and so on provide plenty of examples of violence in the Bible where perhaps words might have been preferable (or, as in the case of Abram's and Leo's shepherds quarrelling, a parting of ways). But in the Talmud, surely, where discussion and debate are prized above all things, we wouldn't find such barbarism?

Would that it were so. One example of a crisis resolved by violence comes in b.Nedarim 23a:
R. Ishmael son of R. Jose had a vow for absolution. He went before the Rabbis, who asked him, ‘Did you vow bearing this in mind?’ ‘Even so,’ replied he. ‘Or this?’ ‘Yes.’ This was repeated several times. A fuller, seeing that he was paining the Rabbis, smote him with his basket.
In fact, the continuation of this passage implies that people who annoyed Rabbis ended up getting smitten on a fairly regular basis (in this case, it just so happened that the smitee was a Rabbi himself):
Said he, ‘I did not vow to be beaten by a fuller,’ and so he absolved himself. R. Aha of Difti objected to Rabina: But this was an unexpected fact, as it had not occurred to him that a fuller would smite him, and we learnt: An unexpected fact may not be given as an opening? — He replied: This is not unexpected, because scoffers are common who vex the Rabbis.*
*And as their adherents naturally try to punish them, the incident could have been anticipated, and therefore is not regarded as unexpected
(Soncino translation and notes)

Ah, but that wasn't a Rabbi doing the smiting, it was a fuller doing the smiting on the Rabbis' behalf! Alright, what about this cute little anecdote from b.Avodah Zarah 43a:
Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: I was once walking with the eminent R. Eleazar Hakkappar along the road, and he found a ring upon which was the figure of a dragon. There passed by a heathen child but he said nothing to him. Then there passed by an adult heathen and [R. Eleazar] said to him, ‘Annul it,’ but he refused to do so; and he struck him until he annulled it.
(Here's the context)

Ah, but that was a Rabbi striking a heathen! You have to understand it in the context of the time, and so on. Presumably the same defence would stand even if the "heathen" in question wishes to become a proselyte, as does the chap in b.Shabbat 31a who ends up on the receiving end of Shammai's "builder's cubit". Very well, what about a Rabbi murdering another Rabbi, at b.Megillah 7b?
Rabbah and R. Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera's throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honour come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.
(pdf this time)

Ah, but he was drunk! Haven't we all done things when drunk which we go on to regret and which make our friends less inclined to come drink with us? Rabbis are still human you know (although some of them do get resurrected)! I see you are a tricky customer. Perhaps this (Hagigah 3b) will set your teeth on edge:
Once R. Jose b. Durmaskith went to pay his respects to R. Eliezer at Lod. Said the latter to him: What new thing was taught in College today? He replied: They decided by vote that in Ammon and Moab the tithe of the poor should be given in the seventh year. Said [R. Eliezer] to him: Jose, stretch forth thine hands and lose thy sight. He stretched forth his hands and lost his sight.
 (Here's the Soncino (pdf), with some helpful notes)

Don't worry, R. Eliezer later has a change of heart and another miracle restores R. Jose's sight. More recently, R. Eliezer has been offered the position of Head of Campus Police at UC Davis. BOOM!

For an excellent and enlightening discussion of violence (mostly violent rhetoric) in the Babylonian Talmud, you could do a lot worse than to have a look at the chapter titled Violence in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein's 'The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud'.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


To the reader from the United Arab Emirates. Please come again, and make sure to tell your friends.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mosaic Economic Theory: Egypt, Newcastle, Owls and the Competitive Marketplace

תבן אתה מכניס לעפריים

‘Wouldst thou carry straw to Hafaraim?’*
* … Hafaraim was a town where apparently there was a plentiful supply of straw, and so it became proverbial to describe wasted efforts as ‘carrying straw to Hafaraim’.

So ask Pharaoh’s magicians, Johana and Mamre, to Moses according to b.Menachot 85a, thinking that he was another magician coming to flaunt his wares in a saturated market. This may call to mind the British expression (I don’t know whether those from elsewhere will be familiar with it) of sending “coals to Newcastle” (a parallel actually mentioned both in the Soncino notes and by James Kugel in Traditions of the Bible). Newcastle was until fairly recently (see: Billy Elliot) a huge producer and exporter of coal, hence the pointlessness of taking coal there.

There is also a Greek expression, “γλαῦκ' Ἀθήναζε, γλαῦκ' εἰς  Ἀθήνας”, which literally means “owls to Athens”, but is interestingly translated idiomatically by the lexicon Liddell and Scott as “carry coals to Newcastle”.  Apparently, there is furthermore an American version: selling ice to the Eskimos.  But Moses replies with an idiom of his own:
אמר להו אמרי אינשי למתא ירקא ירקא שקול
He answered them, ‘There is a common saying. "Bring herbs to Herbtown".’
This is a market metaphor – that is to say, it makes sense (says Moses) to take herbs to a place where herbs are sold, because (says Soncino) “all merchants flock there and the demand for herbs is great”, turning the original jibe on its head.  They say it’s stupid to take straw to Hafaraim, because there is no demand for straw there; Moses says the opposite, that the very fact that there is such a supply means that the demand will flock there.

To relate these proverbs to the actual situation, the magicians scoff at Moses for bringing more magic to a region full of magicians – Moses understands, however, that the implication of that is that there is a great demand for magic.  Unlike coal in Newcastle or straw in Hafaraim, magic is not a good that is exported from Egypt (in this case) but consumed in Egypt.  The fact that there is already a great deal of magic there means that Moses’ (apparent) utilisation of that form of communication is firstly a bid to engage his audience (Egyptians) on familiar cultural ground, and secondly a declaration of entry into the competitive marketplace, trusting in the superiority of his brand of “magic”.

If your ice is better quality, why not sell it to the Eskimos?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

I Am The Lord Of The Dance, Said Who?

This seems to be becoming something of a theme on this blog. My first post, for those of you who didn't get the reference, took its title from a Church of England hymn, called To Be A Pilgrim (or, after the first line, He Who Would Valiant Be), which we used to sing at school in assembly, and which opens with the following verse:
He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.
I then wrote a post about two Jewish versions of the classic British daytime television programme, Songs of Praise (which, by the way, seems to be the source of the YouTube video linked to above, but I'm not sure about that). I deemed it worthy of mention because of what I considered to be the extremely Christian nature of the show, and how that had always seemed somehow alien and inaccessible to me. It was a bit like seeing... I don't know, Julie Andrews singing in Yiddish? Or some American hip-hop artists sampling Miami Boys Choir. (Two of my favourite clips in the world by the way - hope you enjoy them.)

Now, however, we have the other way around. I did see this video, featuring some Charedim playing Lady Gaga, do the rounds a while back:

And that's all well and good. The video I've just come across, however, is much more... striking, I suppose, because instead of Ultra Orthodox Jews taking the tune of a camp, gaudy, over the top, very-not-Ultra-Orthodox very-not-Jewish song (link: the old Yidden/Dschinghis Khan plagiarism by Mordechai Ben David), it is an Irish Christian hymn. Take a look, and then I'll list some of the reasons that this is, to me at least, so wonderful.

  1. As I said above, this is an explicitly Christian hymn, usually sung in the style and tempo of a Celtic jig.  The "Lord of the Dance" referred to is Jesus, obviously. How many of them know what the song is?
  2. The lyrics are, as hymns go, quite antisemitic, blaming the crucifixion of Jesus on "the holy people" (you can see a few of them in the background of this video) who "whipped" and "stripped" and "hung me high" and "left me there on a cross to die".
  3. The looks on the faces of the chassidim in the background are completely priceless (somewhat like the Shaya and Perry song) - and, contrary to the title of the song, no-one is dancing (until the tune changes).
  4. The violinist has so much more concentration and kavannah when playing the Christian hymn.
  5. You can see through the mechitza from about 1:40 onwards. Scandalous.
  6. The video, according to the description on YouTube, is filmed in London, which just goes to show that the eccentricities of Britishkeit are rivalled nowhere else in the world.
  7. Depending on the sect these guys are from (anyone able to identify?) they may have their own version of Jesus, who is their very own Lord of the Dance.
  8. It's Christian, for God's sake!
Well, those are my thoughts. One of my new favourite clips.

Swastika on the Underground

So much for my newfound sense of belonging in Britain after seeing the Jewish Songs of Praise. I was making my way home for Shabbos on Friday afternoon, when I saw this, in a carriage on the Hammersmith and City line.

Even though I know it was put there by some idiot who probably didn't even know what it meant, and is hardly indicative of a groundswell of antisemitic feeling in the UK, I was still quite upset by it.

A couple of (Jewish) friends I've spoken to have shrugged it off, but why is this graffiti still there? I know how quickly they can change those maps of the Tube for scheduled works or whatever. Maybe give them the benefit of the doubt, assume it hadn't been there for very long?

Anyway, I publish here for posterity my brief encounter with 21st century Nazism.

Rick Perry, Joshua and the Forgetfulness of Arrogance

As I’ve already said, I will be blogging from very much a British Jewish perspective. Having said that, I do like to keep tabs on what’s going on across the pond, and how could I miss this excruciating yet wonderful clip from the Republican Presidential Candidates’ debate:

The first thing to point out is the somewhat depressing fact that it would be better for his presidential aspirations if he were to have finished that sentence, and named the third federal department that he planned to close (it was Energy, in case you were wondering).  But I would also like to point out the dangerous precedent (sp?) of forgetful leaders, especially as we draw ever closer to the inevitable military confrontation with Iran (תמורה טז,א):

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שנפטר משה רבינו לגן עדן אמר לו ליהושע שאל ממני כל ספיקות שיש לך אמר לו רבי כלום הנחתיך שעה אחת והלכתי למקום אחר לא כך כתבת בי (שמות לג) ומשרתו יהושע בן נון נער לא ימיש מתוך האהל מיד תשש כחו של יהושע ונשתכחו ממנו שלש מאות הלכות ונולדו לו שבע מאות ספיקות ועמדו כל ישראל להרגו אמר לו הקב"ה לומר לך אי אפשר לך וטורדן במלחמה שנאמר (יהושוע א) ויהי אחרי מות משה עבד ה' ויאמר ה' וגו'
Rab Judah reported in the name of Rab: When Moses departed [this world] for the Garden of Eden he said to Joshua: ‘Ask me concerning all the doubts you have’.10 He replied to him: ‘My Master, have I ever left you for one hour and gone elsewhere?11 Did you not write concerning me in the Torah: But his servant Joshua the son of Nun departed not out of the tabernacle?12 Immediately the strength [of Moses] weakened13 and [Joshua] forgot14 three hundred laws and there arose [in his mind] seven hundred doubts [concerning laws]. Then all the Israelites rose up to kill him.15 The Holy One, blessed be He, then said to him [Joshua]: ‘It is not possible to tell you.16 Go and occupy their attention in war, as it says: Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, it came to pass that the Lord spake;17 and it further says; [Prepare you victuals for within three days, etc.].18
(10) On any points of law.
(11) I.e., I have no doubts.
(12) Ex. XXXIII, 11.
(13) I.e., he took offence at Joshua's remark, which implied he had no longer need of him.
(14) He was punished for causing this weakness of Moses.
(15) Until he should tell them the laws.
(16) These laws, since the Torah is not in heaven.
(17) Josh. I, 1.
(18) Ibid. II. The bracketed words are inserted with Bah; v. also Sh. Mek. 
(Soncino translation and notes)
This passage, part of a short but fascinating discussion on laws and insights supposedly forgotten between the giving of the Torah and the Rabbinic era (a passage I will probably come back to in a later post), displays the consequences of an arrogant and dismissive leader, who thinks he knows it all but when the moment arrives comes up short. So this excerpt calls to mind two questions:

1.  Which is worse: to forget one federal agency, or three hundred laws?

2.  Can you imagine an inept and unpopular leader engaging a nation in war merely to distract the population from his ineptitude and unpopularity?

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Great Apikoros

As you may have seen from my Twitter feed (ooh look, it's there on the right), I've just come across the joke, written down by Leo Rosten, quoted a few months ago by Marc Alan Di Martino (@godlessinitaly), which I will reproduce here:

A brilliant young student goes to an old, learned rabbi and defiantly exclaims, “I must tell you the truth! I have become an apikoros. I no longer believe in God.” 
“And how long,” asks the elder, “have you been studying Talmud?” 
“Five years,” says the student. 
“Only five years,” sighed the rabbi, “and you have the nerve to call yourself an apikoros?!…”
Now, that's a wonderful joke, and it reminds me of another one, which I have found versions of here, here, here and here; no doubt there are many others. I would like, however, to attempt my own telling of this joke, which will obviously be based on many hearings of it previously, not all of which I can cite but I will mention my father having told it to me on more than one occasion.

There was once a young man in a small Lithuanian shtetl, who was not like the other young men. They would dream of going off to one of the great yeshivas in Vilna, to learn Torah at the feet of the most eminent rabbis in the world. But our hero, who fancied himself an apikoros, had heard tell of the Great Apikoros of Vilna, and longed to converse with and learn from him.

So, he travelled to Vilna, and made his enquiries. Eventually his investigations led him to the synagogue, where an old man, wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis, was stooped over a heavy, dusty tome. He approached the stranger, but stopped as he saw him rise to daven mincha. He rolled his eyes and waited for him to finish praying, and then spoke.

"Excuse me, Sir," asked the young apikoros. "Do you happen to know where I might find The Great Apikoros of Vilna?"

"Look no further," came the reply, in a measured, rabbinic voice.

The young man was astonished. "You're the Great Apikoros? But, you're wearing a yarmulke! And tzitzis! And you're learning, and... and davening! What kind of an apikoros are you? I came all the way from Erzvilkas to meet you, only to find I'm already more of an apikoros than you are!"

"And what should I be doing?"

"What I do - smoke on Shabbos, eat pork on Yom Kippur. I would never be seen in shul and I certainly don't learn Torah."

The Great Apikoros nodded wisely. "Ah, that is the confusion. You see, I am an apikoros. You, however - you are stam a goy."

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Britishkeit - Judaeoblogging with a British Flavour


So, I'm a British aspiring apikoros. This doesn't just mean a few extra letters here and there as I spell words correctly, but also means that I will be bringing a slightly different tone and some material that might not come to the attention of American, Canadian and Israeli bloggers (as much as we try to infuse those lands with Britishkeit).

You know, now that I've thought of it, Britishkeit might have been a better name for this blog.  Damn.

Anyway, to prove the point I'm going to share something I only came across very recently but which I think is amazing. The background is that in Britain - with our established Church and mild-mannered Christian viewership - we have a weekly TV show, which has just passed its 50th year milestone, called Songs of Praise.  This is filmed in a different church every week, and features hymns, a potted history of the area and church, and a sermon from the local vicar (or whatever).  Here's a little taste (very, very SFW) (unless you work in a yeshiva or something):

And here's a parody, which is a few years old, from the excellent British sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News:

So far, so goyisch. But it turns out that, in the past, there have been Jewish versions. Here's one from 1995, featuring Cantor Moshe Haschel and the Neimah Singers:

and 2001, with Cantor Naftali Herstik:

I imagine this will be of almost no interest to anyone from outside Britain, but to see what I always considered a bastion of a part of British culture to which I could never relate and of which I could never be part, to see it all Jewed up is quite a profoundly altering experience for me.

Well, there it all is. Songs of Praise with Jews. Whatever next.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Hat tips

I'm obviously new to blogging, but I've been following lots of blogs, as you will be able to see from the Blog Roll on the right, and I intend to link to much of their material.  But I've noticed that when this happens, it's the done thing to give a hat tip to whoever was the source of the find in question.

I realise that this doesn't just happen in Jewish blogs, but of course there is a long tradition in Judaism of citing one's sources - Pirkei Avot 6:6 says, "Behold, you have learned that whoever tells something in the name of the one who said it, brings redemption to the world, as it is said (Esth. ii. 22), 'And Esther told it to the king in the name of Mordechai.'"  The lovely irony there, of course, is that no-one is quoted as the source for the tradition. Not so at b.Megillah 15a (pdf), where we find the same thing, except instead of "Behold you have learned" it says "R. Eleazar further said in the name of R. Hanina" - not just a source, but someone citing someone else as the source! Phew. We have a source.

But not in b.Hullin 104b (pdf), where that same phrase is used to explain why something is repeated: "Rather what the [teacher of our Mishnah] tells us is merely that the first Tanna [whose opinion is expressed anonymously] is R. Jose; for whosoever reports etc." Something that R. Jose had said was reported without his name being mentioned, so this rectifies it.  But again the dictum itself is left anonymous.

There are lots of other rabbinic sources that deal with this issue, and some of them are collected and can be read here (which has the obligatory Woody Allen metaphysics exam quote) and here. Neither of those (excellent) pages, however, as far as I can see, mentions a particularly apt midrash here, which is found in Bereishit Rabbah 88, and which I shall embed here from The Talmudic Anthology:

Rabbi Oshaya literally lies to his face.  Maybe he read the Septuagint version of Megillat Esther, where he would have found instead of the version we've seen above, verse II:22 reads: "declared to the king the matter of the conspiracy."

Nevertheless, in spite of the Septuagint's and Rabbi Oshaya's silence, I shall endeavour to quote and link to as many sources as I can. And I will leave you with this essay which features another cute irony, about a work that apologises for not citing all its sources and ends up being "obliterated by incorporation" into a later work.

My First Avowed Intent: To Be An Apikoros

I should warn you now, that this blog will not display great learning or deep understanding.  Its purpose is to share some of the tidbits I come across in the course of my endeavour to become educated enough to be considered an apikoros.  Hence the name: Upikoros.  This is not only a tribute to the quite amazing Disney Pixar 2009 masterpiece ‘Up’ – watch it if you haven’t already, or watch it again – but also a reflection of my aspiration to that honoured moniker.

Currently, I don’t know what I am, but there are certainly elements of Hellenisation in my Judaism, so rather than start another blog, I’m going to chuck any things of Jewish interest from the Classical world that I come across onto this one.  Besides, given that "apikoros" is etymologically derived from "Epicurus", I think it's important to keep the old Latin and Greek going to make sure that I do indeed become an apikoros, rather than simply, well, a more knowledgeable Jew.

Chas veshalom.