Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why I Threw a Piece of Cucumber at My Hebrew Teacher

Why I Threw a Piece of Cucumber at My Hebrew Teacher

But first the Farm News. August is like you're just waiting. We're working everyday, but our attitude is more like we're waiting for fall to come. Something will happen in September, and we sure hope it's a good thing, but right now we're just waiting.

The dahlias are popping. Stand back! By Labor Day it might be incredible, which is a good thing because we're having an open house and many people are coming to view all 150 varieties.

Onions and Annuals. We picked all the onions -- many pounds -- and left them to dry in a shaded area on the cement patio. Then I made a schematic of the garden, so I can remember not to plant more onions in the same place -- I will plant turnips instead. And some broccoli and maybe a little lettuce. We're going to plant more zinnias and celosia too. We should have 60 more days of summer weather, so if we can squeeze a few more flowers in, then we can sell them -- and get rich!

Critters. It might be bad luck to brag here, but I have been having good luck keeping the gophers under control. I set traps and they get caught. I offer them little gopher treats (poison) and they go off to gopher heaven. I mean the gophers no harm, but it's the way of nature.

Tragedy. We lost a kitten. Tom, the litter mate to Jerry, was out and about around the motor home last Thursday, but by evening, when we scoot them back inside, we found Jerry, but no sign of Tom. Determined searching began with quiet listening for meowing, but no sign of Tom. Sad to say he is gone. It's hard to believe the coyotes came in broad daylight -- we really don't have another explantion for the loss. Tom was a soft-hearted kind of spaced-out kitten -- a dreamer and very affectionate. We miss him. Jerry and I hang together more now. We're all at risk, so let's cherish the moment.

Why I Threw a Piece of Cucumber at My Hebrew Teacher

& How I came to Study Torah in the First Place

They asked me why. Why are you learning Hebrew? Why are you going to the Torah class at a synagogue? You’re not even Jewish.

Buy why is a dumb question. There is only one important question – Is it a good thing?

If it’s a good thing, then why doesn’t matter. If it’s a bad thing, then stop doing it.

It was the summer of 1992, I was living on Blakeslee Street in West Cambridge and working as a landscaper. And I was totally miserable.

I had just broken up with Helen. Her last words were, “Never call me again.” I was heartbroken, tormented, losing sleep, drinking too much, phoning friends late at night -- I didn’t know what to do.

But I had recently joined the Tikkun group, and we met on Sunday mornings for discussion. I had new Jewish friends -- Daniel Gewertz, a film critic, Harvey Blume, a writer, Lois Isenman, a biologist, Diana Lobel, a PhD student in Jewish Studies, Debbie Osnowitz, with porcelain skin and a brilliant mind, Helen Benjamin, who had an impressive collection of Teddy Bears in her Brookline apartment, Ted Pietras, in real estate in Boston’s South End, and Marty Federman, who was director of Hillel at Northeastern University.

It was an ethnic thing. Boston was full of ethnics – Irish gangs, Italian neighborhoods, Armenian restaurants. I should have gone Irish, but that would have been too easy. Instead I picked the hardest one – Jewish. I was going to learn it and figure it out.

So I went to the Tikkun meetings and listened. The talk was really cool. I liked the rhythm of it. I wore clean clothes, but my shirt was always wrinkled -- I didn’t have an iron. It’s not that people were dressed for the occasion, but I felt conspicuous with my wrinkled shirt.

The meetings kept me from suffering – remember, I was heartbroken, obsessively reviewing the very wrong things I said to Helen – and she wouldn’t talk to me, not now, not ever. So the Tikkun meeting kept me from suffering for three hours every other Sunday morning. That wasn’t enough, but it helped.

One day --I was not really looking for a solution, but more or less on a dare -- I found the Judaica section at the Cambridge Public Library. I picked out the books in Hebrew.

It was very bold of me to even look at these books. Loud booming voices were shouting from thunderous clouds, “Thou Shall Not” – you don’t look at these books, you shall not pass, it’s not for you – go back to being a landscaper, pick up your trowel, LEAVE THESE LETTERS ALONE.

I heard the voices, but I didn’t care. I was in too much pain. Kill me, so what!

I took the books home - a Hebrew grammar, a Hebrew-English dictionary and a text book – home to my furnished apartment on 42 Blakeslee Street in West Cambridge. I opened the books on the kitchen table and began to learn the letters – 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

In a way, it was easy, 22 letters in 22 shapes representing 22 sounds. How hard is that?

I learned the letters in a day. By late afternoon I was picking out words in the text. And I was drawing the letters on a big sheet of paper. I really liked their shape and the way they flowed.

It was love. It was infatuation. I was so absorbed. Hours passed in delightful study, and I never thought of Helen. I was almost happy. Relief! I could fill up my day.

Although it was a little weird because, like I said, I’m not Jewish, and what if the Jewish cops find out and come over to my apartment and pummel me with sticks.

Oh, the Jewish cops don’t do that. They don’t even care. Well, they do care. Of course, they want you to study the text in a respectful manner, but otherwise you’re welcome to it.

Except they don’t say that. They don’t say anything -- there are no Jewish cops.

But what about the booming voices from the thunderous clouds? Well, yes, those are completely real, the voices of divine spirits who can put you in a world of hurt or shower you with blessings and diamond lights.

The divine spirits are real. I found out that night, after the day when I learned the 22 letters. I had the most incredible dream. I dreamed of black letters in a sea of golden flames.

I never had such a dream in my life, but that night I saw the letters in my dream, living, breathing and on fire.

The letters are alive! Shining black in a sea of gold-red flames!

When I woke up the next morning, I was astonished and full of wonder. And there was no one to tell. I wasn’t going to waste this vision in casual talk. I wasn’t going to tell anyone. That dream was 19 years ago, and I kept it inside my all this time – black flaming letters burning inside me.

The letters kept me warm all this time. If some say it was nothing, fine. Or if they say it was a revelation, that doesn’t matter to me either. I just knew I had found something. I learned the letters and began to study the words. I developed a style of calligraphy and wrote the letters over and over again, like a prayer.

Now I will move ahead to the funny part of this story.

One Sunday at the Tikkun meeting, Diana Lobel was reading a Hebrew text, and I looked over her shoulder and began saying the words aloud. She said, “You know Hebrew?” I said, “I’ve been studying.” She asked “With who?” I said, “By myself.”

She said, “Come to my class. We meet on Sunday night at 7 pm at Beth Shalom.”

So I began learning with her group – not such a big group, three students, me, Bobby Vilinsky and a very strange, very thin young woman who seemed to have wandered in off the street.

I could write a book about Bobby Vilinsky. We became great friends, and we often discussed his disastrous experiences with women or his latest digestive issues. He was an artist of great intensity and poverty.

Diana Lobel was a PhD student in Jewish Studies at Harvard. She had the pale look of a scholar, but she had bright, black curly hair. Diana had a way of seeming so unworldly, as if she did nothing but study and pray -- but that was not true, she was very worldly at the same time -- if she was paying attention. She often surprised me in that way.

We spent several weeks on the first verse, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” She said the whole of the Torah was contained in the first verse – or she may have said that, I’m not sure. But it sounds like something a Jewish scholar would say – that the whole of the Torah, and all of the Law, and a vivid description of all time and all creation are contained in the first verse – so we studied it, from every angle, and believe me, there are many angles -- more than you can imagine. The depth was incredible.

But she was so spacey. Like the time we had a Sabbath dinner at Lois Isenman’s house. It was Friday night, when Jews eat chicken on their best table cloth. I don’t know if we had chicken that night, but Lois lived in a very nice red brick house in the suburbs.

I Have to Stop Now

I have to stop now, or this story will get too long for an Internet newsletter. But you must be excited by now. Did I really throw a piece of cucumber at my Hebrew teacher? Stay tuned for the next exciting segment – coming soon.

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

D'Var Torah on Farming and Writing

Fred's Farm News

By Fred Owens

I am bored with the farm. It's very slow around here these days -- it's the dog days of summer I guess. Low energy..... I feel like my bond-rating got downgraded. Well, collectively speaking, it just did.

"The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed," said S&P, one of three leading credit rating agencies...... It's hard to argue with this statement -- it seems to accurately describe the recent madness in Washington.

Okay, aside from that down-graded feeling, the report from the West Coast is that it's been a cool summer and everything is late, tomatoes for instance. We have an abundance of bright green tomatoes on the vine, but they are taken the very longest time to ripen.....We're supposed to be patient in this line of work, but I am not very patient. I look at the tomatoes and think "hurry up, this is August, for Pete's sake."

I know -- they will ripen in nature's own good time, but I'm an instigator and not willing to just let things happen -- that's my human nature and I make no apology

I did learn about beets from Ann. She said the secret to growing beets is to ignore them. Apparently these dark-blooded creatures do not like being watched. So I forgot about them entirely until Michael, my co-worker from Scotland, discovered the beets were ripe and fulsome. Michael, being Scottish, calls them "beet roots." He picked a nice bunch of beets and made them peeled, shredded and cooked with a bit of sugar and vinegar -- incredibly tasty.

Then we ate some of Brian's leeks at the same meal. Brian, with far less total horticultural experience than I have, grew much better leeks. I can't understand this. I planted three five-foot rows of leeks and they all grew with hard, woody stems, and not a single one of them was edible.

Then Brian, Mr. Moonface, who works so slowly that he hardly even moves -- casually dropped in a few seeds -- his leeks were fat and tender and pale green. I don't get it. I was gardening before he was born..........But maybe I'm impatient and I try too hard.

The real truth is that Brian is a fully-dedicated gardener and I am not. It's my day job, and that's all it ever has been or ever will be. Writing comes first, gardening and farming comes second.

I know the difference. Men and women who make horticulture their life's work often succeed -- they grow better leeks....... I salute them.

But writing matters. Here's what I wrote today, and if you think it has little to do with farming then you would be quite wrong.

D’Var Torah
What is the connection between writing and farming as occupations? This reminded me of a saying from Pirkei Avot, a Jewish book of wisdom.

This is the saying, "Im Ein Kemach Ein Torah, Im Ein Torah Ein Kemach." ---- which means, "Where there is no Bread, there is no Torah, and where there is no Torah, there is no Bread."

This saying answers the question, "What should I do with my life?" You don't choose between writing and farming because you need both. You need to farm because you need to eat. And you need to write because you need to seek and serve the truth.

You don't choose one over the other -- Bread and Torah, Livelihood and the Spiritual Path -- both are essential for a good and balanced life.

Now I will eat lunch.
Where there is no bread there is no Torah, where there is no Torah there is no bread.

This still makes sense today. We're working on the watering system -- there's a leak out there somewhere and the pump keeps running, so we just turn on the pump when we need water for something -- gotta find that leak.

We need water. Fortunately, the farm is right by the Ventura River and there is an abundance of water only thirty feet down. It's ours for the cost of the electricity to pump it -- Not free, but abundant.

Where there is no bread there is no Torah, where there is no Torah there is no bread....... Or, in the original language, "Im Ein Kemach Ein Torah, Im Ein Torah, Ein Kemach."

I used to belong to the Tikkun discussion group when I lived in Boston. Tikkun is a Jewish spiritual/political magazine founded by Michael Lerner who coined the phrase "politics of meaning." Hillary Clinton invited Lerner to the White House shortly after Bill Clinton became President. Lerner seemed likely to become a spiritual adviser for the Clintons -- possibly like Bill Graham had been for previous Presidents. But Lerner's presence at the White House caused a storm of controversy, and I still don't know why. He was a little hippy-dippy and lefty-lefty, but not very extreme. His views were not that unusual.

Anyway, in 1991, living in Cambridge, and wandering around town looking for something to do, I happened to notice that Michael Lerner was giving a talk at Temple Beth Shalom -- the famed "Tremont Street shul" near Central Square...... Never having entered a synagogue in my life, I dropped in that evening, and I liked what I heard, and I liked the people I met, so I joined the group. They never said you had to be Jewish and I wasn't.

We met on Sunday mornings at people's houses and apartments, maybe 12-15 people each week, and we discussed topics based on an article in Tikkun magazine. It was very interesting. The people in the Tikkun group were impressively articulate -- I mean, this was Boston. Myself, I never said much, but listened in wide-eyed wonder and they called me, behind my back but kindly, "the space-case from Seattle."

I'm not from Seattle, but I often said so when I was in Boston, just to make it easy for them -- saying "I'm from LaConner, a small town in the Skagit Valley about 60 miles north of Seattle" takes too long.

Also "space case" seemed apt. I was relatively in-articulate compared to my intellectual companions. I truly felt just as smart and just as well-read as these new companions, but I have never had the ability to "hold forth" at meetings like this..... You might recall how I organized the Winter Writers Group in LaConner, but I never talked very much...... Just can't say much in a group.
D'Var Torah means "a few words, a little lesson." D'Var means "word" and Torah is that long hand-written scroll you see in the photo.

The Torah is the first five books of the Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers -- did I get that in the right order?

When they read and chant out loud from the Torah at a service, they have one person doing the chanting, and one or two others following closely to watch for mistakes. If the chanter mispronounces a word or something like that, then they back up a little to get it right.

So, did I get it right? I'm not Jewish, but I studied at the temple and I learned a lot of things. It's very complicated. It seems to be the delight of Jewish tradition to make things complicated rather than simple.....That makes for good mental exercise as well as spiritual development.

Ted Kaptchuck is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He wrote a book called "The Web That Has No Weaver" -- it's about Chinese medicine and it's a very good book.

Ted was a member at Temple Beth Shalom when I went there in the early 1990s. As you recall, I wrote that I first attended this temple to hear Michael Lerner give a talk. Basically, I liked the vibrations in this place, so I stayed for the next three years..... and why? Because of people like Ted Kaptchuck. Sure, he is a most distinguished author and a learned fellow, but also he was just kind of a cool guy......Ted used to pray up front in the sanctuary, up near the altar, but over to the side, even against the wall, always on the right side .... so he was sort of in front of us, but not in front ....

Hey, that was a teaching. Ted standing in front of us, but not in front of us. It's right from the book of Chinese Medicine -- the resolution of contradictions -- the realization of the underlying harmony.

But mainly I learned from Ted about wearing a hat. At a temple a man is expected to cover his head. I don't know why. They keep a basket of yarmulkes by the entrance in case you need one. If you don't put one on, someone might kindly hand you one.....It is not strictly, absolutely necessary for a man to wear a hat at the temple, but it would make them happy, so I did......Except I didn't like it. You can call them a yarmulke or a keppah, but if you ask me they're a beanie and they look stupid......I'm quite vain, and I did not like the looks of it.

But I wasn't about to SAY anything, I just took it as humbling experience, until I noticed Ted up front (but not up front) swaying and praying, and he was NOT wearing a yarmulke, he was wearing a black beret --- totally cool..... So that's it, I said to myself. You don't have to wear the beanie, you just have to cover your head..... So I bought a black beret like Ted's -- and it was cool.

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