Friday, September 02, 2011

A Shabbat Dinner or Why I Threw a Piece of Broccoli at My Hebrew Teacher

By Fred Owens

Why it's Better Not to Own a Horse, and, in a complete change of subject, a Shabbat Dinner in New England in 1993

First, the Horses. The key thing to enjoying horses is don't own one. If you own a horse it will cost more than sending your kids to college. What you need to do is get on the other side of the income stream, like the way we do it at the Love House Dahlia farm -- we board horses. Some really nice people pay us to look after their horses and it's a really cool deal.

People make tons of money on horses -- like the hay dealer selling bales of orchard grass, or alfalfa, or straw -- all at $15 per bale and higher. Hay dealers love horses. So do ferriers (horse-shoers) and veterinarians.

Or take something like a fence. Somebody gets paid to manufacture the fence, to sell it, to erect it, and to maintain it -- all those people are making money off the horse's owner.

The three horses on our farm live inside a pipe corral fence. Jack, a 12-year-old pony, rubs up against the fence on the south side of his corral and he's gradually pushing it over, so we need to prop it up.

We had a discussion about that this morning, whether to do what I call a "hippie fix" or something more substantial. Michael, the other farm hand who works with me, was for fixing it properly by putting in additional posts. That would be the best way to solve the problem, only who is going to pay for the extra fence posts? -- not coming out of my wages I hope. That's why I suggested the hippie fix, using available materials on the farm for a cost of zero.

The hippie fix would look a little home-made, but it would keep the fence upright.

My point is that I just love these horses -- Jack, the pony, gets his own corral because he is extra ornery and and very bossy. I admire him for his courage, because he will fight and dominate any horse that comes near him. No matter how big the other horse is, Jack will end up being the boss. That's his nature.

The trouble is that Jack is not a good riding pony for small children -- he's just not gentle enough, so the grandchildren of Jack's owner don't get to ride him. Sometimes when he's being bad, I threaten to send him to Wales to work in a coal mine. That would teach him.

But I give him a carrot every morning when I come to clean up his corral, and he's a good guy.

The other corral holds Fiero, the gelding, and Misty, the mare. They are both Arabians, a little over 14 hands in size, and both about 12 years old.

Fiero is a bully. After he eats all his hay, he goes over to Misty's side of the feeder and chases her away and eats her hay too. When I see him do this, I yell at him and threaten him, but he won't stop......On the other hand, I think Misty bites him when no one is looking. Hey -- it's their life, I just feed 'em and clean up after 'em.

And I enjoy saying hello to the horses on a misty morning, I call out "Hey, Hey, and good morning. Are you glad to see me or do you just want a carrot?"

So why would I want to own a horse?

A Shabbat Dinner in New England, or Why I Threw a Piece of Broccoli at my Hebrew Teacher

As I wrote in the last two issues, I had joined Tikkun, a Jewish discussion group. I had also taught myself to read and write Hebrew and was studying the Torah at a synagogue. It was like the old saying in the advertisement, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levi's." Note to the children -- Levi's was a brand of rye bread and that was their slogan back in the 1950s and 1960s.

So, in 1993, after being in the Tikkun group for more than a year, Lois Isenman invited me and the rest of the group for a Shabbat dinner at her home, the traditional Friday meal. And here's the story:

New England, 1993. “Lois, do you want me to come and rake the leaves?” I asked her.

The leaves fell in Lois Isenman’s back yard from towering oaks. The yard sloped steeply from her red brick home. I raked up all the leaves and determined to build her a leaf-mulch pile down in the corner by the back fence….. “If I build you a leaf pile, it will be simpler and cheaper. If I drag all those leaves up the hill, into the truck and then off to the landfill that would cost too much money. What do you say?”

Lois was wary. I could see her struggling with the notion. Sure, she could save money, but it would seem unfinished -- a pile of leaves left in the yard, when leaves are supposed to go away, leaving the grass bare to freeze and go brown and grey in the winter. “Look,” I said, “I will make an attractive and tidy pile of leaves, it will look organic……way down in the corner, by the fence.”

“All right,” she said.

It was November in New England, and I was “raking leaves for liberals” as I liked to put it. Making a few dollars, enjoying the fresh air, working in Cambridge and neighboring towns, raking leaves and resenting the affluence that surrounded me. “Why don’t they rake my leaves? What am I, some country bumpkin, blew in from the sticks?” I would mutter as I raked.

Lois lived in Newton, a Boston suburb, in the home where she grew up. I knew Lois from the Tikkun group. “Tikkun ha-olam” is a Hebrew phrase that means “to heal and renew the world.” No one in our group thought we could do anything remotely that grand – but maybe, if we all tried, things wouldn’t get worse.

We shared our tarnished ideals every other Sunday, and this week in November, instead of the Sunday meeting, Lois invited us to a Shabbat dinner at her house on Friday night.

She was a biologist at Harvard at some institute – I can’t remember the name, but she was a Fellow -- what a lovely title, I thought.

I told her, “I work on a big scale, in the garden, you work on a small scale, growing bacteria in a dish, but we’re in the same line of work, when you get down to it.”

Lois didn’t buy that comparison. She liked me, but she was wary.

For Shabbat dinner, in Lois’s dining room, it was formal, with a nice table cloth, but very relaxed. We were seven of us, all friends, seemingly unpartnered, Marty Federman was married, but even when we met at his house his wife did not appear... Lois had a relationship with another scientist, but she did not share any details.

Suffice it to say, we were all single -- which makes it seem lonely. So it’s better to say that we would share a blessing and a meal together as a family.

We were all in our forties, except Gladys Damon who was probably past seventy.

Every Shabbat is special and it felt special that evening -- as if our parents were there, because we had grown up by now, being past forty, and become our own parents, and because we struggled through a week of six days -- fought and lied -- trying to make a living, and it was time for some good food and good company, no matter how the week had gone.

Marty Federman, the most rabbinical of our group, deferred to Diana Lobel, the most devout. She said the blessing and lit the candles, and then she said, “I would like everyone to take a turn in speech. Fred is the newest, if not the youngest member of the group, I would like him to pose a question for the group.”

I was embarrassed at being singled out as “new.” But I spoke, “I have been raking leaves all week. I am justified in my labor. See these hands – that’s how I labored. So, my question is, who is a " Jew and how are you justified?”

I turned to Marty Federman, well-fed, bearded, warm and deep, not a show-man or a comic, even a little shy. “Marty, who is a Jew, and how is a Jew justified?” I asked him.

“How do I justify myself?” he said. “I have studied this week, and searched for the one essential Yiddish word. If you only knew one word in Yiddish …. it would be? ….”

He made a long pause, you could see people wanting to guess – “Heymish…..Heymish, meaning homey and homelike…. That’s all of Yiddish in one word,”

Everyone nodded – home and family are the center of Jewish life.

“I am the director of Hillel at Northeastern University,” he said. “Many of my students are questioning their Jewish identity, so this is a good question for me. I’m a Jew because my mother is a Jew. We all know that’s the law. But some people say you’re a Jew if you do Jewish things. That’s a little broad for me, but I like the idea. Tonight we are all Jews,” he said, looking at me directly. “We are all Jews because we are gathered together on Shabbat for a meal and a blessing and the good company.

“Being Jewish means being part of a family argument that’s been going on for 3,000 years. We talk, we argue, we keep each other warm.

“And how do I justify myself, you asked. I wish I could justify myself. But why should I spoil the evening by telling you how worthless I feel and making a false show of humility. Your question is too hard.

“I will just say what’s on my mind. Don’t laugh….okay laugh, I can’t help it. This is it, No matter how much I study and how much I pray I still think that Moses looks like Charlton Heston. I can’t shake the image.”

No one laughed. This was very embarrassing, because everybody at the table knew that Moses looked like Charlton Heston.

“He’s such a goy!” No one said that, but Charlton Heston was such a goy. And as Moses! Such a mental pollution.

“It is awful to contemplate,” Marty said. “God punished the Jews by making them wander forty years in the wilderness. He allowed the Temple to be destroyed twice and his chosen people were put into exile for centuries, subject to persecution and humiliation. He allowed many terrible things to happen to them. But when God made Moses, he made him look Jewish, or maybe like Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro.

“Still the image of Charlton Heston as Moses cannot be erased for people of our generation. Such is the power of Hollywood -- founded and led by Jews -- in creating false images that defy the First Commandment. Sin and sin,” Marty said and he took a sip of water, he was finished.

A stirring at the table, passing the broccoli and the rice, the quiet sound of salad and dinner rolls, a stretching, a clearing of the throat, a sip of wine. I looked up from the chicken on my plate and noticed Diana Lobel, my Hebrew teacher, wreathed in an unworldly halo -- there was nothing on her plate. Even her glass of water was untouched. This disturbed me. We’re humans, we’re supposed to eat.

But the conversation continued.

Daniel Gewertz, film critic by occupation, was the next to speak. He was younger than the rest of us, closer to thirty. His build was athletic and tall. I picture him wearing a Hawaiian shirt in the summer time, although I don’t know why I say that. He was a handsome fellow, but he seemed so unsure of himself.

“Who is a Jew, you ask. I wonder about myself at this time of year with Hanukah and Christmas coming up,” Daniel said. “I get anxiety. I don’t know what to think. People wish me Merry Christmas. And the music, Silent Night and All Ye Faithful, it’s everywhere, Season Greetings…The whole experience makes me cringe.

“It’s the way I was brought up. My parents were secular, never at temple, no menorah, nothing in our house that said Jewish. I think they would have skipped the whole thing.

“At Christmas we had a tree and decorations and a plastic lighted Santa Claus doll and I got presents. It was crazy. I knew we were Jewish. I was seven-years-old playing on the living room rug with a Lionel train, but I didn’t enjoy it that much.

“My parents laughed and shared drinks with friends and neighbors during the holidays -- just like everybody else. I mean, why not? We didn’t look different or act different. My Dad had a white-collar job, we lived in a suburban neighborhood. We had BBQs in the summer. We went trick or treating on Halloween, so why not have a Christmas tree too?

“I cannot disrespect my parents, they did so many wonderful things for me, they were such good people. But you just know, even when you’re only seven, when something isn’t right, and for me the memory never goes away -- every year in December it’s the same.”

That was Daniel telling his life. I heard this with wonder. For me, growing up a Catholic, Christmas was the most uncomplicated joy and pleasure. I knew that Christmas could be hard for people with bad families—being stuck at home with awful relatives and such. Or a lonely time for lonely people. But I never thought of it as being difficult for Jews. Hearing Daniel say it directly was quite a different experience. Obviously it was difficult for some Jews. They cringed.

“But I’ll go out for Chinese like I always do,” he said.

Harvey Blume nodded. He was the most talented conversationalist in our group, but he had been quiet the whole evening. It was November and he was still tan, he had a burnished skin tone -- he hadn’t been to Florida, he didn’t work outdoors, but then I remembered – Harvey was on the street. His tan was not a matter of exposure, but an act of will. Harvey lived for the street and the drums.

So he and I did this rap thing, which makes it kind of fun.

“The Street?” I asked.

“Yes, the Street,” he said.

“And Kafka?”

“At times -- if it rhymes”

“On the Street?”

“With a Beat”

“On a Drum?”

“Some …”

“With a Bat?”

“Nah, I don’t want none of that.”

“Is it like the Grateful Dead?”

“You must be out of your head.”

“So it was jazz and Bebop?”

“Yeah, now you got it. Bebop. On the street, with a drum, with the people, of the people and by the people -- we’re all on the street.”

“So that’s how you get your burnished skin tone.”

“Yeah, you could say that -- it comes from the experience, from the street, from the sound and the smell and the talk and the traffic. It’s a rhythm of completion and fulfillment not deletion.”

“You’re from Brooklyn?”

“Yeah, but I’m not braggin’ “

“Are you Jewish?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Harvey said and that was the end.

Harvey lived in East Cambridge. He had written a book about a pygmy who was captured in Africa and taken to be an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Ota Benga was the name of the pygmy and the title of Harvey’s book.

Now the room was going quiet, like we were coming to the end.

Then Diana began to speak about Rashi, the great Talmudic scholar from the Middle Ages. She was working for a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies at Harvard and the Middle Ages was her area of research. And she was my teacher.

So people relaxed because Diana had sat in the center of the table, as a guiding spirit, and now she would hold forth in a good way.

“Let us go back a thousand years, thirty generations of our people, to the Champagne region of northern France, in a time when life was good for the Jews, before the Crusades and Christian orthodoxy marked us as separate people to be confined in ghettoes.

“No, it was a good time, even though we were still in exile from Israel, a thousand years of exile, and every year a prayer to return to Jerusalem and no one knew it would take another thousand years, but that’s why Rashi was born to us, to help us endure our exile with an understanding, and even a lightness of being. That was Rashi’s nature. His deep scholarship led to an understanding and that understanding led to a quiet joy.

“Rashi could explain things so clearly, every verse in the Bible. He would state the peshat which is the plain meaning. So simple that a young child could understand, but never over-simplified, if you know the difference.

“We connect to Rashi, and from him we can go back to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah, when they lived in tents.

“Here in Genesis it says there was a famine in Palestine and Jacob said to his sons, ‘I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.’

“It was a fateful choice. The whole history of the Jews hinges on this one verse. You want to yell from the audience, a hundred generations later – Don’t go – don’t go to Egypt. There’s nothing but trouble down there – slavery, corruption, idolatry, people worshipping monkeys. Don’t go. Stick it out in Palestine. The rain will come back and there will be more crops.

“But Jacob said it is better to live and not die. You can spin that, explain that, write a book on that, or a poem or a song. Fine. Interpret it as you will, and yet the meaning is plain – it is better to live and not die.

Jacob said that…..And Rashi kept it true and simple, deftly separating genuine scholarship from …….”

“Stop,” I said. I interrupted her. “Your plate is empty, you haven’t eaten anything.”

Diana looked at me, surprised. The whole table was silent. I couldn’t stand it. I was angry at her and she was my teacher! How could I be angry at her?

It was the food. “You don’t eat,” I said. I couldn’t explain. Words failed me. I picked up a piece of broccoli, picked it off my plate, and threw it at her. Not at her, but I kind of tossed it or lobbed it over to her plate. Even so, such a physical act was deeply disturbing.

Food is food, you have to eat. Diana was not thin but she was becoming a little transparent. Some parental instinct in me wanted her to eat, for her own good and for my sake too. Eat, for God’s sake. I work in the fields where nature brings us food. My hands are callused. We don’t live by the spirit, but we need bread too.

Except I didn’t say anything. The dining room was tense. But Diana looked at me again, as if she understood. She smiled. She picked up the piece of broccoli and ate it, and she said “Thank you.”

Oh, I felt better. Like I had done something very wrong, but she said thank you, and that was that.

Diana didn’t finish the Rashi story. The verse was about food, and it’s better to live and not die, and here she was not eating and how can you live if you don’t eat?

And it was over. Table talk passed on to other things. Marty and Lois were huddling. Harvey got up to clear some plates. We might be moving back to the living room for dessert.

Then Gladys Damon spoke. “I have something to say.” Gladys was close to seventy or past it, from Manhattan’s West Side, but now retired in an apartment tower in Jamaica Plain. She was stylish, wore a tailored skirt, had good legs. She spoke in a honeyed tone with a good-natured irony.

For her, the plain meaning was only the beginning. It was better to live and not die and she would say sure, but she reminded me that refinement is what made life better.

“This happened to me during the war in 1944. My parents sent me to Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters. You know – Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Vassar, Radcliffe -- all those precious college girls from good families. I could pass, I don’t mean that how you think, but I had nice clothes, good sweaters and shoes.

“And to find a husband and get married, yes, but they hinted, the faculty suggested, and even said so, that we could be what we chose to be.

“I formed surprising friendships with girls who were very different than me.

“But it was war time, and we heard the news from Europe. In May of 1944, the Jews in Hungary – up to that time they had been safe – were being transported to Auschwitz to be murdered. More than 400,000 Jews were put on the trains.

"It was hard to find notice of this in the news. We heard news of stirring military action and home front preparedness -- that was the story -- marching to victory, rumors of the coming invasion of France, profiles of Eisenhower and Patton, the great leaders, but of the slaughter to come in Hungary, it was like a dark whisper. Letters came from Eastern Europe, reliable reports of the real story. We didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it, and yet I knew it was true.

“I knew it was true because it was far, far worse than anything I could have imagined -- this death and horror.

“But what is so hard for me to describe is the silence. We read those letters, but we were silent, we did not ask questions. We just sat there. We did nothing.”

Gladys was speaking without irony.

“We did nothing to save the Jews in Hungary. Roosevelt did nothing, Eisenhower did nothing. My parents, my friends at school, we did nothing. The Hungarian Jews were loaded on the trains. We knew it was their death and we did nothing.

“It was the most important moment in my life, and I failed.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

Years later I still remember the silence that followed her remarks. It had been a good dinner and we enjoyed being together. In mid-November the night air was frosty and it began to snow as we said our goodbyes and walked outside to our cars. “Lois, thank you for such a lovely evening, you have such a nice home,” someone said.

I walked outside and noticed her privet hedge and how it badly needed a trimming. But that’s me, a landscaper and gardener, I can’t help noticing things like that.

But I thought about Gladys and how she said she did nothing. Not true. Her life was a triumph. It was better to live and not die.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog: Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
Ventura CA 93001

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