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אין סוף (Without End)

I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.

I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.

Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.

Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”

I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.

“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”

“Always?”

I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

“Yes,” I said, “always.”

“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”

– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30

Bubbehor La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.

We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.

What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.

This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.

To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.

My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.

I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.

My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.

Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”

With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.

Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.

Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.

Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.

Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.

Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.

I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.

La bobe

This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.

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And On The Seventh Day, He Rested

Most people know that Jews have holidays that occur intermittently throughout the year, usually in the fall. What they don’t know is about the most important holiday of all: the Sabbath, or as we like to call it, Shabbat.

Shabbat is like an island of peace to which we Jews can escape one day a week, every week. For the rest of time.

Growing up, my family observed Shabbat pretty strictly, starting off with Friday night dinner and continuing with 25 hours total of no technology (computers, TV, and later, cell phones). No drawing, no writing, no going anywhere in the car, no spending money. All there was to do was go to shul on Saturday mornings (where, if I was lucky, we’d have a luncheon) and then spending the rest of the day alternating between eating in the kitchen, sleeping either in bed or on the couch downstairs, or reading, anywhere. All up until an hour after sunset, when we’d do Havdalah at the kitchen counter. I always got to hold the candle since I was the youngest. One of the few perks of being a younger sibling.

After I left home, Shabbat became harder and harder to observe. I started to crack under the pressure of college life, especially one with few Jews. I remember resorting to counting the ceiling tiles in my dorm room over and over. I couldn’t go to the dining hall because I had to swipe in, so I’d have to make do with whatever food I had in my room. It was hard, and probably contributed to why I didn’t do so well there. I also ended up needing to do work on Shabbat in my sophomore year, a move which my parents didn’t endorse but approved of since it was for my education. It was also a move that worked in my favor, I think, for when I went to submit the paper to my professor I told her it was the first time I’d broken Shabbat in my whole life (probably not entirely true, but to this extent, at least), which earned me an apology for her and maybe a few sympathy points even though I ended up with an A anyway.

Through junior and senior years I tried to keep Shabbat the best I could, but it was mostly loneliness that caused me to break. One particularly lonely Passover, when everyone else went home but I couldn’t arrange it, I was on the phone with my dad and he told me that if I was really that upset and lonely, I should find a computer game to distract me for a little while, which is when I discovered (and became addicted to) Phantom Mansion, this weird little Internet game thing that I never did quite beat but I got pretty darn close.

In Israel, keeping Shabbat was much easier, but ever since that Passover, I did not feel as compelled to keep it 100%. I tried to, but sometimes I just needed to get on the computer for a little while. On a few particularly lonely Saturdays, including Yom Kippur, I spent the whole night and day holed up in my office at the theater, sleeping on my couch (which I wasn’t technically supposed to do, but no one ever caught me) and getting work done during the day so I could get a jump on the week.

Houston is pretty much when my Shabbat-keeping completely fell apart. It started when I told a friend (who wasn’t Jewish) that I would walk 2 miles each way to and from Chabad on Friday nights, which prompted her to say that if she ever saw me doing that, she’d pick me up and throw me in her car, so after that (and knowing how dangerous Houston at night can be) whenever I went to Chabad, save for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I would drive and feel incredibly guilty about it even though most people did the same because it’s Houston and you have to drive everywhere anyway. Usually I spent most of Shabbat doing what I did the rest of the week: watching TV, exercising, making food, doing work, and hanging out on the computer. I remember spending 8-9 hours one Shabbat on my computer translating some Slovak, without which I would’ve never finished my thesis.

One of the things I was looking forward to about moving to Wisconsin was observing Shabbat more strictly, because now I live merely blocks from Chabad, and I could probably transition back to not using technology pretty quickly. But it’s been hard not to check my email or my phone at all, but I hope that’ll change, at least as soon as the play is over.

I miss that feeling that I could be completely at peace, just praying, reading and doing non-technology-related activities that I enjoy, like taking walks, napping, or just kicking back and enjoying the day. I never liked Shabbat growing up because there was so much my parents wouldn’t let me do, but now I wish I could go back to then, that innocent time when Shabbat meant resting in its purest and highest form, and thinking about being closer to God and to myself. Maybe when I get back to Madison from Houston I can start, little by little. Shabbat is a weekly gift, and Friday night especially – as a girl I went to college with termed it, “my date with God.” Collecting my thoughts and connecting with my feelings is something that I could definitely use 25 hours of my week to focus on.

Shabbat, shabbat, I will forget thee not.

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On Dying Young

Earlier this week in class we discussed the short but meaningful and interesting life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She was a playwright who is responsible for A Raisin in the Sun, a key play in the history of American theatre. Tackling topics such as family, faith, loyalty, truth, gender roles, Pan-Africanism, and the generation gap, it was a hit on Broadway and is studied in schools and universities all across America. Unfortunately, Hansberry never had the chance to shine again, as her star flickered out in 1956, when she died of pancreatic cancer at age 34.

Her life was short, but it contained the depth that so many other people’s did not, and for that, it is a shame that she died so young. It leads you to ask yourself, “why? Why did Lorraine Hansberry have to go? Was this her only purpose in life? And why did we lose her when so many awful people are still sticking around?”

My views on death have changed over the years. Today, the rational part of my brain says that biological things are strictly biological, humans can be victims of spontaneity, and that everyone has to go sometime – if that didn’t happen, the world would be overpopulated with centenarians, or folks even older. When an older person dies, it seems more appropriate – they’ve had chances to make mistakes, have successes and failures, have relationships and children, and if they’re lucky enough, leave this world in the comfort of a bed, either a hospital’s or their own, regardless of whatever mental/physical conditions they may be suffering from. But the one thing that always stops me in my tracks is when I hear about someone young being killed or dying of disease. Especially someone my age or younger. I always ask myself, “why am I still here when so many promising young people aren’t anymore?”

One of my earliest memories of someone my own age dying was in elementary school. A news story came on one night about a local girl who’d put an ad in her apartment complex’s newsletter with her name and number, offering babysitting services. Upon arrival at the home of what she thought was a family hiring her for the night, it was all a hoax, a set-up for this strange guy, who had no children, to murder her. I don’t remember her name, but I remember the freckled face and long blonde hair that stared at me from inside the television set, and her list of accomplishments: straight As, basketball and soccer player, beloved neighborhood babysitter, and overall, a “good girl.” She was “good people.” Since then, so many people that I know of (or in some cases, know personally) have left us at a young age. To cite some recent examples, whether it’s teenage makeup artist Talia Castellano succumbing to cancer, or thirty-something-but-playing-a-high-schooler actor/singer Cory Monteith overdosing on drugs, the reaction’s always the same.

“What a shame.”

But is it really? Realistically, some people do die young, with or without their consent or control. Death is final and it’s always horrible when it occurs, and sometimes it’s not preventable. I’m not saying that people who died young deserved to die, but in my opinion, maybe it was their “time.” Maybe their death is a way to remember them at their finest moments, and that had they lived any longer, they might have caused pain or hurt to others. For example, the babysitter could’ve grown up and blown up her college campus or assassinated a politician, and Cory Monteith could have been killed in a back-alley drug deal gone bad, or murdered someone under the influence of drugs. Then again, it could be the complete opposite. We will never know what they would’ve done, and we’ll never find out. And I guess that’s the way the world works, the way that God works. He shields and protects us all our lives in so many ways, from allowing us to digest food without choking, vomiting, or exploding; allowing us to get from point A to point B safely, whether it’s on wheels, air, sea, or our own feet; for having that car come to a juddering stop when you run across the street at the last minute, or having you step out of the way just before the piano falls on your head. In a sense, maybe death was a way of protecting them from having a worse fate, or from harming someone else later on down the line.

On the opposite side, some young people shouldn’t be alive after what happened to them, but my some miracle, have remained alive, to serve another purpose. Their time isn’t quite done here yet, and they’re the living proof.

Case in point: Malala Yousafzai.

On 9 December 2012, she was traveling home from school on the bus when two men from the Taliban stormed on, shooting her point blank in the face as well as at her other friends. Miraculously, her friends escaped mostly unhurt, and Malala herself lapsed into a coma, during which time her life was in the balance, with things going either way. She woke up in a hospital in England some time later, and slowly regained her strength and mobility to a full recovery. After she resurfaced, she resumed her activities as an activist for education and peace, and was reportedly a nominee (and a favorite) to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

She didn’t win, but she won her life back.

I watched tonight’s 20/20 special on her and her story, and she said something akin to “death didn’t want to take me yet.” While I wouldn’t put it quite as bluntly as that, she’s right. There’s gotta be something more in the works for her. If she was meant to be some sort of child martyr, it would’ve happened. Children have died before, whether they were activists or just your everyday kid on the school bus.

But Malala didn’t. And that’s a fact.

No matter how murky the story may be, or by whose account was most accurate, the proof is right there in the flesh. Malala didn’t die. It was not her time. Nobody knows if she’ll live to be 19 or 90, but there’s a reason that she’s made it to 16 with all of her faculties, and only some internal and external scars on the way. Just because a person has a strong personality, doesn’t mean that their body chemistry and all their cells and organs are strong too. No matter how strong your will is, you can’t take that force and say “hey bones, tissues, organs, cells…heal up, because it’s time to save the world!” What your body does is not up to you. It is beyond human control and moreover, human comprehension.

When a disaster happens, a common sentiment that arises is that “because of X, I can’t possibly believe that there is a God.” But not enough people look at a situation like Malala Yousafzai and say themselves, “because of this, I can’t possibly believe that there’s not a God.” I am of the latter opinion. Looking at pictures of Malala, reading about her story, and seeing her on my computer and TV screens, makes me think of nothing other than this: God is. Growing up, I learned not to image God as an old man, an old woman, a king, a queen, any person or thing, so I wondered – who is God, if we don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t know what God looks like? I also grew up in the 90s, so my mental playlist is totally queuing up Joan Osborne hardcore right about now, but to get back to the point, I just think that God is. Not exists, but is. In outer space, right here on my couch in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, or just somewhere. Existence is a human concept. Talking about religion is something pretty personal to me, because I’m still figuring things out myself, and I don’t like to impose my views on others, but I feel like I want to make some sort of statement. Something like…even if I can’t see, I believe. Because…why not? Cold hard facts aren’t changed by belief, At the end of the day, Malala is still standing, still speaking, and still working for what she believes in.

Malala Yousafzai comes from a world that is further along in time than Lorraine Hansberry, but less advanced in terms of wealth, rights for women, and educatoinal opportunity. But the facts are the facts. Something was meant to happen to Lorraine Hansberry that was not meant for Malala.

Lorraine Hansberry, your words are an incredible inspiration for us all, and I am so grateful that at least we have that extant sliver of your intelligence and creativity. Even though you died young, you did more in that short time than some people who manage to live into old age.  You must have been destined to do just what you were sent here to do, and then rejoin God to give a full and thorough report.

Malala Yousafzai, your words are an incredible inspiration for us all, and I am so grateful that we have only seen a sliver of your intelligence and creativity. You are meant to do more, and now you have that chance, so go do it. Don’t stop for anyone or anything. Make the world a better place because that’s what you’re here to do. I know you can. I wish I had the courage, strength, and drive that you have, and maybe one day I’ll get there myself. You survived what should have been the end, so pick up where you left off and keep going. I love you, the world loves you, and somewhere out there, a force – called God, if you like – loves you too and sent you back on a mission. You are destined for great things with this great thing called life and free will to do with it what you wish, so make the most of each day.

That last sentence isn’t just for you though, it’s for everyone who’s reading this.

Oh, and Malala – if somehow, God, or the universe, or the force, could send you on a mission to end to all the conflicts in Israel, the Middle East and South Asia,  that would be nice too.

And if God could send you on Ellen along the way, that would be even better.

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Today

Was hoping that I could actually get it together today and post something before midnight, but I have to say that I had a pretty productive day today, otherwise, so I’m not perfect. It actually started pretty early as I woke up at 7:45 AM and ended up being relatively busy, with exercising, gym, geocaching, social interactions, all built in. And – check it – there was one thing today I wasn’t late for. Success.

I have a lot of nervousness settling in for no good reason. For some reason, while driving my car today, I kept feeling like I was being watched – maybe by God, maybe by a distant police scanner – I don’t know.

What I do know:

  • Get stuff done for BLT
  • Talk to YF
  • Start reading some plays
  • Start reading some more stuff
  • Take out the recycling
  • Clean up the apartment
  • Go to the post office
  • Generally stop being useless, even though I’m actually not so useless these days
  • Check in with J in a few days to see what’s up
  • Get some more ideas about blog posts
  • Finish some recaps
  • Write about my trips to Chicago and KC
  • Write about more geocache adventures

Aaaannndddd…that’ll probably last me for the rest of the year. I’m such a lost cause. But at least I got it all written down today.

Oh, and I watched the second episode of Siberia tonight, and most of what happened, I predicted! I am loving this show.

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Things I Like (and do not like – the first post of many)

Hi. My name is Jacob. These are some things that I like. Today’s topic is:

Travel. I like car rides, bus rides, plane rides, anything that goes “go” goes for me. It’s almost midnight on May 29, 2013 so go figure. Why do I love travel? I like to make friends when traveling, hear stories, and tell stories. I like seeing new places and emerging from magical portals into distant lands. Although this past week alone took me to Houston, Austin, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Galveston, Chicago, and now Madison, I mostly enjoyed it all. It’s like God scooped me up and then put me back down in a different location. This is one of many magical aspects of God (more on God later). I like maps and navigating. I like road signs and taking pictures of them. All of them. I like playing the license plate game and I have very strict rules for doing so, including no truck plates, and you must be on the highway to start. Probably more but I’ll think of them later. I like walking around in a city, but knowing where I am. There is little greater satisfaction that getting to a place correctly and with little fuss. When my mom and I went to the Bahamas, we spent an amazing day walking around Nassau, wasting absolutely no time because I planned out our route, step by step. She still talks about how much fun that day was – we got everything done that we wanted/needed, didn’t die in the heat, and moved with purpose, enjoying every moment because we had a plan. I like learning and communicating with different languages. Or at least trying. I don’t care if I look stupid because if I try, usually it works better than if I had started off in English. I have done this with Spanish, Quechua, German, Czech, Slovak, Hindi, Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew. In Cyprus, I got mistaken for a local at a party in a cafe. In Prague, I went into a restaurant speaking Czech. This guy asked me if I came from America and I said yes. Then, he was all, so why aren’t you speaking English to me? It’s because we’re in Prague, I’m assuming that you’re a Czech speaker, so I’m trying my best, ASSHOLE. I like being the mysterious traveler who everyone wonders about. Sometimes I am chipper while traveling, sometimes I am brooding and moody, but rarely. I like getting gas in odd places – usually there’s a geocache there (more on geocaching later), there’s always an interesting little service station store building thing to go into, and you get a receipt proving that you were once in this place. This past week, I have gotten gas in Houston, TX; Elgin, TX; Westlake, LA; Lafayette, LA; and La Marque, TX. I love driving and feeling the open road beneath me. I also like sitting in the passenger seat without the pressure of doing the driving, and having the ability to read or relax. I like to use the GPS and watch the earth move as I do, or vice versa. I like to pretend that I am on the Amazing Race when doing things like catching trains and buses and planes and buying tickets and such. I like trying local foods and new foods, but sometimes I just want a sandwich. I like watching airport flight boards. I like exploring the airport. I like to take pictures; scenic, side-selfie, or silly. I like to blend in with the scenery; if I get mistaken for a local, my mission has been accomplished. I like to travel with a bag on my back containing everything I will need; it makes me feel so mobile and free.

I do not like backseat or passenger seat drivers. When I want your opinion, I’ll ask. Even if/when I do screw up, I have a pretty solid mental compass and can generally right myself within a reasonable amount of time without your help. I do not like GPS units that tell you turn-by-turn directions. You, disembodied voice from a tiny device made in China, have not driven down this road before so don’t act like you know. I do not like paying insane amounts of money for gas. I do not like road food and prefer to pack a bag or cooler full of drinks and snacks. I do not like expensive airport food. I do not like rolling bags, except when I know exactly where I’ll be going and what I’ll be doing. For example, last summer’s trip to Europe. I brought my huge camping backpack, and my dad and sister brought rolling bags. Although there are lovely wood or granite floors in most places in Germany and the Czech Republic, there are also lovely cobblestones and plenty of lovely stairs. It was amazing to be able to walk with hands unencumbered…but then not so nice to look down at the Rolling Bag crew at the bottom of the stairs which I just conquered with actual leaps and bounds. I do not like to stick out like a sore thumb – there are subtle ways to play tourist. I do not like people who get to go everywhere all the time. They make me annoyed and jealous. Newyorklosangelesmiamiparisvegascabocancunhawaiilondonbeijingshanghaiseoul.

These are some things that I like and things that I do not like about travel as of this moment.