Merry Christmas, America!

To be seen someday on the highways and byways of our country . . .


Elephants and the Jewish Question

There are no elephants in the Jewish Bible, and also no Maccabees — but there are elephants in both First and Second Maccabees, which got me to thinking some obscure thoughts last night.

The candles I use with my menorah burn for about an hour. I like to spend that hour in some kind of discussion or study or meditation on Hanuka questions, answers, and interpretations — of which, happily, there are a million varieties. For me, they often center around the matter of which side am I on, the Hellenists’ or the Maccabees’?

So there I was, watching three candles burn and contemplating Hanuka matters for possible discussion on this blog . . .

Historical questions, like, Why did those rabbis of the Talmudic period (i.e., the first four centuries of the Common Era) fail to include the Books of Maccabees in the canonized Bible, and why did they barely mention the Maccabeean uprising in their many recorded discussions? For fear of fomenting further abortive uprisings against Rome, say some historians; because they disapproved, say others, of the Hasmonean dynasty established by the Maccabees, which had pursued conquest, forcible conversion, assassination, and other Hellenistic practices until Rome took over a hundred years later.

Then there were cultural questions, like, Why do Jews gamble with the dreydl on Hanuka? The folklore holds that when the Hellenists made the study of Torah illegal, the Jews would gather with a lookout, and if danger approached, they would be alerted to hide their scrolls and begin spinning dreydls, as in: “Officer, it’s just a game of chance! You want to sit in, maybe?”

There were political questions, like, What’s the difference between the Maccabees back then and Islamic fundamentalists today? Nothing, perhaps, except twenty centuries of human development.

There were grammatical questions, like, How the hell do you spell Hanuka-Hanukkah- Chanukah-Khanike, anyway? A: Hwvr u lik 2.

There were spiritual questions, like, Why eight days? Some kabbalists say: The eight days represent infinity (8, on its side, is the infinity symbol). While Creation took seven days (including a day of rest), represented by the seven sefirot that are accessible to human apprehension, the eighth day represents the eighth sefirah, Understanding, which is beyond human apprehension and reflects God’s Infinite Light — or something like that. (It’s all Syrian Greek to me.) I say: Eight days brings the total number of candles lit for Hanuka to 36, which is the total corps of the lamed vovnikii, the legendary 36 righteous human beings who prevent the world from shaking itself apart with grief.

Suddenly the candles flickered. Good God, was the world shaking itself apart with grief?!

No, elephants were stampeding through my brain.

The great beasts appear in the Books of Maccabees as war machines used by the Syrian Greeks against the Jewish rebels. One elephant is slain by Judah Maccabee’s brother, Elazar, upon whom it falls, crushing him to death.

Remembering this, I find myself feeling worse for the elephant than for Elazar. And when I feel that feeling, I find myself thinking, What kind of humanist am I?

Ditto, when I read about global warming: I respond more to the plight of the polar bears, who are surely beginning to drown for lack of solid ice throughout their habitat, than I respond to the prospect of human suffering from those rising seas. Both events disturb me deeply, but the helpless-victim status of the beasts, and their likely extinction, as opposed to the collective-responsibility status of human beings, and their likely suffering, moves my heart more deeply.

No, I’m not boasting about this — I’m confessing to it.

In contrast to my misanthropy, of course, all of the Bible-based religions toast human beings as the “crown of creation,” uniquely made b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. Human beings, not animals, have souls; human beings, not animals, are each precious, so that the saving of one human life, says the Talmud, is equivalent to the saving of a universe; and the world itself, and everything in it, was made for our pleasure and nurture.

Such “humanism” translates to hubris very easily. Notwithstanding various religious messages about “stewardship,” we’ve too often interpreted our “in God’s image” status to mean we are uniquely entitled, not uniquely responsible — and thus we’ve made a mess of our planet, and feel reluctant to make the sacrifices needed to fix it.

Modern science, on the other hand — especially biological and genetic science — has helped to cultivate my biocentrism, a feeling for life that goes beyond humanism. When I learn, for example, that I share 98 percent of my genes with chimpanzees, it makes me want to give the chimpanzees the space to live. When I learn that mice have feelings, too, it makes me want to use have-a-heart traps instead of poison to get them out of my house. And when I learn that elephants have joyous meeting rituals, grieve at the loss of their babies and herd members, communicate across miles with low-frequency sounds, bear grudges and accept apologies, learn from their elders, etc. etc., it makes me feel appalled by the slaughter of these magnificent creatures for ivory — and by their impressment into military service by Syrian Greeks!

Thus I become receptive to biocentric environmentalism, of the kind most eloquently expressed by Thomas Berry (in his book, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, 1999):

“In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. . . . Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe. . . . So too every being has rights to be recognized and revered. Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, mountains have mountain rights.”

Nu, what's the Hanuka-Hanukkah-Chanukah-Khanike connection? Just this: For me, the world of science — the world of Hellenism, secular knowledge, nature-worship — is a far greater source of inspiration than Judaism when it comes to prompting my appreciation of creatures beyond the pale of my humanistic bias. On the other hand, Judaism’s teachings of restraint — restraint of our appetites, our lusts, our egotism, or yetzer hara (evil urge) — far exceeds Hellenistic decadence when it comes to defining a pathway to environmental sanity. The Hellenistic path of knowledge, the Jewish path of behavior — there we have a winning synthesis. Instead of the Maccabee spearing the elephant and being crushed, in turn, by its toppling corpse . . .

Lawrence Bush
Editor, Jewish Currents


For the Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend

Dealing with the Communist Past

Artwork: "My Mother-in-Law," by Lawrence Bush

My 1983 novel, Bessie, is going to be published in paperback this Spring (Ben Yehuda Press), and I’ve been spending some time dipping into it to see how I’m going to feel to be represented, at age 55, by a novel that I wrote when I was not even quite 30.

Bessie tells of the life story of a Jewish communist — my grandmother — from the very early 20th Century until the civil rights movement’s March on Washington of 1963. The book embodies the kind of “romance of American communism” that Vivian Gornick wrote about years ago, a romance that you might hear about at a Jewish Currents community gathering when people are asked to introduce themselves. Our veteran readers will speak proudly of their hey-day of activism on labor issues, racial segregation and lynching, anti-fascism, and so on — with perhaps a rueful word about Stalinism and political sectarianism but without any sense of shame or regret that comes from the kishkes.

I do love these people. They are, as a rule, remarkable: highly literate, deeply caring, physically resilient, culturally bohemian, and usually quite open-minded. They were deeply, sometimes sacrificially, involved with some of the most important and successful social movements of our time — and they love Jewish Currents magazine as one of the last remaining embodiments of their idealism. When I re-read Bessie and get to ‘visit’ with my communist grandmother’s generation, I invariably choke up with tears (this is my bobe I'm channeling, after all) — and I get in touch, once again, with some of the reasons I dedicate my energies to Jewish Currents.

Still, there is the dark side, that very, very dark side, of the communist ‘romance,’ which my novel, with its elderly protagonist, only begins to address — as when she talks about Stalin’s murder of the Yiddish cultural figures in August, 1952:

“Not only do they get killed, but the newspapers don’t talk about it. Not in the Soviet Union. They just give the weather report, and they probably give credit to Stalin for making the weather, too.

“Can you imagine in America that such an important bunch of people should get killed and you don’t even read about it? In America, you find out what color underwear they’re wearing when they die. And I’d rather have this, I’d rather have all the gossip than have nothing at all.

“Look, I’m only getting started with Stalin. Never mind what he did to the Jews. Half his own Party he killed when he made his purges! Stalin executed maybe a million people even before the World War. Millions he sent to Siberia. Half the leaders in the army he killed . . .

“So here I meant to talk about McCarthy and the Smith Act and the blacklists and all that stuff in America and instead I talk about Stalin. ’Cause Stalin destroyed my Communist party, not McCarthy. I feel like I should have a heart attack for saying such a thing, but it’s true. And the truth I’m still learning, y’see. . . . It’s like getting a phone call one day that says your son is in jail for murder or rape or some kind of a terrible crime. The first thing you do is ask yourself, How can this be? And you look back at your whole life, and suddenly it feels worthless. You’ve been blind with your eyes open. You’ve been following orders like a dancing monkey. Even if you had a disagreement, you just figured there was something wrong with you — you’re bourgeois, you’re not revolutionary enough — or else you kept your mouth shut so you could keep your friends, and you maybe became a little less active, that’s all.”

While I can make such statements in a work of fiction and the book will still be embraced by the Jewish Currents community, as it was when first published in 1983. As editor of the magazine today, however, I somehow feel constrained about creating or soliciting articles that really delve deeply into issues of communist atrocities, and the sectarian mindset, and how truly blind to reality so many of my grandmother’s and parents’ generation were. I suppose, if our large new corps of Workmen’s Circle readers were actively engaged with the magazine, contributing funds and so on, I might feel a bit less constrained — but our most active base of support is still among our veterans. And I fear that they would be offended and personally attacked by articles that reflect not only the romance of American communism, but the horror show of American communism. Sure, Jewish Currents always acknowledges the crimes of Stalinism — but a deeper exploration about communist identity feels risky to undertake.

Why should any of this matter, since there is nothing but nothing “communist” about Jewish Currents any more? I think it matters, mostly, because until Jewish Currents engages with this discussion, it may still be considered a communist magazine by some in the Jewish mainstream — and by some of our own Workmen’s Circle readers. More importantly, I believe that until the left reckons deeply with its relationship to the atrocities of communism, it will be constipated and largely without new ideas.

When I first became editor of Jewish Currents four years ago, I heard from a friend at the American Jewish Congress that so-and-so at the AJC considered me to be a communist! I was appalled by this, first of all, because it’s nuts! I am a red-diaper baby, and I have called myself a socialist during parts of my life (and I remain a kind of emotional-spiritual socialist, though I am highly skeptical about it as an economic system), but I have never been a communist or an admirer of communism as an ideology or a system. But I was appalled even more to realize that to the guy who believed me to be a communist, I might just as well be a fascist! Because most American, including most American Jews, are not in touch with the “romance” of communism — rather, they think of communism as a system of mass murder akin to fascism.

Jewish ex-communists I know have not dealt fully with the reality of this perception. Their teshuvah, so to speak, seems very incomplete. The republication of Bessie in 2007 will put the issue on the table again for those who read or re-read the novel. But perhaps it's well past time to move that discussion out of the realm of fiction. Starting with this blog . . .