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The Cup Of Benjamin

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

When the sons of Jacob went to Egypt for food they became victims of a cruel ruse. As we recently read in the weekly Torah portion, when the provisions the brothers had acquired were loaded on horse and wagon for the return trip to Canaan, the Egyptian viceroy’s cup was stealthily planted into the sack of the youngest, Benjamin.

The Egyptians generously allowed the unsuspecting brothers to depart, then chased after them and, in the search that followed, apprehended the “thief.”

We can easily imagine the consternation of the brothers. The “thief” who “stole” the royal goblet turned out to be Benjamin, the darling of their elderly father, Jacob.

Benjamin – whose safety they guaranteed to Jacob; Benjamin – whom Jacob had not wished to release for the long journey from Canaan to Egypt; Benjamin – without whom Judah would not wish to return home.

The brothers were pained beyond endurance and in their mournful anguish “they rent their garments.” For the crime of theft Benjamin would conceivably be condemned to perpetual enslavement in Egypt – a tragic blow to Jacob and his family.

Regaining his composure, Judah proceeded to present a heartrendingly beautiful plea to the powerful Egyptian viceroy.

But anguish, sorrow, and regret were not the only reactions of the brothers. The Midrash Tanchuma tells us, hayu omdim umakim l’Binyamin – they slapped Benjamin in anger and frustration for the theft and the shame he brought upon them, accepting the Egyptian claim of their brother’s guilt.

After all, wasn’t he found with the incriminating evidence in hand (or in sack), proving incontrovertibly he was the thief?

None thought of questioning the Egyptian accusation. None thought of looking into Benjamin’s moves or motives while in the Egyptian capital – whether he had even a single moment alone when he could steal such a precious object from a palace guarded, no doubt, by a thousand pairs of watchful eyes.

None seemed to cry out, Wait! It is impossible! I know this young man for many years, and that is just not him! He is not a thief! His hands have been clean all these years! Wait! Check! See! Maybe it is a mistake.

There was no challenge, only acceptance. The stranger did it, said the Egyptian, and so it was.

The story of Benjamin has a happy ending, but that does not diminish from our consternation that the brothers were so ready to pounce upon him hand and fist – hayu omdim umakim l’Binyamin.

They were ready to act on the basis of Egyptian accusations and punish the alleged perpetrator, to finish the intended job of the Egyptians without giving their brother even the benefit of the doubt.

 

* * * * *

We Jews did it then, and we are still doing it now. As they did then, nearly 4,000 years ago, so today the nations accuse us – and we do not question. As a matter of sad fact we, like obedient children, listen to them – and we finish the job for them. We punish ourselves without mercy.

It is bad enough if the nations wish to believe all the accusations they have contrived and heaped upon us throughout history. But if we Jews join in the fray umakim l’Binyamin, slapping and hitting and bashing Benjamin – at our brothers, at ourselves – it not merely bad, it is monstrous.

Granted, it may be understandable that Benjamin’s brothers did not suspect a ruse, a trick, a dirty game. For them it was a first. But we? We are old hands at it. We have been accused of every conceivable crime under the sun.

We were accused of crucifying Jesus at a time when the power of capital punishment wasn’t even in our hands but in those of the conquering Romans.

We were accused of bleeding and killing innocent Christian children to utilize by some black magic their red blood in preparing our white matzah.

We were accused of conspiring devilishly to gain control of all the power centers of humanity – described so vividly in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

We were accused of defiling virgin maidens, of cheating, of acting treacherously, of having turned into the embodiment of the formidable Satan himself.

We know – at least we should know – what the world has been saying about us, what it thinks of us. We certainly know – we should know – that the world has not been acting truthfully when it’s come to the Jewish people or the state of Israel.

Being hypocritical toward us, deceiving us, deliberately falsifying information about us, and, most recently, presenting masterfully contrived photo montages as “solid proof” against us – these are not considered dishonest and wrong in the universal vocabulary of nations.

In some countries people are tortured, starved and butchered without a voice being raised by the nations or NGOs. At the same time, Israel has been quite consistently condemned, virtually unanimously, by the UN and NGOs for allegedly maltreating its Arab minority without even the remotest reference to the vastly improved standard of life of the Arabs in Israel and their vastly improved longevity, by comparison even to the highest standards in Arab countries in the Middle East.

The world believes Israel mistreats its minorities – even as just last month 60,000 Christians were offered free bus transportation on the eve of Christmas from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and Christians from Gaza were allowed free unhampered passage to Bethlehem through Israel.

(Forgive the comparison, but when the Kotel was in Arab hands no Jews could get to it. Neither could Jews get to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, or to Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem.)

We cannot, of course, control the nations that wish to plant stolen cups in our bag. We have no defense against that. Having maligned us for ages, they instinctively seek out reason after flimsy reason, legend after legend, invention after invention, fantasy after fantasy.

Our concern should be with ourselves – our sisters and brothers who accept every accusation defaming Israel as if it were the Lord’s word from Sinai. Our dismay should be with those among us who are pathologically self-effacing, slapping mercilessly at their own blood, their own kin – makim l’Binyamin – for alleged crimes that have no basis in reality.

Our concern should be with the tendency among too many Jews to accept and internalize accusations hurled at us by parties who are more interested in burying us alive than in safeguarding justice.

Achad Ha’am wrote in one of his essays (“Chatzi Nechamah” or “Half a Consolation”) almost a century ago on the same theme. My coreligionists, he lamented, are trying to escape our religion and our people and believe all the terrible things the world is saying about us. Maybe it will help strengthen our backbone if we consider how totally false the widespread belief is of the use of Christian blood for our Jewish rituals.

(At this point it behooves us to interrupt Achad Ha’am for a moment to remind ourselves of only a few of the major blood libel accusations that Jews suffered through either during his lifetime or in the years just prior to his birth in 1856: Damascus 1840, Tisza-Eszlar 1882, Polna 1899, Kiev 1911.)

Achad Ha’am concluded his essay with the following memorable words we ought to engrave with an iron pen on the parchment of our mind:

“Is it possible that the whole world is guilty and the Jews are innocent? That the whole world is wrong and we are right? EFSHAR VE’EFSHAR. It is indeed possible. The blood libel proves it. On this the Jews are really as clean and pure as the heavenly angels. Jews and the use of Christian blood! Can there be a greater contrast than that? And yet VE’AF AL PI CHEN .”

 

* * * * *

And yet still today we are beating our brother Benjamin, and by extension ourselves, when it should be clear the cup has been planted in our bag by our adversaries. The ideologies and theologies of other nations can tolerate only a humiliated Jew who is crawling in the dust. Not necessarily destroyed, not necessarily maimed, but crawling in the dust of the earth, spat upon and humiliated.

Just look at what our brother Judge Goldstone, at what J Street, at what Jewish students on college campuses, at what Jewish NGOs abroad and in Israel have been doing to us in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza – declaring us guilty and outcast, condemning us for having broken the most elementary laws of human conduct.

By way of refreshing contrast, consider the words of the president of Sapir College in Sderot, Prof. Ze’ev Tzachor, a leading academic who happens to be an outspoken, self-described left-winger. On the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead he wrote in Yediot Aharonot:

The eight years that preceded the Gaza Campaign seem like a nightmare . In the course of these years there were days when the number of siren warnings amounted to more than 30 . How does a class function in a setup when every few minutes a siren warning shakes up all present? How does one give a grade to students whose exam is interrupted by a kassam landing in the college courtyard and who right after the BOOM have to focus once again on their exam? And a minute later another warning, followed by dozens of alarmed parents and loved ones calling: Are there any wounded? Was it close?

But for the world the Gaza conflict doesn’t begin years ago, with thousands of kassams raining down on Jewish communities during that time, for that would justify Operation Cast Lead.

No, for the world the conflict begins when Israel attacks, and no consideration is given to the possibility that it was an attack in self-defense.

Conveniently, if the conflict began a year ago, it becomes a foregone conclusion that Israel must be the attacker, the aggressor, the guilty party. The cup is planted in our bag for the whole world to see.

Behold, the Jew is in his rightful place – crawling in the dust where he belongs according to the ideology and theology and folk wisdom of even the most advanced nations.

And our Jewish sisters and brothers worldwide swallow this bilge as if it were the waters of Eden. Perhaps it is time to heed Elie Wiesel’s declaration that sometimes the most rational response to evil is anger.

We all have a right to be angry with the nations in the midst of whom we dwell, with the organizations, the NGOs, the prominent individuals who are self-serving, who begin history at a point that proves their distorted stand, whose worldview is saturated with seething hatred rather than truth and justice.

Beyond anger, it is time to speak up for ourselves, recognizing full well that the so-called evidence proving Israel’s widespread lust for war, for blood, for vengeance – for willfully killing civilians – is so much hogwash, masterfully manipulated by interested parties.

It is time for our people everywhere to recognize that, with the exception of insignificant numbers, Jews in Israel crave genuine peace, whereas the other side genuinely craves only one overriding goal: the destruction of Israel.

Let us not be of those who makim l’Binyamin, who slap their brother because the nations present him in their own distorted light. Let us not fall into the trap of the nations that wish to plant a smelly rat in our bag.

 

* * * * *

We live in critical times. Look at the magnitude of the problems that beset us in Israel.

We are preoccupied with the heartrending problem of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and the new Pandora’s box the solution of that problem may open. We face external existential threats emanating from Iran and are continually concerned with a renewed intifada (as witness the recent murder of Rav Meir Avshalom Chai).

And all the while we have to cope with a stream of virtually unanimous condemnations flooding us from abroad, as Israel is judged incapable of doing the right thing – and evidently always will be, short of committing national suicide by giving up secure borders in favor of its diehard enemies.

And yet, and yet…

As we drown in the above-mentioned concerns, we are liable to overlook the absolute miracle of which we are a part.

In Israel we open our eyes every morning and look upon a Jewish state our fathers could only dream about for 2,000 years. It is ours – proudly defended by our children and grandchildren. It is ours – vital and energetic and productive, like no other land on this globe.

If only Israel’s adversaries would finally cease and desist in their antagonism, in their relentless pressures, in wasting their energies on devising ingenious ways of planting new royal cups in Israel’s bag, the creative genius of the Jewish people in their own land would benefit all mankind in ways thus far unimagined.

We Jews are sustained by the realization that we have endured – and triumphed over – situations much worse than that in which we find ourselves today.

After the destruction of the First Temple our people were in the midst of the Babylonian exile when the Prophet Ezekiel projected a future that no people had ever experienced and could ever anticipate under similar conditions, with the God of Israel bringing them back to their ancient homeland where they and their offspring would dwell in peace and security.

As we sat captive on the riverbanks of Babylon, conditions were not exactly favorable for the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s words. Similarly, a present-day observer might find conditions less than favorable for the realization of modern Israel’s decades-long dream of peace and security.

But just as Ezekiel’s vision was realized just decades after the destruction of the Temple, there is no reason to doubt, despite all obstacles in the way, the ultimate triumph of Israel in attaining not just peace and security but also an exalted place among the family of nations.

Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.

Siona Benjamin’s Blue Angels

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin


October 15, 2009 – January 29, 2010


Washington DC Jewish Community Center


1529 16th Street, NW, Washington



 

 


A blue-skinned woman with at least one wing carries a caged dove in her right hand and has just released a golden bird from her other hand. Her hair is covered by a shawl that rests over a curved dagger (like the Yemenite jambiya) with a sheath decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag. A corner of the shawl becomes a pair of tzitzit whose strings are wrapped around a lion’s arms and midsection, perhaps restraining it. The woman, who represents a self-portrait of the artist Siona Benjamin, stands on a white ball, which unravels to reveal not string but floral patterns that border the painting. Beneath her yellow skirt, the woman wears striped pants that evoke either the uniform of a prisoner or a concentration camp inmate.

 

Benjamin’s Jewish-Arab-American take on the cat playing with a ball of string is packed with symbols that could either bear fruitful metaphorical subtexts or dead-end red herrings. The lion could refer to Judah (called a “lion cub” in Genesis 49:9) or to Samson, who killed a lion and, upon seeing honeycomb in its mane, learned the lesson: “from the powerful ensued sweetness” (Judges 14:14). Or it could just be a lion. The strings of the tzitzit could protect the figure from the ferocious cat, or they could be the woman’s undoing, if the lion is pulling the woman down by her garment. Doves sometimes suggest peace, but a caged peace symbol could be ominous. The floral borders could suggest a beautiful garden, or a barrier that keeps the golden bird enclosed in an arena with the lion.

 

The work, Finding Home #9 (Fereshtini), is part of Benjamin’s larger series called Fereshteh, Urdu for “angels.” The angels of the series are the women of the bible, whom Benjamin positions as contemporary protectors who tackle modern problems: wars and violence. Benjamin, who grew up as a Bene Israel Jew in India, was educated at Catholic and Zoroastrian schools and lived in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society. Now based in Montclair, New Jersey, Benjamin brings this hybrid identity into her works.

 

 


Finding Home #9. 2007. 9″ x 11″. Gouache and 22K gold leaf on board

 

 

Another work from the Fereshteh series is Finding Home #86 “Chavah,” which represents the world’s first woman as the symbol of her sin which led to her banishment from Eden: a tree.

 

The tree is blue (of course), and it has seven female, human heads – six attached to the branches, and one in the roots. In Benjamin’s painting, Eve has become one (or seven) with the tree. In a statement, Benjamin notes that misogynistic accounts of the biblical text often focus on Eve as “empty headed” and a “temptress.” But Eve is thus named for being “the mother of all life” (“Chava” from the root “chai,” Genesis 3:20), so she cannot be viewed as a destroyer. “The eating of the forbidden fruit can be looked upon as not negative or impulsive,” Benjamin writes, “but as a woman full of curiosity, who reaches out for the gifts of life: pleasure, beauty and wisdom.”

 

Miriam, depicted in Finding Home #73, is a very different sort of woman. She lies (asleep? dead?) in a large wine glass. She is blue-skinned and wears a golden sari. Behind the glass is a grey mushroom cloud of demonic faces, and a wire is plugged into the base of the cloud. The wire winds around the stem of the glass and emerges as part of the intravenous therapy being administered to Miriam. Two needles seem to be drawing blood from Moses’ sister, who holds a switch in her left hand. “Will she turn off the switch in time to stop the violence, the demons?” Benjamin wonders in a statement. “Is she asleep? Sick? Oblivious? Controlled?”

 


Finding Home #73, “Miriam.” 2006. 10″ x 7″. Gouache and gold leaf on wood panel

 

 

Although Benjamin suggests there is hope that Miriam might turn off the mushroom cloud – surely a reference to nuclear weapons – one wonders if the nuclear power is not also fueling the biblical character, who had the boldness to address Pharaoh’s daughter, to lead the women in song at the Red Sea, and to criticize her brother Moses (for which she was struck with leprosy). Miriam was also responsible, the midrash tells us, for well filled with water that traveled with the Jews in the desert. Instead of supplying her people with the water necessary for survival, Benjamin’s Miriam does not have control of her own bodily fluids.

 

The Miriam of Finding Home #72 is only in slightly better shape. In the triptych, Miriam lies tangled on a spider’s web. Even her wings are stuck in the web. In fact, Miriam’s wings, arms, and legs seem so carefully and intentionally tied that she could not have simply flown into the web. In the bottom right corner, a demonic figure with a tail, fangs, and sharp claws sleeps. She is flanked on either side by Jonah, who holds an American flag as he is strung upside down in front of a fish, and by Joseph, who stands on a podium dressed in bright colors. The two figures are in poses reminiscent of the soldiers tortured at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

 

 


Finding Home #72, “Miriam.” 2006. 18″ x 15.3″. Gouache and 22K gold leaf on wood

 

 

It is not clear what Miriam has in her character that makes her the patron saint of tortured prisoners, but even if she could help Joseph and Jonah, she is trapped in the demonic web. That’s what I find most impressive and exciting about Benjamin’s angels. They have been summoned to respond to modern problems – which are of course timeless problems at the same time – but it is hardly clear that they will succeed. Just because angels have been dispatched to respond to a problem does not immediately resolve the problem.


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Is Judaism Cool?

Wednesday, July 12th, 2006


Jewtopia: A Comedy In Two Acts

Westside Theatre


407 West 43rd Street, New York

Tickets: 212-239-6200


 

 

Keeping Up with the Steins (2006)

Miramax Films


Directed by Scott Marshall


Written by Mark Zakarin


http://www.keepingupwiththesteins.com/


 


 

Much ink and money has been spilt over the topic of “hip Judaism”. We have our own Chasidic, reggae superstar; Jews all but invented the comic book and modern art; and a slew of contemporary comedians are Jewish – Jon Stewart and Ali G. to name two. The word kosher has become a popular term even in non-Jewish circles, and Jewish websites and blogs of all sorts parade Jewish jam bands and rap music, media analysis and politics, fashion and entertainment. Surely Jews have always participated in cultural circles and the media, but the contemporary blend seems intent on wearing its Judaism on its sleeve, where its forefathers had more of a profound sense of Jewish identity. But all this talk of Judaism à la mode might be premature. The jury is still out on whether all these models of cool Judaism are here to stay, or whether this is another fad – like so many others in our history – that will hardly last.

 

Bryan Fogel’s and Sam Wolfson’s off-Broadway play, “Jewtopia: A Comedy in Two Acts,” presents two opposing views on the question of Jewish coolness. The premise is simple; an Irish-Catholic man (Chris O’Donnell) wants to marry a Jewish girl, so he’ll never have to make another decision in his life. His Jewish friend (Adam Lipshitz) has trouble meeting nice Jewish girls to bring home to his mother, and the pressure to marry is mounting. The men form a pact. Adam will teach Chris the nuances of Jewish life, if Chris will open the doors of Jewtopia to Adam and get him Jewish dates. “Jewtopia” – which seems to be a blend of Judaism and utopia – turns out to be “Jdate,” the online Jewish dating site. Sadly, Adam’s 155 dates turn out to be mostly disasters. But ironically he ends up convincing Chris to convert to Judaism and marry a Jewish girl.

 

“Jewtopia” is abounding with stereotypes like Chris’ pursuit of a Jewish wife who will make all the decisions. When Adam explains to Chris what the telling signs will be that he is a goy so that he will be sure to avoid them, the list includes: owning and using power tools, watching Fox News and NASCAR, and the kicker – being in perfect health. He equips Chris with a small pharmacy’s worth of medical supplies, from Sudafed to Metamucil, for Chris’ date with his dream-girl and her Jewish mother.

 

“Jewtopia” is funny enough to allow the audience to overlook the sometimes stifling barrage of stereotypes. One wonders how appealing it would be to non-Jews, since part of the fun is laughing at “self-caricatures,” for two hours. But the play is most useful for its response to the question above: Is Judaism cool?

 

In that sense, it sets itself in a similar arena as the recent movie “Keeping Up with the Steins,” which has an equally bizarre plot. Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) and his parents are planning his forthcoming bar mitzvah. Or more accurately, his parents are planning his bar mitzvah for him, and they intend to outdo the recent Stein bar mitzvah that cost half a million dollars, exploring a “Titanic” theme that was complete with a cruise ship and a dolphin wearing a kippa (attached with Velcro, according to the party planner). The Fiedlers decide to use a baseball theme and to rent out Dodgers stadium to amuse Benjamin’s friends. Benjamin, meanwhile, cannot read his haftorah to save his life, but luckily he invites his grandmother’s estranged husband to the bar mitzvah and the grandfather saves the day.

 

The tale of blockbuster bar mitzvahs would have come off as far more absurd, if not for recent reports in the mainstream press about fads that not only feature house mortgages to pay for bar mitzvahs, but even a trend of Gentiles celebrating their “bar mitzvahs”.

 

“Jewtopia” also tracks a Jewish activity – dating – and infuses it with Gentiles. The play opens with Adam and Chris reuniting at the Inter-Temple Rockin’ Young Jewish Singles Mixer. They share Manischewitz and Sparkling Peach Kedem, when Adam says, “You know, Chris, it’s funny, because, when we were kids growing up together, I don’t remember you being… you know… Jewish.” Chris shrugs off the accusation, “Really? We were,” after which he says “Le’chaim” to Adam.

 

Adam sticks to his guns, “It’s just that, you know, I remember when I would sleep over at your house in the morning your mom was making bacon and sausage. I think once there was a rotating pig on a spit.” Adam, unsatisfied, tests Chris’ knowledge of Jewish scripture from the blessing on wine to the four questions of the Seder to “Adon Olam” to the Shema.


Chris successfully answers all Adam’s questions, but Adam then remembers that Chris’ father Buck collected guns, was a colonel in the Marines, drove a Trans Am, and the clincher – he actually used his boat. Adam starts yelling “Goyim! There’s a goyim [sic] at the party!” A dialogue ensues:

 

CHRIS: Alright, fine! You got me! I am a Gentile! Okay?

 

ADAM: A Gentile at the Jewish singles mixer? What are you doing here, man?!

 

CHRIS: I LOVE Jewish girls!

 

Long pause.

 

ADAM: Why?

 

This sort of clichéd humor poking fun at Jews and all things Jewish, also surfaces in “The Steins.” When Benjamin’s grandfather, Irwin (Gary Marshall), shows up with his girlfriend (Daryl Hannah), she exposes her ignorance about Judaism by pronouncing nachos like the food dip (she means nachas). When Irwin asks his grandson what he likes about being Jewish, Benjamin answers the bagels and lox.

 

But there is a lot more to both “Jewtopia” and “Keeping Up with the Steins” than simply cheap gags. Both productions suggest that there is something deeper to Judaism than its materialistic surface. Benjamin comes to realize that he does not want a baseball-themed bar mitzvah. He tells his grandfather that he does not understand the words of his haftorah, and Irwin respectfully tells the rabbi that he is letting the children down by not teaching them what the words mean. After the rabbi explains (at length) what a bar mitzvah means, Benjamin decides he wants to have his bar mitzvah at his house, with all of his relatives’ favorite recipes exhibited, instead of baseball bat-themed food at the ball park. Benjamin admits that he does not feel like a man, entirely, but he does manage to repair some of the bad blood in his family and to bring his father and grandfather back together. Although (Jewish) singer Neil Diamond does show up and sing “Hava Nagila” at the end, it is not to infuse the celebration with celebrity appeal so much as Neil singing because Benjamin’s grandmother, a family friend of the Diamonds, has asked him to come. Diamond fits in with the family theme, and the bar mitzvah turns out to be quite meaningful for all involved, including the Steins who lament their wasted money.

 

“Jewtopia” also concludes with “Hava Nagila,” though it has a double wedding thrown in the mix. Although it is hard to say for sure where exactly the characters stand in relation to their Jewish identity at the play’s end – it has the feel of a Jackie Mason skit – the characters do come to accept one another and to have achieved at least somewhat of a better understanding of Judaism than they entered the play with. Like Benjamin, Adam and Chris come to appreciate that there is more to Judaism than simply bagels and lox, and in their case, Manischewitz.

 

Chris’ and Adam’s tale and Benjamin’s are surely not narratives that appear to share much common ground with readers of The Jewish Press. The play and movie worlds are worlds of materialism joining hands with minimal understanding of what Judaism means. Both productions adopt a highly ironic and satirical voice to poke fun at Judaism. Yet, like the Talmud encourages to push people away (when necessary) with the left hand, while simultaneously drawing them back with the right (which is stronger, in Biblical metaphor), the performances carry important social criticism embedded within the satire.

 

So is Judaism cool? It is hard to say without getting bogged down by what “cool” means. But at least in the worlds of “Jewtopia” and “Keeping Up with the Steins,” coolness has far more to do with knowledge and tradition than with a flashy, upper-class image that one projects to outdo one’s peers.

 

Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com 

 

I graciously acknowledge my friend Henny Admoni’s help with the sections of this review that attend to “Jewtopia.” 

Q & A: The 15th Of Av – A Day Of Rejoicing

Wednesday, August 25th, 2004
QUESTION: If the fast of Tisha Be’Av (the ninth day of Av) concludes the mourning period for the destruction of the Temple, why do we wait until the fifteenth of Av to rejoice? Is there a distinct significance to this date? Please discuss this in your insightful column.
Sara Gutman
(Via E-Mail)
ANSWER: Our rejoicing on the fifteenth (tet-vav) of Av or Tu Be’Av, as this day is also known, bears no connection to the mourning of Tisha Be’Av. Tisha Be’Av will become a yom tov of its own when Moshiach comes. The final Tosefta in Ta’anit (3:13) teaches: “These days [mentioned in Ta'anit 26a-b - Shiv'a Asar BeTammuz and Tisha Be'Av] will, in the future, become festivals for Israel as it states, ‘Thus says Hashem, Master of Legions, The fast of the fourth [month - Tammuz, i.e., Shiv'a Asar BeTammuz], the fast of the fifth [month - Av, i.e., Tisha Be'Av], the fast of the seventh [month - Tishrei, i.e., Tzom Gedalia on the third day of Tishrei], and the fast of the tenth [month - Tevet, i.e., Asara BeTevet] will become for the house of Judah times of joy and gladness and happy festivals’ (Zechariah 8:19). All who mourn [for Jerusalem] in this world will rejoice with her in the world to come, as stated (Isaiah 66:10), ‘Be glad with Jerusalem and rejoice with her, all you who love her; rejoice for joy with her, all you who mourned for her.’ (This is essentially similar to what the Gemara teaches in Ta’anit 30b: “He who labors on the ninth of Av and does not mourn for Jerusalem will not bear witness to her joy.”)Regarding Tu Be’Av, the Gemara (Ta’anit ad loc. 30b-31a) explains the reasons for special rejoicing according to various sages. R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel, This [the fifteenth of Av] was the day when individuals from different tribes were permitted to marry one another. Rashi s.v. “Shehutru shevatim lavo zeh bazeh” explains, “As the Torah states in Parashat Mas’ei (Numbers 36:8), ‘Vechol bat yoreshet nachala mimattot Bnei Yisrael [le'echad mimishpachat matteh aviha tih'yeh le'isha, lema'an yirshu Bnei Yisrael ish nachalat avotav] – Every daughter who possesses an inheritance (in any) of the tribes of Israel [shall become the wife of someone of a family of her father's tribe so that everyone of the Children of Israel will inherit the inheritance of his father].’ The following verse (36:9) states, ‘Velo tisov nachala mimatteh lematteh acher [ki ish benachalato yidbeku mattot Bnei Yisrael] – An inheritance shall not pass from one tribe to another tribe [for everyone of the tribes of the Children of Israel shall cleave to his own inheritance].’ The sages conferred and issued a decree removing this restriction on the fifteenth of Av.”The Gemara discusses the Biblical source for the decree. “They based it on an earlier verse (Numbers 36:6), ‘Zeh hadavar asher tziva Hashem li[b]enot Tzelophehad… – This is the matter that Hashem has commanded regarding the daughters of Tzelophehad…’ This matter was only in practice in that generation (of the daughters of Tzelophehad).” Thus a daughter who inherits when there is no son may, indeed, marry a man from another tribe.

R. Yosef says in the name of R. Nachman that this was the day that the tribe of Benjamin was [again] permitted to marry the daughters of the other tribes. [This Gemara is based on the passage in Judges (ch. 19-20) regarding pilegesh beGiv'ah - the concubine at Gibeah, a woman who, together with her common-law husband, went to Gibeah, a town within the land of the tribe of Benjamin. Gibeah was populated by ruffians who wished to molest the husband but wound up abusing the woman. She died as a result of their brutality. The subsequent outcry throughout Israel instigated a war that caused the tribe of Benjamin to reach near devastation. The result was that the men of the tribe who survived had few matches to contemplate with the even smaller number of women that survived but, as the verse states (Judges 21:1), "Ve'ish Yisrael nishba bamitzpa lemor, Ish mimmenu lo yiten bito le[B]inyamin le’isha ? The men of Israel had taken an oath at Mitzpah saying, ‘None from among us will give his daughter as a wife to [the tribe of] Benjamin.’”

The Gemara asks, “What was the Scriptural source that permitted them to lift the prohibition?” Rav says that the verse states “mimmenu ? from among us,” but not “baneinu – [from among] our children.”

Rabbah b. Bar Chana said in the name of R. Yochanan that the 15th of Av was the day on which the generation of the wilderness (those who had come out of Egypt and were wandering in the desert for 40 years) ceased to die out. For a master (a sage) said that as long as the generation of the wilderness continued to die out there was no Divine communication with Moses. Rashi (s.v. “Lo haya hadibbur im Moshe”) explains that there was no direct and endearing conversation. All the other conversations in that time period were not “peh el peh ? lit. mouth to mouth”, but rather visions at night, as the verse explains (Deuteronomy 2:16-17), “Va’yehi ka’asher tamu kol anshei hamilchama lamut [mikerev ha-am], Va’yedabber Hashem elai lemor … – When it came to pass that all the men of war finished dying [from amidst the people], Hashem spoke to me, saying…” The Gemara explains this to mean that only then did the Divine communication resume directly “to me,” i.e., Moses, and this happened on the 15th of Av.

Ulla gives another reason for the uniqueness of this day, stating that this was the day that Hoshea b. Elah, who reigned in Israel during the time that Ahaz was king of Judah (II Kings 17:1), removed the guards which Jeroboam son of Nebat, the first king of Israel, who had split away from the kingdom of Judah, had placed on the roads to prevent the people of the kingdom of Israel from ascending to Jerusalem for the festival pilgrimages. The Gemara (Gittin 88) explains that Hoshea b. Elah was also a wicked king, but not as wicked as other kings of Israel, for while he permitted pilgrimages to Jerusalem, he still allowed the people to worship idols.

R. Mattenah offers another reason as stated in Tractate Gittin (57a, Perek Hanizakin). It was the day when permission was granted to bury those killed at Beitar during the Bar Kochba revolt. The Gemara relates how the town’s inhabitants, including men, women, and children, were slain and their blood flowed for seven years. The 15th of Av was the day that permission was granted to bury those killed at Beitar. In commemoration, the Sages in Yavneh instituted the blessing of “Hatov VeHameitiv – Hashem, who is kind and deals kindly,” because the dead corpses had not putrified and because permission was granted to bury them. This blessing was permanently added to the text of Birkat Hamazon – the Grace after Meals. Yet another explanation is found in the Gemara: Rabbah and R. Yosef both say that this was the day on which [every year], they stopped felling trees for firewood for the altar. This is deduced from a baraita where R. Eliezer the Elder says that from the 15th of Av and on, the rays of the sun weaken and trees cut for firewood would not dry sufficiently. Rashi (s.v. “Milichrot”) explains that since the wood was still moist, it might harbor worms, making it unfit for the altar, as stated in the mishna (Middot 2:5). R. Menashya said that they called the 15th day of Av “the day of the breaking of the axe.”

The Gemara also relates that on the 15th of Av the daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards in borrowed white garments so as to be dressed alike and appear to be of the same social status. Young unmarried men would come there to find a match.

The 15th day of Av has some practical halachic implications as well. We do not fast, make eulogies, or say Tachanun. If the 15th of Av falls on Shabbat, we do not recite Hazkarat Neshamot, nor do we say Tzidkat’cha at Mincha. Tu Be’Av is a joyous time in its own right. May we speedily come to the time when the days of fasting and mourning will become holidays as well.

Benjamin Levy: Encounters With Spontaneity

Friday, June 20th, 2003

Encounters: Oil Paintings, Sculptures and Watercolors.

The National Arts Club:

15 Gramercy Park South

(212-475-3424)
Opening reception: May 28, 2003: 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

May 28 – June 11, 2003

 

Some artists are very deliberate; planning, plotting and calculating each aesthetic move to nurture an elaborate artistic program or a growing career. They are proud to assert control over their creativity.

Others seem to create willy-nilly, spilling their psychological baggage out before us, amazing us with each new specimen of personal history. They assert that they have no idea what each new work might mean or what will follow. Benjamin Levy maintains that he is just this kind of spontaneous artist. His paintings, sculptures and watercolors are being shown at the National Arts Club, May 28 through June 11.

Benjamin Levy was born in 1940 in Tel Aviv. His background, and most importantly, the history of his family, is a predominant force that shapes much of his artwork. His family’s travels from the far reaches of the Middle East to settle in the Land of Israel produced a jumble of influences to shape the young artist. Benjamin’s father, Ovadiah, walked from Yemen to Jaffa, taking two years to traverse the vastness of Saudi Arabia. Ovadiah’s mother and sister died along the way. Benjamin’s mother, Batsheva, was born in Jerusalem to parents
who had migrated from Turkey. When his parents met in Jaffa they were both impoverished orphans. He sold peanuts, sunflower seeds and occasionally birds while she worked as a maid. They married and had eleven children. Benjamin was the ninth child born to his parents. Life was a struggle.

Benjamin’s reaction was to create art. His talent was soon noticed as a young adult and later he studied art in Paris, Israel and New York. He now divides his time, living and working on the Upper West Side in New York and in the artist’s colony of Ein Hod near Haifa. Working
hard and giving free rein to his memory-soaked imagination, he has created a fantastic universe inhabited by prototypical men and women in surreal settings. Everything is depicted as quite real in this manufactured land of Nod that is, according to Levy, unplanned and unscripted. He is driven as an artist, working over 12 hours a day, producing countless drawings, watercolors and paintings and has exhibited continuously and extensively throughout the world since his
early 20′s. His art opens a world of unimagined possibilities.

Benjamin Levy does not title his paintings, rather they are exercises of artistic freedom unbounded by text. We see a man posed in a room next to an incongruous tree surrounded by birds. This room and endless variations is a staple of Levy’s world. A narrow, slightly claustrophobic shadow box becomes the stage in which little vignettes are played out. Proportions are all slightly out of kilter as a kind of primitive naturalism prevails in a scene that seems clear and yet hides its meaning behind a puzzlement of details. This “Birdman” painting seems to speak about how we are surrounded by freedom (the birds can come and go as they please through the window) and yet we are constrained, bounded by limiting proprieties. Remember, Levy’s father sold birds.

In a drawing done this year, we see the bird again – this time alone, flat on its back with both feet straight up. It is the end for this colorful bird. And what of freedom? In a world in turmoil, with Israel under constant attack – are all birds of freedom doomed?

Concepts such as freedom, home, and our place in them are constantly explored. A series of “table landscapes” show a miniature house, a pair of figures and a tree all set on a table placed in a room. The chimney is smoking and echoes the smoke from the passing steamship glimpsed through the open doorway. Distant travel is anxiously juxtaposed with the comforts of domesticity, rendering our concept of home security but an imaginative plaything. Levy’s surrealism grows in the fertile soil of his family history of difficult travels and equally uncertain homes of part-time exile.

Levy is restless in his depiction of the strange and the familiar alike. A recent watercolor of a rabbi is startling in its depiction of something normal, possibly a memory of a traditional rabbi from his Paris days. This playful drawing serves to ground his fantastic universe with a reminder of a Jewish world, as elusive as that might be.

After a recent visit with the artist in his New York studio, one image kept on returning to haunt me. A man in a suit with little angel wings is seen hugging a tree. How strange! Levy told me it was a recurrent image in his work. Perhaps his father loved trees? Surely the birds do. But more poignantly, the image is about how we all crave stability, and even a little certainty in our lives. We all wish to grab onto something rooted, something that soars heavenward even as it provides shelter and beauty. Something remarkably like a tree.

In a curious way, Levy’s seemingly spontaneous and idiosyncratic artwork expresses how much we all yearn for that stability even as the world around us goes spinning in so many different directions.

For biographical details I am indebted to Ori Soltes’ excellent catalogue essay; “The Travels of Benjamin and La Familia” that accompanied the 1993 Retrospective at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum.


Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to e-mail him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/benjamin-levy-encounters-with-spontaneity/2003/06/20/

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