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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Akiva’

Lag B’Omer Trivia

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

The Palmach division of the Haganah was established on Lag B’Omer 1941.

The Gadna program (youth brigade) was also established on Lag B’Omer 1941, and their symbol is the bow and arrow.

Ben-Gurion gave the order to officially create the IDF on Lag B’Omer 1948 (assuming he issued it after sunset on May 26, 1948).

Lag B’Omer is the official day for saluting IDF reserve soldiers.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L writes in his Likkutei Sichos that the reason why the day should be called Lag BaOmer and not Lag LaOmer is because the Hebrew words Lag BaOmer (ל״ג בעמר), spelled without the “vav”, have the same gematria as Moshe (משה), and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was mystically a spark of the soul of Moses.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews visit the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in Meron on Lag B’Omer.

Lag B’Omer has joined Rosh Hashana to become the only other 2 day holiday in Israel. In order to avoid possible desecration of Shabbat this year (2013), the Rabbanut asked that schools be closed on Sunday and Monday, and that bonfires be delayed until Sunday afternoon. Most people ignore the request to delay the bonfires.

Jerusalem pollution levels rise 6 times normal on Lag B’Omer due to the bonfires.

3600 tons of wood are burned.

Construction sites lose on average, NIS 15,000 worth of material, as children raid the sites for wood.

500 firetrucks and 300 firefighters are on duty in Israel.

Feel free to add your Lag B’Omer trivia in the comments.

The Claim Of The Daughters Of Tzelaphchad

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

The Gemara in Baba Basra 119b relays the following conversation that took place in this week’s parshah: Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching the halachos of yibum when the daughters of Tzelaphchad approached him with the following question: Our father died in the midbar and did not have any sons. Why then is our mother not required to fulfill the obligation of yibum? And if the fact that he had daughters is the reason that she is not obligated to fulfill this requirement, why then can we (his daughters) not receive an inheritance – just like sons would?

The Gemara in Shabbos 96b says in the name of Rabbi Akiva that Tzelaphchad was the individual who was mekoshesh eitzim (the gatherer of wood) in the midbar on Shabbos. This act of Shabbos desecration was the reason he was put to death.

The Chasam Sofer (Teshuvos 6, likutim 56) was asked the following question: The Mordechai’s opinion is that a mummar’s wife does not fall into the category of yibum since the deceased husband is not worthy of having his name upheld. How then could the daughters of Tzelaphchad have asked that their mother be required to fulfill yibum when their father was, in Rabbi Akiva’s view, a mummar due to having been the mekoshesh? Why didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu simply answer that their father was considered a mummar, thus negating their mother’s requirement to fulfill yibum?

One answer that the Chasam Sofer offers is that the halacha of the Mordechai only applies when one dies while still a mummar, for only then is he not worthy of retaining his name. However, Tzelaphchad did teshuvah before he died and therefore his wife could fall to yibum even according to the Mordechai. We see this from the fact that the Torah listed with him all of his ancestors – who were all tzaddikim.

Another answer that the Chasam Sofer suggests is that the Mordechai’s halacha does not apply to a mummar unless he leaves the religion and joins a different one. Only such a person is not worthy of having his name upheld. But a mummar who does not leave the religion to join another one, even if he desecrates Shabbos or does avodah zarah, is still worthy of having his name upheld. Thus, even the Mordechai would agree that his wife would fall to yibum; hence Tzelaphchad’s wife was able to fall to yibum.

The Chasam Sofer also points out that the question is based on a premise that is not necessarily true. He says that it is not clear whether the mekoshesh acted in public or in private when desecrating Shabbos. Had he acted in private, he does not attain the status of a mummar. There is a machlokes as to which melachah the mekoshesh transgressed; one says he carried four amos in reshus ha’rabim, another says he cut off the branches, and a third says he was making piles. According to the opinions that he cut off the branches or that he made piles, there is no indication that he acted in public. Therefore he would not be considered a mummer and his wife could fall to yibum.

On face value it seems that the Chasam Sofer forgot a Tosafos in Sanhedrin (78b d”h lo). There Tosafos says that Moshe Rabbeinu reasoned that the mekoshesh should deserve death by stoning, since a mechalel Shabbos in public is likened to one who does avodah zarah (who is stoned). The Chasam Sofer’s father-in-law, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, understands the Tosafos to mean that he acted in public. We see this from his question on Tosafos. He asks that since according to Tosafos a mechalel Shabbos can be killed (just as one who does avodah zarah, since a mechalel Shabbos is likened to a practitioner of avodah zarah), how do we then know what Hashem’s answer to Moshe was? Perhaps Hashem agreed with Moshe that the mekoshesh should be stoned only because he acted in public, thereby likening him to one who did avodah zarah. However, one who desecrates Shabbos in private but who is not compared to one who does avodah zarah would receive death by strangulation (the form of death given when the Torah does not specify which form of death).

It’s My Opinion: Countdown

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The days after Passover are referred to as sefirot, a semi-mourning period, marking a terrible plague that killed thousands of students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Tradition tells us that these deaths were the result of his students not being sufficiently respectful to each other.

The practice of sefirot involves the “counting of the omer.” We mark the days until this period is over. On the 33rd day, which has become known as Lag B’Omer, the students stopped dying. The day is joyful and celebrated with bonfires and festivities.

It is human nature to be involved in a countdown mode for many of life’s passages. Children count the days to their birthdays, the end of the school year, etc. Adults often engage in counting down the days until vacation or even retirement.

As a result of this mindset, we often miss the lessons and messages and experiences of today. We fail to process what is in front of us. Instead, we anticipate what is ahead.

In our rush to anticipate the future, we often lose the ability to truly experience the present. We miss precious moments. We can’t wait until the baby will be in school, the children will be on their own, or we will finally be out of the rat race the working world. A lifetime can pass us by and we didn’t even live it.

The present is a gift. Let us unwrap it and use it wisely.

Hashgachah Pratis: Readers Respond (Continued from Last Week)

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

For the past several weeks I have been focusing on hashgachah pratis – personal, individual and national guidance that comes from heaven. Sadly, in our secular, high pressured, very often decadent society, many voices assail us and we have difficulty hearing the still small voice of G-d leading and prodding us.

I have shared the personal stories of readers who testify to hashgachah pratis. Earlier stories focused on health and shidduch problems. This week we will deal with the economic crunch so many people have to struggle with. But no matter the problem, Hashem is always there. We need only attune our ears and open our eyes to see G-d’s Hand leading us on our path.

If we are sensitive, we can hear even a stone speaking to us. Consider the story of Rabbi Akiva. He was forty years old, an illiterate shepherd in the employ of Kalba Savua, the wealthiest man in Jerusalem. Kalba Savua’s beautiful 18-year-old daughter Rachel detected greatness in Akiva. She saw he could become a great Torah luminary, shedding light not only for his generation but for all generations to come. She challenged him to study Torah, saying if he would do so she would marry him.

The marriage part was very enticing, but how, he wondered, could a man of forty study together with little children? The challenge seemed insurmountable, the task impossible. Perplexed and conflicted, he decided to take a walk in the forest, hoping to gain some clarity. Lo and behold, G-d gave him a message! No, he didn’t hear voices. No, he didn’t see flames coming down from the heavens above. No, he had no visitation from angels.

He simply fell upon a large stone next to a brook. He studied the shape of the stone and realized it had been impacted by drops of water falling upon it day and night. And then it occurred to him – if G-d had made him stumble on this rock in the brook, it must be for a reason. Surely there was a message there. Suddenly he had the clarification he was seeking.

If, he reasoned, a stone can be penetrated by drops of water, “surely, I will be able to receive drops of Torah in my mind and heart and thus be reshaped.” And that is how Akiva the illiterate shepherd was launched on the path of becoming the greatest sage in Israel.

Obviously, not one of us in our generation is Rabbi Akiva. We would never find a message in a stone. Nevertheless, Hashem in His infinite mercy speaks to us on our level. But the noise and the chaos and degenerate voices of our 21st-century culture block our ears and blind our eyes. We see not and we hear not.

I will now share an amazing letter proving that Hashem never abandons us.

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

I have been following your articles on hashgachah pratis with great interest. My family also has a story to tell – a story that clearly demonstrates the Hand of Hashem. I asked my husband to write it and send it to you, but my husband just waved me off, saying, “That’s women’s stuff! You do it!”

I took him up on his challenge and am writing this letter so that others might benefit from it. Sadly, it is a story that befalls many.

My husband is in his middle years. He was an attorney all his working life, putting in many long hours at his firm. We are not wealthy but we always enjoyed a good lifestyle. We sent our children to camp, took vacations, gave tzedakah, live in a nice neighborhood and have a comfortable home on which we are still paying the mortgage.

Two years ago, out of the blue, my husband was given a pink slip. He was in total shock. He didn’t know how to break the news to me, but I saw something was drastically wrong. At first he didn’t want to tell me but I wouldn’t let go until he finally told me the shocking news. I became scared. We tried to reassure one another that it would be okay and that he would find a new position in no time. We decided not to tell the children. There was no sense worrying them. Thank G-d we had some savings to tide us over, and we were sure he would find new employment soon.

We soon discovered it wasn’t so simple. My husband went to headhunters, searched the help wanted ads, spoke to friends, relatives, casual acquaintances – all to no avail. The economic crunch that hit the firm at which he worked seemed to be prevalent everywhere, and soon the weeks turned into months and the months into a year. There was no job in the offing.

We couldn’t send the children to camp; we couldn’t go on our usual vacations. I had to think twice when I bought groceries – never mind new clothing. It was tough. We didn’t have to tell the children, because they figured it out for themselves. After a period of terrible frustration a friend advised my husband that, until such time as he would find a new position in a law firm, he should take any job that came along, even one in a bakery, supermarket, or restaurant.

Leaving The December Dilemma Behind

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

No matter our stage in life, one is seldom comfortable feeling left out. Unfortunately, many American Jews experience exactly that feeling each year as Christmas approaches. The term “December Dilemma” is used to describe the tension many Jews feel sitting on the sidelines, unable to fully enjoy or participate in the distinctly Christian themes and activities occurring all around.

One contemporary Jewish author, Sara Y. Rigler, writes:

“I grew up as a strongly identified Jew in Christian America. This posed few problems ten and a half months a year. But every November, when the Xmas decorations started to go up, so did my defenses. The annual Xmas concert in my public school was a real identity crisis for me. Should I refuse to participate? Should I go up on the stage with the rest of my class and just mouth the words of the Christmas carols? Should I sing, but go silent every time we came to the ‘J’ word?

“The concerts ended with elementary school, but not my sense of alienation every December. I felt like I was milling around in a party to which I was not invited. Ours was the only house on our street without decorations. Every department store Santa and every brilliantly lit tree, as well as the avalanche of Xmas cards from my Christian (and Jewish!) friends only accentuated my sense of not belonging.”

To some degree, most American Jews can relate to that writer’s experiences. The challenge we face is finding the best way to deal with this reality. First and foremost, we must know why we feel such a sense of discomfort as the Christmas season nears. The answer is clear: as Jews, we simply cannot fully participate in all aspects of a season dominated by Christian religious themes. As such, we must find a way to deal with our inability to fully participate in our surrounding culture for about a month each year.

Four approaches readily come to mind:

* Move to Israel and live in a thoroughly Jewish environment, where no Jew will ever feel left out. While this may be an immediate option for some, it is not one the majority of American Jews are yet willing to entertain.

* Seek to eliminate all overtly Christian aspects of the holiday season. Although there are several groups trying to do this, to me, forcing Christianity out of the Christmas season seems both quite odd and unfair to our fellow citizens (the majority) who thoroughly enjoy this time of the year. Also, the hostility arising from such a move would be far more problematic to the American Jewish community than any lonely feelings brought on by the December Dilemma.

* Try to level the playing field by demanding absolutely equal “air time” to all things Jewish during the Christmas season. This would be done by forcing Jewish symbols, holiday trappings, and music to appear and be heard wherever and whenever Christmas ones are displayed and heard. When one considers this approach, it does not take long to realize how unrealistic it is. It is rather far-fetched to have a Charlie Brown Chanukah special on TV right after the Christmas one, or hearing a Chanukah-themed song right after “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” while shopping, and I seriously doubt we can expect to see Chanukah-themed Coca Cola bottles displayed right next to the ones with Santa on them any time soon. (Even if such a plan were realistic, I think it is pretty clear it would be unfair imposing Jewish holiday themes on the majority of our fellow citizens, and extremely unwise for American Jewry to push for such an idea.)

*Live authentic, active, and fulfilling Jewish lives. If our days, homes, and routines are full of Judaism, we will not feel much in the way of a vacuum each year when December rolls around. This approach will more than compensate for those brief seasonal experiences we as Jews cannot participate in.

Regarding this last approach, one non-Jewish writer, Terry Mattingly, has this to say: “A child in a family that enjoys Jewish life and faith is less likely to crave a Christmas tree…. But if a family’s life is dominated by television, pop music, movies, shopping and other activities that have little or nothing to do with their faith, then it will probably feel tension during these media-mad and highly secularized holidays.”

If we opt for the fourth approach in dealing with the December Dilemma, I am sure all Jews will feel far less seasonal angst each year. Living actively Jewish lives will not only enrich our beings, it will also enable us to view Judaism as a vibrant life-enhancing force instead of an aspect of our heritage that just causes us to feel like outsiders.

Rabbi Akiva and Layala Males are enjoying Chanukah in Harrisburg, PA.

Where Did You Travel On Rosh Hashanah?

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

On the first day of this past Rosh Hashanah, I visited Milwaukee while my wife, Layala, traveled back to the shul of her youth in Brooklyn. When we met up later in the day for Yom Tov lunch at our Harrisburg, Pennsylvania home, we had a number of experiences to share with each other.

At this point I probably should explain those last two sentences, so that members of our shul do not get the wrong idea about how we spent Rosh Hashanah.

While any of our senses can help us tap into our repositories of memory, we know the singular power music and song have in helping us return to earlier times and places. The closer a tune is to our hearts and emotions, the more likely it can send us down the proverbial memory lane.

As observant Jews, there are probably no melodies closer to our hearts than those that stir our emotions each year during our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers.

No two shuls use the same tunes for each of the many parts of the Yom Tov davening. As such, when one spends Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur in a new venue, one is bound to hear different melodies used in the course of the davening.

Since we have come to associate certain parts of the davening with the tunes that are familiar to us, hearing a chazzan or congregation sing a different melody can cause us to stop and think of the tune we normally associate with that point in the service. Recalling the familiar melody often transports us to a memorable Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur davening of another time and place.

My trip down memory lane this past Rosh Hashanah was triggered the first time we sang “HaYom HaRas Olam” (Today is the World’s Birthday) during Mussaf. While Kesher Israel’s talented chazzan led the shul in a lovely tune for that prayer, it just was not the one I associate with that part of davening. As I softly sang the prayer to my familiar tune, I closed my eyes and felt myself transported to a Rosh Hashanah more than twenty years ago.

I am a ninth grade student at the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study (WITS) – Milwaukee’s yeshiva high school. Though I left my hometown of Cleveland just a few weeks ago, I can already feel a whole new world opening before me. In that short period of time I have begun the process of bonding with new friends from all over the country, learning and developing meaningful relationships with the yeshiva’s rebbeim and experiencing camaraderie the likes of which I have never known before.

With the entire yeshiva gathered in the WITS beis medrash, the Rosh Hashanah davening is incredible. Mussaf has begun. After reciting the “Hineni” prayer in his melodious voice, Rabbi Ephraim Becker leads us in the most beautiful and haunting and inspiring Kaddish I have ever heard, and each of us recites our Shemoneh Esrei.

During Chazaras HaShatz, Rabbi Raphael Wachsman flawlessly sounds the shofar three times. Immediately after each round of shofar blowing, Rabbi Becker leads the entire yeshiva as we loudly sing the most moving rendition of HaYom HaRas Olam I can imagine.

I happily spent all four years of yeshiva high school at WITS, and that memory of us all singing HaYom HaRas Olam together will always be seared in my mind. As soon as we reached that prayer at Kesher Israel this year on Rosh Hashanah, singing the tune I associate with it allowed me to revisit one of the most special and transformative periods in my life.

Unraveling Jewish Threads: James Sturm’s Graphic Novel Market Day

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Market Day

By James Sturm

Hardcover, 96 pages, $21.95

Drawn & Quarterly, http://www.drawnandquarterly.com

 

 

Greek and Roman mythology envisioned the fates — the Moirae or the Parcae — as spinners of thread. Clotho (Nona) wove life’s threads; Lachesis (Decima) measured; and Atropos (Morta) cut. To the Greeks and Romans, the cosmos was artfully woven by deities, but was also unstable and liable to fray or to unwind piece by piece. Given the Greco-Roman gods’ tendencies to act like children, the pattern of life was particularly chaotic.

 

In Judaism we understand that God weaves the various strands of life together.  Many readers will recall the famous story of the heretic who approached Rabbi Akiva asking for proof that God created the world. Rabbi Akiva counters with his own question: “Who made your cloak?” The heretic is forced to admit there was an artist involved in the manufacture. By way of theological induction, Rabbi Akiva argues the same could be said of the world, which implies God the Weaver.

 

In its examination of the increasingly difficult life of an Eastern European Jewish weaver in an early 1900s shtetl, James Sturm’s new graphic novel Market Day (April, 2010) is part of a larger religious and literary tradition of examining the intersection of faith and the loom. But Sturm’s bleak narrative is unique in its introduction of a sort of “reader response theory” into the mix.

 

In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Harvard UP, 1967), Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, argues that John Milton intended readers of Paradise Lost (1667) to undergo an experience of reading that paralleled Adam’s experience. Readers, according to Fish, discover themselves unconsciously sympathizing with Satan’s character, and upon realizing their “sin,” they (like Adam) seek to repent. Readers don’t passively read about Adam’s story so much as they “experience” it — thus the theory of the reader’s response.

 

 

 

 

Sturm offers readers the same sort of close identification with his character Mendleman. Mendleman is a master rug-maker, who leaves his eight-month pregnant wife Rachel at home while he travels to the market to hawk his woven wares. Echoing what is doubtless a common sentiment among artists who spend most of their time in the studio, Mendleman observes, “For one who spends the majority of his time working in solitude, the market is intoxicating.”

 

Although he enjoys the anonymity that the market offers — a drastic change from the prying neighbors’ eyes and ears in a small village — Mendleman also likes meeting up with acquaintances like Rabbi Soyer. Sporting a new pair of eyeglasses, the rabbi observes, “My son and I should both study the Talmud with the same devotion and thoughtfulness that you apply to your rugs.”

 

It turns out that Mendleman’s rugs have helped the rabbi and his son in their religious observance. One particular rug he made of black and deep purple helps the rabbi determine when the Sabbath starts; when he cannot distinguish between the two colors it is dark enough for the Sabbath to begin. (This seems to be an adaptation of Berachot 9B, where one can tell when to say a morning prayer based on one’s ability to differentiate between blue and white wool.)

 

 

“Something as common as a rug,” Mendleman continues, “can indeed embody the gifts and miracles of God — the first steps of one’s child, the moment Sabbath begins, or the glorious bustle of the market day.” One is reminded of the women who spun the goat hairs for the Tabernacle in Exodus 35:26 with “wise hearts.”

 

Unfortunately for Mendleman, if God resides also in rugs, the divine does not sell. The specialty shop that has sold Mendleman’s rugs in the past — the sort of shop every artist hopes for, where the man behind the counter has such a discerning eye that the artist confuses him with a critic — is under new ownership. The new management is a businessman who is more interested in lucrative kitsch than art that will stick to the shelves, so Mendleman needs to choose between settling for a cheaper price for his rugs and returning home without any sales.

 

But seen through Fish’s reader response theory, even as Mendleman loses his clientele and his patron-critic, he gains a new set of viewers for his work: Sturm’s readers. Sturm draws Mendleman’s experiences in the marketplace and his frustrations not only from a removed, objective perspective, but also through Mendleman’s perspective. On several occasions, Sturm shows the rugs Mendleman is imagining as he looks at the rising sun or the busyness of the marketplace. Even if Mendleman’s rugs fail to sell, the graphic novel is perhaps his greatest work. (Unfortunately, the advanced reader’s copy of the book I received is black-and-white, but it cautions, “Please note that final book will be full color.”)

 

 

 

Sturm is also a master of suggestion. On the first page, as Mendleman is leaving his house before dawn to head to the market, Sturm shows the mezuzah filling one cartoon frame. Although Mendleman does not appear in the frame, Sturm suggests Mendleman reaching out his hand to touch the mezuzah and then to kiss his finger in reverence. I find it interesting that this implication is probably lost on readers who are not familiar with what a mezuzah is, so perhaps Sturm has an intended, initiated Jewish audience. Needless to say, this is a rare and risky sort of move from a publisher like Drawn & Quarterly.

 

Although I do look forward to seeing the final color version, I suspect I may end up preferring the black and white version in the end. A quick glance on the publisher’s website reveals a PDF version of some of the colored pages, which are effective mostly because they rely on very little color. Mendleman’s world is too dreary to admit too much color. And in the black-and-white version, his masterful rugs become more ironic or Absurdist, almost like the emperor’s new clothes. Could there be a better metaphor for the struggles of the shtetl than a rug maker, so proud of the gorgeous detail of his black, white and gray rugs?

 

All images are courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.

 

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.  He lives in Washington, D.C.

Unraveling Jewish Threads: James Sturm’s Graphic Novel Market Day

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Market Day


By James Sturm


Hardcover, 96 pages, $21.95



 

 


Greek and Roman mythology envisioned the fates — the Moirae or the Parcae — as spinners of thread. Clotho (Nona) wove life’s threads; Lachesis (Decima) measured; and Atropos (Morta) cut. To the Greeks and Romans, the cosmos was artfully woven by deities, but was also unstable and liable to fray or to unwind piece by piece. Given the Greco-Roman gods’ tendencies to act like children, the pattern of life was particularly chaotic.

 

In Judaism we understand that God weaves the various strands of life together.  Many readers will recall the famous story of the heretic who approached Rabbi Akiva asking for proof that God created the world. Rabbi Akiva counters with his own question: “Who made your cloak?” The heretic is forced to admit there was an artist involved in the manufacture. By way of theological induction, Rabbi Akiva argues the same could be said of the world, which implies God the Weaver.

 

In its examination of the increasingly difficult life of an Eastern European Jewish weaver in an early 1900s shtetl, James Sturm’s new graphic novel Market Day (April, 2010) is part of a larger religious and literary tradition of examining the intersection of faith and the loom. But Sturm’s bleak narrative is unique in its introduction of a sort of “reader response theory” into the mix.

 

In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Harvard UP, 1967), Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, argues that John Milton intended readers of Paradise Lost (1667) to undergo an experience of reading that paralleled Adam’s experience. Readers, according to Fish, discover themselves unconsciously sympathizing with Satan’s character, and upon realizing their “sin,” they (like Adam) seek to repent. Readers don’t passively read about Adam’s story so much as they “experience” it — thus the theory of the reader’s response.

 

 


 

 

Sturm offers readers the same sort of close identification with his character Mendleman. Mendleman is a master rug-maker, who leaves his eight-month pregnant wife Rachel at home while he travels to the market to hawk his woven wares. Echoing what is doubtless a common sentiment among artists who spend most of their time in the studio, Mendleman observes, “For one who spends the majority of his time working in solitude, the market is intoxicating.”

 

Although he enjoys the anonymity that the market offers — a drastic change from the prying neighbors’ eyes and ears in a small village — Mendleman also likes meeting up with acquaintances like Rabbi Soyer. Sporting a new pair of eyeglasses, the rabbi observes, “My son and I should both study the Talmud with the same devotion and thoughtfulness that you apply to your rugs.”

 

It turns out that Mendleman’s rugs have helped the rabbi and his son in their religious observance. One particular rug he made of black and deep purple helps the rabbi determine when the Sabbath starts; when he cannot distinguish between the two colors it is dark enough for the Sabbath to begin. (This seems to be an adaptation of Berachot 9B, where one can tell when to say a morning prayer based on one’s ability to differentiate between blue and white wool.)

 


 

“Something as common as a rug,” Mendleman continues, “can indeed embody the gifts and miracles of God — the first steps of one’s child, the moment Sabbath begins, or the glorious bustle of the market day.” One is reminded of the women who spun the goat hairs for the Tabernacle in Exodus 35:26 with “wise hearts.”

 

Unfortunately for Mendleman, if God resides also in rugs, the divine does not sell. The specialty shop that has sold Mendleman’s rugs in the past — the sort of shop every artist hopes for, where the man behind the counter has such a discerning eye that the artist confuses him with a critic — is under new ownership. The new management is a businessman who is more interested in lucrative kitsch than art that will stick to the shelves, so Mendleman needs to choose between settling for a cheaper price for his rugs and returning home without any sales.

 

But seen through Fish’s reader response theory, even as Mendleman loses his clientele and his patron-critic, he gains a new set of viewers for his work: Sturm’s readers. Sturm draws Mendleman’s experiences in the marketplace and his frustrations not only from a removed, objective perspective, but also through Mendleman’s perspective. On several occasions, Sturm shows the rugs Mendleman is imagining as he looks at the rising sun or the busyness of the marketplace. Even if Mendleman’s rugs fail to sell, the graphic novel is perhaps his greatest work. (Unfortunately, the advanced reader’s copy of the book I received is black-and-white, but it cautions, “Please note that final book will be full color.”)

 

 


 

Sturm is also a master of suggestion. On the first page, as Mendleman is leaving his house before dawn to head to the market, Sturm shows the mezuzah filling one cartoon frame. Although Mendleman does not appear in the frame, Sturm suggests Mendleman reaching out his hand to touch the mezuzah and then to kiss his finger in reverence. I find it interesting that this implication is probably lost on readers who are not familiar with what a mezuzah is, so perhaps Sturm has an intended, initiated Jewish audience. Needless to say, this is a rare and risky sort of move from a publisher like Drawn & Quarterly.

 

Although I do look forward to seeing the final color version, I suspect I may end up preferring the black and white version in the end. A quick glance on the publisher’s website reveals a PDF version of some of the colored pages, which are effective mostly because they rely on very little color. Mendleman’s world is too dreary to admit too much color. And in the black-and-white version, his masterful rugs become more ironic or Absurdist, almost like the emperor’s new clothes. Could there be a better metaphor for the struggles of the shtetl than a rug maker, so proud of the gorgeous detail of his black, white and gray rugs?


 


All images are courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.


 


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.  He lives in Washington, D.C.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/unraveling-jewish-threads-james-sturms-graphic-novel-market-day-2/2010/03/03/

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