...The women white were wearing
The men in forest-green
The moon went tumbling over
And spilled its silver sheen.
It spilled its silver sheen
And spread a silent pool
Where only bathed the madman,
The youngster and the fool.
Bear, dreaming of old age,
Close to all, muted
Like yesterday’s earth-worn deed,
Rejoice, breathe deep
Above your musky whiskers.
A plume of scarlet oak
Above your stream-sheened claws.
What has given
The flailing salmon
The cranes, as you shake your head, tread
As if in a dream, alert,
Tranquil before your heavy sway,
Your brown, dank fur.
Emerged, agent of the forest.
Today, which has no longing,
Is alive and grasps nothing.
“Why do I”—aye aye aiie--
The rain does not expect the brain
To patter—therefore it does not deign
To spatter on the ruin.
The life of rain—of
You no you--
Are we? We know?
A knife, a thus
A drawer shut--
The comet never moved, but space
It shuddered, shook its cosmic lace--
Because it doesn’t know—its snow--
An icy, gaseous, sweet
Sweet madness dancing on the sand--
The comet lozenge on the sea
Glows its softness, renders me--
Key oh key--
The river barreled topsidedown
Through desert and through dale,
The dragonfly, a shining crown,
Flashed swift as crisp dovetail;
Its thoughts, they clamored in the wind,
Not steady now, a tad chagrined.
Stammering as kings who rule
But leave no trace to emulate
They twinkled far as Istanbul
But in a swift, inconstant state,
Ten thousand flashing, dashing darts
That come and go like beats of hearts.
The reeds beside them bent; but they
Mechanically shot aft and port;
With day in night and night in day
Without a thought they did disport,
The dawn the dusk the heat the cold
All time was young, no moment old.
The waters flow; the fishes flit
And fishers set their nets of rope
And lacking wisdom, lacking wit,
Without despair and lacking hope
The dragonfly divinely flies
And death’s dominion he defies
There was a small bridge, just a slippery log that I walked across each summer when I went to Vermont. More than once I’d fallen to the round-pebbled bottom of the shallow, rushing stream. That summer, every morning I brought my things with me in a large, canvas case to the field that bordered on the stream. First I put on a cap, then my new tefillin - checking a book with photographs to see if I had got it right - and laboriously worked through the morning prayer. I took off the tefillin, put them back in their dark blue bag, and had some granola and a banana for breakfast. I fished in my case for my books - the Bible and books on Jewish law, Hasidism, Kabbalah, Jewish history, and basic Hebrew. I sat on a boulder in the buzzing and chirping field, as rabbits bounded by and the tree leaves soughed in the breeze.
At one o’clock, I went for a walk; I ate some lunch, recited grace slowly, and said the afternoon prayer. Afterwards I set up my easel, glorying in the field that was bursting with warmth and colors, and I painted the grasses, the birds, the blue heavens, the insects crawling over plant stems, the orange burst of a cluster of spider eggs opening and the tiny spiders swarming over each other like a liquid, flowing flower. After the first few weeks of summer, the visions of my morning studies invaded my canvases. Tefillin nested in trees, tzitzit dangled amid the milkweeds, a bird returned to feed its new-born brood and in its nest a Jew sang joyfully.
Then the summer was over. I returned to New York with my treasure of canvases and with my new love for tefillin and books and Jewish ritual. One evening in September, I met with my friend, Max, who was studying the classical guitar. We went together to the Jewish Arts Center. Max played his transcription of a piece by Maurice Ravel, and then Herb, a sculptor with a graying goatee, showed us his work. The first piece was a representation of a naked woman.
“I call this ‘The Influence of Eve,’” said Herb.
The second sculpture depicted a naked woman giving birth. “This one’s called ‘The Creation of the Universe,’” Herb explained. The next piece was a naked woman holding a bucket. “This is “Rachel at the Well,’” Herb told us.
A young woman recited a section from a play-in-progress. The play encapsulated Jewish history. In it, the three main forces of traditional Jewish consciousness - Holocaust, Male-Dominated Ritual, and Dionysian Ecstasy – were represented by three characters who couldn’t get along but who, the playwright explained, would be reconciled to each other by a new force, “The Feminine Soul-Power.”
Then there was a discussion whether Woody Allen was a Jewish artist speaking for all mankind or a general artist who also dealt with Jewish concerns. Over the next few months, Max and I shared many talks on my new-found discovery of traditional Judaism. Max began to join me, and we started to keep Shabbat together, alone among our friends, at first in embarrassed secret.
I became dissatisfied with my milieu. With whom could I communicate? To whom could I talk? Even Max was sometimes critical. One day he told me, “Dan, this Jewish thing is having a bad influence on your painting. You used to have a natural, delicate touch, and now you’re making Jewish billboards.”
Max was right - while I was exploring my new world, my painting suffered from a didactic streak. Was I narrowing my own perspective in order to plunge into the breadth of meaning in the Torah? And even if I were, perhaps the price was necessary, and even fair.
Max and I began exploring the Jewish community, and Max soon found people with whom he was comfortable. He grew closer to them much more quickly than I did, and acquired a network of families with whom he stayed on Shabbat, and of men with whom he studied during the week. I envied Max’s easy adaptation to these people’s lives.
One evening, Max took me to the home of the editor of a major Orthodox magazine. I brought some of the canvases I had painted. It was winter in New York, but glancing at the paintings brought me back to that warm, beautiful summer of discovery I had spent in Vermont, absorbing the sweetness of the hills and of Jewish books and prayer.
Rabbi Mittelman had short, wavy, gray-shot hair, large-rimmed silver glasses, and a handsome, trimmed beard. He had earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and was known as a well-spoken advocate of Orthodox themes who could communicate with secular, professional audiences.
“Daniel,” Rabbi Mittelman turned to me after looking through my paintings, “I appreciate your enthusiasm and sincerity. The Orthodox community can utilize talent to present our point of view.” He smiled, folded his hands, and looked at me gravely. “But before you can express matters that involve sensitivity and knowledge - knowledge, Daniel - you must know much more Torah; you must have the gut feel of Jewish rhythms that only a lifetime of Jewish living can give. I don’t mean to insult you, Daniel - not at all - but in a sense my seven-year-old son has a more authentic appreciation of Torah Judaism than you - it’s in his bones! You know I don’t mean to discourage you. You have to learn; you have to consult Torah leaders; you have to realize that thinking that your vision is important is not a Jewish idea. No - that is the pagan aesthetic - it’s the Hellenist viewpoint, which we deny every Hanukkah, Daniel. You have to mold your talents for the good of the Orthodox community. These paintings show promise, Daniel, but they also show your secular past. They show idiosyncrasy. Remember, Daniel, we’re Orthodox Jews - with a small as well as a capital O.”
When we left, Rabbi Mittleman shook my hand in his large, dry hand, and smiled at me warmly. He said that I was a talented young man who was always welcome whenever I wanted to drop by and discuss anything on my mind. For a while, I tried to do work that would be accepted by the community of Jews
I was attempting to join. But people were indifferent to my painting; more than that, they were suspicious of my enthusiasm for art. I felt condemned to exile from my own heritage, from my own people, because I possessed a love for the beautiful. I became depressed. Finally, I started painting portraits of Torah leaders from photographs. These gained me acceptance and some money, but I quickly despised my role - this was the sort of hackwork I had always scoffed at.
Meanwhile, Max molded himself to the ways of the community. He bought a black, snap-brim hat and began to eat chicken and greasy kugel on Shabbat even though he’d always been strict about eating natural, healthy foods. “We have to accept Torah even when it doesn’t make sense to us,” he explained to me.
Max sprinkled his talk with phrases like “mammesh” and “Boruch Hashem.” And he gave up playing the guitar. He didn’t have time for it, he told me; he had to learn Torah. I understood that, because the time I was giving to my Jewish studies also impinged on my other interests. But more important, Max told me, musical beauty was for “them”, for the gentiles; Jews were meant to learn Talmud.
“Look, Daniel,” Max told me on a warm day in May as we walked together down an almost treeless street and the sky was framed by rows of brownstone buildings, “what are you trying to do with your art? Don’t you see that in the Orthodox community you have people who have been mammesh living Torah their whole lives!
They don’t need a baal teshuvah to give them lessons about Yiddishkeit. And if you want to use art to make secular Jews frum, you can’t make a decision like that on your own - you need a rabbi to guide you.”
“Max, you don’t seem to understand. I’m not trying to make propaganda – to make Jewish billboards. I paint because I love to paint. I paint because - because I want to serve God with my painting.”
Max thought a moment. “When I spoke with my rabbi about whether or not I
should continue to play guitar, he said something that mammesh moved me, and I want to share it with you.”
“He said that if a person can appreciate the beauty of the Talmud, of a Tosafos, then he doesn’t need anything else - he doesn’t need music, or art, or any other gentile entertainment. But if he still feels he needs that type of stimulation, then it means...do you see what I’m getting at, Daniel? Why are you separating yourself from the community? Do you think you know better than everyone else? You’re going on a very dangerous path. Come and talk with my rabbi. He’s very good with baalei teshuvah.”
A verse from Genesis went through my mind, and I quoted it aloud. “‘Naphtali is a deer running free, who speaks graceful words.’ Max, listen what that verse is saying. It’s talking about spontaneity, about beauty, about serving God with creativity.”
“I don’t know, Daniel. That sounds like a pretty off-beat interpretation to me. Who says that?”
“I say it!”
“You say it. That’s your trouble, Daniel, that’s exactly what your problem is. Look, let’s check what the Artscroll commentary says.” Max reached into his briefcase.
“Thanks, Max, but I don’t want to hear it right now. I’ll see you around.” I walked off before Max could protest. I walked down half the block, and turned back. Max was still standing in the middle of the block, looking after me. With his wide-rimmed hat pushed high up on his head, his navy suit, his white shirt open at the collar, he looked like any yeshiva student. But there he was, holding an English-language Bible - caught between two worlds, denying one to gain the other.
Summer came. I went up for a week to the same rooming house in Vermont. I went out to paint in the field, to pray and learn in the field. But the joy, the energy of a clear beginning, was gone. I felt stymied, as though I were walking through a thick and thorny underbrush. I doggedly learned there and painted anyway. Something had to burst, sometime. But the joy of the grasses, the peeping of the frogs, the soaring of hawks, touched me only on the outside. One afternoon, I ducked under the trees and walked to the stream. The water was clean and quick, and its rushing sound over the pebble-covered bed quickened me. There was the bridge, narrow and slippery as ever. I stepped onto the log and carefully began to cross. I’d fallen off before; I would probably fall again. I felt that I must always return to this stream canopied by the cool shadow-throwing leaves of the tall boxwood trees, and step carefully across that narrow bridge.
Rabbi Barton, walking down the tree-lined path to the yeshiva study hall, inclined his head and analyzed a subtle Talmud passage.
Suddenly, he tripped on a wooden slat jutting up to ankle height. He barely had time to note that it formed part of the rim of a great barrel lying at his feet and sinking beneath the ground. Then he plunged headfirst into the barrel, catching a momentary glimpse of an expanse of whiteness beneath him, and he broke through the surface and dove into a heavy sea of sour cream....
Read the entire story at jewishfiction.net.
I put off living because,
Now I don’t know where my hat has gone.
The road outside my dusk is colored dawn
The hawk extends his ruddy claws,
And dust descends from dusty daws.
I put things off, I beg you,
Don’t you pry!
I feel my heart is pressed, my veins are dry.
I never understood just why we die,
My knees are hurting but I still feel fly
And adolescence sifts its redness on my blue.
I always had this heaviness
It went away
I spent my dreams in books and watercress
But yet I have not solved, I simply guess,
I seek solace in a spray
Of lilies’ blessedness.
I give to you my hand
I fumbled through the day
And here we stand, we here, and
This was the day I planned,
This was the simple way
I sought the sacred wedding band.
The houses huddle upon
The Onyar River; the men
Walking, the women hanging
Their washing, have forgotten
Who they are; in the brilliant
Sunlight they have no faded past;
The street’s dust never was stirred,
The depth of memory amassed
Upon these stones, upon this
Study hall, where scholars till
The soil of heaven’s fields, and
Trace the roots down through its still,
Dark mysteries to these loud,
Lighted streets or narrow shadowed
Streets that cry out, “Here, now!”
And show this fragment of the road.
There are ships that are lustful,
Berths full of sailors that do not move a muscle.
The lungs soaring through an escarpment,
In it mist, mist, mist,
Like a caravan we travel diving into our pores,
As though we were cascading inside our lungs,
As though we skimmed from the air into the cavities of thought.
And there are sailors,
Eyes made of blazing and hot lamps,
Ocean is inside the ligaments,
Like a thunder where there are no clouds,
Coming out from buoys somewhere, from sea gull avenues,
Blossoming from the waterspout like breath of grain.
Always I feel a company
Caravans beneath leafy trees,
Sailing with the ruddy soldiers, with children whose faces are alight,
With goldsmiths who are as dusky as shadows,
And unwed sisters who feed their pensive animals,
The barques streaming along the horizontal highway of living thought,
The alley of steel red,
Cranked up the side of the building, pacing the golden scribbles of air,
Emptied by the scent of tomorrow, which is invisible.
Life descends among all that light
Like a nut with no husk around it, like a sun with no planets around it,
Arrives and smokes, singing a song with no sound in it, with no frequency in it,
Flares and scents with no smoke, with no yesterday, with no coarse earth.
Its valerian violet fragrance unfurls
And its hair sparkles in the amber dawn, like a bee.
Of this I am sure, my understanding is an empty light, what I see is the crystalness
Knowing that its vision has the roughness of hot tiles,
Of tiles that are uncertain in the spires,
Because the veneer of life is yellow,
And the intense hearing of life is yellow,
With the perambulating heat of a tile gren
And the vibrant impress of a snow without thought.
But life also pierces through the vacuum like a handful of pebbles,
Rolling on the boulder, gathering saved sailors,
Life is inside the boulder,
The boulder is the hand of life being sought by the sailors,
It is the ripe avocado seeking its stars.
Life is inside the ladybugs:
It spins the strands of death into a quickened grass,
In the matted fecund scent, and imperceptibly relents:
It spins a waterspout of white scribble traces that swing the ship
And the cemetery shakes its hair
To meet the captain, standing at attention before the chair.
Never stay in forests nor love the hind
More than you love mankind, nor lose your kind
Regard for health untrammeled, robust bones,
Nor cloak a sickly weariness in ghosts
Of piety, of corpses that endear
Themselves to men because they are not real,
Be greater than your thoughts, and from that sphere
Regard the ant, the dove, the man, the deer.
Yaacov David Shulman