Megillat Esther, Bigthan and Teresh

Here’s a slideshow of some recent illumination work on the Megillat Esther manuscript. It shows the development of one image, the capture of the plotters Bigthan and Teresh. It is based on an image found in the Assyrian bas reliefs at Nineveh, showing Sennacherib’s conquest of Lachish.

Meanwhile, Josh is forging ahead with the calligraphy, and is closing in on completing the manuscript. Sadly, I can’t same the same for the illuminations.

Just sayin' #2: Thoughts on a new understanding of 'God'

This little essay is adapted from a lesson I taught to some teenagers who preferred to sit in a discussion with me than to sit with the “adults” during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I thank them for inspiring me to develop this topic.

Let me tell you what I’ve concluded after talking with lots and lots of students and adults about “who or what is God.

God is kind of like Santa Claus, a jolly fat guy who gives treats to good little boys and girls, and who spanks bad little boys and girls.

Of course, they don’t ever say it like that, but that’s what’s deep down in there. It’s like the Wizard of Oz: once you pull away people’s curtains and fancy talk, most people have a 5-year-old’s idea of God. They have grown older and maybe wiser, but their core understanding of God is stuck back in 5-year-old fairy land.
Now, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a 5-year-old to believe in fairy tales like Santa. But when you grow up, even just a little, then it’s appropriate, and necessary to reject your fairy tale beliefs.
Therefore, I’d like to propose a different understanding of God. But this idea will not come to you as something that is full-grown. It is only a seed. YOU will have to grow it, and that will take attention and effort on your part. Like any seed, like any idea, if it falls on infertile ground, or is left unattended through drought and freeze, it will surely die.

To that end, before you can proceed, there are two issues you must address.

First, you have to ask yourself: do I want to try to grow this idea? Or, in truth, am I more inclined to just ignore it? Or, being totally frank, do I really just want to kill it? That’s the first choice you have with any idea. If you want to grow it, there will be things you will need to do. I won’t take time here to tell you what they are, but you can figure them out. It’s not hard. And remember, like any seed, even if you attend to it, even if you attend to it with great zeal, it may never flower or produce much fruit; it may even die.

Second, there are some serious difficulties with knowing God or believing there is a God:
1. Our senses are limited and we base nearly all our thinking on our senses. But God cannot be experienced, in any way, through our senses. Further, our science is based on our senses. Our science, at least as it exists today, cannot help us find God, experience God, or even understand God.
2. Our experiences are limited and yet we build our knowledge from our experiences. Science teaches us to judge and understand the world through what we can experience and measure. Therefore, if you are inclined to think scientifically, and if you have not experienced God, it will be very difficult for you to believe that there is a God, because we measure the world through our own experiences.
But consider: there are people who have had genuine experiences that can be called “God-experiences.” Unfortunately, most people don’t ever have them, so we need to put aside the fantasy that because we imagine ourselves to be so wonderful, God will step down and tap us on the shoulder and say, “Okay Jack, it’s time for you to wake up!” But if you want that to happen, you have to prepare the ground. It’s not much different than aspiring to become a concert pianist or professional athlete. It takes a lot of preparatory work. And even then, you may not achieve your aspirations. You may not experience God.
3. This world is full of a vast number of distractions, and opportunities to waste our time on entirely meaningless and useless activities, from social networks, to shopping, to TV and internet, to sports. And on top of it, we have to spend a substantial portion of every day going to school, and after that, working, and very little of that time will help prepare your mind (or as some would argue, your soul) to understand God better, or to experience God.
4. We must face the problem of pain, disease, and evil. This is, of course, an enormous stumbling block for many people, and I’m not going to attempt to “solve” it, which is to say, rationalize it. I’ve read many answers and none have greatly satisfied me, and the answers that I’ve tried to compose don’t satisfy me either. I have resigned myself to living with the unknowing and the discomfort. That may be a deal-breaker for you. If so, fare thee well.

So, in short, the world is a hostile place for helping us to find and understand God.

Realizing all that, if you still want to seek a new and more meaningful understanding of the idea of God, then the first step is really quite simple. Consider Copernicus. When Copernicus re-imagined the solar system placing the sun at the center and earth orbiting it, rather than setting the earth at the center, it was nothing more than a change in perspective. It required no new data, whatsoever. But it had a massive impact on our understanding of the universe. Everything changed by simply changing perspective.
Here are 2 perspective changes you can explore, if you want to develop a more meaningful understanding of the idea of “God”.

1. First, we must first rethink what “I” am and what our body is. Our body is but a receptacle. Life/Consciousness creates the body; the body does not create Life/Consciousness.
Consider this metaphor of plumbing:
When you turn on a faucet, it allows water to pour out. That water is under much pressure coming from a vast reservoir far away. Think of that water as “life” and the faucet opening as the germination of a sperm and egg into a foetus, a new life. Like plumbing, life flows into us. Our body does not create that life. Rather, it becomes the receptacle for it, growing as that life-energy unfolds into the world, and aging and declining as that life-energy begins to depart.
Consider: Is a table alive, or a building, or the ocean or a mountain? No. It doesn’t matter how much matter there is, how many chemicals and compounds are mixed together. Atoms aren’t alive, so no matter how many you gather together, you won’t create some kind of strange but living thing. Atoms aren’t alive; therefore, they cannot create life! It’s a simple, scientific fact. It’s like creating something from nothing. It can’t be done.
Think about it:
If a person is in a room and the oxygen is pumped out of it, in 5 minutes that person will be dead. That person’s atoms are all still there. Nothing has changed about their body. But their body doesn’t just spontaneously pop back to life if oxygen is suddenly made available again. Their body didn’t create the life; if it did, it would pop back alive again! No, life departed that body. The door closed. It’s gone, and all that is left are atoms, lifeless atoms.

When a sperm fertilizes an egg, the 2 cells rapidly begin to divide and expand. Life is rushing in, like water pouring through the pipes in your home. The shape of that life pouring in is what shapes the body that evolves. We say, oh no, it’s genetics that determines the structures. No, your perspective is backwards. It’s life that shapes the genetics! Our genetics, our DNA is the effect, not the cause, of the life-energy pouring into the world!
And once you realize your body is not creating life, you realize your life is connected in a direct way to everyone else’s life here on the planet, and, most likely, on other far flung planets, as well. Life is like a vast reservoir of water, flowing throughout the whole universe, connecting us to all other living beings!
And suddenly, our small life is connected to a vastness that staggers our imagination. And yet, although its entirely unmeasurable, it’s right here, the very essence of us.

And seen this way, we can understand Life (or if you prefer, Consciousness) as one of the faces of God. It’s not all of God, but it’s a tangible and accessible part of God. With just this small change in perspective, suddenly God is flowing through your veins. This is no fairy tale god; it is the God that is LIVING YOU. God is in you and living you, and like a canoe on a white-water river, you are paddling hard as you can, to try to control your movement on that rapidly flowing river.

2. Second, we need to actively realize that God is Infinite and Eternal. God is not like our finite, limited world. Forget the word ‘God.’ It’s got Santa Claus attached to it. Think ‘Infinity’ or ‘Eternity.’
The rules that operate in infinity are entirely unlike the rules of logic that define how we think and understand the world.

Consider: In our simple, deeply limited “rationality” 1+1= 2, pure and simple. There’s one answer, and everyone knows what “1" is: one penny, one chair, one person sitting in a chair. But let’s think about this.
What is “1” ? We represent it in writing by a figure, a short vertical line. But really, isn’t it 1 plus a decimal point plus a zero. But what if we write 1.00000001? Is that 1 or 1 and just a little more? What if we add a million zeros and then a 1, is that 1, or 1 and just a little more? When does 1 become just “1"? Can we add an infinite number of zeros to get to 1?
How do we add an infinite number of zeros? We can’t. And even if we could, we could still add a 1, because infinity doesn’t follow our very limited and simplistic rules. In fact, all numbers are infinite and unfathomably complex.

Let’s look at another aspect of the infinity that is all around us, shaping us while we thoroughly ignore it. Is a penny a penny? Of course. I give it to a store clerk and she’ll give me a piece of gum (well, maybe a long time ago I could get a piece of gum for a penny). But just a second. Look closer.
Where does that penny begin and where does it end? If you look at that penny with a very powerful microscope you run into a problem. Suddenly you see that you can’t actually determine where it begins and ends. Some electrons and other sub-atomic particles can jump from the penny into my finger, and electrons from my finger attach to the penny, and suddenly I’m in the penny and the penny is in me.
Same with you. Where does your physical body begin and end? You breathe in air. It’s in your lungs. Is it part of your body? It’s a judgement call. Some of you may say ‘yes’, and some may say ‘no’. Okay, where do the electrons of you begin and end?

You see, we live in a simplistic, rationalistic world where we make artificial, and false distinctions between things. I am I, and you are you. Right?

But in the world of infinity, in the World-That-Shapes-Us, things are much, much different. It’s not that they’re impossible to imagine. It’s just that they don’t follow our simplistic, childish logic.
In this simple 3-dimensional world, mathematicians state that a properly designed equation has one solution. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always hold, but once we start getting multiple solutions, we know we’re in a very problematical realm. If a problem has 10 solutions, which one is the right solution, or which solution applies to the question I’m trying to solve right now? We don’t know. But in the world of infinity, every equation has an infinite number of solutions, and they’re all correct!

In the world of infinity, I am I, but I am also you, and I am not-I, and the not-I of me is also the not-you of you, and on and on.

And most importantly, in the world of infinity, if our minds could grasp such ideas, they would not only make sense, they would make infinitely more sense than our simplistic, childish ideas such as: I am I and you are you, and there’s nothing more to say!

Now, perhaps you’re thinking, OMG, Steve has gone off the rails, and this is all so complicated, and I have better things to do than to imagine how crazy infinity is. But folks, this is not really so hard. What’s hard is that I’m asking you to turn around your perspective, and think in a way that’s a little different than you’re used to.
Why am I asking you to do this? If you want to begin to have a more grown-up and insightful and enriching understanding of ‘God,’ the Infinite; if you want to replace your Santa Claus idea of God with a more substantive understanding, an understanding that will help you grow, and will enrich you and will elevate your sense of purpose and wonder, and that will have a genuine relevance to you, then you have to begin rethinking what ‘God’ is. You have to expand your ideas and stretch your horizons.

One last comment: we humans are growing up. We are beginning to leave the childhood of our species behind. Our holy books are remarkable accomplishments, full of many brilliant ideas. But they were written by, and for a humanity that was in its young childhood. They are not the last word; the are but the first words. We are growing up, and yet we are just as much in need of holiness now as when we were hunter-gatherers, bewildered and terrorized by nature. We are perhaps more in need of moral uprightness, and more in need of an appreciation of the vulnerability of the world and the value of diversity than we ever were before. If so, then our understanding of ‘the holy’ and ‘the divine’ may not be childish artifacts to be thrown away. They may be guiding lights, more needful now than ever.

The Eternal Jew in combat

The time: approximately 1375 CE. The place: Poland. The situation:
Batkol, the wife of Saadya Mishon the Eternal Jew, has been kidnapped by Bogdan, the lord of a decrepit manor. With the help of the region’s rabbi, Reb Susya, a plan has been hatched to rescue her by calling on a Jewish soldier of fortune and thief, Yiftakh, who once served under Bogdan, raiding Ruthenian villages.

Here’s the “old English” (what you probably know as “modern English”) version of the poem, translated into prose from Steevtok, MetaEnglish:

Sunrise. A gang of armed men approach the soldier Yiftakh’s house. His dogs snarl. Yet ten steps away, he opens his door, sword in hand, and confronts us all,
“Confess your sins, as, one more step and you’ll meet your God.”

“Trouble not! We’re Susya’s men. We come as brothers in need of your help. That wild ox Bogdan kidnapped my wife. If you will lead us and liberate her and break the oppressor’s grippin’ hand, we’ll succor Vladislov’s court to transfer Bogdan’s manor to you. What say you, captain of arms?”

“If Susya sent you, hear my demand: Let me hear that Susya’s wife supports this caper. Hers the voice that, in that house, lays the law. If she say ‘yes’, I swear by the Lor, I’ll storm that hideout and the first thing I see, I’ll cut it down, as the Lor lives.”

Pointin’ to me,
“You! Follow me,”
and we runs to a nearby clump of trees, and there, tied up, two horses paw the ground and ‘nay’ as we approach.
“Stole these last week,”
he grunts with a grin.
“They’re a bit wild. You know how to ride?”
“I lived with the Mongols these last many years.”
And bareback we gallop to Susya’s wife. She’s still standin’ at the broken door with her sleepin’ cap on and a knife in her hand.

“What did you come for, Yiftakh, you dog?”
“I comes to hear the word from your mouth, and your thoughts on the plan your husband devised. Your opinions* might darken the hue of my heart, but your thoughts are sharper than your blabbermouth man’s.
* others say, ‘pinions’

“The scheme to rescue that wife of his? Reckless and foolish, and what else to do? Naturally, it appeals to you, you and your gang and your Polish ways.”

He stares her down like Satan himself, and I watch his hand, waitin’ to see if he pulls his sword and slices her neck.
“Then yours is the seal and mine is the sword.”
And he whips his horse and we gallop away.

It seems the sky isn’t lighter now than when we left Yiftakh’s some time ago.

“We’ll go off-road. I knows a trail by Bogdan’s house and the huts of his serfs. One or the other, she’s sure to be there. But he’ll have sentries, so shut your traps right now! If they hear us there’s little chance they won’t be slittin’ your woman’s throat.”

Five of us clompin’ and thrashin’ our way through branch and brush. Atop a rise Yiftakh spies a curl of smoke in the hollow where the serfs have huddled their huts.

“Smoke! No reason for fire today, and the bake-house is back at Bogdan’s place. That’s probably our target. Follow me.”

Down in the glen there was nary a guard posted at the house. Sure of surprise Yiftakh spreads us out as we crawl thru bramble and bush. Ready, poised, hardly more than a few steps away from the hut, when sudden, out of the door, here comes Batkol, a babe in her arms. Like a bolt of lightning shot from a cloud – and who can predict its where and its when – out shoots Yiftakh from a thorny bush and strikes her down; then shouts ‘Attack!’ The rest of the men charge from the brush and burst on the hut, like to trample it down. And me, I hardly remembers a thing, just screamin’,
“No! Batkol! No!”

And it seems I rushed in with ill intent to kill Yiftakh for what he done.

Some time later, there I were, leanin’ against a parched trunk, some twisted, ghastly, leafless tree with its crooked branches clawing at the sky, silent as a corpse in a wordless howl.

In the moment I couldn’t remember where I were. Then up struts Yiftakh, and scowlin’ says,
“You dumbshit donkey. Should have cut your neck.”
Midst howlings and weepings, off he gone, mutterin’ to himself, ‘damn the whole world,’ and begun to lope up the road back to Lutsk.

I get up, all shaky, and walk to the hut. Batkol’s still lyin’ face down in the muck, and another woman’s in a bloody pool on the floor of the hut. And like a pile of rags, crumpled on the ground, a hefty man – women kneelin’ on either side – gaspin’ wheezin’ gurglin’ blood. Looks like Bogdan. Just about then pain starts shootin’ across my skull and down my arm and into my back.

Pieces of the Megillat Esther completed so far

Here’s a slideshow review of some of the pieces of the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) that Josh and I have completed so far. For the art historically minded, you will see my interpretations of art from the Achaemenid and pre-Achaemenid period (800 to 400 BCE), and of Persian Islamic designs (~1500-1700 CE).

Towards an understanding of 'Soul'

Transcribing recent scenes of The Atternen Juez Talen from my notebook, I found this spiritual-psychological sketch:

Last night Jonah wailed when he was not allowed to have cake. He is 15 months old. He already knows about “fair-not fair,” about justice. This is not learned; it is innate. The essence of a life of meaning, value, intention, justice is laid into us, altho nurture can amplify or de-amplify it. I believe this innate capacity emerges from the ‘Soul.’ Thus, I unconditionally reject the belief that the world, and our own life, is random, meaningless, amoral. Meaning and purpose are so fundamental and innate that, literally, we cannot think without them (although we can surely resist them on more surface levels of thought). Thought itself emerges thru, and is infused with our sense of meaning and justice. Our sense of meaning, purpose, and justice, like consciousness itself, like a sense of “I” and “I and you” and “I and Thou” all emerge from the infinite and unknowable, and are foundational to all we think and do. This is why, when people experience a loss of meaning or purpose, they find it so existentially devastating. Their access to their foundations, to the infinite, has been blocked or disrupted. It’s like drowning, like an absence of oxygen.

Morality, the sense of justice, is more than an innate inclination created by evolution. Genetics “channels” morality and a sense of meaning, but does not create them. The actual ability to seek meaning, justice, order precedes the physical. It precedes our existence. Its origins are from the infinite, the divine.

Let me state that in another way: Moral judgement is not an evolutionary innovation randomly derived. It is a capacity that has been evolutionarily facilitated, but it transcends and precedes physical being. It originates beyond being, in what may be called soul. The soul is not created by the body or by evolution. Rather, it is expressed, or given the capacity to be expressed thru the evolutionary development of the animal body (and perhaps even the plant body, as well). The body is but a physical vessel for life, for the soul. Indeed, the soul shapes the body, calling it into organization in a way that we might liken to a magnet rearranging iron filings.

The realization that life is distinct from the body can generate a startling sense of wonder. What once seemed bounded and finite (our lives) now expands to the infinite. It is a moment of divine contact. For many it causes a dormant spiritual inclination to awake from its ancient sleep.

Eternal Jew: Batkol in Lilith's den

Here’s a short excerpt from a rich and varied scene in which Batkol (the wife of the Eternal Jew, aka Saadia) has found a female healer (Lilah, Leila) with remarkable powers in the hills north of Genoa. The whole scene is full of kabbalistic elevations, as well as new midrash on biblical characters, including Joseph, Judah, and Rahav (of Jericho). I present this little tidbit first as poetry in the new language I’m developing, and then translated into standard English (which I call “old English”). Fasten your seat belts…

Doze. Straenjen frotfule dreemz.
Open my iy. Awl ullone.
Then Sodyah stannen in the dor.
Open my iy az the dor kreeks.
Lilah kum in, her armz fule
A logz draept with fresh erb.

“Sodyah wer heer. Waerz he gon?”
“Bak down a ro he kum frum, I ges.”

An she slo an kaerfule skwot in frunt
A the fiyer plase an sets down her loed.
She layz a log on the smoelderree koelz
An then sum erbz an fanz them hard
Til the room a fule with punjen smoke.
She ternt her hed an louk at me —
Sheez yung an luvlee, with a triksee grin!

“Kum! Thaerz sumwun I won yu tu meet.”

I stan up. Lo! My bak iz fine,
An I relize my hed ake bin long gon.
Fer a momen I feel Iem afloten the aerz,
Then weer stannen in a feel a brilyen bloomz,
Krimsen an swayen, the sky deep blu.
Starz ar shinen an so iz the sun.
A towwerres mownten kapt in sno
An jagged owtkrops, kristellen kworts.
I aen nevver seen sech a wunderres lan.

“Am I a dreem?” I sez tu her.

An I see now she iz nude az Eve,
An sedduktiv an wiel az Ishtar herselz.
I louk down an see, I too am stark,
An my skin like pawlish ebbonee,
An she sez, “An yu ar byutuffule too,
“An no, yu aen a sleep at awl.
“Yu mor uwwake az yu evver bin.”

————— ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ —————

And here’s the reversion to old English prose, with its constrained meanings, one-dimensional grammar, and problematic spelling:

Doze. Strange and fraught dreams. Open my eyes. All alone. Then Saadia’s standin’ in the door. Open my eyes as the door creaks. Leila comes in, her arms full of logs draped with fresh herbs.

“Saadia was here. Where’s he gone?”
“Back down the road he come from, I guess.”

And she slow and careful squats in front of the fireplace and sets down her load. She lays a log on the smolderin’ coals and then some herbs and fans them hard til the room is full of pungent smoke. She turns her head and looks at me. She’s young and lovely, with a tricksy grin!

“Come! There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I stand up. Lo! My back is fine, and I realize my headache’s been long gone. For a moment I feel like I’m afloat in the air, then we’re standin’ in a field of brilliant blooms, crimson and swayin’, the sky deep blue. Stars are shinin’ and so is the sun. A towering mountain capped in snow and jagged outcrops, crystalline quartz. I ain’t never seen such a wondrous land.

“Am I dreaming?”

I says to her. And I see now she is nude as Eve, and seductive and wild as Ishtar herself. I look down and see, I too am stark, and my skin like polished ebony, and she says,

“And you are beautiful too, and no, you ain’t asleep at all. You’re more awake than you’ve ever been.”

Latest work on our Megillat Esther

As I have explained in earlier posts, about half of the images I am producing for our Megillat Esther are derived from art and objects that were either produced during the Achaemenid empire, or that could have been found within the borders of that empire. Why this focus on the Achaemenid empire? Xerxes I was one of the Achaemenid emperors, and he is commonly associated with Achashverosh, the king in the Book of Esther! Thus, it is conceivable that Xerxes may have used some of the gold and silver objects I have illustrated for our manuscript, objects that we might imagine Achashverosh used during the party he threw at the beginning of the Esther story.

So, our megillah might stand as an art history lesson, as well!

The image below comes from a bas relief that was a rather long chariot ride from Susa (Shushan), where Achashverosh held court. It is part of the gate of Nimrud (near Erbil in modern Iraq), produced by the Assyrian emperor Ashurnasirpal, about 350 years before Xerxes. It shows women mourning after one of Ashurnasipal’s conquests. I chose it to represent the Jews of Achashverosh’s kingdom, after they learn of Haman’s plot to exterminate them.

The slideshow below shows the progression of the image as I painted it.

My new study

We’re rearranging our house, which is almost as bad as moving. What a mess!!! But as the pieces begin to fall in place, we’re thinking, maybe it wasn’t mishugah (Pittsburghers would say ‘mishugi’) after all. Here’s my new office. Nancy’s new study, when she finally puts her books away, will be very nice too, up on the 2nd floor and looking NW into the trees.

Abstract expressionist experiments

I’ve been experimenting with some abstract images and colorwork, possibly prepping for a couple of new ebooks I want to produce, once Josh and I complete the Megillat Esther we’re working on. (See posts prior and future to keep up to date with the megillah work.)

I’m working on about 6 sequences, but here are 2 that are close to completion. I hope you enjoy them…

Mezuzah I made for Cal

The slideshow below shows the stages in making a mezuzah. I began with a block of bird’s eye maple. Studying the grain of the wood gave me the idea for the design that I carved. I then gilded the face, outlined the letter ‘Shin’ in crimson, and then varnished it. On the back I carved out a niche for the klaf, which will be sealed with a piece of maple veneer.

Eternal Jew in Volhynia

Of the many layers built into my epic poem The Atternen Juez Talen, I have a particular fondness for integrating folktales, fables, and legends into my stories, modified to fit the time and location. The following scene integrates components of a traditional Slavic fairy tale, to help build out the detail. I have translated it back into Old English (standard English) prose, to make it more accessible.

“I once was a poor man, just like you. Poverty wrapped herself just like a noose around my neck. I could hardly breath. Or like burrs that twist up in a boy’s hair so you can’t pull ‘em out, so she clung to me. Indentured myself to a local knight who was granted a fief, rewardin’ his sword. All gnarled and pocked his face and his heart, and he turned his eye on my darling child. Ever and again, with leer and with sneer he come to my cottage burnin’ for the girl. Oh, her tremblin’ and, oh, her tears and oh, the appall that blanched her face. She who could buy us an honorable life, but I, I preferred my poverty than to sell my child to that viperous knight. And so I endured indignities rakin’ his pigsty and makin’ cakes of cow dung, while he cursed and spit. Nor did he spare the lash to my back, until my heart were cold as ice.”

“An indentured man is owned like a mule but I decided to run away. Troublous times, skirmish and raid. Our lor be off lootin’ in slaughter and rape. That’s when I ups and decides to flee. I borrows an oxcart out of his barn, me as the ox; and my wife and my girls begins to load it with all we own. Now I hears a moan from the stove, and louder it groans, so I peek inside. Scrape and grate and out of the coals like a wisp of smoke, a spirit emerges, pale as a corpse, nor more than ash. Children scream and my wife faints, and me, I spits and calls on The Name.

“‘I ain’t no dybbuk. Be not afeared. I am your Poverty, indentured to you like a servant. I go where you go.’

“Wondrous strange and my mind a-race that such a one is bound to me.

“‘Well, there’s nothin’ for it. You are ours, and those who serve must do their work, so help us carry some of our things.’

“The wraith glides over to pick up a dish but my children say, ‘nay, that’s for us.’ Me, I pulls out a bottle of schnaps and sets it in front of the fireplace, then says,

“‘I need your help out here to put the choppin’ block in the cart.’

“I takes my ax and swings it down to wedge its blade into the block.

“‘Where can I grab this heavy block?’

“asks she. I points and says,

“‘There by the blade of the ax the wood be split. Slip your fingers into the crack.’

“So done. And me, quick as a cat pulls out the ax and the crack squeezes closed, and her hand is caught in the block like a clamp. Oh cry; oh scream; oh bitter her moan and me and my girls we hustle away down the road to Rovno, here.

“Now soon the gnarly knight returns, and there, our house open wide as a barn and nothin’ inside, but a bottle of schnaps.

“‘Them bastard Jews be run away,’

“he growls, and takes a gulp from the crock. And another gulp and he hears the moan of the wraith outside,

“‘Help me, oh Lor.’

“Thinkin’ a spirit be callin’ on him, another gulp and he pokes his head out the window, and there, the girl.

“‘Who be you, oh prissy maid?’

“And she, a-thinkin’ of what to do, and sees there’s nothin’ for it, says,

“‘Oh handsome knight, oh savin’ lor, see here. My hand be caught in this block.’

“And the tipsy knight, his head a swirl, comes to inspect, and the wraithy girl kisses his neck, and a fire begins to warm the old man, and he frees her hand. Not many days and the two are betrothed. Now see how Poverty clings to his arm, and soon that knight has lost his lands and now he’s livin’ in my old hut. And here I am attached to a prince, keepin’ accounts and managin’ his lands. Now lift your eyes and looky ahead. There be his castle and that’s where I live.”

Megillat Esther, Islamic inspired designs, 3

I just completed another illumination for the megillah, again based on Islamic designs, altho this one is rectangular, not triangular like the previous two that I posted here in recent months.

A note on materials:
For the illuminations we use commercial archival paper, neutral pH, minimal size (sealer) so I lightly seal it with acrylic. I build up the ground for the gold with a modified gesso, then lay 24k gold leaf (from Swift). Then lay in the color, using QOR watercolors.

Here’s a slideshow of the latest work. All these illuminations are about 2”x3”.

The Eternal Jew comes back west

Our hero has turned back from Khorasan (now Afghanistan), and made his way to Volhynia, a region largely in the Ukraine now. He meets a fellow Jew…

Just before Rovno here come a Jew
ridin’ a horse like a noble man.
*‘Shalom Aleikhem’s’ and ‘Barukh HaShem’s’.*
A little chit and a little chat
as we try to assess the taste of this land.
*-* ‘Peace be upon you and
‘Bless the Name’ (that is, God)

With a flick of his reins the horse turns aside
into a dark and narrow trail,
and the Jew beckons, “Follow me...”
Batkol yanks my sleeve and frowns.
“...And I’ll tell you about this Volhynia.”

Wary, our steps get slow and short.
“Worry not. This shorter way
“is cooler; nor wolf nor thief hide here.”
And he lifts the bag slung on my back
and loops it onto his saddle bag.
Batkol and me on high alert.
“I once was a poor man, just like you.
“Poverty wrapped herself just like a noose
“around my neck. I could hardly breath.
“Or like burrs that twist up in a boy’s hair
“so you can’t pull ‘em out, so she clung to me.
“Indentured myself to a local knight
“who was granted a fief, rewardin’ his sword.
“All gnarled and pocked his face and his heart,
“and he turned his eye on my darling child.
“Ever and again, with leer and with sneer
“he come to my cottage burnin’ for the girl.
“O, her tremblin’ and, o, her tears
“and o, the appall that blanched her face.
“She who could buy us an honorable life,
“but I, I preferred my poverty
“than to sell my child to that viperous knight.
“And so I endured indignities
“rakin’ his pigsty and makin’ cakes
“of cow dung, while he cursed and spit.
“Nor did he spare the lash to my back,
“until my heart were cold as ice.”

Then he stared at us with glassy eyes,
as the copse grew thicker and the way obscure.
And suddenly I’m chilled. Is it his stare
or the damp and sulphurous air of the wood.

“An indentured man is owned like a mule…

Megillat Esther, Islamic inspired designs, 2

My last post about the Megillat Esther that Josh and I are producing was back in December.

Here’s a slideshow to give you an update of our work as it has proceeded.

The Eternal Jew comes to Genoa

In recent posts I’ve translated my epic about the Eternal Jew back to standard English prose. Here’s an example of the real stuff, which is to say, poetry in New English (metaEnglish).

The setting: the Eternal Jew and his wife have tired of Prague, and have decided to return to Spain. They keep a careful journal of the route, a journal they hope to sell to traders who want to take advantage of the new markets developing in the interior of Europe….

Me, I keepen fule akkounts
A the way, with skechez, noets, an maps
A streets, bildenz, lanmarks, plants,
Ennee notabbel toppollujjeez,
An arroez showen the sunz path.
No dowt Ittalyen traderz wil fien
Theze sheets a rezors an werth sum trade.

Kum owten the Alps tu San Meeshel*             * San Michele, Italy
Like leevz blowen in a ottem skwal
Rite pas Vennes an thru the hilz
An almoes intu the brinee dreenk
Down on Zhennovahz* bussellee doks,            * Genoa
Them pielz with ferz an barrelz a sawlt
An pitteyes weepenz a slaevz a-chaend.
Wun a theze galleez, fer the rite prise,
Wil shorlee take us tu Mulluggah*.                    * Malaga

I set abbow tryen a hawk my maps,
But I kwik-like seen my mists a chans:
     "I sale boet; I doen drive kart."
     or "If I kant sale thaer, I doen go."
     or "Thats the kien a trubbellee werk
     "Venneeshenz like, not Zhennovese,
     "A duket a werk an a denar a pay."
     or "Prog? Iz that sum kien a fish?"
     or "I aen got no yuse fer Ju."

Fienlee sumwun taeks a peek
In my foleyo a skechen maps.
     "Kum with me. I knoez a man...."

Fleeing the Caucasus

Here’s another translation back to old English (you know, the English you speak) from my poetic epic, The Atternen Juez Talen. It’s an amusing little vignette.

Here’s the setting: the Eternal Jew and his wife, Batkol decide to leave Georgia (in the Caucasus) after a disastrous earthquake. They are probably suffering from what we’d now call PTSD....

Eyes to Baghdad. Expectin' to find just lone and level sands stretched out after the Mongols had harrowed that field. But first we stumbled into Tabriz. What is this? Muezzin* calls; a market place with busy stalls; some bushy palms; and bright glazed tiles on the face of a musjid's** dome and walls. Even churches and synagogues back in the warren of market streets.
* him who chants the call to prayer
** mosque

As we gawk along, some guy rushes up, squawkin' about our travels beyond and our Master already restin' at home and come along we mustn't be late.
"Our Master? Us on the road beyond?"
Troubled times and madmen abound. And tender and soft we decline his help.

"Don't be afeard. I mean you no harm, but the Holy Father will join us soon, and many the delicate dainty prepared, and your Master be worried that you be lost."

How many Christians, and not a few Jews believin' these be the end-time days. This sorrowful mystic broke in his grief, imagines around the next corner we'll find the King Messiah who will save us all. Just then we’re at an open door and some haggard woman is shoutin' ‘hallelu’ and grabbin' our arms, obsequious -like, and draggin’ us into an opulent room, brocaded curtains and velvet chairs, and some foreign rake with a feather in his cap gapes at us as we gape at him.

He turns to the madman and asks of him,
"Hoyar aze twa? Iyar niy on gise."

Well, that's my scriptin' of what I heard. It sounded like some garbled Spanish or such, and my heart leapt, thinkin' of Spain.

It's been a few years since we been back there so my lingo were probably garbled as his, but all excited to know the news -- how goes Grenada and who is the King? I blurts out, "I'm a Spanish Jew." An amused smile curls his lips.

And there's Batkol, yankin' my arm,
"This place is creepy. Let's scram. Come on!"

And the haggardly woman tries to appease Batkol, cooin' and pattin' her hand; and now the Holy Father struts in but it's just some priest from a local church; and the madman jabbers at this one and that; and here come some pastries, and now some tea; so it takes quite a while to sort things out.

Reader, the first thing you probably should know: this weren't Messiah, nor even the Pope. But he spoke Italian and he actually said,
"Who are these two? They ain't our guides."

And if I recall he said his home was Venice, but he's on a quest out east, and his servant mistook us for his guides, and his name is Margo Folo, or such.

Batkol's still yankin' my arm to go, as I accept an offer to join them for meat.
"Incorrigible man," she mutters, annoyed.

Portraits from a Jewish orphanage

In my ongoing translation of The Atternen Juez Talen back into “old” (ie, normal) English, I came to this short portrait I thought you might like. It takes place in Georgia (in the Caucasus) around 800 years ago, in the midst of the Mongolian invasions. In the aftermath of one battle, the Eternal Jew and his wife set up an orphanage for the children who survived. In the morning they would teach the children some Torah, and in the afternoons they would send the children out as apprentices.

Here’s a portrait of one child, and the setting he lived in.

Samson. Well, that's what he come to be called. Funny how a person lives into a name. Built like a bull, and tough as one too, like a thunderstorm that flashes from afar, threatening, but rare to strike home. But when his tears welled up you were best to run. He would sit stone still in our Torah talk, and silent as stone and probably as dull. But the butchers and porters, they all competed when they seen his arms, shoulders and neck. With clever cajolin' and callin' in debts they bartered til butcher Zev prevailed. Zev could hack thru an ox's flank with a single stroke; and cut to the heart of our Halakhah* as quick and sure. In the butcher's prayer house he was the rabbi.

* Jewish law and rulings

In the strop and hone of rabbinic thought, where every moment is seen as unique, and law must flex itself to fit our twisted world, that we might bring God and justice down to us; in the butcher's blade and the gush of blood; in the splattered fat and splintered bone; there, Samson become a man under the knife of the butcher Zev. Nor dull and cold as I had thought, the lad's heart. He come to learn anatomy of the cow and sheep, and eternity of Jewish law. But stony, still. Nor smile nor joke bent his lip. "He needs a wife." his father-boss declared for him. But like his namesake, Samson preferred the Gathly girls, the Mongol ones. Wild of talk and morals loose, and neither Mongols nor us Jews were pleased to let our children mix. More than once did Samson face a gang of angry Mongol boys. And more than once he hung the dead on poles to give the crows a feast.

And more than once our Mongol lord demanded reprisals, gold or grain. Finally the khan sent a troop to take Samson as a prisoner. But word out-sped their horse. Samson fled and joined a rebel band. Some say he became a mercenary thief. Others say he was a Maccabee.** A future ballad told his tale: The Highwayman; shot down like a dog.

** Family that led rebellion against Hellenists, ~170 BCE

Just sayin', #1

One of the remarkable people I have had the great pleasure to know, Greg Barker (find him here: recently posted a question-challenge to his readers:

McJesus Sculpture Controversy:
Discussion Question: Is it ever acceptable to violate religious symbols as a form of artistic expression?

Well, I rarely intervene in his discussions, but this just plucked a string of my ole beat-up guitar, and I responded with a short rant. Greg shot back this quick reply:
I think you should have a column entitled 'just sayin' '   I would be a happy follower of it.

Okay, Greg. You asked for it (altho I’ve edited out the rant component).

We live in a world where disrespect is glorified. From comedians to presidents and dictators disrespect earns big points. Disrespect is easy, thoughtless, and popular. But this religion of disrespect is a mind poisoner, and its exponents invariably become narrow and diminished proportionately to the degree they engage in it. It is the voice of of intolerance, cynicism, bullying, abuse, and hatred, and it reflects a dystopic thinking we seem to want to pursue with alacrity. While there is much that is deserving of criticism in this world, in the end, if we are not devoting ourselves, primarily, to imagining a better world, including building bridges with those with whom we disagree, how then can we create a better world? McJesus is just another manifestation of the dystopia it purports to belittle.
Just sayin'...

Musings on trans-personal consciousness

Sitting on a ridge in the Mojave Desert, just north of Joshua Tree National Park, watching a rain storm blow in…

Like fronts of weather moving across a landscape, similarly, emotions and beliefs blow across human societies and through human consciousness, and we, without the “meteorological” tools to see, measure, track, or forecast those fronts of emotion, instead experience them as arisen from ourselves, individually, and thus with no capacity to prepare for and shelter ourselves from them, so that we might be able to remain largely unaffected and undamaged by the storms such fronts can bring on. Instead, we are overwhelmed by them, and blown like tumbleweeds across the emotional landscape; a society, a world of tumbleweeds blown about without shelter or stability.

We have yet to understand that causation in history works at a higher level than individual motive and action.

Indeed, individual motive and action is as inconsequential and derivative in the emotional “storm fronts” that blow across our world, as local and momentary differentials in pressure in the midst of a passing gust of wind. And I am speaking here not just of the “common people”, but of presidents and dictators, lords of industry, and the phantasms of popular culture — musicians, sports figures, movie stars — all mostly tumbleweeds with a little will and a little luck thrown in.

Ah, but we love to idolize and project authority and awe onto blow-hards and other puffs of wind. Why? Partly because we imagine that we might be, or yet become one of those “shakers and movers” in world history, tumbleweeds that we are.