Here’s what a completed page will look like, except that the illuminations will be trimmed and pasted down.
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.
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.”
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”.
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…
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.
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...."
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
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.
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
One of the remarkable people I have had the great pleasure to know, Greg Barker (find him here: https://gregbarker.education) 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.
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.
While many of the images for the Megillat Esther Josh and I are producing are based on Achaemenid artifacts (which would have, thus, been current at the time the story takes place), we also decided to make a number of more abstract illustrations, based on classic designs from Islamic manuscripts (designs that would NOT have been current in Esther’s time) that would, nonetheless, add some elegance to the manuscript. Indeed, the general page layout, with framing single lines of text in a large font at top and bottom and much finer text in between, often written at a 45 degree angle, is based on classic Islamic manuscripts from the 14th to 17th centuries.
Below is a little slideshow of one of the Islamic-inspired designs I recently completed. The show starts off with a page of text, so you can see what I was talking about, when I was describing the text layout, above. By the way, Josh does all the calligraphy, and is responsible for general design decisions. I just do the illustrations.
About a week ago I posted 2 excerpts from The Atternen Juez Talen that I’m currently translating back to “old English”. Here’s another one you might enjoy.
To remind you: the setting is a small town in medieval Georgia; the year about 1270 CE. Our hero is recording some notable events that happen in the courtyard of the han (caravanserai) he’s working in.
At the gate of the han, stompin’ and screams; two wild men, hair matted in knots, beards that swallowed the whole of their face and it made their heads look ghastly large, like them demons the Tibetans paint on their scrolls. Their robes were a patchwork of scraps and holes stained and filthy and as foul as their mouths, them screamin’ for blood of some rascal thieves. With an elbow my neighbor gives me a poke:
“De-frocked Nestorian monks, I hear, beggin’ and pilferin’ and skulkin’ about. It seems some lad got the better of them.”
Curious and amused I finish the verse of *Pesukei Dezimra* I’m scribin’ for the rav, **“Supru v’goyyim et kavodo.”**
Then I wipe my quill and mosey on down to piece out the story from their monkey mouths. When I get there, one is pawin’ his purse lookin’ for something, with growl and curse.
“Here! You see this piece of shist? Genuine lapis that bugger swore, highest quality, finest kind, straight from Khorasan’s finest mine and carved by an artist in holy Mashhad. And more he’s got, that bastard says, him takin’ pity on us wanderin’ monks.”
He sticks out his grubby and scabby hand to show us a medallion, crude and dull, like the throw-away matrix you can find in a heap outside a shop for cuttin’ gems. Gray and black veins, splotches of white; some blue patches, them second rate. There’s chuckles and grunts and ‘you been stung.’
“But yesterday this here was blue as the sky, til we took it to sell at ‘Gems of the Shah’. That bitchbag dropped it in a boilin’ pot; when he pulled it out, he hands us this dungball, useless as tits on a bull. Help us find that pisspot runt that sold us this. We’ll cut off his nose.”
Then up rides a soldier, sword in hand, and me and the guys drift back to the han.
*-* ‘Verses of Song’; songs to begin morning prayers
**-** ‘Declare Hem glory to the nations’
I am translating a section of The Atternen Juez Talen back into ‘normal’ English. In this scene, set in around 1270 CE, the Eternal Jew (Atternen Ju) finds himself living among unknown Jewish communities in the Caucasus region. The town he’s currently living in is Mtskheta, Georgia. It’s about 20 klicks north of modern Tbilisi. Having set up his scribal shop in a han (caravanserai) on the edge of town, he has decided to record some of the notable events that are happening down in the courtyard of the han while he is working up in the balcony. These little vignettes are subtitled “Sketches Set in a Georgian Han”
Here are 2 short ones you may find curious, even interesting.
Spit and strut. Spit and strut.
Surly and burly, them comin’ on.
Spittin’ and pissin’, fart and belch;
Handlers whistle, then a hook to the neck.
Down they kneel, bellow and groan.
The camel’s tale of Kohelet’s* first words.
* aka Ecclesiastes
There’s a box made of stained and knotty slats
That a finger will just about fit between.
Some kind of cage that houses beasts.
I seen a guy stickin’ his pinky in
And the demons inside nearly tore it off.
Squawkin’ a racket like Beelzebub’s jinns,
And rustle and fussin’ like a room full of kids.
But I seen their owner slip in his hand
After hushin’ and shushin’ with soft coos,
And there on his finger a bright green bird
Big as a crow and as like to be mean.
His beak a wide leer, his eyes like veneer.
And just like a salesman, incessant he squawks.
“Ya hear that,” the trader suddenly blurts.
“This girly just said ‘Alhamdulilah*’”
* Arabic: praise be to God
Work on the illuminated Megillat Esther continues.
I recently completed the 11th illumination, an image of an Achaemenid gold cup, probably dating from the time of Xerxes, the ruler who is often thought to be the Achashverosh of the Esther story. Thus, this cup may have actually been used in the revelry that opens the story!
Here’s a short slide show of the stages in producing this image. We see
1. the sketch, with gold ground laid
2. raking light on the gold ground as I prepare to burnish it to a glossy finish
3. close-up, showing the difference between the burnished snakes (uroboros) and the forehead
4. first layer of gold, unburnished
5. illumination completed, fully burnished
6. crystal background completed
The image is 3” x 2”.
Three fragments excavated from my current notebook….
The first is a piece of poetry from the upper worlds. Our language down here, so limited, will have trouble making sense of it, tho pieces of it will sound familiar. This is what I transcribed:
… He heerd Davee play.
He iz a reed uv iz werd.
He iz heer
selammen seen in iz song,
drippen iz hunnee fraegren a spise.
He iz rae Izayah an Hozayah too
an iz hert iz braken it
in winder abownz.
Ammajjin aer seengen the upper werlz.
I wil breeng em aer fer the aenjelz be heer…
And this opening to a parable…
There was a king who lived in a castle unknown to his people. He employed many ministers and envoys. He was a modern king. He spoke to them by texting!
One of his envoys was determined to meet the king in person. He texted to him, “How can I meet you in your castle?” The king texted in response, “You are too deceitful to meet me. Not only your thoughts, but your senses too are full of deceit.…”
And finally this…
The closer I get to the truth, the more alienated I am from myself and the world.
The closer I get to the truth, the less rational my thinking.
The infinite is not confined by human ratios.
Here’s an image of how most pages of the megillah will be laid out. This particular image will be page 3, and the images laid on it, Vashti and a gold drinking horn from the Achaemenid period, will soon be pasted down onto the parchment. The parchment will be pasted onto multi-ply paper with a marbled backing.
Beneath that image is a photo of Maddy, Josh, and me working — Josh lettering, me illuminating, Maddy unfolding the mysteries of nature.
One of my long term projects is to compile stories of odd events, other-worldly experiences, and strange dreams in a book titled Transmigrant Journals. Here's the opening scene of a story that I'm currently calling "Re-Education".
1. Late August, first days
I was sent here as part of an educational program, government subsidized. It was a big honor. But it was far away. The flight seemed to take forever. I slept most of the way; dozed really, occasionally waking in a surge of anxiety or excitement. It was hard to tell the difference.
I was met at the gate, whisked thru customs, limo’d into the city, and escorted into a fancy apartment. All first class. Like I said, this was a big opportunity. They had plans for me. And I felt like I had earned them.
This city was unlike anything I had ever seen or read about. To my eyes everything around me looked like heavenly corridors. The buildings were as much art and sculpture as they were practical structures. Large and small were elegantly merged. Sunlight was directed or reflected into every carved niche. Often I couldn’t tell where buildings ended and botanical gardens began. But oh, such gardens! Nature’s abundant creativity delighted all my senses. And ever the transition between art and nature, and between edifice and artifice challenged my perceptual skills
I will not try to describe what I saw in each shop window. It would take too long and divert me from my purpose. Besides, who has the powers to describe such wonders? ...
While I have been working on illuminations, Josh has been producing pages of text.
Here's a little slideshow of some of his work...
While Josh is producing pages of text, I'm working on the illuminations. Here's my most recently completed image, a portrait of Vashti, the king's courageous wife who will not be disgraced as a sex object by the crude and drunken king. The image comes from an Achaemenid silver bowl. This slideshow presents the main stages of the image's development.