Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Surrealistic Fiction Continued

Closer to My Comfort Zone

By I.M. Acher


          Know this. 

          There are over 7 billion people on this Earth. 

          Let us assume that everyone has free will.  When you need to make a decision, you usually have at least three different choices to consider.  If that decision involves another human, then that decision is compounded by at least another three.  Let us compound that by every choice that every human makes every day.  Let us further compound that by the things that affect our lives, directly or indirectly. 

          Now let us assume there is a higher intellect that somehow facilitates these actions.  That being’s hands must be pretty full.

          Let’s assume said being doesn’t exist?  After all, these words did not put themselves on this computer screen.

          Chew on this:  your universe is not the only one that exists.  Our minds are only wired to think that it is.  It’s probably better that our minds cannot think four-dimensionally.  If we could, our world would probably like watching a scrambled premium cable channel. 


Jonah in the Land of Nod.


          Laundry day. 

          Jonah doesn’t know what got him to go downstairs and use the laundry room.  He hadn’t used the laundry room in over a year.  Come and think of it, he wasn’t even sure if those machines even worked. 

          Cleanliness is godliness, his mother said.  Happiness is a clean pair of underwear, he said.  He hadn’t been happy in weeks.

          He watched as his clothes swirled around in the washing machine.  He could see his vintage Deep Purple t-shirt swirling around.  That shirt was so worn, it’s a miracle that one wash didn’t make it unravel.

          His fingers were stained with grease from his fried calamari and half-a-pack of American Spirit.  Maybe he should have washed his hands. 

          Or maybe, he should not have woken up that morning…

          Go to Ninvus, North of Gehena.  And tell them THE END IS NIGH.

          Jonah just stared at the fish-man.  “Whoa,” he said.  “You really dialed that creep factor up to 11.” 

          His head was still reeling from that sonic boom the fish-man sent into his head.  And he was scared of the fish-man inflicting further pain unto him.

          Go to Ninvus, said the fish-man.  And tell them THE END IS NIGH.

          “Yeah yeah,” said Jonah, “I heard you the first time.  What are you going to do to them?”

          Me?  Nothing!  I’m just a messenger. 

          “If you’re a messenger, why do you need me to tell them anything?”

          If a telepathic anthropomorphic fish walked into your city with a message of doom, would you heed his warning?

          “Well let’s see.  I have one of those talking to me now, and I am not compelled to listen to him…”

          Exactly! said the fish-man.  Then what chance do I have with a whole city?

The fish-man’s Achilles’ heel was the act of persuasion.

          As a young fish-man, the fish-man was bless/cursed with the gift of blarney.  That meant he loved to talk.  But most of the words out of his mouth were empty and did not actually accomplish their intended goals.

          How very unfortunate.  If words are symbolic representatives of synthetic ideas, you would think that one who represents one as important as The Master would be better at saying what he means and meaning what he says.

          “But why me?” asked Jonah.  “Out of all the orators in the world, what could I possibly possess that makes me worthy of such a stupid mission?”

          Because out of all the derelicts in the Land of Nod, you are the one that the least amount of people would miss if you failed.  You have no friends, no family, no job, no future prospect of accomplishing anything important, basically no good traits whatsoever.  Which is exactly why you are the ideal candidate for such a mission.

          “Then how could I possibly convince an entire city to listen to me?”

          Who said anything about convincing?

          “So in other words, you are setting me up for failure.”

          Well, uh, yes.

          Jonah scratched his head and considered the fish-man for a moment.  Then he stuck up his middle finger and said “well consider this my answer.  Go.fuck.yourself!”

          It was actually the fish-man’s dream to be able to gratify himself.

          Jonah never really gave much thought to the prospect.  After all, he wasn’t really the adventurous type; that included sexual endeavors. 

          Perhaps the kinkiest thought that ever entered Jonah’s mind was what kind of tube sock would make the worst condom ever.  It is for this reason that Jonah did not have many sexually intimate experiences in his life.

          These are the words of the fish-man.

          Free will is just an illusion.  But so is determinism. 

          You don’t really control your own actions.  But neither does a higher intelligence.

          The universe is a collection of forces.  These forces are static and dynamic at the same time.  There are definite rules they follow.  But even the world’s biggest supercomputer could never parse all the variables, constants, and operations involved with these forces.

          It is therefore inconceivable that we will ever know anything with complete certainty.

          Science and religion are both human attempts to understand the universe.  They are both equally frivolous.  Both have aided and abetted human conquest of its environment.  They once were two heads of the same coin.  But as science became more methodological, it also became more dogmatic.  And as religion began to disguise its dogma with logic, the lines became more and more muddled.

          In the end, neither side was any closer to the truth.

          I used to think that I understood the truth.

          But thanks to the fish-man, I realized that in fact, there is no truth.  There is only perception and those who are too obtuse to use theirs.

Monday, December 28, 2015

My first crack at surrealist fiction in a while ::Trigger Warning::

Journey Outside My Comfort Zone

By I.M. Acher.


          Sunday Morning, 10:00 AM, Land of Nod, East of Gehena.


          Before you read this, just remember one thing.  You are but a glimmer in the eyes of a non-sentient Universe that doesn’t give two shits about you.  You are the incidental byproduct of a bunch of stardust that coalesced and over a long period (by our frame of reference) caused us to believe ourselves to be sentient.  You are nothing.  There is no deeper meaning to life, the universe, or anything.  You just exist. 

          Is it too late for a trigger warning?


          The Day Jonah Stepped Out of His Own Mind:


          It was the words of the dopamine-imbalance in Jonah’s brain. 

          On that Sunday, like any other Sunday, unlike any future Sunday, but definitely like every previous Sunday he had ever experienced before.

          He was lying in bed.  His room was a dusty cornucopia of books he never got around to reading, posters of various death metal bands, various dirty t-shirts and boxer shorts that hadn’t been washed in weeks, as well as empty 22-oz bottles of cheap malt liquor. 

          He gazed up at the poster of Ozzy Osbourne hitchhiking, holding up a sign that says “Hell.”  Blasting on his alarm clock speaker was “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead.  Just the song he needed; after last night, his liver was dancing the bachata.

          But what even happened last night?

          And how did he even get back into his bed?

          He was neither man nor fish.  Hell, for all I know, he was probably not even of this astral plane.

          He did not move his mouth.  He spoke.

          “Jonah, get up.  Go to the City of Ninvus, North of Gehena.”

          Gehena!  Now it was all making sense.

          One does not just walk into Gehena.  Even people who have business in Gehena do not just walk into Gehena.

          I’ve been to Gehena several times.  I would tell you what it was like.  But you know how the old saying goes—what goes in Gehena stays in Gehena.

          Growing up, I was told that Gehena was a firepit.  I was told that it was a place where you will burn forever.  It is a place full of sinners and other people who pissed off the Master.

          Ladies and Gentlemen, if only Gehena was only that, then perhaps I would be able to bear it.  You see, there is no Master.  And given the capricious rules He expects people to follow, I would much rather spend eternity with those who broke those rules than in that other place—the city in the clouds which supposes eternal bliss.

          No, Gehena is not a place that’s bad because of pain and suffering.

          Gehena is a place that contains everything the mind can ask for.  Except nobody can afford Gehena. 


          Jonah, the fish-man said.  Jonah.  Can you hear me?

          “I’m not sure,” said Jonah.  “You see, hearing usually entails using one’s auricular processes.  But you’re not exactly making a sound wave, so I’m not sure if what I’m doing right now is considered hearing.”

          At that point, the fish-man sent the telepathic equivalent of a sonic boom into Jonah’s head.  It gave Jonah a migraine that still gives him chills unto this day.

          Don’t be fatuous! The fish-man shouted (or the telepathic version of shouting.  If the Dalai Lama shits in the woods and nobody hears him, is he still a Homo Sapien?

          Jonah had to think about that one for a second.  He then retorted “and what do you know about human excretory functions?  And what are you anyway?”

          I am a figment of your chemically-imbalanced mind.  But that’s neither here nor there.  I am here to help you cross over.

          Aw man, Jonah thought.  Why can’t I go back to thinking pink elephants?

          The pink elephant was the mortal enemy of the fish-man. 

          The fish-man hated pachyderms of all varieties, whether extant or extinct.  In his nightmares, he was brutally raped and trampled by a livid wooly mammoth. 

          How a mammoth could successfully penetrate a fish does not make any sense.  But this is Gehena.  And very little about Gehena makes any sense. 

          I’m just here to help you cross over the fish-man said.

          “Cross over to where?” Jonah asked.

          Outside of your mind.


          Jonah coughed.  “Am I in the Matrix?”

          What’s the Matrix? Asked the fish-man.

          “The Matrix, you know, The Wachowski Brothers, ‘I know kung-fu’, what if I told you that Morpheus never actually used the words ‘what if I told you…’?”

          Ah, said the fish-man, yes.  Worst.Movie.Ever.

          “Said no one ever!” Jonah was beginning to lose patience.

          Enough!  I did not come to discuss the pseudophilosophical musings of popular cinematic clichés.  Now listen closely. 


Leave your cares behind
come with us and find
the pleasures of a journey to the center of the mind

Come along if you care
Come along if you dare
Take a ride to the land inside of your mind

Beyond the seas of thought
beyond the realm of what
across the streams of hopes and dreams
where things are really not

Come along if you care
come along if you dare
take a ride to the land
inside of your mind….

--Ted Nugent

          The fish-man parted with one last thought.

          Know this.  The entire sum of your existence can be summed up by our meeting here. 

          We met here for no reason.  You just happened to be sitting on this park bench when I was here.  We had a chance encounter.  I decided to speak to you.  That was a chance encounter too. 

          If you choose to take up my mission and go to Ninvus, the consequences will be inconsequential for the world at large.  Nobody outside of your small circle of friends and family will care whether or not you get back.  Even you, the reader, will put this down and forget you ever read it.  Nobody will give it a second thought.

          Your birth was completely meaningless.  Your death will also be completely meaningless.  You will leave no kids behind.  You will have no legacy.  And nobody will tell your story.

          And you have no soul to reap the fruits of your actions.  There is no higher plane.  There is no karma.  There is no Shambhala.  There is no Valhalla.  And even if those places did exist, I’d be bored to tears in all of them.

          So whether or not you choose to listen to me, you have nothing to gain or lose.  And you, the reader, should not get too invested in this story either.

And what is this comfort zone Jonah was trying to step out of? 

If you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s time for you to step out of your comfort zone.

          Stay tuned for part II.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Happy Sunday, December 6th

          I’m not that offended by Hannukah.  But I’m not going to celebrate it either.

          The Hannukah of my childhood was Christmas’ diminutive, less comely illegitimate sibling.  Any time one turned on the TV, all one saw was Christmas specials, carols, sales, and all sorts of things marketing an image of a holiday full of cheer, giving, and family.

          I’m not going to lie.  Hannukah was a fun holiday.  We got to spin a dreidel.  We would gamble for chocolate coins.  We got to eat latkes and jelly donuts.  And we got to light a menorah and sing some songs.  But Ma’oz Tzur had nothing on “Carol of the Bells” or “Silent Night.” 

          As a kid, we learned that the Maccabees were the great heroes of a miraculous war that chased the Hellenistic Selucids out of Judea.  We also learned about oil that lasted 8-days instead of 1. 

          As an adult, I learned that this miracle of the oil is only mentioned in passing in the gemara, very briefly; nowhere else is it mentioned beforehand.  And the war against the Selucids was not that miraculous.  It’s a very fascinating story, and the Maccabees certainly did have a lot of luck on their side.  But they also had the fact that the Selucids then were getting attacked on the Parthian front, so they had to recall troops from Judea to fortify that front.  We also have various military alliances (Egypt, Rome, et al).  It was a complex story, much of which most Jews don’t even know the half of.  Most Jews aren’t even aware that in the end, the Hellenists won, as demonstrated by the fact that the next generation of Hasmoneans started to have Greek names such as Hyrcanus, Menelaus, et al. 

          Hannukah celebrates a nice idea of the underdog defeating the big bully.  I have nothing against that.  But I have little use these days for holy days of any kind.  While I may take advantage of some sales, and I may have Chinese dinner this December 24th (we shall see), I will not be lighting any fires near my window this year.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"All Who Go Do Not Return", a review.

One of the most highly anticipated memoirs in the OTD-sphere, All Who Go Do Not Return is a memoir by celebrated blogger, heretic, and all around righteous dude Shulem Deen.  For many years, Shulem has been a fixture in the nouveau-boho-exChusid scene, which auxiliarly includes formerly-Modernishes such as me.

My first exposure to Shulem was an article in the Village Voice, The Sharer of Secrets.  This was in the summer of 2003.  I was working a McJob working a concession stand at Giant's Stadium for a Bruce Springsteen concert.  The last bus to my parents' house had already departed, so I had to find a ride into the city.  Since it was past midnight, and there would be no more buses back to New Jersey until at least 8am, I was stuck in Midtown Manhattan with nothing to do for 5 hours.  So I took a Village Voice (because it was free), walked over to the Hudson River, sat on a bench, and started reading.

Up to that point, I had very little first-hand exposure to the Hassidic underground.  I had one friend, Steve, who was a senior at MTA.  Steve used to be a Satmar Hassid, but for some reason, his parents sent him to MTA (which is Modernishe).  One summer, Steve got an internship at a Goyyishe firm, and everything went downhill: the payyos came off, he was now smoking weed, when he wore a yarmulke it was no longer a big velvet one, and he no longer kept Shabbos.  Steve once told me that the Satmars were constantly calling him, begging him to come back, and several times even threatened to drive over to Washington Heights to abduct him and force him to daven with them.  Steve still deftly evaded them.

Other than that, I had never actually met a bona fide Hassidic Rebel.  When I read this article, I discovered that Steve was not alone.  There were others who were Hassidic and no longer believed.  Only Steve was still in high school and surrounded by Modern Orthodox Jews, so he had an easier way out.  The people described in the article were still completely clandestine.  The article inspired me so much, that when I got home, I looked up Hassidic Rebel.  I found it intriguing.  After reading a few posts, it was clear to me that Hassidic Rebel was a very well read, energetic man who was not content to be cloistered in whatever Shtetl he hailed from.

After a spell, I didn't give Hassidic Rebel much more thought.  But over the years, I was more and more exposed to the Hassidic Underground.  Half a year later, I was working a job at NYU.  An old friend of mine, Sholom, was a regular customer there.  One day, Sholom brought in a girl named Malky.  Malky was a student at Hunter College who was doing a project with Hassidim who wanted out.  She called it "Footsteps".  At the time, Footsteps was just an experimental project.  Both she and Sholom were former Lubavitchers.  But she promised me that at her meetups, there were former Satmars, and other more hardcore Hassidim, whose stories were completely gut-wrenching.  So Sholom asked me if I wanted to check this Footsteps out.

I regret now that I never did.  Though I am glad to see that Foortsteps has since become a tour de force.  Many of my current acquaintances have at some point passed through their doors and been aided in one way or another: whether it's getting a GED, applying to college, applying for benefits, improving English, or merely support.  Although I myself am not a member of Footsteps, I still laud this wonderful organization.

In about 2011, I joined the OTD Facebook group.  Here, I was finally exposed to a cadre of ex-Hareidim.  Some still had fake names like Rachmuna Litzlon or Fence Sitter, Others were already out in the open.  Through this group I made many contacts with people all across the formerly-frum spectrum.  Some were flaming Atheists; some were merely Orthoprax; some simply became Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal/Revivial, et al.  But all in one way or another no longer believed in the Yiddishkeit they were nourished with.

Shulem Deen was one name I would sporadically come across in the group.  Once in a while, someone would post a link to a blog called "Unpious", which contained literary posts by ex-Hassidim.  But one day, while drunk at an OTD meetup, someone told me that Shulem Deen was Unpious and formerly Hassidic Rebel.  Yes, I had heard all three names:  Shulem Deen, Unpious, and Hassidic Rebel.  But at that moment, though I was completely soused, I somehow retained that all three were the same entity.

I first met Shulem in the flesh at a protest against the "Asifah."  The Asifah was a huge gathering at CitiField to warn people of the dangers of the internet.  Some OTDers and sympathizers threw together a protest for what they thought was the real issue at large--molestation.  For years, this issue was swept under the rug in the Hareidi community.  Because Jews are supposedly forbidden to report each other to secular authorities, these issues are supposed to be handled internally.  But many times, they are not.  And so, we were trying to protest this issue.  They complain about the evils of the internet, but they don't realize that there are much bigger fish to gefilte in their communities.

After that, I met Shulem several more times.  He always impressed me not only with his erudition, but also his unique perspective about the world.  I knew from reading his blogs that he was extremely well read.  But even his blogs barely exhibited the breadth and depth of his knowledge.  For example, I brought up JB Soloveichik for the sake of argument.  I explained that Soloveichik was a man who was completely versed in secular philosophy but had no problem also being frum.  His system was a Hegelian synthesis of the profane and the religious.  What I did not expect was that Shulem had perused "Halachik Man," and was able to systematically explain why it did nothing for him.  If someone were to ask Shulem why he went from one extreme (Skver) to another (Atheist), he had quite the educated reason.

Coming into the book, I knew bits and pieces of Shulem's story.  For example, I was there the night he discovered that his oldest daughter was getting married and he wasn't invited.  I remember the blog post, recounting the time he was coerced into rescinding custody of his children, limiting him to several times a year.  An abridged version of that post made its way into his memoir.  It was a tearjerker moment.  But at this point, Shulem seemed to have "accepted his lot".  Like Elisha ben Abuyah riding off into the sunset saying "All may repent except for Acher", his melancholy manner that night definitely undercut his usually stoic demeanor.

Shulem's memoir is not just another OTD story.  To say that Shulem is a master of his craft with a unique voice would be comparable to saying Bill Gates is wealthy.  I especially enjoy how accessible he makes it.  He is not abashed in explaining scandals, the Va'ad Hatznius,  the politics of his world, and what the Rebbe was really like:
-  The Va'ad Hatznius is a group that is so clandestine, that I like to joke "The first rule of the Va'ad Hatznius is you do not talk about the Va'ad Hatznius.  The second rule of the Va'ad Hatznius is you do not talk about the Va'ad Hatznius."  Several parts of his story brought up the perpetual fears Hassidim had of this Va'ad Hatznius and what happened when they came for you.  Think of it as the kosher version of Men in Black.
-  The Rebbe.  An elusive character.  I knew that Rebbe:Hassidim :: Pope:Catholic.  But what I got from Shulem's story was that for many, the Rebbe was actually just another unimpressive old man with a big beard and a pimp streiml.  To a Hassid, the four corners of the world converge around teh Rebbe.  But to a skeptic, one would ask if he's really as pious as the stories say he is.  The Skverer Rebbe was no exception.

Shulem's story will make you laugh.  Shulem's story will make you cry.  But most importantly, Shulem's story will draw you in.  As one who was raised Orthodox, I was more than intimately familiar with many of the references.  However, I can't help but wonder how this story would read to one who was not raised religious.  I think it would be readable.  He does, after most Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish phrases provide an English translation (where the context does not make the meaning obvious).  I wonder if years down the line, it will be as readable.  I am reminded of the time I took The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft from the library.  Even without the annotations, his writing was readable.  But the annotations brought the work to life.  I felt like maybe if I lived in his time, in his place, I would not need the annotations, it would all make sense to me.  Shulem's world is close enough to mine that I could make sense of most of it on my own.  I wonder if future readers are going to need an annotated version to make sense of his world.  But whether or not they will, even unannotated, his words speak very loudly and lucidly.

What's the difference between ignorance and apathy?

Opinions are like assholes:  everybody has one, and many times they smell like crap.

Having opinions is good.  But it's when the opinion becomes belief systems that they really begin to stink.

The one thing I miss about having beliefs was being part of a set community.  Wherever I went, I could get a free meal for Sabbath.  I could walk into a group of 9-or-more adult males and pray together with them, no questions asked.  I felt like I was part of something good, something big.

Politically, I am like Cain in the land of Nod.  Over the years I have become more liberal.  But I am not a liberal.  Over the years I've come to appreciate Marx.  But I am not a Marxist.  Over the years I still cannot understand the appeal of libertarianism (except legalizing everything).  Even though I call myself an Atheist, I can't stand many Atheists I meet.  And it's not just the stigma that gets attached with Atheism.  When did Atheism become such an ugly word anyway?

When I was young, I hoped for the messiah. Now, I say that even if there was a messiah, if he came he'd probably leave shaking his head.  People would spend too much time arguing, and it would really piss him off.

I used to believe in America.  I still love America.  America, like a mercurial borderline-personality spouse I love, even though I know she's bad for me.  America has so much good in her; yet she's also done so much wrong.  I can't stand when people talk smack about America, not even when they are in the right.  

I used to believe in Israel.  The liberal in me is not allowed to like Israel.  The Jewish blood in me is not allowed to hate Israel.  I can criticize her, that's what my people do best.  Any opinion I have on Israel, no matter how milquetoast, is likely to piss someone off.  So for now, Israel is like that eccentric alcoholic uncle who the kids all loved, the adults all hated, used to be real cool, got crazy when he got older, and most probably was an abuser, but I still have fond memories of him.

I never really believed in Palestine.  The humanist in me wants to.  The pragmatist in me can't see a reason why.  I wish I understood Palestine.  As a kid I was told there was nothing to understand.  As an adult, I realized that I didn't understand jack squat.  Tautologous?  Naturally.  I get pissed off when people say there's no such thing as Palestine.  I get pissed off when people say Israel doesn't have the right to exist.  I ask myself at what cost Israel needs to defend itself?  

I believe in the power of love.  I believe in the power of rock and roll.  I've seen firsthand music soothing the savage animus.  There is almost nothing that can't be cured by a good Dead show, Floyd album, or even an etude or two.   I still believe that a bad concert is better than a good day at work. 

I do not believe for one second that the US Government did not know where Osama bin Laden was hiding out all of these years.  I'm sorry, but that just doesn't make any sense.

I do not believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent being in the sky.  I am willing to consider a higher power.  Perhaps energy.  But if God can microwave a burrito so hot that He can't eat it, he could show his face to us once in a while; and it wouldn't make us all die.  

I never really believed in Karma.  Never really made sense to me.  Karma is also one of the most misused loan words in the English language.  It doesn't just mean "you get what you deserve."  There's a lot more to Karma than that.

I do believe there are consequences to our actions, sometimes not plainly obvious.  But if they can't be replicated in a lab or somehow reproduced, what good are they?

I hate arguments based on semantical disagreements.  But I still get into them quite often.

I especially loathe heteronormativity.  I believe that everyone is somewhere in the middle, but few are actually at one extreme or the other.  Yes, that includes me.  That includes you too.  No, I have not done the research.  

Some opinions should not be made public.  I have many that may never see the light of day.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why The Dude hates The Eagles

As I was watching the section on "Country Rock", I was reminded of a line from The Big Lebowski, by Joel & Ethan Coen. 

There's a scene where the protagonist (The Dude) was being driven home from
Malibu by a taxi. He had a horrible day, his head was hurting from a mishap with a police captain, and the driver had "Take it Easy" by the Eagles playing on the radio. 

The Dude requested that the driver change the station because "I hate the f...king Eagles, man."  The driver gets pissed off and throws The Dude out of his cab. 

When I first saw the movie, I did not understand what aversion The Dude had to The Eagles. To my generation (I was born in 1979), The Eagles are a classic, and Hotel California is canonized as one of the great rock staples of all time.  So what could The Dude possibly hate about them so much?

In the section on Country Rock, a few hints are dropped. The term "corporate rock" was mentioned. While Henley, Frey, Walsh, Felder, and co were all talented in their own right, The Dude saw the conglomeration known as The Eagles as an ersatz country band engineered in a studio and too polished to be authentic. 

As we see throughout the movie, The Dude is a huge Creedence fan. CCR may have been from California, and Fogerty admits he has only visited the Mississippi Delta once in his life; but they still exemplify to The Dude the real thing. To him, The Eagles were a cheap imitation of what CCR represented, and he hated them. 

To use an analogy, this is similar to how as a teenager I could never get my father to appreciate Guns N Roses, Nirvana, Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, or Soundgarden. And my current students can't get me to appreciate One Direction, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, etc. 

Any thoughts!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Felix et Meira, a review.

With a slew of stories of people abandoning their religion coming to the public eye, out comes a movie circumscribed around a woman leaving her shtetl.

 This is not just another tale of a person losing their religion.  This is not just another tale of forbidden love.  And this is certainly not a fabliau.  To a person who is not accustomed to foreign films, it may even seem unsettling.  To my special lady, this movie was "Too French!"  She admittedly has never seen a French film.  I've seen "The Red Balloon."  I've seen enough European art films to be familiar with the genre, but not intimately. 

 The protagonist of the film, played by Hadas Yaron, is Malka--or Meira in French (corrected:  Meira is not a French name, it is Hebrew.  Je ne parlais pas Francais, so I assumed that just like I have an Engish name and a Hebrew name that are both different, Meira was a French name.  Thanks Menachem and Smadar).  She is married to Shulem, a young Hassidic man played by Luzer Twerski, who may arguably be a tragic antihero.  Unfortunately, Shulem's character is left almost nearly underdeveloped.  But then we have Felix, a secular middle aged Jew played by Martin Dubreuil. 

Meira/Malka is trapped in a Hassidic enclave in Montreal.  Shulem starts off as the overbearingly authoritarian husband.  He doesn’t beat her.  He doesn’t raise his voice to her.  But he does castigate her constantly.  He does not like the fact that she draws in her little sketchbook.  He does not like her listening to records of secular music.  He especially does not like their infant daughter, Elisheva, being corrupted by the secular music.

The record that she’s so fond of is “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” by Wendy Rene.  It’s a slow, slightly somber but bouncy R&B number with Booker T on the organ.  The song is very appropriate for the theme of the movie.  After all, none of the three characters in the movie are happy.  And the way the movie ends, they may never find happiness.

The character who is most richly developed is Meira.  When Shulem reprimands her, she lies on the floor and plays dead (perhaps what Charcot/Freud would have called hysteria.  Perhaps psychosomatic).  At first, Shulem is not receptive.  As a product of his upbringing, he thinks he’s being a good husband.  But he doesn’t realize that the tighter his squeezes, the more she slips away.  He does not realize that she’s secretly taking birth control.  He knows she’s in pain, but does not have the capacity to ameliorate her. 

Enter Felix.  Felix is also a sad man.  He is single, estranged by his father, is close with his sister.  When we first meet Felix, he visits his dying father.  But the father doesn’t even acknowledge Felix, or that he even has a son.  When the father dies, Felix does not know how to feel.

Later, Felix sees Meira with Elisheva in a kosher pizza shop.  Meira is drawing a picture.  Felix likes it.  He tries to initiate a conversation.  She avoids him.  It takes Felix awhile before Meira finally decides to go up to his apartment.

The plot may seem formulaic.  But the saving grace of this movie is director Maxime Giroux.  The camera shots do a great job capturing the mood.  The snowy streets of Montreal, the thin streets of Williamsburg, the spacious air in Venice, and even the dinginess in Shulem’s apartment, the dim lighting in Felix’s father’s house, the ambiance in a dance club, et al.  Most importantly, while the movie is very character oriented and the dialogue is well done, I think it is the visuals that make this movie memorable.

The pacing was slow.  Modern audiences will not appreciate this.  The crowd that should probably see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will most certainly be bored.  But those who have the patience will enjoy this movie. 

There are several moments worth analyzing:

1.  When Meira is folding laundry with some of the other Hassidic ladies.  One of them (Suri) notices that Meira is not okay.  She asks what’s wrong.  Meira won’t say.  Suri, thinking it’s that Meira wasn’t having any more children, tells her that she should not worry, God will eventually oblige.  To which Meira finally cracks and says she doesn’t want any more children. 

Word gets back to Shulem.  Shulem, instead of trying to console her, tells her that she shouldn’t confide things like this with the other ladies.  This was one of those moments were Shulem may have been able to fix their relationship.  But he did what was expected of him as a Hassidic man.  If he had only realized how badly their relationship was derailed, he could have tried marriage counseling, therapy, perhaps medication.  But thus the flaw in his character.  He continues to forbid her to express herself.  And he is more concerned about what everyone else will think of him (and their child) if she continues to behave this way.

2.  When Meira tried on her first pair of blue jeans.  To this I have personal insight.  I’ve been in the presence of former ultra-orthodox women publicly wearing pants for the first time.  The scene took place in a hotel overlooking the Manhattan skyline.  Here, Felix was beginning to really enter her life.  She even takes off her wig for the first time in the movie.  Her hair looks flat, matted, like it hasn’t seen the light of day.  But there is a beauty to it.  And the dim light from the hotel window makes her look a bit like a fallen angel beginning to recover.  As a cathartic moment, it was not overdone.  In fact, I feel like that scene deserved much more prominence than it did.  But I’m guessing that the director preferred it remained what it was.  Another moment.

3.  When Shulem finally meets Felix.  He saw a sketch of Felix in Meira’s notepad.  He tore it up.  He asked Meira who it was.  Meira wouldn’t say.  She just locked herself in the bathroom, her safe place.

Shulem arrived in Williamsburg.  Meira told her cousin she was going out to Lee Ave. to buy a present for Elisheva.  She didn’t realize that Shulem was following her.  Shulem sees Meira holding Felix’s hand.  He immediately accosts Felix.  Now Shulem was clearly not much of a fighter; the manner in which he was slapping Felix looked like a kid bitch slapping another kid over a lollypop.  But Felix didn’t fight back.  I would have made Shulem angrier, perhaps punch him more.  When Shulem realized who Felix was, he stopped. 

At this point, all became clear to Shulem.  Suddenly, he begins to notice that it is partially his fault that he has been cuckolded.  I would have expected him to seriously explode, to go nuclear.  But he didn’t.  He became overly pensive and melancholy.

3.  One motif early on in the movie is Meira playing with mousetraps.  She loves the sound they make when they snap.  Definitely a cry for help.  We see a mousetrap in the cupboard. 

Toward the end of the movie, Shulem hears rattling in the cupboard.  He opens up.  There is a mouse caught in the trap. The mouse is struggling.  The mouse looks at Shulem in pain.  Shulem says in a dejected voice that the world is a cruel place.  And the trap with the mouse falls out of the cupboard.

This image represents the situation of all three characters.  Shulem does not have sympathy for the mouse.  In many ways, he was the one trapping Meira.  But he was not willing to free the mouse.  He was not willing to change himself and make her untrapped.  His reaction to the mouse, as his feelings toward his wife now, were that the world is a cruel place.

4.  When Shulem finally confronts Felix.  How awkward it must have been.  Shulem did, after all, assault Felix.  Felix did invite him upstairs and offer him wine.  Shulem refused the wine, even though Felix assured him the wine was kosher as it was his father’s (the one indication we have that Felix actually is Jewish).  What Felix doesn’t realize is that an Orthodox Jew won’t even leave a wine bottle open around one who doesn’t keep Sabbath.  Yes, I’ve had religious Jews refuse to drink wine with me because I do not keep the Sabbath. 

This scene is perhaps the scene where we finally get to know Shulem best.  We never really got much of a glimpse into his psyche yet.  He does inform Felix that if Meira does go back to him, she will have to completely abandon the community and everything she knows.  Their baby will grow up motherless.  He does not want this.  And also, he does love Meira.  He is dead without her.

He is dead without her.  The scene before that, Shulem asked her why she no longer plays dead.  She said she’s already dead inside.  So now, Shulem realizes it’s too late.  She could never be happy with him.  Felix was as close as she would ever get to being happy. 

And so, Shulem just makes Felix promise that he will make her happy.  That he will take care of her.

5.  Sort of a sub-plot in (4).  Felix had a letter from his father.  He never read it.  He was clearly harboring anger, as the last time he saw his father, his father acted like he didn't even have a son.  So before Shulem comes over, we see Felix folding the letter into a paper airplane and trying to burn it (unsuccessfully).  He finally managed to get the nose ablaze when Shulem came in.  He extinguished the fire.

Toward the end of their conversation, Shulem asked Felix about the letter.  He noticed the letter was folded into an airplane and slightly charred.  Felix explained that it was from his father, he didn't want to read it, and was trying to put it aside.  Shulem asked if he could read it.  Felix allowed him.

This is the one moment in the film where Shulem speaks French.  When he speaks to Meira, he speaks Yiddish.  When he speaks to Felix, he speaks English.  It is interesting to note that Meira and Felix also mostly speak to each other in English even though Meira clearly understands French, but I don't think Felix understands Yiddish.  But I digress:  Felix reads the letter in French.  The letter said that the father was losing his mind and his memory.  So before he completely gave in to dementia, he wanted to apologize to Felix for the way he treated him.

This letter might as well have been from Shulem to Meira at this point.  And Meira might never read that letter either.  So much of this movie was about bad relationships, be their filial or matrimonial.  Most if it is miscommunication, or total lack of communication.  When Shulem read the letter, he was opening a line to one of those relationships.  But at this point, it was too late for Felix to ever really forgive his father, as his father was no longer with the living.  The tragedy with Shulem is that it may not have been too late for him.  But as indicated in (3), Shulem had already resigned himself to thinking that the world is just a cruel place.

In the end, Meira takes the baby and steals away to Venice.  Venice was Felix’s happy place.  And it should have been for her.  But it’s made clear that she’s still not happy.  And nor is Elisheva. 

But Shulem is even more broken.  The last we see of him, he puts on that forbidden record, “After Laughter (Comes Tears).”  And then, he lies on the floor playing dead, just like Meira used to.  I felt for Shulem.  Poor Shulem.  Aside from his character deserving more development, he really did care for his wife.  But as a result of his upbringing and his surroundings, he did not know how to properly treat her.  Who knows, if they weren’t in such a restrictive environment, or if he was more open-minded, they probably could have been a good couple.  But we may never know.  He was so caught up in being a good Jewish husband, that he didn’t bother to listen to her.  And so he lost her.

The movie ends with Felix and Meira in a gondola going down a canal. The gondolier is singing an Italian song.  They have no idea what’s going to happen next.  But clearly, this is not a happily-ever-after.  Meira still has to live with the guilt that she’s completely left everything behind.  And will Felix make a good father to Elisheva?  We see how Felix is as a fling, but how is he as a husband?  The ending of this movie raises many questions.

I would give this movie 3/5 stars.  The Good:  The visuals and the acting.  The Bad:  Could have used better character development.  The Ugly: Script could have used a bit more workshopping.  Some parts seemed a bit formulaic, bordering on cliché.  If not for the fact that the subject is one that is hardly touched in cinema (Hassidic women going Off the Derech), it might have less appeal.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a tribute.

"A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalyim, I was once walking with my family in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging by their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul, based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, ‘If he walks about bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce…..’” I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, ‘Children of the age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.’ My feeling then was: Why, Ribbon shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara but help him." (From the book Ohr Panecha)
h/t Ysoscher Katz

I only met Rav Aharon once.  It was ephemeral.  That week, he was the scholar-in-residence at Yeshiva University.  I was waitering that Shabbat.  After Friday night's prayers, one waiter would stand as a "greeter" by the entrance to the Fuhrman Dining Hall.  That week, I was chosen to be greeter.  

I was standing there, wishing good Shabbos to everyone coming in.  Suddenly, I heard a deep, firm voice calmly wishing me "Good Shabbos."  I looked up, and there was Rav Aharon, with a dulcet, amiable smile on his face.  

I'm not sure why this moment left such an impression on me.  I'm guessing it's because up to that point, I had only ever seen Rav Aharon standing at a podium delivering lectures.  I could never follow his lectures.  One lecture, which he delivered at the Gruss Kollel in Israel as a tribute to his teacher, Rav JB Soloveichik, completely stupefied me.  He had at least 10 books in front of him, and he was dexterously utilizing all of them to create a staggering lecture.  Around 5 minutes in, he lost me.  The times after that, any time I heard him speak, I could tell he was an extremely intelligent, articulate man whose reputation preceded him.  However, I was not erudite enough to grasp his lectures.

The man standing in front of me at that moment was a completely different man.  He was not a lofty, prodigious scholar blinding me with hermeneutics.  He was a kindly, amiable, tranquil sexagenerian.  He just seemed so human at that moment.  If I didn't know he was the great Rabbi Aharon Licthestein, PhD, I would probably have thought he was somebody's Zeide.  

It is stories like the one above that make me wish I knew more about Rav Aharon.  For many years, I was told "derech eretz kodma l'torah" (lit. the way of the world comes before the bible, connotation "being a good person is more important than pleasing God.")  Unfortunately, many people I was raised with were very lax in that.  I have heard other Jews saying all kinds of crass statements such as "it's okay to steal from a non-Jew", "it is forbidden to shop in a non-Jew's store", or even "if a non-Jew loses his/her wallet, it is forbidden to return it."  All of which I find reprehensible.

AFAIK, all the above are not considered normative Jewish law (and I hope they are not).  And so, it is for this reason that I think we need more leaders like Rav Aharon, who not only say that being a good person is important, but also embody it!

To Rav Aharon.  May your light shine on forever.