An American in Berlin
31 December, 2016
New Year’s Edition
I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. Maybe because I know I’m not the sort of person to keep them. Or maybe because, when I look at my life, I don’t see anything I wish to drastically change overnight. Or maybe I’m just lazy. Who knows? That said, I do have some goals for the coming year, things I wish to accomplish. So in the interest of accountability, I’m going to set them down here. If I fail to achieve them, you’re welcome to come find me this time next year and say, “Good job, asshole.”
The first goal is one I mentioned many times before. When the Jewish new year rolls around in September, I’d like to have my Hebrew up to a level where I can keep up with the weekly Torah readings. I’d like to make it through all five books, on schedule. The good news is, I’m ahead of schedule. I’ve been hitting the books pretty hard of late, and I now see no reason why I shouldn’t finish my course book by March or April.
Of course, this won’t make me a Hebrew scholar by any means. But it should give me all the necessary tools to work through the Torah well enough to know what’s going on. And part of me imagines that this will become for me like Homer.1 Something that I read over and over for the rest of my life.
Which isn’t to say I’m finding “religion” (so to speak) in my Hebrew studies. Far from it. Indeed, all the things that turned me off to the religious side of Judaism when I was in Hebrew school still piss me off. The blind devotion to a god. The fact that that god generally seems to be lacking in self confidence and also kind of a dick. The whole “chosen people” shtick.
On the other hand, it’s such a part of my heritage. And it’s so much a part of western culture. And the fact that the ambiguities of the text – and of the language itself – bear reading and re-reading. In a very strange and unexpected way, I can see reading Torah as being a part of my life going forward.
In the meantime, however, I still need to finish my “first year Hebrew.” And as I said, that should happen around springtime. So what to do between that and Rosh HaShanah? Well, to that end, my dear Aunt Cookie has promised to give me the chumash that Uncle Art once gave to her. So I’m thinking I may take a crack at the Book of Esther to keep my skills up. After all, the Purim story is a good yarn, no?
The next goal is to get back to Greek. Before I left, my Homeric reading group had relaunched, albeit without the eminent Daitz. It was the highlight of any given week. But since I got here – and partly since I have nobody to read with – I’ve really done precious little. And frankly, that’s unacceptable.
So in the new year, I’ve got to get back to Homer. I’ve got to get back to reading a little bit each week. But I’ve also got to make an effort to expand my Greek horizons. Since I finished grad school, the only Greek I’ve really read has been Homer. Which, one the one hand, I mean, if you can only read one thing, it should be The Blind Bard. But on the other hand, who says I can only read one thing?
Last year I got back to Herodotus for a bit, and a few years ago I re-read Oedipus Tyrannus. With respect to the latter, my original plan was to start with Oedipus (which I’d already read in grad school) and then proceed to the rest of the cycle – Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. But I got sidetracked “live tweeting” the first play and never got beyond it; though that was an admittedly fun project.
Oh, and there was the time me and my old friend Sam tried doing up a modern translation of Euripides’ Helen. But Sam started a new life as a real-estate broker and the project subsequently died. I never finished reading the play. But being that one of the books I inherited from Daitz was his very own hand-annotated edition of the Helen, I will surely one day return to it.
But back to broadening my horizons. One of the casualties of a virtually entirely Homer based reading diet is that my vocabulary has dwindled. And my ability to read different styles has atrophied. I didn’t spend all those years2 to become a Homer-only reading dilettante. I did all that to become a Greek reading dilettante. So in addition to getting back to The Poet, I also need to start back up with some prose and/or tragedy. The obvious starting point is Herodotus; nearest in vocabulary to Homer and more or less straightforward in style. I have goals beyond that, to be sure. But that’s enough to start.
And then there’s a French translation project I’ve had on the back burner for a few years now. During the back end of 2013 and the front end of 2104, I wrote something like a book. Or rather, a series of loosely connected stories. One of those stories takes place in France. So I’d really like to try my hand translating that into French, in the style and language of Bedier’s rendition of Tristan et Iseult. Whatever I come up with is sure to be chock-full of errors. To that end, I’ve discussed (many times) with Charlotte enlisting her help with the project. But I’d very much like to at least knock together a first draft on my own.
It will no doubt be a long and tedious project. So long, in fact, that I don’t set for myself the goal of finishing it next year. Simply getting started and making good progress will be enough. But I really don’t know what I’m in for. It may be over-ambitious. My French is certainly good enough to read Jules Verne on the subway. But writing in French, c’est une autre chose entièrement. That said, I think there’s no better way to improve one’s skills at a language than to become proficient in the writing of it; short of teaching it anyway,3 which I’m clearly not qualified to do.
Finally – lest I set too many goals – is my Federalist project. This is something that’s been kicking around in my brain for I don’t even know how long. By way of preamble, the Federalist papers were a series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (though mostly H&M) to the state of New York in an effort to persuade them to ratify the new constitution. To this day, they remain some of the most in depth writings by our founders giving us an insight as to how they viewed the new document and what sort of country we would have.
Every student at least learns about the Federalist papers in social studies. But few, if any, of us have ever read any of them in full, much less the whole body of work. Every now and then, one of them comes up in the news. Most recently, Federalist 68, which is about the electoral college. But even then, we only get cherry picked passages that suit the purpose of whatever news organization we subscribe to.
Anyway,4 my idea for this “Federalist project” is to read through them, one by one. And then to do a blog post on each of them. Some kind of “in depth” reading and reaction; how I understand it in a historical as well as a modern context. It’s not the sort of thing I expect many people to be interested in, to be sure. But it’s still something I’d like to do. And I’m not sure when I can start. But if I can get it started sometime in 2017 I’ll be happy. And even if I do one a month, or even one every two months, it will be worthwhile. It will take years to complete, no doubt. But what’s the rush.5 Anyway, add it to the list of sacred texts – Homer, Torah – that I would like to constantly be in the background of my life.
Right, so those are the goals I’m setting for the new year. Read Hebrew. Read Greek. Write French. Study the Federalist. That should keep me plenty busy. Oh, and while not a goal per se, I assume I’ll do another year of blogging about the Yankees. At some point I’ll have to sit down and talk about this with Nate – my partner in crime when it comes to sports blogging – but we had such a good time of it last season, I see no reason not to do it again.
And then of course, there’s Berlin; and in a narrower sense, Köpenick. I spoke about this in my last post, so need to dive deep here. But obviously I intend to do a good bit of exploring this year; do a good bit of getting to know this place that is for now my home. And with that, obviously, I include improving my German. I don’t file these under goals, so much as necessities. But I suppose they fit with the nature of this post.
So much for goals. And the nature of this post. There’s one other thing I want to talk about before I end, however, and it’s got nothing to do with goals for the New Year. Rather, it’s about Hebrew.6
One of the things that I like about my course book is that the exercises in the accompanying workbook are passages taken directly from biblical texts. In other words, they don’t make up lower level “fake” Hebrew; they give you the real thing. Anyway, up til now, it’s all been stuff that has no special meaning to me. A bunch of stuff from Genesis and Exodus, plus as many ways as you can think of to say “God’s kind of a big deal.” But today, I came across something unexpected, something I didn’t just know, but knew what it sounded like; something I could sing the melody to. It’s the prayer they sing when they take the Torah scrolls out of the ark:
כי מציונ תצא תורה ודבר–יחוח מירושלם
And now, I’ll transliterate it, because I think anybody who spent more than a few boring Saturday mornings in Schul will recognize it instantly.
Kee mitziyon taytzey torah, u-divar adonayh meerushilayim.
Apparently it’s from the the book of Isiah, 2:3. Like you, I suspect, I had no idea where it came from, much less what it means. But unlike most of the prayers we’re forced to recite during Shabbat services, at least this one has some context. The sound of these words, and the melody that goes with them is synonymous with opening the ark. As opposed to the other stuff, when you hear this, you know what’s about to happen.
And it sticks with me, not because of the words, but because of the melody. It’s so solemn, so haunting. The music sets it apart. The music tells you, “Hey, wake up asshole,7 this is a big deal now.” And don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of the ceremony. I never liked the part where you’re supposed to touch your siddur to the scroll and then kiss it. That sort of reverence for anything of any kind strikes me as over the top. But the music gets you. Or it gets me, anyway.
But it also gets to the heart of one of my major problems with my Jewish education, and one I discussed many times with one of my colleagues during my time working for a Jewish school last year.8 Namely that they teach you to learn this shit by rote, but nobody ever bothers to tell you what the words mean.
So anyway, I come across these words in my workbook, and as part of a longer passage mind you. And if it were9 anything else, I’d simply file it under the “God is kind of a big deal” heading. But it’s not anything else. It’s these words I’ve been hearing my whole life, this lingering melody that pulls the whole congregation together for the big moment.
I should pause for a second and explain what I mean by “pulls the congregation together.” One of the things I admire about a Jewish service is the, well, democratic, nature of it. I’ll see if I can get this into words. You see, you’ve got the Rabbi, who leads the whole spiel. But he mostly just lets you know what bit you’re up to. Then it’s largely up to you to do the praying on your own. So you look around, and you see people – let’s be honest, mostly the olds – swaying and rocking (davening) at their own pace, doing their own thing. For the most part, it’s a rather private affair; just one that you have to do with other people. There are only a handful of prayers/songs that we all do out loud and together. But for the most part, if you’re serious – and I clearly was/am not – you hide out under your talis and do your own thing. This is what I mean by democratic.
Anyway, this opening the ark, this is something that’s done together. So it’s a kind of a big deal. And at the risk of being repetitive, it has context. Unlike Aleynu or Ashrei, for example, you know what this is about, even if you don’t understand the words. But now, finally, I do. And in a way, it’s a bit of a let down. All it means is, “For the law (or Torah) shall go forth from [Mt.] Zion, and the word of God [shall go forth] from Jerusalem.” Like I said, file it under “God is kind of a big deal.” So in that sense, it’s kind of a disappointment.
And yet, it hit me pretty hard. It was a kind of “holy shit” moment, no pun intended. This thing I’d been hearing forever, this melody that I kinda love, I finally know what it means! Ironically, then, the meaning itself doesn’t really matter so much. It’s more that the veil has been lifted. The secret has been discovered. It was a powerful moment, to read those words, and to understand them. Not religiously, maybe not even spiritually. Or maybe spiritually, I don’t know. All I can say is, I caught some feels from it.
There’s one other thing from Shul, one other prayer, that has context, even when you don’t know what the words mean. Though in this case, it’s not because of the music, but rather the lack thereof. I’m talking, of course, about the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. And for this, I still don’t know what the words mean. But it’s solemn, and you know what’s going on when it happens. But in contrast to the last bit, which everybody is supposed to sing, the kaddish is said only by those grieving for someone they lost in the last 30 days/11 months and then again on the yearly anniversary.
In other words, it takes something that, in mind, is very private, and makes it very very public. Which, if you want to be optimistic, is a rather beautiful thing. It’s a way of saying the whole community is here for you in your time of suffering. And indeed, the only word that the rest of the congregation will say is “amen.”10
Which is the reason I bring it up. My uncle Michael, my dad’s brother, recently lost his seven year battle with cancer.11 Until now, I’ve avoided talking about this here. I’ve wanted to keep it private. But I know that anybody who reads this is here for me, so it’s in the spirit of the kaddish that I make it public. Though I won’t go into much details now. But I will say that it has been difficult for me to be away during that time. My last memory of him is when the whole family Skyped in from Rosh HaShanah at my brother’s house. I was in Saxony at the time, with Charlotte. I got to have a little chat with everybody, but I’ll always remember it because it was the last time I spoke with Michael. And he looked pretty good at the time; obviously he was doing well enough to travel out to the Island from BK.
I remember chatting with Charlotte that night about why I’ve always loved family gatherings with my dad’s side. It’s always been an informal affair; even if it was more formal when I was kid. But formality, for this clan, simply meant sitting at the same table and punning. But there was no dressing up, nothing fancy. People did what they wanted, hung out with who they wanted.12 One of my fondest memories is when the guitar-minded people would peel off to a different area and just play. This was usually me, my brother, Michael and my other uncle Richard. Maybe my dad would pop in, maybe a cousin or two. For a few years, me and Richard were working on some duets.
But I loved this, because it was a very free and easygoing time. You’d sit and listen to somebody play, then they’d pass the guitar to the next person. Somebody would always compliment somebody else’s playing, but not because you were supposed to. You’d only offer a compliment if you had actual admiration for a certain skill, or for a way they handled a certain piece. But there’s certain music I’ll always associate with those gatherings. The Canarios. Sor’s variations. Richard always plays in the traditional classical style, with one foot elevated. But Michael didn’t do that. He always played like a folk player, with the guitar just resting across his leg. It’s funny. I’d forgotten about that til just now.
There’s going to be a memorial service next weekend. I won’t be there. Which I hate. But my mother has been on me to write something for the service. And honestly, I don’t know where to start or what to say. And I think that’s the reason I’ve written this last bit. As a way to get some ideas down, to point me in a direction. Because I want to say something. Our family has had to deal with too many of these. There aren’t enough of us left, and I need to find a way to be a part of this family. It was important before. It’s more important now.
But who the hell wants to end on a down note? My boss at one of my language schools – my first boss, actually; the first guy to give me a shot in this town – gave me a €50 euro “Christmas” bonus. He’s Jewish, actually. I don’t know if he knows I’m Jewish though. I’d like him to know that, but I don’t know how to bring that up in a not-awkward way. But that’s beside the point. He gave me a very nice bonus. And so I decided to use it for what it was, a holiday gift.
So first, I bought myself a new pipe, which I’m very happy with. And then today, I bought a “Heisenberg” hat.13 I tried on a black one in the store and posted it to Instagram asking for feedback. I was worried it looked too…Hasidic. Or alternatively, ex-clown-turned-depression-era-hobo. Anyway, Dale – who can always be counted on for these sorts of things – suggested I go for “charcoal” instead of black. I put “charcoal” in quotes, because that was his word, whereas I would have simply said “grey.” But that’s why you can count on Dale for these sorts of things. In the event, though, they only had black, so it was a moot point.
Anyway, I went back to the store today and not only did they suddenly14 have one in grey/charcoal, but they’d also marked it down. So that’s what I bought. And I love it. It’s very me. Or at least, that’s what Instagram had to say about the black one.15 But I do think it’s me. And being grey/charcoal, it has the advantage of being rather less Hasidic; even if also a touch less Heisenberg-y. Still though, I can rock it. So if nothing else, I’ll enter 2017 looking rather distinguished. I think.
- On more which later. [↩]
- And all that money. [↩]
- It’s amazing how much I’m learning about the nuts and bolts of English by teaching it. [↩]
- My dear dear friend Ashley recently pointed out to me that I may overuse this word. I’ll accept that, with the caveat that it’s part of my “style.” [↩]
- He says, assuming our country will survive a Trump administration. [↩]
- I know what you’re thinking. “Oy vey.” [↩]
- Because obviously you were nodding off. [↩]
- These were always interesting discussions, and ones which I valued very much. My colleague – friend even – grew up in an orthodox home; had a Hebrew name; wore a kippah. He very clearly, and happily, identified as Jewish. But for all his orthodoxness, his education mirrored mine, at least in this respect: He also couldn’t read Hebrew; he was also frustrated that this shit was forced on him in a rote fashion without sufficient explanation of the text. And we griped often that this was not a way to make people love their faith. [↩]
- Subjunctive, bitches! Sorry, I just taught this. [↩]
- Which is a Hebrew word, btw, for all you goyim who are always saying it. [↩]
- #fuckcancer [↩]
- At this last gathering, my brother sent me a picture of the whole family together in his living room. For most families, this would mean a picture of everybody together, smiling. And they are smiling. But they’re also all flipping me the bird. Which is the most Starr family thing ever. It’s one of my favorite pictures that I have. [↩]
- cf. Breaking Bad. [↩]
- Or did I not notice it before? [↩]
- Though I did receive the following comments: “Bonus points for looking like Rabbi Starr”; “You look like Krusty’s dad”; “Oy…where’s your peyos! Im gonna plotz.” [↩]