I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)

Worth watching: The Big Lebowski

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of movies online, which I haven’t seen for many years. It amazes me how little I remember of them; in many cases, it’s as though I’m watching these flicks for the first time all over again. Among them has been a popular cult classic, which I watched years ago (in 1998) when it was first released: ‘The Big Lebowski’.

This movie is full of hilarious moments and running gags.

One of these is that of supporting character Walter’s (John Goodman) commitment to his Jewish conversion, which he underwent back when he married his ex-wife. This character is a right-wing veteran of the Vietnam War with an explosive temper and propensity towards violence (he probably suffers from PTSD); and he is also, unexpectedly, as he puts it: shomer fucking Shabbas!

From a Jewish perspective (mine), one of the elements that makes this so hilarious is just how accurate Walter’s description of traditional Shabbas observance (I pronounce it ‘Shabbat’, btw, as it is pronounced in modern Israeli Hebrew) really is. Have a quick listen to this Jewish Supercut of the Big Lebowski below. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, the word ‘roll’ in this context refers to bowling, which is the main character’s recreational activity of choice.


Partial transcription:

Walter: I DON’T ROLL ON SHABBAS!

Donny: How come you don’t roll on Saturday, Walter?
Walter: I’m shomer Shabbas.
Donny: What’s that, Walter?
Walter: Saturday Donny, is Shabbas. The Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t work, I um, don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit DON’T FUCKING ROLL!
Donny: Sheesh
Walter: SHOMER SHABBAS!

Walter: Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Donny: Hey Walter, if you can’t ride in a car, how do you get around on Shabbas


Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Yes, really: We don’t flip light switches

Living in Jerusalem, as I do, it’s entirely normative to observe Shabbat. The weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday (Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday), and most who do not observe Shabbat have at least a general concept of what it is.

In principle, I would describe Shabbat as a day during which those who observe it refrain from engaging in physically creative activities (although procreation is encouraged). We aim to avoid causing physical changes to the world and focus ourselves, instead, upon spirituality, family, and the intangible.

The specifics of the restrictions that apply to the traditional Jewish observance of Shabbat were developed by our sages throughout the course of many centuries, and they are based primarily upon those physical acts that were necessary for the construction of the portable Tabernacle, which God instructed the Israelites to build after they had left Egypt.

Without getting into much detail, the Sages determined that there were a total of 39 categories of physical labor that cover the many restrictions of the Sabbath. One of these 39 categories is: the lighting of a fire, and another one is: the extinguishing of a fire.

Now, modern technology, and electricity in particular, was a game changer for the rabbis. When electricity entered people’s homes, the rabbis had to decide whether or not to permit its use on Shabbat, and ultimately the accepted mainstream ruling in the Orthodox Jewish community became that a spark of electricity is like a spark of fire, meaning, for example, that it is forbidden to flip light switches on and off on Shabbat.

Of course, from a scientific perspective, this is nonsense. Electricity is not fire.

A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is.

-Me, The Skeptic’s Kaddish # 12, Oct. 25, 2018

Regardless, this religious ruling took root and remains the norm today among the vast majority of Sabbath observant Jews. I do not flip light switches on Shabbat; I do not use my phone; I do not use my computer; etc.


I don’t blog on Shabbas

The lived experience

Growing up as a secular Jew, I knew nothing of these Shabbat-related norms, which is why it strikes me that some of you may find this intriguing. Actually, I first began thinking about writing this blog post after creating a Twitter account for myself in order to publish daily micropoems in 2021. After all, January 2nd was a Saturday:

To be honest, I am not interested in getting into the nitty gritty of Jewish religious law. Rather, I simply want to provide a sense of what our lived Shabbat is like. We have many religious restrictions, but the one which I think would be the most obvious to an outside observer is the limitation on using electricity.

From a technical perspective, it is very simple: instead of flipping light switches on Shabbat, we set timers for all of the electric devices and appliances that we need. Lamps and fans are set to timers, for example, as is our electric hot plate (‘platta’ in Hebrew) for heating up food for Sabbath meals. The food itself must be prepared before Shabbat but can be warmed up on the Day of Rest. Essentially, we cannot cause physical changes on Shabbat, but if we set timers before Shabbat, that’s kosher because the cause of the physical change occurred before Shabbat. Simple, right?

But providing you with this technical illustration is not my reason for writing this blog post. What I really want to do is describe, briefly, the impact of this lifestyle upon our family life.

The impact

Like many of you, my wife and I spend most of our days behind computer screens; also, our six-year-old loves watching Disney movies and other videos, having screen time with her extended family in Russia and the USA, writing prose and poetry on a computer, and playing the video games installed on her children’s camera (clever marketing idea, right?).

It’s not that we don’t do other things; it’s just that our telephones and computers occupy a tremendous amount of space in our lives. And – they serve to separate us from one another because we often end up interacting with our electronic devices instead of interacting with one another.

On Shabbat, on the other hand, we spend all day together (especially this last year of global pandemic when we haven’t gone to synagogue and haven’t been invited to friends’ Sabbath meals), and the quality family time is priceless, especially from a parenting perspective. We play card and board games, read books, horse around in the bedroom, etc., and I am certain that this unplugging is very healthy for us all. Of course, we do all get to missing our shows and news websites during those 25 hours every week, but I cannot think of many other facets of traditional Jewish life that have come to be so relevant in this modern era.

The sages who ruled against using electricity could not have foreseen this 21st century reality, and I still disagree with the logic they employed in issuing their religious rulings against it. However, truth be told, I don’t really care about that at all. Shabbat, as I have come to know it and live it, is one of the best parts of traditional Jewish life for me.

Blogging can wait for a day.

Jewish and normal

I had an unexpected flash of insight the other day regarding the following themes:

  • My Jewish identity
  • Living in Israel
  • Blogging on WordPress

My Jewish identity

While I only encountered Orthodox Judaism and gradually began to adopt a religious lifestyle in college, I have always strongly identified as a Jew. If I were to sort the many facets of my identity out into a hierarchy, I would put the label ‘human’ at the very top. My second tier would include: ‘brother’, ‘father’, ‘heteronormative male’. ‘husband’, ‘Jew’, and ‘son’ in no particular order.

For several reasons, the many strictures of religious Jewish life have always appealed to me. In part, I feel that I am simply being outwardly true to my core identity by presenting myself as a Jew publicly in the most apparent way possible.

Mind you, I began college more than twenty years ago; and my religious journey has had many ups and downs in the many years since. There were periods when I reverted to a secular lifestyle, and there were periods when I managed to convince myself that the God of the Torah existed and strived to follow His laws to my utmost accordingly.

I have been up, down, and all around on the spectrum of religious Judaism. However, throughout those years during which I turned back towards secularism, I always missed the outward trappings of traditional observance. The personal inconveniences of keeping strictly kosher, keeping Shabbat traditionally, praying thrice daily, etc., never bothered me ~ it was, rather, always a question of the extent to which any of these practices actually mattered.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that while I never minded the demands that traditional Judaism made upon my life, I did find myself wishing that my religious lifestyle wouldn’t create such barriers between me and all other human beings on earth who were not attempting to live a traditional Torah lifestyle.


Living in Israel

Not religiously comfortable for all Jews

From a religious perspective, Israel is not necessarily a comfortable place for all Jews to live.

For political and historical reasons, the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox, rather than heterodox (Conservative, Reform, etc.), and its religious monopoly over Jewish life operates with the full weight of the government behind it. For example, Jewish weddings performed in Israel outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate are granted no legal status (and civil marriage does not exist). Also, the Chief Rabbinate’s state-empowered religious monopoly grants it the exclusive right to certify Israel’s food establishments as “kosher”, unlike everywhere else in the world.

Also, questions of Jewish status are decided by the Chief Rabbinate for religious purposes. This decides whether or not citizens of Israel can get married in Israel at all, where they can be buried when they die, etc., etc. Therefore, Israeli citizens whose mothers are not Jewish, as required by religious law, are considered “not Jewish” by the Chief Rabbinate, and they cannot legally marry Jews in Israel without first undergoing religious conversions under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (even if they are secular).

Religiously comfortable for me

While I 100% oppose these infringements and all others on freedom of religion in Israel, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious Jewish life does not much inconvenience me on a personal level because I happen to live an Orthodox lifestyle (my wedding, for example, was conducted through the Chief Rabbinate).

Also, while I have explored and flirted with non-Orthodox religious communities, they do not feel like home to me personally. Therefore, as the vast majority of Israeli synagogues are Orthodox, my religious preferences are not marginalized in most public prayer spaces. Further, even when my commitment to my religious practices vacillates, it is always fluctuating on the spectrum between Jewish secularism and Orthodoxy, both of which are mainstream in Israeli society.

All of this is to say that I feel very at home in Israel from a religious perspective. Kosher food is – and kosher food establishments are – abundant, synagogues are available everywhere, the national holidays are my own religious holidays, etc., etc.

Living here in Israel (especially in Jerusalem) dramatically lowers the religious barriers between me and all the other people around me.


Blogging on WordPress

I have been increasingly enjoying the sense of community that I have discovered here on WordPress.

Bloggers from around the world share with – and are supportive of – one another, and for the first time since moving to Israel I have been feeling significantly less divorced from global society, which is predominantly not Jewish.

The unexpected insight that I had last week is that our virtual WordPress community grants me something not entirely dissimilar from that which living in Israel grants me: a sense of normalcy.

Of course, I am aware this comparison has many flaws. For one, every blogger chooses whom to interact with on their blog and on other people’s blogs. My virtual community is entirely self-selected and filtered according my preferences… and, of course, writing and reading blog posts is a far cry from in-person interactions… but… well…

Here on WordPress, I feel simply human.

Deed, not Creed?

The rhyme that stuck

Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.

When I first heard this said to me some 2½ decades ago, I had no idea what my Hebrew high school teacher Rabbi Witty meant by it, but the rhyme stuck with me.


Hebrew high school?

I attended public school throughout my childhood, and, like many of my American Jewish contemporaries, I was also enrolled in an afterschool program that met three times weekly at the synagogue. This is known as Hebrew school.

Now, most of the children who attended Hebrew school did so for one simple reason: the shul’s (synagogue’s) policy was that only those who attended Hebrew school until the date of their bar/bat mitzvahs could mark these events within the community. That’s why many Hebrew school students dropped out in the 7th grade; that’s why less than half remained for the Hebrew high school program, which began the following year.

Even in Hebrew high school, there were plenty of students attending against their wills. Their parents pressured them to go – so they went. My Papa, on the other hand, thought it was a total waste of time. “What are you learning there?” he would ask me; and my answers were always lacking. Still, I remained one of the few students who loved going to Hebrew school, and I continued attending until I left for college.

To a large extent, Papa was correct. Compared to what I would eventually learn about Judaism as an adult (once I began proactively seeking my own Jewish way), most of my takeaways from Hebrew school, even after those many years, were not much more than fluff. Upon graduation, my Hebrew was poor, and I remained incapable of navigating any of the foundational Jewish texts, such as the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud.

Now, clearly, our Hebrew school teachers were well aware of this. They knew that the majority of their students came from fairly secular homes and were largely ignorant of Judaism. The sarcastic and dry Rabbi Witty (one of my favorite Hebrew high school teachers) understood his goal well: to plant the seeds of curiosity within his students. He knew that the substance of our Hebrew school studies left much to be desired; and he aimed, therefore, to plant germs of Jewish wisdom in our minds that would hopefully take root and sprout up at some point in the future.

“Remember, David,” said Rabbi Witty as he adjusted his belt buckle, “Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.”


Huh? Deed? Not creed?

Yep.

In fact, this saying actually encapsulates one of the major points of Christianity’s departure from Judaism, for Judaism, you see, has always been all about the Law.

[In Judaism] there are thus religious acts as well as religious knowledge. The religious acts… are disciplinary and educative. They train the soul to reverence. Religious knowledge tells us about the subject of that reverence, and inclines the mind to love. The sanctions of the law are thus for the purpose of spiritual education…

… St. Paul, too, believed that only with the coming of the Messiah will a change take place in human nature which will make the deterrent of the law superfluous, but since he believed that the Messiah has come already, that Jesus was the Messiah, the continuation of the practice of the law was regarded by him as a denial of Jesus’ messianity. It was either the law or Jesus.

Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7

In principle, you see, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, one is true to the Jewish faith if one practices Judaism. One must eat kosher food, pray thrice daily, observe the Sabbath, separate wool from linen, etc., etc., and these daily acts are the very building blocks of traditional Jewish life. In a certain sense, certainly from the perspective of Zvi Kolitz (above), traditional Judaism is designed for skeptics like me, for the law “trains the soul to reverence.”

Traditional Judaism does not assume that a human being inherently believes in God, let alone loves God. Rather, it assumes that one must be trained to do so. And – if one never comes to believe but continues adhering to the law, one remains, according to traditional Judaism, a member of the Jewish people in good standing.

Now, my own faith journey has been up, down, and all around. For some periods, I managed to convince myself that I believe in God, and at other times (like the last few years) I’ve had seemingly insurmountable difficulty believing in a supernatural force that is somehow involved in or even invested in the lives of human beings at all.

Still, in theory, if I were to somehow become convinced of a personal God’s existence again, that would be wonderful. I do remain open to that possibility, and therefore the traditional Jewish approach works well for me – I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.


The skeptic’s social problem

When it comes to my personal life, holding fast to the law, or at least holding it up as a standard to live by, works well. That’s not to say that I don’t break the law in multiple ways daily, but I am always keenly aware of it; I always think about it; I always ask myself if I couldn’t be more loyal to it. I always wish that I wanted to follow it more.

However, despite my earnest commitment to traditional Judaism, I have consistently found that expressing my religious skepticism regarding the possible existence of an involved, invested God in a communal setting in the Orthodox Jewish community inevitably results in awkwardness.

In private interpersonal interactions, it’s usually acceptable for me to express my beliefs honestly, in the sense that people don’t tend to take offense; but more often than not my fellow interlocutors will either attempt to convince me of their beliefs in God, or else they will suggest that I should continue along the traditional religious path and will eventually discover God for myself. In both such cases, I feel unheard and intellectually disrespected.

Online, I participate in several very respectful, intellectual, and active discussion forums for Jews who are skeptics; Jews who were once religious and left the fold; Jews who are religious both in outlook and in practice; and Jews who have come to believe in God over time. These forums are much more accepting and intellectually engaging than anything I have encountered in the real world. Through them, I have discovered some amazing Jewish bloggers who write about their struggles with faith, many of whom are anonymous for fear of being ostracized in their real lives.

For example, I came across an ultra-Orthodox blogger who calls himself ‘A Jew With Questions’ who continues to reside in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but harbors theological doubts. He writes:

I am an American Charedi Jew living in Israel who is going through a crisis of faith. In short, I have a hard time believing in Orthodox Judaism due to the many questions that I have…

The purpose of this blog is to express these doubts and hopefully get some answers or at least conversation from commenters. One of the biggest problems that I have is that I have no one to talk to.  In many ways I am very lonely. My wife is a true believer in Hashem, and she constantly talks about emuna. My children go to Charedi schools and have been brainwashed by the Charedi educational system. My friends, chavrusas etc. are all true believers and would not listen or understand if I talked to them…

‘A Jew With Questions’, June 13, 2016

Now, I affiliate with the more religiously liberal and intellectually open end of the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, but despite the modern-mindedness of most such communities, I find serious, respectful discussions about my deep skepticism in God’s involvement not so easy to come by without uncomfortable looks and pregnant pauses.


The crux

A friend of mine has asked me on more than occasion why it matters to me what the members of my extended community believe. In part, it’s a matter of loneliness, just as it is for ‘A Jew With Questions’.

However, among other things, it’s also a matter of my deep disillusionment with traditional Judaism in lived experience. I’ve already written a blog post titled ‘Because God’, which I won’t rehash here, but it comes down to the following:

‘Because God’ is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom…

-Me, ‘Because God’, May 22, 2020

Upon reflection, I find the irony of humanity’s limitations in this context to be quite stinging.

Whereas I believe that Jewish law should be a means to “train the soul to reverence”, as Zvi Kolitz suggested (and therefore its practitioners should have no reason whatsoever to be threatened by a broad range of levels of belief within their communities), instead, most of its adherents seem to want/need to approach the system from exactly the opposite direction.

Namely: if those who follow the law cannot convince themselves that Hashem exists; that God is involved in their lives; that God wants them to observe the law… then it may turn out that they lack the motivation to follow Jewish law… and… well, frankly, I think they are afraid to face that possibility.

1,000 – Thank You!

Friends,

Initially, I intended not to mark this milestone for ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ publicly because… well… it rather feels to me like I’m flaunting this achievement. However, I have been seriously reconsidering this thinking because of my strong sense of community here on WordPress. I sincerely hope that none of you find this post to be in poor taste.

You see, I have decided to share this with you because this is actually our milestone, rather than mine; and I don’t take you for granted.

It’s also that blogging is, by its very nature, a deliberately interactive form of writing. Publishing is instantaneous, and the discussions that ensue in the comments sections are just as significant as the posts themselves, if not more so. Personally, I often find myself perusing the comment sections of other people’s blog posts even before I read the entries above them.

My ulterior motive for posting this update is that I would be especially happy to hear from you about what kind of content you, my community, would like me to create. I love writing, and I have been ever so greatly enjoying this blogging project, but there is no question that you and our relationship are the reason why I haven’t been writing in a private journal instead of a blog. Connecting with you is deeply important to me.

Friends, I appreciate you, and I profoundly appreciate our meaningful interactions.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,
David

Vaccine nation

Did you know? Israel leads the world in percentage of population vaccinated against COVID-19

You know, to be honest, I’ve known this fact about Israel for some time, but I didn’t really appreciate the extent to which it is true until today – when I looked at the data online.

Like many of you, I’m sick and tired of hearing about and reading about COVID-19. To a large extent, I’ve tuned out from COVID-19 news. It’s simply too endless and too depressing. Of course, broadly speaking, I have been following the lock-down and quarantine rules imposed upon my family over the last year, but otherwise I have mostly been trying to live my life as normally as possible. Actual normalcy often seems like no more than a fantasy to me these days, but obsessing over the pandemic is no help – following the news doesn’t grant one any control over the uncontrollable.

This is the first time I have actually written a post about COVID-19. I have been through three lock-downs and two separate quarantines here in Israel, but I have never before been moved to write about any of those experiences. Quite the opposite – I’ve been grimly hoping to simply push through this horrid global insanity.

Anyway, I’m going to write something about it for several reasons.

  1. It turns out that I live in the country, which has, by far, vaccinated the highest percentage of its population against COVID-19, and that deserves my recognition and appreciation.
  2. There are people who oppose vaccination, and I feel that I must take a stand on this, albeit a toothless one.
  3. My fellow local Jerusalemite and friend Dave wrote about it on his blog, leading me to consider doing so myself. (BTW, I agree entirely with everything he wrote on the subject)
  4. I received the first of my two vaccine shots yesterday.

My lived experience

In terms of my lived experience of receiving the first vaccination shot, there’s not much to write, but it goes like this:

Israel has socialized healthcare, and every citizen is a member of one of several major HMO’s. The HMO’s are largely why Israel has been so efficient at distributing vaccines and vaccinating its public. They first began vaccinating the elderly, the sick, healthcare workers, etc., and gradually started reaching out to more and more Israelis.

As a healthy 41-year-old, I received an automated phone call and text message on Tuesday of this week to set up an appointment for COVID-19 vaccination. When I called the following day, they also allowed me to make an appointment for my wife who is five years my junior. Yesterday, we arrived on time, waited in line for half-an-hour or so (maybe more), got vaccinated, waited (as instructed) for 15 minutes, and went home.

Our arms feel slightly sore, but otherwise we are totally fine. Our second vaccination shot has been scheduled for February 11th.

None of this is very interesting, but it shouldn’t be. It should be exactly this mundane and normal to get vaccinated.


A Jewish perspective on getting vaccinated

Since I stand by everything my friend Dave already wrote about why everyone should get vaccinated, I do not feel inclined to rehash any of his thoughts; I think his post on the subject was very excellent. What I would like to do instead is offer a couple of traditional Jewish text sources that inform my thinking on vaccinations in general.

Usually, I include traditional Jewish texts in my ‘ethical will’ entries, but this particular post on vaccination doesn’t quite seem to fit that mold so I’m categorizing it as a regular blog post. Still, I would like to share some very simple thoughts from the perspective of my faith tradition.

Maintaining one’s health

Maimonides (1138-1204) was not only a rabbi, but also a physician; and he wrote the following in his seminal halakhic work, which could not be more clear (‘Mishneh Torah’, ‘Hilchot Deot’ 4:1):

הוֹאִיל וֶהֱיוֹת הַגּוּף בָּרִיא וְשָׁלֵם מִדַּרְכֵי הַשֵּׁם הוּא. שֶׁהֲרֵי אִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיָּבִין אוֹ יֵדַע דָּבָר מִידִיעַת הַבּוֹרֵא וְהוּא חוֹלֶה. לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ לְהַרְחִיק אָדָם עַצְמוֹ מִדְּבָרִים הַמְאַבְּדִין אֶת הַגּוּף. וּלְהַנְהִיג עַצְמוֹ בִּדְבָרִים הַמַּבְרִין וְהַמַּחֲלִימִים. Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God – for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill – therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.

Responsibility to community

Vaccination is not only a matter of guarding one’s personal health. It is only effective if the general public is vaccinated.

This following Jewish text, which speaks to that consideration, is such a classic. It comes from Pirkei Avot, which is often called ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ in English, or, more accurately: ‘Chapters of the Fathers’ (2:4):

אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר… Do not separate yourself from the community…

Simply put

I know as well as anyone that one can cherry pick religious texts to make their point. That’s one of the reasons that I have come to be so skeptical about religion and religious leaders in particular. However, my point here is simple – traditional Jewish sources to support getting vaccinated exist. In fact, scholars and rabbis have written about this quite extensively and brought many more sources than I have.

Tolerance of competing ideas is an aspiration of mine, but I confess that I have very little patience for antivaxxers… I consider anti-vaccination to be fundamentally irresponsible – not only for one’s own health, but also for everyone else’s.

If you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19, DO IT.

Homunculus of death

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

I thought of my above words (which I wrote towards the end of my year of mourning for Papa) just recently because I’d noticed an unexpected degree of darkness and morbidity increasingly manifesting itself through my Twitter poetry.

Inspired by Ingrid, a fellow poet-blogger, I created this Twitter account and began writing daily Twitter poems at the turn of the year. At first, it seemed a light, creative exercise for me – a way to get my juices flowing. Now, having written more than two weeks of Twitter poems, I am glad I took the challenge – for reasons unforeseen.

Obviously, Twitter poetry is short. From a technical perspective, this requires that poets consider every word; every syllable; every letter. I knew this, and I do, expectedly, savor the difficulty of producing snippets of lines and verses that resonate. It’s not so easy, and it’s often frustrating to have my poetry limited by length, but it’s been very, very rewarding.

However, as I mentioned, there is something much deeper that I’ve been noticing. The terseness of these poems is actually – liberating. You see, this medium encourages me to spit out ideas without expounding upon them, very much unlike this blog post, in which I want to explore a new idea of mine with you in some depth. Twitter’s restrictions, I am finding, have been freeing me – from myself.

Unlike some other mourners that I’ve known, I would not say that something died in me when Papa passed away. Rather, I would say that something new took root – something was born within me that day – an unrelenting and unsparing dreadful little homunculus. Ever since, this somber fellow has colored all of my thoughts in shades of death, but whenever I have attempted to express these morbid thoughts in verse or prose my mind has quickly taken over from the gloomy creature in an attempt to beautify, contextualize, or rationalize them…


But Twitter won’t allow this

Twitter simply doesn’t permit my mind the space it needs to blunt the heartache caused me by the homunculus. The creature eagerly spits out its ceaseless death and fatalism, and, finding purchase in the Twitterverse, its words sit there, raw and unanswerable.

Now, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unhappy person; I am blessed in many, many ways, and I love being alive. Still, my perception of the world ever since Papa died bears a deep, flapping, shadowy gash, which the homunculus of death is constantly drawn towards. It simply won’t let me ignore the wound. The gash cannot be unseen, and the homunculus will not be subdued.

And… so… it seems a healthy thing to me to allow my homunculus free rein over my Twitter account, whenever it so desires. I cannot deny the horrid little beast’s existence, nor should I, for it is a part of me.

Perhaps, by reading its Twitter poetry, I will be better able to understand its mind – and my own.

This is not a poet

More than two decades ago when I was applying to universities, I intentionally sought out strong programs in biomedical engineering. My thought at the time was that a degree in BME would serve me as a stepping stone for medical school.

That turned out to be a terrible, foolish mistake on my part, which led to me being extremely bored, unfulfilled, uninspired, and rudderless for four years; receiving poor grades; and losing my scholarship. There’s much I could write about that fateful decision and its consequences… about my motivations; about my experiences; about what my subsequent academic failure led to… but this is not that post.


Papa’s take

Papa advised me against biomedical engineering and against the hard sciences in general; he suggested instead that I pursue the humanities. Of course, I was too stubborn to listen to him. In truth, I was a capable student and was taking the very highest level math and science classes in high school… but, today, I still can’t help feeling that Papa’s intuition was correct.

I know these sorts of recollections, benefitting as they do from hindsight, are actually impossible to judge. When I shared this very memory with my brother who is now a successful software engineer, he told me that Papa had counseled him similarly, discouraging him too from pursuing the hard sciences and engineering. In that case, Papa was wrong. Still, having personally failed myself as an undergraduate, I can’t help but perceive Papa’s warnings back then as prescient.

I also remember that during my high school years, Papa once recruited me to write an educational children’s book, based upon his approach to mathematics education. This memory is fairly hazy for me, but I distinctly remember not wanting to take this project on. Papa was hoping for me to write an entire series of children’s books following the first one, but my negligible interest expired very quickly. Still, I remember his confidence: you are good at writing; why don’t you put your talents to use?


Penning my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series

After Papa died, just 2.5 years ago, it took me a month of grieving before I found myself taking to the keyboard. Since then, I’ve hashed, rehashed, and continued rehashing my sundry intertwining motivations for pursuing that particular project during my year of mourning, but this is not that post.

Over the course of that year, as I pumped out my reflections and research on kaddish and Jewish beliefs and traditions on a weekly basis, I experienced an unexpected personal transformation. In addition to the religious, spiritual, intellectual, and familial facets to my project, I gradually came to see it as an outlet for my creativity. I wasn’t simply expressing my thoughts on death, love, and tradition in a dry fashion… I was playing with word sounds and placements… and I was enjoying the more artistic aspects of blogging.

In my broad research on kaddish, I inevitably came across beatnik Allen Ginsberg’s famed poem ‘Kaddish’, and I spent that whole year thinking about writing a kaddish poem of my own in honor of Papa, which I never got around to doing. Original poetry didn’t quite seem to fit into any of my content heavy blog posts, and I hadn’t written any poems for some two decades or more.


‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’

When I moved all of my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog posts to this new personal website from the Times of Israel, back in April of 2020, I found myself moved to pen a poem, inspired as I’d been by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’.

Even after making ‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’ public, I found myself tweaking it repeatedly until I was finally satisfied with how it read and sounded to me. That somehow natural process of writing and rewriting kindled a flame, and I felt my soul warming. Then, at a certain, unexpected point, the poem came to completion.

Mama wondered if I intended to continue writing only about Papa, kaddish, and mourning on my new website, and I told her that I did not. I would, of course, write about Papa when I needed to, but my intention was to build a platform here for my creative juices to spill out upon, creative juices which had been continuously steaming and bubbling up in those eight months since I’d written my final ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog post.


What is poetry?

I have no idea what poetry actually is. I have no idea how much of what I’ve written and posted on this website’s poetry page qualifies as poetry by historic and global standards – and to the extent that I believe that what I’ve written is, indeed, poetry, I’m deeply uncertain about its quality and worth to others.

I’m not writing this from a place of false humility, nor even from a place of any humility at all. I remain truly unconvinced that splashing words across a page (or screen) qualifies as poetry. That’s not to say that poets aren’t poets or that poetry isn’t poetry… but I simply do not know how to judge. Certainly, I am not one who is remotely qualified to make such a judgment.

But I also don’t care.

I don’t care whether my “poetry” is poetry at all, or whether it is “poetry” of any recognizable quality. What I primarily care about are two things:

  1. I intend my splashes of words as poetry; and
  2. Regardless, I love producing them

The pudding

Of late, I often catch myself walking around, mumbling words to myself, attempting to describe my body’s various sensations, as well as playing in my mind with rhymes and rhythms that resonate with me.

Also, my daughter’s instinctive request of me upon the occasion of her losing two teeth in one day was for me to write a poem about her and her missing teeth, which took me quite by surprise. Curious, I later checked with my wife, wondering if she had suggested the idea to our six-year-old… but no, she hadn’t. Apparently, our little daughter knows that her Abba’chka makes regular attempts at writing something he intends as “poetry”.

Anyway, it’s gotten to the point that I have taken to posting daily “micropoems” on my newly-created Twitter account, and usually at least several longer “poems” every week on this blog… and…

Well, I suppose the proof is in pudding.


Natural English, or: Sidespin

My Papa once explained to me the genius of Poe’s poetry
In making language lyrical that was much inert;
Some tongues like French and Russian flow;
But English breaks upon the teeth
Unless we pull chords deep
Beneath; deep beneath
The surface

Struggling (mired in A,B,C), remembering he who sired me;
Limited to words, my own, chop\py though they be;
These fingers English keyboards know,
Grasp flailingly at fleeting dreams
Although it’s then I truly
See; truly see him
Seeing me

With talk he wouldn’t be impressed; I’d rather offer something else –
Reality itself undressed; bereft, I’ve naught but language left,
Now feeling I have naught to show…

Here’s peddling clever stanzas cheap
While Papa lies there deep
Beneath; deep beneath

The surface