Twitter poetry 2021: Week 2

My blogger-poet-friend Ingrid inspired me to create a Twitter account and start writing #APoemADay, which I began on January 1, 2021.

Below is my second week of Twitter poems:

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem,
David

Twitter poetry 2021: Week 1

My blogger-poet-friend Ingrid inspired me to create a Twitter account and start writing #APoemADay, which I began on January 1, 2021.

As Ingrid herself has written, micropoetry is a unique challenge because I want to feel free to write poems without restrictions, ones that I feel reflect something meaningful. Still, I am hoping to meet this challenge and grow from it. I can’t say that I love all the poems I’ve tweeted so far, but Ingrid’s suggested goal of daily micropoems does get my juices flowing!

Below is my first week of Twitter poems:

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem,
David

The truth is poetry, or: is it?

A response to Lia

by David ben Alexander

The truth is
I am throbbing
inside of you right now

The truth is
your lips quiver
to my pounding meter

The truth is
you are swollen 
gushing with our verses

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘a conversation’ prompt.

d’Verse prompted us to look back over the last year; choose a poem that calls to us; and write a response to that.

I selected a poem by my friend Lia- ‘The truth is’ because I love the idea of a poem manifesting itself in a body that can enflame our hottest, fiery passions.

Below is Lia’s poem, which my poem responds to:


The truth is

by Lia

The truth is 
I always want to be with
your poem’s body

The truth is
I always need
the poem inside of me

The “synagogue of Satan”

A story of a much younger me.

Memories of the exuberance of my first year of college stay with me. I remember how exciting it was to sit down with a new friend at a café right across the street from our dormitory. How adult we thought ourselves, as we ordered our chai lattes (that was the first time I’d ever had one). Everything was so new and fun.

My new friend Adam was a devout Christian, having grown up in the ‘Church of Christ’ in Dayton, Ohio. He was truly a pure soul with deep faith. We became fast friends, and as I was often attending social events organized by our local chapter of the Jewish fraternity, he would cheerfully come along with me and hang out with the Jewish fraternity brothers, totally at ease in our company. Antisemitism was not in his heart; in fact, he hadn’t had any Jewish friends until coming to college.

The brothers extended a bid to him, as they did to all the other freshmen who were interested in joining. While the international ΑΕΠ fraternity is culturally Jewish, many chapters have non-Jewish members, and ours was no exception.

Adam, after some consideration, accepted the invitation and became one of my pledge brothers (probationary members). In fact, he was one of two Christian pledges that year (the other, Kenneth, was a Catholic). Sadly, when the pledge period ended some five weeks later, Adam dropped out due to religious considerations after he’d consulted with his family.


The incident

One incident involving Adam remains unforgettable to me.

Before Thanksgiving break, Adam and I were hanging out in my dorm room when he started to cry. I was shocked. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You’re such a good person,” he responded between sobs, “I don’t understand how you can be going to hell.”

I remember talking to him, reeling from the realization that my friend actually believed I would be sentenced to eternal damnation for being Jewish. I told him that I was sorry he felt this way, but there simply wasn’t anything I could do about it. I was a Jew, and my belief system was different than his. Judaism doesn’t put much emphasis on an afterlife, and the concept of hell is not part of our faith.

Following that exchange, I was deeply shaken.

I went over to speak with Kenneth, my other Christian pledge brother, who told me that while he too believed that Christ is the Messiah, it was his belief that those who do not currently accept Jesus as God cannot be faulted. His view was that once Jesus returned, all of humanity would be expected to accept him, and only those who continued to reject him would be damned to hell. Ken’s understanding made more sense to me.

Interestingly, after we’d returned from Thanksgiving break, Adam had also found peace after consulting with his family’s pastor, and he’d somehow decided that I wouldn’t necessarily be going to hell… Our friendly relationship continued, but neither of us ever broached the subject again, and we didn’t spend as much time together as we once had. After that first semester, Adam left our university, and I never saw him again; I think he transferred to a Christian seminary.

That was more than two decades ago.


My take

I have never had a problem being friends with anybody who doesn’t have a problem with me.

Here in Israel, I very happily wish all of the Muslims I interact with a ‘blessed Friday (جمعة مباركة) and ‘generous Ramadan (رمضان كريم). I have fewer interactions with Christians in person nowadays, but I’m happy to wish any that I meet a ‘Merry Christmas’, and I once attended Christmas services at a Lutheran church in the Old City of Jerusalem with friends of mine.

I’m always curious to understand other people’s faiths and cultures and am eager to engage them in conversations about our respective worldviews.

Notre Dame de Paris. 3rd statue (from left to right) on the West Entrance, source: Wikipedia

Since college, I’ve learned quite a great deal about Judaism, and while I am no scholar, I have a solid understanding of the history between Jews and Christians throughout the centuries. I am aware, for example, of the beliefs represented by the crowned Ecclesia and the blind, defeated Synagoga statues, which feature prominently before some of the medieval churches that I’ve visited. In truth, I find such beliefs more a curiosity than offensive. After all, I walk the earth as a proud Jew, and I don’t feel defeated in the slightest (quite the opposite).

In short, a person’s humanity is of much more interest to me than their religious affiliation. In my four decades, I have met wonderful people of many different faiths (and many of no faith at all); and I have also encountered some horrible people who earnestly couch their xenophobia and horrid behaviors in religious language.


The Blogosphere

I created this blog for myself, my friends, and my family, giving no thought to other people’s blogs, intending only to pour out my thoughts and centralize the 51 posts that comprise my kaddish journey following Papa’s death.

Inevitably, I suppose, other bloggers began interacting with me, and I was drawn to read their pieces of prose and poetry. Many of our subsequent online interactions have been very rewarding and have fueled some interesting thoughts.

Among these new online friends, there are some devout Christians who write about their beliefs, and I’ve found none so sincere as Steven Colborne from London. I find his deep faith and daily drive to unravel the big questions of the universe very moving, even though he and I are of different faiths (and mine, unlike his, is uncertain).

Just two days ago, on Friday, Steven published a post titled ‘The Synagogue of Satan’, and before I’d even noticed it, he sent me the following e-mail (shared with his permission):

Hey David,
Just wanted to say hi and send my love.
I know the blog post I published this morning could be thought provoking for you. It is posted with the utmost respect for you and for the Jewish people. My intention is always to share the whole of Scripture to everyone who’s interested, because this is what I understand I am called to do by Jesus, who I understand to be God’s Messiah, and indeed God himself.
Have a wonderful day, friend.
Peace be with you! Shalom.
Steven

I was busy shopping for Shabbat on Friday (during the Winter months, Shabbat starts earlier so Fridays are quite busy with preparations), and I didn’t have much time to engage with Steven, but I shot off a quick response, letting him know that I was not offended in the slightest. Now, some hours after Shabbat has gone out here in Jerusalem, and I’ve had more opportunity to sit down and reflect upon Steven’s words, I want to offer him a simple, Jewish response:

Dear Steven,
I consider you a true mensch.
Shavua Tov,
David

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s nickname for my father: ‘Maestro’

One of the things that I reflected upon after Papa died was a series of coincidences that preceded his death. In November 2018, I wrote the following (emphasis mine):

I’m not one to assign meanings to coincidences, but the timing of particular events before my father’s death was uncanny. In no particular order:

⦿ My father completed the manuscript for his first (and ultimately only) book, which will be published in 2019.

⦿ My daughter awoke two days before he died, thinking that Dedushka Shurik was with her in the apartment. My wife explained that it was a dream, and she tried calling my father in America so that our little girl could speak with her grandfather, but he had already gone to bed. Learning of this, my father glowed with love and pride for what turned out be his final two days in this world, telling everybody that he spoke with that his granddaughter had dreamed of him.

⦿ My brother, who had been living away from home that summer, returned to live with my parents due to problems with campus housing. He was present at the hospital when our father passed away.

⦿ On the night before he passed away, my father, usually averse to crowds and parties, decided to go with my brother and mother to a friend’s home on the shore to watch a brilliant, beautiful fireworks display. It was the last thing he would see before waking up with shortness of breath the following morning.

⦿ Several days before my father died, and after three years of soulful struggling with being unable to pray, I had begun praying again privately in my home. I had no inkling that I would soon be reciting kaddish every day for my father, but my gates of prayer had already been unbolted when the time came; I didn’t feel forced into prayer by kaddish.


Well, it is now nearly 2021, almost 2½ years after Papa died, and his book has finally been published. I am very proud of my father for completing this intensive project and very thankful to all of the brilliant people who took his work all the way to publication following his death.

Papa’s first and only book

Foremost among those who I am thankful for is my father’s friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame. It was he who encouraged my father to write a book, and it was he who suggested a subject. Dr. Taleb was very fond of my father, and he offered to write a foreword for the book, which, ultimately, he penned after Papa had died.

Dr. Taleb posted his foreword (really: tribute) online, and I was moved to tears upon reading it last night, for he managed to capture Papa’s spirit beautifully. Below, I’d like to share his words with you –


Maestro Bogomolny

Foreword for Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles by Alexander B.

How do you learn a language? There are two routes; the first is to memorize imperfect verbs, grammatical rules, future vs. past tenses, recite boring context-free sentences, and pass an exam. The second approach consists in going to a bar, struggling a little bit and, out of the need to blend-in and integrate with a fun group of people, then suddenly find yourself able to communicate. In other words, by playing, by being alive as a human being. I personally have never seen anyone learn to speak a language properly by the first route. Also, I have never seen anyone fail to do so by the second one.

It is a not well-known fact that mathematics can also be learned by playing –just watch the private correspondence, discussions and pranks of the members of the august Bourbaki circle. Some of us (and it includes this author) do not perform well on tasks via “cold” approaches, unable to muster the motivation to do boring things. But, somehow we upregulate when stimulated or when there is play (or money) involved. This may disturb many people married to cookie-cutter pedagogical methods that require things to be drab, boring, and bureaucratic for them to be effective –but that’s reality.

It is thanks to Maestro Alexander B. that numerous people have learned mathematics by the second route, by playing, just for the sake of entertainment. He helped many to make it their hobby. His mathematical website cut-the-knot has trained a generation –many seemingly approached the problem as hobbyists then got stuck with it. For, if you liked mathematics just a little bit, Maestro Bogomolny made it impossible for you to not love it. Mathematics was turned into a frolic.

I discovered his riddles on social media. (Alexander B. does not like the word “problems”. I now understand why.)

* * *

Social media brings out the best and the worst in people. He was rigorous yet open-minded, allowing people like me (who did some mathematical economics and finance) to cheat with inequalities by using the various canned methods for finding minima and maxima. He even tolerated computerized mathematics, provided of course there was some rigor in the process. I initially knew nothing about him but could observe rare attributes: an extraordinary amount of patience and a remarkable sense of humor. One summer, as he was in Israel, I informed him that I was vacationing in Lebanon. His answer: “Walking distance”. He always had a short comment that makes you smile, not laugh, which is a social art.

Alexander B. created a vibrant community around his Twitter account. He would pose a question, collect answers and patiently explain to people where they were wrong.

I, for myself, started almost every day with a puzzle, with the excitement of unpredictability, as it took from 5 minutes to 4 hours to complete –and it was usually impossible to tell from the outset. For a couple of years, it was the first thing I looked at with the morning coffee. There was some mild competition, mild enough to be entertaining but not too intense to resemble an academic rat race. Once someone got a proof, we had to look for another approach so it paid to wake up early and beat those with a time zone advantage.

In the two years since he left us there has been no Saturday morning –104 of them –that I did not solve a riddle randomly selected on the web in his memory. But, without him, it is not the same.

* * *

How did Alexander Bogomolny get there?

I met him in an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. I was surprised to see a mathematician who looked much more like a maturing actor than someone in a technical specialty: tall, athletic, jovial, and with a charismatic presence. But, as he had warned me, he had a severe hearing problem, the result of a medical treatment for the flu.

This explained to me his veering away from an academic career to get involved in computer pedagogy. His hearing was worsening with time. It is hard to imagine being a professor with reduced auditory function in one ear (in spite of a hearing aid) and none in the other.

There was something fresh and entertaining about him. He was happy. One could talk and laugh with him without much communication.

He was neither interested in money nor rank –something refreshing as I was only exposed to academics who whether they admit it or not, are obsessed with both. When I asked him about commercializing his website cut-the-knot his answer was “I have two pensions. Next year I turn seventy”. He wasn’t interested in poisoning his life for more money.

Why did I start nicknaming him Maestro? Because it was pretty much literal: he played math like a master would with a musical instrument –and mostly to himself. He was physically bothered by a sloppy derivation or an error, as if he heard a jarring note in the middle of a sonata. It was a joy to see someone so much in sync with his subject matter –and totally uncorrupted by the academic system.

* * *

Now, probability. In one conversation, I mentioned to him that probability riddles would be very useful for people who want to get into the most scientifically applicable scientific subject in the world (my very, very biased opinion). What I said earlier about play is even more applicable to probability, a field that really started with gamblers, used by traders and adventurers, and perfected by finance and insurance mathematicians. Probability applies to all empirical fields: gambling, finance, medicine, engineering, social science, risk, linguistics, genetics, car accidents. Let’s play with it by adding to his feed some probability riddles.

His eyes lit up. Hence this book.

* * *

I thank Marcos Careira, Amit Itagi, Mike Lawler, Salil Mehta, and numerous others who supported us in this project.

And a special gratitude to Stephen Wolfram, Jeremy Sykes and Mads Bahrami for ensuring that Cut-the-Knot stays alive and that this book sees the day. Additional thanks to Paige Bremmer, Glenn Schloebo, and other members of Wolfram Media for editing the manuscript.

Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles, by Alexander Bogomolny, published by Wolfram Research in collaboration with STEM Academic Press, $19.95. On Amazon.

Distancing, or: Dancing

She dances- freely where air is music in her own home 
Fearful of green waters; of slickened thickening foam
Charting- studying; the Talmud, Torah -the course
Focus; stay sane; stay healthy; still... plunged into wet depths
Masked breaths through that heavy silent lullaby swift swept
Smothered in her queasy bubble uneasily reaching forth

She dances- stretching against taut sticky edges- viscous
Constricting restrictive her mind bears the risks of
Keeping- speaking with; old photographs -active
Routines; days drawn out into months nearing years
Broken; tears muffling the stuff of sacred scared prayers
Slumping into depression; not of God's flood this captive

She dances- as she once defied cruel capture by cancer
Fighting fierce not to ebb first; silence soaking; no answer

Mourners relate to mourners

On a bright Thursday in August of 2014, my wife and I attended a beautiful Israeli wedding. It was a lovely outdoor wedding at ‘the Moshav’. We still remember the year of the event because it so happened that my wife was pregnant with our daughter at the time.

The chuppah (wedding canopy)

The bride was an olah (immigrant to Israel) from England, and the groom- an oleh from the USA. The sweet couple’s faces radiated sheer, loving contentment. Both of their families had flown in for the occasion, and they too exuded a glowing, collective warmth and welcoming joy towards all of us in attendance.

As per Jewish tradition, friends and community members hosted meals to honor the young couple for seven days following the wedding. These were the traditional ‘sheva brachot’ (seven blessings) meals prescribed by Jewish tradition, which holds that for seven days following the wedding, the bride and groom are to be treated like a queen and king and are to be invited to the home of a different friend or relative every evening for a large, celebratory meal.

That week sped by, and the following weekend arrived. The young couple and their parents went off, as planned, to spend Shabbat together in the Golan, near Lake Kinneret for some peaceful away time. The Golan offers countless fantastic hiking trails, and the newlyweds were so looking forward to exploring the luscious green mountains.

Early the following week, we learned that the groom’s father had died in a hiking accident.


I had met the groom in 2010, and we had studied Torah in the same beit midrash (house of [Torah] study) for two years. Afterwards, we had him over for Shabbat when he was off duty from the IDF, which he joined after completing his Torah studies and repatriating to Israel; and we shared Shabbat meals with him and his wife on several occasions.

He was among the gentlest and most earnest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I always enjoyed our interactions; but, having said that, we had never been especially close… although part of me hoped that we might become better friends once it became apparent that we had both decided to make our ways in Israel, away from our families in the USA.

His father’s unexpected death, following upon the heels of his beautiful, joyful wedding, rocked me. I couldn’t fathom his pain, nor the inky clinging shadow that would hang forever over his wedding memories.

Back then, before my father died (July 2018), I had almost no understanding of Jewish mourning traditions, which I would only become familiar with a few years later during my own kaddish journey. I understood the basics only vaguely.

Having been raised in a secular family, I hadn’t yet grasped how expected and normal it is in traditional Jewish culture to visit mourners during the week following the funeral (this is called ‘shiva’) to lend support. I didn’t appreciate how helpful it is to assist mourners in forming daily prayer quorums so that they can recite the mourner’s kaddish, the recitation of which requires that ten adult Jews be present. I felt incredibly awkward… who was I to intrude upon his grief? What consolation could I possibly provide?

I recall that week being very busy for me at work, and I suppose that I could make excuses as to why I didn’t pay my friend a shiva call, but ultimately – I simply didn’t know how to act appropriately. And… perhaps I was afraid of facing him in his grief.

Regardless, I didn’t pay a visit.


I could give other examples of my inability to relate to the grief of others, for I had encountered many who had lost parents, siblings, and even children… but suffice it to say that those memories of my obtuseness have taken on a particularly sharp, stinging aftertaste in the 2+ years since Papa’s death.

Towards the end of my first year of mourning, I confronted this change in myself:

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’m being somewhat hard on myself, as is my tendency, but I am aware that what I’ve described is not entirely unlike any other major life-changing experience. Let’s take parenthood, for example.

While I’ve always enjoyed playing with children, babysitting, and working at various children’s summer programs, I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their offspring’s developments. Little Mary started walking? Great! Little Ahmed drew a car? That’s… wonderful… Little Hannah won the state spelling bee? … Hooray! … that’s…

I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their children’s developments – until I had a daughter; and suddenly, everything about child development was interesting. I could compare notes with other parents for hours. I could relate to their prides, their anxieties, their excitements…

That’s also how it is when you lose a loved one. It’s the club that nobody wants to join and nobody can quit. After Papa died:

… friends and family reached out to me in love. I was struck at how many of those conversations shifted away from my own father’s death, towards the piercing memories, the simmering hurts, and the irrecoverable losses of my comforters.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #9, Oct. 5, 2018

Parents relate to parents; mourners relate to mourners.