A fishy lockdown

Last night and the night before I wanted to take some time to write, but I ended up falling asleep while putting my daughter to bed each time.

For me, perhaps the most frustrating thing about Israel’s current (2nd) pandemic-related lockdown is the diminished amount of time and space that I am left with for myself, which I primarily use for writing, reading the news, and watching the occasional movie. Even under regular circumstances, most of my free time is at night when I am not working and not parenting.

My wife and I are lucky to still have our jobs during these lockdowns, rather than being furloughed, as so many Israelis have been. In fact, my wife has a very dear friend who works as a chef for a major Jerusalem hotel who is also a single mother; and her financial situation is challenging even under normal conditions. In this regard, we have humility enough to appreciate our blessings.

Still, these lockdowns are challenging for us emotionally, and, dare I say, more so for me because my more flexible work hours mean that I end up assuming the majority of parenting responsibilities for our child during such periods (one of the reasons that her English reading and writing abilities have improved over her Russian language skills).

Perhaps I would be less frustrated with this government directive, were it not for the politics of COVID-19 in Israel. Putting aside the “why” of the matter, it is simply a fact that rates of infection in our state are significantly higher in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods. However, despite health professionals recommending that local measures be applied to those areas, the ultra-Orthodox political parties have strong-armed the government into shutting down all of society.

Still, I am trying to remain positive.

* * *

Yesterday, our daughter had a playground playdate with a friend who showed up in a cranky mood. The little boy was mourning over his inability to attend preschool during the lockdown. I tried explaining this to my daughter, and she was clearly befuddled. “Really? I like being with you and Mama’chka more than preschool!” From her perspective, you see, lockdowns are like extended vacations.

I must admit that it’s very affirming for me to hear that our child likes being at home with us. It would seem that we’re doing something right.

[In that vein, we’ve also noticed a shift in her daily discourse over the past half year. Whereas she used to constantly ask, “Do you love me?” (and she still does occasionally). She now much more often prefers to say, “I love you” and kiss us; and since we parents are also human beings, I am not too shy to admit that we like hearing this.]

* * *

One other party in our household has benefitted from the lockdown, and that is Goldie the goldfish.

In truth, we’re learning how to take care of Goldie as we go – taking fish seriously as pets is not so simple, it seems.

Several weeks ago, we decided to get an airstone and pump for Goldie, which provides better circulation and aerates the tank water. This is not an absolute necessity, but it is generally considered healthy for the fish, and increases the efficiency of the filter. All of this was new to us.

Then, at a later date, we decided to upgrade to a bigger aquarium because the smaller tank was leaking from the top. In doing so, we learned that the water level in the smaller tank had been too high – that it should have been a bit lower than the bottom of the filter. (We also received 3 free Buenos Aires tetra fish with our purchase)

During that pet shop visit, we picked up a large, plastic “rock” with “plants” on it. However, what we came to realize is that the hollow “rock” was accumulating dirty water beneath it (leaving us to wonder why hollow aquarium decorations are sold in the first place). The “rock” has since been replaced with a sunken ship of the British Empire with a solid bottom, and our daughter is has taken to using the “rock” for her Playmobil figures’ adventures (don’t worry – we washed it).

Now our current and continuing challenge has become determining just how much to feed the four fish, as tetra fish should be fed more often than goldfish. In our research, we’ve also learned that tetra fish and goldfish are not necessarily the best tank mates, and the tetras, which are tropical, are not likely do well in colder temperatures… so they may not survive the coming Jerusalem winter.

In any case, the important thing is that our daughter is very happy to have pet fish. She takes feeding them very seriously and is still trying to decide upon names for the three tetras. We’ve warned her, of course, that they may not be long for this world… but we’ll get some replacements for her if they don’t make it.

Being home every day during this lockdown is providing us with an opportunity to monitor the aquarium… so I suppose there have been some hidden benefits to the ongoing insanity…

Speak to me in Arabic

I published this approximately 2½ years ago on the Times of Israel

* * *

February 20, 2018

This week, I am beginning my fourth semester of spoken Arabic at the Polis Institute.

In truth, I should be working to improve my Hebrew. I can get by on the street, and I’m always able to compensate with some combination of English and Russian when necessary, but my written Hebrew is not what I want it to be, as a resident of Israel. My career potential here would certainly be higher if I invested my time in studying Hebrew, but I’ve been studying Arabic.

Why?

Before moving back to Israel, the thought of studying Arabic never crossed my mind, but as a Jerusalem resident, I feel compelled to learn it.

On a basic level, life in Israel is simply richer for people who can speak Arabic. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs (not to mention the non-citizens who also work, study, pray, shop, etc. in Israel). I hear Arabic on the streets of Jerusalem, and I hear it spoken by many of the salespeople at my local supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and shwarma stands. I see Arabs at the mall, but I never see Jews and Arabs shopping together or drinking coffee together. I’m not saying it never happens, but the rare instances of Jews and Arabs socializing together are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Regarding local and regional politics, I’ve spoken with many people across the spectrum about their views on the Israeli-Arab conflict. I’ve had engaging political conversations with left-leaning and right-leaning Jews regarding the peace process, the territories, the settlements, etc., but it’s come to bother me that I’ve never spoken to an Arab about these same issues. I’ve heard countless Jews (both Israelis and non-Israelis) talk about their perceptions of Arabs. I’d like to hear from some Arabs about their perceptions of Jews.

Granted, many Arabs do speak either English or Hebrew (and I once met one who spoke Russian), but not all do. Also, I feel that it’s a sign of respect to learn another people’s language. Whenever I’ve made an attempt to speak with an Arab in his/her native tongue, the response has always been positive, appreciative, and often curious. Whenever I’ve asked them to translate something for me, or to help me phrase something correctly in Arabic, they’ve been all the more appreciative and glad to help me. I feel that my efforts bring down an unspoken barrier between me, the Israeli Jew sporting a beard and a kippa, and the Arabs I interact with.

This experience has also led me to realize something about myself. On the one hand, I’m very skeptical (even cynical) about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I don’t foresee a peace agreement in my lifetime. However, I’ve realized that I do retain hope for peace, and I believe that it can only be achieved by thawing out relations between the people who actually live in Israel and the territories. No document signed by the Israeli Prime Minister, the President of the PA, and other international leaders will bring peace here. This situation is inherently different than the “cold peace” that we maintain with Jordan and Egypt because the lives of Israelis and Palestinians are so intertwined. Again, twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs with relatives in the territories and most consider themselves Palestinians.

This brings me to another very obvious point, which I’ve alluded to. Beyond transactional interactions, I have nobody to speak Arabic with outside of Polis. Four months went by between my second and third semesters, and without the regular opportunity to speak Arabic, my fluency greatly deteriorated during that summer. The most valuable aspect of the Polis teaching method for me is that the language classes are taught immersively in the target language (like a Hebrew ulpan). This is how I best acquire languages – by using them. My Hebrew, for example, has improved tremendously in recent years because I work in a Hebrew speaking environment. Unfortunately, unlike my American and European Polis classmates, I have no substantive interactions with Arabs outside of the classroom.

In short, I need to make friends with Arabs who are willing to speak with me in Arabic. There are coexistence programs available for Jews and Arabs to meet one another, but these are not run in Arabic. I know of language exchange initiatives (I could help somebody with their English in exchange for help with my Arabic), but these meet infrequently. Something that I have not yet explored are opportunities to volunteer in the Arab community, which might allow me to interact with Arabs in their native tongue. I’m very open to ideas – I’m no political activist in the field of Jewish-Arab relations, but I wish to move beyond simply existing side by side with the Arabs around me. I want to gain more insights into their culture and worldviews. I want to engage with them in a substantive way. Most importantly, I want to practice my Arabic with native Arabic speakers, but I don’t know where to turn.

Any thoughts?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 39

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Photograph by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, posted April 5, 2013. Original caption: ‘Squirrels are actually very kind to each other and will adopt abandoned baby squirrels if they notice a relative has not come back for them.’

My reading of Jewish texts on Jewish eschatology and death rituals has been fairly wide-ranging, and it continues to expand. (My copy of the just-published Kaddish.com will be in my hands this week!) Since my father’s death last summer, I’ve filled my bookshelf with more books than I have had the time to finish, but I will still be exploring them for years to come.

It’s also refreshing and broadening to go beyond Jewish sources. My friend Sagi has lent me a book titled Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, which provides a humorous survey of philosophical approaches to death, intended as a light read on a heavy subject. Towards the beginning of the book, the authors introduce us to Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book: The Denial of Death.

Becker posits that we humans delude ourselves into thinking that we are not going to die by constructing “immortality systems”, which are “nonrational belief structures that give us a way to believe we’re immortal” (‘Heidegger’ p. 15-17):

There’s the ever-popular strategy of identifying ourselves with a tribe, race, or nation that lives on into the indefinite future, with us somehow a part of it. Then there’s the immortality-through-art system, in which the artist foresees… herself immortalized…

Then there are the top-of-the-market immortality systems enshrined in the world’s religions, ranging from living on as part of the cosmic energy in the East to sailing off to be with Jesus in the West. At a less lofty level, there is the immortality-through-wealth system…

Virtually every civilization has evolved a shared immortality system. In fact, these systems are the basic function of a culture. Without them, we’d all go wacko with death-angst and we wouldn’t be able to keep our civilization humming along… Denial of death is civilization’s survival strategy!

I see the truth of these very human mechanisms coming through in my own thinking:

[By reciting the mourner’s kaddish on behalf of his father,] the son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 420 (blog #11)

I wear my father’s cap; his yarmulke; his watch; his house shoes, but I wish that he were wearing them instead.

– Me, blog #15

I recently had an insight. Another way of thinking about death if you will. We are all cells in the organism of the Jewish nation… every single cell will come to be replaced.

– Me, blog #30

It does not escape me that I am engaged in creation myself. These words, in honor of my Papa, will outlast me. The words of humankind, created in God’s image, beget memory and shape reality.

– Me, blog #33

When it comes right down to it, I couldn’t imagine my father dying (blog #19) any more than I can imagine my own end; and not a day goes by that I don’t still expect him to be updating his mathematics website or uploading new wildlife photographs to Facebook.

* * *

I sit here in my chair, some nine months after Papa died, plugging away at my keyboard, contemplating my family’s heritage and posterity, struggling to wrap my mind around his non-existence, but. There’s a degree of dissociation that goes into my writing.

On one hand, it’s therapeutic – my most intimate thoughts find their purchase in published language, freeing my mind to get through the days along with the rest of me. On the other, this is an original story I’m writing. By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

Besides: we read blogs every day. The truest form of anonymity rests perhaps in our public identities. You see a face, a name, some strings of words, a person whom you don’t know writing about the death of a father you never met. Oh, he writes so well; it’s so moving; so sad; so terrible.

Most likely: you don’t know me; these posts on David Bogomolny’s devastating loss are hypothetical to you. (We are but extras or bit characters in the lives of all but our dearest loved ones.)

Or maybe: you know me somewhat but dissociate your heart and mind from my gaping, bottomless wound. It’s simply too terrifying to go there.

I relate to your immortality systems. When I read through my own ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ blog posts, much of what I’ve written to date feels unreal to me.

The shared human experience of grief is that which is truly immortal, not its messenger.

* * *

I won’t lie. I’m quite ready to be done with these stanzas, but I can’t stomach the alternative: Show up at Papa’s grave and recite a series of unrelatable biblical passages on faith? What for? How utterly hollow to me and to Papa.

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PSALM 119:מ (verses 97-104)

[CLICK for glossary]

צז מָה-אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ: כָּל-הַיּוֹם, הִיא שִׂיחָתִי 97 O how I love Thy Torah! It is my conversation all the day.
צח מֵאֹיְבַי, תְּחַכְּמֵנִי מִצְוֺתֶךָ: כִּי לְעוֹלָם הִיא-לִי 98 From [my encounter with] my enemies, Thy mitzvot make me smarter: for it is ever with me.
צט מִכָּל-מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי: כִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, שִׂיחָה לִי 99 From all my teachers I grew wise; for Thy eidot are my conversation.
ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.
קא מִכָּל-אֹרַח רָע, כָּלִאתִי רַגְלָי– לְמַעַן, אֶשְׁמֹר דְּבָרֶךָ 101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, in order that I might observe Thy dvar.
קב מִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לֹא-סָרְתִּי: כִּי-אַתָּה, הוֹרֵתָנִי 102 I have not turned aside from Thine mishpatim for Thou hast instructed me.
קג מַה-נִּמְלְצוּ לְחִכִּי, אִמְרָתֶךָ— מִדְּבַשׁ לְפִי 103 How sweet is Thy imrah unto my palate! more than honey to my mouth!
קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

I won’t bother splitting the verses above into two separate semi-stanzas, but it’s clear that stanza מ (mem) is organized much like most other stanzas of Psalm 119. The 1st semi-stanza of 4 verses (97-100) ends with the keyword pikudim and the word אֶתְבּוֹנָן (I gain understanding); so too does the 2nd semi-stanza (101-104).

Whereas the 1st semi-stanza repeats the word שִׂיחָה (conversation) twice and emphasizes learning that leads to intelligence, wisdom, and understanding, the 2nd semi-stanza twice uses the word אֹרַח (way, style, manner), thereby contrasting the Psalmist’s rejection of [evil & false ways] with his dedication to [God’s word & edicts].

Actually, the theme of verbal expression snakes through both semi-stanzas. The 1st and 3rd verses (97 & 99) of the 1st semi-stanza relate to the Psalmist’s perpetual “conversation” on matters pertaining to God’s instructions to humankind (Torah), as well as to testimonies to His supremacy (eidot). Following this, the 2nd semi-stanza’s 1st and 3rd verses (101 & 103) relate to God’s imrahdvar, which Radak (1160–1235) understands to mean the verbal expression basic to all of God’s commandments.

The 1st half of stanza מ thus focuses on the Psalmist’s speaking God’s Torah; the 2nd half focuses on God’s utterances. Going further still, this distinction between our stanza’s two halves is suggestively underscored in yet another way: the Psalmist’s mouth in the 2nd semi-stanza (verse 103) engages in conversation no longer! It is too busy, rather, savoring the ambrosia of God’s holy imrah.

The contrast between our two semi-stanzas is perhaps most stark at stanza מ’s bookends. The 1st verse (97) uses the language of ‘מָה-אָהַבְתִּי’ (O how I love) in reference to God’s Torah, in juxtaposition to the words of the final verse (104): ‘עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי’ (therefore I hate) in reference to false ways [of living]. The Psalmist’s purposeful choice of language trumpets, “The Torah is the True Way!”

* * *

A nuance intrigues me. Let’s compare the language of verses 100 & 104 (the final verses of our two semi-stanzas), both of which contain ‘pikudim’ and ‘I gain understanding’:

Verse 100 is the capstone to the 1st four verses of our stanza, which focus on the Psalmist’s personal growth through learning and commitment to God’s commandments. The verse’s logic is: commitment to God’s edicts brings the Psalmist to gain understanding from his elders. More precisely:

Keep pikudim >>
[Learn from] elders >>
Gain understanding

ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.

Verse 104, capping the 2nd set of four verses, which focuses upon drawing a crucial distinction between the sweetness of God’s word and other errant, evil ways, follows a different logic:

[Keep] pikudim >>
Gain understanding >>
Hate false ways [of living]

קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

What might the Psalmist be suggesting?

My initial interpretation goes as follows: According to the Psalmist, keeping God’s commandments opens up two avenues towards the achievement of greater understanding.

  1. The individual dedicated to a Godly life is thereby connected to others who share his commitment. His dedication births within him an openness towards and respect for the elders of his community, who nurture his ‘love’ for Torah (verse 97) and broaden his horizons with their accumulated wisdom. Gaining understanding along this path is a rewarding end in itself, along with greater wisdom and intelligence. It grows out of one’s learning.
  2. Committed observance of the Divine precepts itself shapes one’s character, granting him the natural intuition necessary to discern between God’s true word and false, evil alternatives. In this model, understanding comes straight from ‘the Source’, as it were. The dedicated individual develops understanding enough to make the crucial distinctions between True & False, Good & Evil, Sacred & Profane. This grows out of deep commitment.

* * *

Learning for its own sake was my father’s lifelong passion. His was a curious mind, always seeking to master new concepts, ever engaged in the pursuit of further knowledge. He relished fresh insights, delighted in challenging exchanges, and savored understanding for its own sake.

Papa also had a profound, innate sense of Good & Evil and was one to rely confidently upon his intuition. In politics, he remained ever clear-eyed and principled, harboring no illusions about the flaws of his preferred candidates, nor about the existential threats that he saw represented by others.

I write this post, just as the elections for the 21st Knesset come upon us. Tomorrow we go to the polls, and I still find myself pulled in several directions. My principles have always been more squishy than Papa’s before me; concerned as I am with the all too real, existential threats that worried my father, I… I remain undecided on the eve of elections.

The political landscape is bleak to me.