Writing about Birkat HaChamah

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Birkat HaChamah by the Kotel (Western Wall), 8 April 2009, Copyright Lipaphotography

Birkat HaChamah, the Blessing of the Sun, is a special mitzvah that only happens once every 28 years. It’s happened twice in my lifetime so far, 1981 and 2009. The average person might get to perform it 3-4 times in a lifetime.

The next time it’ll happen is 2037, and then 2065, 2093, and 2121. If I’m blessed enough to live to 2093, I’ll be 113. I’d like to make it to 2100, if only to say I lived in three centuries.

Birkat HaChamah falls out when the Sun completes its cycle, always on a Tuesday at sundown. However, it’s postponed till Wednesday morning, when the Sun is visible.

According to traditional Jewish theology, this is when the Sun returns to the position it was in on the non-literal fourth day of creation. Many scholars and rabbis, Orthodox as well as progressive, have interpreted the Torah’s concept of creation days as lasting more than 24 hours.

Sunrise over Yerushalayim on Birkat HaChamah 2009, Copyright Bcohn

One looks at the Sun on the horizon while reciting the blessing ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית, “Blessèd are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Maker of the works of Creation.”

Some people modify the Hebrew to use female language (e.g., Malka [Queen] vs. Melech [King]). Hashem has both male and female attributes, invoked at different times. When I say the famous Avinu Malkeynu (Our Father, Our King) prayer on the High Holy Days, I alternate the first lines as “Our Father, Our King” and “Our Mother, Our Queen.”

It’s a very brief service, with the first six lines of Psalm 148 before the Sun blessing, followed by Psalms 19, 121, and 150, a Talmud passage about Birkat HaChamah, Psalm 167, the Aleynu prayer, and Mourner’s Kaddish.

Preparing for Birkat HaChamah in 2009 in Yerushalayim, Copyright Chadica

Since this is such a rare mitzvah, everyone is urged to participate in it, even small children. This isn’t something like missing Shabbos or holiday services, where there’s another chance next week or year.

If the Sun is completely blocked, minority opinions allow the blessing to be recited regardless. We should always encourage people to do a mitzvah, esp. considering this one only comes once every 28 years, and tomorrow is never guaranteed.

I wrote a short story called “Birkat HaChamah,” set 7.5 billion years in the future, in the days leading up to the final Birkat HaChamah ever. It ends as the subgiant, red giant, maximum radius Sun swallows the Moon and Earth, shortly after a super-elder, at least 10,000 years old, pronounces the blessing from the final rocket to evacuate.

Red giant Sun and carbonized Earth, Copyright Fsgregs

Being a full-time student is not a job!

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This was originally posted on my old Angelfire site in late 2008. It’s edited down from a rambling 2,807 words.

We ran a longer version of this article in the local newspaper I work for, and the sentiment of these ultra-Orthodox rabbis responsible for this “day of prayer” really pisses me off. There’d be no need for this organised effort to pray wealthy philanthropists donate money if these guys studying 24/7 had actual jobs. And prayer doesn’t always get answered the way we want it to.

David Ben-Gurion granted a draft deferment because there weren’t that many Hareidim at the time, and he felt sentimentality towards them for how they represented old-world Judaism, and believed that in another generation or so, they’d largely die out. Instead they kept getting more and more populous, though the vast majority of Israelis aren’t religious.

Total nonsense to seriously claim secular Jews feel embarrassed by the Orthodox. How can a small, albeit vocal, minority make a huge majority feel embarrassed or ashamed?

We have an entire generation of men who won’t work and have to depend upon the government (whom they ordinarily despise and do everything to weasel out of having to deal with) to give them a stipend so they can support their gigantic families.

Oh, what a crisis, Rabbis Elyashiv and Shteinman. These poor kollel men have such troubles at home when they can’t bring in enough money, and it leads to strained marriages and relationships with their children. If they worked real jobs, they’d earn enough money to support a wife and kids.

Nothing’s stopping them from devoting an hour or so every day to studying. They just won’t be able to do that all day, every day. They’ll have more important priorities, like going to work. A lot of ultra-Orthodox women often have to bring in the bacon (so to speak), because their husbands won’t hear of working in the secular world.

Studying all day and producing an army of children doesn’t constitute a real job. Why the hell should they get any stipend? They’re letting their families starve and live in poverty because they feel nonstop studying is the only way to go.

A Midrash on the ten spies who brought back a bad report says that their sin wasn’t so much bringing back a bad report of Eretz Yisrael, but rather giving this bad report on purpose so the people would stay in the desert, closer to God, living a highly spiritual life, studying Torah and doing mitzvot all day.

But that wasn’t what God wanted. They were supposed to engage in the real world when they crossed over into Israel, not sit meditating and praying all day long. Because of this sin, of that entire generation, only Joshua and Caleb were allowed to enter Israel and not die in the desert, and the people were condemned to stay in the desert for 38 more years. These modern-day kollel men are committing the same exact sin!

It’s not bad to become a rabbi or full-time scholar, but not everyone’s cut out for those roles. In the past, most men didn’t study 24/7, since community leaders recognised most guys didn’t have what it took to be brilliant scholars. Quality, not quantity.

Maybe Hashem was trying to tell Rabbis Shteinman and Elyashiv something. Foreign philanthropists haven’t contributed enough money because Hashem disapproves of the entire system. If this isn’t the will of God, that “day of prayer for philanthropists” didn’t have the desired effect of “storming the gates of heaven.” Maybe the entire yeshiva/kollel system will be dismantled and these guys will be forced to get real jobs and live in the outside world. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is “no.”

How childish can they be, seriously believing this day of prayer would help them out so much? Hashem wants us to be proactive in our own destiny, not just sit back praying, pleading, begging, and waiting for him/her to do it for us.

These rabbis’ view of God is like that of a child, praying to a Superman or candyman up in the sky, someone who’ll give us whatever we want because we asked for it, dammit, and really want it!

Nothing will cure these ultras of their smug arrogant triumphalism. Only they practise Judaism properly. Things weren’t like this even 50 years ago. People worked real jobs and didn’t just study all day long.

They can claim these guys are great scholars all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re glorified unemployed, unskilled, uneducated, unproductive members of society.

The power of eyes and a face

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Released 21 April 1928 in director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s native Denmark, and 25 October 1928 in France, the country where it was filmed, The Passion of Joan of Arc is rightly, widely considered among the greatest of all silent films, and one of the greatest films period. It represents silent cinema at its pinnacle, shortly before the advent of talkies and their creaky recording technology made such films impossible to produce for quite some time.

At first glance, it might seem a film mostly built around closeups of faces won’t tell a very compelling, moving story, but that makes it the emotional powerhouse it is. I’m always so emotionally impacted. It’s a raw, stark level of emotion not found in many other films, with all the extras cut out. Eyes and faces tell most of the story.

Joan is played by Renée Falconetti, a stage actor who’d only appeared in one prior film, in 1917. This was her second and final film role. Afterwards, she returned to the stage.

Société Générale des Films invited Carl Theodor Dreyer to make a film in France following the success of his Master of the House in his native Denmark. The subject would be either Joan, Catherine de Medici, or Marie Antoinette. Dreyer claimed it was chosen by drawing matches.

He spent over 18 months researching Joan, who became a saint in 1920, and has long been one of France’s greatest national heroes. Dreyer based the script on the transcripts of Joan’s stacked trial and execution.

On 30 May 1431, Joan is subject to kangaroo court, headed by clergy who are no men of God. No matter how much she’s tortured or mocked, she refuses to recant her belief that she’s been sent on a mission by God to liberate France from the English.

The authorities are horrified she claims to be religious, in a state of grace, sent by God, etc., when she’s “just” a young, illiterate woman, acting without the orders of the Church, wearing clothes considered to be masculine instead of a dress or skirt, not acting meek and submissive. (Don’t get me started on people posthumously transing Joan because she wore pants and didn’t perform stereotypical femininity!)

Joan doesn’t fall for a fake letter from King Charles VII, telling her to trust its bearer, nor does she crack when shown the torture chamber. She faints, but doesn’t falter.

Joan panics when threatened with burning at the stake, and lets a priest guide her hand in a signature on a false confession. The judge then condemns her to a life sentence, and her head is shaved. Joan realises she’s disobeyed God, and demands the judges come back.

Joan recants that confession, and accepts the death penalty. All the while, her faith never wavers.

The film’s French release was held up because many nationalists were horrified Dreyer was neither French nor Catholic, and a rumour Lillian Gish had been cast as Joan. The film was eventually censored, which outraged Dreyer. The Archbishop of Paris demanded more cuts and changes.

Critics loved it, but it was a box office flop. Dreyer’s contract was cancelled, and he accused Société Générale des Films of mutilating his work to avoid offending Catholics. He sued them for breach of contract, and was unable to make another film till autumn 1931.

The film was banned in England, for its portrayal of English soldiers mocking and tormenting Joan.

A fire at Berlin’s UFA Studios on 6 December 1928 destroyed the master negative, and for decades, only versions of Dreyer’s patched-together second version were available. Then, in 1981, an original cut was discovered in a janitor’s closet in Dikemark Hospital, a psychiatric hospital near Oslo.

There were no records of the film being sent to Oslo, but film historians think the hospital director, who was a published historian, may have asked for a special copy.

This film is truly an emotional tour de force, all accomplished without any speech, or even a lot of full-body acting. Joan’s eyes and face are the story. There’s a reason she’s so beloved by the French people.

P.S.: Any comments posthumously transing Joan and distorting history to fit a TRA narrative will be deleted. Joan never claimed to be anything but a woman!

Yom Kippur Beach Walk

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This post was originally scheduled for 14 September 2013, as part of the long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop. I wanted to finally move all these old posts out of my drafts folder already!

Like last week’s post, this also obviously comes from an older version of the book formerly known as The Very First. It’s since undergone several more rounds of edits.

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Important Note: Out of reverence for Yom Kippur, this post, like all my other Saturday postings, has been prescheduled.

This scene takes place a bit after the Yom Kippur piece I shared last year. Young Cinni and Sparky are taking a walk on the beach in the late afternoon, and have gotten to talking about Cinni’s feud with her older sister Stacy (Eustacia). Sparky is trying to explain what repentance and forgiveness mean, though Cinni and Stacy will continue not speaking to one another until June 1985, when their near-lifelong silence ends by accident.

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“Real repentance happens between two people.  God doesn’t perform forgiveness on your behalf if you haven’t talked to the other person and apologized.  And you’re not supposed to think about how things might be different or better in another life.  Our focus is on the here and now, on this life.  But the gates of repentance are always open.”

“So you can ask God, or other people, for forgiveness at other times of the year?”

“Of course.  And even though tonight is gonna be the main closing of the gates, they’re still gonna be officially open till Hoshanah Rabah, one of the holidays at the end of Sukkot.  It’s like one last chance to get in any final, missed prayers or apologies.”

“Wow, you people have a lot of holidays I never knew about.  I don’t think even Laura celebrates so damn many.  She says the Catholic Church stopped celebrating all their fast and feast days a long time ago.  At least, normal people stopped celebrating them.  I’m sure religious fanatics still do it.”

Sparky cast her eyes up toward the sky, which was still rather blue and not yet turning into a watercolor of the setting Sun. “I can almost see the gates of heaven up there, even though I know God doesn’t really live up in the sky or even in this world.  It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there and heard it, but when the shofar is blown at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, the final, very long note, I can feel time and the world standing still, and the gates of heaven opening.  And when the long note is blown again at the end of Yom Kippur, it’s like I can feel the gates shutting for another year.  But God hears prayers at all times, even if this time of year is the most ideal time to ask for important stuff.”

“Next year at this time, I bet you’ll be a proper American girl and not so focused on old world stuff.  I mean, you can still be religious, but I hope it won’t be the main thing about you.  Laura lives in the real world while still doing her Catholic thing.”

Sparky looked down at her skirt, which covered her knees, and her sleeves, which covered her elbows. “I guess I still don’t look exactly American.  Even if I’m not Orthodox, I still was taught I have to dress modestly.  But when I’m at school or with you and your friends, I do feel kinda outta place.  The only other girl we know who dresses like me is Nancy, but you said she ain’t really your official friend.”

“You’ve got a leg up on Nan, ‘cause at least you show way more skin and don’t think it’s a sin to even look at a boy.  But your hair’s slowly starting to grow outta that awful haircut your mom forced on you, and the poodle curls are gone.  I think you’re more scared than you oughta be of showing off extra bare skin.  Once you start wearing more normal clothes, it’ll become like second nature, and you won’t be able to believe you useta shun them.”

“Can we talk more about this tomorrow?  Even if I’m not old enough to fast or do other grownup stuff, I don’t feel right talking about stuff like clothes and hair on Yom Kippur.”

Cinni dug her sandaled foot into a patch of wet sand. “If you insist.  I ain’t some twit like Al, who only likes to talk about stuff like that, even if I ain’t the opposite extreme like Nan or Adeline.  Speaking of, I’ve long been itching to get my hands on botha them to try to make ‘em over.  Perhaps they’ll be inspired once they see how I’ve successfully made you over.  Even unpopular girls can’t be that immune to wanting to look normal as they get older.  If they want boys to notice ‘em when we’re old enough, they’ve gotta start dressing the part and talking about normal stuff.”

Sparky looked up at the seagulls flying overhead as she and Cinni continued on down the beach.  If only she could be as carefree as the seagulls, and not worrying about heavy things like repentance and how to become a real American girl before she was even bat mitzvah.

A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

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I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.