Happy Yom Kippur
Hey. Have you read the new Jonathan Safran Foer book Here I am? Is it good? Should I read it?
The novel came out last month so it is still only in hardcover which even at 20 percent off at Barnes and Noble, surpasses what I will spend on books vs grapefruits, as well as beyond the weight I wish to carry in my already heavy (with grapefruit) backpack. I have read the author’s two previous novels in high school and liked them. Foer’s first book, Everything is Illuminated I preferred over his second book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close until I re- read both of them in college and, for whatever reason, I don’t know why, maybe it was just the kind of mood I was in, I changed my mind.
I like the kinds of characters and the scenes Foer depicts in his novels. A Jewish dude himself, and someone who looks like what I can only imagine all of the boys at my hebrew school (Talkin’ bout you, Shlomo! Call me! I’m single!) blossomed into. In many ways, Foer’s writing seems to be influenced by the same Jewish stories and tradition and guilt that I was raised with. Reading Foer has a magical quality. Like lovingly peeling back recollections of family gatherings to find something glowing, yet troubling, just underneath the linen that covers the challah bread.
From the book’s book jacket that I read in Barnes and Noble that day, I learned that Foer’s newest novel is based on a well known story that gets told around the High Holidays: The Binding of Isaac. This is a story I remember from my hippie synagogue and Jewish day school days. It is a story that I remember, from the back of the rented out church where high holidays were held, and also at the center table in a chemistry class where us seventh graders met for judaic studies one time because Brandeis’ prayer room was being remodeled, reading and thinking: this story totally fucked.
Yes. Okay. There are a lot of FUCKED stories in the Torah*, but this story may be the kosher creme de la kosher creme:
“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you.”
Right away: Fucked. So. Fucked. God, the supreme being dude or lady dude or whatever, asks for a man to COMMIT STRAIGHT UP MURDER on his OWN DANG CHILD to prove his faith. This is bananas, y’all! Especially considering how later (spoiler alert!!!) God will literally carve a rule into stone that says: DON’T Kill People. Also guess what the moral of this story is going to be? (spoiler alert!!! again!!) It’s not: “And that’s why the Hebrews decided to abandon this maniac, and become the pagans they were always meant to be, THEEEEE END.” This story is in Genesis y’all! Anyone who knows narrative structure knows God is probably going to continue to play a huge role in the rest of it. This is just the beginning of a long tenure with this serial killer/commander in chief! How unfortunate. Not to mention this story begins with a fucked side note when God asks Abraham to pick his favorite child. This is just fucked on a basic parenting level. BIG no-no to openly pick your favorite kid.
The fuckery continues:
“So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.”
We see that God isn’t the only psychopath in this Parsha** Abraham doesn’t even question this task he is given. There is no deliberation. There is no hesitation. There is no: “I’m gonna clarify…you want me to do what?” Nope, it’s pure ass saddling and altar building.
“Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me. When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.”
For whatever reason, I don’t know why, maybe it was just the kind of mood they were in: God changes his mind?!?! WHO DOES THAT!? and worst of all the ol’ sky beard couldn’t even be the one to fucking say: “Nevermind” or “Punk’d!” God has to send an angel to bear the message of his sick n twisted flip flop. Don’t know about you, but to me, this implies that homie knew the request they make of Abraham was insane from the get go.
The fucked icing on the fucked honey cake in all of this, is that while one would think that undoubtedly this chilling tale would be told at Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday that between the two high holidays, what with its fasting and looooooong services, is arguably the bleaker and darker of the two, but this logic turns out to be false. This story, is told at none other than ROSH HASHANAH. The other one! The fun one! The one where you sing that happy, upbeat song that’s like “Apples, Chopped and Spiced. Apples Very Nice!” and you kiss people and eat circular cinnamon raisin bread:Have a sweet new year, here’s a story about filicide.
What The Binding of Isaac suggests about what a god or a person in power will and can ask you to do is like the hebrew school boys, who drank bottles of manischewitz at the Oneg*** on the synagogue porch despite being too skinny, dumb and scrawny to hold their alcohol (Talking bout you, Shlomo Rosenburg! I’m so very, very single!), extremely problematic.
Obviously, I am woke and metropolitan enough to not take the bible as literal fact. Did the Binding of Isaac actually happen? Idk!!!! Probz not! What does happen though all the time are the real life people who go on power trips, asking people they perceive to be beneath them to make sacrifices. These “harmless” megalomaniacs do this without making room for questions, they expect the so called weak to just saddle up their asses and follow through.
The man in the new gold watch and flannel told me he grew up in a Christian household. Mom, Dad, Brother…everything. We were drinking at the bar, so he was telling me more than he usually would and I was asking more questions then I usually would. The man in the new gold watch and flannel said that when he was in high school he went on a mission trip in South America.
“I was very, very Christian.”
On the mission trip, they were supposed to try to convert indigenous people living in remote parts of their countries. Convert them, not in the same way they did in like smallpox blankets times, a little more subtly, he and I both agree: how subtle can you be while telling people to accept a faith that isn’t theirs.
“And then there was a bus crash.”
A freak accident. The bus was this local bus in this indigenous town. A lot of the kids in the school where the man in the gold watch and flannel taught during the mission trip were on that bus. It was horrible. And sad. So the man in the new gold watch and flannel looked towards the leaders of the trip, for comfort,but the leaders of the trip just said:
“Hey Man, this is a good thing. It will have the rest of the community who was on the fence about converting, convert.
Come towards that sweet, sweet jesus light. You know, for comfort.
This tragedy for them is a good thing. For us.
And the man un-butt0ned a button of his flannel and looked at the very new gold watch, he said:
“That’s when I stopped being very Christian.”
There are the people who follow authority because the path to Moriah is already laid out for them by someone in charge, it is easier than making a change of course. They are not that brave. Then there are the people who chose to courageously commit to being wholly in charge of their own. They are brave. Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem., The republicans who crossed over party lines. Teachers going on strike. Queers coming out and loving who they want to love in rural Nebraska. These are the modern day Abrahams who say: “Here I am! And the ‘here’ is maybe not where you want it to be!” Because there is honor where there is fear and there is fear in the refusal. Disobeying, breaking the rule, that is mostly the terrifying thing. And so, at the bar, when I look up from my drink and say: “That must have been so scary,” to the man in the flannel and new gold watch, I am talking about the kind of scary that is being faced with the knowledge that in giving up his faith, a big part of what he was raised by, to some degree he gives up a close relationship to his own family and own community.
The point of the Abraham and Isaac story, at least as it was told to me, is that Abraham did something really, really hard and so he’s a super, super good person for doing that. While I believe that we should, by all means strive to do the hard stuff, I do not believe we should do hard stuff for no other reason then the fact that it is hard. I mean, I may not be the most unbiased source for this: I won’t buy a book cause it’s too heavy, but look at the people who are working to find a cure for cancer: I am pretty sure they do this because it’s cancer, not because of the many hours and resources and “oh man this is hard” comments and brain space they have to use while doing it. If this story is going to be a story about a man who does something hard, well, why couldn’t it have been about a man that changes course in the face of what was expected? What if Abraham refuses to pick favorites, and refuses to bring a son up the mountain to bind and then kill him? Heck, what if he was even like, I am not gonna kill this random, innocent GOAT either! Show me the hero who, when given a path to follow that he finds morally compromising and problematic, summons the bravery and the strength needed to be like: WHAT YOU ARE ASKING ME TO DO IS FUCKED. Can’t a hero be a hero for leaving and walking away?
And was it a joke from God all along? Glad you asked, Jewish frat bro. Maybe it was! But also WHO GIVES A RIP! This week the carrot face wearing a head murkin who is running for president attempted to reduce sexual assault to “locker room talk”, or “boys being boys.” Currently in this country, so-called jokes and teasing play a huge role as a way to show dominance or control. I have a friend who recently told me she has a hard time figuring out how to show love because the people in her family showed their love by teasing. Was this how God was showing love? My friend says she is starting to learn that this is not how EVERYONE communicates their affection and personally, teasing or erratically changing one’s mind is not how I want people in charge to behave.
So. If a God is asking you to do wicked things. Stop following that god. I do recognize not everyone has the privilege of chewing out their boss, quitting their jobs, leaving their partner or religion or community or basketball team or sewing circle or whatever is making insane requests of them . Still, if we are not able to be Abrahams, let us try to be “Little Abes.” I hope that we find out the small ways to stand up for ourselves.
I want people to feel empowered to choose the scary thing as long as the scary thing isn’t hurting anyone else. I want people to turn away, walk away, or run away when it’s necessary and to not follow authority when the authority is arbitrary. I want people to ask for help and I want people to say when teasing becomes too much. I want the teasers and those in control to apologize, check in and maybe find another way of showing their love.
Little Abes: I want you to know there isn’t weakness, but power, great power in saying: Yo! I hear you, I see you, but I disagree and I won’t.
I want people to have a good new year and I want to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book “Here I am” when it’s in paperback and at my local library.
AND NOW A GLOSSARY FOR MY GENTILE FRIENDS or JEWS WHO WERE KICKED IN THE FACE BY A GIRAFFE AND GOT AMNESIA/ JEWS WHO GREW UP BELIEVING IN SANTA:
*Torah: The old testament. Written on a giant huge scroll made from like a cows belly or something. Kept in a wooden arc and read at an altar. Heavy as fuck. Do not drop it.
**Parsha: That’s the name of the section of the Torah read at services. There are different Parshas that correspond to each week of the year. Used in a sentence: “The Parsha I read at my bat mitzvah was about the proper way to cut a cows belly.”
***Oneg: A whitefish and glutten based brunch that happens after a religious service. Usually in a temple lobby.