Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's Going To Be A Long Summer



Monday, April 21, 2008

Mitzvah In Manhattan! Or: It! The Torah From Beyond Space!

Tefillin are two small black boxes with black straps attached to them; Jewish men are required to place one box on their head and tie the other one on their arm each weekday morning.
- Jewish Literacy
, Joseph Telushkin

I’m dancing in a circle singing Mazel Tov while holding hands with two strange Hasidic men (strange as in I’ve only just met them) on a Manhattan street corner, just a block or so away from Radio City Music Hall.

I don’t seek these non sequiturs in my life out, you understand. Somehow they seem to come looking for me, as if to say “Please stop complaining about how boring your life is. When it gets boring, you’ll know it.”

The wife and I had braved the streets of New York so that we might attend a taping of Elvis Costello’s new talk show, Spectacle (he wears glasses, geddit?). Coming to a Sundance cable channel near you this fall, we’d been promised that the interviewee would be none other than the King of New York, Lou Reed, a combination that threatened to send the wife’s head spinning off her shoulders like a Frisbee.

The text that is inserted inside the two boxes of Tefillin (are)… the words of the Torah on a scroll, hand-written by a scribe (and) placed directly between one's eyes and on one's arm. Tefillin are wrapped around the arm seven times, and the straps on the head are adjusted so they fit snugly.

We went from the Port Authority to Times Square, hobbling our way up the street as we’re both suffering from leg problems at the moment. I was keeping one eye peeled for this parody of The Wall Street Journal that poked fun at how it would look now that Rupert Murdoch had gotten hold of it. So far, no luck.

As we crossed the most famous intersection in the world, I noticed this RV or bus type thing that was driving past, emblazoned with the words Mitzvah Tank.

“What is that, do you suppose?” I asked the wife.

“Oh, I read about them,” she replied. “Something to do with the Lubavitchers celebrating the 106th birthday of the Rebbe. They’ve got 58 of these Mitzvah Tanks out there to mark each year of his leadership.”

“Really?” I said. “But what do they actually do?”

One Jewish group, the Lubavitcher Hasidim, have made a particular effort to promote the mitzvah of Tefillin among Jewish males. They often set up vans, known as Mitzvah Mobiles, in neighborhoods frequented by Jews, and ask men who pass by: "Are you Jewish?"

We’d gone just about another block when a small boy in Hasidic garb came up to me and asked me “Are you Jewish?”

I replied, “Yes, yes I am.”

He then handed me a pamphlet that loudly proclaimed Passover! on its cover and explained at the bottom, Courtesy of Mitzvah Tank Int.

Flipping to the back, I read that they were indeed celebrating the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by bringing “a Mitzvah on the spot for people on the go.” That certainly sounded convenient, and time-saving, too.

Underneath the headline Do we truly matter? I read

The Rebbe would often point out: The very fact that you are here, in this place, at this time…means there is something to be done

A comforting thought, especially for someone who frequently questioned his cosmic usefulness.

something that only you can do

Even better.

something of utmost importance to G-d.

Now I’m starting to feel a little stressed, especially as I’ve now noticed the two Orthodox gentlemen on the next corner who seem to have taken an interest in us.

...bring G-d’s presence into your corner of the universe.

I had the feeling that I was about to receive a lot of help in this department.

Next: Sh'ma, He's Making Eyes At Me!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Le Peep, C'est Sheep! or: Who's The Boss?

On the subject of M. Le Peep, I can only imagine what the reactions of those ears in the immediate vicinity were to some of our overdone felicitations.

For example, a typical morning would usually start in this fashion:

Le Peep: “Good morning, Chief! How is the Chief?”

Me: “No, no, I’m not the Chief. I think we know who the Chief is here.”

“No, you are the boss! Everyone knows it! I am merely here to be instructed by you, to learn what I can from the Chief!”

“No, sir, no. It is not I who am the Chief. You, sir, you – are the Chief. The other day when you were out – I had people coming over all day hoping to speak with you and you should have seen their faces when they realized I was not the Chief. The pitiful expressions on their faces as this realization began to sink in were heartbreaking to behold.”

“That is only because they were far too much in awe of the real Chief to let you know that they were only using me as an excuse to get to you! Too afraid to address you by name, they created this subterfuge of wishing to speak to me – thereby allowing them to bask in the presence of the real, true Chief without appearing to be the sad and subservient creatures that they are!”

“That is what they are hoping you believe! They are hoping you believe that their show of obeisance to you is actually camouflaged and hidden devotion to me, thereby throwing you off the scent and disguising the truth of the matter – namely, that it is you, the one and only true Chief by both bloodline and public acclamation, that is the actual target of their worship and adoration.”

“Only the true Chief would allow himself to be misled by his own innate and infinite modesty in such a way. By refusing the mantle of the Chief, you only prove yourself to be the Chief all the more, in an even more fierce and committed fashion. Again, this is evidence that a man is gracious, if he can look upon the life of another and claim it is better than his own. Many men see grace in other men, but with a maligning eye. They see it to disgrace it. They are so vainglorious and ambitious, that when they see the lives of other men outshew theirs, instead of imitation, they go to base courses. They obscure and darken that light with slanders, that they will not imitate in their courses. What grace they will not imitate they will defame. Does it not say in 1 Peter 5:4, ‘And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away’? You, sir, and I can not stress this strongly enough, are that Chief.”

“I confess, you flatter me, sir, with such a description. I am not, however, this Chief that you believe me to be. The sort of men you describe swagger in the world, as if they were upon their own dunghill there, and as if they were the only men in the world, as indeed for the most part they are. What we love, that we are knit unto. Now because carnal men are in love with the things of the world, being united in their affections to it, they have their name from that they love. And indeed, anatomise a carnal man that is not in the state of grace, rip him up in his soul, what shall you find in him but the world? You shall find in his brain worldly plots, worldly policy and vanity. You shall find the best thing in him is the world; therefore he is the world.”

We could go on like this for hours. After a while it would start to sound like a Chip and Dale cartoon written by Richard Sheridan.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Strange Case Of Monsieur Le Peep

One of the things that can make the workday bearable is having a co-worker around that you know is just as fed up with the place as you are.

With my most recent job, I got lucky in this by being assigned to assist Monsieur Le Peep, a strange, talkative gentleman who hailed from Peeperia and whose country was only now beginning to heal from the ravages of a painful civil war.

A naturally enthusiastic person who engaged anyone who passed by in conversation, Monsieur Le Peep liked nothing better than to debate. He would always do this with extreme delicacy, though, prefacing any statement that he thought capable of giving even unintentional offence with an apology, which I really wasn’t used to.

Having lived through a savage era in his country’s history during which unspeakable atrocities were commonplace, he tended to be more conservative than I when it came to subjects like the death penalty or criminals who’d plead insanity, and he enjoyed nothing more than teasing me about my liberal opinions.

“Your excellency,” he would say by way of greeting in the morning. This mock humility was a running gag of Le Peep’s, sort of his version of “No, you the man!” If anyone asked him how he was doing, the answer would invariably come back, “Just tryin’ to be like you, man!” in his distinctive Peeperian accent, “Just tryin’ to be like you!”

But there was no one quite like Le Peep. In some ways, it was a little like sitting next to 9/11.

By which I mean he was able (and eager) to give me an idea of how America was seen from outside its borders. He’d talk about the disappointment other countries felt over America’s lack of moral leadership, something they always felt they could depend on. He’d discuss how he thought American parents were far too lenient and that this lack of discipline was the cause of much of our current trouble. He’d insist that mental illness was purely cowardice practiced by those individuals who were too lazy to come to grips with their lives.

Needless to say, we had some lively chats.

“In my country, we didn’t have time for depression or suicide because we were too busy trying to survive,” he’d say. “These were luxuries we couldn’t afford.” Indeed, you could imagine Le Peep triumphing over any obstacle with good humor as a result of having been forged in that crucible. That was the thing about him. If you lifted your head high enough above the cubicle horizon to survey the landscape, it would mostly seem to consist of a mix of the lost and the soul-dead, gazing silently at their well-named “terminals.”

But there in the middle of it, like a shoot of grass making its way through concrete, was Le Peep, moving, talking and always smiling. If I had lived his life I doubt I’d ever talk to anyone, but here he was smiling almost constantly and being consistently positive about practically everything.

Maybe, I figured, it was because he had a truer sense of the value of life than most of us did, having seen what he’d seen.

The other peculiar thing was that he spoke the best and most proper English in the place, albeit in a sometimes difficult-to-decipher accent. I was so used to hearing language being debased and simplified that I was a little shocked at first, not to mention that it appeared that the most well-spoken person in the room was someone who’d spent most of his life in another country.

I remember once saying something to him about “a light in the darkness” and without looking up he said “Lux in tenebras.” Let me assure you that he was the only person in this establishment that I ever heard breathe even a hint of Latin.

It turned out that Lux in tenebras was actually the official motto of Peeperia University, which seemed appropriate considering the ludicrousness of attempting to educate yourself under these kinds of circumstances.

It also described Le Peep himself, a seemingly inexhaustible warehouse of decorum, knowledge, and humor.

When we weren’t at loggerheads over the penal system, Le Peep would sometimes share stories from his native land with me. These were allegories that usually featured various wild animals arguing with each other over some fine philosophical point. Similarly, he would sometimes respond to my opinions by bringing up a popular expression he’d grown up with that I’d never heard before.

I remember him once saying to me, “Well, Screwloose, it’s like we say back in my country.”


“You can’t fight an old lady with a big penis.”

Doubtless this was true (or, certainly, should have been), but I never managed to figure that one out.

Better off, I expect.

Next: Le Peep, C'est Sheep! or: Who's The Boss?