Reading Love Nailed to the Doorpost

If you want to be submerged in the depths of Jewish spirituality, this is the book to read: Love Nailed to the Doorpost, by Richard Chess.

No, not “read”: at least not “read” in the way you would read an email or a newspaper or a novel. The poems and prose-poems collected in this book draw you beneath reading to a meditation, a pause, a reflection, another pause….

And not really “Jewish spirituality”: for Chess’s spirituality, while deeply Jewish, is more deeply his own particular living of Judaism.

Take “Mezuzah,” the poem in which the book’s title appears. It looks deceptively straightforward on the page. But starting right from the epigraphs, we have to be engaged.

From Emily Dickinson we’re given “Tell all the truth but—”; followed by Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love…” In both cases we’re expected to fill in the blanks ourselves. We know that “tell it slant” completes the Dickinson line. And we know that Deuteronomy 6:5 continues with “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).

But if we read further in the Deuteronomy passage we come to God’s command to “Keep these words in your heart…and write them on the doorposts of your house” (6:6-9).

This is the commandment for the mezuzah that’s nailed slant on the doorpost of every Jewish home. Chess’s poem then follows: [Read more…]

On the 50th Anniversary of the Six-Day War

What I didn’t know in June of 1967 was that this month and year for Jews around the world was the moment of great triumph, the moment of saying to Hitler and his legions, you lose, you lose, you lose. Pride moved like a fever throughout Kingston Estates Swim Club, from the Jewish mother with her iced tea to the Jewish mother seated with mahjong tiles spread out before her, from the Jewish father at the plate to the Jewish father in right field, the perfect arc of the deep fly about to deposit the softball right into the pocket of his gloved hand.

I was thirteen. It was my mother at the mahjong table, my father at bat. It was my summer, my swim club, where my game was tetherball and I drank vanilla milkshakes half-listening to the announcements on the loudspeaker while proudly wearing my green, deep-end band around my wrist. I was a suburban kid, a middle-class assimilated Reform Jew—Israel was a smudge at the edge of my map of interests, concerns.

My eye was set on Robin. She was my promised land. She was the country in which I would prove to the world, the kids on the block, that I wasn’t a Jew; I was a man.

As I write this, it’s coming on June of 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of my ignorance—let’s say my ignorance of Jewish history through which I drifted until, in July 1976, I landed in Tel Aviv, and found myself already written into a book, thousands of pages of which had already been completed, a few of which had hints of me but without naming me or situating me in a trap that I would either need to escape, proving how clever I was, or a trap that I would need to transform into a home, my home among my people.

Among my people, I am one who didn’t fight in the Six-Day War, but was called to Jerusalem nine years later, to the romance of Jerusalem, the freedom of a young American Jew who hadn’t suffered a pain any greater than the heartache of several failed love affairs—if that’s the right way to characterize a girlfriend here and a girlfriend there, the explosions of young bodies in public parks and VW Bugs and creepy motel beds.

But that’s a story for another time. [Read more…]

When Art Disrupts Religion: An Interview with Philip Salim Francis

Headshot of Philip Salim Francis. He is situated in the left hand quadrant of the frame, wearing a dark blazer and a white shirt with a black tie. He is in front of a door with white paneling. His hair is slightly curled on top and he has a bemused expression on his face. Just released by Oxford University Press, When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind has received praise from such leading scholars as David Morgan and Randall Balmer. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed the author, Philip Salim Francis.

Image: Your book has the provocative title When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. In a few words, what’s the thesis of the book?

Philip Salim Francis: I’m trying to make the case that the arts have the ability to unsettle and rework deeply ingrained religious beliefs and practices—perhaps like nothing else can. Modern aesthetic theory, as you know, is obsessed with the “disruptive capacities” of aesthetic experience. I wanted to test the limits of these claims through ethnographic study: could art disrupt and reconfigure the religious identity of even a people who had been steeped—for a lifetime—in the more conservative strains of twentieth century American evangelicalism? And if so, how would that all play out on the ground? [Read more…]

I Am an American

Shot of three buildings taken looking upward. Behind them, you can see the blue sky with a few clouds. The building in the forefront is to the left of the screen, tan, and has large windows. On a pole strung from the side is an American flag. The flag hangs limply. To the right of the frame, a tall metallic looking building with cross-cross panels of light and dark fills the sky. Behind the flag, in the background, is a tiered building that has a turret and tower at the top.I refresh the page, I refresh the page, I turn away for a few minutes, I teach a class for seventy-five minutes, I sit in a meeting for sixty minutes, and on the way to the meeting, on the way back to my office from the class, with my iPhone in my palm, at the computer on my desk, I refresh the page, I refresh the page, looking for the latest news, hopping over to Facebook for reactions to the morning’s tweets, back to the Times for an update on the latest leak and his response to the leak, looking for the next lie, on alert for the latest outrageously offensive remark.

These are my days now, my nights.

Work is an interruption. A chat with a friend is a partial interruption—for it’s impossible to get through even a short chat without a sigh, without alarm, without reference to what he’s doing and who he’s doing it to now. Picking up my prescription, reading what I’ve assigned my class (Joy Harjo! The Buddha’s Brain!), FaceTime with my grandson—these are interruptions, distractions.

I am a citizen now. I turn my attention back to the news.

What am I doing? What am I doing with you, news, what are you doing with me, news, not the full range of news:  Travel, Arts & Leisure, Sunday Styles, but the single-pointed concentration on news and opinion pieces on that man? [Read more…]

The Power of Names

tombstones public domain by Benjamin Balazs on flickrA few weeks back, the news related a story that a confederate veteran killed at Shiloh and buried under the wrong name for one hundred fifty-four years will now have that mistake rectified.

Augustus Beckmann was buried under the name “A. Bergman” at Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. The descendants of the German immigrant, who fought in the Texas infantry, discovered the mistake while on a visit to the memorial grounds. Thanks to a refreshingly un-bureaucratic government response, a new stone with the correct name will be put in place. It should only take sixty days to fix an error that has lasted a century and a half.

“But why all the bother?” some might ask, for a man who even the descendants knew little of (except for the touching tale that Augustus’s brother fought alongside him at Shiloh and never learned the fate of his sibling). And it’s only a few letters, too: it should be a c instead of an r, and add another n at the end. Close enough, it could be argued, considering how little it all matters now.

And yet, it does matter; supremely. It matters so much that it makes my skin crawl to think of it. I want a follow-up story when the new stone is put in place and a picture of the corrected name on the discreet little white slab, confirming the matter. [Read more…]