Thursday, September 8, 2011

There are no brains in America, and the streets are paved with dumb

The Reisa Crew are finally in America, so now it's time to encounter some of that old-timey opportunity we've been waiting for. Jacob goes off to find the synagogue to see if he can find some work teaching Hebrew. Dov lands a gig almost immediately unloading boxes at the docks, and Petya finds work with a tailor. So far, so good.

Reisa and Petya walk around, gaping at New York.
It was not a clean place, she saw at once. There were dark hallways and filthy cellars, all crowded with dirty children. They clustered on stoops and fire escapes and in wash-hung courts, and in the trash-laden alleys they played their little games with balls and sticks.
Is Reisa OCD? Did she and her friends used to spend their free time sweeping the mud road in the shtetl? Come on, she should be used to some grime here and there. Incidentally, if she's never been to a city, how does she know what a fire escape is?

Reisa and Petya pass peddlers selling, well, everything.
'They sell almost everything out here on the street, don't they, Petya?" 
"Almost, it seems. I don't see how they all make a living. Some of the stuff is so cheap." He pointed out that bandannas and tin cups sold for two cents and peaches a cent a quart and damaged eggs for practically nothing.
Ok, he's literally been in the country for a day and a half. How on earth does he know how much a cent is worth? Even better, is he reverse-translating back into kopecks? Also, why are people selling bandannas? Are Gypsy fashion trends sweeping the town? Is there an anachronistic gang-banger convention going on?

Back at the Golds, Jacob comes home glum. It turns out Jews already know how to read Hebrew. Darn!

After dinner, Gold Jr. teaches Reisa some more English, then gives her some advice:
"You're very quick, Reisa." Joseph nodded. "You must learn how to speak well and to write well. This is not Russia. We must put all that behind us." 
"Must I?" Reisa said wistfully. "I have good memories of my home there. It was hard, but I miss it already."
Really? Because most of chapter 1 consisted of you nursing a one-eyed goose, taking a bath in excruciating (and creepy) detail, affectionately calling your cat a mamzer, which, we were informed, meant "trickster" (um, no), spending most of a page staring at a guy hanging from a gibbet while musing on "the gruesome symbol of rough justice," and reminiscing about the time looking at maps made you feel depressed because you knew you'd never leave your village so you stopped looking at maps. There was almost no description of your home or village. Even the narrator thinks it sucks: never occurred to her to think what a pitiful sort of village it was, for it was all she had ever known of the world.
And that was all BEFORE the Cossacks ran through town killing and raping everyone. So, yeah, you may say you really like Russia, but I have one suggestion for Morris: Show, don't tell, stupid.

As in the previous chapter, Reisa uses the Gospel of John as a sleeping aid, after first marveling over an add for P.T. Barnum's circus in the newspaper.
The section she read told the story of the prophet Jesus who met a woman at a well. This fascinated Reisa, for she well knew that women in biblical times had almost no honor or position. No man would speak to a woman in the open, so as she read that Jesus spoke to one, she became engrossed.
Ok, let's take this one at a time:

A- How is she defining "biblical times?" The Tanakh spans from the start of Jewish time to events occurring around 450-400 BCE (books of Malachi and Esther). So that's already a good 3300 years. Then there's another 400-plus years to get to Jesus. Don't you think 400 years is a pretty big freaking lacuna to traipse over as a way of suggesting that this girl considers the New Testament "biblical?" If "biblical" as a term applies to over 4000 years of history then it ceases to have much of any useful meaning at all, doesn't it?

B- This girl is simultaneously the most and least well-read Jew I've ever met. How is it that she's been studying Kabbalah, Talmud and messianic prophesies and yet has never bothered to crack open a bible? She's never heard of Eliezer chatting up Rebeccah, Eli chastising Chana at Shiloh, Deborah giving orders to Barak, or Naomi and Ruth working their independent women shtick via the rather clueless Boaz? Oh right, she hasn't because Morris hasn't. Keep forgetting that little detail.

Also, women had no honor or position? That must be why the Talmud talks about the seven prophetesses and why Judaism praises the four matriarchs, even to the point of turning some of them into quasi-pagan fertility goddesses. I like that you don't let research muck up your creative juices, Morris.
She followed the story, amazed that Jesus knew about the woman's life without ever having met her!
This is hilarious given that a minute ago she was just as enthralled by the prospect of going to Barnum's greatest show on earth. Something tells me that if she ever sees a mentalist perform, her head will explode.
Finally she reached the parts that said, "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews." This thrilled her and surprised her, for she had not known that Christians thought this way. Of course, she knew that Jesus himself was a Jew.
I wonder how widespread this view actually was among the rank-and-file Jews 100-plus years ago. I know it was common among the educated classes of philosophers and rabbis, but I'm skeptical of how much this actually trickled down to the commoners. Then again, given that Reisa seems to be running for Chief Rabbi of Batshitistan, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at her holding such learned opinions.
Finally her eyes fell on the verse that said, "God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." 
She thought about this verse for a time. God was a spirit. Anything other than this was idolatry. She was pleased with this thought.
Right, so then how do you square this with viewing God as a spirit and a man? Hello?
Reisa's eyes fell on the next verse, which hit her with more force than she had dreamed. "Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he." 
No! It can't be true! Jesus cannot be the Messiah. He died!
Um, why is her entire faith (and reason) being shaken by these random quotes? It's not like Jesus is doing anything or proving anything noteworthy here. Essentially her interaction with the book is: "I am totally God." My God, he's totally God! It sure is lucky no one gave you a copy of the Satanic Bible or the Book of Mormon. Or say, Mother Goose. Next you'd be raving about flying cows and anthropomorphic silverware.

I can't decide if the reason Morris isn't trying very hard to make his case means he thinks Christianity's positions are just that obvious, or whether he thinks these are actually some kick-ass arguments for the faith.

Next time: Reisa becomes a working girl.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

We're back. *Tear*

I thought I had moved on, but the siren call of Gilbert Morris' Jacob's Way keeps calling me back. Our brave author, refusing to be cowed by details like historical facts, authenticity, or plot, needs to have his hard work acknowledged by at least one Jew out in the wide world of Jewdom. So here we go: Chapter Five- the Lower East Side.

Reisa and Jacob are waiting to get off the boat. As they say goodbye to their fellow nautical prisoners from the last few weeks, Reisa tells some of the nice Russian Gentiles to look her up "in the Jewish part of New York." Maybe this is supposed to be humor from Morris? Who knows.

On their way off, the leader of the Russian prayer circle comes over for a chat.
He hesitated for only a moment and then nodded as if coming to some sort of agreement with himself. "God spoke to my heart last night and told me to do something."
Which other organs of yours does God speak to?
A little disconcerted by this, Reisa blinked. She was not accustomed to meeting people who heard directly from God.
Reaction 1: Yes, as Reisa is not accustomed to meeting crazy people.

Reaction 2: So is this like a "Christians speak to God but Jews are too far from the Lord to hear him" kind of thing?

Anyway, Russian clergy guy gives her a copy of the Gospel of John, and as usual, Morris never bothers to tell us what language anything is in.

Reisa, Jacob, Petya and Dov leave the ship and immediately discover that, to their total surprise, America is full of people. Including people not like them!
There were Greeks, Albanians, Germans, Englishmen, some wearing costumes such as none of the small party had ever seen before.
My God, not Englishmen! They're the most exotic of all!

Jacob worries that they won't be able to find the hilariously named Laban Gold, their contact and host in New York. Reisa has an idea:
"Perhaps we can find a policeman," Reisa said timidly.
"I don't much trust soldiers," Petya said. "They haven't been kind to us at home."
"This is America," Reisa said quickly. "The police and the soldiers here will be good."
This coming from the lady who just lived through a pogrom and near-rape? Sorry Morris, I just don't buy it. Maybe if she had spent her life living in the fun La-La land of Little House on the Prarie, her naiveté and optimism would make sense here. But the lady saw her friend get slaughtered in front of her and witnessed most of the village getting massacred. At best, she's got some heavy PTSD issues to work through. Add the fact that she's been tossed into a series of totally unfamiliar situations and is now completely out of her element in a foreign country where, by all rights, she should be next to incapable of speaking the language, and this "There are no Cats in America" mentality seems ridiculous.

Anyway, they all make it through the Castle Garden inspections and promptly get lost in the Manhattan streets. Luckily they run into a Hasidic Jew (really? In 1871?) and Jacob strikes up a conversation with him:
He moved forward and said in Hebrew, "Greetings, sir."
Ok, fine. So maybe he said Shalom Aleichem or something. Sure.

The guy takes them to the Lower East Side and leaves them to find Laban Gold. Petya goes off to try to find him. The other three decide they're hungry.
The three made their way the cafe. When they looked up at the sign which was in Yiddish, Reisa said with delight, "Good. They speak Yiddish."
"Indeed. I think most people do in this place. Haven't you heard the people as they pass?" Jacob said.
This suggests that the conversation Jacob just had with Mr. Hasid took place entirely in Hebrew. Oy.

In keeping with Morris' terrible naming streak, the owner of the cafe is named Micah Pankoff. Sure, why not. As long as we're culling the Bible for random character names, maybe he can have some kids named Nimrod or Ahijah.

They eat their meal and it turns out that Micah is good chums with Laban Gold (maybe they run a support group for Jews with silly anachronistic names). As the party leaves, they have a parting chat.
"I will see you on the Sabbath day." Micah said.
"Yes. God be thanked. We will be there." Jacob replied.
Why does Morris think Jews talk like the Amish? Why is their dialogue so stilted if they're speaking their native language?

They find Casa de Gold, but say they have no money to pay rent. Luckily, Laban Gold is a charitable fellow:
Gold threw up his hands in a gesture of disain. "We will work it out. We must stick together, we Russians."
Yes, because if there's anything the immigrant Jewish experience taught us, it's that when push comes to shove, common Russian nationality is what keeps people together.

The Golds invite them all to have dinner (which is weird because they just had lunch, but whatever). Jacob, in keeping with saying random things out of nowhere, decides to compliment their hostess.
"I am a little tired. It was a wonderful meal. Absolutely kosher and delicious, Mrs. Gold."
Yeah, I know whenever I have Shabbos dinner with someone, the first thing I always say at the end is, "Hey, this was really kosher. Good job! You've come a long way since that pork chop incident."

Reisa goes to bed and reads the Gospel of John the Russian preacher gave her:
Opening it, she saw that it was in English, which pleased her.

1- She already opened the book at the beginning of the chapter. Morris wrote,
It was a small, thin book, and when she opened the first page, she read the title The Gospel of John, It meant nothing to her, but she turned a few pages rapidly and saw the name of God mentioned many times.
Ok, if she flipped through the book and saw that the name of God was in there, and if the title was Gospel of John in English, then she already knew the book was in English! (Which would also mean, I suppose, that the "name of God" she saw was "God.") This was only ten pages ago; is Reisa just so damn fluent in her two-dozen languages that she forgot what language she was reading?

2- Why is a Russian Protestant who isn't even in America yet reading an English translation of the Gospel of John, much less passing it along to a Jewish girl whose English is even worse than his? I know it's convenient for where Morris is going, but come on! Someone really needs to get on printing some Cyrillic pamphlets or something.

Anyway, Reisa goes to sleep meditating on the line that the Lamb of God will take away the sin of the world. FORESHADOWING!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Are we there yet?

Last time we left Reisa & co they had been on the boat for a while. And yet, here we have a whole other chapter and they still only make it as far as New York Harbor. You'd think this was being serialized in the Forward or something.

Luckily, Reisa has hobbies to pass the time. These include taking English lessons from famed linguist/galley cook Herr Schultz.

Schultz was ordinarily gruff, running the sailors out of his galley with curses, but something about Reisa's appealing manner seemed to melt his crustiness.

A crusty cook, eh? Looks like Reisa was smart to bring her own food.

Reisa isn't Schultz's only student. There's also this Petya guy, also supposedly Jewish. Unfortunately, Petya is more interested in learning how to hit on American girls than useful phrases like "Where's the bathroom?" and "Can I offer you a bribe?" Luckily Herr Schultz is here to keep the lessons on track:

"What about an unmarried man?" Petya demanded. Reisa asked this of Schultz, who grinned.

"In English is bachelor." Then he said, "You need to know the word slob."

"Slob? What means slob?" Reisa asked.

"Someone who ain't got no manners and is rather nasty."

"Oh. Reisa smiled, her eyes laughing. "We have that word. It is zhlob."

What's the Yiddish word for filler? Boring waste of time? No talent hack? We get it, Morris. You found a Yiddish dictionary at a used bookstore. Mazel Tov, get on with it.

Incidentally, apparently Petya is unable to speak with Schultz directly. I guess that means that Schultz and Reisa are speaking Yiddish... or maybe German. Exactly how many languages did Reisa's podunk family manage to teach her?

Also on board are a group of Russian Protestants on their way to start a settlement, who spend their time singing hymns. Though the lyrics are characteristically dour (although the way be cheerless/We will follow calm and fearless), they somehow manage to do this "lustily." A miracle!

Reisa is intrigued because "she understood they were not the Russian Orthodox that she had known in the village..." Ah, I see where we're going here. Jews should accept Christianity because all those jerks back in Russia were Orthodox, not Protestant (perhaps not even "real" Christians?) Brilliant.

The second officer of the ship, "a tall man with piercing blue eyes" named Ellis Carpenter, is standing by watching them too, and chats up Reisa.

"You'll have an easier time than most," he said, nodding at the small group. "I've made this trip twice, and we've put people off who couldn't speak a word of English. I don't see how in the world they make it."

Hmm, a proto-Pat Buchanan?

Reisa spends a lot of time admiring Carpenter's deep blue eyes while hoping a gust of wind won't blow up her skirt or knock her off the ship. He mentions that he hopes they won't sink, since he is not religious and is "in no shape to meet God." That's your only reason, you say?

In the last chapter Reisa and Jacob compared themselves to Abraham being sent on a journey. If that's true I guess this chapter is supposed to be about Noah's Ark because LOOK OUT, a storm! It's bumpy and loud and ever so wet, and the stench below decks is not improved by the addition of vomit. We can tell this storm is bad because Morris says the wind "howled in a fierce incantation of doom," which must have been based off of the one time he accidentally listened to an LP backwards.

The ship takes on water and they need volunteers to pump out the bilge. Dov takes a break from breathing heavily on Reisa's neck to help out. Carpenter is so impressed, he feels a need to remark that Dov reminds him of some sort of animal. Guess which one. No, not muskrat.

"I never saw such a man," Carpenter murmured. "He's strong as a bear!"

"That is what his name means. It is good to have a man like him at a time like this."

Oh Reisa, ever helpful with irrelevant comentary.

The Russian Lutherans decide now is a great time for a prayer meeting. Carpenter gets pissed and tells Reisa to get rid of them, which she does, but not before their singing (which again, they do "lustily") touches her heart.

They're singing lines from Isaiah! And she knows Isaiah! Wait a minute...

She interrogates one of the would-be colonists (because it's not like there's anything pressing going on) about why Christians are singing about the Jewish Messiah.

The speaker examined her face and seemed to find something there that interested him.

"Have you ever considered a career in Christian modeling?"

"Isaiah speaks of the Messiah, and it is the Messiah of God that is in our hearts. It is he who tells us not to be afraid."

"How does he speak to you" Reisa asked in wonder.

"He speaks in his words the Scripture, and in our hearts through the Holy Spirit."

Reisa had no answer for this. It was something far beyond her, and she looked away, somehow troubled by the encounter.

I understand. I get troubled when I talk with crazy people too.

The storm finally ends, and no one's dead. Hooray. Reisa talks with Petya about the Lutherans. But poor Petya must be a descendant of the High Priests or something, because he's not having it.

"They think that Jesus is the Messiah of whom Isaiah spoke."

"They cannot be good people," Petya said firmly.

"Why not?"

"Because it is the goy, the Gentiles, who have slaughtered our people. How could they be good?"

Dude, grammar. Goy is singular. Goyim is plural. We even could have worked with Goys. Lazy!

Reisa kept those things in her heart. She did not have the coyrage to go to the leader of the small group, but she did listen to their singing, which never failed to stir her. They awakened some sort of longing in her, and she realized, being an honest young woman, that she had been terribly afraid during the storm. She had been afraid of death. Time and time again the words of the eader of the Christians came to her. Our people are not afraid to die.

You know who else says that? Terrorists. Not a great role model. Also, I know whenever I get scared I convert to another religion. Well, that and for the mileage points.

Six days after the storm, they arrive in America. Ah, this must be another Biblical reference: six days they floated, and on the seventh... they couldn't get off the boat because it was Shabbos?

Reisa and Jacob stare at the new land from the ship, thanking God for, you know, not drowning them. And, right when I started worrying I wouldn't have anything left to ridicule, Morris came through:

The ship was under full sail...

Sails? No wonder it took them so long to get there!

Next Time: Morris describes the Lower East Side as revealed to him in a dream. Possibly by a retarded angel.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jews on a Boat

Reisa and Jacob are leaving for America. Reisa is sad because they'll never see their dilapidated shack again. They've sold almost all their possessions but luckily managed to get their hands on a pet carrier, since Reisa is adamant about bringing her stupid cat along. Call me a cynic, but I think after a few weeks of being on the road, the cat is going to be hating Reisa's guts. At least Cossacks might feed him.

Before they leave the village forever, Reisa and Jacob make a quick stop at the cemetery to be melodramatic. Again, you can tell lots of research went into this:

Reisa took her grandfather's arm, and the two of them walked to the Jewish graveyard. It was set off from the main part of the cemetery.

First of all, a graveyard and cemetery are the same thing. Second, this is a mighty ecumenical cemetery system going on here. Funny how there aren't separate graveyards like, oh, everywhere else in Jewish Europe.

There were no flowers this time of the year, of course, but in the spring and summer Reisa would bring wildflowers of all kinds to place on the graves of her grandmother and of her parents.

This one is tricky. I have friends who say that they've seen flowers placed at Jewish gravesites. My recollection is that the longstanding Ashkenazi custom was to not have flowers (the reasons given ranging from flowers being seen as something "happy," wanting the burial/grave site to be as simple as possible, to the always reliable "don't act like goyim"), though it should be stressed that this is custom, not law.

In any event I find it very interesting that Reisa doesn't do the one universal custom when visiting a Jewish grave, leaving a stone, preferring instead to reach into her pocket:

Pulling out a small glass jar and the knife that she always carried, she loosened a little of the dirt on [the graves]. Putting it in the jar, she tightened the lid... "When we find our place, Zaideh," she said, her voice strong, "we will put this in it. Now, come, we must go."

What is this, Dracula? And since when does Reisa carry a knife? You know when it would have been a good opportunity to use that thing? When you were running through the woods from bloodthirsty Cossacks. Just saying.

We find out that the Dimitris are headed to Odessa, "over a hundred miles" away. Thanks to the power of maps and basic math, this means that these "Russian" Jews, who supposedly speak "Russian" as their native language are actually living somewhere in South-central Ukraine, or possible Moldova. Both of which have their own languages that aren't aren't Russian. So. Good to know.

Hey, remember when we were wondering why Morris couldn't find any actual Jewish names? Fear not, he finally got one. Jacob and Reisa have been given the name of Reb Chaim Gurion's equally bizarrely named nephew, Laban Gold.

Laban? Really? Don't get me wrong, Morris, I'm glad you keep looking to the Bible for name inspiration, but would it kill you to look past Genesis? I'm sure it's just a matter of time until someone named Lot or Tubal-Cain shows up.

They make it to the port, and brilliantly deduce they must buy tickets.

"Let me ask that officer," Reisa said.

Reisa approached an imposing-looking man in a uniform of some sort. "Please, sir. Where does one buy tickets...?"

The officer looked down at Reisa. He was a handsome man with a sweeping mustche and twinkling black eyes. "Going to America, are you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, the ticket office is right over there. You see that sign?"

"Yes. Thank you very much."

"Good voyage."

Wow, Reisa just met the nicest, least antisemitic Russian policeman in existence. Which is a nice coincidence, given that she is apparently the least intimidated Russian Jew of the century. My ancestors were scared shitless everytime they saw anyone from the government, including policemen, census takers, or mailmen. This girl just survived a pogrom and is seeking out cops. Odd.

Also, what language is this sign in? What languages are Reisa literate in? Are we sure this isn't really Star Trek and everyone's walking around with a Universal Translator in their ear?

Before they set off for the New World, Jacob and Reisa have a brief convo about food.

"We must buy food," Reisa said.

"But food is included," Jacob protested.

"I do not trust them. Come. We will buy things that will not spoil."

Hey, finally some historical accuracy! Not trusting the non-Jewish ship line to provide kosher food. Nice, let's see what they do.

She led him to the stores that lines the waterfront and bought cheese, dried beef, and hard bread that would survive the voyage.

Um, just a guess here, but I'm guessing that beef isn't kosher. Which is funny given that Jacob crapped all over those heretical Reformies a mere chapter ago. Also, what kind of cheese is going to survive three-plus weeks of living in steerage? Cheese with rennet, apparently, also non-kosher. Nice.

They go on the ship. The ship is not fun.

The odors of scattered orange peelings, tobacco, garlic, and even worse blended together to form a horrible stench.

Where did they get oranges? From the famous Odessa groves?

Reisa discovers she has a stalker. He is huge and hairy. She wants to know more about him, so she asks the ship's cook.

...she spoke to the cook, a German named Schultz.

..."Who is that big man with the bushy black beard?"

"Oh, you've seen him? His name is Dov. That means 'bear.'"

Yes, it does. IN HEBREW. Why is Reisa getting schooled in Hebrew from the German cook? AAAGH!

Jacob is nominated to be ship's rabbi so the Jews can "have a service," all of them apparently being unaware that they're supposed to be praying three times a day whether there's a rabbi or not.

The description for the prayer service is particularly bad, but I don't want to overload the post with too much quoting. I encourage anyone who can stand it to check out the text in full. Here are some brief highlights:

"All of them were wearing something that resembled a yarmulke-- although some were obviously rigged for the moment."

Maybe instead of "rigging" yarmulkes (?) they could have... I don't know... worn the hats they already had?

The small caps on the head of every man seemed to bring some sort of pleasure to Jacob, and he noted that many of them were wearing the tallis or prayer robe.

One point for using Ashkenazic pronounciation, minus five points for "prayer robe." A tallis is not a robe. Shawl, fine. Pancho even. But last I checked, a robe had sleeves. This is not a tallis, sir. Neither is this.

Morris informs us that the service was "unlike any Shabbat that any of the Jews... had ever known." Presumably, this is because Jacob is wearing tefillin. Frankism?

Reisa sees Dov watching her in the shadows during Shabbat services. Creepy.

The next day, Reisa gets assaulted by a horny sailor. Finally, some realism! Dov steps in and squeezes the man's neck until his eyes are about to pop like grapes. Reisa introduces Dov to Jacob, who is very impressed with her savior. A strong burly Jew, a dark manly beard, and his name is Dov, for God's sakes! What a catch.

Still... perhaps anticipating the conversion crisis of 2009, he feels the need to ask.

"Are you Jewish, my son?"

"No, just Christian man. Russian Orthodox."

*Head smack*

Of course. Of course he is.

Next Time: Coming to America.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Series of Increasingly Stupid Events

Or, if you like numbers, Chapter Two.

Last time we got to see the most Goyish shtetl in the world, where the only Jews to speak Yiddish happened to learn it thanks to a German-descended (as opposed to what, Khazars?) in-law named Gretchen. What will this terrible book have in store for us today?

First, I realize I was remiss yesterday in cataloguing yet more improbable names. It turns out Reisa has a cat. Its name is Boris. Why she didn't call it "Czar, Jr." or "Borscht," I can't say. There, now we're all caught up.

First scene: Reisa is sitting in the shul--actually, we're informed its an "outer room which had been added" to the shul (??) waiting for Grandpa Jacob to finish his Hebrew lessons

with five bored and unruly boys.

Finally some realism! And it only took 26 pages. (Ok, that part is unfair. In keeping with the standard of logic used elsewhere in this book, the story starts on page 7, just to screw with page count.)

Now we get to meet the rabbi. Aren't you just dying to learn his name? You're in for a treat...

Across from her sat Reb Chaim Gurion, the spiritual leader of the small congregation.

Now then, the first name is actually just fine-- one of the first realistic Hebrew names we've heard so far. However the Gurion part is downright stupid. Guryon is a Hebrew personal name that, near as I can tell, has long fallen out of use. The only modern Gurion anyone has heard of is good ol' David Ben. I'm sure Morris thought he was being clever or subtle on this one, and it could have potentially worked out, except for the whole pesky anachronism thing.

Thing is, the first Prime Minister of Israel, like most of its early founders, Hebraicized his name when he went to Israel, because he was actually born in Russian Poland, and... most Russian Jews had Yiddish or Slavic-derived surnames! David Ben Gurion was born David Grün, you bozo, something you'd know if you'd actually ever looked him up.

Also, Morris is confused about the term Reb. He thinks it means Rabbi when it actually means Mr., and later on he will use it in incorrect and irritating ways. Spoiler alert.

Hang on, the rabbi's talking.

"Tell me, Reisa, I know your grandfather's giving you different subjects in the Torah and the Talmud. What are you studying now?"

Ok, Torah is possible-- AFAIK, historically the Bible was considered "kid's stuff" on a Jewish scholarship level, so it's fairly plausible that Reisa would have been learning it. However it is extremely unlikely that her dear Zayde would be teaching her Talmud. Didn't you see Yentl?

This is another indication that Morris is basically applying Christian conceptions about things like text study and covering them with a very thin Jewish veneer. Ashenazi Jewish study culture of the 1800s was much more structured, particularly regarding subject matter and gender roles, than he seems to think. This is not Little House on a Prarie where someone just whips out a Gospel and speed reads. Also, yet again Morris seems to have very little knowledge about how Jewish life, particularly regarding scholarship, was highly variable depending on social class and geographic location. Rural Jews were often simply not that Jewishly literate.

Back to the text:

"For the last month he's had me looking up passages on the Messiah."

Hmm, convenient and unlikely. Not only is Jacob super-educated and flouting all social norms, he's also encouraging his granddaughter to study esoteric texts on a controversial topic that most Yeshiva students don't even deal with. Incidentally, you study Talmud with a partner-- your instructor doesn't give you a topic and shoo you away to leaf through it on your own.

"Indeed! Fascinating subject. Let me test you then. You're familiar with Moses Maimonides?"

Maimonides? Come on! Rabbinic acronyms, man!

"Yes, indeed. He was the famous Jewish scholar of long ago."

As opposed to all the other ones, who were just poseurs.

"And how many articles are in the creed of this famous scholar?"

Ok, not only does your dialogue read as dense as lead, Jews don't refer to a "Maimonidean Creed." Maimonides' work is called the Thirteen Principles of Faith. Incidentally, because it's called the Thirteen Principles of Faith, quizzing someone on how many there are in it is more than a little redundant, kind of like asking someone what flavor their banana is.

More conversation:

"[The Messiah] has been a part of Jewish faith since biblical time. Has your grandfather told you of the origin of the word Messiah?"

"No sir."

Why the hell not? Wouldn't that have come up before?

"The word Messiah is derived from the Hebrew Mashiah."

"And what is the meaning of Mashiah, sir?"

"It means 'the annointed one.' Originally it meant a designation for a ruler king."

Dude, what language are these guys supposed to be speaking? Yiddish? Hebrew? Russian? Chinese? I know you're writing for a Christian audience, but Oh my God.

Blah Blah Blah... Reisa says Jacob is confused by the passages referring to a "suffering Messiah," no leading questions there...

Here's something interesting. Morris has decided to give us some backstory on Gramps.

Long ago [Jacob] had wanted to be a university professor, but he had been forced to abandon his studies to support his brothers and sisters after the death of his parets. Instead of a professor, he had become a tutor of Hebrew to other men's children.

Excuse me, but most Jews were banned from universities (or even living in the cities where they were). If he had been educated enough to be a professor in a university, he wouldn't have moved back to the shtetl and become a lowly Hebrew teacher, particularly since the upper-crust Jews tended to be the most assimilated (if not actual converts). But don't let a little thing like facts stop you.

A few pages later Morris introduces us to the word Zaideh, "the Yiddish word for grandfather," which, he helpfully informs us, "Reisa often used as a term of endearment." You know, as opposed to say, an insult.

A few days later. Reisa is having English lessons with the unlikely-named Yuri, who is totally Jewish (and enjoys eating things "lustily" as well as "with relish). He's been to America and has bad news about the Jews there.

" the Jewish women keep their hair covered?" Jacob demanded. "Do they wear scarves?"

"The more Orthodox do, but even when I was there a new movement was going on."

"What kind of a movement?"

"It was called the Reform Movement."

"I've heard of it." Jacob leaned forward with interest. "What do you know about it?"

"Not much--except I was against it..."

Some things don't change.

"...Why should we change the ways of our fathers? Would you believe they have services in English and not in Hebrew?"

German, even!

"...And they say there's no need to eat kosher food. Why, wwould you believe I've seen Jews eating meat and then washing it down with milk?"

"It's an abomination!" Jacob exclaimed. "They could not be good Jews."

"They think they are. Anyway, I was glad to get back here where men still hold with the old ways of God."

Funny line coming from an author who's also a Baptist minister. Maybe it's like how people like Daniel Lapin claim they and conservative Christians get along just great, it's secular Jews they both can't stand. Incidentally, I don't think Reform was flouting kashrut quite so explicitly at this point-- we're still a good twelve years from the Trefa Banquet.


And now the most exciting thing to happen in the whole book: Reisa had a sleepover with Yelena over in the next village because they were planning on going to a wedding. But instead, a pogrom happened. Whoops! They run to the woods but there are "cossacks" [sic] everwhere, and they try to have their way with them. Yelena sacrifices herself by jumping on one of them so Reisa can get away. Luckily, we are told Reisa "had always been a fast runner." Oh good.

Cossacks are still running (sorry, it actually says "lumbering"-- apparently this chase is going to take a while) after her, but one of them takes time out of his busy schedule to remind her that this is happening because she is a "Christ-killing Jew." Good to know. Reisa runs all the way home to Grandpa Jacob. He says he guesses now's as good a time as any to get started on that whole America thing. Then, rather than offering a quick Brocha for his granddaughter escaping deadly Cossacks, the Traveler's Prayer, or anything else that makes sense, Jacob decides to get all fancy with the prayin', reciting almost all of Psalms Chapter 3. I have to give Morris credit here, though-- it looks like he used a decent translation. So, point to you, sir.

Reisa ends the chapter by inappropriately touching her grandfather's face, admiring "the faith in her grandfather's fine eyes" and finishes the psalm for him. Creepy.

Next Time: Jews on a Boat. (Shuffleboard, anyone?)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Off to a Bad Start

Let us begin with the setting: 1870s in a small Russian village, or as Mr. Morris so usefully misspells, "shtetel."(Compare.) Sounds good, my family's from Russia (Ukraine, actually, since Jews actually weren't allowed outside the Pale without a special permit, not that Morris bothers to differentiate), so I'll have a lot of chances to test my background knowledge against his.

To start off, Mr. Morris has a really hard time with names. Apparently he cannot tell the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish Russian names. This does not bode well for later chapters.

The main character's name is Reisa Dimitri. Reisa, of course, is a fairly standard Yiddish name. Dimitri, however, seems far more Slavic than most shtetl Jews would have had in the 1870s. Also, for some reason Morris refuses to capitalize the word "Cossack," despite it clearly being a proper noun.

Further along, we have more name misheggos. Reisa's grandfather is named Jacob, but her father, for no apparent reason, is Ivan. Again, Morris does not seem to know that Russian Jews were a lot more Jewish in this period than they were Russian. Maybe in the 1900s and World War periods you would have had Jews in the cities named Ivan, but not right now.

But wait, this explains everything! (Or should I say, nothing.)

[Reisa] whispered, "Got tsu danken."

She spoke the words in Yiddish, for that had been her mother's native language. Gretchen Moltman had been of German descent, and had spoken Yiddish so much that the rest of the family had learned it along with their native Russian. Her grandfather Jacob had taught Reisa Hebrew. While not fluent in this language as he was, Reisa could read it and even speak it haltingly.

Here we have it. The answer is that Morris has no idea what he's talking about, so he's stretching what little knowledge he does have waaay too far. Let's check out this thought process:

Fact: Yiddish is derived from German. Therefore only German-descended Jews would have spoken it.

Fact: Russian Jews lived in Russia. Therefore, they spoke Russian as their native language and gave their kids Russian Christian names, like Ivan.

Had Morris deigned to, say, open a book, he would know that the primary language of most Ashkenazi Jews tended to be Yiddish (Hell, even Sephardim in Poland spoke Yiddish), and the quality of their Russian tended to be widely variable depending on things like education, class, and location. It makes no sense whatsoever to have this family's native language be Russian and have them only "happen" to learn Yiddish due to a German in-law. That would be like assuming that my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Lee, speaks fluent Spanish by living in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, and only "happened" to learn Mandarin when her daughter married a Chinese guy. Just one problem- Mrs. Lee's whole family is Chinese and Mandarin is their first language! (Incidentally, I haven't heard her speak any Spanish yet, but who knows.)

So far what this really speaks to is Morris' total ignorance about how socially isolated Jews tended to be from Russian culture in this period (and to an extent, still today). He imagines that being a Jew in Russia meant you were a Russian who happened to be Jewish, which was not at all the case in the 1870s.

Incidentally, Mr. Morris, if Reisa's mother was a Yiddish speaker, she probably didn't have a name like Gretchen.

Wait, there's more. For no apparent reason, Reisa has decided to take a bath. Let's watch gratuitously:

She bolted the door and drew the curtain over the window. The yellow light of the lamp illuminated the room as she stripped off all of her clothes and stuck her toe into the water. "Ooh, that's good!" she whispered... She lay there soaking up the delicious heat for a time, then finally straightened up and pulled the pins from her hair so that it cascaded down her back. She had beautiful black hair that came down to her waist, but no one ever saw it. She kept it done up and covered by a scarf, as all respectable Jewish women did.

Except she's not married, so unless this is that special part of Russia called Yemen, she wouldn't be covering her hair. Apparently your research consisted of watching Fiddler on the Roof.

The chapter concludes by having us meet yet more Jews with non-Jewish names: Yelena Petrov, Yuri Pavlov... apparently no one in this village has a Kohen-derived surname, despite it being the most common Jewish surname, accounting for, IIRC, about 2/3rds of all last names among Jews. And there's also no one with a ski or sky suffix. How odd.

It turns out that the one character with the most plausibly Jewish last name is, of course, the Christian mayor, Vassily Trecovitch, who at least has a Slavic patronymic. We aren't told much about the mayor except that he's "a good friend" to the Jews and likes playing with his long muttonchops. I've got a good feeling about this guy. Maybe he'll convert?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Breaking the Silence

This blog was started in honor of a truly terrible book I picked up yesterday at GoodWill for about 1.50 called Jacob's Way. I should have known what I was in for just by looking on the back:

Fleeing a bloody pogrom that threatens their tiny Russian village, Reisa Dimitri and her grandfather Jacob, sail the ocean to a new life in America. They are swiftly embraced by New York's Jewish community. But God has other plans that will call them far from the familiar warmth and ways of their culture.

Sounds ominous.

Accompanied by their huge, gentle friend, Dov, Reisa and Jacob set out to make their living as traveling merchants in the post-Civil-War South. There, as new and unexpected friendships unfold, the aged Jacob searches for answers concerning the nature of the Messiah he has spent a lifetime looking and longing for.

Ah. It's going to be one of those books. Just in case you had any doubts, I checked the inside flap. The author, despite his very Jewy name, "is one of today's best-known Christian novelists, specializing in historical fiction... He lives in Alabama." And the book is published by that most authoritative of Jewish clearinghouses, Zondervan.

Within a few minutes of paging through this treasure, I was laughing out loud and getting odd looks from passersby. I knew I had to have it. Even more, I knew I had to blog about it. This was further reinforced by looking at the Amazon reviews this dreck had picked up. One person claims the book,

teaches a lot about history, in this case the history of Jewish/Russian immigrants to America, and provides an uplifting story that points to God. A lot of the struggles of the main character, Reisa, mirror the struggles many people of other faiths experience when confronted with the truth of Christianity.

Someone else writes,

This wonderful, inspirational book helps Christians like myself understand how Jewish folks view God, allowing one to sense their deep love and repect of God. As the story line shows, Christians can gently lead Jews to Jesus through example.

So not only is this book totally ignorant about the culture it's purporting to write about, it's also apparently meant to be used as a missionary tract. Triple Schmuck Score.

The book is over 400 pages, but given that the quality of writing is close to that of an angsty high schooler, I anticipate it will not take long to get through this. In the meantime I hope to blog it in chapters. Hope you'll come along for the ride.