22 July 2007


Shul was beautiful this Shabbat, actually, and the building looks not at all like Beth Jacob Congregation, where I usually pray. I don’t just mean that it has a different architecture, but that there are two bimahs. On one side of the shul there is the Ark with the Torah scrolls, but on the other side of the shul, opposite the Torahs, is a raised platform on which the Torah is read, and on which the Rabbis stands during the service. After pesukei d’zimra, the Rabbi moves across the room to the raised platform. The seats are wooden, and in front of each is a desk on which to place books and on which a person can lean. Finally, for me, after visiting all of the museums and churches filled with paintings of the stories of Jesus, the lack of art in the shul is striking. Of course, this stems from the commandment that you shall make no graven image—but it also means that the scroll work and detail in the carvings is elaborate as well. But I suppose that it also means that the focus is on prayer, and a person cannot be distracted or focused on pictures; the person’s behavior is the focus. And the work of our artists is, first, in interpretation and not representation.

The praying was different as well. Venice is Sephardic, and I daven in an Ashkenzic shul. I recognized none of whatever melodies were sung, and some of the prayers were unfamiliar to me--or had unfamiliar patters. I was pleased, however, that I was able to follow word for word, and though the Torah portion was translated into Italian, another language I cannot speak or understand, I could follow the Hebrew perfectly. The trop, however, was different. The haftorah was Hazon, a haftorah which mixes the traditional melody with that appropriate to Tisha b'Av, and so I listened for how it was accomplished here, and felt part of the experience.
After shul I was invited to the home of a young couple. They prepared a lovely Shabbat vegetarian meal--and their hospitality was warm and open. I do not think that I was as gracious as I might have been, but I was a bit distracted, and did not stay until Birkat. Tally and Moshe are what Judaism means to me, however, and I thank them and carry them with me as I return to the United States.

Now, we have risen to the level of 'spa.' We are spa-ing, and attempting to be very spa-y. Cowboy Mitch and I have settled into Abano Terme and the Hotel Ritz. It is a resort-type place, and designated a spa. It is where rich (us?) people go to 'get treatments,' or just relax, perhaps. There are massages and mud baths and saunas and heated pools. And wonderful sun. After all of the moving about, and pulling the suitcase up and down streets in Florence and up and down the bridges of Venice, the only thing I am required to carry here is my towel. And actually, I shouldn't be carrying that, but leaving it at the pool for someone else to pick up. We are living in some kind of luxury and know barely how to respond. It is a hard row to sow. Dinner here is served at 9:15pm, but Cowboy Mitch and I are usually asleep by 10:00pm. Besides, tonight in the dining room they are serving 'homely turkeys,' an appelation which seems to me not only an insult to all turkeys, but an oxymoron at least. Turkeys might be homely, but perhaps it is impolite to point it out. Also on the dinner menu was ox-tongue. We went for pizza and gelato. Lovely dinner!

We Have Altitude

Reunions are interesting. They are briefly about the past, a measurement of confirmation. In the moment of meeting again, I wonder if this is the person I remember, and I assert that I am the person remembered. We share comrades, events, and shared experiences. We smile knowingly, and sigh over our memories, though I am not certain what meaning is expressed in either smile or sigh.

Quickly, however, the reunion is about the present, and we wonder what it is about us that wants to be friends again. We wonder what our relationship might become now, and we search eagerly for points of interest, for connections, for some emotional linkings. For me there are tensions: searching longingly in the face, but for what I am not sure, looking for the person I knew forty years ago, being the person from forty years ago, while projecting the person I am now. A curious tension, not at all unpleasant.

Dear Renee, this is the one about you and I.

A day of walking about Venice. In the quiet of small streets, I can sense the ancient city, but everywhere there are shops and restaurants and snack bars; thousands of tourists, ourselves among them. I am curious always what we are looking for amongst the ruins.

What is sightseeing about? Cowboy Mitch says that sometimes it is important to move outside of your environment to put it into perspective. He says that the problems one experiences back home are minimized when one places distance between you and them. There is a truth to that; the daily life disappears. What replaces them? For me it is the comforts of my home that seduces me to ignore all that troubles me there; I love the homeliness of my home, and am not enamored of the strangeness that is implicit in travel.
I’ve got reservations to attend the Sephardic shul here on Shabbat. In addition to my kippah, I need to bring my passport. As in days of old, it is not easy to be Jewish. The old Ghetto and the new Ghetto, neither very large, is populated by Jews. I passed a kosher falafel restaurant, a Chabad, and a Talmud study session of Chasidim. Now, there I feel at home.

14 July 2007


Inevitably, whenever I say that I am going to Italy, I am asked “Where are you going? At first, I found the question off putting—isn’t Italy enough information? But I would answer nevertheless, “Well, I’m going to Venice.” How long are you going for? Ten days. It is the next question that confused me: “And where else are you going?” Isn’t Venice enough, I wondered. I mean, suppose someone said they were coming to the United States. New York? And where else? I’m not going to sight see. So why am I going? To accomplish some personal business. To go far away. To go to Italy. To have a reunion with Renee Lerner, my date for the high school prom in 1965.To talk with her about Peter, Paul and Mary, and Trini Lopez and lemon trees. In a more romantic world, I would appear before her after these many years with a large bouquet of flowers, but she wondered if perhaps I could bring two jars of tahini for her great crop of eggplant. Apparently that is a culinary delight yet unknown to Italy. So, that is what I bring Renee after all these years—two jars of ground up sesame seeds.
If I plan too carefully, then I think I’ll miss too much, really. It was not Michaelangelo’s David which I brought back from Florence; it was his Prigione, which I did not know existed. I’m going to Italy. To accomplish some personal business. I’m taking the James brothers—William and Henry. I’m taking the computer. I’m taking Know My Song Well. And my on-line graduate class. And I’m getting on the plane with Cowboy Mitch with few expectations but few hopes.
I have not traveled like this since I was I my early thirties, almost half a life ago. Then, I learned a great deal from the solitude and the companies. I’m taking the backpack I carried then, and a suitcase I then could not imagine.
Then I traveled with notebooks for journals. Now I am carrying the electronic medium, and I intend to broadcast at least some of the trip. I’ve got a camera this time, and the cables that will allow me to post current photos. It was either Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry James who kept Italian Journals.
Here begins mine:

11 July 2007


Well, it is off to Italy with Cowboy Mitch. My intent is to pursue there some personal business, and to avoid instigating an international incident. Cowboy Mitch and I are just concerned right now that we won't humiliate ourselves with silliness. It has been twenty five years since I traveled abroad. Then I was young, now I am no longer. Then I walked everywhere—miles and miles and days and days—ending always at some lovely sidewalk bar for a beer or a Pernod, and a gaze at the moving crowd. Then, I had much to see, now I have less to see but greater interest in seeing. Then I took pen and paper journals; this time I travel with the laptop computer and wonder where the wireless cafes are located.
It will be nice to leave behind the news which oozes out of the government cesspools. Everyday a new scandal or abuse of liberty sees the light of a cloudy day. I used to worry that Georgie Porgie would live out the rest of his life in comfort after destroying the lives of so many. I think his utter incompetence will haunt him for the rest of his life, and the failures of his leadership haunt his every step. He will go nowhere for the rest of his life without embarrassing questions asked to him for which he will have no honest answer, and he will awaken each day to history’s judgment of his administration to be the worst in American history. This administration has become our greatest enemy, and its legacy will only hasten the loss of our influence and freedoms.
No Torah portion can end on a negative note. I can’t start my Italian sojourn with Bush’s name on my lips. I bought a new Prius—fifty miles to the gallon. I am so proud of me. And so in love with the car. Washed it twice despite forecasts of rain.

05 July 2007

4th of July

William James (1962, 95) urges teachers to “See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, wherever possible, under the notion of a good. Get them habitually to tell the truth, not so much through showing them the wickedness of lying as by arousing their enthusiasm for honor and veracity. Wean them from their native cruelty by imparting to them some of your own positive sympathy with an animal’s inner springs of joy.”
The prison sentence of I. Lewis Libby, Jr. has been commuted by George W. Bush, Jr. Paris Hilton’s prison term was cut short for little apparent reason. Except that she was well heeled and well off. And like I. Lewis Libby, Jr., she had friends in high places.
And then all of those teachers are urged to go right into their classrooms and ‘get them habitually to tell the truth,” and to “wean them from their native cruelty.” Ha! On the front pages of every newspaper is the affront to justice practiced by the highest executives in the United States. Their behavior is repulsive, and they cast in the mud the very documents they will celebrate this Fourth of July. They are hypocrites all, and they are worthy of only our real contempt. In the Washington Post today: President Bush warned Wednesday that the Iraq war "will require more patience, more courage and more sacrifice," as he appealed to a war-weary public for time and sought to link today's conflict to the storied battles that gave birth to the nation.” Disgusting.