Monday, April 28, 2014

In Memoriam: Holocaust Survivor Rachel Yaol (Blum)

Cover of Holocaust memoir of of Rachel Yaol, née Blum
Holocaust memoir of of Rachel Yaol, née Blum

Holocaust Remembrance Day is being marked today by Israel and Jewish communities around the world. On this occasion I would like to contribute a memory of my own and pass on another's.
The year was 1998. I had just left the kibbutz and begun life in the big city, and apparently I had a gig as a computer instructor at a home for the elderly. I remember almost nothing from that course, which must have been very short. I recall that the people were very nice and that's about it, except for one thing: Out of the blue, probably on my last day there, one of the ladies came up to me, handed me a small blue pamphlet and implored me: "It really happened, never forget!"She clasped my hands in hers and repeated her demand.
If I recall correctly, she was about as tall as I was or even a bit taller, she had white-gray hair tied in a bun, and mostly I remember piercing dark eyes and a very kind face, which resembled Golda Meir's, though I believe it was more elongated than round. When I got home I read the pamphlet. It turned out to be a small, humble Holocaust memoir, written in a simple and straightforward language, by one of the millions of Jews who had visited the depths of human depravity and came back to tell the world.

At the time I did not feel very connected to the Jewish people and the thought of anyone forgetting the Holocaust seemed ridiculous to me; we still remember and commemorate events that happened thousands of years ago (though we assiduously avoid learning anything from them). Anyway, I read the pamphlet once and put it aside. I never let it touch me, I never did return to the Home and, shamefully, I never read the memoir again. Fortunately, I didn't throw it away either, so there's that...

Anyway, as it happens, I am currently editing a dissertation about Holocaust memoirs, and one thing that strikes me is that the writers implore their unknown readers again and again: "Do not forget what happened to us". Suddenly the whole issue seemed very personal to me. There are many things I dislike about the way in which my people and country use and misuse the Holocaust, and for many years the emotional and political manipulations around this issue have prevented me from fully identifying with the collective on these occasions. But this time, reading these very personal pleas, made from one desperate Jew to another, my heart was deeply touched. Thus, I was also reminded of the more recent plea made to me by that nice, elderly lady, in a home in Jerusalem. Her name was Rachel and she has probably already passed away, but I now want to fulfill her wishes, to remember, and remind others, for her. To that end, I have translated a few segments from her memoir, which was written in Hebrew. So, the following is in memory of Rachel Yaol, née Blum, Holocaust survivor.

The title of the short memoir is, appropriately, "It Really Happened", and it was published in 1998. This is from the first page:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Neat Book Review # 14 India: From Midnight To The Millennium And Beyond, By Shashi Tharoor

Book cover for India:From Midnight To The Millennium And Beyond

Plot summary
The book reviews India's politics from its establishment in 1947 to 1996, from the point of view of  the author, a self-described middle-class Indian. The book was published in 1997 but my edition from 2011 has a preface written in 2006, which sort of updates the book. The book does not really follow a timeline but is more centered around various topics such as: the nature of India and its identity, the mechanics of Indian politics, the "Emergency" (though the author never informs us when the Emergency started and ended and what, exactly, it entailed), the abolishment of caste, corruption in Indian politics, non-resident Indians, the mechanics of Indian politics, corruption in India, the dire effects of socialism on India's economy, and politics in India. As you may have noticed, the author tends to repeat himself and many topics are tackled over and over again, perhaps because the book follows no timeline or method.

My opinion: This book was recommended to me as an introduction to modern India. As such, it wasn't a bad introduction but it wasn't a very good one either. The author assumes a large amount of prior knowledge about India on the part of the reader, which I did not have. Many concepts and terms are not explained in the text and were simply incomprehensible to me. It is true that the book has a glossary but I found that out only when I reached the end…too bad nobody (the author/editor/publisher) bothered to point the reader to the glossary at the beginning of the book or, better yet, to explain the terms in footnotes, where they would actually be helpful – after all, who wants to shuffle back and forth all the time?
The book dealt mainly with politics in modern India, which was disappointing; I would have preferred a book that gave me a better feeling of the culture and how people actually live there. Since politics are pretty boring, the book wore me down and in the final two chapters I read as fast as I could, wishing the ordeal to be over already. The fact that the book did not follow any clear timeline or method and did not provide dates or complete accounts of major events the author discusses did not make it any easier or pleasurable to read, and neither did the author's tendency to be clever with words for no reason at all. After a while, it was just annoying.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Captain Tofu: A Preview for Beta Readers

Dear beta readers, this is the beginning of the book. You are invited to read and if you like it, contact me for a copy as I detailed here.

Some people are born good-natured. As babies, they tend to smile a lot, giggle at every chance, and gurgle pleasantly. They teeth quietly and quickly, and even the terrible twos are not an ordeal and are gone before you know it. When they grow up, they tend to make other people feel good about themselves. They radiate good will and an abounding positive energy, which they use to ease the pain of their fellow men and heal the universe. Such people make the world a better place to live in for all of us. Sadly, Clay was not such a person, at all.
Clay was a foundling, left on the doorsteps of a South-side church with a half-torn, greasy note, scribbled in a scrawny, barely literate cursive: "My name is Clay, please take care of me." To their credit, this is what the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy did, or at least tried to. Clay was taken into the small, intimate orphanage operated by the run-down church and founded and headed by former WNBA player, 6' 2'' Cheryl Thompson, who really was built like a brick house and never hesitated to prove it to anyone who doubted The Word or her own stipulations, which had a similar, more palpable presence in the life of the church. But neither the strong-will of the head of the church nor the benevolent, innocent charity of the sisters managed to make a dent in Clay's inherent nature. No amount of beatings, fasts, or penances could cure Clay of the terrible disease he suffered from which was, to put it simply, being Clay.
Being Clay meant peeking under the skirts of the nuns to see what they were hiding there – when he was just three years old. Being Clay meant sneaking into the pantry to steal sweets, when he was four, and fluently cussing out the gentle and kind-hearted Sister Maria when he was only five. At six he managed to pick the lock on Mother Thompson's desk and promptly burnt the 300 hundred dollars he found there – which was the rent for the next month. Clay was shut in a cell for a week with a piece of dry bread and water to keep him company. He did not complain or cry like any normal child would have; instead, he emerged with a mysterious, triumphant smile, his small, black, beady eyes shining darkly, like a pool of sewage reflecting a starless night. He grew up to be a short, fat, roly-poly child, bursting with a petty, random evilness that no amount of prayer could cure. He beat up the smaller orphans and terrorized the older ones by threatening to reveal their darkest secrets, though it was anyone's guess how he ever found them out. When he was eight years old, and still less than four feet tall, he had the audacity to threaten Mother Thompson herself. This was the last straw – the former athlete put all she had into what was to be her final act of discipline, threshing the fat, evil boy to within an inch of his life.
A week later, as soon as Clay was back on his feet, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy Church and Orphanage was burnt to the ground. The children and sisters were saved, rushing out into the streets in their night gowns and clutching their bibles, as they helplessly watched the firemen battling the roaring flames. Mother Thompson's body was found afterwards, burnt to a crisp and identified only by her teeth. No one could understand how she did not escape the conflagration, and the only one who knew that secret was Clay, who was nowhere to be found. He had quit the orphanage for meaner pastures, leaving death and destruction in his wake, a pattern he was destined to repeat over and over again.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The 2014 Passover Humor Collection

Psychedelic or Radioactive  Passover Plate
Radioactive Passover Plate: If you gotta go, go with a glow

In about 24 hours Passover will begin in Israel and around the world, and the Jewish people will celebrate their ancestors' release from slavery to the Egyptian Pharaohs. If you aren’t Jewish, you can celebrate the fact that you don’t have to eat cardboard for a week (yuk), gefilte fish (double yuk) or rock hard kniedlach (yuk)2, all of which will give you constipation for the next month (the real reason the People of Israel took 40 years to get to the Promised Land – too many bathroom stops) and gain you a few pounds. It is a little know fact, though entirely true, that the average Jew gains 6.5 pounds every Passover (Based on up-to-data I made up right now).
On that note, here is a collection of Passover jokes that I enjoyed, for those in the know. If you are outside of the know, you are excused, though you can try to understand them. But if you find yourself laughing, you are probably more Jewish than you think, in which case you should consult with the nearest Rabbi. You can also get a head start on worrying for no reason at all. As Albert Brooks says in The In-Laws, in what must be one of the most Jewish aphorisms in the history of Hollywood: "Start worrying, it's good for you." But before that, you are permitted to start laughing.

Joke #1 - How to get your children to the seder. You can't, of course, just ask them - what's the fun in that? No, they must be subtly manipulated. Here's how:
Morris calls his son in NY and says, "Benny, I have something to tell you. However, I don't want to discuss it. I'm merely telling you because you're my oldest child, and I thought you ought to know. I've made up my mind, I'm divorcing Mama." The son is shocked, and asks his father to tell him what happened. "I don't want to get into it. My mind is made up."
"But Dad, you just can't decide to divorce Mama just like that after 54 years together. What happened?"
"It's too painful to talk about it. I only called because you're my son, and I thought you should know. I really don't want to get into it anymore than this. You can call your sister and tell her. It will spare me the pain."
"But where's Mama? Can I talk to her?"
"No, I don't want you to say anything to her about it. I haven't told her yet. Believe me it hasn't been easy. I've agonized over it for several days, and I've finally come to a decision. I have an appointment with the lawyer the day after tomorrow."
"Dad, don't do anything rash. I'm going to take the first flight down. Promise me that you won't do anything until I get there."
"Well, all right, I promise. Next week is Passover. I'll hold off seeing the lawyer until after the Seder. Call your sister in NJ and break the news to her. I just can't bear to talk about it anymore."
A half hour later, Morris receives a call from his daughter who tells him that she and her brother were able to get tickets and that they and the children will be arriving in Florida the day after tomorrow. "Benny told me that you don't want to talk about it on the telephone, but promise me that you won't do anything until we both get there." Morris promises.
After hanging up from his daughter, Morris turns to his wife and says, "Well, it worked this time, but what are we going to do, to get them to come down next year?"

Joke #2 The blind man in the park - this is a classic:
A Jewish man took his Passover lunch to eat outside in the park.
He sat down on a bench and began eating. Since Jews do not eat
leavened bread during the eight day holiday, he was eating Matzoh,
a flat, crunchy, unleavened bread that has dozens of perforations.
A little while later a blind man came by and sat down next to him.
Feeling neighborly, the Jewish man passed a sheet of matzo to the blind man.The blind man handled the matzo for a few minutes, looked puzzled, and finally exclaimed, "Who wrote this crap?"

Friday, April 11, 2014

10 Striking Similarities Between India and Israel

Israeli prime minister and founder, David Ben Gurion, plays chess, the game India invented, as Ghandi observes amid flags of both countries
Israeli prime minister and founder, David Ben Gurion, plays chess, the game India invented, as Ghandi observes amid flags of both countries

As I mentioned before (see here and 8 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About India), I'm reading a book about India by Shashi Tharoor, and I was pretty surprised to see many similarities between my country, Israel, and India:

1 – Same Birthday: Well, almost. India was freed from British rule on 15 of August, 1947. Israel was born about a year later, on 15 May, 1948, the day the British Mandate expired.

2 – British misrule: Both countries emerged from British rule. The Brits ruled India from 1858 and 1947 as the British Raj, a period which does not include the previous 100 year reign of the British East India Company (see details here). Britain conquered Palestine from the Ottomans in 1917-1918 and ruled the country under the legal framework of a UN Mandate from 1920-1948.

3- British influence: Both countries have been greatly influenced by British rule. In Israel, the legal and political system was inherited from the British (who inherited parts of it from the Ottomans) and in many ways remained unchanged until recently. The damage done by the British mishandling/violation of the Mandate, the almost arbitrary redrawing of regional borders, and blatant anti-Semitism (which included not letting any Jews from Europe enter the near empty country in the 1930s, when it was still possible to save them from Hitler) is a legacy Jews and Arabs are still struggling with. In India the influence of the British and the damage they wrought has been far greater. We can only guess how far ahead India would have been if it had not been plundered, divided, and misruled by the British for two centuries.

3 – Traumatic birth: For both countries, birth and independence was a traumatic experience, which involved partition and bloody conflict with a Muslim rival. Tharoor calls India's independence, "a birth that was also an abortion"

4 – Unsettled borders: In the years since independence both countries have experienced several wars and are still threatened by their neighbors. India has experienced four wars with Pakistan, one war with China, and numerous other battles (12 wars/battles in all, according to this Wikipedia article). India's last war was in 1999. Israel has experienced 6 major wars with its Muslim neighbors, the last one in 2006.

5 – Unsettled identity: Before statehood, Jews and Indians had a settled identity. Jews were defined by their religion, which was different from that of surrounding society (Muslim or Christian), and according to Tharoor, Indians had a common, settled identity, even if was not clearly defined. In fact, India did not need such a definition of its national character until the establishment of the modern state. However, in both Israel and India, the modern state raised more questions of identity than it solved. In India the emphasis on caste/non-caste, linguistic,  ethnic, regional, and religious identities has raised questions about the very existence of a common Indian identity, while in Israel the conflict between the well-established religious Jewish identity and the modern secular-national Israeli identity is threatening to tear the country apart (again!)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

8 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About India

Colorful Hindu Temple figure

As I mentioned before (see here), I'm reading a book about India by Shashi Tharoor, and along the way I've learned some interesting facts about the country such as:

1 - India has 17 major, official languages and 22 thousand(!) distinct dialects, which immediately raises the question– how do people actually communicate with each other? It's one thing to speak only one language in your village, but what do they speak in public, in parliament? Tharoor doesn't explain this point, but if someone can, I'd be grateful.

2 - About half the population is illiterate, according to Tharoor. This made me sad, and I wondered what are the obstacles preventing literacy in India. However, the recent census conducted in India in 2011 indicates that this number has greatly improved, as indicated by the table below. 

Table of India illiteracy rates for 2011

3 - India's national motto is "Truth Always Triumphs". Is that beautiful or what? For this alone I love India and I really wish this was Israel's motto too. I have serious national-motto envy.

4 - The British East India Company chopped off the thumbs of Indian weavers so they would not be able to compete with British cotton products (whaaaat???).  This sounded like an urban legend, so I tried to find a source for the story. This report, Unearthing a Gory History, is the best I found, after digging through the comments section of this post The Sunset Empire Shudders and Shakes (scroll down or search for "thumb"):

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Resolving the Creationism–Darwinism Debate Using Jungian Theory

Creationism or Darwinism? Jungian theory can help

Creationism is the general belief that the world was created by a god or gods and not through natural evolution. This belief is based on numerous creation myths, which are a world-wide phenomenon and usually bear striking similarities, to be discussed below. Usually creation myths are culturally significant and many times fascinating in their own right. But nowhere have they sparked such a furious debate as in the United States, where the supporters of the Judeo-Christian creation myth find themselves engaged in a bitter controversy with the proponents of modern science. Seemingly, there is no possible way to reconcile the two beliefs, but in this post I will attempt to show that Darwinism and Creationism do not really contradict each other and are actually very similar, merely two sides of the same psychological coin. I will be utilizing Jungian theory for this purpose, so this post will also serve as an introduction to Jungian theory and to several future posts based on it.

Jungian Theory and the Significance of Myths

Throughout the ages, myths about how the world was created, how it works and what men need to do to make it work have been deemed important enough to sacrifice young boys and girls for, to go to war for, and even to jeopardize the existence of the entire collective. Creationists are no less zealous about their own beliefs, but they are normally dismissed by their opponents as irrational fanatics. I beg to differ. An idea that arouses so much emotion and fervor cannot be dismissed as frivolous or insane. Myths are important, and a good scientist should try to find out why and how they are important, which is precisely what Jung did.
According to Jung, myths are images and stories that reflect our experience of the unconscious. In other words, myths are dreams. Of course, some dreams are very personal and some are almost meaningless. Myths can be considered dreams that describe universal experiences, common to a certain collective or to all of humanity. Jung believed that when we come across a myth that is universal, it reflects an important, universal psychological experience. We know that creation myths are universal and that most of them share certain common characteristics such as:

  • Creation needs light. Without light nothing can be seen nor identified because nothing has form.
  • Creation is shaping things out of chaos, defining boundaries, separating one thing from another, naming them.
  • A Supreme being or beings - God, gods, or two Great Parents are rulers of everything He or They create.
  • Man has a special relationship with his creator, as a son to his parents.
  • In the Beginning man lives an effortless, blissful existence in the Garden of Eden (which may have different names), devoid of self-awareness.
  • Man discovers self-consciousness, the good life ends and is replaced by a harsh existence of struggle with the world. Self-consciousness is punished and man experiences guilt.
  • The way back to Eden is barred by guards and a vigilant sword.
  • Immortality is forbidden to man.

(For more details regarding the creation myth in cultures throughout the world and history see: The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann)

So the question we must now ask is: what is being created here? The answer is: ourselves. Let me explain.