Category Archives: writing

Just resting

Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketchThis article in Lapham’s Quarterly on Roget’s Thesaurus got me thinking (pondering, contemplating, considering, musing, putting through the meat grinder). The thesaurus has a mixed reputation, and is often derided as a hollow crutch for writers who are unable to find their own language.

Its creator, Peter Mark Roget, was a 19th century Englishman and apparently compulsive list-maker who pursued his life’s work with an Enlightenment-inspired religiosity. Lapham writes:

“His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel. By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam.”

Roget ordered the unruly language into 1,ooo categories of meaning.  “The synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically … like siblings that share a striking resemblance,” Lapham writes.

I was surprised to learn that Roget’s index was an afterthought. I’ve turned to that index with greater or lesser frequency since I received a thesaurus for my bar mitzvah in 1972. It may be my most-loved and most-used present that I received that day. It sits near my computer, much closer than “up on a high shelf,” where poet Billy Collins describes his as resting in the poem “Thesaurus,” an indication, writes Lapham, that Collins believes the best place for the book is at arm’s length.

Because if Roget sought to tame the language, he is often undone by the wild humans who use the thesaurus.

“To be sure, the potential for abuse is a constant danger, especially for eager students who may go overboard when hunting for impressive words,” according to Lapham.

Lapham was thinking of college students, eager to express their intellectual bona fides. In my case, the thesaurus was like a ticket to the circus midway.

In a short story I wrote in 1973 called “A Clash With Death,” two high school friends, Eric and Jim, must overcome Death in an ordeal to save their lives (I had just learned about “The Seventh Seal“). Jim, as I wrote him, never went anywhere without his thesaurus.

“I’ve come to get you, Eric,” said Death.

“You won’t take me without a fight!”

“That’s right!” said Jim. “OK, well, I’ll be seeing you guys later.

“Wait a minute,” said Eric. “You can’t leave me in my hour of need.”

“I have to. I’m one who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.”

“You mean a coward?”

“Gritless would be a better word,” said Jim.

This was the exuberance of discovering the rhythms and colors of language. I was learning the humor of the unexpected and the freedom in an unwieldy accumulation of words. Far from wanting to sound impressive, I reveled in a chaotic  derangement of the senses.

When “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” came to America a couple of years later, I recognized the same exuberant impulse, particularly in the Dead Parrot sketch:

Mr. Praline: VOOM?!? Mate, this bird wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through it! He’s bleedin’ demised!

Owner: No no. He’s pining.

Mr. Praline:  He’s not pining. He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig. He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!

Yes, and Death is The Pale Priest of the Mute People, That Grim Ferryman, The Old Floorer.

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The journalist yells ‘fire’

I used to know Andrew Adler. When I worked at the Atlanta Jewish Times, he was the newspaper’s former managing editor. He’d come to our office periodically to have his start-up Jewish newspaper designed by our art department. It was an odd arrangement, and it didn’t last long, as he positioned his Maccabiah Press as a competitor to the Jewish Times.

Like the name of his publication, Andrew’s journalism was a bit tone-deaf, a touch parochial and essentially superficial.

Along with these fairly harmless sins I now suspect he has one that can be crippling for a serious journalist: an inability to see the big picture.

That could be why Adler, as  publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, wrote a column last week in which he suggested that Israel might want to consider assassinating President Obama. The text of his “Publisher’s Letter” is here.

Adler subsequently apologized and explained that he wrote what he wrote “just to see what kind of reaction I would get from readers.”

It turns out the reaction has been “overwhelmingly negative,” Adler told JTA.

If there’s a learning moment in any of this, it might be in the overwhelming revulsion Adler’s column caused. Most people, regardless of their politics in the U.S. or Israeli contexts, still have their heads screwed on the right way.

That’s a cause for hope as American Jews as a group move to the right on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as their position hardens on what Israel must be willing to do for a negotiated peace, and more often people are willing to demonize those they disagree with.

In the American context, as Chemi Shalev wrote in Ha’aretz, Andrew Adler’s column is part of a larger movement which seeks to delegitimize Obama as president.

Adler’s crazy and criminal suggestions are not the ranting of some loony-tune individual. They were not taken out of thin air. Rather, they are the inevitable result of the inordinate volume of repugnant venom that some of Obama’s political rivals, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been spewing for the last three years.

In such an atmosphere murder may seem to someone as the only possible course to take. That’s what happened in 1996, back when Andrew Adler was launching his Maccabiah Press,  when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally.

Yes, this may be a learning moment, and we may become better for it. It may also be a reminder why we don’t shout “fire” just to see the reaction.

Jan 24 —

Following Andrew Adler’s resignation, J.J. Goldberg wrote this fine piece in the Forward. What made Adler “wander so far off the reservation?” Goldberg writes. “The answer is, he didn’t.”

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Going green.

God and Moses in "The Comic Torah"Moses is black and God is green — and a she — and both bear a strong  resemblance to their real-life creators in “The Comic Torah,” a graphic reimagining of history’s enduring bestseller.

Husband and wife Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig have written and illustrated a biblical midrash that is colorful, deep, funny and mind-blowing — just like the original.

And just like in the original, holy business is a messy business. And no one in the Torah is more contradictory and unfathomable than God herself, known here as YHWH.

“Vain, opinionated, wrathful and flirtatious, her larger-than-life personality impresses itself on followers and enemies alike,” Kent Worcester wrote in a review in The Comics Journal.  “[The Comic Torah] doesn’t censor the source material but instead revels in its strangeness and perversity.”

As the Five Books unroll — with each Torah portion presented in a sumptuous double spread —  the relationship between God and Israel develops in all its glory and chaos.  What caught my imagination was the shifting relationship between God and Moses, sometimes like parent and child, other times like mistress and servant, and still others as mismatched lovers, even as Moses dreams of the Promised Land.

Those dreams are not so innocent and holy. Rosenzweig and Freeman depict the Israelites’ ultimate quest as a blonde bombshell called Honey “The Land” Milkand.  Other characters include an oily Jacob, with a suit, narrow tie and pencil moustache, and a dreadlocked Aaron. Other gods, dwelling in the etymological mists of the biblical text, make an appearance,  including Zeus, who God turns to for advice. “You have a pantheon of support,” she complains. “I’m a single parent.”

“The Comic Torah” doesn’t disparage the tradition that has grown up around the Torah. Freeman and Rosenzweig have clearly wrestled with the text. But they have also tapped into one of the secrets of the Torah’s resilience, it’s weirdness and primalness. “The Comic Torah” reads like a strand of tradition that never made it into the canon.

And it’s often sharply funny. As God reveals to Moses her plans for a Tabernacle in the desert she conjures the image of a unicorn. “To cover the ceiling — Tachash skin!” she says. “Wow, it’s beautiful,” Moses says, gazing at the creature whose non-existence has broken every child’s heart. “Can I have one?” “No,” God says, “I’m only making one. But you can kill it for me.”

I wonder how some of the jokes will hold up, particularly popular references such as “Jew Tube” and to the Obama presidential campaign. (Joshua is a ringer for the president.) On the other hand, the Torah comes around every year, and is new every year, as Freeman and Rosenzweig acknowledge. “The Comic Torah,” they write “is a snapshot of the arguments we had this year. Next year, different arguments.”

And let us say: Amen.

Disclosures are in vogue. I’m never quite sure if the people who disclose really need to disclose, or if they get some sort of ego rush from doing it. While I’m sorting that out, I’ll tell you that I’m a big fan of Ben Yehuda Press, which published “The Comic Torah.” I wrote about another one of their books here. Also, I was a member of a group that helped fund the printing of “The Comic Torah.” So go now and read.

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From Edward Lear’s Jewish Alphabet

Blintzes

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Murray’s Boswell. An interview.

The Book of Murray by David M. BaderDavid M. Bader writes quiet, spare, funny books. His newest, “The Book of Murray,” was published last week.  Its subject is the until-now lost book of the prophet Murray — part Moses, part Elijah, part Shecky Green. A man who draws a blank when the people put too much pressure on him to prophesy. So he grabs the first topic that he can think of: doom.

God, he warns the people, “hath had it up to here, and the day of reckoning is nigh.”

Bader is the dry wit behind “Haikus for Jews,” “Zen Judaism,” and a couple more. He brings his less-is-more style to the tale of Murray, a man who answers God’s call only to find that He never picks up the phone or even checks His messages.

Murray is a modern man in late-Bronze Age clothing, and his concerns are those that beset contemporary Jews, rendered in pitch perfect King James Bible English, poetic redundancies included:

And it came to pass that one day, when tending a small bush, lo, a sheep appeared before him. And the sheep was ablaze and aflame and also on fire.

That’s how Murray’s ministry begins. And through his prophetic words, we see the problems that have bedeviled Jewish theology ever since the days of ancient Israel:

And though thou wilt be enslaved, persecuted, and downtrodden for centuries, look on the bright side. For though the Lord will destroy you, later he will redeem and bless you.

Here is my conversation with David M. Bader:

David Holzel: The book jacket says you began working on this book after an image of the Prophet Murray appeared to you on a toasted bagel. What happened after that?  How did this book come together, and how long have you spent on it?

David M. Bader: First, I ate the bagel.  I have priorities. Then I spent a lot of time reading the Bible, especially the books of the prophets.  And then I tried to figure out how a book of an ancient prophet could be more modern and entertaining.  Something like the Book of Jeremiah – but funny.

This book shows you as more than conversant with the Bible/Tanakh.  Are you?

I’m no expert, really.  I’ve read it and re-read it, parts of it many times, but I’m not a biblical scholar in any way whatsoever.  For writing humor,
sometimes it’s helpful to be a little clueless.

These days it can be dangerous to treat religious persons and texts with anything less than gravitas.  Do you fear a fatwa for publishing “Murray”?

I didn’t think there would be a fatwa for this particular book.  I was worried about a fatwa for my planned sequel to “Haikus for Jews,” which I was
going to call “Haikus for Islamic Fundamentalists.”  But I decided not to go forward with that when I realized it didn’t rhyme.

With Jews continuing to assimilate and newer ethnic groups taking our place, I’m surprised that it’s still possible to make Jewish jokes. Are you finding it easier or harder than ever?

Interesting question.  For me, Jewish humor is a challenge right now because some of the older subjects are still good targets of satire for Jews of a certain age.  But then there are younger Jews, some secular, some Modern Orthodox, who have a new, very different set of idiosyncrasies. We’re a diverse bunch.  I’ve tried to strike a generational balance in “The Book of Murray.”  Most Jews still share a sense of humor, so I’m hoping people will laugh even at jokes that don’t quite apply to their personal circumstances.

Your earlier work, your haikus especially, was widely circulated electronically. I was amazed and somewhat appalled to receive them in emails year after year. No one appeared to recognize or wonder about the source.  Did you receive those emails?

Yes, I’ve received those e-mails and found chunks of my books posted on web pages without attribution.  It’s both flattering and upsetting.  I once told someone I had written “Haikus for Jews,” and she said, “You didn’t write that, it’s from the Internet.”

Someone else once forwarded me an e-mail containing excerpts from my book “Zen Judaism.”  She said, “This reminds me of your work, but it’s not as funny.”

Some people seem to think that I merely collected my haiku from the Internet, when in fact I started writing them before the Internet even
existed for all practical purposes.

I’m glad that people enjoy my writing, but it’s frustrating that they don’t take two seconds to find the source and mention it when they share passages over the Internet. One Google search usually leads right to the books.

Am I ranting? Ok, I will stop now.


You have enough books out to have an oeuvre. How would you sum up your published works, your style, your themes to date?

An oeuvre? You are too kind.  The books are all pretty short, so it’s really more of an hors d’oeuvre. They are mostly parodies, as whimsical as
I can make them, touching on Jewish themes.  I have also written on topics that are not Jewish.  “One Hundred Great Books in Haiku” has no Jewish references that I can think of.  I didn’t set out to write exclusively on Jewish themes, but they do show up a lot, I suppose.  The Jewish references tend to be more cultural than seriously religious — Jew-ish, perhaps. Possibly it’s a New York thing.

In this book I hear echoes of the younger, funnier Woody Allen, and Allan Sherman. Who has influenced you?

Woody Allen looms large, as do Mel Brooks and other Jewish greats, including Borscht Belt stand-up comics, the Marx Brothers and so on.  But I like lots of non-Jewish humor and satire, everything from James Thurber and Stephen Leacock to British writers – Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse and that sort of thing.  Plus, I’ve watched a lot of bad television.

Will there be a “Murray” movie and, if so, who will star?

That would be fun, but Steven Spielberg and George Clooney aren’t taking my calls.  I do think it’s a fun narrative that could work on the screen or
stage, but I don’t have any plans yet.

What’s next for David M. Bader, writer?

Hmm… I’m thinking about lunch and maybe a nap.  Longer term, I have a couple of book ideas that I’m working on and we’ll see if they end up being funny and publishable.  And maybe I will find another ancient scroll somewhere.

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Signing off.

Mr. Holzel was my father. To me, he was Daddy. Who am I to my son? That’s up to him.

But who am I to me?

And who are you, for that matter? How do you sign the note you put in the lunchbox, or the birthday card? What do you inscribe in that book, a gift that your child might reread 40 years from now?

Dad? Too Ward Cleaver.

Daddy? Possibly infantilizing.

Father? Too Eudora Welty.

Your Father. Manages to sound over-earnest and ironic.

Pop. Too Louis Armstrong.

Pa. Not unless you’re a rancher or a small farmer.

Papa. Sounds like an ironic reference to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Abba. The Hebrew word. Could be mistaken for the Swedish pop group.

Me. Who?

That’s the problem: no choice is quite right. Who knew that the owners manual you don’t receive when you become a parent includes a chapter on writing.

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The Moses family.

jochebedI’m collecting ideas for a d’var Torah — a talk about the Torah/Bible portion for July 11. The portion is Pinchas — Numbers 25:10-30:1  This is a busy portion, with a lot of events and information to choose from.

One thing that strikes me is that this is the place where Moses’s parents are given names (Numbers 26:59). It’s  in the context of numbering the tribe of Levi. In the story of the Exodus, and in the traditional Passover Haggadah, they go unnamed.

Are there any commentaries about that detail? Any other thoughts about this portion, particularly Numbers 26:52-28:15?

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