In New York you’re always from somewhere else, and so when people ask me my provenance, I tell them I’m from the South. The South of another country.
In the imagination of anyone who’s ever heard of Odessa, it is a city of sea, sun, boulevards, strolling beauties, life-altering food, color and culture, crime and literature, music and danger – The Pearl by the Sea that richly deserves the moniker. Her sailors are brave, her women headspinningly gorgeous, her gangsters stylish and ruthless, her atrocities particularly horrific. Her most famous musicians – Oistrakh, Milstein, Gilels – world-class and sublime, and the writers – Babel, Ilf & Petrov, Paustovsky, Olesha – all sui generis, the poets of prose, funny and gritty and lyrical and grotesque. The English-language equivalent of the Odessa School would have to be Southern Gothic – with allowances, naturally, for the city’s neoclassical architecture.
I was brought to Odessa at ten days and taken out of it at eleven years of age. Mine was a charmed childhood in a magical place; I didn’t know what I had until I lost it. Ten years later, I returned – a New Yorker inured to skyscrapers, few to no stray dogs in few to no dilapidated courtyards, and a sense of the world as my oyster. Why, then, from the moment I stepped onto the veined tarmac and smelled the good old leaded fumes of my childhood, did I still see this city as my own Pearl by the Sea? What is it that makes me return, each time surfing a different wave to the same shore? My former life here? The special angle of the sun? The beauty? The squalor?
Speak to anyone who’s given this careful consideration over an aperitif at one of the finer establishments on the main drag, Deribasovskaya, and you’ll learn that, even for a rootless cosmopolitan, Odessa’s paradoxical, enduring appeal goes beyond the predictable rose-colored recollections of a childhood by the sea. No. It feeds on the generally palpable store of specific energy and gravity: the product of the talent, the drive, the thirst for life, the savoir faire of its inhabitants – the accreted greatness that Odessa exudes.
Like Jerusalem, Rome or Istanbul, or the Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus of yore – Odessa’s got it. It’s a bit of a navel, an omphalos; a center of the world for those who have no choice but to orbit it; a Jerusalem on the shores of the Black Sea. Every Jerusalem needs an exile story and a diaspora, and so in the produce-laden bodegas beneath the clatter of the elevated train on Brighton Beach, exposed to the gradient winds blowing through San Francisco harbor, and at practically every point on the compass rose: in unbalmy Chicago and promenade-weary Miami, in wrong-weather Canada and even in Auroville – a speck on the map in southeastern India, where 2200 neo-hermits built their own city, complete with quality cafés and a world-class non-denominational temple – one finds the faithful denizens of The Pearl by the Sea gravitating toward each other, creating community, telling jokes and somehow managing, as ever, to collectively lighten the individual load.
Indeed, to many, Odessa is a byword for a state of mind, the same way Jewish mystics of an ecumenical bent say Jewishness is a state of mind. One could even argue that there is an Odessa-space out there that’s time- and location-agnostic. In the minds of the city’s most ardent apologists, in contrast to the flat, Euclidian planes of the wider world, Odessa-space is, in the manner of non-Euclidian geometries, hyperbolic and elliptical, which is to say: exaggerating and oracular, larger-than-life and cryptic, out-of-this-world and G-d-only-knows.
It’s a state people aspire to – so much so that when I tell Russian speakers anywhere on Earth that I’m from Odessa, they rush to establish urban cred by recollecting that seaside vacation of thirty years’ vintage or impressing me with an Odessa joke, told – in an instance of well-meaning cultural blackface – in amateurish hyperbole of what they believe Odessa speech to be. In short, it’s a club and a cult, and people want to belong.
But, oh, you’ll find detractors aplenty. The Odessa old guard who didn’t leave even in the 80s, when everyone left, and the grumpy old men from Brooklyn who did leave and now visit once a year, spending half an August day next to you at that outdoor café on Deribasovskaya, ogling the women, intoning the old refrain: it ain’t what it used to be. ‘Hordes of barbarians from the outskirts have invaded. And where is the quality of the laughs, the level of color we had two generations ago?’ They lament. ‘All the construction is in the wrong places, and none of the roads are any good. The people are gone, the flavor is stale, even the shadows the plane trees cast on the cobblestones aren’t quite what they were. The tomatoes, too, aren’t beefy or salty or sweet enough. And when the tomatoes go…’ Well, it’s curtains for the whole city.
Somehow, though, we aren’t convinced. We’ve heard it all before. Somehow we’re sure that the place will pull through, guided by the playful strictness of the architecture, buttressed by that eternal Odessa pluck, inspired by its own record of overcoming war, famine, pestilence, and human folly.
One would think that life in a city that’s mothered so many great writers follows a certain literary logic, and there is, to be sure, a narrative magic to the lives of Odessa’s inhabitants. It’s as if the local air is ever condensing a film atop the visible reality, making it that much more cinematic. And so, to truly belong, you must live the dangerous dream, undertake the risk-laden journey, dive headlong into an ever-moving picture – whether it’s finally forming that racketeering startup you’d dreamed of since early childhood, or immigrating to a faraway country and making it big, all for the glory of Momma Odessa. The boon is this: once lived, this alternate reality is yours for the taking, anywhere you go. The great violinist Isaac Stern (someone not from Odessa, for once) once distilled the essence of U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange thus: “They send us their Jews from Odessa, and we send them our Jews from Odessa”.
Thus the chestnut about taking the boy out of Odessa habitually rolls down Primorsky Boulevard and comes to rest at the top of the Odessa Steps. Try though The Big Apple might have to take the Odessa out of me – somehow, despite the distance, the passage of time, the shifts in worldview and demographics, Odessa The Great Enchantress has never left me. Is it because she’s suffused me with the languorous glow of mother-of-pearl childhood memories? Or won me over time after time with the sage resilience encoded in her inimitable, indefatigable humor? Or is it something more idiosyncratic and more powerful?
Odessa, Odessa! Your embarrassment of riches: literary, musical, culinary, attitudinal – all of that matrilineal patrimony! – resonates within me; daily and non-weakly; with the very credo so often, so famously attributed to New Yorkers. That stark conviction that anyone who chooses to be anywhere else has got to be, in some sense, kidding.
An earlier version of this essay was published by The Odessa Review.
As a rule, people work with their hands. Many also employ legs. Some find they need to put their bodies into it. But those who use their genitals to perform paid work are inhabitants of the demimonde at best, immoral in the minds of most. Much of the world employs sex workers, but sex work is naturally hush-hush, taboo, bad.
And so, it makes a sort of sick sense that allowing Israel, the omphalos and uterus of Western civilization, to be a functioning state – i.e. to perform work in this world, instead of existing merely as a sterile representation of an Apollonian ideal of pure spirituality – is somehow felt by many to be a travesty, a whoring out of a mother figure; the worst possible sin. Hence, the right of Israel to exist and to conduct the business of making its citizens well cared for, prosperous, and protected is scowled at, begrudged, innately disallowed, and endlessly wished away by unintelligible multitudes.
At a certain age we learn and even eventually accept the fact that our parents did the nasty in order to bring us about. Naturally, the last thing we want is to know that they regularly repeat this crime against our filial sensibilities. Imagine how up in arms we would be if we suddenly had to witness the offense time and again, and – what’s worse – registered proof of pleasure from the process.
No, no. The loins that engendered Western civilization must stay as chaste and free of use as possible, even if that means that they become once again backward and derelict, overtaken by thicket and swamp. No healthy intercourse with the world, please. Keep it unreal and otherworldly for the truly faithful.
And now, for some contrast. Americans like to see themselves as the shining city on a hill, a paragon of democracy and liberal, pluralistic values. In truth, America – the paragon of muscular capitalism, home of the least-bridled form of enterprise extant, unsaddled with a history of claims to being the land where history began or the world was created – may, in the eyes of its most jingoistic citizens, and even in the view of much of the Western world, do whatever and however it wants. It can and does routinely invade countries anywhere on the planet, maintain a network of bases in hundreds of sovereign nations, and facilitate regime changes as per the geopolitical fad du jour. It can yawn at the tens of millions of indigenous people dead as the direct result of Manifest Destiny, at the millions forcefully brought to its shores, for centuries denigrated, denied anything like humanity, maintained in poverty and imprisonment. It can do all this, and no one much minds, simply because an eagle is an eagle, after all. It was created to lord over its domain, to kill what it must eat. It is a bird of prey; aggression is its way and wont.
Israel, on the other hand – a Cathedral, a receptacle in which the Almighty is meant to dwell – can do no right in the eyes of the international community for the simple reason that it is bad form, and highly unacceptable, to display generative organs publicly, much less to showcase their workings – all the more so their exemplary, unprecedented, somehow Nobel Prize-winning activity. It is in this sense that the Jews of Israel, and world Jewry by extension, are these days considered dirty, kind of like the dirty Jews of old: because they have dared to sully the Land of G-d with actual mundane, human existence, with real life – and a highly successful one at that.
Jerusalem, then, is allowed to remain a shining city on a hill – but only if the effulgence originates in purely spiritual ardor. G-d forbid there should be planning and security, stability and husbandry, science and technology, arts and humanities, transparency and the open exchange of ideas, the rule of law and democracy, government and accountability. Nay. Let Jerusalem be Madonna or nothing. And for trying to be both a holy and a growing city, both the capital of three religions and the capital of a living, breathing state – may it be branded a Whore and pilloried with holier-than-thou hypocrisy till the end of days.
Thus the sons and daughters, the grandchildren and sundry other progeny of Judaism lecture gray-haired Sarah on the way to be in this world, and Sarah laughs her laugh of knowledge and sorrow, and proceeds to be the Mother of a world only a mother can love, at a cost only a mother can bear.
This essay was originally published on The Times of Israel blog.
She is shaped like an athletic amphora, a black Spartan vessel of elegance and fury.
Seconds in, she goes a capella; no guitar roulades needed to accompany her. She’s a force of nature and she stands alone, except that she doesn’t stand for a moment.
She is boyish and wears hip-hugging pants, but she is woman – oh so woman because two years ago she was still a girl, one can sense it, but she’s crossed into womanhood and is firmly in it – yet there is no dress, no folds, no castañedas, even, and if they are there, they’re tiny, concealed in her palms, and even the movements of the arms are different: there’s less waving about and self-hugging and more pure output of energy. How majestically and scarily controlled it is.
She could rightly be called a reactor; she is that incandescent; except that it’s the wrong word, because she doesn’t react – she creates; creates a maelstrom. She’s a black hole, with her own event horizon and firewall that vaporizes you as you breach it. She requires her own vocabulary, she is that much of a phenomenon, and in the absence of it, we’re borrowing from the discipline that attempts to understand stars, galaxies and universes – physics.
And she is physical beyond theory, but in the gossamer way of a tungsten filament, thin and burning and giving off blinding light. At times she stomps, lightning-quickly, from the knees, with pronated shins, so that she seems a child, a beautiful, severe girl in black, with a crown of hair, a bell of hair… And then she throws her head back and around with a checked violence, a great nuclear nanosecond of release, – and everything escalates beyond possibility or ability to keep up.
We are now at another level of concentration – on her and her new flamenco, and at that level she’s indifferent to everything around her except for rhythm and the exquisite torment of the performance – the creation of high art in real time; indifferent to everything but indifference; she won’t tolerate it! She will draw you in and make you care, make you stop breathing you’re so drawn in.
And then she slows it down by degrees, reducing the rhythm from a proud, rolling rage to a strict, strict staccato, a pitter-patter, and then attenuated rocking caresses of the stage with her exquisitely small, heartbreakingly heeled leather shoes.
She tictocs minutely.
She is 17 years old.
This year she turns 70, a contented grandmother, her shooting star of a career long behind her.
The tragedy is that we have precious little of her talent to console ourselves with. The miracle is that Antonia Singla Contreras – La Singla – one of the great flamenco dancers of modernity, a hurricane of grace and uniquely feminine power, was brought into this world a deaf-mute. La Múa the neighborhood kids used to call her.
Now, tell me: is this a cruel place? Or is it a wonderful world after all?
“Shall we go to Pizza Redentore?”
“Sure” I say, “Redentore, Salvatore – any one of those will do -”
“Ah! By the way, Salvatore is very good… Ma Salvatore é benissimo! We will call them.”
But it turns out Salvatore is too busy saving souls through heavenly pizza. We place all our hope for redemption in Redentore, and toward that end cross piazzi, walk down many cobblestone streets, and finally over a bridge that itself first walked over the Adige around 2100 years ago. Faced with a telltale facade, with Redentore in periwinkle neon, I realize it’s another deconsecrated church. I balk, but then one of us, a Veronesa, reminding me of Il Duomo, Sant’Anastasia, San Zeno et al, is there to reassure, “there are enough churches left in Verona”.
I end up leaving for Milano the next day without paying homage at the balcony of Romeo e Giulietta, which is exactly what I wanted, but not without finding in this city – despite not looking, or perhaps because of it – a sense of beauty so pervasive, effortless, and Romantic that, even if Romeo and Juliet never existed in Verona, which they didn’t, they would have had to be placed here – as they were. As ever: Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
* * *
The thousand-year-old churches in this city, and their bell towers, and the ever-present old marble arches, with their stones worn by moisture to look like sugar cubes; all this age and beauty, this art, long in the tooth – a constant reminder of the calamity of so short life.
But let us end on a positive note. As I’m about to board a plane from Milano to NYC, an airline employee takes my passport and, in response to a polite buongiorno, asks matter-of-factly, Data del rientro? I stare. He switches to English, asking me whether I live “there”, the there being NYC. I admit that I do. But he assumed that I’m Italian, even if for a second. Which might mean that, after all, all this time in this land-of-the-way-things-should-be has not gone to waste.
Until next time. Alla prossima volta, bella!
Leaving gassy, noisy, rumoroso Pompei behind, we arrive – 500km and Campania, Lazio, Umbria, and Toscana later – in Firenze.
Of course, Florence is, naturally, so harmonious, that it has rightly become mauvais ton not just to say how beautiful and great it is, but even to mention how it has become mauvais ton to say how beautiful and great it is. A sophomore Art History major, visiting on a day trip from the American Academy in Rome, was recently disemboweled in an alley off Piazza Palazzo Pitti by a gang of UNO (United Nihilist Ord) blackshirts after having the gall to pontificate aloud on the Floral City’s manifold aesthetic advantages. Playing it safe, I am writing this on a Frecciargento train bound for Verona. It has just left Bologna, where Umberto Eco’s ghost nods approval to the strict punishment meted out to the clueless American student of beauty.
With me I take small marks left as a result of an uneven battle with florentine mosquitos, who, in the best traditions of the Medicis, work with stiletti, not broadswords, leaving behind sharp, tiny mounds of agony instead of the expansive, inelegant welts that are the telltale signs of their North American colleagues at work.
Yet what will stay with me the longest is a kind of aural blessing received while going down the interminable steps of Giotto’s Campanile. I am still in the top fifth of the tower as the bells come alive, sound waves reverberating off of two-foot-thick stone walls, criss-crossing, pressuring and deforming each other, my head moving through this melange, absorbing it. I continue to the bell chamber below, where the ringing is almost unbearable, and then, immediately, lower – to the fourth fifth of the tower, directly below the bells, where the din dries up some. The ringing lasts no more than a minute, but takes place precisely as I pass through three bands of the Campanile: above, at, and below the bells.
* * *
I fix the look of Florence in my mind as she lies straddling the Arno: like a Renaissance maja, supremely confident in her power to seduce, and therefore still – small of gesture, vast of effect.
The sum and essence of her own statuary, all Florence the majestic courtesan has to do is stand there, lie there, knowing full well that the spell has been cast, and that whoever has visited once, will be back again, and again, and again.
Directly across the street from the Porte di Napoli there is a caffetteria / juice bar – I get the “Profumata”: fennel root, pineapple, and apple, chased by a multigrain croissant and an Americano – where a big-breasted mother with eyes that grab you and a vast rayon tank top is at the cash register. Her 40-year-old son, in rolled-up white shirt-sleeves and black apron, dispenses espressi. We get to chatting in some non-existing Italian on our part and a bit of halting English on his.
He has been to Mexico, once, via Ft. Lauderdale – but not to New York, where we say we are from, and for which he has an appreciative pull up of the chin and a Neapolitan hand wave that could change weather patterns. There is a tired intelligence in his eyes, and as he gives his weight to a large lever operating the espresso machine and then presses up on it, he rests a temple against the biceps, wiping the sweat and boredom of a life behind the counter, and I sense that, if not for the patrimony of these 20 square meters of commercial space on the waterfront,
and the responsibility felt to his overbearing mother after his father had left or died too young he could have been somebody. Instead of a barista, which is what he is.
Later, as we pull out of port towards Capri, the waves are capped in sparkling, sharded crystal purple. I discover by accident that it is only visible through polarized sunglasses. Maybe that’s the secret to seeing everything here in the right light.
On the ferry back to Napoli, the flatscreens in all the compartments are showing Torto e Ragione – Il Verdetto Finale, a family-court-type reality show. The sound is piped in extra-loud through the ceiling speakers. The judge is a blonde cougar, an angular red, black, and white 80s dress under her undone robes revealing serious cleavage. She smiles obligingly when the defense attorney smiles suggestively and makes goo goo eyes at her. Surely there’s some serious legal spread-eagling going on between tapings.
It’s a custody case and there’s a lot of animated, convinced talking over each other, but one thing everyone can agree on is the necessity of being well-dressed, which they most emphatically are, including a 77-year-old grandma who looks like a tenured high priestess in flowing, tailored black, creme, and gold silk robes and a full head of glorious white hair the hue of a noble-bred pigeon’s wing. Also: tastefully applied mascara. The other women – including the stereotypically mercenary, ill-figured, ill-tempered prosecutor – wear high heels; even the long-suffering mother in danger of losing her baby girl to a rapacious absentee father. She’s also wearing an endearing floral-patterned grotesco dress with an elegant yet family-oriented cut.
Finally, the jury is given its marching orders, first by one side, then the other; it files out to deliberate. A camera spies on their pros and cons, the 12 deciders a perfect cross section of an ideal Italian society, age-, race-, and gender-wise. True and glorious Commedia dell’Arte this is.
I’m in Italy for ten days, meandering from Lecce to Verona via Firenze, stopping here and there, everywhere. Sure, one shouldn’t confuse tourism with immigration, but if I may be permitted to say this: Italia, paese meraviglioso – ti voglio bene!
From the top of the muscular white swan of the Jadrolinija Split–Vis ferry I watch the wake striating the deep-blue-sea navy of the water, but any thought it could have of creating a lasting tide is naive: its stark white crests dissipate into a sort of piping on the folds of a great skirt before transforming into swirling aquamarine, blending into the two halves of the Adriatic momentarily left behind the ship. This shade of blue I have never encountered before, neither tint nor intensity. It’s a hue that ensorcels, that has ways to make you talk, yet, in the end, leaves you speechless.
Once on Vis, the island, we are whisked by a local couple – Jélena, a former triathlete with the finely defined musculature of a thoroughbred and a tired smile, and her beau Alf, née Hrvoje, a balding, thin, silent, efficient type who chain-smokes hand-rolleds – along a twisting road to a beach featuring large white pebbles and extra-clear turquoise water. А few feet in, the bottom drops out, but since you always see it, you never know the depth. We dive with eyes open, legs flailing, yet at 30 meters from shore we never reach the porous white rock below, though it seems ever within reach.
Next is a short hop to Alf’s clifftop cabana bar overlooking a placid lagoon. There are nine of us, and we take two cars. I am here with my friends, masters of yoga masterclasses and spa retreats, who travel the world and even run a destination travel company, Qi Yo Travel, but even they are in a for a surprise. What we see as we arrive, entirely unexpected – as I, at least, did not prepare for this outing by reading any Lonely Planet literature on the Blue Grotto or environs – is, essentially, a 360-degree postcard. I notice that the benches we’re sitting on are made of long army-green ammunition boxes with writing on them in English, an incongruous echo of the war that raged here over 20 years ago. Later, as we skip down a lava-rock slope, pile onto a little white cutter, make it to the famous grotto and then back to the cabana to flowing cold drinks, huge vegetarian salads in the making, and the promise of fresh-caught grilled fish, the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a too-good-to-be-true version of a Mediterranean paradise.
Dusk comes first to the sea. The lagoon ripples with the gentlest of shimmers, and a gossamer net covers the water, its top-surface a luminous ginger, inside each rhomboid opening a colorless dapple of sea. I look ahead to a yellow-green fire engulfing the trees massed on the opposite hill. The net is its reflection. And still, the color of water that stays with me is the one I saw spreading as far as the eye could see that morning, on the Jadrolinija.
In the dark, by the light of ancient cast-iron-and-glass lanterns smoking to high heaven, there is ground-walnut strudel and – this cannot possibly be, and yet – homemade sour-cherry liqueur that is nothing less and little more than the quintessence of that most noble of berries, and even fruits. Sated, intoxicated, we crane our heads up to see stars galore and the yogurtous swirls of the galaxy, and if we could just extinguish the fuming lanterns, the sky would be crisp and deep-blue-sea-dark enough to perhaps see the future.
But if someone extinguishes them, it won’t be clear who has pilfered the last of the strudel, drained the remaining liqueur, and so we strain our eyes, seeking our next falling star, and I wonder what all of this means; whether I could recapture that shade of blue, furrowed by lamb-crests of wake, that I had seen from the top of the ferry, and whether one should even try.
In Milano on Ferragosto, the festival celebrating the Assumption of Mary, walking through the felicitously planned, carelessly groomed park around the Castello Sforzesco, you hear dancing. They’ve just finished singing the immortal, shameless Toto Cutugno hit L’Italiano as you spy the big white tent with no walls, and come closer and see a roiling crowd of rhythmic seniors dancing to the music, getting their juice from a middle-aged couple singing onstage.
She’s a long-haired brunette with white skin and a girl’s earnest voice, in wide-legged white pants, and she’s got just the tiniest bit of a camel-toe when she hitches them up across the swath of belly towards the tiny black top while blowing, out of breath, up on her bangs because she’s hot, and you can see the opaque front pockets shining through the white linen pants on her hips, and she’s fanning herself with some cheap disposable fan between verses, making smiling flamenco gestures with her hands, and the impromptu-dancing audience is loving the generation-old tunes she and her too-tanned partner with Roman hair and a hoop in the ear are belting through an amateur-sounding audio system, and it’s a real feria of an atmosphere and everyone is twenty-five years younger and there’s racial and gender and all other kinds of harmony in effect.
The women in this city, by the way – the 45-and-over set – are unabashedly, gloriously sexy: bright-eyed, tanned and wide-hipped, impossibly slim-waisted for their or any age, squeeze-breasted, with fine lace bras peeking out of their, say, aquamarine summer dresses that show plenty of leg, the occasional burst of cellulite or varicose vein on the satin skin notwithstanding. They feel beautiful and they smile and smile, and it all works for them, in the sense that it works for them and their audience. Maybe it’s Ferragosto or maybe – in this city of effortless, airborne feel for style – maybe they’re born with it.
In the evening, after a meal organically balanced between salty and bitter, wine and fish, sprezzatura and conversazione, you walk along an old residential street when, in a quintessentially Italian moment of the horsehair canvassing of cinema that undergirds life becoming just barely visible through the quotidian fabric, one looks up to see a man in a third-floor room in this old quarter of Milano – so the ceilings are high – sitting before a flat-screen TV mounted high, looking up in devotion, his face illuminated, gaze transfixed, high on the bare wall behind him a picture of Mary.
An image right out of Reality.
There either is the ineffable understanding that a creating force or spirit exists – or there isn’t. If there is, no reasoning is needed for persuasion; this force is felt and seen as clearly as we feel our bodies, see a sunrise. If there isn’t, no mountain of numbers or fact-based arguments will succeed, since everything may always be attributed to some mechanical or random explanation.
Ultimately, it’s about whatever leaves one content, without either camp forcing its ideas on the other. And yet I cannot help but think how bereft of wonder must be a world and a worldview in which every thing can be explained and there is no room for what we humans consider miraculous or ‘out of this world’ – that is to say: beyond our ability to fathom it with the faculty of reason alone.
Love, after all, is beyond reason – and even anti-reason – and yet we place it on a pedestal and worship it. Is it, then, that much of a stretch to conceive of a larger, universal love that is the will and energy which continually create and sustain the world?
The point being made – and it may be too esoteric or occult or right-brained or, if you will, wholehearted for some to apprehend – is that there is a knowledge beyond what we call feeling, and certainly beyond what we call empirical knowledge. The latter may arrive at information provided long ago by – let’s, at the risk of blowing someone’s mind, call it – the knowledge of the heart, but it cannot equal or surpass this information. Those who know, know, i.e. perceive and apprehend the awe-some oneness of the universe, not merely the kaleidoscopic beauty of its individual fragments interacting. Those who don’t believe in this type of knowledge should, at the very least, listen to a few hours of my man Alan Watts, to whom I now pass the baton.
“The mind is a terrible thing to worship. Blow your minds on a regular basis, my friends. Breathe. Meditate. For an hour each day, don’t think. Blow your minds.”
Before stopping for the night in Las Cruces, NM, traveling west on I-70, at 80-some miles per hour I passed a sign reading ‘White Sands National Monument’. I slowed down and kept going for half a mile, but something made me turn around. A good thing, too. It was the sunset hour. Driving a mile into the national park, past the place where you pay $3 to the two rangers in the guard booth, you see the asphalt turn white. Another three miles on this path brings you to a land of dunes – great white dunes set against mountains blue from the angle of the light and a pastel sky burning in the west with the sunset, filtered through laminae of heat and dust and clouds. And the clouds over these dunes of gypsum sands are creatures of pure light, shorn of heft, filled with nothing but air and a sort of purity of existence. They simply are. These clouds don’t seem at all painted, yet if there could be a picture of heaven, of a clarity and beauty at the level of Revelation, of G-d communicating with the world via light and its cousin, color, it would probably look like this:
Over the keyboard of a concert grand in an overlit recording studio, barely noticing the Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra behind him, which he directs sporadically, sits a hunchback with large hands, using them to play Bach and to dramatically brush back thick strands of his James-Dean-worthy hair. The next second reveals that it is a man with a palsy, his face contorted into a grimace corresponding to a pain of 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the next shows the face of a man of, say, 27, in a simple black v-neck sweater, still playing Bach, and playing him with a facility and assuredness that are uncanny, otherworldly. Frightening.
He has large brown eyes, sensuous red lips, the aforementioned good hair, a balanced face. He is lanky, not too tall, not too short, and has the pouncing gait and reflexive body language of a young rocker. He is an amalgam of the young Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and, appropriately, since he is playing Bach – Glenn Gould.
On his face passing intimations of epiphany, tragedy, clairvoyance, the pain of intolerable pleasure, the ravishment of seeing G-d’s own face, an imbecile’s Napoleonic grandstanding, the disarming directness of a child, and dozens others and half-others register before crumbling into the next grimace. To say that he is too much would be to say nothing at all. It would make much more sense to ask who gave this character the weekend pass from the insane asylum.
His eyes pop, his neck veins bulge, his fingernails are bitten and frayed. One moment his head is back in receipt of divine grace, the next, mouth open over the keyboard, he is gasping for air, biting at unseen magic dragonflies.
He’s brisk to the point of brusqueness. He hectors the orchestra, however Frenchly. “Obsession!” he growls, looking into the players’ eyes for a response (a waste of time, as they are German, tenured, and simply not used to this kind of crazed passion). “You have to be like a psychopath on this, no?”
To add to all of this, he periodically comments into a microphone to Etienne, his audio engineer, in French, of course, on the sound of the orchestra and on his general impression of the whole thing (seldom favorable). Not surprisingly, the camera registers many an arched eyebrow and eye roll from the players.
And then the director treats us to splices of him at the piano in some stylized basement, a light scarf waiting to slip off his shoulder, explaining his understanding of the same passages in an impenetrable grounds-of-Versailles-stroll-avec-parasol-et-petit-poodle French, condescendingly transmogrified into tiny English subtitles for the benefit of non-Francophone viewers.
He is maudlin, mawkish, hyperbolic, histrionic. He prefers abstractions, philosophy and top-heavy metaphors for the simplest descriptions; in short, he’s French. He makes faces that would get a third-rate actor booted from last-minute auditions to be an early-morning weekend children’s party clown for a provincial town’s Orphans & Widows Society. He is off-putting, grotesque, quite possibly disingenuous. He is the very picture of an overbearing, pompous, self-absorbed, overintellectualizing snob. Did we mention that he speaks English with a clownish French accent? We did mention, didn’t we, that he’s French?
His criticism is on-target, his suggestions relevant, ideas original. “Bach’s point is not virtuosity. His point is to bring matter more intensely to the boiling point!” His insights are not trite, his generalizations highly inspired. As he finally teases the sound he’s always had in his head from the players, we start seeing smiles of genuine wonder on their faces. His musical instinct is impeccable. He is one exasperatingly annoying bastard, but he’s pretty close to genius.
“How can you play Bach after Glenn Gould?” ask the liner notes for this 2008 film by Bruno Monsaingeon. This is how.
Drop everything and listen for yourself.
The life of a freelancer affords no community. This much has been well documented and is plainly plain. And membership in The Freelancers’ Union – much advertised – only takes you so far.
Imagine my delight, then, when, on only my third day in Tel Aviv I got to meet the upstairs neighbors during two consecutive air-raid sirens, which we spent on my landing. I learned that one of them understands Russian (no snide remarks behind his back in the Czar’s English for me) and that his family is from St. Petersburg, although he’s never been. “Go,” I said; “Putin had the city renovated 10 years ago for its 300th anniversary, and the paint’s still not spalling too badly. It’s beautiful; go.”
As I went back inside my apartment for the second time, back I went to a project I had to do for a client in besieged Ukraine who needed translations of some speeches made at the mid-May Moscow Conference on International Security. Between taking shelter in Tel Aviv and working into American English on the subject of security in Moscow – all for a client in Kiev – geopolitics was certainly playing a role in my evening. Some of the delegates at the conference: Iran, Syria, Belarus – in short, Psychos Descend On Red Square For Sleazefest as The New York Post doubtless would have put it. With a pro forma dedication, the speech of the Iranian Minister of Defense was off to a high-flying start: “In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate!”
Somewhere towards the beginning, there was this sentence: “In my capacity as the Minister of Defense of a country that itself is the victim of blind, mercenary terrorism, which, unfortunately, enjoys support and protection from those who present themselves as “fighters against terrorism” and “defenders of human rights”, I hereby declare that the government and people of Iran are, as they have always been, against any form of terrorism, especially state terrorism.”
Funny, I thought, how life works. Here I am, sitting under a bit of a hail of rockets that peace-loving Hamas militants received as a token of appreciation from Iran – although the gift must’ve been laced with a smidgen or two of disgusted condescension, since in private these descendants of the once-great Persian empire will tell you of their misgivings about dealing with Arabs, since they are, and I quote, “Semites” – yes, so here I am, stayin’ alive, and translating some not-too-on-the-level words by an Iranian leader. Although all for a good cause, since the Ukrainian client is a think tank.
I thought warmly about my two newly-met neighbors and about the possibility of, say, grabbing an Americano and, say, labneh laced with silan at the café across the street with one of them, and perhaps discussing the crucial differences in cool-kid clichédom between the Tel Aviv and New York hipster scenes in some halting Hebrew for me and a little kindergarten Russian for him. In short, I thought of making friends – building that vaunted community everybody’s so up in arms about, as if it were manna from heaven. Then I thought that if Hamas really wanted to fool people, as if they haven’t already, they could completely re-brand themselves, with a nice picture of families huddling in a concrete staircase, away from windows and facades, doubled over in communal laughter and visceral camaraderie, with the slogan: HAMAS. Connecting People.
My daydream over, I surveyed the speech. The Minister of Defense was out on a minute digit tracing back to a joint extending from a limb, but no less blithely confident for it:
“As my presentation comes to a close, please allow me to declare that the Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the past three decades has made greater efforts than any other country to bring into existence regional and international stability and security, and in connection with this took important steps in order to defuse crises and problems having to do with security in Central Asia, in the Caucuses, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and Palestine, will continue these efforts uninterruptedly.”
God bless him, I thought. At least someone’s trying. Allah, I mean. Allah bless him.
And then I remembered how, the day before, when I was in Jerusalem, which was inexplicably also being attacked – “Not *my* Eternal Capital!” says a kerchiefed fighter of freedom as he loads up a hissing projectile into a heinous ejectile – I had seen the darndest thing. A Breslaw Chassid, a middle-aged man in an old car, with his white prophet’s beard waving like a flag out of the open window, was chugging up a hill, one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding a plastic gun dispensing soap bubbles. He had a beatific smile on his face, and in the hush of the sunset hour he bellowed: “Don’t you worry, my children. These rockets, they are empty. Empty like these soap bubbles. Don’t you worry. We will overcome.” A heavily tattooed woman stopped and blew him a big wet one from the sidewalk.
This post was first published on the Times of Israel blog: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tin-over-tel-aviv/
Часть I – Между людьми и Богом
Богаты русские сказки сказаниями о подвигах славной троицы витязей–богатырей: Ильи Муромца, Добрыни Никитича да Алеши Поповича. Могучи они и морально устойчивы, справедливы и храбры. Служат им верой и правдой конь буланый да клинок булатный. Кольчугой торс богатырский покрыт, волóс прядь из под шлема торчит. С седла свисает огромная палица; у них басурманин на русское не позарится.
Они конечно же скорее варяги, нежели греки: дикие, неотесанные, возможно жестокие. Греческий Геракл, правда тоже не сенатор… но с полубогов взятки гладки. Принято считать, что образ Геракла есть архетип, олицетворивший подсознательные чаяния неолитских охотничьих народностей: символ силы, неуязвимости, непобедимости, успеха. Иными словами: Бонд (Джеймс Бонд); Юрий Гагарин (для романтиков, с ноткой надлома); Дональд Трамп (для неуемно амбициозных в области недвижимости, капитализма или же мирского успеха в целом). Иными словами – полубог.
У иудеев с многобожием строго, а, кто позарится на звание бога (т. е. Б–га) тому не позавидуют даже басурмане, попавшие под палицы Трех Богатырей; поэтому живой еврейский символ храбрости и свободолюбия мог быть максимум героем.
Наш герой Самсон, еврейский витязь в львиной шкуре, жил поистине героически, правда, немного à la russe, по принципу «наживаем себе большие трудности, которые с большим трудом ликвидируем».
Нередко позволял себе Самсон негероическое, а иногда, прямо скажем, беспардонное поведение. Как варяг–берсеркер часто входил в смертоубийственный раж, как русский богатырь был неутомим в битве и в застолье. Как любой мужчина, любящий жизнь, был он чрезвычайно охоч до женщин, особенно до типичных femme fatale – двуличных искусительниц, роковых барышень. И все же историю великого Самсона, судьи израилева, невозможно свести к банальному cherchez la femme. Если есть ключ к характеру этого могучего и противоречивого героя, то искать нужно не женщину, а Бога.
Неординарная связь еврейского богатыря с Всевышним проявляется еще до его рождения. Ангел возвещает о появлении на свет мальчика и говорит, что быть ему назареем. Ребенку дают имя Самсон – «солнечный» (от ивритского шемеш – «солнце»). «И начал Дух Господень действовать в нем в стане Дановом, между Цорою и Естаолом» (Книга Судей 13:25). Именно эта связь придает Самсоновым деяниям дерзость, стихийность и сверхмасштабность, которые становятся знаковыми чертами его характера. Умертвить тысячу человек челюстью осла, вынести городские ворота за десятки километров от города, уничтожить вражеские поля тремястами лисицами с горящими хвостами… Но эта же связь вселяет в Самсона роковую самоуверенность, которая приведет его к краху.
Кто еще посмел бы так фамильярно обратиться к Богу после побоища филистимлян: Ну и спас ты, Боже, слугу своего… Эффектно, не спорю. Ну и что же, Боже? Что мне теперь остается делать – потерять силу от жажды и стать добычей этой необрезанной когорты?! Но самоуверенность принимает недопустимые обороты: Самсон нарушает один за другим два завета назарейства – отказ от напитков из плода лозы и недопустимость нахождения рядом с трупами. За нарушение третьего и самого главного завета – не срезать волосы на голове – он поплатится зрением и честью.
Говорят, йоги и ламы, находящиеся в состоянии, наиболее близком к тому, что принято называть просветленным, часто умирают от рака. Несмотря на правильный образ жизни, здоровое питание, полное самообладание и чистоту души, их организм не выдерживает накала того канала, по которому осуществляется связь с высшим миром. Что если Самсоново нутро тоже восставало против бремени всесжигающей связи с Богом? Его постоянно тянуло на приключения и связи, которые могли привести лишь к беде. Был ли в этом высший умысел, иными словами – Божий промысел?
Часть II – Штирлиц–Шварценеггер–Шарон
Наш герой женился на филистимлянке умышленно, ибо филистимляне были правителями над евреями. Это было первое задание Самсона в роли шпиона. Будучи опытным кадровиком, Бог взрастил и направил самые яркие качества агента (неуемную похоть, предпочтение филистимлянок другим женщинам, умение лицедействовать) на обслуживание стратегических планов организации – освобождение израэлитов от филистимского гнета.
Филистимляне окружили город Газа, зная, что Самсон заночевал там с очередной пассией. Притаились за воротами, чтобы ночью он не ушел; брать собирались поутру. В полночь Самсон срывает врата Газы со стены и уносит их, вместе с петлями и столбами, на которых они крепились, к Хеврону, за 60 километров – действие во всех смыслах далекоидущее.
С этих пор в глазах филистимлян Самсон перестает быть просто дюжим малым, служащим могучему божеству, и превращается в бич поистине библейских пропорций – чуму и напасть, бога мести и Минотавра в едином воплощении. Додуматься до такого одновременно изощренного и топорного показа силы означало перевести диалог в совершенно иной регистр, перешагнуть далеко за рубеж пропорциональности, дать воробьям знать, что отныне в них будут стрелять исключительно из пушки. Зияющая пустота на месте выкорчеванных ворот обещала лишь одно: пощады от воина, готового на все и на все способного, не будет. Кто мог низвергнуть человека с хитростью и находчивостью Давида, с мощью и хвастливостью Голиафа? Разве что он сам.
Ночью проделывает Далила с солнечным богатырем свое черное дело. Третий и главный завет назарея невольно нарушен. Самсон схвачен, повязан, ослеплен, унижен. Издеваясь над былой мощью, его используют в качестве грубой физической силы: вместо вола ходит он по кругу, проворачивая жернов, перемалывающий зерно. И даже в этой мелкой детали заложено зерно страшной развязки. Что это – предсказание будущего или черный юмор Всевышнего?
Придет день великого празднества по поводу избавления народа филистимского от Самсона, и званые гости, насытившись каре ягненка и седлом барашка, попросят вывести виновника торжества, чтобы он, как лев с выдранными клыками и когтями, позабавил их своим жалким, комичным бессилием. Тогда маленький филистимский мальчик, сын тюремщика, мечтавший стать таким же сильным и смелым, как этот огромный дядя, поведет своего кумира в последний путь. Он подведет его к двум столбам в центре возвышения, а сам сядет под одним из них и будет смотреть с трепетом на слепого богатыря, который вдруг зарычит, будто настоящий лев, прокричит страшные слова и сокрушит каменный храм – и на белый день снизойдет кромешная тьма.
И связь Самсона с Всевышним будет скреплена навеки этим приношением, и будет Богу – Богово.
Humanity has trafficked in the concept of money since the days when establishing the relative value of five sheep’s bladders of undiluted wine and thirteen slightly stale loaves of spelt-flour bread became too much of a crapshoot. At some point, metal, salt, cattle or pretty shells became the universal indicator of worth. In those very times of yore, the value a family derived from its daughters was in their virginity, which meant marriageability and a dowry. The actual formula was Marriageability = Brains + (Beauty x Age)Virginity. Virginity was an assumed asset, brains – a potential liability. Beauty and age mattered, but a scary old maid (by definition, and in fact, a virgin) was worth more to our forefathers than a hot-to-trot young widow.
These days, it is harder and harder to find virgins. The age at which virginity is lost is more or less a constant through the ages, but holy matrimony now happens later and later in life. Society squints and scowls at virginity; beauty is the ultimate prize. Virginity is worth just about as much as brains once were – not much – and what is not in demand, quickly withers. At the same time, today’s societies are suffering through a global economic decline, which, some say, is due to the fact that money is virtual, no longer backed by anything tangible, instead created at will in electronic form, as zeroes on a flickering screen, by private corporations unconcerned with the public good.
And so, an idea is born.
Speaking in market terms, the value of virginity has fallen to historic lows, and is due for a rebound. Investing in virginity would not only right today’s lax moral standards, but could also shore up the economy. After all, virginity is a tangible, verifiable good, and a virtue to boot. And so, in conjunction with her debutante’s ball, quinceañera or sweet sixteen, a virgin girl files for an Initial Public Offering, with shares in her undeflowered state then traded on the secondary market, perhaps the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Research analysts at major brokerages cover her the way they currently cover companies in the manufacturing, high-tech or healthcare sectors, reporting on fundamentals, such as personal hygiene, preference for strenuous exercise, and dating activity. Grave hazards to share value, such as sleepovers at the boyfriend’s house or visits to hymen-replacing surgeons, are monitored, duly reported and included in 10K reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her family holds a controlling block of shares in their daughter’s virtue, deriving clear value as well as intangibles, such as reputational benefits and lower health & life insurance premiums. A pre-planned exit strategy covers the entrance into her life of a man meant to introduce her to the joys of womanhood.
In time, the dollar could become backed by the combined virtue of the daughters of America, with the euro, pound, and other currencies following suit. (Thanks to the virtualization and globalization of today’s markets, some godless society entirely lacking in morals could tether the value of its currency to, say, the weighted-average virginity indicator of a simple and pious community living in the woods – perhaps the Amish – radically increasing the purchasing power of the money its sin-mired citizens surely use to perpetrate acts of unspeakable perversion at every turn.) In short, truth and virtue would be popular and profitable, and purity and innocence would once again rule all of Creation.
Let the virgins of the world unite for a stronger currency and a better tomorrow!