Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Hanukkah Posting

This time of year makes me think back to perhaps my first encounter with religious history. Of course, there had been the unspoken rituals handed down in my family for at least a decade or two from which I had imbibed unexplicated lessons, but the first time it all came out in the open, as I recall it (or as my internal Talmudic fabulist scribe chooses to arrange it for maximum moral value), I was, at the age of seven or eight, given a book: The Story of Hanukkah.

Probably a publication of the Golden Books division of Simon & Schuster, source of much of my childhood entertainment (some of their executives were patients of my father's, I believe), it was a very large book with big illustrations and it told the story you all know: the Jews were conquered by nasty Greeks who ordered them to bow down to Greek idols; they resisted; they were oppressed; five brothers named Maccabee led a revolt; took the Temple; couldn't find enough consecrated oil for the proper ritual; a miracle occurred. This was followed by the menorah, the dreidel and other customs later spoofed on South Park. The Hanukkah Bush was not mentioned – just as well, since my parents had a Christmas Tree and called it that, and its colors and lights thrilled me from the first. I never questioned why my grandparents did not have such trees – they lived in Manhattan, in apartments; we lived in New Rochelle, in a house. People who lived in apartments did not have trees; people who lived in houses had children and trees. The logic was clear.

The book told a subtler story, or many stories. Who were these thriftless people with their Temple that didn't have storage space for more than one tiny bottle of oil? Who were the Greeks and what were they doing out of Greece? Who were those annoying kids willing to be put to death rather than pray to an idol, and why was it even an issue? Who were these rather ruthless Maccabees? (The later history of the dynasty was, mercifully, omitted: a bloody bunch.) Does the establishment of a holiday that is all about light, light returning ceremoniously, night by night, at precisely the Winter Solstice, not seem awfully pagan, awfully typical of earth-based rituals throughout the northern hemisphere? (It was ten years or more before I got around to asking that question.) Was the whole Hanukkah business, complete with bush and presents and carols (dear heavens! yes – even in high school choir – no doubt inevitable in so Jewish a suburb as New Rochelle), not a pasty me-too imitation of the great American consumerist Christmas?

My mother said this, early and often – she still does. When she was a child, Hanukkah was almost unheard of, and she had watched its growth and emulation of Currier & Ives custom with disquiet and contempt – but then, when she was a child, there had not been any recent attempt to wipe Judaism off the earth, and that event certainly had something to do with the revived and modernized, Second Coming as it were, of Hanukkah after the war.

So I got the book, and though puzzled, devoured it, especially noting the illustrations (which ancient Jewry so wisely forbade in their books): a bunch of muscular but slovenly men attacking a bunch of rather stiff centurion types, breaking into the Temple precincts, throwing down and demolishing statues of a rather pretty lady with a helmet on her head.

My response was instantaneous: Who was the pretty lady, and why would anyone break her statue? (Only much later did I discover that statues of her can be found all over New York – her family and friends too. I guess the Maccabees didn't get them all.)

Kiddie though I was, I had already been taken by my grandmothers, with great solemnity, in familial rite, to enormous, pervasively silent temple-type buildings filled with wonders and with echoes and with a great sense of awe and tradition. The Met Museum, for instance, was a palace and a temple, and there are lots of helmeted ladies there. (Also naughty pictures of ladies with nothing on at all, but I don't remember visiting those galleries. I wasn't much of one for painting till I was about 20, actually.) (There were also statues of men wearing nothing at all, and I knew I shouldn't look at certain parts of their bodies, but no doubt because of my childish lack of height, I did tend to stare. Being uncut, they didn't look at all like mine.)

Somehow I knew that it was wicked – wicked for those brutal men to knock down statues of that lovely lady. Somehow the book made me curious about her, and her rites, and the Greeks who loved her if not wisely perhaps too well. From my parents and grandparents, I had already imbibed the family religion: beautiful objects should be preserved and gazed at, appreciated and understood, shared with the world. Privately, of course, I wanted to keep them to myself – not the Met, which is a bit unwieldy, but I wanted the whole Cloisters all to myself, and maybe the Frick as well. But I didn't get them, either one, and regular access seemed the next best thing.

My family faith was in the works of human art – or so it seemed to me. The manifestations of all men and women, the arts that inspire and never inflict harm, the statues and buildings and paintings and (later) books and songs and dramas, that we all of us share, that cannot replace themselves and depend on us for their creation and preservation and glory: worshipful as evidence of the glory of human mind and skill, ranking us with the creation of nature itself (if it was created). Nature tends to have better taste, less subject to fashion. That is how one knows it is above art. But by my personal faith, it is possible to worship both. Both are worshipful, and worthy.

Worship is not required by deities; they don't need it. It's good for us, and it's good for nature and for works of art, because the worship inspires us to preserve them. But the deities can get along without it. They did before (if they're real); they will when we're gone.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ubar: God Punished Them

Part of my wonderful week in Chicago over Thanksgiving -- the part when I was not going to the opera or having rowdy dinners with lively people -- was spent at Renaissance Books in Milwaukee, four (unheated) floors of dusty fabulousness. Among the books I did not buy (because who wanted to carry all that stuff home? AND find a place for it in my bulging flat?) was Nicholas Clapp's The Road to Ubar -- I remember when the reviews came out, licking my lips. Anyway, it was at my branch library when I got home. Now I'm a little sorry I didn't purchase a copy -- would have made a swell present for godchildren.

Clapp makes documentaries and has a thing for the Arabian desert. He'd already published a book on the Queen of Sheba (I've reserved that one, thanks NYPL) when he wandered through Oman (one of the world's two remaining sultanates -- the other is Brunei) and heard legends of the Lost City of Ubar. Ubar, aka Iram, was a city of matchless wealth and wickedness (can't have one without the other) that (insert name of deity here) punished in some mysterious manner at a point a few generations before Mohammed -- he mentions it in the Koran as a city given over to idolatry. It turns up in many Arab geographies and legendaries (including the 1001 Nights) after that, but -- to Clapp's surprise -- Ubar and its inhabitants, the People of 'Ad, turn up in Ptolemy's Geography, too, listed as a thriving metropolis near Oman. Moreover, bedouins had pointed out some ancient caravan trails (ten lanes wide) as "the Road to Ubar" to an exploring Brit in 1930 (but the road promptly disappeared under dunes). Bedouins, like rural folk anywhere, have long memories, but they also let tales grow and are hazy about dates and facts on the ground. (Ask the locals in Britain or France about the origins of the local Neolithic monuments. Ask them before they read scientific articles, as nowadays they probably have. So have many bedouin.)

It was all very mysterious to Clapp except that there had been a source of fabulous wealth in the area: the Dhofar mountains of Oman had been the world's only source of high-quality frankincense, the mana of the gods, once passionately sought from Rome to Egypt to Jerusalem to Mesopotamia. Caravans crossed the desert for thousands of years. (Some of the trade went by sea, or via the kingdom of Sheba -- yes, her. But the direct route lay through the Empty Quarter.) So Clapp gets the coordinates for that British sighting in 1930 and goes to the satellite boys connected with the Challenger, and sure enough ... there are ancient caravan trails all over the place. Most of them seem to converge near an oasis or two (what a surprise), and soon Clapp and a bunch of crazy adventure-and-archaeology types (with help from the oil companies and approval from Sultan Qabus, a notably progressive type -- does his name signify he's the end of his train, I mean line?) approach an oasis city (pop: 36) that has been built by a ruined fort beside a still-fertile spring that was once a huge oasis (history of the region, once lakes and rivers and savannah, is traced back 100,000 years). The kicker is an enormous sinkhole with the spring in the middle of it. Was this once a city? Did they grow fabulously rich and not too friendly (high prices for passing tourists) on the caravan trade? Did they use so much water that, as the water table sank, it hollowed out a huge cavern under the city? Did the cavern fall in one night, to the shock of everyone in the region -- a shock still reverberating a century or two later, when Mohammed produced the Koran? And are the people of the region, who speak languages unlike any other and only very, very distantly related to Arabic, the ancient wicked people of 'Ad? They say they are, and they still harvest frankincense.

But read the book. It's a very good book, cleverly arranged, a fine mixture of adventure story and scientific report, study of ancient manuscripts and the latest scientific understanding. (You can get a copy from Amazon for two bucks, plus shipping.)

The kicker for me is the myth the disaster aroused: God punished them (because a natural disaster could not have been explained any other way in 350 CE), ergo they were unspeakably evil, not merely rich and inclined to stay that way at your expense. Were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah any more evil than that? (Genesis suggests they were inhospitable, which would annoy bedouin.) Or, to take more modern instances (when people should know better, if people ever learned from experience), have you ever read or seen a fictionalized or filmed version of the end of Pompeii that did not attribute the eruption to immoral behavior, idolatry and all? And say very little about continental drift? How about such American disasters as the Johnstown Flood, the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Fire-Quake? Yes, they were all attributed to the Almighty's personal intervention to punish the wicked. New Orleans and the WTC? You bet.

If there are gods, they really don't care about idolatry and ill will of men towards men. They've got other fish to fry. They're keeping the natural forces coming and going. They don't speak to us in our own language either. "I told you not to build there! What did you think that lightning bolt meant? No one in his right mind (except a human) would build a city there. It's below sea level. It's right on a major fault line. That mountain smokes, you fools. It's not because it's had a hard day and wants to relax." The book God (or the Gods) writes is the geology of the earth, and we should be able to read it pretty well now -- some splendid minds have been deciphering it, ever since Agassiz and Humboldt. Some of my favorite parts of Ubar concern the piecing together of the ecological history of Arabia, which was verdant and populous before the Red Sea began to widen, pushing Arabia steadily upwards and its water table down and the mountains too high for the monsoon to get over them.... (Clapp mentions that the Red Sea once had a land bridge at its mouth, and Homo erectus could easily stroll across to settle in what is now Yemen.)

People love to project their personal morality onto deity. Don't trust yourself when you do that. Don't trust anyone else who does it, including authors of books hundreds or thousands of years old. Trust geology. Trust scientific evidence. Reinterpret that all you like (by damn, those dinosaurs and their wicked, idolatrous ways), but ... make sense of it ... and you'll find you're reading the real Gospel.