Monday, September 3, 2012

How Jewish are the Jews?

Reading an intriguing Israeli book (in translation of course), Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, (Verso) a 19-week bestseller in Tel Aviv in 2009.

Sand examines a figure that has always puzzled me: The statement (often seen) that the population of the Roman Empire c. 100 CE was seven or eight percent Jewish, and the notoriously broad spread of Jewish communities throughout Roman Asia, Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa, not to mention Egypt and Arabia, a community that included several converted Arab and Berber tribes and entire kingdoms (Yemen, Adiabene and — much, much later — Khazaria), that was not Hebrew-speaking and required the translation of the Bible into Greek c. 2nd century BCE, all descending somehow from the tiny Temple state that threw out the Seleucids in 2nd century BCE under the Maccabees (who went on to conquer, and forcibly convert, many neighboring entities for a century or so until Rome subsumed all).

Examining both the historical and the Talmudic evidence (I, of course, have read no Talmud, but Sand has), Sand claims that proselytization, far from being unusual, was very common in this era and passionately encouraged, that gentiles were converting to Judaism on all sides. The era was one where, as states and tribes lost their independence, local faiths lost their juice and people began to merge in new urban agglomerations, where they accordingly began to seek new, more universal religious faiths. Hundreds of such faiths (if not more) arose and faded, including the great Mystery cults of Life after Death (I have been told this is when an interest in such things was tacked on to Judaism, where it had not previously featured), the mix-and-match cults of Cybele, Bacchus, Orpheus, Isis, Serapis and Mithras, and of course this is the era that produced not merely the Septuagint but also both Talmuds — and the canonization of the Bible. Ultimately, a Jewish messianic spin-off group became Christianity, took over the Empire and outlawed all the other faiths — and then fell to pieces due to violent heretical disputes.

But until that happened (notes Sand), Judaism still fascinated many gentiles who often became converts, though circumcision was sometimes a sticking (hoho) point. Christianity was originally just Judaism without circumcision. Later, the Trinity developed. And whole kingdoms (Yemen in the fourth, fifth, sixth centuries, Adiabene near the Caspian Sea in the first century) professed Judaism. Sand also notes that the "exiles" of Jews (Nebuchadnezzar, Titus and Hadrian) only applied to the region immediately surrounding Jerusalem; the rest of Judah (Judaea) was not depopulated and the country people continued to practice their version of their ancient religion. (Babylon remained a Jewish metropolis until the Mongols destroyed it a thousand years later. So did Alexandria until it became Christian.)

This explains why so tiny a state could produce such a large and resilient Jewish population across North Africa, in Spain (where the Vizigoths persecuted them heartily), in Italy and Greece and Asia: Most of them were conversos. And it is from these, he infers, that most modern Jews are descended. He notes that this was an accepted theory in the early days of the Israeli state but has become less and less the approved national narrative in the course of half a century, especially since the occupation of the West Bank. For one thing it implies that many Palestinian Arabs, Christian and Muslim, are descended from Jewish peasants who converted over the centuries.

I'm not at all sure myself that the word "race" has any useful meaning (except several people running for the same goal line), and not all Sand's analysis of trends in modern nationalist myth-making in Europe convince me, but it is a fascinating book and explains better than anyone else I have read what was going on in the early Roman imperial centuries.

Perhaps it explains a little better who exactly my ancestors were.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Is It All Over? A response to Michael York

This is a response (which I have also posted there, to Michael York's "Being Upon the Brink of Catastrophe" on The Wild Hunt. (

Michael believes human history is approaching its end and is inclined to blame the egotism and ecological irresponsibility (and the faction fighting that fuels it) upon the prevalence and character of the Abrahamic religions. And he has had professorial chairs in the subject, as well as being the author of the excellent Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, which slim and elegant tome I heartily endorse.

I have long believed, as Michael does, that we live in the end times, if not the immediate end times. But I don't blame the Abrahamic faiths so much as a human egotism that is pretty universal, indeed universal to mammalian life; it is more our fatal ingenuity that has cured some problems and caused others it cannot cure. Louis Pasteur is to blame! or Francis Bacon and the beginnings of the experimental scientific outlook! Well, whoever. But since I am old and childless, perhaps it is self-indulgent and childish of me to believe (as I do believe) that we are trapped, that human ingenuity that has conquered so many problems, will find no proper answers for the array that confront us now. I am wary of mentioning my pessimism to those of my friends who have kids, who MUST hope for a better world for them -- and indeed, my friends' kids do give me some hope. (Their taste in music aside.)

And the earth itself -- yes, it's a fecund planet. I think life will survive upon it, even if we bring on pollution and nuclear disaster (anybody read the news from Fukushima lately?). I don't believe in alien civilized life that will swoop down and rescue us, because we've only been capable of such communication for a hundred years or so, and we've just about shot our bolt. How long would it take life on other worlds, even if they do chance to produce something intelligent? (WE didn't, for five billion happy years.) Nor do I think we'll find some refuge to escape TO within hailing distance.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Another chat with a foreigner

As you know, I collect foreigners. I enjoy being one in other countries, and I enjoy encountering them here. Encountering foreigners IN other countries where they TOO are foreigners - whoa.

This guy was a Turk, the chef in a restaurant called Pera Downtown that has evidently just opened in SoHo. I knew Pera UPTOWN (around the corner from Grand Central) but it's too pricey for me. Goes for the one on Sullivan Street, too. For inexpensive and delicious Turkish food, I go to Balkanika on Ninth Avenue or ... now what's it called? The place on Second Avenue and 49th?

Or I go to Turkey, but I've only done that once.

He was standing outside the restaurant about 9p.m. smoking, off work, heading home. His English was pretty good. I told him I'd loved visiting Turkey, asked him where in the country he was from. Antalya. "I hear that's lovely," I said. "No - Istanbul. That's the beautiful one. You did right." "But there's so much to see all over that country - " "Yeah, but it's crazy now. They've all gone crazy. They're killing the country."

I'd heard Turkey's was one of the world's few thriving economies, but now he got into it. "Erdogan?" he said when I asked. "He's killing people. Nobody has money any more - just the very, very rich. Nobody else. Turkey used to be a poor country, but we could go out and buy a drink. Now? I put three hundred dollars in my pocket, when I come back it's gone, I don't know where it's gone. I visited my family for three weeks - thirty thousand dollars! I don't know where it's gone. I own three houses there - it's for my kids - when they want to come here to school, I'll sell the houses. But I work hard as I can and I can't pay for them now. It's terrible there now."

"Well, I was just in Greece - "

"Greece? You know who's saving Greece? We're buying up things in Greece. We're saving them. But they hate us. It's because they just don't want to work. They sit at home and wait for a check in the mail. And then they come to America - I got Greek friends here - they work like animals here! If they worked like that at home, Greece would be Number One. But they don't want to work at home - they want to work here."

"That's sort of true of Americans, too - "

But clearly I was missing his point, whatever it was.

He had more to say, about history. "They got this movie now - 1453. Have you seen it? It's at AMC on Broadway." I haven't seen it and it's not mentioned on line. "About the fall of Constantinople?" I said. "Everything. It's about everything about that. But I'm very disappointed. Three and a half hours, and it's just fighting. You know what? I wish they'd made that film in Hollywood." I said: "Fifty years ago, maybe. Today, they'd ruin it." "Maybe."

"They're doing that all over," I marveled. "Making movies about their history in sort of a Hollywood style. Thailand. China - "

"But it's lies," he said. "China. They didn't make a movie about the Great Wall." "Yes they did! I saw it! The Last Emperor. I even saw an opera made out of it!" "Yeah, but they didn't show the real story. You know why they built the Great Wall?" "To keep the Mongols out?" I replied, weakly. "Not the Mongols! The Turks!" He was bursting with pride. (History is a trick we play on the dead.)

It is true eastern China is mostly inhabited by Uighurs, folk of Turkic stock, and so is most of Central Asia for the matter of that.

"Sure!" cried the chef! "Turkmenistan - Kirghizstan - Vietnam -"

"Uh. Not Vietnam. But Uzbekistan - Kazakhstan - Azerbaijan - "

"Right, Uzbekistan," he said. "You know, if they got all those twelve countries or so together, there'd be a new Ottoman Empire!"

I wondered what it was about the Ottoman Empire he longed to restore. The idea of Turks as terrors of the seas? (Barbarossa, the Turkish corsair hero, was born a Greek Christian on Lesbos, but never mind.) The Janissary Corps? The Sultan-Caliph, commander of the faithful? The subjection of the Arabs and Greeks and Slavs? Minarets and Iznik tiles? (I'm all for Iznik tiles and minarets.)

The Mongols of course were also of Turkic stock.

"But we're not good at politics," said the chef. Many Turks insist to me that they're not good at business, finance, politics, all sorts of modern skills that, in fact, they are perfectly good at. They still like to think of themselves as unsophisticated ghazi warriors. It soothes their crestfallen vanity, at not being among the world's top nations, though in fact they are up there, with an enormous army and a thundering economy, not to mention a hugely influential TV industry that blankets the Middle East in soap operas, as Egypt and Lebanon do in Arab music videos.

"We're not good at politics, and people don't want us to unite. The Kurds. The Greeks. All those people." The various Turkic peoples would tear each others' heads off given the chance - they'd certainly be a lot less powerful united than they are separate.

But this is the current myth, or one current myth. And I do love to track the rise and fall of myth, which every people, every nation, every culture gives rise to, lives by, survives on in preference to variously unpalatable truths.

Having got the rant out of his system, he wished me good night with a most amiable smile.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Real Homosexual Agenda

Everyone talks about the Homosexual Agenda, but no one has specified exactly what it might be. As I am a homosexual (out! as of right now! no one knew before this instant! except my three thousand-odd tricks and a few close friends and family!), I have decided to share my inferences in this matter. About time, eh?

This is the REAL homosexual agenda:

9 a.m. Espresso macchiato with the most adorable little patterns in the foam, far too pretty to add sugar and ruin it. (Clever I!)

9:30. Shave, shaping beard into exactly symmetrical points outlining chin. This could take 45 minutes. It did yesterday.

10:15. Choose outfit in which to Face the World.

10:45. Change mind, and outfit.

Noon. Breakfast! Oops, more like brunch. The difference between the two: Breakfast can be eaten in solitude; brunch requires gossipy company.

1p.m. Saunter into the daylight, examining shop windows.

2-4. Shopping, unless it is Gym Day. Body sculpting! Cruising! Arguing with my Trainer! (hugely muscled fellow from St. Lucia - he explains the theology of Rastafarianism to me; in return, I promise to get him and his Polish girlfriend into an opera that is neither Russian nor German)

4 - My long-suffering shrink. Bring him flowers of appeasement. Talk for 50 minutes.

5pm. Tea time. ONE biscuit, with unsugared black tea.

6pm. Cocktails for two or howevermany.

MEET! GREET! DITCH! BITCH! (behind their scrawny backs)

7pm. Mad dash to the theater (whichever).

8-10. Theater (or 8-11, opera).

11pm. More cocktails and bitchy analysis of foregoing.

Midnight. Chamomile tea.

1am. Oil of Olay on shadowy skin suggesting but not fore-ordaining pouches under eyes.

1:30. Time for 15 pages of Proust, or at least the comic book version.

2:14a.m. Prayers.

2:15a.m. Lights out. Sleep.

There, Mr. Santorum. That wouldn't be so very terrible, would it? Or would it?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Permanently Single: Is This Where Our Society Going?

My friend Diann, a single heterosexual not quite my age, living alone and loving it in a house in the Connecticut woods, recommends this article from Boston Magazine:

The article has inspired me (gay man not the least bit interested in marrying another gay man - or even a woman, though I like them better), to some reflections.

People used to marry when they regarded themselves as, primarily, part of a family (tribe if you will). They married, and they married someone their family approved of (ethnicity, religion, politics, job), and the important thing was to have a support in old age and for someone to be available to bring up the children.

In my family, in 1850 (across the Atlantic), they married other Jews in their region, and the marriage was arranged young, except in the case of prosperous widowers for whom age was never a bar. And had scads of children. In 1900, in New York, they still married, always Jews (looking down on those from different regions), and always with the intent to have children. There were fewer of those: No one had more than three. If a wife died (usually in childbirth), the widowed husband was soon married off to her sister or his cousin, so the children would have parents. Children cared for the aging relations. By 1940, the first "lifelong bachelors" had appeared, causes not discussed openly. By 1960, the first intermarriages had shocked the family, and after that ceased to do so. By 2000, half of my relations had married non-Jews if they had married at all. Differences in race or religion or sexual orientation somehow were not as upsetting to any of us as the bitter feuds between Hungarian Jews and Russian Jews had been in 1900. (The first family divorce, by the way, had taken place in 1920. It wasn't the last.)

The Industrial Revolution has slowly changed our familial ways. We are individuals now and feel entitled to suit ourselves in these matters. And we have far fewer children (since we learned how not to do so). The problem of being alone in ill health (as I found with a shoulder out of commission last November) is the one that lingers. Of my six first cousins, only two had children (one of them by a white gentile, the other by a black foreigner - both marriages did not last, by the way). I might have married in my teens (like my great-grandfather) but later than that ... I was far too much the loner. I am also openly gay (and not the only one), which is another signpost of rising individuality. This didn't happen - openly - before Stonewall.

Society in the Industrial West has fewer and fewer families and children, let idiots like Santorum rail against it as they like. We have "families of intention," but they are not linked indissolubly as blood families usually are. You can choose your friends, and you can choose to "unfriend" them, however close they may have become. Society must rethink the matter of people who are alone and old, devise new structures.

The present fallback: Bring in more immigrants to do these chores, to care for the old who are childless or otherwise engaged, and to produce the population mass to replace our decline. This situation has many defects. Immigrants are good at such work, and they absorb our ways, convert to our attitudes, but that takes time, a generation or two (as the Dutch have lately discovered). And we may not have two or three generations until the whole Western industrialized top-heavy mass topples over.

Did we reach the top only to find that our pyramid has uneasy foundations?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Trust. Even more than Love

It's about Trust.

Even more than Love.

I am coming to realize that.

Love without Trust is more trouble and complication than it is worth. (Though it's produced a lot of good opera, drama, novel, folk balladry.)

Trust without Love is still valuable: You know that your
friend/ partner/ relative/ whatever has enough self-esteem not to do you dirty, to look out for you, simply because it is necessary to that self-image.

My aunts, for instance, loved their sister and looked out for her every step of the way through the vicissitudes of old age, last illness and death, and they look out for me because ... it just wouldn't occur to them not to do so. I can rely on that. I can tell them my troubles and get good advice. I can turn to them in need — they both said that if I needed a loan for expenses when Mum died, they would be happy to provide it; I was happy not to need it, but it made me very calm that they could say it, and that I knew they meant it.

It is necessary for me – maybe for anyone – to have someone to whom I can say anything and know my privacy will be respected. To be able to give someone my keys (and passwords!) and know they'll take care of things in my absence or illness.

(God knows what it was like to live under communism or fascism, when informers were everywhere! I've read some fascinating books on this subject, notably Anna Funder's Stasiland and Timothy Garton Ash's The File, but ... how much of the real experience do they convey? Especially as Funder and Ash, like me, were outsiders, though, in Ash's case, across the Wall and under observation. It is unimaginable to us, privileged to live in America. I cannot forget certain conversations I had in Berlin while The Wall was still up, in Prague soon after it came down. A world with little trust.)

Plenty of people probably do not have such totally trustworthy persons in their lives, or are themselves unable to yield absolutely to Trust. Others grew up in families that did not nurture that sort of trust, or had lovers or friends become addicted to something. Among Witches, one encounters many children of betrayal, searching for the kindly parents they didn't have, and it worries me, and complicates coven politics. I'm sure it's true of priests and evangelical ministers, certainly of those who head radical political movements.

Freud spoke of The Transference: His patients began to see him as a father, a lover, a god, fixing all their betrayed hopes upon his omniscience and benevolence. He could see this might easily lead to trouble, and of course it often did.

Trust is key to making a society.

Love may be a good idea for one's ethical life, but one can live without it.

Plenty of people do.

Or it turns up in the oddest, most unpredictable places.

But Trust is key.

Or we are all, shatteringly, alone. And, facing mortality, we are alone anyway. But we can seek some relief for that.

As Grace Slick would say, "You better find somebody to trust."

This is a reflection on my great number of dear and trustworthy friends, especially perhaps on the ones who were attentive and useful after my surgery in November, and the unforgotten many who were so devoted after my lymphoma in 1997.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Robot Wars

Articles in many media lately trace the increasing use of drones and robots in America's wars. This sort of thing may save a few American lives, but enables those who manipulate our foreign policy to serve the military-industrial complex.

Their thinking is very simple really:

1) American business makes a fortune from warfare, possibly couldn't stay afloat without it (since the rest of our manufacturing sector has been shipped overseas).

2) The Vietnam convulsion, near-civil war in the U.S. and abysmal morale (much fragging) among the troops, not to mention the destruction of two powerful presidents, demonstrated that Americans will refuse to fight wars merely on the whim of their leaders. They only see their sacrifice as justifiable in defense of the country, which no foreign nation is likely to attack. (No foreign country has ever done so except once, and the Japanese probably won't try again.) So the Draft was eliminated and no one in D.C. dares even whisper the word. As a direct result, most of America, especially young and privileged America which fueled the anti-war demonstrations around Vietnam, no longer cares what the military do.

3) The volunteer military also costs a bundle, though it has the beneficial result of permitting poor youth with no other affordable way to education and career to escape their situation. But their treatment in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts (and the import of mercenary "guards" to do the real dirty work) is also causing political trauma and unrest. They, too, would rather stick to clearly defensive operations. This has not gone unnoticed at the top.

4) A drone/robot military can spend all the government money and incur all the foreign bloodshed it likes; the American public will remain indifferent since their blood will not be shed, and the arms business marches on while the economy sinks and our international reputation goes down the drain.

Rejoice, muzhiki!