Thursday, November 26, 2009

Onomastic Bubbleplastic

The blogger known as Mississippi Fred MacDowell comments to "Using the Title Rabbi" on Hirhurim blog:

That's true across the board. Almost no one in Europe with a kinnui used their Hebrew name except when they were called to the Torah. The Netziv was known as "Reb Hersh Leib."

But I wonder. Is it just "kinnui", or is there an avoidance of first names? The Netziv's full name was "Naftali Tzvi Yehuda", while "Hersh Leib" only translates the last two names. Yes, I know, the animal associated with the tribe of Naftali is a Tzvi (deer). Still, people used a Yiddish pronunciation of Naftali for people who didn't have other names, e.g. Naftali Brandwein, one of the top klezmer clarinetists in America between the wars. My father played with him once in the late 1930s, when Dad was in the house orchestra in a Catskills hotel. After the show, they all went out to the deli in Monticello, and when Brandwein started playing, windows popped open all over town, people shouting "Naftulle's back! Naftulle's back!"

Anyway, back to the main point. I was thinking about my mother's (Litvish - Kovno and Suvalk, mostly) family, many of whom had double names, whether Hebrew/Yiddish or Hebrew/Hebrew, and in almost all cases, the second name was the one they used. Particularly where they or their parents were the immigrants. Those whose parents grew up here, used first names.

  • Grandpa (Tzvi Hersh on his ketubba) known as Heshke when young, Harold as an adult. (Lawyer)
  • His brother Uncle Joe (Yosef Ezra) Ezzie as a kid, Joe in college and later. (CCNY history professor)
  • Great-grandpa Louis Cohen (Yitzchak Eliezer) - used the name Louis (founded Brooklyn Jewish Center)
  • His brother Joseph H. Cohen (Yechizkiyahu Yosef) - used Joseph (founded The Jewish Center)

And beyond them, what does Shulamith Soloveitchik Meiselman say her brother Yosef Dov was called by his family? Berel - again the second name, not Yossel.

Thinking about your (particularly Litvish) older relatives with two names, who would have followed European speechways rather than American, does anyone else notice a similar pattern?

What does it mean? Debbie (Mrs. Thanbo) speculates that since everybody is named for an older relative, perhaps the older relatives were known by their first names as adults, so children are called by the second name to differentiate. That sounds possible. I, for instance, Jonathan Jay, was named for an uncle who died in childhood. He was called "Jonny" by his parents (my grandparents). But my grandparents called me "Jay" or "JJ", because I was NOT Jonny. Actually, my brother has more his personality. But then, what about Reb Hersh Leib, who was apparently known as such as an adult?

Happy Turkey, everybody. Thanksgiving has some bittersweet memories, as it was the end of shiva for my grandpa (Harold, mentioned above) in 1980. That was the one year we didn't have a Thanksgiving dinner, of course - Grandma used to make it, and she certainly wasn't about to, nor was Mom, both aveilot. So we went out to Fine and Schapiro (the local kosher deli) and had turkey sandwiches for lunch.

But most Thanksgiving memories are fun - we lived on the Upper West Side, so went to the parade every year. Except 5th grade, when it was pouring*. When I got older, I would go to the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue for shacharit and Tgvg breakfast, and watch the parade from their porch. My grandparents lived around the corner from the synagogue, so Mitch & I would go right over to them after the parade and have some just-us time without our parents at Grandma & Grandpa's.

This year, we're hosting my family. Debbie's mother has remarried, and doesn't keep kosher, so she's going to Tgiv with her husband's children.

So Happy Thanksgiving, for those who celebrate it.

* Why do I remember the weather in 5th grade? We stayed home and watched the parade on TV. We were watching band after band march past, with rank upon rank of clarinets, which are the violins of a marching band - the main instrument, if not the flashiest. Mom suggested "would you like to play clarinet, like your grandpa Beckerman (Dad's father)?" "OK, I'll give it a try." And I played all through high school. My fingers still know where to go, if I have no lip any more. But it was good training, and I still play recorder. The upper register on the clarinet has the same fingerings as the C recorders (soprano, tenor), while the lower register has the same fingerings as the F recorders (sopranino, alto, bass)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chassidic Idiom in English

I've been reading Elliot Wolfson's latest work, "Open Secret", on Chabad and its messianism (not just recently, but as an underlying thread throughout its history). Dr Wolfson (no relation to Harry Austryn Wolfson, AFAIK) has, in recent years, taken to writing in a flowery style affected by contemporary literary theory. This style seems to adapt itself well to the flowery style of the Chasidic maamar, which in essence is the model for his prose.

At times he uses Hebrew terms for Hasidic concepts, since they are the best way to express them. Sometimes, however, he attempts to (re)cover Hasidic concepts using English terms. For instance, the following passage, which struck me:

The forms of contemplation are aligned with two philosophical approaches with respect to the question of the relationship of God to the world. The former and less theologically dangerous orientation, which corresponds to what is usually called by historians of religion panentheism, considers the one reality to be unified in and yet distinct from all matters of the world, and hence everything in the chain of becoming is part of the evolving whole that is the divine source, and the latter is the far more challenging view -- what is referred to as acosmism - that there is no independent ontic status to the world, that God is the only substance in reality and thus the world in all of its multiplicity and differentiation is negated, since it is but a manifestation of the divine essence.

First off, I had never actually seen a differentiation between panentheism, the concept that everything in the universe is part of God, and acosmism, the idea that everything in the universe is nullified as part of God as is the finite against the infinite. I had thought them two different words for essentially the same idea. Wolfson here does draw a distinction, but is it really a distinction that others would draw?

It seems to me that Wolfson is actually trying to fit English words to the Hasidic concepts of yichuda ila'a and yichuda tata'ah, the upper and lower unities. The upper unity, more or less how the universe appears from God's perspective, is what Wolfson calls acosmism, while the lower unity, or how we can perceive the world, is what Wolfson calls panentheism. For the Alter Rebbe's own understanding of these Unities, see Tanya, Shaar Hayichud VeHa'Emunah (second part of the book), chapters 4-7. Much of the book Kuntress Eitz haChaim by the Fifth Rebbe, particularly chapters 6-9, explain how the two different Unities affect us in our lives.

Another example of Wolfson's elliptic prose that reveals as it conceals, as does the prose of the Rebbes in their Maamarim, extended mystical discourses:

(p.27) To be exposed, the Infinite must be camouflaged; to be forthcoming, it must be withheld. Envisionin gthe essence in Habad tradition may be cast as apprehending the "absolute nonbeing of the event,"[134] which "results from an excess of one, an ultra-one,"[135] the oneness beyond the distinction of one and many. The unicity consigned to the end is a visual attunement to the void of all being, the void of all things fully void, the breach of unity by which the unity of the breach (dis)appears in and through the cleft of consciousness. In this temporal crevice and spatial hiatus, the symbolic is imagined as real, the real as symbolic.

134. Yitzchak Eizik Epstein, Maamar yetziat mitzrayim. Vilna 1877
135. Alain Badiou,
Being and Event, 2005

This looping repetitive prose, reflecting in and on itself, echoes another writer trained in Hasidic idiom, R' Abraham Joshua Heschel.

So too Chasidic writings reveal as they conceal. My wife tried reading Wolfson and didn't make much headway, despite (or because of) being a fiction writer and former English & History teacher. Sometimes you have to read through the text to (un)read the text.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Philosophy and Torah

Just listened to the first lecture by R' Eliezer Brodt of the Seforim blog, in the eTIM series on "Rare Minhagim Books and Controversies". The subject was the book Malmad haTalmidim, by R' Jacob b. Abba Mari Anatoli. He claimed it was the first book of drashot arranged by parsha, but I wondered, what about the She'iltot of R' Ahai Gaon? Surely a Geonic work predates a late 13th century collection of sermons. Or were the She'iltot more theoretical constructs, rather than records of actual sermons?

The book is in the philosophical mode, being a series of moral/ethical essays based on verses from Proverbs. The author was a big fan of Rambam, naturally. Starting around 1300 there was a big backlash against philosophical writers and works; R' Brodt surveyed R' Anatoli's defenders and detractors. The book languished virtually unknown for centuries, until published from manuscript by Mekitzei Nirdamim in 1866, and once more a century later. Recordings should be available for a nominal fee in the near future.

It seems to me that affinity for philosophy among the Torah world has come and gone in waves, perhaps following trends in the outside world. Here we have a Jewish flowering of philosophy, in the same period that the Muslims were experiencing their Golden Age and engaging in philosophical speculation, whether as the Kalam, or as Sufism, or as Alfarabi'an Aristotelian, which affected Maimonides so strongly. As dar al-Islam began to lose ground to the Christians in Spain and the Holy Land, Jewish affinity for philosophy began to fall off as well.

In the Renaissance, as Christendom began to open itself up to philosophy, Judaism experienced another round of philosophical speculation, peaking in the 1500s with figures such as Azariah dei Rossi and David Gans, who wrote books on natural philosophy and history; until the 1600s when some (such as Spinoza) went too far. But it continued underground for a little while, until the Sabbatean revolution, and later the publication of the works of the Ari, replaced it with Kabbalistic theosophy. "Preachers of the Italian Ghetto," ed. Ruderman, surveys a number of 17th-century figures who supported or opposed philosophy, in much the same way as the sources surveyed (many drawn from Marc Saperstein's "Jewish Preaching") by R' Brodt did in the 14th century. Some of the open opponents of philosophy reveal that they themselves knew the philosophical idiom even as they openly reject it, which makes for somewhat entertaining reading, extracting layers of meaning.

And in the modern period, philosophy has made various attempts to rear its head, particularly as kabbalah had gone into abeyance in the Western non-Chasidic world. Mendelssohn and his circle engaged in it, just as their contemporaries in the German and French Enlightenment brought philosophy out of the middle ages (Kant, Leibniz, Hegel, Rousseau, Diderot, etc). With its association with Haskalah, and Haskalah's association with Reform, it went somewhat more underground for a time, before re-emerging in interwar Europe, when many who were to become the post-WW2 Gedolim, went to Berlin to study philosophy and secular culture (Heschel, Soloveitchik, Hutner, possibly Schneerson). It carried forth to become the underlying rationale for much of modern Orthodoxy. But as Kabbalah returns to Western sensibilities, it too is fading away.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Solo Restaurant Experience

Debbie & I went to Solo for her (mhm)th birthday, whose executive chef is Hung Huynh, a winner of the Top Chef program. We hadn't been since their merger with Prime Grill, and it is now an amazing experience, instead of just pointlessly expensive.

This post is composed of Debbie's Livejournal description, coupled with my long addition in the comments section.

Debbie's post:

Tonight, [info]jonbaker took me to Solo, which is a fine-dining kosher restaurant on 5th Avenue, with Hung from Top Chef at the helm.

It was LOVELY. The bread came with a humous spread - sun-dried tomatoes, paprika and garlic mixed in. We both had appetizers - Jonathan had grilled eggplant salad with microgreens and tiny tomatoes. I had salmon carpaccio dressed with soy and wasabi, with microgreens in a nice vinaigrette including jalopenos and avocado, plus parsnip chips. It was perfectly balanced between the spicy and the creamy, the smooth and the crunchy.

For mains, Jonathan had a chicken rice clay pot with yu choy (a green) and enoki (a vegetable). It was rich and gingery with caramelized soy sauce. I had short ribs braised in plum and beer with mashed potatoes and turnip puree, and crispy shallots. It was rich and sweet and falling-apart tender. And then we had dessert. I normally do NOT get dessert, but this time - well, on the dessert menu was a list of ice creams and sorbets, and one of the sorbets was papaya-szechuan pepper. There was no way I could resist. It came as three scoops, which could be taken all in one flavor or mixed. I decided to mix - the papaya-szechan pepper, mango-lime and vanilla. That last was an ice "cream." The waiter approved. And then my silly husband told him it was my birthday. So not only did we get the nice dish of ice cream and our espressos, but also a tiny pice of cake with a lit candle and a cookie (a nice, crisp delicate toile) with happy birthday in chocolate syrup.

The ice creams were so amazingly yummy - the vanilla was intense and I couldn't tell it was non-dairy, the mango-lime was nicely balanced, and the papaya-pepper was AMAZING. Sweet, cold, hot and spicy at the same time - it made my mouth very happy. It also went well with the vanilla and the mango.

It was the best meal out ever.

My addition:

The chicken/rice was not the usual Chinese dish, but interesting.

The waiters show up with the pot on a plate (small covered casserole), warns "extremely hot, don't touch", and takes the cover off with a napkin. Second waiter pours a measured amount of sauce (mostly soy) over the chicken and rice, then stirs the whole thing.

First bite of chicken, an explosion of ginger. But the ginger didn't permeate the rice. The remaining pieces of chicken were gingery, and felt like they were covered with a chinese white ginger sauce.

The rice was for the most part wetter/creamier than I think of Chinese rice, and had these things like vermicelli noodles mixed in. But the noodles were the finely julienned "enoki". Not much flavor, but texture felt like vermicelli - sorta rubbery noodles, but when you bite down, you feel the longitudinal plant fibers. Yu choy was somewhere between broccoli rabe and bok choy. Broccoli-shaped pieces with leafy, not flowery ends, with a bok-choy-like flavor.

As I got towards the bottom, I noticed a thin burned layer on the bottom, which was full of flavor from the soy sauce, and didn't actually taste burnt. I think the pot was so hot, that when they poured in the sauce, it ran to the bottom and caramelized on the hot surface.

I encouraged Debbie to have some dessert, so I could have an excuse to ask the waiters to do the birthday thing. Debbie was modestly saying she didn't want the minor birthday fuss, but secretly she did want it, so getting the dessert made an excuse. You can get warm chocolate cake or apple crisp at all these places. She had her eye on some house special dessert, but I thought it looked way sweetsier than she would like. So she looked at the sorbets - she likes sour, and hot mixed with sweet, so the papaya-sichuan-pepper thing called to her. I had the sorbets as well, we both kept taking tiny spoon-dips, and they were terrific. Mixing the fruit flavors with the vanilla made for the most terrific Creamsicle-like flavor.

Dinner that's a sensory delight as well as delicious and nutritious, waiter service that's heavy without being overbearing (lots of guys, but not pestering us too much, and in the case of the chicken dish, having two guys to prepare it at the table made it that much more impressive), and a mostly pleasant ambience (a bit loud, and there was some annoying percussion coming through the PA, and they seated us near the kitchen/service area - but even that was fascinating for Debbie the budding chef), made for a lovely evening, and one of our top three restaurant experiences.