Sunday, June 13, 2010

Gharqad: A Tree of the Jews

Warning: I am a scholar of nothing, yet, much less a linguist or Arabist. The following should be read purely for your early morning or lunch-break amusement, and possibly for an afternoon snicker or two. All information and opinions presented should be considered uninformed, until proven otherwise. I enjoy the metaphysical implications of analyses like these, but I don't use them in guiding my day-to-day interactions with other individuals and communities. If you can't handle some light, faith-based jostling and intend to leave comments like, "We need to kill all...", please know they will be deleted, mercilessly.

Here's something you might find amusing. Many of us know that the Muslim faith does not hold Jews in particularly high regard. Sure, we're People of the Book, and all that jazz, but really, when it comes down to it, guess which sons of apes and pigs get their heads chopped off for refusing to submit to Islam. No, really, guess. Hint: it's not the Quakers. From Wikipedia:
In the Muslim text Sahih Muslim, Book 041, Number 6985[3], the boxthorn, or gharqad (in arabic), is described as 'the tree of the Jews':
The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, oh the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.
If you thought this post was about exposing Islam's genocidal wet dreams, you're wrong. We're going to focus on this tree that Muslims claim will protect the Jews - the Gharqad tree. Prior to seeing this Wiki, I thought the Gharqad tree was some mythical tree, but no, it translates directly to a Boxthorn tree. Actually, the Boxthorn are a number of tree species (more like shrubs?), about 90 in all. There's more about the Boxthorn, from the same Wikipedia entry:
Boxthorn is mentioned in the biblical Book of Proverbs as besetting the paths of the wicked (Proverbs 22:5).
Besetting? Like assailing, attacking? Let's go to the source. The "Book of Proverbs" - in Hebrew, Mishlei - was written by King Solomon, a ruler of Ancient Israel and son of King David, who needs no introductions, I hope.

Here's the English (unfortunately, I don't have the Hebrew handy) from, Mishlei 22:5:
5. Troops [and] snares are in the way of the perverse; he who preserves his soul will distance himself from them.
And now the Rashi commentary, which comes out a bit fractious in this translation, I think.
Troops [and] snares: Heb. צנים, as in (Num. 33: 55) “troops (לצנינים) in your sides” ; (Ezek. 23:24) “And they will come upon you, a band (הצן),” an expression of bands and brigands.
Troops and snares: are hidden on the ways of the one who perverts his ways; i.e., torments are prepared for him.
he who preserves his soul will distance himself from them: He who is upright in his deeds will be saved from them.
Obviously, from the English, it's not clear what all this has to do with the Boxthorn tree. I'll venture that the connection probably lies in the Hebrew, meaning that thorns and snares (which this tree is apparently known for) torment the wicked. Basically, people who make bad (spiritually wicked) decisions will face obstacles and negative consequences, symbolized by the thorns and snares of this tree, the Boxthorn.

So, the Muslims decided that this particular tree, the Gharqad, which is used synonymously in Mishlei by Solomon to refer to thorns and snares that torment wicked people, is the tree of the Jews. It is this tree, Islam says, which will protect the Jews against the Muslims on the Day of Judgment. A tree whose essence is to stumble and harass the wicked will protect the Jews from the Muslims. An interesting choice for "the tree of the Jews".

Captain Stabbing and Friends

The original Latma video, which I'm assuming everyone in the world - well, at least 2.2 million Youtube viewers, last time I checked - has now watched, has been taken off Youtube, allegedly due to a copyright violation. I'm not sure how much sense that makes, since it was the official LatmaTV Youtube Channel that posted the LatmaTV produced video. So, in case some of you are left scrambling to find it again, here's the wonderful skit in its entirety, including the setup with Captain Stabbing.

I've been away the past week or so, having driven down to Miami, Florida with a friend. Nevertheless, I heard the LatmaTV song at least twice on conservative talk radio stations during the trip, with audiences in the millions of listeners. This song really has the potential for cult status. Captain Stabbing, Mr. "Itbach al Yahud", is just awesome! The mark of longevity is whether people more vocally talented than I begin to create parodies. As for the Flotilla crew, it's steaming along, with a Facebook Group and T-Shirt to capitalize on the success of "We Con the World".

That said, and not discounting the humor of the video, I feel there is something deeply sad about this skit; a certain resignation at a world which, once again, feels itself emboldened to callously, nay, zealously, bargain Jewish rights and Jewish lives. It is, perhaps, fitting that the return of insanity be met with absurdity, for to take darkness seriously would be tragic, indeed.

I'm reminded of a poem by Marie Syrkin; a gem I recently encountered on the prefacing pages of 1948, a comprehensive historical account of Israel's War of Independence, by Benny Morris.

by Marie Syrkin

Suppose, this time, Goliath should not fail;
Suppose, this time, the sling should not avail
On the Judean plain where once for all
Mankind and pebble struck, suppose the tale
Should have a different end: the shepherd yield
The triumph pass to iron arm and thigh,
The wonder vanish from the blooming field,
The mailed hulk stand, and the sweet singer lie.

Suppose, but then what grace will go unsung,
What temple wall unbuilt, what garden bare;
What ploughshare broken and what harp unstrung!
Defeat will compass every heart aware
How black the ramparts of a world wherein
The psalm is stilled, and David does not win.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

This is how they do it

What you won't find on Al Jazeera. Really, I checked.

As Yemen’s blockade on southern Yemen enters its third week, stocks of food, medicine and oil have dwindled to dangerous levels. Prices have skyrocketed and already malnourished children bear the brunt of the military action.

The blockade began 17 days ago when the Western Armored Division established new checkpoints on roads and at city entrances preventing the flow of persons and commerce including food, medicine, oil and water. The blockade has cut off Radfan, Yafea, al Dhala, al Melah, al Habeelan, al Shaib, Gahaf, Lazarik, and parts of Shabwah.

The main road between Aden and al Dahlie is closed. Al Habaleen, Lahj was indiscriminately shelled three days ago after two soldiers were killed in an ambush. Another ambush in al Melah killed one soldier, and authorities have accused renegade elements of the southern independence movement with the attacks.

Flotilla, anyone? I'll bring the knives.


Calm Courage

May G-d bless this kid. Nerves of steel.

(H/T Barry Meislin via Yaacov)

Note, again, the role of Muslim Arab women in the crowd. Watch who first starts running after the Jewish kid across the street. "Halas, halas," a guy says to one of the women screaming at the cops, "enough, stop".

Coming Full Circle

Once a week, on Sunday, I meet my father and uncle for lunch at a street level kosher restaurant located on the first floor of Milwaukee's Jewish Home for the elderly. My grandfather, Lev, a survivor of Nazi shrapnel, Stalin's purges and three strokes, is a resident at the home, requiring constant care. My father visits him twice a day, usually, before and after work, while my uncle drives up from Chicago to take over during the weekends. So it has been for two or three years now, for these loyal sons.

Last weekend, we were talking about my beard, again, and how no one in my family has worn one for generations. It is not a conversation I enjoy having, as my father tends to bait me into overreacting and appearing unreasonable and disrespectful. My only option is to remain silent until my uncle changes the subject. In the recent past, I've largely succeeded. This time, I engaged him, in the familiar way, but received something quite unexpected in return.

At the time, not wearing a beard was a sign of modernity, I told him, referring to my great grandfather, Avigdor. There were many social and political forces at play, which have no relevance now - Homo Sovieticus, for example, is dust on the scales. Keep in mind my father was born after the war, so his recollections of Avigdor are from the early 1950s.

My father replied that my great grandfather didn't have a beard and was a real Jew, more of a Jew than all the Rabbis here. This is all par for the well-worn course, but then, unusually, my father remembered that when he was a little boy, his grandfather (Avigdor) used to go to a nearby Jewish village to pray. They lived in a mostly Jewish village in Moldova called Dandushany. Actually, Avigdor's home was a kind of a makeshift shul, and while he wasn't a Rabbi himself, he led services and acted as the head of the Jews in the village.

So, despite hosting the village's shul, every so often, Avigdor would go to a nearby village to pray, and it was considered different somehow. My father doesn't remember exactly how it was different, but it was considered different from the usual praying that was done in Dandushany. Without my prompting, my father offered that Avigdor traveled to pray in a Chabad-Lubavitch shul. I asked him maybe it was Litvishers, and he said no, they came much later. So I told him, maybe it was another Chassidic sect, but he never heard of any other Chassidic sects in the area.

It was a political matter. My grandfather, Lev, after displaying immense heroism (and stupidity), qualified for officer training and became a commander during the war. To become an officer in the Red Army, one had to join the Communist Party. Lev has many medals from the war; He fought in Stalingrad, was injured severely, put himself through night school for years to become first a teacher, then a headmaster at a school. Owing to his wartime service record, and relatively high level of education, he became a moderately big deal in the local Communist Party structure. Thirty years later, when my parents married and needed an apartment, they didn't wait ten years on the lists years like everyone else because people knew my grandfather, and this was thirty years later that his name could still move the bureaucracy.

Anyway, at some point, Lev (my grandfather) was under political review, and it came up that his father, Avigdor, was a religious Jew. The thing is, if Avigdor were just praying by himself, no one would care. This is purely speculation on my part, but he must have been praying with others, in a congregation or movement, or else it wouldn't raise a red flag. If he just belonged to the KGB infiltrated official local synagogue, it probably wouldn't matter much, as that was technically approved religious expression. So who else was in the area and actively evading Soviet control? It must have been Chassidim. Perhaps not Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim, but perhaps so. My grandfather brushed the charges off, arguing that his father was an old man, too old to change. This review probably affected Lev's prospects for growth in the party structure.

I have no proof that Avigdor was connected to Chabad Chassidim, just speculation. Just think of it, though, if that were the case, if Avigdor had a connection with Lubavitch at the time. An old man by the 1950s, Avigdor had witnessed the entire first half of the 20th century, as the world went to hell and back, and back to hell and back, and back to hell and back. In his youth, he fought the Turks and earned a silver coin from the Tzar. He survived the first World War only to watch Russia implode in Red Terror, with the Soviets then gobbling up Moldova, followed by the forced collectivization programs, the starvations that ensued, the bloody purges against "counter-revolutionary elements", the savage Nazi invasion, followed by emptying of entire Moldovan Jewish villages, the rubble and rebuilding of the post war years. Avigdor lived just long enough for someone to try to kill him one last time, during the planned transfer of all Soviet Jews to Siberia, aborted after Stalin's shocking, unexpected death.

Through all this, my great grandfather held his faith, to his last years irritating the Soviet regime with his simple, personal act of prayer. If only he knew, the komissar who uncovered my great grandfather's anti-Soviet activity, at a time when the Soviet Union seemed poised to endure for eternity, that six decades later this old man's great grandchildren would be whispering those same prayers.

The Beard and I

I wear a beard. Does one wear a beard? I have a beard, then. Is it a possession, to be had? Let's just say I sport a beard, though the competition isn't all that fierce. In my family, with the exception of my brother, who has better things to do with his time, the overwhelming consensus is that I should shave my beard. The reasons are many and fluid, depending on what logic my family members think will succeed at the time, though their impassioned arguments can be distilled into three main points.

The beard ages me, robbing me of my youthful looks. Since my late teens, I've looked young for my age. At 27, without a beard, I could probably pass for a 20 year old. With a beard, however, I'm rarely even carded purchasing liquor anymore. This especially concerns my father, who believes I am depriving myself of one of the benefits of youth - youthfulness.

It is considered backward, old-fashioned, un-modern or just odd by the rest of society to grow a beard these days. Thus I am mocked for it, overtly or behind closed doors. Alternatively, even if I'm not being ridiculed now, I draw unnecessary attention and the potential for problems in the future. Coming, as my family does, from the Soviet Union, there is an added undertone that the negative social connotations that go with a beard may adversely affect my scholastic or professional prospects.

Finally, no one in my family has worn a beard for generations. We know this to be true, to the extent that we can know such things after the vast majority of my family, on both sides, was exterminated, because there remains a photograph of my great grandfather on my father's side, Avigdor. More than inheriting his name, I inherited his looks, to a remarkable extent, though the beard obscures this a bit. Avigdor survived the war, and my father remembers him fondly, growing up in a small town in Moldova.

Avigdor was a proud Jew, as my father never tires of repeating, and he didn't wear a beard. Needless to say, neither of my grandfathers, my father or my uncle have beards, and though my brother did, for several years, he has since reconsidered, removing and trimming whatever facial hair he had. As someone who believes in the value of tradition and custom, that it gives an individual roots and strengthens their connection with others, such as family members, this argument carries more weight with me than others.

With regards to Jewish law, halacha, there is a fair amount of clarity on the subject. Jewish men are forbidden from shaving their facial hair with a razor blade - the way such things were once done, and still are by most men in the world. The simple explanation is that we do this to not mimic idolaters, for whom the practice of shaving hair off large portions of their bodies was once common, and may still be.

Related laws prohibit us from rounding off the hair on one's head by completely eliminating sideburns, as certain idolaters once did. Thus, Jewish men who shave their beards will retain sideburns down to a certain point on the ear. It is a custom of some Jewish movements to grow the sideburns out, over months and years creating the well known Jewish sidelocks. Chabad does not have such a custom to grow sidelocks, though some children and adults do so. Interestingly enough, it's not a custom I've seen among any other nation.

For those that wear a beard, we are forbidden from trimming the corners of that beard - the "thirteen locks" of a beard, representing the thirteen divine Attributes of Mercy - though here, it is not clear cut as to whether the restriction is on trimming the corners at all, or on doing so with a razor blade, leaving communities and individuals to decide for themselves.

Plenty of orthodox men trim their beards with an electric razor, while many others go clean shaven in this manner as well. Normative halacha accepts the use of an electric razor, as the scissor-like action performed by the cutting blades is considered different from that done by a straight razor. Newer models of electric razors, which lift the hair before cutting it, may pose a problem, however. Chabad Chassidim - a hassid is a pious person who beyond above the letter of the law - follow additional, more strict halachic rulings against cutting any part of the beard, including with a non-razor like instrument.

In addition to the legal codes and customs, underlying them, there are spiritual, mystical reasons that strongly preference growing a beard, and preventing any damage to its natural state. Once again, without going too much into detail, it has to do with the thirteen Attributes of Mercy, of divine energy drawn from G-d's compassion that is channeled through a beard's "thirteen locks", and into the beneficiary.

To a Jew, the reasons for growing a beard are compelling, and while trimming the beard with certain, approved instruments is technically permissible by most halachic rulings, even down to the skin, many communities and individuals choose not to do so.

My family, indeed, most people, assume I wear a beard because I am an observant Jew, to the extent that I'm observant. I belong to a shul, a community of Chabad Chassidim, where men have beards, so it is natural, goes the reasoning, that I would have one also. It is true that I probably would not have grown a beard had it not been acceptable, or even welcome in my community to do so. However, much as I love Torah and mitzvot, even going beyond what is expected, at times, my reasons for growing a beard were less noble.

Shaving is a stupendous hassle. From the age of 17, when I began to shave, through my 23rd year of life, I enjoyed not a single shaving experience. Irritation and burning, usually made even worse by "sensitive" foams, bloody nicks, faulty razors, clogged up drains, all combined to create a dreaded weekly or, if I could avoid it, bimonthly ritual.

Out of sheer absent-mindedness, assisted by general antipathy for the act, I allowed first two weeks to pass before shaving, then a three week stretch that left me with a considerable soft stubble. For two or three months it went like this, with me testing how far society would allow my stubble to grow before I was shamed into mowing it down. Finally, towards the end of a semester, in a time of stressful exams, first two weeks passed, then three, then five, and no blade grazed my cheeks. My long-time girlfriend at the time did not mind, indeed, she claimed to like the look, which endowed my boyish looks with a manly demeanor. Two months passed, then three, but I had long stopped counting. With a beautiful girl safely at my side, and a Jewish community that implicitly welcomed the change, for whom did I need to shave? I had beaten the system - the lure of female attention or, conversely, the disapproval of a woman, along with fear of social ostracism which are the foundation for why all men shave. I was free, and I didn't look half bad!

Having long since lost the girl - she wasn't Jewish and had no wish to be - and spending more time away from my community than I'd like, I've been more sensitive to my family's pressure of late, which tends to come in waves. As their specific arguments hold little intellectual sway with me - with the possible exception of family tradition - it is more likely that I feel more impacted by their nagging now, because I myself have been considering the outcome they suggest, but for different reasons.

In the four or so years that I've worn a beard, I've never felt disadvantaged by it. I can't attribute a single instance of mockery or ill temperament directed at me as a result of wearing a beard. Quite the opposite, I can think of numerous examples where I was afforded more respect and consideration, possibly even more trust, as a consequence of my facial hair.

In fact, there is one demographic among which I have seemingly become supremely popular - African Americans. It's not a simple thing to explain, but I draw on the experience of several dozen incidents, spread out over the last few years, where I have been treated with greater respect by black men than the social circumstances would dictate, and what my experience had been up till then. In addition, black women routinely walk up to me - and not Asian or Scandinavian women - to compliment me on my beard, unanimously urging that I keep it, in some cases making quite direct romantic advances.

How to explain such a thing? I have one working theory, while a close friend of mine has another. At first, I thought the beard, complimented with a cap or hat - I usually wear a second head covering over my kippah - made me look like a skinhead or a Southern country hick, and black men were simply apprehensive of me. So, I asked a black classmate about it, and he dismissed this idea with a hearty laugh.

My current theory is that, with green eyes, chestnut hair and a reddish-brown beard, I... Well, how does one put this... I kind of look like Jesus. Stereotype it may be, but a high proportion of African Americans attend church services and are deeply faithful. In many black churches, the only white guy in attendance is made of plaster and hanging from a cross, looking down on impressionable congregants from their earliest memories, all the way through adulthood.

I had a very strange experience a couple of years back, which first spawned this notion. A young black man was collecting donations for his church and rang the doorbell to my parent's home. When I opened the door, he launched into his pitch, pushing a clipboard into my hands, his fingers directing my attention to one item on the sheet or another. He then looked up, right into my eyes, and stopped talking mid-sentence. Within moments he looked to be in shock. "You look just like... Are you..." I thought it was a joke until he began to have trouble breathing. I assured him I wasn't and sat him down on the porch. By the time I came back with a glass of water, his eyes were streaming tears. "So you're not..." I explained that I am a Jew, like Jesus was. The poor guy never finished his donation pitch.

As for my close friend, he proposed that most young black men simply can't grow lush, long beards, and so possession of such a beard suggests advanced age and wisdom, naturally eliciting respect. Maybe there's something to it, I don't know.

In theory, as I only grew the beard out of convenience, should it become unwieldy or hard to manage, I wouldn't feel particularly bad trimming or removing it entirely, in a halachicly permissible way, of course. In practice, however, because others have ascribed particular reasons to my wearing a beard - supposing that I did so out of conviction for my faith, for example, which I didn't - shaving it off becomes quite problematic, as it could give the impression that I've lessened my faith in G-d. For others, Jews and non-Jews, to perceive, even mistakenly, that an observant Jew has lessened their faith in G-d could constitute be a desecration of G-d's Name, G-d forbid. If I were ever to seriously contemplate changes to my facial hair, this would be a primary consideration.

Due to such complications, when it comes down to it, the only reason for which I would conceivably trim or eliminate my beard would be in the context of a serious relationship - or the prospect of such a relationship - if my future partner or spouse requested that I do so. Until then, or pending some unforeseen accident, and much to my family's chagrin, the beard stays.

On My Bookshelf