Jewschool: The Vort: Vayechi – Endings and Beginnings

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

I’ve always been something of a post-modernist, fascinated particularly with the ways in which form and content intersect, interact, support and destabilize each other. Blame it on an early obsession with Stephen Sondheim from an early age. (Yes, folks, that link is a peek into dlevy’s early high school adventures on the internet. But I digress.)

And the seasons, they go round and round...With that in mind, I find it particularly delightful to encounter parshat Vayechi during the week that our secular calendar advances a page. You see, the content of this week’s Torah reading involves Jacob putting his affairs in order at the end of his life, bestowing blessings on his sons (but not his daughter) and two grandsons (you can guess whose progeny they are) before shuffling off this mortal coil. But the form — oh, the form! First we’ll notice that this is the final nugget of Sefer Bereshit (aka Genesis, not the Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins band), the first book of the Torah. When this story ends, we get a flash forward to everybody’s favorite Easter Passover story, The Ten Commandments Sefer Shemot (aka The Book of Exodus, no not the Leon Uris one). That’s a new book – same scroll, but with a nice big, clear differentiation in the text. Plus, we divide our reading up so that we don’t get into that story until next week. And in case anyone wasn’t sure, we’ll all leap to our feet on Saturday morning and sing “חזק חזק ונתחזק” to punctuate the end of our current book. So between the end of the patriarchal era (ha! as if!), the end of the book of Genesis, and the rhythm of our Torah reading that keeps us from reading the next chapter until (at the very least) later on in the afternoon, we’ve got a nice, tidy ending to our story. Continue reading

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Jewschool.com When Worlds Collide

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

Last November, I posted about the formation of a Jewish Young Adult Writers’ Forum in the greater Boston area. Last night was the last official meeting of the first cohort, and the guest author was Jewschool’s own Danya Ruttenberg. (We have one more “unofficial” meeting coming up with Anita Diamant, but that’s more of a dinner discussion than formal workshop.)

The way the workshop has worked, each month our guest author sends out a writing assignment for the participants to complete in advance. Our workshop evening begins with dinner, which flows into our guest telling us a bit about her or his career. Next there’s some “in class” writing. Each evening culminates with participants paring up to share the work they did on the assignment, often reconsidering it in light of what’s happened during the first hour of the workshop.

Since you read Jewschool, I don’t have to tell you how wonderful Danya was as our guest leader. The assignment she sent us was this:

Pick a story from the Bible, or a midrash, or a myth or legend from anywhere (Greek mythology, say, or classic literature) whose themes have a particular resonance for you (eg the story of crossing the Red Sea as jumping into something scary and trusting it will work out), and write a story from your life with that myth/legend in mind.

I’ve included my response to this prompt below the cut. Maybe some of you out there in Jewschool-land will add yours, as well.

Incidentally, several of us in the first cohort are meeting in the near future to talk about what might be next for the Writers’ Forum. If you’re a young Jewish adult in the greater Boston area and interested in taking part in writing-related stuff, leave some comments about what you’d like to see and do.

Continue reading

Livejournal: Workshop My Writing

Originally published on my long-defunct Livejournal.

I’m participating in a Jewish Young Adults’ Writers Workshop. This month, our assignment was to write a two-page scene “in which two people who are fated to become involved meet for the first time.”

I’ve been fooling around with doing a gay take on the Biblical story of Jacob for a while now, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to rethink Genesis 28. After all, that’s Jacob’s first meeting with God, and I think it’s fair to say the two are fated to become involved.  To refresh your memory, this happens when Jacob has left his parents’ house en route to his uncle’s home, where he’s been sent by his father so he can find a wife from within his clan.

I just finished my first draft. It’s very drafty. I’m going to rewrite it tomorrow before I show it to anyone in the workshop. But since I have neither the self-confidence to do this on my own nor the shame to be embarrassed by the considerable shortcomings of this draft, I’m posting it here for feedback first.

A couple of caveats: I’ve been debating whether this should be set in modern times vs. ancient times, and in America vs the original places. In this draft, it’s modern America. That is almost definitely the wrong answer. I think tomorrow I will attempt modern-but-original-places. I may end up just going for overall anachronistic. It worked for Joseph Heller’s retelling of the David story.

Also, I’m not sure what to do about the sex. I’m not sure my answer below works – what do you think? I don’t want it to get pornographic, and I think there’s good reason to leave it ambiguous as to what exactly happens, but… well, tell me what you think.

Okay, enough with the caveats. Here goes:  Continue reading

Keshet: May God Make You Like Ephraim and Manasseh

Originally published as part of  Torah Queeries.

So [Jacob] blessed them that day, saving, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (Genesis 48:20)

Every Shabbat evening, Jews around the world recall this week’s Torah portion by blessing their sons with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” fulfilling Jacob’s deathbed pronouncement. I did not grow up with this particular tradition in my family, so when I learned about it, two questions immediately sprang to mind: If Jacob says that all of Israel shall invoke blessings in this way, why do we limit our use of the blessing to boys? Perhaps more fundamentally, what’s so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them?

The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenath. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two (although some scholars suggest they might have been twins), that they were born before the famine came to Egypt, and that Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.  Continue reading

Keshet: Nature vs. Nurture: A Story of Generation(s)

Originally published as part of  Torah Queeries, and then later republished on Keshet’s Blog on MyJewishLearning.com.

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, David Levy looks at Biblical twins Jacob and Esau through the lens of nature versus nurture.

 

"The Birth of Esau and Jacob," Master of Jean de Mandeville.

“The Birth of Esau and Jacob,” Master of Jean de Mandeville. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Toldot, the name given to this week’s parasha, has many layers to its definition. Coming from the Hebrew root meaning “birth,” it literally means “generations.” Its use in the Torah introduces genealogical lists, and also marks the beginning of important stories related to the members of Abraham’s particular genealogical line – some translations even give the word as it appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha as “story.” Toldot is a particularly fitting name for this section of the Torah, because the story begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau, and hinges on both the relationship between the older and younger generations and the question of who shall lead the generations to follow.

To me, Parashat Toldot reads like a divine statement on the “nature versus nurture” debate: are our identities and destinies somehow inherent in us, or are we shaped by the environment in which we are brought up, formed by the generation before us? In queer culture, this debate at times looms large. Are we “born that way” or are there external factors that “make us gay”? And if we adopt children, will our nurturing homes be enough to bring up a next generation in our image, or will adopted children turn out like their birth parents…whoever they might be?

While these questions may at times feel like irrelevant cocktail conversation, they also have a sinister side. If it turns out that queerness can be genetically predicted, will narrow-minded potential parents terminate pregnancies rather than bear queer children? If research points toward environmental factors, will it only fuel “ex-gay ministries” that attempt to “rehabilitate” queer people from their lifestyle?  Continue reading