Poetry has long remained an enduring part of Jewish culture. It can be found across different time periods, in different regions, and even in different languages; it can be secular or religious, metrical or non-metrical, personal or impersonal. Oftentimes, Jewish poetry will make reference back to its roots in the Hebrew Bible, which contains, among other things, the book of Psalms. This essay aims to closely examine and compare three different Jewish poems spanning across Judaism’s vast history: the biblical Psalm 13, an untitled poem by Dunash Ben Labrat from Medieval Spain, and “Shema” by Primo Levi. These poems all look very different from one another, and despite being written at different points in time, they all display some sort of relationship (or lack thereof) with G-d, and are representative of Jewish experiences in times of joy and in times of hardship.
In Psalm 13, the speaker begins in despair. He cries out to G-d, asking Him “How long, O LORD, will You forget me always?” (Alter, Psalm 13:2). At the opening of this Psalm, the speaker is alone and afraid, struggling through hard times and worrying that G-d has abandoned him. This Psalm is spoken in the first person, bringing in a sense of immediacy and intimacy with the speaker transforming it into a prayer directly to G-d— if one speaks this poem out loud, it is as if they are having their own conversation with G-d. The imagery in the Psalm is timeless, often non-specific, helping to give it the enduring quality that has allowed it to survive and be read over and over again throughout history. It can easily be applicable to any time period, to anyone struggling or hoping for G-d’s presence in their life.
At the start of the poem, the speaker repeats the phrase “how long” three times, signifying his doubt and uncertainty, as well as a kind of impatience— he is frustrated that G-d has not come to his aid already. The speaker conjures up sinister images of the “enemy loom[ing] over me,” and asks for G-d’s help to “light up my eyes, lest I sleep death” (Alter, Psalm 13:3-4). He views his life as being in G-d’s hands, and without His presence, not only will he be killed by his enemies, but he worries his “enemy [will] say, ‘I’ve prevailed over him,’” taunting the speaker even after death (Alter, Psalm 13:5). Characterized by fear and sorrow, the speaker in the first part of the poem seems to even be upset with G-d, asking Him questions over and over again. The speaker is uncertain and does not know how to help himself, even specifying that he is “cast[ing] about for counsel” from G-d (Alter, Psalm 13:3).
In the last few lines of the poem, there is a major tone shift, where the speaker moves from uncertainty to absolute trust. The Psalm ends with the lines: “But I in Your kindness do trust, / my heart exults in your rescue. / Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me” (Alter, Psalm 13:6). He takes what he knows to be true about G-d— that He is kind, and allows himself to believe that G-d will be there to help him. Thus, this Psalm contains the same underlying message that can be found in many of the other Psalms— that in times of uncertainty, one must place their trust in G-d. Portrayed in the Psalms, G-d is almighty and powerful, He knows intimately the struggles of His people, and He will protect them. Even in the Psalms where the speaker is full of despair, they still contain a tone of hope that better times will come once G-d rescues them from their struggles. This Psalm also provides an example of the changing inner monologue of the speaker, who does not remain fixed in one mindset, but who rather changes and develops as the Psalm continues. It begins as a Psalm of lamentation, but ends as a Psalm of praise and thanksgiving, celebrating and singing to G-d.
Unlike the timeless poetry of the Psalms, the Jewish poetry of medieval Spain can clearly be associated with the time period in which it was written. At this point in history, Jews in Spain were able to prosper while under Muslim rule, and Jews experienced a level of religious and political freedom that allowed them to take high positions in society, as well as participate in the luxurious culture of the region. The poetry of Dunash Ben Labrat acts as an example of this period— it is rife with rich sensual imagery, taken from the lavish community he was surrounded by. Although it is written in Hebrew, Dunash adopts Arabic form and meter to his poem, exemplifying the kind of cultural exchange that was occurring throughout life in Medieval Spain, whereas the Psalms contain no metrical pattern.
Dunash’s poem can be characterized primarily by its vivid, sensual imagery. Every stanza appeals to at least one of the five senses, and together it portrays the picturesque and abundant world of Medieval Spain, where people have plenty to eat and live in luxury. The first stanza proclaims to “drink wine at morning’s break,” and while wine can often have religious connotations in Judaism, here, it refers to drinking as part of “a feast of all your hours,” a way to relax and indulge in the worldly atmosphere (Scheindlin, 41). The next stanza references being “mid pomegranate trees,” another object which in Judaism is considered to be symbolic— it is said that each pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same number of commandments in the Torah (Scheindlin, 41). Again, however, rather than being in a religious context, the pomegranates here are only part of the beautiful garden atmosphere— large outdoor gardens were a prominent feature of the rich homes and palaces during this period in Medieval Spain. In stanzas 3 through 5, the sense of sound is most emphasized, often involving different types of singing. Spain is “where lilting singers hum,” where “all the birds in glee / sing among the bowers,” and where “the cooing of the dove / sounds like a song of love,” with humans and animals and nature all coming together (Scheindlin, 41). The imagery of the medieval garden continues to be present, the place “where gentle viols thrum / to the plash of fountains’ showers” and “we’ll drink on garden beds / with roses round our heads” (Scheindlin, 41).
This lavish, immersive imagery continues, as the poet then appeals to the senses of taste and smell. He describes the rich meals eaten in the gardens, primarily focusing on meats: “when morning’s first rays shine / I’ll slaughter of the kine / some fatlings; we shall dine / on rams and calves and cows” (Scheindlin, 42). This stanza again brings in a kind of biblical connotation, reminding the audience of the animal sacrifices that used to be performed in the time of pre-rabbinic Judaism. However, in this context, the animals being slaughtered are not meant for G-d or for absolving sin, but instead, they are part of the luxurious diet that the poet gets to indulge in. In the ninth stanza, the first two lines call upon the readers’ sense of smell: “scented with rich perfumes, / amid thick incense plumes,” finishing off the picture of the pleasant garden banquet (Scheindlin, 42).
At the end of the poem, however, there is a tone shift, as the poem goes from being joyous and indulgent to ominous and disapproving. The ninth stanza finishes off with the lines “let us await our dooms, / spending in joy our hours” (Scheindlin, 42). The poem then changes to be about enjoying luxury while it is available, but knowing that it will not last forever. The speaker laments the loss of the Jewish homeland, “when lost is Zion hill / to the uncircumcised,” and recognizes that while Jews may be doing well in Spain now, they are a people to which “by all men are we / rejected and despised” (Scheindlin, 42). In contrast to Psalm 13, which begins on a despairing note and ends on a hopeful one, this poem goes from a lighthearted tone to a much darker one. Dunash was not wrong either— the golden age for Jews in Muslim Spain would not last forever, and in fact the Jews in Spain would end up greatly suffering later on in history. In the Psalms, the speaker calls to G-d and can trust that He will answer, whereas in Dunash’s poem, he worries that “in G-d’s last judgement you’ll / for folly be chastised” (Scheindlin, 42). Living outside the holy land in a secular place full of temptations has left him uncertain about where he stands with G-d, and how he will be judged by Him.
In Primo Levi’s poem, “Shema,” his relationship to G-d is pointedly absent. Unlike the previous two poems, which were written in Hebrew, Levi’s poem was written in Italian. Levi was an Italian Jew who lived during the Holocaust and survived being a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his poetry was produced as a result of his traumatic experiences there. Although Levi was Jewish, he was also an atheist, which is reflected in his poetry— in the case of “Shema,” the poem is based off of the passage from Deuteronomy 6, but changed from its religious context into one about the Holocaust. The poem rewrites these verses, which comprise the most well known prayer in Judaism, and also are incorporated into other areas of Jewish spiritual life— it is from these passages that Jewish people derive the biblical commandments for hanging mezuzot in their homes and wearing tefillin. Levi changes the original text of the poem, which commands people to remember G-d, and instead commands them to remember the Holocaust, and all the horrific acts that came along with it, so that such an event never happens again.
Levi’s poem begins by directly addressing the reader, as the whole work is meant to cut through to the audience and open their eyes to the atrocities of the Holocaust. He accomplishes this by reminding the readers of their privilege— “you who live safe / in your warm houses, / you who find, returning in the evening / hot food and friendly faces” (Levi, 11). Throughout the rest of the poem, he creates a brutal contrast, comparing the comfortable lives of the readers to the hardships that people such as himself had to face. He details how they were trapped in a hostile environment, struggling to stay alive and trying to provide the bare minimum for themselves. His sentences are simple, declarative, and to the point— he does not try to sugarcoat the experience, merely just stating the plain truths that people dealt with. The reader hears about the man “who dies because of a yes or a no,” and the woman, with “her eyes empty and her womb cold” (Levi, 11). This man and woman do not have names, which might be a reminder of how people in the Holocaust were stripped of their names entirely, as well as signify that these experiences happened to countless men and women who will never be recognized.
After describing these brutal experiences, Levi begins to even more closely mirror the biblical counterpart that his poem is based upon. In Deuteronomy, the command is to remember G-d, and remember He is One. People are instructed to take these messages and “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” which becomes the reason why Jewish people wear tefillin and hang mezuzot respectively— to remember the commands they were given, and to remember the importance of G-d in their everyday lives (Deuteronomy 6:8-9). By contrast, Levi’s poem commands the reader to remember his words about the atrocities of the Holocaust, and that people must “carve them in your hearts / at home, in the street, / going to bed, rising; / repeat them to your children” (Levi, 11). If people do not follow this command, he issues a kind of curse upon them at the end of his poem: “or may your house fall apart, / may illness impede you, / may your children turn their faces from you” (Levi, 11). This chilling ending adds to the overall severe tone of the poem.
Levi uses this highly memorable passage from Deuteronomy to convey his own powerful message, imploring people that the cruelties that human beings faced at the hands of others in the Holocaust are of paramount importance and cannot be brushed aside or ignored. In contrast to the Psalms and Dunash’s poem, Levi doesn’t even worry about what G-d thinks on this matter. He instead puts the responsibility on all of his readers to make sure that an atrocity like this is remembered, and that it will not be repeated. While the other poems contain tonal shifts between hope and despair, Levi’s poem remains steadily sombre throughout, an unforgiving barrage of horrors that reflects the traumatic experiences he was forced to endure.
Through Psalm 13, the poetry of Dunash, and Primo Levi’s “Shema,” readers can see how they are each indicative of the time period in which they were written, and their relationships to Judaism can all be observed, even if not in immediately obvious ways. The poetry of the Psalms and the Hebrew Bible as a whole created an important foundation from which many later Jewish poets took inspiration from. Even poets like Levi who did not believe in G-d, or poets like Dunash who lived in a secular culture outside of the Jewish homeland could still find a way to connect to this biblical tradition, or transform it to create new meanings and messages. These three poems are not indicative of the entire Jewish experience, but rather they provide a glimpse at three different fractions of it. The Jewish people, being spread out across the diaspora and undergoing many hardships during their long period of existence, have created many different identities, and poetry continues to be an important outlet of expression for individuals’ own unique relationships with their cultural and religious identities.
Alter, Robert, translator. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed., W.W. Norton, 2007.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. First Collier Books Trade Edition., Collier Books, 1993.
Scheindlin, Raymond P., translator. Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. 1st ed., Jewish Publication Society, 1986.
Tanakh = [Tanakh]: the Holy Scriptures: the New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. First edition., Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
SELF-EXHORTATION TO MAKE THE JOURNEY TO ISRAEL by Yehuda Halevi, translated by David Goldstein
Are you, at fifty, pursuing your youth, As your days are preparing to fly away? Do you run from the worship of God, And yearn to serve only men? Do you seek the crowd’s company and leave The One whom all that will may seek? Are you slow to prepare for your journey? Will you sell your portion for a lentil stew? Your desire continually conceives new pleasures, But does not your soul say to you, ‘Enough!’? Exchange your desire’s counsel for that of God. Desist from pursuing your five senses. Please your Creator in the days that remain To you, the days which hasten by. Do not prevaricate before his will. Do not confront him with magic and sorcery. Be strong like a leopard to do his command, Swift as a gazelle, mighty as a lion.
Let your heart remain firm in the midst of the seas, When you see the mountains heaving and bending And the sailors with their hands like rags, The masters of spells tongue-tied. They embarked on a straight course, full of joy. But now they are forced back, overwhelmed. The ocean is before you as your refuge! Your only escape are the nets of the deep! The sails tear loose and lash, The timbers tremble and shudder, The grip of the wind plays on the waves, Like bearers of sheaves to the threshing. First they are flattened to the floor of the granary, Then are thrown high into the stacks. When they rise up, they are as lions. When they break, they are like serpents. The first are pursued by the second— Snakes whose bite is incurable.
The mighty ship falls like a speck before God. The mast and its banner cannot withstand, The boat and its decks are confused, Lower, middle, and upper together. The drawers of ropes are in torment. Men and women are full of anguish. The sailors’ spirits are deep in despair. Bodies grow weary of their souls. The masts’ strength is of no use, The aged’s counsel does not benefit. The masts of cedar are no more than stubble, The fir-trees are turned to reeds, Sand thrown into the sea is straw, The sockets of iron are like chaff.
The people say, each to his holy one, And you turn to the Holy of Holies. You recall the miracles of Red Sea and Jordan. Inscribed as they are on every heart. You praise the One who calms the sea’s roaring, When the waves throw up their slime. You tell him: ‘Foul hearts are pure now!’ He will remind you of the merits of your holy forebears. He will renew his wonders when you perform for him Song and dance of Mahlim and Mushim. He will return the souls to their bodies, And the dry bones will live again.
And soon the waves will be silent, Like flocks scattered over the earth. And when the sun enters the ascent of the stars, And over them presides the moon, their captain, The night will be lie a negress clothed in a gold tapestry, Like a purple garment scattered with crystals. And the stars will be bewildered in the heart of the sea, Like exiles driven from their own homes. And in their own image they will make light In the midst of the sea like flaming fires. The water and sky will be ornaments Pure and shining upon the night. The sea’s color will be as heaven’s, Both—two seas bound together, And between them my heart, a third sea, As the waves of my praise swell once again.
Yehuda Halevi was a Jewish poet who lived in medieval Spain during the period after its golden age under Muslim rule. Without the protections afforded to Jewish people during the golden age, many, including Halevi, were forced to flee north to Christian Spain for safety. There, Jews were met with hostility, discrimination, and persecution. While Halevi’s early poems were mostly love poems, after he fled to Christian Spain, he became more connected with his Jewish identity, and his poems turned more to this subject. Unlike the earlier Hebrew poetry of Medieval Spain, Halevi’s work was much less influenced by Arabic models, and instead pulled largely from the ancient poetry of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Song of Songs. These poems were infused with the same language he used in his early love poems, expressing a fervent longing regarding his religious identity, his relationship with G-d, and his desire to return to the Holy Land.
Halevi’s poem “Self-Exhortation to Make the Journey to Israel,” displays his internal struggle that has manifested as a result of his experience living in the Diaspora. His poem can be seen as a kind of mid-life crisis, where he admonishes himself for not leaving Spain and traveling to the Jewish homeland in Israel– wrestling with the decision to either remain in a familiar but hostile land, or to undergo the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to an unknown land, but one which his people hold ancient ties to. Despite being a poem written almost 1000 years ago, its message is one that can still resonate with modern audiences, as it draws from timeless biblical imagery, as well as highlights the individual struggles and uncertainties of a displaced person. Although he is speaking about his specific experience in medieval Spain, this longing to return to one’s homeland is a desire that many people in subsequent eras can understand and relate to, and Halevi himself provides a powerful example of early Zionism.
Unlike the poetry of the Psalms, which are typically a dialogue between the speaker and G-d, Halevi’s poem is a conversation with himself and his own conflicting desires. He wishes to make the trip to Israel, but finds himself afraid of the journey and leaving behind what he knows. He conveys a sense of urgency to this decision, as he opens the poem with a reference to his age: “Are you, at fifty, pursuing your youth / As your days are preparing to fly away?” (Goldstein, 103). At this older stage of his life, he no longer has the luxury of just putting the decision off for another time; he must make a choice before it is too late. In Spain, he rebukes himself for “seek[ing] the crowd’s company,” and “pursuing your five senses,” rather than spending time “pleas[ing] your Creator in the days that remain,” showing how his present circumstances distract him from properly focusing on G-d (Goldstein, 103). Perhaps it is for this reason that his poem is addressed to himself, rather than to G-d as the Psalms do— since his environment makes it difficult for him to prioritize his spiritual life, he finds himself unable to achieve a close relationship with G-d. The poets of the Psalms, on the other hand, writing in Israel across a 500 year period, were all still relatively close to the experience of ancient Jewish life. One of the characteristics of Halevi’s poem is his awareness of the distance, both temporal and spatial, between himself and the Jewish people of the biblical era— something which may also be a contributing factor to his feelings of distance from G-d.
Halevi highlights this distance is by using the Mediterranean Sea as the main setting and place of conflict for his crisis. It is this sea which separates him from his homeland, and its potential dangers show the fears and difficulties that he would face on the journey. In the first half of the poem, his internal conflict is made external through depictions of fierce winds and churning waves creating destructive storms, where “the mighty ship falls like a speck before G-d” (Goldstein, 104). He produces a violent image of ships being tossed about and destroyed, while the people onboard “are full of anguish. / The sailors’ spirits are deep in despair. / Bodies grow weary of their souls” (Goldstein, 104). All is hopeless, as the once powerful ship now “is of no use,” reduced from a strong singular unit to a mass of useless parts, and “the aged’s council does not benefit,” as no human is able to rescue them from their circumstances (Goldstein, 104). This section of the poem draws heavily from biblical imagery, particularly from Psalm 46, which depicts catastrophic events of nature— “when the earth breaks apart, / when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas, / its waters roar and roil, / mountains heave in its surge” (Alter, Psalm 46:3-4). However, the major theme running through this Psalm is that in the face of disaster, one must not despair, but instead place their trust in G-d. By invoking this poem, Halevi begins to convince himself that despite the dangers his journey presents, G-d will protect him and see him safely to his destination.
After this detailed depiction of the dangers of the sea, Halevi strengthens the hopeful tone which was introduced by the invocation of Psalm 46, as he stops to “recall the miracles of Red Sea and Jordan” (Goldstein, 104). By reminding himself of the biblical stories in which G-d saves His people, he strengthens his convictions about G-d’s power and capacity for forgiveness. One of Halevi’s concerns is that since he has been somewhat removed from G-d’s presence while in Spain, he fears he will not receive G-d’s protection over him. However, he now proclaims, in the only line of the poem directly addressed to G-d, that “foul hearts are pure now,” expressing his renewed spiritual devotion (Goldstein, 104). He takes solace in the fact that G-d “will renew his wonders when you perform for him,” and therefore he will be able to be a recipient of miracles as well (Goldstein, 104). As his journey itself is spiritually motivated and rooted in a wish to “exchange your desire’s counsel for that of G-d,” he will receive protection from G-d, just as his ancestors did at the Red Sea and Jordan (Goldstein, 103). Both of these miracles feature the Jewish people safely crossing a body of water as they fled from an oppressive land, stories which Halevi was able to strongly identify with.
The last section of the poem is filled with beautiful and vivid imagery, as Halevi’s nightmarish storm fades, and instead he proclaims that “soon the waves will be silent” (Goldstein, 105). This part of the poem contains lush depictions which can be found in earlier Jewish poetry in Spain, back when it was still under a golden age of Muslim rule, where Jewish people had more freedom and were active participants in the flourishing multicultural environment. The poetry of this era is full of luxurious sensory engagement, as can be seen in the work of Dunash Ben Labrat— he elegantly describes a place “Where lilting singers hum / To the throbbing of the drum,” while “On every lofty tree / The fruit hangs gracefully,” and he proclaims that “we shall dine / On rams and calves and cows. / Scented with rich perfumes, / Amid thick incense plumes” (Scheindlin, 41-42). This poetry reflects a time of prosperity, as well as expresses a strong love of life and the many things it has to offer. Halevi cultivates this type of imagery at the end of his poem, despite the fact that he never got to live during this golden age himself. However, instead of focusing on luxury objects themselves, he compares these objects to the majesty of the untouchable natural landscape, that “The night will be lie a negress clothed in a gold tapestry, / Like a purple garment scattered with crystals,” praising G-d’s creations over man-made ones (Goldstein, 105). Rather than focusing on the present, or even wishing to go back to the past, he switches to the future tense, and imagines a new period of peace and beauty that will be given to him by G-d.
The poem’s ending presents a much different journey from the one Halevi initially envisions, as he works his way from fearfully imagining the worst case scenario, to finally arriving at a state of tranquility. Whereas the first half of the poem is fast-paced, full of self-depreciation and violent motion, the latter half slows down, and focuses on the praise of G-d and appreciating the stillness of the night. Earlier, when describing the people aboard the sinking ship, Halevi never mentions a captain to help guide them, but later in the poem, he describes “the ascent of the stars, / And over them presides the moon, their captain” (Goldstein, 105). He then links the stars themselves to the Jewish people, that “the stars will be bewildered in the heart of the sea, / Like exiles driven from their own homes” (Goldstein, 105). Just as the moon acts as captain of the stars, G-d will act as captain of the Jewish people, guiding them safely as they undergo the long and dangerous journey back to their homeland.
In the poem’s final lines, Halevi continues to focus on the power of G-d, as well as returns to a state of self-reflection. In his final description of the water, representative of everything the journey to Israel would entail, he states that “The sea’s color will be as heaven’s, / Both— two seas bound together,” recalling the beginning of Genesis where G-d divided the sea from the heavens (Goldstein, 105). In doing so, he reinforces his conviction that G-d is the one who created the world, and who still presides over it. By binding the sky and the sea to one another, he reunites these elements which G-d had separated, reverting to the earliest time of creation; he closes the distance between heaven and earth itself, mirroring his own efforts to bridge the spiritual gap he feels between himself and G-d. He proclaims that in addition to the physical distance he would have to overcome in order to reach Israel, “between them [is] my heart, a third sea,” showing how he also has to find a way to overcome his own personal misgivings in order to be able to go on this journey and truly devote himself to G-d, rather than remain in the more secular world he currently inhabits (Goldstein, 105). However, there is hope that he will accomplish this, as the last line of the poem portrays these seas in a more positive light, “as the waves of my praise swell once again” (Goldstein, 105). Rather than waves being a dangerous obstacle, they now are a means by which to convey his love for G-d, and a way to propel him forward on his journey, rather than deter him.
Yehuda Halevi’s poem “Self-Exhortation to Make the Journey to Israel” resembles a kind of pep-talk, or perhaps a stern talking-to that a parent would give to their child, as he tries to convince himself to put aside his fears and leave Spain in order to travel to the Jewish homeland. Although his life in Spain is not an easy one, it is still a familiar one, and he is able to meet his worldly needs. However, his life in Spain is spiritually unfulfilling, as he is in the midst of a hostile living environment, one which is not conducive tomaintaining a close relationship with G-d— something he is especially concerned with as he enters the later stage of his life. His poem is full of biblical references, and it is these biblical stories he has been steeped in, irrevocably tied to the land in which they take place, which have helped to develop his vision of Israel— a paradoxical place which is both unknown yet familiar at the same time— the birthplace of his culture and the home of his ancestors.
Jewish people in the Diaspora across the ages have had differing experiences and relationships with the land they were born in and with the land of Israel. Some, like the Jewish people in Spain during its golden age under Muslim rule, were able to thrive, and created their own unique cultural identity out of a mixture of their specific regional backgrounds and their ancient Jewish traditions. Other Jewish people, such as Yehuda Halevi, lived more precarious lives, where they were threatened by the often violent prejudices of those around them. When living in unstable circumstances, being exiled and displaced from every place they flee to, many Jewish people have developed a longing to return to their homeland, where they hoped to live more stable lives, embodying early convictions of Zionism. Halevi’s poem not only features a display of this early Zionism alongside familiar biblical references, it also reveals his own personal insecurities regarding his age, his lax spiritual behavior, his fears of the unknown, and his deep desire to be able to fully trust in the power and protection of G-d. The beautiful language of his poetry and his display of deep insecurities still holds the capacity to resonate with audiences today, and Halevi provides a powerful example of what it’s like to undergo the heartbreaking experience of reflecting upon the whole of your life, and finding that it does not match up to your expectations. However, he also provides hope that it is perhaps not too late to change your life, and he exemplifies the struggle to abide by one of the most influential teachings from Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud— “If not now, when?” (Davis, Pirkei Avos 1:14).
Alter, Robert, translator. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed., W.W. Norton, 2007.
Davis, Menachem, et al., editors. Pirkei Avos: פרקי אבות = Ethics of the Fathers: With an Interlinear Translation. 1st ed., Mesorah Publications, 2002.
Goldstein, David, translator. Hebrew Poems from Spain. Routledge & K. Paul, 1965.
Scheindlin, Raymond P., translator. Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. 1st ed., Jewish Publication Society, 1986.
Illustrated by Nina Scherer (Instagram/Twitter: @nuheyenuh)
The other day it was a little chilly and rainy and I came across a photo of a sumptuous looking bowl of borscht in my Twitter feed. With all the cooking we have been doing in quarantine, many of us are proud of our culinary creations and display them online. I for one, have not been an inspired chef during the shut-in. I have been in a rut—heating up frozen veggie burgers and tater tots every other night for the past several weeks. Seeing that photo sparked a strong hankering for beets, and I just so happened that I had some in my fridge.
Beets are toothsome, wholesome, and naturally sweet. Here in Santa Cruz, every season is a beet season. Not only are they available all-year-round, but they can also be served in a number of ways and at different temperatures to coincide with the weather. Beet borscht is a dish that can be served hot or cold, and for the sometimes-erratic nature of weather here in Santa Cruz, it seemed like the perfect dish to serve warm on our rainy evening, and have the option to serve the leftovers cold the next day.
Before you roll up your sleeves for this recipe, there is one thing to keep in mind while working with this beautiful and versatile root vegetable. They are messy. I suggest that you wear latex gloves to keep your hands from getting stained for a few days. Furthermore, I don’t recommend wearing any clothing that you’re particularly attached to. Guess who learned the hard way so you don’t have to?
4 cups of soup stock (This can be vegetable, chicken or beef)
3 cups of water
6 medium-sized red beets, peeled and shredded
3 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 Tbsp. of olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
1 Bay Leaf
1 cube of vegetable bouillon
2 tsp. Thyme
1 Tbsp. of lemon juice or vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
*Garnish with sour cream and chives
Start by making the soup base. In a large pot or Dutch oven, coat the bottom with the olive oil over medium heat. Once the oil gives off a nice, fruity aroma, add the diced onion, celery, and carrot and sauté until the vegetables are a little glossy. Add the bay leaf, thyme, and some salt and pepper. Add the minced garlic. I would adjust the heat so that the garlic doesn’t burn. Make sure to stir the mixture frequently. Your kitchen will start to smell pretty nice at this point, which is your cue to add the soup stock, the vegetable bouillon, and the water. You can bring the heat back up to create a simmer.
Once the soup base is at a near boil, add the potatoes and shredded beets. Bring the mixture to a boil for about five minutes, then lower the temperature and let the soup simmer gently on medium-high heat for about 30 minutes. I would taste the broth and season with the lemon juice or vinegar along with salt and pepper to your liking.
Once the potatoes are fork-tender, the soup is ready. For best results, garnish with a generous dollop of sour cream and chives.
Written and photographed by Rachel Ledeboer, ft. Luna the Cat
If you have a lot of leftover matzo from Passover, this is a great recipe to use it up!
There’s a pretty big controversy out there on how you are supposed to make matzo brei, but this is the way I like to do it. I prefer for it to be more savory and to have more of a harder, fried texture.
2 sheets of matzo
Splash of (oat) milk
-Crack the two eggs into a bowl and mix them up.
-Add a splash of milk and some of each of the seasonings. (You can add as much as you want, but generally it is good to add a bit more than you think you will need.)
-Break the matzo up into small pieces and mix it in with the egg mixture.
-Stir it up to make sure the matzo is evenly coated and then let it soak in the mixture for at least 5 minutes if not longer (depending on how soft you like it—longer will be softer).
-Heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil in a small or medium-sized pan, just enough to coat the entire surface of the pan.
-Pour in your matzo mix and spread it out so it fills the whole pan.
-Fry it up for a few minutes, then break it up and flip the pieces around to fry the other side.
-Taste test to see if you need more seasoning, add accordingly, and then you’re done!
Illustrated by Nina Scherer (@nuheyenuh on Instagram & Twitter)
Mel Brooks is best known for his campy style of comedy that often features outrageous productions and provocative themes. He is a master of using satire, parody, and vulgarity to comment on human behavior and philosophical dilemmas. His work reflects aspects of his upbringing and early life, as he insists on putting his Jewish identity and inheritance at the forefront of his comedy. He does this by demonstrating Jewish themes and characters, and making allusions to Jewish culture. Although some may say his satiric treatments of sensitive historical events, such as the Nazi rise to power or the Spanish Inquisition, are in bad taste, Brooks uses his bold comedic style to ridicule those who committed atrocities as a way of reclaiming the Jewish historical narrative.
Many aspects of Mel Brooks’s works are influenced by his childhood and early life. Mel Brooks was born as Melvin Kaminsky on June 27th, 1926 in his family’s sweltering Brooklyn apartment. His father, Max, died when Melvin was only two years old. Melvin carried the pain of never getting to know his father for his whole life, which later influenced the relationships between his characters in his films. Brooks explained, “Maybe in having the male characters in my movies find each other, I’m expressing the longing I feel to find my father and be close to him.”1 These relationships between characters, such as Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock in The Producers, or Bart and Jim in Blazing Saddles, mirror qualities in father-son relationships: one party acts as the knowledgeable mentor while the other seeks their guidance.
Being the youngest of four boys, Melvin was regarded as the baby of the family. As a toddler, he was often doted over by friends and relatives and grew used to receiving attention from a broader audience. Because of this, Kaminsky developed a need to keep his admirers entertained in order to remain in the spotlight2, and his need for attention only grew with age. Additionally, Melvin would spend his afternoons with his friends out on the street corner in his Brooklyn neighborhood, where, as a small and unathletic kid, he was the prime target for neighborhood bullies. Kaminsky quickly caught on that he could use comedy as a way to evade torment. He lived his childhood with this philosophy: “If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?”3 Originally he turned to comedy as a means of social survival, but he soon found his calling within it.
Kaminsky’s love for theatrical entertainment began at a young age. His fondness for movies was conceived when his family would visit the silent movie theater during trips to Coney Island.4 He would also frequent his local theater in Williamsburg to watch new talkies, movies with sound, with his friends. His appreciation for theater came from his Uncle Joe, who took him to see his very first Broadway show, Anything Goes. After being dazzled by the thrill of live performance, Brooks thought, “The real world stinks. This is the world I want to live in, the world of imagination.”5 Brooks’s desire to live in this “world of imagination” has been evident in his outrageous and campy productions.
Around the time he was 13, during a brief period of time when his family moved to Brighton Beach, Melvin learned how to play the drums from the great Buddy Rich. He caught on very quickly because he had a natural knack for rhythm. He commented on why he pursued percussion: “I think I became a drummer because it made the most noise. Obviously, I wanted attention. I could have become a flutist, could have played the flute. Nobody pays attention to you.”6 The skills he learned from Rich would prove to be handy later on when he set off into the Catskills for a summer gig not too long after.
Like many teens in the 1940s, Melvin trekked up to the Catskills mountains to work at a Jewish resort for the summer. His jobs were not glamourous and he was severely underpaid. After taking on many odd jobs around the resort, he landed the gig of being a pool tummler, essentially the equivalent to a court jester, for the guests. Being a natural entertainer, he took his seemingly minor role with the utmost seriousness. One of his shticks involved walking off the end of the diving board while decked out in a full suit and coat, holding a briefcase. Brooks did not know how to swim and had to be saved numerous times by the lifeguards at the pool, proving that he had an unwavering commitment to his craft.
After his stint as a tummler, Kaminsky auditioned to be a drummer for the house band at the Butler’s Lodge. Nightly entertainment called for comedians in the Catskills resorts to be in high demand (or the “Borscht Belt Circuit” as it was often referred to). Brooks lucked out one night when the resort’s usual comedian fell incredibly ill and Brooks was asked to fill in. His first night, despite his nerves, was an overall success and inspired him to continue. He experimented with different material, and often it was not well received— especially his more obscene humor. According to Brooks, “I wasn’t a big hit, not at first… The Jewish ladies with blue hair would call me over and say ‘Melvin, we enjoyed parts of your show, but a trade would be better for you.’”7 Although not all of his jokes resonated with the audience, Brooks was not discouraged and persisted on with his comedy career. At this point in his life, he rebranded himself from Melvin Kaminsky to Mel Brooks— Brooks being a derivative of his mother’s maiden name, “Brookman”.
At the time, although many entertainers with ethnic names changed them for more ambiguous ones in an effort to conceal their identity, Brooks never hid his Jewishness from the world. He described: “I was never religious, but always terribly Jewish… I would say socially, societally I was always very Jewish— I love being Jewish.”8 Growing up in Brooklyn surrounded by Jewish culture built up a strong Jewish identity that existed independent from the religious aspects of Judaism.
Engulfed in Jewish culture with his Brooklyn roots and Catskills summers, Books was kept away from a lot of antisemitism at the beginning of his life. According to him, “[In Brooklyn] we didn’t feel any antisemitism or any strangeness. Had we been transported to Nebraska or Kansas or Abilene, Texas, Yes, we would have felt.”9 Antisemitsm became a much more prominent part of his life when he departed from his familiar Brooklyn and headed off for the army.
Shortly after graduating highschool in 1944, Brooks enlisted in the U.S. Army. While in basic training, he experienced a great deal of antisemitism and harassment from his peers. In one interview, Brooks recalled an incident:
Oh, I was in the army. ‘Jew boy! Out of my way, out of my face, Jew boy.’ This guy called me Jew-something and I walked over to him. I took his helmet off. I said ‘I don’t want to hurt your helmet, cus it’s GI issue.’ And I smashed him in the head with my mess kit.10
Bravely, Brooks was not afraid of the consequences that would come as a result of him standing up to antisemitism. His experiences caused him to not only refrain from concealing his Jewishness, but actually infuse it as a main feature in all of his work so his audiences were unable to ignore or overlook it.
Brooks was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat group and sent overseas to fight in Germany during World War II. He arrived just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Although in a literal war zone, Brooks managed to let his true personality shine through into battlefield antics. In one instance, Brooks responded to German harassment by singing to them over a bullhorn. He often behaved this way on the front in an effort to break the tension from the looming fear of death that followed the soldiers around. After the war ended, Brooks was offered a position as a comedian to follow around the U.S. troops and entertain them. He was promoted to corporal status and enjoyed his life on the road, indulging in the pleasantries that 19 year old boys love the most: alcohol and women. Eventually, he was relieved from duties and shipped back to America.
Much of Mel Brooks’s work is influenced by his experiences as a Jew in the US army in World War II. When reflecting back on his time in the army, he said that he was “grateful”11 His experience in the army motivated him to retaliate against Hitler on behalf of the Jews through his comedy. Through ridicule and mockery, Brooks aimed to belittle Hitler and the Nazis into laughing stocks and take away any inkling of dignity. This was a common theme throughout his career.
Upon returning to America, Brooks tried, and failed, to attend Brooklyn College before finding a job with a producer named Benjamin Kutcher. Kutcher proved to be a failure, and was unable to ever produce a hit play. In order to collect funding for his productions, he seduced old women and collected checks from them. This employer was the obvious inspiration for the Max Bialystock character in The Producers. Brooks then left this job for a summertime stagehand position with a theater group called the Red Bank Theater. After the head of the company quit on account of an unsuccessful season, Mel seized the opportunity to direct their productions. He thrived in his new position and it reaffirmed his love for theatrical production. This experience boosted his confidence and inspired him to use his chutzpah to continue pursuing his dreams.
The life of young Melvin Kaminsky is ever present in the works of the older Mel Brooks. Being coddled as a child instilled a hunger for constant attention, a hunger that he has strived to satisfy his entire career. Growing up as a small, meek kid required him to adopt a powerful command of comedy in order to avoid getting pummeled by bullies, and the Brooklyn street corner gave him a stage to practice his material. The tragic loss of his father shaped the relationships and dynamics of his film characters, and being a drummer contributed to his musical tendencies, ensuring that he would be the loudest in the room. As a teen, his time performing stand up in the Borscht Belt provided him with his first experiences in front of a proper audience, the opportunity to hone his craft, and imbue within him a keen sense for live performance.
Finally, his time in the army tuned him into how Jews are seen in the world outside of Brooklyn. This perspective affirmed his sense of identity and provoked him to make it a primary aspect of everything he did. He also assumed a responsibility to ridicule antisemites like Hitler and the Nazis through comedy in order to strip away any legitimacy or dignity from them.
The Sid Caesar Years
Mel Brooks’s career took off when he joined forces with the king of slapstick, Sid Caesar. Like Brooks, Caesar also performed standup gigs at Catskills resorts. However, being older and more experienced, he had honed his craft to a deeper and more unique level than Brooks. Brooks looked up to Caesar as a role model, but he also felt inadequate compared to him because of his sophisticated humor and dashing good looks. The two were introduced to each other by their mutual friend, Don Appell, after a show Caesar had at the Copa in 1947. After Caesar gained more popularity through his series of live shows at the Roxy Theater, he was offered to produce a weekly television revue show for NBC called Admiral Broadway Revue.
Although Brooks was not a part of the production at the time, he hung around backstage at the studio often; Caesar described Brooks as “sort of a groupie”.12 One day, Max Leibman, the producer of the show, came to the studio to chat with Ceasar. Caesar asked Brooks to perform his signature opening song for Leibman that he often sang before his shows:
Here I am, I’m Melvin Brooks
I’ve come to stop the show.
I’m just a ham who’s minus looks
But in your heart I’ll grow
I’ll tell you gags, I’ll sing you songs,
Just happy little snappy songs that roll along.
Out of my mind
Won’t you be kind?
And please love Melvin Brooks13
Brooks sang this crooner song with gusto and passion, dramatically ending on one knee. Unfortunately, Leibman was not impressed and discounted Brook’s potential, referring to him as a “meshuggener”14. Regardless, Brooks was determined to wedge his way into Caesar’s inner circle, so he attempted to show up to more rehearsals. This led Sid’s manager, Leo Pillot, to advise security at the International Theater, where the show was produced, to keep him out of the building. However, Brooks refused to give up despite many ejections. Luckily, the commotion caught Caesar’s attention and he was able to put Mel on the list on the condition that he stayed away from the bulk of the production. Brooks’s tenacity paid off when Caesar and his writing team reached a block in one of their skits.
Caesar instructed Brooks to “Do something. Write!”15 to fix the scene. Proposing that they add a ridiculous animal noise to the scene to elevate it, he succeeded in proving himself to the writing team. Sid allowed him to hang around if he provided insight on skits. Appreciating the struggle of being a poor comic, Caesar took it upon himself to personally pay Mel $40 a week for his work— a stipend which increased to $50 a week, once Caesar assessed Brooks’ squalid living conditions. After the 19th episode, the show was canceled due to a pulled sponsorship, and Brooks found himself out of work.
By this point, Brooks had been presented with numerous obstacles in his pursuit of a fruitful career. He had followed around Sid Caesar like a puppy for years before he was able to give input on sketches. He had been ignored and invalidated by Max Leibman on multiple occasions and was not taken seriously. Along with his failure to exist in the limelight, these shortcomings caused Brooks to be incredibly insecure. Fortunately, his connections with Sid Caesar presented a new opportunity to express his craft with Your Show of Shows.
Although Max Leibman was adamant about Brooks not joining the original writing team for Your Show of Shows, Sid Caesar’s influence over the matter outshined Leibman’s. Once again, Brooks was hired on with Caesar’s personal funds. Max begrudgingly allowed it, but only if Brooks agreed to stay out of his hair unless explicitly asked to advise a skit. For the first few episodes, he was sparsely involved, but in the seventh episode, Brooks contributed an entire scene— earning him screen credit at the end of the program.
After this victory, Brooks became even more motivated to prove himself further. He demanded to become a salaried employee of the show instead of Sid’s beneficiary. Upon winning that, he pushed further for a full cast screen credit that named him a writer and not just a contributor, which he achieved in 1951. Caesar would later describe Mel’s journey: “He was pushing his way into the writers’ room through a combination of raw talent, inertia and sheer chutzpah”.16
The writing team of Max Leibman, Sid Caesar, Lucille Kallen, and Mel Tolkin had functioned efficiently, but the new addition of Mel Brooks complicated team dynamics. Brooks’s manic demeanor, chronic insomnia, and secret professional insecurities made it difficult for him to mesh well with the rest of the crew. The eclectic mix of these personalities along with another addition, Carl Reiner, created a hectic environment of cacophonous chaos in the writers’ room— an environment that Brooks was constantly blamed for by Leibman, who continued to disregard him as a comic. One year later in 1952, Leibman finally accepted Brooks’s talent and regarded him as a team player.
The new addition of Carl Reiner to the team proved to be an amazing compliment to Mel Brooks. The two Jewish men shared the same kind of spunky improvisational humor— the synthesis of which created one of Brooks’s most well known characters. While in the writer’s room one day, Reiner turned to Brooks pretending to hold a microphone and asked him, “I understand you were at the Crucifixion?” to which Mel replied in a thick, Yiddish accent, “Christ was a thin lad, always wore sandals. Hung around with 12 other guys”.17 And with that, The 2000 Year Old Man was born.
Reiner purchased an audio recorder and used it to record his improvised conversations with Brooks as The 2000 Year Old Man. Brooks regards this character and other improvised characters like him all “challenge his creativity”18 because he was forced to have an immediate response that was witty and would invoke a positive reaction from the audience. Mel’s character is distinctly Jewish because he follows the theme of neurosis that is common throughout Jewish comedy. He kvetches like a Jewish mother and complains about how he has “over 42,000 children and not one of them comes to visit”19 him. The 2000 Year Old Man embodies the aura of in-your-face Jewishness that Brooks’s characters are famous for.
As Your Show of Shows gained popularity, Brooks developed work related anxiety and would often have panic attacks throughout the day. This anxiety was a direct cause of the insecurities he had developed: he felt like a sham and didn’t feel legitimate enough to be considered a successful writer. According to Brooks when he acquired the title of “writer” he confessed, “I began to get scared. Writer! I’m not a writer. Terrible penmanship… It was unreal. I figured any day they’d find out and fire me. It was like I was stealing and I was going to get caught”.20 Brooks’s mother contributed to his anxieties by explicitly reinforcing his imposter syndrome and constantly ridiculing him for it. Brooks’s poor mental health began to take a toll on his physical health, so he sought out assistance from a psychiatrist. These experiences inspired the subject of his film, High Anxiety.
In 1954, due to drastic changes and the increased accessibility of televisions to less sophisticated audiences, Your Show of Shows aired its final episode. Sid Caesar signed a 10 year deal with NBC and got his own show, Caesar’s Hour. Brooks declined joining Sid’s show and instead found himself writing for Sid’s former co-star, Imogene Coca’s show. He did not fit in well with the dynamic of the show’s writing team and comedic style and was forced to work on his own and interact with the other writers only through writing. The unsuccessful show was pulled off the air and once again, Brooks found himself unemployed. By good luck, Sid Caesar was missing Mel’s companionship in the writers’ room, and the pair was reunited once again on Caesar’s Hour.
While at Caesar’s Hour, Brooks fell back into his tardiness, often barging into the writers’ room while they had already been working on a sketch, only to demand a rewrite. Most of the team resented him for this behavior, even though his insight was integral. According to Carl Reiner:
Because Mel is really one of the funniest human beings in the world, he was able very often to improve on the jokes that were already written. He had proved he could come in late and contribute at least his share or more. Mel at one [p.m.] was a better commodity to have than a bum who came in early.21
NBC canceled Caesar’s Hour in May of 1957due to a dip in ratings, Sid Caesar’s refusal to comply with the network’s suggestions, and his substance abuse issues. Brooks, once again on the hunt for a new project, signed on to help write a play called Shinbone Alley, but that ultimately proved to be a failure. In September of that same year, he signed on as a producer and writer for The Polly Bergen Show until he was fired. These events contributed more to his already omnipresent anxiety about not succeeding in show business. Brooks was given another chance to write for Sid Caesar with Sid Caesar Invites You, but the show was largely unsuccessful, once again due to Caesar’s substance abuse issues and refusal to cooperate with the network.
It was clear to Brooks that he has to sever himself from Sid Caesar in order to make a career for himself. However, because of the sudden cease in income and marital problems with his first wife, Brooks fell into very dark times. His fears and insecurities had snowballed and were only proven to be more and more true to him as show after show got canceled.
Mel Brooks’s Movies
Mel Brooks mastered the art of using satire, vulgarity, and parody in his movies to create a brand of dynamic comedy that presents profound philosophical suggestions about human behavior. He uses satire to make bold criticisms about humanity and vulgarity and to exacerbate those commentaries while also adding comedic relief from otherwise serious topics. His command of parody allows him to use genre as a device to more effectively convey his messages.
When describing a Mel Brooks film, one usually thinks of zany, campy productions dazzled with provocative antics and racy shenanigans. The word “serious” is probably not the first to come to mind, but according to Brooks, that is far from the truth. When interviewed about this topic, he said, “All my films are serious. You examine any one of them and they’re serious because they are passionate and they depict human behavior at given points in history of humanity.”22 His films, while not dramatic, still cover serious themes, such as racial discrimination and mental health. The messages within his films are illustrated through the lenses of the genres they parody. Brooks intentionally uses genre as a tool to enhance the gravity of his hefty themes. In order to balance these themes with comedy and to reaffirm his criticisms , Mel employs vulgarity and chutzpah. Upon examination of four of his most popular films, Brooks’s philosophical insights become more obvious.
One of Mel’s most famous films, The Producers, was the first feature film he ever directed— but it was a total flop at the box office. It was jam packed with satire surrounding Hitler, the Nazi’s and their rise to power, but in 1968, World War II was too recent in the collective memory of the world and people were not ready to make light of it. Nazi humor was highly contoversial for the time, and audiences weren’t ready for Brooks’s satire of this sensitive subject. Additionally, flashy musical numbers and description of Hitler as a laid back beat-nik stoner did not sit well with many, as it was interpreted as insensitive. To Brooks, however, this ridicule was incredibly serious. When talking about Hitler and his treatment to the Jews, Brooks justified his portrayals:
How do you get even with [Hitler]? There’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule. Because if you stand on a soapbox and you match him with rhetoric, you’re just as bad as he is. But if you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him. And it’s been one of my life-long jobs to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler23
Brook’s goal was to paint Hitler and the Nazis as laughing stocks, thereby stripping them of all power and influence in order to triumph over them. When asked about his feelings about Hitler, he said, “I’m grateful for the army, grateful for Hitler too. The Producers made me the first Jew in history to make a buck out of Hitler”24 He sees this as a method of Jewish reclamation of identity by proving that he, a proud Jewish boy, would be more successful at the expense of Hitler’s dignity.
Brooks’s satire of the Nazis is made more effective by showing it through the genre of “let’s make a show” shows. The juxtaposition of flashy costumes and elaborate choreography— such as a swastika kickline— causes the viewer to see the Nazi’s as silly and illegitimate rather than giving them any sense of dignity. This choice of genre also acknowledges that the depictions of Nazis in the musical would be distasteful to the audience, as it was explicitly rendered in the film. However, the instance in which the audience changes their mind about the play is Brooks’s way of giving his audience permission to start laughing at Hitler too.
Beyond denouncing the legitimacy and power of antisemites, The Producers explores another existential topic that haunts the psyches of many: the failure to succeed in a world where successess is everything. Leo Bloom and Max Biyalstock are both examples of the schlemiel character. Max is a failing producer that can only “succeed” in making money by sleeping with philanthropic old women and scamming them out of their cash. He has never been able to produce a hit and is going bankrupt because of it. His accountant, Leo, manifests his schlemiel-ness paired with neurosis. He is spineless and is infantilized by the film. These two losers, in an effort to succeed, strive to make a failure— a feat Max had been achieving unintentionally. Ironically, the one time they strive towards the goal of failure, they ultimately have a stellar show, meaning they have failed their plan and are once again losers with success. Even though they chose the most controversial play they could find and produced it with utter insensitivity, they still somehow missed the target. The only place the men become successful producers is in the jailhouse. Biyalstock sums it up pretty well when he laments, “Where did I go right?”25 The moral of this movie suggests that no matter how hard one may try, failure will always find you in some capacity in the world. This idea may have been inspired by Brooks’s past experiences in his early career.
Although The Producers was not an immediate hit, Mel Brooks became a household name with his 1974 Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. This film explores the topic of racial discrimination through a genre that normally relies on consistency and predicatbilty. The notion of having a black sheriff, Bart, in the little, predominantly white boom town of Rock Ridge creates space for critical assessment of racial prejudice. Microaggressions towards Bart are sprinkled heavily throughout the film, despite the fact that he is the best sheriff Rock Ridge had ever known. He is consistently referred to with a slur over the course of the film, showing that his African American identity was always the first thing— and often the only thing— the characters saw. Even one of Brooks’s cameos as a Yiddish Indian serves as a politically incorrect representation of prejudice coming from someone other than the white townsfolk when he regards an African American family in a covered wagon as “shvartz”.
Brooks’s message behind this film is that if you break from the norm, you will always be seen as an outsider. According to Brooks, “comedy comes from the feeling that, as a Jew, and as a person, you don’t fit the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong”.26 Bart, although better and smarter than his citizens he was protecting, would still always be “other” to his community.
This film— on top of tackling themes of racial prejudice— draws attention to more of life’s biggest unanswered questions. Brooks’s skillful way of incorporating vulgarity to explain these mysteries is exemplified flawlessly in the scene where the cowboys are eating dinner under the stars. Mel often wondered what cowboy diets were like in regards to flatulence. With beans being a staple in their protein consumption, one can only assume that there would be quite a bit of gas in the guts of these buckaroos. Brooks’s honest presentation of the symphony of toots phonating from the cowboys sheds light on a huge question that no one knew to ask.
After his success with Blazing Saddles, Brooks was ambitious to create another film that would push the envelope with genre. After being traumatized as a child from watching Frankenstein, Mel developed a recurring nightmare. Growing tired of his night terrors, Brooks thought, “I don’t want this dream anymore. I want him to be a friendly guy. I wanted to exorcise this dybbuk, this devil, from my system”.27 This was his inspiration for making Young Frankenstein in 1974. In order to be true to the genre of old-time Hollywood horror, Brooks insisted that this movie had to be filmed in black and white. In order to use parody effectively, the entire genre had to be genuine in the film’s production.
Young Frankenstein contains a few existential debates worth analyzing. The first is humanity’s discomfort with the permanence of death and the desire to reverse it, achieving immortality. The second is man’s desire, but inability, to conceive. The Doctor, at first, is very against subscribing to his grandfather’s legacy. Once he comes around, however, he is obsessed with creating his monster. He speaks to him as a parent and cooed over him and his dancing achievements when he taps to “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. This synthesized father-son dynamic is a product of Mel’s hang ups about never knowing his father and never having that kind of relationship.
After successfully mastering the parody of yet another genre, Brooks decided to pay homage to the great Alfred Hitchcock and make a tribute to him. The 1977 film High Anxiety, is reminiscent of a combination of Hitchcock’s suspense films while grappling with the topic of mental health and the health care system.
In this film, one of the world’s leading psychological professionals gets a position at “The Psycho-Neurotic Institution for the Very, Very Nervous.” He also suffers from “high anxiety”, a condition many of his patients also had. The neurotic professor is warned that, “if left untreated, high anxiety could cost you your life”28— a statement that foreshadows the resolution of him getting over his fear. Exhibiting this topic through a suspense genre gives the audience the opportunity to feel anxiety along with the characters, enhancing the intensity of the movie experience.
This movie plays into the neurotic Jewish stereotype, but it is also inspired by Mel Brooks’s own experiences with anxiety and mental health. As a young man, he had depression and anxiety that were byproducts of his insecurities. He also had a profound fear of heights, as does the character he plays in the movie. His character, Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, had to overcome his fear of heights in order to run up the bell tower to save Arthur Brisbane from being murdered at the end of the film. This is a metaphor for the effort one must make in order to alleviate their mental health concerns. Otherwise, one’s inner demons will end up engulfing them until they are unable to continue living a full life.
Brooks incorporates another scene of vulgarity that, like the cowboys in Blazing Saddles, tackles one of life’s biggest unanswered questions. The scene in the park— an allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds— presented another insightful answer to an underasked question. While swarming Brooks, the birds expel their droppings, leaving them subject to gravity. The droppings accumulate rapidly on the Doctor, exposing a reality that many of us know all too well: bird shit all over you. Brooks once again answered the questions nobody knew to ask.
Mel Brooks’s comedy mirrors himself. Growing up, he used comedy as a means of social survival among his peers and then later as a tool to triumph over the effects of antisemitism. He grapples with existential questions and themes through means of satire, parody and vulgarity creating a thought provoking comedy that is still light hearted enough for audiences to laugh at. Although it’s not religious, his brand of comedy is inherently Jewish because it evokes upon Jewish character tropes and features allusions to Jewish culture. This integration of his Jewish identity and his comedic methods creates an entanglement that is impossible to sever— one does not exist without the other.
At the end of April, we attended a forum organized by Santa Cruz Hillel, in which four UCSC students and one alumni gave feedback about how the pandemic is affecting their lives on campus, and their connections with the Jewish and Hillel communities.
The pandemic was something none of us were prepared for. The sudden move from a traditional on-campus community to an isolated online environment has been difficult for many of us. Raina, a fourth-year student, described the recent changes and move to an exclusively online academic platform as abrupt and isolating. She felt a jarring lack of community and cultural connection to Hillel. Another student also expressed the difficulties of staying connected with religion and the Jewish community while living with her family.
In addition to the disruption to Hillel’s social resources, many students expressed nervousness around their inevitable job search after graduation. There are many questions about what hiring opportunities will exist when June rolls around.
Daniel, a fourth-year RA on campus described the mostly deserted campus as quiet and sleepy, contrasting the emotional distress many students are experiencing. But anxiety over COVID-19 and its impacts didn’t dominate the forum. There was plenty of hope and positivity, such as ideas for an increased presence of Hillel on social media; there was excitement for online B’nai mitzvah classes and a chance to reconnect with other students and discussions of book and movie clubs. Most of all, there were outpourings of love and support.
As the forum opened up for discussion, one member suggested holding Havdalah prayers in lieu of logistically difficult distance Shabbat dinners and lighting Shabbat candles as a community. Another member offered to take kosher meat orders to purchase over the hill, on account of Kosher meats being in short supply here in Santa Cruz.
Finally, the meeting closed with several words of wisdom. One practical and positive tip: “Find something to laugh about every day.”
If you’re interested in joining a Shabbat service, or a Jewish book club, and finding a sense of community despite our physical distance, you can find Hillel at https://www.santacruzhillel.org/.
Twelve stars suspended in the quiet black of the night. Dark skies pulled the farthest points of light, beyond the mountains, ever closer, and rocked the plane out across the sea. With darkness came the gift of lights: nameless cities mapped out in orange dots, football fields. It’s a strange and subtle, and yet not unpleasant, gift to be able to see how small the world is. It’s like watching time crawl on below you. City lights disappear under pale gray clouds, only appearing, like apparitions in the sea, to illuminate patches of clouds, which in turn soon become indistinguishable from the patches of clouds lit by the light of the moon.
Twelve stars. Twelve stars and a light, the farthest point on the horizon, facing the young girl in the plane window, unwavering, like a star fallen between earth and sky, resting between all that is, and all that will ever be known.
The girl can see the flesh of the night pressing in on the plane. Swirling, untameable matter. The plane is so loud it disturbs the spirits who dwell there. Beings made of darkness, some are as big as elephants, some as small as mosquitos. They are running out of the way, on two legs, on eight legs, with four eyes, with three mouths, with two hearts. Some have no bodies at all. They are resting here a while on their way to the edge of the world, coming with the night and leaving with the first child’s cry, at the first gray light of dawn. Made of all that is old in the world, they are what make children afraid of the dark, what makes us turn on the lights when we step into a room, why we build cities spread between the bay and the ocean that shine so bright we can’t see what creatures tumble through the sky above us.
The girl points to the light at the edge of the world and tugs on the sleeve of the woman sitting beside her, the woman who held her hand through the jet bridge and into their seats. Whispering, she told the woman of the creatures passing them on their way to the edge of the world. The woman knows that nothing is new, ever. She knows that stars that hang between the earth and sky are not stars at all, but other planes, with rows of other people, each coming and going form their own cities. Kind as she was, she made very few mistakes in her old age. And yet, this was one: she told the young girl what she knew of resting stars and planes.
With that, the creatures in the night let out such a cry that for the first time the girl could hear them over the rush of the plane. It was a cry just for her, and only she could hear it. With that, their bodies, outlined in dusk, broke apart like ash that had been blown by a soft breath from parted lips and returned to the night.
The light on the horizon blinked once, and then, ever so slowly, blinked again, like the time that moved the lights of cars through the cities on the ground was finally catching up with them. And at last she could see, that it really was, and had only ever been, an airplane.
Objectively, Noa knew every year was the year of b’nai mitzvot for somebody. But knowing that – and attending a different classmate’s bar or bat mitzvah every month for the last year – hadn’t prepared her for her own. Not even the hours spent sweating over haftorah trope had prepared her. Sure, her discussion of the week’s portion had slowly been molded into something presentable for today. Yes, her mother had taught her how to use the curling iron, as if that would help tame her curly, dark hair. The shiny invites had been mailed to relatives across the globe. And now, everything was to begin in ten minutes. Everything was in place. Everything except for Noa, along with her new tallit and fancy dress.
Instead of counting down the minutes on the bimah, Noa was secluding herself in the corner of a shuttered balcony. Truth be told, Noa had only ever seen it open during the High Holidays, like Yom Kippur, the day when adults who didn’t normally go to services guilted themselves into showing up. From where she curled in the corner, she could peer down at the congregation between the bottom edge of the curtain and the floor. She could see her parents growing more anxious by the minute. Her mom glowed with sweat. Her dad kept checking over his shoulder, where Noa’s spot on the bimah remained stubbornly empty.
Her mom leaned over and murmured something in her dad’s ear. He gave her an exasperated look, shook his head. Noa could imagine the tone of voice he’d use to say, “I don’t know where she is. You think I know any more than you?”
Based on their rising levels of aggravation, her time in hiding was likely short. She sighed and kicked off one of her flats. It was pink, matching her special-ordered tallit. She’d loved the shoes when they’d found them at Payless, but now, they were pinching her toes. For good measure, she kicked the other one off, too. Then she flopped down onto her stomach, tallit fanning out on either side, and sighed again.
Noa did not want to have her bat mitzvah. The problem was thus: she wasn’t ready to be called an adult. She was thirteen, yes, but she was also self-aware enough to recognize that nothing good came with being an adult. As far as she could tell, adults were always stressed in some way or another. Exhibits A and B: her mom and dad.
She could admit some guilt that today she was only adding to that stress, but the alternative – getting up on the bimah, dutifully reciting every phrase she’d committed to memory, becoming an adult – made her feel even worse. Once she was bat mitzvahed, people, especially her parents, would expect things from her. Maturity. Rationality. Responsible decision-making. The pressure made her stomach churn.
She pushed the bottom of the curtain up again to peek at the congregation once more. There were her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, her little cousin… but her mom had vanished. Even the rabbi was starting to look confused.
The curtain fell back in place and Noa pillowed her cheek on her forearms, studying the wall. Then, she squinted, her eyebrows scrunching together. Had that little door always been there?
It was square, made out of dark wood, and probably only about three feet tall, set close to the railing in front of the heavy curtain. She’d been here a few times before, playing hide-and-seek during Tuesday school, but she’d never seen this little door. Maybe it led to an attic? Did the temple even have an attic? This warranted immediate investigation.
Noa pushed herself to her hands and knees and crawled over to the door, where she sat back, feet tucked beneath her. She tested the door’s tiny knob, not expecting it to give, but the door opened easily. It was dark inside, like the room beyond had never seen daylight. She leaned forward and peered in; after a moment, her eyes adjusted. Murky silhouettes resolved into the shapes of boxes. It seemed everything in the room was a box.
There was dust in the air, and a thick coat of it on the floor, too. It would be a shame to get her new tallit dirty, so she compromised, shrugging it off and placing it on a nearby seat. Her dress she bunched up above her knees with one hand, and crawled through the doorway. It was just wide enough for her shoulders.
Inside, the room felt stuffy, too warm, air too thick. She sneezed twice and then froze, afraid she’d given herself away with the sound. Nothing happened, and she relaxed incrementally, tentatively standing up. The room was short; at Noa’s full height, the ceiling was only a few inches above her. An adult would have to crouch to avoid hitting their head.
Inside the nearest stack of boxes was a mountain of loose papers. Like the room itself, they were dusty. She scrubbed her nose with the back of her hand to prevent the itching from turning into a new bout of sneezing. Once it passed, she put a hand into the box and extracted the topmost paper. She squinted at it, gray in the dim light. The script on it seemed to be in Hebrew. With all of her practice in the last few months, the letters that were familiar to her, but she still couldn’t resolve their meaning.
Digging further, Noa found more papers, written over in Hebrew. She wondered how old they were; were they written by her peers, children practicing block letters over and over? Or were they older than that, some kind of ancient manuscript?
Movement caught the corner of her eye and she turned, startled, dropping the dusty papers back into the box. All she could see were murky boxes, haphazard stacks, cardboard shoved together. She held her breath and waited. Had she been found? Any second now, a sharp, angry voice would ring out and she’d be pulled by the arm back into the real world…
There. A shadow moved out from behind a box. But, no – it wasn’t a shadow, just a small shape, black as night.
“Hello?” Noa asked, softly, though she thought that the shape must be a cat, and wouldn’t be able to reply.
Two round eyes opened from the shadow’s lithe shape, bright blue. Two tiny lightbulbs in the dim room. “Hello,” the creature said.
Noa gasped. “A talking cat!”
“No, not a talking cat.” The creature leaped smoothly from the ground to the top of a stacked box, where it perched delicately. With the light coming from its eyes, she could see that it was telling the truth; though it had four legs and a tail, the tail ended in a staticky starburst and the back of its head and spine were decorated with thick spikes. She could see no nose nor triangular ears that would solidify this creature as a cat.
“Then what?” she wondered, stepping closer, the papers scrawled in Hebrew all but forgotten in the box behind her. Her stocking feet sank nearly half an inch into the thickly dust-covered floor.
“A shadow,” it replied. When she stepped closer a second time, its whole body bristled, and she stopped. “What are you doing here, human?”
Noa pushed her dark, curly hair away from her face. “Just exploring, I suppose…”
“Exploring,” the creature repeated. Its glowing eyes squinted at her. “Dolled up like that?”
“Hey, explorers can wear dresses.” Nevermind the makeup coating her face – her mom had done it, not that she’d permitted Noa to wear more than lipgloss and eyeshadow on any other occasion.
“Even if they can, I’m not certain they should.”
Noa puffed up her cheeks, determined to stick to her point. “But nobody said they can’t.”
The creature studied her. Its tail swished and swayed, and then wrapped itself around the creature’s hunched legs. “I suppose not,” it eventually agreed.
A call filtered into the little attic room, dimmed by distance. Noa recognized her mom’s voice, calling her name, and she bit her lip, worry rising in her stomach like a tide; for all she wanted to put it off, her bat mitzvah was supposed to begin any minute.
“Hey, can I come back here sometime?” she asked the creature.
It stood and in a movement so sudden that Noa barely had time to gasp, it leapt past her, a dark blur that came so close to her arm that the baby hairs there stood on end as the air was disturbed, cooled. Whirling around, she found the shadow creature now poised on the lip of the box she’d opened earlier.
“Do what you like,” it told her, and then ducked its spiked head down into the box. Noa watched as the creature vanished head-first into the box. The papers didn’t even rustle.
She hurried over and peered inside. All she saw were the same papers as before, tidy lines of incomprehensible characters.
From somewhere behind her, outside the dark, dusty room, came the pounding of feet. Without sparing the time to think it over, she grabbed a paper from the top of the box, folded it into a small rectangle, and pushed it down the front of her dress, where its sharp corner dug uncomfortably into her skin. Maybe, if she could translate it, she could learn about this mysterious storage room, the shadow creature, maybe more…
Her mother appeared at the top of the stairs as she closed the tiny door behind her. Noa held her breath, feeling red-handed, doing her best to shield the door from view..
“There you are!” her mother exclaimed. “What have you been doing? Your dress is so dirty!” She came over and vigorously shook out the skirt of Noa’s dress before brushing it down with her hands. The dust Noa had been wearing went flying, making them both sneeze.
“Put your shoes back on,” her mother commanded when she was upright again, now attempting to fix Noa’s hair. “And your tallit. Everyone is waiting.”
Her mother shook her head, exasperated. “Then why in – oh, for goodness sake, there’s no time for excuses right now. We’ll talk tonight.”
Noa slipped her narrow shoes back on as her mother wrapped the tallit around her shoulders, then pushed her towards the stairs. She could feel the paper hidden against her chest – real and sharp. The inevitable had come, yes – she’d be on the bimah soon. But the unpredictable had come, too; the paper folded against her chest was a burning reminder of that, and more than that, it was a hint of the endless possibilities the future held.