Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Panim/punimer: countenance, mug and features

In a very famous low voice sung sort of poem, the French Greek but mostly Jewish music writer Georges Moustaki wails: "With my face of foreigner ("cup of a dago" is more exact) / of wandering Jew / and of Greek shepherd...". The words are scarcely audible with a touch of artistic charm and sex-appealing pathos while his fingers hardly reach the cords of a big guitar. Yes, we have three decades of hits continuously reprogrammed in Israel because we love to feel history down to the pits of all roots, even sound records. And a real talent to appear as a miserable shlimazl - the rejected all-alien that still would attract any mermaid slowly dancing on the beach. He had written the famous best "Je ne regrette rien - No, I don't regret" and "Mylord" sung by the genius Edith Piaf whose crisping vocal cords could damn crowds of fans. They can't be compared with Yossi Banai who put some songs into Hebrew with much feelings and skillful insights of universal experiences. The Beatles' "Help" echoes the Swedish Abba group's "Money, money" hit that still advertise how they want to spicily get "in a rich man’s world". At that time, the Soviets were languishingly praising "The evenings of Moscow" - peace was secured by the Choir of the Soviet Army - while the Chinese were tuning about "proletarians who ought to love proletarians and enhance culture among the rice cultivators". Wham got into Georges Michael’s “wake me up before you go”.

We belong to a generation of broadcasted sounds, especially rhythmic in English; it doesn’t matter if it is not in Hebrew: as the Queen rock opera Freddy Mercury sang “We are the champions”. He was the Zoroastrian pop singer followed by Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” to develop the good odor. Rap, R ‘n B paved the way to the boys/girls bands like the “Spice girls”. Oh! and our Sarit Haddad recites the "Shma Israel" in a song in which she does confess with a good tempo "Ani achshav levad / I am now alone". I don't buy that and would rather email or "sms" to her a "YouTube" shortcut of "the song of the Partisans" in Yiddish: "Du zolst nit zogn az du geyst dem letzten veg / don't say you are going on the last way", hammered by our courageous people, maybe Chava Alberstein's version because she is so us. Now, we have “Push the button” in three tongues. This is music and sound point.

The problem is to manage all Ipods, MP3 players, Iphones. Full equipment presupposes computers, laptops (‘nayad’ sounds so sweet), notebooks, cell phones and cellular’s, with recording memories, images, pictures, videos, films, tape-recorders; yes! And then 160 satellite television channels plus some competitors, all the singers of the universe... I get my personal breaking news directly from all my computerized tool bars. Is it still a bit mebulbal (confused)? Thus, it would be good to feel so connected that it would even allow me to reach out to find some boo, a buddy (post-Friends generation) in Palau. No Jews there. Just unbelievable! Impossible.

Look! Ten years ago, I was watching the news, beshidur chai (live) from a small Japanese storm-beaten island. Two Japanese soldiers were explaining that they would never surrender to US Forces and would rather commit hara kiri (ritual suicide); they were expecting the response of the Emperor of Japan whose divinity had been abolished by a decision taken by Gen. Mac Arthur. Then, what a chance! I was fully instrumented to know that World War II (supposedly) was over and there, in the hell of remote stormy islands, two valiant soldiers were still fighting ghostly foes. And I thought of Abraham Avinu, of course. From Ur-Kasdim to Haran down to Egypt, up to the terebinths of Mamre and Machpelah, you see, Grandpa, we shall overcome some day, but at the right time, the right place, not like these two rescued chaps that emerged from some odd abashment between past and future.

This bewildering point is the synchronic (same-time) occurrence of events that connect us with diachronic (time-crossing) situations that happened in different locations. We have it in Israeli society. It requires a lot of watchful and judicious attention and understanding. Some inhabitants not only behave as if they were living some centuries ago. Their ways of thinking can show us the contemporary outlasting of men and women from the various ages. And simultaneously, we can check or survey the disruptions that affected the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Middle-Eastern collectivity, in particular as regards their relationships to faith. Thus we can meet people that “express” the time of the Temple (the Mandianites of our weekly reading “Matot” that heard of John the Baptist, but not Jesus’ baptism, cf. the Sabba’im), but also Yemenites who developed the Zohar and still use Aramaic.

Ethiopians show us very ancient practices connecting Judaism and early Christianity. Some former Soviets would link the Scythian Crimea of the Antiquity and the Khazars that converted to Judaism and disappeared in the 7th century. In the 9th century, Grand Duke Volodymyr (Vladimir) of Kiev dramatically chose the Byzantine Oriental Christian faith then expressed in one Orthodox and Catholic Church after having consulted the Jews and the Muslims. Their presence in Israel is often positioned with some aggressiveness towards a long-century experience of confrontation with Islam and the Mongolians. We can also meet with contemporaries of Rav Luria’s disciples and the yeshivot of Safed that go to the same supermarkets as some monks from the Hagion Horos (Holy Mount Athos). They observe the rules of Eastern Orthodox Christian regulations. They do explain more accurately than any breaking news how Rome and Constantinople split in 1054 and cannot repair the situation at the moment.

Let’s come back to the caring hospitality shown at Mamre’s Oaks by Abraham Avinu and his laughing wife at the announcement of her birthing a son. The scene has been drawn, designed, painted. We have tons of icons with and without the patriarch and Sarah. No film, no picture, no video and, of course, no canned laughter. They were two wilderness NFA Arameans dwelling under some big tent, without ID cards and photos. They were not dotting the I’s of their pods, phones, MP3 players, world TV networks. They got one (several indeed) Divine breaking news whose developments are prolonging at the present. “I bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the sea-shore; all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants because you have obeyed My command” (Bereishit 22:17-18).

Now, by the time of Abraham and Sarah, there were no computers, mobiles, SMS messages, instant messengers, ICQ (born on the Israeli coast), Trillian and others connecters. Identity was a ‘word is a word’. Either you say the truth or you are fined and can eventually be killed in an oral cultural environment. Abraham, for instance, became afraid and presented Sarah to King Abimelech of Gerar as being his sister (Gen.20:1-18). A world of visions, nightmares, dreams and talks, well online chats with the Lord. This is the silent world counter-point of our multi-media stuff. We swirl in a super high tech mall or mart of sounds, cries, music drone dizziness and may lose our identity.

In Hebrew, panim (face) comes from the root panah (to turn one’s face). In Gen. Rabba 91: pney haaretz (the wealthy); “she can cover her nakedness/appearance” (Berachot 24a, Niddah 14b). “The Torah has a law for each of which there are 49 ‘clean’ and 49 ‘unclean’ ways of interpretation” (Cant. Rabba 2,4). “This question must be brought inside and even to the innermost” (Bava Metzia 16a). In the context of Abraham at the terebinths of Mamre, the ancestor had no proof of identity as we can check today. Hebrew “Panim” is a plural because of the numerous aspects of an identity. Like the ‘face of a watch’, a human shows a visage and a backside without expression. But appearance and countenance reveal an image, not necessarily who we are indeed. We are overcome with images and looks that do not exhibit the heart of the souls. A decade ago, the famous ‘Facebook’ was created in Harvard. It is doubled with “Piczo” or drawing natural sites for the development of contact networks. Just as ‘Myspace’ (which is very musical) and the various albums and blogs, they question our identity as holders of the ‘imprint, mark’(chotam) – Gr. “sphragis” and not only our self-esteem which is a basic virtue according to the Jewish rabbinic tradition.

For the Jewish tradition, our ‘faces’ (it curiously gave the Yiddish plural form “punimer”) are not narcissistic. If millions of self-addicted people spend hours in vamping up a virtual online presumed contact way to show off who they are or think they are, our self-esteem can be brought to the measure of our suffering of personal solitude; we might even feel abandoned in an immense universe of whirling voices, sounds, changing or photoshopped images. Would Abraham or the Sages have naturally coped with the hi-tech world in which we live? In all of the times, the challenge has been to overcome fears, panics to feel alone and to face the 'burden of some survival'. There is a sort of parallel between Sarah’s laughter and our swiftly virtual “lol”. Is it a desperate search for some kind of existence? In Israel, we constantly face “chopped” images of a wide God’s Likeness that is going through a sort of puzzlement.

It is said: “An extra measure of love was made known to the humans as they were created in God’s Image” (Avot 3:14). This also explains why Adam was unique and created singly: it allows every human being to get aware of the fact that s/he is personal has the same likeness as God and thus be saved –each soul encompasses the whole universe” (Sanhedrin 4:5). But this is not what we may see in daily life. We go through passivity and self-content. Modern techniques are a plus for a society as far as they allow it to improve its welfare and capacities. But the realm of visible things or people is nothing compared to the vast and immeasurable source of capacities that are beyond our sights and envisioning skills. This absence of plenitude may be a spiritual challenge in times of licentious, loose and libertine turmoil.

Jesus made an intriguing statement: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:24). We have the tools utilized for building ourselves up and not being sleepy or spaced out. We don’t reach immortality or more power because we have records and archives at hand. Abraham’s blessing is stronger than anything we can share and thus requires a deft touch of reality.

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