Bet (ב)

The numerical value of bet is two, representing duality. Since it is the beginning of the word berachah (“blessing”) through which every food and drink is reconnected to its heavenly root, bet is also a link between the material world and the spiritual world of unity, reinforcing the truth that God is One.

Blessings open up our awareness of the bounty we receive and thereby open us up for receiving even more. As we stated earlier, the word ברכה – berachah (“blessing”) also means ברכה – bereichah (“large receptacle”). The more we bless God for the good we have received, the larger is the space we make that only He can fill.

Although we experience duality in this world—light and darkness, Yin and Yang, feminine and masculine, etc.—our spiritual work is to reach beyond the duality and reveal the source of Oneness hiding behind all duality. For example, our ultimate capacity for balancing Yin and Yang requires us to tap into pure essence, the deepest place in our souls that is beyond all time, space, and categories. As we shift our identity to pure essence, we may heal from all imbalances and fragmentation.

While Abraham is associated with the energy of alef, which unifies plurality, Isaac, in contrast, evokes the theme of bet, the perception of the deceptive plurality of creation and the need to overcome this deception. Although God’s creation is made of infinite variety and diversity, everything is endowed with His Spirit. Every event and situation is a manifestation of His will, even those which are most enigmatic.

Sources: Secrets of the Hebrew Alphabet

Alef (א)

The letter alef, besides being the first letter of the alphabet, also represents the number one, echad (אחד) in Hebrew. The numerical value of echad is thirteen, which is the numerical value of ahavah (אהבה), “love.” The letter alef represents both the oneness of God and His love for His creatures (the attribute of chesed, “goodness”).

Alef represents absolute unity within the plurality of Creation and is therefore the major symbol of Divinity. Many of the names of God begin with this letter: א-ל – El, אלוקים – Elokim, and אדנ-י – Ad-nai. In addition, there are many epithets used to describe God, such as אדיר – Adir (“glorious”) and אדון – Adon (“master”). The Zohar relates that before Creation, each letter of the alphabet came before God, requesting to be chosen to begin the process of creation. The letters presented themselves in reverse order: first was ת – tav, the last letter of the alphabet; next was ש – shin, the second-to-last letter of the alphabet; then ר – resh, and so on, up to ב – bet, second letter of the alphabet, which begins the word ברכה – berachah, “blessing”. Bet pleaded, “Let the world be created with me, so that all beings shall use me to bless God”. And God assented.

Then God asked the א – alef, the first letter of the alphabet, who had not yet uttered a word, why it was silent. The alef replied that in a world of plurality there was no place for her, since the numerical value of alef is one. God reassured alef, saying that even if the world would be created with Bet, alef would still be the queen of the alphabet. He said, “Have no fear, alef, you are one, and I am One. I want to create the world to have my spirit of oneness dwell there through the study of the Torah and the performance of mitzvot (the commandments). The first of the Ten Commandments will begin with alef, the first letter in the word אנכי – Anochi (“I”)—“I am the Lord your God.”

The perception of God’s oneness that alef represents is further suggested by the Hebrew word פלא (“wonder”), a permutation of the word alef: Discovering God as He is disguised in each detail of creation generates feelings of wonder and awe.

Sources: The Secrets of the Hebrew Alphabet

Jewish Warsaw Before World War II

The Jewish community in Warsaw has a rich history. It is undoubtedly the story of one of the largest, most interesting and varied communities in the history of the Jewish people.

There has been a Jewish presence in Warsaw since the time it became the capitol of the small province in the Mazovia Principality. There was a Jewish settlement on the northwest outskirts of the Old Town, between Dunai and Piekarska Streets. There was a synagogue there and a cemetery further away, near the site of the Bristol Hotel today. The Jews were exiled from Warsaw towards the end of the 14th century by one of the Mazovian princes and the edict prohibiting Jews from residing in Warsaw remained in effect until the 19th century. In spite of that, as Warsaw became an important political-cultural center, more Jews were allowed to settle on its periphery, since the nobility recognized that the Jews represented a significant commercial force. The nobles exploited their right to rule over autonomous territories, and brought Jews to live under their protection. Legally, this system was called Juridica. Thus, the Potocki family, in the 18th century, created the neighborhood Nowy Potok, today the area of the Hotel Sobieski. The Sulkowski family established New Jerusalem – the street leading to the area is still called Aleje Jerozolimskie [Jerusalem Blvd].

In the beginning of the 19th century, the Leczczynski family founded a neighborhood, and hence the name of Leszno Street. A Venetian architect designed the Muranow neighborhood, and named it after the city of his birth, Merrano. Jews in increasingly large numbers also settled in the Praga district. One of the neighborhoods still carries the name Szmulowizna, in honor of the Jewish merchant Shmuel Zbytkower, who also received permission to build Jewish cemeteries, first in the Praga district, and later, on the western bank of the Vistula.
With the Prussian regime came the partition of Poland. During the period of the Napoleonic principality of Warsaw, and later Congress Poland, (named for the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which transferred control of Warsaw and the surrounding area from Prussia to Russia, and hence the name of all the territory annexed by Czarist Russia), more and more Jews settled in Warsaw. After the removal of all special tax restrictions on the rights of Jews in the city in 1862, Jews settled in all sections of Warsaw. Most of them, for economic, cultural and religious reasons, continued to reside in those areas where Jews were the majority.

The Jewish population of Warsaw grew significantly – from about 10,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to approximately 350,000 by the end of World War 1. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe at that time. Like all of European Jewry in the 19th century, the Jews of Warsaw vacillated between assimilation and attempts to preserve a distinctive Jewish character in their lives. The relationship between the Poles and the Jews changed frequently: there were periods of cooperation, active inclusion of Jews in Polish struggles for independence, and the protection and advancement of Jewish culture, followed by periods of crises, often with the “help” of the Russian powers, who practiced a policy of “divide and conquer”.

During the 19th century, two distinct approaches to the relationship with the Jews developed among the Poles. One approach – the romantic, liberal, democratic and later socialistic one – called for the inclusion of the Jews and other minorities in Polish civic life. Others took a different approach – the nationalistic, religious one. This group viewed the Jews and the German minority as eternal enemies and developed a politically motivated anti-Semitism, especially towards the end of the century. This modern antisemitism served to compound ancient antisemitism already prevalent in Polish society, especially in religious circles and among those who controlled financial competition. The PPS, The Polish Socialist Party, headed by Jozef Pilsudski, was founded in the 1890’s. In opposition to the Socialists, the ND, the National Democratic Party, called the Endeks, headed by Roman Dmowski, was established. A third political force was the Farmers’ Party, led by Wincenty Witos, which served as a balance.

Jewish figures like Berek Joselewicz [Yoselevich], Rabbi Meisels, Michael Landy and Henryk Wohl – are remembered for taking active roles in the history of the shared homeland. On the other hand, antisemitism, economic struggles and even riots -usually instigated by the Cossacks – were also prevalent. During the 19th century, the growing and developing Warsaw became a magnet for Jews, who streamed into the city for economic reasons, but also in order to obtain an education and participate in the building of a modern city.

Several Jewish families became influential in the financial, cultural and municipal life of the city. Scions of many families (Kronenberg, Nathanson, Berenson, Wawelberg, Bloch, Toeplitz and others) converted under pressure and are buried in cemeteries belonging to the different faiths. These families were major contributors to the development of education and trade in Warsaw. Yet thousands of Jews continued to live in poverty, with no electricity or running water.
Leopold Kronenberg (1812-1878). Banker, Industrialist and major philanthropist. He built the railway lines connecting Warsaw to St. Petersburg, Minsk, and Brest, and other places. He and his family assimilated and converted.

Warsaw became the center of Jewish activity. The Gur Rabbi temporarily established his court there while some progressive rabbis such as Kramsztyk and Jastrow preached a different approach. Zionism was an important force. At the same time a rabbinical school was established – a school which preached involvement in the life of the city, but produced not a single rabbi. Jewish schools were established and contributed to Jewish creativity in the Polish language. A Hebrew and Yiddish cultural center was also established.

While Polish society with its many different political parties became more united, all the conflicting Jewish ideologies flourished. At the same time, new ideas were burgeoning in the Jewish world. In independent Poland, Jews had been equal citizens by law since 1918 yet many began to feel more and more like strangers. In the streets of Warsaw, every fourth person was a Jew. Among them you could find rabbis from Agudat Israel, Zionists, leaders of the Bund and classic Polish intellectuals of Jewish background. Youth movements were active in the city, representing the entire range of political parties, educational trends, and community institutions. And all of these were constantly meeting and debating issues, fighting and arguing in a never-ending stream of Jewish creativity. Ten daily newspapers and several monthlies were published. Jews boxed, rode bikes and participated in many organized sports. Meir Balaban, Moshe Shorr, Yitzhak Shiper and the young Emanuel Ringelblum laid down the foundation of Jewish historiography and Shimon Ashkenazi and Marceli Handelsman joined forces with them. Jewish culture thrived – theatre, cabaret satirical performances, movies and literature. The most outstanding 20th century Polish authors and poets met in Cafe Ziminski – the Jewish writers, Julian Tuwim, Slonimski, Lesmian and Schulz. The Singer brothers, Sholem Asch, I.L. Peretz and others, sat somewhere in Krochmalna Street or in the Yiddish Authors House on Tlomacka Street.

Lost Generation

In the aftermath of World War I there arose a group of young persons known as the “Lost Generation.” The term was coined from something Gertrude Stein witnessed the owner of a garage saying to his young employee, which Hemingway later used as an epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926): “You are all a lost generation.” This accusation referred to the lack of purpose or drive resulting from the horrific disillusionment felt by those who grew up and lived through the war, and were then in their twenties and thirties. Having seen pointless death on such a huge scale, many lost faith in traditional values like courage, patriotism, and masculinity. Some in turn became aimless, reckless, and focused on material wealth, unable to believe in abstract ideals.

In literature, the “Lost Generation” refers to a group of writers and poets who were men and women of this period. All were American, but several members emigrated to Europe. The most famous members were Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot.

Common themes in works of literature by members of the Lost Generation include:

Decadence – Consider the lavish parties of James Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or those thrown by the characters in his Tales of the Jazz Age. Recall the aimless traveling, drinking, and parties of the circles of expatriates in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. With ideals shattered so thoroughly by the war, for many, hedonism was the result. Lost Generation writers revealed the sordid nature of the shallow, frivolous lives of the young and independently wealthy in the aftermath of the war.

Gender roles and Impotence – Faced with the destruction of the chivalric notions of warfare as a glamorous calling for a young man, a serious blow was dealt to traditional gender roles and images of masculinity. In The Sun Also Rises, the narrator, Jake, literally is impotent as a result of a war wound, and instead it is his female love Brett who acts the man, manipulating sexual partners and taking charge of their lives. Think also of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Prufrock’s inability to declare his love to the unnamed recipient.

Idealised past – Rather than face the horrors of warfare, many worked to create an idealised but unattainable image of the past, a glossy image with no bearing in reality. The best example is in Gatsby’s idealisation of Daisy, his inability to see her as she truly is, and the closing lines to the novel after all its death and disappointment:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther… And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sources: Writers Inspire

The Djed

The djed is an ancient Egyptian symbol for stability which features prominently in Egyptian art and architecture throughout the country’s history. `Stability’ should be understood to mean not only a firm footing but immutability and permanance. The symbol is a column with a broad base which narrows as it rises to a capital and is crossed by four parallel lines. The column and the lines are sometimes brightly painted and other times monochrome. The djed first appears in the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000-3150 BCE) and continues through the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE), the last dynasty to rule Egypt before it became a province of the Roman Empire.

The djed is often overlooked in Egyptian art, and especially in architecture, simply because it is so ubiquitous; the djed is featured on pillars, tomb walls, architraves (the main beam which rests on pillars), palace walls, sheets of painted papyrus, and especially sarcophagi. Once one is aware of the djed and its importance to ancient Egyptian culture it is impossible to miss. It is a potent symbol associated with the god Osiris and his return from the dead. The symbol has been interpreted to represent different objects such as the god Osiris’ backbone, the tamarisk tree which enclosed the god, four pillars rising one behind another, and a fertility pole raised at festivals. `Stability’, however, seems to have been its prime meaning and the one which the ancient Egyptians attached the greatest importance to.

The precise origin of the djed is unknown but it was associated with the god Ptah, an early creator god in the Predynastic Period whose attributes were later assumed by the deities Atum and Osiris. According to historian Clare Gibson, the djed was an early phonogram which could also act as a pictogram or ideogram. A phonogram is a symbol representing a sound and a pictogram a symbol for a specific word or phrase while an ideogram is a symbol of a thing itself without reference to words or sounds (such as numerals where one recognizes the symbol 10 as representing a certain quantity). The djed symbolized the spoken word-concept for stability, was the written word for stability, and stood for the concept itself.

Sources: World History Encyclopedia

Hammurabi

In around 2000 bce, the Amorites (Westerners), a semi-nomadic people from Syria, swept across Mesopotamia, replacing local rulers with Amorite sheikh dynasties in many of the city-states. By the early 18th century bce, the three most powerful Amorite kings were pre-eminent Shamshi-Adad in the north, Rim-Sin in Larsa in the south, and Hammurabi in Babylon in the center. Over the course of his long reign, Hammurabi consolidated all of southern Mesopotamia into his kingdom and eventually extended his power as far up the Tigris as Nineveh, and as far up the Euphrates as Tuttul, on the junction with the river Balikh. He personally supervised the construction of many temples and other buildings.

The prelude to his code, a tribute to Hammurabi, and a long historical record of his conquests, boasts that his leadership was divinely sanctioned by the gods who passed control of humanity to Marduk (deity of Babylon), and so to its king. It also reveals he saw his role as the guarantor of a just and orderly society.

Dorothy Parker’s Birthday

Today in Literary History —> Happy Birthday to Dorothy Parker, American poet, satirist and critic best known for her wisecracks and sharp wit. Her writing graced the pages of Vogue, VanityFair, and The New Yorker, and she was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a famous 20th century New York literary circle.

Following the breakup of the circle, Parker traveled to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. Her successes there, including two Academy Award nominations, were curtailed when her involvement in left-wing politics led to a place on the Hollywood blacklist. Dismissive of her own talents, she deplored her reputation as a “wisecracker.” Nevertheless, both her literary output and reputation for sharp wit have endured. Born on this day in 1893…

FavoriteWriters #HappyBirthday #DorothyParker #AlgonquinRoundTable

Gizan Zenrai (儀山善来) – Japanese Death Poem

Died on the twenty-eighth day of March, 1878 at the age of seventy-seven

I was born into this world
I leave it at my death.
Into a thousand towns
My legs have carried me,
And countless homes—
What are all these?
A moon reflected in the water
A flower floating in the sky
Ho!

“Ho!” is a translation of the word totsu, a kind of challenging cry uttered at the moment of enlightenment.”

Sources: Japanese Death Poems