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One B’Av

My latest on Times of Israel:

Yesterday I said goodbye to love. Well sort of. I bade adieu the man behind the personal nom de guerre “my love”: to the fire in my chest, the humus on my falafel, the Chardonnay to my Brie, my vice, my spirit. I kissed off to an unassuming base, the phantom of my dreams, the face I awoke to, the soul I hungered for, the man who was my yesterday and I hoped to call my tomorrow.

Together we delved into Talmudic pages, we made decadent biblical jokes, we examined Borat clips, we sang off tune, we pretended to cook, we cut watermelon, we cut prices at Mahane Yehuda, we laughed until we broke wind, we broke glasses, we shed tears, we shed light, we played ball, and we played with silence. Together we were homeless in Jerusalem, homeless in Tel Aviv, and homeless in Gush Etzion. Together we got into ideological fights, Hermeneutical fights, food fights, and precarious Styrofoam sword fights. We were just very adamant on fulfilling the biblical command on becoming “one flesh” (Genesis, 2:24)

Read the rest on Times of Israel…..

Ten Months in a Madhouse

On the 23 of August I hopped on a plane in search of self, and study of “the enigmatic seminary girl amid her natural habitat.” Did I assume I had enough courage to undergo the tribulation my mission called for? Could I don features of religiosity like Chanel’s little black jacket; in such sangfroid  that I could  circumvent Rabbi’s and live among  Frummies without  authorities discovering I was only an aspiring Frenchwoman  with a boisterous brown mane, just observing to “take notes”?

Having Obama in mind I answered “yes, oui, כן (ken)!” I supposed I could. I had some faith in my acting skills and thought sacrosanctity could be assumed long enough to complete my task. Could I pass ten months in a West Bank Jewish nunnery? I said I could and I would—and I think I did.

After opening the unexpected email of admittance, I rushed to practice the part in which I was to make my debut the following day. What a difficult task, I thought, to appear before a crowd and convince them that I was a Dosi. I was already unaccepted to one institution because of an uncovered photo of myself with scantily clad arms—I was not about to invite déjà vu. I began to think my task a hopeless one, but it had to be done. So I flew to the mirror and examined my face.

“I am afraid of that wily smile of yours,” quipped my Orthodox friend. “I will smile no more,” I said imprisoning a grin in order to embark on my delicate and, as I found out, ensnaring mission. I was bent on looking at my condition through unsympathetic glasses. It’s just as well to take a last “fond look,” I mused, for who could tell how the strain of playing pious , and being shut up with a crowd of Semgirls eating peanut butter and the Bible, might turn my own brain, and I would never get it back. But not once did I think of eschewing my mission. On the following sweltering August day, I French braided my hair in two, threw on my longest black skirt, my mother’s high collared linen blouse and navy J.Crew cardigan. Far more covered then any of my peers taking group flight, I looked like a gentle little school girl who should have been accompanied by a succoring adult.

Beish Yachov chic

Beish Yachov chic at the airport

I had little confidence in my capacity to deceive the religious experts, and I think my prudent friend had less. Nonetheless, from the moment I entered the settlement, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of piety. I purported and prodded as I do in ordinary life.

Calmly, outwardly at least, I went out to my cockeyed business.

As a fashion habitué, my initial observations were topical at best: I noticed how all Semgirls sported snug Hard Tail skirts with fitted chambrays. How the Anglo Jewess toted her iPhone in a kaleidoscopic LeSportsac cross- body and come Friday, how that small purse morphed before my eyes into a LeSportsac tote available in an even grander salad of prints. I analyzed what each sartorial decision indicated vis-à-vis group dynamics, conformity and economic status of the modern orthodox nymphet. It was only a matter of time before the curious anthropological case, turned into an addlepated excavation of my Dasein.

Semgirl on the prowl; a common activity for the species. Notice how the girls have identified their pray, and are about to attack the young male, under the pretext of “asking for directions”.

Semgirl on the prowl; a common activity for the species. Notice how the girls have identified their prey, and are about to attack the young male under the trite pretext of “asking for directions”.

Which one of these is not like the other? Notice how all are sporting the same American Appeal scrunched skirt and slight variations of a slouchy t-shirt and tennis shoes. Oh, and the answer is none—they are all the same.

Which one of these is not like the other? Notice how all are sporting the same American Appeal scrunched skirt paired with slight variations of a slouchy t-shirt, cross-body bag, and tennis shoes. Oh, and the answer is none—they are all the same.

I imagined myself as a sort of Nellie Bly. In 1887, Ms. Bly revolutionized journalism and most importantly treatment of the mentally ill, spending10 days at Bellevue Hospital while posing as a mental patient for a madhouse exposé. Sociologists, anthologists, psychologists, and all other “ists” call this method participant observation: data collection, where the researcher actually slips into the subjects shoes, taking on the studied role. While I am not calling seminary an asylum, the parallels subsist for your own musing pleasure.

All I had to compare to the Orthodox Jewish world were books. The Beit Midrash appeared to be the gateway to the Yeshiva world. The practices, the uniform, the thoughts were alien— I figured I could at least learn my way into this cerebral circus.

In Gush Etzion , darkness lands precociously. It dangles in the morning air like the sword of Damocles; then in the midafternoon a pewter blue vesper descends, and the Jerusalem stone houses and aluminum caravans bare a somber expression. Yet high atop a steep Judean hill, across from the passing shepherd with his flock, and contiguous to Beit Fa Jay jayFajjar, an elevated pentagonal roof accompanied by a great triangular window emanate hoards of light, shattering the fat darkness of moonless, starless nights. Through the first few weeks at Migdal Oz, a gossamer menace of assumptions, ignorance, and Lilliputians, startled me, drying my hands, grating my apprehensions, making me eat saccharine, budget halva disintegrating with human touch (the only kind  Migdal Oz provides) too often. I would pace to and fro; my palms gulped by the long sleeves of shirt a friend had lent me too fit in.

In my first night-learning period’s, which  leading up to Yom Kippur were all about atonement, I wanted to escape  and tread towards Efrat through the twilight in order to touch the twinkling Jerusalem lights, but each time I tried , I became entwined in some wild, vociferous Talmudic dispute drawing me back, as if with corroded chains, into my seat.

“Ben Azai answered ‘What can I do? My soul desires Torah! Others can make babies’ (Yevamos 63b).” Sing-sang Shira, my Chavruta.

“Who does this Azai guy think he is? Is that a valid pretext for pussyfooting the Cultural Mandate?  Following creation, God tells man to be fruitful and multiply— except for those who fall in love with texts?!” I roared at my Chavruta, struggling to match my tone and gesticulations to the notorious Talmudic melody.

Our Oz-like, green roofed seminary’s stream of glowing windows must have added our share of mortal mystery for the passing spectator in the dimming mountains. I was her too, watching the light and speculating. Was I walking up the wrong yellow road from the closest settlement of Efrat? Should I search for bricks? Was The Great and Powerful Oz really inside? Was that a flying monkey I spotted in the corpulent night?  Would I pull aside a curtain, revealing the Wizard to be an old illusionist who would only prove that the brainless Scarecrow, heartless Tinman and spiritless Lion, each had what he wanted all along; that all I needed was a pair of scintillating red stilettos to take me home? Entranced and disenchanted by a surfeit of information, I had one foot in, one foot out; at once I stood inside and outside the wonderful Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz.

Drawing her chair closer to my perspiring body, Shira released a torrent of warm breath justifying Ben Azai’s deviant conduct.

The following mornings, evenings, and afternoons in the Beis, I quaffed a Talmudic sugya, and one more, and one more, and one more, and one more, and just one more, until I became loudly intoxicated with knowledge, struggling to maintain my balance with an indifferent Gemarah glued to my hand. I was addicted. Talmud satisfied all my needs. She challenged me with legal battles, aphorisms, literature, philosophy, bible, questionable biology, math equations, sex advice, table manners, philological challenges, Persian history, and fashion tips. Nonetheless,  I was simultaneously  terrified by the truth she was left behind on each daf.

Sitting alone in a strange territory, far from my wardrobe, house, family and everyone I knew, a sensation waylaying, finally attacked. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for— but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d overlooked or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, pleasure and repulsion. But not too much pain, because I felt alive. That was the moment I fell in love with the Gmarah’s pages, and I felt the Gmarah fall in love with me.

But acting the part of a Dosi was one thing; becoming one was my biggest fear. I snubbed the thought of morphing into just another religious girl when I had no one at home encouraging me to trim my negatively free wings. At all costs, the investigator undergoing participant observation must circumvent ‘going native’: becoming a full-time group participant ruins the entire experiment. Thus, I had lots of fun comparing myself to the Tannaic scholar who’s “tongue was never tired of singing Greek songs” (Jerusalem TalmudMegillah 9), the sage who infamously thought his student R’Meir Torah while illicitly riding a horse on Shabbat (Hagigah 15b), the “Other one”—otherwise known as Elisha ben Avuya.

What they wore

What they wore

What we wore

What we wore

I had successfully dissected every theological statement, verse, concept, and precept into something psychological, tangible, human, not to mention, deprecatingly rational. Probing to such an extreme, I sucked the numinous, the whole Godliness out of religion. According to my philosophy, I could easily break down what the Talmud meant stating that God cried, that when one enjoys without blessing, he steals from “the assembly of Israel”, and that on Shabbat you cannot separate the unwanted bits in your salad from the wanted bits. I was left in Migdal Oz singing the Tinman’s “If I only had a soul, dudu dudu dudu.”

Maimonides teaches that we learn in order to know what God isn’t, in order to love God: “In proportion to one’s knowledge is his love of God.” I could finally speak the language of the Talmudic man, but so what? Drowning in pilpul, I forgot learning’s raison d’être— love.

Of course it took the other gender’s touch to wake me from my surreptitious slumber. “My god” was not “his God” and that could cause a problem when building a life together, because “we don’t live on Islands.” I was still barred from the Orthodox coterie. I knocked, pushed, pulled, and clouted those overbearing doors but no one would let me in.

That’s when like an uninvited guest, decision time had arrived. I could no longer play the part of the jaundiced spectator; the trial was over. I could leave the madhouse, or join the patients. A double life would leave me unhappy, confused and entangled in a plethora of possibilities. But thankfully Judaism is a religion rooted in action; salvation through faith alone is like saying “salvation through pork alone” to a Williamsburg Hasid. Members in the same synagogue may be reading the same prayer, bowing at the same time, and wrapping the same phylacteries, but what goes on in each person’s head is his own business. Belief is dubiously even a precept.

So I dived headfirst into the theological furnace, hoping to make it out alive—notwithstanding with a few valiant scars. The plan was that by acting like a religious woman, I would become a religious woman.

Weeks earlier a phalanx of students amassed in Sacher Park. Two commanders arrive on stage. Beats explode; debris blankets the ground beneath me; smoke shields the sky; shots scream from every direction. Instead of ducking for cover, the young polluted bodies convulse, bounce, pulsate, roll, grasp, and clasp. Enflaming, propulsive grunts and truculent synthetic rhythms put prospective doctors, lawyers and engineers at the mercy of the Infected Mushrooms. Music permeates the cracks between strangers, and I can almost feel the melody’s moisture in my ear, like a whisper from my neighbor’s lips. Whispers erase the masses leaving only my ear and his mouths condensation. Before my eyes, the whispers transformed the public affair into a private ear-to-ear.

My strongest sparks of human connection this year have been in moments like that concert, or sitting around with my Dosi peers on Friday nights singing after dinner. I found holiness in the absence of words, in the intellectual abyss, in the serene sea of song. In fact, the singsong tune accompanying Torah learning is sine qua non for the fullest study experience. In Judaism, the musical pronunciations associated with the cantillation marks used for ritual Torah reading are called Taamim— taste or reasons. The tune to which each words is sung reveals more than the limited word itself, they let you consume the idea, savoring each succulent note. If God created the world in ten sayings (Pir’kei Avot 5:1), then accordingly, the moments beyond words should allow us to surpass this world, letting man sneak a peek at the transcendental essence like a shaky Skype tryst between long-distance lovers.

The Negev hills are alive with the sound of Torah

The Negev hills are alive with the sound of Torah

At Migdal Oz I learned not to learn.  My obsession with knowing propelled me into a vortex of unbridled intellect. Flooded with cases in which the less erudite are appointed to higher positions than the experts, the Talmud proves that unlike my presumption, knowledge does not conquer all (Brachot 4,Rosh Hashaana 25,Horiot 14,Ktubot 103).In Brachot, the prophet Eili concedes to a legal point made by his student Samuel, but forewarns that one who renders a halachic decision in the presence of his teacher warrants death (5:35). If one can keep his intellect and ethics as tight a Hardtail skirt on a Semgirl— he will succeed. However, if the intellect overpasses ethical boundaries, damage will indubitably ensue.

Who am I to think I can acquire it all like a cheap Forever21 knock-off? The wisest King of Kings himself confessed that “all this I tested with wisdom; I said, ‘I will become wise,’ but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes, 7).  Befuddled by this statement, many commentators purport that Solomon alludes to the paradoxical Red Heifer. How could the same substance purify the defiled while defiling the pure? If a golden cow defiled the nation at Sinai, how can a red one bring atonement? As a gilded man made construction, the Golden Calf represents a conviction of total comprehension, making the Red heifer the perfect tikkun (fix) as she is bewilderment incarnate.

Knowledge is a Red Heifer, a double edged sword. Its power can be used for defilement or purification. Taken to an extreme, and sans proper intentions my intellectual pursuits turned into a pernicious game.   Consuming every little morsel of information, gluttony overcame me, igniting an insatiable appetite bound to burst. It took a destructive romantic quake to save me, but now the reconstruction is up to me.

I came to Israel in costume, on a mission, and under the assumption that I would leave in a few months to spend the other half of my year studying French, piano, math, and “smart people stuff” in Paris or at my local community college. At the moment, I’m writing to you under a spoon chandelier (wondering if it comes in spork) from a cramped hipper-than-thou Jerusalem café, deciding if I should spend the next year here in the holy land. I came to prepare for college life and sharpen my mind through Talmud study, but all I gained was an ice coffee obsession, a nose ring, cheap second- hand treasures,  ugly-pretty Naots, war time nightmares, love stories I fear to repeat, newfangled values, and an oversize purse full of questions. Hope my closet back at home has space.

Israeyes

Israeyes

Horsing Around the Right Way: Fashion Lessons from the Talmud

A woman sashays through a bustling street spilling with lemony taxis, acrimonious honks and anonymous faces, to head in my direction. My eyes wonder over her beige tailored jacket, nude eyelet top tucked into a taupe A-line skirt, and finally halt at her vivid vermilion pumps. I am left gaping like an editor feasting her eyes on Coco’s historical reflection gracing the prism of that descending mirrored staircase of Chanel’s 1954 comeback collection. What could it be: her hair, her face, her strut, her scent? None of the above; rather, something magical occurred the moment my gaze rested upon that bright hue in the sartorial sea of pallidness. This phenomenon is known to aesthetes and fashion cognoscenti as the “pop of color”. But what exactly is this mystical power instantly transforming an outfit from drab to fab? Monotonous to marvelous? Lurid to lovely? Miranda Hobbes horrid to Carrie Bradshaw beautiful?

Runways of Runways

Runway of Runways

The Talmud explains: “Poverty is beautiful for the Jewish people, just as a red strap is to a white horse” (Hagigah 9b) .Now that’s something you won’t read in the latest issue of Vogue. Of all visually appealing items, why compare poverty to a sash stuck on a stallion? How is poverty “beautiful” for Jews? Who wants to be pre-rock Jenny from the block? Understanding this enigmatic statement reveals how although the ancient Talmudic sages where neither couturiers nor magazine editors, they did divulge avant-garde insight for the fashion and moral conscious, transcending time, location, and even religion.

Let’s apply a bottom up method of analysis, beginning with a chromatic breakdown. We all feel a little spark upon the sight of rich red roses, red lips, and of course a refined little red dress. Red is the color of blood, leading to its symbolism of vitality. It highlights the essence of life: excitement, energy, sex, love, desire, speed, strength, power, heat, aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence—all things intense and passionate. White on the other hand, is technically not even a color, but the manifestation of all hues. Thus, it stands for wholeness and completion— virginity, purity, birth, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, truth, and coldness.

On its own, large quantities of bright red will lead to an eyesore, anger the fashion god’s and make the wearer look like a cheap call-girl–in contrast–plain white will send the observer snoozing, and the wearer down the wedding aisle. But together in appropriate doses, these colors foil one another, working wonders for the wearer and even the most persnickety spectator.

Interestingly, in a culture far far away from Babylonian Talmudists, the mélange of these two pigments has its very own word: Kohaku. In the nation whose flag shares these pigments, Japan, Ko means red, while haku translates as white. Red mixed with white indicates joy and celebration, their pairing in the matrimonial ornaments presents –noshi or kaishi– a compelling quality supporting man’s desire to create a bond between his own life and that of the gods.

There is nothing particularly striking about a red strap— it is just a dyed strip of treated animal skin. Yet sitting upon the snowy horse, vibrant rouge underscores the contours and splendor of a truly majestic animal. A soigné, well groomed steed educes a striking image of strength, dignity, and prosperity. Alone, accessories themselves are of no distinction, but upon the horse they highlight the otherwise unheeded features of equestrian elegance.

Similarly, poverty is neither romantic nor exotic nor aesthetic. Hedi Slimane might have gone for the grunge in Saint Laurent’s most recent collection, but let’s face it –we’d all rather be the millionaire over the slum dog even if that meant giving up on a Jai Ho. Nonetheless, often the most challenging situation, that which pumps blood and flushes faces, is that which accentuates inherent virtues, allowing the best in us to take a well awaited strut down the runway. Challenging times of need and deprivation induce a reevaluation of priorities; after all,  herculean stories of valor and altruism of the Great Depression, WWII, 9/11 and hurricane Katrina are moral pops of color par excellence. Evidently, poverty and predicaments in general, draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse.

For the 2011 Cannes film festival, Milla Jovovich took this Talmudic insight quite literally, landing her a spot on oodles of illustrious best dressed lists. Looking killer in Prada, Milla made us all wonder if the devil was involved in the wearer’s enchanted ensemble. The drop-waist gown and scintillating beads conjured up the great Daisy Buchan and her roaring era, while a posterior slit ensured a sexy back.But what makes this the finest look of them all, lies in a minute detail with the grandest impact.Beige, nude, taupe, champagne and all those naughty neutrals are on trend but let’s face it, they can wash the wearer out; that’s where the red accents on the collar, neckline, lips and minaudiere come in, delineating the silhouette’s muted hues. These few major accents play off the gown’s neutrality highlighting the subtleties of the contrasting couture creation.

What's cream,white, and red all over?

What’s cream,white, and red all over?

Another designer utilizing the power of the pop is Christian Loubiton— and boy has it recently developed into quite the brouhaha. Today, it seems everyone wants that tempered touch of rouge. Last year, in a case of high stakes over high heels, Louboutin indicted Yves Saint Laurent over using the French cobbler’s signature red sole. The Yves Saint Laurent heal at issue is monochrome red, covering the insole, outsole, heel and upper portion. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that Christian Louboutin had a enforceable trademark for the use of red outsoles, but only when the rest of the shoe was tinted in a contrasting color. Judge Cabranes explained it was “the contrast between the sole and the upper that causes the sole to ‘pop’ and to distinguish its creator.” It’s that discreet hint of tomato red, blood burgundy or pale blush that gives quotidian monochromatic designs that holy je ne sais quoi worth fighting for.

 From right to left: Model in Alexander Huseby, Pippa Middleton in Issa, Angelina Jolie in Valentino, Model in Oscar de la Renta


From right to left: Model in Alexander Huseby, Pippa Middleton in Issa, Angelina Jolie in Valentino, Model in Oscar de la Renta

If the lesson of a white horse is so crucial, where else can it be found in the Judaic canon?

At the Hebrew nation’s very inception, Israelites smeared a strip of blood upon their doorposts for the angel of death to Passover their homes in Egypt; on the Day of Atonement, the high priest wrapped a scarlet thread around the scapegoat’s horn, who was then sent off a cliff to expiate Israel’s sins; the leper was purified through a process involving a crimson string  and releasing one of two birds ; during Israel’s conquest of Canaan Rachav the harlot was spared thanks to the rubicund thread hanging by her window.

Even Solomon’s provocative Song of Songs harnesses the powerful imagery as the lover describes how the maiden’s beautiful “lips are like a scarlet thread” which Rashi understands as “beautiful to keep their promise as the spies did to Rachav the harlot” in the merit of the crimson string (4: 3). The dove-eyed woman returns the encomium explaining “my beloved is white and ruddy” (5:10).

Besides pigmentation and a shout out in the bible, cattle blood, ribbons and lips share an unlikely feature in these sources—redemption. Salvation comes through atoning blood of Israel’s sacrificial lamb, scarlet threads, and luscious cherry stained lips. But how can a nice color combination lead to deliverance? Is the Bible really purporting Sola Colorem; salvation through style alone? Far from it, rather, the aesthetic message of a little red and a whole lot of white translates to the behavioral plane as well. Thus, the pages of Hagiga advise not an abstention from all fiery passions but, in fact incorporation of these powers in appropriate amounts in order to enhance one’s unadulterated virtues; the secret to salvation lies in complementary accessories accentuating natural qualities. White purity is all the more noticible when countered by a tempered amount of florid flush . Just as the sanguine shard makes Angelina’s Valentino gown, it was Martin Luther King’s ardent dreams that liberated a subjugate peoples, Stravinsky’s octatonic chords that form the Rite of Spring,a cherry on top which gives the Shirley Temple it’s tantalizing charm. So the next time you want to leave the house all dressed in white (even after labor day ) don’t forget a redeeming pop of color, as from  dress to demeanor —contrast is key.

milano2

Bianco e Rosso en Italia

Bianco e Rosso en Italia

Oops We Wore it Again: Imitation as the Finest Form of Fashion?

“Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”

– Pablo Picasso

An artist knows that at  the very  moment he completes a sculpture, a painting,  a song, or a poem and lets it out into the vast abyss we call the world, his work is  immediately subject to criticism, approbation, and of course imitation. But when Monet released Water Lilies, I doubt the following is the type of reproduction he had in mind. Googling “Monet dress” led me to discover I had more in common with Gayle King, Diana Argon and a few other celebrities than expected. Turns out we all sported my graduation dress, the en plein air “Revisited Impressionist Dress” by Tracy Reese which was once available at Anthropologie for the relatively affordable price of $298.

Now that I’ve exhausted the attempt to establish what is fashion/beauty in my previous post I can speculatively say, this artistic frock seems to qualify, certainly passing Hume’s test of time. What other dress can be worn with dashing élan by me, a young orthodox Jewess, a 16 year old movie star, a 26 year old silver screen icon, and a news anchor on the cusp of the big 6-0? But as usual, the obvious question on all the editors’ glossed and augmented lips is –WHO WORE IT BEST?

Let’s approach this chronologically; this is fashion we’re talking about and despite the constant kerfuffle  it is supposed to be an orderly, beautiful discipline. June 4th 2012, I walk into the auditorium wearing the dress.  Black Steve Madden platforms— an extra six inches never hurt anyone—as well as the edge of a black JCrew studded belt provide the perfect foil to the ultra-feminine print and darting. And the well-chosen modest addition– say, a white long-sleeved undershirt— made the ensemble all the more seductive.

Next on June 18 of that same year, Caroline Sunshine stayed true to her name illuminating the faces of fans and photographers at the premiere of Brave. The 16 year old kept the look chic pairing the busy garden number with nude pumps and a complimenting pink minaudière, channeling the focus where it should be. Usually au natural makeup and hair in addition to simple accessories equates to BORING, but Sunshine made a smart choice as the dress is a chef-d’oeuvre in and of itself.

The very next day a Glee-full Dianna Argon stole the show at a Coach party in New York City adding high fashion to the high Line. Diana sported the dress with a black belt featuring a filigree buckle, blue and black ombre Coach Legacy sunglasses, a Coach Legacy Clutch, and glittering Miu Miu  Sandals, landing her a spot on oodles of best dressed lists. Has she forgotten that less is more?! That the wise Coco once said “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”? The dress’s grassy digital embankment, and painted girly garden print are already verging on an eye sore— the over accessorizing and filigreed belt do not do the fin de siecle Impressionists any justice.

As you all have eyes and a growing fashion sense from reading my posts, I’ll let you be the judge of the last two contenders; nonetheless, I must interject one point—boy does that bright print look great in contrast to Gayle King’s dark complexion, 10 points to the Oprah camp!

Entre Moigayleyoung and restless

Since this whole gap year thing has made me adopt an I think therefore I philosophize modus operandi I must ask – Is all this imitation eating away at the vehicle of individual expression known as fashion? Is the fifth times the charm when it comes to this sartorial masterpiece?

Being the good Semgirl that I am, I first turned towards the Bible for clarification. After a good scratch on the head and mental “control f” of all the midrashim, agadot, sugyot,mishnayot, and halachot I’ve encountered, “imitation” received a bright yellow highlight in a most unexpected context: God.

Imitatio Dei, man’s obligation to imitate God is a central doctrine stemming from the biblical account of the creation of man in the image of God, acknowledging a resemblance between man and his Creator. Yet man is to imitate God, not impersonate Him (Gen. 3:5). Biblical sources for the injunction, call man to walk this way: in the command to be holy as God is holy and to walk in God’s way (Lev. 19:2; Deut. 10:12, 11:22, 26:17). Man is to be God-like in his deeds, but not aspire to be God, differentiating the biblical notion from the pagan attempts to achieve apotheosis or absorption in the deity. Man is to imitate God in resting on Shabbat (Ex. 20:10–11); loving the little monster stranger (Deut. 10:18–19); and in other ethical moves. Surprisingly I’m not the only one mulling over the faux facet. In rabbinic literature Ḥama bar Ḥanina, expounds on the verse, “after the Lord your God you shall walk” (Deut. 13:5): “How can man walk after God? Is He not a consuming fire? What is meant is that man ought to walk after [imitate] the attributes of God. Just as the Lord clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as He visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforted the bereaved, so you shall also comfort the bereaved; just as He buried the dead, so you shall bury the dead” (Sotah: 14a).

Among medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides dealt most extensively with man’s copy rights when dealing with the ultimate Creator. The Spanish polymath enumerates “emulating God in His beneficent and righteous ways to the best of one’s ability” as part of the sacred commandments (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 8). For Maimonides the commandment intertwines with his famed fetish for the middle way. In his Guide of the Perplexed, the philosopher stresses that the acquisition of academic knowledge, especially that of God, should be the goal of human life, but in the final chapter of the Guide he holds that such knowledge leads to the imitation of God:”Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving kindness, justice, and righteousness and thus to imitate the ways of God” (Guide, 3:54).

In contrast to paganism, Judaism propounds copying not counterfeit: we should walk in the way of God, not strive to be God. Similarly in fashion, counterfeit is certainly unacceptable, illegal, and a highly punishable crime, but the borrowing of ideas, concepts, techniques, is sine que non for fashion. By its very definition, the French for fashion –mode—is mathematically understood as “the value that appears most often in a set of data”. Essentially fashion favors frequency over function, ubiquity over uniqueness.

Musicians, filmmakers, painters, and even Lady Gaga are legally protected against copying, under the premise that leaving work up for grabs, translates into ‘au revoir innovation’. But despite the recent retail rivalries like the red sole lawsuit between shoe king Christian Louboutin and the father of le smoking suit YSL, to the shock of many, copyright laws barely protect the fashion field. Yes, some couturiers have lost sales to knockoffs, but design replication has not been a serious menace to the survival of the chicest. Au contraire, much of the development and ingenuity of the industry hinges upon imitation.

Why the exception oh fashion gods? Well, it seems to be a corollary of what an English playwright picked up on back when women still frolicked in farthingales. As Shakespeare said, “the fashion wears out more apparel than the man.” Meaning, most of us go shopping not to satisfy a need, but to quench the thirst of staying au currant, a la mode, and away from societal jeers.

Sans patent fetters (no not the patent leather kind), companies can modify a design as they please and join the bandwagon of a projected profit reaping style. Mix it all together and what do you get? The industry’s holy doctrine: the trend. Imitation produces trends and trends sell fashion. Each summer-spring, winter-fall, Ready-to – Wear, Couture ,Cruise or however many ways you can divide time and styles to maximize production, design houses “get inspired” by each other(I’m taking to you Dior, we notice how you seemed to forget in your advertisements and products that you’re not Chanel). Chanel summed up the cycle echoing Hume’s on aesthetics as follows, “fashion fades; style is eternal.” Trends become “hot”, “not”, then a relic of seasons past until they’re revived with the kiss of a handsome editor or somehow lucky enough to earn the coveted title “vintage.” We all know this circle of clothes, this wheel of fashion, but we often turn a blind smoky eye to the fuel behind this fire— the freedom to fake.

Despite a recent punch to some designers thanks to the recession, overall since World War II the American fashion industry enjoys solid progress; clothing businesses accrue over $300 billion a year, employing millions. Undoubtedly some designers suffer losses from copying, but increased copyright ‘protection’ would bring prices up, the creative cycle down and ultimately lead to the torpid ungainly death of the industry we all love to hate, hate to love, but fund anyways— fashion.

Beauty and the Beastly: All in the Eye of the IPhone holder?

I usually roll my eyes when often encountering those in the religious Jewish world who deride fashion, associating the industry with the many perils for the soul such as pig, non-Disney films, stocking-less female legs, and radio hits. To those same people I also share an algorithm buttressed by the writing upon this wall:

Graffiti across Bnei Brak reads “Fashion = Pritzus/promiscuity”

“One who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her Tiflus (promiscuity)”explains Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Sotah, 20).

Thus Torah = Tiflus

and Tiflus = Pritzus

Therefore, Torah =Pritzus.

If according to the photo, Fashion = Pritzus

Thus by transitive property Fashion = Torah. Right?

Then recently, a collection came along challenging my entrenched confidence in the industry, making room for validation of the tenuous aversion towards fashion. I’ve seen models hit the runway topless, flashing some but check, but never in fully in the nude. So thank Pam Hogg, for sending models out at the latest London Fashion week in a striking palette of white, noire, and burgundy, sculptural hats, and birthday suits complete with glittery materials you must have stolen from my childhood art box. Did you forget something Ms. Hogg? The accoutrements are set but the pièce de résistance appears to have been left outside with the bouncer.

Most models were nude. I’m talking really nude, more than Lena Dunham in a “Girls” episode.

Hogg’s collection begs even me, one who lives, breathes, eats, and excrements fashion, one who puts Coco Chanel up there with likes of Gandhi and Mother Theresa , to ask – Is this really fashion? If runway styles are to be translated into commercial stores for the forthcoming seasons, is Kim suggesting we let it all out leaving nothing but our hair to the imagination this winter?What happened to leaving something to the imagination?

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for using clothing as a tool for attraction. If that weren’t the case, we’d all be strutting around in burlap basmati bags, but to the dismay of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, we don’t. Clothing is game of concealing to reveal, proving that demure is by no means drab, modesty’s got mojo and that covering up is far sexier than leaving flesh out on display.

Tznious (modesty queens)

Tnizous(modesty) queens M&K Olsen

If it’s all already off – are we not robbed from the romance of the chase, the hunt, the whole fun of life?

Checking every nook and cranny for leavened bread on the heels of Passover has also been a great time to check up on old friends. While I have been back in the States for spring break one of those old friends was an Israeli ex- boyfriend of mine. Upon hearing that he wanted to see me, I was suddenly conscious of such delight,and at the same time such dread, that my senses failed me and I could not remember what I wanted to remember.He was not the same as he used to be, nor as he had been on Facebook chats; he seemed quite different. He seemed more mature, manly, but that could have just been the new found scruff adorning his tan face.”It’s been long time” he said, and with desperate determination he pressed his hand against my cold one. We chatted about his college life: the football team, classes, his fraternity, and I went on about Israel, religion, and whether I had become a “yeshiva girl” as he put it. It didn’t take long for me to realize where his eyes aimed the whole time like a deadly unmanned drone ready to fire —my lips. After forty minutes of whispering in my ear, tugging at my jacket, and playing with my hair I had to oust him from my warm Mercury Sable. “Well it was actually really fun, I liked de chase” he said in response to his futile efforts, shutting the door and throwing one last unctuous wink at me. Israelis…

The merits of clothing are analogous to the merits of good writing—style, structure, modesty, poise, elegance, endurance— not to mention getting it right sometimes. Literature is not praised when ideas are laid out there for you on a $27,600 Tiffany silver platter. A great poem excites by what lies between the lines, and behind the stanzas then the actually words themselves. Since the days of the Oral Torah, Hermeneutics has been established to unveil the treasures beyond the ink on paper; after all, if an author said all that was on his mind clearly, would we even bother reading his work? A life of only Spark Notes, Cliff Notes and X for Dummies seems like no life worth living.

Notably, the present Jewish holiday—Passover –revolves around this very concept (no not through the hidden Afikomen). In the Haggada we read that God made a covenant with Abraham promising his progeny would be afflicted by a four hundred year exile before returning to the promised land with great swag bags;  a sign of God’s affection for Abraham. How could four hundred years of bloodbaths (Rashi ,Shemot 2:23), celibacy (Sotah, 12a) and backbreaking labor be anything but a divine comedy? The Chasidic Work Sfat Emet expounds that we exist and by extension the reason the world exists is to reach a revelation of God.  If He were revealed, our existence would be futile. Hence, the world was created as a garb to prevent us from “seeing” Him, providing an opportunity to work towards revealing Him, to experiencing Him, to brush shoulders with the divine. In order to gain the capacity to find the divine in every situation in which He is concealed, God enacted exile. In fact, the very word exile – galut – contains the same root as the word for revelation –  hitgalut . Exile thus leads inexorably to redemption, simply another nom de plume for revelation. Accordingly, the world really is one big game of dress up, and it is our task to strip reality of its many attires.

Perhaps Pam’s creations are just an extension of the phenomenon occurring outside the tents, a trickling down of what Suzy Menkes dubbed “The Circus of Fashion”: the recent over democratization of fashion and outburst of pathological media- thirsty ‘fashionistas’. Hogg’s extreme outré quality seems to detract from any possible aesthetic point,  but maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of her works; fashion for fashion’s sake should be the purest form of fashion, just as learning Torah Lishma (for its own sake) is regarded by most as the most exalted type of study.

Who am I to place judgment on this collection? I do not work for Vogue, have a brand sponsored blog, prance around in more labels found in a Barneys or bask in fame for being well… me! Is fashion in the hands of the editor writing on it, the masses wearing it, or the brand producing it? Is a jacket pleasing because it meets certain criteria, because bryanboy.com says it’s in, or because Kate Middleton wore it while grocery shopping last week?

Mayhap Pam Hogg winter ’13 should not be classified as fashion but pornographic art. Must we even draw lines (even over those nipples)? Why is there all this fuss over visual arts, when the sober amongst us all recognize The Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, Brothers Karamazov, Paradise Lost, and Gossip Girl as significant works of literature?

These quandaries boil down to one question: Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder, or is that just one of those ameliorating axioms like love conquers all?

Eye for an eye: since when are all eyes created equal?

Eye for an eye: since when are all eyes created equal?

To properly engage in this debate, picture a time where we could sit around smoking cigars, sipping espresso and pour over aesthetics like Proposition Eight, or Gun Laws. Today irrespective of the cigars, such a conversation could not exist as beauty has been relegated to the world of subjective; welcome to age of concordance. Once topics under the microscope for professional discussions and a central task for architects, painters and sculptors, the questions I raised have now been swept under the Persian carpet. Postmodernist have been pontificating that beauty, unlike science, can hardly subscribe to the exactitudes of rational inspection and is critically dependent on moods, hence lacking an objective calculation of what is beautiful. To truly appreciate beauty, according to postmodernists, assumed certainty in science must be flouted in favor of a trust in the fact that something is not automatically beautiful in all cultures and races. Forced objective standards of beauty, they claim infringe upon human nature, denying liberty to freely express values. Consequently, we should exercise our right as individuals rather than submitting to the aged, mustached, wool sports jacket clad “connoisseur”.

Bold and the beautiful?

Bold and the beautiful?

naked

Thus, delving into the philosophical question of beauty requires you to take of your converse, slip on your finest top hat and imagine we are dining in Madame Geoffrin’s Parisian salon, or 27 Rue de Fleurus with good old Gertrude.

Locke, Galileo, Descartes, and Boyle, were all fascinated with nuances between “primary” and “secondary” qualities. Primary, objective properties like shape, size and motion exist regardless of any minds at hand to perceive them. To these thinkers, it seemed objects would not have secondary qualities — colors, sounds, smells and tastes— sans minds to see, hear, smell and taste them. No minds, no secondary qualities. Thus secondary properties are subjective: in the nose, tongue, eye, and ear of the beholder.

Nevertheless, even secondary qualities entail a grade of objectivity. Though absent in the absence of minds, the minds that do exist usually agree upon them in proper conditions. But what about the fact that I like Serge Gainsbourg and you don’t; most people with working noses since 1919 like Chanel N5 but my ex-boyfriend detested the scent?  Where does beauty fit in?  Are aesthetics an objective, mind- independent quality?

Largely in the history of aesthetics, at least in the West dated far back to Plato, beauty has been defined by few individuals thought to actually hold taste. They promoted an objective criterion in measuring beauty as opposed to a definition based on personality, disposition, and sentiment. For years, Classical beauty was haute, not and ‘in’ again— remember the Renaissance? Classically, beauty consists of arranging integral parts into a coherent whole, according to ratio, congruence, symmetry, and similar concepts. The great coco herself said that “Fashion is architecture.  It is a matter of proportions. “Take Polykleitos Canon as Classical beauty par excellence.

In a typically Aristotelian pluralist design, Aquinas propounds “there are three requirements for beauty. Firstly, integrity or perfection—for if something is impaired it is ugly. Then there is due proportion or consonance. And also clarity: whence things that are brightly colored are called beautiful” (Summa Theologica I, 39, 8). Essentially a nice J.Crew outfit embodies Aquinas beauty at its finest.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-IS2G9FxONIM/T0yBhYOX54I/AAAAAAAABHw/hu_JTR11aKU/s1600/JCSP12MARCH028_029_v1_m56577569830817308.jpg

Now the Canon and other leftovers of classical beauty sit in historical museums across Europe, like what harem pants of 2010 should be doing in the back closets instead of on religious Israeli women in the West bank . So where did the objective mode of beauty go wrong? Why oppose absolute formulas to constructing a window, a door and relating rooms to halls that went unchallenged for eras?

By the 1757 Hume shatters established philosophical thought  stating:

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others “(Of the Standard of Taste , 136).

Similarly, Kant presents at least as ardently in The Critique of Judgment:

“The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be no other than subjective. Every reference of representations, even that of sensations, may be objective, save only the reference to the feeling of pleasure and pain, by which nothing in the object is signified, but through which there is a feeling in the subject as it is affected by the representation”(section 1).

That’s nice and all, but  if beauty is pure subjectivity —if anything anyone hails as beautiful is beautiful — the word seems stripped of meaning or that the only fact communicated by labeling something beautiful is a personal stamp of approval. Additionally, though individuals can evidently differ in specific discernments, it is also evident that judgments converge to a remarkable degree: for a person to deny that a perfect rose, dramatic sunset, or Grace Kelly are beautiful is by far perverse. Perhaps aesthetic taste is similar to food taste—those who don’t appreciate what is widely regarded as beautiful simply have an unrefined aesthetic sense or are missing some ‘beauty buds’.

Dancing the sun away in caesarea

Dancing the sun away in Caesarea

To Hume and Kant something important was lost when beauty treatment was merely a subjective state. They witnessed debates arising over the beauty works of art and literature, and that in such discussions, reasons were identified and convincing. They also observed, that if beauty is completely qualified by individual experiencers, it ceases to be a paramount value, or even recognizable as an interpersonal value at all.

Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste and Kant’s Critique of Judgment attempt to find answers through an “antinomy of taste”. Although proverbially subjective: de gustibus non disputandum est (about taste there is no disputing), some individuals are believed to possess good taste or tastelessness. Through different means, both philosophers treat judgments of beauty neither as purely subjective nor precisely objective but, inter-subjective or as having a social and cultural aspect, or as conceptually involving an inter-subjective claim to legitimacy.

History and condition of the observer as he makes the judgment of taste, is the focus of Hume’s interpretation. “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (Of the Standard of Taste, I.XXIII.24). Hume further contends that verdicts of critics who possess those qualities tend to coincide, reaching unanimity in the long run which accounts for the enduring veneration of the works of Dante, Homer, and Christian Dior. The test of time, as assessed by best discerners, functions as the closest we have to an objective standard.

Kant similarly admits that exclaiming “très belle” has more content than “this pleasures me”. Something might please for reasons entirely eccentric to myself: I might enjoy Indian inspired Marchesa’s Spring 2013 collection because of my eastern roots or because it reminds me of my mother’s Indian bangles that never leave her hand, or because I watched Bollywood films as a kid while others enjoyed Bambie (which I still have yet to see), but most likely all three. Kant however, doesn’t give two cents about my childhood film habits: “no one begrudges me such experiences, but no one thinks that they might constitute a claim that they should have a similar experience of the thing in question” (Critique of Judgment, section 7).

In contrast, the first of Kant’s four key distinguishing features of true aesthetic judgments is disinterest. Beauty is irrespective of eccentricities; we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because it pleases. Aesthetic judgment remains independent of the normal human desires—economic, sexual, and political. Pure beauty is purely subjective, purely aesthetic, divorced from anydidactic, moral or utilitarian function, similar to the 19th century, ”l’art pour l’art”(art for art’s sake).Walking through a museum and admiring a Picasso because it would make me a pretty penny at auction, or because the prestige it will bring by hanging in my foyer is not an aesthetic experience (which is why the more modern Walter Benjamin claims art for art sake is dead.Benjamin divides the cult value of the artwork from its exhibition value. Technological reproduction, he argues, makes the cult value of art ebb in favor of its exhibition value, thus the way Kant and others characterize art is no longer valid. Art is no longer autonomous. Thus art for art’s sake, a realm in which specific social interests have no part is what god is to Nietzsche—dead.)

The Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s discourse The Moralist, précises  aesthetic disinterest in terms of a natural landscape:

“Looking at a beautiful valley primarily as a valuable real estate opportunity, you are not seeing it for its own sake, and cannot fully experience its beauty. If you are looking at a lovely woman and considering her as a possible sexual conquest, you are not able to experience her beauty in the fullest or purest sense; you are distracted from the form as represented in your experience.” (The Moralist,222)

Shaftsbury’s definition disqualifies Pam Hogg’s collection, as without apologetics there is clearly an over sexualized agenda behind her collection. When beholding her collection— the fashion, the art, the accessories are not appreciated, but the shock of the overexposed human body. Although a subjective experience, there are objective criteria it must meet, and Pam Hogg’s collection clearly doesn’t meet neither Kant’s nor the Earl’s criteria of disinterest.

The idea in particular that free beauty is completely separated from practical use and that the experiencer is not concerned with the actual existence of the object leads Kant to his second feature: free beauty is found in the form, and aesthetics are to be appreciated as a purposeless purpose. An object’s purpose is the concept according to which it was made; an object is purposive if it appears to have such a purpose; if, in other words, it appears to have been made or designed. To illustrate, a poem’s content can change according to each generation, but its form can be appreciated transgenerationally. Kant’s proclivity evokes Aristotle’s preference of plot over character, as plot is closer to form in purity and eternal elegance, making it aesthetic.

Lastly, such judgments are both universal and necessary. Since in reaching an authentic judgment of taste one not responding to idiosyncracies in oneself, Kant asserts that one will conclude that anyone similarly situated should have the same experience: therefore, one will presume that there ought to be nothing to distinguish one person’s judgment from another’s (COJ,section 8). Consequently, built into judgments of taste is a ‘universalization’ somewhat parallel to the universalization Kant connects with ethical judgments.

So if objective beauty offends our human nature as the postmodernists suggest, we may be lured into looking back further than western history to the ancient Hebrews where art was used to sway souls. Though learning Torah and performing precepts may lay at heart of the force gathering the faithful, it’s hard to deny that the beauty of a temple was crucial for summoning thousands of followers. Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed (III:45) explains that most people are moved by aesthetic considerations, which is why the Sanctuary was designed to inspire veneration; why the priestly robes were so intricate; why light burned incessantly; why Levitical choir jammed away; and why incense seared to cover the stench of slaughtered animals. Visible symbols such as tzitzit and tefillin can also be placed in this category. In fact, the sages enumerate upon a mitzvah within a mitzvah, hiddur mitzvah – “beautifying the command” ­ – ensuring that all articles used for performing a command are as pleasing to the eye as possible. Behind outward symbols of faith and temples lies the implicit attempt to support a way of life that appeals to the religious, the kind of beauty that provokes them. It is no coincidence that The Hebrew word for art – omanut– is semantically related to –emunah—faith. True art speaks to the experiencer disclosing the ultimate artistry of the Creator, adding marvel to faith. After all, Exodus 31:3, describes Bezalel, the appointed architect of the wilderness Tabernacle as being endowed with “a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge.” If the architects of the Jewish temple, Notre Dame, or Dome of the Rock have succeeded in seducing millions of followers worldwide, in inducing tears, does this not say something about our idea of beauty? Judaism deems it godliness, but whatever you call it, there is an underlying aesthetic language because there are certain qualities all mankind feels the need to value.

In lieu of making an effort to consciously notice minutest details of a beautiful matter, aesthetic relativism opens man to laziness, for everything is beautiful if I tweet, blog, pintrest, or instagram it so to me and my followers. As a result I am likely to overrate my aesthetic sensibility, assuming that my uneducated eyes assure possession of beauty at a 5g rate, without a moment of meditation. All too often we are too inclined to think that we are the masters of our own senses which require no training whatsoever. We should not fear the fact that experts may write, hear, see and dress better than us, to confess that their perception of shades, beats, and syntax is far better than ours. Experts can guide minds to pick up signs which initially evade cognizance, thus cultivating our aesthetic receptivity, congeal and magnify it, granting us access to certain aesthetic surfaces hitherto untouched.

In conclusion according to Kant aesthetics earn the novel title of “subjective universality”: a personal experience occurring in an individual’s mind, which unbiased persons will all value as beautiful. As humans are social creatures, I can only understand beauty as something connecting myself to other peoples, a collective human experience of appreciation, delight, and awe.

Unfortunately for Pam, her 2013 winter collection doesn’t fall under this definition of beauty. Far from “disinterested” – the Brit has a clear arrière-pensée; there is no denying that Pam intends to shock her viewers out of their printed Prada pants and into the bedroom. Additionally the only collective feeling towards Pam’s collection is “Isn’t something missing?”. I think we can all universally agree— this collection is foul.

True beauty can stand the test of time, not because canonization by stuffy old British men, but because pure aesthetics have universally applicable messages for the human experience. In years to come, I highly doubt Pam’s looks will be studied at Parsons, The Royal Academy, The Sorbonne or even by maturing teenage boys. We need to draw line or else there is nothing to talk about and we dilute beauty to a relic of what once was; to keep the integrity of Fashion we must set standards and keep  Pam Hogg’s collection out of them.

So please Pam, next time you want to send hot young bodies prancing around naked to make a statement, please don’t do it in the name of fashion; it’s collections like yours that give the industry a bad rep. Sorry but I’m going with the Rabbis on this one, Pam Hogg Winter 2013 is not fashion: rather, the clothing – or lack of thereof— belongs somewhere in the Pritzus department.

Just Say No To Knowing; Confessions of a Sober Sem Girl on Purim

Judaism is a faith of stifling precepts, or what Nietzsche likes to call “I will’s” bête noire— the “great dragon… a scale-covered beast; and on every scale glittereth golden, ‘Thou shalt!’”(Thus Spoke Zarathustra / The Three Metamorphoses). But once a year even the most curmudgeonly yeshiva boy rejoices as Jews are commanded to do what most religions interdict: sit back, let go and get blotto.

According to the incendiary Talmud:

“A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he no longer knows the difference between ‘cursed Haman’ and ‘blessed Mordekai’ (Megila 7b).”

This enigmatic onus has been stumping rabbis, startling Semgirls, and hexing minors since before Karl Lagerfeld donned his signature snowy locks (believe it or not, his hair isn’t one of the seven pre-worldly creations delineated by the Talmud on pesachim 54). With his triangular hat, pointy dark beard and slanting eyebrows Haman stands in stark contrast to every robe-bearing, white-haired Mordekhai at any Purim soiree. Does this mean the Sages (Chazal) are actually demanding intellectual nullification to the point of losing the capacity to discern between nefarious Haman and virtuous Mordekai? If an intoxicated person is dismissed from mitzvoth, how are Chazal obligating a state of un-obligation? Jewish thinkers and Chassidic ones in particular, have been endeavoring to become au fait with the law which has evolved into the highlight of celebrating Jews eluding persecution by Persia— drinking wine until one is utterly smashed.

Purim has always had a special spot in the inner chambers of my heart far beyond Paris, across from Sex and the City, tightly flanked by Chanel and Emanuel Levinas. As a Persian American Jew growing up among Ashkenazim, each holiday meant being inculcated in unfamiliar eastern European traditions. But there was that one time a year where Persian pride kicked in (though it was also that time of year where kids called me “Shrek” in accordance with the Talmud’s claim that queen Esther was green as myrtle(Megila13)). Beyond tadig, Purim is Iranian Jewry’s one recognized contribution bestowed upon Judaism. We have my ancestors to thank for intrepid Esther, righteous Mordekai, trilateral baked goodness, Mishloch Manot, the epic Megilah, and my personal favorite: dressing up as whoever you secretly want to be year-round.

To my surprise, none of these jocund subjects where the omphalos of Purim this year at Seminary in the Holy Land. Rather, the only topic emerging from my friends’ Torah-tinted lips was concern over what normally forbidden substance would soon be entering their unadulterated mouths for the very first time.

“Are you going to drink?” “Do you want to get drunk?” “Have you drunk before?” “I don’t want to lose control!” “In America, I would never get drunk with my teacher, just at house parties or bars!” “In America, our synagogues look down upon drinking.” Such were the proclamations reverberating throughout the Beit Midrash in the month leading up to the big day.

On Purim, Dosiot (religious girls) from all corners of the country –and settlements— flock to the hills of Migdal Oz for a notorious Purim fête. No one was really sure what would transpire, but we knew it had something to do with alcohol, dancing till the wee hours of the morning, bonding with strangers, and “spirituality”, all topped off by a little vomit of course.

“Drunkenness is like pregnancy,” our  teacher from Tekoa explicated as she rubbed her burgeoning belly and then asked the Americans if we understood her Hebrew (mind you the same instructor brought us a bottle of  girly Golan Moscato to our inaugural lesson back in August). While I gawked at her towering Idan Raichel- esque religious head covering, paired with a contrasting buttery mahogany leather jacket, she continued: “In these months I often wake up thinking it’s all a dream, I just had too much to drink. I rejoice in the thought that the vomiting, cravings, insomnia, mood-swings, pain, and constant wondering if I just peed myself will fade soon, but then I look down at my belly and realize I have many more months to go.” She went on to expound upon her most cathartic moments of inebriation on Purim; how she danced with girls she hardly interacted with beforehand, confessed to friends, burst into tears and made an unconscious habit of calling her current husband, then boyfriend, begging him to just satisfy God’s will and make the big move already.

Finally the big night had arrived. High- tempo Jewish music thumps. Aromatic sweat and vomit dance through chains of young woman whirling in circles as if on a childhood merry-go-round. Cheap chocolate liquor my friend received in her boss’s mishloach manot burns through my throat, making me question if it’s really worth it. Social mores are shattered as current and former students alike run to pour their hearts out to the normally feared head of the institution. I notice an older woman in the corner clad in a long Indian tunic swinging her body to the music with her eyes shut, only to realize it was my Gmara teacher, head of the advanced Talmud class. To the left, my morning chavruta is so alight with alcohol she struggles to open her eyes; luckily a good friends is right behind her prepared for the worst.

A good Persian –Israeli friend runs up to me and begins to jump, gazing at me with googly eyes. “Eliora, your breath smells, you have smell in your mouth.” she says. I breath into my hand, double check with a friend—the only odor we detect oozes from the bodies of those around us baptized in sweat and alchohol.

The lights shine brighter as the earth rocks closer to the sun, and now the singer is playing faster familiar tunes, and the sea of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter declines minute by minute, swapped for worried glances, and wads of girls on the prowl for more alcohol, making sure they will have enough to drink.

Ring around the rosy seems to be the dance move of choice. Every shoulder shimmy, hip twist, hand undulation, leg kick or body twirl I offer is met with a look screaming the sardonic Israeli expression ‘did you fall from the sky?’.

While on my way to get roaring drunk from utter embarrassment, a momentary lull hits; “Purify, purify our souls to serve you truthfully!” the crowd moans in unison. Tears rush down florid faces, fists clench toward the sky, bodies embrace and I am  just standing there trying to make sense of it all while exchanging a laugh with one of my few sober friends. This one call looks like the catchall cry for each of my peers’ existence.

Oneging at Migdal Oz

The nature of the entire brouhaha eludes me. Is this really what serving god “truthfully” looks like? The holiday appeared as one big hoax. Everyone is playing the part of the “religious drunkard” screaming to god having a “spiritual revelation”. Do these girls really know what they are saying? Are these sacred songs internalized, or just how these girls express their elated states based on which melodies are blasting through the speakers? If Lil Wayne’s Lollipop was playing would they be singing along with the same gusto? Were they having a spiritual high, or just basking in the delight of alcohol? Nonetheless, who is to say mere drunkenness delegitimizes a religious experience?

Further in Jerusalem, festivities continued the following night for Shushan Purim, drawing me closer towards some form of answers.

By day Mahane Yehuda bustles with vendors selling everything from zatar and zuchinni to kefyahs and kippas. The animated atmosphere thickens with the scent of fresh falafel and songs of hundreds of haggling merchants. By night the Shuk becomes a “hipster” haven littered with hole in the wall pubs (the commune-run 5th of May is a favorite) and ravenous cats. Yet Purim was different from all other nights: more packed then any Friday pre- Shabbat hustle, the Shuk made an Alexander Wang sample sale look like Galliano’s studio post the Fuhrer faux pas.

The bar is in full swing and hovering rounds of cocktails pervade narrow alleyways, until the air breaths with prattle and giggles, and blasé innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and fervent meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

Men and girls on cargo boxes, counters, and on the flooded floor sway emphatically to Riff Cohen’s A Paris, like moths fluttering toward a lamp among the whisperings and the beer and the stars. Dressed up in a metallic Glenda the Good Witch-esque 15 shekel frock from the Dizengoff flea and adorned by Chanel SS ’13 inspired make up, I sashay through the horde with two suitemates rather buoyantly among swirls and eddies of people we don’t know — though here and there is a face I recognize or just think I do, as most Jews, especially the scruffy nouveau hipster ones all seem to look alike.

Who wore it best?

Who wore it best?

“Eliora! Eliora! Eliii- hora! Persian princess! Eh, Eh. Salaam!” a voice roared. I turn around to find Stacy, a Bal Teshuva from DC and her quartet of twenty something yuppies. After fifteen minutes of Instagram snapping, shimming, and making fun of Naftali Bennet they insist on a cap-full of Arak (mind you the drinking age is 18 in Israel).That would be my only drink on Shushan Purim.

Unlike Migdal Oz, everyone is in costume.Mid-twirl with a dark bearded stranger I realize there is something written on the silly metal lid attached to my partners head. It reads “Kipat Barzel”, literally “Iron Cap” but commonly referred to as “Iron Dome”, the Israeli air defense system which proved indispensable in the recent mini war/Operation Pillar of Defense – by far the finest costume of the night.Looking around at bumbling bodies, the apparition of characters creates an intoxicated, soothing confusion; My Purim experience had just begun.

iron dome

After staring a 50 shekel fee straight in the eye for some time, my inner Persian gets the best of me, and we decide to skip out on “Boogie Night” at the Gerad Bacher Center, a dance party with several rooms playing music from various genres, a “must” for the Israeli Purim experience according to native friends.

While wondering around Bezalel, an unfamiliar Balkan Beat box song drifts through the streets of profuse laughter tipped off by the jovial word. The entrancing hums lead us to a dark apartment building spilling with pirates, black swan male ballerinas, and Aladdins. We enter after bargaining for a reduced fee of 17 nis. There was dancing now in an apartment where old Hebrew books replaced wallpaper; young men pushing young girls backward in eternal ungainly circles, superior couples holding each other meanderingly, fashionably,— and a good number of single guys and gals dance with ferocity independently. By three a.m. the merriment increases. A celebrated DJ blasts what seems to be Israeli electro, techno and trance(if there is a real difference between the three) while a man  covered in Christmas lights, shovel in hand moves in perfect synchronization with each beat; he is conducting the entire show.

Vacuous torrents of laughter tangled with joie de vivre rise toward the Jerusalem sky. A pair of religious men, who turned out to be Chilonim (secular Jews) approach for a dance. One is clearly dressed up as a Hasid; the others’ faction in his large kippah, faded blue t-shirt, tzitzit and cargo pants remains nebulous. He flashes his water canister.

“Ah… a settler!” I guessed.

He looks like a neighbor down the road from Tekoa, or even someone from the adjacent Kibbutz Migdal Oz.

Everything is not as it seems

The moon lurches higher as I float in the sounds and movements of my weight coupled with the figures of those around me. Every shoulder shake, hip twist, hand undulation, and body roll is reciprocated or challenged with a grander move.

Spaces between bodies vanish as music fills the gaps between the masked figures. My body and the melody unite creating fluid movements dripping from some entrenched sensation which rarely escapes.

I am enjoying myself now. I allow my body to take control, immerse in the music, revel with rousing strangers and the scene changes before my eyes into something rudimentary, substantial, and profound.

There, under the strobe lights, next to the topless men and behind the pirate, a meaning of that enigmatic mitzvah hit.

“Know in order not to know”, rang through my elated head like a catchy Taylor Swift chart topper. Earlier in the year my enceinte Tekoen teacher shared a fundamental R. Nachman principle – the goal of knowledge is that we are not to know. I realized, dismissing differentiation between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordekhai” is just that.

Knowledge and lack of knowledge are “pursuit” and “hindrance”. A person engages in pursuit in order to attain – money, a goal, or knowledge. A hindrance prevents attainment whether it is money, some yearned for goal, or lack of knowledge which prevent knowledge. Novel as always, R. Nachman professed that pursuit and hindrance are one, thus essentially the pursuer is he who hinders. As a result, the goal of knowledge is not to know, just as the goal of love is that we are not to love, or more precisely, not to recognize love.

Born two years after R. Nachman, Kant kindled parallel sparks in the world of ideas, setting the Zeitgeist. According to the German philosopher, man encounters the world of phenomena, but never the essence of the world itself. Phenomena may expound upon the essence, yet it constitutes an everlasting barrier between man and the thing itself, and so too between man and himself. Attempts to realize love will, therefore, miss the mark, and move it from the potential state of “essence” to the secondary state of “phenomenon,” and from that moment the phenomenon will whiz past the essence. Every action, speech, and often thought too, reduces some abstract will or idea which in and of itself is infinite, and even as we discuss it relegate the idea to a pillory of definitions, words, and actions. As reified love is more diminished than unrealized love, the ultimate objective of love lies not in realization, for every bit of knowledge and every definition involves a diminution of an infinite and abstract idea.

Discriminating between Haman and Mordekai belongs to the world of knowledge – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge makes way for distinction, but distinction results from the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge, from reduction of the infinite which is void of distinctions and limits. Various Hasidic thought propounds that the Torah and all her precepts would be unnecessary had man not sinned (Shagar, Chance and Providence). With this in mind, the obligation of un-obligation on Purim became like the handbags of Spring 2013: transparent. The Sages seem to call on man to negate post sin distinction and revert to a primordial, pre- sin state where “bad” or “good” are nonexistent, as man understands that perfection, completion, and truth encompass the good, the bad and even the kitschy. A pretty modern idea for a bunch of Rabbi’s sitting in Babylon between the third and fifth century.

Hermes,Prada,Chanel,Valentino

Epochs later, a similar impulse colored the works of Western Romantic authors like Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge ,dissatisfied with the dualistic Weltanschauung of the eighteenth century: Sehnsucht, the yearning towards the absolute, the aspiration to oneness, wholeness and organic unity— the dream of perfection(Gérard, English Romantic Poetry ).

According to this Judaic understanding of understanding, Kant correctly avers that from our world of knowledge, the world of Yesh (Being), encountering the Ein, the essence, and the infinite will remain as inaccessible as the ideal sized Ralph Lauren model. As “possessors of knowledge,” man can only relate to the world of phenomena that grew out of the Yesh.

Over this point, R. Nachman comes to undercut Kant’s nihilism. Indeed, emerging from the world of Yesh and its vessels, the infinite and the essence itself remains untouchable. From the perspective of “good and evil,” only the world of phenomena can be caressed. On the other hand with the Breslov approach, within the wobbly framework of this world the possibility exists to reach the Ein and grace that coveted spot sans knowledge.

“Know in order not to know.”

Concealed within the abdication of knowledge, lies the possibility to jump over the abyss between the Ein and the Yesh, and brush shoulders with the infinite. Waiving definitions and devotion to “hindrance,” is sine qua non for reaching the primeval “pursuer,” the ultimate goal of knowledge. Though to a certain extent R. Nachman agrees with Kant’s assertion that the essence is hidden and the phenomenon is false, in contrast to Kant, a Nachmanian sees waiving knowledge as a way to flout the phenomenon and share a rendezvous with the essence.

The transition from a purely good world to a world that distinguishes between good and evil, characterizes the shift from the Ein (infinite, essence) to the Yesh (being). Knowledge permits judging and classification, but in the world of Ein, sans knowledge, distinction between good and evil disappears like feather hair extensions after 2011.

Therefore, one is obligated to drink until he no longer knows the difference between “cursed Galliano” and “blessed Lagerfeld,” for there one transcends knowledge, and there it is inappropriate to say, “cursed Galliano,” for there all is entirely good.

R. Nachman demands one to disregard the world of phenomena, waive knowledge, waive judgment, waive understanding, waive distinctions, and reflect upon the Ein within us. Reflect upon the essence, and bless it: “Blessed Galliano”!

Moving beyond distinction, beyond knowledge to free oneself from the fret of everyday life—that’s what I experienced spinning to Infected Mushroom on Betzalel and not circling drunk girls in the West Bank. When the author of Ecclesiastes wrote “better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof,” he must have had Shushan Purim in mind. (Ecclesiastes 7:8) In the throttling throngs at seminary I was surfeited by the “knowing”. The constant concern over drinking enough, having a good time, and connecting to God hindered attainment of the goal. That first night I was surrounded by a world of worry, a world of distinction.

Blurring boundaries gives man the ability that Kant never considered– the ability to disregard the world of phenomena and sneak a peek at the essence. I’ll admit waiving knowledge is a bit frightening, just as it is a bit unnerving to put on a mask and lose appearances (especially when we’ve spent so many hours, and even more money perfecting it). Who am I, I asked looking in the mirror to find my Purim mask (intense eye makeup to be exact). From the moment my visage is hidden, I can no longer provide a simple answer. From the moment I don a mask, an elaborate costume, or a designer frock, I lose the world of phenomena, and in the words of Rav Kook, who adopted the Kantian stance regarding man’s looking at himself, I have lost that which surrounds the “epicenter of knowledge.” There is no smile, no mouth, no beauty mark, no pimple or face, —just a mask with a stupid smile, void of knowledge.

A pivotal chapter in Shemot unveils the necessity to conceal and the power of the façade. After Moses descends Mount Sinai with the second tablets Aaron and the people are initially afraid of him and his new aquired beams of light. From then on Moses must wear a mask, except when speaking to God and when recapping what he hears to the people (Shemot 34).

At this frightening moment, void of knowledge and full of inebriation, I can do nothing but reflect into the center of knowing, to the Ein only revealed when all duds, no matter how designer (including Chanel) are off. At this moment, there is no cursed and blessed, no “hot” and “not”, no “in” and “out”, no profane and holy, no impure and pure –simply blessed silence.

Purim is to fast-fashion, as retirement is to Karl Lagerfeld: anathema. Purim begs the consumer to look at the world, with a deep and penetrating look divested from the world of phenomena, masks, labels, and trends.

Who knew an inch of intoxication, a bit of blessing and a dash of dancing could do a semgirl so much good?

Petals on a wet, black bough

Petals on a wet, black bough

Monet stole my camera

 
 
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