Category Archives: Books

listen to the beggar

Another Night portrait.night_by_elie_wiesel__by_kuraicat-d3c0urn

Moishe the Beadle.

“A jack of all trades in a Hasidic house of prayer.”
Poor, but liked. “He stayed out of people’s way. His presence bothered no one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant, invisible. Physically, he was awkward as a clown. His waiflike shyness made people smile.”

morganb1_zps145e86e6I’m seeing the town beggar in Fiddler on the Roof. Or the one in Bruce Almighty.

“As for me, I liked his dreamy eyes, gazing off into the distance. He spoke little. He sang, or rather he chanted, and the few snatches I caught here and there spoke of divine suffering, of the Shekhinah in Exile, where, according to Kabbalah, it awaits its redemption linked to that of man.”

Sometimes it takes a poor beggar to see such things.

Moishe was also a foreigner – and one day all the foreigners were expelled from the town, “crammed into cattle cars by the Hungarian police,” they cried quietly. Over the horizon they went, quickly forgotten. “That’s war…”

Time passed. Life was normal again.

And then one day there was Moishe, sitting outside the synagogue, “the joy in his eyes was gone, he no longer sang…he spoke only of what he had seen”:

The train with the deportees had crossed the Hungarian border and, once in Polish territory, had been taken over by the Gestapo. The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they finished their work, the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns. This took place in the Galician forest, near Kolomay. How had he, Moishe the Beadle, been able to escape? By a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead…”

He told his story day after day, night after night.
For over a year.

No one believed him.

“Moishe wept and pleaded: ‘Jews, listen to me! That’s all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me!’ he kept shouting in the synagogue, between the prayer at dusk and the evening prayer. Even I did not believe him. I often sat with him, after services, and listened to his tales, trying to understand his grief. But all I felt was pity. ‘They think I’m mad,’ he whispered, and tears, like drops of wax, flowed from his eyes.”

And the last time they saw him? The night the Jewish leaders of the village were arrested and the rest of the town was ordered to stay indoors on pain of death. Moishe the Beadle appeared one last time at the door of the house. “I warned you!” And then he dashed off into the night.

Seeing Moishe the Beadle I see Isaiah, Jeremiah (especially Jeremiah!), Zechariah, or any of the prophets. Poor, mad, weeping men and women whom no one takes seriously.

I’m also going to remember Moishe when I encounter any of the “four blood moons” people with their eschatology obsessions, calculations, and warnings.Though it would help to take such warnings more seriously if the leaders of such movements weren’t published authors with their own followings and all the trappings of affluence – and if they hadn’t been at this business for decades (centuries!) with ever new signs in the offing.

But wisdom seems to be whispering, “Perhaps you should listen to the next poor beggar you encounter.”

It just may be Moishe.


Leave a comment

Posted by on October 18, 2014 in Books, haverings


Tags: , , , ,

needle the night with stars

I read Night by Elie Wiesel this month.night_by_elie_wiesel__by_kuraicat-d3c0urn

The New York Times calls it
“a slim volume of terrifying power.”
I can’t shake the images. Several portraits are burned onto the retina of my soul – and I really don’t want them removed. Something told me not to read this book – and something told me I had to.

In the morning I began reading the Bible from scratch in The Voice translation. I was intrigued by its style and arrangement, the artistic touches, the imagination in its renderings. As often as I’ve read Genesis 1 over the past forty years, it’s an achievement if a translation can make me smile with delight as I encounter the story again.

One line in particular popped – in a verse that had never popped for me. The traditional (aka rather plain) rendering is: “God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, the lesser light to rule the night,
and also stars.”

And also stars.
Almost like a hurried afterthought.

The Voice embellished with a bit of an imaginative twist: “And then he needled the night with stars.”

I sat enraptured for a moment at the thought. I was perched on my patio, but with blue skies above,
so I had to imagine the night with it’s needling stars.

And then I picked up Night and read.
I no longer had to imagine – at least not the night.

One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains – and among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.

This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS took his place.

The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.

“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.

“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.

At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the Lageralteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is he? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”

That night, the soup tasted of corpses.

And I wept.
Books don’t make me weep, usually. Perhaps because much of my reading is theological in nature and there’s a glorious emotional detachment in such abstractions. Which is, I suppose, how theologians could crucify a Christ, perpetuate slavery, or turn their back on a holocaust.

But I wept.
I wept at the conjunction of Night and the needling stars, so absent that long, obscene starless night.

Too much night.
More stars.

Abba, we need more needling stars.


quite appropriately, this is a starry sky in Austria…

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 13, 2014 in Books, haverings, Suffering


Tags: , , , ,

Seraphic Doctor

Had to follow up yesterday’s theology havering with this Rohr observation from Eager to Love. Had to. I’ve been sipping on this read 9781473604018-2through the summer, and this portion was timely on this perfect patio reading morning:

Bonaventure is called “the Seraphic Doctor” of the Church because his writings are so filled with the warmth and fire that was associated with the Seraphic order of angels. He is probably an exemplary Franciscan mystic because he so effectively pulls his brilliant head down into his fiery heart, and integrates contemplation with an extremely active life, as we hear in one of his more oft-quoted verses, all the more amazing because he was such an intellectual:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.12.30 AM

Bonaventure’s theology is never about trying to placate a distant and angry God, earn forgiveness, or find some abstract theory of justification. He is all cosmic optimism and hope! Once it lost this kind of mysticism, Christianity became preoccupied with fear, unworthiness, and guilt much more than being included in – and delighting in – an all-pervasive plan that is already in place.

In Bonaventure’s world, the frame of reality was still big, hopeful, and positive. One reason he was able to do that, as we can see in many Catholic mystics, is that he was profoundly Trinitarian, where the love always and forever flows in one positive and forward direction. That was both his starting point and his ending point. Most of Christian history has not been Trinitarian except in name, I am sad to report; it has largely been a worship of Jesus who was extracted from the Trinity – and thus Jesus part from the eternal Christ, who then became more a harsh judge of humanity than a shining exemplar of humanity “holding all things in unity” (Colossians 1:17-20).

After reading Bonaventure, the crossed lines of the crucifix henceforth become a geometric metaphor for all the seeming contradictions in the world – which, if held with compassion, create deep wisdom in the soul.

Oh what need we have of “Seraphic Doctors” skilled in the art of pulling brilliant heads (or at least passably intelligent ones) into fiery hearts, hearts burning with optimism and hope and seeing his unity everywhere –
true Trinitarians sensing the pulsing, beating, throbbing heart of Love beating at the center of all existence, and whose every consequent word and deed are forged in such a flame emanating from a deep wisdom in the soul.


Behold the Seraphic Doctor! Complete with dancing action…



Leave a comment

Posted by on September 22, 2014 in Books, haverings


Tags: , , ,

snowing in the kitchen


Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 7.40.15 AM

I love and hate this scene from The Book Thief.
I don’t like being Hans Hubermann.

I really don’t.

But I keep getting cast in the role.

I only hope I play the part as well as Zusak paints the portrait.
I know I don’t always.
We must sit with grief. We must let its screams fill the street, and then escort it with painstaking care back through the front gate. Not just for a day or two, or even a month or two. It’s a lifelong journey. While most of us are ready to step out into sunny streets, for the one suffering it’s still snowing in the kitchen. It’s always snowing in the kitchen.

Which means, perhaps the greatest gift a Hubermann can give, is helping to haul that snow down into grief’s basement.

And building a snowman.



Leave a comment

Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Books, Quotations


Tags: , ,

smell bound

Taken by my friend Abby in Portlandia @ Powells.

Yes. Just yes.

And I love the fact that the person in the lower right hand corner has their hand raised in the adoration position.
Or is that the questioning hand, “What the…???”



Leave a comment

Posted by on August 15, 2014 in Books


Tags: , , ,

words are life

Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 12.01.47 PM

The Book Thief.
Enjoyed the film.
But the book is so much more
Can’t bring myself to finish.

But this byte from the film…infinitely chewable.



Leave a comment

Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Books, Quotations


Tags: , , ,

life is too short not to read



Amen, Joy.
But define bad

More simply, life is too short not to read.

But then again, I’m convinced that there will be books in heaven.
The new heavens and the new earth will have a library
a planetary library as per Silence in the Library
(just no Vashta Nerada lurking in the shadows).

I’m counting on it.

“And the books were opened.”

So we don’t have to be feverish about this
even though we frequently will be.

And since Jesus also speaks of drinking wine with us there too
winebibers can also take heart.

Guess I need to develop some vintage taste buds.

So we can relax and learn to savor both.

Life is too short not to.

Leave a comment

Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Books, haverings


Tags: , , , , , ,

what is it with books?


best. gif. EVER.

Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 12.49.18 PM

When it’s a film based on a book, I watch the film first, then read the book. It tends to keep my disappointment/ frustration level down in the comparison between the two – and when I do read the book it’s like the ultimate director’s edition extended cut filled with deleted scenes and the occasional alternative ending or two.

But this scene in The Book Thief.

When Leisel enters the Mayor’s library and encounters those shelves of books, the film makes me flash a knowing smile, but Zusak’s word portrait in the book touches chords deeper in me than I can even understand. Which makes the gif at the top of this post the sexiest best gif ever. It makes me want to invade used bookstores and libraries, anything with vintage books – there’s just something about those vintage books! – and run the back of my hand along the spines.

Oh yes.

What is it with books?

won't work in most bookstores. most.

won’t work in most bookstores. most.




Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Books, haverings, Movies


Tags: , , ,

American Scripture

My latest read, finished, fittingly, on Independence Day.

American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier.American-Scripture-9780679454922

Maier tells the reader, “This book tells two different but related stories – that of the original making of the Declaration of Independence and that of its remaking into the document most Americans know, remember, and revere.”

Two books in one.
Two stories.
What a deal.
Both of them enrapturing – at least to me, but then I devour history the way normal men devour sports.

I know the first story pretty well, finding a front row seat in works such as John Adams by McCullough, but what a delight to see it unfold though Maier’s telling.

Still, it was the second story that most intrigued me – partly because it was mostly fresh ground for me, and partly because at times I forgot which document I was reading about, the Declaration or the Bible. Being a lifelong Bibliophile immersed in Scripture, I found the parallels between Scripture and Declaration striking.

surprise! this isn't how it happened

surprise! this isn’t how it happened

Popular myth says that Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration – a claim that loomed ever larger on the horizon of Jefferson’s life in his declining years as he seized upon it as his magnum opus. There was actually a committee of five, and the whole congress had a voice in the editing. The only production details we have are from comments made over two decades after the fact and rely upon the memories and claimed notes of Jefferson and Adams.

What seems clear, is that neither the author(s) nor first recipients had any notion at the time that they were composing “American scripture.” In fact, the Declaration was essentially forgotten until interest revived in it in the early 1820’s – although it was Lincoln (as per Maier) that made the Declaration what it is to most Americans today.

In Lincoln’s hands, the Declaration of Independence became first and foremost a living document for an established society, a set of goals to be realized over time, and so an explanation less of the colonists’ decision to separate from Great Britain than of their victory in the War for Independence…

No less than Thomas Jefferson, then, Lincoln gave expression to a powerful strain in the American mind, not what all Americans thought but what many did. The values he emphasized – equality, human rights, government by consent – had in fact been part and parcel of the Revolution, and as much the subject of controversy then as later. Lincoln and those who shared his convictions did not therefore give the nation a new past or revolutionize the Revolution. But as descendants of the revolutionaries and of their English ancestors, they felt the need for a document that stated those values in a way that could guide the nation, a document that the founding fathers had failed to supply. And so they made one, pouring new wine into an old vessel manufactured for another purpose, creating a testament whose continuing usefulness depended not on the faithfulness with which it described the intentions of the signers but on its capacity to convince and inspire living Americans.

The Declaration of Independence Lincoln left posterity, the “charter of our liberties,” was not and could not have been his solitary creation. It was what the American people chose to make of it, at once a legacy and a new conception, a document that spoke both for the revolutionaries and for their descendants, who confronted issues the country’s fathers had never known or failed to resolve, binding one generation after another in a continuing act of national self-definition.

Let’s see if I’ve got this right then.

We have a Document:
– whose authorship is a tad murky but that was more team than individual effort;
– whose content has transcended said murky origins;
– whose original authorial intent and purpose have also been transcended;
– whose meaningful implications matter more than what the author(s) were thinking at the time (as best we can tell);
– that remains a living document challenging each succeeding generation to wrestle with those implications in this and every succeeding hour.

So, which Document are we talking about?

Take and read.

Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 10.21.59 AM


Leave a comment

Posted by on July 9, 2014 in Books


Tags: , , , ,

frugal chariots

Stumbled upon this article by Janie B. Cheaney (what a name! love it!). Empty Frigates.

What wondrously wise wisdom not only for children and their summer reads…
…but for children of all ages and stages and seasons and their Scripture reading…bold emphasis is mine…read it

“Literature” as subject is the study of literary craft. Craft is involved in every form of art, and learning about perspective and composition (for example) can help us understand a painting. But it can also distract us from the experience of just standing and looking. “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender,” Lewis wrote. “Look. Listen. Receive.” It makes sense to teach literature from a critical perspective in college, after students have read and liked dozens of books. But the younger the child, the less she’ll gain from character arcs and compare-and-contrast. In fact, too much of this could harm a child’s appreciation for literature in general, like poking at a live lab specimen until it’s dead.

empty frigatesThe new Common Core standards appear to make a bad method much worse. Instead of reading lots of novels and stories, students are exposed to “texts,” which they are then taught to dissect. Fiction and poetry go in the same hopper with informative essays and tracts. The fourth- or fifth-grader can’t just read; critical exercises bar his way to the story and its potential “to take us lands away.” If books are frigates, children should be allowed to step aboard and experience the journey, not make detailed diagrams of the rigging. Curriculum writers don’t seem to understand the main problem with standard educational theory, at least since John Dewey: The child is not a soul, but a brain. Brains don’t need experience; they only need facts.

If your child’s summer reading list came with worksheets, ditch them if you can. Just let the kids read, and continue to read to them—lots of books, and all kinds of books. They don’t have to finish every one they start; literary tastes are as individual as fingerprints and take time to develop. The cost is low, the value high. Take it from Emily Dickinson: “How frugal is the chariot / That bears the human soul.”

This is why when I teach I tell the audience to close their books and their eyes and just listen.

We need to allow ourselves to be carried away by texts.
But instead we poke at them until they’re dead.
Superb rigging diagrammers
rather than wayfarers.

Oh bring on that frugal chariot…

Thank you, Janie B. Cheaney


Leave a comment

Posted by on June 27, 2014 in Books, Quotations


Tags: , , , , , , , ,