Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Torah

My paternal grandfather was a Torah scribe.  He spent his days carefully drawing the Hebrew letters that made up the Torah, the most sacred of Jewish texts. Writing on thin parchment paper made from the skin of a kosher animal, he began by marking thin pencil lines that served as a guide.  He then dipped a feather quill into an inkwell and scrawled each Hebrew letter abiding by the calligraphic guidelines of Ktav Ashurit (Ashurite Script).

Each Torah contained exactly 304,805 letters scribed on about 80 sheets of parchment.  Only black ink made from gall-nut juice and gum was acceptable. The height and width of each letter had to be perfect.  Small mistakes could be scraped away and redrawn unless a mistake was made writing the name of God in which case he'd have to start over since God's name could not be erased.  If one letter was missing or appeared smudged then the Torah was considered invalid or not kosher.

The scribing of a Torah took up to one year.  Once scribed, each sheet of parchment was sewn together to form a continuous scroll.  The Torah was then sewn onto wooden rollers called Eitzei Chayim (trees of life).  The Torah was dressed and shipped to a designated synagogue where it was blessed and dedicated in a sacred ceremony.

As you can imagine, my grandfather was a serious man.  Scribes were supposed to be devoted and pure.  He started each day with a Mikvah, a ritual bath in a sacred pool found in a temple.  The immersion in water was a purification ritual to cleanse the scribe before he channeled sacred text.  After praying that his holy work would be imbued with sanctity, he began each day of writing.

My grandfather was a survivor.  He'd escaped the Nazis by moving his wife and son (my father) from Austria to Portugal in 1933.  After the war, he gathered his savings and sent my father to America.  My father settled in Los Angeles and brought over my grandparents in 1954.  They lived in the Fairfax District, the hub of the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community.

Growing up, I spent many weekends at my grandparent's home with my brother and sister.  We were allowed to play in the backyard or run around the house. The only area off limits was my grandfather's study.  He was doing "important work" we were told and he needed his privacy.

My brother and I were curious about my grandfather's secret work.  We were always sneaking behind him, trying to scare him, to divert his attention.  He did not take kindly to these interruptions.  He would scream in a mixture of German and Yiddish and threaten to throw a paperweight or a heavy book at us.  On one occasion he threw a chair.

Presumably this nullified his purity for the day.

At the end of his workday, he finally relaxed.  He'd make himself a cup of tea and watch cartoons with my brother, sister and me.  Often he'd read comic books, laughing at his beloved Katzenjammer Kids and their juvenile hijinks.

Once I asked my grandfather what it was he did in his study.  "I work for God," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I write God's story so we don't forget who He is."

He could tell by the look on my face that I didn't understand.

"You know the Hebrew letters, Aleph, Bet, Gimel?  They are living things. They are the building blocks of creation.  Like oxygen and hydrogen, God formed the world through combinations of the Hebrew letters." He reached for a sheet of paper and scrawled the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  "This is Aleph," he said.  "It tells us that God is one, that He is the Master.  It is silent, it is never spoken because the true name of God is never spoken.  Aleph stands for Adam the first man, for Abraham who taught us there is only One God and for Abba the Hebrew word for Father."

"Look at Aleph," he said.  "It stands strong and upright.  It is perfectly balanced, it cannot be knocked over.  Hebrew is read right to left.  Aleph is looking at Bet, the second letter.  And Bet, it is looking at Gimmel, the third letter.  What does this tell us?  It says God is looking after us and it is our job to look after our neighbor.  We do not see God but He is always present, right next to us.  You understand?"

"Yes," I told him though I didn't.

"You learn your Hebrew," he told me. "And you will learn the secrets of God.  It's all in there.  In the letters."

As I grew older, my grandfather and I grew apart.  He only conversed with my father in German or Yiddish.  Often I'd hear my name sprinkled accusingly as if I'd done something wrong.  When I stopped watching cartoons and reading comics he no longer knew how to relate to me.  I couldn't relate to him either. He seemed weird and antiquated, a relic from another time and place.

He died in 1986.  In his lifetime, he scribed more than two dozen Torahs. While our family sat Shiva, the week-long mourning period after his death, a stream of rabbis stopped by the home to pay their respects.  They patted me on the head and spoke glowingly about my grandfather.  I smiled and nodded but I couldn't wait to get out of there and be back with my friends.

I never formally learned Hebrew.  But when I turned 30, I developed a fascination with the letters.  I began drawing them and studying their lines and curves and perfect harmony.  These days I carve woodcuts of the Hebrew letters.  I haven't learned the secrets of God.  But like my grandfather said, it's all in there.  In the letters.  (6" x 8", black ink print) (inspired by a 1930 book plate by Roman Radvany)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

San Francisco

My definitive San Francisco moment occurred in 1992.  I was walking south on Polk Street when I encountered two young transvestites smoking crack in front of a burned-down building. I was drinking a Kern's Nectar and after taking the final sip, I tossed the bottle into a trash can.  One of the transvestites put down his crack pipe and spoke.  "Hey man, don't you recycle?"

I moved to San Francisco two weeks after the 1989 Earthquake.  The day I moved into my apartment I noticed a spray painted message on the sidewalk reading: "I don't believe in Bob Hope."  I understood.  This was the land of Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia and the Zodiac Killer.   Alternative was the norm.

The first person I befriended in the city was a Berkeley Linguistics Professor who loved archery, Hungarian cuisine and Japanese Bondage.  He was typical of the San Franciscans I met.  My revolving door of roommates included an animal taxidermist, a stripper, a funeral home cosmetologist, a William Burroughs impersonator and a narcoleptic house painter.

My first San Francisco job was as a videographer for a local bar who hosted a Monday night talent show.  Participants were homeless men recruited just before show time with promises of food and drink if they sang pop songs or attempted ridiculous dances.  During the show, the bar proprietors sold semi-ripe tomatoes for fifty-cents each that audience members hurled at the performers.

Subsequent San Francisco jobs included being a urine messenger for a law firm who drug tested employees (I carried the samples to a testing lab), working as a night clerk for a Tenderloin hotel whose clientele included prostitutes and drug dealers and writing fortunes for a Chinatown Cookie Company.  (My favorite: "Help!  I am trapped in the basement dungeon.  Please call police!")

My lengthiest San Francisco job was as an assistant counselor at an Alzheimer's Day Care Center.  The aging clients reminded me of my grandparents.  Despite their memory loss and fading personalities, they seemed more normal then everyone else in the city.  On one occasion, a client turned up missing.  He'd been an Oakland Bus Driver in his heyday and whenever we served lunch he'd say, "I'll take the T-Bone, medium well."  The day he was discovered missing, I had a hunch.  I called a taxi and asked to be driven to the nearest steakhouse. Sure enough, the man was sitting at the bar drinking a Manhattan and eating a steak.

Dating was hard in San Francisco.  The first woman I dated was a bisexual waitress who'd had a spat with her live-in girlfriend.  She spent the entire meal insulting men and complaining about her lover.  She finally admitted she only went out with me to make her girlfriend jealous.

My second date was with a young German woman named Adeline whom I met at City Lights Bookstore.  She was reading "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol, one of my favorites.  She gave me her number and address and we agreed to meet the following week for dinner.  When I arrived at her residence, I saw a sign that read "Mount Zion Psychiatric Hospital."  Turns out she was a patient who'd recently attempted suicide after breaking up with her boyfriend.  Over pizza and beer she showed me the fresh slash wounds on her wrists.  I safely returned her to the psychiatric ward then swore off dating for a while.

San Franciscans had a passionate hatred of Los Angeles.  Typically when someone learned I was from LA they'd say something like, "Really?  You don't look like a Hollywood asshole."  While playing basketball in a local park, a player intentionally head-butted me knocking out two of my teeth.  As I rolled around in pain, the guy said, "Sorry about that, Hollywood."

I had long hair in those days and I wore bandanas to keep the hair out of my eyes.  One day a man with a thick mustache began following me through the streets.  I stopped in a cheese shop to try to lose him but when I came back outside he was still there.  Finally, at a crowded intersection, I walked right up to the guy and asked, "What the hell do you want?"  He smiled and pointed at the yellow bandana on my head.  Months later I learned about the San Francisco Gay Bandana Code.  Yellow bandanas meant you liked to be pissed on.  Red meant you liked hairy men.  Blue meant you liked to dress up as a cop and Brown meant…well, we won't go there.

After three years of living in San Francisco, the city started getting to me.  The lovely fog became depressing.  The heavy concentration of people was claustrophobic.  And the extreme alternative lifestyles were no longer charming.

The turning point came in 1992 when I was caught in a traffic jam on the Golden Gate Bridge.  A man had just leaped from the bridge.  Traffic was stopped in both directions and drivers were out of their cars scouring the ocean for the jumper. Half a dozen boats hopelessly trawled the water.  I asked a traffic cop if this happened often.  "Sixth one this year," he said.  That night I learned San Franciscans had a saying: "If things get tough, you've always got the bridge."

The incident sent me into a tailspin.  A month later I went through a horrible breakup.  I also lost my job at the Alzheimer's Center.  Around this time I received a letter from Adeline, the woman I'd met at the bookstore.  I stood beside the mailbox and read her words.  She was back in Frankfurt, Germany living with her parents.  She worked at a veterinary clinic helping find homes for lost dogs.  She wrote that she was doing better.  She thanked me for taking her to dinner saying it helped her healing process.  "For the first time in years I feel hope again."

I noticed the spray painted message on the sidewalk.  I hadn't read it in years. The word "Bob" had faded away.  The message now read: "I don't believe in Hope."  I moved out of San Francisco a week later.  (6" x 8", black ink print)