Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Gratitude & Judaism v Christianity when discussing existential psychotherapy & neurology!

12 March, 2018

GratitudeGratitude by Oliver Sacks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very short book. I had read two of the essays before, this time I got the audio book and listened to them. Sometimes it is a different experience. Just four essays written by Oliver Sacks before he died. All the links are to the essays as they were originally published.

The first essay, Mercury or the Joy of Old Age is a brief meditation on what it will mean to him to be very old, 80.

The second essay, My Own Life on learning the cancer from his eye has metastised and is now terminal. It’s quite moving.

The third essay, My Periodic Table relates his life, and the treatment for his cancer to the elements.

The fourth essay, though, the last one, is the one that stands out for me. In part because I come from a similar background, in part because my flat in London is quite literally around the corner from Sacks’ family home, although by the time I arrived there, it was only a Jewish area in a very small way. It was now an eclectic mix of young professionals, Londoners, Jamaicans and Irish. Still there was a very good bagel shop…

It is also my favourite because of a quote I have loved for a very long time, it’s by Chaim Potok, from his novel The Chosen. The quote is peculiarly apposite as Sacks’ cancer started in his eye.

“Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much, if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?

I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing; but the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing; but the man who lives the span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life.

It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning- that, I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.”

The essay Sabbath is a perfect elucidation of that quote by a man who gave life meaning to many despairing people and after a long life well-lived, deserved his eternal rest.

Alev HaShalom, rest in peace, Oliver.

__________

message 1: by Will
WillBeautiful. I read these NYT essays online just after finishing his autobiography and thought they were some of the most moving pieces he had ever written.

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message 2: by Choko
ChokoGreat review, thanks!

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message 3: by Caroline
CarolineWhat a wonderful review…

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message 4: by Kalliope
KalliopeI was eyeing this recently… Glad to encounter your review.

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message 5: by Forrest
ForrestThis review is inspiring!

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Petra XKalliope wrote: “I was eyeing this recently… Glad to encounter your review.”

The links to all the essays are there, so you can read the book like that. A freebie with no review required! If you do, I hope you enjoy them.

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Amy (Other Amy)Fantastic review, Petra. I will definitely be reading these when I get a quiet moment.

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message 8: by [deleted user]
Great review there, Petra

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Petra XThanks all. I really appreciated all those lovely comments.

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message 10: by [deleted user]
I’m sorry, when i commented i forget to like it.

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Iris PLovely review Petra, enjoyed it very much…

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message 12: by Michael
MichaelI love the wisdom you’ve found to answer toe Potok quote. Reminds me a bit of my favorite Leonad Cohen line: We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky. Still, the problem of suffering looming so large isn’t really answered, but as one of the largest unsolved problems from Job on down that’s quite understandable.

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Petra XMichael wrote: “Still, the problem of suffering looming so large isn’t really answered…”

I think suffering and pain have to be defined before answering the ‘problem’. Potok differentiates ‘pain’ as in the world. Well there is plenty of that. ‘Suffering’ is something personal. He puts ‘suffering’ up against ‘meaning’. Meaning, in the context of the quote is being successful at something, not a one off, but something that takes time and effort that has made a difference in the world. (Perhaps raising children successfully, perhaps discovering a cure for cancer). That would make us happy. And that offsets the suffering.

The pain of the world doesn’t need to be addressed because it is just part of the human condition, I think Potok means, and we can lift ourselves above it by giving life meaning.

Does that make sense? I know what I want to say but I don’t think I have expressed it well enough.

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message 14: by Michael
MichaelPetra X wrote: “Michael wrote: “Still, the problem of suffering looming so large isn’t really answered…”

I think suffering and pain have to be defined before answering the ‘problem’. Potok differentiates ‘pain’…”

Seems a germ of somethimg fresh yet connected to a long line of efforts to formulate why we are on Earth. Part of what people struggle for to account for resilience (Rabbi Kushner and Frankl before they invented the word). Lot of good juice from writers near their end sometimes, when their back is against the wall and they don’t want to go gentle into that good night. I got a lot of good clarity like that from Hitchen’s Mortality. Other writers get less clear and more mystical or hyperbolic. Grief over another’s loss, impending or in the aftermath, leads writers to look at the puzzle of life and death and suffering in a burst of creativity as well. Thinking of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Harding’s Enon.

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message 15: by Petra X (last edited Dec 04, 2015 06:41AM) rated it 5 stars
Petra XChaim Potok, a Rabbi, was saying (to me) in this quote nothing with deeper meaning. That is the genius of the quote. It is clear and precise.

Christianity and Judaism are two completely different paths. Christians think there should be just one. That is part of their purpose and reason for being here. Jews think it is just one path and Christianity another (and Islam etc. others) and they can all run alongside each other. Perhaps this is because more than anything Jews started off as, and remain, a tribe who live in a certain (and endlessly obsessive way) and tribes can coexist with others.

It is very Christian to ask ‘why are we here’ and therefore to look for the purpose of their existence (and meaning) in life. I know that is an essential part of Christian life and it generally comes out as ‘to serve’, to convert people to also being Christian, to get them to ‘see the light’, to find the reason God put them here. The corollary is that if you see the light you will not be punished in the hereafter with all those that do not recognise Jesus, but will be ‘saved’ and lived for all eternity.

But there is nothing like this in Judaism. It is a much more existential take. There isn’t an aferlife to be saved for, so Jewish philosophy doesn’t include the why are we here, how do we divine our God-given purpose and what do we need to do to save ourselves and others?

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message 16: by Michael
MichaelPetra X wrote: “Chaim Potok, a Rabbi, was saying (to me) in this quote nothing with deeper meaning. That is the genius of the quote. It is clear and precise. Christianity and Judaism are two completely different …”

Fascinating. Thanks for taking the time for the synthesis. Was always fascinating how Sachs could parse how his patients made meanings through the distortions of the altered neural experience. I never thought of how his Jewishness might have affected his lens. I loved to get some of his family origins from “Uncle Tungsten” and think I will enjoy these essays. I keep thinking about the characters who come to your bookstore looking a certain books to inform their search for meaning on quirky paths.

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Petra XMichael wrote: “..how his patients made meanings through the distortions of the altered neural experience. I never thought of how his Jewishness might have affected his lens…”

I think his Orthodox upbringing did. Christianity is directed towards salvation and earning an afterlife through believe in Jesus, Fate, “things happen for a reason” and “God never sends you more than you can bear” and the idea of being tested or being here for a purpose are all foreign to Judaism.

Jews aren’t even allowed to question an afterlife being as we cannot know, all that is said is “eternal rest” .* Everything else is continually questioned and there is no authority, any rabbi or none is an authority. So Jews are entirely of this life.

The questioning of everything starts very young perhaps as soon as we can read. Sitting in the synagogue following the passage of the Torah being read in the Chumash is kind of boring. The passage is printed in Hebrew and English and the bottom of the page is Rashi, who interprets the passage word by word. Later, in Cheder (Hebrew school analagous to Sunday school but four nights a week plus Sundays) Rashi will be d questioned and other viewpoints including the students own will form part of the discussion. There is never a right answer, not even Rashi’s. It’s the arguments that count, you believe something means whatever it does to you. I think that’s where Sacks was coming from.

*There is the somewhat mythological resurrection that will happen ‘some day’ but this appears to have arisen in medieval times. Also there is plenty of belief in the afterlife among individuals no doubt derived from the desire that all is not lost with loved ones after death and influenced by popular culture.

I’m an existentialist, I don’t believe in any religious stuff at all. I just know it because of my upbringing. But in a non-religious way I did apply it to my son, maybe that’s why he’s become a lawyer. (Argumentative!)

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Stamboul Train

25 February, 2018

Stamboul TrainStamboul Train by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like Greene, I liked that the book was entertaining, social commentary and political all at the same time, a hallmark of Greene novels. What I didn’t like and what really upset me, is the marking out of someone as Jewish. Rant follows! If you are not Christian, not White or not able-bodied you might well identify with it.

I have no idea if anyone else in the story, in many, many stories, newspaper articles, tv reportage, online news sites, are Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist or White. But Jews, Jews have to be identified. Especially if they are in finance, although in Greene’s story, he wasn’t. Bankers and other financiers who are not Jewish are not identified by their religion, only Jews. Are there more Jews in banking than any other industry? No. In London there is a joke that on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, you can’t catch a taxi. Who would think of mentioning that a taxi driver was Jewish?

It isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism in any shape of form, but something of the Nazi doctrine remains (yes, I know it dates back to Roman times but this is the 21stC and we know about genetics now) that Jews, whether they are from Zimbabwe, Eastern Europe or Malaysia are all really one race and no one should forget that and all that the writer wants to imply (usually negative stuff).

That’s some baggage there for all of us born Jewish whatever religion or philosophy we actually espouse.

It is no longer considered polite or politically-correct to point out that some woman is actually a transgendered pre-op male. ie. A man. We have to rightfully consider not only their feelings but that (unless you are going to sleep with them) it really doesn’t matter anyway. But somehow being Jewish does.

I am a redhead with green eyes (see my profile pic). I have been married twice, once to a White Catholic and once to a Black, Anglican guy from the island. When people write books or newspaper articles, they don’t mention things like my first ex was White or a Catholic or my second was Anglican. My present partner is White and an atheist. They would probably mention that my second was Black and definitely that I was Jewish.

Why is Catholic not important? Why is Anglican not important? Why is atheist not important? Why is Black important? Why does my mixed race son who looks White have to have it pointed out in articles that he is Black, and Jewish, do people think he might pass as a White Christian which is somehow wrong, somehow fooling people if it wasn’t pointed out?

Comments:

message 1: by Hanneke
HannekeYou are quite right to point that out, Petra. It is certainly very strange that it gets mentioned and not if you are of a different denomination.
Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast)I haven’t read this but definitely have noticed the phenomenon. It’s really prevalent with race in fiction, I’ve found—it’s always assumed that the protagonist in an English-speaking country is white, even if their skin colour is never mentioned, but people of colour are always identified by their “chocolate skin” or their “cinnamon skin” and all manner of other identifiers.
message 3: by Greta (last edited Feb 23, 2018 06:18PM)
GretaI’m glad someone finally draws attention to this. It bothers me too. If it’s not relevant, there’s no need to mention race, religion, skin color or whatever. I recently read a memoir written by an “Arab-American” man. The description and half of the reviews mentioned this, although it wasn’t in the least relevant, so I didn’t mention it in my review, and referred to him by his name, like we normally do. What also annoys me, is that women in fiction are mostly referred to by their looks, and to which guy they belong : “A clever detective and his beautiful assistant” ; “an average guy and his beautiful girlfriend”; “a charming man and his beautiful wife”. It makes me so angry sometimes that I want to (ab)use my power as a librarian and change the description 🙂

Petra XGreta wrote: “It makes me so angry sometimes that I want to (ab)use my power as a librarian and change the description 🙂 …”

I don’t see that as an abuse of power. Do it!

I do see Arab-American from the point of view that very large numbers of Americans, it seems to me, want the prefix as in African-American, Italian-American etc.

“The beautiful glamour model turned up for the meeting dressed in a form-fitting and revealing red Victoria Beckham bandage dress to give evidence against Harvey Weinstein”

Why not, “against fat, ugly, Harvey Weinstein wearing a navy Brooks Brothers suit that bulged at the seams”?

LOL it would be funny wouldn’t it if men were described like that.

message 5: by Ivonne
Ivonne RoviraIt’s amazing how many novels from the 1920s through the 1950s have gratuitous mentions of Jews. It’s jarring to 21st century readers. As you noted, they don’t randomly identify people as Catholics or other Christian denominations.
message 6: by Lyn

Lyn ElliottI agree that allocating labels to mark Jews, blacks, Muslims as different, at best, is intrinsically racist, no matter what the context or the outcome.

message 7: by Jonathan

JonathanEarly Agatha Christie books often have negative, stereotyped Jewish characters too. Come the late 30s they disappeared, hopefully due to some feelings of compassion and remorse. Books help us remember what people who were other than white Christians had to deal with – and read about. Still winds me up too though!

 message 8: by Ina
Ina Cawlthe old Jewish stereotype and most people who believe in it have never met or befriended Jewish person.
being Somali i get a glimpse of when your identity is stereotyped into something negative

Petra XJonathan wrote: “Early Agatha Christie books often have negative, stereotyped Jewish characters too. …”

Agatha Christie was a racist, homophobic, classist and very anti-Semitic. She was a horrible, horrible person. Her depictions of Jews were invariably nasty, she wrote about servants as “simple” and “vapid”. In 1939, despite being told that the word was offensive (in the Uk, even back then) she called a book, Ten Little Niggers. This was later changed to Ten Little Indians and eventually became, And Then There were None.

Petra XIna wrote: “being Somali i get a glimpse of when your identity is stereotyped into something negative”

Agatha Christie was vile about Muslims, Arabs and anyone not white too, Agatha Christie – ten racist moments.

Ina, if you came to the US you would get more than “a glimpse” of what it means to be Black and Muslim, it would be full in your face.

message 10: by Petra X (last edited Feb 24, 2018 05:07AM) rated it 4 stars
message 11: by Greta (last edited Feb 24, 2018 05:21AM)

GretaPetra X wrote: “Greta wrote: “It makes me so angry sometimes that I want to (ab)use my power as a librarian and change the description 🙂 …”

“The beautiful glamour model turned up for the meeting dressed in a form-fitting and revealing red Victoria Beckham bandage dress to give evidence against Harvey Weinstein”

Why not, “against fat, ugly, Harvey Weinstein wearing a navy Brooks Brothers suit that bulged at the seams”?

LOL it would be funny wouldn’t it if men were described like that.”

Laughing. You should be a librarian and change the book descriptions. You definitely have more imagination!

Greta wrote: “Laughing. You should be a librarian and change the book descriptions. You definitely have more imagination! …”

It substitutes for having a life!

message 13: by Ina

Ina CawlPetra X wrote: “Ina wrote: “being Somali i get a glimpse of when your identity is stereotyped into something negative”

Agatha Christie was vile about Muslims, Arabs and anyone not white too, Agatha Christie – ten…”
i really know that,this is not the best time to be black and Muslim in Western world as you would feel the racism in the airport before even before you even enter the country

message 14: by Greta

GretaPetra X wrote: “Greta wrote: “Laughing. You should be a librarian and change the book descriptions. You definitely have more imagination! …”

It substitutes for having a life!”

Ah, but you’re larger than life, Petra!

Petra XGreta wrote: “Ah, but you’re larger than life, Petra! …”

On a diet!

!

Untouchable

24 April, 2016

Untouchableby Mulk Raj Anand

April 24, 2016

This is only a short book and the first two-thirds are quite interesting – a day in the life of a downtrodden Untouchable latrine cleaner and his rat-eating family. The preaching of the last third rather spoiled it though. It is true that flush lavatories would solve the problem for the toilet-cleaning caste, but it is hardly a solution for the Untouchables, no matter what name Gandhi gave them.

Part of the problem of the Untouchable caste is that it isn’t actually a problem at all for anyone who isn’t Untouchable, in fact it’s desirable to have them. Since they, the pariahs of society, do all the work that no one else wants to do, and at minimum wage, and all this exploitation can be justified as being in the name of religion, in the name of not interfering with the Infinite plan there is no impetus from society to improve these people’s lives.

It’s not so far from the way the US treats illegal Mexican immigrants. It allows them to stay to do the work that no one else wants to do for those wages in those conditions. They live in fear of everything and everyone. If they are beaten, robbed or raped they have no redress. They daren’t complain. So just as with the Untouchables not being a problem if you aren’t one, neither are the illegal immigrants.

There are two ways, from a religious point of view, of looking at them. Either they must have done something pretty dreadful in their previous lives to get born an Untouchable and this is Divine punishment, or alternatively, these people must have been really good dogs, cockroaches or whathaveyou to have become human in this life and who are mere humans to interfere with this great Cycle? When looked at in this way, it’s a pretty clever organising of society, of religion, to get the work done. Another way of putting it, one more familiar to us, is the richer get richer and the poor live in ghettos and clean the houses, shops, subways and streets for them.

One of the solutions proposed is Christianity, which has the great advantage of not having a rebirth system so a lowly caste becomes a class problem for which education can provide a ladder up and out. Another solution, one partly in effect now, was Gandhi’s renaming the caste Harijan, or Children of God, and his movement to include rather exclude them from society.

The third solution isn’t sadly as widespread as it ought to be, the flush toilet. The poor who live and sleep on the pavements still shit in the gutter, those living in slums and tenements crap into plastic bags which they launch far into the air earning them the nickname of parachutes and those slightly less poor than that have flush toilets but no running water. So whether its cleaning latrines or cleaning (un)flushed toilets, or sweeping the streets clean of ‘parachute’ bags, this caste of Untouchables, these Children of God, are still plying their traditional trade.

Sometimes I wonder if everything evil under the sun couldn’t find its justification in one religion or another?

I don’t like being lectured to, and I don’t care what literary device is used to pretend that it’s just the story not a didactic excursion by the author, I just don’t like it. I would probably never have finished the book but my computer broke down and it took an hour to fix with all the endless waits while it checked files and rebooted. Lucky aren’t I, to have a bookshop and only a slightly iffy computer to annoy me rather than having to live with broken flush toilets and crap to clean from the streets?

Heavily revised 24th April, 2016. Originally reviewed Dec. 1, 2011