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Archive for December, 2012

 

One morning I woke up in the midst of one of my periodic struggles with depression and despair wondering if I even was going to be able to get out of bed that day. I turned over and looked across the room to the blanket on the floor in the corner where LM slept. She was lying there staring up at the ceiling giggling.

Annoyed that in the midst of my existential crisis anyone could find anything amusing, I growled, “What’s so funny?” Besides who giggles at 6:30 in the morning?

In her fractured English she said, “In America you white and fat. In Thailand you black and small.”

“And, you find this amusing,” I responded?

She did not answer but got up, squatted by the small water heating appliance and began making that morning’s jolt of instant coffee.

I turned back and stared up at my section of the ceiling and contemplated the impenetrable barrier of intercultural humor while she continued to chuckle in the background.

I later got up and glanced in the mirror and noticed that indeed my belly, if not necessarily flat, seemed to protrude much less than when I was most recently in California. As for the blackness, I decided that she was referring to the current state of my soul.

As I sat at the table drinking my coffee (three heaping tablespoons in a small cup), I wondered if there was not something about that morning that was auspicious, but alas, its meaning escaped me.

 

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Everyone should know a little Yiddish:

a page from Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary

a page from Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, why you might ask would it be important for we goyim to learn a few words of Yiddish? Well, besides the fact that many of these words are already common and well-integrated into English, there is another reason as well. You see, some languages have many words that essentially describe what a non-speaker would imagine to be the same thing. For example, 200 words or so for snow or a hundred and fifty words for a camels hoof. Yiddish enriches English because it contains hundreds of words to describe human foibles. Even when it ostensibly refers to a thing like a knickknack, the Yiddish word “tchatchke” seems to say more about the observer and the owner than about the object itself.

Many people have the mistaken notion that Yiddish is a Jewish language like Hebrew. True it was spoken primarily by Jews. However unlike Hebrew which until establishment of the state of Israel served as the “religious” or “intellectual” language of most Jews; much like Latin was used in western Europe until the last century, Yiddish generally was spoken by only one of the major branches of the Jewish Diaspora. That branch, known as the Ashkenazi were those Jews who lived primarily in eastern Europe and originally included Northern France until various pogroms forced them further east. Like the Kurds of today, they were a nation without a land of their own. Until the 19th century most Jews spoke a pastiche of Aramaic, Hebrew and the indigenous language of the place they were living at the time. The roots of Yiddish are primarily German with Aramaic and Hebrew influences. It also includes words and expressions from several Slavic languages in varying degrees depending upon where the speakers lived. There are several different “Yiddish dialects” including that spoken as the official language in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian far east near Vladavlostok. Its capitol is Birobidzhan. The First Birobidzhan International Summer Program for Yiddish Language and Culture was launched in 2007.

Ashkenazi Dreams:

Gottlieb - Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yo...

Gottlieb – Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur (Photo credit: Trodel)

Yiddish developed among the Ashkenazi, one of the three main branches of Judaism. The other two being the Sephardim (primarily originating on the Iberian peninsula) and the Mizrahim comprising most of the others. The Sephardim and the Mizraim, if they spoke it at all, did not speak Yiddish as their mother tongue as did many of the Ashkenazi before emigrating to the US.

They all more or less can trace their patrimonial heritage through the male Y chromosome to a single individual living somewhere in the middle east about 5000 years ago, about the time when Abraham was reputed to have lived. A recent study of the Cohen, the traditional priestly class descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother, using DNA from males with that surname world wide, indicates that most of them are descended from a middle eastern male alive about 3000 years ago; about the time the Bible indicates that Moses and Aaron lived. Given that several hundred years of the most intensive archeological investigation in the world, while turning up scads of evidence of the other Peoples and nations mentioned in the Bible, failed to turn up much evidence at all of Jewish history older than somewhere between 200 and 600 BC, it is remarkable that modern genetics has been able to confirm at least this part of the story. (Not that it proves that Abraham, Moses and Arron actually existed, but it does confirm that during those times there was in all likelihood some horny goat-herd in the Near East busy shtupping a shikse or two thereby giving birth not only to the great Jewish nation but, in all likelihood, a significant portion of the population of the entire Mediterranean basin. I guess it could fairly be observed that Arron wielded a mighty rod.

English: Yiddish language in the United States...

English: Yiddish language in the United States. More than 100,000 speakers More than 10,000 speakers More than 5,000 speakers More than 1,000 speakers Fewer than 1,000 speakers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ashkenazi male line descends primarily through southern Italian and Sicilian Jews who migrated into Northern Europe about 400-600 AD to escape persecution by the newly dominant Christians. Genetically Southern Italians and Sicilians and the Ashkenazi appear to be closer related to each other than to most of the rest of trans-montain Europe. Unlike the other branches of Judaism, the Ashkenazi seem to have picked up a small but strong Central-Asian component primarily from the Caucuses and the area around the Caspian Sea, the ancestral home of the Khazar’s, the almost legendary medieval Jewish empire.

On the matrilineal side DNA testing shows that although there is strong evidence of middle eastern origins among the women, there is significantly more evidence of non-middle eastern origins then among the men (Again with the shikses.)

Among the Ashkenazi there is a high incidence of Tay Sachs an inherited and inevitably fatal disease. The Sephardim and the Mizrahim seem to have no greater incidence of the disease than the general population, an indication that the effects of natural selection and genetic drift happen quite rapidly and do not require the eons that mutations take to be reflected in a population. The Tay Sachs’ discovery may have revealed another startling fact, that the genes causing Tay Sachs may be related to those controlling for intelligence. * Based on standard IQ testing as much as 20% of the Ashkenazi score 120 or higher, scoring higher in verbal and mathematical elements and lower in spatial than the general population (in other words, great scientists and writers but lousy athletes). In the general population the average is about 4-5% including for the Sephardim and Mizrahim. It is not so hard to guess why that is the case. The Christian pogroms and prohibitions against land owning for the Jews and against charging interest for the Christians coupled with high literate demands of the rabbinate made those excelling in abstract thought high quality breeders so to speak.

On the other hand, among the Christian West, strangely enough, those who were most literate were prohibited from breeding. From the fall or the Roman empire until the success of the Protestant revolt, for the most part, the most literate of the Western Christians were forced into the clergy who, unless they were Popes or Cardinals, were strongly discouraged from breeding.

Instead we placed our genetic basket on the shoulders of homicidal maniacs whose claim to fame was their preternatural ability to take someone else’s technology and turn it into a more highly efficient means of slaughter.

As luck would have it, due to the plague almost wiping us out, and our short-term tendency to compensate by breeding like rabbits, coupled with our forced procreation of prescient psychopaths equipped with proficient killing machines and a resistance to disease, we in the West were able to conquer the world. Hooray for us.

*Note: Contrary evidence for the genetic connection between Tay Sachs and a certain type of intelligence is provided by the fact that the Irish appear also to be prone to the disease. On the other hand, perhaps the Hibernians were one of the lost tribes of Israel like the American Indians and just about everyone else, except for the Mormons, who never get lost.

So what’s it to me?

Some of you have inquired about my fascination with Judaism given that I am a goyim and all that. Actually is in not Judaism that fascinates me but the Ashkenazi. The Ashkenazi used to be a sizable stateless nation in eastern Europe that barely escaped annihilation. It now has a state of its own in the Near East that exists under extreme stress of annihilation. Many of the surviving descendants of the original Ashkenazi not living in the Near East now lives in the US.

I used to think that my fascination was because my great great grandmother was Jewish (and given mathematics of human generation, whose wasn’t somewhere along the line). Her family (named Tau) was from somewhere in Austria. In the early 1800s they left Austria, probably under the pressure of one pogrom or another and could not afford the ticket to the US, and settled in a tiny Italian hill town named Roccantica in the then Papal States. Go figure.

More recently, however, as I read about the newest advances in genetic analysis of population migration over time, I was fascinated to learn that the modern Ashkenazi, at least on the male side, were primarily descended from Sicilian and Southern Italian Jews who migrated to Northern Europe to escape the emerging dominance of Christianity during the latter stages of the Roman Empire.

I recall looking at a photograph of my maternal Sicilian grandparents. In the photograph both my grandfather and grandmother were photographed separately. He, with his tightly curled blond hair, long narrow nose and wispy blond mustache, appeared to be one of those Sicilians descended from either the Normans or later French settlers who bequeathed their blond hair and surnames to their descendants (Cygna and Gallo common Sicilian surnames and my mother’s name Corsello appear to be examples). However my grandmother, a Defalco, was different. Her photograph always fascinated me. Dark where my grandfather was pale, long black hair and eyes coal black, not haunted nor haunting but quietly alive as though they saw more and deeper than the rest of us. The Defalcos seem to be an old Sicilian name. Several Castelo Falconaras, that may or may not relate to them, dot the Sicilian landscape. Could they be the remnants of that gene line left somehow behind when the rest of them set off for el Norte and became Ashkenazi? Who the hell knows.

When I was a little kid my first playmate other than cousins, was a boy named Ian who lived down the block. I would now and then have what passed for a play date then with him. I liked going over his house. He had a sand box in his back yard. I did not. I only had a grape arbor. We would play and after a while, if he got frustrated, he would punch me. I did not know why he did that.

At the other end of the block, beyond the large black rock that jutted on to the sidewalk, lived an older boy. He was about seven (I was only four or five years old). I was afraid of him because he was big and he would punch me also. Nevertheless, it was always an adventure to walk down the block all the way to the flat rock and sit there. I would not go further because I then could no longer see my house.

At that time we lived in the one street in the lower part of Tuckahoe where no other Italians (or for that matter any blacks) lived. My grandfather built the house when he had gotten rich from his construction company. Unfortunately he lost it all in the depression, so we divided up the house among the family and still lived there. My father, mother, baby brother and I lived upstairs. The floor had been converted to an apartment. My Grandparents lived in an apartment on the ground flood and my Aunt had a room made out of the old sun deck. We all shared the living room. The rest of the neighborhood was mostly peopled by what became referred to as WASPs, but I knew them then as Americans. There were three Jewish families that I was aware of on Dante Avenue as the block was named, two of them belonged to the boys who would punch me.

Even though I was afraid of him, I soon found out that all the bigger boy wanted was just someone to talk to. I did not understand that at the time. In any event, we would sit on the rock and talk about those things of interest to little boys, like pirates and the like. I later learned that they were both being bullied horribly by the older boys, in part because they were Jewish.

I never understood bullying. I learned to live with the name calling, but when it moved beyond that I always had to step in. I was able to get away with it, not because I was strong or brave, but because I realized that the object of bullying was to take advantage of the ease of dominating someone weaker than you. However, when someone interposes himself then the object of the exercise becomes muddled. To pass through someone who puts up even slight resistance to get at the weak is simply not worth the effort. Besides most bullies were that way because someone else was bullying them. It was always a risk for them when someone fought back. I would find myself stepping in to stop bullying about once a week. No one ever decided to fight with me about it even though I was small and weak at the time. That puzzled me for a time because I otherwise fought almost every day with someone who I thought was trying to bully me. I wondered why. Eventually I came up with a theory. But that is for another time.

I did not know what Jewish, or Christian, or Italian, African-American and so on meant then. They were simply words to me. Of course, sometimes those words indicated a difference I could see, for example “colored” kids as we called African-Americans at the time, were often but not always darker than Italian kids and American kids were pinker with blue veins. I couldn’t see much difference in most of the others. Later I learned what people meant when the used those words to describe themselves or other people. Most of the time when they were not describing themselves, they used those words because they were a little afraid of the others.

The woman many considered my second mother, was a member of the third Jewish family. They lived next door. I called her Anna Banana, probably because I could not pronounce her last name. She was married and childless. She had a narrow face and freckles. She also had carrot colored hair that seemed to be all wiry and would fly about her head at odd angles whenever she moved around, which she did a lot. I spent almost every day all day with her at her house. She never seemed to mind. She taught me how to eat scallions and play the piano. Nights I would spend sitting on my grandmothers lap before the fireplace that my grandfather built with big rocks that he had carried himself from somewhere. I would repeat from memory all the nursery rhymes I had learned from my mom and Anna Banana, sing songs and recite poems in English and Italian that my grandmother taught me. I felt very and happy with Anna Banana and my grandmother.

Then my father decided to sell the only asset we had, the house, in order to open up a business, a bar and restaurant. Six months later we were homeless and living on the streets. But that is another story.

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My favorite Thai holiday is Loi Krathung. It falls on the night of the full moon of the 12th month of the year. On that night Thais launch, into the nearest suitable body of water, tiny boats adorned with candles, flowers incense and sometimes nail clippings an bits of hair for good luck. It is also the same day as the Lanna (the old Thai kingdom centered at Chiang Mai) Yi Peng festival when thousands of sky lanterns are launched into the air. LM and I went to the lake beside the Emporium shopping center on Sukhumvit Road to launch our boats and plead with the gods and goddesses for good luck. As with most holidays, it was much more pleasant in the anticipation than in the actual experience.

A few days later we went to the movies to see The Impossible, a film about an european family’s experiences while vacationing in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami. The scenes showing the fury of the water and the devastation caused by the inundation were riveting. Even more so were the images of its aftermath – the makeshift hospitals, the body bags, the injured, frightened, lost people and the frenzy of those searching for their missing loved ones. The movie brought back to me some long forgotten memories.

One evening, about four years after the tsunami, a friend and his wife invited me to join them at a reception in a home in Mill Valley, California. The homeowner’s family and another family, like the family in the movie, were vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami struck. The purpose of the reception was to raise funds for the ongoing tsunami relief efforts that the two families were heavily involved in.

English: Longtail Boats on Phi Phi 6 months af...

English: Longtail Boats on Phi Phi 6 months after the tsunami (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The host’s family had been vacationing in Phi-Phi Island in the heart of the Andaman Sea. They had their two children with them, both girls; one about six or seven years old and the other perhaps eleven. They had just walked from their hotel to one of the two main beaches on the island that were situated about 200 yards apart on opposite sides of its wasp-waisted middle. They arrived at the beach just as the water suddenly rushed away exposing the sea floor almost to the horizon. Many people were standing around dumbfounded, staring at the curious phenomena. When the wife wondered aloud “What do you suppose that is all about,” an older Thai woman standing next to her responded, “I do not know, but if I were you I would take your child and run.” And so they did, as soon did almost everyone else when they noticed a ten meter high wall of water surging across the uncovered sea bed toward the shore. They all turned and ran toward the beach on the opposite side of the island where they thought they would be safe.

For some reason the oldest child yelled “no not there, up here,” pointing to the nearest of the two high hills sitting at each end of the tiny island. And so they ran up the mountain with the water literally lapping at their heels. Up they ran until, near the peak, they found a grove of trees in which they took refuge and there they remained along with a number of other survivors for the two or so days it took to be rescued.

Those that ran to the opposite beach all died as the second of the two tsunami waves struck that beach from the opposite direction.

The beach at Khao Lak before the tsunami of 2004

The beach at Khao Lak before the tsunami of 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other family was not so lucky. They had been vacationing at Khao Lak (the site depicted in the movie, where over 4500 people died). In addition to the husband and wife, the family included a daughter, 14, and a son about 12 years old. They were all avid scuba divers and had spent much of their vacation happily diving off the dive boats that took them out to the reefs and the nearby islands where the water was clearer for diving than it was closer to the mainland. It was the final day of their vacation and the father wanted to spend one last morning diving before they left. The children did not. They preferred to spend their last day relaxing near the hotel. So early in the morning, the parents took the dive boat with a few other committed divers to a favored spot over a reef out of sight of land.

While diving, they felt a slight but powerful up thrust of the water. When they rose to the surface and looked about, they discovered that they were hundreds of yards from the boat. The other divers, who had been close by, now had been dispersed as much as a mile away from each other. After they were all picked up by the boat, they decided to head back to the mainland. As they came in sight of the land, they saw the ocean in front of them thickly covered with debris extending several miles out from shore.

As they slowed and got closer to the debris they noticed what appeared to be hundreds of dead dogs floating amongst the refuse. Closer still they realized that these “dead dogs” were in fact many types of dead animals including dogs and to their horror humans as well. A few were still alive and the boat trolled around a bit picking up those that they could locate.

When they arrived at the shore, they found much of the hotel destroyed and the casitas, in one of which the family had been staying, utterly demolished. The parents desperately spent the next few days searching for their children. The boy was eventually located alive, lying in a field about two miles inland from the hotel with a piece of fencing driven through one of his thighs.

The boy told his parents that he and his sister had been lying on separate beds in their room, he reading and she napping, when they heard a noise like hundreds of freight trains roaring together down the tracks. Water suddenly burst through the walls, picked him up and carried him out the open door at the back of the casita. For some reason, he was borne on the top of the leading edge of the wave as it roared inland through the village and then out into the countryside. He was unable to move until the flood spent its fury and gently deposited him in the field where he was discovered.

The daughter was not found. The father, in much the same way as the father in the film, spent the next month in a lonely search for his daughter through the hospitals and the refugee camps. And, one by one he went through the thousands of body bags opening each one to see if his daughter was inside. They never found her body.

The family that invited me to the reception also experienced the tsunami but in a slightly different way. They too were vacationing in Thailand at the time but decided to fly off to Sri Lanka to spend some time at a recently opened resort on that islands southeastern shore owned by an acquaintance. After they landed, they learned that the Tsunami had just hit. Not knowing the extent of the destruction, they decided to rent a car and drive to the hotel. As they drove along the coastal roads, they were perhaps the first outsiders to view the devastation (33,000 Sri Lankans died). When they realized the full extent of the damage the wife and children returned to the airport and left to go back to the US. He remained behind for several weeks helping to co-ordinate the relief efforts.

I had forgotten about all this until the image on the screen of the desperate father wandering through the ruins in search of his family jogged my memory.

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