Archive for March, 2010


March 28, 2010
Upper West Side Church Offers Homeless a Home, and More
Crystal Chatwood and Eugene Thomas had hitchhiked from Georgia to Florida in search of work, and finding none, had taken a ride north to New York with another couple. The couple dropped them off in Central Park, promising to return in a few hours.

That was last summer.

Mr. Thomas, who said he had left his last $87 with the vanished couple, and Ms. Chatwood slept on a park bench that night. Rousted by the police, they moved to Riverside Park and then took refuge on the steps of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, a United Methodist congregation on West 86th Street at West End Avenue.

They returned every night for the next few months. “We used cardboard and blankets,” said Ms. Chatwood, 39. As the days became shorter and grayer and the nights colder, she finally decided “it was time to get my life together,” and she went into the church to ask for help.

It turned out that she and Mr. Thomas, 50, could have done that much sooner, because the church has long considered improving the physical, material and spiritual well-being of homeless people a crucial part of its mission, and some of the 200 or so congregants started out sleeping on the steps.

The church has operated a pantry for more than 30 years and a women’s shelter — where Ms. Chatwood found refuge — for more than 20 years, and it offers counseling and other programs.

The senior pastor, the Rev. K Karpen, had noticed Mr. Thomas and Ms. Chatwood outside for some time.

“With fall coming on, we were interested in finding them some other place to live,” Mr. Karpen said. “We convinced them to talk to social workers.” On any given night, from 2 to 10 people sleep outside the church, and though Mr. Karpen said that “no one should live on the steps of the church,” he said he always hoped that anyone who needed assistance would eventually seek it.

“We try to get to know the people and encourage them to help us find them other options,” he added. “We try to be a bridge to the next thing in their lives.”

After Ms. Chatwood moved to the women’s shelter, Mr. Thomas continued to sleep outside the church, and he began doing odd jobs around the building.

One Sunday she asked the congregation to help them pay for a marriage license.

Someone gave them the money — it costs $35 — and Mr. Karpen performed the ceremony in the chapel on the first floor. Others chipped in for flowers and a cake decorated with yellow roses. The receptionist wrote a song.

“It was awesome,” Ms. Chatwood said. “If not for the church, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Their best man was Joseph Branch, 61, a church member who in his 40s had found himself on the streets after losing his wife and his job. He, too, had ended up on the steps of St. Paul and St. Andrew.

When he asked a woman for spare change, he said, she asked him to help set up a bazaar in the church’s basement. He became a volunteer in the food pantry, which now helps about 250 families a day, and an usher on Sundays.

Eventually he was hired as the church’s security guard.

“I like to say, I came to church and never left,” said Mr. Branch, who successfully sought to have Mr. Thomas hired as a custodian after he saw him picking up trash each morning.

“I used to sleep out in front of the church. I got a break. So I tried to do it for him,” Mr. Branch said. Ms. Chatwood and Mr. Thomas now live in a family shelter, and they are saving money to rent an apartment.

Chris Gill, 49, a veteran who has used a wheelchair after losing most of his toes to gangrene, arrives at 5 a.m. most days to manage the pantry.

“I know what struggling is about,” said Mr. Gill, who was homeless himself and tries to nudge those who still are to seek something better. “I listen to them and let them rant. I can see the anger. I say, ‘You need more, try this place.’ ”

Five social workers are on hand at the church every day, meals are delivered by volunteers while other volunteers tutor children, and retired accountants help prepare tax forms.

Volunteers aside, the services cost money. “We get funds from here, there and everywhere,” said Mr. Karpen, who first came to the church in 1984 as a student at Union Theological Seminary.

That includes government aid and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as donations from congregants.

But he said, “The food pantry was started when the church was broke and few in number.”

Mr. Karpen often digs into his own pockets to help. “Every month he buy me a MetroCard,” said a 39-year-old immigrant from Ghana, who because of her immigration status gave only a first name, Elizabeth.

Tucked away in a tiny room, she patched a quilt with a sewing machine that had been lent to help her start a seamstress business.

The room smelled of the roast chicken that a church member had dropped off for her and her 4-year-old son. As she told how she and her son had been left homeless after a fire in their Bronx apartment, Elizabeth began to cry and said, “My situation is too much.”

She now lives in a temporary shelter, but her immigration status disqualified her from permanent housing.

“He helped me a lot,” she said of Mr. Karpen.

When a brother of hers in Ghana recently died, the church put together a memorial service.

“Here,” she said, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth, “it feel like home.”

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Tom Petty, although friends have always said that he and his band the Heartbreakers have to be seen live to be appreciated. They are on my bucket list of bands to catch some day.

Gunars Binde photography

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John McCain’s in for the re-election race of his life, and it’s just astounding the things he’s said and done lately.

None is more astounding that a misstatement–some call it a bald-face political lie– he made about veterans earlier this month (see report below), and a lot of vets and families of those killed and wounded are just now realizing this and getting upset about it. And we’re just now learning that other politicians have repeated McCain’s claims that the killing and wounding in Iraq of American troops is over. It’s simply not true. For sure, we don’t see casualties there of the numbers we used to, and there have been a number of the so-called “noncombat-related” deaths and wounds. But one reason war is hell is that the potential for getting killed or wounded even in noncombat situations runs extremely high–that’s why the numbers are included as war casualties.

I don’t think for a minute that John McCain intentionally asserted on the campaign trail (apparently more than the one time) that he was filmed saying it that the casualty count in Iraq for the three-month period in question was zero.

But then, what’s frustrating to so many is that he hasn’t acknowledged his mistake, or apologized to the families of those who lost loved ones. Not yet, anyway.

And his old friend Sarah Palin, of course, has happily repeated the claim about the zero casualties over three months, and considering her record, there will never be an acknowledgment that she was wrong. These people disgust me sometimes. If there’s one thing that a politician should get right it’s war.

And you have to wonder why these people so casually claim no casualties for political purposes anyway. If there were zero casualties since Obama became President over any sustained period of time, he would be the first to tell us, I’m sure. YOu can bet that he’ll be taking credit for the sharply lower casualty numbers at some point since he took over management of two wars, as any President would do.

From Thinkprogress.com
At a town hall meeting on March 13 in Nashua, NH, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talked about the war in Iraq, celebrating the fact that “there has not been a single American service member killed or wounded in Iraq”:

There’s a lot of other issues that I (in audible on video), but I’d just wanted to say again because our veterans are here, that I’m happy to tell you that elections in Iraq went okay. Look, democracy is a hard thing, but it was a contested election and there’s no other country in the Middle East besides Israel where there’s a contested election. And the most importantly than that, now for three months, there has not been a single American servicemember killed or wounded in Iraq.

Fact is, 12 U.S. service members had died in Iraq in 2010 as of March 13–and at least 93 had been wounded.

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Paul said in one of the most significant scriptures he ever wrote about Jesus Christ that even though Christ was in the form of God, he “emptied” himself, became a slave (rather than a master or dictator; see yesterday’s Noon Wine), humbled himself, and served his Father with obedience all the way to death on a cross.

Read on, dear reader . . . .

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:6-11

What do you suppose it means that Jesus “emptied himself?”

I think that when we “empty” ourselves of all our stuff that gets between us and the neighbor in front of us or the neighbors around us–when we empty ourselves of prejudice and bias of the kind that cause us to make snap judgments about other people that we are constantly meeting or encountering or living with–only then are we able to love others as we love ourselves.

And of course Jesus said there’s only two commandments we’ll ever need–to love God entirely and to love others as much as we love ourselves.

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How in the world could Louis Armstrong begin to disguise that gravely voice?
BTW, if you grew up with this great TV show—you probably subscribe to AARP magazine.


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“If religion was a thing that money could buy . . . the rich would live, the poor would die . . .”

But Mahalia Jackson points out in the soulful spiritual that she’s not worried about a thing, yaw. . . .

Your longtime jitterbuggers know that yer Jitterbugger loves him some Mahalia and some Louie Armstrong too. And can’t sing enough hosannas about the biography of Louis, Pops, at your local bookstores.

In keeping with Holy Week . . . a couple of hopeful songs from two greats:

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I see God as a loving humanitarian, not a tyrant and dictator who enslaves people with harsh law and justice. My theology of God has nothing to do with slave mentality that makes me a “slave” to God, and negative servitude and fear of the sort that the German philosopher Nietzsche criticized so hard and so well–he who famously declared God dead. My idea of fearing God is being found unworthy to serve a God so loving and full of grace and tender mercies.

Read on for more on this thought, jitterbuggers, and I hope you’re having a blessed Holy Week. . . .
— Paul

GERMAN PHILOSOPHER NIETZSCHE: An enduring and influential critic of God and Christian faith

The other night when I was making patient rounds at the hospital I had a nice talk with a very interesting gentleman–a businessman who has been in the bicycle business, of all things, in China, of all places, for going on 15 years now. Actually, that’s just one of his many business ventures but the one that certainly struck me as most interesting.

We talked business and lots of things before we got around to talking religion, and it turned out he has quite a jaundiced view of it. He told me he grew up in one of those fire and brimstone churches where the image of God planted in his mind was that of a big and power-happy old man with a long flowing beard. He fled the church as fast as he could when he came of the age where he could do so.

He did say, though, that while he’s not religious, “I’m spiritual.” His problem with religion, he told me, is that there’s no getting around the image of that fearsome God who demands respect and fear–or else. That God is right there in black and white in the Bible, he asserted.

We had a very lively and interesting discussion and respected each other, and when I asked him if he wanted me to pray for him–he did. “It can’t hurt anything,” he said. So while he’s “not much of a believer,” I did appreciate that he didn’t throw me out of the room on my ear as soon as I identified myself as a chaplain and asked if I could come in. And, at the risk of sounding a trifle full of myself, I could see by the time I left the room that he was thinking about God in quite a different way–thinking a new image and broader understanding of God. Or at least I hope he was and do believe he was.

I can understand how people come to see God as such a domineering and rather scary control freak and iron-fisted disciplinarian. There certainly are commands to “fear” just such a God as that, and images that would lead one to actually live in fear of God as such a holy dictator rather than a loving humanitarian.

But that’s why we have thousands of years of theology–an academic discipline that explores all those pesky “nuances” and subtleties and symbols and winks and perspectives and contexts that the writers of the Bible brilliantly weaved together in a vast mosaic of God. As I told this patient, to get stuck on one image of God–especially that of the sort of tyrannical God presented in much of the Old Testament–causes one to miss the image of the whole God. Unfortunately, teachers and preachers and churches throughout the ages, too many of them, got stuck on the image of God as that patriarchal tyrant who demanded respect or else. And a patriarchal tyrant is, well . . . patriarchal.

It’s never pretty when men have total control over faith and religion, is it.

Nietzsche the philosopher, who in 1882 famously proclaimed the death of God, presented a tough-minded challenge to Christianity, seizing on the Bible’s call for this sort of “servile” fear of the Lord. Nietzsche gave us the alternative of a sort of Superman who was strong enough to stand on his own and didn’t need a “higher power.”

The fact is that we find in the Bible — in the whole of the Bible and even in the Old Testament — a God whose will is for peace on earth and good will toward all, whose will is for mercy and justice and taking care of one another and lifting up each other when we fall, whose will is for love. The will for justice includes some rough justice in that Old-time Testament, for sure, but we always have to remember that the Bible has to be interpreted in the context of the very primitive times in which God was inspiring those who wrote it. Times are always changing and were changing over the hundreds of years it took for the Bible to be drafted, edited and finally canonized for all time, which means that we get radically different images of God in the Old and New Testaments just as we get radically different images of God through the centuries in theological study.

Slavery, don’t forget, was biblically justified for quite a while, and could be biblically justified now without theological perspective and context. The same could be said for women in servitude to men, a servitude of the sort that few women today tolerate.

Anyway, the fact remains that we must fear God, but not in the sense of Nietzsche’s servile fear, a fear that makes us “enslaved” to this crazed God. Rather, fear in the sense of being in awe of a God so great, so awesome as to have provided us all we need for this love and justice that God wills. Being in awe of all this grace of the sort that I and the aforementioned gentleman found in our quick discussion about this God.

As I told my friend the patient, it’s my belief that authentic religion is not about the certainty of God, but the magnificent mystery of God. Whenever I see a Christian or any kind of believer who has no doubts whatsoever–that’s the God I fear in the worse sense coming through, but not the true God. Doubt is the good cop that keeps the bad cop under control. Those who have no doubts whatsoever–those who can’t appreciate the beauty of the mystery of the God who can be known, while hardly being known at all, are of the sort who smash airplanes into buildings or band together in weird and very misguided “Christian warrior” militias. (See the headlines today.)

God is way too big to be stuffed into the sort of little boxes we try so hard to stuff. God is love. And that means God gives us the ways and means to carry on the divine will for mercy and love and grace and peace and justice.

My theology of God has nothing to do with slave mentality and negative servitude of the sort that the German philosopher rapped, but rather the fear of being unworthy to serve a God so great in the ultimate of the best sense of greatness.

Just a few scattered thoughts there for you, jitterbuggers, on this Holiest of Holy Christian weeks. And with that–a prayer for you from the late and the great spiritual writer and teacher Mr. Nouwen:

I hope that I will always be for each person
what he or she needs me to be.
I hope that each person’s death will diminish me,
but that fear of my own will never diminish my joy of life.
I hope that my love for those whom I like will never lessen
my love for those whom I do not.
I hope that another person’s love for me will never
be a measure of my love for him or her.
I hope that everybody will accept me as I am,
but that I never will.
I hope that I will always ask for forgiveness from others,
but will never need to be asked for my own . . .
I hope that I will always recognize my limitations,
but that I will construct none.
I hope that loving will always be my goal,
but that love will never be my idol.
I hope that everyone will always have hope.

-Henri Nouwen

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Thomas Kemper to lead world missions agency

{In the photo by John C. Goodwin of United Methodist News Service: Thomas Kemper, the new leader of the Methodist Board of Global Missions, speaks at a memorial service for the Revs. Sam Dixon and Clinton Rabb at Riverside Church in New York. Dixon and Rabb are the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) agency officials who died in the Haiti earthquake.}

John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded my beloved Methodist church and gave us the doctrine, polity, legacy and theology of salvation that we Methodist Christians live by, famously said that “the world is my parish.”

The new leader of our Board of Global Missions has definitely been a man and Christian of the world his whole life. Here’s the word on him from United Methodist News Service:
By Linda Bloom*

Through his United Methodist connections, Thomas Kemper is a citizen of the world.
His passport is German, but he spent two years managing a youth hostel and working with Vietnamese boat people in London. He took up residence in an African village to do research for a master’s thesis and spent nearly a decade as a missionary in Brazil.

As the mission secretary for the United Methodist Church in Germany, Kemper oversaw projects in 13 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe. Ecumenically, he has worked with the largest Protestant development agency in Europe and co-founded a Protestant-Catholic commission in Latin America.

A layperson, he often takes on positions normally held by pastors. He is fluent in German, English and Portuguese, can converse in French and basic Spanish, and read Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Now Kemper, 53, has moved to New York. On March 15, he became the top executive of the international mission agency for The United Methodist Church.

“Not every former missionary…is really gifted for leadership in a mission agency, but Thomas was and is a gift to us all,” said retired Bishop Heinrich Bolleter of Switzerland, a former director of Global Ministries who works in the Geneva Office of the World Methodist Council.

He lauded Kemper’s expertise “as an active thinker, planner, communicator and team worker for mission,” and praised his efforts at cooperation with Methodist mission boards in Europe and other Protestant partners.

“He has put in place examples of how to engage the grass roots in mission and also how to build up a new readiness to support the UMC mission in Africa, Latin America and Asia financially,” Bolleter said.

A small boy’s view
Kemper’s exposure to other cultures began when he was a small boy living in Hamburg.

The port city served as a conduit for international visitors who would stop to see his father, the Rev. Gustav Kemper, and his Methodist congregation as they entered Germany, often spending the night. He heard the stories of missionaries and church officials and learned more about their shared faith.

During the same period, his father preached on a regular basis to a congregation of Gypsies, now known as Romas, and often took his son along. Sometimes, the congregation seemed strange and frightening, but more often Kemper was fascinated by the experience.

The seed for a lifetime of international mission work was planted, cultivated by the fact that the German church has always had a strong commitment to mission, dating back to its founding by Germans returning from the United States, “a kind of early globalization,” as Kemper characterizes it.

His formal education built on that commitment. He received a master’s degree in adult education, with minors in psychology and theology, from the University of Hamburg in 1982. His thesis topic was “Global Learning in Church Youth Work.”

Three years later, he earned a master’s degree in development sociology from the University of Bielefeld and spent three months living in a village in Burkina Faso as research for his thesis on “Ecology and the Social Structure in the Sahel.”

His early practical experience included an assignment from 1975-77 at the German Methodist Mission in London, where he managed the hostel and bilingual church, organized programs for international youth groups and worked with Vietnamese boat people.

Assignment in Brazil
After graduate school, Kemper and his wife, Barbara Hüfner-Kemper, shared a missionary assignment in Brazil from 1985 to 1994, appointed through the German United Methodist Board of Missions and the Methodist Church in Brazil. She is a psychologist. Two of their children—Ana, now 18, and Lena, 17—were born there. They also have a son, Joshua, 13.

When the family returned to Germany, he spent three years as director of ecumenical learning at the Lippische Landeskirche, a regional church of the Association of Protestant Churches in Germany, before becoming the mission leader for the United Methodist German Central Conference.

Since 1998, Kemper has led the German church into a wider exploration of what John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism, meant when he said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

View in Photo Gallery Kemper has encouraged a holistic perspective of mission that includes issues of social and economic justice as well as evangelism, said German Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.

“Many Methodists learned through his inspiring leadership that mission means partnership,” she added. “The local churches all over the world are the mission points and we send support to each other.”

German United Methodists support more than 80 projects with partner churches in 13 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, often collaborating with Methodists in Great Britain and Ireland.

Among the innovations during Kemper’s tenure is the Christmas Campaign, which targets small donors for specific child- and youth-related projects and extends “well beyond our normal constituency because this was attractive to people outside the church,” he explained.

The 110,000 euros raised for Christmas 2009, for example, are being used to employ young people in Sierra Leone to make furniture for schools. Kemper also began volunteer-in-mission programs for German church members. “These people have really become the best ambassadors for our work,” he said.

Germans support HIV/AIDS ministries in Africa through the Ziegler AIDS Fund, established in memory of a German missionary couple who died in a car accident in Kenya in 2003. “We have raised almost 1 million euros so far,” Kemper said.

The global vision
As the top mission leader for The United Methodist Church, he will apply those skills and experiences to a broader canvas. His vision is “that we really become the global agency for a global church.”

Pontus Fred, a United Methodist from Finland, has served as a Board of Global Ministries director with Kemper and worked with him collaboratively in Europe. He believes Kemper will help the denomination worry less about structure and focus more on engaging local churches in mission.

“Large and financially strong churches are sometimes blamed for going into mission on their own, with no or very loose connections to the Board of Global Ministries,” Fred noted. “Out of a Central Conference perspective, I can certainly relate to this. Thomas knows the hopes we have (with) Global Ministries in this regard, and I believe these experiences can be one of the keys to bringing the agency closer to the local church.”

He already is at work on strengthening the mission agency, which underwent a structural reorganization, staff reductions and change in top leadership in 2009. “The short-term goal is to bring stability,” he declared.

Kemper said he is grateful the staff has carried on so well under those pressures and he expects to have a full leadership team in place by early summer. “We have everything we need to go ahead,” he added.

He would like to see U.S. United Methodists gain a new appreciation of their worldwide connection. “I really hope the church in the U.S. is ready … to be proud to be part of a church that is global,” he said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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Stayed up way too late last night finishing the much-acclaimed biography Mark Twain: Man in White:The Grand Adventure of his Final Years.

There’s worse ways to lose sleep that reading yet another terrific biography of this great American icon who, for my money, is the best writer this country has ever produced.

But then–I’m a card-carrying Twainiac.

I remember loving Tom Saywer in my boyhood–and what red-blooded American boy can’t relate to the mischievous Tom–only to be blown away by the incredible, pathos-filled story of Huck Finn’s great adventure. Tom Sawyer it wasn’t. Tom Sawyer is the story of a little snot-nosed kid who gets by on his wits and clever ways that make for clever moments, as when he conned his buddies into painting the fence for him.

By contrast, Huck Finn is a story that runs so deep and contains so many riches that young kids and the most advanced literary scholars alike still take something new from it on every read.

I’ve read The Adventures of Huck Finn no less than six times in my life, and probably more, though it’s probably been 15 years since the last time. But I always found it to be like the Bible or Shakespeare–every time you read it, it speaks to you in new and powerful ways. I was in 7th or 8th grade the first time I read it and will never forget how it turned my then calloused thinking about race around. It’s still high on the list of banned books every year because of the racial language, but Twain, of course, used the racist language of the times to great effect in exposing the callousness and irrationality of racism. Too bad that his genius in writing an anti-racist book is still seen as simply being racist.

I think labels like “icon” and “genius” get tossed around all too casually these days. Every coach who wins a Super Bowl is instantly branded a “football genius,” for gosh sakes. Or any fly-by-night entertainer or musician or actor gets the “genius” treatment–not to mention any good writer that comes along to make a splash.

But Twain made more than a splash because he truly was a literary genius. And as “icons” go–he was genuinely one of those by the sheer force of his life and his outsized personality–and his intellectual fearlessness.
Here’s the publisher’s comments on the aforementioned biography, which contains some wonderful anecdotes, of one of the greatest–and surely most colorful–of American characters:

One day in late 1906, seventy-one-year-old Mark Twain attended a meeting on copyright law at the Library of Congress. The arrival of the famous author caused the usual stir–but then Twain took off his overcoat to reveal a snow-white tailored suit and scandalized the room. His shocking outfit appalled and delighted his contemporaries, but far more than that, as Pulitzer Prize finalist Michael Shelden shows in this wonderful new biography, Twain had brilliantly staged this act of showmanship to cement his image, and his personal legend, in the public’s imagination. That afternoon in Washington, less than four years before his death, marked the beginning of a vibrant, tumultuous period in Twain’s life that would shape much of the now-famous image by which he has come to be known–America’s indomitable icon, the Man in White.
Although Mark Twain has long been one of our most beloved literary figures–Time magazine has declared him our original superstar–his final years have been largely misunderstood. Despite family tragedies, Twain’s last half- decade was among the most dynamic periods in the author’s life. With the spirit and vigor of a man fifty years younger, he continued to stir up trouble, perfecting his skill for living large. Writing ceaselessly and always ready with one of his legendary quips, Twain would risk his fortune, become the willing victim of a lost-at-sea hoax, and pick fights with King Leopold of Belgium and Mary Baker Eddy.

Drawing on a number of unpublished sources, including Twain’s own journals, letters, and a revealing four-hundred-page personal account kept under wraps for decades (and still yet to be published), Mark Twain: Man in White brings the legendary author’s twilight years vividly to life, offering surprising insights, including an intimate, tender look at his family life. Filled with first-rate scholarship, rare and never-published Twain photos, delightful anecdotes, and memorable quotes, including numerous recovered Twainisms, this definitive biography of Twain’s last years provides a remarkable portrait of the man himself and of the unforgettable era in American letters that, in many ways, he helped to create.

“Shelden (Orwell) centers on the writer’s signature white suit — which first raised a ruckus when he donned it in the wintery month of December 1906 for an event at the Library of Congress. Shelden also sets the record straight with respect to Twain’s continuing humor into his old age in spite of the deaths of his beloved wife and his epileptic daughter, Jean, and his often tempestuous relations with musical daughter Clara. Twain’s last years were chock-full, including a feud with Mary Baker Eddy and encounters with Bram Stoker, Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, and others. Much of the emotional void was filled by Twain’s complex but seemingly platonic relationships with a series of girls. The last part of Twain’s life was cynically managed by a team of his secretary, Isabel Lyon, and business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. Here is a well-researched book for all Twainiacs as well as those coming to the subject’s late years for the first time. 46 photos.” Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

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A woman, lighting the Shabbat candles?

Menachem Wecker blogs for my old newspaper stomping grounds, The Houston Chronicle, about religion and art. It’s some pretty sophisticated stuff he gets into both in terms of art and theology–he knows his stuff, and covers not only Judaism but Christian art and others.

Since we’re in Passover this week, here’s his top five list of Passover art works: (Or check out the whole posting at his blog):

Iconia: Wherever faith meets art, with Menachem Wecker

Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which commemorates the redemption of the Israelites from four centuries of Egyptian servitude, is a holiday of story telling and teaching. There are actually rabbinic recommendations to obfuscate the services of the seder (literally "order," the ritual Passover program), "k'dei she'yish'alu ha'tinnokot," so that the young children will ask questions — and learn from the answers they receive. The ma nishtana (literally "What is different?"), the so-called Four Questions, are a perfect example of this charge to educate the young. In fact, some rabbis say that even if there are no children at the seder, the youngest person present recites the four questions. Even if someone dines alone, she or he is required to ask the questions of herself or himself.

Here is my hall of fame of Passover culture and art. If you are attending a seder (which is hopefully not sadistic like this one) this Passover, whether as a host or a guest, feel free (with attribution of course!) to draw upon any or all of these items to facilitate conversation. I hope you will find them provocative and fertile ground for discussion about the issues of the day: slavery and redemption, pain and joy, sacrifice and symbolism.

1: Prayer Books of a Feather
The how-to guide for the proceeds of the seder is called a haggadah (from the root "to tell," as in storytelling). Most haggadot (plural) I encountered growing up were glossy affairs with kitschy illustrations of pseudo-Egyptian figures and landscapes. Each year of elementary school, my siblings and I brought home makeshift haggadot with our own attempts to use our markers to color within the lines. But there have been some really beautiful and important haggadot throughout the ages, and one of the most important — and most perplexing — is the so-called Bird's Head Haggadah.

The c. 1300 illuminated manuscript from Germany derives its name from the artist's mysterious decision to represent all the human forms in the book with birds' heads. Scholars have speculated that the artist avoided pure human forms for aniconistic reasons and fear of violating the Second Commandment. Perhaps this book's mystery is what has led many contemporary artists (like Joyce Ellen Weinstein) to address the Bird's Head Haggadah in their own work.

2: Arthur Szyk's $18,000 Political Passover Cartoons
When Polish-born artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) envisioned his version of the haggadah, which he illustrated between 1934 and 1936, he decided to compare the ancient anti-Semitism of Pharaoh with that of Hitler. The book originally sold for $500; today a new version published by Historicana retails for $18,000 and boasts "full-leather binding with contrasting leather inlay and 22 carat gold tooling" and a print of Szyk's signature "stamped in gilt on the front cover."

In the Szyk image on the right (printed courtesy of the Arthur Szyk Society) of the Four Sons — a paradigm of wise, wicked, simple and mute/silent children — the wicked son (top left) resembles Hitler. The wise son (top right) is dressed as a pious Hassid, and the son who is incapable of asking a question (bottom left) evokes Socialist propaganda posters of workers.

"We are the 'People of the Book,' and it's my belief that the people of the book should have an excellent book," Irvin Ungar, founder and CEO of Historicana, told me in an interview. One can debate whether it is wise to use such a posh book at a seder, where wine spills are an ever present threat, but it is clear that on the holiday where we recline on pillows and eat an aristocratic cuisine, it is appropriate to have such a regal book.

3: A Woman's Touch
When I first realized that Archie Rand's Had Gadya series depicts God as a woman, I was shocked.

Had Gadya (Aramaic for "one kid," as in goat) is a poem which is part of the haggadah about an unfortunate goat (purchased by the narrator's father for two zuzim), which is eaten by a cat, which is bitten by a dog, which is hit by a stick, which is burned by a flame, which is extinguished by water, which is drunk by an ox, which is slaughtered by a butcher, who is killed by the Angel of Death, who is killed by God, Ha'kadosh baruch hu, literally, "The Holy One blessed be He."

Rand's series represents the entire narrative, and the image on the left shows the Holy One blessed be He — only Rand's figure is better described as the Holy One Blessed be She. (The cartoon bubble includes the Aramaic quotation, "And thus comes the Holy One blessed be He.")

What could Rand mean by casting God as a woman (though the inscription calls for a masculine deity), particularly a woman lighting the Shabbat candles?

Looking at the image now, it strikes me that the story of the kid is one of transience — of big fish eats little fish. God, of course, is the biggest fish and smites even Satan. But surely Rand is setting up an important distinction between the earthly fire that assumes temporary power by burning the stick, and the spiritual flame kindled in the final painting by the feminine God/Shabbat queen. The final flame is a permanent one (perhaps the one that Jewish mystics have said was created at the beginning of time and maintained for the righteous to enjoy in the world to come). And that is, after all, one of the major themes of Passover.

The enslavement in Egypt — the physical bondage and spiritual confusion — was service of a temporary master. The Israelites, in fleeing Pharaoh, became enslaved to a new, divine master. Rand has the insight (and the chutzpah) to give that divine power a woman's face.

4: Hunting Wabbits/Rabbis
If you study enough haggadot, you are bound to run into a rabbit hunt or two. Readers who know a bit about Jewish dietary restrictions (rabbits are decidedly not kosher per Leviticus 11:6, which declares the arnevet impure, because it chews its cud, but lacks split hooves) or the Passover story (I know of no hare references), will no doubt wonder what Bugs Bunny has to do with the Exodus.

I've heard two responses from the rabbis I've interviewed. Some said the illustrations of rabbit hunts (see here and here) were allegories for anti-Semitism: the Jews were the hunted rabbits (much like Christ is often a trapped unicorn). This makes sense until one begins to wonder why rabbits as opposed to any other animal.

The other rabbis invokes a mnemonic called "Yaknehaz" (which stands, in the Hebrew, for the order of the seder on a Saturday night: wine, blessing, candle, havdalah, blessing for the holiday), and said the rabbit hunt was a pun, since the German for rabbit hunt is "jag den Has." Trouble is that the rabbit hunts did not originally appear in German-speaking areas.

There is also the matter that we have several bizarre versions of the motif (like this one) where a dog pours wine into a hare's goblet. Others show the rabbit undressing. Clearly there are more to these strange symbols than just anti-Semitism or German puns.

That's where Marc Michael Epstein comes in. Epstein is director of the Jewish studies program at Vassar College and author of the book Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature, which includes the chapter, "The Elusive Hare: Constructing Identity."

According to Epstein, the hare can be found in illustrations of Esau's hunt as well, further complicating the question why the non-kosher animal keeps hopping around where one would least expect it. And here's where Epstein gets creative. The hare, which was a medieval anti-Semitic reference to Jews, who were said to "multiply like rabbits," was appropriated by Jewish artists (or patrons) and converted into a symbol of Jewish pride. "[Jews] transform what is a sign of calumny in Christian culture into a positive symbol," Epstein writes, "a new and indigenously medieval, indigenously iconographic one, in response to that very same state of subjugation."

One might call it a hare-bites-dog circumstance.

5: Serving Up Passover on a Ceramic Platter
Most seder plates I've seen are round and compartmentalized. Mark Podwal's is neither.

Podwal's plate, which is 15 inches squared (and retailed for $110 at the Metropolitan Museum, when I first saw it in the Christmas catalog in 2004), is made of earthenware. Podwal, who has recently done a lot of work on Prague and Jewish mysticism and magic, which he has exhibited in the Czech Republic and the United States, includes a variety of motifs on the Passover plate: a pyramid (made of matzah), the Jerusalem skyline, pomegranates (a symbol of Israel, and a prominent motif in the temple/tabernacle), frogs (the second plague), books (arranged to form a Star of David), a goat (Had Gadya) and Torah scroll cover. The Hebrew words (clockwise from top right) spell out the props that accompany the plate: "shank bone," "horseradish," "apple salad," "dipping vegetables," "bitter herbs" and "egg."

Not only is Podwal boldly rethinking the Seder platter (in a square, without compartments to hold the different foods), he is also connecting the plate with a tradition where the plate holds both the props and the matzah.

It turns out, when the plate first debuted at the Met, the staff happened to have a box of matzah handy, and, miracle of miracles, the wafer fit perfectly in the well of the plate.

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