The last session I presented at Limmud UK was actually an interview by Gilad Halpern of TLV 1, a Tel Aviv radio station. Interviews, especially those in real time, can be a challenge since I rarely get the questions in advance. Thus I have to be quick on my feet to give what I hope will be an erudite and entertaining reply with a minimum of hesitations. And Heaven forbid I can’t come up with an answer.
He questioned me about my new book for about 15 minutes, during which I explain that, among other things:  the Rabbis came to the astonishing conclusion that if a man wants to have sons, he should ensure that his wife comes to orgasm first;  the Talmud teaches that a father and mother each provide seed to create a child, unlike the Greeks and Romans, who believed than a man’s semen contained an entire miniature infant while the woman merely furnished a place for the baby to grow,  the big difference between Jewish positive and Christian negative views on sex arises because for Jews it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to procreate, while for Christians the ideal is to be celibate like Jesus.
To learn more, you can listen to the entire interview on a podcast from the Tel Aviv Review.
Back to what I learned at Limmud UK in December, this from Zev Farber, who attended my presentation on “Talmud After Dark,” which focused on some of my favorite sections from Fifty Shades of Talmud. One of these was a discussion from Nedarim 20 of how parents’ bad sex is responsible for their bad offspring, where the Ministering Angels inform us that “children are born lame because their parents overturn the table.” Apparently the Talmudic rabbis weren’t sure what ‘overturning the table’ meant because they made several suggestions, each of which refers to some unapproved sexual position [i.e. woman on top, from behind, anal]. From this one can assume that, according to the angels, normal/approved sex takes place in what we would call the ‘missionary’ position.
We have another piece of Talmud where a woman consults a rabbi because she “set a table for her husband, but he wanted to overturn it.” The rabbi tells her that this positions is permitted to them, and the woman departs without another word. Whether she was objecting to her husband’s desire or merely wanted to make sure it was authorized, the text doesn’t say. It also doesn’t say what exactly ‘overturning the table’ is.
However, Zev Farber introduced me to Noah Bickart, who addresses this very subject in his article on “Turning Over the Table.” He posits that, judging from Greek and Roman erotic artwork from this era, the most common sex position was from behind. In addition, because this was how animals mated, it was considered the natural position. Furthermore, it is in this position that the woman would appear most like a table.
Based on this, I am now skeptical that ‘man on top/woman facing him below’ was the normative position of sexual relations for the early Rabbis, particularly those in Israel and other lands ruled by Rome. This may have changed hundreds of years later in Babylonia, or was in the process of changing. In any case, we should all be wary of placing assumptions from today’s perspective on another culture in the past.
For those who want to read the entire 19-page article, here is a link to the PDF
The new winter issue of Lilith Magazine is out, and it contains both an excellent article by my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe and a nice review of Fifty Shades of Talmud. Of course I want to share some quotes from the review:
“It is worth finding a place to peruse this slim volume in which Anton compiles fifty Talmudic discussions about every aspect of sexual relations. These discussions are interspersed with black-and-white cartoons featuring Adam and Eve and rabbis in togas, as well as pithy quotes about sex, many of them—like many of the statements in the Talmud—anonymous, and others attributed to luminaries ranging from Voltaire to Gandhi to Woody Allen … for those who would not otherwise open a volume of Talmud, Anton’s book offers, perhaps, a titillating way in. ‘Rabbis are men, too,’ she asserts, laying bare many rabbinic views on sexuality that may seem surprisingly progressive to the uninitiated. She shows how the rabbis were encouraging of good sex, and very permissive when it came to what a married couple may do in bed.”
To me, however, the most astonishingly progressive thing the Talmudic rabbis do for women’s sexuality is, by exempting us from procreation, they therefore permit a woman to use contraceptives without having to ask her husband’s permission or even inform him. Thus our Sages give women control of their reproductive lives. Something we do not have in this country even today.
Click on this link to Lilith's complete article.
For all my LA folks who wondered when I’ll be doing programs near home. Well, starting on Monday, Jan 16, I'll be speaking about "Talmud After Dark" at 8 venues in and around Los Angeles and the SF Valley. Some events are in the evening and some during the day, most are free but those serving food will cost you a donation. All will include book sales/signings of my new book. I hope I see lots of my local friends and fans.
Here are the details:
Jan 16 - 1 pm. Women of Leisure World meets in Clubhouse 3, Room 2. 1421 Northwood Rd, Seal Beach, CA 90740
Jan 17 - 10 am. Long Beach NCJW luncheon. The Grand, 4101 E Willow St, Long Beach, CA 90815
January 18 - 7:30 pm. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd, West Hills, CA 91304
Jan 21 - 11 am. Shabbat drash at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Jan 21 - 7 pm. Lev Eisha winter retreat. Brandeis Bardin, 1101 Peppertree Ln, Brandeis, CA 93064
January 22 - 1 pm. Temple Beth Ami, 23023 Hilse Lane, Santa Clarita, CA 91321
Jan 23, 2017 - 7 pm. NaAmat Women Mitzvah chapter. Location tba at private home, San Fernando Valley, CA
Jan 28 - 3 pm. VBS Sisterhood retreat. Brandeis-Bardin, 1101 Peppertree Ln, Simi Valley, CA 93064
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I actually liked this "book" more than I expected to, judging from all the critical reviews I read on Amazon and Goodreads. This is NOT a novel, but the script of a play. That means we get no interior monologues, not a whole lot of action, and no detailed descriptions of people, places, clothing, etc. Most of the text is dialogue, with only a hint of what the characters are thinking or feeling [that is the actors' jobs, which is why the same play can seem quite different with different actors]. And, unlike the books with their myriad characters, we have only a minimal cast here.
But the plot, always J. K. Rowling's strong suit, is as good as ever. It was so compelling that I read this book in two days, needing only a few hours each day because, this being a script, most pages have less than 100 words and some have less than 30. Without giving away any spoilers, I think it is a great plot device for a couple of characters to use a Time Turner to go back in time [to when Harry Potter was at Hogwarts] to try to prevent some bad thing from happening, but of course there are unintended consequences.
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Before I move on to different subjects, here are the other quotes I appreciated from Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness”:
“In general, Papa always used to say to us, better a little less to organize and reorganize and a little more to help one another and maybe to forgive, too. He believed in two thins: compassion and justice. But he was of the opinion that you always have to make the connection between them: justice without compassion isn’t justice, it’s an abattoir. On the other hand, compassion without justice may be all right for Jesus but not for simple mortals who have eaten the apple of evil. That was his view: a little less organizing, a little more pity.” [p.161]
“Heredity and the environment that nurtures us and our social class—these are all like cards that are dealt out at random before the game begins. There is no freedom about this; the world gives and you just take what you’re given, with no opportunity to choose … the question is what each person does with the cards dealt to him. Some people play brilliantly with poor cards and others … squander and lose everything even with excellent cards. But even the freedom to play well or badly depends ironically on each person’s luck, on patience, intelligence, intuition, or adventurousness. And in the last resort surely these too are simply cards that are or are not dealt to us … and if so, then what is left of our freedom of choice?” [p.166]
“But there's also an upside-down sort of happiness, a black happiness, that comes from doing evil to others. Papa used to say that we were driven out of paradise not because we ate from the tree of knowledge but because we ate from the tree of evil. Otherwise, how can you explain black happiness? The happiness we fell not because of what we have but because of what we have and other haven’t got? That others will be jealous of?” [p.173]
“There are lots of women who are attracted to tyrannical men. Like moths to a flame. And there are some women who do not need a hero or even a stormy lover but a friend. Just remember that when you grow up. Steer clear of the tyrant lovers, and try to locate the ones who are looking for a man as a friend, not because they are feeling empty themselves but because they enjoy making you full too. And remember that friendship between a woman and a man is something much more precious and rare than love: love is actually something quite gross and even clumsy compared to friendship. Friendship includes a measure of sensitivity, attentiveness, generosity, and a finely tuned sense of moderation.” [p.505]
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Israeli writer extraordinaire Amos Oz is both a family saga spanning over fifty years and a first-person view of Israel’s turbulent birth, as seen through the eyes of a child coming of age in Jerusalem.
I admit that the early chapters are slow going, with lots of run-on sentences full of lengthy and detailed descriptions. It took me a while before I accepted that I didn’t know exactly what year the story had started. The first hundred pages appeared to take place after the Holocaust and before the State of Israel was established. Then the scene and timeframe abruptly jumps back to 1921 Russia where we learn, through their own words, how the author’s parents and grandparents immigrated to Palestine while the remainder of his family were eventually murdered in Eastern Europe.
I was soon hooked, both by the story and writing. Oz has the rare ability to switch time, locale, and point of view without interrupting the narrative flow or losing the reader [at least he never lost me]. Sometimes he is redundant, giving us the same tale from different characters. It was only towards the end, when I grew disappointed at not learning more details of how he and his wife fell in love, that I realized he was protecting the privacy of his living family. All the people whose lives he so thoroughly and intimately detailed were dead. But then he redeemed himself to me when, nearly at the end, he provides a sex scene guaranteed to warm the heart, and perhaps other body parts, of any would-be cougar. Oz also gives the reader some wonderful words on his writing process, which as an author myself, I commiserate with completely.
“I have written various words, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, and bits of dismantled sentences, fragments of expressions and descriptions and all kinds of tentative combinations. Every now and again I pick up one these particles, these molecules of texts, hold it up to the light and examine it carefully, turn it in various directions, lean forward and rub or polish it, hold it up to the light again, rub it again slightly, then lean forward and fit it into the texture of the cloth I am weaving. Then I stare at it from different angles, still not entirely satisfied, and take it out again and replace it with another word, or try to fit it into another niche in the same sentence, then remove, file it down a tiny bit more, and try to fit it in again, perhaps at a slightly different angle. Or deploy it differently. Perhaps farther down the sentence. Or at the beginning of the next one. Or should I cut it off and make it into a one-word sentence on its own?
I stand up. Walk around the room. Return to the desk. Stare at it for a few moments or longer, cross out the whole sentence or tear up the whole page. I give up in despair. I curse myself aloud and curse writing in general and the language as a whole, despite which I sit down and start putting the whole thing together all over again.” [p.268]
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I write this from Heathrow Airport, bringing to a close my week at Limmud UK. Yesterday was a final jampacked day of learning and socializing with new friends. Breakfast was followed by “Commanding voices – Talmud in a new light,” where a British Reform rabbi taught about the Rabbis created Hanukah with its attendant mitzvot of kindling special lights despite no mention of Hanukah in Tanach. We were a small group of so it was more of a Talmud shiur, albeit non-Orthodox, than a lecture. I definitely want to try something like this at home.
Next up was “Tell me Texts – the weird and wonderful,” where Zev Farber discussed the Talmud sugia where Abaye’s study hall is invaded by a dangerous demon that is only destroyed when a pious visiting rabbis is forced to spend the night there and battle it. Zev and I hit off earlier in the week and shared several meals, including one where two other rabbis had a heated discussion over biblical criticism and its limits. Indeed, one of the great benefits of Limmud was sharing meals with other participants.
After lunch Gilad Halpern interviewed me about sex in the Talmud for the Tel Aviv Review Show on TLV1 RADIO. Eventually my episode will be available on podcast, at which time I will certainly share it. Then I participated in the Limmud Book Club, like most book clubs made up completely by women, where we discussed Alice Hoffman’s “Marriage of Opposites,” about the life of painter Pizzaro’s mother. My contribution was not as an author, but as someone who had recently visited St. Thomas, where Hoffman’s historical novel is set.
I really wanted to attend the closing Gala, but I had to be ready for my ride to the airport at 5 am. And I still needed to pack. I close this post with a link to Zev Farber’s organization
Tuesday was another full day. In the morning I attended a session on “Halachah and Morality,” followed by a screening and discussion of the Israeli documentary film “Sacred Sperm,” which deals with the fanatical prohibitions against masturbation in the Haredi world. It was a fascinating movie, as well as one that most Jews would never imagine could be made.
After lunch I headed back to the Outlet Mall, this time on a quest for Hanukah presents for my children and grandchildren. I found excellent bargains at a toy store whose entire inventory had to go in order to make room for new stock coming in after Xmas. Of course I was also playing Pokemon Go when I went on these walks around the lake, capturing all sorts of creatures I rarely see in Los Angeles. It was especially exciting to capture Mr. Mime, a pokemon that can only be found in Western Europe.
When I returned in the late afternoon, weighted down by my purchases, I had only a short rest until it was time for my final lecture on How I Went from a Clinical Chemist to Historical Novelist. After that I heard a debate about “The Temple Mount: a historical (un)reality,” which got quite heated at times. After dinner I stayed up to attend a presentation by the “Misogynist Film Club: the musical,” which as you can imagine focused on all the sexism this genre serves up. I was most entertained/enlighten by a section on the evolution of Disney Princesses. Quite a contrast to Sacred Sperm
terday was the first day with Limmud UK at full attendance, it is showed in jammed corridors, long lines for meals, and very noisy dining rooms. It did not show in more crowded lectures because there were lots more sessions scheduled to absorb the multitudes. I attended “Women reading Torah: a rabbinic dilemma, Is there such a thing anymore as a single Jewish people, The world of Jewish and non-Jewish book publishing, A new look at women and Torah knowledge in the talmudic period.”
Plus I occupied a few hours shopping the Boxing Day [Dec 26] sales at the Pendigo Outlet Mall across the lake, spending the pounds I had left over from my days in London. There were some substantial discounts and I was able to buy myself two pairs of very comfortable walking shoes in addition to lots of new clothes for my grandchildren, all for less than £70, an even greater bargain considering how the pound’s value has dropped against the dollar recently.
My day ended with my only evening presentation, “Talmud After Dark,” when I spoke about my new book, Fifty Shades of Talmud. The majority of the audience had not attended either of my earlier sessions, yet the room was so full they needed more chairs [always gratifying to a speaker]. I wasn’t sure if this mainly English group would find my talk as amusing as in the US, what with England’s prudish reputation, but they laughed in the right places even if they were a bit embarrassed to do so. This time I brought signed books to sell at the end, for the easy and low price of 5 quid each. Which means it’s back to the Outlet Mall for me this afternoon.
Xmas at Limmud is almost like being in Israel. No carols on the musak, no green and red decorations hanging around, and nobody wishing me a “Merry Christmas.” Also I regularly overhear conversations in Hebrew. Of course I’m running around like crazy, trying to attend as many sessions as possible, with my schedule changing as I learn about new fabulous teachers.
For example, yesterday I attended lectures titled “Why are women in war film moral degenerates?, Psyche in the Sugya: do we ever understand the other?, Gender issues in the Talmud, Who shall live and who shall die: the High Holiday prayer we love and hate, The Temple was destroyed: did this save Judaism?” [the answer to this last question is ‘maybe’]. All this was in addition to taking a morning walk around Pendigo Lake and my presentation on “Jewish women in Rashi's community were way ahead of their time,” which brought in a very gratifying attendance.
I’m meeting some lovely people at meals and have acquired some fans from my two talks. I ate dinner with three men from Stockholm and participated in a delicious argument on the Israeli Rabbinut’s authority, or lack of it, and whether the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch is more important in formulating Jewish Law today. Small world that at least one of the men is friends with my first chevruta, Rabbi Aaron Katz, who was the Orthodox rabbi in Sweden for many years.
I’d write more but I have to get to breakfast early, on account of wanting to attending a session by Judith Hauptman of JTS on “Women reading Torah: a rabbinic dilemma.”
For more on Limmud UK, check out this link.
I have now spent 30 hours at Limmud UK, which included all of Shabbat. The hotel and dining room seem crowded with people now, yet more than three times as many attendees will arrive tomorrow. Good news is that I have established a stable sleeping schedule at night; bad news is that I wake up between 5 and 6 am, when nothing is happening, which means that I’m pretty much pooped out by 9 pm, when there are still several more hours of activities.
I did my first presentation this morning, which I think went very well. I was worried at first when I had less than a minyan with just a few minutes to go before the official start time. But within ten minutes nearly all the 50+ chairs were full, and more people kept dropping in [apparently abandoning other sessions]. I could tell pretty soon that my audience was appreciating my talk. I was gratified that almost nobody left early, and that nearly everyone stayed after for an additional 20 minutes until the many questions were answered. Thankfully I knew the answers to nearly all their questions, some of which were quite scholarly. So, one session down, four more to go.
Saturday, Dec 24, 11:30. Jewish magic from Talmudic times: what it is and how it is still with us today?
Sunday, Dec 25, 14:30. Jewish women in Rashi's community were way ahead of their time
Monday, Dec 26, 20:10. Talmud after dark
Tuesday, Dec 27, 16:40. How I Went from a Clinical Chemist to a Historical Novelist
Wednesday, Dec 29, 14:30. The Tel Aviv Review podcast - live recording interview by Gilad Halpern.