secrets that reside inside the letter Bet

So. The Hebrew letter  ב  –bet– that you know as the letter ‘b.’  So okay, let’s say you already knew that ‘bet‘ means ‘house.’ But did you know that the letter bet is quite literally built like a house?  Can’t see it?  If you’ve spent some time in the Middle East, or even in Spain (so heavily influenced by Moorish architecture, at least in Andalusia) you’ll know that the courtyard is the center of the house, and the center of the domestic and often the economic life of the household.  Almost all chores, especially women’s chores, traditionally have been conducted inside the courtyard, from cooking to couscous or mergez making (in North Africa, say), sacrifice of the sheep on ‘Aid el Kebir for Muslim families, to bathing, sewing, henna application, celebrations and the offering of hospitality to honored guests, and much much more.

One of my favorite ‘much, much more’ courtyard activities is the production of olive oil at home, with the olive press in the middle of the courtyard, and enough room for your camel to walk the circle turning and tightening the press, thereby releasing the oil. Yes you do need a fairly large courtyard for this. But believe me, it’s worth it. It’s also a bit messy.

In villas, palaces, synagogues, and mosques and even apartment buildings the courtyard can hold a beautiful fountain in the middle. Sometimes, as can be seen at the Alhambra in Granada, with channels of water flowing from a central spring down through rooms constructed a bit downhill. Brilliant idea and utterly breathtaking.

And there’s our letter bet—with the fountain (or, perhaps olive press) in the center. Our nikudah, or dot, in the center of the letter tells us something about the quality of the letter in a word. Is it opulent, awake, flowing and alive, or is it devoid of that life-force, of only for the moment? The bet, you see, can change that way.  I’ll spare you the grammar of it. Look it up.

But here’s the thing. The courtyard is enclosed on three sides, with usually a gated opening on the fourth. It is analogous to the womb—a safe, warm, private female space in which to nurture the young. This essentially female space is highly restricted, with access limited to those who are trusted and belong. It is analogous to the city itself —the medina— that serves the same purpose, really. It is protected and defended, and at least in the past) was limited and had strict and exclusive access,

So, think of the letter bet as the womb —the place of procreation— with expanding circles of inclusion and exclusion. But think of it too as the locus of Creation.

For when you begin to read the Torah, the very first letter is the very first bet at the beginning of all existence. I think of it as the back-end of the universe, with all of Creation churning and rising out of that fountain at its center, and pouring the universe (and all of Torah) out from its gates. Making what was originally private and proprietary (like our children) now public open to all, at least outside our gates.

That’s probably enough for now, right? I could go on.

Oh, but wait— I do go on. For it is the fountain at the center of the bet that our girl Malkah discovers. And she finds there … well, you’ll have to wait and see what she finds there. It’s utterly remarkable. There are more secrets hidden in that private space. And we, we hope to share it.

Um. I haven’t said this before, but you know—you’re welcome to support us.

Be a sponsor of the Hebrew Letter Bet—and we will honor you with more secrets of Creation from the ancients…

 

—mira z amiras

the four rabbis tell their tale

Here’s another example where my Father’s telling may differ from your Father’s telling.

The Tale of the Four Rabbis who entered Paradise is another example of the manifestation of four elements in Jewish tradition. Pesach, of course, is filled with them: four glasses of wine, four ‘sons,’ four questions, etc. There are four letters of the Tetragrammaton—the ineffable name of the God of Abraham. Four elements. And here we have the four letters that make up the word Pardes.

That is P-R-D-S or rather:  פ-ר-ד-ס  — The Hebrew word ‘Pardes’ that means ‘Orchard’ —meaning that orchard, the one we call Paradise.

The rabbis ascend, the tale goes, each revealing his character and his deficits. Except for Rabbi Akiva, who successfully navigates the mysteries of Paradise, and returns to this world to face the world that is, and not just the world to come.

I was told this story slightly differently than you were told it, I’m sure. Again, because my Father’s tales always took a right (or left) turn somewhere along the way.

So just relax about it. Don’t get huffy. A tale is a teaching tool. And each lesson requires a different telling. This one is my legacy. Yours is yours.

And so. In the tale that I was told, yes—the four rabbis ascend into the Pardes. But each according to his capacity.

The First Rabbi enters through the letter  פ  ℗, the first letter of Pardes. And that letter stands for Pshat—the simple, fundamentalist, literal approach, lacking inquiry, and taking what is seen at face value.  And so. The first rabbis enters Paradise. He sees an orchard. He becomes a gardener. And yikes,  he steals some cuttings to make a garden of his own. What’s that about?

Now. While I learned to have contempt for the first rabbi, to not trust him, and to never ever emulate him, these days I feel quite differently about him. I’ve since learned to appreciate (mostly from lectures by Danny Matt on Zohar) that pshat is really an opportunity. An invitation to inquiry. The door is ajar. We are invited to walk through, to investigate, and most of all to experience at multiple levels of consciousness at the same time. Pshat is the gateway to the miraculous. But yah, not everyone (or hardly anyone) journeys that far.

I’m also less upset these days about the notion of ‘stealing’ cuttings. Plants want to propagate. I’m sure they at least were happy about the greater distribution. As long as we’re just talking about plants.

The Second Rabbi was the one my Father seemed to identify with the most. And therefore I learned to love him best.  He entered through the letter  ר  ® , the second letter of Pardes. And this is the letter of intellect. The letter Reish stands for Rosh, or Head, and thereby what we use our minds for—and that would be inquiry and analysis. (At least that’s what I was taught).

But the story goes that the Second Rabbi overdid it. Obsessive compulsive disorder. Investigating to the point of driving himself nuts in the process of (over)interpretation.  Does this mean that too much analysis is bad for the health? Not according to my Father. For him, inquiry was to be pursued until—

The Third Rabbi knew how to take action. Knew what to do with the analyses and data he had amassed. He entered the Pardes through the letter  ד   (D), Dalet, which stands for Door. The door to action.  And the Third Rabbi, I was taught, was a man of action. An activist. Controversial, yes, but attuned to the currents of history.  I think Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X. Shabbatei Sevi…

Stop me here, and say (as you should) —what’s with all the men and male images? It’s enough already.

And I would say you’re right.

It’s exactly how I feel about our upcoming presidential election.

We have pshat — Trump — a seeming simpleton, in this case bully, who can ‘steal’ the cuttings of Pardes and maybe (we shall see) get away with it.

We have drush — that would be Bernie — calling for the great American revolution of sorts. Which is a funny way to run for president and stay within the confines of electoral procedure.

And I suppose (finally a female face), we have ‘Hillary’ who attempts to obliterate her husband’s surname and to make herself, thereby, somehow a bit softer at the edges. She is our Remez — giving us analysis and greater complexity that no one seems to want to listen to.

And what of our Fourth Rabbi?

Tradition says the Fourth Rabbi was Rabbi Akiva, who ‘entered in Peace and left in Peace.’ He entered the Pardes through the letter Samech — ס  (S), which stands for Sōd, or the hidden, secret dimension of the Pardes. And so, he could see what others could not. Feel it, and know it with his heart as well as his mind.

He, I must say, is not running for President of the United States this year. He was, you may recall, martyred by the Romans.

 

—mira z amiras

 

abraham and the idols…digging a little deeper

Well, I grew up with this story—of course the way my Father told it to me. And my teammates, Josh and Sam grew up with it the way their Father told it. And the stories, are close but with significant differences. How do we depict it in our movie where we need it? You probably heard it the Josh and Sam way. Here’s mine first:

Abram, of course, grew up in Ur—the Sumerian pilgrimage town devoted to the Moon God Nammu/Sin. His Father, Terach made idols (the name ‘Terach’ essentially meaning Moon worshipper). The story goes—one day Terach was heading out to market, and asked little Abram to watch the shop. Abram starting playing with the idols, and oops—he broke one. He knew he’d get into trouble for it, and as a result, kept playing and smashed them all. When Terach came home, he of course was horrified.

“What happened?” he asked?

“They started fighting,” the precocious boy said. The gods, after all, were known for their fierce tempers and competitive spirit.

“How could they start fighting if they’re merely made of clay?” Terach said, not having any of it.

And there’s the ‘Aha!” moment for Abraham. That idols could not be gods. And that a unified single principle of God superseded them all. A lovely Just-So story.

Josh and Sam (and probably you) grew up with Abraham smashing the idols on purpose, knowing already that they were false. Still a Just-So story. But I don’t like it. It’s a little too Taliban smashing the ancient Buddhas carved into the mountainside at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. I love Abraham, and I don’t want him being a sociopathic zealot as a child. I’d much rather he discover something transcendent and filled with wonder. It matters.

In other words, I prefer my Father’s telling to yours. And as you know, the movie we’re making honors my Father, so that’s that.

So okay. We’re making a movie, right? An animation. How do we depict this story with few words, and only a few seconds to spare. Can it even be done?

I picture Terach’s shop as a kind of souvenir shop for pilgrims. They can purchase statues and figurines for their altar niches at home, for prayer and meditation. Good. But which gods? Was it only Sin/Nammu or the others as well? And around 2500 BCE what did the gods look like in what we now call southern Iraq? I can picture just Nammu in the shop: very ‘Being John Malkovich’, with all the fighting Moon Gods exactly the same. Is that, perhaps de trop?

I consulted with one of my favorite archaeologists about such questions, and we talked possibilities. Including the business strategies of souvenir shops at pilgrimage sites. We decided that if Terach was a good businessman, he’d have had a number of popular gods for sale in his shop.

And what did they look like? Funny you should ask. In that period, the gods were depicted primarily sitting down, while petitioners and worshippers stood. The gods remained on their thrones. Their eyes and ears were oversized because gods see and hear it all. Their eyes were inset with lapis lazuli—sparkling, bright and the best kind of blue. Upon their heads were markers of their specialties. And Nammu/Sin had the crescent moon upon his head, with the sun disk in the center.

Think of it. Abram playing He-Man and Skeletor with his Father’s idols as they sit upon their thrones. Easy to see how he found the gods unlikely sources of power, rage, and authority if they never even stood up.

I’m not sure we need the scene, but I think we do. Either way, it’s taking us on a journey revisiting a beloved old tale that I’m taking both more seriously these days and less so as well.

—Mira Z Amiras

the day before creation Abba

josh captures the spirit of the commie-pinko Jewish atheist grandpa

 

The perks of revisiting the storyboard of The Day Before Creation is that surprising new folk have started to inhabit the landscape, if only in our dreams.  In this way, the spirit of my union-organizing rabble-rousing grandfather entered our script, if only for a moment, formless except for his cantankerous character. He had what my father-in-law called “lots of principles and no dough.” Yakov Kimchi —anglicized when he arrived in America to Jack Camhi— from Manastir (that’s what the local Sephardim called it even long after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire). After the fall in 1912, the town came under the jurisdiction of Yugoslavia, and now it’s part of Macedonia. Manastir, like my grandfather, got a name update. The town is now called Bitola.  Maybe you’ve been there. Why go on and on about the town?  Manastir was a diplomatic town, also called ‘the city of consuls.’ And I think it likely that this influenced my grandfather’s notions of diplomacy, equality, and fairness. He carried the woes and injustices of the world on his shoulders, even at the Sephardi kehila in Los Angeles, when he finally moved even further west.  He did refuse, it should be noted, to grow the glorious beard that Josh depicts above because it would have grown in red.  And if someone was going to call him a ‘red’ he wanted it to be for the right reasons.

—Mira Z Amiras

 

 

the day before creation Abba

my dad always said—

February 2016

ABBA DONATE BUTTON

Met with the Foundation of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, and all I can say is— I admire my dad more than ever for his ability to inspire donors to support the causes that fired him up.

Next up: learn from pappa!

This is not my forte.  So if you’re good at fundraising, by all means—come and help out!

I’ve put together a great Proposal.  Now to send it around.  Ideas?

Um, and no.  That’s not a ‘live’ Donate button.  At least not yet. I asked Josh to tryout as an image.  Gives me that warm fuzzy feeling of seeing my dad do his thing.  What do you think? Shall we go for it?

Back to the storyboard! Now with our freshly minted script in hand, it’s time to revisit our storyline and give it a few tweaks here and there.

—mira z amiras

the day before creation

conjuring—

December 2015

The Preview for our movie is now posted and you can see it right here on this, our brand new website, or check it out directly on Vimeo. This is the first we’re letting folks see what we’ve been up to.  After a long time of conjuring…

 We’ll keep you posted about when that will happen. And granted—what we’re showing so far is only Part I — The Question of the את  (ET).  Take a peak.  See what you think. And there’s much much more to come.

With your help and support—something will emerge!

—mira z amiras

the day before creation Seymour Fromer

seek truth without fear

January 2016

Judah Magnes said that.

I was just looking through the website of the Jewish American Hall of Fame, and came upon this photo of my dad with Mel Wacks, Director of the JAHF—presenting this medal to Supreme Court Justice Arther Goldberg.

And it reminded me: be brave.

Here we were,  just thinking we were going to get back into the studio at EARPRINT and finish up recording the full narration of The Day Before Creation, and to work on the SFX for Part I.

But no—someone had a better idea. and you can bet it wasn’t me.

Why not be a little braver with the script?

And I thought about my dad founding the Magnes Museum —now known as the Magnes Collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley… and, well—the point being:

Be brave.  Or at least a little braver. Bravery, it turns out, is sometimes very much  a team sport.  And Josh B brought in Josh A to hold my feet to the fire. And make me go places in the script I did not want to go.  I mean—before you know it, we could end up with a real movie…

And so, with the help of  A+B, we set out with another revision of our tale—and it just gets better and more surprising. I feel like I’ve revisited the script ten million times at this point.  My daughter Rayna Savrosa—also on our team, assures me that scripts change like this all the way through the production. And sometimes even in post.

But here’s the thing. Each time I visit and revisit the script, something new emerges.  Guess I shouldn’t be surprised at that.

Seek truth without fear. That’s where the script is going…

—mira z amiras