the one that made me cry

So. In the middle of Zohar meditation I burst into tears. How embarrassing is that? And I cried for the next three days. And whimpered another few days. Until at last the floodgates emptied, the waters receded, and I was somewhat healed.

‘Healed’ is probably the wrong word. Can you be healed from holy words?

And what am I doing in shul each shabbat morning at what seems like the crack of dawn? I feel like I’m trespassing into a shul that isn’t mine, and sneaking back out again before services begin. Yes, I was invited—but still.

I haven’t belonged to this or any other shul for the past two decades, although I’ve thought about it. I’m not Orthodox. Not Conservative. Not anything. Basically, I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. Anthropologist. That would be the only label I can conjure. That’s about it.

But Zohar appears to move me anyway. It shouldn’t. It should save all those emotions for somebody else.

But I like thinking about rabbis long ago on the road together. It reminds me of my Father on his adventures with Rabbi K— from Egypt to India, and back again. And my own travels with both of them on absolutely crazy journeys. And as a kid with my dad searching for Jewish cemeteries in  the Sierra foothills. Or my dad’s visiting me in North Africa, and balancing our parallel quests while on the road.

Zohar would make a terrific buddy movie, don’t you think? With spectacular special effects— Aramaic echoing through the chambers of a deep and complex cave, with Hebrew letters clambering up the walls. I’d love to make that movie after this one. I can see it so clearly.

But instead— I got sideswiped. Didn’t see the tears coming. And what was I doing there in Zohar meditation in the first place?

We are blessed around here to have Daniel Matt in our midst celebrating the completion of his translation of Zohar. After finishing nine volumes of the Pritzker Edition, Matt has coordinated a series of teachings through Lehrhaus Judaica (yes, another of the institutions inspired and promoted by my father, Seymour Fromer). The teachings are choreographed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, with teachers covering the same passages at the same time in different communities, month after month and now year after year.

In San Francisco, the teachings have been led by Aubrey Glazer, author of Mystical Vertigo, a volume on Contemporary Hebrew Mystical Poetry. Rabbi Glazer, on the off-season of Lehrhaus’ Zohar sessions, decided to continue throughout the spring and summer with Zoharic meditations each shabbat at his own shul. And although I’m not a member, he assured me it was okay to attend. And still I feel like a gate-crasher. And I don’t think gate-crashers should be made to cry. They should be stoic, respectful. Invisible. But no—

The passage that Glazer read that shabbat needed some unpacking. So it took a moment to sink in.

“That shade came and sat down and kissed him…”

I was still okay. It hadn’t hit yet.

The passage went on:

“Any place in which a righteous person innovates words of Torah,
he [the departed spirit of one’s great Teacher] comes [back] to visit …
especially when other righteous ones are present there,
innovating words of Torah in that place…”

Now would that make you cry?

Danny’s footnote helped:

The ‘shade’ is a shadow, ghost, or specter. What we in the anthro biz would call a ‘spirit.’ And so—

“After a virtuous teacher has died,
his soul revisits each place in which he offered a new interpretation of Torah.
This applies especially when other righteous people are present,
innovating words of Torah…”

And that’s what made me lose it.  For what I heard was reassurance—

It’s okay to innovate words of Torah. Not just okay—it’s a righteous act.

It’s especially good to join with other righteous people in the act of innovation.

And right here, right now in the making of our movie, The Day before Creation, we are doing just that. Innovating words of Torah. And honoring my Father and his teachings—

And …

He might come back?

He might sit down? Kiss me on the forehead?

Yah, I lost it.

I tried to tell my daughter about the passage, but started blubbering again.  Instead, I had to shove the volume at her and point.  She read the passage. Looked at me. And rolled her eyes.

“Of course,” she said.

“I knew that.”


so. just how babylonian are we?

Malkah doesn’t walk around saying it,  but she thinks we might be the closest thing to Babylonian there is these days. It’s not just pride in the accomplishments of our sojourn over there by the twin rivers. And sure, we still call it ‘exile.’ Captivity.  And yes, ‘Babylon’ represents for us the sacking of Jerusalem (though not all of them), and a major brain drain headed east. It was pretty much the peasants who remained, as peasants generally do—glued to the land—’am ha-aretz—holding the fort, so to speak. But without the fort.

Mesopotamia influences Malkah in ways that Egypt never did. She can feel the twin rivers in her bones. While the Nile just makes her want to run.

Malkah feels at home with the Babylonian calendar, for example. While Egypt has five different calendars all moving at different rates, and sometimes it seems in different directions.

She weeps in the month of Tammuz when Ishtar wept for Tammuz, her lover. She doubles up the month of Adar in leap year just as the Babylonians did. She believes, as the ancients did, that there are  auspicious and inauspicious months, internal and external both.

The chaos of the Mesopotamian ecosystem just feels more like home than the orderly Egyptian one. Tohu va-vohu. The ‘tohu’ being Tiamat, Marduk’s mother, the inattentive chaos he destroyed to rule both Nature and the gods.

He was the ultimate Law and Order candidate.

I blame Abraham, of course. Malkah’s got him deep in her bones too. There it is, where lineage and ecology are all bound up together. Rootedness. Uprootedness. Inextricable.

Saddam Hussein used the ancients of the twin rivers to mold the Iraqi people into a single national People. Whatever else he did, this was, I think, brilliant. And the rebuilding of Babylon was to be the symbol of unity. Saddam wanted to establish the Neo-Neo-Babylonian Empire. And the only thing stopping him … oh… that would be us. The West. Again.

He reenvisioned ‘Babylon’ extending well past Jerusalem. Though maybe not quite to the Nile.

“After all,” he said, “Abraham was Iraqi—so all the land that God gave to Ibrahim belongs of course to us.” He was obsessed with redrawing the map. Both west, and south at the Gulf. And it was that direction that took priority.

We destroyed a very grand dream, didn’t we? But in the process, we didn’t put anything else there in its place. No god to head the Assembly of Gods. No ruler to keep the twin rivers flowing.

Saddam modeled himself on the ancient god, Marduk. Brutally efficient. Got the job done. The other gods then handed him rule over the entire Assembly of Gods. And washed their hands of messy democracy. Too much trouble.

He created human beings as servants to the gods to clean things up and worship them. Build them a city. Babylon, and the Hanging Gardens, and the Temple of Ishtar were the result.

There was also the matter of the Tower of Babylon. Which Saddam was set on rebuilding. He just wanted to be sure he ‘got it right’ in terms of what it really looked like and where exactly to put it in the reconstruction of Babylon. He was almost there when the (first) Gulf War blew into town. The gods were not amused.

We privilege, don’t we, the Bavli Talmud over the Yerushalmi. It seems more cosmopolitan—with tales of the travels of the rabbis back and forth between Mesopotamian and Jerusalem. Nothing like a good buddy road trip to make a precept sink in. Yerushalmi? Boring. Malkah’s a little unclear on this, being more archaeologist and not at all talmudic scholar. But that’s what her Father says.

Malkah’s favorite tale in the bible is that of Esther and Mordechai—a thoroughly Mesopotamian tale. ‘Hadassah, who was Esther to her People,’ I mean, there they are right there: Ishtar and Marduk, and a story of the evil gods trying to take down the system. We just updated the tale and made it our own.

The past is always present, Malkah’s Father used to say. Always, always now. Apparently that was what Saddam thought as well.

And so. Malkah made it to Babylon while Saddam was still rebuilding. She made it to the Temple of Ishtar. And to the spot where Saddam planned to put the Tower. The Tower that would usher in the Neo-Neo Empire.

But no. She didn’t make it quite to Ur despite appealing to the authorities. It seems Saddam had cleverly turned Ur into an off-limits military zone, and parked his fighter jets all around the Ziggurat. If we bombed Saddam’s Air Force, we would bomb the sacred homeland of Abraham himself.

And Malkah just can’t help it.

She longs for the twin rivers, she cries out for Tammuz, she lights a candle for Ishtar, she wonders whether Marduk’s brutality was better than the bloodshed and chaos without him. She wants to climb the Ziggurat of Ur, and walk the lanes between the ancient ruins. She wants to buy a souvenir Moon God Sīn from Terach’s little shop from the boy selling there for his Father… the boy who looks an awful lot like her. ‘She wants, as always, to put the broken pieces together.


mira z amiras

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 day before creation beresheit

let there be sound—

November 2015

We’re in the Recording Studio at EARPRINT recording our narration of Part I of the movie with Shoshana Simons and Charlie Varon.  Sound engineer is Jason Reinier. Something is emerging: voice!

—mira z amiras