Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Judaism

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Last Day, Harpers Ferry.

Riding the C&O Canal Towpath.

The last day. What a thing to write. For around two months riding this bike and carrying this load has defined my existence. I am a cycle tourist. I am riding across the country. Any eyes that have seen me have seen me in this light. Any people I have met I have met in this context. Of course there are other contexts, but being out here day after day silences those. From time to time, other topics have emerged. Washington and history have come up, religion too. But these are always somehow encased in cycling. Sometimes that is because they only can happen during breaks. Other times, because I see them as momentary diversions from the routine—an intellectual break from the internal monkey chatter of my own mind. People ask why am I doing this. I have no good answer for that. Xander had one. He could hand over a card about Dago and that established some sort of context to which non-riders could relate. The cause justifies the effort in people’s eyes, and as a result the effort makes some sense to them. Without a cause, well, the whole thing seems nuts to so many. There is a good reason why the main online information clearing house is called Crazy Guy on a Bike. We are told we are crazy in almost every conversation.

One person somewhere asked me what cause had me out here riding and I answered “Mashiach—the coming of the messiah.” I am not sure why that was my answer although it could have been the music I was listening too. There was one point outside of Larned Kansas where I was inspired by Kobi Oz to throw my arms outward to heaven and yell at the top of my lungs “Ani rotzeh Mashiach!!” (I want the messiah). For Jews, this is a call for an end to human suffering, a unity of all humanity in the same one love, and the realization of the world’s project. It is a call for perfection and resolution—and not in some individuated elsewhere out of sight afterlife that some have access to and others do not, but rather it is a single universal shared real-time real-life real-world experience. When it happens it will be all over Twitter and your Facebook friends will be sharing the news.

Beller Messiah

Ilex Beller’s “Quand le Messie Viendra” (When the Messiah Will Come).

There is nothing out-of-world or particularly extra human about Mashiach—he is a dude, a living flesh and blood guy who you can fist bump when he reveals himself and sets about fixing the ills of the world. What is more, Mashiach is not something we just throw in there—some idle cosmic thought. Maimonides enjoins us to anticipate the revelation of Mashiach–may he come speedily in our days–at every moment, to live life in the full and confident knowledge of his impending arrival. It is pushed farther. In the old days, the sentiment was that Mashiach would arrive just as things got their worst. This way, each new suffering and persecution was itself a small step towards something better, the ultimate healing that would end all suffering. We have worked that desire into a thousand daily rituals. How we hold a cup on blessing wine or how we tie our little woolen strings are all small ways to bring about Mashiach. Each time we act with kindness, say the correct blessing, or notice and rejoice in the beauty of the earth and one another we push the world a tiny bit closer to Mashiach. And when we fail to act that way, we leave work undone. Shameful. The old idea that when things got bad enough Mashiach would reveal himself sort of died in the ovens, and it is far more common to hear people now say that we ourselves have to bring about Mashiach by making the world ready for him. I like this idea quite a bit. Ghandi said “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” That has been boiled down to a false bumper sticker “be the change” faux-taion, but the message is clear. It also pretty close to what our sages and saints say about Mashiach—we need to be it, we need to make it, we need to take the steps to make Mashiach happen, and in that way, we are all part of Mashiach. So, yeah, I guess in a way Mashiach is a reason for riding, but no more so than anything else.

So the alleged craziness ends today. I stayed last night in the Harpers Ferry Hostel. I have been at the Teahorse in Boliver many times before but somehow always managed to not find the HFH. It was easy to find though and easier to be in. Great people to chat with and a chance to wash the mud from my clothes and not have mosquitoes. In the morning all I faced was an easy 60 miles and I would be at Georgetown and done. Sarah and Rami would meet me there and we would figure out what next then. I know this section of trail very well having done it several times when I was at Mount Vernon and on other tours too. The ride up to HF, a night at the Teahorse, and back in the morning made for a nice pair of back to back century rides and a nice break from research. Sometimes though, knowing a trail can make it dull. Fortunately, this section of the C&O though is by far its loveliest. The navvies worked hard to cut some lovely passes through hard stone and the result for us are some quite haunting sections. My personal favorite (and I am sure I am not alone) is just south of Great Fall where the stones limit tree growth to scrubby pines and as a result it feels almost like a mountainside in Colorado—except of course for the heat and humidity.

I jumped off the C&O at the little boat ramp and got on the paved trail that runs parallel. It is only a few short miles and I am disgorged onto a street under a high overpass and well below Georgetown street level. There are cyclists and cars everywhere and I could not remember how to get up to street level. One guy pointed out the steps at the side and the little rail they have so that you can roll up a bike. The problem for me is that the rail bang against the wall and a bike with panniers is pretty wide. So I had to lean the bike away from the wall and push. One flight. Two flights. Then I was level with the C&O again making me feel pretty foolish for going on the paved trail. Sarah and Rami were making their way over the little bridge over the canal and we all smiled a lot. I had to push the bike up two more sets of stairs and by now it was close to 5 and all of DC was rushing to get home. More pushing and I was at the Ukrainian embassy next to Francis Scott Key Park that I consider the head of the C&O trail. I reached the street pushing and not riding and like that, it was over. I suddenly stopped being a guy who was crossing the country by bike and instead became just a sweaty guy in silly clothing. In a short instant I had lost my identity. My relationship to my bike suddenly changed and tomorrow seemed less distinct.

I had arrived—but unsurprisingly few seemed to care. When Mashiach comes the world will turn. When I arrived, we had to hurry to the car and rush to strip the bike down to fit in the back. The parking spots were transforming into a traffic lane and we needed to move. As we piled panniers into the back and pulled the wheels from the muddy frame a traffic cop came over to remind us of the obvious. “Lady! We are doing it now!” I exclaimed in a way that made Sarah laugh at my obvious New Yorkerness in the use of the word “lady.” Into the traffic, stop lights, challenging left turns, gas stations, the usual. I sat in the back of the car feeling a bit resentful and in denial, wearing souvenir garments and clutching my mud spattered pannier. I am not done–just paused. The clock ran me out and forced me to stop, for now. But time is an illusion and the tour goes on. I will be back on the road–speedily in our days, amen ve’amen!

 

 

 

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Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Salesville, Ohio

Riding the ACA Chicago-NY Bicyle Route.

After a great catch up visit with Anthony in Columbus–which included driving around a really nice city looking for hot chocolate and bike shops–I hit the road once again. The end is in sight, and that is both motivating and frustrating, It is a mad dash to Wheeling, West Virginia. From there on it is almost entirely trails down to DC and victory. Getting there though has me riding a squirrelly network of state roads through lovely increasingly hilly eastern Ohio. The good news: there are views and small pretty hilly farms. The neutral news: hills are back. The undoubtedly bad news: pickup trucks. Each in order. Views. After so much flat it is interesting to suddenly have horizons that lift up and assert themselves. There are few farms, that industry having moved away from here long ago. But there are lots of low tree-clad hills and it is a nice change for the eyes. Hills. Most people would say “rolling” or “gentle.” That is fair enough, but then again most people are not riding them. These being small state roads, they rise and fall more or less as the ground does. Big highways carve their way through elevation changes they don’t like. I remember being a kid on family trips on New York’s interstate system and being really fascinated by the huge cuts Eisenhower’s navvies blasted, bulldozed, picked, and chewed through the “rolling” hills north of the big city left isolated by the ridiculously conceptialized paved spider web. But few states and no counties have the money to level their roads’ paths, and so they rise and fall as does the land itself. What planners can do though, is seek out the easiest passes over the hills. Of course the planners have had some of that work done for them already–first by the Native peoples who figured out all the good routes, and then by the colonial come-alongs who appropriated that network and massively expanded it. Eventually the roads were widened and later paved and graced with a charming array of numbers and occasionally stupid names. The steeper the grade on a road though, the less likely it is to have had Native origins. These were not stupid people–and despite some colossally inflated population numbers one hears from time to time–they were also not that numerous. A few million north of Mexico by the time Europeans arrived. That meant that their main paths were few and generally went the easy way, along river runs and seeking out the passes. So, every time I have to crawl up a 10% grade road or worse, I am suffering on a fairly recent path made viable only by the advent of non-human propulsion. The ACA reputedly seeks out the roads that score best on having low traffic, gentle grades, and good shoulders. Some score better than others. The route into and out of Zanesville has scored poorly on all three metrics, The hills are steep, but in truth they are not that long and actually are pretty fun to take on–even for a terrible climber such as your humble. The shoulders have been a mixed bag though. When they are there, they are a bit narrow and too often covered in inhibiting matter. This is a huge problem on the steep downhills which can rev one up to 40 mph. One time I had to rather suddenly stop thanks to a mass of gravel that had been dumped on the shoulder covering a length of easily ten feet. Even when a shoulder is not serving as an impromptu gravel storage patch, it is often deeply cracked, glass covered, or trailing off unevenly as if the road crews just got bored and walked away before the job was done. The third metric is traffic and so, Cars: Have I mentioned that I hate them? I know they are needed–our at least they are for now–and I do make use of them myself. But we have far too many and for too many terribly irresponsible people driving them. I know nothing is going to get better for some time to come, but I can dream. When you cycle, you get to see up close all the terrible habits of the modern clueless driver. Texting, running stop signs, tailgating, trying to pass a dump truck on an incline on a narrow road, cutting corners so that you drive on the shoulder, adorning their conveyance with all manner of idiotic images (skulls are very popular in this part of the world), and more, all dance and swirl before me at corners or on the occasional shoulder. The terrain here deamads that the ACA select roads that are a bit busy–there seems to be no other choice, and a detour today thanks to a closed bridge showed me that the non-ACA roads are worse. Riding into Zanesville yesterday at about 4:30, I stopped at a store to wait until about 6:30 when most of the cars had stopped zooming by. They come in pulses–five and six cars strung together. This is because the pace is set by the first car in the line and the others are pressing in close behind waiting to seize their chance to pass. I blame NASCAR. Too many of these people have exactly the wrong images in mind as they drive home from work or stop for 12 packs of beer at a road side convince. I say cars, but really it seems that most of the vehicles here are pickup trucks. And not just shining new suburbanite Silvarodos–these are beefy loaded monsters. Some have big flat platforms on the back instead of shiney new beds. Others are loaded with specialized boxes. Still other cart trailers with lawn mowers or other gassy things in tow. Some of those trailers can be twice as long as the truck itself and make for scary passing. Watching these trucks it seems that the whole economy here is about maintaining what exists. One guy repairs a house for a dollar which he hands to a guy who mows his lawn, who then hands it to the guy who does home visit pet grooming, who hands it to the guy who fixes his toilet, who hands it back to the first guy who builds him a new garage for his extra large pickup truck. It is not the worst model for an economy all in all–at least it is at some level sustainable. They all share a few things as drivers though. They are all completely unaware that one can actually slow down on a road–these are people who see speed limits as a challenge and not a safety measure. They are also convinced that their own masculinity is somehow connected to the speed and noise their vehicles can produce. They also hate cyclists. They blast their horns, cut close, pull out onto the road before they turn so that they can block your descent or force you into traffic, yell insults, and take an almost visible joy in imperiling others. So this is what I deal with–or at least what I have to deal with unti l I get to Wheeling. 

I made a paltry 46 miles today of car dodging, missing hidden turns and doubling back, extra hilly detours, and crawling up climbs before 

a storm formed at about 2pm. As I passed through a small crossroad town, I spied a large and friendly looking pavilion in a park of sorts. I decided to wait out the impending rain here. Rain is my foe, and I really have no intention of adding water to the problems already inherent in riding these shoulders. My pavilion has picnic tables, electrical outlets, and a porta-san. It has a spigot but it is dry and there is no phone signal. I took a nap and the rain came. I ate a bit after waking and a second round of rain came in. By 4pm I came to realize that I was sort of stuck here for the night since the world was now wet and my maps showed nowhere close worth the effort. I thought about going to the store about three miles away in Quaker City but it started raining again as the idea formed. No Wheeling today as I had hoped. That will happen tomorrow–and maybe it will have to be the Saturday layover spot. The way forward has many towns, but no places to stay–nothing until about 30 miles south on the GAP. Tonight I will sleep on a picnic table–no cycling tour is complete until one has slept on a picnic table (my nap does not count). Up at 5 through and done with roads by noon! Ya’alla!

Now and then comes the distinctive clip clop of an Amish buggy. I saw plenty of human Amish varieties at the convenience yesterday during my rush hour sheltering. Most were young guys packed into pickup trucks coming home from construction jobs. The Ohio Amish are a bit different from the more fetishized Lancaster churches. The Pennsylvania people survive on an eastern urban desire for organic vegitables. The Ohio people though took up dairying ages ago and so their family farm economies were obliterated by mechinaized massive agri-business. Their choice was simple–hold the old order line barring modern technology and lose the community, or, adapt and survive. They adapted, and now lots of guys with the distinctive thatch haircuts and those curious green or blue button down shirts pour into convenice stores to grab a quick corn dog and a Snapple before getting driven back to homes that usually lack the technology they use on the job. Many would see this sort of accommodation as just so much stupidity. Not me though–I love it. The brilliance of Jewish legal thought is exactly this kind of careful as deliberative accommodation, and I am glad to see others working the same sorts of levers. 

One straw-hatted Amish guy walking into the store was yelled at from a pickup. “Hey you Amish!” they shouted as if they wanted to beat the snot out of him. I looked over and all the guys in the truck were themselves Amish and visibly amused at the brilliance of their joke. Did they know him? Was this some inter-order hostility playing out in a parking lot? Maybe everyone just yells at one another here as a matter of course? At any rate, the entering guy did not seem to hear them and he just bought his Pepsi and Hostess unperturbed. Sitting here under my pavilion though, the passing buggies assume their usual imagined fetishized rural aspect–a charming hold over from a romanticized past–no hint of yelling at one another, the side cash puppy mills, or the horizons afforded by hard farm work and a sixth grade education. From where I sit, I can see the horses slow down noticeably when they hit the taxing road grade–I feel you brother! I also can see how the giant pickup trucks speed right up to the back of each buggy and then aggresively tailgate so the whole world can see just how distressed is this masculine driver at having to roll slower than just over the speed limit. “Hey you Amish!” they seem to yell from their pickups. “Get out of my way–there is a dollar I need to get so I can pass it along to another guy in another pickup!”

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Richmond, Indiana.

Riding the ACA Chicago to New York Bicycle Route

Rain. I sit under a picnic shelter on the Cardinal Greenway just outside of Muncie, Indiana. Had I thought more clearly about the rain, I could be sitting in a Starbucks in town and would be a mite more comfortable. I am back in the east now–or at least the eastern Midwest–and am now again but confronting that solid gray sky that can drop water on you for hours at a time. I really hate rain. Let me say that once more–I really hate rain. There is almost no other weather I like less. When I was up in Virginia I took the cold there (20 degrees of so in the winter) as a challenge. I layered up and built up a pretty good cold weather kit. Merino wool underlayers, breathable outer layers, insulating shoe covers, lobster mittens, even ski goggles (these were indeed very silly looking but made a huge difference in facing the wind). You see, riding creates wind according to the speed at which one rides–that makes a standing 20 degrees considerably colder while riding. On top of that, I rode a lot after dark–in the coldest parts of the day. But gear was my friend and I faced the cold bravely. But rain is a totally different enemy. There really is nothing one can do to confront it other than find a picnic awning and wait. If I wear my rain coat, then I will get soaked from the inside out. If I don’t wear it I will get wet and cold from the outside in. I am not too worried about my gear–I feel pretty confident about the waterproof quality of my Ortlieb panniers and handle bar bag. But I am a rain wimp and so the wetness and the drippyness just makes me miserable. So, hello wooden able, concrete floor, and roof–you are my humble shelter while the mean clouds do their worst.  

The last few days have been devoted more to visiting than to riding. Xander and I finished the Chicago leg of the trip a few days ago and we rode right up to his family’s door. The ride there was 50/50. We had a very pleasant night under canvas in Morris Illinois and then shot north. More of the corn-lined Illinois roads as we made out way to Oswego. The repetition of the Upstate New York Iroquois names all over the place gives me a constant double take. Oswego though was very close to the start of the Fox River trail–a riverside paved bike path that would take us up to the roads that would lead to Xander’s home. We soon set off on the trail and it was very nice–very much like the Mount Vernon Trail and was full of little ups and downs and tight turns, The main thing I noticed though was that the river was fast moving and high. The next thing I noticed was the police baracade and the sign saying “Trail Flooded.” Of course we ignored the sign and pushed on. In this case all we really had to do was walk or ride through some sodden grass and we were fine. The next time we saw one of these signs though, the result was not so happy. The whole basin before was part of the Fox River and there was no way around. In retrospect, the best idea would have been to wade through, get wet, and carry on with the dry part of the trail. Instead though, we turned to google maps and its bicycle route feature. We have used this quite a bit and to good effect. Xander set his phone so that Google would interrupt his music and tell him when a turn was coming up–we called this “the voices in his head” and more than a few times refered to knowing where we were going thanks to the voices in Xander’s head. Reaction to this were mixed when we told others of out unique navigation strategy. Once we had decided to leave the logical bike friendly (though submerged) trail, Google got pissy. “The Fox River Trail is the way to go” the voices told us. “Yes but it is now a maritime trail–a kayak run” we said. “Ok” said Google. “I will make a new route for you, but you won’t like it.” The voices were right. We did not like it. To save time, I will now list the kinds of surfaces our route did not take us over. Molten lava, salt flats, sand dunes, mounded human corpses, permafrost. Everything else though we pretty much had to deal with. Honestly–you have no idea how much the automobile has shaped and distorted our landscape until you try to get somewhere without one. Roads without shoulders, crappy glass and poop strewn paths, high speed corners, and more. These were all roads I would never touch if I did not have to. And everytime we appealed to the Voices all they could say was “sorry, I told you to go on the Fox River Trail, but no, YOU had to leave it! YOU had to be creative. Now YOU have to deal with it.” In the end though we made it to Xander’s house in fair shape and his pleased family got to see exactly the kind of sun tan one gets on a recumant. What followed was a very sweet welcome home to the prodigal son and his grizzled companion, and it was wonderful to meet his immediate and extended family. They were all very grateful that I had riden up with him, but in truth, he was more than capable of being on his own. But at the same time, I fully understand where they were coming from parentally speaking, and their collective warmth and welcome were touching in the extreme. Thank you all. 

Soon though I was off and in Indiana to spend Saturday with another grad school friend, this time in Muncie, Indiana. Again–more time spent with great folks to whom I am immensely grateful. Stacy prepared fresh vegetables from the local farmers’ market and Dan and I spent a considerable amount of time in the company of Martin Landau, who displayed a remarklable ability to be miscast. 

So morning saw me head out to the Cardinal Greenway Rail Trail taking me about 40 miles down to Richmond Indiana. Cardinal is a great trail–paved, straight, level, and with good amenities. I started writing this under a shelter, but I finish it in a Starbucks in Richmond getting ready to cross into Ohio. It rained most of the ride. I progressed this way. Ignore it. Put down my cap’s brim to keep the rain out of my eyes. Stop–put on my rain coat since my arms are cold. I can feel my socks getting wet. Stop again–try to pull my rain coat hood over my helmet. Feel the puddles in my shoes. Just keep riding. That really is almost always the answer–just keep riding, I am listening to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. It is great stuff and what he describes is far more depressing that riding in the rain. The antisemitism is a bit thick and it is bad to tell if Orwell is just relating it or endorsing it. Oh well, at least this Jew is not having to swindle a Russian waiter or trying to sell his daughter into prostitution–nor will he have to portray a Mexican bandito or German elephant trainer turned villian. Rain seems a small problem by comparison. One of Orwell’s friends though did complain about an American hotel guest who did not want full French meals and instead asked only for Grape Nuts, scrambled eggs, and hot coacoa in his room. Ummm…. I had to rack my brain to recall if I had visited Paris in the interwar years. I am pretty sure it was not me. 

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Middlegate Station NV.

Riding the ACA Western Express Bike Route, 6-16-17

We made it. Happier words I have never typed. I sit in the Middlegate Station Roadhouse with the shadows lengthening while Rami plays pool. The low ceiling here is covered in dollar bills and this little cottonwood oasis–no really, it is an oasis–is covered with a creative hodgepodge of trailers, old buses, disused cars, and shiney RVs. This is THE place to be when passing this part of RT 50 and it seems that everyone who passes by stops for gas or food or something more restricted in some counties. We will spend our off-the-bike rest day here and so we opted for a room rather than a tent spot. The room is nice–a bit like a trailer–but it has beds and its own bathroom and the truth is that at 35 bucks it is a palace and we could not be happier. Lower cost short term lodgings is something we just don’t get in this country where everyone seems to want to be a big shot. Thank heaven some people still know the art of the clean low cost bed. 

 We began the morning late again (more about that later), but we were on the road by 8:30 am. We made a tidy little run into the oddly sleepy town of Fallon and stocked up. On the way in we saw a vernacular reminder of what is happening in the background of places like this. Meth–and perscription drugs too–are a plague: a scythe that is causing a lost white generation. African Americans saw their lost generation in the crack epidemic, but now the heavy handed sentences and lack of meaningful ways to help the wounded are twin barrels turned on white America–particularly in the hinterlands. I know that’s not the most insightful insight, but there are reminders of it everywhere. Rami–being a kid in the now and today–is unduly fascinated by this stuff. All of his peers are. From Breaking Bad (which I still refuse to watch despite many assurances that it is good), to a familiarity with the drug enthusiast’s patois, his generation are THE drug generation and we have made them be that. I read it as an innocent enough way to come to grips with it all and it is certainly good that he is talking about it all. I guess the problem would be should he stop talking. At any rate, his savior ne-fait-pas came in handy the other day in a convenience store. A gent strolled in and asked the Charge D’affairs if he had (and I quote) “86’ed the tweaker down by the river yet?” Monsieur le Patron replied “Oh Harris–yeah. I’ll take care of him.” Rami and I had a nice exchange of lingo. Growing up the 70s gifted me with an rich and nuisance understanding of CB and number codes–so 86 was as natural to me as is English–you copy? But what is a tweaker? Was Harris some Giapetto-like craftsperson using his skills to alter this or that into that or this? Or perhaps Harris had some sort of strange nipple fixation, and had simply tweaked one too many? No–my son informed me that Harris was in fact a consumer of meth. What Rami did not know though, was what 86 meant. I told him, and he understood. It was a big 10 4.

In Fallon we chatted with a very nice young woman with a beautiful baby. She told us a bit about the road ahead and even wanted to know what she could do to help out the many cyclists she sees on the road. Without missing a beat I said, offer them water: a fortuitous comment on my part, sadly. She was glad to know that though since she wanted to do something to be kind. And on that theme, she then insisted on paying for the food we were buying. I protested a few times but she insisted. It was a remarkably sweet thing to do. 

We hit the two convenience stores on our way out of Fallon and drank water at each one. We then headed into the desert. It was close to noon when we started the remaining 46 miles Middlegate. It was a singularly hot day and we rode through scorching salt flats and sandy valleys. We had two big climbs. Coming down at speed from the first we found ourselves behind a curious wagon pulled by four horses. It was gratifying to see that we were not the only non-gas-powered people on the road, and on we went. Soon though we hit trouble. With about 8 miles left to Middlegate we ran perilously low on water. We each were carrying about 3 liters and I also had a liter of club soda tied on. This has proven to be more than enough–but this is Nevada and we are entering a part of the state where stores and resupply are far apart–some stretches go for as far 68 miles with no amenities (or water) and many have hard climbs too. We were well-hydrated when we left the last store in Fallon, but about 40 miles later we were in trouble. We were both pretty sunburned too, despite sunblock. So here we were, no longer sweating and beginning the first signs of dehydration. Nevada really wanted to kill us today–but it was Nevadans who would not let it. 

We stopped at a road at the base of the second big climb. The road was flat and about 2 miles long. It led to a military instillation of some kind–we had been seeing jets and helicopters all day and most of the land here is government owned. I asked a guy who stopped at the sign if he had some water to spare. He said he did not, but he would radio back to the gate and they would let us fill up–at least they could fill our bottles for us. Great! We set off on a four mile diversion with supply dangerously low. We got the gate and the pig faced man there said no dice. Can’t come on the base. We don’t want to–can someone just fill a bottle for us?No, They said no. Can you fill one for us? No–I can’t leave the gate. You have a hose right there at the booth you are literally six feet from… No. Ok, thanks I said: our tax dollars at work, and we wheeled and left the reptile behind and set off to rerun the two added miles back to the base of the hill. We were still eight miles from our destination, but for thanks to four added miles we got to meet one of their nation’s greatest moral voids. As we rode back Rami and I talked about this. Rami has always been kind and that is his instinct and nature. It is rare that he meets with the real ugliness that some people possess where their soul or compassion should be. Here was a man, I said to Rami, who simply could not care less if you or I lived or died–our lives meant nothing to him. It is good to see the face of that sort of evil now and again just so that you know what you should never do. The good news is that he was old, and won’t be with us for all that much longer, while the woman in Fallon is going to raise a shiney new baby to be kind and generous. There is hope for a better future. 

At the end of the road though, we flagged down a truck and asked about water. A young man with a broad smile handed us a brand new full commercial water jug, saying it was ours to drink, and refused my offer of money to pay him back for the buy. We were not in desperate straights yet–but we were close and no doubt things would have been worse had we not met this second angel. This was our topic of conversation up the hill. Rami has long had a water angel story which he reminded me of, and I reiterated the Rabinnic idea that we are all angels to one another–even when we don’t know we are. The kindnesses we do often ripples in ways we can never see–but so does our ugliness–we just have to be ever mindful and very very careful.  10 4 good buddy.    

What’s in a Date? Or, Barbados Time.

Washington had a hard time reckoning time while he was on Barbados. Many of the dates he listed in his diary are off—and not even in a single predictable way as if he had miscounted by a day or two and pushed the error forwards. Instead, he was off by two days and sometimes four in November, and then one day off in December and so on. On top of that, we have to factor in the great change from the Julian calendar to the currently prevalent Gregorian one (with apologies to Ethiopia) in 1752 that pushed dates eleven days ahead. Washington was born on the 11th of February before the date change which makes us think of his birthday as the 22nd. Likewise, the dates in the diary also have to be pushed forward if were interested in commemoration for example.

One has to have a good reason to keep a close reckoning of the passing of time. The long term cycles—months and years for example—pass by slowly enough to be missed. They matter in agricultural settings, but primarily as seasons. 11days8.jpgThe fact that today for example is the 14th and not the 17th will not cause to miss my planting or harvesting. The coming and goings of commerce give months and dates a bit more immediate consequence as certain expenses must needs be met at certain times or ship arrive and set sail (weather and tides permitting) at certain days. Confusing the 14th for the 17th in this case could cause me to miss a ship’s sailing. The actual days of the week though are rather more immediate and easier to keep a handle on. Even today, we can ask on a given Tuesday “what day of the month is it?” and not get the odd looks we might get if were to walk up to someone and say “what day of the week is it? For that reason it is easier to believe Washington when he said that he dined with the Clarke’s on a Wednesday even if his November 6th was really the 10th. It is hard to pin down just what caused this error. It may that he was jus wrong about his dates. It also may be that he filled in some details later (as we know is did on some parts) and just made errors along the way. It also may be that the whole “original” is a copy of a lost older original and things just got confused in the interim. In any event, it is clear that Washington’s sense of the calendar was a rather dynamic object.

There is another reason that made it easier to keep the days of the week in focus, and that reason is spiritual. The Sabbath marks a break with the routines of the week, and even when Washington did not attend St Michael’ s Anglican parish church in Bridgetown, the change in the larger community regime would have marked Sunday as distinct and made it easy to know just were one was day-wise for the rest of the week. The spiritual calendar is another reason as well an individual or a community might pay close attention to the passing of dates and months. The cycles of religious devotions that must happen at certain times require constant counting.

For these reasons I found it interesting that Washington wrote that he was “strongly attacked with the small pox” on Saturday, November 16, 1751. I believe him when he claimed the disease overtook him on a Saturday, but it was more likely the 20th than the 16th given his miscounting. That fateful Saturday would have had a totally different set of calendar and spiritual meanings for a community of Barbadians living only a mile or so from where Washington lay suffering.

The Jews of Barbados had their own calendar and reckoned it with great care. While experts in England were already discussing the merits of exchanging their Roman calendar for a newer Christian one, the Jews world wide were still using the same counting system they had for millennia. By that reckoning of time, Washington fell ill on the 2nd of Kislev, in the year 5512.

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Treating the “Speckled Monster”

Even if Washington was having a hard time keeping his dates straight—the Jews were not. Restricted to something very much like a ghetto in Bridgetown and limited by law in their trading options, the community maintained the count of days and marked the significant ones as they came and went. As Washington lay ill, the “holy month” of Tishrei would have only recently ended and the Jews would have completed a holiday routine that begins with a new year, and ends with restarting the annual cycling of reading weekly sections of the Torah—the Five Books of Moses. In the middle of that was a fast day in which they would have tried to look all of their misdeeds in the face, accept upon themselves the guilt for having done them, and plead with God to postpone the well-deserved execution sentence for one more year. “Who in the upcoming year would die by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by illness” they had asked in solemn liturgical tones. There would have been no answer yet, but they could take comfort in the verse reminding them that that prayer, repentance, and charity lessen the harshness of heaven’s judgment. They also would sing three times a prayer that would exempt them from future vows when those vows were or a certain nature. This rather distinctive request was originally penned to provide a backdoor way out for Jews forced to accept Christianity at sword point or on pain of the flames—an experience all too familiar to the great grand parents of many of Bridgetown’s Jews. Coming out of that intense, absorbing, and emotionally roller coaster of a month, Bridgetown’s Jews were settling into a long period with no significant holidays—only the weekly reading of the Torah made the counting of spiritual time obvious on a day-to-day basis.

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Map of Bridgetown showing the synagogue marked with a red star. Thanks to Colonialgyrabbit.com for the image.

The day Washington took ill was Shabbat, the 2nd of Kislev. That week the Torah Parsha (weekly reading from the Five Books) was Parshat Toldot—the sixth division of the first book which began with the creation of the world. During those weeks, the Jews of Bridgetown had been reading some of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Since the creation, God had flooded the earth and seen it repopulated with people. Avraham has met God and Sarah had a child despite her age. Avraham and his son Isaac showed what faith meant and also showed that God abhors human sacrifice. In Parshat Toldot we begin to see the growth of Isaac’s family—the people for whom he dug all of those wells. Early in Toldot there is a passage in which God tells Rivkah that she is going to have twins. The congregant singing out the weekly reading would have intoned the words for all in the Bridgetown synagogue to hear (my guess is that he would have sung it at about 10am), and they are as follows:

[Bereshit/Genesis 25:23] And God said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.”

These are the words the Children of Isaac heard in synagogue that Shabbat morning in 1751/5512 as George Washington took ill only a mile or so from the constrained world they called home. The younger kingdom will become mightier than the other. What a line! I would not want to suggest that this was prophetic—maybe poetic is a better way to see it. No one could have connected that line in the Parsha with the nineteen-year old off-islander settling into what could easily have been a fatal illness, but time has allowed us to. I write this in a year in which the 2nd of Kislev was once again on Shabbat, and as in 1751/5512, Parshat Toldot was once again heard in synagogues the world over.

I need to think more about just what it means that Washington had his dates so wrong. But it helps to keep mind that there were others in that world carefully counting dates, and hours, and moon phases to make sure that times were reckoned correctly and that promises were kept and that words were sung in their appropriate times.

Barbados, Day Two

Today began very gray but cleared up. I got up early and rushed back to town to try to recover my glasses which I had left on a wall in the cemetery. The Shul was open when I got there, so I had the pleasure of saying shacharit (albeit alone) in the beautiful old Nidhai Israel shul. It is very much like a British shul with the same type of stying and pillars holding up the women’s gallery. One difference was that the Bimah (raised reader’s table) was in the back and not in the center. I am a big fan of facing bench seating in shuls–in my mind it plays down hierarchy in favor of communalism.

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The Bimah in Nidhi Israel

This building dates to about 1831 when the great hurricane demolished much of older Barbados. This new shul sits on the foundations of the original which dated to the mid seventeenth century.

Some visitors came through and they must have thought that I was some sort of museum display set up for effect and authenticity. When I was done, Emerson, the tender, directed me to meet Benny Gilbert, a retired local property developer and one of the community’s elders. His wife is an Altman—one of the oldest Ashkenazi families on the island. Mr. Gilbert invited me back to his office for coffee and a chat and so we walked though the crowded Bridgetown streets having the kind of conversation one would have any where in the world after saying “shalom alechem – alechem shalom.” Mr. Gilbert had much to share about the island, its Jews, and his life as one of them. He explained that the original Spanish community was all but gone by the end of the 18c and that the Ashkenazim came in waves, many spending a few generations here and then fading away only to be replaced by new families. This was much the same as I had seen in some places in England—wandering, to paraphrase perhaps the most famous (sort of I guess) English Jew, Shylock, is the badge of all of our tribe.

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The shul is on the left, and the mikveh newly built is on the right.

I returned to the Shul after my visit and got there in time to see that the guide had brought visitors in to see the mikveh. This 1650s bath was discovered archeologically a few years ago and once the stone rubble had been removed, the water returned. It requires no filtering—it is fresh, clear, and tapped into the water table.

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Newly rediscovered mikveh

They have built a very lovely building over it from the removed stone rubble and it is quite a gem. I waited and listened to the talk about how the 17c Jews here used the mikveh—a description based largely on 17c travel narratives. The mikveh is not formally open to the public (vistors can look in with the guide), but religious exceptions are made from time to time. A few weeks ago a pair visiting Chabniks went in and today it was my turn. The water was clear and cool and the stones 17c. It was a remarkable experience.

When I was done I went back to looking over the grave stones to find specific people I was curious about. In looking around, there seems to have been some surface level change though. Some nearby construction has left some holes and poked around a bit just outside the footers of the old cemetery wall.

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Construction and stones.

I saw at least four layers including two that appeared to be mostly pavers. The most interesting thing was that this new construction had uncovered a section of the cemetery that had been buried and had had 19c shops atop it. Those shops have been gutted and their floors removed. The result are the most amazingly well-preserved stones in the yard.

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Newly exposed stones. The doorways on the right are at current surface level and lead out to the street.

These are mostly of English Jews, some of whom had adopted the stone styles of their Sephardic predecessors. I am told that the development plan calls for all the graves to be reincorporated into the cemetery which will retake its original size. More on the stones later.

Much of the rest of the day was spent at the George Washington house again, this time looking over the artifacts from the 1999 and 2001 excavations. I have the reports and the artifact lists in them, but the only way serendipity can happen is when you let it. The excavations were primarily in the ravine west of the home. The collections span a large period and of course trying to find 1751 in an assemblage is not an easy task.

Once I was done, I thought it would be nice to get out into the countryside.

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Looking south from the first major rise of land.

I was right. I drove north mostly by zigzagging the road system. The south has a large sloping plain, so that heading north means heading up as well. As Washington observed, the landscape is made so that views of the sea are to be found throughout.

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Drax Hall. In private hands and not open to the public, but still owned by the Drax Family in England as it was in the 17c and still producing sugar.

 

 

 

I wended my way up to Drax Hall—a well known 17c plantation and home just about one third up the island from the south coast. Sugar is still grown here in the hundreds of tons for shipment to European markets. Interestingly though, none of the Bajan plantations produce any molasses. That means that all the Barbados rum is made from imported molasses—not local. There is a metaphor for something in there.

 

 

 

 

Barbados, Day One.

Mid-day arrival. Airport, car, blah blah. Thank heaven I had already driven in the UK and all those trips have made looking right when crossing or turning not an unfamiliar thing. The road to Oistins where I dwell in Bajan fashion (no hotel in other words) skirts the southern coast and that tiny island feeling is pronounced. People are everywhere on the south side and the cars are all small. I got quickly settled and jumped back in the car to make the most of the day.

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Automotive conveyance in the British fashion–on the left.

The drive to Bridgeton was slow but I was glad of that since it I needed the adjustment time. One or two wrong turns and a few pull overs to reconcile to the map that has no street names. I overshot the Washington House on my way in so I chose to forge on to the center of town and find the synagogue first. I circled around and around a few times before I gave up searching by car and just found a parking area and walked. A woman asked me if I was “going to the cemetery?” “Eventually” I replied and she said “well it is straight ahead” ignoring my travel frazzled wit. I did not know just what she meant,

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Downtown Bridgetown

but in a block I saw the pink walls of the Synagogue and realized that the big cemetery is the main feature of the site. My guess is that the only tourists on that side of town are looking for the place.

This was one of those days when the doorway is always on the fourth wall after I walk the other three. In this case, it was an alley that led to the Shul, the museum, the Mikveh, and the cemetery.

On this side of the shul, most of the graves are seventeenth century and early eighteenth with a few more modern ones interspersed. The older ones are in Spanish and Portuguese as well as Hebrew. Some have remarkable art—deaths heads for example, both ornate and simple—that I don’t usually associate with Jewish graves. The whole cemetery has been the subject of a restoration project with great detail on this blog.

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The northern side of the cemetery where most of the graves are Spanish and 17c. The foregrounded ones though are contemporary and are those of the Ashekenazim who eventually replaced the original community. The shul is in the background.

I will be back at the Shul in the morning though and will have more to say after that visit. For today I was driven by the desire to sing Tehillim in the cemetery and visit. There is something very special singing “od avinu chai” (“our fathers still live”—not a psalm) in such a place. IMG_2672.JPGThe seventeenth-century Jews of Barbados lived in a world so different from ours and from the reality of Barbados today just outside the wall. But at the same time, the names and fact of a shul again close the time and make the alien familiar. Visitors’ stones are on many of the graves: a pleasant bond over time and space.

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Some of the stones have very little on them identifying them as Jewish.

And speaking of familiar names, George Washington, the reason for the season. Objective One on this trip is to flesh out what I need to create a full chapter on his Barbados trip for the new book. I already have about three ideas to play out in the chapter, but being here links things together. I made it to the Washington House just before dark and fortunately Martin Miller was still there. We had a great chat and I saw a few of the main sites, including the ravine where the middens were. Tomorrow (ideally) I will get to look at artifacts but I saw one today. It was a classic White Saltglazed Stoneware plate—making it the fourth place I can say that GW was eating off of that sort of plate.

 

Recalling the Jews of Falmouth

Early on Erev Yom Kippur, aided by sections of Keith Pearce’s and Helen Fry’s book The Lost Jews of Cornwall I took a break to explore the Old Jewish Cemetery in Falmouth, Cornwall. The University of Southampton’s  Mark Levene clued me into the fact that it happens to be right on my walk between Penryn and Falmouth across the road from the Sainsbury’s. The eternal and the fleeting cheek by jowl.

I pushed through the overgrowth and crested collapsing stonewalls to find the three-dozen some odd headstones that make up the remains of what was once a strong but small Jewish community. As that celebrated English drizzle fell, I sang Tehilim (psalms) for my bothers and sisters there interred and wished an elevation for each and every one of their souls.

Stones in the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery on the A39.

Stones in the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery on the A39.

The stones were mossy and many were toppled and broken, but many were still readable (but Pearce’s and Fry’s work was there to fill in the gaps). Some inscriptions were quite plain providing little more than a name and a wish for external life. Some hinted at family tragedies like the fact that Yissachar ben Yoel HaLevi and his son Levi both passed away in 1791. What a loss for the family as well as for this then quite small band of Jews. An undated stone marked the grave of Yoseph, infant son of Lyon Yoseph and his wife Yehudit. Moshe ben Yisrael who died in 1798 was recalled only as being an unmarried man— the first time Moshe wore a tallit was to be buried. How are we to understand that subtle but nevertheless heavily freighted lament from within a community that had to cling tightly together to survive?

Many of the stones hinted at the process of adaptation that Jews have undergone wherever we have settled. Names—some written in English and some in Hebrew—revealed the workings of that familiar process whereby we have our real names—the ones that function within the community, the names called out in synagogue, first ours and then our father’s (“ben” meaning “son of”) when we are honored or when we are ill and the congregation negotiates with God to heal us (and, as the wonderfully contractual prayer also says “and for all Israel as well, amen”), the names we are given soon after our births and the names that in the end, the stone carver will chisel on our tombstones. This naming game is a brilliant one—intended or not. Their simple familiarity erases time. There is no fashion in these names—nothing to make people seem quaint or antique, nothing to make them seem at all of a different time. No Pheobes or Alonzos, no Winifreds, Theodores, or Gouevenors to make one think, “hmm, don’t see that name much anymore.” Likewise, there are no Ambers, Tiffanys, or Tylers to seem so of the moment. Instead, we use the same names over and over so that people, dead these two centuries, bear names no different that those around us now.

Jacob Jacob of Falmouth painted around the time Darwin was in town.

Jacob Jacob of Falmouth painted around the time Darwin was in town.

Yitzhak ben Yoseph (a reversal of my own father’s name), Yishaya ben Moshe, Uri ben Zvi, Yakov Eliahu ben Naftali, Yehuda ben Yehoshua and so on—nothing in these names hints at epoch—they are no different than we hear week after week in synagogues all over the Jewish world. Time and space vanish thanks to a simple paring of a son’s and a father’s name.

But Jews have long lived amidst people with whom we did not share our real names, or frequently people whose naming styles we took up and made real in a new way. The Falmouth stones show us this process at work. Yissachar Behr ben Yoel haLevi conducted his daily affairs in Falmouth as Barnett Levy while Yakov ben Moshe was known to his English neighbors of the early nineteenth century as Jacob Jacob of Falmouth.

The stones also hinted at ethnic and gender differences as well. Whereas the men mostly had biblical names, many of their wives were recalled with altogether less formal Yiddish names. Yetle, Feigele, Gitteleh, and Beila show unmistakable family roots on the continent. But at the same time, names like Saavil on one stone and the de Pass family from South Africa (a Sephardic family noted by Pearce and Fry) show diversity even in this singularly Ashkenazi community.

A few days later I found the old synagogue the community built about 1800 and which Britain’s Chief Rabbi ordered sold off once the community had faded away in 1888. It was a simple but distinctively German style shul with red brick and local stone coynes along the front corners. Its tall windows offer just enough of a glimpse inside to make one wonder what else survives therein.

The Old Falmouth Synangogue, 1808 - 1888.

The Old Falmouth Synangogue, 1808 – 1888.

The shul has a commanding view of the harbor below. It sits at the top of a street called Fish Strand Hill. At the base of this hill there is a plaque that says that Charles Darwin boarded an overland stagecoach at this spot on Sunday October 2nd, 1836 after the Beagle had laid anchor in the harbor. That day was also the 21st of Tishrae 5597—Hoshanah Rabbah (tomorrow), in the last days of Sukkot. At that time Falmouth’s Jewish community was in full flower and would have been in shul carrying lulavim and parading around the bimah. I consider this because I am here writing this during the same week in Tishrae passing Sukkot in Falmouth amid the ghosts of a lost community and their still living names.

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