SLAVES TO SPINNING ALONG THE BLACKSTONE:

Today is Patriot’s Day. Here in Massachusetts, this day commemorates – and re-enacts — the battles of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of our Revolutionary War. And we have a marathon too … in Boston.

But this post is about the other  revolution — the American Industrial Revolution — which took place around the same time … and had perhaps even more profound effects on our world.

America: Born Bankrupt

America was born bankrupt. We won the revolution, but lost everything else. Our economy was dependent on Great Britain. We produced raw material, but Great Britain turned those materials into goods for the world’s markets.

Battle of Lexington and Concord revolution

Not merely did we depend on the British to supply us with finished goods we could not produce ourselves, we depended on British banks, British shipping, and British trade routes.

Everything has a price and we had no money. We had hoped we could reach an agreement with England short of war and had there been a less intransigent monarch on the throne at the time, we might have been able to do so. Despite the Massachusetts “Sam Adams faction” who were hellbent for battle, most colonists felt at least some allegiance to England.

We had no “American identity” because there was no America with which to identify. Nor was the yearning to breathe free burning in every heart. What the colonists of North America wanted was simple. They wanted the rights of free Englishmen. We wanted seats in British Parliament. We wanted the right to vote on taxes and other policies that affected colonial life. A deal should have been reached, but George III was not a sensible, reasonable or judicious king.

The result was war, the staggering loss to England of their wealthiest colonies and birth of a new nation.

That we won the war was astonishing. We had little in the way of arms and no navy. We were sparsely populated. Existing militias were untrained, undisciplined, little better than rabble. That George Washington was able to turn this into an army was no mean feat. No wonder they wanted him to be the first President.

French military support enabled us to beat the British. It was a loan, not a gift. We agreed to pay it back, so the French revolution was an unexpected and deeply gratifying development. It was like having the bank that holds your mortgage disappear taking your mortgage with it. It vastly improved our debt to income ratio. When Napoleon came to power and suggested we repay our war debt, we said “What debt?”

Our shipping industry was in its infancy. We had few ships or sailors, minimal access to world trade. The British ruled the seas and being soreheads, refused to share it with us. It would take many years before we could challenge their ascendancy on the seas.

What Did We Have?

Slaves and land. Sugar and rum.

If you who think slavery was an entirely southern institution, you’re wrong. Although slaves lived mostly in the southern colonies, they were brought to these shores by New England sea captains, held in New York, Boston, and other northern cities, sold to slavers at markets in the north, then sent south to be sold again to individual owners. The entire economy of the nascent country was based on slaves and their labor. The institution of slavery could not have persisted had it not been supported by business interests in the north.

The new-born United States had, for all practical purposes, no economy. We were pre-industrial when European countries were well into the modern industrial period. We had no factories. We had no national bank, currency, credit, courts, laws or central government. Our only thriving industry were slaves.

Although there was an abolitionist movement, it was tiny, more sentimental than real.

North and south, slaves made people rich. Not the slaves, of course, but other people. North and south, fortunes were made selling human beings, then profiting from their labor. When it came time to write the Constitution, to turn a bunch of individual colonies into one country, the Devil’s compromise was needed. Abolishing slavery would doom any attempt to pass the constitution … so slavery became law and the groundwork was laid for the bloodiest war America would ever fight.

It would twist and distort American history, shape our politics, society, culture, and social alignments. Its legacy remains with us today and probably always will.

So How Come We Didn’t Find a Better Way?

Question: If our Founding Fathers were so smart, how come they didn’t see that slavery would come back to bite us in the ass?

Answer: They knew it was wrong and knew that it would result in civil war. In other words, they did knew it would bite us in the ass. They could keep slavery and form a strong nation — or eliminate slavery and end up with two weak countries, one slave, one free. They chose what they thought was the lesser of the two evils.

Was it the lesser evil? Hard to say and it’s a bit late to second guess the past. It was clear from the get-go there was no way we were going to form a nation if slavery was made illegal. From private writings by members of the continental congress, it’s clear they knew the issue of slavery would eventually be resolved by war. Long before 1776, slavery was the polarizing issue in the colonies. So “The Great Compromise” was put into place, the Constitution was approved and a later generation fought the war.

Right went head to head with the bottom line and lost.

Eighty years later, 630,000 lives (more or less) would be the butcher’s bill for the compromises made in 1789. An ocean of blood would be the cost of ending America’s traffic in human lives. Many more years would pass before this country’s non-white population would see anything resembling justice, much less equality.

When you dine with the Devil, bring a long spoon.

So About Those Mills …

Slaves, rum, and sugar — the triangle of trade that kept America’s economy alive — was profitable for plantation owners, sea captains, and other slave traders, but it didn’t generate a whole lot of entry-level job opportunities for average working people. A lot of people needed work, even more needed trade goods and dependable sources of income.

Most people didn’t own ships and if they did, were disinclined to take up slaving. It was never a profession for “nice folks” and a fair number of people found it distasteful. Decent people might live off the labor of slaves, but the actual process of buying and selling human beings was more than they could stomach.

So as great political and legal minds gathered in Philadelphia to draft a document to build a nation, other great minds were seeking ways to make money. It’s the American way.

Renovated into elderly and affordable housing, the old Crown and Eagle mill in Uxbridge is beautiful today.

The Crown and Eagle Mill today, renovated into elderly and affordable housing.

In one of the stranger coincidences of history, the Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789 while simultaneously, the American Industrial Revolution took shape on the banks of the Blackstone River.

Moses Brown had been fighting his own war. He was battling the Blackstone. With a 450 foot drop over a 46-mile course — an average drop of about 10 feet per mile — the Blackstone River is a powerhouse. Not a wide river, its sharp drop combined with its narrowness and meandering path give it much more energy than a river of this size would normally generate.

It invited development. The question was how.

Through 1789, as the Constitution was gaining approval throughout the former British colonies, Brown wrangled the river, trying to build a cotton thread factory in Pawtucket, RI at the falls on the Blackstone River. He was sure he could harness the river to power his mill, but as the end of the 1789 approached, the score stood at Blackstone River – 1, Moses Brown – 0.

America had her welcome mat out in those days. We needed more people and especially people with industrial skills. We weren’t picky. All immigrants were welcomed. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for Moses Brown.

Slaterville Mill -- oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

Slaterville Mill — oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

In December 1789, Samuel Slater – a new immigrant from England — began working for Brown. Slater had spent years working at an English textile mill. He recognized that Brown’s machinery was never going to work. Slater had fine engineering skills. In under a year, he’d redesigned and built a working mill on the Blackstone River.

By 1790, Slater’s Mill was up and running, the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory in the United States. Slater’s Mill proved you could make money in New England doing something other than whaling, fishing, or running rum and slaves. Entrepreneurs hopped on the idea like fleas on a dog. Mills were an immediate success. New England was inhospitable to agriculture, but fertile for factories.

Mills grew along the Blackstone from Worcester to Providence, then sprouted by the Merrimack in Lowell, and eventually, throughout New England. Wherever the rivers ran, mills and factories followed.

The Blackstone Canal

On the Blackstone, mill owners urgently sought a better way to move their goods.

The features that made the Blackstone a natural for generating power made it useless for shipping. The only other choice — horse-drawn wagons — was slow and expensive. the trip took 2 to 3 days over dirt roads from the northern part of the valley to Providence.

blackstone canal locks

When the weather turned bad, the trip was impossible. All of which led to the building of the Blackstone Canal. Meant as a long-term solution, it actually turned out to be no more than a short-term temporary fix … but it was an impressive undertaking.

What Does This Have To Do With Slavery?

Mills brought employment to the north. It created a real industrial base that would give the north the ability to fight the civil war … and win. It started with a river, continued with a canal, expanded with the railroads. Which is why the Blackstone Valley is a National Historic Corridor and known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution … a revolution that brought the U.S. into the modern world and positioned us to become a top dog on the international scene.

Building the Canal

The Blackstone Canal took 4 years to build, from 1824 to 1828. The main canal runs alongside the Blackstone. In some places, the canal and the river are one. There is an extensive network of small canals, many on tributary rivers like the Mumford. The main canal was designed to handle large barges. It travels in a relatively straight line from Worcester to Providence.

The smaller canals allowed mills to move goods to places not immediately on the Blackstone. Small barges could move cargo between towns and mills.

Small canal serving the Crown and Eagle

Small canal serving the Crown and Eagle

Big barges were faster and cheaper than horse-drawn wagons. A single barge could haul as much as 35 tons of cargo and only needed two horses going downstream.

The canal system remains largely intact. Trails along the canals where horses towed barges have become walking paths. The barges are gone, but small boats can enjoy the open stretches of canal and river.

Railroads

Ultimately, railroads were the game-changer. As soon as rails from Worcester to Boston, and Worcester to Providence were built, the canals were abandoned. Business boomed.

The Blackstone River was lined with mills and factories at the end of the 1800s. The Blackstone supplied the hydro power and in return, the river was used to dispose of industrial waste and sewage.

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By the early 1900s, the Blackstone River in Massachusetts was grossly polluted. Fortunately for the river, though not necessarily for the valley’s residents, this was also the beginning of the end of the textile industry in the northeast.

As of 1923, the majority of nation’s cotton was grown, spun and woven down south. Without its mills and factories, the valley’s population began to shrink.

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Pollution

In 1971, the Blackstone River was labeled “one of America’s most polluted rivers” by Audubon magazine. It was a low point for the region. It was time to clean up the mess.

We’re still cleaning up. Although not as polluted as it was, the watershed has a long way to go. The river’s tributaries are less polluted than the Blackstone itself because against all logic and reason, waste-water is still being discharged from a sewage treatment plant in Millbury. It’s hard to fathom what reasoning, if any, those who favor pouring sewage into our river are using. The fight never ends.

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Good news? The birds and fish are back.

American eagles nest in my woods. Herons and egrets wade in the shallows to catch fish that breed there. The river is alive despite man’s best efforts to kill it.

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TIME AND HISTORY IN YOUR HAND

I collect very old Chinese porcelain. I used to have a lot more of it, but in the name of de-cluttering, I divided my collection and gave the other half to my best friend who I knew would appreciate it.

Han Dynasty 206 BC - 220 AD

Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD

The Chinese government has not always been diligent in managing their national treasures. Sometimes, it was a political decision. Many times, foreigners have stolen the best and most beautiful, which is why you will see so much Chinese art in English and American museums. They didn’t give it to us. We didn’t buy it. We stole it. What a shock they aren’t as in love with us as we think they ought to be.

Qianlong (1736-1795) porcelain.

Qianlong (1736-1795) porcelain.

In recent decades, the issues have been pragmatic — lack of money. There is so much that needs preservation. The U.S. has difficulty preserving our 250 years of history. Imagine how hard — and expensive — if your nation’s history goes back thousands of years. And your country is huge and densely populated.

Suddenly, preservation becomes more than slightly daunting.

Counter point - Modern Limoge ca 1965 alongside Song dynasty vase (China Song Dynasty 960-1279 AD). I use the vase for single roses. Perfect size.

Counter point – Modern Limoges ca 1965 alongside Song dynasty vase (China Song Dynasty 960-1279 AD). I use the vase for single roses. Perfect size.

Private collectors — like me — who have become custodians of some of these very old things have an obligation to care for them. We have to make sure they will be inherited by others who will treasure them. That’s not as easy as you might think. Not everyone “gets it.” And many people have no room; they have their own stuff and can’t help with yours.

I could have sold my pots but I didn’t want them to go to the highest bidder. I wanted them to be where they would be loved. If that sounds weird, you have never collected antiquities.

Jun vase (Northern Song on through the Yuan) holds a fresh rose

Jun vase (Northern Song on through the Yuan) holds a fresh rose

When you hold one of these pieces, you hold history in your hand. Imagine how many people have held this vase, this statue, this oil lamp. How many lives this pot has touched. Imagine!

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THIS TOO SHALL PASS …

My mother said it all the time. It was a favorite expressions. I never thought much about it. It was meant to comfort me when I was unhappy, when something had gone badly. It never occurred to me the expression was more than what a mother says when consoling a child.

It turns out the expression has a long and ancient history.

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This too shall pass” (Persianاین نیز بگذرد‎, Arabicلا شيء يدوم‎, Hebrewגם זה יעבור‎) is an adage indicating that all material conditions, positive or negative, are temporary.

The phrase seems to have originated in the writings of the medieval Persian Sufi poets, and is often attached to a fable of a great king who is humbled by the simple words. Some versions of the fable, beginning with that of Attar of Nishapur, add the detail that the phrase is inscribed on a ring, which has the ability to make the happy man sad and the sad man happy. 

Jewish folklore often describes Solomon as giving or receiving the phrase. The adage and associated fable were popular in the first half of the 19th century, appearing in a collection of tales by the English poet Edward Fitzgerald and also used by Abraham Lincoln in a speech before he became President.

Woodcleft Canal – Marilyn Armstrong

Freeport, Long Island. It’s in Nassau Country, the closest county on Long Island to New York city. I grew up in the city … in Queens, which is a borough of New York. Each of New York’s boroughs has its own character and in many ways, is a city in its own right. Certainly people who grow up in Brooklyn identify themselves as Brooklyn-ites and if you come from the Queens, Staten Island, or the Bronx, you will always identify that as your “home ground” rather than just “New York.”

Colorized postcard of Woodcleft canal with houses visible on the right side of the photo. Postmark: “” Merrick, N.Y, September 3, 1907″ Addressee and Address: “M.A. Hansen, 791 59th Street, Brooklyn” Message [on front]: “” Sept. 1, 07. Have a good time. May” – From the Freeport Historical Society Postcard Collection

Between the picture postcard and our visit lay almost exactly a century.

People from Manhattan have a strong sense of superiority because they come from The City. For reasons that are hard to explain, but perfectly obvious to anyone who has lived there or even visited for any length of time, Manhattan is the heart of New York in ways that cannot be simply explained. It’s not just because it’s the center of business. In fact, that really has little to do with it. It just is what it is. Even when I was a kid growing up in Queens, when we said we were going “into the city,” we  meant Manhattan. If we were going anywhere else in the five boroughs, we said we were going to Brooklyn or the Bronx or some specific neighborhood … but the city was Manhattan and no doubt still is.

I moved to Long Island in 1963 when I was 16 and had just started college. I never moved back to the city, though for many years, we went there for shows, museums, all the things available in a city and not in suburbs or other outlying areas. And of course, work.

A few years of my childhood, before I was 5 and moved to Holliswood, we lived in an apartment house — really, a tenement — on Rose Street in Freeport, near Woodcleft Canal.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area near the canal was decrepit. Living “near the docks” was not a good thing, certainly nothing to brag about. My family was going through hard times and it was the best we could afford.

My mother hated it. It was the middle of nowhere and she didn’t drive. For her, born in Manhattan, a lifelong resident of New York, what was Freeport? Long Island? That was farm country where you went to buy vegetables at farm stands. My mother, an urbanite to her core, understood poverty but being poor in the country was her version of Hell.

My memories are limited but I see in my mind a big white stucco building with no architectural features. A large white box that didn’t fit into the neighborhood. It stuck out so that even by the less stringent standards of 60 years ago, it was an eyesore. It hasn’t lost that quality. It is still an ugly building, but I expect the rent is higher.

We drove down Rose Street to look at it. I was curious if I would recognize it, but I did. Instantly. I think early memories are deeply embedded in our psyches. Then, having satisfied curiosity, we found out way to the canal.

Reflections in the canal.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the canal lined with marinas and yachts. The road along the canal has the usual expensive restaurants featuring faux nautical decor. It was a trifle weird.

There were many huge Victorian houses in Freeport back in the 1970s that you could buy for almost nothing. A great deal if you had a lot of money with which to fix one of them up. Those grand old houses … there are still a few around there and here too, but restoring one is big bucks and maintaining them, even if you can afford the initial restoration, out of the range of most people. I’m glad that some have survived. They are magnificent, though even thinking about the cost of heating one is frightening.

Everything changes.

You can’t go back in time except in your memory. Sometimes, if you treasure the way it was, how you remember it, it’s better not to revisit places. Keep your memories intact because then, the places you remember will always be the way they were.

Let the Fun Begin: Williamsburg, Virginia – Marilyn Armstrong

Friends are here and today we shall emerge and go forth to enjoy! It turns out that Colonial Williamsburg doesn’t exactly have an entrance fee. There are things in there that if you want to see them, have entry fees, but it’s free to go to the town and just enjoy it. Which hopefully is what we’ll do today.

Adding Yorktown and Jamestown costs very little. For the historical stuff, time is more the issue than is money. We have to pace ourselves, see as much as we can without getting exhausted. Young at heart? Yes, absolutely. But our bones know the truth and we can’t ignore them.

Tomorrow will be some combination of fun activities … and I’m betting it will be Busch Gardens.

Pricey, but  they have all those roller coasters and I am simply NOT going to pass up the opportunity. I’m not going to miss it.

I didn’t drive all these miles to say “Oops, can’t afford it.” That’s stupid. So I’m doing it, and that it. Even if I have to pay more than I imagined in my nightmares I would need to pay!

The hotel which isn’t a hotel, but a condo time share, is MUCH nicer than I expected.

Living room and dining area lead to a balcony facing the woods.

Aside from our quarters being huge and very nicely appointed, there are many more activities and I expected and just overall, a really lovely place.

The kitchen. There’s a huge amount of storage space … much more than I have at home and there’s also a compact washer and dryer in a closet across from the fridge.

The balcony off the living room has a peaceful view of the woods and trails. Which is what we see out our windows at home, but it’s a big improvement from the many views of parking lots I’ve had over the years from where I was staying!

View from the balcony.

If only it weren’t so godawful far away from home!

We’re pretty much recovered from the drive and now, I WANT TO HAVE SOME FUN!!!

Tune in for updates!

Editor’s Note:  The above was originally posted August 5, 2012.  In the next two days you will get more from this trip.

Old Gettysburg – Marilyn Armstrong

Horse and buggy. Easy to shoot. Horse doesn’t move much. Okay. Not at all.

When you think of Gettysburg, you probably think “battlefield.” Military history. Civil War.

I’ve never seen an actual “cigar store Indian.” Heard about them, but never seen one.

What does not likely come immediately to mind are “Ghosts” and “Ghouls.” However unlikely, that seems to be the most prominent theme of this historic town and its battlegrounds.

Old soldiers never die?

The shops are full of ghosts, ghouls, and zombies representing the dead soldiers. And, of course, there are tee shirts. Many varieties of ghosts, ghouls, and zombies, dressed in both Confederate and Union uniforms. Some, with no uniforms.

A zombie of Gettysburg.

This is tourist central, but it’s charming and quaint and everything is nicely clumped together in a small area. Even for me, it’s not too much walking. That the temperature has dropped quite a bit helps too.

Tunnel on the path.

You can get a tee-shirt with the entire Gettysburg Address on it, with or without Abraham Lincoln. You can get a wide variety of  Confederate, Union, or combination tee-shirts. Guns and knives vie with children’s toys as souvenirs.

Tee shirts … whatever you want, bet they have it.

The honored dead did not die in vain. They died so we could have cool tee shirts.

The Blue and Grey Tee Shirt Emporium.

The Mumford – Part 1- Marilyn Armstrong

Yesterday we were on our way from Uxbridge to Milford.

There’s really only one way to get there from here and that’s by Route 16, one of the original post roads in the valley.

The park along the Mumford River, at the falls.

We drove into town, but when we had to turn onto 16, it was closed. They were repairing the bridge over the Mumford. You really don’t notice the bridge until it’s closed and you have to find another route to wherever. Unlike more urban areas, we don’t have an extensive road system. We have no highways. Most roads, even the most heavily trafficked, are two lanes and none except Rt. 146 are even partially limited access.

Summertime at Mumford Falls.

There are only two seasons in New England: Winter and Road Repair. Road Repair is a long season and lasts from when the snow melts (thus including what we humorously call Spring) and as far into Autumn as the weather allows. Spring, when we have one, is short and is alternately known as “mud season.” If you have small children and/or dogs, you really understand why this is no one’s favorite time of year.

As soon as the snow melts and the weather is warm enough to do something besides play ice hockey or ski, every road in the region is backed up, barely passable as road crews rush to get as much damage repaired as possible before winter comes back.

Weather is erratic in New England. Winter can come as early as October or tease you by not showing up until January or February … or, in some rare years like this past one, not show up at all. But that’s rare indeed. Usually, the only question is how much snow and how cold. And if it will end in February, March or last right through most of April.

There’s never enough time. We may not have a lot of roads, but we do have a lot of weather and the amount of damage resulting from snow, ice and cold is usually more than the towns can fix no matter how early they start.

Editor’s note:  The above was originally posted on July 20, 2012.

 

POLITICS AND CORRUPTION IN ROME — IMPERIUM, ROBERT HARRIS

Cover of "Imperium"

Imperium, by Robert Harris

Random House

Sep 7, 2010

Fiction – 496 pages

It’s déjà vu all over again as we travel back with author Robert Harris to Republican Rome just before it became Imperial Rome. In America, in 2013, we complain about corruption. We wonder about conspiracies. We brood darkly on the failure of government to address issues of inequality. We deplore the bribery of officials. The world, we say, is going to Hell.

Except that government went to Hell a long time ago and you could easily argue that government — all government — was always hellish. Compared to Rome, our government is a clean machine, as clean as a fresh snowfall. It’s all a matter of perspective.

English: Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rom...

Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Roma Italiano: Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome (Photo: Wikipedia)

Reading history puts the world in which I live into perspective. Whatever problems we face, we — the human family — have faced them before. We survived. It’s important to remember our ability to survive is greater (for the most part) than our ability to screw up.

Imperium, by Robert Harris, is about a guy named Cicero. You’ve undoubtedly heard of him. Famed as a lawyer, even more famed as an orator, Cicero rose to fame and power during a critical cusp in history as Rome was about to change from republican to imperial. Julius Caesar had just stepped onto the stage of history. It was the beginning of the greatest imperial power the earth had ever seen … and the end of the greatest republic the world would ever know. Perspective.

Marcus Cicero started his journey to power as an outsider from the provinces. His first significant legal case put him head-to-head with the dangerous, cruel and utterly corrupt Gaius Verres, governor of provincial Sicily. Using his stunning oratorical abilities and displaying a dogged determination and persistence in the face of impossible odds, Cicero beats Verres in court. He then goes on to triumph over many powerful opponents, making friends — but far more enemies — along the way.

Cicero seeks ultimate power — imperium. His allegiance is to the Republic. Cicero’s secretary and slave, Tiro, is the inventor of shorthand and has become the author of this biography of his master. Tiro was at Cicero’s right hand throughout his career, by his side, through triumph and catastrophe. Through his voice the world of ancient Rome is brought to life.

It’s a fascinating story. Pompey and Julius Caesar stride across the stage of this deeply corrupt, depraved, dangerous and strangely familiar society.

imperium audibleRobert Harris is a brilliant story-teller and author of historical fiction. He lures us into a violent, treacherous world of Roman politics simultaneously exotically different from and startlingly similar to our own. I read it on Kindle, then listened to the very fine version available from Audible.com. I recommend both most highly.

This is part one of a duology.  The second volume in the American printing is titled Conspirata. In Great Britain the same book is titled Lustrum.

Both books are available on Kindle from Amazon and as a paperback from other sellers.

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ALEXANDER LEARNS VIRTUE – A JEWISH FOLKTALE

Judaism is a religion, but even more it’s a philosophy and an ethnicity. An identity. We have special foods, customs, stories derived from wherever “our people” came from — or at least came from most recently.

It was during the time among the Babylonians, and later among the Persians, we incorporated into our folklore shedim (demons) and dibbukim (migrant spirits) as well as the concept of angels and demons (derived from Zoroastrianism). These influences have become a permanent part of Jewish literature, right through today.

So Jews, like other ethnic groups, have our folk tales and mythology. One characters who appears frequently in Jewish folklore is — of all people — Alexander the Great.  As a kid, no one was more surprised than I was to find Alexander showing up in stories from the Talmud.

Excerpt from : 

THE AMERICA COUNCIL ON JUDAISM

The Universal and Unique Nature of Jewish Folklore

Solveig Eggerz
Issues
Fall 1995

On Alexander the Great’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the wise men of the city come out to meet the conqueror and demonstrate through word play what Alexander would have learned about himself had he but read the Talmud.

TALMUD

Alexander Learns Virtue

He asks these questions of the wise men:

“Who is wise?”

“He who can foresee the future,” answer the wise men.

“Who is a hero?”

“He who conquers himself.”

“Who is rich?”

“He who rests content with what he has.”

“By what means does man preserve his life?”

“When he kills himself.” (Talmudist notes: By this they meant when a man destroys within himself all passion.)

“By what means does a man bring about his own death?”

“When he clings to life.” (Talmudist notes: When he holds on to his passions and belongs to them.)

“What should a man do who wants to win friends?”

“He should flee from glory and should despise dominion and kingship,” the wise men conclude.

At the end of the Judaization process, the Alexander is a humbled dictator. Although the lesson does not transform him into Moses, the Talmudic dialectics bring Alexander the Great down a notch or two and make him a better man and a more benevolent dictator.

1969 – MY FAVORITE YEAR

1969 was the year I learned to fly. The world spun faster on its axis. Everything changed.

Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July 1969. I watched it unfold. I was a new mommy with a 2 months old baby boy. Home with the baby and not working or in school, I had time to see it happen.

English: Neil Armstrong descending the ladder ...

I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Imagine, a real live man on the moon!

We viewed it on CBS. It was obvious Walter Cronkite wanted to be up there too. Up there, with Neil and the rest of Apollo 11. He could barely control his excitement, almost in tears, his voice breaking with emotion.

The great Arthur C. Clarke was his guest for that historic broadcast. Neil Armstrong died last year. He had a good life. Unlike so many others who fell from grace, he remained an honorable man: a real American hero.

How I envied him his trip to the moon. I always tell my husband that no man will ever take me away from him, but if the Mother Ship comes and offers me a trip to the stars, sorry bub, I’m outta here. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth, but if they could do it on Cocoon, maybe there’s time for me, too. Maybe Garry can come with me.

Woodstock was just a month away and there were rumors flying about this amazing rock concert that was going to happen upstate. I had friends who had tickets and were going. I was busy with the baby and wished them well.

There were hippies giving out flowers in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. But I didn’t envy them because I was happy that year, probably happier than I’d ever been and in some ways, happier than at anytime since.

I was young, still healthy. I believed we would change the world, end war, make the world a better place. I still thought the world could be changed. All we had to do was love one another and join together to make it happen. Vietnam was in high gear, but we believed it was going to end any day … and though we soon found out how terribly wrong we were, for a little bit of time, we saw the future brightly and full of hope.

I had a baby boy and I sang “Everything’s Fine Right Now” which I first hear sung by the Holy Modal Rounders at a local folk music club. They had been the stonedest group of people I’d ever met, but the song was a great lullaby and made my baby boy laugh. 

It was the year of the Miracle Mets. I watched as they took New York all the way to the top. A World Series win. 1969. What a year. I rocked my son to sleep and discovered Oktoberfest beer. New York went crazy for the Mets. It should have been the Dodgers, but they’d abandoned us for the west coast.

I wore patchwork bell-bottom jeans and rose-tinted spectacles. I had long fringes on my sleeves and a baby on my hip.

Music was wonderful. How young we were! How sure we could do anything, everything.

We were going to end war … end THE war … right every wrong. As we found the peak, we would almost immediately drop back into a darker valley. But for a year, a happy year, the stars aligned and everything was good.

Decades passed; youth was a long time ago. The drugs we take control our blood pressure, not our state of consciousness. They aren’t any fun at all.

I worry about Social Security and Medicare and I know I’m not going to fix what’s wrong with the world. I’ve lived a lifetime. My granddaughter is barely younger than I was then.

I’ve remarried, lived in another country, owned houses, moved from the city to the country, and partied with a President … but 1969 remains my year.

DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE MASSACRE AT JONESTOWN

If you are my age or anywhere near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are a lot younger than I am, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV news, you could hardly forget it. Now that fundamentalism is enjoying a rebirth and well-known political and religious leaders (who ought to know better) are urging others to murder or mayhem, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing can lead.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened and time hasn’t made it less so.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. But the origin of the saying is something else, darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly horrible episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist, occasional Methodist minister, he founded his own pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it was combined with a hodgepodge of Christian references that he used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

Regardless, it was never any kind of church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It made serious demands in the way of personal committment and financial support from its members and a level of obedience that is the defining quality of a cult.

Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac — but he had positive attributes. Jones and his wife Marceline were strongly in favor of racial integration. They adopted a bunch of kids from varying racial backgrounds. They were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included 3 Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had one child of their own.

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family,” and he made a name for himself desegregating various institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed about this, note this ultimately climaxed in the murder of these children by their adoptive parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to increasingly focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested after the apocalypse, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on the town of Redwood Valley, California and before the expected Big Bang, he moved the Temple and its peoples there.

When the end-of-the-world deadline came and went without nuclear holocaust, Jones abandoned even the pretenses of Christianity. The cloak came off and he revealed himself as an atheist using religion to give legitimacy to his views. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words in view of the fact that Jones himself was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones started to worry the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger of revocation. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

jonestown massacre anniversary

Jim Jones, cult leader

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people again. This was a major relocation, leaving the United States completely and settling on a site that Jones had been working on since 1974. Located in Guyana, a poor South American nation, he modestly named it “Jonestown.”

It was a bleak, inhospitable place on 4000 acres of poor soil with limited access to fresh water. It was much to small encampment, dramatically overcrowded Temple members were forced to work long hours merely to survive.

Jones figured his people could farm the land in this new utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown, but his wealth was not shared amongst his followers. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a small, bare-bones shared house.

All Hell Breaks Loose

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses in Jonestown.

Ryan didn’t go alone. He took a contingent of media representatives including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown resident. During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, keep in mind the congressional party had not been able to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who might have wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members who wanted to go back to the States. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked by Don Sly, a knife-wielding Temple member. This would-be assassin was stopped before injuring Ryan.

Eventually the entire Ryan party plus the group of Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip and boarded planes, intending to leave. Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” after the Congressional party  These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, one Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe that anyone was fooled by the play-acting. Faced with this hypothetical invasion scenario, Jones offered Temple members a set of choices. They could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR. Another tempting alternative would be to run off into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide as an act of political protest.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their committment and gave them cups of liquid that they were told contained poison. They were asked to drink it. Which they did. After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poisonous — but one day it would be.

Indeed Jim Jones had been stockpiling cyanide and other drugs for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

Don’t Drink the Poisonous Fruit-Flavored Beverage

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid — a grape-flavored beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones urged his followers to commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable conjecture.  After some discussion, Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying Temple members to the USSR.

Jones was never interested in escape. There was only one answer that he would accept. Death and lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution in short order. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is just as creepy as you’d expect.

Then it was time for the detailed instructions which — still baffling to me at least — the followers did as they were told. I will never understand why. Probably that’s a positive sign indicating I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers must squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were dosed as well, though they were allowed to drink from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground, where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown — primarily residents who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills stating that their assets should go to the Communist Party of the USSR.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head, though it’s not clear if it was self-inflicted. Jones likely died last or nearly so and may have preferred the gun to cyanide, having just seen the horrendous effects of death by cyanide.

What’s With the Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as the Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although there is evidence both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind.

So, although Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.

REMEDIAL NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY – THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN

THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN – A Curious Account of Native People in North America

By Thomas King

University of Minnesota Press
Publication Date: September 1, 2013

272 Pages

Before starting it, I was a bit dubious about the book. The title seemed just a bit … I don’t know. Off-center? I wasn’t sure if I was about to read history, anecdotes, opinion, humor or what.

It turned out to be all of the above and more. This is an entertaining book — humorous, elegantly written and witty. It’s also serious, but the seriousness is somewhat cloaked by its style. Unlike so many books written by oppressed minorities that aim — almost exclusively — to make one feel guilty for not being one of the oppressed, this book helps you help see the world through the eyes of Native Americans. What we see is beauty, horror and hilarity … a mad world in which you can’t trust anyone and you have to make your own rules because that’s the only way to survive.

We have slaughtered our Native Americans. Hated them, admired, adulated, tortured, enslaved, jailed and utterly misunderstood them since our first encounters.

The single thing we non-Natives have never done is accept the Native American claim to this country as more legitimate than ours. At the core of the relationship between Native peoples and the white “settlers” was and will always be land. It was theirs. We wanted it. We took it. They objected. We killed them. And we kept the land and tried improve our position by slander and slaughter.

These days, feelings towards Native American runs the gamut from awe, to bigotry and loathing. Despite the passing of centuries, there is little understanding. That the Native community is less than eager to let outsiders into their world should surprise no one. Their experience with us has not been reassuring. To quote Calvera from The Magnificent Seven: “Generosity. That was our first mistake.”

For anyone interested in discovering the meaning of cognitive dissonance, growing up Native in today’s America is a good start. Natives are by no means the only minority to have to hold completely incompatible world views simultaneously, but Natives have a legitimate claim to first place for the most cock-eyed and complex relationship with the larger society in which they must live.

This isn’t exactly history. It isn’t exactly not. It’s stories, history, opinions and anecdotes presented in a non-linear, almost conversational style. It is easy to read, lively and not at all pretentious. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, but probably will. Logic would dictate that our Native population regard us with at the very least, skepticism and possibly deep-rooted hostility.

This isn’t a deep analysis of the history of this relationship, though for some I suppose it would be revelatory. I would call it “Native American History Lite.” It is a good starting place for those who don’t know anything — or know a lot of things, all of which are wrong.

About the author:

Thomas King is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and photographer. His many books include the novels Medicine River; Green Grass, Running Water; Truth and Bright Water; two short story collections, One Good Story, That One (Minnesota, 2013) and A Short History of Indians in Canada (Minnesota, 2013); nonfiction, The Truth About Stories (Minnesota, 2005); and the children’s books A Coyote Columbus Story, Coyote Sings to the Moon, Coyote’s New Suit, and A Coyote Solstice Tale. King edited the literary anthology All My Relations and wrote and starred in the popular CBC radio series, The Dead Dog Café. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western American Literary Association (2004) and an Aboriginal Achievement Award (2003), and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004. He has taught Native literature and history and creative writing at the University of Lethbridge, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Guelph and is now retired and lives in Guelph, Ontario.

The Inconvenient Indian is available in Kindle, Hardcover and Paperback and worthwhile in any format.

WHY TERM LIMITS ARE A TERRIBLE IDEA — AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN

Too many people believe we will get better government by making sure no one in congress gets to stay there for a long time. I don’t know why inexperience would mean better government. In what other field do we prefer raw recruits to veterans? Would you want an inexperienced surgeon? A lawyer fresh out of law school?

Why do you want amateurs making your laws?

Our founding fathers specifically excluded term limits. Their experience under the Articles of Confederation (the document that preceded The Constitution) showed them that good people are not interested in temp jobs for lousy pay in a distant city. Those elected to office walked away from their positions — or never took them up in the first place. There was no future in it.

When the Constitution was drawn, its authors wanted to tempt the best and the brightest to government service. They wanted candidates who would make it a career. They weren’t interested in amateurs and parvenus. The business of governing a nation has a learning curve. It takes years to get the hang of how things work, how a law gets written. How to reach across the aisle and get the opposition to participate.

The Articles of Confederation contained exactly the ideas people are promulgating today. They failed. Miserably. Do we need to learn the same lesson again?

The absence of term limits in the Constitution is not an oversight. The writers of the Constitution thought long and hard about this problem.

A little more history

Under the Articles of Confederation, our country fell apart. Elected representatives came to the capital (New York), hung around awhile, then went home. Why stay? The job had no future and their salaries didn’t pay enough to cover their costs, much less support families.

Term limits were soundly rejected at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. They were right. The Constitution’s aims to get professionals into government.

Term limits remove any hope of building a career in government. It becomes a very hard temp job with no future.

Myth Busting 101: Congress isn’t overpaid

Maybe they are paid more than you and me, but compared to what they could be earning elsewhere, they are paid poorly. What you cry? How can that be?

Most members of congress are lawyers. The 2011-2012 salary for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate was $174,000 per year. A third year associate at a good law firm will do that well and after six to twelve years (1 – 2 senate terms), a competent attorney in a good market makes much more.

Senators and representatives have to maintain two residences, one in their native state, the other in DC. If you think $174,000 will support two houses and send the kids to college, you are living in a fantasy world. Which is why many members of congress have other income streams.

Curiously, our Founding Fathers expected congressmen, especially senators, to be men of means. They felt only wealthy people would be able to afford government service. And they would be less susceptible to bribery. On the whole, they were right. What they didn’t foresee was how many kinds of corruption would be available. Bribery is the least of our problems.

Skill and experience count

Writing a law that can stand up to scrutiny by the courts and other members of congress takes years. You don’t waltz in from Anywhere, USA and start writing laws. Moreover, great legislators are rare in any generation. A sane electorate doesn’t throw them away.

We are not suffering from an entrenched group of old-time pols stopping the legislative process. We are suffering a dearth of old guard, the folks who understand how to work with the opposition to make the process work. It’s the newly elected morons who are stopping progress. Sadly, our experienced old-timers got old and retired. Or died. They have been replaced by imbeciles.

Above and beyond the skill it take to write legislation, it takes even longer to gain seniority and peer respect. Frank Capra notwithstanding, Mr. Smith doesn’t go to Washington and accomplish miracles. Newly elected congresspeople hope to build a career in politics. With luck, one or two of them will become a great legislator, a Tip O’Neill, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Bob DoleTed Kennedy or another of the giants. Anyone you name connected to important legislation was a multi (many) term representative or senator.

Term limits eliminate all chance of having great legislators

Term limits guarantee a bunch of amateurs — or worse — fumbling their way around congress. As soon as they figure out where the toilets are and get reasonably good at their jobs, they’ll be gone. Does that make sense? Really?

Garry and Tip O’Neill

If you think your congressman or senator is doing a crappy job, replace him or her with someone you believe will do better.

If you don’t elect them, they won’t be in congress

We have term limits. These are called elections. Throw the bums out. Vote for the other guy. Term limits were an awful idea in 1788 and they haven’t improved with time. Among the biggest concerns Democrats had about Barack Obama in 2008 was he didn’t have enough experience, hadn’t been in the senate long enough. With term limits, no one would ever have enough experience. Where would we get candidates suitable to be President?

We don’t need term limits. We need better candidates. We need men and women willing to learn the craft, who have ideas and can work with others to get America’s business done. Our government does not rest on the Presidency. It rests on 435 congressmen and 100 senators.

The President doesn’t run the country

Congress writes legislation and votes it into law. Ultimately, it’s you, me, our friends and neighbors who choose the people to make laws, pass budgets, approve cabinet members and Supreme Court justices.

Whatever is wrong with Congress, it’s OUR fault

The 535 members of congress are chosen by us and if you don’t like one, don’t vote for him or her. If someone gets re-elected over and over, you have to figure that a lot of people vote for that candidate. You may not like him, but other people do. That’s what elections are about. It doesn’t necessarily work out the way you want, but changing the rules won’t solve the problems. Make the job more — not less — attractive so better people will want to go into government. Otherwise, you’re creating a job no one will want.

It’s close to that already. Mention going into politics to an ambitious young person. Watch him or her recoil in horror.

Ultimately, it’s all about America. Partisanship, special interests, regional issues, party politics and personal agendas need to take a back seat to the good of the nation … and we need to agree what that means, at least in broad strokes. Term limits won’t fix the problem, because that’s not what’s broken.

JUMPING SHIP

Daily Prompt: Walking on the Moon

by Krista on February 23, 2014 – What giant step did you take in which you hoped your leg wouldn’t break? Was it worth it, were you successful in walking on the moon, or did your leg break?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in March 1947. By the end of 1977 I found myself at emotional loose-ends. I was closing the book on chapter one of my life and looking for the next part of the story. Which is why, in January 1978, I tossed everything into a couple of trunks, got permission to take my son with me … and ran away to join the circus. Well, not the circus. I made Aaliyah and went to live in Israel which is very similar. I’d wanted to go there since I was an overly romantic teenage girl with visions of Ari Ben Canaan stuffed in my head.

I had a bunch of reasons for going, though the bottom line was a persistent hunger for adventure and a yearning for romance. It went like this:

  • My marriage was over. I wanted to get on with life and being very far away seemed like a fine choice
  • I wanted to put an ocean between me and my father. I forgot this would put an ocean between me and everyone else, too
  • My idea of Israel was gleaned entirely from books, movies and Mom — but it sounded great
  • I wanted to get out of my safety zone and into a wider world. I was bored
  • I wanted culture shock. To immerse myself in a different society. Really bored
  • I was tired of suburban life and wanted to do something big. Or, in other words, I was really, really bored.

How did it go? I gave up a lot to go there. Everything. Except my son. Divorce is easy if you hand everything to your ex and take a hike. I probably should have made a better settlement but I was young. Freedom was worth everything. Eventually I came to realize money matters too, but back then, it didn’t seem all that important.

I got plenty of excitement. I got layer upon layer of history, the ghosts of millennium walking with me on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. I got romance too, but not the sweaty, breast-heaving sort. It was the romance of discovery, more interesting than I dreamed. All in all, a worthy adventure.

Where I used to live.

Where I used to live.

I learned a lot in Israel. I discovered how provincial and ignorant I was. I learned how inaccurate the international press is, that everything you read about the Middle East is slanted. Sometimes, it’s completely untrue. As in “that never happened.”

Israelis — like other people — are not of one mind. Israelis don’t walk, talk and think in lock-step. If you know anything about Jewish culture, the idea that millions of Jews could live together and agree on anything (much less everything) is funny. Get three Jews in a room and you’ll have 4 — or more — opinions. With millions of Jews all packed together? Imagine the possibilities.

When I am asked about Israel, I find myself saying: “It’s complicated.” Which translates to “The amount of time it would take me to answer your question exceeds any real interest you have in the subject. ” Where Israel is concerned, it’s always complicated. Because everyone is right. And wrong.

Flaws and all, it’s the only place on earth where Jews live by a Jewish calendar, where we aren’t a tiny minority. We need Israel as our safe place when nowhere else will take us in. It’s not paranoia — it’s history. Without Israel, Jews are fragile nomads, blowing with the winds of war and public sentiment.

Home

Home

What brought me back?

I’m American. This land is my land (please join in for the chorus). The seasons sync with my body. I can smell the salt air of the Atlantic. The trees are the right color and they turn gold in autumn. After 9 years away, I needed to come home.

I’m glad I went, glad I stayed but very glad I came back.

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THE ACQUISITIVE EYE – A JEWISH TALE OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT

Judaism is a religion, but even more it’s a philosophy, an ethnicity and an identity. We have special foods, customs, and stories from wherever “our people” have lived through the centuries.

It was during the time among the Babylonians, and later among the Persians, we incorporated into our folklore shedim (demons) and dibbukim (migrant spirits) as well as the concept of angels and demons (derived from Zoroastrianism). These influences have become a permanent part of Jewish literature, right through today.

One of the characters who appears frequently in Jewish folklore is — of all people — Alexander the Great. As a kid, I was astonished to find Alexander showing up in stories from the Talmud.

This one is my favorite.

The Acquisitive Eye

Alexander is on his way home to Macedonia after conquering the entire world. The great ruler comes to a stream whose waters originate in Paradise. He follows the stream until he comes to the gates of Paradise itself, and pounds on the gate crying: “I am Alexander, conqueror of the world! I demand you let me in!”

Alexander is told that “Only the pious may enter Paradise,” but being as he is Alexander, they make an exception and he is allowed to come through the gates. As he stands at the entrance, he see something rolling towards him. Alexander realizes it’s a human eye. He picks it up, brings it to the wise men and asks them, “What does this mean?”

75-Eye-2

The wise men tell Alexander to place the eye on a scale and try to balance it with gold and jewels. Alexander heaps the scale with piles of riches, but no matter how much he piles on, the eye outweighs it.

“The eye is never satisfied as long as it can see,” say the wise men, “Therefore it can never be satisfied. All the treasure in the world cannot outweigh it.  The eye will want more and more.”

The wise men instruct Alexander to remove the gold and place a pinch of dust on the eye. They then place a feather on the opposing scale and it is heavier than the eye. At last the great Alexander understands the Talmudic lesson on greed and materialism.

He says: “So long as a man is alive, his eye can never be satisfied. Yet as soon as he dies, the moment dust covers his eye, even a feather outweighs it. Only in death does the eye lose its power. Only in death is man satisfied.”

And so Alexander left Paradise a wiser man.

For more stories and other information, see THE AMERICA COUNCIL ON JUDAISM.