A Malcontented Beheading: Sermon Slam Piece on Amalek

This past Sunday, I MC’ed a Sermon Slam in Jerusalem, on the theme of Amalek.  Here is one of my favorite pieces from the evening, by Charlie Buckholtz, a Jerusalem-based writer whose writing has been featured in the Washington Post, Tablet, and the Daily Beast, and who blogs at badrabbi.tumblr.com.  His book Are You Not a Man of God?  Devotion, Betrayal, and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition, co-authored with Tova Hartman, was recently published by Oxford University Press.   You can watch video of this performance here and listen to it in podcast form, along with another excellent one by Candace Mittel, a Pardes student,  here.  To find out more about Sermon Slam, visit its Kickstarter page. –aryehbernstein

A Malcontented Beheading

By Charlie Buckholtz

 

Back seat, BMW SUV.

Back streets of Queens careening by me, through me

in the window, as I wonder how it is I ended up here:

mid-day, mid-life, mid-week, on a visit to sit with the family of a dead guy I’ll never meet.

Taking lessons from a driver who knows he’s in the driver’s seat.

It’s this kid’s car, he’s 15 years my junior; pops just gave it to him the day before the

funeral; now they’re schmoozing pros and cons of the on-board computer.

Apparently it was between this one and a Mercury–next the conversation turns to pee-pee, naturally.

“So abba, how you pishing these days?”

Gotta love the Jews, right? They never quite fail to amaze.

Anyways, pops is obviously completely unfazed, no hesitation—

such a detailed explanation, it left me slightly dazed.

Pops you see is my boss, the shul president.

Pretend that we’re friends — maybe we are — but it’s as irrelevant

as the rain that was falling all around us that day, pounding like a dozer, hounding me like a moser,

making everything feel even smaller, closer…

No sir! I have a sudden violent urge to say

I am neither an impostor nor a dissident…okay?

Still I guess I’ll keep the rain in the event:

never know what details the future reveals to set new precedents.

Can’t say I remember what the thread was…guess I lost it in the dissonance.

Oh yeah—that’s when the talk wheeled into real-estate.

Father-son, heated debate, see—

Pops is a mogul, owner of buildings,

his ex-best-friend once told me he only messes with tens of millions.

Kid just out of college, time for him to learn the business.

And so they spar over the value of a property, the cost of each unit

when evaluated properly.

First, squeeze every ounce of liveability out of the living space.

Next, wrench every possible dollar out of each renter’s face.

Waxing fractions, equations I never heard of

the broken dreams of peoples divided by how a soul is murdered.

 

Now, it just so happened that the previous day

I’d received my very own notice of eviction, “Without delay.”

See, the building had recently changed ownership.

New guy:  infamous slumlord, beloved Jewish donor. Shit.

Who planned to split our little one-bedroom in two tiny bits,

throw down a carpet and some stainless steel appliances, increase the shininess,

charge double and still call it a one-bedroom despite the minus-ness.

 

Long-time tenants were now impediments to innovation–

out of endless slummy sleeves sprung months of dirty renovations.

Dust-choked construction starting at netz, [Hebrew  for "sunrise" -- A.B.]

mouse infestations, layer after layer of wet paint: no signs to set you straight.

Mass emigration, self-deportation by all our neighbors: they had it.

Look, you don’t get on the cover of the Village Voice for being mediocre at screwing people…

You strive for greatness at it!

 

Still me and my girl, we liked the spot.

Braved the dangers, cast a master exterminator to squelch the mouse plot.

Sometimes we felt like the last people on earth, stragglers haggling with this dystopian

predator who’d assessed us as worse than worthless.

Then came the letter, sounded made up and fake, some legal loophole:

“You now have exactly one month to evacuate.”

 

Back in the Beamer on the way to the shiva

I pipe in. It seems as good a time as never.

Explain the situation to the boss-men.

Takes less than keday achilas pras* ’til they agree with him.  [*Halakhic term for the time it takes to eat a nice snack.]

Blame the seller, other excuses: “Dude has no choice!

He does it any other way and he loses!”

So now I feel like we’re onto something. This is my area of expertise, right?

Afflict the comfortable, stand up for God or something?

And so I pose what seems a reasonable query:

“Is there ever a time to just do what’s right because what’s right is clear?”

 

But there’s no pregnant pause, no swollen moment of silences.

The son, who knows exactly what the science is, replies with this:

“Rabbis make moral decisions, and that’s why rabbis get paid by businessmen.”

 

Again?

 

“Rabbis make moral decisions, and that’s why rabbis get paid by businessmen.”

 

And then:

 

“Rabbis make moral decisions and that’s why rabbis get paid by businessmen.”

 

The end.

 

Back in the Temple, when time was an anachronism

and God was a mystery, whose signs were like backwards prisms…

the priestly job was charge the price of admission–

calf/oxen/turtledove, whatever the dice provision.

Holy functionary, Batman!  These guys were the hardest.

One long, sharp fingernail – but not because they were cokeheads or classical guitarists.

Purpose was ritual, practice habitual, they used it to slaughter little birds,

this shit’s not fictional or made up, it’s right there in black fire on white fire:

He’d slice that nail into the nape of its neck, ’til birdie’s life expired.

Not very pretty, but still kinda deep, though, when you consider the name of this way of

killing.  Hebrew:   Melika.

That’s the same letters as Amalek,

that lazy nation of bottom-feeders whose memory we’re never free to shake.

The ones who go after the weakest among us, cut off the stragglers of the Exodus

without so much as a ruckus: days passed before the devastation was known.

We made our way through the desert limping on amputated leg bones.

 

That’s why it says: always remember, to always forget to

wipe their memory off the face of the earth like less than flotsam jetsam.

But then again, always remember what’s forgotten, ’cause what you forget is what

inevitably gets you in the end, son:

those dusky corners of heart, soul, and psyche, rotting from inattention

 

Did I mention?  Total severing of the bird head is prohibited.

The point isn’t to kill us, just turn us into chirping beheaded idiots

who forever feel that pressure at the base of our necks:

nail against brain stem,

whose refrain is, just keep cashin’ them checks.

It’s the horizon, what we allow ourselves to train our eyes on.

And that’s why, son, you never see it until it’s too late.

Shapes what you look at, sense, and allow yourself to contemplate.

So I leave off with a question to pass the hours with:

 

Does religion ever touch power?

 

Do rabbis matter?

 

Or are we just the bird-head of the stragglers?

One Response to “A Malcontented Beheading: Sermon Slam Piece on Amalek”

  1. Here is a video recording of Charlie’s performance:
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOxYfhqkjEE


    aryehbernstein · March 13th, 2014 at 8:36 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik