Archive for January, 2008

Book of Lights, by Chaim Potok.

January 25, 2008

What’s it about?

Gershon is a rabbi-in-training with an interest in mysticism over law (Kabbalah over Talmud), and a need to connect that mysticism to experience.

He does it through his friend and fellow rabbi-in-training, whose father helped build the atomic bomb (as did many Jews, I think). His friend is full of guilt (and rejection of his parents), which distracts from the quality of his religious study.

Military service, as chaplains, is required, and they go to South Korea. There, Gershon’s experiences separate his values from his religion. The people he admires are not Jews: a Korean boy, a Mormon assistant who is harder working and more open-minded than his Jewish assistant. The difference he sees himself making is practical: improvement of physical conditions. The actual spiritual counseling is presented as minimally important, and consists largely of Jewish soldiers in conflict with the military (prostitution is mentioned several times). The main Jewish advocacy occurs when there is war in the Middle East (the Suez Crisis, I think), and there is talk that the Jews are about to start a nuclear war.

Gershon’s drift away from  seeing value in  his religion continues to a crisis point, producing a severe questioning of faith. After the military service, it’s unclear whether mysticism still has relevance for him.

This passage, spoken by one of his professors near the end, is a good expression of the purpose of spirituality, in contrast to religion:

“What is of importance is not that there may be nothing. We have always acknowledged that as a possibility. What is important is that if indeed there is nothing, then we should be prepared to make something out of the only thing we have left to us–ourselves.”

I wonder: Why not make something out of ourselves regardless of whether there is nothing (i.e. no god)?

At the end, Gershon meditates on a rooftop and has a conversation with some entities (God and/or a tempter…it is not made clear). He resolves to continue study of the Kabbalah.

I like the book because the themes are understated and thoughtful. It’s not a book that will work for you if you expect to be entertained. The reader is expected to make some meaning for himself. Quite a bit is not explained, but there is enough for the pleasure of building your own meaning from what is given.



January 23, 2008


Big plans. Go to traditional, historic site (one hour by subway) with good hiking, do good hiking, see important, traditional site, go home, relax at the Manhattan Bar.

Did it happen? Of course! (More or less.)

Slept late. Read about stocks crashing. Worried. Yawned. Wet, grimy snow was falling outside. Crawled back to the womb (under the blankets).

I think I got myself to the “porridge” bar around 10:00, where I had pumpkin porridge. Yum. On the way to Starbucks, I pulled out my camera hoping to catch some Korean women wearing miniskirts in the snow. Oh those crazy Koreans! There was a great opportunity too, as a flock of young ladies popped out a doorway, almost all in minis, with some nice fat snowflakes falling through the air, but I couldn’t get a picture. I wonder who the first Korean to climb Everest in a miniskirt will be.

Onward to Starbucks, where I contemplated being lazy and going home (it was getting late, the weather…). But, no, no; courageous, intrepid me pressed onward (ever onward).

Read the pink Korean Herald on the train. Stock markets crashing, president-elect of Korea under investigation. Presidential candidates in the US accusing each other of being bad people. Giant, Patriots in the Super Bowl (finally, some real news). I wish I had shorted stocks super-aggressively, or at least sold everything. Oh well.

On the way to Namhanseong-san I got mildly lost, couldn’t figure out the difference between the park and the historic site, thought I got off at the wrong station, got frustrated and started getting mad at myself. Getting mad at myself is something I practice often. Or do I do it for real? I’m not sure.

Finally I tried to ask directions from two old Korean men on the street.

* Me: 어디 남한산성?

* Old men: Eh?

I figured my grammar was bad, but if they could understand my pronunciation they would understand my question. So I tried to be really clear…

* Me: (very slowly): 어 디  남 한 산 성 ?

* Old men: (looking at each other) Eh?

Maybe the problem was my grammar. I tried to remember the right endings…

* Me: 남한산성은 어디에 입닉가?

* Old men: Eh?

* Me: 남한산성가 어디에 입닉가?

* Old men: Eh?

Finally I gave up on the idea of making a complete sentence, and just said “남한산성?” while shrugging and looking hopeful. I pronounced it at a normal speed, trying to maintain the unstressed Korean pronunciation. They immediately understood and pointed me in the right direction! Moral of the story: it is better to say one word clearly than three words badly.

My labyrinthitis was a bit of a bleary nuisance while walking back to the subway. Oh well.


Magically, when I got to the mountain, the snow was clean and fluffy and beautiful. No at all like that nasty city snow down the hill. There were lovely spots: bare trees with clean snow lining their branches, snowy rocky hillsides, misty views of nearby snowy peaks.

Back in Ansan: Starbucks, home, snacks for dinner, consideration of being lazy (always!) instead of following the plan to go to the Manhattan Bar (where my plan is to journal the day’s events) , awe-inspiring surmounting of the temptation of laziness, trudge to bar (no more snow), discover they make manhattans with Jack Daniels (gross), pay more for something nicer, and here I am writing this!

Lunch today

January 5, 2008

Squidburger and fries.