Kenneth Wishnia's Blog

Take the Levites – Please!

by Ken Wishnia
Originally posted on The Sirens of Suspense

“Take the Levites—please!”
–God, Numbers 8:6 (translated by Henny Youngman)

To be Jewish is to be constantly reminded of disaster or near disaster. The traditional Jewish calendar is full of events commemorating various attempts to destroy the Israelite people:

Purim, Passover, Yom Ha-Shoah, Hanukkah. Jews are also instructed to remember the dead during one of the four Yizkor services and with yortsayt candles on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Then there’s the cyclical annual reading of the Torah with its ultra-noir ending, when God tells Moses, “You may view the land from a distance but you shall not enter it” (Deut. 32:52). Why does God punish Moses in this manner? Because “you broke faith with me.”

That is, because of one little screw-up–the famous incident in the wilderness where Moses strikes the rock just a little too hard, it seems, and water flows out–God will not let him enter the Promised Land.

Fully one-third of the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament) is devoted to lamenting what we have lost: the United Kingdom under David and Solomon (which only lasted 80 years), the Ten Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel after the Assyrian conquest of 722 BCE, and the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE.

These events provoked a crisis of consciousness: If the God of Israel is all-powerful, how do you explain the conquest and destruction of both kingdoms? The answer provided by the Hebrew Bible is that it was our own fault (the famous Jewish “guilt”). This fault begins with our leaders and trickles down to the rest of us. The book of Kings is full of condemnations of various kings of Israel and Judah. A small sample: “Omri did what was displeasing to the Lord; he was worse than all who preceded him” (1 Kings 16:25).

No other official Ancient Near Eastern annals describe how lousy their rulers were in such relentless detail as the Hebrew Bible. In the historical annals of Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia, every king is always a glorious ruler whom the gods have favored and who never loses a battle, ever.

And then come the angry prophets. (Y’all know what a “jeremiad” is, right? ‘Nuff said.)
Even the Psalms display a cynical noir perspective at times. One reason for this is that the idea of a rewarding afterlife in heaven for the average person does not begin to appear in canonized Jewish texts until the book of Daniel, which is commonly accepted among Bible scholars as being chronologically the latest book in the Hebrew Bible (so late that nearly half of it is written in Aramaic, rather than biblical Hebrew). And this belief doesn’t shift toward fully accepted doctrine until many centuries later, during the Christian era.

So what did the Israelites believe in? The same dreary afterlife found in other Ancient Near Eastern and Greek cosmologies: a monotonous semi-existence in the underworld where all are equally miserable.

Hence Psalm 49 asks:

Shall he live eternally,
and never see the grave?
For one sees that the wise die,
that the foolish and ignorant both perish,
leaving their wealth to others.
Their grave is their eternal home,
the dwelling-place for all generations
of those once famous on earth.
Man does not abide in honor;
he is like the beasts that perish. (10-12)

There’s more, but you get the idea. Not exactly what most of you were taught in Sunday school, is it?

Those of you who are familiar with the hardboiled mayhem of my contemporary series featuring Ecuadorian-American detective, Filomena Buscarsela, may be wondering where all this is coming from. It just so happens that I have spent the past few years studying the Hebrew Bible in a comparative context with other Ancient Near Eastern texts as part of the intensive research for a forthcoming novel set in ancient Israel. And since this project is taking so long, I agreed to edit the anthology, Jewish Noir (PM Press), to keep my name out there in front of the quick-to-forget reading public.

Now here’s the funny thing: every story in Jewish Noir is set in the 20th or 21st centuries. And yet the legacy of these ancient disasters and the noir mindset they engendered cast such a long shadow that they are present in one form or another even in a story set in postwar suburban
Long Island.

So noir is not an affectation with us, not a club we’re joining or a band wagon we’re jumping on or a publishing trend we’re hoping to cash in on.

With all due respect to my Christian friends, and they are many, let’s face it, the typical Christian religious holiday is a celebration: Our Savior’s birth was announced, Our Savior was born, Our Savior has risen, Our Savior appeared before his disciples ringed in glory, Our Savior’s mother rose straight to Heaven. Hallelujah! (which is a Hebrew word, by the way)
Compare this to a recent interview in the Forward with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, best known for his translation of the Talmud. When asked about the story of Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the indigenous Maccabees over the armies of the Syrian king Antiochus in 165 BCE, Rabbi Steinsaltz said: “The point of the holiday is not the miracle and it’s not the war; it’s our ability to continue… That’s what we commemorate about Hanukkah: We still exist.”
Suck on that, Antiochus!

(Source of Steinsaltz quote: Pogrebin, Abigail. “How the Story of Hanukkah Shows that Judaism Can Change, Some of the Time.” Forward. 19 December, 2014: 10.)

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