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Shylock in Jerusalem

There are no accidents in Shakespeare.

Hardly a week passed without Professor Levin impressing upon us yet again this paramount lesson, and no one passed Professor Levin’s class without learning it well.  So learn it I did, but with no inkling of how its echo would reverberate beyond Shakespeare’s era by thousands of years, and beyond Shakespeare’s England by thousands of miles.

Levin was cheery, almost spritely (in spite of his erudition), a short, energetic, New York Jew who amicably prodded us to challenge him on every point, then mercilessly undercut our arguments whenever we contested him.  So effortlessly did he draw from the Complete Annotated Works of William Shakespeare in defense of his assertions that no one dared attack him without the most thorough consideration, not even the cockiest among us.

That would have been me – a headstrong senior at the University of California, Davis.  Having recently returned from half a year circumnavigating the globe, I had acquired just enough sophistication to cringe at the cultural shortcomings of my fellow undergraduates, if not quite enough to recognize my own; by my reckoning I had out-paced them all, and I fancied myself nearly an English professor in my own right, momentarily denied the recognition I deserved by the patriarchal myopia of those higher up in the ivory tower.  Graduate school would rectify that soon enough.

In the meantime, I was still short one faculty recommendation and, with this deficiency in mind, my adviser had suggested that I take Levin’s course in Shakespeare, advising me to introduce myself to the instructor at the start of the term and declare my intention of impressing him with my scholarship.  In retrospect, the absurdity of such counsel seems staggering, although at the time it struck me as eminently reasonable.

“You’re an English major, I suppose?”  Professor Levin asked at our first meeting.  I nodded.  Non-majors took Shakespeare for Non-Majors.  “And what are your plans after graduation?”

“Graduate school,” I replied.  Then, matter-of-factly, I added:  “I’m still short one recommendation, so I’m planning to do quite well in your class this term.”

He laughed condescendingly, but was impressively gracious considering the audacity of my remark.  I went on to outline my idea for a paper on Romeo and Juliet.  He replied that I should write on the Merchant of Venice instead, then hurried me out of his office.

Half a lifetime later, I can still visualize Levin’s introduction to the Merchant of Venice as if I were sitting in his classroom.  Clearly, he would have preferred to ignore the editor’s remarks that prefaced our edition, and if he could have assured himself we would all skip over it I’m certain he would have done just that.  His overarching fear, however, must have been that some of us might indeed read it, and that it might influence our approach both to the play and to Shakespeare in general.  So he couldn’t leave it alone; the risk was too great.

The editor described the play as a romance, Portia as a young innocent longing for love, Shylock as evil incarnate.  To his credit, Levin tried valiantly to be judicious.  “Perhaps the editor intended to present the foundations upon which one can build an appreciation of the play,” he suggested at first.  But as he continued, he had more difficulty finding room for magnanimity, eventually reconciling himself to observe that the editor “seems to be overlooking a rather critical third dimension to all the major characters.”  But he couldn’t stop there.  Love’s labors lost, together with the patience of a scholar wishing to impart scholarship to his students.  “There’s nothing else to say,” he finally concluded in exasperation.  “The man’s a fool.”

There are no accidents in Shakespeare.  Every word is in place.  Every repetition purposeful.  Every omission calculated.  Every nuance measured.  And every theme directed at the very heart of Elizabethan society in a way that pricked the sensibilities of the times without drawing the ire of the monarchy or the church.  And as Professor Levin taught us, as he opened our eyes to the meter, the rhythm, the seemingly infinite complexities of character and plot, something dormant in my brain stirred to life, woke with a start, and burst forth into the dawn of enlightenment with all-consuming passion.  Here was wisdom that had not been mastered, that could not be mastered, in which yet undiscovered pearls of insight lay deep beneath the surface waiting to be recovered by any dedicated diver and revealed to the world.

Trapped within the cushy walls of my suburban, secular-Jewish upbringing, condemned to a life of comfortable mediocrity by what I called the upper-middle-class curse, I projected my own frustrations onto Portia, empathizing with her subjugation to her father’s will and finding couched within her words both the intent to manipulate her father’s scheme and the resolve that no man would ever again hold her under his thumb. With euphoric abandon I peeled away layer upon layer of meaning and insight as I composed my midterm essay.

And so, when Professor Levin bustled into the classroom with his stack of graded papers, I could hardly have failed to notice, from my conspicuous vantage point at the center of the front row, my own paper lying atop the pile.  The professor lifted it up, carried it about as he made a few comments about the papers in general, then set it down and picked up the one beneath it, from which he began pointing out examples of a well-written critique.

I wasn’t listening.  If he had intended to read from this paper, why had he not placed it, rather than mine, on the top of the bundle?  Would he read from mine next?  No, he went deeper into the pile, citing further examples of what makes a paper work.  Then he picked up mine again, and I tried desperately to read the silhouetted grade showing through the back of the last page as he paced up and down at the front of the class.  “Now from the best paper in the class…” he began, and I swallowed air as my heart swelled up into my throat.  I labored to pay attention, but directed even more effort toward keeping an even expression and not grinning like an idiot; presumably I failed, since the guy next to me kept shooting glances my way, even though there was no way he should have been able to tell that the paper was mine.

Today, I empathize with my own students, to whom I rarely return exams until the end of class.  It was an hours-long fifty minutes that afternoon, and when the professor finally did hand back the papers, I quickly flipped to the back page from where, at the bottom of a long paragraph of Levin’s blue ink, an A+ jumped off the paper and into my arms.

I sauntered casually out of class, then cantered down the stairs to find a bench in the hallway where I could pour over my professor’s remarks, all of them glowing.  After a few minutes I felt a presence standing over me.  It was Professor Levin, and I leapt to my feet.

“A really first-rate paper,” he said.  “Are you an English major?”

I nodded.  Evidently, our first meeting had not left much of an impression.  “And what are your plans after graduation?”

“Graduate school,” I replied.  “As a matter of fact, I’m still short one recommendation, and I’m hoping to be able to ask you for one.”

He smiled, with no hint of condescension this time.  “I’ll be happy to write you a recommendation,” he said.  “Just let me know when you need it.”

Professor Levin had accomplished what few of my other professors had, and what none had accomplished to the same degree:  not only had he challenged me think, but he had made me think with an intensity and a fervor that drove me to produce the major opus of my college career.  Which, I now understand, was exactly what he had intended.  What I’m sure Professor Levin did not intend was to set the chords of Jewish disharmony resonating in my heart and mind through the tragedy of Shylock the Jew and his daughter Jessica.

But this latter effect would have to incubate for several years and, in the meantime, Professor Levin drove me on in the study of Shakespeare with even greater enthusiasm.  I finished the term with a dissection of Henry IV, Part I, followed by a second term with the same professor and a chance to sink my teeth into Hamlet.

Sink, yes, but it was I rather than my teeth that sank amidst the swirling tides of the bard’s most famous play.  Projecting as I had done with Portia, I superimposed my own sophomoric hopes and fears upon the Prince of Denmark, crediting him not with simple indecisiveness, but with a trepidation born from a crystalline vision of myriad futures, every one of them converging inevitably upon a common destination of death and disaster.  I gleaned the play for evidence, developed arguments, established proofs, anticipated counterproofs, neglected the other plays Levin had assigned and even my other courses as I grappled with the task of interpreting the unsteady psyche of the young prince in whom I saw myself.

The result was a six-thousand-word thesis, more than twice the length of anything I had ever written.  Too long, in fact, as I found myself thoroughly lost in the turns and twists of Shakespeare’s subtleties.  When I reached the end I knew I hadn’t made my case, but I was drained of the desire to go back and work it through again from the start.  My professor rewarded me with an A; I suppose my treatise was impressive work from an undergrad, but he was unconvinced by my arguments and let me know it with his trademark smile, albeit with hardly any condescension.

Graduate school, however, remained a fancy as distant as Shylock’s Venice.  An unusually slow reader and typically undisciplined student, I had barely passed my lower division survey courses and had absorbed far too narrow a cross-section of English and American literature to prepare me for the Graduate Record Exams.  As they stood, my GRE scores would have qualified me very nicely for engineering or law school, but I didn’t need an adviser to tell me that no respectable English Lit. department would be impressed or interested.

A cultivated talent for picking apart great literature is not a greatly sought commodity in the general marketplace, and my penchant for creative writing was neither saleable nor especially refined.   And so, with the looming specter of matriculation and frighteningly few alternatives, I buried my hopes of becoming either scribe or scholar, slung a pack over my back, and set off to hitchhike across America.

After all, it had worked for Kerouac.

From November to April I traveled east, from L.A. to Boulder to New Orleans to Key West to Charleston to Washington, D.C., before I burned out and headed home.  I had satiated my appetite for travel, I thought, and the vague notion of a master’s degree in social work was now buzzing about my head.  But as way does indeed lead on to way, the following autumn found me not back in the ivory tower but on a street corner in Vienna, so travel-weary after half-a-year of European wandering that, although headed nowhere in particular, I found myself quite incapable of making up my mind whether to turn left or right.  After five minutes agonizing over one or the other road not taken, I finally made a decision:  I needed to stop – or, at least, to slow down.

My focus drifted across the Mediterranean to Israel, the land of my people, and – more importantly – the land ofkibbutzim.  A month or two of highly structured mindlessness on a collective farm picking oranges or harvesting bananas sounded like just the prescription for recharging my emotional batteries.  So I caught a flight across the Mediterranean, confidant that after a brief respite I would be off again, this time to Kenya and Botswana and, after that, to India and perhaps an ashram in Nepal.

I arrived in Israel together with the winter, when the earth slumbers and, with it, the field hands.  I also arrived together with many thousands of twenty-somethings who had exactly the same idea I had.  They were camped out at the government placement offices like teenyboppers waiting to buy tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.  Even more discouraging were the signs declaring, NO VOLUNTEER OPENINGS – COME BACK NEXT YEAR.

Next year?  I wanted to go to Africa or Asia next year, but I couldn’t afford to just hang out, nor would a month or two of indolence restore me to sanity.  I needed a routine, something to keep me busy until my psyche recovered and I could return to the road.

A long-forgotten, foreign-sounding word surfaced amidst my foundering thoughts:  yeshiva, a term I had picked up in my earlier travels, an institution dedicated to the study of ancient talmudic laws and the traditions of the Jews.  Scholarships were freely given, I had been told, and also room and board, particularly to college-age Jewish men and women who had grown up dispossessed of their ancestral heritage.  I didn’t contemplate for long:  I needed something to do, and this would do as well as anything.

Better still, I didn’t even have to find them; they found me.  As I arrived at the Western Wall, before I even made it down the stone stairway into the vast courtyard, I had been identified, classified, and virtually tagged like an endangered fauna, given a place to stay, and set up to visit yeshiva the next day.

Like a toddler thrown into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim, so was I tossed unforewarned into the sea of Talmud.  There, sitting around a table overlooking an array of oversized volumes filled with indecipherable writing, Rabbi Moshe Carlebach read and translated for us, then cheerfully endured our relentless questions.

“The Talmud wants to know,” he chanted, rocking back and forth in his chair in time with has singsong intonation, “why the Torah prescribes that the bondwoman ‘goes out for free, with no money.’  Someone explain to me what’s bothering the Talmud.”

We looked around at each other for a moment.  What was bothering me was how the antiquated legalistic minutiae of indentured servitude could have the slightest relevance to my life.

“If she goes out for free,” suggested the fellow seated beside the rabbi, “then obviously there’s no money.”

“Excellent!”  cried the rabbi, rewarding the boy with hearty slap on the back that made his eyes bug out.

“But maybe it’s just for emphasis,” someone else suggested.

“But what’s being emphasized?”  asked the rabbi.

“That she goes out for free.”

“But it says that already.”

“So it repeats it to make sure.”

“To make sure of what?”

“That we’re paying attention.”

“No,” laughed Rabbi Carlebach.  “No, no, no, no, no!  The Torah assumes that we’re paying attention.  Like I keep telling you, if there’s any repetition, anything appearing extra or unnecessary, any seeming omission, it’s there for a reason, and it’s there to teach us something.  That’s what learning Talmud is all about.”

My mind clicked up several gears, and I leaned forward with sudden interest.  “Are you saying,” I asked cautiously, “that there are no accidents in the Torah?”

“Exactly!”  he roared, as he tried to give me a slap; fortunately, I was out of reach.

“And if the Torah could have expressed itself in one way but chose another,” I pressed on, “is that also relevant?”

The rabbi could scarcely conceal his joy, as if this were a concept that normally had to be drilled in for weeks or months before his students finally grasped it.  “Yes, yes!”  he exploded.  “Nothing in Torah is by chance.  Everything is relevant.  There are no accidents.”

That was all I needed to hear.  For as much as William Shakespeare had been deified by the literary community, per force the bard remained an icon of mere flesh and blood.  The Torah, however, claimed to be a direct transmission from the Almighty.  As such, it provided not merely inspired insights into the nature of man and his world, but a revelation of divine guidance, a veritable tree of life, whose fruit not only nourishes but sustains the soul.

At least that’s what it said on the flyleaf.  Oddly, despite this direct line of communication from above, there was still much to debate, as evidenced by the furious volleys of argument exchanged by the scholars on all sides of us in the yeshiva’s enormous study hall.  The tricky part was learning when to argue, and when not.

“A man wished to betroth a woman,” intoned Rabbi Carlebach, “but in place of the requisite amount of currency, he gave her a cow.  Is the betrothal binding?”

Predictably, a novice student asks, “Why did he give her a cow?”

Patiently, the unflappable rabbi answers, “We don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter.  That’s the case.  Now we want to understand the ruling.”

“But if he’d just given her money we wouldn’t need to know.”

The observation, although valid, is irrelevant in the context of talmudic discourse.  The only why of interest to the Talmud relates to proving either similarity or dissimilarity between one case and another.  In this I found it deliciously Shakespearean, seeking not to debate the workings of the world, but to accurately reproduce them and render them comprehensible.

“A man was discussing marriage plans with a woman,” chanted Rabbi Carlebach, “in the  course of which he gave her the requisite amount of money for betrothal without articulating the purpose for which the money was given.  What’s the ruling?  Rabbi Yehudah says that even where the intent is clear, he needs to specify his objective or else the betrothal is not binding.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” said a boy across the table.

The rabbi clapped his hands in delight.  “Ah, you are so lucky!”  he cried.  “You can argue with Rabbi Yehudah.  I wish I could argue with Rabbi Yehudah.  You’re just like a six-year-old kid arguing with Einstein.  A professor of physics would never dream of arguing with Einstein, because he knows who Einstein is, so he knows he can’t argue.  But a six-year-old who never heard of Einstein, he goes right ahead and argues.”

The boy looked back blankly, but again I heard echoes inside my own head, this time not the resonating memory of Professor Levin, but of a different instructor, Mr. Byrd, the only other English professor who had convinced me that he was smarter than I was.  Byrd had little in common with Levin; he was the seminal college prof, with his conservative suits, neatly trimmed beard, and round, wire-rimmed glasses.  His sense of humor was witheringly dry, he almost never cracked a smile, and always he insisted on Mr. Byrd, never Dr. Byrd and certainly not Professor Byrd.  I was too intimidated to ask why.

Paradoxically, Mr. Byrd wrote trashy mystery novels, Mickey Spillane style thrillers that made for lively speculation about the incongruous secret life our bookish little professor might be leading off campus.

What I remembered at that moment, however, leaning over a massive tome and attempting to follow the arcane ruling of Rabbi Yehudah, were Mr. Byrd’s comments on the first day of his class in Swift and Pope.  He confessed that there were certain authors (including Bellow, I think, and Nabokov) for whose works he had never managed to acquire an appreciation.

“These are flaws,” said Mr. Byrd, “because authors without merit do not gain respect in the eyes of the literary community.  It is our job, therefore, to teach ourselves to appreciate them.”

Mr. Byrd might as well have been speaking Aramaic.  As a college junior, the idea that my opinion of quality should subordinate itself to the opinions of others seemed about as sensible as marrying a woman with a cow.  Nor was that the only time I failed to learn this lesson.  I missed it again in Professor Levin’s class, as did Portia, when it was spoken by her waiting maid, Nerissa:

Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their death have good inspirations:  therefore the lottery, that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will, no doubt, never be chosen by any rightly but one who shall rightly love (I, ii, 30 – 36).

But Portia refuses to recognize her father’s wisdom, even after all her unwanted suitors have departed in exasperation as a result of the conditions of her acquisition.

In the context of Rabbi Carlebach’s sermon about Einstein, Mr. Byrd’s remarks came back to me as clear as the Jerusalem sky.  The integrity of any discipline, whether legal or academic, depends upon the establishment of an historical hierarchy of expertise within that system.  Mr. Byrd would present the same lesson later when we studied A Tale of a Tub and pondered Swift’s satiric proposal that the Ancients must of necessity be viewed as inferior to the Moderns.  But not until I heard Rabbi Carlebach’s own satiric proposal concerning the egocentricity of a six-year-old child did the lesson finally strike home.

Having received Mr. Byrd’s admonition that great literature establishes itself neither by appointment nor referendum but by weathering the criticism of scholars over generations, I could now appreciate that the rulings and syllogisms of talmudic scholars had been canonized not by virtue of simple dogma, but because their authors had earned the respect of their contemporaries and of succeeding generations.  And having witnessed Professor Levin’s contempt for the Shakespearean scholar who failed to look beneath the superficial interplay of character and plot, so too could I accept that the Torah presented a depth of design far more complex than simple narrative – all the more so according to the claim that it had been penned by the Almighty, whom one could reasonably expect to be at least as competent a writer as William Shakespeare.

My assertion that the study of Shakespeare had brought me to Talmud raised more than a few skeptical eyebrows among my fellow scholars.  But it was my suggestion that Shakespeare might offer some positive contribution to the world of Jewish thought that placed me within distance of virtual excommunication.  For although few of my fellow students of Talmud had given serious consideration to Shakespeare, nearly all of them assumed him to have been an anti-Semite, knowing that he had written an unflattering characterization of a Jew.

A person should always fear heaven, privately and publicly, acknowledge the truth, and speak truth in his heart.  These words begin the morning liturgy of the observant Jew and, with them in mind, I felt it only right to defend Shakespeare, not for his own sake (since surely he wouldn’t care what a handful of talmudists thought of him four centuries after his death) but for the sake of truth.  It was not, however, merely an abstract devotion to truth that motivated me, but my conviction that within Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock’s Venice resided a universal relevance to contemporary Jews and contemporary Judaism.

Since Jews were banned from living in England in Shakespeare’s time, it’s unlikely that the bard ever met a Jew, or that he formed any strong opinions about Jews one way or the other.  But his reservations about the sincerity of the Christian world are self-evident, nowhere more clearly than in the very work that has drawn upon him accusations of anti-Semitism.

Mark you this Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly falsehood hath!  (I, iii, 98 – 103)

So does Antonio indict Shylock for his manipulation of the Holy Word to justify his usury – the very same charge that has often been leveled against talmudic reasoning and the syllogistic hair-splitting through which Torah law is sometimes explicated.  Ironically, this is the very method Antonio gloatingly applauds when it saves him from the consequences of Shylock’s scheme.

Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh: if thou cut’st more
Or less than a just pound…
Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate (IV, i, 324 – 332).

And then, not satisfied at saving Antonio’s life and depriving Shylock of his note, Portia awards half Shylock’s fortune to Antonio, at whose request she commits the rest to Jessica, (who has already deceived her father and disavowed her heritage), then further imposes the condition of conversion to Christianity.  All this while impersonating a judge.

Conversion, however, does not a Christian make, at least not in Shakespeare’s Europe.  For even as Shylock is coerced into becoming a proselyte, his daughter, Jessica, embraces Christianity as an escape from the restrictions of her heritage and her father’s name.  Sadly, Christianity does not return her embrace, for even after her conversion Gratiano comments upon her approach:  “But who comes here?  Lorenzo and his infidel?” (III, ii, 221).

By the final scene, Jessica herself regrets her apostasy from the faith of her ancestors.  Having abandoned her own people, she has come to realize that she will never be an equal within Christian society, counting herself among the tragic figures of Thisbe and Medea when she responds to Lorenzo’s romantic banter, concluding:

In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
And ne’er a true one (V, i, 16 -19).

Jessica has learned, too late, the lesson her father articulated in his famous soliloquy as he rails against the fate that has placed him in a society that allows Antonio to torment him:

He hath  disgraced me, and hindered me half a million;  laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies; and what’s his reason?  I am a Jew (III, i, 56 – 61).

Such was the fate of most Jews in medieval Europe; prohibited by the state from supporting themselves by means of “honorable” professions, they often had pitiful few options aside from money-lending, for which they were reviled by nobility and peasantry alike.  And while some sought escape through conversion like Jessica, most bore their burden like Shylock, bitterly, but at least with the recognition that their ancient heritage provided them with the inner strength and resolution to persevere and survive against overwhelming odds.

Some of this I had articulated as a student in Professor Levin’s class.  Yet the full force of the Jewish condition never penetrated deeper than the intellectual musings of a dilettante.  Indeed, so ignorant had I been of my own culture that I wondered why Sir Lawrence Olivier, in his portrayal of Shylock, had given the doorpost a violent slap whenever he passed into or out from his house.  I had never heard of a mezuzah, the parchment scroll inscribed with two paragraphs from Deuteronomy, which hangs encased upon every doorpost in the home of every observant Jew.  Nor had I ever witnessed a Jew press his fingers lovingly against the mezuzah case when passing through a doorway and touch those fingers to his lips as a sign of respect and adoration.  The brilliant subtlety of Olivier’s Shylock, perverting reverence into impotent fury, passed me by as surely as if I had been an uninitiated gentile.

I never did make it to Botswana or Nepal although, like Jessica, I would once have readily opted out of my culture and forsaken my heritage in pursuit of some imagined better life.  Of course, I could claim neither the religious nor the social oppression that make us sympathize with Jessica and her plight, but in this I was no different from so many other thousands of middle-class, college-educated Jewish American princes and princesses who afford scant notice to the ancient teachings of our people.

The Jews have long been called “People of the Book,” and there may be no better explanation of our unnatural survival than the unbroken chain of scholarly tradition from generation to generation.  But the chain in my family had broken three generations back, leaving my grandfather, my father, and finally myself to grow up in America with no knowledge of “The Book,” with no appreciation for its wisdom and its legacy.  Doubtless, I would never have strayed from the road of cultural ambivalence had not the long departed ghosts of Jerusalem come back to life to teach me the lessons of my people, lessons I had once studied but failed to learn.

Of course, I was only one of many American Jews for whom yeshiva was only one of many stops along the road to nowhere.  Of those who dabbled in the ancient teachings, some capitulated before the mind-bending intricacies of talmudic reasoning, while others never looked beyond to appreciate the brilliant contemporary relevance of talmudic wisdom.  So I’ve wondered, looking back across a quarter century, what made me heed this echo from the past when so many others continued on unchanged?

’Twas the bard, of course.  After Shakespeare had fanned the embers of erudition in the hidden caverns of my mind, it seems almost inevitable that the holy sparks of the Talmud would ignite them into a blaze.  And who knows?  If not for Professor Levin’s felicitous instruction in Shakespearean analysis, if not for Mr. Byrd’s uncompromising elucidation of Swiftian respect for the ancients, I might well have remained in the company of those poor souls destined to fade away into the same cultural oblivion as the bitter Shylock and his misguided Jessica.

Published in Winter Harvest, a literary journal of the University of Missouri, St. Louis


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