Monday, March 28, 2011

Shakespeare Series:"The Comedy of Errors"

Over the month of March, I explored my first Shakespeare comedy. "The Comedy of Errors" is an amusing, quaint play involving a series of mishaps. In the opening of the play, we are introduced to Egeon as he faces execution. The duke caught him meandering around the parts of Ephesus, his rival city. Prior to his executing, the duke lets Egeon tell his story. He had two beautiful sons and brought up two servants for them. Each twin, servant and nobleman, lost his other half. Of course, the irony of Shakespeare's play is when these twins run into each other. Antipholus of Syracuse has been on a long quest in search of his brother. He brought along his spacey servant Dromio. When they stumble into Ephesus, the gentleman and his helper are summoned for dinner. Although they find it quite peculiar, they go. Little do they know that they are in the castle of their twins. From there, the madness grows exponentially. Eventually, one set of twins nearly gets the other one arrested. Shakespeare's wisecracking show comes to a climactic explosion of action in the final act. Since this play has a beautiful ending, I do not wish to ruin the conclusion for any readers of mine.

The two noble twins are both named Antipholus. While Antipholus of Syracuse has spent his entire life searching for his brother, Antipholus of Ephesus has accumulated a large amount of wealth and power in his town. Their contrast is a key ironic element in the continual sequence of mishaps. Contrary to how Antipholus of Ephesus feels outraged as his town betrays him, his Syrucusian counterpart has no problem enjoying the luxuries he never dreamed he would have. I believe that many wonder if the richest people in our society could live the everyday, working class lifestyles we endure. Shakespeare captures this divide between rich and poor beautifully from beginning to end.

Reading about Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus makes me wish I had a twin, so I could play one of these hilarious servants. "Errors" would be nothing without the two hilarious servants who serve Antipholus. Like his master, Dromio of Syracuse enjoys the rich life. Dromio has this delightful scene with his master when he describes a woman he has met at his twin's abode. Despite the fact that he has fallen for this lady, the only way he can describe her to his master is how wide she is. He begins to map out her body as if it was her globe. In our modern society, such an act may seem grotesk, yet Shakespeare just makes it tickle the human emotion. Truth is, some guys still objectify women to such rude atributes. Dromio of Ephesus runs into Antipholus of Syracuse and gets this whole mixup started. Both Dromio's seem to capture the essence of what it is to be an everyday guy, they make mistakes and pay for them.

Compared to "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet", I would classify "Errors" as a fairly easy read. Once a reader gets used to the fact that there are pairs of men with the same name getting mixed up in almost every scene, the book is easy to follow. Since the beginning can be somewhat confusing, I would not endorse that "The Comedy of Errors" be anyone's first Shakespeare. It confounds me that such a funny story could be one of the lesser known Shakespeare plays. Even though "comedy" is in the title, Shakespeare does not tell loud jokes. Shakespeare embraces the irony of the situation. I recommend that readers do not go fishing for laughs when reading the show. Let the jokes come to you. If for any other reason, read this play for its last line. I found it quite profound for such a goofy piece of literature. I believe you should this story as Dromio of Syracuse says to his master, '" Run, master, run; for God’s sake, take a house! This is some priority"' (V.i.36-37).

Friday, March 25, 2011

What About the Kiddish?

Leviticus comes in groups of laws spread about the parashot. The first ten chapters of Leviticus mostly discuss how to sacrifice. Later in Shemini (this week's parashat), Moses receives a few more commandments about the way priests should lead their lives. Finally, God speaks to Aaron giving him a majority of the Jewish food restrictions, the Kashrut. The Kashrut discussed in Shemini include what not to eat that walks on land, flies in the sky, swims in the sea, or soars the air in swarms. On land, Jews abstain from eating animals that do not have both parted hoofs and chew their own cud. The most famous of these restrictions would be the pig. When it comes to birds, there are just a number of arbitrary restrictions including all kinds of hawks and ostriches. Seafood is alright as long as the food has fins and scales. This excludes all kinds of shellfish, eels, and calamari. Although there are a few exceptions, most bugs are excluded from the Jewish diet plan. Modern Kosher Jews wash their produce very carefully to make sure no insects stuck on from the farm. It is indeed a busy parshat filled with laws of sacrifice, priesthood, and diet!

Contrary to the focus of dietary laws in Shemini, a passage about being in the Kohanim (priesthood) particularly caught my interest this week. This law made me question how services are run every single week. According to Shemini rabbis and priests are commanded to, "drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a laws for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between holy and profane, and between unclean and clean" (Lev. 10:9-10). Since when has a member of the clergy not been able to drink at a temple? Last time, I checked rabbis drank wine every week at Kiddush. They also drink 4 cups of wine at Passover and a glass usually goes with each festival day. I would say that wine would be exception if the commandment did not specify wine with other intoxicants. Another peculiar specification is how this law is particularly everlasting. We assume that all laws are binding for eternity. Why does this law include that it stands for all generations? If this law specifies that it is for all generations, why do we Jews break it every week?

Once I examined the law long enough, I found a couple of interpretations. Rabbis can always go with the loopal to the Kiddush factor. Grape juice is just as valid a Kiddush product as wines, but is not intoxicating. Most times, grape juice is used for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah at my synagogue anyways. What about Passover and other festivals? Maybe this law is a not a commandment regarding whether or not a rabbi can drink or not, but it restricts how much a rabbi can drink at temple. Rabbis can not be drunks. A drunk rabbi would justify why the law's reasoning is that "you may not die" (Lev. 10:9 ). One glass of wine would not kill a person. Also, one glass of wine does not make one profane or unclean.

Too many a people, alcoholism is a very sensitive subject. Like most life issues, rabbis must be there for the relatives of an alcoholic. The rabbi must be a listening ear and offer his or her advice. A superlative rabbi will give his or her congregants their full effort. Drinking to excess will inhibit a rabbi's ability. Rabbis must lead by example. If their congregants see them drinking, they drink. Perhaps the thought behind this was to eradicate alcoholism from the world. When the leaders would stop, maybe the people would stop.

From most stand points, drinking is nopt great. It may relax the mind, but it causes more harm than help. I do not think highly of drinking because I personally could not bear to lose my ability. Could I say I am going to not drink alcohol in my lifetime. No, I can not make that guarantee. Will I be careful? Yes. Will I drive? No. Remember that ancient Israelites lived in a world of drinking without driving. They still thought it was wrong. In ancient myths from all over the world (especially Greek), drinking was used a way of tricking people. Personally, I believe the world's alcohol habits are improving. Then again I said to a high schooler, "What are you going to do the first two years of college when you can not legally drink?" She said, "You really think people don't drink?"

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dressing Up on Purim

It is almost time for one of the year most joyous Jewish holidays. Purim, which falls on the fourteenth of Adar (March 19-20 this year), is a holiday that celebrates how the Jews were relieved of persecution in ancient Persia. The story of Purim, the Megilla, revolves around four main characters, Esther is a beautiful Jewish women who lives with her cousin Mordechai. King Ahashverous is the arrogant king who seeks a new queen. After a beauty pageant, King A decides to marry Esther. He did not realize she was Jewish. Finally, Haman is a wicked man who would like all the Jews in the streets of Purim to bow down to him as he walks by. Unfortunately, all the Jews do. Only Mordechai stands up to Haman. Once Mordechai does this, Haman decides that he will hang all the Jews. As he catches word of this, Moderchai pleads Esther to save their people by talking to the king. Of course, in these days a woman never spoke up to her husband. She thought she would beheaded. Eventually, Esther has Haman and Ahashverous sit down for dinner. During the meal, Esther cries out to King Ahashverous, and he finds out everything. From that day forward, Esther would be known as the saviour of the Jewish people.

There are many traditions associated to this time of year. By law, there are four mitzvot we must do on Purim. The first of these is that we must celebrate Purim every year on the fourteenth of Adar. Haman planned to kill us on the thirteenth. Rabbis says that reading the Megillah is an easy way to observe this festival every year. Some temples even perform a Purim spiel (a play) after the Megillah is read. Secondly, we must enjoy Purim and feast as we celebrate it. Most Jews do find that Purim is one of their favorite holidays. After that, Jews are commanded to give gifts to their friends. These are called mishloach manot (sending of portions). Most of the time these baskets will have food, especially hamantashen. Hamantashen are delectable cookies shaped like Haman's triangular hat. Various fillings are put into the middle of the hamantashen. Fourth, giving to the poor is required of us on Purim. At my temple, we are raising tzedakah for the people of Japan as they get over the devastating earthquake. Purim is a holiday of giving. We believe that at such a joyous time in the year, everybody should have the ability be happy.

Obviously, Purim celebrates the triumph over Jewish persecution. Some people believe that such intolerance is no longer existent in the Jewish world. On the contrary, we see it all the time on a number of different levels. Just this week, I saw an event on Facebook. One of the attendee was a man whose profile picture was Adolf Hitler. His profession was killing Jews. Now, for as many people like that out there, there are many righteous people who believe in equality and religious tolerance. I just wanted to point out that there are still some who are just as ignorant as Haman. People have been through out the ages. The Holocaust is a very prominent, recent memory, but there were also the Romans who kicked us out of our homeland, the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition, and the Russian pogroms, just to name a few. Antisemitism will still live as long as there are people who will respect us as individuals and as a people.

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that Jews dress up on Purim? The Megillah is a story of being who we are, yet we pretend to be Esther, Mordechai, Ahashaverous, or Haman. We masquerade ourselves and camouflage into the temple on Adar 14. The tradition is to obviously celebrate these colorful characters. I just find it a little contradicting to go incognito and celebrate Jewish pride. It could go the other way
Perhaps, we Jews can dress up on Purim. Then, we could be ourselves every other day of the year. By ourselves, I mean be Jewish. Do not be afraid to wear your Bar Mitzvah shirt to school or bring matzvah for lunch on Pesach. Think of betoo. Every other day of the year, Jews do not universally dress up. For some reason, we feel in disguise though. Just yesterday was St. Patrick's Day. How many Jews do you know who feel conflicted to wear green on the Irish-Christian holiday? What should one do?ing Jewish as a priviledge, not an obstacle. Jewish pride is the easiest way to fight small scale intolerance. If we can handle the small hurtles early, the large ones will start fade too, In conclusion, a nice chag Purim to everybody. I hope that after Saturday, the costume comes off, and the real Jewish person underneath comes out.

Friday, March 11, 2011

How to Read Leviticus?

Letviticus (Vayikra in Hebrew) is the third book in the Torah and probably the most ignored of the five. Why? Some people would call it "boring". They would say, "Leviticus is just laws. There are no stories." I find it insane to say that Leviticus can not compare to the other books of the Torah. Leviticus is perhaps the most important. This third book is the beginning of the Jewish ethics system. Jewish law does not stop with the Ten Commandments. In the Torah, there are 613 commandments, most of which are found Leviticus. As we start our exploration of Leviticus for this year, we must keep in mind some simple reading strategies for studying ancient law.

While reading Vayikra, there are a few questions that readers should ask themselves. First of all, reader should always ask: "Why is this law here?". Some Jews believe the Torah is entirely the word of God, but most liberal Jews believe that later authors wrote the Torah. Either way, the laws had to be carefully constructed for this book. Most laws look a little peculiar to us. A majority of the Torah's laws are about farming. Why? Israel was an agricultural society. Many laws are written in the Torah for those who cultivate the land. Other laws are in Leviticus as a basis for the Jewish moral code. It is obvious not to steal or kill, but Vayikra gets into every ethical detail.

Another question one has to ask is "How can I apply this law to my everyday life?" While most of us are no longer farmers, many of the laws intended for them still have meaning. For example, a farmer's guide to planting the land teaches us to have faith and discipline before God. The Kashrut (dietary laws) have the same intention. Studying law does not mean to pick and choose the "easy" laws, but to look at every practice and incorporate it in some shape or fashion into our modern world. When reading Leviticus these two questions will make everything a little simpler.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Shakespeare Series: "Romeo and Juliet"

"Romeo and Juliet" is perhaps the most famous story in the world. Almost everyone knows the basic plot. "Romeo and Juliet" is a story of two star-crossed lovers living in the feuding town of Verona. In the first scene of the show, servants from the two families begin to argue. Eventually, this argument becomes an all out brawl. For centuries, the Montague's, whose only child is Romeo, and the Capulet's, whose only child is Juliet, have hated each other. The true essence of the show begins as Mercutio convinces Romeo, who is getting over his former love Rosaline, to sneak into the Capulet Ball. At this event, Romeo and Juliet first meet. They instantaneously fall in love. Tensions grow after the explosive Tybalt catches Romeo at the ball. On the very same night, they find out each other's identity with the rival family. Of course the next scene is perhaps the most famous scene in all of theater. Romeo sneaks away from his buddies as Juliet cries out in repulsion what makes Romeo, a Montague, anything so terrible. Suddenly, Romeo can not bear just to listen, and they begin to plan their marriage. Just as their world seems perfect, another clash breaks out in Verona Square. Mercutio taunts valiant Tybalt until he can not stand it any longer. Romeo tries to stop the rumble, but he only makes things worse. He actually causes Tybalt to murder the witty Mercutio. In the very same scene, Romeo is caught up with rage and slaughters Tybalt. All anarchy breaks loose, and that is just one half of this show!

After that, Romeo is sentenced by the prince to banishment in Mantua. As "brilliant" as the Capulet's are, they plan a wedding for their daughter. Without Romeo around her, Juliet is doomed to marry the nobleman Paris. She seeks Friar Lawrence's help at the church. The friar gives Juliet a poison that will keep her unconscious enough to be buried in the tomb. She will eventually awake and be able to leave Verona and all its troubles. Everything goes according to plan until Romeo catches untimely word of Juliet's death. He comes back to see her, but alas she is gone. In shock, he drinks a poison and kills himself to be with her. Just as he does that, Juliet awakes. Seeing the deceased Romeo, she stabs herself. The pair of suicides shocks both families. Since the tale ends there, only Shakespeare knows the fate of Verona.

Many characters in "Romeo and Juliet" have dual personalities. For instance, Romeo begins the play displaying a very gentle disposition. He is just getting over his breakup with Rosaline. Even as he meets Juliet, Romeo seems tranquil. Forgetting Rosaline instantly, love overcomes him. Later, Romeo snaps like a twig. Like any other youth, Romeo is lost with his emotions. He feels vengeful, but loving. He is depressed, yet joyous. In the tomb, Romeo proves that he would do anything for his love Juliet. Shakespeare's title character has a spirit that touches the human soul.

While Romeo is played as a gentle yet vicious character, Juliet is written quite differently. Juliet is more of a powerful woman stuck in the wrong time. Shakespeare does not write weak female roles. Just as Lady Macbeth had a resonant role in the play, Juliet has a brain and a voice. She had the bravery to stand up to her father, one of noblest men in Verona. Unlike the Scottish king's wife, Juliet is powerless in her world. She feels no other choice but to fake her death. She is only gentle when she is with or thinking about her beloved Romeo. Although we can credit Juliet for being powerful, she also creates her own downfall. Juliet is the one that has them marry each other.

Of all these glorious characters, Mercutio is probably my personal favorite. Mercutio is one of two comedic roles in this play that distract a reader from the true tragedy of the story. He is Romeo's comical best friend. Throughout the first two and a half acts, Mercutio teases Romeo about Rosaline. He calls him a "madman" and a "lover". Even during his last scene, Mercutio makes a mockery of the hot-tempered Tybalt. Mercutio is a joker so much to the extent that those around him think he is not really dead. They laugh and laugh until his bloody hand comes up. Mercutio is no fool. He is just one casualty that Verona has in this fight between two families.

On the Capulet side, I would have to say that I like the nurse the most. She is more of a mother to Juliet than Juliet's actual mother. She tells jokes and just has this way about her that makes her seem likable. Perhaps, her long monologue about how she raised Juliet makes us chuckle. She brings light to the show. Unlike Mercutio, she does not die. Instead, she quickly changes personalities. Towards the end of the show, she can not even be on Juliet's side. The nurse betrays Juliet and later regrets it.

Since I acted in this show and am currently in production of "West Side Story", two characters are very near and dear to my heart. The first of which would be Paris. The county Paris is the man that the Capulet family intends for Juliet to marry. He reaches his most poignant point in the tomb when he confronts Romeo in a battle to the death. Honestly, Paris is a tough part to play. He is not as explosive as Romeo and Mercutio. With all things considered, I would not call him boring. Paris is very much the typical comical suitor that I have played before. On the other hand, he has his entire life turned upside when Juliet fakes her death. He is sent in deep shock. As I learned quickly, only a talented actor can play devastation well.

Playing Bernardo has also placed Tybalt in a special place in my heart. Bernardo is Tybalt's "West Side Story" parallel. Mercutio and Tybalt are almost complete opposites. While Mercutio impresses his companions with his wit and humor, Tybalt shows how poise and prominent a man he is. He does the most fighting of anyone in the show. Tybalt defeats Mercutio, has a small battle in the beginning scene, and loses to Romeo. Of course, Tybalt could also be responsible for causing the problem in this show. This rival to all Montague's sees Romeo at the Capulet Ball. Tybalt is also the one who gets Romeo banished (although he may have not totally have intended to die). With all the evidence spelled out in black and white, it seems like Tybalt may be the one behind this tragedy.

How can I even begin to criticize "Romeo and Juliet"? It themes are as timeless as time itself. Until the world is rid of disunity, this show's will still resonate into every human soul. Shakespeare pretty much shouts how terrible hatred can be. Back in November, I mentioned how there is a Jewish version of this play between an Israeli Romeo an a Palestinian Juliet. Shakespeare could only hope that his play could stop the violence of the world. In all the drama of "Capulet vs Montague", we also see how powerful love is. Clearly, Romeo and Juliet are inseparable. In the balcony scene and even at the ball, we see a side of Shakespeare that touches every human's feeling of love. His poetry in this play compare to his sonnets, which are just beautiful. These star-crossed lovers are so inseparable that they bring another concept to our attention. Death is a powerful matter. Montague and Capulet alike do not realize how meek their brawls were until they see their only children lying helplessly in the tomb. This is just what you can get from reading the show!

As an actor, "Romeo and Juliet" has a range of characters and even emotions that those characters have to portray. From the explosive, romantic Romeo to the cheerful, backstabbing Nurse, some characters travel up and down the emotional spectrum. A show with such momentum is challenging, yet so rewarding. Whether it is reading or acting, I would recommended this show to any beginner wanting to dive into Shakespeare world. Like I stated earlier, this is probably the most famous plot ever written. That basic understanding will help a reader deal with the "difficult" language Shakespeare puts in this play."I understand what is going on, but I may not understand every single word" said one parent the week of our production.

To conclude, we just have to discuss the many modern settings of this tragedy. The most famous of these would definitely be "West Side Story". Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein are ingenious for setting this drama to song and dance in 1960's New York! One of my favorite parts of performing "Romeo and Juliet" was figuring out who everybody's "West Side" parallels were. Another production I would recommend is Baz Lehrman's 1996 "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet". Lerhman creates an amazing epic using almost the exact Elizabeth vocabulary in violence-ridden Verona Beach, a fictional suburb of Los Angeles. Every aspect of the movie will blow your mind. Finally, "Gnomeo and Juliet" is probably the most recent of these modern endeavors. Although I laughed at the concept at first (and during the movie), I appreciated Elton John's attempt to bring a classic to a younger audience. I would not endorse that anybody use "Gnomeo" as their basis of knowledge for this play, but it is helpful. Thus ends this review "of Juliet and her Romeo" (V.iii.310).

Cited Sources
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. John Crowther. New York: Spark, 2003. Print.