Dr. David Shevin photograph

Akiba on the Roof

October 17, 2000

Understandably, Henry Stobbs is wondering about the current turn in his life. Henry writes inventive and disciplined verse, and he has worked army intelligence, and he brews his own beer and now, in his young forties, he is going from his "I've been workin' on the railroad" quality assurance position to entering the MFA program in creative writing at Goddard.  Why is he doing this now, rather than twenty years earlier?

I suggest to Henry that he consider Akiba.

There were gargoyle figures and scrolls along the ceiling boards at Hillel School on East Avenue in 1958.  Rebbe Silverberg used to read us story after story about Akiba, the joe who developed the rabbinic tenets of "meritoriousness" and perfected the system of ethical interpretations of the Old Testament.  This was a couple of millenia ago, in the first century C.E. Akiba's story is so beautiful and so whacked out.  Get a load of this.  He was crazy about a gal named Rachel.  She wanted him to make something of himself, so he decided that study of the great moral teachings would be a good career move for an illiterate shepherd.  Comes the good stuff.  He would climb on the roof of the academy to listen to the teachings delivered to students, learning his alephs and his beths - his Hebrew alphabet - by stealth.  Some legends have him at study for twelve years.  Personally, I imagine him off the roof and into the classroom by year six or so.  I myself gave Akiba some competition in the length of time I took to submit my doctoral dissertation.

When Akiba started his own academy in B'Nai Brak (a suburb of Tel Aviv), he promoted his ideas that written and unwritten scripture were one, and that "while everything is foreseen, free will is given."  Silverberg hammered on that one, and I am still chewing on it.  What if I do something unforeseen?  (You can't.  God's thought of that, and knows you will.)  Well then, I don't really have free will.  (Sure, you do!)  That's a good one! His other stories are marked by his compassion for the poor, his humility and especially for his generosity on gender issues.  He attributed the redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt to the meritoriousness of the women in that generation.  We do not have a record of Rachel's teachings on that issue, but since she supported Akiba through his years of schooling, we can imagine her talking a blue streak on the topic. As long as you're going out to climb on roofs, would you put the goat out?

So, far, the dude looks like a good candidate for a Goddard MFA, especially with the funky turns on logic and will.  Still, I advise Henry, take what works from your teachers, and be skeptical about what don't. Akiba had this idea that "suffering is precious" and we should pray our gratitude for this gift.  When he observed the Roman conquest of Judea, he shone with confidence that a God so kind to the Romans would surely be kinder to His chosen nation, and he accepted the revolutionary Bar Kochba as the promised Messiah.  As spiritual leader to the anti-imperial uprising, he went to the top of Rome's hit-list.  They busted him for teaching, and after imprisonment in Caeseria, Akiba was flayed alive.  And what did he have to say about that?  "The Lord is One."  The boy didn't play.

My feeling about literary inquiry is this: don't get flayed alive if you don't have to.  I visited the community of B'Nai Brak once.  That was in 1977.  The scene in the neighborhood where Akiba taught looked like this.  The Begin government had recently taken office, the first shift from Labor Party leadership in the country's history.  The Orthodoxy went wild and would chain off streets to prevent driving on the Sabbath.  Then these kids would whip around the corner in their army jeeps, run into chains, and get decapitated.  The secular population would get steamed about the murder of their kids, so they would organize to pitch stones at the Orthodox on their way to Sabbath prayer.

I went to B'Nai Brak to see an elderly cousin, Chaim Abramson, one of a handful of Holocaust survivors from the town of Vishnove, near Vilnius.  Chaim had published a Yiddish language history of those survivors.  We had a breakfast of bread and oranges, and headed for the synagogue.  People were throwing stones at us.

On my second visit, I declined the invitation to go to synagogue.

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