Friday, May 23, 2008

Mezuzzah blues

On the 13th of April 2008 I entered my seventh decade here on earth. To commemorate my 21,000 plus days of breathing, eating, laughing, crying, and dealing with all matters earthly, I and eighty-five friends spent the day eating, singing, and having a joyous and mirthful time.
That evening as I laid my contented head on my pillow, I noticed a small blue box with a little yellow bow sitting on my night table. During the party one of my friends went into my house and left me a gift. How kind, I thought. Though I had told everyone no presents, I did feel excited at the sight of one by my bed. I opened the box, and inside was the most lovely and ornate mezuzah I had ever seen.
An Israeli woman named Ester Shahaf created it. Ms. Shahaf fabricated the mezuzzah using a combination of silver, pewter, and Swarovski crystals, a very special type of crystal created by a Swiss engineer in the latter part of the nineteenth century. I had never owned a religious item so ornate and looked forward to mounting it upon my door. Little did I realize that this four-inch tall object of Judaica would soon lead me into a spiritual crisis.
The next morning as I read the instructions for mounting my gift, I realized how little I knew about the entire concept of a mezuzzah and thought what a lapsed Jew I have become.
Mezuzzah means “doorpost,” and, yes, while it is decorative and ornate, it’s not as important as the rolled-up parchment scroll that rests inside. The scroll contains passages from Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21. The scroll is to be prepared by a scribe writing in Hebrew with a special quill pen. At the end of the instructions, right after the part about inviting a rabbi to participate in the ceremony, in four-point type were the words parchment not included. On the very bottom of the instruction sheet was a web address and the scroll part number.
Being the great grandson of the famous Polish Tsitsis mogul Rabbi Joseph Kanet and the product at least 3,000 years of Judaism, I decided not to rock the spiritual boat, and I soon found myself going online to purchase part #9064 from
I punched in the part number. I learned that for $26 plus shipping I could purchase what was described as follows:
Standard Kosher Hand-Written Mezuzzah Scroll. Executed in Jerusalem by a traditional scribe. 
Will fit any mezuzzah case in our collection.

Underneath this description I read that for $9 more I could receive a mezuzzah scroll that was scanned by a computer to ensure the consumer that the scroll was error free. You would think that a talented and trained scribe writing the same verses from Deuteronomy over and over again would not need his worked checked by a computer. Though my knowledge of the old religion is fading somewhat, I can say with absolute certainty that there is no mention in the Bible of any of the great patriarchs owning a scanner.
I felt myself falling ever so quickly into a spiritual abyss. I opened my Bible (actually my neighbor’s Bible) to the passages from Deuteronomy that were to rest inside my beautiful new mezuzzah. Chapter 6 verses 4–9 were a bit stern but acceptable. They were about loving Yahweh with all your heart and then writing the words from Deuteronomy
…on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
It was chapter 6 verses 13–21 where things really got rough, especially verse 15:
For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against you, and destroy you from off the face of the earth.

Was this the message I wanted to place inside my beautiful work of art handcrafted by Ester Shahaf? Why couldn’t there be a more optimistic message such as
May a song be on your lips and love in your heart
As you enter and leave my home.
Please sit a while, have a cup of tea.

It’s not easy being a Jew. Two thousand years of persecution mixed with a monotheistic sky God with insecurity issues is not by any means a recipe for inner peace.
God needs a hug, or perhaps a week at Esalen writing poetry, bathing in the tubs, and at least two massages a day.
Or better yet an evening with Pema Chödrön in a rustic eighth-century monastery situated on a high peak somewhere in Tibet where the only sounds he can hear are the wind, the chanting of the monks, and the bells of the yaks.
What if Yahweh and I could go to couples counseling to try and talk things out? I’d probably make the mistake of saying something like, “God should be a little more compassionate and forgiving.”
To which the therapist would say, “Neal, remember the ‘I’ message here. Now I want you to turn your chair toward God and use the ‘I’ message, not the finger-pointing ‘you’ message.”
I’d face my creator and say, “I am very uncomfortable with a deity who is vengeful, jealous, and destructive. Things like turning women into pillars of salt, killing the first born, and condemning poor Eve for thinking are hardly what one would call the acts of a peaceful and loving God.”
The therapist would turn toward the almighty and ask, “How do you feel about what Neal just said?”
“Well,” the Lord would reply while fondling his beard, “Neal is made in my own image, so he’s stuck with me. However, the good book has shown that I am willing to deal, to compromise—that’s what the essence of a covenant is—and I’d be ready to deal with Neal as long as he promises to keep the faith.”
It’s true, I thought, Yahweh has made deals with Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, so why not with me? He hasn’t been all bad—he gave Noah a rainbow sign and he delivered my ancestors from bondage.
There were other factors as well. If you count that squirrel I shot for no reason when I was sixteen, I am 0 for 10 on God’s commandments. I’m also getting on in age, and what if, just what if there really is this edgy, omnipotent, bearded deity calling the shots both here on earth and all over the universe?
Since I couldn’t prove he doesn’t exist, I decided to offer the creator of the universe a deal. I would put the prescribed verses from Deuteronomy in my mezuzzah, but he would look the other way while I created a bootleg scroll. Or simply put, I would keep his commandments, but I refused to pay retail for them. I raised my head and looked to the heavens for an answer. I saw two doves flying through my garden; truly this was a sign from on high that the Lord and Neal were now in business together.
With one hand one my mezuzzah and the other on my mouse, I googled the digital universe for mezuzzah scrolls. I found a nice six-by-eight-inch 72 dpi jpeg and brought it into Photoshop. Using a trick a graphic artist taught me I made it into a three-by-three-inch 300 dpi tiff, truly a miracle! I then sampled the blue of the flag of Israel and used it as a light tint backup color.
You will not find such a colorful scroll on This so-called “source for everything Jewish” is located in Niles, Illinois. Anyone familiar with Lenny Bruce’s theory on Judaism will know that if you live in Niles, Illinois, you’re simply not Jewish.
I printed my creation out with my HP LaserJet 2430dtn on a very biblical looking piece of parchment paper, and it was good.
I will soon mount it on my office door, where all who visit Gourd Music can enjoy the art of Ester Shahaf. And when I’m on my phone wheeling and dealing in the music business, I can look at my beautiful gift and realize that like all the great patriarchs before me, I, too, have made a covenant with the Great I Am.


About Benita said...

Neal - this is a wonderful essay and I intensely relate to it! What a great writer you are. I especially love: "With one hand one my mezuzzah and the other on my mouse" ... and so many other great turns of phrase.

My mesuzzah is mounted outside of my door ... and I now I know much more about its content and significance.


- Benita

anina said...

Hi Neal,
I loved reading about your adventures in Mezzuzahland... once again that wonderful wry tone that I miss from writing group. I would love to read the story of your first date... you were going to send it to me....
When do you go to France?
Hope all is wonderful in your life.

Anonymous said...

From your cousin Toby. What a wonderful blog. Around this time of year, I always think of my wonderful Aunt Molly. Be well. You are a talented man indeed. t