The Golem, the Jinni, and the Syrians in New York

“The Golem and the Jinni,” by Helene Wecker was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and won the 2014 Mythopoeic Award.

These two books–one a novel, the other a study of Arab immigrants to Manhattan’s Lower East Side–are a fascinating pair to read in conjunction with each other. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker tells the story of two mythical beings–one Jewish, the other Syrian– which takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. Strangers in the West: The Syrian Colony of New York City, 1880-1900 by Linda K. Jacobs tells the never-before-told story of the first Arab immigrants to settle in Manhattan.

Both books explore many themes but one that stands out is the tolerance individuals from each community had for the other even as each community–as well as the broader society of Manhattan–struggled with the presence of those they each considered “the Other.” The twists and turns of the novel reflect the twists and turns of historic life for the immigrants who struggled to make new lives for themselves and their families in the New World. (I never quite appreciated how radical the idea of the New World was until I saw The Hunt for Red October (based on Tom Clancy’s book) and heard Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) welcome Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) to the New World after Capt. Ramius quotes Christopher Columbus’ musings that “the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.”)

Too many people seem too eager to demonize a wide variety of “Others” in modern society. Add either–or BOTH!–of these books to your “Want to Read” list and see how we were able to overcome such attempts at demonization in the past while enjoying wonderful storytelling!

Want to know more? Read the Huffington Post article about Strangers in the West or my post about The Golem and the Jinni.

“Strangers in the West” by Linda K. Jacobs tells the story of this classic multiethnic neighborhood which had a dominant Arabic-speaking influence from the 1880s to 1940s, and which served as the “Mother Colony” for the substantial Syrian and Lebanese immigration to the United States.

Tarot for the New Year (2017)

A tarot spread for the coming year, using the Tarot of Marseille (pub. Lo Scarabeo, 1996).

Many forms of divination were practiced by ancient and medieval societies. Most forms of divination were considered “science” originally but are labelled “magic” in current practice. We laugh at some nowadays while others are still enthusiastically embraced. Some have been long forgotten while others are being rediscovered. The most common forms of divination used today are reading stars and reading cards–astrology and tarot. Until only two or three hundred years ago, everyone agreed that the various aspects of the world were so interconnected that they could not help but influence each other. What early and medieval Christians condemned was using divination as a tool to know what MUST happen, denying the possibility of free will and human agency. (The one method of divination that was ALWAYS forbidden in absolute terms was to open the Bible and point to a random verse in order to discover the will of God!) But the Church used these tools of star-reading and card-reading, as did secular society, to anticipate likely outcomes of probable actions.

What does this 3-card spread reveal about the upcoming year (2017)? A quick and simple reading would be that the 5 of Swords indicates both material loss and loss of hope early in the year, followed by new determination to study and engage in personal growth (the Page of Pentacles/Coins), resulting in a renewed sense of personal integrity and strength to confront our difficulties (Strength). Another reader might see these cards indicating not a linear series of developments but a threefold series of interconnected attitudes that continue to revolve throughout the year.

A 5-card spread for the upcoming year using the Tarot of Marseille deck.

A 5-card spread reveals a slightly more complex reading for 2017. The year begins with the Knight of Wands (reversed), followed in the spring by the 8 of Pentacles/Coins, a summer dominated by the 5 of Pentacles, and concluded by The Chariot in the autumn; the 9 of Cups (reversed) is present throughout the year. The quick-and-easy explication of this spread would warn us against an immature person who is headstrong, bossy or a bully-and a risk-taker, who can do dangerous things and convince others to do dangerous things and who dominates the beginning months of the year. In reaction to this person, everyone else must work harder at self-improvement and personal growth (spring) which forces us to confront our own pride or humility in the summer and take appropriate action based on these realizations. In the autumn, this implies a struggle and an eventual, hard-won victory over enemies, obstacles, nature, the uncertainties inside each of us. But this will require confidence as well as unity of purpose and control (between each of the struggling aspects of our personalities as well as in society as a whole) and, most especially, motivation.

The 9 of Cups (reversed) in the center? The card associated with the fulfillment of all our wishes but in a quiet, muted fashion. This can serve as a motivation for all the struggles we engage in throughout the year as well as indicate the result of those struggles.

When I first dealt these two spreads, I was VERY surprised at how much they reinforce and support each other. Do any other tarot readers out there have additional interpretations to suggest?

“…How Lovely Are Thy Branches!”

Our Christmas Tree at home this season (2016).

This season’s Christmas Tree in Washington Square Park (2016).

Christmas trees are among the most popular holiday customs of the modern world. Of all sizes and of many shapes, trees are set up in homes and shopping malls and store aisles to be decked with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. Children look forward to the arrival of the tree and share in its decoration. The decorated tree is the surest sign that the “holiday season” has arrived. But some disparage Christmas trees and call them little more than pagan intrusions into the Christian celebration. They cite the sacred trees of the Germanic tribes and assert that the decorated trees in modern houses are an ongoing homage to Thor, Odin, and the other gods of Valhalla. Although certain trees were considered sacred and might be decorated to celebrate certain days, no Germanic pagan would ever dream of cutting down the sacred trees or bringing them indoors. Cutting down the trees was the work of the Christian missionaries, especially St. Boniface of Mainz.

Depiction of St. Boniface cutting down Thor's Oak.

Depiction of St. Boniface cutting down Thor’s Oak.

Cutting down the holy trees was an act of desecration against the gods of Valhalla and an assertion that they were powerless to stop such a violation of their memory. When St. Boniface began to cut down Thor’s Oak, it is said that  “suddenly a great wind, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. When the god did not strike him down, the people were amazed and converted to Christianity. He built a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter from its wood…”

Although the pagan Germanic celebration of the midwinter feast of Yule describes great feasting, there are no mentions of decorated trees. The “Yule logs” were ordinary trees that were cut down and brought in to be burnt, not the sacred trees. To cut down and bring the tree indoors, decorate it, and then burn it is an act specific to the newly-converted Germanic peoples to celebrate the end of the old gods and the birthday of the new.