Bearing the Body: Poverty, Humility & Chastity At UCLA

6:30 p.m. The traffic’s stuck on Westwood Blvd. I want to go west to UCLA but I pull over at a free parking spot near Westholme (?) and walk 30 minutes to the Faculty Center for tonight’s lecture.

I huff and puff as I struggle uphill.

"You again," says the girl.

I’m wearing the same ratty long-sleeved shirt.

I plough through a couple of pages of The Decameron until a plump lady in her fifties interrupts me.

"Seven thirty? That’s a bit late, isn’t it?"

"You miss the traffic that way," I say.

"I know, but it’s late. It’s dark out. The time changed. It’s time to go to bed. What did you think of the lecture Monday [by Ilan Stavans]?"

"I liked it."

"It didn’t live up to its title."

"You wanted more sex?"

"Not sex. Eroticism. I wanted more eroticism but he hardly talked about that."

"He just mentioned the naked lady. Wasn’t particularly erotic."

Nudity is not erotic, I think. The naked female body needs lingerie and the right mood and lighting to be erotic.

Penthouse knows how to capture this stuff best.

"He had a strong Mexican accent," she says. "When he talks about the purity of the Spanish language, he means Castillian. In the United States, we’re used to the people who come across the border and don’t speak Spanish very well.

"It’s like the blacks. I’m not racist or anything. You can’t even say black any more. It’s African-American. My grandmother used to call them colored. That was in segregation days. Nobody even thought about it.

"The NAACP. That was started with Jewish money. Colored People."

"United Negro College Fund," I say.

"Negro," she says. "Nigger is just short for negro. Negro is Spanish for black."

"Shvartze is Yiddish for black," I say.

"I’m glad for the blacks," she says. "That one of their own because president. I hope that they stop complaining now and start working.

"I’m tired of walking on eggshells, having to watch everything I say in case it is interpreted wrong. I’ve been doing that for 30 years. I’m tired of it. Why don’t they just grow up?"

"It’s payback for slavery," I say.

"I haven’t kept any slaves," she says. "I used to live in Riverside. There was a librarian from Germany. He was very proper as the Germans are. And he got fired because the blacks used to come in in packs and they’d be disruptive and he lost his temper trying to shush them and he got fired.

"My ex-husband was in the Armed Forces. He worked. He didn’t wait for someone to tap him on the shoulder and tell him it’s time to work. And he had to wait two years to get into medical school because of affirmative action even though he passed the MCATs."

The room is filled with students from a Jewish-American literature class. I’m worried that they’re going to overhear our conversation and riot.

I turn away from the old lady and bury myself in a conversation with a PhD student in English.

"He‘s here," says a girl.

I look around and spot a small frail man walking up. His hair is cut close to his scalp, like he’s just had brain surgery. His front top teeth are all false. He must weigh no more than 130 pounds.

I remember him telling me in June 2006 that he’d had serious health troubles.

Oy, he looks like he’s got one foot in the grave.

There’s a reverential hush. Everyone fears he’s not going to be around long. Everyone believes he’s bringing a message from the true world.

The class has been studying his novel "Bearing the Body."

I grab his hand. "I’m Luke Ford. I interviewed you two-and-a-half years ago."

There’s a look of recognition on his face. "A lot of people cite your interview," he says.

"I feel so proud," I say. "Proprietary. I did that interview before you got huge. When I saw that big New York Times review of your novel, I felt like I was invested in you because of that long interview and that my investment had paid off.

"Hey, that shocking scene at the beginning, was that rape?"

"Yes."

"I remember reading the New York Times say it was rape and then I read the scene and I thought it was more complex, but I guess it was rape."

"It was rape.

"My wife, my agent and my editor wanted me to remove the scene," says Ehud. "So I took it out and then I realized that the book just didn’t work without it. So I put it back in."

"I’m so glad you did. It was so brave. People don’t want to struggle with complexity."

"I could talk about that scene for two weeks," says Ehud.

I want to talk to him about how rapists can be good people too but there’s no time.

Literature professor Eric Sundquist does the introduction. He’s big and ruddy, the very picture of health and a cruel contrast to the frail Havazelet.

Eric: "David Myers sends his regards. He’s just now returning from doing good work for the campaign in his home town of Scranton…

"I just want to remind you that there is to be no recording of this event. We are recording it for possible use as a podcast. We ask you not to record."

Hey white man, take your foot off the neck of the secret recorder! Information wants to be free!

Sheesh, I tape and broadcast one little lecture 18 months ago and eversince they have to make announcements about no recording.

Well, how am I going to get my quotes accurate if I can’t record?

If I bungle things up, it’s their fault.

I don’t want to take responsibility. I don’t want to be wrong. I want to hate and to blame.

The gays. I want to hate and blame the gays. If anything is wrong on my blog, it’s their fault. Their gay marriage upsets me so.

Dr. Sundquist talks about a woman who will be presenting a dance interpretation of the Holocaust. It’s her MFA project.

He bemoans how "Nazi genocide is not considered safe ground for artistic interpretation."

Damn straight, he’s right! On Torah talk Thursday afternoon at 3, I’m gonna present my own interpretative dance about the six million. Beat that sheila to the punch and reap all the glory. She’ll be just a footnote in dance history.

Ehud takes the podium. "You’ll have to forgive me. I have a cold."

We’re all madly willing him enough health to stand and deliver tonight.

He reads from his book for 40 minutes. Normally I hate it when authors read from their books. It’s boring. I want them to talk spontaneously.

Yet Ehud’s very frailty quiets the room until you can hear the ice clink in people’s glasses. We’re all hanging on his every word.

He talks about a bloke named "Medium" who got his name from a drug deal gone bad.

Some tough guy said to him, "You think you’re big brave guy?"

And he replied, "Medium."

I’m the only person in the room to laugh.

"Thank you," says Ehud.

The room erupts.

I ask the first question of the evening. "Who in your life was most surprised by the success of your novel?"

"I was," he says.

"How did your dad react?" I ask.

"My dad is quite a character. He has a big ego. He assumes that everything is all about him. My previous book had a lot about me and him, including a scene of a brutal beating in grandpa’s shul in Borough Park."

A female student asks Ehud if he was using foreshadowing at the end of his novel. Ehud says no. He was trying to evoke tashlich.

"Once you read it, it’s yours," Ehud says.

What does he want his novel to accomplish with people?

"Great writing changes you," he says. "I don’t think my novel will change your life. But if it can nudge you a bit…"

Ehud says there’s some of him in the two sons in his novel. "I was around in the seventies and I’ve had some trouble with women."

Me too, mate.

A lecturer asks if his writing was influenced by his Talmudic background.

"It did absolutely," says Ehud. "I tell all my therapists that my mind is Talmudic. I’m always arguing with myself. I don’t know if I wouldn’t have ended up that way anyway. Part of it is a chemical imbalance, I’ve learned."

"Everyone expected me to become a rabbi. At age six, I was given a chumash. I stayed up all night reading it in Hebrew. I remember being hooked by the storytelling, by how wild it was. Rape and a talking snake."

Afterwards, I boast to a friend about my horrible blog.

"You’re not going to be horrible tonight, are you?" she says. "Please don’t be horrible tonight."

There’s a long line of students waiting to get their book autographed by the rebbe.

They speak to him softly and urgently.

He’s patient and gentle and kind.

I hover until the last autograph seeker is satisfied.

Then I jump in front of him and demand, "How many friends did you lose when your novel became such a success?"

He looks at me and says, "None that I know. I don’t have many friends."

Me too, mate.

But I dig ya. And you dig me. We get it. We understand how things really are. We can live with complexity. We understand how a man just has to have ass sometimes and will rape to get it.

Doesn’t mean he’s a bad man.

He just did a bad thing.

Sorry.

I walk out to Hilgard and pause before the St. Alban church. It offers "student-led worship and free dinner" Sunday evening.

Sounds tempting. Hot chix, free eats.

Ass.

I walk down Hilgard past the sororities. If I ever get a professorship at UCLA, I’m gonna demand an apartment near sorority row so I can walk by every day handing out tracts on the virtues of poverty, humility and chastity.

The road to enlightenment ends at the hovel.

9:37 p.m. I drive by the last shul to eject me. Two rabbis talk outside.

Oy, how they must miss me!

Jane emails:

B”H Reb Luke, Having just stumbled across your many sites while searching the blogosphere for Orthdox Jew…..and many hours later…..I chose to write. (The thought was, “I just HAD to write”, but that’s not the truth; all we truly have in this world are our choices.) I don’t know where you are currently holding, but I sure hope you’ve still got a shul, a good chevrusa, and some community around yourself. I want to give you chizuk to do what you know is right and keep dragging your yetzer hara to the beis medrash. You are not only a ger, but a baal tshuvah…again and again and again. Keep working on it til you get it right! You’ve definitely had some rough breaks (childhood tragedy,multiply disrupted bonding, CFS, etc.), so it would be a little odd if you WEREN’T a bit disturbed; you come by it honestly! Yes, I think you are probably at least a shadow syndrome of borderline personality. And that you can become spiritually great anyway. Maybe even healthy in mind, body and soul. And that you could perhaps become a good married baalabos someday too.

They say it’s good to excel in the mitzvahs in the areas where you went off the path. So I look to you to become a role model and a light to the world in the areas of tznius and in rightful speech. Please, do it. Then where you stand, no tzadik will be able to stand. And maybe it won’t earn you a living. And you probably won’t get that delicious attention that I bet you still crave. But your spiritual reward will be ENDLESS. And I will have such nachas from you. (but that’s MY trip.) And who am I? ONE WHO CAN RELATE TO YOUR STRUGGLE, TOTALLY. So, kol tuv, chazak chazak; hoping to hear good news soon.

PS Have you checked out the Jewish 12-step movement? There might be something there that could give you both the community you need and deserve, and the support in resisting your addictive pulls.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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