Posted by: laffingeyes | January 8, 2016

Was Jesus Swarthy?

A confession:

When I came to Israel many years ago, having been raised on literary misconceptions of Jews, I searched among my fellow compatriots for swarthy types. They were mostly to be found among Yemenite Jews and Jews from northern Africa. To my dismay, I was to learn that Yemenites were most likely converted in the fifth century, and swarthiness among Jews from North Africa usually meant intermarriage with the local Arab population. So where were the swarthy Jews of literary complexion?

Swarthy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose when placed against the pallid yet rosy-cheeked Englishman whose skin challenges tomatoes when exposed too long to the Mediterranean sun, even I might seem swarthy. But I doubt most others would think as I passed by, “there goes a swarthy Jew.” They might think, “Nerd.” They might think, “Old,” but swarthy, hardly.

So I looked around some more and decided to concentrate on Ladinos, that is, the Jews who trace their ancestry to the expulsion from Spain, as the oldest, “purest” example I might find. Being of a phenomenological bent of mind, after taking a representative sample of about five, I concluded that the Ladino type had black, curly hair, black eyebrows, and ivory-colored skin with pink tinted cheeks. Not to my eyes swarthy, but perhaps northern Europeans, scandalized by the ebony of the hair, apostrophized these strangers as swarthy, for if the hair was so resolutely black what darker pigments might taint those bodies? Or perhaps this was merely another way of designating these people as strange and of vague Mediterranean origin?

I write this because an African-American friend commented in Facebook about the probability of a swarthy Jesus. Another friend replied that this was an old argument, and from his response it seemed that the die had been cast, at least among African-Americans, that Jesus had, indeed, been swarthy. Obviously, Jesus the Christ figure can be and often is any color one wishes, and I can understand the need for a copper-skinned Jesus among blacks when Jesus in the states is so often represented as the last of the Vikings, but as someone who trusts in history and who has suspected ever since discovering how white my swarthy Jews really were that part of the determination of Jews to persist was racial, I have to express my doubts.

So what shade of white or pink or copper was Jesus? The original Hebrews claimed their origin in Mesopotamia, in the area of present-day Iraq. To this day, although often hairy in relation to northern Europeans, the skin color of Iraqis is hardly any browner, despite the roughness of their beards. The Hebrews wandered west to the land of Canaan, and, afterward, some of them (but not, modern scholars agree, all) ventured farther west to Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. Egypt was the meeting place of black Africans and white natives of North Africa, and, as often happens among the lower strata in society, it is quite likely that a number of the Hebrew slaves married black Africans. It is clear that Moses’ wife was not a Hebrew, and it is quite possible as well that Moses was an Egyptian, as his name is derived from Egyptian and not from Hebrew. The Hebrew slaves escaped and joined their compatriots in Canaan, and the miracle of their escape became the myth establishing a national and not a tribal identity rooted in a specific geographic area.

But our understanding of any physical type ends here. The Assyrian kingdom of Babylon conquered the 10 tribes of Israel. The kingdom of Judea was conquered by Babylon and the residents went into exile. In the Babylonian tablets, the Hebrews appear with distinctively curly hair and beards, but this may well have been an artistic convention

Modern rabbinical Judaism begins with the return from exile under Cyrus the Persian. What did these people look like? We have no idea. What would they have looked like three centuries later? No one knows. The best clue, however, can be found in portraits on the Egyptian graves of early Christians. It is safe to assume that many of the followers of Jesus were originally Jews. Swarthy? Not in the least. But all have black hair, black eyebrows, and brown nearly black eyes. They are definitely not European, at least not northern European. So perhaps to northern European eyes, that was swarthy enough, for “swarthy” certainly defined what the Europeans were not.

But for a modern African American searching for the trace of a common tint, the search is most likely in vain.

Posted by: laffingeyes | May 11, 2013

My Dog Lady

My dog Lady cannot say, “Woof.”

She can bark, she can growl and whimper

But she cannot say, “Woof.”

She can leap, she can spin,

She can run and dart

And prance on two hind legs

Like a circus dog.


When an aroma moves her,

She will place two front paws on my thigh–

Her lovely mutt between–

And gaze at her master with rueful eyes.

But she cannot–for the life of her–

Say, “Woof.”

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 30, 2013

Day 30 – Last Dance

This is the last dance.

Andrew might ask Natasha–

Or that scoundrel Anatole–

While his sister Helene, the beautiful Helene,

Whose neckline is eternally plunging

To the delight of her guests and Tolstoy’s dismay,

Looks on.

Pierre, befuddled and at loss, would not think to ask

As he is clumsy on the dance floor as everywhere else

And Natasha is a gay and graceful sprite,

A charm dropped exquisitely on the parquet floor

That grows before our wondering eyes

First into a bashful young girl

And then a darling, daring, perfect young lady.


This is the last dance–a mazurka for the night–a waltz.

I put down the book and turn out the light.

We kiss. I turn, reach down and hold you tight.

Shall we linger through the night

For this is the last dance

Of lips, of hands, of mouths and tongues.

Shall we ride out the night,

My love, shall we, until the moon wearies from watching us

And the breezes are abashed by the sun?

Shall we run?

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 30, 2013

Day 29 – Psalm 26

We were suggested to incorporate several languages in our poem; but I’ve done that already in several posts.  Instead, I’m translating Psalm 26, which is quite powerful in the original Hebrew, direct, and full of plays on words; in English translations, the directness and vitality are usually lost.  The King James Version remains truest to the original–but the effect is lugubrious.  I’ve tried to be as simple as possible.  The original is ascribed to David, but the content of the text makes this unlikely.

With thanks, to Jonathan.

Judge me, o God,

For I, with no intention of wrong, went

And trusted in God.

I will not stumble.

Examine me, God, and test me,

Try my heart and mind

For I see your mercy before me

And I walk about in your truth.

I did not sit with the worthless

Or come among deceivers;

I hated the bad

And would not sit with the wicked.

I will wash my hands clean

And circle around your altar, O God,

To voice aloud a thanks

And relate all your wonders.

O God, I love the house of your residence

And the place where your glory dwells.

Do not gather sinners about my soul

And about my life bloody men

Who have dealt in lewdness

And whose right hands are heavy with bribery.

And I, unblemished, will go.

Redeem and pardon me.

My foot stands on solid ground.

Among many, in song, I will bless my Lord.

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 29, 2013

Day 28 – White

We were suggested to pick a color.


White wedding dress we burned

And watched ash wavering in the air.

White walls

Aged here and there,


Like our lives.

White linens

Some no longer white

Pinked in wash. Blued

Stained–where we made love.

White sheet. White duvet

Where my lover lies.

He is black; and I am white.

Yet when I place a hand on the sheet

It is the color of ochre flesh.

What is white? What is black?

His skin is brown; his shadows dark;

His teeth are white like mine.

What is white? What is black?


Black crows against a white sky

Presage death, did you know?

White is everywhere.

White sky in midday, the sun a flame.

Coal crumbles, burns, and dies


White is the color of death

Of subjugation

Defeat at last.

Ice. Ice.

There is no snow to comfort me

No balming breezes.

Even the morning sky is pierced with white.

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 28, 2013

Day 27 – The Day After

Namu amita bul     Unter deinen weissen Sternen

The Lag BaOmer night is gone;

The fires are all out.

Flames have turned to coal

And coal to dust.

In a day’s burning sun,

Vanished are the high stars and white, big moon

Of a bright night sky.    

No. No Bodhisattva meets me at my door,

No charred potatoes remain,

Food for wandering dogs,

Ash to rise in the day’s hot breeze.


Du allein kennst meinem Schmerz.

Sieh das Feuer, das ich trage

Und es brennt in mir das Herz.

You alone know my pain

See the fire that I carry

That inflames my heart.

Namu amita bul my love.

So sit with me in the hot air

While dogs of war snap in the sky above,

And we, we alone, know each other’s pain.

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 27, 2013


Poems come in a flash at 5 a.m.

But on dry days, days when I am not awakened,

No spark strikes, my brain does not ignite

Can lists suffice?

Can poems capture the everyday?

Lady’s leap and spin when I grab the leash?

Oh the quandary of words–

3 masters in gray master robes genuflecting before the image of the deceased–

The boundary, slipshod confusion of my now native tongues.

What tongue to speak?

What tongue to keep silent?

What tongue to taste the chocolate in my mouth?

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 26, 2013

Day 25 – The Dance

I was knocked on the head by the Messiah,

Smacked in the noggin–to be more precise–today

By a yellow flag riding on a bicycle

In the holy city of Hadera on the way to the mall.

No trumpets sounded, just an expletive in English

Lost in the chaos of a noisy street.


And, in the evening, as we chanted, namu amita  bul,

Namu amita bul, I saw an image of a man

Dancing to our chant. How can I portray the dance?

For the man kept time to our chant.

Ran beat on the moktak, a hollowed-out

Gourd, and three men sang in Israel

In Korean, and the image in my mind–

For he was in my mind–

Bent and turned, turned and bent

And stretched out his arm–

Mind-sway, mind-turn with the grace of this

Song and chant, in a room empty of all

But song and chant, three men, and a dancing


Posted by: laffingeyes | April 25, 2013

Day 24 – After an Absence, Dz. T.

I took a break for a number of days and rested my mind. This morning, around 5:00, I awoke with the beginning of a poem that kept me up until I completed it.

Why? I do not know.

My brother’s eyes were black

And body strong.

He could go through fire, my brother,

Like Tamerlane, he said,

Riding across the steppes of America.

You had to see him making the bombs

Putting them together one by one,

Teaching me how to hold a gun,

To be a man.


Are there angels?

I sometimes thought my brother was god on earth,

A handsome, fierce god, a righteous one

So strong, he might crush me with a glance,

Embrace me and squeeze me like an orange,

Pierce me by the arrows of his eyes.

His life was pure, no fat upon his body

Untouched by flaming waters,

His spirit conquered all.

He could walk through conflagrations.

He made the people weep.


Have you wrestled with a god?

Have you touched the skin of might?

Had his arms wrapped about you so you could not move?

Felt the warmth of his breath on your face

As he lifted you off the ground like a child–a doll–

And known that love, that ecstasy?

Nothing was impenetrable for him.

Nothing could not be done.

Have you watched him build the bombs?

Have you watched him laugh?

His joy was like the cosmos.

His spirit was my king.


He was a soldier of God, he said,

But I knew he was a god.


And I killed him.

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 21, 2013

Day 20 – Thunder

The thunders roll on and on…

I could believe tonight the gods are

Tossing blocks of dice or

Clapping hard with brutal whips;

Or a soldier, as in Shakespeare’s plays,

Would come onstage from the wings

And enumerate portents of evil and doom to come:

A cow gave birth to a two-headed calf;

The milk in Derbyshire turned sour overnight

And not–like Egyptians of old–one house was spared.

But, perhaps, the heavens are but sad tonight

And the sounds are howls of grief?

I stand on this ancient plot of ground

And do not need the skies to tell me

What I already know: the night is black

And does not presage a welcoming dawn.

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