This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Gone Fishin'*

For those of you who may not be keeping count, my previous column was my one-hundredth in the Jewish Free Press. I think that should entitle me to a brief vacation. Unfortunately, even if my editor did not keep me shackled to my desk, I could still not afford to miss an issue, lest my poor children be forced to go another two weeks without food or Nikes.

By way of compromise, I would like to fulfill a long-standing dream of mine, by submitting a column that I do not actually have to write. No, I am not going to offer summer re-runs by reprinting old and dated material. Rather, I wish to fill up a page with selections from letters that I have received from my loyal readers.

I do indeed get many letters, mostly via email, in response to the archive of my articles that is now posted on the World Wide Web of the Internet.

One peculiar consequence of this situation is that my correspondents do not necessarily deal with current material. Often they are reacting to some unguarded comment of mine that was originally published ten years ago and has since been forgotten. In many cases, the writers do not even bother to indicate which of the hundreds of items on my Web site they are referring to.

My favourites tend to be the most irate. And make no mistake about it, there are plenty of hostile souls lurking about the Internet. You would think that a column like mine, largely devoted to obscure quotations from old Hebrew books, would not have much potential for antagonizing anybody. But remember, I am dealing with religion, one of our foremost sources of strife and intolerance.

Thus, we find the following letter, from an obviously learned individual with an Arabic name, reacting to my 1991 article about the Jews of Baghdad:

it was shown yure jewish is not emportantat to say baghdad from old time its lland for jewish awant to say
  1. all jewish are layer
  2. all jewish book is rong
  3. all jewish are murder
(English translation will be provided on request).

I should note that letters like the above are counterbalanced by others, like the following:

Hi. I am Muslim and believe that we have all one source and worship the same God, or Allah, or what ever you call him. Thanks for this information. It is really good to understand your point of view.

Nor is my hate-mail restricted to members of other faiths. Today's Jewish world has enough internal frictions to incite letters like the following one, from an Israeli Orthodox sage who is clearly irritated by something that was said in an old article of mine about Purim:
I read your Purim Torah on the "development" of Purim. You exhibit a profound ignorance of Talmudic method, Jewish history and just about every other topic you touch on. Or, to put it in words that even a nitwit like you would understand: you're full of [four-letter word for fecal matter]

An interesting recent trend is for extremely religious Jews to protest my inclusion of more moderate Orthodoxy (of the Orthodox Union or Yeshivah University varieties) as if they were really Orthodox.

And if mere scholarship can rile folks up, imagine what sensitive territory I am treading on when I venture into spoofs and satire! Several readers were offended by a fictitious letter I once composed arguing Pharaoh's perspective on the Exodus story. Others objected to my story about a supposed Israeli sale of unused surplus vowels to Poland. They were expecting (without bothering to read the actual article) that it must be one of those tasteless ethnic put-downs, which of course it was not. Alternatively, some alert fans wrote to protest that a similar article is in circulation in the American military about Croatian, and that I ought to stamp out that plagiarism.

Of course there are those who turn for me for intellectual guidance and spiritual advice, as in the following:

I will like prices and shipping information on shabbat candles. or if you have a cadalog you can send me.

A bit closer to my competencies is the following:
I have been with my boyfriend for a while and I really want to learn more about his religion... His parents are a little strict about my being a Christian. Please help me.

And there are these frequent requests for assistance:
Hello. I am a student at the ... and I have to write a report on ... Please send me all the information by Thursday!

The next item evokes some fascininating speculations about the writer's motives:
What exactly goes on in a Jewish wedding? I need to know by Wed.

I have a special weakness for appeals of the following type, which are surprisingly plentiful:
Can you direct me to a place where I can learn exactly what the Talmud is, and how would it benefit a born-again Christian to learn and/or study the Talmud?

Any tips on teaching Passover to 4-years-old Catholic Hispanics?

Well, I have done it. I have let you compose this week's column for me. Just keep those letters flowing in, the angrier the better, and maybe I will be able to extend this vacation by a few more weeks.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, May 29 1997, pp. 8-9.