A “shpilka”, in Yiddish, is a pin, and “zitzen vi of shpilkas” is a phrase you might have heard in childhood (“sitting like on pins and needles”) if you were one of those kids who never sat still and was always on the move. Your parents may have even gotten bad reports from teachers that you were uncontrollable. Nowadays it might be seen as a possible symptom of ADD.
As adults, we may be shpilkadik for any one of a number of reasons: waiting to hear about college acceptance, pressure to finish a specific task at work, worries about how much the repairs to your car will cost, do you have enough money in your savings and investments for a menschlich retirement.
A couple of hours a day for the past 11 months have been shpilkadik for me. It all began when I rented an apartment in Jerusalem that had no TV. I started buying some books (e.g. a biography of Marshall Zhukov), and worked away at some of the volumes in my hosts’ library including Chaim Grade’s brutal description of shtetl life in both volumes of the Yeshiva (in English translation). But most of the books just weren’t of personal interest.
Now, after two consecutive Shabbat morning Kiddushes, I often walk with my friends-of-many-years, Fran and Bernie Alpert, to their nearby home to schmooze as they say in Rabbinic literature, “al ha v’al da” – on this and that. When I lamented my no-TV situation, Bernie lent me a John Grisham novel, with its legal twists and turns in the hands of a heroic attorney in order to bring real justice to bear on the case at hand. It was easy to read, gripping/riveting, a page turner.
1. I never read — have never read — those kind of books.
2. I was on shpilkas the last 50-60 pages, waiting to see how it would all turn out.
3. I was hooked and off to the second-hand bookstores to clean out the shelf of Grisham’s books.
From there, I went to spy novels, the most important ones by Daniel Silva, because the hero was an Israeli spy. Now it is detective suspense mysteries – Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, and lately James Patterson. It was also the same pattern as with Grisham, shpilkas. I’ve probably read 70-80 books in all, usually starting in the early, early morning hours when I used to study Midrash or Tanach or chapters on Jewish history.
(A medical note: For people such as myself who have diabetes, it is not only the intake of sugar and carbohydrates and couch-potatokeit that raises blood sugar, but also stress = shpilkas.)
So, if this is a Dvar Torah, it’s time to get down to it, beginning with some comparisons:
1. I don’t memorize passages like I did a few chapters of Mishnayot for exams at JTS or, in secular life, The Gettysburg Address, Friends, Romans, Countrymen, or Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.
2. I majored in comparative literature in my secular studies in college: Proust, Thomas Mann, Joyce, Sartre, Camus, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Fitzgerald – now they wrote fine literature. None of the ones I’ve been reading are great literature, nor are they meant to be. It is true, that some of the authors are superb at descriptions (though their wallowing in the gore of corpses is sometimes over the top) and clever with often-humorous metaphors and similes. I would add that none can come close to matching the lyrical prose of my teacher, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. This “kick” of mine is mere entertainment. Proust, Faulkner, Heschel, Tanach and Midrash are not.
3. Truths are sparse as opposed to reading “The Stranger” or watching “King Lear” on stage, or, for that matter, reviewing many quotes in Pirkay Avot.
4. Much like many complex Halachic arguments in the Talmud, my patience is minimal when it comes to following the sometimes-convoluted plots and multitude of suspects and clues in the Kellermans and Patterson.
5. I will occasionally rush to the solved case, even if I can’t remember all the clues that got the detectives to the end. I had the same feeling when I would go to the Rambam or Shulchan Aruch or similar texts to what they finally ruled. How they got there was almost always too much for me to handle.
6. “Page-turner” – other than the last chapter of Brachot and Sanhedrin, 15 or so pages in the middle of Massechet Ta’anit, and pages 8-11 of Bava Batra, I found little in the Talmud that could be called a page-turner. And that is why I got addicted to the Grisham-Silva-Patterson genre. I couldn’t help myself — I was in the authors’ inescapable grip.
1. I do not have the slightest doubt that I will return, full-force, to my Torah study, applying at least as much mental intensity for solving a verse in Proverbs’ philological difficulties as I do at the moment to finding the sniper who did the vice president in. Soon. That is for certain.
2. It’s been fun (what we called in the Sixties “a real trip”), a welcome break, an escape a couple of hours from whatever is causing me stress – no more than that. On the other hand, Massechet Shabbat 30-31 is much more profound, giving me guidance in humility, kindness, and how to attempt to live a decent life.
In school, the teacher often assigned us to critique or compare and contrast. The columnists who write about movies, wine (and now artisan beer), sushi restaurants, or a pianist’s performance at the Kennedy Center are good at that when they do not degenerate into snooty jargon. That’s all right by me, and they have years of experience and are certainly greater experts in their fields than myself.
In the end, as brief as this analysis is, I would imagine I wrote this one as much for myself as for anyone else that might find something of interest.