Writer's Notes Magazine
Is a rebel son just his father's mutated clone?
Citizen in America
In war, maybe everybody gets wounded.
Jerusalem Post Literary Quarterly, 2004
A small nourishment against terror.
Jerusalem Post, 2002
There's one on every plane. A sketch from life.
Potpourri Magazine, 1997
Where's Love when Life and Art are fighting?
The Permanent Press, 1997
A raunchy and partly comic love story set on a country commune - a place lacking conventional boundaries - and probably the most loving and authentic portrayal of Sixties communal life in American fiction.
Arc Magazine, -0001
Love is a world-wide web where your soul-mate hides from you.
The Permanent Press, 1996
A biting portrait of a marriage and stepfamily that is coming apart, while its deeper theme is the daunting task of truly marrying oneself and the life one has made.
Redemption was at hand... The Messiah's enemies whispered of orgies and free love.
Bright Idea Books, 1997
Twelve stories about people who are either frantically searching for their true selves or who know themselves too well and wish they could escape.
The Failed Messiah: The Sixties as Metaphor
Redemption was at hand... The Messiah's enemies whispered of orgies and free love.
© by David Margolis. Adapted by David Margolis from the screenplay The Messiah of the Sleeping God by David Margolis and Harvey Marks.
It is said that the life of every person comprises a commentary on a specific issue in history or culture. But a rare individual may act out the entire drama of his time, as if he is not one story but an anthology - or even more than that, the very impulse of pain and celebration that creates the story.
What follows is not history, fiction, fable or allegory. Call it a relevant myth, since with myths there are no morals; we learn from the drama that we can play all the roles.
In the year 1645, at the age of 20, as was customary, Shabtai Zevi, the son of a Jewish merchant in the Turkish port city of Smyrna, was paired by his family and hers with a pious and efficient young woman who would bear his children and be a proper wife. After the wedding, however, Shabtai would not touch her. He said, "She is not my true wife."
Not his "true wife"? What did this mean? Not even the gentiles had ever heard of such a category. His teachers lectured him severely, and his community married him again - the odd docility of the messiah! - to another thrifty merchant's daughter, well-trained to run a household. He kept his hands to himself. "She is not my true wife," he explained.
He had been trained to holy studies, while his brothers were tracked for the family business. A prodigy in Talmud, he turned to mystical speculation; his religious practice alternated between ascetic and hedonistic as his certainty grew that there was more to the world than this plum of a life he had been granted.
The time was one of ecstatic hope. Both Jews and Christians waited for the great changes they could tell were coming. Unprecedented massacres had befallen the Jews in Europe - "the birth pangs of the Messiah," groaned the survivors. Christians pointed to the year 1666 for the Second Coming. And Shabtai dreamed, according to a fragment that has survived, that his penis was on fire.
Lauded as a genius by his teachers, Shabtai believed he had an important role in the approaching world revolution. At the age of 22, after the failed marriages, mystical retreats and many unpleasant confrontations with his teachers, his family and the respectable Jews around him, he did what the community could not accept: he spoke - in synagogue! - the word it is not permitted to say. In his case, it was the holy and ineffable Name of God.
This was too much, finally. The rabbinical court of Smyrna excommunicated and exiled him. He migrated to the cities of Greece, Syria and Palestine under rabbinic ban, a pariah forbidden normal human fellowship among Jews. And yet, in every city he somehow became, for some, a focus of the hopes of his time. A man of enormous personal magnetism, marked by suffering and the sharp alternation of light and dark in his own soul, he seemed to many to represent the innermost being of the Jewish people and of the world's deep longing and deep inability to know itself. Seeking the public center yet shrinking from those who sought him, he would emerge from long retreats symbolizing his painful personal exile to perform bizarre and eccentric symbolic acts. In Aleppo he danced before the Holy Ark with a fish, in Tiberias he contracted a public marriage to a scroll of the Law.
History is a hallucination. Today, few know of Shabtai Zevi. But 300 years ago, in the Sixties of the 17th Century, probably two-thirds of the world's Jews, and many Christians and Muslims, too, came to believe that Shabtai Zevi was the messiah.
Of course, it's hard to know with any real certainty what people actually thought 300 years ago, but it's certain that, in some neighborhoods at least, people believed the world was going to end in 1666. They dropped out completely - gave up their businesses, didn't cut firewood for the next winter. What winter? It was the End - summer forever!
This was how it would turn out: Shabtai Zevi would take the Sultan's crown and become ruler of the world. Kings would bow down to him, the Temple of Solomon would descend from heaven fully built, the Ten Lost Tribes would return, the graves would open, humankind would be judged and God Himself would appear to humankind and make a feast for us.
And at God's right hand would sit Shabtai Zevi, his instrument. Millions of people believed this. Instead of taking care of business, men and women (including Shabtai's brothers, who had inherited the family firm) were praying, fasting and flagellating themselves. So many Jews dropped out that ordinary trade was interrupted between Europe and the East.
It's hard to believe what people believed then, isn't it? Of course, it's hard to believe what people believed in 1968, too, and that was only a generation ago.
That summer all the signs and portents pointed to Redemption. After a generation of political revolutions and holocaust had come a series of cataclysms and strange phenomena in the natural world - a solar eclipse in 1664, the Great Flood of Venice the following spring, a serious earthquake in Rome. There were also sightings of sea monsters along the Mediterranean littoral and reports of Jewish armies marching from the East toward Palestine. A particularly bright star appeared in the fall of 1665 and shone for weeks before fading into blackness. And - a core detail - Shabtai Zevi found his true wife.
Her name was Sarah. She was beautiful and outspoken, a woman of gifts. She claimed powers of prophecy and - no proper modest pious Jewess - did not accept ordinary social restrictions. She was larger than life, a sexy Jewish wife just right for the messiah. The worlds had come together at last. What a party their wedding was!(The enemies of the Messiah whispered of orgies and free love.)
In our low world, Redemption occurs as politics. Shabtai Zevi set out at the head of a procession of believers, numbering in the thousands at some points along the route to Constantinople, to take the crown from the head of the Sultan. Of course, when he got to Constantinople, the Sultan's police threw him in jail.
History is a hallucination. These crazy bearded Jews continued to shake their fists at the Sultan of all the Turks, threatening civil insurrection, and the Sultan finally had to take note of it. While in India, the Untouchables were deforming their babies and starving to death and in central Africa, high civilizations were being eaten by cannibals, in Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa, the Jews (along with many Christians and Moslems) were a body throbbing with ecstatic expectation, while the head of that body was in a little cell in Constantinople, praying, singing and yelling threats at the Sultan in the name of Life itself.
As always, the Jews donated money - it poured in from all parts of the world to subsidize the Redemption. The faithful came by boatloads to see him. They bought Shabtai a larger cell, more privileges and finally succeeded in having him transferred across the strait from Constantinople to a half-ruined crusader castle on the beach that was quickly converted to a prison.
Around the castle, an extraordinary scene developed, with hordes of people camped out: holy men and frauds, sightseers and adventurers, lepers searching for a cure, acrobats and musicians, grocers, apothecaries and entrepreneurs of all goods, yogurt vendors hawking their wares, skeptics, curiosity-seekers, mystics of every denomination. Journalists from England and France interviewed families in tents while every morning Shabtai was carried on a litter like a king - like the Sultan - to the water for his ritual bath. The huge crowds parted before him like the waters of the Red Sea.
Was there a prisoner in this prison, then? Shabtai was the commander of armies. Thousands of Jews were ready to march under his banner, to take the Holy Land by force, to topple the world demon. But Shabtai held up his hand and smiled beatifically; he smelled a flower and stuck it in the gun barrel of the militants around him. "It is not necessary to shed blood," he assured them. "The Sultan will fall over by himself. I will blow on him with the breath of God and he will fly away like dandelion fur. He has no strength except what I allow him. The End is certain; only wait and enjoy, for God keeps his promises. Do not be afraid, for all is certain and confirmed."
To the north, in cold Europe, the Jews disputed over reflections of the messiah's light. At last, a delegation of rabbis was chosen to make the difficult journey to Constantinople to greet - that is, to evaluate - the messiah. Men used to privations and sorrow who had seen their towns destroyed in pogroms, these European rabbis were not certain whether they went as skeptics or supplicants, but they were aware of how great a responsibility they bore.
The human circus outside the walls of Shabtai's castle did not seem to them an appropriate match to the seriousness of their errand. Nor did the manner of the disciples who greeted them in Shabtai's name - a bit jocular, their dress slightly disheveled. They seemed too well fed.
But these rabbis were not fools, and a lifetime of training had taught them to be deliberate in judgement. What they must know would be revealed to them. They were shown to their chambers with honors, and then - was it possible? - the meal prepared for them and served to them - did it contain forbidden meat? Forbidden food from the table of the Messiah?
Perhaps they were mistaken. Or it was a test of faith. They examined their bowls, confused. The youngest among them spoke finally. "Brothers," he suggested, gesturing beyond the walls to all they had seen so far, "did we think we would come to the time of Redemption and everything would remain as it always was? Must we not expect to be surprised, even horrified?"
With heavy, hopeful hearts, the men pushed away the bowls of food. Of course, it was right for them to fast before meeting Shabtai - perhaps that was the test. They said the evening prayers and retired, sleeping restlessly from fear and excitement and because the corridors outside their door were noisy all night with the sounds of people going back and forth, they didn't know who or why.
In the morning, they were brought into a large hall. At its center, Shabtai sat on cushions, surrounded by worshippers. Around the crowded room, men and women mixed freely, talking and touching each other, like modern people, though dressed in the robes and turbans of the 17th century. The pious prayed continually, filling the air with psalms.
Shabtai rose before the black-garbed Europeans. "Poland is here, which shed its blood for me," he called, silencing the room. And then he sang them a little erotic song about a unicorn (a unicorn? there are no Jewish unicorns), prancing and dancing before them. Now Sarah joined him, her long hair flowing freely onto her shoulders, and warmly embraced the horrified rabbis (if you know strictly Orthodox Jews, you will understand).
His hand resting easily on Sarah's hip, Shabtai explained the hidden meaning of his song: how to make the unicorn come to the wedding feast. Yes, brothers, the Redemption is already accomplished, the marriage is consummated. Now is the time of celebration. And Sarah offered their guests food - more forbidden meats. Terrified, the rabbis reminded Shabtai of his grave responsibilities and obligations, of the inviolable sanctity of the Law.
Shabtai tamed his own exasperation with a smile. "Now everything is holy," he explained. "What is forbidden is also holy. This," he urged them, citing mystical sources, "is the inner meaning of Redemption. Now even sin is holy." Grabbing a scroll of the Torah, he wrapped the roll of parchment around himself. "Now I am the Law!" he insisted. "You must love me!"
Jews in Poland had let themselves be killed rather than eat unclean foods. Jews in Europe had died rather than transgress the Law. Would the messiah play in their blood? It could not be. He was an imposter. The rabbis of Europe broke away, rushed through the crowd to the guards at the outer walls of the fortress, denounced Shabtai Zevi as a traitor to the Sultan and a danger to both Muslim and Jew.
"In this, too," Shabtai smiled, calming his disciples, "we may recognize the hand of God. Now the confrontation with the Sultan has been engineered."
The Sultan lived in a real palace, not a liberated prison. Slaves dusted his satin cushions, his courtiers and a favorite concubine or two stood behind screens near his throne, the queen mother reclined on a chaise-lounge, attended by slaves. Beside the Sultan waited his ministers, who since the beginning of this drama had been divided in their counsel. Some recommended the messiah's immediate execution as a way to end the problem. Others cautioned that the messiah's martyrdom might produce even greater civic unrest among both Jews and those Muslims who had become believers.
The Sultan was aware of the political hazards. However, only Shabtai, finally summoned to appear, seriously believed that the Sultan's throne was at stake.
Although Shabtai spoke Turkish, he insisted on Hebrew, so that the interview was conducted through a translator, an apostate Jew who was now the royal physician.
"Who are you?" asked the Sultan.
"A man who does God's will," answered Shabtai.
"And how do you know God's will?" the Sultan inquired.
"By what I do," replied Shabtai neatly. He smiled in a way that made the queen mother rearrange her pelvis and her lips. The Sultan, though he appreciated charm, had a further question. "But isn't it the will of the One God that every man have free will?"
"Yes, yes," Shabtai agreed. The yeses did not need to be translated. "Except for me."
"Except you? Only you do not have free choice?"
"And you, too," Shabtai assured him, and the Sultan, surprised, laughed out loud. This messiah was not the stuffy bird they'd expected. The queen mother, her face partly veiled in the Muslim custom, leaned forward to say something to the Sultan.
"The Sultan's mother likes you," the physician told Shabtai, a free gift.
The Sultan conferred with his ministers and then spoke. "The Sultan, may he live long, is willing to offer you his crown," came the translation. "But you must pass a test."
"If you need a sign, you won't see it when it happens," Shabtai said.
His response was translated into Turkish and the Sultan's wry answer passed back: "The Sultan is aware that he is merely being practical...."
They gave Shabtai the choice of conversion or death: "And if the All-Merciful should choose to protect you from the arrows of the Sultan's archers, the Sultan will place upon your head the Crown of Empire and become your servant." The archers, 40 strong men with wrists like saplings, stood silently at the far wall. The large chamber grew quiet.
For dramatic effect, they offered Shabtai the symbols of his choice on velvet cushions: an arrow on one, the turban of the Turks on the other. Rather dreamily, Shabtai picked up the arrow and tested it against the ball of one thumb. A drop of his blood welled up. He felt the prick of pain. It was him, what was inside him leaking out.
"Shall the Redeemer of mankind die for a hat?" he demanded, his voice a challenge. An impulsive man, given to unexplainable acts, he broke the arrow in half, threw the pieces down and donned the turban, then took a scroll of the Koran in his arms, cradling that baby as an hour before, preparing for this meeting, he had cradled the Torah baby, and began, his voice movingly beautiful, to sing praises of the Most High.
The Court of the Sultan was most pleased. Off camera, a shrill wail of lamentation rose and grew as the Jews learned that the messiah had betrayed them.
But the story is not over, it merely becomes more personal. If you had believed you were a special messenger, if you had felt the touch of angels and the world in its turn had turned to corroborate you, do you think that you would change your mind so easily?
A year passed. Shabtai and Sarah, who had converted with him, lived as Muslims in the palace of the king. Shabtai may have betrayed the dream, but he did not give it up. He roamed those intricate corridors as a Muslim. Trained and disciplined by a lifetime of study, he became a prodigy in Koran. Allah is One and Mohammed is his prophet. Shabtai was the messiah of the God of Israel, yes, but the messiah of the God of Ishmael and Esau, too. Yahweh is One and Moses is his prophet. Jehovah is One and Jesus is his prophet. Shabtai was weary of this old and awful controversy about who is Daddy's favorite. The distinctions made no difference. We are all God's favorites - God is One and Shabtai is his prophet.
And so Shabtai began to wait again for the moment when he could act without doubt and without thought - when, his brains blown away by spirit, God's will would be revealed to him by what he did, when his most spontaneous unplanned action would itself be the Word of God, and he would be responsible for everything and completely free at the same time, like God at last.
One morning he felt ready. He robed himself in scarlet. A horse was saddled for him. Cradling the Hebrew scrolls of the Torah in one arm and in the other the scrolls of the Koran, singing praises like a father of beautiful twins, he rode slowly down the narrow main street of the Jewish quarter.
Though the Sabbatean madness, broken by the messiah's conversion, was rigidly repressed by the Jewish authorities, there remained many who had waited hundreds of days for Shabtai to return. The news went like lightning, and Shabtai's eyes shone like stars. How beautiful and alluring his voice was, as the answering sounds of devotion followed him and his hidden disciples surged out into the streets, their hopes reborn.
At the end of the street he turned to face them. He dismounted and stood among them again. "I am the instrument of your redemption," he told them, his voice soft, demanding nothing, calling back the old loyalties. "Would you like to learn how to pray?"
"Yes! Yes! Teach us how to speak with God!"
They grew quiet, so that when he spoke, they heard him easily, as if they stood together in a small room. "Yes, I can teach you how to pray," he agreed. "This is how a man must pray," he said again in that light voice touched with sadness.
And then he screamed. His mouth, turned up toward heaven, opened and he screamed. His scream was like a fish leaping out of the water, writhing and tossing in the air, snared and twisting on its long line, falling back into the water again, then breaking the surface of the liquid and becoming words - "Save us! Save us! Save us!" - then falling, slipping back underneath the surface into painful screams again.
Three times the piercing voice broke into words and retreated to pure sound, and then he stopped, pale and suddenly faint. He stumbled backward a step, his face confused. For although hundreds of believers kissed the ground in front of him, chanted praises to him, begged him for his touch, his blessing - nothing had happened. Heaven had not answered. As the procession formed of Muslim and Jewish believers, united behind him, ready to storm the Sultan's palace, Shabtai was alone.
This time the Sultan had nothing to fear. There weren't enough devotees left to threaten civic turmoil; the rabbis, having regained control, did not intend to lose it again. This time, Shabtai had become a pretentious little mosquito. He had his charm, and it would still serve no purpose to kill him, but his new adventure was apostasy and sedition more serious, in a way, than the first, if only because the Sultan took it personally. So they sent him north into exile in the Balkans, to a little village where the streets are made of mud.
The Messiah of mud.
The messiah's chief disciple, the kabbalist Rabbi Nathan, had kept his faith pure through everything, ever since his dreams had prophesied Shabtai's arrival years before, always extending the model of the messiah to fit his master's erratic career. No matter what Shabtai did - even now - Nathan insisted on Shabtai's claim, predicting ruin, war, still more awesome birth pangs of the Final End. Even the conversion, even this new exile were signs of Redemption, if only you believed.
Nor was Nathan alone. In Smyrna, in Aleppo, in Cairo, in Alexandria, in Jerusalem, in Constantinople, small circles of believers corresponded, encouraged one another, lived according to the messianic ways.
But the rest of the world, exhausted by excesses of spirit and by tremendous disappointment, went back into ordinary time. Shabtai Zevi, though he still signed his letters "King of the King of Kings, the Anointed of God" and pored over Arabic and Hebrew texts, was just a Jew in exile who had to check in every week or two with the local magistrate. The floor of his house was made of earth. His life became so ordinary that Sarah bore him a child, a son. The messiah was a family man.
"But how can this be?" Nathan cried, struck finally by doubt. Another generation after the messiah? Can the Redeemer of Mankind end up an old man in exile with a wife and kid, his career behind him, waiting to die? Was that it? After the wildness, the feasting, the poetry - God, was that it?
Shrug. That was it.
When Nathan asked Shabtai why he hadn't come, so to speak - why the Revolution had burned out and the whole world dropped back again to the ordinary, Shabtai had two answers:
1) Either in self-awareness or in self-doubt, he said, "I was not clear enough. I did not say what was given to me to say. I failed."
2) More philosophically, or more blaming, he said, "They only waited for me to do it. I brought them to the mountain, but they said to me, 'Lift it, lift it.' I could not do it alone. That was not what God intended."
And either way, he added, in faith, "At any moment it may happen, the strong beast of the world may give itself a shake, change shape, become its own true self. We must wait forever, for at any moment it may happen."
And this answer must have satisfied Nathan, for he remained forever faithful to the messiah. Even after Shabtai's death, he waited, with other devotees, for his return.
Which is always how it is with messiahs and their followers. Even while we begin to doubt our memories of the loving greatness and excess of those deluded times, we still wait, watching for signal fires on hillsides far away. For there are no false messiahs, after all, only failed ones - insufficient to the task but pointing their generation toward the end of all exiles, toward the miraculous rebirth.
© by David Margolis. Adapted by David Margolis from the screenplay The Messiah of the Sleeping God by David Margolis and Harvey Marks.
From David Margolis
My interests as a fiction writer were partly determined by having come of age in the Sixties: wandering, escape, ecstatic experience, disappointment, the search for community, how men and women make each other crazy. Such diverse concerns demand varying voices for their expression, as the reader will find out.
I began my writing career as a poet and learned much of what I know about writing prose from reading poetry.
As a consequence, two things power my experience of writing: the dreadful pleasure of shaping language until it teaches me what I want to say, and my private struggle between the poet's work of opening up any moment like a flower and the fiction writer's work of getting on with the story.