Stephen Berer

Stephen BererCommunity Contributor

Stephen Berer has devoted the last forty years to the composition of poetry, midrashim, and modern religious analytics. He lives with one foot in Orthodoxy and one foot in Renewal.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Jonah, Reimagined

The Jonah story, traditionally read on Yom Kippur is often explained as being about repentance. However, in truth it’s mostly the tale of a troubled guy who feels called by God, but at the same time has serious issues with his calling. He’s cranky, rebellious, cynical, mean-spirited, and petulant. Further, the story has much in it that even ancient readers could not take seriously: the absurd whale scene and equally absurd repentance-of-Nineveh scene, replete with the animals having to wear sackcloth! This is well beyond even the ancient view of reality. And in truth, Ninevens couldn’t have cared less what Hebrews thought, a fact that ancient readers surely were quite aware of.

Thus, our authors have re-visioned the text, in attempts to expose the real Jonah. Two of us re-wrote portions of the story. A third person engaged in a therapy session with Jonah. The fourth envisioned Jonah after his Nineven tour of duty.

Our general thesis is this: this is not a text about repentance; it is a text about moral ambiguity, self-deception, and the effects of inner conflict. Join us in this journey on new ways of understanding Jonah.

Part 1

Jonah and His Therapist, by Judith Klavans

Scene One:

Therapist’s office

Dr. T: How are you, Jonah?

Jonah: Everybody says to me Jonah, Jonah, Jonah! It’s really difficult sometimes to be a prophet. I’m always getting orders.

Dr. T: What do you mean by that?

Jonah: I don’t like being told what to do all the time.

Dr. T: I wonder…why?.

Jonah: I am anxious… all … schpilkes. Sometimes I doubt what I hear, and I never know if I am acting the best way.

Dr. T: Uh huh; well tell me more, Jonah.

Jonah: Well, my job is just plain hard. I know this sounds heretical, but I sometimes question God. Others are always judging me. And sometimes I have… terrible dreams.

Dr. T: Hmm, I’d like to know more about your dreams.

Jonah: I had a really crazy dream just last night, and it was so vivid that I thought it was real! I was in a deep sleep, and I heard a huge shout. God bellowed: “Jonah, wake up! You must travel far away, to a place called Nineveh - and you must tell the people there that they must stop being wicked and start being kind.” I didn’t know what She was talking about.

Dr. T: Tell me more.

Jonah: Why should I use my precious time to go help the Ninevites when they are out to conquer Israel! No way!

Dr. T: This is understandable, Jonah. You sound full of rage. But maybe God was giving you a different message.

Jonah: Message, shmessage! I was ordered, and I mean ORDERED, to get up and go! But Dr T, I was sleeping so soundly. Plus, She said that these people had to “be kind” or their city would be destroyed. What do I care if those heretics get destroyed? Not my problem!

Dr. T: What do you think about that?

Jonah: I was stunned! I said: Oh God, Source of All Life, I am not doing this!

Dr. T: You seem to have strong feelings about this.

Jonah: You bet your boots I do! I said, God, You can fire me!!

Dr. T: Well, our time is up for today. See you tomorrow.

Scene Two:

Jonah in bed, sleeping. He mumbles…

Jonah: Hey sailors, where is Nineveh, do you know? You say, east? Then I’m going west!

Jonah tossing and turning, moaning miserably; he mumbles…

Jonah: Is this storm because of me? Lord, I’m sick to death! Noooo… heeellllp…. don’t throw me overboard… Aaaahhhhh. Aaaaahhhhh.

Scene Three:

Therapist’s office

Dr. T: Well, Jonah, how are you doing?

Jonah: I’m going crazy! Horrible dreams!

Dr. T: Well, tell me more, Jonah. I want to hear.

Jonah: I was on a ship and sailors threw me into the water. I got swallowed by a great fish. It was dark, I was so scared.

Dr. T: What are you talking about Jonah? Was this your dream?

Jonah: I’m a prophet! Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m awake or asleep. Maybe it was a dream. Was I here yesterday? I thought I was in a fish’s belly. It seemed like days. I realized I had to find a way to get to Nineveh and deliver a Divine message. It took me forever to decide on this.

Dr. T: What do you think being in the belly of a fish means?

Jonah: It was dark and it gave me time to think about what I was doing.

Dr. T: Did you think about that anger we talked about?

Jonah: I imagined that maybe God had something in mind that I didn’t see at first. But I was still skeptical – why should I go help our enemies?

Dr. T.: Well, why should you? What do you think?

Jonah: Maybe I had to experience …. confusion before I could see a new reality. I see now that maybe my own attitude was dragging me down. Still, I don’t like being told what to do!

Dr. T: You see yourself as a rebel, Jonah, and that’s ok. But, maybe going to Nineveh will help you find some answers, as well.

Part 2

A Tourist in Nineveh, by Daniel Leventhal

Setting: An internet bar in Nineveh

Scene 1:

Tourist emailing his mother Hey Mom, I’m writing you from an internet café in Nineveh. Got to the city a few days ago.

It’s been unbelievable. As soon as I got here people were complaining about the king and his “decree”, which was that every Ninevite was to put on sackcloth, sit on ashes, and pray for forgiveness. Forgiveness for what? I didn’t understand.

I tried meeting Jonah soon after I got here but he said he was busy in a meeting with “Nineven bigshots.” He told me to meet him at the east gate the next day, but since I didn’t have anything else to do, I headed over there out of curiosity.

I stepped into this internet café in which I am writing you this email, and had some coffee. Lo and behold, through the window I could see Jonah outside the city gate! I stepped outside to get a closer view: he was on his knees, seemingly exasperated. He called out to the sky (addressing I don’t know whom): “This is what I was trying to avoid when I went to Tarshish! I know You are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil. So now, please just take my life. None of it is worth it anymore.”

I then heard a booming voice, but I couldn’t see anyone near Jonah. And nobody else paid attention to it. It asked if Jonah was actually sad. Jonah then started putting some nearby pieces of wood together to create some sort of hut, and a plant started to grow over it! Jonah quickly sat under it to get some shade. At this point, I felt I was hallucinating, jetlagged as I was, so I went to my hostel for the night.

The next morning I went back to the east gate, and both Jonah and the plant were still there. I saw a worm crawl through the plant though, and it quickly started to wither. Jonah noticed and began to cry. He said the same thing as the day before, “Take my life! Please just let it be over with already!”

Then I heard the loud voice again. It said, “Look, you’re heartbroken over a plant that one day came into being and the next day withered away. Should I not feel pity for the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 children and many animals as well?”

Tourist stops typing, pauses with a great sigh, and then goes back to typing:

I suppose I wasn’t dreaming. Clearly I’ve made it back to the internet café and have been able to sketch this story for you. It’s definitely been a wild distraction from life. More later. Love you.

Tourist receives a text that reads “where are you??”

Tourist: Oh! It’s Jonah!

Tourist texting:

Hey! I’m here at the Believe-Everything-You-See internet café! Come meet me here!

Jonah arrives after a few minutes.

Jonah: Hey I was looking for you at the east gate!

Tourist [excited]: Jonah! Dude!! I was hanging out there yesterday and today!

Jonah: What?!

Tourist: Yeah! I saw you talking to someone, but I couldn’t see him! I thought I was going crazy! Who were you talking to?

Jonah [after a pause]: You could hear that voice too?

Tourist: Uh, yeah! Who were you talking to?!

Jonah [after a pause]: I was talking to God.

Tourist [incredulous]: Seriously? I mean I didn’t see anyone else around , but, dude! [Stares at Jonah trying to make out if he’s joking. Then…] You can talk to God?

Jonah: [Shrugs, then looks down at the floor and blurts out sheepishly:] I guess I have to tell you: I’m a prophet.

Tourist [after a pause, his eyes open wide]: Look I’ve always seen you as a good person, but I had no idea you were this virtuous!

Jonah: Me?? Are you kidding? I’m not virtuous at all. I’m sure you heard me whining and complaining! I really don’t know what to make of myself.

Tourist: Well look, you can talk to God — that’s a beautiful thing. Something most people would give anything for.

Jonah: [rolling his eyes]: It’s a gift and a burden. Let me explain.

Part 3

Outtakes from Jonah’s Life, by anonymous

Setting: Here are 3 outtakes from the original Jonah story. Most people don’t realize this, but Jonah was a funny guy, and the book he wrote was full of sarcasm and jokes. In his day his readers howled at the absurd whale scene, and at Ninevens trembling before the Jewish God, and putting sackcloth on their cattle. Alas, having made it into the Bible, later generations began to take his story much too seriously.

Here we see Jonah as a grunt (foot soldier) in the Prophetic Liberation Army. In Scene 1 he meets his war buddy, Isaiah, and his commanding officer, Elijah. Elijah wants to debrief Jonah after his mission to Nineveh.

In Scene 2 Isaiah and Elijah return to bring Jonah back to Central Command to gather intelligence, and perhaps to send him on a new mission.

And in Scene 3, Jonah begins to formulate his book, thanks to the grandkids.

Scene 1, Apocalyse Then

Jonah, Isaiah, and Elijah at a local watering hole.

Isaiah: Yoni! Long time, no sea, buddy!

Yonah: [simply stares disgustedly]

Isaiah: Hey, so tell us about your tour of duty.

Jonah: Yeah, well I wanted a mission and for my sins They gave me one. Sent me out like an errand boy to deliver a bill. I’m done with this army, man.

Isaiah: Yoni, you know as well as me you can’t run from Central Command.

Jonah: Oh yeah? I got halfway to Tarshish before They found me.

Elijah: Actually, soldier, you didn’t distinguish yourself in that operation. Coulda got your ass dishonorably discharged. You’re lucky you have some friends in High Places.

Jonah: That’s the thing, Major. I hate being watched all the time, by you or the Intelligence Office. That’s not in the contract. We’re supposed to be unencumbered operatives. Sir.

Elijah: Read your contract, sergeant. You are an unencumbered operative, but that don’t mean we’re not keeping an eye on you.

Jonah: Always by the book. Is that all they teach you in the academy? Sir.

Isaiah: Guys. Guys. Lighten up. You delivered the message, Yoni, and made it home to tell the tale. More than I can say for a lot of the boys.

Elijah: [Holding up his glass and staring at it] Damn! Don’t they wash the glasses at this well? Let me buy you a round up at the officer’s club. I suppose I owe you one, Yonah. I don’t like your attitude, but it seems you performed with courage behind enemy lines, and we need to hear the details. Let’s make a move.

Scene 2, Out of the Frying Pan

10 years later. On a ghetto street in Yaffa, up in the heights. There’s a sign hanging in a window that reads: Jo’s Soul Food Kitchen

Elijah: Yeah, I think this is the place. But the map’s a p.o.s. Shoulda used GPS. [They step up to the take-out window.]

Isaiah: Yoni! ‘Zat you, my man? When’d you shave off that grizzled beard and afro? Look at you!

Jonah: Izzy! Eli, uh, Major-sir!

Isaiah: That ratty tee-shirt looks like a souvenir from Nineveh. What’s it say on the back?

Jonah: ‘Charlie don’t surf.’ You guys on R & R? What you doin’ sea side? I hear things have been pretty hot up north, Jeroboam kicking it up, and all(1). What can I get you? The zucchini bread’s fresh out of the oven.

Isaiah: Hahaha. You’ve had a thing for zucchini ever since that one grew all around you back in the desert.(2)

Jon: Got that right, Izzy. I’d have been wasted out there without it. And now I prepare zukes in 10 different ways. [shrugs] You know, a tribute. You like some fried zukes and jalapeno? If you can eat that you won’t have to prove your courage in any other way.

Isaiah: I’ll try the fritters, and a cup of kikayon tea.

Jonah: And what’ll you have, major?

Elijah: Just some of that tea, no honey. You know, sergeant, Command sent us out here to find you.

Jonah: Jeez, major, I’ve been working this diner a couple of years now. What do they want? Some recipes?

Isaiah: Great tea! What’s that aromatic in it?

Jonah: Cardamom. Nice, eh? Really makes the kikayon come alive.

Elijah: Very funny, sergeant. There’s a new situation in an area where you operated. We were sent here to bring you back for a briefing on it.

Jonah: Sir? A new situation? I haven’t been on active duty since that operation to liquidate Jehoash(3). I have a family now, sir. And my therapist says I need to keep a regular routine to help manage my PTSD.

Isaiah: Listen, Yoni. Command would like to hear your ideas on how to bring Jeroboam back in line. Not a tour of duty. Just some consulting.

Jonah: Hmmm. I’m a consultant now? Since when has my time become valuable? Do I really have to come to Jerusalem? Sir?

Elijah: Soldier! Central Command wants to talk with you at Headquarters.

Jonah: What about my diner, sir?

Elijah: What? Your wife can’t cook? You have a duty, soldier!

Isaiah: Say, where’d you get this carda-whatever, Yoni. I gotta get me some.

Scene 3, War Stories

20 more years later. Yonah is babysitting the grandkids, Yekhezkel, Devorah, and Yermeyahu.

Khezi: Sabah! Sabah! Tell us a story.

Devi: Yeah, Sabah, yeah! Tell us a story!

Yeri: A war story, Sabah!

Jonah: Bubbelehs, first go change into your jammies. And then we’ll have some kikayon tea and I’ll tell you a tale… [five minutes later] Once upon a time I was sailing the Middle Sea…

Kids: Yay!! The whale story!

Jonah: … [concluding] So I lit a fire in the big fish’s gullet til he started to choke and cough, and spewed me right out onto a sandbar near Carthage.

Kids: Another story! Another one!

Jonah: Did I ever tell you about the time I met the King of Nineveh?

Khezi: Oh boy, the king story! Tell it to us, Sabah.

Jonah: … [concluding] And the king was so impressed that I didn’t burn up when he threw me in the furnace, that he made all the people fast for 3 days, and all the animals had to wear sackcloth. [aside] What a bozo.

Kids: One more story, Sabah! Just one more…

Jonah: How about if I read you a fairy tale from Uncle Izzy’s best seller, Isaiah?

Devi: Sabah, why don’t you put all your stories in a book, like Uncle Izzy did?

Jonah: Who’d want to read about my bumblings?

Kids: Everyone would, Sabah. Everyone!

Part 4

A Lost Version of Jonah’s Tale, by Stephen Berer Adapted from a scene in The Atternen Juez Talen

The thrashing surf overtakes our ship, and trembling overtakes each of us. We who were quick to weigh anchor and sail, we wish we had never come down to the wharf.

It’s a mighty awesome judgement of God, the boat crashing thru white-caps and troughs. And the sailors cry out, each to his Lord as they unload our cargo all overboard.

Me, it isn’t the terrors of death, but my cramps and retching — I wish I was dead. Lying in the hold in vomit and swill, the captain he kicks me, and begins to rant.

“We are all praying, and you, you just chuck. My men are awaiting you up above.”

I hear their hollering, each to his Lord, and me, they drag me up on board.

Desperately clinging to the swaying mast, as the boat tips in the crashing waves. But those sailors, like monkeys up in the sails and like jackals around me, they circle and curse.

Then says the captain, “No need to cast lots. We know the one who caused all of this. It’s him, the Jew with his prayers to his Lord, Cursing each one of us here on board. ‘Give his life for ours,’ I say. ‘We are innocent; cast him out!’”

Nevertheless, I argue with them to take their stations at the rowing holes, But that just increases their anger at me.

“This Jew who glories in discord and sin. This Jew who killed our doughty Lord Is now in our hands, right here on board. He cursed our ship. Will his god will obey? What can we do to save ourselves? Can we divert the seas or the wind? Yes we can! Sacrifice him! Human blood is what his god wants. These waves are grabbing for him, not us! Should we withhold? Listen to his Lord, And throw this dog of a dog overboard!”

Says me, all wretched, “I call on my God, Him who divided the seas and the lands. He sent me here to witness your works and declare who is bad and who is worse.”

Then they grab me as I kick and shout, and heave me into the thirsty sea. I turn my eyes up to the Lord But only see sailors cheering onboard.

Into the belly of the beast I splash, flailing and gasping, I desperately cry, “Save me from out of the raging storm and burst their boat and let them drown. Or if Your mercies extend to them, then save us all, them as me.”

Choking these words out to my Lord, Who looks down on me from his heavenly shore.

Down come the bolts and the lashing rains, and higher still the mountainous waves. But that boat lurches on like a log in the surf while breakers and billows sweep over me.

And this I think in the foamy brine: “God can’t find me in this hurricane. Shout as I might up to my Lord, my voice does not carry, of that I am sure.”

But it seems, a dolphin can find me here. It comes up beneath me like a slimy log. And me, like a strand of seaweed I hang over his back till he casts me ashore.

The morning sky is a lacework of rose, and the tender waves lap on my toes. And there I lay exhausted and chill, my mind a storm of delirious swill.

Inside me a voice; I am giving thanks; and a voice of remorse that I am so frail; and the voice of that storm like the voice of the Lord Raging in me on this God-forsaken shore.

Look at me, so rebellious and proud. And a moment later I’m nearly drowned. Why then was my life restored? Was my deliverance sent from the Lord?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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