Jewish Angelsby Barbara A. Edelman on 04/01/20
Along with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, and bacon, angels are something else Jewish kids have to learn “we don’t have.” But that’s not true; we do have angels! They are not top-of-the-Christmas-tree angels; or fat, ugly baby angels with those mutant wings in Renaissance art books; or guardian angels that Catholic school kids were told by the nuns to leave room for on their little wooden chairs; or kitschy angel figures in glass cases at the Hallmark shop; not to mention those heavenly choirs of angels who apparently sing for all eternity, and if that’s the case, it must feel like hell to them. But we do have angels. They are just sort of ambiguous and a bit complicated.
There was the angel whom Jacob wrestled with all night on the banks of the River Jordan. I think it was there. He was definitely outdoors and in a temporary dwelling, which I’ve always pictured as a pup tent, and if you’re going to pitch a pup tent, doing so by a river seems like a logical place. So Jacob wrestled with the angel all night, and in the morning, the angel told Jacob that his name was Israel and that his sons would father a nation of God’s chosen people. Jacob apparently did not take advantage of the angel’s chatty, informative morning mood and kick him in the shins and then push him in the river. A night of wrestling can mess with your executive functioning.
Then there is the Angel of Death who isn’t the sharpest scythe in the death shed. In fact, the Angel of Death makes me think of a stoner pizza delivery guy who fouls up orders. Here’s the deal: if someone is really, really sick and there are a lot of tubes stuck into his or her body, and a very kind woman has swung by to talk about organ donation, you summon a rabbi, and the rabbi changes the really, really sick person’s name, so the Angel has an order slip for Jack, but Jack is now Jeff, the Angel is all like what the fuck and leaves without having made a pick up. Painting a notice on one’s door also works, if the really, really sick person is home. Something along the lines of “everyone feeling great here! try next door,” which again leaves the Angel scratching his skull and leaving without a passenger. I’ve always had my doubts about the Angel of Death. Why would God employ such a doofus? And if he were so ridiculously easy to fool, why did anyone ever die? It was my first crisis of faith.
Once I had learned a bit about Ashkenazic Jewish folk tradition, I came to feel less disturbed by the Angel of Death’s dimness, only to learn of the Shabbat angels, who were more or less like having Bewitched’s Agnes Kravitz next door, except in this case, Abner Kravitz shares her peeking-in-the-neighbors-windows hobby. As the story is told, there are two Shabbat angels, one good and one bad. Against all information to the contrary, I did picture them as fat, ugly, mutant-winged, naked babies. They would spend Friday nights peering into the windows of every Jewish family in the world to see who was prepared to welcome Shabbat and who was not.
Their minimum expectation was a table set for dinner (preferably with a white tablecloth), any visible humans dressed not for the “week’s labor” but in beautiful garments, and lots of kitchen activity involving a chicken. If the angels saw such a home, the good angel would be all “YESSS!” and the bad angel would curse, though I always wondered why the written account didn’t include the actual words he used. What kind of curse? A mild one like “damn,” worth only a reprimand, or a serious one like the f-word, which could cause one to end up with the business end of a bar of soap in one’s mouth? If, however, the angels saw a family who were clearly planning no more than watching the Friday night ABC line up (Brady Bunch through Love, American Style) and dozing off in front of the TV, the bad angel got to do a sack dance on his itty, bitty, mutant baby toes, while the good angel cried. Perhaps if the good angel had been permitted to let rip with a stream of profanity, both he and the bad angel would have realized that looking in Jews’ windows every Friday night was not the way to a fulfilling life, eternal or otherwise.
Our home almost never looked good angel-approved on Friday nights. On the one hand, I wanted approval, even from folklore figures. On the other, my father’s train didn’t even get in till after 7, when the sun had usually already set; therefore, Shabbat was officially underway, and there was no way on heaven or earth my father was going to shower, shave, and change from one business suit into another at goddam 8:00 at night; though he might have appreciated the roast chicken.