DATE March 3, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Greg Pak, filmmaker, discusses his work
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia News
filling in for Terry Gross.
Filmmaker Greg Pak's first feature-length movie, "Robot Stories," has been
described as a work about love, death and robots. It's an anthology of four
stories of people in the immediate future interacting with technology that's
Greg Pak grew up in Dallas, Texas, in a Korean-American family. He came to
filmmaking after studying political science at Yale, and history as a Rhodes
scholar at Oxford. His previous work includes a series of short films,
including a documentary about his Korean grandfather called "Fighting
Grandpa." Besides writing screenplays and producing his own films, Greg Pak
runs several Web sites, including one on Asian film, and has even dabbled in
Pak got "Robot Stories" noticed one audience at a time, taking it to more than
50 film festivals, building a following and winning awards, 29 in all. Let's
begin with a clip from "Robot Stories." A couple, played by Tamlyn Tomita and
James Saito, are at an agency, preparing to adopt a baby, but when the
white-coated staff present the bundle of joy, it turns out to be a robot
swaddled in a baby blanket. The staff is explaining how to care for the
(Soundbite of "Robot Stories")
Unidentified Man: This is the bottle. It's actually a recharging unit for
its batteries. Look, it fits right there.
(Soundbite of electronic buzz; laughter)
Unidentified Man: You'll know he's full when it starts to beep. Very clever.
(Soundbite of baby sucking on bottle)
Ms. TAMLYN TOMITA: So how often do we need to feed him?
Unidentified Man: Every three hours or so. He'll let you know when he's
(Soundbite of baby sucking on bottle)
Ms. TOMITA: What else to do we need to do? Feed, him, keep him warm...
Unidentified Man: We rigged him to leak a little graphite after feedings.
Wipe him off, or he'll bust out crying.
Mr. JAMES SAITO: Sounds pretty manageable.
Unidentified Woman: Well, there's a little more to it than that. He has the
G9 processor, which means he'll learn and grow. He'll become his own little
person, based largely on his experiences with you. So you want to treat Bobby
the way you would a human baby--hold him, talk to him, play with him, in
short, love him. His hard drive will record all of the nurturing you give, so
when we download at the end of the month, we'll be able to see how well you
cared for him. And then, we'll see what we can do about getting you a real
DAVIES: Greg Pak, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. GREG PAK ("Robot Stories"): Thank you very much. Very happy to be here.
DAVIES: Now, where did this idea come from, of a parent-training robot?
Mr. PAK: You know, I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and in middle school, all the
kids in health class at a certain point had to carry around baskets, and in
those baskets were little eggs, and they had to see how long they could go
without breaking the egg. And, you know, it's one of those `don't get
pregnant, kids' kind of cautionary exercises, I think. But that always stuck
with me, the notion of an egg that you had to take care of. So I don't know.
For some reason, that robot baby always was going to be egg-shaped, for me.
I think it was also inspired in some way by the Tamagotchi craze, if you
remember that. It was a little electronic toy that kids had to take care of,
and they had to feed it periodically, and if they didn't take care of it, it
would die, and small children would burst into tears in kindergarten and
But yeah, it's funny, because I remember when my dad read the screenplay, he
said, `You know, you better make this pretty quick, because somebody's going
to do that.' It struck me, and I think it's going to strike a lot of people,
as may be not a terrible idea. I mean, a lot of people say that people ought
to have licenses to be parents.
You know, the crazy thing is, actually a friend sent me a link recently, and
apparently there is some school in Australia, I think, that has built a
robot--well, they got a baby doll with electronics in that can tell when it's
being held improperly and stuff like that, so it's actually, you know, a few
steps away from actually coming true.
DAVIES: Well, it's interesting that--I think this is a very compelling tale,
and it's interesting to me that the baby robot here looks nothing at all like
a human baby. It looks like, I guess, about a two-foot-long Easter egg with
big dopey eyes and kind of 1950s-looking robotic movements.
Mr. PAK: Yeah.
DAVIES: I know that you didn't have a big budget for this film, but you
certainly could have gotten a more human-looking-like robot to play the
parent-training robot here. Why did you choose that kind of an image?
Mr. PAK: You know, it was conscious choice, because my thought was that the
agency would want to give these parents something that's alien, something
that's a little strange, because most of the time I think people immediately
bond with their child, you know, they just love this child irrationally and
devotedly and, you know, without hesitation. But there are also parents who
don't quite feel that connection with their baby, and I think that would be
something that, you know, if there were an adoption agency that wanted to test
for that kind of a thing, I think they would be smart to give people a baby
that's not quite so cute, you know what I mean? If they're going to give
somebody a robot baby to take care of to see if they're going to be good
parents, if you give them an incredibly bondable little robot, something
that's immediately charming and wonderful, then it may not be as good a test
as if you give somebody something that's a little strange, you know, a little
And I remember also--I mean, that story was also inspired by just talking to
my mom at different points. I remember once when I was a kid, my little
sister--you know, I remember playing with my little sister and giving her a
frog that I'd caught, and you know, she was like two years old or three years
old, and she didn't know and she just squeezed it and killed it, and I was
kind of horrified. I remember years later talking to my mom about that, and
she said, `You know, every child looks like a monster sometimes.' And that
actually ended up being a line in the robot baby story.
But I think that's part of it, too. It's just this notion that things are
never perfect, you know what I mean? And that we all have these sort of
moments of horror or moments of failure or frailty.
DAVIES: You know, I'm a big lover of science fiction, and I think great
science fiction is really about human beings encountering a strange world, or
forces that are outside of human experience, and I think this film really is
all about that. I mean, it's interaction with technology, but it's not on an
epic scale. I mean, nobody gets killed by a plasma death ray.
Mr. PAK: Yeah. Our catchphrase for that is, `Things don't blow up.' A
sci-fi fan told me that. I was like--I was trying to explain the film to him.
He nodded and he said, `Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Things don't blow up. That's
cool, that's cool. You could go with that.'
DAVIES: Did you decide you kind of wanted to explore this human technological
interaction in kind of a smaller way?
Mr. PAK: When I was thinking about making my first feature film as an
independent filmmaker, these stories were things that had sort of come into my
head over the years. And so while I was writing them, I was thinking about
budget. Each one of the stories has one sort of crazy element in it, you
know. We had to build the robot baby. We had to figure out how to make
people look like androids, you know. We had to have this kind if digital
breakup effect in the last story with the virtual world that's being depicted.
But each one of those small, you know, challenges was totally surmountable,
given the budget we had.
And then, you know, the notion of having science fiction and this kind of
emotional human storytelling put together, I mean, that's something that--I
guess I didn't really think about that just because that was sort of second
nature to me when I was writing these. And the fact that we didn't have much
money, I think, actually really worked with that, you know, because it made us
really concentrate on nailing that emotional story. You know, I didn't have
the money to spend, you know, three quarters of the day trying to, you know,
make the 10-foot-tall giant robot crash through the streets of Manhattan, you
DAVIES: So is that in your folder--the plasma death-ray machine is when you
get a big budget?
Mr. PAK: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, actually, there was a fifth robot story
which I outlined, and I was really sort of excited about it. And it did
involve a 10-foot-tall robot, you know, crashing through the streets of
Manhattan. But alas, that was not to be.
You know, most robot movies are essentially Frankenstein movies. They're
cautionary tales about technology gone awry. I mean, they're basically, you
know, original sin sort of fall of man stories about, you know, forbidden
knowledge and the notion that we will be destroyed by trying to assume god's
prerogative, really, as creators.
DAVIES: Well, it seems to me that the closest we get to that in yours is the
last one, in which, it concerns a world in which people as they approach death
upload their consciousness into a computer...
Mr. PAK: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: ...and, in effect, granting them kind of a digital eternal life.
Mr. PAK: Right.
DAVIES: And the central character is an old artist confronting his death,
and his son and his friends are saying, `Dad, it's time to upload.' And he
Mr. PAK: Yeah.
DAVIES: Was this sort of a cautionary tale, I mean, about where science can
Mr. PAK: I think--you know, it's interesting, because people use the term
cautionary tale a lot. And, you know, I think certainly it is that. I wasn't
necessarily thinking of it as a cautionary tale when I was writing it. I
think I was thinking more of this notion that this will actually be something
that we very well may have to confront in the next, say, 50 to 100 years, this
notion that we may be able to shift our consciousness into machines, basically,
and have it endure forever. And so, at a certain point, we're going to have
to decide whether or not that's something we really want to do, you know? I
think it is a genuine--you know, clearly, by the end of it, the artist makes a
decision and makes a choice. And so the film, you know, probably gives the
implication that one choice is superior to another. But at the same time, I
think that, you know, there's a lot to be said for the other side, you know?
And the film doesn't necessarily try to paint the other side as sheer
villainy. I think when folks watch the movie, they bring a lot of themselves
to it. And, you know, some folks are, you know, very attracted to sort of
both sides of the argument.
The other side of the argument is represented by his wife, who died as a
young woman and was scanned and lives in this digital world, has sort of
achieved this kind of perfect serenity. You know, it's a very optimistic
view of what this kind of experience would create. The idea is that once you
get scanned, your consciousness can interact with the sum total of all human
knowledge, with everybody else who has ever been scanned. You can sort of
instantly tap into that. And it's sort of like instant access to the
infinite, and it assumes that, you know, once you're able to do that, you
achieve this kind of nirvana, this peace. Like I say, that may or may not
happen. Maybe it would just drive you insane. But anyway--so but her
state--you know, some people may admire that or some people may think that's
something to be--you know, that that would be something to strive for. The
artist, though--I mean, his struggle is that he doesn't feel like he deserves
that kind of peace and that kind of perfection without having earned it, you
know, which is sort of a more sort of organic, I guess, way to think about it.
DAVIES: Right. Well, one of the things that struck me as I watched the film
was the remarkable sound, the sounds that you gave the robot. Did that
require a lot of thought? Did you have any particular approach there?
Mr. PAK: Oh, yeah, I had a great sound designer named Nelson Nudd, who, you
know, this was like his second project, and, yeah, Nelson and I just recorded
all kinds of different electronic sounds. I recorded every single, like, hard
drive I had in my office and home and the CD player and my iPod and all these
kinds of things. You know...
DAVIES: It struck me that a lot of it will be very familiar to people who use
Windows or ...(unintelligible) you know.
Mr. PAK: Yeah.
DAVIES: Were you trying to sort of bridge the technology of the day to the
technology of the future there?
Mr. PAK: I love the fact that there are familiar sounds in there, I mean,
like just the sound of a hard drive. We hear that every day, our hard drives
spinning up and spinning down, but we don't think about it. And in the movie,
the hard drives spinning up and spinning down--the character I play, Archie,
he's this android who is programmed to interact with people so that he can fit
in well with the office. You know, he's programmed to be very friendly and to
learn how people want him to behave in the office, but nobody wants to
interact with him, so he kind of has this crisis moment as a result. He can't
fulfill his programming. He can't connect. But whenever Archie is--you know,
whenever somebody is nice to Archie, you hear his hard drive spin up, you
know, and whenever somebody's mean to him, you hear it spin down, you know.
And I just kind of like using those sort of very familiar sounds, giving them
DAVIES: Well, I'm glad you brought up Archie, because that's the role that
Mr. PAK: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...very convincingly.
Mr. PAK: Thank you.
DAVIES: I mean, you're a guy who's trained to be an office worker, literally
walks himself in some day and says things like, `I look forward to our
interactions.' How did you prepare yourself to be a robot?
Mr. PAK: You know, when I was writing that particular screenplay, I just kind
of felt Archie, you know what I mean? I'd acted for years, mainly doing
improv comedy in New York City, but I just hadn't put myself into that many
things, because I wanted to really know that I could nail it and just really
feel it before I cast myself in something, but so, you know, first off, I just
felt like I got Archie, just on an emotional level, you know. I mean, I think
anybody who's ever felt, you know, sort of on the outside or...
DAVIES: He's a machine, Greg. How can you get him on an emotional level?
Mr. PAK: Because, you know, I'm a geek, you know what I mean? And all of us
geeks, you know, we have our moments of--our frontier moments of sadness and
isolation, you know, so I can relate to Archie. And...
DAVIES: You kind of had to show emotional development with these sort of
Mr. PAK: Yeah.
DAVIES: I mean, that had to be an interesting challenge.
Mr. PAK: Yeah. I mean, I loved it actually because it's like--well, we
ended up--and I worked a lot with Julienne Hanzelka Kim, who plays the other
robot, the female android, and also with Bill Coelius, who is a great actor
and just an amazing guy, who played the office worker who's responsible for
Archie. He plays the tech guy in the office. And just in talking with both
of them, you know, and just working on it, you know, we kind of figured out
some ground rules. And some of those ground rules involved--I mean, all of
them involved limitations, you know, and it was the idea that these robots
wouldn't be as flexible as humans. They wouldn't be quite as mobile, that
every single movement that they did would be thought through, you know.
Ninety-nine percent of the things that I do everyday, just physically, I don't
think about. You know what I mean? It's like, I scratch my head, it's like I
don't think about it. I don't think about how each of my fingers works when
I'm picking up a piece of paper or a pencil. I don't--you know, there's a
million small movements that I make that I never think about.
But when I was playing Archie, I thought about--you know, like Archie had to
consciously choose every single motion he made. And that was hugely helpful.
You know, it means that you limit the number of motions that you make. But
then when you do make a motion it has intention to it.
DAVIES: My guest is director Greg Pak. His film "Robot Stories" is being
released across the country. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're back with film director Greg Pak. His new film is "Robot
Most of the characters in the film are Asian-American. Though the film is
shot entirely in English and appears to be set in the United States, do you
see anything particularly Asian in the themes or appeal of "Robot Stories"?
Mr. PAK: Yeah, that's a good question. I'm biracial. I'm half Korean and
half white and I grew up--you know, I mean, I grew up in a mixed race
household and, you know, biculturally, I guess, if you want to put it that
way. But I always saw these characters as Asian or actually as mixed race.
It kind of reflects the world in which I live. It's sort of genuinely
multiculturally cast with, you know, white, black, Asian--actors of all, you
know, sort of colors and creeds. And, you know, I think there are a couple of
sort of reasons for that. I mean, one is just personal. You know what I
mean? It's like Scorsese makes a lot of movies with Italian Americans in
them, Woody Allen makes a lot of movies with Jewish people in them. You know,
"Brothers McMullen" made by an Irish American, has a lot of Irish Americans in
it. And we all accept that. And I think I want to live in a world where we
can all accept the sort of--the same thing from an Asian American director.
Mr. PAK: I purposefully cast the two robots, for example, with mixed-race
actors. Both Julienne Hanzelka Kim and I are both half Korean and I did that
because I think that when they actually make robots that look like people,
they're going to make them racially ambiguous because they're going to try
them in many different markets. We already see that kind of in sort of
artificially created characters like in Japanese animation. The characters
are all very racially ambiguous and, you know, they're sort of intended for
this international market.
DAVIES: You always love film and TV. But then you go off and you study
political science at Yale. You studied history at Oxford.
Mr. PAK: Yeah.
DAVIES: Did you always think you wanted to get back to film or television or
were you going to be an academic?
Mr. PAK: Well, you know, the first thing I ever thought that I was going to
be is a writer. You know, from the age of nine or 10, I was writing short
stories and stuff like that. That is what I thought of myself as. I was also
drawing cartoons and doing black-and-white photography and, you know, and
acting and stuff. But all of that stuff at a certain point, you know, in my
head became extracurricular. You know, I kept doing that all the way through.
I mean, I did improv comedy all the way--and even stand-up actually doing all
the time I was working in politics. But there was some part of me that didn't
let myself think of that as real work. You know? You know, I grew up as a,
you know, mixed race kid in Dallas, Texas, and loved the people I grew up
with, but at the same time was very aware of racial justice from a very young
age. It's funny, I can re--you know, I was...
DAVIES: What do you mean by that? Did you suffer discrimination?
Mr. PAK: Yeah. I don't want to make too much of this because, like, every
kid, like, probably--like a fat kid would probably have more trouble than I
did as a mixed race kid, but I remember, you know, like, you know, from time
to time I'd have these bad experiences with racist kids, kids I didn't know
almost always. But, you know, I can remember being a Cub Scout and walking
down--walking home from the bus stop and seeing another group of Cub Scouts in
the park and I went over the the park and I--you know, I wanted to say, `Hi,
I'm a Cub Scout, too,' and all that kind of stuff. And, you know, they did
the `Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees' thing when they pulled their eyes and
chant. And I remember--it's funny because I don't remember being sad. I
don't remember crying. I just remember being angry, you know, because I was a
Cub Scout and I knew what this country was founded on, you know, and I had
this--I mean, it's kind of--I crack myself up when I think about that because
at this very, very tender age I had this huge amount of self-righteousness
based on what I perceived as being the very--the decent and strong and true
principles of the country.
But, you know--and so those kinds of issues were vitally important to me
always and I think that's one of the reasons why I was drawn to political
science. My goal was to go back to Texas and work in politics, which I did.
I went back home and worked for Ann Richards when she was running for office.
But at the same time, at some point in there I realized that something was
missing. You know? I mean, the work I was doing was really important but at
the same time, on some level I knew that there were probably 10,000, 100,000
people out there that could be doing the same kind of stuff that I was doing
in that context.
DAVIES: Yes. But was it for you to decide `I'm going to let go of the
serious career and do the thing that seemed like extra stuff'?
Mr. PAK: You know, at a certain point, it just made sense. I mean, I went
to--I got a scholarship to go to Oxford and I was there two years and I was
studying history, which was great, because regardless of what I was doing, you
know, my extensible reason for going was because studying history would make
me a better politician because I hadn't had a very good background in history.
And, frankly, studying history makes you better at anything that you do. So I
loved that program. But while I was there, I had the chance for the first
time to get involved in filmmaking and as soon as I started doing it, it just
clicked. You know, I mean, I knew it was what I needed to do. I made a short
film at Oxford called "Lonely Street,"(ph) which none shall ever see. But,
you know, even in that little short film, it was kind of interesting because
it started off as just a kind of a film noir, spoof, or homage, but we cast it
with a woman. You know, it had this kind of--it was this British film noir
which was a detective story, basically.
And, you know, so even at that stage, I was kind of thinking--I mean, I kind
of knew that movies in particular had this amazing potential to put different
kinds of images up there, you know. It's like if that's your only motivation,
if your only motivation for making films is to sort of like, you know, fight
the man, then you're probably going to make a lot of really bad movies--You
know what I'm saying?--because people don't want to go see polemic films.
That's not why people go to the movies. You know, and so I was always driven
by this, you know, sort of--I had this emotional response to movies. I wanted
to tell stories that were compelling to me on a human level and, you know,
that's what I continue to do. But at the same time, the things that motivated
me to go into politics remain things that are important to me in filmmaking
and having the chance to put different faces up on screen means that--in
filmmaking it means that you give people an opportunity to identify with, bond
with, fall in love with people from totally different backgrounds.
DAVIES: Well, Greg Pak, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PAK: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Filmmaker Greg Pak. His first feature film, "Robot Stories," is
opening in cities across the country over the next few weeks.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, scholar Daniel Matt. He'll tell us about his 15-year
project to translate the Zohar, a central text of the centuries' old tradition
of Jewish mysticism known as the Kabbalah. He's just published Volume 1.
Also Milo Miles reviews the new live recording by the Mecons.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Daniel Matt discusses Kabbalism
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies of the Philadelphia Daily News filling in
for Terry Gross.
Kabbalah is a mystical tradition within Judaism. It was an obscure cult for
centuries, but in recent years, New Age spirituality seekers began to look
into its arcane text and unique forms of meditation. Madonna, Roseanne and
Britney Spears are some of the celebrities who've attended classes at the
trendy Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.
The primary text of the Kabbalah is the Zohar, and my guest Daniel Matt has
returned to its original Aramaic manuscripts to produce what he believes would
be the first truly useable English translation. It's a massive undertaking
expected to take as long as 15 years. The first of what will be 12 volumes
was published late last year. Daniel Matt is a professor of Jewish
spirituality at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.
The Zohar appeared at the end of the 13th century. It's a novel that's been
described as a spiritual fantasy filled with humor and eroticism. He tells
the story of a group of rabbis who wander along the hills of Galilee. Through
their adventures and the unlikely characters they encounter, they discovered
new, radical interpretations of the stories in the Torah, the first five books
of the Old Testament.
Who wrote the Zohar?
Mr. DANIEL MATT: The Zohar first emerged in Spain in the 13th century. The
man who made it available was a Jewish mystic, a Kabbalist named Moses de
Leon. He claimed that he was copying from an ancient manuscript that went
back to the second century and that the Zohar had been composed in a circle of
a famous rabbi, Rabbi Shimon, the son of Yochai. And many people accepted
that claim and it was really because of that ancient heritage that the Zohar
was seen really as a canonical text and that really paved the way for the
acceptance of Kabbalah, but modern scholars are fairly agreed that Moses de
Leon was himself, not just the scribe but the composer, the author of the
Zohar or at least much of the Zohar.
DAVIES: Why wouldn't he have claimed authorship rather than attribute it to
someone many, many centuries before? Why not get all of the glory that comes
with writing such a text?
Mr. MATT: Yeah, according to one account, his wife actually asked him that,
and it's unclear. It may have been that he wanted these teachings to be
accepted as traditional. If he had come out and offered some of his radical
ideas and just said, `You know, I have an idea. God is a woman,' or, `I have
an idea. God needs the human being,' some of the radical insights of the
Zohar that we'll discuss. If had come out and just presented these as his own
innovations, they may well have been rejected.
DAVIES: You have mentioned that the Zohar embodies a lot of radical
reinterpretations of ancient biblical writings, the Torah. What do you mean
by that? What's an example?
Mr. MATT: One example is that, I would say, the gender of God. Of course,
almost all Western religion depicts God in predominantly masculine terms. God
is father in heaven, God is the king, God is the judge, and the Zohar insists
that God is equally male and female. So the feminine presence of God known in
Hebrew as Shekinah, the imminence of God, that word actually is not an
invention of the Kabbalah. You find it in earlier Jewish tradition, but in
the Kabbalah, the Shekinah becomes overtly feminine. So God is now seen as
half male and half female, and the human task is to unit these two halves of
God which I would say means to actualize the divine potential in the world.
How is that done? Through ethical, spiritual action. So that's one example.
DAVIES: There's a lot of eroticism in the text, isn't there?
Mr. MATT: It's a very erotic text and it's probably part of its appeal over
the ages. Not only does it describe human Eros and human romance, but it
depicts God as involved in the masculine-feminine union and the wedding of
God, the union of God is really one of the main focuses of the Zohar.
DAVIES: Who was God marrying?
Mr. MATT: God really marries herself or him and herself. We mentioned
there's a masculine half of God and a feminine half of God, and the spiritual
task is to wed the two of them, to bring the two together. So, for example,
the Sabbath is seen as God's wedding and that has been popularized in Jewish
liturgy in the prayer "L'cha Dodi," `Come, my beloved, to greet the bride.' So
the bride in the Jewish prayer book is depicted as the Sabbath queen, but on
another level, the feminine half of God who is ushered into union with the
holy one, blessed be he, the masculine half of God.
DAVIES: You had another passage which you thought gives us an example of one
of these radical retreatments of classical Jewish text, the Torah.
Mr. MATT: We all know the story of the Garden of Eden and, of course,
Genesis says very explicitly that God expelled Adam from the garden, but the
Zohar asks here one of its radical questions. It says, `Who threw whom out of
the garden?' Did God throw out Adam or not?' And that pregnant not actually
unfolds in the Zohar, and the Zohar says really in a deeper sense, `Adam
expelled God from the garden.' You might say that we're really still in the
garden, but we don't realize it because we've lost touch with the divine.
We've excluded the spiritual dimension from our life. So the mystical
challenge becomes re-acquainting ourself with God, re-establishing intimacy
with the divine.
DAVIES: So it was, perhaps, Adam that threw God out of the garden?
Mr. MATT: That's what the Zohar actually says. One of the most radical
teachings imaginable. Adam threw God out or Adam divorced God.
DAVIES: My guest is scholar and writer Daniel Matt. We'll talk more after a
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is scholar and writer Daniel
Matt. He's currently engaged in a multiyear project of translating the Zohar,
that's the prime text of Kabbalah, the movement of Jewish mysticism.
Well, Daniel Matt, let's talk a little bit about how Kabbalah developed. A
lot of people are surprised to discover that it was associated with hasidim
who I think most people would regard as sort of the most traditional of Jews,
I mean, those who wear black hats and long beards. How did they interact with
the Zohar and with the spread of Kabbalah?
Mr. MATT: Right. Well, Kabbalah really emerges in the 12th and 13th
centuries in Western Europe. Certainly, it has more ancient roots in the
Bible itself and in rabbinical Judaism where you have different descriptions
of direct contact with God, direct experience with the divine, but Kabbalah is
a movement within Judaism--is a medieval phenomenon. And at first, it is
really confined to relatively small circles. In Spain, where the Zohar is
composed, the Zohar was probably read by a very small number of people.
Gradually over the centuries, Kabbalah spreads to wider circles and hasidism
which emerges in the 18th as a mystical revivalist movement in Eastern Europe,
Kabbalism could really be seen as the popularization of the Kabbalah. In
other words, it takes certain ideas in Jewish mysticism and tries to spread
them to the masses, tries to build a community based on this mystical
DAVIES: There's been some controversy around the Kabbalist Centre which I
guess began in Los Angeles and has spread which seems to offer life
transformation in 10 easy lessons but maybe doesn't approach the sort of
density or richness of the Zohar. How do you regard this presentation of
Mr. MATT: I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, they certainly
have contributed to the spread of Kabbalah and the awareness of Kabbalah on
the part of many groups who otherwise would not have encountered it. But
there is an inevitable dilution, I think, with popularizing the Kabbalah and I
have to be careful that in my own work, and, you know, claiming that if you
drink certain water that's been rendered holy or that if you wear a string
around your wrist that this will have a magical effect, I don't think that's
really a healthy spirituality for contemporary Americans.
DAVIES: You mentioned the string. Britney Spears, I believe, appeared on the
cover of Entertainment Weekly with a sexy outfit and a red string around her
left wrist. What is the significance of the string?
Mr. MATT: This is something that's not really inherently Kabbalistic. It
goes back to certain folklore in Judaism and perhaps in a wider Mediterranean
world in which that color would protect you from the evil eye.
DAVIES: And that's sold, I'm told, at the Kabbalist Centre for $26 and you
can get Kabbalah water for a fee and $415 sets of the Zohar which I've read
are sold more to ward off danger than to study. Does this trouble you?
Mr. MATT: It certainly does, but I would say, you know, Kabbalah is not one
thing. You can find elements of superstition and magic in Kabbalah itself.
My approach is really to focus on the gems of Kabbalistic wisdom, the radical
reinterpretation of the Bible and not to indulge in superstitious practices
whether or not they have some basis in certain Kabbalistic traditions.
DAVIES: Well, Daniel Matt, what spurred you to take up this multiyear project
of translating this ancient text, the Zohar?
Mr. MATT: Now I got a call from a friend of mine, Arthur Green, who said
that a family in Chicago, the Pritzker family, was interested in commissioning
a new translation of the Zohar. Apparently what had happened was that Margo
Pritzker in this family began studying with a rabbi in Chicago, a fellow named
Yehiel Poupko, prominent Orthodox rabbi in Chicago, they began studying
Judaism. And because of Margo's interest in mysticism, they also delved into
the Zohar, but they weren't satisfied with the existing English translation.
This is a translation done many years ago in England. It's known as the
Soncino translation. They were studying this and were frustrated because the
Soncino translation is more a paraphrase than an accurate translation. It has
no commentary. So the symbolism really remains impenetrable. And either
Margo said to Rabbi Pupko or Rabbi Pupko said to her, `Why don't we commission
a new translation,' and they approached me and offered this to me basically.
I was overwhelmed. I didn't know what to do. I was very intrigued and very
attracted by the possibility, but I knew how intense this would be and was
worried that it would be overwhelming. So I took a month off and decided I'd
give it a try. After that...
DAVIES: So they were saying the essentially, `Would you please take the next
15 years of your life and translate this mess of text?'
Mr. MATT: Yeah, I think they didn't realize exactly how long it would take,
but they certainly knew it would be a major commitment, and they turned to me
and offered it to me basically. So I tried it for this month, and after
that month, I decided, `I'm definitely not doing this.' It was just too
exhausting. I would work at it six, eight, nine hours and be totally drained,
get up the next day and try again. And after a month of this, I said, `No,
this is too much.'
DAVIES: Why was it so draining?
Mr. MATT: The Zohar is written in such a way that you often don't know what
it means. To make sense of it, you have to meditate on the text. You have to
scour dictionaries and reference works, but you also have to meditate within
and see how the possible meanings resonate within yourself. So it's a
meditative, contemplative undertaking which is beautiful and fulfilling, but
to do it for thousands of pages seemed to me just frightening.
DAVIES: Part of this involved getting the original text, right? I mean, how
did you collect them?
Mr. MATT: All translations up till now have been based simply on the standard
Aramaic edition, and I thought I would do the same, but I had access to
original manuscripts of the Zohar. I thought that when I ran across
difficult passages, I would check these manuscripts, but after checking them a
number of times, I began to discover that the manuscripts often preserve the
readings superior to the printed edition. How could this happen? It's really
because over the centuries, every scribe who copied the Zohar tried to add a
little bit. A scribe would say, `Oh, this phrase is so difficult, I'll put in
a word of explanation,' or sometimes the weird Aramaic would be smoothed away
and a scribe would substitute a more conventional bland term.
So some of the original beauty and lyrical strangeness of the Zohar was lost
and the printed edition really represents a doctored version. So what I
decided to do by painstaking analysis was to scrape away hundreds of years of
accretion, hundreds of years of scribal addition and doctoring of the text to
try to approach that elusive hypothetical original Zohar.
DAVIES: I want to ask you before we go about the Mel Gibson movie, "The
Passion of the Christ." As someone who has spent a lifetime in Judaism and
Jewish scholarship, how do you regard the message that it seems to bring?
Mr. MATT: Well, I would say, first of all, Jesus, of course, strikes people
in very different ways. I see Jesus as a Jewish mystic. I see him as a
profound Jewish teacher. I don't idolize Jesus. I don't see him as divine or
any more divine than any of us could be, but I see him as a profound spiritual
teacher. The Gospels' presentation of Jesus and of the tragedy of his death
does not necessarily reflect the historical reality of Jesus' own lifetime.
And I think the problem with the movie is that it assumes that the Gospels are
totally, historically accurate.
DAVIES: What do you see as the reality of the historical Jesus? What are the
problems with treating the Gospels as history?
Mr. MATT: You know, it's impossible to know what actually went on in the
first century between Jesus and other Jews of his time. We certainly know
that Jesus had no intention of starting a new religion, that he wanted simply
to live Judaism and to find God through the Jewish faith and to bring other
Jews to God. He certain aroused opposition. Many people may not have been
aware who he was or that he was doing anything, but he certainly inspired some
Jews and threatened the Romans and certain conservative power structures
within Judaism. So it's likely that he was executed by the Romans for
rebelling or for fermenting rebellion, but the problem is that when the
Gospels are written several decades after the event, at that point, there is
an emerging church, there is rabbinic Judaism and the Gospels are very
hesitant to offend Rome or to blame anything on Rome. So it's convenient for
the Gospels to paint a picture as if the Jews were partially or mostly
responsible for the crucifixion. That way, letting Rome somewhat off the
hook, and that later account, which is canonized in the Gospels, is the basis
for this film.
DAVIES: Are you concerned about it spreading anti-Semitic messages?
Mr. MATT: Certainly that is a danger. I would say that the Jews and
Christians need to learn from each other's tradition and perhaps this movie in
its own way will encourage and stimulate that. I think Christians need to
appreciate the meaning of Torah and all the forms that the Bible has taken in
Jewish tradition, how it has unfolded over the centuries, and Jews can come to
an appreciation of Jesus, not Jesus as divine, but Jesus as a Jewish teacher.
DAVIES: Well, Daniel Matt, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MATT: Great. Thank you.
DAVIES: Scholar and writer Daniel Matt. The first volume of his translation
of the Zohar has just been published and was awarded the Koret Jewish Book
The musical "Fiddler on the Roof," based on the Sholom Aleichem stories, has
been revived on Broadway. Unfortunately, not to the greatest reviews, but
critics and audiences alike still have a fondness for the music, written by
Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Book. Here's a version of "To Live," performed by
Paul Shapiro's group Midnight Minyan.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, the rock band Mekons has a new CD.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Profile: Mekons' new CD called "Punk Rock"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The rock band Mekons have a new CD called "Punk Rock" with material from the
band's early punk years dating back to 1977. They dusted off some of those
old songs for their ambitious 25th anniversary tour in 2002. Music critic
Milo Miles says the new album is more than just a look backwards.
Unidentified Man: One, two, three, four.
(Soundbite of music)
MILO MILES reporting:
Three or four years ago, the Mekons seemed to be a band finally winding down
after a surprising series of rebounds. In the 1970s, they played chunky
protest punk and were ignored. In the 1980s, they recast American country as
a sound of wisened but still subversive losers and became cult darlings. Then
they recharged their various rock and rhythm styles and became the most vital
original punk band in the world, but in the '90s, they lost their way. The
solo careers of key players like guitarist, singer and songwriter Jon Langford
and singer and songwriter Sally Timms seemed far more vital. The fact that
their 25th anniversary tour in 2002 is filled with songs from 1977 to 1981
might seem like another exercise in rock retrospective. And on the surface,
the new live album "Punk Rock" might suggest Fleetwood Mac doing a hard-core
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: But also in 2002, the Mekons had released a studio album "Out of Our
Heads," and on that CD, brilliant songs like "The Old Trip to Jerusalem" and
"Hate is the New Love," proclaim that dread and madness had come upon the land
again. So no wonder that Colin Stewart's liner notes to punk rock proclaim,
`These half-forgotten tunes and text were dusted down and probed for life.
Blowtorch applied to the musty stink and backward thrust of nostalgia.' The
Mekons roar that not only is past punk not dead, it's not even past anymore.
MEKONS: It takes two weeks of your life to get a car. Three days, four
hours, get a job, get a car. I takes one week of your life to
get a ...(unintelligible). It takes two hours of your life...
MILES: The Mekons' punk is not about high-speed beats and high-hormone youth
anger. It's about lifetime amateurs committed to internal exile and cursed
with external failure who are not going to give in and go away. Their punk
rock is sometimes stark, acoustic, but always fierce. A terrific example is
the song called "The Building" cited by critic Greil Marcus as the ideal field
recording of punk. The original 1981 version was nothing more than a rant
accompanied by a rhythmic stomp. The new live version pears that down to just
MEKONS: I stand by the building in the pouring rain. And the
and we bow to our republic, we bow to employer and we bow to God's, the
plain-stiffed wings and big tree rolls, salute the power that the buildings
hold. We stand on the ground of the eternal hell and we give our lives for
(Soundbite of cheering)
MEKONS: The men with dogs around the square, the men with dogs, big dogs...
(Soundbite of barking)
MEKONS: ...they smile for the cameras and little girls. We're innocent until
proven guilty but we hide and we worry and we look away 'cause we're innocent
until we're proven guilty. We hide and worry and we look away.
MILES: If listening to punk rock makes you think about the changed state of
the world rather than just the noisy music, the Mekons will have succeeded and
punk lives again.
DAVIES: Milo Miles lives in Cambridge. He reviewed punk rock by the Mekons
on the Quarterstick label. The Mekons' new tour begins March 9th in
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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