Archive for November, 2008

A different post

I originally posted a humorous piece for today, but in light of the news that reached us in Israel last evening about the outcome of the horror in Mumbai, I decided that is a post for another day.

Since this is a massive attack in a series, it’s hard to think of anything new to say, except to acknowledge India’s new membership in the League of Directly Affected Nations, joining the U.S., Britain, Spain, Kenya, Argentina, and Indonesia.  While much of the civilized world seems to deny the seriousness of this very worldwide threat, to me it reinforces the facts on the ground: that this is what World War III looks like (no trenches, ration cards, or draft), and that the entire globe is the battlefield.  

The armies in this war are Civilization and Barbarism.  There can be no neutral parties, and unless those who would class themselves as Civilization have the will to unite in order to fight for their values (freedom, equality, unity) they will lose the war.  Surrender is not necessary for Barbarism to win; apathy and denial are enough.  As long as the West refuses to fight this war, I’m putting my money on Barbarism in this conflict.

Someone wrote to Chabad.com asking Rav Tzvi Freeman what our response should be to the violence and bloodshed in Mumbai.  Rav Freeman’s answer contained a dozen salient points, but one which stays with me is his comment, "Once you are at war, you don’t stop to ponder all over again—-can we win? Is this worth it? Maybe they’re worse than we thought? That’s deadly. …Now you are out there on the field of battle, you have already awakened the bear from its den, now there is no turning back."  

I can understand people feeling fearful.  That is natural in a situation like this.  But free people everywhere must banish doubt from their minds: This fight is one of survival, and Civilization MUST triumph over Barbarism.  Of course Barbarism isn’t going to go down without a struggle, and they’re certainly not going to go away if we run and hide.  But if we want to live in this world in peace, and leave behind a world worthy of our beloved children, this is OUR fight, and the time to engage the enemy is NOW.  We have tried to compromise with the enemy, to engage the enemy in dialog, but to no avail.  Now we must defeat it.


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Americanism v. Judaism

Although I have chosen to pitch my Jewish tent in the Orthodox camp, I freely acknowledge that it was the liberal streams of Judaism that made it possible for me to find my way from a secular upbringing in an intermarried household to a life of Torah and mitzvah observance.  Without the Reform movement, I would have felt too foreign, too ignorant, too out of place, and WAY too far outside the halachic fold to set foot in an Orthodox synagogue.  It would have felt like getting thrown into the Big League without any Little League experience.

So I owe a great debt to Liberal Judaism.  Its goal of creating a Judaism that is practicable for Jews who are well integrated into non-Jewish society and the modern era is understandable.  

And yet.  I fear that for many people, that brand of Judaism is not sea-worthy enough to sustain a lifetime of practice.  The majority of people my husband and I know in our generation of Jews reared by loosely affiliated liberal Jews have intermarried.  The teenage children of members of my former Reform congregation only attended post-bnei mitzvah classes at the synagogue to avoid losing privileges (car usage, later curfews).  And a friend of ours spent years dating women who were put off by his adherence to kashrut and from whom his knowledge of the procedure for a Pesach seder earned him the disdainful question, "What are you?  A rabbi?"

Judaism is at heart a bottom-up religion.  Rabbis are not needed for synagogue services to take place.  Technically, they are not required to perform weddings or to witness conversions either; only mitzvah-observant Jews in good standing are needed in these cases.  But one thing Judaism DOES require is knowledge.  Jewish learning is the work of many lifetimes, and to become conversant in the language and customs of Judaism, Jewish education must continue beyond childhood.  

This, alas, is not always the case with liberal congregations.  Introduction to Judaism and basic Hebrew classes are often all that are offered, while deeper learning remains inaccessible or fails to appeal to most congregants and community members.  This is perhaps both the cause and the effect of one of the greatest losses to Judaism in the galut (diaspora): the Hebrew language.  

While Israel’s recent 60th anniversary celebration garnered praise from within and outside the country for its achievement in reviving the ancient Hebrew language, the loss of that same language is the greatest casualty of Judaism in many parts of the galut, including in very liberal congregations.  Jewish movements that have replaced the traditional Hebrew service with English have on the one hand made religious services more accessible to the minimally educated Jew, but on the other hand have not provided any sort of venue or motivation for that same Jew to grow and learn what has been eliminated.  This has created a unique brand of "galut Judaism," something which may be comfortable for use at home in one’s own congregation, but which cannot be taken into a different context.  A Jew accustomed only to services in English who attends services in a congregation where Hebrew is still the primary language for prayer is certain to feel a division within the Jewish community, not only between Israelis and diaspora Jews but also between diaspora Jews within the same culture.  The Cap’n and I recently hosted family from America at Sukkot and were saddened to see that they were unable to participate in services here.  "Are they all in Hebrew?" they asked.  As this is Israel, it’s hard to imagine what other language they would be in; in fact, even Reform congregations in Israel use Hebrew exclusively.

I can understand why many Americans gravitate toward liberal Judaism.  Jews who have shed their foreign origins and have taken root in America have also adopted modern American sensibilities, social and political views.  These Jews want to be Americans, and that means living in a way that resembles how most Americans live.  Among traditional Jews, the self-isolation that takes place on Shabbat, the hegemony of the male sex over public prayer, and the limitations placed on social eating by the dietary laws are decidedly un-American.  To some Jews the choice between being Jewish and being American has resulted in Americanness winning out.  

And yet.  When Shabbat is jettisoned, both essential rest and community-building in a society that is sometimes pathologically hard-working are lost.  Many women who wouldn’t dream of praying behind a mechitza never acquire the skills necessary to lead a public service, give a d’var Torah (lay sermon) or even say a blessing over the Torah when called for an honor.  And while the dietary laws’ primary purpose is to make the Jews "a holy people," their observance has also traditionally helped to ensure that Jews marry other Jews—something that has also fallen off of late.  

I’m not interested in raising questions about the halachic (Jewish legal) status of non-Orthodox conversions.  That can be a conversation for another time, among other people.  And I do not question the identity of serious liberal Jews or their dedication to their modern interpretations of Jewish theology.  But the sacrifice of peoplehood, an essential element in the traditional conception of Judaism, is a serious one.  It severs a large sector of the American Jewish population from the rest of the Jewish world by limiting their ability to function as Jews in the rest of the world.  And the lingua franca of that people is Hebrew, not English.  With Hebrew and a basic knowledge of a traditional prayer service, one can step into a synagogue in Paris or Kiev or Cochin (India) and participate fully in a service; without this, a Jew can function in these contexts no better than a non-Jewish tourist.  The Catholic Church may have deemed it prudent to abandon Latin in favor of the vernacular in its services, but traditional Judaism has never done so, and this adherence to Hebrew is some of the glue that binds Am Yisrael together in the world.

So what’s the solution? one may wonder.  One is to learn Hebrew well, through classes, tapes, online courses, or time spent in Israel.  Another is to study and be familiar with the traditional prayer service, even if one does not pray that way in one’s regular synagogue setting.  Another might be for larger liberal congregations to have two services: one with less Hebrew, and one entirely in Hebrew to provide a continuum along which members may grow in their knowledge and skills.   And a third is to ask oneself, Which is really more important—not just for me, but for my children?  Doing what everyone else does, or doing what Jews do?  Consider what Judaism offers: thousands of years of wisdom, a profoundly ethical religious base from which other religions have borrowed (and failed to surpass), a worldwide fellowship of Jews with a common tradition, and a way of life that fosters strong family and community bonds.  Being American is great, but it doesn’t beat all that.

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Doh! I’ve been tagged.

Okay, my friend and fellow blogger Ilana-Davita “tagged” me. While I was never much of a chain letter passer-onner, this little exercise seems less sinister than the old fifteen-cent, threat-riddled scam of yesteryear. I’ll play along, but I don’t know enough bloggers to continue the tagging process, so I’m afraid this meme is a dead end. (Note: If you are a blogger and want to be tagged but haven’t been, consider yourself tagged and proceed according to the rules.)

Here are the rules:
1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people (if possible) at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs.

Seven facts about Yours Very Truly:
1) For most of my childhood, I wanted to be a hair stylist.
2) I am a descendent of Lady Godiva.
3) I know how to kill armed with nothing but a banana.
4) My favorite novel of all time is Great Expectations.
5) Upon high school graduation, I was declared “Most Likely To Have Her Own Comedy Show.”
6) I don’t dye my hair.
7) My favorite fruit is the cranberry.

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Helicopter parenting

A friend’s blog entry recently included the expression "helicopter parenting."  The Cap’n and I took a wager about what this expression meant, then Googled it.  Very interesting results.

It seems that over-protective parenting (the short definition) has given rise to a number of expressions, many of them coined by education professionals who find themselves the victims of parental "involvement" in their students’ education.   A "helicopter parent" goes beyond being concerned about his or her children’s development and education and rushes "to prevent any harm or failure from befalling them and will not let them learn from their own mistakes, sometimes even contrary to the children’s wishes."  This apparently includes calling college professors to complain about their child’s grade in class, and even employers to try to negotiate their children’s salaries.  Remember the Israeli soldier who got 21 days in the clink, and his mother’s claim to have called and complained to his commanders?  Painful as it is, this helps explain the section below Wikipedia’s definition, "See also: Jewish mother stereotype."  Incidentally, some parents’ behavior even goes beyond the "helicopter parenting" definition of being a nudge and a pest, and enters the unethical zone of writing their children’s college application essays for them.  This type of parent is dubbed a "Black Hawk parent" (after the military aircraft).  

Other expressions for this style of overbearing parenting include "lawnmower parenting" (to describe parents who attempt to smooth any obstacles that their child might encounter and—heaven forbid—actually learn from) and similarly, in Scandinavia, "curling parents" (same idea: sweepers of obstacles from their children’s path) defined here and shown in action here.  (I think the fact that such a phenomenon exists outside the United States is both discouraging and validating.)

After reading this stuff, I’m left scratching my head.  I’m not a fabulous parent, but I do think kids often learn much more from making their own mistakes than from being told what to do all the time.  Doesn’t insinuating one’s parental self into a child’s life to this extent leave the child unskilled and inadequately prepared for life?  Doesn’t it rob a child of any feeling of personal achievement if the parent can take credit for any and all outcomes of the child’s experiences?  What ever happened to "natural consequences" where a child actually gets to see what results from his or her own actions?  If a parent tries to justify over-involvement in a child’s college career as "protecting one’s investment," shouldn’t one perhaps recall that academic subjects and grades are only a part of what the child learns in college?  And if the parent had his or her own turn learning to be a responsible adult, when does the child get that same turn?  To deny the (adult) child the opportunity to have these experiences is to deny him or her the chance to learn responsibility, organization, motivation, confidence, and self-reliance.  

I think all this points to the fact that it’s not only important for a parent to know when it’s important to teach a child; it’s just as important to know when to let others (other adults, children, or experience) teach that same child.  The image of a child as an amoeba swimming in a parental pond cannot apply to a child’s entire life; at some point the child must crawl out of that parental ooze, dry off, and strike out on its own.  As a child reaches adulthood, it’s time for that child to enter the take-charge, independent phase of life (that will last the rest of his or her life).  At the same time, the parent must enter the hands-off, supporting-without-interfering stage.  

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Okay, I freely admit that these were not my teen years.  But I still lived in a house with a stereo system, and music was played all around me from radios, so while my mother was humming along to Roberta Flack while making my lunch, I was digging Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”  My parents played Paul and Linda McCartney’s album Ram throughout my early childhood (as did our upstairs neighbors in an old Victorian in Concord, Mass., one summer, as wisps of marijuana smoke stole down the stairs).  NBC co-opted Orleans’s song “Still the One” in the late 1970s, around the time they adopted the peacock motif.  And if Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” wasn’t funny enough when played on the radio, it got even loopier when John appeared as guest star on the Muppet Show and sang the duet with Frank Oz/Miss Piggy, who was all over the poor teabag.

And it’s also true that many of these songs, while I may remember them from the time they were released, also resurfaced in later decades.  “Apeman” by the Kinks was on the Club Paradise soundtrack (a huge Robin Williams flop, though the music was good).  A high school friend had a show on the school radio station and gave everyone a good dose of Jimmy Buffett when he was behind the mike.  “Hotel California” is a classic any way you slice it (though I once had a native German in a class at UCLA who complained bitterly that California wasn’t at all like he’d pictured it from the song).  Doris Day’s “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps” was the music for the leads’ beautiful rumba in the campy Australian film Strictly Ballroom.  And Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” was the background music for one of the more memorable scenes in Mike Myers’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

Here’s my list as it stands now:

Elton John: Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart
Fleetwood Mac: You Make Loving Fun, Go Your Own Way   The summer after the Cap’n and I got married, I bought a greatest hits album by this band.  I remember their stuff from the late 1970s and loved rediscovering them.
Mamas and Papas: California Dreamin’
Ray Charles: Hit the Road Jack   Anytime is a good time to play this song.
Kinks: Lola, Apeman
Orleans: Still the One
Paul McCartney: Silly Love Songs   My parents took us on a red-eye to visit relatives in New Jersey one summer.  Listening to this on the in-flight music service was one of the only things I’ve chosen to remember about that miserable trip.
Jimmy Buffett: Margaritaville
Rupert Holmes: Escape   I love the theme of reviving a flagging relationship in this song.
Eagles: Hotel California
David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust
Doris Day: Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps
James Brown: I Feel Good
The Zombies: Time of the Season   From the sound of this music, I can’t imagine a better-named band.  I can just see the overgrown, unwashed, bleary-eyed band–and yet this song is so unique.
Beach Boys: I Get Around
Rolling Stones: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction   One of my high school friends used to claim that the Stones were better than the Beatles.  I always preferred the latter, but I’ve since gained an appreciation for Mick and Co.
Animals: House of the Rising Sun
Nancy Sinatra: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
Eric Clapton: I Shot the Sheriff
Steppenwolf: Born to be Wild   I bought a Cher Fitness step aerobics tape in the early 1990s and there was a cover for this on it.  (Cher may be sartorially challenged, but I’ll say this for her–she knows how to pick music to move to.)  I like the original better.
Jefferson Starship: Jane
Aretha Franklin: Think, Respect
Grateful Dead: Good Lovin’
Byrds: Turn Turn Turn   The pop version of Kohelet
Cat Stevens: Hard Headed Woman, Morning Has Broken   Stevens may have fallen off the derech when he became Yusuf Islam and joined in the bleating for Salman Rushdie’s head.  But these are still two great–and kid-friendly–songs.
Wild Cherry: Play that Funky Music
Dr John: Right Place Wrong Time
Carly Simon: You’re So Vain   This was a favorite of my sister’s and mine.  We used to sing it to our brother.
Harry Chapin: Cat’s in the Cradle
Three Dog Night: Joy to the World   Another one I always liked that the kids will probably like too
Jim Croce: Bad Bad Leroy Brown   Some of the best lyrics I remember from this decade–“badder than old King Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog”

There is a notable absence of the Beatles on this list.  That’s because I have all of their albums except Rubber Soul.  (I only really cared for George Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe” from that album).  And there’s no ABBA because while we love Anna and Agnetha’s voices, we recently got the soundtrack from the movie Mamma Mia and prefer the arrangements and variety of singers on that album.  (I’m especially nutty over Christine Baranski’s “Does Your Mother Know?”)  And while I love Jimi Hendrix, I don’t think he’s someone to introduce my children to at this tender age.

Every few days I remember another song.  Tell me your favorites and jog my memory.

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I was 12 in 1980 and the rest of the decade took me through high school and college quite neatly.  Having parted ways with nearly all of my LP and cassette tape collection, and having entered the era of the MP3 download, I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on the songs of my youth and have amassed (some through CDs I own, most through paid, legal downloading) a collection of songs that should make for some fun listening in the car.  The kids already like the Police and the Cars, but this should flesh out their 1980s musical literacy a bit more (with some help from Cap’n Crunch, whose taste I have accommodated in limited quantities).  Thanks, too, to those who contributed their musical memories to my previous post; your songs were dead-ringers for 1980s musicana, but sometimes didn’t make my own limited list of personal favorites.

Madness: It Must Be Love, Our House
The Cure: Friday I’m in Love
Cyndi Lauper: Time After Time, All Through the Night, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Genesis: Just a Job to Do, Invisible Touch

Toto: Rosanna, Africa  Not only song favorites from ninth grade but later, I noticed, favorites of a cappella groups in college…
Nena: Rette Mich   The Cap’n liked "99 Luftbalon" but I preferred this one.
INXS: Don’t Change, I Send a Message   I used to love this band, but 20 years later, I’m not sure why.  Still, I loved these two songs back then, and it would feel dishonest not to include them on a list.
Matthew Wilder: Break My Stride
Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder: What’s That You’re Doing
Tears For Fears: Shout
Adam Ant: Goody Two Shoes   Thanks, gnomi, for this little memory jog.  Couldn’t do without this song.
Roy Orbison: You Got It
Herbie Hancock: Rockit
George Harrison: Got My Mind Set on You
Murray Head: One Night in Bangkok   I didn’t have to download this one since the Cap’n–a Chess junkie–has two versions of the soundtrack: the London cast and the New York.
Police: Every Breath You Take, Roxanne
The Who: My Generation, I’m a Boy, Pictures of Lillie   These songs, from the album Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, technically belong to the 1970s since the album was released in 1971.  However, my own discovery of The Who didn’t happen until the 1980s, so I’m shifting them here.
U2: Where the Streets Have No Name, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Cranberries: Zombie   I’ve included a few songs from the 1990s  which appeared on my very restricted  post-college radar screen.  I don’t love this band much, but Dolores O’Riordan’s use of alternating chest and head voice makes her sound quite unique.
Billy Joel: Movin’ Out, You May Be Right   "You may be right–I may be crazy, but it just might be a looooonatic you’re looking for!"
Roger Daltrey: Raglan Road   A cut from a 1990s live Chieftains album.  Not very rock ‘n’ roll, but Roger Daltrey at his timeless, belting best.  "If it’s good enough for Pavarotti, it’s good enough for me.  Iss a bloody opera house, innit?"
Bobby McFerrin: Opportunity
Fine Young Cannibals: She Drives Me Crazy
Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson: Say Say Say
Jimmy Buffett: We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About   Having done a few things since college which really rattled my parents, this song has continued to appeal to me.
Romantics: One in a Million, Talking in Your Sleep
Big Country: Wonderland
Deep Blue Something: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Men at Work: Down Under, Overkill   This band’s greatest hits album merited downloading in its entirety, but a 1980s collection would nonetheless be incomplete without two of their most popular songs.
Talking Heads: Burning Down the House, Psycho Killer, Road to Nowhere
They Might Be Giants: Constantinople
Paul Simon: You Can Call Me Al, Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard
Dexys Midnight Runners: Come On Eileen   I love the Irish intro and epilogue to this silly song from the Cap’n’s list of favorites.
Bonnie Tyler: Total Eclipse of the Heart   Another pick of the Cap’n’s
Danny Hutton Hitters: Wouldn’t It Be Good   An excellent cover of Nik Kershaw’s quintessential teenage self-pity song
Kenny Loggins: Footloose, I’m Alright   I’ve been listening to his kids’ stuff for so many years, I almost forgot he had a successful career singing grown-up songs!
Elton John: But Not for Me   From the Four Weddings and a Funeral soundtrack; my favorite version of this song

I know I’ve left out dozens of bands, singers, and songs.  I was a Depeche Mode, Violent Femmes, and Roxy Music junkie, but just can’t listen to that stuff anymore—too dreary.  I always hated Madonna, never cared much for the baby-voiced Cyndi Lauper (her songs are by the Cap’n’s request), and didn’t go for most of the singers who crossed over the age barrier like Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton, or Kenny Rogers.  I loved the Scorpions, but I’m not sure I would subject the kids to heavy metal just now, nor am I certain they need to hear Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s "Relax" quite yet.  I’m sure I’ll think of other bands and songs to add over time, but this is a snapshot at least of one dotard’s tween and teen memories of a pretty good decade, musically speaking.

Note: Come again tomorrow and see what I’ve compiled from the 1960s and 1970s…

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One feature of this blog will be my occasional rants about the abuse of the English language.  I hope to make my posts as informative and light-hearted as possible, but if you find yourself getting defensive about your own English usage, perhaps it’s for the best.

Today’s rant is about the frequency with which I have noticed people confusing the words flaunt and flout.  Last year, a regular columnist with the Jerusalem Post used the expression “to flaunt the Torah,” meaning to mock it, to spit in its face.  Dov Bear has a post on his blog where he similarly confuses the two words: “Unless Mr. Rosenblum is saying that the ban is likely to fail, and that he expects all of Haredi society to be openly flaunting it within two generations, he should not say…”

Flout means “to show contempt for; scoff at; scorn” (American Heritage Dictionary), “to mock or insult; to treat with contempt” (Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition), and, for the snobs who believe the Oxford English Dictionary to be the only true authority on the English language,
1. trans.  To mock, jeer, insult; to express contempt for, either in word or action.
2. intrans.  To behave with disdain or contumely, to mock, jeer, scoff; to express contempt either by action or speech.
3. ? erroneous use (or ? another word).  To ruffle (a bird’s feathers).

Here is the definition of flaunt:
1. To wave or flutter showily

2. To move ostentatiously; to make a showy appearance; to be boastfully gaudy; …transitive: To display ostentatiously; to make an impudent show of; to parade; as, to flaunt one’s vices. (Webster)
…and, again, for the snooty, the OED’s definition:
1. intr.  Of plumes, banners, etc.: To wave gaily or proudly.  Of plants: To wave to as to display their beauty.
2. a. Of persons: To walk or move about so as to display one’s finery; to display oneself in unbecomingly splendid or gaudy attire; to obtrude oneself boastfully, impudently, or defiantly on the public view.  b. Of things: To be extravagantly gaudy or glaringly conspicuous in appearance.
3.  trans.  To display ostentatiously or obstrusively; to flourish, parade, show off.

These definitions should, I think, make clear that we are dealing with two distinct meanings, however similar the spellings of the words.  One flaunts a diamond; one flouts a lover’s feelings by pawning that diamond, taking the cash, and taking off on a two-week holiday with someone else.  One flaunts one’s flawless lulav and etrog at Sukkot; one flouts the Torah by tying them with twine to the grille of one’s automobile and going joyriding on Yom Tov.

In defense of the malapropists, the American Heritage Dictionary offers a second, “nonstandard” definition which acknowledges the use of flaunt to mean flout:
2. Nonstandard.  To flout: “Our English tradition of capitalizing all name-derivatives is so firmly established…that it seems a futile gesture to flaunt it” (Robert A. Hall, Jr.)
There is also a note regarding this confusion:
Usage: Flaunt in the sense of flout (to show contempt or conspicuous disregard for) is rejected by 91 per cent of the Usage Panel.  A dissenting member of the Panel observes that it “is in too general usage to be ignored.” However, although its appearance in print since the 1930s (especially in the United States) is widely attested, flaunt in this sense remains a malapropism in the judgment of most writers and editors.

Thus, if one is truly insistent on misusing the word flaunt, one can always point to the defeated observation of a lonely surrender-monkey on the American Heritage Usage Panel.

To my great relief, Wolfish Musings refreshingly uses the expression “flaunt the Torah” correctly in the following passage:  “The point is that everyone has a calling… and while fulfilling your calling, do it in the most humble way possible. If you’re a talmid chochom, don’t flaunt your Torah knowledge for personal aggrandizement. If you’re a businessman, don’t brag about your latest deal — recognize that Hashem had a part in helping you with your success.”

If one has been unwittingly misusing these words, speaker, correct thyself.  If one has been willfully flaunting one’s ignorance by flouting the basic laws of diction, well, I have nothing more to say.  My feathers have been flouted enough.

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When there was no Israel, wasn’t every Jew a Zionist dreamer?  Every prayer service includes prayers for the return to Zion and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  Did they ever wonder what they would actually do if there was an Israel to go live in?  Was there any point?

Jews are all commanded to keep the Sabbath and observe the laws of kashrut.  Those are subject to so much interpretation that some people have chosen to pile stringencies on top of stringencies while others claim that the text justifies their ignoring all statutes except not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.  But the commandment to settle the land—is that open to the same amount of interpretation?  It’s d’oraita (from the written Torah) and pretty clear on the page (Num. 33:53).  And yet how many Jews observe it?  

Conversely, Jews may live in Israel and still commit sins.  (We do, after all, have prisons here too.)  So is the commandment to live in Israel just another commandment?  It would certainly appear so, at least in most people’s minds.

Whereas keeping most of the commandments is possible anywhere in the world, this one is place-bound.  If you want to start keeping kosher, your shopping patterns and how you do things in the kitchen probably need to change, but you can still remain in your home and shop at the same supermarket (depending on how well-stocked it is with kosher food).  To observe the commandment of yishuv Yisrael (settling the land of Israel), you have to get up and move, meaning in some (but not all) cases changing your job, leaving relatives and friends, and making a new home for yourself.  Kashrut asks much of a person; aliyah asks much more for this one mitzvah.  

And yet.  I wonder if living in Israel does more than fulfill the commandment to settle the land.  What does having a Jewish State mean in the world?  It provides a refuge for Jews from anywhere who are oppressed or seek a place where they are freer to live as Jews.  Ensuring that a Jewish State exists for them surely fulfills the commandment "lo ta’amod al dam re’echa" (don’t stand by while your neighbor’s blood is spilt; Lev. 19:16).  It does the same for other countries who suffer natural disasters when Israel’s medical teams turn up immediately afterward to set up field hospitals and distribute humanitarian aid, and for as many as it can of the Sudanese refugees who have dodged bullets passing on foot through Egypt seeking humanitarian asylum.  One mission with which the Torah charges the Jewish people is to be an "ohr le’goyim" (a light unto the nations; Isa. 60:2-3).  While Israel falls short in this function in many areas, the list of medical and technological advances achieved by Israelis is extensive.  It is also an island of justice and freedom of the press in a sea of oppressive dictatorships.  More than once in the past year, when reports of the ongoing investigations of Prime Minister Olmert have appeared in the press, Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu-Toameh has reported that rather than thumbing its nose at Israel’s governmental follies, the surrounding Arab world looks with awe and even admiration at the transparency that exists in Israeli society, and wishes it had the same opportunities to bring its own corrupt leadership to justice.  And while Jews in the Diaspora can have as little or as much to do with one another as they wish, to belong to a community or not, to have good relations with other Jewish groups or not, in Israel Jews are forced to come together and work as one to steer the (sometimes tottering) Jewish State—a prime example if there is one of the mitzvah "v’ahavta et re’echa c’mocha" (to love one’s neighbor as oneself; Lev. 19:18) or, to paraphrase, to get along with one’s neighbor whether one wants to or not.  

Without its own country, the Jewish people has no official representation in the world.  If they are powerless, then they are at the mercy of their fellow citizens.  And if they are fortunate enough to rise to positions where they have some influence over the government, they are accused of exerting a foreign agenda.  To live in Israel is to be enfranchised as a Jew like nowhere else.  While making the commitment that aliyah requires is not to everyone’s taste or in everyone’s personal or financial interest, it does serve to fulfill a number of important mitzvot in ways unavailable outside Israel.  

So must everyone be a Zionist to be a good Jew?  Maybe not.  But it sure helps.

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A yawner goes to prison

Last Friday, the Jerusalem Post ran a story about a soldier who has been given 21 days in the stockade for yawning (without covering his mouth) during a speech given by his base commander in memory of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

This story seemed an odd choice for page 2 of the week’s largest edition (and ironic considering it flanked a notice for a memorial service for the 18th yahrzeit of Rav Meir Kahane).  But after reading it and having a few hours to digest it, two things leapt out at me about this article.

The first was the fact that half of the article consisted of quotations derived from an interview with the soldier’s mother.  Yes, given that the soldier was probably not allowed to speak to the press, it’s understandable that the Post would have telephoned a close relative for a reaction.  But the mother’s reaction really shocked me.  Check this out:

Those who get to know my son can see after five minutes that this is an ethical boy who respects those around him…  I tried to explain [to his commanders] that my son would not dare do such a thing…

This Yiddishe Mama called her son’s commanders to protest?  Is there any other society in the world where an adult male (this soldier is at least 18) has his mother calling his bosses to complain about what happens at his job?  What really has me wondering is how this soldier must feel about what his mother did.  Was it normal and expected that she would call his commanders and try to get him off?  Or is he sitting in jail, mortified that his mother’s phone call made the international press?

With these two things–the frivolous nature of the event and the absurdity of the mother’s behavior–it occurred to me that the job of the press is not what I’ve always thought.  When I was young, I thought the goal of the press was to inform the public.  Then my attention was called to the fact that the press chooses material to print or air based on its ability to attract readers and viewers, thus selling advertising.  Then someone tweaked the perspective of the advertising sales to emphasize that it’s not advertising but the readers and viewers themselves who are being sold.  But this article seemed to me to tread a different kind of ground.  This article sounded like a protest piece.  Not only does the punishment seem rather harsh for the crime (any number of people might have found a lengthy speech on the very controversial Rabin tedious and forgotten to cover their mouths), but the mother’s reaction, while completely out of line given that her son is an adult, is still understandable.  The mother’s comment that closes the article reads, "…[Y]ou don’t send someone to prison for yawning…  You can punish him for it, but not make an example of him."

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Peach’s latest zinger

Our 5-year-old daughter, Peach, was getting ready for bed last night. As I was finishing reading her story, I noticed her filthy fingernails. I took her into the bathroom and ordered her to wash her hands while I took out the nail clippers and seated myself on the closed toilet lid. As she turned around and was drying her hands, she looked at me and said, "You look like the wolf."
"The wolf?" I asked.
"The wolf from ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’" she answered.
"Oh? And was the wolf ever pictured in a sweater and skirt, sitting on a toilet lid with nail clippers in his paw?" I asked.
"No," she said, pointing at the bowling ball-sized bulge under my sweater, "but you look like you swallowed the grandma."

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Confessions of an at-home mom

I recently received a mass email from the women’s college I attended in the late 1980s. The alumnae magazine is apparently preparing a feature on stay-at-home moms and was asking for stories from women who have taken on full-time motherhood.

This amused me. When I was a student at this college, it would have shocked and horrified me to imagine staying home with children. (Well, having children would have been shock enough at the time; I couldn’t stand the beasts, and even nicknamed our head-of-house’s mischievous two-year-old "Dinner.") The image I constructed for myself at the time was that IF I ever married and IF I ever had children, the rugrats would be consigned to daycare in their early years, school in their later years, and then they’d be on their own. The day-to-day grind of pregnancy, nursing, diapers, meal preparation, transportation, manners indoctrination… None of that gained entry to my thoughts at the time.

Fast forward to my early 30s. Finally married, having had years of travel, jobs, graduate school, and a tiny taste of a teaching career, I was ready to start a family. The year I was pregnant with our eldest, I was teaching in a school where at least five other faculty members were expecting babies. What were those women going to do? I asked around. All were going to be putting their children into day care to continue their teaching careers. This made sense, since teachers are usually paid according to years of teaching experience, and leaving teaching to rear children can put one’s career in the deep freeze, especially if one changes jobs or schools when re-entering the teaching world.

I had always thought I would put my baby in day care with no qualms. And yet. Looking back at my mother who had stayed home with us, I had to pause. I had loved having her home. I was a socially insecure child, and having a mother rather than outside caregivers comforted me. When I was sick, she took care of me. When I was sad, she helped me to feel better. When she made pies, I always got a piece of dough to play with. I was able to be home with all of my things, in my own house and yard, and loved the quiet routines of the household around me. I might have adjusted fine to having someone else care for me, but when my parents made their financial reckoning, it made more sense for her to stay home than to continue her nursing career.

And so it did for my family. My salary as a teacher would probably have been just sufficient to cover the cost of farming my child out to someone else during the day. And like my parents, my husband and I were lucky enough to be able to live on his salary without having to cinch our belts too much.

So the money made sense. But how would I feel? Denied a place in the workforce, attached at the hip (or the breast, as the case may be) to an infant, bereft of intelligent conversation… And yet. A fellow teacher from my shul and I were talking one Shabbat morning at kiddush during my final months. She asked what my plans were for taking care of the baby. I told her I was uncertain, but that I thought it might make sense for me to stay home. She nodded and leaned toward my ear. "Why," she asked confidentially, as high-powered career women with nannies milled around us, "would you spend your days teaching other people’s children when you could be home teaching your own?"

The final decision was reached when I asked one of my co-workers, a math teacher with three children and another due in a month, what the experience of having children in day care was like. She smiled ruefully and said that it was less than ideal. The family’s routine was to wake up early in the morning and get everyone out of the house. The kids spent their days in school and then day care, the parents went to work, and at the end of the day, they would all reconvene at home for dinner, bath time, and bed. There was true regret in this woman’s eyes when she told me that all her children’s best hours of the day were spent with other people. They were sleepy when they got up in the morning, and tired, hungry, and irritable when they got home at night. But her husband had to work full time and she desperately wanted to continue teaching, so they settled on this plan for their family.

I felt a chill. I had no idea what kind of parent I would make, or how difficult or joyous having children would be. I knew nothing about what I was getting myself into. And yet. What was the point of having my own children if I was going to have to give them to someone else all day long? What if my child were to have a temperament similar to mine, and feel sad and depressed at being away from her mother all day? How would I feel about starting every workday with the sound of crying at drop-off ringing in my ears?

And so feminism met reality. I gave my life a hard, cold, scrutinizing look. What exactly was my career? Imparting the intricacies of English literature and the mind-numbing details of American history to a small set of teenage girls. I enjoyed it, yes, but did they? Was what I was doing really so important in the long run? Was it any different—in a spiritual sense—from the other jobs I’d held (McDonald’s, cleaning toilets at a National Guard base, child care at a residential treatment center)? In the end, I concluded that it was a job I loved, but that could wait. There is an expression that says that women can have it all nowadays, but not all at once. For the first time, I appreciated the relevance of that phrase.

So I made my choices and thus far have survived the experience. Ironically, the hardest part is not taking care of the kids; it’s telling other adults what I do for a living. The worst was when a man from shul asked what I did all day. "Do you go to Mommy-and-me classes?" He clearly thought that "mother" was another word for "woman of leisure." But I’ve solved the problem now once and for all. I recently updated my alumna profile for the prep school I attended. Despite the fact that it was a girls’ school and there are at least a handful of graduates who are at-home moms, the program does not allow the alum to save her data and exit until she’s filled in her employment information. What employment information? I hissed at the computer. And then I got a gleam in my eye and put my fingers to the keyboard. Employer? "The Crunch family." Address? "My house."

Job title? "I work for food."

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The making of a settler

It’s very funny how my feelings about settlements have changed over the last 12 years. When I first came to Israel, I thought they were inexcusably bad things, and that settlers themselves were just out to make trouble. Like most people, I saw them as an obstruction to peace.

Then I actually met a few settlers. They were aware of how many people feel about them, and would sometimes sound a little defensive when discussing where they lived. But aside from these touchy issues, they were remarkably normal people. They were all religious, and clearly felt very emotionally attached to where they were living.

Then Cap’n Crunch and I drove through the West Bank en route from Jerusalem to Arad. It was about this time of year 10 years ago, and I was completely taken with the beauty of the place: the rocky soil, the vineyards on every hillside with the leaves turning red and gold, the houses nestled in clusters in the settlements. The barbed wire and fences were the only things I saw to regret, and a little thought suggested to me that these are not because of the Jews, but because of the Arabs.

Over the succeeding years, I have given extensive thought to the concept of settlements. Despite what many liberal Westerners like to say, settling territory conquered in a defensive war against our neighbors (Jordan, Egypt, and Syria) is not a violation of any international statute. And despite what many liberal Westerners would have felt about it, Israel would have been perfectly within her rights to expel every Arab from that land (as they could have done to the Israeli Arabs who remained after the war of independence). Israel rarely gets any credit for allowing the majority of Arabs to remain in their homes after wars in which most of those Arabs either fought against Israel or sided with the enemy.   Who else has done all that for a sworn enemy?

Clearly, if the Arabs who remained were to demonstrate a commitment to a peaceful, two-state solution, there would be no justification for Jews to build in conquered territories. However, the Arabs in this part of the world have never shown the slightest interest in having a Jewish state in their midst. Their feelings about Jews were made quite clear when they refused to accept the Partition Plan and attempted to conquer the Jewish portion of the partition. Their refusal to leave Israel in peace until 1967 (when there were no settlements, and Arabs were in control of the Temple Mount and the entire Old City), and their attempt again in 1973 to destroy the country make very clear that a two-state solution is unacceptable to them. Nothing they have done as a group since then suggests that they have changed their minds. I don’t have any close Arab acquaintances, but I know some Jews who do. From them I learn that there are at least some ordinary Arabs who dislike the P.A.’s policies, who only ask to be able to work for a living and feed their families. But even this does not necessarily mean that they want a Jewish state in their midst; they might well prefer a Palestinian state that is committed to statecraft and serving its people.

And if the problem were just political, I could understand that too, to some extent. But during the last decade or so I (and whoever in the rest of the world is paying attention) have seen Arabs destroy the synagogue in Jericho, Joseph’s Tomb in Ramallah, and archeological treasures underneath the Temple Mount. There is not simply a desire among them to have a state of their own; like the Taliban destroying the giant Buddhas in Afghanistan, there is a desire to erase anything that is not Muslim from their midst. That smacks of holy war, not politics.

I can’t say I blame the Arabs for feeling this way. If I were raised on a diet of Koran and was taught that Jews were descendants of pigs and monkeys, I would probably feel the same. It makes their intractability the more understandable, and their violence against Jews less surprising. There are two attitudes one can adopt towards this type of situation: give up and leave (not an option) or stand our ground. By standing our ground I mean that we do not give in to terrorism, and that we do whatever is necessary to ensure our own safety. One way this is achieved is by controlling the roads in the territories, and one way to ensure that the government and IDF control the roads is to make it necessary by having Jews live out here. It may seem very back door-y to do that, but since there is nothing illegal and much to be gained by it, why not? Given all the other reasons to live out here (air, weather, proximity to holy sites, cost of housing in the rest of Israel, community), that is simply another.

Despite that, Israel still does not show a full commitment to standing her ground. There was a really good editorial not long ago (Caroline Glick, "The Disappearance of Law", Jerusalem Post, October 17, 2008) which described how the rule of law is not enforced with any degree of conviction over Israel’s Arab citizens and residents. This sends a message that they are not expected to obey the laws here, and that implies that they have their own state already, if not on paper then informally at least. This is one source of the security problems here. The flare-up between Yitzhar and the neighboring Arab village demonstrates the disgust which many Israelis feel with the government’s lack of law enforcement commitment. After the infiltration and stabbing of a 9-year-old child, the residents of Yitzhar were faced with having to endure further infiltrations and stabbings (and very likely killings) or taking the law into their own hands. Arabs are not Westerners, and have a very different perspective on rivalries. For them, non-reaction invites further aggression, and the residents of Yitzhar know this. To entrust their safety to the government, for whom non-reaction is a typical response to Arab aggression (whether it’s the stabbing of a child in a settlement or firing of rockets into Israeli cities), would be to invite further–and possibly more severe–attacks. I don’t know if I would have done what the people in Yitzhar did, but I can certainly see why they did it.

Like the rest of Israel, the issue of the settlements is complicated. When one lives in Israel proper, one knows that the Arabs and most of the West have feelings ranging from discomfort to hatred toward Israel. When one lives over the Green Line, one has all that to deal with, plus the hatred, resentment, and demonization of much of the Israeli population, plus the much closer proximity to the Arabs, whatever their individual feelings toward us. When we made aliyah, we knew we were going into battle (and taking our children with us). And by moving out to the Gush, we’ve taken that battle up to the front lines. I had to cope with a lot of fear before I felt ready to do this. If the other people out here were only here for the quality of life and the perfect weather, I would probably not have been willing to live here. Unlike Beit Shemesh, it’s not just another place to live in Israel. But after spending a Shabbat out here, we saw that the people out here value the quality of life but also recognize that we are involved in a struggle for the Jewish state’s right to exist and that we have an essential role to play. Knowing that we are all here for the same reason, and that all of us have the right to be here and are willing to exercise that right, whatever the risk, makes it possible.

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While Americans are well on the way to getting over their election hangovers, we in Israel are only halfway through election madness.  Today were nationwide municipal and mayoral elections, to be followed in February with national elections.  And today, Cap’n Crunch and I exercised for the first time our privilege as Israeli citizens and voted for a new mayor and slate of municipal officers for Efrat.  Normally, I don’t feel the need to read the Jerusalem Post during the week, preferring the meatier Friday edition, but after today, the outcome of three mayoral elections have us on tenterhooks. 

The first seat, Efrat’s, has been held by a competent person for some years, though there is a belief among some here that he and his predecessor were caretakers more than initiative-takers.  Issues facing Efrat include growth (within whatever limits the national government places on the issuing of new building permits), expansion of sports and cultural facilities, turnover of the oldest neighborhoods (which also have the oldest residents and not many new young families), affordable housing, and security supervision of Arab workers in the settlement.  Cap’n Crunch thinks that many people will have voted today based on their age group, with older voters voting for the widow of a former mayor (who appears to be in her 60s) and younger voters voting for a new guy with an ambitious agenda who appears to be in his 40s.

The second election whose outcome we’ll be very interested to see is Beit Shemesh’s.  The candidates there represented three of the main religious/ethnic populations in the city.  The incumbent, a Moroccan from one of Beit Shemesh’s oldest families, possesses no formal education beyond high school and apparently lied to the public about having received a university degree online.  He also has ties to the Mafia and is known for wishy-washiness and making promises he doesn’t keep.  If he has an agenda for this rapidly growing city, he has not confided it in his constituency.  He’s wildly popular with the secular and traditional Israeli communities in the older sections of Beit Shemesh.  His deputy, a religious Zionist and immigrant from America, is popular with the English-speaking technocrats in some of the newer sections of Beit Shemesh, as well as with the Harda"l (haredi religious Zionist) population in Ramat Beit Shemesh-Alef.  He is a clear communicator and has many criticisms of the way the city has been run in the past.  He promises cleaner government and will likely address some of the growing pains the city is having, as well as the social tensions that exist, particularly between the haredi population and the modern Orthodox.  And the third candidate, a haredi man, promises more housing for families without undue regard for green space or overcrowding issues.  He’s popular in the haredi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh-Bet.  Some of our grievances while living in Beit Shemesh were the city’s unfettered growth, the fragmentation of interests of the population, the litter, vandalism, and neglect that marked every quarter of the city.  It would be really nice to see someone assume the mayor’s duties who was able to identify these areas and come up with plans to improve them.  We’ll see tomorrow what Beit Shemesh decides.  I’m not optimistic, though, since it is the voters’ tendency in that city to vote for whichever candidate physically resembles them.

And finally, the third city that we feel an interest in is Jerusalem.  There the issues are manifold.  As anyone knows who has followed the news in the past eight months, Jerusalem too needs better oversight of its Arab construction workers.  It has also undertaken a massive light rail project that has closed streets, created nearly impassible traffic congestion, shut down important bus lines, and caused small businesses to close along major stretches of heavily trafficked roads.  It has also gone way over budget with this project and made what was to be a small overpass bridge for the trains a gigantic "aesthetic" eyesore (a la Lenny Zakim Bridge between Boston and Charlestown, only completely out of architectural context).  Cultural events are poorly funded, housing prices have gone through the roof, and all new housing is either cramped apartments for haredi families or luxury housing for wealthy absentee Jews from outside of Israel.  The city’s haredi population continues to soar while secular Jews are fleeing the city.  Young couples who have grown up in the city are forced to leave it for lack of affordable housing.  Parking is a hassle in most neighborhoods, and the number of cars on the road has increased dramatically since we lived there 11 years ago.  In other words, Jerusalem needs some competent leadership ASAP.  The candidates include a Russian immigrant millionaire (a Ross Perot-type) who has used his money very generously and hopes to appeal to the poorer sector of the city; a successful secular businessman who would like to increase accessibility of culture in the city and plans to re-evaluate the light rail project, leaving open the option of canceling it altogether; and a haredi Knesset member whose photo on his election posters was so scary all the later ads for his campaign on billboards and buses have a cartoon representation of him (a Santa Claus in black).  I look on the brave soul who gets elected to the Jerusalem mayoralty with equal parts awe and pity.  The Holy City these days is not an easy place to govern and I hope and pray that the Almighty gives the winner the wisdom and sense to tidy it up.

I remember a couple of years ago a heated discussion in our ulpan class over politics that resulted in our teacher making the observation that perhaps immigrants should be barred from voting in Israeli elections for the first three years of their residency.  We were astounded at the comment, and I continue to bristle at that idea (probably shared by many secular Israelis who don’t like religious Zionist immigrants influencing Israeli politics).  For what do we come here to live and become citizens if not to help steer the country we care so much about?  Most of us were keen followers of Israeli politics for years before making aliyah, and one could probably count on one hand the number of immigrants who, after three years of Israeli residency, would vote any differently than they would have voted while still living in Brookline, Monsey, or Boca Raton.  And besides, looking at the level of quality of the average Israeli politician, I think the sooner immigrants are allowed to vote, the better. 

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The list of things I love about living in Israel is long. However, near the top of the list is the inspiration I feel when my kids come home for school and gan. They speak fluent Hebrew, learn songs for every holiday and many of the parshiot (weekly Torah readings), and most of all, get to experience Jewish life in a way I couldn’t have dreamt of as a secular kid in America. Here are some of the conversations we have that I find particularly heart-warming:

Last night we talked at the dinner table for half an hour about blessings over food. The kids say blessings before and after food in school all the time, but don’t necessarily have the time to get full explanations of the hierarchy of brachot. (Most of the time they wash and say hamotzi—the blessing over bread—for everyone, even the kids who brought pretzels for their snack.) Last night we talked about bread (hamotzi), pasta (mezonot), things that grow on trees (borei pri ha’etz), things that grow in the ground (borei pri ha’adamah), and other foods such as meat or fish (she’hakol). Peach, our 5 year old, examined everything on her plate to make sure she’d said all of the correct brachot. Banana, our 3 year old, spent 10 minutes brainstorming as many foods as she could think of that grow in the ground (carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, beans, carrots… and she doesn’t even eat carrots!). And Beans, the 7 year old, has her brachot down pretty well and just sat quietly eating her dinner. (For the record, I didn’t learn the hand-washing and hamotzi brachot until I was 28, and got my first thorough explanation of the hierarchy of foods from Cap’n Crunch’s roommate in Jerusalem a year later.)

The kids often come home with stories and songs, particularly Peach, who has begun an evening ritual with her Abba where, during toothbrushing time, each takes a turn humming a tune and the other has to guess what it is. She’s learning some tunes this way that American kids normally grow up with, and her old man is learning tunes that are part of an Israeli kid’s repertoire. The kids usually hear stories about the parashah during the week and sometimes share them with us. Before Yom Kippur, Banana related to us the story of Jonah, beginning in English, then switching to Hebrew as her description of the stormy sea got more florid. (For those in the know, the waves hishtolelu.)

I read an editorial around the time of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebration that celebrated the revival of Hebrew as the greatest achievement of the new Jewish State. That, too, has been one of the most amazing things to see in the kids. Again, I was 28 when I first learned that alef-bet, and my five-year-old Peach is already reading Hebrew. They all switch back and forth between English and Hebrew when they play, and last Shabbat, when we hosted a family for lunch whose children prefer Hebrew to English, we heard Banana’s fluent Hebrew for the first time. Peach enjoys when I drop her off at gan and stay to play a game with her before I leave. She sits patiently as the other girls gather around to join us and listens to my heavily flawed Hebrew, only occasionally correcting me sotto voce. The one I rely on the most for practical Hebrew is Beans, our eldest, who has been in an all-Hebrew environment the longest. When the other girls ask me a word in Hebrew, if I don’t know it I just refer them to Beans. When I want to know how to say something practical, like "to put something away" or "to blow one’s nose" she’s the one I go to.

And the baby who—please God—will be born in January will be a sabra. It will never have lived outside Israel, and will consider this its home even more than my young daughters, who already feel they belong here. It’s odd to imagine being an American rearing an Israeli who will share none of my childhood experiences. And yet for baby to grow up in a society that operates on the Jewish calendar, where the holidays taught in school are our holidays, and speaking Hebrew—I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And the fact that this baby’s mother might as well have been born on another planet? That’s baby’s problem, not mine.

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Why I’m an Orthodox Jew

As my dear husband reminded me yesterday, today is the tenth anniversary of my conversion to Judaism (a la Orthodoxy). The following is a piece I’ve been working on for a few weeks, and today seemed an auspicious day to post it.

A few months ago, a fellow blogger on the JewsByChoice.org website for which I used to write posted a very thoughtful piece about why she identifies as a Reform Jew. Upon reading what she wrote, I was inspired to examine why I have chosen to pitch my tent in the Orthodox camp.

Despite growing up in a minimally identified Jewish home (apathetic Jewish father, non-Jewish mother), I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew when I was nine years old. I craved a clearer identity as a Jew, an understanding of the reasons for the rituals and holidays, and what the Torah says about Jewish living. I knew I wasn’t part of the Christian world, but felt totally alien whenever I was around Jews. I was spiritually homeless. The sweetest, gentlest, most devoutly Jewish of my relatives, my Great-aunt Ida, was Orthodox, and I wanted to be like her when I grew up. On some level, being Orthodox for me is the realization of a childhood dream.

As I grew older, I came up against increasing resistance to my being able to call myself Jewish. Two girls at my high school in the early 1980s told me that I wasn’t really Jewish since I didn’t have a Jewish mother. I soon discovered that no Jews anywhere would accept me as Jewish, and that what I’d been told about being Jewish all my life was untrue. This felt horribly unfair, since half of my relatives were Jewish, I was no less religious than most of my peers who had the yichus (pedigree) to call themselves Jewish, and I’d lost dozens of relatives in the Shoah, just as even the most frum Jews had. I seethed. One thing Orthodoxy came to mean to me was (near-) universal acceptance in the Jewish world. Yes, there may be people out there who are frummer than the halachah and as such don’t believe in the possibility of converting to Judaism, but since halachah is what I go by, I consider myself a fully kosher Red Sea pedestrian.

As I began to study in earnest for my conversion, I came to admire both the system of Jewish law and the dynamic, intelligent, open-minded people I met who were my teachers. My primary teacher was Rahel Berkovits, a granddaughter of Rav Eliezer Berkovits z"l. As with any of my teachers, I could ask her questions, challenge Judaism’s assumptions, or raise an eyebrow and say, "You’ve got to be kidding," and she would never take offense or fail to answer my question. For her, a commitment to tradition existed side by side with an ability to step outside her world and view it from other points of view. If people like Rahel and my other teachers could hold the Torah up confidently to the glaring light of my scrutiny and criticism and still believe in its value and ability to teach, then perhaps I too could come to see it as they did. For them, Torah and science (Torah u’madda) can safely co-exist. While observance of Torah laws has changed through the ages, the Torah retains its divinity and value as a basis for living.

Up to now, I don’t think any of my reasons for choosing Orthodoxy differ significantly from anyone’s who chooses Reform or Conservative (except perhaps the divinity of the Torah). However, there are a few things I like about Orthodoxy that are generally less uniform in the non-Orthodox world. One is the centrality of community. In a typical Orthodox community, the members keep a minimal level of kashrut and Shabbat, enough to allow members to eat in one another’s homes without asking questions and to bring each other food in chesed situations (e.g. shiva, birth of a baby). Because of the prohibition on driving, community members tend to live closer to one another, making it easier to socialize on Shabbat and holidays (especially where there is an eruv), to see one another during the week, and for children (who may go the same Jewish day school) to play and study together. Communities exist along a spectrum with variation in the role of women, of sanctuary design, nusach (style of prayer), and dress code. In a city with a reasonably-sized Jewish population, it is usually possible to find a community that complements one’s personal choices and style of Jewish living. (Critics of Orthodoxy sometimes call it insular, exclusive, or clannish, but the positive side is the closeness, support, and sense of belonging to a group with a common purpose, where everyone contributes and brings something unique to the enterprise.) The closeness of the community has been essential for my family, since our extended family do not share our dietary laws or observance of holidays. Community members (especially other converts and ba’alei teshuvah) have become an extended family to us, adopting us when we were single, lending a carnival atmosphere to our wedding, helping us through illness, hospitalization, and the birth of children, and even our aliyah and recent moving experience.

Another special feature is the slowness of change. As a college student (and part time radical feminist), I would have fainted had I heard myself say this. But age has given me a little more patience than I had then, and I have a level of appreciation for Orthodoxy’s generally bottom-up style, where individual rabbis poskin (give halachic guidance) for their own communities’ standards and based on the unique needs and situation of the individual congregant, and where change, while often painfully slow, is rarely looked back on as rash or temporal. In the Modern Orthodox world, where I’ve made my home, change seems to happen at a reasonable pace, where advances in science are embraced, women’s learning and prayer have taken on great importance, and halachah is consulted for its guidance in meeting special or unusual needs of individuals in Jewish life. My rabbi’s acquaintance with me, knowledge of my background, and familiarity with my temperament (!) always ensured that when I asked him for psak, he would balance the framework of halachah with his understanding of my own needs.

Having said all that, I do have my beefs with Orthodoxy. Relative prosperity of Jews in the West has encouraged many rabbis to become stricter in their psak than in previous generations. Jewish communities have sometimes taken on humrot (stringencies) for reasons which today seem temporal, frivolous, irrelevant, or unfathomable, which have assumed the stature of halachah over time. Some rabbis through the ages have felt authoritative enough to add to the tradition (e.g. the siddur) without ever taking anything out (resulting in some VERY long services). And there are some in the Orthodox world who would like traditional Jews to respond to modernity (and the accompanying laxity in modesty and religiosity) by rejecting that modernity and becoming more stringent, isolated, self-restraining and, as I see it, fearful.

I’ve elected to cope with my criticisms and frustrations in several ways. I choose my community and my friends within it carefully, making sure that eccentricity and non-conformity in non-essentials are welcome. I do as many of the mitzvot as I can, and about those I cannot do (because I’m not ready or because I have studied them thoroughly and still find them impossible to perform) I say, "Not yet." And I continue to study, to ask questions, to attend lectures and read articles, and have discussions with friends about issues that trouble me in an effort to work through them.

A few weeks ago, following his Shabbat morning talk, a neighbor of mine made the observation that to embrace the observance of mitzvot and halachah is a powerful act of free will. I thought about this, since I and my husband had more than once been accused by our secular or non-Jewish families of having become like sheep, mindlessly handing control over our lives to a deity or system of which we have no real knowledge or control. And yet for us, a convert and a ba’al teshuvah, it was quite the opposite. We came upon this choice as people unfettered by obligation, examined it thoroughly, studied it from different points of view, and with full knowledge of what we were doing, made the choice for ourselves. In doing so, we embraced a spiritual home represented by a life of study and prayer, acts of goodness, and elevating the mundane to holiness.

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Music of the 1980s

Our recent move has inspired us (okay, mostly me; Cap’n Crunch is an incorrigible pack rat) to reevaluate the possessions we’ve been hauling around with us unquestioningly for years.

One of the things I’ve taken a long time to part with has been the few dozen cassette tapes I acquired in the 1980s when that was the state-of-the-art medium for music. (Remember life before CDs?) I’ve been weighing how to hold on to some of those songs without shlepping around a bunch of plastic and cellulose forever, and how to hear the few great songs I still want to hear without having to listen to an entire album of a no-longer-favorite band. To this end, I’ve been foraging through Amazon’s MP3 files for downloads. The fun of this is that while downloading one song or music by one band, I’m often reminded of another that I also loved. Here are some of the bands and songs with which I’ve been reacquainting myself:

Jimmy Buffett (Margaritaville, We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About)
Romantics (One in a Million, Talking In Your Sleep)
Bobby McFerrin (Opportunity)
Paul McCartney (Say Say Say, Silly Love Songs–okay, that was the 1970s, but I’m old)
Fine Young Cannibals (She Drives Me Crazy)
Kinks (Apeman, Lola)
George Harrison (Got My Mind Set On You)
Orleans (Still the One–another from the 1970s)

There are a few albums I still can’t do without, but they’re few (Big Country’s The Seer and Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram). The rest I like enough hits from to buy a greatest hits album (Eagles, Men at Work, Howard Jones, Talking Heads).

Help me out here: What am I forgetting? What are your favorite songs from the 1970s and 1980s? (I graduated from college in 1989 and haven’t been able to name a single song since.)

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The election results

The results are in at last. McCain has made the traditional congratulatory phone call and, I hear, a gracious concession speech.

It has been a long haul. Even from Israel, the exhaustion of Americans with the election hype has been palpable for months. (Reminds me of Christmas, for which the hype seems to begin earlier and earlier, and go out with an exhausted sigh on December 26.) And yet it seems that this race showed presidential campaigning at its most interesting and, in my opinion, its best.

Rumors of Obama’s secret affiliation with Islam flickered here and there, but the bald-faced racism that one might have expected to surface just didn’t. (I think here of the reception Cleavon Little’s Black mayor had in Rock Ridge in "Blazing Saddles.")

McCain sought to court the woman vote by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, and yet I believe few women were taken in by this ploy. (And Tina Fey’s impressions certainly didn’t help.) Thanks to Katie Couric and others, she was subjected to the same rigorous questioning and analysis that any candidate serious about running for high office should expect.

Questions about Obama’s and Palin’s church affiliations came up but unlike the anti-Catholic hysteria that surrounded JFK, I think the questions centering on the candidates’ attitudes toward America, abortion, and the right of people to practice their religion unmolested seemed valid questions.

In past elections, the issues that seemed to dominate the discussions were frivolous, centering on politicians’ physical appearance, family connections, extra-marital peccadilloes, and offhand comments taken out of context. This time, it seemed that attempts to distract the voting public from the real issues (the economy, fossil fuel dependency, America’s crumbled alliances, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan) failed.

However one may feel about the outcome of the election, there are several reasons for Americans to pat themselves on the back:
1) They’ve just survived another major election.
2) They have just elected the first non-white President in U.S. history (long before I expected it would be ready to). Is he the first President in U.S. history whose last name comes from somewhere other than Great Britain or Ireland? (Van Buren and Eisenhower are the only other ones I can think of, and they were hardly stand-outs in any other way.)
3) Their choice seems to me to reflect an ability to see the big picture. While Obama may not talk as tough as McCain and may be more hesitant to involve the country in international conflicts where it has an interest, he may also be more likely to view many of the concerns Americans have on domestic issues with fresh eyes and address them with a more novel approach. While both McCain and Obama seem very smart, I think Americans are attracted to Obama as a leader for what they see as his willingness to steer the country in a different direction, and perhaps solve some of its problems (I think mostly here of oil dependency) in the process.

As for Israel, I didn’t see anyone walking around in sackcloth and ashes today. I think some Israelis may be disappointed, but I also hasten to add that Jonathan and I met an Israeli woman in the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem earlier this week who said that she preferred Obama. When we asked her why, she said it was because when he came to Israel, he visited Sderot (a blue-collar city in southern Israel that has received the heaviest rocket fire since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza a year and a half ago). No other American diplomat or candidate has done so, and most Israeli politicians don’t go there either. To notice what others would prefer to ignore, and to remember the beleaguered and forgotten is to win the hearts and minds of many. May Obama do that in America too.

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Eye candy

Most of what I consume on the Internet is text, but I occasionally do take advantage of the fact that it is a very visual medium, and have a couple of sources of visual inspiration.  One is the blog of my friend Ilana-Davita, which has a picture with every blog post.  An avid cook, gardener, and traveler, she photographs her world and shares the results on her blog, participating in several online photo projects including Ruby Tuesday (photograph something red), Skywatch Friday, and a flower of the week (usually from her lush garden).  I highly recommend checking her out.

My other source of visual pleasure is Yehuda Halevi’s photography of Israel.  His website indicates that he photographs life cycle events, but in addition he keeps a photo blog (click in the lower right of the screen on his home page to view the photos) with a photo of the week which one can sign up to have appear weekly in one’s email inbox.  He travels the country from one end to the other and captures the astonishing beauty of the place in every season and every sort of light.  His photos are also for sale.

What are your sources for visual inspiration?

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Cryptic expression

I grew up hearing a number of humorous–but often cryptic–expressions about Jews.  One of them was the following:

"The Jews are just like everyone else, only more so."

I’ve thought about this for over 25 years, and am still not certain what it is supposed to mean.  I’d love to hear what my readers think.  So, nu?

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One of the top ten mitzvot is that of honoring parents (kibud av v’em). On the face of it, it is a fairly simple, straightforward mitzvah. But when one comes to think of it, it is actually not as simple as it seems. What does it mean to "honor"?

One thing it does not mean is to "love." Many people, both children and adults, can attest to the difficulty at times of loving a parent. I remember hearing a story years ago about a man whose elderly mother had been hostile to him for years. As she got older, her behavior toward him became more and more erratic and dangerous, until he learned that she had taken a contract out on his life. Desperate for counsel, he approached his rabbi and asked what he should do. His rav advised him to move far away from her, explaining "You are commanded to honor her, not to live near her."

According to a d’var Torah by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, honoring parents means acknowledging a debt of gratitude to them. Most of us learn a good deal from our parents. (If we’re lucky, what we learn is mostly good.) Not only do they give us life, but even in the worst of circumstances, they usually pass on something of value to us. Rav Binny Freedman, director of Isralight in the Old City of Jerusalem and a favorite neighbor of ours, told a story one Shabbat morning of a conversation he had had with a friend.  Rav Binny was acknowledging the wonderful things he had learned from his loving parents, but said that his friend had had an awful upbringing.  Yet somehow his friend had succeeded in marrying, having sunny, well-adjusted children, and enjoying a quality of life unforeseen based on his background.  Rav Binny asked him how he had managed it, especially without parents to teach him.  "They did teach me," his friend answered.  "Yours taught you what to do; mine taught me what not to do."  (As for me, I think of hardened criminals, and wonder who it was who toilet trained them.)  None of us created ourselves, though for some people it can be hard to acknowledge the things we learned at our parents’ knees.

There is also a distinction between the way in which we are expected to honor our mother and father. I learned once that one should be treat one’s mother with respect, and one’s father with awe. Both of these suggest that one should speak to one’s parents with kindness, patience, and as though they are distinguished people. What the "respect" and "awe" suggest to me is that one should treat parents as thought they are a notch above how they are normally treated. Mothers are most often taken for granted, and because they usually have the greatest amount of contact time with children, can sometimes come to be seen as servants to the children. (I know I did this to my mother as a child, and sometimes see my children do it to me.) To treat mothers with respect is to elevate them above the status of nurse/teacher/cook/scullery maid to which they’re often relegated. Fathers, I believe, are never quite reduced to that level of servitude in children’s minds, but are assumed to command greater respect. To treat them with awe is to elevate them above how they are normally viewed.

One thing I have learned from being both a child and being a parent is that children are not hard-wired to honor their parents. Like everything else of value, they must be taught this. Teaching children to honor us as parents is a win-win situation. Children who are taught to contribute to household chores learn not only the value of independence and their essential contribution to the running of the home; it also teaches them ways in which they can help overburdened parents. (Incidentally, completion of these chores can be tied to monetary allowances, if desired.) Children who assist with Shabbat preparations learn that Shabbat doesn’t come into a home magically; it has to be brought in by the family as a whole. Children who are spoken to by their parents in moderate voice tones and language learn to speak to others in the same way, including parents. Children who regularly use "please" and "thank you" (as in, "May I please have some milk?" rather than "Milk, please") delight both their parents and others in their lives with their speech.

While this mitzvah can seem like a great challenge to children (younger and older), it is also a challenge to parents. As parents we must resolve to be the grown-ups and the models in this behavior. Our children must see us treat our parents and spouses with the honor we want them to bestow on us. And while few parents need to be told to love their own children, we must also remember that to teach them to honor us, we must honor them as befits a parent and child.

(For more thoughts on this mitzvah, see Lori Palatnik’s wonderful article on the Aish.com website.)

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