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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