Archive for December, 2008

Kosher Cooking Carnival

For all you gourmets and gourmands, Leora’s Kosher Cooking Carnival is up with a Greasy Story Edition for Chanukah.  Enjoy!


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Christmas for sale?

It’s the Christmas season, the season for giving, and the crashed world economy has given rise to headlines like this one from the Yahoo! homepage: "No Christmas cheer as recession gathers steam."

No Christmas cheer?!  The headline and the article that follows it clearly make the assumption that Christmas cheer for everyone involves booming housing markets, low gas prices, and hours spent pounding the pavement (or waxed tile floor) doing Christmas shopping.  In other words, dollar signs.

I ain’t no Christian, and Yashka’s birthday has been off my calendar for a long time, but I still remember some of the good times I used to have with my family at (our very secular) Christmastime.  One year in my late teens or early twenties, the family decided (to the chagrin of my Jewish father) to discontinue the gift exchange.  It had been a source of stress and annoyance for years, during which we tried drawing names and imposing spending caps, none of which made the holiday any more enjoyable.  So one year we eliminated presents completely.  Problem solved.  

Was our celebration any the poorer?  Au contraire.  We poured ourselves into the non-material features of the season: listening to music, dedicating the breakfast table to puzzle assembly, clipping evergreen and holly sprigs from the trees in our yard and decorating every available surface, baking holiday treats (my mother’s homemade Heath bars were particularly addictive), watching the Queen’s annual Christmas address to her subjects in which she says she looks forward to serving them in the coming year ("I should like that," I always told the television), and my favorite, choosing an 8-foot Douglas fir at the Boy Scouts’ tree lot, putting it into its stand, and decorating it with decades worth of accumulated ornaments.  The best part of the whole shebang for me was turning off the lights, lying on the couch nursing a glass of Bailey’s, gazing at the lights and inhaling the aroma of Oregon’s most glorious conifer.  

Did we miss the gifts?  Not one bit.  (Okay, my dad broke the rule one year and bought everyone monogrammed stationery, but other than that, we stuck by it.)  What we came to rely on for making the season festive was what mattered in the first place: being together and enjoying what we already had.  Americans are incredibly spoilt, and all too often forget that what they consider the necessities of life are things hardly anyone else on the planet enjoys.  Nothing gets up my nose worse than when one of my girls throws a tantrum or sulks because she doesn’t get something new that she wants.  Some kids in America and Israel have more than they have, but most here—and everywhere else in the world—have less, a fact of which I don’t hesitate to remind them.  

So my advice to anyone who thinks that this holiday season is not what it should be—i.e. a commercial orgy—is to sit back and re-evaluate what really matters.  Perhaps this holiday season is a good time to turn OFF the news that seems determined to bring ill tidings to everyone, and put on some good music, or watch a great movie.  Some of my favorites include How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story, Holiday Inn, the Christmas specials of The Vicar of Dibley and Good Neighbors (hilarious British sit-coms), and my new favorite grown-up movie for the season, Love Actually, in which Christmas is merely a backdrop to the surprising development of some relationships, and much-needed jump-start for others.  

Perhaps it’s a good year to give Santa Claus a holiday, and do it for ourselves.

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There was a discussion some time ago on the group blog for which I used to write regarding what Jews believe versus what Christians believe. One person made the following comment: “Yeshu was a common enough name, and while it is possible that one (or both) of these men form part of the Chrstian myth of Jsus [sic], the details of the Greek Text and the Talmud don’t ‘jive.’”

Jive. Those who remember the 1970s remember a time when this word was used much more frequently than now. Jive turkey. Jive talkin’ (i.e. tellin’ me lies, as the song goes). Hand jive (just Google this one and see all the stuff that comes up). But what do the squares who write dictionaries say it means?

It turns out the Merriam Webster New International Dictionary, Second Edition (known in future rants as “NI2”) is too old or too square to include a definition of this word. So we turn to the much hipper, now-er American Heritage Dictionary (known hereafter as “AH”): Slang. 1. Jazz or swing music. 2. The jargon of jazz musicians and enthusiasts. [I crack up every time my very white jazz musician brother refers to other jazz musicians as “cats.”] 3. Deceptive, nonsensical, or glib talk.

So the writer of the forum comment about the “Chrstian myth of Jsus” may be technically correct in saying that “the details of the Greek Text and the Talmud don’t jive.” The Christian Scriptures and the Talmud were written far too long ago to have been delivered in the language of either jazz musicians or enthusiasts. But somehow, I don’t think that’s really what she meant to say.

So what is the correct word for this context? In my second English rant, I identified a common culprit in the use of malapropisms: “The two words sound similar enough that they must mean the same thing.” Aha! And a word that sounds like jive but that means “to agree” or “to harmonize”—jibe!

So now we know. Leave the jive to the cats playing tunes on their axes, and stick to jibe when you want to say “to agree” or “to harmonize.”

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Last year, when contributing to a group blog for converts to Judaism, I had a brief exchange on the blog’s discussion forum with a reader about how an interfaith family (one Jewish spouse, one non-Jewish spouse) can negotiate the dicey waters of Christmastime.  The reader described a scenario in which "one spouse wants a tree, stockings and to exchange gifts with relatives (the grandparents) on Christmas Day. Oh, and the family always serve a ham! The other spouse is Jewish and the couple has decided to raise the kids as Jews."  He asked for suggestions for "creative solutions that preserve Jewish identity without sacrificing family unity."  

Those who know me are aware that for me, Christmas observance is very much a thing of the past.  While born and reared in an interfaith family myself, I don’t consider it an ideal—or even desirable—situation, and do not write this post to try to encourage Jews and non-Jews to marry one another and try to sort it all out afterward.  For the record, I think the spiritual and religious health of a family is best nurtured by Jews marrying other Jews.  (The rest can do as they see fit.)  

Having gotten that out of the way, I still recognize that families do not always fall along such well-organized lines as "Jewish" and "non-Jewish."  As I once wrote in a similar-themed post for that blog,

Perhaps they are Jewish but didn’t care about religion when they chose their spouse or partner. Perhaps they weren’t Jewish when they married, and heard the siren song of Judaism after being married to a fellow non-Jew for some time. Perhaps they are Jewish and married a non-Jew who was interested in the possibility of converting, but has not done so yet. Or perhaps they are Jewish and met someone not Jewish, but who agrees to help establish a Jewish home. In any of these cases, negotiating Judaism in the relationship can be challenging, especially after the partnership has already begun. But being able to negotiate it becomes all the more important.

Given this, I know there are still couples and families that struggle with the Christmas question.  The situation the reader described is a great challenge, and one which I suspect many intermarried Jews (and at least some Jews-by-choice) must face.  

It’s not easy to be an interfaith family.  But starting from the premise that both spouses are truly committed to raising the kids as Jews, certain modifications must be made at Christmastime.  I can say from experience that it is very confusing to be told one is Jewish when there is a tree in the house every year (much as I loved it). Kids have a hard time coming away feeling they’re genuine Jews with Christmas things all over the house.

Here are the options as I see them:
1) Stick with an indecisive or mostly secular status quo and see what the kids decide to do later on.  (This option only works if you have no expectations whatsoever about what the religious outcome will be.)
2) Give your kids a thorough education in both religions and let them choose for themselves.  (Practically speaking, this rarely happens, and taking it as an option ignores the inevitable awkwardness the children feel having to choose one parent’s religion over the other’s.)
3) Decide to make some changes around the house at holiday time.

While the Jewish calendar does not have Christmas, it does have several holidays that incorporate elements essential to Christmas (except Jesus and mistletoe).  I and other friends who are converts have found ways to use Jewish holidays as outlets for energies that used to go toward Christmas. Sukkot is a great time to decorate the sukkah (or the house, if the family cannot build a sukkah) with decorations representing the arba minim or Four Species, enjoy eating in the crisp/steamy (depending on where you live) fall air, and talk about the experience of living in a sukkah, both where the family lives and in the Holy Land. (A friend of mine once made and decorated a gingerbread sukkah, a clever alternative to a gingerbread house and a tasty dessert.)  Pesach is a leisurely meal with lots of buildup, songs, shopping, decorating, and food.  Since storytelling is central to this holiday, take advantage of the long meal to pass on Jewish stories from the haggadah and traditions, particularly about the Exodus from Egypt.  (More resources for Pesach in another of my posts here.) Parents and children can talk at the Shavuot table about the commandments, what they mean, and how to observe them, and take the opportunity to study some Torah as a family. And of course, Chanukah can incorporate decorating, festive foods, and a nightly candle-lighting ritual, as well as satisfy the urge for wintertime gift-giving (but as the first Orthodox rabbi I ever met once said, "No Chaneke bushes!").

Adult education for both partners can be helpful to ensure that both parents are equipped to raise Jewish children. Jewish day and religious school without reinforcement at home crumbles. It is also important to make sure the children have Jewish friends by joining a temple and/or getting together with other families to celebrate Shabbat, Jewish holidays and life cycle events. This can also act as an educational and support system for the parents.

It is important that both partners be on the same page on these issues, and that both understand the importance of their roles and feel comfortable with them. A non-Jewish parent’s incompetence, confusion, or bitterness at being expected to pass on a religion he or she neither knows nor cares about is what gets passed on, not the Judaism. If both parents—but especially Mom—are not behind this program, it will fail.

And while it is not ideal, sometimes a visit to the grandparents during the winter holiday season is necessary to preserve shalom bayit (domestic tranquillity).  (Kibbud av v’em, honoring one’s father and mother, is in the Top Ten, after all.)  If this is the case, helping the children understand that what happens in the grandparents’ house reflects the grandparents’ religion (and not the Jewish family’s) may help to open their eyes without confusing them too much. As for the ham, perhaps a different main dish could be substituted—chicken? roast beef? vegetarian enchiladas?—and the ham shifted to an occasion on which the Jewish family could be absent.

It is not an easy situation, but if both spouses see themselves as being on the same team, then with love, patience, understanding, and some quality Jewish education, they should be able to build for themselves a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael (a faithful Jewish home).

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Growing up, Chanukah was as benign a holiday as one could come across.  It was the un-Christmas, a simple holiday celebrating the triumph of the few over the many and the reinstatement of Judaism as the standard practice in the land of the Jews, including the rededication of the defiled Temple.  What could be problematic about a holiday where one lights candles, plays a game with a top, eats greasy food and chocolate coins, and collects presents for eight days?

Quite a lot, it turns out.  Since starting to take Judaism seriously and actually applying myself to learn something about it, some of the complexity of this (and other) holidays has surfaced.  Last year when attending a shiur on Chanukah, the scholar mentioned that while the events giving rise to Chanukah are surely worth celebrating, there is a tinge of foreboding in doing so, since some of its after-effects led to even worse problems, including the fact that in order to complete the expulsion of Assyrian Greeks and keep them out, the Jews made the fateful decision to invite Rome to intervene.  (Students of history will note that the Romans were themselves rather difficult to dislodge after this, giving rise to near-total destruction of the land and a massive Diaspora that exists to this day.)

Others I have heard from about this holiday are disturbed by the religious fervor evident in the behavior of the Maccabees and their associates.  At a talk at a Conservative synagogue many years ago, I heard the rabbi criticize the Jewish leaders of the rebellion as religious fanatics who roamed the countryside and forcibly circumcised Jewish men and boys.  More recently, a friend expressed his discomfort in the post-9/11 world with the religious zealotry of the Maccabees, questioning where lies the line between how and why they executed their rebellion and what the Muslim terrorists did in America on 11 September 2001.  Both the rav and my friend feel some discomfort with the notion of Chanukah as a celebration of religious extremism.

My most recent reading on Chanukah comes from Rav David Bar-Hayim, founder of Machon Shilo (the Shilo Institute) and a scholar who seeks to re-establish traditions of living and prayer that shed Diaspora influence (including the divide between Sefardi and Ashkenazi) and reflect the Jews’ return to Eretz Yisrael.  Rav Bar-Hayim’s take on Chanukah, available at Machon Shilo’s website is entitled “Hannukah: Getting the Point”.  In his drash, Rav Bar-Hayim gives historical perspective on the events that gave rise to the holiday.  The picture he paints is one of a society that had become enamored of modernity and “civilization” to the point of losing its own identity.  Not only was Judaism not widely practiced at the time, but its essential functions (Torah study, Shabbat observance, brit milah) were offenses punishable by death.  And the Assyrian Greeks did not work alone to spread the Good Word of pagan Greek civilization; a group of wealthy, influential Jews who had wholeheartedly embraced the Greek way of life were willing and eager to assist them.  While Matityahu’s slaughter of the Jew sacrificing a pig in Modi’in seems horrific to us in the modern day, it became a symbol of how close Judaism was to disappearing altogether.  (I once heard a rabbi claim that the Christians should be celebrating Chanukah just as energetically as the Jews, since their own religion would never have come about if the rebellion against the Assyrian Greeks had not succeeded.)  There are two questions that arise from an examination of this incident: 1) Was Matityahu’s action justified, and 2) Would any of us have the courage to die for our faith (as that Jewish pig-shochet-for-hire was required to do in that situation)?  To the first, I suspect that the answer is yes.  It was the first blow struck in resistance to the Greek attempt to eradicate Judaism throughout the land, and while gruesome to our eyes, stands in contrast to the number of Jews who were similarly murdered for practicing their religion in the land.  Without that very public display of refusal, would there have been a rebellion?  Would Judaism ever have been re-established?  Would we be here as Jews today, or as something else?  Or at all?  Probably not.  It’s impossible for any of us to predict how we would behave if faced with death, but for those Jews who were unable to conceive of living as pagans, participating in pagan rites (many of which involved the most appalling acts of violence, bestiality, and abominable sexual acts—like those performed by Zimri and Kosbi in front of the princes of Israel before being made into shishkebab by Pinchas), and witnessing the death of Judaism which they believed to be the only way to serve God and live an upright life, I have nothing but respect.  Would life as a pagan under those circumstances be something we would want to live?  That to me seems the essential question.

Still uncomfortable?  Perhaps that’s one of the best parts of Judaism for me: no quick fixes, no easy solutions, no way out of having to keep thinking.  Chag Chanukah sameach!

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With Chanukah approaching and minds turning to greasy, deep-fat-fried foods, I thought I would share a recipe for latkes that I invented years ago.  The Cap’n and I were on a program in Israel (where we met, in fact) and while sufganiyot (doughnuts) were available everywhere, Ashkenazi Jews like us were on our own for latkes.  Bored with the formulaic potato-only kind (and harboring loathsome memories of eating cold, greasy, tasteless hockey pucks at the innumerable Chanukah parties I attended as a child), I thought it time I seized the opportunity to strike out in a new direction.  I shopped for vegetables at the shuk (outdoor market) and began grating, while the Cap’n peeled apples and began simmering a vat of homemade applesauce.  When we were finished, the product was a great success.  The Cap’n’s roommate warned us, "Don’t make too many; I’ll only eat one or two."  He ended up downing five or six. 

This recipe is flexible.  Tweak it to your own tastes, and feel free to add anything you don’t see (e.g. shallots, leeks, olives, matzo meal).   I also make no pronouncements on whether the cook hand-grates or machine processes the vegetables.  (Human flesh is parve, so if you prefer hand-grating, go ahead.)  Serve with whatever you like: applesauce, sour cream, or yogurt. 


4 med potatoes, grated
1 lg sweet potato, grated
2 lg carrots, grated
2 lg zucchini, grated
1 lg onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil
Press grated potatoes into colander to eliminate excess moisture.  Mix ingredients together in bowl.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  Heat oil in lg heavy skillet.  When very hot (not smoking) squeeze moisture from small fistfuls of mixture and flatten in palms, dropping into hot oil.  Smaller latkes take less time to cook, so make them small to cut down on cooking time.  Lift to test after a few minutes; when brown, turn over and cook on other side until done.  Drain on cookie sheets lined with paper towels.  Serve immediately with toppings.

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The Cap’n and I have enjoyed a long and beautiful friendship with X and Y.  And while I have always been a stickler for correct language (You noticed? Really?), I have rarely met anyone else for whom misuse of English can feel like Chinese water torture. But Y, it turns out, is every bit my match for proper English usage.

We hadn’t known each other long when, sitting around the Shabbat table, I made the comment that something at which I do not excel was “not my forte.” I pronounced forte with a silent e, French style.  Y smiled, his eyes twinkled, and he said, “Thank you for pronouncing that word correctly.”

It seems I’m not the only person to note the frequent substitution of the Italian word forte (pronounced FOR-tay) for the French word forte (pronounced FORT). What is the difference? one may ask.

Forte in the French sense is a noun defined as “one’s strong point; that in which one excels.” This is the meaning most people are after when they mistakenly pronounce the word as an Italian would. But the Italian pronunciation of forte is an adjective, a musical term meaning “loud; powerful.” They are clearly related, but not interchangeable. One cannot excuse oneself from an impossible or undesirable task by pleading that “It’s not my loud.” That sentence makes no grammatical sense.

So if you have been doing this, STOP IT. Right now. Forever. And correct anyone else you come across who is making this error. To paraphrase an old British environmental slogan, Let’s keep English tidy. Even when it’s not English.

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“Why Judaism Has Laws”

In my post yesterday, I concluded with the following statement:

…[I]n the next life, as in this one and all the others, we have a choice. If we can just walk away from it all now, why don’t we? Perhaps the answer to that question can provide the mitzvah-observant Jew with a little chizuk (encouragement or strength) when needed.

After writing this, I stopped and asked myself why I stick around (now that the novelty should have worn well off). One reason is that I’ve always had the sense that Judaism understands human nature better than other religions, and has developed a system for guiding people to right and better behavior that is achievable for the average flawed human being without making excuses for weakness or vice or baser instincts. But I’ve never been successful in finding a way to describe this.

And then I surfed over to Ilana-Davita’s blog, where I serendipitously found the answer I was looking for. She links to an article from Azure magazine by its editor, David Hazony, which discusses in detail “Why Judaism Has Laws.” With great clarity, Hazony distinguishes the Jewish embrace of laws governing behavior from the non-Jewish preference for good thoughts and intentions. Here is an excerpt from Hazony’s introductory section:

We have been raised in a culture that emphasizes the decision-making independence of the individual, often to the exclusion of almost everything else. And we have been taught to think that even to speak of moral laws is somehow a threat to the foundations of what we today consider to be the model of a normal, responsible person. The idea that the individual should subordinate his or her daily life to a set of rules and standards that are defined by a tradition—that is from without, rather than from one’s own understanding of right and wrong—seems to run counter to what modern life is all about.
But given the moral record of the Western world during the last century, we might want to leave ourselves room to reconsider. I think it is obvious that in the twentieth century, something went very wrong with Western morality. This was a century that opened with many believing that war was a thing of the past. But instead, dutiful, educated, supremely modern people who read Shakespeare and listened to Mozart embarked on horrific campaigns that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of innocents. In the wake of World War I, the Holocaust, and the Gulag, it is hard to avoid the feeling that while Western civilization may excel at making people prosperous and physically healthy, it is still far from knowing how to make people good. A parallel advancement in morality is, it seems, beyond our reach.

In simplified terms, doing “the right thing” is an obligation rather than an option. It takes on the role of defining one’s relationship to God, one’s community and, by extension, oneself. Hazony describes this as follows:

Traditional Judaism believes in engendering good in the world by training us to adopt not only moral beliefs but moral habits. This it achieves through the discipline of law. Good actions in Judaism, such as providing for the needy, taking in guests, dealing honestly in business, and contributing one’s time to family and community take on the status of not simply a good deed, but a mitzva—a “commandment” grounded in a system of law. Giving of yourself becomes a duty that is perceived as coming from without: Not a product of one’s autonomous decision making, but an obligation which must be upheld if one is to remain on the right side of the law, and thereby uphold one’s covenantal obligations to God and Israel. Thus, whereas modern Western thinking tends to view as genuinely moral only those actions which stem from an act of self-legislation—a decision to follow a rule that is, in essence, of one’s own making—Judaism takes the opposite view: That whereas there is certainly something admirable about the individual who invents good rules and keeps them faithfully, only a morality which is grounded in law can be counted upon not only to help redress a specific crisis, but also to act as a consistent force that instills the habits of goodness in both the individual and the community.

This is why I stick around. Why do you?

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I had a conversation last year with a friend about rearing children in an Orthodox Jewish environment.  For the most part, she grew up in a kashrut and Shabbat observant home (though the family traveled extensively and their home was made on several different continents).  I, on the other hand, had little Judaism and no kashrut or Shabbat observance in my childhood home.  Yet despite our very different backgrounds, we both wondered the same thing:  Are our children growing up in an overly sheltered environment?  

On the one hand, we are both delighted with the education our children get in religious schools here in Israel.  Their Torah background will be much stronger than ours, and at the same time they will get a firm foundation in secular academic subjects.  Their Jewish identity is being built on a curriculum of history, Zionism, and Jewish learning.  They live in the land of their biblical ancestors, and are privileged to be able to walk—quite literally—in the footsteps of our faith’s earliest adherents.  For Jews in the modern world, this is hard to beat.

And yet.  While our community turns out individuals who serve in the army and the professions alongside Jews more and less religious, we sometimes have the sense that as children especially, they are very sheltered.  They know the complete range of objects deemed muktza (not to be used on Shabbat) by age 7.  Where we live, they never even see a cheeseburger, much less find themselves tempted to eat one.  They reach their teen years and are shocked to learn how little the "civilized" world did to save Jews in Europe during World War II.  When asked by a teacher what they would think of a Jewish man who does not wear a kippah, they consider him "a bad Jew."  And when I mentioned at dinner recently how my mother had cooked ham when I was a girl, Peach blurted out "Yuck!  You ate pig?!"

Some of this can be chalked up to the black-and-white ways in which children view the world around them.  But my globe-trotting friend and I wondered if there was any way to expose our children to the other kinds of life that are out there.  What would really happen to us if we were to travel to Tel Aviv for a Shabbat and take the kids out for a seafood dinner (thus violating the laws of kashrut and desecrating the Sabbath in one go)?  How would we respond if our children as young adults did such a thing on their own?  Without an American Sunday to spend traveling the country or going on outings with our children, wouldn’t it be nice to be like the secular Jews who do that on Shabbat?  (I have long maintained that Israel is the best place to live, both for religious and for secular Jews.  The religious Jews have a nice quiet day to relax, daven, eat, and sleep, and the secular Jews have the rest of the country to themselves to sightsee, eat out, and play without ever seeing a religious Jew.)

The Cap’n used to say that he didn’t miss not keeping kosher.  He claimed never to have liked cheese on his burgers, or seafood, or anything else that wasn’t kosher.  That wasn’t the case for me at all.  I missed tandoori tikka kebabs with yogurt raitas, and dairy pumpkin pie with a big dollop of whipped cream on top after my Thanksgiving dinner.  I’ve learned to live without those things, but I still remember them fondly.  And in more general terms, I remember being part of secular American society, celebrating Christmas, traveling when and where I liked, and not belonging to a religion whose members are reviled and slaughtered for sport in the four corners of the world.  

Our experience differs dramatically from that of our children, but I keep coming back to the fact that both for us and for them, Judaism in general, and specifically our mode of Jewish practice, is a choice.  I don’t believe lightning will strike us if we abandon the mitzvot.  But having chosen to keep them as the Cap’n and I have, we can see that while we have given up certain liberties in our lives, we get much more back in the end.  We belong now to our third wonderful community that cares for and supports one another in good and bad times, and we enjoy a wide range of company, from other couples with young children to grandparent-age friends.  As for kashrut and Shabbat, I have never believed in Judaism as a culinary religion.  I rarely (if ever) make shnitzel, kugel, tzimmes or cholent, preferring ethnic food, whole grains, and lots of vegetables to the traditional Shabbat fare.  And Shabbat, while often seen by outsiders as limiting one’s freedom, actually imposes discipline on a hard-working people to take a day a week and rest, recharge, and enjoy one’s fellow humans.  

This is not meant to fan any flames of Orthodox-bashing fervor, or to say that the Orthodox educate their children poorly.  We have met less religious Jews in the past who value organic food over kosher food, and consider it more important to educate their children in a multicultural context than in a Jewish environment.  As parents, their children’s education is their choice entirely.  But we think their methods may result in children with less established Jewish identities.  For us as parents, and as individuals who had to forge our own Jewish identities as adults, we prefer to give our children a firm Jewish identity first.  We are candid with our children about our non-religious backgrounds, and try to instill in them a sense that while non-Jews are not our co-religionists, they are fellow travelers on this earth.  We believe that with their own Judaism intact, including the ethical and behavioral standards that come with it, our children will be more than equipped to cope with how the wider world lives.    

The title of this post comes from a comment made by another friend recently who was bemoaning the difficulty of traveling the world as a kashrut-observant Jew.  I can commiserate with her (though I’m glad I did the bulk of my traveling before keeping kosher), but also remember that in the next life, as in this one and all the others, we have a choice.  If we can just walk away from it all now, why don’t we?  Perhaps the answer to that question can provide the mitzvah-observant Jew with a little chizuk (encouragement or strength) when needed.

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Banana’s favorite story

Caution: Children’s book spoiler
Banana, our three year old, has a favorite story.  The title is Miss Nelson Is Missing, written by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall.  In addition to its many virtues and entertainment value, the great part about this story is that it has appeal both for the child and the parent who is forced to read the book to the child hundreds of times.  (Wish I could say that about more kids’ books.)

The upshot of the book is that Miss Nelson’s Texan elementary school classroom is a hotbed of childhood villainy and unruliness, and one day, she decides she’s had enough.

The next day, she doesn’t show up for class.  Instead, a beaky, gothic-looking, foul-tempered slave driver named Miss Viola Swamp comes in her stead.  Story hour—the least structured part of the day—is abolished, and the children are saddled with more homework than ever.  They are commanded to sit still, be quiet, and fear for their lives if they transgress Miss Swamp’s new rules.  Although they’re learning more than they’ve ever learned before, it isn’t long before they yearn for Miss Nelson, whom they had previously treated with contempt.

This is a schoolteacher’s "id" story.  (I personally define id here as "relating or appealing to one’s basest, most essential inclinations or desires.")  I remember my years as a teacher’s aide being dumped on mercilessly by some of my students, but returning after an absence to find that they’d developed a newfound appreciation for me after a few days with a substitute.  The twist in the story (here comes the spoiler) is that Miss Swamp is actually Miss Nelson in disguise.  Aaaahhh, thinks the teacher in me, to be able to inflict that kind of vengeance on the rottener breed of student and enjoy watching its effect!  (Note: Since becoming a teacher in my own right, I confess I have never had students with quite the severity of behavior problems as I had when a teacher’s aide.  Perhaps it’s that I’ve taught more disciplined kids, or perhaps it was the dramatic rise in authority and prestige that accompanied the certification process?  Giggle snort!)

But vicarious pedagogical sadism aside, the point made by the author of the book is still a sound one.  Naughty children sometimes get what they deserve.  Slackers are occasionally faced with mandatory hard labor.  And rudeness does not elicit kindness in others.  But best of all, in this teacher’s opinion, a teacher always has tools, and dangling carrots in front of mulish schoolchildren is only ONE form of motivation.

Miss Nelson eventually returns to her classroom to the relief and delight of her students who welcome her with open arms (and much-improved behavior).  Story hour is re-instituted, and all’s well that ends well.  I wonder, though, if the students will learn as much when loved as when terrorized.  (They told us in teacher school never to smile until Thanksgiving so the students would learn to take us seriously.  It seems that even in the Real World, kindness is sometimes construed as weakness.)  But the reader is shown an illustration of Miss Nelson’s boudoir at the end of the book, and sees that the coarse black dress, bulbous prosthetic nose, black lipstick and dead-cat wig are still readily at hand, should Miss Nelson deem it necessary. 


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On nerds

Neither the Cap’n nor I were terribly popular as teenagers.  The Cap’n was slight of build, asthmatic, severely myopic, and way too good at math to be socially sought-after.  I lacked poise, hip sartorial taste, conventional beauty, and easy conversational manners.  I preferred being funny to being admired, perhaps because I believed I would be laughed at in any event, and might as well earn the laughs through deliberate effort.

I’ve often wondered why it was that I didn’t try harder to be popular in junior high and high school, but I usually come back to the fact that the popular kids who were good-looking but of average intelligence and meager talent were not interesting to me as friends.  I’ve always preferred to spend my time with people I admire, from whom I hope to learn something.  It soon became clear to me that the more popular kids had nothing to offer me, so I left them alone.  

But later in life, I came across another theory of why I didn’t apply myself more to the task of being popular.  Back in 2003, the Cap’n came across an essay by Paul Graham, a highly successful computer geek.  In this essay, Graham explores the phenomena of popularity, nerddom, and how high schools, suburbia, and contemporary society contribute to creating the (often hostile) teenage caste system that thrives in middle and high schools.  

For former geeks, nerds, and other misfits; for schoolteachers; and for parents of budding schoolchildren, this essay is highly recommended reading.  It’s VERY lengthy, but I’ll pull out a few choice extracts:

Telling me that I didn’t want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn’t want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.

But in fact I didn’t, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.

Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires. Unless they also happen to be good-looking, natural athletes, or siblings of popular kids, they’ll tend to become nerds. And that’s why smart people’s lives are worst between, say, the ages of eleven and seventeen. Life at that age revolves far more around popularity than before or after.

Before that, kids’ lives are dominated by their parents, not by other kids. Kids do care what their peers think in elementary school, but this isn’t their whole life, as it later becomes.

Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters, not standing in their family. Indeed, being in trouble in their family can win them points in the world they care about.

Why is the real world more hospitable to nerds? It might seem that the answer is simply that it’s populated by adults, who are too mature to pick on one another. But I don’t think this is true. Adults in prison certainly pick on one another. And so, apparently, do society wives; in some parts of Manhattan, life for women sounds like a continuation of high school, with all the same petty intrigues.

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

When the things you do have real effects, it’s no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that’s where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue.

Reading Graham’s essay, I couldn’t help but wish that I’d had my 40-year-old brain when I was young.  The things my peers did then that bothered me so much, and that my adult parents told me just to ignore, would have slid off my back much more easily.  And yet I do derive some consolation from the fact that while I often felt snubbed, belittled, or calculatedly ignored by the kids called "socies," "snobs," and later, in college, "BPs" (Beautiful People), I never compromised who I was to try to become one of them.

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Today’s English rant is about the occasional confusion writers display in using the word replete in place of the more appropriate word complete.

To date, I have not heard the word replete used correctly, and until I looked it up in a dictionary, had no idea of its meaning.  The character Matthew in the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, describes his late partner Gareth as having been replete.  I have no clue what he could have meant by this.

The next time I stumbled across the word was just the other day on the English website for the Likud faction Manhigut Yehudit (the Jewish Leadership Movement).  Under the heading, "The secular roots of Zionism," is the following sentence: "Miraculously, the Zionist movement succeeded in building the complete infrastructure of a modern state—replete with a strong army, high tech, immigration absorption etc. out of the wilderness."

Thinking that the word complete sounded more natural than replete in this context, I headed for the dictionary.  Indeed, the American Heritage (which I like for its frequent acknowledgment of the rampant misuse of words) defines the commonly used word complete as follows: adj. 1. Having all necessary or normal parts; entire; whole. 2. Botany. Having all characteristic floral parts, including sepals, petals, stamens, and a pistil.  3. Concluded; ended.  4. Thorough; consummate; perfect.

And what, you may ask, is the definition of repleteAdj. 1. Plentifully supplied; abounding.  Used with with.  2. Filled to satiation; gorged.  UsageReplete stresses great abundance.  It is not the equivalent of complete or equipped (with), for which replete is often used loosely.

So in other words, the coffee brand Chock Full O’ Nuts could be described as replete with nuts, since abundance is clearly implied here.  However, to say that the Zionist Paradise is replete with an army and high tech is hyperbolic; and while Israel has successfully absorbed millions of Jews from the rest of the world, one still hears kvetching from the government and the Jewish Agency that not enough Jews are choosing Israel over their home countries.  

So why did the writer of this position paper choose the low road in using replete?  Possibilities include the following:
1. The writer is primarily a Hebrew speaker and just muffed this one.  (Not likely; there are plenty of English speakers in Manhigut Yehudit, and aside from this gaffe, this one wrote fairly competently.)
2. He’d already used complete earlier in the sentence and didn’t want to be repetitive.  (Quite possible.)
3. The two words sound similar enough that they must mean the same thing.  (Not logical—and not true in this case—but certainly possible.)
4. Everyone else is doing it, so why not?  (I have no response to this, except to say, "If everyone else were eating eyeball soup, would you join in?")

This rant plays nicely into my new motto regarding word use: "Look it up before you f*** it up."

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A new kind of varmint

One of the things I haven’t missed about living in North America are all the varmints there.  Squirrels scolding from treetops and chewing holes in plastic garbage can lids; mice taking up residence in the basement and roaming the crack-filled old house at will; raccoons knocking over trash cans and scattering the contents everywhere; skunks doing the same, but smelling horrible all the while—these all used to drive me mad.  I tell you, I was glad to leave ’em behind when we made aliyah.

Of course, Israel has its own pests.  Pigeons scattered their feathers and droppings everywhere in Beit Shemesh, and had a special fondness for nesting (and relieving themselves) on the air conditioning unit just outside our laundry balcony.  In the winter, when the unit was soaked in rainwater, the smell was indescribable.  Feral cats, too, were a necessary evil, keeping the rat population down while living off the fat of the dumpsters, dropping their kittens in everyone’s gardens, and serenading the humans (sometimes all through the night).

Moving to Efrat has improved some of the pest problem.  Through the efforts of the neighborhood, our dumpsters are located up the hill from where our houses are; cats who wish to forage must go there.  Pigeons are rarely seen in our neighborhood.  A few nutters have adopted cats, so in the summer when the windows are open at night, one is often screamed awake by cats entering into a disagreement.  But in terms of life-disturbing nuisances, the worst offenders are the Muslims in the three surrounding Arab villages who broadcast their prayers over loudspeakers (something not done anywhere else in the Muslim world, East or West), including between 3 and 4 AM.

We live on four levels, with basement, main living quarters on the ground floor, children’s bedrooms on the second floor (first floor if you’re English or some derivative thereof), and master suite on the top floor.  Nighttime in our neighborhood is usually quiet, and most of the pests have gone to bed (until it’s time to wake for prayers at 3 AM).  So imagine my shock and surprise to hear footsteps on our roof at midnight last night!  Our house is attached on both sides, and although I was in bed, one of our neighbors is fairly handy, and might have been fixing something on his roof.  I had been dozing over my book and checked the clock; it was after midnight!  Then who was it walking on the roof?  The feet made a scuffling sound, but this creature was too big to be a mouse.  There are no possums or raccoons here.  Hyraxes live in the desert but don’t seek human company.  An Egyptian mongoose would never have the dexterity (or the desire) to scale a wall (which, in our case, is conveniently covered with vines) and mount a roof.

I crept to the basement to summon the Cap’n.  Together we stood in our room, listening to the movement on the roof.  “Sounds like a mouse,” he said, but agreed when I pointed out that this thing was clearly heavier than a mouse.  I was tempted to open the glass door and iron gate to the balcony to get a closer look, but thought better of it.  (The scene from The Princess Bride in the Fire Swamp with the rodents-of-unusual-size is still too fresh in my mind.)  Just then, a small face appeared on the edge of the roof, visible through the glass door.  A ferret-like creature took in the sight of two surprised humans impassively, then trotted off to the edge of the house and headfirst, climbed down the vines to look for its midnight snack.

A brief consultation with our field guide to wild animals in Israel informs me that this was a beech marten, a member of the weasel family, and an enthusiastic attic-dweller.  It appears we need to make sure that our attic is well sealed, and inform the neighbors to do the same.  (Unless, of course, this animal preys on cranky, inconsiderate neighbors or quarrelsome cats.  Then I might have to think about it.)

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Yesterday the Cap’n and I took a tour of Bikur Cholim Hospital’s labor and delivery unit in preparation for the Space Invader’s arrival, b’ezrat Hashem, next month.  Bikur Cholim is the oldest hospital in the city, built in 1866.  Over the years, as the other larger hospitals were built in more outlying areas, Bikur Cholim’s finances and facilities suffered neglect.  (We saw a friend last night who said, "That place is a dustbin, isn’t it?")  But as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy a few years ago, Russian millionaire and philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak (who just lost his bid for mayor of Jerusalem) purchased it, and one of the first departments to be renovated was the birth and maternity wing.  While very small (there are five LDRs, each about a quarter of the size of the LDRs at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital), it is cheerfully decorated, the equipment modern (no birthing stools in sight) and the midwives trained to cooperate with whatever sort of birth plan a mother chooses to adopt.

When the Crunch girls were born in Boston, we were offered the opportunity to bank some of their cord blood privately in case of family illness for which therapy using their cord blood might be required.  After consulting my obstetrician, the Cap’n and I discussed the matter between us and decided not to pay to have our children’s cord blood cryogenically preserved.  The expense of the collection and storage and the relative unlikelihood of our needing it helped us decide against it.

So I was not terribly curious when part of the Bikur Cholim tour included being handed flyers and forms for banking the Space Invader’s cord blood.  But my attention was arrested slightly when I looked at the cover of the flyer.  Next to the photograph of a sweet-looking newborn were the words, "Hamitzvah harishonah shelo—his first mitzvah."  That wording seemed rather strong for a family privately banking their infant’s cord blood for their own personal use.  But it turns out that cord blood banking is done differently in Israel.  Donating cord blood here is done publicly, so that rather than saving the cord blood only for a family member, the potential treatment benefits of banked stem cells are available to any member of the Israeli public who is a match for them.  And while collection, processing, and storage of cord blood are expensive, grants from Israel and abroad are available to cover these costs so that the donor may donate without charge.  In addition to the flyers and forms, the hospital employee who made the presentation also handed out a teudah (certificate) signed by 19 rabbis, including former (Sephardi) chief rabbis Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, endorsing the donation process halachically.  While the flyer reports that there have been few donations to this Public Cord Blood Bank, there is hope that over time donations will increase, thus increasing the probability of a good genetic match for a patient who requires it.  

The low rate of donation of cord blood to the public bank here is probably due to the fact that much of the Jewish population in Israel and the Diaspora is uninformed about halachah’s position on donation of blood, organs, and tissues.  The Halachic Organ Donor Society in the United States was founded "to save lives by encouraging organ donation from Jews to the general population (including non-Jews) by educating them about the different halachic and medical issues concerning organ donation."  They offer current information on medical issues (such as age and health of donor, brain death, live donation, and the transplant process), halachic issues (such as videos of prominent American and Israeli rabbis, articles, and halachic links), and educational options including audio and video lectures, or scheduling educational seminars with the HODS educators in one’s own area.  And HODS issues halachic organ donor cards to those who request them to be carried in wallets or purses.

Both of these organizations are worthy recipients of charitable contributions.  Donations can be made to HODS through their website, and Bedomaich Chayi (which funds the Public Cord Blood Bank in Israel) can be contacted by email at cb@doryes.com or in the USA at 718-218-8180.  

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Sick at heart

I recently received an email from an American friend asking how things are going in this section of the West Bank, with all the mayhem that has erupted in Hevron.  I have only been able to follow the events piecemeal, and printed accounts of the situation offer different, often conflicting facts and viewpoints.  What is indisputable is that the situation is quite serious, even viewed from multiple angles.  Based on what the Cap’n and I are able to piece together from several sources, this is a very basic sketch of what is happening, followed by an analysis from several viewpoints:

A building in Hevron allegedly underwent a sale.  The seller was a Palestinian Arab and the buyer a group of Jews (with money from an American investor).  The price was $1 million (far above the actual worth of the house).  The Jews who transacted the sale claim to possess a signed sales agreement, a video of the transaction, and an audio tape of the Arab seller describing the sale in Arabic.  The Arab seller claims the sale didn’t happen.  In March 2007, a group of Jews moved into the building, according to some reports before the sale had been completed (before the keys had been transferred from the Arab to the Jews).  The Arab filed a request to have the Jews removed from the property on grounds of "fresh trespass" (within 30 days of squatting), which was followed by the government’s issue of an eviction order.  The Jews responded by appealing the eviction order, halting the eviction process.  Israeli authorities have called into question the authenticity of the sales receipts and the contested sale has been languishing in court for the past 20 months.  In the meantime, the Israeli government recently dispatched the IDF to evict the Jews who had moved into the house.  The scene has politicians wringing their hands, some Jews jubilant, other Jews angry and frustrated, and the Arabs cheering.

Legally, this case is extremely complicated.  Because Hevron is in a heavily militarized zone, purchase of property there (at least by Jews) is subject to the approval the Ministry of Defense, which claims the right to monitor carefully any expansion of Jewish settlement in Yosh (Yehuda and Shomron, or Judea and Samaria).  In purchasing the building, the buyers did not seek approval from then-Minister of Defense Amir Peretz.  This may have been for several reasons: Peretz was a known bungler who was completely out of his depth in this position and had already proved his incompetence in the Second Lebanon War; his party, Kadima, had engineered and orchestrated the forcible eviction of Jews from Gaza, refusing to follow through on resettling the Jewish refugees from that debacle or protect the Jews from Sderot, Ashkelon, and southern Israel from almost daily rocket attacks following the withdrawal; and the general mistrust of the Kadima government by settlers both because of the government’s treatment of Israelis affected by the pullout and because the primary job of the IDF and the police SHOULD be to protect Jews and uphold the rule of law (despite frequent glaring lapses in this area).  It is clear that in one way or another, Jews did not follow the set legal procedure for purchasing the property, and as such, it can be difficult to sympathize with them, whatever their justified animosity toward the government.  But the history of the land on which the building stands goes back to before the Arab massacre of Jews in Hevron in 1929, when it was owned by Jews.  We are accustomed to hearing Arabs lobby to return to land and homes that they claim once belonged to them in Israel proper.  Here we see Jews with an equally valid (if not superior) claim attempting to reclaim land that was Jewish-owned and—not only illegally but violently—seized from them.  (Some of the Jews who transacted the sale are descendants of survivors of the massacre.)  And the Arab’s story too is suspect in some ways.  While there seems to be ample evidence that he sold the building, his denial of having done so (even if he’s walking around with a $1 million check in his pocket) is understandable: the Palestinian Authority long ago issued a death warrant for any Palestinian who sells property to a Jew.  Stories of Arabs claiming to have been unfairly evicted from their homes in Jerusalem, for example, are often publicity fronts for legal sales of property to Jews, with the eviction stories concocted or agreed to by Israeli authorities to protect the lives of the Arab sellers.  The main cost to the Israelis for this sort of front is bad publicity.  Is that what has happened with Beit Hashalom?  Perhaps.  The High Court in Israel ruled that the eviction of Jews from the building was legal, but will this be a temporary condition, or a permanent one?  Will the court handling the ownership issue end up ruling in favor of the Arab seller?  Will he walk with the money AND the property?  Or will the court system (which tends to be left-wing and activist here) rule that the documentation provided by the Jews is authentic and transfer ownership of the building to them?  It is difficult to predict.

Politically, these events seem to be happening at a crucial time.  For the Jews who claim to have purchased Beit Hashalom, this is a chance to make a statement about the Jewish right to purchase property and live in Hevron, one of Judaism’s holiest places (the Tomb of the Patriarchs—burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah—is located just down the road from this building, and Ruth and Jesse are also buried in Hevron).  From the perspective of most Jews who choose to live in Yosh, the government has been talking out of both sides of its mouth for too long.  When the Labor government under Levi Eshkol succeeded in seizing this land from Jordan in the Six Day War, it hoped to save this land (in escrow, so to speak) in order to trade it for peaceful relations with its Arab neighbors.  The Council of Three No’s, as the Khartoum Conference of Arab nations became called (which issued the response: no recognition, no negotiation, no peace), made clear that the Israeli government’s hopes would not be realized anytime soon.  Over time, that same Labor government issued permits for Jewish settlement of this land, encouraged it with financial incentives, and even settled some new immigrants in these places.  Since the Oslo Accords, however, the government has been singing a different tune, looking for ways to trade land for peace with an Arab population no less hostile (and in some ways much more violent) than the neighboring Arab countries.  In the current political climate, the yearning for peace with the Arabs has led to a feeling of hostility throughout much of Israeli society toward "settlers."  Our homes and towns, enabled and encouraged by the government for decades, are now blamed for delaying peace.  The lessons of Gaza (i.e. that creating Judenrein space for Arabs in which to live and govern themselves does not result in peace) have not been learned by the government and much of Israeli society, and blame and hatred of settlers has become a welcome point of common interest between Israeli society and the Arabs with whom they so desperately want peace.  Settlers are able to recognize that this nefarious pseudo-alliance will also not bring peace.  They feel isolated, persecuted, and held to stricter legal standards than non-settlers.  Trust of the government has been eroded by Gaza, large-scale release of terrorists from prisons, dismantling of roadblocks, and the promise to turn over more sections of Yosh to Palestinian security services.  The stand-off at Beit Hashalom may in some way be perceived by the Jews participating in it as a test of the government’s commitment to protecting the rights of settlers to buy (or restore, in their eyes) property to Jews.  And the government, in its turn, may be using this situation to fan the flames of settler-hatred in the rest of Israel, to attempt to shore up weak relations with the lame-duck government of Mahmoud Abbas, and to establish itself in the eyes of the world as willing to pay any price (including ham-fisted treatment of Israeli citizens) for peace.

Spiritually, these are dark times for Israel.  Even someone who doesn’t give a hoot about who owns Beit Hashalom can’t help but be alarmed at the sight of Jews hauling other Jews out of the place where they live.  It brings back memories of Gaza, which left much of the nation with an undeniable feeling of post-traumatic stress which still has not dissipated.  It illustrates what many perceive to be the failure of secular Zionism in its dramatic portrayal of Jews as disconnected from the land given to the Jews in the Torah, and the sense many seem to have of Israel as just another country.  Jews demonstrating against the government who yell "Nazis!" at the IDF and police may seem overly dramatic and harsh, but in their eyes, a government that forcibly hauls its citizens from their (arguably) rightfully purchased property is a government that is here to serve questionable interests and a political agenda, not its citizenry.  At the funeral for the Rabbi and Rabbanit Holtzberg (the Chabad couple murdered in Mumbai), the Rabbanit’s father attributed the evil that brought about their murders to the division and strife that seems to be coming to a head in the Jewish world.  My Shabbat afternoon study group has been working its way through the book of the prophet Daniel.  This book is full of dreams and visions of the Geulah, the redemption, and the many obstacles that must come to pass before the Geulah is complete.  Scholars have given numerous opinions about the various kingdoms, oppressors, and disasters that are due to take place between the time of Daniel’s visions and the final Geulah.  Rome and its destruction of Judea frequently comes up as one of the unquestionable obstacles.  Yesterday, our teacher compared the behavior of the Jews during the siege of Jerusalem to what we see happening in Israeli society today.  In besieged Jerusalem there were Jews who wanted to rebel, Jews who wanted to negotiate, and Jews who wanted to continue on as a Roman protectorate, and as they found themselves penned up in the walled city, their tensions reached a breaking point until they were actually murdering each other.  It must have delighted the Romans to see the Jews doing their work for them, as it has clearly delighted the Arabs who have cheered on the demonstrations, joined in the fray with relish, and praised the IDF’s withdrawal of Jews from Beit Hashalom, calling for similar such withdrawals to take place all over the West Bank.  

My friend asked how Efratniks are feeling seeing all this going on.  I speak for myself and the Cap’n, but also for many others we know in Efrat when I answer, "Sick at heart."

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Children’s allowances

The Cap’n and I have had brief snatches of conversation on occasion about teaching our children about money.  The discussion has touched on chores, allowances, extra earning opportunities, spending, saving, and tzedakah contributions.  While our kids are still young, I would like to devise a plan for a household program to encompass all of these things.  Here’s how I would like it to look:

Daily routines and chores
1) fixing and eating breakfast (the Cap’n leaves supplies out on the table the night before, and the refrigerator is accessible to all three kids)
2) placing own dishes in the dishwasher or sink after meals
3) dressing selves (as age appropriate)
4) putting morning things away (pajamas on beds, dirty laundry in bin, hair things away)
5) doing homework after school (or when directed)
6) cleaning up playthings after play (or when directed)
7) help set and clear dinner table (when requested)
8) help put away clean dishes from dishwasher (cutlery drawer is all they can reach for now)

Additional chores (to be taken on as age-appropriate)
9) laundry (running machines, sorting, and folding)
10) making own snack/lunch for school
11) Shabbat food preparation (salad, washing and peeling fruit and vegetables) and cleaning (floors, bathrooms, tidying)

We have spoken to other parents who debate whether or not to tie allowances to chores.  We have chosen to do so partly to ensure leverage with the children when they want to purchase something (or to shirk their duties on a regular basis), and partly so they learn that privileges are earned through basic participation in the household’s functioning.  

We still need to discuss the amount of allowance appropriate for each age, but we are agreed that the money should be divided into portions for the purposes of saving, spending, and tzedakah (charitable contributions).  In this week’s parashah, in fact, Yaakov wakes from his dream, consecrates Beit El, and vows to set aside one-tenth of whatever Hashem gives him, setting the Torah’s precedent for a tithe of one’s salary to go to charity.  Regarding the children, we would stick with tradition or go a little above, to encourage the children to donate 20% of their allowance to tzedakah, either at school or gan (if collections are taken up there during morning prayers) or on Friday night at home before candle-lighting.  The rest of the child’s allowance, from 80% to 90%, we would have the child divide evenly into savings and spending money.  This, we hope, would allow the children to consider both long-term savings (the idea of planning for the future) and self-reward for meeting short-term goals.

In thinking about this issue, an interesting thing we have come across is a piece on the Aish.com website entitled "One Dollar an Hour."  It’s worth a read to add some human balance to the dollar signs we sometimes find ourselves mired in.

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I was weeding out old files in my Word folder yesterday and came across this piece I wrote back in September 2003:

Last week, I took my 2-year-old daughter to the Franklin Park Zoo.  After ambling around outside for a while, taking in the lions, zebras, and camels, I asked if she would like to go see the indoor tropical animals exhibit.  She assented, and we entered the double doors to the dark, close air of the building, and approached the first exhibit.
  Behind the glass was a room hung with branches and vines, with a small river running through the center.  It was the home of a family of baboons.  We stood looking through the glass as a zoo employee sitting nearby described the baboon family.
  "This is Woody," she said.  "He is 15 months old.  Over there is his mother, Mandy, and his father [whose name I’ve forgotten]."
  Woody was swinging back and forth on some faux vines, which I assumed was normal for a baboon, but there was more to this scenario than met the eye, it seemed.
  "Watch Woody," the zoo keeper said.  "He loves to put his head between the two vines and pretend to jump."  The vines were twisted in such a way that if he were to jump, he would almost certainly end his life on a homemade jungle gallows.  Indeed, Woody was fond of playing with those two vines, and focused his play in that area as we watched.  
  His mother sat on the other side of the exhibit, turning to watch him occasionally, and came over a few times to get Woody to stop playing with the vines.  After returning to her place on the other side of the exhibit, Woody began to play with the vines again.  This went on for some minutes—Woody swinging and Mandy coming over to stop him—before she returned to her place and ceremoniously turned her back on her wayward son.
  "She’s tried to bite through the vines to keep him from playing on them, but they’re not real, and she can’t sever them," the zoo keeper said.  "But see?  He’ll only play on them if she’s looking."  Woody continued to hang from the vines, throw them around, and make flourishes as if to continue his play, but Mandy was clearly using every ounce of will she could muster to keep from looking at him.  
  All the while, Woody’s father lay sleeping in a corner of the exhibit.
  After a few moments, when Mandy had held to her purpose and not given Woody more than an occasional furtive glance, Woody gave up, picked up a stump of carrot, and shuffled off to a quiet, vine-free corner of the exhibit to munch his midday meal and—no doubt—plot his afternoon’s escapade.
  Mothers of toddlers, how different are we really from the animal kingdom?

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Guest posting elsewhere

I wrote a guest post for a new contributor blog called Frum from Rebirth (stories from converts and ba’alei teshuva).  It’s a brief account of the Crunch family’s aliyah.

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My mother recently forwarded me the following tongue-in-cheek missive: Why Some Men Have Dogs And Not Wives:
1. The later you are, the more excited your dogs are to see you.
2. Dogs don’t notice if you call them by another dog’s name.
3. Dogs like it if you leave a lot of things on the floor.
4. A dog’s parents never visit.
5. Dogs agree that you have to raise your voice to get your point across.
6. You never have to wait for a dog; they’re ready to go 24 hours a day.
7. Dogs find you amusing when you’re drunk.
8. Dogs like to go hunting and fishing.
9. A dog will not wake you up at night to ask, “If I died, would you get another dog?”
10. If a dog has babies, you can put an ad in the paper and give them away.
11. A dog will let you put a studded collar on it without calling you a pervert.
12. If a dog smells another dog on you, they don’t get mad.  They just think it’s interesting.
13. Dogs like to ride in the back of a pickup truck.
14. If a dog leaves, it won’t take half of your stuff.

It’s clear that the sort of man who would find these compelling reasons to choose canine over female company is not, as Dickens would say, a Model of Deportment.  Nonetheless, while I can’t imagine a woman’s life being enriched by being partnered with such a man, such a man would undoubtedly benefit from a woman’s many utilitarian qualities.  Here’s why:

1. Dogs don’t do laundry.
2. Dogs are hopeless in the kitchen.
3. A dog’s parents don’t visit, but his friends do.  Your lawn provides sufficient evidence of this.
4. Women NEVER strew the trash all over the kitchen floor looking for that half-eaten roast beef sandwich at the bottom of the bin.
5.  Women smell better than dogs.
6. Try putting the studded collar on yourself and see what she says.
7. Women like it when YOU go hunting and fishing.  (The perfect excuse to go to a day spa…)
8. If a woman is such a nuisance, why is the answer to #9 above always “yes”?
9. No matter how much you may hope, a dog will never give you a son and heir.
10.  once told a similar joke: Which is better, a woman or lunch?  Answer: a woman, because a woman can make many lunches.  And how many lunches can a dog make?

(I only include 10 reasons; it should not take 14 to convince a rational person of the superiority of woman over dog.)

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My friend Ilana-Davita left a comment on yesterday’s post asking how I think the enemy I waxed so lyrical about can be defeated.  I began to leave a lengthy comment in response to hers, but decided I would move it to today’s post.  So for those who read yesterday’s post, that was the sermon, and today’s post is the substance.

Here are my suggestions for the defeat of those who seek to destroy Civilization:
1) With will.  Acknowledge that this is in intractable enemy with no desire to negotiate or compromise.  To ask ourselves whether this is really a war, whether we brought this on ourselves, and whether we can win this fight is to waste valuable time.  (Rav Tzvi Freeman’s piece, to which I linked in yesterday’s post, addresses this issue nicely.)  One of the weapons the enemy possesses is our own fear and doubt.  To see the West struggling within itself, debating issues of human rights, sympathy and tolerance for intolerant minorities, blaming themselves and each other for the onset of this violence, and appeasing terrorists out of fear of reprisals, must be very encouraging to those who seek to destroy us.  It shows them that one of their goals, i.e. that of demoralizing the West, is within reach.
2) With technology.  The world must rid itself of dependence on oil as soon as possible.  Oil money supports dictatorships which either actively support terrorism (in the case of Iran) or appease terrorists by supporting their institutions and turning a blind eye to their activities (in the case of Saudi Arabia).  The West and the nascent industry of the Far East (India and China) must find and utilize alternative fuel sources in order to reduce the amount of oil money being used to destroy us.
3) With intelligence.  The civilized world must coordinate its intelligence services to track international traffic of money and arms, training of terrorists, and terror activity.  As long as law enforcement continues to operate locally throughout the world, international terror will continue to operate unchecked, utilizing sophisticated communication and dividing its resources between multiple countries and locations to throw off law enforcement.
4) With laws.  UN Resolution 1373 calls for all member nations to work to thwart terrorists by isolating them, apprehending them, and refusing to provide them with aid or shelter.  Yet the world seems resolved to ignore this resolution.  Russia and the Ukraine supply arms to Hamas and the Sudanese Arabs, and no one says anything.  Egypt, which on paper has a peace treaty with Israel, has turned a blind eye to the construction of a thousand tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza which are used to smuggle weapons, fuel, and supplies to thwart Israel’s legal blockade of Hamas.  The world pressures Israel to continue to supply the Hamas terror state in Gaza with food, medicine, electricity, and free port access, and supplies the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank with funds, some of which are being used to pay employees of the Hamas terror state in Gaza.  The world loves to bleat about Israel’s violations of international and humanitarian law, when in fact, forcing Israel to support the Hamas terror state (and doing so itself) is in direct violation of international law.  When the UN makes laws, who is to obey them if the UN’s member states do not?  (Credit is due to Caroline Glick’s November 20, 2008 column, "Civilization Walks the Plank.")

These are only some ideas for how to defeat the enemy.  Someone better informed than I can probably think of many more.  The civilized world is not helpless, but I do think it’s mired in doubt, and this is wasting valuable time.  When I teach women to fight to defend themselves, they’re always scared.  That fear can usually be turned to energy, and sometimes anger.  But doubt has no place in a defensive fight, and one of the most valuable parts of the course is getting women past the doubting stage: Is this really happening?  Did I ask for this?  Am I worthy of defending?  During the class, they make up their minds that they are worth defending, and they walk out with that resolve, plus the tools to enforce it.  The world has to get past the doubting stage too, and start developing the tools to combat international terror in an effective fashion.

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