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Archive for January, 2009

English rant #7: Apostrophes

Back when I first hatched the idea of featuring English rants on the blog, the rant I looked forward to writing the most—and the one I think the English-speaking world needs the most—is this one. It’s about apostrophes, and while I don’t remember seeing many apostrophe errors as a kid, I can’t look in any direction nowadays without seeing them. They’re on storefront signs, restaurant menus, web pages… ANYWHERE unvetted English is used, apostrophes are sprinkled as liberally as sequins on a ballroom dancer’s gown. (Alas, the image is too wide to feature in its full legibility on this blog. Click on the cartoon to get a full image of it.)

For those guilty of misusing apostrophes on a regular basis, feel free to buy a poster of this cartoon to hang in a place convenient to your writing station. They are available for order here. Get some for your friends, pass them out on the street, and help clean up all the apostrophe litter you see.

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What do I pay you for again?

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting around the Shabbat lunch table with friends when someone mentioned that Israel was being condemned for its assault on the Palestinians in Gaza by none other than Annie Lennox and Bianca Jagger. I couldn’t help but laugh.

No, seriously. They were joining a protest with the likes of former London mayor Ken Livingstone (who has no love for Israel during relative peacetime) and a host of other luminaries, and they got first billing in the press. If that isn’t absurd, I don’t know what is.

I feel about this the same way I feel about professional athletes and politicians being expected to be role models for children. It’s parents who should be those role models for their own children; when those athletes and politicians screw up, let it be their own kids who pay the price. I pay athletes to play ball, politicians to run the country, singers to sing, and actors to act. (I don’t recall paying Bianca Jagger to do anything.)

If they want to use their money and visibility to do some good in the world, a la Bono from U2, let them. But when they step outside their area of expertise, I see them as just another (usually ignorant) citizen, and tune them out. Vanessa Redgrave’s views on Jews, Derek Jacobi’s beliefs about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works (he’s a Shakespeare denier), and Viggo Mortensen’s feelings about Israel’s involvement in the Second Lebanon War are the opinions of actors, not experts. I see no need when such people release hot air to get angry or boycott their art or anything else. I might sigh or suppress a snort, but by remembering to keep them snugly in the pigeonhole of their craft, I can continue to enjoy what they do well, and ignore what they do not.

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The Cap’n and I are notorious junkies for J.K. Rowling’s books. We were hooked on the Harry Potter series for its language, character development, and subtly unfolding plots (sometimes over several volumes). While we haven’t donned robes on Purim and walked around waving branches pulled from trees, the Cap’n did take a day and a half off from work last year so we could curl up on the couch while the kids were in gan and read the entire seventh book aloud to each other.

Although Harry Potter’s story is finished and the great battle of Good v. Evil is over, Rowling decided to publish another book late last year entitled The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of stories from the wizarding world used by Hermione to piece together part of the mystery in the seventh book. Rowling includes an introduction explaining the stories and their context in the wizarding world, including how they contrast with Muggle (non-magical) fairy tales. Imagine my surprise and delight when reading Rowling’s introduction when I saw the following:

Another notable difference between these fables and their Muggle counterparts is that Beedle’s witches are much more active in seeking their fortunes than our fairy-tale heroines. Asha, Altheda, Amata and Babbitty Rabbitty are all witches who take their fate into their own hands, rather than taking a prolonged nap or waiting for someone to return a lost shoe.

As a parent of three daughters, I take seriously the role of teaching my girls about their many choices in life, their great potential for accomplishment, and laying a firm foundation for their good self esteem. I endeavor to teach them proper hygiene and grooming without overemphasizing beauty; I want them to believe in the importance of knowledge and wisdom, without neglecting the virtue of kindness; and I want them to understand that their ability to make good choices is the greatest determiner of their fates, not the choices of others.

As most parents know, the best-laid plans can sometimes be thwarted by outside forces. My great efforts notwithstanding, my girls have fallen for the lure of the Disney sluts princesses. I have made sure they have all of the fairy tales in lavish color and (very nearly) the original text, which is much more complicated and raw in its portrayal of emotion and intrigue than the syrupy, seductive Disney-fied versions. But given a choice, the girls will often lean toward wanting to hear the Hollywood versions which present the female protagonists as empty-headed, warbling, biologically accommodating dolls and the antagonists as warty, senselessly scheming stepmothers. My only option as the reader/mother/teacher/feminist in these situations is to consent occasionally to read the Disney versions, stopping to ask pointed questions, critique, or gloss my own personal commentary into the reading of the stories. For example, is there any evidence that Princess Jasmine is a nice person when the first thing the reader sees her do is sic her pet tiger on a potential suitor? What can the Little Mermaid have been thinking to give up her life as a princess under the sea and become a mute mannekin in love with a fickle prince who doesn’t even know who she is? And if Snow White is really in her late teens (as Disney portrays her), why does she defy the dwarfs’ warnings and keep answering to the door when the Wicked Queen comes selling poisoned Amway?

The thing that needles me the most about these stories is the way evil in the world is never explained except by some people just being that way. Villains are nearly always women motivated by vanity or envy. Victims are nearly always girls whose beauty arouses the ire of the villains (who themselves are former beauties past their prime.) Men are either enchanted, weak-willed, or dead, or else show up in the last scene to steal away the princess. Even in the original tales, which are much more complex and layered, the girl protagonist is still a pawn of other people’s actions, and in most cases must await rescue by a male.

I have never been very comfortable with the idea of rewriting traditional fairy tales. It feels phony to me to switch male for female and vice versa to give the weak strength (which can only be found in testosterone), give characters powers they never had in the original stories, or make villains repent when they were really left for dead.

To write new stories, though, is refreshing. Robert N. Munsch and Michael Martchenko did this when they published The Paper Bag Princess, where a dragon lays waste to the princess’s castle and carries off her intended, leading her on a quest for justice which requires wit, pluck, and a familiarity with dragons and their weaknesses. Another picture book with amusing, competent female characters is Three Strong Women: A Tall Tale of Japan by Claus Stamm and Sandra Tseng. A few years ago, I discovered a book of fairy tales entitled Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales which features girls and young women who go out into the world and make things happen rather than staying home and waiting for other people to do mean things to them. And perhaps the most surprising discovery I made was through my collecting of Arthurian tales, during which I picked up a copy of John Steinbeck’s (yes, THE John Steinbeck’s) The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, containing an astonishing account of a young knight named Ewain whose search for adventure begins in the usual way (meeting up with a woman at a well in a forest, of course), but ends quite unexpectedly. Instead of leading him to save a maiden or kill an ogre, the old woman leads him off to train him in the arts of knighthood. Here is part of their conversation upon meeting:

“Have you known a young and untried knight to ride away and in a year return as tempered as a sword, as sure and deadly as an ashen spear?”

“Why yes, I have. Last year Sir Eglan, whom even I could best, returned to win the prize at a tournament.”

She laughed with pleasure. “Did he now? A good boy. One of the best I have handled.”

“He never mentioned you.”

“Well, how could he? What man in this man’s world would admit he got his manners from a woman? I did not need an oath from any of my knights.”

And now Rowling has done a similar job with several of the stories in Beedle the Bard, where friendship and compassion heal, deception and foolishness are punished, and women are not the stupid Playboy bunnies of the film industry and its commercial franchises.

I know it will be years before I can escape having to read the horrid, syrupy versions of fairy tales that have captivated my children. But at least now I have something with which to cleanse my palate (and theirs).

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It is a rare thing to hear Israelis praise the Diaspora, and yet in the past few days, I’ve read several pieces in the Jerusalem Post that have done just that.

A week ago last Friday, the Post had an editorial thanking the Jewish communities throughout the world for their public demonstrations in support of Israel’s war in Gaza; last Friday a letter to the UpFront section of the paper suggested that one of Israel’s strengths may lie in having an outspoken Diaspora community to advocate for it in the rest of the world; and the same section printed a piece by Daniel Gordis in which he advocates for every synagogue in the U.S. to own an apartment in Israel (not just in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but smaller cities such as Kfar Saba, Kiryat Gat, and Pardes Channah) for its members to use on a timeshare basis, enabling Diaspora Jews to connect in a personal way with the country.

I have said in the past that while I think that Israel is the BEST place in the world for Jews to live (religious and secular), I disagree with the notion that it’s the ONLY place in the world for Jews to live. My opinion is based on reasons of family ties, professions, and the fact that while much of the rest of the world does not care particularly for Jews, there are still places where, if they wish, Jews can live in relative freedom and comfort alongside their non-Jewish compatriots.

But perhaps a distinction should be made between a Diaspora which continues to nourish its Jewish identity and support its fellow Jews worldwide (including in Israel), and a Diaspora of Jews who remain there because they imagine they are safe from the threats that Israel faces on a daily basis. The fact that the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah (yimach shemo), has made the statement, “If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide,” suggests that Jews anywhere and everywhere are considered a legitimate target of terrorism. (Witness Mumbai, where the center of the tiny Jewish community was pinpointed and struck hardest in the citywide massacre.)

I can see the advantages both to a kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles) and the status quo. While some may agree with Nasrallah that having all of the Jews in the world living in Israel would jeopardize the safety of world Jewry, the advantages would include a strengthened morale, improved Jewish unity, and greater leadership alternatives here. Advantages to having a Jewish Diaspora that actively supports the Jewish State include having a strong Jewish voice on ethical and social issues affecting Jews and non-Jews alike, financial support for institutions in Israel which benefit the Diaspora, and advocates (formal and informal) for the only democracy in the Middle East.

Without a kibbutz galuyot, Judaism will continue to fracture and fragment in the world, especially in the United States. Jews will continue to be seduced away from their faith and traditions by the non-Jewish world, in effect creating what Efraim Zuroff referred to in last Friday’s Post as “the largest graveyard in Jewish history, far larger than Auschwitz, with the only difference being that the Jews lost there went to their Jewish demise voluntarily.”

And yet, without a supportive Diaspora community, who will advocate for Israel in the rest of the world? Who will speak out with the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of Torah and scholarship? Who will pressure governments, media, and the UN to apply a single, reasonable standard to the conflicts here? Who will call for justice for those wronged by hatred and religious extremism with the compassion of a people at various times enslaved, expelled, and exterminated by the rest of the world? Who’s doing all this now?

One can discuss the pros and cons of worldwide aliyah until one is blue in the face, but the fact remains that the day when every Jew in the world will pull up stakes and make his or her way to the land of our fathers is simply not forthcoming. And given that state of affairs, what remains is to find ways to strengthen the worldwide Jewish community, both in its Judaism and in its ties to one another. To that end, Daniel Gordis’s suggestion is a small but sound one.

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To honor the righteous

The clutter in the Crunch household has gotten completely out of hand and must be eradicated. To that end, I am taking the day off from writing and instead will share a d’var Torah suited to the times and this week’s parashah, Shemot. It is from Rabbi Jack Riemer and is in praise of the righteous people of the world who have saved Jewish lives and are remembered for doing so.

Shabbat shalom.

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I almost can’t believe I’m writing on this topic, but I just can’t stand it any longer. I have twice read people’s descriptions of their hobbies as pasttimes (and that was before Googling “past times” in a search for images for this post). I looked this one up just to make sure I am not missing something obvious. If there was any lapse on my part, it was shared by the AH, the NI2, and no, I didn’t even bother with the OED.

Then I remembered having browsed in a charming store by the name of Past Times in Cambridge, England (it’s a chain; the shop pictured right is the shop on Fife Road, Kingston-upon-Thames). They offer a range of wares on themes from Celtic (distant past) to the 1960s (more recent past). If I still celebrated Christmas, this would be one-stop shopping for me. It’s gorgeous stuff, definitely in the category of eye candy, but not a hobby.

In an effort to be helpful, the Cap’n suggested that the meaning of pasttime should be “late” as in, “The flight will be arriving pasttime.” Makes sense to me. But it’s still not a hobby, and definitely not a compound word.

The correct English word for a hobby is a pastime. This is a compound word combining the words pass and time, i.e. something one does in order to pass the time. By this token, if someone wants to misspell the word, he or she should do so by doubling the s, not the t.

When in doubt about how to spell a word like this, think a moment about its origins; this can often help one arrive at the correct spelling. Occasionally, the English language strays (unintentionally, I’m sure) into the realm of logic. Enjoy it when it does.

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Living in a state of normalcy

Our dear friends, X and Y, recently concluded a visit with us here in Israel. They spent entire days out pounding the pavement, seeing the sights, and enjoying free-flowing kosher cuisine. At night, Y blogged assiduously about their adventures to keep friends and family up to date.

One friend commented on one of Y’s posts about how it must feel to live as a Jew in the Jewish State. She wrote, “I’d love to read an analysis of the differences between modern Diaspora and Israeli Judaism, and what it means to people to not have to think of themselves as different, what effect that has. …I just keep thinking how nice it would be and yet how different to be normative like that.” Truer words were never spoke. I’d like to take a stab at addressing this comment, if I may.

Modern Diaspora v. Israeli Judaism
Judaism is Judaism wherever you go, but of course that’s not entirely true. In America (the only Diaspora Jewish community of which I have direct experience) the choices are more limited in terms of kashrut, eating out, schooling, and basic Jewish services. Jewish communities are islands plunked down in a sea of non-Jews, and Jews in America in some sense lead double lives, living and working among non-Jews during the work week, and on Shabbat being transformed into Yidn. Jews undergo the same pressure as their non-Jewish neighbors of trying to make ends meet, save for college for their kids and retirement for themselves, except Jews have the added expenses of day school education, pricey kosher food, and real estate within an eruv (usually in an urban area and always valued higher than when there is no eruv). America is a Jewish democracy, with communities governing themselves on a national and local level and not possessing the power to delegitimize one another. American Jews have always been fiercely independent and suspicious of attempts to rein them in to any particular standard, which is one reason why America has refused to appoint a chief rabbi as many other Diaspora communities have done.

Living in Israel is in many ways a complete departure from Diaspora life. The non-Jews (for the most part) have vanished when one gets off the plane at Ben-Gurion, and the challenge of living together as Jews really begins. The presence of the Rabbanut in the government here is a mixed blessing: Nearly all of inhabited Israel is within an eruv, and there is no need to check every Friday afternoon to see if it’s up; mikvaot are more numerous here, dotted throughout cities rather than in one central location; all hotels and major supermarkets have kosher supervision; and kosher food is sold everywhere, though the maze of hechshers on food and restaurants and the politics and greed that go into the process (which also exist in the Diaspora) can be mind-boggling. But the Rabbanut’s governmental power also gives it the authority to determine the definition of a Jew for the purposes of basic status and life cycle events in the country, and to control the courts which determine the outcomes of divorce and conversion cases (not always to the benefit of those involved).

My favorite aspects of Jewish life in Israel as opposed to that in the Diaspora are these:
1) Jewish education is everywhere, and there are many more choices in terms of special needs education, single sex v. co-ed, and religious outlook.
2) Psak halachah in some ways is more lenient here, for example relaxing kashrut restrictions for Ashkenazim during Pesach, or permitting freer use of dishwashers for meat and dairy dishes.
3) While salaries are notoriously low in Israel, the expenses that exist for Jews in the Diaspora are usually reduced here for things like schooling, university, and communal Jewish services (eruv, mikvah, shul membership).
4) Most of the people who hate Jews live OUTSIDE our borders rather than next door to us. When Israel has to go to war with such people, there is usually not too much doubt about why.
5) By necessity, Jews in the Diaspora must care what their non-Jewish neighbors think of them. (This is part of the raison d’etre for the Jewish Community Relations Council.) Here, what other people think of us may hurt our feelings, or deny us membership in some organizations, or restrict travel for a few high-profile military or government figures, but in general we are more insulated here from some of the negative feelings others have toward Jews and Israelis.

Being “normative”
I grew up hearing about Israel, but few of my relatives had been here, and I never really heard stories about it. One of our rabbis when I was growing up had fought in Israel’s War of Independence before moving to the U.S., and his wife, my Sunday school teacher, spoke frequently about Israel as a miracle. But both miracles and the abstractness of a Jewish State meant little to me at the time.

So I think back to my first days and weeks in Israel in 1996. I wasn’t Jewish according to Jewish law, but I had made up my mind to identify with the Jewish half of my family and was here for some remedial education, so in essence I was beginning to see things through Jewish eyes. The first thing to strike me about being here was the fact that there really was a Jewish State, with its own money, language, and government. That in itself was amazing.

And as I spent more time here, the pace of life and the fact that Jewish holidays were THE holidays the country celebrated was another revelation. In my mind, I had imagined that Jewish holidays would be celebrated, but that the Christian ones would be acknowledged in some way (the way things operate, in reverse, in the U.S.). But as Christmas approached, the shop windows carried no sign of the impending Feast of the Nativity (I was never in Jaffa, for example, where many of the Arabs are Christians), work and play proceeded as normal, and on Christmas Day, I had a job interview in Jerusalem, then called to wish my family a Merry Christmas from the central bus station in Beer Sheva on my way home. (The only Christmas decorations to be found in Israel, I was informed, were available before Sukkot, as sukkah decorations.)

Not only does life here boogie to a Jewish rhythm, but it is totally unapologetic about doing so. If people come here from Christian countries to live, they know what goes on elsewhere in late December; the rest just don’t care. Israel has its own customs for its (many more) holidays. The High Holidays are observed by nearly everyone, though while some are in shul davening on Yom Kippur, others are making a bee-line for the DVD rental store and buying their kids new bikes to ride on the deserted streets during the quietest day of the year. During Sukkot, there are sukkahs on every religious family’s balcony, in addition to those built in public parks, public squares and on sidewalks to accommodate religious restaurant patrons. From Sukkot to Chanukah, the malls and streets are lined with stands selling jelly doughnuts (a Sephardi/Israeli Chanukah tradition) and chanukiot (9-branched menorahs). When the almond trees begin to blossom in February, kids sing about Tu B’Shvat (Jewish Arbor Day), people plant trees, and the malls once again are lined with stalls selling the fruit of (last year’s) trees—dried fruits and nuts. Purim sees people of all ages dressing up, having parties, and in some cases, traveling from a Purim celebration in one city to another on Shushan Purim (the day after Purim, when the holiday is celebrated in cities that were walled during the time the events in Persia took place) to enjoy two days of madness. Before Pesach, homeowners and storekeepers alike clear out their hametz (leavened products). Most restaurants close down for the holiday, but hotels and some enterprising restauranteurs kasher their establishments and cater to the KFP crowd. In spring, the national holidays roll around, with schools and schoolchildren providing programming for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) which people take time off from work and ulpan to attend; the nation freezes for two minutes (including all road and street traffic) on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) to remember the fallen in Israel’s wars and terror attacks; and disposable barbecue grills are sold everywhere in advance of Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) when everyone drives out to a park, forest, field, or (I’ve heard) even the highway medians and enjoys an outdoor cookout. Shavuot sees a supplement in the newspapers (Hebrew in the Hebrew press, English in the Jerusalem Post) with dairy recipes, sponsored by the Tnuva dairy company. (Of course, since this is the Jewish State, there is a higher-than-normal incidence of lactose intolerance in the population, so recipes for parve cheesecake flutter over online community chat lists. God bless Tofutti!) The summer slows down (except for a couple of fasts), and whereas the South (particularly Eilat) is a popular holiday destination in the winter, the North and its forests and streams become a popular camping vacation spot during the hottest months.

It must have been a heady experience for Jews to come here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and get to carve out what a modern Jewish State would look like. Living in America, when I would occasionally vent my frustration to my mother about what short shrift Jewish holidays were given to Jewish kids growing up in middle America, she would always reply matter-of-factly, “The Christians were here first.” Leaving aside the Native Americans and Thomas Jefferson’s views on religion in a democracy, that observation never left me as I grew from childhood to adulthood. I had the feeling that my only choice in Christian America was to like it or leave it, and once I had experienced life in Israel, was left no alternative but to leave it. Because here, it was the Jews who were first. When the Jews came here, there was no Christianity, no Islam. (And no UN or United States, either.) This is the one place in the world that was created and exists by, about, and for the Jews. Yes, the world still likes to bully us on a national level, as they did on a personal and societal level when we lived in their lands; but here, we stand together against them, no longer dispersed, no longer helpless, no longer alone.

There’s no place like home.

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