Archive for April, 2009

Lost generation

I have cranked out as much substance this week as my brain can safely handle.  For the safety and health of all, I am taking the day off from writing.

Instead, I am happy to share this video.  Parents and teachers of jaded teens, take note.


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The following video appeared on a friend’s Facebook page.  I have watched it several times.  Watch it for yourself.

I know what this video is supposed to do.  It’s aimed at Jews in the Diaspora, and is meant to give them a sense of pride that these days is either strained or absent.  It is meant to portray Israel as a highly ethical place, full of brainy people working to cure disease, make people’s lives better—in short, to save the world.

But I think it’s ineffective.  I find the facts in it interesting and I agree that Israelis have made remarkable progress in the fields of science, technology, and medicine.  But it saddens me at the same time.  Jews have always contributed significantly to these fields (and dozens of others).   Why should that be a reason to like them, or Israel?  Of course, for most people on this planet, it isn’t.  Equally remarkable is how ethical the Israeli army is (sometimes too ethical, in fact), especially compared to Israel’s enemies.  How would a video of Israeli soldiers walking back to Israel from Operation Cast Lead play among Diaspora Jews (or anyone else)?  Not so well, I think.

I find increasingly that the slogans to “support” Israel trouble me too.  What other country in the world needs to be “supported”?  Does Turkey need people’s support?  Does Bulgaria?  Does anyone talk of supporting the Congo?  Why do people talk this way?  Because Israel is the only country in the world whose existence is daily called into question, and whose disapproval ratings justify in people’s minds talk of its illegitimacy.  China does some pretty nefarious things; does anyone talk of supporting or not supporting China?  Is China’s right to exist called into question because of its human rights record, executions of political prisoners, or use of heavy metals in manufacturing children’s toys?

I understand people’s hesitation to talk of liking or disliking Israel; it sounds too much like saying you like or dislike Jews.  And there’s good reason for that: for most people, it IS saying you like or dislike Jews.  (And these days, I really don’t know which is worse.)

I would like to see a world in which people resign themselves to the facts, i.e. that Israel exists (just as America exists, Italy exists, Libya exists, and you and I exist).  I would like to see a world in which Israel would be accepted in the family of nations even if its scientists weren’t smarter, its army wasn’t more ethical, and its citizens no more productive and normal than those of any other country.  I would love for the countries of the world to see Israel as just another country, but of course a country that would view us that way…just doesn’t exist.

I tire of hearing of the pro-Israel rallies, the pro-Israel lobby, pro-Israel politicians, pro-Israel films (such as “The Case for Israel” making the rounds now), and “support Israel” buying campaigns.  I know Diaspora Jews are doing their best to contribute to Israel’s economy, bolster its public relations, and show us they love us from afar.  But I sometimes wonder if they are busying themselves with these activities because they think it makes an impression on the rest of the world, or because they are trying to persuade themselves that Israel is worth supporting.

From where I stand, Israel is all right.  It may make mistakes, have crooked politicians, or look incredibly backward sometimes.  But I think it’s doing a great job under incredible pressure: pressure, I would add, under which no one else lives.  I don’t have to prove to anyone that it has a right to be.  It’s my home, it’s a good place, and it’s not going anywhere.

Diaspora Jews, take note.  Israel exists.  It’s here.  And it’s here for you—no one else.  Love it if you will.  Come live here if you will.  But don’t worry what everyone else thinks.  The world doesn’t like the Jews—or Israel, now—any more than it ever did.  But it would be nice if the Jews at least liked themselves.

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In a shiur given on Parshat Yitro a couple of months ago, our friend and teacher Rav Binny Freedman focused on the Israelites’ conduct in the battle against Amalek.  He suggested that it was this battle, and not all of the plagues and wonders in Egypt (including the Exodus itself) that moved Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro and inspired him to join the Israelites in the desert.

The Israelites did not defeat Amalek in the desert.  They did not destroy them, which has led to the Jews being saddled with the mitzvah of destroying Amalek up to this day—a mitzvah of which we are reminded annually at Purim.  The Israelites merely repelled Amalek (much as we did Hamas in Gaza a few months ago).

What was so much more significant about the battle with Amalek than the plagues in Egypt?  For starters, the battle with Amalek was waged by the hands of the Israelites themselves; the plagues were Hashem’s work.  Yitro was a Midianite priest, and probably had some sense of the power of God.  But the sight of a ragtag bunch of ex-slaves, freshly liberated from their toil, fighting a great enemy who preyed on the weakest and most vulnerable of an already weak and vulnerable people, and holding their own in the bargain—I can understand how that could make an impression.

Rav Binny brought an interesting 20th century source to his shiur.  The leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, Mordechai Anielewicz, was killed during the course of that uprising.  But among the rubble of Mila 18, the headquarters of the uprising, his diary was found.  In it, Anielewicz had made an entry shortly after the first days when the Nazis attempted to enter the ghetto and were repelled.  Anielewicz wrote that after all the hype and propaganda about how invincible the Germans were, he was astonished that a bullet could actually kill a Nazi Übermensch.  The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was not successful in saving Jewish lives, but it did show that a handful of Jews were capable of holding the Nazis at bay for longer (three weeks) than the entire Polish nation, which lasted all of one week in the 1939 German invasion.  (I would add that five years later, the same rabble of ex-slaves that escaped the ovens of Europe found themselves facing another supposedly invincible army, mustered from seven Arab states.  They did not destroy those Arab states, but they did forge a state of their own in their midst.)

What was so remarkable to Yitro was that a people could change from being downtrodden for hundreds of years and rise up to defend themselves.  By the time Mordechai Anielewicz and his fellow fighters scattered around Europe in bands of partisans rose to the challenge, it had been thousands of years of persecution and murder. Rav Binny pointed out that Operation Cast Lead (the recent Gaza war) was not a separate war from those in Lebanon, or 1967, or Yom Kippur, or even the Arab uprisings in 1929 and 1936.  It’s all one war that started as soon as Jews from other lands began coming back here in numbers.  And it’s not over yet.

Today is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for the Fallen of Eretz Yisrael.  It is dedicated to the memory of the soldiers who fell in battle in Israel’s too many wars, as well as to the non-combatants who died because they were Israeli, including the most recent casualty, 13-year-old Shlomo Nativ z”l of Bat Ayin, a settlement across Gush Etzion from Efrat.

I grieve that we live in the times we do.  I grieve that Israel and the Jewish people have as many enemies as they always have (and perhaps even more).  I grieve that Israel has to dedicate such a large percentage of its budget and resources to keeping its citizens alive and safe.  I grieve that the degrees of separation between Jews anywhere in the world and Israelis who have lost loved ones to war and terrorism are so few.

But at the same time, I am grateful to live in a time when Jews have our own country, our own government, our own defense forces, and the will to defend ourselves against those who wish to hurt or destroy us.  I set aside today as a day of sadness, but also gratitude.  We still need Hashem, as the Israelites in the desert needed Him, but we are no longer helpless.

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Made in China

I grew up with one can opener in the house.  It got plenty of use—a large proportion of the food my mother fed us came from cans: canned fruit, canned soup, canned pork and beans.  From the time I was a small child until I reached high school, that same yellow-handled can opener carried out its duties without flaw or failure.  (Update: My mother informs me that she still has that can opener.)

Nowadays, I can’t find a single can opener that works.  They bend, they break, they do funky things like open half the can and give up.  And if I turn them over, I am guaranteed to see the same words stamped into them: Made in China.

Nearly everything, it seems, is made in China these days.  The cheap little plastic toys that last 10 minutes that fill goodie bags for children’s birthdays; appliances that have to be replaced three times a year; even the extremely expensive vacuum cleaner the Cap’n and I bought that has NEVER worked.

When my family was with friends for Pesach seder this year, our hosts’ daughters brought out a magnificent toy: an ice cream shop with beautifully fashioned counter, tables and chairs, dolls, even tiny ice cream cones that fit in the dolls’ hands.  It was made out of plastic, but a higher grade than I’m used to seeing.  It was colorful, durable, and endlessly entertaining to the girls.  When I complimented my hostess on it, she said she had bought it in her hometown of Vienna.  I told her I’d never seen anything like it before, and she answered, “That’s because all the junk here is made in China.  No one in Europe would buy such trash.”

That got me thinking.  If Europeans have such high standards for things, why are everyone else’s so low?  When did quality take a back seat to quantity?  Isn’t it better to have things that last rather than things that break all the time?  Couldn’t we do with less stuff, if that stuff was really worth having?

The more I think about the pervasive Made in China Syndrome, the more I think it’s symptomatic of a larger trend in people’s thinking.  To believe that poorer quality is better, that breaking is better than lasting, and that giving money to a country with an appalling human rights record is better than giving those jobs to people in your own country who share your values, is to live in a world where the values have been turned upside-down.

Perhaps this explains the trend toward legitimizing terrorists; relying on fossil fuels long after it has been proven that those fuels damage the environment irreparably and that the money to buy them funds worldwide terrorism; and bashing, boycotting, and even threatening states trying to defend themselves against the same bloodthirsty enemies who seek to destroy the bashers, boycotters, and threat-mongers.

Up is down.  Right is wrong.  Weakness is strength.

In my favorite “Simpsons” episode, Marge and other concerned parents band together and demand that the children’s favorite cartoon abandon its violent themes and model appropriate behavior.  As a result, the children completely lose interest in the TV show that has suddenly failed to entertain them.  The viewer then sees a wide shot of the suburban street they live on and, to the sounds of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the “Pastoral”), the kids slowly trickle out of their houses and spend the day playing outside, cycling, jumping rope, and playing ball.  The children rejected a lousy product and found something else much more healthful and productive.  Of course, when the cartoon’s producers saw their ratings plummet, they restored the show’s violence (to the delight of the children who vacated the street as quickly as they had filled it).

Perhaps the economic downturn can turn out to be a blessing in disguise.  Perhaps people are meant to have to make do with less.  Perhaps people will come to recognize that the policies that have driven manufacturing for decades—like planned obsolescence and appliances that are cheaper to replace than to fix—are crooked, and the stuff they can no longer afford is not worth having anyway.  Perhaps people will come to recognize that paying for a few well-made things that last is actually less expensive than buying poorly made stuff that has to be replaced frequently.  Perhaps people will come to understand that less is, in fact, more.

And perhaps—just perhaps—people will take stock of the world we live in and realize that applying their own values of freedom, justice, the rule of law, due process, and fairness is essential in picking our friends in the world, and that societies that do not value these things should be regarded warily, and kept at a distance.

May people once again find their true north.

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Good news

I had a really good Friday.  Why? you may ask.  Not because I finished cooking for Shabbat around lunch time.  Not because we were anticipating enjoying a relaxing Shabbat in the company of neighbors and fellow blogger Michael.  And not because spring weather has arrived, with cool nights and pleasant, sunny days where the kids can play outside all day and crash at night.  All these things were good, but they weren’t what made a good Friday into a REALLY good Friday.

It was the headline on the front page of the Jerusalem Post that morning.  Usually the headlines are a source of sadness or depression, and account for why it can take me two weeks to get through a single paper.  But this was the headline for Friday:
Drop the ‘land for peace’ slogans and stop Iran, Lieberman urges world leaders
As Hillary Clinton warns Israel it risks losing support on Iran if it rejects progress with the Palestinians, the new foreign minister tells the ‘Post’: PA recognition of ‘Jewish state’ is not a precondition • Hamas must be ‘suffocated’ • Don’t even mention ‘right of return’

For those not up to speed on Israeli politics, we have a new government made up largely of center-right parties.  Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian immigrant who heads the Israel Beiteinu (Israel our Homeland) party, and a settler living in Nokdim (east of Efrat), is our new Foreign Minister.  He has been accused of being a racist, of being dangerous, and compared to Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his desire to have Arabs take an oath of loyalty to the state.  He has also (as of a couple of months ago) advocated a two-state solution that I do not find at all wise or promising.

And now this headline appears.  Every part of it makes sense to me: the bandying about of buzzwords like “occupation” and “settlements” and “land for peace,” none of which reflect the reality of life here for Israelis or, for that matter, Arabs.  When Hillary warns us we may lose Arab support in our efforts to contain Iran, I say, “What Arab support?  The kind of support Egypt has given us in allowing arms to be smuggled through the Sinai?  The kind of support the Lebanese have given us in being under the thumb of Hizballah and, by proxy, Iran?  The kind of support Syria has given us by making threats to take back the Golan Heights in a military offensive?  The kind of support Jordan gives us by lying low, taking their 10 million cubic meters of water from the Kinneret as peace-payment in silence?  The kind of support the Saudis have given us creating a peace plan that involves Israel absorbing any Arab who wants to come live in the Jewish State, ultimately creating a two-Arab-state solution?  That kind of help we can do without, thank you.”

Who cares about declarations of recognition of the Jewish state as a precondition to talks?  If the Arabs were serious about talking peace and making serious progress toward that end, recognition of Israel would be a moot point.  My daddy taught me years ago not to pay any attention to what people say, but only to what they do.  If the Arabs put down their weapons, directed that money into building themselves an economy that can support itself, and started teaching their kids that Israelis are fully human and as deserving as they are of a peaceful, prosperous life, there would be no need for a statement of recognition.  (Such a statement would, indeed, seem ridiculous in such conditions.)

Hamas is a terrorist organization, and the aid and comfort it has received from the Russians who sell it weaponry, Iran who finances it, and now the rest of the West who have given up waiting for moderate, rational actors to emerge from Gaza and have decided to accept Hamas as legitimate, is a violation of international law and the anti-terrorist resolutions that have passed through the U.N. in the wake of 9/11.  The West has gone from saying it won’t support or negotiate with terrorists to bestowing on terrorists international legitimacy and fiercely defending them against the legal, defensive actions of a free nation.  Looking at this turnabout in the last few years, one can only conclude that the West has taken leave of its senses, and no longer takes itself seriously.  And if it doesn’t take itself seriously, how can anyone else (least of all Hamas) expect to take it seriously?

Right of return should be recognized as an long-term attempt by Arabs to tip the demographic balance of the Jewish state.  It is also a racist ploy that the West is too blind or embarrassed to recognize as such.  Why should the Jewish state be expected to absorb unlimited numbers of Arabs into its democracy and give them full rights as citizens, while the Arabs hold as a precondition of their own establishment of a state the expulsion of every Jew from their midst?  Who’s really racist here?  Right of return has provided the world’s Jews with automatic citizenship in the one state where they are guaranteed not to be discriminated against, persecuted, or killed because of their Judaism.  It has enabled Jews to escape from hostile places such as Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Europe, and the Arab states.  There is no reason why Arabs should be accorded this same right to enter Israel.  That’s what the rest of the Arab states are for.

I was left wondering, after reading the article, why Netanyahu chose a foreign minister with such an extremist reputation to put forward these incredibly sensible ideas.  Lieberman’s answer, which came at the end of the article, was, “So it’s easy for me to surprise [people].”  The answer I came up with, however, is that anyone these days who puts forward such ideas, and who tries to bring sense, wisdom, and Realpolitik to the “peace process” is guaranteed to be labeled an extremist.

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Last Shabbat, I made my sister’s recipe for “fifteen-minute chicken.”  It is simple, yet exceptionally tasty.  I don’t make it often, but every time I do, I am overwhelmed by how little effort it takes, yet yields such gustatory reward.  Below is my slight tweaking of the recipe (for added ease, kashrut and health benefit):

8 cloves garlic
4 chicken breasts halves, cut into finger-sized pieces
¼ cup flour
¼ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon rosemary (fresh is best)
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or wine
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped

Peel and halve the garlic cloves.  Rub the sides and bottom of a large, deep frypan with the cut side of the cloves, then add the oil.
Roll the chicken pieces in flour.  Heat the oil in the pan, then add the chicken and cook over high heat, turning after about 3 minutes.  Cook until the chicken is no longer pink, and the outside is a crisp, golden brown.  Sprinkle rosemary, salt and pepper to taste, and stir.  Add the liquid to de-glaze the pan and stir to coat the chicken.  When most of the liquid has evaporated, transfer to a serving platter and garnish with parsley.
Serve immediately, or cover well and gently rewarm for Shabbat lunch.

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The other night, the Cap’n and I watched the final episode of Season 4 of “The West Wing.”  Recent Toby plot-lines have his ex-wife Andrea pregnant with twins (his).  In this episode, Andrea’s water breaks, Toby rushes her to the hospital, and she is shown lying in bed in a hospital gown, her hair slightly bedraggled, but none the worse for wear.  The doctor (a bigmouth in a baseball cap) comes in and tells her she’s 10 centimeters (i.e. fully dilated), both heads are down, there’s no time for an epidural, and that they’ll be meeting at least one of their children within 15 minutes.

Andrea returns to normal conversation with Toby, apologizes for her remarks in an earlier conversation, and only then shows any kind of distress: her eyes close, she moans a little, then they open, widen, and she begins to puff.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the writers of “The West Wing” usually do a great job.  They write engaging story lines, have a host of interesting characters, address real political issues, occasionally provide the viewer with important civics lessons, and rarely show true ignorance or stupidity.  But when they write about Israel or childbirth, they clearly have no idea what they’re doing.  (I may blog about their Israel stupidity another time.)

When someone writes a natural childbirth scene, I’m never sure where to lay blame for the absurd outcome: the writers or the actresses/directors.  In the “Star Wars: Episode 3” movie, Natalie Portman’s Padmé is also supposed to be birthing twins and does a lousy job.  I’m sure many of these actresses have never given birth.  And are all the writers male and/or childless?  But I suppose they think they’re doing the viewers a favor by “cleaning” it up, toning down the yelling and cutting out most of the contractions that would otherwise interfere with conversation between the characters.

And yet, I guess I’m just a little disappointed.  In a film age that brought Meryl Streep’s amazingly convincing accents, Dustin Hoffman’s Best Actor Oscar in 1989 for playing an autistic man, and the stunningly beautiful New Zealand landscapes against which Peter Jackson shot the “Lord of the Rings” movies, I expect better.  Viewers today can spot a fake a mile off, and people in the film industry know this.  So why has no one (except possibly Bill Cosby in his stand-up routines) represented childbirth with any accuracy?

My guess is that no one cares.  It isn’t pretty, and since the babies “born” on TV and in films are several weeks (to several months) old, verisimilitude is already shot.  I also suspect that while viewers can tolerate some pretty graphic displays of bleeding and vomiting, the fact that actors in staged fights rarely show any sign that they’re in pain after a good smack in the gob shows that body fluids are okay, but real pain is not.  And besides, how many women out there who have experienced natural childbirth are really going to complain?

Besides me, that is.

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In commemoration of Yom HaShoah today, I’d like to address a commonly held myth:

Many people (including Iran’s Ahmedinejad y”s, if you can call him a “person”) have made the claim that it was guilt resulting from the Shoah that forced the otherwise rational members of the United Nations to vote in favor of the 1947 Partition Plan, which led to the foundation of the State of Israel.

These people are wrong, and on every count.

At the time of the Partition vote, the Shoah was only the most recent in a long history of oppression of Jews.  If Europeans wanted something to feel guilty about, they had countless oppressive measures, pogroms, and expulsions from their own history to choose from; they didn’t need the Shoah.

In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British promised “a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object,” then did everything within their power to thwart that aim, including severely restricting Jewish immigration (including Jews desperately trying to flee the ovens of Europe), giving away land they’d promised to the Jews to the Arabs instead (modern-day Jordan was to become part of Jewish Palestine), and preventing the Jews from defending themselves against Arab aggression and violence.  The Jews had been well on their way to creating a state before the Shoah began.

The dastardly deeds of the Germans are well-documented, and their toadies, the Vichy government in France, outdid themselves to cooperate with their occupiers.  For its part, the United States government remained unconcerned about the plight of the Jews, concentrating their efforts on winning the war (a productive aim) but also refusing to admit Jewish refugees starting in the 1920s and continuing until after the war (a much more sinister policy, and one directly responsible for countless Jewish lives lost).

What Ahmedinejad and his ilk really mean to say is that had the West taken the attitude that the Arab world did–that the Jews were a people to rid themselves of to make way for a Middle East dominated by Arabs–they would never have allowed their guilt to get the best of them, and would have stood back and allowed the Arab masses and their armies to finish Hitler’s work of making the world Judenrein (as, indeed the West did, and the Arabs somehow did not).

The Shoah did drag world anti-Semitism out into the daylight for all to see.  The actions of the British, the Germans, the French Vichy government, and the United States, with their active or passive participation in the Shoah, demonstrated as clearly as could be the reason why the Jews needed their own state.  And yet even then, the Jewish State was not a shoo-in; Jews had to lobby hard for the necessary number of U.N. votes to make a fraction of their dream (and Britain’s broken promise) come true.  Doesn’t sound like the world’s guilt was all that overwhelming to me.  They stood by while 600,000 Jews (one-tenth of the number slaughtered by the Nazis) cobbled together a defense force to salvage their lives and their dream.  They stood by while over 900,000 Jews were forced to flee Arab nations in the 1950s and 1960s.  They stood by while Jewish civilians were shot and blown to bits in the intifadas of the last twenty years, only pausing long enough to write the PLO checks and let their hearts bleed for the poor, oppressed Palestinians.  And they are standing by now while Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons, which Ahmedinejad y”s says he hopes he will get the chance to use to wipe Israel off the map.  They will always stand by; of that you can be sure.

Even if the guilt purportedly felt by the U.N. members did inform their choice to vote for the Partition, it certainly didn’t create the State of Israel.  The Jewish State was created by those who fought against the eight Arab armies that tried to take away the few scraps of land the U.N. had tossed to the Jews.  The fact that the rest of the world had stood by while their families were deported and murdered in Europe only toughened the Jews’ resolve to establish a country of their own.

Place yourself in the shoes of one of the U.N. ambassadors on the eve of the vote.  If you voted “no,” you’d be part of the bloc of normative nations (i.e. Jew-haters) who were poised to deny the Balfour Declaration, which was formalized by the League of Nations in 1922.  If you voted “yes,” you’d be part of a lunatic fringe which planned to affirm the Zionist dream.  Regardless of which side you found yourself on, if you knew your job, you knew that there was no way a tiny population of Jews surrounded by hostile Arabs was going to get its wish.  Even a “yes” vote was sure to be overruled by events which, in fact, took place, rendering your vote moot.  You would have known that the Arabs would not accept such a victory for the Jews, and would saddle up as soon as they could get organized.  Imagine the surprise that must have greeted those who had voted “yes” when the Jews actually emerged alive and with enough contiguous land to call a state!  For the record, no country has ever been founded by a U.N. vote.

I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory explanation for why the rest of the world dislikes Jews so much.  But the fact that their behavior shows this to be true makes it impossible for me to believe that any feelings of guilt (real or faked) have influenced their conduct with respect to Israel.

On this Yom HaShoah, let’s put that myth to rest once and for all.

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What would life be?  Without a song or a dance what are we? —Andersson & Ulvaeus

Pesach morning, while reading the paper at our seder hosts’ house, I came across an article about the firing by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the P.A.’s ambassador to Moscow.  The actual firing was supposed to have been for political reasons, but among the cumulative strikes against the ambassador was the fact that embassy staff complained that he spent too much time at concerts and the theater.  As I read on, I learned that P.A. ambassadors frequently avail themselves of cultural events in their host countries, and have also been known covertly to seek citizenship.

I was amused by this and mentioned it to my hostess, who was born in Vienna and grew up a few blocks from the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House).  She wasn’t in the least surprised to hear this.  “Think about it,” she said.  “No wonder they’re so violent; they don’t create anything.”

This got me thinking: What is the role of art, music, and dance in a society?  What separates countries that have this from countries that don’t?  Does a violent, backward society create lack of culture, or is it the other way around?

I once learned with a rabbi who, while he had no love for the Palestinians and their mission to destroy Israel, had great respect for the poetic tradition in Arabic.  I believe that there are artists who exist and practice their art (writing novels, painting, etc.) within Palestinian society.  But as far as I know, there is no public support for these pursuits, no societal embrace or governmental funding for them.

Don’t try to tell me that there is no money to support culture in Palestinian society.  The West has showered the P.A. with millions of dollars for years, but instead of being used to develop infrastructure, industry, modern education and cultural institutions, the money goes toward security services for the government and weapons to shoot at Israelis.

Soon after reading the article about the firing of the P.A. ambassador, I read another interesting piece by David Klinghoffer.  This piece was entitled “The Israel Test,” and in it Klinghoffer discusses a theory developed by George Gilder, a “capitalism and technology guru,” whose book by the same title is shortly to be published.  Gilder asks the following questions in formulating his theory: “What is your attitude toward people who excel you in the creation of wealth or in other accomplishments? Do you aspire to their excellence or do you seethe at it? Do you admire and celebrate exceptional achievement or do you impugn it and seek to tear it down?”  The theory outlines two different attitudes toward financial success, and is described by Klinghoffer thus:

Some people see wealth-creation as a zero-sum game, where your enriching yourself means that you are taking something away from me. Others see wealth as almost miraculous. Material value is created from nothing – ex nihilo. That is, from nothing material – but from an idea, from creativity, from genius. In this view, your enrichment takes nothing from me. In fact, it creates opportunities for your neighbors to enrich themselves by doing business with you. Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, with their pitiful economy, have failed spectacularly to perceive this.

Klinghoffer also notes that

Jews are known for their greatly disproportionate giftedness in film, physics, finance – almost every field where creativity and intellect determine success. Gilder writes with candor about Jewish “superiority and excellence.” As a result of such Jewish gifts, Israel has done far more with far less, in physical resources, than any other country. The Israeli technology boom has made this clearer than ever.

So how does this relate to culture?  Israel has created a thriving cultural world of dance, theater, music, and art (benefiting immensely from the transfer of many Jewish institutions from Europe to Mandatory Palestine before the Shoah, as well as the Russian aliyah), with precisely zero international assistance.  It has created it ex nihilo, just as it cobbled together an army and air force and defeated the well-trained Arab armies who set out to destroy it in the War of Independence, absorbed nearly a million Jews from Arab lands who arrived penniless in the 1950s and 1960s, and transformed itself from a tiny agrarian society to a world leader in technology and medicine.  And Israel isn’t selfish with its wealth; whenever disaster strikes somewhere in the world, Israel is usually the first to mobilize teams to provide necessary food and medical aid.

According to Gilder’s theory, the P.A. holds a zero-sum attitude toward Israel and the West.  Not only do they not foster a creative society (unless you consider bomb-making an art form), they also resent when their representatives serving in foreign lands enjoy the cultural creativity available to them.  The Arab world, which once led the world in art and science, has forgotten its past and seems to care for nothing but dragging itself (and everyone else) into a new dark age.

And the behavior of those P.A. representatives?  I believe they’re following their natural, human instincts to enjoy the fruits of human thought, emotion, and endeavor.  Perhaps some of them have fallen in love with art, and out of love with war.  Good luck to them, poor stiffs.

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I read recently that President Barack Obama’s personal assistant is Katie Johnson, one of the ten people he hired at the beginning of his presidential campaign.  A 2003 graduate of Wellesley College, Ms. Johnson will now take up her post outside the Oval Office, handling the President’s scheduling and whatever else Mrs. Landingham Ms. Johnson does.

I’m sure Ms. Johnson will discharge her duties with distinction, but there is something unsettling about a 28-year-old taking up the #1 Gatekeeper position for the Leader of the Free World.  No grandmotherly figure with a cookie jar, the contents of which she would give or withhold at whim, and no tart-tongued, middle-aged ex-gambler charged not only with the president’s schedule, but also his health and memory?  I don’t know…

Then again, perhaps Mr. Obama doesn’t need those things.  After all, unlike the fictional President Bartlet, he doesn’t suffer from a chronic disease like MS.  (At least he hasn’t told us so.  Yet.)

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Life begins again

To paraphrase an old joke:

For Catholics, live begins at conception.  For Protestants, life begins at birth.

And for the Cap’n and me, life begins when Pesach is over, the kids are back in school, and this Shabbat’s meals include challah, baked macaroni and cheese, a jam tart, and chocolate chip cookies.  (Special thanks to Heather for the Trader Joe’s chocolate chips!)

My biggest dilemma right now is do I say shehechiyanu

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I used to teach preparatory classes for the SAT.  In addition to all the stratagems for outwitting the test writers, vocabulary development, and writing drills, the main printed guides to the SAT also included sections in which commonly misspelled or confused words were defined for the student’s review.

One of the most common of these pairs of frequently misused words was effect and affect.  Both have noun and verb forms, and while there is some relationship between them in meaning, they are not one and the same.

Affect as a noun is rarely used (except in psychology), and most of its meanings in this context are obsolete.  Its use nowadays is more often as a transitive verb (i.e. taking an object).  Here it means “[t]o assume the character or appearance of; to put on a pretense of; to pretend; to feign; to counterfeit; as, to affect indifference” or “[t]o lay hold of or attack (as a disease does); to act or produce an effect upon; to impress or influence the mind or feelings; to touch.”  Common synonyms for affect include influence, operate, act on, and concern.

Effect, on the other hand, has many current and relevant uses as a noun.  The most common is “[t]hat which is produced by an agent or cause; the event which follows immediately from an antecedent; result; outcome; as, the effect of luxury.”  Synonyms for effect as a noun here include consequence and result.

One can see the relationship between affect and effect in this context where, for example, bad publicity could affect a candidate’s public image, the effect of which might be that candidate’s loss at the polls.

If what I’ve written above satisfies your interest in the difference between these two words, feel free to stop reading.  But being an English language nut-case, I’ve opted (in the interest of thoroughness) to include some other definitions of effect as a noun:

— Purport; intent;  They spoke to her to that effect (2 Chron 34:22)

— Goods; movables; as, The people escaped with their effects (used frequently by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)

a. fulfillment or accomplishment; —now only in phrases to carry into effect, to bring to effect b. Reality; fact; —now only in the phrase in effect

— A distinctive impression; as, to act for effect

— State or fact of being operative; execution; performance; as, the law goes into effect in May; to take effect

Effect strikes out on its own as a transitive verb when used to mean, in contemporary parlance, “to bring to pass, to execute; enforce; accomplish; They sailed away without effecting their purpose.”  Synonyms for this meaning include complete, realize, carry out, consummate, compass, fulfill.

When I see these two words confused, it is usually in cases where the writer means to use affect as a verb and effect as a noun.  In cases such as this, one can think of their cause-and-effect relationship alphabetically: to affect people is to have an effect on them.

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Praying the siddur

One of the earliest things I read about Orthodox prayer was a humorous story about a prayerbook in which a non-religious Jew had marked which prayers were said aloud, and next to the other passages, “mumble.”

I rarely reach a high madrega of spirituality when reciting prayers out of the siddur.  I stumble over the Hebrew, often resorting to the English, reading bits and pieces of psalms and never finishing anything but the major portions (e.g. the bracketing psalms of Pesukei D’Zimra, the Shema, the Shmoneh Esreh) in order to keep up with the community.  This used to bother me, but over time I’ve made my peace with it.

When I first began to pray from the siddur, I prayed alone, rarely going to shul except for Shabbat.  This allowed me sufficient time to learn the prayers, reading parts in Hebrew, then switching to English when I’d had enough, and developing a rhythm to my prayer.  This made communal prayer more comfortable for me (though it still took me two years to learn Anim Zemirot), but I still had to pray faster than I was really comfortable with in order to keep up, and did not always understand what I was saying.

To someone who didn’t grow up with this style of prayer, this seems odd and even disturbing.  What meaning could my prayer possibly have if I didn’t finish prayers and didn’t always know what I was saying?  I struggled with this for some time, but given that shul on Shabbat morning in Newton was two and a half hours long (and sometimes longer), I had plenty of time to contemplate it.

Here’s what I decided.  The ideal is for me to know what I’m saying.  This means learning more Hebrew (which I have since making aliyah) and thinking about the words, stopping praying whenever I find a phrase I want to chew on for a while.  I just let everyone continue, and join back in when I’m done my thinking.  (The better I know the prayer service, the easier it is to join back in.  Otherwise I have to wait until everyone gets to something I recognize, which is also fine.)  I’m sure some people would say that I have to pray everything, but since I’m supposed to come back and pray exactly the same prayers again tomorrow, I feel less pressure to do this.

But even if I don’t always know what I’m saying, when I know the words well enough to say them with a rhythm, that too has value for me.  It’s the meditative aspect of prayer that I enjoy, and for that I don’t mind letting the words wash over me without paying too much attention to any of them.  Sometimes one word will stick in my head, or a phrase, but if I’m not in the mood to study it too closely, I’ll enjoy its sound instead and let it sweep me along.  Sometimes prayer can just be a warm bath instead of a two-mile run.  (At some point most converts and ba’alei teshuva learn that the word for prayer, l’hitpalel, is reflexive, suggesting that the act of prayer is also reflexive—a looking inward, a cheshbon nefesh—primarily benefiting the one who is praying.)

A Christian friend of mine once lamented that Christianity does not have fixed daily prayer as Judaism does.  The exercise of centering oneself, especially before the start of one’s day, is not dissimilar from meditation.  (I have heard that research actually shows a similarity between the slowing heart rate of someone meditating and someone davening.)  In addition to the physical and health benefits, I am in awe of the idea of beginning the day with a reminder of how special we are as Jews, of how Hashem saved us from slavery, of our indebtedness to Hashem for what we have, and of the things we still desire and to which we aspire.

Since having children, I have had to give up morning davening temporarily.  It’s something I look forward to getting back as they get older—that and synagogue prayer.  (The kids come in and drive me batty right now, so if I daven at all, it’s at home.)  One thing for which I’m extremely grateful right now, however, is the fact that my neighborhood’s shul is 20 seconds from my house, so I can come and go anytime, and during the High Holidays (the prayers for which I’ve never liked) the women with young children are seated in a temporary plywood extension erected on the side of the shul, with the windows open to the shul so we can hear the prayers and shofar blowing.  This year I sat there with other mothers, the smell of wood all around me, and a tree right next to my plastic Keter chair.  (The extension is built around several trees that grow on that side of the shul.)  I could come when I wished, daven what I wanted in a comfortable, airy atmosphere, and leave without tripping over other people or even being noticed.

I still have a long way to go with prayer in this religion, but since everything else about Judaism seems to me to be the work of a lifetime (practice, learning, Hebrew), this fits right in with all the rest.

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Redeeming peaches

One of my favorite sources for visual inspiration is Yehoshua Halevi’s photo blog, “Israel the Beautiful.”  I subscribe to his Photo of the Week, and this week’s photo of a stunningly beautiful peach orchard here in Gush Etzion was accompanied by a particularly moving written piece.  It acknowledges this strange time when we are experiencing profound grief at the recent murder of 13-year-old Shlomo Nativ hy”d, natural beauty, and a move toward redemption (Pesach).  Check it out.

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The “Bodyworlds” exhibit, featuring “plastinated” cadavers posed in lifelike ways, has made its way to the Madatech National Museum of Science, Technology and Space in Haifa, Israel.

The exhibit has proven popular with viewers (over 26 million of them) with its revolutionary tissue preservation method, and tens of thousands of people have agreed to donate their bodies (after death) to become part of future exhibits.

I remember when the exhibit stopped in Boston and took up residence at the Museum of Science.  The Cap’n and I discussed whether or not to go.  We weighed the issues, including our level of interest, the ethical issues of corpses posing for the viewer rather than reposing in the dirt, as well as the scientific merit of the exhibit.  In the end, we decided not to go.  We believed (and still do) that there is little science to be gleaned from this exhibit (plastic models or pictures would do us just as well), and that despite the informed consent of the donors, the exhibit is still a violation of the dignity of the human body.  It is our impression that the main reason most people go to this exhibit is to see, well, dead people.  (No Sixth Sense necessary.)

It seems the chief rabbi of Haifa agrees with us.  But rather than setting up a demonstration outside the museum or throwing rocks or any of the other nonsense we’ve come to expect from some of the more extreme religious population sectors in Israel, Rabbi She’ar-Yashuv Cohen says, “It’s inside the museum, where they can do what they want, so I don’t think it’s fitting to stage protests. But my recommendation is for people to stay away from the exhibit,” he said.  He cites kavod adam (respect for the body) as a reason not to view the exhibit, and says Jews should not discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish bodies (or in this case, cadavers) when applying this ethic.  (Most, if not all, of the donors to this exhibit were non-Jews.)

While the Madatech’s spokesman, Dr. Tzvi Ben-Yishai, said that the museum had consulted with rabbis before deciding to host the exhibit, and had been advised of the halachah of prompt burial of corpses and kavod adam, he states that “in the end, we think if the rest of the world has had the opportunity to see the exhibit, then Israel should as well. We don’t need permission from the religious establishment. They can only protest.”

The Cap’n and I would not have gone to see this exhibit, regardless of the reaction of the religious establishment.  But the restraint shown by Rabbi Cohen, his acknowledgment of people’s right to choose for themselves whether or not to see the exhibit, and his deference to halachah and dignity for all human beings as the reason to avoid the exhibit—these all seem to me far superior reasons to pass on the exhibit than Ben-Yishai’s “everyone else has seen it—why not us?”

That, and the fact that I find it a bit freaky that a German scientist is carving up humans in a pseudo-scientific way for entertainment.  I’m sure one can list dozens of ways in which Gunter von Hagens differs from Josef Mengele, but I’m having trouble getting past the similarities.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it all rather disturbing.

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You go girl! (Or not…)

The following was sent me via email by an acquaintance:

One Nation, “Under G-d”

One day a 6-year-old girl was sitting in a classroom. The teacher was going to explain evolution to the children. The teacher asked a little boy: Tommy do you see the tree outside?
TEACHER: Tommy, do you see the grass outside?
TEACHER: Go outside and look up and see if you can see the sky.
TOMMY: Okay. (He returned a few minutes later) Yes, I saw the sky.
TEACHER: Did you see G-d up there?
TEACHER: That’s my point. We can’t see G-d because he isn’t there. Possibly he just doesn’t exist.
A little girl spoke up and wanted to ask the boy some questions.  The teacher agreed and the little girl asked the boy: Tommy, do you see the tree outside?
LITTLE GIRL: Tommy, do you see the grass outside?
TOMMY: Yessssss!
LITTLE GIRL: Did you see the sky?
TOMMY: Yessssss!
LITTLE GIRL: Tommy, do you see the teacher?
LITTLE GIRL: Do you see her brain?
LITTLE GIRL: Then according to what we were taught today in school, she possibly may not even have one!

(You Go Girl!)
Don’t forget to pass this on! I love this one. Everyone should send this to everyone they know, especially today with prayer restricted in schools. Forward if you believe in G-d!!!!

My correspondent is South African, and may not realize what this anecdote actually suggests about God’s existence and school prayer.  Below is my response:

Amusing story.  But I don’t agree that it means the same thing here in Israel as it does in America (where this story probably originated).  When Israel sees a decline in Judaism and Zionism reflected in its school curricula, that is cause for concern as it is accompanied by a crisis of Jewish identity.  But the United States is a religiously pluralistic society, and the “godlessness” in its schools is intended to protect religious minorities (like Jews) from religious coercion by the majority.  The kind of Americans who advocate school prayer (mentioned at the end of this message) are not frum Jews; those send their kids to day school where tefillah naturally takes place.  No, the people who want prayer in the public schools don’t have the Shema or the Shemoneh Esreh in mind; they want the Gospels and the Lord’s Prayer.  If that’s a goal you can agree with, by all means pass on emails like these.

I’ve attended schools where school prayer takes place.  I’ve felt completely comfortable with it when it was a parochial (e.g. Catholic) school, but considerably less comfortable when it was a school with no formal sectarian affiliation.  I’ve also taught in public schools where fundamentalist Christian values have been the norm, where reading literature by gay and lesbian authors was forbidden, where students had permission to sit out lessons involving Greek mythology (perceived as a threatening religious rival to Christianity), and where I was accused by one student of murdering Jesus and by another of using Christian blood to make my Pesach matzah.

The fight over prayer in public schools is a fierce one, and surfaces periodically, leading to a battle over the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.  While I think atheism has little merit, I’m with the atheists on making public schools and other public places as free of religious practice and symbolism as possible.

The thought of having Christian prayer (because that’s what school prayer really refers to) established in public schools makes me ill.  It is neither beneficial nor necessary.  Students can spend all day in individual silent prayer if they wish, spacing out of lessons if that is what they choose to do.  Communal moments of silence, on the other hand, should be seized to get some teaching in, not prayer.  Communal prayer can only serve to alienate and marginalize students who do not pray in that fashion.  And anyone who wants to pray should get up earlier in the morning and take care of that need before going to school (as an Orthodox kid going to public school would, getting up to lay tefillin and daven Shacharit, then catching the bus).

I called it an amusing story, but on closer examination, it’s really not.  May we never see the U.S. return to the time of state-established religion, and the persecution that accompanied it.

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The REAL baby-killers

A couple of weeks ago, an acquaintance called my attention to a cartoon published in the New York Times.  It features a jack-booted, headless storm trooper wielding a sword in one hand and pushing a wheeled Star of David with pointed teeth with the other in pursuit of a tiny, huddled female figure clutching a bundle (baby?).  Check it out.  My acquaintance called this a Nazi cartoon, and I don’t think he’s far from the truth.

The image of Israel as a nation of baby-killers is not new.  I’ve seen cartoons like this one before.  But the news today of an Arab ax-murderer attacking children in a nearby settlement and fleeing the scene upon meeting adult resistance makes me wonder how it is that the most dedicated killers of babies and children–their own and others’–manage to escape the scourge of cartoons like this.  Is it that they have dark skin?  Is it that some of them live in poverty (though some are fabulously wealthy, too)?  Is it that they belong to a religion most people don’t understand, but are somehow in awe of?  Or is it because if anyone criticizes them or calls them on the carpet for their violent, backward, death-worshiping culture, they threaten lawsuits, pour into the streets and riot, and plot to attack more Western countries’ population centers?

I believe that most Arabs want to go to work, feed their families and live their lives with dignity.  And most succeed in doing just that.  But polls also show that most Arabs support violence against Jews, the overthrow of the State of Israel, and the establishment of a Muslim (if not necessarily Islamist) state here in its stead.  The recent war in Gaza bought Hamas street cred they had formerly lacked in the West Bank, and may provide traction for them in future elections.  This is the same war in Gaza that involved Hamas booby-trapping the homes of private citizens, firing rockets from launching installations located under hospitals and near schools and kindergartens, and dragging screaming children to the front to provide human shields for their own plainclothes militants.  And the targets of those rockets and bullets from Hamas?  Jewish citizens, including children.

Israelis do everything in their power to protect their children, and those of their enemies, even at the risk of their own soldiers.  Consider this cartoon:

I’m not suggesting that the truth is really to be found on the political cartoon pages of America’s newspapers.  But when a 13-year-old lies dead and a 7-year-old is injured, I find myself compelled to ask: Will the REAL baby-killers please stand up?

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Most Orthodox poskim permit quinoa during Pesach, which is an awfully good thing.  Quinoa can be prepared much as one would prepare rice or couscous, and it is remarkably satisfying because it has some of the stick-to-your-ribs quality of a grain without the starch of matzah or potatoes.  For those who have adopted one of the carbs-are-the-enemy diets, this stuff looks like a grain but is really a vegetable low in fat with real nutritional value.

Quinoa can taste bitter, so it is important to soak and rinse it first.  Soak 1 cup of quinoa in a cooking pot, letting it stand 15 minutes to an hour, then drain well.  Rinse again and drain.  Put quinoa back into the pot with 1½ cups of water and ½ teaspoon of salt.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer.  Cook 20 minutes, then turn off the heat.  Let quinoa stand 5 minutes, then fluff it with a fork.  Makes 2 cups.

Here are a couple of recipes which use cooked quinoa.

3 large oranges, peeled, segmented and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup diced cucumbers
2 cups cooked quinoa
¼ cup honey mustard vinaigrette dressing
3 tablespoons lime juice
¼ cup mint, chopped

Combine all ingredients.  Serve on its own or on a bed of lettuce.  (I make a homemade dressing with oil, wine vinegar, a dash of balsamic vinegar, mayonnaise, honey, salt and pepper.  Kitniyot eaters can add mustard.)

(This is for kitniyot eaters, too, or for the rest of you year-round.)
2 cups cooked quinoa
Vegetable oil
2 purple onions, chopped
1 T. curry powder (or to taste)
1 or 2 large carrots, diced
½ cup lentils (brown or green variety)
¾ cup water
½ cup chopped cucumber (if serving cold)

If serving cold, prepare 2 cups of cooked quinoa, let cool and refrigerate.  If serving hot, cook quinoa at the same time as lentils.
Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a medium saucepan.  Add onions and sauté until soft.  Add curry powder and sauté about a minute.  Add carrots and stir to coat with onion-curry mixture.  Add lentils and water, stir, and cover.  Bring to a boil and let boil for 2-3 minutes.  Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 45 minutes.  (Start testing for doneness after about 30 minutes.  Lentils should taste tender but not mushy.)
If serving hot, spoon hot curried lentils over a bed of quinoa.  If serving cold or room temperature, combine lentils, quinoa, and cucumber and refrigerate at least 1-2 hours to allow flavors to blend.

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