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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