Archive for May, 2009

Thought (or hoped) I’d forgotten?  Nope.  I’m plugging away at mine, and I hope to see at least one other.  Even if you don’t finish, send me what you have.  I really want to see what you would write.

In the meantime, I plan to make an absolute buffoon of myself and post mine.  It ain’t gonna be great, but since no one is paying me for it, it doesn’t have to be.  And neither does yours.


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Two turtledoves

I always loved the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a child.  It was fun to sing, and a challenge to remember all the absurd but dramatic gifts one lover gave to another.  (The Cap’n says an amusing lover’s response to the gifts has toured the Internet and includes an exasperated query about the giver’s obsession with birds, i.e. 23 birds in all!)  And turtledoves, particularly, have powerful associations both Biblically and with romantic love.

However, after a recent experience I have been forever disabused of any romantic notions about turtledoves.  They are native to the Holy Land, rust-colored, but otherwise no different from the mud hens and feathered rats that plague urban areas of Europe and the U.S.

Until last week, we had a pair of them nesting atop our yunkers (boiler) cabinet on our second floor balcony.  When I say “nesting,” I use the term very loosely.  What they had really managed to do was collect a few stray twigs, shed a few feathers, and furnish the rest of their love nest with their own droppings.  I would never have noticed them at all if they had not occasionally gotten the urge to “clean house”, and knock all their spare droppings onto the floor of the balcony (no doubt to “refresh” their nest with newer ones).  I don’t know how many clutches of chicks they had planned to rear in this utterly disgraceful environment, but I hope not many.

After the shocking discovery of this affront to good housekeeping on the balcony where I usually hang my laundry in warm weather, something had to be done.  I spent part of an afternoon decked out in grubby clothing, rubber gloves, rags, highly disinfected water, and my government-issue gas mask, removing all signs of these derelicts.  I superglued rows of spikes to the top of the cabinet, and then gave the floor of the balcony a thorough wash.  After double-bagging the waste (including the rags and gloves) and delivering it immediately to the dumpster, I hope I’ve seen the last of that lot.  (Next job: those damned “calling birds” at 4 AM.)

I would never complain about something like this on the Beit Shemesh chat list because there was a militant animal and bird advocate named Ludmilla on there who would give anyone complaining of filthy birds, feral cats, or Palestinian vipers (the reptilian variety) an earful about the animal’s life, habits, and superior right to existence over humans.  But on my own personal blog I am free to call the shots, and I’m here to tell my readers, bird-lovers and the bird-indifferent, that under NO circumstances should anyone give as a gift two turtledoves to someone they love.

Their worst enemy, on the other hand…

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Mazal tov!


Yesterday, an extraordinary event took place in Efrat.  A couple of gerei tzedek (righteous converts) were married in an outdoor ceremony, and the entire town was invited.

Despite the fact that Efrat’s population is over 9,000 souls, it felt very much like an experience one would have had back in a shtetl 150 years ago, where the towns were so small that all the Jews knew one another and everyone—from the town patriarchs to grubby beggars—would be invited to the celebration.

The preparations included an invitation to the entire yishuv to attend, including requests for baked goods for the kabbalat panim, and a person to contact with donations to help with wedding expenses.  I received a call from a neighbor who was helping to recruit bakers, and offered to deliver my cake (pictured above) to the person organizing the food.

It may not always be easy to get a divorce in the Orthodox world, but the community does its best to make it easy to get married.  Although some people have the desire and means to make a wedding that costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, one can also make a perfectly beautiful wedding on the cheap, outfitting the bride and her attendants in donated wedding and bridesmaids gowns, a chuppah from a gemach (donation center), and cakes and pastries baked by the townspeople, in a beautifully landscaped park in the spring with the sun setting in the west.

When the Cap’n and I got married, our families were able to cover the expense of a mid-priced wedding.  What we lacked, however, were the numbers of family and friends.  Our families were fairly small, living grandparents too elderly or frail to travel, and relatives and friends scattered over the country.  Of the 125 guests invited to our wedding, only 25 were family; the rest were friends, mostly from our community.  As a convert and a ba’al teshuva, we wondered how much direction we should provide about how an Orthodox wedding is executed.  To address this, the Cap’n and I wrote and photocopied a small leaflet explaining the various customs for guests who might be unfamiliar with the procedure.  But the main reason the evening went smoothly was the large number of friends from our community who came and carried the event fluidly from kabbalat panim to chuppah to seudat mitzvah.

I had walked several times through this park in Efrat, admiring the landscaping on the slopes and the wooded area above, with a pergola and brick-paved areas, wondering what the designers could have been thinking.  Last night’s wedding showed how perfectly suited that area could be for a simcha, with the bride holding court in a natural alcove of large rocks and flowers, the groom sitting at one of the tables (where the surface is inlaid with a chess or backgammon board) signing the ketubah with his witnesses.  A large bricked area (suitable for parking) had been set up for dancing, and other areas for tables covered with sweets.

The wedding between two converts was also beautifully timed, falling just before Shavuot.  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who read the ketubah, underscored this connection in a short speech beforehand, reminding us that Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot, was King David’s grandmother and will, according to tradition, be the ancestress of the Mashiach.

In the morning blessings, we read that one of the mitzvot whose fruit we enjoy in this life and whose benefit we reap in the world to come is that of escorting a bride to a chuppah.  It doesn’t say escorting a bride whom we know well, or to whom we are related.  This is why there is no sense of strangeness in participating in and contributing to the wedding of strangers.  The wedding last night was a win-win for the Jews (a situation in which one can see the truth in the expression mitzvah goreret mitzvah, or one mitzvah leads to another); the community helped a couple to marry and fulfill the mitzvah of p’ru u’rvu (be fruitful), and the couple enabled the community to fulfill the mitzvah of escorting the couple to their chuppah.  In addition, the many families who attended (including the Crunches) were able to teach their children about both mitzvot.

The early spring in our community was a period in which many people lost family members, and shiva houses were dotted all over the Gush.  Early summer, on the other hand, has been a season of simcha: a wedding last night, a brit in our community tomorrow (preceded tonight by the neighborhood children going to the home of the new baby and singing Shema and other songs to him to welcome him to our covenant and community), and the festival of Shavuot, followed by Shabbat.

May we merit to know this much joy always.

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Tale of two brains

This was sent to me by one of our local rabbis who had just given a shiur on the concept of “nashim daatan kala” (just so you know there was some context).  I think it explains a lot about the world, don’t you?

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As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, dairy meals on Shavuot are not possible or appealing for everyone.  But one can still avoid meat (treif and otherwise) with a little imagination.  Here is a parve meal that should prove satisfying, without the dairy content.

Lentil soup
Vegetarian shepherd’s pie
Broccoli with olive oil and garlic
Spinach salad with toasted hazelnuts
Parve cheesecake

For the lentil soup, coarsely chop two medium onions and about six medium carrots.  Sauté the onions in about two tablespoons of canola oil until translucent.  Add the carrots and stir to coat with the onions.  Add 1½ cups of dried lentils (sorted, stones removed), seven cups of water, and ½ cup of rice (I use the long, black Canadian wild rice).  Simmer covered for about 40 minutes, until the lentils are soft and the rice is cooked.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

I developed a recipe for shepherd’s pie while working the food bar in a pub in Cambridge, England.  I learned that what most people call shepherd’s pie is actually “cottage pie,” the former being made with ground lamb or mutton, and the latter with ground beef.  This one is neither, so call it what you will.  I usually start by making the mashed potato topping.  In America, I found potatoes that boiled gracefully, but not in Israel.  The ones here disintegrate, so I bake six large ones at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) for about an hour, let them cool, then peel and mash them with a dash of soy milk, about ¼ cup of canola margarine, and salt and pepper to taste.  Next, brown about a pound of vegetarian ground (thawed, if frozen) with a little oil, breaking it into small bits with a spoon.  Using a packet of vegetarian brown gravy mix, add the water (usually a cup) and sprinkle the powder in a little at a time, stirring constantly.  When the gravy begins to thicken, add about half a bag of frozen mixed vegetables straight out of the freezer.  (If you’re not lazy like me and want to chop and par-cook fresh vegetables, kol hakavod.)  Stir to incorporate.  Pour this mixture into the bottom of a deep pie dish, and spread mashed potato over the top.  At this point you can cover the cooled dish with foil and refrigerate.  Before serving, place on a hot plata for about an hour and a half, or in the oven for about 40 minutes at 350 degrees F.

My favorite way to prepare broccoli these days is to make a sauce of olive oil and garlic cloves to accompany it.  Steam fresh broccoli (for about 7 minutes) and let cool completely in a colander.  If serving the next day, store in a bag or container in single layers with paper towel between; this prevents the moisture from making the broccoli mushy.  Break apart and skin an entire head of garlic, just trimming the bottoms of the cloves.  Heat about ¾ cup of olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Add the garlic cloves and cover, letting them fry in the oil.  Check every minute or two, tilting and shaking the pan to fry the garlic evenly.  When the garlic is evenly browned, remove from heat.  Let cool, then store in a separate container.  To serve, let the broccoli warm to room temperature, then toss with the oil and garlic mixture.

There are plenty of delicious spinach salads out there.  This one happens to have caught my fancy because of my love for toasted hazelnuts (called “filberts”) in my native Oregon.  Start by toasting about ½ cup shelled hazelnuts on a baking sheet at 275 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius) for 20-30 minutes or until skins crack.  To remove the skins, rub nuts while warm in a rough dish towel.  Cool and store in an airtight container if making in advance.  (To chop, I put them in a small ziplock bag and beat them with the dorsal side of a heavy knife or cleaver.)  To make the dressing, combine the following ingredients:
2 T. olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 T. Dijon mustard
2 T. honey
1 t. Worcestershire
½ t. salt
¼ t. pepper
Wash a pound of fresh spinach (baby spinach works best in the States; the spinach sold fresh in Israel is all very tender) and place in a salad bowl.  Add ½ cup of Bacos and chopped hazelnuts.  Add dressing and toss well.  Garnish with sliced or chopped hard-boiled eggs.

This cheesecake recipe was published on the Shemeshlist (the Beit Shemesh chat forum) after Shavuot 2007 and utilizes the most innovative advance in vegetarian technology: Tofutti.  For the base, either crush up some biscuits, mix with margarine and press into the base of a tin, or use a ready-made graham pie crust.  Or don’t have a base!  Mix 1 tub of Tofutti Cream Cheese, 1 tub Tofutti Sour Cream ( if not available use another tub of Tofutti cream cheese), 2 eggs, and ½ C. sugar (or ¾ C. sugar depending on how sweet you like it) with a standing or hand mixer until smooth, then pour into base.  Bake in a 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) oven for about 50 minutes.  It shouldn’t get too brown on the top, only a bit round the edges.

Of course, if you aren’t hosting anyone for Shavuot, you can always take advantage of being allowed to cook on the holiday and just enjoy a proper brunch.  This year, the Crunch family isn’t having guests for Shavuot, so I think I’ll haul out the pan that makes heart-shaped pancakes and delight the Crunch girls with pancakes, maple syrup, vegetarian sausage patties, and fruit salad.  When they get older and—b’ezrat Hashem—a little more sophisticated, perhaps we’ll have shakshuka (eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce), Spanish tortilla with salsa, or scrambled eggs and home fries.

Chag Shavuot sameach.

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It is customary on Shavuot to serve dairy foods.  For those for whom meat is not a mitzvah d’oraita every Shabbat and holiday, Shavuot is a breath of fresh air and a nice break from chicken, brisket, and kishke.

What’s the reason for the custom?  Before I looked it up, I had heard that the Jews didn’t learn the laws of meat and dairy until Shavuot.  In that case, I thought, we should grill cheeseburgers (at least on erev Shavuot).  But no, that wasn’t it.  Then I heard it was because the laws of shechita (kosher slaughtering) had not yet been handed down.  Then, I thought, let’s all go to the treif butcher at the supermarket and order a nice Porterhouse, pay one-quarter the price of kosher beef, and let it drip from our chins.  Well, it’s true that after the laws of shechita were given, the Jews had to throw away their pots and pans and kasher their tents, but we’re still not allowed to eat treifah.

Then I looked it up.  Here are six reasons from Aish.com for why it’s customary to eat dairy on Shavuot.  Note that Aish’s Reason #4 calls for having one of the meals be dairy and the other meat to symbolize our dedication to separating the two.  I think that’s a good plan.  And since no one needs my help to plan a festive meat meal (most Jews I know can plan one in their sleep), I will offer my own idea for a dairy meal below.

(Note: I know there are problems with this custom of eating dairy, of course.  People who are lactose intolerant or have dairy allergies want to go hide under a rock during this holiday.  Tomorrow I will offer a suggested menu for a hearty parve meal to enjoy on the holiday.)

Strawberry soup
Salmon with lemon and capers
Lasagna di trei Colori (do I have the Italian right?)
Caesar salad
Ruins of the Lord’s Castle cake (for a new take on this cake, see my later post)

For the strawberry soup, thaw about a cup of frozen strawberries per person.  When soft and juicy (but still cold), dump the strawberries into a blender with their juice.  Add about half a cup of red juice (strawberry, cherry, cranberry, or pomegranate) per cup of strawberries, and blend.  Taste for sweetness, adding a little sugar if necessary to take out the tartness.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Since this is a dairy meal, feel free to garnish with a dollop of vanilla yogurt and some mint leaves.

I do salmon very simply: buy a filet large enough for about 150-200g per person.  Place the whole salmon filet in an oiled baking dish or on a baking sheet, salt and pepper the top, place thin slices of lemon all over, and sprinkle capers over that.  Bake until salmon flakes with a fork in the thickest part, about 25 to 35 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius).

Red lace, cream sauce, pesto.  Can’t decide which kind of pasta sauce you like best?  Why choose?  A version of this lasagna recipe was given to me by a friend in Portland, Oregon, who, with his friends, had an annual lasagna bake-off.  This was the defending champion for several years.  My friend’s version had dollops of each kind of sauce scattered all over the middle layer; I’ve simplified mine with separate layers of each kind of sauce.  Just build a lasagna in the usual way, starting with a layer of red sauce on the bottom of the pan, adding a layer of uncooked standard curly-edged noodles (not the quick-cook kind), ricotta cheese, an optional layer of finely chopped spinach, cream sauce, noodles, ricotta cheese, pesto sauce, noodles, about a cup of hot water, and a top layer of red sauce.  Cover tightly and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) for about 1 hour 15 minutes.  Test for doneness by poking through the layers with a sharp knife.  When noodles are tender, turn up heat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).  Uncover lasagna and sprinkle with a layer of mozzarella cheese.  Return to oven and bake uncovered for 10-15 minutes until cheese is melted and beginning to brown.  Serve immediately, or let cool completely before covering with foil and refrigerating.

My recent post about salmonella notwithstanding, my mother never trusted raw eggs in food.  Therefore, her recipe for Caesar salad calls for chopped hard-boiled egg rather than raw egg in the dressing.  Here it is:

2 medium heads Romaine lettuce
1/3 cup olive oil
Garlic salt
Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground pepper
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
2 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs
6+ tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 cup croutons (homemade are best)

Break lettuce into large pieces in a large salad bowl.  Drizzle oil over lettuce; toss.  Sprinkle a couple of dashes of garlic salt, 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce, pepper, vinegar, lemon juice, eggs, and parmesan cheese.  Toss well.  Add croutons and toss again.  Serve.

Most of the energy that goes into this meal is the dessert; it’s a real potchkee.  That means, of course, that making a cake look like castle ruins is probably a fun activity to do either with kids or other adults; the messier it looks, the better.  The recipe comes from a Russian exchange student my parents hosted many years ago.  My recommendation is to have two families split the labor in making the stuff for it, and then assemble and eat it together.  Otherwise, just make some decadent chocolate chip cookies with butter (and, if you’re like the Cap’n, throw in some butterscotch chips too), or just buy a cheesecake.

1 egg white, beaten
1 cup sugar, divided
1 egg yolk
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda mixed with 1 tablespoon vinegar
Dash salt
2+ tablespoons cocoa
½ cup chopped nuts, moistened with water
Dash cinnamon

Dried fruit, diced (the Cap’n doesn’t eat dried fruit; I would substitute chunks of white, milk, and dark chocolate, or leave it out)
Assorted nuts, chopped

3 egg whites, beaten
1 – 1½ cups sugar

Cream filling
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1 cup milk
2 tablespoon flour
1 cup sugar
Dash vanilla
½ cup butter

Chocolate glaze
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon cocoa
1 – 2 tablespoon brandy or whisky
½ cup butter

To make cake, add 1/3 cup sugar to beaten egg white.  Add yolk, then remaining sugar.  Mix together sour cream, cornstarch, flour, soda, salt, cocoa, nuts and cinnamon.  Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
Combine egg whites and sugar for meringues (castle tops).  Drop onto greased baking sheet by mounds.  Bake just a few minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Make cream filling by cooking ingredients (minus butter) over low heat, stirring constantly.  When it starts to simmer and thicken, remove.  Add butter and stir well; cool.
Make chocolate glaze by mixing ingredients (minus butter) over low heat.  Add butter; cool.  If too thick to drizzle, add milk in small amounts and stirring until the right consistency.
To assemble, spread bottom layer of cake with cream filling, then add top layer.  Coat bottoms of meringues and arrange on top cake layer, then glaze.  Between meringue mounds, sprinkle diced dried fruit and chopped nuts.  Drizzle cream filling between meringues and coat sides of cake.  More nuts and fruit bits, then drizzle glaze all over.

This menu is extremely rich, and pretty intemperate for those counting their calories.  However, Shavuot comes but once a year, and if I’d just had a mountain turned upside-down over my head with the offer to drop it on me if I didn’t take on the Torah and its 613 commandments (as the midrash says Hashem did to the Israelites), I’d be less than concerned about a few calories here and there.  Live it up, people!

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It’s graduation season.  How many of us remember any of the graduation speeches given at high school, college, or beyond?  For me, high school was a yawn, college was a drag.  Graduate school was better—Anita Hill.  (Wish I had every word she said on paper to reread.)

Graduates are so giddy from delight at being finished with the long haul of studies, and full of emotion (delight at being through with exams, regret at the cessation of parties and late-night nacho fests, and perhaps fear at the more sobering future staring them in the face), that it’s usually impossible for them to focus on or remember what was said to them on that day.  I remember lining up for my college graduation, being handed a red carnation to drop at the feet of the trustees on my way to get my diploma (a gesture to protest the college’s investment in businesses that dealt with the then-apartheid South African government), and the popping sound as Irene Zuckerman, the last student to receive her diploma, uncorked a bottle of champagne and poured it on her head and the heads of those sitting near her.  And that’s about it.

So here’s a challenge: If you were to write a graduation speech that’s worth listening to and even more importantly, worth remembering, what would you say?  What’s required to keep the attention of kvelling parents, bored faculty, and spacy students?  Where does the correct balance lie between substance and humor?  (Yes, I said “humor.”  Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here.)  How short can you make it and still make you earn your imaginary honorarium?  What do you have to say that would be of use to a bunch of kids about to be unleashed on the “real world”?

Now write one.  Post it on your own blog, or email it to me at hashimshonit@gmail.com and let me post (part or all) of it here.  Pass this challenge on to other people, and post the challenge on your own blog, too.  Let’s get these things written by June 4 (two weeks from now).

Aaaaaaaannnnnnndddddddd, GO!

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Slogans: Part II

For the first part of this post, see my entry, Slogans: Part I.  Now, to continue…

Why do people use these slogans?  Because they make the message clear and simple.  Because everyone can understand a bully who uses another’s weakness to seize power or possessions.  Because people learn in early childhood that there are two sides to every story, and it is usually the scrappy, ill-equipped underdog rather than the more powerful, better-favored bruiser who wins hearts.  David and Goliath, Odysseus and Poseidon, Harry Potter and Voldemort.  Israel was the darling of the media as long as it was ridiculously outnumbered by its saber-rattling Arab neighbors.  But now the players are different.  It’s an Israel spending a huge chunk of its GDP on the latest weapons technology against a cadre of swarthy “revolutionaries” (who are, though not everyone realizes this, generously funded by oil revenues paid by Uncle Sam).  The reality of what exists here is much more complicated and frankly, it takes too long to get one’s head around the issue.  Better just to stick with the formula everyone knows and loves: Big Guy “bad”; Little Guy “good.”  Israel’s mission to build a state we can be ourselves in and be proud of (and that of the Arabs, for that matter, of destroying said state) are the same as they were from the beginning, but if one appears on CNN to have better fire-power or a more organized government or a higher GDP, then that makes that one the Big Guy and thus, “bad.”

One of the most common things called for by foreign governments as part of the “peace process” is a freeze on building in the “settlements.”  What are the settlements?  They are towns and villages built in the land Israel was left holding at the end of 1967.  Why didn’t Israel give the land back immediately after the war?  Well, they tried.  But when they attempted to invite a coalition of their Arab neighbors for negotiations to return the land, the Arabs met in Khartoum and passed the Khartoum resolutions, also known as the Council of Three Nos: No negotiation with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no peace with Israel.  Israel couldn’t give away the land at the time.  What was Israel to do with it?  The only option remained to keep it.  And given that the Arabs had lost it fair and square in a fight they themselves had started, and the fact that that land contained some of the greatest historical treasures in this part of the world (The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Joseph’s Tomb in Ramallah, and the site of the ancient city of Shilo where the Ark of the Covenant once rested), why not build there?  There was no such thing as a Palestinian people, but Israel was nonetheless generous enough to allow the Arabs who inhabited that land to remain on it rather than expelling them.  No Arabs were evicted to make room for the settlements, and indeed, my own town of Efrat was built in such a way as not even to disturb the vineyards and olive groves of the Arabs who farmed (and continue to farm) here.

Settlers themselves are usually portrayed in the media as farbrennter religious Jews who live here because God told them to.  Some people do indeed live in settlements because the Torah does say that God granted this land as a heritage for the Jewish people, and therefore, if Israel has both a religious and a political mandate to the land, why shouldn’t we settle here?  But that only accounts for a small percentage of settlers.  There are also haredi settlers, like those in Kiryat Sefer and Beitar Illit, who live there because the towns are reasonably well located and it is much easier to afford housing for their usually large families.  Some of these haredi settlers are actually anti-Zionist, and neither support the State of Israel (though it supports them) nor serve in the IDF.  And there are also secular and apolitical Jews who choose to reside in settlements for the small-town feel, affordable housing, quiet, clean air, and good schools.

To say that settlements and settlers are an obstacle to peace is a fallacy.  Were there settlements during the Arab riots of 1920, 1929 and 1936?  Were there settlements in 1948?  Were there settlements during the Sinai campaign?  Were there settlements during the War of Attrition?  (Most settlements were built in the 1970s and 1980s.)  There has not been peace between Arabs and Jews in this part of the world since Avraham Avinu sent Hagar and Ishmael away in the Torah.  And there were certainly no settlements then.

The “wall” is another favorite hot-button issue.  (It’s as controversial in Israel as it is outside, actually, but that’s not important right now.)  Who (of a certain age) can forget the eyesore of the Berlin Wall, and the elation felt by all who watched it get torn down?  Robert Frost wrote that “good fences make good neighbors,” and the Chinese and the Romans certainly proved that.  While it is true that mortars and rockets can still be fired over such a wall, its presence has cut down dramatically on the kind of terror attacks that plagued Israel during the late 1990s and early 2000s, namely suicide bombings.  One of its nicknames is the “apartheid wall.” I find this particularly amusing, considering that it’s the Arabs who seek to found a judenrein state, and insist (along with the West) that Israel keep its Arab population within its borders.  “Security barrier” is a more accurate term, since only 3% of it is actual wall, and the rest is other materials such as chain link fence, trenches, and guard paths.  The parts of the barrier that are solid wall were built to protect motorists from sniper fire coming from Arab-inhabited areas.  While I agree that it is unsightly in places, there would be no need for it—or for security checkpoints along the roads—if Arabs renounced terrorism and violence.  PM Netanyahu is credited with saying, “If the Arabs put down their weapons, there would be peace today.  If the Jews put down their weapons, there would be no Israel.”

One slogan which I find most refreshing to see abandoned is “land for peace.”  Parcels of land, large and small, have been given to the Arabs here in which to govern themselves, police themselves, and support themselves.  Money, too, has been donated by the other nations of the world to enable the Arabs to build the framework for an independent state.  Have there been increasing signs of peace coming from their side?  Alas no.  In the land given for their self-government, quality of life has plummeted, and instead of investing the world’s money in an economy, health care, and education for themselves, the governing Arabs (both Fatah and Hamas) have funneled the money into their own coffers to pay for weapons, training, luxuries and security services for their officials, and cash awards for the families of suicide bombers.  Instead of using the land for farming or development, they destroyed the greenhouses in Gaza purchased from exiting settlers by sympathetic Westerners, and have used the Strip as a giant launching pad for mortars and rockets fired into Israel.  Ironically, instead of peace for the land Israel has given them, Israel has received even more—and more severe—war.  Second Lebanon.  Daily mortar fire on Sderot, Ashkelon, and the western Negev.  Operation Cast Lead.  What’s next on the land-for-peace agenda?  For those with eyes to see, the agenda has to change.  And since the result of giving land to terrorist-governed Arabs has been little more than paying them “protection money” (for which the price continues to rise, benefit to fall, and demand to increase in frequency), perhaps it’s time for a rethink.

So will a two-state solution come to pass?  I don’t know.  Some Israelis support it, especially if giving land to create a stable, peaceful, self-governing and self-supporting Arab state were possible.  But that is clearly not possible right now.  The goal of both Israel and America (and everyone else, if they can see past their coke-bottle PC glasses) should be to turn their attention away from Israel and what everyone likes to believe it’s doing wrong, and focus on what needs to happen in order for the Arabs to create a state for themselves that will succeed, free of terrorism, free of governmental graft and corruption, and suitable to govern itself.  Netanyahu’s proposals are for the first baby steps in that direction.  And one of those steps is to abandon the failures of the past and throw away the tape that keeps playing in everyone’s head: “occupation,” “settlements,” “land for peace,” …

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Slogans: Part I

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have begun their White House talks this week, discussing their different goals and strategies for peacemaking in the Middle East.

Each of their perspectives has been reflected in the press, with Obama adhering to the tried-and-false methods of leaning on Israel to make concessions and give away land to create a Palestinian state as soon as possible, and Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman concluding that the old methods have failed to bear fruit, and it’s time for a fresh approach.  The Israelis have committed themselves to a slower process, creating facts on the ground such as a stronger, more independent economy for the Arabs, leading ultimately to a state more disposed to peace with Israel than what we currently have.

Netanyahu and Lieberman, in their departure from the old methods, have told the West that it must abandon the tired slogans that have been bandied about for decades.  These slogans include “occupation,” “Palestinians,” “settlements,” “security wall,” “land for peace,” and “two-state solution.”  None of these slogans reflects the history of the region or the reality of life here today, and the longer those who truly wish peace in the region employ them, the more elusive peace will be.  I would like to take this opportunity to debunk, once and for all, the myths that are represented by these slogans.

“Occupation” is a word popularly employed by the Arab world to describe Israel’s presence in the territories conquered in the Six Day War of 1967.  It implies (to people unfamiliar with the history of the region) that the Arabs who call themselves “Palestinians” enjoyed their own sovereign state in these territories (Judea, Samaria, and Gaza) before that war, and that Israel aggressively attacked them in order to acquire more land.  This is a lie.  If Israel were ever to return these lands, it would entail placing calls to King Abdullah and Hosni Mubarak, since it was Jordan and Egypt who were the conquerors of this land in 1948, and who were the governments to whom Arabs living in those lands from 1948 to 1967 answered.  So far, no one has insisted that those lands be returned to Egypt and Jordan, and peace was made with both of those countries through other concessions by Israel (the Sinai and 10 million cubic meters of water annually, respectively).  If Israel is indeed “occupying” this land, it is clearly with the blessing of the land’s previous governments.

Before the last 30 years, there was no talk of a native Arab people called “Palestinians.” The name has been invented by Arabs who wish to create a state on this land and who would like to propagate the myth that their ancestors have lived here as far back as Biblical times.  Some Arabs have even attempted to assert that the “Palestinian people” are descended from the ancient Canaanites (though even Arab academics scoff at that great fabrication).  The Arabs who live here were subjects of neighboring Arab states, and most of their ancestors arrived within the last 100 years to find work with the arrival of Jews from Europe in the early waves of immigration.  Both Arabs and Jews living here before 1948 are rightfully called “Palestinians.”

It is true that the Jews now have a homeland, and the Arab people who call themselves “Palestinians” do not.  The world seems to think that this is a problem incumbent on Israel to solve.  Why?  Did the Israelis create the problem by declaring war on their Arab neighbors (multiple times)?  No.  Did Israelis take land that was owned by these Arabs?  Assuredly not.  (Jews around the world donated money for the legal purchase of land from absentee Ottoman landowners before the First World War, and much of that land was lost with the Partition Plan and the subsequent War of Independence.)  Did Jews have less right to flee persecution and pogroms in Europe and seek new opportunity in this land than the Arabs who left their homes to seek economic opportunity?  No.  Are Jews responsible for the Balfour Declaration which promised them a homeland by the British mandatory government?  No.  Must something be done to settle the matter and end the violence in this region?  YES.  And it is this word, “yes,” that the Arabs must learn to say.  “Yes” to renouncing terrorism, “yes” to peace, “yes” to using the money the world is giving them to building themselves up rather than trying to tear Israel down, “yes” to education and modernization and skilled job training and an economy and relations with the West as well as with other Arab nations and pride in what they can accomplish rather than in what they can destroy.

Visit again tomorrow for Slogans: Part II.

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Last year, the Temple Institute in Jerusalem unveiled a completed tzitz, the solid gold crown intended to be worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, in the Temple (whenever we merit to rebuild it).  I was first struck by its beauty, and then by the stirring I always feel in my soul when I see what this organization does to prepare for a return to Temple worship.

But then I was moved by another emotion.  This tzitz would only ever be worn by a man.

Most of the time I study Torah and the disproportionate role men play in it, and don’t really spend time thinking about it.  But now I began to feel irritated, thinking about the rampant corruption, greed, and incompetence in Israel today—in the government and the rabbinate in particular—and thought about how the vast majority of these thieves and charlatans are men.  For there never to rise an honest, learned, devout woman to wear that tzitz seems to me the greatest waste of human endeavor.  (Has no one noticed that a person’s Judaism is only passed through the mother?  If the sleazy excuse that one could traditionally only prove maternity and not paternity still stands, then why doesn’t the status of Kohen and Levi pass through the mother too?)

But to be a woman is to be kept in a holding pattern of potential.  It’s always to look ahead, way down the road, and imagine what life will be like for women in the future.  It’s to celebrate the (sometimes meager-seeming) accomplishments we’ve made through herculean effort and sacrifice, and to see that we’ve only addressed the tip of the iceberg of inequality.  To be a woman is to be an optimist; otherwise, life would be unbearable.

My consolation in seeing this completed tzitz right now is that we are so far from even having a man be allowed to wear it that the fact that a woman will likely never wear it doesn’t bother me so much.  As a human race, and especially as Jews, we have so far to go before the Temple service will be re-established, that at this time I think the effort to get to a place where a person—any person—could wear it is challenge enough.  And who knows?  Perhaps by the time we merit to rebuild the Temple, the rules will have changed and women will carry kahuna status.  Absurd?  Perhaps.  But hey, we finally got the vote, didn’t we?

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Finding your other half

The Cap’n and I recently celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary.  In honor of nine years of fun, laughs, mind-boggling accomplishment (of which our four children are only a part), and true friendship, I thought I might share some of Shimshonit’s Finding the One tips.

I have observed that people tend to be attracted to the same type of person and don’t always realize it.  I once had a conversation with a woman who was recently divorced.  I had known her husband, so when she told me she was looking for something different, I was all ears.  She told me about a man she had met with whom she was spending time regularly.  As she described him, I realized she could easily be describing her ex-husband.  This woke me up to the fact that while we may set out after a failed relationship to find something different, we must do some thinking before we allow ourselves to repeat the choices of the past.

I took time out when thinking about married life to imagine what I wanted my marriage—and myself—to look like.  What kind of father did I want my children to have?  What traditions would we have in the household?  What religion would be observed at home?  What kind of upbringing would we give our children?  And what kind of mother should I be?  When I decided for myself that I wanted a Jewish home, I was forced to come face to face with the fact that I was not, according to most Jews in the world, Jewish.  I could have chosen only to move within the world of Reform Judaism, disregarding the rest of the Jewish world.  But I wanted for myself and my (then future) children to be able to move freely in the Jewish world—in America, Israel, and everywhere else.  To be an attractive marriage candidate for a Jewish man who cared about such things, I would have to go to work making myself properly Jewish.  I quit my job, came to Israel, and embarked on an intensive program of remedial Jewish study.  (That’s an extreme course to take; most people can pursue some sort of formal or informal Jewish study where they live.)

What I did NOT do when planning my future family was invent deadlines.  When I finally decided what I wanted, and determined that my wants and expectations were reasonable, I was prepared to wait.  A friend of mine from college had her life mapped out at the age of 22.  She told me she would meet a man with the appropriate Christian beliefs, marry at 28, and have two children by the age of 33.  I asked her how she could possibly know all this, but she had her mind made up.  (I bumped into her ten years later on the street and none of the things she’s planned for herself had come to pass.)  The truth is, we don’t always know when we will meet the right person, and baruch Hashem, we don’t live in a time and culture where girls have to be married by a certain age or they lose all prospects.  I know men and women who married for the first time in their late thirties, forties, and even fifties.  I had decided before coming to Israel the first time that if I had to wait until I was 80 to meet the right man, then I would wait (though clearly the children part would probably not happen then).

When I was done dating for recreation and psychological experimentation and decided to look for a partner in earnest, I decided to go about it the scientific way: with a list.  In my head (though one could use pen and paper), I listed the qualities, based on my experience of trial and error, that I thought would make a successful candidate.  I took into account the few good qualities of the individuals with whom I had spent my spare time up to that point, and added to it my wish list of qualities based on my own weaknesses.  Where I was weak, I would look for someone with strengths in that area.  Where I was strong, I might not avidly seek a person with the exact same strengths.  I also noted which qualities were deal-breakers (kindness, willingness to pitch in with household chores) and which were desirable but not essential (neatness, a good singing voice).

Interests were also important.  I thought about the man who said he could never be in a relationship with a woman who didn’t love bluegrass music.  I’m not even sure I know what bluegrass sounds like, so perhaps I’m biased.  But I don’t think it’s wise to insist that a person like a particular type of music (rather than music in general), or be ethnically exotic, or look like Princess Diana.  (Don’t laugh; there are such people in the world, and many of them are still single.)  If I have 10 areas of serious interest, I think it’s reasonable that my partner for life share half of them.  I lucked out: the Cap’n is an accomplished pianist (something I am not, though I sing and play the flute), enjoys classical music (an appreciation I share), reads widely (usually stuff I don’t read, but which I am happy to talk about with him), loves to go to movies (and sees British costume stuff with me, while I go to Star Trek movies with him), and hates camping (though a good hike is always greeted with enthusiasm).  He has interests I don’t share and vice versa, but we have plenty to enjoy together as well as separately.

Some things must be negotiable.  Someone who dates only people who look like Scarlett Johanssen or Ioan Gruffudd may find themselves compromising on more important issues.  I once heard that someone should look good enough for you to want to hold his hand in public (even if you are shomeret negiah and don’t actually hold hands in public).  There is something to the cultural wisdom about “Beauty is as beauty does” and the Beauty and the Beast story.  Sometimes a person’s inner beauty outshines by far his outer beauty.  To know a person well enough to see the inner beauty should be seen as a privilege that not everyone shares.

Money is also important (poverty is incredibly stressful), but my Cousin Bertie’s advice that “You’ll never marry a poor girl if you never date one” is perhaps a little too materialistic.  (Bertie’s been married several times.)  It’s reasonable to want someone who is a wage-earner (or is willing to be); it’s less reasonable to expect a potential spouse to be a Fortune 500 CEO.  Money enough to feed, clothe, and house you both (and your children, iy”h) is essential.  But greater financial security can be achieved in a relationship where both partners recognize that family and friends are more important than wealth, that money is a means to an end, and that doing without things is sometimes healthier than owning or doing everything you want.

The deal-breakers should probably depend on the answers to some tough questions:
· How does the person treat others?  His mother?  Women in general?  People who report to him at work?  Intellectual inferiors?  Poor or mentally ill people?  Animals?  Appliances that don’t work?
· How does he behave in a crisis?  When he’s lost?  When he loses something?  In a car accident?  When he’s sick?  When you’re sick?
· Is he honest?  I’m not talking about the guy who tells you you look great when you know you don’t, though that’s certainly nice.  Does he deal honestly in business?  Does he cheat on his taxes?  Does he lie about important things?  Is he afraid to say “I don’t know” if he really doesn’t know something?  Do his words match his actions and behavior?
· Is there anything between you that might make a long-term relationship difficult (or impossible), like alcoholism, drug use, chronic illness, history of neglect or abuse, legal problems, mental illness, or kleptomania?
· Are your religious/spiritual beliefs reasonably similar?  Do you agree on how the household should be run, and how holidays should be celebrated?
· Can you picture yourself growing old with him?
· Would you want your children to grow up to be like him?

Before I met the Cap’n, I decided that a spouse should be a friend, lover, fellow parent and wage-earner, but also something else: a teacher.  However a man checked out on my list of desirables, deal-breakers, and Tough Questions, I wanted the person I would spend my life with to be someone from whom I could learn something valuable.  Examining my greatest flaws and thinking about what I had yet to learn, I found things in the Cap’n that he could teach me: patience, generosity, financial sense, and how to analyze problems in ways I never did before.  And I flatter myself that despite my manifold flaws, I’ve perhaps been able to impart some minor skills and wisdom to him in return.

I’m no Dear Abby or matchmaker or “relationship coach.”  I’m just someone who made lots of mistakes and eventually lucked out finding a partner.  The places I have found the sagest advice about dating and relationships are the Aish.com website, Barbara DeAngelis’s seminars and books (which taught me that couples can actually fight constructively), and couples I’ve observed throughout my life.  I also recommend Suze Orman’s books on managing one’s finances to put money into perspective.

I welcome any reader perspectives on this issue, including thoughts, experiences, and other good sources of advice.

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Risk and salmonella

One of many chat lists to which I subscribe is the Israel Food list, where English-speakers all across Israel and the Diaspora convene to swap recipes, give advice, inquire about where to buy hard-to-find items, and generally do what Jews do best: discuss food.

Recently, a discussion took place about making recipes using raw eggs.  One person asked if there was less risk of contracting salmonella from eating raw eggs in Israel than elsewhere.  Most people agreed that the risk is as high here as anywhere else in the world, but die-hard mousse fans dismissed the risk as an obstacle.  Below was one such die-hard’s response to the discussion:

I think the threat of salmonella from raw eggs is brought to you by the same people who want to put helmets on kids who ride tricycles, or keep them in carseats until they’re old enough to drive. (Seriously, the recommendation in the US now is until age 8. Do you know ANYONE here who would put a 7 year old in a carseat?) It’s the mentality that says that if we do everything “right” that nothing bad can happen to us, ever. As opposed to those of us who have chosen to live our lives here, who understand that life involves risks and balances and that everything ultimately is not in our control.

There is probably a very small, but real, risk of contracting salmonella from any given raw egg, just as there is a very small, but real, risk of getting hit head-on by a crazy driver, or tossed over by an Arab bulldozer, every time you get into a car. You can either give up mousses and Caesar salads and driving, or you can enjoy what life has to offer and worry about the real risks. Like Israeli drivers. They’re WAY more dangerous than salmonella.

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I have written a post about the Crunch family’s Lag B’Omer experience this year.  You can read it (and see the cake I baked for last Lag B’Omer) over at Frum From Rebirth.

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The Pope descends

Pope Benedict XVI landed in Israel yesterday for a 5-day visit, only the third papal visit to Israel in history.  (Of course that’s not bad, since the Vatican only decided to recognize Israel in 1993.  I’m still not sure I’ve gotten around to recognizing the Vatican yet.)

He has a jam-packed schedule which was printed in several places in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post.  One of the published schedules was considerate enough to include which parts of Jerusalem would be shut down (street-by-street) on which days.  This was relevant because while we had plans to go up to the city to enjoy a barbecue lunch with friends today, we would not have been able to do so tomorrow when the Pope visits nearby Bethlehem and the streets are vehicle-rein for the duration.

In general, the Pope’s visit is a nice thing.  It’s a warm gesture toward Jews from a quarter whose record on Jews has been historically less than warm and fuzzy.  It’s an apolitical show of support for the idea of peace in the region (sort of like that of a beauty pageant contestant’s).  And it’s an effort to hearten the beleaguered and dwindling Christian community in this part of the world, whose existence is of no particular interest to the Jews, but an irritant to the Muslims who have pursued a program of harassment and intimidation that has led to most of the Christians leaving the country.

One thing that is not nice, however, is the effort the Vatican has been making to gain control over a number of buildings in Israel, including many in Jerusalem.  Chief among the latter is the building housing the room where the Last Supper is reputed to have taken place, but which also houses a yeshiva and the tombs of Kings David, Solomon, and Hezekiah.  I am not well versed in the legal aspects of what is Church property and what isn’t, or what sort of terms exist between the Vatican and Israel for the transfer of control of property.  But while Israel may stand to benefit financially from an increase in Christian pilgrimage to sites turned over to Catholic control, it would clearly represent a loss to the Jews of one of the most meaningful sites we possess on Mt. Zion.  The rooftop of the yeshiva was, between the years 1948 and 1967, the closest a Jew could get to the Temple Mount, and yeshiva students would often pray up there.  The tomb of three of our greatest kings cannot possibly mean as much to Christians as it does to us.  But the bitterest feeling I have about the possible transfer of these properties to the Vatican is the question, “What do we get from them?”  I don’t think collateral revenue is enough for the transfer of a royal tomb.  I have something a little more substantial in mind: the vessels from the Second Temple.

I don’t believe the Pope, a former member of the Hitlerjugend, is proud of his wartime activities.  I believe he takes seriously his role as an advocate of world peace. He has denounced anti-Semitism.  He has renounced Catholic missionary activity.  And I think he recognizes when terrorism and religious extremism represent roadblocks to peace, even if he can’t point a finger and say, “There are the bloodthirsty bastards who are holding up the parade!”

These are all reasons why I think he should take his goodness a step further and return our plundered property.  There is little doubt in anyone’s mind (who considers the historical events of nearly 2000 years ago) where the golden menorah carved in relief on the Arch of Titus ended up.  The Jews led off to Rome ended up slaves, and the Temple vessels ended up…in the vaults of the Vatican.  They are not on display, and I doubt the Church has ever admitted to having them in its possession.  But just as Hamas kidnapping Gilad Shalit and keeping him in an undisclosed location with no contact with his family or visits from the Red Cross is a crime of world-class proportions, so is sitting on property stolen from the Jews.  I don’t blame the Church entirely for its possession of these items; after all, it wasn’t Christians who stole the stuff, but the Romans.  But relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews have warmed in the past two millenia, and it’s time to mark that fact with something momentous.  If Jews are entitled to claim their dead ancestors’ life insurance benefits (purchased by Jews who perished in the Shoah) and priceless works of art stolen by the Nazis that occasionally come to light in collections across Europe, surely the Jewish people (now represented by the State of Israel) is entitled to the recovery of vessels which were once used in the biblically mandated service of God.

If it were up to me, this would be a deal-breaker: Give us back our stuff from the Temple and you can have your buildings back.  In about 2000 years.

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This is my own response to my post yesterday.

Women sometimes can’t help feeling down.

It’s expensive to be a woman: make-up, sanitary supplies, haircuts, perms, coloring, waxing, nail wraps (whatever those are).  Women’s clothing costs more, for less coverage.  We get paid less on the job, financially screwed in divorce, and end up with less social security and no health insurance if we stay home with our kids.

Women get the lion’s share of discomfort and embarrassment in life.  Cramps, morning sickness, childbirth, hot flashes.  Stocking runs, slipped slips, broken heels, Katerina Witt’s “wardrobe malfunction.”  We’re never out of diapers (of one kind or another) except between the ages of three and eleven (or during pregnancy).  Birth control is usually our job, involving pills that mess with our hormones, latex that causes allergic reactions, or invasive procedures that cannot be discussed on a family blog.

Women rarely design clothing for women, which is why shirts get shorter, waistbands drop below the hip bones, and platform shoes keep coming back into fashion.  Fashion models look ridiculous in these clothes, and the rest of us unspeakable.  The Billy Crystal expression, “It’s more important to look good than to feel good” is our mantra.  Baby clothes have pockets, but maternity clothing doesn’t.

In the animal world, the males are usually the ornate sex, preening, strutting, and fighting to win the attention of the plainer, but perfectly respectable, females.  What are we humans missing, that women bend over backwards to make themselves resemble babies (hairless, even-toned skin, wide eyes, full red lips) to attract males?  Why do supermodels have to look like the Girl Next Door and a $10 whore at the same time?

Women do most of the chores around the house, even if both spouses work.  This means cleaning up, doing laundry, shopping, and cooking for themselves, their partners, and their children.  Women are the only ones who see dirty dishes, dust, grease spots, and head lice; men are blind to these things.  No wonder men remarry so quickly after divorce, and women rarely do.

Years ago there was a study done that asked men and women what they feared most from members of the opposite sex.  The result?  Men most feared being laughed at by women; women feared being killed by men.

Yet there’s always hope.  One of these elections, a woman is actually going to get elected president.  (Hillary came close.)  Someday, Orthodox men will acknowledge when a woman has mastered everything a rabbi has to, and will actually call her “rabbi.”  Maybe someday researchers will develop drugs to make men lactate, or at least develop a birth control pill for men. In the meantime, after thousands of years of being clubbed and dragged around by the hair, women can vote.  Women can keep their last names if they wish.  Those who are sick of having to display their muffin-top in the latest fashionable clothes can always rebel and bring the muu-muu back into fashion.  Women can choose to do all the chores, or choose not to.  And when all is said and done, there is no substitute for the life-affirming experience of pregnancy, childbirth, or nursing a baby, discomfort and all.  I can’t think of a greater symbol of hope than being a woman.

Womanhood.  Think I’ll keep it.

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This was forwarded to me by my mother.  When I Googled it, loads of people had posted it on their sites.  If anyone knows its origin, please let me know so I can credit the appropriate (probably female) funnyperson.

Men are just happier people.

What do you expect from such simple creatures? Your last name stays put. The garage is all yours. Wedding plans take care of themselves. Chocolate is just another snack. You can be President. You can never be pregnant. You can wear a white T-shirt to a water park. You can wear NO shirt to a water park. Car mechanics tell you the truth. The world is your urinal. You never have to drive to another gas station restroom because this one is just too icky. You don’t have to stop and think of which way to turn a nut on a bolt. Same work, more pay. Wrinkles add character. Wedding dress $5000; tux rental-$100. People never stare at your chest when you’re talking to them. New shoes don’t cut, blister, or mangle your feet. One mood all the time.

Phone conversations are over in 30 seconds flat. You know stuff about tanks. A five-day vacation requires only one suitcase. You can open all your own jars. You get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness. If someone forgets to invite you, he or she can still be your friend.

Your underwear is $8.95 for a three-pack. Three pairs of shoes are more than enough. You almost never have strap problems in public. You are unable to see wrinkles in your clothes. Everything on your face stays its original color. The same hairstyle lasts for years, maybe decades. You only have to shave your face and neck.

You can play with toys all your life. One wallet and one pair of shoes — one color for all seasons. You can wear shorts no matter how your legs look. You can ‘do’ your nails with a pocket knife. You have freedom of choice concerning growing a mustache.

You can do Christmas shopping for 25 relatives on December 24 in 25 minutes.

No wonder men are happier.

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Peach brought this exercise home from her mechina (kindergarten prep).  Note where every creature lives:

There ought to be a new bracha in birkat hashachar: she’lo asani chatul.

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The mock trial team at Maimonides School has made school history.  According to the New York Times, “Earlier this spring, the Maimonides School, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Brookline, Mass., won the state mock trial championship — and with it a coveted spot in the prestigious national competition in Atlanta this weekend. But the finals of the tournament fall on Saturday, and the students do not compete on the Sabbath.”  (Complete article here)

National competition organizers are refusing to change the schedule to allow the Maimonides team to compete in the finals, so the team will compete on Friday, but have to sit out the rest of the competition.  Both sides have hired legal counsel, but the outcome of any legal process is unclear.

This reminds me of “Chariots of Fire,” when frum Presbyterian short-distance runner Eric Liddell refuses to compete in qualifying heats on a Sunday in the 1924 Paris Olympics.  Several members of the committee representing the British athletes attempt to persuade Liddell to set aside his Sabbath observance in order to serve king and country, but he refuses.  Were it not for a fellow athlete who bursts into the meeting (or, as Liddell calls it, “inquisition”) and offers his place in an upcoming race, Liddell would have been on the receiving end of a free—but fruitless—trip to Paris.

And now Maimonides students are swallowing a similar pill in America.  The chairman of the mock trial board defends the board’s refusal to alter the finals schedule to allow the Jewish students to compete, saying, “We’re charged with running a fair and equal national competition for all of the teams…  Who you play, when you play them, has a ripple effect on who you play next and the outcome.”  I’m sure he’s right.  And I’m sure that schedules like these are made taking the majority—i.e. Christian or non-religious students—into account.  I’m sure awarding special dispensations and schedule changes to accommodate religious views looks like a slippery slope to people living in a society where church and state are (supposedly) clearly separated.

Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University and father of Leah, one of the team captains, “said the team was learning a legal lesson about ‘what it means to be a minority group.’”  Truer words were never spoke.  While the SATs are normally administered on Saturdays, Orthodox Jewish students are permitted to take them on Sundays instead.  But these competitions are not the SATs (and the College Board doesn’t stand to make a penny).  This is a nationwide competition with great prestige, spots at which are hard-won by the competitors.  It’s a grave lesson for Jewish students to learn about living in a non-Jewish country.  It reminds me of how my mother used to explain things that were unfair to Jews in America by saying, “The Christians were here first.”  (Actually, the native Americans were, but that’s not important right now.)  It raises questions in my mind about who makes the rules, whether equal access for people of faith is really guaranteed (where no one would dream of making a student in a wheelchair unable to compete), and whether the separation of church and state was really meant to be a tool to keep religious people out of certain milieux or, at times, to force them to choose between church and state.

I can remember how it felt not to be a religious Jew.  I remember thinking their observance of Shabbat was a bit silly, given how everyone else in America normally conducted their lives on Saturdays.  I remember not understanding how people could live by such absolutes as kashrut and Shabbat observance, and how antiquated that seemed.  And I remember how inconvenient it seemed to me when one Sabbath-observant girl in my college choir needed special travel arrangements when we were singing out of town, to be sure she arrived by sundown on Friday.

But the fact is, the officers of the choir bent over backwards to make sure this one girl reached her destination without violating the Sabbath.  Why?  Because she mattered.  Because she was part of the whole.  Because she wanted to participate, and we wanted her to.  Because excluding her whenever we sang somewhere else would have been petty and mean when the means to include her were within our reach.

I’m sure the mock trial competition has circumstances that differ from the examples I’ve brought in this post.  But I will still be disappointed if Maimonides is not able to participate fully in this event.  To have come so far in the Commonwealth, only to be stonewalled by the Nation, would be a sad commentary on how far Jews have really come.

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Treppenwitz recently posted on his blog a list of 50 binary choices, indicating his preferences.  I found the list interesting, and at times, amusing.  I found it a very personal list (as personal as the choices themselves), and masculine to boot.  I have compiled my own (more feminine) list, using his as a jumping-off point.  (Between Wilma and Betty or Ginger and Maryanne, I have no preference.)  As on Trep’s list, my preferences are in bold.  I have reserved my woman’s prerogative not to choose and, being a person of manifold opinions, I have included commentary where applicable.

1. Milk Chocolate or Dark Chocolate (Note that there is no White Chocolate here.  That’s because chocolate cannot be white.)
2. Elite or Vered HaGalil
3. Scotch or Bourbon (Neither; Port.)
4. Treadmill or Elliptical Trainer
5. American Literature or English Literature
6. Soccer or Basketball
7. Ketchup or Mustard (Except on french fries; then salt and vinegar.)
8. Ice Cream or Sorbet
9. Downhill or X-Country
10. Mac or Windows (I understand there are people who switch from Windows and learn to love Macs.  But I fear change.)
11. Horns or Synthesizers
12. Beer or Hard Cider
13. Aisle or Window (I actually prefer the light and view of a window seat, but I’m also claustrophobic.)
14. Republican or Democrat (Neither. Democrats think Republicans are greedy and evil, and Republicans think Democrats are stupid and naïve.  They’re both right.)
15. Root Beer or Cream Soda
16. Florida or California
17. Smoking or Non-Smoking (You know how I feel about this.)
18. Plane or Train
19. Rowing or Canoeing
20. Fall or Spring (Both are wonderful.)
21. France or Italy
22. Dog or Cat
23. Teriyaki or Sushi
24. Massage or Facial
25. Tea or Coffee
26. Sugar or Splenda  (What’s Splenda, Precious?)
27. Fiction or Non-Fiction (Why choose?)
28. Burned to a Crisp or Bloody as Hell (Neither: carbon is carcinogenic and raw carries salmonella.)
29. John or Paul
30. Flats or Heels (A woman should always be able to run in her shoes without looking like a sissy.)
31. Pants or Skirts (This includes kilts for men.)
32. Army or Navy (All the girls love a sailor, and their uniforms are so much smarter.)
33. Dark Meat or White Meat
34. Seattle or Portland
35. Youth or Middle Age (The latter is MUCH more interesting.)
36. Flooring or Carpet
37. Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig
38. Dressed Salad or Dressing On The Side
39. Fitzgerald or Hemingway
40. Long Hair or Short Hair
41. Driver or Passenger
42. Coder or WYSIWYG (I asked the Cap’n, “What’s wussywig?”  He says it’s what I am.)
43. Crossword or Sudoku
44. Day-trips or Camping
45. Thongs or Bikinis (I’m not discussing underclothing on a family blog.  Besides, I can’t understand anyone purposely giving herself a wedgie or worse, in the case of a bathing suit, displaying her butt in public.)
46. Clean-As-You-Go or Throw-All-the-Dishes-In-The-Sink
47. Indoors or Al Fresco (I love fresh air, but not bugs in my drink.)
48. Arwen or Eowyn
49. Saturday Night Live or Monty Python
50. Israel or America (Surprised you, didn’t I?)

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Years ago I had a conversation with a born-Jewish friend in the months leading up to my Orthodox conversion. We were discussing Shabbat menus, and my yen for ethnic food prompted her to say, “I wonder what kind of Jew you’ll make.”

That sounded like a really insensitive thing to say, but I knew what she meant. I was not like the other Jews she knew—either the frum-from-births or the ba’alei teshuva. It makes me think of some of the oddities of my situation in the Jewish world. I know I’m a convert when…

· I’m hanging out with other converts in my former home town in New England, and when I mention that my ancestors first arrived in America on the Mayflower, they say, “You too?”
· my idea of a great Shabbat meal is tandoori chicken kebabs, aloo gobi, rice cooked with cardamom pods, and coconut rice pudding for dessert.
· gefilte fish and herring in wine sauce look, smell, and taste like cat food. Admit it.
· someone who grew up Jewish corrects my pronunciation, such as when I say “white fish salad” with equal stress on white and fish, and I’m informed that it’s pronounced WHITEfish (one word), and that chicken soup is pronounced CHICKensoup (also one word).
· everyone’s knickers are in a twist over kol isha, and all I can think is, “So WHAT?”
· I’m parading around shul holding three branches and a lemon and saying to myself, “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”
· I explain to my kids that “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a teshuva story.
· I overhear a born-Jew complaining about Judaism and saying, “Really—who signs up for this?” and all I can do is laugh until I cry.
· I get a little thrill every time I open a bottle of non-mevushal wine.
· I actually believe I was not Jewish before immersing in the mikvah, and was Jewish when I emerged from it.

(Many ba’alei teshuva may see themselves in some of these situations. This isn’t meant to exclude them; it’s just a few things I and other converts I know have experienced.)

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