Archive for June, 2009

The Cap’n cooks

This past Shabbat, the Cap’n undertook all the menu planning, shopping (which he usually does), and cooking.  (He also loaded the dishes in the dishwasher, but he usually does that, too.)  This is the second, maybe the third time he has done this in the nine years of our marriage.

This was a particular relief for me because I’ve been wearing a little thin lately.  I’ve found that in Israel, people don’t invite Shabbat guests (or eat out at someone else’s house) every week, as people did in our community in the US.  Families here are bigger, dining rooms smaller, food just as expensive, salaries invariably lower, and with children in school and activities and field trips until all hours, Shabbat is the only time during the week in which families can sit down to a leisurely meal together.  So while we’ve been hosting guests in our home nearly every week, we find that our invitations out are sparser.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I love being a homemaker right now, and I thoroughly enjoy planning, cooking, and entertaining.  I’m a fairly accomplished self-taught cook, and I also enjoy tasting what other people like to make in their homes.  But there are times when I feel as though my brand of Judaism was invented by Martha Stewart.  When the autumn holidays add up to 19 festive meals in less than three weeks (add four more meals if you’re in the Diaspora), that stretches one’s creativity, patience, enthusiasm, and pocketbook.  Rosh Hashanah involves eating symbolic foods and saying special prayers for the coming year.  (Some people plan a meal where the dishes have the simanim built in, which saves some effort.)  For Sukkot, one makes fancy meals, then shleps them outside to eat in the sukkah.  Passover involves overhauling the kitchen, buying 10 dozen eggs, preparing a seder plate, and making a series of meals with a limited number of very expensive ingredients.  Shavuot, for those who can eat dairy, is a relief: make a lasagna, buy a cheesecake, BOOM.  Done.

But in addition to all of these meals, there is still Shabbat to prepare every week.  One can cut corners, of course: use paper plates instead of china, have the guest bring a dish or two, buy some of the food already prepared, make simple food that can be cooked in a short amount of time.  But for people like me who don’t have a set Shabbat menu and who like to experiment making new things, simplicity and time-saving measures can sometimes be elusive.  When that happens, I find myself in the kitchen for half of Thursday and all of Friday.

I freely admit that I bear most of the blame for my own frustration.  Deservedly or not, I am more than a little vain about my cooking.  I enjoy ethnic foods, and after living in the Boston area with only a handful of kosher restaurants, I’ve been forced to learn to cook the kinds of foods I like to eat (e.g. Indian, authentic Mexican, Italian).  I like a table to look beautiful when people sit down to it, and that is much more easily achieved with my English china, silver flatware, and cloth napkins than with the plain sort of paper goods one buys in the grocery stores here.  (It also saves the guests bendy knives and broken forks.)  And I find most prepared food, even here in Israel where there is so much to choose from, much greasier and less fresh-tasting than homemade food.  For the sake of health and my enjoyment of the meal, I generally avoid buying prepared food.

So I’m trapped.  Between my vanity, fussiness, health-consciousness, and obligation to observe kashrut and Shabbat, there seems to be no way out.  I sometimes try to imagine leaping off the derech and becoming secular, but I know I would be miserable.  I would miss the social contact, the ritual, and the incentive to cook the best food I cook all week.  Shabbat is a slave-driver, but without it, I would become lethargic and indolent.

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Where to host the brit

The Cap’n forwarded me this teshuvah from Rav Shlomo Aviner’s English blog:
Q: I just had a difficult birth which resulted in my having many stitches, and I want to rest at my mother’s house.  My husband is opposed since he wants to have the Brit Milah at his parents’ house.  What should we do?
A: You take precedence.  When he gives birth, the Brit Milah can be at his parents’ house.

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At kiddush on Shabbat, an Israeli friend of mine asked if I’d heard the speech by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey from the Senate floor.  I hadn’t (I live in a news-free bubble during the week) but took the opportunity after Shabbat to check out the text of his speech.

I don’t love too many politicians, but this man laid out the facts on Israel in a way that would do any Israeli hasbara professional proud.  His remarks were addressed to “Mr. President,” probably the President of the Senate, i.e. Vice President Joseph Biden.  But they might just as easily have been addressed to President Barack Obama, who played fast-and-loose with the facts of Israel’s history in his recent Cairo speech, repeating some of the worst anti-Israel canards circulating in the Arab world.  Here is the link to Menendez’s speech in its entirety.

Some highlights:

While the Shoah has a central role in Israel’s identity, it is not the reason behind its founding and it is not the main justification for its existence.

The extreme characterization of this mistaken view is the following: The Western powers established Israel in 1948 based on their own guilt, at the expense of the Arab peoples who lived there. Therefore, the current state is illegitimate and should be wiped off the face of the map.

This flawed argument is not only in defiance of basic human dignity but in plain defiance of history. It is in defiance of ancient history as told in biblical texts and through archeological evidence. It ignores the history of the last several centuries. Because of what is at stake, it is well worth reviewing this history in detail, and let me make a modest attempt at a very broad overview.

So to be clear, the more than 700,000 Palestinians who left Israel [during the 1948 War of Independence] were refugees of a war instigated by Arab governments, bent on seizing more land for themselves. But the Arabs who left Israel after its modern founding weren’t the only displaced population in the Middle East. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who left Europe during and after the Holocaust in the 20th century, more than three-quarters of a million Jews fled or were expelled from their homes in Arab and Middle Eastern nations—in cities that many of their families had lived in for nearly a millennium. Their possessions were taken, their livelihoods were destroyed, victims of nationalism and hatred of Israel.

Several thousand years of history lead to an undeniable conclusion: The reestablishment of the State of Israel in modern times is a political reality with roots going back to the time of Abraham. And so the way to consider the immeasurable impact of the Holocaust in Israel is not to ask whether the State would exist otherwise. It is, at least in one sense, to imagine how even more vibrant Israel would be if millions upon millions had not been denied a chance to know it. The attacks on Israel have barely stopped since 1948—not just attacks by armies but attacks by individuals, attacks by tanks and terrorists, attacks that have come in the form of stones and they have come in the form of speeches. Its enemies have attempted to assassinate its people with rockets and assassinate its national character with hateful rhetoric.

And even today, after the consequences of menacing Israel became clear in a disastrous war, weapons are flowing freely through tunnels into Gaza, Hamas has rearmed and is readying itself for the day when it is going to take on Israel again. Hamas and Hezbollah may be the head of the snake when it comes to terrorism, but the tail extends much further. The weapons terrorists use were sent from Iran. Money they received was sent from Iran. Propaganda supporting Hamas’s campaign of terror and calling for Israel’s destruction was conceived in, produced by, and broadcast from Iran.

The fundamentalist regime in Teheran isn’t just an emerging threat. It doesn’t just have the potential to be a threat to Israel’s existence. It is a threat to Israel’s existence. Under no circumstances whatsoever can we allow that conventional threat to become a nuclear one. Especially in light of the threat of Iran, and in light of the threat extremists pose to so many innocent civilians around the globe, the importance of Israel as a strategic ally and friend to the United States could not be clearer.

There can be no denying the Jewish people’s legitimate right to live in peace and security on a homeland to which they have had a connection for thousands of years. We can and must move forward in the peace process, and look for ways to reach agreement between all sides. But we cannot erase the moral distinctions between tyranny and freedom, and we must not edit history. If we stay true to history and follow our moral compass, I am optimistic that talks can lead to understanding and resolution of the very sensitive, detailed, and tough issues we face.

My only concern at this point is, Who besides the Jews was listening to the Senator?

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“Voice of a revolution”

The Jerusalem Post international edition online reported yesterday about a 16-year-old girl named Neda (Seraphic Secret‘s post says her name was Neda Salehi Agha Soltan, and that she was 27) who was shot and killed “by a member of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary organization, which takes orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards under the direction of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini” while observing a demonstration in Tehran.  In other worlds, this girl was killed not by a hired thug, but by a volunteer thug.  I really don’t know which is worse.

Looking more and more like Beijing’s Tiananmen Square these days, Tehran is finally getting some well-deserved bad press.  Of course, those evil Zionists are to blame, says Ahmedinejad’s (y”s) government, but quite honestly, this kind of protest by Iranians is long overdue in my opinion, and we evil Zionists couldn’t have done it better ourselves.

Only one thing frosted me about the Post’s reporting.  At the end of the piece, the reporter writes, “A popular re-tweet [on Twitter] … compared Neda to Muhammad al-Dura, a Palestinian boy shot and killed during the first days of the Second Intifada, who became the face of the Palestinian uprising.  ‘Like Mohammed Al Dura the kid killed by Israeli soldiers in 2000, the image of Neda killed by a Basij in 2009 will remain with me forever,’ read the re-tweet.”

I don’t look for fact, or even intelligence, on Twitter.  It’s the voice of the people, after all, in a tuneless cacophony.  But I feel it incumbent on me to point out a serious factual error here.

Mohammed Al Dura, a 12-year-old Palestinian Arab boy who, with his father, was taking cover during an exchange of fire between Palestinian Arabs and IDF, was indeed shot.  The initial press reports proclaimed that the boy had been killed by Israeli soldiers.  However, what this Twittering twit doesn’t seem to be aware of is that an investigation was carried out which re-enacted the events and showed that the boy could only have been killed by Palestinian fire, not IDF.  In addition, a lawsuit was recently decided in France against a reporter from French Channel 2 who, despite the result of the investigations, had refused to back down from his fictional version of the story.  Why would the Palestinians carry out such a gruesome stunt?  For the very reason that shows up in this Twitter tweet: Nothing’s better PR than a lasting image, and children bleeding to death (no matter who shot them) on camera are pretty hard to forget.

A more apt comparison with the Neda incident in Tehran would be Shalhevet Pass, an 10-month-old Israeli infant who was shot by a Palestinian Arab sniper in Hevron in 2001.  Like Neda, Shalhevet Pass was an innocent killed by the side of the conflict instigating the violence.  True, Arab Palestinians garner much more support and sympathy than any perceived government juggernaut (oppressive or not).  But in all three cases—that of Neda, Al Dura, and Pass—the murderers were medieval-minded Muslims whose hands should never be allowed to warm the steel of a firearm.

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Since learning to read Hebrew and chanting the Torah (using a simple, Syrian trop adopted as part of the Barkai Method used by her school), Peach has been working her way through Parshat Bereshit (the first chapters of Genesis).  As I would listen to her read, she would pause now and then to ask a question, and we would have a discussion.

This has always been my favorite parashah, especially the story of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden.  So much happens here: human beings are created, they interact with one another, animals, and God.  Their poor marital communication leads to a really big screw-up and they end up being evicted from the Garden, and all of their descendants after them.

(I’m not going to try to argue that there’s anything literal about the text; that doesn’t interest me much.  But it’s a powerful story, and I love stories.  That’s generally my approach, at least to this part of the Torah.)

When Adam and Chava are created, their world is simple.  They have everything they want: good food, good weather, and no laundry.  Humankind is in its infancy, with all of its needs provided for, and nothing much to do or think about.  (Presumably not much weeding or pruning, even.)

And yet, there is something deceptive about this scenario.  The one fruit they’re not allowed to eat is that which will give them knowledge of good and evil.  Is this meant to imply that there is no good or evil in the world?  But there is evil, right from the beginning.

Within hours of Adam and Chava’s taking up residence,  Evil (in the form of envy, dishonesty, and mistrust) is introduced.  But like all good tragedy, it’s effected by an ensemble rather than a single individual through a single deed.  Each player—the serpent, Chava, and Adam—has his or her own motivation.  Adam is told by God not to eat the fruit, but just to be safe (because Chava is younger, more naïve, flighty, not to be trusted, or just plain female), Adam adds a chumra (stringency) when he tells Chava not even to touch the tree or she will die.  The serpent, according to one interpretation, desires Chava and hopes to erase Adam from the picture so he can get the girl for himself.  Sowing the seeds of mistrust between the newlyweds is the most expedient method, so the serpent questions Chava about the tree.  When he hears her tell Adam’s version (no touching) of the tree rule (no eating), he pushes Chava into the tree.  When she discovers that touching the tree does not make her die, she concludes that Adam made the whole thing up as a game, a joke, or an insult, and proceeds to eat the fruit.  The rest, of course, is history.

Besides being a classic example of poor marital communication (not to mention male chauvinism), what does this story mean?  Here some of my many thoughts about it:
1)  To my psychologically-inclined mind, the Garden represents humankind’s infancy, the warm receiving blanket and secure carseat of our history, our soft landing into the world.  Yes, it was over pretty quickly, but perhaps that was all we needed before we were ready to develop the skills and assume the responsibilities commensurate with adulthood.  (By the way, I don’t necessarily equate the resumption of life in the Land of Nod with adulthood; I think we were still teenagers in the desert after the Exodus.  But that’s another parashah.)
2)  The pshat (basic, surface interpretation) is that this is how humankind was introduced to the knowledge of Good and Evil.  Without that knowledge, we would have remained dolls in a dollhouse, God’s puppets.  We weren’t meant to be dolls; we’re people.  And if, as we believe, we were given free will, then we were meant to have to make decisions based on our knowledge of Good and Evil.
3)  If God doesn’t make mistakes, then the fact that God placed such a tree in the Garden of Eden was not to trap us; I think we were meant to discover it.  Humans were made imperfect and curious, and it was only a matter of time before their inquisitiveness and manipulative treatment of one another led them to do the One Thing they were told not to do.
4)  We were not meant to live in the lap of luxury our whole lives.  To have remained in the Garden would have meant no exercise of muscle, no use of our intellect, and no contribution to the world which we (Jews at least) believe we were meant to inhabit and perfect.  (Laura Ingalls Wilder fans may remember the chapter “The Day of Games” in which the family took an entire day and just played, without working at all.  They nearly died of boredom.)
5)  Some questions arise for me when reading this story.  If humans were meant to work, to have problems, and to exercise free will, why didn’t God set us up in the Land of Nod to begin with?  Why did we start out in the lap of luxury and then almost immediately have to leave it?  Why did God put a fruit tree in the Garden from which we davka couldn’t eat?  Why did we have to break the one rule God made for us to gain the essential knowledge of Good and Evil?  Why did this transgression, with such devastating consequences, have to happen?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I have some guesses.  As a parent, I know it’s not wise to put my children in situations in which they are certain to fail.  On the other hand, they do have hard lessons to learn, without which they will never grow or mature.  If we were meant to learn about Good and Evil, I suppose it was just as well that we found it on our own rather than having it programmed into us.  And if we were meant to have a life of toil and sweat and tzarot, then it’s better that we understand that we ourselves helped to bring about this way of life, rather than snarling at God for dealing us short when He created us.  Rabbi Saul Berman uses this story as a warning against adding chumrot to the Torah, citing Adam’s mis-reporting of the One Rule to Chava as an example.  And I suppose a final interpretation could be that “All good things must come to an end.”

One of the last pages of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men has this paragraph:

The creation of man whom God in His foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God’s omnipotence.  For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection.  To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension.  Separateness is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God Himself, and to be separate from God is to be sinful.  The creation of evil is therefore the index of God’s glory and His power.  That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man’s glory and power.  But by God’s help.  By His help and in His wisdom.

Looking at this from a Jewish perspective, I tend to interpret the word “sinful” as “imperfect.”  But once that’s done, I very much like this way of thinking.

What are your thoughts about the story?

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I finished Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men the other night (in the wee hours of Shabbat morning, to be specific, while Bill—who has a cold—was snoring and snuffling in my arms).  The second half was every bit as fascinating as the first, and as splendidly written.  When Jack drives out to a sanatorium to visit a colleague, here’s Warren’s description of the place:

It didn’t look at all like a hospital, I discovered when I turned off the highway twenty-five miles out of the city and tooled gently up the drive under the magnificent groining of the century-old live oaks whose boughs met above the avenue and dripped stalactites of moss to make a green, saqueous gloom like a cavern.  Between the regularly spaced oaks stood pedestals on which classical marbles—draped and undraped, male and female, stained by weathers and leaf acid and encroaching lichen, looking as though they had, in fact, sprouted dully out of the clinging black-green humus below them—stared out at the passer-by with the faintly pained, heavy, incurious unamazement of cattle.  The gaze of those marble eyes must have been the first stage in the treatment the neurotic got when he came out to the sanatorium.  It must have been like smearing a cool unguent of time on the hot pustule and dry itch of the soul.

Warren’s language amazes me.  Yes, there is dialect which conveys character and places the novel geographically (with exclamations like Sugar-Boy’s “The b-b-b-bastud!”), but there is more.  Look at this paragraph in a word-processing application, and the poor program doesn’t know what to do.  It desperately wants you to change Warren’s “sanatorium” to “sanitarium” (the former is dated by Merriam-Webster online to 1839, the latter to 1851; it wants the slightly newer word).  It’s uncomfortable with the gerund “groining” and wishes you would change it to the less objectionable “groaning” or “grinning.”  It has no suggestions for “unamazement”; just get rid of it.  And “saqueous”?  It’s rare to catch an author in the act of making up words, yet here is Warren, in broad daylight, doing just that.  Look this word up online and Google will ask if you meant “aqueous.”  The OED has never heard of “saqueous” and the American Heritage goes straight from “sapwood” to “SAR” (Sons of the American Revolution).  A bar of Vered (your choice of flavor) to whomever can give me a good definition of “saqueous.”

I’ve never been sure what people look for in The Great American Novel.  Despite the publication of The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cold Mountain, and Snow Falling On Cedars (to name but five of my favorite American novels), it seems there are some who are still not satisfied that the Real Thing has ever been written.  What it’s supposed to include, I’m not sure.  But among these others, I would certainly nominate All the King’s Men for its account of the rise and fall of a two-bit lawyer-turned-populist politician, for the characters (crooked and honest) who are drawn by his gravitational pull, then repelled or destroyed by his self-destruction, and for the narrator (a la Lockwood in Wuthering Heights) who remains on the periphery but who is still deeply affected by the outcome, “who lived in the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way.”

What would make a novel uniquely American?  The Cap’n suggests rags to riches (and back again, I would add).  Or perhaps it’s struggling with the things everyone struggles with (good and evil, ambition, loyalty, desire) in a specifically American context.  Or it’s the illusion of social mobility in America.  (Wharton dealt with that frequently.)  I enjoyed The Ugly American for its critique of the limited vision and understanding of Americans vis a vis the rest of the world (politically, culturally, and economically), though it would probably be considered too preachy to be the Real Thing.  Any thoughts, readers?

A good book, in my opinion, is one that one reads and then spends days, weeks, even years, thinking about.  This is one such book.

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Disturbing the peace

Lots of people like to assert that Islam is “the religion of peace.”  Some do this by mistranslating Islam to mean “peace” rather than “submission.”  Some do this by saying that Koran-thumping terrorists are misinterpreting the message of their Good Book.  And some do this by saying the word jihad actually means a personal struggle rather than a banquet of Infidel-al-ha’eish.

One thing they’ll never be able to do, though, is persuade me that Muslims in Israel make good neighbors after-hours.  There is a law on the books that forbids loud music, partying, and other types of noise pollution between the hours of 11 PM and 6 AM.  This law, it would seem, overlooks routine infractions by mosques in Arab villages that broadcast prayers over a PA system whenever Muslims hold prayers.  This means around 9 PM, when the kids are in bed, and at 4 AM, when the rest of us are trying to sleep.

I can usually sleep through them.  But when I am in a lighter sleep phase, or when I was pregnant with Bill and couldn’t really sleep well at any hour of the day, or when the windows are open (three seasons of the year), I hear them almost nightly.  They were so loud at 4 AM on the first day of Ramadan early last fall, I could feel the windows shake.  (For “Spinal Tap” fans, they’d cranked the volume up to 11.)

I know what some people are thinking.  It’s their right to pray as they wish.  It’s exotic.  It’s how they get up in the morning, like church bells.  I have only one response to that: they can do all that without the PA.  Veteran Israelis tell me that they don’t broadcast prayers anywhere else in the world.  Not in Mecca, not in Medina, not in Kuala Lumpur.

“But isn’t it nice to listen to if you’re already awake?”  Well, sometimes.  There was a guy one time who should have been given a recording contract—a regular Caruso.  But more often than not, it sounds like someone’s stomach gurgling after a particularly sumptuous meal.  Or 100 cats yowling in a dumpster.  Or an air trumpet at a college football game.  Not so exotic, in other words.

Why Israel allows this, I do not know.  Appeasement in many forms has been Israeli policy with the Arabs, and this may just be another example of that.  But I must admit to feeling rather stroppy at times, and like to think of what we might do to return the great favor of 4 AM serenades.  Putting the “Flight of the Valkyries” aria on an Efrat PA system, for that unforgettable “Apocalypse Now” wake-up call?  Blasting Elvis, to get their hips wiggling and shaking while they make their morning coffee?  Or holding up giant scorecards, rating the performance (in the spirit of the gone-by, but much-beloved East Germans)?  Or a combination of responses to keep them guessing, and perhaps inject a little uncertainty into this barbaric practice which reminds me much more of the highjinks of the Drones Club, the animal spirits of boys at a third-rate English public school, or the moronic antics of Pledge Week.

Religion of peace, indeed.

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