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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Yisrael Medad of My Right Word has a post about the American government’s attitude toward children born in the “Occupied Territories.”  Here are some of the facts he includes from a conversation with American consular services and the Internet:

If a child is born in the West Bank, whether they are Israelis or Palestinians, place of birth on the U.S. passport is either the city (Efrat, Ramallah, etc.) or the area – the West Bank in that case.

a. As a result of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Government of Israel currently occupies and administers the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. U.S. policy recognizes that the Golan Heights is Syrian territory, and that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are territories whose final status must be determined by negotiations.
b. Birth in the Golan Heights: The birthplace that should appear on passports whose bearers were born in the Golan Heights is SYRIA.
c. Birth in the West Bank or in the No Man’s Lands between the West Bank and Israel: The birthplace for people born in the West Bank or in the No Man’s Lands between the West Bank and Israel is WEST BANK; Those persons born before May, 1948 in the area known as the West Bank may have PALESTINE listed as an alternate entry. Those born in 1948 or later may have their city of birth as an alternate entry. Persons born in the West Bank in 1948 or later may not have Palestine transcribed as an alternate entry.
d. Birth in the Gaza Strip: The birthplace for people born in the Gaza Strip, is GAZA STRIP. PALESTINE is the alternate acceptable entry provided the applicant was born before 1948.
e. Birthplace in Israel: Write ISRAEL as the place of birth in the passport if and only if the applicant was born in Israel itself (this does not include the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, the West Bank or the No Mans Lands between the West Bank and Israel). Do not enter ISRAEL in U.S. passports as the place of birth for applicants born in the occupied territories.
f. Birthplace in Jerusalem: For a person born in Jerusalem, write JERUSALEM as the place of birth in the passport. Do not write Israel, Jordan or West Bank for a person born within the current municipal borders of Jerusalem. For applicants born before May 14, 1948 in a place that was within the municipal borders of Jerusalem, enter JERUSALEM as their place of birth. For persons born before May 14, 1948 in a location that was outside Jerusalem’s municipal limits and later was annexed by the city, enter either PALESTINE or the name of the location (area/city) as it was known prior to annexation. For persons born after May 14, 1948 in a location that was outside Jerusalem’s municipal limits and later was annexed by the city, it is acceptable to enter the name of the location (area/city) as it was known prior to annexation.

Yisrael points out that “the ‘West Bank’ doesn’t exist as a geo-political entity. The 1947 UN Resolution referred to Judea and Samaria. There’s nothing ‘natural’ in this.”

Let’s break it down.  According to the U.S. government, if you were born in the Golan at any time, you were born in Syria.  Gaza, Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem besides are not part of Israel.  If you were born in any of these places before 1948, your passport will say “Palestine” for the country (as in British Mandatory Palestine–not the fictitious country that millions of Arabs blather on about these days).  After 1948, however, the U.S. government considers these lands to be still subject to negotiation, i.e. pending Arab sovereignty, i.e. stateless.

What does that mean for a kid like Bill, who was born at home in Efrat?  His American passport, which recently arrived in our mailbox, says he was born in “Efrat.”  Country? None.  Not even Planet Earth.  (The Cap’n says Efrat has been relegated to a Platonic Ideal.)  Bill’s Israeli passport says he was born in Israel and is an Israeli national, but to the Americans, he’s not an Israeli.  He’s an American, and a citizen of…Efrat.  Remember the places in Europe that are city-states?  Like San Marino?  Monaco?  Vatican City?  Kind of like that.  I guess.  “The Zionist Republic of Efrat.”  It’s got a ring to it.  But it’s also clear to me that Bill will have to take his Israeli passport along with his American anywhere he travels, just to prove to the average passport clerk who has never heard of Efrat that he was born in a real place on this planet.  (Or a chumash, to point out where the Bible mentions Efrat.)

I hear there have been periodic attempts to get the U.S. to change its policy on this matter, with no luck (obviously).


So here’s my suggestion: That all Americans born in the southwestern territory acquired from Mexico in the 1848 Mexican War have “Mexico” as their country of birth.  Or just the city (e.g. Albuquerque).  And Floridians should have “Spain” as the country of their birth.  And Sooners (people born in Oklahoma) should have “Indian Territory” printed on their birth certificates.  And anyone born in Oregon, Idaho, or Washington, should be British subjects.  That’s fair, I think.  In fact, just check out this Dry Bones cartoon to tell you how the American government can put its money where its mouth is (thanks to Bayla for emailing me the cartoon):

dry bones occupied territories

(Click here to go to the Dry Bones blog and get a bigger, better view of the cartoon.)

’Nuff said?

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Last night, I went to a talk given by a speech pathologist on the topic of bilingualism.

This was the second such talk I’ve attended since the Crunch family made aliyah in 2006.  The first talk I heard was in Modi’in, given by a speech pathologist who specializes in bilingualism.  In the first talk, given by Margaret from Ra’anana (in Israel for over 20 years), the Cap’n and I learned that parents with mother-tongue English should speak only English to their children.  They should read books, watch videos, play games and do Internet research on subjects of interest, all in English.  They should spend several hours each afternoon actively expanding their children’s vocabulary, and using the most sophisticated diction and grammar to ensure that the children grow up with mother-tongue English as well.  By no means should Hebrew words be sprinkled throughout their English speech; for every Hebrew word, Margaret contended, there is an English equivalent which should be used.  Hasa’ah should be “bus,” petek should be “note,” and chug should be “class.”  The children will learn Hebrew in school, and for children having trouble learning Hebrew, Israeli children or teens can be invited (or paid to come) to the house to play in Hebrew.  Bottom line: English speakers should speak English, and Hebrew speakers should speak Hebrew.

Last night’s talk was given by Esther, whose family came to Israel 17 years ago.  She had a much more integrative approach.  She pointed out that the message sent by a family with only English books, newspapers, videos, and conversation in the house is that the members of that household are not part of the greater Hebrew-speaking society.  When Jews emigrated to America from Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Rumania, what they all had in common that unified them was Yiddish.  What unifies us as Jews and Israelis here in Israel is Hebrew.  Therefore, according to Esther, the main priority here in Israel is to make sure the children learn Hebrew.  She made a distinction between the official definition of bilingualism (i.e. equal proficiency in two languages) and functional bilingualism, which is the ability to function (i.e. read a newspaper, textbook, technical manual, or books for pleasure, do Internet research, and converse) in two languages.  To encourage this, Esther urged parents to read to their children in Hebrew (starting with the kinds of books to be found in preschool and kindergarten libraries), to discuss the books in Hebrew (if possible), and watch videos (including dubbed American films) in Hebrew.  She believes there is no harm in sprinkling one’s English vocabulary with common Hebrew words (like gan for “kindergarten,” tiyul for “field trip,” and aruchah for “snack” or “lunch”).  She discouraged parents from trying to make their children speak one language or another in the home, saying that communication free from power struggle is the most important thing to establish between parents and children, and if the parent speaks English to a child and the child answers back in Hebrew, that should be acceptable.  For kids who are speaking English with thick Hebrew accents (it happens even in homes where mother-tongue parents are teaching their children Hebrew), a parent can get on the extension when the kid talks to his grandparents in Boca and translate the Hebrew words or conversation.  Here was an example she gave:

Kid: Shalom, Savta.  Asinu tiyul maksim hayom.
Parent: Hi, Grandma.  We went on a great field trip today.
Kid: Nasanu b’otobus lagan hachayot.
Parent:  We went on a bus to the zoo.
Kid: U’kshe chazarnu, haya m’od amus b’machsom.
Parent: We stopped at a Dairy Queen on the way home. (Real translation: When we came back, it was really crowded at the checkpoint.)
Kid: Shamanu b’radio shehaya pigua.
Parent: Everyone had a great time.  (Real translation: We heard on the radio there had been a terror attack.)  Okay, honey, it’s time to get off the phone and let Mommy talk for a while.

There was plenty of food for thought last night, not least because Esther and Margaret have such different approaches.  How do the Cap’n and I manage?  We hover somewhere between Margaret’s strict and Esther’s more easy-going approaches.  We tend to use some Hebrew words in our speech, but I at least try to alternate between using the Hebrew and giving English equivalents.  We model sophisticated language and grammar, and the Crunch girls, God love them, are receptive to correction.  We have a growing Hebrew library (picture books, poetry, Harry Potter) and the kids alternate between watching programs in Hebrew and English, seemingly equally comfortable with both.

Who out there deals with bilingualism, and how do you handle it?

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Cakes and laughter

As you may have noticed, I made some changes to my blogroll.  I’ve added A Mother in Israel for her quality content (including Judaism and breastfeeding) and a blog that is a bit of a departure from my usual interests: Cake Wrecks.

Some months ago, my friend Heather sent me a link to this blog.  As someone who has taken a Wilton cake decorating course, invested some money in the tchotchkes and ingredients that go into decorating cakes, and even had a brief (and expensive) foray into professional decorating, I have an interest in this area.  But Jen’s blog documenting some of the absurdities, gaffes, and downright disasters that pass for professional cake decoration are too funny to miss.  I especially encourage checking out the awful graduation cakes (here and here).

The world needs more cake and more laughs, and this blog provides them both.  Bon appetit!

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Tzniut, continued

I’ve written about tzniut (modesty) before.  While I don’t plan to revisit any of the particular points I made in that post here, I will say that Mother in Israel’s treatment of a tzniut meme got me thinking about the issue from a slightly different angle.

I spent some time before I was married learning about how frum women are expected to dress.  I observed women I was learning from in Jerusalem, other students, and women on the street.  I saw that the long skirts (below knee, sometimes to ankle), long sleeves (three-quarter sleeves to wrist length) and hair coverings (berets, scarves, hats, wigs) had a certain amount of variation and even style, of a kind.  I did not join my fellow seminary students in dreaming of the day I got married so I could wear a wig, but I was willing to acquire a new awareness about dress code all the same.

I have always been a modest dresser.  When I was a girl, my brother used to like to make fun of how dowdy and matronly I looked.  In high school I was horrified to see people walking around in clingy sweatpants.  Despite being slim, I tended toward loose, often oversized clothing well into adulthood.  Jeans, turtlenecks, and wool sweaters were my winter uniform; summer meant X-large tee shirts and long shorts or cropped pants.  (It was comforting to me to hear from my rav in seminary that for women who live in the Great White North and risk freezing to death by wearing skirts instead of pants, that women’s pants are acceptable.)

But as with hair covering, I think people go nuts over modest apparel for women.  The idea that women should hide the fact that they have two legs (bifurcation) by wearing long or confining skirts is ridiculous.  (Talk about putting women on a physiological pedestal!)  And those who believe that dressing modestly will earn them more respectful treatment by men are fooling themselves.  I have known and heard from women who, no matter how frumly they dressed, have been harassed by men (usually religious ones).  Loud-mouthed anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly claims that virtuous women are never raped.  The claim that modestly dressed women are never grabbed, leered at, or insulted is just as untrue.

Because it’s such a hot-button topic in the Orthodox world, especially in Israel, I think about tzniut a lot, but don’t really do much about it.  On a rare occasion, I’ll cover my hair, but mostly not.  On a rare occasion, I’ll wear jeans or shorts.  But mostly not.  I am comfortable around people no matter how they dress.  If they’re one of the Burka Babes and wearing ten skirts, I feel sorry for them, as well as for the Tel Aviv hotties who walk around with their shirts so cropped you can see the bottom of their breasts.  Such women have a pretty poor sense of moderation (not to mention taste).

At the end of the day, I like to feel free to choose what I wear, and I object to being held responsible for men’s obsession with sex.  Some men, no matter how I dress, are either going to stare at me or look at the sidewalk when they pass me on the street.  Here are my three main arguments against feeling forced to dress in a certain way:
1)  Let men fantasize about me (and other women) all they want.  I believe firmly that freedom of thought must exist.  If they want to waste their time in this way, I cannot stop them.  Besides, if they are rude or obnoxious I want to feel free to imagine their heads on spikes.
2)  Nothing I do will change the way they think about me.  Most haredi men’s knowledge of women, after a lifetime of single-sex schooling, is limited to 1) their mothers, 2) their sisters, and 3) potential sexual partners.  I’m not responsible for this.  Besides, I’m always reminded of the conversation in the diner near the beginning of “When Harry Met Sally” when Harry claims that no man can be friends with a good-looking woman since he sees her as a potential sex partner.  Thinking she has the upper hand in the argument at last, Sally says, “So you think a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?”  To which Harry responds, “No, you pretty much want to nail them too.”
3)  If we accept arguments 1 and 2, I might as well wear what I want.

Lots of religious Jews are running around thinking that the way to bring the Mashiach is to make women dress in more layers.  I think the way to bring the Mashiach is to take to heart the words of the prophets in the Tanach and pursue justice in the world.  It’s to feed the hungry, unchain agunot, do business honestly, cure the sick, and help as many people to a livelihood as possible.  (The nevi’im never discuss women’s clothing.)

Call me immodest, call me a lousy Jew, but don’t ever say I don’t know what the prophets REALLY wanted.

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A visit from Jimmy

The Cap’n informed me today that former President Jimmy Carter is planning to visit the nearby settlement of Neveh Daniel.  Why?  “To get the settlers’ side of the story.”

I don’t normally post on Fridays.  And I don’t normally get into too big a lather over what a doddery old has-been does in his spare time.  But something about this planned visit from one of Israel’s most outspoken critics (that’s putting it mildly, of course) got to me.  I was thinking today, as the Cap’n, Bill and I returned from doing our Shabbat shopping in Jerusalem, about what the world has come to for the Jews.  Efratniks used to shop regularly in Bethlehem, in Arab stores.  I kid you not.  The road to Efrat used to go right through downtown Jesusville.  Then it got unsafe to do that, and the Jews stopped shopping there.  Then they had to stop driving through.  Then the bypass road (the “tunnel road”) was built so Jews could get from their homes to the city without having rocks thrown at them.  Then the concrete baffles, stone wall, and watch towers were built to protect Jewish motorists from being shot like clay pigeons while traveling to and from Jerusalem.

Israel was once the darling of the media.  It was the Little Engine That Could, then it was the David fighting the Goliath of the Arab League.  But then it was a little too successful.  It could afford state-of-the-art weapons. It had a citizens’ army that beat its neighbors’ regulars every time.  It (gulp!) conquered land in a defensive war and was suddenly left with some glorious national treasures, and a large population of now-stateless Arabs whom no other Arab state wanted besides.  The world has never liked the Jews, and while in some times and places Jews have enjoyed lives blessed with tolerance at least and downright popularity at best, the pendulum seems always to swing from one extreme to another.  Some Jews have decided that the best way to win the war for our right to exist as a people is to assimilate, and have done so pretty successfully.  (Over 50% of American Jews under the age of 35 say that the annihilation of Israel—not its quiet withering on the vine—would not be a personal tragedy.  Think on that for a while.)  Others don’t see a problem, and think anti-Semitism is a thing of the past.  And others, like me, are sick to death of fighting one ridiculous fight after another for our right to breathe and be Jews, but don’t see any alternative.

So when the Cap’n told me that Israel’s (American) Public Enemy #1 was planning to visit the very people he recently vilified in print as racist, empirialist murderers, land-grabbers, and road-hogs, I reacted.  More specifically, I began by hyperventilating.  Then I asked when he planned to arrive so I could lie in wait and be the FIRST to kick his sorry ol’ cracker ass when he arrived.  Then, and only then, I went to my computer to get the facts.  Here they are, provided by Nadia Matar, co-chair of Women in Green and a neighbor of ours in Efrat.  Whatever inflammatory stuff people say about her, or that she has said in the past, this is a clear, rational, well-deserved denunciation of Carter.  While I’m sorrier than I can say at telling a Nobel Peace Prize winner (2002) where to go, Carter is not the Nobel Committee’s first ill-advised choice of peacemaker.  (Remember 1994?)  At least I have the cold comfort of living in a part of the world where Jews can act in their own best interests and say what they think.

“Dear Neighbors,

“Former President Jimmy Carter will be visiting Neve Daniel this Sunday, June 14th. He is coming for the ostensible purpose of ‘hearing our point of view,’ but of course his real agenda is to kick us out of our homes.

“Because of Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid as well as his past record of hostility towards Israel, he has a hard time presenting himself as an honest broker. Here’s where we come in: by coming here and talking with us, we will enable him to present himself as willing and eager to listen to both sides, and thus regain some credibility.

“We don’t think we should accord him good publicity and the opportunity to rehabilitate himself so cheaply. He doesn’t need to visit us to learn our perspective: he’s a brilliant and wily man who knows plenty. Seeing as the likes of Menachem Begin, Bibi Netanyahu, and the rest of Israel’s elder statesmen and most articulate advocates never succeeded in impressing him with any sympathy for Israel’s plight over the past 30 years, it’s pretty ridiculous to assume that a visit here will change anything.

“Anti-Semitism is becoming more and more acceptable in America as well as everywhere else in the world, and American Jews are reacting with timidity and silence. We here in Israel must call Jimmy Carter what he really is: no honest broker but a powerful advocate of those who are trying to destroy us.

“Please sign a petition telling Carter that he isn’t welcome here by clicking on this link.

“Help spread the word: we have only two days.

“The text of the petition is attached below. …

“The Neve Daniel, Efrat, and Gush Etzion Action Committees”

Thursday, June 10, 2009

We, the residents of Neve Daniel and Gush Etzion, have just learned that former president Jimmy Carter will be paying a visit to our community and to our area on Sunday, June 14th.

We wish to inform Mr. Carter that he is not welcome here and we request that he cancel his visit.

Mr. Carter would like to present himself as an honest broker pursuing peace, but he has exposed himself as an anti-Semite who has slandered and harmed Israel and the Jewish People at every turn. His book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is full of lies and libels, and the Carter Center and Mr. Carter’s endeavors are funded generously by Arab money.

While we are always ready to talk with those who disagree with us, Mr. Carter doesn’t fall into that category. Mr. Carter is an advocate for those seeking to destroy Israel, and the fact that he contributes to that agenda under the guise of a man of good will seeking peace only makes him more dangerous and his efforts more dishonest.

Mr. Carter will no doubt continue to smear and slander us, calling us usurpers and occupiers on our own land. But we wish to inform him and those that think like him that the Bible records our history here as well as certain promises: the promise that the land would lie desolate during our exile and that we would return here and once again make it flower. God is our witness and so is history to those promises’ fulfillment. And now that we’re here, we’re not leaving. We won’t allow Mr. Carter or anyone else to throw us out of our homes and exile us from our land.

At a time when anti-Semitism is becoming increasingly acceptable in America, we appeal to all Americans of good will: don’t legitimize the genteel anti-Semitism of men like Jimmy Carter.

the undersigned


The following is an excerpt from an article entitled, “Jimmy Carter: Jew-Hater, Genocide-Enabler, Liar” by David Horowitz, published on FrontPageMagazine.com (Thursday, December 14, 2006).

“Even as Islamic Hitlerites gather in Iran to deny the first Holocaust of the Jews and to plot the second, former president Jimmy Carter tours America with a new book that describes Jews as racists and oppressors, and suggests they are also a conspiratorial mafia that intimidates “critics,” controls America’s media and war policy, and are therefore also the source of Islamic terrorism and the Arabs’ genocidal campaign to eliminate them from the map of the Middle East.

“In other words, Americans beware of the Jew in your midst.

“Here is Carter’s description of the Middle East conflict in his own words, delivered during an interview he gave on National Public Radio during the second day of the Holocaust deniers’ conference in Teheran:

“‘I have spent a lot of time in Palestine in recent years. … The Palestinians have had their own land, first of all, occupied and then confiscated and then colonized. They’ve been excluded from their own gardens and fields, and pastures and churches. They have been severely restrained in their movements. They have to have different kinds of passes to go through different checkpoints inside their own lands on their own roads. The Israelis have built more than 200 settlements inside Palestine.  They connect these settlements with very nice roads for the Israeli settlers, and then superhighways and so forth going into Jerusalem. Quite often the Palestinians are prevented from even riding on those roads that have been built in their own territory. So this has been in many ways worse than it was in South Africa.’

“When hundreds of millions of Muslims are calling for the extermination of the Jews of Israel this is more than a lie; it is a blood libel. …”

For more on Carter and his cozy relations with Arabs, see “Carter and Arab money, Carter and Israel” by Alan Dershowitz.

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All the king’s men

With this past year being so full of elections that affect my life, I’ve found myself devouring all kinds of political fiction.  I’ve watched “Bulworth,” “The Candidate,” “Wag the Dog,” and “The West Wing,” and read Primary Colors.  Most recently I have been savoring the distinctly Southern prose of Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men, a story of the rise and fall of a good ol’ Loozyanna boy who becomes governor, based on the real life story of Huey Long.

I don’t know what it is about Southern writers.  Perhaps they appeal to what little sentiment about the region remains after two harrowing years in southern Georgia in my ’tweens.  Perhaps it’s that they have a rhythm and a florid vocabulary which, while not necessarily superior to the Northern writers I like, still provides me as a reader with a unique kind of satisfaction.  Or perhaps it’s that they seem to have a knack both for building up their characters and for ripping them apart that I appreciate.  William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty have this gift, and Robert Penn Warren is every bit their match.

I haven’t read Warren’s poetry, but I’m interested in it now.  His novel excels both in bawdiness and beauty in language whose equal I’ve never seen.  Here’s a sample of the bawdiness:

The Boss went up to Chicago on a little piece of private business, about six or eight months after he got to be Governor and took me with him.  Up there a fellow named Josh Conklin did us the town, and he was the man to do it, a big, burly fellow, with prematurely white hair and a red face and black, beetling eyebrows and a dress suit that fitted him like a corset and a trick apartment like a movie set and an address book an inch thick.  He wasn’t the real thing, but he sure was a good imitation of it, which is frequently better than  the real thing, for the real thing can relax but the imitation can’t afford to and has to spend all the time being just one cut more real than the real thing, with money no object.  He took us to a night club where they rolled out a sheet of honest-to-God ice on the floor and a bevy of “Nordic Nymphs” in silver gee-strings and silver brassières came skating out on real skates to whirl and fandango and cavort and sway to the music under the housebroke aurora borealis with the skates flashing and the white knees flashing and white arms serpentining in the blue light, and the little twin, hard-soft columns of muscle and flesh up the backbones of the bare backs swaying and working in a beautiful reciprocal motion, and what was business under the silver brassières vibrating to music, and the long unbound unsnooded silver innocent Swedish hair trailing and floating and whipping in the air.
It took the boy from Mason City, who had never seen any ice except the skim-ice on the horse trough.  “Jesus,” the boy from Mason City said, in unabashed admiration.  And then, “Jesus.”  And he kept swallowing hard, as though he had a sizable chunk of dry corn pone stuck in his throat.
It was over, and Josh Conklin said politely, “How did you like that, Governor?”
“They sure can skate,” the Governor said.

And here is the beauty:

I heard the match rasp, and turned from the sea, which was dark now.  The flame had caught the fat of the light-wood and was leaping up and spewing little stars like Christmas sparklers, and the light danced warmly on Anne Stanton’s leaning face and then on her throat and cheek as, still crouching, she looked up at me when I approached the hearth.  Her eyes were glittering like the eyes of a child when you give a nice surprise, and she laughed with a sudden, throaty, tingling way.  It is the way a woman laughs for happiness.  They never laugh that way just when they are being polite or at a joke.  A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life.  A woman only laughs that way when something has touched her way down in the very quick of her being and the happiness just wells out as natural as breath and the first jonquils and mountain brooks.  When a woman laughs that way it always does something to you.  It does not matter what kind of a face she has got either.  You hear that laugh and feel that you have grasped a clean and beautiful truth.  You feel that way because that laugh is a revelation.  It is a great impersonal sincerity.  It is a spray of dewy blossom from the great central stalk of All Being, and the woman’s name and address hasn’t got a damn thing to do with it.  Therefore, that laugh cannot be faked.  If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bifocals and ground-gripper shoes and with bands on their teeth.  She could set all society by the ears.  For all any man really wants is to hear a woman laugh like that.

*Sigh.*  To be able to write like that.  To sound like a hick, and yet still know the names of the most favored women of Kings Charles II and Louis XV.  To get away with having the images of “the first jonquils” and “bifocals and ground-gripper shoes” in a single paragraph.  To think of the bon mot that creates an image in the reader’s mind as vivid as the reality that surrounds the reader.

This book was recommended to me by a fellow history teacher (back when I myself was a history teacher) whose grandfather was active in politics and who touted this book as the greatest American novel ever.  He claimed that it had something of everything—politics, family tension, friendship, spirituality, lust, and love.  I’m halfway through and so far, I have not been disappointed.

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Digesting the news

Ilana-Davita commented on my recent post about U.S. President Obama’s speech in Cairo that it was “all the more interesting and insightful as you waited a bit before writing it.”

This has been a habit of mine for some time.  While many people are addicted to CNN and up-to-the-minute news briefs, I tend to avoid news stories about events that are less than two or three days old.  At first blush, there is often little in the way of fact in a news story.  A reporter gets hold of a story and, where the facts are uncertain, uses speculation and surmise to flesh it out.  This was what happened back in the early 1990s when I read an article in the Oregonian about a Black man who had been found hanging from a noose in Idaho.  (For those not in the know, Idaho is the home of several compounds of white supremacists.)  Appearances suggested that it had been a lynching, reminiscent of the Sunday afternoon sport that used to be common in the South in the early 20th century, when the cops didn’t go after the Ku Klux Klan because most of the cops were IN the Ku Klux Klan.  A few days later, however, I was lucky enough to be combing through the back pages of the paper and found a correction to the earlier story.  It turns out that the dark-skinned person found in the noose was an Iranian student, and it was judged a suicide rather than a lynching.

Mind you, that’s a big difference—a lynching of a Black man versus the suicide of a Middle Eastern kid a long way from home.

It’s also why I was one of the few Israeli bloggers I knew of who kept mum about the swine flu.  While news sources were touting this as the new Spanish Influenza, bloggers lapped it up and wrote about how scared they were of what was to come.  It turns out that swine flu carries no extraordinary symptoms and has not resulted in any more morbidity than the regular ol’ garden-variety flu that circulates in one form or another each winter.  (The regular flu kills 36,000 people per year—no small sum—yet that isn’t on a pandemic list.)

I can’t claim any greater wisdom than the average citizen.  But I do understand that sometimes the urge to get the scoop doesn’t always result in accurate details.  I understand that sensationalism attracts readers.  And I understand that since the job of most of the media is not to inform the public, but to sell customers to advertisers, they don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart.  Just ’cause it’s in print don’t make it true.

And besides all that, I read very slowly, take a long time to answer sometimes, and don’t scare easily.  These serve me well when processing the stuff that comes out labeled “news.”

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Parrot flowers

My mother sent me these photos.  Since they’ve been circulating on the Internet, one never knows if they’re real (Thailand is famous for its rare orchids), or if they’re just a really good Photoshop job.  Either way, they’re a remarkable work of craftsmanship.




If they’re real, then clearly there are flowers, and then there are flowers…

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Obama’s Cairo speech

Much of Israel is abuzz after Obama’s speech in Cairo.  I spent some of Shabbat reading the many analyses of the speech in the Jerusalem Post, and read through the transcript of the speech online this morning.

Some Israelis we know suspect him of being a closet Muslim.  Some think he was elected by a populace enslaved by political-correctness and white guilt.  Some observe that he ran a much better campaign than McCain, and that the campaign (rather than any sense of what he would do once in office) accounts for his election to the position of Leader of the Free World.

I’m not sure what to think of Obama.  During the election, I argued that his race should not be a reason to elect him, nor should it be a reason not to elect him.  Any confidence I may have had in John McCain as a candidate was shattered at his pick for vice president.  I watched the proceedings with mild interest from afar, but did not vote in this election.  (I have voted in every available election since 1992, but this time Massachusetts was Obamaland, and another vote in either direction would have made no difference.)  I did not believe a vote for Obama was a vote for peace in the Middle East, or even a vote in favor of a strong American-Israeli relationship.

And indeed, it has not been.  The only difference I see between Barack Obama and his predecessors, both Republican and Democrat, is that while his predecessors generally focused their attention on other things for the first three-quarters of their presidencies, and only at the end began to feel that irresistible lust for a Nobel Peace Prize to secure their legacy, Obama seems to have his eyes fixed on the Nobel at the beginning of his tenure in the Oval Office.

I don’t disagree with everything he said in Cairo.  Eight years of antagonizing the Muslim world bore little fruit, especially since the goals were not always clearly stated or pursued methodically.  I don’t believe there is any harm in reminding the Muslim world that in its heyday, it was dedicated to learning, science, modernization, and progress, in essence holding up a mirror to its present-day cultural backwardness and oppressive governments.  Whether Obama’s audience in Cairo and the rest of the Arab world (except Iran, whose government jammed the signals so satellite owners couldn’t see it) can see themselves in what he said, I don’t know.

From the beginning, I’ve adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Obama.  It’s possible that on the domestic front, he’ll be a breath of fresh (cleaner) air.  It sounds as though he intends to increase fuel standards for automobiles, and to encourage (or force, if necessary) auto makers to develop cars that run on something other than petroleum.  That, as I’ve said in the past, is a key to undermining terrorism in the world.  My hope now is that I don’t have to wait 4 (or 8) years to see any (positive) results of what he does.

This speech revealed some of what I believe are his goals with regard to America’s relationship with the Muslim world and his own attitude toward trying to push forward the Middle East peace process.  While it’s clear he is trying to depart from some of Bush’s cowboy diplomacy (i.e. ridin’ into town, whoopin’ and hollerin’ and shootin’ his gun in the air), I see in this speech that he plans to cling to many—if not most—of Bush’s unsuccessful policies.  Talk of a two-state solution, of Arabs abandoning violence, of Israel freezing settlements, of Israel as built on the ashes of the Shoah, and of Israel’s responsibility to ensure that the Palestinians have a healthy economy is not going to bring about peace.  The region is not yet ready for a two-state solution; Arabs must build an economy BEFORE they get a state, and must be willing to live in peace (and, ideally, cooperation with Israel), and Israel must have SOME hope that a Palestinian Arab state on its borders will not just be a rocket launching pad with a seat in the U.N.  The Arabs show no inclination to abandon violence, and whatever Obama said about Islam being a religion of tolerance and peace, that’s not the interpretation of the Koran that terrorists are using.  I’ve already written about how settlements aren’t the problem; I won’t get into that again here.  To say that Israel exists as a direct result of the Shoah is to parrot the same platitudes the violent and resentful Muslim world has made since Israel’s founding.  If Obama had really wanted to speak the truth, he would have pointed out the thousands of years of history Jews have in this land, that their nearly 2000 years of exile—compared to the measly 60 of the Arabs—was every bit as painful, and that their return was every bit as just as the bid for a Palestinian state, if not more so.  And the claim that Israel is responsible for keeping food on Palestinian Arab tables, when the world has already shelled out billions of dollars to their corrupt governments to keep them in Mercedes Benzes, their private security posses armed with Kalashnikovs, and housed in secure bunkers to protect themselves from their political enemies (i.e. their own people) is absurd.  If the Arabs can invent algebra, they can balance their checkbooks.  If they can invade Israel multiple times, they can afford to lose, and lose land in the process—permanently.  If they want a state, they can say “yes” when it’s offered to them.  And if they want to end “the occupation,” they’d better stop whining and start acting like a people that’s ready for a state of their own, and all of the duties and responsibilities adhering thereto.

I really hoped that the much-touted meeting between Bibi Netanyahu and Obama on May 18 would signal a departure from the status quo and a willingness to rethink past failed strategies.  I had hoped that these two guys, who seem bright enough, could re-examine the situation, identify the REAL steps necessary to preparing the region for a new order, and present that new thinking to the world.  Instead, Obama seems to be just as wedded to the old failed methods as his predecessors.  He seems likely to make the same mistakes as Bush and Clinton, trying to force a “peace” on a region and a “state” on a people that are not ready for it yet.  When Ehud Barak offered Arafat and his cronies everything but Israel’s severed, dripping head on a platter and they refused, that should have signaled the end of the peace process as it had been pursued up until then.  Making more plans like the Road Map and the Saudi-produced Arab Initiative that are almost identical to Oslo is going to lead to the same failures as the other plans.  Obama shows every sign of repeating past mistakes yet again, clearly hoping he’ll be the guy for whom the mistakes result in success.  Confucius defined that as insanity, and I’m inclined to agree.  The job of peacemaker is no job for a madman.

Obama stated during the campaign that his favorite book is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his brilliant, but sometimes contentious, cabinet.  I read the book too, and loved it.  Couldn’t put it down.  Lincoln did some unprecedented things, and in most of his endeavors, was wildly successful.  It’s from reading this book that Obama got the idea of nominating Hillary Rodham Clinton as his Secretary of State (as Lincoln did his party arch-rival, William Seward).  And it’s from this book (which I hope Obama rereads) that I learned how Lincoln took great pains to prepare the country before proposing any major changes, as he did before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.  If Obama were to adopt this wise practice of Lincoln’s, he would place a much higher premium on preparing the Middle East well for the hard road to a Palestinian state, taking care to put in place a viable economy for the Arabs, security safeguards for Israel, and most importantly, working to prepare the Arab populace for the changes to come.  Without that skill, Obama will go down in history as just another hack who frittered away his presidency meddling in the Middle East, with no productive results.  No Nobel, no legacy, no success.

What a sad beginning to a new administration that would be.

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Shimshonit recommends

Curved bench and flowering shrub

In the process of researching the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, I discovered that the author has a website.  One of the pages on the site is entitled “M— recommends.”  I anticipated a page with tips on sensible eating in and out of the house.  Instead, I found an astonishingly pretentious list of recommendations for where to pee away your money all over the world.

It may be true that French women don’t get fat (I can’t confirm or deny this), but I fear, if M— is anything to go by, that cash burns holes in their pocketbooks.  So to counter her spendthrift advice, here’s my page of recommendations (sans self-aggrandizing introduction):

Hotels and Restaurants
Most of my travels in Asia and Europe have been grand tours of guest houses, youth hostels, and fleabag hotels.  But I have been known, on occasion, to board in more civilized accommodations.  Here are a few places I can recommend:
-The King David Hotel, Jerusalem.  Actually, I haven’t stayed there (though the smart set usually do), but the food is excellent.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
-The Four Seasons, Vancouver, British Columbia.  Fluffy bathrobes with the hotel insignia embroidered on the left breast, and a very satisfying Japanese-style breakfast for all the Japanese businessmen who stay there and can’t abide American morning food.
-Pension Ellie, Island of Naxos, Greece.  Like most places in Greece, the cheapest and airiest summer accommodations (though not the most private) are to be found on the roof, where most places have a few cots set up.  I highly recommend sleeping on roofs, though earplugs and bug repellent are also necessities.
-Sawatdee Guest House, Bangkok.  Off a main thoroughfare and a long walk from the main tourist road in the city, but near major bus lines and the boat taxi that zigzags up and down the Chao Praya River.  Roach count: average.  An in-house restaurant that’s open whenever you want to eat.  Just tell Nan or Net and they’ll go make you a banana shake or a killer chicken-pineapple stir-fry.
-Steakiat Gingi, Jerusalem.  Okay, so it’s located in a mall in Talpiot and the seating is out in the foot traffic.  No matter.  The shipudim (meat skewers), grilled pitot, and array of salads make it some of the best food in the city, and not the most expensive, either.  It’s my kids’ favorite place to eat, and one of the few restaurants I’ll consent to take them to since there’s plenty of food that interests them and they love watching the people go by.

Fans and friends from all over the world keep asking where I shop. Well, I don’t generally shop in Israel, since the clothing here is too expensive, trendy, and revealing for me (and my stretch marks), and the quality is chad paami (disposable).  I prefer to order things from Lands’ End’s Overstocks online, and either have my mother-in-law bring them when she visits or have my mom send them, detagged, in a box labeled “used clothing.”  Am I a sneak or what?  But the quality is excellent and the garments never go out of fashion (i.e. they’re sensible, well-made, and frumpy).

Of course, I occasionally have no choice but to set foot inside a store.  When this happens, I try to make sure it’s a Michal Negrin jewelry boutique, or the huge Teva Naot store in the industrial area of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.

The Cap’n and I registered for our tableware at the time of our wedding, and got most of the place settings we wanted from Ross-Simons online.  Broken pieces can be replaced at Replacements.com.

That was in the U.S., of course.  Here in Israel we’ve found a few places that carry Corningware (Corelle) for a little less than your firstborn, and we’ve expanded our everyday dishes there.

I loved the Kitchen Reject Shop in Cambridge, England.  Wonder if it’s still there.  Beautiful stuff, only slightly marred, for cheap.

Perfume makes me sick.  I hate smelling it on other people, and can’t abide wearing it on myself.  Only once did I know someone who wore White Linen and actually found the fragrance pleasant when she walked by.

Call me old fashioned, but I think soap and water does a pretty good job.  I like the smell of Tom’s of Maine Calendula deodorant on the Cap’n.  And that bewitching fragrance that clings to me and my clothes?  That would be sweat, sunscreen, or Bill’s spit-up.  Organic, authentic, and priceless.

Manicures and pedicures
Manicures are a waste of money on me.  It looks good for a few hours, but as soon as I get into the kitchen or the laundry room, it’s ruined.  My nails rarely get long enough for an attractive French manicure, and the idea of fake nails makes me wince.  I’d look like a female impersonator.

Pedicures, on the other hand, are a great way to pamper oneself.  It takes about an hour, and someone else does all the work.  And as slowly as toenails grow, one can keep an attractive pedicure peeping out from one’s sandals for up to six weeks.  (Unless you chop broccoli with your feet.)  You can spend as much money as you want on these things, but I go to a woman originally from Berkeley, California, who lives in the Zayit (the neighborhood overlooking Bethlehem) and runs her beauty salon out of her bomb shelter.  She does a nice facial, too.

I have an assortment of bags, clutches, and purses from over the years.  At this point, most of them live in my daughters’ dress-up box in the playroom.  I have one primary need in a bag: I must be hands-free.  In graduate school, I was usually saddled with a plain, navy blue Jansport backpack.  They have an excellent free repair service, and I was even able to get mine fixed here in Israel.  The newer ones are prettier than the old style, and I’ve invested in a second, cornflower-blue floral one for more formal occasions.

The bag I’ve been shlepping around lately is a gift from my mother-in-law, a quilted, stringed backpack in a green and black French provincial pattern.  It’s pretty, has a few little pockets handy for pens, checkbook, teudat zehut (identity card), and keys, and fits wipes and a couple of diapers in addition to my stuff.

Ice Cream
Ahhh, a food group in itself.

Actually, Israeli ice cream sucks.  But the American ex-pats who run the pizza joint in our neighborhood in Efrat also sell Ben and Jerry’s in pints and the fancier forms (the ’Wich, bars on sticks, etc.).  There is usually a good variety of flavors, and it’s just expensive enough that we are careful not to overeat.

I have seen a few boutique ice cream stores and gelato joints around.  There’s a gelato place in a neighborhood shopping center in Modi’in that is heavenly.  When I was backpacking through Italy, my Australian buddy and I would only buy our gelato in places where the banana flavor was unappetizingly gray instead of bright yellow; her travel guidebook said that’s how you can tell high-quality, natural gelato from the fake stuff.

In the Boston area, J.P. Licks is our family’s favorite.  Lots of flavors, and enough fat content to taste really good without leaving a greasy film around your lips.  (I avoid White Mountain for that reason.)  For the non-kosher crowd, Toscanini’s (near MIT) and Herrell’s (near Harvard) are the cat’s pajamas.

My favorite mass-produced cheddar in the U.S. was Tillamook, made in my home state of Oregon.  Their kosher run was pricey, but much better tasting than anything else (kosher) I could lay my hands on.

There are several small independent cheese-makers in Israel.  There are a couple of farms in the Negev and the north that make their own cheeses, usually from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk.  Some fancy cheeses are sold in boutique shops or at Mahanei Yehudah (the semi-outdoor market) in Jerusalem.

The great advantage to living in Israel, of course, is that kosher cheese is widely available, and even the prepackaged stuff or the stuff in the grocery store cheese counters is very passable.

Note Cards
M— has a section in her list of recommendations where she recommends note cards.  I don’t know of anyone who writes them anymore.  (When I told the Cap’n about this, he asked, “Three-by-five or four-by-six?”)

My recommendation is not to buy any of these overpriced little things.  Just buy ordinary note paper for those occasions when a handwritten note is appropriate (e.g. thank-yous, replies to printed invitations, handwritten invitations) and dazzle your recipient with the fact that you still know how to write by hand.

I’ve never been addicted to caffeine, nicotine, THC, or any other substance.  Chocolate, on the other hand, is the single most important thing I put in my body, after air.

When I can, I make sure the chocolate is of high quality.  In America, my friend Rhu got me hooked on Scharffen-Berger.  For chocolate chip cookies, I loved using Trader Joe’s chocolate chips, though Rhu told me recently that Scharffen-Berger is making those too.

In Israel, the Cap’n and I usually prefer Vered HaGalil over Elite.  Elite makes a very good bittersweet 60%, better for baking (according to my foodie friend Ilana Epstein) than the Vered 60% which is a little sweeter and excellent eating (or sniffing or injecting).  Vered also makes a wonderful dairy bittersweet, though we are underwhelmed by their standard parve.  And Carmit makes excellent 60% chocolate chips (available in the baking section of Supersol Deal).

Boutique chocolates are a nice treat for birthdays, etc.  I liked Godiva in America (if only to see my naked ancestress on the packaging).  There are some fancy-shmancy places in the German Colony in Jerusalem too.  I haven’t been to any of them.  Between the rich cakes and cookies I make, and Ilana’s recipe for chocolate peanut butter cups (on the post that my stats show is the runaway favorite on this blog), I don’t really feel a need.

Croissants & Pastries
I don’t eat croissants.  I think they’re a staple in France, and snooty-food outside it.

Where I live, good pita is the Israeli croissant.  It’s easier here to say where the crappy pitot are to be found than the good stuff, since the good stuff is so prevalent.  I recommend avoiding Ma’afiat Yealah in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph.  It’s thin and rips when you try to stuff it, and their whole wheat pita tastes like the sawdusty American stuff.  When buying pitot, make sure they are soft, thick and puffy.  Or better yet, buy the Iraqi stuff, called lafa, that is good for roll-ups.

There is excellent baklava at Mahanei Yehuda.  To date, though, I have never found a place that makes good pastries.  Avoid English Cake in Jerusalem; I don’t make fun of the English and their culinary skills, but there is nothing special about that bakery.  Chiffon, in the Neveh Daniel industrial area, has some good cookies, but as far as cakes, pies, muffins, and most cookies are concerned, I bake my own.  If anyone finds something worth recommending in Israel, let me know.

I’m always asking other people where they get their hair done, and then not going where they recommend.  I have a kid (he’s half my age) who cuts hair in a little salon he runs with his grandmother in Jerusalem.  He’s done my hair a couple of times.  He’s good, but expensive (150 shekels) and usually uses my requests as a jumping-off point to do what he wants.  My last haircut with him (last August) was a massacre.  I looked at it when I got home and said to myself, “This will be a really good haircut in six to eight months.”  And by jingo, I was right.

Jenny, on the other hand, who cuts hair at a salon on Washington Street in Newtonville, Massachusetts, does a nice job, exactly what I want, and is more reasonable.

Before I got religion, I never had much truck with flowers.  My date to a seventh grade dance gave me a beautiful orchid corsage.  (His dad owned a nursery.)  I got a rose from my sister’s boyfriend after my nose job, a pretty pink one.  And I got a standard-issue bouquet of American Beauties at my high school graduation.  But since keeping Shabbat, flower arrangements are more commonly seen in my dining room.

There were a few good florists in our area in the States, though my favorite place to buy flowers was Russo’s produce market in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Here in Israel, we usually buy our week’s arrangements from the toothless old man who sells them outside the supermarket on Friday mornings.  Sometimes we give that a miss, though, and buy from one of the kids who shleps buckets of unsold flowers door-to-door around the neighborhood Friday afternoons.  They’re usually very cheap (8 roses for 12 shekels) and last at least a week.  The neighbor’s kid has had my favorite—yellow roses—for two weeks running.  Be still, my beating heart.

Home and Garden
I am no professional when it comes to decorating house or garden.  I know what I like, and my house reflects it (for better and worse).  I’m big into wooden furniture, bookcases, plums and yellows.  While most Israelis are partial to white paint on the walls, I like colors.  They elevate my mood, help me tune in to the music of the spheres, and hide scuff marks and fingerprints.  I get the kind that resists grime and is easy to wipe off.

My garden in Efrat has great potential, but I think it needs an overhaul.  My neighbor, Moishie, is said to be a crack gardener.  If you want gardening advice, go to him.  Or my mom and dad.  They keep up their 10 acres in Vermont with little professional help (though they do lean on my sister’s kids to mow the lawn).

Travel & Leisure
I don’t travel much anymore, and leisure for me these days usually consists of watching a couple of  “West Wing” episodes with the Cap’n in the basement on motzei Shabbat after the kids are in bed.

But I did go to the Carmel Forest Spa just south of Haifa last year with three other women.  That was an amazing experience.  Perhaps when Bill is a little older I’ll manage to escape up there again for the wooded walks, Swedish massage, and incredible food.

I’ve had the same Perry Ellis watch for the last 20 years.  It’s only the fourth watch I’ve ever owned, and I dread the day I have to replace it.  It’s got a fairly plain face, with Roman numerals and an inner dial with the sun and moon on it to indicate a.m. and p.m.  It’s on its fourth watchband, and the glass is pretty badly scratched.  But I hate getting used to new things, so please God I’ll have this one for at least another few years.

So there are Shimshonit’s recommendations.  Aren’t you glad you asked?

Lupine, irises and urn

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Graduation address 2009

Dear Readers,

The following is not a graduation address.

One of the things I’ve discovered in my advancing middle age is the ability to admit that I bit off more than I can chew.  That I was too big for my breeches.  That I’m in way over my head.

As I began about six different graduation addresses, I found I actually had very little to say to a pack of college grads.  I’m not famous, so I’d tread into the intensely boring area of talking about myself a little too much.  I haven’t had much of a career, which hardly makes me the model alumna to give such a speech, at least at the hoity-toity place from which I myself graduated.  I went to several graduation addresses for help.  Jon Stewart’s at William and Mary was snarky and amusing, but very short on substance.  Anna Quindlen’s at Mt. Holyoke was very serious, and charged the young women to stop trying to be perfect all the time.  (I could have said that in one sentence.)  I couldn’t find the one by Gloria Steinem that I heard her deliver ages ago, but I did find Nora Ephron’s from after my time.  She was a hoot, and had good substance, humor, and encouragement for the students.  But she’s 20 years older than I, and has had four careers and three husbands.  I think I have a way to go before I’m really qualified for this.

In short, those kids are just going to have to sink or swim.  They’re stepping into a viper pit as far as the world goes, and that’s a real downer to point out.  The few things I have learned in the two decades since graduation barely fill an index card, and it’s hard to find a good rhetorical framework to fit them into.  My life is a shocking political statement for most college grads who have been steeped in bleeding-heart liberal demagoguery for the past four years, and it would be impossible to avoid offending them (or being pelted with tomatoes, spoiled eggs, or—gulp!—shoes ).  I’d be just as well off reciting what Michael Palin said at the end of The Meaning of Life: “Try to be nice to people.  Avoid eating fat.  Read a good book every now and then.  Try to get some walking in.  And try to live together in peace and harmony with men of all creeds and nations.”  That would certainly save time and effort.

If I were to offer advice, it would end up sounding like Allan Sherman’s song, “Good Advice.” I would say that people are more important than things.  I would say that when you’re traveling, halve the clothes and double the money.  I would say that happiness comes from having spent less time at the office and more time with family.  I would say that if God hadn’t meant for us to enjoy good food, friends, and time off, He wouldn’t have invented Shabbat and then commanded us to observe it.  I would say, go ahead and eat dessert, but only after you’ve stuffed yourself on salad first.  I would say, from the ashes of disaster grown the roses of success.  And I would say, life is not a straight road, so make sure to have power steering.

And, since I believe that changing the world doesn’t only happen by heads of state, CEOs, and Hollywood stars and pop singers who meddle in politics, I would read a few lines from the last chapter of George Eliot’s Middlemarch aloud:

Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women…  Still, she never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw, and he would have held it the greatest shame as well as sorrow to him if she had repented. They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulses which could have marred it. …Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  I would say, Find your song and sing it.

So nu?  What’d you all come up with?  Anyone who actually wrote something has the Shimshonit Medal of Bravery coming to them.

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Race and Judaism

Either people are feeling their oats at the end of another academic year or the heat is getting to them.  But it must be the season for brouhahas.

There’s one that’s been brewing on the JewsByChoice.org forum.  Someone writes about having attended a shul with Filipino friends (gerei tzedek) and when the Filipino man sat down, a (white) woman came over and offered him a kippah.  He pulled one out of his pocket and put it on, flustering her.  The person who gives this account perceived this as an interaction motivated by the woman’s racial prejudice.

I’m entirely supportive of people of color converting to Judaism.  If the Torah speaks to people, let them come and take part.  And Judaism at its best is colorless, like water.

At the same time, I can understand how people of color could feel not entirely part of the congregation.  There is a very interesting (and, I believe, valid) list of issues faced by Jews of color called the Ashkenazi Privilege Checklist, featured on this blog.  Going down the list, I can see that many of the things I take for granted someone of color is likely not to enjoy.

I have given a lot of thought to the issue of race in Judaism lately.  And as you can imagine, I have a few things to say about it.

Here’s one.  In the situation where a woman handed a man of Filipino descent a kippah, it doesn’t necessarily mean she doesn’t think he’s Jewish.  She probably doesn’t, but the point is that he sat down in a sanctuary without a kippah.  That’s not done anywhere I know of except perhaps a Reform synagogue, and perhaps not even then.  If she didn’t hand one to any of the Caucasian congregants, perhaps it’s because she knows them personally and knows that they put one on before the service starts.  Or she’s offered them kippot in the past and they told her to buzz off.  The thing to do here is employ the principle of dan l’kav zechut, or judge the woman favorably.  She appears to mean well, whatever her views on race.  (My father, as Ashkenazi-looking as they come, used to walk into shul and forget to put on a kippah, and was offered one by other congregants every time.)

Another thing.  If you still believe that racism exists in America, and that it’s not even something of which people are always aware, why would you expect American Jews to be any different?  They’ve been there for generations, and even if you see them as an “oppressed” group, they may not see themselves as such.

I suspect the experience of alienation or perception of racism depends on the particular congregation.  Some are whiter than others, and some more colorful.  Some have more Israelis and Jews of color, and others fewer.  If you find your local Ashkenazi synagogue to have an unbearable attitude toward people of color, perhaps there is a Sephardi one you could attend.  Most people have to shop around synagogues anyway to find a rabbi they like, a chevra they can fit into, and a davening style that works for them.  If you’re a Jew of color, you have an extra thing to shop around for.

My suggestion to Jews of color if someone asks embarrassing questions about their background, or asks if they’re Jewish, or tells them they don’t look Jewish, is to give their interrogator a little lesson in shmirat halashon (guarding one’s speech).  The Torah commands Jews to love the convert.  It forbids asking people questions about their past.  Embarrassing someone is said to be tantamount to murder.  Not all Jews are white; they live all over the world and usually look like the people they live among.  Ever been to Israel and seen a Libyan Jew?  Or an Ethiopian?  Or one of the Bnei Menashe?

From the traffic on this forum, it would appear that the only thing that ticks off the person telling this story of the kippah in shul more than the story itself is people asking why it’s offensive.  In the comments following the post containing the Privilege checklist, one reader wonders if shuls can really be held responsible for not having kids of diverse racial backgrounds in their cheders, or materials (like books) reflecting racial diversity.  The author of the post insists that the shuls are responsible for such things.  Some shuls do have diverse populations, and others don’t.  Some nursery schools do have books with Jewish content that picture Jewish children of color.  But the vast majority of American Jews are white Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe.  That’s just the way it is.  They’re the ones who brought their customs and practices from Europe, and they’re the ones who built the communities, shuls, and mikvaot, hired the rabbis, and kept the building funds going.  Most have difficulty understanding why other white people convert to Judaism, and are probably not even aware that there is a trend today of people of color embracing Judaism.  I think that as more people of color choose to cast their lots with the Jews and become active members of synagogues, there will be more acceptance of them.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Women and Black people didn’t get the vote after a single protest.  Things take time to change, including in Judaism.  The most effective way to change things in Judaism is to do what has always been done: concentrate on making yourself a better Jew and person, be a participatory member of the community, and with your presence and persistence, slowly chip away at the establishment.  It’s how girls gradually were allowed to learn Torah, and how women are working to become rabbis and shul presidents in Orthodoxy.

Good luck.

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Cat fight

My alma mater’s alumnae magazine recently did a cover piece on stay-at-home mothering.  This was a big deal in a magazine that usually pays scant attention to parenting at all, preferring instead to celebrate women in high-powered careers and community service in exotic places, as well as its own expanding science programs.  Over the years, I have drifted away from many of the warm feelings I once held for the college, feeling alienated from their mostly liberal views, anti-Israel attitudes, and apparent lack of interest in women like the one I turned out to be.  Yet I was pleased to see a bone of validation thrown at the thousands of women like me who choose to be home to care for their families, postponing or foregoing ambitious careers.

What did not cheer me was to see some of the responses by alumnae to the article printed in the most recent issue.  While some women appreciated the college’s acknowledgement of their choice to stay home, some working women bristled at the suggestion that staying home is beneficial to their families.  In one woman’s case, she had a child with an illness that limited the child’s life expectancy to five years, and returning to work was a way of ensuring that she had some occupation to keep from drowning in her grief should she indeed lose her child.  (Baruch hashem, her child lived.)  But other women who responded took exception to a single passage in the original piece where an alumna claimed that she was doing a better job as a mother than a working friend because she was spending more time with her children.  One angry working woman complained that it was the 1970s all over again, when women who returned to work after having children were “dumped on” by greater society.  Another woman wrote, “How about the stay-at-home mother who spends 24 hours a day at home with her children because she’s drunk and passed out on the couch?  Or the mother who stays home and abuses drugs as her children look on?”

I’ve blogged about being a stay-at-home mom.  And some of my decision to do so was made after talking to other working women who rued that their children’s best hours of the day were spent with other people and that by the time they got home, the children were hungry, tired, and cranky.  Perhaps it’s gratifying to be the one to see to their children’s needs at the end of the day, and if so, that’s a form of good mothering.  I’ve never been a working mom, so I don’t really know what it’s like.  I know some women return to work to keep their jobs and maintain the professional stature they’ve worked years to establish.  I know some women who return to work because while they want and love their children, they don’t think they could handle the amount of together-time that comes with staying home and meeting their children’s every need.

My mom stayed home with my siblings and me.  She and my dad did the math and figured out they could make a better income if she left nursing and stayed home with us, while my dad worked weekends in addition to his work week.  (That also says something about the relative incomes of doctors and nurses.)  I saw very little of my dad in those years, but everything comes at a price.  My mom loved what she did, and we loved having her at home.  It worked for us.  The Cap’n’s mother returned to work after each of her children were born.  She didn’t relish staying at home and letting her professional skills become outdated, and with the Crunch Srs.’s dual income, quality childcare was within reach.  Both the Cap’n and I concur in retrospect with our parents’ choices.

Feminists are often accused of being humorless.  I usually stick up for them (a humorless job in itself), but I was at a loss when I read these letters to come up with any excuse for the rancorous tone.  Is it so hard to live with the knowledge that some people make different choices?  And do other people’s choices automatically represent a reproach to your choice?  Is everything really all about you?  (It reminded me of the responses the Cap’n and I got from liberal and secular Jews when we embraced Orthodoxy: “I don’t keep kosher or Shabbat, and I’m just as good a Jew as you!”)  I was disgusted to see what was a simple acknowledgement of full-time motherhood turn into a cat fight.  Every decision on the part of parents to balance work, income, and children is a complicated one and depends on factors that differ from one family to another.  The at-home mom who thinks she is doing a better job than her working-mom friend is entitled to her opinion.  (Who knows?  It’s possible in her case that she was right.)  There was no need for working moms to come out in force and either make excuses for their decision to work or bash at-home moms in retaliation for whatever slight they decided had been made to them.  The defensive tone and obvious rage in some of the letters suggested that some serious baggage was attached to the working mothers’ responses: residual anger at society’s former attitudes toward them, a belief that staying at home is an unattractively conservative position to take and an affront to feminism, or just plain guilt.  I don’t know what these women were feeling, other than pissed off.  But it was reflected in some pretty vitriolic prose most unbecoming to civil discourse.

I seem always to be having to define feminism for people who should already know what it is.  Ladies, it’s about having the opportunity to make your own choices.  That’s what we didn’t have for thousands of years, and it’s what the women’s movement got us.  That means you can choose to become Secretary of State (as two of our fellow alumnae have in the last few years) or you can choose to wear make-up, high heels, and a frilly apron and bake cookies for your freckle-faced suburban schoolchildren.  You can be a kindergarten teacher or a pile driver.  You can get married or not.  You can have children or not.  You can get Botoxed or not.

So retract your claws, please, pour yourself a stiff drink (but don’t let your children see you, or you’ll be labeled a bad mother!) and relax.

Or not.

It’s up to you.

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