Archive for December, 2009

Cut-out cookies

We’re invited out to lunch this Shabbat.  Usually when we’re guests in someone’s house, I bake a cake and, since our invitations out are relatively rare, I try to make it special.  (My rainbow cake was one such attempt at “special.”)

Because the family we’re eating with has 10 regular members (plus such irregulars as significant others and friends brought home from the army), we’ll be at least 16 at the meal.  My richest cake would be a stretch to feed 16, and half the time kids don’t like my cakes, so I opted this week for cut-0ut cookies.  Plus, Wednesday is 4-year-old Banana’s longest day–she’s home for lunch and has no chugim in the afternoon.  If she doesn’t have a play date that day, she nags all afternoon to watch videos, and since the answer is usually “no,” it behooves me to have an alternative activity lined up for her.

The photo below is a sample of our finished products.  This hostess gift/dessert is a huge potchkee, making the dough, baking it in batches, and fussing with the icing and sprinkles.  In theory, having young kids around to “help” should make it easier, but it rarely does.  They want to be close up where they can see the contents in the mixer, making them (and their step-stools) underfoot.  They nag constantly for a taste of the dough.  (Peach was nagging before I’d even finished creaming the margarine and sugar.  Yeccchhh.)  They cut three cookies out from a lump of dough that lies a foot square on the counter.  And when it comes to decorating, they take 20 minutes to decorate two cookies, then say they’re done.

But once I’m finished scolding, wheedling, and outright bribing them to help me finish the job, the final product is hard to beat.  Every time I make these, I say “Never again.”  Until the next time.

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Smart baby

Bill has had a fussy week.  Restless sleeping, kvetchy and needy when awake, and diminished appetite.  (Teething, it turns out.)  The Cap’n was working yesterday afternoon, so after taking a short nap with the baby, I gave him a snack (which he threw on the floor after one or two bites) and then (remembering last resorts of years past) brought him to the computer and put on Baby Mozart.

A graduate school friend gave us our first Baby Einstein video after Beans was born, the original with toys, nursery rhymes, and foreign languages.  Over the course of a few years, we acquired most of them, including the post-Disney-sellout ones.  The music, mechanical toys (which we never bought for the kids), and puppetry were acceptable viewing for our kids, though they never watched more than a couple per week.

Then in October, a friend emailed me with a link to a New York Times article detailing how Disney is recalling the Baby Einstein videos.  It seems many parents who bought them were actually hoodwinked into thinking the videos would make their children smarter and were disappointed and angry when their children’s IQs didn’t actually go up as a result of watching them.  Poor things.

We on the other hand, were under no such illusions.  We bought them strictly for sedation purposes, to shove into the DVD player when the kids were cranky, fighting, or driving us insane.  A nurse I met when Beans was new called Baby Mozart “the shower video,” since it would keep a newborn amused and quiet for about 20 minutes, the length of time a frazzled parent would need to take in the bathroom in order to emerge clean and sane (for at least another few hours).

The whole industry of “make your baby smarter” is a snake oil industry.  Nothing a kid can watch on the idiot box is going to make him or her smarter.  Young kids get smarter by doing things with their hands, exploring the world, touching, tasting, and making a mess.  They can’t do any of those things when they’re watching someone else do it on TV.  Just as research showed that kids’ aim (in throwing? shooting AK-47s? Couldn’t find a link—sorry) wasn’t found to be any better after playing video games, no kid is going to become smarter by watching other people play with toys.  (Perhaps the Baby Einstein people got smarter making the videos; they certainly got richer.)

My mother-in-law gave me a book last year edited by Harold Bloom entitled Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  At the time, I asked her if it was because she thought the kids needed it, or because she thought the kids were already smart and this book was up to their standards.  (With such a title, one cannot be sure.)  She assured me that it was very much the latter, though the title still bothers me.  It suggests that the stories and poems within, which are part and parcel of Western culture, are meant only for children who are extremely bright, as though children who are of average or below-average intelligence cannot benefit from them—or worse, that only through hearing these stories can children become extremely intelligent.  Neither possibility fails to insult me.  (I studied with a protégée of Harold Bloom’s in graduate school, and respect them both.  I certainly hope he had nothing to do with choosing such a pretentious title for the book.)

I may not have purchased our family’s copies of the Baby Einstein DVDs in the time frame specified to receive a full refund, but I’m not worried.  About halfway through the video, Bill squirmed until I put him down, then crawled off to play.  I guess he’s smart enough not to need them after all.

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Failed already

The headlines yesterday announced that Israel plans to build 700 new housing units in united Jerusalem, and the Palestinian Arabs and Americans are already crying “foul,” bleating again about how Israeli building is an obstacle to peace.

This is no surprise, however, given the received wisdom that Jews building in land to which they bear a four thousand year connection, and which they conquered fair and square in a defensive war (i.e. not of their making) is an obstacle to peace.  Not the smuggling of arms through tunnels, or lobbing of mortars onto civilian homes and kindergartens, or detention of a soldier seized in a cross-border kidnapping three and a half years ago, or funneling of oil money from Iran into the coffers of terrorists sworn to destroy the Jewish State and its people.  The building of apartments.

Anyone who follows this thread in the news has heard this before.  The one thing that is making itself clearer to me every day I read about it is that the 10-month pledge to freeze building in the West Bank was doomed to failure before it was made.  (Many of you know this already; just bear with me as I break it down, as much for myself as for my readers.)

First of all, it was made under duress, under pressure from an America that doesn’t necessarily concern itself with the state of things on the ground here.  Neither the West Bank nor the Gaza Strip is ready to be made into a state, or given international recognition as a state (unless Sweden would like to take on the paternal role of supporting such a state from its own coffers).  Those areas are still dependent on Israel (by their own refusal to build an economy) and neither is prepared yet to live peaceably side-by-side with a Jewish State.

Secondly, it is a unilateral gesture made by the Israelis to the Palestinians to try to lure them to the negotiating table.  The fact that the Arabs said even before Netanyahu officially made the pledge that they would not be so easily swayed, and that any freeze would have to include Jerusalem, which they one day hope to re-divide and establish as the capital of their apartheid state, should have been a red flag.  (When, may I ask, will the Arab leadership be called upon to make unilateral gestures, like filling in the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, ceasing their illegal arms smuggling, abandoning terrorism, releasing Gilad Shalit—you know, things that actually mean something?  Just asking.)  Unilateral gestures have been made in the past to try to further the cause of peace, and none of them has worked.  Israel left south Lebanon and got Lebanon II in the summer of 2006.  Israel expelled its own citizens from Gaza in 2005 to allow the Arabs a nice judenrein piece of land to call their own, and we got thousands of missiles fired on our farms and cities.  We have dismantled checkpoints, and just last week a father of seven was riddled with bullets and killed on a road whose checkpoint had recently been removed.  We have halted building housing in the West Bank, and before the words were even out of our mouths, our “peace partners” declared “shan’t play.”

Thirdly, why should Israel have to woo the Arabs?  We’re holding all the cards.  We have a state and they don’t—it’s we who should be the ones being offered incentives to sit down and talk.

But wooed or not wooed, we have no business sitting down and talking with people still sworn to our destruction, who still show no interest in statecraft or state-building, who are still thick as thieves with the planet’s most unsavory characters.  We have no business capitulating to and appeasing our sworn enemies in the hope that one day they’ll say it’s enough and leave us alone.  We have no business flouting the rule of law and desecrating the memories of the soldiers and police who risked their lives or died bringing terrorists like Marwan Bargouti (yimach shemo) to justice by releasing those terrorists in exchange for one Israeli soldier.  We have no business pretending that deporting those terrorists will make Israelis any safer than if we released them onto Ben Yehudah Street in the center of Jerusalem; with the Internet and sophisticated communications available to anyone and everyone, wherever they are, they will be back in the office of Terror, Inc. first thing Monday morning.

I know the pressure Bibi must have been under to make this absurd gesture.  I know the self-delusion most Westerners operate under that makes them think that if Israel just gives up enough of its own aspirations, Arabs will come around and embrace peace.  But this outcome was totally predictable from the outset: Israel’s aspirations are to live, and the Arabs’ aspirations are to destroy Israel.  How can those aspirations live side by side?  How can anyone even talk about peace until those aspirations are brought into line with one another?  And how can anyone claim to be a competent peace broker by forcing the side that is trying to live to give up its aspirations (usually in the form of its safety or natural growth) to make all the concessions to the side whose aspirations are to bomb, shoot, crush, and negotiate the other side out of existence?

Just asking, that’s all.

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Last week, Peach (our 6-year-old) was running around outside and getting warm in her Shabbat dress.  This particular dress has a sleeveless cotton knit bodice with a taffeta skirt, layered with a three-quarter-sleeved cardigan in matching fabric.  (Very perky.)  When Peach was too warm, she took off the cardigan and returned to play, only to have two of her playmates shriek “Eeeewwww!” at her.

The same thing happened to Beans last Shabbat.  (With one of the same “Eeeewwww”-ers who had shrieked at Peach.)

Now, my children are normally proportioned, nicely built, and not unpleasant to look at.  A flash of lower back from a shirt hiking up, or the sight of a pair of six-year-old upper arms should hardly floor one with shock and horror.  These are children, after all, and not adults with scars, hair, and bra straps dangling down shoulders.

So what’s with the dramatic reaction of my daughters’ playmates?  They go to different schools (one which has a reputation for being “frummer” than the other, though both very respectable schools) and are from different families (one of which is frum-from-birth, the other with a ba’al teshuvah and a convert for parents).  All I can guess is that the kids have been improperly informed about why modesty is a Jewish value.  They have either been told, or have concluded on their own, that the human body is ugly, disgusting, and should never see the light of day, and that’s why we cover it up.

They have clearly not yet been educated about the art world’s adoration of the human body, and the fact that married people, or people of the same sex, are allowed to disrobe in front of one another.  Women are allowed to sing and dance for an audience of women (in sleeveless leotards, yet), because these uses of the body—considered by rabbis to be immodest (don’t get me started here)—are not considered immodest before other women.

This is why I showed Peach a coffee table book I have of Renoir’s paintings, many of which are of women bathing (i.e. nude).  It’s why I told her about Michelangelo’s statue of David (and why Jews snicker, since Michelangelo painted him as a non-Jew, not having had a brit milah).  It’s why I told both my daughters that, rather than being covered because it’s ugly, the body is covered in Judaism because it’s beautiful, and we like to preserve that beauty for occasions when it’s considered appropriate to uncover it.

This is one of the things that bugs me—not only about Judaism, but about people in general.  I agree that modesty is a good thing, and I don’t enjoy the sight of people dressed in too-short skirts, in jeans torn at the seat, or with too much of their torso exposed.  (This goes for both men and women.)  But extremes at both ends often become unhealthily obsessed with their bodies: people who are hyper-focused on covering their bodies feel ashamed of them and lose sight of why they’re doing it, while people who expose too much of themselves focus too much attention on their bodies, dieting, removing hair, painting, tattooing, etc.  The former are often uncultured because they’re afraid of art; the latter walk around afraid not to look like art themselves.

I do wish these frum parents would teach their children that it’s out of respect for the human body—not disgust—that we cover it up.  (It wouldn’t hurt to add that their children are hardly the frum police, either, but that’s probably asking too much of children.)

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National identity

Ilana-Davita recently had a discussion on her blog of the recent controversy in France (sparked by Switzerland’s ban on minarets) over what constitutes national identity.  This got me thinking about the dozens of discussions I’ve had on this subject, and inspired this post.  (Thanks, Ilana-Davita!)

I know the US has struggled with this for decades, trying to reconcile whether it sees itself as a melting pot (which takes a few generations post-immigration to effect) or as a smörgåsbord, where everyone lives side by side but maintains their own distinct cultural affiliation.

I think one can see both.  Catholics marry Protestants, Jews marry Koreans, and everyone eats pasta.  On the other hand, regional accents and culture often outlast that culture’s hegemony in a given part of the country, giving California a distinctly Hispanic and Italian flavor, the Northeast a cuisine and city names that mirror those of Great Britain, and the Midwest an obvious Germanic influence which has led to the custom of having cookie tables at weddings—besides the meal and the wedding cake—and not only for people with Germanic-sounding last names.

I know the fears that underlie some people’s asking what has happened to America’s national identity.  Some are afraid that the influx of immigrants from countries that do not share the American values of freedom, civil rights, and sense of fair play will erode the nation’s safety, unity, and standing in the world.  Certainly the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were a slap in the face of freedom, since the attackers  availed themselves of many of the freedoms that America offers that their home countries do not, and used those freedoms to slaughter innocent Americans (as well as foreign nationals).  There is also a sense that attempts at cultural inclusiveness, particularly in public schools, are compromising the quality of education by sidelining Western history and literature, and including subjects and texts which may lack the educational value of the older curriculum.

I don’t really like this argument, and I don’t find I agree with either side wholeheartedly.  I agree that texts by Charles Dickens are much richer sources of English vocabulary than nearly anything else out there, but I also found Chinua Achebe’s simply but beautifully written Things Fall Apart to be as valuable in addressing human themes as anything Camus may have written.  If education is about acquiring cultural knowledge, then the bulk of the texts used in schools should reflect that attitude and introduce all children, no matter their background, to the sources of the values Westerners hold dear.  If, on the other hand, education is about acquiring skills first, and cultural knowledge second, then teachers should feel free to use non-Western texts that foster the teaching of those skills.  It’s a difficult choice to make for educators and curriculum directors, and one that I think has not been addressed successfully at a national level.

I am familiar with some of the arguments in favor of “multi-cultural” education.  The argument that children cannot relate to stories, pictures, and math problems that don’t reflect who they are is one of the main ones.  I’m afraid I’m less sympathetic to these arguments than most, and some of that stems from being Jewish.  Jewish kids don’t go to public school expecting to read Roth, Bellow, and Doctorow.  They don’t expect to encounter word problems in math about doing comparative shopping for tefillin or a set of the Babylonian Talmud.  They go to read Jefferson, Scott Fitzgerald, and learn about the Civil War.  They learn how to be Jewish at home, at synagogue, and—if their families have the desire and the means—at day school.  I think the same should go for kids of other ethnic and religious backgrounds.  (And I definitely think people who want to teach their children Creationism—or, more politically correctly, “intelligent design”—should do so at home and at church.)  Their native languages can be learned at home or privately, their religions from their families, and their own culture’s literature at home or at the library.  No public school is going to be able to take on the mammoth task of teaching every child every other child’s culture, nor should it have to.  Where a non-Western text reflects universal human themes, or a novel or story addresses the question, “What is an American?” it is clearly relevant to the curriculum.

It is true that children growing up in America, Britain, France, China, and the Congo are all going to be citizens of the world.  But it is also true that without a firm foundation in what it means to be a citizen of a country, or of a community, I am not convinced that being a citizen of the world naturally follows.  This too comes from being Jewish.  We had friends in the US who insisted, while living in our largely Jewish Boston suburb, on shlepping their kids to a more culturally diverse neighborhood to go to nursery school.  Their rationale was that while they may be Jewish, they wanted their children to grow up knowing kids from other, non-Jewish backgrounds.  While I understand their desire for their children to know people from other cultural affiliations, I wasn’t sure that that was an essential goal for pre-school-aged children, or justified the gas or time in the car to achieve it.  My attitude is that young children should first be taught who they are, and afterward (from 5th grade or so on) be taught about other people.

At the Crunch family dinner table, we discuss the children’s days, the holidays, the weekly parashah, Jewish history, and Torah values in general.  We also discuss the children’s secular and non-Jewish family, and how they are spending their holiday season.  We talk about Arabs, and their complex society and different religion.  We talk about what it was like to live in a predominantly Christian country as minority Jews.  We are confident that while our children will grow up with a firm identity as Jews, and while they may not see Christians or secular Jews or Japanese on a regular basis, they will not faint dead away when they do see them.

Besides being an issue of national identity, I believe it’s an issue of social cohesion.  America has a culture all its own (just ask the British), and immigrants who make their way there—as well as native-borns—should see that culture reflected in the country’s educational system.  As Daniel Gordis writes in Does the World Need the Jews?, the shared cultural values that Americans have are the glue that holds them together as a nation.  Not only does it establish an understanding of what America is about to its children, it creates a sense of unity and—potentially—peace among the adults who participate in it.  This does not mean that everyone must share the same political ideas, religious beliefs, or Thanksgiving menu.  It should mean, however, that everyone is agreed on what the country’s foundations should be.  In other words (to paraphrase a fascinating discussion in Gordis’s most recent book, Saving Israel), Americans need to decide whether America is diverse, or whether America is about diversity.  The former merely describes America’s cultural make-up; the latter indicates a mission to pursue diversity and make that part of the national agenda.

This is a complicated debate, and I have only given my two cents’ worth here.  What are your thoughts, readers?

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With three daughters, I’m keenly aware of the heavy marketing aimed at young girls by Disney and whatever products they slap the sluts princesses’ faces on.  (Dolls, nightgowns, notebooks, games, toothbrushes, even toothpaste for heavens sake!)

Those tarts princesses sell more merchandise than I can guess at.  But where, may I ask, are the Disney fathers?  Granted, they’re all probably pear-shaped, gouty, pock-marked, and shamefully weak.  But it’s just plain sexist to have the young nymphets get all the attention, especially when all they do is scrub floors, get yelled at and left out of parties, go to sleep for 100 years, get run off the castle grounds, or given away to the crone next door for a handful of salad greens.  What about all those fairy tale dads?

Well let’s see.  There’s Rapunzel’s dad who is so worried about her pregnant mom and her gestational food cravings that he barters away his unborn child to give his wife just one more salad.  While he has no right to make the executive decision to give up their child, he does acknowledge the rights of the living over those of the unborn.  (How very modern of him.)

And then there’s the miller, father to the nameless waif whose purported ability to spin straw into gold gets her into trouble in “Rumplestiltskin.”  Millers were notorious drunkards, and meeting the greedy young king on the road (whose personal philosophy seemed to be, “You can never be too rich or have too much gold”) is too much temptation for him.  Since he’s a souse and a loser, no doubt he believes he can give his daughter a better start in life if he recommends her in some way to the king.  The fact that humans had never managed to turn anything but gold into gold doesn’t matter.  Leave getting out of that mess to the girl.  She’s managed this far, and with a father like me.  Hiccup!

But most dads are just clueless.  Or spineless.  There are the fathers of Snow White and Cinderella.  Both marry gold-digging hags the second time around (“trophy wives,” perhaps?), and are too absorbed in their own affairs to pay much attention to what happens to their first wives’ daughters.  Child-rearing being women’s work and all, they retire to their counting-houses, or wherever neglectful fathers usually retire to in order to let their new wives work their wicked wills on their defenseless daughters.  The fact that Snow White’s father may well have partaken in a meal of liver and lungs believed by the queen to be Snow White’s doesn’t bode well for her being missed around the palace.  But hey—she gets taken in and duly enslaved by a pack of neglectful dwarves, so all’s well that ends well, right?

And Hänsel and Gretel’s father is even worse.  He marries a scheming cow just like the others, but instead of spending all his time in the potting shed, he’s lying in bed next to her as she plans the children’s deaths, and ends up agreeing to her plans!  Thankfully, of course, she dies of a black heart within the month, his children return home to him laden with gold and jewels (and only a few cavities to show for their harrowing experience), and all is forgiven.

No, I think we’re giving dads short shrift in the toy industry.  I think in addition to the $10 whores princesses, these fairy tale fathers should be merchandised too.  If they’re plump, trim ’em down.  If they’re pocked, smooth out their skin.  If they’re too old and gray, give them Botox and Grecian formula.  But put aside your bias toward sexpots females and add these men to the fairy tale toy pantheon.  Girls will love playing with them.  And burying them alive.  And burning them.  And throwing them down ravines.

It’s all good, clean fun.

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My favorite director

A couple of decades ago, I saw an odd little movie entitled “High Hopes.”  It was about an urban-living, unmarried couple of working class Britishers, and addressed themes of their relationship with each other, with his aging mother, as well as the bizarre tension between them and the man’s sister who, with her middle-class husband, live in the suburbs (think the Dursleys, if you’re Harry Potter fans).  The themes of social class, of personal struggle, of the inevitability of change, and of what really matters in life (despite what society may say otherwise) grabbed me, and despite its never being a blockbuster, the characters and themes have stuck with me ever since.

I’ve been delighted since then to see much more of director Mike Leigh’s work.  Gilbert and Sullivan fans were enchanted (or repelled, perhaps) by the director’s “Topsy Turvy” of 1999, delving into the backstage politics, personal trials of the actors, management crises, and lives of the composer and librettist in creating “The Mikado.”  But most of Leigh’s work seems to focus on smaller-scale dramas, such as what happens when an adopted young Black woman goes in search of her birth mother (“Secrets and Lies”), or when a loving, hard-working wife and mother in post-World War II London runs afoul of the law for “helping girls” (i.e. performing illegal abortions in “Vera Drake”).  Some of his movies (many of which, particularly in his earlier days, were shot specially for television) can be manic and difficult to watch (“Nuts in May” and “Abigail’s Party” in particular come to mind), but I loved the contrast between the poor, working class couple who manage, despite many setbacks, to find happiness, living next door to the professional couple who have everything they need, but remain irritable, unfulfilled, and discontented in “Grown-Ups.”

Leigh’s dramas are not dazzling or romantic.  As both writer and director, he turns his lens on couples with private pain such as infertility, sick children, financial struggle, and shows how despite their problems, they can find a measure of happiness in one another.  He has little use for the bourgeoisie, whom he portrays as vain, self-absorbed, and often cruel.  Their pain is sometimes no less than that of the protagonists, but the viewer’s sympathy (and Leigh’s) is rarely with them.

The director’s unique way of working—shooting scenes out of order, not rehearsing the entire script before filming, and only giving the script to the actors scene by scene as they film—is odd, and perhaps to some actors, disconcerting, but results in a high degree of spontaneity and quality.  His acting regulars—Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall, Alan Corduner, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Phil Davis, and Ruth Sheen—are not major stars, and not one of them has made People Magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People.  But ranging in looks from pleasant to plain, they make his stories appear all the more realistic.

Despite his most recent film’s title (“Happy Go Lucky”), Leigh’s films are not comedies.  (This one was inexplicably billed as one, but the Cap’n and I can attest that it is not.)  There are comic moments, but there is also a grittiness to them and while one only occasionally feels uplifted at the end, there is always a resolution of the crisis and potential for the characters to return to a degree of normalcy, a little dinged up but wiser for it.

I’m sure Mike Leigh’s movies are not for everyone.  But for those who appreciate dramas with a raw edge to them, actors who look like real human beings, and resolutions that are subtle, they are well worth watching.

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