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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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A magical mystery tour

Yesterday the Cap’n and I teamed up with friends and took our collective brood on a magical mystery tour.  Stops included a Dead Sea factory tour, a picnic at Ein Bokek (on the Dead Sea itself), a trip to Arad’s outskirts to see the view of the desert and to visit the cemetery, culminating in a cup of tea and a soufganiyah (doughnut) in Arad’s mercaz (pedestrian market/commercial/hangout center).

We began the day by tooling down Route 60 past Kiryat Arba, Pnei Hever, Susiya, and Tel Arad, then turned east on the Arad-Beer Sheva highway.  We made our first stop in Arad’s industrial area at a factory which processes Dead Sea minerals for the booming Dead Sea cosmetics industry.  Our guide showed us the various salts they work with, described their chemical make up, and showed us how they are harvested in the divided pools of the business end of the Dead Sea.  We were all treated to various muds, scrubs, and creams to test on our hands, and looking at my angrily dermatitic right hand, our guide promised to mix together a therapeutic cocktail for it which he promised should clear it up in short order.

With lunchtime upon us, we descended to the Dead Sea, and planted ourselves and our picnic on a beach near the hotels, spas, and treif Burger King.  (The great advantage to getting out of places like Efrat and Beit Shemesh and going to a place like the Dead Sea is that people are not as obsessed with modest dress.  The disadvantage is that not all the food’s kosher.)  We enjoyed our sandwiches, chips, vegetables, and assortment of homemade baked goods which my foodie friend and I analyzed in delightful detail.  The kids got their feet thoroughly salty and watched with amusement the bloated adults floating out in the water, whose size only augmented the ballust provided by the salt content of the water.  The temperature was in the mild 70s, perfect considering the day had begun chill and blustery.

The sky was nearly the same dun color as the desert sand as we drove back up to Arad to take in the view at The Point (the easternmost tip of the city).  The Crunch family scrambled onto the bizarre sculpture placed there for a photo-op, and the Cap’n and I mused at how many dozens of walks we and other friends took from the WUJS program out to The Point of an afternoon, an erev Shabbat, or a Shabbat afternoon.  The Cap’n brought me there in July 1997 to propose, and we visited it last on our honeymoon in 2001.  One of our friends watched our girls scampering down the gravel path and said, “To what ends these proposals lead, eh?”

After a brief stop at the Arad cemetery for our friend to say tehillim over her grandparents’ graves, we returned to the center of Arad and headed for the bakery the Cap’n and I remember from our WUJS days.  They had sufganiyot in the window, both jelly and ribat chalav (dulce de leche), and once every man, woman, and child had the doughnut of his or her choice, we sprawled at the tables for a few minutes of rest and reflection before journeying home.  The doughnuts were as we remembered–plump, not too sweet, and not at all greasy.  Heavenly.  When I mentioned to the young men who worked there how the sufganiyot were just as good as they were 13 years ago, they looked at me like I had two heads.  (I realized then that they were probably in gan 13 years ago.)

The Cap’n and I decided that this Chanukah would be less about gifts and more about doing things together as a family.  We’ve taken short trips and walks, spent time outdoors, eaten food from our favorite restaurants, done crafts, baked, and made gift-giving a minimal part of the holiday.  (Our friends from yesterday’s tiyul have the custom of gifts on the first and last nights, a very reasonable one in my opinion.)  While many of the school vacations have the Cap’n and me scrambling for ways to keep the kids busy (including finding camps for them to attend to get them out of the house), this vacation has been mellow and fun.  There has been no Pesach to kasher for, no dozens of meals to prepare as during the High Holidays, just lots of good stuff in the freezer left over from a huge kiddush I threw a couple of weeks ago, and great stuff to make and do together.

That proposal 12 years ago has led to some pretty good things, I would say, and this week’s vacation–especially yesterday’s tiyul–has been one of them.

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The Giving Tree

First of all, if you have not read this book, you can read the text here.

This book by Shel Silverstein is a favorite of many adults who remember it fondly as children and, I suppose, of people who are children now.

Not us.  The Cap’n and I have many things in common, and one is a SERIOUS uneasiness with this book.  Well, make that a strong dislike.  When we were discussing it the other day, we wondered if people are supposed to like it.  Are we supposed to view the tree as a metaphor for motherhood or fatherhood, whose sole purpose is to make a child happy, even to the extent of donating limbs for the purpose?  Is it a cry for help by an environmentalist who sees the boy as the representative of a rampantly consumerist society?  Or is it just a portrayal of a really unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship?

I have no answers to those questions, and at this point in my career, as parent rather than text-consuming child, those questions are irrelevant.  What I concern myself with now is what my kids think of those books.  I have no problem reading that kind of stuff to them, just as I don’t mind if they play with Barbies.  But I never read them a book or give them toys to play with that don’t involve a conversation of some sort.  If they play with Barbies, I discuss Barbie’s dimensions with them, her high-glam makeup and hair, and the difference between what Barbie looks like, and a resident of Planet Earth.

Similarly, if we still had a copy of The Giving Tree (which we don’t; we donated our English and Hebrew copies to a good cause some years back), I would ask my children what they think of the boy and the tree, what sort of relationship they had, and whether my kids think that is healthy.  I wouldn’t expect the same answer from them as I would give, since their relationship with me and the Cap’n is not dissimilar to that of the boy and the tree.  But we might discuss why the tree is happy when it’s fast disappearing, and why the boy keeps coming back to the tree instead of getting a job.  (I suppose if the tree had a basement, he’d still be living in it.)

What are the thoughts of discerning readers, parents, and consumers of children’s books out there?  Am I missing something?  What makes this such a great book in the eyes of some?  And what, if anything, freaks you out about it?

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My limited childhood memories of latkes at Chanukah are of cold, greasy hockey pucks brought on a plate to the basement rec. room of the neighbors’ house, where their annual Chanukah party included socializing upstairs for the adults and the kids sitting in the dimly lit, chilly basement watching “The Charlie Brown Christmas” on television.

Fast forward to when I was in Israel in 1996.  Chanukah came to the Negev, the skies turned cloudy, the rain fell, the heaters in our apartments were barely sufficient to keep the chill out of our bones, and the Cap’n and I decided it was time for some comfort food.  We went to the Co-op next to the absorption center where we were housed at the WUJS Arad program, bought up a bunch of produce and a few kilos of apples, and headed back to our apartments.  I got grating, and he went up to his kitchen to brew up a fresh batch of homemade applesauce.  We invited friends to help us eat our levivot (latkes) and were told by the Cap’n’s roommate, “Don’t make too many; I’ll only eat one or two.”  He ended up eating five or six.

The following recipe, my friends, is NOT for cold, greasy hockey pucks.  It’s also beyond the traditional recipe in its use of a blend of vegetables.  And it’s tasty, colorful, and delicious.  Warm applesauce and sour cream strictly optional.  I just love them with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Chag Chanukah sameach!

4 med potatoes, grated

1 lg sweet potato, grated

2 lg carrots, grated

2 lg zucchini, grated

1 lg onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 eggs

Salt and pepper, to taste

Vegetable oil

Press grated potatoes into colander to eliminate excess moisture.  Mix ingredients together in a bowl.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat oil in lg heavy skillet.  When very hot (not smoking) squeeze moisture from small fistfuls of mixture and flatten in palms, dropping into hot oil.  Smaller latkes cook faster, so make them small to cut down on cooking time.  Lift to test after a few minutes; when brown, turn over and cook on other side until done.  Drain on cookie sheets lined with paper towels.

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I wrote previously about Bibi’s building freeze in the settlements, from an Israeli’s point of view.  But perhaps, in honor of yesterday’s large demonstration outside Bibi’s office, a settler’s point of view would be in order.

While a settlement freeze lacks the obvious risk to life and limb of a land giveaway or a unilateral withdrawal from territory, it also comes with some risk attached.  What makes anyone think that it will only last for 10 months?  Who’s to say it won’t be extended?  Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman says that when the 10 months is up, bulldozers will be back to work, and working overtime.  But experience has shown that those high hopes are easily dashed.

What are the facts?  Israel has a serious housing shortage.  The lands won in the Six Day War of 1967 legally belong to no one else but Israel.  Ten thousand Arabs rely on building in the settlements for their livelihood.  Settlements are not now, nor have ever been, at all related to the peace process.

And frankly, settlers are sick of being blamed for the stalled negotiations.  Our homes, our presence here, and our right to this land have nothing to do with why there has not been a peaceful settlement to the conflict here.  The stalemate has much more to do with culture, politics, culture, history, culture, rhetoric, and culture.  Several work-arounds have been suggested by Israel to give the Arabs the amount of territory they want, and the Arabs have refused.

Settlers are viewed by everyone (but ourselves, it seems) as fanatically religious, racist, land-grabbing megalomaniacs.  Anyone who thinks so should come out here and talk to some of us.  Many of the people who live here are not at all religious.  (And few are fanatical.)  Most could not be called racist, and there are settlements here because a Labor government told Israelis they could build here, and encouraged them to do so!  Housing out here is less expensive , and a buyer can get much more for his money here than in the overcrowded, insanely overpriced cities in the center of the country.  The air is cleaner.  The streets are safer.  The community is smaller.  We are surrounded by nature including vineyards, orchards, a Roman-era aqueduct, the Path of the Patriarchs, and the site of one of the great battlefields in the Chanukah story.  This land was Jewish before 1948, when the Jordanians massacred the handful of fighters who stayed out here on the kibbutzim to protect the southern entrance to Jerusalem.  There is an expression about Hebron which describes this land too—“me’az u’l’tamid”—“always and forever.”

And now the government has changed its tune.  Now, despite the fact that Bibi and most of his cronies know that the settlements are not the problem, or even part of the problem, he is playing along with the international community’s anti-Israel (and especially anti-settler) attitude, and kow-towing to a naïve, dippy American president’s embrace of that same attitude.  It makes no sense.  There is no truth or justice in it.  It is as though our prime minister, whom we helped put into office, who we believed understood us and would stick up for us, has gotten up on the table and, cheered on by the world, dropped his pants and is doing the can-can.

I have sometimes wondered what it would feel like to live in a world where, Cassandra-like, only a handful of people either knew or could face up to the truth.  Now I know.  In a world where most people hold that whatever the majority believes is the truth (even if it’s arrant rubbish), it is very painful to see how little effect hasbara (public relations), first-person accounts, expert knowledge and analysis, history, and the facts have on people.

There was one way to avoid this whole mess.  Had Israel made up its mind after the Khartoum Conference to annex this land, there would have been no argument over ownership.  Israel, of course, hoped (even when there was no hope) to trade it for peace with its neighbors, but the neighbors didn’t want it.  It hoped to unload the burden of governing Arabs in the conquered territories, but didn’t have the stomach to transfer them.  And as time passed, and the PLO made the Palestinian population about as welcome to Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East as the bubonic plague (by orchestrating coup attempt after coup attempt—think Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait) any chance of relocating Arabs in neighboring Arab countries was dashed.  (I have thought that if all this was part of Arafat’s plan to cement the PLO’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza strip, it was nothing short of ingenious—and more effective than any public relations campaign.)

And to this day, Israel still hasn’t decided that this land is ours.  Arabs who live out here, whether they’re technically in PA-governed villages or not, live more or less by their own rules.  (Some settlers refuse to employ Arabs to work in or around their homes, since if something untoward happens, a Jew can be tracked down and held accountable, but an Arab cannot.)  Lefties hold this land in escrow until the Palestinian leadership can be induced to say “yes” to an offer of peace, whatever that involves.  And no one else seems determined to make it ours.  The settler movement would like to pursue this settlement freeze through the legal system, but since we live under military rather than civil law, we have fewer venues for legal action relating to our homes.

The world has dumped on the Jews for generations, since they have traditionally been some of the most powerless members of society.  The family of nations enjoys dumping on Israel, since we have few friends (and fewer every day, it seems) and are a ready target for anyone wanting to bleat about “oppression” and “injustice.”  And the world, including much of Israeli society, reserves the settlers, some of the least powerful people in Israeli society, for much of its wrath and scorn.

My dear mother always says, “Shit rolls downhill.”  Ain’t it the truth.

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A Happy & Healthy Chanukah?

I dreamt last night I’d acquired an appallingly large belly after consuming (with reckless abandon) the dozens of cookies left over from a large kiddush last Shabbat.  I woke up this morning feeling great virtual remorse.

Then I checked my email and found…this.

Thank you, Yehoshua Halevi, for perhaps the most paradoxical holiday greetings this Chanukah.

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I am always getting questions from my kids about what they did as babies and toddlers.  Their memory of what they did seems to kick in at around 3 or 4 years old, so for them what happened before is the stuff of legend and hearsay.

With this in mind, when Beans was born I not only kept an up-to-date photo album for her, I did as my mother did for me and purchased a baby book with places to record firsts, store locks of hair, and note details of the first couple of years.  But something my mother did for me in addition was to sit down at the typewriter on several occasions and type up notes about some of the things I was doing and saying in my first year or two.  Growing up, I relished taking that book off the shelf and looking at the copy of my birth announcement, my hospital anklet, and the onionskin sheets tucked into the pages of the book.

Beans, being the first child, got a small novel written about her (in the neighborhood of 50 pages or so).  Peach, as the second, has about 25 pages, Banana about 5, and I haven’t written a word about Bill yet.  (But I will.)  There is something satisfying about collecting all that information for the kids to read about themselves later, as though when I print them out and tuck them into their baby books, I am finishing a chapter I helped write about their lives.  This, plus the fact that no matter what happens to me, they’ll know they were early walkers, late teethers, and as sweet and hilariously funny as can be.

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Tootsie Rolls are kosher!

I received a mass email from my American rabbi today.  In a press release dated December 2, the Orthodox Union announced that it is now certifying as kosher Tootsie Rolls.

To those who did not grow up with the chewy, gooey confection, I pity you.  They were a favorite Halloween treat, and one which could keep one chewing delightedly for a good ten minutes.  They were put in the centers of Tootsie Pops, so one could enjoy a tangy lollipop, with a chocolatey chew chaser.  For a while they sold kits so kids could soften the Tootsie Rolls and put them into fun molds for an almost candy-making experience.  And when they came out with Giant Tootsie Rolls, it was just gilding the lily.  (One big one instead of a couple of handfuls of little ones, I guess.)

It was big news when Oreos became kosher.  (Though I admit I always preferred Hydrox to Oreos; guess the lard didn’t do as much to the taste as the kosher crowd imagined it did.)  But in my opinion, since there has never (to my knowledge) been anything to serve as a kosher substitute for Tootsie Rolls, this is possibly even bigger news.  What remains to be seen is if they will import them to Israel as an alternative to the horrid goos, gums, chews, and other sugary rubbish they sell here.

*Sigh.*  One small step for the OU, but one giant step for the kosher Yid.

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Blogging every day

I saw recently on someone else’s blog that she and a number of others had joined a challenge to post every day.

I suspect that for recalcitrant bloggers (and I know a few who disappoint me with their reticence to write) this challenge is a good thing.  Like the daily journal required for writing classes in high school, it’s an incentive just to sit down and pound something out.

But for us compulsive writers, who spend between 20 minutes and 2 hours on a post, such a challenge is not necessarily a good thing.  Blogging can take me away from chores that badly need doing; dinner sometimes waits until the kids are yelling for food so I can finish proofing what I’ve written, or add links; and despite my love of living in the computer age, where almost anything I need to know (and a hell of a lot that I don’t) is at my fingertips, I find that rather than saving time, computers have become a terrible way to waste it.

So rather than go along with this challenge, I will continue to assess my day, and put off blogging if there is more pressing business at hand.  (While I missed her posts, I admired SuperRaizy no end for taking a few weeks off to just live her life.) 

If you need the challenge, well and good.  Go with it and see where it leads you.  But if you’re like me and sometimes find yourself neglecting your life, it might be something—like all the spam emails from Pfizer, the promises of an online diploma, and the Russian girl looking for a western husband—to ignore.

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When the Crunch family was visiting my parents in Vermont, the Cap’n and I visited the very wonderful Northshire Bookstore in Manchester.  The store is a meandering sort of place, and on our way through the bestsellers section (a place I rarely stop), the Cap’n paused to peruse a paperback volume entitled Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt.  Mary Roach of the New York Times Book Review called it “a surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of human beings behind the steering wheels. …Required reading for anyone applying for a driver’s license.”

I frowned, imagining this a most unpromising book, but the Cap’n put it in our shopping basket, and proceeded to enjoy it immensely over the next few weeks.  He began making interesting suggestions to traffic problems we and our friends have where we live.  For our friends’ street that is residential, but a cut-through from one main artery to another, the answer to speeders might be not to add stop signs or speed humps (between which irritated drivers speed even worse), but to get rid of the painted center line.  For our street, which is a dead-end and more of an extended driveway than a street, with cars parked higgledy-piggledy along every curb and edge, he recommended screwing a baby carriage into the middle of the street to slow down drivers who recklessly turn corners at high speed and don’t watch for children.  I realized from the Cap’n’s comments that this was not some weird sort of book glorifying the wonders of the road.  As I sat down to read it myself, I discovered it romanticizes neither the road nor the driver.

Instead, drawing on extensive psychological, sociological, and traffic research, Vanderbilt discusses many of the thorny issues associated with drivers and driving in chapters entitled “Why Does the Other Lane Always Seem Faster?  How Traffic Messes with Our Heads,” “Why You’re Not as Good a Driver as You Think You Are,” “How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road,” “Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic),” “Why More Roads Lead to More Traffic (and What to Do About It),” and my favorite, “When Dangerous Roads Are Safer”—among others.  This book, as Vanderbilt points out, is not only about North America; it discusses traffic trends, design, and innovations all over the world.

I learned an enormous amount from reading it.  The following are some of the facts about driving that I found most interesting:

– Late mergers at construction sites actually help traffic flow more quickly by utilizing the second lane as long as it’s open and allowing two lanes of traffic to merge “zipper-like,” eliminating lane jockeying and rear-end collisions, the most common type of crash in construction zones.

– Vanderbilt describes the many types of distractions drivers succumb to when driving—cell phones, conversations, fiddling with the radio, reading directions, reading text messages, even working on a laptop computer (mounted on a desk over the console).  What I hadn’t thought of was the great distraction of eating.  By 2004 there were 504 food products with “go” in the label, and fast food restaurants recorded up to 70% of their meal sales through car windows.  Clearly, driving nowadays is about much more than simply getting from point A to point B.

– Anonymity on roads encourages aggression—in a study, a car was placed at an intersection.  When it didn’t move, convertible drivers took longer to honk, honked less, and for shorter duration than drivers enclosed in their cars.  This aggression leads to attitudes like cutting off other drivers and speeding through neighborhoods where we don’t live.

– Vanderbilt takes to task the world “accident,” used as if driver intention is the most important thing in a crash (Vanderbilt’s word of preference).  Not every crash is outside human error, like a tree fallen on the road.  When St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in 2007 when his rented SUV slammed into a tow truck stopped on the highway, its lights flashing, at a previous accident scene, and Hancock (who had crashed his own SUV a few days earlier) “had a blood alcohol concentration nearly twice the legal limit, was speeding, was not wearing a seat belt, and was on a cell phone at the time of the fatal crash,” was this really an “accident?”  An “accident,” according to Vanderbilt, is something unpredictable and unpreventable.  “The word accident,” he writes, “has been sent skittering down a slippery slope, to the point where it seems to provide protective cover for the worst and most negligent driving behaviors.  This in turn suggests that so much of the everyday carnage on the road is mysteriously out of our hands and can be stopped or lessened only by adding more air bags (pedestrians, unfortunately, lack this safety feature).  … There is a huge gulf in legal recrimination between a person who boosts his blood alcohol concentration way over the limit and kills someone and a driver who boosts his speedometer way over the limit and kills someone.”

– A small Dutch town underwent a traffic makeover to try to slow traffic entering it from a highway.  The traffic engineer responsible did something mavericky: instead of separating motor vehicles from pedestrians and cyclists, the way a traffic engineer would normally do, he narrowed the road and made them all share it.  This slowed car traffic more successfully than any number of signs could possibly have done.

– Roundabouts in Israel are common, especially outside the major cities.  I used to wonder why this was so—were traffic lights too expensive to install or maintain?  Then I learned some of the advantages that roundabouts have over standard light-controlled intersections: you can run a red light, but you can’t run a roundabout; cars must necessarily slow to enter the roundabout, where often drivers will speed up going through an intersection to catch a yellow light; unlike at a four-way stop, it is clear who has the right of way—the vehicles already in the roundabout (Israelis would all be absolutely certain they had arrived at the intersection first and disaster would ensue if there were such intersections here); and if traffic is light to moderate, someone approaching a roundabout doesn’t even have to stop in order to enter the roundabout, keeping traffic flowing more efficiently from all directions.

– Corruption in government, no matter where one is in the world, plays a role in observance of traffic laws and, by extension, traffic fatalities.  Finland, whose government has a very low corruption rating, has sliding scale traffic fines, a system which once cost a wealthy Internet entrepreneur $71,400 for going 43 mph in a 25 mph zone.  A referendum to repeal this sliding scale system was voted down, suggesting that Finns believe this system to be a fair one.  (It should be noted that Finland has the highest number of women in cabinet-level positions of any country in the world.)  Mexico City, meanwhile, a high-scorer on the corruption scale, phased out male traffic cops and replaced them with women.  As a result, the practice of cops soliciting bribes instead of issuing tickets is gone, collection of moving violation fees has risen 300%, and the female traffic cops are given handheld units to issue tickets, accept payment (including credit cards), and photograph violators.

– The media suggests that the biggest threat to life in the US is terrorism.  Looking at actual numbers, however, records kept since the 1960s show that fewer than 5,000 people have died as a result of terrorism, whereas 40,000 people are killed in crashes annually.  In other words, the number of people killed on September 11, 2001, is less than are killed on the roads each month.  Many citizens who support curtailing civil liberties to counter the threat of terrorism are the same citizens who oppose traffic measures to reduce road deaths, such as lower speed limits, red light cameras, tougher blood alcohol laws, and stricter cell phone laws.

– In the 1990s the UK reduced road fatalities by 34%; in the same time period, the US only managed to reduce them by 6.5%.  The UK’s success was due mostly to lowering speed limits and installing cameras.  If the US had done what the UK did, 10,000 lives would have been saved.

– With greater speed comes greater risk of death.  Someone in a crash at 50 mph is 15 times more likely to die than at 25 mph (NOT twice as likely, as simple mathematics would indicate).  A crash at 35 mph causes one-third more frontal damage than at 30 mph.  The potential crash risk at 60 kph (about 37 mph) doubles for every additional 5 kph.

Vanderbilt’s last paragraph of the book is particularly powerful:

On the road, we make our judgments about what’s risky and what’s safe using our own imperfect human calculus.  We think large trucks are dangerous, but then we drive unsafely around them.  We think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections, although they’re more safe.  We think the sidewalk is a safer place to ride a bike, even though it’s not.  We worry about getting into a crash on “dangerous” holiday weekends but stop worrying during the week.  We do not let children walk to school even though driving in a car presents a greater hazard.  We use hands-free cell phones to avoid risky dialing and then spend more time on risky calls (among other things).  We carefully stop at red lights when there are no cars, but exceed the speed limit during the rest of the trip.  We buy SUVs because we think they’re safer and then drive them in more dangerous ways.  We drive at a miniscule following distance to the car ahead, exceeding our ability to avoid a crash, with a blind faith that the driver ahead will never have a reason to suddenly stop.  We have gotten to the point where cars are safer than ever, yet traffic fatalities cling to stubbornly high levels.  We know all this, and act as if we don’t.

Like everyone else who drives, I took driver’s ed and driver’s training.  I got out of a ticket once by spending a long day at a “high risk driving course.” (I’d been cited for an “unsignaled lane change” while everyone else had been ticketed for speeding.)  I lost two cousins to a drunk driver.  I’ve been in two minor crashes in my 26-year driving career.  (One was entirely my fault.)  I used to have a 25-minute commute and many days would find myself drifting out of awareness, suddenly “waking” on a part of my commute with no memory of how I got there.

Vanderbilt’s book discusses in interesting detail all of these experiences, and many more.  I found I learned much more from reading it than I have in all my years of driving.  While the Cap’n purchased it (we’re not likely to see it in Israel), I don’t think it’s a must-own book.  However, if your local library has it, for those who enjoy non-fiction and who have the least amount of interest in what happens when a person gets behind the wheel of a car, it’s definitely worth a read.

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