Archive for January, 2010

Batya hosts this month’s Kosher Cooking Carnival.  Check it out.


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The Cap’n and I often hear Jews in America say, “Well, I’d really like to make aliyah, BUT…” and after the “but” give lots of reasons.  Some of them make sense (elderly parents to care for, well-established careers that it would be impossible to replicate in Israel or to continue remotely or by commuting) but some of them are downright ridiculous.  Here is a list of the top 10 dumb excuses people give for not making aliyah:

1. Parnasah. One of the reasons one needs so much money in the US to be Jewish is because a house in the eruv, Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp (if you take advantage), kosher food, shul dues, regular entertaining, and getting hit up for mikvah renovations cost a lot of money.  In Israel, one can save around 95% on tuition.  Real estate (outside the main population centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) is not nearly as insane as in frum neighborhoods in the US.  Camps are cheap and plentiful here.  There’s a shul (or two, or fifty) in every neighborhood, and dues are a fraction of what they are in an American shul.  Kosher food is available everywhere here, and shopping in a shuk can save a family a lot of money.  The government pays for mikva’ot and their maintenance.  And guess what?  You can AFFORD to have more kids here because of it.  Those who live in America and have to make their child-bearing decisions based on their finances would be free here to choose based on what they want and what Hashem gives them.

2. The rabbinate’s treatment of converts.  As if the American rabbinical establishment loves converts so much.  If certain Batei Din aren’t bad enough in the way they conduct conversions, there have been many American rabbis who have notoriously abused their positions of power with regard to women, children, and converts (including talk of revoking conversions for women who wore pants after conversion—the brazen hussies!).  There are mean people everywhere.

3. Hebrew.  Duh, you’re Jewish.  It’s your JOB to learn Hebrew anyway.  Why not use the Holy Tongue everyday rather than just for special occasions?

4. Fear of terrorism. Ahem.  September 11, London Tube, Madrid commuter train, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur,…  And no one with the name of Umar who paid cash for a one-way ticket and had a bomb stashed in his underpants would have been allowed on a plane bound either to or from Israel.  Period.  It is interesting to note that despite all the awful stories that make it out of Israel, life expectancy in Israel is higher than in America.

5. Fear of IDF service. This sticks in lots of people’s craw.  But there are a few things to consider.  One is that besides gan, this is one of the great social foundations in the life of an Israeli.  Boys become men there, friendships are formed, skills learned, all while ensuring every day that Israel continues to exist.  Everyone wishes that service in the IDF wasn’t mandatory, but no one can deny its necessity.  You may be familiar with the observation credited to Shira Sorko-Ram (in the Maoz Israel newsletter, May 2004), “If the Arabs put down their weapons today there would be no more violence.  If the Israelis put down their weapons today there would be no more Israel.”  Need I say more?  And if someone doesn’t agree with the role the IDF plays in turning settlers out of their homes, there’s nothing like being a fully enfranchised citizen to give weight to one’s opinions.

6. Israel’s hostile neighborhood. True, Israel doesn’t have many friends in the Middle East.  Over time, however, that may change.  In the meantime, thanks to peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, there is a bus that departs from central Jerusalem for Cairo every day, and Petra is only two hours from the border crossing at Eilat.  In addition, beautiful beach holidays in Cyprus and Turkey are available, Europe is only a time zone or two away, and Israel itself boasts plenty to keep a family busy on the holidays.

7. Expectation of downsizing. Many people don’t like the idea of coming to Israel because it may mean having to live in smaller quarters than they have in America.  This is true for some, but certainly not for everyone.  We increased our square meterage from what we had in the US when we made aliyah to a rented apartment, and again when we bought a cottage (semi-detached house with garden).  Some people want to live in a McMansion, however, and there are a number of neighborhoods with such absurdly large houses here in Israel.  Rampant consumerism has gained some traction in Israel for those who wish to adhere to it as a value.  But most people find they can do with less, and the upside of that is that cleaning for Shabbat takes less time.

8. No Sunday. When can you go to the mall/make day trips/get together with friends from out of town?  I know, this is a tough one.  But if a family can be shopped by Wednesday and cooked by Thursday, then Friday (especially in the warmer months) is a great day for that.  People usually only work half-days during chol hamo’ed (if they work at all then), and life is short enough that everyone bailing on work and school once in a blue moon could be nice.

9. I already spent a year in Israel.  Why should I live there? Because you probably came as a young person and enrolled in one of the many fine programs that allow young people to experience life in Israel in a well-structured, guided, sheltered environment.  Those are great, but to ask why you should live here, especially if that program year was a great year for you, is like asking, “I went on a date with this great guy.  But why should I marry him?”  Because he’s great.  Because he is your soulmate.  Because Hashem created him just for YOU.  And because he loves you more than anyone ever will.  How many people can you say THAT about?

And the biggest, all-time dumbest reason not to make aliyah:

10. Concern about the noise of IAF flyovers. (I swear I am NOT making this up.)  I’m afraid I have no response.

I know there are people who will read this and think, “But I still don’t want to go.  I like Israel, but not as much as where I am living.”  Okay.  But let’s break it down a bit more.

For those who believe themselves bound to perform mitzvot, this is a biggie.  So big, in fact, that it’s the one exception to the laws against writing on Shabbat, allowing a Jew to instruct a non-Jew to write in order to purchase property in Israel.

Another blogger (I can’t remember which one; chime in if it was you, and give a link to your post) once wrote about why more people don’t make aliyah.  For every reason listed, she determined that fear was at the root of the reason.  This is compelling.  Even the excuse of inertia, for people who would like to come here to live but never seem to think it’s the right time, is a form of fear.  Some reason that their finances are not in order, or that the kids aren’t the right ages, or their career is just taking off.  These, when examined closely, often boil down to a type of fear.

The Cap’n and I took years to come to the decision to make aliyah.  We had many of the excuses others have, plus perhaps a few more.  But we also had a strong desire to live here.  It was only after a Kol Nidrei d’var Torah given by a friend that we reframed our thinking.  He defined timhon levav in the liturgy as refraining from doing that which one knows to be right because it is easier to stick to the status quo.  When we heard that, we realized that the time had come to look into aliyah seriously.  The following Yom Kippur, we were in Israel.

I need hardly say that Israel is special.  As I’ve said many times, Israel may not be the only place for Jews to live, but in my opinion, it is by far the best place for them to live.  Israel is by, for, and about the Jews.  Nowhere else is.  It is flawed in many ways, and one of the best ways I can think of to find solutions to those flaws is to have bright, principled, well-educated Western technocrats come and build, develop, and improve the country.

When I look at my life in the context of the rest of the world, I felt my existence in America to be very small and inconsequential.  Outside my immediate circle of friends and community, my life made very little difference at all.  Here, however, an individual can rise to make a tremendous difference, both to the country and to the Jewish world in general.  To be part of it is to be part of one of the greatest experiments in Jewish history.  The last time Jews returned to Israel in any numbers from an exile was the return from Babylon in 536 BCE.  Even then, after only 50 years of exile, people were comfortable, established, and totally unmotivated to return to the land where only a half-century earlier the Jews had wept to leave.  Now, after nearly 2000 years of some of the most dolorous years in Jewish history, and some of the most shameful years in human existence, to have this land to return to is (to my eyes) clearly the work of Hashem.  Some might smile and say “thank you” politely, but decline the gift.  To me, though, the right thing seems to me to accept the gift and cherish it.

It is true that coming as adults (as opposed to kids, or young singles), we are limited in some ways in our ability to fully integrate as Israelis.  I can converse in the language, but have few Israeli friends.  But I have a wonderful English-speaking community which feels blessed to live here, and I feel very much a part of society here despite my own limitations.  Our children, however, are one of the main reasons we came here to live, and they feel very much Israeli.  While we are instilling in them the manners and values of Western society, they are fluent in Hebrew, have Israeli friends, and have few memories of America.  They will be the first generation of true Israelis in the family.

Like the old man who planted a carob tree knowing he would not live to see it bear fruit, we have brought our children here to bloom in their own lifetimes.

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A little rhyme popped into my head when I read the headline in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post which quoted Obama as saying, “I misjudged the will for peace.”  (Read with a broad Boston accent.)

Look at Obama sitting in his cawnuh

Eating his humble pie.

“Had they not been intractible

Or I so impractical

Peace mightn’t be pie in the sky.”

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Kiddush Hashem

We are blessed in our neighborhood to have many wonderful rabbis and the opportunity to hear them teach regularly on Shabbat mornings at an English language shiur after davening.  One of our regular speakers, Rav Binny Freedman, spoke yesterday about yitziat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt), kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name through deeds) and seizing the right moment.

He opened the shiur by dedicating the day’s learning to the memory of Yosef Goodman z”l, a son of Efrat who was killed in an army training accident in 2006.  During a low-flying parachute exercise, his parachute became entangled with that of his commander.  In a second or two (the drop is very rapid and chutes must be opened within a few seconds of the jump) Yosef recognized that either he or his commander had to cut loose and fall to save the other.  He pulled out his knife and, despite the desperate shouts of his commander not to do it, smiled up at his leader, and cut loose his parachute.

Recognizing that need to make a split second decision, not least because things are so dire, is at the root of many instances of kiddush Hashem.  Rav Binny points out that the moment at which Hashem chooses to take the Jews out of Egypt is not when they have done anything to merit it, but when they are at the absolute  nadir of their existence as a people.  There are the stories of the heroics of the midwives, and of Miriam scolding her father for signing up as a card-carrying member of Zero Population Growth, and of Pharaoh’s daughter rescuing an obviously Jewish Moshe from the Nile.  But the Jewish people, Rav Binny says, were at that time more Egyptian than the Egyptians, having lost nearly all sense of themselves as a distinct people.  And tradition says that despite all the signs and wonders created by Hashem to assert His existence and to punish Pharaoh for hardening his heart and refusing to let the Jewish people go, when Pharaoh finally gives in and allows the Jewish people to leave, only a fifth of them choose to do so.  (More on that another time.)  Those 20% seem to recognize that this is their window, and while they must undergo many hardships to bring themselves back up to a level worthy of being Hashem’s Chosen, they may not get another opportunity.

Despite the many hillulei Hashem (desecrations of God’s name) that go on in Israel these days, one kiddush Hashem that no one can deny is the work of the IDF field hospital that was sent to Haiti to aid the people there in the work of rescue and medical treatment.  There is a wonderful post on American Thinker about Israel’s “disproportionate response” to this disaster and the acts of chesed they’ve performed.  What’s particularly telling, though, is that Israel in this situation seems more like Lot in Sodom or Noach in the world–righteous perhaps mostly by comparison.  The larger, wealthier countries of the world have sent little or nothing, including the United States.  (Only this week, two weeks after the disaster, is a large hospital ship due to arrive from the US.)  So while the Israeli team may be working all hours and saving many lives, the number of lives that could have been saved had others acted better, and sooner, is staggering.  (It’s also important to remember, as Rav Binny points out, that when they return from the horrible sights, smells, and decisions they’ve had to make–whom to save, and whom to let die–these Israeli doctors, nurses, civil engineers, search and rescue teams are all going to need counseling for post-traumatic stress.)

We can’t control the forces of nature, or the many accidents or misfortunes that come our way.  But once they present themselves, how we respond–especially in the first seconds, hours, or days afterward–is what defines who we are, and either sanctifies (or fails to sanctify) Hashem’s name.

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Cleaning and nostalgia

Well, not really.

But I do remember the dean of faculty at my high school telling me (after learning that I’d sweated through the previous summer at McDonald’s for minimum wage) that whenever he saw restaurant experience on a teaching candidate’s resume, he was always favorably impressed.  He told me, this is someone who is used to being overworked and under-appreciated.

I was reminded of this not because I’m working in a restaurant right now, but because I actually think the cleaning profession rivals that of slinging chow for bone-crushing misery and thanklessness.  I gave the Crunch house the first good clean in a long time this morning, and as I had ample time for thinking (hands are occupied, but mind is free), I found myself recalling some of the more disgusting jobs I’ve done.

The one that takes the cake is the one I did two summers after McDonald’s.  For both summers I worked at Camp San Luis Obispo–not at all a summer camp, but a National Guard training facility.  Groups of Guardsmen would come through, check in, and go play war games in the hills each day.  Even the lowest grade of soldier was given the option of paying a little extra per day to have his bed made, floor swept, bathrooms cleaned, and ashtray dumped.  Ordinarily, this was a simple enough procedure.  Once my back muscles had gotten in gear from all the hovering over unmade beds and unscrubbed toilets, the work became fairly straightforward.  I had some great supervisors, especially the second summer (when there were fewer smokers on staff), including one who used to talk about “warshing the floor,” then “rinching out the rag,” and another who would guzzle down a case of Tab a day.  (Remember Tab?)  I learned one or two valuable skills, too, like when one of my coworkers, a burnt-out hippie named Tom, showed me for the first time in my life how to fold a fitted sheet.  (The Cap’n still can’t figure out how I do it.)

There were a few bad days, though.  Like the week each summer when one group would come through and invariably accuse us of stealing their stuff.  (That meant we were observed by a supervisor the whole time we did our chores, which slowed us down significantly.)  Or the day some wise guy decided to defecate in the shower.  When one of my co-workers found it, she was actually worried we’d be expected to clean it out.  Fortunately, our supervisor was as disgusted as we, and simply reported the incident.  Despite the fact that the toilets and sinks hadn’t been finished, she said, “Leave the rest of the bathroom undone.  See how the bastards like it.”  Or the time I picked up an ashtray, expecting to wipe it out, and saw someone’s Biblical “seed” swimming in it.  (Grossed out yet?  I sure was.)  My supervisor told me to throw if away and not give him another.

I don’t care for untidiness.  I like a good clean if it makes life more comfortable.  And it always amazes me when people don’t appreciate that from others who clean up after them.  The old Ethiopian man who swept the sidewalks in my neighborhood in Beit Shemesh (a thankless job if ever there was one) didn’t speak much Hebrew, but I think he understood enough to know I was thanking him when I would pass him on the street walking Peach to gan in the morning.

My favorite story, though, is about Rav Moshe Feinstein.  When he was in the hospital near the end of his life, he would chat with the Black woman who would come in every day to tidy his room and empty the trash.  He asked her about her family, her health, and was genuinely interested in her answers.  At his funeral, this woman stood outside the innermost circle, silently paying her respects.  The Yidn at the funeral were puzzled about what a Black woman would be doing at Rav Moshe’s funeral.  When some of them asked her what she was doing there, she told them about Rav Moshe and his kindness.  I hope they learned that one final lesson from Rav Moshe that day.  It may be the most important one they ever learn.

There have been a number of divrei Torah in the last year given by the rabbis in our neighborhood about the importance of hakarat hatov (showing gratitude).  Having been on the soapy side of the cleaning/cleaned-up-after relationship myself, I always try to thank those charged with the task of cleaning for my benefit, and to tip them when appropriate.

Because as we all know, cleanliness is next to godliness.

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To be a convert

It’s not easy to be a convert to Judaism.  If the slow, existential transformation one undergoes isn’t enough pain and drama, then the Beit Din is.  Or if the Beit Din is a pleasant bunch (I hear some are, actually), then the Jews themselves make up for it.

I haven’t had as rough a time as some.  My father is Jewish, though my mother tells me I look like her own sister.  (A blond New England Protestant.)  But in the American Jewish world, where European Ashkenazim reign supreme, pale skin and light brown hair fit right in.  On the other hand, if I were Persian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Bnei Menashe, or Cochini, no doubt I’d be told, “Gee, you don’t look Jewish.”  Seriously!  An Ethiopian Israeli woman who lived in Crown Heights reports having been rejected by the Jewish community, but embraced by the goyish Black community.  How do you like them apples?   (Hey wait, King David was a redhead.  Was he Jewish enough?)

No one can deny that converts are an undisputed boon to the gene pool.  And Jewish law commands Jews to love the convert (which some Jews do particularly well by marrying some of us).  But no matter how accepted we may be in our new community, there are certain reminders converts get during the course of our existence that we haven’t grown up with this stuff.

One is to do with food.  For many Jews I know, it’s a mitzvah d’oraita to consume meat on Shabbat.  I don’t understand this.  I know meat was special, especially during the Middle Ages, but dairy can be special too.  Do you know what a potchkee making a classy Indian meal can be?  All that peeling, chopping, dicing, and measuring out spices—slapping a chicken on a pan and putting it in the oven is the work of a few minutes.  (Gee, I should remember that when I’m pressed for time.)  I came of age religiously in beautiful Newton, Massachusetts, where it was a little out of the ordinary to serve a dairy Mexican, Indian, or Italian meal on Shabbat.  But Newton is pretty cosmopolitan, with plenty of culinary adventurers in the community.  I pushed the envelope a little too far, though, when I made a gorgeous Indian spread for a friend and her frum, rabbinical New Jersey relatives on a Friday night.  I checked with my friend to make sure everyone could eat Indian and she assured me they would eat whatever was put in front of them.  Well, the wife was a little surprised, but ate the food politely.  The husband, on the other hand, didn’t venture past the challah.  I have never attempted anything that ambitious again for an all-Jewish guest list.

I also cook with sage.  I understand some Jews in England grow up on sage ’n’ onion stuffing, but in America, Jews cook with dill, not sage.  My mother-in-law, when she came for Thanksgiving one year, said, “You cook with sage?  But that’s such a goyish herb.”  Perhaps in some people’s minds, but I don’t think herbs affiliate officially with any religion.  I would never presume to pick up a jar of nigella in the grocery store, peer through the glass, and ask, “Pardon me for asking, but are you Jewish?”

Aside from culinary Judaism, converts may have a fresh take on attire.  I grew up wearing pants and shirts to school.  (In fact, in 9th grade, I wore denim jeans every single day.)  It’s a little odd to me, helping my daughters put together outfits that involve shirts, leggings or pants, and skirts or dresses over them.  I think I owned five skirts my entire childhood, and maybe four dresses.  Where there was no Shabbat, there were no Shabbat clothes.  The dress my mother bought me (which matched my sister’s) to wear for my brother’s bar mitzvah (don’t ask) was the first dress I’d owned in years, and the last for many more.  Now I find myself having to be cognizant all the time of making sure my girls look sufficiently feminine to get past the tzniut police at school, but still able to run or climb a jungle gym without their skivvies showing.  It’s all too weird to me.

Kol isha is another one.  In secular American culture, what Disney princess doesn’t sing?  Or female lead in a show?  Or kid with a solo in the Christmas concert?  Davka, it’s the women who sing more than the men in secular American society.  (Boys would redden and mouth the words rather than be caught doing something as girly as singing.)  Even someone who spends time in a non-Orthodox shul has to be confused by this, since a good number of their cantors nowadays are women.  The more liberal frummies pair up women singers or combine them with men.  I still can’t stop asking, “Who cares?”

In my experience, married converts are expected to cover their hair.  I’ve written plenty on this subject already (here and here).  In short, in my former community, the only women who covered their hair during the week were a handful of women from out of town, and converts.  As I have written, I gave it the old college try, but in the end that particular madrega was not a comfortable perch for me.

The dunk in the mikvah (“Today I am a doughnut” was the subject line on my announcement to friends) was not the end of the process of becoming Jewish.  Just as I find myself clinging to much of the Weltanschauung I was raised with, I also find the absorption of my yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul) to be a gradual one.  Where frum-from-births ingest the Jewish holidays with their mothers’ milk, I find myself slowly, year by year, working out my thoughts about each one.  Pesach has always had a strong hold on me.  Shavuot appeals to me as a convert, and Chanukah as a Zionist.  But Purim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the rest are still works in progress.  Year after year, I read about them, ask friends about how they relate to them, and slowly find a way to fit them into my spiritual cosmos.  And I’m not the only convert I know to shake my head during the lulav parade at Sukkot and say, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”

I’m sure it was a relief to my parents when I remained someone they could recognize after all this “Orthodox mishegosn” (as my father called it).  Contrary to their fears, I did not drift away, cease contact with them, or stop eating in their house.  I think I’m very much what I once was, with some major and some minor changes.  Judaism has added the richness of community, wisdom, life cycle events, and important character development to my life.  And it has taken away some of the loneliness and isolation I have felt in the past, and directed my search for meaning in a way that has borne unexpected fruit.  As difficult as it is sometimes (and sometimes I imagine what it would be like to live in a seaside Tel Aviv apartment and eat cobb salad and pepperoni pizza), I wouldn’t really want to go back.  And slow as it is to settle in, I have my whole life.

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Whenever the Cap’n and I go to a mall, one of the stops we always make is to a Steimatzky’s book shop.  The Cap’n likes to see what sci fi books are out in English (or Hebrew) that he hasn’t read yet, and I usually wander over the rest of the English language book section.  The part that always depresses me, though, are the several shelves dedicated to Middle East peace.

It’s usually three or four shelves full of books describing the baby steps, the photo-ops, the missed opportunities, and the myth-making that have gotten in the way.  When people talk about the many successes Israel has enjoyed in its young existence as a state, one of them is the publishing industry.  Israel publishes 6,866 books per year, compared to 3,686 in Lebanon, 2,215 in Egypt, 1,800 in Syria, and 511 in Jordan (based on this Wikipedia page.)  But of those books published, I sometimes wonder how many are about the failed peace process.   It seems that many more people have cashed in on the lack of peace here than have gotten their hands dirty trying to make some.

My father recently sent me the syllabus of a Williams College professor who teaches a seminar on “historical narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”  His books include such reads as Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows which claims to document the collaboration and exploitation of Arabs who sympathized with the Zionist cause, Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Sa’di and Abu-Lughod’s Nakba, and Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots, about how Israelis have taken the historical events of Masada, the Bar Kochba rebellion, and Tel Hai and transformed them from bloody defeats into heroic national narratives.  In other words, this course is dedicated to a “they said, they said” version of events (which at best, in the end, suggests they’re both employing myths, lies, and half-truths to serve their own interests).  Texts appear chosen for their polemical value on both sides (with Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel pitted against Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage) and are no doubt intended to “spark discussion.”  (This rationale, it should be noted, also contributed to Jimmy Carter’s insistence, despite others’ efforts to discourage him, on giving his recent libel the title Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.)

As I wrote my father, I am deeply concerned about the sort of discussion that is likely to take place after reading texts that shed plenty of heat, but no light, on something as complex as the conflict here.  I’ve written before that anyone who seeks to understand the Middle East would do well to read fact-filled, coolly written books and articles in order to understand not only the claims made by the combatants, but also the events and deeds they neglect to mention when making their cases.  I like to think that higher education is in the service of teaching people to think, research, get the facts, and love and pursue truth.  Taking a class like the one at Williams does none of those things, and at a cost of  $39,250 per year (excluding room, board, and fees) is a colossal waste of money.

And like that Williams professor and his syllabus, all the books like the ones on the shelves at Steimatzky’s, and the journalists and professors who write them, seem more interested in rehashing the same tired claims, repeating the same old myths, rather than putting forward any new information.  Professor Shlomo Sand has made waves recently in his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, by recycling the old, long-discredited claim that all the Jews are descended from the Khazars, and therefore have no historical claim to this land.  Academics Ilan Pappé and Neve Gordon both traveled abroad to encourage academics in America and Britain to boycott Israel.  And Haaretz’s editor, David Landau, told former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel “wanted to be raped.”  With media moguls and professors like these, I’m reading the Jerusalem Post and sending my kids to NYU!  (Not Columbia, which employed the great mythmaker Edward Said until his death and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak.)

I will still go to Steimatzky’s with the Cap’n, but in future  I’ll stick to the sci fi.  At least there, there’s always something new under the sun.

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Many of you have probably already received this in your inbox.  But for those who somehow missed it, it’s too good a giggle to miss.  It’s also the only post I can imagine where I can apply the two tags “humor” and “terrorism.”  If anyone knows the source of this witty little piece, please share it.

New threat levels declared worldwide after recent terrorist activity have resulted in the following:

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.”  Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.”  The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the Blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out.  Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to a “Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was during the Great Fire of 1666.

The Scots raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s Get the Bastards.”  They don’t have any other levels.  This is the reason they have been used on the front line in the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.”  The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.”  The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.  It’s not only the French who are on a heightened level of alert.  Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.”  Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

The Germans also increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.”  They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbor” and “Lose.”

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual, and the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy.  These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Americans meanwhile, as usual, are carrying out pre-emptive strikes on all of their allies, just in case.

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Lord of the Dance

Last Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to take delivery on my birthday present from the Cap’n—tickets to “Lord of the Dance” in Jerusalem

It was “gargious.”  Twenty-five dancers, a pair of fiddlers, and a singer entertained a near-capacity house at Binyanei HaUma (nearly 3000 spectators).  Celtic music, dance, and scenery (stone-looking arches through which the dancers entered and exited), lights, torches, and fireworks, wigs, costumes, and drama dazzled the audience for two hours.

I had seen “Riverdance” on television years ago, but the Cap’n knew nothing about the show or style of dance, except what he saw on a Muppet Show special feature where Kermit the Frog—dressed in early Michael Flatley white peasant blouse—danced his little webbed feet off.

The real thing, live, was beyond anything I could have imagined.  Yes, the experience was a bit of a barrage on the senses, but the sight and sound of so many people moving their feet in unison, the grace and speed of their movements, and the natural stirring-ness of Irish music (who can resist it?) was electrifying.  Those who want the subtlety of ballet or the avant-garde of modern dance might not have been moved by it.  But the Cap’n and I love dance, period, and this show was in a class of pleasure all its own.

If dance tells a story, this one tells of a love of dance.  It opens in the early morning, with a gold-clad sprite awakening a group of women dancers.  The program gets progressively more energetic, with the men dressed in bad-assed, military-looking clothing (drab or black trousers, T-shirts, nearly always with a Celtic knot insignia on them) and the women nearly always in brightly-colored dresses.  Rivalries break out between the two principal female dancers, one in a Madonna-like white dress and luscious blond wig, the likes of which the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders would kill for, and a dark beauty in a fire-engine red dress.  Another, the title rivalry (for the title of “Lord of the Dance”) also develops between the two principal male dancers (one with the bulky build of a Gene Kelley, the other with the much slighter build of Fred Astaire).  Things get pretty hot in a “Breakout” dance which starts with the chaste, armless, feet-only Irish dancing of the Madonna and her troupe, but goaded by the raven-haired one, the troupe rips its Velcro-closed dresses off and completes the number with rapid foot-drumming, arms-akimbo, bra-and-panty-clad energy.  (I couldn’t help but hear Peach commenting in my head, “Ima, that’s not very tzanua.”  Then I looked around and counted the dozens of couples where the women’s heads were covered and the men’s heads sported crocheted kippot, and realized there are plenty of couples like the Crunches in our Fair and Holy City.)  After intermission, the rivalry between the two principal men (and their respective posses) gets going, with the buff one and his henchmen deciding it’s time for his rival to “get whacked.”  They pummel him to soften him up, then toss him in a backstage pit.  But the gold-clad sprite returns and restores the wounded principal to floor-clacking health, and as he re-enters the stage, his feet move with such speed it sounds like water flowing.  He recovers the coveted “Lord of the Dance” belt, peace breaks out, and the night comes to a close.

There were a few parts of the show I found annoying.  The singer, whose raison d’etre was to keep the audience from getting restless during costume changes and breathers, was woeful. She could carry a tune, and had clearly had some training.  But her singing lacked expression and though she was singing in English (for two of the three songs), I could hardly understand her.  Another beef was that the sound was cranked up to the max (definitely up to “11”), which caused my ears to ring for several hours after the performance, and the liberal use of strobe lights felt like a serious assault on my vision.  And finally, I was irritated with the audience more than once when they would applaud when a dancer was doing a particularly impressive piece of speedwork; though the floors are miked for these performances, I still couldn’t hear the dancer’s feet at all.  Despite these drawbacks, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, from beginning to end.  And as for the singer, at any given time, there are a few LOTD troupes on the road at a time, so perhaps some of the other singers are better.

We were lucky enough to find that some of the dances are watchable on YouTube.  Here are the men in their amazing “Warriors” number,

and the women in their “Breakout” dance.

God love him, the Cap’n knows to keep his diamond earrings and dozen roses, and take me to the dance!

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Partial eclipse

This morning, the Cap’n and I hauled the kids to the Dekel, the most central neighborhood in Efrat, to view a partial solar eclipse.  They got to miss a bit of school (we were there from about 7:45 to 8:15), and enjoyed viewing the eclipse through thick cellophane filters, through a telescope which projected the sun and moon’s images onto a file folder, and with an old-fashioned, low-tech method of two pieces of white paper, one with a pinhole in it and the other behind it acting as the “screen.”  The morning’s viewing was courtesy of AstroTom, a local amateur astronomer who keeps interested Efratniks informed of interesting astronomical events via email.  It’s also thanks to Tom that we saw the Space Station pass overhead a couple of nights in the fall, and know which planets are appearing in the sky at a given time.  He told us that if one were in South Asia or Central Africa this morning, one would have observed a total eclipse.

A partial eclipse is not as dramatic as a total eclipse, but it is still amazing to see how nature works.  I witnessed a total solar eclipse when I was a kid in Oregon back in the late 1970s.  They talked about it in school for weeks beforehand, and showed kids how to make the white paper projector to watch it safely.  I had trouble getting the papers to work back then; today it worked beautifully.  (Though AstroTom’s image from his telescope was much bigger and easier to see today.)

I suppose most kids went to school as usual this morning, and either didn’t know about the eclipse or didn’t take much interest.  But these things don’t happen often, and while our kids may not take a huge amount of interest right now, we still think it’s important for them to see and learn about the wonders of nature.  And we had a good time chatting with a real star-gazer and accosting passers-by, handing them filters to view the likui chama themselves.

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Going back in time (sort of)

Peach has been devouring (through my English reading skills) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series.  These were some of my favorites as a child, and it’s been wonderful to pass them on to the next generation.

My mother was musing about what their appeal could be to a little Orthodox Jewish girl living in Israel, and it got me thinking.  Peach is a particularly inquisitive child, and while I think the lengthy explanations of how things were made and done back them (i.e. how sap was drained from maples for syrup-making, how to construct a sled, how a horse-powered thresher works) would be boring, her attention never seems to flag.  Occasionally, I point out differences to her between how they live and how we do, such as what they eat (i.e. on the Oklahoma prairie they subsisted on meat, and almost no vegetables for a year), but most of the time, she is just rapt, hearing about a family that had three little girls (like hers), that moved long distances to new places, got to know new people, and had adventures.  Not exactly like Peach’s, but worth hearing about nonetheless.

And I’m appreciating hearing the stories again, since with the Cap’n between jobs just now, the Crunch family is on an austerity plan.  No more restaurant food, no more movies or unnecessary purchases.  We’re making much more of our own fun, and I’m spending more time in the kitchen.  Tonight was homemade pizza night with homemade sauce and crust.  We’ll be having chicken tenders for Shabbat, homemade instead of from the Burgers Bar.  And when my in-laws come to visit in February and bring our new ice cream maker, we’ll be having homemade ice cream instead of either the wretched stuff from the grocery store or the Ben & Jerry’s that costs us our firstborn.  The girls know that after-dinner entertainment for the Ingalls family was when their father took out his fiddle and played and sang.  No computer, no TV, and nowhere near the stock of toys, puzzles, dolls, and craft supplies they have in their very own playroom.

I used to love to imagine how my family would fare as settlers on the prairie.  My father is quite handy, my mother a hardy laborer who makes a mean homemade bread.  I thought we’d probably do pretty well.  There would be plenty of hard work, but I figured we could handle it.  I thought, if my dad could make a smoker (for meat and fish) out of an old refrigerator, what couldn’t we accomplish?

Once in a while, I’ve found myself having to rough it and getting a tiny taste of that life.  When I was traveling around Asia or Europe, I could only take what I could carry, and sometimes found myself strewing things along the way that I couldn’t carry or didn’t need anymore.  When I was in Asia, most bathrooms were a hole in the floor instead of the fancy porcelain commodes we have in the West.  When I stayed in England for a few months, I had to wash all my laundry by hand.  (The pub I worked at didn’t pay enough for me to go to the laundromat around the corner.)  When we made aliyah, the Cap’n and I had to do dishes by hand for two years, since we waited until we had a place of our own to buy a dishwasher.  And now that we’re cutting back on our expenditures, I’m making much more of our food than I used to.  It’s nothing like living in a house we built ourselves, sleeping on a bed of straw on a frame made by the Cap’n, and subsisting on game we catch ourselves.  (Thank God for that.)  But it’s a little reminder that most people in the world don’t have what we have, or live like we do.

No harm in that.

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Litter rant

From the time I first set foot in Israel in 1996, I have been mesmerized by the beauty and history of this place.

At the same time, however, I’ve been appalled at how people have chosen to maintain it.  Coming to Israel is like going back in time in many ways, and unfortunately one of those ways is reflected in the amount of trash dumped everywhere and anywhere.  (Remember the Keep Britain Tidy movement?  And the fake Indian crying on American television to get Yanks to stop throwing their garbage out of the windows of moving cars?  Where’s Israel’s weeping King David?  Or Keep Israel Tidy?)

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I came up with a little photo essay.

Bill and I set out one morning last week to make a round of playgrounds, ironically one of the worst places to play or sit and converse with one’s adult peers.  Here’s an overview of the playground.  Pretty nice, no?

This is a particularly sought-after playground because of its zipline (something we never had at playgrounds in the US).  Kids play ball here, swing, climb the structure.  But what is that green stuff on the gravel in the foreground, at the base of the sandbox?  Clover?  Grass?  *Gulp* Weeds?  No, it’s…

Broken glass!  (With some weeds mixed in.)  The popularity of Crocs, which look like great gardening shoes but are very poor shoes for running and climbing, means that kids often kick them off on the swings, or shed them in an attempt to play barefoot.  Fortunately, Efrat’s Emergency Medical Center is located down the road for stitching up tender little feet that get sliced and diced by all the broken glass here.

Parks and playgrounds are supposed to be fun for everyone, and families often choose to bring their dogs with them.  Unfortunately, they don’t always remember to take all their dogs’ belongings with them when they leave…

Bill and I left that park and tooled on down the road to another playground.  On the way, we passed by Efrat’s shopping center, which contains several eateries, among them Burgers Bar.  Of course, one doesn’t actually have to see the Burgers Bar to know it’s in the vicinity; one has only to look in the rosemary shrubs lining the sidewalk for sufficient evidence:

If you look closely, you can see that this scrupulously kosher person also enjoyed a parve dessert after his or her dinner: a lollipop!  B’teiavon.

Efrat is not all litter, I assure you.  This time of year one can spot some hardy roses, blooming rosemary, and I saw the first blooming almond trees yesterday.  (I haven’t yet gotten pictures of them.)

Even the empty lots in Efrat have a loveliness to them.  While overgrown and rocky, one can often spy cyclamen growing out from between the stones.  In the winter (i.e. now) the grass and weeds are green, and wildflowers bloom.  Here’s an empty lot next to another playground:

And on closer inspection, we see the seamier side of this stony, grassy lot:

Trash, trash, and more trash…

When the Cap’n and I were on our program nearly 14 years ago, any tiyul we took was capped off at the end by our being asked to scurry around and pick up the hundred or so water bottles that had been scattered around whatever natural or man-made wonder we’d just visited.  Tourist, immigrant, Sabra–there appears to be no difference between them when it comes to littering.  Some places are much worse than others, but in a yishuv with the amount of civic pride that Efrat boasts, there is no excuse for the littering and vandalism which mar the streets, playgrounds, and open spaces here.

For nearly 2000 years, the Jews languished in exile, praying to return to our land.  For all that time, we were subject to the laws (or lawlessness) that held sway wherever we were.  We lived an existence fraught with denial: to own land, to join professional guilds, to attend universities.  Anything we had could be (and sometimes was) taken from us at any time.

But here we are at last, in our own land, where everything is of, by, and about the Jews.  It’s ours again.  Some would argue that because it’s ours, we have the right to foul it up if we want to.  But I don’t think that’s what people really want.

Like so many things, it’s a question of education.  If parents and teachers were to instill in children’s minds the values of cleanliness, of safety, of beauty, Israel might look different.  Parents should be aware that just because they live in a yishuv packed with religious Jews, many of them immigrants from the West, does not mean that their children will automatically absorb those values; they have to be taught explicitly.

I personally don’t fancy the idea of passing a filthy, garbage-strewn country on to the next generation.  It’s for kids like Bill…

…that we need to teach our children good habits and civic pride.  On our way home from our photo tour, we passed by a parked car with the following sticker in the rear window:

So do we.

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Teaching teachers

My father recently sent me an article from The New York Times critiquing the way teachers are prepared for their profession in the US.

I have long believed that teachers are very poorly taught (after having gone through a well-reputed program myself), and have discussed this matter with other teachers.  I was pleased with this article because it validated many of the criticisms I and other teachers have of teacher training programs.  I and others believe that programs need to be more selective of the type of individual they accept, the programs must be free of charge, teachers need to continue their studies in the subject they expect to teach, student teachers need to be mentored more, with more time spent with cooperating teachers, supervisors, and fellow teaching students to analyze what happens in the classroom, including videotaping teaching frequently to review a student teacher’s performance.  And new teachers need to be supported through stipends and through hiring of other new teachers to create a supportive, energetic community of educators to keep new teachers from burning out quickly.

If this interests you, have a read of this article, and let me hear your comments on it.

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I just finished a book called Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It is the story of a Derbyshire village whose citizens agreed voluntarily to quarantine themselves to contain the Plague that had infiltrated it.  It was recommended to me by a friend whose shares my interest in English history and historical fiction.  While our tastes do not always coincide, she and I are in perfect accord about this wonderful book.

The author is Australian-born and was a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, covering Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza, and Baghdad in the 1990s.  During one of her breaks between assignments, she became aware of a town in Derbyshire (called Eyam, pronounced “Eem”) which, in the years 1665-1666, had severed contact with the outside world until the Plague had passed.  Brooks’s novel is based on the sketchy but compelling events of this year.

Her story unfolds gradually, its revelations paced evenly throughout the novel.  The first chapter begins at the close of the year of quarantine, with the heroine/narrator describing the appearance of the village:

It is a strange prospect, our main street these days.  I used to rue its dustiness in summer and muddiness in winter, the rain all rizen in the wheel ruts making glassy hazards for the unwary stepper.  But now there is neither ice nor mud nor dust, for the road is grassed over, with just a cow-track down the center where the slight use of a few passing feet has worn the weeds down.  For hundreds of years, the people of this village pushed Nature back from its precincts.  It has taken less than a year to begin to reclaim the place.  In the very middle of the street, a walnut shell lies broken, and from it, already, sprouts a sapling that wants to grow up to block our way entire.  I have watched it from its first seed leaves, wondering when someone would pull it out.  No one has yet done so, and now it stands already a yard high.  Footprints testify that we are all walking around it.  I wonder if it is indifference, or whether, like me, others are so brimful of endings that they cannot bear to wrench even a scrawny sapling from its tenuous grip on life.

There wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book.  (The epilogue was a bit far-fetched, but after what the heroine went through, it’s hard to be truly surprised by anything she does afterwards.)  The characters are truly engaging, her descriptions of the village and countryside beautiful, her sense of what people felt and went through together and alone felt right-on, and her vocabulary and grammar (meant to sound like that of the 1660s) seemed much more natural than many other authors’ clumsy attempts.  I tried to think of other novels that were poignant and full of simultaneous evil and humanity, and thought of The Kite Runner.  Yet while Year of Wonders was a grueling story with plenty of gruesome, disturbing events (decimation of a population by a highly contagious disease, lynchings, attempted murder, actual murder), I never felt beat up by the novel as I did reading The Kite Runner.  The difference, I realized, was that while the evil in The Kite Runner is nearly all of man’s making (and a pretty bleak commentary on what inhumanity humanity is capable of), the evil in Year of Wonders nearly all stems from the disease and people’s reactions (emotional, religious, social) to it.  The flow of events, feelings, and reactions among the community felt natural, and the novel had a wonderful heroine.  I got teary in parts of the book—not something that happens often, but the heroine loses her two babies to the Plague, and that wasn’t easy to read, lying in my bed and nursing my nearly-one-year-old son.

There are many things to admire in this book: courage, hope, the bond of community, the attempt to place suffering in a context of faith.  One of the many things Brooks gets right that I particularly appreciated were her descriptions of motherhood—of childbirth, nursing, and sleeping with one’s babies.  One particularly apt description of motherhood is that of the heroine, nursing her younger son while watching her three-year-old boy play in a stream:

He had lately reached that age when a mother looks at her babe and finds him a babe no longer, but a child full formed.  The curves have turned into long, graceful lines: the fat and folded legs stretched out into lithe limbs; the rounded belly slimmed to a straight-standing body.  A face, suddenly capable of the full range of expression, has smoothed its way out of all those crinkled chins and plumped-out cheeks.  I loved to look at Jamie’s new self, the smoothness of his skin, the curve of his neck, and the tilt of his golden head, always gazing curiously at some new wonder in his world.

I highly recommend this novel.  I’m an incredibly slow reader, yet got through its 300 or so pages in two days.  It was well worth the break from the other books I was reading, providing as it does a chunk of social history that, while not entirely based on a single specific event, deals with the life of a community which chose to face the Plague alone, to depend on no one but each other.

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In last Friday’s Jerusalem Post, there appeared an article in the Magazine section in which a macrobiotic chef claims she cured herself of cancer through a dramatic change in diet and lifestyle.   A woman I know claims her child with Asperger’s Syndrome has responded dramatically to a gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free diet.  And when I was an aide in special ed. reading classes, a substitute teacher claimed that none of those kids would be in there if they were on proper diets.

It’s very bewitching to think that our health—including disease, mental illness, and learning disabilities—can all be controlled through diet.  Despite many great medical advances, many disorders are still not fully understood and the feelings of frustration and helplessness that accompany being—or caring for—ill or disabled people can be overwhelming.  It gives people hope to believe that they can cure themselves of all kinds of maladies, and for those disappointed by the healthcare field (and there are many), taking matters into their own hands through altering their diet gives them back the control they regret ceding to physicians, psychologists, and learning specialists who (for whatever reason) have been unable to help them.

There is only one problem: Since these disorders are still not fully understood, there is nothing to suggest that a change diet is all that is needed to cure them.  I know a woman who, like the woman in the Post article, tried to save her mother from a wasting cancer by putting her on a macrobiotic diet.  She failed.

I have no objection to someone adopting a regimen they hope will help them, especially if it’s going to contribute to their overall health.  I had a psych professor in graduate school who advocated a multi-pronged approach to any mental illness—behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and medication, if warranted.  Had someone suggested to him dietary therapy, he would likely not have shot the suggestion down.

What I DO object to is people who insist, loudly, anytime anyone is listening, that anyone who is sick is to blame for eating the wrong foods, and should adopt their personal regimen for perfect health.  We know that high-fat, high-sugar diets can lead to obesity, heart disease, and Type II diabetes.  We know that whole grains, fiber, pulses, fresh fruits and vegetables are nutritious and benefit everyone.  But it’s also true that someone like my grandfather can go through life, eating whatever he pleased, smoking, drinking to excess, and still live to a pretty respectable age.  Some things come down to genetics.  Some things come down to a hardy constitution.  Some things come down to regular exercise.

A friend of mine with a child with PDD (pervasive developmental disorder) blogs that she has not found most online resources to be useful to her, since some of them are written by what she calls “hawks,” or people who believe they have THE answers to their children’s problems, if only people will listen to them.  Some of these people, I have little doubt, are skeptical of the value of traditional healthcare solutions (as well they should be) and advocate alternative, sometimes simplistic solutions, of which they should be equally skeptical.

I believe a sensible diet is essential for overall health.  Avoiding foods for which one has no tolerance, substituting adequate nutrition from other sources, and exercising regularly are beneficial to everyone.  If someone has certain needs and those needs are met by a specific diet, they have my blessing.  But pontificating ad nauseum about what works for one person, or against one disease, or in one situation, and proclaiming that as the new gold standard of diet is preachy, bossy, and well, a bit much.

My doctor in the US told me after my kids were born that the best parenting book I can read is the one I write myself.  I would apply this same wisdom to what people eat.

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As you’ll notice from my blogroll, one of the places I take visual (and other) inspiration is from Leora of Here in HP.  She is a wonderful painter and photographer, and this post is of her favorite images from the past year.  Every one is a joy to see.  Check it out.

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I was nursing Bill, closing my eyes, and trying to snag a cat nap the other day when I heard Beans yell, “Ima!”

“What?” I said.

“This is boring.”  She was up in her room.  “Folding laundry is BORING!”

“Yes, honey, it is.  Now keep folding.”

My own frustration with folding laundry came to a head about three weeks ago when I realized that I simply couldn’t keep up with the volume generated by six people.  (Bill has the advantage of being small, but some days he can go through four outfits, so he’s no break at all in the end.)   I need to spend my few hours a week when Bill goes out of the house to baby-gan doing things I can’t do when he’s home (like sleep, and post to my blog).  Since I can technically put him on the floor with some toys and fold laundry, I can’t waste the time doing that when he’s out from underfoot.  On the other hand, he can’t entertain himself on the floor while I fold laundry for an hour.  That’s too much.

Then I considered the ages of my children and their capabilities.  I considered the fact that they have relatively few responsibilities around the house other than taking care of their personal belongings.  And I considered the time I would save if they were inconvenienced once or twice a week for 15-20 minutes folding their own laundry, versus my spending some of the best years of my life folding it for them.  And the idea was born.

So now I tear through the mountain of laundry on the guest bed like a dervish.  One pile for “square” things (sheets, towels, tablecloths, napkins).  One pile for the Cap’n, Bill, and me.  And one basket I fill with anything belonging to the girls.  Beans and Peach are responsible for their own laundry folding.  I showed them how to fold pants, shirts, and ball socks.  They know what’s theirs and where everything goes.  They have the time.  And I compensate either Peach or Beans for folding Banana’s clothing with a treat or a sticker for “extra chores” on their chore charts (which helps their daily average and helps them earn their maximum at the end of the week).

I am not an indulgent mother.  I am sometimes not a particularly nice mother.  But I hope when my kids leave the house, they’ll be capable of doing their own laundry, cooking a meal, and making a bed from the mattress up.

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Why they hate us

I had an email conversation recently with my father.  He had been wondering about the origins of anti-Semitism, and I offered him my two cents’ worth about it:

As for anti-Semitism, I think it stems primarily from religion (Christianity and Islam) and the rest is commentary.  When the majority of the Jews refused to convert to Christianity, Christians had a fit.  The Gospel of Matthew is particularly irascible with respect to the Jews.  Later, Martin Luther thought that if he reformed the Church, Jews would come flocking.  When they didn’t, he had a fit and his writings against the Jews are scary.  It was Luther, and not Hitler, who invented the idea of concentration camps for Jews.  And Mohammed thought for sure HE had something that would appeal to Jews and invite widespread conversion, but he too was disappointed, and called on Muslims to persecute Jews in response.  All the stuff that has happened since then–the scapegoating, the racial theories and laws, the accusations of world domination and control of the world’s finances are merely offshoots.  Even secular anti-Semitism of the kind embraced by the Nazis was employed in a culture well primed by over a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism and persecution.  If you want to get intellectual (and most people don’t know or believe anything about the Jews except that they killed the Christian God), Jews don’t blame the Devil for evil in the world; they hold people responsible for their own actions.  They say people have to take care of each other, they have to follow the same basic rules without favoritism for either the rich or the poor, that everyone has a portion in the world to come (not just Jews), and that people CAN make themselves better people if they try hard enough.  This dispenses with the Christian adages of, “The Devil made me do it,” “The poor are always with us,” and the principles of droit du seigneur, executive privilege, and acceptance of evil as inevitable in the world.  In a Catholic world where only the priests were allowed to read the Bible (which continues in the mass even today, where only an ordained priest can read the Gospel reading; lay people can only read from the letters of Paul during the service), Jews advocated universal literacy for boys and constant Torah study.  (This made Christians look like ignoramuses.)  The only people Jews are told they have to kill is Amalek, the people who attacked the weak traveling in the rear flank when the Israelites made their way through the desert.  (Haman in the Purim story was said to be a descendent of Amalek, which helps explain why he and his 10 sons were hoisted on their own petard at the end.)  We don’t have it in for anyone else.  That seems to make us special in the world.

I don’t believe it’s fear.  When the Japanese were told we control the world’s finances, they were keen to meet some Jews to find out how they do it.  No one else whom the Jews have lived among has had the same problems with them as the Christians and Muslims.  It might be envy, when the Jews have been more successful than their non-Jewish neighbors, despite the limitations placed on them (exclusion from professional guilds, prohibition against owning land, quotas in higher education).   They were a convenient source of cash when governments who had already borrowed more than they could pay back would expel them and confiscate all their possessions.  They (and Israel in general) are a wonderful thing for Arab despots who need someone to blame for their own failure to rule fairly and competently, and the Arab people, who have limited (and severely restricted) access to the world outside and see anything Western and non-Muslim as “other,” who are only too willing to believe them.  But I believe  it always goes back to the original source in religion.

I’ve weighed the possibilities of the origins lying in envy, fear, distrust of the unknown–but I always come back to religion.  The two most obvious antagonists of the Jews have been anti-Semitic since their founding, and while progress has been made by some in both religions to overcome that, I still believe that the basis of Western anti-Semitism (i.e. nearly ALL anti-Semitism) has its origins in religion.

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