Archive for September, 2010

My second cousin by marriage (it’s a long story), architect Henry Grosman, is one of a dozen winners of the Sukkah City NYC 2010 design competition.  On display in Union Square Park, each sukkah was created by an architect (or team of architects) in consultation with a rabbi to address issues of kashrut.  Henry’s design (created with Babak Bryan, and winner of the People’s Choice Award) is spherical in shape with three rounded walls.  It is constructed from plywood, marsh grass and twine.  Here is a photo of the finished product:

and another in this link.  Here is a video which includes comments from the various winners (including Henry, the last one):

Sukkah City is a fascinating competition challenging Jewish and non-Jewish architects to create sukkahs that expand the typical rectangular back-yard sukkah with three or four walls and tree-branch schach, thinking outside the box but still within the constraints of halachic sukkah design.  I think it’s cool that New York hosts this competition which is artistic, educational, highly entertaining, and inspires people to think about this holiday which goes largely unobserved in the greater American Jewish community.

Below are descriptions of each sukkah including issues of halachot sukkah by Dani Passow, the rabbinical consultant to the project (and rabbinical intern at our shul in America).

Sukkah of the signs

The original design was for a tower with slanted straight walls that then began to angle forming a slanted roof, all of which was made out of cardboards signs.  The cardboard signs would not have been kosher schach since although they are organic, their material has been processed so that it doesn’t closely resemble its original form.  Additionally, there was an oculus (gap) at the top which meant that most of the sukkah would not have been covered by schach. If this gap were large enough (7×7 handbreadths) and filled in with schach, then it would have become kosher.  That was my suggestion.

They ended up altering the design, basically turning it on its side.  Again, they wanted to use signs as the schach.  The architects and I talked about replacement material that would have been kosher but still resembled signs.  We chose Oriented Strand Board (OSB) which is made of small pieces of wood pressed together, but the wood is still quite visible as wood, thus it resembles its original form and is kosher. The designers decided, in the end, to use conventional greenery as schach.

Shim Sukkah

Though the shims here can twist, this isn’t a problem since in order to twist they require a significant force and a specific angle and won’t move in a standard wind.  As long as shims for the schach are oriented such that they provide more shade than sun, it’s kosher.

Blo Puff

A circular sukkah is kosher as long at it circumscribes a square of 7 x 7 handbreadths. The bubble needs to be fully inflated to withstand a standard wind, and maybe even tied down.  Additionally, the schach hangs directly from non-kosher scach material; this a machloket achronim of maamid – a gezaira that someone might come to think this material is kosher schach, and while the Mishnah Berurah says we should be machmir and we generally are quite careful about this, bebdiavad the MB says it’s kosher.


It is totally fine for the walls and schach to be made of the same material.  Here, since the kosher schach, the wood, is supported by metal screws, we again have an issue of maamid.

In Tension

A sukkah with 2.5 walls is kosher.  All of the walls, to be considered kosher, need to come within 3 handbreadths of the ground and be at least 7 handbreadths long unless the special, and somewhat complex, halachic device of tzurat hapetach is utilized.  Here, there are only two kosher walls since though there is half a wall, it doesn’t come within 3 handbreadths of the ground.  But, this third wall is only peeled back so observers can get a full view of the inside of the sukkah.  Unfolding that wall would make the sukkah kosher.  Additionally, the walls are not quite taut enough, thus they blow in the wind which is a problem, but if they are tied down more tautly , they would be fine. There is also an issue of maamid here as the kosher schach is supported by cotton lining.

Repetition Meets Difference

A circular sukkah is kosher .  This design needs some more schach so that the schach provides more shade than sun.  Additionally, though the walls may seem porous, since there is less than 3 handbreadths between solid material, the halachic concept of lavud is employed that views the empty space between solid material as filled as long as the gap is no greater than 3 handbreadths (about 10.5 inches).

Single Thread

This design is composed of one steel wire greater than 5 miles long coiled around itself.  It is perfectly okay for the walls to be composed of steel, but not the schach.  Hanging from the schach is a flower bed which is kosher schach.  The metal wire hovering above the flower bed is diffuse enough that more sun shines through than shade.  Thus, if the kosher schach, the flower bed, is dense enough to provide more shade than sun, this is kosher.  Some more schach needs to be added to this design.

Additionally, halacha allows for the spreading of a canopy of non-kosher schach above kosher schach as long as it is within 4 handbreadths of the kosher schach and is for an aesthetic purpose, not to provide shade or protection of any kind.  This metal material serves both to support the kosher schach and as decoration.  It might, therefore, be permitted to even have the metal provide more shade than sun.  Also, the designers worked hard to avoid maamid here.  They hung the flower bed from metal using organic leaves of some kind that are kosher for schach.  Maamid isn’t an issue if the kosher schach is supported by non-kosher schach indirectly, only if it is supported directly.

Star Cacoon

This material, called rattan, is similar to bamboo and is kosher schach.  Though the walls and schach are made from the same continuous material, this is fine as long as, at some point, the walls are vertically oriented or the roof is horizontally oriented as this distinguishes between the two.  There are only 2 walls here, the back and left side as seen in the picture.  The front could easily become a wall using the concept of lavud: placing parallel strips of material within 3 handbreadths of each other.  This was my suggestion, though it was never implemented by the designer.


Some material that was ordered for this design ended up not being what the designer anticipated.  There is supposed to be material covering the roof and hanging down to the ground creating a more cubic form.  As the design is presented, none of the walls meet to form a corner.  A kosher sukkah needs to have at least two walls meet to form one corner.  The original design would have satisfied this requirement.  Also, there is not enough schach, but the original design would have satisfied that as the missing material is kosher schach material.

Fractured Bubble

A spherical shape is kosher as are rounded walls.  Here, there are 3 rounded walls.  The only question is that as the walls are split (the sphere looks like it is cracked) they may be too far apart from each other thus not forming a corner.  As long as at least two walls are within 3 handbreadths of each other at a height of 10 handbreadths (the minimum height of a sukkah), then this is kosher.  I believe it meets that requirement.


Schach cannot be made out of a wooden board that is greater than 4 handbreadths wide since it too closely resembles roof of a permanent home.  But a tree branch that is greater than 4 handbreadths wide is fine.  Additionally, to reinforce the difference between the impermanence of schach and the permanence of a standard home, four 1-inch diameter holes were bored through the log so that rain could enter.

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A couple of months ago, the Cap’n and I went to an event at the new, beautiful AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) offices in Talpiot.  Besides offices, event and conference rooms, and a small radio studio, the AACI has a very good English library.  They receive donations from patrons, and duplicates or books they don’t want end up on a 5 shekel shelf outside the library.  After attending our event, we browsed the shelf and among the books I selected was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Published in 1978, The Women’s Room seems to be in the same class of feminist literature that gave rise to The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique.  French’s book is a novel, but full of lengthy musings and speeches about feminist theory and the power struggles and relationships (sometimes indistinguishable from one another) between men and women.  It begins with the bum rap women have when they enjoy themselves in public in the company of men, giving them a “reputation.”  It then moves on to the bum rap women get when they marry and become housewives, supporting their husbands in their careers, cooking and cleaning, and rearing children without any help.  (This IS the early 1960s, after all.)  Then it’s about suburban life where couples host parties, everyone drinks too much, dances in a skanky way with other people’s spouses, and watches each other’s marriages crumble.  The principal character in the novel, Mira, is at the center of all of this feminine travail and disappointment, and the second half of the novel follows her into her post-divorce life as a graduate student at Harvard.  Introducing her circle of women friends (with a few occasional male hangers-on), French charts Mira’s loneliness, eventual discovery of a wonderful man, his proposal that she put her career on hold, follow him to Africa (for HIS career), and have his baby, and return to loneliness when she refuses.  Meanwhile, her friends’ marriages (if they’re straight) and relationships (if they’re lesbian) crumble again, not because they’re bored, isolated housewives this time, but because they’re busy graduate students with close friendships outside their marriages and potentially budding careers which could further challenge their partners’ hegemony in the traditional marriages they’re in, or further unsettle their fragile relationships.

The thing that stands out most in this novel is the overwhelmingly unsatisfied need of these women to be regarded as equals in their relationships, and feel loved and fulfilled.  And while the cover of the book paraphrases a comment by critic Fay Weldon, that “this novel changes lives,” I’m not sure the women’s lives change so very much.  They enter marriage with high hopes of happiness, but leave them emptier than they were to begin.  Instead of feeling loved, honored, and cherished, they emerge after divorce poor, battered (sometimes physically), saddled with children they don’t always want and certainly cannot afford, and emotionally devastated.

I found it fascinating to read about this era in women’s history, and appreciated that one of French’s characters points out that the notion of a woman who stays at home, jobless, to take care of house and children began fairly recently in human history (in the Victorian era.  As an experiment, it clearly failed to give women the sense of contentment or fulfillment it was expected to.  It was also extremely depressing to see that no visible progress was made over the two decades or so covered in the novel between men and women in the novel.  There were a few good men, lots of mediocre, pathetic, or bad ones, and dozens of women who seemed deluded enough to depend on them for their own self esteem.  When the men loved them, they loved themselves; when the men became angry with them or lost interest, the women felt worthless.  French doesn’t directly present this as the point of her novel, but it’s the one I walk away with.

This is a radical feminist work.  That means that the women in it find themselves hoping to change the society around them, failing, and resolving to reject it or isolate themselves from it entirely.  Liberal feminism, which I find more palatable, works more slowly to change the system within its boundaries rather than advocating tearing the system down and starting over again—which is as impossible as it is dramatic.  (Feminists in Orthodox Judaism works in much the same way as liberal feminists, hoping for slow change that will endure over time.)  French’s characters see the world we live in as a man’s world, and watching how they constantly give power to men in their lives, and feel too numb, nervous, or helpless to resist that power, one can see how it got to be that way.  Men in their world are the source of support, justice (or injustice), order (or disorder), love (or apathy or hostility).  Of what are the women the source?  Not much.  They are the domestics, the brood mares, the not-quite-human beings who make it possible for men to go through their days completely focused on work, money, possessions, sports, and the fellowship of the ruling class, i.e. other men.  It’s a dance between women and men that never comes to an end, at least with the end of the novel.  Mira refuses to have more children, so her soulmate (who was never really her soulmate after all) goes to Africa without her, marries his secretary, and has a family.  She accepts a small-time teaching position in Maine, walks on the beach alone, and believes everyone else thinks she’s crazy.

Happily, at the end, not all of the women end up dead or in mental institutions (though a couple do).  Most find interesting jobs doing what they love, what they’re good at, and what they believe will help change the world for the better.  What is less obvious is whether they have learned to love themselves for who they are, or whether their jobs have just replaced their men (or women) as a source of love and regard for themselves.  Because it became clear to me that the love they got from others was the love they should have felt for themselves all along.

Despite the fact that the emotions and many of the events in the novel are true to life, I think the conclusions of most of the women are not true.  (This is where my liberal feminism clashes with their radical feminism.)  This world is NOT a man’s world, no matter how much it may feel like it.  As long as women allow it to be, it will operate as one, but it is women’s responsibility NOT to cede power to men that they do not earn or deserve.  Women must assert themselves in this world, entering whatever professions they choose, fighting back against male aggression, expecting and insisting on equality and fairness from bosses, partners, and children, and living as they think women should live to set an example and give inspiration to their own daughters and other women.  Fortunately, life in the 2000s looks different for women.  Women are better represented in government, business, academia, and other professions.  One corporate wife in the late 1990s actually sued her husband for the equivalent of “back wages” as part of their high-profile divorce settlement, walking away with tens of millions of dollars (something Mira in the novel tried, but was laughed at for attempting).  A young woman sued the Citadel for excluding qualified women, successfully challenging a federally funded institution for its sex discrimination.  Women’s basketball and soccer, while not given the air time men’s get, exist and attract increasingly interested fans, thanks to Title IX.  Rape is a crime, even when carried out against wives, prostitutes, and women the rapist knows.  Men in this generation cook, clean, do laundry, and care for children much more than they did in the past.  Women still do the bulk of the housework and delay or retard their careers to rear children, while men still make more money for similar work than women.  But women continue to push back and move forward, and slowly we are moving toward an era worthy of the best men and women, where everyone can show their quality and feel their worth.

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In my middle age I have become something I never imagined I would: a Trekkie.  I found the first series, which I watched with my entranced older brother, to be rather boring and sexist (even at the tender age of four).  But the subsequent series have been more interesting in my opinion, and after seeing the final season of “Star Trek: Voyager” during my pregnancy with Beans (and catching up on the other seasons through reruns), the Cap’n and I are now into the fifth season of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9.”

This may be my favorite series yet.  I watched a few “Next Generation” episodes with my (still entranced) brother, but never really got into it myself.  “Voyager” had some interesting characters, and it was refreshing to see a woman captain for a change (though Kate Mulgrew’s channeling of Katharine Hepburn was alternately fascinating and irritating).  “DS9” has me hooked for its well-meshed cast of principal characters, its humor, and an almost mind-boggling array of enemies: the alternate universe characters who keep kidnapping them to help out in their own nasty struggles; the Dominion (including wily shapeshifters and the killing machine Jem Hadar); the unpredictable Cardassians; and now the Klingons—that time-honored favorite enemy-ally-enemy-again that trumps even the Nazis for sheer staying power—are back.

It’s impossible to watch this show in Israel and not notice the similarities between the Klingons and Arabs.  Both peoples value poets nearly as much as warriors. Both societies have an all-consuming focus on honor (of self, of family, of the Empire), glorify battle, and yearn for a death that will bestow glory and a good name on their memory.  Klingons employ fratricide as a way to restore lost honor (as when Worf’s brother begged Worf to kill him after dishonoring the family name); Arabs still practice honor killings, with brothers killing sisters suspected of dishonoring the family through breaking strict social taboos.

In watching several episodes that concentrate on Klingon culture, I have been paying close attention to identify any differences between them and Arabs.  I’ve found one: Klingons don’t kill innocent civilians.  Where Arabs have gleefully slaughtered airline passengers, Olympic athletes, hotel patrons, bus passengers, mall-goers, and pizza eaters, and passed out candy to children on the streets following high-profile attacks like the 9/11 attacks, the recent roadside massacre of four Israelis near Hebron, and other terrorist assaults on civilians, Klingons confine their belligerence to recognized combatants.  In a recent episode where a group of civilians were killed and the Klingons were suspected of having carried out the attack, Worf indignantly points out that to attack innocent civilians is not an acceptable tactic.  Why?  It would be dishonorable to kill civilians.

Le’mi yesh yoter kavod? In the world of honor, the Klingons—one of the bloodiest, most violent, intractable, death-worshipping species in the universe—have it over the Arabs.

How sad.

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There has been a petition (click here to see and/or sign it) circulating on the Web asking Tony Blair, UK representative of the Quartet, to apply as much pressure as he can muster to allow Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross) to visit Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas in captivity for over four years with no contact with the outside world.

I don’t really believe Internet petitions carry much weight.  I don’t think the Taliban was much affected by one circulating a decade or so ago asking it to grant women basic human rights.  And I don’t imagine Hamas (first-cousin to the Taliban) will be moved to clemency by the moral outrage of a few thousand infidels.  I thought about not signing it myself, despite having read about it on a blog and receiving a direct appeal via email.

And then I thought again.

Perhaps this petition will remind the Quartet that Gilad Shalit is still in people’s minds.  Perhaps it will remind the international community that for all the flak Israel gets about being inhumane and violating people’s rights, there is actually an Israeli who was seized in a cross-border raid (international law, anyone?) who has been held captive by those poor helpless souls in Gaza, and has been denied contact with his family or with MDA (also in violation of international law).  Perhaps it will rattle the consciences of those who purport to be stalwart champions of human rights, reminding them that there is one prisoner whose rights have been violated, whom they have willfully ignored for four long years.  Perhaps it will remind the world that his captors are terrorists who live outside international and every other kind of law, and that perhaps it is a mistake to treat them as though they are normalized national leaders and rational actors on the world stage.

Hamas has successfully kept Shalit’s location a secret.  For a time, there were rumors he had been spirited to Egypt, though now it is believed that he is somewhere in the Gaza Strip.  It was hoped that Operation Cast Lead would turn him up, or that a cease-fire would include provisions for his return.  The demands for the release of thousands of Arab prisoners from Israeli prisons, including those responsible for masterminding or carrying out terror attacks that murdered Israeli citizens, is a travesty.  Not only do such demands (or the satisfaction of them) make a mockery of the rule of law in Israel; they ensure that such criminals and terrorists will be back to work Sunday morning at 9:00 AM to do what they do best: kill innocent people.

While most people in Israel don’t necessarily agree that Shalit should be freed at any cost, no one can deny the agony Shalit’s family have lived in for the past four years, wondering where their son is, if he is whole, or even alive.  Their public presence and pleas to any and every world leader, dignitary, or person likely to have contact with Hamas add to the nation’s pain.  Several of Israel’s soldiers have disappeared without a trace and have been missing for decades: Zecharya Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz have been missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon in 1982; Ron Arad was captured after his plane was shot down in Lebanon in 1986; Guy Hever was last seen at his army base in the Golan Heights in 1997; Majdy Halabi was last seen at a hitchhiking stop in Daryat El Karmel in 2005; and Gilad Shalit was abducted in the area of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom in 2006.

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu must weigh the various factors of military morale, the government’s duty to redeem its soldiers, the understandable anguish of the boy’s parents, the current, (at best) shaky peace prospects, the safety of the Israeli populace, and his reelection prospects.  Tony Blair has none of these concerns.  Perhaps this may increase the likelihood of the petition’s success, at least in encouraging him to apply pressure.  Whether that pressure would ever result in any positive results is considerably less likely.  (Blair is, after all, a soft Western infidel.)

When I pray, I don’t necessarily expect an answer.  I pray to articulate and make my thoughts and wishes known.  What the Hearer does with that is up to Him.

In that same spirit, perhaps keying one’s name to this petition does not so much ensure results as make our wishes known.  Since all else that has been tried (short of handing explosive belts to Arab terrorists as they file out of prison) has failed, who knows?  Perhaps it may, down the road, as part of some mysterious sequence of events, do some good.

It can’t hurt.

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Back to work

Nine years ago I made the complicated, difficult decision to leave my cushy teaching job in order to stay home with my newborn (first) child.  There were so many factors that figured into that decision: economics (it was cheaper than working and having all my salary—and then some—go to childcare), my desire to be with my baby (breastfeeding, witnessing her milestones, attachment-style parenting), and the very simply-put observation a friend made to me, that I could go out every day and teach other people’s children while paying someone else to teach my child, or I could stay home and teach my own child.

The decision was not an easy one.  First-time parenting was nerve-wracking, worrisome, exhausting, and it took months for my feminist ego to get used to being supported by my husband while being at home.  I knew in my heart that I was making a valuable contribution to the family, both financially and parentally, but it was still difficult.  Through that long first winter, in my sleep-deprived stupor, I would pray for Beans to wet her cloth diaper to give me something to do to kill five minutes.

I’ve been home for many years now.  At various times, I have taken on things that resembled work such as tutoring high school kids in English, and editing a book or divrei Torah for Web publication.  But primarily, I have been at home with my children (and busy enough not to wish for extra diaper changes).  And with each successive child, I have been able to let go a little more of my own responsibilities, leaving them for an entire day with my husband to attend a funeral in Maine, putting Banana in daycare to attend ulpan, and Bill in same to preserve my sanity and enable me to do errands and home improvement projects (like ripping up carpet or painting a rusting iron fence) during the morning.  The children have all adjusted to whatever I threw their way, and I’ve enjoyed the many different phases motherhood has gone through.

And now I’m embarking on yet another new phase.  The Cap’n recently started a new job with an Israeli company.  By Israeli standards, he’s making a pretty decent salary.  By American standards, he’s panhandling at the Kenmore T stop.  This means that in order to “clear the housekeeping” I need to look for some work.  After considering a few possibilities, I’ve settled on returning to English teaching.  Israel’s education system is, if possible, worse than the American one, and the salaries are even lower.  The only thing that pays less and has as little prestige is—you guessed it—stay-at-home motherhood.  But it’s what I love, it’s what I trained to do (and am still paying off) and it’s the best option to allow me to be at home with my kids in the afternoons and over the summer.  I’ll probably have to cover my hair to teach or substitute.  (Blah.)  I’ll probably need more coursework to get my certification in Israel.  (Double blah.)  But it will provide steady work, a steady trickle of income, and I think I’ll be a much better teacher now, nine years and four kids later than I was before—mellower, more aware of students’ different learning styles and difficulties, and take myself less seriously.

All I need now is a hat that says LIONTAMER on it…

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Why America isn’t #1

I’ve long been a fan of Bill Maher, political commentator and ranter extraordinaire.  I don’t agree with everything he says, and as a frum Jew I would qualify in his book as a superstitious lunatic.  But I still think he identifies many of the cracks in America’s façade that point to its failure to live up to its enormous potential, and delivers a speech about them that makes this sometime American want to weep and laugh at the same time.  (Israel should have an equivalent to Maher; one could make many of the same observations about Israel’s woefully untapped potential.)

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English rant #18: Lay v. lie

Bless me, reader, for I have sinned.  It’s been over a year since my last English rant.  Does that mean that in the past year I have not encountered any new distortions of the English language to annoy me?  If only.

Frankly, I’m surprised at myself for taking this long to address the pervasive misuse of lay and lie.  It’s a rare writer (or speaker) these days who can use them correctly.  Their main difference?  Lay is a transitive verb (i.e. takes an object, as in you lay something else down), where lie is intransitive, meaning something lies on the table inert, or reflexive, as in “I’m so tired after that foxhunt that I simply MUST lie down.”  The children’s bedtime prayer that begins “Now I lay me down to sleep,” while not conventional in style, is grammatically correct since lay is used with me as an object.  “Now I lie down to sleep” doesn’t scan in the rest of the prayer (which, aside from the trochaic first line, is in iambic tetrameter) and “Now I lay down to sleep” would fail either to scan or to impress the HolyOneBlessedBeHe.  The first line of the closing song in Peter Jackson’s film “The Return of the King” is grammatically correct: “Lay down your sweet and weary head.”  (Whatever I might think of Annie Lennox’s politics, she and Fran Walsh did write a beautiful song, and in proper English.)

What suddenly brought the topic of lay v. lie to mind?  I recently received a forward of some amusing cat pictures from my father which included some witty captions.  As one who detests cats (with only a few notable exceptions), I nonetheless found the captions to complement the photos nicely.  My main complaint?  The spelling was atrocious.  Deliberately atrocious, mind, in the way teenagers and other illiterates use shorthand in written communication, e.g. “THE ART OF DISGUISE: not wurkin so gud,” “YOUR MAMA LOVES U: even if the other kids calls u fat, she knows uz jes fluffy,” and my least favorite, “u lookin 4 trubble? heer we are!”  In the two photos I’ve included in this post, you can see that the individual who compiled this album of kitty kitsch, who seems bilingual in English and Webhand, is seriously challenged by the distinction described in this rant.

Readers, please teach your children the difference between lay and lie, and don’t let them grow up to be people who have too much time on their hands and spend it by displaying their ignorance of the English language aside some pictures of fluffy kitties.

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