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Archive for June, 2011

I love accents, and ever since hearing my father imitate his Yiddish-speaking relatives when I was a child, I’ve attempted to cultivate them for fun.  When I was a student teacher at Boston Latin School, I managed to persuade the same ninth grade English students that I was Irish on one occasion, cockney Londoner on another.  Lately, after being put in charge of an Australian client for the transcription company I work for, I’ve been walking around the house conversing in an Aussie twang (including the slightly disdainful tone that lurks behind the pronunciation of the word “Ammairrica”).

The Cap’n shared this with me the other night.  I thought it was (mostly) very impressive, and she also has YouTube videos up which purport to teach the viewer how to speak in any accent.  Okay, I think her South Carolina accent sounds straight out of “Gone With the Wind,” there is an unfortunate omission of the South African (my favorite accent in English) and Bostonian, but the Transatlantic accent (including the dreadful, toothy smile) was perfect.

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Being unpopular

One of the things I find so challenging about being Jewish is that, at the same time that anti-Semitism has gotten a new lease on life (this time from the Left rather than the Right), Jews are told to sit down, shut up, and stop seeing every critique, assault, or massacre on them, their culture, and their institutions as anti-Semitism.  One of my favorite news blogs had a heated comment thread in which Rabbi Meir Kahane’s name came up, was predictably slandered, and the blogger’s rationale for practically banning discussion of his words and deeds was that Kahane was crazy (evidence: his belief that there could one day be a second Holocaust on American soil).  A high school classmate living in the Bay Area has hopped on the anti-circumcision bandwagon, and when I explained that this measure is a gross distortion of the procedure and a direct assault on the identity and practice of Jews and Muslims, she insisted that the measure, and the accompanying comics which portray mohels as evil, sinister, and fanatical, are not anti-Semitic.  And today I read that Yale University is shutting down its Initiative for the Inter-disciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA).  Its reason?  The university claims that the initiative “has not borne the kind of academic fruit to justify its continuation,” according to Phyllis Chesler.  Chesler, who argues that the Initiative bore far more academic fruit than most academic departments and scholarly fora these days, sees a direct correlation between the shutting down of YIISA and the rise in financial contributions from Arab states and influence at the university of voices that promote Arab/Islamist/terrorist agendas.  She also perceives that the focus at YIISA on contemporary anti-Semitism’s warm home in the Arab Muslim world is unpopular in the current academic climate, which increasingly marginalizes voices which critique the messages of hate and blame that frequently come out of the Arab world’s despotic and/or Islamist regimes.

Even the Shoah, a watershed in the last century proving what inhumane depths Western civilization can sink to and the urgency of defending Jewish identity, culture, and mere existence, is under attack.  Holocaust denial by politicians and “academics” is given credence as “the other side of the story,” and infamous Holocaust deniers like Mahmoud Abbas, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and Westerners like David Irving, are given the podium at universities and the UN to spout their “revisionist” history.  Those who vow “never again” are cheered and patted on the back, but if they support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against terror and mayhem, they are silenced as aiding and abetting “the Occupation.”

Those who claim to revere international law show a very vague understanding of it as it relates to Israel.  (The video below breaks down beautifully who the West Bank and Jerusalem really belong to.)

Here, too, ignorance seems to reign supreme.  Those who claim that Israel’s possession and settlement of the West Bank and Jerusalem are violations of the Geneva Conventions have either never read the Geneva Conventions, or have no knowledge of the history of this region (or both).  They are ignorant of the fact that there is no precedent, historical, diplomatic, or otherwise, for earmarking these lands for Arabs to create another Arab state.  Quite the contrary, in fact; these lands belong to Israel diplomatically, historically, and in every other way.

One of the rabbis on my beit din made a little speech on the day they agreed to convert me.  He said, “The Jews are not a popular people.”  I’ve known that ever since I saw the mini-series “Holocaust” (1978, with a young Meryl Streep) on television when I was ten.  I knew it when I was told I was going to hell by a Christian classmate in Georgia when I was eleven.  And everything I’ve learned about Jewish history, from its earliest days to the present, has corroborated that statement.  That suits me fine.  I have never looked for popularity.  I’ve always been geeky, enjoyed having a small cadre of close friends and my solitude, and wouldn’t know what to do if I were suddenly sought-after.  Over the years, Jews have become more accepted in America, and this newfound measure of popularity has proved a double-edged sword: Jewish women pursued by non-Jewish men who find them “exotic,” non-Jewish women discovering that Jewish men make excellent husbands and fathers, and non-Jewish couples getting married under a chuppah because it’s a beautiful custom.  I don’t know if one sees that kind of attitude toward Jews in other parts of the world.  But if one isn’t popular, isn’t it possible at least to be accepted?  Or is the necessary opposite of popular, a pariah?  Must we be reviled, boycotted, sanctioned, and divested against?  Is it subversive for Jews to be in positions of responsibility and influence beyond their proportion in society?  Does it discomfit the world to see a Jewish state established in its homeland and able to defend itself, by itself?  Is it really so easy to believe that the Middle East’s only democracy, with freedom of press, religion, speech and all the rest, ranks with North Korea as the greatest threat to world peace?

I know that the Ahmedinejads, the Helen Thomases, and the Vanessa Redgraves don’t speak for all of humanity.  I know there are a good number of staunch supporters of Israel and Jewish life on the streets as well as in the corridors of power.  But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that Israeli Apartheid Week enjoys an increasing presence on university campuses every year (which makes me wonder whether the university community has abandoned holding students to any level of serious scholarship, or whether they stand aside and let these circuses set up every year to allow the students to blow off steam and exercise their rights to freedom of speech, even if it’s full of lies and hatred).  It’s hard to ignore the fact that the UN General Assembly invites Ahmedinejad to spew forth his wrath every year, and doesn’t rise and file out as a body while he’s speaking.  It’s hard to ignore the traction the idea of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state has gotten in the international community, when it is clear (at least to those of us living here) that such a state will not create peace in the Middle East or anywhere else, and will very likely create more war and bloodshed than ever.

So what’s a Jew to do?  Pandering is distasteful, and never garners popularity anyway.  Keep explaining ourselves?  While I may be overly pessimistic about this, I think those inclined to understand us do so already, and the rest can’t be bothered with the facts.  I remember a (Jewish) professor of mine in graduate school telling me to stick to my own path of scholarship on an assignment, saying “Don’t look left, don’t look right.”  Looking it up, I see it’s paraphrased from Isaiah 30:21.  “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right, and when you turn to the left.”

What matters is that we keep to the Torah, to our faith, and our ethical principles.  After that, as they say, יהיה מה שיהיה.

(Thanks to Ruti Mizrahi and Westbankmama for the video tip.)

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The tailor

After writing recently about the proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco, I was both surprised and delighted to see that there is an annual Jewish film festival there (which actually claims to be the oldest and largest Jewish film festival in the world; who knew?).  Not only that, YouTube has a page dedicated to the festival which currently includes an entire six-minute film by Gordon Grinberg entitled “The Tailor,” a cleverly shot and witty short based on an old Jewish joke.  Is it black, or is it blue?  Be sure to watch it until the end, including the credits; the story doesn’t end until the screen goes black.

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I am not a jazz sophisticate, nor a fanatical jazz fan, but I grew up hearing plenty of it around my house.  Occasionally, I come across an album that I think is worth listening to, and even owning.  I remember Kai Winding’s “Dirty Dog” (only available on vinyl these days), enjoyed Branford Marsalis’s “I Heard You Twice the First Time,” and attended an early concert of Wynton Marsalis in which he introduced his piano player, Marcus Roberts, who has gone on to become a soloist and whose “Gershwin For Lovers” I own.

But not every good musician is a franchise.  (Yet.)  There are very good musicians on local scenes, and one I heard in Boston years ago, playing jazz, afro-cuban, latin, and exotica at various locales and on various wind instruments, has at last released a solo jazz album on tenor saxophone.  Here’s the blurb on the new album on the Jazz Legacy Productions website: “One of the best tenor saxophonists to come along in years.  Tim Mayer’s approach to the horn is sophisticated, passionate, and lyrical.  His big sound is warm and powerful.  Listen for yourself.  Tim Mayer is definitely here to stay!”

To listen for yourself, here’s the link.  Enjoy.

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Wondering

Months after the murder of the Fogel family by Arab teenage products of PA “education,” I have finally reached the point where I don’t think about the slain, or the remaining children, every day.  But sometimes, their name comes up in conversation, in a newspaper article (the most recent being that the vermin who committed the atrocity are proud of what they did “for Palestine”; this is news?), or my kids’ questions.  “Did they shoot the boys?  How did they kill the baby?  Did you see the pictures?”  None of us can begin to fathom the horror, but they’re still trying to get their heads around it.  They asked me about it again the other night, and it occurred to me again when I was shopping in Rami Levy this morning for Shabbat.

My local Rami Levi supermarket is located at Gush Junction.  It is staffed by Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and patronized by the same.  The butchers are all Arab, the loading dock workers are Arab, most of the stockers are Arab.  The two men we usually see behind the cheese counter are also Arab.  One is in his 40s with a round face that manages to be both pleasant and unsmiling.  He doesn’t appear to love his job, or the customer contact.  The second is in his 50s, graying, with eyes that wrinkle around the edges when he smiles, and he always gives whatever children I have tagging along with me a free slice of cheese, teaches my eldest a new Arabic word (she’s interested in learning the language), and clearly enjoys talking to the customers he interacts with.  Since the massacre in Itamar, I have sometimes looked at these two men (the closest thing I have to Arab acquaintances) and studied their faces to try to discern what they REALLY think about Jews and Israel.  I learn nothing from this.  It may be that the dourer of the two men has some secret sorrow in his life that keeps his mood low, but wouldn’t dream of committing or approving of violence to achieve any ends.  And it may be that the warm, smiling face of the older Arab disguises a compartmentalized view of his situation, where in day-to-day interactions he can exercise civility towards his Jewish “occupier” employer and customers, but given a choice, would prefer to have them gone from this land by any means necessary, including bloodshed.

The cheese man today was a new one.  In his late 30s or 40s, he was nice-looking, friendly, and very taken with Bill, who he said is the cutest kid in the world.  After packaging my cheese slices, he went back and sliced one more which he gave to Bill.  While he cut a hunk of parmesan for me, I asked if he has children.  He looked up and smiled.  “Ten,” he answered.  “And I want more.  I love kids.  Whenever I feel down, all I have to do is look at an adorable kid’s face,” he said, glancing over at Bill munching his slice of Emek, “and I feel better right away.”  I felt tears well up in my eyes for a moment, and was terribly tempted to ask him, “Then how can someone enter someone else’s house and stab their children, and slit their throats?”  But I didn’t.  Perhaps as a father, he can’t imagine either.  Perhaps he found the incident as revolting as I did.  Or perhaps not.

At the same time that I occasionally crave answers to these questions, part of the complication of living here is that I don’t dare make any assumptions about the Arabs I see, good or bad.  I don’t want to embarrass them when they’re at work and doing their jobs.  I don’t want them to say what they think I want to hear, that it was terrible, if in their hearts they secretly rejoiced at the horrific news.  I also don’t know if I really want to know the answer, on the off-chance that they would throw their employee’s caution to the wind and answer me straight, that they hate and resent the “occupation,” and that while for the moment, they and I can be face to face in a civil, vendor-customer situation, in the bigger picture, I am a foreign occupier of Arab lands, and whatever it takes to dislodge me and the rest of the Jews is fair.  There is a barrier of civility which prevents me from asking what I might want to ask, and from their answering as they might wish—or not wish.

Some might read this and think, “Who cares?  What’s done is done.  Their society is what it is, controlled by hate and oppression, brooking no opposition or dissent.  Yours is holding the wolf by the ears, and it doesn’t matter what they think or feel, only what they do.”  There might be truth to this, but it doesn’t stop me wondering.

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Banning the brit

I’ve been reading a lot in the past couple of days about a popularly proposed ban in San Francisco on circumcision entitled the Male Genital Mutilation Bill.  A couple of decades ago, circumcision was generally recommended by hospital physicians for what were stated as cleanliness and health reasons.  Jews and Muslims, of course, did it for religious reasons.  Anyone who, for whatever reason, chose not to circumcise was entitled to make that choice.

But the “intactivists” in that rabidly liberal paradise in northern California have decided that circumcision is torture, an act of violence against innocent children, and should be a criminal offense.  The ban’s proponents have collected more than enough signatures to put it on the upcoming ballot, and some have embraced as part of their publicity a cartoon series entitled “Foreskin Man” created by Matthew Hess, president of MGMbill.org.  The first in the series features evil hospital physicians who try to force a hot new mama-babe to give up her baby to a knife-wielding, blood-spattered ogre named Dr. Mutilator.  In the second, a sinister Jewish father goes behind his wife’s back and invites the black-hatted Monster Mohel and his haredi henchmen to come with their scissors to take back what is God’s.  At the last minute, the day is saved by buff, blond, lycra-clad superhero, Foreskin Man, who beats up the bad guys and either returns the baby to its grateful, weeping mother in the hospital or kidnaps the infant and gives it to the boy’s aunt, another intactivist, to raise as her own.

I’m all about freedom of choice and high safety and sanitation standards.  I’m also about not forcing your own choices on other people.  Children of atheists should not have to pray in public school.  Abortion should be safe, legal, and as rare as possible.  And brit milah, like kosher slaughter and alcohol (remember Prohibition?) should be legal and kept to high standards of cleanliness and ethical treatment of animals and humans.

But proponents of this bill are not about freedom of choice.  They’re about inaccuracy (comparing circumcision to female genital mutilation), unsupported claims (that uncircumcised men enjoy sex more—a claim that would be easier to prove if there were circumcised men who obtained foreskins and could compare the experience), non-science (ignoring the health benefits associated with circumcision), anti-Semitism (this ban will most universally affect Jews in the San Francisco area), and adolescent publicity and scare tactics (see the Foreskin Man comics).  As vocal as San Franciscans are about their pro-Palestinian agenda, it surprises me that they have overlooked the fact that Muslims will also be adversely affected by this ban.  Muslim boys are circumcised at age 13, in front of mixed audiences, with no anesthetic, and are expected to undergo the procedure without showing any signs of pain.  But perhaps this is just one more aspect of Arab Muslim culture Bay Area bleeding-hearts have chosen to overlook.  Will Foreskin Man #3 feature the Aryan superhero swooping in to save an adolescent Arab boy from hook-nosed, scimitar-wielding, kaffiyehed Muslim baddies?  I doubt it.

Daniel Gordis recently attacked the arrogance and bigotry of J Street and its statements about Israel.  I am here to attack the ignorance, arrogance, and bigotry of activists for “genital integrity.”  If they have information that is valuable for helping new parents make choices about whether or not to circumcise their baby boys, then by all means, get out there and disseminate it.  More (accurate) information is always better than less.  Teens should get as much accurate information as possible to help them choose when to become sexually active (and the more information they get, the more they should naturally learn about the benefits of waiting until they’re older, in committed relationships, or married).  Pregnant women should get as much helpful information as possible about abortion, including the emotional trauma that can result from getting them.  And parents who are undecided about circumcising should know the benefits that accompany circumcision as well as any (real) reasons not to circumcise.

This battle is just what America DOESN’T need: another hot-button issue.  Too often, the country seems to get wound up over the dilemma between freedom and regulation, and in circumstances like this one, freedom is interpreted to allow me to do what I want, and regulation is to make other people do what I want.  Anything that is a powerful, emotional issue gets turned into a moral issue rather than what Nichols and May would call a “real issue” and if, in the end, it prevents a small religious minority from doing what they normally do, which is usually seen as weird, fanatical, and unnecessary (including by a few renegade members of that religion), so much the better.

What I would find truly refreshing is if people, including those who personally choose not to circumcise their sons, would sit back, look at the big picture, see the infantile and fanatical tactics of these “intactivists” for the alarmist deception they are, and vote the whole ridiculous issue down.  It would be a shocking show of sanity from a part of the country one rarely looks to for moderation.  Nonetheless, I challenge San Franciscans to show signs of intelligent life—or return to the mother ship where they belong.

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A week or so ago, the Cap’n and I were in Beit Shemesh at an engagement party for the daughter of some friends.  (Yes, I guess we’re that old.)  While there, we saw a couple with whom we used to have fairly regular Shabbat and holiday meals.  It was great catching up with them, hearing about their kids, and enjoying their warmth and sense of humor.  In a rare instance of presence of mind, I thought to ask Nate how he used to make the incredible grilled chicken he would serve sometimes.  He said it was really simple, and generously shared his recipe:

1 whole chicken, in parts

Olive oil

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Oregano

Ground black pepper

Coat chicken pieces in olive oil.  Rub a generous amount of garlic and onion powder, oregano, and pepper into chicken.  (I cut up a whole chicken and left only a sparing amount of skin.  I also used disposable gloves for the rubbing stage.)  Grill until cooked through.  (Neither Nate nor I care for pink chicken near the bone.)

I served this last Shabbat with mashed potatoes, cauliflower-carrot-rice biryani, and cole slaw with Soy Vey Asian sesame dressing (formerly Cha-Cha Chicken Salad Dressing).  With homemade chocolate chip challah, and followed by homemade cherry jello for dessert (the Cap’n and I have been getting threatening messages from the bathroom scale), it was a hit.

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