10.31.2006

Chocolate

If I had $25 to blow, this would be fun.

On the other hand, here is a very good reason to boycott chocolate from countries where forced child labor (i.e., child slavery) is rampant. Here is a document (PDF) from the International Labor Organization with information about child labor in the cocoa industry and the steps that are being taken to combat it. A little Googling will lead you to more information, should you wish to be disabused of the notion that eating chocolate is a harmless enough activity, caloric considerations aside.

Finally, while we're on the topic of chocolate, read thegameiam's take on Halloween (from last year).

10.29.2006

Tefillin Barbie and more!

Note: All images on this post are © 2006 Jen Taylor Friedman.

I saw her here first, the genius handiwork of an acquaintance, Jen Taylor Friedman, a NY-based soferet. Not only did she make Tefillin Barbie, she photographed her beautifully. As of last week, Tefillin Barbie does more than lay tefillin. See them all together here.

But I'm not the only one with opinions about her. And now you can bid on her on Ebay!

I don't feel like I need to write a whole megillah [tee hee!] about Tefillin Barbie. Overall, I find her a wonderful act of ironic rebellion. Her creation has turned the symbol of mass-consumer culture into an individual imbued with lofty intellectual goals, someone who does not acquiesce to mainstream opinion in pursuit of her spiritual goals. I suppose there is part of me who likes that she is a woman wearing tefillin, but I think I might be as enamored of a Ken doll wearing tallit and tefillin or lighting Shabbat candles, or of Rainbow Brite or Polly Pocket lighting Shabbat candles or holding a siddur. But, perhaps not. Barbie is so strongly tied in my mind to makeup, hair styling, and rampant sex with Ken, that I really like the idea of turning her into a woman literally clothed in kedusha [holiness], rather than in garish makeup, shimmery strapless wedding gowns, and impossibly high heels.

Finally, Barbie has done something I can be proud of!

10.26.2006

Julia Sweeney and ALG on God

At AT's suggestion, we went to see Julia Sweeney's one woman show, "Letting Go of God," last night. This gives me an opportunity to write about God, which I have wanted to do for awhile.

It was hilarious. Her timing was impeccable and her facial expressions uproarious. It felt so good to laugh. I don't know if we know exactly what laughter is, why we do it, or what it releases in our brains, but it's clearly something we should all do a lot more often.

The show is about her personal religious/spiritual journey from Catholicism to atheism, with stops at pantheism, Buddhism, and New Ageism along the way. For the most part, I found it to be more funny than thought-provoking, since a lot of the questions she raised are either things that I have been thinking about for years, things that don't bother me about religion, or issues specific to Christianity that I would probably agree with her about if I thought about it at all (but I don't really--Judaism gives me enough tsuris, I have no need to struggle with Christianity).

A lot of the first half of the 2+ hour show was about her experience reading the Bible for the first time, and finding out that it was not just nice stories. The Bible is full of violent and disturbing stories--Noah drinking and passing out naked (Genesis 9:20-21), Lot offering his virgin daughters as rape victims (Genesis 19:8), Lot's daughters raping him (Genesis 19:30-36), and Abraham being willing to slaughter Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). And that's just in the first half of Genesis! I have known that the Binding of Isaac is a horrifying, confusing, disturbing story since I was an adolescent, if not earlier. Someone says that the real test was not if Abraham was willing to murder Isaac, but if he was willing to change his mind, having made it up, only at the behest of an angel and not God (see Ramban Genesis 22:12 and later commentaries). That helps a bit. There are other interpretations out there that make the story a bit more palatable, and the existence of such interpretations is comforting to me, because it means that lots and lots of people find this story impossible to read with a clear conscience in the plain sense of the text. I like that the Jewish interpretive tradition, at least, reads and rereads texts that are disturbing and looks for ways to make them less so. As for the rest? I kind of like the fact that the Bible acknowledges that people are a violent, messy lot, and prompt us to ask, "How do we live together despite that?" The Bible provides few answers, and I don't think that the Bible is necessarily in the business of holding up role models. I find it disturbing when either evangelical Christians or religious people of any stripe claim that that's the case.

For me, one key to my ability to be religious in the modern world is critical reading of texts. The idea that any text must be accepted unconditionally or that some dogmatic elements of religion are unquestionable is anathema to me. If I didn't feel that religion allowed me to ask any questions I want of anything I read or hear at any time, I wouldn't be able to consider myself religious.

The second half of the show was more about her struggles once she abandoned the idea of practicing the Catholicism with which she was raised. She thought she might find God in nature, or in Tibet, or in New Age spirituality. Each place she looked ended up raising more questions than it answered. In the end, she studied science and found truth there. In finding truth in science, she decided that she had to reject God. That's a vast oversimplification of one woman's admirable search for a truth that she could live with, but since this is my blog, I get to do that. Towards the end, she referenced Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. I think she said that because spiritual feelings or experiences light up the same region of the brain as extra-terrestrial experiences, and because the mind "resides" in the brain and is composed of mere electrical impulses that trigger cells to release various neurotransmitters, somehow that shows that God isn't real or that the soul isn't real.

(That doesn't make much sense to me. The soul may be what we call the experience of all those neurotransmitters being released, or the collective whole of what the mind produces. It's like saying emotions aren't real because all they are is chemical concoctions of the brain. Yes, they are, but so what?)

I don't know if God is real or isn't real. I chose to believe in God and that makes God real to me. I would say that I chose to live my life as if God exists and that makes God real to me, but I'm not sure what I consider the most essential aspects of my life would look that different if I chose not to believe in God. So we'll say that the belief, rather than any particular actions, make God real to me.

Who is this God? What is this God? I don't know if God is a supreme Being who anthropomorphically fashioned a universe out of nothing, or if God is a collective term we use to describe that which we can't understand about the world in which we live. Maybe God is some part of my unconscious mind that looks out for my welfare, even (or especially) when my conscious mind seems hell-bent on destroying me. It is not inconceivable to me that God exists solely within me, within the firing neurons in my brain, and that when we speak about God, we each speak about our individual conceptions of God. (Really, what choice do we have? Whenever we speak about religion from a personal perspective, we can only speak from our own experiences.)

Choosing to believe in God--whatever form or non-form this God may take--provides benefits without which life would be more difficult, and I don't see a problem with choosing to believe in something that makes life more livable. From my perspective, life is hard enough as it is, without a self-dictated need to only believe in things that can be empirically proven.

Am I deluding myself? Maybe, but that's part of how we all make it through life. We choose to believe things that we don't have empirical evidence for all the time. The more entangled our lives are with those of other people, the more unprovable (and even unlikely) things we believe. I choose to believe in God.
Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." --Alice in Wonderland

10.23.2006

Folk Etymology and the Month of (Mar)Cheshvan

I am somewhat interested in folk etymology--the sources that people give for words either for homiletic reasons or because they really believe these sources to be correct, despite having no linguistic evidence to back them up. (Folk etymologies can be correct, but are not necessarily correct.) Where words really come from is less interesting to me than where people think they come from. The stories that people tell about their world in an effort to make sense of it all fascinates me endlessly.

Take those people who think that every word in English comes directly or indirectly from Hebrew, because Hebrew must be the first language. What worldview do they have in which their foundations of faith crumble if Hebrew was not the very first language? Do they really believe what they say, or do they say it because they need to think it's true for some reason? Do they think that Hebrew being some kind of primal language makes it more "authentic" or superior? Fascinating. Don't you think?

(Mar)Cheshvan is a terrific month for thinking about folk etymology. Anyone who grew up going to Jewish day school probably learned at a young age that the Hebrew month of Cheshvan is sometimes called "Marcheshvan" because it is a "bitter" (Hebrew: "mar") month due to its lack of holidays. I think I might have even been taught (or derived myself) that it was the only holiday-less month, despite the fact that Iyar, Tammuz, Elul, and Tevet are also apparently holiday-less. Av is no great shakes, either, and would be a prime candidate for a "bitter" month in my book, although I suppose the bitter lamentations of Tisha B'Av are mediated somewhat by Tu B'Av.

The actual etymology of "Marcheshvan" is apparently the Akkadian word "waraḫsamnu," meaning "eighth month." (Waraḫ presumably being like the Hebrew "yare'ach" or moon and samnu presumably being like the Hebrew "shmona" or eight. How's that for some amateur etymology?) Indeed, in the biblical account of the months, Marcheshvan is the eighth month. The real question is not why Cheshvan is called Marcheshvan, but why it is called Cheshvan without the "Mar." Who dropped the "mar" and why?

But the etymology doesn't stop there. Oh, no!

In the Bible, the eighth month is referred to by name only once, and is called "Bul." This is in I Kings 6:38, where it describes King Solomon's completion of the Temple in Jerusalem:

לח ובשנה האחת עשרה בירח בול, הוא החודש השמיני, כלה הבית, לכל-דבריו ולכל-משפטיו; ויבנהו, שבע שנים 38 And in the eleventh year, in the month Bul, which is the eighth month, was the house finished throughout all the parts thereof, and according to all the fashion of it. So was he seven years in building it.

Rashi explains that "bul" means "mabul" ("flood"), because this is the month during which the Great Flood (with Noah and the ark and all that) occurred. Rashi might have given this explanation (bul = mabul) because Cheshvan/Bul is the month during which a special prayer for rain is added in the land of Israel, and during which if there is no rain, special fasts were instituted to pray for rain. But does "Bul" really come from the word "mabul"? Maybe it does, in which case this not a folk etymology by a real etymology.

Either way, have a sweet Cheshvan!

10.20.2006

Plastic and other endocrine disruptors, or, the toxins in your neighborhood

I used to think these railing-against-plastics kinds of people were a bit crazy, but then I read about it in the New York Times ("Preschool Puberty, and a Search for the Causes"), and if the New York Times says it, it must be true. (Note that this particular article is mostly not about plastic, but reading it reminded me that I once idly wondered if I should worry about plastic. The movie Blue Vinyl, which I saw about three years ago, certainly convinced me that vinyl is bad, if nothing else.)

Okay, so the plastic scare might still be a little bit speculative, but if it's true, it's damn scary. Plastic is so ubiquitous that if it does cause problems, even if only from the runoff of plastic-manufacturing plants, we're in trouble.

Some scary excerpts from the New York Times article mentioned above:
In 1994, scientists found that estrogen-like chemicals from plastics manufacturing plants that had contaminated sewers in England caused genetically male fish to develop into females.
...
Robert Cooper, the chief of endocrinology at the reproductive toxicology division of the Environmental Protection Agency, says various sources of endocrine disruptors, like manufacturing chemicals, may be leaching into the environment. While their relation to pubertal problems in children remains highly speculative, he believes further study is needed.

Past epidemiological evidence, however, does worry Dr. Cooper, because some chemical exposures have been associated with early puberty. In 1973, thousands of Michigan residents ate food contaminated by a flame retardant, PBB, which was later correlated with earlier menstruation in girls. In Puerto Rico, which has some of the worldÂ’s highest rates of early puberty, the condition was linked to higher levels of a plasticizer called phthalate in affected children.

Governmental efforts to create a systematic method to assess possible endocrine disruptors from environmental sources have stalled. In 1996, Congress directed the E.P.A. to develop a comprehensive screening program for possible endocrine disruptors within three years. Dr. Cooper says no such program has begun operation, a failure he attributed largely to stonewalling by chemical industry representatives who serve on an advisory committee for the program.

Read Jo's scary post about reproduction and the plastic in our lives and follow her links if you aren't hyped up enough yet.

Jo also had some follow-up posts to her original plastic post.
Plastic Not Fantastic, Part 1: Kitchen and Foodstuffs
Plastic Gggch, Part II: Babies and Kids (not applicable to me, but may be useful for some of you!)

Here is a list compiled by Purple Goddess in Frog Pajamas listing the various plastics in your neighborhood.

More information about the environment and women's health can be found on the Silent Spring website.

If you want to really go crazy, check out this National Institutes of Health website and then go to the Skin Deep website to see exactly what's in all of the things that you put in your hair, in your mouth, and on your face. I recently looked up some of my stuff and read some product labels. I'm not sure I'll change anything about what I use or do, since I already generally avoid using multiple products or any makeup at all, and a quick read of the ingredients in hair mousse months and months ago already scared me away from that except in the most dire of circumstances. Maybe at some point in the future I'll replace some of the more toxic things.

To leave you on an upbeat note, here is some good news from San Francisco about regulating what kinds of plastic can be used to manufacture baby bottles and toys.

So, um, think about getting a metal water bottle and bringing a shopping bag with you the next time you go to the store instead of grabbing another plastic one...

10.13.2006

On Shriveled Aravot (Willow Branches)

As I beat the willows this morning, I was reminded of a lovely thought that I heard from DDK recently. (I would like to quote him by name, but I think I'll just use his initials, to preserve my tiny bit of anonymity here.) We were sitting around, talking about aravot and how they get dried up and shriveled, and all the various methods for keeping them fresh and green throughout the seven days of Sukkot. One person said that someone had gone and purchased a new set for him, mid-Sukkot, and how nice it was to do hidur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah) with nice-looking aravot.

Then DDK said that he thought that was all wrong--that the aravot are supposed to be shriveled by the end of Sukkot, to reflect the state of the fields, which are barren now that the harvest has been gathered. This is the time of year when we've reaped one crop and are waiting to find out if it will rain enough over the winter to grow another crop. We are judged at this time of year because this is the time of agricultural trepidation. By the end of Sukkot, we don't have fresh, beautiful aravot anymore. We have nothing. The reason that we finish the annual cycle of Torah readings at this time of year (instead of, say, at Shavuot) is because now is the time that we turn to God and the Torah with the hope that they will provide sustenance over the coming year. They are literally all we've got.

It was very moving. It reminded me that I would probably appreciate certain aspects of Judaism a lot more if I lived in an agricultural society, the way agricultural societies were before long-distance shipping and greenhouses.

Chag sameach!

10.11.2006

The TSA and the Arba Minim

The TSA folks wouldn't let me take a small, sealed can of tuna on board after the original no-liquids directive, and the OU wants them to let people take palm, willow, myrtle, and citron aboard? Maybe things have loosened since they allowed on 3 ounces of liquid (is that per person or per container? isn't clear to me yet), but the lulav, especially, strikes me as questionable.

(Aside: Do they let you bring them into California and other places with severe restrictions on agricultural products?)

Good luck to all Jews traveling with these four plants!

10.10.2006

Homes: Temporary and Semi-Permanent (or what I learned from the sukkah this year)

One of several things that I adore about Judaism is the way that it concretizes deep and important truths that otherwise only get expressed in our heads. Jewish ritual forces us to recognize certain things about Jewish life, and if we're open to it, to apply them to other areas of our lives. This is what Judaism is to me. This is why I cling to the ritualistic aspects of a halachic lifestyle, despite some misgivings about the nature of God and rabbinic authority. (I cling to the more humanistic elements of Judaism for other reasons.) I keep performing these rituals to the best of my ability because they get me to places that I could not get to without them. I could write a book about how I see this principle at work in my world. (Maybe one day I will.)

Examples:
  • Shabbat very viscerally shows us that, no, we really can't get everything done, not even when Shabbat starts at 8 pm.
  • Rosh Hashana and the process of teshuva show us that we can always start over, even when that seems preposterously impossible to us.
  • Tashlich teaches us to let go of the things that we've done wrong in the past, in order to move forward into the future. It teaches us that we can let go of such things.
  • Chanukah teaches us (in the Northern Hemisphere) that, although we have no control over the shortening of days, we can always light candles. With God's grace we can create order in a chaotic world and rededicate our Temples, whatever and wherever they may be.
  • Prayer teaches us to be thankful and grateful every single day but also to cry out to God for help because we can't make it on our own.
  • Sukkot teaches us about the impermanence of our dwelling spaces. Anyone who has wandered in a desert or who has been caught in a tsunami, hurricane, fire, or earthquake knows this viscerally, but for those of us lucky enough to escape such misfortune, the holiday of Sukkot forces us to realize it.
When we eat in a sukkah we may consider the flimsiness of its walls compared to the apparently solid sturdiness of the walls of our homes, but if we really think about it, we realize that a sukkah may be a temporary home, but a house of brick and mortar is far from permanent, attached to it though we may be. It comes and goes. Linda of Indigo Girl writes about selling her mom's house four months after her mother dies. I can empathize with the feelings she has about giving up her home, as my parents sold my childhood home several years ago. Losing that childhood home made me so sad, even though I guess I always knew that it would happen one day. I suppose that the memories created in that home reside in my head, not in its walls, but it still felt like some important part of me was being ripped out.

I have felt a bit like a wandering Aramean since the sale of the house, even though my immediate family is, thank God, alive and well, and I'm sure that they would say that I may find my home is wherever they are. I'm not sure that the lesson is that we should invest fewer emotions in our homes. I think it is normal and healthy to get attached to your dwelling place. Sukkot is, I think, at least partly about the sanctification of space, in a religion that A.J. Heschel claims sanctifies time more than space. Maybe the trick, though, is always to remember that the place for which you lovingly and gratefully pay rent or a mortgage is semi-permanent and that our true homes are the world at large, the Earth itself. One could say that the aggregate of places where you can erect a temporary sukkah is the only home that can be considered permanent. Every one of us is a wandering Aramean.

This could be a depressing thought or it could be freeing. I went hiking yesterday, and looking down from 1100 feet at the fiery hues of the countryside around me, I felt nothing but awe and reverence. This--the world--is my home, and where I rest my feet and head at night is merely a stopping point within it.

10.06.2006

A fifth reason to leave New York City

I didn't want to be flip and just post this. I wanted to write a whole essay on children, wealth, jealousy, sharing bedrooms, and what was said to me on the playground by a classmate in 1989. But the hour is late, the author is exhausted, and this brief posting will have to do.

From last Sunday's New York Times Real Estate section, go read an article called "The Toughest Critics are the Smallest" about competition among New York's youngest residents for the biggest and best house, and how one feels about kids who don't have nice houses. Here are some choice quotes, since I think it won't be available after this Sunday, and here it is, already early Friday morning:

“A lot of my son’s friends are in private school because of our neighborhood,” Ms. Bruder-Frydman said. “When he goes to a friend’s house whose bedroom is three times the size of his, even though his is professionally decorated with fancy furniture and hand-painted, and he has everything that he needs, he says, ‘Mommy, how come my room isn’t this big?’ ”

I don't know who to be annoyed with more--the kids or their parents. I think their parents...

“I think the kids are more aware of how much other people have,” said the teacher, who spoke on the condition that her name not be used because it’s against school policy to talk to reporters. “Teaching kindergarten, I was overhearing kids after a play date with each other. The children spoke along the lines of, ‘I’ve been to his house — he had so many toys, and his playroom is bigger than my own.’ ”

“I think they’re so young that they’re not doing it to be mean,” said the teacher, who recalled how two of her young students visited her studio apartment and asked, “Where is the rest of it?”

“They have no idea how their comments can be hurtful to someone else,” she said. “They’re just kind of sponges for what they hear at home.”

Yeah, the parents. Definitely the parents.

A study of privileged suburban children suggests that parents with smaller homes have reason to feel self-conscious. Two years ago, Heather Beth Johnson, an assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., interviewed 20 children ranging from 5 to 12 years old in affluent suburban enclaves of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Half of the children attended private schools.

“When asked how they viewed families who lived in smaller houses, they said, ‘I feel sorry for them that they have a bad house, but if they really wanted to, they could work harder and have a better one.’ They would look down on the parents, and they felt sad for the kids,” said Dr. Johnson, the author of “The American Dream and the Power of Wealth” (Taylor & Francis Group, 2006).

Perhaps it's not so much about the individual parents or children, as about this statement:
Children in New York City “are as in tune with real estate as sneakers,” Ms. Friedman said. “It’s just a commodity. And in a lot of New York City families, it really is a topic of conversation just as much as what happens on the front page.”
Who would want to raise children in such a place?
Youngsters are particularly apt to ape their parents and society at large, said Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard and the author of “Stumbling on Happiness” (Knopf, 2006). “You’re bringing children up in the single most materialistic culture that has ever existed on the face of the earth,” he said.
Yeah... Like I said, a good reason to leave NYC before starting a family.
But in Manhattan, where the giddy heights of wealth, status and ego can induce as much vertigo as the tallest Trump tower, parents at all levels evinced a reluctance to discuss with their children issues of class inequality or its subset, conspicuous real estate, leading to the sort of finding that Dr. Johnson, the Lehigh sociologist, found chilling.
Or, if you stay, to talk about wealth, power, money, and ego. With young children. Because they'll talk about it even if you don't.

* * * * * * * * *

[This is part of a continuing series. Previous reasons to leave NYC included:
1. "My Daddy owns more buildings than your Daddy!" (Abacaxi Mamao, 12/19/05 )
2. mongrammed spit-up cloths (Abacaxi Mamao, 2/9/06)
3. higher incidence of depression and general mental distress (New York Times, 4/10/06)
4. toxicity in New York City dust and dirt (Science & The City, 4/10/06)]

Categories: New York

10.03.2006

Post-Secret on Disbelief

Via Shanna at Devarim, a recent postcard sent to PostSecret:


This is actually the first Mishna and the first Gemara that I learned, in seventh grade. Learning Mishna, Gemara, and a lot of other stuff opened more doors to disbelief than one might assume.

Shanna asks, "What do you pretend to believe? What do you know now? And just how did it used to be?" Go over and there and answer her, if you feel like it. I could post a novel-length posting about what I pretend to believe, what I believe now, and what I used to believe, but I will choose not to at this time.

I love PostSecret, though, and loved this secret, including the "Rashi" on the side that I didn't see until just now. I think it would apply to more people than one might imagine.