1.27.2008

I can!

This is in response to a challenge from AidelMaidel.

The rules are simple:

  • You have 15 minutes and 15 minutes only. Time yourself.
  • No making changes once the list is completed beyond correcting spelling mistakes.
  • Be honest. It's okay if it's silly or strange or weird or disconcerting.
  • Resist the urge to explain yourself. Wait and see what other people will ask you to explain after they read your list.
I don't know if I can resist the urge to explain myself, but I will try!
  1. I can type 90+ words a minute.
  2. I can curl my tongue up into a tube or into what we used to call a three-leaf clover. I think some others call it a flower.
  3. I can understand fluent spoken Modern Hebrew.
  4. I can speak Modern Hebrew semi-fluently.
  5. I can spot a misplaced comma or a sentence fragment in the middle of a bunch of prose in a millisecond.
  6. I can write long, articulate blog posts in under 30 minutes. (I think they are articulate; you think they are long. At least one of these things is true.)
  7. I can change a diaper.
  8. I can learn mishna in Hebrew, usually with the aid of Kehati.
  9. I can make a very yummy lasagna and sneak all kinds of healthy things like tofu and wheat germ into it without anyone being the wiser.
  10. I can make a good tofu stir-fry.
  11. I can do very well on standardized tests involving analogies, reading comprehension, writing, correcting grammatical errors, and logic. (At least, I could six years ago, the last times I took a practice standardized test. I think I still could, although I haven't taken a real standardized test in probably ten years.)
  12. I can walk two miles to work without feeling like it's far.
  13. I can last indefinitely without caffeine.
  14. I can enjoy an 80% cocoa dark chocolate bar without finding it too bitter for words.
  15. I can wiggle my ears.
  16. I can play hopscotch.
  17. I can jump on a Pogo ball (although I haven't done so in probably eighteen years or so, and it probably couldn't support my weight at the moment, so maybe I should remove this one).
  18. I can plan and execute an enjoyable commencement ceremony for eight adult learners.
  19. I can give a rousing commencement speech written on the day of commencement.
  20. I can wash dishes really, really well the first time. (No oil residue, no bits of food left on them, including outsides of pots, handles, covers to things.)
  21. I can sleep for 10-12 hours on a Friday night.
  22. I can write and edit a 24-page course catalog.
  23. I can write an essay on prosbul and heter mechira by finding the appropriate gemaras, learning them, and consulting various secondary and tertiary sources.
  24. I can ride a bicycle.
  25. I can wear jeans to work on Fridays.
  26. I can reach things at the front of the third shelf in my kitchen cabinets without standing on a chair.
  27. I can build a bed from raw lumber.
  28. I can operate an electric drill.
  29. I can operate an electric circular saw.
  30. I can operate an electric sander.
  31. I can get a screw out of a hole even if it's been totally stripped from the inside.
  32. I can use a vise grip.
  33. I can fix the couch I inherited from my grandmother with a drill, a wooden dowel, and some wood glue.
  34. I can use wood filler.
  35. I can sand wood.
  36. I can stain wood.
  37. I can get friends to travel far to help me build a bed.
  38. I can do my own taxes without the use of tax software, even when Schedule C and two different states are involved.
  39. I can walk up to the sixteenth floor for a Shabbat meal.
  40. I can make a really yummy green salad.
  41. I can make microwave popcorn.
  42. I can keep my houseplants alive for eight years running (African violet and philodendron, purchased at the beginning of my sophomore year of college).
  43. I can travel alone in Brazil.
  44. I can take pretty pictures.
  45. I can paint flowers, mountains, birds, and fish with watercolors, using Japanese painting techniques. (At least, I could from the ages of 7-14. Haven't painted in about 13 years, though. Wonder if it's a skill you lose?)
  46. I can make things out of Fimo or Sculpy.
  47. I can do quite well at the game Taboo.
  48. I can supervise a five-year-old on the playground and join in her fantasy games.
  49. I can daven weekday mincha by heart.
  50. I can write a 116 page senior thesis on women college students during World War I, and their changing attitudes towards the war and towards woman suffrage that receives a grade of magna cum laude.
That's it. Out of time!

What can you do?

Eat your succulent veggies

I am going to rename all of my vegetables, pronto!

1.24.2008

Overheard (and Learned) at LimmudNY 2008

Two men, looking 70+ years old, sitting at the back of a room where an Israeli film was about to be screened. One grumpily said to the other, "This isn't a film! This is a DVD!"

One adorable four-year-old, on the last day of LimmudNY, to her parents: "I am going to be very sad and cry tomorrow, because there will be no more Camp Limmud, the funnest camp there is!"

From the very young to the old(er), there was something at LimmudNY 2008 for everyone!

Overall impressions and thoughts about LimmudNY 2008:
  • I don't know if I got as much out of it as I did in 2007. Or maybe I just had less fun?
  • Everything that I went to was great, but very little was surprisingly fantastic, which was a little bit disappointing. I don't know if that was about the programming, my over-saturation in Jewish education by this point in my life, or what I chose to go to.
  • I had already seen a lot of the Israeli films that were shown.
  • I found myself really too tired to stay up late and socialize at night, so that part of LimmudNY was less fun for me this year.
  • It felt to me that there were fewer live performances, or maybe only fewer live performances before 11 pm or midnight, when I am most likely to enjoy them. I didn't hear as many cool music performances as I did last year.
  • Also, I didn't go--by my own choice--to the cool, creative sessions, the ones that might have helped me learn something amazing about myself.
  • I gravitated towards straight rabbinic text sessions (midrash, gemara, halacha) during the day, so, I guess I learned that about myself. I didn't feel so strongly pulled in that direction last year, and certainly not three years ago, at the first LimmudNY.
  • I think that I am also less open to introspection right now (I mean this week and last week, not at this point in my life overall), and less introspection means less growth.

I did learn one interesting thing about myself.

I walked into the room in which Orthodox services were to be held, right around candle-lighting time on Friday. The room was empty, except for one man. The mechitzah was a huge, navy monstrosity that cut the room in half, with the shat"z standing at the front, on the men's side. It was maybe 15 feet tall, and made of dark fabric. I am generally tolerant of mechitzot, but, then again, most mechitzot I come across are constructed of lattice or semi-sheet material, not dark, heavy, navy blue cloth. Also, most mechitzot I come across seem to be 4-6 feet tall. I felt like I would absolutely not be able to focus on my davening at all if I tried to daven in that room. After waiting for a few minutes, I davened mincha quickly to myself, because I wasn't at all sure that they would gather a minyan before shkiyah [sunset], and then I went to explore other options.

The only other option that seemed doable was the traditional egalitarian service. This is a whole other kettle of fish that I don't think I want to get into now, but, basically, my current position is that I will daven at an egalitarian minyan, not let myself be counted as part of the minyan, and only answer the shat"z when I feel halachically comfortable with the combination of the sex (not gender) of the person up there and the precise prayer that person is leading. Also, I won't daven in an egalitarian minyan on a regular basis, and will basically only do so if I have a good reason (generally, the aufrauf or bris or baby-naming of friends). I am not at all claiming that this position makes any internal or external sense at all, but that's where I'm at right now, at this particular moment in time. As I said, this is for another post.

I left the mechitzah, led-only-by-men minyan and went to the traditional egalitarian service, which also had not started. When they did start, they started with mincha, which was led by a man and was totally fine for me content-wise.

But kabbalat Shabbat, which followed, confirmed my worst suspicions about liberal services in general. The shat"z was facing the congregation rather than the front of the room, and this, as well as the way he was leading, made it seem like he was teaching the congregation a song rather than leading davening (or pre-davening tehillim, which is a more precise definition of kabbalat Shabbat). It irritated the hell out of me. He told us that he was going to teach us a new, special melody and it was one of the Carlebach standards, which, judging from the speech with which the congregants picked up this "new" tune, most people were already familiar. Also, he spoke a few sentences, it seemed, between nearly every chapter of Psalms. Page numbers were definitely called out before each chapter of Psalms, despite the fact that we were going in order, and there was nothing fishy about the page numbers in the texts that most people had. I feel like I would have been able to follow along even if I had not known any Hebrew. Also, he stopped a congregation in throes of singing to ask us to switch the melody to Licha Dodi after every verse or two. It drove me crazy! Licha Dodi is one of the highlights of my week, when I make it to shul in time. (Surely few things exemplify the transition from Friday to Shabbat as well as "קומי צאי מתוך ההפכה"!) I had to walk out two verses before the end. Other people walked out long before that.

This is also an issue for a longer, separate post, but one of several reasons that I prefer Orthodox services to any other service is because I think that Orthodox services aim for the highest common denominator among congregants, rather than the lowest common denominator. It's easy for me to feel this way, because I tend to be among the higher, rather than the lower, common denominator in terms of Jewish education or davening skills in most shuls. If I didn't know Hebrew, or couldn't find my way through any siddur, I'm sure that I would feel differently. But since I do, and can, I have little patience for constantly interspersing commentary and page numbers amidst the davening. It breaks my kavanah [concentration], such as it is. (I don't object to a little introduction to the parsha, or to the haftarah, or calling out occasional page numbers when pages are skipped or things are in a funny order.) People who need help following the davening should be helped quietly by the people sitting next to them. There should be learner's services. Shuls should offer classes on tefillah [prayer]. I'm sure I would gain from such a class. But shul should not become a class. I realize, admit, and partially apologize for my elitist position, which I am only able to hold because I was lucky enough to go to shul from a young age and to otherwise get a good Jewish education. (And, yes, I am well aware that there are liberal services all of Manhattan that have the kind of davening I like, without constant commentary and page numbers. This is not the only reason I prefer Orthodox davening.)

Anyway, so I walked out and went back to the Orthodox service, which had grown so large by that point that it had expanded beyond the back edge of the ginormous mechitzah, so someone had set up a few long folding tables to extend the mechitzah. I davened back there, next to that reasonable mechitzah. Also, the ginormous mechitzah didn't look nearly as stark and awful when the room was full of people on both sides of it.

At the end of davening, someone who was making announcements apologized for the mechitzah, said that it had been set up by the hotel without any input from the minyan organizers, and that its height was not at all reflective of the esteem with which women were held by the male minyan organizers. I was very glad that someone apologized. It mitigated my anger a little. Then someone from the men's section jokingly called out that it should be taller. Then the daveners dispersed.

I went to mincha/maariv during the rest of the conference, and davened beside that ridonkulous mechitzah, and sort of got used to it. I'm sure that the other egalitarian services were more "normal," which I put in quotes as an acknowledgment that I what I mean by "normal" is "more similar to the Orthodox services I frequent."

The same thing happened last year, by the way. At LimmudNY 2007, the mechitzah was also very, very tall. It was white, which made it slightly less obtrusive, and I think we managed to modify it somewhat by replacing some very tall panels (15') with shorter panels (5' or 6').

On Shabbat morning, I went to the "Darkhei Noam style" minyan (my name, not theirs), which had a totally normal, 5 or 6-foot tall, lattice-work mechitzah. Clearly, such a thing existed. Maybe they didn't have enough of it for both minyanim on Shabbat morning, but there was only one minyan on Friday night. Maybe it was too short for the long room in which Friday night davening was held. I don't know. It seems, though, like a Jewish resort in the Catskills ought to have some suitable mechitzah arrangement on hand. If LimmudNY is held there again, I hope they work out something better.

Having said that, I want to report that in terms of logistics, this was the best LimmudNY yet. I was expecting Friday night dinner to be utter chaos (850 people eating together is more likely than not to turn out that way), and it was one of the highlights of Limmud. I ended up at a table with some people I didn't know and some people I knew, but few of whom knew each other. We had a nice, full-table conversation about Limmud and what makes it so awesome. I heard a lot of different perspectives. The facilities (the Nevele) were great. There were no screw-ups, no hitches, and fewer room and program changes than at the past Limmud conferences I've attended. Really, a huge yasher koach goes to all of the staff and the volunteers.

I am hoping to write about some of the very cool Rabbinic texts I learned at some later point.

1.21.2008

Happy Tu Bishvat and the power of fruitful metaphor

I am totally zonked. I was going to go to either a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day concert or a Tu Bishvat seder tonight, but I think I may do the unthinkable and go to sleep early instead. I'm a little bit tired after four wonderful days at LimmudNY.

In lieu of the seder and the concert, and to try to keep myself awake for a little while longer, I thought I would share some texts about the sheva minim (or shivat haminim), or the seven species, that are associated with the Land of Israel (and therefore Tu Bishvat, Shavuot, and Sukkot, among other holidays). (I shared some of these texts here, awhile back. ) I will then attempt to tie this, at least a little, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wheat

“R. Hanina ben Pazzi said: Thorns need not be hoed nor sown—they sprout on their own, rise straight up, and grow. But wheat—how much pain, how much labor is needed before it can be made to grow!”
–Midrash Genesis Rabbah 45:4


Barley

א"ר חייא בר אבא הרואה חטים בחלום ראה שלום שנאמר (תהילים קמז) השם גבולך שלום חלב חטים ישביעך הרואה שעורים בחלום סרו עונותיו שנאמר (ישעיהו ו) וסר עונך וחטאתך תכופר אמר רבי זירא אנא לא סלקי מבבל לא"י עד דחזאי שערי בחלמא

“"When a person sees wheat in his dream, it is sign of peace, as it says: "He makes your borders peace; He gives you in plenty the fat of wheat" (Psalms 147:14). When a person sees barley in a dream, it is a sign that his iniquities are removed, for it is said, ‘Your iniquity is removed and your sin is expiated.’ (Isaiah 6:7). R. Zera said: I did not decide to go up from Babylonia to the Land of Israel until I saw barley in a dream.”
–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 57a


Grapes

רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה איש כפר הבבלי אומר: הלמד מן הקטנים, למה הוא דומה? לאוכל ענבים קהות, ושותה יין מגיתו; והלמד מן הזקנים, למה הוא דומה? לאוכל ענבים בשלות, ושותה יין ישן

“One who learns from the young, who is he like? Like one who eats dull [unripe] grapes and drinks wine from the wine- press. And one who learns from the elderly, who is he like? Like one who eats ripened grapes and drinks mature wine.”
– Ethics of the Fathers, 4:20


Figs

למה נמשלו דברי תורה כתאנה? מה תאנה זו כל זמן שאדם ממשמש בה מוצא בה תאנים אף דברי תורה כל זמן שאדם הוגה בהן מוצא בהן טעם

“Whenever you go to the fig tree, you are likely to find fruit to eat. Similarly, whenever you go to the Torah, you will find nourishment [lit. taste].”
–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 54a-b


Pomegranates

“‘Did the pomegranates blossom yet?’ [Song of Songs 7:13]—this refers to the young children who sit and learn Torah. They sit in rows like the seeds of the pomegranates.”
–Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah, 6:17


Olives

אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי למה נמשלו ישראל לזית לומר לך מה זית אין עליו נושרין לא בימות החמה ולא בימות הגשמים אף ישראל אין להם בטילה עולמית לא בעוה"ז ולא בעולם הבא

“Rabbi Yehoshuah Ben Levi said: ‘Why is Israel compared to an olive tree? Because just as the leaves of an olive tree do not fall off either in summer or winter. So too, the Jewish people shall not be cast off-- neither in this world nor in the World to Come.’”
–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot 53b

“The Sages taught: ‘Just as olive oil brings light into the world, so do the people of Israel bring light into the world.’”
–Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah, 1:2


Dates

יג צַדִּיק, כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח; כְּאֶרֶז בַּלְּבָנוֹן יִשְׂגֶּה. 13 The righteous shall flourish like the [date] palm-tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
יד שְׁתוּלִים, בְּבֵית יְהוָה; בְּחַצְרוֹת אֱלֹהֵינוּ יַפְרִיחוּ. 14 Planted in the house of the LORD, they shall flourish in the courts of our God.
טו עוֹד, יְנוּבוּן בְּשֵׂיבָה; דְּשֵׁנִים וְרַעֲנַנִּים יִהְיוּ. 15 They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness;
טז לְהַגִּיד, כִּי-יָשָׁר יְהוָה; צוּרִי, וְלֹא-עלתה (עַוְלָתָה) בּוֹ. 16 To declare that the LORD is upright, my Rock, in whom there is no unrighteousness.

“No part of the date palm is wasted: The fruit is eaten, the embryonic branches [lulav] are used for the Four Species of Sukkot, the mature fronds can cover a sukkah, the fibers between the branches can make strong ropes, the leaves can be woven into mats and baskets, the trunks can be used for rafters. Similarly, no one is worthless in Israel: some are scholars, some do good deeds, and some work for social justice.”
–Midrash Numbers Rabbah, 3:1

* * * * *

Quite fittingly, since today is both Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Dr. King quoted the following passage from Micah in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית-יְהוָה נָכוֹן בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים, וְנִשָּׂא הוּא, מִגְּבָעוֹת; וְנָהֲרוּ עָלָיו, עַמִּים.
1 But in the end of days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow unto it.
ב וְהָלְכוּ גּוֹיִם רַבִּים, וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל-הַר-יְהוָה וְאֶל-בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיוֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו: כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר-יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָם. 2 And many nations shall go and say: 'Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths'; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
ג וְשָׁפַט, בֵּין עַמִּים רַבִּים, וְהוֹכִיחַ לְגוֹיִם עֲצֻמִים, עַד-רָחוֹק; וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבֹתֵיהֶם לְאִתִּים, וַחֲנִיתֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת--לֹא-יִשְׂאוּ גּוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּן עוֹד מִלְחָמָה. 3 And He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning mighty nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
ד וְיָשְׁבוּ, אִישׁ תַּחַת גַּפְנוֹ וְתַחַת תְּאֵנָתוֹ--וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד: כִּי-פִי יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, דִּבֵּר. 4 But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken.
It appears in the middle of his speech, in the following context, and is joined together with a verse from Isaiah:
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still believe that we shall overcome!
In Keith D. Miller's Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources, he discusses how, as part of his homiletic style, Dr. King effectively yoked together separate biblical prophecies of redemption to create new images that flow naturally. I had to do several searches before I was satisfied that "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid" does not appear anywhere, because it sounded so right to me.

This was a common formulation of Dr. King's. He also used it in a beautiful, moving sermon he delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, on April 30, 1967, titled "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam":
Now it isn't easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job...means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight year old child asking a daddy, "Why do you have to go to jail so much?"....We shall overcome because the bible is right: "You shall reap what you sow." With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!" With this faith, we'll sing it as we're getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don't know about you, I ain't gonna study war no more.
Please go and read the whole thing. It's lovely and I don't do it justice by only quoting an excerpt.

Here's another one I simply can't resist sharing. It's from a speech called "The American Dream" that Dr. King delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, GA, on July 4, 1965, and, again, you should read the whole thing:
We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.

About two years ago now....I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered. I saw it shattered one night on Highway 80 in Alabama when Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was shot down. I had a nightmare and saw my dream shattered one night in Marion, Alabama, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot down. I saw my dream shattered one night in Selma when Reverend Reeb was clubbed to the ground by a vicious racist and later died. And oh, I continue to see it shattered as I walk through the Harlems of our nation and see sometimes ten and fifteen Negroes trying to live in one or two rooms. I’ve been down to the Delta of Mississippi since then, and I’ve seen my dream shattered as I met hundreds of people who didn’t earn more than six or seven hundred dollars a week. I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago and seen Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs. And they see life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. And not only Negroes at this point. I’ve seen my dream shattered because I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I’m concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty.

So yes, the dream has been shattered, and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven’t lost the faith. I still have a dream that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits.

I still have a dream this morning: one day all of God’s black children will be respected like his white children.

I still have a dream this morning that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.

I still have a dream this morning that one day all men everywhere will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

I still have a dream this morning that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

I still have a dream this morning that truth will reign supreme and all of God’s children will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. And when this day comes the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

This constructed verse also appears in speeches reproduced here ("Where Do We Go From Here?" 1967) and here ("A Christmas Sermon on Peace," 1967, delivered only a few months before his death) and, I am sure, in other places as well.

Musing about figs and grapes and Dr. Martin Luther King brought two thoughts to mind.

The first is about the power of words and, in particular, of imagery. Both in these three speeches, and in the quotes I shared above, metaphor and analogy are used in very strong ways. Sometimes I get tired of empty, fake, powerless words, and I fall into a slight funk, thinking that all words ultimately lack power and substance. As someone whose favorite activities revolve around words, this is disheartening. But when I read these words from the Midrash or from Dr. King, I remember that words have tremendous power--first to make us feel, and then to make us act.

The second thought I had was: Where are these leaders today? Where are the people who loudly proclaim that "no one is worthless in Israel" and that "one day all men everywhere will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth"? At the LimmudNY conference (about which I should certainly write more another time), while studying the words of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits with Rahel Berkovits (made me want to learn and read a lot more) and seeing a documentary about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (as well as personal stories about him from one of his shamashim), I felt sad that the Modern Orthodox community does not have leaders who come anywhere close to these men in intellectual achievements, creative thought, or personal righteousness. Of course none of these men were perfect. And, of course it's sad that there have been so few women who have fulfilled this kind of role. But I feel like we have no one today--nobody in public American life and nobody in Modern Orthodox Jewish life--who comes close to these men in using their words and power so wisely.

Happy Tu Bishvat and thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!

1.10.2008

Kids, gender, and the stories that we tell about our lives

Here is an interesting column from The Forward by the "East Village Mamele" (a.k.a. Marjorie Ingall) about her two girls and their gendered differences. It is a lovely, well-written, balanced piece.

I think about gender, gendered expectations, and childhood a lot. I was never a very girly girl. Sure, I had a My Little Pony and dolls, but I don't remember a horse phase, a princess phase, or ever hosting a tea party for my dolls. I think I've always liked purple somewhat, but have a mild aversion to pink and a strong aversion to ruffles and lace and poofery in general. Yellow was my favorite color for a long time. I also wasn't a tomboy, though.

I spent my time making clothing for my dolls (using old socks, scraps of fabric, a needle and thread), building with Lego and other blocks, building terrariums in the backyard (complete with transplanted weeds and potato bugs from under the paving stones), and, as soon as I could, writing.

I got a chemistry set for Chanukah one year, and I had fun doing experiments with my father using it.

I liked to draw maps of places real and imaginary. I once planned an addition to our cramped house by imagining that we could raise the roof and add an extra floor. I drew an architectural diagram of the new space. It was very exciting--I even decorated it. At some point, I started writing a novel that took place in the future, and the protagonist lived on the extra floor that I added to our house.

I liked origami and making paper snowflakes and painting my sneakers with fabric paints. I was a very crafty kid.

Shapes and patterns interested me. I liked making hexaflexagons and Möbius strips (and then cutting the Möbius strips in half). I pity the child who grows up without hexaflexagons and Möbius strips. I also liked jigsaw puzzles.

I liked playing at the playground and don't ever remember being afraid of heights or climbing things. My siblings and I sometimes ran a "store" in one particular jungle gym and made my father buy our imaginary goods. I liked playing on the swings. I didn't like the slides because the metal ones were hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the plastic ones that later replaced them produced a lot of static electricity whenever it was dry out.

My older sister and I made up an imaginary language, the rules of which were far too complicated for the language to be very practical.

I liked to make charts, graphs, tables, and lists--a lot. I think that I made one of my earliest tables when I was about five or maybe six years old. I made a table listing everyone in my family and their age. My parents were in their early 30s. When I was sick, I would chart the progression of my fever and watch it spike in the evening. I did the same for my brother once, when he was sick. They were proper graphs, too, not distorted. I took my temperature every few hours when I was awake and added a data point to the graph.

I learned how to crochet but never made anything but squares or rectangles.

When I was five, my two best friends and I had a very involved imaginary game involving a dragon and a magic flower. There might have been other things, too, but I only remember the dragon and the magic flower. Oh--maybe there was also a buried treasure? I think that, somewhere, I have a map that I drew of the physical landscape of this game.

When there were berries on the bushes outside our house I used to pick them to make special potions. I don't remember what the potions did, though.

I played with Barbie with my friends. I didn't have Ken, or even a real Barbie doll (I had a knock-off), but friends did.

I liked to make jewelry and hair clips. I had tiny boxes of findings and beads and acrylic paint everywhere.

I conducted psychological experiments of my own devising. I went around with a list of words and asked various family members to say the first thing that came to mind when they heard the word. I also conducted more free-flowing interviews of various relatives. I think I was about nine when I did this. I wonder if it was irritating or endearing.

I made Purim costumes for my siblings out of paper grocery bags, paper plates, paint, yarn, glue, and whatever else I could dig up. I never minded getting dirty--either with real dirt or with paint, charcoal, chalk, glue, etc.

I was afraid of bugs.

I liked to go exploring in the woods behind our house. I don't think I minded bugs outside nearly as much as I minded them (and still do) inside.

I liked to draw, especially with colored pencils.

I never had an imaginary friend, but my doll, Rachel, was a pretty good companion for a few years.

I never learned how to jump rope, and hated playing anything involving a ball, so I spent most of my recesses reading a book on the side of the playground during elementary school. In early elementary school I sometimes played freeze tag. I also hop-scotched, and think I wasn't half bad at it.

So, was I girly because I played with dolls, was very into crafts, and hated sports? Or was I un-girly (masculine?) because I liked to draw maps, make charts and graphs, and play outside in the dirt? As Ms. Ingall writes:
Guess what? Life’s more nuanced than either of those positions. When you have two girls, you figure out fast that you can’t generalize too much about girls, or about your own role in their personhood. Most girls are in the middle of the bell curve of girliness, just as most humans are in the middle of the bell curve of everything....I think when parents talk about how girly or how tough their daughters are, they’re really creating the narratives they want to tell and ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit their hypotheses. I was tickled at the differences between toddler Josie and me, so I focused on them. But in reality, she has always been, like most kids, a mix of tough and tender. Research tends to indicate that a few outliers skew results on how boys and girls differ — there are a few boys who are super-aggressive, but for the most part, boys and girls are in a big kinda-sorta-sometimes-semi-aggressive pack.
I am very interested in the creation of narratives and the role that the stories that we tell about ourselves--or about our children--play in shaping gender identity and gendered expectations. Did I decide that I was not that girly because someone told me that? Was it because I did not see the things that I enjoyed doing reflected in television commercials? Did I decide that I was bad at math because someone told me that I was bad at math, or because I thought that came with the double-x chromosomes? Why do I insist on telling people that I am a bad cook and that I hate to cook? Is it even true, or I am trying to resist gender-based stereotypes? (I actually think that I like to cook, but hate to organize meals, hate to cook under pressure, and would pick reading or writing over cooking any day.)

In general, I am very interested in the narratives that we choose to tell about ourselves. When helping my grandfather record his personal history before he passed away, and when I helped an 80+ year old man edit his autobiography, and I was fascinated by both the stories that they chose to tell about themselves and the stories that they omitted. For every story that we tell about ourselves--I am bad at math--there is another story that we don't tell--I loved making graphs and tables from an early age. I find it fascinating to think about the stories that I am drawn to tell and the stories that I shy away from.

We are really the ones who decide what it important, worthwhile, and valuable in our lives. We do so by how we talk about ourselves in general, as well as the specific stories that we tell about our past and present. This is entirely irrespective of the circumstances into which we are born and the tragedies that befall some of us throughout our lives.

The people who only talk about happy things irritate me because it seems to me that, by doing so, they ignore the unhappy parts of their lives. The unhappy parts of my life are important to me, because I think I learned the most from them. Also, I feel like leaving them out of my life narrative constitutes some sort of cover up and makes it more difficult for other people to include their own "hard parts" in their life narratives.

Likewise, though, the people who only talk about unhappy things also irritate me, because I don't believe that, aside from those suffering from depression or other mental illnesses, it is possible to experience a joyless existence. If you feel that your existence is joyless (and it may very well be), it's because you're depressed. If you are not depressed, you will find moments of joy to celebrate amidst the hardship. Even if that joy comes in the form of a pint of ice cream or a sunny day or conversation overheard on the subway.

The end of this post sounds irritatingly moralizing to me. I think this is only because I am trying to convince myself that these thoughts are true. As I was writing this post, I kept thinking, "I was such an interesting, creative, playful child!" And, "Why am I not like that now?" and "Why don't the stories that I tell about my more recent past sound like that?" Part of it, of course, is that a lot of the things that I do now are boring--paying bills, doing laundry, house cleaning. But part of it may be that I need to tell myself more stories from when I was a cool, creative person so that I can reinvigorate that cool, creative person who still lives somewhere inside me.

Anyone wanna build a terrarium?

1.09.2008

Sorry to waste your time on nonsense, but...

if you ever played a lot of Tetris (say, in the late '80s and early '90s, before Snood stole your soul), this should make you smile. Thank God for YouTube--now I don't have time to play Tetris anymore. (And that is a good thing, as anyone who ever had "Tetris dreams" can attest.)

Speaking of YouTube, there is now also JewTube and GodTube (the first is self-explanatory, the second is by/for evangelical Christians).

1.08.2008

Chodesh Shevat tov! !חדש שְבָט טוב

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Shevat (שְבָט). This is part 4 of an occasional series.

Etymology
  • From Akkadian shabatu, meaning "the month of destroying rain," from the verb shabatu, meaning "to beat, kill, destroy." It is related to a Hebrew verb that means "to strike, smite," which is also the source of the Hebrew noun shevet, meaning "rod" or "staff" and hence "tribe." Cool!

Biblical names

  • "the eleventh month"
  • Called "Shevat" in Zechariah 1:7, where Zechariah was given a very nice prophecy (see later verses, below):
    ז בְּיוֹם עֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבָּעָה לְעַשְׁתֵּי-עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ, הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ שְׁבָט, בִּשְׁנַת שְׁתַּיִם, לְדָרְיָוֶשׁ--הָיָה דְבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְכַרְיָה בֶּן-בֶּרֶכְיָהוּ, בֶּן-עִדּוֹא הַנָּבִיא, לֵאמֹר. 7 Upon the four and twentieth day of the eleventh month, which is the month Shevat, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the LORD unto Zechariah the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo, the prophet, saying--
    טז לָכֵן כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, שַׁבְתִּי לִירוּשָׁלִַם בְּרַחֲמִים--בֵּיתִי יִבָּנֶה בָּהּ, נְאֻם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; וקוה (וְקָו) יִנָּטֶה, עַל-יְרוּשָׁלִָם. 16 Therefore thus saith the LORD: I return to Jerusalem with compassion: My house shall be built in it, saith the LORD of hosts, and a line shall be stretched forth over Jerusalem.
    יז עוֹד קְרָא לֵאמֹר, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, עוֹד תְּפוּצֶנָה עָרַי, מִטּוֹב; וְנִחַם יְהוָה עוֹד אֶת-צִיּוֹן, וּבָחַר עוֹד בִּירוּשָׁלִָם. {ס} 17 Again, proclaim, saying: Thus saith the LORD of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; and the LORD shall yet comfort Zion, and shall yet choose Jerusalem.' {S}
Holidays
  • 15th of Shevat, in Hebrew Tu B'Shevat: the New Year for the Trees. Used for calculating special offerings taken from trees after three years of bearing fruit, only after which their fruit may be eaten.

What happened in Shevat?

Other cultures
  • "Şubat" is the name for the month of February in Turkish.

According to the Sefer Yetzirah, the following correspond to the month of Shevat:

  • Letter: tzadi
  • Color: blue-green
  • Jewish zodiac sign: pail (The New Year of Trees of the month of Shevat is the time that the rain waters of the winter months begin to ascend in the veins of the tree and bring it new life. The ascent of water in general is represented by the pail.)
  • Tribe: Asher
  • Sense: eating, taste
  • Controlling organ/limb: stomach, esophagus

1.07.2008

Living with depression

That is, living with someone who has depression. Sharing a life with someone who has depression. Dooce's husband, Jon, writes about it here, and includes discussion of the role that gender differences play in how he deals with his wife's depression. It's great. Everyone should read it. With approximately one quarter1 of the US population reporting having experienced symptoms sufficient for diagnosing a mental disorder during the past 12 months, you know people with mental disorders or you have one yourself. Either way, this is a good read. (Here are Dooce's archives about her own struggles with depression.)

Speaking of that statistic, did you know that it is official Peace Corps policy not to consider anyone for the Peace Corps who has been in therapy anytime during the twelve months before they apply? What do you think of that?

I think it's kind of crazy. I mean what young, idealistic, save-the-world type hasn't been in therapy sometime over the past twelve months? On the other hand, I can sort of understand them wanting to cover their behinds in terms of liability. I don't imagine it's very easy to get an emergency consult with a therapist in the middle-of-nowhere South America or Africa, and they don't want to risk a potential problem. I think a better way to prevent such problems, though, would be to require, in cases where a Peace Corps applicant has been in therapy sometime over the past year, a letter from a therapist certifying that the applicant has not been clinically mentally ill for the past twelve months. I mean, I can't imagine that anyone who is seriously depressed, manic-depressive, obsessive-compulsive, or suffering from any other mental illness would want to do the Peace Corps, but I could be wrong.

In general, I am very wary of blanket policies that discriminate against people on the basis of treatment received. First of all, having had treatment is not necessary equivalent to being ill or unable to handle stress or hard work. Second of all, such policies have the effect of discouraging people from seeking treatment that they might need, which is horrendous.
______________________________________________________________
1. Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. "Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R)." Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27. [I can't believe how long its been since I've used hyperlinked footnotes, or any footnotes at all, here. It can't be a good sign. I must be slipping!]

1.04.2008

LimmudNY: This is really your last chance.

[Cross-posted to Jewschool.]

Attention all procrastinators: This--today, January 4--is your last chance to register for LimmudNY and apply for scholarship funds, which are still available. Regular registration is open through next Wednesday, January 9, but if you can't afford the full price, today is your day to get thee to their website and register.

Still not convinced? Here are some of the things that I am excited about at LimmudNY 2008 (in alphabetical order by presenter's last name):

  • Rahel Berkovits teaching her grandfather, Eliezer Berkovits's, Torah ("Torat Hayyim—A Living Torah: Women’s Status Today: The Philosophy of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits")
  • Sissy Block on "How to Make a Living Doing What You Love"
  • Nikolai "Kolya" Borodulin on "Jews and drinking in Yiddish film, folklore and song"
  • Coolooloosh in concert
  • Shaul Farber (a.k.a. Seth Farber) on "New Halachot (Jewish Laws) Emerging from Israel: Is modernity influencing the rabbinate?" (Note that I'm not a huge fan of the title of this session, but I think he'll say interesting things.)
  • Avi Fox-Rosen in concert ("Ear Candy For the Over-Educated")
  • Aaron Freeman doing anything. I've been a fan since I discovered his Comic Torah blog over a year ago.
  • Daniel Goldfarb on ""May We Pray For a Loved One to Die?
  • Ethan Isenberg showing his film, Lonely Man of Faith, which I have been trying to see for close to a year
  • Shlomit Naor on "'It Took Me 20 Years To Love This Place': A reading and discussion of the work of Israeli poets"
  • Ethan Tucker on "Gender and Prayer"
  • Finally, on Sunday night, "Limmud NY's Tu B'shvat Spectacular" with Noam Dolgin, Avi Fox-Rosen, Marcus J. Freed, Ilan Glazer, Alan Morinis, and Nigel Savage

Hope to see you there!

(Addendum: Posts from LimmudNY 2007 here and here.)

For the lady who knows what time it is

Here's a song that may join my list of favorites--"Smart Girl," by Jonathan Rundman. How can you not like a song on an album called Public Library? Hat tip to Jody, another smart girl woman.

You can probably guess what other song I like, with a similar theme, based on the title of this post.

1.03.2008

On a more helpful note, looking forward

On, perhaps, a more generally helpful note than my previous post, this ("Year-End Review, With Yourself") is a recent New York Times blog post about taking stock of the previous year and using it to set serious goals for the coming year. It looks like a worthwhile exercise.

So far, 2008 has been much better than 2007!