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Sunny (!) San Francisco, Snow-Tipped Trees, Blue Bays, and Cotton-Candy Sunsets

Some photos from my recent vacation. Click to make them larger.

First up, sunny skies and warm weather in San Francisco!

Why would anyone go to the North Pole if they could be here?

Then, a rainy trip to the beach. Still beautiful, though, in a breath-taking kind of way.

We tried to get some of the world's best coffee/tea, but it was closed.

The drive up to Lake Tahoe was one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced. The trees, outlined with crisp, fresh snow just took my breath away. And the sky really turned this color!

Emerald Bay:

View from observation point (got there via gondola):

More pretty Lake Tahoe:

A few days later, sunset at Asilomar:

Asilomar State Beach:

And before I knew it, I was home again!



Airport mincha, ads in security area trays, and what does TSA do, anyway?

So, I've been traveling again. It makes me happy! I think that's because I like to look at new and interesting things, and there are so many more new and interesting things around when one is in a new environment than when one is stuck in one's routine at home. Lessons learned:
  1. I should make an effort to get out and about in NYC more often, since there is lots to do and see in NYC that I haven't gotten anywhere near seeing yet.
  2. I should get out of NYC more often, even if just for the weekend, by visiting friends who live within cheap-bus-commutable distance of NYC. Even Riverdale and Teaneck.
I saw a guy davening mincha, facing a structural column, at Newark International Airport. Nothing remarkable about that--I had just done a similar thing, myself. But he wasn't wearing a kippa, which struck me as odd from a sociological perspective (not a halachic perspective). I wonder if people think the same thing about me, when they see me davening in jeans? I mean, I don't think twice about it, but, really, a man wearing a kippa isn't so different from a woman wearing a skirt. Both are customs that indicate allegiance to a particular community, although I would say that kippot have more symbolic meaning than skirts (remembering that God is above you), while more people probably justify only wearing skirts on halachic grounds. I would also say that it's more socially acceptable for an Orthodox woman to wear pants than for an Orthodox man to not wear a kippa, but that's a product of my time and social circle, not an absolute statement. All of this is besides the point. I just thought it was interesting that a person would make the personal choice to daven mincha while forgoing the kippa that is normally warn by people who would be committed enough to weekday mincha to say it at the airport. Now I expect to hear from all of you who say: I am a non-regulalary-kippa-wearing male and I daven mincha!

My second travel-related or travel-inspired observation was that someone had the grand idea of putting advertisements in the bottom of those plastic trays that people throw their things into to send them through the x-ray machines at security checkpoints. It's brilliant because it was an otherwise flat, monotone surface that people more or less have to look at regularly. Also, you can target them to travel-related things, since you know that everyone who looks at them is traveling. (This may draw a higher per-viewing price than print advertisements placed in less-targeted locations.) My only complaint is that it makes it harder to see if you've left something in the tray. I wonder if airports that have these ads will see a spike in things forgotten at security?

My third observation, which was made on December 17, eight days before the flight 253 attempted terrorist act, was that I accidentally left five keys, on a key ring, in my pocket. I wanted right through the metal detector, sans belt, sans shoes, with all of my liquids neatly crammed into 3-oz.-or-less containers in a quart-size ziploc bag...and nothing happened. No beep, no buzz, no stopping me. Five metal keys on a key ring is quite a bit of metal for a metal detector to miss! I happen to be a harmless sort, but couldn't I have been carrying that amount of metal in the form of a very sharp knife?

Anyway, the vacation was very good. I saw some spectacularly beautiful things (e.g., Lake Tahoe after a fresh snow and several beaches), breathed in a lot of fresh, clean air, ate a delicious meal (thanks to my uncle--thank you!) at The Kitchen Table, a kosher restaurant in Mountain View, wandered around Old Sacramento alone (verdict: tourist trap; I should have gone to the railway museum instead of the military museum and schoolhouse museum), met some very nice, friendly, interesting new people (particularly at the Mission Minyan in San Francisco), visited one of my grandmother's first cousins and made her day, caught up with friends and relatives (in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Pacific Grove), had a surprising amount of fun watching month-old piglets at Little Farm and then taking a spectacularly slippery, muddy, fall-down-on-my-butt-at-least-four-times hike in Tilden Park in Berkeley, and felt that maybe I should construct a long-term plan to get out of New York City in a more permanent manner.



Happy Chanukah!

I'm sorry for the long silence. Things have been a bit awry in my life as of late, and this blog has suffered. Sorry, blog (and readers).

I thought that this semi-recent David Brooks op-ed about the Chanukah story was interesting. I always love it when people discredit fairy tales about holidays and talk about the real history behind them.

Parts of this Yoni Brenner Shouts & Murmurs New Yorker piece made me laugh out loud. On the subway. (There were some parts that I liked less.)

Happy Chanukah!

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My Life in Talmud Torah (With Emphasis on Talmud): Loss (Part 2)

Part 1 here.

It was July 1997.

I had just turned eighteen years old and had spent at least twelve years working my ass off in day school so I could get good grades and get into a good college. I had gotten the good grades (mostly), been accepted to the good college, and was about to take a year off to go and study in Israel. First, though, I worked full-time in June and August in Boston, so that I could spend July in New York City, living with a lovely couple with three sons on the Upper West Side, and studying Torah full-time.

I couldn't get enough of Torah. Torah had been like a drug for me towards the end of high school, which was a bit of a rocky time for me emotionally. It was some sort of panacea or a life raft. I clung to it with all my might, in the belief that it, and only it, had the power to save me by righting all the many wrongs that I identified in the Orthodox Judaism in which I had been raised.

I was young and idealistic. I had had a young (far younger than I am now), idealistic, male teacher in high school who had promised me that women learning Torah on a high level would remake the world of halacha and cure all that ailed The System. I believed him. (See this and this for more on that youthful vision, particularly as it relates to Orthodoxy vis-a-vis feminism.) I loved learning Gemara, in particular. At the summer program for high school students that I attended in July 1997, I learned from the best teacher I had ever had, a recent graduate of their unique "I can't believe it's not smicha [rabbinic ordination]!" certificate program. (Yes, it was called that even then.) All the cool people--the thoughtful people, the people who cared about the things that I cared about--seemed to be professional learners and teachers of Torah. I thought I might study in Israel for a year, go to college, and return to this institution or another to collect my own "I can't believe it's not smicha!" certificate. I was the cream of the Modern Orthodox intellectual crop; I was hope for the future of Modern Orthodoxy. I was told that it was for people like me that the founder of my day school had created it. I had questions, of various theological sorts, but they were taken seriously and I was promised that, in time and with enough learning, I would find answers.

And then I went to Israel. And there, in what I always thought of as yeshiva, they told me, "The world is not ready for women to learn Gemara five days a week."1 I knew that this was not true, since I had been learning Gemara five days a week since I was twelve years old, and had just done it for the entire month of July--five mornings a week and one or two evenings a week of night seder--and the world had not said, "Boo." I was not the only one who wanted Gemara five days a week. Several of us, in the highest Gemara class available to us first year students, petitioned the administration for more Gemara, and they said no. We gave them a very logical reason for wanting more Gemara, namely, that with Gemara on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we spent each Monday reviewing the complicated material, especially the ever-convoluted rishonim, especially as taught through the not-always-textually-accurate-although-it-claims-airtight-logic Brisker method, from the previous Wednesday, since it had all but been forgotten in the intervening four days. They told us that if we stayed in Israel for a second year, at their esteemed institution, that we could have Gemara five days a week.

None of us took them up on the offer. Instead, we went back to the US, to our Ivy League institutions, were nobody told us that we could not get the same education as men because "the world wasn't ready for us." (I did get permission to skip regular Sunday and Thursday morning Jewish thought classes to learn Talmud with another student who had joined the petition for additional Gemara.)

I was not in Israel in isolation. I was there with my male classmates. I spent the Pesach break at a male yeshiva, witnessing, firsthand, while the men were gone, the facilities that were dedicated to men's Torah study. I saw the organic community (no need to import a minyan of opposite-gender people in order to daven as a community!), the beit midrash (large and well-stocked!), the dining hall (three meals a day! no need to take time away from Torah to go grocery shopping and cook!), and the library (well-stocked!). I saw what I suddenly knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would never, ever have.

That year, as I learned more about halacha, I believed in it less. Based on what seemed to be to be hard and fast, intractable problems in halacha--including but not limited to the fact that women could never form their own autonomous prayer group, saying dvarim she'bikdusha--it didn't look like I would be able to get the kind of intense, all-consuming yeshiva-based Torah education that I craved, and that even if I somehow managed to acquire the learning, it didn't look like I would ever be able to have or live a Judaism that would be, well, truly, if I was utterly honest with myself, intellectually palateable. I would also be on the sidelines, unable to really daven the way a person should without the importation of a minyan of men, and never truly respected for my opinion.

I came back to the US without a vision for a future for myself in Jewish learning. The pain I felt at the time is still palpable today. I wasn't sure that I wanted to keep Shabbat or kashrut. I started off my college career attending minyan three times a day, then gradually reduced to once a day, and pretty soon, I was only going on Shabbat, and not too long after that, I stopped going to shul on Shabbat. (I never stopped going to kiddush or Shabbat meals at Hillel, even though I sometimes left them early. Thank God for my unhealthy food issues!) I never really even tried to learn in college.

Oh, that's not quite true. I didn't want to give up that all-consuming vision or dream that I had had, so I went to New York, back to the institution of which I had so many happy memories, for a week of learning over Christmas break. I felt nothing inside. It was boring, empty, and meaningless.

Then I went back to Israel and studied for a few weeks at another institution at which I had been happy during my year in Israel (not the one that denied me full access to the Torah to which I clung). It was an unmitigated disaster. I found Gemara boring and halacha pedantic. Someone told us that the Rambam said that it was not assur, but merely inadvisable, to hug one's brother/sister (of the opposite gender). The teacher made some kind of big deal out of the fact that the Rambam had not outright forbidden hugging one's sibling, as if that was some kind of prize to cling to. That pretty much sealed the deal: This whole Jewish learning thing--heck, this whole adherence to the formalism of halacha thing--was absolutely not for me.

But, I needed the community. I never stopped needing the community. When I no longer cared about learning or davening, I went to shul for the community. I was lucky to have friends who learned and davened and made Shabbat meals, and that kept me in. The world is too huge and lonely a place without Shabbat and the community that traditional observance of Shabbat automatically creates--of people who live within walking distance of each other, of people who play Taboo and Set and Trivial Pursuit together, of people who sponsor seudat shlishit in memory of their dearly departed.

In college, I immersed myself in the study of history and gender, and recognized that the rabbis were all right--feminism was a dangerous thing. Sojourner Truth spoke to me in a way that no rabbi I had never met or whose words I had ever read had. I found my voice, in college, as a writer, a journalist, and student of history and gender--the voice that had been so clearly denied me within the organized Jewish community. I articulated, sometimes only to myself and sometimes to others, a position of suspicion of halacha and halachic practice based on my studies of history and gender, and I felt the pain of generations of women who had come before and been denied full participation in society, in democracy, and in decision-making bodies over the centuries. I tried davening at the egalitarian minyan, but it felt like someone was putting a bandaid over the gaping wound of Jewish history's relationship to the role of women, and, anyway, I liked hanging out with people who knew and talked Torah and got my mishna jokes, and that was, unfortunately, not so true in the egalitarian community, despite it's relatively high level of Jewish education.

I left college alienated from the organized Jewish community and the learning of my youth. If I learned Torah at all (and of course I did--what else are you going to do when you're bored and sitting in a place with sefarim?), it was despite my year in Israel four years earlier, not because of it.

1. This is a direct quote. It was seared into my brain instantly and has never left. If people only knew the impact of their words, especially their words of discouragement, maybe they would think before they spoke....

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"Understanding the Anxious Mind," New York Times Magazine article

Thought this was interesting.

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One-room schoolhouses, American adults who have never heard of Alfred Hitchcock, and other oddities

I am away on vacation. It feels like the first time in awhile that I've traveled, but, of course, it is not. I spent last year in Israel, and traveled outside Jerusalem quite a bit. I was down in Washington, D.C. for Rosh Hashanah, and before that, I spent a week in New Hampshire at the National Havurah Institute. But none of those things is really traveling, because none of them put me into actual human contact with The Other. People I don't talk to or gchat with everyday.

This trip is reminding me why I love to travel--and why I hate airplane travel in this post-9/11, post-fee-for-each-checked-bag, small-airplanes-due-to-high-gas-prices age. First the former. Maybe I will post about the latter separately.

I flew out West, for the first time since I was at shiva for my grandmother in July 2007. That's a very long time for me to not be on the West Coast. From 2000-2007, I went 2-3 times each year. This trip reminded me of my dear, departed grandparents a lot, for some reason. I kept thinking of things that I wanted to tell or show them, especially my grandmother, who has only been gone for a little bit over two years. It sometimes feels easy to remember that people are gone until you are in the place--or on the coast of the country--where you expect to see them, and then it hits you all over again.

Part I. Airplane Tales

That wasn't what reminded me that I love to travel. It was the woman sitting across the aisle from me, in my super-deluxe, miraculously free exit row (plus bulkhead) seat with an empty seat between it and the person in the window seat. She was quite chatty, and was mostly chatting with the flight attendant who was sitting and facing her in the jump seat. She had some interesting tales to tell, and it is unlikely that I would have met her in my normal environs.

She lives in rural Montana, with her husband, although she did not grow up there. Her children and grandchildren live nearby. Her grandchildren attend a one-room schoolhouse, where there are twenty-two kids, ages four to thirteen, with three teachers. It's not how she grew up, but she thinks it's fantastic. Her four-year-old loves it. She is doted on by the older kids, and the older kids learn a lot from helping with and interacting with the younger kids.

I wasn't sure what to think. My first thought was, "Cool!" but my next thought was, "What are those kids missing out on by being in that environment?" I guess that they make up for a lot of those things when they get to high school and have extra-curricular activities and more kids to hang out with. I wonder what happens to the kids in that school who don't have or make friends there. Does that happen, or do they all just turn out to be nice and friendly with each other? What about the kids who would really flourish with extra-curricular sports and a newspaper and a play? Do they have those things on a regional level in middle school? And then I thought, is it so different from kids who go to small Jewish day schools or are home-schooled? Perhaps not, and those kids often turn out okay, I think. Anyway, I still think it's cool, and gave me things to think about. I don't think I've ever met anyone whose grandchildren/children/self went to a real one-room schoolhouse before.

Later on in the flight, we experienced some turbulence. I don't mind a little back-and-forth turbulence, but am not a huge fan of that free fall dropping kind of turbulence. We had some of the latter, and the same woman told me that she was traveling in Africa, and she was supposed to fly somewhere. She got to the airfield and couldn't believe the plane that they wanted to fly her in--it was an old World War II plane of some kind. She said that they used anything that flew. She got on, and she and the other passengers sat down, and there were no seatbelts. And this was a plane where you need one! The turbulence we experienced on our airliner was nothing compared to that plane in Africa.

On the flight back East, I sat next to a woman who told me her whole life story in about 35 minutes. Most of it was boring (medical technologist, then taught chemistry at a community college), but she then told me about her granddaughter, Grace, who was named Grace for an interesting reason. Her mom (this woman's daughter) needed a liver transplant when she was in 11th grade, due a rare genetic disorder that her parents didn't know was even a possibility until it showed up and shot her liver. She got into Brown and some other fancy-pants colleges back east, but decided to go to school locally, possibly because she had such rough years in high school. She got married and after a high-risk pregnancy, had her daughter, whom she named Grace, after the grace that God showed her in letting her live and have a child. Her liver is still functioning beautifully. I thought that was lovely. (The woman telling the story was wearing a prominent cross and her white cotton blouse was adorned with Disney characters.) I don't know if I've met the parent of someone who received an organ transplant before.

This woman was also extremely lovely, even though I was very, very tired and eventually begged off to go to sleep. (It was a four-hour red-eye flight.) She was extremely enthusiastic about my chosen profession of being a writer and editor, and said that it was so impressive. She was happy to be sitting next to a writer and would look for my picture inside the back of a book jacket someday. She was really so lovely, although a bit too talkative for the hour.

That was Part I of my "This is so much fun. I never would have heard these stories if I had not chosen to get on these planes."

Part II. Strangers in a Strange Land

So, I was in this medium-sized Jewish community on the West Coast for the first two days of Sukkot. The last time I was there, I was shocked and appalled when, at a Shabbat meal, the Orthodox male head of household (a man in his 50s with three adolescent-to-young-adult kids) said that he was shocked and appalled that a university in some midwestern state had not hired a biologist due to his creationist views. That is, he thought that such a professor should be hired, and should not be discriminated against for his "religious beliefs."

So I already got that this was a kind of anti-science, hareidi-ish, black-hat community. Furthermore, I had gathered that many of these anti-science-in-the-name-of-"Torah" people had baal tshuva backgrounds.

A few vignettes:

We are sitting around the table, and the topic of actors who get typecast comes up. One of the guests, a married-and-pregnant woman of about 22 or 23, says that the man in Psycho got typecast in such a way. Then she mentioned The Birds, and I said, "Alfred Hitchcock," because, you know, that's one thing that those two movies have in common. Her husband, also in his early 20s, born and raised in Denver, Colorado, says, "Oh, is that the actor in it?" His wife, to her credit, says, "No, the director," but I remain appalled that someone wouldn't know that, and not for any discernible reason.

Now, there's lots and lots that I don't know. But I expect people to know the stuff that I do know. Like the Secretary of State. The hostess of that meal had to think for three or four minutes to remember who the current Secretary of State is. And she said, "Is it a girl?," fishing for a hint, before she finally got it. A girl!

The young wife, who knew who Alfred Hitchcock was, lost points for her answer when I asked her what she did in life: "My husband's in yeshiva." "Oh," I said, "That's nice. What do you do?" It turns out that she works in graphic design and tutors women at a nearby seminary. That's pretty interesting, in my mind, and I don't know why she didn't answer that first.

The other thing that ticked me off at that meal was someone's comment that, "My husband worked so hard to put up this sukkah. He spent eight hours on it! It's so interesting that the men do all of the work for Sukkot [putting up the sukkah] and the women do all of the work for Pesach [cleaning]." I responded that, most years, I helped to build a sukkah [although not lately, except for last year], and she said, "Yeah, but most women don't." The moment was saved, though, by her husband's question to her: "How many hours do you spend making each Shabbat or Yom Tov meal?" Counting inviting people, planning menus, shopping, cooking (8 dishes! who makes eight things for a meal? she does), setting, serving, clearing, and washing, she and my aunt figured about 12 hours of work per meal. He pointed out that she was therefore the one who did far more work than he for Sukkot and every Shabbat and yom tov that they had ever had. Yay, husband!

The other nice thing about that meal was that one of the women of the family was speaking about something they learned in a Torah class, about how aveirot [sins] are like little dings made on the soul, and how they can never be truly erased, because they affect others whom you might never even meet. Another woman asked if teshuva was therefore never really possible. They were stumped. I suggested that teshuva was possible but that even it did not take away the dings, which are how we learn from our past mistakes (even those for which we have done teshuva). We see the dings and remember to do better next time. That was met with approval.

What else? Oh, at another meal, which included the host and hostess, their 22-year-old single yeshiva bochur son, two male guests, and me and my aunt, the bochur began to sing songs for yom tov. Nobody joined in. We all just listened. His dad joined in once or twice, but otherwise, it was a solo concert. Awkward. Strange. I wasn't about to sing--didn't want to create problems or be offensive--but the other two male guests didn't know the songs. I guess. His mother talked over his singing a few times, so as to have some pleasant conversation in the sukkah, but that was a little bit weird, too. And one of the (need it be said? strange, single, older) male guests kept trying to ask me what he considered provocative questions about my supposed desire to become a rabbi, even though I told him that I didn't really want to be a rabbi.

We had one meal at a Modern Orthodox family that is more my style. I may have shocked them (okay, I guess I did, but mostly because I honestly forgot that one shouldn't discuss these things as the Yom Tov table) by mentioning the word "niddah" amongst "Shabbat" and "kashrut" as topics that my program covers, but otherwise, it went smoothly. They were very interested in my studies and freelance work, and supportive of both. It was really nice to have people interested in what I do.

At both yeshivishy meals and the Modern Orthodox one, the men purposely sat between the table and the wall of the sukkah, and as far away from the door as possible, so that the women would be able to sit where they could help. The men--including the male hosts and their male sons--sat throughout the entirety of the meal, while the women--including the female guests--served and cleared each course. Clearing plates and bringing out plates seem like the classic thing that even a man who "doesn't know his way around a kitchen" (as I do not) could do. Especially in his own house! It was bewildering. Now, my mom does all of that at home, for the most part, because that's how she wants it. I help if we have guests, though! And I've been places where the host and hostess do all of the serving and don't let any guests help. I've never seen so many hosts sitting and doing nothing while their hard-working wives, who already did all of the shopping and cooking for the meal, also do all of the serving, aided by the female guests. At only one of those three meals was I even thanked once for anything (by the male host). I'm sure I could have sat and not helped, either, but that didn't seem right, when other female guests jumped up to help. I usually offer to help. But it seemed strange to offer to help the female hostess when her husband and son were just sitting there, doing nothing. Am I missing something here?

While walking to another meal, I overheard a little boy, maybe three or four years old, ask his father, "Why is the....?" "How do the...?" He was excitedly looking around and tugging his father's hand to show him whatever was interesting him so much about the world around him. The father's answer was: "Because the Borei HaOlam made it that way. We don't know why or how. We don't ask questions about those things." I both could, and couldn't, believe it. How can anyone not encourage that kind of curiosity in children? How can anyone not want to know how or why the "Borei HaOlam" made it so? His answer, "We don't ask questions" was heart-breaking and deeply anti-Judaism to me.

In contrast, at a final meal we were at, the kids were asleep, but their dad told a story about their three-year-old, who, seeing someone using a leaf-blower, asked his dad, "Does it blow the leaves back onto the trees?" The father said, "No, it doesn't." The kid worriedly asked, "Then how does the trees get its leaves back?" afraid that the trees remained bare forever. The dad said, "It gets new leaves in the spring." "Where do the leaves come from?" "The tree's DNA tells it to make more leaves in the spring." The kid was satisfied. I was satisfied. That's a Jewish answer if I ever heard one.

Now, the truth is, as I find myself less and less inclined, as the years pass by, to attach the label "Orthodox" to myself, this sort of thing annoys me less. (I tend to say that I'm "observant," leaving open the real-and-occasionally-chosen option of davening egalitarian.) It's like right-wing evangelical Christian educational mores don't really bother me, even if I disagree with them and would do otherwise. They are separate from me and affect my life very little. (When they start to affect my life, that's when they bother me.) It's like I never understood why people got mad at people like the Duggars, who have far more children than anyone really should. What's it to you (unless you think that the children are endangered or mistreated, which I have no reason to believe they are)? Nothing.

Still, these are people I davened with over yom tov. They're my people. On the whole, they probably accept me as one of them. But their outlook on life and aspects of their lifestyle--everything except their hachnasat orchim, from which I benefited greatly and which was really very, very nice--was totally anathema to me.

Still, I am glad that I met them. This is probably what most of Orthodoxy is like, and I need to remember that. Actually, I am quite sure that that's the case. I mean, I assume that
yeshivish + chareidi > Modern Orthodox
in terms of pure numbers and even some Modern Orthodox people are remarkably misogynistic and anti-science.

It's good to meet people I normally would never meet, except possibly in the dating trenches, even (or especially) when I find it troubling, because it reminds me of what's important to me about my lifestyle and my way of life. (Every time I meet these men in the dating process, I think they are the anomaly, but clearly, they are not. There are whole communities of people out there who distrust science, are ignorant of classic American culture, and think that women should be silent and always in the kitchen.)

I may be sometimes lonely and occasionally lacking in community, which these people certainly are not--they were all so warm and welcoming!--but at least I know about Alfred Hitchcock and DNA and can sing at most Shabbat and yom tov meals that I attend.

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Shana tova!

It seems unlikely that I will be able to write Part 2 of this this week. Hopefully next week.

Shana tova--wishing a year of health, peace, and prosperity to all! I don't have any great insights at this time, except that I need to go help my sister by making tsimmis and broccoli. If I think of something later today and have time, I will post it.

In the meantime, you can enjoy President Barack Obama's Rosh Hashanah drash below.

I think he may have a future career as a pulpit rabbi.

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My Life in Talmud Torah (With Emphasis on Talmud): Discovery (Part 1)

Last week as I was learning Torah in the beit midrash, I felt my 12-year-old and 18-year-old selves peering over my shoulder and each sagely nodding their approval. I'm not sure I can explain what that felt like. Trying to is making me rather teary, and I'm not even sure why.1 It was an eerie and uniquely wonderful sensation.

Let me start from the beginning.

It was September of 1991. I was twelve years old, and about a month away from celebrating my bat mitzvah with a birthday party at the local art center with all of the girls in my grade. The only thing that marked the occasion as specifically Jewish was that I gave a d'var Torah on Parshat Noach. (My birthday was in the Hebrew month of Tammuz, but that was an inconvenient time to celebrate a bat mitzvah.) I had survived nine years of day school education and already learned most of Chumash and the first few books of Nach.2

We sat down in the classroom next to the lunchroom-auditorium and opened up a paperback Gemara textbook with a reprint of the first chapter of Tractate Berachot from the Vilna shas and took out our highlighters.

The teacher read, in that sing-songy Gemara voice:
מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין? משעה שהכהנים נכנסים לאכול בתרומתן עד סוף האשמורה הראשונה דברי ר' אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים עד חצות. רבן גמליאל אומר עד שיעלה עמוד השחר
Me'eimasai korin es shma b'aravin? Mehsha'ah shehakohanim nichnasin lehechol b'trumasan ad sof haashmorah harishona...
He read and translated and we all diligently took notes. We highlighted assiduously--one color for each sugya, or section. Tests required us to recall key phrases:
דתניא, "as we learn in a b'raisa"
תא שמע, "come and hear"
"'Come and hear,' not 'Come here'!" I remember the teacher joking.

I remember, at some point that year or the next, sitting on the ledge in the grassy courtyard of my school, helping a classmate understand a difficult section of Gemara. It suddenly occurred to me that this was really, really fun. It was a kind of game, or logic puzzle, and when I had cracked it, it felt wonderful!

I had never really had that sense about anything purely academic before. I pushed myself to excel in school because that's what was expected of me, so that's what I had come to expect of myself. I really enjoyed the few art projects we got to do in elementary school, where I had also enjoyed writing and "publishing" short books, and had liked learning life sciences in seventh grade, but had no particular passion for anything else I studied in school. I was terrified of getting bad grades and I worked very hard to prevent it. I kept the fact that I enjoyed learning Talmud to myself for the next several years.

When classes were first tracked, in seventh grade, I started out in the regular, non-honors track for limudei kodesh [Judaic studies]. Over the course of high school, I gradually moved up into the honors class.3 Sometime around tenth grade, my first year in the honors limudei kodesh track, I was first willing to admit to enjoying learning Torah, especially mishna and Gemara. The summer before eleventh grade, I went to an open [to women] beit midrash in my neighborhood and learned the mishnayot of Masechet Kilayim, by myself, with my buddy, Pinchas Kehati. I learned lots and lots of Hebrew words for different kinds of squash. It was thrilling. I don't really remember why, but it was. After that experience, I decided to enroll in what was called "Super Talmud," wherein I spent two extra periods a week studying Gemara, on top of our usual 9-10 weekly periods of Gemara. This meant that I had class until 7:30 pm one night, instead of the usual 5:43 pm high school dismissal time. During eleventh grade, I read As A Driven Leaf and considered spending the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade studying Torah, full-time, in Israel. I had one phone conversation with the infamous Baruch Lanner about it, during which he made a strange comment about my stellar PSAT scores that sounded vaguely sleazy to me. I decided to go on a less intellectual, more social, and most importantly, free, summer program in Israel, instead. I think that it was during this time when I started learning Torah, on my own, in the beit midrash of a local shul between mincha and maariv. Perhaps that was the following year, though. I brought the mishnayot of Masechet Sukkah to Israel with me, and learned some of them.

By the fall of my senior year of high school, I was committed to spending the following year studying Torah, full time, at a yeshiva in Israel. I later found out that others called women's institutions "seminaries," but I never heard that word in high school. As far as I knew, both men and women went to yeshiva in Israel after high school and before college, and the programs of study were roughly similar--hours of gemara every day, with some chumash and halacha on the side. I was interested in an alternative to the institution I ended up attending, which I thought might offer some of the amenities of the men's programs, including prepared meals (to allow more time for learning) and a more sophisticated approach to Talmud study, but that didn't pan out. (The program didn't happen.)

By the spring of my senior year of high school, I was additionally committed to spending the summer before my year in Israel studying at a women's Torah study program in New York City. I worked full-time at the Vaad of my hometown in June and August (sorting dusty books--fun!--and doing data entry in Hebrew--great for improving my Hebrew touch-typing skills!), and went to New York City to learn more Torah in July.

Stay tuned for Part 2, hopefully later this week!
1. I had to fortify myself with mint chocolate chip and Jamoca ice cream just to sit down to try to write about this, but that's gone by now, and now here I am, just starting to try to put this down into words. What's that you say? I shouldn't always eat to get myself to write? It's bad to reinforce the association between sugar/fat and productivity? Too late! I started eating M & M's to write my papers back in high school, and, uh, 70 pounds later, here I am. (Whoops.)
2. I remember that I had learned from Parshat Lech Lecha through the end of Breishit in 2nd and 3rd grade, I think Shmot in 4th grade. I don't remember which Chumash I learned in 5th or 6th grade. We did the first half of Breishit in 10th grade, and I think the second half in 11th or maybe 12th grade. I learned Joshua in 4th grade, Judges in 5th grade, Samuel I in 6th grade, Samuel II in 7th grade, Kings I in 8th grade, and maybe Kings II in 9th grade? After that, we learned Jeremiah, Psalms and the Five Megillot), and Isaiah. I wouldn't say that the Chumash or Nach curriculum was very well organized at the school that I attended.
3. I believe that I was placed into the regulars class, rather than the honors class, because I asked too many questions in elementary school. I was severely under-confident and over-anxious in school (and in life), and I asked, more than was deemed necessary, what words meant throughout my Judaic studies career in elementary school. I wish that someone had worked with me on feeling more confident in the things that I knew (because I *did* know things), rather than telling me (as they did), to "Stop asking questions." Grrr...

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Uh, yeah...

Although I am a woman, not a man, and I learned a little Spanish in high school (not French), this rang resoundingly true. Except for the last panel!

Hat tip to BZ and mazal tov on his recent marriage! (And move to a new city and starting grad school!)

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sort of sad

I just changed my Blogger location and the time zone for this blog from Jerusalem back to New York. I guess I'm really back now. (I changed Facebook and Twitter awhile ago, but somehow forget about changing it here.)

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Apartment-hunting on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights

This is probably too late for most of you, who have already arrived, fresh and naive, to my fair city. For others, it may be helpful. This is mostly useful for those looking for apartments with shomer Shabbat/kashrut roommates on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights, although it can also help with those looking for new apartments, with or without roommates. Some of it may also help in other areas of New York City.

As I'm sure you've already discovered, apartment-hunting in NYC can be very stressful, although it may be better now that fewer people have jobs and thus fewer people are flocking to NYC.

There is a website called BangItOut.com with lots of apartment listings, especially if you're open to moving into apartment with one or two other usually SS/SK (shomer-Shabbat/shomer-kashrut) roommates. It is best for the Upper West Side, but also has a few apartment listings in other parts of NYC and other cities. You can put an ad there if you're looking, although it's best to be proactive and read through the listings. This is true in general in NYC, since there seem to be a lot more people seeking apartments (especially of the less expensive, not gross variety) than apartments/rooms available. The burden is really on the seeker to find a place, not the people with the apartment to find new roommates.

Upper West Side
Other UWS-specific listings that may help include:
  1. Maalot West, the less popular sibling of Maalot Washington (the way to find an apartment with a room open in Washington Heights if you're looking in the SS/SK market)
  2. the KOE (Kehilat Orach Eliezer) weekly Shabbat announcements with listings (I don't see it online, since KOE just apparently redid their website)
  3. the Kehilat Hadar weekly Shabbat announcements with listings (http://www.kehilathadar.org/community/postings)
  4. Look on Craigslist for Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, if you're willing to go a bit further north (past 100th St.). Note that some "Upper West Side" apartment listings will be well into Harlem, which is all fine and good, except that some parts of Harlem (most?) are outside the Upper Manhattan eruv.
Speaking of eruvin, here is a useful map of the Upper Manhattan Eruv.

Washington Heights
Washington Heights-specific listings and listserves that may help include:
  1. There is a great website called Maalot Washington with lots of apartment listings, especially if you're open to moving into apartment with one or two other roommates.
  2. You can put an ad on the Maalot listserv in addition to posting on the Maalot Washington website and responding to ads there and on the listserv.
  3. Look on Craigslist for Washington Heights and also Hudson Heights. (Realtors started calling the fancier part of Washington Heights "Hudson Heights" after it started gentrifying/going upscale. Hudson Heights would generally be the area north of 181st St. and West of Fort Washington Ave.) I saw some apartments that way.
  4. You can put an ad on the Migdal Or listserv by writing, I think, to midgalor [at] gmail.com.
Here is the map of the Washington Heights eruv. Lots of people live outside the eruv, although fewer as time goes on (the eruv is only a few years old). It is almost always cheaper to do so. I live outside the eruv, but it's a little sadder to be outside the eruv now that several of my friends have babies. (There is also an eruv on the Yeshiva University side of Washington Heights, but I know almost nothing about it. Information on the YU eruv can be found here.)

General NYC apartment-hunting advice

NOISE: Some buildings/areas are a lot noisier than others (usually traffic noise, but also loud music late at night in Washington Heights, and noise from people gathering outside of bars on the Upper West Side), so if that's an issue for you, check it out before signing. I usually try to visit potential apartments once during the day and once at night before signing anything. A quiet neighborhood at 5 pm might be rocking at 11 pm, which may or may not bother you.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that an apartment in the West 90s between Amsterdam and Broadway was far, far quieter than an apartment on (and facing) Columbus Ave. It also depends, of course, on how high the apartment is--the further from the street, the quieter it will be. I am pretty sure that an apartment that's higher up will also be cleaner, since dirt from car exhaust seems to be a huge part of the dirtiness of the city. I don't have scientific evidence of that, though. It also depends a lot on whether the apartment in question faces the front (street) or back (alleyway) of the building. Likewise, if an apartment faces the George Washington Bridge, it will almost certainly be too noisy to stand. However, you may find another apartment in the same building, which faces in a different direction, that is bearable. Keep in mind, too, that noise levels will be different in the summer, with the windows open than in the winter, with the windows closed.

FEES: If you can get something directly from a real estate manager/landlord without paying a fee, that's obviously the best, since realtor's fees are often as high as 15% of the annual rent. You can usually see a lot more with a broker/realtor, though, although (almost?) all of them charge, or at least they did in 2007, the last time I looked for an apartment in NYC. I've lived in three apartments in NYC: two that already had people living in that I joined, and one that I found new with a friend. The last one is the only one that I paid a fee for. It was $2000 for a $1200/month place (if you live outside NYC, you will think, "That's so expensive!" and if you live inside NYC, you will think, "Wow, that's so cheap!"). I just amortized that cost over the two year lease and took it into consideration when comparing rents, and it was still worth it. It is a huge chunk of change all at once, though.

One way that people I know have been successful at finding apartments directly through the real estate manager/landlord is by literally walking the streets in the neighborhood in which you are interested in living and talking names/numbers off of buildings or speaking to supers/doormen about the availability of apartments in that building.

SAFETY: All of Manhattan is pretty safe these days, although I do always try to walk on busier, well-lit streets in the later hours, and there are some places I just won't walk alone late at night. (This usually just means that I get off at a different subway stop or take a different subway home.)

If you want to see how one neighborhood you're considering compares to another, you can check out the NYPD police precinct crime statistics.
The precincts on the Upper West Side are:
  • 20th: W. 59th to W. 86th St.
  • 24th: W. 86th to W. 110th St.
  • 26th: W. 110th St. to W. 133rd St.
Note that Central Park is its own separate precinct.

The precincts in Washington Heights are:
  • 33rd: W. 156th to W. 179th St.
  • 34th: W. 179th St. to the top of Manhattan (includes Inwood)

ONE LAST WORD: Check for black mold and water damage in the walls/ceilings, especially in older apartments. They are legally required to remove black mold, but it's hard to remove. (It's a health issue.) Black mold looks like you'd expect it to look. It's especially prevalent in bathrooms, but if you see it anywhere else, it means that the walls/ceilings are, or once were, wet. Water damage is often due to old plumbing, which should be replaced (rather than repainting/replastering the walls, which is what they will want to do). You can spot water damage from round stains on the ceiling or walls, and also by places where the paint bubbles out or is kind of buckled. Not just peeling, which could just mean that the paint job is just old, but coming off of the walls in roundish bubbles. Even if the wall is dry there, that usually means that it was wet there once.

Good luck! And New Yorkers, please add tips of your own in the comments, if you have 'em (and I know you do!).

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Dear world,

I am so sorry for the very long silence. In the over two months since I've written, I:
  • turned 30 (not so traumatic, I have fantastic friends and family!)
  • spent another month working in Jerusalem and loving it
  • packed up and moved back to New York City
  • gone to my very first National Havurah Institute
  • lived in a bedroom without furniture (sleeping on futon) for two weeks
  • spent eight hours moving boxes and furniture from my brother's apartment and a storage facility back to my apartment
  • moved back into my old bedroom, and, more critically, my old bed!
  • welcomed my new roommate
  • hosted a Friday night dinner for two sisters, one cousin, one brother, and one future sister-in-law
  • hosted two sisters and a cousin in my apartment (we all slept together in my air-conditioned bedroom on one very hot Friday night and had a lot of fun remembering being kids and sharing a bedroom at my grandparents' home over Thanksgiving)
  • spent 6+ (7+? 8+?) hours going dress-shopping with my mother and suit-shopping with my father (for my brother's wedding in May)
  • threw, together with three siblings and one cousin, a 60th birthday party for my father and uncle (twins), which was attended by 20+ family members
Now the family is gone. The apartment is a disaster. I have not unpacked at all, and there is much cleaning to be done. I begin the next phase of my institutional life this coming Wednesday, so I'm hoping to get all of this stuff done before then.




Losing my early adopter credibility?

Personal tech timeline:
  • 1986: I first used a computer (Mac Plus).
  • 1990: I designed birthday party invitations for my eleventh birthday using SuperPaint. (See this and comments for people waxing poetic about MacPaint!)
  • 1996: I got e-mail and first surfed the web (Lynx!). I remember the first time I saw a web browser with pictures! It was so cool--even cooler than when we got our first color TV circa 1986 (1984?).
  • 1996: I learned Adobe Illustrator (was that the layout program? I can't really remember what it was called).
  • 1997 or 1998: I taught myself HTML from a book and created my own website, hosted on Geocities, z"l.
  • 1998-1999: I had a Mac laptop. Laptops were only just beginning to become popular. Most of my friends during my freshman year of college only had desktops. (Note that I said "had" rather than "used." This laptop was a hand-me-down from my uncle, and the battery didn't work at all. It sometimes would randomly turn off in the middle of working on something, and the only way to get it to turn back on again was to take the battery out and slam it back in quickly while hitting the power on button. Also, I think that it had an Ethernet port, but no Ethernet card, so I'm not sure I could get on the internet with it. In fact, I'm fairly sure that I couldn't. So I mostly worked in the nearby computer lab or in the basement of Hillel.)
  • 1998-2003: I used Pine to check my e-mail in college, even after a web-based interface became available around 2001 or 2002. Pine was so much faster! (Attachments were a bit of a pain, though, since they required opening an FTP program.) When I graduated college, I got a free Unix shell account through Lonestar so I could just transfer my address book and all of my folders over without losing any data. I still have that account, and still (mostly) remember the important shortcuts in Pine.
  • 1998-2003: I backed up all my papers on the server, using FTP.
  • 1999: I got a laptop (blue, ibook, clamshell) without a floppy disk drive. This was seen as fairly insane at the time. I had a readable CD drive, but did not write to CDs. I mostly transferred files on and off using FTP, but I broke down eventually and bought an external floppy disk drive that I used maybe six times in all the years that I had and used this computer. I used this laptop continuously and all over the world from 1999 until 2004, when the "B" key issued it's last dying breath and the "S" and "I" keys were also sticky. Also, it didn't have a wireless card, which started being impractical around 2004.
  • 2000: I got my first cell phone (Qualcomm! Do they still make cell phones?) during my semester off from school. (I used it for about six months, then stopped service when I returned to school.)
  • 2001: I bought a Palm (actually, a Handspring, z"l) so I wouldn't have to drag my laptop around while I was doing thesis research in libraries in Israel and Cambridge. It lasted until early 2006, when I got a Palm T|X with WiFi to replace it. I still use the T|X, but the battery only lasts a few hours, so I don't use it much.
  • 2003: I joined Friendster. (Remember that?)
  • 2003 or 2004: I joined Facebook--one of the first 2200 to join!
  • 2004: I started my first blog (I think it was 2004--might have been 2003--it was a secret one that didn't last long).
So, why didn't I join Twitter until 2009?1 And what compelled me to join now? A client of mine (I'm doing freelance consulting) asked me what a Twitter was, and I felt like I had to join in order to shore up my claim as a young, technologically progressive person.

Here are some useful resources for anyone, like me, just joining Twitter now (so late in the game!):

Here are some recent articles about Twitter:

Here are some fun or useful feeds to follow on Twitter, if you're just getting started. You can click on the links and check them out even without being a Twitterer yourself.
1. This is not quite a fair account of my life. For example, I did not purchase a digital camera until 2008, mostly because of financial considerations. I did not want to get a lousy one, and could not afford a decent one, so I stuck with my film camera. Also, I have never owned a cell phone that took photos or was smart in any way, shape, or form. Again, entirely an issue of not being able to afford either the phone or the data plan that would make a smart phone smart. There are surely other examples of general technological lag in my life that I am just not thinking of right now.

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The serious drinking problem of our generation

Hah hah hah! "You still drink out of metal, huh" is the best line I've seen in a comic in awhile. I just discovered "Pictures for Sad Children" because this one was "Digg"ed. And it is pretty funny, but nothing is as funny as "You still drink out of metal, huh" because it's so particular to the current time and place in which we find ourselves.

Until last spring (2008), I was drinking out of bad plastic water bottles like everyone else. You know, the thick plastic kind you can buy for $0.99 at CVS/Duane Reade/Long's or empty Poland Spring (or generic) water bottles refilled over and over again with tap water. Like everyone did! I even had a Nalgene (before they made them BPA-free), although I never managed to drink out of it without spilling water all over myself, even with the special insert for uncoordinated people.

Last spring, amidst all the BPA brouhahah, I switched to the new safer metal but...ugh...there was the cockroach incident. The cockroach incident was the one wherein I washed the bottle out and put it upside down to dry in the dish drainer overnight. I refilled it in the morning, screwed the top closed, and drank out of it all day. When I opened it to refill it later in the day, I saw a (live, skittering around) cockroach inside. That convinced me not to drink out of anything opaque. Ever again. (I did receive a lovely birthday present of a fancier, insulated, metal water bottle with a mesh cover that one could drink through--called an ice guard, I think--which could also be left in while drying, thus denying entry to wily, water-resistant cockroaches. It's too heavy to shlep around Jerusalem, but I hope to use it when I'm at a point in my life where I am sitting in one place for long periods of time and want to drink safe, chilled, cockroach-free water.)

Anyway, so after the traumatizing cockroach incident (which, incidentally, caused me no harm at all), I switched back to the old bad plastic. Specifically, refilled Mey Eden bottles with the colorful sports caps. They're a good size.

While in the US this past March/April, I got a new, good, BPA-free plastic bottle. But it seems to unscrew itself and spill everywhere, so I will ultimately need something newer/better to drink out of. Recommendations welcome. I want something I can drink out of without spilling all over myself (i.e., smallish opening), that I can drink out of quickly (not a sports cap that requires sucking rather than guzzling), that has or accepts a clip for attaching to the outside of a backpack, and that can be opened up fully for a thorough cleaning every once in awhile. I thought this bottle was it, and it was, except for its unfortunate tendency to open and spill everywhere.

What's does your drinking history look like?

Incidentally, when people started walking around with water bottles all the time (late 1990's? I don't really remember when it started, but know that people didn't used to walk around with water all the time, even in the summer when it was very hot), my maternal grandfather, z"l, commented to me about about how silly it looked to see adults drinking out of bottles like babies. I guess the ubiquitous sport-top water bottles reminded him of baby bottles. (They do look similar.) I told him that I preferred screw-top bottles, because they were easier to drink quickly out of, and he said that was better, but not by a whole lot.

Why did people start drinking so much water? Or at least, carrying it around with them? Are there fewer drinking fountains? Was there a spate of illness/death due to dehydration? Was it after the 8-cups-a-day thing was first publicized? (For more on this, see #4 here, #1 here, and this--she convinced me. If you don't trust random personal blogs written by people you don't know--and I don't know why you wouldn't!--see this.)

I don't drink eight cups of water a day, but I hate being stuck somewhere, very thirsty, without water. It happened earlier this year, when I was delivering food to people before Purim, after I had eaten two slices of salty pizza and had nothing to wash it down but a cup of Coke. I was so thirsty and there was a sink but nothing to drink water out of--it drove me crazy. I also walk a lot in the hot Jerusalem sun, so I think that dehydration could be an actual issue.

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Evening on Jewish Psychology--"Bereavement and Loss: Between Separation and Continuity"

There is what looks like a fascinating evening on "Jewish psychology" at the Begin Center, cosponsored by Beit Morasha of Jerusalem and The Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology.

Caveat: I am not 100% sure about this whole "Jewish psychology" thing. It might be ridiculous. I am curious, though.

The evening takes place next Wednesday, June 24, from 7-10 pm. The general topic of the evening is "Bereavement and Loss: Between Separation and Continuity." It costs 30 shekels and will be in Hebrew. Please pass this information along to anyone else you know who might be interested. Thanks!

The translation of the e-mail announcement (to the left or above, depending on your screen/browser width) is [links all mine!]:

Bereavement and Loss: Between Separation and Continuity

Robert M. Beren College, Beit Morasha of Jerusalem
The Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology

invite the public to
the annual evening of study of Jewish psychology
in memory of Boaz Rotenberg.

It will take place on Wednesday
2 Tammuz 5769
24 June 2009

At the Menachem Begin Heritage Center
6 S.A. Nachon St., Jerusalem

at 7 pm

The translation of the poster, below, reads:

Annual evening of study of Jewish psychology
in memory of Boaz Rotenberg

Bereavement and Loss: Between Separation and Continuity

2 Tammuz, 5769
24 June 2009
Begin Heritage Center

7 pm
Opening Remarks
Mr. Meir Fechler (sp?), Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Psychology

Introduction to the Topic of bereavement and loss in Jewish psychology
Mrs. Michal Fechler (sp?), clinical psychologist

7:20 pm
Part A
8:00 pm
Part B
Panel: Coping with Actual Bereavement [I am not 100% sure that רב-שיח means "panel"--please let me know what it means if I'm wrong]
Moderator: Prof. Mordechai Rotenberg
  • Clinical Perspective
    Dr. Baruch Kahana, Lecturer in School for Social Work and in Clinical Psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
    Mrs. Rut Gombo (sp?), clinical psychologist

  • Educational Perspective
    Rabbi Ronen Ben-David, Principal of Neveh Chana Boarding School

  • Midrashic Perspective
    Dr. Ido Hevroni, researcher in Rabbinic literature
9:45 pm
Concluding Remarks
Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom
Rector of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem

Entry Fee: 30 NIS

Parking next to Independence Bell Park ("Gan HaPa'amon") or opposite the Har Zion Hotel

Menachem Begin Heritage Center
6 S.A. Nachon St., Jerusalem
(between Independence Bell Park and the Cinemateque)

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Only one very unfortunate typo out of many

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Read It Later: Savior or Satan?

Back in October, I added an extension to Firefox called "Read It Later," thinking that rather than having twenty million tabs open in four different windows (which was causing Firefox to become unresponsive ("crash") at least once a day), I would just save things to this list and then I would, well, read everything later.

Well. It didn't quite work out that way. It seems that if I don't have time to Read It Now, I also don't have time to Read It Later.

Here is a selection of truly fascinating stuff from my Read It Later, as of April 23, 2009, most of which I still have not read. But maybe you will! (I don't really think you will. I am mostly posting this so I can delete all those bookmarks and get started on a new Read It Later list.)

Science, Health, Etc.


Mental Health










Obama, Etc. (remember, I started this list in October)

The Economy

Real Estate


World News

A Selection of New York Times Op-Eds


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