9.18.2009

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.

9.13.2009

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...

9.09.2009

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!)

9.02.2009

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.)

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!).

9.01.2009

Re-Emergence

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.

Onward!