Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day Thoughts

Now and then I turn on the TV and, against my better judgment, flip to one of the twenty-four hour news networks. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how “stressful” this election is to many Americans. People are making appointments with psychotherapists to work through their fears that if the right guy doesn’t win, the world will go up in smoke.

I can’t say that I’ve always been very level-headed about these things myself, although for me, it’s a little bit different. I’ve been planning to vote for Obama from the outset, and just about every development since the primaries—not to mention every debate and every article I’ve read and discussion I’ve heard by professional wonks—has supported my conviction that this is probably the right decision. But then there’s this little voice in my head that says, "What if the McCain people are right? What if Obama is elected and the Middle East falls apart, capitalism collapses, and the world goes up in smoke? It’ll all be my fault." At this point, I remind myself about the electoral college, and how (to paraphrase a friend) every vote counts, but mine doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, this does little to dispel the worry that I am a Traitor to the Jewish People. (I believe they call this “Jewish guilt.”) The argument goes something like this:

The difference is that unlike Shepherd Smith (who, for the record, is not exactly a left-wing reactionary), I tend to walk away from the conversation worrying that my position is the dangerous one. There’s no rational reason for this. It’s just a neurosis.

Well, today I am feeling less neurotic, and I’ve decided to share my thoughts on this subject. Of course, I’m not expecting to affect anyone’s vote at this point. You may even have already voted. But if you’re sick with worry over how an Obama win will result in the death of Israel, maybe this will calm you down some. (Probably not, but I can try.)

First, as Shepherd Smith pointed out, Obama has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the U.S.’s relationship with Israel. Does this mean anything? Probably not—every candidate does it—but it’s certainly unfair to say that Obama is anti-Israel. Nothing he’s said or done has demonstrated any ill-will toward the Jewish state.

Most of the focus of the “Obama equals death of Israel” argument has been on his stated willingness to “sit down” with Ahmadinejad, as well as other leaders whom he himself has pointedly labeled “America’s enemies.” In and of itself, this is not a controversial position. Our government has talks with enemy leaders all the time, and McCain has admitted that he would also pursue diplomatic relations with Iran and other countries. The argument between the candidates has been over “high-level” talks vs. lower-level talks and “preparation” vs. “preconditions.” There may be real differences here—it’s hard for someone like me to tell—but it’s certainly not the difference between being pro- or anti-Ahmadinejad. Both McCain and Obama have strongly criticized Ahmadinejad for his words on Israel, and both recognize him as an enemy.

The truth is, there’s only so much that the U.S. can do about the existence of countries and leaders that hate Israel and the Western World. We can’t “bomb Iran,” as McCain famously joked; we don’t have the resources for another war, and even if we did, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea. All we can do is speak softly and try to convince the world that we still have a big stick. Obama is generally better at speaking softly, while McCain is better at bragging about his stick. But in the end, I don’t think their policies would be very different.

One other matter has emerged recently, relating to an apparent relationship between Obama and Rashid Khalidi, an outspoken critic of Israel. According to the LA times, Obama has had dinner with Khalidi’s family a number of times and has remarked that the latter has encouraged him to consider his “blind spots and biases” and to continue the “conversation” with Palestinian leaders. To me, this sounds like pure politics and nothing much to worry about. But don’t take my word for it. Take Martin Perez’s:
I assume that my Zionist credentials are not in dispute. And I have written more appreciative words about Khalidi than Obama ever uttered. In fact, I even invited Khalidi to speak for a Jewish organization with which I work.

Moreover, the Israelis are trying to live cooperatively and in peace with Palestinians whose unrelenting positions make Khalidi almost appear like a Zionist.

I’m not saying that an Obama presidency would be better for Israel than a McCain presidency. I’m no foreign policy wonk, and there are many complicated issues involved. I’m just suggesting that we all take a deep breath here. Pour yourself a nice cup of tea or a glass of wine and watch the election results—or don’t. The world isn’t going to go up in smoke if it doesn’t work out the way you wanted. And even if it does, there isn’t much you can do about it now.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

If I Have Been Unkind

If I've wronged anyone reading this, in word or deed, by action or by neglect, I hope that you will forgive me.

As someone said to me recently, good luck with the book and with the seal and everything.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Coming Back to You

You may be wondering where I've been. Or maybe you're used to this already. In any case, it's aseret yemei teshuvah, so I'll just jump right into the hard stuff.

A friend of mine wanted to talk about teshuvah recently. It bothered her, she said, that the people who spend the most time in shul beating their breasts and feeling guilty are the ones who need to do it the least. I agreed. That’s why I always feel so crappy this time of year, I told her. All these Jews who are so much more pious than me are waking up early to pray and repent, and here I am just going about my life, barely doing anything at all.

That wasn’t what she meant, though. She was thinking of all the Jews who would be eating ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur, and wondering why she had to deal with all this guilt, when in the general scheme of things, she’s a pretty decent Jew.

After she left, I admitted to DH that I see things pretty much the same way. I know we're not perfect -- me, DH, my friends -- but I really don't think we're bad people. I always find myself thinking this during the high holidays, as I mumble my way through all that self-deprecating liturgy: Overall, I'm really a pretty decent human being.

“Then why do you always get so depressed?” he asked.

Depressed is probably too strong a word, but it’s true: I do get moody around the High Holidays. What I feel crappy about, I tried to explain, is that I don’t feel crappy enough. With all those hours of prayer designed to induce guilt and remorse, you can’t help feeling remorseful if you don’t feel remorseful.

The problem is that I just haven’t figured out where I stand vis-à-vis halakhah and morality. I think I understand how this process ought to work for a very pious Jew: He or she might, for example, be overcome with guilt for missing the proper time for prayer on various occasions over the past year. The road to teshuvah would be clear: confess, pray for forgiveness, and make a concerted effort not to oversleep any more. On the other end of the spectrum, if someone were, say, involved in an adulterous relationship, she might be likewise overcome with guilt (or at least, she ought to be). And the proper path would be equally clear (if somewhat more difficult): Repent, break off the relationship, and so forth. But what about me? There are lots of things I could do if I wanted to be “frummer.” I could keep kosher more strictly, for example. But that would interfere with my relationships with various family members and non-Jews, and even if halakhah does warrant that, I’m not convinced that it’s the right thing to do. On the interpersonal level, I could try to be kinder and more generous, but I’m not sure that’s the right thing for me to do either. It so often seems to result in my making promises that I don’t keep, in abandoning people who don’t need me, and in resentment on all sides.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing clear for me to work on. Keeping commitments I’ve already made is an obvious one. I could also be more attentive to my loved ones and try to “be there” for them, even if I can’t always meet all their needs. But that’s hardly enough to keep me occupied for five weeks of breast-beating including a twenty-five hour fast.

So that’s where I am.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Another Recipe

This is a pretty weird blog, isn't it? Over the past couple of months, I've gone from nonstop gloom and doom to nonstop berry recipes, with one chick-flick post in between. Pretty soon, I expect to post some more gloom and doom of a seasonally appropriate variety, but first I have a recipe for fish.

The fish recipe is actually seasonally appropriate, too, although that is strictly a coincidence. This week, many observant Jewish carnivores are taking a break from red meat and poultry in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. DH and I rarely eat meat on weekdays, anyway (and meat is permitted during the Nine Days on Shabbat), but we happen to have tried a particularly good fish recipe tonight, so I thought I'd share it. (See this post for one take on the propriety of eating "gourmet" meatless dishes during the Nine Days.) We started with this recipe, but we used tilapia rather than trout (it was on sale), replaced the half cup of fresh tomatoes with a 14.5-ounce can of fire-roasted tomatoes, and increased the number of shiitake mushrooms. (It's hard to go wrong with shiitakes.) Here's the result:

Fish With Shitake Mushrooms, Ginger, and Tomatoes

1 lb fillet of trout or tilapia, or a similar thin, mild-tasting fish (maybe sole?)*
Salt and pepper
2 green onions, chopped
4 large fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps thinly sliced
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
2 teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a baking sheet or coat with nonstick spray. Rinse fish, pat dry, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place fish on baking sheet.

Combine remaining ingredients in a medium bowl and mix. Spoon over fish. Bake uncovered until fish is just cooked through, about 20 minutes.

*You can also use whole trout, cleaned, boned, and butterflied and baked skin-side down, as per the original recipe.

Two years ago, I posted nine other simple meatless recipes for the Nine Days on the Kosher Blog and rounded them up here. Some of the posts have more than one recipe in them, so you have to scroll down to see them all.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

SHF #45: Berries!

It's been a while since I've participated in Sugar High Friday, but when I saw this round's theme, I had to jump in. Berries have become a minor obsession with me lately (possibly because I was allergic to them as a child). Since early June, I've been eating berries nearly every day—often two or three times—which you might think would have dampened my enthusiasm somewhat, but you'd be wrong. Actually, it would be convenient if something did dampen my enthusiasm a bit. Strawberry season is long over, and the local blueberries are pretty much gone, too; even New Jersey blueberries have been hard to come by as of about a week ago. I bought some raspberries and gooseberries at the farmer's market on Tuesday, but they were gone by lunchtime on Wednesday (a situation that I can't blame on DH, who had exactly one berry), so this recipe is made with strawberries from California and blueberries from Michigan. I'm all for eating local, if you live someplace with a growing season longer than ten seconds.

But enough of that. On to the sugar. We weren't having guests, so I knew I'd be eating most (or, as it turned out, all) of this dessert on my own, so I wanted something light and easy. This recipe fit the bill: it's mostly fruit, and it took all of five minutes to assemble. Another perk: I already had all the ingredients (except the berries, which I'd planned on buying anyway; see above). Taste-wise, there are no surprises: if you like berries, orange, and ricotta (as dessert—this seems to have been a turn-off for DH), then this is for you. Personally, I loved it. As I said, no surprises :)

Berries With Ricotta Cream

adapted from Epicurious
Serves 4 (or 1, if you're me)

1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon orange liqueur [I used Carmel orange brandy, and it was good anyway!]
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel
berries [the original calls for 1 pint strawberries and 1.5 pints raspberries; I used strawberries and blueberries] combined with 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 tablespoon orange liqueur [or not]

Combine ricotta, liqueur, honey, and sugar. Let stand 30 minutes (or longer). Top with berries and eat.

Visit Food Blogga in the next few days for lots more berry recipes!

(In case you're wondering: DH managed to get the camera working by some method he read about on the Internet that seemed to involve a lot of smacking. Maybe he'll post something about it on that nerdy blog of his. Anyway, I'm very grateful, but it seems to me that the picture quality has deteriorated somewhat, so if those berries look kind of blurry, that's probably why.)

More berry recipes on this blog:
Berry Sorbet
Vegan Blueberry Ice Cream
Strawberry Shortcake
Strawberry Frozen Yogurt (the recipe is actually here)
Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream
Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp
Raspberry Ice Cream

Friday, July 11, 2008

Vegan Blueberry Ice Cream

It looks like the camera is kaputt, so I can't take a picture of the beautiful purple vegan blueberry cheesecake ice cream that I made today. I can tell you, however, that it is quite delicious IMHO. The "parve cheesecake" flavor may not be for everyone (I haven't tried it on the guests yet), but I recommend giving the recipe a shot even if you find the idea somewhat disgusting.

The recipes on Agnes's blog are all made with soy creamer, although she suggests some alternatives here. Silk brand creamer, I recently confirmed, is nondairy even though it is labeled OU-D. I discuss the halakhic implications in this Kosher Blog post.

Now I have to leave the apartment so that I can get some work done without eating all the ice cream. Shabbat shalom.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Strawberry Shortcake, Cream On Top

"I think next week will be the last week for strawberries."

That's what the guy at the farmer's market told me today as I bagged my half gallon of berries. So, all you fellow New Englanders, get them now! Local strawberries are different from the ones from California or Florida: smaller, more delicate, and red all the way through. Of course, all you need to enjoy them is a bowl -- no, I take that back, you don't need a bowl, but you do need a napkin. At any rate, you certainly don't need extra sugar or cream. But having made and eaten my first strawberry shortcake last Friday, I don't think I'll go another summer without one. There's just nothing like strawberries and cream, let alone bright red, juicy native strawberries and freshly whipped cream with real vanilla. And, of course, shortcake. I used this buttermilk shortcake recipe, which was lovely. (I use SACO cultured buttermilk blend.) Sadly, when I went to take a picture of my last, carefully guarded shortcake, I discovered that the batteries in my camera were dead. I guess I could have run out and bought new ones, but I didn't. I just grabbed a spoon and enjoyed.

Here's my version of the recipe:

For the Shortcake:

2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup butter, chilled and cut into pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk (or 3 tbs powdered buttermilk and 3/4 cup water)
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the Whipped Cream:

1 pint whipping cream
4 tbs sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 pint strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Make the shortcake: Combine the dry ingredients (including powdered buttermilk, if using) in a food processor and pulse a few times to blend. Add the butter and continue to pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the liquid ingredients and pulse until the dough comes together.

Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup or an ice cream scoop to drop dollops of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. (They won't be neat.) Bake 15 minutes, or until golden.

Make the whipped cream: Combine cream, sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. (It will not be as stiff as commercial whipped cream.)

Just before serving, slice the shortcakes in half and top with whipped cream and strawberries. (I just put the components on the table and let my guests assemble their own.)

Yield: 10 shortcakes

Also recommended: David Lebovitz's Strawberry Frozen Yogurt (I commented on the recipe here) and strawberry cheesecake ice cream.

(Icon courtesy of A Veggie Venture)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Deconstructing Carrie

The first time I watched Sex and the City, it was at my parents' place with my sisters, who were already fans of the show. At the time, I didn't get the appeal, or how they could stand Sarah Jessica Parker's voice and the lame "musings" that were supposed to constitute Carrie Bradshaw's column. Years later, when the show was being rerun on TBS, I turned it on one Tuesday night and quickly became addicted. I think it was somewhere in the middle of season two, when the show had become wittier and the characters, who had begun as static stereotypes, had developed just enough to be somewhat sympathetic. I also discovered that Cynthia Nixon as Miranda was compelling enough to compensate for Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie. And, like so many women, I fell in love with Steve, the gentle bartender who takes endless abuse from Miranda and keeps coming back for more.

(Warning: Minor movie spoilers ahead.)

I almost never watch movies in theaters, but when the Sex and the City movie came out, I decided to seek out some female friends to see it with, since I knew that DH would never watch it with me on Netflix. After reading this review (e-mailed to me by the very friend I was going to watch it with!), I started to worry that the movie would be two hours of everything I didn't like about Sex and the City and none of the things I did. Fortunately, I was wrong. It certainly was silly, and it had more than its share of cringe-worthy lines (particularly toward the end), but it was also funny -- occasionally hilarious -- and there were lots of great outfits, which is all that any one who's watched the show can reasonably expect.

Still, I'm a graduate student, and it's impossible for me to watch a movie like this without feeling the urge to take it apart. And what's the point of having a blog if not to indulge in this sort of thing? So here goes:

I'm sure I'm not the first to point out that Sex and the City is fundamentally a traditional romance with a veneer of sexual liberation. The "girls" (as they call themselves) are all ultimately looking for a man to settle down with (at least by the end of the series) -- preferably one who can support their shopping habits, which seem to run them several thousand dollars a spree. (It's not clear where all this money is supposed to be coming from at the outset. Miranda supposedly works eighty hours a week at a law firm, but it's hard to figure out when those hours could be to leave room for all the daytime outings and wild nights. The others are total mysteries: Charlotte runs an art gallery until she gets married, Samantha is an event planner-turned-publicist, and before her first book is published Carrie supports herself by writing a weekly sex column -- in Manhattan! It's also not clear how they manage to walk around in those shoes without ending up on crutches -- but I digress.)

The movie, like the series, is totally unapologetic in its promotion of stereotypes. These are mostly related to the women's relentless pursuit of "labels and love," but there are others: the bald lawyer Jew with the vaguely Yiddish accent; the latino womanizer; and of course, the flamboyantly gay men who always show up just long enough to offer fashion tips and comic relief. The movie also introduced a new stereotype in the person of Carrie's "assistant," an updated version of the kindly black maid. At the end of the movie she leaves the "big city" to marry a man of the appropriate race and class (and girth), and everyone lives happily ever.

Sorry if I ruined the surprise.

Anyway, like I said, I enjoyed the movie, and if you liked the series, you probably will, too. If you don't -- or if, like so many of us, you do but are a little bit embarrassed about it -- you may enjoy this:

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

The women of my family tend to be fairly well endowed. I guess that's why my mom sent us this article, from Slate. It begins with some familiar thoughts:
As a woman who loves sports, I've always found the concept of breasts bothersome. If all goes according to plan, they will fulfill their intended function for about three of the 70 years that I have them. The rest of the time, they alternate between getting in my way and embarrassing me.

I'm not a sports person, and I do appreciate breasts for their ornamental value, but I have to agree: they do tend to get in the way. I'm somewhat lacking in the inventive spirit, though, so it never occurred to me that breasts could be functional as well as ornamental (aside, of course, from the limited function that nature intended). Not so Adrienne So (no pun intended -- really), who not only hit on the idea of an energy-generating bra but actually ran it past "some scientists."
LaJean Lawson, a former professor of exercise science at Oregon State University, has studied breast motion since 1985 and now works as a consultant for companies like Nike to develop better sports bra designs. Lawson was enthusiastic about my idea but warned it would be tricky to pull off. You would need the right breast size and the right material, she explained, and the bra itself would have to be cleverly designed. "It's just a matter of finding the sweet spot, between reducing motion to the point where it's comfortable but still allowing enough motion to power your iPod," she said.

That was just to lighten up the mood around here. Speaking of lightening up, I recently tried making berry sorbet with agave nectar, a natural low-glycemic sweetener, in place of maple syrup. It came out well. In the process, I learned that the apple juice in the recipe is really unnecessary and that omitting it yields a better texture.

One final non-sequitur based on an e-mail from a family member. Littlest Sister sent me the following message this morning:
I was wondering if you knew of any gooey parve cake recipes (it's my friend Wendy's birthday on Sunday and her roommate needs one)Maybe you could make a blog post about it. Say it's a special request. You need to put something new up there anyway.

"Parve" and "gooey" are a tough combination, but a friend of mine did make a very delicious, rich parve chocolate cake for her birthday, and it turned out to be based on this recipe. She just substituted soy milk for the milk in both the cake and the frosting. It was totally undetectable.

If you want something really gooey, you can make a parve flourless chocolate cake simply by substituting margarine for the butter. This is a good recipe. The biggest challenge is finding high-quality parve chocolate. I like Scharffen Berger, but it's pretty expensive and mostly sold at specialty stores.

That's all for tonight. There are a few more posts in the works, but I may not get around to publishing them until, say, sometime around the battle of Gog and Magog. I'll try, though.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

This Post is Depressing

Don't say I didn't warn you.

A friend of mine keeps asking why I haven't blogged for so long. As usual, there are a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is Isaac. It's hard to think of blogging and not writing about something that occupies my thoughts so often. At the same time, I know that there's no way to write about Isaac's death without being self-absorbed (if I write about my own feelings) or trite (if I write about it from any other perspective). And I don't feel like eulogizing Isaac any more, at least right now, as much as he deserves it. There have been so many eulogies.

I don't want to stop blogging forever, though, so here it is: one long, trite, self-absorbed post. After this I'll get back to blogging recipes and destroying Judaism or whatever I usually do.

When I first read this post, I was still in a state of deep mourning. My initial thought was, How can she even compare Isaac's death to the attack on Mercaz HaRav? How can anyone compare it to anything? Nothing will ever be the same now. The world has come to an end!

Of course, it didn't take me long to realize that my line of thought was completely illogical. If the world ended when Isaac was hit by that truck, eight worlds ended when those shots were fired in Jerusalem. Those kids have families and friends who love them, too. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

The fact is, the world ends every day. And yet it doesn't. Two weeks after Isaac's funeral, DH and I went to the wedding of some friends, a couple we've known about as long as we've known Isaac and Margot -- a couple that's just as happy and loving and perfect for each other as Isaac and Margot were. I didn't want to go at first (although I knew I would anyway). I didn't think I could be happy for them. The whole thing just seemed so ridiculous and random and unfair. After two weeks, though, while I was still sad, still thinking about Isaac nearly all the time, I was able to be happy for my other friends, too. There is a time to mourn and a time to dance, as the old wisdom goes. This was a time to dance, and I danced until I was exhausted. Life is too short and uncertain not to be happy at a wedding.

One of the unexpected effects that Isaac's loss has had on me is that it's actually become easier to watch the news. I used to often feel torn when I heard reports of tragedies -- torn between the horror and sadness that I thought I should feel (and sometimes did) and the knowledge that I had to get on with whatever I was doing, and that no one person can or should feel the pain of the world. And of course, there was always the urge to change the channel and watch Law & Order reruns or cartoons. It's different now. I feel like I've internalized the great sadness of it all -- not that I've experienced, God forbid, the loss of a parent or a child or spouse, let alone the whole world I know, just that I understand loss and tragedy in a way that I didn't before. Well enough, if I may say so. I no longer have that notion that I should sympathize with the families of fallen soldiers or the victims of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. I get it. The world has ended again. And I still have to finish making dinner.

Today was Memorial Day, with its strange American custom of honoring the dead with sales and barbecues. (Not that Americans are unique in this respect. Jews commemorate shloshim and yahrzeit with food and try to comfort mourners with endless boxes of rugelach. I guess we still have to eat.) I spent much of this morning doing housework with CNN in the background, and the news stories were punctuated with messages from military families about loved ones they recently lost. It's terribly sad, but after all, it's no one I know. I had laundry to fold, exams to grade.

I know that it will be a long time before Isaac's parents and sister and soulmate are able to "change the channel" and focus on ordinary things, let alone be happy at a wedding. They will probably never be where I am now, generally enjoying life in spite of the sadness. The same is true, of course, for so many whose loved ones have been cut down before their time. But even for them, the sun will keep rising every morning, and life will go on. For whatever it's worth (and I do realize that it isn't much, if anything), my thoughts are with them today, wishing them strength.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Thank You for Not Being A Jerk

It's hard to know how to deal with others' loss. Everyone grieves differently, and words that one person finds comforting can seem insensitive to someone else. I've definitely been insensitive to mourners in the past. But there are some things that everyone should know not to do:
    When a friend loses a loved one, don't send sympathy form letters of the variety that a CEO might send to an employee.

    When a young person loses an intended life partner, don't say, "well, you're still young," and start pointing out attractive members of the opposite sex.

    When a parent loses a child, don't tell him or her that suffering is spiritually rewarding or a sign of God's love.

    When someone loses a grandparent, don't assume that it's no big deal because you're not close with your grandparents, or because grandparents are old and are supposed to die, anyway.

    Don't talk during Mourner's Kaddish. It may just be another kaddish to you, but people saying Mourner's Kaddish are in mourning, and they deserve consideration while they remember their loved ones.

    Don't make assumptions about people's beliefs about God, angels, and the afterlife, and definitely don't try to push your beliefs on those who are in mourning. It's not the time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Simple Jew

An anonymous commentator calling himself "The Pachad Yitzchak" wrote the following in response to my last post:
I don't know what simply a Jew is, except a guy in a brown fedora at the back of a Young Israel at 11:00 on Shabbes. Apart from that, simple Judaism is only for the most engaged and ideologically complicated people.
This Pachad Yitzchak (I don't think he would mind your knowing) was Isaac Meyers, a Harvard doctoral student who was killed by a grocery truck last monday on his way to an early morning shiva minyan. The line about the guy in the brown fedora (which I didn't pick up on at the time) was a reference to a song called "A Simple Jew" that Isaac wrote for his band, the Rothchilds ("the plutocrats of pop").*

Isaac wasn't the kind of "simple Jew" described in his song. His understanding of Judaism was broad and deep and sophisticated, and, as you can tell from his songs, he also had a sense of humor about it. In other ways, though, Isaac was as simple and straightforward as they come. He never hesitated to do what he thought was right, and he always did it in the most understated way. There's no way to even begin to describe what we lost with his passing.

At Isaac's funeral, the presiding rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, read a poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik that I thought captured the situation as well as any human words possibly could. Afterward, I searched for it on the Internet and found it here. You really must read it in Hebrew if you can; the translation doesn't measure up. Isaac could have written a better one — he had a great sensitivity for these things. But he's not here.

*You can hear "A Simple Jew" and other Rothchilds recordings here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Why is the Conservative Movement Worse Than Every Other Movement?

This post got me thinking.

It's no secret that the Conservative movement has major problems. It originated in the late nineteenth-century as a denomination for Jews who didn't want to reform as much as the Reform movement but didn't want to do the whole Orthodox thing, either. While leaders of the movement will insist that it has a more intricate philosophy than "not Orthodox and not Reform," the truth is that it's been struggling to define that philosophy since its inception, and I don't think there was any time throughout the movement's history when it didn't seem at risk of fragmentation.

None of this bothers me as much as it seems to bother so many people I talk to. This may be partly because I don't really consider myself a Conservative Jew. It's not that I'm ideologically post-denominational; it's just that I don't really think of "Orthodox," "Conservative," and "Reform" as labels that belong on people. There are Conservative rabbis (I often rely on one for halakhic opinions) and Conservative congregations (I attend one), and there are Conservative responsa and position papers, which I read with interest because some of them reflect approaches to Judaism that approximate my own. But as for me, I am simply a Jew. So it doesn't bother me that the movement doesn't always reflect my ideals, or even that it doesn't seem to have a clear-cut mission. From my perspective, the movement's function is to serve as an umbrella organization for similarly-minded Jewish leaders to build and sustain communities, grapple with contemporary issues, and educate the next generation. Granted, it doesn't always do these things very well, but it hobbles along. And since I don't generally expect much from religious institutions (or institutions in general), I'm not seriously disappointed.

But Katrina makes an observation that I don't think I ever fully appreciated: Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement seem uniquely disenchanted with it. Yitz Greenberg is supposed to have said that it doesn't matter what denomination you belong to, as long as you're ashamed of it (I know I've quoted this before, but it's good), and I always thought that the disillusionment shared by so many of those committed to Conservative Judaism was just a healthy realization of their movement's flaws. On the other hand, Katrina claims that Jews committed to the Reform movement generally seem pretty gung-ho about it, and I've known a fair number of Jews who seemed quite enthusiastic about modern Orthodoxy as well. On the other hand, I've rarely met a Conservative rabbi or educated layperson who didn't regard the Conservative movement with positive contempt. Maybe there really is something wrong with this picture.

ELF Becomes Disenchanted With Politics

No, I'm not really a total newcomer to the human race. But Saturday's paper particularly upset me, and it's still hurting.

The worst part was learning that Clinton is calling for the delegates she won in the Michigan and Florida primaries to be to be counted. We all know that the Democratic primary process this year is a total mess, but demanding delegates you won in a contest in which your opponent wasn't on the ballot because he was following the party's rules is tantamount to saying that you'll do anything to win, democratic process be damned. I voted for Clinton, and it's a vote that I'd been looking forward to casting for some time. But at a time when unchecked presidential power is one of the most serious issues facing our country, this isn't the sort of thing that I can shrug off.

Then there was McCain's vote against a bill restricting government interrogation techniques. I've never been a McCain supporter per se -- I disagree with his positions on nearly every issue of substance -- but like so many Americans, I've always respected him, and I was quietly thrilled to see him sweep the Republican primaries. He seemed competent, sensible, and principled (at least as politicians go), not least because of his stand on torture. Now, he seems to be doing an about-face and hoping that no one but right-wing Republicans will notice. (His vote supporting phone companies that assisted in Bush's warrantless wiretapping program doesn't inspire confidence, either.)

That leaves Mr. Smith, a.k.a. Barak Obama. He may not have much experience, but he says that we Can, and while I'm not sure exactly what it is that we can do, people seem pretty excited about it. And he did get this endorsement. I guess there's something to be said for electing a guy who makes people feel good. It may not be the only necessary qualification for Leader of the Free World and Commander-in-Chief in Wartime, but then again, he couldn't easily make things much worse.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

This Post Doesn't Make Sense Unless You Know Hebrew

While listening to the story of the Exodus this past Shabbat, I started thinking about the Fantasy Haggadah. Among other things, I was thinking about what to call it. There's a sort of formula for Hebrew titles of Jewish holy books. They tend to be short phrases -- often from the Bible or another traditional Jewish text -- usually consisting of two nouns in construct or a noun modified by an adjective. The title can have something to do with the content of the book, or it can be based on the author's name. For example, since my Hebrew name is Chaya, DH occasionally refers to my imaginary book of Jewish philosophy as ספר חית השדה.*

Anyway, as we moved through the Torah portion, I scanned for good names for a Haggadah. The first that came to mind was הגדת ליל שמורים, but that seemed kind of bland, and I figured it was probably taken (it is). Then I came up with a number that almost certainly aren't taken:
הגדת לב מצרים
הגדת צעקה גדולה
הגדת שבעת ימים (because that's how long it'll take to get through the seder)
הגדת שה תמים (maybe better for a Christian haggadah?)
הגדת המול כל זכר
הגדת מה זאת (my current favorite)


*It was really funny the first time he said it. I guess you had to be there.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Amazing Fly-Lady

Yes, yes, I'm still here. I've been de-cluttering my life with the aid of a certain website by a certain super hero with a purple tutu and wings. I should probably be ashamed (it's a little bit "feminine mystiquey," as a friend of mine would say), but I've found it really helpful. (For the record: I don't need Flylady because I'm the only one who does housework around here. I need it because my husband is a fairly neat, organized type,* and I am a scatterbrain and a slob.)

The point is, I've been trying to organize my time as well as my apartment, focusing on the more essential things first, and I'm just now getting around to figuring out where things like blogging fit in. I really do expect to start posting on a more regular basis now. Honestly.

That's all for tonight, though. I have to finish up my Before Bed Routine.

*His parents, if they are reading this, are undoubtedly shocked and appalled that anyone could assert such a thing, but that is because they don't know what genuine slovenliness looks like.