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Brookline, MA, United States
I'll post rants here, and musings; articles and thoughts about articles. I'll keep it quite complex and yet astoundingly simple: whatever it is I am interested in at any given moment.

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Hiatus

In the wake of a computer that isn't working and an increasing amount of work and responsibilities, I'm putting myself on hiatus for a little bit.

Already have a growing list of posts for when I'm back, which I hope is soon ...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Camp Director Conundrum

I'm in a hotel at קיבוץ שפיים (on the coast, about halfway between נתניה and תל אביב) at a training seminar for שליחים organized by the (somehow still alive-and-kicking) סוכנות.

I haven't yet had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with camp director (of Ramah or other camps), and some of you know my thoughts on those colleagues I know well.

Here's what's on my mind tonight, after a few sessions of orientations for the directors (many of whom arrived in the last day or two from the US) and before I actually experience the programming over the next few days:

I like everyone I'm meeting, and most of them seem like they'd be fun people to have at camp. But it's not clear to me if any of them, save two or three, are people I would consider educational colleagues. We just look at our jobs differently, and I am more than prepared to acknowledge that there are definitely people here who do their jobs amazingly well. But do those jobs have them fulfill the role of educator, at least as I imagine it?

We might expand the question a bit. If I were at a conference of high school teachers, would I feel any differently? Academics? The professionalization of a field (and few fields, I imagine, are going through a process of professionalization today faster than that of camp directors) is not necessarily the creation of an intellectual or professional elite of the field. For most of these people, fund-raising, working with children, site maintenance, recruitment, and risk management are the major issues on their plate. So what does that say of the field? My professional dreams?

The clarity on this question, however, is that, perhaps (and a big perhaps here), my challenge in thinking about becoming a camp director is the same challenge I'd face anywhere else. Like in being a principal, or an academic. But - and this is important - I imagine that I'd like being an academic in the top 40% or so of academics. I enjoy the work. I cannot imagine enjoying a job as a camp director outside of the intellectual playground I call Ramah Wisconsin or a similar environment. And it is clear to me that the opportunity to do the type of work we do at Wisconsin is, relatively, quite unique. And ... it might not really be the work of the director.

I'll keep thinking about this. Might write more in the near future.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Poem for יום השואה והגבורה

I haven't yet utilized the blog as a place to "publish" some of my poetry, but I guess that's about to end.

In general, my poetry output has slowed markedly in the last few years, the causes of which I can guess at (long-awaited "maturity" [wish I had better word for that] taking some of the drama and romance out of life, a move towards prose [as reflected on the blog], a stable emotional relationship) but of which I am in no way sure. I'd like to get back to it, but my inability to deal with anything but an overflowing plate makes that less than likely.

The poem below, written at Penn on יום השואה והגבורה during my Sophomore year (Spring of '02) is heavily influenced by the early (at the time) work I was doing in thinking about modernist responses to tragedy (I had already taken "Representations of the Holocaust in Literature and Film" with Al Filreis and Penny Marcus, as well as "Modern and Contemporary American Poetry" with Al the year before, was in the process of meeting Michael Cunningham, John Ashbery, and Charles Fuller in my first year of the "Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar," and I think was also approaching the end of my independent study comparing the lives of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, in particular the historical coincidence of the publications of Leaves of Grass and the first performance of "Howl" in 1855 and 1955, respectively). In addition, there is a heavily intertextual current of a variety of liturgical echoes, mostly from the אל מלא רחמים and the recently concluded פסח. I also probably won't be able to format the poem as I'd like, but I'll give it a shot.

יום השואה והגבורה
April 9, 2002

It's just my room
on the 2nd floor of a building
on top of a video-game arcade
in West Philadelphia.
I am just a boy
twenty and one-half years old.
I am a dreamer.
And on this night, I dream of you.
You, full of mercieswho tonight of all nights
should protect
six hundred hundred hundred
of my good friends.
They were baked - yes baked
and slaughtered - like sheep
and murdered and lynched
and burned - like a bad mother's
too done hamburgers
in front of a watching world.
They were dragged - like plows on the field,
threatened - like babies who won't stop crying,
and destroyed on the streets of Europe.
Tonight, of all nights of the year
a foreign government has declared
that I shall remember them.
Tonight, and on no night other.
Tonight, and not yesterday,
Tonight, and not two weeks ago,
Tonight, and not seven months from now.
Tonight - we are to remember -
so that we may live
the other nights of our years
in joy - that we may breathe
without thinking of ash
that we may smile, without thinking
of the boy and his lost apple.
Tonight though, o Lord of mercies,
let them shine like the glimmering
gleam of their horizions;
let them fulfill their dreams
and enact their most ghastly
revenges - on the millions
of willing human participants
who sat by idly.
Lord, you and you alone,
protect us so that no other night
need weigh as much on our mortal backs.
I am no Atlas, no giant
you are the being on whose wings
they fly.
Please, master of compassions,
Bind them up in bundles of life
so that even in their death
they may experience even the meager
joys of a morose twenty-something.
Hold their hands on the way
into sealed rooms of carbonic nitrogen
close their eyes
from seeing mommy and daddy
stop breathing before they do.
From Babi Yar to Lodz
from Sobibor to the internment
camps overlooking Saint Francis' Pacific
recall them tonight,
and let me imitate you.
Forgive me the obvious
that these words mean nothing
that this voice cannot rise up
to affect the deeds of the past.
Forgive me the guilt of living
and for not listening to those who tell me
that words are no way to do this.
Forgive me for only using the
most profound tools you gave me
to try and convey the weight
of your most powerful Copperfield act.
Forgive me for not living to write
of Ulysses in the camps
or to question if this is a man
once I return Home.
Forgive me for not remembering -
it is my duty to them ... and to you.

יום השואה והגבורה

I don't remember יום השואה והגבורה from Nativ - I think we may have stayed on קיבוץ - and, regardless of that experience, being here sans educational structure (not that Nativ provided such a great educational structure) provides a different type of experience. Yesterday afternoon I could palpably feel the city slowing down, and by the time I walked home from an afternoon of bowling with the family that hosted me in Bethlehem (that should be a different post), some of the restaurants around עמק רפאים were already closed. T and I went to יקר last night to here a שיעור on the אש קודש, a Hasidic Rabbi (Kalonymus Kalman Shapira) who taught Torah in the Warsaw ghetto before his death in the Holocaust (also its own, possibly forthcoming post). On the walk home the streets were almost Shabbat- or Chag-evening quiet, with a 24 hour מכולת and סופר במושבה the only open storefronts. Perhaps most powerfully - the treif restaurants on עמק are also closed. At home I spent most of the evening doing work in front of Holocaust movies and documentaries - there was nothing else on.

In Israel, at least, the ability to create an environment around a memorial day (at least at night, which seems easier to do than during the following workday - although the rhythm of ערב, then בקר might make this easier as well [like Christmas and New Year's]) is impressive.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On the Dangers of Demography

Demography strikes me as being quite similar to Torah - easy to interpret however you'd like to, difficult to find the essential truths about which debate is unnecessary. In short, it's more about interpretation than about facts, which, to expand the simile of the previous sentence, puts halachic decision-making, meteorology, and demography in the same subset of hermeneutic masquerading as science.

Such is the context for this piece in Haaretz, which imagines a worldwide Jewish community at 32 million with a strong base in Eastern Europe - and likely no State of Israel - if the Holocaust had never happened. (No word in the article's synopsis on what became of the Jewish communities that were rescued by the Israeli government from the rising tide of rabidly parochial Islam.)

Would the American Jewish renaissance of the last sixty years have existed at all? Would we not be talking about "Jewish continuity" and intermarriage rates? Or would Judaism have been stifled underneath the weight of the iron curtain?

These questions might be addressed in one of Robert Cowley's books recording contrafactual (i.e., What if things didn't turn out the way they actually did?) history (I own What if? and What if? 2 - they're fun). I prefer the contrafactual history to most demography studies, except when someone is willing to get creative, like this work of Calvin Goldscheider, who has argued that the Jewish community in the United States is growing, not shrinking.

As we approach יום השואה והגבורה here in Israel - where the גבורה is emphasized as it is nowhere else - I am inclined to focus more on reflecting on the loss of the 6 million than on naval gazing at what might have been.

As for all of those who wish Anti-Semitic, Catholic or communist Europe had remained the home to Judaism's great population concentration, I remind them of one of Chancellor Emeritus Ismar Schorsch's most astute observations: that never in the history of the world has a Jewish community disappeared by a factor as benign as assimilation.

On the High Holidays of the Modern Jew: A Wexner Yom Shishi Thought

In high school I coined the term "High Holidays of the Modern Jew" as a way of describing the quirks of the calendar that have placed יום השואה והגבורה, יום הזכרון , יום העצמאות, and יום ירושלים all within a span of five weeks during ספירת העמר. (Since then, I'd add יצחק רבין's memorial to this list, though it falls at the other end of the calendar.) I've been thinking about and trying to program and write about them ever since - they always captivated my imagination (and frustration - at how little has been done to ritualize them). Over the years, that's taken different routes, including a יום הזכרון program on Nativ that I still consider one of my best, updated versions of it in following years (it itself being a juiced-up version of a short memorial service Gabe and I wrote for Seminar in '98), and a דבר תורה I gave (though I can't remember most of the specifics) a few שבתות after T and I got engaged in April or '06.

Late last night I realized I had forgotten to send out my "Yom Shishi Thought" to the list of current Wexner Fellows; it was my turn. I started thinking about different options about which I could write (including sharing my take on נדב and אביהו) and decided to take this general direction. Then, this morning, dear friend Jason helped push the frame forward with the דבר תורה at his daughter's - ירדנה חמוטל - baby-naming. I wrote what follows this evening.

(What was to be a Yom Shishi thought seems to work even better as a "Shavua Tov" thought, though that was not the intent. Apologies.)

The פרשה that we read this morning, שמיני, has multiple parallels with the first chapter of the תורה – the story of the creation of the world. Multiple laws here are given as a way of making הבדלות – separations – as is the expressed purpose for numerous steps in the creation story. Additionally, the Rabbis understand the first verse – ויהי ביום השמיני – “And it was on the eighth day” – as referring to the 8th day in the life of the world and Aaron’s multiple blessings as a parallel to God’s repeated statements of טוב on the 3rd and 6th days.

For me, this week marks a different parallel with the creation story – a modern echo of ראש השנה, when Rabbinic Judaism chose to mark the birthday of the world. We enter this week a period I like to call the “High Holidays of the Modern Jew,” four commemorations of historical events that attempt to provide a structure and meaning for contemporary Jewish identity. The timing of Holocaust and Martyrs’ Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for those who gave their lives for the modern State of Israel, Israel’s Independence Day, and the Reunification of Jerusalem Day (which, admittedly, may resonate uncomfortably for some of us due to the less-than-ideal resolution of the victories of the Six Day War which we are still grappling with today) lends an additional historical narrative to our ritualized counting from Passover to Shavuot. The structure of the different days, including the ten day period that begins Monday evening with Yom Hashoah (a modern Yom Kippur, I might suggest), a week removed from the two day solemn-yet-joyous commemoration of the sacrifices and achievements of founding a political entity to call our own (our modern Rosh Hashanah), amplifies other parts of our calendar.

What the High Holidays of the Modern Jews lack – and what I’d suggest is the task of our generation and a much-needed place for immediate exercising of leadership – is a developed liturgy and ritual to call their own. Within years we will no longer have living witnesses to the Holocaust to share their stories with us; a Jewish day of independence should not be defined by barbecue and bonfires alone. It is our task to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors – generation after generation of them – and add our own interpretative layers to the celebrations whose very existence defined the lives of our parents and grandparents. Such a task is difficult, but not unprecedented.

פרשת שמיני records a failed attempt at the creation of contemporary ritual. Nadav and Avihu’s deaths do not give justice to the build up of the legal background to, outline for, and building of a dwelling place for God within the desert. The dominant image of their deaths’ aftermath is Aaron’s silence – paralyzed by his grief and the incomprehensible nature of the tragedy (as generations of Jews have been in the wake of the Holocaust). In a few weeks, however, we will read about the ritual Moses and Aaron instituted to atone for the grave sin of their fallen children and nephews. That ritual eventually became an annual event, and slowly transitioned from a tangible cleaning of a soiled tent into a metaphor for the mistakes we all make in our lives. Stepping forward to create that ritual was risky and scary; it required courage. Millennia later, we have the liturgical beauty and spiritual power of יום כיפור that annually attests to Aaron’s sons’ sacrifice and much more.

This is our task, and our hope. May we find the ways to appropriately bring the peaks and valleys of the modern Jewish experience into the warm and nurturing context of ritualized, mythologized, performative Judaism. May our commemorations of יום השואה והגבורה, this week and for years to come, allow us to properly memorialize the six million Jewish victims of Hitler’s Germany and the civilization that died with them, and may they lay the groundwork for providing moments of reflection and insight into the past and present for us, our children, and our children’s children.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Gender Dynamics in the Jewish Community: Have We Made Any Progress? (Part 2 of [at least] 2)

A few days ago I introduced this topic with a focus on the efforts and ideas of Leveling the Playing Field. As promised, I now return to some issues on the ground.

Sometimes in early March, as reported (to my knowledge) in the Forward, a coalition of Conservative Rabbis, Cantors, and lay leaders calling themselves "HaYom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism" wrote a(n appropriate but) threatening letter to the leadership of United Synagogue requesting a significant role in the selection of USCJ's next Executive Vice-President (to replace Rabbi Jerome Epstein, universally considered to be pretty terrible and particularly despised by me). The letter was signed by a practical all-star team of Conservative Rabbis (no such team exists for Cantors or lay leaders, of course), representing some of the movement's (deservedly) flagship shuls, including Rabbis Elliot Cosgrove, Ed Feinstein, Michael Siegel, Alan Silverstein, Gordon Tucker, and David Wolpe (and many others whom I know personally but whose reputations, as it were, do not precede them). The rest of that particular narrative was relatively boring - USCJ punting; USCJ appointing relatively-outside-of-the-box Rabbi Steven Wernick; blah blah blah.

A few weeks ago, things got interesting on the Wexner Graduate Fellows' listserve, which is a confidential setting. For that reason, I will not attach any distinguishing characteristics to people's statements. I do not believe, however, that the confidentiality of the setting prevents me from sharing some of the topics discussed on the listserve itself.

A woman raised the question: Why were there so few women among the signatories of the letter? (How few, you ask? Well, of, at my count, the 27 Rabbis, 27 lay leaders, and 3 Cantors, I count a total of 5 women - all lay leaders.) The conversation that ensued on the listserve was female-dominated and included all sorts of valid frustrations and reasonable logic. Chief among them (to my recollection) was that the synagogues represented by this letter were consciously chosen because of their large size (and explanation of that in a moment) and as is relatively well known among Conservative circles (and should be better known outside of that world) there are (at last count - please correct me if this has changed) zero female Rabbis who serve as the Senior Rabbi of the large ("D" class) synagogues. Additionally, the relatively small number of large synagogue presidents who are female (though I don't have any kind of statistic on that) is also reflected. A number of people suggested that, perhaps, if no women were represented by the criteria that made up the selection process, perhaps different criteria should have been chosen. (You think?)

The conversation ended, as far as I can tell, when someone on the listserve forwarded an e-mail from a different confidential listserve, called "Ravnet," which is open only to members of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly, from the leadership of HaYom that outlined the selection process for the signatories on the first letter and opened up an invitation to all Rabbis to join the collection if they so wanted. The stated logic for selecting the largest shuls was, not surprisingly, an attempt to muster significant dues-paying leverage against United Synagogue so as to better guarantee a timely response. (United Synagogue, as far as I can tell, exists only on the dues that its member synagogues pay it - dues which are, obviously, a percentage of the dues the synagogues' members pay their synagogue.)

Lots of questions to ask here - lots of fishiness. Some questions:
  • Why no women at those big shuls?
  • Why didn't the men assembling the names think a lack of women was problematic?
  • Why does any shul - large or small - pay dues to United Synagogue? (If your answer is: for a USY chapter, please try again.)
  • Why do women hold approximately 20% of the presidencies of the largest Conservative shuls?
  • Why were Cantors included at all?
  • Why wouldn't United Synagogue heed HaYom's demands? Why would they
I won't allow myself to get carried away here.

Let's just add to this fire (and I will note that I'm leaving my emotion-laden concerns about the role of gender dynamics in so-called informal educational settings in general and at Ramah in Wisconsin specifically wholly out of the conversation, for the time being) the following observation of a current female rabbinical student at JTS. This student (whose observation I hear only second hand) notes that the "classic" Conservative couples that emerge from relationships in USY, JTS, and at Ramah camps, have the man ending up at JTS's Rabbinical School and the woman moving into, usually, Jewish education (often through JTS's Davidson School of Education), a "traditional" Jewish woman field (education; social work; occupational therapy; speech pathology), or a career (medicine, law, psychology, et c.). As I myself noted - this is the exact model that dominates the Orthodox world. Which brings us to the question:

Has twenty-five years of ordaining women and over thirty years of an egalitarian revolution achieved nothing? (Cue the Chorus Line song.)

I doubt the authors of Leveling the Playing Field would do anything but lambaste an attempt to attack a problem this unwieldy, for this question truly transcends "adaptive challenges" and speaks to a nexus of issues involving American culture and much, much more.

My own answer, for the time being, is silence. I simply have no ideas for how to fix this, or why it exists, or whether we have, indeed, achieved anything (worthwhile) at all.

I will say only this, to my great frustration:
1. New Rabbinical Assembly Executive Vice-President (filling the impressive seat once held by Wolfe Kellman זצ"ל) Rabbi Julie Schonfeld has not been quoted anywhere as saying anything about anything.
2. Nor have Arnie Eisen or Steven Wernick.
3. Conservative "leaders" I look up to on the Wexner listserve were silent as can be.

Picking Nits on Gun Control

This week's Time features the following little blurb about the civic center massacre in Binghamton last week:
Before he opened fire on a citizenship class at a Binghamton, N.Y., civic center, Jiverly Wong mailed a rambling, paranoid letter to a Syracuse TV station, bemoaning the loss of his job assembling vacuum cleaners and accusing the police of harassing him. "I am Jiverly Wong shooting the people," it began, and signed off with a chillingly bland "Have a nice day." Wong, a Vietnamese immigrant, killed 13 people before taking his own life in the worst U.S. mass shooting since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Despite a 1992 arrest for fraud, the 41-year-old had licenses for both of the handguns used in the attack. [emphasis added]
I'm really only going to take issue here with one word - despite - which may just be a typo (I find far more typos while reading weekly magazines than I imagine I should). But if the word despite was consciously chosen, even if used incorrectly, the author of this blurb seems to be an off-the-wall proponent of gun control.

If we acknowledge that, original intent of the second amendment be damned, there is a constitutional right to own your own weapons, then it seems to me quite obvious that someone convicted of a white collar crime (like fraud or the like) should not in any way have this constitutional right revoked. Violent crimes, of course, are a different issue. What could possibly be the rationale of revoking the right of someone arrested - not convicted? - for fraud? Wouldn't that just mean that anyone with a minor infraction on their record - say, a parking ticket or an indictment but acquittal for embezzling - also shouldn't be granted a license for a handgun?

I'm all for gun control - especially after Bowling for Columbine - but this piece seems to distort the issue and make it seem like under current law we could imagine an interpretation whereby an arrest for fraud would make someone ineligible for a license to carry a gun. I know it's a few weeks early, but I'm pretty sure רש"י had the right response to this: מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Potpourri: High Smarts and Low Laughs

I'll begin with the low laughs:

Slate answers the always relevant question: can you test positive for a drug that you never ingested but that your oral sex partner did?

Mental Floss presents some of the funniest videos I've ever seen. (Parental discretion advised.)


If you like laughing, watch at least the first 2 minutes of the first video. At least.

Like the idea of paternity leave? So does this guy.

Insightful stuff from HuffPo on Obama's handling of the North Koren missile "crisis" and the pirate hijacking off Somalia.

Analysis of women, layoffs, and the recession.

Joe Posnanski on Bill James's brilliance.

New definition of brilliance? Looking at old problems through new eyes.

XX Factor's guest poster, Vanessa Gezari, tells us we're morons for thinking the recent hullabaloo about the so-called "Afghan rape law" demonstrates the West's naivete when it comes to imagining the ongoing plight of women in most of the world, especially Afghanistan.

This article, linked from TV Worth Watching, is not actually as good as Bianculli seems to think it is. It is more superficial listing than deep analysis, and doesn't grab me as it should (or maybe I didn't get a lot of sleep last night ...). Either way, a worthwhile read (as opposed to watch, pun ex post facto accepted) for the next time someone tries to eviscerate Stewart for taking his place in the pantheon of the great American patriots - it doesn't get bigger, on that front, than Franklin and Twain.

Clarence Thomas, reactionary of reactionaries, and the conservative vision for America.

N.B.: You may need to shower after reading this. But it's worth it.

XX Factor reports on Amazon's sketchy-as-hell move to deem books depicting homosexuality as "adult" and, therefore, to de-rank them on the site. Sketchy Amazon, very, very sketchy. Booo Amazon.

Double Entendre, much?

A little contest for those interested:

How many possible double entendres can you find in this obituary of porn star Marilyn Chambers?

Added bonus: What one word could you change to add yet another amusing (to me and other adolescent males) allusion?

I'll wait for some responses, then share my numbers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Shoutout: Two Babies and an Article

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of BIMA/Genesis at Brandeis University, Associate Director of the Institute for Informal Jewish Education, wonderful colleague and great thinker, and his wife Aliza Kline, executive director of the exciting and creative project to reimagine mikvah, Mayyim Chayyim Living Water, welcomed third daughter Nomi into the world on April 4.

More recently, dear friends, lovers of good food, and on-again-off-again חברותא Jason and Dara Rogoff welcomed their first child, a daughter, this morning, April 14.

Dear friend, former quasi-housemate, Wexner colleague and someday-awesome-Rabbi Annie Lewis wrote this summary of her recent work with Storahtelling at a BBYO convention.

On Gender Dynamics in the Jewish Community: A Definition of Adaptive Change (Part 1 of [at least] 2)

I've had a post brewing for a little over a week about gender dynamics and the less-than-ideal (read: laughable) state of the Jewish community in grappling with them. I don't mean, for the record, Orthodoxy's struggles with what embracing the gender (as opposed to sexual) component of the feminist revolution, nor am I interested whatsoever in the pre-modern approach to femininity in ultra-Orthodox circles. I speak of the ways in which the organized Jewish community in America lags far behind its corporate cousins in advancing the cause of women in major leadership roles, a fact that is exacerbated by the disproportionately large representation of women in all other aspects of communal Jewish life.

My interests go far beyond that of concerned citizen. I have heard firsthand my father's accounts of the way that search committees treat female candidates, and watched from a relatively unique perch as the (mostly embarrassing) politics of a large Conservative synagogue played out - where women's involvement is the exception to the rule. I work for an organization that I have become increasingly convinced is the very definition of an old boys' network with all its overt ickiness and subtle prejudices. I have friends who are and will be female Rabbis, and campers I care for dearly who ought to embark on prominent careers in Jewish communal service; I hope someday to be the father of a girl who will want to play a role - professional or lay - in the Jewish world. And I am affiliated with the Wexner Foundation, an organization that places issues of gender dynamics not just on the front burner but on every burner.

My thinking on this topic has moved significantly in the last year, both as a result of listening to and engaging with real narratives and perceptions (which are, here, as good as realities as far as I'm concerned) and due to my reading of Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, by Wexner leadership guru Marty Linsky, Wexner feminism guru Shifra Bronznick (founder of publisher Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community), and Didi Goldenhar. I am not finished reading the book - such is life when you only read a book during the down moments in Friday night davening at Yakar - but it has changed the way I look at this particular issue and moved my positions on certain specific institutions and factors. The book is set up as a "guidebook" to walk its reader through a gender equality initiative in their organization, and focuses on what might be the highest profile version of this problem in the Jewish community - the heads of the largest Federations (that's up for debate). In doing so, however, I believe it also serves as a worthwhile guidebook to any difficult change initiative in any organization, and have recommended the book as such to anyone facing such an effort.

I realized that, before I enter into some of the specifics of my thinking in a forthcoming post, it was important for me to lay out a core piece of Leveling the Playing Field. I have written about Marty Linsky repeatedly on the blog [here and here] (and there is a long-brewing post about my recent experiences with leadershp at the Winter Institute of the WGF that will delve further into Marty's work) but have not yet found a space to actually articulate Marty's (with his partner, Ron Heifetz) paramount contribution to the field: the distinction between technical problems (and how to correct them) and adaptive challenges (and how to change them). Though I may bring other parts of the book to analyze in the future, I have found the very best articulation of this distinction in Leveling the Playing Field, which will serve as a basis both for the next post on gender dynamics and, I imagine, many more posts to come.

I quote from pp. 21-24 of the book:
Moving an Organization from Gender Inequity to Gender Equity is Deep Change - An Adaptive Challenge Rather than a Technical Problem

The single biggest mistake people make in exercising leadership is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.

Technical problems
live above the neck: they are susceptible to a good argument or to someone's expertise. Adaptive challenges live between the neck and the navel: they are about values and beliefs, ways of being, and sense of self.

Adaptive challenges are not about logic. They are about the experience of loss - the loss of what is familiar and comfortable, including expectations and rewards, and the loss of what people think of as the values that guide their everyday decisions.

Tampering with people's values is a different kind of work than influencing their logic. That's why leading deep organizational change is so difficult. And, while we may have a vision of what gender equity looks like, we have no guarantees about what the change will look like along the way, or how long the journey will take. Deep organizational change may take from seven to ten years. So, much of the difficulty of adaptive challenge is about tolerating the losses and ambiguous terrain that lie between the status quo and the Promised Land.

Here are a couple of examples that illustrate the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges:

You go to your doctor with a broken finger. A broken finger is a complex technical problem that may require a cast, a splint, and some extra care in your daily activities. But many doctors can attend to the problem of a broken finger.

But what if you have high cholesterol? That's a different kind of problem. Your doctor can prescribe medication that may help. But she can't take your pills for you, and, more important, she can't stop eating chocolate ice cream for you or get up an hour earlier to exercise for you. Her expertise is useful, but the adaptive challenge lies within you. You will have to give up something you love - chocolate ice cream or that extra hour in bed - in favor of your health.

Here's an illustration from the Jewish world:

Your agency does not have a kosher kitchen. But when the organization hires its first Orthodox Jew, he asks if the kitchen can be koshered and kept kosher. Some staff members embrace the idea; others say that this is a major imposition. The CEO supports the change, saying that a Jewish organization should respect its most observant member. New dishes and utensils are purchased, and the appliances are blow-torched. That speaks to the technical problem.

Two months later, the meat and milk dishes still get mixed up despite elaborate systems to label everything. The technical problem has been solved, but the nonkosher staff members are resisting the adaptive challenge. They value their own religious choices; for them, a kosher kitchen at work means giving up individual freedoms, like bringing leftovers from home or ordering from the local pizzeria.

Organizations typically try to address adaptive challenges as technical problems. Individuals and groups will almost always try to interpret issues as technical, individual, and win-win, rather than adaptive and systemic. That way, no one has to endure any losses or deal with conflict.

Advancing gender equity in Jewish organizational life is an adaptive challenge because it will expose the gap between the espoused values of the agency, as epxressed by the people at the top, and the real norms, as embodied by day-to-day behaviors. Part of your role will be to keep the adaptive change central - with all its disturbing implications - while the pressure is on to come up with short-term, technical Band-Aids that allow you to avoid dealing with deeper issues.

Most adaptive challenges involve some technical aspects. Sometimes a Band-Aid approach is the only way to start the change process. Sometimes a modest, more technical idea can test the waters, and you can incorporate this idea into a larger, more ambitious strategy. But be forewarned: since most organizations gravitate toward technical fixes, you will have to evaluate at each step along the way whether a proposed technical fix is a step toward an adaptive change or a diversion from it.

Leading Deep Organizational Change, Such as a Gender Equity Initiative, is Difficult Work

If you embrace this challenge, be prepared for the difficulty ahead.

There is an idea tha tpeople do not like change. Wrong. Winning the lottery will certainly change your life, but no one gives away a winning lottery ticket.

People resist significant change when they experience it as a threat or as a potential loss, no matter how good they think it will be for them.

Resistance to gender equity will surface in all the familiar arguments - that there are no qualified women for high-level jobs; that women aren't good fundraisers; that women choose family before work; that the statistics don't prove anything; that raising gender issues will lead to lawsuits or embarrssing stories in the media; or that the issue is effectiveness, not gender equity.

Be prepared for this resistance since it is likely to appear in both direct and indirect forms. When an organization makes a commitment to gender equity, people who benefit from the current system may feel threatened. Men who have been waiting for their chance at the brass ring - and doing everything expected of them along the way - may feel cheated if the rules of engagement change. The same may be true for women who have adapted to the male-dominated culture by already making significant compromises in their personal or professional lives in order to succeed.

In the face of resistance, you and your colleagues will need to exercise consistent leadership. People typically avoid leadership because it means putting themselves out there - taking risks and making people uncomfortable. That's why exercising leadership requires both skill and courage.

Islam's Architectural Revolution

Intriguing article in this week's Time about an architectural revolution in the design of mosques around the world.

Some of the more interesting lines:
The disputes over modern mosques echo larger debates taking place in the Islamic world today about gender, power and, particularly in immigrant communities, Islam's place in Western societies. Even the simplest design decision can reflect questions that are crucial to Islam and its adherents: Should women be allowed in a mosque's main hall or confined to separate quarters: Are minarets necessary in the West, where laws on noise levels mean they are rarely used for the call to prayer? What should a mosque attended by Muslims from different parts of the world look like?

The most daring buildings are dreamt up by second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants, who have the confidence and cash to build stone-and-glass symbols of Islam's growing strength in places like Europe.

The designs behind the best of the mosques take the opposite view: they may be making statements but they are also sensitive to local concerns and aesthetics. [One] mosque ... in a gritty working-class Manchester [UK] neighborhood, uses reclaimed wood and solar panels on the roof to power its underfloor heating. Inside, peach carpeting and plasma TVs give the air of a prosperous suburban English home, while the prayer hall has carvings inspired by the 10th century North African Fatimid dynasty.
Innovation also blooms in unlikely places such as southern Bavaria. In the town of Penzberg, the Islamic Forum, built in 2005, last year won a Wessobrunner ARchitekturpreis, an award granted every five years for outstanding Bavarian architecture. A simple block of glass and pearly stone, the Forum beckons Muslims and non-Muslims alike to enter through two doors built to resemble an open book. ... The delicate minaret, lace-like from a distance, is a calligraphic representation of the words of the call to prayer, punched out of steel plates.

Traditional mosques tend to keep women hidden by walls or curtains. In newer, more progressive buildings, prayer areas for men and women often remain separate - but equal.

... [T]he Floating Mosque currently under construction off the cost of Dubai ..., an arresting building, which is due to be finished by 2011, resembles a futuristic submarine rising from the Persian Gulf with minarets to short and slender they could be periscopes. Built of floating modules of concrete and foam, it will be cooled by seawater pumped through the roof, walls and floors.

... [A] group of young Dutch architects ... wanted their concept for the Polder Mosque to achieve a similar level of cool. Riffing on the Dutch idea of seeking consensus, their design features not minarets but windmills. Inside, they planned space for a hammam (or bathhouse) and a row of shops. The mosque was never meant to exist but to generate discussion.

[The] An-Nasr [mosque, in Rotterdam] will [have a minaret of] glass - transparent and subtle, rather than dominating the skyline. The call to prayer will be broadcast in lights, pulsating to the rhythm of the muezzin's voice.
Here's the question on my mind:

To what extend does the article mirror trends in the Jewish community from the middle of the 20th century? As Jewish synagogues and other communal buildings found more cultural acceptance - of course, with the same 2nd and 3rd generation as the movers and shakers - was similar language used? Similar ideas? (Paging Sliv:) Was it this type of conversation out of which the synagogue-as-community center model emerged?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Fourth Word in the Equation

Throughout Jewish education, reductionist versions of the fundamental debate about the nature of the modern state of Israel are hashed out, at differing levels of (reductionist) nuance. The most basic question (rehashed to no end at Ramah in Wisconsin last summer, to my great annoyance) pits Judaism against democracy, actually a false dichotomy, but we'll leave that aside for the moment. The more complicated question, acknowledging our c. 5 million non-Jewish fellow inhabitants of the land that stretches מהלבנון עד מדבר מצרים ומן הים הגדול עד לבוא הערבה, adds a third factor: the land. This triangle of "Jewish," "democratic," and "the (whole) land" results in a situation (as pointed out recently at an Encounter debriefing) whereby two out of three are pretty easy to achieve, but to include the third factor? Aye, there's the rub.

I'd like to suggest that we too often conflate two different ideas when we use the word "democracy" in referring to the Jewish state. One of the great geniuses of the post-Enlightenment nation-state is that democracy itself - rule of the people - is not enough to guarantee a liberal state. Liberal states - and here Israel falls far short of accepted Western norms - possess legal acknowledgments of basic human rights and have a constitutional structure that protects citizens from themselves. Such is the brilliance of a political environment where Madison had to fear the "tyranny of the majority" becomes something to be reckoned with - the creation of stopgap measures to prevent democracy from destroying itself.

This editorial, which appeared on the Haaretz website yesterday, introduces in somewhat inflammatory language the obvious facts: it is not a "democratic" state which is in direct tension with a "Jewish" state, but a "liberal" one. And, as Gideon Levy points out, the fault lies not with the minority who take advantage of the states anti-liberalism, but with the majority who allow it to happen, cowed by I-don't-know-what. An Israel I would want to live in would be a democratic one infused by a liberal Judaism (not the liberal Jewish movements, though that might be a start) - that is a synthesis worth striving for.

The mere chopping-off of certain non-Jewish areas of the state for the sake of maintaining the so-called "democratic" state that now exists (where a misguided, immoral, and strategically moronic settlement policy has thrived for 35 years; where cutting off your nose to spite your face has become the hallmark of a litmus test for "true believers" of a religion that has survived by its adaptability and pragmatism; and where the governmental system calls into fundamental question the absolute values of so-called "representative democracies," and "public servants," [not to mention a judiciary that must be fundamentally activist and liberal]) is not a sacrifice worth making. That Israel is not one I could be proud of either.

And so I (we) are faced with a double-problem, the conflation of the occupation with the anti-liberalism of the country. That dual status quo is what the settler movement seeks to preserve and what, frankly, the organized political institutions are also trying to preserve. Can we attack one without the other? Is one worth defusing if the other still exists? Morally, the plight of the living Palestinians is more compelling a cause than the abstract ideals and relatively insignificant advances in standard-of-living that a liberal state would bring with it. But at the same time, the creation of a truly liberal culture in the Middle East (which, as Levy implies, would need to be truly a creation ex nihilo) might allow for us to live side-by-side with our (internal) neighbors, as opposed to fearing the "democratic" label being flipped on a majority-non-Jewish state, with all the anti-liberal bullshit that we now foist on each other and the Palestinians falling back, with a vengeance, squarely on our shoulders (not unlike that scene from Slumdog Millionaire).

Where's the reset leader this country needs?

Ted Sizer on Religion in Schools

I've written previously about Ted Sizer, intellectual giant of the past decades' attempts at school reform.

Near the end of the second section of Horace's Compromise, titled "The Program," in a chapter titled "Character: Decency," Sizer makes some awesome comments about the role of religion in schools (particularly as it relates to the notion of character education).


Pg. 126-127, in the wake of recounting a conversation with a senior at a Baptist school who had shared with Sizer the conversation she had with Jesus about him wanting her to be a teacher:
One might conclude that the girl was unsophisticated, that her family, community, and school had shielded her from much of the world. One might guess that, initially at least, she would be very troubled in a Socratic discussion, in any situation where she might be pressed toward relative rather than absolute values. However, one can say as much about many students in firmly secular public schools.
Pg. 127-129, the following masterstrokes in the midst of a larger discussion of how flimsy the church-state separation really is, and how religion is essential to education:
The neat legalisms about Jefferson's putative wall between church and state find no place in reality, save at the extremes.

Individualism, compassion, the sense of obligation for service to one's community, and a belief in literacy all have, surprising though it might seem to some, religious roots.
Few educators like to be reminded of this. The unconscious Protestant Christian bias of many public schools is often visible only to Jewish or Catholic families. Indeed, it was this bias which more than anything led to the establishment of a coherent system of Catholic schools in the late nineteenth century, and the current growth of Jewish day schools arises from an analogous sense of bias in the public sector. [Written, I remind you, in the early '80s.]

The argument about the existence of a "religion" called "secular humanism" is not a silly one. ... to argue that "unfettered" scientific or social scientific inquiry is unconnected with religion is plausible only if one gives a remarkably narrow definition to religion, essentially relegating it to the status of a mystery.

The message of this bit of current history is to remind educators of the religious element in all schooling. ... By pretending there is a wall between religious issues and their schools, public school people remove themselves from the argument about the ways that religion must properly exist in their schools, and they leave the field open to unchallenged religious enthusiasts. ... [I]t increases the need for legalistic precision in an area where deliberate ambiguity may be a virtue.
He concludes the chapter (pp. 129-130):
Reasonable people can disagree about the implications of even such a moderate and limited concept as dignity. ...
The line between originality and incivility is a fuzzy one, as is that between freedom and vulgar intrusiveness. Inexperienced adolescents trying their wings - working up a new cheerleaders' routine or staging a play - will test that line. It is all right for John Updike to use the word "fuck" in a short story that is assigned in class, but not all right for the students to use it in their play. Most people enjoy surprising others, and adolescents are no exception. They often like to give a bit of a shock to old folk. Look at us. Listen to our freedom.
No one learns how to calibrate the limits of offensiveness without practice. Good character reflects skills at such calibrating. Allowing students opportunities to learn these skills requires patience and a toleration of more offensiveness than many adults can stomach, particularly those older people who have limited self-confidence (who have shaky calibration skills of their own) or who are being hammered by outside critics. Where to draw lines depends on values about which thoughtful people can seriously disagree.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Great Depth from XX Factor

I'm working on whittling down my Google Reader numbers and read through about sixty recent posts from Slate's XX Factor (previously written about here and here).

Two highlights from the reading:

1. XX Factor had reported being underwhelmed at the recently released trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, the forthcoming movie based on the book. It has, however, in the opinion of the XX Factor women, spawned a "fantastic spoof," a quite funny faux-trailer for a fictitious film based on the classic children's book Everyone Poops. (Which we do.)

2. An extended conversation (or multiple conversations, highlights of which are here, here, here, here, here, and here) (all actually in short, unsatisfying snippets) about teen sexuality and pregnancy, which centered on two foci: a new book, The Purity Myth, that argues against the current protect-abstinence/chastity=purity approach (though the blog appropriately raises the current lack of a replacement myth, the same problem I have had in thinking about an intellectually honest contemporary sexual ethics), and the ongoing Bristol Palin/Levi Johnston saga, capped off by pointing me towards this wonderful piece on about Elizabeth Cousins, a teenage mother whose decision to have her daughter (though made under the guise of sketchy advice) seems to have helped produce a thoughtful woman.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

More Evidence I've Been Misclassified

With news like this, I think it's a foregone conclusion:

I am a chimpanzee.

(And embarrassed that I haven't been able to articulate a profitable business plan based on this principle by which I should have been living my life all this time.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

In Praise of Joe Posnanski

I've written about Joe Posnanski before (here, here, and here), but that was before I found his blog and actually read a good number of his posts. (I had been picking Joe's articles for up whenever they were highlighted on the main page and looked interesting. Now I've subscribed to his blog through Google reader.)

I love this guy - he's my new favorite sportswriter-cum-goofball.

Reasons? Let me count the way:

1. He brought my attention to an insane fantasy baseball league with crazy owners (including Bill James and Curt Schilling) where each owner picks a team and gets to play the all-time greats on that team. Not only that, but in this league (theoretically played out through statistical simulations, I imagine) the Yankees somehow didn't make the playoffs and the Expos somehow made the LCS. And Bob Feller is terrible.

2. He brought my attention to an unbelievable simulation program of the "Let's Make a Deal" odds that, perhaps a little sketchily, seems to guarantee a 73% success rate (when I'm pretty sure it should be only 67% - both Joe and I got 73 though on a 100 tries).

3. This giggle out loud article about the Snuggie phenomenon sweeping the nation and other "infoco" (cross between an informercial and a commercial, though being that an infomercial is actually an information commercial, maybe we should just call it an informermercial).

4. In the Snuggie article, he includes the following sentence:
I am entirely baffled about why religious is spelled e-l-i while sacrilegious goes i-l-e. I suspect that this is based on the word “sacrilege,” but still, it bothers me.
5. His wife has a blog on his website. Now I'm subscribed to that too.

Potpourri: "Spring Cleaning" (or, Trying to Get Rid of Long-Open Tabs in My Browser)

A rundown of interesting stuff here and there ...

First, some follow-ups:

Three recent articles help contextualize and expand my recent post about the mass-folding of newspapers in the current climate. Two, from Slate, make arguments against the alleged essential link between newspapers and democracy and for the return of yellow journalism. To dovetail with a return of yellow journalism - to increase readership and make newspapers less sterile and, therefore, more interesting (like blogs, no?) - HuffPo had an article describing Google CEO Eric Schmidt's speech to the Newspaper Association of America where he basically argued for consumer-centric journalism (yellow journalism by another name?) and Google's possible role in helping the newspaper industry return to profitability (and making more money for himself, his stockholders, Sergey, and Larry in the process).

So, let me get this straight: newspapers should drop their ethical anality and actually be interesting, and that might mean they can make money? It seems as if people are no longer interested in print versions of the Congressional Record.

On a follow-up to my post about EW's review of the Jonas Brothers movie, check out the South Park version, in Season 13's episode "The Ring." Watch here (it's near the end of the episode). (Thanks to b-i-l Ace for the tip.)

In the latest development in the coming debate over which is more damaging to civilization, our current (and future) fights over fossil fuels or the looming water crisis, Slate's Jack Shafer reports on an essay in Nature (which is only available, unfortunately, for a price) that argues that, in a predictable left-y interpretation (which doesn't mean that it's wrong), though we start (needless) wars over (bad) oil, diplomacy and discussion have solved the world's past problems with (good) water.

I haven't gotten there in my Encounter reporting (last check, I hadn't really gotten anywhere, actually), but the building of the so-called "security fence" in the West Bank may prove a counter-example here, as the Israeli government's over-reaching for water resources in parched Israel has only helped to foment an already dicey age-old cultural hatred. And, as we all know, had either the Jews or the Arabs found oil in the Holy Land, some of us would be a lot richer (or deader; or both).

Newsweek has an excellent profile on Paul Krugman, NY Times columnist, Princeton professor, and Nobel Laureate - focusing on his critiques of the Obama administration's economic policies but also shining a light on who Krugman is, what makes him tick.

I think I have a crush on him.

The New York Times reported on an important theoretical study (as opposed to a theoretically important one) that helps begin to explain why we have itches and why they (usually) feel better after we scratch them. The study itself does not actually provide new information about itching and scratching - scratch around the itch, not on it, for maximal impact - but instead helps explain the whole origin of itching in the first place (it's the spinal chord, stupid) which should help open up research avenues for certain diseases (HIV, kidney disease, and something called "atopic eczema") that cause terrible itching symptoms.

HuffPo has "6 Things You Didn't Know About Passover," which includes these doozies:
[M]any Jews were in synagogue for the holiday when news of Lincoln's assassination broke. Altars in temples "were quickly draped in black and, instead of Passover melodies, the congregations chanted Yom Kippur hymns. Rabbis set aside their sermons and wept openly at their pulpits, as did their congregants."
Solomon Henry Jackson, an English-born American Jew, published the first American edition of the Haggadah in 1837 in New York. Jackson had moved to the city in the 1820s to establish the first Hebrew printing press, and The Jew, a monthly newspaper and the first Jewish periodical in the United States. One could say Jackson was the original member of the Jewish media elite.
____________________________________________________________________________________ places Scrubs in the pantheon of sublime thirty-minute television shows (with M*A*S*H and Brooklyn Bridge). The piece is written by one of David Bianculli's guest bloggers, all of whom will, shortly, become part of a larger staff at the site that's about to undergo a major makeover. I can't wait.

And now for some items that have been sitting in my browser for far too long:

Masterful piece on Slate from the most recent war in Gaza on how to take pictures during a war. Very much in the noble and awesome tradition of the late genius Susan Sontag, whose Regarding the Pain of Others was part of the reading list we read in anticipation of her visit to Penn's Kelly Writers House in the Spring of 2003. Sontag's keen mind could not the irony of the homonymic relationship between "shooting people" and "shooting pictures." Not sure if I've blogged about this yet, but the first edition of Sontag's journals, edited by her son, man-of-arts-and-letters David Reiff, have been published to great acclaim here.

Awesomely exuberant article on Slate about a pair of ants-versus-humans books (here and here) that analyze ant civilization and its comparisons to human civilization. Books look great; article is sure fun.

Slate also examined the phenomenon of translating the Qur'an (and its importance in democratizing Islam for both its adherents and outsiders) and reviewed a recent new translation.

Maybe we can begin accounting for Islam's impact on globalized civilization by learning its classic text well enough to utilize it in cultural referents (like "turn the other cheek;" "water into wine;"and "walk on water" from the New Testament and the Ten Commandments; prohibition against homosexuality; seven days of creation; and more from the Hebrew Bible).

Every year, Slate's "Explainer" column publishes the (most absurd) questions they were asked during the last year but they chose not to answer.

I tried selecting highlights but they're all just too funny. Laugh-out-loud in a room by yourself funny.

Possibly the best T-shirt ever.

Sporcle has a new quiz about the world's chicken population. (Seriously.)

A lovely live gaffe on The Weather Channel. Cubs fans must have loved it.

And my browser's empty. Ah.

Our First סדר - An Exercise in Fun

Last night T and I ran our first סדר, an attempt to integrate two lives of traditions and memories that had positive and negative attributes with our own educational sense. We were blessed with an awesome crowd, including my sister, her boyfriend Gabi, Tamar's brother Etan, dear new friends Jen and Doniel, and two of my dear friends who are also former campers - HAZ and Reis-a-roni.

We began with introductions and people sharing where they would be if they weren't at our סדר and a מנהג from home that they were bringing to our סדר.

קידוש, ורחץ, and כרפס progressed as normal, and that's when things got fun.

We retired to the couches and pillows in our den area for מגיד (the suggested מנהג of b-i-l Etan from his friend's Syrian סדר in Brooklyn where he would have been had he not joined us) and T brought out our little כרפס surprise (not quite snake surprise or the monkey dish from The Temple of Doom, but hey, what is?): a mashed potato bar.

During my time at Heschel we would stop the 10th grade תלמוד curriculum around פורים and transition into learning the 10th chapter of מסכת פסחים in preparation for a "Tannaitic Seder," following the (imagined) plain meaning of the משנה. One of the many differences that comes across through a close reading of the משנה is that "כרפס," as we know it, was initially an appetizer course (sans salt water) that lasted until (we think) the beginning of the main course. Such was the style of the Greco-Roman symposium (made famous by Plato, and Fellini in Satyricon, among others) - including מגיד on couches and lots of reclining. My long-term goal is to move towards a massive sushi course for כרפס but that is, at the very least, quite a ways away (legumic rice being morsel-non-grata in the veto-possessing half of the Bednarsh-Cytryn household). If you're not into the two-types-of-mashed-potatoes + sweet pecan crumble + sauteed mushrooms and onions approach, we also suggest crudites.

מגיד itself was accompanied by lively conversation which I will not attempt to recreate her, other than to highlight several observations I made (if these were, in fact, the חידושים of others at the סדר, then I beg their forgiveness for stealing intellectual property):
  • The juxtaposition of the story of the five תנאים in בני ברק and then the halachic discussion of בן זומא and the need to be מזכיר יציאת מצרים בלילות had never occured to me before last night. It seems to me that the בני ברק anecdote is meant to serve as proof in a not-fully-fleshed-out discussion of whether or not we need to recount the exodus at night. These five rabbis clearly believed that we did. Their story, perhaps more than anything else (Bar Kochba and long-סדר interpretations aside), is part of a halachic dialogue about קריאת שמע. Why it's in the סדר? Still don't have a good answer for that one.
  • my sister suggested an innovative debate about the four sons: which kind of child could be taken farther? who has the most potential? which would you prefer being charged to educate? (this opposed to, for example, asking students to identify themselves as one of the children - oy.)
  • in a lively discussion about the "if we hadn't been redeemed, our children, grandchildren, et c. would still be slaves to פרעה in Egypt," that included a number of wonderful reads, I had two ideas: the text makes more sense to me if we assume that, at this early stage of the סדר, we already have the instruction of "בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים" in our mind, because if we, ourselves, were actually redeemed from Egypt, then it is easier to imagine that "our children and grandchildren" would still be slaves if we were not. Alternatively, during this first פסח of a new era of American history, the political parallels to the African American community in the United States are noteworthy. The community has not "known slavery" for nearly 150 years, but it is, in many ways, still enslaved. So then, we might imagine that the distance provided by the exodus, the fresh start, the divine intervention, is more important than the "mere" event of "freedom." Inertia is dangerous; the exodus is, if anything, a story about how important traumatic breaks from the past are.
  • the parallels of עבדים היינו and עובדי עבודה זרה are striking. Someone (sister's boyfriend, GM? Doniel?) pointed out that both rely on the same root (ע.ב.ד). What's clear is that one posits an historical answer and the other provides a spiritual one. Such is the context, I believe, in the גמרא. However, both also provide both sides to the answer, just in different orders. Whereby עבדים היינו begins with the political, it transitions (post-ברוך המקום - back to that in a moment) into the spiritual, with the discussion of the four sons (כנגד ארבעה בנים דיברה תורה). Similarly, while עובדי עבודה זרה begins with the spiritual, after its own interlude (remarkably parallel to ברוך המקום in its ברוך + X + ברוך הוא format) it transfers into the clearly political agenda of the ברית בין הבתרים and ארמי אבד אבי.
The conversations were truly great - exciting and fulfilling.

For the next part of the סדר we transitioned away from the straight text of the הגדה. Instead of recounting the extensive מדרשים on ארמי אבד אבי, we asked Doniel to bring a rabbinic text to teach. He chose the stunning מדרש from תנחומה about the role of the women of Israel in the exodus, particularly as it relates to the mirrors used in the building of the משכן and enticing their husbands to sleep with them. I love this text, which was first introduced to me years ago by Ruth Fagen, and which I likely would have chosen had I gone searching for a powerful text. It also happened to account for a long-standing tradition at the Bednarsh household for the סדר: T's mother's lengthy excursus on the overlooked role of the Israelite women in the whole ordeal.

We then transitioned into a bit of Bednarsh family awesomeness that worked better than T and I could have imagined. The Bednarshes, for reasons not exactly clear to me, treat their סדר as a bit of פורים with lots of shtick and fun (together with masterfully covering all halachic bases necessary). This particular section involves assigning different people at the סדר a plague and having them do some sort of "presentation" on the plague. Past highlights have involved T's grandmother (Savti) coming out with dracula fangs for blood and dabbing calamine lotion on everyone for boils; my wife presenting a variety of movie lines from films whereby human beings were killed by animals for ערוב; and more.

Because they all deserve discussion, here were our plague presentations from last night:
1. Doniel: A series of vignettes from the "Darwin Awards" of people who died from blood-loss or other hilarious stories relating to Israel/Egypt/Passover. Got things started off phenomenally.
2. Sarah (the sis): Everyone went around the circle doing their best "ribbit."
3. HAZ: Read us the absolutely (unintentionally?) hilarious Israeli children's book "הכינה נחמה" - Nechama the Louse - about a little louse's journeys around the world on people's hair. HAZ did a great job of translating the book into English (mad props to the Rothberg International School's Ulpan program for that, I imagine) and we were rolling on the floor from laughter.
4. Jen: Passed out pictures of her cuter-than-words son (sleeping in the next room) Micah in his Purim costume (a lion suit) and on the back of each picture was a fact about lions and Micah that we each read. For example: "At about a year old lion cubs join the hunt for food. By the age of 2 they can bring down a gazelle by themselves. Micah is still learning to master putting toys in and out of the toy box."
5. Etan: Handed out typed-up copies of a comedy sketch imagining ENN's (Egyptian News Network) reporting of the דבר outbreak in Egypt as it happened, as reported by animals including: Kermit the Frog (anchor); Wolf Blitzer; Rush Lamb-augh; Dolly the Sheep; and Michael J. the Fox. We all read the sketch with our assigned parts. Quite cute.
6. Gabi: Had us go around the table telling gruesome stories of terrible illnesses we've had. Highlights included (the names have been omitted to protect those who suffered once and need not suffer again): sun poisoning (twice) and constipation.
7. T: Threw "hail" on us - crumpled up pieces of paper with either a picture of the Virgin Mary or the Presidential Seal on them. Get it? (I thought she also should have added pictures of Hitler.)
8. Reis-a-roni: Wrote a rap based on some rap song that my sister knew but no one else did ... performed said rap. It was money.
9. Jacob: Tried to play the game "celebrity" with 39 pieces of pop-culture utilizing the words "dark," "night," and "knight" (and almost those words, like Dirk Diggler and Bill Nighy) but things were cut short because (a) it was already after 11 p.m. and (b) my associative mind made some of these quite, quite difficult (though, in my defense, the beauty of the game celebrity is round 2 and 3, not round 1).
10. Person who was supposed to present didn't show.

We transitioned back to the table for the end of מגיד.

We ate well.

We sang a lot, as people faded.

Great סדר - thanks to all who joined us. We'll attempt to replicate the creativity front next year.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Advice for Those of You Interacting with Jewish Grandmothers

The following may or may not be inspired by repeated interactions with my in-laws and general family tensions surrounding the ironic holiday of freedom.

For the record, I find my grandmother to be more like the grandmother in this little article by Mike Alvear, and T's grandmother, aka Savti, to be cuddlier, as far as I can tell.

But it contains an interesting and insightful observation on conservatives, one that I think continues to highlight two intractable challenges: the liberal paradox (e.g., everyone should have the right to say what they believe unless they believe something immoral) and maintaining a pluralism of opinions when some of them are more restrictive and others more permissive (Rabbi Roth's hope).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

That Warm and Funny Feeling? ... Probably a Poisonous Caterpillar

It's the eve of Passover and all of Israel is shutting down. Rumors are that the roads are packed tonight (Thanksgiving afternoon style) as חילונים drive back and forth to their סדרים.

It's the kind of time we ought to be able to acknowledge the universality of the Jewish people, on this night when, in addition to recounting our shared birth narrative (which we do every night and twice on שבת) we act it out, attempting to fulfill the Mishnaic injunction to "see ourselves as if we had left Egypt."

Cue the Israeli Army's rabbinate pooping on our parade.

Wonder who I'll be directing my morally-problematic שפך חמתך at this evening?

Gotta love the Jews.

From Over the Horizon Where the Sun Shines In and Beyond the Atlantic Sea, A Legend Revives to Answer the Questions: אז מה? and למאי נפקא מינה?

[When I started writing this last week, it didn't seem to be connected to פסח. Once שבוע שחל בו hit, however, what could be more about freedom, springtime, anti-oppression, and leafy green vegetables than Hair?

This post is for JAR (and very well might only be appreciated by him), my partner from the dawn of history through its most recent iteration.]

I'm not sure how in this economy, but I hope Broadway ticket sales are strong through the summer. Not just for my actor-friends-of-friends, but for the chance to be able to see what is an interestingly-timed revival of the legendary musical Hair, a show that has, for pretty nonsensical and ironic reasons, found a hugely influential and revered place in my own inner-life.

(Thanks again to Google Desktop's beauty by showing me that this review on HuffPo existed.)

It is worth noting that when Hair premiered in 1968 it provided a narrative voice to a nation being clusterfucked: RFK, MLKJ, Tet, and Nixon, most famously (did I just pastiche a verse of We Didn't Start the Fire?). From all I can gather, the nation felt itself spiraling out of control in a much different way than we do today, and the revival would have been much more timely had it been released in the midst of Bush/Cheney reelection, Terry Schiavo, and the Fallujah killings (whose anniversary we just commemorated). My sense is that Hair is about a young generation's frustrations, and, at this moment in time (at least in the US), it is not the young who are down-and-out but the middle-aged - specifically (ironically?) the generation who had their future for which to fight in '68 but seem to be beaten-down and defeated by the bottom falling out of their massive bank accounts. Rent was Generation X's version of Hair (though significantly different, which I won't get into right now); I'm not sure if my generation ("the millennials") had/s one or will have one with the same impact. Perhaps our musical, as it were, is Obama.

None of this explains, of course, Hair's role in my own life (other than, well, my aversion to shaving, love of preposterous ritual excuses to not cut my hair, and general out-of-control hirsuteness). I encountered Hair at Ramah where, alongside Les Miserables, Hair stands as the greatest camp musical. It provides a compelling and relevant story and has a deeper message to accompany its profound music, unlike Cabaret, Chicago, and Mamma Mia!, and much more heft than the younger kid classics like Free to Be You and Me and the Disney shows. (I don't quite know why Joseph isn't as powerful, but it might come from its treacliness.)

Hair began, for me, as a legend; it hung heavily in the zeitgeist as the greatest expression of talent and energy of the most talented עדה anyone ever spoke about, the נבונים of '92, the giants who used to toss a frisbee effortlessly across the כיכר (which, I would realize years later, wasn't so impressive at all), a legendary basketball team (though, it's worth noting, I think '93, '94, '95, '96, '02, or '06 could have beaten them even at the height of their game), and the privilege to premiere two of Broadway's greatest (Hair and then Les Miserables) shows in consecutive summers with their divine male voices to complement the run-of-the-mill phenomenal female vocal talent at camp. The legend was amplified by dear friend Andy Abeles, whose older brother Zach was in that עדה (though I have a hard time imagining him playing a significant role among that crowd) and would become its one shining example of a positive contributor to the הנהלה (an imperfect but useful gauge of an עדה's long-term influence on camp). Camp had just started recording the musicals on VHS in '91 when we did Hair for the first time, and someone forgot to hit the "color" button on the ancient video camera; the tie-dye fest celebrating the sunshine flower children was filmed in black-and-white, a כאילו noir or serious arty flick of a (literally for me) prehistoric performance in the old בית עם, whose acoustics and ruggedness I miss dearly.

Four years after beginning to hear the legends of Hair '91, we found out that we would be the second עדה to perform the show, and it captivated our summer and provided the ur-text to my developing conception of what camp was all about. The performances were astonishing - Litwack, Chasnoff, Taxy, JAR, Nerman (Carbank), Dana, and Orlee - in their grandeur and in their understated brilliance - Howard, Betty, Gorenstein, Price, Blivaiss, the four "Hair" soloists Deanna, Zim, Hannah, and Dan - but the show was defined by the strength of our ninety-nine voices on stage, singing these songs as if we believed in them. 3-5-0-0 (translated as תשע-אפס-אפס for proper rhythm) was extraordinary, both in the girls functioning as a single unit in their words and dance and also for the best scene of faux-military combat that stage has ever seen. And the chorus numbers' power must have been truly overwhelming, as the need to turn down the volume on the recording whenever we started singing makes clear.

The show - as the HuffPo review points out - rotates around two axes: an anti-war message and an "Age of Aquarius" vision. So often in abstractly constructed situations we (appropriately) ask the question: What's this for? What's this about? Why are we here? Such is the dogged inquisition asked at Wexner Institutes and cynics like to ask the same questions at camp as well. For me, in all honesty, the question never really needed to be asked - this abstract constructions feel like home, their artificially enforced notions of community being always more compelling to me than the so-called "real" communities I lived in elsewhere. Camp was an opportunity, to borrow BJH's language, to be a part of something greater than ourselves, to play out romantic visions of teamwork, protest, resistance. To experiment with who we are and who we could be. Hair, then, provides the perfect framework for that - language and actions that resonate with either approach, the vision of an idealized life or a life operationalized (imbued with meaning) by a cause. For us at camp, it was a complex interaction of both phenomena, and I find it not ironic at all that the language of camp that, especially, was developed by Zimbler, Orlee, me, and others, grew out of consecutive summers with Grease (similarly themed but with far less at stake) and Hair. In the great moments of the life of our עדה it is clear to me without a doubt that these were the factors at play. It may very well be that we were playing with these ideas pre-Hair (though they exist also in Free to Be You and Me, our סוללים show) but Hair gave us the philosophical framework on which to hang our hats.

Five years after that legendary מכון summer (whose events, serendipitious gelling of the עדה, and staff the נבונים summer could never match), some of the key players found ourselves back together again, working on a production of Hair for our campers in '01. The core team that worked on that show, including JAR (the director and main mover-and-shaker), Thal, and OB from our עדה, created what I think was our עדה's ideal version of the show. The tricks we used, the set design, the awesomeness, was our twenty year old selves doing what David Glickman (our director in '96) could not imagine us having been capable of doing when we were kids (and maybe we weren't ready to anyway). The show we put up, however, was lacking that very goal we were all pushing towards - a recreation of our עדה, a time trip back to the magical summer of '96. The performances were outstanding, and the play grew in magnitude and scope, but it was missing the only thing we couldn't give it - us. It was the first great show in the new בית עם (opened that summer) and was as hopeless at matching up to the legend of '91 and our experience in '96 as the first time I made rocky mountain toast at home - sans dirt, sans context.

We failed at channeling, I believe, our campers instead of ourselves, just as we stood at the cusp of breaking free of the suffocating influence of our עדה and our memories to transform the baggage we carried into something constructive and value-added. That summer was a last hurrah, and, with that transition, I acquired for myself my first new עדה. In the wake of the play, some of the kids in נבונים, jealous of the inability of their own show (Little Shop) to match up to the awesomeness of Hair, and having seen our Hair during their first summer at camp years before, told our campers that their show didn't match up. It was somewhere in those next few days were, among other things, I crafted a שבת program to address this very concern, that I realized that all the theoretically beautiful educational visioning I could summon (and wow can I summon it) was worth nothing without a deep connection to the children for whom I was programming.

Time moved on, and everyone from that team left camp except for JAR and me. This past summer, for the first time since '02, an עדה put on Hair. The show was stunningly marvelous, longer and more complex than any that had preceded it. I felt my characteristic dull pain at not continuing to develop relationships with עדות, and thought the play was phenomenal but could not feel it in the way I used to. The show represented, to me, a completion of the move that began sometime after the videographer forgot to hit the "color" button before the show in '91, that took a massive lurch forward in '01 with the new sound system and walls. In '08, no parts were split, and the show was somehow even more removed from a "camp" play than Cabaret in '07, with its unfurled swastika banners that the director had not thought to take down before the curtain call. The tears streaming down the face of the magnificent child who was singing Flesh Failures and the עדה's collective decision not to take individual bows were the stuff of a new generation's legends. For me they were reminders of the rich, rich past, and the inevitability of change.

The twin themes of Hair still resonate, though I have moved from teaching and cultivating those themes to teaching how to teach and cultivate themes - a meta-move that still brings me great joy and, perhaps with the passing of enough time, will allow me to enjoy again the feelings of greatness I once knew. In the meantime, Hair is a narrative frame for the "progress" of camp (a topic for a future post) and a well I will continue drawing from for inspiration and worthwhile educational messages.

Hopefully, for the first time, I'll see it live, in English, in the fall.