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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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

איכה - Scrambled Lemons

A once promising and hopeful story that turned a little sour has now become (predictably) absurd.

I hope that Wafa Younis, the conductor of the now-disbanded Palestinian youth orchestra and choir, likes operas, because her story is becoming good fodder for a librettist looking for a hanging curveball. Or an avant-garde playwright looking for a little slice of Beckett or Camus.

I'd title the opera: Orchestra of the Absurd

Figuring Kids Out, But Not Me

I have all sorts of aversions - most famously winter coats (I layer sweatshirts when it's really frigid and have made it through winters in St. Louis, Jerusalem, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston through the system) and rain gear (I just get soaked). I just think they're both uncomfortable.

The XX Factor (quickly becoming a must-read in my book) recently reported on a new study (whose title's first word appears to be the final round of the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee) that explains why "children" don't put their coats on, even after their mothers tell them a million times (perhaps slightly exaggerated) to do so. Turns out the mind of the child doesn't actually work like a miniature, less-well-developed (or better-developed, depending on which Fortune 500 CEO, hedge fund manager, or politician you're asking on a given day) version of the adult mind. Rather, the kid needs a "hook" on which to attach the abstract knowledge and make it meaningful in a practical way - not dissimilar, perhaps, from other generally-excepted theories of learning that acknowledges that the contextualization of knowledge is of paramount importance - we truly make sense of information only by weaving it into already existing knowledge. I could go on for a while on this stuff, but it's an interesting piece from the ladies at XX.

Encounter Post #1: An Introduction

I had the profound pleasure of attending the recent Encounter trip to Bethlehem on Thursday and Friday, March 26-27.

Encounter is a program founded by two Wexner alumni, Rabbis Melissa Weintraub and Miriam Margles. Its goal is not dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather that the Jewish leaders from the diaspora who attend each encounter program return to their communities and change the nature of the Jewish community's discourse about Israel, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (and, I imagine, the Gaza strip), and the Palestinian-/Arab-Israeli conflict in general.

I adored my experience on the trip; I found my expectations surpassed significantly. Throughout the trip and, as it concluded Friday afternoon, I was conscious and eager for my experience to translate into an extended written testimony and reflection through my blog. Then, as it tends to, time passed, and sitting down to begin to write became a bigger and bigger deal, just as the rest of my experience continued to intrude on the mental space I was able to so completely devote to the trip as it happened late last week. And so, even though I am not currently "in the zone" where I feel like I write best (though, admittedly, that zone is also where I most clearly write in a certain style that I imagine some like more than others), I need to begin to write.

There are moments in our lives when things change around us so quickly that we are confused; where we change so profoundly that we want - need - to feel a difference in our external selves as much as our minds, our personalities, our lived experience feels differently. The most mundane of these experiences, I imagine, are birthdays (do you feel any older? do I look 23?) and long-distance travel (heightened by jetlag and other consequences of air travel that the human body could never have evolved "intentionally" to cope with); more significant ones include getting engaged (two years ago tomorrow), getting married, having a child (I imagine), getting into college, graduating from anything, et c. Leaving camp was always one of those moments for me, one of the reasons why, for so many years, I clung to replicating in some way the experience of my childhood - needing some sort of waystation between camp itself and the jarring realities (and sameness) of "home."

Encounter was this type of experience - I feel, walking through the streets of Jerusalem and conversing with friends and family, that they should be able, somehow, to see how much I have changed, to hear it in my voice, to feel it within me. They cannot. And so it is as if my body thinks it's 2 a.m. but it's really 10 a.m.; as if I am still who I am but I betrothed myself to my beloved the night before. It is not an out of body experience; it is an uncomfortable, discordant inside of body experience. And this offness that I feel demands of me that I respond to it, persistently asks me questions: How will you live your life differently to indicate the impact of this experience? Such, I think, is the consequence of every such experience whereby we internally change and externally remain the same. (And, it is worth noting, such is the trauma of the opposite situation - amputation; a house burning down; losing a loved one; becoming a refugee - when our external world is forever altered but our internal one lags far, far behind.)

I went on Encounter intent more on learning from the program's methods (more on this in a second) than from its content. I assumed that it was not likely that I would be moved politically by the trip - it is difficult for me to imagine myself moving farther to the left while still supporting the State of Israel, and it is harder to imagine engaging in the face-to-face conversations I knew we would be having with living, breathing, human Palestinians and being pushed to the right - and, as far as I can tell, I was not. But I was moved by the trip to think about my politics differently, to try and find ways to have conversations with friends and family, in professional situations (Ramah most necessarily, but elsewhere as well), and to become (I hope) politically active on an issue for the first time in my life.

Interestingly to me, I cannot recall what my expectations were about what I would (or would not) learn on the trip - it seems likely that I never articulated any expectations whatsoever. Though I imagined there were people on the trip who learned many more basic-level facts than me, I learned an unbelievable amount of rich, meaty information that it is difficult for me to imagine being more intellectually stimulated by the experience.

In the end, I am still greatly interested in - and impressed by - the deliberate planning of Encounter and the seeming possibilities of its communications agreement and facilitation model. I have begun the process of scheduling a meeting with the amazingly talented staff of Encounter here in Israel (Ilana Sumka and Benj Kamm) to talk about ways to infuse other settings (Ramah) with the feel of Encounter and different models for implementing the facilitation model in different settings. Even so, the experience itself came to trump my academic interests; they seem, as it were, academic, in contrast to the people I met, the things I heard, the thoughts I had. I was overwhelmed by living through these experiences in a way I had not imagined I could be; it feels good.

My plan is to create for myself (and my readers and, perhaps, some other as-yet-to-be-determined audience) a written log and testimony to what I experienced and saw on Encounter. I will write about the framing of folk songs, the man I would happily elect as President of the United States, maqluba, new versions of backgammon, and a good number of children. I will write about easy answers and hard questions; tragedy and inspiration; Kafka and hope; safety and uncomfortability.

I will take a different approach then I have thus far taken on the blog, creating a series of blog entries which will, when all is said and done (and, with any luck, as the process is unfolding as well) be internally linked to each other and prominently displayed on the blog's home page itself. As I post new entries, I will update the (tentative) list of posts, below, with live links. And so you can always come back to this permanent link - - to read the next chapter in this project. The goal is to create more of a long-form narrative non-fiction piece than a single blog entry, a project that might exist on its own.

I plan on writing the following sections:

Hope Flowers

Sami Awad

Security Fence

Personal Narratives

Games + Dinner

The Handans

Saman Khoury

Tent of the Nations

Checkpoing Walkthrough

On Fear

Encounter as an Educational Venture


The Elephant in the Room

Only For the Children

Bearing Witness

Next: Encounter Post #2: Hope Flowers

Monday, March 30, 2009

Souring on Those Lemons

In a sad and depressing follow-up to a recent post, Haaretz reports that the Palestinian youth orchestra that played for Holocuast survivors last week has been disbanded because the Holocaust is "a political issue."


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Scariest Article I've Ever Read

Karen Tumulty, as the cover story in the March 16 issue of Time, wrote the scariest article I've ever read.

She chronicles the struggles of her brother, Pat, who has Asperger's Syndrome but appears to have been employed his entire adult life, was on a series of six-month medical policies through an insurance company in Texas (quickly replacing South Carolina as home to state bullshit, with props to Dave Segal's comedy routine) when he was diagnosed with kidney failure. The company rejected his claims, the bills piled up, and even his well-connected sister couldn't really do much.

Scariest article I've ever read.

Shouting Out

Giving props to people I know.

David Segal, prestigious alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and Rabbinical student at HUC, created this hilarious video for the HUC Purim spiel (thanks to David Goldberg for the tip). In spite of not getting all (most? any?) of the inside jokes, I'd like to state that my favorite parts are the "if it is your custom" and the Talmud professor who seems to be entirely too proud of himself. Segal's debut as a stand-up comic is also on YouTube. Not sure why there aren't further videos of David's comedy, but with humor like this (particularly the subway and potato salad bits), he could definitely be an above-average Rabbi. David and I struck up a friendship of mutual-admiration (I think; it's possible I just stalk him and he thinks I'm weird) at our first institute together and he is on the list of people who's synagogues I plan to join when I grow up.

Etan Bednarsh, prestigious brother-in-law and sure-to-be-appreciator of Segal's Andy Samberg inspiration, published again on The Huffington Post, to go along with his humor blog which, if not updated as often as I might like, is still wicked funny.

Emilie Botbol, dear friend and CRW alumna, has begun blogging from Nepal. Turns out that not only does the country have the highest mountains in the world and the most unique flag, but is also a fascinatingly 3rd-world kind of place.

My father, Rabbi Eric Cytryn [that picture's a little smushed], was featured in a (massive?) picture on the front page of the religion section of Friday's Harrisburg Patriot-News in the newly refurbished main sanctuary at Beth El Temple. Of course, the Patriot-News's website doesn't have the picture (but it does have the lame-o article), and dad hasn't yet sent me a final version of the sanctuary to complete my post about the impressive work that he, Executive Director Mike Schatz, President Alan Schein, and others have done to raise significant sums of money to give the synagogue a much-needing and (by all accounts) remarkably impressive facelift. Props to dad and as soon as I get the final pictures I'll pass them long.

If you're doing something else cool, be in touch so I can shout out to you too.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

To Avoid Depression, Let's Go On ... Vacation?!

This recent article from The Big Money, Slate's economics and money blog, outlines a seemingly French approach to combating the economic crisis: shorter work weeks.

The notion of the forced furlough, which could actually fuel some discretionary spending, I imagine, is an interesting one.

But would we ever go back to work full-time? And would the suggested moves inspire the type of creativity and reorganization that, I think, is one of the hallmarks of pressure on a given business?

In other words - and I have been meaning to flesh this out more and maybe will soon - isn't one of the characteristics of the "bubbles" that burst when we fall into recession that they somehow stopped the natural cycle of businesses beginning and dying? I.e., it seemed as if businesses could just pop up everywhere and never go away? So then, it seems like one of the functions of a recession is to weed out week business, to push forward economic Darwinism (as it were). Does this approach, in the name of saving people their jobs and making the crash feel a little more like a landing, just continue to suspend the realities of the business cycle?

A Gem from the Pages of Entertainment Weekly

I don't write about pop-culture as much as I'd like, partly a result of me experiencing less pop-culture in Israel than I do in the U.S. That being said, being back in the States allowed me to compile a few weeks worth of my magazines and I'm slowly working through them.

Entertainment Weekly
is, as a rule, a little bit boring to read - I like it mostly for its gossip, behind the scenes and personal profiles, book reviews, and as a way of keeping me up-to-date with the pop-culture world. I get my higher-level pop-culture, for the most part, from Fresh Air, New York,, and Slate.

Once in a while, EW will throw out a lovely gem.

For example, in the March 6th issue, you might have missed Lisa Schwarzbaum's review of Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience. But, had you read the magazine cover-to-cover (as is my wont), you would have read this (really, I can't make this up):
As for the extra-cool format the movie is shot in, not much happens in Disney Digital 3-D that couldn't have happened in Disney Five Minute Ago 2-D - except for one unintentionally, hilariously, subliminally dirty bit that will be lost (I hope) on the fervent crowd. I refer to the moment where the boys [the Jonas brothers, who "strike sexy rocker poses while wearing rings symbolizing their commitment to premarital virginity"] grab big fire hoses, hold them like ... fire hoses ... and spray the heads of their moaning girl fans with thick geysers of, um, foam. The girls respond by holding up their lighted wands. The whole sequence becomes so phallic that the movie seems to be breaking loose toward Spinal Tap [apologies for no umlaut] territory. Then it returns safely to Disney earth with the heavenly message encoded in the boys' finger jewelry: Abstinence only, kids!
I'm pretty sure there was something else in the issue that caught my eye but, um, in the shadow of that quotation, I don't think there's anything else to be said.

Friday, March 27, 2009

When God Gives You Sugar And Lemons ... Make Great-Tasting Lemonade

To say the least, the politics of 2008-2009 have been a little less uplifting than the last year I spent in Israel, 1999-2000. From Lieberman's terrifying ascent (and it's implications both for reconciling the Russian immigrant population with democracy and charting future arguments for Israel's existence if it is a nation that will embrace Haider- and Le Pen-like politics) to the war in Gaza that felt so good when it started but has left the entire nation, it seems, with a depressing walk of shame through a cold rain, to a sense that all hope is lost, the year has been wonderful for T and me personally and pretty terrible on a national scale.

Amid these lemons, two signs of hope from Haaretz.

This evening a Palestinian children's symphony and choir performed for Holocaust survivors in a fascinating double-blind expression of the power of the human spirit. The 13 children, aged 11-18, were from the West Bank and didn't know who their audience was - nor did the audience know the background of the orchestra. (Great article - read it.)

In the Jenin refugee camp - quite likely the place where the aforementioned performers live - the Freedom Theatre saw the opening of a production of Orwell's Animal Farm as a critique of "internal politics and the alliance between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas." One of the goals of the theatre, says its director, is to "challenge" the Palestinian lack of "a culture of free thinking, a culture of criticism." (Also great article - read it too.)

May these stories be oft-repeated.

Mad Props to Stephanie Lindsley

Stephanie Lindsley wrote the "My Turn" column in Newsweek in the March 9 issue. In the column, titled "Autism and Education," she make a brave move, one that caught me totally off-guard.

She begins by describing her two children:
My son and daughter are happy, active, healthy children who enjoy school and are lucky to have a solid family life. But they are very different. My autistic son tests in the 'severe' range in many subjects. At 8, he reads well but cannot answer basic questions about what he has read. He speaks at a 3-year-old level, adores 'Blue's Clues' and is almost potty-trained.
My daughter, meanwhile, tests in the 95th percentile nationwide on standardized tests. At 12, she shows an amazing ability to process information, taking complex ideas apart and putting them back together to form new thoughts. She reads an entire novel most Sunday afternoons, solves the Sudoku puzzles in the paper and memorizes the entire script - not just her own lines - for the school plays she loves to be in.
In the rest of the article she goes on to argue my mother's favorite point - the strange logic of an educational system that pours so much money, energy, and time into students who struggle (like Lindsley's son) but so little (relatively) to students who are off the charts (like her daughter). (To be honest, it strikes me as a little strange that her daughter is only in the 95th percentile on standardized tests, or that that the threshold for sublime giftedness would have to be that low, but that's a horse of a different color.)

I do not know the specifics of the birth of this disparity but I know that, generally, they are couched in a decision made, I believe, in the 1970's, of parents of so-called "gifted" children to not put their children's lot in with the parents of so-called "handicapped" children who were fighting for their rights. Eventually, they received those rights under a variety of federal guidelines, I believe, and the brightest of the bright were left to fend for their own. This was an oft-repeated narrative in my house as my mother routinely lamented the collective decision made before she became a parent which, as she saw it, caused me so much boredom and frustration during my pre-college years.

Lindsley distorts the numbers a bit in making her point that the federal funding for gifted education ($7.5 million) is dwarfed by the federal funding for "everyone else" to get up to speed - No Child Left Behind and it's ginormous mandate ($24.5 billion). Clearly, all that money from NCLB doesn't go to mentally disabled children.

Lindsley ends her column quite nicely:
It pains me to suggest taking some of the federal money designated for my disabled son and spending it on my overperforming daughter. My son will probably meet minimum standards, but most parents of autistic children describe goals for their kids in much more modest terms: being able to bathe themselves, get a job, or live semi-independently. My daughter has the potential for much more. If she were given even a fraction of the customized education that my son receives, she could learn the skills needed to prevent the next worldwide flu pandemic, or invent a new form of non-polluting transport. Perhaps she could even discover a cure for autism.
A great challenge here, of course, is America's national struggle with elitism (which I previously alluded to in this post), one of the Atwater-Rove Republican Party's greatest frauds. (Check out this horrific piece, where Alex Castellanos, CNN's resident Republican moron, includes this gem in an article criticizing Obama: "Obama is a privileged young man who has not yet made many mistakes in his life. Having a president who belongs to the Harvard elite and the community-organizer streets is not the same as having a president who has lived a long life among middle-class Americans and understands them." Was he referring to the elder Bush, the younger Bush, Reagan, or Nixon in that sentence? Ha.) And the cold, hard facts are that American innovation has persisted, for the most part, in spite of special accommodations for our brightest students (as opposed to, I dunno, the Soviet Union's educational system and its great successes), though I'd counter that with only imagining what could be if we provided the best and brightest (though how would we define that? would Einstein have been included? Gates? Buffet? Jobs?) with more significant support. We are all too aware, however, of what can happen to disabled children who don't get the support they need.

I am, as you likely know and could divine from what I've written above, an unabashed elitist in general and a major fan of providing everyone with the best education we can but being open to tailoring that education, unapolegetically, for intellectual all-stars who can be bored and frustrated in classrooms of all kinds (I attended Jewish, private secular, and public schools). That puts me at odds with a large portion, I think, of the educational world I inhabit, a distinction that has neither been lost on me nor one whose origin and cause I have yet to uncover.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

And This, Kids, is Grandpa's Book Collection

I assume my father got rid of most of his LPs at one point in the past few decades. I'm not even sure what's happened to his audio cassettes of the Dead that used to be prominently displayed in his office at home (this was as the CD revolution was beginning, and before he must have started juicing with some book-buying steroid). There were, however, a small collection of records that we had in the den in St. Louis and, though I can't remember most of the titles there (I don't appreciate music enough to have committed this impressive list to memory), I know that Sgt. Pepper's was there, as were other legendary titles by legendary people.

Reading Jacob Weisberg's article on Slate (also published this week in Newsweek) about Amazon's Kindle and the way it(s technological descendants) will change civilization as we know it (and I think he's right), I'm now beginning to ponder what it will be like to be a cultural dinosaur. Every generation has their baggage, I imagine, racism, homophobia, sexual stifling, thinking that long-distance calls are expensive, LPs/8 tracks/cassettes/CDs/mp3s, the art of setting a VCR, baking baked potatoes, no kosher milchigs for Passover, large and powerful Conservative synagogues, being anti-communist, the Wales and Campbell conferences, no LCS (or no wildcards in baseball), et c. One of my (many) pieces of baggage, that my children and grandchildren will never appreciate in the same way, is the physical library. They will, luckily, embrace their packratedness as I have begun to, in digital form, with easy search engines and far fewer boxes to pack when we move - though the joy of re-categorizing and alphabetizing my library is one of the great pleasures I have.

Humans Plan; gods Laugh

If Israel had a version of The Onion, I would expect to find this article on the front page. But Israelis don't really have a sense of humor, so the article finds its way into the national paper of record (as it were), הארץ.

Aside from the eerie parallels to a variety of Biblical narratives, what gets me the most here is the fact that polytheism is still attractive at all. And I'm not making that argument on moral grounds, but on intellectual ones. For me (and, admittedly, I'm dwelling in a particular contextualized cultural moment) the great debate is about theism itself - is there something else or isn't there? The atheistic argument clearly has merits (though, as was once noted, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence), especially when it is couched within a different type of theism, what I might term "scientific theism" - arguing that the God of the Bible doesn't exist but an amoral clockmaker does. But how do multiple deities provide any advantage whatsoever?

Some gems from the article:

Not only does this guy not believe in biblical or rabbinic Judaism's central tenet, he evidently can't even pass a simple reading comprehension test:
"'There is a problem with Judaism. Judaism contradicts paganism. Judaism has only one god, and if you do not believe in him, you will be driven off with stones.'"
Um ... I think this is a contradiction:
"'Nobody invents new gods,' Kobets said. 'People read mythology and try to make contact with and talk to some god or goddess.'"
And to think, Agag and Goliath died for nothing:
"Another user recalled how he prayed to Anat, the Canaanite god of war, while serving in an elite combat unit."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mini-Digest: Potpourri

A number of articles caught my attention in the last day or so but didn't seem to merit their own individual posts.'s Nate Silver [pretty impressive Wikipedia entry there, sir] offered, as usual, the following off-the-beat perspective:
I know it isn't in vogue to say this, but I think the manifest excesses of Wall Street have made them perhaps too easy a target in assigning blame for the economic collapse. A more appropriate focal point is probably the Federal Reserve, which many economists believe kept interest rates far lower than they ought to have been, contributing to the climate of cheap credit that triggered the housing boom (and bust). The mortgage companies themselves, of course, also exercised exceptionally poor judgment -- as did the media, with its Flip-This-House fetishism, which perpetuated the fiction that one of the biggest asset price bubbles in American history was in fact business as usual. Whether to assign any blame to the homebuyer himself is probably not important. It's tempting to say: if Joe the Homeowner had only read Schiller, none of this would have happened! But it's difficult to expect the consumer to behave rationally when they were getting such bad information from their televisions and their elected (and appointed) officials.
You can read the complete post here.

Curt Schilling retired from Major Leage Baseball after 23 seasons. I'm sure pundits in the States (on PTI and the Dan Patrick Show, and in Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Boston sports talk radio, if nowhere else) are already debating Schilling's Hall of Fame credentials, as well they should be.

Schilling was a machine on four amazingly successful teams, the '93 Phillies, '01 Diamondbacks, and '04 and '07 Red Sox, and anchored many others. You could argue that he and Randy Johnson double-handedly ended the Yankees momentum post 9/11 and coming off four World Series wins in five years. He will undoubtedly go down as one of the great Yankee haters ever to play the game.

Schilling's record (216-146) will serve, perhaps, as something of a standard for Hall of Fame pitchers from the hitters' era of 1990 ff. He is the greatest postseason starting pitcher I have ever seen and for that should go to Cooperstown to join his blood-stained sock. I hope he goes in as a Philly or a Diamondback; that red sock stands as testament to its friends who are less adept at pluralizing English nouns.

The journal Archives of Internal Medicine published a study indicating quite clearly the heightened risk of death associated with daily consumption of red meat. What CNN, at least, failed to do (as usual) was properly contextualize the study, whose limited conclusions (as they were reported by CNN) said a variety of things I'm pretty sure we already knew: the equivalent of a quarter-pound hamburger or "small" steak a day is not good for you; neither is eating significant amounts of processed meat (cold cuts; ham; bacon; sausage). If CNN wanted to publish this as part of a general trend indicating that red meat consumption might contribute to death (or might be linked to other factors like cancer and cardiovascular disease which do), then that would have been responsible. Drawing absurdly bombastic conclusions, like their title "Want to live longer? Cut back on red meat," is not the way to go. Shame on non-Surgeon General Sanjay Gupta and the whole CNN health team.

Amid all the bad news surrounding the descent into debauchery of today's teenagers, Jack Shafer on Slate forcefully debunks (for the fifth time!) the notion of "pharm parties" where teenagers allegedly dump a variety of mom and dad's pills into a bowl and begin gobbling them as if they were a trail mix of M&Ms, Reese's pieces, and Skittles.

Joe Posnanski does his usual magic by bringing Bill James's mathematical model for how NCAA tournament teams should fare over time and then analyzing why the most common upsets happen (12s over 5s and 9s over 8s) and then looking at this year's Sweet 16 bracket through James's system. I love Posnanski (and the asterisk-as-footnote move).

On a lighter note, Mental Floss brings us both kooky periodic tables and a lunch quiz on G.I. Joe characters. (I got an impressive 0/15 on G.I. Joe. And I loved them.)

I Just Can't Abstain: South Carolina Leading America (Again) - And Other Thoughts on Contemporary Sexual Ethics

I would have sworn that the last time South Carolina did anything progressive and innovative was secede from the Union. Turns out I'm wrong.

As this article, by Amy Sullivan, in Time shows (to which I was directed by Slate's excellent blog FWBW XX Factor),
"South Carolina is the only state in the country that mandates a certain number of hours that schools must devote to sexuality education. In 2004, Jewels' school district in Anderson County decided to do even more. The district partnered with a local teen-pregnancy-prevention organization to implement an innovative relationship and sex-education curriculum that runs through all three years of middle school and into high school, as well as an after-school program for at-risk kids."
Sullivan goes on:
"We now have a pretty good sense of which sex-education approaches work. Substantial research--including a 2007 Bush Administration report--has concluded that comprehensive programs are most effective at changing teen sexual behaviors. They are also largely uncontroversial outside Washington. Vast majorities of parents favor teaching comprehensive sex education."
What the article makes implicitly clear is that the problem of teen pregnancy is (still) mostly limited to impoverished communities (excepting the statistical anomaly who is Juno McGuff and her ilk).

Which means that, in other communities, the issue of a contemporary sexual ethic - perhaps rooted in religious traditions, perhaps just rooted in good old-fashioned liberal humanism - and not the issue of STDs and teen pregnancy, should be at the forefront of sexual education programs. The key here, of course, is targeting, and of finding a way to develop intensive programs (perhaps like the South Carolina program Sullivan describes) that hit on both areas for both audiences but that actually incorporate the needs of the students and community within the curriculum. Such is the travesty of the so-called "Moral Majority's" approach to sexuality (and I'll resist the urge to do more than mention the names of Ted Haggard and Bristol Palin) and the failure of the political and religious left to devote the energy to such a project.

I still don't know what a contemporary livable sexual ethic would actually look like, but I'm committed to continue working on it. It's not clear to me that Jennie Rosenfeld's [scroll down to the bottom of Jenni's link] work with Tzelem (with which I am unfortunately not as familiar as I'd like) will actually be helpful - institutional Modern Orthodoxy still has way way way too many taboos and it seems as if her work is focused more on doing rudimentary education than actually charting out a framework within which those who opt out of שמירת נגיעה and "flipping out" could live for their pre-married (and, possibly, married) lives. The Reform movement has a curriculum which I also haven't looked at yet but which might be promising. And the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing and Debra W. Haffner's work in particular, looks highly promising (thanks to Annie Lewis for initially directing me there).

The diversity and complexity of issues involved in creating a livable sexual ethics are mind-boggling. They include all sorts of gender questions, including gender dynamics in workplaces, professional marketplaces, and the home; issues of sexual practice and emotional maturity; sexual outcomes; relationship outcomes; cultures surrounding sexuality; and more.

Hopefully I'll be able to have the time someday to do more research, brainstorming, and writing on this topic that deserves much more attention.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ah, But is it Good for the Jews?

Christopher Hitchens's latest article in Slate calls attention to the rabble-rousing of the Israeli Army's Chief Rabbinate and the general moral ickiness of some masterful cultural artifacts of biblical and rabbinic Judaism.

Instead of, well, getting into how icky this and the other stories beginning to pour out into the Israeli press about atrocities during the latest war in Gaza make me feel, I'll just point out for the moment how it is the writer like Hitchens who is, in my not in the least bit humble opinion, "our" best friend here, and the Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora ought to have the difficult conversation(s) that needs to be had.

It brings me no gladness to say it but say it I will - we might be facing a problem at least as complicated as the one Muslims throughout the Western world have faced ever since "terrorism" became synonymous with "follower of Islam." That is not a place the Jewish people can afford to go.

Open the Windows

On the last שבת of רמה סמינר (yes, in Hebrew those words should be flipped), I made it to יקר for Friday night davening, and I found a home. (I guess I'm pretty into things at first sight ....) Ever since, in spite of all my issues with מחיצות and my seemingly endless ability to martyr myself for my ideology, I try to get to יקר every Friday night I can when I'm in ירושלים. On נתיב, Ben Block and I were there as often as possible, and now my weekly chevre often includes Rabbi Rob and Avinoam Kahn.

I've heard many people complain about the style of the גבאי-cum-ש"ץ-cum-דרשן, but I absolutely adore him. My father leaned over to me the first time he was at יקר this year and said, "this guy would be a great ראש עדה." Exactly. I spend my life looking for ראש עדה types and, if I think you would make a good ראש עדה (or if I know that you did), it's likely that we're going places (I won't list names - many of you know who you are).

The Wexner Foundation's weekly newsletter has given me an opportunity to write about my admiration for this guy (whose name I still don't know, and who wasn't there when I was on סמינר or נתיב - he's too young - and I don't actually know what happened to the guy who was there when I was younger) and, irony of ironies, a week or two after I submitted the piece (reproduced below), I looked around in the middle of קבלת שבת because it felt a little stifling and, wouldn't you believe it, the windows were closed and he hadn't noticed. It's all about the details.

On Shabbat, from a man whose name I do not know, I learn a simple but fundamental lesson in effecting charismatic leadership: Leave the windows open.

I am reminded most Friday afternoons what a pleasure it is to remain firmly planted on “the balcony” as we watch others exercise leadership. In a raucous second-floor room in Jerusalem, I observe as a man whose work I admire goes about his diverse duties with remarkable efficacy; the experience routinely rejuvenates me spiritually in a way I have not been able to replicate anywhere these last twelve years.

His mind must be constantly working on multiple levels: modulating the volume and pace of the singing; finding the right pearl of spiritual wisdom to extract from the weekly parashah; warmly welcoming the diverse constituents of this minyan in any given week; making sure children, the elderly, and infirmed have access to the limited number of seats; choosing the right niggun to match his vision for our time together to the reality of the mood in the room. He tells us each week not to worry if we need a place for Shabbat dinner, but I wonder if he finds himself worrying who will step forward and offer a place at their table. He keeps an eye on both sides of the mechitzah to gauge if it needs to be moved a foot left or right to accommodate the swelling numbers – the women’s side usually fills up much faster than the men’s.

Every few weeks, especially in the winter, I am amazed when, in the middle of whatever it is we might be doing at that given second – listening to his words of Torah, singing a Psalm, making announcements – he will reveal what else is on his mind, asking someone in the back of the room quite forcefully – and with his voice dripping with frustration – to open the windows and to make sure they stay open for the rest of the evening. He assures them that, though they might be quite cold, preserving the ventilation is a necessity as the room fills with more bodies and voices. The ventilation metaphor itself is a powerful one, and yet I choose to take it quite literally: As he consciously raises our spiritual fervor, he keeps a constant eye on the most mundane of details, ensuring that the physical temperature will not rise.

I adore this anonymous friend who allows me to so enjoy t’filot every Friday night. He is a model for me, someone I hope my employees, colleagues, and bosses can strive to emulate. He walks confidently the fine line that allows for a welcoming environment to also be an efficient one, and understands that leadership is both planning for the moment and, often, sacrificing an immediate, personal comfort for the long term good of the collective. He knows that his lofty goals cannot be achieved without a firm grounding in basic realities.

Monday, March 23, 2009

More Evidence for Kay Jamison

With the recent news that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's son, Nicholas Hughes, committed suicide on March 16, chalk up another piece of hard evidence to Kay Redfield Jamison's thesis about familial links to depression in artists' families, which I wrote about here.

Ironic University Names for $400

Some of my readers (ok, one reader) has commented that, though he's appreciated the heavy stuff that's dominated the blog since Purim, he misses the quizzes. I'll try to do better.

First of all, everyone should make Sporcle part of their daily fun. Pick a new quiz or two of the 3-ish that they post every day, and then enjoy some random fun with the buttons at the top of the webpage. I find that most of the hardest quizzes are the "Name every movie actor X was in" and that (no surprise here) sports, geography, word games, and certain trivia knowledge that I developed consciously (as tools for academic team and Jeopardy! less than "cocktail party tricks" [in part, perhaps, because I don't attend cocktail parties and can't imagine someone letting me do one of my tricks at one even if I did]) as my sweet spots. I'll take you down on the U.S. Presidents, State Capitols, or countries of any continent any day of the week.

Second, all should become more acquainted with Mental Floss (though for the life of me I can generate no interest whatsoever in the absurd "Genius Tournament") which is the source of most (all?) of the quizzes I've posted thus far. The "brain games" they post daily are usually more fun than their quizzes (which are rarely sporcle style and more often matching or multiple choice and, often, totally ridiculous).

This past week, Mental Floss has had a guest blogger, Kevin Roose, author of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, a Brown University senior who spent a semester in residence at Falwell's Liberty University (see title of this post), and each post is pretty fun. Including his "sample test questions" post (I aced it).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Narrative

One of the debates at the center of the modernist revolution is the freshness of the narrative form. In other words, to what extent was the tragedy that is Victorian literature and poetry a result of cultural drollness and the caricaturization and unnecessary concretization of conventional genre tropes, or to what extent might the narrative form itself, which served the authors of the Bible, Homer, and others so well, be in the need of some updating itself?

This concern is closely connected to other issues, including the use of form to more accurately represent content's message(s) and the attempt to allow for our cultural creations to more accurately represent real human condition.

One problem I have always had with all this is its inherent critique of great narrative art itself - something I love and have always held dear. While I agree that a tremendously successful modernist experiment (Ulysses, "Howl," Memento, Lost, Adam Resurrected, et al.) is the most satisfying engagement with human creativity, a failed modernist experiment is quite likely the worst. I also challenge the notion that "modernism," per se, is its own invention, pointing back not only towards the usual examples like Tristram Shandy (great movie too) but also to Shakespeare's great love of the "meta" (in Hamlet, most famously, and elsewhere), the Bible's ability to tell a story that is as richly confusing as the real human experience could have been (perhaps the best and most famous example is Exodus 19 when the people at the foot of Mount Sinai "see" the noises of the scene - והעם ראו את הקולות ואת הברקים). This to me is a powerful indication that though modernism may have extracted out a significant identifier of brilliant, compelling literature (i.e., that it is affective in part, because it does something unusual with itself or captures the human experience in a dead-on way), the revolution was not innovative in its newness but in its bringing to the fore an articulated attempt to replicate genius.

Another component of this discussion has to do with the type of experience the artist would like her audience to have. On one extreme is, as it were, the Victorian novel, which lays everything out for us to see. On the other is abstract painting - which demands of us that we interpret it ourselves because it offers us what amounts to nothing in the amount of content we have as grist for our mills. (Note that the interpretive act must be part of all experiencing of art, the difference here is in the amount of content handed, as it were, to the audience.) For me, personally, I prefer a maximum amount of quanta of data for my mind to process, as opposed to literature or poetry or art that makes me do most of the work on the front end. I thrive on doing lots of work, just on the back end. I imagine that people might fall into camps on this question based on their learning styles.

With brings us to the stimulus for this post, a review in Newsweek (again, the March 2 issue) of a new book called Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (quite a title, no?), by Leanne Shapton. The book is, ingeniously, a novel masquerading as an auction catalog, purporting to present the 332 lots for sale of Lenore and Harold's property in the wake of their breakup.

As Jennie Yabroff, the reviewer in Newsweek puts it, this book "is the rare high-concept book that rises above gimmickry and succeeds, not just as a novel, but as a work of art." The book looks fascinating, and I hope to read it someday, even though it seems to require a great deal from me on the front end and, perhaps, less work to do on the back end. But Yabroff captures quite well a perspective on the issues I've laid out above and, most importantly, the colossal waste of time that modernist failures represent, though that wasted time is often outweighed by the sublime brilliance of modernism's successes.

When I imagine modernism's successes, I remind myself of the feeling of a master Torah reader chanting the scene at Mount Sinai or the עקדה, and I try to wrap my head around what it must have been like to listen to oral poetry as it was meant to be experienced, with a blind poet-prophet (Teiresias or Homer, it's all the same to me) speaking to me of the wine-dark sea and the divine fingers dancing across the sky at dawn. I also think of more modern modernist successes, and even pop-culture ones that chose to tell a story I needed to hear at that given moment. Good modernism is, in many ways, almost silent modernism, less interested in bashing you over the head with its 'newness' and more interested in telling a story as well as stories have ever been told.

Same Old Washington: Mr. President, Foot Meet Mouth

Obama has been appropriately critiqued for his embarrassing faux pas on Leno about the Special Olympics. He probably should get hammered even more for this - it's pretty absurd. Puts things like the phrase "The Audacity of Hope" into a new context.

Now a champion Special Olympics bowler has challenged Obama to a bowling match.

I hope Kolan McConiughey kicks the President's ass in bowling. Then I hope Obama takes some time off from commenting on March Madness (די כבר).

Let's get back to the serious business of leading America out of this depressing recession and back on the path of promised transparency and reform.

אמן, כן יהי רצון.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

הלכה ולאומיות: Some Musings on Contemporary Jewish Identity

(I apologize if I've written a version of this introduction before.)

Thursday afternoon I attend a seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute on the topic of הלכה ולאומיות (nationalism). Academics' Thursdays in Israel are like Fridays in the U.S. - very few people have classes. So Hartman uses Thursdays as the day to gather all sorts of intellectuals together for seminars like the one which I attend.

Participants in my seminar include: Yoske Achituv, Ariel Picard, Zvi Zohar, Noam Zohar, Iris Bar-On (Brown?), Orit Kamir, Tamar Ross, David Dishon, Noam Tzion, and Jason Rubinstein.

Today we talked about the issue of conversion through the lens of Professor יחזקל קויפמן's גולה ונכר.

The following musings were inspired by today's session.

Kaufmann asks the question: Why not the Jews? I.e., why is it that, of all the groups that were absorbed into one another during the history of the world, how did the Jews resist? What prevented assimilation?

My answer:

The innovation of henotheism. In the ancient world, my pantheon was your pantheon. This meant that, as far as we can tell, in metropolitan areas or along trade routes where religious groups interacted with each other, religion was something to share. In a polytheistic world, my god can be your god and vice versa - nothing prevents us from sharing ideas, cultures, et c. Maybe you like the sun and I like the moon but we both wouldn't want to upset the god of the other. Maybe you're an Isis freak and I'm partial to Ba'al - so what?

Along comes the theological idea at the core of Judaism - one God, supreme, no others. (N.B.: People too often like to couch this in pro-Jewish language that this was "our" great חידוש and it's why we're awesome. All of that is hogwash. We could never prove that no one else had the idea - we may have survived with it [and because of it, to a degree] but that doesn't mean that other didn't also have the idea who didn't survive.)

Now, here's the fascinating rub (as I step into my evolutionary anthropologist shoes): Human beings are essentially social beasts, and we can all understand how, within reason, the ability and want to make friends, share conversations, et c. helped to create safe environments (also known as alliances), provide for mental stimulation (culture), and diversify the gene pool (falling in love with the exotic other). Therefore, I suggest, the social model of polytheism, allowing for all sorts of sharing, intermarriage, cultural synthesis, et c., is essentially human. Yet, somehow, Jews resist it, perhaps due to particularly strong family allegiances or, in an ironic move, the development of the human mind to a point at which it learns to stand on principle for an abstract idea. So we refuse to play at people's block parties, observe their holidays, work on their schedules, even [and this one sucks] eat their food.

The Jews resist assimilation, but they do something else as well. We incite in our friends the "you're either with us or you're against us" reaction, and we're quite clearly not "with" them. Thus, the birth of anti-Jewish feelings, policies, et c. For the next 2500 years (2000 years? Whatever - a long time.) we are defined as other by the rest of the world, and we end up succeeding in what we had wanted all along, the protection of our sacred idea. This all comes to a head in the unfortunate events of the first half of the 20th Century (though, really, unfortunate is a relative thing in the wake of two millennia of Catholicism's institutionalized anti-Semitism) at which point, somewhere in the last forty years (I bet Steven Cohen has an idea when), things change.

You see, at some point in Western history - perhaps in 313 in Milan, 732 at Tours, or 1519 in Wittenberg, you get the idea - the polytheistic luxuries of the ancient world disappeared and we moved into the compartmentalized, me-against-you religious dynamics emerged. Recently, at least in the United States (and Western Europe, I think), these dynamics have begun to (rapidly) unravel, and we are returning to the mix-and-match state of affairs. This, of course, poses big, bad problems for the Jewish community. We made a stand on our separateness and that allowed us to survive (though the millions who were killed might challenge that notion) through the religiously "segmented" world, but can we make another one now?

Thus we live in an America where religion still matters but, for increasing percentages of Jews in the United States, a mix-and-match approach, complete with mix-and-match families and mix-and-match clergy and mix-and-match holiday celebrations - often devoid of belief but rich with cultural significance and personal meaning (wasn't that polytheism in the ancient world too) - is becoming the norm.

Now, this doesn't have much to do with issues of conversion in Israel (because, let's be serious, I'm just not that into הלכה), though these concepts are closely related to questions of Jewish identity in Israel (my favorite suggestion from today was for rethinking the stupid move to leave the conversion courts in the hands of the רבנות and, instead, to create בתי דין for חילוניים where absorption of Israeli culture could make one a Jew). But this has everything to do with the great question facing the Jewish world, one that was the center of the Wexner Foundation-sponsored מפגש at the GA in Jerusalem last November, where I articulated the following response to the question posed by someone in my dialogue group of "Why do we care that the Jewish community survives anyway?":

We survived for 2000+ years because everyone hated us. We stayed together because we had to - there was no way out. We survived Rome like that, and the Muslim conquests, the Crusades, the Inquisition, ghettoes, pogroms, Chmielniki, and the Holocuast. Now that the rest of the world (or, if you're a particular kind of Zionist, we) is no longer placing us in that box (well, big chunks of the Western world), wouldn't it be a shame if we couldn't survive this newfound acceptance, if our very survival were intimately bound up in the shame and pain of our history?

Looking through this lens, I am not so optimistic that, should the liberalizing tendencies continue, we have a very good chance in the long term.

Socialization: What William Julius Wilson has to do with "Informal" Jewish Education and Contemporary Halachah

William Julius Wilson is an academic machine, now a University Professor (an elite, interdisciplinary title allowing one to work in any school of the university, currently held by only 19 faculty members) at Harvard.

In this article written by a former student, Sudhir Venkatesh, Wilson's new book seems to present an argument for socialization as it relates to urban poverty that is both post-racial (nice) and meshes well with the Reimer vs. Chazan debate about differences between socialization and education in Jewish settings and my own beliefs about how halachah works in today's society.

In a nutshell: Each of us actually makes relatively few decisions in our lives. Rather, most of our existence is carved out by socializing factors, ones that are neither our own fault (Mr. Republican) nor the system's fault, per se (Mr. Democrat). These things happen to us and there is practically no blame to be held by anyone for the fact that they do so. Altering socialization is quite, quite difficult.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Obscene Spelling Bee

So, I'm pretty far down there on the list of people who are following the release of pop music in general, let alone Brittney Spears's new songs.

Slate, however (I know, I have a bit of a boomerang/rebound obsession with them right now), knows a funny thing when it sees it.

If you'd like to read about how Brittney's not-subtle-in-anyway word play owes its origins to Joyce in Ulysses, and that Joyce himself was clearly cribbing from Shakespeare, then read this. Or if you like dirty words.

Cereal Killer: Confessions of an "Adult" Fan of Froot Loops, Corn Pops, and Low-Fat Granola

I love cereal, always have. My favorites are Kellogg's classics like Froot Loops, Corn Pops (how do you not love cereals that have their own webpages?), and Low-Fat Granola (with Raisins). I also like most other cereals, including camp favorites General Mills's Golden Grahams and my current fave in Israel, Cinnamon Toast Crunch (Cini-Minis here). Pretty much, I'll eat anything that's good. (Though it's worth noting that, during a rare dieting moment in the spring of 2002, I did an analysis and found that Froot Loops and Corn Pops are actually much healthier than some of those fruity, nutrition-y looking cereals like Blueberry Morning.)

Which is why I found this part of a Newsweek article analyzing the fall-out from Michael Phelps's bong hit to be almost offensive, but mostly just ridiculously funny (and shout-out to my b-i-l @ Huffington):
Kellogg's says it didn't drop Phelps; it just decided not to renew his contract. But the nation's proud, unrepentant stoners weren't buying the official line. They called for a boycott of the company. "Kellogg's has profited for decades on the food tastes of marijuana-using Americans with the munchies," read a petition on The Huffington Post. "In fact, we believe that most people over the age of twelve would not eat Kellogg's products were they not wicked high."

He Didn't Really Say That, Did He?

I'm reading Newsweek from March 2 and find, on page 12, the following sentences:
Still, old-school interpreters (who have not read the book) caution against Plotz's offhand approach: a young man, a computer, a Bible and a big cup of coffee do not theological seriousness make. "You should be aware of what the tradition is," says Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. "You shouldn't just pick up the book and say 'I've got it!' You need help."
The book in question is David Plotz's (editor of published version of his "Blogging the Bible" project that was inspired by his reading of Genesis 34 (the דינה narrative) at his niece's Bat Mitzvah. Having never learned that story before, he decided to read the תנ"ך cover-to-cover and blog about each chapter.

Let's forget Plotz for a second: Did Eisen really say that? Was this taken out of context?

To Eisen's credit are more enlightened quotations later on in the article and the instinctive "he couldn't have" response that struck me upon reading his first quotation. What "tradition" is he talking about? Rashi as God? Spinoza as god? Midrash as Truth? חז"ל's approach to Esau or Ishmael? Is not the "help" to which Eisen refers precisely the humanistic, liberal education the editor of has? Or is it מקראות גדולות?

Is not the purpose of תורה that it is the (for Eisen, I think) inspired word of God transmitted through human beings, able to speak to each of us at every moment of our lives?

I'd like for Eisen to define "tradition."
I'd like for Eisen to explain to which passages he was referring as requiring this "tradition." (מעשי מרכבה? The genocide of אגג? David's adultery? קרן אור?)

I am befuddled.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cured Madness

I'm not sure why I stopped loving "March Madness" (though it may be when "March Madness" became a ubiquitous term), but I did. It doesn't do anything for me anymore, which might be due to obligations that have made it impossible for me to watch college basketball in the way I did when I was in high school. To add to the possibilities, however, I present Joe Lunardi and the national obsession not with who wins the tournament but with who wins their pool (or, in ESPN's case, the national pool).

I have a friend who pains himself all year in the hope that his beloved school will get a Number 1 seed though, of course, being a top seed has never been a guarantee to reach the Final Four (we'll see what happens this year after last year's fluke, but I'll put it the over-under line at 2 top seeds making it).

I hate the seeding predictions and the absurdity of the major conferences. I hate notions of "easier" quarters of the bracket and that no professional is reprimanded or extolled for their predictions (and, for that matter, who cares if Mel Kiper Jr. gets the mock draft right? Shouldn't we care whether or not he can identify players who will be effective NFL players?). It all seems kind of stupid, and Lunardi is a great target.

And now, Slate's unmitigated, substantiated destruction of Lunardi (in this longer article bashing my beloved Blue Devils and Jim Calhoun, among others) - thanks for doing the research guys:

Joe Lunardi
In the run-up to Selection Sunday, ESPN's Joe Lunardi appeared on the network by the hour to dispense his bracketological wisdom: who's in, who's out, and where everyone should be seeded. Lunardi, the longtime editor of the hyper-detailed hoops preview magazine Blue Ribbon, worked hard to earn his perch. (He did not, as alleged in his Wikipedia entry, win the role on a reality show called Dream Job: Bracketology Edition.)

If only he were up to the job of being the nation's bracket sage. This year, Lunardi predicted 64 of the tournament's 65 teams correctly—OK, more like 33 of 34 considering that 31 spots are taken by automatic qualifiers. Not bad, right? Well, according to the site the Bracket Project—which collected the picks of 61 March Madness prognosticators—92 percent of the bracketeers agreed on 32 of the 34 at-large teams, and a healthy 82 percent agreed on 33 of 34. Bracketology, you see, isn't very hard. Joe Lunardi's entire job this year was to identify a single team. He went 0 for 1: Creighton out, Arizona in. Lunardi also whiffed on the one No. 1 seed for which there wasn't an iron-clad consensus, guessing Memphis instead of UConn.

Perhaps it's unfair to ding him for these slip-ups, as the selection committee doesn't necessarily behave consistently year-to-year. Then again, he's the one who's selling the idea that bracket predicting is a science. If bracketology is indeed a skill, then Joe Lunardi hasn't mastered it. The Bracket Project has ranked the 12 tourney scholars who've been publishing guesses for at least four years, grading them based on how many teams they pick correctly and the accuracy of their seeding forecasts. Lunardi is 10th out of 12. My early bubble picks for 2010: Bracketology 101 in, Joe Lunardi out.

And to prove my point.

Mad Shout Out to the NRTC

Ramah in Wisconsin does many amazing things, not the least of which consists of incubating cutting-edge experimental programming and nurturing them towards success. The two which get the most press in the world of camping and Jewish education (due, in no small part, to the appropriate self-promotion of their founders) are the Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company (NRTC) and the Northwoods Kollel [and Beit Midrash - which too often gets left off the title]. Other relevant ones include our מרכז הפדגוגי, founded almost thirty years ago, and the role of Paul Palnik, our full-time artist-in-residence for the last fifteen years. Hopefully, in the coming years, there will be many, many more, but that's a dream for a different post.

The NRTC, in residence at camp now for four summers (2009 will be the 5th), has had its ups (Underwater Palace; everything done in 2008) and downs (2007) but has remained remarkably true to the visions that founded it, held by Annie Levy and Jonathan Adam Ross (JAR), respectively. These visions have spoken to three crucial components of the NRTC: its material (unabashedly, complicatingly Jewish); its process (absolutely open and transparent); and its relationship with the camp in which it finds itself (as integrated as possible). Even if the NRTC never takes off outside of Ramah as Annie, JAR, (others involved,) and I hope it does, there is great opportunity for it to grow within the camp itself.

These past months, however, have indicated part of the NRTC's potential - to take its workshopped shows from camp to new audiences. In 2006 the company tackled (at camp director Rabbi David Soloff's suggestion) a reimagining of Bernard Malamud's short story "The Jewbird." This fall, the company staged a reading of the show in Chicago (at the home of camp great Michael Newberger and his phenomenal wife Charlotte) and, beginning last week (and running through this coming Sunday) opened an off-off-Broadway run in Manhattan.

The press had been pretty impressive - a story in stories in the Jewish Week and, theoretically, forthcoming in the Forward, and announcements in TimeOut, the Jewish Standard, and more.

This morning we hit the jackpot (well, at least the East Coast, MSM, intellectually snobbish jackpot). And, to respond to the inevitable criticism: When was the last time you read an article in the NY Times about a piece of culture that was created in a summer camp?

Hopefully, we can create a structure in which the NRTC lives (and thrives, expands, and is modeled again and again elsewhere) within a more comprehensive framework for all that Ramah Wisconsin does and can achieve. For the time being, I'll take a column-length story with a picture in the world's paper of record.

Below, Rabbi Soloff's message to Ramah families:

Shalom Ramah Families,

Ramah Wisconsin has mounted an off-off Broadway adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s story The Jewbird, running through March 22 at the Sanford Meisner Theater in New York. The show was first created by our professional theater company, the Northwoods Ramah Theater, during the 2006 camp season. The current production has merited a full column review (including a photo of Jon Adam Ross - head of our Performing Arts at camp and also known as “JAR”) in the March 18 “Arts” section of the New York Times. The review references Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as the home of the Northwoods Ramah Theater.

When the Northwoods Ramah Theater troupe is in residence at camp, campers and staff are engaged in the development of their performances. For example, for the Jewbird production, our audiences studied the texts prior to the performance (i.e. reading Malamud short stories and related classical Jewish sources) and had the opportunity for a post-performance discussion. This blending of drama and education work fabulously well in the camp setting. Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is an incubator for Jewish culture!

Our director, Annie Levy, initiated three creative interpretations for this work by the Northwoods Ramah Theater: 1) the production uses a puppet for the title role, “given an edgy voice and movement by Jon Adam Ross, clad like the unkempt bird all in black, including a soiled overcoat.” 2) It intertwines classical Jewish sources into the play and 3) it uses chorus-like narration reminiscent of stories in the Humash.

It is so exciting that through generous support for our arts program we are able to bring this production to New York and engage hundreds of alumni, high school and university students, educators, camp people and the general theater community with Malamud’s work. We are thrilled that the professional actors and director of the Northwoods Ramah Theater will be with us again this summer, sharing their talents and enthusiasm with our campers. Their enrichment of the camp program enhances the many gateways to Jewish culture open through our Ramah portal.

Rabbi David Soloff, Director

Slow News Day?

There was a classic West Wing episode about the types of absurdity that come out on a slow news day. [Check out this handy-dandy WW episode guide.]

Today might just be that day. (Alternatively, the bracket obsession I'll post soon in "Cured Madness" is worse than I could have even imagined.)

ESPN one-ups its own over-the-top publicity stunts by having the Leader of the Free World make his bracket selections on SportsCenter. Then Krzyzewski ends up on the CNN Ticker for bitching about Obama not picking the Blue Devils to get to the Final Four.

I'm sure this story is crazier, but nothing will top's Nate Silver's return to his dorky statistical analysis of sport (his calling before becoming one of the best political bloggers with a penchant and talent for statistical analysis). (I think Silver might have been a little goofy from his time at Austin at the SXSW festival, because both of his most recent posts [note the disclaimer] seem more appropriate to April 1 than אסרו חג of St. Patrick's Day.)

Silver presents the statistical argument that Obama was favoring teams from electoral college swing states in making his selections. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Omnivore's Dilemma? I Don't Think So

R. Joel Roth, great jurist of the Conservative Movement (that wasn't sarcastic, btw - I have tremendous respect for the man as a thinker, speaker, lawmaker, and judge; though I fundamentally disagree with him on many topics), spoke at the Conservative Yeshiva on Sunday afternoon, in a talk (unfortunately) titled: "Two New Teshuvot on Eating Out." (Done chuckling yet? He was talking about restaurants.)

Roth presented two new תשובות that currently sit in front of the CJLS whose authors I will keep anonymous for the time being. (Why? Because the CJLS is still arguing about whether or not to even debate the תשובות themselves, for reasons that will become clear shortly, and the papers have not yet been published as such. Rabbi Roth was given permission to read the articles to us, but not to actually give them out, and so, in a move counter to my instincts, I'll add a סייג around the intellectual property issue - mostly because the תשובות, as they exist, are pretty embarrassing לדעתי.) One of them, the first in a proposed series of limited, בדיעבד allowances for eating in unsupervised restaurants, creates a tiny little window for eating good (read: non-supervised) pizza. The other attempts to usurp the mantle of the Conservative Movement's human rights-initiated changes to הלכה (including issues of ממזרות, divorce, women, and homosexuals - though let's not get me started on the abysmal and embarrassing Dorff-Nevins-Reisner preposterousness) towards the morally relevant subject of eating what we want to eat, creating a hogwash construction to excuse what already occurs by all but the most orthoprax of the movement.

As you've likely noticed, I agree with Rabbi Roth that the CJLS is wise to think about not discussing this topic at all - neither one of these תשובות says much of anything with which I (or, I imagine, most of anyone else, save for a tiny sliver on the right who would be happy to see the former decision adopted) would like to be associated.

What made Roth's talk interesting (other than his profound mastery of this stuff) was, as always, his discussion of the politics of the movement. Both תשובות seem to relish in citing Rabbi Tucker's idea of "metahlachic" arguments surrounding homosexuality and some of Rabbi Roth's halachic language, respectively, as ways of promoting their own validity in the wake of the obvious critiques against them. And Rabbi Roth never misses an opportunity to raise the (valid and compelling) critique that has, in my mind, become his calling card (which he restated on Sunday in even sharper terms) (I'm paraphrasing, of course): "The left talks about the needs for halachic pluralism until it gets what it wants, at which point the excitement about pluralism becomes moot in the wake of a new revolution that now 'captures the essence of what makes Conservative Judaism compelling and unique.'" This is a trend, I must admit, that I theoretically do not like, but one that I cannot figure out how to solve practically without falling into many of the traps we fall into in our failed (and, likely, futile) attempts to coexist with the Orthodox in situations of real ritual [read: kashrut; t'filah; conversion]. What is the נפקא מינה of halachic pluralism on the question of women, ממזרים, and homosexuals? [In addition to being a rhetorical question, I'd actually be happy to read anyone's answers to that question.]

Where I disagree with Roth is on his narrowly-defined understanding of what it means to be "a halachic movement," and his clinging to a hope that this adjective (halachic) can still be saved. It seems clear to me that the first תשובה (the more מחמיר one) is, as Roth says it is, a direct descendant of frum rabbinic Judaism, a תשובה that, I imagine, my brother-in-law would be able to accept, if not agree with (especially in the way it makes eating pizza outside of hechshered restaurants practically impossible) - it is a curt nod to the sociology of the movement while simultaneously yielding an halachic battering ram. But as the more מקיל of the two תשובות makes clear, in a world where 70+% of Conservative Rabbis are enjoying their local pizza wherever they like to eat it (Coronet's, Papa John's, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Little Caesar's, that place across the street from Heschel, Imo's, that place next to the Vilas Theatre in ER, WI, Edwardo's, Sal and Carmine's, Sbarro, et c.), the question of whether the movement is halachic is now moot. The better question is to what extent can part of the Conservative Movement's tent include people who choose to remain in that paradigm - some of whom, I must tell you, I consider close friends. Or, to word it alternatively, to what extent can halachah play a dominant role in certain frameworks of the movement and a significant (if not veto possessing) role in others (many others?)?

For the central battle that Rabbi Roth is trying to fight long ago passed him by, if not before the passing of the driving תשובה and the widespread acceptance of Max Arzt's original paper (never voted upon) outlining an approach to eating broiled fish and steamed vegetables (and only broiled fish and steamed vegetables) in non-hechshered restaurants. Both of these opinions, made, I believe, in the early '50s, represented what we have now come to understand as "classical" Conservative approaches to halachic literature - rife with misinterpretation, application of a decision to things it never was meant to apply to, and lots of intellectual dishonesty.

Once we can get beyond this argument - and I think that Tucker, Cosgrove, and Kushner (in their aticles published in CJ in the last eighteen months [which, of course, I can't find anywhere on-line]) are pushing us correctly in that direction - we need Eisen to lead a charge for writing a new intellectual framework for the movement, one clearly influenced by 19th century German scholarship but not dominated by it - an American theology that is less interested in institutional sustenance than in speaking to the vast majority of Jews who are, at their core, our intellectual allies regardless of their sociological decisions that affect both their practice and their affiliation. These are colleagues at YCT, at Hebrew College, and throughout Israel. Describing their Judaism and articulating a compelling argument for them to see themselves in our work should be our goal.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bruno and Bill: ת.נ.צ.ב.ה

This weekend we lost two great men: Bill Davidson and Ron Silver.

Ron, not to be confused with Andy Garcia or other look-alikes, was one of the great minor character arcs of The West Wing, playing the political consultant Bruno Gianelli, first as an advisor to Bartlett's reelection campaign and then as Winick's campaign manager. I also greatly admired his earlier work as a porn mogul in Skin and a senator in Timecop. The AP's obituary.

Bill Davidson was a great philanthropist and pretty-darned-good owner of the Detroit Pistons. In addition to providing KER with some sick seats to a basketball game, Davidson endowed the Davidson School of Education at JTS and partnered in his last years with the Abigail and Leslie Wexner to share the onus of funding for Wexner Graduate Fellows who were pursuing careers in Jewish Education and Jewish Professional/Communal Service (like me). Though I never got the sense that he was playing the same role on the world Jewish stage as some of his megaphilanthropist peers, I have heard recently that Chancellor Eisen was trying to leverage Davidson back into the game to help reshape JTS and, as it should go without saying, there are far too few individuals who are committed to Jewish education with his kind of ability and passion to write any of them off. A local Detroit obituary.

May their memories be for a blessing.

WOW Article on Alzheimer's

I need to get back to reading Slate religiously.

This article about Alzheimer's disease you should read.

Here's a teaser:
Now some experts are proposing an avant-garde way of approaching Alzheimer's: as a form of diabetes. Some even dub it "type 3 diabetes" or "diabetes of the brain." The idea is that memory loss and cognitive deterioration in at least some Alzheimer's patients may be caused by low insulin or insulin resistance in the brain, much as lack of production or poor response to insulin in the body is central to the pathologies of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Effective Alzheimer's treatments, then, might aim to boost brain insulin levels or decrease resistance while addressing destructive factors like inflammation and oxidative stress. If the theory holds up, as early research suggests, it could be a boon to a field scarred by disappointments and dead ends.