Friday, August 23, 2013

Bibliogestions: Summer 2013

Quick takes:

- I just finished Samuel Heilman's 30-year-old memoir about doing his early sociology fieldwork among Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. I rather enjoyed this short meditation-- verging on a Misnagdic approach to 71 1/2 Mystics-- on the frustrations of a rationalist modern Jew trying to integrate himself into the world of Talmud study-- to stop observing others long enough to let the process of studying touch and change himself. Heilman passes between various study circles in Mea Shearim, dabbling among the Breslovers for a few chapters, all the while struggling and doubting his own bona fides as an Orthodox Jew if he cannot truly engage in what he sees as the quintessential Jewish act. What I found most refreshing was the relative ease and fluency in which Heilman was able to enter the worlds of the Jerusalem Haredim. I'm not sure whether this was due to Heilman's Hebrew skills, his cultural knowledge, or the differences in social context in the mid-80s versus today, but it was a refreshing and warm portrait of a community that today is more than often painted in shrill caricatures (including, according to some of his critics, by Heilman himself!). And, while the details are obviously different, I saw quite a bit of my own spiritual search in Heilman's, and found some of his insights and experiences quite fascinating. It was also entertaining to note how more culturally fluent I've become in the last 10-plus years.

- It turns out Mitnagdim did more than just stay in their study houses. Arieh Morgenstern uses institutional records among the Yeshivish community in Israel to chart decades of proto-Zionist work an immigration beginning in the early 1800s. While a bit dry, I found Morgenstern's work well worth the effort, as it helps provide valuable context for the early Yeshivish population in Israel (and Europe). Morgenstern shows that beyond Torah study, many Mitnagic leaders and laymen were also involved in messianism, political activism (and infighting), and settling Israel before Herzl and "modern" Zionism came onto the scene. I originally found Morgenstern's book through a few articles about the Hurva synagogue, which is closely tied with the history of Lithuanian Jews in Israel. Even if the book is a bit much for you, I highly recommend the articles.

- On a similar note, I recently finished David Assaf's book on the seamier side of Hasidic history. Like Morgenstern's book, the fact that it took me about 3 years to read the whole thing took a little bit away from its impact, but on the whole I found it quite readable, engaging, and refreshing in terms of looking at Hasidic figures and culture from a scholarly lens, rather than a specific polemical or hagiographic perspective. Assaf got a lot of attention (and a fair amount of criticism) when his book first came out (particularly the Hebrew edition) as being just a series of sensational attacks on Hasidism, but my take on it was that the focus was more on trying to uncover, if not "the truth" behind specific personalities and events, then at least to trace the history of the accounts and stories about them (particularly useful is his contrast of Hasidic sources, maskilic sources, and historical records, when available, to try to get to the bottom of various stories). For instance, what happened to the Seer of Lublin in 1814 when he fell out the window of his house? What caused the fall? Hasidic stories have represented it as a miraculous but aborted attempt to bring the messiah. Contemporary maskilic works suggested he was drunk. There is even a possibility it may have been a suicide attempt. Which one is true? Ultimately, Assaf isn't sure, but it's an interesting journey along the way.

As a family historian who is often most intrigued by the scandalous stories, I recognize and understand the urge and tendency to try to protect the memories of one's ancestors, ideological or biological. Similarly, I think there can be a danger in giving too much validation to the desire to snoop through other people's dirty laundry in the name of "truth" (something today's culture is all too willing to perpetuate). That said, I think that Assaf's work is worthwhile, and of particular value as a corrective to the "Artscrollization" of Jewish history which presents every European Jew before the Holocaust as pious, Orthodox, and uniformly uninterested (to say nothing of untroubled) in modernity. In the hagiographic view, it is as if pre-Holocaust Jews were living outside of time. Learning about the lives of various rebbes as well as their children who actually engaged with (and struggled with) modernism does not diminish my respect for them or their ideas, but rather makes them more approachable, understandable and real. Towards the end of the book, Assaf quotes a fellow historian who notes that from the mid-19th century onward, there was a noted phenomenon among the children of rabbinical dynasties investigating "other paths" (ranging all the way from religious Zionism to socialism to communism). As the other historian puts it, "The sons and daughtes of the zaddikim were the first to sense that their fathers' paths had no future..." One interesting aspect of this, though, is that in essentially all the hasidic dynasties, the oldest son, as the heir, continued the role of rebbe, but oftentimes their younger siblings, not having specifically prescribed roles within the community or succession structure, were more or less "free" to pursue other religious and political directions. Whether this was uniformly true or not, it's a fascinating point that merits further study and offers much food for thought. Readers don't have to agree with everything Assaf writes to find his book useful and interesting, if only as greater context for Jewish history of the period.

- Rodger Kamenetz's second book was good, but not quite as filling as his first. While I value Kamenetz's commitment to Jewish exploration and spiritual meaning and found some of his descriptions of various Jewish mystical teachers interesting, in the end it was challenging for me to relate to many of them. Part of this may be that Stalking Elijah also coincides with Kamenetz becoming more ensconced in the Jewish Renewal movement, so most of the voices in this book come from that orientation, as opposed to Jew in the Lotus, which contained a wider range across the spectrum. It was interesting to get a snapshot of the Renewal movement's biggest personalities in the mid-90s, and some of the points raised, such as the challenge of keeping Judaism relevant as well as authentic to Jews hungry for more practice and meaning than what they find in your run-of-the-mill synagogue, are certainly still relevant.

I respect Kamenetz's willingness to dive into some of the deeper ends of the Judaism pool, such as Kabbalah and meditation (which does have historical precedent in Judaism, check out Aryeh Kaplan if you're not convinced), but for me this book epitomizes some of the gaps between various cross-sections of liberal Judaism: broadly speaking, you have many middle-aged Jews who are either not very connected to "traditional" Jewish practice and go through the motions, or you have the ones who are both dissatisfied and mad about it, and so they are willing to go as far as they need to in order to reconnect themselves to the tradition. (A lot of this, IMO, is also a result of living through, or being influenced by the ripples of, the 1960s and the radical experimentation in many areas of American culture.) That's all well and good, but it doesn't quite work for people that are either young enough that they don't have a soulless 1950s Jewish strawman to rebel against, and/or are of a more intellectual bent as opposed to an emotional one. Honestly, out of all the people Kamenetz spoke with, the voices I found most relevant and useful were Rabbis Jonathan Omer-Man, who specializes in meditation and Kabbalah, and Art Green, a Jewish mysticism scholar and former dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the non-denominational Hebrew College. In short, personalities that are open to mysticism, but are still intellectually grounded. The inability or unwillingness to fully let go, to need to ground my faith and practice in the intellect, may be a personal failing, but it's how I approach Judaism, and as a result, while Stalking Elijah had some interesting a-ha moments, I don't think it's going to stay with me as long as Jew in the Lotus.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Evolution-- my parents' and mine

Mrs. Yid and I visited my parents last weekend at their new house. It's in a retirement community, a mock-Italian village in the middle of rural California a few hours from the city. The combination of the hills, tile roofs, massive construction projects going on and imported vineyards and olive groves give it a quasi-surreal feeling, like a cross between the Truman Show and a West Bank settlement. I've taken to calling it Kiryat Geffen.

Anyway, the weekend was nice. It was easy to chat and read Saturday afternoon and avoid TV (still working on the no-screens on Shabbat thing), and after dark Mama Yid's new Jew-Bu friend Shoshana came by and we all did Havdalah. This also coincided with my mother saying she wanted to look into possibly going to services at some point and asking whether I would recommend she check out the Reform place or "this Chuh-BAD thing." Oh, Mom.

It's been a rather intense summer for them. For all of us, really. My parents moved from their house of 25 years to Kiryat Geffen. The move has been in the works for 2 years and we've all been working hard to get them out on time. The last few weeks of June I was over there every day, helping to pack them up. In the process I went through a lot of old family trinkets, too. The very last day, I went by and gathered up a few odds and ends. I also had one last thing to take: the family mezuzah. I pried it off the door and took it home, to keep for future generations. I'm the chronicler; it's my job.

This past Sunday, Mrs. Yid and I put up a new mezuzah on my parents' door. Baby steps, always baby steps.

The other night Abbot Yid was in town and took me out for sushi. When my order came (mackerel plus an assortment of sushi), I noticed that one of them was a shrimp. I asked him if he wanted it. While he was chewing, I could tell he was mulling something over.

"I have a question," he said.


"I'm still trying to figure out what's going on with you and Mrs. Yid. You know, with the clothes and keeping kosher and all that. Because, not to be judgmental or anything, but in my mind, someone keeps those rules because they believe they come from God, and you guys don't strike me as believers."

I had known this was coming, and I was actually happy to have a chance to explain in a low-pressure setting.

"Well, lots of people describe Judaism as a mixture of belief and practice. We've been in the process of learning a lot ABOUT belief and practice and we decided we wanted to start trying some of it on. We're in the process of digesting theology but it seemed like if we were going to give it a real try, we would need to take on some practice, too. Because if we're going to try to live Jewishly and raise Jewish children, we need to have some idea of what that means.

"If you look at it on a continuum, with 10 being totally religious and educated and 0 being totally secular and ignorant, if you're starting at a 10 and you decide to only practice on a 7 or a 5 or whatever, you have the knowledge and the background to make those decisions and adjustments-- you know HOW to scale down. But if you're starting at the other end, it's a lot harder to find a right medium for yourself if you don't try different elements of practice.

"And for me, it's also a mindfulness piece. Actually doing something, putting an action to the concept, is powerful. Keeping kosher, even if only in baby steps, not only has us think about the whole process of Jewish eating, but also about how we want to eat ethically (for instance, our recent decision to stop buying Empire products due to their environmental abuses).

He seemed intrigued. I continued:

"Similarly, I think it's really valuable for liberal Jews to be visible, as Jews. At first I was worried about doing something wrong or reflecting badly on Jewish people. But I think it's also an opportunity. If my students or neighbors or friends have good experiences with a visible Jew, a Jew identifying as a Jew, then so much the better. I don't want the only people with yarmulkes on being the Orthodox."

"Now you're sounding like a missionary." He grinned.

I shrugged. "If I can be a good example, so much the better." I didn't use the phrase Kiddush Hashem (Abbot doesn't know it), but that was the basic idea.

I still don't think he quite gets it, but I think he's getting closer. And there's something very nice about that.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Searching for authenticity-- and a way to express it

I've finally bit the bullet and started wearing a kippa full-time. Yes, even at work (hooray for summer school-- an easy way to take baby steps). Initially all my co-workers kept asking me if it was a holiday (previously I only wore on on holidays). I had wanted to have a good answer (and I'm still working on one for when school starts), but the first time someone asked me about it this summer, all I could come up with was, "I'm practicing." (Technically true, and slightly witty, but hardly the clearest answer.)

My friend Avraham, who has been wearing a kippa full-time for years and was my inspiration that I, as a "not perfect, and not Orthodox" Jew, could still wear a kippa if I wanted to, works as a scientist, so after the first few times he was asked about it, everyone at work knew he wore one and just moved on.

One of the challenges of deciding to wear a kippa at work and being a teacher is that every year my class turns over, which means I will need to re-explain myself. I don't mind this, but it's something I need some time to mull over to decide how best to do it. I've spent several years worrying about how people would react to me wearing a kippa in public-- and while it's true, as Avraham said, most people either ignore it or have reactions ranging from neutral to positive, I still worry about the perception of either pushing Judaism on my students, or of simply being "too Jewish." Though I'm about 95% sure that most of this is due to my parents' reactions and baggage (especially Abbot Yid's) and my own personal anxiety, it's still something to work through.

That said, so far it's gone well. My new students in summer school (4th graders) asked me about it the first few days and I presented it as a family tradition, which they seemed to be fine with. Now they've made a game of counting how many kippot I own.

Looks like I'm going to need to go on a trip to the Judaica store. :)

Another thing that's come up this summer is Tisha B'Av. Last year I was off so it was easy to observe Tisha B'Av. This year, I'm working and so I needed to arrange for a substitute. As someone that struggles with excessive anxiety, especially relating to work, I really hate to take time away from work, particularly when I know it will impact other people. Every extra step I have to do, calling a sub, writing up plans, negotiating lessons with my partner teacher, adds another layer of doubt as to whether it's worth it to take off.

But because I had decided to fast, I knew it would be better if I wasn't at school. So I went ahead and took the day and now I'm home writing this.

When my colleagues knew I was taking a day off, everyone wanted to know what the holiday was. The trick here, as some of you who work with non-Jewish co-workers know, is that Tisha B'Av is a holiday that doesn't have a very simple summary like "New Year's." It's a very specific, very Jewish-focused holiday, and on top of that, it's post-biblical. (At least for Shavuot I was able to tell my Catholic supervisor, "I think you call it Pentecost.") When I told my partner teacher, "It commemorates the destruction of the Jewish temple," her eyes just glazed over. "Well... have a happy... holiday?" Bless her for trying.

Luckily when I told my students I'd be out they didn't want to know why there was a holiday, they just wanted to know the name. One had a great reaction:

"Tisha B'Av? That's a fun sounding name! When I see my neighbors this afternoon, I'm going to wish them a happy Tisha B'Av!"

This is why I teach.

Of course, it wasn't until after school was over that I realized that there's a very recent analogue that my students (at least my older ones) would definitely understand: Tisha B'Av is like the Jewish 9/11. Not literally, of course-- but as a conceptual bridge to understand national mourning and commemoration, I think it works rather well. Will have to chew on this more.

Anyway, all this is to say that even though things are still a work in progress (like Shabbat, and making it to services more than a couple times a month), I still find a lot of value in trying-- and even though my parents don't quite understand where I'm coming from, I think they're finally respecting me for wanting to claim the tradition as my own and to work to make a meaningful practice for myself and my family. I don't want readers (you still exist, don't you?) to think that I spend all my time worrying about what other people think; rather, it's that my decision to start living more openly and publicly as a Jew means that I also want to be able to articulate some of those decisions to others-- both because I think the questions are legitimate, and because, as part of that discussion process, I'm not just explaining to them, but also to myself.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bibliogestions: Spring 2013

I've taken a long vacation from politics, which is probably from the best. The governments of America and Israel continue to disappoint, terrible things continue to happen in the world, and every time I turn on talk radio on my drive to work, my urge to punch the dial rises. (Mrs. Yid has banned me from playing anything on the AM dial when she's in the car.)

On the other hand, work and personal study/practice have been going well. I blogged about the latest shul-happenings over at TCFS, but I've also been pleased at having been slowly getting through some meaty Judaica books over the last few months. Here are some highlights:

- Shabbetai Zvi was really, really nuts. But also a pretty interesting figure inasmuch as he was able to convince as much as 1/3 of the world's Jewish population that he was the Messiah. John Freely, a Turkish historian of British extraction, though not Jewish, does a great job delving into the medieval background of the time as well as the place. He also capable dissects Zvi's theology and helps chart his legacy among his various branches of followers. I feel like this was great background to prep me for reading about Jacob Frank.

- Yehuda Amital was a true mensch and a great model for our time. Personally traditional in practice, he understood the primacy of ethical behavior and cooperation with people as well as institutions that he didn't always agree with. Perhaps one of the best examples of a principled moderate within the last 50 years, in so many different spheres and contexts: politics, culture, religion, the Holocaust, and more. Amital doesn't shy away from wrestling with harsh truths and sometimes contradictory values, and frequently comes to some sort of decent, if not always perfect, compromise. He's also quite admirable to me in that he tried to avoid creating a cult of personality around himself and emphasized the need for his students-- and by extension, everyone-- to think independently for themselves.

Amital would be the first to admit he wasn't perfect, and his principled moderation has its limits. If you believe in certain absolute values, be they territorial maximalism a-la Gush Emunim, or full equality for women and GLBT Jews, for example, Amital poses a bit of a conundrum. There were causes that were important to him that he seems to have subjugated in order to not go too far against the status quo. In some ways, it's easy to look back on his actions with nostalgia and say, "If only we could all be more moderate like him." But at the same time, I recognize that there are absolute values worth fighting for, and sometimes they require the willingness to fight the status quo, and not always try to change it from within. However Amital's ability to be honest about conflicting values and at least try to balance them (while still, in principle and practice, trying to be open to other points of view) makes him a very powerful, inspiring, and IMO, modern figure that more Jews could benefit from learning about and from.

- Elie Wiesel continues to inspire my Jewish imagination. Wiesel isn't for everybody, and sometimes his style can be a little off-putting, but I think I have enough right-to-left brain that I'm basically able to admire his poetics (particularly impressive given it's in translation) while also not letting it distract from the ideas. After having a couple of Wiesel books kicking around for a while I finally got around to finishing them and was quite impressed with the force of personality and imagination of the early Hasidic masters.

It may just be my own biases, but I think Wiesel is at his best when describing the "darker" rebbes who lived in poverty or conflict but who still had wonderful human qualities rather than the fancier rebbes like the Rizhiner, who depending on your POV come across as verging on exploitive and pompous (despite Wiesel's attempts to present their opulence as a "facade", such as the claim that the Rizhiner wore golden shoes but no soles on the bottoms). Simcha Bunim of Pryzucha, the Kotzker, the Seer of Lublin and the Holy Jew are the men that speak most to me, because they do not seem to be hiding the pain of life behind the curtain of joy. They know what true pain is and continue in spite of it (or sometimes don't). I find that far more powerful than other personalities who seem like they basically don't have as much to wrestle with.

For this reason I was particularly interested by another Wiesel book which focused specifically on Hasidic masters and melancholy. In examining Pinhas of Koretz, Naftali of Ropshitz, the Seer of Lublin, and Baruch of Medzebozh, Wiesel shows the other side of the great leaders, the darker, pained, and human sides, and how each of them dealt with these issues, with various degrees of success. I was reading this book while coming to terms with my own mental health issues and history (and exploring medication), and found it to be very resonant.

- Finally, I also read-- and greatly enjoyed-- 9 1/2 Mystics, a book I had heard about for a while but only remembered as being "the one with an anecdote about naked Gershom Scholem." I really enjoyed it, it reminded me a bit of Jew in the Lotus but is far more grounded in Jewish contexts. The author, Herbert Wiener, is both an educated and liberal Jew as well as an intellectual and spiritual seeker, and those qualities, combined with his strong perseverance as well as good luck to have been around and writing in the 1940s-80s, results in a fascinating compendium of interviews with some of the greatest mystical minds of the last century: Weiner helped organize lectures for Scholem, studied with Steinsaltz, chatted with Buber, visited the Belzer court, had several audiences with M.M. Schneerson, and challenged Zvi Yehuda Kook on how close or far he had reinterpreted his father's teachings. Most fascinating from an Orthodox sociology POV is Weiner's experience and reportage of various Jewish groups that have since gone through major developments, such as Rav Ashlag before the Kabbalah Centre boom, Chabad when Schneerson was still alive and kicking, Breslov before they became as visible as they now are (and before the Uman pilgrimage became the new Jewish Woodstock), and of course Zvi Yehuda Kook back when he was still a man and not yet a departed saint.

Not only does Weiner's book contain fascinating insights into what Jewish mysticism - or mysticisms-- is and could be, but, much like Arthur Hertzberg's Jew in America, also does a wonderful job of showing the living history of a religion and culture still being formed, reformed, and endlessly debated. Anyone who's interested in the topic or any of the personalities I mentioned will find it a fun read.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Profoundly Not Ok

Real life has been busy, so the blog hasn't. More to come, but first... geez. We've talked about Lazer Brody's lack of sense, timing, and self-awareness many times before. We've also discussed the fact that often Lazer seems to genuinely want to use his words to help people heal, which I respect.

But here's the thing, Lazer. Stuff like this... It doesn't help. At all.
We've been flooded with letters of grieving people asking about the meaning of this. All I can say is that Nathan and Raizy were undoubtedly flawless tzaddikim whom Hashem chose as ritual sacrifices for all of Klal Yisroel. Such a tragedy obligates every single one of us to wake up, assess ourselves and return to Hashem.
You know what isn't going to bring anybody close to anything remotely resembling traditional Judaism? Suggesting that innocents being killed in tragic, senseless accidents is part of God demanding ritual sacrifice. In such a tragedy anybody with an ounce of sense and humility is obligated to do nothing more than say a prayer for the dead, support their families, and shut their damn mouths.
The couple's last name - Glauber - is Yiddish for "believer". We have nothing else to lean on but our emuna, our belief in Hashem.
Stop. Just stop. Stop the pat answers, stop pretending to know what God's "plan" is to make horrible car accidents make sense, and stop leaning on gematria or surname etymology or any other nonsense a first year yeshiva students learns in Half-Assing your Drash 101. People are dead, and this is not ok. Give condolences, start a charity fund, but PLEASE, no more. People are watching and hurting, and this... isn't helping anyone.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Some people shouldn't make history movies

As friends who know us IRL can attest, my wife and I are rather different. One area where this comes out is in our movie preferences. I tend to like movies that are more story or character driven, whereas my better-looking half enjoys what she calls "stylish world-building" through costumes, sets, what have you. I like Braveheart, she likes Eraserhead, that sort of thing.

Since I read a lot of history, I am particularly engaged by movies that tell historical stories well. Everything doesn't have to be at a college thesis level of accuracy, but it is nice to see directors, writers and producers taking their source material seriously, especially when it's a heavier subject or one that continues to have a lot of modern-day implications/ramifications.

And then there are... the other guys. The guys that don't seem to feel any obligation to the history behind their stories, who become so wrapped up in the story they've made up or decided to tell that the real history is forced to take a back seat. A way back seat.

One of the directors whose approach to history I absolutely can't stand is Tarantino. Firstly, because I just don't like his work. I dislike his aesthetics, I dislike his writing, he and I have vastly different ideas of what makes something funny, and so on. But more than that, he just seems to take such a low-brow approach to telling history that it's like you're punished for knowing anything about his subjects. When I saw Inglorious Basterds, it didn't fill me with Jewish pride, and it didn't make me sit back and chuckle at the "clever" inversion of Jewish power tropes. It made me angry that Tarantino thought the best Holocaust story worth telling was some crap about fake Jewish commandos beating up Nazis with baseball bats. There are countless real stories of real people he could have used, at least for a starting-point, dealing with real emotions, real consequences and real history, and instead the Holocaust became a set piece for him to talk about... scalping? About how it's fun to kill Nazis? Feature Brad Pitt in a bad mustache and worse accent? Make Hitler jokes?

I found Basterds frustrating, but at least it wasn't as fundamentally upsetting Benigni's Life is Beautiful was. I found that movie offensive on just about every level, and have continued to struggle to understand how people saw anything to like in that movie. I'm sorry, but I have a really hard time letting myself drift into fantasy when WE'RE AT AUSCHWITZ. It just kind of kills the fantasy for me, and causes me to wonder about the mental health or empathy levels of the people that can. I don't like set piece movies as a general rule, but there's some history, especially tragic history, that seems really inappropriate to use for these purposes. I don't need to see the Sucker Punch take on Hiroshima or the Irish Potato Famine.

So too, I am very skeptical of Tarantino's latest poject, Django Unchained (I will admit upfront I have not seen the movie and am going on the comments of others). From what I've read it sounds like Tarantino has again decided to take a major topic in world history and use it as a background to insert irritating and context-less characters whose primary motivation is to be awful to each other. Color me unimpressed.

There are two big reasons why I find Tarantino so distasteful on these kinds of movies. First of all, he seems to be almost proud about swooping in from the wings to tell someone else's story without any background of what the real history was or what its ongoing impacts are on the people it happened to. Tarantino's blase approach puts very little effort into understanding how Jews understand or process the Holocaust, or blacks understand or process slavery. History is treated as infinitely malleable and apparently you can have your characters do anything, no matter how unfactual, and because it's "alternative history," we're supposed to buy it. For Tarantino there's apparently no difference between doing a movie about the Holocaust and adapting Twilight or Roald Dahl.

But then at the same time, he likes to get on his high horse and lecture the communities he's writing about, telling them that somehow his brilliant take on their history has some redeeming, high-art quality that not only everyone should appreciate and acknowledge, but that may even be able to help those communities move on from those tragic events. Black teenagers should watch Django to understand slavery was bad, and Jews should watch Basterds to understand that Nazis are bad. And once you understand slave owners and Nazis are bad, you are supposed to understand that killing them in excruciating detail is awesome. And then you have a movie. Tarantino wants it both ways: on the one hand, his work isn't supposed to be serious history, so it can't be challenged for being fictional or just plain wrong, but on the other hand, it's ground-breakingly deep and can heal generations-old wounds. Tarantino's history has no substance but still wants to be treated as important commentary. It doesn't work, and if history matters to you-- be it yours or someone else's-- it comes across as lazy and dismissive. "Your real stories aren't important or interesting, Jews or black people-- let me tell you why my made up crap is so much better." It's basically one step away from what Mel Gibson tried to do with the Hanukkah story (though then again, being a fundamentalist, at least Gibson might have stuck to the text a little more). To me at least, it reads as incredibly arrogant.

This is where I feel Tarantino actually starts hurting the history he supposedly wants to talk about: he can claim that his alternative history is clever or satirical, but that only works when the audience knows the real history to start with, and I'm not convinced most of them do. And because he isn't invested in understanding his subject matter through the eyes of the people it happened to, he doesn't really have a whole lot of standing to comment on it, so his POV comes across as very skewed. For example, Tarantino doesn't understand why Jews might have a problem with violently killing or gratuitously torturing Nazis because he's never bothered to find out how real Jews reacted to the real life atrocities and traumas of losing their families. He can't relate to it, therefore he dismisses those feelings and representations in film (hand-wringing, as he calls it) as unrealistic. He's decided he knows how people would "realistically" react to that situation, and that's all there is to it. Never mind that there's a lot of documentation showing that most Jews didn't react to the war with revenge, and that the ones who did weren't doing it for fun or thrills but as a deeply pained response to intense trauma at having their entire society annihilated. Tarantino complained about there being no Holocaust stories that talked about fighting back, but the truth is that he's never bothered to look. He could find any number of real stories about real people and examine what they did and why they did it. Those would be stories with context, depth, and integrity, because they could examine and present real moral dilemmas and conflicts. But Tarantino doesn't do those kinds of stories, because he feels that moral dilemmas seem "like a movie, not real life." Which I personally find hilarious because when I look at Tarantino characters, all I see are caricatures and cartoons. Spielberg and Edward Zwick are far from perfect directors, but I'd take Munich, Defiance and even Schindler's List over Basterds any day. Tarantino likes to present himself as a genius director, but he really just comes across as a gore-obsessed lunkhead.

Tarantino's approach to story and characters would frustrate me no matter what his topics were, but it's especially problematic when he decides to apply his low-brow, high-blood method to the Holocaust and slavery. He can claim he's just trying to entertain people, but a lot of people who see his history movies are coming in ignorant and leaving even more ignorant, but now thinking they now know more than when they came in. Black people don't need to see Django to understand their history, they need to be able to get as much of a national platform as Tarantino and get to tell their own stories through their own eyes. I don't buy the claim that people who care about history should be happy that Django (or Lincoln, which I haven't followed as closely) are "at least making people think about the Civil War." No. We can do better, and should want film-makers to do better. I don't accept that my only choices are Ken Burns' coma-juice or Tarantino's genocide-poitation.

When alternative history is done for the purposes of comedy or obvious fantasy, then I suppose it can be successful (or at least stands more of a chance). Cowboys vs. Aliens and Robin Hood: Men in Tights both come to mind. But movies that present alternative history in a realistic or plausible manner, by directors that claim they're actually honoring their subject matter by throwing in tons of crap that never happened, risk doing more harm than good. If you want to make a silly action, romance or horror movie, then go ahead. You can even use slavery or Nazis in it. But be explicit that that's what you're doing, and don't pretend like you're helping whoever's history you decided to rip off for your back-story.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wrapping up the Year

So, how about 2012? Here are some things I meant to blog about but didn't get to:

Personal stuff

- First of all, I prepared a gigantic Hanukkah presentation for my middle-schoolers and it went quite well. Highlights included funny music videos (Matisyahu, Maccabeats and Eran Baron-Cohen), lots of latkes and donut holes, and re-enacting the death of Elazar Avran with a student volunteer, an expo marker, and me as the mortally wounded elephant.

Some people object to an ecumenical Hanukkah message, pointing out that the holiday celebrates people who were emphatically not tolerant of others. I think the history can be presented either way-- in the context of a classroom, I think it's legitimate to frame it as a conversation-starter about personal and national rights-- specifically, the right to be different and live/worship as you please (or as I framed it, rather than seeing it as a Jewish Christmas, Hanukkah is better understood as a Jewish mash-up of July 4th and Thanksgiving-- combining national as well as religious significance and rights). Would Judah Maccabee have been ok with the various expressions of Judaism we see today? Probably not. Then again, I know plenty of Jews-- myself included-- who wouldn't be very ok with killing a guy for worshiping an idol or running around forcibly circumcising your neighbors. I reserve the right to pick and choose.

- On a related note, we visited Mrs. Yid's mispocha. We were informed we would be attending midnight mass with the family. We wore our respective Jewish headgear (scarf and kippa). As Mrs. Yid predicted, there were precisely zero questions and comments from my in-laws, so it's impossible to tell what they thought of it. (Note that this is the exact opposite of what happens with my parents, who are nothing if not vocal-- about everything.) To celebrate Christmas, the church rang bells and set off fireworks. Since this was 12:30 am, I'm sure this did not endear them with their neighbors.

This was the first time I have flown with a kippa on. It is the first time in a long time I have been "randomly searched." Mrs. Yid notes that she has been "randomly searched" every time since covering her hair a year and a half ago.

I find it much easier to wear a kippa in public when I am somewhere I have never been and around people who don't know me. Food for thought.

- Our friend Avraham had his adult bar mitzvah along with 6 other congregants. Half of the b'nai mitzvah class were converts, and many of them were dedicated, longtime members. It was very cool to see hear all the different stories and paths that have brought people to Judaism in general and our shul in particular. Also, after shul Abbot Yid called me and asked why I hadn't picked up earlier that morning. When I told him we were at services he scoffed, "Oh, I'm sorry, you were busy BEING HOLY!" I continue to wonder when he will get over this stuff. Probably never.

- I am leading Carlebach davening this Shabbat. Wish me luck!

National/Media stuff

- Dennis Prager has a university. Considering he spends his time writing crap like how "as a Jew, I love Christmas because it makes me feel tingly all over," this pains me greatly.

- Israel is having an election. All the candidates seem either outright incompetent or supremely unsatisfying. I am intrigued by the shake-up among the religious, left and nationalist right political sectors, though at this point it seems way too early to tell what will come from any of it. (Though big kudoses to Shas for managing to be racist against Africans and bigoted towards Russian converts in the same election cycle. Mazel tov, jerks.)

- With all the school shootings happening, it's a strange time to be a teacher. I find it very irritating that so much of the national media/random pundits feel qualified to blather on about what teachers "should" do during a school shooting without apparently knowing anything about school safety procedures. At every school I've ever taught at, the training focuses on putting classes into lockdown mode until the threat is identified and/or contained, then evacuating. As cold as it may sound to people, this procedure and training helped keep Newtown from being an even worse massacre. Can there be additional steps added? Sure. But don't tell me that teachers are should be pulling a Rambo when everything they hear from the school is, "lock your door and keep your kids safe." And yes, while I realize the issue may be more complicated than merely gun supply, that does seem to be a far more logical place to start than random pat answers like saying we should "focus on morality" (how?) or that it's because we've taken God out of schools (explain the 60+ US school shootings before 1962, Huckabee).

 I don't see easy answers to the school shooting issue, but I do think that some combination of increased gun control legislation, mental health resources and refocused school security systems would be a good start. I don't think arming teachers or passing blustery laws that score political points but don't change the reality on the ground are good answers.

- Lastly, conversations regarding Newtown and theodicy have helped me better articulate some aspects of my understanding of God. Namely, why the notion of God causing disasters makes so little sense to me. (Adapated from a Dovbear comment I made a few weeks ago.)

If you look around, the world does not seem to be controlled. If God is a factor, it seems to operate as an undercurrent, not an obvious force. As such, my conception of God is not focused on the idea of a miracle-maker or a punishment-dealer. My God is one of suggestion and hope. When I daven, I always take a moment to insert a personal prayer where I ask for blessings for my family, for my friends, for my coworkers, for the leaders of the world, and for myself. I ask for health, for happiness, for peace, and for wisdom. But those blessings aren't for miracles, and I don't expect them to be fulfilled miraculously.

For me, prayer is an articulation of hope, and by speaking to God I am trying, in some small way, to reach out to whatever forces may influence the universe. It may do nothing more than make me feel better. It may help reaffirm to me what my goals for myself, others and the world are and thereby spur me a little step closer to making them come true. I don't pray for God to move mountains, but to touch people's hearts, to make them care about each other and about doing the right thing. I pray that somehow, this force we call God will help influence good and brave people, so that eventually they outnumber and overcome the evil and apathetic and help tip the scales of history.

To me, that is God's job, not making it rain, helping me win the lottery, or shielding people from terrible events-- because I believe that those things by necessity will always happen. But if there is a God and he does influence the world, my greatest hope is that he will help us, impact us, empower us, to become better about preventing our own tragedies and reaching out to those touched by them. That's the God I believe in.

Shabbat shalom.