Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Myth of the (Non) Fighting Jew

Cross-posted to DovBear.

There was a line in a Haaretz article about the upcoming Defiance movie that rubbed me the wrong way. Actually, most of the article was raising alarm bells. Not because the movie won't be good, I'm sure it will be. But the focus of the piece happened to be remarking on the fact that four or five Bielski grandkids are in the IDF, and tying this in with a family military tradition:

A family of warrior Jews, from partisan to paratrooper

It's a story made for Hollywood. The grandfather fought the Nazis, the son fought in the Yom Kippur War, and last month the American-born grandson decided to make Israel home and join its defense forces.

...While Bielski's native New York may not have presented the same challenges as those suffered by his grandfather in World War II-era Belarus, the 21-year-old has decided to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and immigrate to Israel.

"I came to Israel on birthright when I was a freshman in college," he said. "I loved it. My whole family was in the army here."

Bielski finished college in three years, not even pausing to don a cap and gown. Instead, the day after his last class, he flew to Israel where an Israel Defense Forces uniform was waiting.

The scene was familiar for Elan's Israeli-born father, Yakow, who returned to his native land in 1973 with his brother after a stint in the U.S. to fight in the Yom Kippur War. Zus, who had settled in Israel for ten years after the Holocaust and fought in the 1948 Independence War , was reluctant to see his sons go.

Yakow himself is proud of Elan's decision to join the army, though he said that one of the reasons his own father had left Israel was because of all the wars.

While Elan echoed his father and grandfather's concern of seeing their children enlist in the army, he said: "I'd be proud of my kids to make the same decision I did."

Love, war, and genetics

In addition to Elan Bielski, two other descendants of the brothers are serving in the IDF, and another is now in the reserves. Bielski's twin sister also plans to move to Israel; his older sister is married in the U.S. with a four-month old named after Zus.

Two, going on three, generations of parental instinct can't seem to stop the Bielskis from joining Israel's army and society. "It's just genetic," Yakow said. We're warrior Jews."

Here's the problem: the whole piece (supported by the comments of Bielski pere and fils) suggests that only "certain families" have it in them to be warrior Jews- which, of course, means that other people don't. The reason the "fighting Jew" myth is so disturbing because it is based on a false premise, and because it libels all who do not neatly fit under it as (sterotypically?) weak pacifists.

This has been part-and-parcel of Jewish sociology for well over one hundred years, since the days when the Bund cells and Hashomer societies first started rallying Jews around the concept of self-defense and pride. Back then, their opponents were the maintainers of the status-quo and the perception that Jews were meek and submissive yeshiva students who would rather beg for their lives or offer their enemy a bribe than crush his skull with a rock- in short, the rabbinical establishment.

Ironically, in those early days of the 1880s and 1900s when the "fighting Jew"/Ghetto Jew dichotomy was being set up by ideologues and propagandists, most of the recruits coming into the Jewish Socialist and Zionist movements were from religious homes whose families did not have specific martial traditions. Yet somehow they adapted when given the proper training, motivation, and community support. The same is mirrored in the history of American Jews and the modern Israeli army- one does not need to be born into a "warrior family" to become a capable soldier or tactician. Yet today in Israel there is an unspoken assumption that the Haredim choose not to fight because they are somehow incapable of fighting- a stereotype that persists despite the existence of units like the Nahal Haredim (as if the long history between the Mafdal and IDF was not proof enough that there is no reason an Orthodox Jew cannot be a warrior as well).

One could even go back further- to use just the example of one country I'm familiar with, Poland, Jews fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Warsaw and in each of that country's Revolutions. This fighting was not restricted to secularists or those drifting from the faith (Berek Joselowicz's unit was known as "The Beardlings" because they would not shave; they also demanded the Sabbath off and would only eat kosher food); there are also cases of revolutionary rabbis. Check out this story about two rabbis you may have heard of, courtesy of an old article in Polin:

Even though the hagiographies of the hasidic leaders neglect Polish politics, there is some evidence that hasidim suppoorted the 1830 revolt. We have an account that Rabbi Menahem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk and his pupil Rabbi Isaac Meir Rothernberg, founder of the Ger dynasty, actively encouraged the Jews to aid the Poles in their rebellion and that after the Russian victory both were forced to travel to Lemberg (Lwow), then the capital of the Austrian province of Galicia, to hide from the Russian authorities. They were only able to return to Kotzk after changing their names; Menahem Mendel changed his last name from Halpern to Morgenstern, Isaac Meir from Rothenberg to Alter.

Bet you never heard about that in yeshiva. Neither, mind you, would you have encountered it in any book about these rabbis. This is part of the split Jewish tradition over how to deal with Jews that don't fit the "peaceful" paradigm- which, by the way, is itself a construct, since there are plenty of "fighting Jews" in the Torah- and afterwards! (What would you call the Bar Kochkba revolt, or the Zealots at Massada?) We would prefer to identify "tough Jews" as a vicarious exception to the meek, pious or status-quo Jews that were the standard, rather than taking an objective look at the history and consider that, god forbid, there were revolutionary rabbis or frum soldiers fighting for Napoleon.

Look forward to the twentieth century and you see the same obfuscation when it comes to Jewish criminals- plenty of whom used violence for achieving their goals. Even before the days of Lansky and Siegel, you had organized crime in Warsaw, Lodz and Odessa. Modern Yiddish writers like Sholem Asch freely depicted the "Jewish underground" in novels like Mottke the Theif, and his play God of Vengeance. For crying out loud, prostitution was a cottage industry in Jewish Buenos Aires, and there were many layers of violence involved in maintaining business as usual.

And, ironically, when Jews took a stand against these undesirable elements within their community, preying on their weakest members, it was again, the "fighting Jews" who took action. One notable flare-up was the May 1905 Alphonsenpogrom [Pimp-Pogrom], where the Jewish Bund in Warsaw went on a three-day rampage through the city's red-light district, attacking brothels and cafes. The New York Times wrote about the Socialists' assault on not only the pimps' places of business, but also their worldly possessions:

Wardrobes, pianos and mirrors were thrown out of the windows. The mob in the streets left open spaces for the falling articles and then completed the work of destruction. In one place, a quantity of valuable jewelry was taken out and deliberately smashed with stones.

The Alphonsenpogrom left 8 dead and 100 injured. (Not necessarily the Bund's finest moment, but a "tough Jew" moment? Unquestionably.) And it was not the only incident. According to Prostitution and Prejudice (the primary source for Nathan Englander's latest novel), there were others, as well. In 1903 The Jewish Vigilance Society in Cardiff, Wales, challenged their pimps in street combat and won. In Buenos Aires in 1909, the Poale Zion beat up local white slavers after an altercation in a theater of a play critical of prostitution. In 1910 some young men in Rio de Janero accosted the "pimps' congregation" on their way back from dedicating a new Torah scroll. The pimps were attacked and the Torah scroll given to "more-deserving" folks.

We don't hear about any of this controversial history because the personalities don't fit in with cookie-cutter views of secular or religious Jews, or rich vs. poor. By doing this we do our ancestors, and our descendants, a disservice. By censoring the Jewish past we impair the Jewish present, and further limit the Jewish future to take honest assessments about who we are as a people, based on factual information.

The Bielskis accomplished an amazing thing, and no one is contesting that. But to suggest that being a "fighting Jew" is genetic also means that you are passing a judgment on all the non-warriors in the Jewish family, essentially establishing a caste system between those rough-neck toughs and those meek yeshiva bochurs. The irony is that there are plenty of cases, in history and today, where the two may be brothers. Or one and the same.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sticking a Toe into the Big Pond

I will be periodically guest blogging over at DovBear in addition to my own humble e-home for the next few weeks. (Hooray for low standards.)

And I'm already getting into some trouble. In response to my first (admittedly, over-researched) post this line was said in the comments:

This post has a feel of plagiarism .
too much information and too well written.

Of course, the comment makes more sense after perusing the writer's own voluminous oeuvre.

How Dennis Prager will get you laid

Well, by "you," I mean, "men." Don't worry gals, you get to be involved, too. Sort of.

Look, we even have a token feminist riding shotgun. Hi, honey.

Shiska Girlfriend: Just shut up.

Me: Fair enough. Let's take a look at this steamy two-for-one column. Take it away, Dingbat, I mean, Dennis.

First, women need to recognize how a man understands a wife's refusal to have sex with him: A husband knows that his wife loves him first and foremost by her willingness to give her body to him. This is rarely the case for women. Few women know their husband loves them because he gives her his body (the idea sounds almost funny).

Shiska Girlfriend: Everyone knows women have no sexual attraction to their partners. That would be unladylike!

Me: This explains why women don't care when men cheat, or can't get an erection. Or why I'm always seeing those infomercials at three in the morning with women who say that size doesn't matter, only whether a man appreciates them and has a good sense of humor. Oh wait.

SG: Did I mention I love you for the manly protection you provide, the future children you'll help sire, and the financial security we get from your cushy teaching job? Nothing sexy there, though.

This is, therefore, usually a revelation to a woman. Many women think men's natures are similar to theirs, and this is so different from a woman's nature, that few women know this about men unless told about it.

SG: Women totally think men and them think the same. That's why there are no books or magazines devoted to the subject, right?

Me: I'm amazed we can even speak the same language. It's a good thing Dennis is here.

This is a major reason many husbands clam up. A man whose wife frequently denies him sex will first be hurt, then sad, then angry, then quiet. And most men will never tell their wives why they have become quiet and distant. They are afraid to tell their wives. They are often made to feel ashamed of their male sexual nature, and they are humiliated (indeed emasculated) by feeling that they are reduced to having to beg for sex.
SG: Surely there's no external cause that could prevent a woman from wanting to spend all her time in the sack with him. Could it be exhaustion or resentment? These women need to shut their traps, lie back and think of England because their husbands are hot sexy beasts.
Me: Hail Britannia.
When first told this about men, women generally react in one or more of five ways:
Me: Five ways? Those crafty women. It's a good thing Dennis and his team of statisticians are out there crunching numbers on this important issue.
1. You have to be kidding.
The most common female reaction to hearing about men's sexual nature is incredulity, often followed by denial. These are entirely understandable reactions given how profoundly different – and how seemingly more primitive – men's sexual nature is compared to women's.
Incredulity is certainly the reaction most women have when first being told that a man knows he is loved when his wife gives him her body. The idea that the man she is married to, let alone a man whose intelligence she respects, will to any serious extent measure her love of him by such a carnal yardstick strikes many women as absurd and even objectionable.
Me: What's with this building up men as sex-obsessed Neanderthals? Last I checked, plenty of women enjoyed sex, too. Can we call this "male-bashing" yet?

But the question that should matter to a woman who loves her man is not whether this proposition speaks poorly or well of male nature. It is whether it is true. And it is true beyond anything she can imagine. A woman who often deprives her husband of her body is guaranteed to injure him and to injure the marriage – no matter what her female friends say, no matter what a sympathetic therapist says, and no matter what her man says.

Me: That's right, we know it is empirically true because the Holy Dennis says so, the same theme and logic that carries through all of Dennis' articles and books.

2. If this is true, men really are animals.
Correct. Compared to most women's sexual nature, men's sexual nature is far closer to that of animals. So what? That is the way he is made. Blame God and nature. Telling your husband to control it is a fine idea. But he already does. Every man who is sexually faithful to his wife already engages in daily heroic self-control. He has married knowing he will have to deny his sexual nature's desire for variety for the rest of his life. To ask that he also regularly deny himself sex with the one woman in the world with whom he is permitted sex is asking far too much. Deny him enough times and he may try to fill this need with another woman. If he is too moral to ever do that, he will match your sexual withdrawal with emotional and other forms of withdrawal.
Me: I like how he just takes a giant crap on men right there. If someone on Feministe said men were horndog animals he'd be screaming it was a hate crime.

SG: Hear that, ladies with adulterous husbands? Your fault.
Me: Damn you, society, with your un-natural, Puritan constraints!
SG: We really need to use the Roman model with the concubine system. If one turns you down, you can always move on to the next one.

Me: Hey, how come if men are such horndogs that are ruled by their sexual urges they willingly enter into these bad agreements? Also, how does Dennis explain the existence of people that are able to live celibate lives? I wonder what he thinks about the various teshuvot that require gays to be celibate?
3. Not my man.
Many women will argue, understandably, "My husband knows I love him. He doesn't need me to have sex with him to know that. And this is especially so when I'm too tired or just don't want sex. Anyway, my man only enjoys sex with me when I'm into it, too."
The importance of mutual kindness to a marriage is impossible to overstate. But while necessary, it is not sufficient. Women can understand this by applying the same rule to men. Most women will readily acknowledge that it is certainly not enough for a man to be kind to her. If it were, women would rarely reject kind men as husband material. But as much as a woman wants a kind man, she wants more than that. If a man is, let us say, lacking in ambition or just doesn't want to work hard, few women will love him no matter how kind he is. In fact, most women would happily give up some kindness for hard work and ambition. A kind man with little ambition is not masculine, therefore not desirable to most women.
SG: Because all women have the same tastes and are in the exact same spot on the sexual continuum.
Me: What about stupid women who marry men who are both ambitionless losers and who treat them like crap? What's the appeal there? And where does Dennis get his stats? Is it nowhere? I think it is.

5. I know this and that's why I rarely say no to my husband.
This is a wise woman. She knows a sexually fulfilled husband is a happy husband. (At the same time, men need to recognize that complete sexual fulfillment is unattainable in this world.) And because a happy husband loves his wife more, this cycle of love produces a happy home.
Me: In this world? What, but in Heaven we get to have sex all the time? I thought we only get 40 virgins under jihadist theology.
SG: Can you sing that song about the good woman being worth more than rubies again?

Not enough dreck for you? Fear not, Dennis has a Part Two!
Here are eight reasons for a woman not to allow not being in the mood for sex to determine whether she denies her husband sex.
1. If most women wait until they are in the mood before making love with their husband, many women will be waiting a month or more until they next have sex. When most women are young, and for some older women, spontaneously getting in the mood to have sex with the man they love can easily occur. But for most women, for myriad reasons – female nature, childhood trauma, not feeling sexy, being preoccupied with some problem, fatigue after a day with the children and/or other work, just not being interested – there is little comparable to a man's "out of nowhere," and seemingly constant, desire for sex.

SG: Maybe nobody just wants to have sex with you, Dennis. What is your sample size?

Me: Yeah, I wonder how many women are calling into his show telling him how frigid they are. Incidentally, Dennis has been married twice- one marriage lasted five years, the other for a whole seven. For someone with those stats, and who has been single for almost four years, you'd think he might be smart enough to get off his high horse about this thing.

SG: I guess he's just going around LA with that animal lust burning a hole in his pants.
2. Why would a loving, wise woman allow mood to determine whether or not she will give her husband one of the most important expressions of love she can show him? What else in life, of such significance, do we allow to be governed by mood?

What if your husband woke up one day and announced that he was not in the mood to go to work? If this happened a few times a year, any wife would have sympathy for her hardworking husband. But what if this happened as often as many wives announce that they are not in the mood to have sex? Most women would gradually stop respecting and therefore eventually stop loving such a man.
What woman would love a man who was so governed by feelings and moods that he allowed them to determine whether he would do something as important as go to work? Why do we assume that it is terribly irresponsible for a man to refuse to go to work because he is not in the mood, but a woman can – indeed, ought to – refuse sex because she is not in the mood? Why?
SG: Could it be that going to work is a necessity and is not supposed to be fun? Whereas sex is supposed to be fun (and in fact there are biological components to encourage your mood towards having sex). What you're actually suggesting is that your wife be a prostitute, whose job is to have sex regardless of her mood. Unless she's sick, then she gets a pass.

Me: So are you saying sex is not a necessity?

SG: Marriage is not a free pass for unlimited sexual favors, sorry.

3. The baby boom generation elevated feelings to a status higher than codes of behavior. In determining how one ought to act, feelings, not some code higher than one's feelings, became decisive: "No shoulds, no oughts." In the case of sex, therefore, the only right time for a wife to have sex with her husband is when she feels like having it. She never "should" have it. But marriage and life are filled with "shoulds."

SG: I can't figure out what that means. But it's good to know that Dennis thinks that you lose all personal rights when you get married.

Me: Only if you're the woman. Incidentally, doesn't Jewish law say sex is in part dependent on the woman's mood?

4. Thus, in the past generation we have witnessed the demise of the concept of obligation in personal relations. We have been nurtured in a culture of rights, not a culture of obligations.

Me: Yeah, yeah, more wanky, "blame the sixties" prattle. Moving on.

SG: Sex is not an "obligation." You have to earn it, by, I don't know... working at it?

5. Partially in response to the historical denigration of women's worth, since the 1960s, there has been an idealization of women and their feelings. So, if a husband is in the mood for sex and the wife is not, her feelings are deemed of greater significance – because women's feelings are of more importance than men's. One proof is that even if the roles are reversed – she is in the mood for sex and he is not – our sympathies again go to the woman and her feelings.

Me: What's all this "us" stuff? No one asked me about any of this. I'd say they should have a damn conversation, not emotionally blackmail each other by referring to a Dennis Prager article. Besides, per the facts in "Dennis World," if men are such sexual creatures, then presumably we can be satisfied in other ways, and the woman's frustration ought not to happen that often, since she's usually not in the mood and the men are only to happy to oblige.

SG: I notice that Dennis never goes into the details of whether the partners owe each other good or satisfying sex, just that something needs to happen.

6. Yet another outgrowth of '60s thinking is the notion that it is "hypocritical" or wrong in some other way to act contrary to one's feelings. One should always act, post-'60s theory teaches, consistent with one's feelings. Therefore, many women believe that it would simply be wrong to have sex with their husband when they are not in the mood to. Of course, most women never regard it as hypocritical and rightly regard it as admirable when they meet their child's or parent's or friend's needs when they are not in the mood to do so. They do what is right in those cases, rather than what their mood dictates. Why not apply this attitude to sex with one's husband?

SG: I'm sorry, but there's a difference between making your hungry kid a sandwich and having sex when you don't want to. There are physical reactions that occur when you have sex and don't want to. Why doesn't Dennis tell the husbands to work on getting their wives in the mood?

7. Many contemporary women have an almost exclusively romantic notion of sex: It should always be mutually desired and equally satisfying or one should not engage in it. Therefore, if a couple engages in sexual relations when he wants it and she does not, the act is "dehumanizing" and "mechanical." Now, ideally, every time a husband and wife have sex, they would equally desire it and equally enjoy it. But, given the different sexual natures of men and women, this cannot always be the case. If it is romance a woman seeks – and she has every reason to seek it – it would help her to realize how much more romantic her husband and her marriage are likely to be if he is not regularly denied sex, even of the non-romantic variety.

Me: You know, this is starting to make us men look really bad. "No problem honey, you just lie comatose while I do my thing. This is going to be awesome!"

SG: I wonder if Dennis has ever had a willing partner in his marriage bed.

Me: I like his rationalization shuffle- "Of course, in a perfect world, we'd all have everything we want. Unfortunately, due to the capitalist system, this is impossible. That's why we should rob banks, and good job for those who are ambitious enough to try to change their circumstances. That's positively American of them. George Washington would be proud."

8. In the rest of life, not just in marital sex, it is almost always a poor idea to allow feelings or mood to determine one's behavior. Far wiser is to use behavior to shape one's feelings. Act happy no matter what your mood and you will feel happier. Act loving and you will feel more loving. Act religious, no matter how deep your religious doubts, and you will feel more religious. Act generous even if you have a selfish nature, and you will end with a more a generous nature. With regard to virtually anything in life that is good for us, if we wait until we are in the mood to do it, we will wait too long.

Me: So the trick to a successful marriage is mindless artificiality?

SG: Yeah, that's why everybody wants to be a brainless Stepford Wife like the walking plastic surgeries they see on TV.

Me: You know, he actually has a point about waiting too long, but there's also the problem that being shamelessly insincere out of some strange belief that it will fix everything doesn't seem like that good an idea. Besides, isn't this the same guy that "faked" being Orthodox for numerous years only to ditch for a Reform shul? What happened to acting religious (frum)? And again, if Dennis' brilliant brain couldn't save his own marriage(s), what chance do the rest of us have?

SG: I guess we should just keep living in sin and save the divorce fees.

Me: Sounds good.

SG: Up for super hot, coerced sex?

Me: Sure.

SG: Too bad, I have a cold. Sucker!

Me: Damn womanly tricks.
Hat-tip: Moderate Left.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Great Menorah Quest

This Hanukkah, Shiska Girlfriend and I were in the market for a menorah. I had previously received this cute one depicting a Lower East Side street scene, but since I wasn't too keen on drenching the people with candle wax (or chipping it off with a butter knife), I decided to keep looking.

However, we had a problem. I wanted something traditional and simple, like my parents' brass menorah. Something in metal, not glass. And Shiska Girlfriend had a very specific request- "No Star of David." I wasn't exactly clear why, since it's not like Hanukkah is a particularly ecumenical holiday- what else would you expect to find on a menorah? But she apparently didn't want one, so I went along with it.

This made things rather tricky. Being both busy and computer-savvy, we decided to use the powers of the Internet to make our search easier and expand our reach. And yet, all we really accomplished were several evenings of groaning. Here were some of the worst offenders:

The "Hunting Trophy" look.

The "Kiddie Toy Tree of Life"- both in "organic growth" and "vertical trellis" styles:

Also in "tasteful" silver!

Trees of Life not your thing? What about a Menorah that reminds us of all the great things the Maccabees fought for, like colors?

No? Fine then, exercise your great love of setting pets on fire!

Still no? Picky, picky. What about klezmer? Everybody loves klezmer, right?

Fine, how about some things that don't look anything remotely like menorahs? Shot glasses? Legos? Bridge prototypes? Water pipes?

Or we could go the creepy anthropomorphic menorah route! Or a do-it-yourself one! Or, for the lazy, combine two important Hanukkah elements by getting a Menorah made out of gold-colored gelt tin. (Next year- a dreidel made out of latkes.)

Even when we finally found some halfway decent metal ones, we ran into problems with the shape of the branches. Some were too curvy, some too twisty, some were too straight (i.e., Chabad), some too blocky, and some were too artsy. Or just plain weird. For crying out loud, this one was a paperclip.

So, finally, Shiska Girlfriend compromised on the "no Star of David" thing- it turned out she just didn't want a huge one dominating the whole thing-- and we managed to get a nice little brass number from Ebay for under twenty dollars.

It also happens to be an exact replica of my parents'. Life is funny sometimes.

Next: Shiska Girlfriend celebrates her first Christmas away from home. With my family. God help us.

Don't ignore the dent- in your head

I found this while skulking through Lazer's archives and read it aloud to Shiska Girlfriend. See if you can guess the twist.

Dear Rabbi Brody,

...Lately, I've been accident prone. I have a one year-old Toyota, and lately I seem to be making little mistakes all the time - parking the car in the rain and dark, and bumping the rear of the car into a pole; rushing while driving my children to music lessons, and the tire hit the curb and the tire cover popped off; pulling out into traffic, and I lightly grazed a fence and now have a streak on the side of the car.

None of these incidents involved harming myself, anyone else, or anyone else's car (thank G-d!), they are purely incidents of damage that I have done - completely inadvertently, but clearly, something is going on! I was actually distressed by how nice my husband has been - I thought he should yell at me and tell me to be more careful, slow down, why aren't you taking better care of our car? But he has been downright kind!

I've prayed for help in understanding what these small, but clearly repetitive, mistakes mean, but I haven't received any answers. In your opinion, what should I do?

SG: Sleep more? Pay more attention? Also, how is "parking the car in the rain and the dark" a mistake? What is she supposed to do instead?

But wait, there's more:

In general, B"H, I am modern Orthodox, 38 years old, married happily for 15 years to a better-than-ever husband, we have 4 beautiful daughters, and we are blessed with an adequate income. I am grateful for all of these blessings, and in general, I am a happy person. This is the one area I need help with. With appreciation for your advice and help, Suzanne R.,

SG: Why are you asking a rabbi about your inability to drive?

Me: Because it's clearly a SIGN about something!

SG: [Angry sigh.]

Lazer writes back:

Dear Suzanne,

These are personal wake-up calls from Hashem to catch your attention. The dents in the car (blemishes in the machine's outer appearance) indicate that you have things to fix in your outer appearance. Without knowing you personally, I'd say that the repeated mishaps are probably a call to improve your modesty in dress and head covering. Blessings always, LB

SG: When in doubt, blame the woman.

Me: Without knowing anything about you, I'm going to guess you're probably ugly. Maybe you should consider plastic surgery.

We were hoping Suzanne would write back and give Lazer a piece of her mind, or explain why there is no sensical correlation between one's ability to drive and tznius. Did we get our wish?

Well, sort of. She did write back...

Dear Rabbi Brody,

I want to thank you for your note from October 31st. You had no way of knowing this, but I hadn't been covering my hair at all. After I received your note, it all fell into place: I decided it was time to buy some head-coverings.

The next day when I drove home from work with my head covered for the first time, I had a co-worker with me. As soon as I entered the highway, she said, "Slow down! The speed limit on this road it 50, not 60, and you might get a ticket." I felt Hashem's love and protection being channelled through my friend, and I immediately relaxed and drove more slowly. Thank G-d, I haven't had any incidents with the car since.

So thank you very much for your advice. It helped me a great deal. Most sincerely, Suzanne

SG: How convenient that, right at that moment, God was working through your friend telling you to stop driving like a maniac! It's too bad he was content to let you put yourself and everyone around you at risk unless you stopped showing your hair like a tramp.

Next time: Suzanne asks Lazer why her kugel sucks. Lazer's answer: buy longer sleeves.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

UTJ shake-ups

You know, there was a time when I paid more attention to Israeli politics than American ones. But that time has ended, and I rarely bother to post about the goings-on of the Knesset these days.

On the other hand, I always try to follow developments with my buddies in UTJ. Since lately Kadima, Likud and Labor have been constantly on the verge of collapsing in on themselves and devolving into cannibalistic feeding frenzies, UTJ decided, "Why not us?" The first salvo in this epic battle was launched by Meir "the Beard" Porush when he announced his campaign for mayor of Jerusalem. Supposedly, Porush had the backing of everyone in the Israeli Haredi community. Everyone, that is, except for Ger, the largest sect in the country. The Gerrer rebbe (and his top politico, Yaakov Litzman) were pissed about Porush endorsing non-UTJ candidates in previous elections and not working hard enough to get enough money (all of it) earmarked for Ger schools. Ger wasn't alone; Porush's Degel Ha-Torah colleagues weren't very excited about his running for the post, either:

The first to come out openly against Porush is MK Avraham Ravitz of Degel Hatorah, who does not conceal his disgust with the man, a scion of the powerful Porush family. Jerusalem, he says, "deserves a mayor who intends to run the city fairly, for all its residents, one for whom Jerusalem, rather than he or his family, is of primary importance."


The result? Tons of fun mayhem. There was plenty of press squabbling and name-calling, along with Ger calls to boycott Porush and support anybody else, but it turns out that was just the pre-game show. Ger eventually supported the secular candidate, Barkat, over Porush, and convinced a few other sects to follow along (including, according to some reports, Porush's own Boyaner rebbe). There were also some scuffles on election day in Haredi neighborhoods.

Immediately following the election, there were amusing descents into violence.

First, Litzman was attacked in a Slonimer shul in Mea Shearim. The strangest thing here was seeing the different ways news wires could mangle the term "kugel."

Yediot: "Liztman was kicked, pushed, cursed and pelted with kugel pies. "

Middle East Online: "
According to witnesses, young ultra-Orthodox pelted the 60-year-old rabbi with cakes and threw his black fur hat on the floor."

Jpost: "The embattled Litzman, a representative of the Gur Hassidim within the haredi United Torah Judaism Party, was allegedly cursed, pushed and kicked before being pelted with kugel shortly after arriving at a family celebration"

But at least the thugs are even-handed. The next day some people beat up Porush's son. (History repeating itself?)

Sadly, even after hats have been cleaned and brusies have faded, bruised egos take a much longer time to heal. Following the election debacle, the entire Haredi political system is squabbling with itself:

First, Agudat Yisrael is feuding:

[There is a] major rift between two major groups making up Agudat Yisrael.

On one side is Shlomei Emunei Yisrael, headed by Porush, which is made up of a patchwork of small-to-medium-size hassidic sects usually named after the East European towns where they were founded. Some of the sects represented by Porush include Arloi, Slonim, Karlin-Stolin, Seret-Viznitz, Sadigora, Belz and Boston, one of the few hassidic groups named after an American city.

Pitted against Porush's Shlomei Emunei is the Gerer hassidic sect, the country's largest. Until the recent confrontation, Gur, under the aggressive leadership of Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, effectively controlled Agudat Yisrael. Now Shlomei Emunei and Gur are waging a power struggle.

Some are claiming that the election debacle will be the eventual death of Ger's control of Agudat Yisrael. Hope you're happy, Porush! Does your beard's ego know no shame?

But there's more. Senior Degel head, Avraham Ravitz, announced a couple of weeks after the election that he was quitting politics, though he would still stay on as Degel chair. This leaves the top Degel position open for Moshe Gafni, who has been chomping at the bit for some time.

And then yet more developments- Degel and Agudat announced they were splitting again- this would be for the third time since 2004. As before, most of the disagreement is hovering over who gets the sixth slot.

In response, some Gerrer movers and shakers have tried to get the rebbe to can Litzman, but apparently he's not interested. Also, Agudat is now apparently considering letting Belz finally have another turn in the Knesset. How nice of them.

Finally, in case Porush has a sudden change of heart about sticking with UTJ New and Improved Agudat Yisrael "half the Knesset representation with half the fat", he will be happy to know there's another party willing to offer him a political home:
Far-right activists Baruch Marzel and Rabbi Shalom Wolpe yesterday heralded the establishment of a new political party, Eretz Yisrael Shelanu (Our Land of Israel), which will vie for seats in the upcoming Knesset elections. Marzel and Wolpe said they have already put out feelers to MKs Aryeh Eldad and Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) about a possible merger with the new party.

Wolpe also said that if Meir Porush declines to run as a member of United Torah Judaism, his new faction "would be more than happy to accept him."

Awesome, the latest crazy attempt by Marzel to get anywhere near the Knesset! You can tell they're serious because of the other people they've invited in. Clearly this is a very exclusive club.

Now Meir, as your agent I think you should carefully consider all offers...

Monday, December 22, 2008

My Devil's Advocate made me do it.

I am just about the least Christmas-y oriented person in my family. As I discovered and explored more and more about Judaism in my teens, I found myself increasingly more alienated from my family's (fairly mild) celebrations of the holiday. Keep in mind, these have been tame by plenty of people's standards- stockings over the fireplace, presents on the floor, and Hanukkah decorations around the house. To be fair, we do have a strange obsession with buying ever-more ornaments, but since Abbot Yid will never consent to having a tree in his house, we hang them from ugly chandeliers. (Of course the chandeliers never increase, so I'm unclear why we keep buying more every year.)

For the curious, BTW, we are not "Jewies come-lately" to finding some compromise with Christmas. My American-born great-grandmother, raised in a Litvak Orthodox home in Brownsville (her parents were from Vilna), got the idea for her kids back in the 30s when they were feeling a little left out. So she put up stockings. [Edit: I recently found out that her mother, the Orthodox Litvak balebusta from Vilna, should actually get the credit. Torah U'Mad indeed!] It's pretty simple. You get a little bit of the holiday without it taking over. No Jesus, not even necessarily "Santa" if you don't want- it's some damn socks. Not such a big deal. I've come to terms with it over the years- if it was good enough for my Orthodox alter-[alter]-bubbe, it's good enough for me.

Unfortunately, not all agree with this. DB posted this screed from Lawrence Kelemen, a writer over at a particularly dumb website I've discussed previously.

Kelemen, of course, cannot discuss anything about Christmas without going on a Crusade against it, and because his arguments are just too bad, and too dumb, I find myself, the usual family Scrooge, forced to defend, of all things, Jews celebrating Christmas.

This is going to be hilarious.

The first problem with Kelemen's essay is that he has not bothered to think about the emotional reasons some Jews celebrate or observe Christmas (many of whom are intermarried, apparently Kelemen's personal lepers). He therefore can't understand how to approach those issues. Instead he is reduced to pointing to his list of bulletpoints and shrilly yelling, "Don't you care?" No, Larry, they don't. If you approached the issue from a perspective of someone who is already observing the holiday in some fashion, rather than someone that has never thought about it, you might get a better sense as to why very few of your facts or arguments are likely to change their minds.

For starters, no Jews care when Jesus was born. I'm not sure why Kelemen bothers with a comparison of historical sources demonstrating the lack of consensus for JC's birth- that's all interesting but irrelevant. (I also find it amusing that he probably would balk at using some of those same academic/historical tools and applying them to the Torah.) Ditto for the Saturnalia background- why is he giving us info about the intricacies of the Catholic church? Come on, Larry, we aren't Christian converts, we've just decided to stick a tree in our living room (in my parents' case, it's a plastic tree that was re-gifted to my mother five years ago by a colleague which remains untouched gathering dust in our basement). Try to separate the two a little.

One of things I find most infuriating about Kelemen's piece are all his broad-brush statements:

Christmas has always been a holiday celebrated carelessly. For millennia, pagans, Christians, and even Jews have been swept away in the season’s festivities, and very few people ever pause to consider the celebration’s intrinsic meaning, history, or origins.

Yeah, not at all the paragon of intellectual honesty that Hanukkah is, right? Incidentally Larry, how would you know? You don't cite a single source in your essay.

Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christian god who came to rescue mankind from the “curse of the Torah.” It is a 24-hour declaration that Judaism is no longer valid.

Larry, according to your website, my Judaism isn't valid in the first place, and neither will any home I start with SG be, so I'm not sure how much secular-oriented Jews should care about this. In your eyes, we're already beyond the pale. So be it.

BTW, I find it pretty funny that Kelemen, supposedly so secure in his Jewish identity, seems so threatened by my hanging an oversized sock with a gift certificate in it.

Still not convinced? Don't worry, Larry has one last trick up his sleeve... a swastika!

Imagine that between 1933-45, the Nazi regime celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday – April 20 – as a holiday. Imagine that they named the day, “Hitlerday,” and observed the day with feasting, drunkenness, gift-giving, and various pagan practices. Imagine that on that day, Jews were historically subject to perverse tortures and abuse, and that this continued for centuries.

Now, imagine that your great-great-great-grandchildren were about to celebrate Hitlerday. April 20th arrived. They had long forgotten about Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. They had never heard of gas chambers or death marches. They had purchased champagne and caviar, and were about to begin the party, when someone reminded them of the day’s real history and their ancestors’ agony. Imagine that they initially objected, “We aren’t celebrating the Holocaust; we’re just having a little Hitlerday party.” If you could travel forward in time and meet them; if you could say a few words to them, what would you advise them to do on Hitlerday?

Needless to say, this is beyond stupid. As much as I have my issues with Christianity, there is nothing in early Christian celebrations of the holiday which is inherently antisemitic, and certainly very little in the holiday's present-day incarnation. No one contests that horrible things were done to Jews on that day during the centuries, but to compare it to the Nazi movement whose raison-d'etre was to murder every Jew they could get their hands on shows just how low (and dumb) Kelemen is willing to go in an attempt to shock his audience into conceding him a point. No dice, Larry, and you're a schmuck for trying.

But wait, there are even more Nazi connections to Christmas!

On December 25, 1941, Julius Streicher, one of the most vicious of Hitler’s assistants, celebrated Christmas by penning the following editorial in his rabidly Antisemitic newspaper, Der Stuermer:

What difference does it make if Streicher "celebrated" Christmas by writing something antisemitic? He was the editor of a daily paper. Presumably he did that every other day, too.

While I find the point about Christmas traditionally being a very bad one for Jews well taken, the Devil's Advocate (Maggid?) in me feels the need to point out that plenty of horrible things in Jewish history happened on Jewish holidays or Sabbaths. No one's going around claiming we should spend Rosh Hashanah sitting in sackcloth because the Nazis or the Cossacks or the Inquisition or whomever may have done something particularly awful to us on that day.

Lastly, the date of Christmas is indeed an estimate but calling it a "lie" as Keleman does is an unnecessary polemic. One could apply the same standard to plenty of other religious/traditional/superstitious practices or folk beliefs (Authorship of the Zohar? Hasidic miracle tales? The reason for 2-day yontiff? No Nun verse in the Ashrei?) As I said, most Jews are not celebrating Christmas because they're such passionate believers that it's JC's birthday. And Kelemen would have a much stronger leg to stand on if his whole catalog wasn't singularly devoted to uncritical Orthodox apologetics.

For a bad time, check out Larry's other brilliant pearls of crap: Besides Christmas he's also not a fan of New Year's, TV, or the Internet.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Reflections on a Yarzeit

I've spoken about my grandfather before. I knew his yarzeit was coming up but I didn't get around to checking the exact date until it was almost too late.

I was a child when he died; a combination of my parents waiting almost ten years after their marriage to have children and his own poor health meant that while many of my friends got to have substantial relationships with their grandparents, mine was greatly truncated. His religious mania and mental illness, resulting in cutting himself off from his entire family, didn't help matters.

I never got a chance to really say goodbye, and I never got a chance to properly mourn. I was supposed to be sad, and I was, but it was impossible to mourn someone I had been robbed of having the chance to know in the first place. What I was really saddest about was that I had never gotten a chance to ask him so many questions, and now I never would. I met him three times in my life and I can only hazily remember the last two. The the last time I was visiting his hospital bed and reminding him who I was.

Even in death, I got only shadows. The funeral was held in New York. Despite my begging to go, my father went alone. I have never seen his tombstone. I never got a chance to say Kaddish or even light a candle. I fasted for most of the day after we found out he had died, but I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing. When he got sick, I made a deal with him and God that I would get a Bar Mitzvah, and he would live. Somehow I thought it would buy God off, and maybe give him a reason to keep going. For a while after he died I became resolute that I would fulfill my promise-- even though he and God had broken their part of the deal. This plan died the day my father was harangued by a local Reform rabbi that their shul didn't perform "Quickie Bar Mitzvahs" and stormed out of his office cursing.

As a child, I fixated on my grandfather. I saw my grandmother once or twice a year and my mother's parents were long dead, but my grandfather was alive and missing. I was told I looked like him; I was told I had met him once and he really liked me. I was told that he and my father had had a big fight a long time ago and they didn't speak anymore. When I was ten, my greatest dream was to have a birthday where both my grandparents were in the same room. Not only didn't this ever happen, the one time I met and mentioned this to my step-grandmother she flew into a rage and almost slapped me.

My grandfather did not have an easy life. He was born into poverty on the Lower East Side to Yiddish-speaking immigrants (his first day of school saw him get sent home with a note pinned to his shirt questioning if he was retarded or not-- he couldn't understand anything the teacher said because he didn't know English), the oldest of six children. He dropped out of school in 8th grade to work in a family-owned rag shop. Somehow, he got himself into a drafting program in Maine, of all places, and became a cross between a draftsman, would-be-engineer, and salesman for stainless steel. We still have some of his sketches.

Sometimes he was kind. When he decided he was sweet on my grandmother and found out her family was against them getting involved (her family was considerably better off and had immigrated a generation earlier), he took a train to her grandmother's apartment and charmed her by singing Yiddish love songs. When he came back from business trips he always had candy or presents stuffed into his pockets for his children. He never missed a day of work in his life and there was always food on the table and clean clothes on the children.

But he also had a dark side. He was a highly functional alcoholic for most of his adult life; he would spend his nights locked in his workshop tinkering away at his latest invention that would make him rich; it never happened. He was paranoid at work and would get in fights with his bossed and quit jobs every few years; my father lived in eight homes before graduating High School. The greatest "adventure" was a year-long expedition to Venezuela, where my grandfather was convinced they would live like kings. Instead they found themselves trapped in the middle of a hostile revolution, at the mercy of thieving bureaucrats and a corrupt police force. In the end, the country nationalized all the businesses, and my family escaped on the last plane out, with only the clothes on their backs. Until the very last minute, my grandfather was convinced he could make it work. The only reason they got out at all was that my grandmother had forced him to sign over the money they got for their house in New Jersey over to her. She told him that if he wanted to stay in South America he was welcome to, but that they were going back home. He reluctantly came along, too. They had left with a fancy car, their own house in the suburbs, and a decent income. They returned so poor they had to split up their 4 kids among relatives for six months before they could afford a large enough apartment. They never owned another home, and my grandmother never forgave him.

This was all before he decided he was the Messiah and a Prophet. I can only wonder at my grandmother's reaction to his new insistence that everything had to be super-kosher, that she needed to dress modestly, and their sons wear yarmulkes and peyess to school. She had been raised Modern Orthodox by first generation Americans. His parents had been secular Communists who went to shul a few times a year. After many years of trying, she gave up and left him. He fell in with a group of Hasidim (we suspect, Chabad), and settled in as a "fellow traveler" for a good decade-plus. Toward the end of his life he was still Orthodox, though I don't know if he still received "visions."

I'm not a huge drash person, but today's Parsha is Vayetzei, and looking at it, I thought there were some interesting insights that dovetailed with my grandfather's life:

Jacob leaves B'eer Sheba and goes to Haran, after just having stolen his brother's birthright. Jacob's early life is spent dueling with Esau, and he achieves pre-eminence through deception and theft. But even as their differences are highlighted, Jacob and Esau eventually come back together and have some sort of reconciliation. They are still twins, still brothers. My grandfather's bipolar disorder meant that in many ways, he was like two men, one who was kind, gregarious and affectionate, and another, the paranoid, superior, overbearing patriarch, for whom there was always a right way and a wrong way, and the right way was his alone. My grandfather was also profoundly affected by the loss of his only brother, my father's namesake, who died at age 19 in World War Two. Without him I think my grandfather felt lost. It underscored the fact that he had to be responsible for everyone- for carrying on the family legacy, for taking care of his parents and sisters, for raising his own family- everything was on HIM.

Jacob's earlier deception of Esau is met with being deceived himself by his Uncle Laban. Similarly, I feel that the sad irony of my grandfather's life is that by being so demanding and uncompromising in his ideal of "what a family is," "what good children do," "how my wife should act," he was ultimately left with no family to speak of. His inflexibility meant that the people that should have mattered most were, at the end, inflexible with him, and wrote him out of their lives. In another irony, his obsession with being Jewish in "the right way" resulted in a profound alienation of his children from anything Jewish for years. My father will probably not voluntarily enter a synagogue for the rest of his life. One uncle is a few-times-a-year-Jew, the other is active in a Reform congregation. Though my aunt originally made her husband convert (supposedly to please my grandfather), his lack of interaction with her ultimately was so painful they decided there was nothing in Judaism at all for them. Their children were raised as Lutherans. Had my grandfather not been so rigid, his call to religion could have been a model of possibility, instead of repression and opposition.

Lastly, Jacob has his vision where he is visited by angels. There were several times in my grandfather's life where he believed he was having visions. Sadly he was surrounded by people, particularly in his later years, who encouraged these "visions" and made him feel as if God was speaking through him rather than telling him to get help. The idea of Jacob receiving revelation is a very tricky concept for me to wrap my head around, but I have always felt personal identification with the story of prophets and would-be-Messiahs. In some ways, it is a very small club, being the family of a person who declared themselves to have been "IT." When I first started researching Chabad part of me wondered, "Why couldn't those crowds in Crown Heights have been congregating around Grampa instead of Schneerson?" The twists of fate, of which prophets get followers and which just linger in shadows, is a fascinating thing to look at throughout history. I feel kinship with the families of all the would-be-prophets and Messiahs of the centuries, and I feel sadness that when these people are remembered, it is as mere footnotes in the presence of the "great ones" they spent their lives around. (This has also given me a rather jaded view of venerated personalities like Jesus or Joseph Smith; I can't really take someone's claim of being a Messiah or prophet seriously-- or at least, any more seriously, than I can my own grandfather's.)

Jacob's revelations from God are treated as wonderful, impactful, moments in the Torah and Jewish history. In many ways, he personifies the Jews- he IS Israel. But I cannot think about the patriarchs and prophets receiving words from God without thinking about my own family, and how disastrous these "visions" were. When I think of the actual impact of a family member believing their faith trumps everything, including loyalty and love to their family, to their children, I think of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. Though we celebrate Abraham's faith, we also wrestle with his choice-- that ultimately, he chooses to obey God rather than protect his son. I think it's significant that we don't really hear about Isaac and Abraham together after that. The betrayal of a father to a child is something tremendously painful, all the more so when done in the name of something that is supposed to be pure and holy.

My grandfather sacrificed his family on the altar. And, unlike Isaac, we were not spared. The saddest part is, neither was my grandfather.

Today, I said Kaddish for him for the very first time. Today, I lit a candle for him for the first time. Today, I remember him. I remember how much I wanted to learn from him, how much I needed him. How much I wanted to love him, to even know him.

I remember that these things were taken from me. I remember the disapointment and sadness of knowing I would never get to know him better. After he died, I interviewed relatives to try to know him as much as possible, but some questions can never be answered after the fact. I don't know what his favorite color was. I don't know what he thought when he got married, or became a father. I don't know what books he liked, or what gave him joy in life. And I never will.

Faith and religion are so important to me because my relationship with them is so complicated, just like my relationship with my family. I wrestle with these concepts every day. What is Judaism? Who is a Jew? What is a family? Who is my family?

I will struggle with these questions my whole life, and that's ok. But on today, as I remember my grandfather, I also carry with me the values of what must be taught with and respected as much as, if not more than, faith. Things like decency, and kindness. Patience, and forgiveness. I am probably among the most religious people in my family, certainly the most Jewishly-literate. But I can never, and will never, let issues like faith, religion, or politics, stop me from loving my family.

Today I remember. And I mourn. I do not mourn the man as much as the tragedy of his life and of our relationship, and the tragedy that I was denied a chance to know him more. I will remember him, but also his mistakes. And I will try my whole life to learn from them.

In loving Memory.

Mordechai Yosef ben Noach

I miss you.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Again with the Socialism

Speaking of Socialism, Sultan hit another ball out of the park with this one:

And that safety net remains the most compelling thing socialism has to offer. But what the safety net really means is the abrogation of responsibility, the promise that entire populations need never grow up, need never function as adults because they live and die secure in the cradle of the nanny state.

As always, Sultan loves to paint with a broad brush. We get into the issue of drawing lines and assigning blame. I'm unconvinced that every government service or safety net should be considered "socialism"-- or at least, as being the significant tipping point that turns us into the USSR. Social Security, for instance, was created as a reaction to the elderly having zero recourse during the Depression and being turned out on the street. I fail to see how giving them assistance makes us all slaves to evil government overlords.

Ditto for this crap:

Little wonder then that where socialism creeps birth rates drop, marriages are delayed, divorces are frequent, leadership is lacking, culture becomes vulgar, obscenity becomes art and all the other symptoms of an infantile generation take hold. After all once you've chosen to give up your responsibility to the government, you choose to remain stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood.

Let's think about this. What evidence is there to claim that socialism alone determines that people will get married later, have more divorces, have "obscene art" and "vulgar culture," and so on? What does socialism have to do with creating vulgar culture? Is he seriously claiming there are no vulgar cultures in capitalism societies?

You might as well blame increasing divorce rates and decreasing birth rates on having electricity. After all, the Afghan countryside and the Amish farms are both teeming with children and divorces are low. Centuries ago, before the advent of the evil bulb, we got married early. And don't forget, our artists were pure and our culture untainted back in the Renaissance- no electricity there.

Wait a minute, I've got it! Electricity is itself socialism! Instead of putting the hard work into getting light, you just flick a switch and get it all handed to you. Where's the incentive to light your own fire? To dig your own coal mine? Curse you, Edison! You destroyed the entire peat industry overnight (which, of course, led to us needing to issue a multi-million dollar peat bailout).

I guess I owe you an apology, Sultan. It seems you were right after all. Socialist electricity is responsible for all our woes.

(Of course, what can you expect from me? I'm a Communist.)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Keep Moving those Goal-Posts

It's been great fun over the past two years watching right-wingers all over the web grasp at straws to explain just why they hate Barack Obama so much. Particularly amusing have been the claims that Obama is a Marxist. Recently I queried a group of commenters over at Sultan Knish, rather innocently, I thought, for some details on exactly why they were so convinced of Obama's Communist leanings.

The response? Well, not a whole lot. I made the point that if anyone asked any Communists of the old school, such as my great-grandparents (ok, to be fair, only one of them: one read and supported the Morgen Freiheit, the other read and supported the Forward-- but my great-aunts have forgotten who was who) whether they considered Obama to be a right- (left?) thinking Communist, they would have been horrified at the comparison.

In response I got fun innuendo suggesting that I myself was a Communist!

Now, as someone who grew up comfortably middle-class and who is presently working in the ever-so-lucrative field of elementary education (and am therefore extremely aware of every penny that makes its way into my paycheck), I find this accusation fairly absurd. I am in no position to share my wealth, and nor do I expect others to give me theirs. Neither am I all that interested in abolishing the capitalist system given that, you know, I still need to pay my rent.

Furthermore, I am really not convinced that "pure" Socialism (much less Communism) is capable of being implemented on any large scale with any degree of success. Sorry Bubbe's Ghost, but it hasn't seemed to work and I'm certainly not a fan of imposing it on people (to say nothing of the whole "massive repression and totalitarianism bordering on ethnic cleansing," which, while not a NECESSARY element of creating a Communist state, certainly seem to have often gone hand-in-hand when people tried to make theory into practice.)

So, how exactly am I a Communist? What I really am is a left-leaning moderate, in that I think the optimal solution to some of the biggest problems with unchecked capitalism is through regulation. Some government intervention, yes. Abolishment of capitalism and the economy as we know it, no thanks. Or, as I put it to Sultan, Bubbe was a utopian, I'd like to see myself as an optimistic realist.

Now, here's where it really gets good. Faced with all this information-- along with repeated requests for him to back up any of the noise about Obama being a Marxist, Sultan claims that "you're talking about a change of tactics rather than a change of ideology." Again, nothing concrete, nothing to back anything up. I try again. Sultan responds with "labels change, but the basic parameters of the system are the same."

Then there was this lovely exchange:

Obama's Marxist ties and beliefs have been extensively documented. If that's what you're really interested in, a quick search can quickly help you find them. Since this isn't a post about Obama's Marxism, it's not my job to waste time documenting Obama's radical left wing beliefs for a radical left winger.

Radical? If I'm the standard for radical, then belive me, we really don't have to be worried about Obama being a Communist. Because, you know, I'm not. This reminds me of the time in college someone accused me of being a "right-wing, reactionary, authoritarian tool of the administration" because I told them the school newspaper wouldn't run their screed against The War on Terror (masquerading as a bad book review).

The line "It's not my job" was particularly amusing, as Sultan styles himself as a journalist (sorry, columnist, mea culpa. Nevertheless, given that he pats himself on the back-- not undeserved-- for his investigate work, I figured journalist wasn't an unfair leap). I love it- a journalist/investigative columnist who spews regurgitated dreck and won't substantiate an iota of it when asked. If Obama's Marxism is so all-pervasive (instead of largely being supposed-guilt by inflated-association), I would have thought this would be easy. When I commented on that, Sultan fired back:

"Somehow you confused the term Journalist with "Guy who is willing to spend weeks debating me in the comments section on an issue tangential to the actual article"

An actual journalist would not have bothered responding to you in the first place"

Wow. I can only hope that an actual journalist would not have spent almost a week weaseling around the fact that he couldn't be bothered to support statements he made on his blog (and by others that he then agreed with) and whose best excuse was "it's a waste of my time" or " not my job."

Keep in mind, the "tangential issue" here, Obama's supposed Marxism/Communism/Socialism, has been incorporated into approximately 60% of all of Sultan's posts about him. (Strangely, the crowd over there can't seem to decide whether Obama is a Jihadist or a Marxist. Unless he's also friends with George Habash, I think they have to choose on this one. Wait, someone managed to find the missing link!)

Sultan's last riposte:

Liberalism has long adopted the basic tenets of Marxism, and class warfare shifted along an oppressed group axis and wealth redistribution combined with the creation of vast bureaucratic and undemocratic entities to enforce their version of social justice are at the core of their agenda.

Huh. Let's fact-check that. The basic tenets of Marxism according to Wikipedia:

1-an attention to the material conditions of people's lives and social relations among people

2-a belief that people's consciousness of the conditions of their lives reflects these material conditions and relations

3-an understanding of class in terms of differing relations of production and as a particular position within such relations

4-an understanding of material conditions and social relations as historically malleable

5-a view of history according to which class struggle, the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests, structures each historical period and drives historical change

6-a sympathy for the working class or proletariat and a belief that the ultimate interests of workers best match those of humanity in general
Number 1 is not restricted to liberals, as one's political orientation should not determine one's ability to merely observe facts. Numbers 2 through 4 are probably more likely to be found among liberals, though I don't see them as being specifically foundational to liberal principles. Number 5 I would say, by and large, is more specific to liberals. I would argue that Number 6 is more class-based than what political group you identify with. Don't tell me working-class people don't have sympathy for themselves or measure certain changes or developments in terms of their affects on them.

Let's also note that while on a theoretical and academic level most of these principles permeate certain aspects of liberal politics, there are plenty of people who identify as liberal and support liberal causes without having these principles in mind or figuring into their worldview. They're also quite open-ended; for instance, for Number 4, the ability to change your class and destiny is a founding principle of America- either this makes the Founding Fathers proto-Marxists or some elements of "Marxist principles" are not UNIQUE to Marxism and as such cannot be used as legitimate proofs that someone IS Marxist.

I would add that I do not consider "class warfare" to be a specifically liberal (or Marxist) tactic-- pundits attacking "welfare queens" reads as class warfare to me; and that "wealth distribution" is an extremely broad umbrella term. Ditto for "vast bureaucratic and undemocratic entities." Republicans have created bureaucracies and done undemocratic things as well.

Kudos to Sultan commenter Keli Ata, who at least bothered to suggest some reading for me-- though, again, most of the connections seem to boil down to, "Obama liked some of Saul Alinsky's ideas and worked for Alinsky-associated groups." Alinsky's politics don't sound like my cup of tea, but I'm still not convinced that the connection substantiates the bold claim that Obama is an actual Marxist. On the other hand, it's a lot more than Sultan offered.

What my issues with throwing around the Marxist label all boil down to is this: It's one thing to make the specific claim, based on actual information, that Barack Obama believes in Communism. It's another thing entirely to call him a Marxist/Communist/Socialist as a lazy CODE-WORD for "liberal," "Democrat" or "anyone to the left of me." It's not that I don't want to give people the benefit of the doubt on this one, but, well, I don't. Sue me, I'm picky.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Remembering the Light

Rest in Peace. For those lost in Mumbai. Over 130 Indians have been killed, along with people from Australia, America, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Canada, China, Italy, Singapore, Mexico, Thailand, Singapore, Mauritius, Jordan, and Israel.

My great condolences to the people of India, whose reputation has been smeared by fanatics who gave no thought to the lives and welfare of those they would destroy in their mad drive to kill foreigners.

My thoughts and prayers with the families of the dead tourists, who were trying to enjoy their lives in a beautiful country.

And my tears for the rabbi and rebbetzin of the Mumbai Chabad House, a couple about my and SG's age. It is rare in this world, particularly in America, to find people in their early twenties be so devoted and dedicated to an ideal that they are willing to actually sacrifice for it. There is little doubt that in going to India, that is exactly what the Holtzbergs were doing.

I have little love for Chabad. But, as I have been arguing over at Failed Messiah, that is not what this is about. There is a world of difference in arguing over philosophical, religious, and moral failings of a movement (and there are definitely some in Chabad-- as there are in many others, Jewish an otherwise) and in wishing suffering or death on its individual members. One person at Failed Messiah made a disgusting claim that all of us mourning the Holtzbergs were hypocrites- that we were "like the terrorists" fighting to "shut down" Chabadnikim- be they the Rubashkins in Postville or the Holtzbergs in Mumbai. This person essentially argued that opponents or critics of Chabad "should feel pleased" that the Holtzbergs received "the same treatment" as the Rubashkins.

To me this is insanity. I do not want anyone to be murdered in cold blood, particularly Jews. That the Holtzbergs happened to be Chabad has nothing to do with it. I didn't agree with Meir Kahane but that doesn't mean I wanted him shot dead. Differences in ideolology does not equal wishing someone dead. That is true in general but especially when dealing with the extended Jewish family of the world.

There are plenty of things I dislike about Chabad. But I also admire the spirit of the movement, espeically their shlichim. I admire their conviction, though I disagree with it. I admire their willingness to put their money where their mouths are, to try to help people and not write off anyone not like them as beyond the pale. Chabad fights to stay relevant to the greater Jewish world instead of blanketly condemning it or shutting themselves off from it. If the Holtzbergs were members of most any other haredi group they never would have even been to India, much less have died there.

The Holtzbergs, like many Chabad schlichim, exemplified some of the best things about what Chabad can be-- what it IS, to many people in small pockets of Jewishness around the world. If they have nothing else, I hope their families can be proud of that legacy- for five years, they did what so many young people cannot-- not only were they self-sufficient, but they passed things on. They ran a Chabad House on their own, putting aside their own needs and helping others. For five years, they reached out to the world and made it better in small, little ways. They were rays of light in an age where many people tend to be closed, isolated, and self-absorbed.

Lastly, my hopes for the Holtzberg's son, who will turn two on Saturday. I hope their families will tell him their story. I hope he will know who his parents were, and not spend his days thinking about the terrible day that they died, but of the precious years that they lived.

In this world, many young people spend all their lives desperate to be consequential, signficiant. To matter. This drives a lot of selfish, even destructive, behavior. But by their example, the Holtzbergs show us another path, how we can matter by, in small ways and big, unselfishly making the world better.

Let their example- and memories- be for a blessing.

Baruch Dayan Emet.

Monday, November 17, 2008

O'Reilly's San Fran Schizophrenia

I was amused last week when O'Doofus declared my lovely city by the bay to be full of "patriots". Imagine my shock:

As you may know "The Factor" is no fan of San Francisco values, but last night some sanity prevailed. Voters said no to Proposition K legalizing prostitution in San Francisco, which would have given the pimps free reign. They said no to naming a sewage plant after President Bush. How insulting. And most importantly, they said no to banning ROTC recruiting in public schools.

So for all the voters who did the right thing in San Francisco, you're patriots.

Well, I did vote against Prop K and for Prop U, though I did vote for the Sewage Plant (my parents did not). I guess that makes me a 2/3rds patriot.

But, funny thing, Bill couldn't seem to stand not beating up on us for more than a few days, because he sent a producer out to produce a hit piece on us without any real focus other than pointing out that we have, OMG, stoners, homeless folks, and yes, a seedy red-light district, maybe even a couple. Totally, you know, unlike any other major-sized city. Right.

Highlights included the producer asking a teenaged pothead for their deep thoughts, chatting with homeless people who cheered our "progressive" police force (who have decided to spend their time fighting violent crime rather than busting fifteen year-olds with a couple of joints, crazy bastards), and getting some obligatory shots of some seedy strip clubs and a transgendered prostitute who cheered that the city allowed her to live the way she damn well pleased. The producer was also thoughtful enough to have several close-ups of intimidated-looking middle aged white women who fretfully commented that they feel too intimidated to walk on specific streets, or who were oh-so-irritated that their children's private schools happen to be near, ugh, homeless people. "It's not always pretty," one sniffed (with a noticeable French accent, I might add).

No mention was made of any of the city's recreational areas (over twenty-five parks and beaches that easily make up about 12 of the city's 49 square miles), landmarks, cultural or educational institutions (50-plus museums, 22 colleges), or even such useful and presumably relevant context as comparative crime rates. I also found it interesting that the only places they bothered to film were some of the dicier areas of downtown, the Mission, and of course the iconic Haight-Ashbury, where I, for one, have been to maybe ten times while living in the city for well over a decade. This is particualrly funny because most of the city's residents live nowhere near these areas (they couldn't even be bothered to find the residential slums!). To look at this footage, not a single person in the city lives in a house (only the park), and no one wears shoes. Yeah, real representative.

As one dipwad put it, "You got your hookers, your homeless people, your pimps. It's all here!" No one denies this is true, but again, this is hardly unusual in a big city. What does any of this have to do with SF values? (I was very surprised we didn't see much of the GLBT areas or personalities, unless you count the outspoken hooker.)

Then O'Reilly had a pow-wow with his producer and he tried to bring it back to culture. Sneering producer man said, "They don't want to make any judgment about people because they don't think it's politically correct. They've been worn down by this [homeless stuff?] and accept it as normal."

Wow, could it be because there are homeless people practically everywhere? And yet we're not calling for them to be locked up or have their genitals removed. Must be a PC thing.

When comparing SF to NY, produer-boy commented, "In New York you see a few homeless people at a time, but there they roam in packs." Now, I'm not happy about aggressive or intimidating groups of panhandlers, but this bozo was walking over and shoving his camera into groups of street people lying on the grass in a public park. Ooh, look out, a hippy pack!

There was also this lovely exchange:

Producer: "After Giuliani, you can go into Central Park at night. In San Francisco you don't go near one of these parks at night."

O'Reilly: "Yeah, you wouldn't go near the Presidio at night. I certainly wouldn't."

Really? The Presidio? You mean one of our national parks that has housed military families for decades, includes a historic fort, two museums and a popular sports field, and which until recently maintained several late night fast-food joints, a bowling alley and a movie theater (all popular with local kids)? The place where Lucas Film spent millions designing a brand-new design facility? The place that has rented temporary space to local schools for almost ten years (amazing the parents ever made it back from back-to-school-night, isn't it)? Oh, and the area that borders some of the most expensive real estate in the city?

Well, it's just as I thought, Bill is way too brave to let a little thing like not knowing what he's talking about ever stand in his way.

Best line from producer-fool: "Almost every neighborhood [in San Francisco] has a dark element that seeps into greater society."

Yes, bwa-ha-ha! Stare into our dark abyss, America, and see what horrible fate awaits your pathetic towns should you accept our Secular Progressive values!

Wait, what's that?


You know what, O'Schmuckface? I think we'll be ok. In fact, please keep dumping on us. We could use the money.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Veteran's Day Thoughts

"There is, I fear, a tendency to give to patriotism merely an interest in making our country unconquerable-- a feeling that our chief aim is to see that our army and our navy are sufficient for our protection. That is but a part of our patriotic duty.

Our country is, in a sense, continually at war. Against the ramparts of liberty, equality and justice, on which our Republic is founded, surge constantly the evil forces of greed, of materialism, of selfishness, headed by those who cynically deny that there is any prosperity or goodness that cannot be expressed in dollars and cents, or happiness except in bank balances.

Continually, they seek to sap, to undermine, to destroy finally those high ideals without which our nation can no more survive than could those great nations of the past-- those nations whose bodies died because their souls were dead.

It is your duty as good soldiers of the faith not merely to keep alive the memory of those who gave their lives for their country's safety, but to fight militantly, tirelessly, against the moral enemies of our Republic wherever and whenever they appear. Your flags have rallied around your country's banner. Make that no empty symbol."

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nov 11, 1929.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Baruch Atah Adonai,
Eloheinu Melech Ha Olam,
Shehecheyanu, Ve'Kiyemanu,
Laz'man Ha'Zeh.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Last Thoughts on the Election

I didn't quite manage to stick with my goal for an Obama post every day but I was pretty close (and besides what few readers I have are probably getting sick of this stuff anyway), but I wanted to close with some final thoughts.

I think the fact that Obama is an intellectual will be good for the country. As an educator, I've been saddened and embarassed throughout the past eight years as conservative media has made being educated or thinking things through into a negative thing by tarring them with the smear of "elitist." It's particularly ironic when you consider that the majority of our Presidents have been men of wealth, privilege, and yes, education. All but eight Presidents graduated college and nine received advanced degrees, mostly in law.

I like the fact that Obama would bring an intellectualism to the White House, particularly after so many years of the polar opposite from Bush. It has been suggested, particularly on foreign policy, that there is a danger in taking an academic and putting him into a position of great power and responsibility, because often times there is no "perfect answer," only a series of ever-worsening ones. There is also the argument that in some scenarios, a decisive leader is far more necessary than one who will waffle or stall trying to figure out the best thing to do.

This is a legitimate point, but Joe Klein from Time Magazine has written that Obama is learning to trust his instincts and become more confident in his decisions- without sacrificing a crucial ability to carefully think about what he's going to do before committing.
Barack Obama has prospered in this presidential campaign because of the steadiness of his temperament and the judicious quality of his decision-making. They are his best-known qualities. The most important decision he has made — the selection of a running mate — was done carefully, with an exhaustive attention to detail and contemplation of all the possible angles. Two months later, as John McCain's peremptory selection of Governor Sarah Palin has come to seem a liability, it could be argued that Obama's quiet selection of Joe Biden defined the public's choice in the general-election campaign. But not every decision can be made so carefully. There are a thousand instinctive, instantaneous decisions that a presidential candidate has to make in the course of a campaign — like whether to speak his mind to a General Petraeus — and this has been a more difficult journey for Obama, since he's far more comfortable when he's able to think things through. "He has learned to trust his gut," an Obama adviser told me. "He wasn't so confident in his instincts last year. It's been the biggest change I've seen in him."

On foreign policy, there are some areas where McCain might have more advantages than Obama. Being able to read foreign leaders and show them we mean what we say is certainly an area that comes to mind. On the other hand, seeming tough does us no good if we make bad decisions or do stupid things. Obviously the best scenario is a compromise where you can think fast on your feet AND make good gut decisions that are also based on actual analysis.

The value of Obama is in his temperment. He actually listens to people before he makes up his mind, whether he agrees with them or not (see Klein's article about Obama meeting with Petraeus). Again, compare this with what we've seen from the Bush White House. This is not to say that McCain is a Bush clone, but I definitely sense a stubborn streak from McCain. The same people that like McCain's refusal to back down should also think about what happens in cases where he might be wrong and decides, like Bush, to shut out anyone who tries to convince him otherwise. We've seen the disasters that brings. I have much more faith in Obama's ability to develop some street smarts and instincts when it comes to dealing with immediate foreign policy debacles than I do in McCain learning to listen to people who disagree with him- which includes when talking with people from foreign governments (or have we given up on that whole diplomacy thing altogether?)

Lastly, it is undeniable that the past eight years, and perhaps even the eight years before that, have seen an acceleration of the cultural divide to outrageous proportions. The Red/Blue state, Liberal/Conservative culture war nonsense continues unabated on TV, the Internet, Talk Radio and Print Media as people spend absurd amounts of effort ripping each other down and explaining why only their way is legitimate, patriotic, or sensical.

And yet there are areas we can come together. Most of us do care about poverty, even if we disagree on the best way to deal with it. We do care about healthcare and sustaining the most important government assistance programs. We all realize the necessity of a smart and efficient energy policy, as well as protecting ourselves from foreign enemies and making sure that our economy is stable and protected from speculators. And I think that the vast majority of us do believe in America's potential to make the world, and itself, a better place. The next President will inherit many problems, but perhaps one of the most serious ones is trying to bring us together on the core issues that unite us. I think Obama can do that, at least better than McCain.

To be totally honest, I also think that Obama's ability to speak past party lines would do not only the country, but also liberal values, a great service. Seeing Obama speak at Saddleback Church showed me that he can present the values of the Democratic party is a new and appealing way which challenge the stereotypes that we support abortion because killing babies is awesome or that we think religion should be banned or that we'd sooner let us all freeze to death than inconvenience a seal.

I don't need the Republicans to become Democrats. Having two parties is an essential part of our democracy and I actually wouldn't mind having more viable parties. But showing that there are real values, emotions and thought behind some of these positions that have been so pilloried (and distorted) for years would also, I believe, be a good start to making politics a little more civilized. Obama can bridge the gap. Not only don't I think McCain can do this, I'm not sure he'd even be interested.