Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rebuttal to Fred Phelps

First, watch this for the tune (and rage):

Hey Mr. Phelps I know that you're no pastor
And that you're no preacher no, cause you're just a bastard
Spreadin' your hate all over the place
One day you will end up with a brick in the face

You protest funerals while the parents are there
You're so cruel and heartless but you just don't care
Claim you're working for your Lord
But it's clear that you are just an attention whore
Go away please... right now... and shut up.

You hate Catholics and Muslims and Jews
And also gays, and anyone who's not you,
You can hate, as hard as you please,
You've wasted your pathetic life on your sick disease
Go play in traffic... right now... and shut up.

Hey Mr. Phelps, now, consider this a warning
Your family's worn out their welcome and your time is coming
You say celebrities are horribly wrong,
I notice that don't stop you from stealing their songs
Take a long walk... off a short pier... and shut up.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Jewish Identiy 2.0

Dag had a great comment that I, typically, wrote far too much in response to.

While you are mostly correct, I would think that the fact someone intermarried is a good indicator of weather or not Judaism is relevant or engaging to the person who "left the fold".

Meaning, the fact that someone marries out is a sign that they didn't find Judaism engaging, and thus is is a bad thing for the Jewish people.

It's really hard to tell if someone is affiliated or engaged in "their Judaism" otherwise.

Frankly, I'm not sure this argument can be applied so universally any more. My personal experience is precisely the opposite- I have four sets of aunts and uncles and my parents were the only ones that married Jewish (mostly by accident). This resulted in my parents being the most relaxed about whether or not to observe any traditions, holidays, or provide anything remotely resembling a Jewish education. Everyone else, one way or another, actually had to make a decision about Jewishness.

Two of my aunts and uncles are active in their Reform shuls and have raised their kids far more Jewishly than I. Another one, after many years of ambivalence, has started going to High Holidays. The last one converted to Lutheranism after feeling that her husband, who had ostensibly converted (not sure on the details) was still snubbed by my grandfather. Today her daughters are nominal Christians.

Until my teens, I had no Judaism, and only a very slim Jewish identity, mainly defined as otherness. In over ten years I have come a long way, and while I am far from Orthodox (or particularly observant of any mitzvot), I am one of the most Jewishly educated people in my family. I am lucky enough to have found a woman that is interested in the traditions, rituals, and philosophies of Judaism but feels it would be inappropriate to convert as she does not really believe in the theological details (as, on many days, I don't, either).

I am engaged with my Judaism, and am motivated to perpetuate it with my eventual children. I know that she is, too. My Judaism will be passed down because it is an integral part of me. The fact that I am in a long-term relationship with a non-Jew does not change that. Had I been raised observant, and conditioned to believe that a major tenet of Judaism and the Jewish home is that Jews must marry Jews, then I would agree with you that the mere act of marrying out might be a strong indicator of lack of Jewish identity. But there are millions of young Jews today who have not been raised that way, and do not accept this barrier as the defining line of who they are. That makes it outmoded. Fifty years ago, probably. A hundred years ago, a very good possibility. Not so now.

We will see what direction the statistics wind up leaning-- certainly, in terms of pure birth rates, the Orthodox have a very strong head start. But whether the non-Ortho movements wind up shrinking or not does not mean that they will become extinct, as the Orthos triumphantly proclaim so often.

Intermarriage does not equal "Jewish death" anymore, (if it ever did-- see Moses and his kids) and I would question the spirit of ahavas yisroel or klal yisroel of those who try to denigrate or discourage those Jews who stay involved with their people, because they "aren't good enough." These folks should be celebrated and encouraged, not pushed away as if their imaginary disease might infect the others.

There are plenty of reasons for Orthos stigmatizing non-Orthos (I don't agree with them, obviously) but "intermarriage destroys the Jewish people" isn't one of them. Not anymore.

As for "hard to tell if someone is affiliated or engaged with their Jewishness"-- since when did laziness become an excuse for bad methodology? Someone might be intermarried and lead their own indie minyan. Someone might be intermarried and be heavily involved in Jewish culture. Someone might be intermarried and study Talmud regularly. Why should their Jewishness be disqualified because of their spouses' lack of conversion? (I accept that there may be a range of "identity"- that some facets, or identification points, might be more shallow while others more in-depth, but that doesn't negate that it's there.)

Jewish identity can occur in a multiplicity of ways-- and because that is so, the idea that there is any absolute breaking point is not really applicable. Slippery slope, but that's what identity is.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Idiot Quote of the Day

"Every administration pushes values. But Bush pushed values that he thought the American people espoused. Obama pushes values that Obama espouses."

Really? And how did Bush make this monumental decision? One would hope he would have checked, say, the exit polls in the 2000 election, which showed the nation split an even 47-48 on the popular vote (ok, fine, closer to 24-26, if you look at voter turnout). Not much of a shining mandate to me. But thanks for playing. (You can compare this to 2008, where Obama won 52-45). If you're going to claim the President has the right to push values, presumably Obama has even more legitimacy on this than Bush.

This was from the ever-so-dippy S.E. Cupp, right after she wrung her hands about how not only was this song super-duper awful (I don't care for it either, though this is clearly a case of false-outrage, gotcha journalism), another song was even worse because it replaced "Jesus" in "Jesus Loves the Little Children" with Obama. I can understand the indoctrination argument and the politicizing classrooms argument (in California public schools this would be illegal), but you can't bitch about indoctrination and then rail on about what a shande it is that you can't mention Jesus or spirituality in school.

Pot, Kettle, shut up.

If they can't even spell...

How much can we trust them on other literary matters?

For the record.

Stupid Youtube videos

First, a real piece of dreck from the Westboro Baptist Church. The most obnoxious thing about this first one isn't the antisemitism, it's the catchiness. I think they may have just hit on a way to actually spread their message beyond their own genepool. Scary.

But the really sad thing? This isn't that different from Former-Rabbi-Schmuckles' idiotic, paranoid and race-baiting rant:


"Pretty soon they're going to be hiding in basements worried that people are going to be killing them for being Christian."

"Black people were persecuted before, so now everybody's nervous, if you hire a black person you have to just be happy he shows up."

"The only person that can't get affirmative action is a Jew... If a Jew wants to become a doctor he has to have a 98.9 average to get into a medical school... but because of affirmative action, if you're Hispanic, 28, close enough. If you're black, 2, you're a doctor."

Frankly, these two hateful old coots deserve each other.

Hat-tip: Jewlicious.

Weird Coincidences

I'm at home watching a documentary about the Latin Kings, a violent Chicago-based street gang. A gang member explains the symbolism behind the gang's iconography:

The three pointed crown stands for Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding.

Hang on a sec. Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding? Where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah.

The name "Chabad" is an acronym for Chochmah, Binah, Da'at: Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge.

And look at their two flags:


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Play it again, Pat

Actually, don't.

I had the misfortune of reading Pat's 9/11 column the other day, in which Pat engages in a tiring and repetitive display of self-flagellation-- or, rather, it would be self-flagellation, if Pat still identified with this mongrel mess we call a country. Typically, Pat has the gall to piss all over the country, reviling his political and cultural opponents, then shed crocodile tears that we are so divided.

We seem not only to disagree with each other more than ever, but to have come almost to detest one another. Politically, culturally, racially, we seem ever ready to go for each others’ throats.

One half of America sees abortion as the annual slaughter of a million unborn. The other half regards the right-to-life movement as tyrannical and sexist.

Proponents of gay marriage see its adversaries as homophobic bigots. Opponents see its champions as seeking to elevate unnatural and immoral relationships to the sacred state of traditional marriage.

Egads, people are strongly disagreeing with each other! In America, of all places! It's the end of civilization as we (or rather, Pat) know it!

The question invites itself. In what sense are we one nation and one people anymore? For what is a nation if not a people of a common ancestry, faith, culture and language, who worship the same God, revere the same heroes, cherish the same history, celebrate the same holidays, and share the same music, poetry, art and literature?

Better question: does it really matter if a country's people all listen to the same radio station? Methinks not. What happened to the free marketplace? What difference does this make to anybody, aside from 70-plus year old cranks like Buchanan?

The issue is not about whether people have common roots, but if they share common values. I know you're not a big fan of "Diversity is Our Strength," (which you inaccurately attribute to Dan Quayle) but it looks like E Pluribus Unum is out. Of course, a common language is important to facilitate interaction and communication between fellow citizens. But there is no reason why immigrants should be forced to abandon their native language, or any other non-harmful element of their home culture. Who are you to arbitrarily decide what works of literature, poetry, music, or art, are authentically American? Was there an election I missed?

By the way, Pat, there are plenty of places in the world where people speak multiple languages and do just fine. Officially bilingual Canada seems to still be doing fine, despite constant Quebecois grumbling. The citizens of Ghana include at least eight major tribes and anywhere from 250-580 languages (with one official language, English) and is considered one of the most successful countries in Africa. Somehow, they make it work, as does Israel.

As an aside: given that the top four spoken languages around the world include Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish, aren't we actually doing U.S. kids a disservice by demonizing bilingualism (to say nothing of the stigma we place on immigrant children through rushed ESL classes)?

Yet, today, Mexican-Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a skirmish in a French-Mexican war about which most Americans know nothing, which took place the same year as two of the bloodiest battles of our own Civil War: Antietam and Fredericksburg.

And? Irish-Americans celebrate Saint Patrick's day, which commemorates a Saint about whom most Americans (including the Irish) know next to nothing aside from his love of clover and pathological dislike of snakes. Northern and Eastern-Europeans have all sorts of weird Christmas and Easter-related customs, traditions and folklore. Some elements of national culture are universal, others are specific to an ethnic or religious culture. Not only don't you not explain why this is so terrible, I'm dumbfounded as to what your proposed alternative would be. State-enforced church services, Puritan-style? Personal freedom means just that.

Christmas and Easter, the great holidays of Christendom, once united Americans in joy. Now we fight over whether they should even be mentioned, let alone celebrated, in our public schools.

Boo-freakin' hoo, Pat. This is the logical result of having a democratic state which includes non-Christians in its body politic, and which has no official church. You don't like it, try moving to England, Ireland or Saudi Arabia.

Where we used to have classical, pop, country & Western and jazz music, now we have varieties tailored to specific generations, races and ethnic groups. Even our music seems designed to subdivide us.

What? Only if you buy into the bogus argument that only certain kinds of people can enjoy or listen to certain kinds of music. How many white folks have listened to Bob Marley in the past fifty years? How many white teenagers listen to rap? How many non-Indians were turned onto Indian music through the Beatles? Who CARES?

...Also, Pat, come on now. Just how much Jazz have you really listened to over the years?

One part of America loves her history, another reviles it as racist, imperialist and genocidal. Old heroes like Columbus, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are replaced by Dr. King and Cesar Chavez.

Here Pat gets back on his revisionist and pro-Confederacy high horse again. Look Pat, I don't object to looking to history to provide role models. But I think we can do a heck of a lot better than Columbus and Stonewall Jackson. That isn't about loving or hating history but about looking it square in the face-- exactly what values do you think are communicated to schoolkids when you start praising the Confederacy? States rights? Please.

Pat continues in this vein ad infinitum. Frankly, the whole thing sounds plagiarized from his outrageous columns following the VA Tech shootings.

The European-Christian core of the country that once defined us is shrinking, as Christianity fades, the birth rate falls and Third World immigration surges. Globalism dissolves the economic bonds, while the cacophony of multiculturalism displaces the old American culture.

“E pluribus unum” — out of many, one — was the national motto the men of ‘76 settled upon. One sees the pluribus. But where is the unum? One sees the diversity. But where is the unity?

What chance do we have attracting immigrants to the idea of American unity when the image we present is of hysterical mobs ranting about the evils of foreign food or of "outsiders" speaking another language? When the clear, undisguised goal is not a (theroetically respectful) "melting pot" or a give-and-take tossed salad, but an out-and-out whitewashing? You want to make Asians, Latinos and Africans into WASPs. It's an offensive idea, and it also has no chance of succeeding. So get over it.

Jewish Identity Redux

Ah, the month of Tishri. Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, and we are now in the Ten Days of Contemplation and repentence. Like many of my fellow Jews around the world, I am trying to do my part to come together and refrain from engaging in the crass character assassinations that too often divide us as a people.

Too bad no one passed this memo along to the sanctimonious, sensationalist dips at MASA:

"This is a campaign [intended for] Israeli society, not for Jewish Agency officials or for American Jewry. We had to speak the language that Israeli society understands," he said. Critics were translating terms such as "assimilation" in ways that are not relevant to Israelis. "Even words that have a direct translation don't have the same connotations," he insisted.

Ah, I get it. Like how in America, "intermarriage" and "assimilation" aren't used as guilt-trip code words for "spiritual holocaust?" At least, outside of Orthodox circles.

It was important not to view the campaign as the sum total of Masa's perspective on the Diaspora, he added. "This is a two-week ad campaign for Israelis after five years of activity all over the [Jewish] world. You have to take it in perspective."

No, perspective is precisely the problem. There are too many organizations in Israel that still feel qualified to lecture every other Jew on earth about what it means to be Jewish. You cannot simultaneously look down your nose at the Diaspora as hell on earth and its Jews as spiritually dead while still asking for money and political support. Unity, brotherhood and my personal favorite, not being a giant jackass, are two-way streets.

A few more links. First, a hefty mega-post with links galore.

This one points out the differences between Birthright (for whom Jewish babies doesn't seem to be as high on the priority list) and Masa, something which Shlomo Lifschitz brought to a head when he resigned from Birthright this past July. I suppose now I'll have to be a little more charitable to Birthright, which apparently is not as right-wing as I thought.

Another one is particularly interesting for the comments, which, irritatingly, dredge up the same old assumptions that being religious translates to being a better Jew.

1. Intermarriage and assimilation lead to fewer Jews and the ones who are left are less observant, making increased assimilation and intermarriage more likely. This means even fewer Jews (unless you cheat like the Reform and just wave your hand and say everybody’s Jewish). If you really care about the Jewish people, there is no way you can put a positive spin on this. Any attempt to do so is just whistling past the graveyard.

2. Lack of Torah and mitzvot leads to assimilation and intermarriage even if the parents and children start out all Jewish.

... So, yeah, assimilation, intermarriage, and the loss of Torah are bad. The best way to keep the Jewish people strong is to teach people to stay true to Torah and to marry other Jews, converts or otherwise, who live a Torah life.

It's sad that we're still navel-gazing and only judging one standard, numerical population, as an indicator of whether the Jewish community is succeeding or failing (the number of Jewish parents is a related obsession). The issue isn't intermarriage, it's interest, dedication and affiliation!

What good is it to have however-many Jewish kids have two Jewish parents if they don't CARE about being Jewish? It's like claiming that synagogue attendance or day school affiliation or percentage of circumcisions are, in isolation, the silver bullet indicator of Jewish continuity. They're not. My father went to synagogue for years-- and hasn't been back in decades. I substituted at a Jewish day school where the students counted the days until graduation "so I can go somewhere normal." My brother was circumcised, and considers himself a firm atheist. These are external indicators, and ultimately are not very important. Even the Orthodox aren't immune, because merely observing mitzvot is not the same thing as feeling a personal connection to, or seeing relevance in, Judaism. If it were then you wouldn't be hearing about the "off the derech" phenomenon. It doesn't matter if you're dealing with rote Orthodoxy or rote Reconstructionism-- rote doesn't cut it.

The issue isn't quantity, or even quality-- it's meaning and substance. A Judaism/Jewish identity without those critical elements has already failed and, frankly, is not really worthy of being perpetuated. If the only concrete principle Judaism still has in the 21st century is "thou shalt not marry out", exactly what good is it?

I concede that intermarriage may not be the best thing in the world "for the Jews," if your primary concern is Jewish numbers, but when it comes to Jewish creativity, engagement with others, or issues of substance and depth, I'm not so sure that living in a self-imposed Haredi ghetto is so much better. Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that we may not be dealing with moral absolutes here?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ignorant Irony: The very best kind

Since I've begun my teaching credential program, I've had several professors recommend James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. After flipping through one of his other books a few months ago and liking his style (Buchanan was gay? Neat.), decided to follow up. Luckily, there are oodles of used bookstores around me so procuring a copy of LMTTM was not too hard (or expensive).

It's been quite a read, with interesting tidbits and much good food for thought in terms of how to present history in a way that's interesting, relevant, and honest. Particularly useful have been Loewen's points regarding POV in textbooks-- and how by whitewashing and simplifying history into "white folks good, others bad," everybody loses, particularly since then white students not only can't relate to European-American personalities, they also find them boring as hell.

This is only relevant because, as it turned out, Tucker Carlson has made a really, really bad education documentary (contains link to Youtube version) that Fox was constantly broadcasting (and promoting) a few weeks ago. Carlson couldn't really decide what he wanted his whiny movie to be about: PC censorship, gay agenda, kowtowing to Muslims, or the textbook industry being generally sucky, but the second segment really stuck with me just for its sheer dishonesty.

The lead-in was a rant about Columbus. Since I had just finished reading Loewen's chapter about Columbus, I was intrigued. First, one woman complains that her kid was "brainwashed" into being so anti-Columbus that his whole class decided that Columbus did not deserve a holiday. She and Tucker complain bitterly about how one-sided the text the class used was. The text? Bartolome de Las Casas, a near-contemporary of Columbus, a Spanish settler of America, who happened to become an anti-slavery activist horrified by his countrymen's atrocities. Granted, one can hardly call Las Casas unbiased, but it's not like he was making his stuff up. His activism is documented, and corroborated by Columbus' own accounts of what he was doing in the Caribbean.

Most people probably don't know about Las Casas. I hadn't until last week, when I read LMTTM's second chapter, which happens to be about Columbus. Loewen calls Las Casas "the first great historian of the Americas, who relied on primary materials and helped preserve them." He praises Las Casas' work as giving Americans a valuable insight to Columbus' real, not mythical, actions, and bemoans that many textbooks refuse to include it. In Loewen's words,

When [history textbooks] leave out Las Casas, they omit an interesting idealist with whom we all might identify. When they glorify Columbus, our textbooks prod us toward identying with the oppressor.

Elsewhere Loewen capably points out that the historical record clearly shows Columbus to be a violent conqueror, a ruthless exploiter or resources, a racist, and a brutal slaver. This does not preclude him from being brave or successful, by the way, but, at best, one can say that Columbus is a problematic person to try to glorify to schoolkids (and were it not for his popular place in American consciousness, we probably wouldn't bother-- no teachers waste their time trying to claim that Louis XVI or Tamerlane were the best people ever, for instance).

These details about Columbus are not propaganda, but actual facts, and relevant ones, to boot. They are particularly relevant because Columbus became a model for later Europeans in their interactions with Natives elsewhere in the Americas, for instance, John Smith in Jamestown.

I thought about all this while watching Tucker Carlson pooh-pooh Las Casas and the anti-Columbus children, who had clearly been brainwashed by reading actual history by an actual contemporary. And I thought, "I wonder what James Loewen would have to say about this?"

Just like that, the next cut, shows a distinguished looking, older white gentleman. I squint. I check the name underneath the talking head. "James Loewen, author, Lies My Teacher Told Me."

Hey! What a coincidence! I was excited. This would be good.

But... it was not to be. Loewen was talking about problems with the textbook industry, in particular, state-wide-adoption of curriculum. There was no question about Columbus, no reference to his book, no context connecting it to the previous "example." Nothing. Your average observer of the piece would have assumed that Loewen's book had been about liberal misinformation, when in fact his classic book, now almost 15 years old, focused on how "classic" American myths, still found in textbooks in 1995, were based on distortions and feel-good pabulum, designed to reinforce class, gender and racial status-quos.

If Carlson had been interested in an actual discussion, it would have been perfect. But he wasn't. I wonder if Loewen has seen the documentary? Does he know the sad irony of the final editing?

Carlson couldn't even be bothered to pick an angle and run with it, so the end effect of his "documentary" is a disjointed and confusing mess: the viewer knows textbooks are bad, but doesn't know why, or how they can be improved. Even more depressing, the bald-faced lie-by-omission in including Loewen but not his book lets one of Carlson's most basic claims go unchallenged: that the problem with textbooks is that they are too PC or left-wing, the implication being that before the world "became PC," history textbooks were "just fine." Loewen spent an entire book exposing this as pure nonsense. It's particularly ironic because the example Carlson used is one where he and his "expert" angry grandmother do not offer any facts to justify their indignation at kids having problems with Columbus; rather, they are outraged by the mere suggestion that he might not have been a saint and automatically accuse the teacher or the text of "bias."

Maybe this is all part of Tucker's big point: who needs a textbook when you don't bother to read in the first place?