Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Misusing Statistics

You know the problem with arguing from statistics? It's really easy to project the stats onto whatever your personal perspective is. Just look at politics: when one party gets 52%, it's considered a "mandate"-- never mind the 48% who think they're crap (or, say, the millions who didn't vote in the first place).

So too with cultural statistics. Have an agenda to promote? I'm sure there are some statistics, somewhere, you can use to prove your point.

Example 1: Our blogging compatriot Lady Light.

An article on Israel National News indicated that a CBS survey showed more and more Israelis are becoming observant in their Judaism.  Life just has more meaning, when you believe there is more to it than merely the physical world in which we live, when you believe there is an underlying reason for our existence.
There are a few problems with this one. First, the survey didn't use any internal criteria to actually measure observance levels. It just asked people if they felt they were more observant. Considering how many Israelis skew secular, this could range from merely wearing a yarmulke, starting to keep a higher level of kashrut, or joining a synagogue (even, gasp, Reform!). For all we know, they planted a tree on Tu B'Shevat. It's an opinion poll, no more.

Second, the survey said that although 21% reported becoming more observant, 14% reported being less observant than they were "in the past." That's hardly a big spread.

Third, Lady Light's particular gloss on the significance of the poll is entirely her own; there's nothing in the article to suggest that the survey asked respondents what their motivation for becoming more religious was. If Judaism answers all the big questions for LL, that's great for her. Clearly, a big part of the observant Jewish worldview is that God is involved with humanity and that there are reasons and meaning behind what happens in the world. However, deciding that the people in this survey are lighting Hanukkah candles, going to a seder, or fasting on Yom Kippur because Judaism solves their existential angst is total projection. Sorry.

Example 2: A.J. Jacobs' favorite kooky uncle, Gutman Locks, trying to argue that being frum is actually "easier" than living in the secular world.

Have you ever heard a rabbi say, “You have to accept upon yourself the yoke of Torah”? Apparently, this rabbi agrees with those who say that a Torah life is very hard. The truth is that life without the Torah is the life that is too hard, and when you bring the Torah into your life, it makes life much, much easier.
...What a wonderful thing the yoke is. The animal loves its yoke. The yoke saves the animal from so much pain and suffering.
... In America today: 27% of the non-religious, white, teenage girls, and 50% of the non-religious, black, teenage girls, have one, two, or three different types of venereal diseases. Fifty percent of the babies born to non-religious girls are born out of wedlock - i.e. mommy is not married, no father at home. Sixty-five percent of the non-religious marriages end in divorce.
According to one popular talk show host, in 85% of the non-religious marriages, one of the partners, every once in a while, sleeps with someone other than their spouse. That life, the non-religious life that they live, is the life that is “Too Hard,” not the Torah life.
If you will keep Shabbos (which, in fact, is a pleasure), and your wife will cover her hair (to be modest), if you put on tefillin (to pray), and if the home is kosher (so even your eating is holy), if the kids get a Jewish education (so the Jewish people and values continue), then none of these statistics will apply to you and your family.
Now tell me, which is the life that is too hard?
Here Gutman grabs a bunch of statistics without any sources ("popular talk show host?" I love that guy! Is he still writing for "I read it somewhere" quarterly?) and lobs them all at "the secular world" to prove its infamy. Of course, he doesn't actually care enough about statistics to offer any regarding the religious world, implying that these problems are so infintesimal there that it would be a waste of time or statistical impossibility to try to measure them.

Hmm. Did I miss something? Did the rabbinate abolish divorce over the High Holidays when I wasn't looking? Also, if Gutman is going to claim to be so scientific, why doesn't he suggest a study to examine or compare the rate of STDs or extramarital affairs among different groups of Jews? For all we know, it's lower among frum Jews than their secular counterparts. But that wouldn't serve his agenda, which is to paint the religious life as having no strife at all, as opposed to merely less than average. That's the mark of the missionary-- your life is terrible, mine is perfect. Join us...

I'm also annoyed that Gutman doesn't bother trying to dissect any of the statistics-- what factors could be at play that cause black girls to have more STDs, for example? How do the stats define non-religious? That's not important. What's important is that secularism gives you herpes, while religion gives you an intact marriage with at least eight kids, keina hora.

Seriously, guys. If you want to promote kiruv, go nuts. But I kind of doubt that you're going to get any converts by showing them a poll.

Friday, September 17, 2010

On Zayde, Depression, and why I'm not fasting this Yom Kippur

It's been a whirlwind last few weeks. Well, sort of.

Career-wise, things have stalled. Work sucks in a variety of ways. Suffice it to say that things did not pan out as I would have liked and I am stuck in the same job with more scut work, less money, less chances to do things I'd really like to do (you know, like actually teaching), and that my school has re-defined my job to classify me as more of a staff person (like the janitors) than a member of faculty (this despite them helping pay for my credential).

This has dovetailed with Shiksa Girlfriend getting a new job, which, while awesome, combined with her grad schooling, has resulted in her not getting home before 10:00 pm only about twice a week on average. So far, very few of our days off are overlapping, and in addition to missing out on companionship time, it's also becoming a lot harder to maintain our hovel.

So what this all means is I'm coming home later, more tired than usual, a lot more resentful than usual, and spending lots of time alone in the crappy apartment. Good times.

Interestingly enough, the past few weeks have also led to some interesting Jewish and family history moments. I got Zayde's tefillin in the mail and even got a chance to talk a little with his old friend, Dr. Jewman. The good doc told me, among other revelations, that the old man was actually a fellow traveler of the illustrious Skverer rebbe, not Schneerson as I have long believed. (I suppose this means I should start going slightly easier on Chabad. Or not.) Me being the obsessive Jewish trivia fiend I am, I suppose this now means I'll have to start reading up on Skver (fingers crossed that they can point to some intellectual/spiritual accomplishments beyond esteemed crack-pot and comically-tiny hat aficionado Mayer Schiller).

So I got the tefillin, and I went poking around the internet. I fiddled around with the head-strap. I looked up how to tie the knot (luckily for me Zayde-- or the sofer who checked the tefillin and mailed them out to me-- used the double-dalet, also known as a square knot, which I found far easier than the single-dalet). I practiced until I could do it again if I had to. I also practiced wrapping them around me. And then, that Sunday, I davened in "full Jew uniform"-- tallis, tall boxy yarmulke, and Zayde's tefillin.

And it was pretty darned cool. To feel so enmeshed, to feel physically changed and set apart from other activities, identifying that this was prayer and this was meant to be a connection and show and remind you and other people that you are praying, was a very different and unique experience. In a way beyond just wearing a tallis (I don't know, maybe it's the fact that you can kind of put on a tallis and almost forget it's there, particularly after doing the cool shoulder-cape-flip). And of course, having the physical connection to my grandfather, wearing the tefillin that he wore, re-affirming that connection to the past and the family and the traditions, was all feeding into my emotions as well.

So that was a very neat experience, one which I'll definitely try again. Unfortunately given my early-morning schedule and my understanding of when it's appropriate to use tefillin (most sources I looked at suggested that you generally don't use them to daven anything other than shacharis, Chabad outreach notwithstanding), I'm guessing I'll mostly only have the chance to use them on Sunday mornings, at least during the school year.

Shortly after this, I got another Zayde trinket. Less spiritual, but still very powerful.

It was his FBI file. From the late 80s, when he had a series of psychotic episodes. When he flew all over Europe (including a stop in Turkey) supposedly on a secret mission looking for stolen Nazi art that he was going to purchase and then return to survivors in Israel. After a week or so of criss-crossing Europe, sleeping in airports, and doing god-knows-what-else, he flew back to the US from Paris.

During the flight, he started hallucinating. He made threats to the flight crew. He accused people of robbing him. He tried to break down the door of the cockpit to speak to the captain. He attacked several flight attendants.

If it had happened today, he would have been shot by an air marshal. I'm absolutely sure of this. Instead he was wrestled to the floor, ziptied to his seat, and escorted off the plane by federal agents (airspace being federal jurisdiction). After attempts at defense (which included asking my father, "the lawyer son" to be a character witness-- he refused, which torpedoed their already-crappy relationship for a good seven years), he wound up being acquitted of attempted murder by reason of insanity but was sentenced to eight months in a psychiatric treatment facility.

Zayde was bipolar, and mostly manic. Most of the rest of the family have tended towards the depressive end of the spectrum.

Recently I've been realizing just how angry I've gotten. How despondent I've gotten. I've felt totally stuck, trapped on all sides. My parents will ask me how I'm doing, and my honest answer is, "Everything pretty much sucks." I don't live our living situation. I don't like my job. I don't like how little I'm seeing SG. To say nothing of our present social and community semi-isolation. It's become harder and harder to pick out silver linings, or even to conceptualize a light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to.

Abbot Yid asked me how I was feeling the other day. I said, "Depressed."

He said, "Well, no offense, but everyone else in this family is taking anti-depressants; why should you be so special?"


I've started the process of looking for a therapist. I know once I get started things will get better. And there are already some things that are starting, ever so slightly to look up. SG and I are beginning the very early stages of planning a move out of the city to find a better cost of living and also try to find some more job opportunities. I spoke with my lead teacher today and we're going to start planning out concrete lessons I can be in charge of. For the first time in a while, things don't seem to be interminable. And I know that will go a long way towards helping me see past the crappy parts and look at them as the temporary issues they are.

Last year I had a bronchial infection during Yom Kippur and decided not to fast. This year I'm struggling with major allergies and a bad cold. That wouldn't necessarily be enough to keep me from fasting. But this past week, when SG and Mother Superior Yid each asked me if I was going to fast this year, I knew immediately what the right answer was.

"No. Because I'm not healthy right now. And I can recognize that."

(Suffice it they were both very relieved to hear this. Incidentally, SG will be fasting.)

I inherited Zayde's love of Judaism. That's been apparent since I was twelve. But I have to come to terms with the fact that there's other stuff, darker stuff, that may be in the inheritance mix as well. It doesn't mean I need to live my life scared-- I certainly seem to have gotten a much better roll on genetic roulette than my brother or some of our cousins. But it's certainly important to be aware of-- and, if necessary, to get help for.

Here's to a new year, a time of learning, growth, and yes, struggle. But hopefully, also a time of strength, renewal, and healing.

...Man, I need something to lighten this mood up. Oh, I know. Speaking of tefillin (and tzitzit), this rabbi, though pretty cool considering his age and religious background, also seems a tad over the top regarding these mitzvot, perhaps verging on ADD (by his own estimate, they weigh over 40 lbs). Discuss.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Rebuttal from Shiksa Girlfriend

After reading my last post, SG was so fired up to present her position to our vast readership that it prompted her to write her very first blog post. In honor of that I'll do what I do worst and shut up from here on in. - FY

From the other side –

As The Friar previously told the internet-at-large, recently he and I had a slightly heated discussion about the direction of our practice as part of the discussion of “Where are we going for High Holidays this year.”

I want to add some more background to the points that the Friar made in his last post.

Within a month of our first date, the Friar stated that he had always pictured himself raising a Jewish family, and was feeling some conflict between about dating me, and the long-standing vision of his future. …Fortunately for him, I also wanted to raise a family in a religious community, but certainly not the one that I was raised in, and thus was amenable to a shared compromise on these far-in-the-future issues. (Note: Despite what he stated in his post, I am NOT considering returning to any form of Christianity, “cultural” or otherwise.)

At first we had relatively little conflict about beginning religious practice as adults. Even though the Friar is the born Jew, he had almost no experience actually participating as a child due to his parent’s lack of interest/bad experiences. Instead, he was self-educated on Jewish practice through research on books, Internet, and media. I had plenty of experience navigating the sometimes-complicated social world of religious groups. I had also been a part of a variety of communities, and had seen how poorly they can operate and how far apart my own beliefs and preferences my childhood community was.

When we started attending shul in college, I felt pretty much at home from the beginning. I had long since ceased to practice Christianity or consider myself an Episcopalian. The communities we were participating in, well, they had things that valued in a religious community, (caring community, ritual, and some rigorous textural analysis) and none of the things I objected to (endless emphasis on sin, careless and manipulative use of biblical text, dirge-like songs). We were coming into the community with about the same level of experience (none) and were seeing what other people were doing. This attitude lasted through the first 1½ years of living in SF as we were shul-shopping and trying to find a spiritual home.

The interfaith issue is, I think, coming up again, now, because there are serious identity issues for me. I don’t consider myself a Christian, though I have been baptized as an infant and confirmed as a teen, because I have ceased to practice. Religion, for me, is rooted in practice, individual and group, and that is where I locate the heart of identity. The Friar, always has, and (I think) always will consider himself a Jew, even if he follows his father’s path and doesn’t step into a synagogue for 30+ years. I don’t have that rock-sold identity for obvious reasons. I won’t (may never) consider an official conversion until I have practiced the religion for many more years, and feel like I can truthfully claim that it has become part of my identity.

Therefore, we have conflict, because it isn’t necessary for the Friar to join with a community at this point. None of the ones we have visited match his ideal and it is hard to feel the conflict with every visit. However, I have years of experience suffering a very pronounced conflict between attending Church with my family every week and my own beliefs….and just being very angry and upset about the advice that came down from the pulpit and the deliberate way that text, historical context, and translation were twisted and omitted to make the biblical verses support various things. In contrast to my historical experience, I am so much more comfortable in the synagogue, even when the ritual or social scene isn’t quite my ideal.

If I am going to be able to partner with the Friar to raise a unified family, I need to start now, to practice in a community and at home, so that I can feel confident in my knowledge and identity as a Jew-ish mother. So even if the communities aren’t ideal, I’d like to pick one or two, and make an investment of time to join the social aspect instead of limiting ourselves to the ritual aspect. It’s awkward, it’s not what either of us is good at, it’s hard to fit in with other stuff, but….I think it’s worth doing. I hope we can find a way.

- SG

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Wake-Up Call

(X-posted to Too Cool for Shul)

Shiksa Girlfriend and I had a talk recently where she said she was bummed out that we had let our synagogue attendance drop so dramatically. There were lots of reasons for this: she had been unemployed for eight months (yay new employment!), both of us had been stretched kind of thin emotionally and psychologically, and, to be honest, neither of us is all that social (me especially). She said she understood all that, but that she needs to feel like we're a little more part of a community, and that I'm frankly not helping. Specifically, she thinks my shul standards are too high.

I said that it was hard for me; that my parents weren't really joiners and that we weren't raised to be joiners, and that social/group dynamics have never really been my thing, partially because I never really needed to work at it. If I didn't want to be a part of something, I didn't have to. Which meant that I didn't bother.

She said that was all well and good but that if we go around expecting perfection out of every social interaction, especially in a Jewish context, that we'll never get a chance to find people that we do click with. I said that it felt like we had seen what our options were, and none felt quite right-- Evil Minion had great enthusiasm, but felt cliquey and awkward as soon as services were over. Beth Elderly had the exact opposite problem; they had so few new (or young) members that we felt like people were incapable of A- giving us some space to settle in, or B- not projecting various images of Young Adult Leadership TM on us. At this point I would feel guilty going back there simply because they gave us a trial membership for High Holidays and then we never went back after. They're probably still scratching their heads over it.

In a really interesting development, she also said that if this thing isn't resolved by the time we have kids, she will basically look for another community identity to raise them in (probably Unitarian Universalism, but maybe super-low-key cultural Christianity).


At first I was a little shocked at what felt like a trump card or low blow, but I realized that I should really have been thankful of how honest and direct she was being. She wants to share this Jewish thing with me, but I can't really expect her to be the leader when she isn't even Jewish. And unfortunately I'm not really knowledgeable (or comfortable) enough to stand alone or go trailblazing ahead, foraging into the tall grasslands of Jewish community.

So we compromised. We will be doing more shul visits this year. When SG's schedule gets ironed out, we will try to include more Saturday visits into the mix (which will also be a good way to get a fresh look at the different shuls in town). We've already made arrangements for High Holidays at Temple GLBT. This will be our first holidays with them.

Four years of High Holidays in four different shuls. I wonder if it's us? Or them? Or both.