Friday, July 29, 2011


Day 7- Our first day in Cz, a city I've been curious about since age twelve. It felt amazing to finally be there. Our apartment was near the famous monastery so we spent part of the morning walking around and exploring it.

It was interesting but also very hot and crowded. The highlight had to have been going into one of the many museums on the monastery grounds (this one was devoted to the many kinds of musical instruments that had been played as part of religious ceremonies there over the last 600 years) and getting yelled at by a nun.

Yes, that's right. A nun came up to your humble Friar and began castigating him in Italian. Sensing a perhaps surprising lack of shame or contrition, she checked to see if I even spoke Italian, then testily got someone in her tour group to translate into English. "Your camera-- need be closed." I looked down. My camcorder? Which was turned off, had the lens cap on, and was turned backyards facing my chest? Just how badly did this woman think I wanted to document their 14th century French horns? I smiled and said it was already off, even showing them that the lens cap was covered, but the nun was uninterested in such minor details and continued to harangue me. Luckily, however, it turns out it is quite hard to yell at someone who doesn't speak your language and refuses to react to you. I smiled and nodded about 20 times in the course of a minute, totally unperturbed, until the nun grew bored with me and took off with her tour group. Hooray for cultural exchange!
Did I mention it's really, really Catholic here?

I had a friend in town who I'll call Pavel. Pavel was from Cz and had attended the same high school as some of Mama Yid's distant relatives before WWI. Back in high school, many years ago, I had googled the name of the school in question and some student webpages had popped up for kids to practice their English. I had picked the one whose English was best and who said he liked history and asked him to help me learn more about the city. Pavel had been a wonderful sport and we had kept in contact ever since. He met us with his 5-year-old daughter Yulia and took Abbot Yid and I on a quick tour around town and to the mall to get some supplies. Cz is a small city by US (and even Polish) standards but this mall was gigantic, three stories and at least a few miles across. Everything there was very slick and modern, including a Polish version of Whole Foods (a sad must for those of us with food allergies) and of course McDonald's. Pavel said lots of Poles spend their time chasing the American dream, whether they can afford it or not.

A little later my parents and I met Pavel at his home for dinner with his family-- him, his daughter Yulia and their wife Olga. Olga was a teacher by trade and quit when their daughter was born but was now that she was about to start school had started looking for work again, with mixed results. Pavel worked in the communications department for a nearby city doing promotions and event planning. Their apartment building looked ancient, Soviet and utilitarian from the outside (lots of concrete and harsh corners, a style quite popular in town) but the inside was warm and homey, with lots of bright painted colors and attractive modern furniture. Though Olga's English was shaky (she understood much more than she could speak), we all had a lovely time. One highlight was me using an English fairy tale book to learn Polish vocabulary from Yulia and Olga and in turn teaching them the English words for the same objects, animals and colors. Another was getting a chance to discuss some Polish politics and history with real, average young people and get their thoughts.

I said I was very pleased to be in Poland and to get a chance to see how my ancestors lived and not just focus on how they died. Pavel and Olga said they were glad to see people like us were in America and that we had helped smash some stereotypes of theirs about Americans, particularly the idea that we were all rich and never had any problems. While it was clear our standard of living was light-years beyond theirs, we agreed that people were people and all people had problems. Toward the end of the evening, Olga commented (through Pavel) that I reminded her of a friend of theirs, a priest interestingly enough, who also has a beard as well as a "very kind heart." As we left, my parents said, without exaggeration, that the evening had been the highlight of the trip.

Though randomly seeing this in the middle of a traffic circle was also pretty awesome.
(I was going to make a joke about how this must be St. Christopher, patron saint of drivers, only then I actually read the inscription and it turns out reality beat me to it.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the Road

Day 6- Lame road trip

What a day. We traveled about 150 miles from Warsaw to Czestochowa and it took forever. Abbot Yid ordered a GPS with the car but it never got there, so I got to be the only navigator. Yay?

Getting out of Warsaw was a little tricky. We accidentally made a wrong turn and went across the Vistula river into Praga. That took a while to get out of. On the plus side, we didn't think we'd get a chance to see Praga, so, there's that.

Driving in Poland is challenging for a few reasons. There is relatively little signage except at intersections, and the bigger avenues can go on for quite a while until you find out what street you're on. For some strange reason, the intersecting street signs are often facing away from you when you approach them in a car, which means you can drive for several blocks until you finally figure out you're going the wrong way.

The same thing happened once we got onto the highway-- it turns out in the first town after Warsaw there are two highways, both going South but rapidly diverging into an upside-down V. Guess which one we took? After I figured that out, we had to get off the highway in a small town and figure out how to cut over via a smaller road-- which we initially went the wrong way on, as well. All of this was very stressful because I had given a rough guess of when we would get into town to our apartment rental guy and I was having trouble reaching him, and I was worried if we were too late he wouldn't be there.

Once we were finally on the right highway, the real fun began. Did you know Poland is undergoing major highway renovation? Which looks like it's going to take a freaking decade to finish? Causing large stretches of their highways to be condensed to a single lane? Interestingly enough, though the guidebooks caution you not to speed lest you be stopped by police (and note that "ignorance is no excuse"), we probably saw over 100 people speeding on the road (including gigantic semi-trucks) and not a single police officer. Abbot Yid was probably going 10-20 km over the speed limit, and almost every 5 minutes someone would be tailgating us trying to pass.

Ah yes, Polish drivers love to change lanes while speeding down their not-very-good highway (in some parts it was literally a dirt-and-gravel road) which they somehow think is the Autobahn. I have no idea where all these folks are going, but they've got things to do, apparently.

Things picked up after Piotrkow Trybunalski- different highway, better roads, 2 whole lanes, still crazy drivers, though. We finally got into town, and then we were lost some more, so I had to go into a Polish 7-11 for help. To the gangly Polish kid with the death metal hair and the passable English, many thanks.

Time to drive according to Google Maps: 3.5 hours.
Actual time from apartment to apartment: about 6 hours.

Lame, Google. Very lame.

Wrapping up Warsaw

Day 5: Abbot Yid was on the mend, now it was Mama Yid's turn for Pilsudski's revenge. I decided, being the reasonably competent city dweller I am, that I could take on Warsaw and see the sights for myself. So I did.

First stop was I.B. Singer's house, which was back in Mirow. I decided to forgo the bus and walk, since I am a pretty fast walker and I'd been chafing to walk at my regular pace since we got here. I managed to get there in about 40 minutes from Old Town. All the old buildings around there are long gone, replaced by square and rectangular Soviet-style apartment houses and unfortunately there wasn't even an address plate for number 10- but I took a picture anyway, just to have.
I.B. Singer's old street intersects with John Paul II Avenue. I can't make these things up.

I ate lunch in a park across the street and then tried to find I.L. Peretz street. It took a while but I finally found it- Perec, as it's written in Polish, is a tiny alley between the Westin Hotel and Deloitte headquarters, near a store that sold high-end telescopes.

From there I checked out Nozyk synagogue. In typical Polish style, the original classic building is connected with a pretty gray, square, utilitarian one that serves as the front entrance. Old and New, pretty and... not. It started to rain and so I ducked into the Judaica shop in the basement, where I got a couple of souvenirs.

After that I wandered around the neighborhood a little-- the problem with the old streets is a lot of them don't connect or dead-end randomly, and meander around, rather than going right through, to the large avenues. I got a little turned around (bonus- did you know that Warsaw has the first Erotic Museum in Poland? I do now.) Finally I made it to the last spot on my itinerary, Prozna street.

Prozna is the last standing block of the Warsaw ghetto, and the dilapidated brick buildings are totally dwarfed by the modern high-rises all around them. Adding to the eerie ghost town feel is the fact that the buildings are covered with giant blown-up sepia pictures of Warsaw Jews.

 One side of the street, strangely enough, has a bunch of working businesses on the bottom floor-- cafes, shops, etc. At the end of the block, the last brick building had several satellite dishes coming out of apartments-- which I suppose means that one of them is occupied. I wondered how much of the place's history the residents know about and how much it affects their lives. What does the Warsaw ghetto mean to the people who live and work on Prozna street? To kids who grow up looking at giant pictures of ghosts outside their window? Is it traumatic? Or, even worse, do they become jaded and immune to it? How do the parents explain it to their children?

On my way back through the city to our flat I decided to go through the Saxon Gardens. They were very pretty and very European-looking. Lots of very manicured lawns and some really awesome statues. It's interesting that while the popular image of Poland is of being culturally located in Eastern Europe, we've also been learning about and seeing a lot of French and Italian influences, too. The Gardens reminded me quite a lot of the Champs Elysses. I keep having to re-adjust my brain to everything that I'm seeing and processing that all of this is Poland-- the crumbling pre-war buildings, the towering and harsh Soviet architecture, and the super-modern condos and skyscrapers made of glass. Its all Poland, and it signifies that its all very complicated.

In some ways, seeing the pretty stuff is harder than the sad stuff. Being in the Saxon Gardens was lovely, but also haunting. How could a place of such beauty also be the site of so much death and misery? I've realized while here that Poland has a "black-and-white" problem, and I don't just mean that people see it in a simplistic, good guys and bad guys way. When a lot of people think of Poland, I think their image is of black-and-white news reals from the Holocaust and WWII. Or it's Schindler's List.
Behold, colors!
But either way, it's never of Poland in color, never of it being a real country part of the 21st century. For them, that's all Poland is. That's an unfair view and I think eventually it will change, just like it presently is changing. However, at the same time, sitting in that beautiful park, thinking of my family, who walked and played there-- I couldn't help wondering how, and why, fate and men could be so cruel as to deny them the right to live.

Yes, Poland is beautiful. Which makes it all the more tragic that so many Polish Jews were not allowed to enjoy it. Why were so many Polish Jewish children never allowed to walk where I walked? That should have been their birthright, as Poles and human beings. While I'm happy to honor their memory by learning more about where they lived and the lives they had here, I can't enjoy it "with a full cup." They should have lived. They should still be here.

We should have more than a single remnant here. They should be here, enjoying it with me.

Truding back home I was pretty happy. I had spent a whole day by myself in a foreign country, totally self-sufficient, and everything turned out fine, thanks to good planning (food, water, map) and some willingness to follow my gut and explore a little. If I hadn't ducked into the synagogue shop I wouldn't have found those fun souvenirs and if I hadn't decided to go through Saxon gardens I wouldn't have found restrooms or some quiet green space.

After going back to the apartment Abbot Yid and I went out foraging. We grabbed some cash and other essentials at a small shop and then passed an Asian market I had forgotten to tell him about. Boy was he excited! We popped in and got him some gluten-free stuff.

For my fifth dinner in Poland I had the extremely traditional home-made Pad Thai. Go authenticity!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A long day and some reflection

Day 4: Mirow District. Mama Yid and I left Abbot Yid at home to recuperate and set out for another formerly Jewish district on the West side of town, but this time south of where we had been previously. I managed to get us some bus tickets (yay pantomime and a notepad!) and we got on a bus which took us across town. Our first stop was the last fragment of the Warsaw ghetto wall that's still preserved, which was pretty sobering in its size. I knew it was tall, but until you see its scale and realize this was a cage to keep people inside it's hard to wrap your head around. After that we walked down some side-streets to find the Ghetto Evacuation Monument. This is the spot that commemorates where the Ghetto fighters came out through the sewers (the monument says "canals," which I suppose does sound nicer) onto the Aryan side of the city to escape.

The area was fascinating; it's in a pretty grungy part of town with a lot of dilapidated buildings and abandoned factories. At the same time there's a huge urban renewal project going on and there's a ton of construction happening in the area, with lots of modern skyscrapers, high-rise condos, and corporate parks popping up everywhere. The contrast was a bit bizarre; sort of like if you remade Silicon valley next to Blarney castle. As another example of this contrast between old and new, the monument is directly in front of the entrance to a condominium. The monument is a little surreal, being covered with disembodied hands, but I think I still prefer its (relative) understated-ness to the over-the-top HEROES! theme of the Ghetto Fighters Monument at Zamenhof.

After that we were pretty hungry, so we wandered around until we found, of all things, a Vietnamese restaurant. We were looking for I.B. Singer's childhood home at Krochmalna street, so in his honor, I had grilled goose. It was quite hot, and once we had finished lunch Mama Yid said she actually thought she might be done for the day. I was a little disappointed that we had only managed to get to two out of the four spots on my itinerary for the day, but she had also been a really good sport (even if we hadn't left the house until 11:30). The tricky thing was that the bus route I had planned to get home didn't run near where we were, since I had been thinking we would have made it further west towards the City Center. So we walked back. Luckily it was starting to get somewhat cloudy so the sun wasn't quite as bad. On the way home Mama Yid talked about how proud she was that I seemed so street-smart and self-sufficient here, which she wouldn't have said about me a year ago. The compliment was nice, though it also made me realize how much I've grown in the last few years since still living with them. Walking added up to 5.7 km (3.5 miles).

We finally got back to the house and ate dinner. Abbot Yid was up and about trying to make arrangements for Krakow and London. Mama Yid and I headed out again to go check out New Town. She still hasn't really had a chance to do much shopping so I left her there and went west to see the town battlements. The walls are very cool; the old moat has been filled in with a dirt-and-gravel path so you can walk in the moat as well as along the inner and outer walls. The Poles seem to be incredibly cavalier about the whole thing, though. To them the wall really just seems to be a place to hang out; like a park. I saw merchants selling paintings, surly teenagers playing guitar, couples holding hands on benches-- but while they were sitting on turrets and lounging on castle walls! In some ways, it kind of takes away from the effect of being in a "Castle"-esque environment, because the modern world is so emphatically blending with the old world.

Old and New Town, including the battlements, are interesting because they're almost entirely reconstructions, but reconstructions done as carefully and accurately as possible. It creates a slightly surreal effect where you're walking around thinking, "Wow, this is so old, this thing must have been here for centuries--" and then you remember that actually it's probably only 50 years old or so. It's a bizarre dissonance shift, which is sort of appropriate for the trip in general. It's a well-known cliche, but I'm definitely getting the feeling that Poland is a "land of contrasts"-- some people here are really nice and friendly, while some seem on the surly side. Poland seems to be committed to honoring the horrors that happened on its soil, but at the same time is highly motivated to be a modern country and move forward with its future.

Being here has made me re-think some of my previous assumptions and feelings about Poland's responsibility as guardian (or co-guardian) of Jewish history and memory. I've often been somewhat miffed by the fact that a lot of former Jewish sites which were destroyed during the war haven't been restored (for instance the Tlomackie synagogue which is now a car dealership) except for a token plaque here or there. It feels like there should be more respect and acknowledgment, in a real way so people can understand that the Jews of Poland weren't mythical or make-believe, but real, present, and in a lot of ways, omnipresent in Polish society, and certainly in the larger cities like Warsaw. I want Poland to make sincere efforts to include the Jewish experience within the larger history of their country. At the same time, after coming here, I realize that it would be impossible for every site to be reconstructed. There has been so much suffering here, so much death and misery, that there's no way you could rebuild or memorialize it all; you'd have no city left. Honestly, that's not a realistic-- or fair-- position to take in a real country full of real people, most of whom weren't even alive when the war happened. What I've seen suggests that Poland is trying to find a compromise between honoring its history while not becoming victims to it.

While there may be more things Poland can do to make sure contemporary Poles understand Jews and Jewish history, as far as memorializing the past, I feel like they're doing a pretty good job. I've walked past dozens of museums, plaques and monuments in the few days we've been here and it feels like the Polish people, or at least government, understands the need to pay respect to history, while still working towards the future. I can't fault them for that, especially when most Jewish communities and individuals' involvement and engagement with Poland seems to be fairly minimal. If Jews abroad want Poland to understand Jews better, they might need to step up and actually do something to make it happen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Between jet lag, acclimation issues and yes, some actual sight-seeing, it's been hard to find time to blog. Here's a run-down of our first few days in Warsaw.

Day 1: Flew out from the US to Frankfurt. The flight was fun (first class sleeper suites, what's not to like?) Despite the totally cool fold-down seats, though, I couldn't really sleep, since the plane was pretty loud and hot. From Frankfurt we flew into Warsaw in the early afternoon-- since none of us had slept, we were total zombies. We wandered around looking for food and settled for some not-very-good pirogi. Mother Superior Yid fell asleep during the meal several times. After returning to our apartment in Old Town, I finally fell asleep after being up for 28 hours straight.

Day 2: Muranow district. We walked out of Old Town to the City Center and visited the Jewish Historical Institute, which is housed in the Jewish Library building that survived the war. It stands next to what used to be the Tlomackie Synagogue (now a Peugot dealership). The museum was very interesting with a lot of information about the Warsaw Ghetto. Since I knew that the Institute is the clearinghouse for lots of Polish records, I had made sure to print out a short list of family records I wanted ahead of time. The archivist was very nice and made copies for me while I looked through some books. After lunch me and my parents walked up to Pawiak prison, the Warsaw Ghetto monument and saw the future building site of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which will probably look fantastic once it's finally finished. (Right now it looks like a Star Trek space dock.) The day's walking added up to about 8 km (5 miles).

The JHI and Pawiak prison were the first real Holocaust sites we'd seen, and I think my parents were pretty shaken by them. In the JHI things feel safe because you know you're still in a museum, but Pawiak is basically one long rectangular bunker sunk into the ground, very little light, and it's just you and the museum pieces-- oh, and the reconstructed jail cells. Definitely a bit of a head trip if you're not prepared.

It's been very interesting to look at Holocaust monuments and museums with my parents. In some ways they seem to be experiencing it in a more visceral way than I am, which I attribute at least partially to the fact that I've been studying these things on my own since I was fourteen. They seem to be encountering a lot of this stuff for, if not the first time, then really understanding it for the first time. For me, on the other hand, none of the information is really new. The experience of actually being there is, and that's been very interesting and sobering, but it's not like I didn't know what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto, for example. I even knew a little about Pawiak prison from Uris' Mila 18, but neither of my parents had ever heard of it.

Day 3: Worst. Day. Ever. Abbot Yid got sick with Pilsudski's Revenge(TM) and at one point even lost consciousness. We were very close to calling an ambulance but luckily he's since recovered. Mama Yid and I spent the day running around relying on my extremely limited Polish, Google Translate, and a tiny phrasebook to get medicine, money, and groceries. About the only good part was that at least it stopped us all from getting on each other's nerves and demonstrated to my parents that I am in fact a reasonable competent adult. (In related news, apparently my many years of taking a foreign language-- though not Polish-- have come in handy.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Not the same

Lazer's back with more word-spasms. This time he's on about one of his favorite talking points, about how Native Americans and Jews share a mystical connection or something. As proof, he has an email from a Cherokee guy named Blue Otter: 

That night after the lecture, as I was blissfully sleeping in the Chief's "luxury suite," (as he calls it, and I did find it to be very commodious)... I dreamed that wherever you go on earth, there is a square 7' x 7' patch of what looked like "rain" that constantly follows and covers you. That was an interesting dream! I know it's true...
Shalom, Gah gey you e,Blue Otter
Blue Otter's dream is remarkable. The minimum size of a kosher Succa is 7 tefachim by 7 tefachim. Our sages tell us that this is the smallest area befitting for the "Clouds of Emuna" to hover (in the words of the Zohar, tzila demehaimnuta). May we all be worthy vessels of the Divine Presence, amen.

Ok, a few things:

A- How did Blue Otter know Lazer's rain-cover was exactly 7x7? Was there a tape measure in the dream? Did a voice speak to him? I'm not disputing that this may be what he dreamt, but I'm curious about the transmission of information.

B- It sounds obvious, but you seem to be missing it: rain and clouds are not the same. In the same way that wheat and bread are not the same. Some wheat is used to make bread, and some bread is made from wheat, but not all the time in either case. Same thing. Living in San Francisco, I can attest that quite a lot of clouds do not lead to rain.  Unless "Clouds of Emunah" also lead to "Puddles of Emunah," I think you may be reaching here just a little.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Neither the sky nor the izmels are falling

Attention professional Jewish alarmists: I know you think San Francisco really hates Jews because it has things like anti-Israel protests and left-wing professors, but please believe me when I tell you that you're all off base on this one.

Just because a group of anti-circumcision doofi (backed by one particularly unhinged anti-Semite) managed to get their proposal to ban infant circumcision on the ballot does not mean:

A- That most of San Franciscans support them; or
B- That the measure will pass.

But no, as soon as conservative Jews hear "San Francisco" and "ban circumcision" together, all of a sudden we're in 1939 Germany. Get some perspective, guys. Less than 8,000 people (or 12,000 depending on your source) signed this petition, out of a city of 465,000 registered voters. Drop in the bucket much?

Never one to let facts get in the way of talking about how America hates Jews and that everyone needs to make aliyah immediately, Lazer was announcing as far back as March that not only was God totally pissed about this ballot measure, but also that it had already passed. That must be some impressive time-machine you've got, Lazer. Does it run on emunah?

Let's make a deal, crazies: if the ballot passes, I will make sure to talk about it on my blog and hang my head in shame at my much-beloved birthplace. On the other hand, if it doesn't pass, which of course will validate the fact that most residents of SF don't hate either Jews or circumcision, you will write a public apology to me and the other 400+ thousand people you slandered as dirty anti-semites.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

I had fun with this post's title the other day, but it wasn't until I went back and read it that I realized just how far off the deep end our old pal Tzvi's head is.

The premise is that the Fourth of July is not a legitimate holiday for Jews to observe, because they aren't really Americans, they're Jews. Which is to say, Israelis.

This is where Tzvi first muddies things up. Just because all Jews are theoretically able to become Israelis doesn't mean they actually are, just like the fact that you might be able to apply for Italian citizenship thanks to your grandma Rosa doesn't mean you can go vote in their next election. We're talking about separate things. However, since we're also talking about Tzvi, he of course doesn't care. On with the show.
It may say that you are an American on your passport, but in G-d’s eyes you are an Israeli – a displaced citizen of Israel, an Israeli refugee in someone’s else’s land, an Israeli whose great great great grandfather was exiled from the Land of Israel, thrown out by the Roman usurpers, thieves who pillaged the country and stole the heritage of your forefathers.
Unless you're a convert, or descended from Khazars or something. In which case, we wish you a lot of luck in your legal battles to reclaim your ancient birthright of Astrakhan.

From there things get really weird as Tzvi relates some of the more abusive things he's done to Birthright participants who have been unlucky enough to spend a Shabbat with him over the years, all in the name of "educating" them. But first he compares them to a gallon of milk.
How it pains me to see the kids who come on the Birthright trips. Of course, I am happy they’re here, but they’ve been so pasteurized, homogenized, Americanized, that they hardly know that they’re Jews. 
Yes, don't you hate it when your young American Jews have been over-pasteurized? Not like our authentic, artisanal Jews, straight from the land's... udders?

Wait, no, I can do this. Let's just use our old friend the Internet and...

Ok, let me guess, the cream is the emunah and the skim milk is the... ruach? I have no idea where this is going. Besides someplace awful, of course.
This past Shabbat, we hosted a couple of guys from the Birthright program. The moment I saw one of them, call him Tony, I was reminded of myself back when, an all-American poster boy trying my hardest to pretend that I didn’t have a Jewish nose.
What? How does that work? Did you dress your nose up in disguise? Did you pretend it was Greek? What are you talking about, Tzvi?
Tony was going to college in Colorado, where grass was legal and available in every corner grocery, he said. 
A- Grass? What decade are you living in? I know B'aal Teshuvahs are supposed to aspire towards the childlike innocence of Frum-From-Birthers, but that doesn't mean you need to pretend you just got back from 1962.

B- I'm pretty sure that's not how pot distribution works in Colorado. Really, really, sure.
While I was asking them some preliminary questions, he showed me a photo of his dog and his girlfriend, Cindy, a shicksa if I ever saw one.
So, to recap: you're a superficial and judgmental jerk, and this guy should avoid any attempt to be polite to you. Good to know.
The other two guys were more the straight type, so I concentrated my blitzkrieg on Tony. I use the term blitzkrieg because these guys have been deceived all of their lives, and I have only two hours with them to set their heads straight, so I have to give them all I’ve got.
I love that you're using the same terminology as the Luftwaffe, and you realize how dicey this is, yet you still think it's justifiable because, after all, all you're doing is an intensive indoctrination session. Cute. 

First, I give everyone a full glass of sweet wine at the Kiddush. Then, once the meal starts, I bring out a new bottle of dry wine and explain the blessing “HaTov V’HaMativ,” and fill up their glasses again. “Hey, this is really cool!” they say, realizing that they’re in for a good time. When they’re gobbling up the spicy Mediterranean salads, I give each guy a bottle of beer. “Colossal!” they say, really beginning to feel relaxed. While they’re drinking, I tell them about their great great great grandfathers, how they came from the Land of Israel, and how we were all Israelis until the Babylonians and Romans expelled us from our Land. I transport them through history, telling them that every time we tried to be good Persians, or Spaniards, or Germans, or Russians, the goyim always reminded us we were Jews and that we didn’t belong in their lands. Then, before my wonderful wife serves the main course, I bring out my special bottle of etrog liqueur. The other two guys were smart enough to politely decline, but Tony was all for it.
“This is humongus!” he said. “This is the best time I’ve had on this trip!”
With a big, “I love you, Tony,” smile, I pour out a solid shot glass of the power-packed Golan Heights liqueur and slide it over to my guest.
“L’chaim,” I say, downing a shot glass myself.
“L’chaim,” Tony toasts, shlushing it down his throat. Within seconds, his face turned pink and his forehead started to sweat. “Oh, wow,” he exclaimed. “This stuff is cool.”
He looked like Joe Frazier, after he’d been tagged the twentieth time with a stunning Ali combo. I could see that he was dizzy, and trying to keep his cool, but his cheeks were burning, as if he had eaten a hot potato.
Um... what are you doing, Tzvi? I know you must think this is a great way to connect with them, but there's a really uncomfortable vibe coming off from this.

While the other guys started wolfing the aromic main course, Tony was still reeling from the liqueur. I could see he was doing his best to follow my every word, but he was already on the ropes. So I poured myself another shot of the holy elixir and offered him one too. He knew he shouldn’t, but he wanted to show me he was as macho as I was, so he accepted. This time I thought his eyeballs would pop out. I made sure he ate a little something, because it was Shabbat, and the hospital is a long walk away, and I didn’t want him drinking on an empty stomach. As usual, the other guys asked me what movies I wrote in Hollywood, but I brushed aside their questions with a wave of the hand. My wife, great partner that she is, explained that I didn’t like to talk about movies on Shabbat, because of the special holiness of the day.
Yeah, talking about movies would spoil the special holiness. Not like the divine spark that comes from alcohol poisoning.
Then I spoke about the Torah, how it’s our true culture, giving them a tour of all the hundreds of books in our living-room library, explaining how it’s been denied them all of their lives, their true identity, until they were programmed to sing the Star Spangled Banner with tears in their eyes, get stoned on New Year’s like all their heathen friends, and celebrate the 4th of July.
“What’s wrong with celebrating the 4th of July?” Tony asked.
That’s when I stand up from the table, walk into the kitchen, open the freezer, and take out the chilled and frosted bottle of “Arak,” a liquorish-tasting liqueur a little like Ouzo. The alcohol is so cold and concentrated, it goes straight to brain like a 10,000 watt electric charge. I poured myself a full shot glass, downed it with a smile, and handed one to Tony. The good sport gulped it down innocently. Then BOOM! His head trembled, his eyes fluttered closed, and he swooned off his chair. My little son was waiting with a throw pillow to cushion his fall. I’ve got my family trained. While I knelt down on the floor with the Birthrighter, my wife and older sons kept the conversation going with our other guests. In the beginning of the Birthright program, my wife didn’t like my antics, and she would get angry at me, but when she saw that it was all needed to break down the walls and walls of defensive barriers that these kids are encased in like vaults, she became a true helpmate in my efforts.
Angry with you? Now that's just crazy. Who could find anything wrong with giving this guy at least six drinks (2 glasses of wine plus 1 beer plus 3 shots of liquor) and then brainwashing him while he's sprawled out on your kitchen floor? That's just silly. And I like how getting this guy totally sloshed is described as "breaking down defensive barriers." It's particularly disturbing that the whole family knows this is what you do and is "well-trained" to help out. Seriously, this sounds like the prologue to a really screwed up TV movie-- I'm honestly not sure whether  to make a joke about Josef Fritzl or Sawney Beane. 
“Tony? Do you hear me?” I asked, sitting beside him under the table.
“Yeah. Wow. You’re such a cool rabbi.”
“Tony. Repeat after me. I’m not an American!”
“I’m not an American!” he said.
“I’m not an American!” I shouted louder.
“I’m not an American!” he yelled.
“I’ve been lied to all my life!”
“I’ve been lied to all my life!”
“I’m an Israeli!”I barked
“I’m an Israeli!” he echoed.
“I’m an Israeli!”
“Oh, man. You’re blowing my mind,” he said.  “I don’t believe it. I’m an Israeli! My whole life’s a big lie. I’m a Jew. I’m an Israeli. I’m not an American at all!”
Tzvi, there's a world for this, and it's called assault. I can't believe Birthright still lets you entertain young people in your house. I really feel like I should be reporting this to someone. It would totally serve you right if this guy's family sued your pants off.

Once again, he looked like he was going to faint. Quickly, I whipped out the small sack of smelling salts I keep in my pocket whenever we entertain. Immediately, his eyes opened wide.
“Noam,” I called to my son, the soldier. “Bring me your rifle!”

WHAT? Wow, just when I thought this story couldn't go anywhere worse...
Quickly, my son rose from the table, went into his bedroom, and returned with his big, sci-fi looking Tavor automatic rifle and laser night scope. Normally on Shabbat, we give the rifle a rest, but this was a case of saving a life, so I pulled Tony into a sitting position and put the rifle in his arms.
Dude, not cool. This guy is seriously intoxicated and you're playing with guns, in a house full of people no less. I mean, presumably your son the soldier knows to unload his weapon before bringing it into the house but... Jesus!

“I don’t believe this,” he said. “This is so friggin cooool.”
“You’re an Israeli!” I told him. “Not an American wimp!”
“I’m an Israeli,” he said proudly, hugging the rifle.
“You want to live in Israel!”
“I want to live in Israel!” he agreed.
“You want to study Torah!”
“I want to study Torah!”
“I’m fed up with America’s crap!”
“I’m fed up with America’s crap!”
“I want a Jewish girlfriend!”
“I want a Jewish girlfriend!”

Tzvi, you're really an asshole. I hope this guy's family and girlfriend come to Israel and punch you in the nose. 

Then I stood up and pulled him to his feet. Strapping the rifle over his shoulder, I grabbed his hands and started singing. “Hava negilla, hava negilla….” I figured it was the only Israeli song he knew. My sons brought the other Birthright guys over to join us, and we all danced a happy “hora” in the middle of the living room. “Hava negilla, hava negilla….” Around and around and around.

The guys had a great time. By the time they left, satiated with delicious, homemade desserts, they were all pickled out of their minds. I sent my army boy with them to show them the way back to their hotel. I gave them all a big loving hug and escorted them out the door. At the top of the stairwell, I gave Tony a real kick in the rump. Not in the Jewish side of him. I kicked the American imposter. As it says, “A time to speak, and a time for a good kick in the rear.” He tumbled down a few stairs and looked back up at me with a big happy smile.
“Thanks, Rabbi Fishman,” he said. “Thanks for such a colossal Shabbat. You’re the first person in my life who’s ever told me the truth. I’ll never forget you.”

Yay! Nothing's more fun than getting drunk and indoctrinated, except maybe if you follow it by playing with guns, pretending you're a soldier, and getting your ass literally kicked by some so-called friends.

It's funny, all this hedonistic revelry and yet Tzvi claims to be against the Fourth of July. It sounds like really he just objects to which flag all the fuss is over.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

We're Off

Today we leave for Europe.

I've dreamed about visiting the Old Country since I was a small child, and particularly once I got into family history and thinking up stories behind the names. Now that we're finally almost on our way I'm not quite sure what I'll do once I get there. I don't intend to spend a lot of time doing "hard-core" genealogy work; we won't be visiting archives or even shtetl-hopping like we had planned a few years ago. Instead we're going to be balancing some tourist stuff with some history stuff and some family stuff. 

Our first stop will be Warsaw, where Abbot Yid's family lived. I'm not quite sure what we'll find there-- I know it's the capital and there should be some interesting history there, but since it was all demolished in the war and then rebuilt it's hard to know what to expect. There should definitely be some good museums and things, though. I haven't been able to go back farther than my g.g.grandparents in that line, so we have no idea if there were relatives there during the war years. It should be fun, but I'm not expecting too many personal connections there.

I'm very curious about seeing Czestochowa, where my mother's family is from. It's on the small size but very important to Polish culture as a pilgrimage site. It's also famous (or infamous) as being the area where cultist Jacob Frank was imprisoned, and I'm dying to see what I can dig up about him, including visiting the ancient castle and caves where his wife and son were buried and where his followers supposedly kept the pooled treasure of the community. Should be fun!

I've gotten a lot further with Mama Yid's family (or families, rather, since I've assembled research on about ten different major lines) thanks to some genealogical societies and have traced back to the 1770s, as well as down through the war years. I'm going with some addresses and lists of people who were living in the area then, just to see what we might find. I know a few relatives, including my g.g.g.grandfather, are in the town cemetery and I'm hoping to find their tombstones.

I've also made contact with some (checks chart...) fourth cousins who are descended from a relative who survived a labor camp and promptly went back to his town and has more or less stayed there ever since. I'm dying to meet him, but he may be too sick to visit so I'll settle for seeing his daughter and grandson.

From there we'll be heading to Krakow-- no genealogical angle here, but we are very much looking forward to seeing Kazimierz and getting a sense of what Jewish life was like there. We will also be visiting Auschwitz-- something I'm not sure I would do if it weren't for the fact that I have documentation about specific relatives that died there and so it's a personal and historical connection, not something I feel like I "should" do as a Jew, etc.

After that we will fly to London for a week. Ironically though we have more relatives in England (again, all Mama Yid's) it's unclear who will be available to see us, so that leg may wind up being more conventionally touristy.

I'm really looking forward to it. I'm a little nervous about logistics and the language barrier, and particularly about dietary issues (I've made English-Polish translation cards explaining my and Abbot Yid's allergies for wait staff at restaurants). I probably haven't prepared as much as I should have. I'm keeping my fingers crossed Mama Yid's pain issues stay under control and that living in close quarters with my parents for three weeks doesn't drive me batty. And incidentally, it will be the first time Mrs. Yid and I have been apart for that long in about four years, which will be strange and different.

But I'm also excited. It should be a lot of fun.

Here we go.

Quick shots

- Barry Farber so rambling even WND readers can't stand him: Barry, apparently working on passing himself off as the Andy Rooney of the right, had an overly long column consisting mostly of barely connected anecdotes including a fun cartoon he once saw, a time he played Monopoly, and the fact that a diner he likes is now closed. The common theme, apparently, is that things suck and America is on the decline. A reader responded, "apparently there's still enough cash in the economy for you to be paid to write inane drivel. " Glad there's at least something we can all agree on.

- Jeff Jacoby fundamentally misunderstands same-sex marriage issues: He writes,
When the Supreme Court ruled in June 1967 that Virginia's law penalizing interracial marriage could not stand, it was not changing the fundamental and enduring meaning of marriage: It was affirming it. It was upholding the integrity of marriage by protecting it from irrelevant -- and unconstitutional -- racial manipulation. Virginia had interfered with the core elements of marriage in order to promote white supremacy, a value completely alien to marriage. Marriage is designed to bring men and women together; anti-miscegenation laws frustrated that design, and could not stand.
Same-sex marriage, too, interferes with the core elements of wedlock in order to advance an unrelated goal -- the dignity and equality of gays and lesbians. The fact that many decent people ardently embrace that goal doesn't change reality: The essential, public purpose of marriage is to unite male and female -- to bind men and women to each other and to the children that their sexual behavior may produce. It is rooted in the conviction that every child needs a mother and a father. Gay marriage, whether enacted by lawmakers or imposed by judges, disconnects marriage from its most basic idea.
Jacoby's fatal flaw here is that he suggests that marriage as an institution was somehow purposefully designed, as opposed to evolving in a more organic and de facto way. He also dumbs marriage down to two bare-bones points: bringing men and women together and to provide kids with a mother and father. This presumes that all marriages, and all cultural views of marriage, are essentially the same. Without saying as much, Jacoby implies that marriage as an institution has been handed down (whether from God or society), unchanged, from time immemorial. Yes, if this is your starting point, I can see how the concept of changing its scope to allow gays in can seem like going too far. However let's not forget that there's a long history of other kinds of marriages, most notably polygamy. While this still involves men and women, to me its presence in the record opens up the discussion quite a bit. If marriage as an institution has historically been both more flexible as well as changed over time (for instance in the west it no longer is used within the context of a woman being property), then I think it becomes far less of an issue to expand the tent outward.

Is gay marriage exactly the same as interracial marriage? Of course not. There are differences and similarities. However it's also legitimate to point to both as continuing the central theme of marriage depending on what you think that theme is. For Jacoby, the reason interracial marriage was still legitimate is because he defines marriage as being about a man and a woman. For advocates of same-sex marriage, the reason it is legitimate is because we define it as (among other things) being about love (which is why interracial marriage also works for that model). Historically marriage as an institution has not been as narrowly defined as Jacoby pretends, and so the only thing that's being challenged are the blinders that the right has created for themselves. Jacoby claims that SSM supporters wants to "re-define" marriage and fundamentally change it, but ironically cultural conservatives have done the exact same thing-- and now they're whining that people don't buy it.

- Last, a quick memo to Tzvi. "This word... I do not think it means what you think it means."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A working/blogging vacation?

As a (quite) belated college graduation present (seriously, I've been out of college for as many years as I was in it), my parents and I are finally going to Poland and England. While there we will be visiting several family towns, including Warsaw. My hope is that I will have some time to blog during the trip, though we'll have to wait and see whether that winds up happening or not.

In the meantime I have had a rare burst of inspiration so readers will have a few pearls of crunchy goodness to feast on while I'm away.

Desperate for role models?

Have you ever been sitting in school or at work and it's a colleague's turn to speak and you can tell they haven't prepared? Maybe they've been caught off guard, maybe they didn't study, or maybe their brain just decided to go on vacation. When this happens things usually go one of two ways: either they resort to the ancient art of bullshitting (I have been told on several occasions I am quite good at this, thanks to my ability to keep a straight face whether discussing finer points of Jewish history or pretending I have any idea what the defining traits of a sonnet are), or they start grasping at straws.

I really feel for those latter people, folks who for whatever reason weren't born with the BS gene and who panic when they must speak and share what they're supposed to know with the rest of the class. You can tell they genuinely find it terrifying, and you always hope whoever is making them speak up will pick up on their lack of preparedness and let them off easy.

That said, it's one thing to be asked to speak in a meeting or a classroom. It's another when you're writing a column.

Case in point: Rabbi Judah Dardik's most recent article on the weekly Parsha, which reads as if he remembered he needed to write it 30 minutes before submission time and was scrambling for a theme.

The portion is Parshat Balak, which describes the Israelites cavorting with Midianites and worshipping B'aal Peor. Moses doesn't know what to do and the nation is at a cross-roads.

this week’s Torah reading indicates that indeed it happened that Moshe was at a loss. There came a question that Moshe could not recall, and in his stead it was Pinchas who knew the answer. 
The final narrative in the text speaks of a moment of communal crisis in which Jewish men were openly carrying on sexual relationships with Midianite women. As the nation looked to Moshe for guidance, he sat crying. Rashi quotes the Midrash in explanation that Moshe’s tears were a response to the realization that he at one point had known what to do, and simply could not remember at this time. He was pained that at other moments of need (such as the Golden Calf) he knew the answer, but in this case mental weakness got the better of him. How could it be that Pinchas would know, and Moshe would not? 
...The Tanchuma explains that this was actually a set up, as Moshe was caused to forget “in order that Pinchas should come and take that which suited him.” What does this mean? What suited him? Most simply, I believe that this is an observation that it was time for a new and younger generation to step up into leadership of the People.
Um, ok, but Rabbi Dardik is glossing over a pretty important point, namely, that Pinchas' "moment of clarity" leads him to impale a dude with a spear.
Pinchas was born to a family of leaders, and is cited by Maimonides as one of the top younger Torah scholars of his day. But Moshe was such a towering intellectual figure that he cast a long shadow; as long as he was around, no one would turn to another for guidance. Thus, HaShem effectively neutralized Moshe in order that others should have the opportunity to step into the fray. Otherwise, there would be no one to direct and guide the Children of Israel after Moshe passed away.
I'm sorry Rabbi, but you can't just ignore the fact that Pinchas used his "leadership opportunity" to turn Zimri and his lady into human pincushions. I'm not sure you really want to use Pinchas as a prime example of the "innovative paradigms" that the youth can come up with if the elders don't stifle their creativity.

Yet apparently that is exactly where R. Dardik goes with this:

With this in mind, I was interested to learn of the results of the recent East Bay Jewish population survey. An article in j. noted that in the survey of thousands East Bay residents, “72 percent of respondents said being Jewish is very important or somewhat important to them personally … and two-thirds agree or somewhat agreed that they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” This seemed to me a very encouraging set of statistically backed statements that support the future of our Jewish community. 
And then I got to the next segment: “Thirty percent currently provide their children with a formal Jewish education, but 48 percent said they were not too interested or not interested at all in providing a formal Jewish education.” We are blessed with wonderful and visionary leaders in our community, but each generation eventually gives way to the one that follows it. This is the way of the world. Yet think about it: If only 30 percent actually receive any formal Jewish education and nearly half of parents do not have interest in offering one, how diminished are our prospects of future leadership? 
The continued “winning streak” of the Jewish people has already passed the 3,600 year mark. Back in Moshe’s day, the issue was whether people would recognize Pinchas when he arose to take charge. Now I pray that we will indeed raise children in our day who will be able to step up when our current best and brightest no longer have the capacity to stand at the helm.
Geez, this is what you were leading up to with this? Make sure you send your kids to Hebrew school? And, "fingers crossed we'll have future leaders as visionary as Pinchas"??

Seriously-- Pinchas is not a good role model. He reads as a crazy hothead who slaughters two people, in coitus no less (honor, what's that?), as opposed to trying to find another solution, say, by mobilizing the people loyal to Moses to ostracize the idolators or split off from them. Instead, like various other schisms before (Golden Calf, Korach, etc), it ends with the defectors dead. Given that R. Dardik is trying to promote Pinchas as innovator, it's pretty interesting that his solution is pretty much the same as Moses' and God's before him-- just kill the sucker. (I suppose he gets bonus points for catching them unaware without any chance of defending themselves. So yeah, go team on that one.)

Pinchas' legacy is actually rather creepy, as he has been used to bolster support for both racism and vigilantism. In Jewish circles his status as a "zealot" has been cited over the years to justify violence against people seen as acting against God or the Jewish people. In America Pinchas' story was read as condemning race-mixing, not idolatry (which is funny given that Moses married a Midianite) and was used to justify anti-miscegenation laws and other racist measures. Further down the crazy hole you have white separatists and people from the Christian Identity movement who explicitly model themselves on Pinchas, some even dubbing themselves the "Phineas Priesthood." Nice.

This whole thing just reads as bizarre, especially since most of Balak is not about Pinchas at all; it's about  Balaam. If R. Dardik wanted to write about how important education and leadership are, he'd be better off talking about Balaam and his bad decisions which never come out how he wants them. He could even have included a great tag-line like, "Yes folks, God does turn curses into blessings, but he also helps those who help themselves. Send Jr. to Hebrew school." Instead he elevates Pinchas as a hero, even asking in his title, "Minus a modern-day Pinchas, is Judaism's future in Jeopardy?"

Yes, Jewish education and identity is important. But let's all hope that none of our kids turn out-- or aspire to be-- a Pinchas.