Monday, October 31, 2011

Can someone please buy this man a clue?

Tzvi wants all his readers to know they're giant jerks- but that he forgives them. The rationale behind him knowing we're jerks is just as strange as his solution to it:
Our Sages teach that if a person understood the great value of abuse, he would wake up each morning and beg G-d to send someone to abuse him that day. A person who is abused and doesn’t answer in return is forgiven of his sins.  
...I’m not referring to the abuse I regularly receive from talkbackers who get angry at me for pointing out the disgrace of living in gentile lands when they could be living in Israel. That abuse is part of being a blog writer. It comes with the job. I am talking about an abuse much more painful – the fact that very few of my readers, even the most faithful amongst them, have purchased my books, so easily available at Amazon Books.
Thought: If people don't buy your books, perhaps it is not a sign of "abuse" but rather that they think you are not a particularly good writer.
As I have mentioned before, I am a novelist at heart.  Blogs are blogs, but a good novel is something entirely different. And here, after I spent literally thousands of hours writing blogs, free of charge, in order to enlighten my beloved brothers and sisters in the exile of the darkness which surrounds them, and the very real dangers they face, when I present them with an opportunity to experience true Jewish literature that has the power to revolutionize their lives, they turn their backs as if it had no value.
Yes, how dare we have opinions about what we want to read? What nerve of us.
Yes, I understand that books cost a few bucks, and that most Internet readers can’t get past a homepage, let alone tackle a 500 page saga like “Tevye in the Promised Land”, but, even if they don’t want to read my novels, they could give them away as gifts. 
Come on guys! I'm not asking you to read the darn things, just buy them! You can use them as coasters if you want! With a little tape and origami skills, the new paperback edition can make a nifty Breslov-style kippa! They're multi-taskers!
Young people love my stories. Old people too. 
Question: If everyone loves your stories, why are you complaining that no one is buying them? How can both these things be true? Is there some sort of devious Napster-style black market thing going on with seniors making illegal Fishman copies and surreptitiously passing them along to the ever-hungry youth market? Are you supposed to be the Jewish Lars Ulrich?
And yes, I realize that my writing is confrontational, dealing with uncomfortable things like G-d, emunah, tshuva, and aliyah, subjects that the majority of people would rather avoid. And I am perfectly aware that until the goyim declare that Fishman is a great novelist, the Jews won’t consider my writing as being of any worth. Yes, I know all of these things, but still, after all of the years that I have invested in my writing, with all of my heart, the apathy which I encounter is painful indeed. 
Did I mention my incredible modesty, as well? I must say, dear readers, it pains me that despite me being so darn fantastic, until I am voted Best Jew Alive, I apparently am doomed to a life of only partial recognition of my supreme awesomeness. If it weren't for my great piety, I'd probably compare myself to Jesus right now. (Is it my imagination, or is Tzvi channeling Ellis Washington?)

Gee Tzvi, when you put it like that, I can't imagine why I haven't been wasting my time and money looking for your boring, didactic, self-important drivel masquerading as fiction before. Just what have I been doing with my life?
And lest you think my motivation is money, on some books my royalties are 20 cents. On others 30 cents. On one or two titles, I earn a buck. That’s the reality of digital ebooks. So I am not in it for the money.
Got it. You're just in it for the ego trip. Good to know.
I have decided to take a hiatus from blog writing, and to use this column to serialize my novels, chapter by chapter, day after day, to let people read, free of charge, in short, non-overwhelming installments, my fictional works, which I have written for the Sake of Heaven, for the enlightenment of Am Yisrael. 
So here we go, for all of my hundreds of thousands of readers who have plastered my face with dry digital saliva by ignoring my books...
That's right, Tzvi. By reading your blog instead of your fiction, we have offended you. What heartless bastards we are. How lucky that you know what we really should be reading.

To review: Tzvi has a semi-popular blog. Tzvi is mad no one wants to read his uninteresting books. Therefore, he decides to force all his blog readers to read his books by turning his blog into an Internet throwback to the Daily Forverts.

Either Tzvi's just shot himself in the e-foot, or we're about to see the Amazing Hand of the Free MarketTM do something interesting.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Family History vs. Family Facts

When it comes to genealogy, I have something of a personality split that pops up from time to time. On the one hand, as a researcher and historian, I try to be very cautious about what information I consider reliable and pass along to others. At the same time, as a writer and storyteller, I love the family yarns and narratives, and it's very hard to avoid speculating and "putting pieces together," even when they may not all be there.

An example: When I first started tracing the tree, one of the stories that kept coming up from my great-aunts about their mother's family was that their grandmother had been in a Tsarist prison. As I interviewed each one in turn, I kept getting more pieces of the puzzle. The story is that the grandfather was making his own liquor in their shtetl, that someone informed on him, and that when the police came to arrest him, he wasn't there-- and so his wife took the blame and went to prison for several years. Depending on the chronology, this may have precipitated-- or happened during-- the family's immigration to America. Now, despite there being zero documentation for this, it is one of my favorite bits of family lore, and I have repeated it to various cousins and relatives whenever I get the chance-- though always clearly identifying it as a story.

Given this background, I'm somewhat sympathetic-- though maybe the word "almost" is more appropriate-- to Sen. Marco Rubio's recent debacle with his family history. Rubio, whose star in the GOP has been steadily rising (at least according to the national news media) since his election to Senate in 2010, has made his parents' story of immigration from Cuba a major talking-point of his campaigns and political narrative. According to Rubio, his parents "fled" Cuba after Fidel Castro's coup and he was raised as a son of exiles in Florida. The story is compelling, powerful, and resonates with a lot of people-- both in the Cuban community and beyond it. It's a classic tale of coming to the United States to escape persecution, and it has the additional benefits of the "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" narrative, as well as a chance to emphasize how Cuban Communism under the Castros utterly failed, which are undoubtedly major reasons Rubio's story appealed to GOP voters.

There's only one problem with all of this: it's not, strictly speaking, true.

Researchers have found documents showing that the Rubios came to the US in 1956. At the time, Castro was not even in Cuba. He wouldn't take over for another three and a half years. Rubio's parents left Cuba not because of political repression but simply to make a better life.

Rubio has tried a few different tactics to defend his story in light of the newly revealed facts. The first thing he's done is to say that it's not his fault he didn't know this stuff:
In a brief interview Thursday, Rubio said his accounts have been based on family lore. “I’m going off the oral history of my family,” he said. “All of these documents and passports are not things that I carried around with me.”
So... it doesn't matter that I said things that weren't true because I never bothered to verify if they were true? Not the defense I'd go with. A much better version of this argument would be, "I'm as shocked as you are. I was always told, by this relative, that relative, and this other relative, that my parents came here in 1959. " That makes it sound like you actually care about the facts, as opposed to being involved in a tug-of-war between your parents' own documents and the fantastic universe you've created in your head where your Dad led his own anti-Castro militia group (Rubio's Rebels?) through the Cuban highlands, set Fidel's beard on fire, and then beat a hasty but heroic retreat to fight another day (or spawn a kid who would get elected into public office, whatever).

The other approach has been to claim that none of this matters anyway, because details are stupid:
"...It’s not like they discovered my parents were from Canada. My story is essentially the same one. My parents came to this country in search for a better life. They were prepared to live here permanently but always wished they could go back to Cuba," he said.
Again, nice try. There's a world of difference between going back for a visit when you're already established somewhere else and deciding, "Nah, I'll stick with Miami," and suffering actual political repression, to say nothing of the trauma of being a legitimate refugee having to flee a country with nothing and having to start entirely from scratch.

I'm not saying the Rubios had it easy. In a lot of ways their story is quite similar to many of my ancestors' stories. There's nothing wrong with your standard immigrant tale. At the same time, I would never identify my ancestors as political exiles or refugees. Of course, most of them were trying to escape increasingly tyrannical and discriminatory governments, but the vast majority's primary motivations seem to have been economic.

My take? Beware of politicians selling personal narratives as a way to appeal to a broader constituency-- their primary goal is not simply to tell a story but to make a connection, which also means that they may not care that much about the details. Rubio has clearly used the narrative of his parents being political exiles as a foundation-stone for his political identity, despite the fact that they were not. The fact that he's claiming this changes "nothing" only reinforces how he's much more concerned with protecting the image he was able to develop based on that story than the actual family history he pretends has shaped him so significantly. Not only is this a case of a politician not respecting his audience, but sadly also an instance of someone exploiting their family history in bad faith.

I can relate. Aunt Bozette has invented more than a few off-kilter theories about our family over the years, usually with precisely zero evidence. Among the best ones were that since one of her grandmothers was Hungarian, clearly her grandfather had to also have been Hungarian, and that this must have been how they met. Never mind that I had documents going back one hundred years showing that his family had been living in Czestochowa and that he and all his siblings had been born there, too. Aunt Bozette was "convinced," because, among other things, she clearly thought being Hungarian was sexier than being Polish. When I clearly wasn't budging, she accused the records of being unreliable because they spelled the family name differently than the American relatives did. (When I pointed out that name spellings varied in Poland, that many Jews of that period could not read Polish, and that members of our own family had been illiterate, she went into an e-rage, sputtering that we had "always" been very educated-- and offered, as proof, that her father and uncle had both gotten degrees from NYU.)

The reverse has also happened: there have been several occaisons when long-standing family stories have wound up being not exactly true. When this came up, my reaction was not defensiveness or anger, but excitement-- now we could find out the real story! There's nothing wrong with correcting the record or amending the stories. (Was I disappointed when I found out that great-great-uncle Nathan wasn't shell-shocked in World War One? Sure-- but then I got to find out about his actual record as a Marine stationed in Cuba during the Banana Wars.) There's also nothing wrong with qualifying the stories as stories-- which exist in their own right as a family commentary or gloss on the actual events. It's not "bad," they're just different kinds of data. Where you get into trouble is when you start giving the stories preference over the available, documented, evidence, because you think the truth isn't as interesting, scandalous, or beneficial to the greater narrative you want to tell. That's when you cross the line into being dishonest and verging on sleazy.

It's not necessarily Rubio's fault that, absent hard facts, that he made some embellishments (or repeated the embellishments of others)-- though given that he clearly was interested in his family history, I find it strange that he never bothered to ask for an actual date-- but everything he does as a response to it is all on him. So far, I'm unimpressed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Being a Good/Serious Jew... with a non-Jewish Spouse

Longtime Failed Messiah commenter Dave asked an interesting question:
I am divorced, no kids, 53 years old. I was married briefly in 2004 to a beautiful Jewish girl, who turned out to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Both she and her family hid this "nugget of information" from me.  
I am now becoming more religious/ observant, partly to console myself for probably never having kids. I am attending an Orthodox synagogue.  
I am hoping to marry a Chinese girl. In my opinion, they are way more beautiful than Caucasian women. Just my opinion.  
I do not expect to be able to meet any woman, Jewish or Chinese or whatever, who is interested in either having a child with me, or adopting a child with me. 
I am certainly hoping that my future wife, if not Jewish, will become Jewish. I will certainly try to gently persuade her. 
I have a theoretical question- if (SADLY) for whatever reason a Jew or Jewess marries a goya/ goy knowing IN ADVANCE that (SADLY) there is no question of having kids with them- does it make a difference to the tzibbur whether or not the goya/ goy converts to Judaism, given the fact that there are not going to be any kids from that marriage?? 
When I asked for clarification, he added this:
I am asking 
1) what is your personal opinion about my marrying a woman who is non-Jewish and may never convert, GIVEN THAT (SADLY) there will be no children in the marriage, (SINCE I cannot find a woman who wants to marry me who wants to have or adopt children with me)??

2) what do you think is the view of Orthodox Judaism (Modern Orthodoxy, not Haredi nor Chassidic) about my marrying a woman who is non-Jewish and may never convert, GIVEN THAT (SADLY) there will be no children in the marriage, (SINCE I cannot find a woman who wants to marry me who wants to have or adopt children with me) ??

He threw it out to all us schmucks and schmuckettes who hang around FM all day, and by the time I finished writing back to him I realized that it had become a blog post unto itself. Hence, me throwing it up here.

Dear Dave:

As regards most things with personal practice, my opinion is that if it's not a big deal to you, it's not a big deal. While there may be some halachic issues with having a "mixed" marriage, my impression is that, for the most part, it is possible to be a practicing or observant Jew (particularly if no spawn are involved) without your partner being Jewish, too. What is necessary, to borrow from Dan Savage, is that your partner be "game." They need to at least be ok with what you're doing-- and, ideally, be willing to go along and play at least some role with you (particularly if you are fairly religious and want to keep that standard up in your household once married or living together).

While I don't think it's ethical to demand a partner convert, I think it is reasonable to communicate what your priorities and values are from the beginning-- just as, no doubt, they will be.  I'd be very clear with prospective partners that you want to have a Jewish household-- however you define it.  Presumably if you're committed enough to each other to get married, any potential partners will at least be willing to accomodate you, if not be actively interested in participating themselves in various ways.

My practice is not all that halachic, but since you mentioned you lean Orthodox, I think you may want to examine some of the nitty gritty issues of your personal practice and values, particularly how some of it might need to change or adapt if you had a non-Jewish partner. (Are there particular mitzvot you wouldn't be able to do that you want to? Are there potential work-arounds?)

I also think it's helpful to establish an intellectual framework in terms of what mental status you would want to use for your wife-- is she a giyoret-in-process? Is she a straight-up gentile? Is she a full-blown Jew except for the paperwork? That will help you figure out what lines of thinking you want to use in your personal practice in cases which involve your wife. For instance, would you want your wife to observe Shabbat with you, or would you want her to still be able to perform forbidden work? Would you want her to light candles, or would you? In our case, I treat my wife as if she were fully Jewish and invite her to do whatever Jewish stuff as she wants. The only "status" difference between us is not over halacha, but knowledge-- and these days, there are a few areas where she's more knowledgable than me.

Our model is definitely more participatory than obligatory, but it works for us. In the early days when we were dating there was a lot of explaining, lots of questions, lots of re-explaining, and lots of me asking my friends (and the internet) additional questions. Now, my wife reads books on Jewish sociology, follows Orthodox blogs, is slowly studying Hebrew with me, and so on. The point I'm trying to make is not that you need to search out someone that's going to be a rabba-in-training, but rather that it's better if your spouse has an interest in what you're doing, or at least isn't hostile to it.

Obviously, some of these issues may be is far off, but it's a useful exercise nonetheless. I think the biggest decision you need to make is-- will YOU care if your wife isn't Jewish? If not, then you should think about why not, and also start considering how you might integrate those ideas and conclusions into your practice-- either now, or when you find who you're looking for.

Over the six years we've been together, my wife has shul-hopped and davenned with me, celebrated Shabbat with me, fasted on Yom Kippur with me, lit menorahs with me, helped me lead seders, hang mezuzot, studied chumash and commentaries with me, and most importantly, explained and defended our eclectic practice to her Christian relatives (as well as to my secular ones who accused me of brainwashing her). She has even been experimenting with covering her hair since we got married (totally unprompted by me, for the record).

I would much rather have an engaged partner who is interested in participating in Judaism than a partner with "the right" status who could care less.

Just my POV. Feel free to comment or email me if you'd like to chat more.

Readers, what say thee? I realize I have kind of copped out on what Modern Orthodoxy might have to say about this (though, given that I'm not MO and don't really hang out with MOs, I feel that anything I could say would only be a random guess). Feel free to leave comments for me or Dave.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Those Who Should Know Better

Nazi comparisons have always bugged me. Since the time I started researching my family and found dozens upon dozens of names of the dead and missing, I intuitively understood that to compare someone to a Nazi was to abandon any pretense of intellectual consideration in exchange for scoring a cheap emotional shot. In my experience, when people invoke Nazism and the Holocaust to comment on modern issues (with the exception of those actually involving genocide), they almost always do so in a way that cheapens past events (and victims) as well as the contemporary ones they are trying to bring attention to.

I am used to seeing this kind of non-thought from a whole swath of people. I saw it from young liberals in High School and college during the Bush years. I see it often from conservatives in media punditry today. But, while I found that kind of rhetoric frustrating, upsetting and even disturbing, there was a part of me that also understood the mentality behind it-- simply put, these people usually had very little knowledge about the Holocaust or Nazism, and so for them it was an almost entirely rhetorical concept. Someone was bad, the Nazis were bad, therefore the guy that cut you off, the mall cop giving you a hard time, the politician you disagreed with-- they were all Nazis. Simple. It was stupid and enraging, but marginally understandable.

However there is one particular group that I never expected to hear violating Godwin's Law. That would be Holocaust survivors themselves.

There is a story making very small circles in the Jblogosphere. It is written by Ynet, which is known for having a pretty solid anti-religious bias, so I am aware that there may be some exaggeration or misinformation in it. However if the thrust of the article is in any way accurate, it reflects a troubling low point in Jewish discourse.

According to the article, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who lost much of his family to the Nazis and spent his childhood as the youngest inmate in Buchenwald, said the following, to a group of high school students, no less:

"Marrying gentiles is like playing into the hands of the Nazis," Yad Vashem Council Chairman and former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has been quoted as saying to students from Ramat Gan's Ohel Shem High School. According to the students, the rabbi made the remark during a lecture on the Holocaust and on his personal memories as a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp which he delivered to teenagers who had returned from a trip to Poland. Lau's remark and the nature of his lecture caused several 12th graders to walk out of the auditorium during the lecture, the students said. One of the teens who left the room explained, "As far as I understood, the lecture's point was that marrying non-Jews is forbidden, and according to Rabbi Lau, marrying gentiles is 'playing into the hands of the Nazis.'

I think it's important to stop here and think about this. The Nazis murdered most of R. Lau's family. Not "theoretically" murdered, not "spiritually" murdered. Murdered, murdered. I understand how intermarriage, particularly the sort that was extremely popular a generation ago when the Jewish partner usually wound up raising their children Christian, if not converting themselves, can be seen as troubling, if not downright painful to Jews from religious backgrounds. But as someone who actually suffered under the Nazis, it frankly boggles the mind how an intelligent person like Lau could actually make this comparison in any serious way, much less repeat it to young students. It also reflects an extremely binary viewpoint, which is also quite surprising coming from Lau, who historically has tended to bring a fair bit of nuance to his public speaking. To compare intermarriage to the Holocaust, or suggest that it is some sort of Nazi-esque tactic, ignores the fact that intermarriage exists in a very long continuum, all the way from raising children with no Jewish content or identity whatsoever, all the way to, well, this lady:
I run into you over and over at many of the parallel events of our lives, pick-up times of our school-aged children, brisenchasunas, Shabbos lunches.  Baruch Hashem, Baruch Hashem. You have heard it by now from your friends, children’s teachers, rabbis, rooftops. My husband is not Jewish. We have been married eleven years. Our kids attend an Orthodox day school; we maintain a kosher home and we keep Shabbos.  I make kiddush in our house, one day my oldest son might take over.  Or not.  Not your typical intermarried family with the predictable outcome of a forbidden union but it makes you uncomfortable all the same.  I failed the ultimate test.
By every standard of logic, attitudes like the one allegedly shared by Lau (I have too much respect for him to accept this as fact without a little more confirmation) consistently fail. On a moral level, people who intermarry are certainly not comparable to Nazis. They are individuals who love each other and their children and, presumably, try to raise them as well as they know how. On the issue of Jewish continuity and education, intermarried families, again, run the gamut. While some parents may decide not to educate their children about their (partial) heritage, others do-- sending their kids to Hebrew school, to Jewish camp, to day schools, volunteering at their shuls, sitting on boards, donating time and money, etc. And, for that matter, there are in-married Jewish couples who do none of those things-- and yet they are not accused of "playing into the hands of the Nazis," though doing nothing does just as much to further assimilation along.

The only area where R. Lau is partially correct is regarding the issue of whether intermarried couples are making babies with halakhic status. Obviously, in a case where the mother is not Jewish or has not converted, according to Orthodox halakha (AOH), the child is not Jewish by Orthodox standards. However, focusing on this single issue ignores two important caveats:

1- The fact that someone is born not Jewish (AOH) does not mean they may not at some point decide to become Jewish (AOH). I'm obviously biased but I would assume that I would be much more inclined to consider converting to a religion or formally joining a community where I had been welcomed, not insulted, deemed defective, or, of course, been accused of being the offspring of an evil Nazi-esque tactic.

2- Not being born (or not "turning out" a certain way) is not the same thing as actively being killed. It sounds obvious but there you go. I understand that in traditional Judaism this issue is sometimes muddied (hence the controversiality of birth control, among other things), but, really, let's be clear on this. The fact that one has a non-Jewish (AOH) child is not remotely the same as having a Jewish child who is then killed. One is a tragedy, an unspeakable crime, a horrendous trauma that will permeate and affect the rest of your life. While the other may not be some people's ideal for themselves or their family, it is profoundly NOT the same thing as having a child being murdered. A child is a wonderful blessing. They are filled with endless potential. They can be or accomplish amazing things, they can be kind and wonderful human beings. They may even, shock of shocks, do things that help or positively impact Jews without being one! (Say, a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer, or a politician, or anything else under the sun!) When people say things like "If my child turned out to be gay/not Jewish/not religious, it would be like they were dead," what they really mean is that either they're incredibly narrow-minded, or that they're just not thinking.

If people really want to test this analogy, have them go talk to Leiby Kletsky's parents. These people actually had their son violently murdered. They have actually lived through the hell that this causes. Do you think they would consider a living, breathing Leiby with questionable halakhic status to be no different from the mutilated body they buried a few months ago? Do you think they wouldn't trade one for the other in a heartbeat?

A disturbing analogy? I agree. But anyone who doesn't realize that this kind of insane-- and incorrect-- logic is ultimately where the "assimilation/intermarriage = Holocaust" analogy leads needs to start paying attention.

As someone who saw children (and teenagers, and adults, and elders) be murdered, really murdered, by sadistic, evil monsters, I can only hope that R. Lau is too wise-- and sensitive-- to have really said this. (Though the fact that his office admits that he mentioned intermarriage and "generations of Israel's enemies" makes me concerned that something similar may have been said.)

Hat-tip: Failed Messiah.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Caution: Blowhards at work

I present a befuddlement in three acts:

Act One- A "post" from Shmuley Boteach's blog pops up in my news feed. I use the term loosely, because rather than his usual lazy pattern of just reposting his op-ed columns, this time Shmuley opted to plug a book signing at a Barnes and Noble where he will be whoring his latest book and reminding everyone how great he is (in three weeks, no less, just in case you wanted to put it on your calendar). I notice that in said book signing plug Shmuley chose to call himself "America's Rabbi."

Act Two- I rage at Mrs. Yid for a good minute about what kind of arrogant doofus has the chutzpah to call himself "America's Rabbi"-- because like Highlander, there can be only one-- and that someone should really find some way to legally prohibit him from doing this anymore.

Act Three- I get a tingling sensation in the "idiocy storage" center of my brain. I wonder where I've heard such an egocentric, grandiose title used before. I do a little poking around my bookmarks and find this guy-- John Hagee's pet Jew, Aryeh Spero, who calls himself, what else, "America's Rabbi."

Epilogue: I cross my fingers that Shmuley and Spero hear about each other and decide to solve their copyright dispute in one of two ways: A, a giant lawsuit that exposes both to be giant gasbags to the public and financially compromises them so they can't spend as much of their resources being bozos, or B, they challenge each other to a charity Krav Maga match (or for those purists of you out there, Abir).

Hey, I wonder if one of them can pass for Sephardic. Then we could follow Israel's example and have two Chief American Rabbis. To the victor goes the silly turban!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rejoice, O Readers

Enjoy a new post over at yon other blog. Verily.

Spoilers: The High Holidays happened. We observed them. It totally did not suck. It turns out knowing what's going on makes a big difference. Who knew?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Baby Steps toward Shabbat

Mrs. Yid and I are, if not "huge" comic nerds, then at least seasoned readers. Our college was lucky enough to have a long-established comic book reading room and we both spent many pleasant hours there reading whatever caught our fancy (in fact I think one of our first awkward conversations happened there. If memory serves I was attempting to ask her what she was going to be doing over the summer. Not surprisingly, she was more interested in reading her book). In the five years post-college, we've diligently acquired a small collection of favorites that proudly adorn two large shelves on our biggest bookcase (titles upon request).

The reason I bring this up is that while comics often give me food for thought, rarely do they inspire me towards an act of religious observance.

Mrs. Yid recently bought and started re-reading Transmetropolitan, an excellently-written series about a foul-mouthed reporter named Spider Jerusalem living in a semi-distant future that's, well, it sure ain't Star Trek, for starters. While the future has technological wonders ranging from matter synthesizers to clones to androids to amazing medicine, the City, where Jerusalem lives (a dig at the fact that every large city thinks it's the only city in the country) is for the most part a teeming mass of greed, filth, and sleaze. Despite having brilliant technology, the bulk of people's time seems to still be focused on the same old issues of violence, drugs, sex, and mindless TV. (It really is a great read, although I'd classify the language and themes as NSFShul.)

One thing I had been thinking of the last week while thumbing through Transmet is that while Warren Ellis' future is clearly exaggerated for effect, in the 15 years since he originally started the series, we have continued to have incredible leaps forward in technology. We may not have machines that give you food out of thin air or surgical procedures to transfer someone's consciousness into a cloud of nanites (read the books!) but in terms of where technology is and where it's going, it's clear that we're whizzing right along. One area where this is readily apparent is in the sphere of entertainment. It is possible to be completely plugged in 24/7-- and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, for me, anyway, the fact that technology makes so much media available also means that I need to make sure that I'm making some active choices about what I will and won't spend my time on.

This is part of the reason why though Abbot and Deacon Yid have been nudging me to get a smart phone (they ordered theirs last week), I keep resisting. I have structured my life in a way where I don't particularly require a smart phone. My commute is a 25-minute walk each way. My job requires me to be "on" for 8 hours a day with three 20-minute breaks. Once I'm home, I have access to the internet if I need it. That's it. That's my day. There's almost no down time, which can be a little tiring, but it also means I don't really spend any time sitting around "bored" and needing to be entertained by a smart phone. And really, I rather like that.

Here's where things segue into Shabbat.

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Mrs. Yid and I decided it was time to finally start actually doing some text study together. So we ordered some bibles. Or rather, in our typical overly-academic way, we ordered six bibles. For the past two Friday nights, after dinner and candles and kiddush, we have sat down with our six bibles, and we've studied the weekly parsha. It's interesting, it's stimulating, and it's fun. Last week we went for three hours.

So we've got the very early germinations of some text study, and that's good. But we've been discussing another piece, still in its embryonic stage. Namely, how should liberal Jews treat Shabbat as a day of rest?

One piece we discussed was the halacha. We don't really hold by halacha, but it's always good to have the background. A really important element that came up was the fact that in order to not have to cook on Shabbat, you have to have a significant amount of preparation beforehand-- which, while following the letter of the law, struck us as being a little odd-- work a ton on Thursday and Friday because you're not allowed to work on Shabbat. Not exactly restful. So we decided that "no fire or electricity" is not going to be our main focus, because that would inherently create more work, not less.

However, we were intrigued by the concept of making Shabbat special and distinct. I had recently read a HuffPo article advocating an electronic "day of rest." (I was actually surprised by how much backlash it generated.) As we discussed it further, we discovered that the idea of limiting electronic entertainment on Shabbat was actually somewhat appealing. I tried it on Rosh Hashanah afternoon after shul, and while it was a bit of a temptation, I also  enjoyed spending some time doing non-screen related activities. So I think we're going to try this for a while-- no TV, no computers, basically no glowy-boxes. And we'll see where it goes.

I like the idea of carving some time out for human-to-human contact. I like making a space for slowing things down-- maybe not to the point of Heschel's Cathedral in Time, but at least a bit of a change from 24/7 infotainment explosion. I like the idea of spending time with my wife or friends and keeping my focus on them. And I think Mrs. Yid and I both like the idea of starting something that we can continue to develop when we have spawn running around.

There are plenty of things we are going to keep in place as is. Unfortunately, at this stage given our scheduling differences, it isn't quite possible to rule out running random errands on Saturdays, so in that respect it still will involve a certain degree of "work." We also won't be turning off our (non-smart) phones. Being able to stay in touch with people in case of an emergency is important, and given time zone differences, it would be impractical to demand that Mrs. Yid's parents only call us on Sundays. Rather than a firm ban on phones, I think we'll just try to limit phone use to what's necessary-- most likely, answering calls from friends or relatives. I also won't rule out leisure activities that might involve a TV-- say, getting together with friends to see a movie. We're not interested in having this become a barrier to spending time with people that are important to us. This is supposed to be about helping us be more thoughtful and present, not blowing people off.

After thinking it through, I've decided I'm not that interested in having an Orthodox-style Shabbat, strictly speaking. But I also think that unplugging your brain once a week is probably a good thing.

Here's to a more mindful future.


Mrs. Yid: "You were reading Transmetropolitan and it made you think about observing Shabbat?"
Me: "Yes."
Mrs. Yid: "I don't think anyone's ever said that. Ever."

Questionable Logic

Tzvi's got a lot of issues. There's his "Diaspora equals spiritual death" issue, his "everything is about masturbation" issue, and of course his "I shouldn't be left unsupervised with young people" issue.

But it turns out that all these pale in comparison to Tzvi's latest issue: Not knowing what to do in the bathroom.
During the short afternoon break in our Yom Kippur prayers, I went to the bathroom, but my head was so filled with thoughts of G-d, I didn’t know what to do. You can’t think about G-d in the bathroom. So I tried to think about work, but I didn’t want to think about work on Yom Kippur and Shabbat, so I had a sudden flash to think about something unholy like baseball. But my mind went blank. I don’t know anything about baseball anymore, thank G-d.
Um, really? Your personality has become so utterly anemic since becoming frum that the only things you can recall in that large, bearded, uber-creative brain of yours are about God? Wow, I really can't wait to read that book of yours now.

Tzvi sees his sports ignorance as a fantastic badge of honor indicating how awesome a BT he has become:
I used to love baseball as a normal American sports fan, and I still remember names like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, Willy Mays, Duke Snider, SANDY KOUFAX, Yogi Berra, Pee Wee Reese, and Jackie Robinson, but since I became a baal t’shuva and moved to Israel, I don’t follow American sports at all. Zero. Not the World Series, and not the Super Bowl. I couldn’t care less. It’s all a waste of time. We have a Jewish country to rebuild, and millions of Jews to re-educate – who has time for stupid nonsense like American sports? Exercise is a mitzvah, and kids should be encouraged to engage in sports, but following baseball players and Major League standings of the goyim – why pollute our holy Jewish minds and waste precious time?
Hey Tzvi, before your arm shrivels up and dies from patting yourself on the back so much, you may want to consider these points:

1- My grandfather became a BT when he was in his sixties. Up until that time he was a fairly middle-of-the-road Conservative Jew. He grew up in the home of secular, Yiddish-speaking Communists.

2- From his earliest memories to the day he died, Zayde never gave two craps about sports.

3- Abbot Yid inherited his father's utter disinterest of sports.

4- Abbot Yid has yet to experience his "Road to Jerusalem" moment.

5- I also don't care about sports, and all this without making aliyah, becoming a B'aal Teshuvah, or spending so much time on my digital high horse that I suffer altitude poisoning.

Just saying.

... Honestly, this reminds me of the time Tzvi told the internet how proud he was that his kids were totally ignorant about world history. Um, go you?

But wait, there's more. Tzvi's got a double-whammy for us today. Continuing his long-running "Make aliyah or you're a jerk" theme, Tzvi has decided to write an inspiring ode about a great rabbi, a tribute to a towering Hasidic master, a man who recognized the importance of aliyah and whose life we can all use as a powerful role model to inspire us to follow in his footsteps:
The famous Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, teaches that true prayer and faith is only possible in Eretz Yisrael. He states, “To be a true member of the Jewish People is to always move to higher and higher levels, and this is impossible without the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. The same is true of prayer. The ascent of prayer comes about on the Land of Israel." 
...Rabbi Nachman writes that only when a Jew attains the level of Eretz Yisrael, is he worthy of being called “a man of strength and valor.” Only when he has gone through this battle successfully, rising to the heights of holiness, and triumphing over all the obstacles that are set in his way, can he be called “a hero of war.”
Um, wait a minute. You're using Rebbe Nachman? Rebbe Nachman of Breslov? The guy who moved to Israel, spent a whopping six months there (according to one Breslov story, he said was ready to leave as soon as he set foot on Israeli soil), and promptly left to go back to the Diaspora? Who established his court in that special part of Northern Israel called Ukraine, and who stipulated in his will that he hated the exile so very much that he wanted his followers to come visit him there every year?

Unless we're supposed to see this as the best example ever of "Do as I say, not as I do," I don't get it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fun Moments in Hyperbole- Rosh Hashanah Edition

Ah, the High Holidays. That special time where professional Jewish pundits come together and make comparisons that show they have no idea what they're talking about:

- Shmuley Boteach: Deficits in America's economy, culture, and politics make us a bunch of zombies, or possibly vampires.
In this coming year let us be a nation of innovation, creativity, and imagination, as Henry David Thoreau said, one that ‘suck[s] out all the marrow of life,’ rather than a nation of the undead that sucks the last few drops of blood out of an exhausted and burned out economy.
Yes, that's Shmuley Boteach, self-appointed Chief Rabbi of the United States and who apparently can't tell the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Halloween.

- Avi Shafran: Doing teshuva is like "having a time machine."
An act of eating of non-kosher meat years ago can be “accessed and edited” into the equivalent of consuming matzah on Pesach. We can travel back in time and change the past.
In related news, Dreamworks has tapped R. Shafran to write the screenplay for their new movie, Time Machine 2: In 3-D. Under Avi's talented pen, I'm sure we can expect that one to be just as brilliant and entertaining as its predecessor.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Let's all give him a hand... or at least a finger

Am I the only one unimpressed by this story?
Just two weeks ago, former New York Mayor Ed Koch was telling city voters to elect a Republican to Congress, to "send a huge message to President Obama that we're not happy with how he's dealing with Israel." 
Now, one speech to the United Nations and a one-on-one chat later, Koch is an enthusiastic backer of the same president's reelection. 
The one-time Democrat tells his supporters that it's all water under the Ed Koch Queensborough Bridge. 
"I'm now on board the Obama Reelection Express," he says in an email to supporters. 
Bob Turner, elected on Sept. 13 to fill the seat once held by Democratic Anthony Weiner, had made an issue in his campaign of Obama's position that Israel's borders before the 1967 Mideast war should be the baseline for peace talks, leaving unmentioned the caveat that there should be mutually agreed land swaps that would take into account the new realities on the ground. 
That earned the endorsement of Koch, who in a recorded phone message to voters in the Jewish-heavy district said that signaling dissatisfaction with Obama's position was the "most important" reason to back Turner. 
Koch now says he thinks Turner's win had the desired effect, pushing the U.S. to come out against a vote for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and to return to direct negotiations with Israel. 
In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Koch says that "whatever rift existed before -- and there was one -- that's gone," and that he's ready to convince Jewish voters that Obama's the best candidate. 
"His speech at the U.N. in support of Israel was extraordinary. I couldn't have made a better one myself," he told WNBC-TV in New York. "I have shoes and will travel to Florida or any place they want to go."
Shorter version: Ed Koch is a flip-flopping hack.

It was bad enough that he pushed the idea that the 9th district election should be a "referendum" on Obama's Middle East policies, but now one good speech later and he's trying to sell himself as in Obama's corner again? Do us all a favor and just stay out of it, Ed.

Seriously, I know it's become a supposedly great badge of honor when a person sticks to their principles and is willing to work with people from both parties to advance those principles, but every time I hear about Ed Koch it sounds like he's screwing someone over. I don't think people should be slaves to political parties, but if you're going to have a political change of heart and become a neocon, do it like Reagan or Perry did and stick to your guns. Actually become a Republican or ideological conservative-- don't pull this pseudo-independent, wishy-washy, "I campaigned against you a mere three weeks ago, but now I've totally got your back" crap. Why should anyone trust a word that comes out of his mouth, Democrats or Republicans?

Honestly, if Ed Koch's opinion still carries weight with any voters, Jewish or otherwise, it's just more proof that some people shouldn't be allowed to vote.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Joys of Recycling

We've talked about Lazer recycling his posts before, most notably in 2009 when he wrote a post called "Hashem's Signature," which it turned out was a word-for-word repeat of something he had written back in 2005 under the name "The Creator's Autograph."

Well, whether due to High Holiday busy-ness or just general laziness on the Emunah Rebbe's part, he's done it again. Remember his 2008 post about not ignoring dents? In which Lazer counseled a young woman named Suzanne that the reason she kept getting into minor car accidents was that she wasn't covering her hair?

Well either Lazer's run out of ideas or Suzanne has a creepy identical twin sister who suffers the same tznius problems as she does (and drives the same car), because a scant three years later, we get to read about the exact same story, only this time, the lady's name is Ricki.

Interestingly, if you try to find the original "Don't Ignore the Dent" story from 2008, it is now unavailable via Lazer's blog. Thanks to the almighty power of Google-caching, however, we can see that it was still there as recently as last August, shining in all its now-plagiarized glory.

Seriously, the only things changed are the woman's name and the date she's writing to him. (Apparently October 30, 2008 doesn't have the same poignant ring as September 11, 2011. Classy, Lazer.)

I wouldn't mind if Lazer just rehashed a post about why tznius is important (setting aside the ridiculous magical thinking of dissecting a complete stranger's letter about how she's a bad driver to guess at random personality failings), but I don't understand why he rips off his own writing and presents it as totally new material, without even bothering to change the title!

When this happened with Creator's Autograph, I didn't really care. It was silly, but that was about it. This is a little more serious, though, because this post is purporting to be a real letter from a real reader asking for help and advice-- and clearly, it's been fabricated. There is no way this "Ricki" person could be for real. Not that I was taking anything Lazer says as gospel to begin with, but it's sad to be faced with the real possibility that some of the stuff he posts that people have "supposedly" written to him are made up. What's even sadder is that he thought no one would notice.

For a guy who claims to be trying to reach out to the whole world as his audience, Lazer sure doesn't think very highly of his readers.