Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Doug Giles gets things wrong-- world is shocked!

In related news, gravity still makes things fall down.

First off, a disclaimer: I am about the biggest non-activist you are likely to find. I can't stand rallies, dislike crowds in general, and generally prefer a calm conversation to shouting slogans any day of the week. I also am rather skeptical about Occupy Wall Street-- not because its general principles are necessarily wrong, but simply that I don't think drum circles really accomplish anything. Capitalism may have some major problems, but it's what we've got to work with, and I'd much rather see passionate young people working to help others than yelling about how we need to tear it all down, man.

That said, as part of a silly attempt to mock the OWS protestors, Doug Giles inadvertently winds up making their points for them.
from an earth angle, you are truly the fortunate ones and have hit the lifestyle lotto. Trust me, there are stacks of people from developing countries who would love to have what you ingrates whine about. Just ask an illegal alien.
Giles' whole article can be boiled down to: you live in America, hippies! You have clean water, working toilets, electricity, and food. Most of the world would kill to be in your shoes!

To a large degree, he's right, of course-- however that entirely sidesteps the point that OWS is making. The issue is not that the OWS are Christ-like refugees, it's about the comparative power and wealth inequality that exists in America. It's about pointing out that within the same country, there are some pretty major disparities. That's what the 99/1% mantra refers to. Saying, "to the rest of the world, the 99% is like the 1%" doesn't change the disparity; all it does it show that in a world where millions of people don't have clean water or toilets, the fact that corrupt business executives have bidets made of solid gold or go into convulsions when someone threatens to tax them for buying a new yacht or private jet is beyond gauche, it's downright obscene. You think you're scoring a point against OWS, Doug, but what you're really demonstrating is that the richest 1% and their defenders in the US really have no leg to stand on when it comes to complaining-- about pretty much anything.

Yes, I feel lucky to live in this country. I'd much rather live here than, say, Chad. But there are some serious issues happening right now with American society and culture, and the economy is a huge part of it. I was raised upper middle-class and went to private schools my whole life. I'm educated, my family is reasonably wealthy, etc. Since graduating, I've been stuck in a go-nowhere job for four years. I have friends who are in their late 20s-- privileged, educated, hardworking people-- who are still living in their parents' basements. They're being turned away from jobs they apply to because they're vastly overqualified for them. We are perfect examples of how the American economy continues to squeeze the middle-class into oblivion. At this rate, I'm probably not going to be middle-class. I'm probably going to be working poor. I've come to accept that-- but if someone with my education and background is facing the prospect of living poor, imagine what people who didn't have my privileges are going through.

An entire generation of Americans are finishing school, trying to join the work force, and getting the door slammed in their collective face-- and all the while, we keep hearing the super-rich screech about how unappreciated they are anytime someone talks about regulating the business sector or raising taxes on the only people that seem to be able to afford it. I'm not saying I want a Communist state, but clearly something isn't working here. 

Sorry Doug, pointing out that other countries and other people have it worse is not an argument, it's a distraction. And it's a bad one, at that.

Bibliogestions: Godwrestling

Godwrestling was a bit of a head-trip for me. Part memoir, part midrash, part quasi-history of 60s and 70s social activism and the havurah movement, it's got a lot packed in there. Arthur Waskow is a good writer whose greatest strength-- and at time, challenge-- is his almost naive enthusiasm and passion in applying religious ideals to the contemporary stage. Sometimes this seems to border on the nutty, like when he gets involved in trying to apply the biblical concept of "Jubilee" to the American economy as a way of promoting economic justice. Still, if the worst thing you can say about a liberal rabbi is that they take Judaism too seriously, that can't be too bad.

While the memoir parts were interesting (and some were definitely more topical and relevant to today than others), for me the real draw was more Waskow's perceptive take on Torah characters and midrash. Waskow has a way of articulating, and meditating on, the real human dilemmas that come up in the biblical text, problems that pose genuine problems for modern Jews who want to take Torah seriously but can't check their brains or consciences at the door of the Beit Midrash. I particularly enjoyed his take on the rebels of Genesis-- not the celebrated rebels, like Jacob, but the scorned ones: Cain, Hagar, Ishmael, Esau. When Waskow writes about these characters, people who really suffer and who we do not have happy endings for, you get a real sense that he takes these stories seriously-- that he is troubled by these accounts and that he is unwilling to either ignore them in favor of prettier ones, or create silly apologetics to justify them.

Within this process, I think, lies the real magic of twentieth and twenty-first century Judaism, particularly of the non-Orthodox variety. Waskow and his havurah companions show a model in which people from a whole range of backgrounds can take Judaism seriously, and ask deep, difficult questions about the tradition-- even becoming angry or confrontational with it-- without throwing up their hands and walking away from the whole glorious mess. (One intriguing section documents Waskow's community, Fabrengen, reacting to the cultural shift, among Jews and non-Jews, towards long-term relationships as opposed to marriages. Rather than bemoan it or excuse it, they proceed to examine various relationship frameworks within halacha and how they may be adapted to the present-day, to formalize, if not sanctify, relationships that were previously unknown in Jewish law.)  Considering the "hippy-dippy", anything-goes reputation that Jewish Renewal sometimes has among other denominations, it was refreshing to read such thoughtful-- and sincere-- engagement with Jewish tradition from some of its major thinkers.

While Waskow's work and ideas are thought-provoking and inspiring, they're also instructive in demonstrating some of the weaknesses of the Jewish counter-culture of the time, and to a degree, Jewish Renewal itself. One gets the sense that in their incredible optimism about changing the world, Waskow and his compatriots let their hearts soar beyond where their heads-- or feet-- could keep up. Most of Waskow's circle, including himself, come across as dreamers, not necessarily doers. (The parts of Waskow's narrative that traipse into weird touchy-feely psychological areas don't help.) Principles are great, but it takes an incredible amount of work and dedication to create something that can perpetuate itself. To a degree, a lot of the havurah crowd come off more as self-centered dabblers trying to find themselves than people who have the discipline to make their convictions work in the real world.

In some ways, I suppose this echoes my larger bias/issue with Jewish Renewal as a movement: it seems very hard to nail down exactly what it is about, as well as what it actually does as part of implementing its program. It all seems to come down to creating good vibes and participating in some ephemeral "mystic"-ness. Even if some of that may feel appealing, at the end of the day I want a Judaism that touches me intellectually as well as emotionally, and my impression, at least, is that Renewal seems to swing too far over on the pendulum.

Despite my criticisms, I found myself happy for people like Waskow and his friends at Fabrengen. While their movement may not be my cup of tea, I admire their passion for Judaism and desire to engage with it in modern, even controversial, contexts. At its best, when it's working, liberal Judaism can, and in some regards, should, have a radical edge-- though I think it's to Renewal's benefit that it has had a few decades to help its founders mature and develop (and to help them better and  their ideas and create some stable institutions to spread their message).

Whatever faults Waskow may have had at the time, it's clear that he was-- and still does-- take his Judaism seriously. Regardless of whether you agree with him 100% ideologically, in a time of great Jewish alienation, people needed men like him-- and still do.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What makes a good Bar Mitzvah gift?

Help me out, readers. I have three b'nai mitzvot happening in the next few months. All are Reform relatives, and all boys. I would like to straddle the line between "something with at least some Jewish content" and "something they might actually like." To date, the only gift I have found that seemed to even approach this golden mean was this book-- which I've already given to cousins on one side of the family so I can't really get away with it again.

Any suggestions?

Shop Jewish?

I got an email a while ago from an online Judaica shop (for the record, they were sending me email as early as Halloween telling me to make sure I got started on my Hanukkah shopping early!) encouraging me to "Shop Jewish" this Hanukkah season.
This year, especially, where you shop matters.

If you are buying gifts this year: please shop your synagogue shops, corner Judaica stores, Judaica shuks, and online at [X]. We are small businesses, enhancing the Jewish experience in meaningful ways. 
If you shop this Hanukkah: Shop Jewish.
I must admit to being a little taken aback by this. I'm familiar with the value of trying to help a fellow Jew make a living, but there's also something a little uncomfortably ethnocentric (to say nothing of chutzpahdik) about encouraging someone to patronize your business because you're both from the same ethnic group. (To their credit, they also suggested going to other Jewish businesses. Looks like I'm going to have to google my closest Judaica shuk.)

Apparently this one shop is not alone in doing this. There's also a related version of this being run as an attempt to counter anti-Israel boycott campaigns, too.
Although there have been other so-called “buy-cott” campaigns to counter BDS efforts, organizers believe this will be the largest recent effort to promote Israeli goods - and one they hope will be repeated and expanded in years to come.
“The promotion of Israel products isn’t just economical, it’s psychological and political,” Zelazny said. 
“People see that Israel isn’t isolated; you see the breadth of creativity, the range of products from food to high-tech. People don’t think of Israel in that sense. There are really some amazing food and consumer items. 
“Instead of buying excellent Chilean wine, they can buy wine from Israel. We want people to next time not buy shoes made in Italy, but in Israel."
I think the Buy Israel campaign makes more sense if you have lots of money to blow on luxury items and you're trying to decide between status symbols that are basically interchangeable (should I get shoes from Italy or Israel? Wine from Chile, or Israel?). It doesn't really work if you tend to buy specialized items. (Example: I have terrible feet and the only orthotic shoes that work for me are made in China. It doesn't matter how nice Israeli shoes are; unless they can do what my Chinese ones do, I'm not switching. By the same token, since my Chinese shoes are really expensive, I am not in a position to buy wine from either Israel or Chile.)

I'm not sure how I feel about the Shop Jewish concept. As a young and semi-idealistic consumer, I certainly understand trying to be thoughtful about where your dollars go and who you give your business to (if Jeff Bezos ever becomes a jerk it will be a big challenge to stop using Amazon), but while I can relate to shopping your values, "buying Jewish" is not in itself a value that I share. I suppose I agree with the general principle that if you're buying a Jewish ritual object, it's probably nice if you can buy it from a Jewish manufacturer/seller. But honestly, these days so much commerce happens through a computer screen that the idea of making a purchasing decision based on the seller, as opposed to the item, is a challenging, and somewhat foreign, concept.

It also contrasts with a vaguely democratic consumer ethic that I inherited from my parents. Generally, the principle was that you decided what you want, and then you went wherever you had to to get the item. The biggest priorities were whether they had what you wanted and if it was a good price. We didn't boycott certain stores or exclusively privilege other stores; we went to whoever had what we wanted at a price which was reasonable. Basic free-market.

Now that I'm older and looking at the past twenty years (particularly in light of the present economy), it's becoming clearer that availability and price are not and should not be the only things to pay attention to. If the only bottom line is getting your stuff, then smaller business can't compete, and then you wind up losing all your local small businesses and are stuck with major chains. (Again, this is easier with face-to-face transactions, like groceries, but harder with "pleasure" items, such as books.)

That said, it's still difficult for me to shift my growing economic awareness to accept the idea that if I'm buying someone a gift for a Jewish holiday, my priority should stretch even further and privilege a Jew over a non-Jew. I think part of that is that while I can appreciate making selective economic decisions to support businesses you agree with, "Buy Jewish" suggests that the priority is making sure that a Jew-- any Jew, potentially-- gets my money rather than giving it to a Gentile. That's not how I operate. Inasmuch as ethics play a role in my consumerism, it's in trying to give my money to the least evil groups around with the lowest amount of financial sacrifice from me. Whether or not they're Jewish doesn't enter into it.

The "Shop Jewish" mantra particularly fails for me because of where I live (we have three Judaica shops in the city that aren't shul gift shops-- one is at the JCC, one is at Chabad, and only one which seems to actually have any potential) and what I choose to buy. When it comes to myself, my Jewish tastes (usually book-focused) are extremely eclectic-- to the point that a standard Judaica store usually either doesn't have things I'm looking for or only has them at cost-prohibitive prices. By contrast, when buying for other people (except for Mrs. Yid), I tend to almost never buy anything with Jewish content, because most of my friends and family aren't interested in that. Adding "Shop Jewish" to the list of priorities (along with "decent price", "right item" and "not an evil company") starts making the whole process a lot more complicated. Am I supposed to order my comic books through Eichlers? Should I buy my brother a new camera from B&H in New York and spend twice as much rather than get it on Amazon?

As mentioned before, I also feel that putting the emphasis on the seller and not the products is largely contrary to the present economic model put in place via the internet. It seems more suited to the age of the general or department store than online sellers. In an era where most commerce is not face-to-face, it's hard to encourage people to only buy from a certain group of people. (Even if you decide you do want to shop Jewish; how am I supposed to tell which sellers are Jewish and which aren't?) By contrast, if your starting position is, "I must Shop Jewish this Hanukkah," and you only look at Jewish websites, then I suppose you have more control... but you're also putting a lot of limitations on yourself and taking a big risk of not getting what you're actually looking for-- and there are lots of smaller merchants (Jewish and non-Jewish) that probably won't get your business because you're starting with the bigger names.

While I understand the impulse behind the "Buy Jewish" or "Buy Israel" campaigns, I think, as always, the devil is in the details. The concept might be decent, but I think there needs to be more clarification to get me on board. If it's about trying to find companies that share your values, fine. If it's about trying to support Jewish businesses during Jewish holidays, ok. But just telling me to "Buy Jewish" because Jews should give their money to Jews... that one doesn't work for me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bibliogestions: Maimon's Autobiography

I just finished reading the autobiography of Solomon Maimon this past week and while it had some interesting bits, I wouldn't say it left me all that satisfied. This may be due to the fact that reading about a philosopher instead of reading his philosophy may already be a potentially flawed exercise, and that I am not particularly interested in philosophy per se. Despite those misgivings, I was eager to read about Maimon's life if only to get a better sense of what 18th century Jewish Europe was like. Unfortunately Maimon kept butting in, and not really for the better.

The most interesting elements in the book were Maimon describing his family and early life. Since Maimon had such a contrarian personality, reading about rural Jewish life through his very modern and rationalistic lens makes for an interesting historical travelogue-- with an informed but distant guide. (The section on Maimon dabbling with secret Kabbalistic societies, as well as him attempting to explain the Hasidim/Mitnagdim disputes for an outside audience, are pretty entertaining) While Maimon is clearly not neutral about his childhood or community (I've seen quotes from this book offered up on antisemitic websites as "proof" about how corrupt or illogical traditional Jewish life was), I do think it's a useful counterpoint to the nostalgic rose-colored glasses that still seem to get applied to traditional Jewish shtetl life in some circles. Reading Maimon reminded me of something Abbot Yid said years ago about reading Barbara Tuchman: "Until I read A Distant Mirror, I had always thought it would be cool to live in the Middle Ages. Once I found out what it was really like, I was glad I hadn't been there!" Reading about all the struggles, sacrifices, and hardship that Maimon and his friends went through just to say, learn German, or study the natural world, makes me incredibly appreciative that I was not born a few hundred years ago in a traditional Jewish community, where, I have no doubt, I either would have been pretty bored or run out of town. (Also fascinating were the snippets demonstrating just how powerless the people-- Jews, peasants, etc, were against the gentry and nobles of the period. These guys could literally act with impunity-- and did.)

The central dilemma of Maimon's life and the book is that he is a person with rather modern opinions and interests but who is not living in a modern time: he does not have either the intellectual or social freedom to do what he would like, and so his whole life is a series of struggles trying to find the best environment to try to live the way he wants to. Once Maimon decides he can't confine his mind to Talmud study and concludes it's against his principles to lie about his beliefs, he basically removes any possibility of him being able to life peacefully in any religious Jewish community.

One thing that came up for me reading about Maimon's childhood was, again, how the traditional Jewish emphasis on education created a sort of double-edged sword. On the one hand, it encouraged intellectual accomplishment and provided an avenue for precocious or intelligent young men to become socially successful and esteemed. On the other, it was basically crossing its fingers that, once having exposed its youngsters to the world of the mind, that they would be content to remain within the confines of what was acceptable to think, study, or explore. Over and over again, throughout Jewish history, we have cases where some of our best and brightest wind up not being contained by "mere" Judaism, and so they leave in search of something more. It was happening back in Talmudic times with Elisha ben Abuyah, it happened with the Yiddish modernists like Sholom Aleichem and H. Levick, and it happened with Maimon, too. For some people, the intellect can be a Pandora's box.

While at some times Maimon is reasonable and clear-headed, he has a tendency to come across as obnoxious, particularly when describing his interpersonal relationships. He can never let anything go, has a terrible time getting along with people, and seems very focused on issues of status and propriety. There are many sections of the book, particularly in the more cultured cities of Western Europe, where he continually gets entangled in various intrigues and feuds among the intellectuals and philosophes. Between his spats with the Jewish community, the intellectuals, and his continuous poverty, it's very easy to feel sorry for Maimon. At the same time, though, it's clear that he is an active agent in mucking up his life (the concept of learning a trade or earning a living never seems to occur to him), and any sympathy quickly dies in light of how he treats his wife and children, whom he essentially abandons in Poland once he decides to undertake the life of a philosopher. If Maimon was living in poverty in Berlin, we can only imagine how difficult things must have been for his wife (an agunah) and kids, whom he does nothing to help support. In the end Maimon comes across as a tragic but also deeply selfish figure.

One thing the book left me contemplating was how lonely Maimon seemed to be (at one point he even comes close to suicide). While people can-- and have, and will-- debate the pros and cons of various movements or sects all day long, it seems that one of their primary purposes, and benefits, is that they offer community to fellow travelers. Reading about Maimon's life in an age before there were heterodox movements in Judaism, before the "cafeteria" was open for business, really helps me appreciate that today the Jewish landscape is much more diverse and varied, and that whatever faults may lie in these modern movements, at least they give people the option to find like-minded friends and support-- something Maimon never really had.

Condensed Stupid

According to my many hypothetical readers, the only thing more irksome than reading longwinded stupid commentary on the internet is reading my longwinded commentary on the longwinded stupid commentary. I aim to please, so here's some silliness I read recently, now in fun bite-sized form:

1- Dennis Prager wants you to know that the best way to become an educated human is to listen to conservative talk radio:
The intellectual input [a full-time mother] can find is likely to be greater than most women (or men) find working outside the home. There is a reason that about half the audience of my national radio show is female – they listen to talk radio for hours a day and broaden their knowledge considerably...  
I am syndicated by the Salem Radio Network. My colleagues are Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt. Two of us attended Harvard, one Yale and one Columbia. One of us taught at Harvard, another at the City University of New York. And a third teaches constitutional law at a law school. 
In addition to reviewing the news and discussing our own views, we all routinely interview authors and experts – left and right – in almost every field. The woman who listens to us regularly will know more about economics, politics, current events, world affairs, American history and religion than the great majority of men and women who work full-time outside of the house.
Wow, with such an impressive collection of minds, it sounds like Salem Radio is the one who should be creating their own private university, not ol' Dean Beck

2. In the course of continuing to pimp his "so awesome people refuse to pay money for it" novel about how the Diaspora is terrible, Tzvi reminds us of that fun bit in the Zohar about reincarnation and rolling through tunnels.
“Come and see, it has been established that all of the dead of the Land of Israel will be the first to rise to resurrection, because the Holy One Blessed Be He will shed upon them the spirit of life from Above and grant them renewed existence. Regarding them it is written: “Your dead shall live” (Isaiah, 26:19). This refers to the dead of Eretz Yisrael who will rise to life first. 
“In contrast, what follows in the verse, “My dead shall arise” (Ibid,) refers to the dead of the others lands. Of them it is not written that they “shall live” – rather they “shall arise.” The spirit of life will only enter their bodies in the Holy Land of Israel, and for that reason, regarding those who die in the Diaspora, it is not written “shall live,” but “shall arise.” Therefore the dead of the Diaspora will arise without the spirit of life, and then they will be made to roll in underground tunnels all the way to the Land of Israel, and only there will they receive their souls, and not while they are in the Diaspora where the impure rule of the Sitra Achra (Other Side) holds sway, so that they will be resurrected only in Israel in the fitting manner” (Zohar 131A).
Now, Tzvi, if you were writing about interesting things like that in your books, instead of putting in weird stuff about the Baba Elazar (sorry, "Saba Yosef") using his magic powers ( the "wireless Google Earth" in his head) to peek in on the narrator's wife sleeping with their neighbors, maybe I might actually read one.

3. Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, faced with some hard questions about the state of the rabbinate, conversions, and marriages in Israel, decides that the best tactic to take is to pretend that he lives in fantasy land. For instance, the rabbinate is apparently super-duper awesome:

"Beautiful work is being done with conversions; there are no unnecessary stringencies and no unnecessary leniency, and there also is beautiful work being done in both the army and in the civilian sphere. It is getting better and better, toward the positive side. And the Rabbinate is gaining even more strength. 
...I will say outright, and you have my word on this, that the Rabbinate is excellent, and the religious court judiciary is excellent, much better than what was the case many years ago. It is getting better and better, including also the way in which it relates to the public. 
"We have a very strong disciplinary religious court and when there are complaints, that is where they are referred. In the religious courts, of course, there is an ombudsman who is impartial, who does not favor anyone. Things are going very well there, and every complaint is handled very seriously by the religious court judges, believe it or not. Everything has changed. The secular male lawyers and the female lawyers admit that the work in the religious courts now bears no resemblance to what used to be the case. 
...every person who loves Israel and who loves our people wants to see a settled and secure people: He wants to see security placed in the hands of the security people - not in the hands of private people; medical services offered in an organized manner, and also the Rabbinate and the services of the Rabbinate organized in a proper, official way. 
...There is an organized Rabbinate, there are organized religious courts that are well arranged. They now set the pace for the religious courts outside Israel. There are a great deal of obstacles. There is no doubt there are many people who are hurt. Sometimes there are injured parties from this side who cannot accept the realization that they did not take the right path ..."
By contrast, anyone that says the rabbinate is a bureaucratic, politicized mess is either misinformed, power-hungry or a troublemaker:

"...there are people who want to run the world themselves. It is hard for them to come to terms with the fact that they are not running the world. There are people who make their living from there being X number of women who are refused a divorce." 
...Ever since Moses our teacher there were those who disagreed with him, and it is written: 'The sons of Korah died not' [Numbers 26:11]. Korah died, but he's got descendants. There will always be disagreements. And no one who comes to disagree says that he wants the kingdom. He says that everyone in the entire community is a saint, why are you being arrogant, why not give them good service? If they come, they'll check it out, they'll bring their allegations, and they'll see that, thank God, the religious courts give excellent service. The same is the case for the Rabbinate, and if there are any 'instances,' we are prepared and we will take care of them. We have proved ourselves." 
The opinion of the chief rabbi did not change at all when he was asked to comment on a completely different group, that of the rabbis of the Tzohar organization, who still highly regard state religious authority and are not prepared to break away from the Chief Rabbinate. Regarding them, as well, Amar said that they are the descendants of Korah, filled with "an inclination to argue."
Got that, anyone who's ever had a bad experience with the state rabbinate? You're all crazy. Or descended from Korah. Take your pick.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Glimpsing the End

Growing up I knew my grandparents were different from other kids'. The grandparents I saw on TV were friendly and spoiled their grandkids. They were always around for family occasions and holidays. Grandpas told their grandkids stories or helped them build things or play while Grandma plied everyone with assorted baked goods.

I came into the world already two grandparents short. The one who were left had suffered plenty of damage long before I was born. Zayde was a ghost and Bubbe was... well, she sure wasn't a TV grandma. She was definitely into crafts but what had started as a pretty normal "knit sweaters and socks" kick eventually morphed into crocheting ladies' hats from supermarket bags and making bookmarks out of cardboard and her old pantyhose. I guess when you're an artsy type and you live through a Depression it becomes hard to throw stuff away.

Bubbe had never been a good cook, either. She spent most of her adult life with severe GI problems which it took several decades to realize were caused by a gluten allergy. By the time I was born she had been living on her own (and only cooking for herself) for about ten years. Any possible culinary skills were long gone. The most complicated thing I ever saw her eat was a tuna fish sandwich on rice cakes.

Bubbe is neither particularly warm nor open, particularly when it comes to family matters. Predictably, this has led to a fair amount of tension over the years as I've continued to be interested in the family history of both her and my grandfather, a man and period she was never too keen to talk about.

Still, despite all her crotchetiness, a part of me did always believe Mama Yid when she'd sigh, shake her head and say, "I bet she'll outlive us all."

In the past few months, that white lie has been proven false. Bubbe has gone from being almost entirely self-sufficient in her Florida apartment to suffering significant brain damage, and is now living in a full-time nursing facility in LA. She can't walk; she's lost dexterity in her hands; she can't even go to the bathroom on her own. According to relatives on the ground her recurring mantra has become "I just want to die." The last few weeks have seen even more deterioration: apparently now she's attacking the staff and screaming that they're trying to hurt her.

We've gone from imagining her living well into her 90s into wondering whether she'll make it another few months to her last grandchild's Bar Mitzvah.

Mrs. Yid's father Habakkuk works in end of life care, so he and her have some strong opinions about this sort of thing-- opinions which I, for the most part, share. If Bubbe is suffering and has no real chance of "recovering," much less having any kind of quality of life she wants, I think it's appropriate to start considering palliative options or even hospice. Of course, this is made more complicated by the fact that there are four siblings-- plus an extra few in-laws all trying to talk, coordinate and convince each other of what the right thing to do is. This is not helped by the fact that none of the siblings like each other all that much-- to say nothing of their feelings towards Bubbe.

I want to be there with her-- but at the same time, I don't. I'm worried I'll regret not going to see her, but the idea of going is also pretty frightening.

The whole thing is very sad. I know that nothing I do is going to change the outcome-- Bubbe might go soon, or she might live on like this for several more years. It's hard to figure out what would be optimal. I suppose that if the way she is now is the best she's going to be then, as uncomfortable as it is to contemplate, I suppose, for her sake, I'd rather she go quickly.

But I have to confess that I'm a little scared about how I'll feel when she does.

Despite everything, she's the only real grandparent I've ever had. Though we aren't super close (no one in my family really is), it's scary to contemplate how things will feel without her-- how we'll all deal with it, and how we'll honor and remember her.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Celebrating Superficiality

As a liberal Jew in his late twenties who grew up in California, I am contractually and culturally obligated to be non-judgmental when it comes to anyone else, particularly anyone else's religious practices, and particularly anyone else who is a Jew, and particularly anyone else who is Jewish and more liberal than me.

That said... there are a couple of stories, both from the Forward, that have come across my e-desk that strike me as just plain 'off'.

The first one was back in July when a female artist wrote an ode to her new creative business enterprise, which combined her love of gluing random bits of broken pottery with her talent for making people uncomfortable. Presenting the Mosaic Urn.


For years, I’ve been designing mosaic art objects in the French style known as pique assiette, nipping dishes into tiny shards and combining them to create one-of-a-kind tables, vases, picture frames and candlestick holders. Some months ago, I turned this into an online business. While working, I watch cable news, so my background noise is a parade of political scandals, financial frauds, and national health care and unemployment crises. 
In the early 1970s, I became a comedy writer. I was now inspired to use mosaic to express political satire, finding red, white and blue plates with flag images for what I called my Breaking News Series. I assembled pictures of my bêtes noires — Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, John Edwards and John Ensign, Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff, the National Debt Clock and corporate logos. To add bite, I’d set the mosaics on cremation urns. 
I submitted one such urn to an edgy Brooklyn art show. At the opening party, I watched guests studying the piece, identifying the right-wingers to one another as if it were a party game. Photos and text inserted into the mosaic made a cutting political statement, but I began to consider whether the aesthetic might have a wider — and more functional — application. With this process, I could animate an urn for actual usage that would visually tell the story of a life. It would be highly personal and have a celebratory quality. 
A few months ago, as I was setting the table for dinner, I surprised myself by blurting out: “You’ll be most affected by this, Nick. Would you prefer that we be buried or cremated?” 
He shot me a puzzled look. “Uh, any reason you’re asking?” 
“How about I make urns for Dad and me? I can cover them with fun photos — family vacations, birthday parties, graduations,” I said. 
He didn’t answer immediately. 
“They’ll be pretty and about life!” I urged. “I’ll use our dishes. It’ll remind you of the dinner table.” 
It felt like forever before Nick said, “Sounds good.” Martin remained silent, which I interpreted as enthusiasm.

And now she's selling them online and somehow convinced someone at the Forward to let her write one big advertisement for her kooky home business based on the premise of being Jewishly edgy, or something. Also I like how this started as personal art, morphed into sneering political "satire" (Get it? It's Sarah Palin on an urn!) and now has transcended its humble beginnings into being creepy, inappropriate burial accoutrements. Bra-va, I guess?

Here's the thing: I respect that this lady has made a choice in a way that feels meaningful to her. At the same time, her attitude about the whole thing, "Check out this cool thing I came up with to hold your ashes! Ain't it cool!" to be quite off-putting. My father has mentioned he will probably want to be cremated, and while it isn't my cup of tea, I know that I'm much happier with the idea of scattering someone's ashes than keeping them in an urn that looks like a kindergartener's collage project. Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy, but to me it feels really inappropriate to try to make someone's urn "pretty" or "remind you of the dinner table."
Some who believe that death requires a somber approach question my upbeat spin. I explain I hope a beautiful urn that honors memories of a loved one can take some of the sting out of death.
Here we have a critical point: for me the idea of trying to "spin" death does not remove the sting. Death is supposed to have a sting. That's part of it. It doesn't mean you need to go into full on ashes and sackcloth, but I don't think "upbeat" is the way to go, either. It's not about being "somber" specifically, but it's about taking the moment seriously.

So that was July. Now this week we have this woman, who wrote an article high-fiving herself for only going to shul to get free food.

I’m one of those synagogue goers who arrive pretty much just in time for the “Amen!” as we raise our mini plastic cups of wine before elbowing our way — er, gently sauntering over — to the food. My timing is never quite exact, of course, so there are days when I get there and my fellow congregants are still singing “Adon Olam,” the last song of the service. I’m happy to sing along — in fact, I like it if I’m in time for Kaddish and the announcements; makes me feel very much a part of things. But for shallow, antsy and kind-of-cheap me, going to synagogue means going to lunch with friends, there, in the social hall. 
And how important is the quality of that lunch? Let’s just say that a tray of hummus and carrot sticks makes my spiritual aura shrink to the size of a store-bought gefilte fish ball. You could pierce my soul with a toothpick. But a glistening mound of bar mitzvah lox — the Holy Grail, as it were, of Kiddushes — maketh me skip through the Valley of Death and cartwheel over to the scallion cream cheese. It restoreth my soul and maketh my kids a lot happier about my bringing them along, too. In fact, it getteth them psyched to come again, the way a random shower of slot machine nickels getteth bubbe back to Atlantic City. And I know that I am not the only congregant who peruses the synagogue calendar to see who has a great big spread — er, great big simcha — coming up, and precisely which Saturday we are talking about. 
My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater. Come to think of it, the rabbi probably isn’t, either. But I do believe there is something more than just lip service (and Tam Tams) being offered when a congregant arrives in time only to eat and shmooze. And, I am glad to say, some folks agree with me.

The writer then goes on to quote various people who have written various things about kiddush. No introspection, no thoughts on other ways she expresses her Jewish identity, other approaches she could use to get something out of the service, nothing. She's a Bagel and Lox Jew by self-definition, and she's proud of it, thanks very much.

I understand that this is this lady's reality and I... suppose I admire her willingness to be honest about it? And while I don't think she necessarily should be embarrassed about this, I really don't understand the mentality which says this is something to celebrate, rather than wrestles with. I don't understand the thinking that says, "Yeah, I fully admit I just show up to get free food, and these are the values I'm passing on to my kids. That food is awesome." To say nothing of the fact that the writer's behavior-- both barging in late, as well as adopting a "schnorer" attitude to her fellow congregants-- strikes me as just plain rude.

It's one thing to acknowledge one's imperfections in a public forum as a way of calling attention to things you have to work on and areas where you can grow. It's another to use them as a platform for advertising how awesome, enlightened, or creative you are and suggesting that people should follow your example.

Sometimes I just don't get people.