Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fire and Ice

When I was around ten, I somehow got it into my head that one didn't really count as a grown-up until both your parents had died. Under this "logic," I proudly informed my parents that Mama Yid was an adult and Abbot Yid wasn't, which of course was a bit surprising to my father. This may have been shortly after I referred to my mother as an "orphan" and got a very stern talking-to.

Yesterday Bubbe Yid died. Now both my parents are orphans.

One thing I'm noticing is a very strong disconnect between how I imagine might be the "correct" way to feel in this situation, and how I actually feel. In a way I feel nothing. But it might be more accurate to say that a lot of my emotions are fairly distant, subtle. I think a lot of this has to do with timing. With Zayde, terminal illness came on relatively sudden, and so even though he spent several months in the hospital, my memory is of the whole process being rather chaotic, at least emotionally. When he died I think much of what I felt was shock as much as it was grief. But some of that grief, too, was I think grief that the person I had idolized and built up so high, the person I had hoped to get to know better, was gone, and that all I was left with were a few meetings and letters. I've spent over a decade trying to get to know who my real Zayde was, and am pretty sure that had I known him more, I certainly would have idolized him less. Not that he was a bad person per se, though he did do bad things and make some terrible mistakes, but that by having real contact with someone, they become demystified.

In so many ways, Bubbe Yid was the opposite of Zayde. The metaphor of fire and ice seems appropriate. He was loud, she was quiet. He would demand to get his way, whereas she would plan. He was raised culturally Jewish by socialists and became attracted to the certainty of Hasidic life and the nostalgic aesthetic of klezmer and Fiddler on the Roof. She was raised modern Orthodox by American-born parents and didn't see religion as something that one had to make a huge stink over. Even their cultural geography seems to bear this out: Zayde's mother was from the park of Ukraine where Hasidic ecstasy had flourished, and he experienced all of life's pleasures and pain at an extremely deep emotional level. Bubbe's grandparents were Litvaks, and she kept her emotions extremely close.

I never really got to know my grandfather. But the sad thing is that if I'm honest with myself now, I don't think I ever really knew my grandmother either. There was so much of her personality and her life that she didn't want to share that as I got older, there was less and less of her available for me to interact with. If anything, her protracted illness only magnified this emotional distance. There's almost zero shock that she's died, because I've had almost an entire year to process that she was going to die. I'm actually more relieved than anything because she was so unhappy and impaired and the stress was creating so much bad feelings between her children. The real tragedy for me in all of this is that this woman who was so fiercely independent wound up losing everything that was important to her in her life and was trapped in an existence she no longer wanted. By nearly every metric, it is far better for her to not be here anymore, and whereas before I would have felt guilty saying that, I know that she herself had been saying the same thing back when she could still talk.

The other tragedy in this situation is that rather than her illness becoming a moment of unity or closeness for her children, it just underscored all the divisions between them. There has been so much hurt and resentment over the past ten months, and without anywhere productive to go it has been bouncing around in the family echo chamber. At this point most of the siblings are guessing that after the funeral most of them won't talk to each other again. Now obviously, my father and his siblings are grown adults, and they're responsible for their choices. But I also can't help put place a little responsibility for this mess at the feet of my grandparents-- my grandfather for his mental illness and bad decisions, and my grandmother for enabling him and not protecting her kids more. The end result is that none of the siblings seem to really be able to tolerate each other, and I have to assume that at least part of this is because the only things they have in common any more are their childhoods, which are extremely painful for them to think about. They don't know how to interact with each other, which makes sense when they've spent decades avoiding each other.

I feel like this trickled down to her grandchildren, too. Deacon Yid and I aren't close to our cousins-- they're basically strangers or acquaintances we happen to be related to. (As a genealogist, this is rather depressing!) And the whole time Bubbe was in the nursing home, I kept thinking I should go, I should go... but by the time I had decided to go, she was past the point where she could recognize anyone or communicate. I missed that chance, and I wonder if our relationship had been different, had I felt more, if that might have happened the same way.

Mama Yid asked me if I'm sad. The short answer is no. The long answer is that I'm sad about her life, and the way that she died, but not that she is dead.

I wish she had had a more chayim shlema, especially in her last days. I am glad she got the sof shlema she needed. And, as skeptical as I am, my greatest hope is that in letting her go, her children may finally get the refuah shlema they've needed for so long.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


This is one of those cases where you honestly can't believe that someone could say something this dumb and believe it:

The former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee notably declined to rule out a presidential run in 2016, first telling CNN that "anything in this life, in this world is possible." 
"Anything is possible for an American," she said. "And I don't discount any idea or plan that at this point isn't in my control."

If you're going to deflect a question, lady, that's fine, but for the great love of crap, please don't get on your high horse about how "anything is possible for an American." In a time when plenty of Americans are finding that basic things like paying their bills or staying in their homes are in fact not possible, that sounds both out of touch as well as downright patronizing. It's one thing if you're a random sports star who's expected to throw out trite nonsense, but when you're talking about mulling a Presidential run, let's try to get beyond, "We live in America, Billy! You can be anything you want to be."

Palin, be coy if you want, but try to tone down the cheese. Some of us are allergic.

Allow me to translate

There's so much casual stupidity in the news these days, it can be easy to get lost. Luckily, I'm a giver. You're welcome.

- Shorter Homophobia:

A Marine official’s description of a photograph of two males hugging and kissing at a base in Hawaii as “typical” is making the United States military look ridiculous, charges the head of the Center for Military Readiness, which argues for making the military more of a fighting force and less a social experiment. 
The image has gotten widespread attention on the Internet. Posted on a “gay Marine” social networking page, it shows Dalan Wells and Brand Morgan. Their reunion after Morgan returned from assignment is what it is, according to Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness. 
...Donnelly said the new culture, marked by the recent elimination of the 200-plus year old ban on open homosexuality in the military, will rebound on the United States at some point.
Translation: Gay guys kissing? Gross! Besides, everyone knows you can't be gay and shoot someone-- limp wrists make it hard to fire a gun. Funnily enough, the 40-plus other countries-- including those uber-fey nations known as China, Russia, and Israel-- that have gays openly serving haven't seemed to notice this issue. (Incidentally, the Sergeant in the picture had just finished a 6 month tour of service in Afghanistan-- his third-- so it seems to me he's entitled to smooch whoever he damn well pleases.)

- Shorter Ethnocentrism:

The Positive Side of Drunkenness is Revealed on PurimAlthough in general drunkenness is disgraceful, nevertheless, its' positive sides cannot be ignored. As a consequence of intoxication, basic happiness is revealed, expressing physical, unrestrained joy, filled with power and vitality. Normally, however, the lust and depravity of drunkenness obscures its positive side, and as a result, it causes wildness and numerous obstacles. But on Purim, when we drink and take joy in the salvation of Hashem, remembering the miracle that was done by means of the feast, the positive sides of drinking are revealed. 
Revealing the Uniqueness of IsraelThere is another profound meaning: On Purim, the eternal holiness of Israel is revealed, making clear that even what appears to be bad – is reversed for the good. The harsh decrees lead to repentance. By means of drinking wine for the sake of the mitzvah, the 'sod' (secret) is revealed, that even the material side of Israel – internally – is holy. And although the body and its physical sensations seem to interfere with serving Hashem, on the high level of Purim -- "nahafach hu" (on the contrary), they greatly assist serving Hashem, in joy and vitality.

Translation: Jews are so awesome that when we get hammered, it's actually a mystical and holy experience, as opposed to whenever anyone else does it and it's a frat party gone bad. Also, in keeping with longstanding counter-intuitive mystical misheggos, let me reveal another magic secret: that up is down and right is diagonal.

- Shorter Old Crank:
In 2007, America thought it was electing a president. We never dreamed we were electing an emperor. 
Are you among the many who’ve noticed, for a long time now, how many times Mr. Obama uses the word “I” in every speech, every press conference, every White House release? In ever imperious ways, he states what “I have notified Senate leaders,” whom “I have appointed” both to traditional posts and to his own newly created “czarships” over previously less regulated pursuits? How many times in his State of the Union addresses has he told Congress and the Supreme Court what “I will do in the coming months,” what “I‘m directing” various departments to do and even “what I will not allow while I‘m president”? 
Even in Great Britain, where there is a legitimate monarchy – a reigning Queen – the little lady never uses the personal pronoun in her statements. She always uses the less personal “we.” It’s “we desire,” “we believe,” “it is our wish,” recognizing that, in a very real but unstated way, she rules by the consent of her people. She certainly doesn’t wish to provoke their resentment by a pompous supremacy. Not so our current White House occupant. 
In America, what happened to “We the People”?
Translation: I hate Obama so much that I've moved beyond the ability to express it in words. Screw policy, I can tell by his pronouns he thinks he's Charlemagne! This totally counts as legitimate political commentary, right? Now hand over my check.

- Shorter Misogyny:

I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level. 
My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.

Translation: How dare all you sluts pull your advertising from my show?

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Casual Stupidity

When it comes to op-eds, I think I'm bothered more by casual nastiness, bigotry or stupidity than I am when people are super-explicit about it. Rush Limbaugh's comments about Sandra Fluke, for example, while atrocious, were so over-the-top that people sat up and noticed, and were then able to put pressure on him to own up to the fact that calling someone a slut for advocating a policy shift during a Congressional deposition is over the line.

It's harder-- and in some ways, more pernicious-- when the venom is embedded in someone's article, or speech. Here are some examples from this week's WND:

- Barry Farber championing algae as a gasoline replacement:
I have a dream. About 20 years from now a fifth-grade teacher somewhere in America will ask her students, “Who can name our two most important inventors, and why they are the most important?” And little Cathy stands up and replies, “Thomas Edison and Adrian Vance. Edison lit up the world and Vance put the oil-producing nations of the Middle East in their place – selling pistachios alongside the bagel carts in mid-town Manhattan.”
Dude, really? So Middle Eastern folks' proper "place" is as snack vendors? I love how Barry not only paints an idyllic picture of casually racist 5th graders, but that he also rips of Martin Luther King to do it. Nice.

- Joseph Farah explaining why Christians and Muslims have zero theological common ground:
If you compare the personality of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the Christian and Hebrew God – with Allah, Islam’s god, the contrast could not be more stark. The Hebrew-Christian God is characterized by love. The Islamic god is characterized by war and vengeance. The Hebrew-Christian God provides a clear path to redemption and personal salvation in a fallen world – through repentance. The Islamic god provides only one certain path to personal salvation – martyrdom.
Put aside Farah's strawman about Islam thinking the only way to be a good Muslim is to martyr yourself. What's with pretending the Jewish (not Hebrew, Joe, Jewish) God says anything about "personal salvation" or even that we live in a specifically "fallen" (as opposed to imperfect) world? Stark contrasts between depictions of God? You can find differences between depictions of God from book to book in the Torah, to say nothing of Prophets or Writings. That's one of the starting points of Biblical criticism, Lurianic Kabbalah, and most lay-led Dvar Torahs. The God of the Bible goes through a myriad of personality shifts, sometimes from sidra to sidra, and that's part of what makes Him an intriguing character. Not only does this Unified God argument go against tons of Jewish textual tradition, it also runs counter to hundreds of years of Christian criticism of Judaism! How often have we heard about the "loving Christian God" being compared to the "vengeful" or "legalistic" Jewish God? Now you want to say there's no daylight between them? I'd be suspicious of this anyway, but all the more so given that now you want to play buddy-buddy so that you can beat up on Islam.

It's ironic that Farah is talking about how Christians need to recognize the important theological gaps between them and Muslims while simultaneously demonstrating he knows next-to-nothing about Judaism or traditional Jewish texts. Recall that this was the guy who fought against an Old Testament scholar questioning whether the Jewish God was really a "creator" of Heaven and Earth by using quotes from the Greek New Testament. Please, Joe, leave us out of your craziness.

- Last, Dennis Prager demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that the goal of university is to get young people to become nihilists, steal their parents' property, and then eat them:
If this [comically hyperbolic] list is accurate – and that may be ascertained by visiting a college bookstore and seeing what books are assigned by any given instructor – most American parents and/or their child or children are going into debt to support an institution that for four years, during the most impressionable years of a person’s life, instills values that are the opposite of those of the parents. 
And that is intentional. 
As Woodrow Wilson, progressive president of Princeton University before becoming president of the United States, said in a speech in 1914, “I have often said that the use of a university is to make young gentlemen as unlike their fathers as possible.” 
In 1996, in his commencement address to the graduating seniors of Dartmouth College, then-president of the college, James O. Freedman, cited the Wilson quote favorably. And in 2002, in another commencement address, Freedman said that “the purpose of a college education is to question your father’s values.” 
For Wilson, Freedman and countless other university presidents, the purpose of a college education is to question (actually, reject) one’s father’s values, not to seek truth. Fathers represented traditional American values. The university is there to undermine them.
First of all, I like how Prager's supposed evidence of indoctrination of students doesn't consist of any actual citation of texts, or even quotes from professors, but rather a list of liberal college strawmen which he claims are backed up by hypothetical reading lists. Second, isn't it fantastic that two quotes from two college presidents (a mere 82 years apart!) about students challenging their preconceptions are used to suggest the existence of an evil college cabal poised on turning young people against their parents? Dennis has a point about universities having political bias, but he loses his credibility once he starts crying about how the evil liberal universities turn innocent college students against their hard-working conservative parents. You may not have noticed, Dennis, but liberals are about half the country, and they send their kids to college, too. My great-grandparents were Jewish socialists. My father is a would-be hippy whose only political rule is "never vote Republican" and is mad at Obama for being too aggressive against medical marijuana. For me to have attended a school that rejected my father's values, I would have had to be going to Brigham Young (with maybe Bob Jones as a safety school).

For the record, I attended a very liberal high school and college, and if anything, it made me slightly conservative (relative to the people I was around) because I was exposed to arguments and people that I disagreed with (particularly on Israel) and it required me to think about why that was so. If I had taken Dennis' advice and stayed home (and done what?), I might have been the very model of the unthinking reflexive young liberal he so decries. And no, I still wouldn't have believed in "traditional American values."