Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Summer cleaning

...Of tabs, of course. Here are some things in the news I've been meaning to comment on but haven't.

- Prophecy of Diamonds keep Israeli firm digging

In 1999, Taub founded Shefa Yamim, which means "bounty of the seas" in Hebrew, based on a conversation that took place 11 years earlier in Brooklyn, New York between the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson and the then mayor of Haifa. The dialogue was caught on video. 
"The uniqueness of Haifa is that it has a sea and it has a valley -- and in the valley are precious stones and gems. The holy one, blessed be he, did a wondrous thing, he concealed them in the depths of the earth," the rabbi told his visitor.

I can't decide whether it's sillier to go digging for diamonds based on a single conversation with the rebbe, or drilling for oil based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Hebrew vocabulary (hint: shemen =/ naft).

- Jack Wertheimer still pissed about all Jews who aren't him

what manner of shortsightedness accounts for this refusal to see, first, Jews as a people with its own interests and, second, the reestablishment of a Jewish state as a singular theological event of our times. As our religious thinkers shift their gaze to “the universal condition,” who will tend to the condition of the Jewish people? Who, if not rabbis, will develop a Jewish, rather than a universal, theology for an American Jewish population that lacks religious mooring? 
...The point is not to cower in fear but to think beyond the moment, to identify specifically Jewish interests, and to formulate strategies in furtherance of those interests—precisely the agenda eschewed by the new American Jewish consensus and its cosmopolitan mission. So, much of Jewish life in this country continues to oscillate between high-minded invocations of the need to repair the world and endless rounds of catering to subjective tastes and whims disguised as self-validating beliefs...
As usual, my issue is less with Wertheimer's facts than with his interpretation and tone. By carping about the social mores of American Jews (he calls them the "new 10 commandments") and suggesting that they have sacrificed all focus on specific Jewish values, principles or interests for popular culture, Wertheimer comes across as superior and snide. In framing the views of some as representative of the whole, he appears intellectually dishonest. And while he spends lots of time criticizing others for not thinking "beyond the moment," nowhere does he step up to the plate and articulate exactly what some of those specific Jewish interests might be, or offer some practical examples of people doing Judaism or Jewry the way he wants to see it. Is that because it doesn't exist outside of his head, or because it's more fun to complain about everyone else doing it wrong?

- Surveys say things about stuff!

Apparently people in charge of communal hand-wringing are going to town on the news that, surprise surprise, the Orthodox birthrate is increasing. More troubling is that Reform and Conservative numbers are dropping. Eventually I may need to update my graph. On the plus side, though, several commenters have noted that what this really demonstrates is a chance for people closely involved in these movements to work on making them more relevant to their members, as well as potential members. Whether this winds up increasing the numbers or not, it will ultimately be good for the movements.

-  New Conservative teshuvah focuses on Shabbat & tech

The results of several years of work, Nevins’s ruling is a technical examination of Halacha and technology. For many decades, rabbis banned electricity on the Sabbath because they thought it violated the Torah’s prohibition of fire. But in his teshuvah, or legal responsum, Nevins argues that new gadgets like iPhones and e-readers violate not the Torah’s ban on fire — no sparks are set off by turning them on — but its ban on writing and recording. 
These electronics, Nevins said, are more complicated than their on/off switches. A cell phone records the time a call is placed and the length of the call; an Amazon Kindle allows its user to type notes into the text. And computers are constantly capturing user data. By utilizing our gadgets, we are “working” even when we don’t realize it. “For me it feels effortless and like nothing is happening,” Nevins said, “but a lot is happening under the hood.” 
What’s more, these technologies violate the notion that the Sabbath should be both a time to rest and a time to keep it local. “Contemporary families spend much of their time together focused on individual electronic devices. Faces lit by glowing screens large and small, ears attached to headphones, they busily interact with friends and strangers across the world while making minimal contact with the people around them,” Nevins wrote. “Shabbat can and should be different.” 
Though many Conservative Jews don’t observe the Sabbath, Nevins said that his teshuvah is more than a thought experiment, and that it will guide the policies of camps, schools, synagogues — and individuals — about electricity usage on the Sabbath.

I was surprised how much of this teshuvah reflected my and Mrs. Yid's "no-screen" thoughts, albeit more within a halachic framework. Given that many people seem to be agreeing with the basic premise that unplugging from technology may be a good way to create some balance in your life, it will be interesting to see whether the idea of using Shabbat as a vehicle for this voluntary abstention will gain traction, and if so whether it will lead people to taking further steps, either in observing Shabbat or other Jewish practices.

- Last, Tzvi managed to last a whole month and a half at the Jewish Press before he started pimping his Tevye book, again. I wonder how many e-papers need to ask him to stop before he'll accept that no one is reading this?

In Tzvi's typically humble fashion, here's the title for his first Tevye post:

Possibly the Greatest Jewish Novel Ever Written

Tzvi, you need to stop writing that your Sholom Aleichem rip-off is the best Jewish Novel ever. Or failing that, just stop writing.

Tiptoeing towards kashrut

This is the summer of change, apparently.

For a while Mrs. Yid and I had been musing over the idea of experimenting with keeping a "kosher-ish" household, albeit in our own way. We both read Sue Fishkoff's Kosher Nation and while neither of us was inspired to toivel our plates or hunt down some Glatt, it did get us thinking a little about the intersections between kashrut and community. This is particularly relevant because our new shul hosts a potluck once a month and, foodie that she is, Mrs. Yid would like to be able to prepare something people feel comfortable eating without it being cast to the "kosher status questionable" table. We decided that since we now are in a new place, this could be a chance to try something different.

But, here's the rub: as someone who already has a wide swath of things their own body forbids them to consume (any cow dairy products), the idea of further limiting myself to only kosher meat (ok, fine, and all things pareve) is not particularly appealing (pricing and availability are also issues around here). While I can get behind the idea of being thoughtful and careful about what food you eat and where it comes from (and, in the case of proteins, how they were treated/slaughtered), I'm still not decided on whether I need my meat to have been schetched, per se. For where I am right now, I think treating kashrut as cultural foodways and guidelines (and general food taboos) makes more sense than deciding that everything I eat needs to have a hescher.

So the plan as it presently stands is this:

  • No pork or shellfish in the house (I gave Abbot Yid a giant bag of frozen shrimp yesterday after packing out our old apartment).
  • When possible, only organic poultry, beef, and other proteins (yes, it may not be kosher per se, but it's a step up in thinking about where our food comes and how it was treated. I'm already sighing in frustration upon realizing how many non-pork sausages are in pork casings. Farewell, my beloved Aidells!)
  • For now, the very few times where we mix milk and meat (goat cheese pizza is the only example I can think of) will stand, but may be revisited later.
  • Per our new shul's guidelines, we will be purchasing some new utensils and cooking implements to prepare food for their potluck and will only use them for that purpose.
  • When possible, we will try to have Shabbat meals not be obviously non-kosher. (Oh, and speaking of Shabbat, working on that screen-less Shabbat thing more.)

In the interest of shalom bayis (and in not triggering major irritation/feelings of deprivation), the idea is that these rules will be followed inside our new home but that we'll reserve the option of eating treyf out, following in the longstanding (if slightly hypocritical) footsteps of my ancestors. Our biggest concern is not wanting to alienate any friends or family, as well as not wanting to jump too far before we're ready.

I haven't told my family much about this yet, and it only came up the other day because I had to explain to Abbot Yid why I was bestowing a giant bag of shrimp upon him. His response was totally unsurprising, if slightly irritating:

[Annoyed stare:] "You're not going to get all... weird on me, are you?"


Friday, June 15, 2012

Letting Go

An old friend of mine was blogging about moving and needing to discard or pare down her and her fiance's large book collection. I particularly connected with this part:

I tend to hold on to books far longer than I really should. And this habit is suffused with a persistent feeling of somedaySomedayI’ll get around to reading that one. Someday I’ll need that one for some research.Someday I’ll want to look at something I once scribbled into the margin of that one. I don’t need that one now, and I can’t really foresee ever needing it in the future, but, well, someday I might. 
It can get really overwhelming when you need to get rid of, to downsize, to “rightsize”: you need to make the collection transportable, but you also need to make it reflect what you can realistically do. In some cases, this is easy...not only do I have to be realistic about what is possible in my life, but I must also keep from fooling myself into overestimating my current or future interest in some particular topic, or mis(under)estimating any reason to keep or discard a particular volume.

My family has always been into books, so I know I get it from there, but Abbot and Mama Yid are also particularly into stuff, in some cases, more than is healthy. Mrs. Yid's family moved every few years so they got very good at both not having tons of emotional attachment to objects as well as just being more practiced at getting rid of things. For my parents, especially Mama Yid, one of the main draws of buying a home was finally having enough room for all their crap. (Yes, my parents are a walking George Carlin routine.) So growing up, I never had to cull. I never had to decide what to get rid of and what to keep. I could keep everything. As I got older, there were some things I decided I just plain didn't want and did, eventually, toss, but if something had value for Mama Yid, Lord help you if you junked it or gave it away. "I can't believe you're throwing away this half-broken toy I got you when you were five! Don't you remember how I carried it back rubber-banded to my forearm from Brooklyn?" No, in fact, I do not, as I was not there.

Now I can understand that for her, it's part of wanting to hang on to memories of trips, vacations, special occasions, and Deacon's and my childhoods, but I'll never forget her angrily pulling items from a trashcan while yelling, "If you don't want them, I'll keep them!" and then promptly putting them back in my closet.

So, yes, my challenge has been to mediate between my mother's packrat tendencies and my wife's "clean sweep" philosophy. One elegant solution I came up with happened this past weekend.

Years ago, when I was trying to consolidate all of the things I had left in my parents' house, I decided to finally go through all of my books. This was after I had gone to college, graduated, come back to live with them, and was now moving out again. Since I knew I was going into elementary education, I was a little reluctant to get rid of childrens' books from my childhood. The most obvious ones did get donated-- used coloring books, old football stat books from the 80s, that sort of thing. But, in addition to the 20-odd boxes of Judaica, history and comics stacked up in one spare room, I came up with about 10 boxes of "kid lit", which I stacked as far out of the way as possible in the garage. And they've been sitting there for the last 4 years.

So last weekend, I realized that since next year I'll be working with middle schoolers, who will likely be entirely unimpressed with my epic collection of Garfield, Goosebumps, or Encyclopedia Brown books, that I was going to give them away to my 2nd graders. I spent most of an afternoon shlepping boxes, dividing books into donations for the thrift store, ones I would take to school, and ones I wanted to keep for myself or future mini-Yids. I am pleased to report that of the 10 boxes, I only kept 3. The rest I packed up in the car and took back to the present apartment (Mrs. Yid was just thrilled, given that we are in the middle of moving and what we really need more than anything is more boxes cluttering up the living room). That night I carefully packed the books for my students into our laundry cart, and the next morning I left early to make sure I would have enough time to carefully push the thing to school without it collapsing on me (it really was quite full).

When the kids came in and saw all the books laid out, it was like they thought it was Christmas. Almost all of them took some (I must have brought between 150 and 200 books; by the end of two days, I had four left, which I donated to the school library's "free bin"), and a few took 20 or 30. Though I had worried I would become emotional at giving my books away, I found that I had completely separated my childhood memories and feelings from the actual objects-- and instead, the more I saw how excited the kids were with the books, the more I wanted to encourage them to read them. "I know you like science, how about this?" "Who likes mysteries, check this out?" "There's a whole series for this one, if you like it, take a few more!" (I told one kid, "You like science and comics, right? Well this Gary Larson guy did a whole books series combining the two!" He replied, "I didn't know you could do that!")

Each of them asked me over and over, "Are these mine to keep?" Every time, I answered, "They're yours. Enjoy them."

Afterwards, some parents emailed me thanking me for being so generous. One said it was a beautiful going-away gift for her daughter. Another said it was very touching for me to be giving my kids a piece of my childhood.

I said I was happy the books would be going to good homes. And that's true. But there's a slightly selfish aspect to it, as well. Giving things away to the thrift store or strangers isn't usually very exciting. But knowing exactly which kids were getting my books, that was totally different. Personal, and very sweet. I'm glad they'll enjoy them, and I'm glad I'll be helping them even after I'm no longer their teacher. But deep down, I think part of me is hoping that when they read them, they may think of me.