Monday, February 27, 2006

The parent trap

Irina has a new post, and in passing she mentions how many people have problems with their parents. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, partially because of my own insecurities about being a good parent.

Here's the deal. Most parents learn on the job. Sure we all read the books and the magazine articles but those only help a little. And here's the problem. As kids we see everything revolving around us, including our parents. We expect them to be good parents, but of course as kids we don't consider it our duty to be good kids.

And so it is hard... Of course most parents become parents voluntarily, and we voluntarily give up so much of our life to raise kids, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't wear you down, that you don't resent a little bit the fact that some other entity is encroaching on your life, making demands, competing with the self-interest that every human being has. The sleepless nights, the disgusting diapers, vomit, the horrifying injuries, the constant fighting among siblings...

And the fact that most of the time the kid is fighting against the thing you're trying to get him to do, for his own good. And so at the end of the day, or at the end of eighteen years, you're lucky if it works out as good as it works out.

So what's the point of this rant? Many of us expect our parents to be perfect, even though we don't hold ourselves to the same expectations. So maybe we should just give each other a little break. Make a few more allowances. And when we get to an age where we have a little sechel, not judge our poor parents too hard.

PS. B'shaa tova, Bradley

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A man called Eichmann Abu Atwan

I opened the Feb 27 issue of the New Yorker and almost choked on my tea. It seems that this Palestinian was born during the trial of Adolf Eichmann and for obvious reasons, his father could not think of a better namesake for his child.

Where do I begin... I feel like it would be a waste of energy to start expounding on all the self-evident consequences of my opening paragraph. So instead I think I will just meditate on anti-semitism.

We have been bitching and moaning about it and I think it really devalues the idea. It is truly a timeless thing, it seems. The depth of the hatred and the consistency across centuries. In no place, in no time, thus far has it been the case that anti-semitism actually is eradicated. It just seems to go into remission. So what then is the legacy I leave my children? Just the surety that if the patterns bear out, the world will most likely turn against them again in murderous hate, and if not them, then their children, or else, most definitely their children's children.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Did I miss a meeting?

OK. I've been thinking about this for a while... How is it that new blogs pop up with absolutely no content on them, one or two posts saying "OK, I'm here" and they get tons of comments from the well established blogizens.

Not that I begrudge them or anything. I mean I am not saying that my posts are just rife with golden nuggets of wisdom and entertainment, but I feel like I missed a meeting or something. Am I not on the right list, or did someone catch me wearing white after Labor Day or what?

Someone clue me in please!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

While you wait...

for my next substantive post, here is a quote of Justin Hayford from the Chicago Reader reviewing some plays by Samuel Beckett about a month back:

You don't have to read a lot of Beckett to get the point. Though he spent 60 years paring down his work, eliminating more and more conventional elements, the writer's theme remains largely unchanged: the doomed, deluded fumbling of the human race, cursed with an inexplicable capacity for hope - and an inexhaustible supply of imperfect words to express it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Tikkun Olam

A long time ago, when I went from secular to Reform, I learned about the notion of Tikkun Olam. The way it was described to me, Tikkun Olam meant "fixing the world" getting it back to a perfect state by doing good deeds that help mankind. And despite kvetching by Rabbi Shafran I still hold by this definition.

As I was reading comments on this post by Godol Hador, I saw the following statement by Dude:

A nice job for modern day sociologists would be to analyze why so much of that which is anti-religion comes from the political Left (and vice-versa of course).

To which I replied:

Slam dunk analysis. Because traditionally, organized religion has worked hand in hand with the State to repress any sort of progressive ideas. This is true especially in Europe where a lot of the progressive ideas crystallized.

Then Orthoprax replied:


Liberalism (generally) is about doing things differently than how they were done in the past. It is consistent to be anti-establishment in politics and religion alike.

And Dude countered:

Interesting theory. But its so interesting how its across the board. Why does abortion=animal rights=anti-war=socialism=secularism=gay rights so often when there is no inherent relationship between them all other than their being anti-establishment.

And I followed up with:

Why focus on the more extreme? We can find extremists on both sides.

I'd like to think of progressivism as equal rights regardless or race, creed, gender. Personal freedoms including freedom of speech and assembly, as well as other civil liberties. Labor laws to prevent exploitataion of children. I could go on. To characterize progressivism as just contrarian anti-establishmentism is not fair.

Once again, if you look at the historical complicity of, say the Catholic Church in denying what most of us consider to be basic human rights, it is not hard to see the anti-religious bias towards established religion. Or you could look at the theocracy in Iran or the Taliban in Afganistan if you want more global examples.

And that was pretty much the end of the comments on this post. What does this mean? Does it mean that you cannot be religious and progressive? Orthodox and Liberal? When did progressivism become such a terrible curse? And why do posts about religious proofs or whether Noach was an allegory garner 700+ comments, but no one is interested in discussing this issue?

Now, in my political views I am a fox and not a hedgehog. But what I perceive as the glorification of the status quo and the disdain for any type of positive social change puzzles and worries me.

Monday, February 20, 2006


I have some ideas that are still congealing in my mind. I am thinking about a certain ontological problem. Say you have a thing that is composed of a bunch of parts, like a car. Say you replace a wheel. The car is still the same car. Say you replace a couple more parts. The car is still a car. But after you replace enough parts, the car is no longer the same car that we started with. But when does this change happen.

I am pretty sure this is a classic ontological problem. If anyone knows the answer, chime in!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Frozen Stream of Consciousness

An old favorite of mine is the movie Alexander Nevsky. It is a story of a Russian prince who saves Russia from an invasion by the Teutonic Knights. The pivotal part of the plot is the battle between the Russians and the Germans fought over the surface of the frozen lake Peipus. The Russians draw the mounted and heavily armored knights onto the ice, where they break through the ice and drown. The movie is a classic. Serge Eisenstein, the director, is of course considered one of the fathers of cinematography. The score by Prokofiev is unbelievable.

When my wife and I were first married, I asked her if she would see the movie with me. Not speaking Russian, she had to rely on the subtitles. When I asked her about the film, she told me that she found it funny how a long stream of Russian mumbo jumbo would be translated in the subtitles into something as succinct as "Yes, commander!". At the time it seemed like a silly observation since in general it seems like while some turns of phrase are less frugal in words, others are more to the point, making it a draw in the end.

Fast forward ten years. Last night was rough. One of the kids came down with an ear infection and ultimately ruptured his eardrum. Didn't get much sleep last night.

For some reason I started thinking about calling my parents and telling them about the eardrum. The Russian word for "eardrum" is "barabannaya pereponka". That's right. You heard me. Barabannaya pereponka. Maybe my wife was right. Some languages are less efficient than others :)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Frozen Chosen

The first rabbi candidate is from Florida. He wound up coming here on the coldest day of the winter. The temperature dipped to -7F overnight with windchill around -30F.

About a year ago I decided to grow facial hair. This is the first time I was out in this kind of cold. The moisture from my breath frosted over in the mustache, and so by the time I'd come home I resembled a character from Dr. Zhivago or maybe a Jack London story.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The New Rabbi

I moved to a new community about three months ago and joined a new shul that formed about a year ago. We knew several people there, it was close to our new house, and we knew the rabbi. The rabbi, I thought, was not the greatest speaker in the world, but he was a good man, well educated, and was theologically on the same wavelength as me and my wife.

Last week, I received a letter informing me that the shul is embarking on a search for a permanent rabbi. It seems that the current rabbi is serving on an interim basis, though this fact was not publicized to make sure that he was treated with respect. He will still be in the running, but we will "try out" at least three more finalists before making the decision.

I don't know why this letter made me feel anxious. Partially it is because I noticed that the attitute toward our current rabbi has changed for both other congregants and myself. For me, it was not a conscious thing, but I could not help but feel different toward the man, like someone who doesn't want to commit emotionally to someone who has a good chance of not being there much longer. And I could sense the same off-key vibe coming from him.

I also wonder if this process will really stress the seams of this brand new shul. Whenever you make a big decision like this, people always have very differing needs and opinions. I can already hear people digging in their heels about the prospective candidates - "There's no way that I'm going to a shul with a rabbi this young", etc., etc.

A few years back I read a very interesting book about this exact topic, called "The New Rabbi" that described the trials and tribulations of a big shul in Pennsylvania replacing a very distinguished rabbi. When I read it, it was a purely hypothetical interest. Maybe it is time for me to read it again.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A night at the Opera

Went to see Rigoletto last night. Had a pretty good time. It's been a long time since I've gone to the opera and acted like a civilized human being. My wife took the train into the city. I met her at the station and presented her with a single red rose.

The performance was good, although you can definitely tell the difference between a world class voice and what I heard. Nonetheless, the singing, especially the lead soprano was impressive. Good set design as well. And of course, Verdi's music is sublime, especially the fourth Act where everything culminates. "La donna è mobile" is one of my favorite arias. It is said that at the rehearsals for the premiere of the opera in Venice, Verdi did not show this aria to the tenor until two days before the premiere. The aria was so catchy that he didn't want the gondoliers singing it before the work debuted.

One thing that really struck me was the graphic nature of this production. I don't recall ever going to an opera where you see a man having simulated sex with a half naked woman on the stage. I am not a prude, but I was taken aback a little by how explicit this was.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Proof of the Posting is in the Fisking...

Since Godol Hador gave me the kibud of mentioning me on his blog. I thought I would return to the topic of his uber-post. I've been bothered by it for a couple of days now and finally had some time to put pen to paper.

From the comments:
The skeptics put up a lamo defence. They think only Mis-nagid (or maybe Ben Avuyah) can save the day for them. I mean, emailin Mis-nagid and asking him to fisk my post? How lame is that? For the record, I had nothing to do with that.
For the record, I did. Sort of. Actually, I commented to Mis-Nagid that the post needs fisking not that he should do it.

The reason why I said that is that I couldn't follow the logic in it. Let me attempt a friendly fisk since it seems like the only other person that was interested in analysing the post is S. Here we go:

The post starts out with setting the scene and building suspense. Religious doubts setting in, an unexpected visitor for Shabbos, a conversation, then debate about Faith and Reason, then a sudden revelation - "The basis of Orthodox Judaism is EXPERIENCE".

So far, I am enjoying this. Godol Hador is on the road to Damascus and far be it from me to spoil his trip. ADDeRabbi made a comment "you've just graduated from positivism to existentialism.", but frankly what GH is saying doesn't sound like Existentialism to me

Then there is a transition to a causality argument. Key point being made:
1) Being Orthodox "produces upstanding communities, families, and individuals."
2) Judaism is the ideal, all other religions, ethics are only good to the extent that they mirror Judaism
3) Judaism has proven this through 2000 years of history.

All these points are fiskable in themselves and may deserve their own posts on this or other blogs. However, although I was uncomfortable with these stated as facts, I moved on.

Next was a hypothesis of why some big name Rabbis were not seemingly bothered by theories that seem to conflict with fundamentalist interpretations of Judaism. Here I am a bit lost, because although it sounds very inspiring, when you analyze the actual writing, I can't actually figure out how it resolves the issue.

Before we move on to the last and most troublesome part of the post, lets analyze this point a little more. What GH seems to be saying is that we should continue to be Orthodox because it creates good people and good social/cultural structures. As someone commented it sounds like some spinoff on Reconstructionism.

GH makes a statement that Rav Kook "wasn't troubled by the DH, because even if it were true it would make no difference!...His basis for Orthodoxy was his own experience." Doesn't this seem circular?

Another point made by GH - "Only Judaism can consistently show both the experience AND the results, in every society, in every geography, in every era". How is this true? The story of Judaism is a continuous attrition due to theological splintering. Start with the Sadducees, then the Karaites, then the maskilim in France, Germany, Russia. All of these people started out experiencing, but their experience led them away from Orthodox Judaism.

OK. Now we are at the point where the post falls apart for me. We start out with the assertion that we should rely on Experience, but now we are back to proving things again.

"The Mesorah is what kept Am Yisrael going for 2000 years. As any good Scientist knows, if the experiment works, don't fiddle with the parameters!"

What does this mean? Does this make any sense from a rigorous scientific analysis? What does it mean for an experiment to "work"? What does it mean not to "fiddle with the parameters"? This sounds like the scientist is an inventor!

GH makes an analogy that no religion can repeat our results. Once again, the only results that have been mentioned so far is creating upstanding individuals, families, and communities. He states that Judaism is the only one that has done it successfully. He gives examples of others that have failed. But is this a rigorous argument. Does that prove that no other CAN do it successfully?

Once again, it is not the content that I object to, but the lack of rigor and logic in the argument.

OK. Release the hounds (I mean commenters)

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz...

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
-Janice Joplin

So I am listening to some Olympic Gold medal winner thanking G-d for making her win, and all her fans that were praying for her. Is it just me, or does the idea that G-d wanted her to win sound ridiculous. Same for all the crazy baseball players that cross themselves before coming up to bat. Do you really think that G-d thinks to himself, I want the Cardinals to beat the Cubs tonight?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What does The Matrix, Bob Marley, and Christianity have in common?

Zion, Judah, Messiah - these are symbols that are meaningful to Jews, they are ideas and beliefs that have been a fundamental part of our culture for two thousand years. But they are constantly superceded by others, and I am getting tired of it.

The Matrix - Neo is clearly a Messianic figure, the last city of the humans is Zion!!!

I love reggae music. But when I listen to the lyrics, I sometimes can't get past the fact that the Rastafarians believe that they are the true Israelites, that their last king Haile Selassie is the Messiah descended from the tribe of Judah. How about that? Why don't you guys come up with your own legends instead of stealing someone else's beliefs?

Of course the Christians have been doing this for 2 millenia, but at least that's old news. But the Mormons tick me off particularly. You see, they consider themselves the true Israelites and so anyone who is not a Mormon is a - that's right, a GENTILE!

Once again, people, cut it out. Stop stealing our ideas and then perverting them and then persecuting us. Don't make me send a stop and desist order 'cause you don't want to mess with a Jewish lawyer.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case!

Today I evolved into a ...

Wiggly Worm in the TTLB ecosystem. Thanks guys (and gals). Although I am still not sure what that means - is it a big ego stroking thing?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Tales from the Old Country V - My father's story

My father's father was drafted into the army to fight against Finland in 1939. He was wounded and was recuperating when the Germans attacked in 1941. He was immediately drafted again and was sent to the front.

Meanwhile, as the Germans were approaching, the family was trying to decide what to do. We had a relative who was in charge of the Kiev train station. He came to the house and told us that we needed to evacuate immediately. He was sending trains West to the front lines and when they came back, there were Jewish refugees that snuck onto the empty trains. They told of terrible massacres and atrocities that were happening with the German advance.

My great grandfather Yankel did not believe him. He said - "The Germans were here in 1918, and they weren't so bad at all. I did business with them." My grandmother Chana took a different tack. She said - "Yankel, if you want to stay here and do business with the Germans, you are welcome to do so. I'm packing up our family and we are all leaving." Needless to say, Yankel decided to go. With the help of our relative, the family was given space on a freight car that was leaving for the Ural mountains. Only my great aunt and her family decided to stay. Her daughter caught scarlet fever and she was afraid that the girl would die on the train. They were killed in Babiy Yar.

The family spent several years in a small town in the Ural Mountains and returned when Kiev was liberated in 1943. They had heard no news from my grandfather at the front since the first few days of the war. He is officially listed as missing in action, but we believe that he died in the terrible battles around Kiev during the first few months of the war.

When the family returned to their old apartment, a neighbor told them that my grandfather came back looking for them but they had already gone. When the Germans devastated the Soviet Army, many of the Ukranian and Russian soldiers took off their uniforms and came back to the city, blending in with the rest of the population. But for Jews there was no other option but to fight to the death. So my grandfather probably went back to the front where he was either killed or captured. Perhaps he was murdered in Babiy Yar.

The price of popularity

A recent post on Godol Hador's blog has generated over 150 comments in twelve hours. The topic was very interesting and worthy of serious contemplation and discussion. But, how can one even begin to do this in a blog, when everyone is commenting and pulling in their own direction. You just get this cacophony of ideas and it seems like a waste of time to even join in the fray.

There must be a better way to get these topics discussed, I just don't know how to do it. The paradigm seems fine as long there are just a few commenters, but it really doesn't scale.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Joys of Tu B'Shvat

Today is Tu B'Shvat - the Jewish New Year for trees. I don't know why I enjoy this holiday so much. Maybe it's the fact that there is no t a lot of work to prepare for it or that there are no religious restrictions or obligations.

There is a little bit of a pagan flavor to it - the anthropomorphosized trees celebrating their New Year, but that doesn't bother me. I enjoy going to the store and shopping for weird exotic fruits to put on the table. Last year it was prickly cactus pears, and today it is Asian pears.

There is a whole Kabbalistic tradition of the Tu B'Shvat seder, but that is a little too much for my non-mystical household. Instead, we just enjoy the day in a very simple way.

The Eternal Torah

I am not very qualified to expound on religious topics, however...

The Torah readings this past week and the coming week really touch my heart because, all theology aside, they show how eternal our humanity is.

First in Beshalach. Mise-en-scene: The Jews just came out of Egypt and are travelling through the desert. They look behind them and see the Egyptian chariots barreling straight at them. They are terrified, but there is still time for bitter sarcasm:
Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the wilderness? (Exodus 14:11)

Then in Yitro, Moses' father-in-law comes to visit having heard of all the miracles. Moses is exhausted. He spends his entire day adjudicating and resolving disputes according to G-d's law.
His father-in-law takes him aside and says "What are you doing? You can't keep going like this, you're going to collapse. You gotta take care of yourself, son!" Then he tells him to delegate. There, the Torah is also a three thousand year old management book.

I don't know why, these scenes or regular people, is something that makes the Torah feel so right - much more than the description of the amazing miracles.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tales from the Old Country IV - from Kiev to Tashkent

On April 11th, 1941 my grandmother Sophia gave birth to twins: a healthy boy and girl. The girl was my mother. On June 22, 1941 the German army crossed the Polish border at Brest and invaded the Soviet Union.

My grandfather was a radio engineer and in that capacity was responsible for turning on the radio transmitter at the break of dawn. When he got to the station he heard the announcement that the Germans invaded. The rest of the town was still asleep.

The Germans were about 300 miles away and moving quickly. There was almost no time to run. With incredible luck, their brother-in-law, who was an officer in the army, procured a truck to evacuate the families of the officers. He told my grandmother that he can take her and the children to Kiev, the capital, where she could at least get on a train or a boat.

By this time, the German planes were flying over the countryside. The brother-in-law told my grandmother that if the children made any noise, he would have to throw them off the truck, because they would all wind up dead. (My grandmother always told me that the planes flew so low they could hear noise on the ground. I am not sure if they had some type of listening device or what?) She covered them with a blanket and got into the truck. In a few hours she was in Kiev. My grandfather made it to Kiev 3 days later. He had to ride his bicycle through the woods at night since by this time all the roads were bombed by the Germans.

From Kiev, my grandparents and their family went to Kislovodsk.
a city in the Cacausus mountains.
The scene was an absolute nightmare - a stream of refugees headed toward the city. My grandparents were travelling on horse drawn carts along with some other people from their town. At one point, my grandmother asked one of the women from her town to hold my mother for just a little while. When she came back a little while later, the woman and my mother were gone.

My grandparents went crazy; they ran from cart to cart looking for the baby but they could not find her or the woman. Eventually, in desparation, they gave up. Miraculously, when they got to the city, they met another person from their town who told them that he saw the woman with the baby, my mother, and led my grandparents to her. It turned out that the woman had always wanted a child and wasn't able to have one.

Since the Germans were already getting close to the city, my grandparents took the train further east to Uzbekistan. When they stopped in Tashkent to get hot water, a woman told my grandmother to kill the babies because there was no way that they would survive the train ride, with the disease and the cold. My grandmother immediately got off the train.

This is how my mother's family survived the Nazi invasion. There is much more to the story. Many of the details are getting fuzzier and unfortunately the people who could set things straight no longer have the ability to remember.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Kiruv - Haven't got a clue...

This post was spurred by a post on BeyondBT. A Simple Jew writes about how non-observant Jews just don't have a clue about what Kashrut* means. I don't think the point of the article was to preach or coerce, but to illustrate just how much of a disconnect there is between two groups of Jews.

I want to write about another disconnect that exists between non-observant Jews and Kiruv(outreach) types such as Chabad. A long time ago, when I was not observant, I wandered into a Chabad house and then kept coming back. Often I would try to talk to the people there about many important things that were on my mind, but I had a hard time. Their idea of how the world works, about history, science, theology was so different from mine that I felt like I was talking to Martians.

Aristotle said that "It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain ideas without accepting them." I was very frustrated with the people in this Chabad house because they acted like they were clueless about any world outlook other than their own. Mind you, I didn't care if they agreed with my beliefs; all they had to do was acknowledge that my beliefs existed.

As much as I appreciated them at the time, there were many reasons I knew that Chabad was not the right place for me. Later on, I encountered a very similar lack of understanding in a Yeshivish type of outreach program. Which is a shame. Because I think that if they took the time to listen and acknowledge, they could get a lot farther with a lot more people.

*For those folks that don't like "Kashrus" :)

"Holy mackeroly, I'm surrounded by college students. What the heck am I doing here?"

This is a quote from a post by Tobie. As I was reading it, I started reminiscing back to my first college days, back in the Dark Ages. I was wandering aimlessly around the Quad, when I saw a sight that I cannot erase from my mind to this day.

A tall black man, tye-die shirt, dreadlocks, rollerskates, ghetto-blaster on shoulder, Magic Carpet Ride blasting out as he was whirling in circles in front of the Student Union.

That was the moment it hit me. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


In reading a book on Picasso, what struck me was how he seemed to fixate on certain ideas and draw them compulsively, over and over again. For example - guitars, bulls/bullfighters, clowns. What makes someone do that? Did he do it on purpose, as a gimmick? Or was there something in his brain that just got stuck in an infinite loop? I get the sense that he was a slave to his muse. I don't know if his obsession had a purpose, but I don't think he was in control.

I used to think that I didn't like or understand modern art, but I don't think this is the case. I think that many people assume that if you look at something by Picasso or Kandinsky or Chagall, it has to be great, and you must just "not get it". But I think that is just lemming-think. Even a great artist has variation in the quality of their work - some are great and some are not so great. This book really openened my eyes to this fact by juxtaposing some of the art that I've never really seen before - and it's great!

On Secular Zionism

Chardal has written on the topic of Zionism. I don't want to address all the topics in his post, just this particular one:

What does the land mean to a secular Jew?

Secular Jews were in a difficult predicament at the turn of the century. The promise of the haskala movement to lead Jews towards acceptance by European society and subsequently towards equality and social justice seemed little more than a pipe dream. Anti-Semitism was on the rise and the enlightened social theories of the day seemed to offer little that would remedy the situation. Hertzl and those who followed him proposed to create a political reality for the Jewish people such that we would define our environment and social norms and thus we would be able to implement the teachings of the enlightened and modern world in a more perfect manner – without the old prejudices of the Europeans. The natural place to implement this experiment was in Eretz Yisrael, the historical land of the Jewish people. The land was not an ideal in its own right nor did it contain any religious meaning to these assimilated Jews. The value of the land was only so far as it provides the nation with physical security and independence thereby curing the social ills experienced in Europe. In other words, where for the religious Jew, the state is a response to the religious need to live in the land – for the secular Zionist, the land is simply a necessary component of creating a political state.

He is correct to a certain extent. The Jews that settled the land did not have a religious connection to it. But I think it is disengenuous to say that the land was not "an ideal in its own right". There were many proposals for a Jewish homeland in Uganda, Canada, etc. But the pioneers felt that it was imperative that our homeland was in Eretz Yisroel and not some random plot of land. Instead of a religious connection there was a cultural connection which was just as important and powerful. These Jews were in love with the land, with the Kinneret, with Hebron, with Yerushalayim.

It is true that the land was "a necessary component of creating a political state", but it was more than that. What the settlers were trying to do was instill the love of the Land itself. The primitive love that farmers feel for their land, such that when someone tries to push them out, they defend that land with their life.

This is how it used to be 2000 years ago. It took twelve Roman legions to quell the Bar Kochba rebellion. How strange it is that a Nation that is viewed as weak and bookish, capable of producing doctors, lawyers, and accountants, was once the Nation that was one of the biggest thorns in the side of the most powerful Empire in the world. But through 2000 years of wandering the Jews forgot how to be attached to the land. Of course, how could they be attached to the land that was not theirs? This was the problem the secular settlers tried to correct.

I haven't sorted my feelings out about his post or Zionism in general, but I did want to address what I think is an unfair characterization of the motivations of the secular Zionists.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

OK, I couldn't resist... Quote of the Day

"They want to test our feelings," protester Mawli Abdul Qahar Abu Israra told the BBC.

"They want to know whether Muslims are extremists or not. Death to them and to their newspapers," he said.

Monday, February 06, 2006

A Fox Named Arik

I am concluding the "Foxes and Hedgehogs" series. You can find the previous articles here(I), here(II), and here(III). The comments from my audience really helped me sort out my thoughts. As a parting thought I'd like to quote some passages out of an article in the New Yorker (Jan 23/30) about Ariel Sharon. As I was reading it, the article seemed to frame itself in the context of the "foxes and hedgehogs" paradigm.

"The old liberal opinion of Sharon was that he was a liar, and certainly, his relationship with the truth was complex. He was very cautious about revealing his views, but he did not lie gratuitously. Therefore, when he told me in 2001 that he would not evacuate the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, that was what he really believed. But when the circumstances changed so did he. He was prepared to destroy with his own hands much of what he himself had built."

"The answer to the enigma of Sharon, they said, is that he actually has no world view-no principles, no ideals, no integrity. He could establish settlements in one decade and demolish them in another."

I think in many ways, this ability to reassess the situation at every stage, to make decisions based on "facts on the ground" and not abstract ideas of how things should be is what made Sharon such a successful general. His political legacy is still hard to discern. Only time will tell whether his policies set the country on the right track.

I think to be fair, I also have to say that in many ways Sharon was also a hedgehog. His innate sense of Zionism, of the need to attach ourselves to the Land, his knowledge and consequent mistrust of the Arabs were never compromised by the tactical decisions he had to make. And in many ways, I think this combination of adaptability built on a solid ideological foundation is what made him a great man.

Whatever your political bent may be, I strongly recommend reading the article.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Tales from the Old Country III - The pogrom

In 1918, my paternal grandfather's father was forcibly drafted into the Red Army by the Communists. When he came back a few years later, the only thing left of his family were my grandfather and his sister who were living in a local orphanage. A pogrom that happened while he was away devastated his village.

Sixty two years later, my father received a strange phone call from someone who wanted to know whether his grandfather was named Wulf and whether his family came from the shtetl of Tetiev. The man on the phone said he thought that we were his relatives.

My father answered "yes" to both questions but he was very confused. He was sure that he had no relatives from that side of the family because they were all killed in the pogrom. It was at that point that the man on the phone told him the rest of the story which nobody in my family could have imagined.

It was the case that as the adults were being killed by the peasants and the soldiers, some of the kids in our family, other than my grandfather and his sister, managed to hide in the cellar and were not discovered. When the killing was over, the oldest girl, Manya, who was about 15, gathered her cousins and decided that they were going to Odessa, about 300 miles away. Somehow they made it to Odessa and boarded a ship to London. In London, Manya worked as a maid, and saved up money to buy tickets for everyone to go to America. In America, the family prospered and grew.

Sixty two years, when Manya, now in her late seventies, saw my name printed in the local paper, she called her nephew. Our name is very unusual; she wanted him to find out if there is any chance that these people were related to us. And sure enough that was the case and this ends the story of how my father found a big branch of his family, a family he never knew he had.

And now for something completely different...

I wound up at a Russian restaurant on Saturday night for my cousin's 40th birthday. My whole family was there including my cousin the Communist and his Protestant wife, and my cousin who is engaged to an Iraqi named Hussein.

For those who have never been to a Russian restaurant (meaning one that primarily caters to Eastern Europeans), you should go just to understand that there is a parallel universe that's hiding behind a non-descript door. I will not describe the excesses of food, libation, dress, and nicotine. If any of you recall the restaurant scenes from the movie "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover", you get the gist.

As my wife and I keep kosher we could not partake, and so we sat back drinking vodka and Cokes for most of the night as we watched my family boogie to the melange of EuroPop, Italian Ballads, and Russian/Jewish standards.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Ode on a Grecian Blog

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
--George Keats

My original purpose for this blog was to resolve many conflicting ideas in my head about the nature of truth, it's relation to Judaism, and specifically to my own life. However, sometimes this blog takes me away from the analytical and philosophical and into more right-brain areas. Occasionally, I put up poems that have really affected me, sometimes quotes from literature or Torah.

I was originally uncomfortable with doing this because I felt I was somewhat bait-and-switching my (growing) audience. But I think I'll keep doing this for the immediate future. Sometimes truth can be found in experience and not analysis.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The dialectical hedgehog

This is the third post in the series. You can find the prior posts here and here.

OK. So we talked about the fact that the world seems to be divided into hedgehogs, who attempt to explain everything as the workings of a grand system, and the foxes that don't really try to come up with a Grand Unified Theory, but focus on reality and reacting to the "facts on the ground".

We talked about the fact that in the sphere of politics and ideology, a hedgehog can really cause a lot of death and destruction in the service of an (often flawed) idea. See Communism, Fascism, and many other -isms that have arisen in history. In my heart I feel like not only are these manifestations of political fanaticism dangerous, they are often misguided or corrupt. This is especially evident in retrospect.

However, without trying to sound like a hypocrite, I do think that there is one process that seems to be a pattern in history, almost a system that I would subscribe to as being the most likely to recurr. It is kind of a variation of the Dialectic. Except, whereas in a more traditional understanding of the dialectical process, the anti-thesis is an external force, in my version it comes from within. It is more of a corruption of the original idea.

In other words, whatever idea some hedgehog comes up with, if it gains enough steam to become popular, it will attract enough people that either don't really understand it, or think they understand it but really understand it completely differently than it was meant to be understood, or lastly, and more nefariously, people that twist the idea to serve their own ends. And ultimately, the idea, even if it had merit, becomes a twisted and corrupted reflection of itself.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tales from the Old Country II - The Jazz Singer

My father's grandfather was a successful businessman. He owned a small leather goods factory and when he found out that his eldest son did not want to take over the family business he was very disappointed. However, when he found out that instead, his son wanted to be a jazz saxophone player he became apoplectic. "A respectable Jew does not play jazz in taverns!" Harsh words were spoken and my great uncle was thrown out of the family and disowned.

The young man got on a boat and came to America, but he wasn't really able to make ends meet so when the US entered WWI, he enlisted. Some time later he was killed in battle.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Ukraine was dire. Due to the Civil War, famine and disease were ravaging the land. My great grandfather's factory was confiscated by the Communists and the family was in trouble.

Miraculously, the US government found our family and paid them death benefits throughout the famine, essentially saving the family from starvation. And my great grandmother never forgave her husband for throwing her son out of his house.

In Praise of the Hedgehog

After reading my first Hedgehog post, Tobie accused me of being to hard on hedgehogs. She wrote:

While I'm pretty sure that I myself am a fox, I think that hedgehogs have a few more good points than you seem to think. I feel like most of the idealists of the world are the hedgehogs type- those who feel as if the world ought to conform to certain ideals (like equality, for example) and do their best to make that a reality. Idealism, especially forceful idealism, is a frightening and powerful force, but don't you think that idealists have contributed to the world in addition to damaging it?

It is the idealist hedgehog that makes progress possible. In the grand scheme of things, foxes are sceptics, naysayers, reactors and not initiators. It is the ability of the idealist to captivate us, to motivate us to do things though they seem impossible, even if it ultimately results in failure - this is our most human trait.

This ties back to the idea of my previous post. It seems like what would be ideal is a cross-breed combination fox and hedgehog, a foxhog that has the best qualities of both extremes. The coexistence of two dualistic aspects of life, or actually more of a give and take, a push and pull (hint - read up on your Hegel for the next post to see where this is headed). The bond between belief and unbelief, or maybe even Good and Evil.

Mani Musings

In the this month's Atlantic Monthly, an insightful article about the transition of the Papacy. In describing Ratzinger's most admired book, the writer says "Belief in our time, [...] is formed in the crucible of unbelief, and unbelief is formed in defiance of the yearning to believe. The unbeliever is the believer's secret sharer, and vice versa"

Lately my thinking has been drifting in the Manichaean direction. Can one discern Good without the contrast of Evil in the world? Is Evil necessary? (No pun intended)

This will be explored further in the follow up to my Foxes and Hedgehogs post.