4/30/07

Elinor Nauen on Roberta Oliver

I promised Roberta that I wouldn’t say she was brave. I promised Roberta I wouldn’t say she “fought the good fight.”

Well, RO, I lied. I am going to say that to the end she stayed considerate, gallant and gorgeously courageous. Part of that was her usual modesty: She never said “why me?” She believed she’d had a good run, and she was at peace.

But Roberta was, of course, far more than her cancer or her death.

Our friendship began about 10 years ago, when I was just starting to get involved at Town and Village. We’d both been invited to a dinner, where I didn’t really know anyone. (To appreciate this anecdote, you have to know that I’m originally from the Midwest.) So, we were at this dinner, and she was telling a story, rattling along a mile a minute: TWO miles a minute.

And I said, Hey slow down, I can’t understand what you’re saying, you’re talking so fast.

And without missing a step, in that 1940s wisecracking-dame voice she had when she was still a smoker, she said, What, they can’t listen so fast out there where you come from?

A couple of years later, I happened to drive her and her son to Binghamton when he started college. What I remember most about that trip is the way she talked about Torah. Her infatuation (as someone called it), her joy in and mastery of the technical details, her passion and commitment inspired me to want what she had. If I am a halfway decent Torah reader, it’s in large part because Roberta “tortured” me—by which she meant that she refused to let me or anyone else do a sloppy job, not if she could do anything about it. She was endlessly patient in listening to me and many others practice our reads—and she never missed a mistake.

Roberta would be the first to say she didn’t have a beautiful voice, but when she leyned, her voice was radiant. Radiant and beautiful, out of love.

She loved being Jewish. She loved kirbys and The Gilmore Girls and salami. She loved shopping—and returning everything she bought the next day. And she loved her kids. How many times we would be on the phone and she would say, gotta go, it’s Paul. Or, It’s Katie! She lit up each and every time she said their names. How tender Paul and Kate have been under the recent stressful circumstances. How much I admire them—and their mother for raising two such wonderful young people. As well as Roberta’s magnificent mom Sarah, who started it all.

Roberta gave the best gifts, not only because she was generous, but even more, because she paid attention to her friends and knew what would please us. She was organized—I don’t know how the morning minyan will manage gala ads and the summer beach outing and daily Torah reads without her. She was fun and a good dancer.

But like any friendship worth its salt, ours was mostly a day-in day-out accumulation of listening, talking, hanging out. It’s not anecdotes or witticisms I will miss about Roberta, but the everydayness of our friendship. The privilege of her love and friendship.

4/27/07

Roberta (Rivka bat Avi v'Sarah), ז"ל

My friend Roberta died Wednesday night. She used to read Torah every week at our shul. She was careful with every word, every last trope -- and she never failed to bury an excellent reading of hers under a mountain of self-criticism the minute she came back to her seat ("I completely missed that zakef gadol!"). She demanded a good keriah from herself and others. She would fume and mutter under her breath when the gabbaim were not doing their job with the more error-prone.

She had been sick for a while; she wasn't old at all. Her mother will be at her shivah. And this is what I'm thinking: זו תורה וזו שכרה? -- this is the reward of the Torah?

4/26/07

Me and Jerome G.
Making your doctor better.

Jerome Groopman: "Because we doctors see so many people, thinking in the moment, we have to use shortcuts. If lay people become educated about how we think, with a few appropriate and directed questions, they could help us think better. They should ask, “Could this be anything else?” or “I’m worried this is something serious.” That is the genuine partnership."

See my Q&A in this week's Forward with the author of How Doctors Think.

4/22/07

Disclaimers apply
And modesty! Lots of modesty.

It's not that I really think I'm the best overall Jewish or Israeli blogger, but you might as well vote for me, since someone was nice enough to nominate me. (Please also vote for In Mol Araan as best food blog and Katle Kanye as best non-English blog. All nominees in these categories here.)
Happy birthday, Itzik!

I had fun at Itzik Gottesman's 50th birthday party last night, held at the Yiddish Artists and Friends club on East 7th Street. (He's the assistant editor at the Yiddish Forward, also an ethnologist and many other things besides.) The music was great, the dancing -- well, I tried to, a little bit, and then realized it was way too complicated for me. Let me say something else about the klezmorim: you should go buy The Broken Tongue, Daniel Kahn's CD of Yiddish-klezmer-funk (or, as his band's site puts it: "Alienation Klezmer Bund = Radical Yiddish Song + American Gothic Folk + Punk Cabaret + Klezmer Danse Macabre = Verfremdungsklezmer Bund."). Also, Adrienne Cooper's daughter can wail the guts out of a song. (I know she has her own name; someone told me but I forgot.)

While I'm mentioning Itzik, you should read his article in the Forward from a couple of weeks ago about how the Forverts is adapting to the changed (i.e. mostly Chasidic) Yiddish landscape.

4/20/07

Avrom Sutzkever: the blog
Not by him but about his work.

First post, with my translation of "Ode to the Dove" (part I).

4/19/07

Earlobes

On Leviticus 14:14, Rashi (or the Rashi found in many chumoshim my chumesh) uses a word קנארפעל knarfel to gloss תנוך אוזן earlobe. I have no idea what kind of word this is. I don't think it's Yiddish, unless it's a weird rhoticizing way of spelling קנאפל knafl heel ("heel of the ear"?). If anyone knows, that would make me less mystified, and would save me the effort I'm currently expending in trying to look it up. (Ideally I would find a reliable critical edition of Rashi which includes the "Yiddish" glosses, but I don't know where that would be.)

Update: The lobe thickens. I followed S.'s advice and just spent way too much time browsing Google Books (thanks for nothing!). Jerold Frakes' Early Yiddish Texts 1100-1750 (see page 1 in Google Books) includes a few pages on the Yiddish and Tsarfatic glosses found in Rashi. Leviticus 14:14, and knarfel, are not among them. I guess then that whatever manuscript my bal-chumesh was working from either (a) had a later addition of this super-gloss, or (b) the publisher just stuck it in. I have yet to look at the printed Rashi manuscripts available through JNUL.

4/18/07

A conversation with a taxi driver

Driver: What language are you speaking to your daughter? Is that Dutch?

Me: Close! It's Yiddish. A Jewish language. Say [noticing Driver's accent], where are you from?

Driver: The Congo.

[. . .]

Driver: I love the Jews.

Me: Oh . . . !?

Driver: My King is a Jew.

Me: (thinks) Congo. Does Congo have a king? I know something awful is happening in Congo right now but I don't remember what. Was "Belgian Congo," right? Was there a king then? Belgian Jews? (says) King?

Driver: My King, who I love.

Me: (light dawns) Oh . . . Jesus?

Driver: Yes. I think the Jews are wonderful. You are so good with money!

Me: I wish I was.

Driver: You are born smart. You are blessed.

Me: Um . . . thanks!

4/13/07

4/11/07

Hamiltonians
are sometimes funny.
Thinking about thinking about medicine
Rx: Think better.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Jerome Groopman for the Forward on the occasion of his new book, How Doctors Think. I hope the Q&A will appear soon. Meanwhile, enjoy this discussion in Slate which is rather less polite and chummy than ours was. Perhaps I should have said to Dr. Groopman what I was thinking, which is: Research on the patient-doctor interview has been accumulating for the past twenty-five years; why are mainstream MDs discovering it only now? (It's also interesting that the Slate discussion does not touch on doctor-patient communication at all. Groopman: doctors need to be trained better! Sanghavi: systems need to be more effective! But, guys, getting the patient to tell the doctor what the problem is? This is simple? This is done to perfection inside the office?)

4/8/07

Annoying Hebrew slang
Courtesy of Eurovision, Teapacks, and Iran.

I recently heard Israel's entry to the Eurovision song contest, a Teapacks song called Push the Button (video, lyrics). It's a good thing the lyrics are available on-line, because I can't understand the words to most songs in English, much less in rapped Hebrew. I think I learned a new word:

שוטרים וגנבים מתרוצצים עלי
והם קופצים עלי, מתקרצצים עלי

Shotrim veganavim mitrotzetzim alay
Vehem koftzim alay, mitkartzetzim alay

This is translated somewhere as "Cops and robbers run all over me / And they're jumping on me, getting on my case." I didn't know the word מתקרצץ, but judging from chat groups it means something like "annoy, suck up to, give too much attention to, glom onto" (e.g. כשחיפשתי דירה בבית הסטודנט, התקרצץ אלי איזה זקן -- "when I looked for an apartment in the student house, this old guy started getting in my face"; or המלצר ששירת אותנו התקרצץ עלינו בצורה דביקה במיוחד -- "the waiter who served us glommed onto us in a really sticky way").

Where does it come from? My father read to me over the phone from Milon Slang Makif, Comprehensive Dictionary of Slang, by one Rosenthal, which connects it to the word קריצה, meaning "winking, blinking." (Interesting that the Milon defines the reflexive - hitpa'el - as "to be annoyed," while on the basis of Internet usage, and from the Teapacks song, the hitpa'el functions here as an intensifier - to annoy.) Presumably קרצץ is formed by duplicating the last letter of קרץ. (Google doesn't know much about קרצץ.)

Rosenthal's Milon Slang Makif connects the word to קרציה tick. (Thanks to Balashon and an anonymous commenter for corrections.)

And k-r-tz (קרץ) is a well-known root from Tanach and modern Hebrew. In modern Hebrew it means "blink" (as mentioned above), but Rabbinically and Biblically the word also encompasses "pinch, cut; snap [the fingers]". Here's where I should get off the train and let Balashon, with his greater knowledge and fuller bookshelves, drive the etymology forward. Or is that backward?

4/6/07

Liberal "Torah Judaism"
Much as I hate the term.

Is there "da'as Torah"? Are there scholars lay, rabbinic, or talmid-khokhemdik who immerse themselves in the Torah so completely that their system of reference is different from others'?

This is plausible -- with a caveat. These learned Jews aren't to be found just in the ultra-Orthodox streams of Judaism which have popularized the term. Even liberal Jews can have daas Torah. It's just that their -- our! -- Torah is different (cf. "seventy sides/faces/tongues/languages to the Torah").

4/5/07

After the blood and the lamb: beets

I welcome your envy: among the guests at our second seder was Ms. Chocolate Lady, with escort Mr. Lady-to-be. She made us chocolate mousse which is quite possibly the best thing I have eaten ever. Even tastier than the Jewish madeleine, I mean the afikoymen.

She also made us some beets, and I brought them for lunch to work today, a big tupperware that I meant to eat only half of. Big mistake, thought I, as I opened the plastic bag and saw a pool of beet juice on the bottom - now I'll have to eat up the whole thing so it won't leak into my backpack on the way home. So, worried about beet overdose, I started in. And they were delectable. There I sat, waiting for my patients to arrive, tie untucked into shirt, slurping up huge tasty beet hunks with trusty chunks of matzo. I was a beet-scarfing animal. I was a beet plague. I finished it all and I wanted more.

Lucky the door was closed. And I sanitized my hands before examination.

4/1/07

Meritorious mothers
From Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, chapter 12.

The Zachuth of the pious ancestry may generally be described as the זכות אבות (the Zachuth of the Fathers), but the term Fathers is largely limited in Rabbinic literature to the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God's covenant with whom is so often appealed to already in the Bible. The Rabbinic rule is, "They call not Fathers but the three (patriarchs), and they call not Mothers but four" (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) [1]. The last statement with regard to the Mothers suggests that there is such a thing as the זכות אמהות (the Zachuth of the Mothers). This is in conformity with the Rabbinic statement in reference to Lev. 26:42 regarding God's remembering his covenant with the patriarchs, that there is also such a thing as the covenant with the Mothers [2]. In another place, they speak even distinctly of the Zachuth of the Mothers, "If thou seest the Zachuth of the Fathers and the Zachuth of the Mothers, that they are on the decline, then hope for the grace of God." [3] And it would even seem that they would invoke the Zachuth of the Mothers together with the Zachuth of the Fathers in their prayers on public fasts prescribed on the occasion of general distress [4] . . .

[1] Berachoth, 16b. See, however, D.E.Z., ch.1, where they speak of seven Fathers who entered into a covenant with God. In Sirach (heading to c.44), the expression Fathers is even more extensive.
[2] T.K., 112c.
[3] See Jer. Sanhedrin, 27d, and Lev.R., 36,6. Cf. commentaries, and see also Cant.R., 2,9.
[4] See Pseudo-Jonathan to Exod. 18:9 and Mechilta, 54a. In our liturgy, the invocation of the Zachuth of the mothers is very rare. A Piyut (hymn) by R. Gershom b. Judah, recited on the eve of the New Year, has a reference to the covenant of the Mothers.