Dog bites man

If you were around when I was posting about rabies in China, and found the topic interesting (I do, but then again I'm an epidemiologist), you should check out this WHO dossier.
Saprophytic poets

Molds and bacteria feed on dead animals; that’s why the carcasses disappear after a while. But there might be a penultimate stage in the ecological cycle: the poet, notebook in hand, piling up metaphors on the lifeless creature.

I’m talking about the recent run in Slate of dead-animal poems. Dan Chiasson mused on the departed cockle in November. Then, on December 2nd, came Rick Barot’s dead, frozen gull. Barry Goldensohn, not to be outdone, meditated yesterday on toad skin.

I don’t know if this officially counts as a trend, and certainly these poems might have been written months or years ago. But Robert Pinsky, the official poet anointer of Planet Slate, seems to be awfully partial to memento mori.

I wonder why that is. My unfounded theory is that such dissection is a projection of the confessional impulse. I know, thinks the poet, that poetry is meant to plumb the Depths of the Soul, all the rotting-away and disease-unto-death that’s found there – what better objective correlative than an actual-factual animal, just like me, moldering away there where my pencil is pointing?

In the final analysis, thematics are independent of a poem’s quality. Barot’s poem is lovely and lyrical; Goldensohn’s is crude, verging on obscene (“How much of us will last, tough, stiff,/cured by summer sun. Our better towels/outlast our flesh. Are Nazi lampshades/holding up? Shrunken heads? Mummies?/Count on bones. Stone monuments. A few poems.”). But the general trajectory of these poems can be roughed out:

1. Description of the deceased;

2. Connection of the departed to some larger trend (death in general; natural decay; royal purple); and then the obligatory

3. meditation on our own unavoidable passing.

In any case, the next time I read another of these I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to shout out, “For God’s sake, leave the poor animal alone!”


The primordial soup

Today we went to B&H Dairy, an unassuming temple of the vegetarian palate on 2nd Avenue between 8th and 9th with lunch specials for under seven dollars. Width: a table plus a lunch counter; length: about eight tables. We sat in the back, and after we had finished eating (lox and bagel for Her, kasha varnishkes for Your Host), we were treated to a culinary renactment of the creation myth. A sturdy woman, not large but broad and solid of beam, made different sorts of soup in a number of sizeable plastic cans.

She did it like this. Each canister seemed to have a base of some sort (beets, I suppose, for the borscht, potatoes for the potato soup, and so on). She boiled an awful lot of boiling water in a very large metal pot and doled out steaming potfuls to each canister. She did the same thing with an impressively large quantity of noodles, which only some soups were favored with, and then made the rounds with various spices in small dishes, from which she dumped generous portions into each soup -- salt first, then something yellow. The borscht got a dollop of a concoction from a brown bottle labeled Seasoning.

All of this work with hot pots, boiling water, and confined spaces was done in sandals and ungloved. Such unceremoniousness producing such ambrosial results: Whitman, you should be living at this hour!

So (lehavdil and all that) that's what I think creation was like: no fireworks, no unfolding of some Rosenzweigian revelatory flower, just some simple orders: "Light! Darkness!" Then later: "Plants! Animals!"

Not that all of creation is as tasty as B&H. But we can certainly try.


"Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair"

We find ourselves in the midst of the Seven Days of Repentance, that hallowed period between the two High Holidays of Christmas and New Year's.

(I am inspired to make this remark in part by a recent post of Katle Kanye's. Among other things, he says: Every year I torture myself trying to understand what [Christmas] is. Is it like Purim, or is like Yom Kippur? Or Sukkos? Or possibly even Shavuos? Let me explain. The trees on the street and in the houses are definitely like the leaves of Shavuos, but many put their trees out by the window and that's a little like Chanukah, since that's pirsumei nisa. On the other hand the pretty blinking lights are leftover sukkah decorations, so it's Sukkos, and the trees are like schach, "so that your future generations will know." But then the midnight mass and the holy choral singing is like Kol Nidrei. Once the day comes, though, everyone gets drunk and puts on red hats, and it's a Purim-like atmosphere. With the turkey, of course, there's a taste of Simchas Torah. [...])

In this time of year, when the nation is in a fever of commercial intent, it might be useful for my non-Christian readers to try and understand a bit of the more interesting intellectual and spiritual meaning of Christmas. Our man Wystan (as Sarah Beck might call him) has thoughtfully provided us with his Christmas oratorio, "For the Time Being," and I thought there might be no better time to excerpt a goodish chunk of Herod's monologue. (Well, an even better time might have been on the 25th, but this isn't exactly a current-events blog, is it?) Of course, there's nothing whatsoever to learn about Judaism from this stuff. Not a thing.

If you wonder when I'm going to be blogging on more strictly Jewish topics, wait for my blockbuster post on the Tenth of Tevet, which I have no intention of writing.


[. . .]

I have tried everything. I have prohibited the sale of crystals and ouija-boards; I have slapped a heavy tax on playing cards; the courts are empowered to sentence alchemists to hard labour in the mines; it is a statutory offence to turn tables or feel bumps. But nothing is really effective. How can I expect the masses to be sensible when, for instance, to my certain knowledge, the captain of my own guard wears an amulet against the Evil Eye, and the richest merchant in the city consults a medium over every important transaction?

Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out, from all these households under my protection: "God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our Uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves."

Reason is helpless, and now even the Poetic Compromise no longer works, all those lovely fairy tales in which Zeus, disguising himself as a swan or a bull or a shower of rain or what-have-you, lay with some beautiful woman and begot a hero. For the Public has grown too sophisticated. Under all the charming metaphors and symbols, it detects the stern command, "Be and act heroically"; behind the myth of divine origin, it senses the real human excellence that is a reproach to its own baseness. So, with a bellow of rage, it kicks Poetry downstairs and sends for Prophecy. "Your sister has just insulted me. I asked for a God who should be as like me as possible. What use to me is a God whose divinity consists in doing difficult things that I cannot do or saying clever things that I cannot understand? The God I want and intend to get must be someone I can recognize immediately without having to wait and see what he says or does. There must be nothing in the least extraordinary about him. Produce him at once, please. I'm sick of waiting."

To-day, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. "God has been born," they cried, "we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters."

One needn't be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions -- feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the greatest masterpieces.

Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o'clock in the afternoon.

Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: "I'm such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow." Every crook will argue: "I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged." And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. O dear, Why couldn't this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can't people be sensible? I don't want to be horrid. Why can't they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn't, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse. For it could only mean this: that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so? I've worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I've taken elocution lessons. I've hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I've tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.


The City of God

What thou lovest well is felt violently.
Stays on in us. I know Paradise is not
the cypress tree God showed me as his heart.
Is not the country, is not beautiful.
It is the city streets in bad weather.
Small dirty shops with custard pastries
and coffee and steam-covered windows.
I do not speak the language of that paradise.
Why am I so happy to be going there?
Something rings and cries and shines
and is black in me. I am walking with it
into the City of Heaven. I will smell
all the people, my body hot inside the shop.
Rain will be falling heavily outside.

Chosen by the Lion

I am the one chosen by the lion at sundown
and dragged back from the shining water.
Yanked back to bushes and torn open, blood
blazing at the throat and breast of me.
Taken as meat. Devoured as spirit by spirit.
The others will return quickly to drink again
peacefully, but for me now there's only faith.
Only the fact that the tall windows I lived
with were left uncovered halfway up.
And the silence of those days I lived there
which were marked by your arrivals like
stations on a long journey. You write to say
you love me and lie awake in stillness
to avoid the pain. I remember looking
at you from within at the last moment,
with faith like a gift handkerchief, delicate
and almost fragile. This is the final thing.
Purity and faith, power and blood. Is there
nothing to see? Not memory even of forgetting?
Only the body meeting the body? What of faith
when it meets death, being when it is hard
to account for? The nipples you bit
and the body you possessed lie buried in you.
My faith shines as the moon in the darkness
on water, as the sky in the day. Does it hover
in the air around you? Does it come like
a flower in your groin? Or is it like before
when you were alone and about to fall asleep
saying out loud in the darkness, "Linda,"
and hearing me answer immediately, "Yes!"

-both by Linda Gregg
from Chosen by the Lion (Graywolf Press, 1994).
Is there a Chinese speaker in the house?

If so, can you tell me what this says? Especially the part near the bottom that mentions a certain Yiddish-speaking hatted cat.

Please e-mail me if you have any idea at all. Thanks!


Tony Judt is not entirely wrong

I am reluctant to write about matters Israeli-Palestinian: first, because of all the incoherent shouting on the right and left; and second, because the mammoth Middle East overshadows other, more subtle questions which are perhaps more important to leading a considered Jewish existence. Occasionally, however, an opportunity for staking out the middle ground presents itself. Thanks to Kesher Talk for providing a link to the relevant material.

Tony Judt's original essay in The New York Review of Books received much hostile press, and I can't say that it was undeserved. In defending himself against his critics, he repeats his main claim, which (as I discuss below) I find wholly false. On the way there, however, he makes some worthwhile points which are not commonly addressed by those who care about Israel. It is a pity that those points can only be made from those on Judt's end of the spectrum.

The core of his argument (as Judt himself states) is this: "This, then, was the core of my argument: it is not the state that is anachronistic (pace Walzer's misreading of me), but the Zionist version of it." I suspect that Walzer's "misreading" (actually quite a plausible reading) was an attempt to find the least objectionable construction of Judt's argument. For if we are meant to take Judt at the face value of this, his newest claim, there is something about the Zionist state which is "anachronistic" enough (read: "immoral enough," for the "anachronistic" state is one which does not conform to modern notions of political right) for the world to be rid of it.

It is theoretically possible (though, of course, quite improbable, and one pales at the thought) that a Zionist state, by the very immorality of its foundations, could cede the right to exist -- just like there have been actual states in history which should not have existed. Judt errs, however, in thinking that Israel, in its present incarnation, is immorally constructed. The important error in his argument is this. Israel is indeed flawed, and deeply so, but not in a more fundamental way than all nation-states are flawed. Michael Walzer, whose thought I am happily biased towards, makes this point in his response to Judt.

Let me explain further. According to Judt, while the European nation-states do indeed discriminate among applicants for citizenship, they do not discriminate in a fundamental way among all those who become citizens. It is only Israel, he writes, which discriminates between citizens based on their ethnic origin.

I don't think this is true. The alarm bells start ringing when one reads his description of the nature of Frenchness, a rush-job at the speed of special pleading ("But if someone is a citizen of, e.g., France, he or she is French and that is all there is to the matter, at least as far as the law is concerned."). As Daniel Boyarin pointed out in a talk of his I attended today, the French view of different minority religious communities is precisely that: a French view, strongly conditioned by Christian ideas of religion as distinct from ethnicity and nationality. For example, in its recent outlawing of "religious symbols" in schools, the French government made a serious category mistake, assuming that yarmulkes and head-scarves for Jews and Muslims serve just the same function as crosses for Christians: religious symbols. This Christian approach in the name of the French government (which does not even realize that its policy is conditioned in such a way) puts the lie to Judt's naive assumptions of a "neutral" Frenchness. Indeed, as Michael Walzer points out, it is only the United States which attempts to create in its political-cultural sphere a "neutral space," not beholden to any particular founding religion.

This is only one, comparatively minor example. The point is that many of the European states do indeed discriminate among their citizens -- and that Israel can do so in the same way, without jeopardizing the fundamental moral nature of its society.

Israel discriminates between Jews and non-Jews in two different ways. The first way, and most troubling, is discrimination not in keeping with any fundamental political values appropriate to a democratic state -- I mean those stated quite clearly in Israel's declaration of independence, according to which citizens are granted rights without regard to race or religion. It is in this category that Judt makes necessary points, for there exist those forces in Israeli society that would discriminate against Arabs in a fundamentally unjust way -- e.g., by denying them the right to live where they choose, through unjust search and seizure, through unjustifiable military persecution of innocents.

Judt is wrong in his assumption that such unjust discrimination is at the very foundation of Israeli society. The vital political culture that includes energetic defenders of and advocates for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and the political institutions which guarantee Arab participation, make it clear that such unjustice is the system's imperfection rather than its goal. Judt is right, however, to point them out. As we see in the unreflective Israel cheerleading of Abraham Foxman (who also responds to Judt), there are far too many leaders of the Jewish community who cannot bring themselves even to admit that Israel's political culture is capable of injustice!

There is another way in which Israel discriminates. "Discrimination" is perhaps not the right word for this activity, the characteristic of most nation states and one that Judt wishes to deny. France gives special treatment to French Catholics -- not in granting them a higher class of political privilege, but in granting them the status of majority. Those French who are defined this way, in terms of their culture and nationality (and who can deny that this is what comes to mind when thinkng of "the French"?), are differently treated by the political culture than French Muslims. Similar observations can be made about other European nation-states, including Poland, Spain, Italy.

Israel is founded on democratic, majority-Jewish principles, a nation-state in the tradition of other nation-states. It is also imperfect and capable of injustice. It is disheartening that so few public intellectuals seem able to accomodate these multiple truths.
The flames of speculation

In the tractate Horayos (or Horayot, for those of you allergic to Ashkenazic pronunciation), page 11b, there is an extensive discussion, one among many in the Talmud, of the ingredients and fabrication of the oil used to anoint the high priests. R' Yehudah is quoted as saying: "A certain miracle occured [נס אחד נעשה] with regard to the anointing oil: there were only 12 login, yet from that oil was anointed the Tabernacle and its vessels, and Aaron and his sons, through all the seven days of priestly initiation."

Does that story remind you of any other miraculous oil? Could it be that the Hanukkah tale (in Shabbos 21b), which includes the similar phrase "יום אחד נעשה בו נס" (on a certain day a miracle occured), was itself based on the story on Horayos, so that the Rabbis could forge a connection between Hanukkah and other holidays of Temple dedication (e.g. Sukkos)?

This is unfounded speculation, but for the life of me I can't figure out why it's wrong.

Maybe, if I get my gumption up, I can ask Daniel Boyarin. That's right, he of Carnal Israel is speaking tomorrow at 3 pm in the City of All Sins, at the 6th St. Synagogue.

(Whoops, I suppose tomorrow is today already. Yes, he's speaking on Sunday: Hayom hayom hayom.)


"Not to gaze at them like a fool"

(From Spinoza's The Ethics, Part I. The Samuel Shirley translation reads better, but this is what I found on-line.)

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine [of final causes], anxious to display their talent in assigning [such] causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory—namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance; thus showing that they have no other method of exhibiting their doctrine. For example, if a stone falls from a roof on to some one's head and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God's will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. "But why," they will insist, "was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?" If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: "But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?" So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance. So, again, when they survey the frame of the human body, they are amazed; and being ignorant of the causes of so great a work of art conclude that it has been fashioned, not mechanically, but by divine and supernatural skill, and has been so put together that one part shall not hurt another.

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of Nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also [. . .]


Department of Unsolicited Medical Advice
or: I Suppose That's What's Been Going Around At Shul Lately
or: Doctor Doctor, Gimme the News, I Gotta Bad Case of Diaspora Jew
or: I'd Hate to See What He Said At His Private Appearances

(The summary below is from YIVO News, Winter 2003.)

A. B. Yehoshua Prescribes Zionism as Cure for Diaspora "Disease"

Author A. B. Yehoshua maintains that Zionism's mission is to recast a historic Jewish fear of national sovereignty and power. Participating in YIVO's Distinguished Lecture Series [...], the Israeli novelist and intellectual prescribed Zionism as the medicine to treat what he sees as the Jewish disease called Diaspora. "Ultra Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, liberals and socialists, nationalists and bourgeois . . . the medicine has to be adjusted to each of them with regard to dosage, but basically the same medicine for everybody."

Addressing the topic, "The Future of the Zionist Revolution," Yehoshua insisted that the Jews' 2000-year exile from Israel was not imposed on them by non-Jews, but reflected instead "a neurotic choice that, despite the danger, anguish, and humiliation it entailed, helped alleviate the Jews' identity conflict."

For Yehoshua that conflict -- between universal religious faith in the creator of the cosmos and the narrow demands of nationalist identity -- began at Mount Sinai. The challenge to Zionism, he contends, is "to correct the aspiration that was established at Sinai, an aspiration full of pain and contradictions."

The author suggested that the correction is already taking place. In Israel, it is expressed through a tendency to secularize Jewish identity by emphasizing Israeli citizenship -- now being granted to increasing numbers of Christians, especially from Russia -- over religious faith. Conversely, in the Diaspora, he maintains, increasing numbers of ethnic non-Jews are being drawn to univeral elements of Jewish religious tradition, such as Kabbalah.

Some audience members felt that Yehoshua was advocating divorcing religion from nationality, and a future in which all Jewish nationalists in Israel would be known as Israelis, while Jewish spiritualists in the Diaspora -- both ethnic Jews and non-Jews -- would be called "adherents of the Jewish faith."

The lecture was the author's sole public appearance during his recent visit to the United States.


The Tragedy of the Tulsa Fullback (excerpt)

After the [poetry] class ended, a student who plays on the [University of Tulsa] soccer team stopped to tell [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko about the mixed emotions he felt after a coach refused to let him play in the team's final game. When he finished, Mr. Yevtushenko flung his arms out wide and commanded: "You must write about that feeling. Do not squeeze it inside."
from today's New York Times

"Play me, please, Coach! I'll burn up the net!"
My glory-dream's denied. The bastard said nyet.


Of fish and fetuses

(If you're not up to speed on the latest flap about fish and mercury, please see the articles here and here. Then return to the next paragraph. Happy reading! A special award will be given to the alert reader who figures out what the FDA is actually going to announce in the spring -- i.e. whether they will be making their advisory more or less stringent. There seem to be contradictory reports on the matter.)

I am an epidemiologist, but I'm no expert on the effects of methylmercury expsure. But in looking through the National Academy of Sciences sober and thoughtful 2000 report on the matter, it appears that we have here a classic problem of epidemiology and public health: how do we translate risk assessment into legislation?

There are several parts to this controversy. One involves the "action standard" of the FDA -- this is the methylmercury dose that would require the agency to take legal action -- and whether this is to be based on the EPA's advisory. In April, the FDA indicated that this would indeed be the case, making its own action standards some five times stricter. But two other relevant pieces of the problem should not be overlooked: the wording of the FDA's warning itself, and, perhaps most important, how we should implement public policy based on these advisories.

Of course, these different parts of the problem are interdependent. The "action standard" of the FDA, like the advisory level of the EPA, demands legal action on the part of the agency. So one cannot agitate for the highest possible level of protection without taking into account the results that such protection will have.

Let us assume, for the moment, that the EPA advisory level is scientifically justified, albeit the matter is actually quite complicated. The NAS report fairly characterizes as "strong" the evidence for neurological effects due to methylmercury. These effects are strongest, states the report, also reasonably enough, in fetuses and newborns, whose neurological development is still proceeding. However, this evidence is based almost entirely on either animal studies or studies of populations affected by acute mercury exposure. The several epidemiologic studies concerned with chronic exposure to low levels of mercury (more relevant to us tuna-fish folks, for example) give a mixed picture, and in fact the largest of these studies (the so-called Seychelles study) finds very few significant neurological effects. The NAS report further states (in its conclusion) that the average exposure in the United States is quite low in comparison to the recommended standards.

In short, the EPA advisory is based on scientific conclusions which find their strongest base not among common, everyday levels of exposure, but in above-average, acute exposure, and in animal studies. If the FDA adopts the EPA level, we need to understand that we are setting the bar of protection higher, erring on the side of biological effects that, while plausible, might not be commonly found in daily life. If, for example, the new data on mercury levels in tuna suggest that exposure in fetuses, newborns, and perinatal women might be higher than previously thought, one must still compare this increased exposure with the recommended standard -- which is in turn set as low as possible, in keeping with a standard of maximum protection.

In other words, we are dealing with a strong, plausible biological connection, which might or might not be plausible given chronic exposures of an average intensity. It's not implausible to suggest that the FDA mandates exposure levels so low as to be incapable of causing any measurable effect.

Here's where the hard part starts. A price is paid for every legislative intervention, and someone, somewhere, will be paying the price of that intervention. Is it worth it? Is it worth assuring that tens of thousands of children a year have their mercury exposure reduced to levels that could not possibly have any physiological effect? How much do we value, say, a variegated diet during pregnancy, or the health values of different sorts of fish, or a non-panicked approach to dietary recommendations?

A spokesman from the Environmental Working Group (the chief critic of the FDA's less stringent recommendations with regard to tuna) accused the FDA of abdicating its responsibility to "protect the public." But protection against what, and at what cost? Are we to be protected against a minimal risk, even if such protection incurrs costly and possibly unwarranted intervention?

I would encourage all my readers (my Daily Dozen) to forward my speculations to those more expert in the matter than I am, so I can help clear up my thoughts and the suggestions of this blog.


Khayele the Baptized

Below is my translation of an entry in Noam Starik's Yiddish blog. Any historical novelists out there?

A terrible tragedy occurred on June 5th, 1814, in the house of Dovid Slutski, the rabbi of Kiev. After the Sabbath meal, Khayele, the thirteen-year-old daughter, suddenly disappeared. By the next day the whole city knew that priests had kidnapped the rabbi's daughter and were planning to convert her to Christianity. Her father protested to the churches and their responsible authorities. The priests, for their part, stood their ground, claiming that the girl had freely converted to the Orthodox faith, and that therefore they could not help the rabbi.

The priests moved Khayele to a fanatic Orthodox family in Kiev that was known for baptizing Jewish children. They paired her off with a Christian named Ivan Popov, and gave her the name Maria; so it was that Khayele became Maria Popov.

But on June 25th, her 12th day in captivity, she managed to smuggle out from under the noses of her guards nine dramatic letters she had written on tattered green paper. From the letters themselves -- heart-rendingly naive in tone, in a childish spelling -- it also seems that she managed to receive the responses from her family.

[I have made no attempt to preserve the original variations in spelling. ZShB]

Letter 3:

Darling father dearest, please take me out of this house. God should let me get away from these Christians, and I ask you, father, get me out of here fast, you must come quickly because I am so weak I don't eat and I can't eat and sleep. God should let you come soon with health and joy and we should all see and we should all be happy together Amen. Darling father dearest, my mother is too weak to get through this, please come and don't delay, you should come soon with joy Amen. Dear sister Hedele, write me dearest in good health. God should let me see you soon in good health and joy Amen.

Letter 5:

Darling sister-in-law dearest, I received your note that you wrote. I thank you very much for it. Please, please get me out of this unclean house. Darling brother dearest, please write me about your health and my darling sister. It's awful that I am away from you and that they don't let me out of here to see my dear mother. God should let my darling mother get through the troubles that have happened. How awful it is that I left my father and that my father is not there and I am with the Christians. God should let us see each other in health.

I allow myself to speculatethat the rabbi's daughter, the 13-year-old, tried to get herself converted by her own free will, but afterwards she realized what she had done and felt awful. She tried to run away (say the historical documents) from her home, and sent the sad notes to her family, but by then it was no help. Since she had already converted, the priests were able to hold her. From the above-quoted letters ("How awful it is that I left my father") it seems that she went to the church willingly and volunteered to be baptized. She quickly awoke from her dream and some days later she wrote the desperate letters. Perhaps she became frightened when she was matched with Ivan -- she had not expected that much.

We don't know the end of the story -- the documents don't tell us. We've found out about this history through searching the archives of the Orthodox church. From the same documents we know that a legal case was begun against the father for accusing the priests of lying, kidnapping, and baptizing the daughter against her will. We have no written evidence of the outcome of the trial.

[The article is based on Shoel Ginzburg, A terrible page of history, Di Tsukunft, July, 1932, pp. 423-427.]


Gold, frankincense, and sambar: or, tasty ironies of the Diaspora

A professor told me yesterday that the department is considering having its Christmas party at a kosher Indian vegetarian restaurant. How often, I ask you, do one's culinary fantasies come true?

Now let's see: did Mary and Joseph prefer dosas or utthapam?

The other thing I'm wondering, going through in my mind all the members of the department, is how many Christians will be at this Christmas party. Maybe a token two or three.


Sensitive compression

Some do indeed get their due, though it takes a few decades. Kay Ryan, a Californian poet and the author of a half-dozen books, has fashioned her art not in the groves of M.F.A.-academe, but in the unregarded and unsheltered Mojave. She has whittled and shaped, whittled and shaped her words down to such gems as the poem published a few days ago in Poetry Daily:

The Light of Interiors
Kay Ryan

The light of interiors
is the admixture
of who knows how many
doors ajar, windows
casually curtained,
unblinded or opened,
oculi set into ceilings,
wells, ports, shafts,
loose fits, leaks,
and other breaches
of surface. But, in
any case, the light,
once in, bounces
toward the interior,
glancing off glassy
enamels and polishes,
softened by the scuffed
and often-handled, muffled
in carpet and toweling,
buffeted down hallways,
baffled equally
by the scatter and order
of love and failure
to an ideal and now
sourceless texture which
when mixed with silence
makes of a simple
table with flowers
an island.

Volume CLXXXIII, Number 2
November 2003

Among its virtues are the many internal rhymes; the idiosyncratic use and non-use of meter; the fact that the entire poem is 2 (!) sentences long; and the theme itself, which many a poet has tilted at and failed. (The only thing I'm not sure about is the imprecise, nearly cliched "love and failure.")

To learn more about Ryan's work, take a look at this fine essay by Dana Gioia. You might also like to look at her new poem Hailstorm in The Atlantic (though I believe it's inferior to the one above).


Back to the book(s)

I'm usually reading a number of books at once (my attention span is solitary, poor, etc.), and there are some I've been in the middle of for ages -- who knows if I'll ever make it through Proust? On occasion, though, I am moved to have another try at a tome that's been intimidating me from across the room.

A recent article in the new issue of Conservative Judaism got me to pick up an old unfinishable standby.* (The "new" issue that came in the mail is dated summer, 2003. A delay like that doesn't make it any newer, but it does lend an air of nonchalant, old-world charm, like the Yiddish journals I get in the mail dated many months ago.)

There are several essays of note. Eugene Borowitz, in "The Pivotal Issue in a Century's Jewish Thought," remarks on the contemporary force of the ethical model of Judaism even after the crumbling of its philosophical (read: Kantian) foundations: "the continuing power of the ethical vision even without a sustaining contemporary intellectual theory of ethics." In his concluding section, the author (himself a Jewish philosopher) well-nigh throws up his hands and leaves the field:

As one devoted to thinking and to the unity of God, I hope that one day our Jewish religious commitment to the ethical will come to a Jewish religious intellectual paradigm as widely accepted among us as was the modern one for much of the past century. But for the moment, it seems far more likely that we shall have many theologies expressing the diverse religious intuitions in our community, a situation not unlike the experience of most centuries in our long history.

Yes, well, we can always hide our face in the skirts of history: someone, somewhere, during some century of the interminable Exile, has done something comparable to what we are doing now. But that's cold comfort, especially when you have a good, long think about the "diverse religious intuitions" in our community. I might be an elitist, but I can't help but think that these intuitions, often poorly expressed and completely contradictory, are a mightly slim reed on which to build a theological infrastructure.

Not being a philosopher (nor even playing one on TV), I can't presume to offer the alternative, unifying religious-intellectual paradigm which Borowitz seeks. I am puzzled, however, that he doesn't mention the interesting developments in Christian philosophical theology. I am thinking of the well-received and widely-read (well, comparatively widely-read, at any rate) work of Alvin Plantinga, who's written some very interesting philosophy on belief in God -- how can such belief be warranted, given the obvious and manifold difficulties?

But about the book I was moved to pick up again: Borowitz refers to Franz Rosenzweig as a possible saving philosophical grace for Jewish thought in the coming century. This made me wonder if anyone (who's not writing their doctoral thesis on the book) has ever read The Star of Redemption all the way through. Then I realized that the book had been sitting on my desk for the better part of a year, a bookmark stuck somewhat forlornly near the end of the first Gate (if I'm remembering rightly what he calls the larger divisions).

Last night, while being the only person of two in the house not watching The Practice, I gave old Franz another try. Suffice it to say that I find it no easier going than the first time, but now I have a different approach. I think it might be the perfect book for the intelligent layperson: the Jew interested in theology not so much as a universe of philosophically defensible assertions, but as a rich, funky, literary raw material open for the soul's browsing. In other words, just the sort of various intuition which Borowitz is talking about.

There are some books, I think, which can only be read in this way, because trying to pin down the twists and turns of the argument might not be worth it, and even inimical to the spirit of the work. I think of Rosenzweig and (for example) Kook more as poets than rigorous philosophers, perhaps because I myself am more a poet than a rigorous philosopher. Their books should be not so much closely read as surfed, riding lightly on the waves of fever-pitch prose without paying so much attention to every questionable lemma.

*You'll note that the Web site hasn't been updated for a few years. Par for the course as far as the Conservative movement's Web presence goes, I'm afraid -- lots of muticolored gimcracks but a paucity of solid material.