He signed my title page!

If you know what this means, then you probably are a current or former graduate student, or related to one.

Feel free to leave appropriate sentiments in the comments. (If you don't know what the appropriate ones are, guess.)

More later on my continuing academic odyssey.


The Fig Tree
A poem by Israel Eliraz (b. 1936)

This fig tree's growing just as big as it can
as if it already grew here once.
That's the nature of this beauty, this tree growing with supreme sureness
inestimably greater than any sureness of mine,
looking at it this evening and eating its sweet fruit
of which only the honeyed idea of the infinite is sweeter,
that with all its attempts to come by and grow this tree
finally grew it, ring upon ring
fire within fire inexhaustible

Translated from the Hebrew by Z.Sh.B.


The Rabbinical Assembly and Rubashkin Meat Dependence

I wrote Rabbi Rafi Rank of the Rabbinical Assembly with my suggestion (well, rather more than a suggestion, but let's pretend I wrote with proper humility) that the RA forbid Conservative Jews to eat meat under the Rubashkin or Aaron's Best brand names, since the factory which produces these makes use of inhumane practices.

Rabbi Rank responds:

Thanks for your note to me and I applaud your desire for strength and bold moves. But let me tell you why the statement did not include a forthright prohibition of the meat. We did not render the meat assur because out in the hinterlands, there are many Jewish communities whose soul source of kosher meat is Rubashkins. I was not going to tell them that this meat was assur in light of the fact that there were no alternatives available to them. That would have placed such communities in a terrible bind and so when the issue of prohibiting the meat was discussed—and it was!—we eventually rejected it as a bad idea.

On the other hand, the statement does give my colleagues a great deal of latitude in how they might wish to treat the meat in their own congregations. And so, in my own congregation, here on Long Island (Syosset—have you heard of us?), I did tell my congregation not to buy that brand. But, of course, out here, I did not leave them without an alternative. This is, after all, Long Island.

I believe that I am not alone in telling my congregation not to buy the meat. The Rabbinical Assembly puts a great deal of trust in its rabbis and their bold yet reasoned decisions in behalf of their own communities. We produced a statement that would help them make their decisions and inform our laypeople exactly where we stand.

As for my under-publicized statement, it was under-publicized in the press, but it sure is making the rounds in the Cyber world!

Be well and Shalom—

Rafi Rank
President, The Rabbinical Assembly

I suppose the decision is a wise one. That's why I'm not a rabbi, I guess (together with many other reasons!), because I don't think through the communal impact of such things. Still, one would hope the RA would be rather more directive in its statements; it is not (merely) a guild for Conservative rabbis, after all, but also, whether it wants to be or not, a policy-making body for the Conservative movement. Surely there could be some information-gathering and
-dissemination, if not by the RA, then certainly the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, about which brands of meat use humane slaughter? My rabbi said he would look into it, but wouldn't such research be more efficient if done centrally?
Grande em Portugal

The Portuguese Jewish blog Rua de Judiaria ("Jews' Street") has named this humble site one of the Melhores Blogs de 2004. Well, shucks!


Abundance, worth, and greatness*

The Conservative Activists' Network is a grandly named e-mail list that Avi let me know about. Still too young for a bris, it already bears the Jewish name of Shefa (שפע, abundance). Its aim is no less than the "spiritual rebirth of the Conservative movement." (I'd settle for an interesting conversation.) Maybe it'll live up to its own pre-hype; in any case, I've signed up, and if anything of interest happens there I'll let you know.

Update: Maybe a financial rebirth is in order, along with leadership who knows where the money went.

*A phrase from the Sabbath liturgy (שפע, יקר וגדולה)
Correction: No it's not. It's שבח, יקר וגדולה -- praise, not abundance. I think I knew what I was writing was wrong, but I pressed on anyway! Nothing like exuberance in the commission of error. Thanks to anon for pointing it out.
The language of Cervantes

The service elevator is down the hall from my office. Here's what I heard this afternoon from two guys struggling with a large something-or-other (I didn't poke my head out to see what it was):

Puta. Mete fuerza, ¡coño!

I love Spanish.

(No, I'm not going to translate it. It's hypocritical, I know -- I'm sure these words will offend some Spanish speakers -- but there you are. I contain multitudes.)


Well, it's a start

The Rabbinical Assembly, in its finite wisdom, has made some fraction of its teshuvot finally available on its Web site. What fraction, and why, is kind of hard to puzzle out. Most of the recent volumes (from 1981 to 2000) seem to be represented -- but not completely. And there's a tantalizing division between the "public" and "non-public" teshuvot. It's a good thing some of these responsa are being kept private; wouldn't want to flood the public with too much Torah, after all.

Thanks to Am Echad's Avi for the heads-up. (Or Am Ehad, or something. Figure out how you're spelling it!)

Update: My wife points out that I had to hear about this from a fellow blogger, and not from something so grubby as a press release or news article. That's the ticket; try to make sure no one knows about this!


How dumb are academics? No dumber than bloggers. Part XXIV

Mickey Kaus, in the permalink-free magic kingdom that is Slate, tries his hand at public-health research:
How dumb are academics? Part XXIII: Today's N.Y. Post reports on a Harvard School of Public Health Study that found "men tend to do less exercise and put on weight" after they remarry, even though they eat healthier diets. The
explanation, offered by Dr. Patricia Mona Eng:

Time demands of a new spousal role may preclude routine exercise.

Alternative non-Harvard-approved explanation for why they exercised
more before they remarried: They wanted to get laid. ... On second
thought, that theory may be crude and inappropriate. Sex isn't a big factor in
male motivation. We all know that. Stick with the "time demands of a
spousal role" business. Yes, that's the ticket. ... 4:37 P.M.
Down, Mickey, down! To use your own prose tics, shouldn't you (a) read the study itself, in what many speakers of English call "research" (or maybe the NY Post is good enough?), (b) figure out if sex was actually asked about in the study itself, if you're too busy trashing gay marriage to do (a), and (c) check your own super-size reverse snobbery at the door? Why, it might be that public health researchers understand their own research better than you do! Could that be possible? [No, never! --ed.] I await Kaus's refereed papers addressing these issues, executed, I am sure, with his own acute knowledge of research methodology. [Stop using big words! --ed.] ...6:35 P.M.


Sholom-aleichem, Gentlemen
The original version of this hymn.

Sholom-aleichem, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Though some the custom still observe,
And don't learn on Christmas Day,
I find a blat gemore
Makes the carols go away.

O Jesus was a nice Jewish boy
Jewish boy;
O Jesus was a nice Jewish boy!


Killing them softly

The blog Am Echad posts a letter from Rabbi Perry Rank, the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, about the relationship between shekhite [kosher slaughter] and tsar-baley-khayim [(avoiding) cruelty to animals], written in response to the controversy surrounding the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, which provides meat sold under the brands Rubashkin and Aaron's Best. (Of course, why would the RA letter be published on the RA's Web site? That might lead to public discussion and debate, and we wouldn't want that!)

The connection between slaughter and avoiding cruelty is not a simple one, as our rabbi, Laurence Sebert of Town and Village Synagogue, pointed out yesterday in a derashah. Shekhite per se does not involve (as far as I'm aware) explicitly humanitarian judgments, but rather a combination of diagnostic criteria (so to speak), to ensure that the animal is whole of limb and not at death's door, and mechanical criteria, i.e. with what equipment and process the slaughter is to be performed. Some would say that the definition of shekhite and related kashrus [kosher status] should be expanded so as to include tsar-baley-khayim as a criterion. This, I think, would be a mistake for a number of reasons. In short, I think that this would lessen the usefulness of both categories rather than strengthen the committment to tsar-baley-khayim on the part of kashrus organizations and overseers. (Another reason for not conflating the two categories is that it does not seem to be clear whether tsar-baley-khayim is doyrayse, of Torah law, or derabonen, Rabbinic law -- though I haven't studied the issue yet myself; however, from the Talmud it seems to be the former)

The OU, which responded to the original controversy, has now confirmed that Rubashkin meat is kosher. That is, the violations of tsar-baley-khayim at the plant in question were not deemed sufficient to place the kashrus of the shekhite under suspicion; see Simcha's post which I linked to above.

I agree with Simcha that this is a public-policy issue and not strictly a kashrus issue. But I strongly disagree that we can now say "problem solved." Just the opposite. The letter from the RA refers to a responsum from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards published in 2000 (on-line thanks to Avi of Am Echad; also available in the 1991-2000 compendium of those responsa). Though the original teshuvah dealt with shackling and hoisting, an inhumane method of slaughter-associated animal handling now thankfully abandoned by most kosher slaughterhouses, the responsum notes in passing that certain sorts of animal pens are presumed to be inhumane, or, in the words of the Rankin letter, "inconsistent with our understanding of what it means to humanely treat an animal." There are humane alternatives, including what are called the Grandin pen and the ASPCA pen. (For more on this issue than you might ever have wanted to know, see this article by Dr. Temple Grandin.) It is one of the inhumane pens (called the Facomia pen) which is used by Agriprocessors, and will still be used even after this controversy (since the OU does not see any problem at the moment with the use of this pen itself).

I think the RA needs to go one step further than the OU. Conservative Jews need to be makhmir on tsar-baley-khayim -- or, in English: we need to be stringent in ensuring that animals to be slaughtered are treated humanely. Both the 2000 responsum and Rabbi Rank's letter place the onus on the slaughterhouses themselves. The teshuvah reads: "We rule that shackling and hoisting should be stopped." (Notice the absent clause. Who in particular is directed to do the stopping?) Similarly, the letter from Rabbi Rank urges "all those involved in shehitah to invest in and install those technologies that assure that the animal’s life is terminated speedily and with the humanity that Jewish law demands."

But this is not enough. As our rabbi pointed out, the issue will only be solved with consumer pressure, with strong and consistent behavior from individual buyers of kosher meat. They, that is, we, should tell our butchers, caterers, and groceries that we should not buy meat that is slaughtered in an inhumane fashion. Where do we start -- with what companies? Perhaps Rubashkin, if they use an inhumane pen.

In any case, the onus should be placed on the individual. For that reason, the RA should issue a psak, a legal judgment, forbidding (not recommending against, not suggesting, not hectoring, but forbidding) Conservative Jews to eat meat slaughtered in inhumane fashion, whether or not the meat is kosher. Such a psak would not conflate tsar-baley-khayim and shekhite, but would emphasize the importance of each. (What the halachic mechanism would be -- that I'm not sure about. Perhaps a takone, a rabbinic edict, or perhaps no explicit mechanism need be given, according to the way the CJLS works. There would also need to be a clear statement of the kashrus ramifications of such a psak: ideally, consumption of such meat from this time forward would be forbidden, but the meat eaten previously would not be rendered non-kosher retroactively; i.e. one would not have to kasher one's utensils.) Such an issur, act of prohibition, would be a powerful act in the service of the humane treatment of animals and (of lesser but still significant importance) the public face of Conservative rabbinics.

I plan on writing to Rabbi Rank to raise this issue; if any readers have any further suggestions on moving this proposal forward, I would welcome them.

P.S.: Another good source, in Hebrew, for discussions of shekhite is the long responsum by the Seridei Eish on stunning animals before slaughter, which he allowed. (It turns out, according to sources I've spoken to in the Conservative Movement, that Hebrew National uses the most humane methods of slaughter, since they stun the animals after shekhite.)

P.P.S.: Other sources (compiled some time ago by Dr. Josh Backon) relevant to tsar-baley-khayim:
Based on a biblical verse (Exodus 23:5), the Talmud (Shabbat 128b; Bava Metzia 32b) prohibits cruelty to animals and this prohibition was codified by the Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeach 13:1) [although it's not so clear that that's what he's codifying: ZShB] and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 272:9). However, the Rema (Even HaEzer 5:14) indicates that if there is any human need, the prohibition is overturned (see also:Biur haGRA there s"k 40, and the Noda B'Yehuda Mahadura Tinyana Yoreh Deah 10 as brought in the Pitchei Tshuva YD 28 s"k 10). See also: Shvut Yaakov III 71, Chelkat Yaakov I 30, Sridei Eish III 7, Chiddushei Chatam Sofer on Messechet Shabbat 154b, Binyan Tzion 108, Tzitz Eliezer XIV 68,and the Trumat haDeshen Psakim uKtavim 105.
Update: Avi of Am Echad comes through again (at this point I have to assume he's a Conservative rabbi, or a close relative or personal friend of one) with two CJLS responsa on stunning/bolting after slaughter.


Chanukah "Gelt"

I'm not much for frum music, most of which is covered in a thin layer of smarm (synthesizers, children's choirs just a little bit flat, holier-than-thou quoting of psukim [verses from the Bible] out of any context). But I'm a sucker for Yiddish music, especially Yiddish music written in my lifetime. And Yiddish rap? Well, sign me up. (I've tried my hand at some ersatz Yiddish rap, but it's a long story. We weren't as bad as you think we were.)

Lipa Schmeltzer, a badkhn (roughly speaking, a Yiddish MC), has a great rap called Gelt which is already old news among Charedim everywhere. I heard it a month or so ago for the first time, and my friend just sent me an MP3 of it. If you want to hear it, I'll send you a copy, though it's a large file, 5 megs or so. (I wish I could transcribe the words, but I haven't the time. Here's a parody in English, though, for the Yiddish-impaired.)

(Perhaps you might like to read about Lipa Schmeltzer in Arabic?)


Culture's bustin' out all over

If you're a student of Arabic, you know how few and far between Arabic blogs are. A free Arabic blog host might be an efficient way to spread democracy (what strength democracy, and of what kind, I dunno. But it can't hurt, I guess!).

Meanwhile, in Israel, Ashkenazic culture, including Yiddish, have been generally denigrated and ignored ever since independence. It doesn't help that the elite are of Ashkenazic heritage. This puts Ashkenazic culture in a double bind: it's relegated to an Nth-class status by Ashkenazim themselves -- remind me to tell you sometime how ill-run and money-wasting the "Yiddish Culture Authority" of Israel is, or how much little spoken Yiddish it promotes -- while becoming associated in the minds of the underclasses with the despised elite. The worst of both worlds.

There's a movement for Ashkenazic identity trying to point out the idiocy of this denigration (known in Hebrew as shlilat-hagolut, which one might translate as Diaspora denial). While I don't support this group's every ideological tendency (they're too "post-Zionist" for my taste), nor do I share their quasi-romantic and -mythological view of Eastern European Jewish culture, I think Ashkenazic culture and Yiddish are necessary elements of an Israel that's representative of a wide spectrum of Judaisms.


No-name poetry

I don't know how many of you are poets who enter book contests. (For those who don't: it's a convenient system for paying strangers to throw away your manuscript.) If you are, you've probably heard of Foetry, a Web site (run, appropriately enough, by a group of anonymous muckrakers) that finds behind every poetry contest a web of nepotism and conspiracy: judges awarding publishing contracts to their own students; workshop buddies selecting each other for Best Poet. After spending a few minutes in this heady atmosphere of paranoia and accusation, you might start thinking that poetry publishing depends on personal relationships as much as it does on the quality of the work. That's crazy talk!

Some of the accusations are serious and seemingly true, some overblown. (One editor is said to have awarded a prize to a poet whose [anonymous] poems he recognized from a workshop they had both taken together. So a poet recognizes the work of another poet. And?) Perhaps, though, the most well-grounded problems might be solved by a simple application of the Magic of the Internet.

What I mean is this: these days I am preparing a scientific paper to submit to the American Journal of Epidemiology, which requires that all submissions be blind. (I don't know how it works yet, but I imagine you provide an e-mail which the automatic system, but not the first readers, keep track of.) Why can't all poetry submissions, not just for contests but for journal publication as well, be handled in a similar fashion? If Foetry, or the Academy of American Poets, or Poetry Magazine/The Poetry Foundation wanted to do a public service, they could present a beta version of such a system. Poems would be submitted without any names or addresses, which would then be provided only upon acceptance.

The main objection would be the one currently made by many editors against e-mail submissions: they're already flooded, so why make it any easier to send them poetry? If that's the case, think up some bureaucratic busywork to go along with the poem. Require the submitter to fill out a trial-subscription form for the magazine or journal she's submitting to (the form would be on-line, but separate from the submission system -- that is, the busywork would have to be completed, but its information wouldn't be connected to the submission). Or -- if we're thinking scandalous thoughts -- why not charge a submission fee, of, say, a dollar a poem?

If we had truly anonymous on-line submission, coupled with some small hurdles to keep the volume of submissions manageable -- while that wouldn't guarantee good poetry, it might keep out some more of the bad stuff.


I Heart Richard Dawkins

Did you catch the fawning interview of Richard Dawkins in Slate by the ordinarily sober and skeptical Jim Holt (whose writings on contemporary physics I quite look forward to)?

"[If] one finds oneself smiling frequently in the presence of this Oxford don," we're told, "it is out of sheer enjoyment at his gift for rendering the most subtle evolutionary ideas absolutely lucid." Okey-doke. Let's hear it!
"Why did humans lose their body hair? Why did they start walking on their hind legs? Why did they develop big brains? I think that the answer to all three questions is sexual selection," Dawkins said. Hairlessness advertises your health to potential mates, he explained. The less hair you have on your body, the less real estate you make available to lice and other ectoparasites. Of course, it was worth keeping the hair on our heads to protect against sunstroke, which can be very dangerous in Africa, where we evolved. As for the hair in our armpits and pubic regions, that was probably retained because it helps disseminate "pheromones," airborne scent signals that still play a bigger role in our sex lives than most of us realize.

I'm no creationist, and I understand that evolutionary biologists have to rely on speculation (running time backward, after all, is not in their experimental toolbox), but I fail to see how this is any way "subtle," or anything more than a just-so story of the sort peddled by E.O. Wilson et al. Consider the counterfactual alternative: "The more hair you have on your body, the more protection you have against sunstroke, which can be very dangerous in Africa, where we evolved. As for the lack of hair in our armpits and pubic regions, that probably evolved because it helps limit the number of lice and other ectoparasites in our pheronomone-producing regions; pheromones are airbone scent signals that play a bigger role in our sex lives than most of us realize." Compare the stories, and I doubt that one is more believable than the other. Except that we happen to be mostly hairless -- and we fit an "absolutely lucid," data-free narrative to the facts. QED. Or something. (And what about the hair on [some of] our arms?) I'm sure there is an evolutionary path to our current hair distribution, but I think the truly lucid (or at least true) explanation has more to do with genetic distributions and physiologic limitations than any hand-waving about pheromones.

The big head-pounder comes at the end, though:
At this point, Dawkins' wife, the actress Lalla Ward, shimmered into the lobby to collect him. One could not help noticing that, in her radiant blondness, she is even more attractive than her husband. Book tours are hard work, so I regretfully relinquished the celebrated author. Still, I could not forbear asking one more question as he walked away.

"You've called religion a 'dangerous collective delusion' and a 'malignant infection,' " I said. "Don't you think you're underplaying it a bit?"

Dawkins turned, smiled a small fox smile, and said, "Yes!"

Let's share a chuckle (but not before we've admired Dawkins's beautiful wife) over the "delusion" and "infection" that is religion. Perhaps Dawkins, with his great gift and vulpine smile, or Holt, for that matter, could "render absolutely lucid" why these claims are true. Or is it just too "subtle"?


Hurrah for completely anarchical minds!
The Khazars at mealtime.

A description by the "cranky 10th-century Armenian historian Movses Dasxuranci, from History of the Caucasian Albanians":

bestial, gold-loving tribes of hairy men.... an ugly, insolent, broadfaced, eyelashless mob in the shape of women with flowing hair....demented in their satanically deluded tree-worshipping errors in accordance with their northern dull-witted stupidity, addicted to their fictitious and deceptive religion....There we observed them on their couches like rows of heavily laden camels. Each had a bowl full of the flesh of unclean animals, and dishes containing salt water into which they dipped their food, and brimming silver cups and beakers chased with gold which had been taken from the plunder from Tiflis. They also had drinking horns and gourd-shaped utensils from which they lapped their broth and similar greasy, congealed, unwashed abominations. Two or three of them to one cup, they greedily and bestially poured neat wine into their insatiable bellies which had the appearance of bloated goatskins..... Possessing completely anarchical minds, they stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody sabre and dagger cuts on their cheeks and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fights – oh hellish sight! – at the graves, man against man and troop against troop, all stripped for battle..... They danced their dances with obscene acts, sunk in benighted filth and deprived of the sight of the light of the creator.... They were also incontinent sexually, and in accordance with their heathen, barbarous customs they married their father's wife, shared one wife between two brothers, and married several women.
(Funny, I don't remember Yehuda HaLevi including a scene like that.)

From Idiocentrism, a/k/a John J. Emerson, formerly known as the ubiquitous commenter Zizka. Via Language Hat.


An EPYC web site

The next time someone wants to learn about Eastern European Jews, their lives, towns, and the language and culture they created, I'm sending them here.

(This doesn't mean that the site is error free. For example, one page about "internal bilingualism" -- the complementary use of Hebrew and Yiddish in traditional Ashkenazic culture -- displays the covers of two translations of Tolstoy's "War and Peace," one in Hebrew, Milkhama ve-shalom, and one in Yiddish, Milkhome un sholem. The two images are mixed up, though. Something else puzzled me: at the top of the site, the Hebrew title reads Tokhnit khinukhit lelimud tarbut yehudit. Why not tarbut yidish or yidit?)


Thanksgiving leftovers
and Denver relations.

There were traditional family greetings: the opening gambit of my lawyer-philosopher uncle that he had (yet again) found a great proof for the non-existence of God (nice try!); discussions of poetry with the other uncle who was there (who also, in jovial greeting, pumped my baby's hand many times, pump-handle style, to her great amusement); my daughter's discovery of the fun that can be had with a pair of grandparents.

There were traditional activities done in non-traditional ways: a Shabbos spent at two shuls (Friday night at this shul, at whose previous incarnation my Mom and Dad were married -- it labels itself as traditional but seems to be moving ever-rightward, or, with the mechitzah height, upward; Shabbos morning with the Reconstructionists, the shul my grandmother attends).

There were activities afforded by opportunity: two Scotch-on-the-rocks at my aunt and uncle's place, part of my graduate-student mental-health regimen. (I suppose the only true guarantor of graduate-student mental health would be a fifth of Scotch, neat. But I digress.)

There was the brined turkey. I had read about brined turkeys but never yet consumed one, which I did in Denver with gusto, brio, and relish. (Not to mention panache and afan. And ganas.)

On the airplane from snowy Denver to chilly New York City, I gnawed at the turkey leftovers in satisfied fashion while our daughter slept. The woman on my left murmured, "Your baby's so good!" That was before Blanca woke up and fussed for the last forty-five minutes of the flight. Repeat after me, ma'am: Keyn eynore. Keyn eynore.
A Vigil to Protest the Darfur Genocide

Candlelight Vigil to Protest the Ongoing Genocide in Darfur

Monday, December 13, 6:30pm

Washington Square Park, NYC (Fountain Plaza)

This multi-denominational event is co-sponsored by the students of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, NYU Law Students for Human Rights, the Darfur Rehabilitation Project and the American Anti-Slavery Group's New York Chapter.


Let's talk about . . . pipelines, baby

Let's talk about you and me
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things
That can be
Let's talk about pipelines.
Let's talk about pipelines!

Those interested in the continuing saga of The Thirsty Chasidim Of South Orange County should hie their way to an on-line chat (now concluded, but read the transcript) at the Times Herald Record, where Chris McKenna, their crack reporter on the story and all things Satmar, fielded questions from readers. It turns out that the good people of Kiryas Joel do pay taxes after all! (And no, they don't have horns.)
Yuschenko and the Jews

Who did the Ukrainian Jews vote for?

Beats me. This nicely detailed JPost article gives context and background, but the facts don't lead to any clear conclusion. (1) A large chunk of people won't say who they voted for. (2) The young Jews, those tending more to Western Europe, might plausibly have voted for Yuschenko. (3) The older Jews, those preferring stability, might plausibly have voted for Yanukovitch. In conclusion, who knows? The most interesting point in the article is buried in the last paragraph: "Only 3,106 out of nearly 40,000 eligible Ukrainian voters in Israel cast their ballots." First of all, the turnout's low, but that's not what caught my eye. Forty thousand? That's all the Ukrainian Jews there are in Israel? There have to be more than that, don't there, if a million-plus Jews have immigrated to Israel in the past ten to fifteen years? I guess they don't care enough to register to vote in Ukraine.

Question two: is Yuschenko an anti-Semite? Beats me. The JPost article mentions the worry of some Ukrainian Jews that in the past he "has allied himself with politicians openly expressing anti-Semitic views." In another incident mentioned in the press, a leading Ukrainian newspaper, Silski Visti, published the slanderous, anti-Semitic claim that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews joined the S.S. during the German invasion of 1941. Yuschenko joined with other Ukrainian politicians opposing government efforts to shut down the newspaper.

On the other hand, Yuschenko visited a Ukrainian Jewish group before the election and promised to combat anti-Semitism. And who's to say how many anti-Semites his opponent, Yanukovitch, has associated with?

Another troublesome aspect of contemporary Ukrainian anti-Semitism is its anti-Israel roots (shared by a number of liberal politicians in Western Europe). From the article linked to above about the anti-Semitic Ukrainian newspaper:
The wave of anti-Semitic agitation in the Ukrainian media began in 2002 with the publication of defamatory articles in the magazine Personnel, published by the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, a university-like institution offering leadership training to 35,000 students on more than 10 campuses across the country.

Although the school's board includes such respected figures as former President Leonid Kravchuk and former Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk, its academic leaders have taken a strongly anti-Western political line, fostering close ties with Russia and the Islamic world. The academy's president, Georgi Schokin, has addressed three conferences in Saudi Arabia, and the American anti-Semite David Duke has appeared at three of the school's conferences in Kiev.

The Interregional Academy, which financed Silski Visti's publication of Yaremenko's article as a paid advertisement, has published his books and aggressively promoted his writings.

What this has to do with any anti-Semitism from Yuschenko himself -- again, I don't know.

I asked the opinion of a writer from the Forverts, who pointed out that opposing Jewish oligarchs (who have supported Kuchma and Yanukovitch) is not necessarily the same thing as anti-Semitism.

Update: Jonathan Edelstein, over at The Head Heeb, has followed up on this issue with his customary thoroughness. The accusations of anti-Semitism on Yuschenko's part seem more and more to be unfounded. Also worth reading is the editorial in this week's Forward, reminding us why the Ukraine is important to Jewish history yet not often remembered by name, and why Ukrainian nationalism is not something that Jews should uncritically embrace.


Consequential imagination

Nor are rigour and precision enemies of the imagination, any more than they are in mathematics. Rather, they increase the demands on the imagination, not least by forcing one to imagine examples with exactly the right structure to challenge a generalization; cloudiness will not suffice. They make imagination consequential in a way in which it is not in their absence.
Some words meant to apply to philosophy, but equally applicable to poetry, epidemiology, or any endeavor of the mind. From the essay "Must Do Better," by the philosopher Timothy Williamson. (Via the euphoniously named Glaikit Feartie.)


A Tour of Jewtown
Backsliding from my blog silence only after a few days. But I couldn't resist...

Nelly Rosario on hip-hop Hasids and other Willie phenomena.


Me Against The Thesis: Round Zillion

I am not allowing myself any non-dissertational thoughts (well, davening. And eating. And the more-or-less daily more-or-less blat of Gemore. And poetry. But not blogging!) until Thanksgiving.

So: wish me luck!

*Your Host's head disappears and the manhole shuts down tight.*


More driving on Shabbat

Last year, I wrote about the responsum of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (the law committee of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly) which permitted driving to the synagogue on Shabbat as a method to combat the ignorance and non-observance then prevalent (in the opinion of the authors) among American Jews. My opinion, then as now, is that the teshuvah was halachically well-justified and understandable at the time, but events have not borne out the authors' approach.

A few months ago, Avi of Am Echad, in a comment which I just saw now, mentioned that he had scanned in and posted on his Web site the contents of the Spring, 2004, issue of Conservative Judaism, which includes a discussion of the teshuvah. Thanks, Avi!

So go and learn.



This post will hearken back to the early days of traditional blogging which I never participated in: snatches of colorful life experience scrawled hurriedly with a chunk of blackened stick, in between chaws of campfire-warmed mutton thigh. How simple we were then! How uncorrupted!

* * *

On Shabbos, I heard a representative from Ukraine talk about Project Kesher, a group of Jewish women in the former Soviet Union furthering Jewish education, promoting women's health, and fighting anti-Semitism and domestic abuse. (A propos of nothing, one of the testimonials on the home page makes reference to Birobidzhan: "My grandfather was a revolutionary sent to Siberia . . . I see the need to organize the Jewish community. I hope to be a revolutionary of another kind." I would bet the speaker's grandfather was sent to Birobidzhan against his will.)

At kiddush, I suggested to one of the speakers that some women's health researchers (e.g. breast-cancer epidemiologists) might enthusiastically welcome access to an Eastern European cohort of mostly Ashkenazic Jewish women. Although there are an awful lot of studies of breast cancer among American Ashkenazim (see here for a review of BRCA1 -- the "breast cancer gene" -- and its influence on public health [I hope the link works; you might have to be part of the Medical Library Cabal]), in an admittedly cursory search, I only found one such study among Russian Ashkenazi women. As you can see from the abstract, it was more a small-scale genetic typing project than a large-scale epidemiologic study. (Warning: Jargon-heavy excerpt follows.)

We have screened index cases from 25 Russian breast/ovarian cancer families for germ-line mutations in all coding exons of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In addition we tested 22 patients with breast cancer diagnosed before age 40 without family history and 6 patients with bilateral breast cancer. The frequency of families with germline mutations in BRCA was 16% (4/25). One BRCA1 mutation, 5382insC, was found in three families. The results of present study, and those of a separate study of 19 breast-ovarian cancer families, suggest that BRCA1 5382insC is a founder mutation in the Russian population. Three BRCA2 mutations were found in patients with breast cancer without family history: two in young patients and one in patients with bilateral breast cancer. Four novel BRCA2 mutations were identified. (Tereschenko IV et al. Human Mutation 2002;19(2):184.)

Anyway, if any breast-cancer epidemiologists are reading this, first: hi! Second, maybe you'd like to take a look at this cohort.

Postscript: I know, it's not a cohort, just a group of Russian Jewish women. But someone could make a cohort out of it.

* * *

On Saturday night we (me, my wife, and a blogger friend visiting from out of town) made the acquaintance of a fresh-faced idiot, a veteran of the Great War. Our new friend, appearing on stage at the Theater for the New Audience, is no other than the hero of Jaroslav Hašek's unfinished comic novel Good Soldier Švejk (1923). (Since the novel itself was never finished, I don't feel bad admitting that I picked it up and never finished it. Not because it wasn't entertaining; my attention span is just undergrown.) Though the first act sags a little, the play is by turns witty, funny, stupid, profound, moving, and whimsical. You should go see it.

Would you like to see the little hat on the "s" again? Šure thing!

Postscript: Of course, Švejk (or one of his translators) has a blog.

* * *

I have to go keep finishing my thesis. Back later.

* * *

I'm back!

How do you like the sound of this merry little tune? Psychiatry, obstetrics/gynecology, neurology, surgery, medicine, pediatrics, advanced medicine, ambulatory care, critical care medicine. Those are the rotations I will be starting, God willing, in January, assuming I successfully defend my thesis next month.

Perhaps I might blog in the future about the spicy & engaging elements of medical education. Or perhaps not.

* * *

I should mention in passing two more reviews of mine, in the on-line version of Verse magazine, of a couple of poetry journals: Skanky Possum #10 and Fence 7.1.


Arcana and Actualities
The art of poetry is the art of knowing language and people equally well. It is an art whose focus is in two directions at once: toward the inert technical arcana of syllables and sounds and syntax and metaphor as well as toward the animated actualities of human nature and human expectation. The knowledge of the way a reader will react when a technical something is done to him is what controls the poet's manipulation of his technique. To do something to the reader is the end of poetry: a poem is less a notation on a page or a sequence of uttered sounds than a shaped or measured formal effect that impinges upon a reader or hearer. The reality of the poem is its impingement. [. . .] No element of the poem is more basic--and I mean physical--in its effect upon the reader than the metrical element, and perhaps no technical triumphs reveal more readily than the metrical the poet's sympathy with that universal human nature--conceived as a system of physiological and psychological uniformity--which exists outside his own, and to which the fullest understanding of his own is the key. The poet whose metrical effects actually work upon a reader reveals that he has attained an understanding of what man in general is like. It is thus possible to suggest that a great metrical achievement is more than the mark of a good technician: it is something like the signature of a great man.

from Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form


Honesty underground

What MTA subway drivers used to say when the train had to stop for some reason:
We apologize for the unavoidable delay.

What they say now:
We apologize for the delay.


We are not wrong

The New Republic has two post-mortems of Tuesday's anti-liberal revolution worth reading and quoting. One, though anonymous, is written (I confidently aver) in the hyper-literary, sometimes tortured style of Leon Wieseltier, though it does at times manage to stumble over eloquence on its way to the heights of purple prose:

There is honor, moreover, in a certain kind of loss. In our distracted and accelerated and gamed society, with its religion of winning, we sometimes forget this. But the many millions of Americans who believe that the tax code should be more fair; and that one of the ends of government is to bother itself about its neediest and least fortunate citizens; and that the morality of the market is not all the morality that a society requires; and that the Bible is not the basis of a democratic political order, or of our political order; and that robust stem-cell research, and science more generally, is a primary social good; and that gay marriage is a question of equality and not the beginning of the end of civilization; and that American troops must not be sent to war ignorantly or dogmatically, or without the means to win; and that the good reputation of the United States in the world is one of its most powerful historical instruments--the many millions of Americans who believe these things are not wrong. They are merely not a majority. But they are a very large minority.

The other is by TNR's editor, Peter Beinart:

[C]ultural sensitivity is one thing; principle is another. In their attempts to win rural voters, Democrats have already essentially abandoned gun control. That doesn't keep me up at night. But gay marriage is different. The fact that it is widely unpopular cannot obscure the fact that it is morally momentous and morally right. Liberals once lost elections for supporting civil rights as well and now look back on those losses as badges of honor. Eventually, since young people are far more tolerant of homosexuality than their parents, gay marriage will stop hurting Democrats at the polls. Until then, the party should try to win elections on other issues--and look forward to the day when conservatives apologize for trying to deny yet another group of Americans their full human rights.

Postscript: I've read in some liberal blogs (this suggestion is usually made by right-wing commenters, but let's take it in good faith) that we should embrace federalism in the service of gay marriage and other causes we hold dear. Let New York, Massachusetts, and the Blue Brethren move forward, and Wyoming will . . .catch up, or something. ("Heterosexuality forever!" at the courthouse door?) A historian friend, "DRF," made the following comment, which is worth posting separately:
I'm going to tackle the issue of a new federalism that was raised by elf and Zack. I, too, have been wondering if we are headed for a new federalism on social issues, and I'm not yet certain about how I feel about that, if indeed we are. But I adamantly disagree that antebellum federalism on slavery was a bad thing. It's true that antebellum federalism meant that there was a period of two generations (roughly, 1802-1865) in which slavery wa illegal in most circumstances in the states north of the Mason-Dixon line and legal in the states south of it. But the alternative to this was NOT to make slavery illegal throughout the U.S. If the framers of the Constitution had attempted to resolve the issue of slavery at a national level in 1787, the result would have been either (a) no federal union at all; or (b) the continuing legality of slavery throughout the U.S. And if slavery had remained legal throughout the U.S. in the early 19c, I doubt that northerners would have gathered the courage to push effectively for its abolition at a national level. Many northerners who opposed slavery in the slavery 1780s and 1790s were nevertheless anxious about the prospect of living in a multi-racial society; specifically, many feared that a large-scale "race war" would break out if slavery ended abruptly without a national plan for shipping ex-slaves back to Africa. When numerous states abolished slavery within their borders and managed to create peaceful (albeit segregated) multi-racial societies, those who witnessed the process gathered the moral courage and political confidence to push for an end to slavery elsewhere. On balance, then, I would argue that diversity in states' social legislation has often been a liberalizing influence, whether or not it's "fair" in the short run.


The "religious Jewish" voter

What does it mean that a quarter of the Jewish vote went to Bush in Florida and Ohio, and that most of these Jews seem to have been the religious ones? What is it about their religiosity (or their frumkayt, however you'd like to term it) which brought about their vote for Bush? Is it a true reflection, connecting their vote to their religious life? A sociological epiphenomenon? Both?

What should a religious Jew who didn't vote for Bush (don't know any of those around here!) think in the future about the relationship between his politics and his religion? What sort of role should be played by him and those like him? In the Democratic party? the Republican party? Where does the liberal, frum Jew go?

More musings to come.
Jews love a losing cause . . .

. . . so most of them seemed to go Kerry at about the same rate they went for Gore. At least, if you believe the exit polls quoted by this Jerusalem Post article. (These are the same exit polls, mind you, which told us Kerry was going to win. It's them we have to blame!)

But what about the Charedi vote? I have no idea. Here's a fun speculation, though.

Look at the presidential returns from Orange County, New York, where Kiryas Joel is located. In 2000, the county went for Bush/Cheney over Gore/Lieberman by 50% to 46% (total votes: 126,080). This year, though, B/C won out over Kerry/Edwards by 55%-44%. I guess there's probably an awful lot of factors that account for the difference, among them the same factors that made Kerry lose the whole deal, but: this year's vote total in Orange County is 134,966. Increased registration, or the ongoing KJ baby boom? You decide.

Not that Orange County is deciding any statewide election anytime soon. But if it keeps growing?

Postscript: Of course, I need to mention these posts by E.J. Kessler of the Forward, who actually knows what she's talking about. It turns out there was a shift in the Jewish vote to Bush, among the Orthodox in particular.


It's coming from the feel that it ain't exactly real
. . .or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.

It's coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Hello from Darfur, II
The second of the e-mails my friend Laura wrote from Darfur.

Hello all.... Had a few free minutes so I wanted to say hello. All's well here.

I feel like I've been here for weeks...and it's only just over a week now! I love speaking to people in the camps and hearing their stories -- I've become a bit braver about asking them personal questions about what's happened to them and their families. It's a confusing 'emergency' because you look at people and it doesn't look like they're starving. But they're living in appalling conditions, under constant fear of attack. Actually, the fear varies from camp to camp. Some feel relatively safe. But yesterday we were in a camp up north, where 3 women had been beaten the night before. Men came looking for their husbands, but they had fled. One of our Sudanese staff members said that they then beat the women to try to lure the men back. Even after that experience, the women told me they feel safer in the camp then they would at home.

I think it's even more confusing here, because Sudanese are so amazingly warm and hospitable. They smile and wave almost all the time. The day before yesterday, at the same camp where the women were beaten, we were shooting some video of the...I don't know what word to use to describe them...huts? shacks? Piles of sticks maybe 5 x 5 in which families live without shelter from the sun or rain. (The people who've been there long enough to have registered with [my organization] have been given tarps to cover their homes...but those who've come more recently haven't been registered, so they have nothing.) Siobhan, Dominic and I were waiting in the shade while Jimmy (cameraman) shot. (It's over 100 degrees here every day...40-45 degrees celsius, they keep saying.) As we rose to leave and walk back through the sand to the car, a woman came up to Siobhan holding out a pen. It seems Siobhan had dropped the pen in the sand at some point, and the woman wanted to return it to her. It was unbelievable. One of the moments I think I'll carry with me.

In Haiti, there is so much anger, it's palpable. Here, most people seem to smile and wave. They seem to appreciate my attempts at Arabic -- in fact, the Sudanese staff here are amazingly good teachers! And yet hundreds of thousands of people here were forced to leave their homes, watched their brothers, sons, fathers, husbands taken, beaten or killed, are subsisting on next to nothing (yet I'm told the reason that there hasn't been mass starvation is that those who get rations from aid agencies share them with those relatives or former neighbors who don't, or people with relatives in relatively unaffected areas are being supported at least in part by their families), and are living in the dehumanizing conditions of an IDP (internally displaced person) camp. Anger and frustration are growing. But from my brief visit, it appears that people are maintaining their culture of hospitality.

Obviously, I'm just a visitor to a culture as complex as any other. I'm so aware that I don't even know what I'm not seeing...what's absent from the landscape, what I can't see. Side by side with the smiles and waves I see are men raping women who go out at 2am to gather wood. Who have ridden their horses into villages and taken land and livestock, poisoned the water systems, and killed the men. It may sound dramatic, but it just reminds me of how all humans seem to have such a capacity for evil, for cruelty.

Hello from Darfur, I
The first of a couple of e-mails written by my friend Laura, who was in Darfur a couple of weeks ago with the aid agency she works for.

Hello all, Here I am in El Geneina. I've been in Sudan about 6 days now...in El Geneina for 4. I can't believe it's been so short! Feels like I've been here for weeks.

Darfur is a dry, forbidding land. There's green brush and short trees...and, near the wadis(which are now basically dry) some larger trees. We had a lovely picnic out by a wadi last Friday -- Friday is the day of rest here, so our Sudanese staff were having the traditional celebration the week before Ramadan begins. They invited all of us to come celebrate and feast with them. It was a lovely afternoon...so cool and breezy under the trees (shade is something much in demand here!) and they made an incredible meal.

As for the humanitarian emergency -- I've been trying to get a handle on what I've been seeing. I've visited 2 camps so far. Mornay, to the south of us, which is home to somewhere between 68,000 and 80,000 people (they've been having trouble getting accurate numbers because so many people are still moving), and Ardamata, just outside Geneina, which is a much smaller camp. There are many, many people who've been displaced -- more than 1 million -- but those who are living in the camps don't seem to be in such terrible shape. The malnutrition rates are not terribly high, so, somehow, people who've been on the move for 6 months to a year have had coping mechanisms that have sustained them. I've been trying to investigate this -- it seems the a combination of food stores from last year's harvest and very strong communities that share resources averted a disaster in the initial months. And now there is tons of food aid coming from the outside world. The problem is that now these people are almost entirely dependent on food aid, as their stores have run out. So the situation is quite precarious. If security diminishes, or the food aid dries up, there could be a very serious crisis.

Right now, there seems to be a bit more of a public health/hygiene danger. There has already been Hep E in Mornay, and with so many people concentrated in small spaces, we're focusing on hygiene education and sanitation facilities.

I have spoken to people in both camps, and they've told me terrible stories of having to flee their homes. One woman told me that her two oldest sons were killed when the janjaweed came. She had her youngest, @ age 2 or 3 in her arms as she spoke. All have told me that they have no plans to go home until they believe they will be safe there. And none of them believe they will be safe.

The Sudanese people are amazingly warm...the children run after us (after all whites) shouting 'hwaja' wherever we go, and their mothers walk behind waving hello. I haven't felt any hostility, although I imagine it when I see men in fatigues (police) or janjaweed on their camels. But, in truth, I haven't felt uncomfortable at all. I am, of course, in a very protected environment. Not to mention that sharia law is in place in Sudan, so no one steals anything -- even a pen used and not returned is returned the next day (I'm told that's not always the case, but that's been my experience).


Ladies and Gentlemen, The Once and Future Yiddish Language

My review in the Forward of Dovid Katz's new book.


The people want more negativity!

Here's my review of issue 9 of the poetry journal Skanky Possum, together with comments on my review by a couple of less-than-impressed readers.

Postscript: A friend points out that one commenter shares the first name and initials of the journal's editor, and that the other might be a friend of the first. Hmmm: interesting. Well, read the review (or, better yet, buy the journal that's being reviewed, then read the review) and make your own judgment.


Professor Naomi Chana Explains It All To You

Why the War on Intermarriage is such a bad idea.


yoIn Envisioning the Future of American Jewry, Leaders Emphasize the Past

Leaders of the four major rabbinical seminaries made a rare joint appearance on October 13th at Yale University, on a panel titled “Envisioning the Future of American Judaism.” Though the speakers agreed on the most pressing problems facing the American Jewish community, they did not propose any new approaches – rather, each presented his own movement’s philosophy as framed by the history of the American Jewish community. The event, sponsored by the Program in Judaic Studies and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, was held in connection with the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in North America.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, pointed out that the American Jewish community found success even in its earliest years (ballooning from three thousand Jews in 1790 to almost a quarter million at the end of the 19th century), despite the fact that the first ordained rabbi came to America only in 1840. Thus the layperson plays an outsize role in American Jewish life, bringing to the table her instinctive “doubts about the inherent validity of halachah” and the authority of the rabbi. Furthermore, today’s American Jewish community is thoroughly acculturated, sharing, for example, the mobility of the average American family, which upends traditional ethnic-religious allegiances based on kinship. While the core of the community is healthy, enjoying “a renaissance of the Jewish tradition which has been unprecedented,” the periphery “barely identifies Jewishly.” The role of HUC, concluded Ellenson, is to train rabbis who can both satisfy the core and attract the marginal.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, the Director of Religious Guidance at Yeshiva University and a leader in various modern Orthodox institutions, began with the observation that “a hundred years ago no one would have predicted that Orthodox Jewry would participate” in such a panel. After a summary of Orthodox American Jewish history (crediting Orthodoxy’s post-war resurgence to the day school movement), Blau cataloged the problems of Orthodox Judaism in America, and of modern Orthodoxy in particular: the very diversity of the movement; the attraction of newly observant Jews to ultra-Orthodoxy; the status of women; and the need to strike a “proper balance between tradition and modernity.”

Dr. Ismar Schorsch of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary attempted to “extract the meaning” of the arrival of Jews in America. His main, somewhat strident emphasis was that the Jews “came [to America] as a group,” not merely as a collection of individuals, and that Jewish identity, flowing from the “wellspring of the Torah,” is “in deep conflict with the notion of autonomy and the sovereign self” which holds that “nothing is sacred.” Said Schorsch, “Unaffiliated Jews are not social capital for the Jewish community.” Rather, the goal should be to create more “serious Jews” – otherwise, the organized Jewish community is “at risk.”

Schorsch did not mention the Conservative movement per se in his remarks, the only one of the speakers not to put his own institution front and center. He mentioned only briefly, in response to a later question from the audience, that the movement is often passed over by its own members, who must first tend to the needs of the wider Jewish community.

Perhaps the most programmatic comments were made by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the youngest rabbinical seminary represented, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (founded in 1968). “We are a small movement with a large agenda,” said Ehrenkrantz; since “Judaism is a product of the Jewish people,” future Jewish leaders must appreciate “the entirety of Jewish experience,” being “non-judgmental, yet exercising good judgment.” “We want people who can care for the entire Jewish community,” he said, “committed to Jewish history and the Jewish people without being triumphal or bigoted.” Ehrenkrantz implied that the Reconstructionist movement, whose ordained rabbis serve various functions in communities across the ideological spectrum, is well-placed to determine the direction of Jewish communal leadership: with “profound tolerance and respect for diversity, innovation, and the capability to develop communities” which give “meaning to the lives of Jews.”

Additional remarks were made by John Butler, a Yale expert in the history of American religions. “Religion in America has a doubtful future,” he began, quoting the consensus of experts in the late 19th century. Ever since the beginning of the modern era, religious leaders in America have worried that religion can’t compete with the attractions of high technology, urbanism, youth culture, and everything else beckoning from outside the walls of the church (or synagogue). According to Butler, they needn’t have worried, and they needn’t worry today. American religion (and Judaism as an exemplar of this tendency) remakes itself in just those ways necessary to succeed in time of transformation: from immigration to urbanization, and from city to suburb. The importance of religion in this year’s presidential election, and its near-absence from, say, French political campaigning, point to religion’s solid place in American public life, and should help to place in context dire rabbinical warnings of Jewish communal collapse.

Also worthy of note is what was not represented on this panel. In the introductory remarks, it was pointed out that a similar Jewish communal meeting of the minds occurred some forty years ago, at a Yale-Harvard-Princeton Hillel colloquium. At that event, however, there was a representative of “humanist Judaism.” The fact that no such representative, or indeed, any voice from outside the Jewish religious establishment, was present at this year’s panel might bespeak either a shrinking of American Jewish intellectual diversity, or (more probably) reveal the roots of the event itself, which was originally planned to inform Yale students interested in ordination about the different programs available. In any case, established, institutional voices are unlikely to propose bold suggestions for solving the Jewish community’s future problems.

Postscript: The new issue of the YU Commentator, Yeshiva University's student newspaper, features the text of Rabbi Blau's prepared remarks, as well as a write-up of the panel itself by Menachem Butler.


Why I haven't been writing about Darfur

Because I have nothing to say, and I can't think of how to help the situation, aside from giving money. (There are appropriate spiritual responses as well, but despite pro-forma, one-off resolutions from various rabbinic groups, I haven't heard of any massive Tehillim rallies on behalf of the Darfurians. I guess only Gush Katif merits a psalm or two.)

Somini Sengupta reports in the Times that, despite a small diplomatic advance (an increase in the number of African Union personnel allowed into Darfur to monitor the ceasefire), the Janjaweed -- the militia responsible for civilian massacres -- operates with impunity, sponsored, aided, and abetted by the Sudanese government.

What can one do? How can one exert pressure?

The indefatigable Nicholas Kristof castigates the so-called international community -- and us:
[W]hat I can't fathom is our own moral choice, our decision to acquiesce in genocide.

We in America could save kids like Abdelrahim and Muhammad. This wouldn't require troops, just a bit of gumption to declare a no-fly zone, to press our Western allies and nearby Arab and African states, to impose an arms embargo and other targeted sanctions, to push a meaningful U.N. resolution even at the risk of a Chinese veto, and to insist upon the deployment of a larger African force.

I do feel responsible, or at least guilty. But I would ask of Kristof: what am I supposed to do to accomplish these things? Carry a sign with the words "I insist upon the deployment of a larger African force"? (Perhaps this last has indeed been accomplished with the increase in AU monitors alluded to in the Sengupta article. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Sudanese government's agreement were in name only.)

I might be able to exercise some (miniscule) pressure through my vote, but here too there doesn't seem to be much to vote about. The New Republic has eloquently urged both Bush and Kerry to show leadership on Darfur (though placing most of the blame at the feet of the current president):
During the [first] debate, Kerry suggested he would be willing to send troops "if it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union." In so doing, he made an important moral and political point. Emphasizing his willingness to intervene in Darfur without U.N. approval would help deflect Bush's criticism that a Kerry presidency would be a slave to international opinion, allowing foreign leaders to determine U.S. national interests and policy agendas. And, by hammering home this message, Kerry would show how absent Bush has been. After all, it is Bush, not Kerry, who is now presiding over 6,000 to 10,000 Darfurian deaths each month. It is up to Bush, as president, to stop the genocide.

Unfortunately, neither candidate has let the word Darfur pass their lips, beyond those brief mentions made in the first debate. Where do we go from here? I have no idea.
My Blog with Hersh Raseyner

An attempt to translate Mayn Krig mit Hersh Raseyner (My Quarrel with Hersh Raseyner), the novella by Khaim Grade. (I know a translation is already available.)


Do you instinctively blame pharmaceutical companies for everything?

Then read this.


Jewes [sic], poetry, more Jews, more poetry . . .
It's the story of my extracurricular life!

1. George Bush and "the Impostor"
From the Exhibition Guide to Jewes in America, an exhibit running through mid-November at the New York Public Library:
GEORGE BUSH (1796-1859)
The Valley of Vision, or, The Dry Bones of Israel Revived
New York: Saxton and Miles, 1844
Dorot Jewish Division

When New York University was founded in 1830 as a nonsectarian, democratic alternative to elitist, Episcopalian Columbia, it hired much the ablest Hebraist in America, Isaac Nordheimer, a former student in Slovakia of Rabbi Moses Schreiber* -- as its inaugural professor of Arabic. It is a paradox that the city's first secular institution of higher learning should have considered it impossible to permit a Jew to teach the Holy Tongue [. . .] But somewhat paradoxical, too, was their choice, as professor of Hebrew, of George Bush. Competent Christian Hebraist as he was, he was known at the time only as the author of the first American book on Islam -- a biography of Muhammad, whom he insisted on refering to throughout as "the Impostor." [. . .] Bush had made his name as a critic of what he considered disreputable movements -- Islam, millenarianism -- but now he emerged as the leading American advocate of a couple of controversial belief systems of more recent vintage: the occult religion of Emanuel Swedenborg and the alternative medicine of Anton Mesmer. He left NYU and spent the remainder of his life ministering to the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in Brooklyn. George Bush's more famous namesakes are the direct descendants of his brother, Timothy.

2. The Bellevue Literary Review

I went to their fall reading Sunday evening. I am pleased to report that it was that rare bird, a reading where everyone was well worth hearing. Particularly impressive was the poet Frances Richey, whose book "The Burning Point" I have requested from the library on the strength of her understated but powerful poems about the current war, her son's military service, her responses to great works of art, and (strangest but most affecting) her recognizing the person of Jesus among men she knew in the 60s. Her poems about war and death, in particular, were moving and thought-provoking without formulaic pacifism or irritating self-righteousness.

3. By the Waters of Manhattan: Talks by/on Jewish Poets

That's the title of a new series that a couple of friends of mine are helping to organize. (Judging from the flier that was handed to me by Bob Rosenthal at shul this past Shabbos, the organizing groups seem to be the Committee on Poetry** and the Educational Alliance's funding project, Jewish Below Fourteenth Street.) In the first event, onThursday, November 4th, at 7, Ed Sanders*** will read his poem entitled "Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side," and also "speak on the milieu, including Alan Ginsberg."

Bob told me that for some strange reason, the group Jewish Below Fourteenth Street did not want the event to be held in a synagogue. (Too many Jews there!) So it's to be held instead at the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 5 Union Square West, 7th floor (above Staples). Free and open to the public. I have a phone number for more information, but I'm reluctant to post it on my oh-so-heavily-trafficked blog. E-mail me for it if you like.

*Schreiber is better known among Jews as the Khsam-Soyfer, the Hungarian-Jewish forerunner of ultra-Orthodoxy. His legacy will not in the least be affected by my referring to him in an upcoming review in the Forward of Dovid Katz's book.
**The Web site of the Allen Ginsberg Trust says that Ginsberg "donated much of his income to the Committee on Poetry, a non-profit organization that he organized to assist struggling artists and writers."
***I have no idea who this is, but I imagine it's this person.


More KJ water wars

From the Times Herald-Record:
The Village of Kiryas Joel confirms that it plans to sue Orange County in federal court for discrimination if the county proceeds with a lawsuit against the village's planned water pipeline.

If you don't know what this is all about, read my previous post. And if you read Yiddish, here's even more.


Pray get better, II

There's a new article in the Times on prayer and health. It seems there's a controversy over Federal funding for research examining a connection between the two.

I posted on this matter last year, and I am, of course, skeptical that anything would come of such research. But on the other hand, 2.3 million dollars (the amount quoted in the Times article) is a laughably small amount of money for scientific research. (For the sake of comparison, the FY 2004 budget of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was about $118 million.)

Furthermore, sometimes extraordinary claims, for which the plausible biological mechanism isn't (yet) known, require judicious open-mindedness when framing the research question. One could do research into prayer and health with only so-so exposure definition and still get worthwhile results regarding the endpoint. In less jargony language: if we defined "prayer" as "any request of a supernatural being," wouldn't it be interesting if a study found a link between prayer and health, if the proper confounders* were controlled for, even if prayer in this instance were not especially well defined?

*A reader (hi, Mike!) asked, on a previous post, what "confounder" means. To abridge a complicated and interesting discussion, a confounder is a variable which is associated with exposure and associated with disease, but is not on the causal pathway between them. For this reason, an analysis that fails to control for a confounder will find a spurious association.

A classic example is a study done a few years ago that purported to show a statistical association between pancreatic cancer and coffee drinking. Unfortunately, it turned out that the controls (non-cases used for comparison) were other patients in the same hospital, without pancreatic cancer, who had been diagnosed with other gastrointestinal diseases. These GI patients were, reasonably enough, counseled to avoid coffee, which looked statistically (since confounding was not controlled for) as if pancreatic-cancer patients drank more coffee.

If that's not clear, someone let me know and I'll try explaining again.
Irrelevant appellations

Can journalists please stop labeling people as Holocaust survivors if this adds nothing to the story?
Roman Rubinstein, Holocaust survivor and Sharei Chesed board member, said that he is fighting to convince his fellow members not to sell [their cash-strapped Conservative synagogue to a "Messianic" congregation]. With a chuckle, he said: "I'm against it because Jesus was a nice guy, but he's not my God."

"Holocaust survivor" is neither a qualification nor an honorific, nor should it become one.


Gals and Geshem

The title of this post is shamelessly stolen from an e-mail by my friend Rebecca Boggs, who is interested in egalitarian alternatives to traditional ritual. Thanks, Becca! (Though I didn't ask. I hope that posting your e-mail on this blog is in the category of zokhin le-odem she-loy befonov: You can do favors for someone without their permission. At least, if they think it's a favor.)

But her e-mail needs an introduction. On Shemini Atzeres, the "eighth day of assembly" which is the concluding day of Sukkos (well, only in some ways, not in others -- let's not get into that here), a special hymn is said, called Geshem ("Rain"). It's a rain prayer, of course, parallel to the Passover hymn for dew called, appropriately enough, Tal ("Dew"). The words of the traditional prayer are beautiful and oblique in ways common to piyutim (liturgical poetry). For the life of me I can't find the traditional Hebrew text on-line. (A translation is here, and an nterpretation is here. Warning on the latter: Tendentious Artscroll Alert.)

The question is: where are the women? Water flows over and under nearly every memorable story in the Bible, and where there's water there are leaders of flocks and leaders of people. Most particularly, Miriam (she of the well!) comes to mind. But Geshem (like Tal) includes no references to our matriarchs.

There are a couple of ways to understand this absence. An Orthodox approach, I suppose(though I'm arguing the opponent's case here), might be that women are private creatures ("the honor of the princess is [to be kept] indoors," or something like that -- yes, I know that that translation is misleading, but this is all for the sake of argument), and so one shouldn't refer to them in public. Their role is behind the scenes. At least, I hope that's the argument, and that there is nothing suspect about the merits of our matriarchs. If any traditional commentator remarks upon the lack of women in these piyyutim, I'd be grateful if someone would let me know.

A more plausible approach, at least to my mind, is that every poet has a reservoir of references available to him or her. When Geshem was written (whenever that was! My Elbogen is packed up), the poet simply did not imagine that women were to be classed with men as figures for poetic evocation. So he didn't. Now it's not a simple matter to change the liturgy, but I think that piyyutim are ripe for directed modification. First of all, they are not, by and large, part of the matbeye she-kavu khakhomim, the "coin of prayer" which (it is held) was instituted by the Rabbis of the Talmud. They are later additions: cherished additions, but add-ons nonetheless. Furthermore, if we can, with suitable awe of Heaven and poetic grandeur*, craft an egalitarian version that is equal to the merit of our matriarchs -- well, why not?

This by way of introduction to an e-mail that Becca received. She had written some knowledgeable friends of hers to ask about egalitarian renderings of Geshem. One of them wrote back as follows:
The best place to go to see where people have done interpretive/alternative liturgy is the website ritualwell.org. I looked for something on Miriam. Mark Frydenberg has posted exactly what you were looking for. There is also a poem by Barbara Holender.

You might also want to check out the book of poems, "Journey into healing" by Sherri Waas Shunfenthal.

Of course, another option, if you don't find what you are looking for, is to write a response to the text that you find challenging/troubling/incomplete.

I found something else on the Web, an egalitarian version of Geshem (in Hebrew, no translation available) written by Rabbi Yoram Mazor of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel. I think it's closer in poetic spirit to the original.

I anticipate modifications of this post as more resources pop up. Please direct me to on-line versions of the original piyut, your own Geshem compositions, translations of the Israeli egal version, etc.

*Insert gratuitous bashing of the literary quality of Sim Shalom translations.


Tolstoy in Florida

Last night we saw Ana en el trópico [Anna in the Tropics], a Spanish version of the play which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. The production was sentimental in the best sense: feelingly written and acted, with some soaringly lyrical monologues. I can't write a knowledgeable review, because I didn't understand all of what was said -- ninety percent, but not everything. (My wife can recommend the simultaneous English translation.) We enjoyed ourselves quite a bit; the story enacted parallels between life and literature (the title refers to Anna Karenina, one of the "love stories" read to sultry effect by a new lector in a cigar factory) which are not as directly or emotionally made by other contemporary works. (Depending, of course, on what you think of Reading Lolita in Tehran.)

The Repertorio Español is housed in a small, homey building on 27th Street between 3rd and Lexington. I couldn't help but draw some parallels and contrasts between it and the Folksbine, New York's Yiddish theater.

The most whopping difference, of course, is that the Repertorio is clearly still the theater of a large, Spanish-speaking immigrant population, or at least a population that understands Spanish on the stage and needs the language on ticket stubs, programs and the like. The Folksbine does have some Yiddish speakers and "understanders" at its performances, but never more than a few dozen, and some of the actors themselves are not notable for their proficiency. (I have a friend, who's participating in a reading there, who says that when she tries to speak Yiddish to the rest of the cast she gets blank looks from most of them.) I appreciate the Folksbine and I think Yiddish theater is important, if only to maintain some modicum of cultural self-respect. (I don't think it does anything to "keep Yiddish alive" [i.e. maintain the spoken language], but that's another story.) I do think that a publicly-supported institution that functions as a sort of Yiddish cultural ambassador has a responsibility to include more Yiddish in its organizational apparatus: programs in Yiddish and the like. But that's the ideologue talking.

The other similarity, based on this one data point, is that the plays I've seen at the Folksbine and this play at the Repertorio had in common a felicitous mix of crowd-pleasing music-sex-and-violence with some more lyric stuff for those of a literary bent.


Speaking of Spanish, I had an interesting conversation today at lunch with Mercedes Cebrián, a freelancer for La Vanguardia who's writing a piece on New York Yiddish culture. Her blog, Gachas at Tiffany's, is written in a slangy good humor which is fun to read, though (again!) I don't understand every word. ("Gachas" is apparently a homestyle porridge, Spanish kasha, if you like.) Apparently she's going to send me a copy of her book of short stories and poetry [scroll down to the bottom of the page for the review, in Spanish]. I don't understand why it's not posted on her blog for easy purchase . . .

In La Vanguardia's culture supplement for September 22nd, which Mercedes gave me, there's a long article by a Manuel Francisco Reina, a Spanish poet who's about my age, entitled "Poetas en Nueva York" (Poets in New York). It shows how ignorant I am of the New York poetry scene that his thumbnail classifications come as news to me. Francisco Reina writes, somewhat breathlessly, that New York "continues to be the modern Alexandria of arts and letters, the siren that seduces poets on both sides of the Atlantic." (I guess we should hire the babysitter more often so I can go out and get seduced.) He continues: "In contrast to the theoretical impoverishment of European poetry, ethical and aesthetic debate in New York is in enviable health." Two basic currents, say the author, are coexisting and merging in this seductive, sirenic Alexandria of ours.

On the one hand: the new formalists, also called the Missing Measures after the title of a book by the critic and poet Timothy Steele. "The new formalists have a certain Victorian air. . . .Though they are the object of scorn, the fruits of their labor are worthy of praise." Along with Steele, Francisco Reina includes in this group the poet-critics Frederick Turner, Brad Leithauser, and Wade Newman. Its most oustanding poets are, he says, Dana Gioia, Annie Finch, Rhina Espaillat, Honor Moore, and Nikki Giovanni.

[Come to think of it, I'm not sure I agree with the classification of all these very different poets in the same group. No, I'm definitely sure I don't agree with it. But I find the overview useful, and think you might too, so I'm blogging it.]

In the other corner, according to the author of the article, the "identity poets," proceeding from the loins of Allen Ginsberg. To quote him at length:

At first glance it's quite evident that, over against the martial order of
neo-formalism, identity poetics purifies the distinct identities of New Yorkers
as if poetry were to be converted into the pulse or blood of the city, as if it
were an independent nation of lyric [. . .]

Robert Duncan has become the father of this movement and an example of a dialogue of supposedly contrary currents. In addition, he paved the way for other trends, such as "ethnic poetry," when he wrote at the end of the sixties: "To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure — all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are. " With this proposal, Duncan was decades ahead of what was yet to come.

To repeat: I don't agree with Francisco Reina's dichotomy. I don't think that formalists and identity poets productively carve up, much less exhaust the space of New York poetry. But, like I said, it's useful to see what an outsider thinks. And such classifications serve as a good excuse to think about where I place myself on the spectrum.

(The article also includes an informative section on the Spanish poetry scene in Nueva York, but I don't have time to get into that right now.)


Does God care who we vote for?
A dialogue

Person One. Of course not!

Person Two. But wouldn't it be a disengaged, bloodless God who didn't care who we voted for?

P1. Perhaps God cares who we vote for, but He* doesn't tell us who to vote for.

P2. Of course God tells us who to vote for, but not in so many words. Prophecy is no longer active in this day and age, but we have many other ways of communicating with God -- from the workings of the human mind, to the deliberations of the halachic process, to moral inspiration.

P1. So you're equating your own political decision-making with God's will? That's some powerful chutzpah!

P2. I'm not equating the two -- I'm saying that the process of coming to a political decision, for a religious person, is motivated by the same strivings and understandings which underlie the relationship that one's entire life bears to God.

P1. Huh?

P2. Think of it like this. If you believe in God, and you would prefer to engage in some sort of imitatio Dei, you can't always be a hundred percent sure that you're doing exactly what God wants, for two reasons: one, because it's difficult to ascribe desires to God, those being attributes of people, and two, because even if we accept that God has desires, it doesn't follow that we can even approximate them.

P1. What does that have to do with voting?

P2. Just that it's not implausible to imagine that God would prefer an outcome of history favoring one presidential candidate (let's say) over the other. But, even though it's not implausible, it might not be probable that God actually engages in history in that way. (He might indeed be actively involved in history, just not on the same dimensions, or with attention to the same details, which we might imagine to be most important.) Furthermore, our own political decision making might not correspond to God's.

P1. That seems awfully complicated. Can't we just vote without recourse to God?

P2. Maybe. But just as it would be a bloodless, disengaged God who didn't care who we voted for, it would be a disengaged (or at least sharply compartmentalized) religious person who didn't involve God in her political decision-making.

P1. So who does God want me to vote for?

P2. [Answer stricken to maintain blog's political neutrality.]

*God identified as He for stylistic convenience only.