Up All* Night

If I lived within walking distance I'd be going to this, but I'm going to, and teaching a bit at, a Yiddish-speaking tikkun [scroll down for English]. Please come! Eve makes a damned fine cheescake, I'm sure.

*(Well, some of the)


Conspiracy of epidemiologists

Now there are at least three of us in the blogosphere. I was very happy to stumble upon epi (beta), an epidemiology blog from the frozen labs of Minnesota. They're just getting started, so welcome to them.

(If any epidemiologists happen upon this blog and get confused by all the Jewish stuff, take a look at some of my greatest-hits posts at left, specifically Ghetto miasmas, and other apologias and Getting rid of polio.)


What separated early Judaism and Christianity?

Not much, says Daniel Boyarin in his new book, Border Lines, which I talk about this week in the Forward.


Does Job Strain Increase the Risk for Coronary Heart Disease or Death in Men and Women?

Apparently not.*

*The link is to a scientific abstract, not an article in the Times or elsewhere. If I get around to reading the article, I'll try to explain it in lay terms.


Hair today

Sheitel-gate was fun, wasn't it? Let's post-mortem. Or, rather, let's me talk about what I found interesting. [None of what follows is original with me, and I haven't yet bothered to do the legwork to cite "in the name of the person who said it." If I'm not bringing the redemption, at least I'm getting this post written with reasonable dispatch.]

1. The psakim of the rabbis involved seemed to be uniformly sans detail, that is, willfully closed-mouthed with regard to metzius (the facts of the matter). They all ran like this, generally speaking: "We have received information that these wigs are associated with an idolatrous religious ceremony, therefore [varying halachic conclusions here]." Now, in a case of suspected idolatrous taint (in Jewish: khshash avoyde zore) it would seem important to define that taint precisely. Was the hair a sacrifice, an integral part of a religious ceremony, or neither? What religious role, if any, does the hair play after tonsure? And, finally (a question I saw nowhere addressed in the various Hebrew-language religious publications), why is Hinduism avoyde zore?

For one thing, of course, it's unfair to expect this level of detail from these psakim. They are not closely reasonsed defenses of a complicated argument, but simply emergency directives for the sake of "the many who ask." Do I wear the wig -- yes or no, rebbe? And, as far as that goes, that's the sort of answer many people want from their rabbis, across the religious spectrum. Aluminum pans: toyvel or no? Plastic: to be kashered or not? It's only when the questions transcend the ritual and border on the moral that more detail is demanded by the balebos, the layperson. You'll notice, for example, that precious few go to their rabbis and ask, "Gay marriage - yes or no? Withdrawal from Gaza - yes or no?" These are questions which already presuppose a moral or political stance irreducible to a two-sentence fax.

But maybe that's the point. The job of the posek is not (just) to give answers, but to help their audience - or, more precisely, their students - understand the ramifications of the questions they are asking. A proper psak, to my way of thinking, should incorporate and present such reasoning as can be disagreed with by any thinking Jew, and if the Jew on the receiving end doesn't appreciate such reasoning - well, then, they're not thinking enough.

2. The speed of psak-propagation. Connected to the questions of metzius I mentioned above is the suspicion, already pointed out by a number of people, that the facts of the matter have not changed very much in the past twenty years, that is, since the last time this matter was publicly decided. A reasonable conclusion is that psak, and halachah in general, is susceptible to fads and fashions as is any other realm of human activity. This is an obvious point, but it's important for a liberal Jew to make it when observing an Orthodox phenomenon. Many a time and oft have I heard right-wing critics of, say, Conservative Judaism remark, "I can predict future innovations in Conservative practice or ideology based on today's political or social trends!" True enough. But sheitels, believe it or not, have been controversial in the ultra-Orthodox community for many years now, due to their ever-increasing quality (almost indistinguishable from the hair of a single woman!) and expense. (If you read some of the recent psakim, you can almost hear the rabbis grumbling as they point out that they do NOT necessarily approve of sheitels in general.) Given sufficient expertise in the sociology of the ultra-O. community, it would not have been difficult to predict that such a sheitel revolution might come up over the Indian horizon.

This is just to say that oylem keminhagoy noyheg - the world has its practices, and these influence the workings of the Jewish world, though perhaps not in the same way as the non-Jewish world.

3. But the truly pluralist Jew, considering the stories of those self-sacrificing women who throw out or burn their sheitels for nothing other than the glory of God, must be able to disagree with regard to her practice (if she does indeed disagree), yet dramatize this powerful and valuable diversity with the cry Mi keamkho Yisroel! Who is like your people, Israel!

Postscript: As several folks in the comments section have pointed out, it's important to distinguish between full-length shayles-utshuves (responsa), like this one by Rabbi Y. Sh. Elyashiv (which itself acknowledges the need for more detailed knowledge of the ritual), and the short faxes, sent out by numerous rebbes, which have driven the current trend. (Thanks to The Town Crier for the Elyashiv link.) The reason I characterized Sheitel-gate as an example of a halachic fad is that, unless I'm mistaken, no evidence points to a change in the metzius. Moreover, the long responsa addressing the question in detail were only researched and brought up after the wave of prohibitions first began. The reasons for Sheitel-gate, I still maintain, are probably sociological.

With regard to Hinduism (which, as Naomi Chana points out, is even less helpful a term than "Christianity") and its identification as avoyde zore, I have no expertise, nor would it surprise me if it were, in fact, classifiable as AZ. But I haven't seen a thorough analysis.

Post-postscript: A real, honest to goodness rabbi and talmid-khokhem has already expressed much more concisely and authoritatively my doubts about Sheitel-gate.


Virginia is for Haters

How many of Virginia's synagogues will protest their state's new anti-gay legislation? (Note: anti-gay, not anti-gay marriage.)
Check it out

Joseph Berger writes in the Times about the newly re-opened Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library. In the next few months, the entire staff (and mascot) of Twenty-Fourth Street Books will be moving down Grand Street way, so I was happy to see the piece. The elegy for the Jewish Lower East Side makes its requisite appearance:

But [the librarian] also pointed to another bookcase that captured an era's passing. The library's Yiddish and Hebrew collection was reduced to three forlorn shelves, and almost all the books were still there.

Now, I agree that the audience for these books certainly isn't all that large, and must be overwhelmed many times over by the Chinese-reading public. But "an era's passing"? There must be a number of readers of Hebrew and Yiddish still around on the Lower East Side, which is home to a sizeable Jewish community.

I think two factors explain this paragraph. One is that the "disappearing Jews of the Lower East Side" is a cliche, and the coverage of Jewish culture by non-Jewish media (and by Jewish media too, as far as that goes) is generally a montage of cliches. Yiddish is dead, too, dontcha know? Orthodoxy (or Israel) is the repository of "true Judaism." Etcetera, etceterorum.

Second, I bet there are people (yeshive-bokhrim, Charedim, old folks, academics, us weirdos, and the like) who do read these books. I wonder, though, if New York's Hebrew and Yiddish readers use the NYPL's extensive collections in these languages. The Library's 2003 report, though interesting, lacks specific information on non-English use. Most Yiddish speakers I talk to aren't even aware that the NYPL has books in Yiddish.

In other library news, some government officials in Kiryas Joel want to quit paying taxes to support the Monroe Free Library (the closest public library to KJ). These officials say the KJ residents don't use the Monroe library, so why support it? But the director of the Monroe library says no, there are Chasidim there all the time. When I looked into this story a bit deeper (for an upcoming Forverts piece), it turned out that this controversy, as with everything else Satmer, is a Zalman Leib/Aron dispute [an old link, but informative]. One group says Let's start our own library that isn't so goyish! And the other says: No! Starting our own library would mean we have to own goyish books!

(I am not misrepresenting the argument here. Trust me.) Of course, the Chasidim must be finding something to read in the Monroe Free Library, no?

I'll translate the Forverts piece if someone asks me to.


"These Lines are Written in Memory of the Teachers of my Youth"

Bar Pakhti, one of the better-written Yiddish blogs (of the, oh, half-dozen or so total), remembers melamdim of his youth, Holocaust survivors who mostly taught children the taste of their own pain.

. . . The children of [Holocaust survivors] were also "war victims." Though they didn't suffer in the camps, they were still victims of victims, survivors of survivors. Aside from "you shall strike them forty times" they didn't learn much from these teachers. Whether the tractate was Blows or Lashes didn't make much difference for the final halachah -- the bottom line was red. If they be red as scarlet was the simple meaning of every verse under their staff, and no discrimination was found there. Everyone merited it without exception. Every tenth shall be holy was reserved for special days...


A new poem by Yehudah Amichai

Neat trick, huh?

That is, a posthumous poem, published in Haaretz on the anniversary of his birthday, May 6th. This will be the first year for the awarding of the Amichai Poetry Prize (presumably for poetry in Hebrew, though I don't know).

It's called Onot, or Seasons. The first few lines could be translated this way:

So summer kept dwelling on the blood,
burning, bright and quick in dealing judgment.
The wind, afterwards, moved over our faces, but
someone ushered it away, over
the mountains. After that the rains came
and washed the stains from the highway.

Or maybe that's not how it should go in English at all. Maybe I'll try the rest of it, but t looks like it requires a lot of thought, and who knows who I would have to get permission from to publish any translation in a journal.