Friday, August 29, 2003

Esperanto Excitement

Here is the excitement for tonight. Apparently tomorrow night (Friday night) there will be a boycott of Esperanto (the Cafe, not the language). The details are not entirely clear, and it is not well known who started this thing, but it has been in the hopper for a long time. Esperanto, in the west village of Manhattan used to be a real cool place to hang out. It still is actually, but it used to be cooler. Then a couple of years ago they got waitresses. The waitresses were all nice, but they changed the ambiance. Now when you come in you have a seat and someone serves you instead of going to the counter and just ordering and taking it to your table and enjoying your coffee. It is now a whole thing. Then a while back they started to enforce this policy that required ou to be consuming $5 worth of stuff per hour in order to stay there. Now peopel used to stay there all night, especially when there was no one else there, as they are one of the few places open 24/7. They did not really push this policy too much. It was just something they brought up every now and then.

Apparently the owner started to manage the place, and it turns out he is a real jerk, and business on that block (like in the rest of the city) has gone down lately. Last week he screamed at some of customers who were apparently not downing enough decaf. He also harassed the staff about this. And this went on until one (or more) of the customers decided there will be a boycott of the regulars at the store this friday (today, actually). The people there are all pretty friendly, and so they started this thing where they hung up signs on McDoogle Street, and changed the background on the computer to a boycott sign. The owner has been removing these signs ever since.

Those who know who started this are not talking.

If the owner has the balls to apologize, he can still salvage his regular customers.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

King's Dream - 40 years later

It is the 40th anniversary of MLK's famous "I have a Dream" speech. It is a piece of writing that has had a lot of influence on my life. (I never heard the speech in MLK's voice till a few years ago, when I caught it on the radio.)

It is normal that we overly glamorize the lfe of MLK. He was human, and he made the mistakes of humans. His "Letter from Birmingham" was not the brilliant philosophical system that it is made out to be. His PhD was mostly plagarized. And yes, he really liked white women (which were not his wife). So he shoud be no role model for anyone. But we idolize him nonetheless.

But nonetheless the speech was profoundly significant. It always saddened me that the speech which was meant for everyone had way more impact on whites then on blacks. It was a dream "deeply rooted in the American dream". That is true. It was a dream that "we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood". It is a dream that "one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood." This is something that whites have worked very hard for. It was a dream of true integration. I think it is sad that the black community has not fought as hard for this. Blacks want rights for minorities. Whites want rights for everyone. At a certain point in history this might have been understandable. But the time for that has passed. Certainly there is nothing wrong with "black culture" whatever that might amount to, but to grant special rights (despite their special persecuted history) is a dream not deeply rooted int he American dream. It is a dream rooted somewhwere else.

I think racism has not ended in this country. I do think that institutionalized racism is mostly gone, and that is all we really want the government to promote. The rest is about community marketing. Racism will not end as long as the races act differently. And they will never really be the same. And there will always be people who do not like each other. That is human nature.

But MLK's speech does not ask that we all like each other. He wants us to have a forum to sit down in a spirit of brotherhood. He wants our children to be able to school together, dine together, and (gasp) to marry. That is all nice.

I hope that we all take a good look at the speech, and try to live the dream. I hope that the speech will start to resonate with blacks too. Sure they want racism to end, but are they prepared for brotherhood with whites, Or are they stuck on brothahood?

The 10 Commandments

I am so glad that this 10 commandment things looks over. These pseudo-Americans fighting for the reintegration of church and state! Alabamans are pretty stupid people, even if you make it to judge. What is up with this? This is a constitutional no-brainer. The large number of people who support having the ten commandments in a federal building are simply showing their preference for God over country. They are no better than the Anglicans who forced the early American colonists to leave England. Frankly they are - in principle - no better than the Taliban who pulled this same thing, execpt the Americans are civilized enough to not violently follow through.

I am greatful for high courts with common sense.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Review of Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars

Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations is by now a classic in the theory of just and unjust war. There is a lot in the book that can be agreed with and disagreed with, and I will not trouble here to go in to a lengthy discussion of the book right now, the book has been reviewed over and over again already. The book covers a lot of the things you would want to address when talking about wars and morality. There is ample discussion of when a war is just, and what are just and unjust methods of fighting a war. There is a discussion of nuclear deterrence, emergencies, and terrorism, among many other things.

There is only one thing that would hold me back from recommending this as a good place to start if you want a presentation of a relatively modern academic discussion (from 1977) of what the issues in Just War Theory are - the presentation is a bit hard to follow. The historical illustrations are really helpful, but the discussions are often a bit prolix, and somewhat dense. The book could use to loose a few pages.

It really is a well thought out book, and despite the massive amount of literature that has already built up around it, both favorable and critical, it deserves to be widely read - especially these days when there is so much talk about justice and war, and so little corresponding thought.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Spotted at the UN

Today I ran to the UN where there was a silent demonstration in front of the building, inside the complex. It was a memorial of sorts for the people who were killed in the recent bombing in Iraq. I saw Kofi Anan marching there with about 200 other people.

2001 in Bryant Park

Movie in Bryant Park

Last night I saw 2001: A Space Oddesy in Bryant Park (Thanks to the sponser HBO). I love those free shows in the park. I try to take in at least one each summer. 2001 was a great movie, and it was great seeing it on the big screen. If I were in a more philosophical mood I could ramble on about the movie for pages, but I am not quite in the mood for that now. There were a few annoying people there, but overall it was nice. To see one you have to get there early, though I think last night was the last one for the season.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Review of Rushkoff's Nothing Sacred

Review of Douglas Rushkoff's Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism

As a general rule, one should always worry when someone tells you they are going to tell you the truth - even when that someone is Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff is one of the modern geniuses of the study of the media and our relation to it. His earlier works were not just books, but events in the study of society. So when he writes a book about Judaism, even one with such a suspicious title, it behooves us to take notice.

The book starts out giving us Rushkoff's view of what Judaism is. For him, it can be boiled down to three, and only three things: 1) iconoclasm 2) monotheism, and 3) social justice. He demonstrates this by giving us selective examples of all three from the bible and Jewish literature and history. Then, in chapter two, he goes on to ask how Judaism "lost it", or lost our focus on the above three goals. He is especially concerned about loosing Judaisms iconoclasm which was a product of open, free, and supported rational inquiry. Basically he blames contemporary Jewish practice for stifling this inquiry. He claims that we have replaced openness (and pluralism) with dogma and insularity.

Chapter three then claims that there is a long history of improvements as the process of renaissances. Moreover, he integrates this well inside of the Jewish tradition. The book then argues for an "open source Judaism" which will allow us to see things more multi-dimensionally. He then advocates a sort of abandonment of tradition such as to allow the important stuff in Judaism, ie, social justice and iconoclasm, to flourish, even at the expense of everything else.

There is then a sort of digression to stave off the objection that Judaism is a race and therefore ought to be preserved as one. The chapter claims it is not a race, but something else. Therefore he concludes that it is then OK to share Judaism's core values with others, even if it means we all become the same (ie, we assimilate ourselves and our values for the sake of perpetuating Judaism's core memes of iconoclasm and social justice.)

The fifth chapter is more normative. It enjoins us to establish a collective narrative. It insists on open exchanges and constant critical dialogue. The chapter asserts that everything is open to reinterpretation. The idea is that we should strive to reinterpret the old narratives as openly as possible. Rushkoff goes on to then say that to do this we need access to the original texts and their original contexts. Instead of seeing our places in Judaism as a link in the long process of Judaism, what we need to do is to take the original Judaism and imagine we are the first interpreters, and ours is the generation that it ought to be interpreted for. Then we will be able to take the original vales and apply it to today and it will be meaningful to us, and will promote Judaism's true values.

My problems with the book are many, and I will state a few of them here. (1) First, and this is a pet peeve of mine - one should not think they can successfully get away with reverse engineering Judaism to discover its core values. It is both the book's premise and its conclusion, that there are core values and that they were figured out. The task is always dangerous because there is no way to be right and no way to be wrong. Generally people know what they want the answer to be and find the examples they need to get to it. If I had every book whose opening chapter told me what the author thought the real "essence" of Judaism was, I would have an enormous Judaica collection. For some it is saving the whales, for other the ecology, for others it is serving God, for some it is about bring the messiah, honoring your ancestors, voting democrat, entertaining the world, singing, or smoking marihuana. I have never bought in to any of those and I don't buy it now. The three core values for Rushkoff iconoclasm, monotheism, and social justice are interesting choices, but sound very agenda-laden especially since monotheism (all theism, actually) seems to get lost over the course of the book. Moreover, iconoclasm seems like it was a good stepping stone for monotheism. Monotheism does seem important and probably was one of the main goes somewhere along the line. And, social justice is clearly anachronistic. There is certainly an ancient idea of making the world better for the Jews, and even of making the world better (though that must have come later). But it seems odd to put that as a main goal. There are enough references to "l'takin olam bemalchut shaddai" (to fix the world within the kingdom of heaven) to suggest that there is an idealist conception of a Jewish reaching out to spread word and practice of our God to the world, and this is taken up by some, but this cannot be generalized to social justice. Moreover the name itself is very anachronistic. The term "social justice" congers up images of Jewish-lefty-bundist-arbiter-ring-style social thought. This could hardly have been the intension of whoever first uttered "tikkun olam".

(2) Why stick with social justice any more than anything else? Perhaps we should stick with the kosher laws, or the family purity laws, or the holiday laws. Maybe we should make up our own laws, call that Judaism, in the "very Jewish tradition of free inquiry" and promote those? Under the books understanding of Judaism anything can really be construed as Judaism. And if we are allowing that what does Judaism really have to do with this. If we happen to like a value, what is the point of talking about its authentically Jewish nature? If it is to convince Jews that this is authentic Judaism then you are only going to interest those who are interested in Judaism's original message and those who are interested in your message. Those who are interested in yours do not need Judaism, and those who are interested in the authentic message do not need to be Jews if the message is worthwhile enough.

(3) There have been many trinities in Judaism, by the way. Many look like good candidates. The book's is just as arbitrary as many of the others, it seems. Is there an argument to suggest one over the other? Here are a few: Rav Kook: Jewish Torah, Jewish State, and Jewish people. Big three prohibitions: Idolatry, adultry, murder. Rosh Hashana: Repentance, Prayer, Charity. Jewish Characteristics: modesty, mercifulness, kindness. The pillars of the world: Torah, avoda (service), kindness.

(4) I am very bothered by the book's tone with regard to tradition. Personally I am not a believer in anything. I am barely a practicer of anything, nor am I secretly pleased that there are some out there who carry on "authentic" feeling Judaism. I do things within Judaism that I feel like, and that please me. That's about it. However, it seems like, by sounding so hostile towards tradition, the book disregards one of its own messages of open inquiry. Open inquiry does not mean something that is open only to those who already have the right answer. It is like an open democracy where they only allow one candidate to run, or at the very least, they outlaw some of the candidates. Inquiry, or at least its promotion, is not present if you assert a priori, which answers you will not allow to turn up at the end.

(5) There is an assumption that seems to lurk in the pages that IF one is Jewish, THEN they feel as if they must support Israel. I personally do, but I do not think that one must to be Jewish, or that it is necessary or important for one's Judaism. Judaism has allowed for a multitude of voices on this since the times of Herzl.

(6) Much of the information from this book seems like it was gleaned from the pages of modern new age pop-culture books with trendy titles, and authors who appear on Oprah. (Like Drosnin et al) There seems to be little first-hand familiarity with the workings of the Jewish canon. The corpus of Jewish writing is extensive. To call it multi-faceted would be a massive understatement. Traditional Orthodox interpretation and reinterpretation allows a very wide latitude in reading of the text, especially the kind that Rushkoff seems to innovate here. Few Orthodox Jews would find it hard to look at the 10 plagues and see it as casting off 10 idols. Biblical criticism is at least two millennia older that Spinoza. And Spinoza knew it. Spinoza was following a well worn methodology and style, only his answer was radically different - not his questions. (Hobbes actually got the jump on Spinoza on the biblical criticism question anyway.)

There is a much more obvious reading of Maimonides' Mishne Torah that Rushkoff misses, which makes the exact opposite point that the book is making. Maimonides on one very important level strove to CLOSE discussion on Jewish law. The talmud is a work with lots of stuff in it. There are stories, legends, parables, discussions, gossip, textual analysis, philosophy, and discussions about Jewish law. The discussions have ambiguities, open questions, many more points of view then actually get full treatment, and their inclusion is conscious on the part of the editors of the Talmud. So much was deliberately left open ended to allow for a reinterpretation. Moreover, those familiar with the story of the oven of Achnai, know that the rabbis made sure that the law is not fixed in heaven, but rather open to their constant revisions and reinterpretations. The Talmud is VERY clear about the living nature of the law. There are also few final pronouncements thus allowing for many possible loopholes and interpretations, and directions that can be taken from the text itself.

One can even argue that in that way the talmud is very philosophical rather than dogmatic. It records all the arguments and reasons, rather then the law itself. What is important for the editors of the Talmud, what they needed to preserve for eternity is the debate - regardless of what the outcome or practice is.

Maimonides sought to replace all that with a simple, closed, and fixed text from which you can get all law. Gone was the discussion. Gone was the idea that critical inquiry was valuable. Now all one needed was to see what Maimonides said the final ruling was and you had Jewish law. Maimonides goal was to replace dialogue with dogma. This was done for the masses as well as the intellectual. However for the intellectual there was an elaborate and sophisticated justification of this in the Guide for the Perplexed where obstacles to the first project were removed.

(7) There are a few places where the book makes assertions about Jews that reflect only on those Jews least in need of the program it is advocating (ie the educated and practicing). There are pronouncements for example that the Shabetai Zevi story was "erased from our history". This is preposterous. Everyone with a halfway decent Jewish education knows this. Certainly anyone who spent enough years in Hebrew school or read a few Jewish books in her life. It was a central part of Jewish history. The only way you could not know about him is 1) if you spent too few years in Hebrew School, 2) you do not remember what you were taught in Hebrew school, 3) you went to a Hebrew school where the teachers were not more educated then the students, or 4) you read zero books on Jewish history.

(8) The issue of race comes up a lot in the book, as if for some reason it came as a big revelation to the author that Jews do not see themselves as a product of a race. Israeli society is plagued with racism (discovering this was actually one of the biggest disillusiong moments of my life). WASPs (White Ashkenazi Sabras with Protectsia) are higher up on the social ladder than the Arab or north African Jews, and they both see themselves as higher than the Yemenite, or black Ethiopian Jews. But they all see each other as Jews. Jews of different races, yes, but Jews nonetheless. (Initially there was much debate of their Ethiopian Jews, but what was at issue was their linage as Jews, not their race. Everyone, except for a bunch of anti-Semites knows that Jews are not a race, the existence of race itself is hotly debated among those in the know, but it is not clear why so much time is spent debunking this.

The reason why he deals with race at all is that he makes the dubious claim that only Jews, ie the Jewish race should feel so special such that they should share their religion with others. It is not like anyone thinks that having non-Jews do some Jewish things is wrong. What is wrong if non-Jews give charity, or celebrate the Passover or whatever?

(9) I really do like the final chapter of the book. That is the chapter that recommends a fresh approach to looking at Judaism. I believe that it is not original in the sense that there are long traditions of modifying services and rituals, and textual interpretation to accommodate the times. The Orthodox do it, as do the unaffiliated and everyone in between, but it does promote a large awareness of what is going on, which I like.

It would be nice to see a more tolerance for different voices, not just the "correct" one. The correct voice, if there is one, that is the voice that is most appropriate for the time, will, as Rushkoff puts it, naturally emerge from the multitude of voices that speak out on every topic. Beyond that it is hard to imagine what the correct voice is. It cannot be the original intention in the original context, because we do not share their world, so their world view is useless. We also do not share their priorities, and you would have to make a good case for why we should before you do. So it has to just be the interpretation that works best for us here and now. But there is nothing that says that there is a unique correct interpretation. A central principle of Talmudic hermeneutics is "eilu v'eilu divrei elohim chaim". "Both these and those are the words are the living God." There are lots of things that count as the right interpretation. It behooves us to find them all, no doubt.

There are also numerous smaller problems in the book most of which I shall not deal with. However the problems range from the factual like Napolean's death had little to do with the status of the Jews, and the last Czar was incorrect in the book, and the Russians wrote The Protocols not the French - To the very strange misrepresentations of the Hebrew language (YHWH and avoda, for examples). Also, while "oz" does indeed mean "strength" in Hebrew, the Uzi was named after its inventor Uziel Gal (nicknamed "Uzi"). And there is an annoying caveat pertaining to nomenclature, but I feel a need to point it out: Shabetai Zevi is never referred to as Zevi in the scholarly or Jewish literature. Nor is Rabbi Nathan of Gaza referred to simply as "Rabbi Nathan".

In closing, it is not clear what in the book is supposed to be innovative. The theology and scholarly methodology is used in everywhere in the Jewish world from the hassidic yeshiva, to the secular university, where everything from source-critical apparatus to mystical interpretations are employed, often side-by side. Sometimes the goal is to find the original intent of the author, sometimes the intent is to translate it in to modern lessons. Sometimes it is filtered through the lens of scores of generations, sometimes it is brand new commentary straight from the original. The book's values are nice, though they seem more to try to fit social justice and iconoclasm in to a Jewish mold rather than to take them out of one. There are equally plausible cases that could be made for Judaism's conservative nature than its iconoclastic one. There are also easily made cases that Jews were more interested in themselves than saving nations that they were planning on being a light to.

But, on a more positive note, I really do love the "open source" metaphor for Jewish inquiry. The open source philosophy blurrs the boundary between creator and user which was, by the way the original reason that the oral law was oral - so as not to become rigidified on a text. Traditional software generally has one creator, and the program is static. The user then has to deal with whatever software she is given. Open source allows the user to modify the software as she needs to. There is nothing sacred about the source code. The source code is not copy protected with all the security and legal apparatus that usually comes with it. Open source Judaism also encourages each individual to make any contribution that he wants. Popular tweaks will be picke up by others and catch on. Of course it is innately difficult to modify the source code. To do so you must first have a good understanding of the original intent and language of the source. You can't modify the code if you don't understand the program. With Judaism you can only make a change if you are perceived as understanding it. Illiterate Jews cannot really impact the religion. Who would listen? (Though there have been a few possible exceptions.)

While this is a wonderful metaphor, it is hardly a new concept. Judaism, like other religions can be well described by the open source terminology and can be modeled within the rubric of open source philosophy. There was an initial program. This Kernel (a core of the program protected by some administrator that is accepted as cannonical) was a general program (whatever that was). The "protector" of the kernel was pretty conservative. Each generation adds its own features and changes and modifies it, and the popular ones are picked up by all and the unpopular ones are discarded. The whole process has being going on in Jewish law since the beginning, and even those who think that strictly Orthodox Judaism has never done that would do well to read the historians of Halacha (say Jacob Katz's Divine Law in Human Hands or The Shabbos Goy or more importantly the Soloveitchik "Rupture and reconstruction" paper of a few years ago). On a larger scale, Diaspora Judaism itself has fractured in to three major groups, and Israeli Judaism has taken up Zionism and other "denominations". Each rift can be easily modeled as a new step in the evolution of the Judaism program. There are many ways to use the open source concept to describe these.

But either way, the book is a fresh reminder of the value of a Jewish education and the benefits of a healthy debate in Jewish practice and theology. Debate is vital to the tradition, and Rushkoff should be commended for taking such a decisive stand in it.

Howl and the Jewish Museum

On Saturday I spent the day in Tomkin Square park watching the Howl Festival. It was a tribute to Allen Ginsburg who's famous poem "Howl" made him the spokesman for the beat generation. (Like everyone else, my personal favorites are "Kaddish" and "Howl". Much of his other stuff is real junk.) The festival was odd. There were tons of drag queens and people of various sexual persuasions all just hanging out. Some of the people on stage were amusing, as was some of the music. As can be expected, much of the art was political, and much of it was pretty bad. There were a few pieces which displayed a bit of talent. There were your usual share of lunatics and Hare Krishnas there as well. I got to do a bit of reading on the grass, so the afternoon was not a total waste.

Sunday I went to the Jewish museum. It was OK. It basically had a bit of everything you would expect in a Jewish museum. Some historical stuff, and some stuff about Jewish rituals. There was also a good exhibit about Jews on stage. Mostly some old Yiddish movies and some tributes to people like Barbra Strisand and Jerry Sinefeld. It was mostly uninteresting, though I did learn some interesting stuff. For example I did not know that Betty Boop was created as a Jewish character who originally was created to represent the daughter of an immigrant attempting to assimilate in to the American world of early 20th century flapperdom. (I really schepped some good Yiddishe nachas there.)

Friday, August 22, 2003

Pretzles from Drug Stores

I eat a lot of pretzles. I really am a pretzle junkie. I mostly eat the Herrs, Rold Gold, or Utz pretzles. They are all OK. I generally am a traditionalist about them, and I eat the pretzle-shaped ones. Ocassionally I will eat the really big Dutch style ones. So I frequently find myself purchasing pretzles. I buy them in all sorts of places. Therefore I say this on great authority: Do not buy pretzles from a drug-store. Whenever I buy Pretzles in CVS or Rite Aid (any one), the pretzles are stale and old. It is horrible. It always happens. I have no idea why. I need to call the drug stores and find out why this happens - and why it is invariant regardless of the drug-store chain.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Religious Jewish Teens at risk in Flatbush, Brooklyn

A couple of nights ago I was having a talk with my dad about something known to the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn as Project Chazon. I am not sure how he had heard about it or what his relationship to it was, but he seemed pretty aware of what it did, especially considering that he has no children of age to be involved in that. Basically it is an organization whose function is to help adolesents who are somehow "at risk" to avoid becoming "casualties", and to spread some generic Kiruv cheer to the rest of the mainstream yeshiva and Beis Yaakov boys and girls.

It is interesting how the Jewish community has responded to the problem that it really started to face in the 60's. There have always been religious Jewish children at risk for many reasons. Many do what their non-Jewish peers do - they just "drop out" (to employ a 60'sism). They left their religion as well as their rather conservative way of life. The baal teshuva movement was a response to this, though it took a place like Aish Hatorah forever and a week to become accepted as mainstream (and I am still not sure that they really are now). But Aish and the rest of the Baal Teshuva places (and there are many) have hardly stemmed the tide of people leaving religion. And remember there we are just talking about people who just drifted away, or who are the children of people who just drifted away from religious practice.

Today the problems are different. Now we are addressing people who are radically distanced from their traditional lives. In some sense these are people who are just "experimenting" in high school with all sorts of things, from not keeping shabbos, "fraternizing" with people of the opposite sex, to becoming alcoholics, herion addicts, or just experimenting with "E". These are a nice mixture of religious kids who have a whole slew of problems ranging in scope from just not likeing Yeshiva, becoming prostitutes (of all sorts), becoming junkies, sexual abuse. . . You name it. It is now in the Yeshica world and out in the open.

These young people are mostly from Flatbush, but plenty of Boro Parkers show up too. These students are from the most religious of families and many of them are starting to show problems as early as the age of 12.

The project involves opening 3 pool-halls/work out spaces for the teens to hang out in. One is for the boys, one for the girls, and a third is for both. In the last one, there is a mandatory AA session that you are required to participate in. In general the atmosphere seems safe, there is free food, and things to do. There are adults to talk to. . .

While I did not see any of this for myself, I am told that it is a well done set-up.

(Also, from what I heard, the people who make decisions behind the scenes are idiots, but that is another matter.)

It is good to see that there is now an organized response to this, and the community is facing the fact that there is little sense in trying to cover up the problems. 10 years ago there was no acknowledgement of the problem and many of these children just got screwed up. Some died, some recovered, some got help, and some changed religions. (I know people in all of these categories.) Today there is some way that that community can retain the membership of the members it was loosing over this, and it is dedicating the resources to do it. Apparently the numbers aren't too clear but the (low) estimates of the participants in the programs are well over 1100 children. Considering the amount of children studying in Religious Jewish High Schools in Brooklyn, this is a staggering number for one community. (I would estimate about 5%.) This number is WAY up from what it used to be. I think there was always one kid in every school (about 1%-2%).

But I see a good side to this. The fact that the number is up might suggest that whatever latent problems are out there are being dealt with early on, before the child becomes a problem adult, say a cheating wife-beater, which everyone knows exists in abundance in the Jewish community. On the other hand it might just reflect the changing demographics and social patterns and economic opportunities that define the religious communities in Brooklyn, and the world.

While I really do not care about whether these kids end up putting on tefilin for the rest of their lives, I do worry about their safety and their general well being. I was one of those kids once, although I ended up getting really lucky here and there, and my life is not all that bad. Many of my friends did not fare as well and some are still paying for it. So I wish the program luck, and I hope that at least some of their goals are successful.

The Holy Land

Last night I saw The Holy Land. It is one of those indy films, that play in places like the Angelika here in New York. It was a rather interesting movie, though it is hard to say what I came out with.

(Spoiler follows)

The movie is about Mendy, a yeshiva student from Bnei Berak, a Russian prostitute, a American barowner, and some other characters. Basically the story goes as follows: The yeshiva boy is given some odd advice - visit a prostitute to get rid of some of those nasty sexual urges, and come back to yeshiva all relaxed and ready to resume the very sexually repressed world of the yeshiva. (Nathan Englander's short story that names the book "For the relief of unbearbale urges" should come to mind here".) But it didn't quite work that way. He goes, gets a hand job, and falls in love with the prostitute. Later on that night he meets Mike, from Mike's place (a place where anyone in Yeshiva in Israel in the last 10 years has spent time). Eventually he drops out of yeshva, works in the bar and moves in with the hooker (in a very sexually-frustrating way). Now, the movie gets worse. There is a subplot about a mysterious package that Mike and the Arab have throughout the movie which makes for a really disturbing end, as well as a pointless subplot about a crazy settler. Execpt for naive Mendy, no one is who they appear.

The movie is actually pretty good at the end. All the scenes were pretty authentic. Everything is filmed in Israel, and looks about as real as it is. All the characters seeme authentic. If they don't, it simply means that you are not vary familiar with Israelis in Jerusalem.

There is nothing feel-good about this movie. It is a love story, but there is no happy ending. It is not about a typical experience in Israel, but rather one that goes about as bad as it can. If you know Jerusalem, then there will be a lot here that looks familiar. (I recognized a band-member who shall remain nameless, but I remember from when I was there.)

There is a sort of Calablancaesque quality to the film - but without the charm. Even in Israel I assumed that "Mike's Place" really resembled "Rick's Place" a bit too much. There was a whole medly of people (like that bar on Star Wars whose name escapes me at the moment). It is owned by a good hearted ex-pat who takes in all sorts of strays without much concern for his own fiscal or physical well-being, while still looking really cool. There is a twisted love interest. There are all sorts of shady characters in this strange foreign setting. . . But here there is a very bothersome twist, and all is not well at the end.

See the movie if it is in your neighborhood (but don't feel too bad if you miss it).

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Hi - to the Arab world

A few people (like CNN and the Washington Post)are talking about the new "Hi" magazine that is coming out. Mainly it is a vehicle for the US to introduce ourselves to the Arab world. It only costs the taxpayers about US 4 millon a year, so it is a worthwhile experiment, but it seems doomed to failure. There is little about Britany Spears that your average Arab does not know. Moreover there is little about Britany Spears that will make the average Arab like us more. I do agree with
Young's reasons for thinking that in the Arab world one can love Madonna hate everything about her and want to kill everyone else who listens to her. I also agree with his assesment that the ones who are shelling out the equivelant of US 2, are not the ones who need our propoganda - they are already on the net checking out Eminem for themselves. I do not agree with his last suggestion for the same reason he gives that the magazine will not work. There is little chance that some Dahe resident/Amal supporter will find himself taking advantage of that Arab scholarship to Penn State in the near future. There are plenty of Arabs who do make it to the US and there is no indication that they are getting anything out of it more then an education. They are generally the ones who come from families that are sufficiently western so as to send their children to the US or England. While here (or there) they are also the ones who participate in the anti-America bitchfests that are a staple of US college education. The education thing used to sound like a good idea until we realized that an Arab can love our education and still hate us, just liek they can do with our music. It was a very good idea when it came to communists, but no so with Arabs.

But what should be done is still a good question. I still stand by my "beer and porn" idea. Get as much US (or German or whatever) beer and porn in to Arab countries and see how long the clerics will be able to really stop it. Erode the antiquated morals of the Arab world and the rest will fall. Make them decadent, like us, and they will work hard to protect their freedom to stay that way.

There may be a more realistic and serious solution, but not an easy one. Ideas?

The Obligatory blackout comment

So the big news is of course the blackout that we had. I am sure I have little that would shed any light on the whole situation (no pun intended). By sheer coincidence I was in a lecture where we were warned a week in advance of routine electrical work that would disrupt all our electrical systems at around 4PM on Thursday. So I was not surprised when all the lights went out. I was rather surprised when I discovered that they were out over the whole northeast.

I ended up staying in Manhattan on Thursday night. It was hot, but we made it. New Yorkers have been learning to deal with the unexpected, and we did fine.

I spent the weekend on Long Island (Cedarhurst) because I had planned this a week in advanvce. I spent some time with some family. They also had power before my part of Manhattan. They were only down for a few hours.

What frightens me is that it is only a matter of time before the internet goes down too. While information is very distributed, as is the computing, there must be some routers that are centralized. I frankly know little about the architecture of the net, and I do know that it was designed initially to resist just these kinds of things, I would love some reassurance that this can't happen to the net. Does email still work on the original principles that the ARPANET people envisioned; ie, that in the event of a problem, email would get rerouted via some other nodes? This was particularly unforseen - everything was out. Shouldn't we have had some backup plan, especially for New York?

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

T"U B'Av -- Jewish <3 Day

Today is T"U B'av. It is one of the more underappreciated holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is a rather understressed part of Jewish education too. It is slightly more appreciated in Israel by those who feel uncomfortable with Valentine's day, but still want to get (and give) flowers and chocolate.

T"U B'av is the Jewish version of Valentine's day. It is much older too. In the times of the temple, today was the day when women danced as men would look on and mates were chosen and matches were made. Today was the day, as tradition has it where it was announced that the tribes were allowed to intermarry amongst each other (ending the squabbling over who would get whose land). It was also the day that the decree was annuled that banned the tribe of Benjamin from marrying outside the tribe after the nasty concubine of Givah incident.

The holiday is full of lore that focuses on love and marraige. It is one of our nicer holidays, if you ask me. I encourage every Jew to start practicing it. There are really few rituals associated with it. Certainly nothing mentioned in Jewish law, so be creative - start your own T"U B'av customs. If they are interesting, let me know what they are.

T"u B'av

Today is T"U B'av. It is one of the more underappreciated holidays in the Jewish calendar. It was, of course, rather understressed in yeshiva. It is slightly more appreciated in Israel by those who feel uncomfortable with Valentine's day, but still want to get (and give) flowers and chocolate.

T"U B'av is the Jewish version of Valentine's day. It is much older too. In the times of the temple, today was the day when women danced as men would look on and mates were chosen and matches were made. Today was the day, as tradition has it where it was announced that the tribes were allowed to intermarry amongst each other (ending the squabbling over who would get whose land). It was also the day that the decree was annuled that banned the tribe of Benjamin from marrying outside the tribe after the nasty concubine of Givah incident.

The holiday is full of lore that focuses on love and marraige. It is one of our nicer holidays, if you ask me. I encourage every Jew to start practicing it. There are really few rituals associated with it. Certainly nothing mentioned in Jewish law, so be creative - start your own T"U B'av customs. If they are interesting, let me know what they are.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Two movies

Last night I saw The Matrix Reloaded in Imax. It was pretty cool, but I have to say that given my anticipation I was disappointed. It was pretty anti-climactic. There were cooler effects, but the storyline was somewhat thin. There was also no satisfying ending. I am actually not in the mood to write about it, as it was not all that worth writing about in the end.

But tonight I saw Pirates of the Carribean. It was really good. I highly recommend it. Johnny Depp is really a versatile actor. The whole movie was ultimately a love story, but it was an excellent story, and well told. It was a tale of suspense and horror, and there were pirates and great sword-fights. It was also, by the way, a comedy, and had some great lines. See it.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Jewish Clothing

Judaism really does place a rather large emphasis on clothing. Hassidim are the obvious examples, but the commandmant to wear Tzitzit is clothing related. And a Kippah can be seen as clothing, though the nitpickers among you may claim it as an accessory. There are also a bunch of customs about Jewish women and their clothing, and anyone who spent as many years in yeshiva as I did can tell you that there are few things that people there worry about more than clothing.

Ethnic clothing is nothing new, especially for Jews. I remember some ten years ago there was some fashion designer who modeled his 1992 line of clothing after traditional hassidic garb. I can't remember the designer, but it was rather short-lived.

There are also a few places where you can buy clothing that have cutsy Jewish stuff on them, like

But now there is something that looks like it might have a bit more shelf lifeand a bit more stlye. First is jew.lo,a Brooklynite (a landsman!) no less, promoting these nifty Ts, and some philosophy or other. I think that everyone who can fit in to one of these ought to be wearing one.

We also have something a bit more deemure, but infused with an equal amount of pride at jewishjeans. Again, there is some philosophy or other attached to their clothing, but if you are like me and can't handle all that deep stuff, just wear the shirt. It's good for you.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

The Bus System in New York

Today I went running up the East River. It was a pretty good running day. But anyway, when I am at the point when I was about to turn around and head back, I stop for a quick stretch and this guy starts talking to me. It turns out that his job is to monitor the city busses. Now I never realized that the busses in New York were monitored by people on the ground. I always thought that there was someone who made sure that the drivers started on time, or the drivers were self-regulated. But it turns out that there is a fairly complicated system in place for making sure that the busses run smoothly on the route and that the spacing is kept reasonable .

As it turns out, I use the bus system often. And usually it is pretty good. The only thing is . . . that from time to time they really screw up. For example it may be a Sunday and there is no bus for a hour, or a driver late at night doesn't bother to stop to pick me up. These things leave such bad feelings that I often really hate the MTA.

However, meeting this guy really did help restore some of my faith in the MTA. They really do attempt to coordinate the bus system. This guy I met was chatting with me for almost an hour (while doing his job the whole time - I swear he did not miss recording a bus). And he was really friendly. He explained all these complicated things about spacing and routes and scheduling. I was impressed.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Religions are like ISPs

I was thinking about what religions are analogous to what ISPs, and here is what I came up with. Christianity is like AOL. It is user friendly, lots of versions, idiot-proof, and it is great for the masses who know nothing about computers but want the internet to chat and look at porn. Islam is like having an ISDN line and a fairly generic service that provides the basics. It is also hard to set up thus discourages users from switching to another service. Judaism is like the old University UNIX accounts. It is the oldest, and least user-friendly. It is designed for geeks, has many commands to memorize, and has few supporters, but many really dedicated ones who will not give up the old ways for anything.

Review of Jacobo Timmerman's The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon

It is clear that Jacobo Timmerman's book The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon was not inspired by any facts about Israel or Lebanon. It is a series of ramblings about how evil Israel was with respect to her intervention in Lebanon. It is clearly the musings and feelings of a dogmatic leftist who did not at all understand the political realities of the middle east and was in the mood for a writing project. Israel, his home at the time, lucked out.

The book just goes on and on about how wrong the whole thing is and how blind people must be, not to see it. What makes the book so awful though is its complete inability to separate reality from the author's perception of it. The solipsism abounds. There is no sense that the author was aware that there was a war going on prior to Israel's involvement, you actually do not get the feeling that the war was bigger than Sharon, Begin, the Israeli right and those who Israel killed. The Lebanon War, like all wars, has a context. Without information about this context, any war is just about who killed whom from the time officially designated "beginning-of-war" till the time designated "end-of war". This is obviously the dumbest way to think about war, but Timmerman does it nonetheless, and this is how Israel's involvement in Lebanon is portrayed. It is sad to see such a narrow book in print.

What is even worse is that I never got the feeling that the author ever really understood the victims he rambles on about so much. For him the Lebanese and Palestinians are simply objects-of-pity rather than real people. They are things he can use to purse an anti-Sharon/anti-Begin agenda. It is quite sad.

Don't bother with this book. I learned nothing except how uninformed people can be about a subject and still write a book about it.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Back from basic

I finished the US Army Basic Combat Training this past Wednesday and I was in upstate New York for the weekend. I just got in to Brooklyn.

There is so much to tell about basic I really do not know where to start. There are so many things that are worth relaying. First, it takes about 10 weeks (9 weeks plus reception). It is difficult . . . very difficult. The mental and physical stress is the most intense that you can really go through. I have never done anything that difficult, nor do I expect to.

You spend a lot of time learning all the basic things that one needs to know for combat. One does a lot of physical stuff and there is a large component of breaking you emotionally. There are drill sergeants, just like in the movies, and you quickly have to adapt to the command structure and get used to the physical and emotional stress. There are all sorts of tasks that you must learn to perform routinely, and there are numerous things that you must learn. You must learn to work as a team and deal with all the people in your platoon. Again, lots of physical tasks (I lost a ton of weight), lots of shooting, and learning to use various pieces of equipotent. There are a hundred classes that you must take and take in. There are tests and more tests. You learn about everything from Vaduz, to first aid, to defense against NBC weapons. There is also a huge sense that you are being deprived of everything except the necessities.

I wish I had the distance to put the whole experience in perspective. There is just so much that happened that I need to take some time to think the whole thing over for a while.

I was the third oldest person there out of my whole company (of about 200). I was also the only Jewish person. Neither of those presented me with any particular problems. To the contrary, they actually seemed advantageous.

I am glad I did this. I might write another post later on really filling out how it was for me. My training is not over, it continues next summer and I will have to go to my reserve post every month, so I will talk more about that later on.