Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reason # 56

Apparently my contribution to the 56th reason to love New York has so far gone unnoticed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How do you say "go-bag" in Yiddish?

For those of you who think that NYC has no love for her native Yiddish speakers, the NYC Office of Emergency Management does have a copy of their emergency preparedness card in Yiddish. Since I could not find it on their site I thought I'd make it available to those of you who only speak Yiddish and are very web-savvy, and don't mind my crappy scanner. (In English Spanish French Chinese Russian.)

(If you liked that, this is going around. Funny stuff.)

Happy Chanukkah

Posting has been light lately. I have been busy, as usual. For those of you who do not know, I defended my dissertation last week. I am swamped with papers that need to be graded, and I am feverishly working on some writing. So in sum, there is lots going on. I apologize if I have been slow to respond.

I hope you are all having a happy Chanukkah.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Key Food

Everyone in the neighborhood knows Mamadou Doucoure, or at least they know him as Mohammed the snappy dressed manager at Key Food on Montague Street. He is the nicest and friendliest employee at the Key Food in Brooklyn Heights for at least 15 or 20 years now. In some sense he is a neighborhood institution. I have no doubt that Key Food is screwing him, and they need to get their act together. It is good to see the Times picked up on this story that has been floating around the nabe for a few weeks. Mohammed is the greatest asset Key Food has. Given their high prices, mediocre selection, and the fact that Gristedes recently reopened, they really can't afford to generate any more ill will.

Everyone likes Mohammed. No one really likes Key Food. Do the math.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jacob and the well

Thoughts on this week's Torah portion:

This week's parsha had me somewhat annoyed. I was reading something rather annoying about the patriarch Jacob. I hope the following is not reading in to the text too much, but it seems to me to be the surface meaning of the text and I assume I am not the first to notice this. (This seems like something Steven Brams might think up. I should really read his book.)

While Jacob was walking through the land of the people of the east in search of his relatives in Haran, he comes across a bunch of flocks of sheep and their owners surrounding a well. Apparently the group of people who used the well did not trust each other or anyone else very much. So the group devised a clever system for preserving access to their water such that they could all see who is taking what, and also be reasonably certain that no one was taking more than their share and that no stranger took their water.

Here is what they did: they covered the well with a boulder of some sort that was so heavy that it could only be moved by all of them together. So if a stranger came and wanted to take some water himself or water his own flock he could not as it is unlikely he could move the boulder alone. The same holds if one of the members of the group wanted to take some water without the others. The only way one of them can get water was if all the others agreed. That is, they all gathered at the well and moved the boulder together and all saw how much each other took.

It is as if the only way to access a safe that we share in common was for each one of us to have a key, and the safe could only be open when we all insert our key. This way the only way to access the safe is if we all access it together. It is a great system that eliminates the need for trust and presumably allowed some desert people who would otherwise have been fighting over water rights to the well, to share the water.

But then along comes a stranger Jacob who is somehow capable of removing the boulder himself, presumably through brute physical strength. He notices that if he did so he can earn some advantage for himself and his relative, but mostly he would impress some girl who he thought he had a shot at because she is a relative. So he removes the boulder and allows his relative to take water from the well without waiting for the rest of the owners.

If I were one of the shepherds there, I would have been both elated and scared. I get to water my flock early, but on the other hand, I now know that Rachel can water her sheep at any time without the rest of us. She now has access to the water any time, and we still need her, or at the very least, we still need most of the rest of the group. A well has a finite supply of water. If one of the members has unlimited access, and the rest have to ration themselves, the one has a definite advantage and the potential to deprive the rest of water.

Jacob single-handedly broke down the system that enabled trust between the various shepherds, and probably screwed the whole neighborhood.

Naturally Lavan wants Jacob to work for him and tend his sheep. Jacob has access to the water anytime making Lavan no longer dependent on the coalition.

Lavan then invites Jacob to stay with him, which he does for 30 days. Then seemingly out of nowhere Lavan offers to pay Jacob for his services. We were not told that Jacob had begun to work, so it seems to be Lavan's way of asking him to stop freeloading. Lavan then conspired to keep Jacob on for 14 years. This advantage was worth both of Lavan's daughters and two maids.

Jacob became Lavan's shepherd, and there is no reason to think that he did not use his strength advantage for Lavan's flocks. That is why the flock multiplied as much as it did; their flock was able to get more water than all the other flocks - Jacob was able to get as much as he wanted for his flock.

Lavan and Jacob were now conspirators. Rashi claims that when Jacob was first sent word to Lavan that he was around, he alluded to his ability to be Lavan's "brother in deception". Rashi of course meant that Jacob was warning Lavan that he could not be conned, but in reality what Rashi should have intended was that Jacob was saying "you can't con a con man".

And this is exactly what seems to happen. Jacob manages to take possession over a good chunk of Lavan's household. His wife steals stuff from her father's house. Jacob takes his father-in-law's camels and sneaks out of the town, where Lavan is now pretty powerless to do anything.Jacob wins in the end.

Jacob does not seem like the good guy here.