Unacceptable, Inexcusable, and Incomprehensible

Little Light writes about Palestine:

Hearing the pain of my Palestinian sister covered me in shame for not knowing. I had supported her cause, I thought, before. But the enormity of that phrase–that hopeful phrase–had never come home before. I had been so close to saying it out loud, forgetting what it meant, forgetting its bloody conclusions, forgetting the lie of an empty land ready to walk into that it encapsulated. Forgetting that the hope it presented was the hope of stealing a home from breathing families and taking part in their brutal subjugation. Forgetting all that I had read and heard and seen of a racist, colonialist regime that used my name to justify a thousand indignities and vicious wounds to a people who never asked for it, who never did anything to us. What happened to my Jewish people in the last century, what still happens in places, is unacceptable. What we have done in return is not only inexcusable, it is, in light of our own history, incomprehensible.

Go read the whole thing. She remains one of the most talented and insightful writers in the blogosphere.

Has it been a month already?

It has! I’m surprised at the amount of writing I’ve managed to churn out since I never figured myself to be terribly verbose, but anyway, I’d like to thank Girl Detective for letting me do this with her since I’m pretty out of my league here. I promise plenty more to come!

Separation of the sexes and Western society

Through Jewcy I discovered this article by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a man I tend to respect for his uncharacteristically non-hateful view towards non-Orthodox Jews, about separating boys and girls here.

Now, admittedly, I’m not about to go through the entire article point by point, but what jumps out at me is this: I think attraction and working out what makes people attractive to one another is a pretty subjective endeavor. It would appear that Rabbi Boteach tends to believe keeping some (or a lot) of mystery alive between the sexes is the key, so that even average-looking girls can get some love. In the interest of not misrepresenting, here’s the actual quote:

You see the same thing in virtually every high school movie where the “ordinary” boys and girls, which constitutes 90 percent of the grade, are treated as uninteresting nerds who get wedgies while the quarterback and the head of the cheer-leading squad are treated as movie stars. It is incredible how at even an early age, when teenagers are so hormonally charged, they are erotically desensitized to the vast majority of other teenagers, feeling attracted only to about ten percent of the class.

Single sex schools are attacked for not allowing boys and girls to learn how to get along with the opposite sex. But more often than not the opposite is true. A single sex education leads to boys who are generally interested in crossing the divide and getting to know a girl even if she does not rank in highest beauty percentile.

Anyway, my problem with his reasoning is that even if he himself does not wish to see a return to the strict oppressiveness of the Victorian era, much of his reasoning has been used by fundamentalists of many kinds to mandate forced modesty on both men and women in clothing, most severely for women usually, so I wouldn’t advocate such a position because I know those kinds of excesses are rarely reined in.

Besides, the limits of modesty go back to the subjectiveness of attraction. What he considers modest I might consider more than modest, and what I consider to be modest could be considered salacious or downright blasphemous to someone else. With these kinds of ideas it’s usually the strictest ideal that ends up being enforced.

And also, I don’t agree with his assertion that this envy of the school “rock stars” and disdain of the average has anything to do with public schooling – it’s a cultural problem. Advertising and celebrity culture trains people to want the best of everything, and you couple that with the myth of the American Dream, you end up with a society who not just wishes they could have the best of everything, they honestly believe they can attain it and deserve it.

This is exacerbated by our refusal to see divisions and oppressions within society of any kind – we don’t have an aristocracy because America has no royal family, there’s no racism because slavery is over and black people can vote, there’s no sexism because women can vote and work outside the home (freedom for all at last!) and we know about the Shoah so there’s no anti-Semitism, etc.

It is a misplacing of priorities, mainly – kids want to be the rock stars and star athletes like the football players partly because kids will be kids, but also because they don’t know how risky it is to base one’s career around the upkeep of the body and how freak accidents can derail one’s life (while he certainly didn’t end up in the poverty line, look at Bobby Orr and his knee problems) when you have nothing else as a backup.

Also, TV and movies are full of average schlub guys who end up with disproportionately attractive women and John Cusack movies are full of the notions that Nice Guys win out in the end because they’re so sweet and endearing when they hold up boxes playing Peter Gabriel near the bedroom window – instead of being taught that, you know, maybe guys shouldn’t just value looks and maybe look around a little more, and that valuing women only by their looks sells the whole world short? (I know that’s not what Boteach was arguing, but I don’t blame public schools).

The bottom line here is that there’s more going on than just boys and girls going to school together – at the risk of disclosure I don’t really have a problem keeping any spark alive in my relationship even if I went to public school with girls, and I’m a pretty secular guy, so I’d argue it has more to do with socialization and cultural priorities.

what neo-nazis tell us

What’s up? Not much here. Ran into some swastikas the other day.

My husband and I were biking on a trail that runs under a string of overpasses. After we’d passed under the zillionth one, he told me he’d seen some swastika graffiti; when we returned a couple of hours later, I stopped to look more closely. The pillar holding up the underpass was completely covered: swastikas by themselves, swastikas with “1488” written between the arms, swastikas as the periods in D.O.S.* There were lots of words in German, along with some indecipherable stuff about Orange County. (I live in Long Beach.) I shook my head at it for a few minutes and then left, feeling a banal sense of bafflement that somewhere very near where I live, people want me dead.

But it doesn’t feel real, you know? It’s hard to believe they’d do anything to me if I encountered them; with Southern California’s large black and Latino populations, it seems more likely that Neo-Nazis here have priorities other than someone who looks like them. It’s easy for me to believe that they wouldn’t hurt a nice white girl; it’s hard to consider myself a target and not just an ally. What am I supposed to do with the knowledge that they’re somewhere nearby? Do I just go on assuming that they’re fringe crazies who are probably living in their mothers’ basements and don’t really care about me anyway? What if I did meet up with one? What would happen?

Because, I mean, they’re here. I passed a wall covered in swastikas.

In what could be called the beginning of a new trend in Jewish American literature, both Michael Chabon and Philip Roth recently published alternate history novels that focus on the hypothetical persecution of American and European Jews. In Roth’s The Plot Against America, Charles Lindberg becomes president and kicks off half a decade of pogroms, forced assimilation, and anti-Jewish propaganda that ends only when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union explores what would have happened if Israel had been destroyed within a few years of its inception; Jews live in Alaska and are faced with the end of their autonomy. I’ll admit, I was put off when I first read them (and not just because neither book is its author’s best). I’d experienced barely any antisemitism in my life. The Holocaust was over; the world had discovered what hate can lead to and had shuddered and repented and seen the error of its ways. Why were these guys inventing new ways for us to be victimized? It was like they still wanted to feel the piousness and tragic glamor of an oppressed minority, and had resorted to what-ifs to indulge in those feelings. Seriously, there was real oppression to worry about. How selfish of them.

That was before I learned about how antisemitism works – how it ebbs and flows, how Jews are allowed to rise to positions of power and then violently scapegoated. It was before I learned that the same cycles – Jews prosper, enjoy physical safety, and then are abruptly attacked en masse – have been occurring for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Whenever I hear a Jewish-sounding name attached to a conservative, I take note of it. Other people do, too.** And after awhile, it really does start to seem like there’s an inordinate number of Jews in high places, regardless of the actual numbers; we hear those names and make those associations and discard some facts that don’t fit with our theses and before you know it, people are blaming globalization on the all-powerful Israeli bankers.

And the main thing I’ve learned after a year of reading feminist and anti-racist commentary is that the most noticeable signs of bigotry – the really outrageous stuff that the mainstream media condemns – is only ever the tip of the iceberg. For every extremist who decides to go out and kill someone, there are a hundred thousand ordinary people who think hate is wrong but, well, just feel uneasy around women or black people or gays or Mexicans or Jews. Overtly sexist and racist crimes aren’t the disease; they’re merely symptoms of broader, low-level resentment and suspicion. My whole life I’ve thought that antisemitism only manifests itself in skinhead rallies and Stormfront message boards. But if it’s anything like other forms of prejudice, there’s no way for me to gauge how pervasive it actually is. Do ordinary people view me differently because I’m openly Jewish? Is that why it took me so long to fully identify as a Jew? Is it why I still rarely feel completely comfortable?

Because I’ll probably never be arrested or denied a job because I’m Jewish. So how do I address this without feeling sanctimonious or paranoid?

At least I’ve arrived at a better understanding of what Chabon and Roth were trying to do. They didn’t write those novels to invent new forms of bigotry; they didn’t write them to cash in on Gentile guilt. They wrote them, I think, because anti-Jewish sentiment still runs deep in American culture (not to mention other cultures – but I’m writing about what I know), even though it’s currently in a lull, marked only by occasional acts of extremism. I think those two novels are pressure valves, venting the fear that all antisemitism needs is one good catalyst to really flare up. Because what do you do when you sense it but can’t see it? What do you do when someone makes an offhand joke – “You’re half Jewish? Well, then half of you is all right!” “If he tries to charge admission to the party, slap him in the nose!” – and you only realize later that you should have been offended? What do you do when everything seems normal and safe and harmonious all the time, except that some invisible entity has spray painted swastikas on your bike trail, and you have no idea what they look like or how many of them there are?

Do you keep assuming that everything will be okay forever? Or do you start wondering who’s going to kick off the pogroms?

Because neither option makes much sense, does it?

*14/88, as I found out on a most pleasant and fulfilling journey to Google, stands for the Fourteen Words – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children” – which are adapted from an 88-word-long passage from Mein Kamph. I wasn’t able to find out what D.O.S. means.

** The link leads to Adbusters’ infamous Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?, which exposes Jews’ control of the Right. It’s interesting to note that, according to Adam Ma’nit, conservatives have published similar lists exposing Jews’ control of the Left. If we’re so powerful, where’s my damn health care?

A legacy of silence and ignoring mitzvot

It is true that speaking lashon hara is grievous, and that defaming the dead also shows poor form. That being said, as an admirer of the man, I felt betrayed by what is mostly silence over the darker part of his legacy. I’m talking largely about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

While I’m cognizant of the difficulties in being accusatory to a man fourteen years dead and unable to defend himself, I can’t help but feel that this is insensitive to the victims, and serves to humiliate them, and Jews quite likely know what the Talmud says about humiliating another human being.

And those who have spoken out only to be told “where were you when he was alive?”, well, the man had a huge following and was highly regarded by non-Orthodox Jews of all kinds, and when the man is considered to be tzaddik by thousands/tens of thousands/hundreds of thousands/whatever, it might actually be extremely difficult to stand up to those kinds of numbers especially when the natural impulse of most abuse victims is to blame themselves. When you are all alone in those kinds of situations and likely to have one’s reputation slung through the dirt, or met with incredulity from nearly all corners, why would you speak up?

Learning this of a man I once admired has disappointed me, partly in myself for believing all the hype about the man, that he was a man largely without fault, but mostly my disappointment lies with those who would rather point the finger at those who have had difficulty finding the courage to speak out about their ‘lashon hara’ and instead forgot the Leviticus injunction against letting a fellow Jew sin, which had been done for decades and continues now in spite of the growing campaign to let the truth be heard.

Gott in Himmel part 2

Feministe brings us word of the latest front in the culture war, the feminization of Liberal Judaism. The title is apt, of course, because men not monopolizing the ministerial and boardroom positions of religious institutions constitutes an existential crisis.

Of course, if there is a problem getting men to become more religious, inevitably it’s indicative of feminization and there couldn’t be any other explanations:

At the Reform movement’s seminary, 60 percent of the rabbinical students and 84 percent of those studying to become cantors are female. Girls are outnumbering boys by as much as 2 to 1 among adolescents in youth group programs and summer camps, while women outnumber men at worship and in a variety of congregational leadership roles, according to the Union for Reform Judaism.

The evidence is everywhere. At Temple Sinai in Sharon, nine of the 11 members of this year’s confirmation class were girls. At Temple Beth David in Canton, last Saturday’s Bible study drew 11 women and no men. At Temple Isaiah in Lexington, the executive board for the last year had eight women and one man. And at the Prozdor, an intensive supplementary high school program at Hebrew College in Newton, 59 percent of the students are female.

“After bar mitzvah, the boys just drop out,” said Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and the coauthor of a study on “Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” which was publicly released last week.

“American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism in almost every venue and in every age, from school-age children through the adult years,” the study declares. “Contemporary liberal American Judaism, although supposedly egalitarian, is visibly and substantially feminized.”

Now, I certainly am too lazy to confirm/deny this, but taken at face value, why is a slight majority of women a sign of feminization? Possibly the lack of involvement with guys overall speaks to something else in the tradition – could we not celebrate the increased involvement of women while thinking of how to get men more involved at the same time?

To be fair, the article does mention other possibilities to this later in the article:

“Perhaps one factor is that men are devaluing something that is done by women, while another factor may be that men have less free time then they did a generation ago, and they’re choosing to use that free time for child-rearing and family activities,” said Rabbi Joseph Meszler, of Temple Sinai of Sharon. Meszler, the author of the Jewish Lights book on men’s responsibilities coming out this fall, is an advocate of giving men a time to talk apart from women.

He has relaunched his synagogue’s defunct brotherhood, held a men’s barbecue, and started men’s study groups.

“We need to reintroduce men to the synagogue, but on their own terms,” Meszler said.

The bottom line here is that this is most definitely not a zero-sum game: treating the gains of women in religious establishments as necessarily being at the expense of men only serves to exacerbate the problem and drive men further away from religion, instead of treating it like the positive development it actually is.

Finally, the article finishes off by stating that the universality of this phenomenon, America-wide, is maybe a little overblown:

The phenomenon is not universally observed. Several local rabbis, including Shoshana Perry of Congregation Shalom in Chelsmford, Joel Sisenwine, of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, and Jeffrey S. Wildstein of Temple Beth David in Westwood, said they do not see the pattern in their congregations.

Rabbi David S. Wolfman, the director of the Northeast region for the Union for Reform Judaism, cited statistics showing that Massachusetts Reform congregations have 36 men and 17 women rabbis, and 23 men and 22 women presidents. He said gender balance is “a nonissue,” and that “the question of ‘Where have all the men gone’ may be perceived more than it is real.”

The bottom line is that maybe, if this is a problem, some solutions need to be looked for that don’t involve blaming women for wanting to be involved and treating this as zero-sum, winner-takes-all; something that maybe involves talking to these men, perhaps? I noticed very few average men were interviewed for the article about why they never go to synagogue, they’ve just been talked about and theorized about instead.

New wedding campaign has Israeli religious establishment unhappy

Ynet has reported on a new ad campaign from the Masorti (Conservative) movement advertising alternatives for Jewish weddings in Israel beyond the fairly strict ultra-Orthodox monopoly. Needless to say, the ultra-Orthodox authorities are unhappy:

The Chairman of Shas in the Knesset, Yaakov Margi, petitioned the Israel Broadcasting Authority to ban the Masorti campaign from the airwaves. In a letter to Mordechai Sklar, IBA’s general director, MK Yaakov Margi charged that the Masorti movement “knowingly misleads and perpetrates a campaign of fraud.” He further claimed to be writing on behalf of “those who are spiritually lost and would not want to find themselves ending up in unseemly places.”

Personally, I applaud the move. I think anything that undercuts or diminishes the unnecessary authority of that specific branch of Orthodoxy over what is and isn’t legally Jewish in the country is a good thing for all concerned, as Jewish history teaches us in some cases that combining the priesthood and government led to disastrous results.