Some problems with naming

The term “Jewish feminism” specifically refers to feminism within Judaism – ie, making the religion and its practices more egalitarian. What about secular Jewish feminists? Jewish feminists who want their feminism to be within an ethnic Jewish framework, with a culturally Jewish support network? Jewish feminists whose hearts beat faster when the words women and radical and Judeo-Arabic/Ladino/Yiddish are all in the same sentence? What does such a feminism even look like in practice?

And if I light candles on Friday nights and, throughout the rest of the week, crave the calm that follows, am I still completely secular?


What’s the word for someone who believes that if the nation-state system is what we’re dealing with, then Jews have the right to an autonomous nation-state, and that it’s pretty noticeable when people seem the most eager to talk about questioning nation-states when the topic is the Jewish one – BUT that there’s no way to form an ethnicity/religion-based nation-state without displacing/oppressing another group of people, and doing so is contrary to doikayt anyway – BUT that since the Jewish state already exists, the question is moot, and now we should all just stop arguing and focus on equal rights for non-Jews in Israel and Palestine – BUT that it won’t be moot anymore if the non-Jewish population in Israel/Palestine continues to rise? As I’ve written before, I can put on Zionist, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist and post-Zionist caps within the course of a single thought, and remain solidly leftist all the while.


What do you call it when all your dreams center on women, but in waking life all you’re into is men? What do you call it when you perform pretty femme, and enjoy performing femme, but don’t often feel very femme? (“Poor body image,” maybe? How many of my issues are socially constructed, and how many just come from personal baggage? Almost every time I played pretend as a kid, I’d pretend to be a male character. In this video interview I chalked it up to a lack of good female characters in kids’ pop culture, and I think that’s true – but over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to suspect that there was more to it than that.)


Is the term “guerrilla gardener” offensive to actual guerrillas?


I personally identify as and feel white, but I hate it when people claim that Ashkenazi Jews are required to identify as and feel white, because many of us don’t. If the construction of whiteness – see Noel Ignatiev’s essay “Immigrants and Whites” for an explanation – is designed to be an absence of markers, are you still white if you’re visibly marked with sidelocks or a headscarf? I’ve heard Orthodox Jews report that no, they aren’t – or, well, they don’t feel like it, at least.


When I was growing up, Jewishness was defined solely in terms of religion, and more specifically, in negatives: Jews didn’t believe Jesus was the messiah, Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas. I never wondered how, if I did celebrate Christmas and belonged to an interfaith family that did believe, at least on the surface, that Jesus was the messiah, I could still be a Jew – I just knew that I was, or a half-Jew at least, and figured that it would make sense eventually. One of my first deep philosophical questions was whether I could believe Jesus was the messiah and not believe it at the same time.

Alain Badiou defines a Jew (although is it really his place to go around defining Jews? I know he made a controversial statement about the Holocaust, although I never read it firsthand) as anyone who can’t say they’re not a Jew. Again with the negatives – but given issues like intermarriage and conversion (either to or from Judaism), it does make a lot of sense.


“Calendula” is not just a fancier name for “marigold.” Different types of marigolds have different blooming seasons. The owners of the website that listed calendulas – a winter flower – as a good companion crop for basil need to be sacked.


If I’d known that Julie is, in the minds of 99% of the English-speaking population of the world, not a nickname for Julia but rather a completely different name, I would have never started going by it. Every time I meet someone! “Is your name Julie or Julia? Both? But… but… how? How!?” It’s too late to turn back now – I no longer see myself as a Julia, except on paper.


For a brief time in high school, my sister wore a cross necklace and attended Christian rock concerts at Angel Stadium. She would have been within her rights to call herself a Jewish Christian, even though it would have driven people up the wall. She’s never identified as Jewish, though. Instead of two half-Jews, my parents produced one Jew and one WASP. I’ve always thought it has something to do with the fact that I look Jewish and she doesn’t. We don’t look like sisters at all.

She’s having a chuppah and a glass at her wedding, though! I was thrilled when she asked my advice about it, even though that advice was whether our Jewish relatives would think it was weird. My response: “Of course they won’t think it’s weird! Why in the world would they think it was weird!? I was afraid they’d think my wedding was weird, too.”


The name of this site is Modern Mitzvot. Is what I’ve written mitzvot? No. Well, yes. Okay, sort of.

Yes, yes, I heard, I heard.

Who fucking let Ahmadinejad out of his playpen?

Just a few notes:

1. Holocaust denial is racist. Our word for this type of racism happens to be “anti-Semitism,” since Jews are multiracial, but the sentiment comes from the same place as racism, and the differences are so minuscule as to be insignificant.
2. Putting on a conference dedicated to Holocaust denial is severely racist, and should probably bar you from speaking at an anti-racist conference.
3. Ahmadinejad’s main priority is Jew-hating, not Palestinian self-determination. That should be pretty obvious by now. Non-Jewish non-Arabs should take note of what he says in order to learn what doesn’t contribute to healthy debate.
4. Every time bigoted people hijack a discussion of racism in order to spew their bigotry (always under the guise of weeding out the “real” racists, of course), real issues related to racism are mowed over and forgotten. I would be surprised if much of anything useful were accomplished at Durban II.
5. With Ahmadinejad stealing the spotlight, other offensive acts surrounding Durban II haven’t received much press. Check out JVFP’s Muzzlewatch Blog to read about Avigdor Lieberman’s condemnation of the conference (yes, this is the guy who publicly supports ethnically cleansing Palestine), and Palestinian NGOs being banned from side events. There are also radical settlers comparing the UN to the Nazis, claiming that it wants to “finish what Hitler started.” The UN does contain anti-Semitic elements – see items 1 and 2 – but see what happens when we let the Right take over the issue?
6. Durban II reminds me of some of the worst comment threads I’ve ever been sucked into.

Easter in Orange County

Last Sunday, sitting on the steps next to my container garden outside my Long Beach apartment, I heard a group of people singing in the next building. I thought of the seder I’d had a couple of nights before; my friends and I had sung the Ma Nishtana, which I only learned a few years ago and forget every year. Only two of the guests remembered the melody at first, but it only took a line or two for it to come back to the rest of us. I wondered if the neighbors could hear us. I’ve never had an anti-Semitic incident in this neighborhood, so I thought it’d be kind of cool if on the other side of our open windows, people were listening to us sing.

I watched families walking in and out of apartments, carrying children, greeting relatives. I smiled as I listened to the singing. Then I realized it wasn’t a hymn or some other Easter song – they were all singing a pop song. Blink 182 or something.

Oh. Well, it was still nice to hear singing. Yellow jackets buzzed around my bacopas. My bean seedlings were just starting to twine around the railing, and my lavender was blooming like the world was going to end.


According to the Slingshot Collective, “the modern world is the ugliest, saddest, dirtiest, and most stressful and dangerous place humans have ever created.” I don’t know if it’s the ugliest, the saddest, or the est of any of those other things, but many parts of it certainly are ugly and sad. I was thinking about that quote, along with various discussions I’ve witnessed about the “lack” of white American culture – whiteness as negative space – and white Americans’ need to appropriate more exotic cultures, when I tested a theory out on my husband: that the United States has one of the shallowest national cultures on the planet. Continue reading

Birkat Hachamah on Colbert!

Funny Colbert clip (via The Black Jewish Experience):

(Seems like I’m never able to embed Comedy Central videos…)—stephen-frees-his-jews

So, uh, quick poll – how many of you knew that, when the Jews came out, they’d be 100% white (looking) men?

Because either I should start telling fortunes for a living, or the kyriarchy is pretty predictable.

A Recession Story

MLA (the Modern Language Association – where English professors go to party) just released a report on academic employment. Overall, the number of full-time jobs in academia has more or less stayed the same, while the number of part-time jobs has jumped due to increased student enrollment. The number of full-time jobs in English decreased by 10% in ten years. Across the board, part-time jobs are held mainly by women. Funny how the more white women and people of color attend and teach college, the less we pay the people working in the classroom.* What a coincidence. Isn’t that interesting.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was giving up on academia and searching for a nonprofit job. I’ll be honest – I didn’t work that hard at the job search. I sent out maybe five resumes, had one interview. If I really set my mind to it, I could probably have found something in a few months. But due to the nature of part-time work, which forces you to constantly cycle through job after job (most of us TAs and adjuncts pick up side jobs like private tutoring whenever we find out that a section has been cut or an offer has fallen through), I’d already spent the past year and a half sending out resumes on a semi-regular basis, and I was tired. Plus, a funny thing happened when I emailed the department chair at my other campus to tell him I couldn’t keep the class I was teaching: he offered me another one.

I sat on the offer for a few days. Another class meant $1,300 a month instead of $650. It meant I could make rent and buy groceries. I emailed him to accept it, and then slumped in my chair and cried for an hour.

Not because of the job itself. Composition is tough – especially since most instructors have little or no training in teaching composition – and isn’t what I entered academia to do. But it can also be really rewarding to work with students on producing something memorable, to expose them to essays you love and ideas that excite you, to figure out which assignments are going to yield heartfelt, honest writing. Getting a sentence to click is a wonderful thing, whether you’re at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or the local JC. And the problems that teaching present are problems I enjoy working through.

I cried because I was resigning myself to at least four more months of unequal pay for equal work, instability (remember that we’re classified as temporary part-time, which means we can be dropped with zero notice if the school wants to save a buck), and almost no health insurance. I cried because I know I can be more than an interchangeable grade-dispenser. Because I have so many ideas on how to make college what it should be, how to create more effective and worthwhile courses, how to take a nationwide system that only values credits and degrees and change it into a system that values analysis and action. Here’s an idea: for those of you with recent experience in academia, notice how, at community colleges, almost every single English class is a composition class? Putting aside, for now, the sheer fucked-upness of a system in which students take 2, 3, or even 4 semesters of composition before they’re allowed to actually study something, notice how many composition classes strive to be “content-free” – meaning that we’re supposed to teach writing without a subject, writing without thinking? The average composition textbook contains a mishmash of essays about any ol’ thing; students are supposed to study rhetorical modes like comparing/contrasting and proposal claims without engaging in actual ideas. My husband and the other TAs in his department have actually been told not to teach readings they’re interested in, for fear that subject matter will somehow contaminate the students’ work on citations and paraphrasing. Fuck that. Why not let instructors teach topics courses (that is, writing courses that center around a subject)? While I’m teaching my compare/contrast lesson and correcting their semicolon use, could I please also expose them to women’s social justice movements or 20th century American Jewish thought? May I please give students the option of choosing a composition course based on which themes look interesting, rather than making them scroll through thirty identical sections of a boring required class? Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

Some schools are already teaching topics courses (although they’re still not paying their part-timers anything resembling reasonable salaries). UC Irvine, for example, has a program called Humanities Core, in which students learn rhetoric and composition through the lens of philosophy, literature, art history, and even urban planning and music. Even UCI’s regular composition program (for students who aren’t humanities majors) offers a few general themes like Empire, Frontiers, and Heroism, and lets TAs choose their own readings (like actual novels and stuff!) instead of working from standardized textbooks.

Hell, let’s take it even further – why not try to integrate composition into other courses? Why not learn about citations in your freshman literature class, or process analysis in biology? Crazy, I know. And yes, remedial writing would still be an issue; there are some problems that do need a semester’s worth of intensive work. But perhaps we could address deficiencies in K-12 education instead of trying to solve serious literacy problems in a semester or two.

I know there’s a wider debate about topics courses versus content-free courses, and I’m not saying there are no good arguments for content-free writing instruction. But when part-timers are treated as second-class educators and are excluded from curriculum design and decision making, we’re barred from taking part in that debate – even though we’re the ones at the center of it! And when community college students sit through semester after semester of courses like Critical Thinking and College English Skills and Fundamentals of Composition, with textbook after textbook like From Inquiry to Academic Writing and Perspectives on Contemporary Issues while their richer (white) counterparts at the Ivies are reading Toni Morrison (no, the irony isn’t lost on me), the whole idea of “higher” education loses its meaning.

Why not employ us full-time? Then maybe we’d have the time and resources to make these courses better.

Because next semester, I’m going to walk into those classrooms with the same textbook, and we’ll have the same scattered, non-contiguous discussions about whatever subject is in the essay that happened to be on the syllabus. (I know I just talked shit about it, but From Inquiry to Academic Writing does have a bell hooks essay, which is pretty cool. But we’ll talk about it for 40 minutes – 20 of which will be devoted to thesis statements and transitions – and that’ll be it.) I’ll take home the same just-enough paycheck each month; I’ll keep fearing illness because a hospital visit is out of the question.

This isn’t what college is supposed to be. This isn’t what academia is supposed to stand for. But for the students and educators without the connections or the funds to be at a $40K-a-year school – that is, for white women and people of color – this is what it’s become. It’s impossible to change the system when we’re more concerned with whether we’ll still have work in four months.

At the community college that laid me off, almost every single section of the remedial writing course is taught by a woman. Filled with testosterone? It’s literature for you – get out that copy of Heart of Darkness! Got boobs? Here’s a grammar workbook!

And this type of discrimination is routine.

Next May, I’ll consider taking up the job search again. But for now, with the economy free-falling and half a million jobs gone in one month, I couldn’t bring myself to cut off my only source of income. The thought of approaching February with no paycheck on the way was too frightening. I just couldn’t do it. I know I’m not the only one who’s frustrated, scared, and rapidly losing hope – in academia or otherwise. I’m not the only one who’s always battling the feeling that my income determines my worth – that if my boss is making $100,000 and I’m making $10,000, then he must be ten times as useful a person as I am. I’m not the only one who knows that the structure around me is eating itself up, but feels powerless to stop it.

And the time we spend scrambling to get ahead in this system – a process that always necessitates stepping on someone else – is time that we’re not organizing and fighting it. And that’s not an accident.

Enjoy your recession, everyone.

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

*Sources: Education Portal and American Council on Education. Pages 26 and 27 of the MLA report have breakdowns by gender. While most fields are increasingly dominated by part-timers, fields like engineering and physical sciences – which are still mostly male – have much higher percentages of full-time positions.

Where’s Our Vocabulary?

I’m sure many of you have seen this Onion article:

Area Man Saddened To Realize Short Jewish Women With An Interest In Theater His Type

CHICAGO—While reminiscing about his romantic past Monday, area resident David Simms was shocked and a little saddened to realize that short women belonging to the Jewish faith and possessing an active interest in the world of theater have always been, and will always be, his type.

“God, how did I never notice it before?” said Simms, taken aback by his unexpected discovery. “Rachel, Sarah, Devorah—Miss Katzenberg, the weekend director at the Israeli Arts Center—it’s all so obvious now.”

“Squat, theatergoing Jews,” added Simms, shaking his head in confused wonder. “I’m totally into squat, theatergoing Jews.”

Okay, there’s enough offensive stuff in here to warrant a whole other blog post – the humor in the article is all based on presenting Jewishness, shortness, and (implied) fatness as undesirable – but that’s not what caught my eye. Notice the wording in the first paragraph:

hile reminiscing about his romantic past Monday, area resident David Simms was shocked and a little saddened to realize that short women belonging to the Jewish faith and possessing an active interest in the world of theater have always been, and will always be, his type.

So Jewishness is clearly a matter of religion, right? Not ethnicity, race, or culture? Hmm. Take a look at these snippets from the rest of the article:

“I always just thought I liked brunettes, or was, you know, a ‘breasts’ man…. I’m going to fall madly in love and raise a beautiful family with a short, curly-haired theater buff….” As long as his date is at least half-Jewish, appreciates some form of live performance, and can be picked up off the ground with relative ease, Simms said, he would be willing to see where things go.

Despite the article’s initial implication that a Jewish identity is based solely on faith, it goes on to describe Jewishness in physical and genetic terms. Simply put, the article can’t help but contradict itself.

I bring this up because this exact contradiction has been around for decades and decades. Jews and non-Jews constantly fluctuate between religious and ethnic terms to describe Jewish identity – very often, as in this case, in the same publication. Hell, whenever I try to talk about my half-Jewish identity, or describe anti-Semitism in the context of broader systems of oppression, I can’t help but resort to terms like “biracial” and “racism,” even while I maintain that Jewishness isn’t a race. It’s not the fault of individual writers; the blame lies with an astonishingly limited vocabulary to describe our identity. Do I call myself “biethnic?” What elegant variation should this writer have come up with besides “belonging to the Jewish faith?” (The article uses “Jewish persuasion” later on, which is just as bad.) “Jewish culture,” maybe? I have a feeling that readers would have been mildly confused by that – and then gone off pick up a bagel and the latest Philip Roth novel.

(Also, I should note that I think “tiny, artsy” Jews are hot. Just sayin‘.)

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

Finally… Black People Can Experience Prejudice

From the AP wire:

Teacher sorry for binding girls in slavery lesson


WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – A white social studies teacher attempted to enliven a seventh-grade discussion of slavery by binding the hands and feet of two black girls, prompting outrage from one girl’s mother and the local chapter of the NAACP. After the mother complained to Haverstraw Middle School, the superintendent said he was having “conversations with our staff on how to deliver effective lessons.”

“If a student was upset, then it was a bad idea,” said Superintendent Brian Monahan of the North Rockland School District in New York City’s northern suburbs.

The teacher apologized to the mother who complained and her 13-year-old daughter during a meeting Thursday that also included a representative of the local NAACP. But the mother, Christine Shand of Haverstraw, said Friday she thinks the teacher should be removed from the class.

“I think the teacher should have gotten some discipline,” Shand said. “I know if that was me, I would be uncomfortable going back to that class. Why should my daughter have to switch?”

Monahan refused to say what, if any, measures were taken against the teacher, Eileen Bernstein, who was still working on Friday. The school district said she was not available for comment.

“We encourage our teachers to deliver the curriculum in a variety of ways, to go beyond just reading the textbook,” the superintendent said. “We don’t want to discourage creativity. But this obviously went wrong because the student was upset.”

On Nov. 18, Bernstein was discussing the conditions under which African captives were taken to America in slave ships. She bound the two students’ hands and feet with tape and had them crawl under a desk to simulate the experience, Monahan and Shand said. Monahan said the girls were not the only blacks in the class.

I don’t think the teacher or other school officials are bad people, but the fact that no one in this situation can figure out why what they did was wrong (note the language they’re using to describe the situation: “if the student was upset then it was a bad idea;” “this obviously went wrong because the student was upset”) is pretty telling. Why not bind volunteers? Why not bind yourself? Why was it so crucial that the bound students be black and female? So that everyone can see how well black women fit into the role of slave?