Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kol isha my tuchus!

This week, we read Parshas Beshallach.  It is also known as Shabbos Shira (Sabbath of Song).  And, who, pray tell, was doing all that singing?  You guessed it--the ladies!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chazzanus and heavy metal--my iPod

As a friend of mine put it, I have the world's weirdest iPod.
My music collection runs the gamut of musical history.  I have classical (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Vivaldi and some others), jazz (Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Gershwin, and some others), quite a bit of Sinatra (le sigh), a ton of Billy Joel, show tunes from Phantom of the Opera, Gypsy, West Side Story and Rent, and even some Led Zeppelin.  I also have quite a few Jewish artists, ranging from the great cantors Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe Koussevitsky, to modern-day Matisyahu (who I never looked at the same way after he played a concert on Shiva Assar B'Tammuz).  It's a little of everything--kind of like me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The definition of insanity, or the need to learn from tragedy

Purim will be upon us in another month.  The costumes, the hamantashen, the mishloach manot, and the one part of the holiday that chills my blood.
Picture, if you will, the following scenario.  My intercom sounds, and the light indicates that someone is at my front door.  "Yes?"
A little voice answers: "Tzedakah!"
I come to the door, dollar bill in hand.  A child is on the other side, sometimes more than one.  They're either carrying cans or holding books of raffle tickets emblazoned with the name of their yeshiva.  The children are usually between the ages of 5 and 10.   And, without exception, there is no parent in sight.
You would think after last summer, we wouldn't have this situation.  We would know that little children need to be protected from strangers.  That a mezuzah is no indication that the house is safe.  Yes, in ninety-nine percent of cases, the person gives the kids a dollar each and send them on their merry way.  However, there is always that one percent.  The one person who looks normal, but isn't.  The hidden psycho who would abduct a child and murder him. 
I realize how busy parents are today.  For overwhelmed parents, it's easier to send the kid off alone on a collecting spree with strict instructions to stay on the block, only knock on doors with mezuzahs, or don't go inside anyone's house.  But how many young children will remember that when confronted with a nice grown-up (maybe even a friend's parent), who says, "Come in, sweetheart, and have some cookies."  And then, every parent's worst  nightmare begins.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Of modesty and Margaret Mitchell

One of my favorite scenes in Gone With the Wind ( I LOVE GWTW) is the scene where Scarlett is getting dressed for the Wilkes' barbecue.  Hoping to seduce Ashley Wilkes into marriage, she rejects all her morning dresses, and chooses an afternoon dress that shows off both her arms and decolletage.  Mammy, concerned about propriety, chides Scarlett on her immodest choice (You can't show your bosom before three o'clock!)  The irony, of course, is that the dress, while revealing her cleavage, completely obscures her legs and hips under a bell-shaped crinoline.  Later in the novel, when the crinoline is abandoned in favor of the bustle, Scarlett (who had no problem showing cleavage) felt embarrassed to reveal the shape of her abdomen.
Throughout history, the definition of modesty has been pretty malleable.  Covered heads and legs have been the norm, in some form or another, for at least the past millennium.  However, it has also been considered the norm for women to wear dresses that reveal their busts, especially during evening hours.  During the 19th century, it was considered immodest to wear makeup at all, but in the 1930s, it was considered immodest not to.  It was only during the 1920s that hemlines were raised, and even then, they were raised kicking and screaming.  During the 1960s, pants were unacceptable attire for women in business and social settings, but miniskirts that barely covered a woman's rear were the norm.  In her 1940 edition of Etiquette, Emily Post writes that a business woman's hair must always be held back, not hanging loose like a little girl. 
In the Orthodox world, ankle-length skirts are considered unacceptable for street wear, but stockings are required.  Heads are covered, but with well-made wigs that are indistinguishable from the wearer's natural hair.  The bust must be covered, but few limits are placed on the amount of makeup and jewelry worn.  So, what, pray tell, does it even mean to be "modest"?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A modern-day Titanic, or SUVs are WMDs

Last week, off the coast of Italy, a cruise liner overturned.  Ironic that this should happen in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R. M. S. Titanic.  We all know that story--the unsinkable ship sank on its maiden voyage.  With only enough lifeboats for half the passengers, about 1500 people died.  That ship sinking led to mandates that included enough lifeboats for everyone on board, as well as lifeboat drills for all passengers.  However, in the modern Costa Concordia disaster, the crew tried to downplay the whole incident until it was almost too late.  Additionally, the captain abandoned ship rather than going down with it.
Now Builder, who has never been on a cruise, insists that they are unsafe.  he says that because regulations are stricter for airplane and car manufacture, that both means of transport are far safer than cruise ships.  However, I say that any vessel, whether ship, plane, car, train, trolley or bus, is only as safe as the person piloting it.  If the driver is drunk, tired, distracted, or inexperienced, those means of transportation can become very deadly weapons very easily--more so because they are so common that everyone assumes that they are safe.  (A lesson I had to learn the hard way last summer, when I was hit by a car while crossing the street.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Never thought I'd join the "silent majority."

While I don't think online petitions actually work, here's one I'd not only support, but even signed.  Yaakov Horowitz posted an online petition asking people to sign it, stating that their silence is not a tacit condoning of the violence in places like Beit Shemesh.  Well, I may not be silent, but I hope that others will join me in signing the petition.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Useful bans

Instead of banning such things as the Internet and concerts, here are some I could stand behind:
  • Cigarettes.  The effects of both smoking and secondhand smoke are well-known.  Besides, doesn't the Torah command us to respect our bodies?
  • Driving.  Distracted driving can kill.
  • Drinking alcohol away from home on Purim.  You are likely to get into your car and kill someone.
  • Spitting on people.  That's just wrong and uncivilized.
  • Sheitels.  We're the only group that covers our hair and doesn't make it look covered.  Besides, they can run to thousands of dollars and look better than what G-d gave you--hardly something that could be considered "modest."
  • Crying "anti-Semitism" every time one gets caught flouting the law.  Ever hear of the boy who cried wolf?
  • Pictures of rabbis.  It gets a little close to avodah zarah.
  • Shtreimels.  Talk about bal taschis.  (It's not like you're going to eat the animal that gave its fur)
Any others?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What is "mesorah?"

For about the past year, I've been tossing about the idea of the "mesorah": things that we do as Orthodox Jews that have no basis in halacha.  Some of them remind me of an old story: A man once watched his wife prepare a roast.  Before she put it into the roasting pan, she cut off the ends.  Her husband was fascinated.  "Why are you cutting off the ends?"  he asked.
The wife shrugged.  "We always prepared a roast that way."  The husband called his mother-in-law and asked him about it.  She told him the same answer--we always did it that way.  That night, the mother-in-law called HER mother and related the story.  The bride's grandmother was silent for a moment.  "Do you still do that?" she asked.  "Of course," the mother-in-law answered.  "Didn't we always prepare roasts that way?"
The bride's grandmother shook her head.  "Honey," she told her daughter, "I only did that because all my pans were too small to hold a whole one!"
So it seems with mesorah.  A lot of traditions that seem to be passed down "from Sinai" are actually responses to conditions that no longer exist.  Some of them are less than a century old--pretty meaningless in a religion that spans over three millennia.  Here are some examples:
  • falshe fish on Pesach--originally there were concerns about the materials that fish were wrapped in.  Since we use plastic, I doubt it's an issue anymore.
  • The Yiddish language--it's a medieval German dialect
  • fedoras--not only are they less than a century old, they were originally women's hats!
  • Extensive silver collections--who could afford them in the shtetl?
  • Bais Yaakov schools--the first one opened in 1917
  • Black clothing--probably a leftover from an Eastern European sumptuary law
  • About 90% of the laws of tzinut--most were codified by 20th century rabbis.
  • Cholent on Shabbos--it shows the world that we're not Karaites.
  • Two kitchens in one--again who could afford it in the shtetl?
  • A culture of full-time yeshiva bochurim--even Rashi had a day job.
Can anyone think of any others?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The merits of learning

I had another study session with my chavrusa.  Always fun.  (It's funny, I started learning with a chavrusa to get closer to Orthodoxy.  Boy, did THAT one backfire!)
We were discussing the need to work.  I think that one can easily fulfill the mitzvah of "learning night and morning" by attending a Daf Yomi shiur before work, and then looking over the daf after dinner.  On Shabbos, of course, learning can go into much greater depth.  There are a few (emhasis on "few") great minds who can learn all day, but for at least 99.99% of the learning boys warming a bench in yeshiva--get a damn job, guys!  After all, some of the greatest Torah minds in history worked full-time.  Also, there are how many references again in the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud that state the need to earn a living.  Let's start with the curse of Adam: You shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.  Since childbirth still hurts like hell (G-d's curse to the female half of the population), I'm guessing that part one is still in effect.  Then there are the lines in Pirkei Avos about Ein kemach, Ein Torah (When there is no flour, there is no Torah), or something about study without work is meaningless.  And then, there is that great line from the Talmud: Whoever does not teach his son a trade teaches him to steal.  (Unfortunately, we've seen the truth of that statement a few too many times in recent history.)
Finally, let's look at some of the great Torah minds.  People like Rashi and the Rambam.  More recently, the Chofetz Chaim.  One could state that they worked only a minimum number of hours and then spent the rest of the time learning.  But the point is, they worked!  They didn't knock on stranger's doors looking for a handout.  They didn't commit felonies, violating the very Torah they purport to love.  They pulled their own weight and still became some of the greatest Torah scholars in history.

Starting up with Thing 2

Since Thing 1 has been "doing school" every day, Thing 2 has wanted her own work.  So, I bought her a little box and filled it with crayons, scissors and a glue stick.  She's been doing Kumon First Steps workbooks, two a day (we've done Let's Fold and Let's Color at the beginning of the year, then Let's Cut Paper and Let's Sticker and Paste.  Now We're on More Let's Fold and More Let's Color.).  However, she wants more.  Specifically, she wants the goodies for doing more.
At the completion of every book in their curriculum, the kids get an ice-cream party.  Since Thing 1 has switched from Shush and Say Six back to Aleph Champ, the the reward also includes a medallion for every book started.  Thing 2 also wants medallions.  So, I made a deal with her.  I said, "If you finish the first book, you'll get two medallions, red and white."  (Aleph Champ takes the Hebrew reading process and breaks it down into color-coded books--white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and brown.  Thing 1 is on Blue.)  Thus far, it's been working.  Thing 2 does her page a day, and is so far up to the letter yud.  We'll see how it goes.

Friday, January 6, 2012

"But They're Jewish!"

When I was in college, I had a friend who invited my to an Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity party.  (A E Pi, as it was known, was the on-campus Jewish fraternity.)  As far as I was concerned, frat parties and the AztecQueen do not mix.  I'd heard too many stories of roofie rapes.  However, when I said as much to my friend, she answered, "But you don't understand.  They're Jewish!"
Really.  The last time I checked, circumcision does not affect the hormones.
I've heard many people remark at the criminal sexual behaviors of various ethnicities, but I don't know where that came from.  As Norma Rae put it, "I ain't never had any trouble with black men.  Only trouble I ever had was with white men."  Unfortunately, that extends to Jewish men.  My first date with an Orthodox man, I had to tell him in no uncertain terms that he was going too far.  So much for shomer negia.  Suffice it to say, I never wanted to go out with him again.  Even worse, that wasn't my first problem in that area.  I used to babysit for my cantor's children.  The cantor, who worked as a doctor, was separated from her husband and they split custody of their kids--and my services as babysitter.  One night, her estranged husband made a pass at me in his car with his kids in the back.  I was all of 19.
Yes, I am aware that there are a lot of Jewish men who know how to be gentlemen.  Yes, these poor excuses for men are aberrations.  But, I don't think we should assume that a man's Jewishness will automatically make him a safer, better person.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The three Rs of the GOP

Well in Iowa, it was a big day for the three Rs--(Mitt) Romney, Rick (Santorum), and Ron (Paul).  Supposedly, Gov. Romney won by a mere eight votes.  All three came in pretty close.  We'll see who's still left standing after Super Tuesday.  And, judging by the sheer number of candidates in the GOP, that person running against Obama may not even have the initial R.

A turning point?

This week, when I got the Jewish Press, I immediately turned to the editorial pages, as is my custom.  I saw several articles condemning the actions and the mindsets of the extremists in Israel, and that cheered me right up.  Then I read the editorial column.  And my smile faded.
While the editor's column did condemn the violent actions and "holocaust" demonstrations of recent days, it made one statement that perturbed me.  The column read "it is important that the Jewish tradition of modest dress and separation of the sexes not be called into disrepute because of the excesses of some zealots." (Jewish Press, January 6, 2012, pg. 5 Editorial).  I'm sorry, but a line like that takes the entire piece and turns it into an apologetic.  The Jewish religion has many traditions, it is true.  And, yes, the hallmark of an Orthodox synagogue has always been the mechitza.  However, there has never been, at least to my knowledge, any concerted effort to take that mechitza into the public square.  Also, until the twentieth century, everyone in Western culture dressed modestly.  Many of the halachos of tznius date back less than a century. 
However, among these many traditions, there is also the tradition of kindness to one's fellow man.  The tradition of, as it says in the siddur "honoring father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, giving assistance to a bride, burying the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace between a man and his friend, or a man and his wife.  And the study of Torah is equal to them all."  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbos 127a)  Equal perhaps, because Torah study should lead to all of them.  Let us hope that it still does.  That these mitzvos will eventually become as important as modesty.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Recently, over at Love, Joy, Feminism, I saw a post about homeschooling and indoctrination.  The author, LibbyAnne, argues that without proper oversight, homeschoolers could teach whatever they want, even blatant lies and indoctrination.
However, I'm not sure the same argument couldn't be made against private schools.  In Lakewood, boys' yeshiva high schools spend up to fourteen hours a day teaching religious subjects--and almost no time teaching secular ones!  I, as a NY homeschooler, must subject myself to stricter oversight than a NJ private school!  (of course, if I lived in Lakewood--Thank G-d I don't--I would face almost no regulation either.) Moreover, many of the same problems come up--children being taught that creationism is science, that fossils were created by Hashem to test our faith, and secular pursuits (such as college) are evil.  (I once had to explain to a neighbor what "kamikaze" meant--she had never heard the term before.) 
Truth be told, as much as the regulations scare me, I rather like them.  I don't plan on using homeschooling as an excuse to shelter or indoctrinate my kids, so submitting curricula, annual evaluations, and test scores doesn't bother me in the slightest.  I also want my kids to think for themselves--something easy to teach when there's no looming worksheets.  Besides, I always loved standardized testing, and usually scored above 90% across the board.  We'll see how far the apple falls from the tree on that one.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Frum JAPs

When I was growing up, I heard about a fantastic creature called the JAP.  The JAP, or Jewish American Princess, lived a life that, to my mind, belonged to the world of Robin Leach.  They lived in huge houses, drove fancy cars, wore designer clothes, had cleaning help, and planned weddings and bar mitzvahs for their children that were, to put it mildly, over the top.  More importantly, they expected all of these luxuries.  Being called a JAP was considered an insult in my family.  Part of the reason I became Orthodox was a desire to get away from the JAP mentality.  To my great disappointment, it was alive and kicking here.
However, the JAP mentality, the entitlement mentality, does not affect only the wealthy frum of Boro Park.  It has also crossed a few continents to Israel (so I guess they would be JIPs?).  Among those who throw things and scream at the less-than completely covered up, the entitlement mentality is alive and well.  If I knock on your door, you WILL give me money.  If I don't want to serve in the army because I'm too busy reading books, you WILL exempt me.  If I want to have ten kids while continuing to read books all day, you WILL support my family.  If I don't want to sit next to a woman, you WILL push them to the back.  If the sight of a woman's picture offends me, you WILL blot it out.  If I decide that your school building is in my neighborhood, you WILL vacate it.  Or, just like the JAP, I will make your life a living hell.  If you protest my treatment of you, I WILL drag you through the mud.
This is what happened in Israel over Motzaei Shabbos.  The local thugs in payos don't like the way the media portrayed them?  The Fourth Estate shows them to be the criminals they are?  Even the Agudah is telling them to tone it down?  Fine.  They'll just protest in concentration camp garb and yellow stars, They'll dress their children like Holocaust victims.  And they'll call the Israeli government Nazis.  But, you see, that doesn't really work.  See, playing the victim and pulling out the N-word against the officials of a Jewish-run state (many of whom had ancestors killed in the same Holocaust) doesn't really work.  All it does it up the chillul Hashem factor, already at an all-time high, by about 100 decibels.  And it shows the Israeli government the true nature of your entitlement mentality.  And make no mistake.  Even with your yarmulkes, you're still JAPs.  And the rest of the world is getting fed up with you.