Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hunkered down

Hurricane Sandy has come and (mostly) gone, although the damage will be felt for a while.
There are two downed trees on my block, one blocking off an adjacent street.
The MTA is still shut down, and no one is sure when trains and buses will resume.
The Things are getting a bit stir-crazy.
Downed trees and power lines are blocking off some streets.
The bridges and tunnels are closed, so everyone is stuck.
Public schools are closed, as are all Catholic schools and some yeshivas (although there were some yeshiva buses running--crazy.)
Meanwhile, here at the AztecPalace, we still have power, cable, and our phone.  Homeschooling will continue.  We're stocked up on candles and low-tech activities, so we'll be fine.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Social programs for the job creators

During the debates, I heard a lot about "job creators."  According to Former Governor Romney (I refuse to address anyone by an honorific they no longer hold), the job creators are the small businesses, since these employ the most people.  (For the record, the three biggest private-sector employers in America are Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Burger King--hardly small businesses.  But I digress.)  We need to give these "job creators" tax cuts.
Let me say this.
Builder is, by Romney's definition, a "job creator."  However, our taxes are low enough.  What we need is an incentive to stay open--and it does not come in the form of a tax break.  It comes in the form of those evil social programs.  For example, here in NY State, there is a program called Healthy NY that provides relatively low-cost health insurance to small businesses and the self-employed.  People like us.  If Builder had to buy private health insurance (since it doesn't come from a job), he'd have a hard time.  He's 62.  He's had five hernia surgeries.  He has tracheal stenosis, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and a torn meniscus.  Even if we could find a company that would insure him, we'd have to pay about $5,000 a month.  That buys us about seven months of coverage under Healthy NY. 
This is what our job creators truly need.  We need ways of staying profitable and competitive.  We need to ensure that our bills are low enough that we don't have to pillage our customers to stay open.  And we need it now.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Homeschool report cards

According to my planning sheet, Thing 1 is on Week 9 of our curriculum.  This means that it's time for me to write my first quarterly. 
For those of you not familiar with NY State Homeschool Law, I have to write up four quarterly reports, and then an annual evaluation.  And then send them to the Department of Redundancy Department NYC Central Office of Homeschooling (and I bet you didn't even know we had one.)  Each quarterly has to show the dates started and ended, number of absences (every parent marks it as zero), hours of instruction (225+ for grades K-6, 247.5+ for grades 7-12), a record showing 80% of the planned work for the quarter was covered, and a grade.
You're kidding, right?
I mean, one COULD use a narrative approach.  But a grade?  As in A, B, C, D or F?  Or Excellent, Good, Satisfactory or Needs Improvement?  Seriously, I'm evaluating my own kid!  I know her strengths and weaknesses.  I don't need some cutesy little form showing straight A's.  I don't even grade her work!  The only grades I ever give are "100%" and "Fix it."  More to the point, why does the city even NEED report cards?  We have to have an evaluation done at the end of the year, in either standardized test or portfolio evaluation form.  Doesn't that prove we did what we were supposed to?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What did I sign up for--Yeshiva snobbery.

Normally, I don't buy women's service magazines, whether secular or frum.  I'd rather curl up with a good book, or a sefer.  However, when I'd heard that Mishpacha's Family First had an article about a little girl  that had been rejected from six different nursery schools, my curiosity got the better of me.  The author had supposedly done everything right.  Both she and her husband had grown up frum, and the little girl had gone to playgroup.  However, the schools were rejecting her over things like the school the author had attended, or her driver's license, or the way she looked, or other outright snobbery.  (Reminded me of my Bais Yaakov of Doom experience.)
Then I got to thinking.
The child in question is two years old.  TWO!  She has no academic record or test scores.  I doubt she could spell her own name yet.  And yet, because of lifestyle choices that had nothing to do with her, she was rejected six times, sight unseen.  Now, of course, most parents think their kids are the greatest.  However, a nursery school should only be thinking of admitting kids until they are full.  (In all fairness, one class was already full between siblings and legacies before enrollment opened--but that's one out of 6.  That's 16.6 percent!)  Have we finally come to the point where we dance attendance on a school's whims?  Where they are in control?    Where details about a person's childhood or lifestyle are more important than educating our children?
Why do we have yeshivas?  I always thought it was to impart Torah values to our children.  Builder insists that it's the best environment for our kids to learn good middos.  However, unless we change our attitude, the only benefit to a yeshiva education will be a notch in the belt--and that won't really play out too well with Hashem.
(BTW--the magazine included an article about homeschooling--for parents who want to avoid this craziness.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Breadwinners and caregivers--one and the same

Recently, Rabbi Zev Farber posted a controversial blog post about expanding a woman's role in the synagogue.  I'm not really sure where I stand on this.  On the one hand, I came into Orthodoxy knowing that I would never lead any part of davening or be called to the Torah.  On the other hand, what are the two main arguments for this position?
1. Women have the G-d given role of caring for children, and synagogue honors and obligations would interfere with that.
2. Kol kevuda bas melech p'nima--the glory of a princess is within.  Women should stay on their side because they should not cheapen themselves by drawing attention to themselves.
Now, I am a stay-at-home mom, a housewife, or whatever term is currently in vogue.  Builder and I have structured our lives around it.  (In fact, I joke that because we save the cost of two tuitions, I'm sort of contributing $20,000 a year to the family budget.)  So, this argument sort of works.  But what if I weren't?  Like it or not, the default position has become the working mother.  Women serve in every position from secretary of an office to Secretary of State.  And frum women are not exempt.  In fact, because of the rise of the "kollel wife," it's not uncommon for women to be sole breadwinners in their families.  Or to possess more education than their husbands.  There are frum women who are doctors, lawyers, and college professors.  And then, they go home.  After supporting their families, they're told "kol kevuda bas melech pnima."  Really, if you're so concerned by my kavod, then ensure that I can stay in, stop reading books, and get a job!  And, if you want me to do my job of being a caregiver, then stop forcing my toddlers into institutions!
If we want to keep using these apologetics and have them mean something, we need to structure our society around keeping women home.  We can't have women serving as breadwinners when it's convenient, and then shut them up at home the rest of the time.  Whether it means lower tuitions, an end to the playgroup system that takes children younger and younger (some as early as 18 months), widespread homeschooling to save tuition (many frum working women are part of two-income families partly to pay tuition), pushing for community schools so that costs can be spread over more students (and drop), or a blanket rule that forbids yeshiva students from marrying until they get a job, it is crucial that we change our society.  Otherwise we're lying to ourselves.  And enabling a generation of man-cubs who demand that women become both breadwinners or caregivers based on the man-cub's convenience.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The second debate--oil

Enough people have made fun of the "binders full of women" comment in the second Presidential debate that I don't see the need to join in.  (Personally, my favorite moment was when the moderators backed up Obama's version of history surrounding the reporting of the Libya embassy bombing--but no one else noticed.)
I'd like to talk about oil.
Former Gov. Romney (why address him by an honorific he no longer holds?) mentioned that Obama has decreased the amount of domestic drilling for oil.  He then blames rising gas prices on this shortfall.
OK, any first-semester, (or even high school) economics student knows that a decrease in supply causes a rise in prices.  However, let's look at the "why" for a moment.
Oil drilling is not good for the environment.  Yes, going after oil domestically would solve a lot of problems (including decreasing the funding currently going to countries like Iran).  However, drilling can cause runoff, which destroys arable land.  Pipelines can leak.  And, let's not forget about the tanker explosion a couple of years ago that killed off wildlife and nearly destroyed the local economy of the Gulf Coast.  Oil is not something to fool around with.  And the "drill, baby, drill" philosophy may be good for our economy in the short-term, but has the potential to create more problems than it solves.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sukkah magic

Sukkos has come and gone, and with it, our sukkah.
Like Sara Crewe planning a party in the attic, I know that our sukkah is nothing more than a few boards, some plastic chairs and tables, laminated posters, and foil chains.  But, when you put them all together, there's something beautiful about it.  And, when you take it all down, there's the feeling that Miss Minchin crashed the party (did I mention that A Little Princess was one of my favorite books as a kid?  It was.)  Walk into our sukkah.  The tables are covered with white cloths and drinks of all descriptions.  Posters of Jerusalem, and of various flower-decorated brachos hang over the walls.  A large tarp stretches across the back wall, hiding the plywood underneath.  Two cloth pictures, one of the Temple, another if King David's palace, cover the other wall.  Lights glisten off the chains that hang from the schach, and off our silver becher, saltcellar and honey dish.  Candles glow from a corner.  And, when I was taking it down and packing it away, there was a bittersweet feeling.  The magic was gone, and our beautiful sukkah was back to bare boards and plastic tables.
See you next year!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vouchers--a solution that causes problems

In Brooklyn, a major issue is vouchers.  "We pay property taxes, but that money goes to public schools we don't use!  Why can't we get it for our yeshivas?" is the rallying cry.  As someone who attended six public and two private schools in four different states between the ages of four and sixteen, I wouldn't push too hard for it.
1. Yes, private prep schools invariably show better test results than public schools.  But why?  Is it because they have resources provided by wealthy donors?  Is it because they can cherry-pick students based upon test scores, grades, and recommendations?  How many private schools can exclude learning-disabled, developmentally-delayed, or autistic students who don't test well?  Public schools have to take anyone who walks in the door.  No exceptions.  Even if the school is full to bursting, they must take every child.
2. The per-student funding cited by the pro-voucher crowd not only goes for textbooks and teacher's salaries, but for library books, physical plant, school nurses, administrators, office equipment and maintenance (someone's got to keep the Xerox machine running for all those lovely forms), security, resource room instructors, gym equipment, art supplies and other miscellaneous expenses.  Each child given a voucher represents a loss of funding to the school as a whole, and will result in an even more unequal distribution of resources than already exists.  Those parents most likely to obtain vouchers are those who are more aggressive, wealthier, or more politically connected--and whose children are groomed to be successful in school.  Meanwhile, everyone else is left in decaying buildings with broken windows, inexperienced teachers and out-of-date textbooks because of a perpetual lack of funds.  (I went to a school like this--it was the tail end of inter-district busing to enforce Brown v. Board of Education in Tampa, FL.)
3. IN NYC, a city that regulates the size of a soda, no government official is going to hand over money to a school without a lot of regulations.  If money for private schools come from the same kitty as public school funding, why would anyone think that the same rules wouldn't apply?  Particularly for yeshivas where teachers are not certified and secular subjects are disdained or outright ignored, this regulation could lead to a Hobson's choice--intense restructuring including replacing the entire teaching staff with certified non-Jews, or giving up badly needed funds.
In my life, I have attended schools that ran the gamut from beautiful, loaded with amenities and well-funded (Las Vegas--your gambling dollars go to public schools and libraries), to schools which had broken windows, geography textbooks that were a decade old (and this was in 1993--think recent breakup of the Soviet Union), a music program without instruments or songbooks (we had to provide our own), and more students than desks in some classes.  I attended a private prep school that had the same read-the-chapter-answer-the-questions-none-of-your-lip teaching style that I thought I'd left in public school.  There is no guarantee that an expensive education is necessarily better.  However, there is a near certainty that pulling out both money and successful students from public school cannot be good for education as a whole.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Capitalism and healthcare--a match NOT made in Heaven

Recently, there's been a lot of talk about how each candidate will handle healthcare.  Mitt Romney's plan is to let the market dictate healthcare costs.  This is not a good idea.
1. Unlike cars, timeshares, or even the Adam Smith standby of eggs, people do not buy increasing amounts of healthcare simply because there's a drop in price.  When was the last time a hospital offered a sale on casts and splints?  Or penicillin?  No facility would do it because IT DOESN'T WORK!  No one will line up to take advantage of such a discount.  People only buy healthcare as needed.  The only time affordability becomes an issue is when consumers delay or avoid buying necessary treatments because they can't afford it.  These non-consumers then face either a reduced quality of life, or they die.
2. Unlike food, clothing or housing, substituting cheaper forms of healthcare doesn't always work.  Can't afford a house?  Rent a smaller apartment.  It serves the same purpose.  Same thing with groceries.  If chicken is on sale this week, you'll buy it instead of beef.  Or, you'll buy eggs or beans.  However, there are few alternatives to open-heart surgery.  Even certain medications must be given in their brand-name form, as patients can be sensitive or allergic to an additive in the generic.
3. Market forces dictate that companies produce that which is the most profitable, not always the most necessary.  This explains why there are constantly new medications for acid-reflux disease, while cancer (less common but far more deadly) is still being treated with the same radiation and chemotherapy which have been used for decades despite their horrific and well-documented side effects.
4. Any market that exists outside of an economics textbook has a fair amount of collusion.  This can take many forms when it comes to healthcare, such as all health insurance companies fixing premiums while denying care for pre-existing conditions, to pharmaceutical companies paying their competitors to keep generic versions of newly off-patent medications off the market.  It's reprehensible, but it's all legal.
For a long time, we've let the market dictate healthcare, and the results are a mess.  It's time to investigate alternatives.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The legacy of debates in a Facebook world

According to the newspapers, Romney won the debates.  According to my Facebook wall, Romney lied 27 times and declared war on Big Bird.
Which is it?  Both?
But which will be remembered on Election Day?
We live in a world dominated by social media, and this has skewed the news more than either Fox or MSNBC could ever do.  Don't like the headlines?  Find the ones you do like, either on a blog or someone's websites.  Also, because of social media, we now know about a Missouri Senate candidate's thoughts on rape and pregnancy (even if we don't live in Missouri).  This also means that within 24 hours of the debates, everyone went straight to FactCheck.org and Snopes to debunk both sides.  And, while the televised debate will be forgotten, the spin will live on right up until Election Day.
In a way, we've created our own Orwellian hell.  With Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, actual events are long forgotten.  As Squealer said, "Have you any record of such a resolution?  It is written down anywhere?"  And, like the changing text of the Seven Commandments, actual events go down the memory hole while the Ministry of Our Truth creates new history before our eyes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Yentl vs. Yentl

When I was about eight years old, my grandmother gave me her copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy."  Being a prolific little reader, I read it with interest, although many of the references to Judaism, and all the references to "the marital relationship" flew right over my little head.  I also saw part of the movie, but fell asleep before the ending.  For some reason, I liked the short story, but could not stand the movie.  So, a little comparison.  For the record, the categories are for analytic purposes only, no score will be attached.
Yentl/Anshel:  Singer describes Yentl as having the "soul of a woman in the body of a man."  She has a prodigious talent for learning Talmud, but cannot handle basic domestic duties.  Even her appearance is masculine, such that she looks like a handsome young man in her father's clothes.  She is "tall, thin, bony, with small breasts and narrow hips."  Yentl wants as much as possible to be a man.  After her father's death, she cuts off her hair, dons her father's clothes, and leaves town secretly, going to the next town to find a yeshiva.  She (now styling herself as the male Anshel), meets Avigdor at the inn, and travels with him to the yeshiva at Bechev.
Yentl's inner conflict stems from her own quest for self-actualization.  Her father taught her in secret, and now she must disguise herself as a man to continue learning.  However, the deception takes its toll.  She has nightmares about being in both a man's body and a woman's body at the same time.  As she tells Avigdor, "I'm neither one nor the other."  She is in love with Avigdor, but married to his former fiancee, Hadass (the book implies that she finds other means to perform her duties as a husband.)  Although she is a woman, she finds Hadass desirable, at one point, thinking, "A pity I'm not a man."
Singer plays up Yentl's gender ambiguity, often using the feminine "she" when referring to the identity of Anshel.  Additionally, her behaviors towards Avigdor are described in very feminine terms before she reveals her identity (she buys him buckwheat cakes and sews buttons back on his coat), but very masculine afterwards (she uses the hand gestures associated with male yeshiva students, plucks at her missing beard, and even "seized Avigdor by the lapel and called him stupid")
Streisand's Yentl, however, is an active feminist.  Her conflict is not "Why was I born in a woman's body when I have the soul of a man?" but rather, "Why can't women learn the way men do?"  Unlike Singer's character, she is far less secretive with her activities.  She buys seforim from a vendor, and recites a passuk in the Mishnah while her father studies with a young boy.  After she's married, she teaches Hadass the Talmud, but avoids her advances.  At no time does Streisand feel any inner conflict over her identity.  In fact she sings about how she is a woman just before she reveals herself to Avigdor.  While Singer's Yentl is very masculine physically, the buxom Babs must work harder to downplay her femininity. 
Avigdor: Anshel's chavrusa and love interest, he was a promising Torah scholar with a melancholy streak.  He was engaged to Hadass before the news came out that his brother had committed suicide.  Afterwards, he was married off to the wealthy but mean-spirited widow Peshe.
Singer wrote Avigdor as Anshel's friend and mentor.  He respects Anshel's scholastic abilities, and the two begin spending all their time together.  At one point, Avigdor states that "my life is bound up in your life."    Avigdor compares favorably with the other men in yeshiva, to the point that after he left to get married, Anshel did not find a new chavrusa.  Avigdor is also the only person to whom Anshel revealed his (her) true identity.  However Avigdor's life is an unhappy one.  Peshe, his wife, was unattractive and neglected him.  She wanted him to give up his studies and go to work with her.  She would not feed him or give him clean clothing.
Mandy Patinkin's Avigdor came off as a chauvinist pig.  He frequently made comments about women's lack of ability to think, and, when the engagement was broken, cared more about not having sons than he did about losing Hadass.  While Singer's Avigdor truly loved Hadass, and would press Anshel for information about how she was doing, Patinkin's Avigdor really only thought of her in terms of function.  (Patinkin's character did not marry in the movie.)  Also, Singer's Avigdor reacted to Anshel's reveal with shock and disbelief, but continued to learn with him even afterwards.  Patinkin reacted with undisguised rage, then proposed marriage.  However, he made it clear that Yentl would have to give up learning to be with him.  (As he said, "I'll do the thinking for both of us!")
Hadass: A foil to Yentl, Hadass is the perfect woman--wealthy and beautiful.  Singer reports that she "ordered the servant girl around, was forever engrossed in storybooks, and changed her hairdo every week."  She is also in love with Avigdor, despite the broken engagement.  However, once she marries Anshel, she transfers all her affection to him.  Throughout the book, she only speaks twice--both times to Anshel.  Both times, she discusses Avigdor.  However, after the marriage, she clearly loves Anshel, and weeps when he divorces her.
Amy Irving's character of Hadass is far more involved.  She actively pursues a physical relationship with Anshel once they're married, despite Anshel trying to put her off.  She also studies Talmud under Anshel's guidance; although she chews him out for trying to teach her after she slaved over Shabbos preparations.  However, when it comes to romance, she seems content with either husband--at least we are not presented with her reaction to Anshel's departure and their subsequent divorce.
Themes: Each book approaches a different theme.  For Singer, the main theme seems to be the need for truth.  Yentl told a seemingly small lie for a noble purpose--to learn the Torah she loved.  As a result, she ended up losing Avigdor, and eventually losing herself.  Once she revealed herself to Avigdor, she sent Hadass a divorce and vanished.  Additionally, because of her subterfuge, she had to resort to some pretty conspicuous behavior (avoiding the mikveh and the river, leaving town and divorcing Hadass) which generated gossip about Anshel.  Some of the townspeople said that Anshel was a demon, or that he had gambled Hadass away to Avigdor on a spin of the dreidel.  Singer writes "when the grain of truth cannot be found, people will swallow great heaps of falsehood."  Singer also explores the effects of Yentl's lie on both Avigdor and Hadass.  True, after their respective divorces were finalized, they married each other.  However, Avigdor looked despondent at the wedding, and Hadass wept.  Anshel was never seen or heard from again.
In the Streisand movie, the theme was feminism and the woman's role in society.  Streisand's Yentl chafed at a world where she had to study in secret.  She was contemptuous of Hadass (the song "No Wonder He Loves Her" describes her obsequious fluttering to fulfill Avigdor's every whim), then taught her Talmud after they were married.  Although Singer mentions Yentl's study with her father behind closed curtains, he only does so once.  The Streisand movie mentions it three times--when Yentl studies with her father, when Anshel studies with Hadass, and when Avigdor proposes marriage (Anshel sarcastically asks if Avigdor will allow them to study with the curtains closed.)  In the movie, Hadass uses her Talmud study as a means to lure the recalcitrant Anshel to her bed, while the Singer book really avoids the subject of their marital relationship other than saying that the sheet was bloody.  Finally, Streisand's Yentl leaves for America, and corresponds with the happily married Avigdor and Hadass.  Her leaving is seen as a means to open every door which has previously been closed to her.
Final Thoughts: So, how do you turn a 58-page novella into a movie that runs over two hours long?  The same way Disney expands fairy tales--add music.  However, with the exception of "Papa Can You Hear Me," most of the songs are forgettable and do nothing to advance the plot.
I have to agree with Singer that the movie failed to capture the true spirit of Yentl.  I"ll close with Singer's own words from an interview about the movie:
"Was going to America Miss Streisand's idea of a happy ending for Yentl? What would Yentl have done in America? Worked in a sweatshop 12 hours a day where there is no time for learning? Would she try to marry a salesman in New York, move to the Bronx or to Brooklyn and rent an apartment with an ice box and a dumbwaiter? This kitsch ending summarizes all the faults of the adaptation. It was done without any kinship to Yentl's character, her ideals, her sacrifice, her great passion for spiritual achievement."