Monday, December 30, 2013

What did I sign up for--Disposable children

The Things are now 7 and 5, respectively.  They may grouse a bit about Shabbos, but they still keep it.  They go to yeshiva, daven when they're told to daven, learn the parsha, and follow the Torah.  They're little kids.  Going OTD is not really an issue at this point.
Fast forward ten years.
I am picturing Thing 1, who wants with every fiber of her being to be a professional actress.  How will she react if she is given a part that demands a Friday-night performance?  What about Thing 2, who was born with a mind of her own and a penchant for bending the rules?  What will happen if one of my children turns out to be gay?  What will I do if they decide to go OTD?
I'll tell you what I will not do.  I will never abandon them.
One of the big selling points in kiruv is Judaism's strong family values.  I have questioned this for years, seeing the widespread institutionalization of young children, educational neglect, silent children, and kids knocking on strangers' doors doing fundraising without adult supervision.  However, this article in the Mishpacha made my hair stand up on end.
The article referenced a rabbi in Israel that takes in young OTD girls tossed out by their parents.  A kind act, true, but why are teenagers being turned out at all?  Because the parents are ashamed?  The child (and make no mistake--15 and 16 year-olds are still children) is trying to grow and define herself.  Sometimes, this takes on forms that parents disagree with.  That's typical adolescence.  However, putting one's own children out on the street is not only atypical, it is abusive.  Moreover, it is counterproductive.  Odds are, once a child is tossed out, that child will never come back.  Not to the parents, and not to Yiddishkeit.
As parents, it is our job to put our children first.  Our own feelings, our egos, others' opinions--all are secondary.  No family should ever throw away their children.  No parent should ever pray for a child's death.  No parent should ever deliberately put a child at risk of harm, whether through starvation, physical attack, or sleeping in the street.  And no one should ever tell a confused teenager that "she brought it on herself."
Our children are gifts from G-d.  They are not disposable!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Holiday Rant 2013--Peace, Goodwill, and Shooting Your Eye Out

For many years now, I have ranted about what it's like to be a Jew at Christmas.  However, I think I'm done.  I've made my peace with Christmas.  I leave it alone; it leaves me alone.
Which brings me to the subject of this year's rant--Christmas TV.
I admit it--I'm a sucker for Christmas TV.  Those sappy Rankin-Bass specials, the cartoons, and, of course, the movies.  Ahh, the iconic images of Christmas cheer!  Tiny Tim blessing us, every one, Jimmy Stewart running through Bedford Falls, wishing everyone a merry Christmas, little Natalie Wood tugging on Santa's beard (I know there have been remakes, but they DON'T count!).  And then, of course, there is the line which makes every celebration of Christmas complete:
"You'll shoot your eye out."

Let's face it, most of these beloved movies are pretty dark.  Court cases, Santa in the nuthouse, ghosts, suicide attempts, bullies, getting one's mouth washed out with soap, shooting your eye out--these are not happy stories!
Let's start with A Christmas Carol.  Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge turns his life around and embrace Christmas cheer.  However, why does he do so?  Because he has seen the light?  Or is it because his future includes dying alone and having his body robbed while it's still warm?
And then there's It's A Wonderful Life.  Watch the "Potterville" scenes and then ask yourself--does this really need to be a Christmas movie?  I guess it's kind of the film noir of the holidays, but set the date to any other day, and the message would be the same. 
Miracle on 34th Street features Santa Claus, so this should lighten the mood, right?  Wrong.  We've got a drunk Santa less than ten minutes in, a divorced mom (in 1947, when this was never spoken of above a whisper), a guy deliberately getting his wife plastered, an insecure shrink trying to get a guy committed because he challenges the shrink's authority, and weirdest of all, a little girl hanging around her bachelor neighbor alone.  Did the Hays Code people give this movie a pass because Santa was one of the main characters?
And then, finally, A Christmas Story.  They used to show this one in my junior high between midterms.  I don't think I saw it all the way through until years later.  This, of course, features the "you'll shoot your eye out" line that I referenced (spoiler alert--Little Ralphie shoots his eye out.)  Ralphie also beats up a bully, drops an F-bomb on his dad (and gets his mouth washed out with soap), fondles an electric, fishnet-clad plastic leg, and gets kicked in the face by a department-store Santa.
But don't let these dark stories get you down.  Have a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a divine Solstice, or just a nice day off work.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What did I sign up for--Domestic violence

I had another court date last week.  As I sat waiting on the Integrated Domestic Violence (IDV) floor, I saw two--two--different women with covered heads who were not related to Builder.  Nor were they attorneys. 
Two more.
Another at the Children's Law Center.
More than I care to count at the Family Justice Center.
And, if you go off the "iceberg theory," (only the tip is visible), for every one of those women, there are how many more who DON'T report?  Nine?  Ten?
Since Builder is now on his third arrest, this means that I am very much on the radar with the local precinct.  Every so often, the DV officers check up on me to make sure I am safe. The last time they were there, they told me that they were in the area, and happened to notice that I was home.  Apparently, there were a few other families on the block that they were checking up on.
The block.  Not Boro Park.  Not the neighborhood.  The block.
It should be mentioned at this point that most of my neighbors are very frum.
Is it any wonder that I see frum men as predators?  Is it any wonder that I don't want to remarry?  Is it any wonder that I am more "tifrosh min hatzibur" than before?  Is it any wonder that I walk through boro Park and mentally ask every frum woman I see, "Does your husband hurt you, too?"
When we are told to "walk modestly with G-d," we are also told to "do justice and love mercy."  How, then, can that be compatible with spousal abuse?  How can a Torah-observant man justify hurting his own family?  Moreover, how can it be so common that frum abuse victims keep turning up everywhere? 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Personally, I'd rather be a potato

I have read a number of books on the subject of tzniut since becoming frum.  The most infamous, Modesty--An Adornment for Life by the obsessive (and possibly pervy) Rabbi Eliyahu Falk I've only glanced through, because it's almost encyclopedic.  I've also read Daughters of Dignity, 6 Stories, and Seams and Souls.  Along with the laws, one usually runs across the following scenario:
"Imagine going into a jewelry store to buy a diamond bracelet.  You are buzzed in, and the diamonds are locked away under glass.  Now, imagine buying a potato.  They're out in the open, for anyone to take.  Would you rather be a diamond, or a potato?"
The implication, of course, is that we would rather be a diamond.  Diamonds are rare and precious, and must be hidden away.  But anyone can just take up a potato.  They're cheap and readily available.(Am I the only one who senses a slight rape culture vibe in that statement?)
But let's consider each.
Like us, both diamonds and potatoes contain carbon.  But the similarity ends there.  Diamonds, unless they're used in saws (and the ones that ends up in jewelry do not), are purely ornamental.  They are meant to be shown off and then locked away.  Moreover, they usually say, "Look at me!  I'm pretty!  I'm expensive!  I have value!"  I would not call that very modest, or even very practical.
However, potatoes are both modest and practical.  They are completely unassuming, drawing no attention to themselves whatsoever.  Moreover, they are living entities!  They can reproduce by themselves.  (Potato plants are usually grown from pieces of potatoes, rather than seeds.).  Moreover, they are food.  They provide energy and some nutrients.
Now, I happen to take umbrage at being compared (and therefore reduced to) an inanimate object.  However, given this rather bizarre little dichotomy, I think I'd rather be a potato.

(HT Love Joy Feminism for the image)

Monday, December 16, 2013

A few thoughts on Chabad

I have a friend who is very strongly oriented to the Lubavitch way of practicing Judaism.  I am not.  This has led to some interesting discussions.
After the Tablet article on head-covering came out, we had one of these discussions again.  I happen to believe that if you're going to cover your hair, it had better look covered.  No wigs.  Especially not some long, flowing, gorgeous hairpiece that costs upwards of five grand and looks better than the graying, frizzy mop on my head.  (Occasionally, I wear a wig, like to court or a job interview, but usually, when I do, it's covered.  Does that make me rebellious or extra-pious?)  My friend, however, quotes the last Lubavitcher rebbe as stating that wigs are preferred for two reasons--stray locks that fall loose aren't as obvious, and we're supposed to be modest, not frumpy or hideous.
And then I read an article that explained the perspective.  Apparently, Rebbe Schneerson decided that Orthodoxy would be a lot easier to sell to assimilated Jews in the 1950s if it didn't come with the schmattes their grandmothers had discarded the minute they hit the goldeneh medina.  America--where Jewish identity meant lighting Shabbos candles on Friday night (maybe) and then getting up early to hit the factory the next day.  (Would this be a good time to mention that the Triangle fire was on Shabbos?)  There was some attempt to stem the tide of assimilation, and that's where the Young Israel movement came from.  But Chabad was trying to sell Chassidus to American Jews who wanted to join the melting pot.  To "Devorah"s who became "Dorothy"s and "Itzik"s who became "Irving"s.  To those who firmly believed that one should "be a Jew in the home and a man in the street."  And, he was trying to do so during the height of 1950s conformity and xenophobia.
This, I truly believe, is what sets Chabad apart.  Whereas other Chasidic sects are mostly the descendants of shell-shocked Holocaust survivors clinging to a spiritual leader out of fear in a world that seems full of anti-Semitism and genocide, Lubavitch draws its followers from a more assimilated crowd.  Some of the excesses of other Chasidic sects (shtreimels, Yiddish-only, ghettoization, extreme gender segregation to the point of separate doors, lifetime learning to the exclusion of learning job skills) would not be tolerated by the target audience of American Jews.
Is Chabad a cult?  Maybe.  But certainly no more so than any other haredi group (two words--daas Toireh).  My own thoughts are sort of mixed.  I appreciate that they don't turn people away, I love the free services, and I like that they're willing to meet people on their level.  However, I think they tend to have a bit too much hard sell to young, impressionable Jews (the SDSU Chabad had cheap rooms and lots of liquor--a great enticement for alumni who wanted the glory days of AEPi back), and they seem to put more emphasis on the Rebbe than G-d.  Also, I find it troubling that the Sorbonne-educated Schneerson would discourage secular education for his own followers (Lubavitch boys' schools that cater to those born into it do not teach their students to read English until the third grade).  One rabbi of my acquaintance has accused them of poaching congregants--but maybe those are the congregants that WANT to be poached.  And then there's the whole "Schneerson as messiah/Schneerson isn't really dead" controversy, which just adds it's own touch of weird.  However, at the end of the day, I do think they unfairly get a bad rap from the rest of the Jewish world.  They mean well. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Clarifying the First Amendment

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
This is probably one of the best known lines in the Constitution.  It is also one of the most poorly understood.
There is a case before the Supreme Court now.  Two women in upstate New York are suing to ban a blatantly Christian prayer that opens a public meeting.  The women, one Jewish, one atheist, state that being forced to participate in the prayer when they attend the meetings on other business infringes on their First Amendment rights.
Let's break down that famous line from the First Amendment.
What does "prohibiting the free exercise of religion" even mean?  It means that whatever your faith, you are free to practice it as you so choose.  If you wish to cover your eyes and say the Shema twice a day, you may do so.  You may burn incense in front of a golden Buddha.  You can attend church and light candles to the Virgin Mary.  You can say "There is no G-d but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet" with complete sincerity.  You can cast a circle in Central Park on October 31st and invoke Hekate.  You can join the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  I don't care.  And neither does the US Government.
What you may not do is force me to join you.  And that's where the whole "respecting an establishment of religion" comes in.
If a hundred very devout Christians want to start a prayer club in their public school, they may.  They may not, however, insist on leading the Lord's Prayer before algebra class.  And it's the same thing here.  Go to church and pray for the welfare of the government.  But a town hall is not a church.  And a government meeting that people need to attend for business is not the place or the time to pray to a deity.  Why?  Because you're essentially holding those who do not share your beliefs hostage.  And that's not OK.
There are those who say that the US is a Christian country anyway, so let the prayers continue.  But what if it wasn't?  What if we were majority Buddhist, and every government meeting included lighting incense in front of a golden Buddha?  Those whose faiths prohibit idol worship would be outraged.  Similarly, what if we were majority Rastafarian, and every meeting included passing a bowl for a ceremonial smoke?  (Although that would make government meetings more interesting...but I digress.)
We need to remember the old rule that our rights stop at someone else's nose. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting back to the basic text

There is nothing more interesting than watching people argue about the meaning of a three-thousand-year-old text.
I started thinking about this when Thing 1 told the parsha over Shabbos.  Of course, she repeated what she had been taught by Morah (whose critical thinking skills are suppressed by dogma), so Esav became EEEEEVVIIIIILLLL.  This of course, was Mommy's little introduction to the difference between commentary and text.  Unfortunately, we often confuse one for the other.
Was Esav really evil?  Rashi says so, but there is nothing in the actual story that would lend itself to that interpretation.  After all, Yaakov, the "embodiment of truth," screwed his brother out of his birthright AND his blessing.  Yeah, Esav was mad enough to kill, but when they were reunited years later, all he wanted to do was literally kiss and make up.
It seems that we know more about Rashi's interpretation of the text than we do about the text itself.  I had once mentioned to Chavie (she dropped me like a hot rock after I left Builder, which is why you don't hear from her anymore) that Yaakov kissed Rachel.  Her response?  "No, he didn't!"  I made her pull out a Chumash and look it up.  Oops.  Guess they never covered that verse in Bais Yaakov.  ("And Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept." Bereshis 29.11  It's in this week's parsha if you want to look it up.)
Of course, arguing over Bereshis is just family history.  The real fun is Vayikra, or Leviticus, a book that spurs heated debates even among non-Jews.  Or at least one particular verse does.  "And with man, you shall not lie as with woman; it is an abomination." (Vayikra 18.22)  This verse comes from the parsha Acharei Mos.  This parsha also contains a DETAILED description of the Yom Kippur service that G-d demands.  Now, I have not been to every shul in the world, the US or even Brooklyn, but I have never seen the kohanim of a shul push a goat off a cliff.  What?  You didn't know about that?  Yeah, see, we're kind of supposed to do that on Yom Kippur.  In Yerushalayim.  In other parts of Leviticus, tattoos, pork, and shellfish are banned.  When those who protest gay marriage expend even a tenth of the energy they spend on gay marriage attempting to shut down Red Lobster, I might, (might) take them a little more seriously. Until then, I'd like to remind you that the Torah is not up for cherry-picking. 
In fact the Tanach is not up for cherry-picking.  Instead of worrying about the meaning of the exact punctuation of the third verse in the second chapter of Masechtas Shabbos, I think it would be beneficial to study the Nevi'im.  I mean REALLY study them.  They have some pretty harsh words for those who think that having four hecchsherim on your potato chips exempts you from not being judgmental and cruel to others.  That you can be as racist as you want as long as you only use the right kind of pre-torn toilet paper on Shabbos.  That the right yeshiva matters more than the ethics being taught therein.  Let's get our heads out of the commentaries and back to the actual text.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wishing I got the exception

When Builder and I were together, people always told me how "lucky" I was.  That men like Builder were a rare breed.
Dear G-d, I wish that were true.  Unfortunately...
Since I left Builder, I've been spending a lot of time at the Family Justice Center.  My kids have counseling there; I briefly attended a support group until scheduling conflicts made it impossible; and they have all sorts of services for victims of DV.  Of course, since this is a city agency (it's part of the Kings County DA's office), a cross-section of Brooklyn will invariably find its way there.  Including my people.
On three separate occasions, I have seen frum or formerly frum women at the Family Justice Center who are dealing with their own abusive situations.  (And these are just the ones who came forward--how many others DON'T come forward?)  There are social workers who deal solely with the frum.  There was even a pamphlet about DV specifically directed to the frum. 
What are we doing?
I thought that we were better than this.  I honestly hoped that Builder was some kind of evil exception.  I honestly hoped that all the smiling ladies in Boro Park were happy.  However, I still think back to when Builder abused me.  I remember walking through Boro Park on a Shabbos afternoon shortly after it happened and seeing all the women outside with their kids, enjoying the spring air.  I looked at them and thought, "Did your husband do this to you, too?  Did he ever force you?"  Sad to say, I no longer feel safe among my own people.  I look at frum men, and I see predators.  And it breaks my heart.  I had honestly thought that the Torah these men were supposed to learn made them better than that.  But it seems like such a sham.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Time for the truth to come out

After my little brush with Jewish omerta, I was pretty annoyed with the community as a whole.  I'd heard about things like this happening, but I never thought it would happen to me.  One of my staunchest allies, the Professor, told me that it would be a good idea to talk to Rebbetzin Brooklyn.  Tell her everything. 


So, I did.  While the Things were in school last week, I popped over to talk to her.  And a waste of time was had by all.
I started by showing her the order of protection.  The one Builder keeps violating.  Then I told her how I got it. 
The truth is, Builder has a vile temper.  He began to show signs of violence a couple of months before I left.  While he didn't put his hands on me, he was punching walls in frustration.  He even punched an EMT's minivan when the EMT turned on a porta-siren to get Builder to move his double-parked car.  But that was not the only deciding force.  Five days before Pesach, Builder and I got into a huge fight.  Actually, he yelled and tore my kitchen apart while I cowered.  Four hours later, he came home from a late-night renovation job.  And he raped me.
For the past six months, I've tried not to think about it.  Didn't want to talk about it, except to a select few of my allies.  I didn't think I would be believed.  And, unfortunately, I was right.  Rebbetzin Brooklyn was very dismissive.  She told me that anyone could get a restraining order (not true), and that "I was living in HIS house, and I had HIS kids.  Of course he was feeling hurt."  She also told me that while he may have been threatening, he hadn't actually done anything to hurt me (what do you call rape?), and that it was a terrible thing to put someone in jail (because there are so many means at my disposal to enforce this order of protection OTHER than incarceration).  She felt sorry for him because he only got alternate weekends with his kids, and why couldn't we work out joint custody?  (Did I fail to mention that I have a RESTRAINING ORDER against him?)  I kept reiterating that I was terrified of them man, and that all I want was to be left alone.  I also listed all the retaliatory acts he had committed against me:
Trying to have me arrested.
Trying to have one of my best friends arrested.
Having another one of my best friends (who was helping me with the Things) barred from the house AND barred from contact with the girls.
Calling Children's Services and reporting me for child abuse.
Cancelling my phone service.
Even with all that, she still felt sorry for him.  Whatever happened to not taking sides? 
But now, the truth is out.  I may have lost a relationship, and I certainly can't trust my rabbi anymore, but at least now I know where I stand with the community.  And now, I have nothing left to lose.

Friday, October 4, 2013

"I need my paycheck"

We are now on Day 4 of the Great Government Shutdown.  To prevent the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the Republican-controlled Congress has voted to shut down the government. 
As part of the shutdown, 800,000 "non-essential" workers were placed on unpaid furlough.  (For clarification, "non-essential" in government parlance means those whose services are not needed on an emergency basis.  In other words, fire, police, military, and elected representatives are essential.  Civil court judges, about half of FEMA, non-combat military, clerical workers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement clerks, and others of that ilk are "non-essential."  So are the people who process Social Security and WIC applications.)  However, our elected officials, including Congress, are still working and still drawing paychecks.  This has raised ire on all sides of the political spectrum.  One representative, Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, had this to say:

Well, darlin', ain't you just the most special little snowflake?

The thing is, we all NEED our paychecks.  We all have bills to pay and kids to feed.  Just because you are in Congress doesn't make your need more pressing than ours.
It's too bad, too.  See, again, this is the 21st century.  Memes like this get passed all over the Internet and have very, very long shelf lives.  And, as some of your would-be colleagues learned in the last election cycle, this can lead to that congressional paycheck not happening.
Enjoy your position while you can.  And see you (or not) in 2014.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Too close to comfort for some

Well, Builder is up to his old tricks.  The first week the Things went to school (court ordered enrollment, more on that later), he showed up at their school bus stop.  Every Single Morning.  The first day, he got out of the car and accosted me and them.  Since I never leave home without my order of protection and my phone, I called the cops.  Dropped call at the worst time.  However, I did manage to make contact with the authorities and file a police report.  Nothing was done because Builder had already left.  This  makes me question the value of a restraining order since it is only as good as its enforcement.
The next week, the Things and I are walking home when we see Builder parked In Front Of Our House.  Thing 2 (both Things know that Totty is supposed to stay away from Mommy) started yelling, "Totty, go away!"  I snapped a picture and called 911.  For some reason, I kept getting routed to Directory Assistance.  So, I take my phone and walk down to the precinct.  I file another police report.  I am told that Builder will be arrested.
So, I wait.  And wait.  And tell the same story over and over again to about four different officers.  Every time, I am assured that Builder will be arrested.  Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah come and go.  Finally, I get an update--Builder is to surrender on Monday.
So Monday comes.  And with it, some very interesting phone calls.  The first is from Builder's brother-in-law.  This does not surprise me.  After all, I crossed The Family.  And I may have been family, but not Family with a capital F.  And, to The Family, anything short of complete acquiescence is construed as an act of war.  "Could I pretty please drop the charges?  Overlook it this once?"  How do I put this nicely?  No.
The next call was from Rabbi Brooklyn.  This one did surprise me, as Rabbi Brooklyn's stance is that those who break the law should be brought to the attention of the local authorities.  Rabbi Brooklyn wants me to pretty please drop the charges.
Whatever happened to dina malchutah dina?  What happened to all the righteous indignation directed at a community that turns a blind eye to abuse?  I guess when it's some Chassid in Williamsburg it's one thing, but when it's a shul board member and a regular at the Daf Yomi shiur?  After all, "he's such a nice guy."  Right.  Because judges hand out restraining orders on a whim.  Because abusive men wear signs.  Because it's only a problem "over there."  Whether "there" is to the left or the right, the Chassidische velt or the secular world, no one wants to believe that their friends, their relatives, their congregation, are capable of serious wrongdoing.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Another New Square tragedy

Ahh, New Square.  A place where tolerance reigns supreme.  Sadly, there has been another casualty of this attitude.  A young woman going through a horrific custody battle, who just recently lost her children to her ex-husband, committed suicide.
Sure, one could argue that she may have had a history of depression.  But depression is sometimes a response to circumstance.  In this case, she lost only lost her children, but everyone she knew.  Even her own father testified against her at the custody hearing.  After she lost custody, her children were then turned against her. Her crime?  Leaving the frum world and going OTD. 
Being in the midst of a rather hellish divorce myself, I can sympathize.  I'm not running out on Judaism, but stories like this give me serious pause. 
I thought that Torah made us better people.  Whatever happened to empathy or at least simple compassion?  Whatever happened to supporting your children no matter what?  Whatever happened to understanding the bond between a mother and the children she carried under her heart, and nurtured at great sacrifice?  Hell, whatever happened to honoring your mother and father?  That last one was written in stone by the Hand of G-d, so I'd say it's pretty important.
Deb Tambor, know that your life was not lost in vain.   Rest with G-d.  And know that there are those who loved and supported you.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Solo Shabbos

Well, it's finally happened.  Builder has the girls this Shabbos.  And this Queen is alone.
Being introverted to the point of misanthropy, I don't mind the alone time (which will encompass Simchat Torah as well.)  However, being alone and unplugged?  Good recipe for insanity.
Although it's two days, not four years, I keep thinking about the movie Cast Away.    Loneliness can do strange things to people.

While I'm not at the level of befriending a volleyball, I can understand the impulse.  Like the desert island, Shabbos is silent.  No music.  No needlework.  No transportation.  Sure, one can walk--where?  I may try the beach.  But what can one do in the winter?    How much can one read?  Or sleep?  We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Then out of the box came Thing 2 and Thing 1!

More than one commenter has commented on the rather odd nicknames I give my children.  Why would I call my beloved children "Things?"

 When I say "Things," I do not refer to random stuff--

but rather to these cute little Things:

But first, a little background into why I've chosen these creations from my favorite doctor (and I don't mean The Doctor).
In 1957, Theodore Geisel, an already prolific advertising illustrator and children's book author (who went by the pen name Dr. Seuss) was approached with a proposal: write a children's book using 225 of the most common sight words taught to primary-aged schoolchildren.  (In all fairness, this was the age of the now-discredited whole-language movement.  Queen Mom remembers her old Dick and Jane readers somewhat less than fondly).  The result was a zany little volume entitled The Cat in the Hat.  For the past 56 years, children all over the world have laughed along to the adventures of the mad-cap, chapeau-clad feline and his adorable, blue-haired, red-suited, mischief-making comrades in a red box.
Fast forward to 2008.  Thing 2 is a couple of months old, and I'm researching homeschooling every spare minute I can.  I soon stumble into the world of homeschool bloggers.  Then I think--why not write one?  So, for the next year, over at WordPress, I had a short-lived little blog called The Cat's Hat.  My original idea was to give me and my family names straight out of The Cat in the Hat.  So, I was the Cat, Builder was the Fish, and my little babies became Thing 1 and Thing 2.  Although it never went anywhere and I eventually abandoned it, I never dropped my desire to blog.  So, when I started Tifrosh Min Hatzibur, I kept the kids' pseudonyms.  I'm not that creative with nicknames.  And, they still sort of ...worked, at least in the context of Dr. Seussian Things.
However, the first rule of public forums applies to blogs--anything you say can and will be used against you.  So, Builder, this is for you.  Since you've been referencing my blog in your custody petition, I know you're reading this.  Thing 1 and Thing 2 mean the world to me.  And, even though you were seven when The Cat in the Hat came out, and even though we owned pretty much every Beginner Book that Dr. Seuss ever wrote, you either don't get the reference or are being dense on purpose.  But I don't care anymore.  This is my blog--my safe space.  I will still reference my favorite little blue-haired, red-suited mischief-makers whenever I can.

Monday, August 19, 2013

When there are no easy answers

Today, I was coming home from Barnes & Noble in Union Square on the F train (browsing is free).  A young man with a black lab boarded and began panhandling.  Normally, my rule is to give only to street performers and not panhandlers because I can't afford it.  However, this kid broke my heart.  He was dressed in such shabby clothes that the heels of his sneakers were worn down into a diagonal line.  He looked like he hadn't had a decent meal in days and smelled like he hadn't showered in weeks (hard to stay clean on the street).  And his dog didn't look much better--it was skin and bones, and too listless to move.  The kid was begging so that he could buy something for his dog to eat.  An older man on the train asked the kid "Why don't you get a job?"
Right.  Because the Employment Fairy is going to tap him with a magic wand and turn him from a down-and-out street kid into a professional with a middle-class salary and benefits.  Because companies are falling all over themselves to hire someone without an address, phone, clean suits and access to a shower.  Because the economy DOESN'T suck right now so that even middle-class, college-educated, experienced people aren't struggling to find and keep jobs.  All of this ran through my head at this sanctimonious pronouncement.  And, since keeping my mouth shut has never been my strong suit, I responded with the only thing I could say:
"You can't get a job without an address."
Suddenly, the train car came alive.  People who didn't know each other were suddenly discussing the dearth of social services available in what is supposedly the richest country in the world.  I even volunteered a bit of my own story--that I was fleeing an abusive marriage, and that there was very little available even for me.  Sure, there is shelter space--sort of.  Most shelters are full.  Sure, there is Section 8, and everyone assumed that an abused woman with kids would get to the top of the list.  Yeah, right behind the thousands of OTHER abused women with kids on the list.  And, unless Builder ponies up tuition like YESTERDAY, I will have no childcare and will end up homeschooling again by default.  This, of course, puts the kibosh on my plans to get a job and be self-supporting.
And then I thought how narrow the chasm is that separates this young man from myself.  If it weren't for the grace of G-d and the court system, I could be homeless too.  Sure, I'm sitting there in clean clothes, with a wig and scarf on my head, jewelry, makeup, manicured nails, an Anne Klein purse and a smartphone.  I look like any other middle-class person.  But who can tell?  Builder is only paying half his court-ordered child support every month.  I'm living in a house that isn't really mine.  The wig and scarf were bought prior to my marriage.  Queen Mom paid for the purse and smartphone.  The makeup is drugstore grade, and I do my own nails with Sally Hansen polish.  And the jewelry is street-vendor costume, all bought before I came to New York.  I'm no stranger to the condition of having the thinnest veneer of middle-class prosperity separate me from the streets. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Of dead rebbes and living "Gedolim"

Question:  Why are Lubavitch and Breslov so popular with baalei teshuvah?
Answer: Their rebbes are dead.

In case you're thinking that I have a sick sense of humor, here's my logic.  Both Nachman of Breslov and Menachem Mendel Schneerson live on in their writings and in the stories told about them by their Hasidim.  And, needless to say, these stories tend to skew very positive.  After all, who is going to say that their late, great Grand Rebbe is a schmuck?  And, since they are deceased, none of their actions can belie their reputations.  Unlike say, Satmar or Bobov, where the movement has split along which of Reb Yoelish's or Rabbi Halberstam's descendants is actually the true Rebbe, and which is the wannabe (isn't this what split the Church into Catholic and Eastern Orthodox factions?), or Skver, where the Rebbe may or may not have sent his houseboy to burn a guy's house down (this actually happened), all we have to go off of are memories.  And acharei mos kedoshim, these memories tend to emphasize what a nice guy these rebbes were.
Lest you think I am needlessly picking on Hasidim, I have to say that the Litvish are no better.  In fact they are often worse.  Far, far worse.  Fail to toe the party line, whether you are Dov Lipman or Avi Weiss, and you find yourself on the receiving end of wrath bordering on excommunication.  The roshei yeshiva are quick to cast out the "other," even if this "other" includes their own colleagues.  At least the Hasidim, who have central leadership, tend to leave other Jews alone.

Monday, July 8, 2013

What did I sign up for--To tell or not to tell

OK, just so we're clear, I DID NOT leave Builder because of homeschooling.  What he did to me was far worse.  In fact, it was criminal.  (Builder, if you or any of your allies are reading this--and since you brought up my blog in court, I know you are--I did not leave over homeschooling, religion, advice from my allies or anything else.)
This puts me in a quandary.  What do I do with Builder?
The truth is, I could possibly prosecute him for his actions.  But what would I gain?  And more importantly, what would I lose?
I have seen what happens in this community.  Just look at the Weberman case.  The entire community held public rallies to support him.  Meanwhile, his victim was publicly shamed.  Her family was shunned.  Her siblings were kicked out of school.  Her husband and father both had their businesses affected.  She was harassed, intimidated, photographed in court.  Her name appeared on posters all over Williamsburg.  Or look at poor Aron Rottenberg.  For the simple crime of changing the venue in which he davened, his house was almost bombed.
All of this could happen to me.  (Except for the bombing part--I think Builder wants his house back eventually, with or without me in it.)
With my daughters starting school in the fall, I have to be very careful.  I can't afford to let myself become a pariah to such an extent that it affects them.  Unless I get permission to relocate (and that's not easy), I'm stuck here.  And, yes, while it would be empowering to report Builder for his actions, and it might ensure that he could never do anything like this to anyone else, I have to worry about the backlash.
And that's disturbing. 
As I've said before, this community could give the Mafia lessons on omerta.  Mesirah, or ratting out your fellow Jew to the secular authorities, is an evil on par with murder, idolatry, or leaving the house bareheaded.  This is despite the fact that the United States government is not the Grand Inquisitor, the SS, or the Cossacks.  Meanwhile, the perpetrator, is treated like a victim, and funds are raised for pidyon shevuyim (redeeming a captive).  Um, whatever happened to dina malchutah dina?  Or establishing courts, which is not only a mitzvah but a Noahide law?    Or that wonderful line in Pirkei Avos about praying for the welfare of the government, because without it, a man would swallow his fellow alive?  Judaism is more than the minutae of Shabbos.  It's more than using an electron microscope to check for bugs in the lettuce.  It's about loving justice.  It's about not doing what is hateful to your fellow man.  It's about being a light unto the nations.  Unfortunately, every single crime we perpetuate against our fellow man is a choking layer of grime over our light.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day?

Well, once again I was in court.  Once again, it was a lot of nothing.  Builder is now obligated to pay support.  (Thank you, Judge DV).  My lawyer is too expensive, so I'm going for court-appointed counsel.  And AriSparkles, who has been BFF, babysitter, and bodyguard all rolled into one, is now enjoined from seeing the Things until she passes a security clearance.    (Shouldn't take too long.)  Also, we have to be seen by a "forensic evaluator," which I am preparing for like ACS is coming. 
Some lessons here:
  1. Be VERY CAREFUL what goes onto social media.  I think my FB was hacked, and I know my blog was read, since it was referenced in court.  Because my comments are usually oblique, the worst thing they could say about me is that I like my sister-in-law.
  2. "Zealous representation" clearly means different things to different people.
  3. Sometimes the judge is your best ally.
  4. If Builder can play games and split hairs, so can I.
  5. This thing requires seriously dirty pool.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rape manual

Recently, over at Reddit, a guy calling himself TofuTofu (Ken Hoinsky) decided to promote himself as a dating guru and publish excerpts from his dating manual.  Then he decided to solicit funds on Kickstarter, and raised the funds necessary for a self-publish.  All well and good--the Internet is the ultimate land of free speech.  However, the book itself...
Most of these come straight from Chapter 7--Physical Escalation & Sex.  Comments in italics are mine.

"Just keep in mind that it's MUCH easier to enter into a fruitful relationship with a woman AFTER you've made her cum a half-dozen times. And that's true whether you're looking for a wife, girlfriend, friend-with-benefits, or anything in between."  Actually, that's not attractive to most women.  Or most people.  I know for me, there are some things (OK, a LOT of things) that a lady doesn't do on a first date.

"This scenario happens all the time. A man is on a date with a woman. The man fails to touch the girl and only goes in for the kiss at the end of the night. He goes home alone. His internal dialogue says, 'WTF why won't girls hook up with me? I guess I'm in the friend-zone again.'Riiight.  Because dating=scoring.  Whatever happened to letting a relationship develop?  Besides, the ones who kept their hands to themselves on the first date were pretty much guaranteed a second.  And, really, isn't that the point?

"From now on you must ASSUME that she is attracted to you and wants to be ravished."  Hey, idiot, according to the Merriam-Webster, "ravish" means "rape."

"Decide that you're going to sit in a position where you can rub her leg and back. Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don't ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances."  Some women will rebuff this sort of advance, usually by "escalating" to a slap or a kick in a sensitive area.  Others will freeze up and just want it to end.

"If at any point a girl wants you to stop, she will let you know. If she says "STOP," or "GET AWAY FROM ME," or shoves you away, you know she is not interested. It happens. Stop escalating immediately and say this line:
"No problem. I don't want you to do anything you aren't comfortable with."
Memorize that line. It is your go-to when faced with resistance. Say it genuinely, without presumption. All master seducers are also masters at making women feel comfortable. You'll be no different. If a woman isn't comfortable, take a break and try again later."  First of all, how often has "no" been interpreted as "try again in five minutes" or "I'm just being a tease, but I really mean yes?"  More often than Mr. Hoinsky thinks.  This is the sort of advice that usually leaves a woman calling her best friend at 3 am, crying her eyes out.  NO MEANS NO EVERY TIME!

Pull out your cock and put her hand on it. Remember, she is letting you do this because you have established yourself as a LEADER. Don't ask for permission, GRAB HER HAND, and put it right on your dick."  I believe the law calls that "misdemeanor sexual abuse."  Again, would it hurt to ASK?

Gentlemen--Prove yourselves one, and DO NOT take this weirdo's advice.  Ladies--It is NEVER OK to be grabbed, forced, or touched against your will.  If you are with a man like this, get away!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jewish nuns

One question that I've often thought about is the place of the single (never-married, divorced or widowed) woman in the Jewish community.  If she still has kids, she of course is consumed with all the rights and responsibilities of motherhood.  But when there are no children, or the children have moved out, what then?  True, there are some chesed organizations that accept volunteers.  But there has to be more to life than handing out challah at Maimonides, organizing Chinese auctions, and saying tehillim.  Not to mention--a lot of the women who do these activities are married anyway.
So, what about the idea of the Jewish nun?
Unlike Catholic nuns, who take lifelong vows and "marry" the Church, a Jewish nun would have no such obligation  She would still be free to date and marry.  However, it would be a way for her to be a part of the Jewish community without constantly hearing about "Miri's daughter got engaged" or "Oy, Yanky fell off his bike."  Specifically, Jewish nuns would have their room and board provided.  In exchange, they would teach in the schools, perform volunteer activities, and run hosting centers for people visiting out-of-town areas.  They would also spend their time in the study of all Jewish texts, becoming experts in halacha so that they can advise women on sensitive matters (and all my married readers know what I'm talking about).  Gemara study would be permitted and  encouraged, but not required.  However, members would not be called upon to lead services.  Membership is open to all single Jewish women who no longer have children living with them, including agunot.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Flying solo on Shabbos

Since I became frum, I have fallen, deeply, madly in love with Shabbos.  I absolutely love it.  Making Shabbos, even after all this time, is a labor of love.  And then, when the house in clean, the work is done, and the candles are lit, it's just fun.
Of course, Shabbos in the Aztec Palace is a little different without Builder.  Not bad, just--different.
While it's true that Builder is not there to sing zemiros and learn with (and it's one of the things I miss--we'd crack the seforim every Shabbos, everything from the parsha to the daf to Pirkei Avos), Shabbos is still Shabbos.  Truth be told, I kind of enjoy making Kiddush and Havdalah (and spare me--I've been drinking the Havdalah wine for weeks and have not grown a beard, so let's put that little myth to rest.)  I enjoy leading my seuda'ot, just me, the Things, and AriSparkles, who has been joining us as late.  Sometimes Queen Mom comes in, and it's really fun.  And, while the zemiros have given way to show tunes (I'm sure ours is the only Shabbos table in Boro Park where the strains of "Stepsister's Lament" can be heard), I think the Things enjoy it more.  And really, isn't that part of the point?  If our children see Shabbos as something enjoyable, won't that keep it going more than the hellfire and damnation of the community?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Bureaucratic fumbilng

Wednesday was my court date.  Because Builder violated the restraining order, I had him arrested, and the case was transferred to Integrated Domestic Violence, or IDV court.  The IDV judge would decide everything having to do with the restraining order and with custody.
Now, when most of us think of "court," we think of scenes of witnesses testifying and being cross-examined, Law & Order-style.  However, because this was "return of process," this basically meant a lot of quiet talking between Builder's attorney, my attorney, and the judge.  The judge extended the restraining order into August.  Then, it was time to deal with custody.  However, Builder's lawyer said that Builder tried to have me arrested for kidnapping.  This was not a smart move.
First of all, mixed among the various petitions, reports, and orders, there was no police report accusing me of kidnapping.  None.  There was a Domestic Incident report that said he violated the restraining order, but there was nothing on me.  Secondly, I sat in my local precinct for two hours trying to get Builder served with the original restraining order.  No one said anything to me about kidnapping my kids.  Somehow, I don't think the NYPD has been taken over to that extent by the Keystone Kops. 
Builder also stated that he had never been told to leave his house or escorted off the property.  Again, since the police have done this far too many times (and once is too many), the judge did not believe him.  Then his lawyer ordered a fact-finding hearing, saying that the restraining order was groundless.  The judge, who by this time was getting thoroughly annoyed with Builder and his attorney, said that the original petition was sufficient, but that she would order a fact-finding hearing for July 2.  That wasn't good enough for Builder, who wanted one that day.  The judge snapped, "I have 750 cases on my docket today!  I don't have time for this."  Then Builder, who has been avoiding any and all responsibility for his children since Thing 1 was about six months old, tried to pass himself off as Father of the Year (copyright, trademark, patent pending).  However, because of the earlier lies, his credibility was shot.  The judge gave me custody, and Builder got visitation supervised by Rabbi Brooklyn.
We're back in court next month.  The wheels of justice turn slowly.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Imaginary friends

Being essentially trapped both in my house and in my community, I have found various ways of alleviating my need for human contact.  Like most people my age, it involves the heavy use of social media.  Although I have not mastered the fine art of the Tweet, I have blogged, pinned, Yahoo Grouped, LinkedIn, Facebooked, etc., with the best of them.  In fact, I would have to say every significant relationship I have made in New York, with the exception of Builder, was created or enhanced through social media.
It's truly a new world. 
Through a computer, I can be anything I want to be.  I follow blogs which range from the impersonal to the completely personal.  I can also reveal myself as much or as little as I want.  I don't even have to use my real name.  How many bloggers do?  I have found and traded ideas through other blogs and Pinterest pages (which is great for the Martha Stewart in us).  I read deconstructions, compare cultures, debate current events, and have even started the occasional flame war.
But one has to be careful.
Behind all those blogs and emails are real people.  People who, when you finally meet them, can seem like old friends because you've been reading their emails for years.  I have actually met some of my best friends through social media (one through Facebook, when I inadvertently started the above-mentioned flame war, another through her now-defunct blog).  When I went to the Torah Homeschool conference in 2012, I recognized a number of participants from their emails and blogs.  However, there are still risks involved.  Just as I can hide behind an alias, so can they (You didn't think my driver's license really identifies me as AztecQueen2000, did you?).  In fact, I found out that one of my favorite bloggers, and the one who goes into the most details about her life, has blogged under a pseudonym.  It was an odd feeling, because as we read these blogs, tweets and posts, we are doing more than reading.  We are relating.  We learn so much about the other person that there is almost a relationship.  Except that the person is not really part of your world.  You wouldn't know these bloggers if you met them on the street, unless they post pictures.  You never talk to them.  You don't even know if they are being honest. 
We create a persona in the online world that has elements of who we are, but they are characters.  Not people.  The people behind those characters may be infinitely more complicated.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Losing my community, finding myself

Being in Boro Park post-separation is an odd experience.  The city that I have called home for almost eight years is now openly hostile territory.  Part of the problem is that it's so small.  The entire Boro Park/Flatbush area is only about 30 blocks by 20 blocks.  Part of the problem is that Builder is connected.  Very connected.  I can't even go to the store without running into either one of my in-laws or one of his friends.  Or both.  (So far, I haven't run into him outside of his vehicle, and I'd like to keep it that way.)  Usually, there is some awkward staring on each side, and we move on.  In a way, it's kind of sad.  As much as I've been tifrosh min hatzibur, I do genuinely like some of them.  However, for obvious reasons, I couldn't tell them what was going on.  I knew they would take Builder's side.  I have changed synagogues to avoid stalking, so a lot of people have now disappeared from my life.
But there is another side to that.
Because I no longer have Builder and his expectations of what good Jewish wives do breathing down my neck, I'm coming more into my own.  I'm getting out more.  I can spend more time with my allies without worrying about getting the third degree.  I can even create a Facebook page for my blog without worrying that it will get back to him.  I can make whatever I want.  Once my future is a little bit more certain, I want my children to know what real freedom is.  And, I can enjoy them more now.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When love is painful and confusing

Before I got married, I used to think the most painful words in the English language were "I love  you."  Even saying those words would make me sick to my stomach and make me cry.  Seven years of escalating emotional (and other) abuse from Builder have only reinforced that idea in my mind.  Here is a short list of what "I love you" can mean:
  • Don't leave me.
  • You're mine, to do with as I please.
  • I want to possess you.
  • I'm allowed to scream at you, because you're stupid and worthless (but I love you anyway).
  • I'm sorry.
  • Don't hurt me.
  • Give me what I want.
  • I want s-x.
  • You can't leave.
  • You must meet my every demand.
  • Let's have another child.
  • Allow me to show you some token of affection after scaring you and our children with my latest outburst.
  • My abuse of you is justified.
  • I'm such a nice guy.
  • I'm afraid of you.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Keeping the faith

Since I left Builder about two weeks ago, I've gotten a range of responses.  Surprisingly, most of them have been very supportive.  Chavie, of course, had reservations.  After all, how could my family possibly make it without a may-unn?(This was after I had explained that Builder had not treated me the way a husband should treat a wife--in pretty much every possible sense.)  But among my supporters, I've gotten one response almost universally from those who knew me before Brooklyn.
"Hey, so you're leaving Orthodoxy, right?"
I left my husband, not my faith.  The Torah is not responsible for Builder's behavior.  If anything, it condemns his actions in the strongest possible terms.  Judaism is a beautiful religion with many wonderful teachings about the way we should treat each other.  Moreover, there are also the Things to consider.  Thing 1 is already six years old--old enough to know about Shabbos, kashrut, and good middos.  She has spent the better part of the past year learning various mitzvot, and the better part of her life reading the parsha.  I'm sorry, but divorce causes enough upheaval in children's lives as it is.  Why add in the stress of "You know all the mitzvot we spent your entire life teaching you are important?  Well--they're not."  I'm sorry, but that seems like a really screwed up thing to do to your kids.  Finally, as I have spent the entirely of this blog explaining, the religion is not the community.  It's certainly not a marriage.
See you in shul!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Queen without a King

(With apologies to both Led Zeppelin and Stevie Nicks)
Last week, I did the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the most necessary.  For seven years Builder has treated me as an indentured servant and housepet.  When he has a bad day, he takes it out on me.  Last week, I left him.  Now, as I prepare to navigate the world on my own and rebuild my life, I am dealing with orders of protection, custody petitions, family court, attorneys, and wondering if I will stay in Brooklyn or if my journey will take me elsewhere.  I may not post too frequently, but I am still thinking about my blog community.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Given the choice, I'll take mourning

According to both King Solomon and David Crosby, there is a time to dance, and a time to mourn. Given a choice between going to a wedding (dancing) and going to a cemetery (mourning), I'll take the cemetery.
Last night, Builder and I went to a wedding (Yeah, I know, it's sefirah, but it's also Rosh Chodesh.)  I would have preferred to skip it, but since it was Builder's old friend from yeshiva who was marrying off a daughter, I had to put on my velvet cloche and go.
Although Builder, and everyone else, thought the wedding was beautiful, I thought it was overcrowded, overpriced, and overdone.  A 20-piece band?  Sequined tablecloths?  Although the lighting that covered the walls with roses was original, and I can't argue with sushi, the rest just seemed like too much.  Not to mention, I can't stand going to events where I don't know anyone.  Fortunately, my sisters-in-law were in attendance, so I didn't have to spend all night staring into space.  And, I've learned to bid a hasty retreat when the dancing starts, and stay out of range until I can no longer hear the music through the floorboards.
And then I thought about cemeteries.
I love cemeteries, the older the better.  I love the quiet.  I love reading the tombstones and thinking about what the people buried therein have seen.  There was a cemetery in Wellesley with graves that pre-dated the American Revolution.  Here in New York, there are plenty of old cemeteries, including one near my house.  I have to wonder what the deceased had seen.  Ellis Island?  The Triangle fire?  Pogroms in Russia?  I know it's bizarre, but given a choice between circle dancing to an ear-busting rendition of "Od Yeshama" or reading the epitaphs on a crumbling tombstone, I'll take the cemetery.

Monday, April 8, 2013

When are you too old?

Today, I got a call from Giant Bais Yaakov.  At first I thought they would want to schedule an interview.  Not so much.  Apparently, the director was concerned that Thing 1 (who, by the way, is all of SIX YEARS OLD) has never been to school.  These are the answers I would have given if I were less of a lady.  (FTR, I was exceedingly polite.  Even Emily Post would have marveled at my restraint in the face of her rudeness.)
"Your kids are homeschooled?"  (asked in a tone of abject horror)
Yes, we have three heads and leprosy.
"Nobody in Boro Park homeschools their kids."
You mean, all this time, I've been searching for a secret cabal of homeschoolers in Boro Park that DOES NOT IN FACT EXIST?  I'm shocked, shocked!
"Why would you homeschool your kids?"
To keep them away from people like you.  Middos, my tuches.
Then, she grills me on my background.  Of course, I don't come from Boro Park.  Of course, I'm a BT.   Surprisingly, Builder is not.  Yes, I teach them limudei kodesh.  Then she tells me that it's "too late for my kids."
Apparently, Thing 1 should have started school four years ago.  Even Thing 2, who is entering Pre-1a, or what the rest of the world calls kindergarten (in other words, still very young), is too old to enter school.  It seems that they would rather not deal with children who are transitioning into school for the first time.  They want kids who are already used to the routine.  Otherwise, they are "improperly socialized."  (There's that word again.  Just once, I would like to see a school put more focus on academics.)
However, I should still fill out an application and come in for an interview.  Looks like BYOD all over again. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A tale of four Saras

As I mentioned, my favorite children's book was Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.  I could relate to Sara--not classically pretty, really intelligent, introverted, bookish, and living in her own head.  And poor.
While there have been several movie versions of this story, the three most well-known are the 1939 version starring Shirley Temple, the 1986 LWT miniseries starring Amelia Shankley as Sara and Maureen Lippman as Miss Minchin, and the 1995 version starring Liesel Matthews.  I will be comparing all three versions.  Again, there is no scorekeeping; I am only weighing the merits of each.
Sara Crewe: Burnett's character, as I said earlier, is not classically pretty, being thin, dark, and having green-grey eyes.  She loves reading, is really intelligent, and spends her time pretending.  Most of her pretends center around being a princess and trying to act like one, and around her doll Emily, a parting gift from her father.  Sara's father, an army captain, sent her from India to London, where he enrolled her in Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies.  Since he is loaded, Sara gets her own suite, pony, carriage and maid.  However, after her father makes an ostensibly bad investment, loses all his money, and dies, leaving Sara broke, Miss Minchin demotes her from favorite student to scullery-maid.  She must live in the attic, wear old clothes that don't fit, and spend her day working instead of studying.  However, she is expected to keep up with her studies since Miss Minchin wants to use her as a teacher when she grows up.  However, through all of it, Sara tries to act like a princess and not sink to the level of the nasty people around her.
Temple's Sara is easily the weakest of the three.  When she's not mugging for the cameras, she's either relentlessly cheerful or bawling her eyes out.  (I should mention hear that since Sara's father in in the army, she's learned how not to complain--so I guess Temple just missed the memo that said that Sara was supposed to be STOIC?!)  I don't know how much of the the bright, bookish Sara is left in Temple--we never see her read or even attend class, and her favorite subject seems to be horseback riding.  Moreover, her fantasy life centers on her father still being alive--and for an overworked, half-starved maid, she sure has a lot of time and energy to keep checking the hospitals for him.  There's also a subplot where she helps play matchmaker for her teacher and a riding-master--but that was just weird and distracting.
Shankley's Sara is true to the novel, being, if anything, more self-pitying and angrier.  However, that serves to make her more human, since, after all, her world got turned upside-down.  We see more of Sara's character in her than in Temple, as she's constantly reading, speaks fluent French, makes up stories for her classmates, pretends to be in the Bastille, and tries her damndest not to cry in front of anyone.  I also thought the montages of her working until all hours while people laugh at her were really effective in showing how hard her new life was, as were the increasing shabbiness of her clothes, her greasy hair and impetigo. 
Matthews' Sara was stronger than Temple's, but only marginally.  Most of her strongest characteristics (her imaginings, her "princess" belief, and even the stories she told) were fed to her from other people. The only book she seems to like is "Ramayana," and, while we see her mouthing a right answer in class, it's to a multiplication problem--pretty basic knowledge for your average ten-year-old.  Most of the time, particularly in the early scenes, she just sort of wanders around looking blank--or crying.  She's also got a rebellious streak, where she questions Miss Minchin's rules and even plays pranks on her.  This is, again, in contract to Burnett's Sara, whose strong sense of ethics even kept her from telling white lies.  Finally, while Burnett's Sara believes herself to be obligated to act like a princess, Matthews' Sara believes that "all girls are princesses"--even the bullying Lavinia, the scullery-maid Becky, and the nasty Miss Minchin.  Speaking of, let's look at--
Miss Minchin's Seminary--Staff: Miss Minchin runs the Select Seminary for Young Ladies in a London square.  She cares most about money and social standing in her pupils, and sucks up to the wealthiest accordingly.  When Sara loses her fortune, she takes all her nice furnishings and clothes away, and banishes her to a tiny, cold room in the attic.  She then forces Sara to work as a scullery maid.  Both Mary Nash in the 1939 version, and Maureen Lippman in the 1986 version show this very well, with Nash being cold until she realizes how wealthy Captain Crewe is, and Lippman writing in a higher-than normal tuition in the blank check Crewe gives her.  Lippman's performance in particular was effectively understated, with her coming off as more indifferent to Sara's plight than actively abusive to her.  Eleanor Bron, in the 1995 version, took the character in a completely different direction.  A martinet who demanded instant obedience, she and Sara butt heads throughout the entire film.  Unlike the other versions, we never see the conversation between her and Captain Crewe's solicitor (and since the film was set in New York, why such an obvious Britishism?), so turning Sara into a maid may have been more about revenge and less about getting her money back.
Miss Michin's partner is her sibling, usually portrayed as the overweight, hapless Amelia Minchin.  Miss Amelia is in awe of the younger sister, but has good intentions.  By the end of the book, she finally tells her big sister off about mistreating Sara.  The 1986 version has this conversation, as well as other scenes where Miss Amelia questions her sister's enslavement of Sara (and Miss Minchin usually shuts her up with a reference to Sara's debts.)  In the 1995 version, Miss Amelia is more playful, joining Ermengarde in a ragtime duet on the piano.  She really doesn't deal with Sara very much personally, except for pulling her away from her work during one of Lottie's tantrums (and we'll get to that scene in a minute.)  She is also played more for laughs, with a scene of her eloping with a milkman (and falling on top of him.)  However, we lose the big confrontation scene.  The 1939 film goes in an entirely different direction, with Miss Amelia being replaced by two characters--Bertie, Miss Minchin's brother, who used to work in music halls and openly sides with Sara over his own sister (including leaving the school over Miss Minchin's treatment of her, and disbelieving an accusation of theft--again, we'll get to that later.), and Miss Rose, a teacher who was once a charity case and now teaches for free.  She never stands up to Miss Minchin, but defies her in secret by marrying the riding master.
In three of the media (the book, 1939 movie, and 1986 movie), the servants are openly hostile to Sara, order her around, and punish her by denying her meals.  In the 1995 version, the servants do not interact with Sara at all, so we never really get the sense that her life is horrible beyond endurance.
Miss Minchin's Seminary--Students: Ermengarde is Sara's best friend.  She's overweight, a slow learner, and hates reading, but loves Sara because of Sara's intelligence and imagination.  After Sara's downfall, she routinely sneaks upstairs to visit, including bringing up a hamper full of food once.  The 1995 version shows some of the "slow learner" aspects by having her miss a multiplication question in class, but it's Ermengarde who creates an elaborate plan to get Sara's locket out of Miss Minchin's office.  The 1939 version makes Ermengarde almost a throwaway character who only has a few lines.
Lottie, Sara's adopted "daughter" is the youngest pupil in the school.  Although she adores Sara, she is really too young to understand all of the changes in Sara's life.  Her childishness is expressed in everything from her frequent tantrums to ratting out Ermengarde's plans to sneak a feast up to Sara.  However, in the movies, this role is considerably lessened.  In the 1995 movie, Lottie is "in" on a plot to steal back Sara's locket, by having a tantrum that distracts Miss Amelia (this is where Sara gets pulled away from her work).  In the 1939 movie, she is absent.
Which brings us to Lavinia, and her evil sidekick, Jessie.  Lavinia is a nasty bully.  This is shown in about a hundred ways, such as teasing Sara about her princess status, (and in the 1986 film, she continues to do so after Sara loses her wealth), to making petty requests of Sara and teasing her about her poverty (in the 1939 movie), to walking across a freshly mopped floor and dipping Ermengarde's hair in an inkwell (the 1995 movie.)  However, the 1995 movie shows her and Sara embracing, which kind of came out of nowhere.  Also, the 1995 movie all but eliminates Lavinia's foil, Jessie.  Jessie is described as "not as ill-natured as she is silly."  The 1986 movie shows Jessie trying to stop Lavinia from ratting Ermengarde out about the hamper--so I guess they agreed.  (Although she wasn't the nicest person--Jessie, after all, said about Sara's father in the 1986 version, "He may be rich, but he's still, only, a captain.")  However, the 1939 version shows her joining in the bullying of Sara to the point where Sara (Shirley Temple) just gets fed up and dumps a scuttle full of ashes on them.
And then, there's Becky.  Although technically staff, not student (she's the scullery-maid), Becky's youth and relationship to Sara put her more in this category.  She's an uneducated cockney who is petrified of Miss Minchin and adores Sara.  She is also overworked, working not only as the scullery maid, but as everything else besides.  She "blackened boots, and grates, and carried heavy coal-scuttles up and down stairs, and cleaned windows, and scrubbed floors, and was ordered about by everybody."  In all versions, she is helped by Sara when she is wealthy--Sara gives her cake in the book, meat-pies in the 1986 movie, satin slippers in the 1995 movie, and an Egyptian scarab in the 1939 movie.  After Sara loses her wealth, Becky is her friend and fellow-sufferer, keeping her from getting lonely in the attic and helping her with the work downstairs.  The 1995 movie, however, shows her help Sara dump ashes on Miss Minchin's head and distracting Miss Minchin before she can discover the Locket Subplot--so how scared could she have been?
Story--I've laid out the story in the previous headings, so this section will be used to compare various plot points.  The main difference between the three stories is the way that Sara's fortune is lost and her way out.  In the book and the 1986 movie, Sara's father invests his fortune in a diamond mine scheme with his old school buddy, loses his money, and dies of shock.  The old school buddy gets a case of the guilties and scours Europe looking for Captain Crewe's daughter, not realizing that she is next door.  Meanwhile, his Indian servant fixes up Sara's room out of a combination of pity and awe.  Miss Minchin never finds out about the changed room.  Sara meets the old school buddy, Mr. Carrisford, when she tries to return his pet monkey, and they discover that he has been looking of her.
Both American film versions change three major plot points--Captain Crewe does not die, he is reported killed in whatever war is going on (Boer war in 1939, and WWI in 1995) and Miss Minchin finds out about the changed room, which leads to chase scenes that lead Sara back to her father.  I think the 1939 version has a stronger "loss of fortune" backstory.  In this movie, Captain Crewe goes off to fight in the Boer War in South Africa.  Because his fortune is tied up in South African diamond mines, his investments are seized by the enemy, thus impoverishing him.  The 1995 loss of fortune is weaker.  We never see the conversation regarding the lost fortune, and all we hear is that Captain Crewe's assets were seized by the British government.  Really?  Now there's a plot hole you could drive a truck through.  The British government is going to confiscate the assets of a career military officer who died fighting for his country?  I could just see the recruitment posters for that one.  "Join the Royal Army!  Impoverish your heirs!"  I don't think they'd get a lot of takers if that was their policy.
However, the 1995 version had a better ending--slightly.  While the 1939 movie ends with Sara finding her father (and they're still broke and heavily in debt, so little is resolved), the 1995 version has a little epilogue where it is explained that the next door neighbor helps Captain Crewe get his property back (I don't know why he LOST his property, but OK).  However, the whole Miss Minchin as chimney sweep scene bothers me, as does the Sara and Lavinia hug--a little too contrived. 
Both movies have one similar plot device--Miss Minchin discovers the changed attic, accuse Sara of theft, and calls the cops on her.  In both cases Sara slips next door through the attic (with the cops on her tail in 1995), and in her being chased, stumbles across her father (at the army hospital in 1939, and in the neighbor's house in 1995).  Unfortunately, Daddy's got amnesia, and it takes him a while to realize the little girl screaming at him and crying on his shoulder is his daughter.
However, each of the two movies had its share of subplots.  In 1939, there was some story about how the riding master was the grandson of the wealthy man next door, but he'd fallen in love with and secretly married one of the teachers, and they used Sara to give them excuses to meet--didn't make much sense.  There were also some throwaway lines about Mr. Bertie and his acting career.  In 1995, there was a contrived romance and elopement between Miss Amelia and the milkman.  And then there was the Locket Subplot.  One of Captain Crewe's parting gifts to Sara was a gold locket with Sara's parents' pictures in it.  Miss Minchin tries to confiscate the locket upon Sara's arrival, saying that jewelry is not allowed, but Sara promises to only wear it in her room.  Later, Miss Minchin takes the locket from Sara when Sara goes broke, supposedly because it was valuable.  However, Miss Minchin then...hoards it in her desk.  That makes no sense.  That thing is gold!  Sell it and apply the proceeds against Sara's debt.  Later, some of Sara's friends steal the locket back out of Miss Minchin's office in an elaborately contrived fashion that looks like it came out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.  Basically, three of the girls search the office, led by Ermengarde, while one looks out for Miss Minchin, who is our running an errand..  Lottie sits on the steps and has a tantrum to distract Miss Amelia.  When Miss Minchin returns early and is about to catch the girls in her office with the locket, Becky screams, distracting Miss Minchin and giving them a chance to get away.  When Miss Minchin storms into Sara's attic to retrieve the locket, she finds the changed room.  This leads to the chase know the rest.
Closing Remarks--Frances Hodgson Burnett has created one of the most memorable stories of triumph over adversity, and a memorable character in Sara Crewe.  The films lose a great deal in the translation, and the bright, eccentric Sara is only truly discoverable between the covers of the original book.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Justice, truth and peace

In this week's perek of Pirkei Avos, we read that the world exists because of three things--justice, truth and peace.
Well, two out of three ain't bad.
Justice is a no-brainer.  Without justice, we ride roughshod over each other.  But truth and peace?  Can those two ever co-exist?
As I've said before, the cardinal sin an any friendship is a completely honest answer.  Sometimes the truth is ugly.  Sometimes it hurts.  Sometimes being honest can even cause rifts that end a friendship.
But is peace the better alternative?  Sometimes those ugly truths need to be spoken.  Sometimes the fight is worth it for the sake of a better outcome.
And I think that's where the justice comes in.  Without justice, truth and peace cannot coexist.  Justice helps us balance out these two opposites.  If one is a just person, with a good moral code, one will know the correct time for truth, and the correct time for peace.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bird in a Gilded Cage--When Ever After isn't Happy

She's only a bird in a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see,
You may think she's happy and free from care,
She's not, though she seems to be,
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of marriage.  Specifically, the part where the Happily Ever wears off and you're just left with the "after."  Or, in some cases, the aftermath.  Literary tropes are not kind to women whose assertion of self involves leaving an already broken marriage.
Let's begin, of course, with one of the most famous plays of love, deception, and the woman's role--Ibsen's A Doll's House.  Nora Helmer, fed up with being treated like an imbecile and angry that her husband Torvald cares more about his image than he does about her, walks out.  One might applaud her belated showing of spine--except that in doing so, she had to give up her children.  (I first encountered this play in the tenth grade.  Interesting side note--even at that tender age, I thought that Nora was significantly younger than Torvald.  No man would ever treat his wife that way if her considered her to be his equal.)
Or, we can look at the feminist classic The Yellow Wallpaper.  Great example.  Gilman's character finds herself--but in the process loses her grip on reality, as displayed by her frenzied destruction of the wallpaper.  But then, I guess it's not an unsurprising outcome--she was locked in an attic with barred windows, battered floorboards, and scarred walls and floors, and ordered to rest completely to save her nerves.  Guess that one backfired.
For those who prefer trading in the staid older husband for the dashing younger lover, we have Anna Karenina.  Both her husband and her lover even have the same first name.  However, in trading up (in her eyes) she loses not only her position in society, but also her child.  In the end, she throws herself under a train.
And let's not forget what happened to our bird in the gilded cage!
A tall marble monument marked the grave,
Of one who'd been fashion's queen,
And I thought she is happier here at rest,
Than to have people say when seen.
She's only a bird in a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see,
You may think she's happy and free from care,
She's not, though she seems to be,
'Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age,
And her beauty was sold,
For an old man's gold,
She's a bird in a gilded cage.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Divorce in the looking-glass

This is the story of my very dear friend Alicia*.  Alicia and her husband Charlie found Orthodoxy together.  They had two beautiful boys, which they raised in the faith.
And then everything fell down the rabbit hole.
Unbeknownst to Alicia, Charlie was not faithful.  Charlie was abusive.  Alicia had enough and filed for divorce.
And now Alicia wants to leave Orthodoxy, taking her two sons with her.  While she is devoted to Yiddishkeit, and will remain within some bounds of Torah practice (the exact nature of which is still undetermined), she is through with the community.  As she put it, “Had I known that by becoming Orthodox I might someday lose my kids, I would have walked right out again.”  Unfortunately, in the looking-glass world of the community, she is extremely close to the mark.  In a divorce mediated by a din Torah, boys over six often go to the father.  Even if the father is abusive.  Even if the father is unfaithful.  Even if the father breaks Shabbos.  To complicate matters, Alicia is a giyoret, while Charlie is merely a BT.  Charlie would be favored for reasons completely unrelated to his parenting.  This has made Alicia so desperate that she wants to possul her own conversion, thus declaring both herself and her children not Jewish.
And that is a great loss.
As Jews, we are all one.  If one of us cries, we should all cry out.  But we care more about some bizarre, 14th-century interpretation of the law than we do about the well-being of a family.  We would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.  We would rather put our own Torah through the looking-glass until it is distorted beyond recognition. And in doing so, we affect real lives.  People like Alicia, who is a great contributor to any community.  People like her children, who could have become the sort of husbands and fathers we need more of.   Instead, we have turned them into a korban.  And we will be the ultimate losers.
Now, the Torah makes provisions for divorce.  But, in the text itself, it only says that if a man wants to send his wife away, he has to give her a get.  Nowhere does the Torah (and I’m referring only to the first five books here) state any laws about custody.  It is only our sages, great but still fallible men, who have made this policy.  And it is the passage of time that has calcified this rule into an unbreakable part of our mesorah.  The rightness or justice in the eyes of Hashem is never the issue.  Only holding on to a past that may never have existed.

*As per my blog policy, all names are changed to protect the guilty.

Monday, March 18, 2013

At least try to care about education

Once again, Builder has pressured me into submitting an application to Giant Bais Yaakov.  I fill it in, because--I don't want to lie about my past.  Any problematic questions, such as my last name, I left blank.  Let Builder do the lying.  I want no part of it.  Meanwhile, the questions are laughable.
Mother's elementary school?  (Why, unless this is a blatant attempt at screening for BTs.  Besides, I thought we were supposed to be on a higher spiritual level.)  Shul where father davens on Shabbos?  (Because of course, a respectable Jewish mother is too busy with her ever-expanding family to attend shul--not to mention if you do go, you might actually--gasp--hold by the eruv!  Mechallel Shabbos!)  Summer residence?  (It's the same as my winter residence.  And my spring residence.  And my fall residence.)  Grandparent's names and contact info?  (Should I send you to the cemetery where Builder's parents are buried?  Or to my secular-and-makes-no-bones-about-it Queen Mom, who has told me that she wants to write into her will that none of her inheritance is to go to a religious institution?)  Do you own a VCR?  (1995 called--they want their application back.) 
However, I noticed the absence of one question I consider of utmost importance--current school performance.
On every private school known to mankind, no application is complete without a request for current and past grades.  Just one line, like "All applicants for second grade or higher, please attach a copy of the student's last report card."  Or a transcript request form to send to the child's current school.  Or something to show that you give a damn about academic performance.  (For the record, the state makes me keep and submit records about Thing 1's progress--records which I would happily provide to any school  that asks.)
This, of course, combined with the pattern of obfuscation I have observed, makes me wonder if education is even the goal. 
Should Builder force the issue, they will go.  However, this does not mean I stop homeschooling.  As far as I'm concerned, the place is a babysitting service and a means to give Builder the illusion of normalcy.  Meanwhile, I will happily continue teaching my kids at home.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dear Jew in the City

Recently, Orthodox vlogger Allison Josephs (also known as Jew in the City) published an article on Buzzfeed about ridiculous Orthodox stereotypes.  Now, some of them are not only stupid, but have been largely discredited even in the MSM (does anyone really believe that old "hole in the sheet" myth or that kosher means blessed by a rabbi?  And Manischewitz wine?  Blech.  Give me my Herzog White Riesling any day.)
OK, now I get to respond.
Dear Mrs. Josephs,
I read your article.  While every single point you made is technically true, it's not all a bed of roses.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I identify as Orthodox.  I love the Torah, and will keep it to my dying day!  Judaism is a beautiful religion, and there is a great deal of wisodm and kindness in in it.
However, I must take issue with points 3, 4, 5, 6, and 11.  While it is true that many Orthodox women have fulfilling careers (among my friends are a medical editor and a college professor) and are not slaves to their husbands, do not be so quick to generalize.  Sadly, these stereotypes exist for a reason.  For example, a large majority of the women on my block have at least six children.  My next-door neighbor is currently carrying her ninth.  And these kids are...not that impressive.  (I used to think that I was the only one who got the "Boro Park Stare."  Who knew that it was a real phenomenon?)  Only two women on my block work outside the home, and maybe three have a degree from something that could be considered a real college.  (Unfortunately, there seems to be a growth in online diploma mills.  The degrees granted by these institutions can't be used for much beyond wallpapering the subway.)  As for the science--I know people even in my Modern Orthodox shul who interpret the first chapter of Genesis literally.
Again, I'm happy that you're happy.  I'm glad that being Orthodox doesn't interfere with your hip, urban, 21st-century life.  But this article erases the voices of those for whom Orthodoxy is as described.  Those who raise money for Weberman while silencing his victim.  Those who believe that the Earth really is 6,000 years old.  Those who suffer as agunot.  Those who lose their sons to divorce in a court system that still believes that boys go to the fathers.
I'd like to close with a true story about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founding mothers of the American suffrage movement.  While she lived in Boston, she loved being a housewife so much that she didn't understand why every woman could not find fulfillment in the domestic sphere.  Since she had good friends and good servants, she was happy.  However, after her husband moved the family to Seneca Falls, and she lost her good friends and devoted servants, she suddenly realized that being a housewife wasn't always pleasant.  This was the moment that she began to fight for suffrage.  While I hope that you never experience the dark side of the Orthodox community, please do not be so quick to discount it.