Saturday, January 08, 2005

:: Blink ::

:: Blink ::

:: Streeetcccchhhhhhhhh ::

We went to a Bat Mitzvah tonight, which is not something our new friends do, not in the neighborhood we live in now, not a Bat Mitzvah like this one anyway. Shteebel people don't do bat mitzvahs, and when they do they are calm. They are sedate. This one, though was anything but. It had ear-poppingly loud hip-hop songs (with Hebrew lyrics); raucous (single-sex) slam dancing; a DJ and dancers (who all wore wigs, and spoke with, you know, that Jewish accent, including -especially - the very matronly head DJ) ; inspirational divrei Torah (delivered by women.) Sushi. Steak.

I won't lie to you: I enjoyed it, (and you'll never meet a man who dislikes eating steak in a room with music and dancing woman.) My wife liked it, too, but she wasn't completely comfortable. "We're not doing this for our oldest daughter," she exclaimed, a little too loudly for my liking.

For the record I agree.

We sat with people who agreed, too. During breaks in the music, we discovered that I was the only person at our table who had ever been to a bat mitzvah before - by which the tablemates meant a bat mitzvah like this one. I was also the only one who knew the rules to "Pepsi / Coca-cola" – a party game that very well might have been played at Sorah Imanu's bat mitzvah.

The rules have changed though. Lots of new wrinkles have been added. The girls knew all the steps. As if driven by instinct. I used to know girls like that...

Oddly, as the night progressed, though, I found myself thinking not of tweenagers, but of single Jewish woman, woman in their thirties, woman who are stilled called “girls” by clueless matrons, woman who haven’t yet found their man, or their place yet on the wide, wide, spectrum that is the Orthodox Jewish community. At some point we all choose our own spot on that spectrum, and implicitly we announce that all the other spots – the Hasidic spot, the modern spot, or whatever – we announce that those other spots aren’t for us, or for our children.

I was married before I thought about these things. I didn't understand the deep deivisions in Orthodoxy, and it never occured to me that I might one day live, and also thrive, in a neighborhood so alien to my upbringing. Now, at thirty-two, my bed is made so to speak. I have the house, I have the kids, I have the community, and for better or for worse, I have my spot on the spectrum.

What do single women do, I wondered? Do they choose their spot on the spectrum, and hope to meet a guy on the same spot? Or do they keep their doors open, saying, I can be happy on any one of a dozen spots, so let's not foreclose any opportunties. I'll worry about it after I meet my man.

That's what I would say, if I was single again. That's essentially what I said until I ended up in my little town, and it's what I've tried to do, with small success, since we got here.

Anyway, as I listened to the throbing songs, I thought about choices and opportunities. What must it be like to be a single adult - a real, fully aware, adult and not a twenty-one year old pishka, rushing to marry the first, sorry, only girl he ever loved? What must it be like to be that adult, an adult who is not married or living in a community, and is therefore able to keep a toe, or more, concurrently, in all those different spots on the rich spectrum of Jewish life?

Is it liberating? Is it terrifying? Is it really possible to do once you have the house and the kids? Lord knows, I am trying....

[Note: Bad form I know, but I am reserving the right to edit my work after publication. This post is not in its final form until this footnote disapears]

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

When last we saw Adam Ragil, he was approaching the lecturn at a meeting of the shteeble membership.

Folks, I was nervous. There I was, rising to face the crowd that had just brought a bead of sweat to the brow of one of the great unflappables of all time, our Grand Poobah. (Shteebles have no presidents) ... rising to tell a group of snarling Orthodox Jews that they were wrong about what they thought was a religious issue ...rising to out myself as "different" ...rising to make it clear, once and for all, that I was not with them on this matter.

My argument had a simple theme, and I spoke for less than 3 minutes before the crowd interrupted. Twice I asked for quiet. Twice I demanded to be heard. In the end the Rabbi was asked to interfere, by L, no less. To my embarrassment and disappointment the Rabbi sided with L, and with the mob. I sat down red-faced, unable to escape L's broad Cheshire smile.

Concisely, this was my argument: A shul is like a hospital. We expect higher standards from a hospital. We should expect higher standards from a shul. We can agree, I think, that face-to-face seating will undermine the shul's decorum. If we're sitting across from each other, we'll talk. Also, it's disrespectful to the sanctuary for us to sit with our backs to the front of the shul. If we commit ourselves to higher standards, it will be a wonderful example for ourselves and for our children.

At this point, I was interrupted for the first or second time.

Among the objections from the crowd: We had face-to-face seating in the shuls we grew up in. There's nothing wrong with it. It's not disrespectful. We turned out fine, didn't we? Ddidn't we? A shul without a table is not a shul. The atmosphere will be wrong. The feeling will be wrong. We won't like it. We can't have it. No. No. No.

I demanded silence. We've banished whiskey from the shul, even though there is room to allow it, I said. Our mechitzah is higher and thicker than any other mechitzah in the neighborhood. We've gone the extra mile for kashrus and for tznius. Why aren't we willing to go the extra mile for the sake of decorum, for the sake of teaching our children what it means to respect a shul?

I was interrupted again "Maybe where you grew up in this wasn't allowed. But we don't mind." said a man about my age, and L, my dear friend and arch-antagonist, saw his opening "Let's ask the rabbi," he called in his booming voice. "Is face-to-face seating ossur?"

Until now, the Rabbi had been sitting quietly in the front of the room., his nose in a book. He raised his head at L's invitation. I should interject here that, begining with the girl's event, the Rabbi and I became friendly. Often he shared with me with impatiance with the congregation, and their commitment to style, but not to halacha. I'm sure he saw this as another example. Tables in a shul after all, are about style. Not halacha. But he had been asked the question in terms of halacha, and by training and by temperament, our Rabbi is at first a jurist.

He sighed, and said, "I knew this was what the Grand Poobah had in mind, so I asked around and did some research. The answer is no. There is no reason to think that sitting backwards is prohibited or that it is a sign of disrespect to the Torah."

The crowd erupted. Was it my imagination or did I hear someone say, "So much for the modern guy?" I returned to my seat and passed L, style-concious L, grinning his stupid grin. He and his ilk had won, I suppose. The shul would have tables. The look and feel he wanted would be preserved, but at what expense?

I still think about the night. What, really, was I trying to accomplish? Was I declaring my independence from the group-think of the shteeble? Was I protesting our uncritical acceptance of received wisdom? Our conformity? Our refusal to act where the halacha is silent? Our short-sighted practice of putting style over substance? Did I really think I was going to convince anyone? Or, as my wife, ever the EC suggests, perhaps I was just trying to sabatoge my relationship with the shteeble. I don't know.

I suppose I wrote this post hoping to find the answer.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Well I was wrong. The Poobahs of the Shteeble weren't pushing expansion; nonetheless, the meeting was heated and angry and I left feeling cheated.

In the shteeble, we sit at tables. Each table seats about 5 men, and we sit facing the front of the room. As you can guess, the tables take up some space. Each one is about 6 inches wide, and made from a good, firm wood. They look nice, and, best of all, they contribute to the illusion that the shteeble is also a house of study.

But we have a problem: the shteeble is full. For the last several weeks men have been standing in the aisles, and, as the neighborhood becomes Christian-rein the membership will certainly swell. A meeting was called to discuss solutions.

The Grand Poobah took the floor, and dropped a nuclear bomb. He proposed eliminating the tables all together, and replacing them with benches. This suggestion was not received with smiles and happy faces.

Here are some highights of the learned discussion that followed:

"How can you have a shul without tables!"
"When we agreed to join this shul, we thought we were getting tables!"
"My father was one of the founders of this shul, and believe me, he would have wanted tables!"
"What are we, all of a sudden? A church?"
"What does the Rabbi say?"
"I can't belong to a shul that doesn't have tables!"

You could tell the GP wasn't expecting to be rebuffed so forcefully. You could actually see his brow begin to quiver, and the beads of sweat begin to form. Chastised, he asked for compromises.

"Let's sit face-to-face!" answered the crowd.

"But if we do that, half of the congregation will be sitting with their backs to the front of the shul," the GP replied.

"We don't care," roared the crowd.

The GP asked for comments.

And so, with the Rabbi's comment regarding whiskey-gate ringing in my ears, ("We can't be too safe") I stood up.

to be continued

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

I promised a post on shul politics, I know, I know. I have a story to tell about whiskey, tables and chairs, but the muse is failing me. The words just aren't organizing themselves in my head or on the page.

Here are the basic facts:

The shteeble has become a Whiskey-Free-Zone. Why? Because of that Jewish Action article from last month, of course. The article suggests that distilleries might be mixing the whiskey with wine or other non-kosher blenders"We can't be too safe," announced the Rabbi, and so whiskey is banned from the shteeble until further notice.

Our local drunks are simmering, and also learning: Rav Moshe's views on the subject are being furiously argued and studied in person and via email, even as they make unpleasent remarks about the limits of the Rabbi's authority. So, as the Rabbi might say, " it can't be all bad." He likes it when people study Torah. No doubt, he's pleased to be the stimulus.

Meanwhile, the shteeble is also trying to grow. At best, the shteeble seats 100 men. On a typical weekend, this isn't enough. Not nearly. And as the local non-Jews continue to flee, the problem will become worse and worse. A Membership Meeting has been called, and expansion is on the agenda - or rather it would be, if meetings in shteebles actually had agendas. I'll be attending, but without my checkbook.

There's a connection here between the whiskey and the crowding in the shteeble, I just know it. By tomorrow, I hope to have found it.

Still evaluating...

The author of the best comment will be announced tomorrow. Meantime, you're welcome to vote.

Monday, October 25, 2004

He's witty. He's irrevrant. He reads my blog.
Say hello to DovBear.

Friday, October 22, 2004

A week of politics on baynonim: Part 4 of 4

Go to: Part 1. Go to Part 2. Go to Part 3
Go to: Other things to read if politics bore you to tears.

This swing voter has thrown down the gauntlet. I've asked the blogosphere to tell me why either candidate for president deserves my vote. I'll write about an issue where the president has disapointed me. His supporters are invited to tell me why I am wrong; his detractors are welcome to add to the discussion. Make your arguments in the comment section. At the end of the week, the author of the most impressive comment will have his or her name added to the sidebar, where it will belong to the ages.

I voted for Bush in 2000, and I was among his loudest supporters immediately after 9/11. Now, I'm flirting with Kerry. When my friends ask me why I've become disillusioned with Bush, I have a two-word answer: The War. There were no weapons of mass destruction, no connection between Iraq and Osama, no happy, liberated villagers greeting us with flowers, no oil revenues to pay for it all. It was all a mistake, a mistake the president steadfastly refuses to admit, which reflects poorly on his character.

A year after the president declared "mission accomplished", our magnificently trained, equipped and motivated young soldiers are pinned down in a hostile environment, stalked by mujihadeen from other Islamic countries sneaking into the chaos of Iraq. It was not bad enough that terrorists were able to find ways to get into the United States and harm us greatly; we have now set ourselves up on their territory -- as targets.

A year later our nation's credibility and treasure - billions of dollars per month! -has been squandered on removing a petty thug who, we've discovered, never had the capacity to do us any real harm, while Osama bin Ladin was allowed to escape into the hills of eastern Afghanstan, where he is surly planning new mayhem. North Korea inches closer to a nuclear weapon, but our capacity for responding to a new threat has been greatly reduced. Our resources were wasted on the wrong enemy. We're cops who went after the pick-pocket, while the mob-boss gathered strength. We no longer have the troops, the money or credibility to face-down North Korea should it beecome necessary, as it almost certainly will.

A year later, the insurgents are not defeated, conditions are not more peaceful, the blanket of fear is spreading, cooperation is fraying, and attacks on U.S. personnel are growing bolder. Doesn't this prove Bush is failing?

Which brings me to Kerry.

The very best line uttered in three debates came from the president when he said,

"And what is he going to say to those people that show up at the summit? Join me in the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place? Risk your troops in a war you've called a mistake? Nobody is going to follow somebody who doesn't believe we can succeed and with somebody who says that war where we are is a mistake."

That's an excellent question. Really superb. Mr. Kerry, how do you propose to end the war, and to restore our credibility? In three debates, you offered no plan. Nothing in your woefully undistinguished record suggests that you have the ability to solve this problem, and your comments, as the president suggested, may have made it impossible for you to succeed.

So, what to do? Do I vote to fire the incompetent, unethical war manager, the man who, on the war-front continues to embarrass us, to impoverish us, to deny reality, and to enrich his cronies via shady no-bid contracts? Or should I stay with the president, reasoning that a vote for Kerry, the cipher, tells troops and terrrorists that the United States lacks resolve and can be intimidated?

What to do?

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
Hang on kids, hang on. We're almost home.

The blog's foray into real-world politics ends tomorrow. Starting Monday we make ammends. Stay tuned for a full week of shul politics.


My favorite magazine is having a baynonim moment of it's own. TNR sidled up to Bush in the months immidiately following September 11, but now the editors have seen enough.

Here is the money quote:

"The president's war on terrorism, which initially offered a striking contrast to his special interest-driven domestic agenda, has come to resemble it. The common thread is ideological certainty untroubled by empirical evidence, intellectual curiosity, or open debate. The ideology that guides this president's war on terrorism is more appealing than the corporate cronyism that guides his domestic policy. But it has been pursued with the same sectarian, thuggish, and ultimately self-defeating spirit. You cannot lead the world without listening to it. You cannot make the Middle East more democratic while making it more anti-American. You cannot make the United States more secure while using security as a partisan weapon. And you cannot demand accountable government abroad while undermining it at home. And so a president who promised to make America safer by making the Muslim world more free has failed on both counts."

I'm not sold on Kerry, yet, but Bush is running out of time. If there are any Bush-supporters in the Readership, please raise your voices in the comment section.

A week of politics on baynonim: Part 3

Go to: Part 1.
Go to Part 2.
Go to: Other things to read if politics bore you to tears.

To review: This week I'm listing some of my reasons for turning against Bush, after voting for him in 2000. If you're a Kerry fan, you may add to the argument in the comment section (Please no "right ons." I haven't yet reconciled myself to Kerry. If you're a Kerry-supporter who can argue cogently on his behalf, please do so.)

On the other hand, if you're a Bush-supporter please use the comment section to tell me why I am wrong. Though the Kerry-admirers have done a very good job arguing for their man over the last two days, I'm still in the middle, and open to good arguments from all sides.


Now for the red meat: Israel. It is an article of faith among the true believers that Bush is Israel's best friend since... since... has Israel ever had a best friend? None come to mind. Anyway, I don't buy it. Bush is not a firend. His motives are suspect, even creepy, and his actual record on Israel hardly sparkles.

Motivations: Bush, as we all know, is a born again Christain, and the born-againers, unfortunately, have this bizarre eschatological fantasy, in which Israel plays a staring role. Many evangelicals love Israel, but only because in their Biblical end-of-days scenario, the gathering of Jews in the Holy Land is necessary for the Second Coming. Inconveniently for the Jews, the story calls for them to either abandon their beliefs or be exterminated in time for the great rapture.

This raises a question we should ponder: What will born-againers like Bush do if Israel ever takes actions that undermine the biblical justification for its existence? Will the president's support for Israel continue if it becomes clear that Israel is not paving the way for rapture? Ultimately, if you don't love Israel for what it is, you can't be trusted to love it at all. If Bush the born-againer only supports Israel because he is looking forward to the rapture - and the eventual destruction of Judaism - we must disdain his support.

Record: I supported Bush in 2000, in part, because he promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. He hasn't delivered. Bush is also the first US president to call for the creation of a Palestinian state. He opposed Israel's security fence throughout 2003, threatening Israel's loan guarantees, and then suddenly supported it - coincidentally, at the start of the election year. For years, he refused to call Yasser Arafat a terrorist and insisted the Arafat remain the negotiating partner. And like most Americans, I am deeply concerned about Bush and Cheny's close personal relationship with Saudi Arabia.

During the second intafada, many felt that only strong American involvement would help reach a negotiated end to the misery. Bush refused. As president, George W. Bush hasn't even visited Israel. From this president we see only benign neglect, and benign neglect is not an act of friendship. His policy is an irrelevant mess of contradictions that leaves Israel in despair.

Now, will Kerry be any better? I honestly don't know. Like many in Israel, I want the US president to take a strong, and active role in Mideast politics. I want a man like Clinton, someone willing to risk his legacy trying to drag Arafat to the negotiating table, and all but force him to sign a deal. I want the president to use his bully pulpit to bring Israel's enemies into line. Benign neglect is not friendship. When a friend is in trouble, you roll up your sleeves and help. Bush hasn't.

Can Kerry do the job I want; the job I think is needed? Can he be a real friend to Israel? I don't know. Nothing in his record suggests he can, and his infatuation with the UN is troubling, even disturbing.

What to do? What to do?

Visitors to the blog are cordially invited to express their opinions in the comment section.

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