16 April 2015

My Idea of Pesach's Freedom (2015)


[A guest post on Torah by Jonny Schneeweiss! He's better known to the Internet for his Schneeblog, an insightful treatment of writing technique, fantasy/sci-fi/otaku, and human nature. Check it out – some great stuff. --Ed.]

I've been noticing lately how there are cultural trends of values just like cultural trends of fashion and entertainment etc. People don't really think into these values, but they're just caught up in the current so to speak. It ends up being this dichotomy of either you agree with the culturally supported dogma or you disagree with it and there's no other option.  If you're too swayed by the questions of the opposing side, your only recourse is to either switch to the anti version of your idea or be stubborn and irrationally stick to your guns.

A big example was something I noticed looking into Korean culture. In American culture, what's important is being "successful", which is a) something we as a culture haven't really thought out, and b) no one really knows what it means. But we want to be successful. There are only two sides to this discussion: either you are ambitious and try to make money and achieve success, OR you naively follow your dreams and passions and are not as successful but you're following your dream, so screw success and screw the man!

In Korea, NO ONE talks about success. They DO NOT care about success at all. For them, the cultural dogma is all about hard work. Every instance when, in the West, you'd hear someone use the word "success", in Korea it's replaced with "hard work".  Women don't want to marry someone who is successful, they want to marry someone who works hard.  In school, you're not told to do your homework so you can get a good job and be successful, you're told to do your homework because you should be working hard.  Are you working hard or are you playing? Success? Who cares about that? Are you working your hardest? Even if you're not making any money or moving up in the world, are you working yourself to death? That's what matters.  What else COULD matter?

There must be hundreds of examples of this, where the thesis/antithesis phenomenon as it applies to cultural values is seen as the ONLY way of thinking, when in the country next door there's a completely different thesis/antithesis argument dominating the national discource.  This reality is a sign of a) how unthought out cultural values are and b) how inescapable they are when it's literally all you're surrounded by. People can't escape the binary yes/no morality they're raised in. They don't even know they're being confined. It's like Flatland.

The nation we belong to as Israelites was founded on an event where the most dominant cultural dogma of the time was completely and utterly shattered right before our eyes. Bnei Yisrael were raised in an Egypt where priests probably argued about which gods were supreme and politicians vied for pharaoh's favor. That way of viewing the world was inescapable. But then in the very forging of our nation we were shown through events that the entire foundation was wrong.

Throughout our history, we've stood as a broken nation on the edge of more powerful nations who refuse to accept us. We grow up exposed to the culture of whatever nation we've been exiled to while still knowing that we have our own system of values and our own ways of thought. Just knowing that--that there IS another way of looking at each facet of life we hear about--is the most powerful tool humans can have against being swept up in the cultural force of values and thought trends. Even if we don't understand the values of our own tradition, we know they exist, which means we never have to be confined to the thesis/antithesis cycle going on around us. We have the freedom to say "I know there MUST a different way of viewing ALL of this, there must be a third dimension in this 2-d world, so let me think some more and see if anything else makes sense." This is just an option many people don't have. They don't KNOW they can do that, because why would they? Whom have they ever seen or heard about who has done that? Our national identity IS "a stranger in a strange land." Breaking out of cultural dogmas is who we are, and even when we failed to build our own successful culture as a nation, we were exiled for the purpose of reforging that identity in the midst of countless other cultures that refuse to accept us.  That's the freedom I was thankful for this Pesach.

31 March 2015

This Thought Has Been Brought to You by a Zucchini Peeler

Two thoughts fell into my mind just before Purim and then I saw a connection between them.

1. Hester panim is an illusion.

2. I was reading about the Norman oath of vassalage and wondered
whether there is any parallel in Judaism. We do not exactly place
our hands in G-d's and swear to be His from this day forward of life
and limb and unto Him to be true and faithful... do we?

The later thought that connected them is:

'Hester panim is an illusion': this is the message of Purim.

And our oath of vassalage is - Pesach.

Zrizus: Notes from a Matzah Bakery



The matzah bakery is an overwhelming experience. It is in an unimproved basement, rough as a factory can be, half-painted and in shambles. In this concrete labyrinth are chasidim in their shirtsleeves and aprons, and other visitors: little boys in long coats and long payes and those beautiful velvet caps whose name I always forget.

The kneading room: three gleaming silver kneading pins hinged to gleaming silver tables, operated by hydraulic pumps. The noise of the chasidim banging these down and the pumps slamming them back up is sufficiently loud that some of the workers in this room wear protective headphones. Others do not: their ears swim in the holy racket of matzah-making.

At a fourth gleaming silver table, one man rolls the dough out into logs, and a second slices it with a knife (curled at the top into a self-handle) into parcels, weighs them, and throws them deftly through the air into the next room.

In the next room, women stand at a long silver table covered in paper, rolling with wooden pins, those perfect parcels into perfect circles. The individuality of this process is striking. One elderly woman stands and rolls, firmly and simply, as if she has done nothing else since 1936; another has made almost a dance of it. There is an air of incongruity about the group – all of these women engaged in labor together; where are their families? --I ask my husband who these women are and he says the custom is to hire widows. Above the table, a rack of fresh rolling pins. At the end of the shift the women will send the current ones to be sanded. The rolling pins will narrow from sanding over the months of matzah-making.

A man comes round with a paper-wrapped pole; the women flip the matzos off their rolling pins onto it.

He swings the pole round to another table, where one man rolls a shining reddler (perforator) over the matzos, once and back again; zip-zip! the sound is like an electronic vibration. Across the table, his fellow hangs the matzos on a fresh paper-wrapped pole. There is much laughter surrounding this man as he brings in a fresh load of poles and pours them into the rack above his head.

A beckoning: we may step into the next room.

A chasid thrusts the matzah-laden pole through a small doorway into a large oven of white-glazed bricks and twirls the pole to lay the matzos on the oven floor. Beside them, the fire neither flickers nor licks at the piled logs but rolls up them in earnest. It is 1000-something degrees Fahrenheit, by the thermometer.

The chasid loading the oven thrusts each unloaded pole behind him expertly, not looking, and it sails into a narrow trough, its paper now smoking or, occasionally, afire. Glowing bits of paper fly into the air. If nothing else in this room is inflammable, still it seems as if those sparks would ignite the very clatter of the operation. A worker strips the paper from the pole into a bin and inserts the pole into a pole-twirling machine to wind on fresh paper. On the wall behind him, a machine-operated wheel endlessly unspools paper for this purpose.

The matzos are done – the chasid at the oven flips them, smoking, into a wagon. Another chasid wearing thick gloves arranges them in neat rows. When the wagon is full they will be boxed.

The shift ends – the chasid at the oven passes by and I see that he is wearing two sets of sleeves, one sooty, the other nearly black with his good work.

It could be 200 years ago, it could be a Kacyzne photograph; what happens in this room is not confined to time.

It is time for Mincha – my husband is swept into the crowd of men; the women remove their gloves and collect their rolling pins. The men are in the next room talking to G-d. The paper on the tables is changed. Then boom, boom, like the drums of Tolkien's Moria but o so much nobler, one by one the kneading pins start up again.

A contemporary description of the beis hamikdash flutters into my mind, like one of those glowing bits of paper: an image of the kohanim, or was it the leviim, passing from hand to hand a gold vessel, then a silver, then a gold, then a silver, a dazzling array in perfect synchronization. This matzah bakery is the closest thing to the beis hamikdash that I have ever witnessed.
(OK, the Jewish home is.)

No one rushes. Whistles blow, clocks display the time, the matzos have to be in and out of the oven within 18 minutes of the water hitting the flour – time is absolutely of the essence – but no one rushes. They do good work in good time, lshem matzos mitzvah, they smile, there is a little kibbitzing, anyone is welcome to walk through and watch. The people working are focused with all the powers of human focus. There is no haste.

The instinct to feel at home in this modest but great enterprise is overpowering. I told my husband I want to become hasidic and take up smoking. I don't; I have just fallen in love with a matzah factory. This is a thing exactly as it is meant to be. If you painted that factory, if you cleared the hall corners, if you did your very best to make the place look respectable, let alone beautiful – you could not make it any lovelier than it is already.

Notes from Bryant Park




Manhattan is an unspoilt wilderness of tall buildings. In the midst of this landscape of native species is an art installation of ungainly and asymmetrical sculptures. They are short, which contrasts strongly, almost pathetically, with their surroundings. These artificial structures are called “trees”. They are really striking. I can't stop wondering how someone came up with the idea to interrupt the Manhattan landscape with such an alien species.

We walked through Times Square, where the sides of the buildings are large screens. Everything in Times Square is moving, flashing, fast. When the advertisements in Times Square want to call your undivided attention to their product, therefore, they cannot get your attention with color, contrast, or speed. The only thing they can do that really stands out is... to slow down the film and show the product in slow motion.
A fast-paced society can either go faster and faster until it runs itself into the ground, or decide that speed is outmoded and the hip thing is to go slowly. Rome just kept expanding and expanding until it burst. The advertisers of Times Square have made the wiser choice. I feel like in Times Square I see the future, or the end, or both, of this civilization.

Mine host for this excursion said we must walk past the wax museum, because the statue in front of it looks so lifelike that we would do a double-take.
I did not do a double-take. The difference is that a real human face is more luminous.

The Chrysler building is beautiful, not because its design is inherently beautiful – really it's a bit spiky – but because it is more story than building. That is excellence in architecture. I want to sit here for a long time and read that building.

M & J Trimmings is proof that G-d loves humanity.

New York is a generous city, probably one of the most generous cities in the world. I've always said that I love New Yorkers because they keep up both sides of the conversation. The city is the same: it furnishes you with such diversity of experience that you could live here for a long time before you ever felt the need to become anything. At one point I found myself walking down the street, not because I was headed anywhere in particular, but because the sixteen people around me were walking that direction. With such richness of company, who needs direction? You could easily forget about going anywhere. Every one of those people is a small world in himself; and their histories are diverse. The buildings are richly and beautifully ornamented. You could walk around New York and just admire and admire and admire all its richness and its people for a long time before it would occur to you that you need to have your own life, too. Then you would have this incredible trove of artistic inspiration to draw on.

Even the acanthus on the columns of Bowery Bank is not flora but people: New York's flowers are its faces.

Observations in the park. Skinny artists smiling into their mail the smile of the loved. At their feet, obese pigeons.
Young Italianate men in shirtsleeves and fisherman's caps tossing wooden balls: a scene from a hundred years ago.
As I am making these notes on the passersby I notice that two of them are also making notes on me.

You can see in the style of many buildings that this used to be New Amsterdam. It is Amsterdam writ about ten stories taller.

Grand Central Terminal has a view of constellations on its ceiling. Mine host says that when this ceiling was finished, someone pointed out to the designer that the constellations are shown in mirror-image. “O, yes,” he said, “that was deliberate. It is God's view of the heavens.”
So you can stand at the bottom of this tall hall and look down on the world.

Starbuck's. Q. What is the connection between the noble, self-sacrificing First Mate of the Pequod, and a cup of coffee?

Ruskin says, and I agree, that wrought-iron is suited to sculptures of flora, and to nasty fences keeping robbers out. Wrought-iron fences are not suited to friendly, inviting delineations of space.

The English language is in a fair way to run out of profanity. Those words that were once unspeakable are now commonplace, and there are no worse words lined up to replace them.

Q. Why does the large button sculpture in the Garment District have five holes in it?

In the library, a replica is shown of the pencils manufactured by Thoreau. They don't look like pencils at all – more like glorified twigs. How fitting.

I went into the library, not because I had anything particular to look up, but because I like to browse and admire long shelves of expertise in every conceivable subject.
It is a long climb before you get to the reading rooms, as if the star of the place is not books but stair-steps. In the reading room I saw many people on computers.
“I have a dumb question,” I said to the librarian. “Where are the books?”
She drew from behind her desk an illustration – I guess a lot of people ask the question. “There are seven stories of books under your feet,” she said. They are populated by dwarves. You look in a card catalog, identify the book you want, and send down your request by pneumatic tube. The dwarves mine that book for you and send it up. The stacks extend even under Bryant Park.
(That must be where the trees came from! They sprouted from all the paper.)
You may not look at the books.

Oh. So, for my purpose of browsing and wondering, I went to the room of manuscripts.
You have to buzz in. I buzzed.
The Butler of Manuscripts came to the door. “Yes?”
“Must one have a particular quest in mind to enter this room, or does general interest suffice?”
“It does not,” said the Butler of Manuscripts. “This room is for Researchers.”

I cannot wrap my mind around the New York Central Library. It is the only library I have ever seen where you can do anything but look at books. It is, I suppose, excellent training in focused thought and delayed gratification. You have to first identify your Quest, then the book you want, then wonder and wonder what it is going to be, and know that human labor brought it to you. No wonder 90% of the young people in the reading room are on computers.

It is appropriate, then, that the library's lions are named Patience and Fortitude, since those are what it takes to get a book in the library.

The reserve of the library is in striking contrast to the in-your-face generosity of the rest of the city.

Loops says her favorite thing in New York is the subway, because it is spicy.

Whatever New York is, it is enthusiastically and uninhibitedly – grimy, ornamented. To a certain degree, what Jerusalem is in kodesh, New York is in chol.

New York is like Adar: the chaos of it, the very extremeness of its pratius, points to it not being under the control of any mortal.

“Bring me that horizon!”; or, random thought of a Thursday



I really think that the odd little essay toward the end of Vol. VIII may be my favorite of Rav Hirsch's essays. One seldom gets to see much of the rav himself in his writings; this essay is an exception: there he is, leaning on a ship railing, looking at the stars.

Anyway, at one point in this essay (which meanders like Iyar itself) he observes that Torah may be sailed through any weather, under friendly colors (that is, it applies in every era, to all that is good and noble in contemporary culture, and should be presented as such).

In his time, contemporary culture meant romanticism and science.
In our time, contemporary culture means the sort of fragmented idealism that gives us such interesting things as organic vegan GMO-free “strawberry cupcake popcorn,” of which we just received three bags for Purim.

Strawberry cupcake popcorn?

Actually, I rather liked it; and I like the fragmented idealism behind it; and yes, I called the day the list came out to put my name down for a swath of the PDX airport carpet.

But I like history so much that there are days when the “friendly colors” I would be inclined to hoist while sailing through contemporary culture would be the stateless and idiosyncratic colors of a pirate.

...however, stateless and idiosyncratic pirates are a flourishing part of contemporary culture. So it's all good.

What Is a Gemach?



Did you ever, as a child, dig for buried treasure in the schoolyard?
And when your efforts were frustrated, did you remedy the situation by burying something for the next kid?

The Portland library has deep trenches running the length of the library tables; as teenagers my friend and I used to amuse ourselves dropping poetry in the trenches to be found by strangers.

Nowadays this sort of activity is called geo-caching.

I never went geo-caching, but I have opened an electrical-utilities box in a Jerusalem hallway to flick the fuse and found instead a library of English-language crafting books.

GeMaCh is an acronym for gemilas chasadim, an act of lovingkindness.
In modern parlance a gemach is an institution or person that you can call up or visit for a specific favor. Often but not always a gemach is a library or distribution point for a specific kind of thing.
Gemachs are an integral part of the Jewish community. Some are modest operations in someone's living room (or fuse box); walking into others is like walking into a retail shop.
Between the white pages and the yellow pages of any Jewish community phone book are the gemach pages.

Among them –

Gemachs for a single book. Someone reads a book and likes it so much that she decides it should be available to everyone in the neighborhood, so she purchases multiple copies to loan out.

The chickpea gemach. There's a custom to serve chickpeas on the Friday night following the birth of a son. If your family is busy, or if your son is born, say, Friday afternoon, the chickpea gemach sends round a bowl of chickpeas.

The carseat and crib gemach. You can leave a deposit and borrow everything for your new baby, or a crib for your guests, or a carseat for an outing.

The wedding-dress gemach. Women who have bought their own wedding dress (or mother-of-the-bride dress, or eight-sisters-of-the-bride matching dresses) and aren't using it anymore donate it to this gemach, which lends it out to other families, charging a small fee to cover mending, dry-cleaning, and rental of the space needed to store all those dresses.

There are also everyday clothing gemachs to sell secondhand clothes. (Stores with leftover merchandise send it to clothing gemachs at the end of the season.)

A housekeeping-for-newlyweds gemach: pots and pans and sheets and towels at cost price.

I always said I would never be the lady who has a cardboard box gemach, although I have benefited from box gemachs in the past, because cardboard is hard to store properly. But then we moved, and we had a huge pile of cardboard boxes, and it seemed a pity to throw them out when they are so useful to people who are moving (or sledding), so now I am the cardboard box lady after all.

The gemach gemach. If you want to start a gemach but need a filing system to keep track of information, and hangers or shelves, you can go to a gemach gemach and get them.

The “dial-a-diary” gemach. In large Jewish communities it can be tricky to schedule events; so you call the local “dial-a-diary” gemach before and after you set a date, to make sure your event will not conflict with anyone else's.

One of the kedoshim who was murdered just now in Har Nof had a freezer gemach. Har Nof is a steep hill; you get from one street to the next using stairs. I run out of energy walking up and down Har Nof carrying nothing, let alone a stroller; but he would load a whole freezer onto a handcart and bump-bump-bump it to whoever wanted to borrow a freezer.

(eulogy.)

I have a friend with the neighborhood printer gemach. If you want to print something small, like a government form, you call her instead of having to hike to the print shop. No charge.

And so on, and so on, and so on. Kerosene, hot plates, centerpieces, garlic and sugar; there is even a lady who has made her phone number a “gemach” for women who are having a bad day and want someone to encourage them. I always wish there were an airplane gemach (in effect, a nonprofit airline) to shuttle people to and from Israel.

I wrote this post because people who have not lived in a community with a thriving gemach culture tend to assume that gemachs are only for emergencies. I have had people jump on my offer of cardboard boxes until I called my stack of boxes my “box gemach” and then they recoiled, saying, “Oh, no, no thank you, I don't need to use a gemach, we can buy our own boxes.”
(No! Please! Come take my boxes!)

Gemachs are a convenience for everyone. Millionaires also run out of children's Tylenol in the middle of the night and visit the Tylenol gemach. There's no reason why people should need to buy new clothes unless they want to, when others in the neighborhood are looking for someone to adopt their like-new ones.

So, don't be shy about calling the gemach. Most are intended not as charity but as a public convenience.