19 December 2012

Search Terms Leading to This Blog

Some of them tickle my fancy.

orthodox jewish teddy bear
I, too, would like to meet a teddy bear that expresses an interest in mitzvah observance.

why do orthodox jews not like green
For the same reasons anyone else does or doesn't, I'm afraid.

name of jewish spoons

freezer sounds like bagpipes
Anyone who types a simile into a search engine is someone I wish I knew better.

Thanks, folks, for the entertainment. I hope you all found what you wanted.

The Push-Button Umbrella

Here's one I hadn't heard before, reprinted with the kind permission of Project Genesis -- torah.org.
Retold by one R' Becker, who elaborates on it here.

A well-known story is told wherein Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, (of blessed memory, known affectionately by the Torah world as the "Alter [Lit. elder]" of Slabodka) was diagnosed as having a condition requiring medical treatment at one of the larger medical centers in the area. After listening carefully to the pros and cons of each medical facility, the Alter elected to go to St. Petersburg for treatment. A student escorted the Alter throughout the extended period of his recovery. Upon his return to Slabodka the Alter was approached by a community member who inquired regarding the Alter's absence. The Alter indicated that he had been in St. Petersburg. When asked what occasioned his visit there, the Alter responded that he had gone there to see the push-button umbrella. The astonished student, who had accompanied the Alter throughout the difficult medical ordeal, asked the Alter for an explanation.  

The Alter explained that he had, indeed, chosen St. Petersburg after carefully weighing the pros and cons of each facility. However, a short while earlier, the Alter had been traveling on behalf of his yeshiva and had passed through the train depot at St. Petersburg and was intrigued by the sight of the new invention, the push-button umbrella, being opened by a resident of that cosmopolitan city. The Alter, ever vigilant for traces of bias within himself, wondered whether, on some level, his decision to have the procedure done in St. Petersburg was not adulterated by a trace of interest in seeing the novel inventions which premiered there. At the moment that the gentleman asked him why he had traveled to St. Petersburg, the Alter took the opportunity to reflect on his motives rather than to glibly respond with an answer which was too obvious to be useful.

Life upon the Wicked Stage

We're famous! We're famous!
A modified version of the post Back to the Wilderness! was published in Oregon Humanities Magazine, here:
On Not Moving from Israel

Their editor made two changes to the draft I sent: altered the line breaks, and de-capitalized the word "Boss," thereby removing all reference to the Divine. Probably thought it was a typo.

10 December 2012

On Not Moving House

The main reason that there have been so few posts lately is because the Chief Nudge of the blog has been moving house.


The logistics of moving are such that we've been staying in our friends' basement while they are out of town, waiting for our belongings to arrive. Thoreau would have a field day with this, I am sure.

It is a very unsettling thing to cook in someone else's kitchen, serve on someone else's ceramic dishes, and work in someone else's living room, and I have repeated once too often that I rawther hope we can move soon.

And then we were told that the truck would arrive the next day -- joy! rapture! and then this thought:

I lived in a certain country until I had learnt to shed the hesitation of being an alien there; and then I moved to another another stage of life and another neighborhood and stayed until I had learnt to live responsibly there; so, based on precedent, it is pretty clear that the moving truck is not going to arrive until I have learnt to deal with living in someone else's house -- that is, to stop treating it as a temporary fix, mentally living out of a suitcase, putting off all important and complicated plans until I have a house to make them in... yes, it will be easier to take down notes when I have notebooks and a table not covered with someone else's papers to take them down on; and yes, it will be easier to feed my daughter pomegranates when I do not have to hover over her to keep the juice off someone else's white satin tablecloth; and so on; but to live in a perpetual state of "we shall do nothing of complexity until we have our own house to do it in" is illogical.

I have not yet learned to live properly in someone else's house -- thought I -- so it is quite impossible that the truck should come tomorrow, assurances of the moving company notwithstanding.

And then the moving company called. "Sorry, there's been a snag. The truck will not arrive until next week."


Multnomah Falls

Silver Falls


by Mendel Hirsch.

Looking across the street as we light our Chanukah candles in our window, I always feel outdone by the glow of colored seasonal lights illuminating the house directly across our road. 
But that is the great significance of the Chanukah Light.  Let me explain.
The common custom is that we light an additional candle every night of Chanukah.  However, Halacha (Jewish law and custom) has three levels for the candle lighting.  The minimum is one candle each night.  The second level is to light a candle for each member of the household.  Our custom is the highest level.  The same goes for where to light.  The preferred place is at the door (the common custom in Israel).  Second best is in the window facing the public (our common custom).  If neither can be done then it suffices to light on the table in middle of the room.
This tiered level mitzvah is unique to Chanukah.  Why was it established this way? 
If we look back at the story of Chanukah, we find Matityahu, a single individual, who was inspired to remain faithful to Jewish values.  He imparted this to his children, who took it to battle and inspired the nation to follow them.  All seemed lost; the majorities had already assimilated.  Matityahu could have given up, and accepted the facts of the times, but he knew, as long as one person would stand for our Truth, all is not lost.  It is upon this concept that the lighting was established.  The first and foremost level must be the single candle.  Like Matitiyahu, even if you are the only candle burning, you must let that light go forth.  The next level would be to inspire each member of your household, like Matityahu did, and light a candle for each one.  Our custom follows an even greater aspiration.  The hope that not only can we light for ourselves and our households, but also assure that our light continue to increase. 
Sometimes, this inspiration is something contained in a household, but cannot permeate the outside world.  In such a case, all we do is light on our table.  At least we can inspire ourselves.  In better times, we can let this light shine into the world, but from the inside, insulated by our home’s boundaries. So we light at our window to the outside world.  In times of spiritual strength and courage, we can open our door allowing our light to directly interact with the world.   At such times, we light at the door.
As I light the menorah, I realize that our Chanukah lights may not be the brightest lights on the block, but it doesn’t have to be.  The Chanukah lesson is well learned.  Like Matityahu, as long as this single light shines, our light will shine on.

20 November 2012

R' Baruch Ber

Found this today:

I am embarrassed to admit that I found the following, not through word of mouth, but on Wikipedia:

A witty anecdote serves to illustrate how the three of them differed in their approaches and relation to their teacher: it is said that had Reb Chaim [Soloveitchok] said, "This table is a cow," Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik would say that the table had the same Talmudic laws as a cow, Rabbi Shimon Shkop would say the molecules in a table could be rearranged into a cow, but Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz would attempt to milk the table.

29 October 2012

Steampunk, Mori Girl, and Judaism

There are a couple of identifiable alternative fashions in America -- goth, punk, ethnic -- but I just heard that in Japan, there are several street fashions each associated with a lifestyle, a philosophy, an entire approach to the world.
I am not sure the same can be said for their American counterparts... I suspect that it is only the rare person on this side of the Pacific who says, "I think I will dress, and live, and look at life, as if I were a Poe character (or a clockwork Victorian, or a Tibetan herdsman), as much as possible." But in Japan the fashion of let's pretend we live in the woods has got its own name (mori-kei) and publications and corresponding philosophy and values and, if I understood correctly, not a small number of adherents.

It's very Jewish, that your style of dress should be an organic expression of your philosophy and values -- though in the case of mori-kei, and I could be wrong about this, I am not so sure the interest in the weltanschauung gave birth to the fashion instead of the other way round.

Jewish dress is defined by Torah principles, which makes it fairly difficult to pin down, as fashions go: it's not defined by a particular shape (like steampunk) or color (like goth) or texture (like mori-kei) or place (like goncha) or era (like vintage) or being different from what everyone else is wearing.
One of these days I should write about what does define it... does someone more learned who writes for this blog want to tackle that one?

As it comes out, Rav Bulman zt"l once observed that traditional Jewish dress is the dress of the nobility of the past generation. But that's incidental.

25 October 2012


Lewis and Clark headed up the Missouri, looked West, and saw some mountains they expected to reach any day.
The days kept passing and the mountains kept getting bigger, until they reached the foot of the Rockies.
Well, they got over those. And then they looked West, and saw the Cascades.
By the time they got through the Coast Range, they were stuck spending the winter at Fort Clatsop, in what is now Astoria, in the corner of the Ourigan Columbia and the Coast. The journals from that winter are repetitive.
Wet and disagreeable.
Cold and wet.
Cold. Disagreeable. Wet.
They wound up eating their tallow candles for lack of meat.
In the Spring they bade Oregon weather good riddance and returned to Missouri.

Today Astoria is a small shipping town on the Oregon coast. We walked through the repair yards.

My father identified the boat on the left as homemade.

I believe the owner told us that his Metta Marie, which is now being taken apart, is some 80 years old.

Poor things want to be out sailing, and here they are propped up on land for repairs, looking out to sea.

Ocean-going ships

Monument to the Unknown Whatsit

It really is that green.

Seagull tracks

Nice colors

Astoria is a very old town, and looks it.

It is still wet. But not disagreeable.

18 October 2012

The Difference between Elul and Rosh Hashana

The difference between Elul and Rosh Hashana, said Rabbi Geometry, is that in Elul the King is coming, and on Rosh Hashana the King arrives.


Cathlamet crops up in the journals of Lewis and Clark as a Chinook town on the Columbia.
Today there is still a Cathlamet - whether in the same place, I couldn't tell ya - on the Washington side.
It looks like Oregon: small wooden houses with leaded windows, from the '30s. This despite the lack of zoning laws, which says a lot about the people of Cathlamet. There are no stoplights in the entire county. There are a lot of lawn ornaments, cast deer predominating.

There is an old hotel, with the lobby on the second floor, whose proprietors took time to shmooze with us. All the people we met are down-to-earth folks who work for the county and fish.
"Would you ever live outside this county?" one of them once asked a young lady of his acquaintance.
"No," she said.
"Will you marry me?" he asked, then. (She said yes.)

Out in the river lies the island half of Cathlamet, Puget Island; and that looks like Washington: massive houses on large lawns, alternating with fields of Holsteins.
The fields are very green, the hills very blue, the sky very grey: the entire county is executed in watercolor.

As always, clicking on pictures will enlarge them.

Raise your hand if you transposed two letters in the name of the boat in the foreground.

I forgot about this local variation on the police car.

This house is pretty typical of the entire mainland Cathlamet.

Doesn't this look like a saloon? --The upper floors are abandoned.
The siding is asbestos.

19 September 2012


There is something just wrong about International Talk Like a Pirate Day falling out on Tzom Gedalia.

Have an easy and meaningful fast, and we can all get together in Cheshvan and go arrr together if we need to.

The Jewish View of the Afterlife

This point came up recently in a class, and it is worth sharing:

While there are people who find their jobs fulfilling, many conceive of work as a way to earn a paycheck, which is cashed into a number of options, from which they can then choose. The reward of the work hasn't much to do with the content of the work itself: you design programs for Intel; you don't get to keep them.

People tend to assume that the Jewish view of the afterlife is similar: you do good in this world, which racks up brownie points with God, and then you cash them in in the Next World for some spiritual-bliss commodity.
Not so. In this world, you strive to perfect yourself. And at the end of the day, when the job is over -- that is what you keep: what you've made of yourself.

In proportion to how much one has become a more divine person, one will find the next world, a place of closeness to the ultimate Good, a great pleasure.

Those Guys in Black Hats

This is supposed to be a loopy, poetic blog, but I'm going to be blunt.

Over the past week I have heard a number of people report (or demonstrate) that they are self-conscious entering a synagogue where the rabbi/men's section/social scene is populated in (small) part by guys in black hats. They feel like those guys are judging them.

I am the wife of one of those scary guys in black hats.
How you live is between you and G-d, not the guy in the black hat. My husband and the rest of 'em are not not judging you. We're not preoccupied with whatever it is that makes you self-conscious. We're happy to meet a new person and we don't care what you're wearing. Relax. You came to shul for a reason; being self-conscious was not it.

Sometimes after people have been coming to shul for awhile they begin to assume that the guys in the black hats want everyone to "be hareidi"; that is, to adopt the culture that the hat-wearers grew up or studied in.
I find these conversations frustrating because I know those guys, my boss and my husband and my rav are those guys, and not one of them is out on a missionary warpath to make everyone "hareidi". But no one ever thinks to ask them.

As someone once put it, "The God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either."

13 September 2012

Spiritual Cartwheels

I must admit, when I first got married, I was a lazy bum. I didn’t help around the house at all, not with cleaning, not with cooking, not with laundry. I even remember having a conversation with my wife-to-be, during the period of our engagement, about who would change diapers when the time came, G-d willing, that we would have a baby. “No way,” I said. “No, Ma’am. There will be no diaper changing for me. That’s the mother’s job.” As a matter of fact, when the baby did arrive, I wouldn’t even get up at night when the baby cried. “The baby’s hungry,” I would say, “and I can’t really do anything about that myself.” I did like burping the baby, though. That was fun. As for the rest, well, “I just can’t do that stuff.”

Fast forward nearly nine years and four kids later, and over the course of time I learned that the key to success and happiness in marriage (and really all things) derives from hard work and sacrifice. And now, you wouldn’t believe it, but for the last two weeks I cooked the chicken for Shabbos (in fact, two weeks ago I made two kinds of chicken), and it came out absolutely phenomenal! So what changed?

Real life involves real challenges and a real man steps up to the plate and meets the challenge. There were those times that my wife got sick, or was wiped out after an exhausting week, or maybe just plain didn’t feel like cooking that day, when I, as the dutiful husband, had to just say, “I’ll take care of it.”  The same goes for cleaning house, doing laundry, or changing stinky poopy-pants. Nowadays, I do it all, and I’m gosh-darn proud of it!

Back to cooking. You know you’re a good cook when your kids start to compliment your cooking. I hear their excitement when I cook supper. “Tati (‘Daddy’ in Yiddish) is such a good cook!” One day my daughter watched me in awe as I prepared supper.

“Tati, how do you do that?” she asked, reverently.

“Talent,” I responded, arrogantly.

She paused, thoughtfully, then retorted, “But can you do a cartwheel?”

I was simultaneously stunned and shamed into silence. Indeed, despite all my arrogance, I cannot do a cartwheel, while my six-year-old daughter can.

Normally, an adult would brush off a comment like that from a child, but I am no normal adult. (Just ask anyone who knows me.) I take what kids say seriously, because kids are very honest; they haven’t yet learned the finer points of dishones-- I mean, diplomacy. So I try to take the kernels of truth from children’s innocent statements and apply them in order to live a more truthful life.

The normal reaction to such a statement from a child would go something like this: “Cartwheel? ME?? What do cartwheels have to do with me? I’m not a cartwheel kind of guy.” And we move on, with no introspection, and thereby, no attempt or effort toward change. While this makes sense (perhaps) for something like cartwheels, I believe we too often do this in much more important areas of life. “Judaism? It’s interesting, it’s cool, I like being Jewish, I’m proud to be a Jew, but actually practicing Judaism? That’s not for me.” “Learning? Torah? That’s not my thing.” “Shabbos? I just can’t.”

But imagine if I had kept that attitude throughout my marriage. I don’t think I would have the nine wonderful years and four beautiful children I now have to show for it. Because being in a real loving relationship means giving everything you have to one another. And if you’re not willing to do that, if you’re only willing to take, something’s missing from the relationship.

We must remember that we are in a relationship with G-d; we are His children, we are His beloved. Of course an infinite G-d doesn’t need anything from us, but if there was no give-and-take between us, there would be no relationship. G-d gives us everything we have in this world (not too shabby -- sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, arms, legs, ice cream, hot dogs, rainbows, waterfalls, sunsets -- you get the point), and He asks in return a few small tokens of allegiance. Again, not for His own benefit, but for ours, so that we can connect to Him and live our lives imbued with a feeling of closeness to G-d, whenever and wherever we are, no matter what we may be going through. And, truth be told, when we analyze the actions we are “commanded” to perform by G-d (Sabbath, dietary laws, marital guidelines, etc.), we find that they very much enhance our physical pleasures and enjoyment in life. So even when G-d “takes,” He continues to give and give.

Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time for re-inaugurating our relationship with G-d and with our fellow man (or woman). Let us reflect upon some of the things we’ve learned this past year or any year past and thought, “I would like to do that, I really should do that, but I just can’t,” and realize that we really can. It’s not easy, it requires hard work and sacrifice -- but it’s worth it! The rewards in our lives will be great, if we are willing to work to achieve it.

So just as I once said, “I can’t, it’s not for me, it’s not my thing,” to cooking, cleaning, and changing, and yet I have proudly achieved them all since, it is my hope that one day I will look back once again and be able to proudly answer my daughter and say, “Yes, I can do cartwheels.” Perhaps not a physical cartwheel, but at least one in spirit.

This year, and in the years to come, may G-d grant all of us the strength to perform spiritual cartwheels, overcoming all of our self-imposed limitations, and may we merit to be inscribed in the Book of the Good Life in this world and the World to Come.

[Read more from Rafi Mollot at http://rafimollot.wordpress.com]

10 September 2012

One Day

The house next to ours is under construction, so all this week our front hall has pulsed with the bass of the construction workers' radio.
Fair enough; I wouldn't want to rip off siding without listening to lively music, either. Only this station is so not my taste. THUMP, THUMP. thump, THUMP THUMP.

This morning the thumps assumed a familiar pattern, and I went outside to confirm.
They were listening to Matisyahu: One Day.

We're about halfway around the world from Jerusalem, really "the Edge of the West", and here between the firs and high grasses, what are the immigrant construction workers listening to as they toss siding on the ground, a week before Rosh Hashana? A hasid's vision of what the world will be one day.

09 September 2012

Some Thoughts on Other Ways to Teach Math

I once had a math teacher who said she wished she had time to revise the math curriculum to teach it as an art. She never did have the time - but she managed to point out items of aesthetic interest whenever they popped up in the regular curriculum. Those of us in the class who considered ourselves sworn enemies of math appreciated this.

Betty Smith, who grew up to be a writer, had the idea to assign each number a personality, and thereafter looked at each equation as a story about a relationship.

As a history nut, I always wished we could learn math as history; that is, in chronological order. We learnt, say, the Pythagorean Theorum without knowing a thing about Pythagoras or how he developed it, and I found the lack of context frustrating. The story of the unfolding of math is a fascinating one. Fractions become ten times more interesting to the aspiring historian when you learn that the ancient Egyptians regarded solving fraction problems as a form of magic.

In high school, we heard about some mathematician - probably Buckminster Fuller - who characterized Euclidean geometry as suitable for stationary things but unsuited to human beings, who are constantly changing, and developed in its place a geometry based not on lines but on rays, which are in motion. At the time I was madly in love with philosophy, and took this idea and ran with it: Euclid's geometry was physical; this alternative geometry was humanistic; I spent one delightful bus ride trying to work out a "monotheistic geometry", which was probably the first and last time I ever thought about math voluntarily.

To teach math as an art, a prose, a history, or a philosophy, would be unfair to those who actually like math, and think mathematically. But I'm surprised I haven't heard of anyone experimenting with offering history of math, or math for those who wish everything were humanities instead, as a parallel course - covering the same material, but presenting it differently - in one of those monster high schools where there are six classrooms all studying the same math simultaneously. By then everyone has had a taste of normal math study -- and most have decided what they think of spending the next four years experiencing more of it.

I broached this idea to a math-teaching friend once. "You mean you would test them on the life of Pythagoras?" she asked, aghast. No, no -- the point would still be learning how to wield the theorem: how to think logically and use math. Only the presentation would differ.

Charlotte Mason omits certain advanced math from the curriculum altogether, save as an elective, on the theory that none but a mathematician will ever need it.

Other ideas: mash math together with physics; teach trig using Ayil Meshulash; work into the math curriculum some of the mathematical portions of Gemara; coordinate with equation-balancing in chemistry class instead of letting students puzzle out why what works in one field does not work in another.

Political Rhetoric

I brought my sewing to visit a lady who had the Republican National Convention playing in the background, so I sewed and we shmoozed and various Republicans addressed the nation.
"I don't see what there is to cry about," she said, as the camera shewed a gentleman with a tear on his cheek.
But I do find such conventions, leaving aside the content, rather moving: it's heartening to see a whole roomful of Americans sounding optimistic about the future of the country.

I seldom hear political speeches -- I was expecting something like the Declaration of Independence: here's the purpose of life, so here is the purpose of government, so here's what we're going to do if we are elected, to live up to these ideals.
No one I heard spoke in as orderly a fashion. Instead they provided a lesson in oratory.

In between speeches, the news crew did its best to predict and analyze the speeches, which I thought had the effect of discrediting them. A person's words are not nearly so impressive when you have heard them already summarized and dissected by a news crew.

Points were made which I liked; points were made which I didn't. I await the day when a politician will arise and say, 'To harshly criticize the efforts of my opponent, which were made out of an earnest desire to serve this country, would fly in the face of all that is noble about it; and I shall therefore limit myself to telling you how I wish to serve you.' The politicians who chuckle at their own cutting remarks I find supremely annoying.

All this is, of course, irrelevant to the content, but this blog steers clear of politics.

05 September 2012

Elul. !

I've been skipping around addressing this month because there is no way I can do it justice. In the Old Country, people used to faint when it was announced that Elul was coming.

Elul is the month leading up to Rosh Hashana.
It is also a time that Hashem is especially "near" - in a manner of speaking - "the King is in the field".
The name "Elul" is sometimes taken as an acrostic for the verse in Song of Songs, "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine".
So, it is a time of honest introspection in preparation for judgement; and it is also a time of great and loving closeness to the Eternal.

I read in someone's memoirs that when he was growing up in pre-war Europe, his father would not carry anything in his pockets during the month of Elul.
It's such an intense time, a month of such opportunity and such focus, how can you walk around with irrelevant baggage in your pockets? -- thus, I presume, was his father's reasoning.
I don't know anyone who does that nowadays; but it does capture some of the feeling of the season.

Here is another account of Elul.

04 September 2012

Gig Harbor

...but first, Tacoma.

In the family hunt for Charming Towns in Washington, waterfront Tacoma is at a disadvantage: it has gone directly from being a Mill Town to being a Commuter Suburb, without stopping at Charming in between. But they have done some nice things with it: the wreck of the former mill has been covered with gravel, carefully planted with resilient local species, and turned into a lovely park.
After the waterfront, we breezed through without paying due attention to the rest of Tacoma, except to note that the commercial lane just above the waterfront offers the service of about eight lawyers per block.

Gig Harbor is located just across the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The footage of the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge, "Gallopin' Gertie", swaying on the day it finally fell apart, is instructive. It is a staple of high-school physics classes.

Gig Harbor is Charming.

The entrance

 Gig Harbor is a natural harbor with a narrow mouth opening into Puget Sound. The town is U-shaped: it has no natural center but the harbor.
Gig Harbor is an honest-to-goodness fishing town, turning gradually into a retirement town. It is unmistakably Washingtonian - unlike Cathlamet, which is undergoing the same transition but which could be mistaken for Oregon.

I liked this statue:

27 August 2012

A story we heard over Shabbos

is too complicated to explain here, but the punchline is that the protagonist went to R' Chatzkel (Sarna, I think) and described how he had protested something he found offensive.

"It's not kanaus, it's kinaus!" cried R' Chatzkel. --'You're not zealous, you're jealous!'

You think you're protesting on principle. No: you're just jealous.

Uff da! Amazing that it takes so long for these stories to get around, they are so helpful.

22 August 2012


So much life has been happening lately - travel and projects and sudden revelations and meetings and phone calls - I kind of forgot about living it instead of sitting in front taking notes.
Right then. Back to business.

Sequoia and I were walking around discussing resolutions. It is all very well to know that you want to, say, spring up in the mornings; but it is quite another thing to make that knowledge real to yourself when it is not quite light out and the baby is dozing on your head and it seems equally sensible to wait another half hour or so to get up... but by then you have lost the sense of purpose that is the gift of early rising.

I think it is the Alter of Novhardok who says that there are two ways to work on your character: you can keep careful track of what you think and do and analyze what drives you to do it and what would effect a change; or you can put your foot down and do it.

We also thought of...

...writing down the resolution at the moment of making it together with the feelings attendant upon it, as those are so easily forgotten. (Sequoia suggested this because we are both words-people; I don't know if a person who gets uptight in trying to commit his thoughts to paper would find it so helpful.)
...learning material relevant to the resolution, so that one is constantly having new insights into it.
...mutual accountability: I'll do it if you will.

21 August 2012

The Town Mouse and the Suburb Mouse

The Suburb Mouse grew up in a suburb where computers outnumbered civilians. He was accustomed to living among perfect green lawns and perfectly square houses and one car per human and not much in the way of crumbling Victorian woodwork or burly trees shedding leaves which would turn to mud on the sidewalk.

One day, he overheard the Town Mouse muttering the lyrics of
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes by the Interstate
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same
There's a pink one
and a green one
and a blue one
and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

and requested a translation.

The Town Mouse explained that this was a song about the suburbs, and that the little boxes signified the identical houses plunked down in perfectly straight lines.
"What's wrong with that?" asked the Suburb Mouse.
The Town Mouse, to her surprise, was hard-pressed to come up with an answer. Was there something wrong with building an efficient but uninteresting neighborhood?

"Anyway, the houses in my hometown don't all look alike," said the Suburb Mouse. "There are four different models of houses, and they are painted in five different colors."
The Town Mouse thought he was kidding. He wasn't.

I suppose (concluded the Town Mouse) that ideally, architecture and city planning should be a positive influence on a city and on those who live in it. Imaginative planning can completely alter the character of a city -- Portland's row of Park Blocks is a classic example.

I guess (said the Town Mouse) there are people who find the suburban aesthetic uplifting, or at least reassuring. Personally I find the old, intricate, and be-foliaged more conducive to keeping my head on straight.

Until recently (reflected the Town Mouse) I did not believe that attractive suburbs exist. But I actually found one the other day, when I was driving around Tualatin and wound up on Tookbank street, and then on Withywindle.

19 August 2012

A Day in the Woods

Ramona Falls, OR.

New York hasn't changed much since 1704.

"The city of New York is a pleasant, well-compacted place, situated on a commodious river which is a fine harbor for shipping. The buildings brick generally, very stately and high.... The inside of the [houses] are neat to admiration.... The hearths were laid with the finest tile that I ever see, and the staircases laid all with white tile which is ever clean, and so are the walls of the kitchen which had a brick floor.
"....They are sociable to one another and courteous and civil to strangers and fare well in their houses. The English go very fashionable in their dress. But the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women...wear French muchets which are like a cap and a headband in one, leaving their ears bare, which are set out with jewels of a large size and many in number. And their fingers hooped with rings, some with large stones in them of many colors as were their pendants in their ears, which you should see very old women wear as well as young.
"...Their diversions in the winter is riding sleighs about three or four miles out of town, where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends' houses who handsomely treat them. Mr. Burroughs carried his spouse and daughter and myself out to one Madame Dowes, a gentlewoman that lived at a farm house, who gave us a handsome entertainment of five or six dishes and choice beer and metheglin, cider, etc. all which she said was the produce of her farm. I believe we met 50 or 60 sleighs that day--they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they'll turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart. Nor do they spare for any diversion the place affords, and sociable to a degree, their tables being as free to their neighbors as to themselves.
"Having here transacted the affair I went upon and some other that fell in the way, after about a fortnight's stay there I left New York with no little regret."
--The Journal of Madam Knight, Dec. 6, 1704

12 August 2012

Judaism and Charlotte Mason

A lot of people find this blog by Googling "Jewish Charlotte Mason", and I am sorry there is not more here on the subject to welcome them. So I'll take a stab at it, although I am no expert.

If you just want to see it in practice, check out my friend's blog at Al Pi Darko Academy.
If you want the opinion of someone who is an expert, read this nineteenth-century essay.

The post here that gets the hits is Charlotte Mason on Secular Studies. That post is just the tip of the iceberg, though: CM is a complete theory of education.

I'll start with her attitude toward secular studies.
What Charlotte Mason has in common with Torah is the understanding that one's life as a religious individual is a whole into which certain general studies can be incorporated, without resulting in a religious-secular "double life".
Off the top of my head, I would hazard that under rarefied conditions (and there is a spectrum of opinions on just what that means):
-Good science can help you to live sensibly and appreciate the wisdom and love of the Creator.
-Good humanities can also show you what is in a person or what is in the world, can illustrate poignantly and poetically principles of how to live or how not to live.
-It can be helpful for a person to be exposed to beauty, order, and genius.

Where Charlotte Mason and Torah part ways in general studies is on whether the arts and sciences are seen as an end in themselves.
Charlotte Mason's branch of Christianity, so far as I can make out, seems to have adopted the Classical Greco-Romans as its honorary forebears, and so to have inherited the Classical values of beauty, order, and genius for their own sake: of beauty as an end in itself. Thus, in CM it is an independent moral duty to study nature and to acquire discriminating artistic taste.
CMers, do I have this straight?

How Charlotte Mason, and the religion behind her, decided which Classical principles to accept as eternal and which to reject, I cannot make out.

In Judaism, things are valued according to whether they are used to bring G-dliness to the world. Judaism is keen on beauty, order, and genius, but only "in the tents of" truth: in the service of the Torah principles of love, justice, and education. So artistic taste and knowledge of botany are excellent things to have; but if we ever find ourselves back in the Stone Age, we will miss botany and art, but we won't feel less Jewish for lack of them.

What I like about Charlotte Mason, then, is not why she teaches the arts and sciences, only how. I do think her methods are excellent, and a lot closer to Jewish ideas than a lot of educational theory out there. But one can't pluck the religion bits out of a CM education, tack a Judaic Studies curriculum on the CM general studies, and call it Jewish Charlotte Mason. Her reasons for studying secular studies inform her approach to them and her choices of material. If you want Jewish Charlotte Mason, you'll have to look into a truly Jewish approach to secular studies. Personally, I like the one Rav Hirsch spells out in Vol. VII of his Collected Writings, which is here [not to imply that I think this blog lives up to it].

Thus far, general studies.
There are more obvious differences between Charlotte Mason and Judaism when it comes to issues like Bible study and theology.
We have an oral tradition that explains the text and helps us draw life-lessons from it. (As Rav Hirsch puts it, reading the written text without the oral tradition to reading shorthand lecture notes.)
Charlotte Mason was not heir to the Jewish oral tradition; she engages less with the text and when she does draw lessons from it, ten to one they are incompatible with Jewish tradition.

This is just one point in a whole host of differences to be expected given that Charlotte Mason was not Jewish. You will not find "Jewish Charlotte Mason" in her chapters on religious education. Go to the original sources.

What about the area of overlap between general and religious studies, values and the development of good character? How much of that do Charlotte Mason and Judaism have in common?
Here I must confess that my Vol. 4 of Charlotte Mason is lent to a rebbetzin down the hill so that I can ask her this question.

[I have to tell you, just because I find it amusing, that the form of this volume is peculiarly reminiscent of medieval Jewish texts on the same subject: the preface says, more or less, I searched for a treatise on character traits, but could not find one; I therefore presumed to write one; I shall list the character traits, together with the means of acquiring them, the obstacles to acquiring them, and the means by which these obstacles may be overcome....]

I did ask one teacher of mine what we think of Charlotte Mason's value of loyalty: Miss Mason opines that it is immoral to shop in other neighborhoods that offer lower prices, that one should be loyal to the shopkeepers nearest one's house, so long as the price is fair.
This teacher answered that in Judaism there is a value of chesed, lovingkindness, according to which one should allow one's neighborhood shopkeeper the peace of mind that comes with having a regular, familiar customer; and that chesed must be balanced with the value of being financially responsible; but that the kind of loyalty Charlotte Mason demands, independent of its effects, is not a separate Jewish value.
Two Jews, three opinions; the next teacher I asked was not so sure. So I am not going to pull apart Charlotte Mason's Ourselves for you and attempt to identify what is a Torah-sourced idea and what is not. A good address for this sort of thing is Mussar Truffles.

In sum: my feeling is that Charlotte Mason (and, from what I've seen of it, the Classical Education movement) is a great resource for how to teach general studies, but not why, and only sometimes which. They are definitely not helpful in figuring out how or why to teach kodesh. And my jury is still out on her treatise on character traits... but it's not really necessary to go there: we have a  mesora on those; do Mesilas Yesharim instead, with something (or someone) like Rav Leuchter dot com to unfold it for you.

Scandinavian Festival

Scandinavian Xing
Junction City, OR is a small farming town founded by Scandinavians. Every summer, a very few blocks of it are roped off for the inhabitants of nearby Eugene, and all the small farming towns in the area, to come stroll around in Scandinavian costume and watch demonstrations of Hardanger embroidery and rosemaling.

It is a small festival -- there are no major exhibitions of anything except folk-dancing, which is presented by the local children. Elderly ladies with very blue eyes sit in the shade tatting bookmarks. Elderly men with very Scandinavian faces sit in the shade and look on. One man made dainty bobbin-lace snakes. I saw no identifiable Norwegian costumes -I think most of the folkdrakt was generic- but I did see lots of Vikings, and a diminutive troll casting an admiring eye at the flower-wreath headbands for sale as it fought to keep its glitzy golden slippers on.
I will be a happy girl the day folkdrakt comes into popular fashion -- especially those flower-wreath headbands with ribbons hanging down: very elegant.

We got into a fair amount of "where in Scandinavia are you from?" with the older costumed locals. I had not anticipated that they would have the same curiosity about us: "You look like honest, valid Jews! I always wanted to meet one of you folks. I read the Bible a lot, you know, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so much that I feel like I know 'em."

"Are you Scandinavian?" I asked one younger woman.
"Everyone in Junction City is an honorary Scandinavian for four days," she explained.

"Are you Scandinavian?" I asked another woman.
"No, I'm Jewish," she said.

My family actually is Swedish, but only since the 19th century.

09 August 2012

Why Opposites Attract

"Opposites attract," someone quoted yesterday, in conversation.

"Why do opposites attract?" asked Rabbi Gadol, who was visiting from Brooklyn, and answered:
"It's one of two things. Suppose you have a shy person who wishes he could be more outgoing. Then he looks up to the other person for being bold. But sometimes, you have a shy person who hates a loudmouth. Then it won't work.

"You should know why."

08 August 2012

Cannon Beach

Four-fifths of Oregon is cowboy country, all dry and pastel and sage-dotted, but when most people think of Oregon what they see in their minds is the Willamette Valley, which is green and protected by blue, snow-capped mountains - snoring volcanoes, technically.
And those of us from between the snoring, soaring Cascade Range and the evergreen hills grow up "pitying people who weren't born in a vale", who grow up on a street like Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, which you could just roll down forever, with no interruptions in the grid to stop you from rolling off the edge of the world.

So when we drove down to Cannon Beach, I was a bit perturbed to see the ocean looking so very flat. At seven I was taught never to turn my back on the ocean; now it seemed tame and short. Since when are you, beloved Pacific, such a New York avenue, huh?

That might be the nature of this particular beach; or maybe we caught the tide at the wrong time. But the ocean at Cannon Beach was still broad, and impressive, and extremely cold and windy. Cannon Beach has become a bustling little town, but the beach itself is not like the cozy, friendly, pebbly beaches I remember from New Jersey. When you leave the pines and cross the dunes, you leave behind all feelings of civilization.
I remember my grandmother reading a picture-book that mentioned the lonely seacoast of California, and pausing to observe that "Oregon has an even lonelier seacoast." It occurs to me only at this moment that hers was an isolated literary reference: that grown-ups probably do not go about comparing the loneliness of seacoasts the way they compare gas prices.
But, Oregon's is a lonely seacoast.

02 August 2012

Daf Yomi

Over this week, some 300,000 people worldwide will attend a siyyum celebrating the completion of a seven-and-a-half year course of study, which covers the entire Talmud.
Last night, there were over 90,000 people at the MetLife Stadium siyyum alone.

This was the twelfth cycle of the Daf Yomi program, which moves at the (extremely swift) pace of a page a day. People all around the world study on the same schedule. It's a gorgeous bit of unity.

I hope someone will put the speeches up online -- it was quite a wonderful event. To hear a rav challenge 90,000 people with words of inspiration, with a and before you leave tonight, make a plan and do it! attached to them, applauded enthusiastically by 90,000 appreciative, newly inspired, focused and committed people - well! It was a thing not to be missed. But all I found to put on the blog for you was the film above.

The thirteenth cycle of Daf Yomi starts tomorrow. In Portland, the Daf Yomi class will be given every morning at Cong. Kesser Israel, in Hillsdale, just before morning services.

A couple of us in these parts with less time on our hands (read: ladies) want to try following it in the Ein Yaakov, which is the non-legal portions of the Talmud: less material, and less intricate, insanely inspiring when understood properly, but opaque without a commentary. Drop a line if you'd like to join us.

Wilderness skills in Portland -- come one, come all; we're starting a course

There's an organization in Portland called Trackers PDX that teaches all sorts of wilderness skills - among them tracking, building shelters, archery, blacksmithing, spinning wool. (Those of us who lump certain of these skills together under a mental heading of Lord of the Rings ranger skills will be pleased to know that the site references ranger all over the place.)

They have agreed to offer a course on a weekday or Sunday (or several, depending on interest). There's a discount for groups of six or more; we have at least four people already (really great people) and we're looking for more.

Please drop a line at jewsintherain at gmail.com indicating what sort of things you'd like to learn and when you're available. Their prices are reasonable: friendly to a student budget. (It's not worth listing them here because they vary depending on course content.)