30 July 2012

Mt. Doom, Straight Ahead

I think it's called Black Butte, actually.

Tisha b'Av

"We are twins," said G-d -- in a Midrash, I think. "I am not older than you. You are not older than me." Meaning: G-d and the Jewish people entered the world at the same time.
One of the twins is hiding.

It is curious that G-dliness is obscured in the world, that we mistake people for what they are not. This is an unnatural state for the world to be in.
Tolkien once identified the conflict in Lord of the Rings as between nature and machinery; that will do for an analogy.

Through most of the year, even the Three Weeks -- which so neatly align with vacation season -- it is hard to shake the impression that life, while not perfect, is about as good as it can be.
And then comes Tisha b'Av, which was yesterday, reminding us that there is infinitely more to it.
Tisha b'Av is the day when everyone sits on the floor and mourns that the world is still in this unnatural state, not as it should be. A kumzitz of the shipwrecked.

Tisha b'Av leads up to Elul, when we take steps to see what we can do about it.

Ruskin on the Civil War

OK. I found the letter cited above. I am not a scholar of the Civil War, to agree or disagree - I don't have a good enough handle on popular thought in the 1800s - but Ruskin's critique is interesting.

John Ruskin was a 19th century English scholar of art and natural science, of whom I know very little.
Charles Norton writes that in person, Ruskin was a generous soul; but in his letters Ruskin is by turns melancholy and cutting. The best insult in his correspondence is reserved for certain political economists:
...the miserable wretches haven't brains enough to be prologue to an egg and butter.

This is Part II of the post on machlokes. Ruskin saw the same kind of self-deception in the Civil War:

Mornex, 10th February, 1863.
My Dear Norton---
. . . . It is no use talking about your war. . . . The miserablest idiocy of the whole has been your mixing up a fight for dominion. . . with a soi disant fight for liberty. If you want the slaves to go free, let their masters go free first, in God's name. If they don't like to be governed by you, let them govern themselves. Then, treating them as a stranger state, if you like to say, "You shall let that black fellow go, or" ---etc., as a brave boy would fight for another fag at Eton --- do so; but you know perfectly well no fight could be got up on those terms; and that this fight is partly for money, partly for vanity, partly. . . .for wild anarchy and the Devil's cause and crown, everywhere.

I should mention -- since one never knows how literate one's online audience is -- that certain words still in use meant something quite different in Victorian English.


It occurred to me when I posted about Chehalis that there is a curious contrast between Civil War reenactments, in which people assume the identities of historical figures to reenact historical events by way of recreation, and Tisha b'Av, which was yesterday, on which people sit down on the floor and weep over the disasters (which are still with us) of some 2000 years ago. Civil War reenactments are fairly impersonal, a day off from one's life as oneself. Jewish holidays are not -- we feel that we were there and still are, no reenactment necessary -- at least, not to the extent of Chehalis.

24 July 2012

An Hour in 1862

This is what certain grown men do for a hobby: they dress up in loose-fitting trousers and wheel cannons out to a field to pretend to kill each other twice a day for a weekend.

Put plainly, the Battle of Antietam was recently re-enacted in a field near Chehalis, by the Northwest Civil War Council. (Costumes not required for spectators.) We happened to be passing through Chehalis that day. Honest.

Their wives, mothers, and daughters go with them, in hoops and tafetta; or as vivant what's-its-names, daughters of the regiment; and sit with their crochet hooks, or trying to keep their hoops out of the fire, in and around tents furnished to resemble nineteenth-century homes as nearly as possible.
Those who do not have wives sleep in rough, soldierly dwellings indeed: just a length of canvas draped over a stick or two.

A few of the women manage large tents purveying 19th-century wares. O it did make me happy to walk into a store of bonnets, 19th century sewing patterns, and wee wooden needle-cases.

As I was asking the shopkeeper where, exactly, we were in America (she didn't know where Antietam was either), drums and fifes sounded, and bagpipes:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death ye shall find him
His father's sword he hath girded on...
Three hoopskirts and I swished out of the shop to watch the soldiers march into battle.

And here they came! First the cavalry marched, on handsome horses in beautiful straight lines - up to trot! up to gallop! - past us, and halted.

Then the Union infantry, in row after row of young men, marching to music.
I had to fight a bizarrely strong instinct to rise from our hay-bale in honor of the young men going off to give their lives defending the Union.

 "Are you an attorney?" called my mother, to the man in the frock-coat.
"No, he is a Yekke!" yelled my confused instinct.
'I am the governor of Maine,' the gentleman introduced himself, and presented us with his card, on which was printed, indeed, his name, and Governor of Maine. 'These are my boys,' he indicated the troop marching past us. 'They march, as you see, under the sign of an Elephant, for they've never "seen the elephant" before. They've never been in battle.'
We wished him success in battle and he returned to his men as they marched past us...

...and down into the valley wherein erupted the Battle of Antietam, with a cry of Charge! and a clatter of rifle-fire and the Boom! Boom! Boom! of cannons, sending smoke rings into the air and shrouding us all in smoke.
O horror! Those young lads from Maine, and their flag of the Elephant, were the first under fire!

Drums, fifes, and bagpipes played all the while, even under fire, from the battlefield.
"Their rifles are accurate within 200 yards," explained a commentator; and the troops fought a great deal more closely than that: one group of men against another, close enough to recognize each other.

The battle raged a long while, the Union first gaining ground, then being pushed back, with a rebel yell, by the grey and Zouave Confederates. The rebel yell was wild and animal; it made me suspect that they weren't in this fight for states' rights at all, but for Don't you tell me what to do, or I want my slaves, or I'll show I'm a man by defending mine own; and it seemed to me a miserable cause for war; so that I thought of Ruskin's suggestion, to let the South secede, and then fight them, with purer motives, over the issue of slavery alone, as one sticks up for oppressed frosh in a boys' boarding school... -- but it was too late; they were already at war!

A group of Union soldiers fell, one by one, just before us, felled by a group of grey Confederates crouching in the brush; the surgeon, standing to the side with a white sheet, in a blood-spattered apron, inspected them, turned hopelessly from some, tended to others as best he could with sadly limited resources and with filthy, blood-stained bandages. The rebel band left their place in the brush and crept round the dead, to behind the Union ranks, to fire on a small band of soldiers.
On the hill across the valley, a cavalry battle ensued.

The smells of battle: horses and saltpeter.

There was something disturbing in that all the women came out to watch their menfolk slaughtering each other. One Southern belle came in her ballgown.
"That looks like a party dress," said my mother.
"It is."
"You must be a real devotee of the cause, to think this is a party," observed my mother, snapping a photograph tintype of the belle with two of her friends from the North.

It was easy to imagine that the battle was real; it was harder to imagine it so real as to find it dreadful. That's probably a good thing -- save the distress for what really merits it.

23 July 2012

Nostalgic Adolescence

I had cause today to revisit a piece of favorite childhood literature from pre-Civil War-era America, c. "the flowering of New England."

Have you ever wanted to curl up, dormouse-like, in 1850?

Adolescence begins when one wakes up one day and realizes that there is nothing magic about adults: they are just children play-acting -some better than others- at being civilized, kind, and responsible. And a moment later, one realizes that there is nothing to stop one from similarly putting on the show of being civilized, kind, and responsible (or anything else). And when the play-acting becomes second nature, one has Arrived as an adult.
This is popularly understood to be true of social norms; my understanding is that it is also true of character.

I wonder whether it would be possible to play-act at being an early Victorian until it would become one's second nature, so that just as one walks around in a bubble of civility, kindness, and responsibility in a sometimes adult and sometimes childish world, one could walk around in a bubble of the borrowed memories of 1850 in a world that pulses with the Irritating Dissonances of having to look things up online and push 4 for Admissions.

At what age, I wonder, is one supposed to stop messing around with reinventing oneself according to momentary, useful but essentially limited inspiration (I want to live in Novhardok! I want to live in 1776! I want to live in 1850!) and just stick to Getting Better in a straight line?


19 July 2012

A Dark Day

Suppose I come up with a question in class. I ask the teacher, Rabbi Ousel. And suppose it is not one of my usual dumb questions: suppose it is good enough that Rabbi Ousel, who is an accomplished scholar, does not know the answer. He will take it to his teacher, Rabbi Illit.
And suppose (it never happened -- it'd have to be a real pickle, but suppose) Rabbi Illit cannot work out an answer. He will take it to his teacher. And so on up the line.
There is an end of the line. When no one else feels knowledgeable enough to take responsibility for giving an answer, there was -- until yesterday -- one person living who could take that responsibility.
That is Rav Elyashiv.
And he has just left us.

Rav Chalkowski's Eulogy for Rav Elyashiv

I never met Rav Elyashiv, but several of my teachers did.

To give you some idea of the schedule of the man responsible for untangling the knottiest problems of the Jewish people... my friend's husband, Mr. A., merited a regular appointment to learn from Rav Elyashiv. He was given a short slot of time: the time it took Rav Elyashiv to climb the stairs to his apartment. Mr. A. would walk up the stairs backwards ahead of Rav Elyashiv, asking questions.

My husband's rosh yeshiva said once that Rav Elyashiv might be the only living person who would have qualified to sit on the Sanhedrin.

This is a sad loss for us.

17 July 2012

Jews of the World -- UNPLUG!

Great news item about getting "unplugged." Just wanted to share this one:

Company Pays Employees $7,500 to Go on Vacation – But No Texting, Email, Or Phone Calls

Great excerpt from the article:

Some of Lorang’s software engineers that have taken him up on his offer say while it was difficult initially going off the grid, they ended up loving their completely unplugged vacation.

If only people would realize that we Jews have the gift of the "unplugged vacation" one day out of every week! And our sentiment is the same -- initially it's hard, but in the end, we completely love it! Everyone should try it -- the rewards are very great!

[Posted by Rafi Mollot. To read more by Rafi Mollot, visit http://rafimollot.wordpress.com.]

15 July 2012

Grumbles of a Reluctant Driver

In Jerusalem, everything you need regularly (like groceries or a post office) is available in a wee storefront a couple of blocks from your door. Everything you need semi-regularly is available within walking distance. And should you need to cross town, the bus picks you up practically in front of your door and drops you off practically at the door of wherever you're going. It does this despite Jerusalem being a city that fans out in organic tangles on three sides of the Old City.

So I am sitting here growling through the Driver Manual (sic) wondering what a fishtailing car is and thinking about how bizarre is this Amerika where everyone has to burn gas in order to drink milk.

When airplane terrorism became a concern, Americans reassured each other, "Don't worry, you're more likely to die in a car accident." The Driver Manual itself warns you to keep an eye out on the road for people with road rage or otherwise engaged in idiotic behavior. Why don't we make people walk through security every morning, or at least hand them a cupcake, before they get into a car? Is there any driver who has been driving for, say, 30 years, without getting into an accident?

Let's say you're driving along. And you find that the chap ahead of you is driving at the speed limit, unlike you. So you think, "you know, that car" - you do not think of the driver as a person - "is going too slowly; I think I'll swerve into oncoming traffic."
This is called "passing" and it is considered normal.

Just telling you how it looks to a newbie studying for her license. Y'all are crazy.

I'll stop complaining now and go back to memorizing how many hundreds of feet it takes to stop a car from the time the brake is applied.
According to the Driver Manual, it takes a different amount of time depending on whether you are driving in English or Spanish.

George Washington's Shoes

I always imagined that the nation's capitol would have a pronounced character, something akin to that of Colonial Williamsburg, with a pinch of Athens, some hubris, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. It is, after all, the government heart of one of the largest and strongest nations on earth.

When I got there, it seemed to me that Washington, D.C. is not really a city on its own: if you take the average of the rest of the country, you end up with Washington. (To be fair, I was in the tourist area.) One brochure I glanced at made reference to a strong African-American heritage of the city; probably that is what gives it character. But I had not left time to see anything but Georgetown and the Mall.

I mentioned the strange nature of tourist-area Washington to my father-in-law, who attributes it to careful city planning.
In other words, Washington is a suburb at heart.
I take this to mean either that the heart of America is a suburb, or that the Mall is just where all the Federal buildings are parked and the heart of America is really somewhere else.

My first stop was the Old Stone House, which is a nice place to stop into on the way to somewhere else - it is so tiny, and sparse on explanation, that it did not make me as deliriously happy as other Little Old Houses of my acquaintance. But it is a sweet little pre-colonial house, with a nice little garden in which to stroll around and pretend to be pre-colonial. The rest of the neighborhood, Georgetown, has shed most of its old-fashioned character.

Walking from there by way of the Mall, I stopped into the first Smithsonian that crossed my path, the hall of US History. The Smithsonian is not a museum that tells a story; it is a collection of artifacts. I saw George Washington's clothes and camp kit, and Capt. Clark's compass; and, what is quite striking and awful, the great wooden wheel used for the Civil War draft.

My toddler, who is a real people person, was getting antsy with all these things; so I took her to see the famous statue of George Washington as a Greek hero. She pointed excitedly to the part of the statue at her eye level and exclaimed, "Shoes!"
Yes, dear, George Washington is wearing shoes.

When my toddler looks at George Washington, she is excited to see shoes; my thoughts are more sophisticated, but they don't come up to those of a scholar of US history.
It would be a pity to go through life looking at George Washington and seeing only a pair of shoes.
Each in his own way, we allow ourselves to do this. We don't know what we're missing. How many people go through life thinking Judaism is about guilt and gefilte fish?


12 July 2012


Japanese Dock Washes Up in Oregon

"I can't believe the journey it's made, without anything pulling but the ocean," said beach visitor Sandie Fink. "It's just absolutely amazing to me."

The article is not interesting. But the story as told in the headline alone reminds me of the feeling you get watching an airplane fly off to somewhere else.

Comic Reproof

This re-posted from the Dalai Lama by a friend of mine via social media with the title: "Listen to the guy... Extend your life":

"Like anyone else, I too have the potential for violence; I too have evil in me. However, I try to recall that anger is a destructive emotion. I remind myself that scientists now say that anger is bad for our health; it eats into our immune system. So, anger destroys our piece of mind and our physical health. We shouldn't welcome it or think of it as natural or as a friend."

I posted the following comment that I thought was worth sharing here as well:

"We didn't need the Dalai Lama (or scientists) for that -- we have the wisdom of King Solomon! Ecclesiastes (Koheleth) 11:10: 'Remove anger from your heart and cause evil to pass away from your flesh.' (You see here that Solomon knew that anger was BODILY unhealthy.)

An ironic story I must share: I was staffing a trip to New York for Jewish collegiates and one of our events was a night at a comedy club. Of course, realizing that there was a Jewish audience in the house, they provided plenty of 'Jewish' jokes. One joke involved a play on a Biblical event. At this joke there was no response from the audience. The comedian was so insulted that a Jewish audience didn't get a Bible joke, that, realizing (correctly) that it could only be due to a lack of knowledge of a basic Bible story, the comedian broke character, turned to the audience and declared, 'Jews! It's your Torah! Read it!' Wow, getting mussar (rebuke) from the guy on stage at a Manhattan comedy club. Surreal."

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

09 July 2012


The approach to Duckpond is beautiful: green fields with white fences, real farm country. And then the mansions appeared, followed by rows of what are popularly called McMansions, each on its perfect green lawn, all made out of brick, with shutters.

The people in these houses were unpretentious, down-to-earth, and exceptionally nice, but we had been staying in large, new houses since we landed in America and honestly, the endless newness and expanse of space was beginning to make me homesick. It made me bizarrely happy to visit a family living in Duckpond in a tumbledown little farmhouse with well-trodden wooden floors and shelves for preserves in the basement.

Duckpond is a quiet but nice town, with rabbits and wild tiger-lilies and fireflies. You East Coasters don't realize how blessed you are to have fireflies. And deer! My daughter and I stood transfixed by a deer standing fairly near to us, watching us as we watched it.
"There's a deer!" I exclaimed to a passerby.
"Yeah, they're cute, aren't they," she observed, without stopping.
"We saw a deer!" I exclaimed to our hostess.
"Deer are suburban rats," she explained.
Well, they eat our yard in Portland, too; but I do find them enchanting.

What I found most striking about the observant Jewish community of Duckpond is not what a close-knit community it is, or that all its members, no matter their background and personality, are committed to spiritual growth, but that when I asked them what they like about the Duckpond community, every one of them described these attributes of the community in near-identical terms. That's unusual.

Quoth the Marines

I always thought of the Marines as harsh people who like to bellow and beat each other up.

But over Shabbos we heard two Marines discussing the Corps, and they gave it a cast of nobility. They told stories of Marines pooling their resources to help each other out in peacetime and giving their lives to protect each other in combat, and of the pride of belonging to the Corps, which is a bit like a family; and of how they can always pick another Marine out of a crowd by the way he carries himself... all of which was very interesting to the Jewish educators at the table, who listened to all this for its literal meaning but also as an analogy.

These Marines also observed that when recruits bash each other in the halls, it is not because they disagree with each others' statements, but because they want to test each others' sincerity -- you may say this now, but what I want to know is, when I beat you up for saying it, will you stand?

A question I never thought of in quite that way.

Will you stand?

03 July 2012

The Market

...and, it's Novhardok story time!

Once upon a time, in Novhardok, the head of the yeshiva (the "Alter") observed that merchants' conversations are about business.

Our business in this world, he said, is that of becoming more complete people. We should discuss it.
And so time was set aside in the Novhardok yeshiva for students to pace up and down the study hall in pairs, giving each other mussar.

New students to Novhardok were surprised when they walked into the yeshiva and were immediately taken by the elbow and asked, "Where are you holding?"

This was called birze, a Yiddishized version of the word bourse, market.

They still do something like this in the present-day yeshiva of Novhardok in France... not quite the same, but a related exercise.

The Adventures of Ikkre and Tuffle

Tuffle: I want to throw myself into the woods!
Ikkre: Why?
Tuffle: Because everything in the world is hopelessly beautiful! But I don't know where to place myself in it.
Ikkre: Is it so hard to figure out?
Tuffle: Yes.
Ikkre: What do you have in mind?
Tuffle: Moss and Keats and the Sugar Plum Fairy!
Ikkre: What do you find beautiful about moss and Keats and the Sugar Plum Fairy?
Tuffle: They are all so intense... moss is so very soft and green and gives the whole atmosphere to the forest; and Keats - well, I haven't read much of him; but I liked what I did; and Tchaikovsky just reminds me of wool coats and the possibility of snow. (Realizes) It's a shallow line-up, I know, but my thoughts are disorganized today and those three are what's on top.
Ikkre: Can't you learn a commentary on Psalms?
Tuffle: Aww, Ikkre, can't you come up with something poetic to do?
Ikkre: (bangs head on wall)
Tuffle: (Realizes) I mean... yeah. (blushes)
Ikkre: I think it's a Zohar that says that when the text says King David had beautiful eyes, it means that he had every color in the world in his eyes. And that means that he experienced every possible emotion. And he put every one of them into the Psalms. You want to do something emotionally intense, all mossy and poetic and like an unopened present, go learn Rav Hirsch on Tehillim.
Tuffle: Why are you posting this on the blog? The main drama of the story is not this conversation, but what I went to read afterwards.
Ikkre: I know, but Rav Hirsch is still under copyright.


In the weeks before we began traveling, I began to see certain details through American eyes.
You see that hareidi man, in a black suit, white shirt, and black fedora, walking down the street with an open book, alternately singing aloud from it in Hebrew and mumbling in Aramaic? That apparition is my husband. He is trying to finish reading the weekly Torah portion, with commentary and Aramaic translation, before we get to our friends' house for the Shabbos meal. And this does not usually strike me as that unusual... until I am about to travel to America, when I remember: people don't read aloud while walking down the street in America, do they?

Since landing, I have remembered that in America, I have to ask people how are you. It is not because I expect an answer - they seldom provide one - it is to make them feel loved.
In Israel, this show of affection is unnecessary: you know I love you, and I show it by not taking your time to ask how are you, when you probably have better things to do than answer; instead, we exchange blessings  (-"Good morning!" -"Good morning to the entire world!") - and attend to the matter at hand.

There is an improv artist who makes it her practice to walk around New York City distributing roses to strangers.
My friend and I tried to figure out why we both feel intuitively that this idea, which is lovely for New York, would not fly in Jerusalem.
I think it is because in Jerusalem, you can't just drop a rose into someone's life and skip away. In New York your connection with passing strangers is superficial enough that a rose is a lovely surprise. In Jerusalem a rose is cute, but it pales in comparison with the rest of your relationship, whether or not you have ever met before.

02 July 2012


Here are all the people of my own Jerusalem neighborhood: the yeshiva men and their wives and the double strollers full of kinderlach, walking to and from yeshiva and the grocery store and the schools.

But this population is juxtaposed with the idiom of America: the avreichim and their families live in houses with SHUTTERS! on LAWNS with LAWNMOWERS and the time and inclination to mow them! And they drive!

Lakewood is Disneyland: a fairy-tale country, the stuff of my American childhood but not of the world I have come to know as a grown-up, populated by grown-ups acting as if the magical scenery is real.

I wonder how long I could live there before coming to believe that it is.