Thursday, December 13, 2007

Koshering the White House


According to Nathan Guttman, over at The Forward, Bush had a "day full of Jews yesterday."

Bush’s Hanukkah tradition exceeds any other Jewish celebration offered by his predecessors. While former presidents held one “holiday celebration” for all religions, it was Bush who started the tradition of having a Hanukkah event for the Jewish community, as well as an Iftar dinner for Muslims during the month of Ramadan.

We don't often have reason to say this, but good for him.

The bigger event was the evening Hanukkah celebration. For the past three years, the party has offered a chance for the White House to make its entire kitchen kosher for a day. The operation was overseen by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad’s Washington representative. Shemtov said it was first lady Laura Bush who insisted the whole kitchen be koshered instead of bringing in only a limited amount of kosher food.

Well, my goodness, at least something is kosher in the White House. It's a shame that it lasted for only a day . . .

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Chanukah Sameach!

Contrary to what you might think, this is not a virtual menorah. It is a virtual chanukiah. I learned this only today, from Tamar Fox, over at Jewcy.com.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Death of a Celebrity Writer

A month or so ago, I received a telephone call from a friend who was at a Norman Mailer conference, somewhere in Texas I believe. I didn't know they organized such things. Today, sadly, I read that Norman Mailer has died.

"He's always been at the center of a number of cultural storms and issues," Sipiora says. "He engaged the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s. He's been a prolific sports commentator. He's also been a critic of contemporary fiction forms. So in that sense, he's been very influential in a cultural way."

Conflict seemed to be at the core of Mailer's life and his work. Whether writing about war, murder or boxing, he seemed fascinated by the idea of violence But if critics sometimes found this fascination excessive, Mailer never apologized for pursuing life with a vengeance. Everything, he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross, was fodder for his writing.

"You know, if you're just bookish, there's a tendency to get terribly bitter about people who are physical," Mailer said. "My feeling from the beginning always was, if you are going to be a novelist, I've got to be a novelist who can encompass all kinds of experience. Don't ever narrow down the horizons of what you want to write about."

Although many people have had some quite despicable things to say about Norman Mailer, I kind of like that he was so volatile, complicated, and controversial.

Mailer always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. But his private life often got as much attention as his prose. Married six times, he was jailed briefly in 1960 for stabbing his second wife, Adele Mailer. And his feuds with fellow writers, including William Styron, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, were infamous. Biographer Mary Dearborn says Mailer was one of the first true celebrity writers.

"This is somebody who aggressively sought out fame," Dearborn says. "He understood the politics of celebrity before anyone else did. The person comparable is Hemingway — who also had celebrity thrust upon him and then came to embrace it."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

And What of Dreams


I began this blog a couple of years ago in the context of dreams and darkness, nightmares and absences, memory and the immemorable. I wrote, in the beginning, of segments of dreams that I had, in the event that they somehow connected themselves to an idea, philosophical or otherwise, that I found interesting and applicable beyond the scope of me me me. Of course, this has always been a blog that focuses primarily on issues of religion, philosophy, literature, and Jewishness, but always along with an undercurrent of dreams.

And then a curious thing happened. I stopped dreaming. Or, perhaps my ability to re-member dreams the next morning ceased abruptly. Or, maybe the possibility exists that we might get to a point at which dreams become indistinguishable from reality, a point where there is no such thing as waking up and realizing that we are awake, and that we have dreamed: truth and fiction fused so seamlessly that they are one and the same. And we find that we are happy.

For many months I did not experience the sensation of dreams and dreaming. This is exceptionally odd because I have always had very intense, often disturbing, and always vividly-detailed dreams. And then, nothing.

But now, for the past few weeks actually, I awake with a jolt nearly every morning (and sometimes at various points in the night) and find that I have been dreaming. The dreams are always frightening. They typically involve someone I love betraying me in the cruelest of ways, or else I walk outside to find that a loved one has been violently dismembered, and I can see it all there before me. They are so detailed, and contain so many elements straight out of my "real" life, that I find myself starting to confuse the boundary between my daydreams and my nightmares.

But the real nightmare is the daytime realization that I can't necessarily extrapolate what has truly happened, from what has happened nonetheless. I wonder if that is really a bad thing, though. I wonder why I need to think in polarities: dream vs. reality.

It is all real.

Tonight I was reading Blanchot:

We cannot recall our dreams, they cannot come back to us. If a dream comes--but what sort of coming is a dream's? Through what night does it make its way? If it comes to us, it does so only by way of forgetfulness, a forgetfulness which is not only censorship or simply repression. We dream without memory, in such a way that the dream of any particular night is no doubt a fragment of a response to an immemorial dying, barred by desire's repetitiousness. There is no stop, there is no interval between dreaming and waking. In this sense, it is possible to say: never, dreamer, can you awake (nor, for that matter, are you able to be addressed thus, summoned).

I think, also, of Delmore Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and wonder if, indeed, responsibility is somehow connected to dreaming. And yet, writes Schwartz, "I am a book I neither wrote nor read,/ A comic tragic play in which new masquerades/ Astonishing as guns crackle like raids . . ."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Iran's President on Gays, Women, and 9/11

According to a piece in the NY Times today, "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, facing a hostile reception at Columbia University this afternoon, said that Palestinians were suffering because of the Holocaust, proclaimed that there are no homosexuals in his country and said he wanted to visit the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan during his trip to New York 'to show my respect.'"

Only in America. Here are Ahmadinejad's pearls of wisdom regarding gays, women, and the World Trade Center. Pardon my language, please, but I have only one word in response to all three of his assertions: bullshit.

In answer to criticism Mr. Bollinger had made about Iran’s treatment of women and gays, Mr. Ahmadinejad had much to say.

“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country,” he said to boos and hisses and even some laughter from the audience.

“In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon,” Mr. Ahmadinejad continued, undeterred. “I do not know who has told you that we have it. But as for women, maybe you think that maybe being a woman is a crime.

“It’s not a crime to be a woman. Women are the best creatures created by God. They represent the kindness, the beauty that God instills in them. Women are respected in Iran.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad also said he hoped to visit the site of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, although police had forbidden him to do so. Mr. Ahmadinejad said he wanted to “show my respect.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

SS Soldiers Have Feelings Too!







I've cross-posted at Jewcy.com.


I have always been a fan of Hannah Arendt.

I have not always, however, been a fan of the "banality of evil" argument. I get it--we are all capable of evil. I agree with that. But when applied to the "logic" of the Holocaust, I think the argument becomes problematic and potentially even transgressive. By saying that anyone could have been capable of the atrocities committed by Nazis and their sympathizers during World War II, we also, whether we intend it or not, minimize the extent to which each individual is responsible for his or her own behavior. We cut the perpetrators a bit of slack by implicitly suggesting that they only did what anyone else would've been equally capable of.

My point: okay, yeah, maybe it could've been anybody, but it wasn't. Each person who contributed in any way to the destruction of Jews and others during the Holocaust is individually responsible. The "it could have been anybody" argument is dangerous because it lessens the degree to which we are all responsible for our actions. And this goes for any genocide or act of violence--not just the Holocaust.

But then . . . there are times when I want to re-think this position.

Today there's a piece in the NYT about a letter received by a young archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The letter, written by a former US Army Intelligence officer, contained photographs of Auschwitz he had found 60 years ago in Germany.

It's not uncommon for someone to send old photos from the Holocaust to the museum, but these particular pictures depict something that is not often seen.

. . . a scrapbook of sorts of the lives of Auschwitz's senior SS officers that was maintained by Karl Hocker, the adjutant to the camp commandant. Rather than showing the men performing their death camp duties, the photos depicted, among other things, a horde of SS men singing cheerily to the accompaniment of an accordianist, Hocker lighting the camp's Christmas tree, a cadre of young SS women frolicking and officers relaxing, some with tunics shed, for a smoking break. . . . The album also contains photos of Josef Mengele, the camp doctor notorious for participating in the selections of arriving prisoners and cruel medical experiments. These are the first authenticated pictures of Mengele at Auschwitz . . .

Museum curators have avoided describing the album as something like "monsters at play" or "killers at their leisure." Ms. Cohen said the photos were instructive in that they showed the murderers were, in some sense, people who also behaved as ordinary human beings. "In their self-image, they were good men, good comrades, even civilized," she said.


I still don't like the "banality of evil" argument, but needless to say, these kinds of pictures give it a lot more credibility.

I highly suggest watching the slideshow here (turn your speakers on for the audio) -- it's only around two minutes long.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sweet, Good, Happy, and All Sorts of Other New Year Blessings


Shana Tova Umetuka!

May you have a sweet and good year.

For once, I actually cling--with an embrace that is anything but tentative--to all of the blessings that my Jewish well-wishing friends have been bestowing on me.

Perhaps, I even believe them.

It will be a happy, happy year. A new year.

It has already begun to be sweet.

Jewcy.com has put together a nice little Renewal Reader for the new year. In it, five or six of the regular Jewcy contributors (myself included) offer brief insights on some of their favorite literary quotes--all focusing on beginnings and renewals in a manner that is more off-beat than you might imagine.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jews and Secret Meetings


This weekend I met a small group of friends for drinks to celebrate the birthday of one of my girlfriends. Her boyfriend's roommate, who I don't know that well but have met on a few occasions, joined us as well. I had a very creepy exchange with him:

Roommate (an Asian male): So, Monica, did you do anything cool this summer?

Monica: Yeah, actually, I was in upstate New York for most of the summer.

Roommate: Oh, cool, what were you doing up there?

Monica: Cornell has this program for literary theory and so I was doing that.

Roommate: Oh, cool, I was up there once for a summer program in high school. I remember we had to walk by waterfalls to get to class. Hey, you must have read that book The Jewish Phenomenon, right? I've been reading it and it's crazy!

Monica: Whu . . . what? Uh, yeah, the waterfalls and gorges at Cornell are amazing.
But, the Jewish . . . what?

Roommate: The Jewish Phenomenon -- it's about how the Jews are so successful and how they can control everything. I grew up around a lot of Jewish kids and now everything makes sense.

Monica: [speechless]

Roommate: And, yeah, it's cool, so I guess there's like this secret meeting every year that all of the Jewish leaders go to make plans.

Monica: [swallowing the vomit that somehow surfaced in my throat] Oh, really. Wow, that's definitely crazy. What kind of meeting is this?

Roommate: I don't know, because it's like a secret, man.


I think Roommate has been reading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Seriously, though, I was completely stunned by this exchange -- not just because there was zero awareness of the anti-Semitic nature of the book he was telling me about (and, to be fair, not all people agree that The Jewish Phenomenon is anti-Semitic), but because he seriously believes that there is a secret meeting of all Jewish leaders every year. The guy was so sweet, and seemed to think it was so cool, that I didn't have the heart to tell him the truth. The most unsettling thing about it is his eagerness to tell me about the book he was reading, and about the secret annual meeting of Jews. This happens to me often -- people know that I do work in Jewish literature and culture, and so they find the need to tell me about a book they've read about Jews, or that once they actually met a Jew, or that they have a Jewish family member. It's such a strange phenomenon in and of itself. But, I'm speechless . . .

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Yeshiva Boys Choir: Breaking Boundaries

Tamar Fox, over at Jewcy.com, says of the following video:
I can't decide if I had a spiritual experience while watching this, or if it gave me chills of horror...



I respond to Tamar's post:

Okay. I was simultaneously creeped out and excited when I watched this video. I felt strangely drawn to it, and at first I wasn't sure why I felt a sense of deja vu.

Then I realized what it was.

I wasn't actually born Jewish. Instead, I was born Evangelical Christian, and since I demonstrated a strong proclivity to music from a young age, over the years I found myself singing in various traveling religious choirs, some of which recorded and performed regularly. The product looked and sounded nearly identical to this . . . sans kippot, of course. And, oh yes, there were girls -- I was one of them.


As somebody who has seen the best and worst of both the Jewish and Christian worlds, when I see things like this I get an uncanny feeling -- uncanny because of the moment at which I cannot remember whether this is a Jewish or Christian children's choir. Of course, there are the kippot and the Hebrew lyrics that identify it as Jewish, but otherwise it could've easily been a product of the Jews' Jesus-loving offspring.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Big Bird vs Palestinian Bee


To say that children are impressionable is an understatement, to say the least. From a very young age, humans begin to formulate perceptions of the world around them -- perceptions that are not easily changed, even later in life when the children become adults. I've often said that as much as I support the existence of the State of Israel and its right to defend itself, I can sympathize with Palestinian grief. It's not a black-and-white situation anymore; it's much more nuanced than that. Much more complicated.

I can imagine the impression that is made on a young Palestinian boy who watches his father's face as the family's home is bulldozed by Israelis. I can imagine that the boy might vow to avenge his father, and the family's honor, in any way possible. I can imagine this, and sympathize with such a family's plight, in spite of my "pro-Israel" stance.

But I am disturbed on a much deeper level when the malleability of children's minds is knowingly exploited in destructive and underhanded ways. I just happened to see this piece in the IsraelInsider about a Palestinian children's show that features a giant bee who teaches kids to hate Jews. You can watch the clip here, and I have also copied part of the transcript below.

This so never happened on Sesame Street. So much for tolerance.

Nahoul, a giant bee: "My friends, Al-Aqsa awaits you. My dears, Al-Aqsa is very sad. My friends, Al-Aqsa is being held prisoner and is besieged by the criminal murderers of children. We must arise in order to take revenge upon the criminal Jews, the occupying Zionists. We must liberate Al-Aqsa. Do you know how we can liberate it and get hold of its key, just like it was liberated by Saladin?"

Child host Saraa: "How, Nahoul?"

Nahoul: "How? By means of morning prayers, blood, sacrifice, and pain, by means of martyrs, and with endurance. This is the key. I am so sad, Saraa... Allah Willing, We Will Regain the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Cleanse it of the Impurity of the Zionists"

Saraa: "Don't be sad, Nahoul. I, you, the dear children, even the older ones - the generation of the 'Pioneers of Tomorrow'... Allah willing, we will regain the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and cleanse it of the impurity of the Zionists."

Nahoul: "Allah willing."

Saraa: "On a different subject, Nahoul, let's see what you got up to this week."

Nahoul: "Nothing, Saraa."

Saraa: "Let's see for ourselves."

Nahoul enters the cats' cage at the Gaza Zoo.

Nahoul: "Meow! Meow! I'm opening the door and going in. I opened the door and entered the cage, and the guy didn't see me. I am now standing in the cats' cage. The cats here are asleep - the poor, wretched, imprisoned cats. I feel like abusing them. This cat is asleep. I feel like attacking it."

Nahoul picks up cat by its tail.

"Shoo... Meow..."

Nahoul throws stones and roars at the lions in their cage.

Saraa: "What have you done, Nahoul? Haven't you heard of the hadith of the Prophet..."

Nahoul: "No, Saraa, I haven't heard."

Saraa: "He said that a woman went to Hell because she locked up a cat, without feeding it or letting it eat on its own, Nahoul. Therefore, Allah punished her and sent her to Hell. If you keep doing this, you will have the same fate, Nahoul."

How sweet.

I learned three things from this clip: 1.) Jews are bad and must be destroyed, 2.) Jews must be destroyed, but animals must be cared for, and 3.) If I don't do what Allah wishes (i.e. destroy Jews) I will go to hell.

Nice.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A World Gone Mad

According to a piece in the NYT today, the Indiana State Fair has banned the use of all oils that contain trans fats. So now everyone here can eat guilt-free fried oreos, twinkies, Snickers bars, and Pepsi. Yes, fried Pepsi. As if Indiana fried food was not disgusting enough.

This is why I loved this article:

“This is a slice of heaven,” said Ryan Howell, 31, as he cradled his Combo Plate, which, for the record, consists of one battered Snickers bar, two battered Oreos and a battered Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup — all deep-fried in oil that is trans-fat free, thank goodness.


I used to say that one of the main (though there are many) differences between Indiana and California is the fact that people in Indiana fry everything, and love every second of it, while Californians turn up their nose at fried food and opt instead for trendy plates of low-calorie, high-sodium sushi. And it's true in some sense -- the evidence of this is the fact that in Indiana, at 5'6" and 115 lbs I'm considered runway model thin, but in California I'm an easy candidate for the Jenny Craig weight-loss program.

But I've changed my stance, ever so slightly.

In California we do have our fair share of people who like everything fried. But the difference is that they do not do it out in the open. They know that it is shameful, and so they enjoy their grease-laden fare in secret, in the privacy of their own homes. It's like porn -- most people won't admit to watching it, yet many are secretly addicted to it. But in Indiana, there is no shame in frying anything and everything. It's a world in which deep-fryers occupy daily counterspace with the coffee-maker and toaster. A world gone mad.

I am certainly not making this out to be more sinister than it is. Even the Times hints at its dark underside:

But inside the booth, where the air is dense with oil, workers chuckle about the whole concept. And Mr. Orme himself rarely eats what he cooks here.

“I stay away from fried foods,” he said.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Machu Picchu?


My sister and I have decided to take a trip together in January. We were thinking of going to Machu Picchu, but the recent earthquake in Peru has spooked my sister a bit, and so she may wimp out, and we may end up in Europe again. I just like the way it sounds when I say Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu.

"Where did you and your sister go, Monica?"

"Machu Picchu."

Today I noticed that whenever I say "Machu Picchu," I use a voice that differs greatly from my normal speaking voice. I think I also make a strange face when I say "Machu Picchu." I can feel it. Not sure why I need to do this.

My second choice, after Machu Picchu, was the Greek islands. I had envisioned myself lying on the beach by day and chomping on spanikopita and drinking lots of wine by night. But I'm told that the January weather in Greece will not permit me to lie on the beach unless I am fully clothed and possibly wrapped in a blanket.

Down with the Greek islands in January.

Somebody tells me I should consider taking a trip to Texas instead. There is lots to do there.

Maybe Egypt, though. Somehow I envision myself riding atop a camel and gazing out over the pyramids. When I was in Israel many years ago I rode a camel. And at one point, a very scary man tried to buy me for ten camels--he said, in broken English, that I had nice lips. Gross. I thought I was worth much more.

Or, what about Jordan -- isn't that where Petra is? I want to see Petra because I know it only from that scene in that one Indiana Jones movie--The Temple of Doom, I think it's called.

Must decide . . .

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Minority Report: Sans Jews


I've cross-posted over at Jewcy.com--feel free to leave your comments there as well.

I recently returned “home” to Indiana from spending the summer at Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory. Basically, SCT is like the ultimate nerd camp, where young intellectuals (mostly professors and advanced PhD students) attend seminars and lectures—on literary theory, philosophy, political theory, postcolonialism, and everything in between—all day, everyday, and with a smile. Fortunately, evenings were devoted to reclaiming our cool-ness by going out to all the Ithaca, NY hotspots and drowning our livers in whatever libations the all-too-eager-to-close-at-1am bartenders would pour us (seriously, last call was at 12:30!).

But what does any of this have to do with Jews? Nothing. And, everything, it seems.

In addition to the public lectures and colloquia that all participants (approx. 60) attended, we were each enrolled in one of four seminars that we attended twice a week. I chose a seminar led by Eric Cheyfitz called “What is a Just Society?” On the last day of the seminar, we were asked to fill out evaluation forms. One participant in my seminar, a lusty Latina, was openly angry, groaning and mumbling as she filled out her form.

Later, as a few of us sat outside, I overheard her complaining that there was no diversity at SCT—that all of the seminar leaders and public speakers were white, that there was no minority representation. The few people around her seemed to agree.

Leave it to me to infiltrate myself into a conversation where I am not wanted. “Uh, what about Gayatri Spivak?” I said. Spivak, a heavy-hitter in the world of literary theory, and a South Asian woman, had given a public lecture that was rather bizarre, and in which she relayed too much information about her physical ailments before demanding—ahem, requesting—that the air conditioner be turned off. We were all sweating in sync by the end of her talk. A regular diva, that one. I hope to emulate her one day.

In response, one participant did one of those half-laugh, half-snort things, and said, “Spivak was the token minority.” I was confused. And I was confused because I had counted at least two or three speakers who were Jewish. And Jewish is a minority, right? White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are not minorities. But Jews are minorities. Right?

Apparently not.

As if she had read my mind, the lusty Latina again chimed in, this time with an unveiled air of disgust: “All four seminar leaders are Jews. And two of the three outside speakers are Jews also.” I waited for her to whip out her copy of the Protocols.

Okay, apparently my Jewdar, which is usually right on target, had overlooked a couple Jews. The list of SCT seminar leaders and speakers was as follows:

Daniel Boyarin—My Jewdar did not even have to be turned on for me to know he is Jewish; he’s an openly gay Orthodox Jewish scholar at UC Berkeley who wears both a kippah and suspenders.

Eric Cheyfitz—This guy is Jewish, and he is also pretty bad-ass, and does some cool work with American Indians. He was also a key player in the recent Ward Churchill debacle.

William Connolly—Not a Jew; he was the token WASP.

Dominick LaCapra—Technically not a Jew, but he’s done so much interesting work in Holocaust Studies and trauma theory that he deserves a free pass; in fact, he told me that when he was in Israel, he was the Shabbas Goy, who lit the candles for observant Jews.

Marjorie Levinson—A Jew, of course, who is an expert on Spinoza.

Martha Nussbaum—A convert to Judaism. In her lecture, she kept talking about converting to Judaism from Puritanism. I’m not quite sure what that means. I thought the Puritans died out with the scarlet letter. She wrote a piece on the boycott of Israeli institutions for this summer’s Dissent that I thought was smart and rhetorically savvy, but in her public lecture at Cornell she was anything but that.

Bruce Robbins—A Jew! My Jewdar completely missed this one! He’s totally incognito, except for that Magen David around his neck.

Gayatri Spivak—Like I said, not a Jew, but according to some, the “token minority.”

Ann Laura Stoler
—Jewish; an anthropologist over at the New School; the sound of her voice is so loud and abrasive that it scrambled the decoder on my Jewdar and I nearly missed identifying her as Jewish.

In my opinion, this was a great—though perhaps imbalanced—celebration of diversity. But I was one of very few people who saw it that way. Frankly, I was a bit freaked out by the animosity that the presence of so many ethnically Jewish (only one was religiously Jewish) speakers provoked in this particular group of participants. There was something creepy about it—what I mean to say, is that had all of the Jewish participants been Asian or African American or anything else, these people wouldn’t have been upset.

But they were Jewish. And they dominated the playing field. And they were kicking ass.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised—it’s par for the course. You’re not a “minority” once your ethnic group becomes successful or outnumbers the “majority” in any isolated instance. It’s the same reason why, as a scholar of Jewish and Jewish American literature about to enter the job market, I’m afraid to market myself as someone who does ethnic American literature.

So, what’s the story—are Jews no longer minorities?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Everything's a Holocaust, Everyone's a Nazi

There are very few things that drive me crazy (okay, maybe there are more than a few), but one thing that really gets to me is the ease with which people like to evoke the Holocaust as some kind of measuring stick. We don't like what someone is doing, we call them a Nazi. We don't like the way a group of people is treated, we label it a Holocaust. In one of my first graduate classes I remember an openly gay man going on and on about what he called the Holocaust of homosexuals in America. I thought the comparison was ironic, given his equally open stance on Jews: he hated them, and was always ready to bash them for one reason or another.

God, people, be a bit more original -- get a different term.

And then there's Seinfeld's notorious soup Nazi (see below) -- extremely funny, but in poor taste.



Or what about the recent Ward Churchill debacle -- he thought it would be cool to call all of the victims of the World Trade Center collapse "Little Eichmans." Now, I certainly don't think he deserved to be fired for making the remark, but it's beyond gross and inappropriate.

But this one, today (well, actually a couple of months ago), from syndicated radio host Glenn Beck, is really bizarre:


Al Gore's not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them. It is the same tactic, however. The goal is different. The goal is globalization. The goal is global carbon tax. The goal is the United Nations running the world. That is the goal. Back in the 1930s, the goal was get rid of all of the Jews and have one global government.

You got to have an enemy to fight. And when you have an enemy to fight, then you can unite the entire world behind you, and you seize power. That was Hitler's plan. His enemy: the Jew. Al Gore's enemy, the U.N.'s enemy: global warming.


You can read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Post-Ithaca Depression and Repression


Repression = The unconscious exclusion of painful impulses, desires, or fears from the conscious mind.

I want to learn how to develop the art of repression.

Then, I would like to repress West Lafayette, Indiana, and everything that comes with it.

Except for the North American Levinas Society.

But it seems rather unlikely that I will be able to repress WL.

I might as well just ask for a magic wand that makes things disappear.

Counting down the days until I can say sooooo loooooooong.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

30 and Thrilling



I turned 30 last Tuesday. With a birthdate like mine (7/17/77) you would think I would have all, or at least some, of the luck in the world. I tend, however, to be a magnet for disaster and catastrophe most of the time. And I am not lucky in Vegas. In real life, I work hard and know how to network, but I am not lucky. I once played the lottery and did not win. I am not lucky.

I spent all of last year, my last year of my twenties, gearing up to turn 30 -- preparing for the day I would wake up and not be young anymore. I focused on training myself mentally to withstand the horror that is 30. A few months ago, before I came up to Ithaca for the summer, for Cornell's School of Criticism and Theory, I was deeply depressed when I realized I would be spending my 30th at theory camp with a bunch of people I did not know.

I should be in Hollywood on that day, I thought to myself, partying with all of the other have beens. Boulevard of broken dreams and all that . . .

But I had a phenomenal day it turns out, though it started off a bit rocky. At midnight, the night before, my friend David accused me of being 30. "No," I said, "I was born in California. I was not born on the east coast. I have three hours left of my twenties."

The challenge then became how to spend those last three hours. What does one do in the final throes of youth? I decided to finish working on a Jewcy.com project that was due the next day, since I really had no other choice. I actually stayed up all night, until 7am, working on it. Happy Birthday.

Then I skipped my Tuesday morning seminar and decided to give myself a birthday nap. I woke up sometime that afternoon and rummaged through a giant ice cream cone-shaped pinata that my mother had sent me the day before, filled with little gifts. When I first received the pinata, I thought it was an empty pinata, and the funny thing is that I was thrilled. I was so excited to be receiving a giant ice cream cone-shaped pinata, even if it was empty. When my mom asked me later that day if I liked the gifts, I had no idea what she was talking about. It seems that turning 30 means you're now easily pleased and amused.

So I searched through the pinata. I was looking for the pin (pictured above) she had sent me. "30 and Thrilling." I was going to wear it and make a parody of myself. I had decided that when in your twenties, it's easy to be sexy. But in your thirties, in the wake of diminished sexiness, you must be funny also. I would try.

That afternoon I attended a lecture by Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin on my birthday. I had been looking forward to this lecture for months, but I could barely keep my eyes open. At the reception afterward, I ate too much and drank too little. My pin was quite the conversation starter. Everyone, mostly women, seemed to feel the need to say the same thing to me: "30 is the new 20" and "Your 30s are the best years of your life." I asked one woman, who was going on and on about how great the 30s are, how old she was. She was 24. "But," she said, "I can't wait to turn 30. I am so jealous that you are 30." Uh, really? She seemed to think that by the time she turns 30 she will have her life figured out.

I am so behind if that was the goal.

But one woman did have a good point when she said, "The year I turned 30 was much better than the year I turned 20. I feel much confident in who I am now than I did when I turned 20." And she was right. I actually feel the same way. I would not trade 30 for 20, though I might trade 30 for, say, 26. My twenties were some of the best, and most horrific, years of my life. I suppose it's good to move on. If only I could keep my 29-year-old body.

But it gets good. After the reception, we decided to go to a place called Stella's for martinis. My first martini as a 30-year-old, pictured below, was ideal -- very cold and extra extra dirty. Lots of people showed up to celebrate, and it was a blast. There was a very loud "Happy Birthday" song, sung by the entire bar (we were the only ones there), that made me happy. Love my new friends. It was actually one of the best birthdays ever, if you can believe it. There is no other group of people I would've rather spent it with. And, as it turns out, Ithaca, NY isn't so bad.

30 is thrilling.

Something I don't often do, but here are a few select photos:


My first martini as a 30-year-old.


My friend Jenny and me. She bought me a birthday lemon drop shot.


Two Levinasians and two Davids.


My friend Mindi and me. She is super cool.


The face of 30: tired and angry.


David and Jenny are two of my favorites. I want to be Local Meat.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Are You There, G-d?

Last night was a typical Saturday night for me -- I ate Indian food and watched a Holocaust documentary. This one, though, actually made me cry in a few instances. Not that crying while watching a film about genocide is surprising, but I've seen so many by this point, and I've read so much about the Holocaust, that I often think I am in some ways desensitized to the individual pain, though I remain passionate about speaking out against the atrocity.

Last Days is about Hitler's massacre of the Hungarian Jews in 1944, in the last days of WWII. But while the documentary itself is incredibly moving and tastefully done (it won an Oscar in 1998 for best documentary), what I was most struck by was the place of G-d in the documentary. Everything always comes back to G-d, and questions of G-d. One man, for example, a Greek Jew who had been a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, asks, "Why did G-d spare me?" I suppose, though, that the better question is: "What kind of god would allow this to happen?" And yet, the atrocity itself seems to answer the question: "There is no god." The irony, of course, (though maybe "irony" is the wrong word) is that he was not spared. G-d did not spare him. He lived, physically, but he was not spared emotionally or psychologically. I imagine that living through such a horrific experience (remember that the Sonderkommando saw the worst of the worst in Auschwitz, and that very few survived to tell the tale) is tantamount to dying countless physical deaths. There is no "life" after Auschwitz.

It is in this context that I thought of something a friend said to me the other day. For various reasons, this person has spent time in different countries, some of which are countries where people don't vacation or travel to for fun because of the terrible things that transpire there on a daily basis. At any rate, witnessing firsthand what we might call the inhumanity of man against man has shaped my friend's view of G-d, which is that there is no G-d.

But of course it is "true" in that it makes perfect sense. Our beliefs in G-d have everything to do with two things: our own experience of the world (which has largely to do with where we live and to what class we belong), and our own desires. I grew up in an Evangelical community (lately I've been saying that I'm a recovering Evangelical, though the truth is that I am fully recovered, thank G-d, with no chance of relapse) where the prevailing mindset was that G-d is good all the time, that if we ask, we will receive, that G-d loves, protects, and watches over us. We are selfish; our view of G-d reflects little more than what we want him to be for us personally.

And so we populate the heavens with the golems of our own narcissistic impulses . . .

But this god exists only for the people who inhabit a culture of mega-churches and economic abundance. Sometimes I still want this god to exist; I want him to be real -- at least "real" in this particular way. But that is not possible anymore, especially when this is a view of G-d that cannot be perceived by most people around the world. One Hungarian survivor from the film -- actually was a member of Congress from California -- said it best: We "cannot find a place for a higher authority in this nightmare." And that is just the nightmare of the Holocaust, not the nightmare of living in a post-Holocaust world full of daily nightmares.

So now I'm going to be depressed all week, no doubt. No more Holocaust films for the next week.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gollum, Santa Claus, and the Communist Manifesto


Yesterday I had to read The Communist Manifesto for the seminar I'm taking this summer. And, not to make light of the struggles of the proletariat or anything . . . but some of the passages struck me as entertaining if not humorous. Then again, it's possible that my notoriously strong coping mechanisms have kicked in, and that I'm finding humor where there is none, absolutely none. But, bear with me . . .

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Spells and sorcerers and nether worlds -- cool! This is so the plot of the Lord of the Rings movies. Who knew that the Communist Manifesto was actually developed in Middle Earth? All I can say, is, what would Gollum say?

And . . .

Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist.

When I read this, all I could think of was Christmas, and of Santa Claus working in his North Pole workshop. I think Santa Claus is the patriarchal master.

I feel like a bad person, but I think we should all be allowed to read between the lines every now and then.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Of Masks and Men


I've cross-posted over at Jewcy.com.

A friend just emailed me the following excerpt from a New York Times piece called "Behind the Masks" by Thomas L. Friedman:

Why were both the Hamas and Fatah fighters wearing ski masks? (And where do you buy a ski mask in Gaza?) These masks are worn by fighters who wish to shield themselves from the gaze of their parents, friends and neighbors, for there was surely an element of shame that Palestinian brothers were killing brothers, throwing each other off rooftops and dragging each other from hospital beds. The mask both protects you against shame and liberates you to kill your brothers - and their children. In our society, it's usually only burglars, rapists or Ku Klux Klansmen who wear masks. The mask literally says: "I don't play by the rules."


Appropriately, Emmanuel Levinas happens to say that the face, literally, says "Thou shalt not kill." For Levinas, face and discourse are tied. "The face speaks," he says. The covering of the face, then, shuts down the possibility for discourse and dialogue. How fitting that Hamas would wear masks. The face is also what calls us into ethical responsibility, and so it follows that any move to cover the face, particularly in the context of an act of violence, is a shirking of the infinite responsibility to which we are called.

I recently did a presentation (at the North American Levinas Society conference) on one of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films -- A Short Film About Killing. In the film's murder scene, in which a transient youth randomly kills a taxi cab driver, the killer stops in mid-murder to cover the face of his victim with a shirt so that he does not have to answer its gaze. It's the most intense moment of the film -- even more intense than the actual murder, which takes twelve minutes.

But Hamas and random murders are extreme examples of the significance of the face. On a more basic, day-to-day level, I think about the way our behavior differs when we can see someone's face, as opposed to when we cannot. On the road, for instance, it is easy to be impolite to other drivers -- to cut them off, curse at them, make obscene hand gestures, refuse to let someone into your lane -- simply because all we're looking at is a vehicle as opposed to the person driving the vehicle: a person with a face.

On the other hand, when pushing a shopping cart in a grocery store, even the rudest and most aggressive drivers tend to be much more polite. It's rare, for example, to see shoppers cutting each other off with their carts and waving their middle fingers. The reason for this is obvious: when you have to look someone in the face you are confronted with your own responsibility to behave decently and to recognize your own humanity in the face of another human being.

And then there are metaphorical masks . . . such as anonymous commenters who keep their identity veiled precisely so they can launch verbal assaults for which they don't have to take responsibility. I've heard of such things.

But aside from all of philosophical musings about masks, faces, and concealed identities, aren't masks just creepy? I much prefer the days when villians stretched women's pantyhose over their faces to distort their features -- now that's classy.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Shatty Day

I finally arrived in Ithaca, NY yesterday. I'll be here for most of the summer, at Cornell's School of Criticism and Theory program. Ithaca is beautiful . . . pictures will be posted tomorrow. And my posts here for the next few weeks will likely be annoyingly theoretical.

I'm optimistic about the summer, and about finishing my dissertation -- despite the bad omen that slopped its way onto my shoulder this morning. As I was sitting outside at a local bagel place enjoying a bagel with cheese, egg, avocado, onion, and bacon, and waiting for my scalding but weak coffee to cool, I felt something wet, warm, and slimy land on my shoulder.

A bird had shat on me. (Is "shat on me" grammatically correct?)

Gross. This also happened to me one other time: when I was at the "leaning tower of Pisa" in Italy, many years ago.

It got on my light blue knee-length shorts, too. But I just laughed, wiped it off, and kept eating. And my family thinks I'm uptight . . . haha.

But, surprisingly, the rest of my day was not quite as shitty. I met some super cool people, and we exchanged lots of big laughs and more than a few pints of good beer. They even laughed at my jokes, though I don't know whether it was because I am really that funny, or they were really that drunk. Either way . . . it was fun, and I'm optimistic about the rest of the summer.

And, anyone who knows me, knows that I don't drink beer (you're more apt to find me with a martini, or even a martini shaker, in hand), so tonight was another new experience for me. I felt so "not pretentious" . . . it was cool.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why Boycotts Are the Devil


I've cross-posted over at Jewcy.com -- feel free to leave your comments there as well.

In an essay in this summer's Dissent (published online in advance of the print version), superstar American philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks out against Britain's 120,000-strong University and College Union vote yesterday to endorse a motion to boycott Israeli universities. Though local branches will decide whether to support the endorsement, British academics are also called on to condemn the "complicity of Israeli academics in the occupation."

Nussbaum, wisely, doesn't get into the specific details regarding boycotts of Israeli individuals and institutions:

There are three reasons for this silence. First, I believe that philosophers should be pursuing philosophical principles—defensible general principles that can be applied to a wide range of cases. We cannot easily tell whether our principles are good ones by looking at a single case only, without inquiring as to whether the principles we propose could be applied to all similar cases.


Made "uneasy" by the single-minded emphasis on Israel, she also points out the irony of the situation -- Americans really should not talk about boycotts of countries across the globe without considering our own policies and actions that "are not above moral scrutiny."

Nussbaum rightly identifies that there is a gross double standard when it comes to the world's critiques of Israel and all things Israeli. But what strikes me as especially disturbing is that few people seem to be pointing out the startling imbalances in the arguments of some of the countries (or their institutions) that are most vehemently opposed to Israel. Come on, people -- yesterday the emperor may have been only scantily clad, but today he is naked and about to run his ass through your living room. Thank G-d we have Nussbaum to call it like it is.

Nor should we fail to investigate relevantly comparable cases concerning other nations. For example, one might consider possible responses to the genocide of Muslim civilians in the Indian state of Gujarat in the year 2002, a pogrom organized by the state government, carried out by its agents, and given aid and comfort by the national government of that time (no longer in power). I am disturbed by the world’s failure to consider such relevantly similar cases. I have heard not a whisper about boycotting Indian academic institutions and individuals, and I have also, more surprisingly, heard nothing about the case in favor of an international boycott of U.S. academic institutions and individuals. I am not sure that there is anything to be said in favor of a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions that could not be said, and possibly with stronger justification, for similar actions toward the United States and especially India and/or the state of Gujarat.


The breakdown of impartiality in the case of the boycott of Israeli institutions is as clear as day.

By failing to consider all the possible applications of our principles, if we applied them impartially, we are failing to deliberate well about the choice of principles. For a world in which there was a boycott of all U.S., Indian, and Israeli scholars, and no doubt many others as well, let us say those of China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (on grounds of sexism), and Pakistan (on the same grounds, though there has been a bit of progress lately) would be quite different from the world in which only scholars from one small nation were being boycotted, and this difference seems relevant to the choice of principles.


What's great about Nussbaum's piece is that she doesn't simply rail on and on about the problems with the boycott without offering a solution. In fact, she offers six alternatives to the boycott:

1. Censure

Censure is the public condemnation of an institution, usually by another institution. Thus, for example, a professional association might censure an academic institution that violates the rights of scholars. Censure takes various forms, but the usual form is some sort of widely disseminated public statement that the institution in question has engaged in such and such wrongful action. Professional associations have also censured governments, or government policies, such as the Iraq War.

2. Organized Public Condemnation

Sometimes organized movements carry on campaigns to alert the public to the wrongful actions of an institution. Most of the international consumer protest movement against the apparel industry has taken this form. Thus, movement members will try to circulate documents to customers of the retail outlets where objects made by child labor are being sold and will try to make customers aware of the behavior of the corporation in question. The customers themselves can then choose whether to buy from the retail chain or not. This sort of public condemnation is very different from a boycott of the retail outlets, because it allows the individual consumer to choose and does not directly threaten the livelihood of workers.

3. Organized Public Condemnation of an Individual or Individuals

When it is believed that certain individuals bear particular culpability for the wrongs in question, then it is possible to work for the condemnation of those individuals. Thus, if Martin Heidegger had been invited to the University of Chicago, I would have been one of the ones conducting a public protest of his appearance and trying to inform other people about his record of collaboration with the Nazi regime. Again, in the approach I am considering, there would have been no attempt to prevent people from going to hear Heidegger: the emphasis would have been on informing, persuading, and promoting personal choice.

4. Failure to Reward

Some modes of interaction are part of the give and take of daily scholarly business; others imply approval of an institution or individual. Without going so far as to censure the institution or individual, people might decide (whether singly or in some organized way) that this individual does not deserve special honors. The debate resulting in Margaret Thatcher’s being denied an honorary degree from Oxford University fits in this category. By conferring an honorary degree, a university makes a strong statement about its own values. Harshness to the poor and the ruin of the national medical system, not to mention then-Prime Minister Thatcher’s assault on basic scientific research, were values that the Oxford faculty believed that it could not endorse.

5. Helping the Harmed

Usually, when wrong has been done, some people have suffered, and one response would be to focus on helping those who have been harmed. Thus, many scholars concerned about the Gujarat genocide put aside their other engagements and went to help the victims find shelter, take down their eyewitness testimony, help them file complaints, and so on. Others occupied themselves in defending scholars who had been threatened with violence by the Hindu right, publicizing their situation and protesting it.

I wonder if number 5 should have been the first line of defense in this boycott alternative lineup.

6. Being Vigilant on Behalf of the Truth

Often, people who commit wrongs shade the truth in their public statements, and one thing that it is extremely important for scholars to do is to combat falsehoods and incomplete truths. Here again, the case of the Hindu right is instructive. It has its own cherished but quite false view of ancient and medieval history, according to which Hindus are always peaceful and Muslims are always villains. When they put this version of history into textbooks for public schools in India, there was a tremendous outpouring of scholarship showing exactly what was and is wrong with it. After the election of 2004, those textbooks were withdrawn, and the field of combat shifted to the United States, where the Hindu diaspora community is very involved with the Hindu right.

Nussbaum goes on to discuss boycotts, those "blunt instruments," at length. She concludes:

As for the academic boycott, it is a poor choice of strategies, and some of the justifications offered for it are downright alarming. Economic boycotts are occasionally valuable. Symbolic boycotts, I believe, are rarely valuable by comparison with the alternatives I have mentioned, and the boycott in this case seems to me very weakly grounded.

She's right, of course (in my mind), and this kind of protest against boycotts in general might be the most effective way to go about rectifying the situation. But . . . I still can't help but think that the root of the problem -- many countries' deep-seated hatred of Israel -- is not going to go away any time soon . . .

Monday, May 28, 2007

After Me

Apres Moi . . .

Be afraid of the lame, they'll inherit your legs
Be afraid of the old, they'll inherit your souls
Be afraid of the cold, they'll inherit your blood
Apres moi le deluge, after me comes the flood

I must go on standing
You can't break that which isn't yours
I must go on standing
I'm not my own, It's not my choice

Fevrale dostat chernil i plakat
Pisat O Fevrale navsnryd
Poka grohochushaya slyakot
Vesnoyu charnoyu gorit.


Regina Spektor rocks. Gotta love a bronx girl by way of Moscow. And I detect a Magen David around her neck . . .

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Pursuit of a Soul


Tonight, I am captivated by something Simone Weil once wrote, and which I was reminded of when I was browsing Casey's blog (it's his "favorite quote"):

God wears himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to capitvate it. If it allows a pure and utter consent (though brief as a lightning flash) to be torn from it, then God conquers that soul. And when it has become entirely his he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it. And that is the cross.
I've always loved Simone Weil, not because I agree with everything she said or did (the girl was a bit nuts, and I'm not just talking about her eating disorders), but because of how passionate and mystical she is, and because I love sensing those kinds of things in a person's language.

And Weil is particularly interesting to me because she embarked, in some sense, on a journey opposite mine. I move from Christianity to Judaism, and she converted to Christianity (she was born into an agnostic Jewish family). Sometimes I do wonder, however, whether we move not in opposite directions at all . . .

Words are . . . everything. And not always because of what they represent, or what they brazenly claim to evoke, but because of how they taste . . . feel . . . sound. I like words that get under my skin and make my heart race. I like combinations of words that leave me feeling chilled. I live for moments within language that cause me, as I sit alone late at night, to close my eyes, smile to myself, draw the palms of my hands up to my cheeks, and press inward with them.

Of course I'd read this quote before, though I can't at the moment recall in which of Weil's works I initially discovered it. But it earned my special reaction tonight as I considered it. It makes me think of Levinas's comments about atheism, and how the path to G-d often takes one through atheism before a true experience of the divine can be embraced. I want to read Weil's moment at which the soul is alone, groping its way back to G-d, as atheism. Perhaps only for this moment.

And for tonight, I think what I love about this is the vision of a god who would wear himself out in pursuit of one soul. And yet, of course, I know that this says much more about me, and the divine entity whom I would like to envision in the heavens, than it does about anything, or anyone, else.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Buberian Dilemma

So, I was completely startled today when I went to Jewcy.com and saw Martin Buber and Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), together, and staring straight at me. The occasion for such a bizarre (gotta love Photoshop) picture was an article by Elisa Albert, in which she makes a case for Elle Woods as the ultimate example of Buberian ethics -- a comparison she makes only partially tongue-in-cheek.


Yeah, it sounds totally cheesy, but it was a pretty good article. Then again, anyone who knows me also knows my obsession with German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, and my secret, shameful enjoyment of the Legally Blonde movies -- something about a hot blonde with brains, a cute dog, and an ability to strategize appeals to me for some odd reason. And, okay, I love pink, though I would never admit it.


But back to Buber. After reading the article, I went back to look at some essays on Buber's whole I-Thou concept. According to Buber (in this is a super condensed interpretation), the way we relate to the world can be broken down into either I-Thou or I-It relationships. The former, of course, is what we ought to strive for. Being in an I-Thou relationship with someone or something means that we are experiencing them in a way similar to Levinas's face-to-face encounter.


It is possible, notes Buber, to place ourselves completely into a relationship, to truly understand and "be there" with another person, without masks, pretenses, even without words. Such a moment of relating is called "I-Thou." Each person comes to such a relationship without preconditions. The bond thus created enlarges each person, and each person responds by trying to enhance the other person. The result is true dialogue, true sharing.
I love I-Thou relationships. True -- one rarely experiences them, and they are never sustained indefinitely, but they are moments to live for.

Finally, Buber offers us a Jewish insight into the I-Thou relationship. After our redemption from Egypt, we as a people encountered God. We were available and open, and the Sinai moment was an I-Thou relationship for an entire people and for each individual. The Torah, the prophets, and our rabbinic texts were all written by humans expressing the I-Thou relationship with the Eternal Thou. By reading those texts and being available to the relationship inherent in them, it is also possible for us to make ourselves available for the I-Thou experience with the Eternal Thou. We must come without precondition, without expectation because that would already attempt to limit our relationship partner, God, and thus create an I-It moment. If we try to analyze the text, we again create an I-It relationship because analysis places ourselves outside of the dialogue, as an observer and not a total participant.


Okay, so as I'm reading this, particularly the last line, it occurs to me that, given the nature of my work and the significance of language to all that I do, I fear that I have made a profession of cultivating I-It relationships. Great, just what I want to do with my life. I wonder if there is a way out of this Buberian dilemma . . .

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Disgrace

I just did something lovely. I finished a novel that I was reading for pleasure, one that had nothing to do with any projects I'm working on. I finished J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and now I am a huge Coetzee fan -- definitely in my top ten favorite writers of all time. And, I should say, it's tough to make it onto my top ten list if you're not a Jewish writer, but Coetzee joins two other lucky non-Jews on my list: Jose Saramago and Toni Morrison. I really did not try to include Nobel prize-winners, but I guess they won for a reason . . .

I mentioned this to my dissertation advisor yesterday when we were having lunch, and he told me that Coetzee was once his teacher at Buffalo, but that he had left the university "in disgrace." If you aren't familiar with the novel Disgrace it's about that very subject. Such strange little connections I'm always discovering . . . all over the place . . . in the likeliest, and unlikeliest, of places.

On my list to read this week:

Allegra Goodman's Intuition
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Monday, May 07, 2007

How Many Jews Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?

As usual, I've cross-posted over at Jewcy.com.

My roommate is my newest blogging muse. She delights in feeding me information that I can turn into blog posts. And I, in turn, take great joy in accepting her great ideas and passing them off as my own.

So, a few nights ago she came downstairs with her Smithsonian magazine in hand to show me an article on Thomas Edison and the evolution of the lightbulb. Apparently, incandescent bulbs are for bad people who don't care about the earth. But compact flourescent light (CFL) bulbs (they're the ones that look like squigly, corkskrew things) are, at least for now, the bulb-of-choice for those who are "environmentally conscious."

For those of you who are concerned: No, my roommate and I do not often commune to discuss the technological advancement of light sources, though we have been known to argue about the syntactical nuances of a two-syllable word for an ungodly amount of time. On a good night, though, we realize how nerdy we are and quickly shift to a discussion of whether skinny jeans are really a good look for anyone.

She thought I would find the article amusing, though, because it highlighted a nationwide campaign launched by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life called "How Many Jews Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?" The campaign is geared toward getting Jewish communities to be more environmentally aware. It's an attempt at proselytization, so to speak -- urging incandescent-bulb-using Jews (and others) to convert to the CFL bulb belief system. It's a cool idea, and very tikkun olam, which I am ALL about.

All good stuff. The problem? I am not "environmentally conscious," it seems. You either are, or you aren't. Yes, I should be. But I'm not.

My roommate, however, is the recycler extraordinairre, queen of the environmentally aware. I, on the other hand, drink a bottle of water every day, and when I am done I throw it in the trash. I am environmentally challenged. I gripe when my roommate's gigantic box of "stuff to be recycled" takes up too much space in our office. I snarl when she goes through the house trading out my incandescent bulbs for her CFL bulbs. I recoil at countless empty catfood tins in the sink, awaiting their journey into her recycling bag.

And yet, I feel guilty . . .

But she drives an SUV, and I do not. It's a trade-off. And I do charity work when I can, so it must even out, right?

And here's my loophole: apparently (according to the Smithsonian piece), these CFL bulbs have mercury issues, which means you don't want them anywhere near the kitchen where food is being prepared -- if the light were to somehow get bumped, you would end up with a dusting of mercury all over your kitchen counter. That's great -- save the ozone, kill the individual, slowly, over time. Death by mercury poisoning.

But then I read this:

Our message is as easy as changing a light bulb: If you could conserve energy and help stop global warming in one simple step, wouldn't you? CFLs use up to 75% less energy than incandescent light bulbs, while lasting approximately eight times longer. This means less production of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and toxic waste. The average CFL will save its owner at least $55 in energy costs over the lifetime of the bulb! Your CFL will pay for itself in energy savings within two to three months (based on a 5-hour/day use and average electricity costs.) If every U.S. household replaced one bulb with a CFL, it would have the same impact as removing 1.3 million cars from the road.

So the ethical dilemma is not a new one: Do I do what will benefit me and my family, or do I take the high road and change out my bulbs in order to remove 1.3 million cars from the road?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Root of All Evil: Don't Bite Too Hard

You can find my most recent blog entry on candy with razor blades, religion, and the root of all evil here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One Man's Trash Is Another Electrician's Treasure: Bringing Home the Bacon

Cross-posted over at Jewcy.com -- feel free to leave your comments there as well.

I used to live in Irvine, California, which is a relatively nice place that is also one of the cleanest and safest cities in the US. But I had a bizarre experience one day. I walked out to the dumpster in my complex to throw my garbage away, and saw a very small Asian man hanging out inside the dumpster -- there he was, just lounging on top of the garbage that nearly overflowed from the giant container.

At first I thought he was homeless, and that he had taken up residency inside the dumpster, and it felt very awkward to be throwing my trash out in someone's home. But then I noticed that he seemed to be well-dressed. He even greeted me, not in English, but in a way that made me feel as if he knew me, and so I threw my trash in (as far from where he was sitting as I could), smiled, and said, "Hey, nice to see you!" as if it were completely normal to find someone sitting inside my dumpster.

Later that week, the same thing happened, except this time it was a very small Asian woman sitting inside the dumpster, going through garbage. I tossed in my trash, which consisted, on this occasion, of some discarded notebooks and lots of papers and old bills.

Before I walked away, she crawled over to my rubbish and began going through my papers. She was excited to find the old notebooks, and I saw her put them into her canvas collection bag.

I was mad. It felt creepy to have someone going through my papers even if I considered them trash. It was my trash. The next day, I happened to look out my window and notice the same man and woman coming out of the apartment across from me.

They were my neighbors. They weren't homeless or "needy" -- not if they were living in a fairly nice complex. My neighbors were dumpster divers. To make matters worse, the woman was wearing a hat that I had thrown out.

Okay, fine, what's the big deal? It just feels weird! My neighbors shouldn't be going through my trash, carrying my discarded notebooks, and wearing my old trashy hats.

But perhaps they were on to something.

An article in the Guardian today talks about an electrician who was working at Francis Bacon's studio in west London 30 years ago and noticed the artist dumping rubbish. This guy persuaded Bacon to let him keep these few discarded paintings, diaries, photos, and other odds and ends.

He kept it all, and last night, it was auctioned off as the "Robertson collection" (named after the electrician) for insane amounts of money.
According to Mr Ewbank [of Ewbank Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers]:"This stuff is a little bit of history. If it weren't here, it would be gone for ever. We have a little bit of extra insight into him." Does he have qualms about selling paintings that were rejected, indeed deliberately mutilated, by the artist? "The best judges of art are not the artists themselves," he said. "The fact that these paintings were discarded does not mean that they are not of value. And he did say he regretted destroying so much of his work."

Does this feel wrong to anyone but me? I guess it's true that Bacon essentially gave Robertson his trash, but does the wiley electrician really have a right to capitalize off of a dead-artist's trash? Then again, there's the Kafka dilemma -- Kafka asked Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts after his death. Brod, of course, did not honor his wishes, and for that we are grateful. But is this appreciation merely an indication of our own greedy and narcissistic impulses?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Witch Hunt Begins

I've cross-posted over at Jewcy -- feel free to leave comments there as well.

In the wake of every disaster, we always look for a scapegoat -- someone or something to blame, something at which to point our wagging fingers. Or, in struggling to understand why or how something catastrophic happened, we try to re-trace the steps leading up to the event. We assign new, enlightened meaning to old facts and moments. We grieve, we televise the mourning, and then the witch hunt begins.

After the Columbine tragedy people pointed fingers at violent video games and the music of artists such as Marilyn Manson, insisting that such things warp the minds of young adults and turn innocent children into homicidal maniacs. In response to such accusations, Manson wrote an incredible essay for Rolling Stone called "Columbine: Whose Fault Is It? In it, Manson implicates all of us in the death of the students at Columbine -- it's such a great essay that it's taught in composition classrooms all around the country (mine included). The main point: "America loves to find an icon to hang its guilt on.

So now I read on MSNBC that the gunman of yesterday's Virginia Tech shooting was a "depressed and deeply disturbed young man whose 'grotesque' creative writing projects led a professor to refer him for psychological counseling."

Fellow students in a playwriting class with Cho also noticed the dark and disturbing nature of his compositions.“His writing, the plays, were really morbid and grotesque,” Stephanie Derry, a senior English major, told the campus newspaper, The Collegiate Times. “I remember one of them very well. It was about a son who hated his stepfather. In the play, the boy threw a chainsaw around and hammers at him. But the play ended with the boy violently suffocating the father with a Rice Krispy treat,” Derry said. Otherwise, Cho was a young man who apparently left little impression in the Virginia Tech community. Few of his fellow residents of Harper Hall said they knew the gunman, who kept to himself.
Okay, sure, that's a little disturbing, but I think this is just where the scapegoating process begins. Dark, disturbing creative writing projects do not a murderer make. Think of iconic Southern gothic writer Flannery O'Connor, whose stories include everything from girls with wooden legs being taken advantage of to small children being crushed by tractors and farmer's wives being gored by bulls. And what about Edgar Allen Poe? Surely we can think of countless examples of literary greats who were consumed with the idea of death. But, like I said, this is where the witch hunt begins, as we point the first round of fingers at school counselors and teachers who read his dark writing and did little or nothing about it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vonnegut, Non-Jewish Writer, Dies

I'm blogging a bit over at Jewcy this week and next so this post is over there as well -- feel free to leave your comments there.

Kurt Vonnegut, called one of America's best writers by the likes of Graham Greene, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe, died last night -- apparently due to complications from brain injuries sustained during a recent fall. You can read about it in the Times. Some of his best-known works include Cat's Cradle (1963), The Sirens of Titan (1959), Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Vonnegut was one of those lucky writers whose work made into both mainstream and academic venues -- I actually read my first Vonnegut book as an undergrad in a class called Metafiction, and was surprised to learn that even some of my non-college-bound friends had also read Vonnegut and thought Slaughterhouse Five was rad.

I was planning to go hear him read and give a talk on April 27 here in Indiana -- at Butler University in Indianapolis, Vonnegut's home town. Vonnegut is one of Indiana's claims to fame. I'm living in Indiana right now (very temporarily), and one thing I've noticed is that people here are fiercely loyal to anyone from the state. They also go nuts if they're in a bar and Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" song starts to play (First verse: "She grew up in an Indiana town / Had a good lookin' momma who never was around / But she grew up tall and she grew up right / With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night"). It's no joke -- I was once in a campus bar called Harry's Chocolate Shop, and though it was packed with wall-to-wall people, when that song came on every single person in there (excluding me) jumped to their feet and began singing the lyrics. I feared they might riot. Or that there would be a stoning of people not from Indiana. So I joined in.

My point being: Indiana loves Vonnegut, so it's a sad day here.

But I learned something new about an hour ago. In talking to a friend of mine who is a scholar of Jewish-American and other literatures, I got into a conversation about Slaughterhouse Five, which is really about Vonnegut's own experience with the WWII Dresden bombing. My friend said he has always been slightly bothered by the book -- that it feels slightly anti-Semitic, though not in any overt way (anti-Semitic because it completely ignores the Holocaust, and focuses only on other WWII events, which does feel a bit strange). "But Vonnegut was Jewish, wasn't he?" I asked. No. Apparently he was not. This whole time I thought Vonnegut was a Jewish writer who didn't write about Jewish things -- like Joseph Heller (good friend of Vonnegut) or Norman Mailer or Paul Auster or Nathaniel West. The reason I thought this: a good friend of mine, who also happens to be a fairly well-known novelist in the Jewish-American literary world, told me so!

So was Vonnegut anti-Semitic? I don't know. I don't think so, but I do find the omission of the Holocaust in Slaughterhouse to be kind of creepy. Then again, in looking back at Breakfast of Champions a few minutes ago, a picture of a flag with a swastika on it caught my eye. Above the flag, Vonnegut writes:

Dwayne certainly wasn't alone, as far as having bad chemicals inside of him was concerned. He had plenty of company throughout all history. In his own lifetime, for instance, the people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions. The people were delivered by railroad trains. When the Germans were full of bad chemicals, their flag looked like this:



Of course, on the next page Vonnegut includes a picture of today's German flag, and writes: "Here is what their flag looked like after they got well again." But the last part of this section is my favorite -- Vonnegut writes about the "cheap and durable [German] automobile" that became popular all over the world after the war (the Volkswagen Beetle). He includes a drawing of the beetle insect, and writes underneath it: "The mechanical beetle was made by Germans. The real beetle was made by the Creator of the Universe." Pretty profound, don't you think, particularly in the wake of Nazi Germany's efforts to play God . . .

Monday, April 02, 2007

Words To Live By

The Internet is a dangerous thing -- for me. And by dangerous, I mean that it is not only a wealth of useful information that will aid and abet my cutting-edge research on midrashic theory, but also a useful source of distractions, most of which are of little use. Tonight, as I struggled to finish a review of a new book on Philip Roth's later fiction, I was lured in by the promise of the Internet to educate and entertain. And before I knew it, I found myself roped into one of my favorite procrastinating pastimes: looking at online dating profiles. Really, if you've never tried it, you must do so soon. It is endlessly entertaining.

I'm fascinated with the way people go about constructing their online identities. But cultural studies aside, what typically keeps me entertained are the odd things people say. And so tonight I have begun a list, at the urging of my roommate, of all of my favorite lame things that people say. Here are three of my favorite from this evening's late-night romp in internet dating cyberspace, as well as my pithy commentaries. Oh, and tonight's words of wisdom all hail from the often-not-kosher-enough world of JDate.

1.) "I am looking for someone who is similar to or different from me."

Now here's a guy who knows what he wants and goes after it. He also sounds like a careful, critical thinker, someone who is not willing to date just anybody. He's very selective.


2.) "I like to concentrate on things I'm focused on."

Now, this is not a man I could date. We would never get along because I only concentrate on things that I don't focus on. The question to which this guy was responding, of course, was "what are your interests?" I wonder what he is focused on . . . I mean, is it Kant? Biomechanical engineering? The upcoming elections? Or is it nothing more than what he will have for dinner tonight? Oh, and this guy is, allegedly, a surgeon.


3.) "I am compatible with those I get along with."

Here, the potential dater was supposed to answer the question of what type of person he is most compatible with. And there you have it. All you need to know about dater #3.

More to come . . .

Thursday, March 22, 2007

There is . . .


There are days, every once in a while, that seem not to belong to me. On these days, I feel as if I am mourning a death -- I would go so far as to say that I know someone or something has died, disappeared, gone away, been corrupted. But I can never figure out who it is, and why it hurts me so much. And I wonder whose sorrow I am bearing. For surely it is not mine -- neither part nor parcel of my life, so happy and blessed.

Today is one of those days.

There is sorrow. Under cover of night there is sorrow fed by insomnia. Il y a . . . more than one should bear.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dangerous Rhetoric: Christian Fundamentalist Blames Jews

A friend of mine sent me this very disturbing link a few days ago -- John Hagee, a prominent Christian evangelist in Texas, apparently believes the Jews are to blame for the Holocaust, that it was their idolotrous ways that brought the Holocaust upon themselves. What I find fascinating about this is the almost militant pro-Israel stance taken up by Hagee and his followers. Hagee, and most right-wing Christian fundamentalists, actually claim to be on "their" (the Jews) side -- Hagee's ministry has actually raised thousands of dollars for Jewish and Israeli charities. In some ways, it's not an entirely bad thing for the Jews, the most persecuted group of people since the beginning of existence, to have the support of a group as large (and loud) as the evangelicals, but it's a very misguided, and creepy, kind of support, and the rhetoric that accompanies it is dangerous.

Why? Because Hagee and Christian fundamentalists like him seem to care about Israel and the Jews only insofar as they are a tool to usher in the apocolypse that will allow Christians to be raptured out of this world and into heaven. They believe the Jews are G-d's "chosen" people only in that they are chosen as tools to facilitate the "end times." It's creepy, on so many levels. But what concerns me most is the danger in suggesting that Jews are to blame for the Holocaust -- this kind of faulty logic silences the "never again" and opens up the possibility for something like the Holocaust to happen again, when in reality we know that the atrocities and tragedies of the Shoah are ineffable and without meaning or purpose. I suppose, though, that it would be spiritually catastrophic for someone like Hagee to believe that the Holocaust has no meaning, that it shouldn't have happened, wasn't supposed to happen; the god of Hagee's belief system had to either allow the events of the Holocaust to transpire, or to cause them to transpire as a punishment to so-called disobedient people. But some things are beyond the scope of reason or purpose -- some things can't be articulated or explained away. And this concept, I think, must be terrifying to people like Hagee, because it calls their god into question, summons him to a higher ethical power to which he simply cannot answer.