Saturday, January 29, 2011


The news from Egypt has hit the circular point, where the 24-hour news channels have run out of all the actual new news for the day and are repeating the same stories on an approximately 10-minute cycle. One of the major themes that keeps coming up, of course, is the role of Twitter and Facebook in starting the uprising.

Should we be surprised by this? I mean, really? It's a significant story in that, and only in that, it is further evidence social media has reached some point of maturity in the global culture,  or at least emancipated minorhood. But this cycle happens with every communication technology at some point early in its career.

One of the pieces of the American and French revolutions that always stood out to me was the constant use of pamphlets as a means of social protest. When I was in high school, that did not always make sense to me; I understood the use of provocative and disruptive literature, but I grew up in a time when print media had already lost a lot of its bite. The newspaper and magazines did not continue the trend of great muckraking journalism; the major investigative reports were coming from television news. And books could certainly be persuasive, but it takes so long, it seemed to me, to write, edit, publish, and distribute a hardcover that it seemed impractical for the speed at which revolutions move.

I did not understand the reality of what these pamphlets were. As Dan Carlin said in a recent podcast, one was a member of the Press because one owned a press. What I should have been thinking of were people going home, writing an angry treatise on their computer, and printing a few hundred copies on their desktop printer to hand out the next day. In our culture this is usually associated with crackpots and church newsletters (no parallel intended), but in the Revolutionary War era people were taking these pamphlets seriously.  It really is a direct ancestor of the modern social media superstar; one person posting to their Facebook page, an activity usually used by high school students to complain about gym class, in this charged climate becomes important, interesting news. People listen.

The same happened with radio and television. A major part of American opposition to the Vietnam war is attributable to the images people saw on TV, and it was Edward R. Murrow's reporting that finally brought down McCarthy. It was a little harder with these technologies, though, because the means of broadcast were not broadly available. Only a few people were able to put their message out there, but those people had power.

So now it is social media's turn. And the means of distribution are literally in everyone's hands. Anyone with a cell phone suddenly becomes a broadcasting station able to reach millions. Every Tweet becomes a Tweet heard 'round the world, even as the volume makes it difficult to listen to any one. So why are people surprised this is become a powerful tool for protest and revolution?

The shock about so noble a usage comes because so many people had dismissed social media as a base medium. Twitter, Facebook, and the rest were dismissed as childish tools good for no more than gossip and games. The people that feel this way, though, forget that the power of a tool lies not within itself, but the applications people turn it to. And a tool that can tell millions of people around the world what I ate for lunch can also tell them to meet me at the Capitol and bring their pitchforks.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Is Freedom coming to the Land of Bondage?

My wife and I are spending Shabbat evening watching Anderson Cooper's coverage of the events in Egypt. Purple prose aside, these are obviously significant events we see unfolding.

It occurred to me, this could make for an interesting Passover this year. How does it change the Seder's narrative of Us, the enslaved Israelites, versus Them, the monolithic enemy nation and especially their tyrannical leader, when "Them" is currently tearing itself apart in protest of said tyrant, and no one is sure what their future will be?

Hopefully the situation will be successfully and peacefully resolved before Passover arrives this year (April 19), but it will still make for an interesting commentary and subtext for the holiday.


One of the major mysteries and unanswered questions of the Seder - a ritual based on answering questions! - is why God was so...careful, almost, to keep Pharoah in power. With all the death and destruction going on, wouldn't it have been easier just to kill him and take the Israelites out during the ensuing chaos? Depending on the version of the story, Pharoah doesn't even die at the Red Sea; he survives to go back to his ruined kingdom.

So how would it change the story if, after a few plagues had ruined Egypt's economy, job market, and food supply (a pretty close parallel to the current situation), the population had taken to the streets demanding regime change and new social policies?

Of course, the big question now seems to be that we're not sure who is coming into power afterward. Will there, in fact, be a new government, or just new faces under the same leader and structure? Will there be a democratic age of freedom, reason, and enlightenment, or a Islamic theocracy defined by fundamentalism, repression, and isolation?

I can see it strengthening the impact of the holiday by helping us identify more with our ancestors on the ground. The confusion and uncertainty we all feel about the country today, and what it means for the future of everyone in the region, mimics what they felt, huddled in their houses praying for freedom as the Angel of Death strode through the streets.

The Giving Tree: Morality Play or Good Literature?

I posted a comment on Geek in Heels's blog post about The Giving Tree a while back, and it wound up being such a long comment that I decided to repost it here (actually, I meant to post it when I wrote it, back in July, but the "save" and "publish" buttons are so close together...). I like what she wrote about the book, so giving her some link-love doesn't hurt either:


One of the marks of good literature is how many different strong emotions and how much discussion about it's underlying "meaning" it can generate. Based on this thread, and others like it, I would almost require my kids to read this, because I want them to be exposed to good literature. And I would encourage them to think about it, understand it, and decide what the message is for themselves.

I don't like this string in our consciousness that the "message" of all media must be revealed and understood before we allow our children to encounter it. Few things stand up well, especially in a post-modern, deconstructionist society. Disney films? The Bible? Grimm Fairy Tales? No. None of these things are "appropriate" for children when you look at the message they really contain. And more importantly, when you look at the social control they were originally developed to implement. Especially from the "abusive relationship" perspective. Job? Abraham? Snow White? Toy Story? Not role models for kids.

But they're good stories, good literature, and part of being a "well-read" child. Would you want your kid to be the only one amongst their childhood friends that never read this book? Do you want to set up that embarrassment for them?

Moviebob had a similar post today about the "message" of the Twilight movies. He makes the point, and I agree, that his dislike of the series's message is completely separate from his critique of the series as a work of art. I kept thinking, as I read this, of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, both of which have also been decried for their thinly veiled religious message and societal views, but are still beloved because they are good books. I would protest "The Giving Tree" if it was poorly written, but it's not. It moved me to tears as a kid, and even then I recognized how rare and important that is in children literature.

Two other thematic thoughts come to mind. First, I wonder how much the perceived message changed as our cultural views on environmentalism shifted. When this book was written, trees were there to give wood to build houses and fruit to eat. This boy didn't seem a monster, because that was the correct relationship between people and trees. I wonder now if there's an underlying environmentalism that makes it seem more monstrous: he destroys a living thing for his own selfish needs? What a villain!

Second, the important discussion about the book seems to be, from both a relationship/generosity and environmental perspective, at what point did the giving become "too much"? Fruit? Fine. Climbing? Fine. Some branches? Fine. But giving too much was problematic if for no other reason than it hurt the tree's ability to give in the future. The idea that you can sheer a sheep many times, but only fleece it once. Take some apples and some branches, then leave and come back next year to take more. Give yourself, and the tree, time to recover and grow in the meantime. Furthermore, what does it mean that this tree only gives to its friends and not strangers that are in need?

It wasn't until I came back as an adult and reread it that I started to think about the "themes" and "abusive relationships". The message I got as a child was that giving did not truly diminish the giver. It made the relationship stronger, the tree did not "die", and even at the end when the tree though it had given everything, it still was able to give and help a friend. That's not "abusive unconditional love"; that's generosity. That's giving what you have and do not need to a friend or loved one that does need it.

Response I'm imagining to that: "But the tree needs its leaves! It needs its branches! Those are vital parts of its anatomy!"

Response to my imagined responders: Are you a registered organ donor? If not, why not? More specific analogy: would you donate a kidney or part of your liver to someone that needed it? To a stranger? To a friend? To a relative?

But like I said at the beginning, the moral underpinnings are not why I like this book; I liked it because it's a good book, well written, that I could read and enjoy as a child and still remember as an adult. There are plenty of things I read as a child that I couldn't remember now if my life depended on it, but this book stuck. Because it is a good book. The morality is part of what made it good, but because it added depth, not because of the "lesson".

Monday, January 10, 2011

You're Never Fully Dressed Without...

Shira at Al Tzitzit is right; it's been a grim weekend. In hopes of brightening things up, I present this:

I noticed, a while back, that I was ignoring people as I walked around town. I think most of us do this; it's been somewhat socialized into us, that we're supposed to keep to ourselves, don't talk to strangers, and don't be rude by staring. This is especially a problem for me in two areas: walking around "tough" parts of town (ie, those without a Starbucks) where I feel the need to project a badass attitude for safety reasons; and when I catch myself looking at a cute woman, and have to snap my gaze to the floor and ignore her so I don't get "caught" staring at her.

It's interesting that we've gotten to the point that we're taught to ignore people in order to avoid being rude to them.

I also started to think about how bad I felt when people just ignored me, like I wasn't even there. The Mr. Cellophane effect, if you will. It's absolutely crushing to be on the receiving end, and slowly I realized that maybe, just maybe, these other people were also, you know, people, and might have emotions of their own. And maybe they would like to be acknowledged as such, instead of ignored.

After catching myself doing this one too many times, I resolved to do a better job of, at the least, acknowledging people as I walked past them. Sometimes it's a nod, or a glance; sometimes I even go so far as to speak to them. A simple, "Hey," or, if I'm feeling very vocal, "Hello"!

Sometimes it's a smile.

I got a good reminder today of the power of the simple smile. Walking home from work, I passed a woman walking home with her grade school aged son. The kid looked like he was enjoying the day, but his mother just looked tired and worn out. Beyond a lack of smile; she was actively frowning.

I smiled at her, a quick, purely reflexive thing, and made eye contact for the barest fraction of a second.

As I was passing her, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a big smile break across her face.

Maybe she was laughing at me - it happens often enough. Maybe her son did something funny at that moment. Either way, it looked like a genuine smile, and I felt like I helped put it there.

That made me feel good.

We forget sometimes how much impact the smallest of gestures can make. We get discouraged from giving to charity because we can't give million dollar donations. Or discouraged from volunteering because we can't spend the entire summer rebuilding homes in New Orleans. But those small efforts add up!

Working at the Scouts, I funded camp scholarships for hundreds of boys, twenty dollars at a time. At our Temple's Mitzvah Day last year, we assembled boxed lunches for a local food bank; hundreds of sandwiches were made, boxed, and delivered, and most of the attendees only put in two hours, three at the most.

Even smaller than that, I believe the little ways we interact with people in our daily lives has a big impact on the world around us. Call it the Good Omens philosophy; each individual act is just a drop of water, but enough of them create new rivers and bring down mountains.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Can women be Torah scribes? This one is.

BBC has an interview with a woman who appears to be the first female Torah scribe in centuries. The story is interesting, more for the questions it raises than the actual writing.

I find it very significant that this woman is a convert to Judaism. First because it underscores again the importance of converts and "outsider influences" to the development and advancement of our tradition (although I suppose those that disapprove of her endeavors would see it as proof that "outsider influence" is toxic).

More importantly, I suspect that very few women that were raised Jewish would be able or willing to take this step. If for no other reason, there's frequently a disconnect between the type of young Jewish women that want to redefine gender roles and push boundaries, and the type of young Jewish women that want to live observant, Orthodox lives.

Not to say there are no female Orthodox radicals; but in the same way a woman marries a man and accepts his obvious faults without trying to change them (love you honey!), most women (and men too, for that matter) that choose to live an Orthodox lifestyle will be more willing to accept the faults and inequalities than take such radical steps to change them. Or will want to see change, but by working through the proper channels to get acceptance of rabbis and Halacha.

Oh, and by the way, whether you were born to an Orthodox family and chose to stay, or found it later in life and chose to join, you only can live an Orthodox life by choice.

The usual justification I hear for discrimination against women in tradition Judaism is: it's not that women are forbidden from participating in these ways, it's that they're exempted from performing the mitzvah in question because women are more closely connected to God and the divine; men, by contrast, are required to perform it, so a woman performing the mitzvah removes an opportunity for a man who needs to do it.

Flimsy, but at least understandable (if not agreeable). I feel like this does not fit into that rationale, though. There is not a requirement for men to work as professional Torah scribes; the only instance I know of where someone is required to scribe a Torah is if they want to become King of Israel. For everyone else, it's an option. Or a profession. So...why can't a woman do it?

If the concern is that women are, on a monthly basis, "unclean", that's easily enough dealt with. Only scribe 3 weeks out of the month. Sure, it might slow down production, but that's an efficiency issue, not a reason to forbid.

I can't see any valid reason a woman shouldn't be a Torah scribe. I wish Avielah Barclay well in her endeavors, and if I am ever in the position to purchase or recommend purchase of a scroll, I will be sure her work is one of the options considered.

Misheberach for Debbie Friedman

For those that have not heard, Debbie Friedman is very ill with pneumonia, not responding to medication against whatever infection she is struggling with. Her condition seems to be worsening. She is in an induced coma and family members are asking our prayers, for Debbie and for them.

Debbie Friedman is pretty much the voice of modern Reform Jewish music; before she did a version of the Misheberach (prayer for healing & renewal) most Reform Jews didn't even know what the prayer was; now it's a weekly staple in most congregations. I learned the Shema, V'ahavta, Mi Chamocah, Oseh Shalom, Shalom Rav, and many other prayers by singing her songs, and they're still among my favorite pieces to sing, in and out of prayer.

My prayers go to her and her family; she has had a permanent and positive impact on my life.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Leading Prayer vs. Praying For

At a recent service I was reminded of how thin the line is between leading prayers for the congregation, and praying on behalf of them. It doesn't help that the line is very changeable based on the individual and their mood that day. Still, I believe that a proper understanding of the difference is one of the keys to a successful congregation.

I've often had the feeling, especially in congregations with a strong cantor, that I was being prayed for. This is not to fault the cantor; most professional cantors are quite good at what they do; they're so good, in fact, and pray so well on my behalf that I'm not sure I even need to be there.

Just to illustrate that fine line I mentioned, I like my services full of music and song, so clearly getting rid of the cantors would not be the answer. And it's not only cantors that cause this feeling; they are just the most common, and most noticeable, cause.

The music hold another issue; if the melody is not singable, it is very difficult for me to get involved. Some people find some melodies so inspirational that they meet their spiritual needs by sitting and reflecting while they listen to it; I am a much more active prayer. If I can't sing along (and I have a lot more singing experience than most congregants, so you have to really work at this one), I lose interest. This does tend to be a problem of, and for, the cantors. Understandably so; they encounter so much incredibly beautiful sacred music, and want to share it with the congregation. That's laudable, but can also change it from a prayer service to a concert.

I also believe the prayer book plays a large role in it. Despite being a staunch non-traditionalist, I love the traditional prayers, and traditional melodies. I feel they have gained a certain power and familiarity over the generations of their use (even though some of them have been around for many fewer generations than we'd expect); take those away, and you're left with some random piece of poetry or music that I will like or dislike. If I dislike it, or even like it but find it lacking in "meaning", the service becomes a lot less intimate, a lot less personal. If all we're doing is reading poetry from some book, well, you can do that just as well without me.

Prayer leading, by contrast, works a lot like song leading does at camp. You, the song/prayer leader, are not the star; the congregation is. No one came to hear you pray/sing; they came so they could do it. Your job, as leader, is to set the key (one that most people can hit), hold the tempo, and use a loud, clear voice so anyone that forgets the words can pick it up from you.

The best song/prayer leaders add another level of excitement, energy, and connection. I used to see this at camp; both song leaders knew the lyrics and melody, and were technically as proficient. But one always seemed to get the group dancing harder, singing louder, and smiling more than the other. Sadly, this is the hardest part to teach. As Miyamoto Musashi would say, "Practice this diligently."

End of Year Two

[Note: this was originally supposed to go out on 12/31; it did not.]

It took me about 13 months to hit 100 posts, and in the past year I've done less than half that number. I have an equal number of posts in my "Drafts" folder, many of them title-only stubs waiting for time and attention.

That speaks interestingly to both my free time/stress level this year, and the path my Jewish journey's taking. One of the drafts gets into where that path is taking me, but it's been a really hard one to look at. Suffice to say, given the events of this year I'm not so much mad at God (although he threw me a couple curve-balls) as I am mad at Reform Judaism. And if RJ doesn't fit me anymore, where's my home?

I also know the past month's worth of posts have had a fairly negative energy to them. It is my hope, in the coming year, to brighten that up. This will involve brightening me up too, so it's a win-win.

I also have a dream of staring a podcast; there are a shortage of non-Orthodox/Chabad podcasts about Judaism, and I feel I could be a voice in that space. I'm really worried about trying to even start a production schedule when I'm having trouble just posting regularly. Still, it's a direction I would like to go. If anyone has some podcast suggestions, drop me a line.

Ok, that's it. Hope you had a happy Boxing Day, watch out for holiday drivers, and have a safe & happy goyishe New Year!

The bonds not formed at summer camp

One of the most commonly cited reasons for sending your kids to summer camp is the lifelong friendships they will make. I'm starting to wonder, though, if that is really the case.

Granted, I have an unusual experience with camp. The longest I ever went to a single camp was two summers in a row, and my 20 years experience as a camp counselor is spread across camps all over the company. So maybe I just never stayed in one place long enough to form those really deep bonds.

Still. Sophomore year in high school I went to camp for the full summer. The program was really intense, and we were really close by the end of the summer. There were promises of staying in touch, exchanging letters, and getting together as often as possible...

It happened once, that I was aware of.

Like I said, I didn't return to that camp; most of the rest of the group had been there for years, and would continue to come, as campers and staff, for several more. So I'm sure there were opportunities aplenty for them. But my contact with the group was rare.

Granted, this was in the days before the internet. Keeping a group of 60-or-so teenagers connected pre-email was difficult as best. Have things changed in the era of Facebook? Not really. Again, I'm sure many of my fellow campers were in touch with each other, but none of them were on my friend list.

Then, this summer, one of my camp friends died. As is frequently the case, this tragedy brought the group back together. It started as support for our friend's family, and mutual grieving and remembrance. From there, it grew into a full Facebook group. We caught up on each others' lives and renewed friendships. Plans were made for meetups in Chicago and on the East Coast.

As of today, there has not been a new post in the group since early September.

I'm not casting aspersions. We were part of each others' lives for one summer almost two decades ago; we've moved on since then and made new friends. These people were someone else's friends, a younger version of me who was someone different.

Still and all, it makes me wonder. Is this the typical experience people have with their camp friends, or are they really forming lifelong bonds?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Islamic Wisdom From....Cracked?

Check out 5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Islam.

I love that this is on Cracked, of all pages. Another great example of comics being the most willing to speak truth and wisdom. I'm proud to say I knew 4 of 5 of these, but each of them exposed a misconception I held, and I am glad they did so.

Read the article for the full details; I'm just going to quote enough to talk about the things I learned.

5. If You're a Muslim Woman, You Have to Wear the Veil: This is the one I got wrong, more on a national level than individual; I honestly believed every nation Islamic enough to be identified as such required women to wear veils. Partially this is an issue of visibility; it's not that we don't see non-veiled Muslim women, it's just we can't easily identify them as such. I loved the parallels to Christian sects, and the numbers that reset my sense of perspective and scale.

4. Our Founding Fathers Would Never Have Tolerated This Muslim Nonsense: Knew the Founders got on well with Muslims, didn't know that the early White House hosted Islamic celebrations. Cool!

3. "Muslim" Equals "Arab": More great statistics! Plus a good reminder of the difference between religion and nation, and how the two can intersect.

2. Western Cultures Are Far More Humane Than the Bloodthirsty Muslims: Again, not very surprising. But hey, did you know that core Islam had such humane laws of warfare? Maybe our military could take some lessons.

1. Islam Is Stuck in the Dark Ages: Again, not so much a surprise as a revelation of my own preconceptions. I assumed American Muslims would have as many of the intellectually blind as American Christians do; I was wrong.

This is such a simple list that it amazes me how many times I found myself saying, "I knew that. Of course I did...right?"

Law of the Jungle

This is the best thing I've seen from ginandtacos, and one of the best things I've read all year.

To quote the crux of the piece:
Social Darwinism and the "life is like the jungle" attitude that are so pervasive in our society have a single purpose: to convince you that you are an antelope. The only thing you can do is run away. You'll be OK so long as there are other people around who are even more vulnerable. You could try to stop them, but why? Every time they eat the poor, the geezers, and the kids who are defenseless, you live another day. Don't try holding your ground against the big, strong predator. Don't stick together or they'll eat all of you.

Just imagine how much different our politics and society would be if we were less eager to say "As long as they're eating someone else, I don't care" and more apt to get in a big group and ask the lion if it feels lucky.

It's a very deep, very complex idea, put very simply. What struck me most was how... very nearly unthinkable the idea was. It seemed so obvious and profoundly revelatory, which only underlined how wrong our current system is.

It's the dark side of American individualism (subject of another great ginandtacos post); each of us is free to achieve on our own, but we're also on our own. I've always admired the ability of certain parts of our society to get citizens to vote against their own self-interest. The Unions are designed to protect workers' rights, but collective bargaining is Communist and un-American; what's a working stiff to do?

In other words, the lions no longer need to work to isolate members of the herd; we isolate ourselves, making it easier on them.

It's an interesting psychological trick; in a nation that believes in the power of the masses, we worship the individual. We love team sports but make it all about the All Stars; baseball is about the pitcher, football about the quarterback, and basketball advertises "Kobe and the Lakers".

It's such a fundamental paradigm shift, but I believe it's a crucial one. Our ability to face and overcome the political, social, and environmental issues that confront us depends on making it.

The advancements in human history that have brought us here have improved knowledge and quality of life immensely, but too often, sadly, at the cost of our sense of community and cooperation. Not that our ancestors were saints; cooperation was just the only tool they had.

But it's a powerful tool.

Religion is supposed to build this mindset. It teaches us to act as a community, to protect our weakest members and improve the whole community, even if that's not what's best for us as individuals.