Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Saying it all in 4 minutes and 24 seconds

Hillel Neuer of the non-governmental organization UN Watch goes into the UN Human Rights Council and tells them what he thinks of them:

Wow. Go, Hillel!

I love the way the council president, Luis de Alba, in his 1 minute, 14-second response, nowhere says that Hillel is wrong. He does not say "That was stupid, our illustrious record for Human Rights speaks for itself." He just says, basically, that "you have been a rude, rude man and I won't accept people talking about us that way."

Although it sounds like a delicious idea, I do not believe that urging Israel and the US to leave the United Nations in a good idea. However, it is imperative that the public understand, when the UN denounces Israel for human rights violations, that that is how the human rights council enjoys spending its time. This does not mean that Israel never violates anyone's human rights, rather that the UN is not a reliable observer of the human rights "scene." The current council includes Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia -- all known for their unbiased treatment of Jews and outstanding records in Human Rights, eh? (She asks rhetorically) In the next two years, Human Rights Council will include Pakistan and Cuba. Libya has sat on this council. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

There are two sad results of this mess. First is that millions of people around the world are suffering badly under their governments, and the UN is not twitching an eyebrow on their behalfs.

Second is that, now that the UN Human Rights Council has proven itself to be full of self-serving, anti-Semitic blather, we are missing an opportunity for a respectable, unbiased body that could provide Israel with constructive criticism to which we'd actually listen. Every country, just like every person, could use a trusted source of constructive criticism. If the UN doled out its condemnations proportionately, I think that Israelis would actually pay attention when it was their turn. Instead, the UN makes knee-jerk denunciations against this one, single country, and so our knee-jerk response has become "you may be correct, but you are also jerks, so we don't have to change."

(Hat tip: Little Green Footballs via my friend Lisa)

Monday, March 26, 2007

My New Camera

Believe it or not, I've been using a film camera. Me, a professional journalist. To be fair to myself, my clients generally hire me to research a topic and write about it, not to take photos of it. However, most of my clients also cannot usually afford to hire a separate photographer, so I usually offer to take photos as a value-added service. For someone who only took one photojournalism course in grad school and doesn't remember the difference between an ISO and an SLR (though I did know, once), I take pretty good photos. I do things like pay attention to the lighting and framing, and I know how to use the various auto-settings like "portrait" and "sports" on my camera (and have a general idea of what the different settings do, at least sort of). Many, many of my pictures have been published. I'm willing to get down on the floor or climb up on furniture or into trees to get a good picture. And ever since 2001, when I took that photojournalism course, my beloved Minolta Maxxum STsi with its snazzy (to me) 28-80 mm zoom lens served me extremely well. The lens made it look like I was a real photographer, and the camera really did take gorgeous pictures.

Or it did, until a few months ago, when I noticed that it was blurring photos somewhat, rewinding film after about 7 shots, and messing up the light balance. Plus, in the last couple of years my clout as a photographer, such as it was, diminished significantly when people realized I was using film instead of digital. Until the camera started to die, my answer was that this Minolta took such good photos, that to replace it with a digital of similar quality would cost too much (which was true). And then, the unthinkable happened. I sent about 10 pictures in to an editor, and she wrote back that she couldn't use any of them because they "weren't good enough." That had NEVER happened to me before. I was so embarrassed. The time had come (and gone) to graduate to a new camera.

So, behold, my new Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7, which I just ordered and should have in my shutter-happy little hands next week:

Woo hoo! Check it out: 6.37 megapixels, and -- GET THIS -- an optical zoom of 12X!!!! Yay! I love playing with zooms! Complete specs here.

After doing some research yesterday, I was going to get the Lumix DMC-TZ1, but the nice salesman at B+H told me that the FZ7 model is exactly the same but has the 12x zoom (instead of "just" 10X, which is already incredible for a digital camera of this size), plus it has a pop-up flash, which means that there is less red-eye (so he says) with the FZ7 (not sure why that would be, but OK. B+H has never steered me wrong in the past). Assuming it's true, I'm glad, because in reviews I'd read about the TZ1, the only real flaw I could see was that the red-eye function doesn't work well. And do you know, this thing has 16 (count 'em, 16) auto-settings, including "night sky" and "baby" (automatically puts the child's age onto the picture, according to a birthday you program into it). I am going to have so much fun.

Woo hoo! No more trips to the camera store just to have film developed onto a CD! My only-somewhat-deserved clout is back! 12X zoom lens!!!! Woo hoo!


Woo hoo!!!!
Chayyei Sarah's Annual Pre-Pesach PSA

a) As we make our homes kosher for Passover and cook lots of holiday food, remember to prevent burns. Be careful around hot stoves and ovens. Keep pot handles turned in toward the wall, not out where children can grab them. Be extra careful with and around boiling water when cooking and kashering. Tip: create a no-children zone around the stove by taping a border on the kitchen floor a few feet away.

b) Prevent house fires. Light holiday candles away from curtains, and avoid keeping them on tablecloths, which children can pull down. During bedikat chametz be careful with the candles (you may want to discuss with a rabbi the circumstances under which a candle truly must be used).

c) If you are going away for Passover to another family or a hotel, be sure to note the locations of fire exits when you arrive. If you are having guests for Passover, show them all the exits on their first day.

d) Maariv reported a few days ago that in the week before Passover, the rate of injuries from household chemicals jumps 90 percent in Israeli hospitals. Please be cautious when using bleach and ammonia (and certainly never mix them!) and keep detergents and all other poisons out of reach of children. Never store cleaning fluids in bottles that normally contain drinks. Well before the holiday (like today), post the number of a poison control hotline near your phone. Here's one for my American readers, the emergency hotline of the American Association of Poison Control Centers: 1 800 222 1222.

Have a happy and safe holiday!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Oog, no wonder I'm so confused middle of the road

Your Political Profile:

Overall: 35% Conservative, 65% Liberal

Social Issues: 0% Conservative, 100% Liberal

Personal Responsibility: 75% Conservative, 25% Liberal

Fiscal Issues: 50% Conservative, 50% Liberal

Ethics: 0% Conservative, 100% Liberal

Defense and Crime: 50% Conservative, 50% Liberal
My latest articles - AMIT magazine

Here's a link to the new issue of AMIT, in which I have two articles, starting on pages 12 (under my own name) and 19 (under the name Rachel M. Sprintzer, who is me). Enjoy.
All in a Day's Work

What an exciting day I'm having . . . I came with my laptop to The Coffee Mill, a cute little cafe across from the music conservatory on Emek Refaim Street, to get a quick 12:30 breakfast (cough cough) with Chava, and then stick around and work on a few articles I need to write. Chava got here first and saved me the seat directly next to an electrical outlet, and we caught up on each other's news, surrounded by about 100 "New Yorker" covers adorning the walls. This place is really very cute.

As I was munching on a bagel and sipping cappucino, the owner came over and asked whether the black briefcase sitting under the next table was ours. Um, no. Did it belong to the man sitting by the window? Um, no.

Uh, oh. A suspicious object.

"Suspicious object" in Israel is not exactly a thing, it is an event. Once it is ascertained that no one nearby can claim ownership of the bag, the cafe proprieter must call the police, who typically call in the bomb squad. They, in turn, clear the area and make quick work of said bag in a controlled explosion. Happens all the time. Normally, the bag turns out to be perfectly harmless, something left behind accidentally by a harried customer. But meanwhile, the accidental leaving-behind of the bag has wasted many man hours, as the police and bomb squad staff carry out their jobs. Plus, in a place like, say, a bus station, it causes travel delays. In the street, it causes traffic delays. In a place like a cafe, it means that the owner loses business because everyone must clear out for the bomb squad. It is a pain in the neck.

Another customer said that her coworker, who is affiliated with the music conservatory, had been sitting at that table, and she thinks the briefcase might be her coworker's instrument. It sure would save everyone headache if she could reach her coworker to confirm that the briefcase is hers . . . but meanwhile, the cafe owner has her own responsibility to call the police. The lady customer tried to reach her coworker, but the coworker wasn't answering her cell phone.

So it became a race: Would the owner surface before the police blew up her sheet music?

While the police hovered around the place and spoke into their walkie-talkies about the briefcase, I hung out on Emek Refaim with the wait staff, who seemed content to have a cigarette break. One of them went into the place next door and bought two large chocolate-rum balls from the ice cream place next door. On principal, I hung around so that after the drama, The Coffee Mill would get my business; terrorist groups have created an environment in which we must fear innocent briefcases, but I'll be darned if I'll let an atmosphere of fear take business away from a fellow Israeli. Besides, I was curious to see whether the bag's owner would ever see her bag again.

Just as the waiter and waitress were sitting at an outdoor table and about to dig into their chocolate treats, the lady customer managed to get hold of her friend, who confirmed that yes, it was her bag.

So I'm writing this from a corner table in The Coffee Mill, which is, after all, safe and sound. New customers are filing in, and the lady customer who saved the bomb squad a trip is getting help on her Ulpan homework from the waiter.

Another day, another suspicious object.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Putting my toe back into politics

If you can't stand the heat, everyone knows you should just get out of the kitchen. So I got out of the kitchen for a long time, not touching politics on this blog, because, frankly, I did not want to deal with the inevitable heat. Everyone's got their limits, and I usually know mine.

But this article in the New York Times by Steven Erlanger is pulling me out of political-blogging retirement. You all should read it. It is a very important article. It is something that Israeli papers should be writing about more, but they don't -- or, when they do, their articles are extremely one-sided. I have to give kudos to Erlanger who managed to write about a very touchy subject in a nuanced and balanced way. My only (picky) criticisms are that a) with all the qualifications about how "some" soldiers feel this and "many" people feel that, it would have been nice to get numbers or some sense of just how common this sort of discussion or introspection might actually be, though it's hard for anyone to really gauge that without a comprehensive, reliable survey of some kind, and b) He went to one panel discussion and reported on it, implying that the discussion reflects some widespread musings or tensions in Israeli society -- which I think it does -- but I would have liked for him to follow up and talk to more people on the street, or get quotations from right-wing leaders about their reactions to the fact that "some" or "many" soldiers feel deep misgivings about the things they are made to do in the West Bank in the name of the State of Israel. Oh, and c) I think that the copy editor's choice of headline is a poor one, further making it seem like Erlanger did some sort of wide-reaching survey.

The points made by both the panel speakers and their critics in the audience, as reported in the story, are critical for us all to understand and think about on a deep level. Have a Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tales from Factory High: Johnny

This happened in the spring semester of my first year of teaching in the Bronx. At that point, courses were only one semester long. In the Spring, I had a whole new set of students to get used to, and since most of them were in ninth grade, and my first semester I’d taught 11th grade, I could not use the same lesson plans again. I was drowning.

There was a kid in my third-period class I want to tell you about, who is not Johnny, because it will give you an idea of what made Johnny unusual in comparison. This other kid – I think his name was Stephen – was a real tough one with a serious chip on his shoulder. It happened that his assigned seat was next to the classroom door, and a couple of times he took advantage of the fact by storming out of my room. He’d crack jokes about me, about the material, etc., and because he was smart and slick the other kids couldn’t help but laugh. He had the appearance of caring about very little, least of all whether he gets into trouble. Once, when going over material for an upcoming test on The Diary of Anne Frank, I told the class that if they study purely by going over class notes, they cannot possibly pass the test; they can get a 65 or higher only if they have read the book. Stephen gloated about how that is bunk, he’ll pass anyway, there’s no way he’s reading the book . . . I designed the test with him in mind, and he got exactly a 64. To his credit he did look me in the eye at some point and congratulate me on being right.

The point is, Stephen was far from a model student, and he often caused significant distractions in class, but there was a twisted logic in everything he did. Whatever was going on in his house or his life, his reactions were, if not healthy, at least understandable. Underneath the chipped shoulder, there was something worthy of respect – and the other kids did have a nervous respect of him, and were perhaps envious of his reckless willingness to say dangerous, disrespectful things that the others wouldn’t dare to say. When Stephen spoke, the other kids laughed or stared at him bug-eyed with a mixture of horror and awe.

Then there was Johnny. Johnny sat in the back, and if you didn’t spend 40 minutes a day with him, you might have thought he looked rather sweet. He was a big, bulky kid, new to the school, with a round face, red hair, and small blue eyes. He walked a bit clumsily and his writing proved him to be functionally illiterate. At first, his tendency to call out in class and make irrelevant comments (“That’s a nice dress you are wearing, Miss,” “What time does the gym open?” etc) was nothing worse than annoying. Perhaps he was trying to be funny, but neither I nor any of the other kids appreciated the jokes. The other kids would inch their desks away from his, and whenever he spoke they would roll their eyes and say “can we PLEASE listen to the teacher?” I think kids have a good internal radar that knows the difference between a kid like Stephen, who was angry and bitter but had all his screws in, and Johnny.

One day I called Johnny’s house to talk to his mother about his behavior in my class. I don’t remember the outcome – it could be that she wasn’t home, or that she didn’t understand what I was saying because she spoke only Spanish – but anyway the next day, while I was trying to organize class, from the back of the room Johnny suddenly called “Why did you call my house last night, Miss? Why did you want to talk to my mother? Why did you call? It’s because you don’t like me, right?”

At this point the kids were already rolling their eyes, inching away, etc. Most kids who get a home phone call from a teacher do not advertise the fact. For most, it’s embarrassing. As for me – well, I was seriously annoyed that he was interrupting and causing a distraction.

“Why don’t you like me, Miss? It’s because I’m Dominican, isn’t it. You don’t like me because I’m Dominican, right?”

”Will you shut up?” exclaimed about three other kids in unison. “We’re all Dominican, and she likes us. So shut up already.”

This sort of thing went on all term. I begged the administration to remove him from my class, but they wouldn't hear of it. After all, there were lots of "problem" kids. Why shouldn't I have responsibility for my fair share of them? Finally, shortly before summer break started, there was a conference between Johnny, Johnny’s mother, a translator for Johnny’s mother, Johnny’s administrative dean (that is, an administration member in charge of discipline, such as deciding at what point a student should be suspended), Johnny’s guidance counselor, me, and Johnny’s Social Studies teacher. The seven of us crammed into the Dean's office to talk about Johnny's "situation."

It turns out that before coming to my school, at the ripe old age of 14, Johnny had been expelled from another Bronx high school not exactly known for orderliness or academic excellence for – get this – attacking a security guard. He had been transferred to my school – remember, every child is guaranteed a public education, so he has to be put somewhere – and he’s assigned to the English class of a brand new teacher. Terrific. He was on a variety of psychiatric medications, some of which I suspect he often forgot to take, and was failing every single class.

His mother, who spoke no English, was horrified that her son was failing every class. She hadn’t known because she had no concept of report cards and therefore had never thought to ask her son if he was receiving any.

The best part was when I told the others assembled about his insistence that I didn’t like him because he is Dominican, and his mother got wide eyed and said “But we’re not Dominican at all! We’re Puerto Rican!”

The next time I remember seeing Johnny was the day of a big test in my class – probably the final exam (though we had 3 more class days afterward). As was my habit during tests, I stood in the back of the room most of the time; it’s a classroom management tactic that reduces cheating, because the kids can’t see where you are or what you are looking at. Remember, Johnny sat in the back of the room.

In the middle of the test, he caught my eye and gave me a look of unadulterated hatred. With his eyes squinted and twitching, he stared at me. He wouldn’t look away. I held his gaze calmy.

Slowly, Johnny reached down into his bag, still staring at me with this creepy rage. I was absolutely positive that he was going to pull out a gun. Still looking him in the eye, I started calculating what I should do to save the students, and the thought crossed my mind that tomorrow this incident would be in the papers. I'd be dead, but I'd be a hero . . . if I could save the other students.

Slowly, slowly he grasped something in his bag, slowly slowly pulled it out. It was a sharp pencil. He held it with the pointy end toward me, as if he was about to lunge with it, and then slowly, slowly looked away and started writing on his test. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was extremely creeped out.

During my lunch break I reported the incident to my Assistant Principal, and reenacted it for him. He agreed that though no words had been exchanged “that looks like a threat to me,” and Johnny was, finally, removed from my class. For the last three days of the term, I was relieved of his presence.

I heard a rumor a couple of years later that Johnny had been expelled from our school and sent to yet another Bronx high school, his third. Somewhere out there, he is now about 21 or 22 years old, probably in prison. I hate to say this, but I hope he’s in prison. The idea that he’s wandering around on the streets is pretty scary.

But I hope Stephen made it somehow. I hope he graduated eventually, or got a GED, and decided to live his life productively instead of wallowing in anger and blame. I hope he found some sort of steady and honest job. I don’t even remember his name, so I’ll never know.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tales from Factory High: Willie

The last post put my Bronx days back on my mind. Here is an essay I wrote in journalism school (and just dug up from the depths of my computer) about one of my students from JFK, a native Spanish-speaker from a poor neighborhood in upper Manhattan:

At first, Willie was remarkable only for showing up. He was one of the few students in my tenth period English course at John F. Kennedy High School who didn’t excuse themselves after ninth period. Willie arrived on time each day with a big smile and never caused any problems. He soon distinguished himself by doing his homework thoroughly and on time, and by participating in class cheerfully and often—exceptional behavior at this Bronx public school.

One day, in passing, I mentioned the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers. Willie asked me to teach him how to manipulate them. So he started arriving five minutes early each day, and we talked about math. I loaned him a copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and he identified so strongly with the hero that, despite the more difficult language, he began to tackle the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well. He revealed that his mother held two jobs to support him and his severely disabled little sister. His dad was not around.

Willie may not have excelled at English, but in math he was a star. He was so intent on becoming an engineer that the following year he chose to give up his lunch period to take two math classes simultaneously; he wanted to study calculus before he graduated.

There was never any doubt that Willie would graduate on time—a feat managed by fewer than 40 percent of his classmates. Mild mannered and somehow elegant, he moved through the chaotic halls with an optimism that neither poverty nor neglect could touch.

In the fall of his Senior year, City College offered Willie a full scholarship, but I suggested that he also apply to Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. An admissions officer there told me that although Willie’s SAT scores and grades were lower than those of most applicants, if he applied through the Higher Education Opportunity Program, there was a chance he could get in.

Willie decided to try. I warned him that getting in would be difficult, but once he visited Columbia, he was hooked. “I never knew there were places so beautiful,” were his exact words. I helped him with his essay, wrote his recommendation, and prayed.

While we waited to hear from Columbia, I talked with Willie about his options. He’d been planning to attend City College because it was close to his inner-city home, and because of the scholarship. But he said he wanted to go to college where there’s open space, and where he wouldn’t see the same drug dealers near his school that he saw every day on his block. But Columbia rejected him.

At graduation, I gave Willie a gift-wrapped set of The Lord of the Rings. He was there alone because his mother couldn’t take time from work. Willie told me that he’d accepted the offer from City College, but that I had given him some ideas. Perhaps, he said, he would transfer in a year or two. Somewhere upstate, somewhere with open space. He gave me a hug and promised he’d do great things.

A full year later, Willie sent me an e-mail. He had loved the books, he wrote, for exposing him to a world “filled with fantasies and wonders,” and recommended that I read another Tolkien work, The Silmarillion. He told me that his G.P.A. at City College is 3.4, that he hopes to get higher degrees in Computer and Electrical Engineering, Physics and Math. He has set his sights on Stanford and M.I.T. He wants to work for NASA. “I have never thank you enough,” he wrote. “You encouraged me to reach for the stars, to fill all my desire and to be proud of who I am.”

It is difficult to maintain relationships with former students; there is no longer a big teacher’s desk or report card to define our bond. I hope that Willie will continue to be in touch, but in my mind, he is preserved as a gallant 17-year-old with a gleaming smile and a whole life ahead to achieve great things. Though I have moved on from the school system, to him I’ll always be the nice teacher who helped him on his way.

For two years, Willie taught me, from his side of the big desk, that effort is itself a form of success. He inspired me to live with optimism, and to approach adversity with tenacity, dignity, and grace.

When I replied to his e-mail, I wished him well and wrote that I am proud of him. But what I really want to tell him is that I appreciate what he taught me.

An Apple for the Teacher

As my long-term readers know, I used to teach in the Bronx, an experience that has led to a series of posts on this blog called "Tales from Factory High." I also taught for one semester at Touro College in Brooklyn, before I made aliyah. Quite a long way from the Bronx, to be sure! Teaching at Touro convinced me that I do, indeed, love to teach, but only under specific circumstances.

When I came to Israel, I waited for those circumstances to present themselves, or for me to get to a place where I could create them. Thankfully, a job came my way that met all of my extremely specific and hard-to-meet criteria: I'm teaching native English speakers (that is, I'm not teaching ESL), I have just one class, that class is relatively small (just 17 students), and we meet in the afternoons. Additionally, we meet only three times a week, for 55 minutes each time, a situation perfect for group activities.

My friends seem to have reached a consensus that teaching this class has been very healthy for me. I am happier teaching than I was before I was teaching. I'm exercising a talent, doing something I enjoy, and in a small way making a direct impact on others. It's a good feeling. Thank God I'm not doing it for the money, because, well, it's a teacher's salary . . . .

Anyway, I would like to share a few points about teaching:

1. With only 17 students, I can invest the energy into each student that the student needs. I can meet with students privately, spend significant time providing feedback on papers, call students who are missing assignments or whose class participation could stand to improve, and speak with the administration at length about students who seem to have psychological issues or learning disabilities that might require extra attention. I also have time to research the material I'm teaching and think at length about how to make up lesson plans, which helps since I've never taught any of these particular works before. It's perfect.

2. Corollary to #1: Teaching 17 students properly is about a third-time job by itself. I do not understand how anyone can expect a teacher to take on 5 classes of 15-35 students each, teaching material that is new to him or her, and expect that teacher to excel. Teaching 5 classes, especially with new material, is way more than a full-time job, unless one settles for mediocrity. No wonder, in the Bronx, I was constantly playing catch-up and having anxiety attacks.

3. Teaching new material is quite challenging. In fact, I have never had the experience - the luxury- of re-using a lesson plan. Obviously I research the material ahead of the students. I speak with a more senior teacher who has already taught these texts, and she shares her class handouts so I can get ideas. I try to vary the lesson plans and answer the students' questions accurately. In taxis, in cafes, in the shower, I'm always thinking about how I can teach these texts in more interesting ways. What do I want the students to leave with? To what authors is it most important that they be exposed? Should we spend an extra class on a certain author, at the expense of going over certain grammar rules which most of them need to learn? Where are the holes in my knowledge, and which are most important to fill this term?

But, though I know that I'm way ahead of the students --I certainly know much more about the curriculum than they do-- I do not yet feel that I have "mastery" over it, not at the level of my own expectations. Such mastery will come over time, as I continue to teach the same books, reread them, delve more deeply into scholarly work on the books, the lives of the authors, etc. I'm doing a pretty good job teaching these texts, but I know that next year I'll be about 100 percent more knowledgable about them. And the year after that, perhaps I'll feel that I'm truly fluent in them. So, I feel a bit frustrated and guilty about this year. I wish I could jump ahead 2 years and have the knowledge now that I'm sure to have then.

4. I have a student who sits toward the back of the room and spends most classes staring at me with intense concentration (or taking copious notes) and nodding her head at almost everything I say. I don't think she realizes that she nods so much. It's extremely gratifying for me. See, I can pretty much tell where the students are in terms of liking me or the class. There are students who hate English, have always hated English, and tolerate me and my class as necessary and fairly boring evils. There is a large group of students who respect me as being fair and reasonably interesting, though my class is not necessarily their favorite (if they have a favorite), either because they have had English teachers who were more exciting, or because they think I give them too much work. There are students, usually ones who have always excelled in English, who pay rapturous attention. These students probably have generally positive feelings about me, though I don't know whether they think I'm a great English teacher or just an OK one. In case you haven't noticed, I'm a bit sensitive -- as I think most teachers are -- about having to wonder whether we are actually having an influence on the students, whether any of them are sitting there thinking "Wow. What this teacher is saying is incredibly interesting. I want to know more!" So you can imagine how good it feels to have a student who not only pays careful attention but also nods. It's an indication that someone out there in this room full of teenagers is with me.

5. As always, grading papers is the bane of my existence.

6. It's a credit to the administration and to the kids that I genuinely look forward to going into school. The place has an orderly and positive atmosphere, and my student are truly nice kids. Even the ones who don't like English are respectful. And most of them write at a high level (especially considering they are only in tenth grade!), which makes my job a little easier and more fulfilling. If any of them read this blog, I just have to say, "kudos to you!"

OK, I'm off to read biographical information on A.B. Yehoshua.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Singles and Segulot

At long last, my article about Judaism and superstition, from the Catered Events supplement of The Jewish Week of New York.

Also from that issue: A short profile of the woman behind Smadar couture.

Have a Shabbat shalom.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Small Observations

Life goes on. Teaching, writing, UYO planning, sleeping, teaching writing, UYO planning . . . it's a good mix. And Spring is coming! So, life is pretty good. Poo poo poo.

'course, there's always the bad stuff in the news. Government corruption, pollution, Hamas, poverty, blah blah blah. I'm doing everything I can to counteract the bad -- did you know that Tafkid, the organization that is supporting UYO here until we get onto our own feet, is also raising money to help those in need not be in need anymore? And that we've got all sorts of fabulous community-based initiatives going on? -- so I don't feel as awful when I read the news anymore. It's amazing how much better taking action can feel than doing nothing.

And now for some random thoughts:

* A few weeks ago I was at a Shabbat meal, and one of the other guests, a secular Israeli who turned out to be a card-carrying member of Machsom Watch, turned the conversation to politics, putting me in the unusual position of having to make excuses for the right, instead of the left, as I usually do. Such is the life of one who calls herself politically "middle of the road" or "confused": Whereever I go, I run contrary to those around me. I guess my role in life is to broaden everyone's horizons. Be that as it may, as a religious Jew, I'm generally surrounded by other religious Jews, who tend overwhelmingly to be politically right-wing. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that my host, a beard-clad, very religiously observant man, is himself a card-carrying member of Netivot Shalom! Oh my gosh! A left-wing, Orthodox Jew! That makes, like, four!

* I'm on a quest to find a venue for the next UYO, and therefore am busy making phone calls, comparing prices, and making visits to various hotels, inns, community centers, and retreat locations. I prefer to have the events in Jerusalem itself, but finding a place that has the kind of space we need, on the days we need it, at a price we can afford is proving rather difficult. Anyway, yesterday I saw a gorgeous new place, still under construction, near Bet Shemesh. It's comprised of what will soon be a large room (seats 100 people at round tables) with a beautiful view, several sleeping suites, a swimming pool, and gorgeous gardens with spaces for outdoor classes. Anyone who is planning a retreat or course of some kind is welcome to contact me for the information. The owners told me that the large room will be ready for use by May, and the sleeping suites soon thereafter.

* Those of you who read The Jewish Week are in for not one, not two, but three of my pieces in this week's Catered Events supplement: one on wedding segulot, one about new trends in Henna parties in Israel, and one on this wedding-dress designer, who grew up in Hillside, NJ. I just love the gold dress.

I "found" the latter two stories at the "Rain of Events" trade show at the Jerusalem International Conference Center (Binyanei HaUma) a few weeks ago. Knowing that the Jewish Week would soon be covering Catered Events, I hopped over there to scout for scoops. Though ultimately resulting in two stories, this trip was a serious mistake for a single woman in her 30's. For 2 hours I was surrounded by flowing chocolate fondue fountains, crystal glasses and chandeliers, videos of weddings, and stick-thin models in white silk and taffeta gowns (mostly with translucent midriffs). And, everywhere, vendors asking me "are you the bride?" "are you the bride?" "are you the f*ing bride?"


And then, a representative (who I later found out is 17 years old) of evening-gown designer Tushinka, asked me "are you the mother of the bride or of the groom?"


(FYI, I complained to Tushinka -- yes, I did -- and the designer herself apologized and told me that the girl was supposed to ask "are you the sister or mother of the bride?" Apparently, they missed the part in my complaint letter in which I suggested that a woman of any age could be the bride, and that letting the word "mother" pass through one's lips at a trade show for wedding vendors is really not a good idea. Despite the designer's invitation to me to come in to their studio so they could make me "feel like a princess," I do not think I will ever, ever patronize their business.)

However, speaking of wedding dress designers, I've discussed before the fact that it is trendy among Israeli brides to wear dresses so revealing and so glitzy, they could easily fit in among women of direpute on Seventh Avenue. The "in thing" for Israeli brides are dresses that look like lacy bikinis and matching low-rise skirts, with a piece of gauze attaching them to each other. But - but! - at Rain of Events I discovered this fabulous designer, Aviv, whose dresses were simple, elegant, and truly breathtaking. He was also very polite, and said that about 1/3 of his clients are religious women, and that he adds sleeves and such for them. So, if you are getting married in Israel, skip this:

(from Hana Dai's "classic" collection, believe it or not)

and this:

And instead, go for this:

The Chayyei hath spoken.

* My sister tells me that Border's books has a promotion going on, in which people who come in to pre-order the 7th Harry Potter book can go home with a bumper sticker with either the words "Trust Snape" or "Snape is a very bad man." The cashier told my sister that a majority of buyers are choosing to "Trust Snape." Frankly, I don't see how anyone could NOT trust Snape.


It is so obvious that Dumbledore asked Snape to kill him under certain circumstances, and that when Dumbeldore was saying "Severus, please," what he meant was "please kill me so that it is you who has done it, and then Voldie will trust you completely, and you'll be able to spy for us better." I mean, come on, didn't anyone else catch that when Snape kills Dumbledore, he has a look of "hatred and revulsion," the same words Harry uses to describe his feelings about himself when he is force-feeding Dumbledore the potion in the cave, at Dumbledore's orders?

Sure, Snape is a complicated and not exactly endearing character, but I'd bet my British copies of books 1-4 that Dumbledore trusted him for a much better reason than Snape just saying he was sorry. Probably, Snape had been in love with Lilly, and turned to the good side after Voldie killed her, the only person who had ever been civil to Severus. That's my theory, anyway.