Monday, February 27, 2006

Funny, I'm not wearing any veil . . . Have you seen a veil?

No, this post is not about wedding veils.

It's about the article, viewable in full here, which the Jewish Chronicle of London (my former employer) recently published about female Orthodox bloggers. Forgetting about the relatively minor factual errors in the article, the premise itself is one I'm getting pretty darn tired of seeing in media coverage about Orthodox blogs. The gist of the article (stated and unstated) is this:

Until blogs came along, the Orthodox community was so closed. There was no way to really get to know any Orthodox people! Orthodox women in particular were shut up in their homes with no one to talk to and their lives were state secrets! But now, thanks to the internet, we're learning fascinating things! Rebbetzins can have a sense of humor! Check it out at! Shomer negiah women have sexual urges? Oh my God! Who knew? Get the details at! And, whoa, Orthodox mothers in the Five Towns have political opinions. This is breaking news. The veil has been lifted! It's a window into the Orthodox world! The internet is just amazing!

Now, I'm just as glad as the next person that Orthodox women . . . that Orthodox people . . . that people . . . have this wonderful bloggy way to express themselves. Yes, the blogging phenomenon is worth covering, because we do get to learn about people we otherwise wouldn't get to meet. I've made friends through blogging whom I otherwise probably never would have met, and have read blogs by people who live far away from me and live very different lives. Blogging makes it easier than ever to be exposed to different worlds.

But for a Jewish newspaper to make it seem like, before blogging, Orthodox women were so cloistered, their lifestyles so mysterious, is disengenuous. Yes, some communities are "closed," in that they are unfriendly to outsiders. But in many, if not most, Orthodox communities, the only thing stopping a Jewish person from getting to know some Orthodox people is the unwillingness to pick up a phone, call a local Orthodox synagogue, and say "hey, what time are services? Can I be hosted by an Orthodox family for lunch? Because I'd like to get to know some Orthodox people." That's it. It's not like Orthodox Judaism is a secret underground society and you need a password. You can (if you are Jewish at least), just call up Aish Hatorah or NCSY or pretty much any Orthodox synagogue and believe me, they'll be more than happy to introduce you to as many Orthodox people as you want.

What blogging has done is put Orthodoxy into people's homes without them having to make much of an effort. Instead of having to make a phone call and visit Orthodox people in their homes or educational institutions, instead of having to befriend a Rebbetzin or a shomer negiah woman or a mom in the Five Towns, one can now sit at one's computer and click their way into new worlds.

That doesn't mean that Orthodoxy has a veil over it. It just means that people outside Orthodoxy are often uninterested in hearing Orthodox voices unless they can do so without any effort. The door may have looked closed before, but it was unlocked. All you had to do to see what's happening at the party is open the door. But now blogging makes the party come to you.

I'm not claiming that all Orthodox people are open and friendly and interested in the outside world. And I realize that it is harder for non-Jews to get into the party, due to many factors. I'm just saying that any veils or walls or mysteries separating the Orthodox from the non-Orthodox Jews are created equally by those on both sides. It has always been true that if you wanted to know something about Orthodox Judaism, all you had to do was ask. And if you wanted to know a little more, you just had to ask some more. And if you wanted to know what it's like to be a Rebbetzin or a shomer negiah woman, you could have taken one out for some (kosher) coffee and danishes and asked.

Obviously those things take initiative, and time. And yes, for those who live far away from Jewish communities, the chances to meet Orthodox people are slim. [And if you aren't a Jew, it is indeed harder no matter where you live.] My point being that, when it comes to non-Orthodox Jews, any perceived "veil" is made up just as much of laziness or circumstances as it is by isolationism. The fact that so many Orthodox people create blogs is an indication that many of us are, and always have been, more than happy to talk about our lives . . . if we think there is anyone interested in listening.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Update to yesterday's post

According to the Jerusalem Post, the Gaza evacuees are totally "fed up" with the unresponsiveness of the government to their needs, and are now planning to create "total chaos" - blocking roads, taking their kids out of school, etc. - as a method of protest until the government wakes up and starts fulfilling their promises.

I'm actually on the side of the evacuees on this one. The government, the media, and most Israelis have completely ignored the follow-up after the Gaza evacuation, and these people have real problems and need real help. We put them into this situation (mostly), and it's our responsibility to help them get out. But hardly anyone is doing anything! I can't blame them for trying something more drastic. A wake-up call is in order.

Unfortunately, even if this "total chaos" tactic works, and gets them back to a more responsive negotiating table, it will do very little to improve their image in general Israeli society. No one likes to think that they and their government is responsible for putting otherwise upstanding citizens (mostly) into a bad spot, and it's much easier to demonize them and call them crazy zealots than it is to try to work out a hard situation.

I don't blame them for wanting to block roads again, etc, but it's possible that all it will do is make more leftists sit around their porches talking about the "crazy settlers."

I'm also worried about possible physical and emotional fallout. Before the disengagement, I saw right-wing teenagers involved in very scary protest maneuvers involving fire and traffic. Fire and traffic do not mix. And taking kids out of school can't be great for them, especially if they are already suffering from post-traumatic stress or depression.


I've been meaning to note, also, that for left-wingers who support an evacuation from the West Bank, the government's unresponsiveness to the Gaza evacuees is a monumental obstacle toward further withdrawals. If I lived in a West Bank settlement, and the government promised me compensation and a social worker and a chance to rebuild my community somewhere else in exchange for leaving, I'd take one look at all the Gaza residents who are now living in hotels, whose elementary-school children are wetting their beds every night, and who don't even know where to start looking for jobs because they are still in limbo, and I'd say "yeah, right. Lying scumbags."

Meaning, if you think that settlers are crazy zealots, and want them all out of the West Bank, it's still very much in your political best interests to treat the Gaza evacuees very, very nicely. And that has not been happening.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

A way to help

As you know if you've been reading my blog very carefully, even though the world media, even Israel's media, has pretty much dropped the subject of the disengagement from Gaza and the aftermath for the settlers who were evacuated, it is something I still think about a lot. I've been very interested in two aspects of the post-disengagement reality: 1. How are the evacuees doing? To what extent, and how, have they rebuilt their lives? and 2. After such a huge blow to the movement, where does Religious Zionism go from here?

(I have tons of material on both topics and would be happy to write a feature article about either one . . . if any editors of major media outlets are reading this . . . )

My regular readers will recall that personally I supported the idea of evacuating the settlements from Gaza. However, I said the whole time that the evacuees should be treated well, that extensive preparations should be made in advance to make the transition for them as smooth as possible. I remember writing that six months (from the time the Cabinet approved the withdrawal) does not seem to be nearly enough time to move 9,000 people who do not wish to be moved and work out what will happen to them afterward. I remember writing in the comments of someone's blog (Lord, I wish I could remember which blog it was), after that blogger said nasty things about the idea of giving the settlers beach-front property near Ashkelon, that they should "get whatever they want."

Whether or not you believe that the settlement enterprise in Gaza was a nice idea or a mistake of nightmarish proportions, the Israelis who moved there did so at the encouragement of the Israeli government. They certainly are not criminals and do not deserve to be treated as such. They are (or, were) loyal citizens of Israel, hugely patriotic, who moved to Gaza at the wish of the government, built beautiful communities, and then were made to leave by that same government.

It's true that many of them denied that the disengagement would happen, and that this hurt the efforts to help them. But it is also true, and just about anyone "in the know" is saying this (at the many panels, seminars, etc that I've attended), be they on the Right or the Left, that the government not only missed the boat in planning in advance, they are even now screwing over the Gaza evacuees. A lot of these people (perhaps most or all- I'd have to look up the statistics) have not seen a single penny of the compensation that was promised to them. Even the ones who agreed right away to leave and cooperated fully with the government are living largely in sub-par housing, are unemployed, and don't know where they will go from here. They are suffering from rampant post-traumatic stress and depression, the divorce rate has increased, and especially for those who are still in hotels, the fabric of their family structure has been ripped apart. In many cases their desire for employment is hampered by still not knowing whether their communities will be rebuilt together, or whether they are on their own and should start looking into moving wherever in the country they think they could make it.

As someone who supported the disengagement, I've felt for a while that I want to help these people. I wanted them out of Gaza, but that doesn't mean I wanted them to be living in hotels for over half a year. It doesn't mean I wanted the country to talk about them as if they were lowlifes who deserve what they get. It doesn't mean I wanted 80 percent of them to still be unemployed six months after the evacuation.

The other day I found out about an organization called Job Katif, which is helping evacuees from Gaza to find employment. I have been meaning to do research to find out how successful they've been, how much of the money donated to them actually goes to help find Gush Katif evacuees the jobs they need so badly. But I haven't had time, and I know I won't have time for a while. So, I'm referring all of you good people to this site, and asking that if any of you know anything about this organization, to please let the rest of us know. And if indeed they are doing good work, please support them.

I'll try to follow up with an independent inquiry -- I do not usually like to ask my readers to support causes that I have not researched fully -- but in my heart I am so upset about the post-disengagement aftermath for the Gush Katif residents that I just had to post this ASAP.

If you know of other ways to help Katifians to get back a livelihood and some dignity, please comment about it. The disengagement was right, but the way it was done is wrong, and continues to be wrong as long as these people are not given the money they were promised and ways to build a stable future.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I was wrong

about the term "homicide bombing." My commenters convinced me. I stand corrected. I still prefer the term "terrorist bombing," but I understand now why "homicide bombing" isn't as redundant as it seems at first. Thank you for enlightening me.

I do not understand, though, where some commenters got the idea that I was saying the term is the "most important" issue around. Since when is the fact that I post about something an indication that I think it rates a 9 out of 10 on the "importance" scale? What, you think that just because I post about Hoops and Yoyo I think they are more important than the horrible things in the news?!? Of course the actual killings are the important thing! Of course the murder of innocent people is a much more urgent issue than what we call it! I was just saying I was annoyed!

Since when is this "all I can find to talk about"? Didn't I recently post a whole rant about all the evils in the world that are making me crazy? Evils, real evils, not just annoying things? And since when is it my responsibility to blog about everything important? There are other, political, bloggers who do a much better job about that than I do. Just because I'm not posting about something regularly doesn't mean I'm not thinking about it. It's not as if this blog has a mission statement to the effect that it represents everything I think is worth talking about.

Sheesh. Some of you need to take a valium (Rivka).

Also, the reason my last post stayed up so long at the top is simply that I haven't had time to write a new post, OK? I do, in fact, have a life outside of blogging, believe it or not.


Where is that valium?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Pet Peeve: "Homicide Bombing"

I completely understand why so many people are tempted to use (or rather, do use) the term "homicide bombing" in place of "suicide bombing." The term "suicide bombing," especially in relation to terrorist attacks against Israelis, became so over-used (because the tactic was so over-used) that a fear arose among American supporters of Israel that the media-saturated English-speaking public was forgetting that the bombing was not just about someone committing suicide, but about someone taking dozens of innocent lives with him when he blows himself up. Hence, "homicide bombing," to bring the focus back to the victims, and away from the perpetrator.

See, I totally get it.

The thing is though, the term "homicide bombing" is repetitive. The redundancy is so glaring, it makes me gnash my teeth every time I see it, especially when I see it in print in newspapers such as the New York Post, whose copy editors should know better. People! Is there any type of bombing that isn't designed to murder others? If you want to take the focus off the "poor Palestinian who was brought to such desperation that he/she was willing to kill himself/herself" then just say "bombing" instead of the ridiculous and redundant "homicide bombing."

The term "suicide bombing" was coined to distinguish the tactic from other, equally murderous, ways to blow up others, such as leaving a bomb in a backpack at a school cafeteria and blowing it up by cell phone from off site, or dropping a bomb from the sky. The term "bombing" implies "homicide." If you are thinking about saying "homicide bombing," then you can save yourself three syllables by skipping the first word, since anyway the term means nothing other than that a bomb blew up, somehow.

Which, of course, is bad enough, whether suicide by the perpetrator was involved or not.

The widespread use of such a glaring redundancy is making me crazy. Please, people. Either say "suicide bombing" like normal folks, or, if you really do not want to acknowledge the death of the perpetrator, say "bombing." Please. My dentist will thank you.

(Please don't come after me telling me that I myself was just repetitive because I said the same thing four different ways. It's late at night, I'm trying to make a point, and when it comes to grammar I am personally compelled to make sure that no one leaves my blog in any confusion. Down with redundancy!)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tales from Factory High: Arisleyda

First year of teaching. Eleventh-grade English, non-Regents (this was the last year that kids could graduate from a New York City public school without taking the Regents. Instead, they took another exam that made sure you were able to read simple documents and write in whole sentences.)

End of the term. Two weeks left. Arisleyda shows up after having missed about 20 class sessions over the course of the (half-year) term. She is failing the class miserably. Now she has decided she really wants to pass. What does she have to do to pass?

This question puts teachers in a bind. On the one hand, it's unreasonable for a kid to skip classes all term and then decide, with two weeks left, that now they want to pass. If you give them an opportunity to pass, it sets a bad example for all the other kids who have been showing up (more or less) all term and doing their work.

On the other hand, if you tell the kid "there is no way you can pass. Forget it. You've cut 20 times and done no homework and it's too late now" then they'll just say "OK, then, see you in hell" and cut the rest of the sessions. After all, why should they show up and do work when they are going to fail the class anyway?

So what the teacher typically does is write out a "contract" with the student, listing what the student must do in the next two weeks in order to pass. The contents of the contract must be carefully considered. It must be enough work that they aren't "getting away" with something, yet not so much work that the kid knows she can't possibly do it.

So I wrote up a contract with Arisleyda that something like the following:

  • Show up to every single class from now on.
  • Do all assigned homework for every single class session.
  • Read a specific short novel and write a 2-page response to it.
  • Read 5 of the short stories in our anthology and answer every single question in the book about each story, including the essay questions.
  • Complete the exercises on 3 chapters in our vocabulary book.
  • Pass the final exam with at least a C+

Now, there was no way Arisleyda was going to do all that work in the next two weeks, but it's one of those situations where they say, at first, "Oh, thank you," and then make half-hearted attempts to do some of it, and show up to class a few more times, and then give up. Meanwhile you've kept them off the streets and learning something for a few days.

In Arisleyda's case, she skipped the next two classes. She violated the very first clause of the contract . . . and then had the chutzpah to come back and say she still wants to pass. At that point I told her "we had a contract, and you violated it, and so there is nothing more I can do for you." She pretended to cry and said that she'd missed classes because her brother was dying, and she is so stressed out, and please just let her pass.

I told her to sit down and do her work and we'd talk later. (Better to have her sitting in my class doing nothing than roaming the halls doing nothing.)

She went to her desk and continued to pretend to cry. It was such bad acting, that I actually caught her peeking at me through her fingers and, when she saw that I was looking at her, quickly close her fingers again over her eyes and pretend to sob. It was like something out of a dumb movie. The dramatics were unbelievably . . . badly executed. And everytime I passed by her desk she'd make an overwrought plea to pass her. It was sickening.

And then she made her fatal error. About ten minutes into the class she said "Oh, Miss ____, I'm so upset about my brother. I'm just going to jump out a window."

I see.

As the kids worked quietly at their desks, I made my way to the classroom door and stood in the open doorway, so that I could keep one eye on my students and one on the hall. When I saw Morris, the Assistant Principal for the English department, pass by, I motioned for him to come over.

"Morris," I whispered, "I have a student here who has missed a lot of classes . . . and now she says that she missed the last two days because her brother is dying . . . and she apparently is very distraught . . . and two minutes ago she told me that she is going to jump out a window."

There was a beat in which Morris studied my face and blinked for a moment, and then a gleam came into his eye.

"She said she's going to jump out a window?" he asked. "Those were her exact words?"

"Yes. Her exact words."

"Well. That sounds like a suicide threat to me.Which one is she?"

"The one by the window in the white t-shirt and denim jacket."

"I will take care of this. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Miss _____."

Arisleyda, of course, had been watching me talk to the AP, but was more than a little surprised when he came in and asked her to please come with him. The students know you don't mess with an AP, so she left. After that, the other kids, who had heard all of Arisleyda's "complaining" and knew something was going down, kept their noses in their books, let me tell you. Arisleyda's friend asked "why did he take her out of class? What is happening?" but I just said "That is between Arisleyda and Dr. Schulgasser. Get back to work."

I later found out that Morris had followed protocol. He'd taken Arisleyda down to her guidance counselor and explained that Arisleyda had threatened to jump out a window. The guidance counselor in turn had followed protocol by calling in Arisleyda's mother and an ambulance.

Arisleyda had been taken by ambulance to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital, screaming all the way that she "didn't really mean it!"

Morris reported this to me in his typical professional manner. I had done the right thing. When a child threatens to cause herself bodily harm, the teacher must report it. Had I not reported it and the child had indeed hurt herself, I would have been in deep trouble. Once I reported it, Morris, the guidance counselor, and the EMTs had each done their jobs.

But Morris definitely had a gleam in his eye as he reported the outcome.

I never saw Arisleyda again. I feel a little bad that hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars worth of man hours had been wasted on her by Morris, the guidance counselor, her mother, the EMT's, the triage nurse at the hospital, the doctors there, etc.

On the other hand, that kid sooooo had it coming. And you know, we have to follow the protocol.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Tales from the Blackboard Factory: Jeremy

Inspired by Orthomom's post about a New York City employee who was fired by Mayor Bloomberg because he had a solitaire game up on his screen, I've decided to share an anecdote from my teaching days in the Bronx about another person who was almost made into "an example."

My second year of teaching, I was lucky enough to be assigned two sections of Honors-level 9th grade English for kids who were in a special program -- they'd been accepted on the basis of their reading and math scores on standardized tests.

As you can imagine, the honors sections were a special joy to teach, because those kids were actually functioning on grade level and were motivated to do well because they didn't want to be kicked out of their program. This doesn't mean that all of them were geniuses or that I never had any discipline issues with them, but generally the kids did their work and did it well. I rarely had any dramatic problems with them.

One of those kids was Jeremy, a friendly kid who sat smack in the middle of the room and had a little bit of a hard time concentrating. He sometimes spaced out while I was giving instructions, but he was so guileless and relaxed that it was hard to be angry with him. Unfortunately, he did not always do his homework, so his average was around a 75, even though he was capable of doing better. I never called his house because he was passing the class by a wide margin and never caused any particular problems. He was just coasting, you know? I found out in the middle of the year that he lived with his grandparents because his father was in jail and his mother was in a nursing home with a debilitating neurological problem. I felt bad for him but admired that he was functioning as well as he was - and usually with a smile.

Toward the end of the year, all my honors students were working on an independent reading project in which they got to choose any book they wanted off a list I gave them, keep a reading diary which I checked every few days, and write a five-paragraph typed thesis essay at the end.

At this point, Jeremy suddenly decided that he did not want to finish the year with a 75 on his transcript in English. He wanted to earn an A in the class. He approached me about doing extra credit work -- such as reading a second book from the list and writing another essay about it. I told him "Look, Jeremy, you are welcome to do extra credit, and certainly if you do another book project (well) I will raise your grade. But after a whole year of doing C work, you can't suddenly get an A for the class because of one extra book project. If you get A's on both projects, you'll probably get an 80, but really, you should have thought of this in October or November."

Jeremy was very determined to get an A, though. He said "What if I do 10 reading projects between now and the end of the year?" I said "Jeremy, there are only about 2 weeks left to the class. How can you possibly read 10 books and write a thesis essay about every one? This isn't your only class. You have other work to do" He said "I really want to do this. If I read 10 books and write 10 essays, will you give me an A?" I thought about it and, wanting to encourage him to do whatever extra reading and writing he could squeeze in, answered "I'll give you extra credit for whatever projects you do well, and if you do 10 of them well, I'll give you an A for the class." I never thought he'd do it, see? I figured he'd read another 2 books or maybe 3, get a B or so for the class, and that would be it.

About a week and a half later, Jeremy arrived at my class and proudly placed ten neatly-typed essays on my desk. I was amazed and congratulated him, saying I looked forward to reading them and congratulating him on his effort.

When I went home that night and started reading Jeremy's work, I realized that I had every right to be amazed, because there was no way that Jeremy had written these essays. These essays were perfect. The sentence structure was perfect, the vocabulary was advanced -- way too advanced -- and the concepts were very sophisticated -- way too sophisticated. Jeremy apparently had not thought about the fact that I had been evaluating his writing all year and could recognize such a miraculous leap in skills for what it was: an impossibility.

But I knew that if I simply confront him about cheating, he'd argue that yes he had written them, and I had no proof, and we had a deal, blah blah blah.

So the next day I told Jeremy to meet me in the English office during his lunch period. I told him that I was going to give him another opportunity to earn an A (I am so mean). When he got there, I gave him a piece of paper and said "I am going to read to you 10 vocabulary words. I pulled them out of the papers you submitted. If you can correctly spell and use each of these words properly in a sentence, you will automatically get an A+ for the class, no questions asked." He was psyched.

I started reading off words. Words from his papers. Ubiquitous. Meritricious. Quotidian. Sartorial. Normative. Antiquated. Obsequious. You get the picture.

The more words I read, the more Jeremy's head got closer to the table, until it was comletely hidden in the crook of his elbow. He was busted. A senior teacher who had been quietly grading papers at the same table pointedly did not look at us, but she was smirking.

I asked Jeremy who had written the papers, and he mumbled "My uncle helped me." I said "he helped you, or he wrote them for you?" Jeremy didn't answer. I sighed. I explained to him that cheating is a very serious offense, that there was of course no way I would include any of these papers in his grade, and that I had no choice but to report his behavior to the head of the honors program, who would decide with me how to proceed. Jeremy said "yes, ma'am" and walked out of the office, his head hanging low.

I called down to the Honors office and spoke with the head of the program, a woman for whom I had a great deal of respect. We agreed that Jeremy should definitely be made to understand that he can't get away with this, but since it was his first offense and he had never caused trouble of any kind before, we'd just make him sweat for a while and then let him go. She said that she'd give him a really scary talk and threaten to kick him out of the Honors program, but then tell him the next day she'd decided to give him one more chance and he'd better not pull a stunt like this ever again if he wanted to stay in Honors.

The next day, Jeremy came into my class, put his head down on his desk, pulled the hood of his jacket over his face, and stayed like that for the rest of the class. It was no secret to the other kids what had happened and everyone left him alone to his misery.

That afternoon, I found a note in my mailbox, from Jeremy. It said, basically, "Dear Miss ______, Because of you, I might be kicked out of the Honors program, even though I've never done anything bad before. You fucking bitch. Signed, Jeremy."

Hm. Uh oh.

I did two things. I wrote a note at the bottom of his note, to the effect of "Jeremy, I am sure you wrote this out of anger, and it is because you have never caused trouble before that I will pretend this note never happened. I recommend that you think more carefully before sending a note like this to a teacher in the future."

I then photocopied that paper and left a copy for the head of Honors, with another note attached saying "this is self-explanatory. I felt you should have a copy for your records, in case Jeremy ever does cause problems again after he has moved on from my class."

The next morning, Jeremy cut my class.

The day after that, there was quite a buzz among the first-period honors students. A lot of whispering and glancing at me and a sort of sad, morose atmosphere. I asked what was going on, and they said "Jeremy might be expelled from the school. The Honors head gave his note to the principal, and now the principal wants to expel him because of what he called you in his note."

Oh, God, you have to be kidding.

So during my lunch break I went down to the principal's office and politely asked him what was going on. He said that he was sick of the language kids were using with teachers, that to curse at a teacher -- in writing, no less -- was inexcusable, and he was going to make an example out of this kid, zero tolerance, blah blah blah.

I said "Look, G., I understand that you want to improve the atmosphere in the building, but don't make an example out of this kid. You have kids skipping 2 weeks of school, beating up substitutes, and setting the building on fire. Jeremy has never caused any trouble before. He comes to school every day, is passing all his classes, and until now has been a normal, friendly kid. He's not a trouble-maker. He's a normal kid who made a really really stupid mistake. Come on, don't do this."

G. said that he'd "take our conversation under advisement" and I left.

The next day, Jeremy was in my class again, but once again kept his hood over his face. However, the other kids were doing excited whispering and glancing at me and looking at me with a little bit of awe. I found out later that the Honors head had called Jeremy into her office and said, in as many words "Miss ____, of all people, came to your rescue. After what you called her, she spent her lunch period advocating for you to the principal, and convinced him to let you stay in the school. You can even stay in the Honors program. But just you remember, kid, that Miss ____ has more class in her pinky than you do in your entire body, and if you have any brains you'll kiss her feet from now on. Now get out of here." Word had spread like wildfire among his classmates that "Miss _____ saved Jeremy," and for about 48 hours there I was a hero to about 50 ninth graders.

The last day of school, after saying goodbye to those students who had shown up and packing up my stuff, I was walking through the almost-empty halls to go home, when I saw some of my Honors kids hauling Jeremy toward me and saying "Go on, go talk to her."

Jeremy came over to me and, tears streaming down his face, said "Miss ____, I'm s-so s-sorry. I was so m-mean to you and y-you saved my ass. P-please forgive me."

I told Jeremy that I forgive him, and made him shake hands and stand up straight. We all knew I wasn't coming back the next year and I might never see him again. I gave him a hug and said "promise you'll be good," and he said "I promise," and I walked outside.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

New baby, Barnard, and feminism: A stream of consciousness

Mazal tov to my old college chums, Jeremy and Chana Senderowicz of Riverdale, NY, on the birth last week of a daughter, Gila Hadassah. Welcome to the new Columbia baby.

Speaking of Columbia, last week I met another Pardes student who was a recent Columbia grad. He said something about "the goal of all Barnard girls is to get married before they graduate." I said "someday when you are working for me, you'll regret having said that."

He redeemed himself by saying that he fully acknowledges that he probably WILL be working for me, or some other Barnard grad, someday, and that as far as he is concerned, Barnard is a MUCH better school than Columbia (which it is). I think he called himself a "secret Barnard sympathizer."

Good. That's the way we like it.

And speaking of Barnard, which reminds me of rabid feminism . . . Someone has been writing crazy "femdom" messages on bus stations and walls all over the German Colony. "Every man kneeling at the feet of a woman." "Femdom forever." One message to the effect that the world can only be good if it is led exclusively by women.

My reaction: Geez, I was exposed to enough of this in college. Do we really need to rehash this now? Can I go home?

Sheesh. Femdom is soooooo mid-90's.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Some things are the same the world over.

Brian Blum's report of his trip to Ikea in Netanya.

Odd Todd's report of his trip to Ikea in New Jersey.

Two bloggers. Two continents. Two writing styles.

Virtually the same post.

I just bought myself 2 hours!

Today, an old seminary chum called me up and asked "Are you seeing anyone?" (no). "Would you date an Israeli?" (Yes!)

She described a certain man to me, someone she does not know well. She only knew the very basics of his age, his profession, where he lives, and his general religious label. All of those sounded good but it's not a lot to go on.

Now, in case you haven't figured it out from reading my blog, I am developing quite the penchant for Israeli men. But only certain Israeli men. Not, you know, the whole country. There is a constellation of other factors that must be in place for a man's Israeliness to be endearing to me instead of a turnoff.

So I asked her to go back to him and find out a little more. Has he ever been outside of Israel? Has he ever dated an immigrant before? Has he had contact with other cultures in any way? Does he speak English? If not, can he at least understand it well enough that if I'm really too tired to speak in Hebrew, and if I use simple words, that he could understand me? And, does he know that I have a Master's degree and am sort of "out there"? Does that intimidate him? (See, one must fish around to find out whether we are talking about a "backward, male-chauvinist Israeli man" or an "enlightened, fun, and frankly unbelievably cute Israeli man.")

Ten minutes later she called me back and said

a) He really does not speak or understand enough English for us to be able to communicate in that language at all -- not a complete deal breaker for me, but it makes things difficult


b) She told him that "she has opinions and speaks her mind," and he immediately said "no, that's no good for me."

I'm a bit worried that she may have made it sound like I'm a shrew who won't let him get two words in, which is not what I meant. But still . . .


Well, at least I can spend the 2 hours I otherwise would have wasted on a date with him to do something constructive, like re-organize my closet.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Appreciation Wednesday

It's been chilly today. And as of this afternoon, it's been incredibly windy in Jerusalem. In fact, it's incredibly windy all over Israel.

So I appreciate that I own a jacket, boots, and other warm clothes, and that I have heat in my house. So many people don't.
Knowing the People in the News

As some of you know, before I went to journalism school, I was an English teacher in a Bronx public high school for two years.

I'd always wanted to be a teacher. In college I went to significant trouble to take all the courses I needed to acquire State and City certification to teach in public schools. My experience as a student teacher at a school that served inner-city kids was a transformative one. I had seen poverty and disadvantage close up, and very much wanted to do something about it. When I moved back to New York, after a few years in Boston, to finally start teaching (and expand my social circles), my goal was to get a job in an inner-city school. I was happy to land a job at John F. Kennedy, which at the time had a reputation for being a stable place to work (that is, not a blackboard jungle) while still being a place where I could feel I was making a difference to kids who didn't have much.

I stayed at Kennedy for two years, which means I stayed in the New York City public school system one year longer than about 30 percent of new teachers, and about the same length of time as about half of new teachers. I have been thinking about blogging about my experiences there, because the fact that I failed to make a career of teaching is still, actually, a trauma for me. The fact that, despite my enthusiasm, despite my talent, despite my knowledge of my subject matter, and despite my professionalism, the public school system virtually chewed me up and spit me out is still really painful to me.

I knew it was time to quit when, during February vacation of my second year, I visited my sister in California for a "vacation" (having brought a large stack of papers that needed grading), and in the middle of the week, spent about an hour doubled over with stomache pains, groaning "I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back." My sister made me look her in the eyes, and said "Sarah, you. have. to. quit. your. job."

I think often of my students and wonder what has happened to them. I think about the kids who are at that school now, roaming the factory-like halls and attending class after class, and wonder how many of them feel like the cogs in the wheel that they are. Perhaps I am being unfair. The school has a new principal, there has been a turnover in staff . . . maybe things are better. But I doubt it.

Anyway, one of the only good things about my two years there was my boss, Morris Schulgasser. He was the Assistant Principal for the English department. He oversaw all 30 English teachers, set our schedules, observed us, ran the department meetings, handled all the crises that came up every day, made sure there were books available for us, etc.

Morris was just about the best boss I've ever had. He is smart, fair, and has a sense of humor. He took neither himself nor his job too seriously, but did work tirelessly to help us do our jobs. And, in the conferences we had after his observations of me, he helped me become a better teacher.

So imagine my surprise when I read a New York Times article that started with his name! It's in today's Education section. "Cheating, but not by Students." Thank God, Morris comes out looking like the really amazing administrator that he always was.

I know almost every single person mentioned in that article. It's so strange, reading that story and being able to match faces to every name. I used to sit in the same library as they, grading Regents in just the type of process they describe. I was there.


Anyhow, expect some blog posts in the future in which I try to process (and memorialize) my time as a teacher. Time to tease out the trauma and learn something from it.
The Singles Shabbaton

Well, I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that the Singles Shabbaton in Netanya last weekend was actually pretty good, despite the fact that, to my initial horror, it turned out to have been co-organized by the same people who organized the Shabbaton From Hell in Tiberias (see Archives for December 2004). When I saw "Avi" there, my first thought was "Oh, God, this whole weekend is going on the blog . . . again." Fortunately, it turned out that his main responsibility was not in planning the program, but in organizing the hotel and registration. Phew!

My friend Miriam came with me, which made a big difference on its own.

The other co-organizers, Makirim (which is really just a married couple trying to do their part to set people up), who I had thought were the only organizers, turned out to really know what they were doing. The activities were appropriate and interesting, and they treated people with real respect.

There were about 100 singles there, from all parts of Israel, all walks of life, and all Jewish ethnicities (though the group was homogenously Modern Orthodox/ Traditional - which for me is a good thing). Most were normal! Overall there was a very nice atmosphere, with people really mingling, shmoozing, laughing, joking around with the waiters, etc.

The weather in Netanya was beautiful. On Shabbat afternoon, the whole Shabbaton went for a walk on the boardwalk, sans jackets, and some of us went down to the beach to walk by the water.

I have only two small criticisms:

One, that the hotel, the Blueweiss, was not the prettiest in the world. On the other hand, for the price, it was tolerable, and the (kosher l'mihadrin) food was not bad. Miriam and I also had a beautiful view of the Mediterranean.

The other criticism is the the non-Makirim organizers, the ones from the Shabbaton in Tiberias, have a penchant for speaking at length about all their accomplishments, all the Shabbatons they've planned in the past, how important it is to help singles, blah blah blah. Also, "Avi" spoke from the men's section after prayers on Friday night, and didn't bother having the women move the mechitza, so we had no idea who was even talking unless we strained our necks to peer around the side. The Makirim guy, in contrast, got up after that to speak, and the first thing he did was say "please move the mechitza so the women can see." It's small things like this which make a big difference, and symbolize larger issues.

In short, I'll definitely put myself on Makirim's mailing list. They were cool, and the Shabbaton wasn't a horrible investment of 310 shekels, though I'm not sure I'll exactly come out of it with a man. I did make a new girlfriend though-- a woman from Petach Tivka with whom I got along splendidly-- and had a nice walk on the beach in mid-February. So, all's well that ends well.

The bad news is that this is probably the only post about the Shabbaton. No saga this time. Sorry.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Double Standards

For those of you who haven't been following the news, last week Israeli security forces evacuated several buildings in an "illegal outpost" called Amona (which I put in quotation marks not because I don't think it's illegal or an outpost, but because I find it interesting that in some cases they are called "illegal outposts" and in others they are called "unregistered villages," depending on where they are and how they got there and whether the inhabitants are Jews or Arabs, but I digress). A whole bunch of people who support the settlement movement, including a lot of teenagers, went there to protest, and the police beat up a bunch of people, and the people threw rocks at the police -- though which happened first depends somewhat on whom you ask-- and the whole thing was violent and made international news and was very bad.

The news and other bloggers have covered this more accurately and comprehensively than I can (or, at least, in more depth, since part of the reason they are talking about it is that everyone has a different version of what went on), so I'm not going to try to go over facts and details that I don't know enough about and which you can easily access elsewhere.

My two cents to throw in has to do with the nature of the arguing going on. The double standards and hypocrisy flying around are just disgusting. What follows is a simplified version of what I'm seeing. (So please don't tell me I'm generalizing. I just said I am!)

To my left, we have people who say, when Israeli forces (that is, the army and/or police) harm Palestinian or Israeli-Arab civilians "We Israelis are no better than any other people, and like others do, we are abusing our power. Our security forces think they can get away with hurting innocent people, and so they do, because they can. That is sick. Something must be done. Those poor people! Why is the army shooting people in the chest when, in the first intifada, they aimed for the legs? Why don't they make sure more carefully that buildings are completely empty before they are bulldozed? Why did they run over Rachel Corrie? How could they shoot a 13-year-old unarmed girl? This is just sick. We people of conscience must speak up."

But when Israeli forces harm Jewish settlers and their supporters, they say "The police are just doing their job! If you are going to build illegally and fight the forces of the law of a democratic country, what do you think will happen? How dare you put teenagers in the middle of a violent protest! You use your children like that, and then think they won't get hurt? This is a democracy, and the police officers are simply carrying out the wishes of the government, and protecting us from harm, and to think that you can circumvent the needs and wishes of a democratic society is just wrong. And you deserve what you get."

To my right, we have people who say, when Palestinians and/or Israeli Arabs complain about army/police brutality: "Israelis would never, ever hurt someone without just cause. If our forces hurt you, it must be that you either did something evil, or at least stupid, and you paid the price. Those people are there to protect us, and if you are going to break laws, disobey orders, or put yourself somewhere you shouldn't be, then you can't expect any better than what you get. And if you haven't done anything wrong, and are hurt anyway, well, it's your leaders' fault. If they were working harder to root out the terrorists, then we wouldn't have to be on our toes like this when it comes to security. The injuries and deaths of innocent people are regrettable, but unavoidable."

But when the Israeli police beat up Jewish teenagers, they say: "It's a pogrom! The Israeli government is out to get us! Everyone else in Israel hates us, they've marginalized us, and now they are abusing their power! This is sick! They are beating up unarmed children!"

Like I said, this is very simplified. But I'm seeing kernels of it in just about every blog post, and every email, I'm reading about Amona. The ones who are saying that "the settlers were asking for it" are usually the same ones who would never dare to say such a thing about Palestinian school children who are shot by Israeli soldiers. And the ones who are saying "the Israeli police just carried out a pogrom" tend to look the other way when other marginalized people -- Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Haredim-- complain that they are not treated equally under the law.

Personally, I think that probably both groups are correct sometimes, and wrong sometimes, depending on which individuals are on each side of the riot gear or gun, and what exactly happened. Each case is different. Every army officer is different. Every police officer is different. Every settlement is different. Every day is different.

But if you ask me, my feeling, from lots of things I've read and heard over the last couple of years, is that Israeli police (in contrast, usually, to the army), are indeed sometimes (?) / often (?) unnecessarily brutal. Israel is a democracy, but it's not America. At least, not like America of 2006. It's more like . . . Tammany Hall. I wouldn't have wanted to be on the wrong side of the police in New York City in the late 1800's. And I wouldn't have wanted to be an unarmed kid at Amona.

I have more confidence in the orderliness and overall, let's say, good intentions of the army. But . . . I would like to know why, for example, so many Palestinians ended up in the hospital with shot-up chests during this intifada, when in the last intifada they came to the emergency room with shot-up legs. Not because I think everyone shot by the Israeli army is a little angel -- remember, I just wrote how terrified I am of Hamas? How I didn't ride buses until recently because they gave me the heebie jeebies?-- but because if shooting for the legs works, why not stick to that? What is really going on, sometimes?

And yet . . . as a non-marginalized person in Israel, and an American, I recognize that we need the police, and we need the army, and they are there to protect us, and we need people to obey laws in order to have a functioning society. It's just that . . . it looks to me like there is a difference between the way we would like to see our security forces, and how they are. And the circumstances under which people use their rose-colored glasses always seems to depend on who is getting hurt, not on what actually happened.


Lots of troubling thoughts here, and frustration because I feel helpless to do anything about it. Except speak up against hypocrisy. Which I just did.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Oy Vey, and Appreciation Wednesday (on Friday)

Oy. So much to think and write about, so little time.

The evacuation of Ammona. Oy! On so many levels, I don't know where to start! (And before anyone comments with long tirades . . . please leave it for your own blog. I can't deal with it right now.)

The death last night of Treppenwitz's neighbor in a tragic parachuting accident.

Should MoChassid and family try to adopt The Baby they've been fostering? Or try to arrange to get permission for her Israeli aunts to take her?

Closings at border crossings, and tons of fruit and vegetables rotting . . . echoes of The Grapes of Wrath . . . oy . . . whatever Israel's reasons are (and their stated reason is a reasonable one), the idea of all that food going to waste is just so awful. This is a sad world.

Last night there was a thunder-and-hail storm in Jerusalem. Living alone during a thunder-and-hail storm is a little scary and depressing.

Singles Shabbaton coming up. Thank God, a friend of mine is coming with me! But still . . . oy.

But, it is time for Appreciation Wednesday, so here goes:

One thing I'm incredibly grateful for is that I grew up in a subculture that not only allows, but encourages, girls to learn Gemara (the Talmud). I started learning Gemara in 7th grade, and by 12th grade we had Gemara class 9 periods per week -- much less than in traditional boys' yeshivot, but far more than teenage girls get just about anywhere else. After high school, I studied Talmudic texts just here and there - a chavruta (established learning with a partner) one year that fizzled, a summer at Nishmat, random classes every so often. But now that I'm at Pardes, I'm taking a Gemara class 3 days a week. We study the texts b'chavruta (in pairs) for about 2 hours, and then have a 1-hour-plus lecture.

The fact is, I adore learning Gemara. The reasons are personal and I'll explain them in a minute. One thing that bothers me is the idea thrown around in yeshivish circles that women who learn Talmud are only doing so to make a feminist point, because why would they learn Talmud if they have not yet comprehensively learned what they should be studying, which is Tanach (the Old Testament) and Halacha (Jewish Law)? I cannot claim to know everyone's reasons, and I'm sure there are women who do study Gemara just to satisfy a chip on their shoulder, though anyone who has ever learned Gemara before can tell you that it's an awfully difficult endeavor to take on just to make a point.

But anyway, there are two reasons I love Gemara, which are wholly my own and have nothing at all to do with making any sort of social or political "point."

The first and most immediate is that I love the way Talmud forces you to think. Remember, I'm a lawyer's daughter. What is called, in educational circles, "Logical-Mathematical Intelligence" happens to be one of my strongest areas. I got an almost perfect score, if I may be so bold as to mention it, on the logic section of the GRE. I considered going to law school for fun, and would have done it were law school tuition, say, $5 per year. For me, understanding the development of a law, analyzing the situations in which it applies and does not apply, finding loopholes in it, and understanding the philosophy behind it is a tremendously satisfying experience.

I'm sure there are yeshivish people reading this and saying "fine, Sarah, learn Tanach and play logic games on the side, or study American or Israeli law -- why do you need Talmud?"

What the question fails to address is that everyone feels religious inspiration in different ways. For me, using my brain in a way that comes naturally to it is not only intellectually satisfying but also spiritually satisfying. Yes, I feel the presence of God in all sorts of experiences, from praying or simply talking to Him, to sitting in a quiet woods, to Shabbat meals, to dancing on Simchat Torah and sitting in the sukkah. All of those things help me keep God in my life. But the fact is, on a day-to-day level, there are few things that help me feel as happy to be a Jew as learning Talmud. Could it simply be that I'm happy to be part of a religion that feeds my intellect so richly? Perhaps. But, the bottom line is, learning Talmud makes me really really happy that I'm Jewish.

Beyond the intellectual-spiritual connection is an emotional one. When I learn Talmud, I feel connected to the rabbis of long ago, and in today's world of reason and doubt, keeping that connection is one way of stopping myself from doubting my way out of the system. Just when I start to wonder what this very difficult Orthodox lifestyle is all for, I sit down with some rabbis in ancient Babylonia, and we talk. Yes, they lived in a very different sort of world. A lot of things they said sound strange, enigmatic, or even offensive now. But when you meet them on their terms, they are infinitely fascinating. They are also, in many ways, much less dogmatic than (some) Orthodox Jews of today, which gives me a lot to think about. When I read a tannaitic text, and then an ammoraitic one, and then the rishonim, etc etc (that is, earlier texts and then later ones that build on the earlier ones) through texts of the Middle Ages and today, it's like seeing the entirety of Jewish History flashing before my eyes. All the rabbinic Jews who ever lived, sweeping before me in a matter of hours, or minutes. A connection to previous generations who, for all their differences, did a lot of the same things that I do and had a lot of the same ideals that I have, and a comforting knowledge that generations after me will be learning these same texts . . . and that perhaps I, someday, will flash before their eyes.

So, today I appreciate Rabbi Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik, zt'l, who founded the school in which I grew up and created an environment which nurtured my first introduction to gemara.

I appreciate my first gemara teacher, Rabbi Zalman Stein, who to this day patiently (oh, so patiently) inducts new 7th and 8th grade students into the world of "hacha," "hachi," "mai taama," and "taiku." The difficulties of studying in Aramaic when even Hebrew is a foreign language! Oy!

I appreciate my current teacher, Leah Rosenthal, who inspires me three days a week with her brilliance, sensitivity, clarity, and facility with the texts.

And perhaps most of all, I appreciate my very good "friends": Marcus Jastrow, author of the Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud, and Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, author of The Practical Talmud Dictionary. Without them I'd be sitting in a Bet Midrash three mornings a week wasting my time. Their books are valuable gifts to the English-speaking Jewish world. I appreciate that they spent the time and effort to create them.

Shabbat shalom.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Last day to vote in the Jewish-Israeli Blog Awards!

Click here to vote!

(Remember, Chayyei Sarah is up for Best Personal Blog, Best Life in Israel Blog, and Best Series. And . . . )

A Vote for Chayyei Sarah is a Vote for World Peace!