Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Thoughts and Texts

I awoke on Sunday with an earworm from the Book of Amos (*).  Maybe it was matza overload ("hunger for bread").  I kept hearing the song:

יא  הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, וְהִשְׁלַחְתִּי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ:  לֹא-רָעָב לַלֶּחֶם, וְלֹא-צָמָא לַמַּיִם--כִּי אִם-לִשְׁמֹעַ, אֵת דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה

11 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but [a famine] of hearing the words of GOD.

The confluence of my youngest son's transfer to public school, with my mother's recent illness and death, has meant that I have been reading more Jewish texts than usual.  My son and I study Torah and Mishna together, and I was part of groups learning Psalms and now Talmud, in my mother's honor and memory. (**)

Just last week, I began to teach Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) to my youngest, as my father taught it to me and my sisters.  Going in, I was pondering the popular parts of the text, including the secrets to wisdom (learn from every person) and wealth (be happy with your portion).  And of course, Rabbi Hillel's timeless wisdom about urban snow-shoveling:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי    1.14
1.14  He [Rabbi Hillel] used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?
And then, with my Cambridge-raised innocent child by my side, I came upon:

1.5  יוֹסֵי בֶּן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָּתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה, וְיִהְיוּ עֲנִיִּים בְּנֵי בֵיתֶךָ, וְאַל תַּרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה. בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ אָמָרוּ, קַל וָחֹמֶר בְּאֵשֶׁת חֲבֵרוֹ. מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים, כָּל זְמַן שֶׁאָדָם מַרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה, גּוֹרֵם רָעָה לְעַצְמוֹ, וּבוֹטֵל מִדִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, וְסוֹפוֹ יוֹרֵשׁ גֵּיהִנָּם

1.5  Yose ben Yochanan, man of Jerusalem, says, "May your home be open wide, may the poor be members of your household and do not increase conversation with the woman." They so stated with his wife; all the more so with the wife of his friend. From this, the sages said, "Any time that a man increases conversation with the woman, he causes evil to himself and neglects the words of Torah; and, in his end, he inherits Perdition."
It was hard to know how to handle this - censoring it would go against everything I believe about speech being best countered by "more speech".  Explaining that some people were sexist in the olden days seemed like my best bet.  A few days later, I came upon a wonderful column in the B'nei Jeshurun blog, "Worse than Invisible:  Ruminations on Women and Talmud Torah" .  The whole piece bears reading, but here is a sample:

Why should women or feminists even bother engaging a literature that is so antithetical to our values, that so undermines our sense of self? We continue to learn because we believe that Talmud Torah is the gateway to Jewish life; that Talmud Torah, as Yeshayahu Liebowitz wrote, “makes the Jew a partner in the cultural legacy and spiritual program of Judaism.” (Leibowitz, Yeshayahu. Amudim, No. 449, p. 267) Because we know that to deprive women the gift of Torah study is “a negation of a basic Jewish right,” (ibid, p. 168) beneficial neither to Jewish women nor Jewish men, and in fact destructive to the community as a whole. Those who affirm the importance of women’s study believe that our lives are intricately tied to the lives of those who came before us and that, as Jews, that eternal connection was established and is perpetuated through our sacred texts. We also know that we can neither criticize nor transform that which we do not first know intimately.
So...this is something to think about.  I don't remember now, how my father dealt with these passages, as he read to his daughters, "don't talk too much with women" - not only did this statement insult his entire family, but he is in any case a self-declared feminist who would object to such a sentiment in general.  Perhaps he will read this and comment!

When Jewish texts contain misogynist passages, they are not merely problematic because of surface content, but also because of the not-so-subtle message:  the writer and the reader are expected to be male.  Likely married males, and tangentially, married males with adequate funds.

Teachers and learners in the modern era are supposed to be attuned to cultural privilege.  What is the "hidden curriculum" in classes or books about who is entitled to learn?  This is an important part of exposing students to content in ways that will support and nourish them as learners.  As a physics teacher, I am expected to find examples for momentum and force that do not make assumptions about my students' gender, race, sports knowledge, or other cultural markers.

So I'm repeatedly irritated and surprised that more teachers in the Orthodox world haven't raised more objections to using misogynist texts.  What do they say?  What do they do?  I have not read or heard of satisfactory answers on a large scale.  However, since I am external to that world, I am free and empowered to name the problem - and revisit why my ancestral text might have been written as it was. The B'nei Jeshurun blog continues:

I love the teachings on justice and liberation too much to abandon the texts to those Jews who read with blinders on – those who are not scarred by the chauvinism etched on its pages. I recognize the Rabbis as deeply wounded individuals, disempowered by the political world, attempting to grasp control where they can: in the religious and social spheres. But wounded though they are, they remain my family, my community, and I therefore cannot disregard their voices.
And this made me more sympathetic - these men who wrote our ancient texts were, in some cases, exerting power over the only people left under their control.  Not a pretty conclusion, but easier to explain to my kids.

Which then reminded me of this week's Torah portion:  Acharei Mot.  We previously read about the seemingly-divine deaths of Aaron's sons, after they brought "strange fire" to the altar.  I am tempted to assume that their deaths were accidental, as a result of playing with fire (in imitation of their elders).  However, the parsha this week details extensive penitence rituals, including those presumably undertaken in an attempt to find absolution for the boys' sin.  And this parsha's content is one of the major sources for traditional Yom Kippur liturgy.

Losing a child must be the most horrible thing that a parent can experience; losing a parent is hard enough, even though that is the "natural" way of things progressing.  My recent experience has bludgeoned me with reality on this point, unfortunately.  I miss my mother so much, and even though her death was expected, and even though our grief began during her long illness and suffering, it is still hard to face the finality of mortality.

And, human to human, I can understand the efforts that Aaron felt he had to go through, to re-exert control over his religion and his idea of God.  This is extended to the parsha's odd inclusion of a list of sexual instructions.  Again, it is Aaron's attempt to exert control over uncontrollable impulses and people, in the desperate hope of avoiding tragedy, which he would have viewed as divine punishment.

Others have said it more elegantly before me, but it seems clear that we have to acknowledge cultural baggage that surrounded the writers of our texts, in order to get the most out of studying them.  It's a good thing that my religion enjoins people to struggle and engage, instead of requiring only surface reading.


(*) "Amos" is pronounced in our family the Hebrew way, i.e. so that "Famous Amos" cookies are as un-rhyming as the kosher product slogan "Reach for Rokeach".

(**) A shout-out here to the Koren publishers (no affiliation with me), who have been releasing wonderful and fairly-priced Judaica for years, but increasing their scope.  Some of their newer hard-bound editions are now available in Hebrew-English on amazon, and I have been pleased to expand my library.   I also like that while on amazon, I can order a tikkun for my boys that includes a table of contents and some more instructional material, unlike the old "black tikkun" that we grew up with - that I like to refer to as the "ha-mei'vin yavin tikkun" because it is so obtuse.

Monday, March 21, 2016

On Bake Sales

So I'm finally a Cranky Cantabridgian.  Ok, so I don't really live in Cambridge, though I can see it from my house.  My crossover into true crankdom occurred yesterday, when my boys asked me to participate in a fund-raising Bake Sale for team sweat-shirts.

I don't mind baking, giving my time and resources when it's for someone who will appreciate it.  I bake bread weekly, and I bake other things like cookies, soft pretzels, pies, cakes, and brownies at least a dozen times a year for my family and friends.  But a Bake Sale is considered a "fund-raiser" because of the implication that $1 per brownie represents free money to those holding the sale.  It's only free money, though, if you don't pay attention.

Bake Sales, I told my kids are anti-feminist and illogical.  Here is why:

1. It's how they used to oppress us.  This is analogous to why some Orthodox parents get the heebie-jeebies about Jewish kids celebrating Halloween or even St.Valentine's Day ("it used to be the occasion for a pogrom!").  I have to admit that the dark-house cowering on October 31st, afraid of petty vandalism, gives modern relevance to their point of view.

During second-wave feminism, advocates for stay-at-home-motherhood were known for judging employed women by whether their volunteer contributions were home-made, beautiful, etc. - in short, whether the cookies, as proxies for mothering, were up to par.  I offered to buy Oreos for the event, but my kids seemed to think that only home-made items would be acceptable.  And that's why it's oppressive.

2. The idea of bringing in "free" baked goods devalues what I spend on ingredients.  In our home, we try to buy high quality food, including good vanilla extract, high-end chocolate, and so forth.  I'm unwilling either to consider this food disposable, or to support agro-industry buying inferior products for a volunteer project.

3. The idea of bringing in "free" baked goods devalues my time.  When I do freelance work, I am paid between $100-$200 per hour.  If someone wants to cut into my family time, I would require even a higher hourly wage.  This raises the labor cost of a pan of brownies somewhere into the range of the price of a medium-good bottle of Scotch.  Can you imagine requesting that each kid bring in a $150 bottle of Scotch for a fund-raiser?  I understand the class implications of this objection - but everyone involved in the story is of the same socioeconomic group.

4. No one needs more baked goods.  There's already enough fat-shaming in this world, so I won't belabor the point, but the intended Bake Sale customers have access to plenty of other, healthier calories in their lives.

This topic reminds me tangentially of when I was part of a discussion about "reasons to breastfeed" on a mothering listserv years ago.  There are many reasons to breastfeed babies, and I nursed each of mine until age 3yo.  However, it is an anti-woman claim that "breastfeeding is free".  Breastfeeding is expensive in time and energy and effort - and the choice to breastfeed should be acknowledged as choosing to pay a high price for something very worthwhile.

Let me close in gratitude that I do live close to Cambridge, in a community where we can discuss and ponder issues of whether brownies are appropriate.  I read a set of incredibly disturbing articles in the New York Times about how ISIS/ISIL/Daesh is encouraging the violent sexual abuse of women.  I can't do much except publicize that this is happening, and hope very much that our national and global leadership can put a halt to this kind of oppression, wherever it occurs in the world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Culture of Patriarchal Oppression: My Bad Hattitude

It is almost a cliche that men's clothing is designed for function while women's clothing is...not.

There are ongoing debates about "dress codes" and "slut-shaming" and other related issues, but fundamentally the problem is that human bodies and their coverings are still defined by the CPO.  When men dress up for work, they have comfortable shoes, pants with pockets, full coverage in layers, and no expectation of new outfits.  When men go to formal parties, they wear very similarly-shaped garments to what they wear normally.  And when men win major awards, they are still wearing the same comfortable outfits, maybe with a different shape of necktie or jacket.

And in real life, what do I suggest that my female students wear to win their academic awards?  It pains me that these girls have to choose either a sexy dress or the fate of looking uncool, while their male friends have the choice to look both professional and fashionable with little effort.  I had given up a long time ago on party clothes having any kind of parity in this vein, but I also spent many sad minutes looking at googled images of Nobel Prize winners to find the same issue prevalent.  With the exception of some "ethnic" dress, there was no fancy, formal option for these brilliant, accomplished women that would approach the comfort and non-sexualization of the men's options.

I'm not saying that women shouldn't look sexy or wear revealing clothes if they want to - it just shouldn't be a prerequisite for dressing "up" - any more than it is for men.  To believe otherwise is to accept that men are the normal, functional humans, whereas women are decorative or sexualized in all contexts.  Women are not truly equal, even if they win Nobel Prizes, until they have equal fashion expectations to those of their male counterparts.

Well, at least in secular USAmerica, it's only fashion expectations.  No one is explicitly giving offensive instructions to women.  Not so in the religious world!  And there are so many, many examples of this.  But in this post, I want to examine one tiny facet - hair-covering for Jewish women.  As a religious Jewish woman, the norm would be for me to cover my hair/head, perhaps always, but certainly when attending synagogue.

I am in open rebellion against this expectation.

First of all, Jewish men of all ages are considered functional humans - as an effect of this, religious Jewish men are required to wear a head-covering in the course of their ongoing relationship with Gd.  Grossly offensively, women, even spiritually-engaged Orthodox women, are not considered important enough - perhaps not considered human enough - to be in this same conversation.  This is why despite many years of attempts at change, it is still unusual for women to wear kippot as a daily fashion.  To do so would be unusual socially, and certainly discouraged religiously.  It will surprise no one that I reject the usual explanatory apologetics about how women are in a "different relationship" with Gd based on their gender.

Rather than our relationship with Gd, our relationship with men is supposed to determine headgear for religious women.  In particular, the reason that "married women wear hats" is that their hair has become the sexual property of their husbands.  Single women, in the modern Orthodox Jewish tradition, do not have to cover their hair/heads.  So it's not as though there is any sense of hair as immodest (side note - I also take issue when things are defined as "immodest," but I will fight that CPO battle another time).

It is bad enough that synagogue communities sometimes ostracize singles and treat adults differentially based on family status.  It is awful when they state different rules for married adults (e.g. tallis, hat, and so forth).  I spoke recently to an Orthodox man who described nonchalantly how his elderly [single] male friend was disappointed that he was excluded from a "Married Men's Shiur" (*).  I asked him, was the content sexual?  He was uncomfortable with the question, but I guess the answer was probably, yes.

But it's beyond the pale that our culture somehow accepts the idea that a part of Person A's body, which was once free for her to show as she pleased even within that same religious tradition - will be forever concealed now except if Person B wishes to see it.  Of course, with zero reciprocity of any kind.  This odious sexual ownership has no place in a feminist's life.  It gets even worse.  According to some rabbinical opinions, a divorcee/widow must keep covering her hair - to indicate, presumably, her "used" status sexually.

I used to wear a hat to shul.  When I was a little girl, it was just assumed and expected that when you get married, you start wearing a hat to shul.  I remember davening in the summer just before our wedding, and feeling the sun on my head and thinking, "I guess that's that."  But I cannot be complicit in such an offensive practice.  So for a while, I went bare-headed.  And that did not seem sensible either - my husband and sons all wear kippot, so why would I be bare-headed?  But I wasn't going to wear a kippah, because, well, it seemed too weird for me.  And then I commissioned "New Hat" as pictured in the last post, from a lovely artist on  I didn't exactly want a kippah, but I certainly wanted more of a kippah than a shul hat.  And I wear it to daven, not because of my family status.  I don't expect that every woman will find that same compromise, but it works for me.  Sometimes I wear a fascinator instead, and yes they are too still in fashion. :)

And thus I paused emotionally, when I read the "hats for married women" requirement to attend a recent simcha.  I was fine with requirements for "all adults" to cover their heads in synagogue.  I was fine with requirements for "all adults who come to the bima" to wear a head-covering as well.  I was even fine with accommodating certain aspects of prayer, such as a different liturgy or variation in shabbat practice, when going to simchas that were held by those in different Jewish traditions than mine.  But it gives me legitimate pause when people start expecting me to be complicit in my own lack of sexual autonomy.  That, I think, goes beyond Pluralism.

I'm still waiting for a Truth-in-Advertising take on a shul's sign, maybe something like this:

(*)  Good luck to anyone trying to exclude the unmarried, or the unmale, from an internet download:
Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5753 Open Q&A -for married men only: Makkas Nida; Shaking woman's hand; Using doctor of opposite gender; Going to mikva during day; Gedolim story books in bedroom; Staying in room with a lot of seforim; A man shaving the hair of the nose, ears and between the eyes; Is hair an erva when a woman is a nidda; Is there a set time for hachana for tevila; Shaving private area; Zman for moch dachuk; Delaying zman tevila; Wearing tzizis when playing sports; Woman going to mikva with no one in the room; Being machmir on certain nights to avoid tashmish; Tashmish b'yom; Calculating l'el tevila in Alaska; Boys and girls swimming together; Negia on a koruv

Monday, November 24, 2014

Alt-Neu Hat

It's b'nei-mitzvah season!

My seventh-grader has a wonderful cadre of pluralistic Jewish friends, and one of the nicest things is how everyone shares bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations.  Because there are observances all over the religious map, each family sends an instructional email.  There are a lot of comments about headgear.  Which reminded me of a certain book....  Thanks to the bar-mitzvah boy's brother, Mr. Old Hat, for help with the pictures!

Friday, January 3, 2014


I saw an irritating commercial for health insurance the other day.  There was an adorable shot of two people holding hands, while the voice-over intoned, "Do you need to know the hundreds of muscles involved in how two hands connect?"  A second rhetorical question asked whether one needs to understand light's refraction to enjoy a rainbow.  The ostensible message of the commercial is that you don't really need to know science or understand things, but that it's better just to enjoy life.  In particular, I suppose, that you should go ahead and rely blindly on this health-insurance company.

Smart people know that understanding vs. appreciation is a false dichotomy.  In contrast, people have more capacity to appreciate aesthetics when they have background knowledge.  Non-controversial examples of this are architectural tours explaining history and structure of cathedrals, or the recent cookbook trend with lots of food science included.

In contrast, that annoying commercial relied on people fearing that others with unshared background knowledge might make them feel left out - as sometimes happens when nerdy-physics-types like me aren't careful to self-censor.  :)  The fabulous CBS comedy Big Bang Theory relies on set-ups like this for much of its content.

In college, I took a great seminar on "Humor".  My then-BF (now DH) teased me that it was "How to kill a joke".  But actually, just as understanding poetic structure helps people appreciate Shakespeare, and just as understanding physics helps viewers of the health insurance commercial appreciate that rainbow, understanding the nature of jokes definitely made them even more funny to the kids in the class.

Specifically, I did my seminar project on "in-humor," which is humor within a sub-group of people who enjoy it more because it relies on shared understanding.  This can be a joke specifically geared toward a sub-culture:

cartoon courtesy of Crown Prince - thanks, Akiva!!  For explanation:  yekke definition

Or in-humor can be my favorite type, i.e. where the jokester subtly sets up shared understanding among his/her listeners.  The best recent example of this that I saw was in vlogbrother's "50 more jokes in four minutes" - he sets it up for the well-known set of Elephant Jokes (link goes to the relevant part, at 1:34).

Aside from these jokes' whimsicality, and their charming background (elephant jokes were developed among children who found ways of controlling the large, uncontrollable forces in their lives by embodying them in foolishly-behaving elephants), these jokes are my favorite because they are clean and funny and build community connection among joke participants.

Of course, the best elephant joke for a physics nerd would have to be the following:

cartoon courtesy of Crown Prince - thanks, Akiva!!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Yom Kippur is approaching this Saturday.  I don't consider myself very pious, but at this time of year I do tend to reflect on sin, and repentance, and also I often remember what might have been the best teshuva that I was able to make as a girl.

In fourth grade, a new girl named Sonja came to my school.  She was very cool, and I was not.  Once she wore two different earrings and I thought, "aha!  I've caught her doing something wrong!" so I asked her about it, but she informed me, "that's 'in' now, so I'm wearing it".  Rats.

One day, Sonja had gotten up from the lunch table to get something, leaving her Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, sealed and unguarded, at her place.  I quickly slid the candy under her jacket on the bench.  When Sonja returned, she sat down on her jacket, ate her lunch, and only later started looking for her dessert.  She found the Peanut Butter Cups, totally squashed, and started to cry.

I felt bad about that for a very long time, but was too shy or too scared to talk to Sonja.  Then we were in different schools, and I went on a sabbatical to a different country, and I didn't see her again.

Until one day, in high school, when I saw Sonja:  she was my schoolmate again!  I still remember how excited I was, running to my locker, getting out 45 cents in quarters and dimes, and running to the vending machine.  I bought a Reese's Peanut Butter Cups pack, and rushed to give it to Sonja, breathlessly telling her the confusing and old story of why.

She looked at me like I was insane, and said she didn't remember a thing.  But, she ate, and even shared, the candy.  I apologized dozens of times.  We parted ways after that.  In fact, I tried to find her on FaceBook while writing this, and could not do so.

Here's hoping that Yom Kippur brings us all a chance to do some teshuva that comes as easily as that!  :)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Shaking and Dancing

Since every bathroom in my house is de facto a "men's room," I got to thinking about a bit of doggerel that my father taught me long ago:
"No matter how hard you shake and you dance,
Those last drops won't fall out 'til you're wearing your pants."

Anyone who is still reading at this point loves me enough to trust me when I say, I think that it actually makes sense from a fluid mechanics standpoint!  The drop hangs from one's urethra initially, and keeps from falling due to inter-molecular forces (like surface tension) within the fluid.  These forces are stronger than the small gravitational effect on such a tiny mass.  Then, along come the undies and capillary action with adhesion!  The liquid happily transfers to the fabric.