Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy holidays!

Happy Chanukah, everyone! What a wonderful time of the year.

For some. But that old fat S.O.B. refuses to put any gifts under my menorah. So you're welcome to send me Chanukah gifts; if you don't know my mailing address sending email will do. Have you ever sent an email as a present to yourself when your inbox was empty just so you had something to read? No? I guess it's just me, then. I'm a jolly old fellow.

My daughter asked yesterday if it's true that the fat man with the long white beard used to be Jewish at one point in time. But of course! Can't you see his long white beard? However, when he heard the rumors about him running the biggest elf sweatshop ever discovered and his odd proclivity for visiting prepubescent children in the dark of the night and leaving them gifts, he, like any good Jew should, converted to Christianity to avoid the inevitable wave of anti-Semitism. Unlike this Bernie Madoff fellow who didn't have the sense to do that before confessing to running the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of the world. What was he thinking? Doesn't he realize that now we'll have to find a nice crypto-Goy willing to take one for the team and start an even bigger Ponzi scheme? I'm sure some wall-street execs are lining up for the job as we speak.

The children's school started teaching some real history and biology and math, finally. Only in very general terms, but still more than I once imagined possible. The government is tightening the screws and something had to give. The teacher hit on a novel solution: she reads the history of agriculture as it appears in the text, but then warns the students to disregard anything that contradicts the Torah -- without pointing out exactly what those things are. I relish the times when I'm asked, Are we allowed to believe that? and I get the opportunity to hit home the message that you should NEVER listen to someone trying  to tell you what you should or should not believe. You believe whatever seems to you to be the truth. A concept you'd think is self-evident, but somehow isn't. Logic? people will wonder. What, you rely on LOGIC!?!? Are you crazy or something? Deranged? All the while, I thought logic is the most ranged thing to rely on. And I still do.

For some light holiday reading some fellow bloggers have written about shame, castration, cold-blooded murder and secretly lesbian mikvah women in the Hasidic community. Really.  I think the holiday eggnog should be better stirred, myself. But who knows? I'd be afraid to enter those search terms in Google, as some will no doubt do. A search string of "castration murder secretly lesbian women banana" should provide much holiday amusement. ('Banana' for the potassium; what did you think?)

Go easy on the latkes and doughnuts, and may the Chanukah candles provide much warmth and light for whatever lies ahead. And the same for the Christmas spirit or Chanukah bush, if you're so inclined. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Let It Snow

Oh the driving outside is frightful

But the weather is so delightful

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Love Poem by Yehuda Amichai


There is joy that weeps for seven days and seven nights. There is
a wedding wherein the bride and groom
are so far one from the other
that the wedding canopy does not suffice to cover the both of them
together. And the voice of the Rabbi who weds
and the voice of "harei at" ["I take thee"]
is lost in the speaker's desert.

Harei at, rat, tat, rat-a-tat tat,
like a solitary machine gun
before the start of battle or after its end.

There is a wedding wherein your night
is my day. Your days are getting longer
while mine, shorter. And the Rabbi who wed us
despaired here and is delivering eulogies there.
That is a safer bet.

--Yehuda Amichai
Translated from the Hebrew by myself (with some help from Yehuda Amichai)



יש שמחה שבוכה שבעה ימים ושבעה לילות. יש

חתונה שבה חתן וכלה

כל כך רחוקים זה מזו,

שהחופה לא תספיק לכסות אותם

יחדיו. וקול הרב המקדש

וקול "הרי את"

יאבדו במדבר של המדבר.

את, את, ת, ת, ת ת,

כמו מכונת יריה בודדת

בפתיחת הקרב או אחר סיומו.

יש חתונה שבה אצלך לילה

ואצלי יום. אצלך מתארכים הימים

ואצלי מתקצרים. והרב שקדש אותנו

כאן התיאש ומספיד הספדים שם.

זה יותר בטוח.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mind over Matter

The brain is a powerful little machine. Powerful and complex enough that even with all modern advances in medical science in general and neuroscience in particular it still isn't understood very well (the poor thing). We know it has executive function over practically all biological systems, and yet we continue to be surprised by the extent to which what we consider the conscious part of the brain, such as emotions, appear to influence the mechanics of illness and disease.

Doctors have long known that placebos can have a real and measurable influence on well-being. That is an astonishing factoid, if you think about it; it shows that a simple change in thinking patterns may have real influence on many kinds of complex biological processes. If it hadn't been so well known, we'd probably be quite startled to discover it. We'd demand a double-blind placebo controlled study to prove it, which I'm quite sure has never been done (especially not the "placebo controlled" part). And yet, we know it's true.

The latest news is an article published in Cancer about a research study showing, among other beneficial aspects, a lowered risk of breast cancer recurrence in women who received psychological counseling. The authors hypothesize that stress hormones may ultimately affect cancer growth. Even while we know that the brain plays a major role in the endocrine system and mood affects stress hormones, I think most would find this outcome very surprising. Pleasantly so, if you happen to be a psychologist or embrace any other kind of pseudo-scientific beliefs. The hidden powers of the brain continue to amaze.

However the problem with the brain, I find, is that it has, well, a mind of its own. How many times had I not wanted to eat that piece of chocolate but have been overruled by my brain, which appears to have an irrational fondness for chocolate, potato chips, and babies? (But no, I don't eat babies.) Too many. How many times have I wanted to do one thing but my brain insisted I do something else? It often insists on thinking about something completely irrelevant even while I'm trying hard to work on something else -- and does so VERY LOUDLY.

Another problem with the mind is that if something goes just very slightly wrong with it -- or even not necessarily wrong, but just slightly different -- you can be in for a world of hurt. And if something goes just slightly wronger still, you're basically fucked. Such is the power of the mind.

So does that mean mind has domain over matter? It depends. The mind clearly has influence over the matter it can physically control, such as your own body or, in turn, things your body can physically control. You can in fact learn to lower your heart rate or raise your temperature in some situations, just by using your mind. You can even punch someone in the chin and change their own mind! But unlike what dreamy gurus with long beards selling cheap metaphysics -- or other deluded and deceitful characters -- would have you believe, your mind cannot influence matter it has no connection to or physical laws it has no control over. It cannot influence the properties of steel or the laws of probability or the force of gravity. Well, except insofar as the gravity of any situation is contingent on the perception of your own mind; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Mind over matter. Hey, I’ll drink to that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Important PSA

Important public safety announcement, complete with illustration, from here (as far as I can tell, these people are serious!):

Yes officer, I was driving and there was a distraction on the side of the road...
Immodest dress can cause traffic accidents and other public hazards

But my scientific observations show otherwise: there are many more horrible traffic accidents when there's snow outside and people are at their most modest! Obviously, dressing too modest is what causes accidents. For the love of all that is good and proper, we need to convince everyone to wear tank tops and shorty shorts when walking outside, especially in the wintertime. Think about all the lives saved and heartache avoided!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sex, Fear, and Ignorance

By now you must have heard the stories and allegations swirling around in our community, stories of molestation and abuse and a task force that's going to deal with it and the shame of being associated with said taskforce -- not to mention the dent in future shiduch prospects for your grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren until the end of time as a result of being associated with said taskforce. And you must've wondered: Why? Why the pig-headed refusal to deal with serious issues? Why the solemn silence and studied ignorance of those who think themselves leaders, and why the venomous derision and frenetic denials by those who think themselves pious followers?

Buried at the end of the most recent story on the subject in The Jewish Week is a quote by the latest man of the moment, Dr. Benzion Twerski, which provides a big part of the answer to all the above questions -- a bigger part, perhaps, than even he meant it. Here is the quote: "I think people simply don’t know, there are rabbis who don’t know. There’s a lot of education that needs to go on." Indeed.

On a most fundamental level, there's a lot of education that needs to go on in the Hasidic community. Education in general, of course, but in keeping with the subject, sex-education in particular. The ignorance about sex and sexuality amongst young people (and older people, too) in the community is astonishing. And the fact that many of these people marry and have children before being cured of their ignorance -- some are never even cured at all -- is profoundly sad. This sad lack of knowledge contributes to a twisted and non-realistic view of sex and a perverse fear of dealing with anything related to the subject. It isn't that I think the Hasidic view on sex itself is perverse; although that is true, too. But the lack of education, ANY kind of education, on the subject matter leads to total confusion and contributes to the sad state of affairs as we see it.

Children learn at a young age, both explicitly and by implicit signals they pick up from the adults around them, that any discussion or mention or anything else to do with genitals or other sensitive areas of the human body is evil and obscene. Not for us, is the message. Do not touch or look or think or speak of it. Do not mention it or ask questions about it or wonder what it is for. This may work well up to a certain age, but once the hormones kick in, equal measures of guilt and curiosity take over -- ENORMOUS equal measures of guilt and curiosity. Combine the guilt, silence, complete and utter lack of knowledge, a healthy dollop of self-doubt and embarrassment -- and for those a bit more educated, no healthy outlet at all (you quickly learn that masturbation is the most horrible sin you can ever hope to commit) and you can see how a very warped view of things is developed, internalized, and becomes part of who you are. As any half-wit, or at least any educated half-wit, can see, this provides a veritable paradise for molesters and all kinds of other miscreants and shady characters who always know how to make full use of vulnerability and weakness.

Unfortunately, this confusion about sexuality often survives well into adulthood. There is an intensely memorable and hard-hitting scene in the new movie Leaving the Fold by Eric Scott, a movie about Haredi Jews leaving the Haredi lifestyle: "Izzy" looks long and hard straight into the camera with a tormented expression on his face, and after an uncomfortably long silence and a few long and awkward pauses in between manages to say (I'm paraphrasing from memory): 'Wedding night... is rape. People are raped. It's terrible. Forced to do something you've always considered terrible and shameful with a complete stranger. Not only the girl is raped... the man, too. They are both raped.'

And there are many who feel the same way. Many never come to terms with a healthy view of sexuality. Parents, in their desperation to keep their children holy and pure and forestall any kind of emotional pain and upheaval, don't know how to deal with all these stories or even worse, imagine they *do* know how to deal with it: by denial, rejection, and vociferous condemnation of anyone who tries to do something about it publicly. It all comes back to fear and ignorance and lack of education, and we are seeing the fruits of that policy.

Regrettable, the extremely conservative official view of sex in the Hasidic world (and in the general, the Jewish Orthodox world) isn't any help. Sex or anything remotely sexual under most circumstances is considered a supremely evil force -- evil enough to cause your soul long-lasting injury and irreparable damage. Evil enough to cause not only spiritual distress but physical suffering as well. It is to be eschewed and rejected and hidden solely in the bedrooms of heterosexual married couples when the wife is not a niddah. Not that I'm here to decry the sexual mores of Orthodoxy -- or you know what, maybe I am. Lighten up! Guess what: people... fuck. They fuck and have sex and make love; sometimes even doing all these at the same time! (But sometimes, not.) As long as you don't hurt anyone it isn't dirty or evil or immoral -- it is divinely spiritual. Or maybe it's just some good fun, like biting into a freshly baked fruit tart straight out of the oven, with hot filling running all over the place and sumptuous crumbs lingering in your mouth and providing that famed afterglow. Delicious.

Why should hot apple pie only be shared by two people of opposite sex who are married to each other, and only for approximately two weeks out of every month? What great harm is prevented by this arbitrary rule? (Provided you use protection for your hand so you don't get burned, of course. Remember, not harming anyone includes yourself.) It makes little sense to me. Then again, many other things make little sense to me. Like the fact that to have an intelligent discussion about, say, piloerection and whether as a fear-response in humans it's truly a vestigial behavioral expression of an otherwise useless protein coded for in the genome, or whether that claim can only truly be tested for vestigial morphological features and in this case represents a just-so story with little scientific basis -- or really to have an interesting discussion or argument about much anything else, I have to go far far away from where I am and from the people I know. And I have to hide that fact. And worry about the shiduch prospects of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren until the end of time. But more about that in a later post. Maybe.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


There are so many things I’d like to say. So many things. But finding the words to say them is hard work, and I’ve been on a work-avoiding binge lately. And so I’m staring down this blank page with all the writer’s courage I can muster. I stare. And stare. And stare some more. I feel very courageous indeed, but still, the page remains blank. It isn’t that my mind remains blank -- oh no, not at all! In fact, my mind is full of thoughts. Happy thoughts and sad thoughts. Angry thoughts and ugly thoughts and amusing thoughts. But mostly beautiful thoughts. Thoughts I need to share. Thoughts scurrying around in my mind like little worker ants building huge elaborate tunnels out of grains of synapses and piling them high, high, high up and out of reach where the cruel foot of reality doesn’t tread.

So many things I’d like to share; so many things I need to say. But the words... the words are not there. Painfully absent. Gone. Blown away by an imaginary wind into an imaginary sea. I check other blogs; maybe I’ll find the words I’m looking for there. They aren’t there. I check my own blog; perhaps there’s a new post up. A post I haven’t written and haven’t published, but a post that I know exists nevertheless. But no, it isn’t on my blog either. It’s been hours now. In the past, it’s been days. Months, years, decades even. So many things to share, no words to share them.

Maybe poetry. Poetry is the language of the soul. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, but do you understand what it means? Poetry is a language when no other language will suffice. When you lack the words to say what you feel and instead try to make others feel what you say. But poetry is made out of words, and the words are... gone. I try two black coffees; no sugar, no milk, no taste. Just coffee. But the words don’t come. The thoughts do -- of course they do. Piling up against the fire-exit in a great stampede of jumbled color and shape. Trying desperately to get out, they remain locked in. Locked in and cruelly crushed by the endless stream of consciousness behind them, struggling, fighting to get to the same exit only to be locked in by the same steel bolt forged in a hellish place with no words.

Hellish? That’s a word. But it wasn’t the one I was looking for; it won’t do. I’d know hell if I see it -- I haven’t seen it. I look out the window; what a gorgeous day. Big chunky snow-white clouds in a clear blue sky. A cool strong breeze bows the branches of the trees all in the same direction, as if they’re trying to prostrate themselves in a beautiful temple to a beautiful goddess but can’t quite bring themselves to touch the floor. Is Mother Earth the temple, or is Mother Earth the goddess? Maybe both. Now the trees are vigorously waving their leaves -- red, green, full of life, full of promise, full of hope -- at... what? At a passing bird! The bird swoops low over the trees and dances in the breeze to admire the view. I don’t know what kind of bird it is: a pigeon? A seagull? It must appreciate the magnificent beauty of it all. It would surely share its thoughts with us, if only it could. But it can’t; it lacks the words. I know how it feels.

The breeze has blown the edges of the clouds into thin wisps of funky shapes. This one looks like the s-shaped neck of a swan -- a big, white, striking, sky-bound swan. It’s craning its neck to try and see something far away over the horizon, where the angels sing while they tend the young growing rainbows in the rainbow garden. Yes, yes, that’s a needless flight of fancy. Needless: we don’t need it. The universe is full of sublime beauty and transcendent joy, man made and nature made, mysterious and explicable, if only we care to find it and appreciate it. And share it. So many things to share, so many things to say, no words to say it with.

Sublime and transcendent -- those are words. Words I can use. Words I should remember. But do you understand what I mean by those words? Look at these magnificent buildings, with huge classical columns and victorian windows. Awe-inspiring splendor, designed and built by men and women like you and me. Here, let’s stand in the spray and feel the wind in our hair. Do you feel the salty taste of the misty breeze? Do you ever wonder what makes the ocean salty? Why sodium and chloride remain abundant in our seas today while calcite precipitated out and formed limestone, which combined with silica forms the brilliant white sands we are standing on? Isn’t that fascinating? Look at the cliffs above us; do you understand the process of erosion that conspired to create them just so, so imposing and majestic, jagged and foreboding, so inviting yet impossible to climb?

Look at the flaming red sun now sinking below the horizon. Nuclear fusion is blasting us with more energy than we can use. Imagine that! How incredibly powerful the process of fusing hydrogen to form helium. And it sustains all life around us, the people, the animals, the plants! And the people, what magnificent creatures! The sublime (there’s that word again) and incomprehensible beauty of the human form: the subtle and exquisite curves of the female body; the y-shaped crease that forms between her thighs and stomach when she folds one leg over the other just so; the way her hair falls over her shoulders protectively as if to cover the small blemishes on her skin; the well-muscled back and shoulders of the male athlete; the smooth dent where his biceps meets the triceps; the set jaw just before the jump. No two are alike! Has any sculptor ever created something more beautiful than the human form?

And then the human mind -- what a magnificent machine. Newton and Leibniz and the fundamental theorem of calculus -- how simple and powerful and beautiful! Amazing complexity made simple by some mathematical tricks, all done by this small mushy machine in our heads. Has any computer programmer ever created something more remarkable than this?

Which reminds me: I have many things to finish. I don’t have time to write this, especially not without the words I need. My desk is piled high, my to-do list is getting longer by the moment. Fuck this; why do I work with these dumb machines, unable to understand or appreciate what I do for them, unable to commiserate with my frustrations, unable to understand what I feel, unable to laugh at my jokes, unable to do anything but able to do it fast? In the process I’ve turned into a robot myself. I’d rather share some thoughts. But how to do that without words? Do you have any ideas?

Why are you reading this? Yes, I’m talking to you. You! You ARE reading this, are you not? Do you feel joy, sadness, anger, amusement, merriness, grief, glee, pleasure? Please, do share! I’m interested in what you have to say. No, I do not care what you look like or what you wear or how smart you think you are not. Most people don’t. If they think about you at all (and not about the appointment they are about to miss or the fight they had this morning) they wonder what you think of them. Isn’t that hilarious? So many people are preoccupied with what others think of them, when really what others think of them is mostly ‘I wonder what s/he thinks of me’. It’s the great cosmic joke.

Anyway, what I am interested in is what you have to say. Did you want to read something about my duplicitous life, about the Hasidic culture I live in but don’t live? Sorry, I find that topic boring. I do not care about all that -- really, I do not. Did you want to read something funny or amusing? I’d love to make you laugh you know. Oh yeah, I would. And I can. I can make you laugh and I can make a pretty girl smile. But this post is about some other thoughts, some thoughts I’d like to express, things I’d like to say, but don’t have the words to say them.

And so the sun sets and the stars come out. Did you know that Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our solar system, is almost 4.5 light years away? Light years. Think about that for a moment. Let’s go to a quiet corner and contemplate that. Can you imagine? And look at all the magnificent and dazzling stars, the quiet sound of the ocean, the song of the night. Is it not beautiful? Look at the tear rolling down my face. Don’t you worry, it isn’t a tear of sadness. It is in lieu of words, words I can’t find, words that escape me, words I imagine went to live with the angels in their rainbow garden. Do you know why tears are tear-shaped? It is because of surface tension and hydrogen bonding. Fascinating, is it not? The universe is full of mesmerizing stuff like that.

See, the universe is full of sublime (there’s that word again!) beauty and transcendent joy just waiting to be experienced. Do you want to experience it with me? Look me in the eye; can you experience my thoughts? Because I want to share, but can’t find the words. You cannot experience them you say? That’s alright -- I’ll go have another coffee.

Monday, June 30, 2008


I have been tagged. Tagged three times. Tagged, but I haven't been playing. I am now IT without wanting to be it, IT without actually being it. They want me to fill out an atheist questionnaire. There's a small difficulty though: I'm not an atheist. True, I don't believe in the existence of a God or Gods -- certainly not a personal one. But I'm not "an atheist." I am no more an atheist than I am "an a-Elvist." For how can one define themselves by something they are not? (Only God can do that.) So I am not a theist, true. But my identity isn't -- and can't be -- defined by my lack of theism any more than it is defined by my lack of belief that Elvis is alive and working as an undercover agent for the DHS. "Hi, I'm an atheist and an a-Elvist! Pleased to meet you." This is silly.

What am I then? Let’s see what my choices are. I can define myself by what I do. Like in that* old Yiddish joke, I (occasionally) eat pig and dance with shiksas: I am "a sheigetz."

(*It goes like this: "Rebbe, rebbe, my son has gone crazy, meshugeh!"

"What happened?"

"He eats pig and dances with shiksas!"

"So? If he danced with the pig and ate the shiksas I'd say he's crazy. As it is, he's just a sheigetz!")

But this doesn't work too well outside of a joke. By this same reckoning I am also a chocolate-eater, a cyclist, a sex-ist, a sleepyhead; a moneymaker and a troublemaker and a diaper-changer, too. Clearly, you can't be defined by everything you do, and how would you pick and choose? Next, you could try to define yourself by what you most LIKE to do. But that doesn't work to well either. How does what I like to do define who or what I AM? I like reading and I like thinking. I like pina coladas and I like the feel of the ocean -- and I like making love at midnight (in the dunes on the cape). As you can see, this doesn't work as a categorization.

I've been discussing this with a good friend recently. We'll call her Alice for the purpose of this post. Alice is a smart, earnest but easygoing woman, with long raven-black hair and a bright, easy smile that exposes just a slight bit of her upper teeth. She makes an excellent partner with whom to discuss existential questions -- or really any other thing, as well.

"I think I'm going mad," I said.

"Glad to hear it," she says.

"I'm not joking!"

"I know -- you never do!"

No, listen. See, this living a life that is so absolutely incongruous with the way you see yourself, combined with an inability to define yourself any other way is a Perfect Storm – a sure recipe for madness. Total, fucking madness. It may have been workable for a while, but it's not a good long-term plan, is it?

So she says "Then write about your life; that must help." (Can you detect the sarcasm?)

I wait for Alice to finish brushing those loose, phantom hairs away from her eyes. She has this endearing tic of brushing non-existent hair out of her eyes whenever she gets nervous or the discussion gets a bit animated -- makes me want to lean over and tuck her hair behind her ears for her. (I guess it's a bit like I twirl my payos in the same situation, only I sometimes DO finally tuck my payos behind my ears.)

"Sweet baby Jesus" I say, "I don't WANT to write about that! That’s not who I AM!" And this is a problem: I am not who I am.

She then suggests I write about my enrolling in an undergraduate physics program, but I don't think it makes for very interesting reading. It certainly makes for some boring writing, and besides, that still isn't who I AM. It's like those people who -- consciously or unconsciously -- feel this need to insert their qualifications in every other comment they write, especially if they're arguing with someone on any subject whatsoever. Psychologist, molecular biologist, historian. You soon realize these people define who they are by the qualifications they earned in school and hang on to it as if it’s a bungee-cord someone forgot to tie around their waist -- as if without it they wouldn’t be given the time of day and with it you’re supposed to be dazzled by their... what exactly I’m not sure. Nobody IS what they studied, much as they try to convince you otherwise.

I then suggest to Alice I'll write about my adventures (or "adventures"). Her eyes grow just a bit wider than they already are. (Alice has wide, expressive blue eyes (a rare combination with that hair, I think) that always seem like something is hiding behind them -- like she knows a great mystery she's not letting you in on. I'm beginning to suspect this may be true.)

"Aren't you afraid of what people will say?"

No! I'm not afraid of what people will say. What WILL they say? Why do I care what the couple of loony-tunes (and one fuckwad) will say, anyway? Will I define my life by what "people" will say? Where am I, in Williamsburg or something? (Don't answer that.)

"But you don't HAVE any adventures!" says Alice. (She has this way of being convincing even when she's not. It's cute.)

Ah, that’s a more serious issue. But not fatal.

"I'll make some shit up!" I blurt out after a pause.

"Bet you can't!"

Now I can't back down anymore. It's a challenge, and I don't like to lose a challenge -- most especially not with Alice.

"I can even make YOU up!" I say. And so I did.

I win.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Voices in my head

Did you know there's a beautiful and easy proof that the square root of 2 is irrational? The ancient Greeks evidently did. By this same beautiful method you can prove Theaetetus's statement that the diagonal of a square is incommensurate with its sides. And his teacher Theodorus already knew that the square root of all natural numbers 3 to 17 (excepting 4, 9 and 16 obviously) are irrational -- this in circa 450 B.C.! And yet it took me 2,500 years (plus 15 minutes of reading the history of calculus) to understand this. A bit slow on the uptake, I guess.

I have seen the future...... and it is one-tenth of a second ago. Click here to read about it. Amazing.

I have seen the past...... and it is ten thousand years ago. See here. Incredible.

Yes, those guys from an uncontacted tribe are trying to shoot down the surveying aircraft with bow and arrow! Cute. Imagine the story they were telling around the campfire that night: "Hey guys, you shoulda seen the one that got away! It was THIS big, made a terrible noise, didn't even move its wings, and had huge spinning tent-poles on its nose. I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER'S SPIRIT!"

I wonder if they also have skeptics, believers, and a concept of existential angst. Or maybe they (like me, matter of fact) are just trying to get through life without, well, dying in the middle. Which is a noble cause, I think.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


So this lands in my email inbox, totally out of the blue. (This concerns the guy I mentioned in the previous post, the one I've had a couple more conversations with since. Nice, fascinating fellow.)
Hi there,

My name is ****** and I am emailing you in regards to David *****. Your address was in his email account.

I am not sure how close you were to David but it is with deep sorrow and regret that this email is to inform you that David took his own life on --/--/----.

I was very close to him and I am offering support to his family by letting people know.

Please feel free to email me back and I can provide you with his family contacts if you would like.

There is a memorial service for David on --/--/---- at *********.

I'm sorry David. I wish you could know that when you called to chat and in the end I promised to meet up in the city when I get the chance, I was serious. And when you called again and I said the same thing again I was serious too. I did finally email you and leave a message with a date I was free to meet; I wondered why you never replied. Comparing the dates, I now see that at that time you were........ dead. Shit! Fuckin' hell.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Faking it

"Are you a Hasidic Jew, or an Orthodox Jew?" That's the question someone dropped on me out of the blue -- someone who was obviously neither. That's a false dilemma if I ever saw one, but something I wasn't particularly in the mood to explain just then. "Both" I said. And that was the start of a two hour in-depth conversation. With a Catholic, born to a Jewish mother, and harboring the grandiose dream of living a Hassidic life. Oops.

And so it was that I -- doubter, apikores, rebel that I am -- found myself making Hasidic life sound all palatable and reasonable and sensible to an outsider on the verge of opting in, all while suppressing the urge to say, Are you out of your fucking mind??? For how could I do any different? He was obviously delighted to have found a real insider, someone who could help him make sense of it all: the rituals, lifestyle, isolationism, conservatism, language, funny dress. Somewhat of a self-educated religious scholar himself, he already knew all about the laws and minutia that govern daily existence.

--"You recite a brachah before eating?"
--"Pretty much."
--"Isn't it tough to remember sometimes?"
--"Nah. It becomes second nature."
--"I don't think I could give up my dream of having a professional career in my field of study."
--"You don't have to."
--"Not many Hasidim have a professional career, do they?"
--"That's because most don't bother getting a degree. But you already have one."

And so on. Hamming it up. Being the deity's advocate, you could say. It's an odd thing. I am no longer that paranoid about an insider catching me breaking the rules: eating in a non-kosher restaurant, sending email on Shabbos, skipping tefilin. What will they do? Not count me as the tenth in a minyan? I don't daven with a minyan anyway (or daven at all). If their delicate sensibilities are liable to get wounded by such outrageous acts, I'd suggest they don't snoop. And if they feel the need to tell me about their hurt sensibilities, I'd advise they go defenestrate themselves -- carefully, because they're apt to get hurt.

But in the presence of outsiders and most especially, knowledgeable outsiders, I sometimes feel duty-bound to play the part. Live up to my fashion sense and sartorial choices. So there is a secular Jewish woman watching me buy a non-kosher bowl of chicken soup. Will she suppose it's kosher? Will she conclude Hasidim don't eat kosher? Will she think me a hypocrite? And here is a Jewish-Catholic man thrilled to get some spiritual encouragement and opinions from someone who walks the walk. Should I burst his balloon? No, I don't think I can do that.

So I fake it; I make the right noises and motions and say the right words at the right moment. Yes, it can leave me unsatisfied, but why rain on someone's parade? I'm sure lots of people can relate.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

See No Evil

Oy, temptations. You've got to give it to him: he looks the other way! What a Kiddush Hashem. (Does anyone know if this picture was staged?)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Darwin's Bulldog

I recently bumped into an interesting review of Darwin's The Origin of Species. (Read it in its entirety here.) Written by one Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") and published in the April 1860 issue of Westminster Review, I find it a fascinating read for several different reasons. There's the struggle to understand inheritance ("the offspring tends to resemble its parent or parents") without any knowledge of genetics; the hubris of confidently proclaiming that "science will some day show us how this law is a necessary consequence of the more general laws which govern matter" and the attempts to make sense of that; the elegant and concise arguments; and the biting wit.

Most of all, it's writing like this that make it a worthy read:
Everybody has read Mr. Darwin's book, or, at least, has given an opinion upon its merits or demerits; pietists, whether lay or ecclesiastic, decry it with the mild railing which sounds so charitable; bigots denounce it with ignorant invective; old ladies of both sexes consider it a decidedly dangerous book, and even savants, who have no better mud to throw, quote antiquated writers to show that its author is no better than an ape himself; while every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism; and all competent naturalists and physiologists, whatever their opinions as to the ultimate fate of the doctrines put forth, acknowledge that the work in which they are embodied is a solid contribution to knowledge and inaugurates a new epoch in natural history.
You have to admire someone who can write like that. And this little snippet remains (mostly) true now, almost 150 years after it was written!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Piano Man

I caught a nice rendition of this song at a piano bar not long ago. So I went and looked up the original. A nice song, ain't it?

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Road Not Taken

--by Robert Frost

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.