Tuesday, September 27, 2005

For the sin that I have sinned before You by eating at a kosher restaurant

It's that time of year, and I have a lot of al chets this time around.

This one, though is for a sin I committed during 5754, but didn't realize I was doing so until recently.

At the time, I was spending a lot of time in Washington, and I discovered the joys of the now-closed "Stacks" kosher deli. And excellent way to be able to eat out with Orthodox acquaintences, and the sandwiches weren't bad, if a little pricey, even by DC standards.

Then I found out that the place was owned by the infamous Jack Abramoff, who was described as a "Republican power-lobbyist." I also found out that the place had closed. Well, while I'm not the Republican type, I generally don't boycott the livelihoods of Republicans, so I didn't think too much about it. Then I read the recent stuff on Mr. Abramoff being dug out by Josh Marshall.

(a direct link to Mr. Marshall's blog here.)

Oy vey, this guy isn't just a "lobbyist," he's a double-dealing two-timing bagman for some corrupt political machine! I read again about his escapade with the Christian Coalition and his Indian Casino clients, oy, oy oy! is all I can say.

A shandeh fur die goyim!

Sure, I'm no naif. I know all about crooked Jews who have been involved in politics, serving all parties. But if half this stuff is true (and Mr. Abramoff has been indicted), never such crookedness on such a scale. Name me the sleaziest politically powerful Jewish Democrat from the period 1932-1980, and I don't think he (whoever he is) can come close to even a tenth, a hundredth of this Republican right-wing sleaziness. And Jewish Whistleblower (quoting the Washington Jewish Week) leaves us hints that the guy may have even been diddling the Va'ad Harabbanim of Greater Washington.

This guy is supposed to be a frum Orthodox Jew?

Anyway, I am extremely embarassed that I spent money in such a place. For this sin, may God forgive me, pardon me, and grant me atonement.

From now on, when I go to DC, I'm eating a Loeb's Deli (15th & I NW), it's not kosher, but it's classic New York Jewish style "glatt treif." The pastrami is pretty good. OK it doesn't have hasgacha, but eating such food is far lesser sin than giving money to Jack Abramoff.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

An Apikoris' Guide to Spirituality

No, this wont be about slivovitz.

This is in respnse to Dov Bear, who seems to have problems with the concept and is asking for help. So here is my take on the subject.

I see it this way: We humans like to think that we're some sort of superior, rational beings, with Godlike minds that can do anything. "Created in God's image," is the way the Torah puts it. But the sad truth is that our minds are cluttered with the same primitive instincts and emotions and reptilian-brain responses as more primitive animals, yes, even the treif ones, and it's possible that there's stuff knocking around in our heads that has more in common with the lowest forms of life, worms, slime molds, even killer viruses than it has with anything divine.

At the same time, we are "superior, rational beings," which means that we're aware of our animalistic instincts and it bothers us. Well, maybe "bothers" is too mild a word. When we get in touch with the stuff sloshing around in our brains, it is a bit scary. Maybe even more than a bit scary. We are afraid that if we don't do something to contain or control what's inside us, we may end up doing terrible things, or at the very least, our heads will explode.

I maintain that "spirituality" is nothing more than a series of techniques that have been developed by human society to ride herd on our irrational inner self. Yes, it's true that many of these techniques are based on a supernatural mythos that the originators believed was a factual description of the way the world worked. But that shouldn't necessarily invalidate the worth of the "spiritual" technique. Give the ancients a break. When they lived, scientific knowldge wasn't as well developed as it is today, and their supernatural explanations of how the world worked were as plausible as any other. Imagine going back in time and trying to explain to Pharoah that the sun is nothing more than a ball of hot gas undergoing thermonuclear fusion. Even if you could explain the concept, why should he believe it?

What this means is that we can be totally "spiritual" even if we are total skeptical atheists. I myslef enjoy meditating (I should do it more), and I use all sorts of traditional Jewish imagry as my mantra. So what if the Torah was really written by JEPD and not YHVH? I enjoy davening; it clears my mind and makes me feel better. And I find attempts to changed the wording of the liturgy distracting, even though I support the "rational" reasons why the changes are proposed. Of course, I could probably derive the same benefit from a feminist-modified liturgy once I got used it it, heck, I could proabably find spiritual benefit davening to the Dapei Zahav, although I might get distracted if I run across the name of a plumber who lives near my neighborhood.

This said, I'm not so enamored of the concepts of Lurianic Kabbalah. But the reason isn't because it's "spiritual" or "superstitious." The reason is that the Lurianic Kabbalah just isn't a compelling mythos. It's basis the the supposition that God is so incompetent that He can't even creat a universe without breaking the vessels and leaving anything in disaray. The only meaning it gives to human existence it that we are supposed to be janitors cleaning up after someone else's mess. While it's true that if God is omnipotent, He has the ability to botch up creation, focusing my mind on a the idea that life's meaning is a janitorial mission does not seem to be the best way to distract me from the inner demons that roil inside my neuronic synapses.

On the other hand, it's true that I find doing cleanup work to be very meditative, and sometimes I can calm myself very nicely by doing dishes. Dishwashing as a spiritual act. That's why I'm careful to make sure that there's always a pile of dirty dishes sitting in my kithcen sink. Never know when I'll want to be spiritual.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The “Live Frei or Die” Film critic’s corner – “Kedma”

In our continuing quest to view and discuss cinema with Jewish content, your LFOD film critic has, for the first time, found a film that was actually produced by a Jew and has explicit Jewish Content. (The Ten Commandments (1956 version) doesn’t count, because Cecil B. DeMille was an Episcopalian.) This film is Kedma, produced and directed by the well-known Israeli auteur Amos Gitai. Kedma was a “2002 Cannes Film Festival Selection,” whatever that means, though the critical reviews I’ve seen on the Web were mostly negative. My opinion? Some good visuals, but the director overused the long shots (“long” as in elapsed time), thus putting the viewer at risk of falling asleep from boredom. One very good and exciting combat scene, which I think does a good job at debunking those who praise the glory of military action. And, the climactic scene, a soliloquy that expresses a very wrongheaded view of the Jewish condition. Unfortunately, the director’s final product is so opaque that it’s difficult to say whether this final rant is Mr. Gitai’s opinion or whether he’s dissing that particular view.

Nonetheless, I would recommend renting this flawed product, because it does raise some interesting issues. After all, for a $4 rental, what can you lose? Besides, the dialogue is simple enough that it’s a good way to practice your Hebrew comprehension. Just be prepared for the occasional lapse into Polish (or Russian) and Yiddish, all translated into the same English subtitles.

The plot, such as it is, goes as follows: A bunch of illegal Jewish immigrants are offloaded from the clandestine refugee ship “Kedma” sometime in late April or early May 1948. The operation is interrupted by a patrol of British troops, and the refugees scatter across the countryside (which seems to be the southern Israeli Coastal Plain inland from Ashkelon.) The different groups of refugees discuss with their Hagana (Palmach?) guides what motivated them to come to Israel rather than remain safe and warm in a DP camp in Germany. They finally all reassemble at a fairly well equipped Hagana camp where they are instructed in the use of Sten guns (a sort of home-made Uzi) and then issued single-shot bolt-action rifles. [It’s nice to know that even in Israel, there’s the “right way,” the “wrong way,” and the “Army way.”] They are then sent into battle with no explanation of the objective, which seems to be the capture of an old Arab farmhouse. The resulting firefight, which is the most convincing scene in the movie, leaves a few Israeli soldiers dead, 2 or 3 of the main characters wounded, and a middle-aged Arab noncombatant relieved of his donkey and set off wandering. As the Hagana is efficiently processing the wounded and evacuating everybody one of the refugees, who saw a close frined die or get seriously wounded, gets a sudden attack if PSTD and performs his rant/soliloquy regarding the Jewish experience. At the end, the Hagana commander hauls him into the jeep, and off they go into the sunset. Finis.

The main premise of the story is supposedly taken from an actual event. There were a bunch of illegal refugees attacked by the British a few days before the British left and the State of Israel declared its Independence. If that’s so, it’s hard to say which side was stupider: The Hagana for not waiting a week and bringing the refugees in legally with no British interference, or the British, who knew they were leaving, so why bother to stop some refugees who would just immigrate legally a week later. If that’s a point that Mr. Gitai was trying to make, I wish he’s be more explicit. Israelis are supposed to have a reputation for being plain-spoken and direct, not tolerating BS and beating around the bush.

Now we get to the Hagana. Of course, I grew up with tales of superhuman Hagana heroism. This movie is a bit of a revisionist downgrade of that reputation without trashing them too harshly. They certainly looked cool in their non-uniform khaki halutzik-wear. The commander led the sartorial pack with his piratical black bandanna. But he could have used some leadership lessons – he was unable to get the people under his command to put out a campfire properly. There was also a female radio operator who was a real hottie, but, unfortunately, she got hit in the firefight.

Nex, we turn to the Arabs. I’m glad that Mr. Gitai resisted the revisionist urge to have Black Bandanna brutalize that poor middle-aged Arab guy, driven from his home and relieved of his donkey. This guy, Youssef, concludes with a rant of his own about how the Arabs weren't going to let the Jews drive them out of theior land, and, by Allah, they were going to stay and be a pain in the tuches for the Jews, even if it meant they would end up doing all the menial work. The guy actually sounded very Jewish, if you get my drift. Especially when he explained to Black Bandanna that the reason the Arabs weren't better fighters was because (1) they had junky old weapons, and (2) too many chiefs and not enough Indians. It was a little disconcerting, to say the least, to learn that my shul has a lot in common with the Palestinian fighters of 1948, at least with regards to item (2).

Now we turn to the refugees. I appreciate the difficulty of trying to flesh out a character who is a Holocaust survivor, though I expect that most of the survivors who found themselves on an Aliya Bet ship were the kind of toughies whose trauma revolves more about what they saw happening rather than what happened to them. The “war stories” that they tell each other seem to have that sort of flavor. It makes sense that they weren’t too fazed by the battle they were thrust into. However, I do have some problems with one guy, Menachem, who in less than 30 seconds is transformed from a yingele Hazzan (with doubts abut religion, nonetheless) into a raving killer full of bloodlust, and expressing a singular desire to terminate the lives of his Semitic Ishmaelite brethren. This transformation needed a wee by more character development, which could have easily come from another scene where Janusz, another refugee, spends about 5 minutes hugging his girlfriend while Black Bandanna is practically jumping up and down telling them they have to leave. Another example of Black Bandana’s need for leadership training; any random Parriss Island USMC DI would have had that couple moving their butts double-time in less than 5 seconds. As I said, Mr. Gitai would have been better off holding the long shots and explaining things better.

In the end, the final rant of Janusz seems to make no sense. Yes, he saw a friend die (or at least get seriously wounded) in a confusing battle whose purpose wasn't properly explained to him (or us). But he must of seen much worse in Europe. (alternatively, this battle might have been "the straw the broke the camel's back.") But his rant, aside from being factually wrong, doesn't reasonably flow from what has happened to him:

The Jews are "without history."
They do not control their destiny.
Other people "write Jewish History."
The Jews "cant't exist" without being martyrs.

These assertions are factually wrong. Jewish history, while indeed full of persecutions typical of a minority nationality living in intolerant societies, was not an example of passivity. Jews most certainly did what they could to "control their destiny," even if it was simply to move when things got too hot. Jews also fought back, even during the depths of the Middle Ages. They usually were unsuccessful only becuase they were outnumbered, not be cuase they were passive sheep. Most of Jewish history was not martyrdom. That was reserved for a few nasty episodes during a long periods of simple second-class citizenship and several "golden ages." The Jews had it bad in the Middle Ages, but the average goy also had it bad. Virulent anti-semitism got jump-started during the First Crusade (circa 1100 CE) and remained endemic, farling and subsiding until the Nazis made use of it. But all along, the Jews were not acting passively.

I'll give Janusz the benefit of the doubt. All this historical detail mignt not be the first thing on the mind of a Holocaust survivor. But there seems to be no good reason why Janusz should be spouting what are essentially the Zionist platitudes of the Hagana folks who displayed a pronounced lack of competence witht he people they "rescued":

  • They insisted on bringing the refugees illegally at risk when they could have waited a week until the British left;
  • They drafted them into the army without even giving them a chance to get organized or understand the situation, or evenlearn some Hebrew;
  • They didn't explain the purpose of the military action they were being sent to perform; and
  • they weren't properly trained for what was expected of them.

Hell, if I had been Janusz, I'd have ranted and raved about the incomptetent nudniks who sent me and my friends to die for no apparent reason. But I wouldn't have have had a meltdown over a military operattion that was the exact opposite of Janusz' rant. In other words, if Janusz was bothered about Jewish passivity, the Hagana was doing exactly what he wanted. So why be upset at the end of the battle. The Jews are apparently victorious, they're taking charge of their destiny, and let's go ride off into the sunset, or to be geographically correct, the sunrise. The words are, of course, not really those of a Holocaust survivor, but more likely, those of Mr. Gitai. They're confusing, and I wonder what he really meant.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Holy Bible (Old Testament) -- An Abstract -- Part 1

As a Public service, I hereby present this summary of the Hebrew Scriptures, otherwise known as "Tanakh" to the Jews and "Old Testament" to the Christians.

I read the Bible, so you don't have to.

The bsic gist of this work is that a Deity, variously called YHVH (an unpronounceable collection of Hebrew letters) or "Elohim" (pretty weird to use a plural form for a God who insists that there's only One), for some unexplained reason, starts creating a unverse, culminating with a creature vcalled a "Human" created in the Deity's image. Which isn't very helpful, because the Deity isn't described very well.

Anyway, as the story develops, we do find out more about the Deity (whom we shall refer to as "God"). For one thing, if humans are created in God's image, we soon find out that from their behavior that God is (1) likes to make direstions more difficult than they need to be, and (2) is incapbale of follwing those directions. This comes from the first woman, who, in the garden, makes the world's first chumrah ("yessir, snakee, not only did God tell us we couldn't eat this fruit, he told us we couldn't even touch it!"), and then goes ahead and eats the fruit anyway.

From this inauspicious beginning, we get the first murder, and then the human race goes downhill from there to the point that God decides to kill everybody. (I don't want to invoke Goodwin's Law, but I wonder who else had a similar idea? We'll, "created in God's image," I guess.)

However even after saving the only righteous man of his generation (who then proceeds to get drunk), God ends up being totally pissed, because humans, in the end, abandon worshipping God in favor of worshipping idols.

So finally one nutcase (who just happened to be Jewish, wouldn't you know) decides to worship God. God is so overwhelmed that finally he's got a follower that he decides that this guy's descendants should have an unconditional covenant with the Divine. Now, given this history that transpired, I don't know why God bothered doing this. God, becing omniscient, would easily see all the mishigass that this nutcase's descendants would do, stuff that should obviously disqualify them from any sort of covenant, even with Bilaam's Ass. But, who knows the ways of God? After all, humans are created in God's image, and we all know what they are like.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Abraham's (that's Mesopotamian for "nutcase") descendants end up as slaves in Egypt, and God futzes around for a couple hundred years before He gets around to freeing them, the process of which condemns the Jews to have to eat matzah for 7 days a year for all eternity.

Not that the Israelites (that's Egyptians for "ungrateful clueless wretches") are such a great bargain for God. Despite the fact that these people personally see God trash the greratest empire the world has known, free them from slavery, and guide and feed them in a barren wilderness, these bozos are still incapable of following directions. "Thou shalt not make any graven images," and what's the first thing they do when the boss goes on vacation? Right. They make a graven image.

This mishugass goes on for 40 years, you would think that God might get the message and choose some other people, but then maybe they'ree all no good, after all they're all created in the image of a God who can't follow directions. But despite that, God decides to allow the Israelites to disposses the people living in Canaan and commit war crimes on them, after a practice session with the Midianites.

But it doesn't end. Two Israelite spies go into the Land to spy it out before the divine conquest, and where do they go, despite having heard all of the Torah, oral and written, including the Shulchan aruch and all of the statements by various rabbis concerning Nossom Slifkin" These guys who have personally heard the word of God, end up in a whorehouse!

And with that note, we end part 1, "The Torah."

Stay tuned for Part 2, or "Why I am not a Zionist," coming soon to a heretical web site near you.

Friday, September 02, 2005

We're from the government and we're here to help you

Here's a good article regarding the piss-poor bungled Federal response to the Katrina disaster:

Department of Homeland Screw-Up
What is the Bush administration doing?
By Tim Naftali

A relevant quote:

"Chertoff's Department of Homeland Security demonstrated today that it could organize an impressive press conference in Washington, lining up every participating civilian or military service from the Coast Guard to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to promise its cooperation. But on the ground in Louisiana, where it counts, DHS is turning out to be the sum of its inefficient parts. The department looks like what its biggest critics predicted: a new level of bureaucracy grafted onto a collection of largely ineffectual under-agencies."

I have worked as a staff level civil servant in Washington, and I can tell eveyone that the spectacle described is not an isolated incident. My experience was that all the managers seem to care about are media events and budgets and "small-p" political infigting (office politics rather than Democrat and Republican politics) and "looking good." The mission of the agency seems to be secondary. Frankly, I think that most bureaucrats at grades GS-15 and above who work in Washington are seriously disconected from reality. Their staffs aren't, but the higher ups don't seem to care too much about the staff, unless the staffer causes them to "look bad." So it's a little difficlt to tell hard truths to these prima donnas and expect any career advancement.

There was a time when I was a little upset that my Federal career wasn't advancing as fast as I thought it should. Then I saw what kind of people were getting promoted to the higher positions, and I realized that I should feel good, becuase at least nobody thought I was one of those bozos. What the heck, I have only a few more years, and then I can retire. But God help the people of the United States. On the other hand, considering the public's confused views of what the mutual obligations between individuals and ociety, maybe the people are getting the government they deserve.

An Elul reflection and the Katrina disaster

The disaster shaping up on the Gulf Coast shows both the best and worst of American society. Unfortunately, the "best" was displayed by individual actions (including private citizens and first responders), whereas the "worst" was reflected in the communal efforts of government and industry.

It doesn't have to be that way, nad, in fact, for a disaster of this scale, collective effort is the only way to avert tragedy. Unfortunately, what's been done has been done; it's too late to prevent what happened, but America needs to go forward. It's to clean up, but change attitudes about communal responsibility so that this kind of disaster won't reoccur.

Elul is the time for self-reflection, and, in addition to our personal behavior, we should reflect on the sins we committed to let this happen:

For the sin we committed by disregarding over a century of accumulated scientific and engineering knowledges about rivers, oceans, floods, and storms. We pave our cities, fill in the wetlands, build flimsy strucures right on the beach, all in pursuit of short term profits in the real-estate "game."

For the sin we committed by saving money now and paying later. The engineers knew that the levees needed repair, and yet the politicians cut the funding. Tax cuts for the rich and the invasion of Iraq were considered higher priorities than the safety of a major American city.

For the sin we committed by making inadequate evacuation plans. The authorites assumed everyone owned a private car and would use them to leave. But a large percentage of the population can't afford to own a car. The implication is clear -- the poor are not considered worth saving. Also, why were no plans made to evacuate hospitals before the storm? The people who were not able to drive out on the own are the weakest members of society, and we let them down.

For the sin we comitted by having inadequate plans for shelter. All we did was shove the people wou couldn't drive out into shelters with inadequate supplies of food and water, and no contingency plans for resupply. Where is our mighty military, who can have planes and hilicopters aloft in minutes, move supplies in hours, if needed? We knew several days in advance that the storm was coming. Why weren't the bureaucratic niceties over jurisdiction and such resolved long in advance so that the responses could be made without having to get approvals and requests from a long list of busy "leaders?"

For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement. (but only if we actually do things to ensure that we won't commit them again.)

On a more immediate note, the United Syanagogue of Conservative Judaism has put out a notice regarding the Conservative Jewish repsonse to the flood. The Consertative shul in New Orleans is flooded, it's not clear about the congregation in Biloxi, and there are many Jewish refugees that need help. At the very least, if you live in an area that's getting refugees, providing some Shabbos (and maybe a little longer) hospitality would be a big mitzva. Also, don't forget to write checks, both for general relief efforts, and to help the Jewish comminities in the affected areas recover.

Good Shabbos


OK, so it's not quite Elul. So sue me.
But Rosh Chodesh Elul is on Sunday, so it will be Elul soon enough.