30 January 2012

Japanese Yiddishists

What makes this article - on a new Yiddish-Japanese dictionary - citeworthy on this blog is the following line:

All [Japanese Yiddishists], he says, are driven by “healthy intellectual curiosity and interest in traditional Ashkenazic culture, which, unlike modern Israeli culture, seems to have much in common with traditional Japanese culture.”


Thank you, Sam Perrin.
sperrin at uoregon.edu .

22 January 2012

Another note on Rav Hirsch

Today, 27 Teves, is Rav Hirsch's yahrtzeit. So I will say a bit more.

A rav here once observed that Rav Hirsch is directly or indirectly responsible for the five defining characteristics of Torah life in America:

1. Formal education for girls
2. The publication of Torah materials in the vernacular
3. The independent kehillah model of community structure (austritt)
4. Outreach to Jews
5. Formal "secular" education (needs a better name -- no part of a Jew's life is really "secular")

On a personal note -- I discovered Rav Hirsch when I was twelve, in the footnotes of the Artscroll Chumash. I had been going through the parsha writing down all my questions ("why did he do that? That's not very nice, that's not consistent with human dignity, that's not remotely PC"), and Rav Hirsch caught my attention because he was always the commentator who addressed them -- and gave the most wonderful answers.
I am no longer twelve, I have lived in a few Jewish communities, and still Rav Hirsch is the one who addresses my questions, and gives the most wonderful answers.
And, better yet, gives them in the poetic style of nineteenth-century German literature -- if you are lucky enough to find the older translation.

Rav Hirsch is still available through the Multnomah County Library system... The Nineteen Letters Yikes! I thought they had the whole Chumash. Well, start there.

Wild Edibles Foraging Tour in Jerusalem

A lady I know is organizing a tour of Gan Sacher (in Jerusalem) to point out which wild plants are edible.
She picks only weeds and wild plants, not anything that's been planted deliberately.
The link to the event is here.

What to Do with a Landfill - part 3

It's DIY time here at A Jew in the Rain!
Today I'll show you, in twenty-seven professional-quality photographs, interspersed with gratingly chirpy prose, how to craftily transform a landfill into cotton by the yard.

I wish.
The film in question is here:
The Story of the Hiriya Recycling Park

This serves nicely to illustrate another point about teshuva:
Teshuva done out of love turns a misdeed into a mitzvah.
The analogy I usually hear for this idea is that when a rope connecting two parties has been severed, tying it back together shortens the distance between them.
That analogy goes only so far. The idea (someone correct me if I'm wrong) is that what once served as a means of disconnection has become a means of connection. I made a mistake; now, through recognizing that and doing teshuva, I use it to connect. 'Hashem created teshuva before He created the world' -- that's part of how the world works.
(This is what that sign in shul meant. A person who has fallen and used that fall to ascend, can 'stand in a place' where someone who has never fallen could not.)
You can see something similar in certain human relationships -- or in the Hiriya Recycling Park.

And this is how you remind me of what I really am.

Adopted Minnesota Man Learns He Is a Prince - part 2

This Is How You Remind Me of What I Really Am, part II.

The first time I came to shul in Oregon - I was about eight years old - a large sign on the foyer wall read,
In the place where the true penitent stands, even the most righteous cannot stand,
which is a quotation from the Talmud.

Admitting to myself that I was neither a true penitent nor most righteous, I looked at the many seats available in shul and wondered anxiously which were for the true penitents and which for the most righteous, and whether I would get into trouble if I stood in the wrong place.
Which is not what the sign meant.

Let's drop the word penitence right here. It makes me itch -- I must be associating it with hairshirts and other peculiarities of the Christian Middle Ages. No.
The Hebrew concept that that sign extolled is teshuva, "return".
To 'do teshuva' is to return from what I'm doing that I would rather not do, to the person I would rather be. We say every morning that "the soul You have placed in me is pure" -- no matter what I have obscured it with.

Teshuva is the first thing I thought of when I read this:
Adopted Minnesota Man Learns He Is a Prince

You think you are an ordinary human being... and then something reminds you, or you make an effort to remember, that you are nobility.
And strive to live up to it.

This Is How You Remind Me of What I Really Am - part 1

Disclaimer: I do not know what the lyrics to that song are about, I have never listened to it deliberately, and I have not heard it in years.

When I was in high school, whenever we drove out of town to an NCSY Shabbaton (youth group Shabbat event), it was on the radio. I came to think of it as the theme song of our trips. We frequently drove several hours, and so heard it over and over and over, passing from one radio zone into the next.

Personally I am not a pop music girl -- quaero mihi similes, et adiungor pravis - and these were about the only occasions on which I was compelled to listen to hours of it on end.

So a  decade or so later here I am in a hareidi neighborhood of Jerusalem on Chol HaMoed, and the not-so-religious-and-in-fact-downright-peculiar neighbors are playing very loud American pop music in their sukkah; and we are sitting in our sukkah wondering when they are going to stop blasting that awful noise -- and I start feeling extremely inspired. And suddenly I realize: to me, that awful noise is the music of Driving to an NCSY Shabbaton, and as such it arouses within me extremely strong teenaged emotions of the yay we are Jewish and life is awesome! variety.

And this - of all things - is how you remind me of what I really am.

17 January 2012

Upcoming Jewish Events in Portland


"Who are You?"
Sunday, January 29, 10:00 am at the Portland Kollel [6688 SW Capitol Hwy.]

Rabbi Marcus, a faculty member at Neve Yerushalayim in Jerusalem,
 is a popular lecturer who regularly speaks in Portland during his US tours.

In this presentation, he'll explore the Torah's description of who we are
 on both physical and spiritual levels,
and offer insights about and practical tools for decision-making.

The hour-long presentation, co-sponsored by Kesser and the Portland Kollel,
is aimed at all skill levels and backgrounds.
Brunch will be served, of course; donations appreciated.


The Birds & the Bees (and Your Kid!)
What is the Jewish view of sexuality?
How do you deliver "the big talk" to your child?

As a Jewish parent, you deserve the timeless wisdom of Judaism.
On Wednesday, February 1, join other adults
for an evening of learning & discussion led by Rabbi and Aviel Brodkin.

Explore the role of Jewish values in your home
and identify how you can put them into practice with your child.

This is a special event open to our community
and is hosted by Portland's first Jewish parenting group.

If you struggle with the unexpected and sometimes awkward questions
your kids ask around this topic - this event is for you!

Congregation Kesser Israel, 6698 SW Capitol Hwy., Portland
Wednesday, February 1 at 7:00 pm
RSVP to rabbibrodkin at gmail.com

I, I, I, I, I, I

...so what I was going to say in the previous post, before Rav Hirsch distracted me, was that over Shabbos I was reading Rav Hirsch
Yay! Rav Hirsch
and he mentioned in passing -- since he was compelled to make an exception -- that it was his habit not to speak of himself in the monthly journal he edited.

And I began thinking about blogs... and how the whole attraction of the medium is that they are intensely personal. I, I, I, I, I, I. Books, too: in modern reference works, authors natter on about themselves shamelessly.
Facebook has become a great deal more popular than newspapers.
To me, all this says that people would rather get their information or news from friends than from an unknown third party.

My seventh-grade teacher taught us never to say "I think..." or "I believe..." when making an argument, because it weakens the argument.
But it adds interest. Now there is a person there, not just an argument.

A gentleman on the radio once observed that exhibits of dinosaur bones in the early 1900's were meant to awe with power; in the 50's, they were kitchy; in the 80's, the velociraptor replaced T-rex as the center of attention because it was like a sleek businessman, the hero of the era -- and nowadays, dinosaur exhibits are (as he put it) "green". The dinosaurs are grouped in cozy home settings; Mama dinosaur is minding the eggs and watching her young play. It's all about friends and family, dinosaur relationships, relating to the dinosaurs.

Is it that people never used to be particular - information was information whether or not we endeavored to relate to its source? Or is the generation is trying to make up for something?

A note on Rav Hirsch

Over Shabbos I was reading Rav Hirsch.
Yay! Rav Hirsch.
I once received an e-mail from someone saying, "I was just reading Rav Hirsch, and he said something very beautiful, which I am forwarding to you in the original language because it defies paraphrase and I thought you'd like it."
Thereupon followed several paragraphs.

Ha, I said, this has got to be this man's first time reading Rav Hirsch -- because if he keeps reading, he will discover that everything Rav Hirsch writes is stunning and beautiful and impossible to paraphrase, and although he will be desperate to forward it to everyone he knows because it is so exquisite, he will abandon the effort because Rav Hirsch was - lucky us - such a good friend to his pen that there is just too much to type up and mail to everyone we know.
It would be like someone e-mailing you two pages of The Tempest and saying, "I was reading Shakespeare and I am sending this to you because it is an impressive bit of English."
And to test my hypothesis, I looked to see which passage of Rav Hirsch this man had sent me.
And sure enough: it was the very first few paragraphs of the very first essay of the very first volume of Rav Hirsch's writings.

Rav Hirsch -- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch -- lived in the mid-1800's in Germany Prussia and wrote, among other things, the best explanation of Judaism in a nutshell I know (The Nineteen Letters) and the book on Judaism that I would take to a desert island if I had to pick one, since it was written for that purpose (Horeb), and a commentary on the Torah, and another on Psalms, and quite a lot more.

And you can please add him to the list of things I wish you'd go read instead of this blog.
The Multnomah County Library system has some copies.

A two-syllable word meaning "stops"

H: What's a two-syllable word meaning "stops"?
Oh, yeah. "Stoppeth."

16 January 2012


Once you have got past my hang-up about using a hyphen instead of an o, if I say "G-d", do you picture an old man with a long white beard, slinging thunderbolts?

That is not the Jewish idea of G-d.
Don't look so disappointed.

I once heard a rav of my acquaintance speak of "the Eternal".
That gives a better idea of the Jewish idea of the Eternal than the word "G-d" does.

Once you say "G-d", people think you are talking about the subject of Christian radio shows, and then it is all over.
Most Jews I know do not talk about "G-d" except when they are trying to translate themselves for people who don't speak Hebrew. In Torah texts, the Eternal goes by many different names -- names with the emphasis on love, on justice, on our relationship, on our responsibilities, "Ancient One", "the Place".

For the record -- all phrased in the negative since the precise identity of the Eternal is beyond what our minds can handle - G-d, in the Jewish concept, is not a person, male, female, narrow-minded, Christian, physical, Zeus, Iluvatar, hydrogen, strings, trees, machinery, outer space, light, out-to-get-you, Hallmarky, evil, or a fusspot.

10 January 2012

Double Book Review: women and Torah study, women and Jewish law

I recently re-read two books once lent to me in high school, on the subjects of Jewish women's Torah education, and Jewish women's role in general.
Those interested in such matters should know about these two books' existence.

The first is And All Your Children Shall Be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History, by Shoshana Pantel Zolty, a Torah-observant academic from Toronto.
It is not light reading -- more like a Ph.D thesis.
The first half is a survey of halachic sources on teaching women Torah, or their learning on their own. If there is only one line of thought to follow in this section, I couldn't find it: as the author writes, her purpose is only to gather the relevant references, not to string them together to emerge with a legal decision. Interesting reading; not particularly helpful if you want to know what the halacha is.
The second half is a survey - which seemed to me comprehensive - of Jewish women's education through history.
This is not the book you curl up with to help you space out; it is not even a collection of anecdotes: it is an academic work, and the author tries to stay out of it - mostly. It is a good reference to have on hand if you need to look up who-was-it-that-said or where-did-she-live-again.

The other book, which treats a broader topic, is Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, by Rav Moshe Meiselman (shlit"a), a talmid chacham (Torah sage) of Jerusalem.
This one is a book you can curl up with - it is felicitously written, easy to follow (even when he is detailing the American laws of inheritance), and enlightening.
The first half treats women's role in Judaism generally (including women and Torah study); the second thoroughly addresses specific issues which were controversial when the book was printed (1978) and which in some circles are just as controversial today.
As the author writes in the introduction, the book is not apologetic; it starts by explaining the Torah value system, and treats its subject accordingly -- but the outcome is eminently satisfying even to one who cannot grasp that value system.
I wish more people knew of this book's existence, and would read it.
Excerpts here: http://books.google.co.il/books?id=t3zQAoncEnwC&printsec=frontcover&hl=iw&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Pitched Battle

The other night, while the man of the house was out, a war was fought in my living room.
Chariots and cavalry and foot-soldiers poured out of the bookshelves.
The beleagured ran for shelter in the fuse-box.
Sentries stood guard, raiding parties went forth across the dinner table, many were slain...
 -- and then a key turned in the latch and all the soldiers and civilians, dead or alive, scuttled under the bookshelf.

"Did anything interesting happen while I was out?" asked the man of the house, looking around the tidy living room.
"No," we said.

I had forgotten how vivid is the study of Nach.

09 January 2012

Sewing resources

...so this is supposed to be a blog about Torah and poetry, but I did warn you that it would be about poetic Torah lives also... and, like, everything else...

I had a legitimate need (teaching beginners) to poke around online for some sewing resources. Here are the best of them, to save others the same poking.

Background Information

One of a series of excellent articles on the fibers used in textiles, and their manufacture -- about 100 years out of date, but quite fascinating. I knew subconsciously that there are many steps between plant and garment, but I didn't realize that it takes quite so much work... http://www.oldandsold.com/articles04/textiles9.shtml

Halfway down this page is a highly magnified photograph of different textile fibers. Just below that is a magnified image of the differences between regular and washable wool. http://www.medicalsheepskins.com/wool.htm


Simple baby clothes patterns. I have used a couple of these. http://babypatterns.atspace.com/overview.html

Fabric dollhouse pattern and instructions. http://uklassinus.blogspot.com/2008/08/fabric-dollhouse-tutorial.html

A series of tutorials on sewing pockets. http://www.ikatbag.com/2010/12/pocketful-of-sky-summary-and-giveaway.html

Shoe patterns and instructions:

Leather moccasins: http://www.nativetech.org/clothing/moccasin/mocinstr.html
Children's elasticized ballet slippers: http://www.ikatbag.com/2008/12/dress-up-box-tippytoes.html
Baby shoes -- ribbon-tied: http://www.homespun-threads.com/hp_zencart/download/strappyshoes.pdf
pleated: http://www.homespun-threads.com/hp_zencart/download/pleatedballerinashoes.pdf
asymmetrical: http://www.homespun-threads.com/hp_zencart/download/pleatedballerinashoes.pdf

And here's how they do it in Finland

You may have guessed by now that one of the blog writers is an Education major...

Finland is a fascinating country for many reasons -- women receive three YEARS of maternity leave (not all of it paid) and picture books from the government on the birth of a child, the lack of sunlight makes many people depressed, children eat candy only once a week on "candy day", there are beautiful auroras, the word "not" is an inflected auxiliary (we not, he nots), and the Samis assign their children not only a name but also a melody.
Altogether one of the more interesting pockets of the planet.
There are an estimated 1500 Jews in Finland.

This post, though, is about the Finnish public schools, which are rated (using purely academic criteria - not on anything like self-control) as some of the best in the world.
Finland spends approximately $1000 less per student per year than America - but Finland has it easy: it is a country of Finns, not of emigrants, there are not many of them, and they are all literate in Finnish. They also pay exceedingly high taxes.

The purpose of this post is to mention a few points of interest in the Finnish school system, not to hold them up as ideals. Some, I believe, are better ideas than others.

Children enter school at age 7. Most attend kindergarden starting at age 6, but the kindergarden program is not very academic - mostly about play.
Teaching jobs are highly sought-after. Teachers must have at least a Master's degree.
Each teacher has his or her own office in the school. A teacher spends 20 hours a week teaching and 20 hours a week preparing. Teachers choose their own textbooks.
Classes are small, and there may be three teachers in a classroom, to ensure individual attention.
Teachers may stay with a particular class for two or even four years.
School typically starts at 8am and finishes at 2pm, and students have no more than half an hour of homework each night.
Skills like sewing, knitting, woodwork, downhill and cross-country skiing, and horseback riding are taught in school.
Students start learning English in 3rd grade, Swedish in 7th, and other languages in 8th.
Schools have a great deal of latitude in designing their own curricula.
Schools often have a common room with a functional fireplace.
Students do not wear shoes in school.
Outdoor recess is mandatory unless it's colder than -13 degrees Fahrenheit.
High school is not mandatory.
Hot lunches are free, university is subsidised, and children living in remote areas are picked up and dropped off by free taxi.

There are some contradictory articles on Finnish education - they do or don't use a great deal of technology, they do or don't have a great deal of testing, students do or don't address their teachers with an unusual degree of familiarity - and then there are all the liberal policies one would expect of a Nordic country.

Charlotte Mason on secular studies

Charlotte Mason is one of those "names" in education, like Maria Montessori. I first heard of her when my friend quoted her that it is better for a child to practice writing a few perfect "m"s than to write a whole page of sloppy ones.
I am waiting for someone to make a systematic analysis of what in Charlotte Mason's approach to education is compatible with Torah and what is not. But, I don't think it's going to happen. She appears to have had some influence in turn-of-the-century England; but nowadays she is largely unknown to all but homeschoolers.
Her theology is incompatible with Torah; her analysis of character development is something I am not qualified to evaluate; but here are some of the tenets of a Charlotte Mason approach to secular studies:

-"Never be within doors when you can rightly be without" - preschool children especially.
-Training preschool children in the habits of sustained attention, close observation, and faithful description.
-One of the first areas of study for preschool children, therefore, is nature study, performed outdoors (while Baby soaks up his Vitamin D) --- the other is foreign language; [and these, of course, along with my friends and I used to call (after Dr. Pangloss) philometaphysicotheologocosmolosophololololoardoanthrosociopsychomusarology, which to Charlotte Mason was more like "theology and character", but which in Judaism is infinitely more complex - Rav Hirsch calls it "Divine anthropology" - and which therefore, as indicated above, is beyond the scope of this post.]
-"Living books" - teaching language and history by reading to one's children, and eventually by having them read on their own, original sources, especially biography: not textbooks or children's adaptations - and even fiction read for leisure should be well-written and rich in ideas.
-Similarly, geography is to be acquired from travel accounts, not from textbooks.
-Narration: children read a passage only once (no "cramming" allowed), and then narrate what they have read. This is so that they pay attention to what they read, and reflect on it enough to put it into their own words. Good composition comes from good reading and so is not harped upon much as a separate subject.
-Short and varied lessons - to maintain the habit of sustained attention: when a lesson lasts ten or thirty minutes, and is both preceded and followed by something totally different, you can't space out for part of it. Charlotte Mason homeschoolers are notorious for managing to fit a graduate-school-level education into a few hours a day over twelve years, and spending the afternoons on extra-curriculars.
-Art instruction is what I would call right-brained, and handicrafts are useful, not just for the sake of doing projects -- teaching children to do dry-brush sketching ("nature journals" are one of the props of a CM education) or to cane chairs, not to poke popsicle sticks into a flowerpot. Examples of art, like nature, are studied with emphasis on close, appreciative observation.
-Math starts with manipulatives - but there are no fancy manipulatives in any subject; you have to use your imagination.
-Grammar and music are pretty much the same as anywhere else.

Charlotte Mason differs from Montessori in that the latter creates a child-sized environment, whereas CM makes use of an adult-sized world.

There is relevant material in Vol. VII of Rav Hirsch's Collected Writings, of course - especially pp. 112-117. But it is too scary to paraphrase a wee bit of Rav Hirsch in a blog, especially in so trifling a post, when he has an entire OCEAN under his words. Look it up in your friendly local kollel library.

"Learner-centered" Torah day schools

This is a nice article, about the Torah day schools in Seattle and Portland:


It will be very exciting to see what happens next.

05 January 2012

Metal Menora-Making, Part 2

...so in the end, it worked.

We used bobby pins to keep the wicks in their holders upright.

And CD jewel cases as a windbreak.
The freezer coil is great stuff: soft enough to bend and break by hand, with a wire running through it to hold it together if you split it by accident.

For those interested in trying their hands at serious metalcraft, the following site looks like an excellent reference:

1906 observation of Jews

It is always cute to run into your nation in other people's books.
I found this today in a treatise on education, written in 1906 by a Christian Englishwoman:

"The writer is familiar with a German watering-place much frequented by Polish Jews of the poorer sort, sent thither probably by benevolent brethren of their race. These men are by no means phlegmatic; groups of three or four will engage in talk for hours at a spell, enviably earnest talk, impersonal, one would gather, from the faces of the speakers, and not like the chatter about baths and symptoms to be heard in passing other groups of talkers.... But the curious thing about all these men, whether of the ruddy or dark type, is their tranquility of aspect; their faces are like those of little children, simple, interested, untroubled, and very free from lines of anxiety. Is it that, like Goethe, they are aware of themselves only as "sheep of His pasture," and for the rest, take life as it comes?"

Charlotte M. Mason, Studies in the Formation of Character, pp. 415-416.

Tree Steam?

Here is a question for the naturalists.
A few nights ago, we had a heavy rain. The next morning, as I was walking through the park, I saw the trunk of a pine tree, struck by a shaft of direct sunlight, giving off steam.
I went over to investigate. It was warm, perhaps from the sunlight, not hot; there was no fire.

Have I passed by thousands of pine trees giving off steam and just never noticed?

04 January 2012


It was once a common enough prank on New York's Lower East Side for two boys to suspend a string across a street, just high enough to go unnoticed by passers-by, and just low enough to knock off their hats as they passed under it.

I passed under such a string this week: walking toward the neighbor's bay window, I observed him standing before it, learning; and, crossing the street, I found our upstairs neighbor standing with his Gemara at his own window. A string of learning is strung across our street.