26 March 2012

A Field Guide to Jewish Disputes

This post is based on something I heard from a rabbi I shall call Rabbi St. Helens, because he is ancient, majestic, and grey, and so always reminds me of the mountain by that name.
Rabbi St. Helens learnt from Rav Elya Lopian.

Torah distinguishes between two types of disputes. There is a machlokes leshem shamayim, a dispute for the sake of Heaven. And there is a machlokes shelo leshem shamayim, a dispute not for the sake of Heaven - by default, for the sake of someone's ego.

machlokes shelo leshem shamayim, stay away from. Do not get involved.
As for a machlokes leshem shamayim...?

Rabbi St. Helens rumbled at us:
 "Leave the machlokes leshem shamayim for someone else!"

Good advice.

25 March 2012

If I can see only one thing in London...

A seven-hour stopover gives you just enough time to whizz out of Heathrow, see one thing, and return.

Buckminster Palace? The British Museum?
I went to have tea with Rav and Mrs. Baddiel.
They are most extraordinary people... the number one tourist attraction in London, in my book.

Rav Baddiel is much amused that a lecture of his has been put up on YouTube:


It is in English, despite the German title (he gave it in Berlin). Do check it out.


A few days ago, Rav Scheinberg was niftar.

Rav Scheinberg was an American boy. He grew up playing stickball on the Lower East Side.
Then the legendary Rav Herman sent him off to yeshiva in New Haven, and he became one of the preeminent Torah sages of the generation.
He also became Rav Herman's son-in-law.
Rav Scheinberg
He made a seudas hodaah (thanksgiving meal) on the day that he was able to hear that "his" baseball team had won the World Series without getting excited.

I have never learnt his sefarim -- I know him mostly as an awesome presence in Mattersdorf, where on Friday nights all his neighbors (and seminary girls staying in the neighborhood) troop up to his apartment for a blessing.
("Doesn't it bother him to have to spend his time giving people blessings?" we asked our teacher. "He did the same thing to the Chofetz Chaim," answered Rabbi A.)
When people rattled off the names of the major rabbis in Jerusalem, it was always special to hear the name of Rav Scheinberg -- whom I met, who spoke to us in English.

I heard later that 150,000 people attended the funeral.

How tragic that he has left us.

Mind the Gap

Which gap?
The synaptic gap?
The gap between who you are and whom you want to be?

Pick your gap, and mind it.

Book Review: Last Child in the Woods

When I am in Israel, I imagine America to be a green place full of music, art, and forest.
Then I get there and remember that America is a paved place full of billboards, factoids, and vast shopping malls. I think Jerusalem is actually greener than pretty much any part of America.
Oh, well.
America does have nice public libraries. I checked out a book of which I had heard much: Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.

I expected Last Child in the Woods to read like a New Yorker article, a thought-provoking treatise on why children no longer spend much time knocking about in the wilderness, and how to fix that. It turned out to contain more worry (campers in such-and-such a camp are not permitted to climb trees, can you believe it) and less analysis than I expected. The author does hint to some of the underlying questions --  What defines interacting with nature? what is the philosophical difference between building a treehouse and building a house? -- but instead of identifying and answering such questions, he gets stuck in dilemmas - e.g., he takes it as a given that treehouse-building is good for us; but he worries along with the government that in certain areas treehouses pose a fire hazard.

He also cites many statistics which may demonstrate correlation, but if they do demonstrate causation, he does not explain how. (Does using the Internet make people depressed, as he says? I could hear that. Or do depressed and lonely people turn to the Internet? Or is the culture responsible for Internet also responsible for depression?) I wound up skimming a lot of the book.

I did find fascinating his account of the planning of nature-saturated towns - in Scandinavia, naturally - in which nature is the given and the houses are arranged to fit into it, rather than the other way round. Why are the Swedes so much better at this sort of thing?

20 March 2012

The Other Interesting High School

The other interesting high school I wanted to visit on this trip is New Avenues, a high school (and everything-else center) for homeless teenagers.
My plan was foiled by an impressive rainstorm.

"We are swamped just now," the New Avenues staff apologized. "But we are a year-round program. If you can come in the summer, I promise we'll be much less busy then."

If you can attend high school for the purpose of acquiring an education, not to get out of the rain, say thank you.

So an Assyrian and a Jew walk into Lydda

Bifel I sat next to an Assyrian on the airplane.
No, Assyrian.
Really? I did not know that you still exist, I said, stupidly, looking at the woman sitting next to me and trying not to think of her as a bas-relief.
Yes -- there are some thousands, scattered round the world, she said. And we still fast for the three days that Nineveh fasted when Jonah told it to. The pious do not eat at all for three days and three nights running.
Do you have a tradition as to the identity of that king of Nineveh? We do.
Is that in the Bible? she asked, surprised, being conversant with the text.
No, I said, it is an oral tradition.
Oh. No, we don't have such a tradition. It is not clear that we are actually descended in a straight line from those ancient Assyrians, but we identify with them. We name our children Ashur and Sargon.

We then had a very interesting conversation about whether it is possible for religion and nationhood to overlap.
We did not discuss ancient history.

To Engelond They Wende

London always strikes me as a dreamlike city -- perhaps because I always land in it in what is for me the middle of the night, and with just enough time to whizz out of Heathrow for tea and fly back into the night.

What little I see of London on the way is pleasing. If it has skyscrapers, I've never seen them -- only rows of brick houses with long yards (gardens, I am corrected, whether or not they've actually been planted with anything); and there is something about those houses - which are probably quite old - that always strikes me as beautiful. Is it the proportions? The windows? They are all more or less alike, but they do not have the monotony of the homes in a US suburb; each house appears to remember the people who designed and built it.

The people reinforce the dreamlike impression of the city: the many men I've seen walking down the street singing - one singing opera at the top of his lungs - and the chap who gave my daughter a present, just like that; and all the elderly men with professorial faces, wearing tweed suits - no one can look as professorial to an American as an elderly Englishman.

Perhaps it is the language barrier (what, if you please, is a slip road?), but it seems to me that signs in England require more thought than signs in America. On a US bus, there will be a line drawn in front of the door, and beside it the floor (and probably both walls and the lintel) will say in large letters DO NOT CROSS or DO NOT BLOCK. On the Tube, there is no line, and a single small sign says, gently, "Obstructing the door can be dangerous," and it is up to you to decide what you want to do about it.

Similarly, in a US train station, there will be large signs all over, and painted on the floor, saying DO NOT LITTER, and perhaps threatening you with the long string of numbers that signifies which law you break by littering, whereas in England there are small signs hung here and there making complex and humorous references to the problems that litter can cause, should you choose to leave it.

I also love the injunction to MIND THE GAP -- Americans watch and beware of a great deal, but they don't mind much besides children. One wonders what mischief the gap will get into if it is not well minded.

Someday, perhaps, I shall be able to spend some more time in Engelond, to get to know the city a bit better, and to stop trying to get into cars from the right, and to see what a moor and  a heath look like off the page; but in the meantime, it is a nice dream to have between Seattle and Lod.

11 March 2012

Purim, Mishloach Manot, and Fear

One of my favorite insights from R' Shlomo Carlebach is this:

On a regular day, you never go up to a friend, let alone your teacher, and offer him an apple and a banana. Were you to do so, he would wonder, "Why are you giving me food?"
On Purim, however, you can go up to anyone and offer him an apple and a banana. You can bring an apple and a banana to the Queen of England.
The lesson of Purim is not to be afraid: you can do anything.

Every year before Purim, there is some flurry in the mishloach-manos making department: what should I put in them, so that they are nice enough to give out?
And then Purim actually arrives, and the day itself sweeps away the questions. I can send an apple and a banana to the rebbetzin who so intimidates me that I put on heels whenever I have to telephone her, just to feel like a grown-up. I can send an apple and a banana to our local Aikido master, to Ira Glass, and to the Queen of England. Why be afraid? You can do anything.

The story is told that Rav Shlomo Zalman's family, in the impoverished Jerusalem of yore, sent his fiancee's family dried fruit for Purim; and her family, being equally short on finances, baked it into a fruitcake and sent it back.

Don't be afraid; you can do anything.

Pacific Crest Community School

I am on a quest to visit interesting high schools.

Last week, I visited Pacific Crest, a 6-12th grade school of 70-80 students, each of whom is free to design his or her own curriculum - within limits. Some forty courses are offered each term; students must take a certain number, and of those, a certain number must be math, or language arts, &c. The content is as original as the structure: it is not uncommon for courses to have curious titles like "Geometry of Gothic Windows" or "Physics of Superheroes" or "Take a Walk". (Just think, there is a high school - not a mussar yeshiva - that teaches how to take a walk... I'd like to know what the content of that course is.) A couple of classes are compulsory.

No grades are given; instead, students compile a portfolio, which they whittle down for the purpose of college applications, and submit in place of grades. By now the colleges are used to this.

Pacific Crest is a 'democratic' school: students meet once a week, sitting on the auditorium stage, to nominate each other's heroic deeds for applause, to make announcements, to invite visitors to stand up and say "Your name and your favorite movie character", and to raise issues for discussion (how shall we get each other to stop leaving backpacks on the common room tables?) I had the sense that although some of the students were a bit weary of the proceedings, all were glad to belong to the community of which such meetings are an important characteristic. Teachers are not exempt from being treated as equals in this democracy -- which I think is a pity; if nothing else, they have greater life experience. The school has an open campus: students are free to wander the city whenever they do not have class.

Naturally -- this being the city it is -- half the students wore what would be recognized in any other school as costume: Robin Hood was the first I noticed, but not every costume was that of a recognizable era or world. What, don't you come to school in a cape and fuzzy ears on an ordinary Tuesday?

I think some of this is great (e.g., the diversity of curriculum). But it is one thing to incorporate flexibility into a school as a pedagogical technique, and quite another to assume that sixth graders know what is best for them, and can motivate themselves to pursue it; and I am not sure (should've asked) which is the idea underlying the Pacific Crest democracy.

Anyway, it was a pleasant and enlightening morning; and thanks to the Pacific Crest administration for allowing tours of their school.


The reason that Facebook is popular, I think, is that when one longs to see one of one's friends, it offers immediate gratification: your friend is here, and talking; come visit.
This is, of course, an illusion. Your friend is not there, and he is not talking. If you pay him a call, he will not recognize that you visited. You will not even have left footprints in his yard, or a card with the butler. You have, in fact, not interacted at all.
You would do better to think of a reason to telephone.

04 March 2012

Culture Shock

Visiting America is like having the top fall off a salt-shaker as you shake it: you can only stare and say, "Wow, that's a lot..."

America is a lot. A lot of foliage, a lot of denim, a lot of noise and art.
Israel is condensed. A wide land, but of condensed character. It has one miniature mountain, one miniature river, one miniature lake, one miniature ocean, one miniature capitol city -- and a high concentration of spiritual energy & holiness. No one I know in Israel ever has spare time, and most do not drive.
So whenever I come to America, where the day unfolds slowly, and much of it is spent in the car getting from here to there beneath the boughs of ornamental plum trees, which are content to grow without producing fruit, and the people I meet jest loosely, and banter loosely, and the houses (containing loose acquaintances) are loosely spaced by loosely growing willows that don't really care about what happens around them -- unlike the keen and insistent landscapes of Israel -- it is disorienting. Why, the rooms of the average apartment or house are so far from each other that it is possible to have different music playing in two of them simultaneously.

Not positive or negative -- just makes for a very different life.