19 September 2012


There is something just wrong about International Talk Like a Pirate Day falling out on Tzom Gedalia.

Have an easy and meaningful fast, and we can all get together in Cheshvan and go arrr together if we need to.

The Jewish View of the Afterlife

This point came up recently in a class, and it is worth sharing:

While there are people who find their jobs fulfilling, many conceive of work as a way to earn a paycheck, which is cashed into a number of options, from which they can then choose. The reward of the work hasn't much to do with the content of the work itself: you design programs for Intel; you don't get to keep them.

People tend to assume that the Jewish view of the afterlife is similar: you do good in this world, which racks up brownie points with God, and then you cash them in in the Next World for some spiritual-bliss commodity.
Not so. In this world, you strive to perfect yourself. And at the end of the day, when the job is over -- that is what you keep: what you've made of yourself.

In proportion to how much one has become a more divine person, one will find the next world, a place of closeness to the ultimate Good, a great pleasure.

Those Guys in Black Hats

This is supposed to be a loopy, poetic blog, but I'm going to be blunt.

Over the past week I have heard a number of people report (or demonstrate) that they are self-conscious entering a synagogue where the rabbi/men's section/social scene is populated in (small) part by guys in black hats. They feel like those guys are judging them.

I am the wife of one of those scary guys in black hats.
How you live is between you and G-d, not the guy in the black hat. My husband and the rest of 'em are not not judging you. We're not preoccupied with whatever it is that makes you self-conscious. We're happy to meet a new person and we don't care what you're wearing. Relax. You came to shul for a reason; being self-conscious was not it.

Sometimes after people have been coming to shul for awhile they begin to assume that the guys in the black hats want everyone to "be hareidi"; that is, to adopt the culture that the hat-wearers grew up or studied in.
I find these conversations frustrating because I know those guys, my boss and my husband and my rav are those guys, and not one of them is out on a missionary warpath to make everyone "hareidi". But no one ever thinks to ask them.

As someone once put it, "The God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either."

13 September 2012

Spiritual Cartwheels

I must admit, when I first got married, I was a lazy bum. I didn’t help around the house at all, not with cleaning, not with cooking, not with laundry. I even remember having a conversation with my wife-to-be, during the period of our engagement, about who would change diapers when the time came, G-d willing, that we would have a baby. “No way,” I said. “No, Ma’am. There will be no diaper changing for me. That’s the mother’s job.” As a matter of fact, when the baby did arrive, I wouldn’t even get up at night when the baby cried. “The baby’s hungry,” I would say, “and I can’t really do anything about that myself.” I did like burping the baby, though. That was fun. As for the rest, well, “I just can’t do that stuff.”

Fast forward nearly nine years and four kids later, and over the course of time I learned that the key to success and happiness in marriage (and really all things) derives from hard work and sacrifice. And now, you wouldn’t believe it, but for the last two weeks I cooked the chicken for Shabbos (in fact, two weeks ago I made two kinds of chicken), and it came out absolutely phenomenal! So what changed?

Real life involves real challenges and a real man steps up to the plate and meets the challenge. There were those times that my wife got sick, or was wiped out after an exhausting week, or maybe just plain didn’t feel like cooking that day, when I, as the dutiful husband, had to just say, “I’ll take care of it.”  The same goes for cleaning house, doing laundry, or changing stinky poopy-pants. Nowadays, I do it all, and I’m gosh-darn proud of it!

Back to cooking. You know you’re a good cook when your kids start to compliment your cooking. I hear their excitement when I cook supper. “Tati (‘Daddy’ in Yiddish) is such a good cook!” One day my daughter watched me in awe as I prepared supper.

“Tati, how do you do that?” she asked, reverently.

“Talent,” I responded, arrogantly.

She paused, thoughtfully, then retorted, “But can you do a cartwheel?”

I was simultaneously stunned and shamed into silence. Indeed, despite all my arrogance, I cannot do a cartwheel, while my six-year-old daughter can.

Normally, an adult would brush off a comment like that from a child, but I am no normal adult. (Just ask anyone who knows me.) I take what kids say seriously, because kids are very honest; they haven’t yet learned the finer points of dishones-- I mean, diplomacy. So I try to take the kernels of truth from children’s innocent statements and apply them in order to live a more truthful life.

The normal reaction to such a statement from a child would go something like this: “Cartwheel? ME?? What do cartwheels have to do with me? I’m not a cartwheel kind of guy.” And we move on, with no introspection, and thereby, no attempt or effort toward change. While this makes sense (perhaps) for something like cartwheels, I believe we too often do this in much more important areas of life. “Judaism? It’s interesting, it’s cool, I like being Jewish, I’m proud to be a Jew, but actually practicing Judaism? That’s not for me.” “Learning? Torah? That’s not my thing.” “Shabbos? I just can’t.”

But imagine if I had kept that attitude throughout my marriage. I don’t think I would have the nine wonderful years and four beautiful children I now have to show for it. Because being in a real loving relationship means giving everything you have to one another. And if you’re not willing to do that, if you’re only willing to take, something’s missing from the relationship.

We must remember that we are in a relationship with G-d; we are His children, we are His beloved. Of course an infinite G-d doesn’t need anything from us, but if there was no give-and-take between us, there would be no relationship. G-d gives us everything we have in this world (not too shabby -- sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, arms, legs, ice cream, hot dogs, rainbows, waterfalls, sunsets -- you get the point), and He asks in return a few small tokens of allegiance. Again, not for His own benefit, but for ours, so that we can connect to Him and live our lives imbued with a feeling of closeness to G-d, whenever and wherever we are, no matter what we may be going through. And, truth be told, when we analyze the actions we are “commanded” to perform by G-d (Sabbath, dietary laws, marital guidelines, etc.), we find that they very much enhance our physical pleasures and enjoyment in life. So even when G-d “takes,” He continues to give and give.

Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time for re-inaugurating our relationship with G-d and with our fellow man (or woman). Let us reflect upon some of the things we’ve learned this past year or any year past and thought, “I would like to do that, I really should do that, but I just can’t,” and realize that we really can. It’s not easy, it requires hard work and sacrifice -- but it’s worth it! The rewards in our lives will be great, if we are willing to work to achieve it.

So just as I once said, “I can’t, it’s not for me, it’s not my thing,” to cooking, cleaning, and changing, and yet I have proudly achieved them all since, it is my hope that one day I will look back once again and be able to proudly answer my daughter and say, “Yes, I can do cartwheels.” Perhaps not a physical cartwheel, but at least one in spirit.

This year, and in the years to come, may G-d grant all of us the strength to perform spiritual cartwheels, overcoming all of our self-imposed limitations, and may we merit to be inscribed in the Book of the Good Life in this world and the World to Come.

[Read more from Rafi Mollot at http://rafimollot.wordpress.com]

10 September 2012

One Day

The house next to ours is under construction, so all this week our front hall has pulsed with the bass of the construction workers' radio.
Fair enough; I wouldn't want to rip off siding without listening to lively music, either. Only this station is so not my taste. THUMP, THUMP. thump, THUMP THUMP.

This morning the thumps assumed a familiar pattern, and I went outside to confirm.
They were listening to Matisyahu: One Day.

We're about halfway around the world from Jerusalem, really "the Edge of the West", and here between the firs and high grasses, what are the immigrant construction workers listening to as they toss siding on the ground, a week before Rosh Hashana? A hasid's vision of what the world will be one day.

09 September 2012

Some Thoughts on Other Ways to Teach Math

I once had a math teacher who said she wished she had time to revise the math curriculum to teach it as an art. She never did have the time - but she managed to point out items of aesthetic interest whenever they popped up in the regular curriculum. Those of us in the class who considered ourselves sworn enemies of math appreciated this.

Betty Smith, who grew up to be a writer, had the idea to assign each number a personality, and thereafter looked at each equation as a story about a relationship.

As a history nut, I always wished we could learn math as history; that is, in chronological order. We learnt, say, the Pythagorean Theorum without knowing a thing about Pythagoras or how he developed it, and I found the lack of context frustrating. The story of the unfolding of math is a fascinating one. Fractions become ten times more interesting to the aspiring historian when you learn that the ancient Egyptians regarded solving fraction problems as a form of magic.

In high school, we heard about some mathematician - probably Buckminster Fuller - who characterized Euclidean geometry as suitable for stationary things but unsuited to human beings, who are constantly changing, and developed in its place a geometry based not on lines but on rays, which are in motion. At the time I was madly in love with philosophy, and took this idea and ran with it: Euclid's geometry was physical; this alternative geometry was humanistic; I spent one delightful bus ride trying to work out a "monotheistic geometry", which was probably the first and last time I ever thought about math voluntarily.

To teach math as an art, a prose, a history, or a philosophy, would be unfair to those who actually like math, and think mathematically. But I'm surprised I haven't heard of anyone experimenting with offering history of math, or math for those who wish everything were humanities instead, as a parallel course - covering the same material, but presenting it differently - in one of those monster high schools where there are six classrooms all studying the same math simultaneously. By then everyone has had a taste of normal math study -- and most have decided what they think of spending the next four years experiencing more of it.

I broached this idea to a math-teaching friend once. "You mean you would test them on the life of Pythagoras?" she asked, aghast. No, no -- the point would still be learning how to wield the theorem: how to think logically and use math. Only the presentation would differ.

Charlotte Mason omits certain advanced math from the curriculum altogether, save as an elective, on the theory that none but a mathematician will ever need it.

Other ideas: mash math together with physics; teach trig using Ayil Meshulash; work into the math curriculum some of the mathematical portions of Gemara; coordinate with equation-balancing in chemistry class instead of letting students puzzle out why what works in one field does not work in another.

Political Rhetoric

I brought my sewing to visit a lady who had the Republican National Convention playing in the background, so I sewed and we shmoozed and various Republicans addressed the nation.
"I don't see what there is to cry about," she said, as the camera shewed a gentleman with a tear on his cheek.
But I do find such conventions, leaving aside the content, rather moving: it's heartening to see a whole roomful of Americans sounding optimistic about the future of the country.

I seldom hear political speeches -- I was expecting something like the Declaration of Independence: here's the purpose of life, so here is the purpose of government, so here's what we're going to do if we are elected, to live up to these ideals.
No one I heard spoke in as orderly a fashion. Instead they provided a lesson in oratory.

In between speeches, the news crew did its best to predict and analyze the speeches, which I thought had the effect of discrediting them. A person's words are not nearly so impressive when you have heard them already summarized and dissected by a news crew.

Points were made which I liked; points were made which I didn't. I await the day when a politician will arise and say, 'To harshly criticize the efforts of my opponent, which were made out of an earnest desire to serve this country, would fly in the face of all that is noble about it; and I shall therefore limit myself to telling you how I wish to serve you.' The politicians who chuckle at their own cutting remarks I find supremely annoying.

All this is, of course, irrelevant to the content, but this blog steers clear of politics.

05 September 2012

Elul. !

I've been skipping around addressing this month because there is no way I can do it justice. In the Old Country, people used to faint when it was announced that Elul was coming.

Elul is the month leading up to Rosh Hashana.
It is also a time that Hashem is especially "near" - in a manner of speaking - "the King is in the field".
The name "Elul" is sometimes taken as an acrostic for the verse in Song of Songs, "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine".
So, it is a time of honest introspection in preparation for judgement; and it is also a time of great and loving closeness to the Eternal.

I read in someone's memoirs that when he was growing up in pre-war Europe, his father would not carry anything in his pockets during the month of Elul.
It's such an intense time, a month of such opportunity and such focus, how can you walk around with irrelevant baggage in your pockets? -- thus, I presume, was his father's reasoning.
I don't know anyone who does that nowadays; but it does capture some of the feeling of the season.

Here is another account of Elul.

04 September 2012

Gig Harbor

...but first, Tacoma.

In the family hunt for Charming Towns in Washington, waterfront Tacoma is at a disadvantage: it has gone directly from being a Mill Town to being a Commuter Suburb, without stopping at Charming in between. But they have done some nice things with it: the wreck of the former mill has been covered with gravel, carefully planted with resilient local species, and turned into a lovely park.
After the waterfront, we breezed through without paying due attention to the rest of Tacoma, except to note that the commercial lane just above the waterfront offers the service of about eight lawyers per block.

Gig Harbor is located just across the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The footage of the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge, "Gallopin' Gertie", swaying on the day it finally fell apart, is instructive. It is a staple of high-school physics classes.

Gig Harbor is Charming.

The entrance

 Gig Harbor is a natural harbor with a narrow mouth opening into Puget Sound. The town is U-shaped: it has no natural center but the harbor.
Gig Harbor is an honest-to-goodness fishing town, turning gradually into a retirement town. It is unmistakably Washingtonian - unlike Cathlamet, which is undergoing the same transition but which could be mistaken for Oregon.

I liked this statue: