Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shame on Illinois Democrats

Yesterday, scandal-ridden Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich did what many feared he would do - he appointed someone, (Roland Burris) to serve out Obama's US Senate term. The hue and cry is enormous - everyone on both sides of the aisle are condemning this appointment as illegitimate. There are threats by the state attorney general to refuse to certify the appointment and threats by the Democrats who control the US Senate to refuse to seat Burris. But it's far from guaranteed that they will be able to legally exercise that authority and the courts may overrule them and Burris will be seated anyway. And by deliberately picking an African American, Blagojevich has cynically put race into the equation as well. This environment is the last thing the new Obama administration needs as they come to Washington.

But the Illinois state legislature had a chance to do the right thing, and the majority Democrats balked. They had the chance to strip the governor of the power to appoint someone to vacant US Senate seats and organize a special election instead. Legislation was brought forth to do just that. But Democrats, fearing that a special election, right after this scandal, would possibly grant victory to a Republican, balked at the move and defeated the bill.

My politics are decidedly left of center, and generally, I prefer a Democratic controlled Senate. But they already have that control and this is only one seat. The Illinois legislature Democrats all condemned Blagojevich and vowed to stop him from appointing anyone to Obama's Senate seat. But when they had the chance to do so, they allowed petty partisan politics to enter the equation.

If they had supported the legislation, they, and any Democratic Senate hopefuls could have claimed the moral high ground. Their rejection of Blogojevich and his legacy would have been beyond reproach and the Democratic candidates would have had a better chance of winning. Instead, they played games and shot themselves in the foot.

And beyond that, they put petty politics over doing the right thing. Shame on them!

Monday, December 29, 2008

My first meme – 7 facts about me

I was tagged by Jessica with this meme - my first one :-)

The Rules:

a) Link to your blogger and list these rules on your blog
b) Share 7 facts about yourself, some random, some weird
c) Tag 7 people (if possible) at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs

d) Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs


I have a really good voice (I’ve been told), love singing and used to sing in a choir. But I have no talent for art whatsoever. If you ask me to draw a picture, it’ll look like a kindergartner drew it.

I am a cyborg. I have a metal plate and 9 pins in my ankle as a result of a hiking accident at the aptly named Breakneck Ridge in 1996. (And am glad it wasn’t my neck!) I still set off some metal detectors.

I travelled to France with some friends to see a total solar eclipse in 1999. Unfortunately, clouds rolled in just before totality and we missed it. But it was still eerie to see day turn into night so abruptly. Next convenient chance: August 21, 2017, across the continental US.

I have an obsession with counting US states I’ve been to. There are even some arbitrary rules I made up, for instance, you have to stop in that state – you can’t just drive through a corner of it. Rest stops with stores count, but a porta-potty on the side of the road doesn’t. I’m up to 27 states so far. Most out of the way of them so far? Utah.

I didn’t plan my career in IT. I sort of just fell into it when I was working as an administrative assistant back in the early 90’s and kept having to fix the code of a balky database. After the first few times on the phone with tech support, I didn’t need their help anymore. I still wonder what I’ll do “when I grow up.”

Distressed by the massively increasing premature gray in my goatee I dyed my beard before my nephew’s wedding a few months ago. Nobody seemed to notice (maybe because, living far away, my family doesn’t see me that often) and a few days later it washed out. I don’t think I’ll be doing it again – too much trouble. At least I have all my hair.

I’m a strict vegetarian. I haven’t eaten any meat, fowl, or fish, or derivatives of them (knowingly), since 1991.

Bloggers I've taggeed with this meme:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Latkes vs. Sufganiyot

The Jerusalem Post has this amusing article about the lack of latkes (or levivot) in Israel in favor of sufganiyot (fried jelly doughnuts). Some of the comments are funny too.

The author quotes someone's story on how sufganiyot became popular in Israel:

"It was the Histadrut guys, you know the ones from way back... They were bothered by levivot being homemade and not something that was sold in grocery shops or kiosks, and felt that something was needed to keep workers busy - particularly during the slow months between the hagim and the time dried fruits start moving. So they began to look for an alternative, you know, something that you need oil for but also something that people - and especially kids - would spend money on. Someone real smart came up with the idea of making sufganiyot a Hanukka treat, and bingo, a star was born."

Personally, I think both are a recipe for indigestion. Instead, I'll be making some zuchinni levivot later fried in olive oil spray. Actually quite good!

Whatever you choose to eat, have a Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NY Times article on how YU is dealing with the Madoff scandal philisophically

Interesting article on how faculty & students at YU are dealing with the scandal.

One non-sequiter: The picture of students in the beit midrash is labelled "Students in the library." I guess that's close enough - does anyone use the term "study hall" these days?

Monday, December 15, 2008

A giant Fonzie scheme?

So it seems that Bernard Madoff invested all his clients' money in his own wealth and depended on his being as cool as "the Fonz" to get him through it. But unfortunately, he was caught by Mr. Cunningham. Joanie was so disappointed in Bernie, that he decided to turn himself in...

Well, someone I know really did think it was called a "Fonzie Scheme".

In actuality, Madoff's crime is his pulling off a giant "Ponzi scheme", named after Charles Ponzi, who pulled the wool over his investors' eyes in the early 20th century. For more, see the Wikipedia entry here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Anti-Semitism under every rock

Noam Shpancer writes a column in my local Jewish paper. He's an Israeli living in my city and he has strong opinions, usually to the extreme left of Israeli politics, and more often than not, I think he's gone off the deep end. But his latest piece is excellent, albeit written in his confrontational style. He decries the tendency to see antisemitism around every corner. I agree. sometimes it seems like fighting antisemitism has replaced the richness of our actual tradition for some organizations.

Here's his article on the local paper's website or on his blog.

I once knew a guy named Ze'ev Maghen. I haven't seen him in many, many years but a quick google search found him teaching at Bar-Ilan. Anyway, way back when, I think around 1990, he wrote an article on how to fight anti-semitism. Its main point was that we shouldn't moan and wail about anti-semitism but go ahead and live rich Jewish lives and that's the best answer. I found a link to the article but the link is broken. However, this site quotes part of the article:

"Surely none of you will tell me that down four millennia, and through the wrenching vicissitudes and savage depredations of exile, it was our appeals, protests and screams for equitable treatment that sustained us, kept us in life, and brought us to this season. No, my friends, our history teaches us a different lesson: that those who, rather than appealing and screaming, choose to build, to educate toward cultural and national revival, to defy anti-Semitism not with Jewish pleas and Jewish hand-wringing but with Jewish learning, Jewish observance, Jewish strength and Jewish achievement-such are those who bring our people survival, salvation, a future."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Orthodox single mothers by choice

I have several female friends who are Orthodox and single, all near the age of 40, (give or take a couple of years,) who had babies, are pregnant, or are trying to get pregnant.

It’s a tough decision to become a single parent, but I see no reason why that decision should be stigmatized by Orthodox Judaism. These women are opting for artificial insemination. While there may be some halachic issues, they’re not an insurmountable barrier. These women felt their biological clocks ticking and decided to go for it. They're successful professionals who can afford to do this financially and they have support systems of friends.

Instead of this being something that is talked about in hushed tones, the Orthodox community should relax its obsession with the supposed “singles crisis” and create an environment where such decisions are celebrated rather than looked down upon.

While there are many reasons aside from community pressure that a single woman might shy away from this path, community pressure and stigmatization shouldn’t prevent those who are ready to become single mothers.

How about an organization to help older single Orthodox women with this decision? If bringing children into the world is such a Jewish ideal, why not assist women to do so rather than closing off all choices other than perhaps marrying the wrong men because they’re so panicked about their biological clocks? This organization can help them financially, create support systems so they don’t have to do this alone, and guide them through any halachic problems and the process of artificial insemination.

I know a number of Modern Orthodox women who have mentioned over the years that if they reached, say, age 40, they would take this route. But now that they have reached this age, they’re not taking that step. It’s one thing to talk about it when you're years away from making that decision, but another entirely to make a move that they know will be looked down upon by most of their communities and even many of their friends.

One of these friends, whose baby I was admiring recently, said to me, with a look of happiness: “Best decision I ever made!”

Why should irrational community pressure keep potential mothers from enjoying that aspect of existence and bringing Jewish children into the world? I think it’s time for the Orthodox Jewish community (or at least the Modern Orthodox community) to make a sea change in the way this issue is approached.


Update: TikunOlam, on DovBear's blog, references this post and examines an aspect of this discussion: whether having children is an altruistic act.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Holding onto fading hope in Mumbai

JTA is reporting that the seige at the Chabad House in Mumbai is over and that local media is reporting that all the hostages are dead. This is not yet confirmed, so let us hold on to that last glimmer of hope and daven for all the hostages and all their families.
Update: It looks like the worst has likely happened - the deaths reportedly include the Chabad Shaliach, his wife, and others. Please daven for their families and for their orphaned son.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nurse, um, I mean Doctor

My wife and I were recently driving somewhere and the song “Patience” by Guns ‘N Roses came on the radio. Upon hearing the lines:

Said woman take it slow
It'll work itself out fine
All we need is just a little patience

I, being an incorrigible punster, quipped to my wife “He’s a doctor singing to his nurse that their practice will pick up – all they need is just a little patients.”

My wife said “Why is the man the doctor and the woman the nurse?”

She’s right. This isn’t a big deal in the greater scheme of things, but it shows that as egalitarian as I think I am, I still have preconceived notions in my head about what roles men and women have when it comes to some jobs, probably implanted there during my childhood in the 70’s.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pardon Pollard?

There is a big push on, in the final days of Bush's presidency, a time when lame duck presidents traditionally hand out some pardons, to obtain a pardon for Jonathan Pollard, who's been sitting in a US Jail for 23 years, serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.

I'm not going to discuss whether what Pollard did was right or wrong or whether the punishment, life in prison, fit the crime. Nor do I wish to explore whether Pollard may have unintentionally sabotaged some of the past opportunities for his release. The only point I want to make is that those who are pushing for a pardon may be pursuing an unattainable prize and that they should reconsider their tactics and ask for a commutation of his sentence instead.

There are still many in the US military and diplomatic communities who are extremely loath to see Pollard released. Their power is waning over the years as new faces rise in the Pentagon and State Department, but make no mistake, it's still there. Bill Clinton considered doing so in 1999 but was quickly advised against it. It's unlikely that an effort to get him pardoned would succeed today, even with the sympathies of President Bush.

It may be just semantics. Many of Pollard's supporters may be unaware of the difference between a pardon and a commution of sentence. According to Wikipedia:

Commutation of sentence involves the reduction of legal penalties, especially in terms of imprisonment. Unlike a pardon, a commutation does not nullify the conviction and is often conditional.

By pushing for a "pardon" in the public eye, activists may strengthen opposition to his release. Those in the military infrastructure see Pollard as an ultimate traitor, a US citizen spying for an ally. They see a push for a pardon as a slap in the face of the US.

On the other hand, pressing for a commutation of sentence on humanitarian grounds, while admitting that Pollard did something wrong, and acknowleging that the conviction should stand, has a much higher chance of success.
Update at 4:50 pm: Just saw this article which refers to a "Pardon" in the title and in the first paragraph, but refers to a commutation of Pollard's sentence in the second paragraph. Organizations such as Free Pollard Now, which is the main source quoted in the article, should stress "commutation" vs. "pardon". Public opinion can make a big difference in cases like this and public opinion often turns on the phrases used in the press.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Streets of Jerusalem - on Google Maps

I'm a map junkie. I spend a lot of time wandering around different online map systems, like YahooMaps, Microsoft Live Maps, and especially Google Maps. And naturally I often zoomed the maps over to Israel.

For the longest time, the Google Maps of Israel showed a few place names, but when you zoomed in... nothing. Just blank space.

Well, it looks like they've finally added details of Israel. The streets of Jerusalem? All there, in excellent details, to the point of showing which streets of my old neighborhood of Katamon are one-way!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Nude pics lost on cellphone end up online

Ark. man left the phone at a McDonald's; he's now suing for $3 million

This guy left his cellphone with nude pictures of his wife in a McDonald's and they ended up online, so now he and his wife are suing McDonald's.


1) Women: don't allow compromising pictures of yourself be taken. By Anybody. EVER.

2) Everyone: If you do have private images or data on your cellphone, MAKE SURE IT'S PASSWORD PROTECTED!

3) How on earth is this guy's stupidity McDonald's fault?? ("Your honor, the hydrogenated fat in their fries went to my brain and made me forget the cellphone...")

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


How bad is cheating among students today? How about helping someone else cheat?

A college-age blogger whose blog I often read, casually and unselfconsciously mentioned, in a post about something else, that she got “into the business of writing papers for this one guy” and that he owes her money for the service. I was surprised that she would mention helping someone cheat in such a casual way, so I hoped I misunderstood her. I challenged her on this:

“Please explain what you mean. Do you mean writing school papers for someone else? Basically cheating for someone else?”

She replied:

“yes. I ‘cheat’ for him. I don't believe its fair that all these damn colleges feel everyone should be well rounded.”

She went on to explain that he’s in a specialized program where it isn’t important that he be knowledgeable in subjects outside his professional training.

I replied:

“It doesn't matter what you think is ‘fair’ or not. What you are doing is extremely unethical. My respect for you just plummeted…. It puts into question all your judgments on everything else you write about. Not to mention the chillul Hashem that such behavior causes. If you have any self respect at all, you won't take the money he ‘owes’ you. It's just as bad as stolen money.”

Her response?

“I'm sorry u feel like that. but to each his own.”

Cheating isn’t a subjective issue. It’s wrong, period. She’s helping the guy steal a grade he doesn’t deserve, she’s stealing from his classmates if grading is done on a curve, she’s stealing money directly from people whose scholarships are based on class standing and which are messed up because of this, and for a good Jewish perspective on why cheating is wrong, see here.

Am I the only one appalled that someone can approach cheating so casually and justify it with the reasoning she uses? What I really want to know is, how prevalent is cheating among Jewish teens and young adults today, and are they at least ashamed?

I’m not that much older. I’m in my late 30’s. But there seems to be a generation gap on this issue. It’s not like my generation never cheated. But those who did were aware they were doing something wrong and were ashamed afterwards. I only cheated once, at age 13 or 14, on one question on one exam. I felt horribly guilty and ashamed for months afterwards and in retrospect regret not confessing to the teacher.

The casual “what’s the big deal” attitude today is shameful and disgusting. Parents & teachers need to do a better job of imparting ethical values to their children & students in this regard.

Motorcyclists are wimps

I rode my bike 2 1/2 miles to work today in sub-freezing temperatures (bundled up, of course.) In nicer weather, this bike parking area is full of motorcycles. But today, in 24°F weather, all the motor bikers retreated to their nice warm cars. The only brave ones? Me & one other bicyclist.

Disclaimer: This post was mostly tongue in cheek - I don't really think motorcyclists are wimps. Well, not all of them, anyway! :-)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why is the @$%#* hard drive buried so deep!

This old broken computer was just taking up space. But you're supposed to take out and destroy or wipe the hard drive before putting a computer in the trash.
My question: Why do they make it so hard to get to? Millions of tiny screws for which you need a microscopic screwdriver!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Rav Elyashiv bans wigs?

The latest chumrah? Sheitels are too sexy and should not be worn.

My wife doesn't cover her hair & I like it that way. Frankly I think it's a very weak halacha that had more to do with social mores throughout history than with anything the Torah says. (I know I'm going to get hit on that one, but I'll delve into the halachic issues in another post.)

However, many frum women do insist on covering their hair. What Rav Elyashiv doesn't get in the cloistered Charedi world, is that many of these women work, especially in the US. They can't show up at the office with scarves or hats. It's just not done. And I'm not just talking about big league career women. What about all those kollel wives who support their husbands? Surely Rav Elyashiv likes the kollel system? Well, he seems to want to have his cake & eat it too. If you want men not to work, someone has to bring in the money and it's usually the wives. And they need sheitels to work in a modern office.

This is the problem with the idea of "gedolim" as poskim, when they have no connection to and no inkling of what life is like in communities outside their own narrow ones.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Young kids in the white house

Interesting trivia: It looks like Sasha Obama, age 7, will be the youngest child of a president to live in the white house since the Kennedy kids (Caroline, 3 and John Jr, infant, at the start of JFK's term).

But it got me thinking and I realized that as far back as I can track without looking it up (back to the 30's) , only Democratic presidents have had children living with them in the white house.

Upon looking it up, I found that the last Republican president to have kids under 18 upon becoming president was Calvin Coolidge, who had 2 boys, aged 17 and 15. The younger one, Calvin Jr., died of blood poisoning at age 16.

William Howard Taft's youngest son was 12 when his father became president. The last republican to have preadolescent children in the white house was Theodore Roosevelt, whose youngest child, Quentin, was only 3 when Teddy became president.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Grappling with fresh fruit

I saw this grape flavored apple at the store today. At first I thought it was some hybrid fruit and considered buying it. Then I looked closer. They actually inject the fresh apple with partly artificial grape flavor!

If this becomes a trend, we'll have to consider the kashrut of fresh fruit for the first time ever. (Outside of Israel, that is.) Imagine going to the house of a friend who doesn't keep kosher and seeing fruit on the table. Can we assume that it isn't injected with flavors that may not be kosher?

Of course, by posting this, I may be prompting a massive new chumrah hysteria in the frum community. If so, I want a cut of the profits from the hechsher industry. :-)

A new day of hope

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


This is a nonpartisan message: GO OUT & VOTE if you haven't already. And vote all the way down the ballot. Democracy means a balance of power between the judiciary, legislature, and the presidency, with similar breakdowns on the state & local levels. Living and participating in a democracy means much more than voting for President. Vote for congress, senate, judges, state representatives, ballot initiatives, etc. If you're not sure who and what will be on your ballot, spend a few minutes on the web, research the issues & candidates, write down your choices, and then go to the ballot booth and register those choices.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Vote Obama to keep Israel safe

I’m taking a brief break on my moratorium of all things political to write down some thoughts that crystallized over Shabbat and try to convince wavering voters who are supporters of Israel that Barack Obama will be better for Israel than John McCain.

It basically boils down to this. To paraphrase the traditional political question “Are you better off than you were 4 or 8 years ago”, I’m asking: Is Israel more secure than she was 8 years ago, when that “great friend of Israel” George W Bush came into office?

Before Bush there was no peace and Israel’s enemies hated her. But the existential threat was kept to a relative minimum. Then Bush, with John McCain’s wholehearted support, attacked Iraq, destabilizing the Middle East. The big winner? Iran and its madman president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran may have been developing nuclear weapons before Iraq was removed as a rival, but the program accelerated afterwards. Iran’s influence and power in the region were kept in check by the balance of power between themselves and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Yes, both regimes hated Israel, but they kept each other too busy.

Once that balance of power was removed, Iran’s influence in the region grew tremendously and in 2005 they elected Ahmadinejad, who swore to destroy Israel. This was far from the first time that an Iranian leader had made that promise. But it was the first time that an Iranian leader had so much power and influence in the region, plus the promise of a viable nuclear weapons program.

In the past, there might have been a strong coalition of countries, both western and eastern, that could have isolated Iran and brought tremendous pressure on it, such as the international coalition of the first Iraq war. But George W Bush, again with McCain’s support and with a foreign policy McCain has promised to continue, shredded the idea of international cooperation, showing contempt for diplomacy and a contempt for the opinions even of Western European allies. Many of those allies may have their own issues with foreign policy, and may be biased against Israel. But that is not a reason to ignore international coalitions that have kept us in good stead for decades and have kept Israel safe despite the shrillness of hatred for Israel by many in Europe.

Without those alliances, and with the now natural reluctance of any traditional allies to help the Bush administration in international crises, and with the America military stretched to the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan, America has very little influence left to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

International diplomacy should not be carried out with a hammer. Diplomacy takes skill and an understanding of the realities of the interactions of the world’s regimes. McCain shows very little of that understanding and intelligence, preferring bravado instead, and “talking tough”. Has talking tough helped Israel be safer over the last 8 years?

Barack Obama is untested, true. But he shows great potential and a deep understanding of the intricacies of international relations and threats from rogue regimes. His style of diplomacy shows promise and at the very least it will return America to a time when presidents understood that the way to lead the free world was compromise and rational diplomacy backed up by military might. McCain wants to continue the disastrous Bush policies that spit on diplomacy and centered on now empty threats, since the US military currently does not have the resources to carry out those threats. The US presidency can no longer be called the leadership of the free world.

So I ask you again: Is Israel safer than it was 8 years ago?

Please vote Tuesday for Barack Obama, because at this dangerous time in history, and with an existential threat to Israel, we cannot afford to gamble on John McCain.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Oldest Hebrew text ever found?

Archeologists have found what they are decribing as the oldest hebrew text ever, on a 3000 year old pottery shard. The date was established by carbon dating. That would set its origins from around the time of Kind David. It was found in the Valley of Elah, near Beit Shemesh, in the dig of an ancient fortress believed to be one used by David in his fight against the people of Pleshet.

It's written in proto-Canaanite characters, and includes the words "שופט" (judge), "עבד" (slave), and "מלך" (king).

What apparantly makes it Hebrew is that according to Yosef Garfinkel, the lead archeologst studying it, it includes a "three-letter verb from the inscription meaning 'to do,' a word he said existed only in Hebrew."

All the articles say the same thing, but I can't find what that 3 letter word is, despite looking through several Hebrew articles about this find. Maybe I missed it? Here's one of the Hebrew articles.

Side issue: While looking through the articles about this, I came across Reuters' description. Apparantly, they found it important, in an article about an archeological find, to bring up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

"The dig's uncovering of the past near the ancient battlefield in the Valley of Elah, now home to wineries and a satellite station, could have implications for the emotional debate over the future of Jerusalem, some 20 km (12 miles) away."

Apparantly, as far as Reuters is concerned, anything to do with Israel has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Aish HaTorah affiliates sponsoring controversial political videos

The jist is that subsidiary organizations of Aish have been heavily involved in the making of right-wing anti-Islamic videos, not to mention their extreme partisanship in US politics.

Now, I'm no fan of Aish, but this goes even beyond common sense. Isn't "kiruv" their stated purpose for being? I imagine they'll turn off a lot of potential recruits by their partisanship and their extreme social and political commentary. This stuff has nothing to do with their mission statement (

Aish HaTorah, founded in Jerusalem by Rabbi Noah Weinberg in 1974, is dedicated to revitalizing the Jewish people by providing opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to discover their heritage in an atmosphere of open inquiry and mutual respect.

Except that they're driving away liberals or anyone who thinks in terms other than in black & white. But who needs liberal Jews to become religious anyway, right?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are midrash and aggada literal?

Certain midrashim are clearly not literal.

I was just learning in shiur last night Chagiga, daf 12b, where it says that a heaven that is a curtain is pulled over the sky every night and blocks the light from the sun and then is rolled back again every morning.

I don't assume that chazal took this literally. After all, they saw the sun set in the evening and rise on the opposite horizon every dawn. They knew that it wasn't a heavenly curtain that kept the sun's rays from reaching them at night, even if they might have thought the earth was a disc.
So the gemara is meant allegorically, and is meant to teach about Hashem's renewal of creation every morning, perhaps, or some other message.

But when chazal say that insects are spontaneously generated from a pile of dirt, it is hard to say they didn't mean it literally. It's not that they were advancing a false theory, they were just repeating the prevailing wisdom of the time, which we now know was false.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bill Richardson

I heard Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico speak this morning at an Obama campaign event near my city. He's a funny and engaging speaker, but without a lot of fire.

He told a funny story and I filmed most of it. I'll set up the clip: He said that the first time he realized the character of Barack Obama was at one of the early debates, when he was still in the primary. He was next to Obama and since there were so many candidates he didn't get a lot of questions, especially since so many of the questions went to Obama and Clinton. So after he was asked a question, he didn't always pay full attention to the follow up since he figured it wouldn't be his turn again for a few minutes. But in this case, it didn't turn out that way and he didn't know what he was supposed to answer.

In case you couldn't make out what he said Obama whispered to him, it was " They asked you about Katrina!"

I got a chance to meet Richardson afterwards and got a nice pictire with him. Though this blog isn't exactly anonymous, I prefer not to post my face front & center, but if you're friends with me on Facebook, you can see the picture there.

Update May 27 2013: Since this blog is no longer anonymous at all, I can post that picture without reservations:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Obama and Israel

Is Obama “bad for Israel”? First of all, let me point out that when American Jews refer to a candate being “good for Israel” or “bad for Israel”, they generally mean does he or she support Likud-type policies. Whether that’s good for Israel or not is arguable.

Leaving that aside, however, I want to address the claim that is often heard that Obama doesn’t really support Israel and that he’s just conveniently spouting the formulaic support required in an election year to get Jewish votes.

Over a year and a half ago, Obama said:

“My view is that the United States' special relationship with Israel obligates us to be helpful to them in the search for credible partners with whom they can make peace, while also supporting Israel in defending itself against enemies sworn to its destruction,"

Almost 3 years ago, he said:

"I flew on an IDF helicopter to the border zone. The helicopter took us over the most troubled and dangerous areas and that narrow strip between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea. At that height, I could see the hills and the terrain that generations have walked across. I could truly see how close everything is and why peace through security is the only way for Israel,"


"We must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs. This would help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza."

Yup, sure sounds like an opponent of Israel to me.

Also worth reading is this article by Alan Dershowitz, titled: Why I support Israel and Obama

Friday, October 10, 2008

What did you do during the break?

Hope everyone had a comfortable and meaningful fast.

We finished davening at 2:45 and Mincha was at 4:45.

Of course, I had already taken a break during mussaf for 20 minutes. I just can't sit so long. I went to the library which is a 2 minute walk from my shul and started reading what promises to be a fascinating and gripping book "The Last Theorem" by Arthur C Clarke and Frederick Pohl, 2 elderly giants of science fiction. It's Clarke's swan song before his death earlier this year. I hope to get to the library before Shabbat to take it out.

During the break I went home, sat in my easy chair and somehow made the strange choice to read cookbooks. I was reading "Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking", a poor strategy for dealing with fasting, but now I'm all fired up to try making chick pea soup, fava bean falafel, and others tasty sounding recipes.

What did you do during the break on Yom Kippur?
Update 10/20/08: The Clarke/Pohl book wasn't worth it. Some cool ideas to read about, but as a novel it failed completely. Very little in the way of plot and one of the most boring protagonists I've ever seen in a fictional work.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Boss

I went to an Obama rally today at OSU. No, the candidate himself wasn't there, but Bruce Springsteen was! I'm a fan from way back but I've never seen him live before.

This is the first time I'm putting video on my blog. I suspect that the very poor quality doesn't really do it justice - it was taken on my phone. (I'll have to take my camera next time which takes better quality video.) Plus I was sitting way back under a tree. (Maybe I'm getting too old to stand in the sun in a crush of people.)

So yes, the quality of the video & sound is poor, but it was such a rush that I feel like sharing anyhow. I felt like a teenager again.

Yes We Can! Vote Obama.

We're not terrorists - really!

I was recently at a non-kosher middle-eastern restaurant in my town for a presentation by a friend.

While on most of the walls they had pictures or murals of a middle-eastern theme, on one wall they had a mural of a giant American flag, taking up the whole wall.
I have no doubt that here in midwest, the Arabic owners felt it neccesary to put up the flag after 9-11 to show that they aren't terrorists.

I just think it's a shame that in 21st century America, there should be such fear of being stereotyped.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Downsizing America

I’m not an economist. But in these days of financial upheaval, it behooves us all to pay more attention to what’s going on.

As I understand it, the $700 billion plan to bail out the failing financial services industry is intended mainly to keep the credit system from collapsing. Treasury secretary Hank Paulson warns that failure to approve the plan will mean that Wall Street will be unable to back debts, which will cause the loss of credit to thousands of businesses of all sizes and many millions of Americans, resulting in massive job and home losses.

One of the problems is that the American economy as it is currently structured runs on credit. Debt is ubiquitous and businesses cannot run simply on what they have in their coffers at any one time. Businesses in today’s economy cannot survive without constantly growing, and they cannot grow without substantial credit. As such, businesses survive day-to-day by running on credit. The loss of easy and convenient credit, backed by the solidity of Wall Street, would mean that those businesses would not survive.

Unfortunately, the average American consumer has followed suit. We also live on credit. Mortgages have been with us for a long time, but now most buy their cars, vacations, and even groceries on credit too.

Essentially, even if many individual American families have savings, America on the whole lives paycheck to paycheck, borrowing and borrowing and borrowing. That’s what got us into this mess.

It seems to me that the proposed solution would just be more of the same. We would add close to one trillion dollars to the national debt, as before, counting on better days to come. A bailout of that size would be more of what got us into this mess in the first place.

And all it would do would be to prolong an unsustainable economic structure.

That structure doesn’t just back up the American economy, but the entire world’s economy. America is the powerhouse that drives the international markets, and even now, with American economic prestige falling, the dollar, backed up by no commodity standard, is
still the preferred currency of the world markets. The American economy is intricately intertwined with the world economy.

The cost of living in the US has gone up and up in recent years, in large part because everything we buy is so intertwined with international trade. We export most of what we produce and import most of what we consume. Even when we buy American goods at the store, the markets are too intertwined to keep the costs of those goods down. Essentially, when you buy an apple at the supermarket that was grown only 200 miles away, you’re still subsidizing the apples in the next bin that were grown in New Zealand. And you’re still paying to export American produce to other countries.

And that intertwining of our economy also contributes to pollution and the destruction of our environment. It makes big firms richer and richer, giving them the money and power to dictate deregulation that allows them to go after bigger and bigger spoils, no matter the environmental damage.

But what if it weren’t so? What if all America needed to worry about was its own economy, its own citizens, its own workers? Imagine an America that provided healthcare for all residents,
provided a free college education for all young people, and actually produced goods that supplied its own people?

Is being an economic superpower such a great thing for your average American citizen? Your average person wants what we all want; good jobs, the ability to afford a place to live, buy food, clothes, entertainment, and the occasional vacation, a healthy environment, and good education for our children.

As I said, I’m not an economist, but maybe our economy needs to contract somewhat. Instead of paying for power on the world markets, we should each just be paying to live our own lives. If the dollar wasn’t worshipped but was instead a regional currency, we might actually be able to use it to run our own economy rather than the world’s. We might actually start to manufacture goods in America again.

And for those who still want to play in the financial markets, Wall Street would still be there. It would just follow the Asian and European markets rather than lead them.

Getting back to the immediate financial crisis, what should we do at this point? Despite all I wrote above, doing nothing won’t produce the rosy localized economy I just outlined. Defeating the bailout and doing nothing else will lead to a worsening situation for all of us. And as Paulson warned, it will lead to massive layoffs and many people losing their homes.

But a bailout that just maintains the status quo for as long as possible is also a losing proposition. The economy needs a healthy contraction. We need to worry about local needs first. But a contraction isn’t the same thing as a collapse.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I’m not an economist. But there are many thousands of them in Washington and around the country. There are many of them advising congress. Surely they can come up with a plan that allows for a quasi-bailout, something that will allow the credit markets to continue operating for now but include a plan to change the basis of our economy from worldwide credit to American profits and savings. Surely they can come up with a plan to downsize without collapsing. The trick is to approach creating a plan not as a way to sustain the current economic structure but rather to wean it from its excesses.

Some will instinctively feel that this is wrong. There is a popular notion among Americans that we are “the greatest nation in the world” and drastically reducing our influence on the world economic stage will likely seem to them as a loss of prestige and a loss of face.

America is a great country in many ways. But its primary responsibility is to its average working citizens, not speculators on Wall Street. And in my opinion, a country that provides financial safety and security for its citizens, rather than wielding economic might in the Asian and European markets, is a country worthy of tremendous pride.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is Modern Orthodoxy leaning to the right?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how much of the formerly Modern Orthodox community has been leaning to the right, religiously.

The problem is much more pronounced in the big communities where the Orthodox population is dominated by the Ultra Orthodox. The MO in those areas seem to take their cues for everything from the Charedim. Kashrut, education, etc, are all run or organized by Charedim and the Modern Orthodox just use the services provided by them.

I live in a small community that is most decidedly "out of town". Because there are only a handful of Charedim here, the MO rabbis and lay leaders and members of the community all step up to the plate and manage the Vaad Hakashrut, run & teach in the day school, manage the eruv, invite modern speakers, etc.

In the big communities the MO look to the UO for all their community building, by default, and end up thinking about themselves the way the UO think of them - that Modern Orthodoxy is just "Orthodoxy lite" instead of something dynamic and beautiful in its own right.

If anyone’s looking for a truly Modern Orthodox community, I advise you expand your search to more geographically diverse areas.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

In defense of the Upper West Side

I am tired of hearing about the supposed “shidduch crisis” and am even more tired of hearing it being blamed on the singles culture of the Upper West Side.

I met my wife on the UWS, in my early 30's. In my experience, most of the singles on the UWS do eventually get married and most of those within their childbearing years.

There seems to be a tendency for the Yeshivish and Centrist Orthodox communities to lament the "shidduch crisis" among their 20-something children who worry about the color of a boy's shirt or where their parents went to camp. Then those communities turn around and suddenly blame it all on the singles culture of the UWS.

The UWS singles have the healthiest attitudes I know in the Orthodox community. They don't reject potential spouses for nonsensical reasons like family backgrounds and they're not focused on having a boy sit in kollel instead of supporting his family. They don't care if the potential spouse's parents are rich and they don't date when they are far too immature for it. However, all of those things ARE practiced by the dating culture of Flatbush, Passaic, and Lakewood.

So if people choose to stay single longer on the Upper West Side, at least they're not spending time in some bizarrely artificial dating environment and at least they're not being pressured to make bad decisions by parents and mentors who are worried about "keeping up with the Goldbergs."

Instead of feeling lonely and isolated for many years in a community where they are an object of pity and subtle disrespect, thank G-d that UWS singles have the opportunity of participating in a culture that values them as mature adults and gives them a sense of community and belonging.

The Orthodox singles of the Upper West Side have high shul attendance, sit on the boards of those shuls, invite each other to beautiful Shabbat meals where the zmirot go on and on, and go to Torah classes in huge numbers. They have very rich Jewish lives, far more so in my opinion than 24 year old women who live in their parents’ houses and panic because they’re not yet married.

There may indeed be a "shidduch crisis" of sorts, but is entirely artificial and it has nothing to do with the Upper West Side. Rather it is the skewed mentality in Centrist and Yeshivish Orthodox circles of pushing 22 year olds to get married while at the same time putting artificial unethical and un-Torah barriers in their paths to do so.

I admit, it is sad that some older Orthodox singles on the Upper West Side have not yet met the right person to marry when they’ve reached their forties. But the system there is still FAR healthier than the warped sensibilities of Flatbush.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hermaphrodites in the shtetl?

Quote of the day: (was a comment on this post)
"...if you read Minchat Chinuch without thinking about it, you might imagine that 19th century Galicia was filled with hermaphrodites, people lacking external genitalia and half emancipated slaves."

Some really unusual things will come up in jblogging. The comment above, in context, certainly had relevance. Nevertheless, it's amusing to see what comes up sometimes.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Can women read the Megillah for men?

Recently the gemara (talmud) class I attending was studying Tractate Megillah, and one topic discussed was whether women can read the megillah for men.

It seems very clear from the gemara, (towards the top of page 4a), that women can do so, and that men will fulfill their obligation by hearing a woman read.

The gemara says:

ואמר רב יהושוע בן לוי נשים חייבות במקרה מגילה שאף הן היו באותו הנס
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in the reading of the megillah, for they too were part of the miracle.

Note that it says “bemikrah”, in the reading of the megillah, not “beshmiyah”, in the hearing of the megillah. However, Tosafot, while acknowledging that the plain text would appear to support that view, then jumps through hoops to work out an interpretation that denies women this right.

I wonder if this is a case of approaching the topic by the standards of the medieval period in which the Tosafists lived with a preconceived notion and then wringing out their desired conclusion through rather convoluted reasoning?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Jewish women & skirts

Holy Hyrax wrote a rather bizarre post today about how, although pants aren't really immodest, there's a case to be made for encouraging Jewish girls to wear only skirts. The rationale? That it can be a distinctively "Jewish" look that binds Jews together. My first reaction was "huh??". In my version of "out of town" Modern Orthodoxy, no one cares what someone wears, as long as it doesn't show inappropriate amounts of skin. My second reaction was this comment on his site:


First of all, the ship has already sailed. Plenty of Jewish women wear pants including plenty of Orthodox, especially those not living in the more cloistered New York community. So if you're declaring skirts to be a distinctive Orthodox dress, you're effectively declaring that multitudes of women who keep shabbat, kashrut, and mikvah are not really to be considered Orthodox, since they don't wear the uniform.

As you pointed out, there's nothing immodest about pants. And the obsession of "does she wear pants or not" tends to be a juvenile obsession of those self-described Modern Orthodox who take more of their cues from the Yeshivish community than from anything truly modern and which is mostly unique to the greater NYC area.

Also, your comparing it to the outfits that other ethnic groups wear is faulty at best and gross stereotyping of those ethnic groups at worst. Most Asian women, for instance, dress in an entirely modern western manner.

And what about comfort? My sisters rode bikes for a little while as kids then eventually gave it up. I, on the other hand, continued riding on a regular basis till this day, despite the fact that I was stuck, as a teenager, in my all-boys yeshiva HS for far more hours than they spent in their schools. I suspect, therefore, that their reluctance to ride had something to do with being required to wear skirts. If you want to discourage a girl from playing sports or riding a bike, the best way to do it is insist that she wear only skirts.

Skirts, especially the tight outfits work by many frum girls today, are not exactly modest. Pants tend to be more modest, on average. And with pants, you don't have repressed yeshiva boys hoping to catch a glimpse under the girls skirts if they sit the wrong way.

I suspect that some part of you subconsciously is looking at what you may have been taught by the centrist/yeshivish community and trying to rationalize it in modern terms.

Sorry, it's not working.

Update, 12:30 PM:

Holy Hyrax feels that I misunderstood his post

I replied to him: Sorry if I misunderstood what you were writing and your motivation. But I still think that promoting skirts in any way is silly. I think that promoting pants wearing for those who feel like it but are afraid to buck frum society is a good thing. Let women be more comfortable and get more physical activity.

The whole reasoning for skirts in halacha is basically that it is inappropriate for men to see the split of a woman's legs so they won't be tempted by what that split hints at. That's relegating women to sex objects and the sooner the frum community leaves that behind, the healthier they would be.

But that's probably not going to happen anytime soon.

Please note that I have no objection to a woman wearing only skirts if she feels more comfortable that way for any reason. I just don't like the restriction on those who would prefer pants.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Reporting abuse in yeshivot

Yesterday, Harry Maryles posted a letter from a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school principal who, while strongly acknowledging the seriousness of past cases of abuse in Orthodox schools and that the protection of children is the first priority, warns against false accusations that could ruin a teacher or rebbi’s life. He relates two cases in his school where the accusations turned out to be false and recommends caution in proceeding in these cases.

Harry, in introducing the letter, writes:

This is not to say there should be any less vigilance. Certainly if we err - it should be on the side of the child. But great care should be taken before we act in a way that can destroy innocent people.

Bearing this in mind it is my view that when there is accusation by a child against a Rebbe the first line of defense should be to protect the child. To that end the accused Rebbe should be quietly told to call in ‘sick’ and not show up in school until the matter is fairly investigated.

Private investigators should be hired with a mandate to use discretion and protect the reputation of those being investigated. Child psychiatrists with expertise in these matters should be brought in to evaluate the child and his or her accusation. If as a result there is credible basis to an accusation then it should immediately be reported to the police. That, in my view is the prudent course of action.

I cannot disagree more strongly. Despite the risk or ruining teachers’ lives, far more children’s lives have been ruined by "internal investigations".

I agree that everything should be done discreetly and that the accusations should never be made public until there is credible evidence. And I agree that, as Harry suggests, the rebbi should be quietly told to take sick leave while the investigation is carried out.

But accusations that have any potential credibility whatsoever should be reported to the police, as required by law. The police should handle it in a discreet manner. If they don't do so, then policy changes should be made on a communal level to force more discretion on the part of the police and social services.

Far too many instances of abuse in yeshivot have been swept under the rug in past years because those institutions wanted to handle the matter "internally". Despite the best intentions here, this is another case of conflict of interest. How can investigators being paid by the yeshiva make an honest and objective assessment?

To leave it in the hands of yeshiva administrators, no matter what responsible steps are taken, is a recipe for sliding back to the old days when abuse was merely swept under the rug.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mourning the Beit HaMikdash

XGH asks if most Modern Orthodox today would really want the beit hamikdash and its ancient but currently primitive-seeming tradition of animal sacrifice back in our lives.

As such, he asks:

So, in these 9 days I shan't be mourning the loss of the BM (which has the added bonus of cutting out a lot of tedious kinot). Certainly there's much to mourn, 2,000 tragedy filled years culminating in the Shoah.

But the loss of the BM? Probably a good thing, all things considered.

Here’s my comment on that post:

The destruction of the beit hamikdash forced Judaism to evolve from the vestiges of paganism into a religion that was able to survive for then next 2 millennia.

However, the beit hamikdash was also a symbol of the independent sovereignty of Israel (even during the late period when they only had autonomy) and of the right of Jews to live in Eretz Yisrael.

The destruction of the beit hamikdash brought that era to an end, destroyed the symbol of their capital and initiated the period of exile. I think that that is more what the mourning is about, rather than the building itself.

As an analogy, think about 9/11. For most people it symbolizes the loss of life and a turning point in our collective consciousness. The commemoration each year is about that, not about the loss of the towers themselves.

Monday, July 28, 2008


When I was a kid, I had a “gedolim album”. I cut out pictures of Rabbis with long beards from magazines and proudly pasted them into my album. But who are these rabbis?

I’m often told, by those who are more to the “right” religiously than I am, that as an Orthodox Jew, I must listen to the “gedolim”. Basically, there are a set of individuals who are culturally agreed upon as the leaders of Jewry of this generation and that their word is law. “Da’as Torah” deems that I have no right to question their decisions since they are naturally on a much higher spiritual plane than I am.

The absurdity of this should be self-evident, but I’ll lay it out nonetheless.

This is a group of men with whom I have very little in common other than the fact that they and I both keep roughly the same set of daily requirements to be an observant Jew (though we don’t even agree on many details of those requirements.)

I know virtually nothing about these individuals on a personal level. I’ve heard a couple of stories that supposedly attest to their greatness – stories that smack of Jewish urban legends.

Additionally, I’ve been told about decisions and statements they’ve made about society & culture – decisions & ideas I fundamentally disagree with and seem to me to be the product of ignorance about the greater world, about the way working people think, about the way women function & think today, and about basic needs of most people who live outside the cloistered yeshiva world.

They have smicha, but then again, so does my accountant.

They may be extremely learned in Talmud, and in the voluminous literature of centuries of rishonim & achronim that came afterwards, far more than I am, but I don’t know this for sure, I only know that there is some sort of community consensus that they are.

However, there is no “Gadol PhD” that assures me that they are experts in all human knowledge and that their wisdom is of the superior sort. There is no agreed upon set of standards that establish them as generational leaders. There is only a vague community consensus that is spread by word of mouth and popularity within certain communities which I am not part of.

They almost certainly, on average, know far less science and classical literature than I do. They know far less about the business world than I do. They know less about economics than I do. They probably know less about politics than I do, other than in areas of specific concern to their communities.

They certainly don’t watch CNN, so when they get information about what’s going on in the world, it’s secondhand at the least, filtered through followers who bring them this news.

I don’t doubt that they are probably kind & generous individuals whose constituents are generally happy with the way they rule. But I am not one of their constituents. I barely know who they are.

So let’s summarize.

The “gedolim” are a group of people who I don’t know, whose halachic knowlege is probably superior to mine, though I only know this through heresay, whose knowledge is almost certainly inferior to my own in most other realms, who I don’t know personally and whose communities am I am not part of, and who have no degree other than that of Rabbi, which is held by many thousands of others.

Exactly why should I be deferring to their opinions about how I should live my life, who I should vote for, where I should live, and how I should raise my children?? Because someone tells me that that is what Orthodox Jews do?

No thank you. I am a thinking being, not a sheep.

If I want to know if a particular pot needs to be kashered I’ll ask my local rabbi. If I want to know why my back hurts, I’ll go to a doctor. If I want to decide who to vote for, I’ll look at the issues and make an informed decision.

And if I want to put my life in anyone’s hands, it’s God’s, not a group of guys I don’t know.
UPDATE July 30: Harry Maryles just wrote a good post on basically the same topic