Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kerry's (and the Boston Globe's) dumb definition of isolationism

It's really a shame when a major newspaper doesn't know the meaning of isolationism--and neither does the Secretary of State.

A May 20 editorial in the Boston Globe, "Kerry offers a wise warning on isolationism," quotes and praises the former Senator from Massachusetts. “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade,” he declared.

Never mind that the U.S. still has troops and advisers all over the world--where it isn't "intervening" by firing missiles over the border.  The more important point is the mistaken and pernicious idea that if we're not involved militarily, we're not paying attention.

It is not isolationist when ordinary citizens travel to other countries.

It is not isolationist when teachers from the U.S. meet with teachers from Russia, or city government officials from Pakistan visit municipal leaders in Massachusetts.

It is not isolationist when scientists from all over the world--the U.S., China, island nations in the Pacific--work together to slow down climate change and make its consequences less severe.

The U.S. can be highly involved in the world without ever firing a shot.  And it should be.

Friday, May 16, 2014

"What's My Child Doing Up There?" ( an introduction to bar/bat mitzvah)

There’s a lot of mystery around becoming bar or bat mitzvah, and there shouldn’t be.  In essence, it’s very simple.  When a Jewish boy or girl reaches age thirteen, he or she is eligible to lead parts of the service at his or her family’s synagogue.  So, he or she celebrates the occasion by…actually leading some parts of the service. 

Sounds pretty straightforward, right?  Yet, I have been tutoring Jewish children for bar and bat mitzvah off and on since 1982.  I have seen the parents of my students approach the bar or bat mitzvah feeling confused, and sometimes even overwhelmed.  These parents are no dummies.  They are not being neurotic for no reason whatever.  In the U.S., the way we live now, there are good reasons why you might not immediately understand what your child is doing for his bar mitzvah, or her bat mitzvah.

 Why the mystery?

Let’s start with language.  Very few Americans are fluent in Hebrew.  Depending on your synagogue or temple, what your child does for bar or bat mitzvah might be partly, mostly, or nearly all in Hebrew.  So, let alone understanding what your child is saying: how do you track your child’s progress as he or she studies for bar or bat mitzvah?  You want to be a good parent.  You want to be supportive.  But how?

 Even the terms the rabbi or tutor uses for the tasks your child will take on are usually in Hebrew.  “What’s an aliyah?  Is a parshah the same thing as a haftarah, or is it something different my child has to learn?  How come one set of relatives calls the skullcap worn in synagogue a yarmulke while the other set calls it a kipah?”  Whether you grew up Jewish, became Jewish later in life, or raised a Jewish child without any Jewish background of your own, chances are you need a guide to understand the vocabulary that surrounds bar or bat mitzvah studies.

Then, there’s the fact that preparing for bar or bat mitzvah is usually a multi-step process.  Again, depending on your Jewish community and its local customs, your child may be reading or singing some things from the prayer book, and chanting other things from the printed Bible or the Torah scroll.  Most likely, he or she will also be giving a short talk about the passage of the Bible read that day.   

To prepare for these tasks, you may be driving your child to meet with one tutor throughout the process--or a tutor and a rabbi--or a tutor, a cantor, a Hebrew school principal, and a rabbi.  You’ll need to find ways to talk with each of them, and make sure that they are all talking to one another.

The Saturday morning service itself, the usual time for celebrating bar or bat mitzvah, can be a challenge.  It’s going to be at least an hour long, maybe as much as three hours: again, partly, mostly, or nearly all in Hebrew, depending on local custom.  It will involve a set of rituals and protocols that are certainly not obvious.  “Should I invite my non-Jewish friends or relatives to the service?  How are they going to feel at home there?  How will I?”

Finally, there’s one huge distraction that makes it difficult for parents to look forward to the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony: planning the party.  Everybody likes a good party.  For some children, it’s the reason they started studying for bar or bat mitzvah in the first place!  But for unwary parents—especially parents going through it for the first time, with their eldest child—planning the party can take up all the time and attention you have. 

You might not be planning something as lavish as the party Peter Finch attends in the movie Sunday Bloody Sunday, or as obscenely ostentatious as the one Jeremy Piven plans in Keeping Up with the Steins.  In fact, I hope not!  Still, in the midst of scheduling a space, a caterer, and entertainment, designing and sending out invitations, and helping your child keep track of gifts, it might be hard for you, yourself, to keep tabs on the bar or bat mitzvah studies—and all too easy to arrive at shul that Saturday morning without a clue about what’s going on.  

“What’s my child doing up there?”  Wonder no more.  I am writing a book to give you the answers you need as you begin to think about your child’s bar or bat mitzvah.  There are other, excellent books that will help you think about the deeper meaning of this rite of passage.  I will mention some of them in the Appendices.  

 Writing this book, I have a different mission. You will soon hold in your hands a practical guide to bar and bat mitzvah for the perplexed parent.  With this book as your road map, you will be able to navigate the process from the first day of lessons to the last blessing of the Saturday morning service, with confidence.  It shouldn’t be a mystery—just a mitzvah!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Yes, I'm Privileged

Many of you may have seen it.  A young white Jewish student, Tal, wrote a piece for Time about why he's tired of being told he's privileged. Here's something you might not have seen yet: A black graduate student who goes by @dexdigi beautifully pointed out the tired old fallacies that Tal was spouting as if he'd come up with them for the first time. 

Now, here's my take.

Like Tal, I am a white Jewish man from a working-class background who went to an elite university (in my case, decades ago). Like Tal, I give a lot of credit to my parents for their struggle to make sure I got the opportunities I deserved, and to my grandparents, who struggled with a new language and culture.

But unlike Tal, apparently (and definitely unlike some of the commenters on this thread), I realize that while I was disadvantaged by class and antisemitism, I never had anyone think I was a janitor instead of a professor simply because of the color of my skin. 

I never had to worry that someone I thought of as a friend would rape me simply because of my sex, or attack me violently because I said I was one gender and my birth certificate said I was another. 

I didn't have to be concerned that doors would literally be shut to me because there were no wheelchair ramps leading up to them, or that people would see signs of a disease like MD or CP and assume I was stupid or insane.
I have 99 problems but lack of privilege isn't one of them.