Powered by WebAds

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

JIBs: Round II (Sticky Post)

(Note: This post will remain at the top for a while. New posts appear below.)
Final round voting has opened for the JIB awards. If you like my blog, go vote for me in the Best Post (9/11), Best Series (Heroine of the Day series) , Jewish Culture, Politics & Current Affairs, Best Personal, and Best New blog categories. If you don't like my blog that much, there are lots of other worthy candidates over at the JPost voting site.

Thank you.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Editorial Idiocy

Ezzie has a good post up about a editorial in a recent issue of the Jewish Press that he quite rightly calls "sickening". The relevant graf from the editorial (regarding the Abramoff affair) that Ezzie quotes:
In the larger sense the story is primarily about those officials Abramoff corrupted and, of course, about Abramoff himself. But we feel a special sense of loss given that Abramoff identified with Orthodox Judaism. Though he wasn’t raised as an observant Jew and thus was not exposed in his formative years to the Torah’s rigorous moral and ethical codes, any time a breach of this magnitude occurs — and, sadly, there have been other similarly disheartening cases involving Orthodox Jews in recent years — it is a matter of great concern. It should trigger a resolve in all of us to work harder to see to it that such things never occur in our community by drawing attention to the risks of modern-day life and the need for strict adherence to the
ethics of Judaism.
Sick stuff. The first, and most offensive, issue I have with the emphasized line - and the one Ezzie has already pointed out - is the fact that with one sentence, the editorial staff of the JP is writing off anyone who wasn't raised observant in his "formative" years as somehow unable to fend off the temptation of corruption. Aside from the the total obnoxiousness of that theory, its actually blatantly incorrect. Does the JP really expect us to buy this bill of goods they are selling? The suggestion that somehow, people born and bred Orthodox have a stronger moral compass when it comes to business dealings? Ha. I will not name names (and I will delete any comments attempting to name names - so don't even go there), but there are plenty orthodox Jews who were "exposed in his formative years to the Torah’s rigorous moral and ethical codes" who have been convicted for fraud-related crimes. Go figure. I have also, in my business dealings, met newly observant people whose ethics when it comes to business are far more well-developed than many I have dealt with who had an observant upbringing. Go figure again.

I would think the JP owes their readership (as well as those intelligent people who don't count themselves among that group) an open apology for their gross mischaracterizations and twisted stereotyping. Being as it is, however, the Jewish Press, I won't hold my breath.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Tax Credit Apathy?

This is an anonymous "prinicipal's" take on Wednesday's meeting between pols and Jewish leaders about the NYS tax credit proposal (I posted about it here):
Let's get the record straight about this meeting

1. Agudah invites Yeshiva administrators to a meeting at headquarters

2. Vito Lopez speaks and urges everyone to attend Feb 14th rally to support tax credits

3. Fragin from Pataki's office speaks and urges everyone to attend Feb 14th raly to support tax credits

4. Avi Schick speaks about how important it is this year to support tax credits

4. Sen. Marty Golden speaks and demands that community get organized and attend the Feb 14th rally in Albany to support tax credits

5. George Klein says something with no real message only that he has been doing this for a long time

6. The well respected Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel then gets up and tells most of the people in the room that the Council of Torah Sages opposes my school's participation in the February 14th rally

Why was i invited if the Agudah doesn't want me to go to the rally that the politicians want me to attend? I don't think that Agudah is bad but they obviously did not think this one through
Obviously. I can't imagine why the Agudah does not want to put themselves behind this proposal in a meaningful manner - and by meaningful, I mean more than just standing up at a meeting and blowing hot air. They're all, "Tuition crisis, tuition crisis, blah, blah, blah." If they are not interested in supporting a proposal that will put money in their so-called constituency's pockets, then their leadership should just step down now. If the Orthodox community does not step up to the plate to support and show gratitude for our elected officials who are putting their necks on the line to support a proposal that helps private school parents, then why should we expect them to get behind future proposals that will give even more assistance to private school parents? I keep seeing comments on how this proposal is "small potatoes" because $500 per pupil is "worthless". Come on, people! Everything starts small. If our elected officials test the waters with something like this, and sense that the community they are trying to help is not particularly receptive, then who expects them to try this again anytime soon?

With that in mind, I encourage anyone from both the private school and public school communities to head up to Albany on Feb. 14 for a rally to show our support for the efforts of Governor Pataki and other elected officials who have sponsored and promoted the tax credit proposal. I think everyone can get behind a proposal that gives parents choice in how to educate their children.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

JIB Jerkiness

All right, I'm out. My early good showing in the final round of the JIB's has gone down like a ton of bricks. I'm not shocked. Even if my blog were good enough to place for a "medal" in any of the categories I was nominated (and I'm not saying that it is), I didn't expect to be able to compete with blogs that have double, triple, even ten times my readership. But that is perfectly OK. A blog gets good traffic because they earn it by, well, being a good blog. A blog with a large readership scoring the top spots is perfectly within the spirit of an election - the most popular candidate generally wins. Who doesn't love a democracy? So please don't mistake this post for a bitter rant. It's a rant, all right, but I'm not bitter - just annoyed.

Why? Because stunts like this bother the hell out of me. For someone to subvert the process by sending all of his readers (most who likely have never read and will not start to read any of the blogs competing), to vote for the candidates that he deems worthy is just nauseating. This guy is just screwing with the results because he can. And that really pisses me off. It's one thing to send readers to vote for the candidates you see eye-to-eye with politically when the categories have some political relevance. But there are many blogs in categories like Best Personal Blog, and Best Post that are completely apolitical. Why mess with the process of the blogs' readers choosing the blog that they feel is best? Why does the guy even give a crap? Did he even read all of the submissions in the Best Post category - or any of the others? So this jerk likes three bloggers' liberal creds - and they should sweep every category? It never ceases to amaze me that there are people out there who revel in spoiling other peoples' fun. It really makes me a bit ill. If this doesn't negate all of the hard work Dave put into this contest, I don't know what does.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

More on School Tax Credits

There's an item about Governor Pataki's new tax credit proposal (which I posted about here and here) in the Politicker today. Ben Smith got it right - but it took two tries. His first stab at it completely mischaracterized the proposal as a giveaway for religious schools:
Now, the policy seems arguablem, and rather broadly targeted. Are private school parents the most needy of state education aid? Parochial school parents? At the same time, the combination of "tax break" and "education" and "God" is a politically potent one.
He misses the point that this initiative will likely help public school parents in far greater numbers than it will help private school parents. Luckily, a concerned reader of his blog phoned in a correction:
UPDATE: Teach NYS's Michael Tobman was among those calling to disagree with the interpretation of yesterday's meeting. His group, "a coalition of public school parents and lay leaders from the Catholic, Jewish and independent school communities" wanted "to point out that this is a tax credit that will benefit public school parents more than any other group." I should add that there are income caps for parents to qualify for the $500-per-kid credit, and that the money goes to the parents, not the schools.
The real problem here is the fact that this is not the first time I have seen the proposal mischaracterized by the press in its short life. I saw an item on CBS news yesterday (the clip is here), that also got it wrong. They claimed that the proposal would allow private School parents to use the $500 tax credit to pay for their private school tuition, a blatant error. Private school parents - as well as public school parents - would be able to use the credit for educational expenses that are not part of tuition, such as tutoring, test prep classes, remedial education, and special education. In their rush to create a controversial news story out of this, the press continues to do this completely constitutional initiative and the children it would benefit a grave disservice.

As the Governor said yesterday, the state spends $17 billion dollars a year on education aid, can't we throw $500 per student to needy families to allow them a choice in how best to educate their children?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sad Week

This week has been a terrible one for pedestrian accidents in New York, possibly due to weather-related conditions. Some of the most publicized victims in local news sources were women with strong Jewish ties.

First, a 25 year-old Jewish NYU graduate student was killed in a hit-and-run on her way home from atending a movie with her sister. According to the NY Post,
She was studying for a joint master's in nonprofit management and Jewish studies at NYU.

Engle also spent much of her free time as a volunteer. Apart from Jewish philanthropic organizations, the sisters were also devoted to helping fight AIDS after their dad died of the disease when Engle was 13.

... Engle, hailed for her generous spirit by friends and family, continued to give in death. Jupiter yesterday revealed her sister had donated some of her organs.
Then, 60 year-old philanthropist Andrea "Andy" Bronfman was killed while walking her dog in what seemed to be a weather-related accident. She was apparently hit with a glancing blow by a livery cab driver, and then struck fatally by an SUV. Bronfman has been eulogized for her good works here, here, here, here, and here. She was involved in many charities, both here and abroad.

And finally, yesterday, an elderly, but by all accounts vibrant, holocaust survivor was killed by a bus when she slipped on slipped ice and into the path of oncoming traffic.
Her flinty independence got Eva Schweitzer through Auschwitz, and it helped her go on even when she was the only one in her family who survived the war.

But yesterday, her son Jack said, her stubborn independence may have been a contributing factor in her death. Mrs. Schweitzer, a slight woman of 81 with striking blue eyes, was killed on a darkened street a half-hour before sunrise when she slipped on an icy patch at the intersection of East Gun Hill Road and Bainbridge Avenue in the Norwood section of the Bronx and was run over by the rear wheels of a bus pulling away from a bus stop, the police said.
Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Depressing Day?

According to this, today has been calculated to be the "most depressing day of the year". Apparently, a British psychologist analyzed moods, weather patterns, and hours of daylight throughout the winter, and concluded that today, January 24, is the day on which it is most likely for people to be stricken with symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is the "winter blues", which has been tied to the fewer hours of daylight exposure that we receive in the dead of winter. The guy who came up with this based it on a formula:
The model is: [W + (D-d)] x TQ
M x NA

The equation is broken down into seven variables: (W) weather, (D) debt, (d) monthly salary, (T) time since Christmas, (Q) time since failed quit attempt, (M) low motivational levels and (NA) the need to take action.

Whatever. Not being much of a math person, I have no idea whether this equation is mathematically predictive of my mood. I will say, though, that I can't really qualify today as the "most depressing day of the year", at least for me. Maybe it's the spate of mild weather we've been having, but it's hard to call a sunny, 45-degree, day off from work that I get to spend with my kids "depressing". KWIM?

Monday, January 23, 2006

On The Topic Of Winter Break

A reader who goes by the name of "Michael" sent me an e-mail that brought up a topic I have been thinking about for quite a while now:
Am I wrong to be annoyed that so many people are taking their kids out of school to go on vacation, even though they are leaving before actual vacation starts. I tend to think that from the start of the year you know the schedule and if you want to go away you plan around the actual vacation. It seems to me that by pulling your kids out during actual school days the message is to the children is clear: Florida/Bahamas, etc., is more important than school.

So many of my neighbors from two particular schools just take their kids out of school because they want to go away. Forget about the fact that vacationing in some of these places raises significant halachik issues, it is just so bad for children to see that vacation trumps school. The implications are obvious, "why do homework, instead I will watch a game, if vacation trumps school why can't sports.

One school has gone so far as to implicty condone such behavior and has scheduled a second siddur play so that those students who missed the first one (scheduled for this week) will be able to attend the "make-up" for the vacationers.
The short answer: Michael, I agree with you almost completely on this.

Now for the long answer:

There are a few facets to the topic of winter vacation, so please bear with me while I try to untangle my thoughts.

First of all, there is the first issue that Michael mentioned above. Many parents tack a few days on to either/both ends of the school vacation, because they somehow feel that a week to ten days is not enough of a family vacation. I am not hugely in favor of this. As Michael points out, the message that these parents are sending their children is pretty close to saying that Vail, Miami or Aruba is more important a place to be than at their desks, learning Torah. I can already hear all the arguments from parents who have done or are planning to so echoing in my comment section. "But we all need our family time together so badly!"or "The school condones it, so what am I doing so wrong?". In terms of the family time, I hear you. Everyone needs family time. But is the extra weekend that you are gaining together really worth sending your kids a message that you get to decide when school is important and when it is not? Not sure. And please be aware that I am not discussing family trips to visit out-of-town grandparents. What I am referring to here are the trips to sun and ski spots that so many families have planned for this week.

The second point, which is the fact that the schools implicitly condone the trips, is a fault with the administrations of these Yeshivas. These Yeshivas should make a policy, and stick to it. The fact that, as Michael recounts above, there is a school in the area that has rescheduled a school event because too many parents will be away due to "vacation creep" is appalling. If the parents choose to go away and miss an event, fine. But that is their choice. I don't think the school should give them the chance for a make-up siddur play, should it?

On a related note, There is even a boys' Yeshiva in the area that does not give a winter vacation at all. They give a few long weekends throughout the winter, and that is it. If families feel they need to get away for a few days, the Yeshiva allows it on a case-by-case basis. Apparently, a large percentage of the parent body consists of dual-income homes, and the parents complained that they simply could not take off the time. Nor could many of them afford to travel to exotic locales as many of their co-parents were doing. So the school thought that abolishing winter vacation was a good solution. Which it is, for many parents. However, the solution opened up its own can of worms. Instead of some parents flying off with their kids while other parents stay home and scrounge for day care, some kids sit in class and review, while other kids fly off and come back a week later with suntans and vacation pictures. Isn't this creating even a bigger dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots? Again, not sure. Another problem with this particular Yeshiva's system is that because they have no set vacation, teachers are allowed to take off a few days for their own family vacations. Which means that the students are left with a haphazard schedule of substitute teachers and free periods. Wouldn't the school just be better off giving vacation instead of this glorified daycare? Many in the parent body say yes. (Of course, that demographic happens to be the same demographic that is taking their kids out of school to go on vacation anyhow, but whatever.)

Michael's last point is one I hear a lot from parents in the community. It is the fact that parents are sending mixed messages to their children by sending them to Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas, and then jetting off to places where the ambiance is not exactly... one that their children's Rosh Yeshiva would feel comfortable in. Now, my attitude on subjects such as this is generally nonjudgemental. The choices I make for myself do not have to be the choices another parent would make, and vice versa. Live and let live. That said, let me try to put this in a way that I hope would be understood as not preaching, but rather observing. The fact that parents choose to live a certain lifestyle when at home, and wear certain types of clothing, and identify with a certain community, and then drop much of those lifestyle accoutrements when they go on vacation leaves me (and likely their children) confused.

I am aware of a group in my neigborhood that regularly vacations in the same popular vacation spot, even in the same hotel. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that defeat the purpose of a family vacation? To me, the prospect of picking up all of my neighbors and their screaming kids and taking them with me to a different locale is not a pleasant one. Not to mention the inappropriateness of couples who consider themselves quite observant (at home) hanging out at the pool or the beach together. Different strokes, I guess.

There. A long, rambling post, on the topic of Winter vacations. Any questions?

Boro Park: Baby Boom Capital

Cute piece in today's NY Post that confirms something most of us already knew: that Boro Park is the "baby-boom capital of the Big Apple".

From the article (free registration req.):
The heavily Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood recorded 4,523 births in 2004 — by far the most in the city.

"Children make our households beautiful," said Faigy Schwarz as she strolled along 13th Avenue with her 2-year-old son, Rifay.

"Let's keep going with God's help!" said Bertha Singer, who was pushing a double stroller carrying her 2-month-old son, Isaac, and 2-year-old nephew, Alex.

... As for Borough Park, a walk through the neighborhood confirmed it is the city's Baby Belt.

Dozens of children's-clothing, maternity and baby-carriage shops dot 13th Avenue, the main thoroughfare. Even on a cold winter day, the sidewalks look like stroller derbies. There's not a bar, OTB or trendy club in sight.

"The neighborhood is expanding on all four sides. You can't just live without having kids," said Yitzhok Singer, a father of nine who owns the Tiny Town children's store.

Many Jewish parents said they were adhering to the Torah, which encourages families to have many children.

Couples marry younger in Borough Park than most other New Yorkers and have children sooner — and more of them.

Morris Guttman explained the big families by saying, "We're compensating for the 6 million Jews who were burned and killed during World War II."
They got it almost all right - though the lack of bars, trendy clubs and OTB's might have more to do with the mostly Ultra-Orthodox population of the neighborhood than its large number of births.

That said, as my friend JPT points out in his post on the topic, in news cycles such as these, when it seems all we are reading and hearing about is the tragic story of the death by abuse and neglect of poor Nixmary Brown, reading about fellow Jews who treat having and caring for large numbers of children as a joy and a privilege is heartening.

Oh, and JPT, you were right, I was writing a post about this. Ten bucks your way.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Flip-Flopping On Fish

Anyone else getting frustrated at the mixed messages we get when it comes to our health? The flip-flopping in which physicians and scientists seem to engage on a daily basis can really leave a person's head spinning. Take, for example, the warnings we've received for so long about protecting ourselves from the dangerous effects of sun exposure. It was inevitable, though, that a study would come out informing us that scientists were now seeing rising rates of Vitamin D defiencies, which could raise the risk for certain cancers. Or how about this one: I did a Google search for "coffee+health". The first few results included an article with the headline "Decaf Coffee Tied To Heart Disease", as well as (from the very same site!) one with the title "Coffee - The New Health Food?"

These types of contradictory messages seem to crop up every time I look at a news source, so it only suprised me a little to see this article. Apparently, a study has just been concluded which shows that pregnant women who consume large amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids give birth to children who have higher IQ's, better motor skills, and less aberrant social behavior than children born to mothers who did not consume adequate amounts of the fatty acids. The reason this finding is so stunning to me, is because this is in direct conflict with the advice of my obstetrician during my last few pregnancies. He, along with the AMA, recommended that I limit my fish intake to twice weekly, as the high levels of mercury found in fish such as tuna could be toxic to a developing fetus. The article addresses this contradiction, and notes that the researcher at the helm of the study recommends that pregnant women ignore the advice to avoid fish:
Perhaps the most startling finding was that the children of those women who had consumed the smallest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids during their pregnancies had verbal IQs six points lower than average. That may not sound much, but it would have a serious effect on a country's brainpower if it were widespread. And the finding is particularly pertinent because existing dietary advice to pregnant women, at least in America, is that they should limit their consumption of seafood in order to avoid exposing their fetuses to trace amounts of brain-damaging methyl mercury. Ironically, that means they avoid one of the richest sources of omega-3s.

Dr Hibbeln, however, says his work shows that the benefits of eating such fish vastly outweigh the risks from the mercury in them. Indeed, in the Avon study, it was those children exposed to the lowest levels of methyl mercury who were at greatest risk of having low verbal IQ.
Fascinating, but slightly troubling. One has to wonder whose advice to heed, especially in the wake of stakes as high as your child's development.

So, pregnant women, and their significant others, ask your obstetrician if the advice to limit your intake of fish has been updated in the wake of this study.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

School Tax Credit Update

I noted in my earlier post on this topic that NY Attorney General Elliot Spitzer seemed to come out against the new tax credit proposal presented in Tuesday's budget. I also noted that he seemed to have been completely ignorant of any of the details of the actual proposal. (Good staff there, Eliot!) Evidently, since yesterday, he decided to take out the time to peruse the details of the actual proposal - or, rather, his staff took the time to brief him on a topic that is as apparently trivial to Spitzer as the proposed budget for the state in which he is the leading gubernatorial candidate. Surprisingly, he completely reversed himself on the issue, and came out in favor of the plan. From a press release issued today by the NY AG's office:
Governor Pataki this week proposed education tax credits for lower- income families living in school districts with failing schools.
In response to a question from a reporter yesterday about providing government aid to non-public schools, I cautioned that state government must be careful when it devises such programs because of potential constitutional problems. These comments should not be construed to imply that I believe that there are such problems in Governor Pataki’s proposal, or that I am opposed to education tax credits.

In fact, I support the idea of education tax credits. Moreover, I have long advocated for finding constitutional ways to increase the assistance that the state provides to children in non-public schools. In 2002, I convened a task force that released a report outlining specific proposals to accomplish this goal.

I have not seen the details of Governor Pataki's proposal because they have not yet been released.
It appears to offer tax credits to aid parents who seek to expand their childrens' school choice or to supplement their childrens' education via tutoring or after-school programs. That is a promising approach.

While most of the benefits provided by the Governor’s proposal would go to parents whose children are educated in the public schools, the state’s first obligation must be to achieve a resolution of the CFE litigation, and to provide the appropriate and necessary funding to the public schools.

I believe that increasing public school funding and providing financial relief to parents of all schoolchildren should be education priorities this year, and I look forward to being part of the discussion on both of these initiatives.
We'll let slide Spitzer's gaffe of erroneously saying that the details haven't yet been released because we're so pleased about the fact that the AG's office is on board with this proposal. This latest development will probably quash much of the talk of the lack of constitutionality of this proposal. And possibly pave the way for more of such initiatives that will help the Orthodox community with its growing tuition crisis.

Kosher = Cleaner? Ha!

The NYC Department of Health has put up a site that issues each restaurant in the city a point score that shows how many violations it had in its latest inspection. The more violations found, the higher the score. A number over 27 means they fail, and need to pass an unscheduled follow-up inspection to avoid being closed down by the DOH. This article in the NY Times explains a bit about the inspection and re-inspection process - about 4,000 out of the city's estimated 24,000 restaraunts fail yearly - so failing is a somewhat common occurence. With that fact in mind when you read about how some of my favorite - and not-quite-so-favorite - kosher restaraunts fared in their inspections. You might be surprised by the results (in order from least to most violations):
Levana - 0 points
Solo - 3 points
My Most Favorite Dessert - 5 points
Circa - 16 points
Kosher Deluxe - 17 points
Dougie's (Brooklyn) - 17 points
Haikara Grill - 22 points
Dougie's (72nd St.) - 26 points
Va Bene - 31 points
The Prime Grill - 36 points

Interesting that the old stalwart, Levana, has managed to keep their place so immaculate after all these years. And keep in mind that there are certain restaurants that failed their most reason inspection, such as the the Orthos' present restaurant of choice for birthday and anniversary dinners, Prime Grill (incidentally under the same ownership as Solo, which had almost no violations), that passed every other inspection in their history. So don't take one failed inspection as an indication to avoid the restaraunt. Heck, I'm certainly not giving up Tuesday night Delmonicos at PG over something silly like some mice dropping found in food preparation areas.

This list certainly goes a ways toward debunking the myth that kosher food is somehow cleaner. But I probably didn't need to tell that to anyone who's ever eaten at their neighborhood corner shawarma joint.


School Tax Credit

A new proposal introduced by Governor Pataki in Tuesday's budget gives up to a $500 tax credit to public and private school parents in underperforming school districts across New York State. As proposed, the credit can be used for instructional expenses, such as tutoring, or tuition for private and parochial schools. Even with the feeble protestations of possible unconstitutionality by NY Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial wanna-be Elliot Spitzer - who seems from his quotes to be commenting on a proposal his staff neglected to brief him on - similar proposals have been upheld in many states such as Illinois, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

As all my readers know, tuition is the most significant public policy issue affecting the Orthodox community these days. The crushing burden of paying private school tuition has spurred other proposals, some reviewed on the pages of this blog. But this refundable tax credit would literally put cash in the pocket of poor, near-poor, and middle class Jewish families, and that is a proposal we should all get behind.

JIB Awards (Sticky Post)

(This post will remain at the top. New posts appear below.)
Hey guys. Voting has opened over at the JPost for the JIB awards. I'm up for a couple, so show the love. Thanks.

Update: In response to a request from an anonymous commenter, these are categories I'm up for:
Best Series, Best Post, Best Jewish Culture Blog, Best Politics & Current Affairs Blog, Best Personal Blog, Best New Blog 2004.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Little Late

The Jewish Week breaks this story a few years (decades?) late. The lede:
The Orthodox OT Boom
Lured by flexible hours and the nurturing impulse, growing numbers of observant women are pursuing careers in occupational therapy.
Um... yeah. It's true that the number of Orthodox women that go into the field of Occupational Therapy is proportionally large. But that's not exactly breaking news. I estimate that of the group of women who attended seminary with me, the percentage that went into the field of OT was somewhere between 20 and 25%. I remember my husband telling me, when we were dating, how he knew I was "different" from the other girls he had dated: "You weren't going into Occupational Therapy."

Great catch, guys.

5 Things I Like About The 5 Towns

One of my frequent commenters, Must Gum Addict, decided to answer the question that so many of my commenters seem to ask me when I (admittedly frequently) rant about things that bother me in the Five Towns. "Why do you still live there if it's so bad?" As I've explained, the good stuff isn't as much fun to rant about, but Must gives it a shot here. Check it out.

Charedi Gallery

Interesting piece here about an art gallery that the man behind it calls "the only Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) gallery in Israel, in the world, in history." The man who started the endeavor is Ika Yisraeli, a man with a great passion for the arts who found his chances to expose himself to them greatly fettered when he became Orthodox decades ago. He stopped attending movies, and found that he was not confortable attending secular art galleries because, according to Haaretz,
he does not have any control over what happens there. Not on what is displayed, and not on the gathering of men and women together. "Most galleries are open on the Sabbath, and besides that, I can never know what they will be exhibiting in the space next to mine. For instance, The Jerusalem Artists House is closed on the Sabbath, and in those terms is fine, but next door to the hall in which I was supposed to exhibit was an exhibition of nude paintings. I cannot invite people to my exhibition and cause them to see those sort of pictures."
So Yisraeli decided to start a gallery that displays works by Charedi artists - mostly newly religious, and that is geared toward the Charedi consumer. The gallery is not open on Shabbat, and presumably the subject matter of the works displayed are always within the parameters of the modesty dictated by halacha.

Unfortunately, one of the problems that the gallery faces is its lack of lucrativeness. The Charedi world in Israel is one of the most poverty-stricken demographics there, and presumably unable to spend the thousands that the artwork in the gallery commands. Yisraeli says he is trying to solve that problem by marketing a more affordable product:
The Haredi sector does not have NIS 5,000 for a painting, and Ika Yisraeli has a new idea. "We intend to print paintings of about 20 artists using a relatively new technique of printing on canvas. We'll sell them at NIS 600 each. Right now, we are trying to raise the initial investment funding."
I wish him much luck in this fascinating endeavor.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lunch Louts

I had a work experience this week that really had me boiling. Maybe my loyal readers can put in their two cents on whether I am overreacting with my ire. I don't think I am.

I had a 1 PM meeting with a new client. It was at their offices, and was scheduled to run for about an hour. My meeting directly before that ran late, so I figured I would grab lunch after the meeting. I arrive at my clients' offices, and am shown into the conference room. Those of us meeting for the first time make each other's acquaintance, and we all sit down. The meeting begins. A few minutes in to the meeting, there is a knock at the door. The receptionist comes in to the conference room, with a brown paper bag that has the unmistakeable scent of food wafting from it. "Your lunch is here", she says, and drops the bag on the table. I watch, as for five solid minutes, the meeting participants proceed to dole out the food and drinks from the bag amongst themselves. "Who ordered the pastrami on club?" "I'm the pastrami on club." "Who got the diet peach Snapple?" "That's me." "Kasha knish?" "Over here!" And so on. I then sit there, conducting the meeting, while four people chew on their sandwiches and guzzle their soft drinks. No one offers to order food for me. (One of them being Orthodox, they had ordered from a kosher restaraunt.) No one offers me a drink. And no one so much as apologizes for the rudeness of their not being able to wait until the meeting was over (as they expected me to do) to stuff their inconsiderate and obnoxious faces. Had they expected me to brown-bag it? To boot, the meeting ran late, which meant I didn't get "lunch" (a chocolate bar and Snapple from the newstand in the building's lobby) until 3 PM.

Maybe I expect too much in the way of hospitality. Blame it on my being a Jewish mother. But I have never in my life seen such a lack of manners. The fact that they ordered lunch to the meeting without calling ahead for my order was bad enough. I mean, who has a lunch meeting without providing lunch for all of the participants? But to unwrap and eat said lunch at the table, failing to notice how rude it is to munch away while the person you are meeting with has nothing at all to eat or drink front of them is truly inexcusable.

I'm so pissed off that I'm seriously contemplating not taking this firm on as a client. I am thinking that their lack of politesse (and generosity) does not bode well for a mutually rewarding professional relationship. Am I taking this too far?

Hillary's Howler

Hillary Clinton, who is a lawmaker I have very high hopes for, really disappointed me yesterday. At a MLK Jr. event in Harlem, she decided that, somehow, it was a appropriate opportunity to slam the Republican-run House of Representatives for being run like a plantation. From the NY Times:
At the ceremony, Mrs. Clinton, the junior Democratic senator from New York, said that Democrats were largely responsible for much of the nation's progress in areas like civil rights and women's rights.

But she suggested that things had changed in recent years with the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, according to a transcript of her remarks.

Mrs. Clinton added that the House has been "run like a plantation" under Republicans. "And you know what I am talking about," she said. "It has been run in a way so that nobody with a contrary point of view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument."
My first, and the most obvious issue, is the fact that she is standing up to speak, on a day that remembers a man who fought for the civil rights of his severely downtrodden people, and comparing a democratically elected house of government to an system of slavery that treated blacks as subhuman. Personally, I find this an objectionable comparison, especially given the timing Clinton chose to make it.

Second, I think Clinton is guilty here of calling the kettle black. As noted in a report published by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, the NYS legislature is arguably the least democratic, most dysfunctional government body in the United States. From the report's introduction:
New York State’s legislative process is broken. This report documents five key weaknesses and compares New York’s process with those in other state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. Together, the problems identified here deprive New Yorkers of the government they deserve. Indeed, New York’s legislative process limits legislators’ consideration of legislation – whether counted in hearings, debate, amendments, readings, conference committees, or even simply legislators’ presence when they vote – far more than any other legislature. Neither the U.S. Congress nor any other state legislature so systematically limits the roles played by rank-and-file legislators and members of the public in the legislative process.
Hillary, you want to use racially loaded sound bites to encourage reform in the Republican-led Congress? Bravo. But before you focus on your presidential run, why don't you remember that you are still the NY State U.S. Senator. As a member of the State Democratic Party, how about you put put some of that effort into cleaning a legislative house run by your own party - the Democratic NY State Legislature. You have no oversight over the House, but chose to use its dysfunction to make a political point. Feel free to do the same about your state party. It would make me feel a whole heck of a lot more charitable about the comments you made yesterday. Give it a shot.

Yesterday could have been worse, though. As Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said of Clinton's comments:
At least she didn't mention Hitler.
I guess.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Enough of the Jabs

There's a whole mess of discussion in the J-blogosphere today over the JIB awards, not all of it very nice. It's such a pity that people have to look so hard to find a bone to pick. Some of the complaints are valid, and do not come from a place that is mean-spirited. For example, the fact that the voting system favors those blogs with a higher readership. True, but such is life. Deal. Or the fact that some complained that blogs with an eclectic focus did not fit into any of the categories as originally specified by Dave. That was valid as well, and Dave actually loosened the category constraints a bit to reflect that.

But today's turmoil is just beyond. There are bloggers slinging insults left and right, calling each other names, and even lobbing unthinkable accusations, notably at the very hard-working and selfless organizer of the contest, Aussie Dave, of bias - which is baseless and absurd. As I said on DovBear's (who himself has been a victim of unfair name-calling in today's kerfuffle) site last week, those who are upset at the lack of equal political representation in the categories have only themselves to blame, for not stepping up to the plate and nominating those blogs they are now pulling for. Unfortunately, the root of much of this discord, I fear, is these very same political differences. At the risk of sounding trite, can't we all just get along? if people on both sides would stop being so damn smug and self-righteous about their politics, maybe this contest would revert back to being what it was intended to be - a fun way to increase traffic and awareness. I hope it does. Let's start having some fun. Please. Or as my mother used to say (jokingly) "Start having fun whether you like it or not!"

Heroine Of The Day

Today's heroine is Judy Feld Carr. This amazing Canadian mother and high school teacher decided one day, after reading a harrowing newspaper account of the miserable and dangerous lives Jews in Syria faced, to singlehandedly spearhead an effort to provide financial aid and transport to save trapped Syrian Jews.

Her story began in 1972. Syrian Jews were living in unimaginable conditions, forced to live in one of three ghettos and forbidden to own cars or to travel more than three kilometers from their homes. Feld Carr read a story in the International Jerusalem Post of the tragic story of the death of 12 young Syrian Jewish men. She read about how Syrian Border Patrol guards watched as the men tried to escape Syria's borders and were blown up after stumbling into a minefield. Feld Carr, a mother of three who had no involvement in rescue efforts before that day, resolved then and there to do anything she could to assist the plight of Syrian Jews.

She contacted a young assistant Rabbi in the Syrian community, and began to exchange coded telegrams with him, receiving updates on the miserable conditions the community faced. They used a system of writing out pesukim from the Torah, and when a telegram quoted the biblical verse of "Rachel mevakah al bane'hah" - "Rachel is weeping for her children", it indicated that Jewish children had been hurt or killed. Feld Carr could not sit idly by while this occured, and her efforts became exhaustive. She started a fund with private donations, funneling money to Syria to pay for bribes in exchange for the secret release of Jews, personally negotiating the releases. She petitioned Canadian MP's, lobbied diplomats and UN officials, contacted Jewish organizations - all while keeping her activities completely secret, even from family and friends. Most unbelievably, she continued her mission even in the face of great personal tragedy. Her husband who had begun this quest with her, Dr. Ronald Feld, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1973, leaving her with three small children to raise on her own, in addition to the massive and incredibly ambitious project to save the Jews of Syria.

Bt the time Judy Feld Carr wound down her self-appointed task, she had personally arranged for the release of over 3,000 Jews from Syria. This unbelievable woman is truly an inspiration to anyone who needs to be convinced of the power of one.

For further reading, a book has been published, Ransomed Of God, which has Judy Feld Carr's full story, including first-hand accounts from people that she personally saved.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Too Funny

Hilarious little item in Gothamist today. One of their regular features is mapping out various locations in NYC neighborhoods. This one is a directory of various eateries in Williamsburg. The best is when they compare what is widely considered to be NY's best clubby (Non-kosher) steakhouse, Peter Luger's, to Gottleib's, a Glatt kosher restaraunt which is a clubhouse for Hasidim.
Seven days a week, Peter Luger's (178 Broadway, 718-387-7400) serves a delicious lunch Burger that draws much debate amongst NYC burger aficionados. We approve of the large patty of coarsely chopped, loosely packed prime aged Luger's beef cooked to the rare perfection - other temps may be good, let us know. The juicy, deeply beefy flavor that is the hallmark of the Luger Porterhouse was present, complete with that fat coated, whole mouth feel. Should you spring for a full steak lunch or dinner, Gothamist would recommend the creamed spinach to accompany your meat and potatoes, and anything with Schlag for dessert.

Should you be interested in a Jewish deli equivalent of Peter Luger's 1900's German Beer Hall atmosphere, check out Gottlieb's Restaurant (352 Roebling Street, 718-384-6612.) As a top spot for the Satmar Hasidic sect, this Glatt Kosher Deli offers both tasty food and a purview into this insular community. Highlights from the menu include Brisket sandwich paired with perfect sour pickles, a tender, lightly egg battered and fried Chicken cutlet, and flaky Knishes.
Anyone who has never had the pleasure of eating at Gottleib's will have to trust me on just how hysterical a comparison this truly is. For example, Luger's specialty is its double-thick pork chops, Gottleib's specialty is chulent on Thursday afternoons. Luger's spare interior is immaculate, at Gottleib's, you're lucky if the table you are seated at doesn't still have the remnants of the last occupant's meal. Don't expect to get into Luger's without a reservation, - and one made quite a bit in advance - but don't go calling Gottleib's to make a reservation if you want the guy who answers the phone to know what you're talking about.

Too funny.

Haberman On Abramoff's Hat

DB had the definitive round-up of stories on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's hat last week. Clyde Haberman rounds out the collection by adding a paragraph in his NYC column from today's NY Times (registration required):
Consider the case of Jack Abramoff, the wheeler-dealer lobbyist at the center of a corruption scandal. Mr. Abramoff is destined to be fitted soon for an orange jumpsuit. But last week, still a free man, he left a Washington courthouse in a black fedora and a black trench coat. The fedora was all that some needed to decide the guy was no good.

"Dressed like a crime boss," a Washington post writer said of him. "He could not have appeared more guilty, more menacing and more unsympathetic than if he had walked out wielding a baseball bat and muttering something about so-and-so sleeping with the fishes."

Mr Abramoff is said to love the "Godfather" films. He is also an Orthodox Jew. There has been some debate over whether he wore the black hat to signal his religiosity in a sympathy ploy or, rather, to get in touch with his inner Luca Brasi. Either way, the fedora itself became an issue.
I highly doubt that Abramoff wore the hat in a ploy to garner sympathy for being an Orthodox Jew. With all the ambiguity about whether he more closely resembled a Godol or a gangster, I think that in order to play the religious card he would (or at least should) have sooner made the choice of donning a Kippah than a Borsalino. Also, is it just me, or does anyone else think that stressing his religious observance would only serve to garner him more public disgust at his actions, rather than more sympathy. As would going for the look of a Mob boss.

Sometimes, a hat is just something one chooses to put on his head - even if it happens to be a particularly poor choice.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Privacy Worries

This story is quite disturbing. Apparently, your cell phone records can be bought for around $100 from a company which openly advertises the service on its website.
Dozens of online services are selling lists of cell phone calls, raising security concerns among law enforcement and privacy experts.

Criminals can use such records to expose a government informant who regularly calls a law enforcement official.

Suspicious spouses can see if their husband or wife is calling a certain someone a bit too often.

And employers can check whether a worker is regularly calling a psychologist -- or a competing company.

...To test the service, the FBI paid Locatecell.com $160 to buy the records for an agent's cell phone and received the list within three hours, the police bulletin said.
This is LocateCell's website, where they boast:
Give us the cell phone number and we will send you the calls made from the cell phone number.
These guys tested the service by buying General Wesley Clark's cell phone records:
I reported the other day that your cell phone records are on sale online for anyone to buy, without your permission. Well, this morning AMERICAblog bought former presidential candidate, and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (SACEUR), General Wesley Clark's cell phone records for one hundred calls made over three days in November 2005, no questions asked. (Clark's cell phone provider is Omnipoint Communications, which seems to be related to T-Mobile.)

All we needed was General Clark's cell phone number and our credit card, and 24 hours later we had one hundred calls the general made on his cell phone in November. The calls included a number of calls to Arkansas, to foreign countries, and at least one call to a prominent reporter at the Washington Post.
All that for only $89.95.

Now, I'm no Wesley Clark. There is nothing in my cell phone records that would interest anyone. Trust me. Booooring. Nevertheless, for reasons that I'm sure I don't have to explain, I find this extremely worrisome. The fact that this service is legal is beyond this particular blogger's comprehension. But then again, our present government isn't particularly taken with protecting its citizens' right to privacy.


I am always amazed when students from Yeshiva high schools place in contests like the Intel Science Talent Search. With the dual curriculum that they are expected to keep on top of, this already prestigious achievement is even more of an accomplishment for a Yeshiva student, in my opinion. Undertaking a project that is worthy of submission in the Intel STS demands hours and hours of the contestants' free time every week, and with the Yeshiva school day generally at least two hours longer than most non-Yeshivas, - and with many Yeshivas having Sunday classes - these students are sacrificing their precious free time that is already in such short supply. So congratulations to:

Chad Morgan Sandler (age 17), North Shore Hebrew Academy High School

Rafael Simcha Holzer (age 16), Rambam Mesivta

Update: A commenter mentioned the Siemens-Westinghouse competition, so I will congratulate the Yeshiva-attending semifinalists of that contest as well (as well as all the winners of the competition):

Daniel Hefter, Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys, Woodmere

Batya Herzberg, Stella K. Abraham High School For Girls, Hewlett

Daniel Katz, Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, Cedarhurst

Toby Klein, Stella K. Abraham High School For Girls, Hewlett

Jacob Loewenstein, Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, Cedarhurst

Lauren Sipzner, Yeshiva University High School for Girls, Holliswood (Regional Finalist - Middle States Region)

Jaimie Stettin
, Yeshiva University High School for Girls, Holliswood (Regional Finalist - Middle States Region)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Gedolim Gripes

I've been thinking about the topic of this post for a while, but I finally got annoyed enough to post about it today. Here goes.

A contest was spearheaded in Yeshivas all across the US and Canada, called The Gedolim Album Contest. Basically, the Yeshivas distributed albums to the students. Within each album, there are 204 spaces for stickers of portraits of various Gedolim, past and present. The students need to fill the albums in as quickly as possible to be eligible for all sorts of prizes. From the type on the back of the album:

We invite all children to join our exciting campaign!
Be the first 135 to complete the full collection and win valuable prizes!

5 Grand prizes: first five completers win a free trip to Eretz Yisroel and to meet Gedolei Yisroel.
10 First prizes: 10 runner-ups win 10x speed bicycle.
20 Second prizes: 20 runner-ups win stereo system.
100 Third prizes: 100 runner-ups win Seforim.

Early-Bird Awards!
Be from the first 25 to collect 102 cards (halfway through) of different Gedolim and win:

5 prizes: first five win a bicycle.
20 prizes: 20 runner-ups win 50 packs of Gedolim cards (100 cards total).

Now, let me preface my rant by saying that the idea behind this project is one that I can certainly embrace as a positive one. Who can object to children buzzing about cards of great Jewish religious figures, as opposed to trading baseball cards or Pokemon cards? I certainly can't. However, the execution of this project leaves much to be desired.

The project started out with an assembly. Each student was presented with an album, and a few packs of cards. They were told that they would receive additional packs as a reward for good behavior. That all seemed perfectly noble to me. Who doesn't love a reward-based system for good behavior? My son was beyond excited, and spent the first few weeks excitedly and meticulously placing the stickers he had earned in his album, working toward the exciting goal of the hope of winning the huge prizes he had read about on the back cover. Until.

He came home one day, complaining that his friend had filled so many more spaces in his album. My son happens to be doing very well in school, both behaviorally and educationally, so I was a bit surprised that his friend seemed to be receiving so much more positive reinforcement. I brought it up at Parent-Teachers Conferences, worried I was missing something in my son's behavior. I wasn't. The Rebbe explained that while my son was behaving beautifully, and was receiving packs of stickers at a good clip, there were many students in the class that had their parents purchasing the cards for them at the local Judaica store. I was floored. I had no idea that these cards were also being sold, up and down the avenue, at $1.00 for a pack of 4. As soon as my son got wind of that, he was begging me to do the same as so many of his more well-off friends' parents were doing, and buck the system by buying huge quantities of sticker packages. I couldn't help but be reminded of the scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Veruca Salt, the insufferable spoiled brat, has her filthy rich father employ an entire factory of workers to unwrap and discard thousands upon thousands of candy bars in order to find one winning ticket. The comparison is even more apt when you factor in the "random" nature of the stickers in the packages. I found this out the hard way. I finally gave in to my son's begging, and purchased a stack of packages to award him with when I felt his behavior warranted it. Unfortunately, the packages I bought all seemed to have been from an unshuffled print run, and my son received at least four of almost every card. I am not a statistician, but I would think that for him to receive 6 packs, with almost the identical cards in each pack by chance, would have to be a highly coincidental event, and statistically improbable. So my splurging for the cards didn't even get my son anywhere. Seemingly, in order for my son to be competitive, I would have had to purchase hundreds of packs. But the kicker was when my son came home, aslking me for a dollar, to buy some cards off an older kid who was selling them for a "discount" on the bus. (Yes, I called the Yeshiva to inform them of the wheeling-and-dealing that one of their students were involved in. Though I have a feeling that this particular student will have his name prominently displayed on the main Yeshiva building in 20 years.) In addition, the prizes were all won very early on in the contest. Likely by parents who had a similar game plan to that of the aforementioned fictional Mr. Salt. Which, of course, made the contest a heck of a lot less competitive.

Now, I have no particular problem with the school running a behavior contest. A point system for good behavior can be fun, and competitive, and the prizes can be just as large and extravagant. But points cannot be bought in the local Judaica store or kosher supermarket. When they can, it becomes less a behavior contest than a wealth contest. And Lord knows we have enough of those around here.

Another issue I had with the contest was the subjectivity of the albums. For example, I personally know that there is a Lubavitch parent in my son's school who was extremely offended and incensed to see the past Lubavitcher Rebbe omitted from the album. Where is Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, inarguably a Gadol of our generation? Who was the arbiter of who the top 204 Gedolim are?

Again, let me reiterate that I think this project was of noble conception. But also of extremely poor execution.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sabbath Observance

Very nice article in the Business section of today's NY Times. The piece is about Orthodox Jewish online retailers who stop all transactions over Shabbos. One of those retailers is Shmuel Gniwisch, chief executive of Ice.com, an online jewelry retailer.
Mr. Gniwisch, who is also a nonpracticing rabbi, says that the company shuts down completely for 25 hours starting Friday evening before sunset, when the Jewish Sabbath begins. During busy periods, customer service representatives, warehouse workers and some technology employees go back to work on Saturday evening when the Sabbath ends.

When visitors call customer service during Ice.com's day off, they receive a message saying that the company is closed and will return their messages Sunday. Ice.com also responds to e-mail messages on Sunday.
Impressive. Gniwisch's quote is even nicer:
"My customer service managers are always telling me to find a way to stay up on Saturday by outsourcing," he added. "But I think it's more important when the people around you see you practice what you preach. It changes your relationship with your employees."
Operating a web-based business is even more complicated in the days of eBay and other online auctioneers:
Other companies have gone to similar lengths to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Abraham Steinberg, director of online marketing for Adorama Photo, which sells photographic supplies on the Web and in its Manhattan store, said that the company sometimes sold goods through eBay but had to be careful not to schedule auctions to end on the Sabbath, because a transaction technically occurs the moment bidding closes.
Jewish eBay sellers who observe the Sabbath and have eBay stores, Mr. Steinberg said, often use "vacation settings" that de-list products on the Sabbath.
The article also covers the complicated issues of online marketing over Shabbos:
One uncharted area for Internet merchants who observe the Jewish Sabbath is online marketing. After all, Google and other shopping engines post advertisements constantly, and they charge the sites each time someone clicks on their ads. Mr. Steinberg said that sites typically pay for the ads in aggregate - and not on the Sabbath - but that Jewish scholars had not yet studied the matter thoroughly.
Interesting piece, and definitely a Kiddush Hashem.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Not My Cup Of Tea

I had a lousy experience this Shabbos, and I have only myself to blame for it. I got a call on Tuesday inviting us to Friday night dinner at the house of a couple with whom we are aquainted. We never really found common ground with them, though some of our children are friends. My gut instinct was to politely decline, but my lack of interest in spending my Friday cooking in the kitchen made me accept - betraying my better judgement.

As soon as our hosts let us in to the house and I saw the two other large familes who they were hosting along with the OrthoFam, I knew we were in trouble. You see, a very common practice in the Five Towns is to seat the children in the kitchen, while all the adults are set for in the dining room. I am not a fan of this, and it absolutely never happens in the OrthoHouse. In fact, we rarely extend or accept Shabbos invitations for precisely those reasons. In my opinion, Shabbos is a time to catch up with the kids, to really connect with them. The noise and overcrowding that might bother some when there are a gaggle of kids seated in the dining room is, to me, part of the Taam (taste) of Shabbos. Instead, I groaned inwardly as I realized that the kids were going to gulp down some grape juice and challah, and then race en masse to the basement to play. Lovely. There went Parsha discussions, the recap of what the kids covered in school that week - basically, there went any prospect of meaningful interaction with my children at this meal.

Then the conversation took a turn that made me say a silent prayer of thanks for the fact that my children were not present. Two of the couples at the table each have more than a few children, all of the same gender. The other two couples, the hosts and ourselves, had families that are more evenly distributed in terms of gender. So one of the women, who has all boys, asked if we have some kind of "secret" to share about how to have a family that is more evenly weighted than theirs. I was rendered speechless. I literally had no idea what she was getting at. Laughing gaily at my obvious discomfort, she elaborated. Suffice it to say that the terms "sexual position" and "sperm" are not words I ever envisioned hearing at any dinner gathering - let alone one that took place on Shabbos. The kicker? The woman covers every strand of her hair and her husband and older boys wear black hats. Ugh. I was ill.

To recap, I don't expect to accept invitations from the host anytime soon. Nor do I anticipate inviting over the couple who was so eager to dicuss procreative techniques. And next time my gut tries to tell me something, I'll try to listen more closely. It seems to have much better judgement than I do.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Ridiculous Assertion

Failed Messiah puts up something I find a bit ridiculous, which purports to show a link between the performance of Metzitzah B'Peh and its causation of brain damage in children. He takes a short paragraph from this week's Forward article about the Lakewood Yeshiva community, and presents it as a possible proof of the hypothesised link between MBP and subclinical brain damage by MBP's opponents. This is the "damning " line from the Forward piece:
Earlier this year, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a study showing that the Orthodox community used a disproportionate amount of the school district's special-education resources.
You must be kidding me, Shmarya. There are two major holes in this ridiculous assertion.

First of all, I see nowhere in the article that the large number of students from Lakewood that reportedly receive Special Ed are disproportionately boys. And I mean disproportionately, as boys recieve a far higher rate of Special Ed in even Modern Orthodox and Non-Orthodox communities - who certainly don't perform MBP. Such a ratio that is heavily boy:girl would need to present to show any sort of chance of correlation. In addition, the Forward article already goes on to explain a reason for the high number of Lakewood yeshiva children receiving Special Ed.
...the Orthodox community had organizational capabilities that no other ethnic group in Lakewood possesses.
Second, Lakewood Yeshiva community does not exclusively perform brissim with MBP. Some members do, some don't. It is far from as monolithic a practice as in Hasidic communities. There have been no statements from Lakewood Rabbinical leaders saying that a Bris without MBP is invalid, as there have been from Hasidic leaders.

Shmarya does note that this theory was first presented by Rabbi Moshe Tendler, and I had heard this before, though I have found no statements from R' Tendler saying as such, at least on the Web. What I can say is that a claim like this, that doesn't even take into account a simple detail like the vast numbers of Ultra-Orthodox girls that receive Special Ed, is one that just doesn't seem to be anything but a wild and spurious claim.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


Today's NY Times has a piece about Metzitzah B'Peh. It basically recaps the most recent developments on the issue between Hasidic leaders and NYC health officials. They don't seem to see eye-to-eye on the topic:
Some Orthodox Jewish leaders are calling on city health officials to end their campaign to educate parents about the alleged health dangers associated with an ancient form of ceremonial circumcision. But officials say they will not oblige.

... Early last year city officials said the procedure might have led to three recent cases of herpes in infants, one of them fatal. But the city put off taking any aggressive action as it continued to investigate the cases, though it said even then that it would most likely not ban the procedure because it did not want to violate religious freedoms and a ban would be impossible to enforce.

But after concluding last month that the procedure had indeed caused those three cases along with two others - one in which the infant suffered brain damage - the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said it would recommend against the procedure and begin a public education campaign about its risks. The practice is nearly universal in many Hasidic sects.
The Hasidim were not happy with the recommendations of the Health Department officials.
Several Hasidic rabbis, arguing that the city was unconstitutionally interfering with their centuries-old religious practice, met on Friday with Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene, asking him to stand down, city officials and religious leaders who were there said yesterday. The leaders, who maintain that the practice is safe and that the evidence that it causes herpes is not definitive, had even threatened to protest at Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's inauguration on Sunday, the attendees said.
I posted here about my feelings on MBP. I come down firmly against any efforts at regulation of it by government agencies at this time. I simply do not feel that any study has been produced that shows that the few infants that have so tragically died from HSV-2 had been infected through MBP. I agree that the studies have shown that some sort of correlation between the practice and the deaths - but showing a possible correlation is far from proving causation. There are many practices that have shown correlation to a risk on infant safety, that have not been regulated by government safety boards. For example, putting an infant on his back to sleep instead of his stomach has shown to greatly reduce the numbers of babies dying from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The causation has been shown to a much more incontrovertible degree than it has been with MBP. Yet I don't hear people sounding the cry for government regulation of the sleeping positions parents choose. All the more so, in a case like this, when there are such thorny issues at stake like religious freedom, I don't think the government has any place attempting to restrict a practice that has not shown any firm evidence of being fatal. That said, I do not fully agree with the stance of the Hasidic community against the education campaign by the city health boards. Public education is a perfectly reasonable tool for the health officials to use if they feel that a practice is potentially dangerous. That is the approach they have similarly taken against SIDS, with a "Back to Sleep" campaign which educates parents to protect against SIDS by putting their children to sleep on their backs. I'm not even sure what the Hasidic groups got so worked up about. I don't think that an education campaign would have been in the least bit effective against the firmly entrenched beliefs of the Hasidic community anyhow.

Mazel Tov!!!

Glen H., who writes the blog Moving On, has announced that his wife has given birth to a baby girl! I posted about Glen's incredibly poignant blog here. His blog deals with the loss of his beautiful daughter Nechama Liba, who was taken from them far too early. May Glen and his wife Saguite have much joy from the new addition, and may she be a source of Nachat and Nechama to them and their entire family.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sharon's Condition Dire

I am so upset about this. The feeling that hit me today after the news reports of Ariel Sharon's massive cerebral hemorrhage was a replay of what I felt last week. I got queasy then after I heard initial reports that had Sharon unconscious after what seemed to be serious but turned out to be a minor stroke. Unfortunately, the bullet that he dodged last week seems to have ricocheted back to strike him. And it turns out that the first episode was just a dry run. Hard to believe that he was only a few hours away from being admitted to the hospital to be prepped for what might have been a lifesaving procedure. Timing is everything, I guess. Meanwhile, his aides are "waiting for a miracle". I am praying for one.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Meme Madness

My pal DovBear has gotten me back for these by tagging me for this meme. So here goes:

4 jobs you've had in your life: waitress, lifeguard, babysitter, and my present occupation (which must remain classified information).

4 movies you could watch over and over: This one is not going to work. I unfortunately suffer from a bit of a short attention span. I can't even think of that many movies that I've made it through once...

4 places you've lived: Jerusalem, two separate boroughs of NYC, and (presently) one of the Five Towns of Long Island, NY.

4 TV shows you love to watch: I, like DB, don't watch much television. However, I can watch Law & Order episodes almost endlessly (especially the older ones), and will admit to enjoying most of the HBO series, notably the Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Entourage.

4 places you've been on vacation: Sequoia National Park, Quebec City, Prague, and Eilat.

4 websites you visit daily: Gothamist, JRants, NY Times, and Orthomom.

4 of your favorite foods: hot chocolate (the real stuff, with melted chocolate and steamed milk), salmon nigiri, guacamole, and creme brulee. Not generally at the same meal.

4 places you'd rather be: Hmm. Can't say I'm not happy with where I am. Israel(to live). Otherwise, anyplace with dry, warm weather, white, sandy beaches, and five star hotel rooms (to visit).

4 books you'll read over and over again: Besides Chamishei Chumshai Torah, I can't think of anything that held my attention for more than one read-through (refer to answer #2 above for reason).

I tag Mirty, JPT (you complained that I didn't tag you last time, so I expect a speedy response, big guy), TTC, and MOChassid.


Interesting piece in the NY Times a few days ago on the subject of self-introspection. The verdict? Looking inward at one's life, even with the intention to improve those parts found lacking, is not always a useful activity.

It's navel gazing time again, that stretch of the year when many of us turn our attention inward and think about how we can improve the way we live our lives. But as we embark on this annual ritual of introspection, we would do well to ask ourselves a simple question:

Does it really do any good?

The poet Theodore Roethke had some insight into the matter:

"Self-contemplation is a curse / That makes an old confusion worse." As a psychologist who conducts research on self-knowledge and happiness, I think Roethke had a point, one that's supported by a growing body of controlled psychological studies.

The studies referred to in the article are most relevant to satisfaction levels in relationships, and overall satisfaction with life. The studies show that becoming overly analytical about relationships or one's overall mood will usually only help to detract from one's satisfaction. Regarding relationships:

Not sure how you feel about a special person in your life? Analyzing the pluses and minuses of the relationship might not be the answer.

In a study I conducted with Dolores Kraft, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Dana Dunn, a social psychologist at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, people in one group were asked to list the reasons their relationship with a romantic partner was going the way it was, and then rate how satisfied they were with the relationship. People in another group were asked to rate their satisfaction without any analysis; they just gave their gut reactions.

It might seem that the people who thought about the specifics would be best at figuring out how they really felt, and that their satisfaction ratings would thus do the best job of predicting the outcome of their relationships.

In fact, we found the reverse. It was the people in the "gut feeling" group whose ratings predicted whether they were still dating their partner several months later. As for the navel gazers, their satisfaction ratings did not predict the outcome of their relationships at all. Our conclusion? Too much analysis can confuse people about how they really feel. There are severe limits to what we can discover through self-reflection, and trying to explain the unexplainable does not lead to a sudden parting of the seas with our hidden thoughts and feelings revealed like flopping fish.

Now, I wouldn't normally recommend taking dating advice from the NY Times. But this time, I would have to make an exception. I am not by nature an overly analytical person. I have no doubt that had I obsessed over my relationship with OrthoDad with a checklist when we were dating, I would have found cause for concern - as would he have. No one relationship iscause for concern - as would he have. No one relationship is perfect. But that just wasn't in my - or OrthoDad's - nature. We enjoyed the time we spent together (mostly - every relationship has its rough spots!), and didn't sweat the details, and it has gotten us to a place where I think we are (Baruch Hashem) one of the most happily married couples I know. But I cannot tell you how many older singles I know who obsess upon every detail of their prospective significant others. From their style of dress, to the way they hold their forks while out to eat, to some miniscule slight, whether real or perceived. I am not recommending ignoring real warning signs of potential abuse or a lack of attraction. I am talking about the constant, unabated, nitpicky type of analysis that so many of my friends unfortunately practice. In my opinion, the key to a good relationship is spending the time to work differences out, instead of spending time enumerating and analyzing those differences. It may not work for every relationship - but it's certainly worth a shot.

Then there's the futility of introspection when it comes to life, particularly when one is feeling depressed.

Self-reflection is especially problematic when we are feeling down. Research by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a clinical psychologist at Yale University, shows that when people are depressed, ruminating on their problems makes things worse.

In one study, mildly depressed college students were asked to spend eight minutes thinking about themselves or to spend the same amount of time thinking about mundane topics like "clouds forming in the sky."

People in the first group focused on the negative things in their lives and sunk into a worse mood. People in the other group actually felt better afterward, possibly because their negative self-focus was "turned off" by the distraction task.

The worst thing to do when things aren't going well is to wallow in the misery of that. I can't imagone most of you out there needed that study to tell you that. Though self-introspection when it comes to our deeds is a very important concept in Judaism (the concept of Cheshbon HaNefesh), introspection relating to one's present situation is not. One does not need to obsess about one's station or circumstances in life to improve oneself.

I have a friend I used to jokingly call (to her face), the "Queen of Regret". Every decision she made would be agonized over, and then she would immediately begin to regret any decision about a minute after she finally made it. She was fully aware that these tendencies were not helpful at all to her overall happiness, and tried to overcome them. She still calls me sometimes for a reality check when she finds herself falling into those bad habits.

Interestingly, the advice recommended by the article on how to stay happy? Do a good deed. Really.

The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we're doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.

A study by University of California, Riverside, social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues found that college students instructed to do a few acts of kindness one day a week ended up being happier than a control group of students who received no special instructions.

The bottom line? Do good things. For your friends, your spouse, your parents, your kids. According to this study, it will improve your relationships and make you feel better about your life at the same time. According to me, it can't hurt.