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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Five Towns Chicken Scandal? Not Really.

A commenter a few posts south of this one was trying to stir up some mud by claiming I was somehow doing my readers a disservice because (in his/her own words):
the question is this...are you going to have the courage to report on the chicken sacndal brwing [sic] right here in Cedarhurst.....?
Now, anyone who has been reading this blog for a while might be aware of the fact that I don't lack courage for this sort of story. That said, the alleged "scandal" is actually far from a scandal. The Jewish Star, a local Jewish paper that has been vastly improved under a recent change in editorship, has the complete scoop here (front page, top-right item).

Apparently, a local kosher supermarket, the Gourmet Glatt Emporium, was discovered to have been packaging and selling kosher chickens under the labels of a different kosher brand. An investigation was done, and the mislabeling was determined to have been nothing more sinister than a clerical error, and all the chickens in question were from reliable hashgachas that are approved by the Vaad. However, in light of the error, and due to the busy atmosphere of the store and the potential for this type of mislabeling to occur in such a setting, the Vaad Hakashrut of the Five Towns decided to impose a new labeling system for Gourmet Glatt chickens, which would not allow for individual labeling according to brand at all when repackaging meat to be placed in the refrigerated display cases, though Gourmet Glatt states in the article that they will continue provide specific brands upon individual customer request.

The Vaad issued a statement on the episode:
After a thorough inspection of Gourmet Glatt of Cedarhurst was made, the Vaad Hakashrus discovered that a mislabeling indeed ocurred between the Empire label and another reputable kosher chicken company.
The mislabeling was verified by the Empire poultry Company after a consumer complaint. Empire independently investigated this matter and concluded that it was not their product.
No kashrus violations took place.
We have immediately directed the store to change their labeling procedure so NO company name appears on the label of their meat and poultry products.

So the new system seems to address the problem. But even though according to the Vaad, all was in order as far as the chickens being kosher, and there are assurances (in an adjacent Jewish Star article) that there is good enough Kashrut oversight here to prevent a situation similar to what recently occured in Monsey, the fact that this can happen at all gives me pause. For example, I have a close family member who only eats KAJ chickens. Whenever that relative is going to be eating in my house, I specifically purchase chickens labeled with that brand, sometimes from Gourmet Glatt. Though to me, it doesn't make much of a difference which brand of chickens I eat, to this family member, it does. So I have to imagine this news of the mislabeling error will cause a good bit of chagrin to at least some community members who had been relying on the labeling system Gourmet Glatt had been using, even with the Vaad's assurances that all certified chicken is safe in the Five Towns.

The only questions not really answered is whether this policy will be extended to the other, equally "busy" local kosher supermarkets that are mentioned in the article, who repackage different brands of chickens in the same manner as Gourmet Glatt did. Is this new policy an indication of a lack of faith the Vaad has specifically in Gourmet Glatt's capability to label chickens properly, or an indication that the repackaging system simply can't remain reliable enough in a large-scale operation? If the latter were the case, we would expect to see the new policy extend to all local supermarkets - which the article does not seem to indicate.

But why not? Shouldn't the new policy extend to all large repackaging operations? Or did Gourmet Glatt lose their chance to reliably repackage on a large scale by messing up once? Anyone have any clue?

NYT on a Lakewood Housing Development

I blogged a while ago about the attributes that make a home attractive to Orthodox homebuyers. The NY Times covers some of the same ground in an article in Sunday's Real Estate section, about a new housing development in Lakewood being marketed to Orthodox Jews:

The project, Pine River Village, is rising on a large, oblong plot originally owned by the college. The design of its houses, its layout and the amenities in its community buildings take Orthodox culture, beliefs and lifestyle into account, said Lloyd A. Rosenberg of DMR Architects, the firm hired by Somerset Development of Lakewood to take the idea forward.

Each kitchen will be kosher — that is, with two sets of appliances and sinks — and the community pool house will include a mikvah, for ritual baths taken by women, the architect said.

...He cited the work on Orthodox-friendly amenities like the kosher kitchen with two stoves, two sinks and two food preparation areas, and the barriers in the pool house that are meant to keep men and women from seeing one another. The dining rooms are designed to be larger than usual, the architects said, to accommodate family gatherings on the Sabbath and other holy days. The kitchens have breakfast nooks for smaller meals.

Each home was designed with space that could be used for religious study, Lloyd Rosenberg said. Larger homes will have spacious family rooms with built-in bookshelves and display nooks.

The two-story homes have master bedrooms on the first floor, with the option of installing an elevator. The master bedrooms are configured to comfortably accommodate two single beds, as is customary in Orthodox homes, Mr. Rosenberg said.

...The temple area is no more than a five-minute walk from any house in the community, he added.

Check it out.

Jews In The News - A Mini-Roundup

Today's NY Times on a Suffern zoning dispute:
The federal government sued the village of Suffern for religious discrimination on Tuesday, charging that it denied a private group the right to run a home offering lodging and meals to Orthodox Jews visiting patients at a local hospital on the Sabbath and holy days.

In the lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court here, the government said the Rockland County village violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 by refusing to grant a zoning exemption to allow the group, Bikur Cholim Inc., to operate the home.

Today's NY Post on a new Department of Education course for instructors:
A year after barring a Columbia University Middle East scholar from lecturing public-school teachers on the history of the region, the city's Department of Education approved a course for instructors that was created by the Israeli government.

Billed as a first of its kind, the 30-hour "Introduction to Israel: History and Culture" course drawn up by the Israeli Consulate in New York is being taught to 36 city teachers this fall for credit that can be used to boost their pay.

Today's NY Sun on the Boro Park robbery that shocked the Orthodox community.

Slate's mildly amusing little game, where you can get a cartoon caricature of floundering newly Jewish (former) presidential hopeful George Allen to generate insults based on your various attributes. Don't forget to hit the "explain yourself, Senator" button for the real laughs.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Euegenics? Maybe Not.

I posted about the science of pre-implantation diagnosis, and my fears that the procedure creates a slippery slope toward eugenics. This interesting bit from Slate shows that in a small minority of instances, that worry is unfounded:
Deformer Babies
The deliberate crippling of children.
Several U.S. fertility clinics admit they've helped couples deliberately select defective embryos. According to a new survey report, "Some prospective parents have sought [preimplantation genetic diagnosis] to select an embryo for the presence of a particular disease or disability, such as deafness, in order that the child would share that characteristic with the parents. Three percent of IVF-PGD clinics report having provided PGD to couples who seek to use PGD in this manner." Since 1) the United States has more than 400 fertility clinics, 2) more than two-thirds that answered the survey offer PGD, and 3) some clinics that have done it may not have admitted it, the best guess is that at least eight U.S. clinics have done it. Old fear: designer babies. New fear: deformer babies. (For Human Nature's take, including more findings from the survey, click here.)
Fascinating to read about the other side of the designer-baby coin.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Shifra put up a great post she titled "Jewish Debt". She asks readers to relate their financial situations and experiences. She starts off by outlining her own situation, and many of her commenters followed her lead in the resulting comment thread. One trend that seems to be clear from the comments is that there exists much debt in the Orthodox world. Between the high cost of kosher food, yeshiva tuitions, the tendency toward inflated home prices in heavily Orthodox communities, the need for a car that can fit a large family, and other sometimes crushing responsibilities, the common thread that echoed through many of the comments over at Shifra's post is that of overwhelming financial instability.

Some commenters - echoing a refrain I constantly hear from many of my friends, family members, and neighbors - seem almost incredulous at the fact that their ostensibly large take-home pay can't manage to make ends meet for their families.

Have a similar story to tell? Or do you have a different financial reality? Tell us all about it at Shifra's - and then come back here to leave your thoughts in my comments too.

Mel Madness

This is...funny? I guess?
A hot new Internet game pits a tequila-swilling Mel Gibson against rabbis who try to run him off the road and state troopers who try to stop his car.

"So You Think You Can Drive, Mel?" parodies the actor/director's recent drunken-driving bust and anti-Semitic tirade near his home in Malibu, Calif.

The game depicts Gibson zooming down a deserted road in his silver Lexus after leaving a beachfront cafe, just as he did in real life.

Players control the car, trying to steer clear of state troopers while aiming to run over tequila bottles. But as a player hits the bottles, his blood-alcohol level rises and it becomes harder to control the car.

All the while, rabbis standing by the side of the road hurl Stars of David at the "Lethal Weapon" star and "Hava Nagila" blares from a radio.
Give the game a shot.

An Interesting Rosh Hashana Experience

I was walking to shul this morning with the two youngest Orthokids and we stopped at an intersection to wait for the light to change. As we waited, a ginormous black Cadillac Escalade, all tricked out with shiny spinning rims, glides by, windows down, music blasting. The song? Matisyahu's "Youth". Let me tell you, I caught quite the look of bewilderment on second-to-youngest Orthokid's face.

The world's a strange, strange place, my friends.

Shana Tovah to all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Magazine Madness

Sometimes I post about the extreme levels of conspicuous consumption that goes on in my community - but then I come upon items like the ones I posted about here that make me realize that maybe this neigborhood isn't quite as bad as I thought. Well, this time, it's a website. Conde Nast publications has started a site for one of it's newer publications, Cookie magazine. According to the site, Cookie magazine is geared to people who are interested in "Mom style, kid culture". But this presumedly inadvertently hilarious feature, all about "Tips and tools to give your kid her coolest coif ever" is really, er, hair-raising in its vapidity. The feature has a few different hairstyles that the magazine's editors apparently recommend for the toddler set. One has this description accompanying the fashion shot (of a three-year old male model, I might add):
On the playground, hair roughed up with a glob of gel is visual code for cool.
I was thinking more along the lines of "On the playground, hair roughed up with a glob of gel is visual code for children as an accessory for striving, fashion victim parents".
The hairstyle comes complete with directions on how your little three-year-old budding Vidal Sassoon should maintain the look at home:
For best results, have him rub no more than a quarter-size dollop of gel between the palms of his hands and apply to damp hair from roots to ends.
Um..."have him"? Is it just me, or does anyone else think it's highly unrealistic to expect a child who has barely overcome the trials and tribulations of toilet training to "rub no more than a quarter-size dollop of gel between the palms of his hands and apply to damp hair from roots to ends"? I mean - my son has never had any problem rubbing other matter, such as food, between his hands and into his hair at that age - but that's probably because of the reaction it gets out of me. If it was expected of him, I'd imagine he'd feel entirely diferent about doing so. And can't you just imagine the playgroup scenarios that might ensue from hair gel on a toddler? Like, "Mommy, Timmy's poking me with his hair again!" or "Mommy, why does my hair taste funny? It burns my mouth!"

This line is a good one:
To keep your kid from squirming his way to a too-choppy do, De Leon suggests you pry yourself away from him and let the stylist take control. "The fewer distractions the better—and that includes mommies, daddies, grandparents, and cameras," she says.
Right. Forget separation anxiety. Who cares if you "pry yourself away from him" and leave your kid wailing in the stylist's chair? The important thing is that he isn't traumatized by, say, a bad hair day or something like that.

Another choice tip:
Combination shampoo-conditioners were custom-built for busy boys.
No. That can't be right. I thought not taking showers was custom-built for busy boys. At least the normal, red-blooded, busy boys that I know.

But wait! There's more!

The feature goes on to recommend kid-friendly stylists around the country. Some examples:
Salon Monet
176 Newbury St., (617) 425-0009.
All ages. $25 and up; average is $30 for boys, $40 for girls.

Very kid-friendly; all stylists are experienced with children. Owner Shellee Mendes does a lot of first-time tints and highlights for girls from ages 10 and up.
Highlights? As in hair dye? On 10-year-olds? There must be some kind of law against subjecting a tween to hours under the dryer.

More salon recommendations:
Ouidad Salon & Curl Education Center
37 W. 57th St., 4th floor, (212) 888-3288.
Ages 2 and up. Starting at $115.

While pricey, the salon deploys a specialized curl-specific "carving and slicing" technique to reduce excess volume, and first-timers spend at least an hour with stylists learning how to care for their hair. "
An hour with stylists learning how to care for their hair? I can't get my daughter to spend a minute learning how to take care of her homework, her knapsack, or her jacket.

Absurdities. Utter and complete absurdities.

Count me out for a subscription.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Charity Begins At Home?

On a thread a few posts down, an anonymous commenter left the following comment:
It seems a real shame to me that here in the 5 towns we support charities from all over the world, as is evidenced by the almost weekly visits from persosn outside the community soliciting for 1 org or an other, but yet homegrown charity has taken a back seat. Charity begins at home with the nickel and dimes of the school children, which in the case of local jewish schools is usually sent outside the community. Lest see how much we could raise in Boro Park at a fundraiser for a 5 towns jewish school, not to much.
I think the comment is very interesting, though I don't agree with all of it. I agree with the fact that a community should help their own needy before taking their resources outside the community. I especially agree that if a community's institutions are struggling to stay financially afloat, said community has no business supporting institutions in other communities before their own are provided for. But how those ideas play into the situation here in the Five Towns is an intriguing question.

There is no question that a tremendous amount of the community's resources are being tapped by institutions and charitable organizations that are not located within the Five Towns. There is also no question that other communities are suffering from levels of need that are orders of magnitude worse than we see here in this community.

A few years back, I remember a community leader wrote an article for a local paper decrying the fact that the community supports so many outside charities when there are causes in their own backyards that are left wanting. He actually proposed a community-wide moratorium on fundraising for institutions that are not local ones. If I recall correctly, this article came on the heels of a visit to the Five Towns by a prominent Chassidic Rabbi from an upstate community. The Rabbi spent the weekend in the homes of various community members, raising funds for his own community. Rumor went that when all was said and done, and the Chassidim and their leader were cozily ensconced once again in their upstate community, they had raised a cool million from the Five Towns Olam. At around the same time, a local Yeshiva was heavily fundraising for a new building. As that rumor went, the Rosh Yeshiva was told my some wealthy community members that they were simply overextended at that time and couldn't give as much as the Rosh Yeshiva was asking for.

Obviously, it makes a good deal of sense to put local charities and institutions first, before shelling out to faraway communities. But when dealing with a wealthy community such as this one, where the financial resources are vast, the situation is far far more complex. Can we rightly say that we must save our resources for new shul buildings - complete with vaulted ceilings and elaborate catering facilities, when there are shuls in other communities who need help to literally put a roof over their members' heads? Is it ethical to withhold funds from another community's Tomchei Shabbos, when their numbers of destitute are far more staggering than our own? Can we really say that we need to keep all our assets in-house when our Yeshivas have beautiful campuses and buildings (at least the ones that have buildings - but I digress), and many yeshivas in outside communities are in ramshackle buildings that are bursting at the seams with students?

Is it really morally just for a community with an extremely large number of "haves" to send the message out to those needy souls who come from communities with even larger numbers of "have-nots" that they Need Not Apply?

I mean, yes, I can't argue with the anonymous commenter quoted above that no one expects to see a fundraiser running in Brooklyn for a Five Towns charity. And I agree with the commenter as well that the Tzedakah collected from our children in Yeshiva usually goes to causes outside the community. That said - how in the world, with this community's mean standard of living, can we expect to see anything else?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

I. Hate. Homework.

Who doesn't hate homework? Parents and students alike? I can't tell you how many discussions I've had with friends and colleagues regarding the travails we suffer due to the loads of homework that students (and their parents) are leveled with. I'll never forget how shocked I was when my oldest started coming home with homework every night in pre-kindergarten. It was only a quick sheet a night, but I guess it was just preparing us for kindergarten, when they really started to sock it to us. The dual curriculum is hard enough for small children, especially considering the long hours that makes up a Yeshiva school day. But I really have come to resent the enormous outlay of my time that doing homework with three school-age kids unfortunately demands.

Let me tell you, the last thing I want to force my kids to do after they have sat in a classroom for most of the daylight hours is sit down and do yet more schoolwork. Especially those children that resist it, and for whom homework becomes an oppositional issue (who doesn't have at least one of those?). And my take on the matter has always been that I have never seen an appreciable difference in how much learning my kids are able to glean from the teachers that give large homework loads vs. those teachers who are more sparing in their giving of assignments.

Well, turns out that studies back up that assertion. From Time magazine:
• According to a 2004 national survey of 2,900 American children conducted by the University of Michigan, the amount of time spent on homework is up 51% since 1981.

• Most of that increase reflects bigger loads for little kids. An academic study found that whereas students ages 6 to 8 did an average of 52 min. of homework a week in 1981, they were toiling 128 min. weekly by 1997. And that's before No Child Left Behind kicked in. An admittedly less scientific poll of parents conducted this year for AOL and the Associated Press found that elementary school students were averaging 78 min. a night.

• The onslaught comes despite the fact that an exhaustive review by the nation's top homework scholar, Duke University's Harris Cooper, concluded that homework does not measurably improve academic achievement for kids in grade school. That's right: all the sweat and tears do not make Johnny a better reader or mathematician.

• Too much homework brings diminishing returns. Cooper's analysis of dozens of studies found that kids who do some homework in middle and high school score somewhat better on standardized tests, but doing more than 60 to 90 min. a night in middle school and more than 2 hr. in high school is associated with, gulp, lower scores.

Great. All of this struggling for negligible returns. Truthfully, I would like to see these studies get into the hands of my children's teachers and administrators. Because it's one thing if I'm torturing my children to do homework and getting some gains. But to take away their precious free time and make the home a battleground over their right to decompress after a long day in class - all for no measurable improvement? Can someone please explain it to me??

I don't even have any objection to unconventional homework assignments. You want me to sit down with my son and research some interesting topic for science class, from resources he doesn't have access to in school? Great. You want my daughter to pick a book from a list and read 20 minutes a night of it? Awesome. You expect my son to count how many green beans I prepared for supper and then ask him to calculate a fraction based how many get eaten vs. how many I served? Cool. Those take into account that different aspects of learning are found interesting by different students - and it also differentiates the methods of learning used in school from those used at home. But the endless math problems, the copying and recopying of spelling lists, and the constant memorization of English translation of Hebrew passages is just unimaginative and frankly, painful.

Anyone up for a call for homework reform in our schools?

More Eugenics Coverage

I posted here about the growing trend of eugenics through the technology of pre-implantation diagnosis. Slate has an article up on the practice, and they reiterate some of my own thoughts as to how the procedure has quickly become a slippery slope. The piece enumerates some of the diseases that prospective parents have been using PGD to prevent, as well as "predisposition syndromes", which are somewhat indicative of an increased risk to the embryo of getting a disease later in life - but far from any sort of guarantee that a child will be affected. The fact that less and less serious diseases - such as arthritis, where the gene in question only indicates a 20% chance of aquiring the disease - are already being screened for is also noted. But of course, why should that be shocking when the article point out that most parents utilizing PGD do so for the detection of far less serious traits than possible predisposition to disease:
Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, an American IVF entrepreneur, says his clinics have done PGD for about 2,000 couples, and "85 to 90 percent of those couples have done it simply for gender selection." Two years ago, when GPPC asked Americans whether they approved of PGD for sex selection, 40 percent said yes.

I'm not even saying that I judge the parents who are actually choosing to perform the testing when they are already going through invasive procedures just to get pregnant. It's just that something about the thought of prospective parents going down a laundry list of tests for syndromes, predispositions, and attributes that they would like their children to avoid/aquire just seems a little too close to parents trying to mail-order their own little superbaby.

Slate agrees that the practice opens up a can of worms:
If PGD were evil, it would be easy to head off such abuses by banning it. But it's not. PGD prevents hellish diseases. In those cases, you have to say yes. And once you start saying yes, it's hard to say no. That's why they call it a slippery slope.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

NYT on Lawrence School Board Conflict - UPDATED

I'm sure everyone who gets the Long Island section of the NY Times saw the front-page piece on the Lawrence school board conflict. I was certainly surprised to see it - almost as surprised as I was to see the mention of this blog on the second page of the article.

As far as my observations on the piece:
1. This line bothered me:
Schools may seem to be a peculiar battlefield in this power struggle, since most Orthodox families here send their children to private Orthodox day schools. But many of this district’s Orthodox residents object to paying school taxes that average about $6,000 per home for a system they do not use. Their leaders also complain that more public money should be channeled to the Orthodox day schools, which by law are limited to tax-financed busing, books and special education services.
Now, I personally have never heard a local community leader call for "more money to be channeled to the Orthodox day schools". As just about everyone here knows, and as the article makes sure to point out, public funds are only mandated for busing, books and special education. I have never heard anyone argue otherwise. What I have heard - and I agree wholeheartedly with that view - is that the private school community is simply not getting equitable treatment when it comes to these few services the state actually mandated dollars to be spent on. I posted here about apparent cuts to busing in recent months, and I have recently heard stories that made my blood boil of private school children who are in dire need of special education services that have been refused by the district.

The law makes the distinction that money cannot be, as the article puts it, "channeled to Orthodox day schools" or any other religious school. And I support that church/state divide. Tax dollars, however, are perfectly allowed to be spent on the children. And what is being objected to in this district is the method of denying children, based on their choice to attend a private school, the services they are as entitled to as any public school child.

2. This was just sick:
“We feel invaded,” said an Atlantic Beach delicatessen customer, a self-described non-Orthodox Jew and activist parent who declined to give her name. “We don’t mind them being here, but taking over and shutting down the school system is not the right thing.”
Um...what??? They "feel invaded"? They "don't mind us being here"???? Is she kidding? How charitable for her to "not mind" us exercising our right to buy a home in any neighborhood we want. Does anyone here entertain the notion, for even a second, that a comment like that would be tolerated about any other ethnic group? Ugh.

3. The notion is presented in the piece that this tension is somehow new, and related solely to the election of an Orthodox majority to the school board. This is the subtitle to the headline:
Tensions rise after Orthodox Jews take control of a school board on Long Island.
"Tensions rise"? I don't think so. As a mater of fact, in my opinion, things have been quite anticlimactically quiet since the new board took office. The rancor that permeated the community during the past few election cycles was palpably higher at school board meetings than it is now.

Another line, from a photo caption accompanying the piece, that I didn't like one bit:
On Long Island, the Orthodox Jewish majority on the school board in Lawrence, which is led by Asher Mansdorf, right, has been criticized as being unresponsive to the rest of the community.
Oh please. That is an absurd allegation to make. First of all, the Orthodox board members took office on July 1. I mean, come on. Unresponsive? In the short time since they've taken office? Not quite. If anything, that's been the private school community's line about the board's unresponsiveness to our needs up until now. It would also be nice if the NY TImes would back up their statement with some quotes. They allege that the board has been criticized of something that they don't present one quote to prove. Are we just supposed to take the Times' word for it that the criticism exists? Also, the Times states throughout the article that the board has an Orthodox majority. That's just untrue. David Sussman is not Orthodox, and his kids attended public school. He may tend to vote in a manner that more closely aligns with the private school agenda - but then the article should say just that. The Times should not try to wrap everything up into this tidy little Orthodox/non-Orthodox package so that their readers can have a more simplified view of what is going on here. This is a complex situation with many different sides to the story. When the Times implies otherwise they do a disservice to the community in discussion, as well as to every one of their readers they mislead. ***Update: Actually, a commenter points out that there is an Orthodox majority, even without David Sussman's vote. The Times is correct on that point, and even mentions Sussman's status. I stand corrected. (Teaches me not to dash off a post right ater Shabbos and while doing ten other things.) The rest of the point I've made stands.

4. Last but not least:

A number of Orthodox residents declined to comment when approached in public. But on the Orthomom blog, an anonymous Orthodox supporter complained of “having to pay twice” for taxes and tuition. An unidentified critic replied, “Maybe you should take advantage of public education or move back to Brooklyn.” The Orthodox supporter countered: “It seems a better solution is that you should move. After all, you’re the one who seems unhappy with how the neighborhood is changing.”

Listen, I'm not complaining about getting an NY Times mention. But I find it amusing that the Times is putting forth anonymous comments left on an anonymous blog as an indication of how people feel.

That's all for now - more later, after I clean the house up from a busy Shabbos.

Update: Krum has an incisive takedown of the article here. His post a must-read.

Previous posts on this issue:
September 2006: I, II
August 2006: I,
July 2006: I, II, III, IV, V,
June 2006: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII
May 2006: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII
April 2006: I, II, III, IV
March 2006: I, II
December 2005: I
November 2005: I
October 2005: I
August 2005: I
July 2005: I
June 2005: I, II
May 2005: I, II, III, IV, V

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A PSA Regarding Bagged Spinach

If the recommendation from the Orthodox Union's Guide to Preparing Fruits and Vegetables that bagged spinach "was often found to be infested, sometimes heavily so" with bugs, wasn't enough to get you to stop serving it, this alarming news story might be just the kick in the pants you needed:
An outbreak of E. coli in eight states has left at least one person dead and 50 others sick, federal health officials said Thursday in warning consumers nationwide not to eat bagged fresh spinach.

The death occurred in Wisconsin, where 20 people were made ill, state officials said. The outbreak has sickened others _ eight of them seriously _ in Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah, according to federal health officials.

In California, state health officials were investigating a possible case that could be linked to the outbreak and warned consumers not to eat the produce.

FDA officials do not know the source of the outbreak other than it appears to be linked to bagged fresh spinach."We're advising people not to eat it,"said Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

So consider this your friendly Erev Shabbat PSA. If you like your Shabbat guests, don't serve them spinach salad for a while.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More Journalistic Integrity from the Jewish Week

You gotta love that Jewish Week. I know it's been a while, but I'm thrilled to see them back up to their old tricks. This time, it's the old anonymous sniping at the subject of an article. The piece in question talks about attempts by the American Jewish Congress, in the wake of some restructuring and other "sweeping changes", to widen their focus into that of a more international organization. Whether they will be sucessful is not really addressed, except for the obligatory (for the Jewish Week, at least) potshot at a key player, new president of the AJC Jack Rosen. The kicker? In true Jewish Week style, of course, the sniping is done by an unnamed source - one who certainly seems to have an axe - or two - to grind:
Rosen’s move toward international affairs is not without critics. “Rosen has been secretly planning how to turn his agency into the next version of the World Jewish Congress,” said one former official, “two or three people traveling around the world looking bigger than they are. He fancies himself an international star.”

The source agreed to comment only if granted anonymity because of his continuing contacts with the group.
Absurd. It's one thing to allow a critic of the organization's attempts to raise their profile to comment on point. Looking at all sides of a story is what quality reporting is all about. But to allow the source to remain unnamed for such a gossipy, yenta-like comment is just pathetic.

The Jewish Week never really surprises me anymore with these kinds of games - but it never ceases to amaze me how they just keep at it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

From the Category of: Silver Linings, Highly Debatable

Fox News tells us that the post-9/11 decline in air travel delayed the 2001-2002 flu season by two weeks. So if you were one of those who cut back on your air travel after the terrorist attacks, and you were feeling sick arond that time, it probably wasn't the flu. On the other hand, if you live in the NY area and felt sick after avoiding post-9/11 air travel, you were quite possibly suffering from a respiratory illness brought on by the toxic stew of chemicals being spewed into the atmosphere from Ground Zero.


Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11/01 - 9/11/06

For some reason, I'm having a hard time with all the 9/11 imagery this year. It makes the events of five years ago seem very near. For lack of anything better to say, here is my post from last year.
Every year that brings us farther from the terror attacks of 9/11 makes my memories from that day more and more fuzzy. That queasy feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I watch the yearly replaying of footage from that terrible day and its aftermath gets more and more elusive as time passes. And this year, the multiple tragedies that Hurriane Katrina left behind makes 9/11 seem even more distant. The news outlets are trying valiantly to keep the coverage of Katrina up, while not giving 9/11 short shrift. But try as they might to give both stories the prominent placement they so deserve, there is a world of difference between the coverage of 9/11 in years' past and this year's coverage.

Though I understand that time goes on, and pain cannot stay fresh forever, I still have a hard time treating September 11th as a day like any other. I was touched very personally by the terror of that day, and I think it will take more than the passage of four years and the horror of fresh tragedy to forget the roller coaster of emotions I went through on this day in 2001.

OrthoDad worked in the Towers. he was there when the plane hit, he was there when the first Tower collapsed. I didn't hear from him for 2 hours after I watched live footage of the Towers coming down. Those were two hours of hell.

The kids were picked up for their first day of school just as the first plane hit. My husband called me from his cellphone. He told me that a "light plane" had hit the tower, but that his floor was ok, and that he was probably going to leave and just come home. I didn't press him to do so, as no one could have known the scope of what was about to occur. That would be the last time I spoke to him for more than three hours. I sat by the television, in the empty house, watching the smoke pour out of the first tower on the screen. Suddenly, in a surreal moment, the second plane hit. I remember thinking, "there must be a radar glitch". Terror just didn't occur to me in my naive 2001 existence. I knew that my husband worked on a lower floor than those that were hit by the plane, but I started calling him on his cell, over and over. A fast busy signal alternated with the message "all circuits are busy now, please try again later". My house phone started ringing. I checked Caller ID. My mother. Told her I spoke to him and he had been leaving. Told my sister, his father, his brother the same when they called. I had no additional information. He said he was leaving. He was OK. It didn't occur to anyone that things would get much more serious than they were. He was OK. He survived the plane crashing into the building. He was coming home. Whew. Our small part in this tragedy was over. I sat by the phone, waiting for him to call from the train, sure he was OK, that he had gotten out. I watched the smoke pour out of the towers, with the absolute conviction that my husband was OK, that this was a small controlled fire, that he was stuck in the large crowds of people evacuating the area, and would make it home soon.

Then the first tower fell. Panic set in. Restrained panic, but panic nonetheless. I wasn't so sure anymore that he was OK. Suddenly, conditions down there had just gotten a hell of a lot more dangerous. The phone started ringing again. My mother, my brother, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law. I didn't pick up. I didn't want to hear the panic and hysteria I knew would be in their voices. I didn't want to have to feign calm and hide the hysteria in mine. I sat watching, in a cold sweat, as the second tower came down. Still pressing redial, still getting the all circuits busy message. Still waiting for a call to come in from him that hadn't yet come in.
Two hours. Two hours I sat, ignoring the incessantly ringing phone, trying to stanch the mounting hysteria that was rising inside of me. Finally, the phone rang. I saw on caller ID that it was my mother-in-law. I still didn't pick up. I heard her voice over the answering machine. "I got through to him, he's OK." I picked up, to hear details, but missed the call. She had hung up.

I went limp from relief. My cell phone rang. It was him. He broke down. I broke down. We didn't talk, silently sobbing together over the phone. I didn't tell him that I had envisioned myself a widow, raising three children on my own. I didn't tell him that I had this foreboding sense that he was gone as I watched both towers come down in a huge cloud of smoke and pulverized glass. I just cried.

Later, when he finally made his way home together with the throngs of people evacuating the City, he told me how close he had been to getting injured by the showers of glass and concrete that rained down around him when the towers fell. He told me about the dust that filled his lungs, causing him to need to have oxygen administered by a passing EMT. He told me that when someone screamed that the tower was coming down, he calculated how high the towers were, and how close three blocks away was, and even as he started running, he thought he had no chance at all.

He had a minor cough for weeks, and a bad eye infection from the dust, and became a news junkie for months, staying up until all hours, watching the footage of the rescue effort which all too quickly became a recovery effort. But he was home. And so many were not. And I had no trouble praying to God over the Rosh Hashana that came so soon after.

So some of you may understand why 9/11 has not yet lost its meaning for me. And I'm not sure it ever will.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Initial "Path to 9/11" Observations

How in the world can anyone watch this drivel of a "docudrama" that ABC calls "The Path to 9/11" if there is no indication whatsoever to its viewers as to which parts actually occured and which parts are fabrications? There has been so much kicking and screaming about this film over its historical inaccuracies that are allegedly masquerading as facts - but I still think it's all much ado about nothing. It was very clear by five minutes in that this movie is heavily fictionionalized. Historical fiction perhaps, but fiction nonetheless. Let's just say, that had I missed ABC's CYA disclaimer informing us that the events in the film may not have occured exactly as portrayed, I still would have gotten the point, just by watching. The experience of watching feels no different than it does to watch any other movie made for viewer entertainment- except not as well-produced. Do the events in the film come off as somewhat plausible? Sure. So did the events in some other movies I've seen recently, such as Syriana. Do I see where the blurring of the fact/fiction line can be dangerous? Absolutely. But I also think that this poorly-made, boring, made-for-television production is not exactly going to be accepted as gospel by its viewers.

Just my 2 cents.

Update: Ok. I watched the whole first part and the previews for tomorrow's conclusion, and I decided. I hated it. It isn't about the skewed historical facts, it isn't about the clear anti-Democrat slant. It's about it just being plain cheap to make the tragedy that was 9/11 into a dramatized movie-of-the-week. This isn't the way I, or any other Americans who watched should have spent the fifth anniversary of the attacks. I'm sorry I did.

Big mistake. Huge.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Update on the SD 15 Busing Controversy

From Superintendent John Fitzsimons
With the opening of school each year we invariably experience some glitches in transporting 5,800 district children to and from over 95 public and private schools. I can assure you that our Transportation Department is working hard to address these problems. One such problem is the length of time children are on the bus.

We are gathering information on the length of each bus route from our bus contractor. By September 15th, we will have in place a corrective action plan that will ensure that no child who attends public or private schools within the district boundaries will spend more than one hour on a bus. Ideally, we will try to reduce the time to forty-five minutes or less wherever possible. We may, if adequate funds are available, and with Board of Education approval, add additional buses and vans to shorten the length of bus routes.

Our mission is to provide safe and efficient transportation to all our school age children in the district. We appreciate the support received from public and private school parents during these first two weeks of school.
Good to hear. We all hope that they are acting in good faith and that the problems we have been experiencing will be cleared up.

Film Furor

I'm sure most people have caught wind of the burgeoning furor over the ABC docudrama "The Path to 9/11", and the fact that it slams then-President Clinton's handling of several chances he had to take out Osama Bin Laden. Apparently, the film greatly exaggerates the circumstances of how the Clinton administration failed to do enough, even showing a completely fictionalized scene where Sandy Berger, Clinton's former national securtiy advisor, hangs up on a CIA operative in the field, refusing to authorize a missile strike against Bin Laden. Mr. Berger has denied the scene ever occuring, and ABC has admitted to dramatizing it. In addition, Madeline Albright also denies the veracity of several events that the film presents, such as informing the Pakistani givernment of an impending missile strike, and not authorizing a strike against Bin Laden.

Now, on the one hand, as bad as these fabrications are, it's hard for me to be fully supportive of efforts to quash the movie. It is an admitted fictionalization of the events of 9/11, and the attempts to have the movie pulled still strike me as censorship. Trust me, I am as disgusted by the attempts to pin the blame for 9/11 on Clinton as the next guy, but I am against banning films in general. I didn't want to see "Farenheit 9/11" pulled either, and I didn't like everything presented in that movie. But still, this is different. This is presented by a major television network, and there is certainly some risk of the details in the docudrama being accepted as gospel by some watchers. For just an example, check this out (from Think Progress):
From the New York Times review of Path to 9/11:

The Sept. 11 commission concluded that the sex scandal distracted the Clinton administration from the terrorist threat.

What the 9/11 Commission actually says (pg. 118):

Everyone involved in the decision had, of course, been aware of President Clinton’s problems. He told them to ignore them. Berger recalled the President saying to him “that they are going to get crap either way, so they should do the right thing.” All his aides testified to us that they based their advice solely on national security considerations. We have found no reason to question their statements.

This is what happens when people learn about the 9/11 Commission by watching Path to 9/11.

The next paragraph of the 9/11 commission report, however, reads the following:
The failure of the strikes, the "wag the dog" slur, the intense partisanship of the period, and the nature of the al Shifa evidence likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against Bin Ladin. Berger told us that he did not feel any sense of constraint.
Obviously, the reality is more complex than presented either by Think Progress or by the version in the docudrama as repeated by the NY Times.

And I think examples like this show that if a network is going to present a skewed version of history, they better work damned hard on presenting it as the fictionalized retelling that it is. This time, ABC didn't work hard enough to do so. So though I still oppose calls for the outright banning of the film, I look forward to ABC's efforts to address the misinformation that the film contains.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

District 15 Controversies Continue

For anyone who has been following the drama in School District #15, the post may be interesting to you. For anyone who hasn't been following the drama, but wants some background, here are some links of previous posts to get you started (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII) - and many more in my archives where those came from. For anyone else, feel free not to read this post. For those of you still with me, here goes:

I have been hearing much buzz in recent days about some major busing problems that have been affecting the District 15 private school community. Some examples include:
  • A 6-year-old child received her bus card in the mail with the time of pickup imprinted on the card. The time was 6:50 AM. For a 9 AM start time. When the girl's parents called in to the district transportation office, she was told a variation of "due to the rejection of the budget, we had to consolidate bus routes to save money".
  • A parent was waiting at the bus stop a full two hours after her child was dismissed. When the parent called the transportation office, she was told "bus routes this year should be expected to be an average of 1 1/2 hours each way due to budget cuts".
  • Numerous reports have come to my attention of schools who formerly had a greater number of bus routes routes having had those routes consolidated into longer, extremely overcrowded routes.
  • More than a few pre-school children's parents have reported estimated bus routes in excess of 1 1/2 hours.
  • I have heard many complaints of bus stops having been changed to unsafe intersections, or those far from a child's home, with no apparent added route efficiency.
Basically, it seems that bus routes are suddenly running longer, more crowded, and with arbitrary and often unsafe pickup locations.

Now, I have no way of knowing if the public school bus routes have been similarly affected, and I would love to hear any first-hand information either way. I am curious whether pre-school children being bused to the public schools are being forced to wait in the pre-dawn hours at bus stops that are further from their homes than in previous years, and in some cases extremely unsafe locations (no sidewalks on walking route between home and bus stop, no sidewalks to wait on when at bus stop, corners of extremely busy intersections), and being returned to the same bus stops hours after dismissal - as I am hearing reports of private school children being forced to do. I am curious whether the length of the public school routes have been extended by a half-hour to an hour each way - as has occured on private school routes.

I am also curious as to how much of a dent these cuts could possibly have made in the district's huge budget. At this point, the private school community has the burden of financing the majority of the budget, yet only utilizes about 8-10% of the district's resources. I find it hard to stomach that the minimal services received by the private school students should be considered the place to cut the tiny bits of fat from. Especially in the wake of other recent additions to the budget - such as the recent raise, (plus car stipend, etc?) given to the superintendent. Or the expansion (this year) of the public school pre-K program to include children who are not from low income households. (Although this expansion was "covered" by a government grant, it apparently will still cost the District a pretty penny.) Or the fact that despite the district having completely cut busing for pre-K yeshiva students due to budget cuts a few years ago, and then the recent consolidation and overcrowding of yeshiva routes due to more supposedly necessary budget cuts, all of the newly enrolled public school pre-K students have miraculously found spots on buses.

Please, any enlightenment would be much appreciated.

NYT on Monsey Treif Chicken Scandal

Pretty detailed piece, complete with picture (left) of the frantic kashering of dishes and utensils that is described in the article:
MONSEY, N.Y., Sept. 6 — Since sundown on Saturday — when the Jewish Sabbath ended — men, women and children have been scrubbing kitchen counters and stoves, and dipping pots and utensils in scalding water.

“My husband and I had to leave everything we were doing,” said Esther Herzl, 61, a Hasidic grandmother who lives here, “and all we did was scrape and scrape and scrape — from the cutlery to the glassware to the countertops, oven and stove. I’m beat. We’re truly religious, so we don’t cheat in the cleaning.”

The cleansing ritual, which is prescribed by Jewish law, became necessary after a Hasidic butcher was accused of stocking the shelves of a kosher grocery store here with nonkosher chicken and selling it to thousands of Orthodox Jewish families.

Now a group of rabbis is debating the fate of the butcher.

Catch all the intrigue here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Playing Ethnic Politics

Saw this ad in Hamodia as well as the Yated over Shabbos, and I'd meaning to post it as soon as I got to the office (home scanner's on the fritz), but Ben beat me to it. It was quite an interesting pitch for Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial candidacy, one clearly aimed at the Orthodox and Charedi segment of New York voters. The ad copy reads in part:
Rejecting a job applicant or firing an employee because he's Shomer Shabbos is illegal - yet Sears Roebuck rejected Kalman Katz, and Virgin Atlantic Airways fired Avraham Abada.

Firing a barber because he wears a yarmulka is illegal - yet Jean Louis David fired Eliezer Katanov.

Penalizing a student because she refuses to dress immodestly is illegal - yet the New York College for Osteopathic Medicine punished Dina Loketch.

What stopped these injustices was New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
It also includes a photo (above) of a Chassidic Jew with beard and long curly sidelocks, wearing a work uniform emblazoned with the nametag "Kalman". The copy includes plugs from Agudath Israel and The Orthodox Union praising him for his record in fighting for the rights of Sabbath observers. With the full-page ad placed in Ultra-Orthodox publications, his campaign is certainly playing to right audience in this particular case - as opposed to some mishaps that I recall another area candidate encountering when he tried to play the ethnic politics game a few months back.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Eugenics on the March?

I posted a while back about elective gender selection, where parents can ensure the gender of an embryo before it is implanted. The different motivations a couple might have for choosing to perform the procedure range from preventing the passing on of a disease that only affects one gender, to looking for a more balance in a family that is weighted toward one gender or the other. But this article, in the NY Times, illustrates precisely how slippery the slope of these types of procedures can get.

The piece discusses a preimplantation procedure, called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, where embryos are screened for various diseases before they are implanted in the mother. Apparently, the practice has spread to increasingly include not just screening embryos for a certainty of disease, but screening embryos for genetic predispositions to certain diseases.
Already, it is possible to test embryos for an inherited form of deafness or a mild skin condition, or for a predisposition to arthritis or obesity. Some clinics test for gender. As scientists learn more about the genetic basis for inherited traits, and as people learn more about their genetic makeup, the embryo screening menu and its array of ethical dilemmas are only expected to grow.

“From a technology perspective we can test anything,” said Mark Hughes, director of the Genesis Genetics Institute in Detroit, who is performing P.G.D. this month for two couples who want to avoid passing on a susceptibility to breast cancer. “The issue becomes what is considered serious enough to warrant such testing and who decides that.”
I don't want to minimize the seriousness of a predisposition to a disease that puts a child at a high chance of developing an illness over the course of his or her life. But it just seems like selecting an embryo with the least chance of a possible predisposition to such diseases smacks of Gattaca-like superbaby farming. I am quite sure that if it were medically possible, some parents will soon feel no compuction about asking to have their fetuses screened for genes that can ensure high intelligence or pleasing physical attributes - and that there will be doctors who will be happy to comply.

What scares me most about this trend toward eugenics is the high probability that these techniques will remain an option only for the wealthy. The possible dichotomy that this type of genetic selection might produce is frightening. Are genetic diseases and predispositions to such diseases to become the bastion of the underprivileged? Are the poor of our society to become denied yet another perk of life, that of being ensured healthy offspring? Worse, is the already large gap between those who can afford to provide the best in life to their children vs. those who cannot only going to get wider as "the best in life" comes to include not just material goods, but attributes like a good brain for math and a predisposition to be thin?

Scary thought.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Vacation Vicissitudes

This really does sound like the vacation from hell:

The Jewish tour group, Club Kosher, claims that a Dominican hotel agreed to accommodate 800 travelers, mostly families, and their dietary needs for a winter vacation in January 2004, but its accommodations were completely unorthodox. They filed suit last month in Manhattan federal court against the hotel's Spanish owners, Occidental Hotel Management, for more than $2 million.

Coinciding with winter break at Hebrew school, Club Kosher reserved a weeklong, all-inclusive vacation to Allegre Playa Grande.

Club Kosher co-owner Charles Rosenay said that the hotel agreed to allow the tour company's eight mashgiach - rabbis who supervise food preparation - two days to "kosher the kitchen" and prepare for the holiday package. Jewish law bars certain types of food, including pork or shellfish, and forbids the mixing of meat and dairy foods. It also requires that all kosher food and dishes be kept separate from non-kosher food.

The tour group brought all their own plates and food, said Rosenay. They were supposed to have exclusive access to the resort, he said.

But soon after they arrived, outside guests checked in.

"They paid their money. They wanted cheeseburgers and they wanted to drink booze," Rosenay said.

At one point, fed up with the staff's indifference to kosher rules, a mashgiach smashed a plate after he caught the staff using it for non-kosher food. Soon the entire security staff showed up with billy clubs in hand and one of them pulled a gun, Rosenay said.

Sounds like a disaster - especially when you take into account the huge number of Orthodox travelers who were expecting a week of worry-free kosher meals - according to the article, 800 families!

They kosher group is, of course, filing the obligatory lawsuit.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Elder Discrimination

This story is nuts:
After walking the Great Wall of China and making plans for a trip to Russia, Shirley Greening-Jackson thought signing up for a new internet service would be a doddle.

But the young man behind the counter had other ideas. He said she was barred - because she was too old.

The 75-year-old would only be allowed to sign the forms for the Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk phone and broadband package if she was accompanied by a younger member of her family who could explain the small print to her.

Mrs Greening-Jackson, who sits on the board of several charities, said: "I was absolutely furious. The young man said, 'Sorry, you're over 70. It's company policy. We don't sign anyone up who is over 70.'

"Later a young lady said company policy is that anyone over 70 might not understand the contract. She said, 'If you would be prepared to go to the shop in town and take a younger member of your family we might give you a contract.'

Nuts, but I guess it shouldn't be that surprising. It never ceases to amaze me when I observe the manner in which some treat the elderly. The worst offenders manage to treat their elders as if the elders' more advanced age somehow automatically brands them as disabled - while at the same time denying them the slightest modicum of respect they should be due by virtue of their years of life experience. I'm quite sure I'm not the only person who has witnessed an over-70 patron of a store being talked at by the store's employee in a ridiculously high decibel level - as if said senior citizen were either deaf, speaker of a foreign language, or perhaps a toddler. The lack of respect is distressing, but the way in which society's elderly - no matter how capable - are infantilized is just obnoxious.

I mean, this is 2006. Isn't the age 70 "the new 60"? I went skiing this past winter, and was fascinated by the fact that a notable number of the ski pros at the resort we visited were in their late 60's - and one or two even in their 70's. Apparently, a large group of seniors make the resort area their retirement home for the winter, but some weren't quite looking for the retirement community pace of living. I find it hard to envision the extremely fit senior citizen who yelled my terrified self down the black diamond ski trail being denied cable service because of her advanced age.

I mean, really.