Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where I Have Been

Ok, so I disappeared from blogging for a year. In this year, two major things have happened: 1. I had a baby boy. He is so cute! Insert all new-ish mom mushiness here. 2. I quit academia. A career wasn't going to happen, I wasn't even sure that I wanted it to happen by the end, and I didn't fancy being exploited just because I want to know where I will live next week. This is not to say that I suddenly found a non-academic full-time job with great pay and benefits. I am doing some tutoring and some other freelancing and feeling very blessed that my husband's job enables me to work part-time, sans benefits, and spend time with my son. I really enjoy what I am doing, but, despite my best efforts, I am still feeling self-conscious about not having a "real" job. Even if I were adjuncting, I could still say, "I teach at University X," which would impress people who know very little about academia. I know intellectually that it is not worth it to be treated like a slave just for the sake of dinner party/Thanksgiving family conversation, but it sucks when people think I made this decision because I had a baby and became a bubblehead. I used to think this about people when I was in college and very stupid. What does the future hold professionally? I have no idea. I am not suggesting that you, dear reader, do anything different professionally, whether or not you are an academic. But I have no regrets about jumping ship. So that's where I've been.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Honor of Hanukkah . . .

. . . Katrina has decided to take a break from the exhausting task of not-blogging and embark in at least one post of actual blogging. Without further adieu . . .

Hanukkah is a holiday that I both love and hate.

I love it because:

1) It brings back fond memories of my childhood, including making latkes with my mom, singing old Israeli Hanukkah songs with my parents and brother, and yes, getting cool presents. I think the roller-blades were the highlight.

2) Now that I am observant, I appreciate a holiday that is fun, requires little preparation, and does not have restrictions on working, using electricity, cooking, etc. I am doing practically nothing this Hanukkah other than lighting the candles with DH, and I love it.

I hate it because Jews, especially American Jews, have neutered the holiday, and then they complain that it is boring. "How can it compete with Christmas?" everyone from Jon Stewart to SIL says. Well, it can't, if you are talking about the crass commercialism, materialism, and domination of every aspect of American society for a month that Christmas promotes. Christmas also has a nice little man in a red suit that brings presents, and enough light to put your Hanukkiah to shame. AND it has inspired the best Christian music throughout history. NEWSFLASH: "I Have a Little Dreidel" was not written to rival Handel's Messiah. The traditional Jewish music on the High Holidays represents the apex of Jewish musical skill. Most of it is way older than Handel.

This comparison of Hanukkah and Christmas, clearly a doomed proposition from the Jewish side, is of course partially the fault of American Jews, who wanted a holiday with lots of presents to compete with Christmas. That went well.

So what is Hanukkah actually about? What do I mean when we say we have neutered the holiday?

I have been thinking about posting about this for a few days, and then I ran into this article (link here) on Slate. It talks about the fact that Hanukkah was not originally about lights and divine miracles, not that there is anything wrong with either. But the story of the light that was supposed to last for one day and instead lasted for eight was added by the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Originally, Hanukkah was, as Ponet says, a "Jewish civil war," between Jews assimilated into the Hellenistic way of life and the Maccabees, religious zealots who would tolerate no deviation from the way they thought Jewish life had always been. The latter revolted against the former, won, and then "established a Hasmonean state that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule."

IRONY ALERT: We American Jews are the Hellenists. The Maccabees would have totally speared us. Just saying.

So Hanukkah is about lights, and divine miracles, and the problems of retaining ones Jewish identity in an appealing majority culture, and the role of zealotry in preserving a particular vision of the Jewish way of life, and the appeal and danger in Jewish military might (hence, as Ponet says, the popularity of the holiday in Israel). These are all issues that could (I am tempted to say "should") resonate with us today.

So you might want to think about them as you are lighting your Hanukkiah and munching on those latkes and sufganiyot.

Happy Hanukkah!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Yes, What This Guy Says

Sometimes I even take a break from criticizing everyone to agree with someone:

What do you guys think of his argument that Jewish particularism advances, rather than impedes, universalist empathy?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Getting Ritual Wrong

I guess that when I start blogging again, I really start blogging again.

Today's edition is entitled: "When media outlets publish unbelievably stupid articles about Jewish rituals." I have read two already this morning that made my blood boil:

1. This gem in the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), linked to via Jewish Ideas Daily, saying that non-Orthodox Jews are doing too much tikkun olam (repairing the world, i.e., social justice) and not enough mitzvot.

This is an old charge, but it never ceases to piss me off, because it presents false choices: mitzvot OR social action. Newsflash: They are not mutually exclusive. All Jews should strive to do more of both. I was raised Reform with a day-school education AND a fair amount of ritual in the home and am now a member of a modern Orthodox shul, although I would not describe myself as modern Orthodox. I have written in the past about how shocked I am by the attitudes toward social action of some of my otherwise wonderful shul friends. I think that the ritual aspects of an Orthodox Jewish life (including among the Modern Orthodox) can become overwhelming, and that it is therefore important for rabbis and, heck, anyone who cares, to remind Orthodox Jews about the importance of social action, not only within the shul, but outside it as well.

But far, far, worse than this false dichotomy is the author's explanation of why Orthodox Jews (don't even get me started on the term "Orthodox movement") engage in "serious Jewish education and Jewish practice":

"We can’t have it both ways. We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are increasingly taking the place of serious Jewish education and Jewish practice. Those are the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation."

Silly me. I thought I observed Shabbat because it is an eternal covenant between God and the Jews that evokes the miracles of Creation and the Exodus from Egypt and links me to Jews throughout the centuries. NOW I realize that I am doing it to keep any future children from inter-marrying. That makes it so much more meaningful. Thanks, buddy.

2. The New York Times's religion reporting is a joke. This is another thing that is not new and, yet, continues, in its most egregious instances, to make me want to bang my head against the wall.

So, guess what's (not) new in the Jewish world today? This piece (it may be online only) divulges the great secret that some Jews, especially in San Francisco, are not having their sons circumcised. Wow! If this hadn't been going on even in New York for the last 15 years at least (I am too young to remember any further back, although info is welcome), I might be surprised. I think it is especially ridiculous that the piece makes no connection whatsoever between the recent San Francisco circumcision controversy and the attitudes of "Jewish 'intactivists'" living in the Bay Area who prefer brit shalom to brit milah. Who do you think started and leads the campaign to have circumcision banned in San Fran?

Hey, New York TImes, just in case you forgot about that whole controversy, you might want to check your OWN NEWSPAPER from TWO DAYS AGO, when you ran an article entitled "Judge May Strike Circumcision Ban."

BOTTOM LINE: This whole media narrative about the inexorable decline of Jewish ritual (or mitzvot, if you prefer) in the non-Orthodox world and the related superiority of the Orthodox in all things Jewish is getting really tiresome.

I often wonder whether these writers have ever belonged to an Orthodox community. If they didn't, it would explain why they see Orthodox Jews as so special and transcendent. As a member of a warm and caring modern Orthodox community, I see every Shabbat that its members, who, yes, engage in "serious Jewish education and Jewish practice," also have weaknesses and struggles for holiness, just as other Jews do.

But no one ever writes about that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Career Advice

Wow. I realize I haven't blogged for a while, and I realize I haven't blogged about academia much at all, but I saw something today on Slate that really struck me. At the end of an article otherwise pedestrian article on reforming Ph.D. programs in the humanities, the author, William Pannapacker, said something unexpected. Really unexpected.

A bit of background for those of you who are lucky enough not to have, or be studying for, Ph.D.'s in the humanities: Most graduate students are exploited terribly as cheap labor for undergraduate teaching so that tenured professors rarely have to leave the library. Those same professors often encourage their most engaged students to pursue Ph.D.'s, both so that the professors can reproduce themselves academically (have disciples, in other words) and because those professors have little experience outside of academia and think their students' only other choice is working for an evil corporation. Many, many, Ph.D.'s in the humanities do not get tenure-track jobs once they graduate (this has gotten MUCH worse in many fields since the Great Recession). Many of them become severely underpaid adjunct professors who earn something like $5,000 per course (if they're lucky) with no benefits and no job security. If you want to hear from some of these people, check out the blog College Misery.

I didn't know any of this before I entered graduate school, because: a) things weren't as bad then, and b) those undergrad professors tend to reassure their students that MANY people may not get jobs, but, you, of course, are not "many people." You are special and chosen, and you're going to a top-3 grad school in your field, where you will be fully funded. (Did you know, dear readers, that some students take out as much as $100K in loans to get Ph.D.'s? Even as an undergrad, I would have recognized that as crazy).

So, for the last ten years or so, various people have been writing articles in various publications that only academics read suggesting many of the solutions that Pannapacker puts forth, including: providing non-academic career advice to Ph.D.'s; publishing the rates of job placement in any Ph.D. program; and encouraging grad students to organize. Because most of these articles are written by academics (and Pannapacker is one), most of them do not include his final suggestion, which he calls "the nuclear option."

Pannapacker says:

"6. Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now. Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even the more privileged students I mentioned earlier—and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don't have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.
In order to reform higher education, many of us will have to leave it, perhaps temporarily, but with the conviction that the fields of human activity and values we care about—history, literature, philosophy, languages, religion, and the arts—will be more likely to flourish outside of academe than in it. As more and more people are learning, universities do not have a monopoly on the 'life of the mind.'"

There were five jobs nationwide in my field last year. FIVE. In. The. Whole. Country. (And Canadian universities must, by law, give preference to Canadians). Non-academics rarely believe these statistics, but they are real. It is refreshing to hear an academic admit that this may not work, even for the Ivy-League, fully-funded, Ph.D. who has not yet had to resort to adjuncting. I have never heard a tenured professor say anything close to: "It [the current academic labor system] exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both." It's as refreshing to me as it is shocking.

I'm going back on the job market this year. I very well may find another postdoc. Will it be exploitative? If I don't find one, will I adjunct, or will I do a #6?

Any thoughts?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Score One for Progressive Judaism

As I have mentioned on this blog, I was raised Reform (in a kosher home) and am now Shomeret Shabbat and belong to a Modern Orthodox shul, although I would have no problem belonging to a traditional egalitarian Conservative shul. I am not a strictly halakhic Jew, in other words, but my practice may be described as Orthodox-style, and I believe in a personal God Who gave us commandments and in Divine Providence. My instincts for social justice, however, are sometimes shocked by my experiences in a Modern Orthodox community, and this morning was no exception.

On account of said practice, I needed to find out the sof z'man kriyat Sh'ma this morning (the last time to say the Sh'ma prayer; yes, there is a time limit). I wasn't sure if Daylight Savings Time affected this. So, I went on to the Orthodox Union website (, natch). Right before I had gone on the website, my browser flashed the cover of the New York Times website, with its latest horrible news on the massive casualties and nuclear disaster of the Japan tsunami.

I am feeling some despair about what has been going on in the world in 2011. I'm not sure what I want (or can) do about it other than pray and give charity, but that's for another post. When I went to the OU website, I saw the following headline: "OU responds to Terrorist tragedy in Israel." Over Shabbat, a Palestinian breached the security of the West Bank settlement of Itamar and stabbed five people, including a BABY. I find this sick and disgusting, of course, and I find it even more sick and disgusting that the coverage of this tragedy has been less than, um, ideal, as the victims have often been described as nameless "settlers" and their story buried on page 15 or something. If an Israeli civilian had gone into an Arab village in the West Bank and killed five people, that would have been on page 1 for at least a week. And I am no fan of settlers or settlements.

That being the case, we are talking about five people here. And how, exactly, can the OU respond to that? What about Japan? People there need food, clothing, radiation detectors, etc. I am sure there are more than five expatriate American Jews who might need something. I know that every life is important, and I believe that, but this struck me as particularism and refusal to engage with the rest of the world run amok.

So I went to the website of the Union for Reform Judaism and saw this headline: "Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan
In response to the tragic devastation of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, the URJ has partnered with a number of North American Jewish organizations to form the Jewish Coalition for Japan Relief."

This struck me in my kishkes, as they say, as the far more appropriate headline, although I would have been pleased as punch to see both websites having both headlines. I guess you can take the girl out of Reform Judaism . . .

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Shut up, Shylock

Anti-semitism was a joke in my house when I growing up--literally. My parents firmly believed that anti-Semitism in the US had ceased to be a major problem and were irked that many Jews seemed to base so much of their Jewish identity on fighting it, or just being offended by it. So, if we suffered some kind of minor mishap (the mail was late, my brother couldn't find his left shoe, etc.), and complained, the answer to our childish "Why?" was a smirky "anti-Semitism." I still tell this joke to TH and close friends today.

I think that anti-Semitism was, and still is, both over- and underestimated. On over-estimating, see everything related to the ADL. I am not saying that anti-Semitism is gone, but its prevalence and power depend a lot on context, which is a pretty post-1950 phenomenon. If that American coke fiend Charlie Sheen wants to make anti-Semitic comments about his boss's name change (never mind that Sheen was born with the last name "Estevez"), who cares? He said he was a warlock, so obviously he is not exactly in his right mind. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is a much bigger problem because he has all those weapons and not a lot to lose right now. But both of them were using anti-Semitic speech to attempt to distract others from their actual problems, as is often the case with anti-Semitic speech, and the Jews are the least of those problems. If Gaddafi is going to use those weapons on anyone, it's not going to be the Jews, at least not initially. The anti-Semitism of Hamas and Hezbollah and the publication of works in the Arab world that perpetuate the blood libel are almost unspeakably bad.

The distinction between these different kinds of anti-Semitism may be the hardest to draw in the US precisely BECAUSE this is such a safe country for Jews. What pisses me off about this, though, is that all of the political correctness and anti-Semitic-speech-watching pervading American media today (if I have to hear one more word about that freak British designer and HIS rant, I may scream), is that people can no longer tell the difference between real anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic speech by cokehead lunatics. I'm not saying that the latter can never be a problem, but it's obviously not as big a problem as serious anti-Semitism, or even the casual purveying of old anti-Semitic stereotypes that still have real salience for some people, especially outside the US, and especially in the Arab world.

This brings me to The Merchant of Venice. As you know, faithful readers, unless you have been living under a rock, the play was revived this summer to rave reviews, first as part of NYC's free Shakespeare in the park, and then on Broadway. Al Pacino played Shlock. A mere week or two after the Pacino Merchant closed, a new one opened off-Broadway, starring F. Murray Abraham. TH asked if I wanted to go to the off-Broadway version, since we were willing neither to sleep overnight in Central Park nor to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for the Broadway version.

I said no. Why?

Well, The Merchant of Venice is one of the most anti-Semitic plays ever written. It is, by a factor of a lot, the most anti-Semitic work of literature that is still read and interpreted seriously in the Western world. AND NOBODY SEEMS TO KNOW IT. One need look no further for evidence of this ignorance than the New York Times's review of the off-Broadway/F. Murray Abraham Merchant of Venice. Under a picture of FMA in an expensive suit, holding a dagger over a captive blond personifying WASP-hood (how many of those do you think there were in Renaissance Venice, btw?), Charles Isherwood chatters on blithely about how the play captures the conflicting forces of good and evil that vie for dominance in every human heart. Never mind that earlier in the article, Isherwood said that the play's "modern dress" is "evoking the bottom-line-obsessed world of today's Wall Street."

So, let me get this straight, Mr. Isherwood. A play by William Shakespeare, who did not exactly live in the heyday of the tolerance of Jews, in which the main character is an evil Jewish moneylender, is being revived on the New York stage with a Jewish actor dressed like a Wall Street trader demanding a pound of flesh from a non-Jew, and I am supposed to focus on its universal themes? We are not very far away from the economic crisis and the calls on Main Street, U.S.A., for the heads of the bankers, especially from Goldman Sachs. (I don't care what you think; I still maintain that Matt Taibi's widely-read Rolling Stone article, then book, on the subject was anti-Semitic). Where are we in the Jewish community when we can scream our heads off about Charlie Sheen and then skip off to our Jew-sploitation theater performance when we're done? I, personally, am comforted to know that there are no mosques within ten blocks of the theater. Because that could be problematic.