Sunday, July 27, 2008

How Not to Be a Jerk 2

. . . or, Katrina's Quik 'n E-Z Guide to Being a Shabbat Guest and Host

The Jewish community in which I live has a big Hakhnasat Orchim (welcoming-of-guests) problem. Maybe I'm noticing it more now because it's the summer, and I have less to do, or perhaps the problem is getting worse, but I feel I have to say (or at least blog) something.

My Shomer Shabbat community has many graduate students. Many of these are single, and also, because they're graduate students, poor and car-less. This makes it harder for them to obtain kosher meat, or at least kosher chicken, and, let's face it, it's a lot more fun to cook when you're cooking with at least one other person. (Because TC has a job, when he visits for a weekend, he doesn't get here until Friday, late-afternoon, so I still have to cook meals alone, and it's lonely). Of course, there is also clique-y-ness, so within each social group, even fewer people cook on a regular basis. Some people, of course, enjoy cooking more than others, and some like to dictate the guest lists at their meals, but, in general, there are not a lot of conditions here that are conducive to these single graduate students cooking.


I say this because most of the cooking, especially for Friday-night dinner, is falling on a disproportionately small number of people (often married couples) in the community. Singles who don't have anywhere to go tend to find out where the dinners are and invite themselves. This is the wrong attitude. It's rude, and it's not mentschlich. Just because a married couple is making dinner every week does not mean that the members of said couple always want to make dinner. Our community is sufficiently young and informal that virtually no one, pre-kids, cooks every week. It just means that they have to eat, and no one else has invited them over. If people invite themselves over, then that means more cooking for said already busy couple (or single, or collection of roommates--I realize there is more than one model here).

Now, I'm not saying that if you are moving, and your dog died, and your oven broke, that you shouldn't call a good friend and ask to be included in a Shabbat meal. I'm saying that: 1) you shouldn't do so consistently without reciprocating; and 2) you shouldn't think that you are the only person who is busy and stressed out; everyone is.

My parents were very strict about manners when I was growing up. When we went to Temple, and they introduced my sibling and me to new people, we had to shake their hands, look them in the eye, smile, and then answer the obvious adult questions (How old are you? What grade are you in now?). Letting the adult know we were grievously annoyed and would rather be home reading The Babysitters' Club was not an option. When we had guests over, we were not allowed to take food until all the guests had been served. AND, when someone invited my parents or the family over for dinner, my parents always invited them back. This had nothing to do with being frum, of course. We were not frum. I first head about Hakhnasat Orchim (or Hochnosos Orchim) on an Uncle Moishe cassette tape in someone else's car. So the fact that many Shomer Shabbat people around here did not grow up that way is not an excuse either. It has to do with being a decent, polite, well-brought-up human being.

In case you have read this far and are still not sure what I'm getting at, or in case you're saying, Well, Katrina, of course I would like to reciprocate as a decent, polite, human being, but I just don't have time, here are my quik 'n e-z tips for being a mentschlich Shabbat guest:

1. Make at least 1 meal for every month (or so) that you are in town and eating at someone else's house for at least one Shabbat meal per week. Try to invite as many of your hosts as possible to your meal. It's very unlikely that they will all be able to make it, and I would suggest inviting a few at a time if you're nervous about numbers. You can always get 'em the following month. Don't worry about not competing with the regular Shabbat dinner makers. It's the thought that counts, and everyone knows there's a learning curve

2. Consider making lunch if dinner overwhelms you; it's summer, and you can get away with a bunch of cold salads.

3. If you honestly feel that you cannot, for whatever reason (and there are a very small number of people out there with good reasons), host a meal and reciprocate, I would suggest one or more of the following:

A. Going to Chabad. That's what they are there for. They don't care if you reciprocate, since they always have a place to eat. They don't care if you don't RSVP, if you're late, if you're early. If you're Jewish, they will take you, and they have already cooked.

B. Going up to the Hospitality Person at your minyan, admitting you don't have meal plans, and letting that person match you with someone offering a meal. Yes, it can be uncomfortable for you, but you're asking for free, no-work-for-you food; uncomfortable is not the end of the world.

C. Organizing a potluck. People who cook a lot (or even a little) will tell you that it is MUCH easier to make only one dish, even if they have to host the potluck, then it is to plan out, buy the ingredients for, and make, an entire meal. The annoying thing is not the cooking, but the organizing. If you can't contribute more than a side dish, donate your time to making the potluck happen. Donating time is how some poor people pay their shul dues, and this, IMHO, is similar. And it's summer! There's an eruv! You don't even need a host; have a picnic in the park instead.

D. Cooking with your friends and/or roommates. This is similar to a potluck, I guess, but maybe all of you have been invited over for Shabbat by the same three couples for the last few months, and neither feels up to reciprocating individually. It's so much friendlier with 2 (or 3, or 4).

Katrina has sometimes been guilty of breaches of etiquette where Shabbat meals are concerned, but she's working on it.

Next time you're thinking of mooching, please consider my advice. Shavua Tov!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Novels! (I knew I'd get to it eventually)

(Psst . . . There's a list of books at the bottom if you want to skip all the reflective stuff)

My loyal readers (all dozen or so of you) may notice that in the "subtitle" (what's that called, anyway?) of my blog, I say, "Dating (or not even dating), weird approaches to Judaism, academia, and novels." Well, dating and weird approaches to Judaism I talk about a lot. I have occasionally made reference to my dissertation and how stressed it makes me feel, but I decided that posting too much more about academia wouldn't be good, since some of you guys know who I am. Keep it close to the vest, that is how I feel about blogging about one's work. But there is no good reason for me not to talk about novels.

I love novels! I love them. When Shabbat starts, I like to have at least two novels in my apartment, plus a magazine. Ideally, I would have started reading one book, so I know I like it, lest I be rudely surprised. The magazine could be either new or not, as long as there is something left to read in it. But I digress.

Where do all these novels come from, Katrina, you might ask? Well, first of all, I spend a fair amount of my disposable income on them. Since that's not much, I try to cut back on costs by: 1) borrowing books from friends (this rarely works, since I have idiosyncratic tastes); 2) buying remainders at my local book store, which has yielded more good books than I would expect; and 3) charging everything on my Amazon Visa and then spending the reward gift certificates on books. I also got my love of novels from my dad, so, whenever I'm home, he usually buys me a couple.

How do I have time to read all of these novels? Shouldn't I be reading for grad school? Well, Shabbatot in the summer are LONG, so even if I go to shul and then lunch, that leaves 6+ hours of reading. Even if half of that is taken up by napping, that's still a lot of reading time. And I am a fast reader. Also, I spend a fair amount of time with my books and my computer, so when I go out to or host dinner on Friday night and interact with all the people, it's cool, but it makes me kind of hyper. Even if I get home at midnight, I often have trouble calming down, so that's another reading opportunity. Then (gasp!) I read a little during the week.

Of course, the most important question (if you're still reading this after the thrilling previous paragraphs) is, what do I read? I happen to have very specific taste in novels. I used to feel bad about this, but then I figured, hey, it's my escape, so eat it, Dostoyevsky! I like to read books originally written in English because writing style is very important to me. I prefer contemporary fiction (within the last ten years, usually), and most of the books I read are by women*, which I think is a style thing. Not that men can't write in the kind of feminine style I like, but I think there is this pressure to be Hemingway. When I go to a bookstore, I will pick up a book that looks good and read the first few sentences. By that point, I can usually tell if it's a "no." People probably think I'm crazy because I can pick up a book, look at the back or page 1 for a few seconds, then put it down. If it's a "maybe," I move on to other books, repeat, and decide at the end, unless I'm in a rush. When I order online, I usually stick to authors I know, with some attention paid to reviews.

So, here is a partial list of books and/or authors I have really enjoyed these past few years. Maybe you'll decide to read one or more of them and tell me what you think. The authors are in alphabetical order to avoid appearance of favoritism:

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman's Union: No, I am not comparing the two. Kavalier and Clay is a FREAKING MASTERPIECE. I felt blessed to be reading it and hoped it would never end. But YPU was still quite good as a book and, to borrow my father's adjective, "brilliant" as a satire. I know that opinions on the book were mixed. If you want to know what I think it was about, leave me a comment, and I'll tell you.

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss: This is one of the first post-colonial novels I have read that understands the mind-blowing complexity of the post-colonial world.

Junot Diaz, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Yes, I read it BEFORE it won the Pulitzer, and I couldn't put it down. It's part story of a nerd, part window into Dominican-American culture, part mystery. Afterwards I read Diaz's first book, a collection of stories called Drown. Not as good, but pretty darn good.

Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Like Yiddish Policeman's Union, it's probably only funny if you're really Jewy. The first two stories in particular blew my mind.

Keri Hulme, The Bone People: Really weird in terms of style, plot, and everything else, but worth it. It's about an artist (with almost the same name as the author) who lives in New Zealand and meets a Maori boy and his foster father and befriends them.

Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land: Another hilarious book for Jews to read, I think. It's about a Chinese-American teenager growing up in Scarsdale, her Jewish friend (boyfriend?), and her interactions with the Jewish communnity. It seems the two groups have something in common! Fancy that.

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth: I can't really decide which is my favorite. They are all different. IofM is a collection of interconnected short stories, set in an apartment building in India, UE is short stories and a novella set in the States, and Namesake is a novel set in the States. The part of Namesake in which the narrator explains why the main character is nicknamed "Gogol" is particularly good.

Andrew Miller, Oxygen: I picked it up for $5 at the bookstore, really enjoyed it, then realized I had read another of his books in a similar fashion.

Denise Mina, Field of Blood: Totally accidental borrowing from BFF, and now I practically keep her in business. Her first book is the real thing, though--it's the thinking woman's mystery. Gory.

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried: a semi-autobiographical book of interlinked short stories about the Vietnam war. I thought there was nothing more anyone could do with the subject post-Apocalypse-Now and Born-on-the-Fourth-of-July, but I was WAY wrong.

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto: another beautifully written book. It's hard to explain her way with words if you haven't been there.

Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker: It's the Korean-American immigrant story, beautifully told.

Marilyn Robinson, Housekeeping (warning: this book is for style fiends only; it has a plot, but the cool part is that every single word was chosen with care to be the perfect word for its sentence--wow).

Lionel Shriver (who is actually a woman), The Post-Birthday World: A really creative set-up. A woman has the opportunity to kiss an acquaintance of her husband's. Then the book continues in alternating chapters based on whether she did it or not. Shriver has a very unconventional way of looking at the world, to say the least, as you will find if you read We Need to Talk about Kevin (not just another school shooting book, that's for darn sure) and the satire Game Control.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth: Really unusual and really good, it tells the story of two inter-connected immigrant families in the UK. But I totally can't do it justice by describing plot.

Colm Tóibín, Mothers and Sons and The Heather Blazing: I'm a sucker for Irish fiction. I think as a Jew I identify with all the suffering and yearning for a homeland. Toibin is an artist.

What do you guys like? I'm always looking for recommendations . . .

*Funny story: After I compiled the list, I realize there are an awful lot of men on it. Hmm . . . Have to think about it. Also, the number of books that take place in different countries surprised me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The J-Blogosphere: Good for the (Frum) Jews?

Lately it seems as though every New York media outlet I read has something to say about subjects related to shidduchim or other topics of frum interest.

DISCLAIMER: I do not identify as frum; I identify as Conservadox, which is American for confused. Nevertheless, I have frum friends, and I read frum blogs, and I have common sense, so I think that I can sketch this out broadly. Please let me know if anything seems horribly off-key.

First, there was the New York Jewish Week article in which one of my favorite bloggers, Bad4shidduchim, aka Bad4, was profiled. I think that the article failed to capture Bad4's wit but was otherwise pretty positive. Bad4's regular posters, some of whom know her personally, agreed. Then, taking her shidduch article to a paper that some people actually pay for and read, the same journalist who interviewd Bad4 wrote a more general article for The Wall Street Journal called "Single Jewish Female Seeks Stress Relief." That article highlighted some of the less pleasant aspects of the shidduch process (all of which the writer seems to have gotten from reading Bad4's blog, but who in journalism cares about attribution?), including that there are more dating gals than guys, which creates: 1) a series of women who can't marry and are considered old maids at 25; 2) really demanding "learning boys" and their even more demanding mothers, who sometimes insist on interviewing the "girl" before they will let their sons interrupt learning to date her; and 3) male "serial daters" who can and will date women as young as 18 for years because they can, and because they are afraid of making a mistake and ending up divorced. I am skeptical about the last one, since what 18-year-old would date a 30-year-old? As far as I understand it, 18-year-old girls are considered quite marriageable, and 30-year-old "bochurim" are considered, at the very least, weird. Anyway, the seemingly insane degree of background checking and labeling that goes on before the first date is also mentioned.

Charedi/yeshivish bloggers' reactions to The Wall Street Journal article seemed to range from "yeah, that's us," to "yeah, can you believe that's us? G-d help us." MY reaction was, Isn't this bad for the Jews, at least for Jews who participate in the shidduch "System"? And what about the Jews, like me, who are considered "Orthodox" by their non-Jewish friends--and some of the Jewish ones as well--because they are Shomrei Shabbat, and they don't live in New York, and people are ignorant? Now, instead of asking me whether I am going to have a million (read: 3) kids, since I can't use birth control (yes, I have gotten that question), people will ask me whether I put my boyfriend through a CIA background check before our first date. (Oh, yeah, JDate has that extra James Bond application).

Does anyone think that shidduchim would have made it into The Wall Street Journal without the J-Blogosphere? I don't. The J-Blogosphere provides too many research-free opportunities for journalists to get quick articles before their deadlines (on posts from Bad4 overlapping with subjects in the article, see here, here, and here).

I would also like to point out that, where I live, I have a number of out-of-town Modern Orthodox, Conservadox, and Conservative (labels are helpful sometimes) friends who read Charedi/yeshivish blogs and discuss them at Shabbat meals. By "discuss," I mostly mean that they say, "Can you believe these crazies?" Favorite non-shidduch internet proof of craziness usually centers on issues of: kashrut (keeping kosher), tznius (modesty), and chumrahs (customary stringencies that many people, including rabbis, now treat as halakhah, Jewish law) in general. When I say kashrut, I don't mean actually keeping kosher; I mean water-filtering, avoidance of raw fruits and vegetables even without the CDC scare, and Chalav Yisrael. By "tznius," I don't mean wearing long skirts and long sleeves; I mean Israeli "mehadrin" buses, Israeli women in burkas, and total separation of the sexes before marriage. By chumrahs, I mean what FrumSatire calls "the chumrah-of-the-month club." I think that's self-explanatory. I wouldn't know about 90% of these "crazy" things without the J-Blogosphere. I try to avoid these conversations, but they are going on. I predict that this Shabbat, the New York article on the woman who left Kiryas Joel will be the J-Blogosphere-inspired topic of conversation.

I know that Jews have found ways to hate each other for millenia without the help of the Jewish Blogosphere. (And in case anyone wants to accuse non-Orthodox Jews of hating the Orthodox for the fun of it, let me assure you that it's mutual. If I had a dollar for every time I read a hateful comment directed against Conservative and Reform Jews on a blog, I could drop out of grad school and eat bon-bons all day. These discussions also take place at dinner tables and would continue to occur even without the J-Blogosphere).

I also know that the J-Blogosphere provides much-needed outlets for frustrated people to express their frustration and anger, often at their own communities. The Charedi/yeshivish community, of course, is not monolithic: there is a silent majority that wants change, just as there is in every community. And I firmly believe it's their business, at least in the US. The taxpayers don't pay guys to learn full time, and people are free to leave.

But will it really remain their business if they are broadcasting it to the (at least Jewish) world?

Monday, July 14, 2008

This Is Why People Have Blogs

. . . so that they can rant about things that were bothering them last month (June) and will not be even remotely revelant until next June. So here it is:

If you are even remotely considering advertising a June jazz event with the words "We jazz June," please consider the poem from which it comes, "We Real Cool." The African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) published this poem as part of a collection in 1963:

We Real Cool

We real cool.
We Left school. We

Lurk late.
We Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We Die soon.

Take-home point: Promoting your family jazz celebration in the park in June with a poem about the urban racialized poor and their imminent demise=bad.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Boyfriends and Blogs

TC and I have been back together for about two-and-a-half months, and I felt for the first time on Sunday that it is serious now. Please get your minds out of the gutter; this was not because we had sex or anything. I was visiting my parents, who live near TC, for a few weeks, and we were able to see each other more often than about once every two weeks, and things just feel . . . intense, if I had to sum it up in a word. This isn't bad. It's weird, in a good way, not to mention good, in a weird way, and it's kind of overwhelming, but, humble reader, I have an even more important (in cyber-space terms) question for you:

Do I have to tell TC about my blog?

He doesn't know it exists yet, which I tend to think is a good idea, since I have already blogged about: 1) our previous relationship; 2) my conflicted feelings for The Shaigetz, which I realize now didn't amount to anything but a certain type of frustration; and 3) his mother. I don't know if he would care about 1), and I could delete posts pertaining to 2) and 3), but then what's the point of having a blog? If I had a diary, I don't think I would share it with him. If I talk about him to my parents, brother, or BFF, I don't necessarily tell him. I realize there is a difference, though, because others read this blog, and a few even know who I am and therefore who he is, although many don't. I could keep my blog and limit my posts to those relating to Judaism and politics, but I have gotten kind of attached to sharing my not-hugely-interesting dating stories in the blogosphere.

So, I wasn't thinking of telling him right away, but what's the etiquette on this? I am not worried about "getting caught" because he is very NOT computer-savvy and never reads blogs; this is more an issue of mutual respect. How serious does it have to get before it's inappropriate for me NOT to tell him? And then I guess I should sanitize my blog first?