...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Friday, March 30, 2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What would Maimonides say?

Priceless. I just checked my referral logs, and I'm the number one response on Google for "Can you schedule a Roomba on Shabbat?"

At first I was like, "No way. That's using electricity, which is creating a spark, which is creating fire, and you're not allowed to light fires on Shabbat." But I'm pretty sure that you are allowed to use automatic timers on lights, so it seems that scheduling your Roomba to activate on Shabbat, as long as you programmed it before lighting the candles eighteen minutes before sunset on Erev Shabbat, would be kosher. So my conclusion would be: yes. Yes, you can schedule a Roomba on Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom, whoever Googled me...and may your carpets be forever cleaned.

Monday, March 26, 2007

I bet I'm the only blog that links to Biblical Womanhood and Savage Love!

Check out my shiny new links bar to the right! I think it's pretty exhaustive, but if you notice something is missing and you think it should be added, just leave me a comment and I'll take care of it. Also, if you're linked here and for whatever reason you don't want to be, then let me know and I'll take you off the list. Otherwise, this list should give you guys a pretty good idea of where I spend my time online.

Edited to add: Also, I think it probably goes without saying--but I'll say it anyways--that I don't endorse the views expressed on all of the blogs and sites I link to.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

"Velcro! Next to the Walkman and Tab, the best invention of the 20th century!"

At a thrift store this afternoon, I found not only two episodes of the straight-to-video early-nineties Baby-Sitters Club video series (we're watching it Tuesday evening! You're invited!) but also a cinematic event entitled Girls Just Want to Have Fun, starring one Sarah Jessica Parker (!) circa 1985. She just loves to dance, and wants to be on Dance TV! But her stern dad won't let her audition! Featuring Helen Hunt (!!) as the wacky pal (she wears a beret with a giant grasshopper on it!) and Shannon Doherty (!!!) as the annoying kid sister. Plus, there's a strikingly George Michael Bluth-like guy in it ("Dangerous cousins...I like the way they think..."), mullets o'plenty, and everyone's wearing a French-cut unitard with the elastic pulled way, way above their hip bones. Peggy and Amy and I just watched it with some drinks, and oh, is it a good time. Like, take a drink every time the camera pulls WAY THE HELL AWAY whenever Sarah Jessica Parker's character is supposed to be doing a complicated dance move...cue the stunt double! And the best scene of all is when the punks crash the villainesse's debutante party by somersaulting through the window of the country club...and then the Billy Idol look-alike walks around on the buffet table and sticks his foot in the roast turkey and waves it around.

During the viewing, the following conversation occured:

(Scene: Helen Hunt's character is sporting quite the side-poneytail)
Amy: "Whoa! I am certainly not "Mad About" that hairstyle! That is not "As Good As It Gets!"
Me: "Someone needs to "Cast" that "Away!"
Amy: "...Too bad she didn't make any more movies."
Me: "Yeah, we pretty much just exhausted her filmography."
(Sarah Jessica Parker has six-inch black roots)
Amy: "There's not going to be any "Sex" in that "City!" Someone needs to work some "Hocus Pocus" on her!"

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Not the Tanya's finest moment

From chapter 14 of the Tanya:
"Nevertheless, a person must set aside specific periods in which to commune with his soul in order to cultivate the abhorrence of evil, as, for example, reminding himself the admonition of our Sages that 'Woman is a vessel full of filth,' etc., and in like manner."
A footnote after "vessel of filth" clarifies: "In her menstrual period." Nice, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Nice.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

All Ulysses, all the time

Sometime over the past month my bed has developed pronounced crrrr-eeak whenever any weight or movement is applied to it. I mean, I can be just sitting in bed studying, and if I shift my weight ever so slightly, crrrr-eeak!! goes the bed. I don't know if it's the mattress or the bedframe, but it certainly is, as Daniel eloquently put, "fucking obnoxious." "Embarrasing," "conspicuous," and "distracting" are other good descriptors. Because everything in my life has a correspondance to Joyce's Ulysses lately, it reminded me of the scene remembered by Molly Bloom in her fifty-pages-in-one-sentence interior monologue at the end of the novel, when she and her lover Blazes Boylan have sex on the floor of bedroom because the "jingle jangle jingle" mattress is making too much noise. "yes I said yes I will Yes," indeed.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

"That’s the new Messiah for Ireland! says the citizen. Ireland of saints and sages!"

Today during Shabbat services--right in the middle of the chanting of the Sh'ma, in fact--a stout, older woman sitting in front of me turned around and grabbed my arm. "What's a nice Jewish girl like you doing wearing green on St. Patrick's Day?" she demanded in a loud whisper. I didn't explain my situation--that although I might be a nice girl, I'm not a Nice Jewish Girl (TM), etc--because, as I said, we were supposed to be singing the prayer, so I just smiled and laughed sheepishly. "Hey, even the rabbi's wearing a green shirt," I whispered back. "I know!" she replied. "And I'm going to give him a hard time, too!"

As I walked up to Market of Choice to catch the bus I thought about whether it was inappropriate to wear green to Shabbat services--if wearing green on St. Patrick's Day implied observance of a Catholic holiday. But then I thought about (what else?) Ulysses, and how although today might be St. Patrick's Day, green is the color of Ireland, not the Catholic Church. I decided that, if I had been called at P'nai Or to justify the color of my shirt, then I would have said that I was wearing it in honor of Irish Jews like Leopold Bloom:
—A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
—By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to much out of it:
—Or also living in different places.
—That covers may case, says Joe.
—What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen.
—Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.
The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner. (12. 1422-33)
Last semester, I had the privilege to be able to take both Religious Studies 390: The Apocalyptic Imagination and English 333: James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Although I wouldn't have expected it, I found incredible convergences between the two courses, and ended up writing my final papers for both classes on apocalyptic, eschatological, and messianic elements in James Joyce's Ulysses (the papers were different enough in focus that this was not intellectually dishonest). Throughout Ulysses, but particularly in "Cyclops," chapter 12; "Circe," chapter 15; and "Ithaca," chapter 17; Joyce equates and conflates Jewish and Irish messianic expectations and apocalyptic elements, such as the ingathering of the exiled 12 Tribes of Israel. For instance, in the passage below, it is not the 12 Tribes of Israel that are gathered, but the 12 Tribes of Iar, hyper-Irish archetypes who reestablish the Sanhedrim:
And there sat with him the high sinhedrim of the twelve tribes of Iar, for every tribe one man, of the tribe of Patrick and the tribe of Hugh and of the tribe of Owen and of the tribe of Conn and of the tribe of Oscar and of the tribe of Fergus and of the tribe of Finn and of the tribe of Dermot and of the tribe of Cormac and of the tribe of Kevin and of the tribe of Caolte and of the tribe of Ossian, there being in all twelve good men and true. (12. 1124-30)
In chapter fifteen, Leopold Bloom himself becomes a messianic figure, who establishes the New Bloomusalem (hopefully everyone recognizes this as a play on the New Jerusalem, which Christ establishes at the end of the Book of Revelation). All will prosper in the New Bloomusalem, regardless of race or religion:
Thirtytwo workers, wearing rosettes, from all the counties of Ireland, under the guidance of Derwan the builder, construct the new Bloomusalem. It is a colossal edifice with crystal roof, built in the shape of a huge pork kidney, containing forty thousand rooms. In the course of its extension several buildings and monuments are demolished…A part of the walls of Dublin, crowded with loyal sightseers, collapses. (15. 1545-1555).

"I stand for the reform of municipal morals and the plain ten commandments. New worlds for old. Union of all, jew, moslem, and gentile. Three acres and a cow for all children of nature…All parks open to the public day and night…General amnesty, weekly carnival with masked license, bonuses for all, esperanto the universal language with universal brotherhood. No more patriotism of barspongers and dropsical imposters. Free money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state. (15. 1685-93)"
And on a side note, try writing "New Bloomusalem" a few dozen times within the space of two weeks, and you will find that it becomes very difficult to retrain yourself to say "New Jerusalem."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Nefesh, ruach, and n'shama

Jewish tradition speaks of three kinds, or levels, of souls: nefesh, ruach, and n'shama. When I talk about the soul in my thesis, I generally use the word n'shama, since that's the word I'm most acquainted with: it's all over Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers, and every Shabbat at P'nai Or we sing this song "Elohai N'shama," a traditional prayer from the morning liturgy that Reb Aryeh set to music. (See a reflection on that prayer here.)

Yesterday I met with Reb Aryeh at his office to interview him for my thesis. Explaining to me the major differences he perceives between Chabad-Lubavitch and Jewish Renewal, he pulled big volume off his shelf: the Tanya, also known as the Liqqutei Amarim, the mystical work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. It's one of the most important foundational texts of Chabad. "You see," he told me, flipping through the text and tracing the Hebrew right to left with his finger, "There's a certain kind of...spiritual racism in Chabad. Here, in the Tanya, you read, 'The second soul of a Jew is truly a part of God above.' Jews have a nefesh elohit, a divine, godly soul, and non-Jews don't have this. And that, to me, is spiritual racism. Now, part of it comes from the time period it was written--non-Jews didn't exactly treat Jews well. The Alter Rebbe didn't have contact with Eastern Orthodox mystics, with Catholic mystics, with Hindus and Buddhists, and so he maybe assumed that only Jews had that kind of mystical connection. But to maintain that idea nowadays, that's not an acceptable attitude."

Discussing the meeting with my thesis advisor Sylvia this morning, she nodded. "I'm also uncomfortable with that idea," she said, explaining to me the three different kinds of souls. In Chassidus, the nefesh is the lowest, most universal soul-level, and the n'shama is the highest: the essential, unique part of the Jewish soul that is part of God Himself.

"What level of soul do non-Jews have?" I asked.

"Oh, according to Maimonides, everyone has a nefesh. Even animals have a nefesh."

"So, potentially, it would be inappropriate for a Gentile to talk about their n'shama?"

Sylvia smiled kind of guiltily. "Well...if you wanted to use their language...then I suppose so. A Gentile has a nefesh, not a n'shama."

Yesterday, talking with Reb Aryeh, I mentioned Reb Asi's assurance to me that Chabad doesn't believe the souls of Jews are better than those of Gentiles, just different. Reb Aryeh scoffed: "That's just apologetics. That's not genuine. You can't tell me that there are two people, and one of them you has a nefesh elohit, and the other doesn't, that you don't believe that the one with the nefesh elohit is closer to God." It made me sad to hear that according to Chabad, a tradition for which I have so much respect and admiration, that I don't have a nefesh elohit, that I only have the same kind of soul as the animals. In truth, it makes me a little angry, too--and a little like I've been deceived.

I'm still going to sing "Elohai N'shama" tomorrow, though, and rest in the assurance that the Jewish Renewal does not believe in that kind of essentialist spiritual exceptionalism.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Strange as it seems, there's been a run of crazy dreams

I just had a dream that I was riding Bus #39 with Emma Smith, the first wife of Mormon prophet and founder Joseph Smith. As we waited for the 39 to pull up past the Burlingame Fred Meyer, I asked her if it was true that she pushed another of Joseph Smith's wives, Eliza Roxcy Snow, down a flight of stairs and beat her with a broom. I also asked her what she thought of nineteenth-century pulp fiction comparisons between Islam and Mormonism, and the analogies made between her and Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad. (I don't remember what she said. Maybe we had arrived on campus by that point.)

(I can't wait to see this post show up in my referral logs.)

"Everchanging tracks of neverchanging space"

Parallax is the phenomenon by which one object, viewed by different observers in different places, appears to be in a different place relative to each observer. In Astronomy yesterday we talked about parallax with regard to the Moon, and how it's close enough to the Earth that parallax is observed, but how parallax is not observed with other celestial objects, much further away than the moon, like stars and supernovas (if parallax were observed with the regard to the stars, then it would be impossible to make a universal chart of the constellations, since they would be in different places relative to each other depending on the location of the observer.)

Parallax is also the literary technique of chapter 17 ("Ithaca") of James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce wrote the chapter like a formal catechism; it goes through hundreds of questions and answers about the relative movements of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, their experiences and thoughts, and their relationships to their various national and ethnic groups (Irish for Stephen, Jewish for Bloom):
What fragments of verse from the ancient Hebrew and ancient Irish languages were cited with modulations of voice and translation of texts by guest to host and by host to guest?

By Stephen: suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus suil go cuin (walk, walk, walk your way, walk in safety, walk with care).
By Bloom: kifeloch, harimon rakatejch m’baad l’zamatejch (thy temple amid thy hair is as a slice of pomegranate). (…)

What points of contact existed between these languages and between the peoples who spoke them?

…Their archeological, genealogical, hagiographical, exegetical, homiletic, toponomastic, historical literatures comprising the works of rabbis and culdees, Torah, Talmud (Mischna and Ghemara), Massor, Pentateuch, Book of the Dun Cow, Book of Ballymote, Garland of Howth, Book of Kells: their dispersal, persecution, survival and revival: the isolation of their synagogical and ecclesiastical rites in ghetto (St. Mary’s Abbey) and masshouse (Adam and Eve’s tavern): the proscription of their national costume in penal laws and jewish dress acts: the restoration in Chanah David of Zion and the possibility of Irish political autonomy or devolution. (17. 724-760)
Throughout all of Ulysses, but especially in chapter 17, Joyce emphasizes that Stephen and Bloom experience the same events in fundamentally different ways, due the differences in their characters and sensibilities: parallax.

Sitting in Astronomy, listening to the professor talk about astronomical parallax, all I could think about was Bloom and Stephen and chapter 17. After class, I asked my friend K., who was also in Joyce/Woolf, if she was also thinking about Ulysses. "Oh my God, yes!" she said. "I was going to ask you that same thing!" And as I left class, I repeated to myself one of my very favorite passages from Ulysses, an image of comfort and security from the end of chapter 17, as Leopold and Molly Bloom lie in bed together after ten years of estrangement:
In what state of rest or motion?

At rest relatively to themselves and to each other. In motion being each and both carried westward, forward and rereward respectively, by the proper perpetual motion of the earth through everchanging tracks of neverchanging space. (17. 2306-2310)

Monday, March 12, 2007

"Filled exactly with a pebbly meaning..."

A beautiful and devastating addition to McSweeney's Convergences Contest was posted a few days ago. If you haven't been following the Contest, which has been going on for about a year, I recommend you start; with each posting, I feel like a better human being. In his response to the winning convergence, Weschler mentions Sartre's insistance in Being and Nothingness that "a man is not a man the way a rock is a rock;" regardless, if a human is to be a human, then I think reocognition of convergence must be a central part of that humanity.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Jews, booze, and hamantaschen (part 2)

Purim was last week. To tell the truth, although I definitely had a good time and learned lots (ha, ha...ho? "Purim" is Hebrew for "lots." That pun was definitely not intended, but I feel like I have to acknowledge it, lame as it might be), it was actually a little less fun than I anticipated, which is why I didn't blog about it earlier in the week. I probably built it up a little too much in my head, and weekly emails from Chabad of Eugene reinforced my own ideas about what it would be like. I remember back in early/mid October when Chris and I went to the Simchat Torah service, like an hour into the singing and dancing this woman was like, "Are you guys new here? If you really want to see us in full swing, come back for Purim." She kind of accompanied the statement with that kind of suggestive or conspiratorial eyebrow-raise and head-tilt, like, "Ohhh.". At the Tu B'shvat seder last month, as well, a Presbyterian minister made a few remarks, and he said something about P'nai Or being "A pretty rockin' congregation, as I remember from last year's Purim celebration."

I arrived at P'nai Or a little after 7:30pm. Admission to the celebration was six dollars and thirteen cents. (Students of religion: see if you can figure out what's significant about that number. The answer is at the end of the post!) A little less than half of the people there were in costume. I wasn't, because I don't enjoy wearing costumes, but Helana and Jeanine, the other two LC students, were. Instead of reading the Megillah Esther, a group of people from the congregation, including Reb Aryeh, put on a skit. Every time a character said the name Haman, everyone booed and stamped their feet and shook rattles; that was fun. (Chris: the guy playing Haman was the tall, thin man with the New York accent whom we talked to for awhile at Simchat Torah.) Reb Aryeh's character was this newscaster (from "Kvetch Nus") named Shofar Shogood, which was kind of funny (the shofar is a ram's horn blown on Rosh Hashana). I busted out my field research notebook and jotted down some notes for my thesis when he introduced the story of Esther as taking place on the 15th of the month of Adar, sometime in the 3000s AC--"That's AC, After Creation. Some people say DC, Destroying Creation, but let's not go there now." The understanding of the power of humanity relative to the earth is a difference between Chabad and most other Jewish denominations. When I asked Reb Asi, the Chabad rabbi in Eugene, what Chabad's stance on environmentalism were, he told me directly, "The difference between Jewish Renewal and Chabad is that Chabad does not believe humans have the power to destroy the earth."

They kept breaking up the skit for fundraising breaks, including this painfully drawn-out auction. Few people were bidding, in my opinion because they started the prices of the items too high (like the opening bid for a $50 item would be $36. Someone's not going to bid that much unless they really wanted the thing in the first place; when you start the bids that high, you eliminate the impulse purchase option). Helana, Jeanine and I snuck out to the refreshments area in the fellowship hall, where we talked about mysticism and meditation and ate hamantaschen and drank little paper medicine cups of wine. Helana said that she saw people back in the sanctuary sneaking drinks from flasks; it was pretty clear that a lot of the people were drunk. The idea of pre-gaming Purim still makes me laugh.

The skit and all the fundraising lasted about an hour, then people kind of trickled out of the sanctuary and towards the fellowship hall. I hung out for a few more minutes, greeted the rabbi, and ate more hamantaschen (which was delicious. I must have had at least ten pieces. Why do the Jews have all the best food?!), then left. Although I could feel the wine, all in all I probably had less than a glass worth; I could definitely still distinguish between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman." (Some may be interested to know that Mordechai and Haman have the same gematric value. Another Purim tradition holds that you should drink until you can't calculate gematria anymore.)

So, it was fun. I'm glad I went. But as far as celebrating, singing, and dancing with wild abandon, Simchat Torah was much better; I'm infinitely thankful that that holiday was my first Jewish Renewal experience.

(Answer: An admission of $6.13 charges one penny for each mitzvah in the Torah: the 10 Commandments, plus the 603 additional mitzvot. Clever, huh?)

Friday, March 09, 2007


Daniel's bar mitzvah was performed by Chabad--in fact, by the same Chabad family in Portland that is now politely but frustratingly ducking my thesis advisor's attempts to put me in contact with them. "I find it strange," Daniel said last night, "that they could be so open to athiest Jews who don't care at all about their Judaism, yet so closed off to someone like you, who's not Jewish but is legitimately interested in learning about their religion and their culture." "Yeah, I know, but it makes sense within their theology," I replied. "It's because Chabad believes the soul of a non-Jew is qualitatively different than the soul of a Jew. You have a Jewish n'shama, and I don't, and I can't overcome that with them no matter how interested I am in learning about Chabad."

My thesis advisor Sylvia and I were talking about the issue this morning during our weekly meeting. "They don't want to convert you to Chabad, so they're not as interested in talking with you," she explained. "But since they still want him to lead an observant life, they'll do all they can to reach out to him and his family."

If nothing else, the difficulty of getting in contact with Lubavitchers is interesting data about their orientation towards the world and towards non-Jews. The Jewish Renewal movement is explicitly inner-worldly, to use Max Weber's language: they situation themselves within the world, encourage social and political activism (recently a union organizing came and spoke after Shabbat services, for instance: a member of the congregation reminded everyone that supporting workers was an important part of tikkun olam), and are open to other religions and interfaith activism. Compared with Jewish Renewal, Chabad-Lubavitch seems very world-rejecting, the category that Weber presents in opposition to inner-worldly. But, naturally, it's more complicated than that: Chabad might be world-rejecting compared with Jewish Renewal, but understood against other Hasidic dynasties (Sylvia suggested that I not use the word "sect," since it's kind of polemical), Chabad is by far the most inner-worldly, willing to engage with and reach out to non-observant and non-Haredi Jews. According to some other truly world-rejecting Hasidic dynasties, like the Satmarer Hasids, Chabad is so inner-worldly as to appear tainted by the world (and their understanding of the Rebbe does not help Satmar/Chabad relations).

Thursday, March 08, 2007


No words strike quite the same fear into the heart as "There's something I really need to talk to you about, and I don't want to do it over email."

UPDATE: False alarm; everything is fine.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Jews, booze, and hamantaschen (part 1)

It's Purim! Most congregations and Jewish communities celebrate it on the Saturday, but P'nai Or's Purim party is Sunday evening. Last week during Shabbos services Reb Aryeh explained that there's Talmudic precedent for observing the holiday a day later: "So, you know, we're just following the Talmud...like we always do, rigorously. Not to mention halakha. That's what we're about in Jewish Renewal: Talmud, and halakha." He was being sardonic, of course: while it's a vast oversimplification and misreading of the tradition to say that Jewish Renewal doesn't care about halakha (I think the movement as a whole generally holds halakha in higher esteem than the Reform movement does, for instance), it is true that Jewish Renewal doesn't place quite the same emphasis on orthopraxy (correct action) that the Haredim do.

Speaking of the Haredim, last Saturday during Reb Aryeh's sermon, a congregant raised his hand and made a comment about the cognitive dissonance of seeing Haredim in Jerusalem at the site of the destruction of the Temple, talking on their cell phones: "You wonder who they're talking to." Reb Aryeh put on an exaggerated Yiddish inflection and riffed on the man's comment: "Hello, God? I can't hear you, you're breaking up! The reception's no good here--You sound like a woman!....What, you're a Muslim? You mean that really was the second coming? Oy!" Earlier in the sermon he started improvising a song called "My God," sung to the tune of "My Girl:" "Don't need no Isis, Ba'al or Ra..." He stopped himself after a couple lines and criticized the verses: "'My God,' like our God is better than their God, right?" A couple weeks ago at the Tu B'shvat seder, Reb Aryeh defined "Israel" as "All peoples who wrestle with God," drawing on the biblical tradition in which Jacob wrestles with an God in the form on an angel, who then renames him Israel. I'm excited to interviewing him, and asking him about his take (or the Jewish Renewal take) on the belief that Reb Asi explained to me, that the n'shama (essential Jewish soul) of a Jew is different than the soul of a non-Jew.

Basically, I adore that rabbi. I'm glad that I'm out to him as a non-Jew, and I'm glad that he's so cool with talking to me and letting me participate in their services and events. Being able to continue my involvement in P'nai Or is definitely a big part of the silver lining of staying in Portland next year.

Anyways, I'm totally excited for Purim, and I'll blog more about it the morning after.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Why do we get drunk on Purim?"

On the holiday Purim (this weekend!), Jews are supposed to drink until they can't tell the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai." Here, you can listen to Reb Asi, the Chabad rabbi in Eugene, give an hour-long explanation of why it's a mitzvah (commandment) to get drunk on Purim. Reb Asi and his wife Aviva are the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries serving Jewish students at the University of Oregon; he's the rabbi I interviewed back in January.