Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Iran Arrests Grandma"

A longer post about my very exciting vacation will follow once I recover from the waffle/falafel-related jetlag I'm currently dealing with. But for now, a take-down of Tom Friedman. His column this week, "Iran Arrests Grandma," is beyond idiotic, and his argument ends up detracting from a much-needed point about Iranian (in)justice.

As the article's title suggests, the problem with Iran's sudden and arbitrary arrest of scholar Haleh Esfandiari is not that it was sudden and arbitrary, but that Esfandiari a) is female, and b) had at least one child who himself is a parent. Now anyone who's watched a Lifetime movie knows that "grandmas" may well be in their 30s, but this particular grandma is 67. Not 30, but by no means ancient. It's still well within the range of those who direct world politics. As long as those in their late 60s or early 70s are men. But back to Friedman:

This Iranian regime is afraid of its shadow. How do I know? It recently arrested a 67-year-old grandmother, whom it accused of trying to bring down the regime by organizing academic conferences!

Yes, big, tough President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the man who shows us how tough he is by declaring the Holocaust a myth — had his goons arrest Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar, grandmother and dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, while she was visiting her 93-year-old mother in Tehran. Do you know how paranoid you have to be to think that a 67-year-old grandmother visiting her 93-year-old mother can bring down your regime? Now that is insecure.

Clearly scholars can have political agendas, all the more so if they are involved in explicitly political work. It seems obvious that Esfandiari's agenda was not what Iran claims, thus the tragedy of her arrest. But if neither her age nor her profession ought to prove her innocence, then what, in Friedman's view, proves it? She's a granny! As such, no matter that her profession is hardly sitting on a rocking chair with a lap dog, no matter that she's 67 and not 87, she's an old lady, for god's sake!

Monday, May 28, 2007


To follow: the posting of many pictures, plus the studying of many French novels. Not necessarily in that order.

But for now, it's online!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Welkom bij Gmail

I do not (yet) understand more than a few words of Dutch, and so am taking a moment out of Flemish television to remind my readers, if those exist, that this blog continues. So far I've been to Paris, four towns in Belgium, and am going next to Israel. Aside from the occasional diamond dealer or perhaps the fictitious Rabbi Jacob, this is not the most likely trip for anyone to take. This vacation has been amazing, and there will indeed be pictures, not all of which involve me consuming pastries. Some will probably be of me eating falafel. Then it will be back to NYC for MA-exam preparation. I see this as being a bit like hibernation, not of course in the sense of being like sleep, but in that I'm eating now for the entire summer. Or at least that sounds like a good excuse for flan #200.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Blogger Mobius at Jewschool seems to be bothered by the fact that Israel is not an 100% perfect country, yet American Jews have the audacity to throw a parade to celebrate its independence. He contrasts a quote from the Israeli Supreme Court president, stating that Israel has a number of problems, with a picture of Americans with Israeli flags. See, see?

No, I don't.

Does this mean before going to the St. Patrick's day parade we must first read up on Ireland and make sure nothing unfair ever happens in that part of the world? Or how about July 4--America, too, has "experienced failure, social inequality, growing poverty in wide class circles, and lack of faith in all institutions the public is in need of." So is it disgusting that we don't all spend the American independence day filling out forms to head to Canada, or perhaps wiring bombs to place in the nearest McDonalds?

Mobius makes the now-classic mistake of not knowing the difference between criticizing Israeli policy and denying Israel's right to exist. American Jews are celebrating that there is a Jewish state. What precisely does Mobius know about critiques these very paraders do or don't make of Israeli policies? What many of these "Zionists" want is just for Israel to get judged by the same standard as other states, and not told every two seconds to remove itself from the world map.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The (better) case against multiculturalism

Via Matthew Yglesias, I see that Marty Peretz contrasts "multiculturalism" with the idea that, "Majorities have a right--even an obligation--to preserve their own ethics, norms, cultures and histories. They have a right to define the qualifications for membership in and even admission to their societies."

If multiculturalism is problematic, is that really the problem with it, that it takes precious power away from the democratic or republican state? I'm not seeing it. The danger of multiculturalism, if there is a danger of it, is in the possibility of a slippery slope to a world in which one's 'culture' is one's race, and in which the state's 'multiculturalism' involves recognizing membership in non-voluntary organizations. Why do people refer to racially diverse classrooms or workplaces as 'multicultural'? Just how visible is this 'culture'? Is a 6th-generation black American more 'multicultural' than the American-born child of Swedish immigrants?

The obvious if extreme case is the German judge who cited the Koran in denying an emergency divorce to a woman born in Germany, simply because she and her husband "came from a Moroccan cultural milieu." What happens, under an extreme form of multiculturalism, when someone wants to opt out of 'their' culture? What can be done about the fact that one 'culture' is inevitably defined as the 'real' French, German, American, whatever, culture, from which all the 'multi' elements are of course straying?

What does multiculturalism mean in terms of individual versus group rights? Take the anti-veiling law in French public schools--what if it goes against an individual student's convictions to go to school without blue nail polish, and this is against a dress code. Why is using peyote for ceremonial reasons 'better' than using pot if one is an adamant pothead? To what extent should a secular state draw a distinction between religious conviction and whim? What if one girl wears a headscarf on a whim while another wears blue nail polish for what she understands to be deeper or more meaningful reasons? As a good American, not to mention a former school-uniform challenger, I have a knee-jerk annoyed response to the thought of girls being sent home from school for either veils or blue nail polish, the question is why conviction only 'counts,' even in a secular state, if it has an organized-religious structure backing it up.

The strength of the French model is that it doesn't deny the existence of 'Frenchness,' but insists that this quality is open to those of all races. Officially, in France, a group of people of different races all standing next to one another are assumed to be of the same culture until proven otherwise. This may not prove an effective way of dealing with difference--when culture does indeed correlate with race, denying it ends up angering those who represent the communities of correlation--but what is an effective way with dealing with difference?

The weakness of the French model, then, has more to do with France losing trust (as well it should) with Muslims and Jews after treating both groups horribly at various points in recent history, than with anything intrinsically wrong with the model itself. The assimilationist ideal is a sick joke if every so often an 'assimilated' minority gets declared a mix of 'too assimilated' and 'not assimilated enough' and is then vigorously persecuted by those who claim both cultural AND racial Frenchness. French Muslims and Jews alike realize this, and, understanding that the removal of a kippah or veil is futile, will don these headcoverings with all the more enthusiasm.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Yaacov

It's time for a tangential response to the French elections. Yair Ettinger of Haaretz reports on some happenings in Marseille that could well have inspired a certain film:

There was symbolic significance to the timing of the "spiritual journey" undertaken by Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman and Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the Gerrer rebbe, in France, between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections in that country. The two drove all over France, from north to south, this week, at a time when the Jewish citizens, along with all the other citizens of the republic, have to choose between Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. Most of them will apparently vote for Sarkozy but, at the same time, in the shadow of the shake-up occurring in their country - and also in the shadow of what is happening in Israel - many of them were occupied with completely different choices. If France is busy with its national identity and with the identification of Frenchmen with their country, a large number of its Jews are going back to their "tribe" - returning to Jewish tradition and to a glatt-kosher existence.

And here's where it gets really "Rabbi Jacob"-esque:

Two police motorcycles, their lights flashing, pushed forward at high speed as they passed through red lights and opened up the way for the rabbis' convoy last Sunday, which was trying in vain to get to the meeting on time. Hundreds of men and a handful of women were already waiting for them at the Pekudat Elazar synagogue. The two VIPs were on a very tight schedule - a meeting with ultra-Orthodox rabbis at the synagogue and, immediately after that, an hour during which they would dispense personal blessings to the general public - that is, the men in that sector.

And here's where it gets interesting:

Some 60,000-70,000 Jews live in Marseille, France's southern port city, and about 90 percent of them immigrated there from the countries of North Africa. "The Israeli definitions of religious or non-religious do not exist here," says Rabbi Shmuel Hatuel, the deputy chief rabbi of the city, who is an ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian follower of Mizrahi descent. "The term 'secular' does not exist. Nor do the terms 'Ashkenazi' and 'Sephardi' exist or 'ba'alei teshuva' [newly religious], for whom the ultra-Orthodox in Israel have established separate institutions. The entire concept of categorization into sectors is not comprehensible to the Jews of Marseille. When there is tension in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox here care also, and when the situation is difficult here, as it has been in the past few years, everyone converges together around their Jewishness, and it is unimportant to them what color skullcap the rabbi wears."

The solidarity that Hatuel describes is connected with the general malaise felt by the Jews of France, which stems from the feeling, on the one hand, that their country has abandoned Israel to such an extent that it questions the country's very right to existence; and on the other, that time after time, France fails to protect them from anti-Semitic attacks in the street and at synagogues and cemeteries. Every such attack, such as the one last week in Marseille in which unknown assailants drew a swastika on the body of a young Jewish woman - gives rise to a wave of fears and lessens Jews' feeling of attachment to France.

This feeling, needless to say, also has an effect on the community's voting patterns. "The left is dangerous," explained Moshe Yitzhak Ostreicher, an ultra-Orthodox man who teaches Judaism in Marseille. "The left is capable of bringing in another million Arabs to this country. But any way you look at it, the situation in France is not getting better. The only reason, in my opinion, for voting for the right is that in this way the Jews will have a few more years during which it will be tolerable to live here."

"A few more years"? How optimistic. What can be made of voting patters of a community on the verge of leaving? And as for laicite, it appears radical Islam is not the only enemy. According to 93-year-old Rabbi Steinman, "education for women must be kept to 'the minimum of the minimum.'" If French Jews are to fight assimilation, they must begin "refraining from participating in anything that smacks of being French." The rabbi is also against modern orthodoxy, as well as Jews' learning trades.

But back to the whole leaving thing- where do the rabbis stand on Israel?

"So long as the Jews live and exist here, everything must be done to ensure they remain Jewish," Rabbi Ohana said. "It is not my aim to get the Jews to immigrate to Israel, but only to strengthen Judaism here. The secondary effect is that whoever is strengthened eventually does want to immigrate to Israel, but the aim of maintaining the spark of Judaism is far more important than the aim of getting people to emigrate to Israel. We also do not want to discriminate against those who remain here."

Ettinger continues:

[...] [T]he central gathering of the two rabbis in Marseille was held this week on the same day - and at exactly the same hour - as an "aliyah [immigration] fair" organized by the Jewish Agency in another part of the city. Last year, on Israel's Independence Day, only one third of those invited showed up at the central event organized by the consulate; the remainder participated instead in a gala event organized that evening by the Mikdash Institute, a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox body.

This goes to show that Israeli politics has penetrated all the way to Marseille. Nonetheless the ultra-Orthodox teacher Moshe Yitzhak Ostreicher says that "anti-Zionism is not my flag. A soldier in the Israel Defense Forces is like a brother to me. In a class I attended two weeks ago, people asked whether it was permitted for them to shave the beard they had grown during the days of counting the Omer [between Passover and Shavuot, when religious men refrain from shaving] on Independence Day. I said I was not in favor of this, but that it was not a big deal. In any event, our aims here are not political, but rather to save people from assimilation."


In an especially riveting episode of "Sex and the City," Carrie observes a sisterhood of women who do work on laptops in coffee shops because they've recently moved in with their boyfriends and can no longer work from home. In the scene, Carrie and some other woman exchange knowing glances in a coffee shop.

This is unrealistic, I thought. Straight women do not make eye contact with one another in coffee shops.

I was wrong. There is a sisterhood, but it's got nothing to do with cohabitation. Today I went running for the first time in ages and got as far as a pastry place. And so I sat outside, in my running clothes, and had a pastry. As I sat there, another woman in running clothes entered. She gave me a knowing look. I of course do not know this woman's sexual orientation, but this was not the "knowing look" women frequently give one another in Park Slope.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


I just handed in my last paper, and am thus, more or less, one year into grad school. Immediate thoughts:

1) Taking a year off was a good move. The year off was not fantastic, but it never hurts to really, really appreciate what you're doing.

2) My classmates are intelligent, not to mention fashionable, not to mention fun to be with. I'm lucky--I doubt if this is the typical grad school experience. Having intimidatingly smart and well-read professors is also a plus but was not, as with the classmates, so much of a surprise.

3) Algeria, 1962, has started to seem more interesting than France, 1898, but don't quote me on this. Regardless, I entered grad school thinking I wanted to study French Jews and that is, if anything, more the case now than it was in September.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Water-gun control

One day during gym class, we all heard the uh, distinct voice of Principal Stanley Teitel explaining to us that if we played "Killer," a water gun fight that was a school tradition, we'd be in trouble. The sort of trouble, he made clear, that would prevent us from going to college. This was in light of Columbine--water guns one day would surely mean real guns the next. Now the U of C is having its own Affaire des Water Guns, because of the Virginia Tech shootings. In case the confusion between UChicago and Stuyvesant weren't great enough, there are the boys in the photo. One is wearing a shirt that says, "Eat. Sleep. Math." The other is, at the very least, openly socializing with someone whose shirt says, "Eat. Sleep. Math."

I can't help but wonder: You know how liberal democracies don't go to war with one another? Is it possible that geek schools do not have school shootings? Are we safest where everyone's a nerdy outcast?

Lactose over-tolerant

I like cheese. I go to graduate school at NYU. These two facts are pretty fundamental to my life at the moment, but lest you doubt the validity of either, here's solid evidence of both.

I assure you, this is not the (only) reason I study France.

More for the "Jewish babies" tag

The desperation level regarding Jewish babies has reached new heights. One of my fellow posters on Jewlicious has a story up about... two upper middle class Jews from the New York area who married each other!

It doesn't seem as if the poster on Jewlicious knows these people personally, they don't sound especially interesting or uninteresting, they didn't meet in an unusual way... but they are both Jews! And they are getting married! By not one but two rabbis! This alone is cause for delight, not to mention calls for the couple to begin makin' those babies. Not to mention a "certain[ty]" that the rest of us at Jewlicious "also wish the couple a long and happy life together, full of joy and children, prosperity, health (not in that order necessarily) and whatever else they’d like to have in their lives."

Speaking as someone who writes for Jewlicious, I have no feelings either way about these two people whom I don't know, and would prefer to leave the celebration to those directly involved, and to those who for some odd reason feel joy, not boredom, bitterness, or morbid fascination, when browsing the Times wedding pages. Out of fairness to the pair, however, I would suggest not wishing them "children" that for all we know they are doing their best not to have.

(There is a slight but unlikely chance that the post on Jewlicious was intended to be a sarcastic and vaguely anti-Semitic joke--sample of the story: Both Jordana and Justin’s daddies are attorneys - hers seems to be involved in real estate while his is a personal injury lawyer. They also share some other elements of their upbringing. For example, they met as teenagers when she was attending Point O’Pines all girl camp on Brant Lake in the Adirondacks and Justin was attending Brant Lake all boy sports camp on Brant Lake in the Adirondacks.--but I'm guessing not.)

In all seriousness, is it that noteworthy for an American Jew to get married, in a Jewish ceremony, to another Jew? I'd imagine not, but if so, is the best response to treat each such event as worthy of the entire Jewish population's excitement?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A new low

Jane Brody, like George Costanza, knows where to find the best public toilets in NYC. Here's a sentence I never thought I'd read in the New York Times: "My own approach [to the dearth of public restrooms], whether traveling by subway, car or on foot, is to be sure to use the toilet just before leaving home, office, restaurant, museum or theater." It's good she includes her high-culture consumption in what would otherwise be a sentence about practical toilet-going habits that I'd imagine are shared by the rest of the toilet-having world population.

I'm starting to think "Jane Brody" is in fact a writer from The Onion, and has been all this time...