Monday, March 31, 2008


I guarantee that the controversies I'm reading about in the 1840s French-Jewish press are far, far more interesting than the "revolt at Horace Mann." I remember private school. Yes, the teachers resent the students. And yes, this is totally understandable. But also, rich children do not choose their social class any more than do poor or middle-class kids, so there's kind of the question of, if they hate rich people so much, why do certain teachers choose to teach at a school with one of the wealthiest student bodies in the nation? It's not as if schools in rougher areas don't need teachers. In other words, not so interesting.

As for the anti-PC backlash, the big picture has, of course, been missed. NYC private schools, despite what one sees on "Gossip Girl," are largely Jewish. Private school education involves (or did, 100 years ago when I was experiencing it) a whole lot of being instructed on what "we" (read "you, the student") did to "them," whether the discussion was of Native Americans or American blacks, i.e. "white guilt." When few of the students' families had anything to do with anything happening in America before 1920, when the students' ancestors were in pretty rotten situations through all but the most recent history, something is a bit off in the classroom dynamic. Yes, the Horace Mann students are privileged, but are they even white? I'm not sure. If we asked a white supremacist, we'd have one answer.

While most of the time the student response is solemn nodding along about what "we" did to "them," at times you'll get an outspoken Jewish reactionary, typically egged on by one or more anti-PC parents. That's what seems to have happened at Horace Mann. The answer is obviously to teach that slavery was wrong without getting too excited about the connection (weak at best) between the students and the Pilgrims, the students and slaveholders, the students and... anyone but the students. The students can be made to feel American without creating a revisionist history of their own families' experiences.

Ik ben Phoebe...

... and ik don't know any more Dutch. But I want to! I want to be able to say insulting things about fellow subway commuters to my boyfriend in a language that no one, really, no one in New York will understand. OK, not exactly, but I would like to be able to at least get by in Dutch, to at least have a brief conversation like I can in Hebrew (Ani rotza cafe vechocolad. Achshav!) when I'm next in Flanders in search of a waffle. Which is bound to happen.

So, are there Dutch classes this summer in New York? Good ones? Any at all? Also useful: driving lessons. The goal there is to be able to rent a car once I'm old enough to do so, and 25 is now looming in the not-so-distant future. My mother suggested that I have driving lessons taught in Dutch, which might not work out, but it's a thought.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

"....University, where they met."

From the media, one would imagine that college students of the past few years fall into two camps, the majority who hook up with a different person each weekend, and a minority who graduate pure as the first winter snow. So my question is, who are all these people getting married to significant others they met in college? This does happen quite a bit, and (to preempt the obvious comment) not just at the University of Chicago. And these marriages are often preceded by a period of cohabitation, so it's not that the "True Love Waits" minority is making true on its promise. Wouldn't it seem that many college students, perhaps a silent majority, have long-term monogamous relationships, some of which extend past graduation? I know this would be a huge disappointment to journalists who seek out 'virgins and whores,' but what if that's the reality?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Cute" versus "cool"

I get my hair cut at a minimalist Japanese salon in the East Village. This is like saying I get my coffee at a Starbucks in Manhattan, a McDonalds in America. I picked the salon I go to out of the many because it's especially minimalist-looking, even by minimalist-Japanese-salon standards. The haircuts tend to be quite good as well. The only difficulty is that I do not know Japanese, and am unlikely to any time soon, given that it stands well behind Dutch, Hebrew, Yiddish, and German on the list of languages I ought to know or know better. So while I'm never proud of my ignorance, in this case I'm resigned to it.

When I called to make the appointment, I mispronounced the name of my regular stylist; when I arrived, I saw that my appointment had been made for someone named "Thoered," give or take a letter. Sofia Coppola could have stayed in the States to get her point across. When it came time to describe the haircut I wanted, most could be accomplished via pointing at pictures in a magazine cut-out scrapbook the salon has for that purpose. However, any more specific requests were today, as they have in visits past, met with a discussion of whether I wanted to look more "cute" or "cool." My first visit, I thought "cute" sounded the safer bet, but apparently that means bangs that are shorter in the middle, which wasn't so great, so I decided to go with "cool." I was a bit concerned today, though, when the stylist cutting my hair told me that another woman comes in regularly, a customer who's "very cool," and gets my exact haircut... but with a large section of her hair shaved off in the middle, visible only when the hair is pulled back. This look is, I learned, "cool." I did what I could to explain that I didn't want to look too cool, and am, I'd have to say, happy with the result.

"There is no condom for the heart.”

Hook-up culture=check*!

Great Books=check!

Ivy-League virgins=check! If 20-year-olds have not yet had sex, boring. But if it's happening at Harvard, it's extremely important.

Best part of Randall Patterson's article: the first sentence: "There was a time when not having sex consumed a very small part of Janie Fredell’s life, but that, of course, was back in Colorado Springs." Because... in high school, the other 23 and a half hours a day were spent having sex? No wonder she wanted to spend her college years doing something else!

But really. Too much is made of the 'choice' to be virgins made by people who aren't even that old, and probably haven't met someone they wanted to have sex with yet. We all had that freshman-year dorm-mate who 'didn't drink,' who went on to spend the whole of spring term hungover. Or the avowedly chaste who meet someone they like senior year and, what the hell. You cannot call high school students or, to an extent, college students 'chaste' any more than you can get excited about finding 16-year-old tea-totalers. Let's find these people again when they're 28 and unmarried, and then ask them whether "true love can wait."

*Patterson's article is not conservative, but its subject is Ivy League virginity, and he mostly refrains from a mocking tone, so much of the checklist is accomplished all the same.

Friday, March 28, 2008

How not to be taken seriously

Inspired by Rita's accurate explanation of what a woman must not write about to be taken seriously, here are my unserious thoughts of the hour. I will redeem myself (for myself, at any rate) via interpretation of 1840s French-Jewish newspaper kerfuffles. But if I put that on the blog, I know, thanks to JSTOR, exactly how many people currently living would find it interesting, and the answer is, at best, three. So here goes:

-Are these my shoes?

-What should I ask for tomorrow when I go in for what's amounting to a yearly haircut? (We get paid in wine and cheese, not hair-and-makeup, so I have to ration.) I'm thinking a trim all around (I'm not just too grad-student-budgeted for frequent $60 haircuts, I'm also growing my hair out) and the reformulation of bangs out of what is starting to look like early-90s Jennifer Aniston "layers." Ick. I wouldn't mind something like this, minus the Sarkozy.

-My inner Upper East Side lady-who-lunches thinks this is fabulous. My 5'2" reality suggests that this would probably hit my ankles. Thoughts?

-Speaking of being small, sorry, but no. Being tall would be great. I'd like to be able to reach stuff in my own apartment (I live with a tall person, which is how stuff got so high up in the first place). I wouldn't mind being able to choose between the handle and the pole on the subway. Maybe for once I could buy a pair of pants and not tack on another $10-15 to the cost for hemming. "And even though people tell me I’m beautiful and I should be a model, there are times when I would trade in my long legs for a petite frame and tiny feet." Yes, that was me shedding a single tear.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Conserva-rants: a debriefing

Since my template of how to write a conserva-critique of higher ed got responses from blogs bigger than this one, I should probably have a follow-up 'serious' post, one in which I disappoint new readers to what you understand to be a left-wing blog.

The absence of reasonable discussion of American universities from the right has been well documented. Or at least, documented--not sure if two blog-posts add up to "well-documented," especially if one of the posts is from my own blog. But that said, the problem with the conservative critiques is that they nearly all begin with the assumption that everything academics do in the humanities and much of the social sciences is worthless. If conservative critics of academia sat for a moment and considered that "Africana Studies" might just be the 'trendy' (i.e. currently-used) name for serious inquiry into the life of an entire continent, perhaps the dismissive tone could be pared down just a bit. Same goes for "Gender Studies." If gender is relevant to what you're studying--and hey, maybe you're studying why women are so dreadful at math, yet so talented at making sandwiches--then voila, you're doing Gender Studies! Some of what an outsider would expect to be ridiculous is just that, but most makes sense if you only understand it.

So why, if I'm not an angry liberal, do I care? Because there's some value to these conservative critiques, or there could be if they were done differently. The conservative onlooker is the only one vividly aware of how tied academics are to our own times. That we think to look for literary and historical evidence of sexism and racism does not necessarily mean 'now we know better!,' but might well mean that this is what people found interesting in the early 21st century, but is of little objective relevance to the study of, say, 17th century England. In this way, conservatives are, despite themselves, our best relativists. The conservative critiques should keep academia grounded, reminding academics that things were once done differently, and that the world of the 'dead white men' need not be declared 'worse' than the one in which we work. But they do not.

I don't buy most of the claims of discrimination against conservatives in academia. (If this wasn't clear, I have a blog where I call myself a "Zionist" and I'm in a French department. No one at school bothers me about this. I get far more grief from others who are pro-Israel about studying France.) But it's fair to say that the status quo in academia is to be at least somewhat on the left. Which means that for academia, conservatives are the liberals. We could be having an interesting debate, one that forced both conservative critics and left academics to question their views. But the right is so certain that academia is a joke that this cannot happen. The best way to subtly urge the author of a paper comparing Things Fall Apart to the "Vagina Monologues" that maybe enough is enough is not to offer up a rant insisting that graduate students are barely literate; that today's young women are too uncouth to be appealing to aging college professors (what better reason to yell obscenities into one's cellphone); and that it is impossible to wear non-bulky underwear and possess a brain, both at the same time. To effectively criticize contemporary society, one cannot argue that things are wrong on account of their being contemporary. It just doesn't work.

Omniscent parenting

Something was bugging me about Harlan Coben's article about bugging your children's computers. I was reminded of what this was when reading Eric Asimov's piece about parents discussing the pros and cons of allowing their 17-year-olds a sip (not a whole glass!) of wine with dinner. Anyone who's been 17 knows that if you're not drinking at 17, you will be at 18, assuming you're college-bound, and probably also if you're not. Parental discussion of what children should or should not do at 17 is theoretical, or rather is a discussion of what they should or should not sanction, but unless they plan on a homeschooling program for their kids' undergrad degrees, they know, presumably, what's going to happen, and probably already happening, sips at home or no sips. The ceremonial decision of whether a 19-year-old college student home on break is permitted a taste of wine is a silly moment for the 19-year-old and, I would assume, the parents.

What's going on in both of these articles is a refusal to acknowledge that which all children, and all who were once children, understand. There is a huge, huge range of activity that falls between that which is immoral or criminal and that of which parents--someone's specific parents, not parents generally--would approve. The range of behaviors include everything a parent would be upset to learn his 17-, 22-, or 40-year-old son was doing, but that, if done by a same-age friend of the parent, would seem inconsequential. A combination of family-specific morality and the simple ickiness that is thinking about one's child having free will lead parents and children alike to accept, if implicitly, that a lot goes on that parents do not, and should not, know about.

Coben, who advocates parents using spyware on their near-adult children's computers, nevertheless advises, "There is a fine line between being responsibly protective and irresponsibly nosy. You shouldn’t monitor to find out if your daughter’s friend has a crush on Kevin next door or that Mrs. Peterson gives too much homework or what schoolmate snubbed your son."

Sounds simple, but what if your daughter and her friend are observant Jews and Kevin is a Mormon? What if you, the parent, think your child is not serious enough about school, and had better do everything Mrs. Peterson wants, and then some? What if the schoolmate snubbed your son because your son is, or appears, gay, and you'd rather he, not Kevin the Mormon, were running off with Rivka the Rebel? When you're a child--and by 'child' I mean the child or adult offspring of individuals still living--there is no such thing as an inconsequential action. The late-teen drinking example is a poor one, since this is technically illegal (but universally done). It is, however, quite legal for 18-year-olds to have sex, to say mean things about people their parents like, to have friends they don't want their parents meeting, and so on, and so on. The possibilities truly are endless. By definition this space is one parents cannot acknowledge. But without acknowledging it outright, parents should be able to show, between the lines, that they know. If not to their own children, then perhaps to the mostly-adult NYT readership.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How to write a conservative article about education

Don't forget:

A statement, or paragraph, about "hook-up culture," preferably with no statistics to back it up, but if you must, you must. General statements about what "students do today," no individual campus or students referred to, are best. If you must specify, a lurid story will suffice.

A condemnation of all academic subjects that include the word "Studies" in the field name. Include the silliest-sounding title of a queer-studies workshop that you can find. Bonus points if the title includes something about people "of color" or Arabs. A discussion of how well-received this workshop was by the campus community is of course unnecessary. If you wish, however, you may mention this. If the event was well-attended, that's evidence that higher education, across the board, is in shambles. If it was poorly attended, that's evidence that students have heard the conservative message, while administrators fight the good fight for PC.

Lip service must be paid to the Great Books. It's best to say as little about any particular books as possible. Revealing the specifics means a) having read them, and b) articulating why Aristotle matters more than Toni Morrison. This is not necessary, because for your audience this is already assumed. Neither you, the author, nor your audience need read either.

Kids today are dumber than ever before. No one will dispute this, it's flattering to your 40-plus readership, so nothing is lost by tossing it in.

Marriage, military service, and how liberal arts colleges are the enemies of both. Fear not, to write this you need not be married nor have served in the military.

A condemnation of "diversity" and "multiculturalism," preferably one that lumps together everything from professors' putting out hip-hop albums to the study of any sort of non-Western history. If the words "South America" or "women" appear in a course name at any school, urge students to apply elsewhere.

Redeeming features of higher education today are limited to: College Republicans; high-profile student-led attempts to return to a world of chivalrous dating, complete with trips to the drugstore for a 5-cent milkshake; low enrollment for a postcolonial studies class. If you see none of these things, then you need not provide a counterargument praising American universities. That students worldwide wish to study here is not, definitely not, an argument for higher ed being not so bad actually. It is, however, an argument about America being, to paraphrase Borat, greatest country in the world.

Professors: still voting Democrat. College can thus be ruled a waste of time.

Final advice: Extra credit if you come up with a new argument tying together as many of the above as you can.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I confess...

...that until today, I was convinced that the New School was a front. That it was nothing but a series of facades in the NYU-Union Square area, in front of which college-aged men and women chain-smoke cigarettes while wearing academic-hipster garb (think leggings paired with an elbow-patch blazer). I'd seen the inside of CUNY and Columbia. You can see into Cardozo when you walk by. But the New School always seemed something of a mystery, so I decided it was all made up.

But I realized I needed a book that was out at Bobst, and so today was forced to confront the interior of 65 Fifth Avenue, where NYU students also have library privileges. Turns out there's a New School, after all! The library's on the small side, but has enough in the DS 135 F area to keep me busy. For some reason along with the call numbers, the stacks have descriptions of what subject matter the call numbers denote, as though it were a bookstore, which I thought was silly at first but could see getting used to.

I should have gone sooner, because Sander Gilman's book, Jewish Self-Hatred, is brilliant. So brilliant that I'm kind of relieved he wrote on Germany and not France, so there's a chance there's work left to be done.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I confess...

...that I agree with the main point of William Kristol's latest column. It happens. I probably don't agree with the policy ideas that brought him to it, but that's another story.

As Kristol's article shows, a nationwide "conversation about race" sounds harmless enough, but presents some dangers. Much like repeatedly classifying voters by imagined racially-defined voting blocs, an America-wide discussion of race is bound to make the category matter more, not less, in the minds of Americans.

To deal with race is to deal with something that a) we all know matters in terms of how people experience society, and b) we all know should not. The American approach has been to focus on (a) and discuss race head-on, while the French one was, and to an extent I suppose is, to focus on (b), on willing a world in which race doesn't matter into existence by ignoring the category entirely. Both models have their flaws, but I sympathize more with the French model. Not out of Francophilia (mine tends not to extend to politics) but out of an understanding that classifying humans as though we were dogs (note the French vocabulary for describing pure-breds) is a poor response to racists whose impulse is to do just that.

Granted ignoring race altogether will have reached an extreme if race becomes so taboo that racism cannot be identified as such. However, the way to counter racism isn't to create positive definitions of race, to be proud of one's "race," but to fight racism while having a positive view of one's own culture(s). Obviously black American culture, like Jewish American culture, has been shaped by externally-imposed (and at times internally agreed-upon) definitions of the group as a "race." But for once, let us admit that we are all human, and use words to positively describe our differences that keep that commonality in mind. When the racists toss you "race," you should toss back "culture," "community," or anything else that suggests you and those like you are more than the sum of your shared DNA.

Spring has broken

Thank goodness the Spitzer stuff has gotten old. I've finally gotten some uninterrupted work done! I'm not sure which was more of an achievement, finding what I was looking for at the JTS and NYPL, or finally sorting the mess of papers into primary sources (in one massive "binder clip") and recent-ish articles (in another). I'm inclined towards living in a big pile of papers, so the latter accomplishment is far more surprising.

I've also loaded my bag up with library books that have "contemporary" or "twentieth century" in the title, now that I'm focusing on the 19th century for two of my three final papers. If you have NYU library access and are studying contemporary French Jews, tomorrow's your big day. Or whatever the turnaround is, what with shelving and all. (From shelving at the Reg, I'm well aware that this is not an instantaneous process.) I'm less concerned with "bookshelf etiquette" (our shelves are at capacity) and more worried about being able to walk across the living room without tripping over a tower of library books... only to stumble onto another pile of library books.

And... I passed the halfway mark with Drieu la Rochelle (whom I cannot stop calling Drieu de la Rochelle, which sounds so much better). Gilles is as readable a 700-page fascist novel as I've ever come across, and I have to give it points for fascist consistency--if my presentation on the book were on what makes it fascist, I could underline just about anything. Cult of youth and health? Check. Jews as symbols of decadent modernity? Check. General assholishness in the model of what one with no prior academic study of fascism would expect from that ideology? Mais bien sur!

So Spring Break was productive enough after all. Between visits to JStor and Gallica, I also managed to see some friends, buy (and consume) Camembert, make (and consume) muffins, and meet a lovely, stuffed-animal-like black Pomeranian. The owner of said Pomeranian, a fellow thrift-store shopper, though far more chic than that description implies, serenaded Jo with Jacques Brel's "Les Flamandes." So yes, it was an action-packed Spring Break after all.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

BEEP in America

If you're like me and your body reacts to even a few vacation days with the idea, aha, time for a cold!, then perhaps you also stayed in and caught Diane Sawyer's two-going-on-ten-hour exposé on Prostitution in America. If someone created drinking game tied to the number of times the phrase "girl-next-door" was uttered, even the most enthusiastic frat boy would end up with alcohol poisoning. That, and just about every other possible cliché, kept the show as revelatory as one might expect. After learning how prostitutes are generally impoverished and non-white, we spend a whole lot of time watching blonde, white, formerly middle-class girls-gone-bad. Still, the show had its highlights, which were:

1) The bleeping-out of every word relevant to prostitution: Every time oral sex came up (and did it ever!) one got to hear a loud BEEP meant as a stand-in for "blow-job." It boggles the mind to understand what parent is letting his kid watch this show, but is so worried about the dear child's innocence that he won't allow for such obscenity.

2) The "graphic" nature of the proceedings: There was one graphic scene, and it involved an abandoned house which did not have a proper bathroom, and that's all I'll say, because it's not something to dwell on. Anyone expecting non-blurred nudity, or non-blurred faces, for that matter, was presumably disappointed.

3) The sanctimonious, tragic nature of Diane Sawyer's intervention: Clad in proper, non-hooker-esque clothes, she pleads with these prostitutes, in a motherly tone, reminding them of how they have so many other options in terms of jobs, when let's just have a guess, they don't. She asks one especially strung-out young blonde about her dreams from her previous life, and it turns out she studied music (score one for the humanities!). So Sawyer asks the woman to sing, and she does, leading me to make the in-bad-taste suggestion that she not quit her night job. Unless after the show Sawyer in some practical way hooked these women up with career possibilities, the remarks about their other options rang false. The women shown were society's down-and-out, and prostitution was clearly just part of a larger problem including drug addiction and mental illness. At the end of the show (and again, I plead illness for having watched it to the end) Sawyer quotes the New Testament, about how he who has not sinned should cast the first stone. Between that and the Hasids among the crowd of men arrested for soliciting prostitutes in Brooklyn, whatever faith anyone watching had in organized religion should be just about gone.

4) "Pretty Woman": For one, forgettable, movie, the Julia Roberts feature is given credit for quite a bit of 21st-century decadence. It's clear enough from this show (or from just thinking about things for a second) that women charging $10 for sex from truckers would not be in law school but for the glamorization of prostitution in that movie.

5) Is a woman who receives expensive gifts and money from a few wealthy lovers a prostitute? A mistress? An opportunist? One woman--whose identity is hidden, and whose story, we learn midway through, is not corroborated, so really why even comment...--claims this is her situation. And the question is, well, so? Once we go down this path, who isn't trading sex for money? The classic NYT Weddings pairing of the former kindergarten teacher marrying the investment banker? A couple with any income disparity whatsoever? Is the issue whether payment is per act? I'm confused, but I guess the test is how concerned Diane Sawyer appears when she hears the scenario described.

6) Big surprises! The best-selling prostitute at a Nevada brothel is a dead-ringer for Pamela Anderson. Prostitutes come from broken homes. Pimps are abusive. Men like big breasts and bleached-blond hair. Prostitutes live fast and die young.

The only genuine surprise, which I'd already learned of amidst the Spitzer nonsense, was that men pay for something called a "girlfriend experience." There's something kind of amazing about on the one hand the many women desperate for male attention, buying books on how to subtly attract boyfriends, and the fact that there are men willing to pay out their salaries to bedraggled drug addicts who will, for as little as ten minutes (according to the show) pretend to be their girlfriends.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Now it's your turn

It's commonly accepted that anyone whose job it was, at any point in his life, to serve food or drinks will always be a good tipper. Even in establishments like coffee bars which, unlike restaurants, pay their workers at least minimum wage. For over a hundred variants of 'I used to be a waitress/barista/bartender, so I tip well' or 'Bad tippers obviously never worked in food service,' click here.

Has this phenomenon ever been studied? Because I would guess that a stint in food service does not make a person more likely to tip, or, for that matter, more likely not to complain when his decaf caramel latte comes out a bit foamier than he likes it. In other fields, just because somebody once held your poorly-paid position, that's not expected to be any guarantee of good treatment. For every person who sympathizes because he knows what it's like, there's another who feels that if he had to pay his dues, it shouldn't get easier for the next generation.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Noms, plumes

The 19th century French guy I'm researching at the moment a) shares a name with several other historical figures of equal or greater importance, and b) is himself writing under several different names, mostly variants of his own, sometimes initials. And boy, there are a lot of initials. Yesterday I found what looked, from the microfilm, to be yet another piece of writing by the dude. After printing and reading the document, I found that it was an angry letter-to-the-editor about the dude, written by a man with the same name. Part of me thinks this is in itself interesting, but the other part thinks, couldn't these people have all just gone by social security numbers or something?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Microfilm Diet

An article about foodies fighting obesity offers up solutions for the gourmand who wants it all. Restaurateur Drew Nieporent "remains completely obsessed with food, but he focuses on eating more sushi and oysters and less bread and sugar." What is it about this diet that seems, oh, slightly impractical? Could it be the roughly $100-per-day difference in cost between the simple-carbohydrates diet (one I know quite well) and the raw-seafood one?

For those less keen on having it all, another diet trick is, yes, the New York Public Library. It turns out that printing microfilm pages from the Jewish Division of the NYPL requires 1) checking everything but your computer, wallet, and whatever else is awkward to carry around, because terrorists apparently want to blow up books about 19th-century French Jews (one more reason to hate the terrorists!), 2) purchasing one of those evil printing cards, and 3) learning that you must first purchase your printing card with one $1 bill, then add however much else to the card; if you arrive with only a $20, you can go to yet another room to find a change machine. By the time you find whatever documents you were looking for, you will, guaranteed, have missed at least one meal. Not to mention run out of steam. This was not my first visit to the NYPL, nor even to that division, but my memory's sufficiently weak in terms of floorplans that by the time I was face to face with the microfilm (a known appetite suppressant--try scrolling on one of these and not feeling queasy), I had just enough energy left to print what I'd come to print and scroll around for a bit more; my plan, which had been to read through every last thing, is now set back a day.

I really shouldn't complain. I am very, very lucky to live in perhaps the only city in America where one can find not just stuff, but lots of stuff, about obscure 19th century French converts from Judaism. Next time, though, I'll be sure to pack accordingly (i.e. no computer) and, weather-permitting, will wear shoes more practical than rain boots for the many, many trips back and forth across the library.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Spring Break, day II

-Made some headway with the research. Finally. The Super Special Tiny Book that contains surprisingly just about everything I need is only available from 12-4, so I'll be visiting with it again tomorrow. Of course, this sets back, once again, the inevitable trip to the Old Delicate Newspapers, but at least, thanks to the SSTB, I now know which issue I'm looking for.

-Rode the subway with the Stuyvesant Ultimate Frisbee team. Felt old.

-Finally got bored of the Spitzer scandal. Was relieved to learn I was not the only French grad student to spend maybe a bit too much time reading about New York State politics this past week.

-Had my picture taken by a guy shooting for Time Out NY, for a spread on cafés near Columbia. He'd better label the shot as containing two NYU students.

-Read more of the 700-is page fascist epic Gilles. I'm sure this is not a reading Drieu would have approved of, but every time I get to another description of how this otherwise attractive woman Myriam, on account of being Jewish, repulses Gilles physically, but how he nevertheless thinks he must marry her, all I can think is, Portnoy, and how this is so a Jewish-male take on things. Not that all Jewish men are incapable of being attracted to Jewish women, but of the men who have strong feelings about this, I'd imagine most are Jews, who associate Jewish women with being stuck in a socially-acceptable marriage. But then I remember that Nazis and their friends were the only non-Jews more interested in 'the Jews' than are Jews, so it all kind of makes sense. Kind of. But there's still something Jewish about this Gilles. And I do say this in part to annoy the book's late author.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Spitzer, last thoughts

Is it just me, or has the Spitzer scandal turned everyone into that kid in 9th grade whose friends from other schools (whom no one ever meets) all do hard drugs, and who makes it abundantly clear that he's jaded enough to know that everyone's shooting up? By which I mean, since the revelation that Spitzer frequented high-priced prostitutes, there's been this kind of consensus, suddenly, that men do this, everyone does this, that we can expect nothing other of men or women, and that to be startled by a man cheating on his wife is to be the dorky high-school freshman who cannot believe that any of his classmates have tried beer. You're allowed to be shocked by the price this nondescript young woman charged for sex, but the idea that spouses expect loyalty is treated like something only a fool would consider.

As for the Dreyfus Affair that wasn't, for the record, count me among those who did not know that Eliot Spitzer was Jewish. Of course I also didn't know that he was governor just about up until he wasn't anymore. But I would say that the fact that Jewish or largely-Jewish blogs are the only place one hears about Spitzer's Semitism makes this the exact opposite of the Dreyfus Affair, during which Jews were alone in not mentioning aloud Alfred's Judaism.

Nothing new under the sun

Today is Spring Break and Saint Patrick's Day for the rest of humanity, but is 19th-century-French-Jews day for me. No green beer, just iced coffee from the café near the library. Which is fine, but the research is tough going. It seems impossible to write about mid-19th-century French-Jewish converts to Catholicism without mentioning the more-famous non-French cases. It also seems near-impossible to write anything down without finding that someone's already written it. No one, far as I can tell, is making quite the same arguments, but inevitably primary sources lead to exciting discoveries... already made in some article from 2005. OK, not inevitably, but more than would be convenient. I don't want to get overly bogged down reading every last thing on JSTOR and want to get moving on the primary sources, but I want to be sure I'm focusing on something new, and not surprisingly, the interesting angles are often the ones someone else has already covered. Also, it's getting harder and harder to synthesize everything I've read and taken notes on (or, worse, read a while ago and not taken notes on) into something coherent, since by now I've read a whole lot on this subject, all of which seems to matter but cannot possibly matter for one term paper.

So it continues...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Poverty, Chastity

Much is being made of the revelation that "Kristen"/Ashley's stepfather is an oral surgeon. Not because oral, hehe, but because this is meant to disprove theories that she was a whore because she needed the money.

But has anything been disproved? Isn't it entirely possible that a wealthy stepfather would not have provided for his teenaged (and, perhaps, skanktastic) stepdaughter? Just because he's at the very least upper-middle-class doesn't mean she wasn't in a bad spot.

Now if she were a he, were gay, and had run away from home at 17 and survived as a prostitute, I'm thinking this would be a different story altogether, and the family's wealth would not enter into it. But although you hear less about girls having to leave home on account of skankiness (or who knows what) than of boys getting kicked out by homophobic parents, the principle's the same. Whatever 'class' she was raised, family conflict is family conflict and broke is broke. Translating a wealthy-suburban demeanor (which one might imagine she has) into a career as a high-class escort is hardly a Bourdieusian example of the bourgeoisie snottily keeping its offspring in the upper-middle-classes.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sac à dos

Some days, for whatever reason, I decide to dress elegantly. What this entails is putting on a dress rather than pants and a shirt. I know, really involved, right? But once I have the look for the day, once I look like the sophisticated French teacher students will remember forever and ever, it happens, and by "it" I mean The Backpack.

There is no way I can balance teaching, coursework, and research without carrying a gigantic, high-school-student backpack. The thing is from Eastern Mountain Sports, not North Face, which I'd like to think means I look a bit less like a kid trying to fit in with the other 10th graders. It's black, so I think no one will notice it. But of course any giant backpack will detract from any look. I've tried other bags, but this is truly the only option.

Which is why I am baffled by the Sartorialist's post excusing the bag carried by his latest fashionable subject. He writes, "(regarding the bag, because I know it will be commented about, it was more ,for her, about function than form. It was stuffed with paperwork)." Voila, the woman and the bag. Problem being? If my "paperwork" could fit into something that chic, I'd have a shot at being something other than that American French teacher whose look never quite made sense.

Whose grading's the hardest?

How to pick a fight in academia:

"In all of higher education, across the entire college campus, there is no more difficult teaching assignment than the freshman writing class. The instruction is labor-intensive like no other."

Oh yeah? I have a hunch that instructors of, oh, every single other class could make a case for their own teaching assignments to be the most challenging. I've learned that discussions of whether it's more difficult to grade French homeworks and essays (what I do) or lab reports (what my boyfriend does) go nowhere. Now it could be that Mark Bauerlein means that freshman composition is the hardest class to teach within an English department, which I'd believe. But that's not what he wrote, so we can expect someone wielding 200 calculus problem sets to write an angry letter to the editor.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"She was there to sell makeup but the father saw more"

OK, one more comment on the story of the week:

Something sounded familiar about "Kristen's" trajectory: "Ms. Dupré said by telephone Tuesday night that she was worried about how she would pay her rent since the man she was living with 'walked out on me' after she discovered he had fathered two children." Thing is, "she was working in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens, till her boyfriend kicked her out in one of those crushing scenes. What was she to do, where was she to go, she was out on her fanny."

Couldn't Dupré have just signed up to be the now-ex governor's nanny? Sure, his kids are a bit old for that by now, but Fran was still on the scene by the time Mr. Sheffield's offspring were well into their 30s. That way, many repetitive episodes later, after fighting off the evil Ms. Babcock, she could have become Mrs. Sheffield, er, Spitzer.

Intermarriage in America vs. American intermarriage

This Israeli news program about intermarriage in the U.S. raises an interesting question: if the goal was to show how there's something specific to America about the phenomenon of Jews marrying out, if the point was to show America's "love affair" with the Jews, what's there to make of the fact that in the two main couples profiled, the non-Jewish spouse is not from America? The husband's (at least originally) Irish and the wife is Japanese; their current nationality is not specified, just that they live in the States.

Not to read too much into two perhaps poorly-selected examples, but might the fact that the gentiles in question are from abroad mean that American Jews feel a connection with foreigners, that America's Jews, however many generations American, remain on the margins of American culture? Just a thought.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"The Whore of Mensa"

The comments to my post about Spitzer and his high-class 'hos reminded me of Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa." The gist of it is, there's a 'prostitution ring' of sorts made up of brilliant college-educated women who will talk to you about the Great Books, meant for men not getting enough intellectual stimulation from their own wives. Turns out this is pretty much how it goes at a high-class brothel.

My other comment about the Spitzer debacle was going to be something along the lines of, imagine how many dishwashers you could buy with $80,000. My mind has one track and one track only. But Wonkette already got around to a similar point, namely that for the price of just the one most-discussed encounter, he could have purchased a high-end stove.

The paparazzi, everywhere!

I scanned the photos from the 92nd Street Y event for BHL, and found one picture that includes Jo and my mother (if you know who they are, or perhaps are one of those two people, you'll find them), and one of me. Or a small part of my face, behind the woman standing next to Isabella Rossellini.

WWPD: Pop culture contrarian

As we've already established, I don't care if famous people are Jewish, or if they have one Jewish ancestor from way back when. Unless that ancestor comes from this one 19th century French-Jewish family that I'm studying at the moment, in which case I totally care, and want the details. (Other than Julia Louis Dreyfus, I can't think which celebs could possibly fit the bill.)

I also don't care if famous people are looking a bit too skinny these days. Demands that a celebrity "eat a sandwich" do not move me, not one bit. I especially don't care if Ann Coulter does or does not down a Snickers. Do we know these people personally, such that their physical well-being concerns us? Isn't the point that they're skinny? Because unlike everyone else, these people are paid to watch their figures. If I refuse cheese at a department reception, I'm an idiot, whereas if Nicole Richie does this, she's keeping her job, whatever it is that she does. If those whose job it is to stand around and be photographed didn't have to make sacrifices, now that would be a problem.

School anxiety dreams: the two most recent

1) I had to give a paper, but went out for breakfast in a restaurant (?), arrived late, and once there, couldn't find my print-out. The conference organizers insisted on not starting until I found it.

2) I had to do research at Columbia's library (so far so believable). When up there, I told a couple of people that I didn't go to Columbia, but to NYU, and one of the two people had never heard of it, while the other asked if NYU was in New York.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Oh the humanities! Part II

Apparently high-class prostitution pays better than fully-funded grad school. In the humanities or the sciences.

It's back!

By "it" I mean the trend of breathlessly announcing the discovery that a conventionally-attractive, famous woman is Jewish. It's a) supposed to be shocking that a Jewish woman might not look like Sheila Broflovski, and b) supposed to make the average Jewish woman believe that, if you look at her from the correct angle, she's a dead-ringer for Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, or whoever the latest 'discovery' may be. Problem is, the average woman, of any background, looks... average. Reminding the world of the existence of Natalie Portman makes the typical Jewish woman--and the typical woman, period--look worse, not better.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Weekend accomplishments:

-Spotted Michael Richards, aka Kramer, at the 77th Street Flea Market. Looks just like on TV, but a bit grayer these days.

-Purchased bright-red nail polish at Duane Reade.

-Was asked, out of all the women in a coffee shop, where one can get a good manicure in Park Slope. Oxymoronic question? Perhaps, but also a major accomplishment on my end, as I'd painted my own nails (see above).

-Found what I was looking for in some 1840s French-Jewish newspapers. There is primary-source hope for not one but two final papers this semester.

-Finished Ni Droite Ni Gauche, necessary to get cracking on final paper #3. If anyone's interested but doesn't read French, it's been translated into English, and I'd recommend it over the new hot book on the topic for anyone interested in reading about fascism's roots on the left, or, for that matter, about why the stuffier conservatism is, the less likely it is to constitute fascism.

Kosher style

There's an argument over at Jewlicious over whether it's wrong for an academic conference on Jewish themes to take place on a Friday, from 10am to 5pm. There's also an argument over whether it's wrong for a Jewish-studies conference not to offer up overtly political perspectives, but that's already been dealt with here, so, new topic. The conference in question was, according to its website, funded by the University of California, Irvine's Humanities Center and its Department of Spanish & Portuguese, along with the Teller Family Chair in Jewish Studies. In other words, it's not, from what I can tell from the phrasing and participants, primarily a Jewish-studies conference. So the conference is neither based in Jewish studies nor violates the Jewish Sabbath. It will have slightly inconvenience those who a) wished to attend the final talk, and b) wished to make an extended trip to the supermarket, but those are the breaks if one wants to be observant in a country in which Jews are a tiny majority, when a perfectly nice majority-Jewish country exists. There's a huge gap between forcing an observant Jewish Holocaust survivor to work on Shabbat and asking a potential conference audience to prepare for Friday on Thursday. As far as I'm concerned, end of story. What interests me is a) why it's assumed that a Jewish-studies conference will attract Jews, and b) why this assumption is correct.

The UCLA conference I attended on "Arab Jews" was held on a faith-neutral but not American-work-week neutral Sunday and Monday, and kosher food was provided. I remember thinking, when I received a form asking me if I wanted kosher food (I said I didn't care), and again when I got the list of nearby kosher restaurants, that this concern was thoughtful but surprising. The conference was, from what I could tell, for scholars of Jews, not necessarily Jewish scholars. Like a kosher-style restaurant, it was Jewish-themed, but expecting no actual observance. As it happened, barring one Norwegian, scholars of Jews turned out to be themselves Jewish, leading to all sorts of between-talk discussions of everything from Jewish summer camp to intermarriage. But, like an academic Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn't help but wonder, why is Jewish studies for Jews, but French studies for everyone? Granted I'd been wondering this for a while, but this reminded me.

It certainly helps, even when studying Jews from another country and century, to have grown up Jewish yourself. You know lots of the terminology, which is a big plus, but there's also a more intuitive familiarity with the Jewish experience that comes of having lived it. When I first read about fin-de-siecle French Jews wanting to keep silent during the Dreyfus Affair so as not to stir things up, I could immediately think of reference points both in interactions among my contemporaries and, of course, in things I already knew about European Jewish existence in the 1930s, things every sentient Jewish person today knows all about, with or without Sarkozy's intervention. Now, entering into any endeavor with a blank-slate take on the subject also has its advantages--say, not reading 1934 into 1894--but whether it's the kosher meals at conferences or the unavoidable presence of Hebrew terms, transliterated or otherwise, the non-Jewish world's fascination with Jews and Israel does not seem to make it as far as the academy.

Which leads to the question: how much should the fact that it's Jews doing Jewish studies be an open secret, and how much should it be embraced? Any normalizing of the status of Jews worldwide would make it no stranger for a non-Jew to study Jews than for a non-French person to study France. But at the same time, the global media are already obsessed beyond comprehension with Israel and the Jews, so perhaps academia is the one place where one can think about Jewish culture and history on a scale that more accurate corresponds to Jews' power and population worldwide.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Oh the humanities!

To be a humanities grad student is to be a constant object of mockery. It's competitive enough to get into PhD programs, but once you enroll, your career choice becomes evidence that you are spoiled and white or dim-witted, female, and politically-correct. Or maybe all of the above!

Christina Hoff Summers explains: "Departments of physics, math, chemis­try, engineering, and computer science have remained traditional, rigorous, competitive, relatively meritocratic, and under the control of no-nonsense professors dedicated to objec­tive standards." She thinks that the disproportionate presence of women in the humanities is linked to (what she sees as) the field's silliness. Where there was once important scholarship, there's now high-pitched whining about patriarchy. So that's where we're getting it from the right.

But over at Stuff White People Like, the humanities grad student is a joke because he or she is white. "The best subjects are English, History, Art History, Film, Gender Studies, Studies, Classics, Philosophy, Political Science, Literature, and the ultimate: Comp Lit. MFA’s are also acceptable." So from the left (or whatever one thinks the site constitutes), the critique is that the field is filled with the stuck-up, rich, and pale. Grad school is effeminate in the same way that whiteness is effeminate, but grad students need not actually be women for there to be useless-knowledge acquisition.

But it's not just that the field is considered too white and too female to be of use. (I see a connection to Hillary Clinton's candidacy, but not enough to develop into anything.) The humanities are criticized for being too political, or when not political, for being too irrelevant to contemporary politics. We're either moral-relativizing our way through the subject of Islamic terrorism and scrapping masculine pronouns, or presenting papers on obscure subjects no one cares about anyway. PhD programs are among the few grad programs whose students are, while still students, economically self-sufficient. Yet unlike law, business, or med students, those of us in doctoral programs are, we often hear, avoiding the 'real world.'

I was startled to read Amber's recent remark that law school is where those rejected from PhD programs end up. It was one of the few times I've seen grad school presented, if implicitly, as a respectable choice. (The fact that just about every UChicago grad I know has at least considered applying to doctoral programs doesn't count, because, as with the 'new college hook-up culture,' the U of C is always the exception that proves the rule.)

So, in our defense: Research and teaching are interesting; doctoral programs (often? usually?) pay; and if academia works out for you it pays decently well, while if not you can always figure out something else to do at the ripe old age of, say, 28, which is not too late to start a new path if need be. I don't believe that being in a doctoral program is more or less noble than any other career choice, or that the most brilliant minds gravitate to this rather than, say, business or law. There are smart people doing all kinds of things. Nor do I think academia is a divine calling. But it's not as silly as some would have it. Or so says this pale, female grad student.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Who is a Jew, indeed

The young French man recently tortured and killed on account of being Jewish would not, had he lived, have been able to get married in Israel:

Richard Prasquier, the president of the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, said [the victim] Roumi had a non-Jewish mother and his father “is not connected to the Jewish community.”

Is this discrepancy something we should praise, as in, Jews are not letting anti-Semites decide who counts? Or is there something altogether screwed up about using a religious definition to define a population that neither defines itself nor is defined by others as exclusively a religion?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Politics and scholarship

Last month I presented a paper at a UCLA conference on Middle Eastern and North African Jewry, so I was curious to see that UC Irvine is hosting one on similar themes. What I cannot understand is why Rabbi Yonah of Jewlicious sees this conference as somehow 'bad for the Jews.'

After looking at the conference's panels, he writes, "the issue of the displacement of Jews is a massive human rights issue that is ignored." Indeed, that subject does not seem to come up. He considers this a problem because he is interpreting what appears to be a conference put on by scholars from Spanish literature departments as a political response, almost a town-hall meeting, to the concerns of the contemporary Jewish people generally, and of the Jewish population of UC Irvine in particular. He adds, "The conference is part of a larger attempt by the University to deflect criticism as being a place hostile to Jewish students."

If my sense is correct about academic conferences, a tiny, tiny percentage of the university, Jewish or otherwise, will know about this conference (more via Jewlicious than would have otherwise), and a tinier proportion still will actually show up. I don't know anything about this university in particular, but given the titles of the presentations, I find it hard to believe that this conference is geared at placating undergraduates. It looks very academic, which I don't see as a problem, but do see as evidence that the motives might not be what Rabbi Yonah has in mind. In other words, while other programs he mentions, like kosher meals, might be part of "a not-so-secret attempt to portray the campus as a hospitable place" for Jewish students, I fail to see how a conference of this nature fits the bill.

He also writes, "Study and research into Sephardic culture is a very worthwhile area of study—however, ensuring that Jewish students receive fair and equal treatment on campus, without fear of reprisal or intimidation, seems to be a much more pressing issue." Fine, but why does the responsibility of protecting Jewish students at this university fall on the Spanish and Portuguese literature department? How is there a zero-sum contest of talks on "Gender and meaning in the Sephardic ballads of Latin America" and whatever anti-defamation program the rabbi has in mind?

As for the conference itself, Rabbi Yonah writes:

Rather than pressing Sephardic issues, such as the displacement of 850,000 Jews from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East since the founding of Israel in 1948 [pictured on right], the one day conference delves into topics such as: “Sephardic Culture and Hispanic Studies”, “Andalusi Jews and Sephardim”, “Crypto-Jews, Conversos, and the Doenmeh/Maaminim of Salonica” etc.

Not to get too technical, but perhaps no one submitted a paper on the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. At academic conferences, not everything is covered, and the basis on which papers are accepted is rarely, to my knowledge, how overtly relevant they are to political issues of the day; when that is the case, it's generally a bad thing, unless the field is by definition about the present time. It's absurd to object to scholarship when it fails to be on a subject with obvious social relevance. (I wish there were a paper on the Sephardic Jews of France, but each to his own.)

Given the title of the conference, "Sephardic Jews Beyond Spain," it's not surprising the discussion would not center around Mizrahi Jews/Jews from Arab countries, since these are, as I understand, two overlapping but not identical populations. It's not clear to me why scholars from Spanish and Portuguese literature departments would have any special knowledge about the expulsion/dispersion of Jews from Muslim countries. I should point out that I do think the migration is an important concern, and one not entirely beyond the scope of those in a French studies department (consider North Africa), but to expect one conference to hit upon everything, including things outside of its focus, is a problem.

Finally, and here is where I get a bit frustrated, Rabbi Yonah mentions: "One session on Ottoman Jews could be interesting, but it is being given by a woman who specializes in Turkish Jews— not the Jews of Palestine." Hmm. A talk in Jewish studies can be interesting even if it is not about Israel. I promise! Or at least I hope, since I'm in 19th century French-Jewish studies myself, and any relevance to Israel is indirect at best. It's worth bringing up BHL's point once more, about how Judaism should not primarily be about raising awareness of anti-Semitism. I'm not saying that the study of Jewish history should ignore the historical and literary presence of anti-Semitism--believe me, it's there wherever you look--but that Jewish studies should not be confused with a scholarly anti-defamation league. There's something positive about Jewish studies, whatever the findings. The focus should be on the Jews as a people worth understanding, or at least that's where I see my role in all of this.

"The world is full of terror"

This evening, Francophilia and Zionism collided like never before. At one point during his lecture on "The State of World Jewry" at the 92nd Street Y, Bernard-Henri Lévy, or BHL, le philosophe, he of the exposed chest and left-wing neoconservatism, uttered the phrase, "In my country..." Given that his English is, as he admits, not so great actually, and given the subject matter of the talk ("The New Anti-Semitism"), the obvious point of cultural reference was that of another visitor to America, in whose country there is problem. This happens to be a comparison I had the foresight to make nearly two full years ago. With his many references to "dikes bursting," BHL gave Borat some competition, since I do not remember what this analogy was supposed to refer to (anti-Semitism? nuclear war?) but do remember the snickering that it, like the "in my country," evoked.

There was something quite surreal about today. In the afternoon I gave a presentation in one of my classes on Tocqueville's Democracy in America (but yeah, in French), which was as Jo pointed out quite thematic, given that BHL is the Tocqueville of the 21st century. Then a few hours later, after the above-mentioned talk, I was in a room on the Upper East Side with not only BHL, but also Isabella Rossellini, a man who looked remarkably like--but was not--Nicolas Sarkozy, and presumably many other people infinitely more important than myself. I managed to get a few (French!) words in, asking BHL about what he meant by ending his talk with a note on universalism, and about his (dubious) assertion that there are many believing Catholics today in Western Europe.

But to backtrack a bit, before the reception was the lecture on World Jewry. Thematically, BHL's talk went something like this:

I. Everybody hates Israel, now more than ever.

(I'm convinced).

II. Everybody hates the Jews, and always has.

(True, but he's wrong about "new" anti-Semitisms. They basically build up upon one another. The religious, racial, and economic coexist, and the anti-Zionist angle doesn't change this. I believe it's Vicki Caron working on this question, for those interested in the academic angle of all of this. But from a non-academic perspective, he's also a bit off, since really, what's changed? Jews are rich warmongers, they say? They, whoever they may be, did not just come up with this.)

III. Here are some brilliant (read: ineffective) ways we can fight The New Anti-Semitism!

(This brought up a Catch-22: We are simultaneously to fight anti-Semitism by educating people about the unique tragedy of Holocaust, and by reminding people that we are aware that their tragedies matter, too, so as to avoid a competition over victimhood. BHL did not present this as at all contradictory. Plus, BHL makes the classic mistake of thinking one can fight anti-Semitism, which is irrational, using argument and reason. It didn't work during the Dreyfus Affair, and yet well-coiffed French intellectuals continue to believe that there is hope where none exists.)

IV. Any oppressed group which cannot in some way connect its suffering to oppression by the World Jewish Conspiracy is effectively screwed in the public arena.

(This has a ring of truth to it, but every oppressed or even oppressive group has a way of connecting its story to that of the Zionist Entity, which means, well, not so much. But yes, Jews are seen as controlling just about everything, and subject matter having to do with Jews has an automatic audience even in locales where no one's ever seen a Jew or in all likelihood ever will.)

V. To fight anti-Semitism, Jews should remember our allies! Who are, he explained, Protestant evangelicals in the US (sorry, no) and observant Catholics in countries like France. I was not aware that there were observant Catholics in France in any kind of significant numbers, but he's sure there are. Discuss amongst yourselves.

VI. In fact, Judaism should not be about fighting anti-Semitism, but should be centered around something positive. What, one might ask? Not 100% clear, but if this is the case, why parts I-V? As in, why talk for well over an hour about how "the world is full of terror" (quoting Israeli band Teapacks, not BHL) if you're going to conclude that our focus should be elsewhere?

OK, end of outline. The one point BHL made that I think is particularly worth taking away from his talk, and that is extra relevant to the massive, Francophilic-Zionistic-New Yorker audience at the 92nd Street Y, is that American Jews need to get off our collective high horse. By which I mean, before we get all worked up about French anti-Semitism, asking in concerned voices what it's 'really like' over there, we should ask ourselves what it's really like over here. Granted within however many feet of Zabars, it's just dandy, but that's not the whole country, or even the whole city.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Of color

CNN is on as background noise in my apartment, and I keep hearing what number of "Latinos," "whites," and "African-Americans" think of the different candidates in Texas. There has to be some middle-ground between pretending race is not an issue and repeatedly classifying Americans according to coloration or origins (or lack thereof) south of the border. Does repeatedly drilling into our heads the names of these three categories make them matter more or less? Shouldn't they ultimately matter less? It strikes me as one thing to be proud of one's own family heritage, but is anyone proud of such a huge segment of the national population? Are these crude, statistically-decided divisions the sort of diversity worth celebrating? (That is, if one believes in celebrating, not just accepting, diversity, which is itself another question).

Along similar lines, I got an email today from UChicago announcing the opening of a new building for "the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the LGBTQ Programming Office." This might explain why I don't consider myself on the left, but I do not see the reason why these two offices should be lumped together. But at any rate, the downside of this new building in terms of diversity is that the rest of campus will, at any given minute of the day, become disproportionately white and straight (or closeted).

Ladies, ladies!

The right, at its most sophisticated.

There's one obvious, glaring flaw at the beginning of Charlotte Allen's article about female stupidity: women swoon when seeing Obama, agreed. The implication is that men do not swoon before Hillary, and are therefore superior beings. Take a moment to analyze this: one of these two politicians is drop-dead gorgeous (for a politician, at least) while the other is... within normal limits for her age. If Miss Natalie P. or one of those Estonian 16-year-old models were Obama's opponent, I'd imagine the results would look a bit different.

But Allen's article only confirms that women are hopeless at logic and abstract thought. What's fascinating about the piece is, how does one construct an article about... how one is too dumb to write an article? What a paradox! Self-deprecation is surely part of it, but the occasional hypothesis-confirming error never hurts.

Monday, March 03, 2008

If you have to ask

This is not my first time noticing this, but New York Magazine has a messed-up definition of "cheap." I somehow forgot I knew this, and got excited to see that one of the "steals" in the Eating section was a Swedish brunch. I'm a fan of Swedish pancakes and not so much of doing the dishes, so I was ready to say, sign me up!

Then it appeared: "The $48 All-You-Can-Eat Swedish Sunday Brunch." Ah, but there's an explanation: "In what universe, you ask, can a $48 brunch (even one including an ice-cold Carlsberg or a 'Danish Mary') be considered a steal? The one in which you claim a booth in the posh Sunday-afternoon serenity of the Aquavit dining room, strategize a plan of attack, and proceed to decimate the lavish spread in the room next door." This is a prime example of a claim not supported by evidence.

I could understand NYMag saying, look, this brunch is worth $48. Or just stating outright, this brunch is good, with no mention of the cost. As an aspirational magazine (redundant?) these would be reasonable enough assertions. But what's to gain from calling that which is expensive "a steal"? Does it make the reader imagine himself belonging to an implied readership of those for whom $48 is in fact nothing? (It seems unlikely that even the very well-off spend this on breakfast, or else how would they stay that way, but that's another matter.)

Why do I pose this as a question? It seems entirely clear that the marketing strategy is to state as many times as possible that absurdly-priced goods are inexpensive, offering up an imaginary New York in which everyone not only has endless money but spends every last cent... yet for reasons left murky, still desires a bargain. Why else a mention of how reasonably-priced some shoes are because they go for $250-350 rather than the standard $600?

"We're living in a society!"

Is it unfair that for a year or so, during engagement, women have to wear rings while men do not? Implication being, men get an extra year of (implied) availability, whereas women are too blinded by shiny objects to think of other men for the months ahead. Or am I the only person to see things this way?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

"My mouth can't form these words"

The nativist Dunkin' Donuts commercial is back, the one that seeks to appeal to good ol' Americans who have trouble ordering at Starbucks because they are unable to pronounce or tell the difference between French and Italian. I was reminded of the "Fretalian" question noticing the comments to this YouTube of a Dutch rap song. Listeners think they are hearing either French ("je ne savais pas que les gens français pourraient rap*"; odd for this person, commenting in French, to make that mistake!) or Hebrew ("Waar was jij, ça me paraissait hébreu, mais si c'est du néerlandais,je crois que je peux tout de suite mourir de honte...**").

And, from the Dunkin' Donuts target audience: "im american and don't understand any of these words on my computer screen or the lyrics of this ditty, i thought this was a yael naim video. I gave it my 3 minutes and 17 seconds of my time. I give it a C+. thats around a 2.5." You tell 'em! Granted I wasn't 100% sure it was Dutch, but after English, French and Hebrew were the first languages I ruled out. Process of elimination and double vowels put the song somewhere in Northern Europe.

In other French-Dutch-Hebrew thoughts, one of my students mentioned a while back that he finds Dutch a more romantic language than French, something half of Belgium presumably agrees with. Both Dutch and Hebrew have the "ch" sound, which can either make or break a language's hotness, depending one's persuasion. I'm as pro-"ch" as possible for someone in a French department.

*"I didn't know French people could rap."
** "Waar was jij (where were you, in Dutch, according to my translator), that sounded like Hebrew to me, but if it's Dutch, I think I could die of shame..."

Saturday, March 01, 2008


The Sunday Times really knows its target audience. Between Brooklyn writers and Orthodox rabbis, there's something for everyone. I'm more interested in the Israeli-marriage article, so let's begin there. Apparently even if your parents were married in the US by an Orthodox rabbi, you yourself might not be allowed to marry in Israel, since Israel's Orthodox rabbinate has a secret list of which American rabbis 'count' and the one who married your parents might not. Or, to put it more succinctly, Israel is not so much excluding non-Jews from full participation in its society as excluding all but the three people who fit some obscure definition of Jewish. Or, even for those who believe Israel should be a Jewish state, and that it's fine that Israel has a state religion, the way this actually plays out ends up excluding even those Jews who wish to take part. I knew that plenty of fully Jewish Israeli couples marry outside of Israel for this reason, but Gershom Geronberg's article really drives the point home. It's nice to know that if I wanted to marry in Israel, I'd have to embark upon a bigger research project than what will be needed for a dissertation. And since no one in my family's French, I could not kill two birds with one stone.*

But let's say this gets sorted out, and anyone who calls himself a Jew can have a Jewish wedding in Israel. Problem solved? It's worth going back a decade to look at this exchange between Zeev Sternhell and Arthur Hertzberg. Sternhell writes:

As an American citizen, Hertzberg probably considers these principles as self-evident truths and wants them to be strictly observed in his own country. But as a Jew, he needs a "Jewish state." For himself, Hertzberg wants a secular, pluralistic and individualistic society, but for me and the generations of Israelis to come, he requires some kind of a tribal ghetto.

I would not want to have to debate Sternhell. He puts in a few words the paradox of the American Jew who shudders at the thought of prayer in school in the US, but is willing to accept all sorts of official religion in the name of keeping Israel Jewish, which is, let's face it, a common enough contradictory pair of thoughts. (Guilty as charged). America and Israel provide two different responses to anti-Semitism, in particular its 20th century variant: Israel accepts the 'official' definition of a Jew, but embraces this as something positive, while America scraps official designations and allows you to be as Jewish as you feel like, whether this means a streimel or the occasional bagel and lox. Is there a coherent way to think one thing's good for one country and another for the other? One could point to the fact that America was founded as a state with no official religion, whereas Israel was not. One could also point to the fact that, at least as they are supposed to operate, both the US and Israel help Jews, some but not all of whom care to live in a majority-Jewish state, some but not all of whom wish to define their own identities on their own terms. Or one could admit that yes, Sternhell has a point.

*There's always the possibility that this article, the latest in the Magazine's series 'let's trash on Orthodox Judaism' is an exaggeration. But everything else I know about this issue, from reading about it and from friends, suggests it's pretty much right.