Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The natural order of society

The fight against gentrification is 1% about keeping rents low enough for people making not so much money, and 99% about all sorts of other things, some of which I've enumerated here, and which The Onion dealt with far more elegantly here. The Onion was dead on about "aristocratization," only the aristocrats are never the new arrivals, but the rich who, in a given neighborhood, preceded the very-rich. Somehow the struggle of the wealthy to maintain the sanctity of their neighborhoods gets mixed up in the collective urban consciousness with the battle against gentrification. When the two are really not the same thing at all.

The NYT provides several examples of this trend. To start, there are letters from West Village residents who feel the "soul" of the Village will be lost if a new hotel is built in the area. If the NYT letter-writers own and do not rent, they could make use of the neighborhood's newfound glamor, sell their apartments and leave for somewhere more authentic but also architecturally charming, say, the South Side of Chicago.

Then there's the next article, about someone whose name sounds like Van Der Woodsen, but who's actually a real person, the president of the Carnegie Hill neighborhood association, who's leading the fight against making a really big townhouse out of several... big townhouses. It's apparently "'extraordinarily conspicuous consumption'" to live in a really big townhouse, whereas to live in just a regular old $10-million one is tasteful and understated. We also learn, if we didn't know already, that "'Part of the joy of having a brownstone in Carnegie Hill is having one of those rear yards.'" Oh is it, really? I'm intrigued. This is a cause the masses can get behind. Then there's this gem: "To radically alter the rear of the three town houses, [a neighbor] said, would 'be as if someone added a line to a poem by Wordsworth or a new act to a Shakespeare play or two new floors to the Flatiron building.'" Yes, yes, we get it, having a nice house in a city in which everyone else lives in a non-metaphorical closet isn't about life being unfair, it's art.

And finally, in case you weren't concerned, the very laws of physics are being defied by one man's attempt to build a very big house out of several other big houses: "But Mr. van der Valk said this tussle was something different, in part because he feared it could be a harbinger of a possible new trend in which the richest of the rich would try to defy the natural limitations that come with choosing to live on the island of Manhattan by combining single-family brownstones." A "single-family" unit in NYC is, remember, the size of at least four apartments.

So to conclude, I'm not (contrary to above-expressed sentiment) a communist, and think it's wonderful and fair that those with the good sense to find banking interesting get a bigger place than those who are drawn to less lucrative fields. What is a problem is when concerns among the rich about property value or even just the prettiness of a neighborhood they feel to have been invaded by richer people, or the nouveau-riche, become one and the same in people's minds as the fight to keep NYC livable for people who do something other than work on Wall Street. Again, not the same problem.

Ah, technology

Today I handed out course evaluations to my class. As I was walking out to get lunch, I heard a girl speaking loudly into her cellphone--all I caught of the conversation was, "I just gave a really bad review to my French teacher." I'm pleased to say I'd never seen this girl before, plus my students were still in the room, so the teacher in question could not have been me but... yikes.

Ish rotzeh isha

While eating dinner, Jo and I have been watching an especially implausible--but clearly cheap to produce--reality show called "Farmer Wants a Wife." The "city women" come from areas of dubious urban-ness (places where, say, one has to drive), yet the show begins with all of these shots of Manhattan. And the farmer... has a body unusual among men in search of a wife. He is clearly an aspiring actor living in New York who was taught to ride a tractor for this show. (And yes, this show does bring to mind the "tractor incident" from "Seinfeld.")

It occurred to me that the best reality show ever, of this same theme, would be an Israeli man who wants an American Jewish wife. Or, why not, Diaspora Jewish, so that there could be some French, South American, and Canadian participants as well. Now I don't see why an Israeli man would want a non-Israeli wife--Israeli women tend towards the gorgeous--but the potential for farcical culture clash would be far greater than that of a farmer meeting girls from Dallas and Orlando. The difference probably seems huge to those involved, but it's not coming through on the small screen.

In my reality show, women from New York and Paris could be sent to a small desert town in Israel. It would be like the Birthright trip to the club in Eilat, for which all the American Birthrighters dress like they're going out to a club in the Meatpacking District, except it would go on for weeks, the eliminations would involve mock-IDF basic training (again, like Birthright) and at the end, someone would get 250,000 shekels.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

My 15 pixels of fame

Over Spring Break, a photographer from Time Out NY was taking pictures of a cafe Clementine and I were in. He took a number of pictures of us, but since I don't subscribe, I hadn't seen whether or not we appeared. Well, we did and we didn't. In the photo accompanying the blurb for "Max Caffé," you can see a tiny picture of me (below the painting) and the top of Clementine's head.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Spring Fiesta 2008

I went allll the way to Manhattan and back just to see some dachshunds. And it was worth the trip! We even got the numbers of some tristate-area dachshund breeders. Now I'm more motivated than ever to get a drivers' license before turning 25, so that I can help with the driving that will be needed if my dachshund is to come from somewhere other than a NYC pet store.

Relatedly, this photo from the Dachshund Friendship Club website (caption: "Dachshund day at a Tel Aviv coffee shop that welcomes dogs!") is how I imagine heaven: a Tel Aviv café filled with dachshunds. Oh yes.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Make it stop!

To whoever thought it would be a good idea to have a rock concert right out in front of the NYU library on Friday afternoon:

No, it was not. The graduate students are angry.

Dirty laundry

I have a small suggestion for how to make the world a better place. The First World, at any rate: We as a society need to stop publishing real-time mini-memoirs of ordinary people's child-rearing experiences. By this I mean, if your son is currently 19, you should not be allowed to tell the world the following:

During Nate's final year of high school, I impersonated him online, filling out and submitting 11 versions of the Common Application for undergraduate admission. The guidance counselor at his private school told parents such "clerical" support was expected. It became my full-time job. Nate was apathetic about college applications, even with (or maybe because of) such competent staffing. High school barely engaged him. His assignments were often late or incomplete.

So perhaps Nate does not share mother Bonnie's last name. But Nate is clearly a real person, one whose poor performance in high school and college has now been recorded in Slate, rather than in a concerned email to Nate's father, where such revelations belong.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Never mind

Someone is wrong on the Internet, and that someone is me. Almost a year ago I remarked that the more thinness matters in the fashion industry, the less race is an issue. If beauty requires being 5'11" and 100 pounds, you'd think there wouldn't be enough 'beautiful' women out there to allow for discrimination on the basis of anything else.

Yet the Slavic countries--or more accurately, the Slavic middle schools-- came through. Race still matters, only now it helps to look Aryan (or close enough) and anorexic. If women have long wished they were a bit blonder, a bit thinner, a bit younger, the trend in models is for them to be as blond, thin, and young as physically possible. So, never mind.

La jalousie

How upset should I be that one of the style influences for the Gossip Girl costume designers is one of my honest-to-goodness former classmates from my Upper East Side girls' school days? Because two things are upsetting here, really. One is that I want TV to be make-believe, but the other is that this was just not a girl I imagined could become a socialite, and this was at a school with droves of girls who seemed destined to become one. By this I mean, why am I not a socialite? Not that I'd want to socialize every night of the week, so there's that. But I'm quite sure my all-silver ensemble (space-age dress and sparkly ballet flats) today was at least as fab as any pseudo-hippie headband.

Vive la nation!

I know I'm getting to this late, but Shmuel Rosner's Slate piece on intermarriage and Passover seders would be really, really useful to my research if it had in fact been written in a newspaper in 1840s France. But since it's from this year, it will have to just be useful to this blog post.

Rosner lays out the "optimistic" and "pessimistic" schools on intermarriage. But more on that later. He concludes the article by mentioning why the seder is especially tough for the intermarried:

Passover, more than any other Jewish holy day, is the one in which Jews celebrate not their religion but this strange concept of becoming a people. This idea, of Jewish people-hood—the historic fact that Jews, for generations, didn't see themselves as just sharing their faith, but also their national fate—will be the one most challenged by the influx of people from other religions into the Jewish community.

First off, it's pretty amazing to see any mention in a mainstream article of the fact that Judaism has not always held a religion-only definition. But what I can't tell from the above-quoted sentences is whether Rosner is saying that (diaspora) Judaism today is more than a religion. He mentions "the historic fact that Jews, for generations, didn't see themselves as just sharing their faith, but also their national fate," as though this were in the past. But if the seder as it exists today is also about Jewish people-hood, then perhaps Judaism has never really been just a religion. Which does bring up the question of which religions are 'just' religions--some clearly aren't. Once religion is about more than which building to nap through a sermon in on the weekends, it stops being 'religion-only.'

But back to the point: Why is the presence of non-Jews more threatening to the Jews as a people than to Judaism as a religion? Isn't it far more plausible that intermarriage will de facto bring new members into the Jewish people than that it will bring about round-the-block lines for the mikvah (or in the gentile man's case, a more extreme initiation)?

American Jews are especially familiar with the immigration narrative; if our ancestors could go through Ellis Island and make us American, why would we be so convinced that the Jewish nations' borders were closed? (By 'Jewish nation' I mean the Jewish people, not limited to the state of Israel). Now the Jewish religion's borders are closed in all kinds of ways, often to those who consider themselves Jewish. The Jewish 'race,' whatever that may be, is not likely to be a rallying point in this day and age. But the Jewish nation could--and does--bring in more people, not to mention let those out who've had enough. A national understanding of Judaism is really the only one that simultaneously rejects the idea of an immutable Jewish race and makes sense of the fact that one can be fully Jewish without having any particular religious sentiment or affiliation.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Crushes, continued

I probably could have explained myself better in my last post, but to respond to Amber's response, I suppose my main point was that I don't believe there's any use in dividing crushes into categories of authentic and inauthentic. Cultural and situational factors certainly do influence how much of the population one is primed to think of in terms of a crush. But since that's the case no matter what, how can it be that a prof-crush is artificial because it comes from young women's limited imaginations about relationships with older men? Isn't a young woman's crush on a man her own age just as much about seeing a world of limited possibility?

Time to get anecdotal: I never experienced the prof-crush as is now being discussed, just the less-racy phenomenon of prof-admiration. But I did switch from girls' school when I was 13 to coed school at 14. I remember that I was initially not sure what to make of all these boys, since from the perspective of a girls'-school eighth-grader, a boy is only relevant if he is a crush. I'd never had male friends, so the first male friends I did make I tended to think of in crush-like terms. Thankfully I soon got past that attitude. But that said, although I can today point to what was in retrospect a very obvious reason for why I formed my early high-school crushes, that they were situational does not mean that they were not actually crushes. They sure felt like it at the time, and who am I to argue with my decade-younger (gosh I'm ancient) self?

Because the question is, if those crushes were fake, when is a crush real, and not just a "model of behavior" adopted in error? Which brings me back to my original point, which is that the only time a crush 'counts' according to Amber's model is, by implication, when it forms on an appropriate, available target.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Crushes in blazers

Amber links to a post about "the tendency of young women to eroticize their interactions with older men who they are drawn to." While I still don't see the appeal of the older man, I have to disagree here. I don't think it makes sense that people would go out of their way to "eroticize" encounters that they would in some state of nature find free of eros. So I'm going to take the contrarian position, and argue that crushes are deemed "intellectual" by the crusher when the crushee is someone who'd be inappropriate to pursue. It's far more respectable to admit to "admiration" than to a sexual desire for someone 30 years older and married.

In other words, it's not that crushes themselves are different when they form on appropriate candidates than on bad-idea ones. But human beings have this superpower called self-control. If you know the person is for whatever reason a no-go, you create a reason for why what you feel to be a crush like any other is actually about something other than sex. Problem is, all crushes begin as about something other than sex. One person finds another interesting, then very interesting, then the thought occurs, aha, a crush!

How could anyone believe that crushes on inappropriate people are in fact intellectual endeavors, akin to spending an evening by the fireplace reading Hegel? "Intellectual" is just the defense mechanism created for this one variant of the inappropriate crush, that of the student on the professor. For other poorly-chosen crushes (poor wording; crushes are not chosen) other methods of overanalysis-into-oblivion are necessary.

So to conclude, not everything that is fundamentally about sex must lead to anything physical. But that does not mean that there is on the one hand sexual attraction and on the other a sort of mystical "admiration" that only seems like it's sexual attraction. Which isn't to say that true, non-sexual admiration does not exist. It does, but it feels like admiration, not like a crush.

Rupture and continuity

I've been convinced for a while now that there's no actual difference between grad school and undergrad. What I mean is, for the typical PhD student, grad school and undergrad will feel awfully similar. Most current grad students basically created a grad school experience out of their college one, whether by choosing a school based on its grad-like undergrad, or by geeking it up at a school where doing so was unusual. College itself might be different from grad school, but for the person who goes to both, nothing changes. You just go from reading in one library about one aspect of nineteenth-century French-Jewish history to reading in a different library in a different city about a different aspect of the same.

But it looks like others beat me to the punch. And Jacob Levy says it best when he comments, "If you find yourself nostalgic for your Chicago undergrad experience (particularly, say, midterms-through-finals of winter quarter when it feels like your work stretches out forever into both the past and the future) you're probably doomed to grad school."

Magical realism

OK, so I did catch the season premiere of Gossip Girl, but the first half was while I cooked dinner and the second was while I ate. So it's not as if I could have been doing something respectable or productive during this time. (/defensiveness)

So, the usual: what didn't make sense this time around?

1) Who drinks their morning orange juice in wine glasses? The Van Der Woodsen-Basses, that's who!

2) If Chuck smokes weed in Serena's bathroom when she wants to shower and leaves bodily fluids on her bathroom towels, why, at the end of the episode, are we supposed to believe he's actually not a bad guy, since it turns out that he was not in fact responsible for some pranks destined for Serena later that day? Isn't he still 'bad' enough to be kept away from the Van Der Woodsen household?

3) Relatedly, much was made of the fact that Serena had not washed her hair for what, a day? Are you even supposed to wash your hair every day? Regardless, her 'unwashed' hair looked exactly like her 'washed' hair in all the other episodes.

4) Wasn't suicidal little brother Eric supposed to be gay for this season of GG? Do we really need an episode of his 'brotherly' affection for Chuck to prepare us for the inevitable?

5) OK, change of route: here's what was entirely convincing: Jenny's experience of the private-school shopping scene. What seems exaggerated I'm afraid to say was spot-on.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Local eats

It's a Passover miracle! There is now passable falafel within an, um, falafel's throw of my office. Not incredible falafel, but tasted all right. Plus--and this is the real test--it was an hour or so that I ate it and I have yet to fall ill. I had amazing, amazing falafel in Tel Aviv last May... which ended up setting back my Masters Exam preparation by a week. It could be that the better falafel tastes, the more likely it is to cause stomach illness.

In further culinary news, why must the Belgian Waffle Truck park itself in front of the NYU gym?

And, not about food but worth noting, this post captures my thoughts on Facebook Chat exactly.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Meet me in St. Louis

"The dream: finding a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in an elevator building with a doorman in Greenwich Village for $2,000 a month." Sounds nice and all, but this makes clear why it is just about impossible to go to grad school in Manhattan and commute from somewhere other than the Midwest. $2,000 a month for one person? Even cohabiting grad students, or friends willing to share a room, could not afford this apartment. And this is the apartment recent college grads apparently wish existed; the reality is far less space for far more money.

The NYT story about how hard it is to find an apartment in Manhattan sums up the problem but not the solution:

[L]andlords want only tenants who earn at least 40 times the monthly rent, which means an $80,000 annual salary for a $2,000 apartment. According to census data, more than 25,000 graduates ages 22 to 28 moved to the city in 2006, and their median salary was about $35,600. Those who don’t make 40 times their monthly rent need a guarantor, usually a parent, who in turn must make at least 80 times the monthly rent. In addition to a security deposit, some landlords also want the first and last month’s rent. Tack on a broker’s fee and a prospective renter for that $2,000 apartment is out of pocket nearly $10,000 just to get the keys to the place.

Yes, that's the problem, exactly. The article then offers up a charming anecdote about two recent grads, one in consulting and one in banking, who, despite the odds, found a place near Union Square. In other words, the article does not address the problem it's claiming to address, that it is just about impossible to rent in Manhattan or now much of Brooklyn--really, anywhere within reasonable commuting distance to NYU--unless you work in finance.

The most ridiculous part of the article is how NYC real estate brokers who come to colleges to tell students the hard truths about the real estate market are portrayed as on some sort of do-gooder mission. When what they are in fact doing is, of course, looking for business from what they see as a naive but wealthy potential client base.

[A NYC realtor] said that when he shows prospective renters what their budget really can buy, they are sometimes so appalled that “they think I’m trying to fool them or something, and they run away and I don’t hear from them again.”

Or, maybe the realtor was trying to fool them, and they chose to look elsewhere. Because this does happen. My own experience trying to rent a place in Manhattan (end of story: I stayed in Brooklyn) was hopeless for just that reason. While realtors looking to rent to recent college grads tend to expect naiveté, when they don't find it, they invent it. By this I mean, I'm a native New Yorker, and I had already been renting in the city for two years after graduation. I was not what's generally meant by 'new to the market.' Yet no matter what knowledge I had, I was constantly belittled and told I knew nothing about living in New York. No matter what I said, the person realtors were speaking to was a 21-year-old newly arrived from Kansas with a massive trust fund. No one believed that two PhD students would be capable of paying rent. (And yet we all do, amazing!) I explained time and again that I knew NYC apartments were small. Realtors did not believe me, so they showed me tiny closets within closets and when I failed to be impressed, this was obviously because I was expecting a ten-bedroom suburban house like the one I allegedly grew up in.

All of this revisionist history of my life thus far became exhausting, and convinced me that outer-borough renting was the way to go. I don't doubt that the experience is dreadful, perhaps more so, for actual newcomers, but my point is that it's a mess trying to rent in Manhattan no matter what, again, unless you had the good sense to choose a career in hedge funds or similar.

On the one hand it's fantastic to be a grad student in NYC. If you need to sift through 1840s French newspapers, you're just a subway ride away. On the other, even if you are willing to spend half your income on rent, even if you're willing to live far from campus, you may start to think that pitching a tent near your office is the most practical and least fantastical solution to the question of where you should live.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It finally happened

I woke up this morning in the middle of a vivid dream, in which I'd come up with a new beginning paragraph to a research paper I'm working on in my real, daytime life. As I began to fully awaken, I realized that while this was not the best opening paragraph I'd ever come up with, it involved accurate and relevant citations, dates, and authors. It was even a not-half-bad way of introducing my subject (again, the subject of an actual paper I'm writing for a class I'm really taking) using topics readers would already be familiar with. In other words, it's official. I now work in my sleep.

Friday, April 18, 2008

'Ralph Lauren, pas cher!'

When I was growing up in New York, "tourists" referred to American tourists. A touristy spot was a place filled with permed blond hair, fanny packs, and poor street-crossing skills, with those who bitterly cling to religion, guns, and Midtown.

Now, the city is as filled with tourists as ever, but the new batch are thinner than we are, in better clothes, and less likely than native New Yorkers to be spotted in public in white sneakers or on line for the latest diet frozen yogurt. I went to Century 21 yesterday and heard more French than I have in all of French grad school, more German than... than I'd have expected to hear within a few blocks of my high school. If I were better with languages, I'd now know how to discuss one's underwear preferences in German. Which would be quite the skill.

New Yorkers used to be able to look down upon tourists. Now, given how massively popular America is with Europeans these days, we can safely assume that the tourists look down on us. Tourist spots were once places to be avoided; now they're the chicest places in town. And all of this because of New York's unbeatable combination of clothes shops and the $US currency. Meh.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

This Charming Man

I always think I've seen the worst, but the subway never ceases to amaze. Today, a man was sitting across from me--a thirty-ish, hipsterish Caucasian gentleman with a guitar--who spent much of the trip over the bridge doing what should require a nose-hair trimmer... manually. So, questions... 1) Who would think this was a good idea? 2) Especially on the subway? 3) Why was I not at all surprised when this man followed up his yanking with putting his fingers in his mouth, to bite his nails or who knows? Oh, and the final question has to be 4) What recreational drug makes this seem like a good idea, and can the War on Drugs be focussed exclusively on this one?

There oughta be a law. But how? How could one ban disgusting behavior on the subway, when it seems there are as many disgusting behaviors as there are subway riders. Or, it's just that you don't notice the people just sitting there, so the ones like the above-mentioned guy end up symbolizing subway riders generally.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The anti-shiksa

In nineteenth-century France, there were Jewish prostitutes. This much I knew. What I didn't know, but learned today in class, is that these 'Jewish' prostitutes were often not actual Jews, but just dark-haired prostitutes assigned the role of 'the Jewess.' Which I guess had some appeal way back when.

While obviously there are still Jewish women considered attractive (Natalie who?) one doesn't hear much these days about an overall preference in that direction. From what I know of popular culture, the Jewish male desire for a non-Jewish woman gets far more attention than the other way 'round; is this because all men want blue-eyed blondes, or is it just that Woody Allen and Philip Roth made more of an impression on America than did their gentile counterparts, whoever those may be?

Better than I could say it myself:

1) David Grossman, like most of Israel’s leftists, sees binationalism as simultaneously utopian and dismissive of Jewish feelings. “You know, binationalism doesn’t work in so many places in the world,” he said. “You see it in Belgium now. And they expect, with this really hateful combination of Jews and Arabs, that it will succeed here? It’s so wrong. Part of the cure for the historical distortions of both peoples is that they need a place of their own with defined borders. We have to heal separately. I’m a little suspicious of these people who would experiment on us with binationalism.”

Reality, he said, has made a Jewish state necessary. “Since the world has failed to defend Jewish existence, there is a need for a place for the Jews to implement their culture and their values and their language and their history, a place in which to recover.”
-Jeffrey Goldberg

2) The Law of Return, despite all the criticisms of it, cannot be abrogated without also abrogating Israel's status as a Jewish state. Which, of course, is precisely what many of the law's critics would like to do. But it needs to be rethought and reformulated. The times have changed while it has not, and it is time to bring it in line with them. -Hillel Halkin

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Racists versus the Sexists

I'll admit it: I did not, and to an extent do not, understand why Obama's "bitter" remark was supposed to be offensive. A presidential candidate--who is in almost all cases well-educated and wealthy--has two choices when discussing those less well-off than himself. He may emphasize that he is, contrary to appearances, one of the people (ahem, Edwards); or he may admit that he's in a different position in the world, but maintain that he would nevertheless help the working classes if elected. Obama's remark falls in the latter category. He wasn't pretending to be someone he's not, but was showing how, if elected, he would try to improve things for even those not socioeconomically like himself. Of course the problem is that the usual approach is for candidates to feign or exaggerate their enthusiasm for Jesus, corn dogs, or wide open fields, so Obama's remark was a break from the usual, including his own usual approach. (Bush is clearly in the camp of those who emanate of-the-peopleness as a substitute for helping actual people.)*

So when Bob Herbert stepped up to defend or at least explain Obama's remark, I had high hopes. Then... not so much. Herbert explains that many white voters in Pennsylvania would not vote for a black candidate. Herbert's evidence? This is common knowledge. Hmm. Just like it's common knowledge that poor whites wear mullets and eat squirrel for breakfast? In other words, back to where we started.

To refer to broad swaths of the U.S. population as racist without offering evidence is itself bigoted, and adds nothing to the conversation. But here's where Herbert's column goes really awry: "No one has an obligation to vote for Mr. Obama, and it’s certainly not racist to vote against him." Herbert, remember, has just gotten through saying that without any evidence, we can confidently assume that a significant number of votes against Obama are racist votes. So while a vote against Obama might not be racist, the Hillary voter's motives are suspect. So, there's that.

Herbert continues: "But the senator can make it clear that it is wrong to dismiss a candidacy out of hand solely because of the race or ethnicity or gender of the candidate." He certainly could, and perhaps should. But it is up to voters themselves to decide that one candidate is preferable to another, using whatever criteria we see fit. Anti-discrimination laws do not and should not govern the individual's thought processes, neither when voting nor at any other time. If you think it takes a man to stand up to John McCain and choose Obama for that reason, that's your call. (And it could be that the "racist" voters Herbert has invented are in fact convinced that a black man would have worse luck than a white Clinton at winning the general election for the Democrats?) And even I, the blogosphere's most knee-jerk Zionist, if some commenters are to be believed, do not believe there oughta be a law preventing someone from voting against Joe Lieberman on account of his being a Jew. Your vote, your choice, however offensive others would find the inner workings of your brain.

I happen to think political correctness has been overall a positive influence on this country, and that we're in a better place if people are ashamed to be racist or sexist. But it would be worse for democracy if we were coerced into believing that there were limitations on what is a legitimate basis for choosing a candidate. And when the candidates themselves are constantly reminding voters of qualities that ought to be personal, it's harder still to expect that Americans will be poring over candidates' policy records and ignoring the rest. Even if the question is not of rejecting a black person or a woman, the question remains which historic moment one wishes to endorse. When voters are presented with symbols, of course pundits assume voting choices reflect feelings about the broad categories each candidate symbolizes.

*After drafting this post, I noticed the following post on "condescension or pandering", which sums things up quite nicely.

My Greta Garbo post

I do not have a minute for gay rights or for the environment. I do not want a dollar off at Subway, nor do I want a free movie pass. And no, for the purposes of strangers on the street, I am not Jewish.

Even leaving aside panhandlers (who seem to have picked up on Park Slope's mix of wealth and liberal guilt), the sidewalk-solicitation* universe has spiraled out of control. If I dress too undergraddy, I'm targeted more aggressively near NYU. Note to self: leggings, even under a dress, scream "naive freshman." Whereas if I go the young-professional route, I become the assumed owner of a Park Slope townhouse, with bills and coins to spare. I suppose I could dress in rags, but then I'd probably end up with less authority as a teacher and, at best, an extra dollar-off coupon for Subway.

Had I never left New York, I might provincially assume that being hassled like this was a NYC phenomenon. But once, on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, some young men were selling M&Ms for their basketball team. When I ignored the sales pitch, I received an enthusiastic, "Well fuck you!" Which kept me a loyal vending-machine customer for all of undergrad.

* I realize this sounds like I mean prostitutes. Is there a better expression?

Monday, April 14, 2008

One-drop wonder

Is there or is there not something creepy about "outing" celebrities as ethnicities that make up 1/8 of their ancestry? Does a Mexican great-grandmother make a person "Latina"? Or, more to the point, if one fails to own up loudly to said forbearer, is one a self-hating Latina? Or is it more offensive to say, of one's tiny bit of Mexican heritage, "that’s probably where I get my fire!"

Not without Theodor!

It turns out I cannot write a paper without reaching a place where Herzl has to be mentioned. Herzl is to me what Freud or Marx is to at least one professor you've had at some point in your life. Certain turns of phrase just scream "Herzl" to me, and force me to find a way to get the bearded gentleman into an otherwise unrelated paper. So I've thrown him in the mix, knowing full well that there's a good chance I'll have to edit him out when revising.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Quick question:

Are we outraged about 14-year-old models because underage modeling is exploitative, or are we upset that beauty standards are such that a young woman is a decade too old to be attractive?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The search for origins

Suddenly, the trend I noticed, the black patent leather ballet flat, loses its mystery. The notion that we must. have. this. shoe. was set forth among New Yorkers on December 19, 2006, by a hypnotizing cabal known as New York Magazine. The Repetto flats pictured look fantastic, as well they should for $185. Let it be known that there are Repettos available in lower Manhattan for over $100 less than that, but not black patent leather ones. I know this because I have said discounted shoe in silver. The discount might be because there's a weird but tiny bump in the inner sole of one of them. But just as Paris was well worth a mass, fantastic French shoes are well worth a princess-and-pea situation.

42 and loving it

Inspired by Rita's mission "rescuing things commonly pooh-poohed," I'm going to do the unthinkable and defend... Midtown. Especially Bryant Park--it's actually a pleasant place to sit, unlike Washington Square Park, even pre-construction. Spending too much time in the Village/Union Square area, I'd come to believe that every woman in Manhattan is 15 years old, 90 pounds, and wearing less-than-opaque leggings as pants. In fact, there are fully-clothed, adult men and women in the very same borough, not 30 blocks away! I know this is an odd thing to get excited about, but it's the truth. It's nice to be reminded of a world of working adults, and to be reminded that, at 24, I am not the oldest person in the world, nor, in "skinny" jeans rather than footless tights, the most formally dressed.

And, to put a less narcissistic spin on Midtown's appeal, I will point out that the Japanese takeout place on 41st near the NYPL is both cheap and amazing.

Aah, the government!

My post below has earned me an accusation of paranoia, which I think merits a post, not another comment, to address. (Aaah, the government! I kid, I kid.)

So let me explain. "Israel's destruction" can mean a number of things, not just the country getting bombed into physical non-existence. It could also mean that the idea of Israel as a Jewish state is deemed too passé, anachronistic, or offensive to delicate Western sensibilities that a one-state solution is seen as the only possible way to turn Israel into a socially acceptable country. There are many critiques of the very idea of a Jewish state calling themselves 'critiques of Israeli policy.' Which is why we, the 'paranoiacs' as you'd have it, respond with such vigor to certain types of critiques.

As for the rather harsh charge of paranoia, of assuming anyone with something less than praiseworthy to say about Israel wills its destruction, let me just point out that I have, on this blog , criticized Israeli policy. Specifically, the question of marriage in Israel, and the bizarre lengths one must go to to prove that one is sufficiently Jewish. And I absolutely think this particular failing is connected to Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Any exclusionary system is bound to wind up excluding itself, if not out of existence, then into a messy situation. The other example I know best, but still not that well, is postcolonial Algeria. If understood incorrectly, a Jewish state will end up excluding not only Palestinians and secular Jews, but also Orthodox Jews whose rabbis don't have a letter of recommendation from the right rebbe. In other words, they had a country and no one showed up.

So while I do, to reiterate, think Israel should remain a Jewish state, I don't think rabbinic law--let alone rabbinic law as interpreted by a select set of rabbis--is an optimal way to maintain one. The problem, as with any new country, is that Israel does not have a centuries-old history. It still seems new and artificial to have a day off on Saturday and not Sunday, to see signs, newspapers, and fashion magazines written in Hebrew. And this is what I think a Jewish state should mean, Hebrew letters and Saturdays off. The way that America and most of Europe are historically Christian, Israel should be historically Jewish. There should be one country in the world, however small, where being a Jew does not mean being in the minority. But it's hard to figure out how that could be accomplished without exclusionary measures of any kind. Especially since Israel is losing popularity as a place to live even among Jewish Israelis. So, despite my hardline paranoia, I'm afraid I see no easy answers.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A balanced account

Jane Kramer's article in the latest New Yorker is not fully online, so I'll sum up: Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard, wrote a book that shows that the ancestors of your typical Zabars customer may not have been in the Holy Land as far back as some believe. Being neither an anthropologist nor a person of faith, I say, fair enough. I don't have any idea who was where in ancient times, nor do I have anything invested in thinking it went one way or another. Kramer presents Abu El-Haj as brilliant and physically stunning. That may be, but Abu El-Haj cannot have negative qualities for the purpose of the article. She is, above all else, the victim of the oppression of poorly-informed, knee-jerk pro-Israel activists. Which would make anyone look pretty damn fantastic.

A good part of Kramer's article is a detailed account of just how Jewy things are up at Columbia, a subject that's been dealt with in similarly unpleasant terms before. Because, you see, if a university has a large Jewish population, it by definition has a sheltered, ignorant student body, incapable of seeing the Higher Truth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, i.e. that Israel is teh evil.

The fight against this professor strikes me as poorly chosen. While one need not be an expert in political science to understand the Walt-Mearsheimer book, if you don't know anything about anthropology, your heartfelt convictions about who was where when are bound to come across as irrelevant.

What got to me about this article was that it presented a world in which to be pro-Israel is to be a fool, that if you know 'the facts,' you will realize that Israel must be dismantled, pronto. Obviously a recently-tenured Ivy League scholar will know more about a subject than an angry, politically-biased Barnard alum with no expertise in the field. That said, graduate study does not automatically point a person to one or another particular view on controversial political issues. By this I mean, you can attend seminars, write papers, and emerge pro-McCain or pro-Obama, pro-choice or pro-life, and, yes, pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. There is not one 'informed' take on these issues.

Portraying those who happen to disagree with you as uninformed hicks is unfair but effective. It's commonly assumed, beyond Kramer's article, that young people are only pro-Israel because their stifling and paranoiac parents sent them to Zionist summer camp and gave them no choice in the matter. As though, if they only had exposure to different viewpoints, they would learn the error in their ways. Well, as someone who came to these ideas on my own, through, yes, readings I did while a French major in college, I'm either the exception to the rule or an example of why writing off all thoughts on Zionism by anyone Jewish is, to put it mildly, problematic.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Quick question:

With all the anti-plastic-bag backlash, with Whole Foods and others giving the concerned consumer what he (I feel this merits an 'or she') wants, I want to know the following: Without plastic bags from groceries, how does one take out the trash?

In my shoes

Male (sorry, sports-loving) readers, look away, because I have something important to say about my shoes. Not long ago, I got a pair of black patent leather ballet flats at a house of haute couture known as Banana Republic. I didn't exactly buy them so as to stand out in a crowd, but that said, I was startled today when I saw approximately ten different women, throughout lower Manhattan, wearing... black patent leather ballet flats. None quite the same as mine, but all incredibly close variants. I guess this is the look these days. I must have realized this subconsciously when I first decided this was what I was looking for. That or I started a citywide if not worldwide trend. Wonder which it was...

Leaving aside the particular question of black patent leather, let us address the more general one, which is the ballet flat. When I wore a narrow jean-ballet flat combo in Chicago (well, on the days that did not demand snow boots), I was, I thought, unique. It turns out that this was, all along, the equivalent of wearing pleated jeans and white sneakers in NYC, i.e. a big flashing sign, 'she's not from around here.' What I thought of as my look is simply how women in New York dress.


While on the all-important subject of accessories, what does everyone (anyone?) think of this bag in black? I think it would be perfect for carrying the sort of stuff I carry around.


Do you know when makeup is fun? When you're 11 and you've only just discovered blue eyeshadow. You know when it's less fun? When you're in grad school and are using the stuff to look like you weren't up all hours writing papers and grading exams. So, to repeat, we should let our children roam free amongst cosmetics. To the many commentators at Jezebel who are convinced that their own 'real' childhoods playing sports in the mud were somehow morally superior, I remind you that valuing physical fitness and nature over femininity, artifice, and materialism is kind of, well, fascist.

To preempt the furious comments from those who hate makeup and genocide, my point is not that valuing the outdoors makes you a Nazi, but that there's nothing inherently innocent about either the pro- or anti-lipgloss position. But I'm no relativist, and if I had to pick, the great outdoors, not the great Sephora, is the root of all evil.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Free association

It's hard to argue the pro-Israel side without coming across as, to put it bluntly, a Republican. Gone are the days when one could be on the left and pro-Israel, or even, as is my case, socially-liberal and Herzl-hagiographic. If you see a problem with a one-state solution, you probably see a problem with gay marriage, and what did gay marriage ever do to you, right? Well, right. Dissent's Mitchell Cohen offers up the case for how a person can favor Israel's continued existence as a Jewish state (this is what I mean, and all I mean, by pro-Israel) without favoring tax cuts for the rich, abstinence-only education, and so forth.

Other recommended reading, whose tangential relation is obvious: Sander Gilman's Jewish Self-Hatred. There's a title I felt ambivalent carrying around the city. But is hiding such a book itself a form of self-hatred? I will admit to shifting it to the other side of a table at a cafe when two German tourists sat down next to me--a good amount of the book is about 19th-century German anti-Semitism, and I didn't know if this was the over-the-shoulder reading they had in mind for their vacation.

It's rare that I find a book not just convincing but eye-opening from start to finish, but there you have it. The only moments I questioned Gilman's otherwise flawless judgment were his suggestion that Karl Marx was profoundly affected by his having been a Jew up to age six (Who remembers being 5? Guess I'm no Freudian.) and his insistence that Nathan Zuckerman is not Philip Roth. Gilman makes a good case for Zuckerman as an intentional creation and not a barely-altered alter ego. Roth, he argues, created Zuckerman to be the readers' imagined author of Portnoy's Complaint. But while Gilman's approach to Zuckerman-Roth is intriguing, I'm not sure Philip Roth is, to paraphrase "Fawlty Towers," as clever as that.

And finally, since Freud's already been mentioned, this video about incestuous couples is, as Jezebel rightly tags it, "ew." But it's interesting how the woman who's had a child with, yes, her biological father, has two children from a previous relationship. Both of those children are interracial, and all I could think was, if there's anyone left convinced interracial marriage is wrong, they should be shown this video, stat. (And no, it's not inconsistent to be in favor of a two-state solution and interracial marriage, but that's another story.)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Parenthetical whiteness

Via Amber, I just glanced at this far-left take on sexism and racism. I am struck, not as Amber is by the critique of white feminism--I've seen that plenty--but by the phrase "white (Jewish) lesbian feminist." That right there, leaving aside the "lesbian feminist" part of the phrase, says just about everything one needs to know about where Jews in America stand vis-a-vis whiteness. A Jew can be white, but one needs to throw in "Jewish" in a way no one would ever think to add "Presbyterian." But in parentheses, because one wants to emphasize the immense privilege experienced by everyone white, Jews included, no, Jews all the more so. But leaving "Jewish" out altogether would imply that one is talking about a real white person, which is far from the case.

I could write a whole post, if not more, on what's going on when "Jewish" gets put into parentheses, as so often is the case. But that's for another time.

On campus

When we at NYU call our friends to see if they're around, we ask them if they're "on campus." Which is a bit odd, since there is no campus. I always answer "yes" if I'm somewhere between Union Square and Houston; Spring Street and 23rd are ambiguous. Since NYU has buildings everywhere in Manhattan, you could safely answer "yes" from wherever you'd like.

On Friday I gave a paper at a grad workshop on North Africa at a euphemistically-denoted university in New Jersey. While I'd always thought of Princeton and the University of Chicago as exact opposites, this was not at all my impression seeing it from the perspective of a student at NYU. Both Princeton and Chicago have pretty and definite campuses. Both have wood-paneled rooms from which you can look out the window and see foliage. Both are being mocked, although probably more so Chicago, here.

The main difference with Princeton could well be their tendency to put "Princeton" on everything. The undergrads in Princeton gear, that's a given. The logo-bearing napkins, water bottles, and cups for said water were not so surprising. The presence of the university's name and official colors on the tongs used to pick up the sandwiches, that did surprise me. I've been trying to figure out which comes first, the putting-the-name-on-everything or the school pride. The U of C should consider going logo-crazy rather than altering the Core or building mega-gyms. It would be cheaper and perhaps more effective, and would not require changing anything fundamental about the place.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Second virginity

Today's trip to the library has been productive, except for the part where I was told, at Circulation, that the books I'd put on hold were available... and they were books I'd requested months ago, when I was working on a different topic. Alas. But also productive: I saw a woman, not a teenager, with my hair color, but with some amazing pink streaks in her bangs. It reminded me that this is one of the rare moments since I was 10 or 11 that I have had my natural hair color. And while most I've surveyed agree that dark brown is the color I should stick with, new hair colors are so much fun, so the urge to put in maybe a little pink or blue, or to dye it all bright red (which, by the way, is a huge pain to grow out) is with me still.

There's a running theme at Jezebel about how 'young people today' are going in for beauty procedures younger and younger. Toddlers getting liposuction! Fetal rhinoplasty! And so forth. So I was not surprised to see that Jezebel has condemned underage highlights, a trend captured by the avant-garde NYT Thursday Styles.

Am I missing something? Why are we horrified about hairdye for preteens? Is it because of the cost? Jennifer at Jezebel is disgusted by the willingness of mothers to pay the unthinkable sum of $45 for their daughters to put a streak here or there. Having been to Gap Kids relatively recently (ahem, what with being 5'2") I'd have to say, parents are spending far more than $45 on things their kids will find far less exciting. Inflation and whatnot. Is it because hair that hasn't been dyed is called 'virgin hair,' and we're making an overly literal connection? There's clearly a moral dimension here, but one I'm not able to comprehend.

For the record, I would let my (very much theoretical) 10-year-old dye her--or his--hair. There is no such thing as "permanent" hairdye, it all either fades or grows out, so there's always a second 'virginity' around the corner. The only danger I can see is that if you let your kid go the DIY route, you'll find yourself with a lot more green or pink towels than you'd bargained for.

More from the Pallor Studies department

What does it mean to be a "visible minority"? Apparently this means something in Canada, where presumably no one Caucasian has a tan, so judging minority status by skin tone might actually make sense.

The question of invisible minorities has seemingly endless possibilities. An all-white university or workplace wishing to advertise its diversity could print brochures proudly advertising its high percentage of students or workers 'of color,' with a footnote to some small print about how these people are, in fact, invisible. 'But they're here, I promise!'

1840s vindication

Via Arts and Letters Daily, proof that the 1840s are totally worth thinking about. I am not completely inept and did realize that the paper was a counterfactual/spoof, but I'm sufficiently out-of-it that I did double- and triple-check that Graetz's History of the Jews is only made up of five volumes. It is, which is a shame, because Walter Laqueur's excerpt of the "volume 8, preface" would be oh so useful for my research. (I hope it's not a bad sign that something in a counterfactual history confirms my hypothesis.) I can't think of a non-clunky way to cite this while acknowledging its counterfactuality, so what I'm doing instead is linking to it from, yes, my blog.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


When I got an announcement from NYU's Maison Francaise about a talk called "France, Israel, and the U.S.: Shifting Debates" I felt obligated, as the blogosphere's self-proclaimed Francophilic Zionist, to check it out. Le Monde journalist Sylvain Cipel dispelled every stereotype Americans have about the French media, offering up enthusiastic praise of Israeli policy past and present, and complimenting America on its myriad cultural achievements.


What he did offer was a variant of the Walt-Mearsheimer discussion of the "special relationship" between Israel and the U.S. But rather than naming a cabalistic "Israel lobby," he argued that Israelis and Americans have overlapping "mentalities." These are: self-centeredness; ignorance about their enemies; and a conviction that their country is the 'good' side of the conflicts in which it is engaged. He uses these not as proof that Israelis and Americans are... like everyone else, but to show that both nations are altogether obnoxious.

The question of collective guilt is always one of generalizations. (Generalization intended.) At one point, Cipel referred to some rounding-up of Jews done by "the Germans," then corrected himself and said "the Nazi regime," noting that he does not like to refer to entire people in generalities. Strangely he had no problem referring throughout his talk to "the Americans," "the Israelis," and "the French." He didn't seem to see a problem using the same term to describe those who massacred Native Americans long ago as for those listening to him in the room right then. "Americans" all. The Holocaust is treated as something so horrible that it's offensive to assign blame to anyone, so it ends up falling to the category of almost a natural disaster, such that one can speak of how 'only' such and such proportion of Jews died in one country or another. (Each time he mentioned how "only" a third of French Jews died in concentration camps, I was less impressed with 1940s French humanitarianism than I'd been the time before.) And later, in discussing French attitudes towards the conflict in the Middle East, he emphasized that he wasn't speaking of Jews or Muslims living in France, but of French people. There was more in that statement than in his entire, standard-left-wing talk. Just sit with it for a moment.

After spending two hours in a class on fascism, this was a little bit too much Holocaust for one evening, so I left before the end of the question-and-answer period. But I also left because I could already see what was in store. When an accomplished journalist offers up a carefully-argued take on why Israel is evil, and the questions seem set to come from laymen with an outspoken pro-Israel bent but a much less nuanced way of presenting their ideas, it's clear who gets the medal at the end. I was too tired to think of anything original to add to the proceedings, and started to think that if everyone lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if we outside the region could put down our keffiyehs or abstract support for a Greater Israel, that could be both sides' only hope. And then I was struck with why I'm now researching the 1840s and not the 1960s as I'd originally planned.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Race: unknown

Are Jews white?* Not Ethiopian or Algerian Jews, but the Woody Allen-appreciating, Ashkenazi variety. The usual way this subject is approached is that Jews used to not be considered white, but now there's no doubt about the matter. To claim, as a Jew, that you are not white is seen as trying to usurp the victim status of America's true victims, the descendants of slaves. So I should point out that I do not think I have special insights into what it's like to be black in America, or that going around, looking as I look, with the name that I have, poses me anywhere near the number of challenges.

But, here goes: I don't think I'm white. I don't think I'm black, and am in fact extremely pale. I don't expect anyone to consider me 'of color,' nor do I consider myself to be 'of color.' But to be white, in the contemporary American sense, I think the following have to be true:

-White supremacists approve of your existence.
-No one of your ethnicity goes in for cosmetic surgery to look more 'white.'
-You can show up in a small Midwestern town, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt (i.e. nothing 'urban' or 'ethnic') and some people will still stare at you like you came from outer space.

And so on.

Obviously everything is relative, and on the El in Chicago's Southside I was white; the same was probably true at Stuyvesant, where the 'white' kids were, in I would guess most cases, Jewish. I'm sure that I have, without thinking about it, referred to myself as 'white' when such situations were fresh in my mind. If I had to check a race box I would, by process of elimination, be forced to go with 'white.' But if checking the box is voluntary, I'll pass.

What discussions of where Jews fit in terms of race in the U.S. seem to miss is that one looks for evidence of anti-Jewish racism not in poverty or low test scores but in resentment of Jewish success (or, often enough, perceived success) in mainstream, white, society. In other words, citing Jewish 'privilege' is not an effective way of disproving the presence of anti-Semitism, or of proving Jews' 'whiteness.'

*And now, back to writing a presentation on a fascist French novel. Perhaps I'll return to feeling 'white' once that project's behind me.

It worked!

In honor of April 1st, I began class today by playing a song in Dutch (which I of course told my students was a French song) and asked them (in French) to write down the lyrics. They didn't write anything. I feigned surprise and asked them pourquoi, and one of my students explained that the song was probably from a different region of France, perhaps near Germany. Another suggested this might be Belgian French, which was getting there, but... They were stunned to know that what they had been listening to wasn't French at all, or at least they feigned surprise convincingly.