Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Yellow dress update

I finally got a yellow dress, if not the Platonic ideal of a yellow dress, or even a fully yellow dress, for that matter, for a whopping $20 (or nearly four Woody Allen DVDs) at Old Navy. Old Navy is the middle ground between dollar books and covetable Shoes. It's shopping, but it's a bit more like supermarket-shopping than clothes-shopping, but still enough over the threshold that it's more exciting to leave with a bag from there than with one from Key Food.

The only problem with the chain (Old Navy, not Key Food) is that the branches in New York are often out of all the small sizes--the rich might be thin, but all the thin (or just small-all-around) aren't rich. Nor do rich people avoid Old Navy, because Dior doesn't have everything, but I digress. Usually the clothes I want and can afford have already been purchased by a (newly-arrived and thus broke, Estonian, I'd imagine) model my weight but a foot taller, small and extra-small being the catch-alls that they are. Or at least that's why I assume they never have my size.

Luckily there was one of these yellow-ish dresses left in my size. While trying it on, I got to hear an extensive conversation in Hebrew, a mother and 20-something daughter talking about whether a dress made the daughter look shemenah (it did unfortunately, though she was quite thin), and otherwise chatting in a way that gave me the mistaken impression that I'm fluent in Hebrew. The reality is that I understand with reasonable ease café-Hebrew, clothes-shopping Hebrew, and which-direction-is-Soho Hebrew. Anything beyond that becomes kasheh mayod.


This will help put a Democrat in the White House.

Grad students live forever.

Take that, Whole Foods! Plastic bags are, as I suspected, totally awesome.

I can't find a link to either of the ads I'm thinking of (one on TV, one on the subway), but why do certain community- and for-profit colleges have ads depicting an entire class of students all enthusiastically raising their hands--the same hand-- at once? It looks disturbingly... political.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Modesty, then and now

I'm sure I'm not alone in being a bit tired of reading about the 'hook-up culture.' This could be because most people I know (UChicago or otherwise) spent college either fully single or in relationships (some consummated, some not), not randomly sleeping with whomever, so I tend to think the whole thing is, to use a word that sounds odd in this context, overblown. But I had to cut Wendy Shalit some slack: the book of hers I just read, A Return to Modesty, is a product of the late 1990s. It's an era I remember reasonably well, but it's also an age when I divided my weeks between track practice, "Designing Women," and discussing boys with my female friends. In other words, I was in high school at the time, so I really don't know whether the college hook-up culture existed in 1995 in a way it did not in 2005, nor do I know if Shalit was original in bringing up the subject when she did. Clearly she was not the first to make an argument along those lines, but today, the moment many of us see "hook-up culture" in an article, we stop reading. Was that true in 1999 as well?

The main problem with the book being out-of-date is that I can't tell if some of the terminology she uses is her own invention or a relic of the 1990s. When I got to the part when she discusses the apparently standard procedure called the "post hook-up check-up," I assumed she meant getting tested for STDs. Apparently the "check-up" is part of hook-up etiquette--post-hook-up, it was considered polite to check in on your not-quite-ex every so often, just to say hello. Not only have I never heard of this term, but the phenomenon sounds bizarre. People may stay friends with exes, but that's because there was once a meaningful relationship, something Shalit says college students no longer have. (Where, one wonders, does all the cohabitation Shalit complains about come from, if young people today cannot commit for longer than an evening? But I digress.) I realize the "check-up" is not central to her argument, but she did devote a good number of pages to it, early on, and I'll admit that I got bogged down.

But now, onto the book's less dated, substantive points.

Shalit is a good example of what Adam Gopnik calls "conversion sickness." (The New Yorker article is not available, but the relevant excerpt is here.) Her blindness to the dangers of communally- or governmentally-enforced sexual restraint comes from her having not grown up with such restrictions--those who have often see things quite differently. She assumes that premarital abstinence leads always to bliss, never to regret of paths not taken. She takes one line from Tocqueville, in which the 19th century French observer of American life remarks that women in America are raped less frequently than their French counterparts, and uses this as evidence that rape was practically unheard of in 19th century America. (I seem not to be the only one who found the Tocqueville-out-of-context jarring.) I guess this helps if you want to get a polemical book published, and that Shalit does not claim this book is a scholarly work of history, but the constantly-repeated about how everything pre-1960 (or better yet, pre-1900) was a chivalrous utopia grow less convincing each time they're repeated. I know this is a problem I have in my own writing, so I'm sympathetic, but, to repeat, this book was on the repetitive side. The 50th time I learned that men she dated told young Wendy that she should "lose her 'hang-ups,'" I started to side with the men; by the 100th time, I stopped caring either way.

As is often the case in polemics, all social ills can be blamed on a single culprit, in this case a culture of casual sex. Shalit's choice of anorexia as a stand-in for the damage this culture does to young women is messed up in too many ways to count. She attributes eating disorders to premarital sexual activity, conveniently ignoring the prevalence of eating disorders among observant Jewish women (a recent link, I realize, but the phenomenon did not begin in 2008), not to mention among girls of under, say, 13, at an age when sex, even in this "postmodern" era, is rarely an issue. She asks, rhetorically, why none of her grandmothers' friends were anorexic, and answers that this is surely because they were raised in more chivalrous times. Anything's possible, but how does Shalit miss the fact that being very thin only became associated with wealth and (consequently) beauty very recently? No, anorexia is not just about wanting to look like a model, but it's a safe bet that when thinness was equated with poverty, there weren't as many upper-middle-class women starving themselves. It would be one thing if anorexia were just one example that failed among many that rang true, but references to the eating disorder come up again and again (see here), as though if we only hear it enough times, we'll all agree that there's a zero-sum choice young women must make between chastity and starvation.

Finally, Shalit argues that it's a feminist myth that what women really want is sex, in the way that men want sex. What we really desire, she explains, is marriage, romance, a meaningful experience, and only once those conditions are met are we interested in sexual activity. She argues furiously against the idea that women who are modest-by-choice simply don't like sex as much as other women. Why is this necessary? Why can't she just admit that there is variation in sex drive, among men and women alike? Why not just say that some people are more turned on by religiously-motivated restraint than by sex, whereas others have no use for that song-and-dance? Here's why not: because polemics and nuance don't mix. But that's only part of the story.

Shalit's not content to accept a world in which some women lust and others fantasize about their future weddings. Unfortunately for women today (or a decade ago) bent in 'saving themselves,' there are other women without those inclinations. Women who have sex are typically looking forward to the experience--not 'giving in' to keep a man interested--but the effect is, alas, that sex keeps men (and women, but the point here is about men) wanting a relationship to continue. Shalit decides that because she wants premarital virginity, and her success in this path requires other women doing the same, it must conveniently follow that all women want to follow the same path. She urges young women to join forces and refuse to give in to those horrid young men who ask for sex, because then and only then will the marriages for which Shalit and those like her are saving themselves finally take place. Shalit first seems to be asking to be tolerated as a woman with traditional values; it's when she reveals her own refusal to tolerate women with different outlooks that her argument goes too far.

As I mentioned before, the book I've just discussed is nearly a decade old. Shalit, I see, has succeeded in finding a husband, despite all the women who give away their milk for free. If any of the above response to the book seems especially bitter, you can attribute this to the fact that the author's bio I found online while still reading it makes reference to how she owns (and "enjoys") a dishwasher. This is her way of joking about not being a total reactionary, but for me, it's about really, really wanting a dishwasher and not having one. Shalit might say that this is God's way of punishing me for cohabitation. If so, it's a cruel punishment indeed.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Books not ballgowns

There is one shopping habit common to all grad students. What is it we buy? Sub-$5 books, by the used-plastic-bagful. It never ends, and we have nowhere to put them. I still refuse to call book-collection an addiction or a vice, but I might reconsider the next time I have to move. Yesterday's acquisitions: Wendy Shalit's discovery of shomer negiah, $2, and Disraeli's Coningsby, which if the little about it I know is true is yet another busman's holiday pick, at $1 a frivolous purchase, given that it appears to be online. That's not counting Jo's picks, which would need to be included if I were to give an accurate picture of just how little non-book space remains in our apartment.

When grad students and others of this ilk talk of buying books, there's this sense that we are secretly proud of our behavior, that we think ourselves better than those for whom shopping means clothes or X-boxes. Reading is a respectable activity, enough so that those who earn little but read lots are still considered noble.

The secret--I speak of myself, not to implicate any colleagues--is that we also like to shop, 'shopping' defined as the gratuitous trip to Sephora or H&M. Dollar-book-shopping is enjoyable for us in and of itself, but it's also a way to sublimate the urge to go out and drop $150 on a pair of shoes only slightly different from the ones we already own. (I feel I must link to Amber, who makes a convincing case for using more restraint when it comes to book-buying than when it comes to buying clothes. After all, the library does not exist as an alternative to dress purchases.)

Confession time: the financial constraints of even well-funded grad school can be a strain even on the intellectually-oriented folks drawn to grad school in the first place. Contrary to popular opinion, a love of books does not rule out a love of shoes. You can't divide the world into the materialistic types drawn to lucrative fields or husbands and those of us too preoccupied with what Sartre really meant by this one sentence to wonder whether Camper ever has such a thing as a clearance sale.

The trade-off--do what you love, buy what you need--is worth it for most of us, most of the time. Things must feel quite different for those who have prior experience with the opposite trade-off. If you go more or less straight to grad school from college, on the one hand you don't have to adjust to a change in lifestyle, but on the other, the older you get, the stranger it can feel to live as a student. You go from being amazed that someone will pay you to read to realizing that you're doing as much work as your friends in other fields, yet no one's willing to rent you an apartment because you're a student. It's good to keep in mind that even a salary of $5,000 (to give a dramatic example) sounds like lots of money to someone used to being a student/unpaid intern, but the expenses of adulthood, even without kids or a car, are impossible to overestimate.

Advising others not to pursue a well-paid profession because doing so would make you miserable is considered reasonable advice. Telling those interested in doctoral programs to prepare themselves for thinking twice about buying nail polish at the drug store (normal for a teen, but sadder when one approaches 30) sounds silly--who cares about nail polish when you could be pondering Ideas?--but it's something to be prepared for before signing on.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Major (scientific) questions of our age

Looks like Jo wrote another paper! It's about gravity and particles and other things I know tons about. What can I say, math is hard.

Silliness aside, well done, Jo!

Gray area

I recently finished Eric L. Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness. Highly recommended. For a thorough, helpful review of the book, see Sam Brody here. For my less coherent take, see below:

It was hard, given what I study, not to implicitly compare each moment of the American Jewish history Goldstein describes with what was going on in the same period for French Jews. I did what I could not to make reading the book a busman's holiday experience, but the urge was overpowering. So much of the two histories mirror each other--the emergence of a religion-only definition of Judaism coinciding with a Jewish population that behaved as something more than just a religion; the centrality of intermarriage to communal discourse; the changes dealt with in the late 19th century, upon the arrival of unassimilated Jews from Eastern Europe. Yet so much is different, far more than I'd have room to get to in this post.

While reading, I kept noticing how much the discussion of Jews and the black-white spectrum in the U.S. resembles attempts to situate North African Jews in the Arab-European, colonized-colonizer binary. Many scholars of Algerian-Jewish history find it hard to contain their bias, praising instances when Algerian Jews sided with the colonized, and condemning those who considered themselves 'European.' While there's nothing wrong with an anti-colonialist tilt per se, using the colonizer-colonized binary as a lens to understand Algerian Jews has its drawbacks. Algerian Jews--some of whose presence in Algeria preceded that of Arabs--had interests throughout the colonial period and during the Franco-Algerian War that differed greatly from those of either the Muslim indigenous populations or the Christian European ones. That did not put them in some magical bubble protected from the colonial hierarchy. What it did mean was that Jews were working under a different set of constraints than members of the two larger populations. Anti-Semitism, which preceded but continued through the colonial period, was often a greater source of oppression than colonialism itself. If Algerian Jews over time became 'French,' one could interpret this as evidence of Jews being sell-out racists, as some scholars do. Or, one could recognize that Jews had been second-class citizens prior to French colonization, and that the French, for all their difficulties (pogroms, followed by Vichy) offered an escape from a not-always-pleasant dhimmi status.

The point of this somewhat off-topic, highly oversimplified history is to say that while colonizer vs. colonized is the 'big story,' as it were, of French Algeria, contemporary scholarly attempts to place Jews in one category or another lead inevitably to unflattering, not to mention inaccurate, portraits of the Jewish community. Scholars' Jewish subjects find themselves penalized for being the objects of an oppression that was not the oppression one thinks of when one thinks of colonization.

Goldstein's book, meanwhile, attempts to understand American Jewish history through examining where Jews sat (according to themselves and others) in America's black-white binary. Black vs. white is, needless to say, the big story of race in America. After the nation's founding, America's great crime was against blacks, not Jews, as any reasonable person would admit. To deconstruct the binary is, in most cases, to reinforce it. Just as calling Jews 'neither colonizer nor colonized' maintains the colonizer-colonized binary, calling Jews 'neither black nor white'... you get the idea. But while it's a given that America can be better understood through the lens of black vs. white than through that of Jewish vs. gentile, what do we learn about American Jews in particular through this approach?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. While Jews in Europe were the racialized enemy-of-choice for centuries, Jews in America stopped being considered a race apart just at the moment Europe's Jews were being massacred on racial grounds. This is bizarre, and while it would be nice to believe Jews were spared because of American liberty being superior to Old European hatreds, clearly the difference in situation between my ancestors who came to the States and those who did not has something to do with the fact that America already had a scapegoat race, and Jews weren't it.

The Algeria comparison is thus an imperfect one. Still, one way I'd say it does relate is in Goldstein's evident preference for times in American-Jewish history when Jews not only sympathized but identified with blacks. Instances of Jews claiming not to identify with blacks, Goldstein regularly interprets as examples of Jews feeling or wanting to be perceived of as white. He implicitly argues throughout the book that there is some kind of inescapable identification of Jews with the black experience, one that Jews sometimes repressed and sometimes admitted. The problem with such an argument is that not every marginalized group's experience is the same. A Jew (today, or even in the early 20th century) might identify as neither black nor white, not because he wants to distance himself from blacks, but because he genuinely doesn't see the two narratives as similar enough for the comparison to be made. And a Jew might identify as more white than black, because he thinks identifying as black would be offensive to those who, well, are black, and who experience discrimination on account of that fact. This, and not a desire to preserve their 'white privilege,' is what keeps Jews on the left today considering themselves white.

Another difficulty in examining Jews and whiteness is the inescapable fact that, in a country with a black-white binary and an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi Jewish population, Jews look more like white people than we do like black people. When a Jew in jeans and a t-shirt takes the bus in New York or Chicago, he is white, whether he's 'embraced whiteness' or not. (I'd imagine I'm typical of Ashkenazim in that I have no more trouble hailing a cab or looking pasty in a swimsuit than others classified as white.)

Scholarly examinations of 'race as a construct' reach certain limitations when they gloss over that which is not constructed. I'd imagine that if someone who'd never seen a Jew read Goldstein's book, this reader would guess that cultural and economic factors alone explain how Jews and not blacks came to be thought of as white. Even I, someone with heaps of knowledge of what Askenazi Jews look like (pale), was starting to picture a population that looked halfway between black and white, that is, racially ambiguous. While it's understandable that Goldstein does not weigh in much himself on what he believes Jews 'are,' but obviously physical appearance does play a role.

That said, anti-Semitism, even racial anti-Semitism, I would say especially racial anti-Semitism, is rarely about skin color or even visible differences between Jews and non-Jewish whites. The fear comes from the fact that Jews don't look different enough--thus the need to make Jews wear silly hats, stars of David, and so on. Back to the bus scenario: out of context, I don't usually know who's white and who's Jewish, so imagine how complicated this might be for people who did not grow up in New York. Acknowledgment and even fear of Jewish whiteness is central to modern anti-Semitism. Our pallor is interpreted not as a trait over which we have no control, but as a sneaky attempt to pass as white. Thus the accusations of a Jewish--rarely a black, Latino, or Asian--'cabal.' In a sense, the Jewish experience is far closer to the gay one than to the black one. Mainstream society never knows for sure that one of those just moved in next door. Gays not holding hands, Jews not sporting sidelocks, fail to draw attention. This prevents the sort of blatant forms of discrimination faced by blacks, women, or any other group with hard-to-ignore physical differences. Blending in does not eliminate discrimination, but simply channels it from its more immediate forms into the realm of what those folks do behind closed doors, something nefarious, one imagines. It's the groups that blend in that are more readily accused of having singlehandedly set forth waves of cultural decay.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Just now, on the street on Park Slope, I saw a boy of indeterminate post-toddler age walking with his father. The boy had on his back two pieces of tape, one with his name (which I shall not reveal) and the other that read, "No Nuts." There has to be a better way to indicate that a child has food allergies.

"...a blog called What Would Phoebe Do"

A zillion, billion, trillion people voiced their opinions on New York Magazine's Hasid-provoking cover story, and of all of those reactions, mine was the most important. Well, not exactly, but if you wanted to know what Z-list fame refers to, I think that's what I just achieved.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Across the Atlantic

I'm on a vacation from France--not France the country, but the mix (melange, if you prefer) of studying France and teaching French. So I'm taking German, contemplating and deciding against expensive Spanish shoe purchases, and, when time allows, reading books with subjects other than France. That said, the country never ceases to amaze, so here are two of the more remarkable things going on over there. Via Ted F., I've learned that in Paris, grown men beat a Jewish boy and the French press refers to this as gang clashes between Jewish and non-Jewish youths. This is screwed up a) because it implies that the Jews bear equal responsibility to those who beat them up randomly (well, not randomly, a yarmulke being a target) on the street, that there's some kind of symmetry, as in a 'gang war,' when no 'Jewish gang' has been identified, all to avoid admitting that maybe, just maybe, France has a bit of a problem in the anti-Semitism department and b) because calling black men 'boys' has certain unpleasant connotations, at least to American ears. Then there's this lovely story, via Jacob L., about a woman denied citizenship in France for her refusal to sport the national uniform. The idiocy of France's act is almost matched by the following sentence from the NYT article about the case: "At home, when no men are present, she lifts her facial veil and exposes a smiling, heart-shaped face." Bad news because a) it contributes to the Orientalist idea that there's something extra-special behind those veils, more seductive than what the not-veiled, Western woman shows freely, and b) yes, it's clear from the story itself, she's perfectly innocent and France is in the wrong. But no one's face looks like a heart--would it be a good thing if one did?--so as cheesily sentimental journalistic descriptions of physical appearance go, this one makes especially little sense.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Excuses, excuses

Yes or no? They're cheaper at the Camper store, but with an emphasis on the '-er,' as they are still definitively not cheap. Pros: 1) They look fantastic, and 2) they seem comfortable enough for the subway-to-walk-up lifestyle to which I've grown accustomed. Cons: 1) I am a thrifty (dare I say frugal) graduate student. (It took me weeks to decide to purchase a $7 bottle of purple-tinged pink nail polish at Duane Reade.) 2) Jo will mock me, and with good reason. Which brings us to 3) I don't need these shoes at all. Without them I will not go barefoot.

That said, I'm leaning towards yes, if only because what they'd be replacing as my everyday shoes would be some nearly-decayed ballet flats, some strangely uncomfortable ballet flats, and a pair of sandals I should probably set aside for some day in the future when I'm a harried mother of twelve; a member of one of the more loyally socialist kibbutzim; or something similarly stylish.

Parochial Jews

Scholars of French-Jewish history often begin their studies with apologies for treating only the small, relatively insignificant, not-always-representative Jewish population, and by assuring the reader that the book in question in fact tells a larger, more universal truth, that is, something about France in general. Both of these are valid points. Most people in the world are neither French nor Jewish; exceedingly few come from the Venn-diagram intersection of the two. A book that tells you only about French Jews tells you very little about human existence. Yet books about French history do not apologize for being 'just' about France. Books about German Jewish history do not (always) apologize for being 'just' about Jews. Qu'est-ce qui se passe?

What concerns me about this tendency is easily enough explained. It's not that Jews can't be looked at as a microcosm of other sets of human beings, or of our species generally. It's just that this need not be mentioned for it to be understood. Every historical study is restricted, and thus 'parochial,' even once you extend the work's boundaries to every adjacent or broader topic the author claims his book addresses. That this comes up so much in French-Jewish history may have something to do with historians unintentionally mimicking the notion that all that is French is universal. Perhaps it's an preemptive rejection of the notion that Jews are not in fact human beings, something one comes across quite a bit when reading French-Jewish history (in old texts, of course, and not contemporary historical writing), and might feel the need to refute. But really, who knows. I haven't read enough yet on non-French Jews to make the comparison. I could go on (I wrote a term paper on this last year, and keep meaning to go back to it) but the point is that I was reminded of the phenomenon by one of the comments to the NYT Frugal Traveler's column about visiting Lithuania to seek out his Lithuanian-Jewish family roots. (Jews, frugality, not really the point here, but someone was bound to say it.) After a not-at-all Jewish-specific tour of Europe, Matt Gross has this one somewhat Jewish-specific entry, and here's one person's response:

I share your need to find Lithuanian roots, therefore I’m a little disappointed that your reportage of Vilnius and Lithuania is almost exclusively about Jewish culture, education, history and experience. Of course your interest lay in the Jewish community, but you write for a wider readership anxious for a story with wider scope. Up until the 14th century Lithuania, University of Vilnius, was at the heart of European culture, not just European Jewish culture. I would have liked to have heard more of the whole, not just the part, even though it was the part closest to you.

Argh. A response, chiding the above commenter, only repeats the charge, albeit here implicit, of parochialism:

I am disappointed to read the comment that suggests writing about your focus on the Jewish history of your family’s ancestral home was not inclusive of some amorphous ‘whole’. One of the reasons this series is so wonderful is that the stories you write ARE holograms of large wholes.

Argh once again. It is, or it should be, permissible to write about Jewish history, as a Jew, without being accused of having neglected the rest of humanity, and without having to go out of your way to draw everyone's attention to the fact that you speak not only of Jews, but of people generally. This doesn't mean eschewing topics with broader significance, or only mentioning the Jewish angle of a given topic. It just means not apologizing for writing that is about Jews, when one would not apologize about a similar focus on any other group. It's clear, or should be clear, to your readers that Jews are a subset of humanity. To those readers who need that spelled out for them, all I can say is, that's probably not the audience you should be writing for.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No country for Francophilic Zionists

In a few weeks, I'm going to Belgium. That is, if it's still Belgium. If not, Flanders it is. I'd better be careful not to slip into my default foreign language (French), given the current political situation, although a switch to my second default foreign language (Hebrew) might bring its own set of difficulties. If all goes according to plan, by the time I leave I'll be capable of reading German--the course I'm taking is a reading class, so speaking German but adding more unpronounceable sounds and hoping this amounts to something like Dutch is not an option. Probably for the best. English it is, although I plan on opting for silence, smiling and nodding, and asking Jo to order me waffles.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Zionist Left

If I've tired of discussing Israel, it's because I can't seem to write a post I haven't already written. When I saw Leonard Fein's excellent article in Dissent explaining what it means to be a liberal Zionist, I was struck by not only the article's objective truth, but its tragic hopelessless. If you think Israel as a Jewish state is a good thing, even if your ideal Jewish state would be downright communist, you have no place on the left. I've said it before, and I appear to be saying it again. Does this make the Dissent crowd Republicans? Conservatives? No, not necessarily. But it's telling that when do-gooder Nicholas Kristof defines the bad and good Israelis (a nuanced approach), he opposes those who fight for Jews, albeit from the right, and those concerned with the Palestinians, needless to say from the left. It is inconceivable by a mainstream or marginal Western (and I do not include Israel as Western) liberal standard that a good Jewish liberal might be interested in doing good for Jews, or for Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis alike. If you are a Jewish Israeli advocating for gay rights, redistribution of wealth, and less stringent marriage and conversion laws, that is, causes that are not specifically about the Palestinians, you are invisible as far as the left anywhere but Israel is concerned.

In defense of secularism, shirts

Jews! Nudity! Brooklyn! Manhattan! New York Magazine's latest cover story has it all.

As is the case, I'd imagine, for most secular Jews, my relationship to Ultra-Orthodox Jews is conflicted. On the one hand, I realize that if they start getting attacked on the streets, this means anti-Semitism, and is bad news not just for them, but for those like myself. On the other hand, getting an arranged marriage at 17, dressing for the Polish winter in the New York summer, and the many rules interfering with such questions as gentiles looking at wine; men and women shaking hands; and taking the elevator on Saturday (unless it stops on every floor) strike me as, well, horrible. (Depending on which part of the faith we're talking about, the fact that I'm pro-Israel further distances me from many in these communities, who believe that Israel should not have been established.)

Unlike some others, I feel comfortable disapproving of their lifestyle while respecting the fact that they no doubt disapprove even more vigorously of mine. And it's great that we can all, for the most part, live in peace in this country. But the point is, whatever solidarity I feel with Hasids and others of this ilk comes from a sense that we share ancestry and enemies. That's the extent to which I can relate. While the sight of the Ultra-Orthodox gives some less- or non-Jews a feeling of guilt, a sense that look, these people are the real deal, I feel nothing of the kind. For a sense of why, have a look at this movie. A willingness to stand out in public (admirable) and oppress in private (less so) does not make any particular group of Jews the 'authentic' ones.

That said, what on earth was New York Magazine doing, putting a topless shot of an ex-Hasidic woman's 4-year-old daughter, sitting with her (clothed) mother, on the cover? Yes, yes, provocative, I get it, but why put the child in more danger than she'd be in otherwise? This is America, for god's sake, not Europe. We are not so cavalier about nudity in these parts. I doubt if the average 'of course I breast-feed in public' Park Slope mom would agree to having her daughter photographed in this way, on the cover of a major magazine, even if the magazine's proceeds benefitted local farms, green tote bags, and Obama. In other words, the cover is bad taste defined.

As for Mark Jacobson's article itself, the conflict of authenticities between the old-time liberal New York Jewish great-grandparents and the hippie-gone-Hasid grandmother is quite interesting. If only the piece didn't begin with a reference to the above-mentioned child "sitting, princesslike, in the child’s seat," soon to be followed by a mention that certain Hasids "only came to Wal-Mart for the big sales." Princesses, sales, princesses, sales... something is starting to click. This story, is it by any chance about Jews?

Two conservatisms?

Graduate students are often advised to tone down their arrogance. This is a problem I wish I had, but, as I've mentioned before, can't seem to summon. Not only is grad school humbling, but the comments I get on this blog reinforce my conviction that I am ignorant of everything, perhaps even my own name. Take this most recent one:

There is nothing like unflinchingly pompous liberales trying to explain "conservativism" while neither understanding liberalism, conservatism, or democracy.

I'm assuming that I, and not a prior comment-leaver, am the "unflinchingly pompous liberale," so I'll respond to the accusation that I do not understand liberalism, conservatism, or democracy. My response? I don't, it's true.

That said, I do find conservatism more interesting to think (and read) about than liberalism/leftism, mainly because it's less obvious what conservatism should entail. Is the point to maintain the status quo? To revert to a Golden Age? To create something altogether new, but that just happens to appeal to everyone's bigoted great-uncle? Speaking only of contemporary America, not of these 'ism's as total abstractions, it seems to me that, now that the Bush-neoconservative route has become so terribly unpopular, conservatism could go in one of two directions. One direction, the populist direction, entails conservatives embracing relativism as one would expect to see it on the left, and saying that sure, high-quality food; birth control; college; tolerance of homosexuality; and delayed marriage are fine for elites (a group that, needless to say, includes most conservative or liberal commentators), but these things are not objectively better, so the government should not push the values of the elite on the masses. The other direction, the 'elitist' one, would involve a more uniform embrace of the idea that one thing can be better than another, even if the 'better' thing is one particular to the upper classes. The reason I do not outright call this the elitist route is that some things that are objectively better by conservative standards will turn out to be favored by the well-off (farmers' markets), whereas others (two-parent households) will be favored by the less well-to-do parts of society. So, if not elitist, than what--'objectivist' sounds right, but has already been taken by something else...

Conservatism as it currently exists in the U.S. is a hodge-podge of these two ideals, of (feigned) scorn for anything intelligent and of appreciation for the finer things, be they food items, books, or... you name it. The inability of these two strands to coalesce into something coherent is most readily seen in the conservative critique of higher education. Half the time it's a tragedy that American teens are watching junk on TV and not reading Plato, while the other half of the time, college is a waste and 99% of our youth would be better off with a few weeks of vocational training and a gentle push to the nearest plumbing job. We should all be poring over the Great Books... or, wait, we should stop wasting our time on such fluff as learning the more commonly-spoken foreign languages. Which is it?

To an extent, the two ideals can be reconciled--maybe the point is that a select few should be receiving a liberal education while the great majority had better sign up for those classes that teach you how to fix air-conditioners. But if that's the case, how is the elite to be chosen? If we go with the current educated elite, that is, if we keep things as they are, the elite stays liberal. What about this scenario is conservative? But ultimately, even if these two strands can be reconciled in the case of education, and on other questions as well, it strikes me as more natural for them to split, for the lowest-common-denominator conservatism, the one that accepts and at times promotes bigotry and ignorance in the name of populism, to split from the aim-high conservatism, the one that risks alienating some followers, but stands to gain others by offering up a well-defined set of ideals to which all should strive, but to which, inevitably, some will come closer than others.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Organic bakesale for McCain?

There is only one realm where those on the left can comfortably say that Thing A is better than Thing B, and that realm is food.* Organic, local, and homemade are just plain better than the alternatives. You think Doritos taste better than Greenmarket potatoes? White, processed bread's better than home-baked whole wheat? You're wrong, end of story.

John Schwenkler argues that the trend in rejecting processed foods in favor of the natural and the local should have its home on the right of the political spectrum, that is, the exact opposite of the place where it currently resides. I agree** that the emphasis on the local, the regional, and the rejection of the new all sound like ideas that should be coming from conservatives, not liberals. The one place I disagree with Schwenkler is in the idea that caring about food quality is made less of a conservative cause on account of its association with elitism. The real-food movement is conservative not despite its elitist tendencies, but because of them. To be conservative is to reject the notion that Things Fall Apart is just as good as The Iliad, that Bach is no different from Britney. A conservative feels confident declaring one thing superior to another, without stopping to consider whether said declaration offends those of lower class or minority groups. For a conservative, there's none of this Bourdieusian taste-is-relative ideology, there's simply high and low, quality and junk.


* OK, and Obama. Obama is All That Is Good, if less so this past week or so.

** For the record, now that I'm linking to that other post, I do not think social conservatives want anyone having babies at 15. They do seem to think girls like babies, about which I continue to have some doubts.

How not to be a pretentious grad student

Normally Dear Prudence is spot-on. But one of her answers today misses a few key things, things I only noticed because the letter began, "My husband and I are both graduate students at different universities, and we both teach introductory-level classes in our fields as part our programs." That is, a situation not too far off from my own experience. The letter continues:

My husband, however, refers to this teaching requirement as his job—as in, when people say, "What do you do?" he responds, "I teach at College X." He will not bring up the fact that he is a graduate student and will evade questions about his role unless I mention that he's a student, not a full professor. This is causing some tension between us. I feel that he's being untruthful and trying to make himself look more accomplished and successful. (No one we know, at our age, is a full-time faculty member at any university.) But he thinks I'm undermining and disrespecting him when I tell people that he's in grad school. Am I being petty, or is he being pretentious?

Prudie responds,

You're being petty, and he's being pretentious. If you'd kept your critique private, he'd definitely be ahead of you in pretentiousness, since he's deliberately trying to inflate his role at the university. But you acknowledge that you get so bugged by this that you point out to people just how silly your husband is; that's pretty petty. Is this a new character trait of his? If so, you need to talk about what may be causing this overcompensation. Perhaps he's having trouble with his thesis. Maybe he's worried he'll never finish or that, even if he does, it won't be good enough to get him the kind of faculty position he covets. Check in with him about how he's feeling about his life—and make the discussion separate from this squabble. And when you're socializing and he shades his description of what he does, don't say anything. Respond to the questions about yourself straightforwardly, and decide it's not your job to grade his answers.

Ah, the age-old dilemma for the PhD student of what to say that you "do" when someone asks. The answer has less to do with pettiness or pretension than with getting your audience right. When you're 23 or 24 and someone asks about your work, and you respond with, "I'm a student," you are basically telling this person that you are in college, that you are largely supported by your parents, that you are, for all purposes, a child. You probably start your weekends on Thursday, hook up with a different person every weekend, and are like not totally sure what you're going to do when you grow up. There are certain situations--say, when looking to rent an apartment--when explaining what a PhD program is would not be convenient and might well be futile. That's when saying, "I teach at X University" comes in handy. It's the quickest way of saying yes, I can pay rent, and no, I will not trash this apartment. (If, at 30, while wrapping up your dissertation, you answer with, 'I'm a student,' that too offers its share of concerns.) What both Prudie and the letter-writer miss is that this answer is an entirely fair one to give, whether one is tenured, an adjunct, or a new T.A. Just try telling a T.A. with a stack of papers to grade that reaches the ceiling, with a class full of students with varying degrees of interest in the material, that this does not really count as teaching.

If pretension does enter into it, it's not the 'I teach' versus 'I'm a student' debate, but rather, whether you say, 'I'm a grad student' or 'I'm a PhD/doctoral student.' In most social situations, no one is accusing anyone of being a spoiled 18-year-old, so there's really no need to say you teach. But how much information do you need to give? 'Grad school' sounds so general, and no one faults a med or law student for specifying his field of study. But to say 'PhD' is to say 'not an MA,' which, depending on the context, can come across as snooty and overly specific. But not specifying leads to all kinds of inane discussions about what you're going to do after grad school, because, by implying that you're getting an MA, you throw yourself back into the pool of those undecided about precisely what they'll be doing after they graduate. Then again, how inaccurate is this assessment, when you consider that no one in a PhD program can confidently say, 'I'm going to be a professor,' without coming across as, well, pretentious?

The answer is, again, to know your audience. There are times when nothing short of, 'I teach,' will satisfactorily convey that you are an adult. There are other settings when specifying exactly what program you're in and what your research topic is will actually be of interest to other people, but those times are exceedingly rare. The trick is to come up with the shortest possible way of saying what it is you do, then quickly change the subject to whatever the other person does, although this advice is, I would say, not specific to grad students.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Not from these parts

Every time I'm confronted with a new part of the city, it takes me a while to figure out where one finds the important stuff (good coffee, cheap lunch) within blocks of wherever I need to be. Being from New York does not help when it comes to figuring out where the nearest passable café is in Midtown. That said, after working near Bloomingdales and doing work in the New York Public Library, I've got the 42nd-59th stretch of the area pretty figured out. What's more of a challenge is the neighborhood, whatever it's called, near CUNY's graduate school, that is, 34th and 5th. Where should I be getting pre-German coffee? The mocha I got at the closest place--a Starbucks--on the first day of class was made with milk that had seen better days--a bad sign if you can tell this over the taste of half a cup of chocolate syrup--so I'm prepared to go a couple blocks of out of the way for a place more vigilant about refrigeration/expiration dates, where syrup is not necessary. Suggestions?

Adult education

It's true what they say about age and language study. As I approach my quarter-century (a girl from my high school class was in last week's Vows; I'm officially alte), I realize that I cannot keep the noun, determiner, and adjective case endings in my head all at the same time. Memorizing charts of endings in isolation works well enough, but combining the material, without the charts (which I've ostensibly memorized) in front of me? Not so much. My ancestors spoke a variant of this language, but I did not inherit this particular acquired characteristic. One word after the next looks familiar, but the grammar... I'm starting to understand where my own students are coming from when they think that I invented French grammar especially to confuse them. But French is so much easier! This is objective fact, and has nothing to do with my years spent dealing with one language versus a couple weeks spent with the other. But seriously. How can a language make the definite article so involved? Do German people have to do a gigantic math problem (or twelve) every time they read a sentence? Or does this feeling when confronted with German sentences (who am I kidding, German word phrases) go away after a while?

Monday, July 07, 2008


Alas, the structure of our politics makes it increasingly difficult to address the plight of those for whom race and poverty have become inexorably intertwined. For example, even though we know that children of married parents are significantly less likely to have trouble in school or to wind up poor or in prison, politicians on the left continue to oppose programs to encourage marriage. -Stephen L. Carter

The developed world is experiencing a wave of pro-natalist sentiment that threatens to bully the childless, tax the single, and reorient states toward the production rather than the protection of citizens. In most developed nations with below-replacement fertility, governments are attempting to align incentives so that women will use their bodies for the purpose of childbirth. [....] Modern fertility panic stems from a desire to reshape polyglot cultures, to regain control over women’s reproductive choices, and to locate a single, easy-to-understand culprit for disparate social problems. As they have for hundreds of years, societies are projecting their deepest anxieties onto empty wombs. -Kerry Howley, via

Technically, marriage and childbirth are two separate issues. That said, in reality, there's a connection between the movement to encourage marriage and the push for asking women, ever so gently, to push out 2.1 or more. If you disagree with that statement, then don't read on, since that's the assumption on which the rest of the post is based.

I'm incapable of discussing this issue as articulately as I'd like, so above, you have two quotes that roughly sum up the two sides. (See also this debate.) On the one hand, there's the idea that, all things equal, marriage is better than all other arrangements, children (within the context of marriage) are a positive good for society, the more the better. What's ignored is whether, once you look at society family by family, where all things are not equal, individuals might have good reasons not to be married, not to have kids. What's also ignored is whether, good reason or not, there's any inherent, unquantifiable value in letting people make their own decisions. Take the clichéd single woman of a certain ago who wishes she'd married and reproduced two decades earlier. Social conservatives point to this and say, aha, we should encourage women to do what they will later come to wish they'd done. Social liberals (well, this one, at any rate) would say, a woman has many over-18 years to decide these matters for herself, and that it's better to be childless and regretful as the result of one's own choices than living with children you may love and a husband you may not who've been hoisted upon you by the government.

For social liberals, the point is not to say, all studies that say marriage is good for kids, kids are good for society, etc. have no validity. Rather, it's important to keep in mind the drawbacks--for all involved--to unwanted marriage and unwanted children, as well as the positive good that is letting people sort their personal lives out without government encouragement one way or the other. Just because name-the-social-ill might be fixed by encouraging marriage does not mean that encouraging marriage is the only way to address a given problem; it's certainly got to be among the most intrusive. The micro-example I've already addressed--natalism in American Judaism--is clear enough. If the goal is more Jews, this can be accomplished either through urging Jews to inmarry and have tons of babies, or through improving Jewish education, making it easier to convert in, or any number of measures that do not ask anything special of women in general and uteri in particular. On a broader scale, one can debate American pro-natalism with similar arguments.

What I have yet to see addressed is the new, or newly popular, social conservative argument: promoting marriage-and-kids is not about Christianity or tradition or patriarchy, or even about, in some generic sense, what's best for our children. Rather, promoting traditional values just happens to be our best way of helping the poor and the lower classes. One can find this argument in Grand New Party and elsewhere (via). The idea is, social liberalism disproportionately hurts all but middle and upper-middle-class families. This is, I would say, social conservatism's strongest argument. It's not one I find convincing, but it's one social liberals (especially those who are also all-around liberals) will have the toughest time addressing. It's conservatives, not liberals, who, traditionally, feel comfortable saying Thing A is superior to Thing B, and that's that. So while there will always be those who declare that traditional family life is better because it's traditional, and now there are those why say traditional arrangements are better for reasons having to do with statistics and social justice, there's no one out there arguing that birth control and reproductive choice are superior to the alternatives, and that's that. Or, such people exist, but they are either libertarians or conflicted, unconvincing liberals. Which is to say, conservatives are free to defend 'tradition' whether or not it can be shown that doing so helps the poor, whereas liberals, that is, those who are defending the Sexual Revolution, now have a tougher, but important, case to make.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

She should eat a sandwich

Celebrities are constantly being advised to eat sandwiches. Today I decided to make the most of time off and live as much like a celebrity as a grad-school budget allows, which is to say, I managed to get my hair cut at a place where I was able to avoid compromising my principles, checking account, or hair. Whee! Much improved. How does this relate to sandwiches? I figured since I was living the life of a woman of leisure, I might as well stop in, pre-haircut, at the Italian sandwich shop next door. Both the sandwich place and the hair salon were cash-only, which made it really, tangibly obvious that the two trips cost close to the same amount. But what a sandwich! Who knew mozzarella, arugula, and artichokes combined so well?

The moral of the story is, Sullivan Street is one of the greatest places in New York. And if we'd been more amenable to the offer of a woman on Craigslist to take over her lease, so long as we bought $2,000 (!) worth of her furniture (one hopes this came with a sandwich), Jo and I might be living on Sullivan, and not in Park Slope, at this very moment.

Am I permitted one comment about Park Slope? It's not about strollers. It's about the danger of taking slogans too literally. The 'going green' trend need not involve replacing one's pre-trend t-shirts with green ones, and using a green tote bag to do one's shopping. You will walk around Park Slope and discover that everything you see is green-the-color, because apparently a tote bag in any other color signals a cold-hearted disregard for future generations. [Disclaimer: I've even got one--my mother got it free somewhere, and hasn't asked for it back (do you want it, by the way?) so I'm guessing she's as enthusiastic about the look as I am.]

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Two of my favorite things in the whole world are French macaroons and longhaired dachshunds. This is why I must remember to check Kei's blog more often.

The politics of hair

I wanted to get a haircut--to look more chic, to reduce hair-drying time, the usual reasons. I'd passed a place right next to the Housing Works bookstore, and decided that my next cut would be from there. It looked surprisingly chic for a salon located in the back of Ricky's, a punk-oriented drugstore chain. The prices? $35 and up for men, $50 and up for women. Why more for women? Because life is unfair. I was willing to accept the unfairness of life, but was less thrilled to learn that $50-plus meant, given the current length of my hair, $70-plus. The irony of this is that my hair only got as long as it is because I was putting off getting a haircut on account of it being so expensive.

So, question: it is, as anyone who's done either knows, far simpler to cut long hair than short. Setting aside the question of gender--not all women let their hair get as long as I have--why was my haircut (which, alas, I did not end up getting) assessed at $70? Did my best Century 21 t-shirt-Uniqlo skirt combination leave me looking especially well-to-do? (Not a chance.) Needless to say, I don't think it was personal--the combination of long hair and femaleness was enough to merit the "plus" fee of at least $20, enough to rule out any post-haircut purchases at the used bookshop next door.

Since technically nearly all barber shops are unisex and charge maybe $15 for a cut, perhaps the fault lies with me for buying into the consumerist myth that men and women require different types of haircuts. Haircuts are thus a whole lot like deodorants, yogurts, breakfast cereals, razors, socks... the more you think about it, the more we've found ways as a society to attribute gender to products for no apparent reason. But! While I'm sure countless women have long since figured out that, short of tampons, personal care products are gender-neutral, I doubt many have abandoned the salon for the barber. And I'm not sure if going to someone accustomed to cutting short hair (I'm assuming long-haired men also go to salons) wouldn't be a mistake. I want to challenge norms that demand I pay $70 for a haircut, but I'm not keen on looking mannish.

One possibility is Crops for Girls, a place I've heard good things about. It specializes in short, affordable haircuts for women. Which sounds about right, except that a) even the longest of the short cuts are shorter than what I want, and b) the prices, though reasonable, are well above what a man would pay for an equivalent haircut. Another would be to spend like wild at a salon I know gives good haircuts (I splurged once a couple years ago) and that does not differentiate between men and women. The final possibility? Deciding that long hair is so very now, and not dealing with the situation until my hair reaches the length of my commute.