Sunday, April 29, 2007

Old, Gifted, and Got Into Harvard

Michael Winerip went to Harvard. I could be wrong, but I don't think he'd mind at all if I were to help him spread the word.

Winerip's article is in part about how his own kids won't go to Harvard because they "were not made that way." Pshaw! "Even my oldest, who is my most academic son, did not quite have the class rank or the SATs. His SAT score was probably 100 points too low — though it was identical to the SAT score that got me in 35 years ago."

Then there are the twins. Oh, the twins!

"That day, running on the beach, I was lost in my thoughts when a voice startled me. 'Pops, hey, Pops!' It was Sammy, one of my twins, who’s probably heading for a good state school. He was in his wetsuit, surfing alone in the 30-degree weather, the only other person on the beach. 'What a day!' he yelled, and his joy filled my heart."

Lest any other of Winerip's family members go un-patronized, I leave you with this:

"My wife’s two brothers struggled as students at mainstream colleges and both have made wonderful full lives, one as a salesman, the other as a builder. Each found his own best path. Each knows excellence."

What he Said

On a break from writing about orientalism I found this.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

In defense of the indefensible

Fashion magazines give women unrealistic expectations about weight. Models are very thin, and women in the media generally are significantly thinner than women on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, and perhaps the same girth as those on Manhattan's West Broadway. This is nothing new.

While it's by no means a zero-sum situation, it seems that the more weight matters in terms of beauty, the less race is an issue. There are fashion models of a whole range of ethnicities, but it's a sort of one-of-every-color of one identical mold. For all the discussion of "ethnic" women and their curves (this can refer to black women, Latinas, or anyone remotely dark-haired and Mediterranean), there is no ethnicity in which a modelesque physique predominates, other than those ethnicities under rather severe oppression from other ethnicities. Beauty has become something of a free-for-all for those willing to skip lunch.

So should we rejoice over the newfound turn against slimness as a beauty ideal? With what, one wonders, will we replace it? A look at the preeminent (if no longer so famous?) plus-size model, Emme, could be a guide.

(I know I've written about this before, but don't remember when/where, so apologies for being repetitive.)


As an secular American Jew and aspiring scholar* of Jews of the Gallic persuasion, the word "assimilation" comes up all the time. 19th century French Jews were encouraged to assimilate. German Jews in the 1930s, as well as French Jews at that time, were too obsessed with assimilation and thus couldn't defend themselves when it mattered most. Algerian Jews did not assimilate as much as French Jews would have liked, but a lot of good it did them and all that. American Jews today are too assimilated. We must fight assimilation! No, we must encourage assimilation! Bah!

That about summarizes the Jewish-assimilation debates. But it seems to me that the word "assimilation" gets misused. It is used to refer to two separate phenomena that should not both be termed "assimilation." One is the process by which individual Jews or Jewish communities go from insular/traditional/observant to blending in with whichever predominantly non-Jewish society they live in. That, I would argue, is assimilation. The second thing called assimilation is the existence of Jews today who are not sufficiently (to some) insular/traditional/observant. As in, a Jew who does not care about Shabbat is an "assimilated Jew." No matter how many generations secular, a Jew today who eats bacon is "assimilated." This is where "assimilation" gets misused. In this usage, it implies some sort of base state of Judaism, from which all divergences must be measured. It implies that all people who are Jews begin at a 100%-Jewish point of origin, from which they stray, at will, to such and such extent. It implicates people in a process to which they are personally unrelated, and in which they had no choice. For many Jews in 2007, even in 1907, a "return" to Judaism would have been the active choice, and assimilation the default.

So why, if these individuals are not to be referred to as "assimilated," but are instead boring old Americans, French people, or cosmopolitan types, do I insist on calling them Jews? I would call a Jew anyone who a) is in any way affected, positively, negatively, or neutrally, by the outside world believing him to be Jewish, and b) either actively affirms or fails to reject this assessment of his identity. This is a (close) variant of my former professor Menachem Brinker's definition of a Jew as one who is seen as a Jew and sees himself as one, the only difference being it puts a bit more of an emphasis on those who have good reason to stop thinking of themselves as Jews, do not care about things Jewish, yet persist in identifying as such.

*If Arden Wohl gets "aspiring filmmaker," I want "aspiring scholar"--it's simultaneously more glamorous and more tragic than "graduate student." And, speaking of marginal socialites who are also artists, is the fact that Ahn Duong is the celebrity I see around the city the most frequently in itself proof of the Sartrian existentialist concept of absurdity? This also ties in with the argument put forth in the "Jon Voight's car" episode of "Seinfeld," in which it's pointed out that someone would be more likely to say that a car they're trying to sell used to belong to a minor celebrity than a major one, since that's somehow more believable. Oh yes.

Knowing how the story ends

Lately I've been in a kind of bad mood. I attributed this to finals, to the tough transition from quarters to semesters and the increase in endurance this demands, to either too much or not enough coffee, or perhaps to a general, classically grad-school feeling of malaise. Assuming I see enough dachshunds and eat enough pastries, I'm generally a happy person, so I was starting to wonder what was up.

Then it hit me: my job, at the moment and indefinitely, is reading about France and Jews, and wherever the two overlap. Specifically, I'm now reading about North African Jews during decolonization and French Jews during Vichy. This is extremely depressing stuff. While I find these subjects fascinating, if you spend a full work-day and then some reading about persecution, oppression, torture, genocide, and low-level but pervasive social exclusion, you're bound to feel a bit, well, off when the day is done. I've been interested in these subjects for a while, but it's only now, with two term papers on them coming due, that I'm spending quite this much time on these subjects, without so many sanity-retrieving breaks for things like astrophysics lab or trips to H&M.

I don't take these readings personally, in the sense that I am most definitely not French or Algerian, do not live in the mid-20th century, and these are history books and novels, not soap operas. I'm not reading all this because I identify with it in some direct and obvious way. Sometimes it seems to me that being a New York Jew might have as much in common with being an urban European Jew as with being an American Jew more generally, but I couldn't say for sure, and I don't believe this is my main reason for finding these subjects so intriguing. In any case, the latest out of Bobst, Albert Memmi's 1962 "Portrait of a Jew," is a prose, humorless "Portnoy's Complaint," brilliant but not exactly uplifting.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The long road to finals week

-Someone named Zack Hill has a fun article in the Chicago Maroon about being a UChicagoan New Yorker in Paris.

-Today was the Israel Independence Day party in Washington Square Park. It was not all that well-attended by the time I arrived, but to be fair, many Zionists probably have class between 2:30 and 6. I know I do. At 4:30 or so, the Hebrew-bracelet stand was out of aleph, yod, and gimel, making it hard for those of us who wanted to make name bracelets using these letters to do so. I am now the proud owner of a dental-floss bracelet that says, "Cherzl," because I could not find a hay, either. There was, however, loud (if, alas, recorded) Israeli music, some of which I do not own, and some of which, strangely, was in French. A bit later on, some guys wearing keffiyehs and one draped in a Palestinian flag showed up. Unless one has occurred since, no brawl took place.

-Salad for lunch is a great idea in theory but inevitably leads to lunch #2. Not time-efficient, nor an outcome likely to be advocated in French Women Don't Get Fat. Which I have not read.

-I'm one down, two to go, in terms of papers. The one I wrote is on Sartre, the ones remaining are on French Jews during Vichy and Algerian Jews during TBD.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

The idiocy of "parental consent"

David Brooks finds babies adorable, thinks fetuses are kind of like babies, and bemoans the fact that pro-choicers don't dwell on the baby-ness of the unborn. David Brooks also, if I remember correctly from the ancient days when I last gave sufficient thought to contemporary American politics, wishes women would start massive families right out of college, stay home for a good while, then return to the workforce in middle age. This would make it harder for women to, among other things, write op-eds for the Times. Furthermore, David Brooks will never, ever, be pregnant, and his days of impregnating others may well also be over, although I don't know him personally, so who knows. The point is that the "central concern," the "facts in the womb," are only concerns or factual to those who are pro-life, who believe that a potential person is a person. I've written on this before and have nothing new to say other than that it's worth repeating.

But most importantly: part of Brooks's "sensible solution" is that abortion should be allowed only "with parental consent for minors." This concept is one I will never, ever, understand. Shouldn't the default be a 15-year-old not having a baby? Sure, there are women who regret their abortions (dealt with quite well here), but how many 22-year-olds are wishing, at any given moment, they were at home with their 9-year-olds and not at school or work? Who is legally or morally responsible for the child a girl's parents demanded she give birth to? If the girl is old enough to know better and all that, why'd she need parental approval? If the parents are held responsible, what if they wanted the girl to abort--should girls need parental permission to give birth? Why should a girl be forced to give birth and then give a child up for adoption when a woman, under the same circumstances could legally and with David Brooks's approval avoid that situation entirely?

Friday, April 20, 2007

"Unstable personalities"

Someone left a comment to my post about gun control leading me to James Q. Wilson's LA Times op-ed arguing that "gun control isn't the answer." What is?

"The main lesson that should emerge from the Virginia Tech killings is that we need to work harder to identify and cope with dangerously unstable personalities."

Brilliant idea! Let's think about this in terms of rights. The right to bear arms is sacred. So sacred, in fact, that it must supersede the right to write a violent play, to be socially awkward, and to not greet everyone on campus with an inviting grin. It's amazing to me how much emphasis the media is placing on the Virginia Tech killer's obscene and violent plays. I thought it was morally ambiguous for even therapists, who are hearing what their patients actually think, to turn them in to the authorities on suspicion of having strange thoughts. But can students, adult college students, now be suspect on account of creative writing? Shouldn't there be at least some acknowledgment that the writing on its own wouldn't have said anything, that what's really at stake was this man's stalking people, etc.? Isn't it a bit more fair, not to mention practical, to remove guns from this nation's civilians, than to take everything students write in playwriting courses literally, or than to convince college students that their quiet roommates are potential murderers? Now, rather than those with guns losing out, anyone who fails to strike everyone around them as "normal" will. Not a good situation.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Life imitating art

My work for the day has been reading Sartre's La Nausee. I read Nausea for a philosophy class in college, so this is sort of a reread. Anyway, time had come for a break from the existential queasiness, so I met Jo for dinner at a French cafe in Cobble Hill which shall remain nameless on the off-chance that it fixes the problem. What problem? We'd just ordered, had water and bread, were waiting for our food, listening to the French people next to us chatting... when all of a sudden one of the most giant roaches I've ever seen, wings spread as if about to soar, zipped across the wall our table was up against. I was not so happy, and inadvertently pushed the French woman next to me several feet over while attempting to leap out of my seat. Someone else at a table near by said there were in fact two. I announced that we were leaving. The French man seemed amused, the French woman seemed annoyed, and an elderly American man announced that he, too, wanted to leave. Our waitress told us to speak to the manager, who stepped outside with us, had me explain exactly what (I included the requisite hand display of the size of the creature in question) and where (table by the wall). He asked us what we planned to do about it. All my usual meekness in situations of confrontation disappeared. I explained that we were leaving, that it was disgusting. He wasn't thrilled, but accepted that this was the inevitable fallout from what we'd witnessed.

Sartre would have found this story and its predictable ending too cheesily bourgeois (fromagement bourgeois?). But that's the way it went.

Yes it is

In the New Republic, Sasha Zimmerman wonders about "Generation Columbine," those who were teens at the time of the Columbine shootings: "What does the world look like to a generation who has grown up with the frightful knowledge that killers can lurk in classrooms? I doubt their first concern is gun control."

Speaking as a 23-year-old, one who well remembers the jokes about "warning signs" and "trench coat mafias" (rendered absurd at a high school where trench-coat types were the rule), I'd have to say my first concern is gun control. This and other exhortations to give a "proper" pause before thinking about the Virginia Tech massacre in terms of gun control are horrible manipulations of the notion of grief. Everyone acknowledges that this was an incomprehensibly tragic event, but aside from those directly involved, few should be so overcome by personal grief that they cannot calmly think of what could be done to prevent such things from happening. It is disingenuous--not to mention unfair to those who are actually, personally, grieving--to suggest that those far from Virginia Tech, whose near-immediate response to hearing about the shootings is that guns need to go, are insensitive people preoccupied by political agendas, while those who refuse to denounce guns refuse to do so because they really care. I am advocating gun control now because this event is extremely upsetting; as neither I nor anyone I know is a victim, I do not see a reason to "let blood dry" before worrying about prevention--in that time, another such event might occur.

Upcoming events

1) There will be another Dachshund Octoberfest this Saturday in Washington Square Park.

2) Also in the Park, next Tuesday, will be the Israeli Independence Day party.

3) There is a chance that I will, at some point, leave my apartment. Only after finishing the Sartre re-read, and probably just to dump some garbage, but it might happen all the same!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Missing the point

The beyond-obvious response to yesterday's tragic massacre (redundant, I realize) is gun control. First for the general population, then ideally for cops, too. New York-centric Utopianism? Perhaps, but it's the only way to prevent people with murderous inclinations from accidentally killing, at the very least, an extra dozen people. We cannot create a murder-free society, but a massacre-free one is an entirely reasonable goal.

The way to prevent such events from occurring is not to give a long portrait, as the New York Times does, of the gunman as a "loner." The crime in question was not, and should not be associated with, such "strange" behavior as eating alone in the dining hall, downloading music of all genres, failing to make eye contact with someone running for student council, or not having a girlfriend. By all accounts, Cho pre-massacre was a whole lot like 99% of students at the University of Chicago, none of whom, to my knowledge, have shown up one day and shot 32 of their classmates. It's absurd that the crime is portrayed as resulting from the gunman's not being gregarious, rather than from the fact that he was a) a murderer, and b) one living in a country that makes it far too easy to get a gun. Stigmatize guns before stigmatizing solitude. It just makes sense.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Israel vs. Belgium, according to guidebooks:

Israelis are happy to spend a whole night drinking just one beer. Belgium, known for its beer, is not as drunken as other beer-drinking lands, because Belgians savor the beverage. Not sure if I believe either, but anyway...

Tel Aviv is named after the city in Theodor Herzl's Altneuland. Antwerp might mean "hand-throwing."

In Israel, you might get attacked on account of being in Israel, but chances are slim. In Belgium, if you're dressed in an identifiably Jewish way and turn the wrong corner in Antwerp, someone might Vlaams Blok you out of commission, but again, chances are slim. Relatedly...

Belgium is known for its suicide rate; Israel for its suicide bombings. But it's not all bad! Because...

Israel is filled with tanned, fit women in bikinis and sexy gun-carrying types of both sexes. Belgium is filled with the world's best chocolate and fries. No country could be both these things. And finally...

Israel is divided into two ethnic groups which, though they look alike and have not entirely dissimilar histories, are not too fond of each other. Same goes for Belgium.

Even when the French-Jewish studies stop for like five seconds, the learning goes on...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

From the 'life isn't fair' department

Frank Rich has all sorts of things to say about the Imus debacle, although as someone who hadn't heard of Imus prior to said debacle, I'm not all that interested. What is interesting is his citation of, "My 22-year-old son, a humor writer who finds Imus an anachronistic and unfunny throwback to the racial-insult humor of the Frank Sinatra-Sammy Davis Jr. Rat Pack ilk..." The words "humor writer" link to this article in the New Yorker by one Simon Rich. I hadn't noticed the name when I originally read it, just found it remarkably unfunny, even by Chicago Maroon standards, which are not, as it happens, New Yorker standards. I love how Rich mentions that his son is 22, as though to show what a prodigy he is, already writing for the New Yorker at that age!

Justice indeed. This is a country of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton(?), and one where the commonly-held assumption that meritocracy matters leads New Yorker readers to believe that this Simon Rich who wrote an article they're reading got where he is because he's just that much more talented than everyone else who wouldn't mind a piece in the New Yorker. Life isn't fair, which is fine, but it's when we assume it is that things begin to crumble.

A long way from Chicago

Everyone in my apartment (except one tired and probably now-annoyed roommate) is now arguing about Niels Bohr. Such is life.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Proof that Zionism ruined Judaism

Ah, Israel, the land of Jewish athleticism, Jewish militarism, Jews doing things other than (ahem) staying inside all day in somewhere like, say, Brooklyn, reading scholarly texts and checking their email. Looks like the Zionists are not content bringing Jewry of Muscle to the Holy Land: I was just invited to an event, via facebook, called JUMP FOR ISRAEL!

Jump for Israel: SKYDIVING!! - Come skydiving to raise money for Friends of the IDF, an organization dedicated to supporting Israeli soldiers. We'll be paying a great discounted price of $165.

In addition, we're asking that each participant raise $100 in pledges as a donation to Friends of the IDF.

The jump will take place on Long Island--we'll provide transportation. To look up the place visit,

Email Rob ( or Dave ( to reserve your spot and receive a pledge sheet.

HURRY! Space is limited!

The words "discounted price" and "Long Island" do appear, so stereotypes are not entirely absent, but still. Is this what the Jewish people has come to?

Going to the movies pays off

I felt guilty taking two hours out of an otherwise productive week to watch a movie about, among other things, a woman bleaching some carpet to match some drapes. That said, it was worthwhile, as I am now famous.

In other news of my fame (limited, in comparison to some of my former classmates), my article in the Jewish Quarterly, which seems not to be available in the U.S., is out in paper but not (yet?) online; when it is I'm assuming it'll be here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Ariel Beery pins the tendency of left-wing Jewish communities to self-destruct on Jews' having made "the Holocaust as the pinnacle event of Jewish history." I'm going to agree with him, for the most part, and take it a step further, or maybe just a step more specific:

Last night I saw "Black Book," a movie about a Dutch Jewish woman who, through luck, cleverness, and sex appeal that melts the heart of many a Nazi, survives World War II and ends up in Israel, which we all know is a country in which no Jew will ever be killed on account of being Jewish. (At least not by the state, which is something, but not, alas, everything). In other cheeriness, one of the movie's messages is that everyone hates the Jews, from the Resistance to the Nazis. In fact, those who are seemingly kindest to Jews may well hate them the most, yet the Nazis are, of course, Nazis. No-win, indeed.

The more striking, all-encompassing aspect of this movie, as with the similar "Europa Europa," is that it is advantageous for a Jew to be able to "pass." While you're obviously not supposed to agree with an ideology that would have a man killed for not having a foreskin or a woman killed for having dark hair, you nevertheless root for the protagonists of both these movies to succeed in appearing "Aryan." That early-mid-20th century European Jews did, often enough, blend in with their non-Jewish neighbors, was why the Holocaust required so much paperwork and investigation to carry out. It seems we do not, after all, have horns.

The problem with these movies, as fascinating as they are, is that American Jews see enough such scenarios, and after a certain point begin to associate survival with a Jewishness that is visually imperceptible. When someone tells me I don't look Jewish (some say I do, some say I don't) there's a certain sense of this being a relief, not in the sense of this making me more attractive, but in this less obvious notion of it meaning I'd have been able to "pass" if need be. To ask a blunt question: if Holocaust education weren't so central to Jewish learning, and if the passing-for-survival narrative weren't all over the place, would so many American Jews today get nose jobs? (And are Israelis so much better-looking than American Jews not simply because they are more ethnically mixed, but because they do not, by and large, try to look something other than their own ethnicity?) In any case, plans for things like restructuring Jewish communal life and hoping for less intermarriage are, I would say, missing the point.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What's the opposite of "bringing sexy back"?

I'm really tired, but I think "Personal Health" columnist Jane Brody just wrote a column about why the elderly would benefit from "[t]he use of lubricants and a dildo." We now officially live in a society that's too open about sex for sex to be sexy, and must resort to moss-like reproduction using spores.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Why it might be time to chuck the Sitemeter:

It's nice to know that someone in Hungary got to this blog by searching for 'theodore herzl gonorrhea.' As it happens, I have no idea, but I wouldn't worry about getting it from him at this point.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Recent excitement

1) A man on the bus in Brooklyn believed my mother and me to be sisters. Not the first time this has happened. Then it was that I'm clearly the mother and my mother the daughter, adding a whole new dimension to the whole "Jewish-babies" discussion, in that I've apparently already had one, before even myself being born. Not even the most ultra of the ultra-orthodox could beat that. The man then began discussing his abscess and how it needed to be drained. No segue or anything. Brooklyn-bus-avoidance: yet another reason to hope for a less snowy rest of April.

2) My mother and I fully exploited (in the inoffensive sense) all that gentrified Brooklyn has to offer. We got Belgian lunch, American Apparel, and Lebanese groceries. I noticed that some marzipan Easter candy was marked "Parve," suggesting that I'm not the only Jew to appreciate the culinary aspects of the upcoming Christian holiday. Easter strikes me as infinitely more appealing than Christmas, the holiday Jewish children supposedly yearn to embrace. Who needs a tree when you have permission to play with matches for eight whole nights? But in the chocolate eggs vs. horseradish contest (a sort of interfaith Latke-Hamentash debate), the winner is self-evident.

3) This evening, I had to leave a talk a bit early at which one of the panelists was either a founder or the founder of the "gender" approach to history, a talk largely about feminism and women's roles and such, due to some pressing difficulties involving my laundry, which, if not dealt with immediately, would have led to me losing my clothing. Not a petty concern, not a dire emergency, but nevertheless ironic.

4) This made my week. Depending how you and your officemates feel about German children's music, you might want to turn off your computer's volume before hitting play. But then you'll kind of miss the point. Headphones, then...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Silliest article ever

Note that it's from April 2, not 1.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Theoretically brilliant

Once again, The Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray flatters Jo, discussing "the level of intelligence that can permit people to excel in fields like theoretical physics and pure mathematics." This time, rather than complaining that too many idiots go to college, he explains why Jews--Ashkenazi ones, to be specific--are totally brilliant. As if we didn't know! Seems our I.Q.s peak at 110, not 100 like the Gentiles and the Sephardim (who we all know aren't real Jews anyway; any heritage that doesn't allow you to truly "get" Woody Allen, that doesn't mandate consumption of gefilte fish, doesn't count). All of this does little to explain the percentage of minutes in the day I ponder what next to purchase at Sephora. (Please let there not be a "JAP" gene).

Monday, April 02, 2007

For a change, French Jews

I'm a fan of anything that helps answer the question of how to go about studying French Jews from a literary perspective. Allison Schachter's Haaretz review of Hana Wirth-Nesher's "Call it English - The Languages of Jewish-American Literature" has convinced me to track down this book and somehow read it along with the three others I'm currently in the middle of (to say nothing of attempts at relearning Hebrew and learning Dutch). As I've been told now twice, I really do need to learn Yiddish. And not just the Dutch-Hebrew fusion that will result from my current "language studies" if they become studies without the quotes.

In other news, how uplifting.