Sunday, September 16, 2012

PC language and taking offense שפה תקנית ופגיעה

When I see an article criticizing political correctness, I anticipate reading defensive bunk claiming that words are just words, so why can’t everyone just calm down? worthy of Archie Bunker. This piece by Amaliah Rosenblum is an exception.

While Rosenblum concedes that language does shape our realities, she initially argues, “If I choose to refer to my husband as ‘my partner,’ in so doing, I am not improving my status in the eyes of the law and the Rabbinate.” Um, yes you are. Not in each individual instance of uttering the words “my partner” when referring to your spouse, but in the “critical mass” that slowly forms, which is comprised of each instance of its use by each one of us. Every time you useבן זוגי ben zugì [“my partner” in Hebrew] or ishì [“my man”], it validates my using it. Every time I use it, it lowers the inhibitions of some other woman who chokes on it. I assert that the more it’s used, heard, uttered, written, and read, the less we’ll all choke and the more ordinary it will become, until hopefully it ultimately replaces ba’alì [literally “my master”]. This is the trajectory of all PC language.

Rosenblum states, “Sticking to the embellished term ‘my partner’ is likely to serve my desire to repress the major problems with the institution of marriage in Israel while weakening my ability to oppose it.” Huh? How so? And why is the term embellished? Did she mean “pretentious”, perhaps? What could be more down-to-earth than the simple and direct “my partner”? As opposed to, say referring to handicapped individuals as “differently abled” [ducking]?

Yet it is in Rosenblum’s final paragraph that we reach her quite intelligent distillation of democracy: “The price of living in a democracy is that all kinds of idiots with poor taste have the right to say repulsive things about us. That's part of the deal.” This was exactly the argument put forward by Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose when criticized for commissioning a series of cartoons of Muhammad that “offended” Muslims. How much weight are we required to give to that “offense”, as opposed to that caused by downright incitement, a la Beitar fans’ chants of “Death to the Arabs”? Or to the “offense” “felt by” the ultra-Orthodox at the sight of Naama Margolese walking to school, all her proto-sexual parts (and more) duly covered? I believe the answer lies in something my friend Rabbi Susan Silverman once said to me, which she lives by: “You can choose to be offended. Or not to be.”

I beg to expand thereupon: We can react to offense in one of three ways: 1) Let it go; 2) Protest vigorously, yet non-violently; 3) Blow up the embassies of the countries from whence the offense emanated. Which response will garner more sympathy? Which will move humankind forward? This excellent piece by Fouad Ajami addresses precisely these issues.

Do I believe the offense taken by the African-American community over the slaying of Trayvon Martin is a mis-reaction? I do. But to their credit, they organized Hundred Hoodie Marches in protest; they didn’t blow up buses. Ditto for the members of the CHaBaD community who protested the guilty verdict in the Aharon Rubashkin case: While I vehemently disagree with their offense thereat and their claims of anti-Semitism, at least they didn’t rampage through Brooklyn overturning dumpsters or spitting on “immodestly dressed” women.

So I suppose you could say that my New Year’s wish is to see more Hundred Hoodie Marches and fewer (ideally no) bombings. Doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Can we believe what we hear about the ultra-Orthodox? האם נוכל להאמין את המחזים על החרדים

I’m reacting strongly to the powerful film My Father, My Lord [Hebrew: חופשת קיץ Hofshát Káits] for which I wrote the plot synopsis. In the film, just as the family is about to board the vehicle to go on the vacation to which the Hebrew title refers, one of Rabbi Eidelman’s followers comes running, enjoining him to come quickly to the site of a pigeon nesting on the windowsill of his son’s school. The reference is to Deuteronomy 22:6-7, which states that if you should happen upon a (kosher) bird’s nest while out and about, and you decide that you must have the eggs or the hatchlings for your own consumption, you may take these after shooing the mother bird away, far enough to where she cannot see you collecting her young. According to the Mishna, one who performs this commandment is assured longevity. As we might imagine, the “opportunity” to perform this commandment is unlikely to ever arise even once in a lifetime in the urban milieu that most Jews inhabit.

In the above-named film, the rabbi responds immediately: His follower leads him to the site of the nest, and presumably excited at the rare opportunity to perform this arcane commandment, he duly shoos the mother bird therefrom, leaving behind two hatchlings, which he does not take with him, but rather leaves there, presumably to starve. He then chants a prayer of praise, not unlike a kid who gleefully squashes a bug because someone in authority says it’s OK. When his young son, who has been observing the nest from his classroom for days, asks him disturbing questions about the fate of the hatchlings, he brushes off the boy’s feelings and grandstands about the privilege of having merited performance of this commandment.

Now, every time someone critiques the ultra-Orthodox based on a movie or book, the critic is immediately attacked for “judging an entire community / lifestyle based on a movie / book / play". But let’s deconstruct this argument: First of all, the definition of a story is that the plot must contain a conflict. This I learned in junior high. The oldest plot conflicts center around forced marriage a la A Fiddler on the Roof, or forbidden love a la Romeo and Juliet. Necessarily, any plotline in a story about a closed, traditional community is bound to be about individual desires versus compliance with community norms. So it shouldn’t surprise us that literature about the ultra-Orthodox community invariably contains this element.

I also believe that it’s legitimate to get my information about the ultra-Orthodox community from books, movies, films, and plays, many of whose authors and screenwriters come from within the community, including authors Shalom Auslander, Yochi Brandt, Naomi Ragen; film directors David Volach, Rama Burshtein, Haim Tabakman, and Amós Gitái; and playwright Amnon Levy, whether having left the community or still a part of it. Can I not assume that they have an interest in depicting the community accurately to outsiders?

As an analogy, take the example of cop shows. Even having never been present at an arrest or in a courtroom, I know about the reading of Miranda rights and courtroom protocol. While the thrilling car chases and unlikely plot twists are obviously the products of some screenwriter’s imagination, as are the personalities of the characters, the “frame” with all its details reflects reality — even the unseemly parts such as organized crime, drug dealing, and human trafficking. In the same way, I believe that we can believe the “frames” of plots concerning the ultra-Orthodox, as it is these very strictures and taboos that set the plots in motion.

Look, as I’ve written before, as increasingly turned off as I am by this community, it’s really their business. Even if all the mother pigeons in Israel were simultaneously shooed off their nests tomorrow, it likely would not upset any balance, either ecological or cosmic. So no, they’re not hurting anyone…as long as they fund their lifestyle on their own steam. Once my tax money is involved, then yes, I do have right of critique.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why the Duggars give me the willies משפחת דאגר: למה היא מפחידה אותי

Five Things That Bother Me About the Duggars:

[For those readers unfamiliar with them, hover your mouse over Michelle Duggar's name in the box to the left of this post]

1. The parents don't own up to setting rules or forbidding things. They couch their rules in language that calls them "personal commitments / beliefs [of ours]". I believe that this is a deliberate attempt to make their lifestyle palatable to The Rest Of Us: We recoil at rules forbidding what for us is acceptable; but we can't argue against personal beliefs or commitments.

2. The bumper sticker allegedly on their car: "Evolution is a lie / Save America please" [By the way, I looked for these online and couldn’t find a single one, not even in the nuttiest of wing-nut merch sites]. Why just America? Evolution is (or is not, in their belief system) a global concept. Ergo, why should rebutting it save only America? What's holy about America, that only it deserves saving from heathen beliefs? What about the rest of the world?

3. Christian mail - It’s hard for me to willingly find links for this post, because in my naivete, I actually wrote the Duggars a letter and ever since have been deluged with Christian spam. After months of spam cleanup efforts, and getting it down to just a few mails a week, I visited the Duggar blog and when I checked my mail afterwards, there they were, smiling out at me from my Inbox: mails from half a dozen “different” fundy Christian groups that all come from the same source. Here I go again…Help! I’m drowning in Jesus!

4. The children’s education - Firstly, I want to say that I’m not anti-homeschooling, and there are definite advantages thereto, a big one being that the family is not tied to the schoolday or school calendar. Kid wakes up with an earache or tummyache? No missed work or attendance to worry about, just take care of your kid. Out-of-town mid-week event you want to attend? No problem. Feel like visiting a destination when it’s cheapest? Go right ahead and make your reservation. It must actually be quite liberating. Looked at from this angle, it’s not hard for me to believe that a homeschooling parent of 19 could indeed spend individual time with each kid daily, a fact that I couldn’t even take for granted when my “mere” three were living at home.

But the older children study law? And medicine? Huh? Wouldn’t studying medicine ultimately lead to discussions of, uh, human biology and cells and, uh…evolution? Unless what’s being referred to is folk medicine…? Or folk law? Is there such a thing as folk law?

5. The graduates are “studying under professionals”? What professionals? What licensed nurse or nurse midwife would or could ethically give them instruction? Just because one is a practitioner of the healing arts does not authorize them to teach them, and certainly not to non-enrollees of an accredited program. What’s going on here? Well Michelle explains [why cannot Jana speak for herself?] that Jana’s been assisting a doula, who by definition is herself an assistant. So the way I read it, Jana is apprenticing-to-an-assistant-to-a-midwife. That’s one crowded delivery room, at least three of the occupants of which are non-medical practitioners. What birthing mom would agree to that?

OK, five’s all I’ve got; I’ll gladly add more if anyone has contributions, but this is enough to give me the creeps for now.