Monthly Archives: May 2013

After the Quota System

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A couple of years ago, fresh off the long drive to my new princely town, I wrote about its remarkable WASPiness (here and here). But now I barely notice it, and I have even come to realize that among the professors and post-docs in The Scientist’s department–whose names are along the lines of Itai, Amichai, Shai, Oren, Shulamit, Michal, Shachar, Jonathan Goldberg, David Bloomenfeld, and Brice–it’s possible there are a few people like me (and that poor Brice is understandably confused when he shows up on Yom Kippur, which he might think is an ordinary Tuesday, and his lone voice echoes down the empty hallways. “Hello? Hello? Anybody out there . . . ?”).

If this town and the university at its centre still don’t quite advertise themselves as hotbeds of Yiddishkeit, that doesn’t mean my neighbors aren’t in a Klezmer band (they are) or that Baby MoFo can’t attend a local (non-Chabad) summer camp that will be conducted entirely in Hebrew next month (he is).

But it’s fun to see this princely town as I first saw it–to see it through the eyes of one first seeing. This afternoon, a beautiful, sunny day, the boys were off from school, and I took respite with an iced coffee and a chapter of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (née Nathan Weinstein), a novella about an advice columnist with a Christ Complex (think the Bintel Brief in the hands of the other folks). A few minutes after perching on a bench outside the Starbucks with my cold drink, I saw, out of my peripheral vision, an elderly woman with thinning, carefully set white hair, polished nails shaped into old-fashioned ovals, and sturdy but not dowdy black patent leather shoes, sit down beside me. She watched me intently, clearly waiting for me to acknowledge her. I didn’t (How often does one score a break from one’s kids to do nothing but sit and read and drink an iced coffee and enjoy the sound of silence and the sun on one’s face??). So she gave up waiting, and she cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said. I marked my passage in the book–the protagonist is attempting to escape his despair through a pastoral fantasy and arrives in a rural world where the deer run wild: “The man said that there was still plenty of deer at the pond because no yids ever went there. He said it wasn’t the hunters who drove out the deer, but the yids.”

I look up.

“I’m just visiting here, and I was wondering–Are you a student here?”

I smile. “No,” I say, “I teach here.”

“Really?” Flattering though it might have been from someone a bit younger, the comment made me realize that when you’re in your 90s, college age and 30s seem equally and unattainably distant — kind of the way millions and billions of dollars seem equally and unattainably distant to this Poor Princess.

But it turns out there was something else she meant by “Really?”

She continues: “They let you in here?”

Me? A woman? A dark-skinned person? A Canadian?

She pushes further. “They welcomed you?”

“Yes,” I say hesitantly.

“With open arms?”

“I think so . . .”

“And are there others?” She gestures at my pendant.

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“Are there?”

“Yes,” I say. “There are others.”

“And what do you teach?”

I tell her.

“Do you teach them about us–your know, our stuff?” she asks.

“I do,” I say. “Do you know The Jazz Singer?”

“With Al Jolson?” She laughs with amazement. I wonder if she knew him. She lowers her voice. “And the goyim–they like it?”

“I think so,” I say.

“I don’t believe it,” she says.

“Believe it,” I respond. And we say our goodbyes, and I saunter off.

And when I get home, I remind LL that I am signing him up for ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons at Barclays. It’s a revered institution where children who use their chopsticks as swords and have other defects of manners (or circumcised bits) can learn to be proper, poised, socially sophisticated WASPlike little gentlemen and ladies. After all, we’re in a princely town. Barclays is by invitation only, but I might have an in– I hear there’s a Jew on the board.

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The Better Story

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life-of-pi-book-coverThe Scientist’s favorite book is Life of Pi. One day, shortly after we were married, I listened to the book on tape (literally tape) during my long commute to work, one that passed several entries into Manhattan and thus could be not only long but gruelingly Shantaram long. The book is about the victory of science: Pi trains the tiger through classical (or is it operant?) conditioning, allowing the two of them to cross the ocean together without either being killed. When I got home, I told my scientist-husband that he would enjoy the book. This was, of course, the same husband who had recently informed the rabbi who married us that he felt uncomfortable with the way the date was written on our ketubah–“in the year . . . since the creation of the world“–since the world had not been created 5000 and change years ago as any good scientist and rational human being recognized (to his credit, Marrying Rabbi, an Orthodox but logical rabbi–not a contradiction in terms, it seems–wholly agreed and soothed The Scientist by telling him that we Jews speak in parables).

That evening, The Scientist bought Life of Pi and stayed up through the night reading it cover to cover.

Afterwards, we discussed it. Back then, we used to hold our own, romantic, two-person book club. As a mom, I go a different route: I hang out with a bunch of other moms so we can drink wine, bitch about our husbands, and discuss how birthing multiple babies ravaged our hot bods. But I was a newlywed then.

Funnily enough, while The Scientist was interested in what or wasn’t an accurate representation of conditioning, he also loved the parable part of the story. It turns out we Jews not only speak in parables; we like reading them, too. But it wasn’t just that the tiger story was a parable. “What I appreciated was the way it came back to the beginning,” reported The Scientist. “To that ‘I was told you have a story that would make me believe in God’.” “Huh?” I say. That was how we discovered that the book-on-tape version excised the “Author’s Note,” which was in no way actually an “author’s note,” to be read as a thing outside of the story itself except in the way that Lolita‘s “Foreword” is an “author’s note” (Oh, Nabby, you tried to confuse us by telling us Haze rhymes with the heroine’s real surname and tease us by inserting your anagrammatic self, Vivian Darkbloom, while incidentally mentioning the death of Mrs. Richard F. Schiller along with the details of a bunch of minor nobodies–you sly dog, you) (And if you were wondering what my favorite book is, now you know). But anyway, after I read the book (and thus ended my brief and inglorious love affair with books on tape), I agreed. It was not just a good parable; it was a great piece of theology. Boy searches for meaning of god through Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, but ultimately Boy uses science to keep alive. Yet, this is not about the victory of science (though perhaps it’s a bit of a Gouldian tale of non-overlapping magisteria?). Boy does not lose love of god using science; instead, he decides that if given the choice between life given meaning through God and life given meaning through science, God is the better story.

(Though you might remember that both the atheist –the believer in science–and the religious man–the believer in God–are held up as believers and therefore people willing to make a leap of the imagination–“Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them — and then they leap” . . . “Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might [when dying] try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”)

Natch, it was more because of all the scary tiger stuff, and the sparkly jellyfish, the Ang Lee show-offy cinematics, that made us think the kids might enjoy the film, which recently came out on DVD. It wasn’t theology.

The truth is, we don’t really talk to our kids about God in any serious way. In fact, the only time I remember The Scientist engaging the idea is when he told LL that Nietzsche killed God. I thought about our aversion to the subject this morning as I was reading this great post at Kveller, a site that was obviously made for me (a small part of me admits that the accuracy of that statement would be much greater were the site called Kvetcher instead of Kveller, but we ought not quibble about the difference. You know what Vladi says: “the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.”). In any case, the dad in this Kveller post thinks about how he talked to his kids about God when they were younger, and then asks the kids (now teenagers), and the son says, “I think you told us we could believe whatever we wanted about God, and you would support us . . . But then again, that’s the kind of thing you would say.” Shit. That’s a nice dad. I’m such a bitch. I do more of the Hashem-is-here-Hashem-is-there-Hashem-is-always-everywhere-and-he-knows-when-you’ve-been-naughty thing. Like this invocation, shortly after Cool J announced he was going to be a rabbi. We are heading into town, and he is being reckless. I yell at him: “Be careful crossing the street! Get off your scooter! That’s not safe!”Cool J scoots gleefully across the street, hits a rock just in front of the curb, flies to the ground.”You see?” I say (even more gleefully — told you I’m a bitch). “You know why you fell?” Cool J, standing up defiantly, dusting himself off: “Why?””Because you didn’t listen to your mom. So Hashem punished you.” Cool J, dismissively: “Oh please. I fell because there was a rock in my way, not because of Hashem.” And off he scoots. “Oh yeah? And who do you think put that rock there?!” I call out–but he’s gone by the end of “oh yeah.”

So when we show the kids the movie, I am surprised at how fixated they are on the second telling of the story–what I think of as the theological part of the movie. This is the part when Pi retells the story and the hyena becomes the cook, the zebra the sailor, the orangutan his mom, and Richard Parker Pi Patel. This is the part that ends with the Canadian writer asking which story is the real one, and Pi Patel asking which the writer prefers. The boys make me replay this part twice. When it comes to Pi’s question, I pause the film. “So–which do you prefer?” I ask.

They answer in unison: “The real one!”

Now, my kids are, as Mannahatta Mamma recently called hers, “Same recipe, different soup.” So you might imagine I’m surprised by the identical answer. I tease it out a little. “What does that mean?”

“The real one,” says LL. “The one we saw. With the tiger . . . and the hyena . . . you know, the real one.”

Cool J, an all-too-smart 5 year old, looks cynically at his older brother. “Don’t be silly. He wasn’t on the boat with a tiger. That was just the story part” (and I swear he hasn’t even read Tim O’Brien’s great bit on “story-truth vs. happening-truth”). (He’s not always so smart, mind you. The other day he consoled Baby MoFo, newly toilet trained, for hitting the wall with his stream. “I stand too close to the urinal and splash myself in the face–all the time,” reported Cool J).

Cool J continues: “Of course the real story was with his mom.”

Hmmm.

“And what do you guys think of the way we’re attracted to a good story? About how God might be a story we’re attracted to, not because the being itself is a true being, as in a being up there or out there controlling us or listening to us, but an idea that gives us comfort because it’s easier to imagine a supreme being than randomness, than nothingness? What do you think of that?”

“Mama, can you press play? I want to see what happens at the end of the movie.”

“Yeah, can you? I want to see if the tiger comes back.”

LL this morning at his Torah Ceremony, happy with his burning bush God and undisturbed by theological questions.

LL (and a pal) this morning at his Torah Ceremony, newly received chumash in hand. He is happy with his burning-bush God and wholly undisturbed by theological questions.