Saturday, April 29, 2006

Thoughts from the Haftara

Like a man whose mother has comforted him, so shall I comfort you and in Jerusalem you shall be comforted
-Isiah 66:13

The scene: A few years ago, in my family's living room. My three year old nephew is playing with Legos, then begins throwing them across the room suspiciously close to the head of his younger brother. His mother tells him to stop that right now. He plays nicely for a few minutes, then goes back to hurling Legos. "Yosef," she says, "if you do that one more time, I am going to have to punish you." He giggles and throws another Lego. "Yosef!" she says, and takes his hand and slaps it, very gently. He looks around the room in a look of wordless, tortured affrontery and bursts into tears. Then he turns and flings himself at his mother, sobbing damply into her shirt. "Poor Yosef," she says, "poor boy. You are so maltreated."

Friday, April 28, 2006


Do you ever reach a point when you really, really think that the wisest path would be to admit defeat?

We had a bio lab today. The plan was that we would look at the samples of e. coli that we had prepared last week and had since been incubated, and would count to see how many colonies had grown, compared to the number of colonies that survived on a plate with some antibiotic on it. See? Cool idea.

Unfortunately, as lab started, we learned yet again that battle plans never survive first contact with the enemy. Firstly, our TA was AWOL, so that our professor had to introduce the lab. Secondly, the plates had been incubated far too long, so that our e. coli colonies were large, sprawling blobs, bigger than they ought to be. Thirdly, all of the plates had become contaminated, so that there were lots of other bacteria colonies growing on them, indistinguishable from the e. coli colonies.

A lesser teacher might have given up and sent everyone home early. Instead, we were instructed to count the "bigger" colonies. Since we were also given the rough number at which we should arrive, we were able to exercise artistic judgment about what exactly was or was not a "big" colony. Later, this judgment was made more complicated when we were supposed to choose a small, medium, and large colony from among our randomly selected "big" colonies.

We spent about another hour distributing our e. coli into a number of other plates, with various concentrations of the antibiotic, even though we had all heard the TA (a substitute who was held up by the evil CTA) and the prof argue about whether or not this whole thing was rendered pointless by the contamination, and basically agree that it was, but heck, couldn't hurt to try.

This would only be moderately funny if it wasn't for the fact that our last lab, which involved trying to get a large sample of our DNA through some PCR reaction, also massively failed, also through no fault of our own. I'm starting to have a little trouble taking these lab assignments all that seriously, I'm afraid.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Wow...I haven't posted for so long. I often fall into these lapses where I really can't bring myself to exert enough energy to post. Still, it does pay to fall out of the habit for too long or else I may never take it up again. So I offer for general consumption the following really odd poem. It has nothing to do with anything I normally post about or my life for that matter. In fact, I think that it is probably a little Christian. It is vaguely inspired by Dante's Inferno, except that I have never read the Inferno. So it's really more inspired by a paper that I proofread for one of my friends that quoted something from Dante, and then an off-hand comment by somebody in my HUM class that reminded me about it when I was in a poem writing mood. As I said, a little odd.... okay, enough disclaimer:

I did not fall, but rather plunged.
A shooting star, I leapt to Earth.
I chose to reign. I could not serve.
I chose to burn so I could shine.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff,
but always seems too long to go unloved.
And when you reign in Hell, you reign alone.

They say that Hades took a bride.
But what must it have been for him
to have her sit beside his throne,
and ever count the days til spring?

I am no Hades. Hades was allowed
to go up to Olympus now and then.
Hades was a god and I a sinner.

When Korah’s troop was swallowed up,
I rose to greet him at the door
and placed him in his own small sphere.
He does not scream. He weeps instead.

But I am Satan. Satan cannot weep.
I sit enthroned on lonely heights
made terrible by emptiness.

And sometimes as I sit, I think
if I should hear a Voice that said
“Repent and you shall be returned,”
I might return just for a voice.

There are no voices in my Hell.
Just sad reflections staring up.
Not one recalls that Satan, too, is damned.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Pirkei Avot

Interesting thing I noticed today about the structure of Pirkei Avot. It actually formulated in response to the age-old question of why Pirkei Avot starts with the whole Mesorah thing. While the other people in our unofficial Pirkei Avot group were running through the usual gamut of answers, I started flipping through the text and realized how different this Mishna is from all the others that I have studied.

Pirkei Avot is not grouped by topic, like other mishnayot are, and not even by one of the Talmud's regular little Talmudic streams of association. Instead, it's formulated by person, with different Sages set out in the context of their intellectual traditions and contemporaries. This structure, uniquely suited to Pirkei Avot, also sheds a whole new light on the whole thing. Pirkei Avot isn't a list of do this, don't do this, or even do A, but somebody else says do B. Instead, it's watching each person lay out his life philosophy. The format makes it personal. It allows for a range of opinions even beyond the regular halachic give and take; each Tanna gives his own three line life philosophy, and you can watch the way that it builds on those of his teacher, interacts with those of his contemporaries, echoes those of the Sages before him. It reflects the fact that it is not simply a law book, but an ongoing and personal morality.

I know, of course, that this is diametrically opposed to the explanation of the first mishna that the others were saying around me- that the chain of mesora is there to let us know that the forthcoming code is not simply the Sages' personal advice, but actually cast-iron, writ in stone, word of G-d sort of thing. And both of these are correct. That's what makes Pirkei Avot such a popular topic for shiurim- it is so jam-packed full of absolutely everything that you can get almost anything out of it. And that's rather my point. That Pirkei Avot is the spectrum of opinions of generations of the greatest Sages, and that each one was able to put in or take out something different from the same Torah that imbued them all. Pirkei Avot is both personal and Divine, open to a million different explanations, precisely because it is what it is- dozen of individual giving over the insights of a life of Torah, personalized and with the variations of each one's mind and personality.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Private Gloat

(You can all ignore this, really. Not that that isn't the case with all of my posts)

It's after the second day of pesach!! And that means that Yoshon season is over!!

It's probably very wrong to rejoice at the end of an opportunity to do a mitzva, but I had run out of food, lived two weeks on macaroni and cheese, and been forced to lurk around Hillel, eyeing the food suspiciously and wondering what I could and couldn't eat. In short, it was a pain. I probably would never have accepted it to begin with if I'd known that it would be so hard. But, in the sneakiness typical of life, I started it in Israel, where nothing is a problem, and then continued into the summer, when the issue doesn't exist. So that by the time it really kicked in, I was already psychologically committed.

The worst part, really, was that nobody else did it. It was like keeping kosher squared- you had to check everything twice, you couldn't trust things in kosher contexts, you had to explain your crazy eccentricity to everyone. It set you apart from the community, even, unable to eat other people's food unless you forced them to go to a whole trouble for you.

But I survived! And now I get a nice long six month freebie, after which point I'll be in Israel and it'll be easy again! Baruch Hashem!

Artscroll and Allegories

Now, I usually do my best to defend Artscroll. Unlike a fair number of my friends, I do not think that they are run by scheming, nefarious trolls, bent on achieving world domination through mass brain-washing. I'm sure that they are a group of sincere, well-meaning, intelligent, and devout people whom I would like if I ever met.

BUT I simply cannot countenance what they have done to Shir Hashirim. Instead of sticking to their usual nearly literal translations, they decide to provide the reader with a "translation faithful to the allegory that is the Song's authentic meaning". In other words, they render the entire thing allegorically, completely neglecting the petty task of mere translation that you might have thought you would get from a translation.

It is no mystery why they chose to do so. I can perfectly well understand Artscroll's discomfort at producing a translation so full of sexual imagery, that might intrude upon the innocence of their young and sheltered readers, that sounds so little like a sacred work. This discomfort may be similar to that felt by the Sages in the Gemara who argued that Shir Hashirim ought not to become part of the Tanach, fearing, according to Artscroll sources (I don't have them in front of me to quote, I'm afraid) that it might be misunderstood by future generations. But guess what? They were over-ruled. As in "lost". As in "we don't hold like them."

But I guess Artscroll knew better than the Tannaim. I guess they knew better than Rashi, on whose commentary they theoretically based their translation, who wrote that "In the end, the verse does not leave its simple explanation. And even though the prophets spoke allegorically, one must explain the allegory on its base and in order..." and then procedes to provide both an allegorical and a simple translation of the text. I guess they knew better than Shlomo, since Artscroll attests that he knew that the allegory was the only possible way to deliver the passionate love for God that the story demands. Well, that's what he thought, at least. Little did he know that the need would be better served by giving a stilted translation that ignored any hint of an actual love poem.

I'm not saying this because I think that Shir Hashirim actually is just a secular love poem. Far from it. I think that it is one of the most beautiful expressions of love for G-d ever written, and that it can and should stir someone to euphoric love for her Creator. I just don't think that a clumsy line for line metaphor substitution is the way to do that. I prefer to let it wash over me like poetry, not stopping to decode the images line by line, but letting myself be drawn into them. But forget that. Whatever else it may be, however inspiring it may or may not be, it is not a translation. The point of a translation is to preserve the original, with as many nuances and as much clarity as possible, for those who do not speak the language of the original. Shlomo chose to write an allegory. Your job as a translator is to translate that allegory. Shlomo could have written a sanitized, Artscrollized, diagrammed, lifeless, historical sermon. He chose not to. And neither should you.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Theoretically, I suppose I should post about Pesach, but I don't think that I have any particularly deep thoughts about it, just euphoria about going home and seeing family, etc. And at the moment, I happen to be really excited about genes, so this post is going to be about them instead.

Do you know what I think is the coolest thing? Genes work like a written language. All of life is based on a system that is, fundamentally, writing- using things merely as symbols, that, read in a particular order and combination, signify a certain meaning. How crazy is that? I mean, back when the first humans were coming up with language, how could they have realized that what they were doing was recreating their own building blocks? And only humans have got the trick, really. And I mean of spoken language as well, since that seems about equally analogous. And this means that language isn't just some useful trick. There is something fundamental about language, something that enables life, something fundamental to existance.

Okay, I realize that this sounds like utter blather, for which I apologize. This is the result of blogging in the first throes of a thought, and of trying to think deeply about anything on Erev Pesach, when I am severely food deprived. (There is nothing in this world that you can eat Erev Pesach! Nothing! Except maybe fruit. But man does not live by fruit alone.)

Chag Kasher V'Sameach.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A-Z Meme

From Irina

Accent: Wow...long, long story. Basic version: mostly Chicago, but a brief childhood stint in New York, combined with really weird r's derived from a speech problem, leaves me with an accent that is misidentified as British, but is in fact entirely my own.

Booze: First of all, not legal yet in this country. Second of all, I really hate the taste of anything alcohalic. Every year, I have a huge internal debate whether to go with wine or grape juice for the Four Cups.

Chore I hate: Cleaning, mostly. I can stand cooking, and laundry is bearable when I can work up the energy, but not cleaning. That is, not cleaning up my own messiness. I don't mind working under someone else's direction, because then you can just space out and obey.

Dogs/cats: Neither. Once, I was really into animals and wished we could get a pet, but my father is allergic to fur. Then I realized that for all that trouble, you may as well have a kid.

Essential Electronics
: Computer, mostly...I'm slowly becoming addicted to the internet. My family didn't even have internet until last year, but now I'm totally hooked.

Favorite Perfume/Cologne: Don't wear it. But I really like the smell of Softsoap's milk-and-honey soap. Yum.

Gold and silver
: Definitely silver. Much more classy.

Hometown: Chicago

Insomnia: Rarely. Usually, it takes me around a half an hour to fall asleep, but once out I will not awaken until summoned by my internal clock.

Job Title: Student?

Kids: Nope. But really, really adorable nephews and niece.

Living Arrangements: Dorm room, all to myself.

Most Admired Trait: I don't get offended or angry at people. Ever. Mildly annoyed, perhaps, but I don't think that I've had somebody angry at me or vice versa for years and years. Unless they just don't tell me.

Number of Sexual Partners: ....*rolls her eyes*

Overnight Hospital Stays: None, I think. Thank G-d.

Phobia: Decisions. ; )

Quote:"Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life" -Terry Pratchett

Religion: Jewish

: Two older brothers, two older sisters, one younger brother.

Time I usually wake up: Well...normally around eight something, since I have class at 9:30, or a chavruta at 9:00 on Tuesdays. On Sundays, I sometimes sleep rather late, but never much after 10ish.

Unusual Talent
: I can find anagrams in words. Really fast. Right off the bat. Years of playing text-twist have honed it to an almost freakish level of talent.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: Most of them.

Worst Habit: Laziness.

: Just for dental/orthodontic purposes.

Yummy Foods I Make: Um....see, I'm a college kid....once, at home, I made a really awesome key lime pie. It was, like the crowning acheivement of my cooking life. And I can fry a mean shnitzel.

Zodiac Sign: Um...The one that corresponds to December 31? I think it's, like Capricorn. Hold on....ah, the joy of google. Capricorn it is. I am vaguely close to the personality that this site alleges. In some ways. But, puh-lease. I would have said that for any of them

I tag...anyone who reads this.