Monday, March 26, 2007

Disillusioned Novels

Miri and I were discussing A Complicated Kindness- a novel that we both just finished reading and both really enjoyed (the former hardly a coincidence- it was recommended by a common friend and also there aren't all that many books around the dorms, so any book that she gets her hands on will be mine pretty soon). It's really a very good book, of the angsty disillusioned rebellious intellectual teenager sort, but the girl has more of a right to be angsty, disillusioned and rebellious than the average teenager, so you had to forgive her for it. We were wondering whether it's possible to write a good novel about a community without it being a scathingly disillusioned and bitter indictment. That is, whether one could write a book about the Jewish community that would both be decent and not a 'look at me, I'm airing dirty laundry and exposing the corroded infrastructure of the so-called moral authority' sort of thing.

Here's my theory. Every good novel- community specific or not- must be disillusioned. Because illusions simply don't work in a novel. Those that share the illusion will be bored and unchallenged; those that don't will think that you're a naive idiot and be entirely unable to relate to you or your little narrative. In fact, a possible definition of the greatness of a novel could be having the fewest illusions possible. If a novel is measured by how much it resembles reality or by how much it reveals about the world and the human condition, then it can't really afford to have any illusions at all.

But the thing is this. These illusions aren't just the ones that sneering black-bereted intellectuals like to be disillusioned with, like the morality of authority figures, the efficacy of the system, or the perfection and happiness of everybody in the community. A real novel can't afford to have illusions like that the sneering intellectuals have any answers, that everybody is miserable, that there's no truth or beauty or love or honesty in the system. Illusions like that the author is better or wiser or more honest than everybody else. A good novel has to be painfully truthful, but I don't know that truth is necessarily bitter or angsty.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Religious Views"

So now I'm getting so desperate that I'm stealing my own random notes off of facebook, except that this is the first note that I've made on facebook because I am pretty convinced that facebook is an agent of the devil (or of Sociability, a monster almost as fearsome.)

So I bet you've been wandering around facebook, looking at various things, and thinking to yourself, by golly! I wish there was somebody, somewhere who could analyze it far past the point to which it has meaning! Well, wish no more!

So, I was thinking about this category "religious views". First of all, it reminds me of the distinction my professor drew between religions that focus on theology and those that focus on practice. For Christians, he said, everything is about doctrine- you're Christian if you believe x,y, and z. Maybe a lapsed Christian or a bad Christian, but you're not outside of the faith.
Judaism, according to his theory at least, puts much more emphasis on practice; you ask whether somebody is shomer shabbat and shomer this more than their beliefs. The whole idea of having a list of beliefs didn't come around until the Rambam, and there were plenty of people who have made it into the halachic tradition who disagreed with several of the big 13.
I'm not so sure that we really are more into practice than belief nowadays. We seem to have plenty of fights about doctrine, but usually only when it affects practice. The problem is that it's hard to construct a "would you prefer your daughter to marry" question because it's hard to think of somebody who would have all the beliefs without the practices.

Secondly, I have to wonder about the phrasing "religious views". Which views, exactly, are religious in nature? Only the metaphysical ones? Do views about the nature of truth or whatnot fall into my "religious views" or are they more philosophical in nature? What about my views about my religion?
Or is "religious views" just code for "religion", except that religion seems to demand a sort of conformity, picking your choice off a drop-menu sort of thing, while religious views is open and multi-cultural? And if so, why do those different connotations exist?
I think that one difference between the terms is that religious views invites you to define your own religious views, not fitting into other people's boxes. But religion, for almost all of us, really is boxes. Especially on facebook, where the identification serves to place you in everyone's community. "Religious views" lets everybody who's uncomplicated enough to fit into a box, to pick the box, without thinking or majorly over-analyzing things, the complicated people to have a chance to be witty and deep and open-but-at-the-same-time-
So I suppose it's really a win-win all around.
And I'm not sure what the point of this note was.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Pesach Rant

My roommate has pointed that I have a bitter and/or cynical rant for just about every holiday (including Tisha B'Av, Tu B'Shvat, Succot, and even Rosh Chodesh, sorta). This, combined with the fact that the theme of almost all of them is "nobody but me really gets the point" probably makes me a bad person, but what can you do?

Anyway, Pesach rant. I sort of lost steam in that long introduction, but here goes.

I think it's a shame how Sippur Yitziat Mitzrayim has evolved. I mean, the root of the mitzva is to tell the story. You know, once upon a time, Ten-Commandments\Prince-of-Egypt style, with details and characters and maybe even voices. Not, I'm afraid, to tell brilliant vortlach about how the haggada is written or who the four sons represent or why everyone was staying up all night that night. Just tell the story.

I know that it seems a little immature, but then again, the haggada sort of acknowledges the issue when it says "Even if we are all old and learned and brilliant and clever, we still have to tell the story. As much as possible." I've been to seven or eight shiurim that analyze with elegance and flair how the mitzva of sippur relates to reliving and how it's all so important and so forth, but I have never been to a seder that actually focuses on the story telling. Instead, the haggada is plowed through, with varying degrees of interpretation. As if the point was to reach the p'shat of the haggada.

Not that anything can really be done about the subject. Because once we have a haggada, we've sorta got to use it. Although really, there's only one section that claims to be mandatory.

The only real hope is children. (There are 3 buzzwords that one is supposed to use in every argument for Israel: hope, future, and children, in any combination that seems convenient. 2 out of 3 is not bad to use on a subject like this.) Because when you have kids, they actually want to know what's going on and you actually have to tell the story to them, and there you go. But the older the population gets, the more sophisticated everyone feels that they have to be.

I don't know, really. I've never run a seder and I think that I would probably run it just the way that everybody else does, but my ideal seder- as it conglomerates in my head just now- would have minimal emphasis on the haggada and a whole lot on a really good story-teller, telling a really good story complete with visual aids and so forth.

A Cautionary Tale for Dorm Life

"The Girl Who Cried Engagement"

Once upon a time, there was a girl who screamed all the time in the hallways. One day, she passed an exam and started screaming and jumping up and down and squealing in the hallways, and everybody rushed out to see if she was engaged. But she wasn't. And then another day a song she liked was playing on her music list and she started squealing and jumping up and down with all her friends in the hallways, and everyone rushed out to see if she was engaged. But she wasn't. And then another day she discovered some other terribly exciting thing, and she started squealing and jumping up and down with all her friends in the hallways, and everyone rushed out to see if she was engaged. But she wasn't.

Ending I:
And then one day she got engaged and nobody cared.

Ending II:
And then one day her hair caught on fire and nobody could tell.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

And Crusade Part II

(Revenge of the Crusade)

You know how sometimes you get yourself all psyched for some big, superhero, music-swelling, no-holds-barred sort of conflict and then everything ends up working out so nicely that you just feel silly, like having the door opened just as you come charging with your battering ram?

I was afraid that was going to happen with my crusade- that is, that after all that sound and fury and build-up, it would end up being a simple question of beaurocracy, easily solved by some secretary. So the adventures of the morning were not untinged with relief. Adventures as follows. Omitted, but important to note is that every step of this process is carried out in terror and unidentified guilt and wobbling knees and so forth. G-d did not give me the backbone of a revolutionary (although it would doubtless make a lovely conversation piece):

I am directed from bored secretary to bored secretary to the secretariat of the law faculty, who already knows me terribly well because I pop in there every couple of days with one problem or another, most of them relating to my having changed ID number mid-semester and the issues that spring therefrom. Visiting the secreteriat is always a bit daunting of an experience; they are calm and confident and give swift instructions in Hebrew, and they know all of your grades and like to make oblique references to them. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey, I'm having a bit of a problem with my Mishpat Ivri class. See, I want to switch into a higher level-
Law Department Secretary: Oh, yes, we've heard. You're in the middle level. That's the highest level you can get into.
Me: But...I'd like to switch up.
LDS: You can't.
Me: Because I'm a girl?
LDS: It's not a question of being a girl. It's the department rules- it's all based on your previous education.
Me: I know, but see, I've done a year of post high-school learning. There are boys in that level who only-
LDS: It's not a possibility.
Me: I there somebody I can talk to?
LDS: No. It's over. There's nothing you can do.
Me: But...
LDS: But nothing. No girl has ever been in the highest level and none ever will be.
Me: Okay...but it doesn't really seem fair...
LDS: That's the way it is. Those are the rules.
Me: But the class is really not on my level...
LDS: So you'll get an easy A. You're getting good grades, Tobie, that's what's really important.
Me: Um....thanks [leaves office highly flumoxed, on verge of tears, having no clue what to do next]

So then I go downstairs and out of the building, a little shell-shocked by the burst of utterly confident finality. But it seems too quick, so I go back upstairs to attempt to appeal to the Dean. While standing outside of the Dean's secretary's office, waiting for her to finish chatting with another secretary, a nice lady, passing by, asks me what I would like, hears my situation, and, with limited sympathy for my cause but a lot of niceness, tells me that the thing to do is to write a letter to some committee or other and give it in at the law faculty's secretariat. It probably won't work, she tells me, but I'll feel better if I've done everything I could. (Yes, that is really the way that things work in this country. Most of human knowledge, and all of it that relates to beaurocracy is attained through random nice ladies in hallways. They are the Israeli equivalent of gurus on mountaintops.)

So I go home and write a nice little letter and then print it out and give it in, full of terror and so forth because the letter is being given to the same LDS who earlier told me the whole "no girl has ever gotten that class" line, which, by the by, sounds like I'm making it up for the purposes of making my crusade more crusade-y, which is just what I thought when she said it. But she is sweet and friendly and the terror is wholly unjustified.

Then I go back home and start making plans about what I should do when and until my request is rejected. Together with my dream team of advisors (my roommate, a sympathetic boy from Law, the random people he consulted, the random other people I consulted), the general consensus is that I should turn to the vice-dean, one of my first semester professors and all-around nice guy. He is out of his office in the morning, so I settle into my room, full of schemes and worry and a general sense of despair at ever having this ridiculous thing sorted out.

Which is why the 2:30 phone call came as such an utter and complete shock. It was the LDS, calling to tell me that the committee had decided to approve my request, giving me the number to call to change my registration, and congratulating me on my success. I know- battering ram\door thing at its best, but in a good way. I could not shake off the nagging feeling that the whole thing was some odd sort of prank- is there really a committee that works within three hours from submission? they actually let me in without any letters of recommendation or even transcripts? no impassioned arguments, debates, anything? It's all a little too good to be true. But nonetheless, my registration is changed, my official schedule marks the class, and I guess I am good to go. (Yay!)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

My Crusade

I prefer not to tell stories from my personal life, mostly because they're terribly dull. But I'm going to make an exception, because I currently find myself embroiled in just the sort of practical decision that I have previously hoped would remain academic and feared it would not. Well, it didn't.

A story:

Once upon a time, there was a girl who went to Bar Ilan law school. All the students in law school had to take a class in Hebrew Law, for which they were classified according to background and/or level. There were three classes: A class for chilonim, a class for religious students, and a class for graduates of "yeshiva gevohah" (basically, post-high school yeshiva). The girl, through cleric whatnot, was placed in the lowest level, but the people in the law secretariat promised her that she could switch levels when the proper time came, all on her own, without the filing of papers and so forth. And the girl was very happy.

Now, just to clarify, this girl was very into the learning of Gemara, and she had not only done a year of post-high school learning, but also had been involved in all sorts of various crazy Beit Medrash programs and learned Daf Yomi and so on and so forth, and so she decided that she was going to transfer herself into the highest level. She knew that the level would be largely male, but this was not a particularly novel experience for the girl and she figured it would be worth it.

Time passed and the girl tried to switch levels. But the nice people at the class-registering place told her that she could not go into the highest level. "That level is only boys," they said. "Is it forbidden for girls to join," asked the girl a little annoyedly, "or is it just that there aren't any currently there?" "'No, no, no girls," said the people, "you see it's really just for boys who have gone to hesder yeshiva." "But I am positive," said the girl, "that I am capable of keeping up. I have male friends who are in the class who only did one year of post-high school learning. Is there some test I can take? Is there somebody to whom I can talk? Are you sure this is totally impossible?" "I will check," said the nice registration people, "and then I will call you back." And a little while, they did call back. "Yes, yes," they said, "we have checked and it is totally, absolutely, and categorically forbidden for girls to be in this class. So sorry."

And thus was born the crusade. Now, let me say. The girl is not in the mood for a crusade. She has neither time nor energy. Nor a desire to become the sort of crazy feminist that she enjoyed mocking in her more contemptuous youth. She isn't dying to be a Rosa Parks, nor yet a suffragette. She really, really doesn't have the will to play beaurocratic tag with every department in the law faculty. But the girl has three reasons for really wanting to switch classes.

1) Her Americanly liberal principles are just a tad offended by the idea that the boys get their own special higher level class, while all religious girls are thrown into the same group, regardless of level, background, or ability.

2) The level that she is in is really stupid. Maybe it was just the first one, since it was all introductory-like, but she isn't crazy about the professor, the material seems to be on a low level and taught slowly (what there was of it) and her classmates....well... Most of the girls are ulpanistiot (the term isn't really translatable). She is increasingly discovering that the average religious zionist, well-educated, intelligent, choosing-to-go-to-secular-college Israel girl has religious opinions so conservative and...traditional that they would put the girl's former Beis Yaakov classmates to shame. The example that she loves to quote: The professor mentioned that the Code of Hammurabi (sp?) was written before the Bible. One girl raises her hand and says, "But the Torah was written before the world was created!" Everybody is crocheting kippot and mumbling shocked mumbles of "kefirah!" and "Nu! Really!" and so forth. There are all of 12 boys in the 60+ person class, and at least 4 are ex-religious. Perhaps the higher level won't actually be any better, but it ought to be more challenging, and will at least theoretically have a more educated group of students. (And if it isn't harder, why exactly won't they let her in it?) Plus, her current schedule gives her 9 consecutive hours of class, and she really just can't take it, although this probably isn't one of the reasons she should most publicize.

3) She is more than a little bit of a dafkanik.

The good news is that many of her classmates, including some of the boys in the higher level, are very supportive and helping the girl be slightly less of a chicken. The bad news is that absolutely nobody was in their offices today, nor will they probably be so at any point before the first class on Sunday morning. So the next couple of days (that is, after the weekend) are going to be spent running around to various departments and secretaries trying to find who exactly is in charge of this decision, convince them of her right to switch or, failing that, find who's over their heads that she can whine about sexism to. It's all, I'm afraid, a bit of a pain.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Boxes within Boxes

Do you ever worry that you're terribly unoriginal and will always be so? And as hard as you try and as much as you twist and turn and wriggle to break out of molds, you just throw yourself more and more into other molds?

There are 6 billion people on this planet. Telling someone that they're one in a million means that there are a thousand people just like them in China.

You think that your writing style is an original blend of geekiness and craziness and meta-ness, and then you read another blogger who does it all much the same, only about actual interesting topics instead of random thoughts.

Everyone's a type and the most annoying type of all is the intellectual type. The type who thinks that it's so clever and so self aware that it could never be a type. And you look at others of the type, at parties and shabbat tables and colleges, and you wonder "Am I really that much of a type?" But of course, you aren't. You're the one exception.

What is the obsession with not being a type? Is your personality so little inherently justified that it needs uniqueness for it to be valid? Are you afraid that you don't count if you don't create a type of your own? Or is it simply ego?

Second person is a cheap way out.