Monday, February 27, 2012

Oh Nuts Purim Giveaway

Once again my good friends at Oh Nuts are offering readers a chance to win a gift certificate in honor of the holiday of Purim. I am proud to be a tool of this capitalist enterprise in its nefarious plot to trick you into buying their very reasonably priced gift baskets. No you do not have to be Jewish to enter this contest, though a love for chocolate helps.

Last year I sent their tea set basket to a girl and for some strange reason I am now married to her. No I am not raffling off any wives this year, but you have three ways to win a gift certificate.

1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page, choose their favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift they love the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a $30 gift certificate.

2. Readers can go to the oh nuts facebook page become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of their favorite Purim Gift Basket . They should also write "I am here via Izgad."

3. Readers can follow @ohnuts and should Tweet:

"Win a Purim Basket from Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily."

For option 2 and 3 Oh Nuts will pick the winner.

On Board the Queen Mary with Jewlicious and Mayim Bialik

When I first contacted Miriam a year ago, her first email to me was that she could not talk to me for the next few weeks because the Limmud LA conference and Jewlicious festival were just around the corner. So I was pleased to join Miriam in attending this year's Jewlicious 8.0 festival as her lawfully bagged, captured and tamed husband.

The event was hosted on the Queen Mary liner, which is permanently parked in Long Beach, CA and operates as a museum and hotel. Stepping on board was enough to send me into libertarian seasteading fantasies of a privately owned miniature city floating out in international waters. Unfortunately, I later found out that, after it was retired, the Queen Mary was bought by the city of Long Beach, which was kind enough to add on a tourism tax on our room bill. So much for escaping big government. For those of you planning a kosher cruise for Passover, the Queen Mary was the first ship designed with a kosher kitchen; it even had its own line of specially designed kosher dishes.

In addition to great food at Jewlicious 8.0, there was a parade of comic and musical performances Saturday night and Sunday. At the Sunday concert, I was privileged to finally hear a live performance by Seth Glass. I was familiar with Seth's work from a CD, "Question of Faith," I found at my father's house years ago. I listened to that CD to death, but unfortunately I never ran into anything else by Seth. When he started performing it all of a sudden struck me who he was and I surprised him by asking for "The King is in the Field," my favorite song from the CD. He is an extremely talented musician who never got the attention and fans he deserves. (Perhaps not unlike a certain blogger, but I digress.)

Jewlicious is a non-denominational Jewish organization for young professionals in Los Angeles under the leadership of Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. In many respects, it represents where left-wing Orthodoxy and traditionalist Judaism, which make up the majority of Jewlicious' audience, may be heading. Jewlicious is nominally under Orthodox auspices, is strictly kosher and focuses on the study of texts as a vehicle for increased observance. Thus it could easily be tagged as an Orthodox outreach program. That being said, the primary ideology preached at Jewlicious seems to be one of Judaism as expressed through activism, mainly of a left-wing variety. For example, Rabbi Yonah spoke about his experiences with Occupy LA. (Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to this presentation as it conflicted with my talk about messianism.) There was also a panel of Jewish activists whose fields ranged from using Talmudic style dialectics to confront contemporary issues to saving the redwood trees and helping the homeless. There were a number of things conspicuously absent that would have certainly been present if this program were being run by traditional Orthodox outreach programs like Chabad or Aish. While Israel and Zionism were represented as an integral part of Jewish culture, there was little about Israeli politics and the Palestinian conflict. There was no Jewish theology in the sense of Maimonides' principles of faith that one must believe in. Also, there was no sense of halacha as something mandated by God. Instead, discussions of Jewish law were framed as something people choose to do as a means of leading a more meaningful and spiritual life.

This particular brand of Judaism (call it neo-traditionalism or "modern frumkeit" if you like) was exemplified in the event's guest of honor, Mayim Bialik. For those of you not familiar with her, Mayim Bialik plays Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, probably the most consistently modestly dressed character in the history of modern television. Before I say anything else, let me add that I found Mayim to be an exceptionally down to Earth and friendly person as well as a terrific speaker. What struck me about hearing her speak is that she came across as a very "frum" person with her discussion of her commitment to tzniut dress and learning. Forget about Modern Orthodoxy, Mayim, if she wanted to, could easily fit in with a Haredi community. Yet she referred to herself as "observantish," acknowledging that not everything in her life fits with Orthodoxy as traditionally defined. Her theology, to the extent that she spoke of it between her two public presentations, seems to rest on a strong belief in God as a creator and moral guide and a commitment to Jewish law as an ongoing process in which one strives to increase observance but is not an all or nothing deal.

I found it particularly interesting that Mayim made use of the categories of observant and non-observant while seeming to acknowledge how poorly they applied to her. These categories were the creation of Orthodoxy to take Reform and Conservative Judaism out of the picture. Instead of different denominations, there are observant Jews who keep halacha and there are those non-observant Jews ensnared by assimilation, who need to be brought back into the fold through shabbos dinners and outreach programs. Of course, these categories could also be used to take the "dox" out of Orthodoxy and since no one is perfect even the most Orthodox is really only "observantish."

The Orthodoxy in which I was raised would not have known what to do with Mayim. For that matter, I am not sure how well Orthodoxy is prepared for even the Orthodox members of Jewlicious. They seem comfortable in operating as Jews in a non-Orthodox environment, thus breaking down the lines between observant and non-observant and even Orthodox and Conservative. Such a Judaism, while formally halachic, effectively eliminates any need for an Orthodox community. On a practical level, these people do not live in a world of separated sexes so traditional taboos against touching a member of the opposite sex or for men to listen to women singing are non-existent. There is also little ingrained opposition to homosexuality.

People in their 20s, particularly in this generation, are naturally in flux and in search of identity. However these participants evolve, it would seem that traditional Orthodoxy loses. Our Orthodox members of Jewlicious could follow the path toward non-observance, which according to the Orthodox narrative is the inevitable result of stepping outside the Orthodox social structure or they could evolve their own variation of traditional observance, which would be markedly different than common Orthodoxy and may even present a greater challenge to it. Due to its narrative, Orthodoxy is not equipped to respond to educated and committed Jews, who fall outside the Orthodox system.
Arguably this model of neo-traditionalism I am outlining, with its non-interest in theology and commitment to a Jewish community that includes a range of observance levels, is more in tune with Judaism as it has historically existed than Orthodoxy. That could prove a powerful rhetorical weapon in the battle to define Orthodoxy in the next generation. Can Orthodoxy step in and provide a Judaism to accommodate members of the Jewlicious community? By this, I mean even those who identify as Orthodox. The choice may be between taking the initiative for making changes now while it still might be possible to maintain some say or sit back, pat oneself on the back for holding the line against change and surrendering all say in the Judaism that comes out of events like Jewlicious.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Body Language

For the benefit of the neurotypicals in our lives, Miriam and I made videos of our typical body language in which the other narrated.

Miriam is full of love for everyone and will put a knife through me if I do not eat my vegetables.

How can I be bothered to worry about my physical health when I have such spiritual dilemmas to contend with such as how kitty stew and Sabbatai Sevi might save my soul and give me an excuse to procrastinate from finishing my dissertation?


Bringing Abraham Heschel to Israel

Haaretz has an article on Dror Bondi, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on Rabbi Abraham Heschel, on the challenges of applying Heschel's philosophy to the Israeli scene with its rigid lines of Haredi vs. secular and the challenges of the peace process:

Why is Heschel so unknown in Israel?
Bondi: "He's not known in Israel because here another God rules. A God we all believe in and deny. He has black clothing, a long white beard, he holds a book with small print, waves an Israeli flag up high. When Heschel speaks in the name of God, the secular person says, 'That's not for me, that's for the religious folks.' And the religious say, 'That's not my God.' In Israeli society, we're trying to solve our problems by means of the status quo. The religious have God, the secular have reality. Heschel upsets all that. He's not proposing religious liberalism or something milder than that. He wants to bring back God. The God who has died."


And how are you accepted in religious society?
"It's easier for secular people to hear than it is for religious people. Often when I meet religious people, I get the feeling that they find Heschel threatening. There's an initial apprehension. I hope it will get through to them, though, because Heschel expresses what we've managed to forget. I have hope that Heschel will free them from so-called 'religious society.'"

Bondi says he has trouble with the Israeli definition of the word 'religious.' "In English, when you say 'religious' you mean someone who has a connection with God in some way. In Israel a 'religious' person is someone who belongs to a sector that observes halakha. We've crowned halakha as the new god. This was a posttraumatic Haredi reaction, after the Enlightenment, after the Holocaust - come, let's focus on halakha. But it's not Jewish."

The BZ and Miriam Wedding Skit

Aspergers are often accused of suffering from "mind blindness" and lacking a "theory of mind," a notion that other people think differently. I see this as a more general problem with the human mind. Aspergers, having the misfortune of being born with minds that are more different than most, simply are likely to reach a crisis moment in their mind blindness far sooner than most. It is possible for the neurotypical mind to spend a lifetime with neurotypicals of similar economic and social class and of the same creed and never realize that in fact other people are different. It is easy to intellectually say the words "everyone is different," but to, at a subconscious level, believe it requires work. A simple test to see if you suffer from mind blindness is to ask yourself if you believe that you are capable of forming empathetic links with others. If you do so despite the fact that human beings lack the means of engaging in telepathic communication then you need help not just for mind blindness, but for a general lack of consistent rationalist thinking. If you recognize that your sense of other people's feelings is merely your fantasy of what other people might be feeling, albeit a socially useful fantasy, then you can congratulate yourself for your hard won rationalism in the face of societal superstition. (See Neurotypical Menetal and Emotional Handicaps.)

I believe that everyone, Aspergers and neurotypicals, needs to work on their theory of mind skills. In addition to having logical and scientific reasoning integrated into one's daily life, another helpful method I have found is theater. In this I must admit a debt of gratitude to Dr. Anthony Beukas of the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society, from whom I learned this. There is something to be said about spending weeks and months in someone else's mind. You walk into the theater, from the moment you are first handed a script to the final curtain, you are someone else. Being a good actor does not just mean memorizing lines and blocking. The character needs to be a "real" person to you with a complete history full of thoughts, desires and motives that go beyond the script and inform every line spoken and every glance. To do this properly requires one to recognize and accept that the character being played is fundamentally different from oneself. One needs to take a step back and allow oneself to fade into the background to allow the character to come into existence as a true person.

Despite the fact that Miriam and I both are Aspergers, we are both different people with different interests and ways of reacting to the world. What being Aspergers gives us is a sense of being different from others and a recognition of a common set of developed survival mechanisms. For example Miriam is much more socially outgoing than I am,  much better at starting conversations and making friends. Meeting Miriam forces you to discard the stereotypes of Aspergers as cold and anti-social; she is anything but that. While our outward methods of social interaction are different, we both consciously work from a mental checklist of lines to deliver to people. In a way social interaction for us is just another type of theater in which you play a part. Above all else what we have in common is that we both learned a long time ago that the only way we were going to survive navigating through society is if we verbally explained our thoughts to others, instead of just imagining they would intuitively understand us, and had others verbally explain their thought to us, instead of imagining we could intuitively understand them. Miriam and I have a good relationship and understand each other fairly well not because we are so much alike, but because we are good at talking to each other, particularly about our differences.

Drawing from my theater experience, little game that I invented for us, as a means of thinking about our relationship and explaining how we relate to each other to others, is the BZ and Miriam skit. I play her and she plays me. She tends to play BZ as dour with a penchant for monologuing. I tend to play Miriam as jumpy and ecstatic with a touch more common sense than BZ. When we first gave a public performance of a BZ and Miriam skit at the kiddish her parents sponsored in our honor, BZ ended up lecturing the audience on the differences between ritual murder and blood libel charges with Miriam asking him if this made him happy and if he could please do the dishes while he talked.

Here is the BZ and Miriam skit from our wedding on October 30, 2011. For some reason I failed to notice that the wedding was scheduled at the same time as the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing the New England Patriots. Even more mysterious is the fact that the sizable contingent of Steeler fans in my family came to the wedding and missed what was probably the highlight of the Steeler season. (Congratulation to New York Giant fans on beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl.)