Sunday, June 28, 2009

Film Reviews: Wounded Knee and Holiday

I recently saw the HBO film version of the last two chapters of the book "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" about the genocide of the Native American Tribes (specifically the Sioux/Lakota) by the Western Europeans who settled this land for the sake of spreading the American Empire. I feel it is just one of many films that are good examples of what the reality of American history was actually like, as opposed to how it's glorified by some in this country.

I found one aspect of the film somewhat apropos to something I was discussing with someone recently. I was asked about my dislike for Oriental and North African Jews who chose for themselves the religious path of the European Jews, specifically perhaps those who become attracted to Chasidut Chabad: In the film the main character is a Sioux youth who's father is depicted as becoming "overly westernized" in the opinion of his tribesmen. He comes into "town" with not only a horse but a carriage, wearing a suit and hat, as well as having short hair. He reprimands his son for fighting with his people, and ends up walking into the distance jovially singing some Christian hymn in English. It's evident that the Indians are looking at him and thinking "By G-d, what has the White Man done to him?!" That is the image I've always had of the Sefaradi who has become estranged from the form of religious practice of his fathers, and has chosen the exact opposite in it's place, the eastern European form. It is not healthy, I feel, for anyone to be so separated from their roots, whether Sioux, Sefaradi, Muslim, or anyone else to whom different forms of "Europeanism" are alien. It is also not healthy for the preservation of the "Oriental Tradition" in Judaism to have such defectors. I think it would be worthwhile to imagine a scenario where there are few Ashkenazic Jews left in the world, and even among those the majority becomes interested in following the Sefardi traditions. I'm sure there would be a few from among them who feel strongly about having with whom to preserve the "European Tradition" of Judaism.

A film which I saw tonight (what? It's the summer. Give me a break!) is Holiday from 1938. It tells of a fun-loving bloke who wishes to retire at the ripe old age of 30, who wants to marry the daughter of a wealthy and very business-minded New York banker, who thinks like her father does. It takes a while for the man to realize that his love for the girl is only skin-deep, but that she shares none of his fun-loving values. He ends up hooking-up with her sister who shares his sentiments about a 30 year old retirement. To me the premise of the film brings up some important issues in relationships, like what to do when you realize it was really the persons sibling you should have married! But to me, the most notable aspect was the fact that he was able to overlook how much like her father she really was. That happens to me many times: I like the girl but don't see eye-to-eye with the ideas of the father. Yet the daughter seems different, "she thinks as I do". After a short while I usually come to the conclusion that the daughter is just the father in the body of a young girl, and it was just me who was projecting everything I find admirable about a person onto her. So...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Originality of Chasidut

This is actually the first time, comrades, that I call upon my Chabad or otherwise Chasidic readers (if, in fact, there are any (can't be too sure you know)) to explain to me the meaning of Chasidut (according to it's early literature) as they see it.

I ask because, as I was awaking today, I found the subject strangely caught in my mind. It's not a new question to me though, and I have the same question in regards to the mussar movement. Both seemed not to be creating anything new. There was mussar before Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, and there was Kabalah and simcha and whatever else before Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. I've always wondered what novel ideas the early Chasidic works (such as the Toldot Yaakov Yosef, the Likutei Moharan, the Likutei Amarim, the Noam Elimelech for example) had in common. I obviously have some ideas, but I still feel my comprehension is lacking when I see people who are passionate about it, and don't understand them. ..the truth is I don't understand the passion of the "Na-Nach" people either, but I don't feel that's due to a lack in my comprehension..

I know it would obviously be better for me to do a little research myself, but it is written "מפי סופרים ולא מפי ספרים", and here on the blogs we have כמה וכמה תלמידי חכמים בתורת הנגלה ובתורת הנסתר, צורבי מרבנן דלא פסקי פומייהו מאורייתא, so why not ask..

Saturday, June 20, 2009

גדולים עצים וציצית

It is not generally my custom here to comment on the weekly readings of the bible, but this weeks portion (Numbers 13-15) records too important a segment of the Pentateuchal saga to overlook. I wish only to make a few general observations (which are not very different from the observations I've made on this weeks portion in previous years):

1) The Sin of the Scouts: Notice that it was the leaders of each tribe that brought back negative reports regarding the land G-d had promised to our forefathers. It is likely to assume that many of the Israelites looked up to the leaders of their tribes as much as they did to Moses, or even more so (since they even considered stoning Moses and returning to Egypt), which is why the Israelites believed the reports of these elders. Displayed, therefore, is an early example of "Gedolim" being quite mistaken in their opinions regarding the holy land. Surely us, as they, should not heed misguided individuals such as these, notwithstanding their social/religious prominence.

2) The Gatherer of Wood: Putting Midrashic interpretations and the like aside, which usually tend to see the gatherer in a light of malicious intent, I prefer to consider this individual in the worst case scenario: It was Shabbat afternoon and he was already aware that a very cold desert night was on it's way, yet he had no wood with which to warm his families tent. He chose to be "responsible" and find wood over the new religious considerations that were then being dictated to the people. The next day he was, by Divine command, stoned to death for this action, even though his heart was relatively pure, and his only will was to save his loved ones from discomfort. To me, one of the lessons of this event is that a full dedication is required for G-d's commands, even in the face great discomfort and a lack of a full understanding of the command. The proper course, for example, for this man to have taken would obviously be to refrain from collecting the wood, even though he and his family would have no protection from the desert cold that night, as well as a lack of cooking fuel, and even though the Divine commands had not yet fully taken hold in the minds of the Israelites.

3) Fringes: Any act to which a Divine command has been attached becomes sanctified with the holiness of G-d. What is important is not the physical content of the action, but the symbolism that G-d sees in it. Even something as insignificant as adding fringes on ones garment can be a reminder of "all the commandments of G-d" (15:39), and a deterrent from sin, if only we view it through "G-d's eyes".

Hm. None of this seems to make any sense. made sense in my mind. I don't know where I went wrong..

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Me and Charles

I have recently engaged myself, friends, in the reading of "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. I am starting to have somewhat of a history in regards to my relationship with Dickens books actually, since I was introduced to Dickens almost a year ago through "A Tale of Two Cities'. At the time I found it to very difficult to trudge through. Then earlier this year, as I've recorded here, I went through "Oliver Twist" and found it delightful. Since then my admiration has done nothing but grown for the writing style of Dickens, and I decided to pursue another of his works. I decided on Great Expectations since I had seen the modernized film version of it when I was the age of thirteen yet, so I was already aware of the story. So far I'm finding it to be amusing and enjoyable, even more so than Oliver Twist. I'm quite fond of his dry humor and irony, it's the type of humor I feel most at home with, I guess.

What I enjoy most about it though is that every chapter is usually full of philosophical investigations and thought-provoking insights into the nature of Man. For example in the eighth chapter of the aforementioned work he writes about how Estella showed contempt for Pip, especially for his coarse hands and boots, and how Pip came to consider them for the first time as a result. It is very similar to my own experiences. There was a time not long ago when I had literally no opinion of my own physical composition, yet in recent years I've formed opinions about almost all my proportions: my chin, my nose, my lips, my cheeks, my eyes, my forehead, my hair, my ears! Just to name a few. These considerations came only after having been exposed to many of a fairer physique, that I've come to realize the "inadequacies" of my own. Only through exposure to an alien environment does one come to question himself. This can be used in a positive way in regards to culture, religion and ideas. Only through, for the most part, actual geographical relocation can one put themselves in the position to question themselves. other news(!), I attended my second "Dustin gig" tonight, yet unlike last time I was able to socialize with him and his group and followers afterwards (I felt a bit awkard being bareheaded around my friends, but I would have felt even more uncomfortable making too Judaic a presence in such a place). I even helped by giving out cards (something which felt shamefully like soliciting to me, nonetheless). Afterwards, I used the experience somewhat as a stepping-board in my mind for me to start to gage my pattern of social interactions and interests. Why is it that out of the two thousand people at Touro I'm the only one to attend these performances? How do I decide to pick my friends and social acquaintances? Still very blurry to me, but it's clear that my method has been to choose very specific people and hook onto them like an eel. It must be considered further for me to come to any psychological/sociological conclusions about myself...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tzniut: Revisited for the Eight Billionth Time

You know, friends, I feel there was something I would have liked to have spoke about last week, but totally forgot about: tzniut. I know I've spoken about this topic over here until the point that "my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth" but, as with most matters in life, new events call for new perspectives.

There has recently been some talk about a new book on tzniut that has appeared on the book shelves. I browsed through the book I thought was the one spoken about (although it happened to have been a different book they were discussing) to get an idea about what had caused the hubbub. I didn't see anything particularly objectionable about the book, but it did seem to reinforce an opinion that I had heard about not long before, regarding how much of the area below the neck it is proper for a girl to have revealed. The opinion I had recently heard was that if a girl is wearing a button-down shirt/blouse, it is better to have the top button closed. My opinion on the matter before this had simply been that it is a queer way to carry oneself about, and that the matter had been sufficiently discussed on Seinfeld. The book contended though, that since, unlike the limbs of a woman, a higher level of stringency is placed on the torso (and directly under the neck is part of the torso) it must be covered.

I had once seen in a similar book an opinion that said that since "The Song of Solomon" considers the neck of a woman a beautiful thing, it can be inferred that it should be covered. It therefore suggested girls wear high collars to cover their necks. What I have always found disturbing about this area of "Ashkenazi halacha" is that it's entirely hypocritical. For example if they were so very concerned about the covering of the neck, what more thorough way to accomplish that than a neck-covering H'ijab? And as I've stated numerous times here, their whole approach to the subject is antithetical: According to their rulings it is permitted for a woman to to don a skirt that covers only the top part of her legs (and knees) as long as the lower half is covered by stockings. Yet it's well known that stockings themselves on a woman are considered a thing of attraction, and even getting a glimpse of the stockings on the lower leg of a woman was considered semi-erotic in the past. According to those standards, women such as the wife of the last "Rebbe" of Lubavitch was very sorely lacking in her fulfilment of Jewish laws of modesty. I mean, who said I want to see an old woman's lower legs?

I know this too is something I've ranted on in the past, but there is a well known custom among the Hasidic Jews of south-eastern Europe to not only cover their hair with a wig, but to have a kerchief at least partly covering the hair. Many women who follow that custom today seem as if all they have covering their hair is a kerchief that seems to be covering only a small portion of the hair. How does it help to have Jewish women look like Gypsies? I don't see the touch of modesty in such an outlandish fashion.

But it is well known that this is but the smallest example of the confusion prevalent among the Jews of Eastern Europe. It has always been clear to me that those on the other side of their religious spectrum were more correct, such as the Settler-girls (in Judea and Samaria) who wear pants beneath their skirts. Surely that is the most modest way of going about things.

But what of those on the extreme left? It is their argument that what is considered "modest" changes tremendously with the prevailing fashions. While I do agree wholeheartedly with that opinion, can it be said that if the people of the world all become nudist it would be correct for us to follow suit, since now those parts of the body do not inspire erotic thought? I do not feel so. There must be a middle ground. As far as the current situation of Western dress, I have always felt that it is perfectly possible to be modest while wearing jeans and a tee shirt. While perhaps not entirely ideal, as long as the important parts of the upper arms and legs are not visible, there wouldn't be much of a problem aside for the fact that the shape of the legs is evident. But then again, that is just another example of the hypocrisy of the Ashkenazi tzniut idea. They bring for an example the fact that the 'hip area' (no, not Tribeca!) should not give off it's shape through the clothing, which is one of the reasons they strongly encourage wearing skirts. Yet that logic would necessitate women to wear free-flowing tops cover the lower-back. Instead they wear skirts in which the shape of the hip area is evident, and have no free-flowing torso-garment covering it. I feel that that is perhaps one of the greatest breaches of the concept of modesty in dress. I mean, here are women criticizing the Muslim girls for wearing pants, when they themselves have the shape of their hip area evident. At least the Muslim girls generally have a 'top' that camouflages the shape of that area.

I know this sounds petty, and is a bit representative of the fact that I'm looking at girls to much, but I do still feel it's important to bring up, and that it's clear that the current Ultra-Orthodox understanding of tzniut is just silly.
[This post, by the way, is merely recording a few minutes of thought I had last week, while standing in the vicinity of religious Jews.]

Monday, June 15, 2009

Two Book Reviews

(Well, just got finished with two more finals, ...the preparations for which were the reason I still didn't rewrite my TV post.) I read two books this past Shabbat. One was "Five Things I Can't Live Without" by Holly Shumas, and the other was "Mein Kampf" by Adolf Hitler. ...I KNOW! (Craig Ferguson reference).

In regards to the first book: It's a pretty 'fluffy' book, the kind which I wouldn't generally read, but once in while it's nice to read 'lighter' stuff.The book is about how a woman's "meta-life" (don't ask me!) threatens to ruin her relationship. She quits a job writing animal profiles in an animal shelter to write online dating profiles for people. She ends up doing a profile for a guy that she likes, which creates friction with her current relationship...but they work it out. I kind of like reading books like these because they have sort of a "realist" quality to them, in the sense that they convey the actual feelings that people outside of yourself have about the world around them, and the people around them. One thing I picked up while reading it was that, while not criticizing herself, it was evident that the character did things that might give others a feeling of being slighted, which is something she always overlooked. In the meantime, she portrayed her boyfriend as being not fully in tune with her needs and what she was thinking, and becomes overly self-conscious when he says things to her that the average person would consider benign. I guess that's at least somewhat representative of how most people see the world..
On a religious level, I think it may be important to become involved in the study of relationships. The Torah is not explicit down to the last letter in regards to "what to do in a relationship", and just as the Torah would have you go to an expert in medicine to make your body healthy, and to go to an expert in architecture to make for you a building in which to worship, it would also have you read "relationship books" to discover the best means with which to get along with a spouse. No?

In regards to Hitler: Well, there's obviously a lot to be said about he was quite the interesting character. It's interesting to read about what an unassuming background he emerged from (especially if your only other book is "Five Things I Can't Live Without" by Holly Shumas). I obviously didn't read the whole book in one day, but there is one passage which I did read which stood out to me, and which I wish to mention here. Which is that Hitler actually started off as being the opposite of an antisemite. He stood up for the Jews who were being bullied by Christians. Yet little by little his opinions started to change. One of the tipping points for Hitler were the conversations he had about politics with his Jewish (Communist) friends. He was a great hater of Marxism and of the German Social Democratic Party in general (which he suspected was run by Jews. ..not different than it is in America). During his conversations with them (trying to convert them into German nationalists I guess) he came to realize that they had very sly methods of arguing their point, in which they were always right. Their constant snake-like argumentative tactics against the nationalist party infuriated him, and that is one of the first times he came to hate Jews.

The first thing I learn from that is: he seemed to actually be much more friendly towards Jews than his policies would suggest. But the lesson of this to me is that you never know when someone is judging your entire race or religion based on their interactions with you. It is always, therefore, better to be on the safe side and be as accommodating as possible, since there was a group of Jews in the past who, through having a conversation with an unassuming individual, sealed the fate of their people.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָ"ה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם"

This is a post I've been meaning to write for at least a week now, but was prevented due to difficult examinations in the place of my tutelage. If it's not apparent from the title (or the picture!) I would like to speak about the place that film, or "drama" has in the Judaic perspective (i.e. not necessarily only the "halachic" perspective).

As the summer months come upon us, and there's less studying being done and more movie watching, I came to realize that I've found that my opinions about movies have somewhat dicipated. I'm not as thoughtful and strict about what and why I watch recentely, which I think is a very bad sign. Perhaps if I reiterate some ideas I'll be able to restabalize myself.

First of all I would like to begin by discussing film: Films are obviously just a recorded version of the same content as theatre performances (though there are obvious differences). So the question is really about the performances themselves, about "drama". Yet this drama itself is only actors acting out the content of a story. So it is the story itself which is the question then. Surely it can't be said that one cannot hear or read a story. The Torah, Tanach and Midrash themselves are full of tales and "myths", the actuality or historicity of which seems unimportant (thus transferring them from the realm of "hi-story" to the realm of "story"). There is not a clear answer to the question of what kind of story should or should not be listened to or read, yet it can definitely be said that a story with a clear moral is far better than a tale of lovers and of romance, a subject which can turn the stories subject matter from "PG" to "R".

Jews in the past would generally not have to consider such topics, but with the advent of the cinema and the home television the question is thus thrust upon the average observant Jew who would never even consider attending the theatre. And our sages (זכרונם לברכה) have said "אינה דומה שמיעה לראיה", and hearing or reading an "adult scene" is far from the same as seeing it. We are aware of how much our sages and G-d Himself have tried to distance us from licentiousness and promiscuity, even to the extent of restricting us from seeing members of the opposite sex in compromising situations, or wearing immodest clothing, etc. Therefore there is nary a film that meets the Judaic guidelines of content 100%, but I would definitely not be the one to say that this should restrict people from watching any and all films. They are not pornographic films, and even scenes of sexuality are used in context and are (to some extent) not shown. It is therefore not difficult to overlook those scenes in the face of a greater context (this is so obvious it doesn't require verbalization). Therefore if one does watch, they should at least be on guard against the evils of Western Man that are, at times, quite apparent in his films. One should not only be on guard against him when viewing his dramatic productions though, but in all areas of life as well.

There is also the issue of actually entering a cinema. Who attends a cinema if not the lower elements? What place is there for a man of religion to enter a cinema? These are the kinds of thoughts the general population have when they see someone who is obviously a religious Jew entering into a cinema. It is better, therefore, to be sensitive to this possibility of the current applications of "Chilul Hashem", but from a halachic perspective this topic is not very simple.

This is far from the whole story though, there is also the issue of television: From it's earliest days the content of television has been of far inferior quality to film productions. What is one to do in the face of television (television programs availible online are obviously also included; it's a genre)? This is obviously too complicated a topic to discuss here at any length. All I can do is mention some principles. First of all, people "our" age are usually not very interested in television since our own lives are actually interesting. But if one does want to watch, at least they should have some sort of purpose in watching a particular program, and not let a days programming pass them by in a state of vegetation. Also: there have been studies mentioned in length in the book "To Kindle a Soul" that state that screen viewing is mentally unhealthy not only for children but for adults as well. According to them if one wishes to view a dramatic performance, it is far better to do it in a theatre than from a screen, or better yet, from a book. Extensive screen-viewing is just another of the unhealthy products of the 20th century, and if one wishes to keep their mind sharp, they would do well to minimize in it.

This post came out disappointingly...there is no beginning and no end. ...well, the more I write the more I learn I guess... ...I think I should rewrite it..

(The title, by the way, is using a play on words from "מסכה" (mask) to "מסך" (screen). This type of play on words was used by the Palestinian Kabalists, and was made famous by the linguistic usages of the "Chida").

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

שחרחורת: Revisited!

I hate to keep writing about nonsense, but just to get the previous post out of my sight(!), I wanted to mention that it's funny, I don't think any of my readers who remember the discussion of the "שחרחורת" song are still reading. ...anyway, I just saw a new video on YouTube of this Avivit Caspi singing it, in HD! (she's got a good voice, ..but she's also making some pretty unusual movements over there.. ...she's the one who sang Hatikva at Wimbledon last year by the way)...

Lamma Bada- Moroccan Maqam.

Lamma Bada- Mid-East Maqam.

Sanakhudu lyrics!

Short film about Jewish-Moroccan music!! (Top left: Jewish Communities. Page 5: Music of the Jews from North Africa).

Ah, what the hell; I just saw this on YouTube, it's Emil Zrihan singing Ahalel Pi and Ya'ala Y'ala (written by Rabbi Yisrael Nagara, שעליו העיד האר"י שמלאכי השרת באים לשמוע שירותיו) with the Andalusian Orchestra.'s far from the best, but it's ok..

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Upon Exiting the Restroom it not to humble Man, that he should forever carry upon himself the pollution of excrement, whether outside his body or inside? There is no time when Man is without it, for only without food can there be no excretion, and without food there is death. Man, therefore, is bound to it forever..