On meeting Susan Sontag

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of artists, intellectuals, musicians, and politicians — partly due to writing circles and in part by being introduced socially. For some reason, I’ve never written about these meetings. Why not? No idea. Not into namedropping solely for the sake of namedropping, maybe. Kind of a waste of good material, though, yes? Anyway, today, I began thinking about my meeting with Susan Sontag at a literary convention, and I thought I’d post.

I attended Blue Metropolis in 2002, and stood in line waiting to say hello to Susan Sontag during her book signing. I had many of her books at home, but had forgotten to bring one (duh), so I bought a new copy of Against Interpretation and Other Essays, which she autographed. I also thanked her for her earlier lecture on the importance of medical advocacy, which had helped me advocate for my own medical care.

She mentioned that she had cancer that was in remission, allowing her to be in attendance, and I told her that I was grateful for that. I tried to leave to let others get their books signed, but she wanted to continue the chat for a few more minutes, which we did. I wish I remembered more about the details. (See? It’s important to write these things down right away.) She was not only a delight to talk to, but in those few minutes, I got the sense that had she not been really busy, and soon to head back to New York, we might have grabbed a coffee and continued the conversation.

Sadly, two years later, I read that Sontag had passed away. She was not only brilliant, but passionate and outspoken in her views, and seemingly unafraid of those who disagreed with her, or of traditions that needed to be challenged in order to be improved upon. I didn’t agree with everything she wrote, but I’ve been inspired by her intellectual process. She was a thinker with heart — and goodness knows the world needs more of those.

Quiet Shabbat, lovely Sunday

I wasn’t able to attend a weekend retreat I’d been hoping to be part of, which was a disappointment, but that’s the way things go sometimes. Instead, we spent most of Saturday lounging and reading (my shorthand for the sheer decadence of relaxation), which was great, and much-needed. And today was really pleasant. I spent much of the afternoon with a friend and her four month old baby, and then met up with DH and DD at my mother-in-law’s house.

Supper, was, however, unpalatable. Disgusting, in fact. I picked it up at a restaurant that will remain nameless, and oh, what a waste of ingredients it was. If I’m not allergic to something, I’m usually quite happy to eat it; however, this was not only forgettable, but utterly repressible. I have a feeling that I’ll have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Supper Disorder) for some time to come. To quote Alfred E. Neumann, “Yecch!”

In other news, I have some business leads, which is a decidedly good thing.

On Conservative (and liberal!) Judaism, Niddah, and Mikvah

Here’s a surprise for those who assume that Conservative Judaism threw out niddah rituals with the mikvah waters. It remains obligatory. Do most Conservative Jewish women go to the mikvah every month? By all accounts I’ve read, no.

But Conservative Judaism is a halakhic movement, and as with many issues related to Jewish law, its rabbis have debated the issue and prepared responsa. A few of the core issues that have been debated include:

1. What kind of blood calls for the additional counting of days before immersing in the mikvah?

2. How many blood-free days must be counted before immersion?

It’s a busy writing day, so I only have time to summarize and provide the major references. They are, however, compelling.

Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz (Reshaping the Laws of Family Purity for the Modern World, Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbinical Assembly, December 6, 2006) argues for the retention of the counting of seven blood-free days (shiva nekiim) before immersion in the mikvah, even as she offers other leniencies relating to childbirth, as well as the reduction of the minimum number of days designated for menstruation from five to four.

Although they disagree on certain principles, Rabbi Susan Grossman (Mikveh and the Sanctity of Being Created Human. Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbinical Assembly, December 6, 2006) and Rabbi Avram Reisner (Observing Niddah in Our Day: An Inquiry on the Status of Purity and the Prohibition of Sexual Activity With A Menstruant, Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbinical Assembly, December 6, 2006) both agree that only seven days of counting from the beginning of menstruation are necessary before immersion. This is based on Mishnaic precedent, which is, in turn, based on the biblical requirement.

An overview of their positions may be found here.

And here’s something else that may also be a surprise: The mikvah is also used within liberal movements. Here is some information about Mayim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikvah in Newton, MA. Describing those who immerse there, the site reads: “At Mayyim Hayyim, members of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Renewal congregations, as well as unaffiliated Jews, are experimenting with monthly immersion.”

Shabbat redux

Okay, that was fine. What a perfectly lovely Shabbat, complete with a walk to the park. We spent most of it lounging and reading — I read a few halakhic responsa today. Two of them were on the Conservative movement’s interpretations of the laws of niddah and mikvah. But I haven’t fully processed them yet, so I’ll let that discussion go until, perhaps, another time.

Shabbat refined

One of the challenges of finding likeminded community is that the Conservative movement is home to many nominal, non-practicing Jews. That is to say, they may attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and that’s pretty much it. That is, of course, a caricature of reality, but it’s not too far off.

A minority of Conservative Jews, however, are observant, or at least, try to be. We keep a kosher kitchen, light the Shabbat and Yom Tov candles, attend synagogue occasionally, and I pray at home. Because I’m in the Jewish studies field, I study Torah, Talmud, and halakha, as well as the Midrash Rabbah, en passant. Although it’s done for academic/career purposes, I still derive spiritual benefit from it.

In terms of dress, I wear slacks, though not tight ones, and only ones that are designed for women (hence, getting around the whole beged ish matter). The fact that I only wore long skirts until about five years ago is another story entirely. I cover my hair at shul and when saying berakhot. Both of these are in keeping with the practices of many modern Orthodox women I know. I’m not M.O., but nevertheless, it’s a standard.

However, full halakhic Shabbat and Yom Tov observance has still been an issue with which I and DH have wrestled for some time now. Mostly, we want to be consistent, and while we’re in harmony with the Conservative movement’s ruling that the use of electricity is permissible, we have gone back and forth on the limits of, and prohibition of, Shabbat driving. The Conservative movement has ruled that driving to and from shul is acceptable *if* one is not within reasonable walking distance of one’s synagogue, but the truth is that it’s very easy to make a quick stop at the grocery store afterward, or even instead of. It’s a slippery slope, and there’s a point at which it makes no sense (and is untrue) to say that we don’t drive on Shabbat (except to shul). “Only to our families’ places” or “Only to our friends’ places”, and then. . . “Only one or two thing at the supermarket.” There’s the slippery slope.

So we’re trying our hand at sticking to the true letter of Conservative halakha — that is, driving only to or from shul on Shabbat and Yom Tov, with no stops, and carrying no money. It’s only right to be consistent, right? I can’t pretend that it’s not a challenge. I hope we’re up to it.

Shabbat shalom!

Overheard early this morning. . .

Around 7:30 am, in the middle of breakfast, DD looks at me and announces “Mummy, I think I can ride a unicorn!”

Having recently had her first pony ride, I think she’s already raring for even more excitement. She’s been very much into Pegasus of late — she points to the constellation in books, and is very enthusiastic whenever she sees pictures of winged horses. And now, unicorns.

I love the fact that she’s into fantasy tropes. 🙂

Cornell researcher finds evidence for Psi

In a soon to be published journal article, social psychologist Daryl Bem presents the results of research that supports the existence of psi phenomena — in this case, ESP. Here is some recent coverage in the Huffington Post.

I’m of the view that psi isn’t ‘supernatural’ at all, and find this research compelling. Even Dr. David Suzuki had his own precognitive experience — one that was very specific and that he can’t explain. (He describes it in a show on intuition.)

What do you think?

On Jewish feminism — the third-wave variety

I’ve been reading ‘Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism‘.  Never before has a book on feminism spoken to me in quite this way. Here are some thoughts inspired by the content.

When you’re nestled at the intersection of several different communities, none of which quite match your spiritual beliefs and practices, members of each naturally try to define you. It’s an aspect of human nature that is difficult to resist. I judge, you judge; we all judge. And yet, in order to live together in peace, it’s important not to let this tendency become negative labeling.

I live in a fairly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and I’m truly blessed with lovely neighbors/friends. I don’t believe in pigeonholing people. I believe in ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) and ahavat olam (love of the world/love eternal) whatever the beliefs of the people in my life. A religion that doesn’t believe in loving one’s neighbor is one I’d never be a part of. So I hope it goes without saying that if someone feels antagonized by what I write here, as opposed to being better informed about my take on things, I haven’t done my job.

I used to be frum as well. Nowadays, I wear tallit and tefillin, and of course, a kippah, when I pray. I am a feminist, which is pretty typical among my friends and colleagues. In fact, it’s taken for granted. I’m pretty average and unremarkable as far as third-wave feminists go, with a belief in full equality between women and men. I married a man who also considers himself to be a feminist, and who helped put forward the case for full egalitarianism at his Conservative synagogue years back.

However, I have little doubt that for some, I’m seen as a radical feminist who doesn’t conform to accepted halakhic standards. In certain Orthodox contexts, some believe that it is better for someone to be a secular Jew than to be a practicing liberal Jew, because at least secular Jews are ignorant of Jewish law and there is some possibility of them becoming Orthodox once introduced to the right religious authority.

And that’s fine, because I really understand where they’re coming from. I can accept this, and continue to like and respect those who don’t believe/practice as I do, as long as they are polite to me. Mutual respect is what it’s all about. When I say that some of my closest friends are frum, I’m not being glib.

The views of what women are or are not allowed to do or wear, however, are fairly entrenched in the Orthodox world. And of course it is currently forbidden for a woman to wear tallit or tefillin. I say “currently” because there are halakhic permissions and historical precedents for women wearing these prayer garments based on a woman’s choice. (Tosafot, Rambam/Maimonides, Moses Isserles, who approved tallit, though not tefillin, Rabbenu Tam, and the Rashba, as well as permissions based on King Saul’s daughter Michal having worn tefillin, including the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 96a.)

As well, exemption does not imply prohibition of the performance of a mitzvah. Often, these ‘prohibitions’ are simply community standards that have evolved over time. In fact, there are other time-bound, positive mitzvot that women have been allowed to adopt, such as taking the lulav and etrog on Sukkot.

One common non-egalitarian response to women who choose egalitarian practice is the claim that they’re trying to be like men. Another common response is that women were designed to focus on the internal world and the home, and that tallit and tefillin are not their mitzvot to assume. Somehow, this entire complex of de facto communal ‘prohibition’ and exegetic appeal to the proper roles of women has ended up turning the adoption of beautiful mitzvot with historical precedents and rabbinic permissions in Judaism into a ‘disgrace’ to the community. This is because of a custom (not a law) known as kavod ha’tzibbur — that is, the importance of preserving the honour of the congregation.

But to me, as for nearly every one of the authors in ‘Yentl’s Revenge’, far from being a disgrace or a way of trying to emulate men, my connection with the Divine is enhanced by tallit and tefillin. It’s as simple as that. Feeling the tallit over me, and the tefillin straps binding me, my usual ‘in my own head’ tendencies are replaced with a reminder that I am connected to the Divine, and grounded in the Earth. I thank goodness that my communities and the rabbis I follow fully allow this practice, and that the principle of kavod ha’tzibbur does not apply to me. It goes without saying that I would not be so foolish as to wear tallit or tefillin in an Orthodox synagogue. My aim isn’t to challenge Orthodoxy, but simply to connect to Divinity in my own way.

Now, in the secular world, things are quite different. In that world, I’m seen as a religious Jew, because I keep a kosher kitchen, pray, and wear tallit and tefillin.

Which just goes to show how relative perception is, doesn’t it?

But the truth is — and this is what I particularly appreciated about the book — nowadays, spirituality need not be limited to one little package — Orthodox, secular, liberal, etc. It’s all very procrustean.

My own practice is syncretic — that is, I incorporate other beliefs and practices that work for me. And apparently, so do many other Jewish women out there. The third-wave feminist label is a bit silly,  but the truth is that if we as women don’t claim our authority and power by asserting the rights gained not too long ago, we will lose them. And fundamentalism is gaining a foothold again.

New blog, old blog?

Ever felt like making a change, even though it’s not necessary? Because I’ve left this one unattended, I briefly considered creating a new blog, but then thought better of it. I’ve been on FB quite a bit, and haven’t been blogging. Not a great combination, as it’s difficult to ‘capture’ one’s history on FB.

So I suppose the only thing for it is to get back on the virtual horse.

It’s been an eventful spring and summer. We’d originally hoped to buy a house, and got pre-approved, but the prices were not budging, and we weren’t willing to get into bidding wars. The truth is that we could have found a reasonably priced home off of the island, but we didn’t want to. DD’s daycare is local, our workplaces are local, and commuting would have been too challenging, especially in the winter. But it could have been done, and I did salivate just a bit over the well-priced four-bedroom homes just outside the city. You see, I want a garden. A real herb and vegetable garden. But lifestyle is also a major factor, and I envisioned waking up at 6 am or earlier in the winter just to be able to leave the house by 7 am. So after looking at a few houses, and almost buying one (we had a conditional offer, but the inspection revealed a number of defects), we put the house hunting aside for a bit.

This worked out fine, since our car has decided that it’s now a jalopy, and we need to buy a new one. And since the replacement of my fellowship funds with employment funds didn’t happen as smoothly as we’d anticipated, not buying a house at this particular point turned out to be a good thing indeed.

Back again, jiggity jig (also. . . dog poop!)

Hello from a sometime blogger. I’m mostly on Facebook nowadays, due to the ease of posting a microcomment and getting back to work. But hey, there’s a certain value in writing more than a line or two. I’ll just pop in here from time to time. Partly to keep up (voyeuristically) on reading other blogs I like.

Today’s phrase is “dog poop”. As in, the cleaning lady (whom we can afford only once every few weeks) being nearly an hour late and not calling. When I call her, she claims that she stepped in dog poop and wasn’t coming. Apparently, stepping in dog poop prevents one from taking one’s cell phone out of one’s pocket and calling. But truly, the excuse smells like dog poop. Put another pair of shoes on and come over. Or at least call so others aren’t waiting. Not to be bourgeois or anything; it’s more a matter of common courtesy than it is an employer-employee thing.