Lonely Man of Cake

July 22, 2007

Noah Feldman: Today’s Bar-Kamtza?

Filed under: America,Diaspora,Education,Faith,General,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 8:14 pm

I read Noah Feldman’s thought-provoking essay which appeared in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, and knew immediately that the article would draw a firestorm of criticism from members of the modern-Orthodox community, both because of what some might consider the inflammatory nature of some of the author’s comments, but more importantly, because of the timing of the article’s publication: during the nine days preceding the commemoration of the destruction of the Second Temple.

Although material discussing the destruction of the temple in rabbinic literature is scant, one returning theme is that the temple was destroyed because of the baseless hatred of Jews toward each other. Indeed, from the firsthand account of the events preserved by the historian Josephus, we may corroborate this as fact. By the time Titus arrived in Jerusalem, ready to purge the city of its rebels, no fewer than four groups of Jewish extremists fought for control of the city. The infighting verged on the outbreak of all out civil war in Jerusalem and even led to the burning of the precious food stores in the besieged city. The rebels in Jerusalem found themselves at odds with each other and also with the Pharisees and most other Jews in the country, who capitulated to the Romans without offering resistance.

The Talmud perpetuates the interpersonal hatred responsible for bringing down the temple with the story of “Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza”: A fellow is said to have planned a party, and asked his servant to invite his good friend Kamtza. The servant, perhaps out of confusion, invited one Bar-Kamtza instead, who just so happened to be the arch enemy of the host. Bar-Kamtza attended the party, perhaps seeing the invitation as an act of reconciliation on the part of the host. But the host would have no part of it and wished to eject Bar-Kamtza from the party, even after the latter offered to pay for his plate, for half of the cost of the party, and even the full cost of the party. The host grabbed Bar-Kamtza, and physically threw him out of the party. The insulted Bar-Kamtza was made to feel even worse by the fact that the rabbis sitting at the party did not intervene on his behalf. Bar-Kamtza is said to have then engaged in an act of subterfuge which angered the king and brought the destruction of the temple.

Noah Feldman is a 21st century Bar-Kamtza. He’s not perfect, but he has good intentions. He reaches out to the very institutions which leave him feeling embittered. To take the cropped photo as a metaphor, he attended the party, as did Bar-Kamtza, but was forcibly removed, with no explanations or protestations offered by his host, or by the rabbis who sat idly without intervening.

The unfortunate result reminds us of the subterfuge of the original Bar-Kamtza, who, wishing to avenge the silent rabbis, is said to have sabotaged a sacrifice offered by the king, inflicting a wound that the emperor would not have taken notice of but which would matter a great deal to the Jews, as it would invalidate the animal for sacrifice. Feldman did just that. The wound inflicted by his article should be apparent to the very community that rejected him. While people who are not close to the modern-Orthodox community may not fully appreciate the intricacies of Feldman’s criticism, the general repercussion, nonetheless, is the sullying of what had been the perceived pristine image of the modern-Orthodox movement in the eyes of the world.


July 8, 2007

Ode to Gary Vaynerchuk

Filed under: America,Culinary,Education,Internet,Wine — lonelymanofcake @ 9:16 am

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am a huge fan of Gary Vaynerchuk, the host of Wine Library TV.  As I also mentioned, Vaynerchuk was featured in TIME Magazine in a piece which, some would say, makes him the “Wine Man of the Year.”

If you’ve had a chance to watch any of Gary’s video (I made a few recommendations here), you’ll notice his unorthodox style, which at least one critic (who I hold in high esteem) found to be lacking the dignity and sophistication appropriate for the wine-appreciating community.  Here is my response which I submitted elsewhere, but I would nonetheless like to share it here as well:

As one of the younger members of the forum, I feel that Vaynerchuk’s daily videos are responsible for opening up wine culture to the younger, less economically sound crowd in a way that no critic or publication has done in the past. I’m all for a more “sophisticated approach,” but the fact is that wine, through the ages, was always something shared by all segments of the population, only recently (relatively speaking) becoming the province of the elite and demanding “a more dignified approach.” I don’t see any good in the assumed exclusivity and elitism in contemporary wine culture other than concern emanating from those currently entrenched in the community that they will have to associate with people possessing less wine knowledge, and perhaps lower social stature.

A similar debate can be (and probably has already been) held regarding some of the shows on the TV Food Network. Emeril Lagasse was also considered unorthodox when he began with his antics, but his shows, and those that followed, allowed people a glimpse of the high-end food industry while being both entertaining and not breaking the bank.

Vaynerchuk is unorthodox in the same way. Occasionally, he can be crass. On Thursday night’s segment dealing with a wine called Beauzeaux (pun clearly intended), he compared the nose to a sweaty jockstrap dipped in mouthwash. Granted, that is undignified. But his entertaining approach has attracted a not insignificant mass of followers and enfranchised a population segment which would have otherwise been alienated by the prevailing stuffiness and exclusivity.

Watching the show on a pretty consistent basis, I think it’s safe to say that while there is a certain conflict of interest in reviewing the wines you sell, Vaynerchuk will often take issue with Parker’s high scores on expensive bottles (which people want to buy), dismiss all 3-4 bottles tasted during a given show, and will freely disparage bad wines alongside good wines with questionable QPR.

Vaynerchuk’s antics encouraged me, and gave me the know-how to train my palate, break out of my Sideways-esque Merlot boycott, and experiment with out of the ordinary varietals. But the “undignified” approach does not necessarily breed a generation of ignominious connoisseurs. It is a warmer, more inclusive approach. It encourages savvy shopping and experimentation. And Vaynerchuk knows he’s onto something. He closes each episode with the following line, occasionally throwing a cork at the camera for emphasis: “Because you, with a little bit of me, we’re changing the wine world, aren’t we?”

June 7, 2007

Odd, But Familiar Dream

Filed under: Academia,America,Diaspora,Education,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Reality,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 8:07 pm

There must have been copious amounts of MSG in my dinner last night, because I had a dream that was off the hook. What really set this dream apart was its vividness and highly realistic feel. Here goes:

I am approached by Richard Joel, the current president of Yeshiva University. He says: “We would like for you to be the next vice-president of Yeshiva University.” I hesitate. On the one hand, this is the institution that left me bereft of a “real college experience,” sold me short on Judaic studies, and that is slowly morphing into a trade school for the intellectually challenged. On the other hand, I have a very strong familial connection with the institution, and if you know who I am and what I’m talking about, it makes Richard Joel’s proposition quite eerie.

Joel clearly senses my hesitation. “Compensation is $100,000 per-month,” he says. I accepted the position immediately.

What does it all mean?
Should I be disturbed that even though I was morally conflicted about accepting the job, it was ultimately the bottom line that tilted the scales? Does it mean that I am hesitant to serve the community in which I was raised?

Or should I look at the positives:
I must have very high self-esteem if I dream about being offered such a powerful position at such a young age. (In the dream, I was myself, at my current age, and even “mentally” questioned how it was that I was being offered the job, given my age.) I felt up to the task and never questioned whether I was qualified to handle the burdens of the position.

My current interpretation is that the dream represents the crossroads at which I stand. The job offer is the looming specter of the probability that one day, come what may, I will invariably be drafted to the ranks of Jewish communal service. This is almost fait accompli. There is then the moral question: as ideal-driven as communal service may be, there are the occasional ethical sacrifices to be made. And finally there is the question of “selling out,” which is something I battle with every day: do I abandon my ideal line of work–whatever that may be–because a healthier income from a less ideologically rewarding job might be the ticket to a “better” life?

Stay tuned. These considerations will begin playing themselves out over the coming weeks.

May 22, 2007

Back to School!!!

Filed under: Academia,Education,Israel — lonelymanofcake @ 1:12 pm

On March 28, 55 days ago, Pesach recess began.  And it will finish only on Thursday.

The representatives of the various student unions finally mustered a vote last night, which unlike three previous voting attempts, was not disrupted by belligerent students who are intent on continuing the strike, citing the continued inadequate offers from the government.  Because of these disruptions, voting was planned, but could not be held on either Saturday or Sunday night.  The representatives attempted to evade the protesters by surreptiously changing venues, but the protesters would quickly discover and converge on the new location.  For the vote last night, the student representatives hired a security firm to facilitate smooth proceedings.  The vote was carried out successfully, with more than 60% of the delegates voting to accept the government’s latest offer and end the strike.

Unfortunately, it appears that students in this academic year will have a heavy price to pay for their benevolence, in both tolerating duration of the strike and implicitly supporting its aims.  This strike was never about the current generation of students.  The government made it quite clear in its first offers to the students that the higher tuition would be “grandfathered in” and apply only to the next generation of students.  It is those students and their parents, as well as future students and their parents, who should have been leading the strike.  Not students who stand to gain nothing, i.e., us.

This imposed altruism cost us, the students of today, over one month of the semester and has also created an erosion of faith in the student government.  We will pay for the watered down agreement with a semester that will now extend long into July, extended class hours (some classes will go until midnight!), classes on Friday, and an exam period which ends around Rosh Hashana.  One of the principal aims of the strike was to bring tuition to an affordable level for all students.  This aim was not achieved, and irreparable financial harm will now be inflicted on those students who designate the summer months as the period in which they take jobs in order to afford tuition and the cost of living.

The National Union of Israeli Students, the organization which led the strike, though its director himself attends an institution which did not strike (!), will no doubt declare victory and highlight the concessions of the government.  In doing so, they will have emulated the government’s penchant for doing the same: declaring victory where they are the unambiguous loser, and leaving the citizens/students to pay the price.

May 4, 2007

Israel University Strike Update

Filed under: Academia,Education,Israel — lonelymanofcake @ 9:27 am

The strike at Israel’s universities and colleges has now finished its third week. With a weakened government and an education minister who would like nothing more than to resolve the strike before the dissolution of the government (looks good on the resume for the next government, right Yuli?), the students are now in the driver’s seat. Most importantly, the students have been consistently drawing sympathetic coverage from the press, which is all to eager to cover yet more instances of unprovoked police brutality and the inability of the government to negotiate with the people.

One of the scarier prospects of the strike has been contemplating the status of the current semester. The student leaders at the helm of the strike assured the students that the semester would not be extended (which for us, means well into July) and that the instructors would work with the students to make up lost lectures and assignments. The worst case scenario was that the university administrations would cancel the semester, a threat–with its attendant repercussions–that the student leaders assured us would not materialize.

As hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens gathered yesterday in Rabin Square, the an e-mail was sent out to university students around the country by the Committee of University Heads in Israel.

Here is a summary of what is stated in the e-mail:

  • Classes will resume on Sunday, May 6, regardless of how many students attend.
  • The semester will be extended by two weeks.
  • Students who do not return to classes beginning Sunday will not receive the same consideration for making up material and completing assignments.
  • The threat looming over the entire notice is that if students do not return to classes beginning Sunday, it will cost them the semester, whatever that entails. While it’s not spelled out in this letter, it was widely reported in the press that students who would not return to classes would lose this semester’s credits.

    The letter was greeted with an uproar from the public, who found it outrageous that the university presidents/heads–who receive their 700,000 NIS (an extraordinary salary in Israel) from the university budget–had the audacity to threaten the student strike. The “talkbacks” for newspaper articles reporting on this development were filled with invective regarding the cushy lifestyles of the university heads when students have to juggle three minimum-wage jobs to just make ends meet. Naturally, the students leading the strike immediately condemned the threat and called on students to take the strike up a notch.

    The cherry on top for students is that this morning, the committee of university instructors (professors, etc.) announced that they will not fold to the idle threat of the university heads and turn their backs on striking students. The professors, who also stand to benefit from a successful strike, which would return over one billion NIS to university coffers, declared that they would not fail students who continued striking.

    I don’t have class Sundays, but I’m curious as to what will be. I suspect that students will chain the university gates and block access to the campuses. Stay tuned.

    April 29, 2007

    Creative, But Incorrect, Protest Sign

    Filed under: Academia,Education,Hebrew,Israel — lonelymanofcake @ 5:33 pm

    The Israeli universities, for those not in the know, have been on strike for almost three weeks now in protestation of a government committee’s plans to raise tuition by almost 300%.

    Here is a creative sign (on the right) held at one of the many student protests.

    The sign on the right is a parody of the חד גדיא song, which is the final part of the Pesah Haggadah. Here’s what the sign says:

    ואתא דשוחט
    ושחט לסטודנט
    שכר לימודיא
    בתרי זוזי

    Translation and Commentary:
    1. “And the Shochat came,” i.e., the committee convened by the government is led by a fellow whose last name is Shochat. That whoever put this cute sign together was trying really hard to imitate Aramaic is apparent in this line. Even though the linguistic style of the song in the Hagaddah is a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic (e.g., in the Hagaddah, this line reads ואתא השוחט, and not ואתא שוחטא, or whatever the Aramaic word for slaughterer is, with a terminal alef), nonetheless the students chose to add a “ד,” maybe to give the impression of Aramaic. Either way, with the daled, the translation is impossible, so I translated according to what they probably intended.

    2. “And slaughtered the student.” This is a play on the name Shochat and its slaughtering connotations. This line is linguistically sound and fits with the song.

    3. “Who pays.”

    4. “Tuition fees.” Here’s another mistake in the Aramaic. The Hebrew phrase for tuition (fees) is שכר לימוד. The equivalent of the (pseudo) Aramaic here would be שכר לימודים, in the plural (which doesn’t translate into English).

    5. “For two zuzim.” It looks like this line is a secondary addition. Not really sure what it has to do with the protest, unless it means that students formerly paid very little in tuition.

    Yeah, going back to school might not be the worst idea.

    April 25, 2007

    On Israeli Drivers, Terrorism, and Remembrance

    Filed under: Automotive,Education,Israel,Transportation — lonelymanofcake @ 9:48 am

    Ynet published a cute article (Hebrew only) as part of one of its Yom Haatzmaut supplements entitled “The Most Israeli on the Road.”  The author is way off on a number of items, including the “coolest car,” which he awards to the Daihatsu Materia, which looks suspiciously like the Scion xB, a car I would hardly describe as the coolest on the market.

    Sadly, the article all but mentions in passing a long recognized, but little dealt with, phenomenon: the terrorists who flout speed limits, drive recklessly and with unnecessary aggression, and who ultimately have led to more Israeli casualties in the past year (maybe more) than Palestinian terrorists.

    I propose, considering the sheer amount of casualties and tragedies, that there be a national day of remembrance for victims of traffic accidents.  This would, of course, need to be complemented with comprehensive educational programs on safer driving practices as well as stiffer punishments issued from the justice system, which currently gives kid-glove treatment to vehicular killers.  (Take the case of prominent attorney and advisor to Israel’s leaders Avigdor “Dori” Klagsbald, who, in April 2006, killed a mother and her young son after plowing into their car with his SUV at a red light.  He was sentenced to only 15 (!) months in prison.)

    March 18, 2007

    Getting Soaked

    Filed under: Education,Environment,General,Israel,Weather — lonelymanofcake @ 2:47 pm

    I was walking on Shabbat with two colleagues (we’re colleagues too, right?) soaking up whatever sun the overcast Mediterranean sky had to offer after some ghoulish thunderstorms on Friday night.  Suddenly, we found ourselves caught in a windswept torrential downpour.  The route we chose to the nearest shelter entailed walking into the wind, such that only our fronts were wet, while our backs were bone dry.

    This then catalyzed the perennial question: Does one get less wet when walking or running in the rain?

    We got soaked while walking, but I’m relatively sure that had we run, we would have exposed ourselves to an equal amount of, if not more, rain, given the wind direction and the angle at which the rain was coming down.

    March 13, 2007

    Nargila Tobacco to Receive Warning Label

    Filed under: Education,Health,Israel — lonelymanofcake @ 4:03 pm

    Nargila (Hookah), the favored vice of bored shopkeepers, and increasingly popular pastime of Israeli teenagers, may begin leaving smokers with a guilty conscience in the coming weeks, if a law requiring that Nargila tobacco be labeled with the same warning stickers as cigarettes pushes through the Knesset.

    (Pictured: The warning labels currently affixed to cigarettes.)

    (Translations, clockwise from top left: Cigarettes hurt your physical fitness; Cigarette smoke hurts your children and those around you; Smoking causes premature aging of facial skin; Each cigarette brings 43 carcinogenic substances into your body.)

    Now if only the Knesset would pass laws prohibiting smoking in public places.  And if they did, if only this nicotine craving society would respect it.

    March 9, 2007

    Some Good Shabbat Reading

    1. Steven I. Weiss of Canonist has been duking it out with sociologist Samuel Heilman after Weiss reviewed Heilman’s latest book and pointed out some statistics which do not jive with math or logic. Start here for the book review (and comments), continue here (also with comments), and round it out here.
      1. Apropos Steven I. Weiss, if you ever feel like “you’ve reached the end of the Internet” and want some fantastic material, check out Weiss’s pioneering J-blog “Protocols.”  Though defunct for over two years now, Weiss and a small team of bloggers covered every major story of (Orthodox) Jewish interest since December 2002.
    2. The eventual impact of global warming may have global consequences far more devastating than “mere” environmental damage.  Read the introduction here, and the 25-page white paper, here.
    3. Dikembe Mutombo, the 7-foot 2-inch center for the Houston Rockets and the oldest player in the NBA, authored a groundbreaking study when he was a student at Georgetown in which he assailed “one of the sillier ideas of modern linguistics… that one language is as good as another, that no language is clearly superior to any other.”  His idea has been further developed with added criteria.  Spanish comes out on top; English is in second place.
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