A perfect sea urchin

My Evil Thoughts

Welcome to where I air my evil views, proud, uncowed, unbowed, and absolutely evil, superficial, and ignorant. Get used to it. To return to the main blog page, just click here.

Somebody Died Today

No I'm not thankful I am alive. If I were very sick or had a near miss with an accident, I'd be grateful, but you know how I feel about gratitude, especially for routine stuff. Some things are meant to be taken for granted. Being alive is one of them. I have no reason to die today. A certain minimum of good luck and homeostasis are just part of the background like a winter sunrise while commuting.

Still, somebody died today. I don't know who she was. She was a year older than I am. She died of natural causes. How do I know? Well, you do have to ask, and I am going to tell you. This morning I walked over to the fire house near Emory and delivered a rutabega-parsnip stromboli as part of my synagogue's Feed the Fire Fighters program. I was the first to arrive and chit-chatted with the fire fighters who were going to deep fry a seventeen pound turkey. There were not a lot of fire fighters at the fire house because a bunch of them went out on a call just as I got there. It was a residential fire. Whenever there was a call, an announcement would come over the loudspeaker saying what kind of call it was.

That was how I heard about the fifty year old female in respiratory distress at a hospice in Gwinnett, Georgia. I even saw the ambulance come back from the call. I don't remember if the others from my synagogue arrived at the fire house before or after the call. In all truth, they may not have heard it. They had small children and probably did not draw attention to it. They may not have even paid attention to it. I heard it though, and I saw the ambulance come back from that call in Gwinnett. I knew they had performed no feats of resusitation. An ambulance sent to a hospice on Thanksgiving Day was doing substitution for the doctors. It was an easy call or a very hard call for the paramedics. They did not have to worry about someone dying that they could save. On the other hand, there was no one to save, and it was better all over with by the time they got there.

As I said, I don't know if any body heard the call about the fifty year old female in the hospice in Gwinnett except me. If they did hear, they did not pray for her or for the families whose houses or apartments caught fire, not even one Psalm. This brings me back to New Jewish Broadcasting which I caught on the way home from work. A very kickable to the curb rabbi was earning a blow to the rear as I listened Wednesday night. He was saying how Jews are mensches, as in truely human and nonJews.... If a Jew in Switzerland has his or her synagogue vandalized, Jews in New York feel it, but if a nonJew in Arkansas runs into trouble, does a nonJew in some other state or country care? I wanted to shout back: "What about Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Japan, or the earthquake in Haiti? What about the Red Cross and Salvation Army?" Surely those are not Jewish intitutions. Sorry, there are charitable humans everywhere and noncharitable humans, and it doesn't matter if those we help are Jewish or otherwise. Most of the time they are otherwise, since we are a tiny minority. Sorry, I had dropped off savoy slaw at Open Door this morning. I knew what was what, and I'd seen plenty of nonJews who care about other people.

Of course, this is not your typical rant about pious hyporcisy. I can't really blame parents for not wanting to explain to their children that sometimes it is better to just let a very sick person die, and they don't die uncared for. There is just a point where we let them go, with their permission in the form of a DNR order, but someone still has to go out and "pronounce them" dead. It's easier not to crack that Monty Python joke about "I'm not dead yet." This is one of those uncomfortable explanations that goes down best with some black humor. If the parents blocked it out because they were busy with small children, hey it' snot the worst thing that happens. It has zero to do with their being religious, and there is a good chance, they simply weren't there, but I was.

And yes, I even tried not to think about it. It was just a loudspeaker message. I walked home listening to Radio Energy Brasil on my cell phone. I got a message that I used up all two gigabytes of my broadband and would have no more high speed access until the next billing cycle. That was good news, since the billing cycle starts tomorrow. I was entitled to every bit of that broadband. Too bad I used up some of it when my cell phone accidentally got turned on tuned in to streaming radio, but hey I got my money's worth. I also stopped at Eagle Eye books which was closed but has several racks of honor system books outside. I reviewed the merchandise and continued on my way. I read an old story on the computer, that I am thinking of resurrecting for Ghostletters the Next Generation, a mailing list I am on. I was grateful for my muse. I worried that my stuff treat was too spicey. Sometimes you just can't creep around inside chili peppers.

Then suddenly I felt tired. I went to sleep for a half hour that stretched to several hours. Hertzel slept in my arms. I had strange dreams. I awoke aching all over, and then I remembered the message over the loudspeaker. Somebody died today, and she was only a year older than I am. Somewhere there is a family mourning. I do not know their names, but I know. I was there for the message. I heard and now I can not forget.

Eileen H. Kramer -- November 24, 2011

How It's Done

The amateur sociology of religion question of the day is: "How do you keep young people from acting for their self interest?" I can't tell the whole story of what brought this on. At the time, I thought it was just a difference in Kramer family dynamics versus those of other houses. Kramers adolescents are more likely to pursue a frontal attack. We were always free to speak our minds, even if all we could do was vent, and a well waged frontal was considered a direct and intelligent strategy. Honesty is in some ways really the best policy. Bullshit is.... Well you know what it is, not that my family is free of it, but we tend to be emotionally honest even when keeping secrets, and we tend to call bullshit bullshit.

One of the ironies of being a bala tshuva is that while I think Modern Orthodox Judaism is fantastic at age nearly fifty, I know full well why I did not become frum at age nineteen or twenty and certainly why I did not do it at age twenty-four. A frum lifestyle means a young person can not relocate where there may be work, if there is "no Jewish community." It means he/she must secure a well paying job to support the children that he/she will produce starting in his/her late twenties to early thirties. There is no time between getting an education and starting a family to pursue a low paying but wortwhile passion. The newly minted, Modern Orthodox lawyer can't work for the DA or the defense bar, The freshly graduated Modern Orthodox liberal arts major can't teach high school or join the Peace Corp. It is hard if not impossible to be a Modern Orthodox environmental science or forestry major.

A Modern Orthodox college student is restricted to 2.5% of the opposite sex for dating. This means he/she is forced to settle rather than select the best, and people can agree to disagree about religion. I think people are more likely to fight over faith (even faith in which to raise children) if they espouse the same creed and disagree over how to apply it. A different creed is just that, not yours. That you can have friends or even lovers who espouse a different creed, means you can have children with a different creed, but so what. If you can marry someone who does not share your religious beliefs and is open about it (much better than someone who thinks they share them but then doesn't. That's betrayal!) then why should you expect your kids to share your religious belief? It would be nice if they did, but so what if they don't.

Actually, I am very, very ambivalent on the subject of parents passing on their faith. My father is an atheist. My mother is an agnostic. I grew up in an educated, serious, and secular Jewish home. I clearly did not accept my parents' lack of faith. My parents failed to pass on their religion. According to Rabbi Broyde, I am one of the seven percent failure rate that occurs even when parents make a concerted effort to raise their children in their faith. My parents had a one in seven shot of losing one of their two children to a different set of beliefs. Those are betting odds.

I'm not sure you can reach that magic ninty-three percent number without coercion. Now coercion of young adults in the form of social control is not abuse, except maybe by Alice Miller's definition. One is free to throw off the yoke. The trick is having the tools and resources to give that yoke the old heave-ho. I had the tools. I read the Bible in ninth grade. I listened to Christian radio broadcasts. The language barrier that makes Judaism hard to access for someone not plugged into the religion's social system made me very angry.

Eventually, I got passed all of that when I was nineteen and away at college. I literally knocked at the door, and let people teach me, how to read a prayer book. I learned about assorted doctrines of the faith, and of course I knew my Bible. I dabbled in Rashi. I have a copy of the Midrash Says at home. I knew you can go to services and it costs nothing, and you can read along in English. Hey, I came in from the cold, at least as far as going to services was concerned and praying. American society of course worked with me on this. Close to half the population attends weekly religious service of some type. My Christian friends all went to church. Also, houses of worship are good places for American females to go.

Of course what got me to leap the fence initially was that my parents though they placed some obstacles in my way, keeping me unfamiliar with what goes on in a synagogue so the service was hard to follow, and not driving me to services or letting me walk there, also left a lot of gates open. I attended public school. I did not keep kosher. I spent a lot of time with people of faith, both Jewish and otherwise. I learned other people do things differently. Therefore, I could do things differently too if I chose.

Second, my every day life was relatively bullshit free. I could eat what I wanted within reason. I could wear my own clothes to school and did not have to worry about uniforms, which are utterly arbitrary. My school did have a dress code. I did not have a curfew on the weekends. My mother frowned on going out on the weeknights unless it was a school function. I was pretty free range once I hit my middle teens. If you're not raised with a lot of bullshit, your tolerance for it is low.

Most Modern Orthodox parents, make sure that the gates to seeing viable alternatives are kept slammed down. They also have no fear of imposing bullshit on their kids through the schools. One would think the bullshit would be counterproductive. If I had a child, I would fear that the arbitrary dress code, not quite a uniform, at Yeshiva High School would make my daughter or son think that Judaism means bullshit and poison him/her against the faith, but I forget the other side of the equation. If your child attends only Jewish summer camps and day schools, guess what, he/she sees nothing but religious, Jewish kids all around him/her. He/she knows nothing else. Everyone else accepts bullshit. Bullshit becomes normative.

The great thing about a high level of bullshit is that it makes it easier to impose social controls on the children when they become young adults. One of the inconvenient things that used to happen to parents when their kids got to be somewhere between sixteen and twenty-two, was that the kids worked. Some parents liked this, but a kid who earns even a modest living is always free to reply to "As long as you live in my house..." with "I'm outta here." The kid stays where he/she went to school, returns there, moves in with friends etc... Money talks and bullshit walks.

Money is freedom. In a high bullshit environment it is more than possible for a parent to clip an adult child's wings. The first line in this strategy is the gap year in Israel. What this does is pull the child out of the workforce. Now Shabbos observance has all ready done some wing clipping. Even without the recession, Modern Orthodox young adults can not work in retail because those jobs often involve Saturdays or interfere with a heavy study schedule. The gap year in Israel puts a harmless (from a potential employer or college's point of view) gap in a young person's resume, and keeps the possibilites that earning one's own money brings elusive.

After a time, especially since the gap year is normative (meaning everybody does it) in the Modern Orthodox community, the young adult who finally goes off to the freedom of college has somewhat set ideas about how things are done, and is less likely to take the good alternatives when presented. He/she may also have a lifestyle and experiences different enough from his/her nonreligious and gentile classmates that he/she does not particularly feel comfortable with them, surely not comfortable enough to date them. The idea that people with different creeds can get along feels weird, because these young people have never experienced it or seen it in action.

The gap year and the strictures against earning pocket money on Saturday are a more sophisticated way to do what my mother set out to do when I was an adolescent setting off down a religious path. My mother who believed in freedom told me: "When you're eighteen you can..." Translated into reality this meant, "when you're away at college you can...." She was hoping by the time I was eighteen, I would be used to the way things are done. I wasn't, but then again, I was only eighteen and no one had inundated me with bullshit or given me an extra year in a very restricted environment or hampered my ability to earn money. The economy of the late 1970's did that, but not as completely as Shabbos observance can.

Beyond college, a different set of more conventional social controls takes over in the Modern Orthodox community. Marrying out or delaying reproduction has consequences. Withdrawal of parental and family approval hangs heavy. For males being locked out of certain positions in the synagogue is another punishment. If a couple or individual strays, his/her kitchen and cooking become off limits for community members. On the other hand, if one considers those outside one's creed weird, and can't conceive of getting along with them, and can't share a meal with them (My main objection to kashrus as a younger person. I now have my own apartment and don't have much occasion to share food or kitchen facilities with anybody and so have no problem keeping kosher.) then the likelihood of leaving the fold in the first place is a lot lower.

I guess I enough of an idealist to believe one should choose one's faith freely and follow it because one genuinely believes, otherwise why bother. I also know that my experience isn't vanishingly rare. I hate to see religion pushed down people's throats by a variety of coercive manipulations. I'm glad I do not have children. I don't think I'd be Modern Orthodox if I did.

Eileen H. Kramer -- November 11, 2011

"Some of my best friends are..."

OK, I thought I got out of the business of criticizing rabbis a long time ago, but I need to get this off my political chest, and this is a political not a theological argument. It is also a sociological one. Jews making common cause with fundamentalist Christians over the state of Israel is a rotten idea. It is not a rotten idea because Bornagains want to convert us. Proselytizing is crass, and nobody with any sense acts stupidly crass when they have an axe to grind and want to make an ally out of you.

The problem is that Fundamentalist Christians can't be allies with American Jews because politically and socially we are opposites if not enemies. This has nothing to do with Rapture stories or the Book of Revelations. It has to do with a political philsophy of quietism, and a sociological idea of weird demographics and marginalization.

Let's deal with marginalization and demographics first. With the exceptions of those in a few urban areas, most Bornagains who love Jews do so in the abstract. Our population is concentrated in mainly twenty-five or (give or take a few) urban, metropolitan area. If you live in flyover country, Christianity of various stripes is the only religion going. Jews exist in the Bible and in Israel, but not in your neighborhood. As a result, Jews in flyover country get marginalized.

Well meaning Christians forget that we or Moslems (unless they're making prejudiced remarks) exist and are Americans too, but then again as far as their every day lives are concerned, we just plain don't exist. The Jewish shopkeeper has retired or been put out of business by WalMart. His children have left for the big city, and no one has replaced him. Maybe there used to be a synagogue a generation ago, but it folded. There might also be a Jewish section in the cemetary, but there is no one to visit the graves, but that is about it. Do we want to be loved in the abstract. How can people who do not know us well, love us or ally with us? Do you ally yourself with complete strangers?

But the real divide between Fundamentalist Protestants and Jews is quietism. Quietism means that one does not expect or ask the government to do your religion's bidding on social, educational, or other issues. You might want a way to take your religious holidays off, but if you arrange that with vacation days that's just fine, and that's about it. Jews in the United States, by and large are quietist. The few who aren't often abuse the system, taking government funds and not obeying local, government laws. Nonquietist Jews are also violating a political norm the rest of their religion follows. Israel is another matter, but American Jews are not Israeli Jews, unless they make aliyah.

Being quietist serves us well (and us includes not just Orthodox Jews but Jews all across the spectrum). We can send our children to the local, public school or pay for a religious school education without the government interfering. Either way, we do not have to fear that someone will make our child recite a Christian prayer or question a child wearing a kipah. We can have our kosher restaurants and stores, and many national brands respond to our market force without the government making them and have their goods certified as kosher. When we build a synagogue we go through the same zoning hearings as there are for any other structures.

Politically active Fundamentalist Christians are not quietists. They want the government to enforce their religious views. They can ask for Christian prayers before high school football games (They forget that there might be a player named Shapiro on the team. My brother was a fullback in high school by the way, so there are Jewish athletes) or Jewish families, Moslems, or Atheists in the stands. They fail to understand how a judge can not order every one sworn in at the court house to say "so help me God." He certainly must permit it, but permitting and ordering are very different. They also fail to understand why it might be a good idea for the court house to stock a few Korans for swearing in the occasional Moslem witness, and have an option of an affirmation for Jehova's Witnesses, Quakers, or atheists. Christians are famously good at wanting to impose their views on their fellow coreligionists. They even had a Reformation followed by nearly a century of war against one another in Europe. They don't understand that we Jews accept Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and unaffiliated under one big tent, and we mean it!

But forget history, Bornagains' unquiet political attitudes are bad news for Jews in the United States. Most Jewish families don't send their children to Day School. Politically active Bornagains want their children and ours to say a Christian prayer every day and some want Creationism taught in biology. They don't know that most Jews, even most Orthodox ones, are not Biblical literalists. They want to pass lawas that prohibit our women from getting abortions, even though our religion permits them early in the pregnancy under many circumstances.

Worse yet, many socially conservative, politically active Christians ally themsleves with those who want to persue economic policies that are against our interests. Shrinking education budgets, not helping those who need college loan forgiveness, etc... and the flat tax are all against our interest.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe international politics makes strange bedfellows, but getting in the political bed with Bornagains will probably end up with us getting kicked to the cold floor one night when we realize that except for Israel we don't see eye-to-eye on any other issues.

Eileen H. Kramer -- November 4, 2011