Friday, May 05, 2006
(i.e. -- his multiplication tables), so a meeting was suggested at his excellent, loving and innovative private school in the Bronx to address this matter. And while we were on the subject, the fifth grade teachers also thought that his reading skills could stand some improvement, and perhaps his level of concentration, so how was Monday morning at 10?
On said Monday morning, HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) and I drove up in our red Dodge Caravan to the sprawling, open and utterly enchanting school that had successfully educated Big Babe (now a junior at Columbia U) and Middle Babe (graduating a superb private school in NYC). We knew the school as dedicated to its nearly 1,000 students and committed to working with each child on their level and according to their learning style. While Middle Babe had been an ideal student, the learning style of Big Babe had been decidedly quirky. Little Babe, we knew, was probably something a bit beyond quirky, and HOBB and I had been deeply touched by the school's continuing dedication to supporting him and us.
This was not the first time that we were meeting to discuss Little Babe outside of the chaotic institution known as Parent-Teacher conferences. Due to his penchant for finding the machinations of his mind more interesting than the classroom discussion, Little Babe -- though beloved by his teachers and acknowledged to be bright and creative -- often gave the impression that he was residing on Pluto rather than inside his little bespectacled self and while there, was building a museum to house facts relating to Yu-Gi-Oh cards, Xiaolin Showdown cards, Alfie the Pomeranian, dogs in general, cats, hedgehogs, hamsters, prairie dogs, goldfish, chipmunks, play dates, friends, sleepovers, birthday parties, the summer, the solar system (including his Alma Mater, Pluto), junk food, cellos, knock-knock jokes, Scooby-Doo, Hitchcock films, Marx Brothers films, Harry Potter, the Series of Unfortunate Events books -- including information on Daniel Handler, the author behind Lemony Snicket, his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah (only two years away -- June '08), the menu for his Bar Mitzvah, his Torah portion and the Sunday party we are planning to hold at our summer community upstate, his cousins, his siblings, "The Misadventures of the Minersteins" -- an ongoing story I had made up concerning a family of kids who discover the diary of their great-great grandmother Tilly Minerstein and go on entirely implausible and ahistorical mining adventures -- and a variety of things that have nothing to do with math facts, phonics, current events, science or fifth grade in general.
We've had Little Babe tested just as we had Big Babe and Middle Babe tested before him. We had Little Babe in therapy just as we had Big Babe and Middle Babe in therapy before him. If I were to pause and use my math facts to add up the cost of a variety of tests and therapies, I would weep.
So it came to pass that on a recent Monday morning, at this glorious elementary school built on the banks of the Hudson River, a team of no less than eight educators sat around and tried to puzzle out the learning style of Little Babe, which thus far had eluded testers and had stumped his teachers. He didn't have anything specific, that is, LD or ADD or ADHD or dyslexia or anything for which there is a pill or a special course of action. What he seemed to have was a case of CLCCCTORPRTWHFGC -- Cute Little Creative Child Choosing to Reside on Pluto Rather Than Within his Fifth Grade Classroom, coupled with a bit of prolonged childhood, that is, somewhat slowish development, confirmed by his pediatrician whose stern advise to me last year (after the bone-age scan performed at Columbia-Presbyterian proved normal) was: He's a happy little kid developing at his own pace. Leave him alone.
Dr. Van Gilder's advice ringing in my ears, I was still obviously concerned with the challenge of helping Little Babe space shuttle down from Pluto to visit his classroom every now and then and therefore threw myself into the process of hearing Little Babe's various teachers provide their observations of him. Leaving the crowded principal's office one hour later, a plan of action was in place: more supervised reading, more math review...and more testing to possibly pinpoint something that the earlier testing had missed.
Don't get me wrong. I am not satirizing a process that I am deeply appreciative of, though the contrast between today's child-focused educators and the model of utterly clueless neglectfulness that I grew up with does strike me as inherently hilarious. Sitting amid these concerned educators who were committed to studying my ten-year-old as thoroughly as a page of Talmud served to zap me back in a Plutonian time-travel capsule to my own childhood of woefully inadequate educators, imperviousness to a variety of learning styles -- not to mention stuff like LD or dyslexia or ADD/ADHD -- and a punitive approach to any school-related failures or shenanigans.
Peeling back the years, I recalled my own fifth grade misadventures at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, now a large and wealthy institution with several campuses, then a shleppy little school housed at the Great Neck Synagogue. There were eighteen students in my entire grade. Looking back, I feel confident in saying that at least half of them had issues and syndromes that would require medication and therapy today.
Though I had attended North Shore from kindergarten through second grade, my third grade was spent at a girl's school in Jerusalem (our family was on sabbatical; my rabbi-father and dozens like him were inspired to live in Israel following the stunning victory of the Six Day War) and my fourth grade at another Jewish dayschool housed in a synagogue in Queens, whose education was so substandard as to make North Shore look like Horace Mann.
Anyway, I arrived at North Shore Hebrew Academy in the fall of 1970, marked for social ostracism. In honor of the occasion, my well-meaning mother had sewn me a dress of gingham plaid...perfectly matched to my lunchbox. The dress had a Peter Pan collar, little puffy sleeves and heart buttons coming down my boyish chest. Somehow, I got talked into saddle shoes and anklets. At five foot four, I was the tallest girl in the class, not fat yet pre-pubescently stocky (anorexia kicked in two years later). I had buck teeth (the torture of braces began in sixth grade and ended in eighth grade), long, thick dark hair invariably worn in two high pigtails on the side of my head, heavy bangs cut nerdishly short and black octagonal glasses which would be all the rage today but back then made me look like a Mad Scientist.
In other words, standing in the doorway of Mrs. Hayden's class was Frankenstein's young female sidekick, the very image of a social reject, the last kid you would ever want to be friendly with.
Imagine sitting in class on the first day of fifth grade and the door swings open to reveal the New Kid dressed in a dress straight out of The Wizard of Oz, freakishly tall, carrying a lunch box and (I nearly forgot) a briefcase, wearing shoes last seen during the fifties, teeth courtesy of Bugs Bunny, smiling so widely as to appear Chinese. And when the New Kid opens her mouth, it is revealed that the first four letters of her last name are interchangeable with "penis."
Now, I'm not saying that the raucous laughter which greeted my dramatic fifth grade debut completely accounted for my classroom misbehavior and failure to do any homework that year. But given my tomboyish, scofflaw personality, my strict home environment, the creative bent of my mind, the presence of one nightmarishly bitchy Queen Bee (skinny, fashionable, slutty daughter of Holocaust survivors) who mysteriously wielded great social power within our fifth grade (as Queen Bees tend to do) and my reliance on the Gospel of Tom and Huck, each new day of school was a new opportunity for juvenile delinquency.
Bored out of my mind, I read novels, Mad Magazine, Archie comics and such porn classics as The Happy Hooker in class, threw hate notes to the kids I hated, wrote perverted lyrics to television theme songs and commercials, shared shocking sexual trivia with the boys in the back of the classroom, cheated on tests, had arm wrestles in the back of the classroom or leg wrestling matches in the carpeted hallway outside the class, played hide and go seek in the darkened bathroom with my best friends Jackie and Sara (also unfashionable creative types like myself but less socially ostracized) escaped to the roof during class to have screaming contests or write musicals, played Spin the Bottle and Truth or Dare during Chumash class, fantastized about changing my last name some day (I never did...not even when I married someone with a non-funny, non-sexual last name), stalked the Mexican or Puerto Rican or some kinda Spanish maintenance crew, snuck into Great Neck Synagogue during the school day to simply sneak into Great Neck Synagogue during the day, flunked math tests, acted outrageously in the classroom and no one, but no one even thought to sit down and discuss anything about my learning style, why I couldn't hold onto math facts, why I was such a lunatic and what to do about it.
Which is not to say that I got away with my behavior. I was yelled at and punished when my parents got a call from our principal, Rabbi Horowitz to tell them that my behavior was abominable. I got yelled at by Rabbi Horowitz himself. My report card reported that I did not have "self-control," which always made me think that I had a bladder problem, not that I couldn't stop laughing or shouting in class. It included the word "immaturity," which made me see myself as an unripe tomato. My teachers also noted that I was "not living up to my potential," which made me envision myself dwelling in a trailer park some day in the near future. I do remember that Rabbi Horowitz told me that I had a great potential for leadership, but he wasn't sure whether it was going to be for good or bad means. I foresaw myself as a female Hitler, adding his trademark moustache to the dark hairs that were beginning to sprout, most attractively, on my upper lip with the onset of adolescence, misusing my gift of leadership to inspire Jew-haters around the world.
(The yelling/punishing/neglecting-the-real-problem approach to kids like me during the sixties and seventies also extended to my anorexia, begun in seventh grade with severe calorie restriction (i.e -- starving myself), laxative use, stenuous exercise and fainting spells from hunger and weight loss which transformed me from a solidly built child to a long, leggy, dramatically underweight girl who looked, as my mother lamented, "like a survivor!!")
Ah...the good old days when none of the adults wondered why Allen A (not his real name) couldn't read fluently by the age of 10, or why Jon S (not his real name) would injure himself numerous times during the course of the school day or why Denise K (not her real name) came to school with red-rimmed eyes or why Jackie G (absolutely her real name) was such a colossal bitch and what dysfunction might have taken place in her Holocaust Survivor home to make her this way.
I hardly feel persecuted when I recall my elementary school "education" because I know I wasn't alone in being properly cared for by the adults in my life. During the fifties and sixties, smallish Jewish day schools were often outposts of the Wild West with a whole host of beyond-the-pale classroom behaviors, bullying, kids failing, kids falling beneath the radar screen, kids not learning and unqualified teachers at the ready. Strangely, our parents had the idea that the education we were receiving was much better than what was available at our local public schools, which were staffed by that golden generation of committed (mostly Jewish) educators and not yet subject to the overcrowded conditions and budget cuts of today.
(The real victim of persecution as a result of adult neglect was SOB (sister of Bungalow Babe). Today, a beautiful and gifted singer-songwriter, SOB was tormented every single day of her elementary school life by a band of kids whose raison d'etre was to make her life a living hell. When she and I discuss her terrible school experience, it is with horror and no small measure of disbelief. We both find it impossible to believe that the adults in her life did not take steps to protect her from what was going on. Then again, when I was nearly gang-raped at the age of 11, I got yelled at, not comforted or protected.)
Yet the Wild West tales of my own early Jewish day school education (near-gang-rape aside, which actually happened during the summer, up in the country, with teenage townies serving as the would-be rapists) kinda pale by comparison with that of HOBB, for instance, who remembers going to a school on Manhattan's Lower East Side where the kids would kill stray cats during the school day, throw furniture out the window, beat the crap out of weaker boys, steal from local stores and give their rebbes heart attacks. (Come to think of it, we once sent a teacher to a mental institution. I remember the day Rabbi Horowitz came to class to fix us with a weary, woe-filled gaze of defeat and tell us that we had "destroyed that poor man...just destroyed him." Though we thought this was hysterically funny at the time, I am haunted by this years later.)
And if my learning style was being ignored, if my parents and teachers failed to figure out the kind of learning environment which would work for me, then HOBB's host of learning issues -- many of which are well-documented today -- went criminally neglected, leading to a less-than-stellar academic career and his family's belief that he was bound for a future as a forest ranger.
Not to knock Forest Rangery as an exciting career choice, but HOBB turned out to be a professor at an Ivy League institution and the author of many books. Somewhere along the way, he was rescued from the bad educational environment and sent to a good school which lead to a good college. In fact, many of the super creative and bright guys I know today were problem students who morphed into bright and interesting adults. Many of them have achieved renown in creative careers. Sometimes, however, I think that the ghosts of uncorrected childhood problems continue to haunt them -- us -- in a variety of ways.
That was then. This is now. That was the age of parental neglect and ignorance, of teachers who thought that one size fits all. Some kids did okay. The rest of us -- the quirky, the creative, the learning disabled, the dyslexic, the hyperactive, the differently-abled -- muddled through and survived, but let's face it -- we would have been better off had the adults in our world been a bit more focused on us.
Now we are in the era of the focused attention on the student. We all know the results of overly-anxious parental vigilance, coupled with a mania to excel academically. We know about frantic applications to competitive schools and too many after school activities and a misguided compulsion to give children Mozart in the womb and French in pre-K and all kinds of expensive tutoring and enrichment to turn them into the people we wish we were.
I am not talking about the loopy, misguided, even pathological fringe of the right-minded impulse to focus on the individuality of the child which is prevalent now in good academic settings. I am talking about the caring, concerned, enlightened village of adults who work in concert to raise up our children, one by one. God bless them. As I sat in the crowded principals's office with Little Babe's personal group of cheerleaders, the ghosts of my sadly delinquent elementary school years past started to fade.
Monday, April 24, 2006
It had been a cold, soggy and hectic Sunday in the Big City and when I finally logged onto CNN.com late in the evening, it was deja vu all over again.
Sing-song voice captured on an audiotape (so 20th century!) that had been slipped to Al Jazeera, there was the psycho-prophet of doom intoning his poisonous and paranoid philosophy of the world from his uber-undisclosed location...and, as an extra bonus, hinting at impending terrorism against American civilians.
Networks, cable stations, newspapers, analysts, commentators and pundits went instantly meshuggah, because, let's face it, bin Laden is the biggest celebrity there is, the baddest of the bad, completely elusive, eschewing power suits for shmattes, refusing to grant live interviews, pissing off paparazzi the world over, cooly confident that his every syllable will be deconstructed and duplicated.
So, nu? What pearls of wisdom did Osama leave us with this time?
The usual naarishkeit, for the most part -- Islam is under seige by "Zionists and crusaders," blah, blah, blah -- but there were some chiddushim as well. Osama alluded to the war in the Sudan, creatively spinning America's effort to halt the genocide in Darfur as an attack against Islam. He called on his minions to "prepare for a long war against the crusader plunderers in western Sudan." He was as furious as the mother of the geeky kid who is routinely excluded from other kids' birthday parties, chastising the international community for its refusal to fund the Hamas government, stating that that very action "proves that there is a Zionist-crusaders war on Islam."
Most troubling, Osama lumped American civilians together into one mushy, indistinguisible Bush-supporting mass, holding all of us -- in our glorious diversity -- responsible for the war in Iraq and therefore fair game for beleaguered Muslims who try to protect themselves against Big Bad Us.
Something tells me that the defensive behavior he is alluding to is akin to what Hamas labelled its own act of self-defense last week in Tel Aviv. As of the posting of this entry, it is not clear whether the horrendous attack yesterday on the Egyptian resort town of Dabah was the brainchild of Al Qaeda. What is, however, abundantly clear is that many "crusaders" were killed in the attacks, including a German child.
The experts' consensus on the authenticity of Sunday's audiotape is all-thumbs-up. It is bin Laden's second public address in the last three months, taking a markedly more confrontational approach to his last tape, which offered Westerners peace in exchange for withdrawal from Iraq. While no one should be overly-surprised at the contents of Osama's newest missive, it is nevertheless creepy news to wake up to... or try to go to sleep by.
The creepiness of Osama's desert ramblings, however, reminded me of something else. The edge of hysteria, the hatred, the illogic, the nose for conspiracy, the obsession with Zionists....oh, yeah...Tony Judt, as most recently captured in his New York Times Op-Ed on April 19th, the seventh day of Passover.
Like Osama's misplaced Mama-rage at the world for not giving money to his little mamzer, Hamas, Judt vented his maternal rage at the world for ignoring the blabberings of his little maziks, John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, who published a work one month earlier that essentially plagiarizes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
By this time, most observers of the Middle East are aware of the publication of "The Israel Lobby," a whittled-down version of an 83-page paper that appeared in the London Review of Books in late March. By publishing this piece safely outside of the Jewish-friendly borders of the United States, its authors -- Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- hoped to secure some measure of support for their central, unoriginal idea, which is -- Omigod! The Jews control the world! Or at least the government of the United States and its foreign policy!
Much ink has been spilled on this silly document and refuted by minds greater than mine, or at least bearing more academic credentials. I could (but won't) include a list of links to lead the interested reader to websites that offer a point-by-point rebuttal to each of the authors' paranoid points regarding Jews and world domination. I could (but won't) shoot arrows through many of the arguments myself as they are so flimsy and fueled with equal measures of hatred and frustration at Israel's unpardonable sin -- her continued existence in the face of so much hatred.
Suffice it to say that following the appearance of this pseudo-academic treatise, a battalion of brilliant Op-Eds and essays emerged from such venues as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, US News and World Report, the New Republic, the Forward, the LA Times and so forth....and kicked the s&*t out of the Walt/Mearsheimer paper.
Hence, Tony Judt's Op-Ed of last week in the New York Times.
Beginning with a completely false premise -- that the"mostly uncontentious" Walt/Mearsheimer paper has been deprived of its natural right to be debated in an open manner, Judt charges that the piece has instead elicited a "somewhat hysterical response" that he traces back, by innuendo, to the "powerful Israel lobby." Evidently miffed that wackos like David Duke have been the predominant endorsers of the Walt/Mearsheimer argument, Judt throws his own wacko politics onto the pyre, trying to give his pals some gravitas by arguing their case for them in the journalistic public square, oddly impervious to the fact that many of the readers of The New York Times also read his foaming-at-the-mouth 2003 rant in the New York Review of Books which built the Judtian case for dismantling Israel.
As the author of one of the most disturbingly hate-filled public cases against Israel (move over, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky), Tony Judt has not one iota of credibility among the non-Israel-hating public.
As infuriating as it was to open up the Wednesday Times and see the majority of the Op-Ed page obliterated by this failed effort to resuscitate the Walt/Mearsheimer POV (all the while acutely aware that observant Jews reading the paper would be prevented from expressing their outrage in letters to the editor until Thursday night, when the holiday ended), Judt's piece only served to remind readers that, in his 2003 article, he blamed Israel for the war in Iraq, insanely charged that Iran has been a "longstanding target of Israeli wrath," falsely foresaw settlers choosing to wreak devastation on Arabs rather than relocate (eat your heart out, you hate-sickened meiskeit), and exonerated attacks against Jews by "young Muslims" as "misdirected efforts...to get back at Israel."
"The depressing truth," scrawled the Jewish Englishman at the end of his earlier article, "is that Israel today is bad for the Jews."
Re-reading the 2003 NY Review of Books essay in the wake of last week's Times Op-Ed, I was struck anew by the depth of Judt's rage against Israel -- a bottomless rage that feebly attempts to masquerade itself as the bold and analytical critique of an historian but ultimately reveals itself for what it is -- a pathological displacement of some other, more personal issue in his life, stemming perhaps in his English childhood, which included (by his own admission) a certain measure of anti-Semitism.
As a freelance observer of public Jewish anti-Zionists, I have noted certain parallels in their reasoning and the presentation of their points and am forming my own working hypothesis on the origins of this syndrome, which I view as more pathological than political. Let me give a hint of my hypothesis by stating that I believe there to be a fundamental flaw in the thinking of these (mostly) men. It is exceedingly interesting to me that the "critique" offered by folks like Judt is not a critique at all but a wholesale bashing of the entire Israeli enterprise.
In the writings and verbal rantings of Judt and company, which sadly includes some Israeli academics, Israel can do no right. The public Jewish anti-Zionists write out of a sense of personal broiges with the Holy Land and, by extension, Jews. Deconstruct their arguments -- or simply pay close attention -- and the transparency of their personal problem with the existence of the Jewish State becomes embarrassingly evident. According to the Judenfrei worldview that they have constructed, the world would be better off without Israel (the Jews). Time and again, Israel's supposed sins are trotted out within a context that is weirdly devoid of any mention of the ongoing threat to her existence that Israel has faced, or any of the truly bad guys in the region, for that matter.
Or, horribly, as in the case of Judt, the threat is repackaged as the Hamas "defense" defense of last week...poor "young Muslims" simply trying to "get back" at Israel by attacking old Jewish men in Moscow, young Jewish men in Paris, a shul in London.
Judt's obscene justification arises out of the same weltanschaung as Osama's blanket threat against all American civilians. We are fair game now because our alleged victims are simply trying to "get back" at us.
And most disgustingly, tucked into the presentations of the public Jewish anti-Zionists, there is always the implication of Israel and the Jews using the memory of the Shoah to rationalize their "Nazi-like" behavior. Perhaps the most stunning, nausea-inducing statement of all in Judt's recent essay is the following:
"In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that an Israeli soldier's great-grandmother died in Treblinka will not excuse his own misbehavior."
Writing this blog on the morning of Yom HaShoah, I am moved to ask: Tony, are you for real? What particular misbehavior are you referring to? Is it the exemplary manner in which the IDF evicted its largely-peaceful settlers, the ones you predicted would erupts in an apocalyptic orgy of violence against Arabs? Do you read the papers? Have you visited the hospitals where the innumerable victims of Arab hatred against Israel are recuperating from wounds inflicted because they are...Jews? Like you. How on earth can you even write these words days after an 18-year-old Palestinian boy blew himself up on a busy Tel Aviv street, taking innocent lives, not all of them Jews?
The last time I checked, Israeli soldiers were no more guilty of misbehavior than any other soldiers in the imperfect -- and sadly necessary -- institution known as the military. It is your ability, no, compulsion, to selectively hone in on the alleged "misbehavior" of a grandson of a Treblinka survivor, just as it is to rant about Israel's global "misbehavior" in the face of the barbarous actions of the nations around it who have committed themselves publicly to the destruction of Israel that is, frankly, pathological.
Was it horrible being a Jewish boy in England in the 1950's? Did you have the s*%t beaten out of you walking home from school? Were you skinny and short with glasses and a prominent nose? Did you lose relatives in the Shoah? Are you tired of belonging to a nation that becomes, in every generation, the scapegoat for the world's ills? Do you think that by standing on a chair and yelling "I Hate Israel!" louder than all the goyim, that you will somehow become the good Jew in the eyes of the world's anti-Semites? Do you think that the support of Jew-haters the world over -- including Iran's President Ahmandinejad who basically parrotted your point of view yesterday, reiterating his belief that Israel should not exist -- is your reward?
Or is it something more painfully personal, having to do with Mum and Dad? Do you rage against Israel because you really rage against your Jewish parents?
I admit it -- I am fascinated by you and your fellow public Jewish anti-Zionists. I have gone to hear Daniel Barenboim bring the house down with his condemnation of Israel, I have been in the audience when that serious psycho Norman Finklestein damns Israel and denies the Shoah in one amazing feat, I have read the confused confessions of Michael Lerner which truly attempt to transcend personal woundedness but always end up socking Israel in the eye, mouth agape, I have read Noam Chomsky with the riveted attention one gives to a public act of indecency or madness.
And I have read you, Tony, in an attempt to understand what the hell happened to you to make you so sick on a spiritual level.
Regarding you and your chevre, it has occurred to me that the compassionate and proactive response of the Jewish community (yes, we are a community even as we're busy being a sinister and influential lobby) would be to announce a campaign to raise funds so that the entire bunch of you could be trundled up and sent to a comfortable yet undisclosed location where a year's worth of free psychotherapy would be provided, because you guys are all so profoundly and pathetically fu*&ed up.
But perhaps I am being unfair, or even unkind. I was taught as a child that it is mean to make fun of people who are disabled or retarded or otherwise impaired. And if your Israel impairment came as the result of something horribly traumatic, I would like to know about it. It would make me understand your personal anti-Semitism a bit better.
So here is a legitimate and public invitation: I am asking you to join me on a two- to three-hour hiking date at the setting of your choosing, wherein I might have the opportunity to hear you out. Sitting in a restaurant would give me shpilkes and I want to create an opportunity for conversation to flow freely, unimpeded by the eavesdropping of neighboring diners. Besides, I love the great outdoors. While I can recommend numerous wonderful settings within an hour's drive of New York City, such as Bear Mountain, Harriman Park, the Adirondack Trail, the Heritage Trail, Hook Mountain and other such places, it would be nice if you got to choose your favorite hiking spot.
In the course of our hiking date, I would like to get to know you -- intellectually and spiritually. Don't worry about anything romantic, I am a married woman. But I think we would get along, after all, I'm a good listener and we've got a lot in common. You teach at NYU, I live across the street from Columbia University -- we're practically neighbors. You're Jewish and I'm Jewish -- we're practically mishpocha. You are obsessed with Israel and I am obsessed with Israel -- there is no danger that we'd run out of conversation.
So let me reiterate my sincere invitation: Tony, would you join me, on a hiking date somewhere in the New York area, so that I may get to know you? You can reply to me via e-mail at email@example.com.
I look forward to spending time together and challenging my personal opinion about you and your sadly fu*&ed-up views.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
At 8:40 yesterday, I strode into Skyview Wine and Liquor on Riverdale Avenue charged with a mission -- to outfit Seders #1 and #2 with numerous bottles of sophisticated Kosher for Passover wine, predominantly red, with one bottle of the sweet stuff thrown in for tradition's sake.
At 8:41, I stopped dead in my tracks, completely and utterly overwhelmed. Whereas my friendly Manhattan liquor store had a nicely-contained kosher section from which I grab the same bottle of Noah Merlot at every visit, this entire emporium seemed devoted to the task of getting Jewish people totally tanked and to this end, offered scores of kosher offerings from the four corners of the earth.
I had a moment of sheer vertigo as I stared down racks and rows of merlots, chiantis, cabernets, bordeaux, burgundies, chenin blancs, reislings, chablises, beaujolaises, riojas and other types of wine I had never heard of before...all blessed with rabbinic supervision. Holy @#$%! I thought, glancing wildly around the store for some assistance. So many wines...so little knowledge!
Fortunately, a savvy young dude in a suit and kippah appeared by my side -- drawn, no doubt, by my audible hyperventilation -- and offered his assistance. Five minutes and $180 later, I walked out with my case of sophisticated reds, respectable whites and a bottle of barely-alcoholic Kool-Aid disguised as Kedem Concord Grape.
I have no idea what I actually bought, only that it was met with a cocked eyebrow of approval by HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) and by disbelief by 17-year-old Middle Babe when I pulled up in front of our apartment building in our red minivan to unload both the booze and the last-minute Fairway shopping from pre-Passover trip #1000.
"How much did you buy?" she demanded as Alfie the Pomeranian strained at the leash. BOMB, her adorable curly-haired boyfriend, waved in greeting. He wore sandals in celebration of the springlike weather. I know they had tried -- and failed -- to get into a Ranger's game earlier this evening and ended up going for dinner in midtown. Now they were bound, with Alfie, for a Starbucks on Broadway and W115th Street for a quick tea before we launched into b'dikat chametz -- the ritual of hiding -- and seeking -- pieces of bread in one's house in preparation for entering the leavening-free zone of Passover.
About 20 minutes later, the wines all shelved, the food from Fairway squeezed into fridge and the Passover pantry, HOBB and I dispatched 10-year-old Little Babe to hide chunks of an Italian sub (purchased a couple of hours earlier from Hamilton Deli) throughout the apartment. "Only ten," HOBB admonished Little Babe. "And remember where you hid them!"
As Little Babe set out with his bag of bread, chuckling diabolically, Big Babe, our eldest son, a junior at Columbia University, showed up from his dorm across the street at East Campus. He had interrupted his writing of a paper on James Joyce to participate in this beloved ritual. Shortly, Middle Babe and BOMB returned with Alfie from their walk, Little Babe crowed that the bread was hidden and the whole family gathered in front of the dining room table to commence the ritual.
B'dikat chametz literally means "checking for unleavened food," and it is the penultimate ritual prior to the official beginning of Passover. (The final ritual is biyyur chametz, or the burning of the chametz, where one takes the assembled bread from b'dikat chametz and burn it in a bonfire the following morning -- though some people also participate in that legalistic fiction exercise of mekhirat chametz, the selling of one's non-Passover food to a non-Jew, which enables one both not to own nor get rid of one's unleavened food during the holiday. Afterwards, one simply "buys" it back.)
In any case, by the time one tip-toes through one's abode, candle in hand, seeking out hidden crumbs, the house has to be thoroughly cleaned and prepared for the holiday. For people like us -- who merge traditional observance with a decidedly un-OCD attitude towards cleaning -- the preparations for the holiday are actually fun, even if they do entail a certain amount of physical labor, such as the shlepping of Passover pots, dishes and silverware out of their storage places and marathon food shopping.
Though Jewish law mandates perfoming b'dikat chametz immediately following sundown on the night before the Eve of Passover, we decided to wait until the older children could be home as b'dikat chametz is a beloved ritual, solemn yet goofy, performed in darkness and silence. Walking in a line through the unlit night apartment, we search by the light of a lone candle for pieces of bread, refraining from speech yet making all kinds of noises to indicate confusion or revelation or appreciation for an especially witty hiding place.
When all the bread is discovered, we bundle the pieces, the candle, the feather we used to sweep the surface clean and usually a handkerchief into a package to be sent for burning the next morning. We utter a prayer in Aramaic that renders us free of responsibility for all further, unknown leavened products lurking in our abode. We have only 12 hours left at the point within which to eat such foods -- outside of the house, of course -- before the observance of the eight-day Passover holiday begins.
It is now morning, the Eve of Passover, and I am writing these words as Little and Middle Babe are sleeping. HOBB and Big Babe went to an early synagogue service -- siyyum bechorim --- the feast of the firstborns, which caps a ritual for first-born Jewish males who might normally be required to fast in homage to Pharoah's decree to kill their ancient counterparts and the final, horrific Plague -- death of the first-born sons -- from which all Hebrews were exempt due to the painting of their thresholds with blood to avert the Angel of Death.
All is quiet and ready for Passover, save for the cooking of the first seder meal, which I will undertake around 3 pm. On the phone last night, my sister-in-law, who is sailing off to a hotel for the entire holiday with my parents (for the past fifteen years or so, my mother has refused to make Passover at home), asked me if I finished cooking yet. As I was on my way to Fairway to track down meat, fruit and walnuts, I had to laugh. I have never cooked anything more than a few hours in advance over the course of my entire adulthood and hope I never do. The secret ingredient in my cooking is adrenaline.
But truly, the secret ingredient in my Seder meals is love of the holiday. As HOBB and I cleaned and shlepped and shopped and planned -- often deep into the night -- a deep joy and relaxation spread over me. While I love all Jewish holidays I am especially fond of this one, which mandates that we meet up with our ancestors, the escaping Hebrew slaves, and cross the Red Sea together, sharing with them that moment of nation-making and freedom.
Dipping into the moxie of our great-great-great-grandparents every year for the duration of our history as a people is a key element of the so-called Secrets of Jewish Survival. Sitting around the Seder table, we recall their refusal to accept slavery as their lot. In the most privileged and most dismal of circumstances, Jews have observed Passover, told tales from the Hagaddah, sang songs from the Seder, tasted bitter herbs, hid the afikomen, banished leavened products from their households. The result is an awesome, millenia-long chain of observance, indestructible.
And though there has been a growing tradition of retreating to special Passover hotels and resorts -- in the Catskills, in Arizona, in Mexico, in Israel, in California, in Florida, aboard cruises and ever more exotic locales -- for staggering sums of money (about 10 K for a family of 5 for the entire holiday), I staunchly defend the endangered practice of making Passover at home, centering it within the place we conduct our normal lives.
Passover is an opportunity to enter into a realm of complete otherness and dwell there for eight days, connecting with one's past and future, emerging transformed.
So it was that last night on Morningside Heights, a family of five plus a visiting boyfriend and the resident Pomeranian, stopped the rhythm of their 21st century lives and entered into the ancient ritual of b'dikat chametz, checking for unleavened bread products, forbidden during Passover. With exaggerated hand-motions and lots of silly sounds, they proceeded through the darkened rooms of their Columbia apartment, seeking out the 10 pieces of bread that their youngest member had planted, awaiting discovery.
Between last night and 3 pm today, there is still the business of the professional world to attend to...classes to be taught, press releases to be sent to the media, students to meet with, ads to be written, calls to be made and returned. Yet, in about six hours, the parents of this family will haul out their pots and pans and embark upon the cooking of the first Seder meal, remembering to set out bowls of salt water to recall the tears of the slaves, sprigs of parsley to designate springtime, the delicious walnut, wine and apple dish called haroset which pays homage to the bricks built by the slaves, the burnt turkey neck to recall the sacrificial shankbone, slivers of horseradish root to recall the bitterness of affliction....and, of course, matza, the uber-unleavened product.
The ritual items of the Passover seder will dwell alongside the roast turkey, savory meat, steamed asparagus, herbed potatoes, eggplant stew, salads and desserts of the sumptuous feast that is a symbol of our freedom. And when the children and guests fill the table with conversation and the ancient text of the Hagaddah, the celebration will be complete.
Monday, March 13, 2006
Weirdly, if you mush together H-A-M-A-S and I-R-A-N, guess what you get??
That's right. Haman lives. But not for long.
The way-cool story of Purim, compellingly rendered in the Scroll of Esther, or Megillat Esther, clues us in on a recurring theme in history: Evil people will concoct evil plans to annihilate Israel and the Jewish People. Tragic events will come to pass but those who seek to destroy the Jews will ultimately be defeated.
In every generation, misguided minds have been inspired to attempt what has historically proved impossible: wiping the Jews off the map.
From Pharoah fretting that his Hebrew slaves have been multiplying like pestilence to the biblical nation of Amalek (Haman's mishpocha) sneaking up on the escaping Israelites to the H-Man himself who was miffed because little Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down to him, to the Romans, the Syrians, the Syrian-Greeks, the Crusaders and the Grand Inquisitor who all had tantrums of mass destruction because the Jews worshipped Jehovah to the lumber-headed, rape-crazed Cossacks to the inimitable evil of Adolf the 20th Century H-Man and his Million Aryan March, to the poisonously petulant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the chilling character of Ismail Haniyah and all who preach contemporary Jew-hatred, this singular notion -- Hey! Let's Kill the Jews! -- has proven to have surprising staying power.
You would think that Iran would at least conduct a Google-search before undertaking the impossible mission of destroying Israel. I really think that Ahmaninejad's administration should at least create a budget line for a research assistant to prepare a feasibility study on this matter. Think about it. For way less than $100 -- the cost of about ten-hours of work from a computer-literate Iranian teen at the teen-friendly rate of $10 an hour -- Iran would end up saving something in the neighborhood of several million dollars. In addition, the advance legwork would save Ahmadinejad several painful post-mortems with his military on just why the mission failed and how the hell the Israelis could have so easily nuked the nuclear reactor, not to mention irritating condolence calls from folks like Haniyah and Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad.
But, screw 'em. Those who don't learn from history....
Meanwhile, here in the Big City, signs of Purim are everywhere. Almost every bakery in town has hamantaschen, the traditional pastry, shaped like a triangle and filled with anything from apricot to poppy seed to prune jam to Nutella; toy shops boast of their costume selections; restaurants (both kosher and non-kosher) offer a "traditional Purim meal." Even nominally Jewish shops seductively spin their pitches in Purimspeak, appealing to Jews and Jewish wanna-be's alike.
The most extreme and entertaining example of a not-necessarily-Jewish emporium doing Jewish outreach is the East Village store New York Costumes: The Halloween Adventure (www.newyorkcostumes.com). Seemingly staffed by Dracula's nieces and nephews with a few extras borrowed from Dawn of the Dead, this hardcore costume shop was populated yesterday by the most hybrid mix of humanity: Hasidic families, hipsters, goths, terrified-looking Jews from the suburbs, little boys with kipot, Eurotourists, teen girls with low-cut jeans and Stars of David, shleppy Upper West Siders, Brownstone Brooklynites, high school drama teachers, drama queens, drag queens, you name it, most of whom were drawn by the ad campaign the store had created, billing itself as a Purim headquarters.
The store was a mecca of marvelousness for me and Little Babe, who wandered in yesterday afternoon, shortly after lunch. Our previous costume-hunting journey on Friday ended in disaster when Little Babe bolted out of Abracadabra on W21st Street in a fit of terror.
(Evidently, Abracadabra had just acquired the Vincent Price estate and macabre artifacts lined the store: a 7-ft. tall gargoyle, leering clown heads, corpses propped up against a wall, terrifying visages, moving bookcases, bloodied body parts and more.)
Though it took a bit of cajoling to get Little Babe to enter New York Costumes (eyes squeezed shut, little hand squeezing my own) after the Abracadabra fiasco, once inside, he was won over by the gay (and I mean that in the old-fashioned way) spirit of celebration and the endless merchandise filling the friendly store.
Meanwhile, during the course of our leisurely visit, we found Little Babe's coveted JS Bach wig (only $14.99 and it also doubles as a Mozart and George Washington wig!), a pair of zebra-striped sunglasses for me and a couple of prank items Little Babe had been hankering for: a switchblade comb and a disappearing-blade (plastic) knife.
Reassuring Little Babe that we would get the remainder of his JS Bach costume from our local Salvation Army shop, we journeyed uptown to the Jewish Museum (www.jewishmuseum.org) to see the Sarah Bernhardt and Max Liebermann exhibitions.
Little Babe's reactions to the two exhibitions were exactly the opposite of what I would have expected. He was bored silly by the captivating multi-media Bernhardt show which featured footage of her performances, artifacts, costumes, jewelry, posters and paraphernalia and sighed and yawned his way through the darkened space, barely glancing at the video screens which showed her fainting and gesticulating and creating her own immortality.
Unexpectedly, however, Little Babe was quietly attentive as we walked through the Liebermann space, listening as I read him the gallery notes, commenting on the canvases, perking up when I pointed out sites in Amsterdam that Liebermann had painted and we had visited, noting the increasingly somber cast of his self-portraits, growing pensive as he contemplated Liebermann's iconic career coming to a grinding halt as Hitler rose to power and his work was officially banned, removed from museums, his artistic footprints erased as if he had never existed.
"Hitler didn't just hate Jews. He also hated art," Little Babe observed as we were leaving the exhibition.
The sadness of the abrupt end of Max Liebermann's brilliant career (he died in 1935 and his wife took poison upon learning that she was to be deported to Thereisenstadt in 1943) stayed with me for several hours after we left the Jewish Museum. Yes, it seemed appropriate to hear his tale on the eve of the eve of Purim (Hitler as Haman), but the message of Purim is triumph not tragedy.
Thus it was that I found myself barrelling northward with Little Babe in our red Dodge Caravan towards another mecca -- Trader Joe's (www.traderjoes.com) -- to buy ingredients for hamantaschen, the cookies that are shaped like Haman's hat and most deliciously symbolize the defeat of our enemies. Tonight, after Little Babe and I return from the revelry that is the public reading of the megillah in shul, I wil roll up my sleeves, clear a kitchen counter and make my buttery, whole wheat and Nutella hamantaschen, which Little Babe and I will then distribute to friends and homeless folks alike tomorrow afternoon, on Purim Day.
Sometimes I feel sorry for my children, growing up in a horrible new, post 9/11 reality, so different from my own secure, suicide-bomber-free childhood. When I was a kid, Israel was under constant attack but the rest of the world seemed chastened, horrified by the Holocaust, on their best behavior vis-a-vis the Jews. In those days, it seemed that the Arabs were the only outspoken enemies of the Jews (until we found out, of course, that ya couldn't really be Jewish in the Soviet Union either and that there were Jewish prisoners of conscience, still, the persecution seemed part of the whole corrupt and dysfunctional Communist mishegoss).
In the horrible new world in which my kids are coming of age, the hatred of Jews exists in sensaround, coming from all directions and in all guises. Sometimes it even comes from within, with Jews spouting the worst -- and most cliched -- type of anti-Semitic sewage.
A recent example of this was the appearance of the miscreant Norman Finkelstein on the Columbia U campus last week, invited by (big surprise) the Muslim Student Association, venting his tired tirade of Jew-hatred. The child of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein has a worldview that posits that Jews have misused their victimization to gain cold hard cash and exonerate themselves of acts of inhumanity. Most unoriginally (yawn), Finkelstein calls Israel the greatest perpetrator of these crimes. Blah, blah, blah.
(Someone get this guy onto a couch... and fast. If anyone was ever in need of psychological help, it is Norman Finkelstein. I heard the guy talk at Columbia in 2000 and he is the most pathetic, f%*ked-up little specimen of manhood I have ever beheld. Hey Normy...Newsflash! You hate your parents, not the entire Jewish people. You hate yourself, not Israeli schoolchildren. It's called displacement. Get some help before it's too late.)
The world in which I was raised was NormanFinkelstein-Free. Back in the good old days, no one in the civilized world would give Norman the Nutjob a podium...unless by podium one meant a soapbox on the Bowery, where my "aunt" Lillian used to take me when I was a tiny little Bungalow Babe in order to learn about the inequity of the world and become galvanized to acts of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.
Ao, another new and disturbing feature of my kids' collective world seems to be this mutant creation -- Kill-Me Norman -- trying out out-Jew-hate Adolf and Mahmoud and Ismail and Mahathir and all those pea-brained neo-Nazis meeting in the hills of Idaho or wherever-the-hell.
Which means that our people need the bravery, vigilance, intelligence and historical long-view of Mordechai and Esther more than ever.
It is nearly 4:30 in the afternoon on the Eve of Purim 2006. Little Babe has just come home from school, dramatically dragging himself across the threshold in a manner that would have made Sarah Bernhardt proud. He is faint with hunger, valiantly and prematurely opting, at the age of 10, to observe The Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther's fast before she petitioned the foolish, love-besotted King Ahashverosh on behalf of her people. Big Babe, unmindful of the fast, has come home from his Columbia dorm to forage in the kitchen and select his Purim costume. Middle Babe and HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) are asleep in India, having attended a Megillah reading earlier in the evening. Soon, I will begin to pull together the pieces for my own costume for synagogue tonight, either a mod go-go dancer or a loopy old Miami Beach matron, whichever one makes me look thinner.
As I stand uncertainly in the foyer of the 21st Century, I gratefully embrace the holiday of Purim. Purim is an unapologetic, kick-ass celebration of Jewish survival. It is a no-holds-barred collective thumbing of our nose at our enemies. When Haman's name is mentioned, we boo and yell and grind noisemakers and sit on whoopie cushions and stamp our feet and even blow trumpets to blot out his name. When we read that he and his sons are hung on the gallows which he built for Mordechai, we cheer. The reading of the Scroll of Esther is a great, participatory psychodrama. We dress up in costumes. We repeat verses along with the megillah-reader. Purim is The Great Dictator, The Producers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show of Jewish holidays...all rolled into one.
And when we reach the end of the Scroll of Esther and Haman has been defeated, we party like it's 1999.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
(I'm also stuck walking Alfie the Pomeranian twice daily, which I try to do while moving the van. Multi-tasking is the Manhattanite's only shot at survival.)
Having last moved the van on Tuesday morning (Wednesday, in our neighborhood, is an Alternate Side of the Street Parking-Free Day), I had only a hazy recollection of the parking regulations for the south side of W105th Street, where I had scored a spot after only 25 minutes of block-circling two days earlier. I did remember, however, that the street rules were in effect from 8:30-10:00 a.m. After a futile conversation with the affectless operator at 311, Bloomberg's telephonic gift to NYC, I realized that I needed to haul my butt down to W105th Street by 8:30 or risk being ticketed.
Let me be candid. It was a shock being out at 8:15 a.m., venturing well beyond the parameters of my regular Alfie pee-pee 'n poop circuit. I am not accustomed to witnessing the Upper West Side waking up. Working out of home office in my Morningside Heights apartment, I begin my professional day by 7:45 a.m. and typically do not see the outside world until late in the afternoon. This possibly masochistic workstyle is shared by my assistant, Julie, who works out of her home office in much the same way. I am moved to leave my office only for meetings, emergencies (Gd Forbid!) and trips to the gym, though due to the location of my gym at the JCC of Manhattan (www.jccmanhattan.org), I am usually able to multi-task my workouts with social or professional networking.
Anyway, unaccustomed as I am to joining the morning herd of students and professionals shuffling up and down Broadway en route to office or class, I found myself withdrawing into a reverie about a recent conversation with a friend (all names have been changed to protect the innocent. Any resemblance to people you might know is strictly a product of your dirty imagination.)
My friend Talia (no, let's call her Mary Alice), called to bring me up to date on her relationship with David (uh, how's Christopher?), which has been going on for about a year. Mary Alice is 45 (make that 35). Christopher is 50, (actually, let's say 40). She is an editor (hmmm...how about cocktail waitress?) and he is a lawyer (wait....no. A professional cricket player!) They met at Makor (umm, make that The Learning Annex.)
From the way she spoke about him, it was obvious, at least to me, that Mary Alice cared for Christopher a great deal. Though they didn't see each other a lot, there seemed to be a strong bond between them.
Anyway, after a particularly romantic Sunday at the Mohonk Mountain House (...whoa, I didn't mean to write that! I meant the Sheraton Tara in Parsipanny, NJ) Mary Alice called Christopher and they gushed happily about their time together. The day had been extraordinary for Mary Alice and Christopher said it was special for him, too. They spoke several times during the week, but it was only as Shabbat (er, the weekend), was looming that Mary Alice realized that she had initiated all the phone calls they had shared.
"I'll call you tomorrow," promised Christopher on the Thursday night of their final phone call. But he didn't. Nor did he call once during the week. Something was up, Mary Alice thought. But what? In the course of the previous weekend, Christopher had extolled their friendship in addition to their sizzle between the sheets. But she also remembered a warning note creeping into his voice when she pointed out that they never discussed their feelings for one another. "If you feel things are going in that direction..." he said ominously, looking off into the distance.
As she was painstakingly mining their previous conversations for additional clues and conducting a full-scale a Relationship-Year-in-Review, Mary Alice had a profound revelation. She and Christopher hardly ever went out together. For the space of one year, their relationship had taken place almost entirely within the confines of a bedroom.
Sitting with Talia (um, Mary Alice), at Cafe Edgar's (I mean The Olive Garden), I felt like a character on an episode of Sex in the City, an archetype -- the sympathetic married friend with a healthy touch of realism that the sad yet starry-eyed single gal is in desperate need of.
Yes, it was possible that Christopher had suddenly had to leave the country or that he entered a witness protection program or was sequestered as the member of a jury on a high-profile murder case, but something in my gut told me otherwise. Since the best-selling phrase, He's Just Not That Into You had already been co-opted, I felt moved to tell my friend a true thing or two, Bungalow Babe-style...but she beat me to it.
"I thought we were soulmates, but it turns out that we were just F%*k Buddies," she said sadly, yet sagaciously, having analyzed her year-long tryst from every possible angle and being forced to conclude that it was only just that, after all -- a tryst.
Ever since I first heard that phrase uttered by the brilliantly bizarre store manager played by actress Jane Lynch in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, I have both loved and hated the sound of it. F%*k Buddy. So shocking yet succinct. F%*k Buddy sounds like the grown-up participant of a Play Date. If I had a F%*k Buddy and wanted to see him (or her), surely our Mommies would call each other to make arrangements.
F%*k Buddy. So carefree. So unadorned. So friendly. So no-fees/no-obligation. It's the sexual equivalent of Commerce Bank, which took the formidable grown-up aspect out of banking and made it as brightly-colored as a candy shop (they even have bowls of red lollipops) and as inviting as a toy store. The message of Commerce Bank is come and play. You can almost forgot that your money hangs in the balance.
Here's what I've observed as a very-married Babe in the Big City: in the crazed, over-programmed professional and personal lives that we lead in this metropolis, single babes often unwittingly become the F%*K Buddies of men who pass themselves off as prospective boyfriends (forget husbands, for now. This is not about marriage as the ultimate aim, but emotional intimacy.) Sometimes women are fooled by an emotional con artist; other times, they delude themselves when the reality is as bright as bling. I know that there are some mythic, uber-liberated chicks who claim that they aim only to be someone's F%*k Buddy, not girlfriend, but I don't believe they represent a critical mass of femalekind.
As I walked the streets early this morning to save my van from being ticketed, I thought of Mary Alice and the quest for love and intimacy and the phenomenon of adult F%*k Buddies (until this recent conversation, I had kinda thought that F%*k Buddies and Friends-with-Benefits were strictly adolescent pursuits). I was wondering how many men get burned by being the unwitting F%*k Buddies of women. I was considering how to write about this subject without going off on a rant against guys or even the concept of F%*k Buddies...which might be okay (not to mention fun) as long as both (or more) parties agree that the raison d'etre of their relationship is f%*king and nothing else.
Such as love. Or intimacy. Or caring. Or even friendship.
As I reached the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and W105th Street, I suddenly realized that the concept of Alternate Side of the Street Parking regulations had everything to do with what was on my mind. Instability is the theme of our contemporary urban lives. What is good on Monday is bad for Tuesday, but it's okay for Thursday... just not on Friday. You're okay where you are as long as you move by 8:30 or 11:00 a.m. Don't even think of standing there. It's fine if you're with me on Sunday but not on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Saturday morning is okay, though.
Just make sure to leave by noon.
And let's agree that feelings have absolutely nothing to do with what we do together.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
While shlepping through Loehmann's yesterday with Middle Babe, I had an epiphany. Shmendrick, one of my favorite words in the Yiddish language was, in fact, only a mamaloshen* wannabe, a Yankee Doodle Dandy wrapped in Jewish garb, trying to pass as a Hebrew homie.
This startling revelation came to me as I beheld a row of men sitting outside the dressing room on the second floor, clutching the pocketbooks of their respective damsels and more often than not surrounded by a bevy of bags.
Shopping. Men. Dressing Room. Sh-Men-Dr....Ick! In a flash it came to me! Some clever Webster musta pulled this word together after witnessing this pathetic phenomenon I was now privy to -- men cajoled into joining their women on clothing shopping expeditions and then reduced to waiting for them while they tried on zillions of outfits in Loehmann's famous communal dressing room in search for that perfect metziah!**
I'm guessing that the origin of shmendrick is early 20th century when indeed, the retail industry and the shmatta, er, clothing industry abounded with Jewish names and Jews were renowned as tailors. Probably, some young de Toucqueville went traipsing through a famous Manhattan department store, say, B. Altman, saw the waiting men exuding quiet desperation and was moved to exclaim, "Shmendrick!!!" (all the while thinking, Shopping...Men...Dressing Room...Ick!!!) whereupon one of the men who had been waiting for about five hours fell down from the surprise of hearing a male voice and his wife, emerging from the dressing room after having tried on her 275th dress, discovered her husband lying atop her (now-destroyed) ostrich-feather hat, hit him on the head with her purse and everyone around thought that shmendrick had to do with the guy who fell down and was hit by his wife and its original meaning was lost forever.
Though its origin was misplaced until this very minute, the phenomenon of the shmendrick lives on.
Case in point: yesterday, Shmendrick Row at Loehmann's boasted a diverse gathering of dudes including a committed to co-parenting dad with an infant strapped to his chest in a Baby Bjorn; a cooler-than-thou leather-clad hipster in his early thirties; a middle-aged out-of-towner in clashing shades of beige; and a Hasidic man conducting business on his cellphone.
Around the store, several other Shmendricks shlepped after their women, wearing looks that reminded me of Alfie's expression when I deliver him to the dog groomer at the beginning of the summer for his annual haircut.
God, they looked miserable, those shmendricks! Beholding them, I wished to inspire them to revolution, to rise and throw off their shopping shackles and run unimpeded into the bars of Chelsea to engage in some real male bonding over beer and a ballgame. What the #$%& were these guys doing here...and what woman wanted this abuse on her conscience? Certainly not I!!
As I trudged behind Middle Babe, carrying her shopping bags from H&M and Abracabadra (costumes from Once Upon a Mattress, performed last week by her high school, starring her as Princess Winnifred the Woebegone), I tried to imagine dragging HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) with me on a shopping excursion and realized that having him around me in any retail setting was sure to induce misery, perhaps more in me than him.
HOBB is the most anti-consumerist person I know. Buying couches for our living room for the first time after 22 years of marriage this past fall (previous couches were all family cast-offs) nearly resulted in his hospitalization from emotional trauma. Our little march down the aisles of Tiffany and Co. nearly 23 years ago to select my engagement ring had to be followed by a nourishing lunch at The Great American Health Bar after his blood pressure fell precipitously. He has been known to bolt out of Bloomingdale's and meander through Macy's in a zomboid state, alarming security guards and shoppers alike. Even popping into Fairway to buy dinner fare is something he tries to avoid.
Dragging this dude with me in order to have him sit on a bench with a group of condemned men -- think of them as Dead Men Shopping -- so that I can pop out of the dressing room every five minutes to grill him on whether this dress/skirt/suit/pair of pants/bathing suit/shoes/necklace/bracelet/pair of socks makes my butt look big seems to me an act of intolerable cruelty, not to mention a completely futile venture because our marriage is a big-butt-free zone, that is, HOBB has never once told me that my butt looks big in anything (even when it most certainly has) most likely because someone tipped him off to the fact that you can NEVER, under any circumstances, EVER tell your wife that her butt looks big.
And anyway, having HOBB along while I drift mindlessly through rows of frocks would completely ruin the therapeutic aspect of shopping for me. I might have to talk to him, destroying the lovely reverie I enter into. I might have to help him find the men's room. He might try to talk me into buying an article of clothing that is annoyingly modest, more suitable for synagogue, say, than my current sacriligious style. Come to think of it, I cannot think of a single reason to have him along, in fact, if he actually insisted upon accompanying me on a shopping expedition, I might have to melodramatically threaten to throw myself off the top of Daffy's Herald Square.
I can carry my own frickin' bags, for godsake!!!
Lest you think that this is a rant against men shopping, please let me reassure you that I believe men are entitled to the same retail indulgences as their female counterparts. And just as Shmendricks are completely pathetic, so, too, Shwomfricks (Shopping...Women...Fitting Room...Ick!!!) are just as terrible to behold: women turned a shade of bilious yellow, leaning against the wall of a place like Syms, trying to ignore the fact that their husbands' waistlines have grown another 4 inches since last year.
In fact, for anyone dying to receive acclaim for coining a faux Yiddish word, Shwomfrick is up for grabs. E-mail me to find out how much it'll cost you to pass it off as your own invention.
Let me be orthodox about this: the only time it is appropriate to accompany a member of the opposite sex on a clothing shopping expedition is when you are their parent. So that's what I was doing yesterday with Middle Babe and gladly do for her brothers, Big and Little Babe. Of course, at 21, Big Babe prefers to shop by himself and favors such outre venues as ebay and the Salvation Army on W96th Street, where he has scored amazing purchases for peanuts. I wish that Time Out New York (www.timeoutny.com) would take notice of his style and feature him in their magazine. (Att: Fashion Editor. He can be reached via his blog at ajgoldmann.blogspot.com) And 10-year-old Little Babe can only be dragged to a limited number of dressing rooms before having a complete meltdown and tearfully petitioning me for a pet hedgehog.
So, yeah, I'd have to say that the best, most-authentic clothing shopping experience can be shared between two people of the female persuasion, preferably if they are related. Who better to laugh and cry with in the dressing room when the three-way mirror reveals a butt that is not just big but taking over the world as we know it?? Who better to depend upon for honest appraisal of your prospective purchases? Who can better talk you out of disastrous fashion mistakes and talk you into brilliant style coups? And who can better convince you to buy something just because they actually want to wear it but don't want to shell out the cash??
So, today, RIGHT THIS MINUTE, I hereby propose a national holiday, something bigger than International Women's Month, Black History Month or even Take Our Daughters to Work Day. (Copywriters at Bungalow Babe in the Big City are currently hard at work drafting the exact wording for the charter.) While our nation was sleeping, a new generation of Shmendricks rose up -- no longer just from the suburbs or the Upper East Side or Cleveland. These new Shmendricks hail from Williamsburg (the cool section, not the Hasidic section); from Park Slope, from W86th Street, from Hastings-on-Hudson, f'crissakes!!
These neo-Shmendricks -- hip, young and sexy -- threaten the integrity of our social fabric. Sisters, unite!!! Shackle your men to the kitchen counter and take your womenfolk shopping today!!
*mothertongue, i.e. -- Yiddish
**a real find
Saturday, March 04, 2006
His name was Ilan Halimi. Her name was Imette St. Guillen. Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'may rabbah.*
The outlines of their cases have some striking similarities. Last seen by a friend at The Falls, a bar on Lafayette Street in SoHo, Imette's naked, battered, raped and asphyxiated body was found along a desolate backroad in Brooklyn last week, wrapped in a cheap, floral-patterned quilt. Her trademark mane of shiny black hair had been chopped off. Her face had been covered with strips of packing tape. A sock was shoved down her throat. Ilan was discovered on February 13th, stumbling naked, burned, beaten, bruised and bound out of the woods near a train station 15 miles from Bagneux, France, evidently dumped out of a vehicle and left for dead. His head was shaved and adhesive tape covered his hands and eyes. Acid burns covered 60 percent of his body. He had been held captive for the preceding three weeks in a cellar apartment on Rue Serge Prokofiev in Bagneux, tortured continuously. Phone calls made to family members featured the sounds of his agony in the background. Photos of his torture were sent over the internet. He died in an ambulance on the day he was discovered, en route to the hospital.
Though the French police initially resisted treating the Halimi case as a hate-crime, there is no doubt, now that the investigation is over a month and a half old and most of the perpetrators have been caught, that Ilan was chosen to be tortured and killed because he was a Jew. For Imette, only one week into the investigation, there are no leads on the motive of her killers, though experts in the field of criminal psychology have noted the serial-killer-like details of the case, the likelihood of more than one participant in her torture and slaying and the hatred -- though anonymous -- that marks the means of her murder.
Of the dozens of articles I have read on Ilan Halimi, none are finer than the one by Nidra Poller, an American writer living in Paris, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Check it out at: http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110008006&ojrss=wsj. Meanwhile, with the plethora of pieces in the New York and Boston papers, I am hard pressed to recommend just one article or newslink about Imette St. Guillen. I have been impressed, however, with the clarity and dignity of the NY Times's coverage: www.nytimes.com.
There are so many stages with these high-profile murder cases...the Breaking News stage of shocking headlines and incomplete information; the Rush to Report stage of media venues racing to retrieve new details from the case, (resulting in information overload for the general public and the creation of rumors); the Parade of Pundits stage where commentators compete to contextualize the crime or draw some greater, larger meaning from it; the A-List News stage where the story dominates newspapers and networks and seems to become a part of the world in which we live; the Relevant Yet no Longer Shocking stage where the case recedes somewhat in the mind of the public; the Also-Ran stage when the story is suddenly upstaged by an even more horrific case; and every stage after that in which work the story bobs and weaves its way in and out of public awareness even as the investigation goes on and the real-life tragedy shatters the lives of those who loved the victim.
It is late on a Saturday night. I am enmeshed within yet another stage -- the Horrific Proof of Man's Inhumanity stage. I desperately want to go to sleep yet I am haunted by the brutal murders of Ilan and Imette, a Hansel and Gretel who wandered into the witch's house and found out the terrible truth about fairy tales. They seem familiar to me, perhaps because I am so familiar with their too-short biographies right now. Imette lived on the Upper West Side -- my own neighbhorhood. Ilan lived in Paris, a city I dearly love (despite the growing anti-Semitism there, which began well before this celebrated case). The footpaths of their lives might have overlapped with my own.
The proximity of certain passings seem to transcend mere coincidence. Famously, there are the cases of elderly spouses dying close together; in fact, just last week I attended a shiva **for a friend's father whose wife had passed on five weeks earlier. I remember the death of Mother Teresa following on the heels of Princess Diana's death. We were living in Jerusalem at the time and when I heard the news of Diana's death, I burst into tears, instantly falling into mourning for an iconic woman whose life could not have been more different than my own, but whom I had always identified with. When, days later, Mother Teresa died, I felt that she had willed her own passing, knowing that Diana -- too young, bereft of her small sons, was in need of her consolation in heaven.
So, too, I feel that there is a spiritual connection between the deaths of Ilan Halimi and Imette St. Guillen. Somehow, I see Imette -- the dedicated and brilliant young student of criminal law -- summoned to heaven by the Celestial Court after the despicable murder of Ilan, enlisted to train an army of angels so that they might intervene in earthly affairs when mankind, fueled by hatred, turns most inhumane.
*Great and Holy is His Name. The opening words of the Kaddish -- a prayer of mourning recited by an immediate family member.
**The seven-day period of mourning proscribed by Jewish law.
Friday, March 03, 2006
I blush to file this post. Last night, I had the most mindblowing experience one can have courtesy of a telephone.
My husband flew to Denver yesterday morning, leaving me all alone in New York (not counting Big Babe, Middle Babe and Little Babe, Alfie the Pomeranian, Sam the Hamster and the newest hamsterettes -- Emma II and Rebecca II. More about them later.)
Separated by thousands of miles and a time zone, we nevertheless achieved intimacy by watching the Colbert Report together -- he from his hotel room, me, sprawled on the living room couch, breathlessly checking in with each other during the commercial breaks.
What woman doesn't fantasize about being with two men at once? Last night I lived the fantasy, with the help of television and telephone. It was like nothing I had ever experienced...a telecom menage-a-trois.
Post-Colbert, spent yet satisfied, I was channel-surfing when suddenly I wiped out on the shore of Larry King who was interviewing a Britney-blond Roseanne Barr. If ever one needed proof that blondes are, indeed, dumber than brunettes or redheads or even really senile people with white hair, here it was. Blond Roseanne was a LOT dumber than the Brunette Roseanne I remember.
I tuned in just as Larry King was prompting the exceptionally loud actress to talk about her turnaround sixteen years ago, after her life fell to pieces. Across the bottom of the screen viewers were reminded that she had multiple personality disorder, depression and other tsurris.* How was she able to eventually pull everything together?
Now, I am not a dedicated Larry King fan (in fact, I often don't get him) but I appreciated the twinkle in his eye when the K word fell from Roseanne's lips. Oh yeah, we're gonna have some fun. Kabbalah is Jewish, he asked/prompted the (embarrassingly enough) Jewish Ms. Barr. Roseanne seemed stuck, agreed that Kabbalah was Jewish, but then began talking about how universal it really is, how for centuries, people from around the world practiced it. Even Christians, she pointedly said.
Others have ranted about this, so I don't want to be redundant (or unoriginal), but really, what the @#$% is up with celebrities and Kabbalah???? If ever something was laughable, it is this. Imagine, an esoteric Jewish mystical tradition involving rigorous study and spiritual practice based on intimate knowledge of Jewish text and tradition suddenly co-opted by the most shallow people on earth....but really, just as a brand name. They have no clue what Kabbalah is about and the shanda** is that those huskters who are busily promoting the practice of celeb-kabbalah don't even have enough public relations acumen to realize that the more intelligently their practitioners can speak about Kabbalah, the better they will be able to sell their brand.
Maybe that's why I just saw cases of Kabbalah Energy Drink being handed out for free on the Columbia campus.
Meanwhile, the Roseanne ridiculousness was just an unfortunate cap to what had actually been a magical evening in the life of Bungalow Babe in the Big City...oh, and I mean before the Colbert-HOBB (husband of Bungalow Babe)-me adventure. But that magical experience was rooted in a very sad moment in the life of Little Babe who was home from school because of the snowstorm (that never actually happened, but what the hell).
I was at the JCC's gym talking to one of the coolest rabbis in the world, Rabbi Levi Kelman of Kehillat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem (in the States for a visit), when my cellphone rang. It was Little Babe calling from home. Tearfully, he informed me, "Rebecca is dead."
I stopped breathing. Rebecca is Middle Babe's best friend. Wild panic overtook me for a millisecond until I realized that I would not be receiving such horrific (Gd Forbid, pooh, pooh, pooh!!!!) news from my 10-year-old son. The Rebecca in question was a rodent, his beloved hamster.
"Oh, sweetie!" My heart went out to Little Babe who loved his pets and all animals. I pantomimed to Levi the contents of my conversation and he uttered an appropriate, barukh dayan haemet.*** Promising Little Babe a funeral in full regalia later in the day, I urged him to remove Rebecca from her cage -- wearing plastic gloves, of course -- place her inside a ziplock baggie and write a nice headstone inscription for her on an index card.
The rest of the day seemed to fly by in a haze of workaholic frenzy and suddenly, it was nighttime and Middle Babe called from New Jersey, where she had been hanging out with BOMB (boyfriend of Middle Babe) since her school also panicked because of the (non-) weather and let the kids out early.
"I'm really sorry, Mom, but could you come and pick me up???" she asked, plaintively.
I looked out the window where our red Dodge Caravan was parked, covered in ice and snow. Ugh. Actually, I was just settling in for a night of relaxation and Little Babe was looking sleepy to me. Cleaning off the car and driving it on icy roads over the GW was not really what I had in mind but yet, there was Middle Babe in New Jersey and HOBB was in Denver, so it looked like I would be shortly scraping ice.
As I got ready to drive westward, I realized the silver-lining of this excursion. Rebecca the Hamster!!! She was as yet unburied, lying fetal-curled within a Target-brand zip-lock bag on the windowsill of our front hallway! Lovingly, Little Babe had included some pine shavings for her comfort and a beautifully-written headstone inscription that began, "Dear Reb. I wish you weren't dead. But you are."
Little Babe's pet deserved a proper burial...and she would be getting one. In New Jersey.
Ten minutes later, Little Babe, Rebecca the (dead) hamster, Alfie the Pomeranian and I left the overheated confines of our apartment and headed into the arctic air. Yes, it took about 15 minutes to de-ice the car, and yes, my hands froze. Still, I was glad to be able to perform this final mitzvah. (Judaism takes proper burial very seriously).
Here's where my values got screwed up a bit. As we were driving to the highway, I was suddenly saddened by the thought of Rebecca's empty cage and realized that Petco on Broadway was probably still open at this hour. "How about stopping at Petco to look at the baby hamsters?" I suggested to Little Babe who was quietly mourning Rebecca in the back seat.
"YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" he yelled enthusiastically. Fifteen minutes later, we emerged with not one, but two new baby dwarf hamsters, which he immediately named Rebecca II and Emma II, after Emma the first who was killed this past summer by Felix the Evil Cat, Big Babe's (former) feline.
Little Babe's face shone with joy. Though delighted to see his mood lifted, I did worry about transmitting the ethic of a beloved pet as an instantly replaceable commodity.
Once in New Jersey, we tracked down Middle Babe and BOMB at a Chinese restaurant. Mooching off of their tea and fortune cookies, we planned Rebecca's funeral. BOMB suggested a local park. Little Babe and I had practiced the service on the drive over the bridge and we informed Middle Babe and Bomb that the funeral would be New Orleans-style, in homage to Mardi Gras and the city's rebirth after the devastation of Katrina.
And so, it came to pass, that around 9 pm, Little Babe, Middle Babe, BOMB, Alfie and I stood shivering in a semi-circle next to a naked tree (elm? oak? birch?beech? redwood? do Jewish people know anything about trees??) in a snowy park in Teaneck, NJ, singing Kol Ha-Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Meod (The Entire World is a Narrow Bridge), an appropriate dirge, followed by Glory, Glory Halleluyah, in both English and Hebrew. That was the NOLA part of the funeral. Placing Rebecca the hamster in the snow, we all participated in covering her burial baggie with snow and said nice things about her, such as that she didn't bite us and didn't poop too much when we let her run around the apartment.
With the atmospheric sound of a New Jersey Transit train running in the background and Alfie straining the leash, overwhelmed by the unfamiliar scent of New Jersey's dog population, we stood in the pristine snow, paying our respects to a small, furry friend, accompanying her on her journey to Hamster Heaven.
***Blessed be the True Judge. What one says upon hearing of a death.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Monday morning got off to a surreal start. A guy from the West Coast was eager to break onto the East Coast circuit with his book and message. He had a unique approach for men who need help dealing with women. He was a favorite of talk shows and had recently been quoted in the NY Post on why Valentine's Day is such a drag for guys. To this end, he wanted to talk to someone with the ear of the local media and program directors at places like the 92nd St. Y (www.92Y.org).*
Okay, I said to my friend, Judy. Send him on.
Five seconds later, my phone rang. The voice on the other end told me he wrote a book for guys who are sick of being taken advantage of by women. He wanted to come to New York to promote it, but he wondered if New York is the right venue because it is "full of princesses."
Evidently clueless that a New York woman might have special disdain for any guy who alleges that her city is filled with princesses yet all-too-eager to reveal the crux of his philosophy to a citizen of this regal city, West Coast Phone Dude immediately followed up with a statement that was stunning in both its brevity and its vulgarity:
Women, he told me, want men to kiss their asses.
It's not every day that a conversation with a prospective client opens with such bold self-expression, such brio. Women want men to kiss their asses. Wow. I pondered the meaning of that provocative statement. Now, I know that he didn't mean it in the literal sense, with apologies to Owen Wilson (http://www.wilson-brothers.com/owen/) who reportedly spent two hours this past summer licking some lassie's bare buttocks. Did he mean it, perhaps, in the defiant "go to hell" way that someone you've succeeded in pissing off might yell at you --hey, kiss my ass!! Or did he mean that women want men to grovel at their feet, dote on them, worship them, do everything humanly possible to please them, buy them expensive gifts, take them to fancy restaurants, ignore their PMS, never tell them they look fat and essentially, build their lives around them??
He meant the latter, vomiting out the various ways in which women step all over the male race. Moreover, there was an epidemic of man-hating going on. Just look at Maureen Dowd! Did I know that when she spoke at the 92nd Street Y, she packed the house while Elie Wiesel could hardly get people in to hear him? (No I didn't and I doubt it is true. Note to self: call the 92nd St Y and check in with the PR office.) And that terrible title of her book: Are Men Necessary? only stokes additional man-hatred. Could I imagine if a man had written a book called Are Women Necessary? He'd be pilloried!!
In the face of this rampant, rampaging race of princesses who longed to have their hindquarters snogged by hapless males -- and whose idea of recreation was guy-hating -- this enterprising He-Man, this social visionary, this enlightened prophet had a message: Stop the Madness. Ask me how.
As he yammered on, my Upper West Side brain began to wake up...and get really annoyed. It was not even 9:30 in the morning and some strange dude from the West Coast was basically spewing his hatred of my gender right into my tender ear. So obnoxious was he that I concluded that there was not a woman alive deserving of his loathing...not even such loathsome characters as Courtney Love or Anna Nicole Smith or Leona Helmsley or Imelda Marcos or Jackie G., the biggest bitch in my elementary school class at North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, or even Elsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Perhaps the poor schmuck had dated some of these babes! Yeah, that could kind of sour a guy's appreciation for regular girls.
Hey...aren't ya generalizing just a little bit? I ventured. None of the women I know are remotely the way you describe...
Women lie to each other, he asserted, cutting me off. They scheme and they compete with one another and they hide important information. But alone with me, they reveal themselves, they let their hair down, they stop playing games...they become naked, he said, his voice descending into a dramatic whisper.
As the word naked fell from his lips, I thought I heard the sound of his injured masculinity stirring to life. This was beginning to remind me of phone sex. (Not that I'd know, really...) Horrified yet oddly fascinated, I stayed on the line. Then, as if the conversation was not already weird enough, he began deconstructing naked, telling me that he meant it figuratively -- without artifice -- and, yes, literally. When a women talks to him, you see, there's always sexual tension. That's just a given. It oozes from his He-Man essence. Yet, being the fearless princess-slayer that he is, Mr. Refuses to Kiss Women's Asses is able to skillfully seque from sexual tension into seduction, bedding women who fall captive to his powerful, er... powers.
Listening to him, I began to wonder what was the matter with me. How come I didn't spend my every waking moment plotting Female World Domination? And what about my lovely teenage daughter, Middle Babe? No princess she, in fact, just this evening, she gave a powerhouse performance in her high school's production of The Princess and the Pea where, come to think of it, she starred as Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. Hmmm. Must ponder her playing the part of a princess. But my dear, sweet mother, MOB (mom of Bungalow Babe)! How could this strange man accuse her of crimes against MANkind?? And my beautiful friends, especially the single ones who have been far more screwed over by the men in their lives than the other way around!! And my dearly departed Grandmas! Never had a day passed when these selfless balabustehs weren't nurturing the men in their lives!
Enough, I heard my grandmothers whisper in my ear from the Other World where I sincerely hoped they were having eternal mani-pedicures after a lifetime of hard work. Get off the phone, darling. Stop wasting your time with this yutz.
And so, before Mr. Misogyny could go one step further, I interjected, telling him that our conversation had come to an end. I could not work with him. It wasn't a good shidduch.
The marriage metaphor must have thrown him, because he stammered. That's an interesting choice of words, he said, his voice suddenly panicky. Yeah, it's the way we princesses blow off guys here in New York, I thought, turning on my computer.
But why? he whined as I started reading my e-mail. The guy didn't need a publicist. He needed a Clockwork Orange-like procedure to deprogram his hate-poisoned brain.
But I wasn't going to tell him that. He might not get the allusion. And so, inspired by his forthright candor earlier in the conversation, I decided to return the favor.
"Because you're a complete jerk," I said, as the line fell blessedly silent and his words evaporated in the restored momentum of Monday morning.
*When not residing within the blogosphere of Bungalow Babe in the Big City, I run a public relations and marketing firm in NYC.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Over half the cover of today's Week in Review section is dominated by a terrifying illustration of two gargantuan, Golem-like creatures engaged in mortal combat, fingers digging into each others' faces. Their figures blend into a primitively-rendered map of the Middle East -- from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the South to Turkey and Iran in the North. Guess which country the fighting Golems represent? The headline of the article is: What a Civil War Could Look Like.
The article, by Steven R. Weisman, won its front-page placement because of the ubiquity of the question being asked earlier this past week in the wake of the attack on the Shiite mosque in Samara: is Iraq on the brink of a civil war? Phrased any number of ways, this question opened up innumerable news broadcasts and was posed to pundits and politicians alike by concerned-looking television journalists. Naturally, it made its way onto several of this morning's highly-addictive Sunday morning political roundtables on television.
(Though I listened to the kaffee klatch chat that uber-cutiepie George Stephanapolous had assembled on This Week and tuned into CNN's Reliable Sources, I will admit to not having read Weisman's article yet, chiefly because the graphic nearly scared me to death and because I was moved to go to Ikea instead to buy a wall unit for Big Babe's room.)
If you look at that horrific image for more than five seconds, your adrenaline levels will start spiking and you'll be reaching for the nitro-glycerine pills, so I advise you to direct your gaze downward, past the paper's fold, where your equilibrium will be instantly restored by a reassuring photograph bearing the far-friendlier visage of political satire's reigning It-Boy -- Stephen Colbert.
Draped above this reassuring image (a clip from a recent broadcast when he is fake-interviewing Bill Parcell, Jr.) is the headline: Laugh, and the Voters Laugh With You, or at Least at You.
Colbert is huge. He's gargantuan. He's bigger than you-know-who. Rather than accept and enjoy this simple fact, however, journalists have been tripping over themselves recently trying to deconstruct his mystique, rendered all the more mystifying by the fact that he appears for only 30 minutes on a late-night slot...when many Baby Boomers are already en route to shluffy-land.
But there is no mystery in Colbert's monster fame. He is brilliant. He is fearless. He is original. He crafts his comedy out of a place that perceives our current political reality as utterly and dangerously screwed up. Through his shtick, he blows the whistle on hypocrisy, abuse of power, liars, idiots, egomaniacs and those who would opt for truthiness over truth. (Check out Marc Peyser's Newsweek article at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11182033/site/newsweek/)
The one mystery about Colbert is, however, why politicians continue to agree to be interviewed by him when they have fairly certain proof that they are going to end up looking like morons when the Colbert Report's editors finish editing the footage. Moreover, knowing Colbert's uber-liberal weltanschuang, why would Republicans submit to requests for interviews, i.e. public humiliation before millions of viewers?
Such questions dogged me, robbing my soul of peace. Therefore, it is with tremendous gratitude-- and no small measure of relief -- that I salute Sheryl Gay Stolberg, author of the aforementioned NY Times article, for finally solving this mystery. To quote Ms. Stolberg: the show reveals an essential truth about Washington: being humiliated on national television can be better than not being on national television at all.
Whoa. That's sounding suspiciously S&M and low-self-esteem to me. Like, if my boyfriend beats me, it's better than him ignoring me? Also, it kinda reminds me of a recent analysis I saw on CNN of the Kid Rock/Scott Stapp sex-in-a-trailer with four skanky women (eww, eww, eww!!!!) video, which predicted that the scandal could catapult his career in much the same way that Paris Hilton's One Night in Paris video did for her. (Actually, I was unaware that she had a career and that it was, in fact, catapulted by the tape, but I'll accept the argument.)
Or is it just the "no such thing as bad publicity" ethic at work?
Cataloguing some painful pranks Colbert has played on his political interviewees ( he asked Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank about his "wife"; he asked Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) if "somebody bigger" put him up to the idea of proposing anti-bullying legislation; he got the explosive James R. Moran (D-VA) to fake-throw a punch at him; he got Eliot L. Engle (D-NY) to allow him to comb his thick mustache), Stolberg turns to Republican strategist Rich Galen to offer some Rashi 'n Tosefot* on why his party's politicians bend over for Colbert's whip.
Galen notes that it is the young, hip congressional aides who are convincing their bosses to stretch their appeal to "Generation Y." Also, to lose their stodgy, humorless affect. One young turk, David All, the 26-year-old press secretary of Jack Kingston (R-GA), organized a whole pr- fest around Kingston's embarrassing 15 seconds of fame.
Evidently, there is no better way to reach the young 'uns and have a stab at pretending to possess a sense of humor than by being skewered by Colbert.
I think I'll go online and try to track down that Kid Rock video.
*Yeshiva world shorthand for commentary. Rashi -- Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki -- was the famous 11th century French Biblical commentator; Tosefot are anonymous additional commentators. When used in the sentence, "Gimme the Rashi and Tosefot on that way-weird confrontation," it means, hey, dude, clue me in! What the #$% was that about????