Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where is the Jew?

Last night, Cycle 16 of America's Next Top Model premiered. I didn't watch since I'm no longer being paid to keep up with Tyra Banks. Yes, all the work I did for Cycle 15 was for money. How mercenary of me! (Sorry if you thought I was writing those recaps for Tablet out of some deep love for modeling and Tyra Banks.)

Anyway, I also didn't watch because a) I don't own a television and b) there's no modern Orthodox Jew on it this season. What's the point of watching a show about modeling if you're not tallying the number of ways a contestant may be violating Jewish laws, and in my case, connecting the episode to ridiculous songs you've learned in camp about the Sabbath and touching boys? I mean, I guess I can still tune into to see model wannabes tripping and falling as they try to balance on heels while strutting across a platform suspended four stories up. (Cause that's what real models do!) Watching models trip and fall is actually pretty awesome. While in college, I had a summer internship for a video production company and I had to watch hours and hours of fashion shows. Seeing the walking mannequins trips and fall was the highlight of this otherwise mind numbing experience.

This, I guess the ANTM producers went with some other form of outsider with strange traditions. Amish Top Model anyone? I am begging someone to make a YouTube video of this scenario. If you need inspiration, here's Weird Al's Amish Paradise.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sex Ed, Orthodox Union Style

With Congress' attempts to defund Planned Parenthood (the bill just passed muster in the House), which not only provides abortion but a whole host of other services, such as sex education and contraceptives, young poor women might have to search elsewhere for guidance. Well, look no further young high school student who is contemplating sex -- the Orthodox Union has a website to help you navigate the confusing and murky terrain of sexual relations.

The site is divided into four sections: Your Mind, Your Life, Your Soul and Your Bod. (I guess the OU is trying to appeal to the cool kids by dumping the "y" in body because these teens are so busy with their texting and hate extraneous syllables.) Clicking on any of those icons will bring you to a list of related articles. At the top of all four sections is one called, "What is Abstinence?" The other pieces are intended to support the abstinence claims. There is a story from a young woman named "Sara" who regrets having sex with her boyfriend; Suicide -- sex can make you want to kill yourself (who hasn't had post-coitus suicidal thoughts?); And an informational piece about condoms. Guess what kids? They don't work and birth control can kill you eventually (if you don't commit suicide first). I mean, if condoms are so lethal and ineffective, why do we hand out them out to teens? Wait, we don't and certainly not in Texas. Finally, the OU informs us -- there is no such thing as a condom for the heart. How poetic. And untrue. My heart is rather well protected by skin and bone. It seems impermeable to me but what do I know? I'm not a doctor.

Another article penned by "Rita" lists the reasons you should abstain from all physical contact until you're married. Let's consider some of the author's claims. First, men only want to sleep with and marry virgins. Perhaps this was true when a woman toted a dowry of ten goats into the marriage tent. Nowadays however, my male friends have admitted to being freaked out-- not turned on-- if they learn a potential date/girl is a virgin. Also, this reason makes it all about what he wants -- he prefers a virgin therefore you should remain one. Well I'd like him to be rich and have a ripped body, but it's not all about my wish list, now is it? The one statement I actually agree with in there is "If I was willing to settle for sex without commitment, I'd get a hotter guy." That matches my philosophy. When I hook up and there is no potential for a future, the guy better be hot since I'm not interested in his conversation or his volunteer work at the soup kitchen. I'm totally superficial in these situations.

"Abstinence -- it's not just for single people," is perhaps my favorite article of the bunch, just for the title alone. Not only are single people supposed to be sad and pathetic but we're also supposed to be abstinent, too! Oh goody. But as the post points out, we're not the only ones going joy free. Married folks have to abstain for two weeks out of every month. It's just like they're single during that time, too -- except they still get to file a joint tax return.

Now to be fair, it's important to warn kids about the risk of STDs. It is true that condoms sometimes break and that they don't prevent all diseases but they do a pretty darn good job. Also, time and again studies have demonstrated that abstinence only education simply doesn't work. Enumerating the reasons you shouldn't have sex isn't as helpful as telling them how to be safe in all situations -- whether they're planning to abstain or not.

One more positive note -- the OU does come down against rape, calling it a violent crime and citing the verses in Deuteronomy to bolster its case. Of course, they didn't mention the differences between getting raped in the city vs. the country. Girls, you better scream loud if you want to qualify for that federally funded abortion because only "forcible" rapes will be covered. (As if there is any other kind.)

As much as I mock this site (and believe me, I've only scraped the tip of the iceberg), it is still more than what I was offered in high school, which was nothing. In the sixth grade, we learned about menstruation and there endeth the lesson. I think that our teachers and administrators figured we all knew about sex already -- though television usage and magazines were frequently condemned, I think they all secretly hoped we were tuning in so they could avoid uncomfortable conversations. Well, have no fear Mrs. Fleischer -- I learned all I needed to know from Beverly Hills 90210. Scary thought, right?

Friday, February 18, 2011

When will we stop doing this?

When I was a kid, I listened to Shlock Rock, which was a Jewish music group that took hit songs and rewrote the lyrics to speaks about mitzvot (good deeds) and Ahavat Yisroel (loving fellows Jews). For the most part, I didn't actually know the original songs the remakes were based on. For instance, I didn't realize that Shlock Rock's "To Unite All Jews," (be warned: if you follow the link, you will hear part of the song) was actually a rip off of U2's, "With or Without You," until several years after I stopped listening to Jewish music altogether. (I was about 10 when I decided that the whole genre was basically dreck.) "To Unite All Jews" contains some lyrical gems such as, "Everyday prepared for war we gave some back they still want more." And later they sing, "We won't give this land away!" Who says that Jews don't indoctrinate their children, too? We might be a little less effective since we clearly make such terrible propaganda music.

Anyway, this was not their only awesomely awful song. Another one I quite enjoyed as a child,
"Every Bite You Take" -- no need to tell you the song that inspired this incarnation, which was also about stalkers. Except this time the obsessed party is played by fellow Jews and kosher certification organizations. Yes, the OU and Chaf K are the CIA spooks of this particular parody. Here's a sample of the lyrics:

Every single day, there's no other way
It's gotta be kosher now, you can all learn how, we'll be watching you.
Oh can't you see? O.U. it's gotta be. Triangle or Chaf K,
They're all the proper way.

The point I'm making so far is that we Jews have a long history of taking very good songs and turning them into something dreadful. Most recent case in point: Barchu (I'm a Jew)

I'm a big fan of profanity and Cee Lo Green song, "Fuck You," on which it was based so this especially grieves me. But my biggest pet peeve about thes typall the lyrics about Jews in this song are the same exact ones that we hear in every other parody. Here's a snippet:

My party won't have calamari,
And the caterer kashers the silverware
Mohel! Shul! Kosher! Yarmulke! Use those words together and you too can write a Jewish themed parody.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Orthodox Gymnast Update

Yesterday I posted about Amalya Knapp, a Level 4 gymnast who is a Sabbath observant Jew and cannot be ranked since she competed on Sunday, the day after her age group had performed. The article, which can be found here, describes Amalya's plight. Yesterday I contended (as usual) that the world doesn't have to accommodate her religious observance, and that though keeping the Sabbath often doesn't feel like a choice to the Orthodox, it still is one.

Apparently it's a slow news day in New Jersey and Assemblyman Gary Schaer doesn't have enough work to do because now he's taken up Amalya's cause in this CBS News report. (Amalya's mother comes off as totally appreciative and respectful of USA Gymnastics so I have nothing snarky to say about the Knapps.)

But when I was writing yesterday, I hadn't considered that there is a perfectly good gymnastics reason not to rank her based on her Sunday competition results. Thankfully, Amanda Turner, a writer at International Gymnast Magazine provided it to me:

"There are a lot of things that can affect judging. These judges might have been judging hundreds of Level 5s all day, and then to go back and do ONE Level 4 routine could throw them off slightly. They might even be harder on her because they didn't have anything fresh to compare it with. So much of judging, especially compulsories, is rank. You might give a vault an 8.7, and then the next one comes along that your deductions add up to 8.6, but in your mind you know it was definitely better than the 8.7 you just had, so you give it 8.8. When specific deductions vary from .1-.3, you have that leeway. The main thing is getting all the results right and being fair to everyone." (Just a note: Until Level 7, all gymnasts perform compulsories, or the same routines so ranking them properly is especially important since they are not competing different elements.)

She went onto suggest a possible solution. "I have to wonder if this could have been avoided though. Typically Level 4 is the biggest group and they have multiple sessions. They could have had Level 4, ages 7-8 on Sunday. That would not have affected Level 4, ages 9-10 etc. on Saturday...But then you run into the issue with, were there Orthodox kids competing on Sunday? Maybe Level 5s or 6s?"

Since Amalya would've ranked 5th based on her Sunday scores, it means she is pretty darn good. Perhaps next year, this can be addressed. "If there were enough time, I can't see them saying no," Turner commented.

No Lashon Hara On The Internet

The Jewish Star, an Long Island Orthodox Jewish newspaper has recently undergone a change in leadership and the result has been disheartening, to put it mildly. The paper went from doing hard hitting reporting about sexual abuse in the frum community that was cited in the New York Times and Politico to this, their most recent front page headline: "Israel is on the frontlines"

The Jewish Star seems to have become the new mouthpiece for AIPAC, which desperately needs to update its mantras. Hasn't the whole "Israel is on the frontlines," thing been around since the mid 90s? Can't you guys come up with something edgier, a little more Web 2.0? (Though since it does come in at under 140 characters, it is at least Twitter friendly.)

Anyway, new editor David Nesenoff interviews Ari Fleischer because...the Jewish Star still wishes that Bush was president? (For those of you who are wondering why Nesenoff's name seems familiar, he is famous for asking Helen Thomas her views on Israel. And only famous for that. Seriously, Ms. Thomas deserved to be taken down by someone worthier.) The interview is pretty boring but the comments have been a bit more fun.

Apparently one of the commenters mentioned that Ari Fleischer married a non-Jewish woman, a remark that was removed by the Jewish Star's staff. Here is what they wrote in response to a request to have the comment put back:

Please be advised that all comments, including those critical of The Jewish Star, are accepted to be posted. However, please be strongly advised that any comments that are deemed to be Lashon Harah will be deleted. The Jewish Star abhors Lashon Harah. We all need to learn how to converse and even disagree without entering the realm of Lashon Harah.

No lashon hara? There goes the internet.

Seriously, how can you regulate the comments section for lashon hara? Isn't that the point of the comments section? Also, the commenter's revelation of Fleischer's wife's religious status is not actually considered lashon hara since the information is public. In poor taste perhaps but not lashon hara.

So why remove it? And while we're at it, Jewish Star, why change the entire editorial direction of the paper? If I want schlock Jewish journalism, I can always read the Jewish Press (or Jewish Mess as my grandfather used to call it).

Monday, February 14, 2011

I Don't Do Balance Beam on Shabbos.

It's not often that I get to honor this blog with a post truly reflective of its name but thanks to a friend, I get to do so today. He sent me a link to this article, which is about Amalya Knapp, a promising young gymnast in northern New Jersey, who can only compete on Sundays in local and regional competitions instead of on Saturday, when the rest of her team performs. As a result, she cannot win any individual titles though her scores are added to the team total, which could help them secure an overall title.

This was Amalya's reaction to discovering that competition would be held on Shabbos.

So when she found out the competition would conflict with the Sabbath, she came home "totally devastated," her mother, Chavie Knapp, said.

It's a tough lesson for any 8 year old to swallow. I should know. I was once that kid (though not nearly as talented). I feel bad that she has had to learn an ANTM Esther-style lesson so young. It's really unfortunate when your passion collides with other people's rules and priorities and you cannot yet make decisions for yourself. I suppose that's the nature of being a kid -- you don't really have a say in what you can or can't do. (Just ask Tiger Mom.)

If this had been just any old scheduling conflict then perhaps Amalya could've negotiated a bit, found some wiggle room, a little leeway. But Amalya had come up against the 4th Commandment, the holy Sabbath and there's no way to reason with a "Because I said so," from God (and the rabbis). I know that most people think that matters of religion should supersede those of sports, but I would argue that at this point Amalya's Jewish practice is not a result of a deep seated faith and understanding of laws. For her, it's more akin to lifestyle. Her love for gymnastics is probably more organic to her being and she probably understands it better than she does the reasons she can't flip a light switch on Shabbos.

Rabbi Chaim Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, the Orthodox synagogue the Knapps attend, said Amalya's parents were teaching her an "extremely powerful lesson about her faith."

I don't know, rabbi. You may not like the outcome. I got taught a similar lesson when I was younger and look at me now.

At the time, I couldn't have imagined violating the Sabbath for the sake of practice and competition. And of course, my parents wouldn't have allowed me to do so even if I had begged (which I didn't).

But years later, I wish it had been different. I wish I had been given the opportunity to explore the sport and reach my athletic and competitive potential especially since I have shed my faith in Orthodoxy and the system that created the rules, but have sustained my love for the sport far into adulthood (if not my ability to do most of my former elements). If the lesson I and Amalya have learned is "tough luck," or (since I'm feeling inspired by Mick Jagger at the Grammys) "you can't always get what you want," then so be it. It's certainly necessary to learn sooner or later. But there's nothing particularly beautiful about it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Di Fara's Pizza

Avenue J for Orthodox Jews is a hub of kosher shopping and eating. When I was younger, I would go there with my mother to do the shopping for Shabbos -- from the fruits and veggies to the takeout to the bakery -- we'd buy it all on J.

On the corner of J and 14th, surrounded by all of the kosher stores, there is a non-kosher pizza store with a fading sign. It is the famed Di Fara's Pizza. I remember passing Di Fara's en route to Jerusalem II or izza Time and wondering, "Who even eats there?" To me this avenue was the exclusive territory of the frum Jews. It never occurred to me that other people -- nonobservant Jews and gentiles even -- lived in this vicinity in great enough numbers to sustain this little pizza shop.

Of course, I didn't know that this little store was actually famous for being one of the best slices in New York. (Just a slice of the positive press this place has gotten here, here, and here.) And even when I did learn that I had spent my childhood and adolescence eating pizza just one block away from the one of the best pizza stores in New York, I never managed to grab a slice. When I'm in that part of town, I'm usually accompanied by my mother, who keeps kosher so we go to a place where she can eat. So not Di Fara's.

But today I was in Midwood with a friend who isn't Jewish and I decided that today would be the day I would finally try Di Fara's. I had heard that the lines could be long but thankfully, it wasn't when we arrived. Despite being appalled at the sticker price ($5 bucks a slice!), my friend and I each get two a piece.

As I took a bite, my first thought was, "Wow. They really let anyone make pizza." This was a not a negative commentary on Di Fara's pizza. Quite the opposite. After watching the care and precision with which Dom makes his pizza and then tasting the results, I couldn't stop thinking of all the mediocre and just plain awful pizza I've eaten just down the street. I saw Dom slowly sprinkling one of three cheese onto the pies and then topping it with fresh cut basil. I don't think JII hired anyone with particular pizza expertise to make their pies.

I know that kosher food and restaurants have improved since my JII years -- I just ate at Basil in Crown Heights with my mother on Sunday and enjoyed it -- but those newer places are still more the exception than the rule when it comes to kosher cuisine.

As I sat inside Di Fara's, I kept glancing out the streaked windows at the pedestrian traffic on Avenue J. Most of the frum people walked past without giving the shop a second glance. Typically, if it's not kosher, you almost don't notice it. Unless, of course, you're destined to eat there many years in the future.