Thursday, November 29, 2012

Awkward Sex Ed

I've written a lot about "shomer negiah" on this site cause it's a fairly ridiculous concept and I can't resist an easy joke. (I'm lazy like that.) But a few weeks ago, the Forward published a fairly sincere account of "shomer negiah" (No touching!) as experienced by religious college students in secular universities and it brought back some memories, which I turned into a column for Jewcy.

Read it for my oft-used MC Hammer joke! (I can't stop using it.) Or for my adolescent humiliation. Take your pick.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thankful for Real Connections

I know it's a few days after Thanksgiving, but I have come up with something that I'm thankful for, gymnastically speaking--this beam set from Maria Livchikova.

What I love most about this set is the presence of real connections between elements, not the code whoring ones that virtually every gymnast on the planet uses to ratchet up her start value. Livchikova starts with a front aerial into an immediate front tuck. Then she follows it up with a front handspring directly into a front pike. But Livchikova wasn't yet done--she did an aerial cartwheel directly into a layout step out. No pause, no holding her leg up to signify continuity o. Just momentum from one skill carrying into the next. The way "connections" used to be.

None of this should be hailed as particularly revolutionary. Mo Huilan showed a great gym-acro series on beam in 1995--back handspring into a split jump without a pause. Or Olesya Dudnick doing an aerial cartwheel into two layout step outs in 1989. And so on and so forth.

But since we seldom see true connections on beam these days, I'll take what I can get. So thank you to Maria Livchikova for giving us a beam routine with real linkage between elements. (And also--thanks for working the beam in both directions, which is also rare to see these days.)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kellogg's Tour Review from a Non-Gymnastics Crazed Person

I was unable to make it to this year's local stop of the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions when it rolled through Brooklyn because I was out of town. But had I been able to attend, I know that I would've thought it was sort of ridiculous yet not care because I was getting to see the Olympic team (at least a few of them) perform. And honestly, when it comes to gymnastics, I possess the critical faculty of a thirteen year old girl. Which was the age I was when I attended the post-Olympic tour in 1996. But I wondered--what happens if you aren't blinded by your love for the sport? What would the "normals" make of the tour?

Well, thankfully Tanya, a good friend attended the final stop of this year's show (oddly enough, not at my behest) and was kind enough to write a review of it coming from a non-gymnastics addled perspective. Here's what regular folks think:

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions at the spanking new Barclay's center, home of the Brooklyn Nets. The stadium was grand and impressively efficient. The gymnastics show on the other hand--embarrassingly lacking. A great idea, but who was in charge of planning such a poorly executed spectacle? It's really hard to say which part of the show was most unimpressive. Let's take a look at the contenders.

It could have been the lack of technical rigor visible to the naked gymnastically untrained eye. While it is completely understanding that athletes remove all elements that might cause injury, what we unfortunately ended up with was Alexandra Raisman's gold medal winning floor routine, sans the tumbling. Really--none! And if you have watched the Olympics- you might remember that her routine is very tumbling heavy. She did not put any extra visually fun dance elements, so it seemed that all that remained were the awkward leaps and jumps. 

Very little uneven bars action, very little beam action as well, no dismounts of any sort. The guys team and rhythmic gymnasts were a bit more fun to watch, partly because of the skimpy outfits they were wearing and partly because guys seemed to be doing more challenging elements.

The planning of the visuals was quite terrible. At one point there were 4 US women’s Olympic team gymnasts performing on 4 beams, while a hot blond was doing aerial tricks in the middle up above. C’mon, who is going to look at anyone else when a vision of hotness reincarnated is doing splits in the air right above? (Ed. note: that must be Nastia Liukin) I would be surprised if anyone even noticed that there were gymnasts on the beams! The lighting was also dim, and sometimes  that made it hard to make out the athletes. In fact, in one of the numbers, the rhythmic athletes were completely obscured; only their glow in the dark hoops showing. What a waste! That probably would have been one of the most visually appealing five minutes of the show, judging from the elegant movements I could barely detect.

The clown was absolutely terrible; he dressed up as a giant weird baby (Ed. note: that must be John Macready) made noises and spent nearly half of the total show time trying to make very silly and unfunny jokes. I get it--lots of people brought their children to the show, but it was a little bit embarrassing to watch. At one point, the "baby" took a man from the audience and tried to teach him how to do a floor routine. It was not obvious that it was a random man from the audience and not one of the coaches or some person connected to the tour, the point and humor were completely lost.

It could also have been the general confusion of who is who and why are they doing weird things (such as random break dancing on the floor alongside a rhythmic gymnast doing her beautiful routine). For example, along with various gymnastic champions, a random breaking group was hired for some unknown purpose. For the entire show I thought that Nastia Liukin was some random vaudeville dancer they found to add “hotness” to the show. It wasn't until the end of the show when they called out the names that I realized who she was. Alicia Sacramone did not even do a single gymnastics element, I barely remembered where she was in the show. 

Having said all that, it was wonderful to see Alexandra, Abby, Nastia and others live. I think many people also learned of a few new sports such as rhythmic gymnastics and trampolining, which I am told is now an Olympic sport. And the male team did perform enough with their shirts off, which partly made up for the less exciting parts of the show. 

But this is all pretty faint praise. I still want my money back.

I know this is a pretty harsh review and Tanya fully concedes that she may not be the target audience, especially for Macready's brand of "humor." Yet her reaction, which I imagine would've been similar to mine if I could view the show critically, speaks to a larger issue in the branding and professionalization of gymnastics. If these type of shows can never appeal outside of its hardcore fan demographic, what hope do we have of making this type of show popular in a mainstream capacity. Or is Cirque du Soleil it for professional/theatrical presentations of the sport?

And one more point that my friend made about the lack of difficulty on the tour--while safety is an incredibly important consideration, why would we think that even untrained and unskilled viewers would want to watch low level athletics when they just spent two weeks this summer watching them do much higher level skills? They are educated enough to know better (and can simply turn to YouTube to watch much better gymnastics).

So how do you put on a show that has mainstream appeal while also keeping the athletes safe? How do you expand gymnastics' fan base during non-Olympic years? Or should we stop trying to move beyond the tween demographic, at least in our professional presentation of the sport? 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My First Bleep

I started cursing later in life because of my Orthodox upbringing. For years, I chastised my mother, who every once in a while let a "shit" or "schmuck" slip past her lips. But after I was freed from my yeshiva high school, I started dying my hair and cursing on the regular. I won't get too carried here in describing my love affair with four letter words and how they express my feelings on occasion like nothing else--that's a story for another blog post. But I will say that since I've expanded my vocabulary to include profanities, I've had to police myself in certain circumstances. The year I spent working in kindergarten was especially trying. Every day after I left work, I would call my mom and the curse words would just fly after spending eight hours pent up. Coaching little kids in gymnastics was also difficult to do sans curses, especially when I got smacked in the nose by an errant arm or leg.

More recently, I've had to patrol my language in a different setting--media. During the Olympics, I appeared on TV and radio (both Canadian) and fretted excessively about accidentally cursing on air. Thankfully, I managed to keep it kosher during those recordings.

But not so during Episode 10 of Gymcastic. After much restraint, I drop an F-bomb. Thankfully, our podcast master, Jessica, caught it and downloaded a sound just to mask my faux pas. So you needn't worry about listening even if you have delicate ears.

This episode is quite excellent. Not only do we interview the legendary NCAA coach, Greg Marsden, but we also tackle every gymnastics fan's favorite subject to get riled up about--artistry.

In the words of Justice Potter Stewart, "I know artistry when I see it." Or something like that.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Gymnast's Post-Mortem

Last night, I was watching an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, you know that show that's totes progressive by insisting that men should not rape women while at the same time reminding women (especially the ladies living alone) that they'll never truly be safe until Stabler (Christopher Meloni) comes to the rescue. (For the record, even though his police skills are highly suspect, I'd be happy to be rescued by Meloni's beefy arms any day of the week).

But this wasn't just any ol' repeat with rape and genital mutilation and a completely telegraphed plot twist. This was the gymnastics episode from Season 2.

The show begins the discovery of a body of a young girl--12? 13 perhaps?--dressed in running clothing. It's deemed a rape because of the presence of fluids and the youth of the victim. The detectives are off and running, looking for pimps who use extra young girls in their business.

And then comes the autopsy. Not only did our victim die of blunt force trauma to the head but there seems to be a pattern of abuse--a history of fractures and broken bones. And then there are hands, which are rough and calloused. Warner, the medical examiner, who is by far my favorite character (and the most competent) won't even hazard a guess at what sort of work she was doing.

It turned out that the "manual labor" was gymnastics! She's an elite (like the gymnasts on MIOBI are elites, right?). This episode trafficked in every single negative stereotype about high level gymnastics--from eating disorders and laxative abuse to mean coaches to underage nymphette appearance. It was pretty laughable, actually. (I won't give away the ending if you haven't yet come across this episode in a USA SVU marathon or during one particularly bleak Netflix binge.)

But upon this third viewing, what struck me most about the ep was the aforementioned autopsy. It was a particularly sobering perspective on the sport. Is anyone else disturbed that an autopsy of a gymnast, even a fictional one, can reveal information that can plausibly be mistaken for child abuse until it's properly contextualized?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Limits of the Halachic Approach

A few of weeks ago, I wrote a snarky response to Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt’s deeply misogynistic letter to Sarah Silverman for Jewcy. At the time, I hesitated at writing it, worried about drawing even more attention to his poorly argued views. (Then I realized I’m not that important.) But even if his piece was far too easy to ridicule, his arguments—that motherhood is integral to the female experience—is not really laughable when you consider the mainstream debates about women’s reproductive rights and abortion that have been front and center during the recently ended election season.

After all, at the core of conservative views about women’s reproductive rights is the essential belief that by virtue of our genitalia, we should want to be mothers under any and all circumstances. That’s what Rosenblatt argued in his essay. Men, however, despite playing a role in the procreative process, don’t encounter debates about their prophylactics or access to vasectomies. Why not? Because even though they’re commanded to “be fruitful and multiply,” they’re not essentialized as fathers.

And even if no rabbis, at least to my knowledge, have been so grotesque as to stand up and describe rape as “method of conception” or characterize babies born from this violent act as part of “God’s plan,” mainstream Jewish thought still creates space for these views by insisting on motherhood for all women. Traditional Jewish law still regards all women as “potential mothers” and legislates them accordingly.

(I don’t even wish to talk about ultra-Orthodox Jews. Frankly, their views about women’s roles are so extreme and outmoded that they’re practically punch lines. Lets leave them alone just this once.)

Studying in yeshiva as a young girl, I learned that women were not obligated in “time bound” positive commandments, such as praying with a minyan. The reason my teachers gave for this exemption was that women were expected to care for children, a job that didn’t have regular hours and so couldn’t be forced to do mitzvoth that were time and place specific. “After all,” as one rabbi explained, “what happens if a baby was sick? Would the mom just say, ‘Sorry but I’ve got to go to minyan?’” he asked rhetorically. His tone suggested that this question was utterly ridiculous.

(A note on this “exemption.” This is not akin to a “get out of jail free” card. Women’s lack of halachic obligations in certain domains is used against them, to keep them from participating. The same misogynistic rabbi from the previous paragraph used to question the motives of women who expressed a desire for greater public ritual involvement, accusing them of being “feminists”—some Orthodox Jews’ version of the “f-word”—who were simply using public prayer to make a point. According to this teacher, these women’s motives weren’t pure. Thus, women’s lack of “obligation” is used against them. As for men—they didn’t need sincere motives. They were obligated, which is the beginning and end of the story for them. And so even if they fail to attend services on most days, they are not questioned on the occasions that they do come to daven. Coming and going without explanation is part of the male privilege within Orthodoxy.)

At the time, I didn’t think to ask about the fathers. I didn’t ask why it was ridiculous for a woman to want to participate in a public ritual when there are young children to care for but not so for a father? I didn’t think to ask about why women who weren’t yet mothers were not obligated in time bound commandments? Or to inquire what happened to women who were beyond child bearing and rearing? And what of women who never become mothers at all?

The existence of women like Silverman (and many of my accomplished friends who’ve expressed a desire to remain “child-free) is deeply problematic for the halachic system. If there are women out there who never have children then one of the reasons for excluding females from certain rituals and public roles falls apart. This is why Rosenblatt chose this point of attacking Silverman. Her supposed “vulgarity” doesn’t destabilize his worldview, but her decision not to become a mother does.

The primacy of motherhood in Jewish law has done more than bar them from certain rituals. It has defined their whole mode of operating in the world. If they’re mothers, their realm is at home, out of public view. While in more moderate sectors of the Orthodox community, women have been able to escape full-time wife and motherhood and pursue demanding careers, they are still relegated to the “private” sphere in the Jewish world. In the National Council of Young Israel, there are still debates as to whether women can be synagogue presidents at member establishments, a position that has no ritual import. While there is no legal reason from barring them, the same sort of logic used to keep women from performing certain public religious rituals has been deployed here--namely discussions of modesty and propriety.

Yet we’re not even talking about her dress or even behavior. In this instance, we’re talking about her role. If her ultimate destiny is motherhood and if her realm is behind closed doors at home, then why is she also seeking a public leadership role? Motherhood is supposed to be the beginning and end of the story for her.

Let us pretend for a moment that Jewish law did have something to say about female synagogue presidents. Should we care? Should we continue to negotiate with what are clearly unfair restrictions on women’s activities and roles when we’ve evolved beyond these views in every other sector of our lives?

And here’s where I quarrel even with more liberal and progressive Orthodox rabbis. Their fallback position is always halacha. They’re in dialogue with a system that at its core is deeply unjust. It was created by men who didn’t exactly have expansive views of women and their possibilities. How can we expect such a system to reflect the views of women that we, by and large, agree upon? We can argue and reimagine certain ideas in halacha. But at some point, we will confront the limits of this approach.

So will more modern Orthodox Jews start to make real, structural changes or will they simply say their hands are tied by a legalistic tradition?

Recently, one Orthodox rabbi wrote a post about the most recent arrest of Anat Hoffman, founder of Women of the Wall, a group that has been using civil disobedience to win greater rights for women’s abilities to pray openly at the Western Wall. In her defense, he cites that the rights and permissions that Hoffman and her ilk are agitating are completely within the realm of halacha and therefore should be granted.

As I was reading this, I wasn’t struck by gratitude that an Orthodox rabbi was supporting a Reform Jewish feminist. I was upset by how little he was willing to concede to his female coreligionists. He is only willing to grant them the rights that a framework that takes a dim view of women allows. It’s a crumb at best.

I feel for him and others like him. They seem to understand that there are definite inequalities in the halachic system. This same rabbi, in fact, admits in a different post that women face a litany of obstacles within this framework. But no matter what his personal views are, he and others are beholden to halacha, which like all other systems, is primarily concerned with perpetuating itself.  If it can do that and remain fair, it will. But justice is hardly its main goal. Systems, like living creatures, have very strong survival instincts. And truly equalizing the status of women would be a radical shift for the halachic system. Simply put, it couldn’t continue to exist in its present form.

Does this mean I think that all Orthodox Jewish males are misogynists? No. I know many observant Jewish males who feel the same way I do about women’s status in Judaism. Furthermore, I’m capable of distinguishing between the individual and the system.

But for adherents and defenders of the system—a little honesty would be appreciated. No more apologetics. No more discussions of women’s essential natures that “exempt” them from certain mitzvot, as if 51% percent of the population was some sort of monolith. Let us finally start being honest about traditional Judaism. Within Orthodoxy, women do not enjoy anything resembling “equality” as we have come to understand the term.

Does that mean that women in the Orthodox world are necessarily unhappy? Not at all. Then again, equality and happiness are not synonymous. But you know what are synonymous terms in the world of traditional Judaism and halacha? Woman and mother--whether you’re a rebbetzin or Sarah Silverman.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Buy My Book So I Can Afford Gas

It's been awhile since I've plugged the book on this site. In the past when I've shamelessly asked you guys to buy it, I noted that every book purchased will help me buy a cup of coffe. But now that I've relocated to Los Angeles (Temporarily? Permanently? Who knows?) my needs have changed. I now need gas money. So if you choose to buy a digital copy of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of Unbalanced Jewess, you're helping me buy half a gallon of gas, depending on the day or week or our foreign policy in the Middle East.

Don't have a Kindle you say? It doesn't matter. You can download a variety of free apps--for your computer or iPhone or Blackbery--that will allowed you to read it on virtually any device of your choosing.

And if you do read it, please share your thoughts on the Amazon book page or here! 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Jews and Aly Raisman

Over at the Forward, I say some stuff about gymnastics, Aly Raisman, and Judaism. In other words, it's Monday.

Check out Ms. Raisman who was named to the Forward's 50 and yours truly, flapping her gums in this video:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mansplaining Defeated

Now that my election hangover has subsided, I've taken to put my reflections about the results into writing. In short, they could be characterized as "Squeeeeeee!" but for Jewcy, I wrote something a little more sophisticated.

It's about the ubiquity of "mansplaining" throughout the election season. You know, that phenomenon that has all-knowing men (or ones that think they are) explain to women the facts of being a woman. Mansplaining is how we ended up with an all-male congressional committee discussing women's hormonal birth control. Cause Father (with or without the priestly collar) knows best.

Here's a brief excerpt from the piece:

Though the most pressing issue for most voters was the economy, 2012 has felt like the year of “I Can’t Believe We’re Still Fighting For This,” which is basically like the buttery spread but with more misogyny. I was raised on the ideas that birth control will always be there for us and that rape is a brutal crime and violation of another person’s body (with no “silver lining”). This election, however, demonstrated that these ideas hadn’t achieved the widespread acceptance I (and many others) had previously assumed. It seemed that the jury was still out on “rights,” “equality,” and “science.” Because this jury closely resembled the one in Twelve Angry Men.

While this election season has been frustrating to put it mildly and we have a lot of work ahead, the results were something of a relief. The rape philosophers lost big time. There are now 20 women, a record, in the U.S. Senate. Not exactly equal representation but we're inching closer.

Read the rest here

Cool Gymnasts Don't Look At The Bars Crashing

YouTube, in its infinite wisdom, suggested that I might like Ludmilla Tourischeva's bar crash from 1975. In this famous performance, she didn't crash land from the bars. The bars famously collapsed around her as she dismounted. She didn't bat an eye or even glance behind her.

As I re-watched this, I was reminded of Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island's music video "Cool Guys Don't Look At Explosions." The basic premise of the song is that in the movies when male action leads blow something up, they walk away and don't look back. It's sign of machismo and virility (?) and overall badassness.

Toursicheva is sort of the gymnastics representation of that song, wouldn't you agree?

Monday, November 5, 2012

When guys do uneven bars

When you mention to another person that you did gymnastics when you were younger, they ask if you did rings. If you're a female, you politely explain (likely for the umpteenth time) that rings is one of the men's apparatuses. (I went into a history of the progression of women's apparatuses and possible theories over at Jezebel during the Olympics.)

Beam and uneven bars are specific to women, you'll explain.

Well someone hasn't told 2012 national team member Paul Ruggeri that. Since beginning the post-Olympic tour, Ruggeri has been steadily learning how to work the uneven bars and has put together a fairly impressive routine (if sans passable dismount just yet). If given a bit more training time, methinks Martha might've found a new bars specialist for the next quad.

The Birth Control Comic Trilogy

Tomorrow is finally election day. (If you and I are at the same election night party, you'll recognize me as the person in the corner rocking back and forth nervously.) And one of the big issues of the campaign has been "women" as though half of the population were an interest group and some sort of monolith.

Over at The Anti-Girlfriend, I've been collaborating with a very talented artist on a series of absurd comics about birth control. The first is below:

You can check out Parts 2 & 3 here and here.

And don't forget to vote tomorrow!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Dora the Gymnast

When my nieces were younger, I'd pretend my name was Dora (as in "the Explorer") in order to get them to speak to me on the phone. It's just one letter off, I reasoned.

And now the resemblance between me and the animated character extends beyond the spelling of our names. A friend shared this great ad with me for a Dora gymnast doll, which I would definitely buy my own children if I had any. (My nieces are a bit old for this sort of toy.)

But what exactly is an explorer gymnast? A gym, after all, is fully explored, finite terrain. Or is this explanation more figurative? Does gymnast Dora, like all dolls that have ever been used as Olympic gymnasts in imaginative play, explore heretofore unseen skills? (My Barbies nailed double twisting back somersaults on the balance beam.)

And can someone please get this for me?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in

As everyone knows, my hometown (and current place of residence), New York was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy. I was fortunate to escape unscathed--no loss of power or property or life--but the rest of the city was not as lucky. I, like everyone else, saw the havoc it has wreaked all over including in Canarsie, the neighborhood where I spent my childhood.

I don't feel like there is much more to add that hasn't already been said by others and more eloquently. But I was moved by this beautiful performance by the Avett Brothers of their song "I and Love and You" on Jimmy Kimmel Live, which was being shot all week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a mere 15 minute walk from my apartment.

Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in
Are you aware the shape I'm in
My hands they shake, my head it spins
Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in

Is Tina Fey obsessed with gymnastics?

Last week (and the last time I blogged here) I wrote about Tina Fey's speech at the Center for Reproductive Rights in which she uses my beloved sport, gymnastics, as the punchline to a joke about rape and pregnancy.

In this week's episode of 30 Rock she's at it again. This time, however, it's Brian Williams, 30 Rock MVP who delivers the joke this time. When encouraging Pete to get over the excitement and euphoria that was Barack Obama's election in 2008, he tells him to get a hobby. "Like me and my gymnastics!" before doing back handsprings down the hallway.

A few minutes later, I was watching a short Q&A with Fey on Hulu where she took a question from one "Dominique Everol (sp?) who I believe is an Olympic gymnast...Dominique Everol, 1989 Olympics." Dominiques have proliferated in US gymnastics--there have been at least two of note--but their heyday was during the 90s.

So what's with the recent spate of gymnastics love? Methinks that Tina Fey and the 30 Rock scribes wrote much of this season while watch the London Olympics and the Fierce Five. Maybe this means there will be a cameo from a 2012 team member? I sure hope so.

Also, I believe that this recent spate of gymnastics-based humor is Fey's way of communicating directly with me because she wants to mentor me. That sounds about right.