Monday, February 07, 2005

I'm Returning To

Click here. The reviews I got on my six-month change to blogger were not good. Cathy Seipp was particularly insistent I return to my original pristine format.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Who's Better Than Praesidium?

The Rabbinical Council of America hired Praesidium to investigate rabbi Mordecai Tendler.

I'm told by one source that these guys are superior to the Praesidium: Sexual Assault Training & Investigations (SATI) and Child Abuse Training Forensic Child Abuse Consulting
Litigation Support Services.

Worst Writing On Wendy

Wendy Shalit's essay on Orthodox fiction in The New York Times has sparked a ton of good writing and bad writing (sharp thinking and fuzzy thinking). The worst? Sandee Brawarsky at The Jewish Week and Esther D. Kustanowitz at MyUrbanKvetch, who also writes for The Jewish Week. Editor Gary Rosenblatt has written some startling stuff in the past, but I fear he has gone to sleep on the job. With the exception of Jonathan Mark, Gary specializes in publishing plodding prose. You can't get fired for that in Jewish journalism.
Esther writes:

As a result, when I write today, I grapple with authenticity, education, power, authority, authenticity, empowerment, tradition, feminism, modernity, identity and everything under the sun.

The most demerits in this controversy must go to the prestigious publication that published Wendy Shalit's essay without fact-checking it - The New York Times. I sent emails to the Books section and to the ombudsman Daniel Okrent asking if the Times fact-checked essays written for its book section. Judging by Shalit's piece (which alleges that Nathan Englander and Tova Mirvis, among other authors, were ignorant of Orthodox Judaism, a completely fact-checkable charge easily refuted by the facts), the Times obviously does not fact-check many if not all of the essays published in the Books section, and when asked about it, they don't reply. So the biggest black eye in all this belongs to Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus who is too big of a weenie to admit how much he and The Times fell down on the job here (and judging by this debacle, many other times as well).

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Orthodox Union Seeks Ban On Kiddush Clubs

In response to an urgent request from rabbis and educators, the Orthodox Union has designated Saturday, February 5 for OU synagogues across the United States and Canada to call for the elimination of so-called “Kiddush Clubs” during their Sabbath services. To participate in the Kiddush Club, a group of congregants leaves the service to make Kiddush -- often on hard liquor -- during the haftarah reading.

The request was made in late December at a meeting of 65 pulpit rabbis and yeshiva principals convened by the OU in New York to deal with a variety of abuses that have been on the increase in the Orthodox teenage community and which have resulted in a number of unfortunate incidents. The representation at that meeting spanned the spectrum of the Orthodox community. Plans are underway to hold similar meetings across North America.

Shalhevet Should Embrace Its Inner Slut

Julie Fax writes in the Jewish Journal:

Teachers at the Orthodox feeder schools have actively discouraged students from going to Shalhevet. Parents and students report of hearing a teacher at a day school call Shalhevet girls “sluts,” and of getting the heart-to-heart from concerned teachers when a student professes interest in Shalhevet. One parent said his daughter’s eighth-grade mentor refused to write a recommendation when she wanted to go to Shalhevet, and others report transcripts being withheld.

All of this has put Shalhevet constantly on the defensive, but more telling than the communal bad-mouthing is the fact that former Shalhevet supporters have defected. A number of younger siblings of Shalhevet students have gone instead to YULA, a more traditional Orthodox yeshiva and Shalhevet’s primary competition.

A member of a women's prayer group that Julie belongs to sent out a fiery email to all members claiming that Julie (in this article) had called her daughter a slut.
I think that the answer to Shalhevet's enrollment decline is to embrace its sluttiness and advertise it. Teenage boys with flexible Torah observance will flock to its institution.
The people I talk to say that almost all graduate of YULA (and unmarrieds from YU in New York)are virgins but only about half of Shalhevet kids are.
In the Mishna (the oral law transmitted from Sinai according to Jewish tradition), Rabbi Eliezer says that teaching Torah to one's daughter is like teaching her wantonness, while another Mishnaic rabbi, Ben Azzai, says one is required to teach Torah to a daughter (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 20-21).
Shalhevet is the only Orthodox high school in Los Angeles that is co-ed and teaches girls and boys an identical curriculum. That means girls get taught some Talmud, which is traditionally not a subject for the fairer sex (rather they get tales from the Bible and the rabbis as well as husband-pleasing classes and housekeeping instruction).
Max writes:
Hi Luke, as a former student of YULA and current sibling and friend to many inhabitants of Los Angeles Jewish private schools, I have to say
that the problem many people have with Shalhevet, is not that it gasp, teaches girls Talmud, but that it operates almost completely out of sync with reality, save for rampant grade inflation. I am not an eloquent man Mr. Ford, so this may come across as disjointed and I apologize. Shalhevet is a bastion of idiotic the child knows best
style teaching. It is possible to miss all your classes and still achieve an A. "Town Halls" etc etc. (It took THREE! town halls to decide about the wording of a flyer concerning personal items that had been stolen).

Is Rob Eshman Hopeless?

Friday I received in the mail an envelope from the Jewish Journal containing a photocopy of a 1986 article from the paper about the Brandeis-Bardin institute. It was a gesture typical of editor Rob Eshman's generosity.

As I walked home, I contemplated sending him a quick thank you note. I decided not to. I didn't want to seem like a suck-up.

Friday night, walking home from shul, I picked up a copy of the latest issue of the Jewish Journal. The cover read: "Is France Hopeless!? By Rob Eshman"

I immediately thought, "Is Rob Eshman hopeless? Is the Jewish Journal hopeless? Why are they writing more articles about France when they've already done the subject to death and secular papers like The New York Times have already covered the topic far better than the Journal can. Is Rob Eshman hopeless?"

As I walked towards my hovel, I stoken my anger at the Journal, hoping that it would still be warm by Saturday night so I'd have enough emotion to blog about it. Too often I read the Journal Friday night, determine to write an angry blog about it, then 24 hours later, I just don't have enough anger left.

Assembly my tasty Shabbat dinner of a cold bagel and soy milk, I started reading Rob's article, looking forward to tearing it apart.

I figured I already knew what it would say. It'd be the same as all the paper's previous articles on the topic -- that France was by no means a hopeless cause for Jews.

I decided I'd fire off a polite email to Rob asking who paid for his trip.

I imagine that the French government paid for his trip and provided him with all sorts of non-kosher delicacies (you can read into these words what I'm really thinking and resenting. why doesn't anyone try to bribe me with cute little pastries?).

Then I began reading the article and found I was immediately hooked by the anecdotal lead.

"Harumph," I think. "Rob's a good writer."

I read the thing all the way through and consider that maybe Rob does know what he's doing with the paper.

So where am I going to direct all my hatred now that I can't direct it this week at Rob?

As I lay down on my floor at bedtime, I felt a disturbing yet familiar emptiness. It was the sinking feeling I get every time I find a large part of the Jewish Journal interesting.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Finding Neverland

I love this movie. I saw myself in the kid Peter and the playwright portrayed by Johnny Depp.

When my stepmother had to go into hospital for surgery when I was between five and seven, I cried and cried. I did not realize that one could go into hospital and come out better. I was an angry unhappy kid who retreated into a vivid fantasy world. I used to curl up on the sofa and tell myself stories for hours. From age eight onwards, I wrote stories and poetry until I studied calculus and economics in college and lost that ability (haven't written any poetry or short stories since age 21).

My usual experience of watching a movie or reading a book or watching a sporting event is to put myself into the action and wonder what choices I would make. This has often made reading and watching a painful experience because I over-empathize (in my normal dealings with people, I under-empathize, but give me a figure in a certain novel or movie, and I am all compassion).

Forward Fluffs Sharon

"Your questions are throwing me a little bit," Sharon Waxman says. "Nobody's ever interviewed me about myself before."

I find that hard to believe. If it is true, then it is only true because Waxman has refused all interview requests. I remember the time gossip Jeanette Walls got her on the phone about her reporting on the controversy over A Beautiful Mind (Waxman bought into the smear conspiracy line Universal peddled) and Sharon jumped off the phone about as soon as she could.

I encounter these lines ("Oh, I've never done this before, please be gentle") all the time from women. Much of the time it is an attempt at manipulation by the subject, a ploy to get gentler coverage.

Another classic piece of manipulation that Waxman used (it may have been genuine but it is often a ploy) was to say she was running out the door on important business (covering Sundance in her case), thus allowing the subject to avoid difficult questions. "Oh, dear, I just don't have time to get into that." I get those lines all the time.

The Forward piece completely glosses over the long string of accusations about Waxman's methods over the years (from Jeanette Walls at MSNBC to Roger Friedman who kept hammering her a year ago). So yeah, Sharon got off easy in this piece. Her manipulations worked.

The Forward piece never challenges Sharon. Instead, it completely swallows her version of her story, as is typical with easy journalism.

I don't say this as a big critic of Sharon. I enjoy the occasional socializing with her and her husband. Overall, I believe she is a terrific journalist and a good conversationalist. But I can spot a fluff job when I see one, and this Forward piece is fluffy.

What I would've loved to have read is a Sharon Waxman-quality profile of Sharon Waxman.

Some excerpts:

Waxman was born into an Orthodox family in the Cleveland suburb of University Heights, Ohio, where she had what she termed an "old-style Jewish education," studying at a Hebrew day school with the same group of 20 girls from kindergarten through 12th grade. After graduation, Waxman, like many young Orthodox, went to Israel for a year of study. It was a pivotal year both for Waxman and for a number of her contemporaries. "Many of the kids I went to Israel with had a religious awakening," she said. "Many ended up living on the West Bank or the Gaza Strip."

As a student at Barnard, Waxman's allegiances shifted further. "When I started college, it didn't occur to me that I wouldn't stay Orthodox," she said. Convinced that journalism was her calling, she worried about such things as writing for deadline on Friday afternoons. "In hindsight that seems very quaint to me," she said. "It hasn't turned out to be a big conflict." When asked what her level of observance is today, Waxman hesitated and said, "They call it 'à la carte.'" Though most comfortable in an Orthodox synagogue, she does not, she said, lead an Orthodox life.

Blacklisting Republicans?

Screenwriter Robert J. Avrech writes:

Because if they knew that I am a Republican I would not work in Hollywood. I would not get hired for anything.

They want me to assasinate this talk show host. But I have convinced them that we must be "fair." I have shamed them by appealing to the liberal guilt gene, telling them that if the film comes across as a hit job, it will not be taken seriously, and The NY Times will dismiss the project. This really frightens the executives. Thank God liberals are so easy to manipulate.

I know a writer who has a nasty heroin habit, but he works pretty regularly. I know another writer who is a cross dresser. He also works regularly. They are considered a) a victim, and b) courageous. I don't know many Republicans who are out of the closet. There are a few, but most of us are quiet about our political beliefs. In my case, it's even more complicated because I'm a religious Jew. And let me tell you, Hollywood hates religion. Unless it's maybe Buddhism, something totally non-threatning and non violent a religion where men get to wear saffron robes. Hollywood people, for the most part, are Wahabi secularists. If people found out that I am a Republican and Shomer Shabbos Jew, well I don't even want to consider the consequences. Blacklisted? It's not out of the realm.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Phony Cops Pay Another House Call, But They Won't Pay Another

A month to the day that they came calling last time (when they knew I was not home), three men claiming to be cops came to my home and showed their phoney badges to my landlord and asked various questions about me and said they were trying to contact me (though they could never be bothered to call me). They claimed to be with the LA District Attorney's office. They didn't leave a business card. They just harassed my landlord again and left this name and number: "Ron Robinett. 213-974-3622."
Interesting that this should happen just as I start writing again on disgraced private eye Anthony Pellicano.

Hey "Ron," tough guy who likes to bother women and children instead of facing me like a man: Next time you and your friends set foot on my property, none of you are going to leave alive.

A friend writes: "DA investigators rarely make appointments. Same with police investigators. They want to catch you unguarded and surprised. The business card thing is fishy but I wouldn’t put too much stock in it. I would say that chances are good that you are the subject of an investigation."

An Interview With Novelist Tova Mirvis About Issues Raised By Wendy Shalit's NYT Essay

Thursday morning, I emailed Wendy Shalit for an interview. She has yet to respond. I suspect she is not happy with the following essay:
From the Forward:

Judging a Book By Its Head Covering
By Tova Mirvis
February 4, 2005

But the fact that we are insiders to the Orthodox world is irrelevant. Since when must a fiction writer actually have lived the life he or she writes about? Since when must one be a murderer to write "Crime and Punishment," a pedophile to write "Lolita," a hermaphrodite to write "Middlesex," a boy on a boat with a tiger to write "Life of Pi"? Yes, it seems, Shalit has outed the whole tawdry lot of us. She's revealed to the public the terrible truth: Fiction writers make up things.

What is true is that these portrayals apparently don't capture Shalit's experience of being a baal teshuvah, or to use her definition, "a deeply observant Jew who did not grow up as one," they aren't consistent with the personal fulfillment she's found recently. And this, I suspect, is what bothers Shalit most. But instead of being able to allow for that difference of experience, she labels these other portrayals as false. If someone doesn't see Orthodoxy as she does, then he or she must not really understand it. Englander has said that he experienced his upbringing as "anti-intellectual." But she doesn't think it was, so what right does he have to say this, least of all publicly? It's this discounting and de-legitimizing of any individual experience other than her own that is so troubling.

It's bad enough she does this to people. What's worse is that she does it to fictional characters. She attacks books for depicting characters who deviate from communal norms. Englander besmirches Judaism by depicting a fight in a synagogue. Rosen creates a character, an unmarried Orthodox man who sleeps with a female Reform rabbi. Reich imagines an overweight dietician who gorges on Yom Kippur. People like Shalit attack a story by saying, "But not everyone is like this." Of course not. But the fiction writer is saying, "Let's imagine one person who is."

I call Tova Mirvis Tuesday morning, February 1, 2005: "Could you tell me about your background in Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "Contrary to what Wendy Shalit might believe, I am an Orthodox Jew. I've been part of a Modern Orthodox community my entire life. I went to [Jewish] day school, yeshiva high school [Orthodox], spent a year studying in a yeshiva in Israel. I've davened every week in an Orthodox shul and I send my kids to an Orthodox day school."

Luke: "Do you read Hebrew?"

Tova: "I read Hebrew. I can read Jewish texts. I have studied Talmud. Credentials? I keep kosher. I don't turn the light switch on [on Shabbat and festivals]."

Luke: "Where did you go to college?"

Tova: "Columbia [with a degree in English literature]. Then I went to the Columbia MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) program."

Tova studied seven years at Columbia.

Luke: "You spent your entire life in Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "Right. It's funny to find out from The Times that apparently I didn't. I thought I did."

Luke: "Have you ever spoken to Wendy Shalit?"

Tova: "No. I must confess to firing off a pissed-off email in the middle of the night."

Luke: "Did you have any inkling that this article was coming down mentioning you?"

Tova: "No, not at all. It was surprising, to say the least. I was home in a crazy Boston blizzard [Tova lived in New York for 13 years until moving to Newton, Massachusetts in the summer of 2004] with my children and some neighborhood children and my agent called me..."

Luke: "Were you a rebel vis-à-vis Orthodox Judaism in your childhood or college?"

Tova: "I wish I was. No. I was the quintessential good girl. My big rebellion was to go to Columbia.

"My relationship to Orthodox Judaism is not uncomplicated. I struggle with issues of feminism and egalitarianism in the Orthodox world. I observe but I question. Questioning is part of what it means to belong to the community. The notion that one is either in or out of a community is not true. Insiders of this world know it's not true. A little hug on a back porch is not outside the experience of day-to-day lived [Orthodox Judaism]."

Wendy Shalit writes in The NYT:

Another character, Bryan, is a 19-year-old who returns home from Israel as a deeply religious radical, renamed Baruch. Yet at his engagement party, he's suddenly starring in a Harlequin romance: out on the porch, Baruch embraces his fiancee and she leans ''in close, their bodies gently pressing against each other.'' It's bad enough that a yeshiva student would embrace a woman not related or married to him, but to do so in public is even worse. Yet Baruch's younger sister isn't surprised: ''They who pretended to be so holy in public were just like everyone else in private. It confirmed what she had suspected: that it was all pretense.''

Here is the scene in question by Tova Mirvis. The young couple are alone, "as alone as they'd ever been," out back on a dark porch. They're engaged and have never touched each other before.

They sat next to each other, on chairs whose legs were touching. Tzippy's and Baruch's arms almost touched as well. She was scared of what she would feel and scared of how he would react, scared that he would pull away in horror and scared that he wouldn't. But she couldn't stop herself. She leaned toward him and grazed his hand with two of his fingers. It was so ligght, so soft, that it could have been imagined or wished. she did it again, to be sure it had really happened. She ran her fingers across his hand, and her body tingled with the shock and pleasure of actually touching. Too thrileld and scared to move her hand, she waited to see what would happen next.

He held her hand. He gently stroked her fingers. he wantged to touch her face which he had stared at these past few months. He wanted to kiss her mouth, which had distracted him when he learned, when he davened, when he slept. He put his arms around her and she leaned in clsoe, their bodies gently pressing against each other.

Just as his lips were about to find hers, a looming figure appeared in Baruch's head. It was the face of his rabbi who whispered in his ear, "So you haven't changed at all." If he leaned any closer to Tzippy, these words would come true. One kiss and he would disappear. Guilt outpaced desire and he pulled away. He was surpised at her and surprised at himself. His married friends had warned him of the pitfalls of engagement. The knowledge of what you would one day be able to do threatened to overepower even the strongest self-control. It was dangerous to walk the edges. That was where people got lost. Baruch stood up and turned around. They both tried to pretend that it hadn't happened.

As they went inside though, the initial touch replayed itself in their heads, mirrored back from every angle. A hundred hands reached for each other. A thousand fingers intertwined.

Luke: "What about the hug being at a party and in front of people and that that is unlikely?"

Tova: "That is not uncommon. I went back and looked at that section [and asked herself], did they hug? It's a debatable point. It was a slight hug. It was not in front of people. [Wendy] doesn't mention that the hug was immediately ended because Baruch feels intense guilt about it. He has Wendy Shalit's mindset."

Tova repeatedly pronounces Wendy's last name as "SHALL-it." I believe the correct pronunciation is "Shuh-LEET."

Tova: "The scene is about the struggle between [divine ideals] and physical desire. To say that no unmarried people [of the opposite sex not related to each other] in the Orthodox world touch each other is a stretch, to put it mildly. Her comment afterwards: "It's bad enough that a yeshiva student would embrace a woman not related or married to him, but to do so in public is even worse." That misses the experience of being in that moment, which fiction does. Fiction is not shaking your finger at someone and saying, 'Naughty!' It's about what does it feel like to want this hug, to touch somebody you want to touch."

Luke: "Have you spent a significant period of your life completely outside of Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "No. Maybe according to Wendy Shalit, I have, if mild transgressions put one outside."

Luke: "You haven't gone six months without going to shul?"

Tova: "No."

Luke: "Do you know anything about Haredi [fervent Orthodoxy] Judaism?"

Tova: "One of the weird things about the piece is the notion that Modern Orthodoxy is somehow invalid. She says that to be Modern Orthodox is to be familiar with 'some traditional customs.' That's an odd thing to say about Modern Orthodoxy. There are numerous differences between Haredi Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy but they share a lot more than what separates them, certainly in the experience of day-to-day life, particularly in how human emotions reconcile with religious law.

"I do have a lot of experience with ultra-Orthodox Judaism with close family members who are part of the ultra-Orthodox world. I have family members who are part of the Haredi world."

Luke: "Do you hate the ultra-Orthodox world?"

Tova: "No."

She laughs. "I don't even think in those terms. How do you hate worlds? I'm so closely interwoven into it. I'm not sure my characters are ultra-Orthodox, maybe yeshivish or right-wing. I think my books are more about Modern Orthodoxy.

"That hug, which seems to have drawn her greatest irritation... Because a character succumbs to a moment of desire and therefore I hate the ultra-Orthodox world? It's outrageous. I disagree with her characterization of my novels as portraying the Orthodox world as 'contemptible.' I've heard a lot about my novels. I've never heard that before. I think it is not true."

Luke: "That charge has not appeared in reviews of your work?"

Tova: "Not once. I've been faulted for portraying it [Orthodox Judaism] with too much love...for not pushing my characters hard enough, for not having any of the characters leave Orthodoxy. At readings for The Ladies Auxiliary, I was asked if community was good or bad. Fiction doesn't deal with those terms. I don't even think in those terms."

Luke: "Are your novels good or bad for the Jews?"

Tova: "I don't even think about it."

We laugh.

Tova: "I've been on a Philip Roth reading binge. It brings to mind the questions Judge Leopold Wapter asks [of the Philip Roth character in the book The Ghostwriter]. I've just finished my piece for the Forward where I say that Wendy Shalit is a modern-day Leopold Wapter.

"I'll disagree with the premise of your question and answer it anyway. I don't know what we gain by presenting hagiography: 'We don't struggle. We don't question. Maybe we have a small moment of pettiness, but we are happy here. You might have issues in your life, but not here.' I'm not sure that benefits the Orthodox world."

Luke: "How accurate a reading of you and the things you struggle with and the things you observe are your novels?"

Tova: "They are not autobiographical but I'm in there all over the pages. The Ladies Auxiliary, ironically, is very much about what it means to be an insider or outsider. I am a sixth generation Memphian. I grew up as an insider in that world but at the same time feeling outside for not always agreeing with the community. There was the sense that if you deviated in the smallest way you would find yourself on the outside. I am certainly not Batsheva [the convert to Judaism in the novel]. I am not even any of the high school girls.

"I grew up with such a strong sense of being from somewhere, and I think about how you hold on to that desire without it becoming suffocating and requiring conformity. The Outside World is about how people wrestle with this question of tradition and modernity, how people make those tabulations in their life."

Wendy Shalit writes: "Mirvis hones in on hypocrisy..."

Tova: "I have no problem with hypocrisy [as Wendy defines it]. If Baruch believes in this strict interpretation of Orthodoxy yet he hugs his fiancee on the back porch, is he a hypocrite? Is that the best word we have for that? I think it's about human failings and the tension between divine ideals and human needs. The whole notion of hypocrisy is so baffling to me. I almost want to write against the idea that you are either this or that.

"I was interested in what happens to the dreams and desires that are not kosher. What happens when people belong to communities and their private feelings do not always match that. What is that individual's experience? In the Modern Orthodox family [in Tova's novel The Outside World], I wanted to write about the father Joel who describes himself as an observant agnostic. It's not about whether it is good to be that or bad to be that, but what does it feel like to be that. That's what fiction does. Her piece has nothing to do with fiction."

Luke: "I find it hard to believe that the things your characters saw and did are foreign to you. This all comes from a world of possibilities you are familiar with."

Tova: "Very much so. Their struggles are very much my own struggles. To hear that those are not authentic is, what polite word can I use, surprising."

Luke: "Do you known anyone in Orthodoxy who keeps shrimp in the freezer?"

Tova: "I had a friend in college who told me this story. I've always had this uncomfortable feeling that someone in Memphis thinks I am on to them, but I have no idea who it is.

"I think Shalit's piece loses any notion of humor. There's no possibility for humor in Wendy's worldview.

"Whether someone actually keeps shrimp salad in her fridge isn't important [in determining the veracity of a novel]... It's the metaphorical shrimp salad, the things that people do that don't fit in. Everyone has them. I suspect Wendy Shalit has her own metaphorical shrimp salads in her freezer and it doesn't make her hypocritical or an outsider. It just makes her a normal person."

Wendy criticizes you for writing that a group of neighbors smuggled televisions into their homes in airconditioner boxes.

Tova: "I'm guilty of the crime as a fiction writer of making something up."

Luke: "But this isn't unknown in the Orthodox world?"

Tova: "It's an urban legend in the Orthodox world. The air conditioner box has become a catch phrase. It signifies for insiders about what one is doing in private. If you go from door-to-door in Borough Park, will you find that all of them have done that? Of course not."

Luke: "Do you think your novels inform your reader why people would want to be part of Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "They might. It's certainly not what they set out to be. I've heard from a few people that they've had to read my novels in their conversion classes. That's nice and funny but not my goal. I hope that what they [Tova's novels] do is ask questions about what it means to live inside a world. What is the experience of living with rules?"

Wendy Shalit writes: "The novel's jacket copy announces that ''The Outside World'' is meant to explain ''the retreat into traditionalism that has become a worldwide phenomenon among young people,'' but the uninformed reader might wonder why any young person would want to be part of such a contemptible community."

Tova: "Her use of the word 'contemptible' is outrageous. Do shrimp salad, a hug and bride magazines add up to a contemptible portrayal, so that one would think, 'I could never live in that contemptible world.' I'm not sure what she is referring to.

"She used to think that Hasidim were all bad, all mean."

Wendy writes:
At 21, I was on the outside looking in, on my first trip to Israel with a friend who was, like me, a Reform Jew. One day, we wandered into a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, and suddenly there were black hats and side curls everywhere. My friend pointed out a group of men wearing odd fur hats. ''Those,'' he explained, ''are the really mean ones.'' I never questioned our snap judgment of these people until, a few years later, I returned to study at an all-girls seminary and was surprised to discover that my teachers, whom I adored, were men and women from this same community.

Tova: "Now they're all good. It's a black-and-white way of looking at the world on both counts.

"I don't feel that it is portrayed as contemptible. It's my world. I live in it every single day. Often there's this notion that Orthodoxy is swallowed whole. People will say, 'Oh, but she's Orthodox." As though I am not a thinking wrestling person. That, to me, is the biggest problem with her interpretation of Orthodoxy. There's no room to question. I hope that my books portray that tension.

"I remember from my book tour with The Ladies Auxiliary, one lady would raise her hand and say, I could just kill that Mrs. Levy. Those women were the most narrow petty bitches I've ever seen in my life. And another person would say, 'I love that book because it has such a warm sense of community. They care about one another.'

"Ultimately, that difference of opinion is not about the book. It's about the reader. It has to do with where they are coming from and what they want to see represented. Someone who wants to kill Mrs. Levy has her own experience of being inside or outside.

"I want to write books that press buttons. I'm not interested in writing parve [a kashrut term that refers to food that is neither meat nor dairy] fiction.

"I found with The Ladies Auxiliary, the farther someone was from Orthodoxy, the warmer they felt the portrayal was.

"I go home to Memphis all the time. I live in that world. I'm the one who wrote that book. I understand the feeling that I've aired the dirty laundry... 'Will people want to move to Memphis still?'"

Luke: "What have you had to deal with in the Memphis community?"

Tova: "It's a mixed reception. It divided along the lines of insiders versus outsiders. People who felt themselves deeply inside that world were very upset about the book. Either it was nothing like Memphis or it was exactly like Memphis. People told me that they didn't read the book but a copy of all the negative passages had been passed around. People were busy trying to play who's who. They wanted to crack my code.

"At the beginning, it was upsetting. It became funny. Apparently there were five candidates for Mrs. Levy including one man. People who did not feel like insiders loved the book. One person said that it felt like I had explained her life to her. She always wondered why she hadn't felt accepted here.

"When I go back there, I watch my back."

Luke: "But it's not so bad you can't go back."

Tova: "It's also the Southern thing. People will never say anything to your face. People will give me this smile and say, 'I read your book.' That's it."

Luke: "How did your parents feel about the book?"

Tova: "They were great despite that my mom heard a comment about it every day, every time she left her house. They loved the book and felt like it spoke to a truth for them and their experiences. When I was writing the book, my mom would say, 'You're not really going to do this, are you?' I had to promise that not only would I not use any Memphis names, they couldn't even sound anything like Memphis names."

Wendy Shalit writes: "But before there can be hypocrisy, there must be real idealism; in fiction that lacks idealistic characters, even the hypocrite's place can't be properly understood."

Tova: "My idea of idealistic characters is characters who hold ideals and struggle to realize them. I think Baruch is idealistic. He aspires to something higher than himself. He doesn't always reach it.

"What Shalit is really asking for is idealized characters. She praises books, not on whether the characters are fully realized, but do they promote ideals."

Luke: "Did you write or approve the jacket copy for The Outside World?"

Tova: "I approved it. Writers get very little say over book jackets. It's the publisher's job. But it was not my favorite line in the jacket copy."

Luke: "Yes. I would not think that The Outside World was primarily a way to explain a retreat into traditionalism."

Tova: "I agree."

Luke: "Do your novels indulge the baser instincts, such as the desire to eavesdrop on a closed world?"

Tova: "I don't know that eavesdropping is so base. All of our lives are closed to some degree. The act of reading is a form of eavesdropping on other people's lives."

Luke: "Did you consider when you were writing that you would be feeding a wanted belief among many of your readers that the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and hypocritical and lacking any competing claim to the truth?"

Tova: "No. I might be feeding the notion that they are also human."

Luke: "Have you read Ruchama King?"

Tova: "I blurbed her novel [Seven Blessings]. I think it has many nice things about it. I would praise her for the intimacy of her moments, her details, and the delicacy of her language."

Luke: "Eve Grubin?"

Tova: "I'm friendly with Eve Grubin as is Wendy Shalit. I haven't read Eve's book but will once it is published. I think she's a nice person. I think it's odd to have someone in The Times Book Review when their book hasn't been published. I think Eve was praised for becoming Orthodoxy, not for her poetry."

Luke: "Allegra Goodman?"

Tova: "I love her work. I love Kaaterskill Falls. Paradise Park is a riot. I would contest [Wendy's] characterization of Allegra as a 'sympathetic outsider.' It doesn't do her work justice. And it isn't so sympathetic. If you talked to people from the community that Kaaterskill Falls is based on, I don't think they would agree with Shalit that it was so sympathetic. And I don't mean that as a charge against Allegra. I mean it as a compliment. I think her work is funny, sharp, and pointed."

Luke: "I find it hard to believe that Allegra is an outsider to Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "It depends on your definitions."

Luke: "I am sure Allegra has spent time in Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "The whole notion of a classification system [of outsider/insider] is highly offensive. Who's deciding which of us is in or out? I would argue that Nathan Englander is an insider too. Wendy doesn't take into account that there are many ways to be insiders. When you grow up in a world, you know a world. Nathan knows this world deeply and fully. Just because he doesn't believe in it now doesn't remove that. It's a matter of knowing his stuff whether he practices it or not."

Luke: "Is it unbelievable to think that an Orthodox rabbi would write a dispensation for a man to see a prostitute?"

That is the key story in Englander's collection of short stories and also occurs at the beginning of the Israeli film The Holy Land.

Tova: "It's a Talmudic story. I bet that Wendy, with all her claims to be an insider, did not know that it's a Talmudic story. That's what is so disturbing about the way his work is treated [by Wendy].

"I think the single most outrageous line in the piece was: 'Englander's sketches were fictional, but did most people realize this?' Well, they're called fiction. It's not about whether it does happen in life. It's a story."

Luke: "Tova Reich?"

Tova: "I haven't read her. I know her brother is an Orthodox rabbi."

Luke: "If so, then it is hard to believe she's an outsider to Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "Apparently one becomes an insider by feeling the way Wendy does about the world. By her logic, if you know the world, you must love it. And if you don't love it, you don't know it.

"Pearl Abraham is not mentioned in the piece because she disproves the thesis. Pearl Abraham grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community. The Romance Reader is about her rejection of that world. She certainly knows the world."

Luke: "Did you read Chaim Potok's novels?"

Tova: "I did growing up. I saw the movie The Chosen and read it. My Name is Asher Lev. Davita's Harp."

Luke: "I read all of Chaim Potok's novels when I was a kid and reread them during my conversion to Judaism. Now I gorge on Jewish fiction. I'm struck the difference in the intellectual caliber of the characters between Potok's characters who are obsessed with intellectual questions such as Biblical Criticism and other questions about texts, and the lack of that contemporary Jewish fiction."

Tova: "I disagree with that. For Baruch, it's a text-based struggle. In Orthodox Judaism, sociological details are not separate from theological ones. Halacha [Jewish law] is so minute. That characterizes that world. In the discussion of domestic details, there are large theological questions. It's the way ideology is lived through sociology. In a world where clothing and every gesture matter so much, The difference between seamed stockings and unseamed stockings can speak volumes about who a person is as an Orthodox woman."

Luke: "To me the primary question one would ask in determining whether or not to lead an Orthodox life is does one truly believe that God gave the Torah. That question does not seem to be present."

Tova: "Because it is taken for granted. It is taken as a given. If they are arguing about putting dish racks in a sink to make it kosher, God is implicit in that conversation."

Luke: "Do you believe in God?"

Tova: "Yes."

Luke: "Do you believe God gave the Torah?"

Tova: "I do. I think it's more complicated... I don't believe in the fundamentalist notion that he wrote it down and handed it off but I believe in an evolving dynamic chain of tradition. It has formed my life. It is complicated. I would guess that I don't believe in it in the same terms that Wendy Shalit does."

Luke: "How about in the terms that Maimonidies formulates in his eighth of thirteen required beliefs [the Jewish prayer Yigdal, which translated into English reads: 'I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him.']"

Tova: "Remind me."

Luke: "That the Torah is divine. That every word of it is divine. And if a person was to say that a single word in the Torah is not divine, that that is outside permitted belief."

Tova: "I don't know. That's a good question. Part of my Orthodoxy is that you don't have to know all the answers. I don't know. It's a good question."

Luke: "This was a question that obsessed the characters of Chaim Potok novels and it obsesses me."

Tova: "What's interesting about Orthodoxy is does the term mean sameness of belief? There's little sameness of belief in Orthodoxy. There are basic tenets. I don't think one could articulate an Orthodox theology that would apply across the board. It's complicated and I live with that complication every day."

Luke: "Orthoprax means correct practice. Orthodox means correct belief. Sorry to hone in on this, but would it be more accurate to call you Orthoprax than Orthodox?"

Tova pauses: "I don't even know where to begin. No, I have no idea. I don't know what those words mean. Is someone who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and drives there [on Shabbat and festivals], is he Orthodox? I don't know. Is one who davens three times a day but eats out [in non-kosher restaurants], is he Orthodox? I don't do that, before that gets tagged on to me, but I don't know. I don't know what these terms mean. I don't really think about them. I don't know that there's a need to define in that way.

"I am Modern Orthodox. I am liberal Orthodox. I am feminist Orthodox. But what does that have to do with my right to write fiction? The whole question of where writers are coming from is problematic and the least interesting way of looking at novels. I don't know what my own personal beliefs have to do with it. Is it a credential test?

"People ask [a prominent Jewish author] if he believes in God. They want a yes or no answer. He thinks it's not a yes-or-no answer but a discussion. To live in the Orthodox world is to be engaged in these questions and discussions and to wrestle with them and to be part of a conversation. It's not to have all the answers. I just don't believe that anyone does."

Luke: "Are you familiar with Louis Jacobs?"

Tova: "Vaguely."

Luke: "He was on the way to becoming Chief Rabbi of England in the early 1960s. They found a book he wrote in 1957 called We Have Reason To Believe where he accepted what is the universally held view in academic study of sacred text that the Torah is composed of different strands composed in different centuries and woven together over centuries. Because of that, he was thrown out of Orthodox Judaism.

"I bring that up because with your vast secular education, I am sure you are familiar with literary criticism and the asking of three basic questions: When was something written? Who wrote it? For what purpose was it written? If you apply those three basic questions to sacred text, you would come up with an answer completely different from that of traditional Judaism to its sacred texts. Do you wrestle with this?"

Tova, pauses: "Sometimes, but not to where I need to have the answer, to resolve it in my head. I think the same applies to issues of Orthodoxy and science."

Luke: "Is Jewish Orthodoxy compatible with Modernity?"

Tova: "Yes."

Luke: "So one can be authentically Orthodox and authentically Modern?"

Tova: "That's what the Modern Orthodox movement is about. Modern Orthodoxy was founded on the principle that one doesn't live in separate worlds where we do our Orthodox thing and then we do our Modern thing. We integrate them."

Luke: "Do you think it is true?"

Tova: "Do I think that it is true?"

Luke: "Ontologically, ultimately? That you can be authentically Modern and authentically Orthodox and integrated?"

Tova: "I do."

Luke: "I'm sure that much of what you learned at Columbia ran completely counter to your Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "I don't know. It didn't."

Luke: "Did you ever take a class in Bible?"

Tova: "I didn't. I regret that.

"I think these are interesting questions but they don't have to do with fiction, with my fiction.

"I think of Wendy Shalit's piece as a tzitzit-check, a sheitel-check. What are your credentials for writing. As a writer, I don't pretend to have all the answers to the theological questions of Orthodoxy. I don't pretend it in my life and I don't pretend it in my fiction.

"I don't think that writing from a place of certainty makes for the best fiction.

"I can discuss with you my own doubts though I don't think that I need to. Orthodoxy is not always an easy package to hold together.

"I take issue with her argument that because characters struggle with communal norms and divine truths they are outsiders. I think she wants to do this to writers and to our characters. It is the second one that pisses me off more."

After the interview, I exchanged some emails with Tova.

Eighty minutes after the conclusion of our interview, Tova wrote me:

I must tell you as well, in hindsight, that I have an isssue with many of your questions. Upon thinking about it, I wondered whether questions such as whether I believe in the one of maimonides 13 principles of faith are intended for discussion and thought, or to determine whether I'm really the insider I claim to be. if the former, then I truly am interested in the conversation and the ongoing exploration. But if its the latter, then I'd make the same objection as I make to her piece. Must we believe in the 3rd principle of faith, for example, to write legitimately about the ortjodox world. What if someone only believed in numbers 1-11? Does that disqualify them? And since its so on point, I'd love to quote the Ghostwriter, which I mentioned: "Do you practice Judaism? If so, how? If not, what qualifies you to write about Judaism for national magazines?" I'm feeling a little too much of Judge Wapter in the air.

I replied:
That was my favorite section of the Ghostwriter. I do not believe that you need to believe in anything to write on Orthodox Judaism or any topic. My questions on your beliefs were to find out where you are coming from. I realize this is a very sensitive area for many people... I had a fascinating discussion along a similar line with Alana my book on Jewish journalism.

Later, I emailed Tova: "Why have you stayed Orthodox?"

Tova wrote back: "I've stayed Orthodox because it's who I am, it's my childhood and its my family, my parents and my children, and it's part of all my memories. I'm Orthodox because I love ritual, because I love the texts, love the idea of a chain of ideas passed down from generation to generation, each one adding one more link. Because I love Shabbos, love that the chaos of my everyday life quiets down for those hours. Because sometimes when I least expect it, a cantorial tune, a word of a prayer will catch me off guard and move me, make me feel a longing for something deeper, fuller, higher. I've stayed Orthodox even though so many things about it anger me, so many things feel problematic and troubling and unresolvable. And I stay because the Orthodox world is so much wider than some people believe, because one can doubt and wrestle and observe and believe and that is all part of this tradition."

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Steven I. Weiss Launches Jewish Campus News

I was emailed this:

CampusJ is the new project that will bring compelling content to Jewish university students, with comprehensive coverage of the [news] in their communities on campus.
Starting with four Manhattan campuses [including Yeshiva University], the project will train a young generation of Jewish journalists in the reporting styles and methods of new media...

A Twisted Mind

Bat Dina writes:

Reasons and excuses my abuser gave:
You're not married and men are allowed to have more than one wife according to the Torah (Bible), so technically it's not wrong for me to do this. My wife never needs to know.

You're very pretty and I'm attracted to you. Your attraction is compounded by the fact that you're so modest and so religious, so I saw you as hard-to-get and that was enticing.

I would masturbate anyhow, so you're not really causing me to "spill my seed".

You never need to tell anyone about it, it should stay just between us. Even if you do tell one or two people, no one will find out since people don't talk Lashon Hara (deragotory speech, even if true).

You can still get married and have a perfectly fine relationship with your husband. We can keep doing this right up until you get married, even after you get engaged. There is no reason to tell your husband.

You really want this, it feels good. This is a safe place to explore your sexuality.

I love you, that's why I'm doing this. I want to give you pleasure. I'm helping you become a better person by "working out" your sexual issues before you get married.

Kids, don't try these lines at home without adult supervision.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Poor Luke

Anon writes: Poor Luke. For whatever reason, his blogging went to complete s--- when he moved to blogger and decided to focus on jewish journalism and rabbinical abuse. The old site didn't just look better, it was funny and worth a regular read. I like iPods, and I know for a fact that many girls who love them also like to f---. And its price point is reasonable given its features, design, and popularity. But that's not important. Luke, go back to writing charming, naughty posts about being a single orthodox fish-out-of-water in Hollywood, leavened with testaments to your love for Air Supply. This blog is a cloying piece of s--- and it may have already closed your window of marriage opportunity.

Loyalty Oath For Jewish Writers

Inspired by Wendy Shalit's essay in Sunday's Times, I am composing a mandatory loyalty oath for all Jewish writers. Something along the lines of adherence to the 13 Essential Principles of the Jewish Faith according to the Rambam and observance of Jewish Law as codified by the Shulchan Aruch. Anyone who falls short of this will have their "Jewish Writer" credential taken away, by force if necessary, and brought up before the rabbinic court for UnJewish Activity. Those found guilty of writing under false pretenses will receive 39 lashes (no more than 39 because the Torah is so merciful).

Is An Orthodox Jew Immune From Sexual Sin?

Jonathan Rosenblum (of writes in The Jerusalem Post September 18, 1998:

Lieberman is neither the only senator who is faithful to his wife nor the only one with deep-seated religious beliefs. But because his religion demands from him daily sacrifices - or at least what appear as such to outsiders - and not just protestations of faith, there is no suspicion that he might be an Elmer Gantry or Jimmy Swaggart.

In the aftermath of his speech, the national media was filled with admiring stories about his daily Torah study and prayer, of how he walks seven kilometers from Capitol Hill to his Georgetown home on Shabbat when he must be present in the Senate on Friday night, and of how, when they served together in the Senate, Vice President Al Gore offered him his nearby apartment on Friday night and served as his Shabbes goy.

ONCE Jews exemplified dedication to God, and won the grudging admiration even of their most rabid enemies. Of late, however, American Jews have come to perceive themselves, and to be perceived by others, as a largely godless people. Sen. Lieberman - like the Yale Five and last year's Siyum HaShas - has once again reminded Americans that Judaism is a religion, not an adjunct of Americans for Democratic Action or Greenpeace.

From The Jerusalem Post October 6, 1998. Aliza Marcus writes:

Sir, - Jonathan Rosenblum's columns rarely fail to offend my sensibilities as a Jew, but I generally find his arguments well-reasoned and intelligent. However, his September 18 piece on Orthodox Jewish US Senator Joseph Lieberman showed the ugly side of Rosenblum, that side of him that refuses to see the reality of the world because he is so sure he is right.

Rosenblum writes that Lieberman is a moral man because "his religion demands from him daily sacrifices... and not just protestations of faith." Rosenblum also writes that it is the very fact Lieberman is Orthodox which makes him "immune" to accusations that he might have committed some indiscretion.

Being Orthodox, or even ultra-Orthodox, is not proof positive that someone is an upright person. Unless Rosenblum does not deign to read the paper that publishes him, I would assume he knows this.

A few months ago an Israeli court found guilty an ultra-Orthodox man (son of a famous rabbi) who sexually molested his niece for a period of years starting when she was a young teen. That upright community that Rosenblum lauds threw the girl out because she went to the police - despite her previous failed attempts to get help from rabbis in the community.

And has Rosenblum heard of domestic violence? It also occurs among the ultra-Orthodox - just ask any women's organization dealing with the issue. Prostitution? Hang around some of the seedier parks late at night and one can see ultra-Orthodox men who are not there for prayer.

If Rosenblum still has some doubts, he should stop by the magazine store/cafe off Jaffa Road near Zion Square and look at the ultra-Orthodox men leafing through the pornographic magazines. Don't tell me they are just reading the articles.

Fact-Checking New York Times Book Essays

I just sent this to the ombudsman (Daniel Okrent) of The New York Times:

Dear Mr. Okrent,

I am an author and blogger...and avid reader of fiction and non-fiction about Orthodox Judaism.

Many of the facts alleged by Wendy Shalit in her Sunday essay are shaky at best. For instance, author Tova Mirvis has spent her entire life in Orthodox Judaism, yeshiva education here and in Israel. Etc.

I'm wondering if any fact-checking was done on her piece or other pieces like it in the Books section.

I've spoken to people in Shalit's piece. No fact-checker, nor Wendy, ever contacted them to verify facts.

It seems like book essays are not subject to fact checking. Do you think that is a problem?

Your sincerely,

Luke Ford