Friday, July 31, 2009

Ideas and Idioms

Regardless of which language is your primary one, there is going to be an element of that language we call idioms. I would venture to say that idioms cause more problems of understanding than any other element of language.

Simply understood, an idiom is "an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements" or " a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements." Thus, to kick the bucket has nothing to do with kicking or buckets and being under the weather has nothing to do with weather. Since an idiom may also be "a regional speech or dialect; a specialized vocabulary used by a group of people; jargon," we add more layers of confusion to interpretation and understanding. "Stop bugging me," "He's bugging out," and "There's a bug in the program" are examples of such idiomatic speech.

Those who are learning a second language frequently run into problems precisely because of idioms. The idioms present in one language are usually not the same as those of another language. Trying to translate directly gives us some very peculiar sentences. Boy one speaks Spanish; boy two does not. Boy one is trying to teach boy two about how to be a good date. In English he tells boy two that when on a date throw flowers out the window at her. Boy two is very puzzled. "I should throw flowers at her?" he asks. So he goes out and buys a bunch of flowers and when the girl approaches his car to get in he opens the window and he pelts her with the roses. She turns around and goes back into her house, deciding that this boy is just not worth the time. Boy two comes back to boy one very ticked off. "Your throwing flowers bit got me nowhere!" Bad advice from boy one to boy two? No, idiom problems. Spanish has an idiom--"hechar las flores por la ventana" which translated word for word means to throw flowers out the window. But the correlated meaning of that idiom in English is to compliment someone, no flower throwing needed.

There are also phrases we use as part of living together as human beings that are idiomatic. Perhaps chief among those are the two questions "How are you?" and "How do you do?" Unless you are visiting with someone who is quite ill, the questions are not about how you are feeling or how you are getting along. In fact, they aren't questions at all--they are greetings. The answer to "How are you?" is not a long litany of your gastric problems. "Fine, thank you" is all that is required, whether true or not. In less formal parlance, "How's it going?" is also a greeting rather than a true question.

There was some discussion pre-Tisha Ba'Av about the use of "have an easy fast." Some people objected to the use of "easy" as not being truly indicative of what Tisha Ba'Av is about or should be about. A few people substituted "good" for easy. A few substituted "meaningful" for easy. Some thought that "positive" words such as good or easy were not what one should be wishing someone else for this fast. Their feeling seemed to be that the fast is about recognizing what you have done wrong and where you need to improve. Here's my take. "Have an easy fast," like "Have a good day" is idiomatic. It is the fast day substitute for "Hiya." It lets us greet someone without using "hello" or "hi" which we are not supposed to use that day. What I may mean by "have an easy fast" does not have to correlate to what you may mean by it; you can take that phrase any way you want to. But don't assume that the way you take it is how I meant it.

I am among those who are not "good" fasters. "Only" getting a headache and feeling nauseated would actually make it a "great" fast for me. My concern for people who are fasting has to do with their physical condition during the fast. When I say "have an easy fast" I'm talking about not becoming physically ill or debilitated. For me, "have an easy fast" is the equivalent of "stay well." If you want to, consider it as a "gashmius" greeting. As to the ruchnius, that's between you, yourself and God.

So yes, I hope you all had an easy fast yesterday. Just keep in mind that that is an idiomatic phrasing. It's not an opening to tell me all about your actual fasting and what you thought about and what you decided to do or not do. Like "how are you" and "fine, thanks," have an easy fast only requires "thank you, you too" as an answer.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wishing for you each and all an easy fast tomorrow. And may we be zocheh to yomai ha'moshiach soon.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Devil is in the Details

Some recent postings on Orthonomics have centered around the idea of establishing a budget, with an example given of one such budget suitable for those who are frum. Part of the commentary is centered around the idea of the details of the budget. Some people believe the budget is not detailed enough; others believe it is too detailed. I guess that where people will fall in the discussion is going to depend on whether they believe that "the devil is in the details."

Let's take a budget category that is going to apply to everyone: food. For some people this is enough of an indicator for what types of expenses are covered or should be covered in this category. I'm one of those detail people; "food" as a category would tell me absolutely nothing, particularly if I were trying to cut down expenses.

What gets covered in food? Anything edible, or that could be edible after preparation. Thus ready made frozen pizza goes under food, and so does flour and salt. Snack foods go under "food," as do bread and potatoes. For many people the ready made food they purchase from take out food stores or from a restaurant or pizza shop is also "food": cole slaw, potato salad etc. purchased from outside is eaten so it's "food."

There are some who consider that paper and plastic products used in food preparation and consumption also go under the category of "food." The reasoning is that they are only used with food so they belong in the food category.

Still others broaden the category: they talk about supermarket/grocery/food store purchases as one category. That being the case, items like cleansers of all types are included under this category. So are clothes washing products. So are air fresheners. So is that bottle of aspirin you bring home. So is your shampoo and tooth paste.

Those who argue against too much detail in a budget outline say that people with spending problems or those who have never created a budget before will be overwhelmed if there are too many categories or too many sub-categories. Those, like myself, who are arguing for more detailed budgets and more categories/sub-categories do so because many budget breakers are found precisely in these little sub-categories that hide in the corners of the broader categories and leach money out of the budget.

Someone whose food bills were heading way out of sight had to find a way to cut back. In the general category of food, meat and chicken seem to be obviously costly items. But cutting out these items did not make for a happy family. Sorry, but not everyone is cut out to be a vegetarian. But without a detailed listing of what else falls under "food" this family could not manage to make a real dent in their budget woes.

Here is what a detailed budget listing for food would have brought to light. Cole slaw from a take home food store, one pound per week, at $5-6 per pound, or $260-340 per year. Or one pound of potato kugel per week, at $6 per pound. Or assorted cold cuts once a week, averaging out at $10 per pound and higher. Or frozen pizza bagels at $5-6 per box, per week. Frozen blintzes at an average price of $6 per package.

Lumping items under grocery store purchases would have hidden these costs. Paper juice cups at $2.99 for 80 cups. Or name brand foil paper at $4 for 37.5 feet. Or detergent purchased not on sale for $6.49 per bottle. Or multiple toothbrushes purchased multiple times a year at $3 each. Or that "your hair will be the envy of the world" shampoo and conditioner, at $6 and up per small bottle.

Cutting down is made easier if you see all the details of what you are buying. Maybe, just maybe, you will identify a few smaller items that you really don't care all that much about that can be cut out and that could give you real savings. Maybe you could identify spending patterns that could be adjusted. Let me give you a personal example. I buy laundry detergent about twice a year, when it goes on a steep sale. No, I don't buy the store brand. I have a particular detergent I use that works the way I want it to work, so I wait until the sale and then buy in bulk. Yup, sometimes they limit the number of bottles per shopping trip per customer, so I go out to the car and then back into the store. Right now I have enough detergent to get me through until January or February. My savings for the year are about $70-80. Doesn't seem like all that much does it? But it is. Because that type of "detail" savings and shopping is repeated for a lot of the items that hide in the budget and eat away at it in small bites. I do the same for fabric softener. Now the savings are at $140-160 per year. We change toothbrushes 3-4 times per year. Just for arguments sake, a family of five doing so, at $3 and up per tooth brush, would be spending $60 a year just on toothbrushes. Now find a real bargain on good toothbrushes--6 in a package for 99 cents, and yes, sturdy, full bristles and NOT cheap--and your total for the year is $3.96 for almost 5 changes of brush, a savings of $56. Only three items and already a savings of $194-214 per year. Add in home made coleslaw, for a savings of $160 to $240 and up a year, and I've just cut down spending by $344-464 and more a year in a really "painless" fashion across only four items.

I know that there are people for whom this much detail is going to be frustrating; they aren't forest/trees people. But I also know a lot of people for whom general categories don't work either. Perhaps the best advice we can give is find a method that works for you, that you are willing to put a little time into, and then use it. Yes, you may have to experiment a bit to see what works for you.

Someone once told me that such a detailed way of looking at shopping was really nit picking. I laughed and answered: "So you would rather have lice?" It took a bit of explaining but she finally got it. If you don't pick nits, expect lice. If you don't look at the small details you may find your budget going seriously out of whack.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Being Blue in New Jersey

Once upon a time all states in the US had what are referred to as Sunday Blue Laws. Businesses were forbidden to be open on Sunday, because it was the "Sabbath." I remember when there was no shopping available on a Sunday, except for a few Jewish stores here in NY, and those stores got hassled plenty. Eventually NY bowed to the practical and got rid of its Blue Laws. Only some of New Jersey got rid of its blue laws, or part of them.

Yes, now in Bergen County you can buy food on Sunday, so ShopRite is open. But my daughter reported to me a strange incident that happened today at a ShopRite in Bergen County. She went to do her weekly shopping. On her list was getting a new mop, which was on sale at ShopRite. She put the mop into her wagon and then a friendly store clerk told her not to bother. They wouldn't check out the mop at the checkout counter. Apparently mops are not an item they are allowed to sell on Sunday, being still covered under the Blue Laws. She could buy her groceries. Had she wanted to she could have purchased beer. She was allowed to buy Febreze air freshener. But mops? Verboten.

You've got to love a County where drinking beer is apparently less of a "Sabbath breaker" than mopping is. It also makes me wonder this: do any of our legislators, on the city, state and federal level, ever really read the laws they are voting for? Do they read the fine print? At some point a group of people who are supposed to be intelligent gave us no mops on Sundays. Now, do you understand why governmental edicts seem so out of whack with reality?

And to segue from mops to medicine, the new Health plan that some in Congress are so desperate to pass and pass now--the bill runs over 1000 pages. What are the chances that everyone who has to vote on that bill has read every line of it, word by word? Want to take a bet that if the bill passes we are going to see an awful lot of "no mops sold on Sunday" provisions come to light?

A "Singles" Event That's a Little Bit Different

I received the following notice via email and it struck me as being the type of program that a lot of people who would otherwise not consider a weekend for "singles" might consider, particularly since it's not exclusively for singles. Some of the topics sound fascinating.

49th Annual AOJS Summer Convention
Shabbos Nachamu Weekend
July 31st-August 2nd, 2009
The Heritage Resort & Spa
Southbury, CT

Only 90 minutes from NYC!

Presentations include:

Topic: Genesis & the Blueprints of Creation: From Cosmic Bigness to Quantum Smallness
Speaker: Stuart Weinberg, MD

Topic: Reish Lakish: The Value and Perspective of an O'ker Harim
Speaker: Rabbi Nachman Cohen, PhD; Chairman, Board of Governors, AOJS

Topic: Darwinian Thought in Non-biological Sciences
Speaker: Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, PhD

Topic: Speed Reading: Using the Myers-Briggs Technique to Know Yourself & Others
Speaker: Naomi Mark, LCSW

Topic: Resolving Conflicts between Science and Religion
Speaker: Jared Plitt, DDS

Topic: Medical Ethical & Halachic Aspects of Advanced Directives
Speaker: Robert Schulman , MD

Topic: Tisha B'Av, Energy Medicine & the Epigenome
Speaker: Heshie Klein, MD

Topic: Enhancing Communications & Relationships at Home & at Work
Speakers: Marcy Schaffer , PhD & Sylvan Schaffer, JD, PhD

Topic: The Truth about the Vaccine Autism Controversy
Speaker: Susan Schulman, MD

Topic: Nachamu, Nachamu, Tell Me a Story: Stories of Wisdom that Build Relationships
Speaker: Chana-Chaya Klein, MSEd

Topic: Good Relationships: Searching for Support & Comfort in Hard Times
Speaker: Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, PhD

Topic: Pay or Pray: Ethics of Organ Transplant Compensation
Speaker: Allen J. Bennett, MD

Topic: Was Birchas HaChamah Recited on the Right Day? Rambam on Astronomy & the Luach
Speaker: Jeremy Wertheimer, PhD

Topic: Logic Bubble & Objective Truth Seeker: How to Analyze Beliefs
Speaker: Zev Greenblatt, BS

Symposium: A Torah-Informed Evaluation of Darwin's Theory of Evolution

Topic: Theology of Randomness: A Torah Perspective on the Theory of Evolution
Speaker: Rav Moshe Tendler, PhD

Topic: An Evolving Theory: From Darwin to the Present
Speaker: Avi Rosenberg, PhD

Topic: Computing Phylogenetic Trees from Sequence Similarities
Speaker: Jeremy Wertheimer, PhD

Topic: Evolution of Man's Psychology
Speaker: Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, PhD

Panel Discussion:
Avi Rosenberg, PhD
Moshe D. Tendler, PhD
Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, PhD
Jeremy Wertheimer, PhD
Moderator: Nisan Hershkowitz, DDS

Special Singles' Program directed by Naomi Mark, LCSW & Aryela Rosenberg, DDS

You need not be a scientist to attend!

Double Occupancy: $375/person ALL TAXES & GRATUITIES INCLUDED!
Single Occupancy: $550/ person ALL TAXES & GRATUITIES INCLUDED!

Register now! Limited availability! Over 80% of rooms already sold!

Contact: (718) 969-3669 or

AOJS National Office:
Rabbi Yossi Bennett, Executive Director
1011 Moss Place, Lawrence, NY 11559

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Just What is Off the Derech

I'm a realist in most things. I recognize that even with the best of intentions, even with the best of education and chizuk to keep our kids "on the derech," things can go wrong. Sometimes you can pinpoint why a particular person decides that being frum is no longer for them; many times you cannot. But just what is it that we mean when we talk about going off the derech?

Let me illustrate why I'm not sure what that means when others use the term. An acquaintance and I found ourselves together recently. For a few moments we did the "polite" thing and caught up generally on our families. She decided to unload and I guess I was handy. One of her daughters went off the derech, her term. She is bitter, to say the least. She is taking the whole thing very personally. She is upset by what this is doing to her other children. She cannot stand the looks she knows she is getting from others in her community. People cannot seem to look her straight in the face. Not just bitter, but angry too. And then she gets weepy. How will she ever have this couple in her home for a Shabbos or Yom Tov or for a simcha? She will never be able to go to her daughter on these occasions either. Fortunately, as she put it, the daughter is living in California now so at least she isn't flaunting herself here in NY.

I excused myself as soon as was humanly possible because the negative vibes were really making me uncomfortable. While leaving the room I ran into another acquaintance who told me that she noticed I was talking to person X. Then she told me to take anything she told me with a grain of salt. Yup, I was puzzled. And even though I really, really didn't want or need to know any of this I got cornered and told the "real" story. Yes, the daughter went off the derech, if by derech is meant the road her parents were traveling on. That road was the black hat road, the college only if it's Touro and even better would be one of the diploma mills road. That road was the no Internet road, no secular books road. That road was the stockings/tights at all times and black skirt road. We've seen that road before; some of you may even travel on it at times.

So which road did the daughter move onto? She is traveling what some would identify as the MO Turnpike. She has ditched the uniform, although she doesn't wear pants or sleeveless. She goes to movies now or watches them on cable. She has the Internet. She's attending a college in California for a graduate degree as a Physician's Assistant. Her hubby doesn't wear the black hat lavush. He wears jeans. He wears a srugie. His tzitzit are tucked inside his pants. He davens nusach ashkenaz. He went to a day school, not a yeshiva.

Driving home I think to myself that things have really gotten screwed up in Klal if this is what is considered going off the derech, if this is what has some parents wailing and almost to the point of tearing kriah. No, I imagine it might not be comfortable for family members of wide diversity to find a neutral ground for some occasions. But just how is any of this going off the derech? We really must find another term to use if our children are different in their religious observance than we are. If we don't, I can see how telling a child who is different religiously over and over that he/she is off the derech just might actually push them off that derech on to a derech we might like even less.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Things to be Thankful for on Thursday

I am both grateful and thankful that all my kids are legally adults. I'm particularly thankful today that they no longer attend day camp. My friend's daughter and her grandchildren arrived to her home last night with one of those "joys" of childhood: they had won 4 goldfish in a camp game. Of course, their Babi being the authority on all things swimming, they brought the fish to her. She dutifully searched around to find a container for them and got them settled in. Having no fish food around any longer, she put in a few bread crumbs. And yes, her grandchildren decided to leave the fish with Babi so she would have company. And yes, this morning when my friend checked on the gold fish, one was floating belly up in the water.

Where is my friend now? Heading out to get the proper food and equipment to house the fish. She is determined, however, that the fish are going to go live with her daughter's family. As she put it: "Every mother needs to become adept at performing goldfish funerals. It's a rite of passage."

What we'd both like to understand is why schools and camps think that giving out live goldfish is something positive. The fish never come with instructions for care. They don't come with food. There is an assumption that every house will have just the right container to house the fish. Those goldfish engender discussions about life and death that the moms/kids just may not be ready for yet. I put my foot down and said "no more!" when one such fish, while my kids were eating breakfast not 3 feet away from it, leaped out of its bowl and fell between the dishwasher and the cabinet, where I could not get to it. Watching that fish commit suicide was not on my agenda of "what to talk to the kids about."

Couldn't the kids just be given stickers as prizes?!!!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reality Television, Frum Style

The following was sent to me via email. I don't know who the author is--not identified--but I think he/she has a good eye. Parodies usually work because they have so much truth to and in them. See what you think.


Do you love the idea of The Bachelor, but are too frum to watch it? Then you’ll love the new show, “The Bachur.” The concept is the same: 25 girls vying for the heart of one guy. The twist? They’re all frum!

Our Bachur this season is Avraham Yitzchak Greenbergsteinkowitz from the holy city of Coffeeneck. He has studied in some of the best yeshivas, is over 5'6” and is a lawyer, doctor AND an accountant [while also studying for smicha yoreh yoreh yadin yadin]. You might ask why such an exceptional Bachur would choose such an unusual method for meeting his bashert. “Well,” says the Bachur, “I have been dating for over 6 months now and still have not been able to find my bashert. After consulting with all 17 of my rabbeim, I felt that this intense approach would be the best way for me to do so.”

The creator of the show is none other than Perry Charshady, who is the mastermind behind other reality TV hits such as “I’m a Rebbe…Get Me Out of Here” and “So You Think You Can Shteig.”

“The premise of the show is the same as that of The Bachelor,” Charshady explains, “except with some minor differences to make it more appealing to a frum, heimishe, audience.” For example, the bachurettes will face-off with challenges such as the Challah Bake-Off. The bachurette with the worst tasting challah will be sent home. And who will be the judge of something so crucial to building a bayis neeman b’yisrael? “My Imma!” exclaims the Bachur. “She makes the best challah ever, so who better to judge?” Additionally, while on The Bachelor the bachelorettes go home to meet the guy’s family, our bachurettes will have to have a meeting with the Bachur’s favorite Rebbe.

And who are these bachurettes? Well, they are all no larger than a size 4 and went to Strict College for Women where they studied to be a therapist of any type. They also all come from wealthy homes in the Metropolitan area. “I just don’t feel comfortable with out-of-towners” The Bachur explains, “No one really knows what goes on in those places. At least where I’m from, everyone knows each others business so I can really get to know what a girl is like by asking, you know, her neighbors and kindergarten teachers about her.”

From the very first episode, it is clear that these girls are top-notch. After being the first bachurette to be sent home, Chana Shprintza Cohenbaumosky cries “How could he reject me? I mean, I went to NNI – the best seminary in all of Israel!” Later in the show, the second rejected bachurette sobs “Doesn’t he even know who my father is?!” But, not all the bachurettes are so sincerely committed to their seeming “Chesed Each Day” lifestyle. In one episode late in the season, The Bachur gets his first big shock: “I don’t always wear tights,” confesses one bachurette.

Who is this shiksa posing as an accomplished bachurette? Is she the same one concealing the fact that she has Facebook? Or is more than one bachurette hiding a dark side? “It just bothers me when someone isn’t honest with me,” The Bachur says disappointedly. “I mean, if you talk to other boys or don’t have a white tablecloth on your shabbas table then clearly you’re not frum enough for me, and if you’re not frum enough to be here, then what are you even doing here?”

So what’s the next project for Charshady? A season of The Bachurette, perhaps? “No,” says Charshady. “The Bachurette would be almost impossible to create.” Why? He explains: “This is a reality show and if we were to portray 25 buchrim trying to win over one girl, it would not be an accurate representation of reality.” He then adds “And, on a technical note, the process of find ing 25 eligible buchrim would be an almost impossible feat.”

Well, this season promises to be one filled with scandals: bare legs, Facebook and even (gasp!) Law School? “It’s always been a secret dream of mine,” reveals a teary-eyed bachurette. But, it also will be packed with fun: hotel lobbies and exotic trips to Chevron! And fear not, there will also be plenty of Tehillim said through bouts of sobbing. So tune in every motzei shabbas!

A New One for Me

While you are reading this, I'm busy getting ready to go out. Yes, hot and humid weather and I'm into a suit, stockings and that blasted heat attracting sheitle. Why? Because we are going to an aufruf today. Yup, you read that correctly. And at 7:00 a.m. Friends have a son getting married right after Shabbos Nachamu and they didn't want the aufruf so close to the wedding. They also didn't want to make the aufruf smack dab in the middle of the nine days either, Shabbos or not. Consultation with the Rav and he suggested that Rosh Chodesh would be fine. This is going to be a first for us. We've never been to a non-Shabbos aufruf before.

I am only praying that the seudah to follow the davening will be a bris-type of meal--light milchigs. No matter how many times I've been to a bris that used fleishigs, I just can't face cold cuts before noon, never mind chicken and kugel. And those of you who are coffee people will understand when I say that if the meal is fleishigs I'm first going to get my morning coffee somewhere around two in the afternoon at the earliest.

What we don't do for our friends!

An Uncommon Occurence...I hope

I had a doctor's appointment off Island and had to wait a bit to get in and see the doctor. That was okay since the doctor's wife runs the office, and we've been friends with this couple for decades. She and I were talking, catching up on what was going on with our respective families. It was also a chance to catch up on what was going on with some mutual friends that we have whom she sees more often than we do. When I asked about a particular couple I got a real shock. I was told that they got divorced last month.

Now we are talking here about a couple married almost 44 years. They are already great grand parents. As I received the news I quickly ran through my mind my knowledge of this couple. There was nothing that stood out and yelled "divorce coming." In point of fact, they seemed just like the rest of us. And then I asked what could have happened that would break asunder a relationship that had run this long.

Well, welcome to the modern age, the one where the younger generations have a different viewpoint about what older people should and should not be doing. In a nutshell, this couple had a whole bunch of kids, grand kids and even great grand kids who were counting on this couple to keep on plugging away, keep on working, keep on providing services. The wife, who happens to be the one who made the higher salary all along, wanted to get herself unentangled from responsibilities she was not in favor of any longer. She wanted to cut down and then cut out her working. She wanted to use her older years "indulging" herself a little bit. She wanted her life back. Not only were her children panicking at the thought, but her husband was not in favor either. He didn't mind actively parenting 4 generations up until the grave; she did. Obviously they couldn't work out their differences and divorce was the result.

I sat there with my mouth hanging open. Yeah, I could see where a real life style change on the part of one partner could cause problems with the other partner, bad problems. But how did it come to this? My friend's take was that the social pressure to conform to what "everyone" else was doing finally got to be too much. Sadder still, only one of her four kids is talking to her right now. Accident that this child is the only one totally independent, who has never asked for nor needed financial help from her parents?

I'd like to believe that this divorce is a one-off occurrence, an anomaly for older couples. I'd like to believe that there were underlying causes that we none of us knew about already many decades back. I'd like to, but I can't. One occurrence does not a trend make, and I'm not saying that this is the wave of the future, but even one ripple should be looked at as instructive. It's not the first time that I've said that the relationship between the various generations now living needs serious tweaking. I hope that tweaking comes before there are more casualties in my generation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some More Words on What Kosher Is...Or Isn't

Thanks to my hubby who sent the following article to me, that appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times on July 10. I was going to post only the link, but decided to post the article in full. I'm making no editorial comments, other than to say that some of the kashrut problems that have been discussed on various blogs at various times are certainly mirrored in this article.

Hebrew National & Kosher Politics
What’s kosher about answering to a higher authority?
July 10, 2009

Kenneth Lasson
Special to the Jewish Times

“No one should see how laws or sausages are made.”

— Otto von Bismarck

Barbecued hot dogs are as American as apple pie on the Fourth of July — and as universal, for that matter, as Israeli cookouts on Yom Ha’atzmaut or Lag B’Omer. In fact, they’re consumed around the world, from Australia to Zambia, and have become a major part of the increasingly capitalistic fast-food business in communist China and Russia.

But nowhere are as many hot dogs eaten as in the United States. We bite into more than 20 billion of them a year — some 818 every second from Memorial Day to Labor Day, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. (Yes, there is such a group, which also lists things like the biggest hot dog-selling cities — Baltimore/Washington is third behind New York and Los Angeles — as well as even more arcane trivia.)

It’s a $4 billion-a-year business, a large share of which is the kosher dog market (preferred by 6 million Americans, according to the NHD&SC, only a quarter of whom are Jewish). And that number is growing at twice the rate of consumption of all other kosher foods.

Little wonder, then, that the controversy surrounding the Hebrew National brand — which was recently rated by Consumer Reports as the best in overall quality among all hot dogs (Oscar Mayer, the largest producer, came in eighth) — is mushrooming by the day.

But the most fascinating fact may be that many Orthodox Jews will not eat any Hebrew National meat products. The underlying reasons for this irony are a hodgepodge of Halachah (Jewish law) and rabbinic infighting — power, profits and politics — much of it as juicy and spicy as what goes into the common sausage.

Here’s the story, in a variety of casings.

From Whence the Wiener?

One of the oldest forms of processed food, the common sausage can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire. (It was mentioned in Homer’s “Odyssey” in the ninth century B.C.)

According to food historians, the edible “dachshund” or “little dog” was created in the late 1600s by Johann Georghehner, a butcher in Coburg, Germany, who later traveled to Frankfurt-am-Mein to promote it. (In 1987, Frankfurt celebrated the 500th birthday of the frankfurter in that city, although the good burghers of Vienna (Wien), Austria, point to the term “wiener” as proof of the concoction’s true birthplace.)

Bruce Kraig, a professor emeritus in history and humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, writes that although many lay claim to the hot dog roll as their own invention, it is likely the Germans introduced the practice of first eating their dachshund sausages on warmed buns.

The American version probably made its first appearance in the 1860s, when German immigrants sold sausages with milk rolls and sauerkraut from pushcarts in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood.

In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German butcher, opened up the first Coney Island stand, selling some 3,684 dachshund sausages in rolls during his first year in business. (Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters, which didn’t start until 1916, sold more than 360 million in 2008.)

Another German peddler named Antonoine Feuchtwanger began selling hot frankfurters during the St. Louis “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” in 1904. He provided a white glove with each purchase so that his customers’ hands would not be burned. His wife suggested that he cut costs by putting the sausages in an elongated bun, which his brother-in-law, a baker, dutifully supplied.

The origin of the term “hot dog” is in some dispute. Visitors to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago consumed large quantities of the sausage sandwiches, which in the same year became the standard fare at baseball parks. They were also current at Yale as early as 1894, when “dog wagons” sold them at the dorms — the name a sarcastic comment on where the meat came from. (“A hot dog is a cartridge filled with the sweepings of abattoirs,” H. L. Mencken said years later. “I devoured them in Baltimore way back in 1886, and they were then very far from newfangled.”)

Various urban legends link the first hot dogs to baseball games — at either Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis (home of the Browns) or the Polo Grounds in New York. The latter is said to be where a sports cartoonist named Tad Dorgan was covering a Giants game there on a cold day in 1902, when he heard a vendor cry out, “Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” He hastily sketched some barking dachshunds tucked into warm rolls and captioned the drawing with a simpler reference to “hot dogs.” The cartoon, however, has never been found — so the story might be little more than, well, baloney.

Answering To A Higher Authority

A true immigrant success story, the Hebrew National saga began in 1905, in a six-story walk-up on East Broadway in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory processed kosher meats for New York’s numerous delicatessens. In 1928, a Romanian immigrant butcher named Isadore Pinckowitz (later Pines), who had begun peddling meat from the back of a horse-drawn wagon, bought the Hebrew National plant and landed a contract with Waldbaum’s, the city’s largest grocery chain catering to Jewish households.

At first primarily aimed at the growing number of Eastern European Jews filtering through Ellis Island, the company gradually expanded its product line and consumer base. In 1935, Isadore’s son, Leonard, took over the business and began to take advantage of the newly booming supermarkets. By the middle of the 20th century, Hebrew National had become the largest, most recognized kosher brand in the United States.

In 1965, the company launched its famous “We Answer to a Higher Authority” advertising campaign. The slogan quickly achieved its purpose, morphing into a symbol for quality and appealing to both Jews and non-Jews alike. After a series of corporate buyouts, Hebrew National became National Foods and moved its headquarters and distribution center to a large processing plant in Indianapolis.

In 1993, National Foods was acquired by huge food conglomerate ConAgra, which sought to capitalize on the Hebrew National reputation for using pure beef and disdaining artificial coloring and flavoring additives. By now, Skip Pines, Leonard’s son, had taken over. In 2004, Hebrew National closed the Indianapolis operation and moved into a state-of-the-art kosher processing plant in Quincy, Mich.

Today, with a work force of 500 people in the U.S., Hebrew National is the largest kosher meat processor in the world, producing 720 million hot dogs a year. It’s the leading brand in Baltimore, San Diego, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Denver and San Francisco.

Although Hebrew National also makes salami, bologna, knackwurst, polish sausage, deli meats — even its own brand of sauerkraut and mustard — it’s best known for its beef franks, which do a big business at ballparks around the country. Most of the hot dogs sold by Aramark, the Orioles concessionaire, are the Esskay brand (up to 15,000 at a single game and an estimated 750,000 a season), but Hebrew National dogs are also available at the concession stands (where they’re cooked on non-kosher grills).

Don’t look for them, though, at the kosher stand at Camden Yards; never have been there, probably never will be.

The Politics of Kashrut

More than one prominent Orthodox rabbi has suggested that modern kashrut “is 2 percent Halachah and 98 percent ego and money and politics,” which might explain why many of the people interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity.

Over the past half-century, kosher certification has become big business, and is not limited to food processing. The largest among them, certifying close to a half-million products, is the Orthodox Union. But there are at least a hundred other companies, many of them privately owned and operated, each with its own distinctive symbol, offering supervision for a price.

They come in all shapes (Circle K, Diamond K, Heart K, Triangle K) and from far and wide (California K, Florida K, Earth K). They apply their seals of approval to everything from hidden ingredients that need supervision (like chemicals and colorings) to products that, according to most rabbinic authorities, don’t (like aluminum foil, bottled water and peaches). They cover specialty confection stores (like the local Cinnabon in Towson Town Center) to franchises of international restaurant chains (like the two Dunkin’ Donuts and a Subway sandwich shop on Reisterstown Road).

Kosher meat is probably the most complicated food to supervise, with the simple strictures provided in the Torah to the detailed practices and processes interpreted and promulgated by rabbinic scholars over the centuries. Although disputes among Orthodox authorities about precise interpretations of halachic parameters have existed for ages, most will agree that there is a well-defined objective standard. Meat below this baseline is un-kosher; above it, kosher.

By the 1930s in Baltimore alone, there were more than 300 kosher butchers — at least, they called themselves kosher. According to a recent article by Rabbi Dovid Katz, a respected historian, this was also “a golden era for cheaters” — so much so that the local rabbis took out an ad in the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES appealing to Jewish housewives not to rely on the Hebrew sign on a butcher shop that read “Kosher.”

At the bottom of the notice was a message in Yiddish: “Koift nisht fun die chislers!” (“Don’t buy from the cheaters!”). In one incident, “genuine” kosher hot dogs were imported from New York and widely consumed, until it was discovered that they were not kosher at all.

In fact, there seemed to be a never-ending series of kashrut scandals at the time, many involving leading rabbis. Much of this was reported in the New York Times and later catalogued in a book by Harold Gastwirt titled “Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness: The Controversy Over The Supervision of Jewish Dietary Practice in New York City, 1881-1940,” which is a kosher version of Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 muckraking of the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle.”

Which kosher supervision is considered the most reliable? It’s hard to get a definitive answer from anyone who has a stake in the business — but most will agree that what it boils down to is a matter of trust. The faith that many strictly Orthodox kosher consumers rely upon is that vested in their local rabbis, many of whom in turn appear to be more subject to peer pressure than knowledgeable about the technicalities of kashrut.

It’s been five years since Hebrew National decided to change from its longtime in-house kosher quality control to an independent supervisory authority. It chose the Triangle K, under the direction of the Ralbag family, to put into place the strict standards required by Halachah.

Rabbi Jehoseph H. Ralbag, the chief kosher supervisor of the organization, was born in Jerusalem, where he studied at the Yeshivas Etz Chaim and Merkaz Harav. For the credential-minded — who seem to make up a large part of the observant Orthodox community — he is proud to note that he received rabbinical ordination “with the highest honors (Yore Yore Yodin Yodin),” by the most pious rabbis of the Holy Land: Rabbi Iser Zalman Meltzer (rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Etz Chaim); Rabbi Yacov Moshe Charlap (rosh yeshiva of Merkaz Harav); and Rabbi Hirsh Pesach Frank (chief rabbi of Jerusalem).

Rabbi Ralbag is presently the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Israel in New York City. He is the author of the “Sefer Imre Yehosef,” a scholarly book on Jewish law, and has published numerous articles on various Torah subjects. He is also the kashrut consultant of the magazine The Synagogue Light, and is an executive member of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada.

The everyday operations of Triangle K Kosher Supervision and Certification are currently overseen by Rabbi Aryeh L. Ralbag and his two sons (Rabbis Eliezer and Tzvi Ralbag). Like his father, Aryeh Ralbag received a high-order ordination in Jerusalem. He heads the beit din (rabbinical court) on the Agudath HaRabbonim, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, and is also chief rabbi of the Orthodox community in Amsterdam.

Of the major brands under Triangle K supervision (which include Sunmaid, Minute Maid, Wonder Bread, Del Monte, Frito-Lay, Mogen-David, Birds Eye, Ocean Spray, Hawaiian Punch and Mott’s), Hebrew National is easily the most complicated.

It took Rabbi Ralbag two years to set up Triangle K’s certification process for Hebrew National. It’s a huge operation. To keep the supply of meat flowing requires four slaughtering houses, one salting facility and a central processing plant — all under round-the-clock rabbinical supervision.

“Our mashgichim [supervisors] are carefully selected, scrutinized and regularly tested for their knowledge of constantly changing technology. They are all God-fearing men who learn every night; all are well-paid and work three-day weeks, with substantial rest periods,” he said.

Soon after Triangle K took over in 2004, the top lawmaking body of the Conservative movement issued its seal of approval for all Hebrew National meat products. The decision was supposed to have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food.

Orthodox Jews, however, continued to stay away in droves, for reasons that remain unclear but appear to be largely bound up in rumor, innuendo and ambiguity. Many ostensible adherents to strict Halachah consider Triangle K to be “unreliable.”

Others refrain from buying Hebrew National because its meat is not “glatt kosher.” That term is used to describe a more expensive and complicated form of rabbinical supervision that requires the lungs of a ritually slaughtered animal to be carefully scrutinized for any imperfections.

If none are found, the animal is considered “glatt.” Minor imperfections, however, do not render it unkosher. This, too, is a subject of some controversy.

A number of rabbinic experts feel that the term glatt is overused — that is, relatively few animals truly meet the standard, which has become more a marketing tool than guarantee of superior purity.

Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, who studied in Lakewood, N.J., under the famed Rabbi Aaron Kotler and was once the exclusive halachic authority in the Haredi (fervently observant) stronghold of Lakewood, N.J., founded a popular Web site called . Rabbi Abadi’s son, Aharon, who now runs the Web site, declared that Hebrew National’s meat “is certainly kosher for all who do not eat only glatt.”

Although it is preferable to eat glatt when available, says Rabbi Abadi, it is a chumrah, a voluntarily accepted restriction. Those who don’t limit themselves to glatt are still keeping kosher.

At the time Hebrew National switched to Triangle K, the Jewish newspaper The Forward editorialized that, although the stricter glatt standards “could help put an end to the string of urban legends and sordid explanations for why Orthodox Jews won’t consume [Hebrew National’s products], for a variety of sociological and religious reasons, the decisions are unlikely to translate into a significant increase in sales.” That prediction has proven accurate.

The number of Conservative customers account for only a small share of the kosher market. For many of the Orthodox, the main problem remains that Hebrew National is not glatt kosher.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut department, told The Forward that while the OU once certified both glatt and non-glatt meat, in the 1970s “market conditions” caused the organization to limit its supervision only to the former.

‘Kashrut Mafia’

But glatt continues to mean different things to different people.

“What’s glatt in Cleveland might not be glatt in Baltimore,” says Rabbi Don Moskovitz, a locally based mashgiach who works for several kosher certification organizations. Moreover, there are many Orthodox Jews — especially in smaller Jewish communities around the country — who do not limit themselves to glatt kosher meat but still consider themselves strictly kosher.

“Many people follow the higher glatt standard,” says Rabbi Moskovitz, “but there’s nothing wrong with Rabbi Ralbag’s hashgachah [endorsement] on meat. Hebrew National has to overcome some problems with its historical reputation.” He adds that he’s more concerned with the kashrut of everyday milk than he is about people eating Hebrew National.

“I’d love to make Hebrew National all glatt kosher,” says Rabbi Ralbag, “but there simply isn’t a large enough supply of meat in the world that would satisfy the traditional truly glatt standard ?and demand.”

Queried about the kashrus of Hebrew National, a spokesperson for the OU said that “we do not comment on other kosher certifications.”

The response was different, however, from the “Kashrus Hotline” of the Baltimore-based Star-K organization. “You should not eat Hebrew National.” When asked why, she said the Triangle K “is not considered reliable.”

Rabbi Aharon Abadi speaks bluntly about the multimillion-dollar kosher supervision business. “You want to do business in this industry, you need to follow the rules of the ‘Kashrut Mafia,’” he said. “Most are just businesses with a touch of religion. Just enough to use it to bully us into following their program. Ask anyone in the food industry. They know. Try getting an outside hashgachah in an area that is already someone’s turf.”

As to Triangle K, Rabbi Abadi wrote on the Web site, “Rabbi Ralbag is a G-d-fearing man and if he says it’s kosher, you sure can eat it. I can’t say the same for many of the other labels out there.”

“Do you remember when Drakes [a widely marketed brand of snack cakes] was under Rabbi Ralbag?” asked Rabbi Abadi. “It was treife [unkosher] according to some of these guys. Then the establishment organization got the account, now it’s kosher. Do you think they went out and kashered the whole plant, changed all the ingredients and so on? Please!”

According to Rabbi Ralbag, various Orthodox authorities summarily banned Coca-Cola when it was supervised by Triangle K in the early 1990s — but immediately accepted it as kosher the moment it was taken over by the OU (without any change in formula or processing). He says that Triangle K follows the traditional rules set down in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, and that its seal of approval is accepted categorically by the chief rabbi of Israel, where a large number of its products are widely distributed.

No Full Skinny

One local caterer who requested anonymity said, “You’ll never get the full skinny on kashrut supervision” — intimating that political and monetary considerations are paramount to candor.

Trustworthiness can be very subjective. The same Orthodox Baltimoreans who believe that Triangle K is not reliable because of past indiscretions broadly accept Star-K, even though it once certified a local non-Jewish caterer that served treife food on a “kosher” cruise.

The OU and Star-K have had numerous disputes over specific products. Each, for example, has had a policy prohibiting caterers under its supervision from using meats certified by the other.

Fans of kosher hot dogs might find this policy particularly egregious. Caterers under Star-K are currently forbidden to serve two brands of miniature hot-dogs-in-blankets, as well as 999 kosher hot dogs, all under the OU.

Star-K also bans sauerkraut marketed with the OU seal. (Consumers calling the Star-K’s kosher hotline are told that “we don’t have information” on those products. When asked if they can be used, the receptionist says, “I guess not.”)

For his part, Rabbi Ralbag has nothing negative to say about other kosher authorities. Instead, he refers obliquely to those who do with an old quote: “I think it’s sometimes more important what comes out of someone’s mouth than what goes into it.”

Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Word (Yet Again) on Cheating

We like playing games in our home. I'm a particular fan of word games, any and all types. The Internet has been a boon to me in this, as whenever I feel like or need to take a few minutes to relax, there is always a word game available somewhere.

One of the sites I particularly like put up a new version of Boggle last week. Players are assigned to tables and, as a table, they vie to get certain types of words or a certain number of words. If the table makes the set goal then all the individual players also get extra points, in addition to whatever they earn themselves. And, of course, as soon as the new game went up, the cheaters found a new place to be.

There have been available for years and years programs that will take a scrambled word list and give you all the words possible in that list of letters. In some cases a "player" doesn't even have to enter the words: just plug in the program and it plays for you. Yup, you guessed it, there has been a whole lot of discussion on this site about the cheating going on.

Mostly people just don't get why those using the programs bother. It's so obvious that a program is being used that no one is going to applaud that player when he/she consistently finds six zillion words where others are only finding 50-60. It annoys people. They make nasty comments about the "bot enhanced" players.

Well, some of the cheaters have joined in in the conversation. One pointed out that if he were not cheating the table would not either meet its goals or would not get as high a score. His take was that he was doing all of us a favor by cheating. Another wanted to know why we were so bent out of shape about something that's only a game; it wasn't like he was costing anyone money or anything important like that. And yes, a few of those cheaters vehemently denied that they were cheating. They ranted at us that we just couldn't take it that they were better players. They said the problem was ours, not theirs.

Some players wanted to report those using the bots to the game site; they believe the cheaters should be banned (I've been playing boggle in one form or another online for 10 years and no site has yet figured out how to ban those using the bots). Others posted some rather "warm" comments about the cheaters' ancestors. A few suggested finding another room to play in. But basically everyone agreed that the cheating shouldn't take place, no matter what "benefits" some of the cheaters argued they were giving the rest of us. A lot of the comments said that those who feel it's okay to cheat in a game room are going to carry that attitude out to the "real" world and cheat there too. Better to try and show them that cheating doesn't get them what they may be looking for now, then to face a real problem when they cheat and it can truly hurt someone. And yes, Madoff has entered the lexicon as a word standing for "cheater of the big variety," as more than a few people suggested that he probably began his cheating in little ways and then applied that cheating to some bigger areas.

For me there is another side affect of the cheating. Not boasting, but I'm a really good boggle player--lots of experience and yes, I've learned over the years a whole load of those weird words that word games love--words like toea. There have been a few people who have questioned whether or not I'm using a bot to play, whether I'm cheating. No, I'm not cheating. But, anyone who has legitimately done the work to be able to play the game on a high level is now being looked at funny because of the cheaters. Real accomplishment, real skills are coming under suspicion. You see, cheating, even on a game, does have effect, negative effect.

And I ask myself this: if they get away with the cheating in a boggle game, what's next? Where will I find myself with these cheaters where the outcome may really have consequences?

Cheating is not just a petty annoyance. Cheating is not just something we all have to get used to because "everybody does it." Cheating is a bacterium that seems to be developing immunity to most antibiotics we have to fight it with, when we bother fighting it all all. Nobody was sanguine about Madoff's cheating--well, if you don't catch it early that's where it heads. Next time you're tempted to cheat in one of those "nobody is getting hurt" situations, think of that cheating as only the first stop on the journey. Do you really want to go where you are heading?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Haveil Havalim #226

The newest Haveil Havalim is up at

Lot's of interesting and thought provoking reads--head on over there!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Living the Idiom

The creatures "out there" are perfectly willing to make use of structures that humans have erected for their own use. Put up a shed anywhere on your property and some little creature is going to find a use for it. I sort of shrug this off because as long as it doesn't interfere with what I want to use the shed for, I don't care if a field mouse uses a shed corner for a winter condo.

Today, however, I ended up living an idiom I must have used hundreds of times in my lifetime, all thanks to a creature of the wild. Last Sunday my hubby discovered that hornets had built a nest in a corner of the shed where our garbage cans are stored. He took a hose and sprayed the nest out of existence, incurring a "little" bite along the way. A few days ago he found a stubborn group of hornets looking to rebuild that nest. Again he sprayed and carefully cleaned away the nest area.

Somewhere in my kesuba it states that I will produce the garbage in the kitchen and my husband will take it out to the cans (said only half in jest). Unfortunately, something really could not remain a whole day in the kitchen, so I headed down to the garbage shed with the offending item. I was bending over the can when disaster struck. A hornet somehow found its way back to the shed. It was irked with me for disturbing it. It came after me but somehow got entangled in the bill of the hat I was wearing. Maybe a little unwisely I tried to swat at it, and to get away from my hand it crawled under the brim of my hat.

I'll spare you a rehash of the histrionics here as hat (and thankfully also hornet) went sailing through the air. I'm a lot calmer now, in the safety of my house, and a few hours after the incident, and suddenly the absurdity of it all hit me. Today, I can truthfully say that I "had a bee in my bonnet." It's times like these that I wish that I taught math, not English. What's next? Am I going to "beard the lion in his den?"

Note: hubby just got home and eradicated the nest yet again. Maybe the third time will be lucky.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Change?

There's an old saying: The more things change the more they stay the same. Seems kind of contradictory until you really begin to think about it. This past Shabbos hubby and I had a very quiet Shabbos with no one at home and no company. I had a chance to catch up on a whole bunch of reading, newspapers and magazines in particular. Change the names in some of the articles and change the dates and I could swear that I'd read about just these items years and years ago. We like to believe that we have progressed over the years--maybe yes...and maybe no.

The following song was was written by Sheldon Harnick and introduced by the Kingston Trio back in 1959. Sound familiar? With only a little editing it could be an anthem for today.

The Merry Minuet

They're rioting in Africa,
They're starving in Spain
There's hurricanes in Florida,
And Texas needs rain

This whole world is festering with unhappy souls
The French hate the Germans, The Germans hate the Poles
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don't like anybody very much

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
For Man's been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud
And we can be certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off...and we will all be blown away

They're rioting in Africa, There's strife in Iran
What Nature doesn't do to us will be done by our Fellow Man

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Deciding on Value--Part #2

In part one I laid out some of the elements that are present when someone has to decide on the value of an item. Now let me examine the process that can occur when someone has to decide on whether an item is valuable to them or not, using some of those elements I discussed in part one.

Let's take a really simple example first, and please bear with me to the end. You are in a store and you come across a display of potato peelers. There are a variety of peelers, with differing prices per peeler. You consider buying a peeler, but which one? You have to decide which peeler is going to be more valuable to you. If money were the only concern, then there is a peeler on sale for only 69 cents, the cheapest peeler of the bunch. But now other thoughts pop into your mind. There are generally two kinds of peelers available: those with blades horizontal to the handle and those with blades vertical to the handle. You prefer the horizontal blade type because you find it easier to work with, but the sale peeler is the type with a vertical blade. There are a variety of material combinations that a peeler can come in, some with steel blade and handles, some with steel blade and hard plastic handles, some with steel blade and padded handles. Some peelers come with rounded handles and some come with flat handles. You prefer a rounded handle that is padded, but the sale peeler comes with a steel handle that is flat.

Or maybe you are thinking that you really don't eat all that many potatoes, and mostly you eat them baked with the peel on. For the few times that you actually need to peel a potato you use a paring knife. Is it worth the expenditure if you will only use the peeler a few times during the year? Or maybe you are thinking that you use potatoes all the time, lots of potatoes, and you really want a peeler that is comfortable to use; however, the peeler that has the blade you prefer and the handle that is the most comfortable for you will cost you ten times the cost of the peeler that is on sale.

Now other thoughts come to mind. Given the way you cook and clean, and given that you have a kosher kitchen two peelers make more sense than one: one for fleishig and one for milchig. If you buy the sale peeler you're going to have to find a way to clearly mark the two peelers to show which is for meat and which for dairy. The plastic and the padded handled peelers come ready in a multitude of colors so it will be clear from the onset which is for meat and which for dairy. The package of the sale peeler says that it is not recommended that the peeler be washed in an automatic dishwasher. You don't have a dishwasher so that doesn't matter. Or perhaps you have a dishwasher but there are lots of other things that you don't wash in it so the peeler won't be much of a problem. Or perhaps you don't have a dishwasher now but will be getting one soon, by which time the peeler will become a problem.

Still other thoughts come to mind. You are not the only one who uses a potato peeler in your house. Sometimes more than one person at a time needs that peeler, so more than one might be needed. Some of the people in the house prefer the horizontal blade; others prefer the vertical blade. Some like the thinner, flat handle; others prefer the rounded, padded handle. So, will you buy one of each type of peeler to satisfy the requirements of all people in your house who may need to use the peeler? Do you buy a compromise peeler? The sale peeler doesn't feel or look as if it is made all that sturdily. You figure that it might give you a year or so of use until it has to be replaced. Still, it's only 69 cents, so even if you had to replace it every year for ten years it still would only cost you $6.90 after ten years, the cost of the fancier peeler that you are also looking at. So do you pay $6.90 up front or do you pay it out over ten years?

And then there is this: those peelers that are on sale have been around forever and are so old fashioned when laid out side by side with the newer peelers that are on display. You remember your grandmother using the sale peeler. Do you opt for one of the newer, more expensive peelers so as to be "with it," or do you go with sentimentality and buy the kind of peeler grandma used because it will bring her to mind every time you use it? Do you go with the clearly innovative peeler, costing more money, or do you stay rooted in the past?

And last but not least, you consider the safety during use of the various peelers. Which one will be least likely to cause you a cut or scrape? Which gives you more protection? You have children who might get to the peeler or who might use it; which peeler gives them the most protection from harm?

A potato peeler is "small potatoes" (pardon the pun, or not) by comparison to many of the items that we have to assign value to. And yet, even such a small, relatively inconsequential item can raise a multitude of questions in our minds when it comes to assigning a value to it. I've just done an entire posting on choosing a potato peeler, and I didn't cover all the questions that can arise. How much more do you suppose you will need to think about when deciding the value of more weighty items? Like the present yeshiva educational system? Like sleep away camps? Like simcha celebrations? Like which parts of the country (or out of the country) to live in?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When is a Paper not a Paper?

Note: I'd been holding this post to publish later in the summer, closer to when school will begin, but Matt at KanKanChadash just put up a posting on cheating and I felt that this posting might be cogent to the discussion of his posting.

I belong to a few online professional forums for college professors. The Internet is a real blessing in this area. It allows for discussion among faculty members who might otherwise never meet. But it is precisely the Internet that has been giving some of us conniption fits lately.

Once upon a time when a student wanted to plagiarize a paper he had to find a student who had written a paper that would fit what he/she was looking for or had to find someone who could write the paper for a price. Finding that student paper was not all that easy. Mostly you were limited to students on your own campus. In a town with more than one college you might be able to locate that paper at one of the other campuses. But it took real effort to find that paper. Yes--unfortunately--cheating is not a new phenomenon. Enter the Internet.

The world is now a student's oyster, so to speak. No longer are students limited to papers they can find on their own campus, and which might result in their being caught easier. Now they can go on a fishing expedition for that paper all over the world, and certainly all over the US. After all, there are really a limited number of topics that can be assigned on any given work. And because topics are finite, somewhere out there a paper exists that will solve a student's problem. The Internet has become a repository for many of those papers that students write. Some are on free paper sites: others can be purchased from the paper mills.

Slowly but surely colleges and universities are fighting back. There is now more than one program available that can do an online search when a student's paper is scanned into a computer. That search highlights any and all material that comes from another source. It shows whether the source has been cited correctly. And it can find papers that are available on the paper mills.

In addition, some colleges and universities are now requiring that all papers written for courses be submitted electronically, copies of which are stored in a special school databank. All submitted papers are automatically scanned to check for plagiarism. Even where this is not the case schoolwide, many individual professors are doing this for the classes they teach.

Some schools/professors have the policy that work written in class counts more than that written outside of class. The rationale is that what a student gives you within the classroom is truly his/hers and what comes from outside may have been doctored by someone else. At a minimum, in class written work gives professors a baseline to compare out of class work to.

Those of us on the forums have shared our methodologies for cutting down cheating. Some of the suggestions have been very helpful, and I've adapted a few to my own classes. But what bothers all of us is that we are being forced to play the policeman to begin with. We've heard all the reasons for cheating, starting with the most popular one--"There is too much homework and too many assignments and it's impossible to pass a course/graduate without borrowing work!" A whole lot of us got our degrees at a time when cheating and plagiarism were harder to accomplish, before computers and the Internet. Yes, it existed even then, but to a far smaller degree. One thing we agree on: there wasn't less work during the time we were in college: there was more. Research required a lot of physical running around and a lot of time spent in the library's stacks. Writing a paper was done on a typewriter, and finding an error on a page required retyping the whole page. Most colleges in the "olden" days required 128 to 132 credits for a BA/BS degree: today that is 120 credits. There were far more required courses in the olden days as well. So what has changed that could cause the type of attitude that not only condones cheating but glorifies it?

From our perspective democratic egalitarianism is a major culprit. American society not only decided that college should be available for everyone, but that everyone should be going on to college. Commerce and industry jumped on this bandwagon by making a college degree the working degree in many fields where it previously was not. Having a college degree is no longer "something special" when virtually anyone can get one from somewhere. You think not? The proof is in the number of diploma mills that proliferate today. Their key selling point is not the education and knowledge that they offer but the quickness in getting the piece of paper that says "I have a degree." They compete with each other in how quickly someone can earn a degree from them, and in how easily that degree can be earned. One such diploma mill proudly advertises that students who register with them will have to do no papers and take no tests and can complete a degree in the comfort of their home in under a year. Say what?!!!

Unfortunately, students who attend a regular college have been bitten by the same bug that infests the diploma mills. They reason that they are paying for college, so it's like any other consumer item: you pay, they give you, no questions (or papers or tests) asked. No one asks you to prove that you deserve that car or dining room set that you purchase, so why should a college do so? The result is cheating on a larger level with no accompanying angst in case someone is caught.

Just a fair word of warning to those who believe that they can cheat their way through college with impunity: instructors are fighting back, and expect some carnage. We believe that the old commercial was right, and we've adapted it to our use. We expect students to say: "I got my college degree the old fashioned way: I earned it." Or maybe our rationale comes from a different commercial. A whole lot of us believe that college should be done the straight way because "We answer to a Higher Authority."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Deciding on Value--Part #1

Ezzie, in referencing my posting on closet organization, made a comment that before Klal can organize things in a better fashion it has to decide what is valuable to it. Yes, assigning value to something is important, but what is value?

There are more than a few elements that can contribute to how we view the value of something. Among these are money, time, effort, sentiment, utility, context, changing circumstances and innovation.

Money. How much money will it cost us to obtain something initially? What monetary costs will there be in maintaining that item? How much money would we actually save or lose if we don't purchase/have that item? If money is limited, how can we apportion our money to cover all we believe is valuable? If something costs a great deal of money does that make it more valuable? If something costs very little does that make it less valuable?

Time: How much time will it take to use an item? How much time will be saved or lost if we purchase an item? How much time will it take us to replace the money we spend on an item? For how long can the item last? If we look at how long an item can last and how much it costs, both initially and in maintenance, does the time/money element exceed the usefulness of the item? How often will the item need to be replaced/repaired? Is there a time limit for how long an item will be valuable; that is, does it have value only for a specific time period in our lives? If time is limited, how do we apportion our time to cover all we believe is valuable?

Effort: How much work and effort will it take on our part to use/maintain an item? Can we put forth that effort without taking away our ability to put forth effort towards other items that we also consider valuable? If effort is a limited substance, how do we apportion our efforts to cover all we believe is valuable?

Utility: How useful is an item to us? In what way is that item useful? Are there any other substitutes for that item that are of equal utility but that may cost less monetarily? When we say an item is useful to us what precisely do we mean? Does it save us time, money or effort? Does the utility of an item exist only within a specific time period of our lives or is it useful throughout our lives?

Context: Looked at as only one item in the total context of our lives, how valuable is an item to us? Is it more or less valuable than other items? Is it tied inextricably to other items or does it stand alone?

Sentiment: This is the most difficult area to view objectively. Sentiment may or may not have anything to do with logic and reason, may not be quantifiable. Sentiment is emotive in nature: how do we feel about an item? What is its history with us? How does that item make us feel?

Changing Circumstances: What can happen/is happening that can change the value of something to us? Do items, viewed as valuable at one point in our lives, retain that value throughout our lives? How or why might that value change?

Innovation: What happens to the value of an item when a newer item comes along, in the same class, that seems to do more than the item we already have? What value do we assign to something that is "new and improved"? What happens to the value of items that are "old and unimproved"?

In addition to the above factors that are involved in deciding the value of something, we also take into consideration other factors. First, other people in our households. Is an item valuable only to one member or only some members of a household? What happens when one member of a household disagrees on the value of something with another member or members of the household? Is there a hierarchy of deciding whose valuation of something should take precedence? What if two or more members decide that something is valuable and should be purchased, but there is money/time/effort only for one of the items?

Second, there is the problem of wants and needs. What one person considers a need, and therefore may see as of high value, may be considered a want by someone else, and therefore be less valuable. Within a family, how are such differences and distinctions between wants and needs adjudicated when affixing value to an item?

Third, and a very important element when discussing what is valuable to Klal as a whole, is the public versus private distinction of value. What happens when your idea of the value of something is different from or in conflict with the idea of value that others in the community have? Can a community decide on the value of certain items and impose that value on each individual member of the community? Under what circumstances? Are there any exceptions? How do we determine which items should have their value fixed by the community as a whole and which items are left to the individual to place value on? What happens when members of a community cannot reach a consensus about the value of an item or practice?

In short, deciding on the value of even one single item can be difficult for an individual. It can sometimes seem impossible for an individual trying to place a group of items into a value hierarchy. Having to take into consideration other people's evaluations of an item can be complicated, if not sometimes impossible. Clearly, deciding on the value of something would be far easier if there were some immutable objective criteria for what is valuable and what is not; however, the criteria for deciding value are neither immutable nor are they objective.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And This is a Chisoron?

We've been getting a nibble here and there regarding our house for sale. So far we have been advertising solely in Jewish publications, hoping that a frum couple will be added back to the community when we leave. A few of the telephone calls have been kind of strange. One woman wanted a detailed list of the colors I've used throughout the house, walls and carpeting. I obliged and told her, to which she answered "No, I'm sorry, those colors are not what I'm looking for." Okaaay. Someone else, never having seen our house but telling me that he's been to Staten Island, started bargaining on the price of the house over the phone. He told me that he wouldn't come see the house until we'd come to a "better" price for it. We parted company. A third person was sure the paper had put in the wrong price for the house because how could a "country-type" place like Staten Island ask for prices like that.

Someone else dropped in unannounced along with her mother and mother in law. Those of you who have read my postings on the world of my backyard will know that we back up to woods behind our property. The result is a very private setting--no neighbors who might be getting glimpses of life in the K house that I'd rather keep private. We also have a very large backyard and patio area. And the house itself may be fairly typical for SI but is large by Brooklyn/Queens standards. So what was the problem? It was just too quiet here. The house was "too isolated." Where were the people who should have been walking up and down the block? Where was the hustle and bustle that spelled vibrant Jewish community? (And where was the phone call asking me if they could drop in?!)

There's a Yiddish saying that is used when you want to indicate that something seems to be illogical or slightly (or more than slightly) ridiculous--"Die kallah is tzee shoen gevein." (Literally "The kallah was too pretty) It can also indicate irony. With one exception, our "kallah"--house--has been "too pretty" for those who have seen it. Ah well, I remind myself that, like shidduchim, it only takes one to make a match. Our kallah has not been on the marriage scene long enough for me to worry that it will remain an old maid.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Child Molesters and the System

Thanks to Ezzie for the hat tip. I posted this week asking about what, if anything, the Hikind commission was doing about child molesters in our midst. Not much, as far as I can see. But the following link to an article in the Jewish Press, written by R' Yakov Horowitz and Elliot Pasik, should give us some chizuk that the problem of molestation is not being forgotten about.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

We're Not Immune to Stupid Just Because We're Jewish

Disclaimer: Gentlemen, the following contains information about a female health issue and preventative measure and the links provided may not be appropriate/necessary reading for males.

A friend from out of town sent a note of congratulations on our finally getting our move out of NY into gear. But she added this: "OOT is not immune to some of the shtick that goes on in the NY area. A New Yorker was in our area and had to use the mikvah while here. She went ballistic. We have available in each bathing room used by the women a chart that shows the correct way to do a monthly breast exam. She ripped the chart off the wall and was screaming at the mikvah attendant that how dare we put such a thing up. It was clearly untsniusdik and took away from the kedusha of going to the mikvah. She refused to pay the mikvah fee and even wrote a letter to the shul in which she yelled that we had put up dirty pictures of women fondling themselves and we shouldn't advertise our mikvah as kosher because it wasn't. It should have ended there but it didn't. One of the rabbonim decided to bring it up to a vote. Luckily saner minds said nonsense and the charts remain up."

Teaching women to be proactive about their health, particularly as regards breast cancer, has been a life saver, literally. Many cancers that would otherwise have spread and c"v caused death have been found early enough to respond to treatment. " In fact, women who perform regular breast self-exams find 90% of all breast masses" (Web MD). Such an exam is recommended once a month, and golly gee but women go to the mikvah once a month. The two would seem to be a match made in heaven--family purity and family health.

But the incident brought something to mind that is bothering me. Our local mikvah does not have such a chart up. I would imagine that many mikvaot don't. I know for a fact that my daughters' high school did not mention nor teach self breast examination to its students. I asked my gynecologist if she mentions self examination to her patients. She pointed to the chart on the wall--there's one in every examining room. She doesn't actually talk about it unless a patient asks a question. Most young single girls don't see a gynecologist until right before their weddings, if then. So, my question: who is teaching frum women about this important technique? Are frum mothers doing so? Or is tsnius trumping health education?

For those requiring some good information about how to perform the exam, please see the following:

Addendum to the Posting: If you scroll through the comments below you will see some commentary stating that doctors/major medical organizations are not recommending the self exams any longer. This is not across the board and there are major medical groups that still DO recommend the exams. This, from a July 1, 2009 posting on the American Medical Association website, giving their position on Breast Cancer prevention techniques:
-55.993 Early Detection of Breast Cancer
(1) The AMA supports public education efforts to help women recognize their important role in breast self-examination and to encourage them to report immediately to their physicians any changes that they notice.
(2) The AMA encourages physicians to educate their patients in the process of breast cancer detection, emphasizing the technique of self-examination of their breasts.
(3) Physicians requesting mammographic examinations should refer their patients to radiologists who use properly functioning equipment that provides the best image resolution at the lowest level of radiation exposure (less than one rad to mid breast for two views of both breasts).
(4) Physicians are encouraged to recognize the importance of mammography as an effective screening device to detect early breast cancer.
(5)The AMA encourages pharmaceutical companies to include in the packaging of their contraceptives, and all female hygiene products, materials which promote the practice and correct techniques of breast self-examination, and which stress the importance of physician breast examinations and appropriate use of screening mammography. (CSA Rep. A, I-83; Reaffirmed: CLRPD Rep. I-93-1; Res. 501, I-95)

The Things That Bring Us Happiness...Not

We've probably all either played or heard of the parlor game that basically says: "You are going to be living in ______ and you can only take 1-5 things that you now own with you. What things would you take and why?" It is generally understood that these things are going to be the most important things you own.

A friend attended a workshop held by one of the big box stores that sells home organizer systems. The leader of the workshop played a different version of the above game. She asked the people present: "If you could keep all but 1-5 things, which things would you get rid of and why?" Within a very short period of time all of the participants had come up with their list of items to discard. Many had put down far more than 1-5 items.

The leader then asked this question: "If these items are of no importance to you, and you wouldn't miss them if they were gone forever, why do you still have them?" My friend reported that the group leader then went on to discuss how any closet/room system of organization is going to break down and stop being useful if items keep getting added in but no items leave.

Now granted, what was being discussed was closet organization. And closets can be black holes, swallowing everything that goes into them--anyone who has ever cleaned for Pesach can attest to the strange things that surface when you dig into the back recesses of those closets. But there is application of the idea of streamlining what we own to all areas of our lives, not just what we own but also what we do and what we believe must be done.

Sometimes we fill our closets and our homes and our heads with things that may have a one-time or temporary use to us, but we don't get rid of them when their usefulness is over, or if we don't find them useful at all. Sometimes we keep things or ideas "just in case." I have a friend with 11 children. Early on she started using paper plates instead of real dishes because otherwise she would never be anywhere else but in front of the sink washing. Even with most of the kids out of the house she still uses the paper. And yet, her cabinets are full of dishes purchased before her family grew so large. Why? Like the rest of us, she is always looking for storage space for items used all the time. When we pointed out that if she got rid of the dishes sitting unused she would have mega space for storing other things, she shook her head. "I just can't," she said. She might need them later.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why such little change comes to the organizations of Klal. We know they aren't working the way we need them to work, there is no "space in the closet" to keep everything that is in place, but we keep on trying to rearrange things without getting rid of things, because we might need them later. Perhaps, and if we have the space for them later we can buy them/put them into place then. Then again, maybe we'll discover that we can live just fine without these things.

So, what 1-5 items would you get rid of if doing so meant that your "closets" would have all the room needed to store the things that really matter to you? What things could Klal get rid of that would give us some breathing room?