Monday, February 28, 2011

Because Someone Has to do It

Last term we were going over a piece that needed a lot of editing. I asked the students to identify the errors. One student, in coming across the word thee, made the comment that the word was Bible English and didn't exist in anything we needed to know about today. I asked him how he could make that statement given that My Country 'Tis of Thee is still used and known. What I got from the class as a whole was a wall of blank stares. A few had sort of heard of the title but had no idea of what the words were to the song--not even the first line!--and couldn't understand why I would care.

I assigned a quiz--and yes, I gave it and counted it--on the complete history of the song. This term, in using the same correction sheet, I ran into the exact same problem--not one person actually knew any of the words or history of the song. Yet again, all of my classes will be having a quiz next week. What I found of interest was that in one class a few of the students said "What did you expect Professor? We all went to yeshiva. Why would a yeshiva teach that stuff?"

Hmmm, why would a yeshiva, located in the United States, and authorized by the State as an alternative to the public schools as long as curriculum goals set by the State are met, teach the history and culture of the US? Perhaps because it's supposed to? Perhaps because in addition to being religious Jews we are also citizens of the US, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails? Perhaps because this country moreso than any other country in the world's history excepting Israel has allowed us not only to live here but to be counted as full citizens? Perhaps fill in the blanks.

A quicky question to one of my classes also brought this to light: in that class not one student had ever been to the Statue of Liberty, and when questioned, only 3 students could identify where the Statue came from. I probed a bit more and asked who or what the Kosciuszko Bridge was named for. Not one student had the foggiest idea.

And while I'm bemoaning the lack of knowledge of a whole slew of yeshiva students about American history and culture, let me add this one. Although I haven't actually stated at which college I teach I'm sure that my readers have a pretty good idea. Now, where did the name for that college come from? When I asked my students, and students in other classes as well, NOT ONE had any idea. Again, a pretty sad commentary on yeshiva students' knowledge of American history and Jewish American history.

So yes, I'm now going to try and figure out how to add in some basic bits of American history and culture to my English classes. At some point before they leave their formal schooling behind I'm determined that my students will be exposed to what Joe Average American is supposed to have been exposed to.

Note: ironically enough my students can name the national anthem--The Star Spangled Banner. And they all added to their answers that of course they know it because it's played at all major sports events they watch. Pretty sad when television is giving students a better American cultural education than their yeshivas are. As to when this song became the official anthem, see yesterday's Tidbits in History. And guess what song The Star Spangled Banner replaced as the anthem?

In case you're a bit rusty on your history, see,_'Tis_of_Thee
For info on Jewish heroes and heroines of the US see

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tidbits from the Past

Some happenings from history for the week of February 27--March 5
For events of a Jewish nature, please go to

28 The Salem Witch Hunts begin. (1692)
28 The final episode of M.A.S.H. is aired. (1983)

1 Yellowstone becomes the U.S.'s first national park. (1872)
2 Texas declared its independence from Mexico (1836).
2 Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors scores 100 points in a basketball game. (1962)
3 The Star Spangled Banner becomes the National Anthem(1931)
4 The Constitution of the United States of America goes into effect. (1789)
4 Mrs. Charles Fahning of Buffalo N.Y. is recognized as the first woman to bowl a perfect 300 game. (1930)
5 The Boston Massacre occurred. (1770)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Been There, Done That

We spent some time during our vacation watching some television news programs--admittedly not a very relaxing activity given what was going on abroad and at home this past week. But the news did bring to mind that old statement: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The following was written in the early '60s and was a recording of the Kingston Trio--sound familiar? With perhaps only a few exceptions this could have been penned yesterday.

They're Rioting in Africa (The Merry Minuet)(Sheldon Harnick)

There are days in my life when everything is dreary
I grow pessimistic, sad and world weary.
But when I'm tearful and fearfully upset
I always sing this merry little minuet:

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

The 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 grateful
And thankful and proud
That man's been endowed
With a mushroom shaped cloud

And we know for certain
That some happy 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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tidbits from the Past

Some events that took place in the week of February 20-26.
For events of a Jewish nature, please go to

20 John Glenn becomes the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth.(1962)
21 Richard Nixon becomes the first U.S. President to visit China. (1972)
22 Frank Woolworth opens the first "Five Cent Store” in Utica, N.Y. (1879)
23 Walter Wingfield of Pimlico, England, patented the game of lawn tennis. (1874)
23 The Tootsie Roll rolls into stores in America. (1896)
23 U.S. marines raise the America flag in Iwo Jima (1945)
25 Samuel Colt patents the revolver.
26 A bomb explodes at the World Trade Center killing 6 people (1993)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Learning to Roll with the Punches

The last seven weeks have been kind of strange, to say the least. Yes, the weather has been out of sync with what we believe it should have been. If ever I believed in Winter Wonderlands I have gone far past that now. Yes, hubby and I were supposed to be basking in the Caribbean sun, and that fell through. Yes, I was supposed to have two full weeks off between terms at school, and thanks to the weather we had to extend finals week by a week and a half. Yes, my mom came to stay with us while work is being done on her apartment--and of course that work didn't proceed on schedule (see the weather for some of the problems) so her "one week" visit was four weeks. I made the horrible mistake one day of frustratedly shouting "What else can go wrong?!" and when the mail arrived I got my answer--you are hereby ordered to report for jury duty. Was it for my vacation time? Of course not--two weeks ago I spent a week doing my civic duty. Because I teach classes later in the day, I also got to go to work while serving. And of course one of my inanimate objects--our upright freezer-- decided to die before Shabbos, leaving us to try and find space for its packed contents (yes, I ended up cooking some strange dishes to save what I couldn't find freezer room for in the fridges). All this in addition to what some call "real life."

Hubby and I are trying this once again--we have reservations to go out west. I'm considering including Newark Airport in my daily prayers so that we can actually get on a plane and leave. So yes, beginning tomorrow--hopefully--the blog is going on hiatus for a week. If you don't see any new postings going up then we made it out of NY. Should there be new postings, you might want to stand back because I just might be ranting a bit.

Yes, we all surely need to learn to roll with the punches, but I'm afraid that there is a limit of just how many times you can get hit before you start yelling.

I hope that you have a happy and healthy and sunny week.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tidbits from the Past

Some events that took place in the week of February 13-19.
For events of a Jewish nature, please go to

14 The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre occurred. Mobsters, dressed as policemen, gunned down seven members of a rival gang. (1929)
15 The Post Office uses adhesive postage stamps for the first time. (1842)
16 Nylon is patented. But it won't become popular for a few more decades. (1937)
16 NBC TV begins it's first nightly newscast. (1948)
18 Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.(1885)
18 A ninth planet is discovered in the solar system and is named Pluto. The discoverer is Clyde Tombaugh. (1930)
19 A prize is inserted into a Crackerjacks box for the first time (1913)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

This Isn't In Der Heim

Here we are free to live like we did in der heim, where we were forced to live that way by governmental control and fiat. Explain that to me someone? We were limited by various regimes at various times to practicing only certain professions, when we were allowed to be part of the professional class at all. Huge swathes of Klal were poor, not by their own design but because commerce and the ability to join a trade was controlled by the government. Some areas at some times didn't believe there was any need to educate the Jews in secular matters since they could not participate in the greater society anyway. Our right to move around was restricted by governments who wanted us right where they could see us and control us. Regardless of innate ability or latent talent (with some very few exceptions), Jews were placed on the level of the "other" peasants and treated accordingly.

If the Cossacks were going to stage a raid, the Jews made the perfect target. After all, which of the others around them was going to pick up a hand to defend them? If things went wrong in general life it was truly convenient to blame the Jews. Were they going to go to court to try and defend themselves? What court what give them a fair trial? which government?

So here we are today, in a country known for the freedom available to its citizens. There are no restrictions in place that say we can't become educated, we can't practice any profession we want, we can't live anywhere we want. We are free to go as far as our dreams and our abilities can carry us. We don't have to pay money to the government just for breathing and for practicing our religion openly and as we wish. No, we don't have to be afraid to walk down any public street just because we are Jewish. If an injustice crops up we are free to protest and to take legal remedies to get rid of that injustice.

Yes, we are free to partake of all the benefits of a free society, to benefit from all the advances in science and medicine and technology. Being Jewish no longer makes us different in a way to be punished by rabid governments.

So just why is it that wistfulness and longing for in der heim remains? Just what is it that those who wish they were back in der heim are wishing for? The pogroms? The oppression? The fourth-class (if that) citizenry? The fear? Were there some beautiful moments? Sure, and made even more memorable because of the unliklihood of their happening at all.

Why these ruminations right now? Someone yesterday, in response to the ghetto posting, told me that in der heim was so much better for the Jews, that Yiddishkeit was purer somehow, that life was better. Say what? And a truly strange statement especially as it came from someone who has not yet hit the age of 40 and never lived in that heim he yearns for.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On Ghettos

Over the centuries Jews have often been forced to live in what we call ghettos. By definition a ghetto is " A usually poor section of a city inhabited primarily by people of the same race, religion, or social background, often because of discrimination; An often walled quarter in a European city to which Jews were restricted beginning in the Middle Ages; (Sociology) a densely populated slum area of a city inhabited by a socially and economically deprived minority; (Sociology) a group or class of people that is segregated in some way; Italian, after Ghetto, island near Venice where Jews were made to live in the 16th century, perhaps shortened from borghetto, diminutive of borgo, settlement outside a walled city."

Inherent in the definition is the idea of forced occupation and discrimination and restriction. Someone else made the decision about where and how we Jews had to live.

Yes, this may be 2011, but ghettos have not disappeared, neither from our vocabularies nor from our lives. For we Jews, however, there is one great difference, at least here in the US and in Israel: ghetto living has become a choice rather than something imposed by a hostile government. In fact, any imposing that is being done comes from within, from a Jewish leadership that sees ghetto living as a way to safeguard a strictly frum way of life. As we have seen from some reports coming from Israel, not only are the residents told not to leave their ghetto, but any strangers wandering into the ghetto area are quickly harassed and expelled unless they 1000% match the residents already in the ghetto. Discrimination is thus reversed from the traditional European ghetto.

One thing that has remained fairly constant, however, is the idea that ghettos are poor areas. Those living in these ghettos can truthfully be described as "socially and economically deprived." Granted, not all communities with a heavily frum presence would qualify for being a ghetto (think the Five Towns), but there are areas of Brooklyn and New Jersey and Israel that would. When a frum area has a large percentage of its population that remains fairly uneducated and with large numbers of its members who are not employed (whether by choice or not) or who are unemployable, that says ghetto. When hordes of dwellers in these communities are on public assistance for the basic needs to sustain living, that says ghetto.

So, is a ghetto any better a place to be living in just because we have chosen to do so rather than having been forced to do so? Are not the problems in living this way the same as they were long ago? What say you?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tidbits from the Past

Some events that took place in the week of February 6-12.
For events of a Jewish nature, please go to

6 The board game Monopoly first went on sale.(1935)
6 Astronaut Alan Sheppard hits three golf balls on the moon. (1971)
7. The Beatles come to the U.S. for the first time. (1964)
8 The Boy Scouts were founded. (1910)
9 The Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan show. (1964)
9 An act of Congress is passed authorizing the US Weather Bureau
10 Glenn Miller receives the first ever gold record for selling a million copies of a song. And the song....."The Chattanooga Choo Choo"
10 France cedes Canada to England, ending the French and Indian War. (1763)
11 Robert Fulton patents the steamboat. (1809)
11 The Yalta agreement is signed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. (1945)
12 Women in the Utah Territory win the right to vote. (1870)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Wrapped Packages

Ever noticed something about merchandise that comes wrapped in a package? When you start opening the wrapping you'll notice that the box and the item rarely exactly correspond. You begin shlepping out a lot of those popcorn pellets or bubble wrap or crushed paper. Suddenly the real shape of the item starts immerging. But sometimes there is more yet. The item has a protective shrink-wrap around it, and there may be more tissue inside that wrap. Finally, finally you get to the item, and notice the mound of wrapping laying next to it. Sometimes that wrapping is 2-3 times the volume of the item itself. On a few rare occasions the packaging and the item conform perfectly as to size and shape. It can be annoying as all get out to do the unwrapping, but if you actually want to use that item then unwrap it you must. It won't do you any good sitting all prettily wrapped up on a counter somewhere.

Ever notice how shidduchim can be parallel to getting that wrapped package? Every care has been taken to make that outside wrapping as tasteful as possible, as appealing as possible. The package may be emblazoned with all kinds of advertising slogans about the utility of the item, about how it is the best of its class. Those crazy shidduch questionnaires and resumes are mostly about the wrapping and very little about the item in the box. Those resumes tell us about the outside face that someone shows to the world. They tell us about how the person looks on paper. What they don't do is give us the person within, the actual item that we are looking for.

Buying an item because you like the looks of the wrapping paper and the box it comes in is bound to lead to some real surprises once the wrapping comes off and the box is opened. Far better to unwrap that paper, open the box and remove the object within so that it can be looked it better. After all, the wrapping and box get tossed into the garbage almost immediately--it's the item within that is supposed to last.

Far better to take the time necessary to carefully "unwrap" anyone you are considering as a marriage partner. If you're looking to live the rest of your life with this "item," check out just what you are really getting, and take all the time you need. Many a person who has found out, to their detriment, that what they ended up with was a prettily wrapped empty box. And many a person who was "sold" one item only to find a totally different item once the wrapping came off.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Words to Ponder

For those who think that wishful thinking is what brings about change:

"Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out."
James Bryant Conant, former president of Harvard

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On Being an Individual

Human beings are strange creatures. We recognize our unique individuality while at the same time recognizing that we are part of a greater whole, members of a group. Life becomes a balancing act between doing what we want to do and between fitting in to a group of which we are a member. But this assumes that the individual is key in this discussion, that all things revolve around the needs and wants of the individual. Even group membership is looked at from the perspective of the individual.

Unfortunately, today the model above has been reversed: it is the group that has become dominant and the individual who has become secondary. Survival of the group takes precedence over survival of any individual member of that group. There is no longer a balance between the two, with accomodations necessary on both sides for the survival of either.

Klal Yisroel, as a group, has always had wide diversity in the individuals who comprised the group. This is not only referring to religious observance, the most obvious, but to issues of "style," and to issues of "custom," and to issues of skills and aptitudes. We have always tolerated diversity as long as this diversity did not threaten the basic existence of the group. Today, however, the group is taking a different attitude towards what "threatens" basic existence. It is total uniformity that is being aimed for. In doing so, those who insist on complete homogeneity do not realize that they are ensuring that survival of the group will be threatened.

Those whom we consider the "greats" among mankind had and have one thing in common: they were individuals first and foremost. They mostly early on had a bent towards one particular type of endeavor or another, and they pursued that endeavor wholeheartedly. Granted, there were some who had to overcome obstacles before they could devote themselves to their burning passions, but overcome them they did, to all of our benefit. It matters not that some of those "greats" applied themselves to prodigious Jewish learning and some to secular matters; each, in their own way contributed something of necessity for the continuance of Klal, and yes, for the outside world as well.

Go ahead, name the names of the great ones in Klal--part of the group and yet individuals all. And yes, how different so many of these greats were one from the other. And no, they were not always in agreement, one with the other. The Gemorrah and our history are full of the reports of differences of opinion, differences that were debated. Where shall our next generations of great people come from if we insist that all must conform exactly to the group with individuality shunned?

To squelch individuality is to preclude our best and our brightest and our most talented from reaching for the stars in fulfilling their destiny.