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Sep. 20th, 2017 08:57 am
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[personal profile] seekingferret
Listening to the West Wing Weekly podcast, I'm up to 2x3 The Midterm Elections and one of my least favorite scenes in the West Wing, when President Bartlet 'dismantles' Dr. Jane Jacobs's homophobia.

BARTLET
Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

JENNA JACOBS
I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

BARTLET
Yes, it does. Leviticus.

JENNA JACOBS
18:22

BARTLET
Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here.
I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7.
(small chuckles from the guests) She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and
always clears the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While
thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working
on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:2, clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated
to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important,
'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes
us unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins
still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be
together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn
my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?


I know I've complained about similar rhetoric before. The argument is this: There are things in the Bible that a modern religious person doesn't observe. This abrogation means that any parts they do still observe are inherently hypocritical, because if they claimed to follow the Bible they would follow the whole Bible.

This is a really stupid argument. Christianity explicitly rejects some of the Hebrew Bible's obligations. It's not hypocritical for them to not observe these things, it's inherently doctrinal, and it could even be argued (as I've sometimes been forced to, because sometimes Christians do weird and offensive things with Jewish ritual) that it's hypocritical if they DO observe those things. The Christian Bible says that Christians do not need to keep kosher. It's right there in the text!

And even things Christians do still observe that are mentioned in the rant are not necessarily observed in the Biblical way, on purpose! Jesus doesn't condemn the idea of the Sabbath, and Christians do observe a Sabbath, but Jesus condemns the idea of putting people to death for breaching the Sabbath. So Christians have a much more relaxed approach to the Sabbath than Jews do. Again, this does not make them hypocrites. It means they ARE observing their religion.

This infuriates me particularly even though I usually don't care all that much if Christians are revealed as hypocrites, because this argument is the classic anti-Judeo-Christian argument: Ostensibly directed at Christians by people who don't bother to distinguish between Jews and Christians. Jews have our own approaches to difficult passages in Tanakh, but generally we don't believe that the ritual law has been abrogated. We think we still are obligated in most if not all of the things Bartlet mentions as absurd rituals. Orthodox Jewish farmers in Israel, to this day, don't plant two crops side by side in a field. And though we don't have the executive ability to carry them out, most of the stoning laws Bartlet mentions are still technically on the books.

And Orthodox Jews generally still believe we are obligated in the prohibition of et zachar lo tishkav, no matter how difficult that may be to reconcile with modern ideas about love and sex. But it's not like the fact that I don't eat shellfish is what allows me to hate gays without hypocrisy! That's the frustrating part of this argument for me. If you accept it, you seem to be accepting the idea that IF Christians hadn't abrogated parts of the Torah's ritual law, they'd be free to consider homosexuality an abomination. But the people who are making this argument clearly don't believe that. They believe that considering homosexuality abominable is evil and homophobic regardless of whether you eat shellfish. So people making Bartlet's argument are making an argument they don't actually believe to try to trap religious people with sophistry.

So when you're criticizing Christian homophobia, or Jewish homophobia, try to do it with an argument that you actually believe, and which actually engages with Christian or Jewish doctrine rather than with your imagined fake version of that doctrine. Ask a Jew how they reconcile Veahavta lereacha kamocha with the idea of telling your neighbor they can't marry the person they love. Ask a Christian how they can send their churchmates to abusive conversion therapies when Jesus preached kindness and humility and not judging the sins of others.

But don't ask them these things because they're traps you're seeking to catch them in. Ask them because religious people have thought about these questions and we have answers to them, answers our critics often refuse to listen to, and because the conversations about these questions are worth having and worth struggling with. These are hard questions that challenge our faith, and serious theists ask them. Serious atheists ought to, also.

And what frustrates me most about this scene, why it's one of my least favorite West Wing moments, is that President Bartlet, deeply Catholic, who once considered the priesthood, must have some answer to these questions that isn't dependent on taking Catholics to task for eating shellfish. This scene is profoundly out of character on a theological level for the man delivering it. And I don't like when President Bartlet lets me down.


Edit: Thanks for comments- I will not be able to respond until after Rosh Hashanah at earliest

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Sep. 10th, 2017 09:57 pm
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[personal profile] seekingferret
I've realized that though it might take me months to write up full fandom notes for Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing, I can start unpacking it in smaller pieces. So I've written some thoughts on the title. It's over 3000 words on its own. I may have mentioned that I have a few things to say about this vid. ;)

It looks like I started using the title in January, about three months after I started vidding. Before that, the working title was simply the title of the song "Et Rekod", which is Hebrew for "A Time to Dance." I think probably the new title occurred to me because I was talking about a specific section of the vid which starts at 3:02 and which in the final draft consists of a series of scenes of gender segregated dancing in which the barriers become increasingly evident until they are ultimately breached (in early drafts, this section was simply the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Perchik and Hodel instigate mixed dancing at Tzeitl's wedding). In early conversation I thought of this sequence from the vid as the "might lead to mixed dancing" section, and I think it eventually occurred to me that the label in some ways applied more broadly.

The phrase "Might lead to mixed dancing" is a liberal Orthodox Jewish meme with a variety of subtly different meanings in different contexts. It is a sarcastic criticism of chumras- added stringencies in the practice of Jewish law, not required by the letter of the law, but which start to take on some of the weight of Jewish law when a whole community adopts them. The ostensible purpose of a chumra is to establish good habits for the consistent practice of the required law. As a tame example, many Jews write 'G-d', when the English word 'God' is not actually a holy name required to be so euphemized, because if you were careless in writing the name in English, you might lose the habit and forgetfully be careless when writing an actually holy name of God in Hebrew.

Some chumras are ridiculous, though. They require a significant sacrifice on the part of the practitioner and the sin they're trying to help avoid is minor or only tangentially connected. Saying that the thing a chumra bans might lead to mixed dancing is the liberal Orthodox Jew's damnation that the chumra is driven by moral panic rather than piety.

Why does mixed dancing hold this status? Because mixed dancing has a fraught, difficult recent history in American Orthodox Judaism. The ban on mixed dancing in Judaism goes back to medieval Europe and somewhat more ambiguously to the Talmud. The reason for the ban on mixed dancing was fear it was immodest and might lead to further illicit sexual contact between the genders.

My parents' shul is a Young Israel, a movement of Modern Orthodox synagogues founded in the 1920s to try to create a space where young American Jews could feel comfortable practicing in the traditional rite, to keep them from being drawn to a secular life, or worse, Reform or Conservative Judaism. ;) Its main concession to modernity was that in opposition to this traditional Jewish law, it sanctioned mixed gender dances, with the goal of promoting traditional intramarriage through more intimate contact between young Jewish men and women. This approach became so common in American Orthodoxy that a lot of American Jews didn't realize mixed gender dancing was against longstanding Jewish law.

It wasn't until the post-war era that centrist Orthodoxy began to challenge the practice of sanctioned mixed dances. A massive battle of words broke out. A great summary of the history of the fight by historian Zev Eleff is here. The tl;dr is that today, it's unthinkable to imagine mixed dancing in a Young Israel synagogue, and a lot of people aren't even aware of the history, as part of a general rightward shift in Modern Orthodoxy, but the liberal faction that lost but stayed in Orthodoxy remains unhappy about the new status quo.

Thus jokes about the horror of mixed dancing. There is a famously filthy joke, the Jewish equivalent of the Aristocrats, whose punchline is "Might Lead to Mixed Dancing". There is a much shared, viral chart about the meme. At the core of these jokes there is a sense that there is something hypocritical about the attention placed on mixed dancing when we know there are young Jews who are secretly dating non-Jews, or secretly having premarital sex, while living public lives where mixed dancing at a wedding is unthinkable. There's something screwed up about the attitude about sex implied by this contradiction, some idea that sex is a thing we can wish away by not talking about it, that if men and women don't interact with each other, nothing undesired can happen. There's also a general frustration with the way Orthodoxy has taken a rightward turn in the past several decades and overturned longstanding practice that, while it may not have technically aligned with medieval Jewish law, was the commonly accepted practice of the Orthodox Jewish world.

But I want to go further than this. If my vid is advancing an argument about mixed dancing, it is this:

1. Dancing is an essentially Jewish act. In particular, dancing shamelessly, without regard to technique, to celebrate life and family and community, is an essentially Jewish act. It's so fundamentally Jewish that it was the immediate and unrestrained response of the Israelites when God split the sea. It was David's response to the dedication of God's sanctuary in Jerusalem. I sought to particularly highlight this sort of dancing in the vid, dancing whose sheer exuberance makes up for its awkwardness and lack of rhythm. Often in the original source these dance moments were played for slapstick comedy- I use them instead to represent un-selfconscious joyousness.

2. Because dancing is a time when Jewish communities come together, dancing is inherently connected to the experience of enjoying the diversity and complexity of Jewish identities. I wanted secular Jews dancing with religious Jews, Misnagdim dancing with Chasidim, straight Jews dancing together, gay Jews dancing together, straight Jews dancing with gay Jews, Jews dancing with non-Jews, male Jews dancing with female Jews dancing with trans* Jews, old Jews dancing with young Jews, white Jews dancing with black Jews dancing with Asian Jews, in as many combinations and configurations and shapes as possible. I wanted to complicate stereotypes. Judaism represents this incomprehensible world-wide community united by nothing except our mutual willingness to proclaim, sometimes reluctantly, that we are all Jewish. Jewish dancing occasions like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs are a time when we make that proclamation as a community, when we say that the divisions among us are less important than the bonds between us.

3. Gender segregated dancing still carries with it the charge of relationships. The same gender relationships I feature dancing together in the vid include lovers, friends, mothers with daughters, fathers with sons, sisters, brothers, rivals. Looking at these couples context-free in the vid, can you tell which are the siblings dancing together, which are romantically involved, which are the close platonic best friends, which are the gay guy hitting on the straight guy or the bi girl hitting on the straight extraterrestrial (<3 Susan Ivanova forever)? Especially as our awareness of the presence of gay members of our Jewish communities increases, the idea that gender segregation is meaningfully safeguarding the dignity of our relationships seems increasingly false.

4. Gender segregated dancing always exists with an awareness of mixed dancing as this possibility on the other side of the barrier. Peeking over the mechitza is an obligate component of segregated dancing, not a violation of its principles, and there is some sense in which gender segregated dancers, celebrating the same occasion from across opposite sides of a wall, are united in one interconnected meta-mixed dance. When I was working through the 3:02 section of the vid with my beta [personal profile] sanguinity, I discussed the idea that I was trying to create a sort of geography of the mechitza by using a variety of clips looking from one side to the other. I'm not entirely sure how clear that actually worked out, but it's an important idea in how I conceptualized this section. Gender segregated dancing is never just the two sides of a wall.

5. Thus mixed dancing is an apotheosis of the universal celebration of Jewish identity, in all its diverse forms, and segregated dancing is actually just a limited subset of mixed dancing, posing all of the same challenges and offering all of the same opportunities for joy. In a draft of the vid never intended to be released, I juxtaposed the fictional, segregated wedding dancing section of the vid against a video of segregated wedding dancing at my sister's wedding: Me joyously dancing with my brother, my new brother in law, my father, my uncles and cousins and friends, with my sister and her female friends and family just behind us on the other side of the wall. Shortly after that video was filmed, we moved the mechitza out of the way and our whole family danced together. It was all of a piece, parts of the same celebration.

And in fact, I would say that 'mixed dancing' in the vid hopefully grows to mean more than mixed-gender dancing, but in the swirl of different fandoms mixing together, it means a great coming together of different kinds of Jews and Judaisms.



Another context to 'Might Lead to Mixed Dancing" I should acknowledge is the vid premiering at Vividcon's Club Vivid dance party. Which is its own kind of heterogeneous dancing experience, and I was aware as I was making the vid that the specifically Jewish parts of this vid would only speak to some fraction of the audience at the convention, and that I would need to make the vid able to offer something to the people who weren't there for the Jewish content. They are not the primary target audience for the vid, though. To some extent "Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing", flashing in yellow over an image of Reb Saunders dancing in The Chosen, is a warning to the non-Jews that part of this vid will be inaccessible to them. But what is there for them, I think, is the fun of recognizing favorite characters as they get their two seconds of recognition, the curiosity of wondering about the interesting clips whose fandoms they don't know, and the fun of the dancing vid choreography. (My two primary betas are both not Jewish, so I've known for a long time that even if they didn't understand all of the Jewish meaning of the vid, there was a lot for them to enjoy anyway.)

Several years ago, I had a conversation with [personal profile] troisroyaumes that's stuck with me as a vidding inspiration. "At one point, I started wanting to make a parody vid, featuring some popular U.S. TV series, set very carefully and precisely to non-English song lyrics that half the audience would not understand." To a much greater degree, that program was what I accomplished with Ma'agalim, the West Wing vid I premiered at Club Vivid last year. "Ma'agalim" uses Hebrew wordplay and makes specific visual callouts to the Hebrew lyrics a central part of its storytelling. Shwekey's "Et Rekod" has a much simpler, more straightforward lyric and understanding it is not requisite to appreciating the vid. I feel like making the more aggressively incomprehensible vid last year for Club Vivid paved the way for making this vid. And I also think understanding the lyrics of "Et Rekod" and the way they reinterpret Ecclesiastes does add something to understanding the vid, and I made this vid knowing that its first audience would largely not have that understanding. I hope that may be a challenge to the vidders at Vividcon to think about their works in a wider, more global way. To remember that not everyone will understand the cultural context of their vid. Or not.

But also, what premiering the vid at Club Vivid meant is that I was premiering it AT a mixed gender dance. The warning is thus inherently ironic, the vid cannot lead to mixed dancing because mixed dancing is already happening (both in the sense of males dancing with females and in the sense of Jews dancing with non-Jews). That's something that gives me some degree of pause. All of this critique of segregated dancing in the Jewish community is a commentary by an Orthodox Jew who lives in a community where mixed dancing is not always welcome. At Club Vivid, that critique in inappropriate for the venue. Was serving this vid up, with its critiques of some aspects of Jewish community front and center, to a community primarily composed of non-Jews, the appropriate introduction? I'm not sure. But a lot of the Jews who were there came up to me after the vid premiered to thank me for making it. It said something important, at least, to the Jews who WERE at Vividcon.

I'm very careful in the fannish parts of me that I present to the Jewish community, among other reasons because not everyone will respond favorably to learning that I've written (relatively non-explicit) slash fiction, but also because some in the Jewish community think that Fandom is a distraction from Torah. And I'm careful about the Jewish parts of me I present in fandom, because as an Orthodox Jew in fandom I'm rare and my actions may be interpreted as representing my community. I've tried, in my two trips to Vividcon, to make it a place where Jewish identity and Fannish identity can harmoniously exist, hosting Shabbos fan dinners and premiering vids about Jewish characters and generally being visibly a Jewish Fan, with my shiny silver Con kippah and various fannish shirts all trying to bridge those two sides of myself, two sides of myself that don't necessarily exist in harmony at all times. I like to imagine that for the four minutes or so while the vid was playing at the con, I was publicly and visibly a Jewish Fan in all that implies, and I was representing that identity to the whole VVC community. And that that was another kind of mixed dancing the vid accomplishes. Maybe that's not true, but it felt that way anyway.



Let's take a closer look at the section that begins at 3:02. We start with a bride being raised on a chair at her wedding reception. it's clearly an Orthodox wedding, as she is surrounded exclusively by women and there is a mechitza barrier clearly shown on the right. Cut to a groom being raised on a chair in parallel, surrounded by men in the black suits and black hats and beards of a Hasidic sect. Cut to the two of them raised in the air holding a kerchief over the mechitza to establish a connection over the wall without actually touching, with the camera panning from him to her. All of this is from the opening of a House episode in which the bride is about to display the symptoms of some terrible and mysterious illness and collapse from the chair. House subsequently will spend the episode hectoring her to try to convince her that her religion is nonsense while searching for a diagnosis and treatment. The opening shots establish the separation of the genders, but also through the kerchief and the photography establish that the separation creates a relationship between the two sides, a literal physical geographic connection.

Cut to women energetically dancing in a circle. Cut to two women in white dresses swinging each other around in the middle of a circle of women. Cut to two Modern Orthodox men dancing together with other men dancing in the background. Cut to a group of Charedi men dancing in a circle. These scenes are respectively from Srugim, Hasodot, Srugim, and Hasodot, two Israeli media dealing with the difficulties of life in the Orthodox world. These two scenes both have hidden complexities in the dancing: In the wedding in Srugim, Yifat is a niddah- she has started menstruating. Technically, she should have reported this to her Rabbi and made several compromises in the wedding ritual to accommodate for it, but she has chosen to conceal it from everyone but her chasan in order to fully enjoy the wedding. In Hasodot, the two women dancing in white dresses are former lovers acting publicly as if they are just friends who happen to be dancing together in a gender segregated dancing circle. These shots ignore the existence of the other side of the mechitzah, but serve both to show the unambiguous joy of dancing in segregated settings juxtaposed against the things it forces people to leave unspoken. There is a bargain being made, and the joy comes at a cost to honesty.

Cut to two women peeking at men dancing on the other side of a mechitzah from Fill the Void. Cut to two young boys peeking at women dancing on the other side of a mechitzah from House. Cut to Reuven peeking at women dancing on the other side of the mechitzah in The Chosen. Cut to an overhead pan from the men dancing on one side of the mechitzah to the women dancing on the other side of the mechitzah in House. Peeking is a commonplace, looked down upon but practiced by both sides, who wonder what it would be like on the other side. Again, there is a geography and a connection. When we see men dancing together, it's not just about them, it's also about the women on the other side of the wall. When we see women dancing together, it's also about the men on the other side of the wall. There is a permeability to these walls, people can peek through them, peek over them, peek around them. The walls are just a construct, not an unbreachable barrier.

Cut to Perchik cutting the string separating the men and women in Fiddler on the Roof. The permeability of the wall reaches a breaking point.

Cut to the bride and groom from The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, slowly approaching each other, reaching out, and eventually touching. The barrier has been breached, to the joy and relief of everyone. Mixed dancing has been achieved, the status of full Jewish connection.



Anyway, I still have a hell of a lot to say about this vid and will do so in further posts.
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[personal profile] scintilla72
I already knew from an earlier hike that the blue trail in Silas Condict Park doesn't provide that special of a view, unless maybe it's sunset or autumn or both. I apparently didn't remember (because as soon as I got there, I felt like I'd been there before) that the red trail's point of interest is nothing but a big ol' rock without even a view.

And the white trail was closed off with fences and a big "NO TRESPASSING" sign. The signs out front of the park had warned about construction and certain things being closed, but they never mentioned any effect to the hiking trails.

As for Mountainside Park, yes, you get a view clear to Manhattan from the summit. But there's nothing interesting in the foreground, which doesn't make for a very good photograph. Also, the hike is rather long. In the future, the best bet is probably to stick to the yellow trail the whole way, or else blue to orange to yellow (the blue trail's final approach to the summit is just ridiculous, as I learned by going back down via it).

My Yuletide nominations

Sep. 10th, 2017 08:53 am
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
[personal profile] seekingferret
Consider this the start of me posting about the fandoms in Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing. My nominations for Yuletide are fandoms I watched for the vid. They are awesome fandoms with amazing characters and relatively few people know about them.

1. Hasodot (The Secrets) | הסודות

This is an Israeli movie from about a decade ago, directed by Avi Nesher. The Hebrew title HaSodot, which literally means The Secrets, has an implication that the English title doesn't that the titular secrets involve the deep mysteries of the Bible): This movie floored me. I was nervous going in because I've learned the hard way from this project that movies involving gay Jews don't tend to work out well. (A corollary of the fact that movies involving gays don't tend to work out well, and movies involving Jews don't tend to work out well.) It did end in a het wedding, but I thought it did a much better job than, say, Kissing Jessica Stein, of understanding not only the bittersweetness of this, but the way its association of heterosexuality with happy endings makes it complicit in heterosexism. It also did not kill any of its queer characters (and this is a movie where people die! This is a movie about the consequences of messing with Kabbalah!), and its final shot was of the central queer couple happily dancing together at the het wedding. I think by the nature of the yeshiva-bound love triangle, the romance remixes and reinterprets Yentl's love triangle,- Michal torn between a conventional Torah marriage to Yanki ( who she clearly loves- the movie doesn't work the way it does if he's just a man she's forced to marry ) or a union with Naomi that would defy convention but would constitute a marriage To Torah and the joy of textual study, is a lovely requeering of an already queer text.

But more than the romance, what charmed me about this movie was the way it dealt with Kabbalah. I've never seen a movie that got the details and the feel so right. It made Kabbalah feel real and powerful and dangerous and meaningful while still maintaining a completely naturalistic environment. Naomi, in Kabbalist mode, has a stunning, arrogant command, and the rituals we see both resemble in frenzy and particulars the actual rituals of the 16th century students of the Ari and feel potent and transformative. The idea of a woman performing them and in the process transforming the meaning of the rituals is effective and powerful- I loved the scene where they sneak into the Ari's mikvah at night for a ritual immersion and in the process of doing something incredibly taboo rediscover the Bible's own sense that a woman's identity starts with her awareness of and pride in her body's physicality.

The only movie I've ever seen that handles Jewish folklore with this kind of depth of feeling is A Serious Man, and then only in the opening scene. This movie is suffused with an incredible sense of Jewish mysticism as a lived-in, comprehensible experience, not something esoteric or mysterious. As a mostly rationalist Jew, this is not my Judaism, but it's a recognizable, real Judaism nonetheless.

2. A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers' greatest movie in my superbiased opinion. Much to my disappointment, careful re-review of A Serious Man did not turn up any Jews dancing. This is the movie I most wanted to include in the vid and couldn't, because it's my favorite movie about Jews.

A Serious Man is so full of meaningful doubt, of trying to live a faithful life in a seemingly faithless world. It's great. It's also defined by a stunning realism. So many of the characters feel like people I know, they're annoying or loveable in exactly the way real people are. When I forced my father to watch it, he said afterward "I KNOW Sy Ableman. No I know TWENTY Sy Ablemans." They got the fabrics in the synagogue right. They got the look of the lawns right.

I nominated the three Rabbis that Larry Gopnik consults for advice on the meaning of life, in succession, after his wife leaves him. I love the surreal hierarchy of this subnarrative, how each succeeding Rabbi appears more serious but does not offer more serious advice. It's a brilliant parody of conventional Jewish folk narrative, a Jewish shaggy dog joke spun out with unexpected seriousness.


3. La'avor et Hakir (The Wedding Plan) | לעבור את הקיר

A sort of silly Israeli romcom made last year by the Breslov-Hasidic filmmaker Rama Burshtein. I imported a DVD copy from the UK when I needed it for the vid (the UK title is Through the Wall, a more literal translation of the Hebrew), a few months before it came out in the US, and then got to act all hipster when it hit the US and a bunch of my friends got excited about it and I was like "Hah! I was into that movie months ago.". #loser

Burshtein's films (this is her second) feel like they are made primarily for an audience of Breslov women and then secondarily in an ambassadorial capacity to the outside world. There's very much a sense I get that the perspective being pushed is unusual and particular and the idea of what constitutes a happy ending is shaped by Breslov attitudes rather than the ideals of a general viewing audience. The Wedding Plan is much more comic and much lighter than Fill the Void, her first film, but no less serious. It has a lovely romcom premise that a woman whose engagement is broken off decides to keep all of her wedding-related bookings and go through with the wedding, provided she can find a new husband in the next three months. And then it uses this premise to explore questions of theodicy, as well as look at coping with loneliness and one's sense of place within the community, and gentle moral teachings about how to respect other people. There's a hilarious sequence of bad dates as Michal tries to find her new 'the one'... the reasons why they are bad dates are striking. The guy who refuses to look at women he's dating until he marries so he can honestly tell his wife that she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen is perhaps the most crystalline example of an adaptation of male chauvinism to the particular contours of the modern Hasidic world.

(no subject)

Sep. 9th, 2017 10:06 pm
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[personal profile] seekingferret
Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz


This book was so much fun to read, and so illuminating. [personal profile] brainwane- I think you'd find it interesting as a supplement to my past answers about kashrut.

Horowitz's previously books have been investigations of the world of the modern American meat industry generally, and at the prodding of his family he turned to look more specifically at the kosher food industry and its evolution over the last century in this book. It features a chapter on the history of Coca Cola's kosher certification, a chapter on the history of Manischewitz and Kedem wines, a chapter on the story of Oreo's becoming kosher, a couple of chapters on the kosher beef industry, and all of them explain so much about things I've sort of halfway absorbed through a lifetime of consuming kosher food products.

There's this constantly devastating paradox of American Jewish life at the center of Horowitz's book: In order to make inarguably kosher food accessible to Orthodox Jews at reasonable cost, the majority of the people buying it need to be non-Jews. The further from this condition a particular foodstuff slips, the more the foodstuff will become inaccessible to Jewish consumers. The closer to this condition a foodstuff is, the cheaper and more plentiful it will be to Jewish buyers. And there are synergies to this process, because the food chain is complicated and interconnected, so if more processed foods have supply chains that are completely certified kosher, it means there are more input ingredients being used incidentally in other products that can then more easily and cost-effectively be certified kosher.

So, great, you might say, the primary tactic if you want to make kosher food cheap and available should be to convince non-Jews to eat kosher food! But Horowitz records a competing dynamic, which is this: When a foodstuff can be produced, at varying efforts, to satisfy people with different levels of kashrut stringency, the most stringent standard tends to drive less stringent standards out of the market. This is because the less stringent people will eat either food made to the less stringent standard or food made to the more stringent standard, and the more stringent people will eat only the food made to the more stringent standard, and in most cases the producer only wants to make one product that the most customers will buy.

This is why glatt meat has largely driven nonglatt meat off the kashrut market, and why Orthodox hecksherim grace tens of thousands of processed foods and Conservative hecksherim barely any, and why there are hundreds of mevushal wines and barely any non-mevushal wines. And taken to an extreme, this process competes with the tendency of producers to compete for the non-Jewish market, bifurcating the product line into the much cheaper non-kosher version and the much more expensive or bad tasting stringently kosher version and eliminating the non-stringently kosher version capable of competing on price and taste with the non-kosher version. So you have a tension between this dynamic, which can result in kosher products designed only for Jewish consumption at an exorbitant markup, and the first dynamic, which tends to result in kosher products designed primarily for non-Jewish consumption that are cheaper and of generally higher appeal. Horowitz has a particularly great diversion into the history of how Manischewitz wine began to market itself primarily to an African-American audience because of the chance discovery that Concord grape-based sweet wines taste similar to scuppernong grape-based sweet wines popular in the Deep South, and how this enabled Manischewitz to massively gain market share, but ultimately created a wedge that allowed Kedem to steal Jewish market share by marketing imported dry kosher wines and trying to figure out flash pasteurization techniques to make Mevushal wine taste marginally better.


The other interesting story Horowitz tells is about the way government regulation of food has interacted with the kosher industry, sometimes to the benefit of Jews and sometimes to the detriment, sometimes the same regulations! The same New York State kosher enforcement division that, with industry cooperation, minimized fraudulent kosher food and protected the food safety of New York Jews for decades eventually became a corrupt tool to enforce stringent Orthodox industrial hecksherim on those seeking to use local Rabbanim to certify small kosher businesses.

I was fascinated in particular by Horowitz's passage about the way increased record-keeping imposed by the FDA on large food businesses for health safety reasons allowed the Orthodox Union to establish computerized kashrut tracking systems and massively expand the reach of OU kosher certification. It's such a neat story. In general the role of government regulation in Kosher USA is really ambiguous- good when it works, but just as often seen justifiably as an unwitting threat to the Jewish community- as when he discusses the role of new ethical slaughter regulations in the 1970s on raising the price of kosher beef.

(no subject)

Sep. 9th, 2017 08:11 pm
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[personal profile] seekingferret
1) Tuesday night, at Le Poisson Rouge I saw a pretty amazing set of musicians.

I first learned of Doveman (stage name for pianist Thomas Bartlett) from a weird downtempo cover he did of the complete Footloose soundtrack years back. Super slow "Holding Out for a Hero" is strangely wonderful, like the singer is literally *holding out* for that hero. Five years ago he did a set of concerts at Le Poisson Rouge called the Burgundy Stain Sessions, with a rotating cast of musical collaborators including some pretty big names. I never made it to any of those shows, but they always sounded neat.

This was billed as a revival of the Burgundy Stain Sessions, but it was actually a birthday celebration for his mother, full of her favorite songs and some of her favorite performers that Bartlett, an accomplished session musician who seems to know everyone in pop music, happened to know.

Musicians who performed included, in addition to Bartlett: Norah Jones, St. Vincent, Sufjan Stevens, Justin Vivian Bond, Joan as Police Woman, and John Cameron Mitchell. And a bunch of other talented musicians with less name recognition. But holy shit, getting to see that many amazing musicians for 20 bucks?!? It was an incredible set- relaxed and casual and goofy- and absolutely precise and lethally effective. I jokingly put up a 9 truths and a lie concert meme on facebook using exclusively 9 performers from this one concert, and I think it's more impressive than some of the lifetime 9 truths and a lie lists I saw when that meme was doing the rounds.


2) On Only Connect, that brutally difficult British quiz show I occasionally post about here to deaf ears, Gail Trimble is captaining a team this season! She showed up in this past week's episode with her husband and brother, no spoilers about whether she'll be returning in future episodes, but it was great fun to see her again. (Trimble was a famously brilliant captain of a University Challenge team some years back, that other [not quite as] difficult British quiz show I occasionally post about here to deaf ears. She nearly singlehandedly led her uni team to a championship, until the championship was taken away due to an eligibility scandal involving a teammate that still confuses me. I think the closest analogy for Americans is to say that Trimble was a British Ken Jennings.) Anyway, I just wanted to be sure everyone knew. GAIL TRIMBLE ON ONLY CONNECT, EEEE!!!


3)I recently did a rewatch of the complete series of Parks and Recreation. The first season and the first half of the second season are still frustratingly tonally off- they thought they were making fun of Leslie, it's weird?!. And the remainder of the show is still utterly brilliant and cheering and hilarious and inspiring. But it was interesting... I caught up with the show in a binge about midway through season 3, and watched the rest mostly in realtime as it was airing. It was interesting to binge and see my feelings about different episodes change in ways that seemed to have to do with rapid exposure to multiple episodes in sequence. Ann's pregnancy storyline made sense this time! In realtime, the clues they dropped for several episodes in advance slipped past me, but watching at speed, I saw how they'd set up Ann's emotional evolution, her realization that kids gave life value for some people, and she might be one of those people, so that episode where she randomly starts interviewing people to be a sperm donor actually didn't come out of nowhere. Jamm was also more endurably annoying racing through, because you got past him faster. Tuning in every week and realizing that there was going to be yet more Jamm to meaninglessly mess with our heroes was always a disappointment. But seeing him instead as this meaningless obstacle that our heroes would overcome with patience and wit made him fit better into the weave of the show.

But most of all, Leslie Knope is the greatest person ever. I think I used to complain about 'backslide episodes' of Parks and Rec where suddenly Leslie seemed unaware of the fact that just last week she'd learned a lesson about how she tended to steamroll people and it would cause problems later, but in the binge rewatch Leslie seemed like a much more continuous character, more self-aware of her own faults than I'd remembered, and stunningly competent in all directions. It's really telling, as I listen to The West Wing Weekly podcast after [personal profile] roga's urging, that people on the podcast keep comparing things to Parks and Rec. There is a lot of continuity there in the sense of aspirational but pragmatic idealism. Government will fail its constituents, but as long as it consists of smart people working hard to try to serve the public, it has value in spite of its failings.

4)I think I've given up on Faye Kellerman's Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus books, about six or seven books into the series, because in spite of the fact that they continue to be billed as Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus mysteries, they seem to almost always turn out to be Peter Decker mysteries with a little background Rina Lazarus, often with Rina as a shell of the brilliant, difficult woman who makes The Ritual Bath such a delight. I like Peter, but I'm only interested in the series for that interplay between Peter and Rina. I might check out one of the later books in the series that star Peter's daughter Cindy, to see if they're any more satisfying.

On the other hand, I got through the troublesome L is for Lawless and I'm now back on the rails with Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series, which is once again a delight now that I'm up to P. Grafton's dedication to not writing the same book twice is admirable in a series as long as the Kinsey books, but L was a little too far off from what I was looking for in a story about Kinsey, with Kinsey's dips into lawlessness seeming unjustified by what we'd seen of her character. (Her bouts of lawlessness in O is for Outlaw felt more of a piece with her character- not something you'd have seen from the person you meet in the first few books, but something you could believe she'd do given the circumstances and her evolution as a character. Her break-ins in O spoke really effectively of a newfound desperation for answers.)

I continue to love how Grafton uses the most vivid secondary characters to obfuscate her plots. You never know if a character is just there for two pages to deliver a piece of information, or if they'll turn out to be central to the mystery, because either way Grafton writes them as real people with lives before and after the page. I had meant to nominate the series for Yuletide, since there is shockingly little fic, but then I remembered that all my nominating slots need to go to all the fandoms I watched for Might Lead to Mixed Dancing and desperately need fic for now. More about that later.
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