Monday, December 8, 2008

Google & Shabbat: sorry, we cannot load this event...

Sometimes, Shabbat comes in way to early and I struggle to be ready. Ditto with the chaggim and work. But this one was news to me: I received the following message when I tried to teach my new lenovo ideapad the local candlelighting times:

Sorry, we cannot load this event

Sorry, Calendar cannot load this event. The server may be temporarily unavailable, the event may have been deleted, or you may not have access to it anymore. Please try again in a few minutes. If the problem persists, talk to the person who created this event, or visit the Help Center.

©2008 Google - Google Home

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Everything's still up in the air and I'm buried in end-of-the-semester-panic but I thought I'd post a BBC piece on Yiddish, only online till Sunday and an audio slideshow on Yiddish, also from the BBC. Both great fun!

Friday, November 21, 2008

update on Jewish Studies classes

I spoke to the dean and he suggested to try and get one of the Jewish Studies classes off the ground, so I made a flyer and keep hoping for the best. To my relief, my dean assured me that I would not have to teach 5x a week, a not unlikely scenario. And since last night, when I had my students over for a carb- and fun-filled dinner, I am in a much better mood. What a difference 1.500 calories and some diversion make!

At the same time, I remain suspicious as to the success of a Jewish Studies Program here.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

my courses...

I was tentatively told that I will be teaching 2 survey classes next semester. While I am not particularly thrilled about these particular surveys, I am much more bothered by the fact that they are scheduled for every single day of the week. Not only will I not have any full (week) days for research which is supposedly the number 1 priority at my school, I also won't be able to travel for research or go away for Shabbat, the latter not being an argument that is likely to sway anyone. But until now, I figured that, if I am already toughing it out in the south, without a Shabbat community and more or less without a library, at least the job and the experience of teaching Jewish Studies should be really good. What do I do if this turns out not to be the case? Or only after a good number of years?

If none of this can be changed, however, I will not be ambitious next semester. I will go in every day, teach my class and otherwise try to get "the book" out. It might not be so bad then to teach this Intro course.

I thought I was doing just fine until last night when I got a massive migraine that lasted all day. And tonight, after some deliberations and lots of chocolate, I wrote an email to my dean and requested a meeting. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

No Jewish Studies classes for me

This week I found out that a total of four students has registered for the two classes I was supposed to teach in spring. Needless to say, they will probably be canceled. Considering that a third Jewish Studies course on the Holocaust has also been closed for lack of registration, I am now wondering if my school is really ready for the Jewish Studies Program we are planning to set up.

If students are not even willing to watch Shoa movies, a topic hugely popular with American teenagers, what chance do my far more pedestrian courses have?

Certainly, a number of factors came together: Because of the recession, my school is implementing minimum requirements for courses, and many, many courses have been canceled to cut costs, especially in the Humanities. But a number of these classes fulfill mandatory requirements, and not everybody can have switched to Accounting, so what is going on?

And yes, as a newcomer, I still have a reputation and an audience to build but this also works in my favor, not enough time to scare off potential students. Our classes are perhaps not yet sufficiently cross-listed, no PR etc. But my main question remains: has my school done its homework? Is it sure that this program is viable?

Or are Jewish Studies so fabulously popular that is simply assumed that the program will fly? And if so, why? Because ethnic studies are so popular? Or to attract Jews and Jewish money, as some have suggested?

Monday, November 17, 2008

no ice scrapers in the south

It's "cold" now at night and every morning, I have to get that ice off my windshield. So far, I've been using my Barnes & Nobles membership card but this leaves my fingers exposed to the ice and so I have been trying to find a scratcher--so far without success. None at Target, and the Advanced Auto lady told me that she imported hers from Michigan. Fabulous. What do people do? Rubbing alcohol? Is this why I see all these drivers sitting in their cars for 10 minutes with the engine running before taking off?!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"kosher style" chicken

This week, the local Jewish student organization organized a student-professor Friday night dinner. It took place at a colleague's place who was nice enough to invite me for Shabbat. The students stressed that it would be a meat dinner, so we all took care to prepare parve side dishes and I was getting excited (meat!!!). When the meat showed up, it was "kosher style"--i.e. the chicken was treife, but the breading parve. Whaaat? Since I got off the plane, I've encountered quite a few people with three sets of dishes--meat, dairy, and treif--and I've seen "kosher style" restaurants but "kosher-style" chicken on Friday night?! Must be a southern thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

more on food (not for the faint of heart)

I consider myself a veteran.

In Jerusalem, I watched a mouse jump out of my room, pursued by 2 roommates and a young cat just getting the hang of the chase. I caught a (harmless but disgusting) spider the size of a small plate that had wandered in from the garden and heard my roommate scream when he discovered a giant moth that had chosen the tight space in between toilet bowl and toilet seat to die. And my first conscious act on my first morning in the goldene medine, in Brooklyn, was to slay a roach with my right sandal. With time, I got used to various infestations. In Washington Heights, e.g., we took to rinsing every plate twice: after and before each use and I never left my food out unsupervised. I've woken up to a rat floating in my Upper West Side toilet (these big American toilets with big water basins) and, incensed, immediately wanted to freeze it to send it to my landlord. I should add that my street was called "rat alley" by the locals. That, of course, beat “crack alley” which was the next block. Once, I even had two kinds of mice: tiny little grey balls living in the oven and slightly bigger ones that came out only around 1:30 from underneath the radiator in the living room.

Then I moved to the Deep South.

I learned to catch half-dead bugs in paper cones (they can't climb out fast enough) and release them outside where they belong. I don't gag anymore when I feel them wiggle inside the cone either. I also discovered that people have bug philosophies. One friend is convinced that they come out to die in the middle of the living room when there's no movement for a while and they feel it's "safe". Of course, here, the bugs are a little bigger and take a while to die. Having wandered into the bathroom while a giant roach was hugging the bristles on my tooth brush, my brushes are now permanently housed in these little travel cases and I bought a bunch for visitors, too. They look something like this and I feel much better since I have them:

And then, last night, after a long day, I bought some crispbread, took out the hummus I'd just made and plopped down in front of the telly to watch be-tipul, my latest addiction (I brought back the first 2 seasons). The crispbread was a bit crumbly so I got a knife to spread the humus and, incidentally, looked down--to see literally dozens of little crawly things escaping the slice I'd just broken in half. I started sobbing hysterically and only calmed down after I'd spend a half hour on the phone. This morning, a colleague told me that she takes out a slice and waits a minute for any bugs to come out. They call this civilization? How can people put up with this?!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The food

There are many ways in which I don't fit in: my accent marking me as a rare foreigner, I'm a Democrat in a sea of Red--a color choice that, considering the anti-socialist hysteria in Republican quarters, never ceases to amaze me--and, of course, there's the food. Could there possibly a treifer culture than southern American cuisine? Boiled p-nuts are not really worth the time it takes to peel them, and lard is everywhere, as are shellfish, and, of course, pork.

This Shabbat, I listened to an entire conversation on how to prepare hogs on sticks (or something like that) and what fun it was to pull the meat off WITH YOUR FINGERS! I'm turning green just thinking about it... How can this be fine while fish with heads is gross? The latter I learned when, a few months after I'd gotten off the plane, I proudly brought in trout and watched my guests slide off their chairs at the sight of their individually cooked and, of course, unbeheaded fish. Strange. The last vegetarian restaurant closed down last year, the next kosher place is about 95 miles away and I've begun to schedule my trips to urban centers around my food urges. I eat a lot of meat when I visit cities. I have ordered burgers when deplaning, and, last week in Chicago, inhaled one of Spertus' Reubenesque sandwiches the spot. One day, I might even drive those 90something miles, just to have a burger. How did people do this for decades?!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Back to work...

The elections are over, the parties are, too, and most of next week's classes are prepared, thanks to a panic attack that had me write out 2 months of lectures over the summer. My computer is still getting fixed (to the tune of $420) and I am unpacking my last boxes, but it seems--gasp!--that I will be ready to begin my own work this week-end. Yay!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama in the classroom

Still full of last night's impressions, I couldn't just go back to business as usual and I printed out some international reactions, among them a Jerusalem Post article on Abner Mikva's talk of Obama's "yiddishe neshama". Great confusion in the classroom. Obama Jewish?! Quite of few of my students bought it without questioning and, apparently, without reading the article in the first place. It's amazing to me that after all this, after months of inflammatory "Barack HUSSEIN Obama" cries, College-age students still could be so uninformed. Sigh.

Yes, they can!

Amazing. While I still wish I was American right now, I also know that my voice was not needed. What a day we're having here in my little Republican state, in spite of a considerable loss of diversity in the local political representation. With the images from Chicago fresh in mind, I crossed a poor neighbourhood on my way home from an election party, and there, kids were standing outside, cheering on the occasional passer-by. I hope they--and all Americans--remain if not this excited but at least involved. Wouldn't that be a nice change?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I spent the last five days before the elections in Chicago and there was a decidedly upbeat buzz in the air, international TV stations were staking out space, students of the many universities on Michigan Avenue were excitedly chatting while waiting for their coffees at Starbucks, and not because classes would be canceled. Even the CVS pharmacy was advertising one-way cameras “for the rally”. This is going to be the biggest party Chicago has ever seen, even Celine canceled her concert and it's going to take place on the very ground where, only 40 years ago, hundreds were wounded in an anti-Vietnam demonstration and under the man whose father was the mayor during the 1968 protests. I wish I could have stayed, even without a ticket!

At home, school was canceled for the day, and when I went to the deserted student coffee shop, the coffee lady, a Black post-middle-aged woman, started chatting with me. While preparing my coffee, and safely perched between the machine and the wall, Easter (really her name!) leaned in and demanded: “Whom did you vote for? “ This wasn't the first time a southerner was unexpectedly direct but I was still surprised; this is, after all, America, and people do not like getting too personal about certain subjects, including politics, in public. I told her I wasn’t eligible to vote but that I was hoping for an Obama victory. With tears in her eyes, she told me that she never thought she’d live to see the day (of a serious African-American candidacy). Many have commented on the historical character of the elections and so it's almost trite to note the obvious. But hers was a sentiment I've encountered a lot, especially from folk who grew up on the wrong side of Segregation, a period that is still in living memory here in the south. Lieberman’s candidacy and the excitement it created among Jews can’t even begin to compare.

Like me, Easter was still worried, but also giddy with excitement. She was quite aware of the difficulties laying ahead--my school e.g. is in the process of "absorbing" a 15% budget cut and more is to come. But her dream is to walk the streets of our (staunchly Republican) town tonight with a camera in hand. I hope I will get to see her photographs soon.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ganesha and I

My survey class has moved on to Hinduism. Needless to say, I'm learning a lot, reading the Blackwell's Introduction to Hinduism while preparing for class. Already the opening, dealing with the question of whether Hinduism as a category is a colonial construct, and even if, what that might mean for modern Hindu and non-Hindu definitions of Hinduism left me dizzy, to say the least and that was before I attempted to penetrate the Hindu pantheon!

I am not an expert on Hinduism. I never read the Gita or the Ramayana (still haven't) and my knowledge of modern India barely extends beyond Monsoon Wedding, the Partition and Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations under the Mughals. In this class, I am focusing on a few key concepts (the systems of samsara, mokhsha) and the henotheistic/monotheistic character of Hinduism. The more I think about world religions, the more it seems to me that there are few religions that satisfy the polemical potential of the word polytheism. It's not avodah zarah, people are not praying to statues, not in Christianity, and not in Hinduism, and perhaps that is worth pointing out in class. Many of my survey books, strangely, get sidetracked into talking way too much about sati, the Partition, or Ayodhya--all important yet perhaps not what I want to dwell on when covering a religion in two weeks.

Spending way too much time on you-tube, I dug out a fascinating video showing how kids learn the Veda in a traditional setting. In contrast to traditional Jewish and Muslim learning environments, this is a full-body experience that is later internalized. Just watch the first 2 minutes for a taste.

The rest of the documentary describes an elaborate sacrifice and shows a very hands-on approach to geometry. Perhaps even I would have liked maths, had anyone ever explained to me why I should bother in the first place!

Here's a song that just stuck with me, on Ganesha, the lord of the writers:

My seminar remains great fun, at least for me. We do a lot of close readings which might get stale at some point but so far, so good. At times, my students surprise me. Two weeks ago, for instance, each and every one of them had spent considerable time reading and analyzing portions of an Iranian novel (in English). It was a fun class, making up for times when I feel inadequate and like the rookie I am... like last Wednesday, when nobody had done the readings and I let them go early because I was tired of playing the MC, not the responsible thing to do.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Friday night

Some are bothered by leather-wearing worshippers on Yom Kippur, others (me) by obsessive message-checkers during services. As someone told me today after shul: "Now, THAT is wrong. If they would use the phone outside of shul, it would be fine." Huh?

I need to come to terms with what it means to belong to a not-so-observant community. It's not as if I had much choice right now, short of moving and changing jobs which is not an option. I am getting used to my surroundings, to (rather general but still) prayers before university-related meals, to "Jesus is my Lord" on cab doors, and to the warm weather, too. What I can't get used to, apparently, is American masorti Judaism. All these Friday-night-dinner cooking, shul-driving Jews, somehow maintaining their Yiddishkeit in small communities, often without the benefit of a thorough Jewish education... you gotta love them, right?!

Last night, I went to a dinner. I was almost faint with excitement to be in a house with the candles lit and to have a meal I didn't have to cook. We sang Shalom Alechem (each stance 3x!), my host made Kiddush and then, to my surprise, took out a couple of NCSY benchers and proceeded to read Eshet Chayil in English, and the first Psalm, too. Clearly, this was a routine. Amazing! The same was repeated when we said Birkat ha-Mazon, even mezuman was made in English. I had never seen anything like it but, strangely, it was not as alienating as I thought it would be, perhaps, because this was still the traditional text, if in a different language. In fact, it was kind of nice to know that people knew what they were reading...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

High Holidays

So here's the thing about High Holidays in a suburban southern shul if you do not drive and are single: there just isn't much going on.

I should say that people in my new shul are absolutely lovely. They have welcomed me with open arms; many remember only too well what it meant to move here, and they are accustomed to deciphering the south to outsiders. I was immediately invited to meals-a pity I don't drive on Shabbat-and my personal information was filed away for possible shidduchim... some things never change LOL. Down here, affiliation rates are far higher than in the rest of the country, in line with the church-going general society, and the local Jews care about being Jewish, they maintain three shuls, a JCC, a day school, and kosher aisles in at least two supermarkets that sell everything from meat to wine.

Still: Most of the holidays clearly are not that meaningful for a lot of people. On Yom Kippur, the woman sitting next to me told me in detail about her breakfast ("I get a headache without my morning coffee"), the guy in front of me kept checking his phone messages (why bother?). Few go to shul when the holidays fall on week-days. We were maybe 25 on Simchat Torah and Sukkot, and 4 on Hoshanah Rabba (incl. the Rabbi and his wife), one of my favorite holidays. Even on Yom Kippur, shul emptied out way before Neilah [the last service of YK], certainly one of the more beauful and interesting prayers of the entire Jewish liturgy and I am still trying to figure out why people do not come back for Neilah instead of leaving early. The local Reform shul, on the other hand, chose an elegant if strange solution and simply ended Yom Kippur an hour early!

Because of my teaching schedule, I could not spend the holidays with my American family and was stuck here. So what did I do? I invited friends for Rosh Hashanah and cooked every comfort food I could think of: Chicken soup with kneidlach, zchug, round challot, hummus, all kinds of veggies and salads, meat balls, and I would have made more meat but I had not been coordinated enough to order it well in advance. Out of my seven guests, three did not come (some cancelling hours before the dinner, some not at all) but it was great fun when we finally started eating around 9:30. They all forgot to bring their contributions--wine or dessert--but thanks to Tali, we drank fantastic Israeli wine and had fruit for desert. Hmm, this was pretty much it. I went to a Chabbad Sukkot event and walked 3 miles to the sukkah of new friends who thought I was insane to walk. The other days, I hung out in shul and then went home. I am extremely well rested, have read a couple of books and I do not think I've slept this much in years.

Next year, thank goodness, will be different. I won't be new anymore and, hopefully, will be able to go away for at least Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot.

Monday, October 20, 2008

the religious south at work

I finally dug out that USB cable and could download some photos from my camera. This is what someone was handing out on the second day of class, and on campus. And no, the guy was dead serious:

no words necessary....

this is in the mall up the street from where I live...

Muhammad Ali and religious studies

Today, one of the students in my lecture class gave a presentation on Muhammad Ali. In his deep-south intonation, he spoke enthusiastically about Ali's successes as a boxer ("The Jungle Rumble! Thrilla in Manila!") and his status as a mainstream superstar that I hadn't been that aware of. I learnt, for instance, that Ali had a reach of 78.8 inches and a ration of 100:5 in his amateur fights which, even I understood, was phenomenal.

The point of the presentation was of course Ali's conversion, first to the Nation of Islam and then to Sunni Islam, but the guys got all excited about his boxing record and as I am a bit tired out from teaching during the chaggim, I let them run with it for far too long. The marines started discussing why and how he could have received a presidential medal although he had refused to serve in Vietnam (Ali was pardoned in 1971). In honor of the occasion, some of the deep sleepers emerged from their stupor, while the women, strangely and entirely uncharacteristically, remained silent. From boxing, they moved on to Ali's take on jihad which made me very happy because this was also one of today's topics: jihad in the Qur'an, in English parlance, the hijacking of the term by mujahaddin and western journalists and what that meant for the term today etc... For many, the stark multivalence of terms such as jihad is difficult to grasp and I cannot decide if this complexity is only tough for teenagers or compounded by the south where, religiously and in theory, a lot is seen much more clear-cut then elsewhere. We'll see how they do in their quizz on Islam on Friday. I'm expecting some gems!

Here is Muhammad Ali, already marked by Parkinson, lighting the torch:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

buying a car in a strange place

Step 1: Obtaining a driver's license. I do not have an American license and as I hate tests (at least when I can't hand them out myself), I was delighted to find out this state recognized my countries' license. I only had to have it transferred and was told to bring in:
- my original Social Security Card
- a (very) current letter from the Visa people to prove that I was indeed legally employed and in possession of a valid visa (did I note that my state has one of the toughed anti-immigration laws?)
- my original driver's license
- a certified translation (a high school teacher would do)

I ran into my first problem, sorry, challenge, when the visa people at school whom I already know by name noticed that I was lacking a tiny slip of a paper I was apparently given at the American Consulate in Jerusalem, a disingenuous-looking little thing that looked as if a ten-year old could photo shop it:

When I couldn't find it, I was told that it would take a year and $400 to get a new one. In the meantime, I would not be able to get a license, nor, one added to scare me into searching harder, be able to leave the country. Needless to say, I panicked and eventually dug it out from underneath some heap of paper. I went back to the visa people and received my precious letter.
Next came the translation. I translated my driver's license and sent it to a friend in NYC who asked another friend to (truthfully!) confirm that he spoke my language. Ok. He gave me my letter when I was in NY but, unfortunately, forgot to sign it. After some two weeks, the second copy of his letter finally reached me and my Brooklyn-born rosary-toting Jewish cabdriver took me to the one DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles: taking care of everything from licensing to voter registration takes place) dealing with foreign licenses where I was told that I was still missing a form that had to be signed by my translator. I briefly contemplated faking it but thanks to the internet and cellphones, that signature reached me two days later.

Step 2: Taking driving lessons. I hadn't driven in 15 years and was terrified to hit the road again. It took me a while to find a teacher who was ready to take me on, maybe because wasn't providing enough income. My instructor was a tough-talking former waitress/ bank teller whom I couldn't understand for the first 30 minutes (and vice versa). Here, classes last a minimum of 2 hours and I ended up taking a total of four hours. It was fun, mostly, and to my surprise, I could still drive and even parallel park on the first try. I picked up the few American oddities, such as using the median, this scary yet useful middle lane used for left turns, learned to briefly stop when parallel-parking instead of rolling right into my space, and how to park in an incline. Turns out that Americans don't like using the handbrake, for some strange reasons.

Step 3: Choosing a car. That one was easy. I knew I wanted a small, energy-efficient vehicle. Unfortunately, none of the small cars I was familiar with exist in this country because the local safety guidelines necessitate comprehensive changes, essentially canceling out the energy-efficient traits of most European car, let alone the profit-margin. I thought about a used car but decided that I was not ready to haggle and began to make internet inquiries at several car dealerships who got back to me pronto--long live American business sense!

Step 4: Obtaining a loan. I applied online at my bank and played phone-tag with my loan officer for a few days. Once I managed to talk to her in person, she gave me a nice quote before telling me what I had been waiting for all along: that I was not eligible for a loan because I had no Greencard. Great.

Step 5: Buying the car.
My Dad came to visit me last week. He arrived right after Yom Kippur and on Friday, we went shopping. We hit a few used car lots, without success, and had a few close encounters with scary car dealers.

Once at the car dealership I had been in touch with beforehand, things moved surprisingly fast. I knew what I wanted (a basic model Honda Fit with a remote opener which is not standard here) and that was it. My agent, Angela, must have been a novice, she pushed virtually nothing on us. There was a lot of paper work, and for some strange reason, she regularly disappeared for a few minutes. Our chat with Angela had taken place at a small table, while the financial officer whom I met afterwards resided in his own "sound-proof" glass cubicle. He, too, seemed new at his job and hmmed and ahhed, telling me, in essence, that I didn't have much to offer in terms of sureties (big surprise!) and couldn't expect the interest rate I'd been hoping for--in fact, his was better by .5%.

Step 6: Getting the car. My car wasn't available and had to be ordered. After Sukkot, I called to schedule a shuttle as the agent had told me to do. However, when I made my call, I was told that this was really only applicable when cars where being serviced. When I noted that I was after all picking up a new car, I was again told that this was impossible. I am not sure what I said, but I do remember that I slammed down the receiver after telling the manager that I was almost sorry I'd bought my car at his dealership. Five minutes later, they called and delivered the car to my office. And so, after all this, I could finally hop into my sparkling little car and zip away...

Friday, October 17, 2008

On the Blue Ridge Parkway...

Hemingway in the mall

I GOT MY CAR (more on this tomorrow) and went shopping. Looking around for a road map, I observed a mother and her daughter browsing the fiction section. Mom pulled out The Old Man and the Sea and began to praise the book enthusiastically. The daughter replied: "Oh, I know that one. I've seen it on i-tune!"

Monday, October 13, 2008

tourist information

Looking for antique malls, my Dad went to the local tourist information. The lady working there had no idea what he was talking of (there are quite a few here) but with a wink, she handed him a list of the local tattoo parlors...

taking a trip....

My Dad's visiting and we've been quite busy. I finally bought a car--this, too, was an ordeal and I'll write more on this later, maybe once I actually hold the keys in my hands--and we've been crisscrossing my new home state over the last couple of days. We took a trip up north to the Smokies and spent some leisurely hours on the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway, enjoying the woods in their full Indian summer beauty. Simply gorgeous! Photos will follow.

While this was quite an uplifting drive to take in the middle of the holidays, we also went down to Savannah and took an old highway back home, passing through townlet after townlet of shacks, abandoned houses and many, many rusty trailers and virtually no infrastructure. We were quite shocked to even just drive by so much poverty. In Savannah, I had stood speechless before a photograph showing a man hewing a boat out of a tree trunk, ax in hand--in the year 1936! I had known this was a state with many depressed areas but to SEE them with my own eyes made quite a difference. We drove through what seemed like 100 miles of swamps, clearly inhabited by people who had either nothing, very very little, or quite a bit, perhaps managers of the local timber works who had used the no doubt cheap land prices to put up a mansion in the middle of nowhere. Seeing this at this time of the year and (sort of) in my own backyard, I felt I was given a jarring reminder of our responsibility for those less fortunate--not that I would know what to do, of course...

Chag sameach, wishing everybody who celebrates the holiday a fun Sukkot!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

the perfect southern gentleman

Over kiddush [more or less the chatty time after services in shul], two elderly ladies discuss how couples of their generation shared household chores. Talking about a mutual friend, one tells the other: "O well, you know, her husband was a southern gentleman..."--and I expected her to spin a tale of revolutionary ironing or nappy laundrying--when she continued: "...and he got her a maid right away. She never did a lick of housework!"

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

grading midterms...

Some more pearls of wisdom, although the midterms were--regrettably--rather coherent except for, of course, when they weren't:

Defining the nature of the covenant in pre-modern Judaism, a student wrote:
The covenant was when God promised Moses and his people Israel, as long as he and his people kept the Talmud. The Talmud was the first Hebrew Bible. This occurred after Moses and his people escaped from Egypt.

...another festival is Advent, or atonement. Its the period before Jesus was born.

No comment.

I learned a couple of things from this midterm.

1) I hadn't quite realized how many people feel that the government is infringing on their rights as Christians: quite a few of my students felt that this country has deserted the Christians grounding fathers.

2) I clearly spent too much time on the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent. Their future teachers will no doubt be surprised about their eclectic knowledge and the no doubt gaping holes in many other areas.

3) The importance of botox had escaped me but the ingredients of the drug fascinated my beauty-obsessed students.

4) This student generation has no problems with the presence of gays in their churches, at least in theory.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

my local newspaper

In this week of collapsing banks and markets, my local newspaper had an editorial kvelling about the birth of the writer's second child, reminding us locals in McCain-land that a recession cannot touch the comforts of home and hearth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

walking to shul

I walk to shul. It's not too far (1 1/2 miles, according to googlemaps) and takes about half an hour each way. At least a third of my fellow shulgoers seems to pass by me on their way, judging from their comments: You WALK? Where do you live? You have to move! Some feel guilty for not stopping, others worry that it isn't safe. Still, after only six weeks in town, more people have taken note of me than in my last shul over two years.

There isn't much to see on my walk: a Japanese restaurant, a garden supplies store that also sells "boiled p-nuts", a bank, a police station, and a public library. I cross a leafy neighborhood that was majority Jewish back when (or so I was told) Jews weren't allowed to own property in town. Ironically, these formerly Jewish houses share space with a country club that didn't accept Jews until recently and reportedly still keeps out African-Americans (!). The gardens house exotic plants, for example enormous rubber trees. In my childhood, they were sorry-looking and populated dusty offices but here, they are impressive creatures with glossy leaves, and I can't get over how big they are.

The foot traffic on my five-lane street, by the way, is so light that this morning, when I took the shortcut by the garden store for the umpteenth time this week, the owner invited me to run in his store because it was cooler!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

shanah tovah!

Have you sent a card out yet? Well, get to it, then! Shanah tovah!

Send this eCard !

Blasphemy in the classroom

Sometimes I think it's good that my student can't see how my chin is hitting the ground so hard that it's practically trailing behind me.

The other day, we watched Jesus Christ Superstar to talk about stereotypes in main stream media. I had planned to use Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, mostly, because some students had repeatedly stressed how deeply meaningful this movie was to them as a faithful account of 'what really happened'... But my school owns no copy and I didn't want to enrich Mel, so I went back to an old favorite of mine, Jesus Christ Superstar:

When I walked into the room, I had a fleeting feeling that this might turn out to be a really bad idea. Sure enough, there was barely a giggle--and who could watch Herod's dance with a straight face!--and one student immediately responded: "It's blasphemy! The film maker can't have been a Christian!" So, okay, I lied and told her he was. After some hesitation, others chimed in, confirming my suspicion that at least a third of them is far less religious than they let on, and they started pointing out the priests' black clothes and outlandish headgear, the pudgy supergay Herod as a representation of Jewish power etc. Nobody, however, remarked on the most obvious problems: the choice to depict Judas as a highly sexualized black guy and Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed and well, Jesus-like (and sexless) figure. When I raised the question of Jesus as a blond man, one of the African-American students looked at me and responded: But that's how he's been presented to us. Seriously?! What do they do in their churches? Hold hands, promise abstinence, and pray for world peace?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Saints and abstinence

Last Friday, a student gave a presentation on Simon Stylites, one of my favorite saints, immortalized by Bunuel. 37 years on top of a pillar! Students usually love him. This one started with a (to me) novel explanation of asceticism: You know, it's like abstinence, when you promise not to have sex before marriage. All nodded in agreement and once more, my chin hit the ground. He also compared Simon to the Seventh Day Adventists, another example that wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years, maybe, because I know so little about the Adventists... They went on to discuss if Simon had really done the Lord's work ("Jesus says in Luke: Go out to the world...") and after hearing a bit more about the desert fathers they agreed that in fact, he had. I'm glad they liked him, too, if for completely different reasons!

Here is Simon with some of his buddies, note Onouphrious who wore nothing but his hair for forty years (!)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This city's cab drivers

Still without a car, I have gotten to know my city's cab drivers, all three of them, quite well. The first couldn't find the main street bordering the university and went to the library instead. One, a former Brooklynite, pulled out photocopies of Civil War photographs. The third guy never showed up. Another, an older man, told me segregation stories, virtually bursting from excitement and pride when Obama was nominated--once he'd figured out I wasn't a Republican. One asked me if I knew the fastest way home from the airport (my response: No, but if you take the long way, I'll be annoyed). This was about five minutes before his cab broke down in the dead of the night on a deserted six-lane street. Of course, I immediately called a friend to make sure people would know where to start looking for my body.

What a relief then to be in NY for a week-end where you can flag down a cab instead of waiting at a corner for a half hour for a no-show and, best: I understand the drivers, or at least at a higher rate than here. This time, the cab driver taking me to a friend's wedding in New York asked me happily if I, too, was going to "the wedding". It turned out on the previous day, he'd driven out one of the musicians who'd gotten the time wrong. And when I meant that she should have known that Jewish weddings rarely take place on Shabbat, he smiled and said: Well, I knew that, but I wasn't gonna tell her, was I? Besides, you know, sometimes, they have a Bar or Bas Mitzvah, and then they do have musicians, too, sometimes... Oh, how I felt homesick for the Big Apple at that moment!

Today was another big cab day. I had to go to the DMV to hand in the impressive pile of documents necessary to get my license transferred (not yet! still missing one signature), then home and back to school. When I climed into the cab, I noticed that this one had a rather nice wooden rosary hanging from the rear mirror, a rare sight here. The driver was also unusually jumpy for a southerner, and, sure enough, turned out to be from Brooklyn. After hearing that I was new in town and in a slight non sequitur, he announced that Tuesday would be a big day for the Jews: It'll be Rosh Hashoneh, you know. When I responded that my students would be completely unfamiliar with the term, he exclaimed: They never heard from Rosh Hashone? They must not be from New York. Then he told me about his Jewish mother (hence the Yiddish pronounciation), and his love for the Church ("It's not too big, but I dig it"), pointing out this or that church on the way.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

why do jews dance polka?

I know this is absolutely haram, but I just finished grading my students' quizzes on Judaism and can't resist spreading the joy. Priceless!

Rabi Akiva was the man revealed to Moses by God who sat in the 7th row of the Academy. He was later seen as meat being weighed at a butcher shop and when Moses questioned God, God said something along the lines of "I saw it in my mind and it was so." (this is actually quite an accurate account, but hilarious as a definition of R. Akiva)

Moses Maimonides--philosopher, German, taught Yom Kippur traditions.
--man who led them out of Egypt and receive the ten commandments
--was given the ten commandments. He is well respected in the Jewish cultural and believed to have contact with God himself. (Oh well, from Moses to Moses...)

Bat Mitzvah--coming of age at 13 yrs old, first haircut, reading of "Torah" (some students include: Oral Torah). Huge celebration, get together and have a great time with tradition.

Yom Kippur - drink and get get together for a nice dinner.

Oral Torah - tongues (as a friend noted: there's a dirty joke in there somewhere)

Siddur - a robe of sort that a man wears at his wedding and his funeral. It is usually a wedding present from his wife. (The same student continues:) Kashrut - or maybe this one is a robe worn at the wedding and funeral? I think it's either this one or the "Sidder".

The covenant is a Jewish holiday.

And the polka question? I have no idea but it came right after "Are Jews for Jesus Jewish?" (good question!)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

southern Jews

I think Jews here are accustomed to living undercover, surrounded by a total ignorance of Jewish life and in a very conservative and decidedly Christian culture. Maybe this is why they seem genuinely excited about all the changes they see going on at the moment, it's a kind of communal coming-out. And, indeed, for a mere 10,000 Jews statewide, this community has achieved a lot. In my city of 3000 Jews alone, at least two supermarket have sizeable kosher sections, there are several shuls, a day school, and we even have a brandnew JCC. True, the latter is at least 70% non-Jewish, but that just makes it more Jewish in my eyes. What JCC is still majority Jewish nowadays anyway?

Today, the Yidden turned up for a Jewish-themed lecture, some looking decidedly old-world in their suits with their New York accents, or without: "Ah thenk mah fahmily came here in 1890...", leaving with rather academic books in hand, with a genuine hunger for Jewish knowledge. Having spent just a month here, I cannot imagine what it means to be biblebelted in the long run, but judging by my students who don't know from bagel & lox (!!), it must have been tough. Still, even the kids are trying: today, we had a presentation on Yom Kippur in my intro class. The students had never heard of the Day of Atonement ("atonement from what, professor?"), but here they were, talking about kittels as if they'd been born wearing them, describing rituals, texts, and bringing in home-made Yom Kippur booklets as handouts...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What do College professors do?

Here's a great letter from Notorious PhD telling us. Thanks, Girl Scholar!

the domestic wildlife

Every night this last month, my flatmate, a well-sized palmetto bug, would zip through through the bathroom to wave me good night. Of course, he could be many, but I preferred to think of him as a survivor of chemical warfare. Last Thursday morning, I found my neighbor, belly up, between the toilet bowl and the sink and by the time I was awake enough to pick him up without turning green, he was gone. I briefly worried and wondered what had happened. Cannibalism? Or maybe he wasn't dead after all and had gone to visit his buddies down by the pool, rustling contently in the leaves...
Anyway, a few hours later I found him in the middle of the living room and when I picked him up, he wriggled between my fingers. Of course, I shrieked, dropped the thing and decided to wait until after I’d returned from my trip to New York. On Monday morning, strengthened by a healthy dose of NY resolve, I slipped into a shoe to step on him before disposing of the carcass--just to be on the safe side--but instead, my toes crunched a roach that had apparently moved into my left shoe... by the time the spray guy came for his monthly tour of my apartment, I basically rolled out the red carpet for him and knew it was time to go out and buy some cans of DDT or whatever its 21st century equivalent might be.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

that intro class again

Today was "show and tell" in my intro class, and I brought in a ton of books, some volumes of the Talmud, Mishnah, Siddurim, Haggadot... the mamouth-size Talmud, a gift from Rob, was a smashing success... They were fascinated by the books but I do not think they are learning much. I picked the wrong teaching book, for starters and will, next time I teach this class, switch to that absolutely awful chatty book the students love, maybe they'd even read it. Secondly, I don't know how to relate to them and their experience of growing up in the south. I set up a website with links and video clips but they don't go there either. Hmm.

Friday, August 29, 2008

this morning

Today, this man stopped me and asked: "Did you just see a tohr to by?" which, in my mind, obviously turned into "Did you just see a Torah go by?" I mean, it happens. But of course, he was looking for his campus TOUR...

I am teaching an intro-level class and am having some trouble reaching my students. I decided to throw my lectures out of the window and to concentrate on one single aspect per lecture, cutting down drastically what I am talking about. My students are bright, but seeing that most of them are religiously conservative, I think I need a new approach. It will take me some time, but today I started with Rabbinic culture and the story of R. Akiva's crowns. It's a favorite of many teachers because it can be taken as an example for Rabbinic attitudes toward authority and the connection to Moshe, and especially the rabbis' acute awareness of the difference between Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism.

But we also read the narrative of the oven of Aknai, and this one really rattled them. The story of Moshe and R. Akiva was strange, in spite of the lovely detail of a Torah scroll I'd pasted next to their text. ("Meat in a butcher shop???! How did they know it was R. Akiva?") But here, it was God Himself speaking, how could the rabbis not drop everything and obey? I had a ball watching them grapple with this different way of approaching text, authority, and the divine. 0:1 for me. This time at least.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

taking the bus

I must be the only faculty member using public transport here. Not that the system is so terrible: the buses are nice, small, air-conditioned, run about once an hour, and mostly show up within 10 minutes of their scheduled time of arrival, give or take. It is a snap to get downtown, and the system would be really great if the buses were coordinated which they aren't, because, as someone put it to me, it "aint no lawyers and stuff taking those buses." As it is, I usually end up walking the last ten blocks or so which is fine before 8 a.m. and a bit tougher at 2 p.m. My new acquaintances here are everything from horrified to fascinated that I get by at all and have been taking me home so often I stopped counting. I usually take the bus in between 7 and 8 in the morning, catching a ride back between 6 and 8 (it stops running around 9). I know the three bus drivers on that route, and, by now, a good part of the passengers, too, although as a bloody foreigner, I am still regarded with some suspicion. They seem to be mostly pensioners, home assistants, hotel workers, foreign students, young families... all struggling to get by and, like me, grateful for the existence of this rather pitiful $1 bus-a-ride system. In contrast to New York or Icy City, people here are talkative in public spaces. Many greet each other by name, they chat about vacation days, work, kids, crime--but no religion, politics, or finances, EVER.... this morning, for example, I was waiting for talk to turn to the Convention, but: not a peep. But maybe that'll be different tomorrow morning, after Obama's speech.

Ok, this was written in the morning, after I caught a connecting bus and reached my office in under 30 minutes, a new record. In the evening, however, I missed the bus by a minute, or perhaps it didn't come--there is a major game going on tonight and the city "center" was completely dead--and then the cab didn't show either. Finally, a colleague rescued me, but while I was waiting for my ride, I suddenly felt little pricks all over my legs. Couldn't see a thing, but once I removed my sunglasses, I noticed little black dots climbing up my legs, feasting perhaps on an impressive layer of sweat. Agh! Were those fireants? Whatever they were, they were biting me, reminding me of the nettles that would hit our legs as kids when we were playing in the woods.

Monday, August 25, 2008

the weather

Everybody told me it would be hot. My colleagues prophesied I would just melt away and yearn for the winters I lived through in that Icy City. And, true to form, it was 100F at 9 p.m. when I landed again two weeks ago. But since then, it's been fine except for the humidity, about 93% today and rarely below 85%. And today, on my way to school, I finally remembered where I'd encountered this thick air before and I was again in the orangerie in my little town. Always a magical place... who would have thought I'd ever live in such a climate?!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

panic attack

So I just finished the first batch of my student's reaction papers. Wow! This is an honor's class, and the discussion was just fine last week. So, now I just read that Judaism and Islam were founded through human intermediaries (as opposed to Christianity, I assume). Judaism, I learned, relies on teaching & laws from men who were intermediaries between God & men (!). Islam, on the other hand, was founded because Mohammad said he was an intermediary between God & men. (!) Now what do I do? I'm not teaching an intro to world religions...

my Oma

Advising me on cars--Honda Fit (Jazz) vs. Toyota Yaris--my Dad just informed me that his mother, my grandmother, fell a few weeks ago. She only broke a couple of ribs, but she was pretty confused when he visited her in the hospital, so that his wife very quickly found her a room in an assisted living facility nearby. She is well over 90, and her apartment will be dissolved within the next few weeks.

My Oma and I do not get along. She never was a warm person, and even my mother's admonitions that she "just can't help it. She had a tough life" never made me like her. Yeah, she had a tough life, but so did millions of others who lived through the war. It's true, it probably wasn't much fun to raise a kid (my Dad) as a divorcee in the prude post-war period. Still... in some ways, she lived a very emancipated life. She bought an apartment, and she spent her last decades cruising the world--literally. When I was a kid, she constantly seemed to be on the go to some outlandish place, traveling in these scary buses and sleeping in coffin-like beds onboard. We never had much of a connection and now, it seems, we never will.

Oh, and the woman in the picture is not my Oma, but she might as well be.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

new beginnings

I don't even know where to start. EVERYTHING seems to be different here in the Deep South, even if mass media and chain stores soften the worst culture shock. A few highlights perhaps, to start out with.

My first days at school
We started last Thursday, a week before Labor Day, why, I do not know. I am still not "in the system." Our fabulous administrator managed to get me temp IDs for pretty much everything from library to Blackboard. At the same time, I am freaked out every time I am trying to enter my SSN to see if I am in the "system", so Orwellian, and incredulous at the same time that they are really still asking for my SSN...

My office is fabulously beautiful, I can see a couple of old trees and a bit of sky, it's large, too, with an extra work area for research, a sitting area for visiting students, and the biggest desk I've ever had. Built-in book cases cover most walls floor-to-ceiling, and my books do not even fill a quarter of the shelf space. Yay!

I am teaching a survey and an upper-level seminar and in both classes, my students behaved as expected: sullen in the survey and interested in the latter. While my deepest fears--that I won't understand my students--have not (yet!) come true, I am constantly reminded of the very different student body. They really are more religious, more isolated from the world, and far more ready to shed any vestiges of PC behavior they might have had. A colleague asked her students to jot down some ideas about Jewish humor. The responses: money-hungry, cheap, ugly... My students talked a lot about the "morals" that religion brought about. Hmm.

Jews at school
My school managed to schedule the meet & greet for the new faculty families on Yom Kippur and when I gently complained, I was informed that the event had been moved--to erev Yom Kippur. I guess they will have a steep learning curve! The Jewish holidays are not listed among the "please do not schedule exams today" days which did not stop me to cancel class three times.

But my biggest reminder that things are different here took place at a faculty dinner in a colleague's house last week. Held in honor of the incoming grad students in a truly lovely southern house, we were sitting around, chatting idly when, suddenly, all got up, my neighbors took hold of my hands and proceeded to sing grace before meals. This was not considered a Christian affair, as I was informed, presumably because Jesus was not mentioned. Next time, I will offer to say the grace AFTER meals, hehe...

Anyway, in addition to living here, I am hereby resolving to
* work out in the gym downstairs to lose all that dissertation weight, or at least some of it.
* work regularly on my book. Oy.
* drive regularly. Not that that is a stretch here, the locals basically live in their cars and after taking the bus these last weeks, I know why.
* stay in touch with my friends.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A woman in hijab stopped to let me cross the street. I noted that instead of a license plate, her car sported this white crescent plus palm tree on blue and I thought: "How nice that she customized her car." It was, as I learned a bit later, the state flag...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

a new language

Day Zero.

I'm traveling to my new home town. As it turns out, I travel alone, my bag manages to stay behind somewhere, providing endless joys at the phone. At one point, literally the only word I can make out is "bag", but, luckily, the collegue I'm staying with doesn't mind translating.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I landed last night and took the first opportunity to try out my new name in the cab. It went down very well! The driver, "Jack", whose name was helpfully inked into his arm, regaled me with lengthy stories about his army stint in Vietnam and Germany and with local tidbits ("32,000 recruits are cycling through here at any given moment" "they are sending THOUSANDS of people here from DC"). He even pulled out a photo of the city, post-Sherman while driving ("he destroyed everything, everything!" He might have told me more, but that's all I could understand.

My first day in my new dept. My office is not ready (of course) but it has two (!!!) windows, I get to pick the color for its walls and to choose new furniture.

It's shocking to meet polite people and a good thing my Mom isn't around to see that I forgot all she ever taught me. I misunderstand when someone pulls back a chair for me. I plop down on the opposite chair, watching him watch me sit down. Ooops! Of course, if he'd been the average New Yorker, he would have thought I was totally rude if I'd sitten down in his place. And I need to get used to staying in the car until the door is opened and no, this wasn't a date and no, we're not in Europe.