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!