For Relief of Unbearable Urges

In response to Prentiss’ comments about the review of Ladies’ Auxiliary:
I’d love to read a review of Ladies Auxiliary by a gentile who’d grown up in a small southern town, with a culture of clan loyalty and fear of strangers; who was able to untease the aspects of the book that were commmon to southern small-town culture, and those that were distinctive to the Jewish culture in the story.
Yes, I read For Relief of Unbearable Urges for a book club. There were similarities in the themes — characters tempted both into and out of traditional Judaism. For the teenage girls in “Ladies Auxiliary”, the attraction is a combination of cultural freedom and sexuality — longing to have a prom, wear tantalizing dresses, have parties with boys and alcohol; the classic American dream of driving away. In “Unbearable Urges”, the yearning is named in the title — the urge to break out of the pattern of life — a WASP stockbroker driven by the urge to be Jewish; a wigmaker obsessed with the desire to to obtain the beautiful hair of a delivery man, to make a wig that would make her young and sexy again.
Englander is obsessed with discontinuity; Ladies Auxiliary lingers at the borders — the woman who wears culottes to tweak the “skirts-only” rule; the woman who keeps shrimp salad in the freezer, the woman who is not observant but makes Jewish food on holidays in an appeal to be considered a community member. The convert in Ladies’ Auxiliary leaves her secular life, but brings her beliefs in art and personal spirituality with her.
And yes, books are very different in tone. Englander’s comedy has a dark core; he writes from a spirit of modern literary alienation. The core relationships are broken; the wasp stockbroker convert and his uncomprehending wife; the wigmaker alienated from her husband, the mentally ill man whose wife runs out of forbearance. The Ladies Auxiliary comes from a tradition of sentimental women’s novels; and is full of little melodramatic subplots saturated in social context; the unconsummated attraction between the convert and the Rabbi’s son; the convert’s mentorship of the rebellious girls; the climatic ladies auxiliary meeting; the compassion of the Rabbi’s wife for the young stranger.
England is literary in a way that Mirvis is not; it’s hard to say whether that says something about the quality of the books, or about current segmentation of high and low culture.

The Red Tent

On my cousin Nina’s recommendation, I read The Red Tent. The Red Tent is a best-selling historical novel telling the story of the biblical Dinah, the daughter of Jacob who’s a marginal character in the Genesis story.
The Red Tent is a novelization of now-familiar feminist readings of Genesis, found in quasi-scholarly works like Sarah the Priestess, by Savina Teuval; decent scholarly works, like In the Wake of the Goddesses, by Tikvah Frymer-Kensky; and contemporary traditions developed in communal, non-academic settings.

Continue reading “The Red Tent”

Rereading Pushkin

Recently reread Eugene Onegin (Johnson’s translation on the shelf).
The language is still captivating and charming; I still think it would be worth learning Russian to read the original. When I read Onegin as a college student I was intoxicated by the poetry, even in translation.
I don’t get quite so drunk by the music, but I understand more of the prose. Reading Onegin, one can guess that the poet didn’t have a great desire to live past forty. The attraction of life is the thrill and passion of adolescence; nothing of value in grownup life but boredom and decay.
With fancier clothes and riskier sports, it’s the American teen ballad; the middlebrow 70s/80s versions I know are Brenda and Eddie; Jack and Diane; feel free to cite the originals that I know the copies of.
I understood and liked the conclusion better. Tatyana, at least, has grown up. She chooses to keep her bargain with adult life; she picks integrity and social status over passion. More than that, she understands in retrospect the mismatch between her innocent passion as a girl and Onegin’s rakish flirtation; and the favor Eugene probably did her by turning her down. Yet, she doesn’t give Eugene any credit for learning anything in the intervening years. Not that there is any evidence that Onegin has learned anything; the same self-absorbed fop, fallen victim to a traditional and perverse cupid.
The irony is that Tatyana has diagnosed Eugene’s character from the marginal notes scrawled on the books in his library; yet the literary poses bear the same relationship to essence (if such a thing exists) as the clothes and social drama. Does she assume that the literary poses are the real Eugene, or does she simply choose not to take the risk of measuring the alignment between private writing and reality.
So much for analysis, this still makes me shiver…
Dawn comes in mist and chill; no longer
do fields echo with work and shout;
in pairs, their hunger driving stronger
on the highroad the wolves come out;
the horse gets wind of them and, snorting,
sets the wise traveller cavorting
up the hillside at breakneck pase;
no longer does the herdsman chase
his beasts outside at dawn, nor ringing
at noontime does his horn resound
as it assembles them around
while in the hut a girl is singing
she spins and, friend of winter nights,
the matchwood chatters as it lights.

California Requires a Voting Receipt

The California Secretary of State recently mandated that evoting machines used in California will need to print a paper receipt that allow voters to verify their votes and auditors to verify election results.
This is a tremendous step forward for safer evoting and a major victory for activists in California.
The need for paper voting receipts is pure common sense. A adversary who is able to modify the results of an election could also modify the electronic logs. Without a paper trail, there’s no way to track or fix things if the system is compromised.
The need for open code and open processes in the voting system is also a matter of common sense.
Try out this sentence: “in a democracy, the voting process should be a secret.” Doesn’t make any sense, does it? Try again: “In a democracy, the voting process conducted with computers should be secret.” Adding computers to the mix doesn’t change the need for an open voting process.
Hopefully the progress in California will provide impetus to activists in other states, and to the Holt Bill in Congress, which mandates these safeguards nationwide.

Nifty community blog navigator

Chip Rosenthal put together an awesome weblog navigator for the Austin metablog. A new, handy sidebar lists the participating bloggers, and can also sort by number of Technorati links, Google Reference count, last posting date, alpha, and more.
Three cheers for open web service APIs, community social software innovation, and Chip.

Austin moments

Classic Austin moment at a Nathan Wilcox brunch on Sunday morning — walked in, to find Jon Lebkowsky, EFF-Austin co-conspirator, deep in conversation with Erik Josowitz, the person who hired me at Vignette and brought me here.
There are two flavors of this classic moment:
1) finding that two people you know from different contexts are old friends going back a decade or two
2) finding that two people you know from different contexts are old enemies going back a decade or two.

Semantic Web aphorisms

from the much-discussed Semantic Web essay
In order for the Semantic web to work, you would need “a world where language is merely math done with words”
“Any attempt at a global ontology is doomed to fail, because meta-data describes a worldview. ”
David Weinberger
I don’t think Clay is arguing that all metadata is bad. Rather, he’s saying that it doesn’t scale. Yes, the insurance industry might be able to construct a taxonomy that works for it, but the Semantic Web goes beyond the local. It talks about how local taxonomies can automagically knit themselves together. The problem with the Semantic Web is, from my point of view, that it can’t scale because taxonomies are tools, not descriptions, and thus don’t knit real well.
Shelley, from Sam Ruby’s comments
There is a big difference between deliberate metadata, and accidental metadata, and if semantic web relied purely on accidental metadata, then we have it — it is called Google.

well, yes, exactly

Ladies Auxiliary

Over the weekend, I read The Ladies Auxiliary, a novel set in the Orthodox community in Memphis.
A young widow moves into town with a young child. Batsheva is a convert whose husband had grown up in the Memphis community. She moves in because she wants to participate and raise her child in the warm, close observant community that her husband grew up in. But she doesn’t fit in. She wears gauzy clothes and bangles. She paints abstract paintings. She sings loudly and with spirit in synagogue. She doesn’t cook. She’s earnest about seeking meanings in Jewish ritual.
After initial caution, the community slowly warms to her, and she’s invited to teach art to the sullen and surly teenage highschool girls. Things go awry when she becomes close to the girls, who are rebelling against the community’s strict norms, and to the Rabbi’s 22-year old son who is having a crisis of faith. The community bands together to blame the outsider for the cracks in the community facade.
The book has an insider’s description of the hybrid styles of Memphis Jewish life — the lavish eastern european/southeastern american cooking, the modest yet ostentatious frum-southern belle dress code. The book portrays the universal insular, gossip-ruled, iron-clad norms of small town life, enforced by particularly Jewish-flavored anxieties about keeping community boundaries by maintaining the appearance of observance, avoiding the “bad influence” of the outside world, and defining parental success by the observance level of their children.
The author’s portrait of the Memphis Jewish women at various, nuanced levels of insider and outsiderhood rings very true to me. There are women who embody and enforce the values; women who live them by subordinating their opinions to the group, and women with unresolved tension about keeping up the appearance of observance, happy family life, and wanting outlets for creativity and initiative. So does the clash between the culturally conservative, emotionally restrained Memphians and the spiritually and culturally expressive and exploratory New York, neo-Hassidic Carlebach community where Batsheva learned her Judaism.
The portrait of the outsider has a bit of insider bias. Batsheva led a geographically and spiritually rootless life before finding Judaism. After conversion, she has little contact with her parents or former friends. Yet she is portrayed as having grace, self-confidence, and the wisdom of her experience and intuitions, though she is rather tone-deaf to her affect on others, and has no political skills other than native trust and friendliness.
A more plausible outsider would either be less emotionally stable — manipulative, mercurial, erratic. Or alternatively, more grounded, with stronger ties to her family, to friends from the Carlebach community, to college and art-world friends; and a few more political skills.
My cousin lives in the Memphis Orthodox community. She recommended the book. I’ll ask her what she thinks. Being a work of fiction, it dramatizes and exaggerates the truth, but the caricature rings true to me.
This portrait of Memphis is why I don’t go there often and don’t stay long. The cultural categories I fit into are “eccentric”; in a community that has little tolerance for eccentricity; and “bad influence”.
Metrics of eccentricity include being a female entrepreneur and political activist, in a world where public life is for men, and women keep to their place, which can include heavy behind-the-scenes influence, but no direct public voice. Female intellectualism is considered quite odd and somewhat absurd. A single woman in her thirties is considered deeply suspicious, or is disregarded entirely.
Metrics of bad influence include friends and associates of various ethnicities, religious and sexual preferences; libertarian principles about others’ choices, and personal religious and sexual preferences that are rather conservative by American coastal norms but radical in the Jewish Bible Belt. OK as long as they’re not spoken in public; you don’t want to stay around long enough to have people find out what you think; or alternately, get in the habit of keeping up appearances.