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Below are 20 journal entries, after skipping by the 20 most recent ones recorded in Josh's LiveJournal:

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Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
10:18 am
Man, I remember back in the day when shitty LJ redesigns actually affected my life, actually bothered me enough to matter.

Good times.

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Wednesday, December 14th, 2011
10:29 am
Recently I've been worrying about:
1. The government's unwillingness to actually do what economists tell them they need to do to fix our broken country and to take care of people who need help

2. The fact that the Senate is too dysfunctional to do anything at all

3. The possibility that the Republicans might actually nominate someone electable (and all non-incumbents will be pretty electable in 2012 due to #1 and #2 above, as well as due to the European debt crisis, which is kind of #3b on this list)

4. Google suspending people's accounts for no reason

5. Brain aneurisms

6. Police brutality

7. A cold winter

8. The environment being destroyed, thus ruining everything for the next generation

9. The hasty arrival of the next generation before I'm ready, in the form of all my pregnant friends

So how are you?

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Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
8:38 am
lyrics meme
Because I really can never get enough of it. Not that many of you read this journal anyway, but dammit, I don't care!

Below are the first lines of twenty songs picked kind of at random from my music collection (or sometimes second lines if the first line is a giveaway). Comment with the artist/song for the ones you know, and the one who gets the most right wins the top prize: pride at getting the most right.

Comments screened. Google is cheating.

1. Movin' to the country, gonna eat a lot.
2. Hunger and the lights are off, honey. Trying to find my head. Don't recall lying down in this black bed.
3. Dance your cares away.
4. I thought the ghost was starting to fade. It hadn't haunted me in days.
5. I liked the way my hand looked on your head.
6. My little dog ran away the other day. Yeah, yeah.
7. This here is the place where I will be staying. There isn't a number; you can call the pay phone.
8. I'm me, me be. Goddamn, I am. I can, sing and here me, know me.
9. Behind her eyes there's curtains, and they've been closed to hide the flames.
10. That young boy without a name, anywhere I'd know his face. In this city the kid's my favorite.
11. I'm undecided about you again. Mightn't be right that you're not here.
12. I wanna see him. I wanna wish him luck. I wanna shake his hand, wanna call his name.
13. I'm suffering lonely ones too, and I can't resist sending this on a whim.
14. Did you hear about the elephant? Ran wild from the circus tent, killed a crowd of ten, before they shot him dead.
15. Well women and children need kisses, not the man in my life I know. And I been going to mystery misses; I respect the art of the show.
16. One dream one soul, one prize, one goal, one golden glance of what should be.
17. For every calm there is a storm, but it is often out of view. It changes paths, it changes forms, just like our souls, like they often do.
18. See this ancient river bed. See where all my follies led.
19. Hey there little man. Get out of my frying pan.
20. Pistol shots. Gun shots. Pistol shots. Gun shots. Bullets from a revolver. Bullets from a gun.

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Wednesday, November 16th, 2011
9:40 am
So with the promotion I got gradually over the past 6 months or so, one of my responsibilities, as of a month ago, is teaching a technical class to other folks in my department and 2 related departments. The proprietary system we all program in is really esoteric, with a bunch of strange and confusing aspects that have built up over the years. Newer features make more sense and are easier for people with programming backgrounds to understand, but they're still often complicated. Older features are just plain ridiculous. Those of us who have been here awhile have gotten used to these quirks, and were around for the creation of many of them, but the majority of folks in these 3 departments have been around for 2 years or less. So they gotta learn (and old timers may need refreshers), and classroom-style learning is an important component of that learning that was missing.

Now, I should point out that teaching kind of terrifies me. I imagine this is relatively common in the world at large, but not in my circles. For many of my friends, teaching Hebrew School or doing bar/t mitzvah tutoring is a good default part-time job to get if they need a little more money. Many of those same folks regularly give d'var torahs ("word of torah", basically a short teaching on a Jewish topic, often given during Shabbat services at places where a full-fledged sermon would be out of place) without it being an issue. They might teach 1-hour workshops or 6-hour (over 4 days) classes at learning-based Jewish retreats I go to. Not to mention the people employed full-time as teachers! I don't do any of those things; they all intimidate me a lot. Often I feel like I don't know enough to teach about anything. Often (especially when it comes to teaching kids) I know that I know enough, but I still worry about filling up the time, moving too fast, controlling the class (yes, less relevant for adults), and so on. It's a hard job, and I have a ton of respect for people who do it for a living.

Before last month, I've had 2 main teaching experiences in my life. This got long.Collapse )

Anyway. I was really nervous for the first class at work 3 weeks ago. The class existed in a previous incarnation years ago (taught by the people who were writing the system features, not those of us who design and implement their use), and one complaint I had was that the examples were under-prepared. So I went whole-hog, spending a good day and a half preparing what I was going to say and which examples (taken from our real code rather than made-up) I was going to use. I spent a ton of time on it and I was really nervous, even though it was all material I knew very well. And even though I was only teaching for half of the 1-hour block; my plan has been to have different people teach different topics.

So it went really well. As did the 2nd class (when I again taught about half the time) and the 3rd (where I planned the lesson but didn't teach at all). I started getting less nervous.

Yesterday was the 4th class, and I didn't spend as much time preparing. I think I was still prepared enough, but I also think the class went terribly. The concept I was teaching was much more complicated than I realized, and I lost people early on. I tried to make up for it by making it more interactive, calling on people to explain the next step rather than just explaining it myself. But the same few people (most of whom have been here for years, like me) kept volunteering to answer, and none of the new people were getting it at all. This may be the nature of the material, that they need to see and try it multiple times before it sinks in, but that's not what I anticipated happening at all. We all left frustrated, I'm sure, and now I'm worried again about next time.

This stuff is hard!

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Tuesday, October 18th, 2011
11:51 am
actualizing TV
I feel like I've finally actualized being the TV addict that part of me has always wanted to be. Here's what I'm watching these days:

Current Dramas
Sherlock (dammit it still counts as current even though there's almost a 2-year gap between seasons)
L&O: SVU (I can't quit you)

Current Comedies
Modern Family
New Girl
2 Broke Girls (at least for one more episode)

Shows I'm Actively Watching Back Seasons Of
In Treatment
Arrested Development
The Wire (on hiatus for now but will start on Season 3 soon)
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (a bit)
[I finally tried Always Sunny, but gave up quickly. Not for me.]

An Approximately Ordered List Of Current Shows I May Try
Big Bang Theory
Person Of Interest
Breaking Bad

Any other suggestions?

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Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
7:20 pm
Explanation of my yeshiva summer to my company
[I spent this summer in Yeshivat Hadar in New York while on sabbatical from work. As part of the sabbatical process, after I returned, I was to explain my sabbatical at an all-staff meeting. I gave that explanation today. Here's what I said.]

Hi. I'm [personal profile] desh, and here's what I did on my summer vacation.

So first of all, I want to start off by apologizing. I don't normally like talking about religion at work very much. I try to never bring it up. So I want to apologize, but this is the one time I'm going to bring it up, especially to anyone who has particular distaste for religion for whatever reason. I'm always happy to talk about it. If you want to ask me and start a conversation, great. But this is the only time I'm going to bring it up.

So I spent two months this summer in the exotic, tropical land of New York City. I attended a yeshiva called Yeshivat Hadar. A yeshiva is an old, traditional model of Jewish learning for its own sake. It's not with a goal of earning a degree or becoming a rabbi or even learning a particular body of work. Learning is considered a value for its own sake. Yeshivas are usually all men; sometimes all women. This is, I think, the only egalitarian, men and women learning together, yeshiva outside of Israel. When I was there for, I did the math, I think 54 hours a week, I was there learning and praying, doing community service, and basically living this lifestyle for two months.

Most mornings, the primary thing we learned, we spent 3 hours or so every morning studying talmud. This is a page of talmud. [Throughout the presentation, a page of gemara, Sanhedrin 45a, was on the projector.] Talmud is a Jewish rabbinic oral tradition, after the bible, that was transmitted orally from scholars to scholars, and was eventually codified and written down about 1500 years ago or so. It's not even in Hebrew. So Hebrew, is, you know...I'm bad at languages. My Hebrew is not very good, even though I've been involved in the Jewish world for a long time. This is mostly in Aramaic, which no one speaks now. It's a dead language. It was the common spoken language among the people who were writing this, but now it's only used for scholarly purposes like learning this. The talmud is giant; I think there's like 2 million words or something in it.

This is one page, though this isn't a page we studied. We studied law regarding self defense when someone is breaking into your home, good Samaritan laws regarding chasing down someone who is pursuing someone else to kill them, and the very problematic law regarding whether it's OK to have your child murdered if he's being disobedient.

[In response to a question "So IS it OK?"] It's complicated. The torah, the bible says "yes". And this spends pages and pages on, "What does 'yes' mean? Can we restrict it?"

The Talmud doesn't codify law at all. It just discusses it, and people weigh in with their opinions, but it doesn't actually finalize what the law is. Jewish law can be analogized to American law, and I spent all summer thinking about: What does the Talmud compare to in American law, with the different texts we have? The best thing I could come up with is the U.S. Federal Code as it applies to things like Medicaid. A lot of us are familiar with this. The Federal Code doesn't talk about implementation rules for Medicaid in particular states. It just sets down guidelines, and the states have to figure out how to implement their laws within those guidelines. So this is kind of that big picture stuff.

[In response to a question "So is the Constitution analogized to the Torah?"] Yes, exactly. It's imperfect, but that's what I've been working on.

So this was our mornings. And then in the afternoons, there were a bunch of other classes. We had more Jewish law, but this time on the more concrete side, the more policy side if you will. And also classes on prayer, music, philosophy, and a whole bunch of other things. There was also a direct service component: Every Wednesday afternoon, we were in a nursing home in New York City visiting residents and interacting with them, having conversations with them. That's the first and most obvious connection that I could think of in terms of how what I did this summer relates to my work here. Just the idea of service to the community.

Some other connections are: In the end, a legal system is a legal system. A set of laws functions like any other set of laws in the world. The analogy I was building before is not just for the sake of argument and explaining to you what Talmud is. Really, studying this is similar in a lot of ways to studying the stuff that the Research department puts out or looking at actual laws, code, and policy. I really think it helped me get a different perspective on the same kind of work that's a part of my job here.

And in terms of the big picture, I really think of Judaism as being primarily about social justice and supporting the underprivileged in our world, and working and advocating for big picture societal justice issues. Which is what we do here.


Q: "It's a system of law without authority, without civil authority."

A: "True. A lot of this, especially the part about killing your disobedient son, probably never had authority at any point in history."

Q: "Can you tell us how to read that thing?"

A: "Very briefly, sure. So the middle section is..." [I don't think it would help anyone much to type this out, but if you really want me to, I can.]

Q: "So this is the original hypertext?"

A: "Maybe the original wiki? It's very much an appropriate analogy"

And several other questions about the talmud itself, the layout and the age and who decided who gets onto the page (esp. stuff on the outside) and who doesn't.

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Monday, October 3rd, 2011
2:43 pm
My Sunday
-- The Eagles lost, looked awful in the process, and their season is likely lost.
+ The lost brought the best Eagles blogger ever out of retirement
-- The Phillies lost a playoff game, keeping me up way too late in the process.
- If the Phils win one and lose one of the next two playoff games, the most important game of the season will fall right in the middle of the most important service of Yom Kippur, the most important day of the Jewish calendar.
++ Managed to wire up my slingbox and a cable box under my bed. Now I can use my slingbox again, without the cable box taking up any usable room anywhere in the increasingly-shrinking apartment. Bonus points for ridiculousness of the setup, and for the $0.95/month subscription fee for an extra cable box with ultra-basic cable service.
+++ Arrested Development is coming back!!!

Net plus!

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Wednesday, September 21st, 2011
11:36 pm
Troy Davis
Troy Davis was executed tonight. Many people believe he was innocent. I didn't really want to post about it at all, but I don't see anyone saying what I want to say, and it's kind of gnawing at me, so I don't think I have any other choice.

I think the US should never execute anyone. It's indefensible financially (it's cheaper to keep someone locked up for life), societally (no other first-world country executes anyone), and morally (for a whole host of reasons, including the horrible racial disparities in executions, the fact that we've made mistakes before and will make them again, the fact that revenge is not an appropriate motivation for punishment, and the fact that I simply don't believe we have the right to deliberately kill anyone).

Any argument you want to make along those lines, I fully support. The death penalty is wrong and should be abolished. Full stop.

I don't know if Troy Davis was innocent. You don't know either. Only a very few people know for sure. The best we as a society can do is use some sort of deliberative process to determine our best guess. In this case, that involves evaluating post-conviction recantations in some way.

Most of the people decrying the execution today on the merits (i.e. that Davis was innocent or deserved a new trial, rather than that all executions are wrong) seem to be implying that no one ever took seriously the recantations or other post-conviction evidence. That's not true. A Federal district court did so, and issued an order upholding the execution. It's here: http://multimedia.savannahnow.com/media/pdfs/DavisRuling082410.pdf . I particularly recommend the last 49 pages, starting at page 126, for a detailed analysis of the recantations and other evidence.

Now, I'm not willing to take a federal judge as the final word. I would love to hear someone who has read and digested the above link explain to me why Davis was "innocent enough" to not be convicted by a jury. The judge says there is still no reasonable doubt. I'd love to hear a response to that.

Instead what I'm hearing is people not acknowledging the above order. Most people probably haven't read it. That's fine. It's long. But I still feel like I haven't heard the rest of the conversation, and I'm not able to form a conclusion on Davis without it.

Have you read the order, and do you have a response to it? Or do you have a link to a blog post responding to it? Please, send it my way. Otherwise, I'm going to continue going on being pretty sure Davis deserved his conviction.

Though he didn't deserve to be executed. No one does. Davis was no different.

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10:34 am
I just found out that my grandfather is going to be honored at Arlington National Cemetery in November. Awesome.

(It's not exactly a funeral, given that he passed away over five years ago and was cremated. But my dad is still taking advantage of the right for veterans to be memorialized there.)

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Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
11:09 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Final Week, Day 3
The schedule today was totally clear: A Tuesday morning schedule, followed by a Wednesday afternoon schedule and a Thursday evening schedule. Of course!

Wednesday afternoon meant the final nursing home visit. These visits never got much easier for me over the summer, and today, when I was preoccupied with other things in my mind, going there was even harder. I've realized that the only way I can visit nursing home residents is by "acting", by deliberately not bringing my whole self to the interaction. Today I was under too much stress to act at all well, so I cut back a lot on the amount of time I usually spend visiting.

In our final post-visit processing discussion group, most of the conversation was focused on what's next. Will we stay in touch with residents we met? Will leaving them be hard? And so on. All of these questions presupposed a sort of bonding with residents that some people definitely experienced, and that I definitely didn't. I wonder: how much of that difference was due to the dumb luck of the people I met and only sort of hit it off with, how much was due to my general reluctance to visit or spend a long time, and how much was specifically due to my choice to "act"? Regardless, my only reflection on this part of the summer was that it was a stressful activity that I'm glad to be done with. Perhaps I should examine further what that means about me, but I'm not particularly inclined to. I'd rather just leave this as something I'm not good at and don't enjoy.

I enjoy most of the rest of the yeshiva experience a lot more, but this conversation, and the fact that we only have a few days left, left me wondering what I'm going to get out of yeshiva as a whole, and whether I had any of this sort of "bonding" with the students, the faculty, the learning, the lifestyle, the dedication, the material we learned, or any of the other aspects of yeshiva I experienced this summer. I'll be thinking about that a lot the next few days, but I don't think I'll have the real answer for at least another couple months, if not a couple years. I'm enjoying myself, for sure, but I don't know what it means yet.

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Tuesday, August 9th, 2011
6:18 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Final Week, Day 2
So. Tisha B'Av. The saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and a full-day fast. We're commemorating the destruction of the two Temples, and lots of other sad stuff. Sad sad sad. Everyone's very sad. You're not supposed to greet friends. Just be sad.

I'm bad at Tisha B'Av. And I like Tisha B'Av. (These go together, because being good at it involves being sad, which is incompatible with liking things.) It's weird; I think I'm too positive of a person to be sad on command. But there's more than that; I find all of the little liturgical and traditional touches to the holiday to all be pointing in a positive direction. And I keep looking for more. Some examples: We don't say tachanun today; it's a supplicatory prayer that's normally only omitted on happy holidays and other positive stretches of calendar, as well as on and around weddings. The liturgy doesn't change that much in other ways, and all of the positive and thankful prayers seem even stronger today. The structure of the evening service in particular is identical to that of the only other two days that biblical selections are chanted in the evening: Purim and Simchat Torah, two of the happiest days in the calendar. The biblical selections that are read throughout the day today all have occasional lines of hope. And, if you're into this sort of thing, the messiah is going to be born, according to tradition, on Tisha b'Av.

I have this metaphor I often use to understand this section of the Jewish calendar. It's like we're on a suspension bridge heading from one year to the next. The bridge starts at 17 Tammuz (a minor fast day 3 weeks ago) and ends at Hoshanah Rabbah (the very, very, very last day of procrastinatory repentance at the end of Sukkot). But the two towers holding everything up are the two fast days, Tisha B'Av (the "sad" one) and Yom Kippur (the happiest day of the calendar). We're now in between the two towers, and on the road to repentance and the year 5772!

Anyway. Last night I had a lovely pre-fast dinner with JA and MR. Then we went to Kehillat Hadar for evening services. One is not supposed to greet people on Tisha B'Av, so little old perky me went around after services saying "Not-Hi!" to amenable people and having friendly conversations, both appropriate to the somber mood of the day and, well, less so. I went home and was thrilled to be able to sleep late, since we started yeshiva late to make the fasting a bit easier. Morning services were odd, because I had trouble relating to all of the "kinot" (elegies about people and things being destroyed) that we sing for an hour. Then there was a 2.5-hour class session, but I had trouble focusing due to the lack of my usual breakfast calories. (Just because fasting is pretty easy for me doesn't mean I don't miss the food...) We let out at 2:30, so I took a lovely nap at home and am now catching up on some email from last week. And getting this blogging done before I head out to a break-fast in an hour or so.

Have a lovely rest of your Tisha B'Av, if you're observing. And, if you have any negative ways to approach today that I may be able to relate to, feel free to share...

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Monday, August 8th, 2011
11:22 pm
Yeshivat Hadar final week, day 1
Reentry from Havurah Institute land. And what a reentry! For the first time in my 10 Institutes, I went back the next day to my (albeit temporary) life of Jewish learning in community. So it wasn't as big of an adjustment as some years. It was made better by how happy many folks were to see me! It was nice to be back.

Many people seemed genuinely interested in how my week was, including a couple of faculty members with whom my past interactions had mainly consisted of me learning from their lectures or asking them questions. Over breakfast and lunch, I summarized a bit of what I learned from Adam's Jewish Geometry class at 'tute: How the rabbis rounded pi to 3 and the square root of 2 to 1.4, but how they seemed to care a lot more about the inaccuracy in the latter than in the former. And how Jews in New York and Philly should possibly face a bit North of East when praying but actually tend to face due East or a bit South. And how Jews in Fairbanks, Alaska should probably either face Southwest or due North, but actually face Southeast!

The rest of the day didn't have much new. Instead of learning new content in talmud, we had a review day. (This was fantastic for me, because I got to hear some of what I missed last week. One thing I missed was my hevrutah! Good to be back!) Instead of halacha class, we had a closing circle meant as a form of group-generated feedback for the faculty. And then we left early for Tisha b'Av. I'll probably write more about 9 Av tomorrow, but suffice it to say, I interact with it weirdly.


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Monday, August 1st, 2011
7:35 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Week 7
...I have no idea. I'm taking a week off of yeshiva to attend the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute 2011. A different kind of all-day Jewish learning community! I'll be back in New York next week for the last week of yeshiva, but I won't be blogging this week. (Or at least not every day and not about Yeshivat Hadar.)

Have a great week!

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Thursday, July 28th, 2011
10:07 pm
August of Awesomeness, version 10
In lieu of my regular yeshiva post today, since my mind is really focused on next week rather than what I'm learning now, I think it's time for an annual tradition on this here blog: A rundown of my ridiculous August.

Let's kick it off.

Friday, July 28th: Picking up my car in New Jersey as its summer vacation comes to an end
Sunday, July 31st: In Philly, moving from one apartment there to another (while still subletting in New York)
Monday, August 1st through Sunday, August 7th: Havurah Institute
Monday, August 8th through Saturday, August 13th: Final week of Yeshivat Hadar in New York
Sunday, August 14th: Move back from New York to Philadelphia, and commence 48 hours of unpacking into the awesome new one bedroom apartment
Wednesday, August 17th through Sunday, August 21st: Philly Folk Fest
Tuesday, August 23rd: Return to work after sabbatical; tell everyone there how many people I met who were floored that I actually have a paid sabbatical at my company; appreciate where I work a lot

I haven't dropped dead from exhaustion yet, so the odds look good for making it through one more summer!

(versions 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1)

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Wednesday, July 27th, 2011
10:02 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Week 6 Day 3
Today at the nursing home, I watched some of the Mets game (rerun) with a resident.  While in his room, I heard his roommate complain about his TV remote not working, and the appropriate people who work there not being able to help.  So when he was in the bathroom, I fixed it.  (Turned the batteries around so they worked, looked up the manual online with the help of nnaylime, and programmed it for his TV.)  The guy was amazed.  Value-added visit!

Earlier, back at yeshiva, I got irrationally angry when someone sat in my makom kavua in the beit midrash (my regular seat in the room where we do all of our partnered learning and some lecture-style learning). We're encouraged to actually grow comfortable with our makom kavua, which plays neatly into my nesting instincts.  So when someone sits in yours, it's considered legitimately annoying, not just annoying to those of us who usually care about such personal-space things.  But I seriously took this out of proportion, and was in a crappy mood for hours.  We'll see if I can steal it back tomorrow, or at least learn to channel emotions into slightly more productive outcomes.

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Tuesday, July 26th, 2011
10:54 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Week 6 Day 2
Two things of note happened today.

First, I had a bit of a mini spiritual crisis during shacharit (morning prayer services) this morning. It went something like this:

"I don't feel like davening (praying). Like, I really don't want to be here right now. This has happened before this summer, but never when I'm actually at yeshiva for services. That's frustrating. Maybe it means I won't be able to keep up the habit of davening every day once yeshiva is over. Wait, why do I want to do that anyway? Why is that important? I'm pretty sure the G-d I believe in is not a G-d I conceive of as having a personal relationship with me, as caring whether I daven. So why am I doing it? I mean, I keep Shabbat and kashrut because I find meaning in them and I like the communal aspects of them, but if davening isn't doing that for me, what's the point? Hey, cool, I'm actually thinking critically about this stuff! Maybe I no longer need to worry that my Jewish practice is based on a house-of-cards of rote behavior, doing things that are fun, and having some vague notion of being obligated that I haven't engaged with critically! Wait, no, that's not true at all. This 'crisis' isn't at all as severe as what my friends mean when they say things like 'I'm angry at G-d'. And I think if I do seriously question my conceptions of obligation and commandedness, then the whole thing might actually come crumbling down. And I don't feel like I'm really in a position where I need to risk that now. I'll get over this by tomorrow. Nevermind. Man, I'm jealous of my friends who are able to have actual spiritual crises; it means they're actually getting to the heart of what they believe and why."

And it won't even take until tomorrow. I had a nice chat with a faculty member who gave me some new frameworks for thinking about daily davening, based on the little I told him about the conception of G-d I have. And I think it helped. So that was nice.

The second interesting thing started out as a purely sad thing. One of the fellows in my program, S, an Israeli, found out that her grandparent passed away today. She wasn't at yeshiva today, but another fellow announced this to the community. The friend said that S had two choices: to stay in New York and not be with her family during this difficult time, or change her return trip to Israel to leave immediately, mourn with her family, and not return to yeshiva. The friend wanted to present S a third choice: If we all contributed $35, we could buy her a round-trip ticket to Israel, enabling her to both spend time with her family and finish out the summer at yeshiva.

I thought this was, to put it mildly, a long shot. But then, a couple of announcements later, they said it happened. The friend who made the announcement bought S a ticket (presumably footing a not-insignificant amount of the balance herself), and there were hundreds of dollars donated (and still more coming in). S is flying out tonight, and will be back next week.

And suddenly, this was a turning point in the summer for me. There are only 2 and a half weeks left, but what we have for those last days is a real community, not just a collection of people together for the summer. And a quite impressive community it is. This one incident will completely change how I look back on the summer.

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Thursday, July 21st, 2011
10:13 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Week 5 Day 4
Not much to say tonight, since I've been behind on sleep all week, and I still have to pack up tonight to spend the weekend in Philly!

Just one quick point: The machshavah (Jewish thought) class switched from Heschel to Soloveitchik this week. And I'm suddenly following things a lot better. It may be that I chatted with the teacher about what my struggles were, but it may be that Heschel just doesn't make that much sense to me at all. Wish I understood him, since so many friends of mine seem to love him, but I just don't get it...

Have a great weekend!

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Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
9:21 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Week 5 Day 3
So leading services is a kind of daunting thing to do. It's essentially a performance. You stand up there, in front of or in the midst of everyone, and sing, chant, and perform the choreography of the service you're leading. Everyone else is following and paying attention to you. The only mitigating factor is that the point isn't to perform. It's to lead the community, who are all also focused on their own prayers, and really ideally not as much on the exact nuances of what you're doing.

Well, in the prayer leading master class today, I didn't have that one mitigating factor. Quite the opposite: I led part of the section of services I've been working on, with the sole goal of everyone critiquing my "performance". It was quite the experience, especially for someone like me, who has no performing arts experience or interest of any kind, with the sole exception of prayer leading. Apparently I did quite well, but I have room to improve in certain nuanced areas I'd never thought of before, and my body language in particular is fidgety and not so strong. I got a lot of helpful feedback, and have a lot more work left to do to perfect this one service.

I love this class so much. I want it to never ever end. I think this is the closest I can ever come to learning and enjoying and appreciating art. I'm so sad that next week is already the last session of the class I can attend.

(And by the way, I led services this past Friday night at a shabbaton (retreat over Shabbat, of which we have 3 in the 8 weekends of the summer), and I'm leading in Philly this Saturday morning. Both of those are services I'm much more familiar and comfortable with than the one I'm working on in class. Last weekend went quite well, and I hope this Saturday does as well. Let me know if you're in town!)

Also, unrelatedly, I re-learned today that the rabbis of the mishna apparently refer to pubic hair as "a beard, but the lower one, not the upper one". You're so glad you know that now, right? You're welcome.

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Tuesday, July 19th, 2011
7:23 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Week 5 Day 2
Most anyone who has met a Jew knows that Yom Kippur is a Jewish fast day. Less known is that there are 5 other fast days: Tisha b'Av, and 4 "minor" fast days. On Yom Kippur and Tisha b'av, one who is fasting refrains from all food and drink for 25 hours, from sunset one day to nightfall the next. On the minor fast days, you only refrain from sunrise to nightfall. (Or, practically speaking, from bedtime the night before, because one may not want to wake up at 4am just to eat breakfast.)

Today is the first minor fast day I'm ever fasting for. It's the 17th of Tammuz. (3 weeks until Tisha b'Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar!!! Woohoo!!!!!)

I never had a good reason for not fasting on the minor fast days before; it always seemed to me to be the biggest gap between Judaism the way I wanted to practice or felt I should practice, and the way I actually did. Interestingly, two days ago, I was reminded that the rabbi who is my yeshiva's chair in Jewish law actually thinks that the minor fast days are optional rather than obligatory in modern times (scroll down to the paragraph beginning "It therefore"). But I decided to fast today anyway, taking this summer in yeshiva as an opportunity to try on mitzvot (commandments) that I've never really tried or taken seriously before. (Plus, everyone else is doing it...) I have, unfortunately, learned today that a "half-day" fast, especially in the summer when it's hot and when sunset is late, is not much easier than a full-day one. And I even had a second dinner and half a gallon of water at 11pm last night!

So we had a short day in yeshiva today. Morning services were at 9:00am and we ended by 2:15pm. (Our usual "short day" of the mid-week, Wednesday, is 8:30-4:00. Tomorrow, though, is a full 7:30-9:00 schedule to make up for lost time.) And, speaking of mitzvot I've never really taken seriously enough before, we had a 3-hour shiur (lecture, in this case interspersed with partnered learning time) on tzedakah (often, though perhaps poorly, translated as "charity"). Tzedakah is a frustrating topic for me for multiple reasons:
  • 10% of your income, even post-tax, is a LOT of money to give up compared to what you might otherwise do and compared to what your peers probably do

  • Jewish life is expensive enough as it is, with communal centers in high cost-of-living areas, expensive kosher food, and for those of us with kids, extremely expensive education

  • Too many conversations on tzedakah end with the moral: "No matter what you're doing, you should do more", which is a guilt-inducing conclusion I've really come to hate

This conversation today raised some interesting questions, but unfortunately didn't deviate from that script enough or reach any of the conclusions I've been wondering about. (For example: I've chosen a job in my profession that pays me less than I could perhaps make elsewhere. I've done this because I like working for a poverty-fighting organization more than a stereotypically money-grubbing company. What effect does this decision have on my 10% tzedakah obligation; does any of the salary I've "given up" count? For another example: rather than calculating 10% of post-tax income, can one count 10% of pre-tax income and subtract the portion of tax money that goes toward certain causes, and if so, which causes and how much does that total?)

I did reach one conclusion that seems valuable, though: If you throw away all of the numbers involved in the tzedakah conversation (10% as a minimum, 20% as a maximum that may have been appropriate in rabbinic times but may be too low now?), it's still the case that the amounts we're talking about are significantly, significantly higher than the 1% (or even much less!) that a lot of people donate to the needy. It's worth having the conversation to push people's usual giving levels significantly higher, whether they reach 10% or 20% or not. If you're in the 1% category (and I probably am), then you've got plenty of room to do better.

Or not. One member of the faculty said to me, after the shiur was over, that he thinks taxes have completely eliminated the obligation for tzedakah. It's an even stronger statement than my wondering about what percentage of taxes "count". More food for thought...

Food. Dammit. I'm thirsty.

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Monday, July 18th, 2011
10:54 pm
Yeshivat Hadar Week 5 Day 1
A few weeks before yeshiva started this summer, I had a diagnostic/placement test over the phone with one of the faculty members. I was emailed a scanned page from the talmud, and I spent about 15 minutes reading from it and translating (with help, where needed). Even though the part I read was just Hebrew, with no Aramaic, I struggled a lot. Due to not having the best quality scan or monitor, I even misidentified some of the letters, which was embarrassing (albeit solely a product of the circumstances). I was able to identify parts of speech and the roots of many words, but couldn't translate almost any of them.

Today I had my mid-summer diagnostic. I sat down across from the teacher of my talmud level. I read for her and translated a line of mishna (which is usually in relatively easy Hebrew), a line of Rashi (a prolific commentator, whose commentaries are often in easy Hebrew but are always written in a different script, such that some letters look completely different from conventional Hebrew orthography), and a line of gemara (at least nominally in Aramaic), all on the same topic. I didn't understand every word, but I understood most of them. Even if I couldn't quite figure out how all the words fit together (the talmud is written quite concisely and idiomatically, and missing one longer word might mean missing the whole meaning of a clause, or missing one shorter particle might mean missing the idiom that contextualizes the whole passage), I was still moving through. I was quite proud of myself!

After that, I asked her a bit about how I could actually continue learning talmud on my own after the summer, given that learning without a translation only seems viable in an environment where multiple talented teachers are wandering around waiting to be asked questions or hand you sheets with guiding questions. She promised to address that in class soon. But regardless of the answer, it's clear that I've gained some skills so far this summer.

Later in the afternoon, I went to a one-off session on tefillin, taught by 3 women and geared primarily toward the question of women wearing tefillin. (Even in egalitarian environments where women are permitted and even expected* to perform all of the rituals and fulfill all of the obligations that men are, tefillin still are worn significantly less by women than men. Much more so than many other rituals that women in Orthodox communities don't perform.) I really enjoyed the session in part because I like topics on practical halacha (Jewish law) and in part because I like talking about gender in general and Jewish gender egalitarianism in particular, but mainly because two of the three teachers are the two faculty members I've been friends with for about 10 years. It's so wonderful to be in this great learning environment with them, and even better that they're faculty and it's clear that I have so much to learn from these people close to me!

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