Saturday, April 25, 2009

Of Sentimentality and Smugitude, or Why I Haven't Written About the Bat Mitzvah

On the day after the bat mitzvah, at some point in our daylong houseful of brunchers, who became lunchers, and then late afternoon snackers, my step-nephew picked up a copy of Anna Karenina, which was being used to prop up a sign for the arts-and-crafts store next to the dining room table, and remarked upon what a great first line it has.

I thought, for most of the week, that this was why I felt unable to write about M's bat mitzvah. The weekend of M's bat mitzvah was pretty much straight-out joy, occasionally to the point of bliss, and, you know, the happy thing just isn't particularly interesting. Then there's the fact of the Anna Karenina comment itself: I love my step-nephew a lot, but, you know, to remark upon the first line of Anna Karenina? We're not talking originality; in fact, we're pretty much in the realm of sentimentality.

To write about how meaningful it is to honor an adolescent, just at the moment when they are capable of so much, yet so often so annoying (don't worry, M, you're not that annoying); to revel in the spirit of conciliation that pervaded the event (remember those kids who were M's friends and then turned mean? they're nice again); to kvell over the music, and the weeping grandparents, and the loving, supportive friends...oh my god, could we be any more sentimental?

Then again, I realized, perhaps on Thursday, I'm all about the sentimental! (Speaking of which, last night we finally watched the movie version of Ballet Shoes, with Emma Watson, and it is thoroughly delightful, in all its hardboiled sentimentality, and quite close to the book--it does conjure up a romance unnecessary to literature, but clearly essential to film, albeit in quite a reasonable way, but it lets both Pauline and Posy be as bratty as they really are, and it's a wonderful portrait of sisters.) Noel Streatfeild aside, Susan Warner? Harriet Beecher Stowe? High School Musical 3? Bring it on! (But please leave the Hannah Montana movie behind.)

Still, it is one thing to revel in the consumption of sentiment; to produce it, when attempting to document true feeling, is quite another.

Yesterday, however, I realized that there was something much worse than sentimentality at stake . Yesterday, I had several encounters, in person, print, and pixel, with what can only be characterized as smugitude, because smugness simply isn't sufficiently weighty to be the appropriate nominal form of smug. You know smug: when people are convinced that they are the best, and are unabashedly proud of it, to the point that they can magnanimously praise others, so those others can illustrate, yet again, their own bestness. Smugitude is thoroughly revolting, and smugitude, like sentimentality, is something to which I fear I may have my own revolting tendencies. But where one can embrace sentimentality, on grounds of kitsch, or even roots of true feeling (see: cliches, which become so because they work so well), there is simply no excuse for smugitude. And to write arias of joy over the bliss that was M's bat mitzvah? So potentially close to smug, that I just can't go there.

So, you'll have to take my word for it: from the flowers coming into bloom the day before; to M and her friend A, whose bat mitzvah was the afternoon of M's, leading the Friday night service together; to the rabbi's insightful Friday night sermon; to all of us beautiful in our bat mitzvah dresses; to M's impeccable service-leading, Torah-reading, haftarah-reading, AND dvar-producing; to E falling off her chair in the middle of the service and sending the whole room into gales of laughter; to delicious food; to loud music; to socializing adults, dancing tweens, and adorable five-year-old girls in party dresses; to the end of the party when M's posse and my high school friends rocked out on the dance floor; to Chinese food in sweatpants with hilarious out-of-town was a smug and sentimental event of joy and bliss, the likes of which I wish for everyone, in whatever form it comes to you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Few Cultural Notes

Last night we were at the restaurant, and T was bartending, which means T was DJing, which means happiness all around. "Shut Up and Drive" came on, and we were all shaking our heads and bopping our shoulders, because what else can you do when you hear "Shut Up and Drive"? I mean, that is one irresistible song (and, frankly, I have no interest in resisting Rihanna).

Then suddenly Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" came to mind (can you say summer of '87?). If I were more musically knowledgeable, I would try to make an argument about the difference 20 years or so makes for pop music, Black women, and cars, but I don't think I can manage it, at least on any kind of generalizable terms. One song looks back, the other forward; one yearns on an acoustic guitar, the other bounces on a drum machine loop; one's about love, the other is about sex; both evoke the all-American car/escape thing, but Rihanna's the one who's in charge--or at least the one who's made to seem in charge, even though Chapman was the one who was in charge of her career, even though look what good that did her. So, have we made progress, or not, and on what terms? Or is it just the difference between Tracy Chapman and Rihanna, which is a difference in so many dimensions: economic, geographic, relation to music business? I'll go with my usual conclusion, and say Yes.

On the book front, I so do not get the fuss being made over Caitlin Macy's new book. The first story is compelling, the next two are unreadable, then there's one that's OK, then I think I stopped. It's fine to write about unpleasant characters, but there's got to be a place to hook in, and I sure haven't found it.

On the other hand, Zoe Heller's new novel had me hooked from the first sentence. The woman can write, whether you like it or not: she's got power of phrasing, power of observation, power of characterization. I probably shouldn't be writing about the book, as I've only read a few chapters, and I could just as easily end up hating it, but I was so struck by the difference between Heller's essential readability, even with unpleasant characters, and Macy's fundamental unreadability, at least for me.

Tune in soon, when I'll be able to tell you all about the Hannah Montana movie...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Speech

M, I could go on and on about the myriad ways in which you are wonderful, and I know you would like that. But I want, instead, to focus my remarks on one aspect of your wonderfulness, an aspect that is particularly relevant today, and that is your relation to Judaism.

Despite appearances to the contrary, M has not spent her entire life cosseted in the warm embrace of Temple and the East Town Kibbutz. In fact, from the day after she learned to walk, until the month after her ninth birthday, we lived in suburban No Longer Red State, where M was the only Jewish child in her elementary school, the nearest synagogue was half an hour away, and she was, I regret to inform you, a Hebrew school dropout.

Despite these challenging circumstances, from a very early age, M had a remarkably strong Jewish identity. She never complained about not celebrating Christmas, but instead loved having me come to her class to teach the other children about Hanukkah. Whenever people asked if she was excited for the Easter Bunny, she proudly announced that she was Jewish. By her own choice, she kept kosher for Passover and started to fast on Yom Kippur. And, by necessity, embracing her Judaism was part of her everyday life as well.

So why was this? Part of it, M, is surely your incredible self-confidence. You are who you are, you’re not afraid of anyone, and you won’t stand down--this is a remarkable trait in anyone, but especially in someone your age, and it makes me so very proud of you. But I think there’s more to the Jewish piece. I believe that your Jewish identity is integrally connected to the core of who you are.

M’s love of reading is legend, and her Grammy has been supplying her with Jewish reading since she could chew on her first Noah board book. When Mindy Saved Hanukkah, Sammy Spider’s First Everything, All of a Kind Family…even if she didn’t live in a Jewish community, books gave her a sense of Jewish history and a Jewish world, just as reading has expanded her horizons in so many directions.

Although No Longer Red State Capital City Suburb is about as far as you can get from the Lower East Side tenements where Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie grew up, we did have a small, but caring Jewish community there. M, I don’t know if you remember A and L, but they were the main big girls in your life in No Longer Red State Capital City Suburb. You adored them, and they were so kind to you--L even let you sit next to her at her bat mitzvah. I see that kindness coming around again in your own kindness to younger children--to E F-F, and C and G, and Little M and J, and Cousin L, and sometimes even your own sister.

Two other significant people in your life in No Longer Red State Capital City Suburb were our next-door neighbors, whom you adopted as your local grandparents. They lead me back to East Coast Big City, where your own grandparents lived, because another crucial element in the consolidation of your Jewish identity has been your deep connection to your family, and especially to your grandparents and your great-aunt M in Israel. You cherish your family, and they in turn cherish you.

We eventually left No Longer Red State Capital City Suburb and found ourselves back in Town, and at Temple, and here you have flourished. Your love of reading, thinking, and learning have been stimulated by your classes on Israel, ethics, and the Holocaust. Your gift for friendship is visible across this very room. You have become even closer to your family, as you get to see your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins so much more frequently.

Here, too, you have become deeply committed to tzedakah: to social justice and to helping others. Whether you are marching for peace with your grandmother, or insisting that we walk the entire 20 miles of the Walk for Hunger, or helping backstage with the play at E's school--which is what M spent this week doing, even though her bat mitzvah was fast approaching--you are always looking for opportunities to help and to make the world a better place.

When you were born, M, your great-aunt M sent us a fax, in which she wrote, “May you succeed to raise her to Torah, Chuppah, and good deeds”; “l’torah, l’chuppah, u l’maasim tovim”; a life of learning, loving, and giving. I don’t know if Sam and I tried, purposefully, to follow her wishes, but they certainly track our deepest values, and as I look at you today, I see learning, loving, and giving at the heart of who you are, and who I know you will be, and I am so very proud.

The final thing I want to say to you, M, is Thank you. Thank you for being such a wonderful person in all the myriad ways you are wonderful. Thank you for being such an inspiration to us all. And thank you for being my daughter. I love you forever and for always.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The God Thing

In the last week, two friends have told me that their daughters are not having bat mitzvahs.

One is a friend from long ago with whom I just reconnected (thanks, Internet!). When M was born, I had the kind of mother's group you read about and wish you had, except for once I actually had it. We met in prenatal yoga, so we were a copacetic bunch of athleticish, organicish, liberalish moms. Our babies were all born within a month of each other, and we were together from babies lying on the blanket to toddlers running around the playground--then I moved away, but I think they stuck together for a while longer. Anyway, I was just thinking about S, probably the one I was closest to, and wondering if she was preparing for a bat mitzvah too, so I tracked her down (LinkedIn), and we were both delighted to find each other again.

Only her daughter is not having a bat mitzvah, because S lost her faith after 9/11 and couldn't see sending her kids to Hebrew School if she didn't believe. I actually haven't responded to that email, because I didn't know what to say.

Then this morning a very good friend emailed me to say that her daughter, whose bat mitzvah was fairly imminent, had decided not to do it because, among other things, she doesn't believe in God. That one was easy to reply to: I just said "Good for her. Hope things haven't been too difficult," or words to that effect.

Then I said to S, "Are we really superficial, or just well-adjusted?" (which was not meant to imply that any of these other people are maladjusted; it's just what I said).

Because, honestly, believing in God has never once come up in the entire preparation for M's bat mitzvah (OK, that may not be true, M may have discussed it with her tutor, but certainly it has not come up between me, S, and M).

S said that he has thought about this issue a lot since his bar mitzvah, and the Talmud says nothing about believing in God, you just have to follow the rules. For Catholics, not believing is a sin, but it's not like that for Jews. I don't know if this is true, but it sounds good to me, and S tends to think about things like this more deeply than I do, since I just read novels.

We didn't make M have a bat mitzvah, we gave her the choice, and if she'd said no, we would have said fine, but there was pretty much no question that she was going to do it. And, like I said, God never came up. Why? Maybe because God just isn't a big part of our religious life. I mean, we go to the Unitarian church of synagogues for a reason. I mean, I don't even think our rabbi believes in God. We're all about the community and the values and the ritual, and, interestingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, that's what we're emphasizing in M's bat mitzvah (interesting because we never overtly said that was what we were going to emphasize, it just kind of happened; not surprising because, well, duh, that's us).

And, you know, it's not that I don't believe in God, or that I do. I just kind of don't go there. I mean, I certainly don't believe in an old white guy with a beard handing out commandments. But I'm not quite sure I think we're just collections of atoms obeying physical laws either.

Hmm, now I've gotten to the point where I really should make a point, but I don't know what it is. The one conclusion I feel like drawing, and it might be the conclusion to a different post, is that although I am capable of angsting on just about anything and everything, I simply don't have angst about Judaism, our synagogue, M's bat mitzvah...or God. M and S don't seem to either. And for that, I'm glad.

Edited to add: Of course I have angst about sucky Jews who do sucky things, but that's different. In fact, I think that angst is to some degree predicated upon the absence of general religious angst, but please don't ask me to explain how that is the case.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An Insanely Compulsive Book Post

I have been compulsively organizing books all day, and I'm feeling highly unappreciated. S has assured me that he appreciates me, because I was all grownup, and told him that I was feeling unappreciated, and I do believe him, but, as I also told him, he can't truly appreciate, because he does not truly get what I have done. He acknowledged that this was the case, and reiterated his appreciation, like the grownup he also is. Still, I feel the need to document, for the record, as it were. And, those of you who can appreciate--I know you're out there, and you know who you are--I expect FULSOME and public appreciation.

There are a lot of books. Like, you cannot even imagine how many books there are. OK, maybe you can, and maybe you can too, but, no, those of you who can imagine can only imagine in comparision, because the books have never been in one place, out of boxes, in....mmm, perhaps since we left California? And, since then, the books have probably tripled in number. And the number grows, well, not quite every day, but certainly every week, because books enter this house new, used, pre-publication, in the mail, from friends, from grandparents, from stores...we have practically every kind of book you can imagine, coming from everywhere, in at least five languages, and if you're thinking it's out of control, well, it is. And if you're thinking why don't we just get rid of the damn books, well, we've considered, and we've attempted, and we've gotten rid of a few boxes (mainly mysteries), and we've barely made a dent, and we've bought new bookshelves.

When we moved into this apartment, we had seven bookshelves (alas, no built-ins). Since we renovated, we've unpacked, recycled, and bought an additional ten bookshelves. Then there are the piles. We are trying to ameliorate the piles. Please note that, aside from the buying (and putting together), which has been valiantly accomplished by S, most of the "we" in this post is me, though the accumulative "we" is all of us.

As I believe I've blogged before, I have always wanted to organize the books by color. But my desires are always powerful and fraught, confined by the sense of loss inherent in gain, anxious of consequences, yet determined to prevail. This one was no different.

The books are being organized by color. The yellow shelf is most fantastic in its lurid glow. It provides a lovely sample of juxtaposition: Advertisements for Myself, The Iliad, The Birth of Pleasure (Gilligan), Deadly Allies II, and down the way The Book of God and Man, The White Goddess, A Middle East Reader, Manifesta. The playroom has two white cases of white books. The black books are forbidding; I'm sure we'll never find anything there again. I am quite in love with red, purple, and orange.

But I couldn't go all the way. There is an entire bookcase, next to my desk, of books related to one of my major projects. The guidebooks are together; as are the books about writing; the Torahs, Megillahs, Haggadahs, and prayerbooks; and there is one shelf with Freud and Shakespeare. Each of these are on small shelves, in a tall narrow case.

I also reorganized the fiction, which is together, alphabetical, in the living room and dining room. Three cases. Reorganization needed to make way for additional books, unpacked and acquired since we moved in. This gave me enormous pleasure, and I tried to decide which shelf was my favorite, but how do you choose between Dickens-Eggers and Laurence (Margaret)-Mann? Or, really, between any of them?

I tried to get rid of Tibetan, Hawaiian, and Native American anthologies, but...who has Tibetan, Hawaiian, and Native American anthologies? Or such a collection of 1980s poetry and feminism? To get rid of it is to eliminate history. What if someone needs them someday, and we have them? Can't do it.

OK, I'm feeling better now. Back to it. Only three more boxes to unpack, and maybe a dozen piles. And then I can rest, for maybe a month, till they start piling up again...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Facebook, Passover, Arab, Jew

Is Facebook killing my blog? Or perhaps I should ask: is Facebook the final blow to my slowly-dying blog? Given the likelihood that I will now start posting three times a day, as I generally do, whenever I predict the death of my blog, perhaps not, but it kind of feels that way. 160 words seem sufficient these days (or, in the New Facebook, 420 words, as Phantom has recently proven, in her Facebook guise as herself) .

Take Passover. I could have blogged the Tuesday night Chocolatissimo extravaganza, the Wednesday night seder, the Thursday night seder--produced entirely by S, aside from Chocolatissimo, because I have sworn never to produce another seder--with its six competing Haggadahs, and the Best Passover Play Ever.

Instead I wrote two status updates--"2 1/2 pounds butter, 2 1/2 cups sugar, 21 eggs, 1 1/2 pounds chocolate (soundtrack: Bob Marley)" and "Seder highlight: two-girl performance of the Passover story featuring E as Moses, Miriam, AND Pharoah's daughter, and M as Pharoah coming back as a zombie after drowning in the Red Sea...because everything is better with zombies."--and that was pretty much dayenu.

But tonight I watched the last two episodes of Season Four of Project Runway, and I had to return to the blog.

If you're not hanging out with me on Facebook--most of you who know me are, I think, but presumably there are more of you out there, so sorry about this--you don't know that I have belatedly caught up with the rest of the world and discovered Project Runway, to great joy of discovery and great sadness of belatedness. Over the last two weeks, M, E, and I have watched all of Season Four. We knew who won at the end, but we still got into it, and I have to admit that I was a Rami fan. I liked his clothes, I liked his voice, I liked his attitude, I liked his looks, and he was from Israel, which made me warm up to him in that identity kind of way.

Except, in the next-to-last episode, I discovered that though Rami is from Israel, he is an Arab. Which is completely fine, and I liked him just as much (really, I am not protesting too much; in fact, I'm about to make a completely different point). What was fascinating about this discovery is that I had completely assumed he was Jewish, and he, Rami, in looks and persona, could just as easily be a Jew as an Arab. This is not, of course, an original point. One of the great tragedies of the Arab/Israeli situation, especially vis-a-vis Palestinians and other Arabs in Israel, is how incredibly similar they are in looks, attitude, culture. Not the pasty-faced residents of Mea Shearim, or the burkha-clad Hamas chicks, but the secular, modernized Middle Eastern Arabs and Jews, the ones who would be us, if we lived in the Middle East. Think Ishmael and Isaac: brothers.

On Wednesday night my father-in-law lectured us about Gaza, and I felt my usual depressed guilty boredom. The Middle East is this constant tragedy in the world and my life, but usually it is just a dull painful fact. Sometimes, though, the tragedy comes dramatically alive, and it just makes me want to weep. Who would have thought that Project Runway would be a source of such awareness?