Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why are these dolls so creepy?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of creepy dolls of all kinds. But something about this ongoing controversy about the Spanish breastfeeding baby doll just won't leave me alone. Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams opines that the worst part about it is the price, and portrays Fox commentator Dr. Keith Ablow's comment that the doll is "another way of turning little girls into adults," and "Contributes to the sexualization of children and it makes them targets of assailants." as crazy (Although she doesn't actually explain why. Well, okay, it is kind of crazy.

But the problem isn't the scream-downs between breastfeeding advocates saying that breast-feeding is the only alternative for a mother who loves her child and thus a doll that promotes breast feeding over bottle feeding is GOOD! and those who think that breasts are for men to ogle.

The problem is one that no one likes to talk about which is twofold: 1. The whole baby doll thing is problematic. Do we really need to be giving little girls baby dolls to play mommy? How many boy dolls (yes, boys play with dolls, we just call them "action figures") teach boys to stay home and parent children? As the parent of a young (male) child, I have noticed since he was born that children's toys remain disgustingly gender segregated. Even lego, which really used to be such a great toy, now is separated by sex, with girls having pink homebuilding kits with ponies, and boys have war and exploration games. These boy legos are clearly not for girls, since the figures which used to be yellow and only vaguely humanoid are now Caucasian and mostly male - occasionally one will throw in a side character that is female, but she's clearly side-kick at best. The lego website is chock full of boys, and hardly a female to be seen. Et tu, lego? Toy stores, too, - at least the chains - yes, Toys R us, I'm talkin' to you- are separated by aisles of pink and blue, with all the role modelling of interesting careers happening in the boys aisles.

But that's almost a minor quibble. After all, no one really objects to girls playing with babydolls, at least, as long as dolls are encouraged for boys too, and there are non-doll alternatives for girls in which they see themselves portrayed (by the way, my son, when small, used to take cars and all kinds of other non-animate toys and set them up into families and play house with them, with the little boy car or whatever, inviting Ima home to make salad for her. But he wouldn't play with things that had faces in this way).

NO, we do mostly feel a little queasy about this breast-feeding doll. Why? Well, not because little girls are trying on adult roles. No, all kids do that. But because the adult-ness of little girls reflects a real, underlying problem with the way we view women and girls, which is that we still primarily believe -and reinforce in many ways- the idea that women are primarily sexual beings here for the pleasure of others. It's because Ablow isn't a pedophile that this doll gives him the raging squicks. Somewhere within, we are unnerved by the idea of girls breastfeeding because we do, underneath it all, think that breasts are for sex, and sex is what girls are for, and when that comes face to face with little girls playing at having breasts, it's like pulling aside the curtain of Jon-Benet Ramsey and the pageant culture of sexualizing girl-children, the completely inappropriate clothing that is sold for little girls to wear that sexualizes girl-children's bodies, the younger and younger ages at which we find girls dieting and wearing make-up, talking about boyfriends; not to mention the standards of beauty for women that emphasize child-like-ness- blonde straight hair, hairless bodies and so on.

I'm not opposed at all to breast-feeding; I did it for my child, and would have continued longer had he not made his own wishes clear as a year old that he wasn't interested. And let's be real, there is a measure of physical pleasure and closeness about breast-feeding. But this doll isn't really making us worried because of breast-feeding; rather, it's because underneath it all, we do believe that women's bodies are for others, and not themselves, and we are just starting to be aware enough of this that it troubles us - as it should.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Not bringing sexy back...please

Over on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory declares that sexlessness (or at least articles about it) are officially a trend. Which strikes me as funny, because the article just below that one in the queue is all about the rise of non-monogamy (which together with Dan Savage's proclamations that people should consider non-monogamy and today's JTA headline that an Israeli group of Orthodox rabbis (c'mon, you knew this was coming!) is trying to bring back polygamy (a trend that even the Torah implicitly warns against while not forbidding) definitely qualifies as a trend.

So what to get to first? I'm impressed by the ridiculousness of Erica Jong's complaint. I'm not sure why Clark-Flory concludes that her complaint is that technology has taken over for the actual messiness and intimacy of sex - from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Right. Just where does she think those babies come from... what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick - she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages? I'm- thankfully- nowhere near old enough to remember those times, but I have mentors who were, and their stories would make anyone seeking love and intimacy feel faint: men who wanted open marriage... for themselves only; men who wanted someone to raise the children... while they went out seeking younger, newer sexual partners... for whom they eventually left their wives; relationships in which one partner (of various genders) said okay to the other one's having sex with other people...because they loved them so much that they couldn't bear to stand up for themselves because their partner might leave them or feared being left impoverished with children) - even though the idea of sharing their partner sexual left them heartbroken day after day; relationships where there's no rest and no real intimacy, but ongoing competition, forever, because one or both partners aren't really committed to the relationship, but are settling for what there is... until they can find something better. Anyone who thinks the message of an open marriage to the partner is anything other than, "you're a commodity, and you're replaceable" is fooling themselves.

Polygamy makes perfect sense in a world where women are chattel and their purpose is serving their husband. In any world where women matter as anything other than breeding stock, it's vile. Open marriage and non-monogamous relationships only makes sense in a world where not just women but everyone is commodified (Although lets be honest: it affects women differentially - women are still the primary caregivers, they still bear the brunt of the effects of childbearing and rearing on their careers, they still earn less money for the same work, meaning that when Mr. open marriage ups and leaves for his next partner, the children and women's level of survival will drop. Ms. Open marriage leaving for her next conquest won't affect his actual health and life so much, just his heart). That's vile too.

Human beings are not commodities. As a rabbi, I am disgusted with these "trends." Admittedly, they are the logical outcome of several other trends in our society - the trends of treating everything as a fee for service exchange and the idea that all we are responsible for is our own individual self, and that our own pleasure in this moment is the only good worth valuing.

Although the Torah permits polygamy, it's pretty clear that it never has a good outcome. As we assume that nothing else in the Torah is accidental, I must insist that the comparison of the three families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also not accidental. God does not approve of open marriage, nor of polygamy. It is, at best, to be suffered. the failures of King David and King Solomon are traceable to the same failings that multiplied their wives.

Our tradition teaches that we are to increase the light: we move towards greater goodness, towards more equality, towards better understanding of God's desire for us. God models the behavior for us: God and Israel in one marriage together as expressed beautifully in the second chapter of Hosea: Israel runs after other gods, thinking that they will give her pleasure, but ultimately Israel will remember the love of her youth, and return, and on that day (with the verses that an adult Jew says daily as he or she puts on her tefillin in the morning) God and Israel are betrothed with tzedek, mishpat, chesed and rachamim -righteousness(and charitability), justice, gentle-lovingness and mercy; with faithfulness, "and you shall know the Lord." -And this is followed by a universal covenant with all creation - and to God, the Torah tells us, Israel will no longer say "Ba'ali" -my master, but "Ishi" - my partner.

that "And you shall know the Lord,: uses the language of da'at - knowing another being. Knowledge is the language of intimacy -sexuality is implied when it is used about humans. Intimacy comes from perseverance, steadfastness, faithfulness. Sexuality is a stripping bare of the self. To treat it like just another fun activity is sad. Sex should be pleasurable, but that's not all it is. It is the recognition of the divine in your other self - the half of adam that was stripped away at creation in order to create within us a longing for conjunction.

In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, when God says that it is not good for the adam to be alone, our midrash tells us that the adam (the word the Hebrew uses is "HaAdam," with a definite article) was not in fact a man, but a two-sexed creature which God split into male and female. The adam was imperfect, and to become a fit partner for God, needed -unlike animals- to have a sense of longing for another. When we find our partner, we find the other part of ourselves, and then we are fit partners for God, as well.

When we seek sexual pleasure as its own end, with no "knowing God," we cheat ourselves and our partners. Of course one-to-one partnership isn't always going to be easy: nothing worthwhile ever is. Having children isn't always easy, a career isn't always easy, doing the right thing isn't always easy: should we abandon children, careers, honesty and integrity?

I'm sure that between "Big Love" (feh), continued patriarchy and homosexism/heteronormativity and our American belief that the individual is more important than another human unit, there won't be an end to this "trend" any time soon, but Erica Jong is wrong about her daughter's generation. it seems to me that - at least as she explains it- they understand that sex is not only intimate, but private, and that far from being bloodless, human urges that are given boundaries are holier and more powerful. All human urges are boundaried by ritual - whether it's religious ritual, or secular ritual, it is part of being human to seek meaning. Getting rid of meaning doesn't make us free, it makes us amoeba.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

In the Summer Issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Rabbis Aaron Alexander and Daniel Greyber wrote a commentary on two incidents that had happened over the past year and a half in which Jews praying on planes with tefillin aroused suspicion and worry, causing in one case, for the plane to be diverted and in the second, for the plane to be met at LAX by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel, and police.

Greyber and Alexander express this as the outcome of the blessing and tension of "unparalleled freedom of religious expression," and ask how, given that tension, Jews (and other people of faith) can navigate the responsibilities that come with that freedom. They review the halacha - that it is not necessary to pray on the plane with tefillin, but can put off the wearing of tefillin until later in the day, and that if one cannot avoid praying on the plane, that one is permitted to pray while seated. Their conclusion?

We believe it is best to pray quietly before the flight or, if necessary, when you are seated, where you can focus and not disturb others. If you can arrange with airline staff and fellow travelers to pray undisturbed – and without disturbing others – great. Until then, best to put on tefillin later, not in flight.

While I agree that it might be best to pray in one's seat so as not to inconvenience the flight crew (although I can't see why one couldn't just as well stand at one's seat to stay out of the aisles), Greyber and Alexander are missing something in their take on thee two incidents: these two incidents have probably done more to publicize the Jewish practice of tefillin than any campaign that any organization has ever had - and not just to non-Jews, but to Jews as well.

What if, instead of scaring the flight attendants, before getting on the plane, the Jew who planned to put on tefillin and pray went to the check-in desk, introduced themselves, told the flight attendant what they were going to do, and asked them to let the other flight attendants know. What if they gave a little flyer to them explaining what was in the tefillin? There are all kinds of possible ways to handle the situation with scaring or inconveniencing people - and which have the added benefit of letting the people around us know a little bit about Jewish customs.

The idea I disagree with in Alexander/Greyber's post is that we should hide ourselves so as not to scare people, but that's not going to be successful. If it isn't tefillin on a plane, it will be shofarot in customs (as actually happened to me some years ago). It's better for people to understand what they're looking at - they may even come to see the beauty in it that we do, instead of being frightened. Granted one doesn't want to make a nuisance out of oneself in the aisles, but I think that their middle ground, isn't actually in the middle - it's simply at a different "end," one which reminds me of our ghetto days - but we don't live there anymore. There's nothing for us to fear - or for anyone else to fear, either.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

What's on the menu?

Two quick articles that I read last month: The first is an article that groans about how Jewish eaters are getting so picky that it's getting to be impossible to invite Shabbat guests. The second is an article which advises all those people who create meaningful programming for Jews to quit it, will ya? because they're actually enabling whiny, entitled Jews (the study that he quotes is about Baby Boomers, but I think he's generally aiming this for everyone)to continue to view Judaism as a consumer product.

Both of these articles have a familiar tone: "What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!" And to some extent, there's something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, "This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society." Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren't going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal - or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof's Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn't say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there's no other food, you eat what there is).

Nevertheless, there's a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let's take the shabbat meals article: The title is, "With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough." And yet, that isn't actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article - let alone from my personal experiences. Of course, we should all be familiar with Miss Manners' (the irrepressible Judith Martin, whom somebody ought to give smicha just for her consistent common sense, her dry wit, and her sustained feminist bent) dictum that guests don't make a fuss about food placed before them - either eat it, or push it around and make it look eaten, but for God's sake, don't talk about it! -you're there for the company! but on the other hand, when I host a meal, I don't usually have so many people that I can't manage to try to find out what their preferences are. It isn't always possible to make a meal that contains no onions, okra or grapefruit, as well as being parvetarian and kosher ( the latter two of which are consistent standards in my kitchen), but if I know that my guests detest okra and onions, I generally try not to serve them. And actually, except for a comment or two about life in the Bay Area (meaning San Francisco, not the Chesapeake or the assorted other Bays around which Jews congregate) it doesn't seem to be a big deal to anyone else either, as the article notes - it's common for hosts to ask if there's anything guests can't eat.

So what does this have to do with whiny Baby Boomers? Well, perhaps there's a little more to chew on there (heh heh, get it? chew? Chew eat? Jew eat? ..forget it). The point that Panzer ultimately makes - that offering programming, or even worse, asking people what programming they want, makes Jews less involved, not more, because it promotes Judaism as an extra, competing with other extracurricular activities. Once that's done, you've set Judaism up to fail, because then we're offering something that takes work and long term commitment, as well as is time-consuming, and that isn't going to pan out for most people as a hobby, anymore than most adults are going to commit themselves to becoming Olympic medalists. a few will learn to love the sport in childhood and commit themselves, some additional will do it occasionally, without much effort, and the rest, not at all.

But Panzer's response strikes me as all wrong too, even if his analysis is right. He says,
At the Judaism 2030 conference last week in New York, a novel alarm was sounded by Dr. David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb (I quote from their article, As the Generational Winds Blow: “[I]n a recent study of highly affiliated Jewish Baby Boomers, two-thirds said that if they do not find what they want in the Jewish community, they have every intention of going elsewhere.

They conclude that Boomer support cannot be counted on automatically, and Panzer responds
If you are a Jew who is affiliating only as long as you can get “the next meaningful experience,” then, please, stop paying your temple dues, burn your ketuba, grow back your foreskin, marry a goy, and demonstrate against Israel. We don’t need you.

What I get from this is something quite different (and I admit, I haven't read the study, but...), which is that if baby Boomers find nothing in their Jewish communities they won't stay there, or give money to them. I agree that creating meaningful programming for "their own, more narrow interests," is probably a waste of time, but not because these are consumer-driven people who will go find some other hobby, any more than because "young people"(or pick your Jewish demographic of choice) are selfish, consumer driven people who are (fill-in your epithet of choice). Well, so what? Is Panzer saying that even if he found his community chilly, its goals unpromising, and its rituals flat, that he would hang around anyway? perhaps as a more committed person, he'd try to fix it, or find another Jewish community, but I'll bet that there's something in the community that he already finds worthwhile and meaningful and it's that which drives him.

The Jews of America have plenty of choices. We live in a nation which is overwhelmingly welcoming to us as Jews, which doesn't, by and large, consider Jews an ethnicity (no "purity of blood" issues here), which makes it easy for us to have relationships with our neighbors of any religion or ethnicity, we can find meaning in any number of places - our jobs, our wider community, and God in this country is a buffet: people can believe in whatever they want, or nothing, which includes a very strong inclination towards "spirituality" - a word which I dislike for its meaninglessness, but which seems mostly to be: "a vague, happy God-feeling which requires no work on my part." Nevertheless, if someone feels no meaning in the community, why *should* they remain in it?

What I think these two articles have in common is the attitude that the way people act has no real purpose, that people are picky for the sake of being picky, that they don't commit to Judaism, or demand special foods, because they're a bunch of spoiled whiny brats.

That may be partially true, or true of some people. Certainly there are people out there who make their diets a constant subject, howeversomuch it bores the rest of us, who would rather discuss that great LOLcat we saw today. But the truth is that most people are searching for meaning, and if we have to create "meaningful programming" -especially for specific target groups- we've already failed. Because one thing Panzer is right about: "programming" already tells those whom it's aimed at that this is something else, in addition. the key is for people to understand that all that stuff which we're calling programming is already part of Jewish life. That "meaning" is an emergent property of committing oneself to a community which is put here for a holy mission. This is the same the point to be made for Repair The World's report "Volunteering Plus Values:" and good for them! instead of saying, "Those whiny millenials who have no connection to Jewish values," what they report is that the way forward is to make clear that their Jewish values are what have led them to care about service, and to make the point that Judaism has a great deal of wisdom to help us figure out what we need to do .. in other words, show them Judaism's mission is their mission already, and that doing Jewishly provides added benefit to their work - in other words, that it matters to be Jewish!

As far as the food article, well, okay, that's pretty much just a light piece - I don't most of us really care if people are eating only locally sources organic carrots (although the article itself expresses that even in the bay area this doesn't seem to be much of an issue), but I think we ought to be taking away from it a certain skepticism about the attitude portrayed in the Jewish press, in our institutions,in our "leaders," about how we think about the Jewish people. It's the same attitude reflected in the institutions that claim J Street and any of its supporters are anti-semites rooting for the destruction of Israel, or at least ignorant Jews who don't know any better. To the contrary: the millenials, the baby boomers, the J street supporters - all of these are the Jewish people, and every time we discuss them as though they were a bunch of ignorant fools who need to be programmed for so they'll continue pouring money into (fill in your favorite institution here), we have not only missed the point, but we have betrayed Judaism, by -not them, but we- making it, against thousands of years of tradition, meaningless.