Monday, July 11, 2011

thedavidstarr: Left and Right, Right and Wrong, Sane and Insane, ...

thedavidstarr: Left and Right, Right and Wrong, Sane and Insane, ...: "William James, I think, noted that the problem with theories is that they leak at every joint. We all want some grand idea that makes sense..."

Left and Right, Right and Wrong, Sane and Insane, in no particular order

William James, I think, noted that the problem with theories is that they leak at every joint. We all want some grand idea that makes sense of everything for us, most famously Einstein and his search for the unified field theory. But theories end up being just that: an incredibly smart yet ultimately dumb form of magical thinking, a mapping of our own constructs onto reality. If we're lucky, this occurs only with us powerless types, in bedrooms and barrooms but not in the halls of power. If we're unlucky, these theories go on the march, in town squares and frontiers, and they play an actual role in the ballot box and in government offices and in the news stories we consume.

Right now we have a bull market in this stuff. Congress types who pretend we can balance the budget without tax increases, who think that tax cuts for rich folks will help the economy. Bankers who confuse their business and their profit with the business and profit of the American people. Liberals who think entitlements can go on forever. Israeli settlers who think that Israel will survive as a Jewish democratic state without partition and a Palestinian state. Israeli leftists who fantasize that if only Israel will reform peace will come.

The unified field theory gives way to the messiness of it all. That's why I love the writer Janet Malcolm. She always comes back to the messiness of it all, the contingent nature of life. The settlers have to come to terms with the limits of their dreams; the lefties have to come to terms with how nasty Hamas/Iran is. And so it goes. The Tea Party has to connect whatever century they're living in with the one we're living in. I know this all sounds like warmed-over David Brooks and Jeffrey Goldberg. When they're right they're right. Values and conviction yes; theories "not so good" as my daughter would say.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fake Din; or Bring Me the Broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West

Cutesy titles annoy me but I couldn't resist, or I should say I wouldn't resist. Snippets of conversation here and there suggest that Bet Din's function in less than optimal ways, particularly when it comes to conversions. One category is racial/religious: I've heard some racially charged stories about questions put to African-Americans, and then there's the Jesus thing. That's understandable, after all the point is to help an aspirant, and the court, figure out what one believes. Being Jewish is hard enough; being Jewish-Christian is that much more convoluted. I guess I wonder if our own ethno-cultural-religious chauvinism plays a role in this: we just don't like or respect Christians or Christianity very much and therefore we don't want those sorts of players on our team. We fear the Trojan Horse syndrome: they'll damage us more if they get inside the city. And some of this is good old fashioned post-Holocaust rage: we can't take our pain out on real live Christians who acted as perpetrators or bystanders, unless one of them shows up at our court wanting to become one of us. So we hurt the ones who actually want not to love us but to be us.

And then there's the fertility challenged scenario of Jewish parents wanting to have a baby converted. The IVF or adoption or the other stratagems. Here again, life's unfair: any Tom Dick or Harry can father a Jewish baby (as long as the mother is Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, or Leah), but if biology gets in the way not only are these families put through the wringer financially and emotionally, but they have to deal with these courts that make them wonder "why am I going through all this trouble to have a 'Jewish' baby when the Jewish court hassles me so much about trying to do just that."

Last time I checked aren't we still in demographic recovery mode from losing six million of our beloved people? Shouldn't we be trying harder to make more Jews rather than push them away?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Emil Starr and Eleanor Roosevelt

This is a picture of my father, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a group of members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, taken at Val-Kill, Roosevelt's home, on the grounds of the Hyde Park home of her late husband, FDR. The picture dates from the mid-1950's. My father at the time served as National Education Director of the Amalgamated (adult ed--what a weird job?:)
This event was a part of a series of workshops he created to educate union members about the context in which unionism occurred and mattered, things like politics and citizenship. This was the gospel upon which my parents raised me: the human dignity of workers, the importance of unionism for the functioning of a free society and polity, and the importance of education in safeguarding these sorts of rights and obligations. So even though I wasn't even alive I think when this event happened, it's a kind of sacred image and memory in the collective identity of our family.

I confess the image also makes me feel a bit sad. Not just because my father isn't here, nor because of the precarious state of collective bargaining in our society. My father felt comfortable around and worked with all sorts of people of race, color, religion, ethnicity, class, you name it. He raised me to be the same way. Yet I spend most of my time with upper-middle class Jews. I embrace the choices I made to lead a different sort of life, yet how narrow that has worked out to be. A bit more frequently these days I ask myself: "does God really care about this tiny people of ours, and should I be spending most of my time and energy upon that people?
To be continued...


Interesting post by Meir Soloveitchik in Jewish Ideas Daily about Irving Kristol.
Of course I wonder why no one ever talks about what these old guys were doing was making new stuff up?

Death, a p.s.

Don't you think there are two kinds of people out there? Those who've looked death in the eye, and everybody else? And if you're questioning that polarity, doesn't that place you in the latter? Enjoy your error.


I rented the movie Taken, starring Liam Neeson. I want to watch it with my soon to be off to college daughter. It's the story of a young woman who takes off on a Grand Tour of Europe, with a friend. They're kidnapped by scummy white slaver types; Neeson spends most of the movie tracking them and her down, thank goodness successfully in the end. In my heavy-handed way I want my daughter to see there's a lot of scum out there, be careful who you trust. What I'm really saying is: I can't protect you. Certainly not with the skills of a superhero like Neeson. And I feel weak about that. So kids feel afraid knowing that their parents won't be able to protect them. And parents get angry at their kids knowing they'll get into jams that remind parents how little control they actually have. Plenty of fear and regret to go around.


It's my father's 38th yahrtzeit, the Jewish way of marking the anniversary of his death. Jews say two things: a person's memory should be a blessing (for those of us the living) and or may they rest in peace. The latter's a lot easier to swallow. Memory pains us--unless we're lucky or simple memory is anything but simple, which makes its "blessing" at the very least complicated. I loved my father, a lot. I take after him in many ways: most of what I value as good in me I see hailing from him, and I'd like to think that he'd say the same of me. But he left me. So blessing and anger somehow coexist inside of those of us who feel like we've survived somebody we love.