Thursday, March 25, 2010

No bikini waxing on Passover, says feminist Talmud scholar

Ok, so that's not what the great Judy Hauptman was really saying in the fascinating talk she gave at NYU yesterday (although if the tabloid New York Daily News was covering it, that might have been the headline). What she was sharing was some of the intimate details from daily life in ancient times that she was has been uncovering as part of a new project to create a feminist commentary on the Talmud (an effort, believe it or not, that is being largely funded by the German government and is being led by professor Tal Ilan at the Free University in Berlin).

Hauptman's main points were about what was happening in the ancient kitchen. The evidence indicates, she says, that women were in charge there, not only doing the cooking, but also making sure that Jewish law was being followed, even on Passover, the Jewish holiday that, with its ban on eating leavened products, is the very most demanding when it comes to laws of food. "The women were baking the matzah," Hauptman said.

That is not to say that she thinks the ancient world was some kind of feminist paradise. Men were still very much in charge. "The men produce the laws," she said. "But the women are [in charge] in the kitchen." This implies that women knew quite a bit about halakha (Jewish law) even if they didn't learn it in the Beit Midrash (study halls), she said.

This view that many women knew halakha well extends also to how Hauptman understands the role of Beruriah, one of the most famous women in the Talmud and a figure who some think represented a most unusual thing in the ancient world of the rabbis -- a woman who was a great scholar. But Hauptman does not think Beruriah was such an anomaly. "I think she was like many other women who knew halakha [but] she's not a scholar."

That is, Hauptman thinks, Beruriah may have made it into the text of the Talmud because she was indeed exceptional among women in terms of her knowledge of halakha. But that does not mean she studied it alongside men in the Beit Midrash.

So, how did bikini waxing come into this? Hauptman was talking about the rabbinic discussion of whether תכשיטי נשים -- literally, women's ornaments (or jewelry) -- can be used on Passover. The common understanding of this term is that it refers to paste jewelry -- jewelry made of water and flour. But Hauptman says it also might refer to flour paste used as a depilatory (for the removal of hair).

It was really a treat to see how excited Hauptman -- a person who has been studying Talmud for so many years -- was about her new studies as part of the feminist Talmud commentary project. "I'm learning new things about women in the Talmud," she said. "There's so much I did not know."


PS The main Talmud text she brought about Beruriah is from Pesachim 62b.

' שמלאי אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן א"ל ניתני לי מר ספר יוחסין א"ל מהיכן את א"ל מלוד והיכן מותבך בנהרדעא א"ל אין נידונין לא ללודים ולא לנהרדעים וכל שכן דאת מלוד ומותבך בנהרדעא כפייה וארצי א"ל ניתנייה בג' ירחי שקל קלא פתק ביה א"ל ומה ברוריה דביתהו דר"מ ברתיה דר"ח בן תרדיון דתניא תלת מאה שמעתתא ביומא מג' מאה רבוותא ואפ"ה לא יצתה ידי חובתה בתלת שנין ואת אמרת בתלתא ירחי כי שקיל ואזיל א"ל רבי מה בין לשמו ושלא לשמו לאוכליו ושלא לאוכליו א"ל הואיל וצורבא מרבנן את תא ואימא לך

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Christian chumetz

In case you thought -- as our Festival of the Matzah approaches -- that only the Jews have eating restrictions related to holidays, here is this reminder (courtesy of Taco Bell) that some Christians do, too!

From what I understand, some of the fast food restaurants around here in Berks County, PA, add fish sandwiches to their menus during Lent, although I've never been able to confirm this.

[I also was never able to figure out what this "Lenten Section" was that I found two years ago.]
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It's crowded in here -- life at NYU

One of the images I associate with college life is that of a wealth of common space -- big, broad green spaces and, inside, usually near empty lounges full of big couches. That is _not_ what it is like at NYU here in Greenwich Village -- life here is like life in NYC as a whole, crowded (but also full of youth and energy!).

Or so's been my theory. So the one thing that stood out for me in today's York Times story about NYU's ambitious expansion plan is this data, documenting just how tight things are compared to the competition:

By 2031, the university aims to have 240 academic square feet per student; it now has 160, according to its own study, compared to Columbia University’s 326, Harvard’s 673 and Yale’s 866.

I'm still glad to be here. :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Is he leading us out? (close calls and Feasts of Freedom)

As Pesach fast approaches, I have been taking time to reflect on the ways that I have been led out of my own personal places of bondage over the past year. One thing that has gripped me more than once over my life is the terror of not being able to get medical care when I need it. I have let this fear influence me to stay in jobs and situations that were toxic to me -- just because of terror of living without health coverage.

I do not know exactly what this new bill will mean overall, but I do know that it will mean that I -- as an American citizen -- will never again have to stay in the bondage of a terrible job, enduring the efforts of abusive supervisors trying to harass me into quitting, just because of my fear of being left without health insurance. That is real freedom.

The vote in the House was close -- 219 to 212 -- which might seem discouraging at first. But let us not forget how many _votes_ over the millennia -- votes that now seem like almost everyone must have been for them at the time -- were in fact quite close calls. The first of those close calls was the decision to follow Moses -- משה/Moshe -- out of the bondage of slavery. It might seem strange that the People Israel would turn away from Moshe's leadership, from the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai and from the path to the Promised Land. But turn away they did -- many times, including in the incident of the Golden Calf. But in the end they followed Moses to the edge of the Promised Land and then his follower, Joshua, into the Land itself.

President Obama, may it be God's will to give you the strength of Moshe -- the strength to endure many trials and much criticism -- in your efforts to do right.

And may it be God's will that we all should be guided out of our places of bondage in the coming year -- and that we should have the strength to follow that way out.

חג כשר ושמח

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring (and Minna) blooms in Brooklyn!

Today was a beautiful day and we started it in Perth Amboy, so we decided to sneak across the Verrazano bridge to get to the Brooklyn Botanical gardens and the early flowering trees (Magnolias). We got to Prospect Park and the zoo there, too!
From Early spring at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (2010)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bicycling the key to reviving moribund Reading, PA, economy?

When I tell people I live in Reading, PA, the only thing most people can connect to from their own memories is a long-defunct railroad that lives now only on the Monopoly game board.

But today when I, on a whim, asked the new Google Maps bicycling route feature how to get from Newark airport to LAX, it suggested you cycle where no Interstate Highway fears to tread -- right through Reading!

I don't know if I'll ever achieve my dream of some day cycling from coast to coast, but if I do, I'll take the Thun trail on the way!

Click here for the route (part of which I've excerpted in the graphic below)


A late adopter learns a new trick: twittering in spring

It's taken me a long time, but I've finally found a reason to _try_ Twitter -- I want to know what's blooming at the botanical gardens (please, God, let me find the time this Spring to get to some of them and not miss the glory of Your early blooms!), and they all have Twitter feeds.

So, don't expect much in the way of "tweets" from me, yet, but I'm in there (as abayye).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Commuting" via the High Line in spring

On my back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Reading, PA, today, I "commuted" north for a bit where freight trains once ran and only weeds once grew -- through the wonderful High Line park built upon an old elevated freight railway that runs above the streets of Manhattan on the once industrial West Side.

If you click on the above photo to view it full size, you will see that there are crocuses blooming amid the grasses, signalling that spring is here and that Pesach quickly approaches. . . . . I hope I am able to get to one of the botanical gardens in time to see the explosion of daffodils and bulbs of all kinds!

Below is another shot from today as well as a link to some more photos.
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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Riding in the rain

Despite the rain, today, I went out on this route with my bicycle, one of my favorite routes.

I've been doing hardly any riding at all this winter, so it was a good feeling to see that I could still handle this, fairly short (only about 15 miles round trip), but still challenging (steep!) run.

The route from the above link is something to be excited about, too -- it's made with the new bicycling directions from Google maps (my actual route was slightly different, but it's pretty close).


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The killer research (plus?) app -- Zotero

I don't like to gush about new hardware/software when I've only hardly used it . . . . . but I'm so wowed by the half-hour I just spent with Zotero -- a free and open-source on-line service for keeping track of your files and research -- that . . . well, here goes! :)

Zotero does the one thing I've been desperately wishing for ever since I started writing research papers back in September -- it not only lets you store pdf's online of the articles you're reading (which Google Docs does a great job of), but it also allows you to keep notes on all those files and organize them fifty-million some-odd ways. There is a program they like at NYU called refworks that lets you do _almost_ all of that -- everything but have easy access to the articles themselves! . . . . Which makes me feel like a well-groomed elephant who can't find his trunk. . . Or some such animal-based metaphor. :)

Zotero, on the other hand, gives you the full package. And I suspect that Zotero's utility is far beyond the graduate research area. I'm looking forward to using it more!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Rexxy is back

I got my Xtracycle out of the shop the other day just in time for the warmer weather we've been blessed with -- it's got some substantial upgrades! I had them put an Old Man Mountain rack on the front and disc brakes on the back, as well as Power Grips on the pedals. Both wheels are brand new, too.

I'm in New York City, today, so I didn't get to ride it. But I did see another Xtracycle -- a three seater (with two kiddie seats on top of the back) heading down 13th street near Union Square. I'd seen this Xtracycle around Greenwich Village before, but this was the first time I saw it in motion going through traffic, complete with the little ones on the back.

Here's another view of my Xtracycle:

I hope to ride more often!
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Thursday, March 04, 2010

The fired this time -- teaching or perishing in the USA

An entire school of teachers fired in Rhode Island because of low test scores. This is what seems to pass for educational reform these days -- blame the teachers. Or shut down the schools you don't think are doing well enough and start new ones. Or pay more to teachers who manage to make their kids -- by hook or by crook -- score a bit higher on a standardized test.

So, amid all this craziness, I was cheered to read this New York Times article. It's about people who are taking a different tack -- instead of blaming teachers, they're looking for ways to help them become better teachers. They're doing this by studying the one thing in education no one, if you can believe it, seems to think is worth studying anymore -- how kids actually learn (and how teachers can address that). The article gives an example about learning and teaching math:

It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it.

The counterproductive overfocus on standardized test scores -- and the related overfocus on so-called basics like math and reading at the expense of art, history, literature and critical thinking -- is also brought to mind by the about face of education historian, and former darling of the Conservative pundits, Diane Ravitch. She now thinks the standardized testing championed by George Bush's No Child Left Behind act is counterproductive.

Maybe the times are changing!