Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Sex and the City 2:" Gag me with a Vintage Rolex

By now, it's just too easy to trash "Sex and the City 2," the plot of which is "Four aging girlfriends grapple with sickeningly privileged lives and take a vacation to Abu Dhabi."

After all, Roger Ebert has already flung some choice zingers.  For example, insipid protagonist Carrie Bradshaw's milquetoast hubby Mr. Big offers little but "a Manhattan apartment that looks like an Architectural Digest wet dream." The four friends' outrageous and slutty clothing displays "more cleavage in this film than at a pro wrestler's wedding."  And the guys poolside at the friends' eye-splittingly ornate Abu Dhabi hotel turn out to be "the Australian world cup team...which seems to have left its cups at home."

I'd seen the first Sex and the City film, and found it mildly enjoyable, as Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) grappled with life issues like commitment, loyalty, and a vacuous career.  I'm a sucker for weddings like Carrie staged in the first movie, but this second go-round has no punchline like that, and the problems these people face--a nanny's boobs bounce too much, menopause hormones get temporarily confiscated, a cliche boss is dismissive, and marital ennui encroaches--make these unidimensional consumers look like cartoons in overly-colorful, flowing garb, with matching headgear.

The symbols of their issues are too cutesy:  a bored marriage is an engraved vintage Rolex versus a TV in the bedroom.  The challenges of parenthood are a three-year-old who cries non-stop, and a five-year-old who puts two strawberry-jam handprints on her mom's white vintage Valentino pants.  Workplace woes are a law-firm honcho who quiets his associate by raising his hand in her mid-sentence.  Menopause is reduced to a pile of pills and creams and the annoyingly repeated product-placement of Suzanne Somers' hormone books.

The New York Times review was much less entertaining than Ebert's, but does recap the film's lame laugh lines, "unlikely to make you chuckle even if your best friend said them:" "Inter-friend-tion?" "Bedouin bath and beyond?" "Lawrence of my labia?" Groan.

It's worse than groan. The moral messages of this movie are, frankly, disgusting.  Even the somewhat happily married characters can't see the disconnect between their seeming values and the behavior of their dearest friends.  Carrie self-righteously can't bear to hold the "secret" of an old boyfriend's impulsive kiss from her husband, but just smiles when Samantha's promiscuity is so randy and rampant it nearly gets her put away in a Muslim prison.  Despite the near-incarceration, by the way, Samantha soon has the sex she desires, and we get to see it, too. The movie's rated R, as in "raw."

Then there's the message of materialism. I'm a fan of it, actually, but certainly overlaid with a humble acknowledgement of its source. There's not even a casual chat about God or religion, other than to tout feminism's triumph over Islam, shown when a gaggle of Muslim women giggily reveal their designer clothes under their eye-slit-only burquas.  In case you didn't know they were liberated, the frisky four offer a ham-handed Muslim put-down, rousing their Mid-Eastern audience to their karaoke "I am Woman."

There's so much to detest in this movie, there's a temptation to get catty, asking why dogfaced Sarah Jessica Parker is considered attractive, or why an endless tour of a hotel suite that looks like a belly-dancing bar would soak five minutes' screen-time. Or why the thing opens with sad-looking Liza Minelli performing an irrelevant, flashy gay wedding replete with white tuxedo'd man-choir.

Though the film has a couple flippant mentions of the economic downturn, its cloying insistence that Americans are still enamored with the Housewives of New York, instead of pitying them, is mistaken.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New California Budget: Cruel or Kind?

"What kind of civilized society maintains business tax breaks and eliminates child care?" demanded California Senate president Darrel Steinberg when he heard the governor's new budget proposal.

Answer: Any society that wants to increase jobs and encourage families to care for their own children.

After already devouring "low-hanging fruit," California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered his new state budget yesterday by "shaking the whole tree," eschewing tax hikes in favor of deep program cuts. He slashed welfare, eliminating "CalWorks," which the LA Times calls "the state's main welfare program," saving $1.6 billion, he ended state-subsidized child care, recouping $1.2 billion, and sliced a third from in-home healthcare for the elderly and disabled, saving $637.1 million. Higher education is unaffected.

California's deficit remains at $19.1 billion. California is in awful financial shape, especially since state income taxes slipped 26% beyond what their analyists projected.

To his credit, Gov. Schwarzenegger insisted that the state pension system is "broken" and must be overhauled. "For instance, talking about pensions, the cost of employee retirement benefits this year is $6.1 billion. That is more than what it will cost to keep CalWORKs, child care, mental health services and in-home supportive services, just to show you how much money we spend on those things," he said in his budget presentation.

I grew up in California, and my dad spent his working life as a state employee, working at the Hollywood unemployment office, which went by various names over the years--human services development, Employment Development Department, etc.  He worked with veterans, placing them in jobs, assigned to that position as a World War II vet himself.

California was a different place when I was a kid. Ronald Regan was governor.  I wasn't politically savvy, but no one ever expected the state to pay for child care; indeed, the kids who had to go to day care after school were considered less fortunate.  It was a disgrace to be on welfare.  There were no school breakfasts; no one knew if any child received free lunch, because it was kept confidential, so as not to embarrass him.

The entitlement mentality swept the state only in the last 30 years.  Once people get used to receiving freebies, they don't want to give them up.  Now, Darrel Steinberg considers it heartless that some workers should have to pay to care for others' children.  Tax breaks for business were not part of Gov. Schwarzenegger's budget, but probably the surest way to help the unemployed reduced to taking welfare get back on their feet is to make it easy for businesses to afford hiring them.  "Businesses" don't profit; the people who work in them do--so the people who want to work, soon can.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

One Way to Understand God

Your dog wags his tail and looks pleadingly to you.  You pet him.

You feed him his kibble when you come home from work, after he's joyfully received you; after all, he's been doing doggy-things all day, digging in the yard, sleeping, watching the birds search for their worms.  He barked at the mailman and the little dog that walked by with its owner.  Now you're home and he can't wait to snuggle in next to you, to hear you say nice things and scratch behind his ears.

Sometimes you even take him to the park, and let him off his leash, in the area where he can frolic with his doggie friends, chasing them, sometimes running into the pond.  You throw the yukky yellow tennis ball and he eagerly fetches it, happy you're willing to throw it again and again for him in different directions.

Sometimes you have guests over. Some of the guests like him and also scratch behind his ears. Others prefer not to be around dogs, and yours gets put outside or in the bedroom then.  He lies in his bed, but hears your voice and wishes he were inside, too.

Some days, after you get back from the park, you sit in a chair and pick up something small and square and stare at it.  Occasionally you move pieces of it; sometimes you laugh out loud while you're looking at it.  Other times you look very sad.  Most of the time, you just stare at it.

Other days, a little metal box makes a noise, sometimes like a few notes of music, and you grab it and hold it to your ear.  You talk, not the same tone that you talk to your dog, and seldom the same words.  Sometimes you get animated when you're talking into the little box.  Sometimes your voice gets very quiet.

Nearly every night, you sit in front of a bright screen and move your fingers on a flat piece of metal that taps.  Sometimes the screen makes music and has changing pictures on it; most of the time it has black and white marks, and boxes of color, sometimes moving boxes of color.  You hold your hand on a bump and move the bump around in a small area on your desk, and it clicks.

Some nights, you sit in front of a large flat screen with moving pictures.  Voices of people come out of it, and the colors change and switch and sometimes seem familiar.  Sometimes you laugh so hard you nearly cry; most of the time you just sit there, looking at it. Once in a while you walk to the refrigerator and get food and then bring it to eat while you stare some more at the screen.

Once in a while you take your happy and eager dog to the vet.  When you drive close to it, he starts to shake. He knows this is a place of pain, but he doesn't know why you want him to feel it.

This is your dog's life.  What does he understand? When you leave in the morning, does your dog know where you go?  Does he understand when you're sitting at your computer that you're reading about events on the other side of the world? Does he know there is another side to the world?

When you sit in your chair reading a book, does he understand that your mind envisions Elizabethan England, or theories of mathematics, or the punchlines of Garfield cartoons?  Can he understand abstract ideas like justice, the court system, prejudice, war?

Can your dog comprehend that when he goes to the vet, the sharp puncture he receives will keep him from getting deathly ill?  Can he understand when you talk on the phone that you're expressing emotions to people far away?  Or the sale of a property? Or ordering a pizza you'll pick up in 20 minutes?

There's a lot a dog can't ever comprehend.  But your dog has a pretty good life, on his simple, two-dimensional dog-level.

Can we ever understand God?  If not, does that mean he can't exist?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Last Word on the Woman "Rabba" Controversy

I received a thoughtful comment taking issue with my belief that in Orthodox Judaism, the title "rabbi" should be reserved for men.  Rather than post my lengthy response among the comments, I felt it important enough to reproduce and answer here.

First, the original comment about my previous post from "LRS," followed by my rebuttal.  Comments on that are welcome, of course, but I think I'll be writing future posts on other issues calling my attention.

Here are LRS's remarks:

Pardon me, but I think you are making an unfair assumption here. While some women involved in the movement to advance female leadership in the Orthodox community may be motivated by a quest for recognition, others certainly have purer motivations.

I personally know women who have taken on major leadership roles—not as Rabbas, but in synagogue positions which serve essentially the same functions—who are wonderful, giving people performing what they believe to be an incredibly important service to the community, and I don’t doubt that some of the women studying for the title of Rabba have similarly admirable motivations.

There are a plethora of reasons why having women leaders side-by-side with rabbis would be beneficial to the Orthodox community; assuming that the only possible motivation is an inferiority complex or an inflated ego, leading to an unfettered desire for deference and recognition, is condescending, unfair, and inaccurate.

Having educated women in positions of leadership, with official titles and official roles in the synagogue, provides inspiration to the women of the community, gives young girls positive role models to emulate, and allows female congregants to ask questions they would not feel comfortable addressing to a male rabbi.

Additionally, having women as leaders is important precisely because of the gender differences you are so insistent upon. Giving congregants the chance to learn Torah as only a woman can teach it, to receive counseling from someone attuned to emotions in a different way, to connect to Judaism through a female—as well as a male—perspective, broadens horizons and increases understanding. And contrary to what you may say, a rebbetzin--even a rebbetzin with no day job to distract her--does not fill these needs in a comparable fashion.

Your sweeping generalizations indicate that you haven’t thoroughly considered this issue, and likely have not spoken to anyone who believes sincerely in the cause of women’s leadership. I hope you will pause and recognize that this question is not as simple as you have made it out to be.

And now my response:

LRS, thank you for your respectful tone. I completely support women's active leadership, and I consider myself a feminist, derogatory as that term has become.

The difference between Orthodoxy and the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism is adherence to halacha. Is it halacically forbidden for a woman to be called "rabbi"? I'm not an authority, but I'd guess probably not; again, I don't mind calling people whatever title they prefer. And, I cheer and appreciate the enormous amount of effort and expertise women currently provide the Jewish world, from which I benefit greatly. Women do serve side-by-side with men, and have for millennia, but why is it only now necessary for these dynamic, scholarly women to have the same title as men? Those who hold that changing times require change in established halacha and minhag share the viewpoint of the Conservative and Reform branches, and can be ordained as Rabbis there.

While I fully believe “Rabba” Hurwitz selflessly offers her time and expertise “for the sake of heaven,” and her many beneficiaries, I conclude that a desire for recognition, (not “inflated ego” or “inferiority complex”), at least for future scholarly female leaders, must fuel the “rabba” initiative, because I can’t find any halachic reason for the invention. To the contrary, the only precedent in Orthodoxy is that women are leaders and scholars under respected titles like “teacher,” “President of the Board,” “Principal,” and “rebbetzen.”

 “Rabba” Hurwitz cites biblical and Talumudic achieving women as her inspirations, none of whom had a particular title, even during times when men were called “Rebbe.” In her ordination speech, “Rabba” Hurwitz cites Devorah (the prophet), Yalta, (identified as “wife of Rabbi Nachman”), Bruriah (wife or Rabbi Meir), “The Wife of Jonah” (who is nameless and only known as a wife), Hanna Rochel Verbermacher (“the maiden of Ludmir”—she had no husband with whom to identify so was called “maiden”), and Osnat Barazani, (“the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Barazani”). None of these stellar examples were titled “Rabbi;” most are identified in connection with a male.

The problem for me is a more basic and philosophical one. A fundamental and biblically-based concept rooted in halacha is that men and women are intrinsically different, and that a man and woman joined in marriage is the unit by which people identify, find fulfillment, and relate to the community.

My main point is that denoting a woman as a rabbi, equivalent to a man, blurs the gender distinction (and making distinctions is what Judaism is all about--havdala emphasizes this).

And it detracts from the couple as the central unit. Having a rabbi and rebbetzen serve the wide-ranging needs of a community has not only met those communities' needs throughout Jewish history, but provided role models for others about living halacically and placing priorities.

Priority in Judaism is not on an individual's success, but on the family, on the couple working toward the same goals and confronting problems via the differing perspectives each can bring.

As far as I'm concerned, men and women should both offer their talents in the religious realm, and both should receive respect and recognition for their contributions. It's just important that each gender's unique characteristics and vantage be acknowledged rather than combined or negated. And it's important that the Torah approach to gender roles (confirmed by brain research) be maintained: women are hard-wired with abilities that incline toward the private, family domain while men are hard-wired with abilities that incline toward the public, competitive domain.

That doesn't mean either are limited to those inclinations, only that the system is set up to honor and facilitate them, and calling women and men both "rabbis" suggests misleadingly that they're the same.

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Rabba" title and Ego: Why do women want to be man-clones?

A dear friend read my post that suggested that ordaining Sara Hurwitz a "rabba" undermines marriage as the basis of Jewish life, and asked, "Don't these women (feminists) have enough to do in their lives? What, I wonder all the time, is it that they REALLY crave?"
Here's why competent women who are already leading push for the title; push to be equivalent to men. Be prepared; it may sound harsh.

They need, for their personal egos and self-esteem, to have deference and recognition. Therefore, when they’ve studied and teach and lead, they crave status; they want it emblazoned before their name that they’re learned and important.

 I do understand it somewhat, because once I got my Ph.D. I got to be called “doctor” for life. In the beginning, right after I’d just exerted myself to earn that degree, it was important to me to get some kind of reward/recognition of my accomplishment, and I loved being called “doctor.”

 But as time went on, I realized that I deserved that permanent recognition less and less. Why? Because I came to see being who I am doesn't earn respect--instead it's the outcomes of my actions.  My ego, I realized, should not be tied up in getting credit; my ego, properly, should be focused on how I impact other people. (That doesn’t mean I can be completely selfless, but I stopped putting “Dr.” as my title, and I’m conscious of the desire for affirmation vs modesty/humility).

I think there was a values-shift between say, the 1940’s, '50s and early 60s and afterward. Before, there was much more emphasis on serving others and being humble (after all, WWII required lots of sacrifice). But then Boomers became the center of attention and suddenly “giving kids confidence” and instilling self esteem was the major goal for education. Boomers were told they were wonderful, and what that did was establish that it was appropriate for kids to be honored; it was “normal” for kids to get egos massaged and elevated. From the 60s on, it became "all about us" as great and precious kids who could grab the world and bring peace and love and have great sex and be mothers/CEOs at the same time. With feminism, the world was unlimited; women could “have it all.”

Men didn't mind sharing the glory, because "liberation" got them more sex and less responsibility.

One indicator of the shift was that Little League decided to downplay “wins” and “losses” after girls were admitted. It reflected the broader view that nobody was a “loser” anymore. Everyone was a “winner.” With the “new math,” no longer did it matter if 2 +2 didn’t equal 4; all that mattered was that kids understood the concept of putting things together. “Very Good, Johnny; you came up with 5 and that’s almost right! And you understand that when you add two sets of things together, you get more of them!”

Feminists’ kids were thereby indoctrinated not only to have and do it all, but for everyone to pat them on the head for it. “Call me Rabbi! … because I expect you to tell me I’m important, and to recognize in your own little head that I AM important! Don’t just appreciate what I DO; tell me I’m great because of who I AM!”

I didn’t put all that in my first blog post, but the more I think about it, that’s the driving force behind feminists’ demands for the same title as a male rabbi.

I take Torah classes with excellent female teachers, most of whom are rebbetzens.  They can be comfortable and confident without being called "rabbi" because the Torah, the content, conveying it to students, and living it is what’s important.  Title is irrelevant.  They don't need public affirmation that they're erudite and competent.

Also, women who know Torah understand that sharing life with a spouse means support through the ups, downs, glory and daily strife—not as a man-clone, but as distinctly different.  Being a rebbetzen means serving the community, with its attendant honor and status.  Women not married to rabbis excel and serve as well, in titled capacities of all sorts, just not "rabbi."  Does that make their work inferior? Not at all.

As a woman sitting separately from men, behind (or next to) a mechitza (divider), there's something positive seeing men lead, participate and interact with each other; in the women's section in synagogue, I can be a voyeur into a male world, and that’s a very unique opportunity. Men don’t get that kind of opportunity to see into women's religious world, really. Then again, men are wired so they care about such things less, and women, more socially conscious, are wired to interpersonal dynamics more.

Maybe that's why feminists crave others' reinforcement so much--it's an expression of a social need.  For men, there's a competitive need, a desire to rank, to show superiority.  This isn't just sexist speculation, but what replicated research insists.

I don't mind calling Sara Hurwitz anything she wants to be called; I respect her considerable achievements, and even more, her continuing contributions.  But it's imperative that Judaism not be distorted to suggest that genders are interchangeable, or that a couple united in marriage isn't the basis for the fullest means of Jewish expression and accomplishment.