Thursday, August 26, 2010

To learn Hebrew, just have fun...

My column this week is on my ongoing attempts to get my kids to speak Hebrew, and on my summer holiday in Israel:

Parallel universes exist mostly in the realm of science fiction. But this summer, I was privileged to enter my own alternative reality. For four weeks, I got to see a life I could have lived but don't, a child I could have had, but don't. I got as close as I will probably ever get to bringing up Israeli children.

It all began about a year ago, when I became determined to teach my two daughters Hebrew. This was, admittedly, partially about me - I grew up in Israel and speak the language fluently, and cannot imagine my children not sharing something so integral to my identity. But it was, far more so, about what I desire for them.

Hebrew is the key to Jewish texts and liturgy, and I do not want my children to be able to tackle them only one step removed, in translation.

I also want them to be able to talk to their Israeli cousins; and to forge a connection to the Israeli state, its culture and its people. While good Hebrew is not a prerequisite for a strong bond with Israel, surely those who overcome the language barrier can understand Israeli society far more deeply, and navigate it with greater ease.

At first, I concentrated on speaking Hebrew at home, but while my four-year-old seemed to understand most of what I was saying, she was always more comfortable answering me in English. Gradually, I hatched a plan. We were going to enrol her in a summer camp in Jerusalem, where she would be immersed in the Hebrew language, be exposed to vocabulary I would never give her, and mix with Israeli children.

Read the rest here, and come back here to comment...

How (not) to explain an eruv

The BBC is reporting on the planning application for an eruv in Bury, Manchester, prompting one friend of mine to ponder on Facebook why this might be of national interest.

As I recall, the Golders Green, Edgware and Borehamwood eruvim certainly sparked national interest when they were first announced (and, for GG and Edgware, put up), and perhaps the August silly season has prompted the BBC to revisit the topic yet again (in fact, they have missed a good angle about how, in the space of just a few years, eruvs have become completely normal in England, with planning applications moving along for almost every 'Jewish' neighbourhood in London, despite wrangling and resistance both internal and external).

What interests me, though, is the explanation given by Rabbi Guttentag for the eruv at the bottom of the short piece:

Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag said that the eruv would enable Jewish people to push their children and disabled relatives to the synagogue on the Sabbath and to live with "less restriction and difficulty".

He said: "The rules are that I'm allowed to carry in my own house and own garden with walls and a fence around it and therefore if we can designate an area out in the street that likewise has a devoted boundary around it, then that too is a house in a larger sense - and a private domain.

"It's not bending the rules, it's merely an understanding of them and an application of them."

This is, of course, the explanation always given - and, as far as I am concerned, one of the reasons that so many of our eruvs have encountered opposition. Accurate as the explanation may be, it makes Jews sound like crazy people, who discriminate against disabled people and their own children, are rule/law-obsessed (one of the traditional Christian complaints about Jews) - and the law we are talking about must sound very bizarre to those not familiar with Jewish traditions, as well. (I recall in particular talking to some random woman on the train about the GG eruv - long story - and having her ask me whether the eruv was something 'only Jews could see'.)

A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak on television about the Borehamwood eruv, and consulted widely about how to explain it in terms that anyone could understand. Finally I decided to explain that it was a form of 'parish boundary'. It may not be completely accurate, but it makes sense to the wider community and I think diffuses many of the objections the more legalistic explanation is bound to raise.

I hope that as the Manchester eruv progresses, those in charge of getting it approved adopt some kind of similar explanation, because in London, the public relations battle has been a difficult hurdle - partially, I think, because of our inability to explain in layman's terms what it actually is.

UPDATE: This is how the eruv was explained in Sydney, Australia - as a 'fence' and 'private area'.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Most bizarre chuppah?

The LA Times is running an amusing/horrifying story on the wild extravagance of Persian weddings in California, with many of the examples coming from the Jewish Persian community, which has a significant presence in Los Angeles.

I particularly liked the following detail:

Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz... recently attended a wedding in Las Vegas with 900 guests. At another wedding, he was shocked to find spinning helicopter-like propellers over the chuppa, a traditionally plain structure under which vows are exchanged.

Surely there are easier ways to keep the bride cool? Haven't they heard of airconditioning?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Did the ancient Israelites feed their dead?

DovBear speculates that they did.

Some Lady...

While VS Naipaul is engrossed in a row over his portrayal of Africa, his wife's comments on Jews have gone unnoticed.

In the Times Magazine on Saturday (sorry no link - it's behind a paywall), Lady Naipaul casually comments:

"What have they done for him here [in the UK]?... He gets the Nobel and there's not even a letter from Downing Street. You have to be a Jew, Alan Yentob or something, to get up there. It was the Indians who celebrated...."

Worst of all, the interviewer, the highly talented Sathnam Sanghera, doesn't even call her on it. Apparently those kinds of comments aren't even noteworthy any more.

UPDATE: Sathnam Sanghera replies, via Twitter:

you're right, I should have called her up on it. but it came as I was literally getting out of the car to catch train.

plus it came after 2 hours of not dissimilar comments directed variously at Africa, the English and Indians