Thursday, March 25, 2010

The world's most misunderstood song lyrics (off topic)

My last post, which is much more important than this one, discussed a scenario involving Dad and his son the "baal teshuvah." Which reminded me of this song lyric, which I believe is generally misunderstood.

Before I go any further, let me concede that the authors of the song may well share in the misunderstanding. I respect authorial intent; this is not a deconstruction of the lyrics--it is the most straightforward understanding of them that I can think of. If the authors also misunderstand the lyrics, this may be because of a few poorly chosen words.

The song is "The Cat's in the Cradle," written by Sandy and Harry Chapin and sung by Harry Chapin. Most of you have probably heard it. The story has two characters, Dad and Son; it's told by Dad. At the beginning of the song, Dad is a jet-setting workaholic who doesn't spend much time with his family. Son "learned to walk while I was away." In his childhood, Son wanted to be just like Dad. At the end of the song Dad sings, "I'm long since retired," and Son now is an adult with adult responsibilities. Dad wants to have a visit with Son. As Dad puts it, Son says, "I'd like to, Dad, if I can find the time. You see, the new job's a hassle and the kids have the flu." As Dad hangs up the phone "it occurred to me, he'd grown up just like me, my boy was just like me."

Son doesn't have time to talk to Dad, therefore he grew up to be just like Dad. Except he didn't. Why did Son not have time for Dad? Because "the new job's a hassle and the kids have the flu." Son is participating in some way in the care of his sick kids. We can sympathize with Dad; he truly loves Son and now wants to bond. But "my boy was just like me" is just whining--whining about Son, combined with insight into how Son must have felt.

I don't think Dad is a bad person. He loves Son, and a big part of his intention in working so hard was probably to provide for his family. But we have no reason to accept his interpretation of what happened to Son.

No sale, ver. 2.0

Ver. 1.0, posted about three years ago, has been taken down because the tone was much too sarcastic. Believe it or not, ver. 2.0 is very toned down.

Some Orthodox rabbis allow, or even encourage, members of their synagogues to have their relatives' hametz sold in preparation for Pesah, even without the relatives' knowledge. To me this seems misguided. Why "misguided"? Because I'm being tactful.

Is such a sale really a sale? The certificate that the seller signs usually says that the transaction that's being arranged is a legal sale under both halakhah and the laws of the state that the synagogue is in. I'm skeptical. Would the state recognize a sale in which the seller not only hasn't authorized the sale, but doesn't even know about it? (Lawyers, please comment on this.) Does halakhah recognize such a sale? (Halakhists, you should comment on this too.)

I have heard someone raise the objection that theft might be involved. Dad (for example) might eat the Gentile's oatmeal. That's right--Dad is the thief in this scenario, not the "baal teshuvah" and the rabbi. The rabbi set the questioner's mind at ease: he should still have Dad's stuff sold, since owning hametz during Pesah is worse than theft.

Dad's kid thinks he's sold Dad's stuff, Dad is neither informed nor asked about the sale, Dad doesn't realize a penny from the sale, and this guy has the hutzpah to call Dad a thief. This is a much more serious untethering from reality than mere superstition would be.

And let's say Dad, whom his son loves and reveres because that's what such a pious person does, finds out about this transaction. Dad is an apikoros and therefore unreasonable about such things. "You sold my stuff? What were you thinking?"

"Dad, I did it for your own good. I realize it was wrong of you to steal the goy's food, but owning hametz on Pesah is worse than theft."

"So you're saying that because I have h instead of matzah on Friday night during Pesah, I'm worse than a thief? Although I'm also a thief because I ate food that you think you sold to some shaygetz--maybe even a shvartze." Apikorsim just don't understand what's important (and some of them are annoyed by "goy").

Now let's imagine the "baal teshuvah" didn't tell Dad about the scheme, and the Gentile buyer comes to pick up his purchase, or at least to inventory it. What a surprise for both Dad and the Gentile. Dad and the Gentile have two things in common (in addition to being surprised and not being Torah Jews)--both claim the same oatmeal, and both are probably appalled by this bogus transaction once they figure out what happened. Not only do you think you sold Dad's stuff, but you also think you authorized some stranger to wander into his home. To take his stuff. And what about the Gentile? He probably entered into the deal in good faith, imagining that only the actual owners were selling their stuff. The rabbi and the "baal teshuvah" are acting in bad faith with the buyer by selling stuff they have no right to sell. Also, the Gentile is probably one who doesn't hold negative stereotypes about how Jews do business. And this is how you deal with him? After the encounter with Dad, the Gentile goes to the rabbi and asks what gives. What can the rabbi possibly say that won't sound stupid, cynical, or both?

Another possibility: the Gentile comes over with some deranged-sounding story about having bought Dad's food. Tempers erupt. The police are called. Perhaps the press will print an accurate story about the deal. It would be a fake shandeh. Anti-Semitism on the part of the press!

OK. Maybe Dad finds out, maybe he doesn't. But let's say the "baal teshuvah" has a little bit of common sense left and suspects that such a sale isn't really OK under state law. He asks the rabbi. Maybe the rabbi thinks such a sale is obviously OK under state law because why wouldn't it be? Such a rabbi can be suspected of being short on common sense. On the other hand, maybe the rabbi sees the problem, but encourages the "baal teshuvah" to sign it anyway. Draw your own conclusions.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Four Sons shop for Pesach--Chicago, mid-twentieth century

Translation from Yiddish of the back cover (which is actually the front cover):

Be the Wise Son

The Jewish world is divided into four types. The wise one--the intelligent and independent Jew--is conscious of what he's doing and always shops at Lazar's kosher and pesachdik delicatessen just to be on the safe side.

The wicked one, on the other hand, doesn't keep kosher. He doesn't care if he treyfs up his house or his very conscience. With the likes of him, there's nothing to say. With him, you have to do like it says in the Haggadah--set his teeth on edge.

Our greatest consideration is for the simple one and the one who doesn't know how to ask, which is what we call the kind of Jews who are easily fooled and the kind who don't know anything. To them we say, pay strict attention, and don't be ashamed to ask, and don't be afraid to speak up. They have to know that Yiddish signs and Yiddish talk don't make the meat kosher or pesachdik.

To be sure about kashrus, not to mention quality, and on top of that reasonable prices, shop and look for Lazar's pesachdik delicatessen. Come direct to Lazar's factory store, or look in grocery stores and delicatessens.

We take this opportunity to give our most heartfelt thanks to the Jewish people of Chicago for your great trust in our products. We spare no money and no effort to give the finest and kosherest products and best, fastest, and friendliest service.*

We wish our many customers, friends, and the Jewish people everywhere and especially in Israel a kosher, joyous Pesach, good health, and good luck for the whole year.

Mr. and Mrs. Sol Lazar and Family

* סוירוויס can also be translated as "soyvice."

Monday, March 08, 2010

Shabbat shalom

At a recent Shabbat lunch, one of the other guests, Alef, was complaining about the offensive behavior of his youthful "white trash" neighbors. Nobody there but us Orthos, so it was OK to talk like that.

What are we to make of "white trash"? The most cynical explanation I can think of is that in Alef's opinion, blacks are trash by default and whites are not, so if whites are trash, you need to specify. I reject this explanation because I choose to. Another possibility is that Alef wanted to show his lack of racism--whether or not he actually lacks racism--by making it clear that the people he objected to were white. And since in most contexts it's unusual for us melanin-deficient people to say, "Well, this white person did whatever he or she did," he used "white trash."

Then one of the other guests, Beyt, who used to live near where Alef now lives, asked some questions about the family. Beyt recognized them as the people who moved into her old place. The mother in the family is the daughter of a respected Jewish professional, and she married a non-Jew.

Shock!, tohubohu!, foofaraw!, and balaganism! at the table. These kids are Jewish? These kids are Jewish! Vey'z mir!, gevalt!, shrek! Strong men weeping. Delicate ladies falling in vapours. Jewish people behaving obnoxiously? How can this be? And amid all the chaos, Alef was heard saying (and I'm not sure of the exact words--if I'd remembered my mp3 player, I would have recorded it), "Now that I know they're Jewish, I'm going to treat them better."

So now more questions arise. Had Alef been treating them abusively? If so, how would their not being Jewish have made that OK? Had Alef been reproving them appropriately? If so, why would he stop doing that because they're Jewish?

Another question, of course, is what a supposedly pious person--one who's into all this "image of God" stuff--is doing by calling anybody trash.

And if I'm sounding superior, that's unintentional, because my behavior at the table was unacceptable--I wimped out, didn't object to anything, sat on my mouth. As always.