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A little more about the Shacharis minyan I go to Sunday mornings...

The shul I grew up with was, for the area, an old shul. It was founded in the early 1900s, when Eastern European Jews who'd come to New York in the First Wave were starting to move out of the city proper. There was the town it was founded in, which over the next fifty years became a small but significant manufacturing center, and there was farmland all around in every direction. It was an Orthodox synagogue, more or less, but Orthodoxy meant something a lot different back then before the War. It was the only synagogue, is more to the point, and people davened there regardless of how observant they were. In the 1920s, as the Jewish community grew, they moved to a bigger building: a fussy, idiosyncratic building that could be radically reconfigured as the community needed for different functions.

The community grew, and Judaism in America changed- in the 1950s, the shul hired a new Rabbi who was from the first class of the new Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ- the earliest post-war establishment of organized Charedi Judaism in America. Ironically, though BMG would ultimately become one of the major forces moving Orthodoxy rightward, the Rabbi who went to my shul went with dispensations from BMG to make allowances for the lack of observance in the community- over time, my shul's identity became blurred, a synagogue with a brilliant, well-trained Orthodox Rabbi and a mostly non-Orthodox congregation that nonetheless refused to affiliate officially with either the Conservative or Orthodox movements. In the '70s, as the farmland turned into suburbs, larger officially affiliated Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform shuls opened in the adjacent townships, drawing members from my shul.

But my shul still had history, it still had a strong sense of community, it had character, and it still had a brilliant Rabbi, who served the community for almost fifty years. He performed my bris and my bar mitzvah, and then when I was a teenager he retired. The shul then ran through two Rabbis in the next five years, losing members by the score the whole way. When I was away at college the shul folded. It formally merged with a Conservative synagogue a few towns away, but it sold its building to a Hispanic church and it distributed its remaining assets not only to the shul it officially merged with, but to the five or six other shuls, of all three denominations, its members fled to.

And since then, its members daven all over the place, or they've lost shul affiliation altogether, and mostly I see them on the occasion of a shiva minyan when an old member dies, but the people who ran the morning minyan were able to get the Jewish county Federation (an umbrella organization that runs charitable community services and distributes money to other Jewish community organizations) to let them use their building for a daily prayer service during the week. So this small group of people- we struggle to get a prayer quorum on time most days, unless someone has a yahrzeit and puts out a special call- reunites as a minyan in exile to keep this community alive.

When I daven there, I'm usually the youngest person there by thirty years, and most attendees are even forty or fifty years older than me. It's a wonderful group of people of diverse religious beliefs and life experiences- college professors and a judge, and electricians and construction workers, most of them retired or working reduced hours. We've all known each other for decades - even me, I've been davening in this minyan with these people since I was thirteen, I was the only kid who stayed on and kept davening there after bar mitzvah, and we're comfortable yelling at each other and bickering with each other and teasing each other.

And I don't know how long it will last. The shiva minyans for old members grow more frequent, and the minyan is in a tenuous condition where if it loses three or four regulars that might be enough to end it. it won't be the end of the world if it does end, either. This is not a "Minyan Man" scenario where losing the minyan means people won't be able to constitute a minyan if they need it. Everyone in the minyan has an alternative minyan that is probably closer and more convenient and integrated into their full-time synagogue that they could go to instead. We choose to daven together instead, to temporarily reconstitute a vanished community. It'll be sad when it falls apart.
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Things I did today

-Made it to davening for all three services
-Ran laundry (new, nonleaky washing machine just installed by landlord!)
-Baked challah for the next couple weeks
-Paid electric bill and did other financial stuff
-Filed old health insurance paperwork
-Cleaned my apartment
-Biked about five miles
-Finished another draft of my new vid and sent to betas
-Watched the Giants game :(

Fairy productive Sunday :)


Sep. 22nd, 2016 10:08 pm
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Pitch, the new TV show about the first female Major League baseball player, was amazing!!!!

The baseball looked real, the story beats felt right but also felt realistic enough that they could drive a serious drama rather than a classic feel-good sports movie, and Ginny was awesome. I can't wait to watch more of this show.
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The Empress, The Queen, and the Nun: Women and Power at the Court of Philip III of Spain by Magdalena Sanchez

Alternately infuriating and fascinating, an academic re-examination of the historical view of the roles of Empress Maria, Philip III's aunt and grandmother, Queen Margaret of Austria, Philip III's wife, queen, and cousin, and Margaret of the Cross, Maria's daughter who took vows as a nun, possibly as an alternative to having to marry her cousin Philip II and possibly out of sincere devotion to the Faith. The trio were the most visible and notable Habsburg women at the court of Philip III, and I mention all their family relationships to highlight what Sanchez does repeatedly, that family and politics were intertwined deeply for the Habsburgs and this reality enlisted the Habsburg women as powerful political agents on behalf of the House of Austria, in spite of a significant literature composed by the Habsburgs' allies that suggested that these women were pious Catholic women who did not engage in politics but only served their nations as wives, mothers, holy women, charitable givers, and other positive stereotypes of early modern femininity.

The main reason the book is annoying to read is that Sanchez demolishes this anti-feminist Habsburg propaganda literature fairly quickly and extremely effectively and then spends the rest of the book repeating herself. Not just repeating her arguments- repeating her facts.

Sanchez shows how power in Philip III's Spain was driven by two things only- access to the King and access to his privado, or personal favorite, who for most of the period discussed in the book was the (infamous) Duke of Lerma. The privado served as a sort of informal chief minister, capable of speaking in the King's voice within certain limits. And while in official political settings, the King and the Duke of Lerma moved in exclusively male circles meeting with the Council of State, various ad hoc committees, and diplomatic envoys from other nations, the reality of the King's court was much broader and included significant room for female access to the King. As a devout Catholic, much of the King's day often involved religious activities such as attending masses, giving money to poor people, and visiting convents and monasteries. And those activities were often undertaken with his wife, and often led to interacting with other royal women, including his aunt and cousin, who lived in the Descalzas Real convent that was adjacent to the royal place in Madrid.

Sanchez lays out the evidence for this reality, that King Philip was constantly talking to and being influenced by his female relatives, and that the serious players at court were aware of this and that they moved within spheres of influence including those whose agendas were set by Empress Maria and Queen Margaret of Austria. She draws from the memoirs and letters of male diplomats at court who knew that if they wanted to advance the Austrian Habsburg agenda, their first call wasn't to Lerma but to Empress Maria. She talks about how these womens' agendas began with protecting the interests of their Habsburg relatives in Central Europe but expanded outward from there to encompass other personal political agendas- rewarding trusted allies, establishing legacy-making institutions, providing for the poor and needy. She uncovers the way Lerma tried to gain influence over Queen Margaret by planting his relatives as ladies in waiting to the Queen, and how Queen Margarget kept suborning his spies and forcing him to install new spies, and how the Queen's allies were able to use the Queen's sudden death as a political tool against Lerma because of the seeds of doubt in Lerma's loyalty that the Queen skillfully planted during her lifetime. She highlights how Lerma's desire for an isolationist public policy, a Spain-First policy involving negotiated peace with England and other traditional rivals in order to build the wealth of Spain and consolidate a century's gains against the Moors, warred with Philip III's ties and obligations to support his Austrian Habsburg relatives in their wars against Protestants and Muslims to the East and North.

The first three chapters or so were great, but as I got deeper and deeper into the book these details just got rehashed again and again in new variations. Chapters 4-6 barely had any new ideas or facts the first three chapters don't have. I got more and more desperate for any kind of new argument or perspective.

And then we got one, and it was even more infuriating- a final chapter on the melancholy and illness of Empress Maria, and how it was a political tool wielded to influence Philip III and the Duke of Lerma. Basically this chapter reduced its discussion of melancholy to "Empress Maria pretended to be sick in order to manipulate men."

Sanchez doesn't have much evidence of this beyond outcomes- sometimes when Empress Maria claimed melancholy, she ended up achieving some political objective, or sometimes just a thing that one might suppose was a political objective, like getting more visits from King Philip III. She has no letters between Empress Maria and her political allies where Empress Maria says that she's going to feign melancholy. Nonetheless she tries to argue that her melancholy wasn't a disease afflicting her but a pose used to communicate displeasure.

This makes me so angry because I have science!feels about humor medicine. Which is kind of ridiculous, I know. On the one hand, humor theory is completely wrong. The body has far more than four fluids whose regulation is necessary for the operation of the body, these fluids have no connection to the four elements, except in very rare cases these fluids do not get out of balance in a way where draining or infusing one of the fluids is going to help a person medically... As a medical theory with any relation to a realistic description of the body's processes, humor medicine is mostly bunk. As a medical theory offering any useful advice toward treatment, humor medicine is completely bunk.

But as a symptomology, that is less true. Here's what I mean by that: We know depression is a illness caused by brain chemistry problems. This did not start being the case when scientists disxcovered the faulty neurological processes, it was always a human condition that some people had. Likewise, the flu existed before we discovered the microbe. And it was doctors in the Galenic/Hippocratic tradition who treated them, and recorded the symptoms in their records. The science was fake, in other words, but the symptoms were real. They were using humor medicine to treat people who actually had the flu. And to treat people who actually had schizophrenia, and people who actually had depression.

It's not very clear how to map 'melancholy' onto the modern diseases of clinical depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophenia, etc... Probably it included all of them to some degree, and brain tumors, as well as other physical ailments that caused mental struggles, and probably it also included some things that modern science would not call disorders of any kind. Sanchez notes that Queen Margaret reported periods of melancholy after her pregnancies- we would today likely call that post-partum depression.

It seems... really toxic to me to treat melancholy, since it is a fake disease created by unsystematic doctors compositing various symptoms together under the false theory of humor medicine, as reflecting fake symptoms. Even today we as a culture are bad at treating depression as a real disease. I certainly am not proposing to diagnose Empress Maria as suffering from clinical depression from across five centuries- not only am I unqualified to diagnose anyone with any mental illness, but the facts in the historical record are ambiguous and mental illness seems to me to at least partially encode culture, so diagnosing a 16th century woman with clinical depression is meaningless. But I'm proposing that we ought to assume that when people claimed the symptoms of melancholy in the 16th century, they were claiming symptoms of a disease that they were legitimately suffering from, unless we actually have evidence to the contrary.

In any case, I read this book so that I could learn more about Philip III's Spain, toward eventually writing a Pirate Rabbi novel. It was definitely helpful in that regard... The impressions I held of the Duke of Lerma and Catalina de la Cerda and which informed "Chasing Pirates" and "If We Were All Wise Men" seem to me to have been inaccurate in some respects, and I would have written those stories differently had I written them with knowledge of this book. It also gave me a closer and deeper sense of how Catholicism informed the court, which is essential knowledge to a story about Jews navigating the court. In the end, it was a valuable read.
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Now You See Me 2

I loved the first film enough that I actually requested it for Yuletide one year. Somehow the release of the sequel slipped past my awareness until Facebook started spamming me with ads for it, at which point I made a point to watch it.

I was disappointed by the sequel. It didn't ever seem to get its footing in the way the first one did in terms of telling interesting stories about the characters, and it seemed less enthralled with the power of magic and more convinced that magic was the refuge of manipulative misanthropes. NYSM skated past its imprecise plotting by being such a joyful film. NYSM2 was largely joyless.

Lizzy Caplan was a rare exception- stepping in for Isla Fisher as the token female Horseman, she brought energy and mystery and comic sexiness to the film that it desperately needed. That being said, it would've been better if the film had more interesting female characters besides her- Sanaa Lathan's police supervisor seemed like her scenes had probably been cut back, based on her lack of interaction with Dylan or any of the Horsemen, Melanie Laurent's French detective from the first film was sorely missed, and I'm disappointed that my weird pet theory about Hermia, Bradley's assistant, being more important to Bradley's plans than the first film suggested got no further evidence in film 2. The presence of the token female Horseman is grating no matter how cleverly they subvert it, and how effective the character actually is. I will say that I appreciated how intentionally they made it clear that she was not Atlas's new love interest.

And then you had Atlas and Jack get basically no character development, and the weird thing with two Woody Harrelsons had no emotional payoff in the end. Bradley was great (Morgan Freeman being morally ambiguous, duh), and we got one awesome Bradley/Tressler scene (they were definitely a couple at some point, right?), but then the Bradley/Dylan stuff had the laziest payoff because I guess they've shoved resolving Dylan's daddy issues for real to the third movie. Obviously Lionel Shrike is not dead, they've been hitting us on the head with how obvious that is for two movies now (First Jack's fake death, then Mabry's fake death... then Dylan surviving despite being apparently killed in literally the same vault that apparently killed his father), but they're unwilling to reveal him yet.

But Mabry was the movie's biggest problem. Daniel Radcliffe playing a manic sociopath was supposed to be the big new addition to the movie, the thing that upped the ante from the first film, but he was just not amped up enough to really be scary to the Horsemen. He never pushed any of his scenes far enough, never made it seem like he was actually worse than Tressler, and Tressler's mid-film reappearance undermined Mabry even further, making it seem like he wasn't competent enough to fight the Horsemen without assistance from papa. A demonic, soulless Daniel Radcliffe would have foiled Atlas perfectly, battle of the nerds for magical dominance, but he never got anywhere close to pushing Atlas, and the Horsemen coasted to a victory that was somehow both too easy and not easy enough- too easy because you never got the sense that they could actually lose, not easy enough in the sense that they were accomplishing their magical wonders with the breezy self-confidence of the first film's Horsemen.

In truth, the first raid on Octa was a monkeywrench in the film's sense of fun that they never really overcame. After showing the Horsemen so publicly humiliated, you would think that in addition to making contact with the Eye, there would be a sense of needing to prove themselves as stage magicians again, but that dynamic was left out of the film, so after that scene, I had lost confidence in the showmanship of the Horsemen, a confidence they never tried to re-earn. Was London a frothy triumph in the vein of the Vegas/France heist of the first film? Yes, but it had no character oomph behind it.
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Holy shit it's Yuletide time already.

Manhattan Project RPF

Because [personal profile] naraht's recent post reminded me of past requests. Nominated more or less my usual characters, Szilard, Teller, Bethe, Fuchs, I think? But as usual with this fandom my request will say I don't really care who in the cast of thousands someone is inspired to write about.

19th Century London Cholera Epidemic RPF

Because The Ghost Map made me want John Snow/Henry Whitehead fic.

A Void - Gilbert Adair

Uncertain about this nomination... can one truly request A Void fic, separate of La Disparition? I'm not sure, but seeing as I've only read A Void, seeing as how I've only ever read Perec in translation, and seeing how Adair's work is a massive literary accomplishment in its own right, it felt right. Of course, I'm going to have to figure out how to write my request as a lipogram, so... that's a whole thing now.
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An NYC community venue I've gone to a number of times for the New York Review of Science Fiction book reading series, the Brooklyn Commons, hosted a 9/11 Truther for a lecture last night. That's bad enough- Trutherism is completely untethered from truth and spreading lies about an event as personally painful as 9/11 is pretty morally awful in my book. But the particular Truther they hosted is of the sort who blames a Zionist Jewish conspiracy for causing 9/11. And who may also dabble in a little Holocaust denial on the side. When confronted about this, the Commons doubled down, issuing a letter defending their decision on the grounds that they don't vet speakers, and arguing that giving a space to racists is important because it teaches people the valuable lesson that racists exist- all the while continuing to claim the Commons was a 'progressive' space.

I was planning to go to a NYRSF event there tonight, with an awesome guest list including Keith DeCandido, Steven Barnes, and Emily Perrin-Asher to talk about Star Trek on the 50th anniversary of the first episode airing. I'm torn, but I've decided not to go. On the one hand, the organization that runs the NYRSF readings is not anti-semitic, not at all affiliated with the Truthers, and has condemned Brooklyn Commons for hosting this speaker. And I've been going to NYRSF events for more than a decade, they were one of my first entrypoints into organized SF fandom and I don't want that to be ruined because of decisions made by people they don't have direct control of. On the other hand, they rent the space from the Brooklyn Commons and so my money if I attended would be going ultimately to the group that has condoned and welcomed this vile anti-semite, given him this platform within my own community.

A friend of mine organized a protest at the venue last night. I wish I could have joined, but I already had plans- the whole situation came up suddenly. And the whole situation makes me sick. It's bad enough to combat anti-semitism in the general world, but when it creeps into your own communities, that's a whole additional level of difficult.

Tonight, [personal profile] freeradical42 and I are just going to watch Star Trek TOS episodes on our own instead.

Vid Amnesty

Sep. 3rd, 2016 10:17 pm
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[personal profile] kerithwyn says I should post this, so I guess I will. I feel awkward about it, though.

Blonde Redhead from ronarfelq on Vimeo.

password: fringe

The story of this vid is that DNA is a fake band started in the late 70s by three visual artists/performance artists who didn't know how to play instruments. Because it was the late 70s, they got gigs all over the Lower East Side anyway and developed a cult following for their raucous and enthusiastic bad songs. It was something called "no wave" that I remain baffled by now, but I kind of love their music because even on the recordings you can hear how passionate they are about BEING A FUCKING BAND. Ikue Mori, the band's drummer, eventually learned a little bit about electronic music and I learned of DNA by attending some of Mori's mid-2000s electronic music concerts on the Lower East Side.

DNA's 'hit', if you can call it that, is a 'song' called 'Blonde Redhead' with urgently hissed or sometimes blurrily drawled lyrics over dissonant guitar playing and a mostly steady, occasionally wobbly drumbeat. I once described it to [personal profile] sanguinity as 'DNA's songiest song'.

Because most of my vids start as puns, I decided to try to vid "Blonde Redhead" to the story of Olivia and Altlivia, the two versions of Fringe's Olivia Dunham who live in alternate universes and who are only different at first glance becauce Altlivia has red hair and Olivia has blonde hair. There is much more to the differences than that, ultimately- Altlivia walks more confidently, cracks jokes more easily, smiles more quickly... Anna Torv's two performances are a study in subtle acting. But at first glance, Blonde/Redhead is the fundamental contrast.

I put together a timeline, and I liked good chunks of it, but there were parts that were always intended as placeholders, so I could have something in the vid to explain when I sent it to betas asking for suggestions. Most notably is my one attempt at a significant visual effect, where I try to parallel the show's image of Olivia in Tankworld by using blurs and lighting effects to synthesize Altlivia in Tankworld. The result is a disaster. There are a number of other, less obviously terrible problems with the vid, and I uploaded it to Dropbox to share with a few people I trusted for advice.

Then my laptop was stolen and I lost my timeline. Since then, I've shared the draft I had saved in my email with a few Fringe fan friends I trusted, to show them where I got and what could have been, but I've been too demoralized by the loss of all that work to try to remake it and finish it. But to hell with it, here's the vid draft. It sucks in places, but in other places it's pretty fucking rad. But I'm never going to finish it, so what the hell, feel free to watch it, knowing I'm unsatisfied with it.
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Three years and two months since I started, I finished my reread of Moby Dick!!!

-The shift in tone is very gradual, and then all of a sudden the Typhoon hits and you are in the endgame. The atmospherics change completely to this dark, somber, foreboding tone that of course Melville is constantly subverting to hilarious effect. Every other chapter ends with a line foreshadowing Ahab's death. Ten or fifteen chapters from the end, Melville ends a chapter with "In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride." and all I could think was "Way to spoil the ending, Herman!"

-But it's actually really important, since I've spent so much time in these notes snickering at Melville, to note just how brilliant the last twenty chapters of Moby Dick are. Seriously, if you're not interested in reading the whole damn tome, I totally understand it. Parts of it are pretty much unreadable. But do yourself a favor and read from chapter 115 to the end. You won't understand everything- the hundreds of pages before really do matter, Melville actually does spend that time setting up plot points and building character arcs and he pays off way more of them than I'd remembered in the ending, but even without understanding all of those details, those last twenty chapters are a thrill ride from a master of action suspense who is also a literary technician par excellence. For once, Melville does pacing remotely conventionally, except it turns out that when Melville tries to do pacing normally, he fails because he just does pacing better than everyone ever. He matches short chapters against long chapters, quick chapters against quicker chapters, then slows you down with a gripping monologue from the troubled Starbuck, then speeds back up again. The ending is just as unconventional as the rest of the novel, truly, but it's so skillfully done that it feels like there's no artistry to it.

-And holy shit the scene with Starbuck and the musket is a fucking masterpiece of slow-built character development. "The very tube he pointed at me!—the very one; this one—I hold it here; he would have killed me with the very thing I handle now." That scene could have been so tedious, but it's the opposite of tedious. After "Cetology" I think it's my favorite chapter in the reread, because Starbuck's dilemma is so morally difficult- and it is so specific. Nobody else in the crew could have struggled with it in the same fashion, but Melville somehow gets you to this scene and you just, with every bone in your body, ache for Starbuck, because you know that no matter what choice he makes, he will regret it for the rest of his life, and he knows it too, knows there is no choice he can make that is truly a moral choice.

-All of a sudden at the end we get Ahab as a real person. He monologues for page after page after being this inscrutable mystery to Ishmael for the whole book. We learn about his first whaling trip, his feelings about his wife, his feelings about his son. We know more about Captain Ahab's backstory than we do about Ishmael's backstory! And what really struck me this time around is that the change only comes after the musket scene, because something changes at the musket scene, or really I suppose after the typhoon scene that immediately precedes it, but the musket scene lays it bare: Before, there was something heroic about Captain Ahab's pursuit of the White Whale. After the typhoon, after the first time when Ahab deliberately risks the lives of the crew to keep his pursuit hot, Ahab is no longer the hero of the novel. And Starbuck considers becoming the hero, but he too declines. By the end of the book, there is no hero, just a collection of madmen following a spectral whale to their doom.

-"There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!" And then we get the three days of the chase sequence, three days that Melville compares to Jesus's resurrection, because nothing in Moby Dick is a metaphor or a symbol, right? The chase is operating at so many levels of symbolism and character drama, but it is fundamentally an action sequence and a brilliant one, albeit a scene that would make little sense at all without all of the exposition that preceded it. Melville doesn't do exposition in the chase, he doesn't explain how harpoons work or when boats are set out, he doesn't explain who crews the boats and what their rowing tactics are. He's done all that already and finally we get to enjoy the fruits of that labor, a totally unadulerated action sequence that rings with incredible clarity because of how hard Melville has worked to get you there.

-I did want to address one of the levels, a level that is oddly absent from the ending. No mention is made whatsoever in any direct fashion of Bildad and Peleg, but there are hints: Ishmael writes that Ahab seemed to especially value the Pagan members of his crew, whereas he didn't trust the Christians. After the compass demagnetizes, he goes to extra effort to magnetize a new compass needle to appease the Pagans of their superstitions, and perhaps this special trust for the non-Christians comes from his knowledge of Bildad and Peleg's devout Christianity, a piety that extends only so far as to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. They have no room for vengeance on the seas, not because charity is Christian but because vengeance is expensive. Ahab knows that there is more to life than money, though, and because of this he is drawn to his non-Christian crew as natural allies against the Christians. Of course, in the end, Ahab is monstrous for this. There is a safety in working only for money, a righteousness. That is a strange form of true Christianity, but it's what seems to emerge.

-And then somehow fucking Ishmael escapes, floating away on Queequeg's casket life buoy. As if in some way he never really belonged in the story at all, as if Moby Dick somehow wasn't his story but that of Ahab and Starbuck. What the fuck, Ishmael?
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The summer I was fifteen, I went as an observant Conservative Jew to an Orthodox Jewish summer camp and came back wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit on a daily basis. I passed it off to my parents tacitly as some sort of conversion that'd happened at camp, but that wasn't really accurate. Jew camp was thoroughly ridiculous, in fact, but I didn't reveal most of the horrors to my parents until many years later. The basic principle of the camp was that all morning we studied Talmud and all afternoon we played sports and all night we did whatever the hell we wanted without supervision as long as we were awake the next morning for Shacharis davening. It was a strange unbalancing combination. It was an interesting experience for a few weeks, but it was exhausting and confusing and most of the time had very little to do with Judaism. One night those of us who were actually asleep at 3AM were awakened by our counselors- someone was friends with the dude responsible for closing the Baltimore kosher Krispy Kreme and had managed to score all of the leftover donuts from that night- several garbage bags full. They spread the garbage bags out on the hood of someone's car and urged all of the campers to eat as many stale donuts as they could. It was an incredibly surreal experience that did not bring me any closer to God, needless to say.

The truth is I'd been contemplating making some shift of the sort for months if not years before I went to camp- camp gave me an excuse and an impetus to make the shift. I found Conservative Judaism an uncomfortably tenuous place to be- I believed in Hashem and believed that at Bar Mitzvah I'd been obligated in Hashem's commandments, but I wasn't exactly clear on what Conservative Judaism said that obligation looked like. Conservative Judaism's answers to how to resolve the tension between modernity and traditional Judaism did not satisfy me and even in cases where today their answers do satisfy me, my teachers in Conservative Judaism often failed to do a good job of publicizing those satisfying answers. (Part of the problem, looking back, is that most of my teachers in Conservative Judaism weren't actually Conservative Jews. For want of qualified staff, my Hebrew Schools often hired a)Orthodox Jewish teachers and b)Secular Israelis who could teach Hebrew. Neither was equipped to intelligently articulate the philosophy and praxis of Conservative Judaism. But that's neither here nor there.) I was looking for an approach to Judaism that offered a deeper connection to Mesorah and I was looking to make a commitment to it. But I've never been the sort to make a blind commitment. I research and I research and I think and think, and then I jump. The jump I made that summer was in the aftermath of a long and serious negotiation with my faith, and the reality is that I'm still negotiating.

One of the things that was important to me in this negotiation with Modern Orthodoxy was making sense of Judaism's ideas about science. I already knew at 15 that I was probably going to end up a scientist or engineer- After those three weeks at Orthodox Jewish summer camp, I went straight to three weeks at a summer camp (CTY) where I studied number theory all day. I was (and still am) a giant nerd, an intellectually curious, skeptical, omnivorous bibliophile, and a strong believer in the scientific method, and I needed reassurance that there was a place in traditional Judaism for those parts of me. And people have a sense that religion and science are things in tension with each other, and there are reasons for that. Not always good reasons, but sometimes they are good reasons. They're fundamentally epistemologically different approaches to the world, and while I don't think that means you can't use both approaches, it does provide an explanation for why they might see the world differently. It is not, in fact, easy, to hold two visions of the world in your head at the same time. It's much easier if you can reconcile the two approaches so they're both seeing things the same way. You will find Jewish scientists on the Orthodox Right who say things like "People ask me if it's hard to be a scientist and an Orthodox Jew and I tell them No! When I'm doing my scientific work, I apply the scientific method. When I think about God and our place in the universe, I turn to Judaism." It does not strike me as being as easy to compartmentalize as that, for many reasons.

One of the texts that was really important and influential to me on this nebulous journey we might hyperbolically call a teenage religious epiphany was Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God. I've recommended the book to a number of people since then, including [personal profile] marginaliana. I sent her a copy for Yuletide bookswap, after she asked me how I thought about Creation and entropy, but I realized I hadn't actually read the book myself since I was 15 and my thinking about religion and science has changed considerably since I was 15, so I figured I ought to revisit it myself.

And, well, I can see why the book mattered to me at 15, but I am not the same person anymore, and the book does not well-serve the 31 year old me.

Schroeder's basic question is this: Genesis describes a particular story by which the World was Created. Many of the particulars of this story do not match the conventional presently dominant scientific narrative of the origin of the universe and the Earth. How should a religious person who wants to hold by the dogma that the Bible is unerringly true understand the tension?

And his basic approach to resolving the question is twofold: First, he asserts that the ancient Rabbis understood the narration in Genesis not literally and not as a metaphor, but as a sort of coded explanation of true events. And second, he asserts that if you can decipher the code, scientific revelation never contradicts Biblical revelation, and in fact affirms the hidden wisdom of the Torah and it's worldview.

I have less problem with the first prong of his approach than the second. It's pretty obvious if you spend any time learning traditional Jewish approaches to Genesis that most Rabbis don't expect you to read Genesis literally, but that if you start reading it metaphorically you're veering out of theism altogether. Which does not necessarily make such an approach non-Jewish. Obviously that kind of metaphorical reading is how observant Reform Jews tend to approach Genesis, though not exclusively, and I don't presume to speak to their theology. It also sort of appears to be how Ibn Ezra reads Genesis, if you take the ibn Ezra at face value, which is probably a bad idea since ibn Ezra is smarter and cleverer than you. And it's worth noting that there are some who do read it literally- the Lubavitcher Rebbe is noted for the claim that the dinosaurs may have been planted by Hashem to look older than they are, apparently as some sort of test of faith. There is a strand of tradition in Judaism particularly aligned with the Kabbalist/mystical tradition, in opposition to the rationalist strand, that believes that God miraculously maintains the universe from moment to moment and that because of the nature of this miracle, any effort to study archaeology or history or cosmology is useless. Schroeder barely acknowledges this tradition, but that's fine, most Jews I talk to on a regular basis usually don't either.

But the second prong is problematic to me. Schroeder uses as his proof texts of the Rabbis' wisdom a number of quotations from the Talmud, and from Nachmanides' (Ramban) commentary on Genesis. There is a confidence in his writing that suggests he's got an absolutely clear comprehension of these texts from the religious side, and he's using this comprehension to share the wisdom of the Rabbis with the reader. At fifteen I swallowed this up fairly unquestioningly, not because I felt Schroeder was some unerring Torah scholar, but because the interpretations he was placing before us seemed like fairly straightforward Torah interpretations.

But let me share with you one of the first things Nachmanides says in his commentary on Genesis. He's asking a question about the commentator Rashi, because Rashi famously opens his own commentary on Genesis by saying that it is puzzling that the Torah begins with Genesis, since there are no commandments in the Creation story, and the Torah is ultimately a vehicle for delivering the commandments to Israel. Nachmanides objects, since clearly if one knew for certain that Hashem created the universe in miraculous fashion, it would have an impact on their observance of the commandments, so why is Rashi puzzled? His answer is that Creation is a mystery and the narrative in Genesis does not actually explain it, and so therefore Rashi's question pertains- given that the Genesis account fails at its ostensible purpose, why open the Torah with it?

And one can question it, because there is great need to begin the Torah with "In the beginning God created" for it is the root of faith; and one who doesn't believe this and believes that the world is primordial is an apostate and has no Torah whatsoever. And the answer, it is because the work of creation - it is a deep secret - is not intelligible from the verses, and will not be understood by its students except through the received tradition up until Moses our Master from the mouth of God [lit. "The Strength"], and those who know it are required to hide it.

So I'm more than a little skeptical of Schroeder's assertion that Nachmanides's interpretation of Creation aligns with science's interpretation. Supposing it were true, it would actually mean Nachmanides failed at his purpose, which was to offer religious insight into the message the Torah was providing in Genesis while hiding that which he was obligated to hide about the true nature of Creation. Nachmanides explicitly says that he is not offering a scientific explanation of Creation!

But that's sort of a meaningless speculation without actually looking at what Schroeder's project means for his analysis of the scientific data. And here it gets a lot messier. The problem is exactly why the book was so useful when I was 15. I said to [personal profile] liv that The Science of God is Jewish apologetics, which does not work the same way as Christian apologetics does. Schroeder teaches a Judeo-scientific approach by way of the Ramban, but his main purpose is not to create a book teaching the teachings of the Ramban.

Schroeder's real purpose is to offer a Jewish counterpoint to secular atheistic popular science books- Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Gould's Wonderful Life, Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, and so on, not to offer the answers to the deep questions about Creation and its nature. The '09 edition that I'm reading now actually has substantial updates to add to the list of atheist popular science books he is parrying, including Dawkins's noxious The God Delusion.

And when I was fifteen, that's exactly what I needed, because those were the books I was reading, and I needed something in conversation with them. I was reading Gould and listening to him lay out this flimsy, speculative mechanism by which he thought evolution occurred and thinking "That doesn't quite add up," and I was looking for other ways to think about the bigger questions we grapple with when we think about the origin of humanity and our place in the the universe because Gould and Dawkins and Hawking weren't giving me what I needed. But most of the Jews I was talking to weren't giving me the answers I wanted, either. Most of the Jews I was speaking to about these questions weren't scientifically trained and they couldn't recognize the problems I was having with Gould and Dawkins and so on, so they couldn't articulate for me the appropriate Jewish counter-arguments. Schroeder at least was, more or less.

There is a dogmatic certainty in the writing of these materialist secular scientific giants that the gaps in their scientific knowledge will be filled with more and more materialist interpretations of nature until all the gaps are closed, and I found this faith wanting. But there's a trick Dawkins in particular pulls- he fills his works with so much legitimate evidence that it almost papers over the giant gaps in his knowledge. So a Jewish counterargument against Dawkins that I find worthwhile has to acknowledge and accommodate all legitimate evidence, while still finding value and truth in whatever it is the Torah says. And while rejecting all the clear nonsense Dawkins is pitching.

Now that I'm much more experienced as a scientist I see the flaws in those popsci books as scientific literature much more clearly. I therefore don't find refutations of them very interesting on their face because I recognize that disproving arguments advanced in popular science books is not equivalent to disproving the latest scientific theories, and furthermore, that disproving scientific theories is something that scientists do. It's epistemologically part of the process of doing science, it's not epistemologically part of the process of pursuing God. Seeing Schroeder pick up a particular oversimplified argument from Dawkins and knock it down is not a very fruitful exercise for me. I could do it myself, and have. But it doesn't say anything about the nature of God's universe to do so. But I guess it was a stepping stone to where I am now. Which is a deep, powerful uncertainty.

But to the book!

Schroeder tries out some old chestnuts from the book of bad arguments for theism. Quantum mechanics, says Schroeder, proves that miracles exist! Why? Because one of the elements of some parts of the theory of quantum mechanics is apparently 'effect without cause', which he says is the definition of a miracle. But this is only true of some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, while others preserve locality and causality. And in any case it's a baldly presumptuous linguistic game- the sort of 'miracle' quantum mechanics implies has very little to do with the sort of miracles the Bible treats with- the parting of the sea in Exodus, or the stopping of the Sun, in Joshua, or the swallowing of Korach in last week's Torah portion.

To a certain degree I'm being too hard on Schroeder. He's making a qualitative argument in a popular theology work, and if I were feeling more generous I could say that his point here is the same as the point he makes more effectively about the Big Bang Theory: Until a revolution struck the mid-20th century astrophysics world, the scientific consensus was toward a steady state theory that the universe had always been in the basic form it is now. However, the Bible and its believers firmly claimed that the Bible argued that the universe had a Beginning. Now, via a 'new convergence' (his term, not mine, definitely not mine), the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that there was a Beginning- and it is the scientific world that has shifted.

Similarly, we could say that Schroeder's point with respect to quantum mechanics is not that quantum mechanics is miraculous in the same way as Elijah being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, but that science until recently always claimed that causality was inviolate, that cause always preceded effect, whereas believers in the Bible insisted that there mechanisms by which effect could happen without cause, i.e. miracles. However, by the same 'new convergence', the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that causality is not inviolate. This is a much flimsier argument, though, and the original argument about Beginnings, which I just defended as being well-sounded by Schroeder, is rather flimsy and qualitative to begin with. There is the fact that the assertion about science and steady state hypotheses is less storybook-true than the theists would prefer, and there have always been 'scientific' theories about a beginning to the universe. I put 'scientific' in quotes because the problem for Schroeder's triumphalist narrative of science converging on the Bible is that until the 20th century there was no significant scientific evidence either for or against a Beginning of the universe, so any so-called scientific theories were just speculations with little basis. Even worse, there's the fact that seeing as many scientists, albeit with no real evidentiary basis, supposed the steady state hypothesis to be the truth, several great Rabbis, most famously Maimonides, tried to do what Schroeder attempts in The Science of God and reconcile the Bible with the steady state hypothesis. And likeweise in the centuries before the 20th, the majority of scientists were theists and believed in miracles, so it seems silly to claim a new convergence on the idea of cause not following effect as a vindication of the Torah over scientists.

Schroeder's problem gets even deeper when he leaves physics and moves on to tackle a proposed Jewish scientific approach to evolution. At least with physics, the basic effects are more or less understood in a quantitative way. There's a clear scientific consensus about the things he is talking about. Everyone agrees that the equations of relativity work in a specific way. The problem with evolution is that Schroeder is trying to prove that science agrees with the Bible, when science isn't even sure what it thinks!

It's inarguable that there are species that once existed and no longer do, and that these species have familial similarities with currently living beings that suggest that species change over time on a geological scale. It seems likely that one or some of the to this point poorly understand mechanisms of genetic mutation drive these changes that lead to speciation. But how this happens is not clear. Those Christians who argue against evolution in a scientific register make the argument that whole complex biological systems would seem to have been required to develop all at once, as it's implausible that partially developed versions of such systems would offer fitness advantages, an argument called 'irreducible complexity'. Schroeder is not interested in arguing against evolution, thankfully, or I would throw the book across the room. Irreducible complexity is a stupid, qualitative, sleight of hand argument. It looks at something really complicated, acting by mechanisms that we don't understand, and it concludes without evidence that since it can't figure out the mechanism, there must be no mechanism. Irreducible complexity is not something to place faith in. But it has a certain air of plausibliity to it. The truth is that we DON'T know where the human eye comes from, what kind of evolutionary mechanism might have had to occur for it to happen and how many steps there were along the way. And the plausibility of the irreducible complexity argument is a problem for Schroeder- if scientists cannot explain how these systems developed, how can he show that the scientific truth of how evolution works is in agreement with the Bible's description? Schroeder's general solution is to go through the counterarguments against all the current tentative hypotheses, as if to show that since none of them are right, the ultimately-to-be-discovered true explanation of evolution will necessarily have to agree with Genesis, since there is no known unresolvable incompatibility between the inarguable facts of evolution and the Torah, and in fact that the order in which God is described as creating different sorts of creatures in Genesis is in at least rough alignment with the current fossil evidence about the origin of species.

But this is much harder to show than Schroeder would like it to be, for all the reasons that Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books show so well- definitions of species and categorizations of species are not indisputable scientific truths, they're fuzzy categories applied by taxonomists for convenience. And this is both true in science and in the Bible, which each use different taxonomic categories because of their different purposes. In one notable place of conflict, Schroeder dispenses with the difficulty posed by Genesis 1:20 with a single sentence. Per NJPS: "And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl [עוֹף] fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.' " But this is too early, right after the appearance of liquid water, for birds to have evolved. Schroeder easily resolves this problem by retranslating עוֹף as 'flying creature', a translation he says is uncontroversial among Rabbis since צִפּוֹר is the true word for 'birds'. The truth is more complicated: The language the Torah uses does not align with modern scientific taxonomy, so it's not so simple to say that the Bible does not use עוֹף in the more specific sense. As R' Slifkin points out, as far as the Bible is concerned, winged creatures fall into only two taxons: kosher winged creatures, and unkosher winged creatures. Any further granularity is unnecessary. The idea of 'species' is not really in the picture. The idea of distinguishing between the dove and the bat by one of them being a mammal and one of them being an avian is not worth considering. This is not because the Torah is unscientific, it's because the Torah is not a 21st century science textbook! Most of the places where עוֹף is used in the Torah use the word as a figurative language where it doesn't matter whether it means bird or just winged creature, like several places in Daniel. So Schroeder could be right. But עוֹף is used in Leviticus, like in Leviticus 7:26, "And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl [ עוֹף ] or of beast, in any of your dwellings." In that verse, clearly it must be referring to birds more or less as we currently understand them, since it's talking about the laws of kashrut and non-bird flying things are not kosher, so nobody would possibly think the verse is suggesting that you would consider eating the blood of generic winged creatures. So while resolving the scientific discrepancy as Schroeder does is possible, it is not incontrovertible the way he suggests it is.

Beyond the argument for alignment, Schroeder attempts, even less successfully in my opinion, an argument against 'randomness' in evolution. I put 'randomness' in quotes because it remains unclear to me exactly what principle Schroeder is objecting to, other than pure materialism in general. According to Schroeder's 'randomness' paradigm, every time a DNA transcription error occurs, it is like a four sided coin is being flipped. Some almost completely hypothetical number of such coin flips must go in the correct way, over a certain period of time, for new biological pathways to be installed in a genome. I don't think this is the right way to think about evolutionary statistics, as I've said before. The probabilistic alternative isn't no change, it's a different change.

That is to say, suppose we play a game with a four sided die. I tell you, "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey kiss, if it rolls anything else, nothing happens." That's the game Schroeder is imagining. Now suppose we play a different game: I tell you "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey's kiss. If it rolls a three, I'll give you a Mounds bar. If it rolls a two, I'll give you a bag of M&M's. If it rolls a one, nothing happens." That's the game as I see it. The probability of getting a Hershey Kiss is the same in both games. But the meaning of getting a Hershey Kiss is different. If you start with the end result: I have a Hershey kiss in my hand... then you can calculate and say it's a fairly improbable event. There was only a 25% chance of it happening. But if you asked what the probability of something happy-making happening was, it's 75%. The difference is considering the possibility of other different but positive outcomes.

Both Schroeder's arguments on the Big Bang and evolution are buttressed by the book's biggest and most notable construction, which is to use General Relativity and a 'universal' non-Earth based frame of reference to construct a relativistic time clock for Creation. Essentially, if you plot the temperature of the cosmic background radiation on a polar natural log plot with the time constant being the expansion rate of the universe, you get the time dilation of time on Earth relative to time at the beginning of Time itself. This works out to roughly six logarithmic time half-periods. Depending on how you calculate the expansion rate of the universe, obviously, which is in some dispute, so it could be five and it could be seven, I guess. Each of these successive time periods is roughly half the length of the previous, in the Earth's current relativistic frame of reference. The result is that if you call each of these periods a 'Day' for Torah purposes, each successive day is zooming in closer and closer on the story of Earth and humankind. (In a really weird moment, Schroeder says "I do not claim my calculation is any more accurate than +/-20%", which is weird because what is he asking you to believe? That when Hashem composed the Bible, what was actually meant was "And it was evening, and it was morning, Day 1 +/- 20%""??? More likely he's asking you to take on faith that since his calculation came close, as science refines its calculation of the age of the universe it will get closer and closer to his cosmic clock, but this is the same problem I complained about with Dawkins and Gould. Being close but not quite there sometimes means you're close to true understanding, but it sometimes means you're missing some important factor. In my lifetime as a scientist, I have been off by 20% for some pretty colossally important reasons.)

Schroeder uses this idea of a cosmic relativity clock to claim that the various events that happen on each Genesis Day align with the events that scientists believe happened in each time period. The similarities he finds are compelling and fascinating, but not convincing, because the science is not certain enough for it to be convincing. Scientists think that life appeared about 500 million years ago, based on radiation dating of the earliest fossils and hypothesizing about the nature of the origin of life. This aligns with Schroeder's clock reasonably well, but this scientific idea is based on us not finding earlier fossils and not finding any calculation errors in our radiation dating, and all sorts of assumptions that are not set in stone, as it were. Darwinian gradualism, which scientists now think is generally implausible, was a plausible interpretation of the fossil record as it stood when Darwin was writing, and it is the quite-recent discovery of further components of the fossil record that has cast doubt on the idea of gradual evolution. Furthermore, there are some types of creature that because of body type cannot be discovered in the fossil record- our knowledge of their evolution is much weaker. If the science refines its calculations and pushes some events out of one period into the next, is Schroeder going to be sunk on his reliance on in-progress science? Defenders of Genesis's primacy can't be dependent on the latest science. They can point to it to show it holds no contradictions, perhaps but they can't assert it as a truth on its own because it's built on assumptions and suppositions. Schroeder's cosmic clock is not a dependable proof of Hashem's creation, just a cute game to tease people with.

And furthermore, have you tried reading Nachmanides's commentary on Genesis? It's incredibly hard to read and interpret and most of the time I have no clue what it's saying. If you actually read Schroeder against Ramban, as I did this time, you realize that what he's pointing to as uncanny similarities with the scientific narrative are small sections carefully selected from the account. That's not an accusation of deceitful manipulation on Schroeder's part, mind. He uses all the comprehensible parts and his translations seem reasonably fair to me. It's just that so much of Ramban's understanding of Genesis is not part of Schroeder's schematic, because so much of Ramban is abstruse metaphysics pointing toward, apparently, the hidden Torah of Genesis he's not allowed to discuss. Much of the Ramban's commentary on Genesis, Artscroll's Ramban Chumash refuses to translate because it considers it to be Kabbalah not meant for the common reader. It's hardly worth the effort of keeping it secret, though, because when I try translating it on my own it makes no sense to me. One wonders if in a hundred years, with advancements in cosmology, a new generation of Schroeders will be struggling to explain how those incomprehensible Kabbalistic passages correlate to the new theory of the start of the universe.

The truth as I see it is that the Torah is its own greatest defender. The words of Genesis have an evocative power that speaks to me and testifies to its own truth, and that is the truth I see echoed in the commentaries of the great Gedolim of Jewish history, of Rashi and Rambam and Ramban and Rif and Ibn Ezra and so on. All the answer Ramban need have provided to Rashi's question, if you ask me, is that the Torah began with Genesis to prove that God's creation matters. To tell us that it is a challenge to all Jews to try to ask questions about God's universe, and to wonder where it came from and how it came into being. The Torah is blessing scientific pursuit and linking it to the mitzvot. Reading further into the words of Genesis is worthwhile without having any expectation of revelation of the great secrets of the text. Still, fifteen year old me appreciated that Schroeder made the effort even if he didn't really get anywhere solid. Thirty one year old me wonders how he got as far as he did without questioning the effort.

Ultimately, what Schroeder reassures me of is not that Nachmanides's evocation of Creation is convincing or accurate, but that there is a plausible reconcilation. I don't need the specific reconciliation. I've never needed the specific reconciliation- God as Jews understand God is not a falsifiable proposition. But the ideas Schroeder lays out, though I don't believe them, suggest that at least a similar approach might actually be accurate. Or not, I don't really know where science will go in its explorations of God's universe.

So going forward, when friends ask me for books to read about Judaism and science, I do not think I will continue to recommend The Science of God. I think instead I will invite them to join me at a bar over a beer to talk about Judaism and science. I am in a place right now where I don't have all the answers, but I think that might be the more productive way to advance the conversation.
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The Big Short directed by Adam McKay

There are times, and now is one of them, when I have the sense that most of the success of the Judd Apatow empire is the result of Adam McKay being a comic genius.

So... The Big Short is a parody of Moneyball. All of my problems with Moneyball? Adam McKay is aware of them and he devotes considerable effort to lampooning them. (He also minors in lampooning Scorsese's appalling Wolf of Wall Street, a movie I couldn't endure past the first half hour.) One of The big Short's most arresting scenes involves Margot Robbie, the actress from Wolf of Wall Street, sitting naked in a bubble bath and talking about collateralized debt obligations. This scene serves multiple purposes. At its most obvious, it is a commentary on the impossibility of this movie: Nobody can make CDOs sexy. They are fundamentally, deliberately unsexy. Even when shot in the most horribly sexist, objectifying way, even when oversimplifying the explanation in the most horrendously condescending way, Margot Robbie cannot make CDOs an interesting subject. And in making this point, McKay brilliantly casts shade on Wolf of Wall Street, which tried to be a cautionary tale of Wall Street greed and excess and instead got caught up in trying to sell the excess, trying to sell the sex and drugs, trying to sell the pleasure as the entertainment to pair with the moralizing. But thirdly, the scene is a brilliant summation of what Michael Lewis tries to do. He tries to make CDOs sexy, to depict them in a way that people will find entertaining.

But this is bullshit. How do we know it's bullshit? Adam McKay has Brad Pitt (of Moneyball Brad Pitt!) explain it to us in clear terms: Celebrating the bears who created the big short is heinous, not because they didn't have a right to do it, not because they don't deserve the money, but because what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy and the ruination of many, many lives.

The Big Short begins with the smugness that characterizes every word out of Princeton Man Michael Lewis's pen, but it takes every opportunity to puncture it. It depicts scenes using Lewis's credulously oversimplified dialogue, scenes you can't believe happened as described, but you can certainly believe that the people interviewed simplified the dialogue in retelling it to Lewis, who then reported it as the gospel truth- and just as you're rolling your eyes thinking here Lewis goes again, Ryan Gosling shows up, breaks the fourth wall, and says "None of this actually happened like this." It's an incredibly striking effect to deconstruct the easy narrative.

The heroes of The Big Short are not heroes. There are no heroes in The Big Short. That doesn't mean you can't sympathize with them, sympathize with Steve Carell's fund manager trying to stick it to Wall Street in a misplaced crusade to right unrightable wrongs or sympathize with Christian Bale's brilliantly weird hedge fund manager trying to persuade his clients to hold on just long enough to actually benefit from the crisis he sees as unavoidable in the numbers, but you can't call what they do heroic. There is a lot of great acting here, but it is not in service to a feel-good story.

But I worry, because not everyone is as jaded about Michael Lewis as I am. My sense from skimming reviews is that not everyone understood that this movie was a parody of Moneyball. Not everyone got that the scene where Anthony Bourdain compares CDOs to fish or the scene where Selena Gomez talks about synthetic CDOs are not serious efforts to explain the financial market, they're jokes about how understanding the financial market isn't something you do by watching a movie, or by reading a Michael Lewis book. And not everyone will recognize that the moralizing the movie engages in in its rather impressive gut-punch ending is also leavened by the humor: Adam McKay is preaching at you about fixing the markets, but he's also preaching at you about saving our consumerist society. He's not preaching an easy salvation, that there's some obvious regulation you can get Congress to pass that will stop this from happening again, he's preaching for smart people and moral people to talk to each other and figure out how to create a system where evil people and dumb people can't win. By doing the hard and complicated work that the movie is unwilling to do. By not being stupid, by not listening to Michael Lewis tell us how it all happened and how easy it was to see the signs if you were only Christian Bale. By working within the recognition that in order for a solution to happen, it has to acknowledge that everyone in the world is rightly working toward their own self-interest.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

This was one of the books I received for Yuletide bookswap, and have finally finished. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's one of the best popular science books I've ever read, and I have had a few opinions about popular science books in my day.

It tells the story of an 1850s London cholera epidemic and the amateur epidemiologists who finally provided compelling statistical and epidemiological evidence of cholera's water-borne cause and the specific locus of the outbreak in one particular well.

Its central protagonists are a pioneeering anesthesiologist, John Snow, and a church curate, Reverend Henry Whitehead, who together did the excruciating and dangerous work of surveying residents of the afflicted neighborhood and piecing together the water usage trails that proved their case, work that ultimately saved millions if not billions of lives down the line. And it was so good at giving me scientific method feels, so that the moment when Whitehead uncovered proof of how the water had been infected (a proof that was inevitable by that point in the analysis, but which provided the basically indisputable proof that the analysis had been correct), it actually made me weep with pride for humanity (though I was admittedly on 30 hours without sleep at that point, stuck in my second airport of the day).

The epilogue is a little loopy in its speculative extrapolations, but otherwise I have no complaints. Grateful to my gift giver for introducing me to this wonderful story. I may request John Snow/Henry Whitehead fic for Yuletide, too.

The Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Fleming

A short little book, more of my reading around Hamilton. (Though as a document of the Jefferson presidency, this features more of Burr than Hamilton.)

Fleming takes as a given that the Louisiana Purchase ultimately worked out well for the US- few historians would disagree, I think. For a relatively small amount of money, spent at a moment when Hamilton's banking reforms and a booming American economy had the US comparatively flush, the US greatly expanded its territorial claims, avoided a war with Spain or France that Fleming thinks may have been looming, and set the tone for a century of American expansion. (Of course, in other ways this expansion was a mixed legacy. It's obviously not clear that France had the right to sell this land given that it was occupied by numerous Native tribes. If France did have a right to sell this land, this right was governed by treaties the Louisiana Purchase obligated the US to also recognize; the US immediately proceeded to disregard these treaties and also impose martial law on the remaining French in New Orleans out of a concern from Jefferson that they were not ready to enjoy the fruits of democracy.)

Fleming's focus, then, is on the difficulties surrounding the actual purchase, of the role of the brutal war of the French to retake Haiti and its impact on the terms of the purchase, on the political wrangling between Jefferson Republicans and the weakened remnant of the Federalists, on the personal rivalries between chief negotiators Robert Livingston and James Monroe, and on the difficulty of negotiating with Talleyrand and Napoleon. Fleming's writing is clear, straightforward, and detailed, and he creates a vivid picture of the setting. I found the book informative but not deeply significant.

I is for Innocent by Sue Grafton

Possibly the best of the series, it innovates in form while retaining all the core elements that make the Kinsey Milhone books great- the vivid California setting deepening in complexity with each story, the toughness and vulnerability of Kinsey, the importance of actually pounding pavement to investigation, the complexity of the motivations for the interactions of witnesses with Kinsey, the monstrous but recognizable villains.

Unlike a lot of the series, which get conventional in their ending with Kinsey finally putting the pieces together and outsmarting the bad guy, I liked that even after Kinsey put the pieces together, the villain succeeded in tricking her for a time. It made him seem even more dangerous and capable, and made the ultimate conclusion feel that much more earned.

Medium Rare by Anthony Bourdain

Borrowed from the swaps table at Vividcon because the flight delays meant I'd read all the books I'd brought and needed something for the trip home. It's not a book I'd otherwise read, and I actively disliked a good third of the book, the part that consisted of personal vendettas against other chefs. But there were some good parts, some good meditations on the place of food and restaurants in our culture, and it was certainly fine as an airplane book, where you're always getting distracted from being able to really focus on anything complex anyway.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Weirdest troll/spam comment I've ever gotten on a fic:

From a user known as Le Star-Lord, left on a fic that is definitely not a Marvel fic

Wow! This fic of yours is perfect!
If you know MARVEL's Earth 9997(Earth X),
can you please write a Galactus(Franklin Richards)/Silver Surfer(Norrin Radd) fic
in which the two get married after a major catastrophe called "The Dashover"
and a dreadful week called "Freaky Weeky"?
I want the title to be "Jay-Jay And The Preposterous Plight Of The Purple Package People"!
(Incidentally, the name Jay-Jay is only in the title.)
This is a request!

P.S:Make sure someone says "Zoo-Wee Mama!" during the Dashover
and the fic ends with Diana Ross' Ain't No Mountain High Enough!

Part of me wants to feed the troll? I know better, but in some ways it is my kind of prompt.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Last Sukkot I had all these etrogim after the holiday I wasn't sure what to do with. Searching online came across some suggestions to make etrog infused vodka, so I gave it a try. It is incredibly simple: You dump the peels into a mason jar full of vodka, let it sit for a few weeks, add some sugar, and you're done. It came out surprisingly well and other people agreed- to a person, they all expressed surprise that they were enjoying it.

Since it was so simple to do for such good results, I wanted to try doing more vodka infusing. About a month ago I threw some Granny Smith apples and a stick of cinnamon into a mason jar of vodka. Taste tests after two weeks were not promising- the cinnamon overwhelmed everything. It was like drinking Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I decided to see if removing the cinnamon and letting it sit for another few weeks would save things. It helped! After two more weeks, it was still too cinnamonny, but it was also appley and it was much closer to balance. Straining it through filter cloth also helped to take out some of the cinnamon and bring it more to my taste, though it's not perfectly to my taste.

I brought it to the Shabbos picnic a Jewish networking group in my town threw Shabbos before last and it went over quite well- about 2/3 of the bottle was consumed. Girls seemed to like it better than guys, in general, for whatever reason. Someone told me they liked the feeling of alcohol but not the taste, and that my concoction did a good job of masking the alcohol.

In doing some reading while troubleshooting the apple/cinnamon balance, I came across a suggestion that in retrospect is obvious: The first time you try a flavor, don't do your infusion with an entire bottle of vodka, do it in a smaller mason jar with a smaller quantity of vodka. That way if you screw up, you've wasted less, and you also get to try more different flavors at once. This is especially true when you're just trying a flavor for the first time- when I make more of the apple cinnamon I will probably do another full bottle again, since it went so quickly, but in general going forward it makes sense to experiment in smaller bottles. So at the moment I have an attempt at a smaller batch hot pepper vodka and an asian pear vodka in my cabinet. And we will see how that goes.

One of those little elements of setting up my new apartment has been building up a bit of a liquor cabinet. I don't drink all that much, and when I do it's rarely mixed drinks, so I don't need to go crazy there, but I have a bottle of bourbon, a bottle of vodka, a small bottle of tequila I haven't touched but figure ought to be there for tequila emergencies, a few bottles of wine (I pretty much only drink wine on Shabbat, but I cook with wine more often since I usually have an open bottle half full after Shabbat), and the remainder of a six pack of amber ale. Plus my infusion experiments.
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1973 Directed by John Sichel (after Jonathan Miller), Laurence Olivier as Shylock

Stylistically very old fashioned feeling, which made for something of an adjustment, but it is very well acted in its style and very well directed.

In general, the film chooses to downplay the Judaism of Shylock and the anti-semitism of the text, which kind of surprisingly eases some of my problems with it. Olivier plays Shylock as a cruel, ambitious, but stiff-upper-lip Anglo-Jewish banker who is playing a very dangerous game against Antonio, a cruel, ambitious, stiff-upper-lip, fully Anglo banker. Religion is a subtext for two men who don't wear their faith on their sleeve, or perhaps, whose only faith is money. Religion obviously matters to the text, but Sichel/and/or Miller are not that interested in being faithful to the text, so much as they're interested in being faithful to the play. Lines that invoke Christianity or Judaism tend to get skated over or skipped- the whole "I hate him for he is a Christian" soliloquy is left out, making for a much less sinister-seeming Shylock, but also a much less Jewish-seeming Shylock.

The film's disinterest in Shylock as a Jew is inadvertently (and a little infuriatingly) emphasized in a staging goof where Shylock kisses a mezuzah placed on the left doorpost, rather than the right where it should be. So I should say that while making Merchant of Venice a story about the perils of high capitalism where the faiths of its protagonist and antagonist are irrelevant eases some of my problems with the play, it certainly is not a solution without its own issues.

The trial scene sees a brilliant Portia as a catspaw for the vicious Antonio, who shows none of the agony and fear common in other productions- when he is ordered to lay bare his breast for Shylock's knife, he removes his suit coat, but leaves on a waistcoast and a shirt and looks perfectly calm. When he emerges from the trial victorious he suavely puts his coat back on and strolls out of the courtroom. He is a man used to risking much- and winning. Shylock, too, is a warrior- but his daughter's disappearance throws him off his stride. He does not act meanly in the courtroom. He moves with the confidence of a man with a carefully laid plan, who then sees that plan overturned at the last moment by an unforeseen trick. He is humiliated and wounded, but he takes it as part of the game.

Weirdly, the production ends with Jessica reciting Kaddish for her father, another apparent misunderstanding of how Judaism works. At some level, Merchant is a play about Judaism and its relationship to Christianity, and for all the good things in the Olivier Merchant, it fails to intelligently confront this fundamental element, and the result is disappointing.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Because my brain fixates sometimes?

2001 Directed by Trevor Nunn, Henry Goodman as Shylock

Not always the most moving film, but a masterclass in how to not fuck up The Merchant of Venice. Which is not the most surprising thing given that it's the only Merchant film that actually cast a Jew as Shylock. (I'm not exactly blaming other directors for not casting Jews in the role- it's not a role a lot of Jewish actors would necessarily want to take, and it's hard to ask a Jew to play a walking talking stereotype. But Goodman brings a hell of a lot to the table.)

Goodman on the problem of playing Shylock: "I felt very strongly that we don't want to be too nice and sympathetic to him. We must believe that he could kill someone. He is actually not a nice guy. He is a scheming, dangerous man. And if you try and make him a nice guy because he is Jewish, and I am Jewish, then you throw away the play. You don't feel sorry for him. You become weary of him." YES. FUCK YES. Henry Goodman gets it.

This is the thing about Shylock, this is why it is so hard to satisfy me when it comes to Merchant: If you play Shylock as a walking, talking anti-semitic stereotype of greed and bloodlust, don't even bother talking to me. But if you try to make Shylock sympathetic, you ruin the play. He is the antagonist and the things he tries to do are inexcusable. And if you make excuses for him, "Oh, poor Shylock, his wife died, he has no legal rights, he is persecuted by all the Christians around him," you are trying to excuse the inexcusable. And that doesn't salvage Shylock. That just means you're not actually taking him seriously.

What you need to do to make Shylock work as a real character is treat him as the villain, but take him seriously as the villain with a meaningful character arc. There are many paths a director can take to this- Nunn and Goodman see Shylock as a conniving bastard, an Iago figure. He's the smartest person in the play, constantly playing people against each other, and he is always wearing a mask in public, always pretending to make friends with the Christians even as he seethes inside, because the dual consciousness is the only way for him to survive life in Venice. But the loss of his daughter knocks him off a step, takes him off his guard. He becomes blinded by his need for revenge, loses sight of the original purpose of the scheme, which was to take advantage of a rare opportunity to actually hurt Antonio, and ends up destroying only himself and his family.

Nunn also emphasizes Shylock's Judaism in his home life, by showing him marking Shabbos dinner with his daughter. But this is not the gentle, quiet, lovely Shabbos dinner of the Tresnjak production- Goodman's version is a complicated affair. Shylock is obsessive about making everything perfect, so obsessive that he yells at his daughter about the placement of dishes. She is sulky, resistant, but ultimately they find themselves on the same page with the recitation of Eishet Chayil, the traditional hymn in praise of good wives that is sung every Friday evening before Kiddush. Jessica and Shylock set aside their frustrations with each other to sing "Eishet Chayil" and remember the wife who had once bound them and now creates an invisible separation between them. In the finale, where Munby had Jessica sing "S'lach Lanu Avinu" from the Amidah, Nunn returns Jessica to "Eishet Chayil" as a remembrance that she has now lost both her mother and her father. It is heartbreaking.

Nunn makes the Shylock/Antonio dynamic even more complicated by giving Antonio other faults besides his anti-semitism. Most productions of Merchant I've seen don't know what to do with Antonio's opening speech about his melancholy- they present it as a thing separate from the rest of the play, and otherwise show a friendly, warm, compassionate Antonio whose only fault is his hatred of the Jew. David Bamber's Antonio, though, is melancholy because he is a closeted gay man in 1930s Germany, who loves Bassanio with a powerful but unrequited love that Bassanio knowingly takes advantage of for his own benefit, again and again, even though Bassanio likes women. Antonio knows he is being taken advantage of, but he will do anything for Bassanio out of his devotion, even things Bassanio is unwilling to accept. This complicated psychosexual dynamic makes Antonio's choices seem less noble, and explains his vulnerability to Shylock's predations. It also makes it easier to appreciate Shylock- yes, he is a monster, but he's not the only monster in the play.

Nunn fabulously de-comedizes every joke in the play, while maintaining a clear awareness that they were written as jokes. He transposes Lancelot's devil on my shoulder monologue to a Weimar cabaret as a written comedy bit, where the (on-stage) audience, which includes Antonio and Bassanio, is laughing because they like laughing at Jews. Shylock walks in, invited to meet with Antonio and seal the deal, and the crowd goes briefly silent, only to resume laughing when Shylock departs. He plays the casket scenes as pure horror scenes, where if something goes wrong Portia will be forced to marry one of these horrible men. He dances over the 'complexion' line so fast you barely notice it. Nunn's Merchant is not a comedy, but it's also not a tragedy- it's a work that was written as a comedy but which we no longer find funny. And that's ultimately why I said that it's not always the most moving film- for all the great character performances, it's often hard in Nunn's Merchant to figure out who to root for. It's often hard to take any joy in any character's triumph, because everyone is so remarkably, indelibly flawed and broken.

1980 Directed by Jack Gold, Warren Mitchell as Shylock

Just an absolute piece of shit from beginning to end. Played as a comedy, but not a funny one. The kind of comedy where the characters all have to laugh overly hard at their jokes to tell the audience that they are jokes. The kind of drama where all the characters have pinched looks from beginning to end to tell you that they're taking things seriously, rather than actually reacting to what's happening. The kind of overly stylized, formal diction that thankfully is being excised in more modern productions of Shakespeare. I don't have much to say about it. I quit twice partway through, and watched the ending with one eye while reading a book.

Shylock lisps like a scary foreigner and schemes aimlessly. "My daughter, my ducats" is played for laughs, which it doesn't earn, the absurdity of the Jew caring as much for his money as the loss of his daughter. Antonio is so melancholy he becomes absent, barely a meaningful character. Even Gratiano's pratfalls fall flat. The trial scene was scratched on my DVD, so I skipped it, and feel like I dodged a bullet.

As far as I can tell, the purpose of this production was to create a basic filmed unabridged reference production that high school teachers can screen for their students, a production that takes no stands and makes no waves and follows along exactly to the text the students were given, that any teacher can use to impose their own lesson plan on top of. Maybe it's effective on its own terms. As art, it is worthless and insulting.

2003 Directed by Michael Radford, Al Pacino as Shylock

It opens with a dense textual title card explaining what life was like for Jews in 16th Century Venice, because everyone knows that Tell, Don't Show is the fundamental principle of great storytelling. Why prove the difficulty of life in Venice for Jews by showing Shylock's life and trusting the audience, when you can spell it out for them before the play starts? And because everyone watching The Merchant of Venice doesn't know what anti-semitism is and needs it explained to them like they're two years old, right? The Radford Merchant is much more egregious than the Munby in its obliviousness to the fact that actual Jews might actually watch his movie. From step one it assumes that Shylock needs defending, that if only you explained to the audience that Shylock's life was hard, they would sympathize with his victimhood rather than thinking of Jews as evil Christ-killing usurers. The prelude goes so far as to show pages of Talmud burning in the pogroms of the Venetians.

I first saw this film when it came out, in a theater, and I had a visceral negative reaction to it. I hated how Pacino played Shylock, the weakness in his character, the opacity in his mien, the lack of apparent intelligence. I hated the victimhood narrative that drives so much of the action, how the film tries to at times justify Shylock's actions, make the audience sympathize, by playing up the violence against Jews, as if that violence could ever justify demanding a pound of Christian flesh. We see Antonio spitting on Shylock, we see Venetians shoving and kicking and swearing at Shylock and his fellow Jews. Nothing can be left to the imagination, Shylock's suffering must be writ tediously large.

This time around, I felt more positively about the film, for several reasons. First, the cinematography and mise en scene is phenomenal. This is a beautiful movie that captures medieval Venice in its complicated glory, with its diverse crowds, its nautical merchant culture, its striking architecture. And all of that is worth praising, because it is a pleasure in its own right.

Second, in the title card there is one fascinating feature I hadn't picked up on the first (two) times around- the text notes that while Venice had laws oppressing Jews, it was comparatively liberal because for most 'sophisticated' Venetians, money and the value of lending with interest was more valuable than obeisance to Christian faith. However, says the title card, 'religious fanatics' hated the Jews for charging interest.

In other words, in Radford's vision of the play, Antonio is not a true Merchant of Venice, committed to winning his fortune at any cost- he's a religious fanatic. This is an amazing twist that Radford and Irons actually carry through from beginning- where Radford shows Antonio attending mass- to end- where Antonio's breast is bared and readied for Shylock's knife, revealing a massive silver cross on his chest. Antonio's hatred of Shylock is not personal, it emerges from his own deep faith in Christ and the Bible. This explains his willingness to lend without interest at obvious personal loss, it explains his willingness to, Christ-like, accept the execution of Shylock's bond. Antonio is not typical for Venice, he is an exceptional man whose personal character impels him to antagonize Jews.

I was talking to [personal profile] ghost_lingering at Club Vivid about how the central tension in the best versions of Merchant is on the idea of the power of promises. Portia believes in oaths so deeply that she will not violate the oath she swore to her father even if it mean she end up married to a hateful man. She believes in oaths so deeply that in the trial scene, she will not invalidate Shylock's bond because to do so would make contracts meaningless. She believes in oaths so deeply that she tests her husband's oath about the ring, and finds him disappointingly lacking. Shylock will have his bond, and the Duke will go along with it because do otherwise would destroy the Venetian commerce system.

In contrast to this principle of promises stands Balthazar's "quality of mercy", which transcends laws and which she urges upon Shylock in lieu of his legalism. What's fascinating about Radford's version of the play is that while it's very much concerned with promises and oaths and mercy, it flips some of the conventional elements of the tension- Pacino plays Shylock as far more apparently merciful than one is used to seeing: When Balthazar speaks of the quality of Mercy, Pacino does not look mocking or scornful- he looks troubled. Portia's message resonates with him, as a pleading for virtue, and he appears to be genuinely considering backing down from his cruel demand. Perhaps he is recalling the original loan, when he pled unsuccessfully for Antonio to be his friend, when he made the offer to lend without interest not as a cruel joke but as an offer of friendship. No matter- ultimately Shylock's heart hardens and he refuses to back down from his legalism. Perhaps he recalls that the religious fanatic Antonio never showed him any Christian mercy.

I also like that Joseph Fiennes' Bassanio is clearly marked as an unreformed spendthrift, with far more servants than I've ever seen a production of Merchant assign him before. That was a clever choice, I think, that calls into deeper question the power imbalance in the Portia/Bassanio relationship as well as the Antonio/Bassanio relationship.

I still think it is a weaker set of choices than Nunn's. I still think Pacino's Shylock is opaque and his actions not well justified by the performance or the staging, and Jessica is a vague whimperer rather than a fully realized character, but I appreciate this version more than I did previously.
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Title: Circles (Ma'agalim)
Vidder: seekingferret
Fandom: The West Wing
Song: "Ma'agalim (Circles)" by Idan Raichel
Content Notes: Club Vivid Premiere 2016. The posted vid is ripped from the con DVD because I seem to have already lost the original file. Will try to find that.
Length: 3:18
Responsible for the lack of consistent title block from vid to vid: seekingferret
Summary Remix of LauraShapiro's West Wing fanvid "Circles", focusing on Toby Ziegler
Acknowledgements Thanks to [personal profile] ghost_lingering for betaing, the tech glitches are not her fault. Thanks for [personal profile] laurashapiro for inspiration.


lyrics )

As often happens when Idan Raichel releases a new album, I listened to "At the Edge of the Beginning" an awful lot when it first came out in January. The album's standout is "Ma'agalim (Circles)", a really great dance tune with thoughtful lyrics. I wanted to vid it before I knew what to vid it to.

The song is also a designed pun: As a song called "Circles", it is intended to be danced as an Israeli circle dance. There's something awfully attractive to me about pun songs. As I listened to the song on repeat, I thought about what I could vid it to, and the punnishness of the title called to me to respond with my own pun. In viddish circles, "Circles" is the name of a well-known West Wing vid premiered about ten years ago at Vividcon by [personal profile] laurashapiro. It tells the story of the West Wing crew bobbing and weaving through the White House to Tommy Schlamme's lyrical camera movement,, the famous 'walk-and-talks' sending the whole West Wing spinning in literal circles as Jed and Leo and Josh and CJ and Toby struggle with the various scandals of the Bartlett administration. It's one of my favorite vids, because it captures characters I love so much, so well. And it's a quintessential vid, one that takes the visual elements of a show and reuses them in a way that completely reinterprets them. So I started to get stuck on the idea of somehow mashing up "Circles" the West Wing vid and "Circles" the Israeli dance song. Especially as a Club Vivid vid it seemed to work- dancing along to this song seems essential to what it says as a vid.

Because "Ma'agalim" is Hebrew and Idan Raichel as a poet and musician often draws inspiration from his Judaism, Toby Ziegler was the natural focal point for this vid, as the locus of Jewish identity on the West Wing. Also because I have ridiculous amounts of Toby Feelz. All the feelz. I don't think this vid says anything really specific about Toby, it just testifies to the way he keeps cycling again and again through the vicissitudes of life, always rolling with the punches, the way he suffers and loses and just carries it inside him and works as hard as he can to serve others, because he believes in America's promise. And how in spite of his surliness he builds family and love all around him, love he's uncertain if he deserves but which ultimately carries him when he needs to be carried. This was for me an intricate vid, with some faster cuts than I typically use, and a quite long list of episode sources, but it also sort of straightforwardly followed from its premise. I knew what images needed to be where with very little rethinking required. I feel like I know Toby very well.

Sadly my laptop broke shortly after submitting this vid, and recovering files from it is a little hit or miss. So I ripped the vid from the con DVD set in order to get it posted quickly. I will try to dig up the cleaner better prettier version of this vid and post that when I can figure out how.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I did in fact make it to Vividcon more or less in one piece! The only further drama left unreported was that once I got to O'Hare, there was the trouble with my bag, which had been sent from Newark on a later flight than the one I'd been on... I beat my suitcase to Chicago by about forty five minutes, and had to wait to claim it. This was exacerbated by the fact that the very friendly people on the American flight I'd switched to had no fucking clue what United had done with my bag. But no matter, I made it to the hotel around 2PM Friday, just minutes after the food I'd ordered for Shabbos dinner arrived. The hotel staff very helpfully stashed it in a refrigerator until I showed up to claim it. And then the weekend actually got good.

When I got to the con, after a shower and clothing change that made me feel vaguely human again after fifteen hours in trains and planes and airports, I went down to the con suite and found [personal profile] ghost_lingering and [personal profile] thirdblindmouse, the only con attendees I'd met in person before (Proudly Team Fake Birthday!) So that was kind of reassuring to my social anxiety. After brief hellos, we stopped in on the first hour of [personal profile] milly's panel on use of text in vids, which was full of interesting and inspirational ideas that I will probably never follow through on. And then I had to change clothes again into more Shabbos-y clothing and get the food ready for the Shabbos dinner I hosted.

It was me and [personal profile] kass and [personal profile] bironic and [personal profile] the_shoshanna and [personal profile] thefourthvine and [personal profile] ghost_lingering. We tried to bentsch licht but the air conditioning blew out the candles almost as soon as they were lit, which I suppose is better than setting off the fire alarm and sprinklers, as we were worried we might. Then [personal profile] kass made a lovely Kiddush and we ate and talked about all sorts of fascinating stuff with the glorious oneupsmanship that comes of a pile of smart and creative people being in the same room together. This was a complicated weekend for me Jewishly speaking, but this dinner was an unambiguously positive Jewish moment for me and I was so glad to have it. (Also, to the three of you who cornered me at some point afterward and offered to pay for 'their share' of the meal: NO! I mean, thank you for offering, but hosting guests for Shabbos dinner isn't just a mitzvah, it is the clearest thing one can do in emulation of Avraham Avinu. You are not taking that away from me. I was so happy to have all of you at my Shabbos table and that is all the payment I need!)

And then we hurriedly put away the leftovers because it was time for Premieres. They do Vividcon Premieres in two rooms- a main room where supposedly everyone very seriously watches the vids in respectful silence and an overflow room where a little talking and reacting to the vids is allowed (but everyone is seriously there to see the vids, so it's not like people were having irrelevant conversations over the vids). I went to the overflow room and had a really great time, and I'm not sure I ever want to try the main room experience, but it was an extraordinary Premieres show and it was amazing to watch it with so many people who were so attuned to all of the nuances of what makes a great vid great.

Highlights of premieres for me were the Fringe vid "1985", Eurovision vid "Tribute", and ALL THE STAR WARS VIDS. If The Force Awakens was good for anything, it was awakening the enthusiasm and creative impulses of hordes of Star Wars fans. There were so many great Star Wars vid premieres all weekend, not just as Premieres, but the ones at Premieres were wonderfully technically intricate and emotionally expressive vids that surveyed the full breadth of the history of the Star Wars narrative arc and knew exactly how to go for the kill. So many Star Wars feels. So many feels in general, was the story of the weekend.

[personal profile] jmtorres's "1985" was hilarious, but in that "Oh, Walter, you're the most heartbreaking monster" kind of way that never forgot just how destructive 1985 Walter was despite its clear affection for him. I was sitting next to [personal profile] kerithwyn, who basically didn't stop vibrating with excitement from that vid for the next day. And just generally, more Fringe vids is always amazing. I should finish more of mine. :/

And [personal profile] echan's "Tribute", which, holy hell, the batshit is strong. I only know Eurovision from osmosis and seeing gifs, but this vid committed to just how outrageously image dependent Eurovision is. And how music might sometimes take second fiddle to image- this is not the greatest song in the world, this is just a tribute. But the aesthetic power of Eurovision is there anyway.

After premieres I went to sleep. Haha, no, just kidding. Intelligent Ferret would have gone to sleep, but I am not Intelligent Ferret. There was trivia. Trivia, I say! How can I be expected to resist trivia? I am mere flesh, after all. I teamed with [personal profile] jarrow, [personal profile] isweedan, [personal profile] kiki_miserychic, and someone else... [personal profile] ohvienna, maybe? Too much of trivia was vidding and Vividcon-specific knowledge I did not have, but I contributed a little and we had great fun coming up with new ways to fold our answer slips before submitting them.

And then I went to sleep. For real this time. I'd had quite a day, after all. I deserved some sleep. And after all that had happened, it had turned out to be a pretty good day, but it was not the day I'd hoped it would be. I wanted to get in Thursday night so I could ease my way into the Vividcon experience, but instead I came in running and didn't stop running and a part of me never really felt settled in. I really hope next year, (if I go next year, which I probably will) I can get the full weekend experience. Unlike the weekend regional cons I'm more familiar with, Vividcon uses the full Friday for programming, which it needs to do since more of its programming comes in two hour blocks that just eat up the schedule quickly- and has to be that way, if they're going to have time to show vids and do discussion.

Also in the very brief time at the con I had on Friday, I got to see just how amazingly friendly everyone was. I hadn't really worried that much since I knew a bunch of #vidding people who were at the con, so I figured there I had a built in group of people to hang out with, but a part of me did worry about all these new people. And it was great to actually meet [personal profile] elipie and [personal profile] jetpack_monkey and [personal profile] shati and [personal profile] bradcpu and [personal profile] milly and [personal profile] anoel after years of talking to them in irc, but lots of other people just walked up to me and introduced themselves and started talking about vids, and it was so great meeting all these wonderful people. I am not good at meeting new people, not good at introducing myself, but it felt like a thing I could safely do at the con and I did it a bunch and people were okay with it. It was weird because on the other hand, I can see why people might find the con isolating, because despite the great amount of friendliness extended to me as a newbie who barely knew anyone, this was also a convention full of people who have been going to Vividcon together for a decade or more, and the depth of the relationships was intimidating. I definitely felt that, too, that sense of not wanting to jump in when people who'd known each forever and only got to see each other once a year were talking, but... I dunno, it was weird, but mostly it was great.

Saturday morning there was premieres vid review, where people sat in a room and discussed responses to the premieres. This was really neat, hearing really smart people unpack the vids we'd only seen once or twice, kind of figuring them out as we want along. It's fascinating to see all the different kinds of things people see in vids, things I don't necessarily always key on but are important to others. Vid Review was led by [personal profile] jarrow and [personal profile] sisabet, aka Sisarrow, who had so many smart things to say about vids and who still managed to keep the panel moving at the frenetic pace needed to cover all the vids. After Vid Review we broke for lunch.

After lunch, there was a panel on the breadth of Star Trek vids and Star Trek feels, that opened with [personal profile] cosmic_llin's "Long Live" making everyone in the room cry and... continued to more crying, with some laughing mixed in.

Then there was [personal profile] ghost_lingering's panel on nonmusical audio in vids, which introduced a very useful set of taxons for thinking about audio- Is it musical/nonmusical/semi-musical? Is it found audio or created audio?

Then, uh... I think a nap and then dinner and then getting ready for Club Vivid.

I guess the thing to say about Club Vivid is that it lives up to its advertising. Beforehand several people, particularly [personal profile] jarrow, were telling me about how awesome Club Vivid is. And I believed them, but I also figured that nothing is equally awesome for everyone, that there would be elements of CVV that different people would value more or less. But CVV is pretty much all things to all people. It's an exceptional event, the perfect geek dance party.

It's hard to point to a technical reason why this is. I mean, I think there are technical reasons for it- opening with the Joxer Dance as a dancing icebreaker of deep fannish significance, the availability of plentiful alcohol starting an hour before the dancing, the presence and placement of alternate quieter locations for people overwhelmed by the dancing and loud music and flashing lights, the fact that the vids having been created by con-goers gives everyone an investment in enjoyment... in many respects, Club Vivid is in fact very well designed, and clearly honed by years of running it. But more than any of these technical aspects, it is just the fact that so many long-time con-goers have committed fully to making Club Vivid a place that they and everyone else can enjoy. And that's not something I can explain well. I've been at awkward geek dance parties where pressure was applied to lure people out onto the dance floor, and it led to resistance and half-hearted dancing. Nobody put pressure on anyone at CVV, they were just clearly having so much fun, and having fun in so many different ways, that there was no other option but to have fun.

I was nervous as hell when my own Club Vivid premiere played, but people went out of their way to reassure me. [personal profile] anoel and [personal profile] jarrow went up to me beforehand and told me they were excited to see a West Wing vid at Club Vivid, and their enthusiasm was such that it somehow didn't make me feel even more pressured. And [personal profile] ghost_lingering, my beta, kept telling me over and over that people were going to like the vid. I am so appreciative of that support. And then the vid happened, and blink and it was over- all I could see while it was happening was the tiny technical glitches I'd missed before, but people seemed to like it- a bunch of people came over to tell me I'd awoken their Toby Feels, which was really the whole point of the exercise, especially since I was probably the only person at the con who knew what the lyrics meant. And then I could go back to dancing without being stressed.

After CVV, I went up to my room, lit some candles, sat on the floor and read Eicha, the book of Lamentations traditionally recited on Tisha B'av. It was hard to go from the joy of CVV to the sadness of Tisha B'av, and the whole experience was weird, but it felt important to me. I feel like as a Jew I carry so much with me all the time. Paris, and Tel Aviv, and so many others, just adding a little weight to my emotional load everywhere I go. Tisha B'Av in a way is a moment to unload myself.

It's very striking in Perek Gimel of Eicha, how easy it is to read the second half of the perek as sarcasm, especially in light of the first half of the perek. (3:15-19) "He hath filled me with bitterness, He hath sated me with wormwood. He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, He hath made me to wallow in ashes. And I said: 'My strength is perished, and mine expectation from the LORD.' And my soul is removed far off from peace, I forgot prosperity. Remember mine affliction and mine anguish, the wormwood and the gall." That is Yirmiyahu's perspective in the beginning of the Perek, his misery and his doubt and his suffering, but then he shifts. (3:21) "This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope." And it looks at first like he is turning inward to his faith to endure the hardship with honest sincerity and belief, but listen as he goes on: (3:26-29) "It is good that a man should quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silence, because He hath laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope." That doesn't like honest faith. That sounds like too-good-to-be-true faith. It sounds like a parody of faith, like the parroting of faith by a man embittered, a man mocking the idea of being faithful to God when God has been faithless.

And perhaps paradoxically, and perhaps not paradoxically, for Yirmiyahu was a true prophet of great power- speaking those words was an unburdening. Speaking those words of disappointment and frustration with God's delayed mercy centered me, brought me back to my faith.

But on the whole, Tisha B'av was hard at the con. Everyone was eating, everyone was enjoying, and I was not eating but I was definitely enjoying, too, and yet the fasting was keeping me mindful of the meaning of the day, of the fundamental loss that is so central to contemporary Judaism, of Jerusalem as a centering point for the whole nation. And I struggled between those pulls, struggled to be present and engaged at the convention when most of the people I was talking to didn't understand the significance of the day.

Sunday morning I watched part of the Nearly New vidshow, then spent a few hours in the con suite, staffing it for an hour and then chatting with a rotating cast of awesome people about fanfic and vidding and the history of disease and convention history and traffic mishaps and ... oh, I love hanging out with hordes of geeks. And then I went to the Challenge vidshow, which was also full of terrific vids. I think my favorite was [personal profile] trelkez's Kate from Lost vid... I've only seen the first season and a half of the show, and I have little interest in seeing any more, but this vid was so excellent at presenting's Kate's story and so visually striking and beautiful.

And then I flew home and I am exhausted now but very glad I went to Vividcon, and hopeful that next year, with no flight delays and no Jewish fast days, I'll have a more normal and more unreservedly enjoyable con experience.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Hahahaha life sucks right now.

I was supposed to be at Vividcon ten hours ago. My flight was supposed to leave Newark at 9:29PM Eastern and be in Chicago by 10:50PM Central. My new apartment is walking distance to a Northeast Corridor train station and so I walked to the train and took the train to the airport and skated through security in a couple minutes and thought I was so damned clever for getting to the airport so easily. Instead there was lightning and problems with getting the crew in place and a hell of a lot of getting jerked around by the skeleton crew United Airlines had in place, who kept popping up every half hour or so to delay the flight by another half hour. At 1:30AM they finally cancelled the flight leaving us to scramble to find new plans.

I thought outside the box a little and was able to get booked on a flight out of Philadelphia that leaves at 11AM Eastern today, while a lot of my flightmates were settling for flights out of Newark that didn't leave until Saturday, which was obviously a no-go for me. Of course the problem with booking a flight out of Philadelphia was, you know, getting to Philadelphia. By the time I had my new flight booked the train station at Newark was closed for the night, so I had to wait until 4:30AM in the baggage claim at Newark Terminal C, then take the NJ Transit to Trenton, transfer to SEPTA, take SEPTA regional rail to 30th Street Station in Central Philadelphia, transfer to the SEPTA regional out to the Airport, then go through security for my second time in twelve hours, and here I am... running on the hour of sleep I got on the train to Trenton.

In about five hours I will be at Vividcon and hopefully things will stop going wrong and everything will be great for the rest of the weekend. But life sucks a bit right now.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Women Who Would be Rabbis by Pamela Nadell

It's an academic historical survey of the American history of the movement to ordain female Rabbis, mostly covering the conversation in the Reform (and reforming) communities, with a late detour into the Conservative Movement's parallel debates and a small appendix asking about Orthodoxy.

As a work of scholarship, it is thorough and well researched, with some sixty pages of endnotes testifying to the depth of Nadell's search for relevant documentation. Her research takes her as far back as the 1830s and 40s all the way up to the ordination of Amy Eilberg by JTS in the mid '80s. And as a work of reconstructed historiography it is an important work, pointing to the repeated pattern in the history of the struggle for women's ordination to forget its forbears, whom Nadell labels with the term 'proto-Rabbis'. Because the thing that emerges as Nadell takes you through the history is that nobody the media ever labeled as 'first' was ever in any true sense 'first', at least without qualifications. Before Priesand and Eilberg became the first women ordained, respectively, by the Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries (and Hurwitz by an at least putatively Orthodox rabbinic seminary), there were a number of women, both among those who attended those seminaries on a non-Rabbinic track and those who did not attend the seminary but were possessed of considerable Jewish education for other reasons, who received some or all of the education of a Rabbi and performed some or all of the roles associated with the Rabbinic profession and may have at least informally been assigned the title of Rabbi or at least spiritual leader.

I did feel that Nadell, though she develops this point extremely effectively from a purely historical point of view, does not delve deeply enough into the theological reasons underpinning some of this confusion, which she seems to assert as mainly the result of sexism (I don't mean to say that she is simplistic in this regard. Nadell's discussion of sexism as a complex social force in American life is quite thorough and historically attenuated.). But Nadell's term 'proto-Rabbi' is ultimately confused, I think, and it may lead to confuse the reader to a certain degree.

What Nadell's excellent book is missing is any thought to the primary question "What is a Rabbi?" I think this is especially important because the answer to this question evolved significantly over the course of the time period Nadell surveys.

The first 'proto-Rabbi' Nadell uncovers is Ray Frank, dubbed in the Jewish media 'the girl Rabbi of the West'. A gifted preacher with minimal formal Jewish education, she spoke compellingly from the pulpit of a number of Jewish congregations in the Western US in the late 19th century, but made no claim to ordination. Frank herself looked back to Rashi's daughters and Miriam and Devorah and the Maid of Ludmir for examples of female leaders of the Jewish people. And I think that exactly points to the problem with the idea of reading Frank as the first proto-Rabbi. Women have always been Jewish leaders, though never with the title of Rabbi. But what is a Rabbi?

The reality that Nadell butts up against is that the responsibilities and training of a Reform Rabbi are very different than the responsibilities and training of an Orthodox Rabbi, and the responsibilities of a Reform Rabbi a hundred years ago were very different than the responsibilities of a contemporary Reform Rabbi, so asking whether women should be Rabbis is not asking a single question, it's really asking a few dozen circumstantially different questions about how and in what conditions a woman can be called a Rabbi. I think generally when people and the media labeled a particular 'proto-Rabbi' as a Rabbinical or pseudo-Rabbinical figure, what they were actually identifying was that the person in question was performing some or all of the tasks that a comparable male Rabbi- of that era and denomination!- would be expected to perform. But this is not necessarily the same thing as being a 'proto-Rabbi' because that seems to require that the male Rabbinate was not a moving target, that gradually the roles women served were more and more 'Rabbi-like' over time, which I do not think is precisely the case.

My own post on the most recent RCA resolution against female ordination speaks to further theological difficulties in the question. Are people really fighting over the function, or the title, or both? Sometimes Nadell engages with these questions, but too often she takes a step back and looks at other societal factors that she seems to think the theological questions the authorities are discussing are proxies for, resulting in fairly sparse and unsatisfying discussion of the actual responsa literature. The theological questions sometimes are proxies for these societal questions, to be sure. She is convincing when she can point to responsas in which rabbinical figures worry about pregnancy and marriage prompting students the seminaries have invested time and effort in to leave the rabbinate, and discussions where people worried about the general capabilities of women to perform rabbinical functions- evidence that sexist societal attitudes about women were (and still are) inflecting the debate about the place of women in the Rabbinate.

But sometimes that's not enough of an answer. One of the 1920s students at Hebrew Union College who sought a Rabbinical ordination if she completed the curriculum, Dora Askowith, ultimately was rejected for failure to complete the second year Hebrew examination, despite otherwise exemplary coursework and research. Nadell assesses this as a sexist failure of the system, noting that other male students might have similarly struggled with the Hebrew curriculum, but they at least knew that if they managed to complete the examination, they would likely receive ordination, whereas Askowith ultimately used it as the reason for dropping out of HUC. And this is no doubt true, but by focusing on the societal issues Nadell obscures the subtle but important practical religious problem, which is that the Hebrew curriculum was probably a more important part of the HUC curriculum in 1920 than it probably is today, because to a greater degree than today graduates of HUC were being sent out to effectively be the only Hebrew-speaking Jew in communities with far less Jewish learning than most practicing Jews have today. HUC required the Hebrew examination because in order to send out its students into the field as it was currently constituted, HUC needed to make sure they were prepared in this area. We can criticize the structural sexism that made it more difficult for students like Askowith (who went on to have a long, successful but undistinguished career as a Jewish history teacher at Hunter College and a more distinguished career as a leader of Reform Jewish institutions) to pursue the Rabbinate, but it's less clear to me that we can criticize the sexism of demanding that women achieve the same requirements as the men.

On the other hand, Helen Levinthal succeeded Askowith a few years later at HUC, fully completed the academic coursework the same as any Rabbinical student, but was unable to receive ordination because of the refusal of the faculty, so it's certainly possible to argue that since even had Askowith completed her coursework she would probably not have been ordained, the roadblock posed by the Hebrew examination was of a fundamentally different character than the challenges imposed on male students.

Nadell shows that again and again, from men who 'in principle' had no objection to female Rabbis, the demand was placed on the first women who would become Rabbis that they be exceptional women, capable of by their visible capability and competence proving any criticism of them unfair. She tries to show that this represented a double standard that kept otherwise deserving women out of the Rabbinate by making the criteria to ordain women impossibly high. Sometimes this is convincing; other times it is less clear to me that the 'double standard' isn't actually a single standard that the female student failed to attain, for a variety of reasons including family obligations, financial difficulty, a sense of isolation engendered by being the only women in school, other competing academic demands, and others. You can make the argument that in recognition of these barriers, someone seeking to bring about true equality should make allowances for women by easing the requirements, but this is not always a wholly satisfying argument.

Likewise, Nadell mentions but doesn't really engage with the distinction between the 'private ordination' received by Regina Jonas and the seminary ordinations received by Priesand, Eilberg, et al. From her position as a contemporary Reform Jew, Nadell wants to read seminary ordination as the real, legitimate ordination that nobody can argue with, since Reform Judaism currently is a movement with a pretty strongly centralized ordination authority. But I think this stands in contrast not only to the more diffuse ordination authority of contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but also to the more diffuse ordination authority of early Reform Judaism, which had multiple streams providing its corps of Rabbis- multiple affiliated and partially affiliated seminaries, as well as defections from Orthodox- and Conservative- seminary trained Rabbis, as well as Rabbis who received private training and private ordination in an era where that sort of direct teacher-to-student ordination was more commonly accepted, though not always without controversy. I think it likely that the merger of the different Reform seminaries and the greater central guidance over the Rabbinical institution made it more likely for an eventual female ordination to happen, and more likely, when it did, for it to be globally accepted by the Reform community without the kind of schism that greeted previous significant evolutions in the Reform practice. But Nadell is so interested in situating the struggle within women's history that she doesn't pay enough attention to situating the struggle with Jewish history.

All that said, this was a fascinating book that I'm glad to have read. And obviously relevant to the interests of some of my readers, if they haven't already read it.


seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)

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