Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Natasha and Other Stories / David Bezmozgis

My review of David Bezmozgis' smash hit about Jewish Russian immigrants to Toronto in the 1980s is printed in The Jewish Chronicle.

Did women's lib peak in the twelfth century?

I am thoroughly enjoying Elisheva Baumgarten's Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe. In the chapter I just finished, for example, she discuses the medieval circumcision ceremony in Ashkenaz communities. Baumgarten, a lecturer at Bar Ilan, explains that in the twelfth and thirteenth century, the sandek -- then known as a ba'al brit -- was actually often a ba'alat brit, or a woman. She would wash the baby, bring him into the synagogue, and hold him on her lap in the synagogue (in the male section) while he was being circumcised.
After the thirteenth century, the woman becomes absent from the men's section during the ceremony, and the term 'ba'alat habrit' refers to the wife of the 'ba'al habrit,' whose role simply consists of bringing the baby to the synagogue door. This followed a ruling by the Maharam, R. Meir of Rothenburg, who objected to women adorned with jewels entering the men's section, and objected to women 'snatching' mitzvot from men.
To put things in context, Baumgarten explains that in general, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there is lots of evidence of women taking upon themselves 'obligations that were traditionally male... among them, the donning of tefillin and zizit' -- and even, perhaps, acting as the mohel(et) -- although clearly, women acting as ba'alat brit was by far the most common of these, probably the only one which really was common.
"During the course of the thirteenth century, the Hebrew sources begin to express discomfort with women's adoption of such practices, and the objections became more prevalent.... The objections to women performing a variety of ritual activities -- ba'alot brit, tefillin and zizit -- as well as the question of the kind of blessing they were allowed to make when performing the rituals, were all widely discussed during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries."
Putting this in an even wider context, she explains that a similar process took place in the Christian world, where
"following a period of relative religious freedom for women, as is evident in the growth of lay piety and female orders in the twelfth century, church authorities of the thirteenth entury were determined to curb women's opportunities and especially their religious functions. Thus, for example, women who tried to preach were gravely reproached. Many of their religious practices, including fasting andother devotions, were criticized."
Could it be -- that in some spheres, the golden age for Jewish women was not the twentieth or twenty-first, but the twelfth century?

(Cross-posted to Bloghead)

The God gene

A new book is causing waves by claiming that some people have a genetic predisposition towards spirituality/'self-transcendence':
Dr Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the National Cancer Institute in America, asked volunteers 226 questions in order to determine how spiritually connected they felt to the universe. The higher their score, the greater a person's ability to believe in a greater spiritual force and, Dr Hamer found, the more likely they were to share the gene, VMAT2.
Studies on twins showed that those with this gene, a vesicular monoamine transporter that regulates the flow of mood-altering chemicals in the brain, were more likely to develop a spiritual belief.
Growing up in a religious environment was said to have little effect on belief. Dr Hamer, who in 1993 claimed to have identified a DNA sequence linked to male homosexuality, said the existence of the "god gene" explained why some people had more aptitude for spirituality than others.
"This is not a thing that is strictly handed down from parents to children" [he said.] "It could skip a generation - it's like intelligence."
From what I've read, Hamer's scientific claims are still far from being scientifically substantiated -- and clearly, merely having a 'God gene' would not mean that someone had no choice but to end up religious, or vice versa. Still, the very concept raises some interesting questions. Would the existance of a 'God gene' result in religious people becoming be more accepted in a secular society -- or atheists (who presumably lack the gene) becoming be more accepted in religious societies? Would parents one day be able to genetically engineer their children to make them more or less spiritually inclined? And -- most importantly -- would proof that faith is influenced by genetics undermine or reinforce the notion of religion? I'd be interested to hear people's opinions on the latter question...

(Cross-posted to Bloghead)

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Maid of Ludmir / by Nathaniel Deutsch

This is a beautifully written and comprehensive investigation into the intriguing personality of the Ludomirer Moid. Deutsch not only thoroughly investigates the literary and documentary evidence of her story, but sets both in thoughtful cultural contexts, both historic and contemporary. This involves mastery of an impressive range of disciplines, ranging from Hasidic / kabbalistic theology to radical feminism and gender theory. His investigations in Ludmir itself are poignant and elegaic. An excellent book.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Southern trees, strange fruit -- remembered

Cornell Hillel, plus 'several university departments,' have launched a week-long series of events in honor of Leo Frank, who graduated from the institution in 1906. Frank, as you will recall, was convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan in 1913 in a trial clouded by anti-Semitism and hanged by a lynch mob after his death sentence was commuted to life two years later. His entire case -- which marked the revival of the KKK, the establishment of the ADL and which still haunts parts of Georgia -- was thrown back into the limelight last year with the publication of Steve Oney's absolutely fascinating book, And the Dead Shall Rise. Oney gives an exhaustive account of the murder, trial and its aftermath, and exposes for the first time some of the extremely prominent names behind the lynch mob. He does not prove beyond doubt who actually did commit the murder, but provides a more-than-likely alternative. If you haven't read it yet, do.

(Cross-posted to Bloghead)

Yiddish vs. Hebrew

-- Foiglman by Aharon Megged -- I thoroughly enjoyed Megged's fabulous, seminal novel of Israeli-Diaspora relations, translated into English more than 15 years after its original publication in Hebrew.
Zvi Arbel, Israeli professor of Jewish History, is given a copy of Yiddish poems written by Parisian holocaust survivor Shmuel Foiglman. Foiglman gradually worms his way into Arbel's life, despite the fact that Arbel's wife, the biologist Nora, can't stand him or anything he represents. As Arbel agrees to pay for the translation of Foiglman's book into Hebrew out of his own pocket, and gets more and more involved in Foiglman's affairs, he fails to notice that his wife has sunk into a deep depression, and a tragic set of events is set in motion which ends with the dissolution of their marriage and his wife's suicide (as revealed in chapter 1).
While it has a strong plot, Foiglman is a novel of ideas. Essentially, the novel pits Yiddish -- representing Jewish history -- against Hebrew -- representing the Israeli present, and questions the Israeli attitude to the Diaspora and to its Jewish past. There is also a strong recurring theme of history (Arbel) vs. biology/science(Nora) vs. poetry/fiction (Foiglman) as ways of looking at and understanding the world. Ultimately, Arbel is criticised in the book for being so engrossed in analysing dry historical trends that he cannot see what's going on in the here and now and is oblivious to the human element. Says Arbel:
"It is the great writers, the novelists, who see deeper and further than us. And the reson is that they, unlike us, focus not on events but on people... And I, who have spent my entire life examining the minute details of events, did I hear the anguished cry of Nora's soul?"
It took me a while to get into this dense book -- it's quite slow to begin with. But I read the last 200 pages in one sitting and am still thinking about its multiple layers. Definitely recommended.
An extra plug, incidentally, for Jerusalem-based publisher The Toby Press. Almost everything they publish is really exciting -- look out for their books.

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