Thursday, September 13, 2012

America's First Sofer

While researching the biography of Jacob Ezekiel Hyneman I came across a reference to his maternal great grandfather, Eleazar Joseph Israel (aka R. Isaac Eleazar b. Joseph Hacohen). Eleazar, a sofer stam (ritual scribe), immigrated to America from Amsterdam ca. 1810 along with his son and his son's family. He died in 1817 and was buried in the the Spruce St. Cemetery of Philadelphia's Cong. Mikveh Israel, but some time during the intervening years he donated to the congregation a Torah he had written. Although he may not have been the first sofer in America--I don't recall offhand either way--, I'm pretty sure (?) that he was the first to write Sifrei Torah and his scroll in Mikveh Israel was the first written by an American sofer. (Sifrei Torah were previously obtained from established congregations or from foreign sources, including mother congregations in London and Amsterdam.)

According to Sarna the image above (click on it to enlarge) may depict the interior of Mikveh Israel's mid-century synagogue; if true, then I imagine that one of the Sifrei Torah displayed in the open ark could be the one executed by Eleazar.

Two of Elazar's sons were also active religiously in the public sphere, one as a ba'al toke'a (shofar blower) and the other as a shamash (sexton), both in Miveh Israel

(Source here. For the record, the source isn't clear and it is possible that he wrote this scroll while yet in Amsterdam.)
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Torture of Syrian Jews, 1840

Yesterday I read an article about the Jews of Egypt in which the basic impression conveyed is that they lived cheery lives until 1948 and only then did their problems start. In general this is the popular narrative of the Jews of Arab lands. Today I came across an inventory of the torture employed against the Jews of Damascus in 1840 in the wake of a blood libel.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cash is King

I'm a big advocate for the primacy of cash gifts. There are exceptions, but this should be the general rule.

Well apparently David takes after me. Today is my birthday. I had to leave early this morning for a business trip, but a sleepy-eyed David made sure to give me a card as I was running out the door. The homemade card would have been nice on it's own merit, but when I opened it I smiled as a crisp ten-dollar bill fell into my palm. I guess that's my payback for encouraging him to collect bottles (see here). (As an aside, we sometimes wonder if he has more money than we do. Certainly whenever we are short on cash in the house we know we can always raid his wallet.)
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Two notes on my birthday. First, today is a really crappy day to celebrate a birthday. In general I've never been into birthday celebrations for adults. Really, what is there to celebrate? But now I certainly don't want to celebrate on this date.

Secondly, the past few years I've been feeling older and older. Can I really be aging physically, mentally and psychologically faster than I am chronologically? And more and more frequently something happens that makes me realize how quickly the aging is occurring. There have been some bulwarks to this process that let me live in the past, such as my licenses. They have used the same recycled picture since my early twenties. The picture with the deep eyes, youthful features, darkened skin and full head of hair. The year in the birthday field didn't matter, as it was a just a small blur next that picture. More recently this picture has caused me some trouble, particularly with TSA officials at airports who request identification with a more recent picture. But is was still a good feeling to see that picture every time I had to pull a license out of my wallet for one reason or another.

But now it all changes. Because I waited too long to renew my license this year I had to appear in person at the DMV and the clerk made me take a new picture. Sigh.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Would You Rather . . .

(Gross bodily functions warning.)

For the past few months David has been very into questions of the nature of "would you rather . . . or . . .?" For example, would you rather drown in the ocean or in a volcano? Would you rather get hit by a car or have a house fall on you? Would you rather eat one hundred bees or one hundred centipedes? Actually a lot of these questions have to do with would you rather eat this or that? As you can imagine, often the grossness factor is quite high.

On that note I will note that David has been into jokes for a little while. He likes to tell them and he also has borrowed some joke books from the library. One joke he made up (I think)--pardon me--is what did the burp say to the fart? Answer: excuse me.

And now moving on from bodily functions to body parts. At one point we were at a birs mlia (transposed to avoid attracting comments) and I explained to David what they do to the baby. "Why," he asked, "is it too long?" (In this context there is one more question he once asked that I'm not going to post, but perhaps this cryptic comment will jog my memory in later years.)

Thank God he seems to be over his prank call stage. At first he started doing it when he was angry. He would call me repeatedly and keep on hanging up. Once, before he really figured out how to use the phone, he kept on pressing redial. Luckily the person on the receiving end was a colleague/friend (David W.)--especially since a few times David muttered a mild profanity (or was it shut up?) before hanging up.

And then there were the prank calls he made just for fun. Usually when I answered the phone I would humor him and let him get his jollies. Once, however, he actually had me going for a few seconds when he pretended that he was calling from the weather service to warn me that we need to evacuate because of a coming storm.

I don't want to leave Ora out of this post. One of the baby milestones is when they find their thumb. It is so cute to watch them as they try to get the tiny little thumb into the mouth. I remember when Ora found her thumb*, but also when her pointer found her nostril. Kinneret thought it was disgusting, but not nearly as disgusting as when after a few days the pointer followed up after the nose with the mouth. (*The truth is Ora didn't really suck her thumb that much back then, and now that she has started to suck her thumb more regularly as a two-and-a-half year old it isn't quite so cute.)

I apologize if I grossed you out or otherwise spoke inappropriately, but this blog is a record for my memories, both the touching ooh and ah types as well as the revolting ich and uch types.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Redeeming Bottles

(Inspired by ProfK.)

We've never saved our cans and bottles to redeem the deposit charge, but last year we encouraged David to do so in order that he would learn the value of working for his money, saving up, etc.

David really got into it with full vigor. Our relatives now dump all their cans and bottles in our garage and David even makes Kinneret collect the cans and bottles her friends discard at work. In the morning he goes to school with one bottle of water and sometimes he returns home with three empty bottles. I've even caught him picking up cans in the street and he's asked me if he can sift through our neighbors' garbage cans. He can spend hours--ok, not really hours--in the garage sorting his stash and preparing for the big day. And whenever he sees someone pushing a shopping cart overflowing with bags of empty bottles he stares in amazement and awe.

Except for the yucky parts it sounds all nice and good.

Or not.

For all the talk about the importance of recycling, etc., the bottle redemption program is nothing more than a hidden tax that is perhaps one of the biggest government scam ever. The vast majority of people do not go back to the supermarket with their empty bottles and cans and those orphaned nickel deposits get deposited into government coffers. And spare me the mussar that these people have no one to blame but themselves for losing the deposit money.

I waste an inordinate amount of time taking David to the store with his stash. First of all, most stores only accept brands they sell. This could mean multiple stops. Then at each store there are often long lines of people--always the ones with the shopping carts filled to heaven--in front of you. Of course at least one machine is always broken, so maybe you can get rid of the plastics and cans, but you're going to have return (who knows when) another time for the glass. Even just the process of of inserting the bottles into the machine can take a while, as it can take numerous attempts before the machine will accept your offering without spitting it back out at you. Of course in the middle of this process the machine will fill up and then you wait and wait and wait for the manager to come and empty it. (The guys with the shopping carts piled to heaven aren't exactly their customer service priority.) Finally you think all is done, yet all you get is a slip of paper and now you have to wait on line for ten minutes to exchange it for cash. God forbid you had more than twelve dollars worth of bottles, because in that case you have to come back another day. (And since many of the redemption areas are filthy, you have to waste time at home afterwards take a shower and otherwise disinfecting yourself.) The effort literally just isn't worth my time.

The whole process is such a pain and I've thought of just giving him the money and tossing his stash into the  garbage. But in the meantime he continues to collect bottles and cans.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Summer Camp Follow-Up

As I wrote earlier, David's camp was hesitant to accept him because he attends public school, although they eventually relented. I later found out that they called people in the neighborhood to verify our orthodox credentials. I guess I don't really begrudge them for this; after all, David could have been a blood-thirsty axe murderer for all they knew.

Ironically, on the first day of camp David came home the proud bearer of a canteen rewards card that he received for answering the rebbe's questions in learning. And he would continue earning these cards throughout the summer. He was also the only kid in his bunk who attended the mishmar program. (I will also add that I, the public school parent, was apparently the only one who called to complain that a new counselor basically removed davening from the schedule; likewise it was I who complained after David told me that kids in his bunk regularly used inappropriate language.)

We thought that it would be good for David to attend a frummer camp than one we would normally choose and overall it was a positive experience for him. (And he had a great time.) But I was nonetheless disappointed as certain aspects brought back bad memories from his yeshiva days, from the content and method of the learning to the nastiness and crassness of some of the kids to the general lack of professionalism and reign of chaos. It was also interesting to observe that despite being out of yeshiva for two years, David was basically at the same level as his peers in observance and knowledge; in some aspects he is more advanced, perhaps in others he trails behind. (As for what is in the heart, I am unable to say.)

I'm sure that if David goes off the derech (or becomes a blood-thirsty axe murderer) in ten years from now everyone will attribute this to his public school education. But at this point in time I honestly can't say that David is any worse off for not going to yeshivah.