Thursday, January 29, 2015

Dear Baby Girl,



Hi. Nice to meet you. My name is Dan and I'll be your great-uncle this lifetime. That was the first line I used when Maddie was born (though I substituted "father") and she turned out pretty awesome so there you go.

Anyway, I don't know your name and you aren't telling me what it is, mostly because you are 4 days old but partially because you might not know it either. I will capitalize on your inability to talk and take your silence for rapt attention and interest in my words of wisdom. I'd like to tell you about this world as it is and as it used to be so that you can say "I remember when..." even if you don't, just because your bestest uncle is feeding you bits of info about the olden days.

We used to have this thing called a "map." We still use the word, but back in the day, it was printed on paper and you had to fold it all crazy-like. Let me take a step back. Back in the old days, we had this stuff called paper. It was awesome, trust me. You could write on it (writing is like printing with a printer only with your actual hand and something called a pen or pencil and the printer can't actually make a thing, it just transferred "ink" onto "paper") or you could fold it into the shape of an airplane and throw it at someone's head, or you could get a nasty cut. That last part you should not be nostalgic about.

In earlier times, we used to send information to each other by putting it in a paper conveyance and paying to have someone walk it, or drive it to another person or place after you licked a little piece of paper and stuck it on the conveyance. Pretty old-school, right? Oh, "old school" is an old way of saying "old." I'm not sure why we added "school" in there. This process of sending stuff was called "mailing" it and the stuff was called "mail." I know, like 'email' but without the "e." Actually, the "e" used to stand for "electronic" and was added on to the word "mail" relatively recently.

When I was a boy, sometimes I was actually alone. We didn't carry phones and tablets and devices or have whatever it is you will have when you are a teenager (some sort of neural implant, if television has been telling me the truth). We had to sit around with nothing to do except look at the world. I recommend that. Your great aunt Naomi used to do that a lot. She did it because she is a student of her world. I did it because I had no friends. Friends were actual humans you interacted with in "RL" (that's slang for "real life"). We did have television but (and this will be shocking) there were times when there was nothing on or at least nothing remotely interesting, and we were limited by the schedule of when things were put on to watch -- we couldn't choose to watch them whenever we wanted. Crazy, right?

In school (a few years away, but still...) we often had to memorize facts and learn little things that now you can call up on one of the ubiquitous devices. We had to use our brains to store information. Definitely keep up that tradition. And when I say school, I mean a building we had to go to to meet with human teachers and pay attention at certain times and for certain times. Maybe that's why we say "old school." You can ask your online robot-teacher when you get the chance. Cars? They didn't drive themselves. You had to read a book, take a test, then learn to drive a car and take another test. And it was still scary.

Bottom line is you are going to be growing up in a magical time and you won't be able to appreciate how wonderful it is because it will simply be all you know. The same way that I can't fully appreciate indoor plumbing without reading a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder (recommended and available on a digital platform near you), you can't really understand how fortunate you are, not having to practice cursive handwriting.

Also, practice peace. We haven't really got that down pat just yet and I hope you and your friends (be they virtual or actual) are more successful in celebrating each other and accepting each other for who you are than we have been. Try new things and remember the old things, except Barney. Don't remember Barney. Cherish history and rush blindly into the future. Learn from failure and teach others how to avoid the mistakes you made so that their failures are new and different. Work hard. There is nothing worth doing that isn't worth working at and trying really hard to perfect. There is nothing you care about that isn't worth your time and there is nothing worth your time which you can't succeed at.

Grow up slowly. Enjoy being little so you can look forward to being big because once you get big, you are going to miss being little. Soak it all in. Every moment is a teachable moment and a chance to learn something. Stop looking down at your device (or, to translate into future-speak) take off the immersive VR glasses and be a part of your actual world. Be a link in lots of different chains. Love people. They love you and the more joy and love you bring into the world, the more you get back. Appreciate who you are and who the people around you are trying to lead you to become. I know your parents. They have noble goals. Your grandparents, treat like the wackadoodles they are, and your great grandparents, like royalty. You come from really good stock on both sides so don't waste a bit of the potential you have.

And appreciate indoor plumbing. Trust me.

Let's have a chat when you learn to talk and I learn to listen. I'm fascinating.

Love,

Your greatest uncle, Dan

Monday, January 19, 2015

Vacated Brains

Ah, vacation. That blessed time when everyone else goes away and leaves me the hell alone. I can sit and star at piles of essays and wonder "why haven't those graded themselves yet" then I can open the refrigerator and consider eating food, performing the calculus necessary to compute the self-loathing which will follow a binge. Then, back to the pile of papers and the shock when I discover that they are not yet graded.

I love vacation.

Also on vacation, I have the chance to catch up on all the shows my kids watch and which should be disgusting me more often. Sadly, I don't always have time to mock their taste in TV because of the pressures of the school year. But on vacation, I can hover over them and ask "whatcha watching?" over and over and then, no matter the response, spit back, "that's stupid." Because it is. To call shows today a "vast wasteland" is to insult the word "vast." And I don't confine my derision for TV/cable -- the ones produced for online venues or other streaming services are no better. I do watch TV but because I watch the shows I watch, they are therefore good. What the children watch is garbage. The only exceptions are if I happen to watch the same thing but that rarely happens (the exceptions exist on the Food Network).

Today's crap du jour was a show called something like "Child Genius." It was about children who are touted as geniuses. Hence the name. Their genius at age 10 is determined by their ability to memorize random bits of information and do math in their heads. Can they change a tire? Can they discuss a sonnet? No. But if you ever need someone to memorize a deck of cards, look one of them up. They're brilliant like that. As I was trying not to watch this show (it was on in the next room and I was working very hard at not grading a stack of 10th grade essays) I couldn't help but hear and get angry. This show was not so much about how "smart" these prodigies are. Granted, they have the odd brain cells to rub together in those years before they are beaten down by the harsh reality of a life which doesn't care that they took college classes before puberty. Surely these children are prepping their poses for the "Calendar of Mal-adjusted Kids who have No Friends" in order to pay their way through therapy. But the show was more about their parents -- those hyper-driven projecting narcissists who push their children on to a stage and who deprive their kids of love if the child, God forbid, forgets the "femoral artery."

Now, before I go any further, please, understand, I am not railing against this practice because I am incapable. I am pretty darned sharp and could hold my own against any random group of 10 year-olds, especially when the questions revolve around music from the 60's or how many shirts I own (hint, the answer is "a bunch"). I have known the thrill of the presentation. I was involved in a spelling bee in third grade. I won, and earned myself the book "101 Pickle Jokes." It was the sequel to "101 Hamburger Jokes" but lacked some of the punch of the original. I also am not angry because my own children have, in some way, disappointed me. My kids are plenty smart and they have a smarts that allows them to hold intelligent conversations, make sharp jokes, and wheedle another 20 bucks out of me. I just never saw the need to trot them out in front of strangers to brag about how unbelievable they are now and how desolate and depressed they will be in about 10 years. So, back to the show.

I wanted to believe that this show was a cut above the others. I wanted to think that because this show focused on the intellectual pursuits, it was redemptive, pulling the popular taste up the culture ladder. But it isn't about the brain. It is about the spectacle, and in that way, it is no better than the Dance Moms shows, the Toddlers in Tiaras shows and Real Housewives of Somewheresville. In a way, it is worse because it dresses itself up in the sheep's clothing of IQ points. But don't be fooled! The parents are serial abusers, the children are playthings and pawns and the voyeurs should be ashamed. This was the type of show that makes vacation a special bonding time when a father looks at his daughter and says those magic words, "I can't believe you are watching this junk." And she responds with "Based on this show, I guess you aren't the worst father in the world."

Bring back Tom and Jerry. At least that made sense.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A letter home to Mater

Dear Brandeis University,

I guess I owe you an explanation, but in a way, I guess you owe me one as well. So, as tough as this letter is for me to write, I want to clear the air between us so you know what precipitated this break-up. It isn't you and it isn't me. It's you.

You probably have been combing through the applications, trying to find the one marked "Madeline Rosen." You figure, "That's a Brandeis Family! Surely their child will apply to the school." And I wish you were right. We ARE a Brandeis family, and proud of it. In fact, I am sitting right now wearing a Brandeis scarf. A scarf for heaven's sake! A scarf that I have saved for the last 20+ years and which I love wearing not just because it keeps my (ever more sensitive) neck warm, but because it proclaims to the world "I went to Brandeis and that's pretty darned awesome!" And when the Mrs. wears her "Let's shoot for the top" t-shirt, or when I show the kids my Brandeis English department sweatshirt? We smile and embrace great memories of our time on campus. And you know what? Of all the schools which I attended, Brandeis is the one school that I consistently give money to as an alum. That must say something. Two generations, 4 Brandeis students (my parents, and the wife and I, all hail to the white and the blue) and yet you aren't going to find an application for my elder child.

Maybe it isn't because you have changed -- maybe I just didn't see what you were back then and my parents were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the world has changed around us. I don't know, but let me detail my thought process so you can understand my thinking.

First off, you, while a fine school, have made political decisions which highlight your openness and at the same time, call in to question your mission to be a safe haven for Jews and Zionists. Yes, I know, it is important to foster open debate and freedom of thought because if we stifle it for any group, we run the risk of endorsing censorship for the Jewish voice. But the fact is, my child, an ardent Zionist, should not be wandering through a campus which allows voices of hate to carry the day. It is, to my mind, simple. Maybe I am holding Brandeis up to a separate standard, and that isn't fair, but I do it. When I attended, there were all sorts of voices of dissension but there was an underlying sense that to be pro-Israel would never go out of style. The news I have read and the anecdotes retold to me by my own students who have gone through campus tell me otherwise. Sure, you say, there is tension, but that tension exists on many campuses. Yes, it does. And yes, wherever Maddie goes, she will have to confront hatred and bigotry. And if all else was equal, Brandeis, with a relatively small anti-Zionist contingent might still be a viable option for her. But all else isn't equal.

Next, you are a fine school, but one which costs a huge amount. My parents, God bless them, were able to afford to send their children to expensive schools. I am simply not in that boat. I do fine; don't get me wrong. I know that compared to the mass of the American population, I am blessed and in the top levels. But when it comes to schools, sinking 250k plus into 4 years just isn't in the financial cards. I don't want Maddie leaving school saddled with huge debts (and don't want those debts for myself) and, because the Mrs. and I are squarely comfortable, we just don't qualify for any solid financial aid. Sure, FAFSA might throw a few thousand bucks at us and I'm neither rejecting nor taking that money for granted. But the fact is, a yearly tuition bill over 50 thousand (plus all the other costs) is not defrayed much by $4,800 in grant money. But again, could we make it work if everything else was equal? Maybe. We'd scrimp and save and cut corners and find a way. But all else isn't equal.

I left Brandeis with a degree in English and American Literature. The wife left with a double BA in English and in History. We are children of the liberal arts and we are proud of it. A liberal arts education creates a rounded person -- someone who knows just enough about many things to either create a well-informed world view, or be an asset on a Trivia Night team. We, I'd like to think, are both. We both were prepared for graduate school and have found careers which leverage our multi-faceted education. But the fact is, it took me 4 years after graduation to find myself and during that time, I was lucky enough to have parents who could continue to carry me (again, God bless them). My liberal arts degree trained me to think critically and communicate effectively, but not actually DO anything. And the world has changed. No longer can a student leave having tasted of the intellectual delights of a broad range of fields and then start to find direction. While some families might still be able to set up a financial plan which can weather a longer road towards "life" and "career" we cannot. We want Maddie to try different things and end up happy in a field which suits her passions, but we need to get her on that path a touch earlier. And Brandeis, while you have many classes and tracks which I still would love to try out, the fact is, for her areas of interest, she would be floating between departments for four years, never being able to focus and start herself towards anything real. She could create her own major but how would that look to prospective employers. At other schools, she could go into a well regarded program, one nationally ranked, one with established connections into industry.

So with a heavy heart, I have to tell you that you should not expect that she, a student whose temperament, family history and intellectual curiosity would otherwise make her a poster child for Brandeis, will be applying to walk your storied halls. I have another child --- one with a different skill set, but one with the same parents, with the same underlying concerns and with the same financial limitations. Maybe in the next few years, I will win the lottery, the price of education will drop precipitously due to competition from online degree programs, or you will realize how cool it would be to have a third generation student at your school so you will come a-calling and throwing money. Maybe, you will rediscover your mission and take a stand against injustice and evil, and realize that one does not have to have a mind so open that one's heart falls out. But probably not.

So while I might still send in some money each year, it won't be as much as I have. While I may eventually come up for a reunion, it will be to relive the past, not celebrate the future. And while I wear this scarf, I will not be able to hand it down to a next generation of Brandeis student in the family. We can still be friends.

If you want to talk, feel free to contact me. To thee, alma mater, we'll always be true.

Dan ('91)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Look it up

I wrestle often with the question of technology in the classroom. Part of me wants to remove it completely -- no watches, books or shoes ("machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge") and have a good, old fashioned Socratic chat with the students, inviting them to think in response to challenges about what they think they know and/or believe. At other times I wish that I could plug each student into the internet and take for granted that basic background information has been assimilated and integrated into the world view so I can move onto the good stuff.

I think that some of this tension derives from the experiences of my teacher mentor, Charlie Moore.

Charlie Moore worked with an honors class back in the late eighties and it wasn't an easy class. You had a geek who was into math, a preppie guy who was hyperintelligent and good looking. There was a prodigy, and angry black woman, the artsy ditz, an immigrant and a motorcycle dude who was ashamed of his own intelligence and didn't want to be confined with the rest. Class periods were about 5 minutes long and there didn't seem to be any real curriculum but week in, week out, Mr. Moore tried to impress upon his students that facts were only a starting point and a real interaction with thought happened when students challenged themselves and each other and saw how the dry facts relate to their world.

Also in the class was a student named Dennis Blunden. Dennis was somewhat overweight and was a computer genius. In 1987 the idea of a computer genius resonated with me because I aspired to be a computer genius. Here is a picture of him, sitting at an Apple, way beack then.

Didn't I mention that this was a TV show? Maybe I should have mentioned that.

This was a TV show. A prescient TV show.

Dennis didn't just have some PC sitting in front of him (ironic that that picture has him at an Apple product), but one that had all the information one would need to second guess a teacher. He had sort-of internet like connection to an encyclopedic range of information. Now back then, I had a computer too. It was also connected, via a 300 baud modem to other bulletin boards. Eventually, I moved to 1200 and then 2400 so the dial up systems I accessed could present ways to hack public phones at what seemed like light speed. I didn't have an encyclopedia or access to one on my computer - when I finally started using Gopher servers, I could still only get information piecemeal, nothing like what Dennis could produce in 1987.

I mention this because I have classes full of modern-day Dennises, and this constant influx of information (assuming they aren't shopping or playing a game...Dennis never seemed to be shopping or playing a game) is a double edged sword. Anything I say is subject to fact checking by a raft of teenagers who can decide my worth as a teacher based on whether or not Wikipedia happens to agree with my understanding of a piece of literature. Now, sure, this keeps me honest (whereas my professional integrity would do nothing of the sort) but it also distracts students from thinking about ideas because they are looking to find chinks in my intellectual armor. Often this does encourage students to pursue independent lines of investigation but sometimes, that is to the detriment of their being exposed to the ideas I am discussing at that given moment in class.

Yesterday, while covering a question of logical, literary and stylistic import in our analysis of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a student went into his virtual world and came back with, "Douglas Adams was asked why he did that and he said 'because I wanted to...it was a joke'." He assumed, and the class followed suit with the assumption, that this not only answered my driving question, but undermined the validity of my holding the conversation and exploring a variety of options. Technology stifled thought. In fact, I was able to reframe the topic and show them how there was still literary value in both the question and the process and that Adams actually supported my position. Fortunately, I can still out-think a bunch of high school students so I saved that class but the threat is there constantly. The presence of excessive factual resources allows students to subcontract their memories, sure, and that might be a good thing, but it also puts too much value on those external thought processes.

SO I am torn. Having a Dennis in the class can be very useful. When a student asks what a word means, I can point to a dictionary or tell the student to look it up. When I can't remember a fact, or make a cultural reference, I can be sure that some kid will plug the gap in either my memory or find the song, show, book or other media piece which will highlight my point. And I can even imagine a class built solely on that skill, finding and making bizarre connections, as popular and useful preparing students for an online interactive future. But when the finding of things steps on the valuing of the self as a source of knowledge and innovation, or when it suborns a subversive approach to the classroom, encouraging students to devalue what the teacher is trying to accomplish by empowering them to focus on the minutae of what is said instead of the ideas presented, it corrodes the vitality and utility of the classroom. Dennis would never have done that to Charlie. Dennis realized that Charlie had more to contribute and had an expertise in thinking and appreciating the whole world and he realized that THAT was what he was supposed to be learning about.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In Defense of Shylock

I would like to take some time to commit to writing some of the things I have presented to my students over the years regarding the possible reading of Shylock not only as a sympathetic victim, but as a character infused with an awareness of Halacha and the Jewish identity which makes him idealistic, heroic and admirable. It is one of three readings that I work through as we read the play and I don’t present any one as the absolutely correct and exclusive reading, only that any of the three is equally (textually) plausible.

I am not going to focus on the mechanics of court room scene (as defenses on legal grounds have abounded) and am going to confine myself to a close (almost talmudical) reading of the text itself occasionally correlating Shakespearean lines with Jewish law or comparing Shakespeare’s character with others in the Bard’s canon. I am not, though, arguing that the play was written by anyone other than Shakespeare (especially not by a Jewish woman) or that William had some unexpected knowledge of Hebrew as evidenced by other plays. This is about Shylock and the text of Merchant.

1. If Shakespeare wanted Shylock to be the villain he knew how to do it. He gave us Iago, an unapologetic villain who never justifies his evil. Edmund is evil and Regan and Goneril are no prizes either. Richard III, Lady Macbeth? Does any of them get to give a speech which defends their behavior as proper? Yet Shylock has at least one full speech – he explains that Jews are just like non-Jews in ALL ways. If you tickle him, he will laugh. If you hurt him, he will be angry. And, like anyone else, if you act out against him he has the right to take revenge. He lists all sorts of crimes committed against him (being spit on, kicked and called names along with having his business ruined). He even states that he learned about revenge from the non-Jews! So his behavior is justified and even precedented. If Shakespeare wanted him to be a clear villain, why tell of times when he was the victim?

Why have others steal from Shylock (in their encouraging his daughter not only to flee but to take his jewels) which is what motivates him to be strict on the (heretofore joking) terms of the bond. Had they not pushed him, he wouldn’t have pushed back. And even then, he seeks justice, administrative redress, not personal revenge. That’s not villainy, just self-esteem and a sense of self-worth. Villains shouldn’t have that.

So why make Shylock human? Why make the Christians evil in their approach to their religion and to others? Why not have them “turn the other cheek” and let Shylock be the sole voice of evil? The simple fact is that Christians could have been presented as without fault (unlike the superficial Bassanio and the spiteful Antonio) so the contrast with an evil Jew would be stark. But that’s not how the play works.

2. A basic question has to be answered – what knowledge of Judaism did Shakespeare have? Jews had been expelled from England in 1290. While it was possible that some stayed as hidden Jews or that some business men travelled through, it is safe to assume that the average resident of England would have little or no discourse with a Jew. This would also mean that there would be little access to the tenets of Judaism other than the most obvious/textual ones and ones referred to through the lens of Christian teaching. To write a Jewish character would mean to impute all sorts of thinking onto that character without much basis in fact which should highlight the most damning stereotypes or mistaken impressions of Judaism. And yet, Shylock’s statements reveal a substantial amount of awareness of Judaism by Shakespeare, and even validation of Jewish law. It would have been easier to draw a villain in broad and ignorant strokes but all of this unexpected insight into Judaism actually serves to soften our impression of Shylock!

When invited to dinner, Shylock explains (I, iii, 28) that he will not “eat with you, drink with you nor pray with you.” It is nice that he has a list of three items (though the list of things he agrees to do has 4 items) but why does he separate eating and drinking? He had been asked to “dine” which would, one might assume, include eating and drinking. Sure, Shylock wants to distinguish himself and his behavior so he refuses to pray also but why list drink separately (And as a third item on the list, Shylock appends "pray with you" which would reflect a particularly Jewish understanding that ones says a grace AFTER the meal)? Maybe it is because he is aware of a separate set of laws which limit drinking with non-Jews even when the drink, itself is not “not-kosher”. His reasoning for refusal is textually based in the eating of pork (though he doesn’t cite the laws of Kashrut, simply that Gospel account of Jesus driving demons into pigs, making them undesirable to eat) but he resists even drinking because he is aware of additional rules of non-Jews touching uncooked wine. The laws of yayin nesech (wine used for idolatry) are arcane and not as well-known as the biblically listed rules of unfit animal consumption but Shakespeare sees fit to allude to them by explicitly separating eating from drinking. But even if one says that this comment isn’t a reference to those particular laws, there is still an invocation of Jewish law.

Even wine that is not used for idolatry poses a problem because the commentators and law codifiers in Judaism forbid extensive social interaction with non-Jews (stam yeynam). Why? To avoid the situation where this interaction might lead to intermarriage. So Shylock resists the meal because he is abiding by a subtler law, one designed to safeguard the religion of his daughter. He agrees to go out to one social event, and what happens? His daughter intermarries! It seems that the caution taught in Judaic law is being validated. Shylock is victimized because he does not follow Jewish law strictly enough; the legalistic tradition could have protected his religion and only when he compromises and goes out does Jessica leave. Why would the “villain” be shown to be not Jewish enough, being punished for compromising his initial, idealistic stance?

[As a side note to the underlying knowledge Shakespeare presents, take a look at what Lancelet Gobbo says when he indicates a wish to leave Shylock's employ which he can't do simply by running away, the way a regular employee might -- (II, ii, 112) "I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer." Is this what normally happens when slaves stay with their masters? Do they turn into that master? Is Gobbo concerned that he will turn into Shylock, a money lender or that he will start to observe the mitzvot? No! The fact is, the laws of owning a slave indicate that one who stays with a Jewish master, upon being freed, becomes a Jew. If Lancelet waits until he is freed, he IS a Jew; he doesn't say "I will turn the Jew" or "become" but "I am a Jew." How would Shakespeare have written with this kind of accuracy about a subtlety unique to the Jewish conception of servitude? Shylock, to ensure that Lancelet never becomes a Jew (and knowing that the slave is not fully Jewish until he is freed), does not free him, but resells him to Bassanio so that Lancelet never has to face becoming a Jew!]

3. Why call your villain “Shylock”? Shylock is a non-biblical name and definitely one that the audiences would not immediately connect with Judaism. It has no clear Jewish/Hebrew etymology – some connect it to the biblical person Shelah who was Judah’s third son by the daughter of a non-Jew (Gen 38). Others see it as close to the Hebrew word “sheyeilech”, ‘who will go.’ But the bottom line is that if Shakespeare wanted a character who would be tied to Jews, he could have taken a biblical name which alluded to someone memorable and Jewish. From Ariel to Davy to Michael, Shylock knew biblical names and could have chosen any that represented “Jews” but he chose a non-name! Even IN this play he references Jacob and Abram -- he could have made the lead "Jew" who cheats people have a name connected to Jacob who might be the deceiver, but he doesn't.

For the other Jew, he chose “Tubal”? This is not, on its own, even a name, but a prefix for a name, as in Tuval-Kayin, the child of Tzillah and brother of Na’amah (again, a pre-forefathers, pre-Mosaic name). The only interesting thing about Tuval-Kayin is that he took the craft of creating and turned it into “creating weapons for murderers.” AHA you say – perfect description. Except in the text it isn’t – Tubal has no connection to any killing, and Shakespeare could only invoke this idea if he knew the commentators and medrash surrounding the text, which would indicate an abnormal level of Judaic knowledge, one that would not be shared by his audience. So he chose either inconsequential names from well before Judaism developed, or took things that weren’t even really names! For Shylock’s daughter he opted for “Jessica”. This is also not a biblical name let alone one connected to Judaism. There was a name in the Hebrew, Yiscah, and she was (by extra-textual commentators) connected to Sarah but the leap from Yiscah to Jessica, even if it could import some sort of meaning by which audiences could judge Judaism, is strained.

5. The other characters mock Shylock for his reaction to the loss of his daughter because he wanders around bemoaning the loss of both his child and his money. Had Shakespeare wanted to make him greedy and villainous, he would have had Shylock make NO mention of Jessica, instead speaking only of the money. Mentioning his daughter reminds us of his status as a grieving father. But as presented, it seems that Shylock is not confused about which item he misses more, but about the combination of the losses – that his daughter was complicit in the loss of the money. This is compounded when she spends the money in ridiculous ways and loses items of significant sentimental value (a ring which was a gift between her parents). His shock is not that she, herself, leaves or that the money, itself, is lost, but that his daughter participates in the theft and squandering of the money. He expects that she would still practice honoring her father and mother but instead, she affiliates with Christianity (ignoring biblical law) and shows disdain for her parents not as Jews, but as human beings! As she switches her identity to one as Christian, she becomes villainous. Her rite of passage into the non-Jewish identity is the victimizing of Shylock, a role which she embraces, and then the making of stupid financial decisions (which puts her in league with the profligate Bassanio).

What is her criticism of her father’s house? That it is tedious. She likes mischief and then says she is not like her father’s “manners.” And what manners have we seen? His adherence to Jewish law but not in any way which is negative. She is rebelling against her religious obligation. Had Shakespeare given the reader any impression that Shylock was criminal or that his religious adherence was somehow flawed, or even that life in his house was destructive and not simply lacking of excitement, then he would be less defensible. But what we have seen of Shylock does not contribute to that.

6. Ignoring, as I said, the specifics of the court room scene, there is still one larger idea which must be addressed. The entire question of the law is ultimately decided by someone who is in no position to adjudicate. Portia is a woman and a non-lawyer/judge. She is impersonating a law clerk but has no legal standing! Other important officials, when reviewing the case, could not find a way to avoid holding Antonio responsible, so they have to bring in another “expert” to resolve this in their favor. It is unconscionable to consider that a Jew may be on the side of the correct application of the legal system. Shylock, under the law, seems to be in the right. It takes someone who is ignorant of the law to find a way to twist the system to limit his quest for justice. If Shakespeare had wanted Shylock to be the villain, he might have portrayed him as twisting the law or misrepresenting it, or as pursuing something which runs counter the law on its face and which the entire legal system could easily refute and condemn. Instead, Shylock’s legal position is given credence by the local authorities and is only refuted when someone who is in no position to make a judgment does so, victimizing Shylock by misapplying law and bastardizing the system.

Again, this is not all to say that Shylock is a great guy or that Shakespeare intended for us to read him as a sympathetic hero. My only point is that a close reading of the text can be used to reduce the blame and stigma associated with the Jew character and mitigate the vitriol and label of anti-Semitism many associate with the play.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Modus Opera-dumb

I am a staunch defender of the First Amendment. I like many of the amendments, in fact, and have been known to defend them when given the chance. However, I do so with two caveats:

1. I defend them in their spirit, not always in their strict construction, but also in their explicit wording and not in a later presumption of meaning
2. I defend them in a context of evolving legal thought, not in a way limited by their wording or historical origin

I'm sorry if that doesn't sound like a free and easy, unqualified defense but it allows me a measured view of things. It allows me the leeway to criticize and condemn due to logic without running afoul of strict constructionist thinking, but it allows me to understand the precise language and not get lost in the theory.

So when it comes to the recent flap over the "opera" The Death Of Klinghoffer, I worked hard to develop a nuanced reading of the situation. The piece, written in 1991 about the Achille Lauro hijacking and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, is being produced at the Met in NYC and there has been a public backlash, an outcry from those who feel that the piece should not be produced.

What I present now is a series of statements which, I feel, summarize my position on the matter. By presenting them here, I remove the need for anyone to tip-toe around the issue when having me over for drinks and small talk.

Point the first: Just because you can doesn't mean you should. That's the Frankenstein argument. Sure, you can create life in a lab, but does that make it an obligation? The Met and its creative directors don't need to put on a controversial piece simply because they can. The balance between curiosity/investigation and sensitivity is maintained when the canon of journalistic ethics drives media sources not to print a rape victim's name. They CAN legally, but that doesn't mean that they feel they must. You CAN tell the story of a monster and paint him as a victim, but that doesn't mean you have to.

Point the second: Just because it is a right doesn't mean that doing it IS right. We have a moral compass which supplements our legal guides. This doesn't mean that the text is inherently "evil" or "bad" but that it bespeaks a particular political and moral approach and defends that position and anyone who produces it is giving voice to that position (and thereby, to some degree, condoning it). Not all voices deserve a place in the public sphere, especially not without rebuttal or qualification.

Three: The constitution puts a limit on what the government can suppress in terms of speech. There is nothing in it which forbids private agencies from deciding what they will and won't present to the public. Any radio station, public or private, can choose not to play a song if the program director doesn't think it fits. No one is required to play/produce/print everything that comes to his hands. This isn't censorship. This is simply being selective.

Three-A: The right to free speech is not absolute. There are topics subject to prior restraint. I'm not saying that the content here falls under any of those headings, but the legal system has already decided that the government CAN "censor" certain messages. Once the notion of absolute protection fails even at the hands of the government, then it becomes obvious that other agencies have the right to do the same. And, by the way, the right to protest has the same protection and should be (by those who defend the opera's existence) be as valued and cherished, not condemned as a suppression of the freedom to express. Defenders of the play should be defenders of the protests and even the interruptions of the play (aren't they also valid expressions? Why not?)

Four: Unless you think that an opera which makes James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Hitler and the 9/11 terrorists all appear to be sympathetic is appropriate, don't selectively decide that one which recontextualizes the murder of a Jewish civilian is a fair expression and a story which deserves to be told. Pick any evil which has befallen you or your family and think how you would feel to see people hearing that evil's side of the story and its laying of equal blame on you and yours. Do we want to hear a rapist get to tell his sad story of how "she was asking for it?" Do child abusers get to have a play which explores why their expression of violence is actually a sane and rational behavior in the light of what they believe?

Does any of this mean that I applaud the work of Maplethorpe who trampled on the sensitivities of the church? No, but I see a decided difference between the criticism of an institution (religion) and the creation of moral equivalency between a man who was shot and pushed overboard (and who represented no particular system) and those who shot him claiming their act was political expression and criticism. They simply are not the same. Would those who defend Maplethorpe defend a complex and subtle analysis which allows a priest to explain why raping tens of altar boys was a valid political statement? Or the musical about the church as an institution defending moving said priests around and not telling parents because the children affected represented a cardinal sin and the priests were justified in their behavior? I'm sure that the Nazis who killed Anne Frank saw the Jewish people as the problem. I can't wait for the musical which tells their story.

Not all simple parallels are truly parallel and not all cases are identical. Not all voices need to be displayed and not all positions automatically earn a place in the public mindset.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A post in praise of Bill Murray



Good job, Bill Murray.

Good job.