Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Taking Woodstock has the feel of a rather sweet little independent film, peopled as it is with lead actors who are largely unknown, and well-known actors playing much less prominent roles. However, this film, based on the true story of Elliot Taber (about whom more later), is a surprising departure for director Ang Lee, the mind behind Sense & Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk (yes, the broccoli-green comic book hero!); and Brokeback Mountain. Lee has won well-deserved awards for his work, but paradoxically, the one thing that these films have in common is that they have almost nothing in common! These are not films of the Merchant-Ivory ilk, recognisable by their lush cinematography or period sets – and yet, what is clear again with Taking Woodstock is that when Ang Lee and producer James Schamus collaborate, wonderful things are likely to happen. Schamus worked with Lee on all these films (and others), and no matter how disparate the subject matter, they seem to have a shared vision of what makes a film not only good, but also engaging for its audience.

Although the cast includes a few people well-known to movie-goers (Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing former marine turned security guard, and Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch), they were not the draw for me. Even 40 years later, a movie about Woodstock doesn’t seem to need big-marquee names. This is not to say that the rest of the cast is entirely unknown – only that the strength of their work may like somewhere other than feature films. Take Jonathan Groff, for instance, who plays the fuzzy (literally and personality!) Michael Lang, one of Woodstock’s promoters. Viewers of TV soap One Life to Live may remember his multi-episode spin as a young man whose life truly did spin out of control as he died of a drug-induced heart attack at the wheel of a speeding car. Groff has also played Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor for Spring Awakening in 2007. We’re never altogether certain that his Michael Lang is not under the influence (the drugs of choice here seem to be marijuana and LSD) – he seems pretty blissed-out most of the time and maintains a preternatural serenity in the face of glitches that would likely have the rest of us pulling our hair (ours or someone else’s!). His beatific smile is almost transcendent.

Then there’s Michael’s girlfriend (or is she?), the lovely Tischa, who with her long, straight hair and floppy red hat is the epitome of a Woodstock hippie. She doesn’t say a lot, and it’s not altogether clear what her function is here, but she has a presence even in this peripheral role that adds something to the film. Could we expect any less from Meryl Streep’s daughter (with sculptor Don Gummer)? I wasn’t certain until I read the credits at the end of the film, but even looking at her eyes and nose under the brim of that floppy hat, I thought “Streep!” – and indeed, Mamie Gummer demonstrates that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Gummer is at the beginning of her career and hasn’t done a lot just yet, though you may be familiar with her from the film Stop-Loss, about the redeployment of American veterans to Iraq when they expected to be going home; or as Sally Smith Adams, her character in a three-episode arc of the TV mini-series John Adams.

These characters are all graceful foils to Demetri Martin’s Elliot Tiber. From a casting perspective, Martin is probably the greatest surprise of all – this New Jersey born and bred son of a Greek Orthodox priest and a nutritionist attended Yale University and NYU School of Law on a full scholarship. He has not previously been recognised for his acting ability – in fact, he has been a stand-up comedian of some repute, and other than TV roles in which he plays himself doing comedy, his resume consists overwhelmingly of writing gigs, both for himself and others. According to interviews, director Ang Lee felt that Martin had the right ‘look’ to play Tiber, and he’s believable enough in the role, playing it with the kind of innocence that we’ve come to expect of movies about this era. Still, as sweet as he is, Martin’s role doesn’t require a great dramatic stretch – he’s pretty calm, just a nice guy trying to make the best of life, who stumbles into something that turns out to be the defining moment for an entire generation.

If it’s acting you want, you owe it to yourself to see this movie if only to check out the incomparable Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), one of the finest character actors of her (or any other) generation. She plays Elliot’s mother, Sonia Tiber, and initially, I worried that the performance would be a bit over-the-top, a caricature of the Jewish mother stereotype. The Tibers are Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States by ‘walking through snowdrifts 20 feet high through Siberia,’ according to Mrs. Tiber. She is irascible, prejudiced, and astonishingly stingy: there’s a scene in which she sniffs bedsheets that Elliot has taken off a bed at their motel and plans to replace with clean ones. “They’re fine!” his mother shouts. “They didn’t even do anything on them! The water! The soap! The electricity! Put them back!” The sheets don’t get changed. But I digress. Staunton’s role really isn’t all about her meanness, and an evident inability to demonstrate love to either her husband or her son – or even the daughter from whom she is estranged who makes one brief appearance in the film. Sonia Tiber has lived a kind of a half-life, too frightened (though we’re never sure of what) to live with joy. There’s a mad moment near the end of the movie – and I won’t describe it here, because it has to be seen to be believed – that will adjust the focus of her character, so to speak, and allow you to see her as much more than the caricature she seemed at first.

Liev Schreiber, another Hollywood heavyweight (well, at least middleweight!), shows up as a cross-dressing US Marine. Semper Fi that, you macho men! In his first appearance, he’s wearing a lovely pink dress – and frankly, the lack of breasts aside, it looks pretty darned good on him! What tiny hips the man has! His character’s name is Vilma, and he plays her straight (no pun intended) – what I mean is that he’s not, by any stretch, a drag queen here. Except for the fact that you know he’s a man, he plays it with the tenderness you might expect from a woman. It’s a curious role for an actor who has appeared in both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Defiance, but he carries it beautifully.

What is missing from this film? The music. There’s just not much music. How can someone make a film about Woodstock without the music, for cryin’ out loud? Oh, sure, we hear little bits and pieces – Country Joe McDonald’s Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die, but none of the seminal music we associate with Woodstock. There are no impersonators visible even from a distance who are meant to be Janis Joplin, or Jimi Hendrix. But although I went to the film expecting to hear the Woodstock music, it wasn’t until the film ended that I realised there had been such a paucity of these tunes that embraced a generation. Really, I missed them more afterwards, because during, I was too busy enjoying the film to notice!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back to the movies...

Goodness, I didn't realise it had been quite this long since I'd posted anything... oops... My paltry excuse is that spring was a mess for me, I was in Israel for almost a month in earlier summer, and.... I guess I'm fairly lazy. Or perhaps I just needed to be excited enough about something to want to post! And here it is. This is what I am excited about - and I do not use that word in the positive sense in which, for instance, I might be excited about birthday presents!

Here it is - my review of Inglourious Basterds - may contain spoilers!

So I went to see Tarantino’s new film last night – Inglourious Basterds. Besides the fact that the grammar and spelling queen in me has a problem with the affectation of the title (He says that the words are misspelled so as not to confuse it with another film, Inglorious Bastards, a 1978 effort that saw more wide release in Italy, and whose actors remain in history.), I confess right up front to two biases, which truly, I managed to put aside (or I wouldn’t have gone in the first place!). The biases: I am not a great fan of films rife with gratuitous violence – but we all know that if we’re going to a Tarantino film, there will be violence. Additionally, I’m not a great fan of Brad Pitt – I’ve never thought he was a great actor, frankly, and there are plenty of men of his generation who are much, much better. I have long believed that he gained a career through shirtless, ‘aw, shucks’ scenes in Thelma & Louise.This said, I went off to see the film.

Its opening was an excellent study in knowing – without giving anything away, we get into the story with a German SS Colonel, Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz, about whom more later) and a French dairy farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet, who I think was wasted in this film). The ‘knowing’ to which I refer is that each of these two men knows something about the other, without its having to be said. And what they each know of the other is very dangerous. To call this a scene of cat and mouse would be to very much understate what unfolds. It is definitely predator and prey, and like a cat with a mouse, Waltz’s Landa is enjoying his little game. Equally, Menochet’s LaPadite bravely stays with the game, though he must surely know how it will wind up.

As I watched this opening, I thought that I might have been hasty in thinking I’d dislike the film because of what I already knew about its violence (has anybody not read about the scalping scenes?!). Here, at least, we were not treated to the visual spectacle of the machine gun murders of a farmhouse full of French citizens (including the requisite hidden Jews), though the one who did escape, running for her life, was shown covered in blood as she ran. No doubting what had happened in that farmhouse, even if we tried to pretend that the gunshots we heard weren’t making contact with flesh and blood.

Tarantino moves us fairly quickly along. We meet the stereotypical bunch of ragtag American heroes – at least, by appearance they are stereotypical. In fact, what we have here is one American lieutenant (Aldo Raines, played by Brad Pitt), and a tiny handful of Jewish enlisted men. We are to presume that they were selected for this mission by some means of which we are not informed, because there were certainly more than this little clutch of Jewish soldiers in WW II. Raines gathers the men together and tells them, “I want me some Nattzy scalps!” Yes, I know that’s not how we spell Nazi. But that is how Pitt pronounces it throughout the film.

In fact, the Raines character is such a tremendous caricature of gung-ho Americanism that it astonished me that he should even be there – this character belonged in a comedy. If John Wayne and George W. Bush could’ve had a child together, Aldo Raines would have been that child. He was all squint, the Pitt version of a Tennessee drawl, and not bloody much else. I’m all for suspending disbelief in movies – generally speaking, we go to be entertained, after all. I don’t really expect Tarantino to make much effort at historical accuracy (listen to the music of this film – David Bowie’s stuff makes an appearance!). But seriously, folks – how much are we expected to fall for here?! What is the likelihood in 1941, when our movie begins, that a single American lieutenant would have been given the go-ahead to create his own little band of (ahem) brothers to go off “Natzzy” hunting, separate from the rest of the military forces in Europe?! (And by the way, where WERE those forces? Other than a cameo by Mike Myers as a British Army officer, and yes, occasionally Austin Powers crept out, the only people apparently involved in this war were the Germans and a couple of Americans! There were no French soldiers or collaborators; there were no British, Canadian, or Italian soldiers. Perhaps Tarantino belongs to the school which feels that the Americans won the war single-handedly, despite the fact that they didn’t enter it until after Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese in December 1941.)

Tarantino not only directed this film – he also wrote it. That should explain a lot. Besides being incredibly far-fetched, the writing is pedestrian at best. Most of the dialogue is altogether laughable (I wonder if he meant for the audience to laugh so heartily in this film? Was that a clever ploy to jolly us along into thinking that Jewish soldiers would cheerfully cut the scalps from the heads of German soldiers?).

And why he wrote the Aldo Raines character as he did completely escapes me. I have no idea who Pitt’s dialogue coach was (For a change, I didn’t hang around to read the credits – I couldn’t wait to get out of there. In fact, this is a film I would’ve left in the first 45 minutes, had I not gone with a friend.), and I haven’t heard a great many Tennessean accents, it’s true – but those I have heard sounded nothing like Pitt! If I was from Tennessee, I think I’d be offended at the stereotype.

Was there anything good about this film? Surprisingly, the answer is “yes!” I don’t think this fact redeems the film, though, nor does it justify shelling out even the cost of a cheap-night or matinee ticket. But I digress. Much like, say, the Bible, some of the best bits are about women, and are downplayed. I suppose we’re lucky that they made it to film at all.

Diane Kruger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress (who is, of course, spying for the good guys), and she’s brilliant. Kruger has been in a number of films, including Wicker Park, Troy, and National Treasure: The Book of Secrets. Kruger is from Germany, so no worries about the accent there, and she’s great.

Mélanie Laurent plays Shosanna Dreyfus, the one survivor from the farmhouse scene at the beginning of the film. She is French, and the vast majority of her work is French, so honestly, I’ve seen none of it. No preconceived notions here. But, wow – fantastic! She plays such a broken person, and the viewer just knows that she would like nothing better than to kill the people who left her like this, took her family, and were trying to take her country. She concocts a rather clever plan of revenge (which coincidentally will also take down Waltz’s Hans Landa character, though she does not know that initially), and though it’s quite dramatic – and deadly – we quickly realise that it doesn’t matter so much to Shosanna. She was dead the minute she ran from that farmhouse covered in the blood of her family.

Kudos, too, to Christoph Waltz. His performance as the über-creepy Hans Landa is fabulous. His résumé in a career spanning at least 32 years is impressive, though like Laurent seems to be limited to his home country. Shame, really – it’s going to make it more of a challenge to see more of his work. And an unsettling aside – for those of you who may have watched the British TV series, All Creatures Great and Small, about real-life Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriott, Waltz bears a most uncanny resemblance to Christopher Timothy, who played Herriott. Why so unsettling? Well, because Timothy’s character was a kind and gentle man who took care of animals. Waltz’s character is an amoral monster who thought nothing of killing Jews – he didn’t seem to have so much against them, really. It was just another job.

Altogether, my feeling about this film doesn’t seem to mirror that of the theatre full of people with whom I saw it. There were laugh-out-loud scenes, apparently (I heard the laughter – I just didn’t share the sensation that it was amusing. Do we sometimes laugh at something unspeakably horrific, because it comes too close to dark places inside ourselves where we really don’t want to visit?); and as the film faded to black, there were cheers and applause.

I was left with the same feeling that I had as I considered Roger Ebert’s review. Like many in the audience last night, Ebert loved this film. As for me, I thought immediately of the children’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes and wondered whether so many reviewers have rated this film highly because they did not want to be the ones who said, “Man, this SUCKED!” Because it did. I give it a resounding “two thumbs down.” Waaaaay down, in fact. If I had more thumbs, they’d be down, too.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Movie Tart

So I'm rather profligate in my movie attendance, I must say. Friends have learned that it's usually a shorter answer to ask me what I have not seen than what I have. This weekend, I've seen two films... the first is Defiance, and the second is The Wrestler.

Defiance is filmmaker Edward Zwick's telling of the story of the 4 Bielski brothers (Tuvia, Zus, Aseal, and Aron), who had lived as farmers and sometime smugglers in Belarus. The story gives us little background information, as we're presumed to know the political environment of the times - it was in the midst of the Second World War, and it was arguably the worst time in history to be a Jew. When their parents were murdered (this is the only spoiler, I promise, and you must admit, it's small!), the four brothers decided not to be passive attendants of fate, but rather, to take off into the forest in an attempt to live.

Although I know that it is a fascinating story, perhaps I was expecting too much, because I didn't find the film much better than any fictional adventure story. Was it Daniel Craig, I wonder? Has he become too much associated with James Bond to take the Bond character out of his Tuvia? Of course, I haven't seen Craig's Bond, so that wouldn't likely be the case here... I just didn't find him altogether believable. He was stoic, his blue eyes were very blue, but I found him kind of... wooden.

Liev Schreiber, on the other hand, gave a fabulous performance. His Zus was nuanced and believable, his rage at murdering Nazis and collaborating neighbours all too real. Jamie Bell, too, was terrific as Aseal, the third brother. If you saw him in Billy Elliott, be assured that he's grown up now! (And if you haven't seen him in Billy Elliott, why the heck haven't you? It's a fabulous movie!) He doesn't have such a big part in this film, but he does get a couple of incredibly good scenes.

And speaking of scenes - a couple I could've done well without... OK, so we all know that Daniel Craig is gonna be the big hero in this film... but did they have to show him riding before a couple of hundred frightened forest refugees on a white horse? The only thing missing was the shining armour.

Then there's the scene of a group of women bathing in a brook - it's spring, getting warmer, and they're standing in the brook in undergarments (mostly slips, I think), laughing and chatting. Now, remember, they've been hiding in the woods for months, with very little to eat. One of the women pats her own derriere, and laughing, says, "I'm a skeleton!" Now, I'd never recommend anorexia as a way to make your character more believable - but nobody in this film looked undernourished in the least, certainly not the woman who made that remark! It felt gratuitous to me - it added nothing to plot progression and seemed quite discordant with everything else that had been going on.

Still, it's probably a film worth seeing, if only to encourage you to look up more information about the Bielski brothers.

On to Sunday night... The Wrestler. This one was made by Darren Aronofsky, who'd had a moderately interesting career up to 2006, when he produced Blood Diamond (except for Leo Di Caprio's appalling accent, that was quite a film). I'm not generally a wrestling fan - certainly not the 'wrestling as entertainment' genre. I don't understand the people who participate in this sport, and I most definitely don't understand the audiences who scream for more violence and blood as they watch. But let's move on.

Mickey Rourke has had a fairly long career, not especially distinguished, I don't think, but he seems to have worked steadily over the past couple of decades. He's made a couple of decent films (A Prayer for the Dying and 9 1/2 Weeks. You can check out his entire oeuvre at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000620/.), but he wasn't what I would've called a great actor.

The Wrestler has caused me to rethink my opinion here. His character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is a middle-age wrestler who also works part-time at a grocery store. He lives alone in a trailer that looks as if it was put together from spare parts, and he has a young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom he really has no relationship. Through the movie, there are heartbreaking and feeble attempts to develop a relationship with Stephanie (his daughter) and with Pam/Cassidy (the stripper with a heart of... well, not gold... played by Marisa Tomei).

This guy is broken in a thousand different ways, and the punishment he willingly inflicts on his battered self, just because here, at least, there is validation of his existence from others, is incredible. As played by Rourke, the character is wounded, sad, even gentle. He's polite - he's incredibly polite, in fact. He's kind. We don't get to hear how he wound up in the position in which we meet him - one of his former opponents has done markedly better, with a car dealership in Albuquerque - but we do get to see where he goes.

I didn't like some of the wrestling scenes - they are incredibly violent, and seeing someone smash another's face into the supports around a wrestling ring, complete with the ensuing blood, just doesn't do it for me. The film made it pretty clear that these really were staged scenes, but still, the sound of flesh slamming into canvas is hard to take. I know it's part of the whole wrestling as entertainment thing, but it's not my thing. Still, the movie is about much more than that.

Some of the music is very jarring - it's the loud 80s metal stuff, which I didn't much care for even during the loud 80s! Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for this film, though, which has earned a Golden Globe, and it's the song with which we close out the film. I've never been to a movie where almost everyone there stayed to watch the credits, because, I think, we were all listening to this song, and to how well Springsteen has captured the spirt of this man. If you go to http://www.brucespringsteen.net/news/index.html (and why wouldn't you, after all?!) and scroll down the page a bit, you'll see a video on the left-hand side of the page, a brief clip of Mickey Rourke explaining how Springsteen came to write this song for the film. You'll also get a very brief couple of clips from the film, but even in those clips, you can see the strength and sadness of the character he plays.

This is definitely a film worth seeing. In fact, it's worth seeing again - so if you want some company for it, let me know.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Question of the Week

The question of the week, from Christians, Jews, and those who subscribe to no faith tradition, has been, "Why are you a Jew?"  There are several ways to understand this, and it's been put in several different forms, with nuances that tell me there's more to the question than just those 5 words.

Why are you a Jew (why did you convert?)?  Why are you (still) a Jew (given all the mess in the Middle East)?  Why are you a Jew (how can you be when Israel does such awful things?)?  Why are you a Jew (because it must be so embarrassing when international opinion is against you)? I've discovered some amazing things about friends in the past couple of weeks - I have discovered that some truly want to understand what's really going on between Israel and Palestine before coming down on one side or the other.  I love and respect those people with all my heart.  I have also discovered that some people, who I thought were friends and who I thought were reasonable, are in fact more enchanted by their own rhetoric, even when that means demeaning me on a personal level because I disagree with their position.

So, why am I a Jew?  I mean, what sensible woman, who is not converting for marriage, would choose to be a part of a people around whom so very many rumours abound?  There's the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, for one - we control banking, and Hollywood, and I believe, the diamond business.  Never mind how Jews got into those fields - let's talk about the issue of CONTROLLING them.  If I'm part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy (WWJC), then where's MY share, darn it?!  I mean, I rent, I don't own.  Don't have a car.  Don't earn bags of money.  Don't go to Florida regularly (I have been ONCE - before I was a Jew!).  Don't go to Israel regularly (see "don't earn bags of money"), though I'd love to go again (I have been ONCE - whoops - before I was a Jew!).  Why choose to be part of a people who are reviled, misunderstood, and treated with a pretty solid amount of distrust?

The answer in its smallest particle is that being Jewish is my heart.  It just is.  

The longer answer, however, might come from someone else.  Take a look at this:

I am a Jew because I believe that the Jew is a necessity to the world.  I am a Jew because I recognize the role of my nation to be that of the servant of God in ministering to mankind's greatest wants.  I am a Jew because I understand and acknowledge that my people has no other logical reason for its existence on the stage of history in the face of tempests, changing scenes, "wars, alarums, and excursions," - in the face of all ethnological law and historic experience, except as that conservative principle without which progress becomes unreal and evanescent and civilization unstable.

Speak to [the Jew], and he will say he has traveled far, he has endured many a storm, has undergone much ill-treatment, has been hurled in the dust ten thousand times.  As him why he has suffered to much, and with a ring of pride in his voice, he will say because he is a Jew - the Jew of history, the centuried pilgrim of the ages, the Jew, as his prophet pictured he would be, "despised and rejected of en, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," "esteemed stricken, smitten, and afflicted" by peoples whose transgression of all laws of justice wounded him, whose iniquitous persecutions bruised him, who thought that by his sufferings, his stripes, they were healed.  As him why he was a Jew, to suffer to in the past.  His eyes will light up with the deathless fire of Faith as pointing to his scroll, he will say: "This is why I am, why I was, and why I will be, a Jew."

You ask me why I am a Jew?  I reply by asking you but one question.  Is the world to-day contented, happy, truthful, honorable?  It is not.  Therefore, I am a Jew.  And I remain one to try and make it so.

You can likely tell by the language of the text above that it wasn't written yesterday.  In fact, it was written by a man named Pereira Mendes, a Sephardic Jew, an English educator and rabbi.  He didn't even live to be 70 - he was 66 when he died in 1893.  This article was written in 1887 and published in The National Review.  One hundred and twenty-two years ago.  What has changed since then?  Well, the murder of 6 million Jews in the space of just a couple of short years hadn't happened - and probably wasn't even imagined by most people.  So little has changed, it seems.

Mendes also wrote, ..."I exist to achieve Universal Peace, Universal Brotherhood, Universal Happiness... How shall I accomplish this?  By means of this scroll.  It teaches purity of personal life, purity of social life, a simple religious life of being at One, an At-one-ment with God.  We believe in the religion of deed, - 'to learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.'  We do not say we alone hold the keys of Heaven, or that you must believe as we do to be saved.  The righteous of all have a portion in the world to come; all the sheep need not enter the pasture by the same gate."

Why am I a Jew?  I couldn't be anything else!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Finding a Shabbat Frame of Mind

There are 39 Shabbat prohibitions, things that observant Jews are told we must not do on Shabbat. They are, briefly, Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing, Writing, Erasing, Cooking, Washing, Sewing, Tearing, Knotting, Untying, Shaping, Plowing, Planting, Reaping, Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting, Sifting, Grinding, Kneading, Combing, Spinning, Dyeing, Chain-stitching, Warping, Weaving, Unraveling, Building, Demolishing, Trapping, Shearing, Slaughtering, Skinning, Tanning, Smoothing, aaaaaaaaaand... Marking. (http://www.ou.org/chagim/shabbat/thirtynine.htm) And if you read this list quickly, you may think that it must be very easy to be observant about the Sabbath, because, really, how many of us practice shearing, slaughtering, skinning, or tanning these days? And what on earth is smoothing?

In fact, as you will see if you read the list at the Orthodox Union website offered above, it's not that easy at all. We come from a rabbinic tradition - as times change, our sages, rabbis, and learned scholars have all offered interpretations of words, laws, and traditions that were first described centuries ago. So we know (if we read the definitions at www.ou.org!) that carrying, for instance, "absolutely forbids all carrying in the street. Even such trivial things as a key or a handkerchief must be left at home. Certainly pocketbooks, purses, wallets and key-chains may not be carried. The only thing one may carry outdoors are things that are actually worn." It's ok to carry something in your private home, but not outside.

Wow. Then there's burning. This actually means, "making a fire or causing anything to burn.
Even throwing a toothpick into a fire is considered a violation of the Sabbath under this category.
This is another category of work mentioned specifically in the Torah, as we find (Ex. 35:3), "You shall not light a fire at home on the Sabbath day." Not only that, but also this!

Obviously, this category forbids such acts as striking a match or turning on a stove.It also prohibits smoking on the Sabbath.
An automobile engine works by burning gasoline. Turning on the ignition and stepping on the accelerator causes it to burn. It is therefore forbidden to drive a car on the Sabbath.
Heating a piece of metal so that it glows is also in the category of burning.(Note 11) When an electric light is turned on, its filament is heated white hot, producing light. This is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.

In general, any use of electricity violates the spirit of the Sabbath, since it involves extracting energy from nature. According to many authorities, electricity has the same status as fire with regard to the Sabbath. In any case, the practice of all observant Jews is to avoid turning any electrical appliance on or off. Since a telephone also works by electricity, it also should not be used.

Does this mean that no matter how much I try, I will never be, as they say, Shomer Shabbat? Good ol' Wikipedia tells us that "...the shomer Shabbat is expected to conform to the prohibitions against certain forms of work. The observant Jew does not cook, spend money, write, turn on or off electrical devices, or do other activities prohibited on Shabbat. In addition, a variety of positive Sabbath commandments are expected to be fulfilled, such as Sabbath meals and prayers."

This looks worse and worse!! Does this mean, then, that the tallit I made, every single stitch a prayer, would violate the Shabbat prohibitions if I were to have worked on it from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday? Yup, that's precisely what it does mean. Wow.

So... will I never be a good enough Jew?

Well, if the Shabbat prohibitions were the only measurement of a 'good Jew,' then I think that most of us could fall solidly into the mire with me! But I don't think that they're the only way to be a 'good Jew.'

What is a good Jew, anyhow? The way I understand it, it's someone who tries to observe the mitzvot, someone who practices tikkun olam, someone who honours the Sabbath and keeps it holy... and there's where we get back to those 39 prohibitions.

The prohibitions were created as a way for Jews to honour the God who gave us the Sabbath (that's why the commandment is written that way!). Initially, alone in the world, Jews had a day of rest on the 7th day. Other people didn't (we can call that another gift of the Jews to the world, that whole 7th day of rest thing!). So we wanted to honour that day. And I love that idea. In fact, Shabbat is probably my most favourite day of the week, because it truly is a day that I know it's perfectly ok to concentrate on relationship - my relationship with God, my relationships with the people I love, and I try to do that. I try not to do mundane work, and I even make time to read Torah, and to learn - because that's ok on Shabbat! (But if it's ok for me to learn Torah on Shabbat, why is it not ok for me to write on Shabbat, about something I have learned from Torah?!)

It's all very confusing. But I think what it boils down to is that if Shabbat is a gift to us from God, then what we do with it is our gift to God. Think about this for a moment. We can give a gift to God? How on earth can we give a gift to the Almighty?!

We can, actually. We can practice kavanah, intentionality, in all that we do. So we can be more conscious (and conscientious) of our prayers. We can be more attentive to the people we encounter and the way we relate to them. We can be more conscious of the beauty around us and take time to praise it.

And we can try to keep these Shabbat prohibitions - because rather than just a list of rules, if we consider them as a list of things we don't have to do because it's Shabbat, we might just find that we get a little better at honouring the Sabbath and keeping it holy.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'll give you some international outrage...

... at least, I would like to. Truly.

I've just read an article in today's Globe & Mail, which you might also like to read, at this link:(http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090114.wafghan14/BNStory/Afghanistan/home

Briefly, it concerns the horrific plight of a 14-year-old Afghani girl whose mother and brother performed an abortion on her with a razor blade. Rest assured that my outrage has nothing at all to do with abortion. No, it's about what they did to her. She is a 14-year-old who was raped and became pregnant, and at 5 months, two of the people who are supposed to love her best did this to her.

The girl is in an American hospital, airlifted there from Kabul, in critical condition. Her mother and brother, as well as the man who raped her, have been arrested. When her father (who wasn't arrested) brought her to the hospital, he told staff that she had been bitten (in the abdomen...) by a dog. They took one look at her and knew that he was lying.

So in Afganistan, it is more shameful for a child (because at 14, she is still a child!) to be pregnant as a result of rape than it is to be the rapist! Abortion is illegal there, so this poor girl was doubly traumatised to begin with - first the rape, then the horror of the pregnancy. One can only guess what home life was like when it became evident that she was pregnant.

So. To get to 'international outrage.' The Globe & Mail has closed comments on this article, even before a single comment was published. Where is the international outrage for the girl who was raped and further brutalised by her own family? Where is the international outrage at a society where a rapist could go unpunished, while his victim was further assaulted with a razor blade?!

No, we save our international outrage lately and hurl abuse at Israel, at Jews, and at those who support them, because Israel has responded to an assault begun by a terrorist group. Sure, that makes sense. I have to listen to people who insist that they "know what you think," even though they do not, because they have not asked me. For the record, I wish the United States would butt the heck out of Israel. Seriously. They should keep their money - they could spend it on education! Lord knows, they need it. Or health care. Or starvation in sub-Saharan Africa (which I was also told I obviously don't care about, because I support Israel).

And yes, I wish that those who are involved in this mess would find a way to peace. I know that the way is not with war - but neither is it with sitting there waiting to be annihilated. So, also for the record, I continue to support Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas. Golda Meir, former Prime Minster of Israel, said once, "There will be peace in the Middle East when Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate Jews." I don't think things have changed much since then.


Monday, January 12, 2009

It's not anti-semitism, stupid...

It's been an interesting couple of weeks. All hell has broken out once more in the Gaza Strip, and depending on where you get your news, Israel might be saint or sinner in this issue. I stand where I've stood for as long as I can remember - with Israel. I stand with Israel in that Israel has a right to be an independent country. I stand with Israel and say that Israel has the absolute right (and indeed, responsibility) to defend itself when it's hammered with thousands of missiles courtesy of Hamas.

I wonder how people can stand with Hamas, a terrorist group by any definition, whose express desire is to destroy Israel, and a group that is supported by a frightening number of its religious leaders. Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi delivered a sermon on Friday, January 9th, in which he said, ""I address my first message to the aggressor Jews, those arrogant plunderers, who act arrogantly toward the servants of Allah in the land of Allah. In the past, the Jews spread corruption in the land twice, and Allah punished them both times, by setting as masters upon them people who tormented them, humiliated them, and made them bow their heads." Further on in the same address, broadcast by Al Jazeera TV, he said, "We Wait for the Revenge of Allah to Descend Upon Them [i.e. the Jews] – And, Allah Willing, It Will Be By Our Own Hands," and just in case you weren't sure what he felt, there's this: "Oh Allah, take your enemies, the enemies of Islam. Oh Allah, take the Jews, the treacherous aggressors. Oh Allah, take this profligate, cunning, arrogant band of people. Oh Allah, they have spread much tyranny and corruption in the land. Pour Your wrath upon them, oh our God. Lie in wait for them. Oh Allah, You annihilated the people of Thamoud at the hand of a tyrant, and You annihilated the people of 'Aad with a fierce, icy gale. Oh Allah, You annihilated the people Thamoud at the hand of a tyrant, You annihilated the people of 'Aad with a fierce, icy gale, and You destroyed the Pharaoh and his soldiers – oh Allah, take this oppressive, tyrannical band of people. Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one." (http://www.memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD218309) I just don't see any other way to understand this, as a Jew, and as a human being. The point here is not merely a Palestinian state - the point is to annihilate Jews. And if you still can doubt that, check out this little video... what a piece of work.. http://www.memritv.org/video.html

This is difficult for me, because I do get heated when the subject is raised. I try to maintain some objectivity, but it's doubly challenging because the majority of mainstream news here shows crying Palestinian children and women, for instance... but they don't say that the Palestinians use children and other civilians as human shields. They don't tell you that part of the reason that there are more Palestinian dead is that the Palestinians typically set up armaments in civilian buildings - so that when Israel retaliates, who is going to die? Civilians, of course.

We see on the news here so very much rhetoric about how dreadful Israel is, how terribly it's behaving - but I don't recall a single news report on the almost-daily shelling of Sderot, a small city in southern Israel... Sderot has the distinction of being the only city in the world that has a bomb shelter in a playground. It's not for PR purposes that they need that - it's because Sderot is so close to the border that when a missile is fired by Hamas, their citizens have 15 seconds to make it to a bomb shelter. That includes children. And old people. And everyone in between. See how far you could get in 15 seconds.

All around me, I hear people who have formed their opinions based on 3-minute sound bytes on the evening news. Some of these people are very close to me, and when I hear them declaim observations such as "Israel should just get out of Gaza. They're being bullies!" my heart aches. They might not see it this way, but they are talking about me when they say that. They have not heard what it's like for Israelis, and when they are challenged, dismiss the idea as "Israeli propaganda." It's as if, because Israel has not sustained as many civilian deaths, they must surely be the evil side of this story! What if we had said that during WW II? Who would've been the bad guys? The Americans, for sure... but that would ignore the fact that Nazi Germany had been the aggressor, and the equally important fact that the Allied Forces had better armaments, better training, etc.

Whether you have made up your mind about this or not, I urge you to check out some alternative media... besides the links above, you should check out www.sderotmedia.com and www.theisraelproject.org. A former friend of mine tells me dismissively that these are "pro-Israeli sites" and disdainfully asks why he should bother... well, because the other information you have is most definitely pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas, and it's just not possible to form an educated opinion when you have only one source.