Friday, May 26, 2006

Dental Health

The skinny long-armed dental lamp loomed over me like the hovering figure of the television character E.T. My chair was tilted back at a most uncomfortable angle, but I didn't want to be one of those annoying patients who is overly concerned with her own comfort, so I didn't say anything to the hygienist. She had pricked me with the sharp anesthetic gun two minutes earlier and by this point my whole mouth was numb. "Do you feel anything?" she asked me, pushing and poking at my cheek. "Gogh," I responded through unfeeling lips. And then she began to drill.

I knew it would hurt a little--it always does--so I let my mind wander. I used to always fall asleep in the dentist's chair, and I remember that the hygienist would have to say, "Open…open…WAKE UP!!" My eyelids would flutter in surprise, and I'd open up obediently, only to doze off and slacken my jaw thirty seconds later. I never complained, but I also wasn't a particularly cooperative patient.

This time, my mind began to race as it can only when I am sitting perfectly still for long stretches of time – a rare occurrence in my pseudo-frenetic life. My brain tends to operate at a speed inversely proportional to the pace of my body. When I run, I don't think about anything; when I sit in the dentist's chair for two hours, I think about everything.

Well, what do you expect? I was thinking about everything. Soon enough, lying back there nearly completely horizontally on that plastic-covered chair, my eyes began to tear. The tears fell fast and furiously, cascading down my cheeks and landing in my ears. I wasn' t sobbing – tear-floods but no sigh-tempests – yet the hygienist could not help but notice my distress. "Oh no, we need more anesthesia," she told her assistant, who prepared another injection. "Gogh, Guy Guy," I spoke up – my best attempt at "No, I’m fine." But she couldn't possibly understand, and I clearly looked miserable. So they pricked me again.

There I was, without language. And lacking language, I had no way to tell the dental team that this was not pain that would be relieved by the novocaine needle. Leave me alone, I wanted to tell them. Anesthesia would not stop Goldengrove from unleaving.

Everywhere else I go, I hold my head high. I can put on an act just as well as everyone else around me – I know we are all part of our own very private masquerades.

But at the dentist's, I need to be able to let down my guard. This is the place of hurting, and so this is where I go to be in pain. Drug me all you want, but my eyes are not going to stop tearing.

I have a few cavities that won't be filled for a while. But it's OK. I'll be back. I just scheduled another appointment.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Someone to Run With

Just one day after finishing David Grossman's SOMEONE TO RUN WITH (for the second time), I had a very "Grossman" moment today.

I worked for eleven hours straight at the lit. agency, getting up from my seat only occasionally to pull a book off the shelf or walk down the hall to the bathroom. At the end of the day, I felt like I would die if I didn't move a little, so I decided to walk to Ben Yehudah, get some ice cream, and come home.

On the way there, as I was walking briskly (while reading the newspaper, as I am wont), I noticed that a small, shaggy brown dog was following me everywhere I went. And not only that -- the dog seemed to be possessed by some sort of demon. It was frantically zigzaggging back-and-forth between the sidewalk and the street, attempting, with each zigzag streetwards, to cross in heavy traffic. Several car drivers stopped short and gave me dirty looks, assuming that I was the dog's owner. One guy in dredlocks waiting at a busstop said, "Shimri al ha-kelev!" At the next busstop I passed, a Hasidic man with extra-scraggly omer beard said to me, "Zeh ha-kelev shelach?" --"NO!," I said. "But he's following me everywhere. He's going to get run over." The Hasid's response? "Better a dog than a child." I resisted the urge to tell him that Dennis Prager would have agreed.

The annoying-as-all-hell, demonically-possessed dog followed me up Keren HaYesod AND King George, showing no sign of relenting. But I wasn't completely annoyed, because I could appreciate the literary resonance of the experience. David Grossman's SOMEONE TO RUN WITH (which is a must-read -- I highly recommend it!!) is about a 16-year-old boy working at a summer job in the Jerusalem City Hall, where he is given the assignment to track down the owner of a lost dog. He walks with the dog all over the city in search of clues, finally finding the key to the owner's identity on the Ben Yehudah pedestrian mall (where I bought my ice cream). It was quite uncanny -- the day after I finished the book, I had my own someone to run with.

But fortunately the dog is now gone. Though I had visions of him following me home, he disappeared at some point as I was winding through the crowds in the center of town. Phew. Let the dogs go on with their doggy life, as Auden would say.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


I decided today that when it comes to the service professions, editing occupies a place midway between washing machine repair and psychoanalysis on the scale of "delta verifiability."

I have coined this phrase (which I shall hitherto refer to as delta-V) to refer to the extent to which it is possible to verify the degree of change that has been effected in the status of something in need of fixing. Washing machine repair has a very high delta-V. That is, if a washing machine repair(wo)man (like, say, Avivah Zornberg's husband) comes to work on a washing macine, it is very easy to tell whether h/she has succeeded in fixing it. Either the washing machine works, or it doesn't! The proof is in the laundry (or in the puddle on the floor). Of course, no one is going to pay a washing machine repair(wo)man if the washing machine is not properly fixed. As a result of his/her profession's high delta-V, the repair(wo)man is obligated to deliver on his/her promise.

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, has a very low delta-V. That is, a person can be in therapy for ten years and still not know whether he/she has gotten "better." It is very hard to know whether all those hours on the couch are actually effective. In all likelihood, the patient still argues with his/her mother and still procrastinates and still thinks his/her little brother got all the attention...and yet nonetheless, he/she is probably willing to shell out hundreds of dollars a year for the "talking cure" -- far more than he/she would ever pay a washing machine repair(wo)man!

Editing occupies a place somewhere in the middle on the delta-V scale. The editor who reworks a manuscript definitely changes that document -- but it is not usually clear just how much better it has become. Who is to say that a paper is more readable with shorter sentences? Who is to say that the author's greatest insight should be saved for the final paragraph? Who is to say that the third digression is too much, whereas the first two can stay in? To some extent, good writing is good writing, and editors are supposedly the arbiters of style. But isn't style inherently subjective? For this reason, I always have qualms about how much to charge for my various freelance gigs. How can I be sure that my work will actually be worthwhile to my client? If a hundred monkeys sat at a typewriter for two million years, maybe they could accomplish the same thing. (I guess that's why I charge by the hour?!)

I think the inspiration for this way of thinking comes from an essay I read in college: "The Potato in the Materialist Imagination," by Stephen Greenblatt. College was many years ago, but if I remember the essay correctly, the author's basic thesis was that bread occupied a place midway between the potato and the Eucharist in the eyes of starving Englishpeople living in the wake of the Irish Potato Famine. During the famine, the Irish were fed potatoes because there was nothing else to eat. Some years later, when the English experienced a similar famine, they refused to eat potatoes. They felt that potatoes were beneath them -- they grew in the ground, they were dirty, their preparation involved very little processing by human was food for the filthy Irish, they felt. Potatoes, according to the proud English, were all substance and no spirit.

On the other end of the spectrum was the Eucharist, the paper-thin, light-as-air wafer eaten during Mass in church. The Eucharist was all spirit and no substance. It would not nourish the body (no one spoils their appetite by taking communion in church), but it could sustain the soul. Midway between the two was bread, which is both substance and spirit. Bread comes from wheat, which grows in the earth like potatos -- but it is wheat that is milled and sifted and kneaded by human hands. It is thus as much a product of culture as of nature. When confronted with famine, the English pushed away the squinting potatos and stood in the bread lines instead.

I have more thoughts on this -- I could write about this for a while -- but I'm hungry (potatoes) and I still need to daven (Eucharist) and edit some Lilith reviews (bread) before collapsing into bed. Ah, the life of the embodied human soul!

Monday, May 08, 2006

I Am a Jewish Man

I spent the Yeshiva shabbaton reading a book that I had been meaning to revisit since Sophomore Tutorial: Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by Thomas Laquer. The basic thesis of the book is that the Enlightenment marked the shift from a one-sex model of the body to a two-sex model. Today we are used to thinking of the body in terms of two sexes – we view these biological distinctions as "real" and uncontestable, although we recognize that gender (the psychological, emotional, and social qualities that make us male and female) are socially constructed. But this is a very modern view of sex and gender – for much of human history, it was radically otherwise. In pre-Enlightenment texts, the cultural categories of gender were assumed to be real, whereas physical sex was conventional and subject to change: "To be a man or a woman was to hold a social rank, a place in society, to assume a cultural role, not to be organically one or the other of two incommensurable sexes." And thus we must understand, given this historical shift, that sexuality is not an inherent quality off the flesh, but a way of experiencing our bodies that is very much a product of our times.

Laquer goes on to survey anatomy textbooks from Galen (2nd century) to Vesalius (Renaissance) to show that for hundreds of years, women's bodies were thought to be lesser versions of men's bodies. The female genitalia was considered an inverted, internalized version of the male – and thus the ovaries were known as the "female testes," for instance. Very few distinctly female body parts had names of their own, because women's organs were represented as versions of a man's. There was "only one canonical body and that body was male." Instead of any true, essential sex that differentiated man from woman, there was one sex whose more perfect exemplars were deemed male at birth, and whose less perfect ones were labeled female. Medieval and Renaissance texts are thus filled with anxieties about inappropriate behaviors that might cause a change of sex. For instance, according to one medieval text, a girl in the heat of puberty once jumped across a ditch while chasing pigs through a wheatfield and "at that very moment the genitalia and the male rod came to be developed in him, having ruptured the ligaments by which they had been held enclosed."

But then in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a dramatic revolution took place in our conceptions of sex and gender. Science fleshed out the categories "male" and "female" as opposite and incommensurable, and sex become biological. Anatomists no longer emphasized physical and physiological equivalences between men and women, and there was a general abandonment of the old metaphors that had linked reproduction to the natural world (i.e. the penis as plowshare and the womb as field). Sex was no longer known as "generation" (which reflects the repetition of God' creation) but rather as "reproduction" (a mechanistic term more appropriate for a future age of Xerox machines and mass production). But most importantly, a biology of hierarchy (men as superior women) gave way to a biology of incommensurability, in which the relationship between men and women was fundamentally one of difference. Laquer links this shift to social and political changes such as Lockean ideas of marriage as contract, postrevolutionary (French, that is) feminism, the factory system with its restructuring of the sexual division of labor, etc. No matter the cause, the result was indisputable: by the time of the Enlightenment, women had become the opposite sex.

As a student of Talmud, I take away from this book a sense of new possibilities in terms of my own historical relationship with sexual identity in Judaism. As I see it, a Jewish woman of the twenty-first century has far more in common with a Jewish man of rabbinic times. When I study Talmud, especially Masechet Ketubot (as we are doing this year), I feel very alienated and distant from the halachic category of nashim. I identify as an ish rather than as an isha: I daven regularly, I wear tzitzit, I earn money and own property, I participate fully in the social and political life of my community. I do not place a premium on virginity or on reproductive capacity; I value myself far more for the amount of Torah I have mastered. And so I devote my time to learning and leyning, which I consider essential parts of living fully as a Jew. These activities do not make me feel like a man rather than a woman – but Laquer's book reminds me that in another era, they probably would have. In fact, one of Vesalius' frummer anatomy students might have observed my halachic behavior and warned me that if I were not careful, I would suddenly feel my own ligaments start to rupture like the girl chasing pigs across a ditch.

When I put on tefillin, I have more in common with Rabbi Akivah than to Beruriah. But that said, I don't view wearing tefillin as a masculine behavior. Haviva Ner-David writes that putting on tefillin in the morning reminds her that her body is deserving of adornment. I feel the same way, but I think this is a very feminine response. It is not that gender roles have shifted, but rather that the halachic categories of "male" and "female" have been reappropriated. As a free, independent person, I am a man -- as far as rabbinic Judaism is concerned. My gender remains fixed but my sex is fluid, unconstrained by biological or anatomical "reality." It is in this sense, more than any other, that I identify most fully as a Jewish feminist.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

From Turtledove to Gathering Swallows

How do we make sense of the period between Pesach and Shavuot? For me, the most meaningful aspects of each chag have always been the megillot that we read. On Pesach we chant Shir Hashirim, a celebration of young love in all its energy and innocence. And then on Shavuot we recite Megillat Ruth, a more sobering tale about a woman who uses love to rebuild a family devastated by loss. In the period of the counting of the Omer, then, with the winter long past and the days growing still longer, we experience the shift from young love to mature love and from freedom to redemption.

Shir Hashirim is appropriate for Pesach, and not just because it celebrates the awakening of spring and the blossoming of youth. In its description of carefree, unbounded lovers leaping over the hills and peering through the lattices, the book is its own feast of freedom: the freedom to love and be loved without any concerns or responsibilities. These are not lovers who need to support themselves or find a roof to put over their heads – they can sustain themselves with raisin cakes and fall asleep in the fields to the song of the turtledoves. As if in defiance of time itself, the entire book of Shir Hashirim – eight chapters in total – has no narrative progression and no plot development. It is as if the young man and woman are frozen in time, and in this they are reminiscent, to me, of Keats' fleeing lovers on the Grecian urn:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss;
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

In this poem, Keats describes an ancient Greek vase depicting two lovers running after one another. Since they exist in the static immobility of sculpture, they will never catch each other up at last and embrace. They are, as Keats says, "Forever warm and still to be enjoyed / Forever panting and forever young." Their love is eternal and timeless, and they are to this day, as in the last verse of Shir Hashirim, still hurrying off to the hills of spices.

The freedom of Pesach gives way to the legal strictures of Shavuot, where we are saddled—albeit also blessed—with the responsibility of observing the mitzvot of the Torah. We are no longer just a liberated people; we are a people consecrated unto God in divine servitude. The contrast between the two holidays is evidenced also in the two megillot. Ruth, unlike Shir Hashirim, is a story of love but also of economics, politics, and history. From the very first verse, we are immediately situated in a particular geographical and chronological context: "In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons, went to reside in the country of Moab." Unlike Shir Hashirim, the book of Ruth unfolds sequentially over time, with a clear narrative progression: Elimelech's family travels to Moab to escape famine; Elimelech dies; Machlon and Chilion get married; Machlon and Chilion die; Naomi sets off on her own…. From famine to death to marriage to moving, this book is filled with the stuff of real life.

Perhaps Ruth loves Boaz, but if so, we are never told that this is the case. When still a young widow, she wins him over at the urging of her mother-in-law Naomi, who encourages her to glean in his fields. For Ruth, courting Boaz is a homework assignment of sorts – it is something she must do to save herself and her mother-in-law from the dangers of being unattached women in a strange land. Moreover, unlike the lovers in Shir Hashirim who celebrate at their leisure in the wilds of nature, Ruth and Boaz have their tryst on the threshing floor, the place of hard labor. Although Keats writes in Ode to a Nightingale of "Ruth, when sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn," it is another Keats poem that comes to mind when I think of Megillat Ruth – "Ode to Autumn":

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twine´d flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

The breath like the fragrance of apples which we find in Shir Hashirim has been replaced with the oozings of the cider press. The blossoming Rose of Sharon has given way to the drowsy poppy. And the lover has become the gleaner.
Ruth, who has tasted the bitter fruits of death and hunger, knows that there is no Song of Songs for her to sing – and Keats captures this as well in the very next stanza:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barre´d clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

It is these gathering swallows, though, and not the voice of the turtledove, that serve as harbinger of the Messiah. While the lovers in Shir Hashirim are still prancing amidst the gardens and valleys, Ruth gives birth to the ancestor of David. Redemption comes not from carefree freedom, but from a life of Torah and mitzvot. And perhaps the love into which we inevitably grow is not that of the fleeing lovers on the urn, but of the gleaners who winnow on the granary floor.