Sunday, April 23, 2006

Faygeleh, Shmaygeleh

In which the Balabusta gets interested in etymology, and historical unpleasantness.

Yesterday I (oh, happy day!) attended the last of my awful Saturday seminars in Moraga. One of the workshops I attended was on dealing with homophobia in the classroom. It was a pretty good workshop. One of the articles in the packet, however, got me thinking...

The article repeated a fairly common story I've heard, beginning in high school, about the origins of the word 'faggot' as a derogatory term for homosexual men. The story goes that it's a reference to burning at the stake. Depending on which version you get, convicted homosexuals were required to gather a bundle of sticks (or faggot) for the fires that burned them, or else they were referred to as faggots simply because gay men were, like sticks, burned, or, in the most dramatic version, repeated in this article, gay men were used as kindling to burn witches with. This last is firmly asserted as fact by any number of pagan and gay writers. I have never seen a scrap of historical evidence of this idea. Doesn't mean it's not out there. But I have never seen anything, and it doesn't sound terribly realistic to me for a number of gruesome reasons.

So I checked in with the Shorter OED. Here's what I find:

First, 'faggot' seems to appear first as a term of abuse in the late 16th century, as a dialect term meaning an 'objectionable' old woman, child, or animal. The connection here seems to be that such a person or thing is a burden, like firewood you must drag around.

Slightly earlier, it also seems to mean a heretic, or a person pardoned of heresy (who had to wear a badge of a faggot in token of their escape from burning). This usage is rare, and limited to the mid 16th century. No direct connection seems to yet appear to homosexuality.

By the EARLY 20th CENTURY, well post the burning times, orginally in the United States, we get to 'faggot' meaning 'a male homosexual, especially of an effeminate type'.

OK. Here's MY take on this. The original dialect term of abuse crosses the pond with 16th and 17th century settlers, and eventually reemerges as a slightly different slang term of abuse. No connection with burning heretics or witches. End of story.

However, something else rings in the back of head while I look at this. 'ot' is a common diminutive ending in medieval English names. And while 'bird' is the common English for 'bird', it appears in Old English apparently without origin or cognates known. At one time, one wonders, did English dialects include another word, one closer related to the German 'vogel'? In other words, is 'faggot', 'little bird'? In other words, is 'faggot' 'faygeleh' in long-forgotten English dialect?

Since I know jack about the origins of the Yiddish term, I could be miles away here. But it's interesting, neyn?

Bat Mitzvah, 2021

OK. This is morbid. But funny.

This morning, the fella and I were hanging out, drinking our respective caffeine (Coke for him, coffee with milk for me), and talking, and I threatened, in my usual loving way, to kill him by head-butting him to death, and he said that in his future he'd always seen a major coronary instead.

So after I got done spitting, and kayne-hore-ing, and calling on Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and doing several other small rituals to avert catastrophe--it took a while, especially sacrificing the frozen chicken--he agreed to a small coronary instead...I'm spitting onto the deck as I type this...and we somehow got rolling on the idea that it would happen just in time for Jezebel's bat mitzvah.

(Note to new readers, I and the fella have no children yet. Jezebel and Bubba are the names I use on this blog to refer to the ones we wish to have in the future. We will not be naming the kids Jezebel and Bubba. Thank you.)

"I'd like to thank everyone for coming to hear my bat mitzvah drash. I always dreamed I would give this drash from the bimah at B'nei Savlanut, but since DADDY decided to have a coronary, we're having here at Mount Sinai on the third floor instead.

"In my Torah portion, Moshe wonders if he's the best person to lead the Children of Israel. I think that he shouldn't doubt himself so much. He's worked really hard, and besides, God chose him. Also, MOSHE has not had a CORONARY, LIKE MY DADDY, because HE'S eating a healthy diet of manna and lean quail. Back in Egypt, he ate vegetables. This shows that MOSHE is a responsible person who looks after his health..."

The fella liked the scenario so much that he began to promise to fake a second coronary in time for Bubba's bar mitzvah...

"Welcome back to the third floor of Mount Sinai! This feels just like being at home! I'd like to thank everyone for coming, and my friends for throwing soft caramels rather than Jolly Ranchers at my face at point-blank range.

"In my Torah portion we learn about getting animals ready for sacrifice. After you sacrifice the animals, you're supposed to trim off all the fat, and burn it. I think this portion is really relevent to my family, and I want to tell you about what I think it symbolizes..."

We agreed that the third child, Rahab Sue, will be his favorite, and that he will come through for her bat mitzvah.

"Thank you all so much for coming to my bat mitzvah! We finally made it B'nei Savlanut!

In today's Torah portion, Korach and all the people he knows get swallowed up by the earth. In honor of reading this portion, I'm contributing ten percent of my bat mitzvah money to the Earthquake Preparedness Fund of Northern California. Another ten percent is going to Mount Sinai's cardiac ward for making it possible for my Daddy to be here today, and I'd like everyone to say Shehecheyanu in honor of that..."

Honey, I love you. But you gotta start eating some green and leafies.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Chametz, Schmutz and Clutter

What did YOU end Pesach with? My parents and I ended it at Giorgio's on Clement Street, which features excellent eggplant parmesan, and also garlic bread, and non-garlic bread, and spaghetti, and drinks with corn syrup in them.

I was on vacation this week. (Thanks be to God. I was getting to a very bad place. Also, this has mostly freed me from packing Pesadich work lunches.)

Anyway, I've taken the opportunity to do some drastic spring cleaning and decluttering, because the house was starting to look scary. As a result, I have been thinking a lot about the categories of chametz, schmutz and clutter.

When I tried to explain the whole Pesach process to gentile college friends, one of the things they often got hung up on was the idea that chametz is somehow seen as sinful, or evil. Possibly in the context of Christian thought this makes some sense--Pesach comes in close proximity to Lent, when Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays, and many 'give up' things, often food items, for the forty days. The things you abstain from are luxury products, 'extras' that are given up in order to enter into the sorrow of Lent. Structurally, though, Lent is more like the three weeks, not particularly like Pesach at all. Chametz is not a 'luxury' per se, and you go on eating carbohydrates, just in a modified form. I have eaten some darn luscious Pesach cakes. You don't give up chametz to renounce something. You GET RID of chametz.

Which brings me to decluttering. Decluttering is the process of getting rid of those things in your life and your home which you no longer need or use or want. Flylady, one of the gurus of getting your home organized, is a big proponent of decluttering, on the principal that it is not possible to effectively organize clutter. In her opinion, clutter sucks the life out of you. This, I believe.

Getting rid of clutter takes energy and some cunning. I believe I've already written on this blog about one of the more amazing moments of my decluttering career--I was on my way downstairs with my arms full of my machatenim's abandoned collection of Christmas cookie tins, prepared to take them to Goodwill, when the mythological figure I like to call the 'yetzer of clutter' perched on my shoulder and suggested I could clean the tins up, paint them in Purim themes, and use them for shalach manos. In eight months. I almost gave in. Then I got a grip and hustled the tins out the door.

Clutters in my life also include my inability to get rid of pieces of paper (how many back phone bills does one human being need? On the other hand, what if suddenly I had to prove I'd paid my phone bill in November 2001? What if the FBI needed to know this?), clothing (I might lose fifty pounds and become a blond, and then this would both fit, and look good on me. Besides, I paid money for it), and anything anyone ever bought for me (how would it look if I got rid of a paperback book a friend I no longer speak to much gave me for my twenty-fourth birthday?) And so on. I have problems with the clutter demons.

Aside from insane fears about the FBI suddenly needing access to my personal paper copies of old electric bills, the yetzer of clutter preys on various, sometimes contradictory fears and fantasies I have about the world. She knows about my Martha Stewart fantasies, and this enables her to encourage me to keep incredible junk on the grounds that I might make wonderful things out of it. On the flip side, she knows I can be coaxed to keep almost any damn thing with dark inherited memories of worse wartime I might not be able to get more Bugs Bunny mugs if the ones we kept were to break. Keep them against catastrophe. And she knows I can be guilted about my first-world, middle-class luxury. Children are dying in Africa, and you want to throw out a box of treyf stuffing mix left behind by your machatenim, which is at least a decade old and might actually have turned into a solid mass? Wasteful.

OK, I sound like a nutjob. I'm trying to be honest about the processes going on in the deep crevices of my psyche.

So what does any of this have to do with chametz? Symbolically, I think there's a connection. Pesach is the commemoration of making a decisive choice about essentials, of trading home, and anything you can't drag with you for life and freedom and faith that you can get where you're going. In both Jewish and American history this is a resonant and recurring theme. Things get brought--feather blankets, books, seeds (tumbleweeds are not indigenous to North America, they travelled from Russia on immigrant's clothing and took root on the Great Plains). Things get left behind--Boston rockers abandoned on the road west, some old-country customs, toys too heavy to pack. Decluttering, and freeing from chametz, reflects this process of giving up, of choosing, of moving on. You'll acquire more chametz, more things, being utterly free of them is not the point. The point is to be able to know what you need.

Another thing I keep in mind when decluttering is Flylady's repeated point that by donating things you no longer want or need, you are 'blessing another family' with them. Those damn Christmas tins might have actually been of use to someone. A skinny blond may be looking for a size twelve pale green sweater, and been pleased to find one. The breadmaker I never used and was never GOING to use was probably a nice find for someone out there who wanted one--and I was no longer hosting it and its accompanying guilt in my bedroom closet. If I don't want it, it should go to someone who wants it. If no one could want it, get rid of the thing already!

I don't think it is an accident that in both of my own ethnic cultures, at least, one of the characteristics most strongly associated with holy women is giving away, moving things out of their home. What do saintly rebbetzins do? They feed and shoe Eliyahu, and presumably some actual wandering beggars as well. Brigid, the fire/spring/craft goddess-turned-Irish supersaint, (also said to have been the midwife at the birth of Christ, because things like the time-space continuum do not bother Irish supersaint girls) became a Christian and expressed this, not by going off to a distant rock or cave like Columba or Kevin, but by giving the contents of her stepfather's home to every passing traveller in need. (The stepfather, a Druid, converted, apparently in part because he felt that if his house was going to be given as tzedake, piece by piece, he should at least get some spiritual benefit out of it.) Rather than huddling in my own home, hoarding stuff I don't need or want, I need to turn outward, and send the extra out the door to where it will be useful.

Anyway. That's where I am as the holiday ends. Today I declutter the computer room. Anyone want an elderly desk lamp?

OK, OK, I'm COMING, but I still think this Moshe guy should ask for directions

The  first night of Pesach was lovely. I went over after work to my mother’s, and we lit for yontiff and had dinner. She made a wonderful turkey recipe that involves apricots and onions and oranges (apples too?). Very good. We had gefilte fish and soup with kneidlach, and potato kugel and asparagus. (My mother has a custom not to eat asparagus before the seder. We always do asparagus at the seder.)
I was sent home with a package of macaroons and an avocado. BTW, my mother commented on how hard it must have been for all those generations who made Pesach without avocados. How did they manage? I had the avocado for lunch yesterday. Avocados are excellent.
So far so good, except that everyone at school has promptly started presenting me with food I can’t eat. One kid decided to give me a bunch of chocolate rabbits. Another offers me her Hot Cheetos. And the teacher downstairs suddenly sends a couple of kids up with CUPCAKES. Five of ‘em on a plate. Oh well.
Second night I was off to Netivot Shalom, which was very nice. Got to be part of a discussion group about the four sons, which I will post about later in the weekend, since I came up with something that rather pleased me, and would like to present it in this forum. The people at my table were very nice. I ate a lot of eggplant salad.

Question: are green beans kitniyot? There were green beans in my soup at Netivot Shalom. I have no real objection to green beans, but it seems to me that they might be kitniyot, and also, vegetables other than carrots in matzo ball soup seem sort of odd. (A quick Google of the matter seems to indicate that green beans are 'borderline', a controversial vegetable. This, I guess, is the kitchen garden equivalent of Alice Walker's revolutionary petunias.)
OK, here’s the question of the season: why is this so gruesome for women? I mean seriously, why does a holiday celebrating freedom amount to a sentence with hard time for most women?
(Please note: I am aware that many men also clean for Pesach, both independently, and as a full contributing partner in joint efforts with their spouses, both female and male. You have to admit, however, that this is statistically and emotionally a woman’s job, and a woman’s issue. If you are male and have similar problems, please feel free to feel included in the universal feminine.)

I suppose that most major holidays pose a stress for women. The fall chagim come with obligations to produce major holiday dinners. Heck, for some people, every Shabbos comes with an obligation to produce a major dinner. Thanksgiving and Christmas are so stressful that whole issues of women's magazines are devoted to how to survive these holidays with your sanity intact. We're talking about a lot of cooking, a lot of cleaning, and often family you don't see so often coming around, plus a demented desire for the holiday to be PERFECT.

But Pesach has demands that no other holiday imposes. Stresses no other holiday approaches. What are we doing here? And why?

Anyway, since I'm skipping out on most of that, I am doing fine so far. I'm not even sick of matzah yet, although my father apparently is. I have eaten a lot of artichokes, with butter, only time of year I eat them with butter. (If mayonnaise isn't Best Foods, it ain't worth it.) I made brisket, and California Lite tzimmes. And I'm cleaning. (I realize this was supposed to be done before the holiday. I'm slow.)

I am, however, ready for this to be over, mostly because I want to do some cooking, and all the recipes that sound good go over rice.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Which Way Out of Egypt?

No matter what I do, no matter what I eat, no matter how hard I avoid it, it's going to be Pesach in a matter of days. The stupid moon just keeps getting fuller. What's with that?

I once wrote a poem about the last days of Elul. Every year, I realize once again that I spend the days before Rosh Hashanah, not in serene, thoughtful self-examination, but in acting out, avoiding, and transgressing, and I've come to believe (maybe self-servingly), that this is part of an important process. Testing the limits before the chagim begin, and I find myself swept up in an affirmation of those limits, and of what (or Who) is not limited.

I'm somewhere similar right now. While before Rosh Hashanah I find myself having to assess where I am in relation to the world, I am having to sit back now and assess where I am in relation to Jews. Uh, could I have the world problem back please? (Sort of kidding. Anyway, we'll be back there in six months.)

After my last Pesach post, I had a long talk with my mom. She thinks that I idealize my family's observance during my childhood too much, and put too much pressure on myself to reach an imaginary ideal. (I think that's what she said.) This is probably true. I think that the core problem I have, Jewishly speaking, is that I still (at thirty-two), have not quite figured out how to be a Jewish grown-up. And this clearly bugs me. (I'm sitting here crying on my keyboard. Not entirely sure why. Need to go stir spaghetti sauce.)

OK. Sauce stirred. I've been hacking away at this post for a bit, trying to make sense of what I'm really thinking. I keep starting to type the entire history of me and stuff Jewish--childhood, college stuff, attempt at rabbinic school, attempt at working in Jewish community, developing intense allergic sensitivity to anti-Semitism after 9/11, all of it, but I actually don't think any of that is all that useful right now. It's stuff I've reviewed with myself, and my friends and my therapist a lot, but it's not what I'm actually thinking about now.

Now THAT was a useful paragraph to write. My whole personal history with the Jewish community has started to feel like Marley's manacles--to be dragged around clanking until Judgement Day. Enough of that. I doubt there's much left in there for me to mine. If there was ever a season for dropping the manacles and walking on without them, this is it. Where am I now, and what do I want?

Mostly where I am right now is obsessed with work. This is not a new problem. Since the demise of the rabbi plan (nearly ten years now...scary), I've been working feverishly to work out some way to find a job I like and am tolerably good at that pays the bills and fits into some sort of life I'm comfortable with. I'm closer now than I've ever been, in a lot of ways, but I'm not there, and in some ways I'm REALLY not there. My present job is awful. It's now time-limited--mid-June and we're done--but that means I have to find a job before the end of the summer. I'm working on that--I've been to two interviews, although neither panned out--and I have another on Tuesday. The other problem is that this current job is eating my head. It's really hard to be spending so much time and energy on something that so completely consumes me, and is so totally unrewarding. I leave the house at 6:30, and get home at 6:30, and really, there is not much outside of that. And I am afraid that I won't find another teaching job. The Paxil is wonderful, in that the anxiety is basically gone, but that does not make this pleasant, only tolerable. Granted, this is HUGE step forward, and will probably make all the difference, but Not the best of times.

So I'm not doing much except for wrestling with work, finding new work, getting through the old work. Most of my time outside of work is spent refueling to go back, or feeling guilty I'm not doing more work/job hunt related things. As a result, I am not doing a lot of other things that might result in more happiness, spiritual growth, or peace on earth.

To be expected, you might say, at a time like this, but it feels like it's been a time like this FOREVER. I don't go to shul. I don't volunteer. I don't get out. I don't even clean much, although I did get a jump on Pesach this morning by sorting through huge piles of old bills and odd mail, filing and tossing. (Yes, I realize old bills are not chametz. But in a spiritual sense, aren't they? I think it says that somewhere in the Gemara. If it doesn't, it's only because Bruriah and Rachel and Imma Shalom were too busy scrubbing and putting down aluminum foil on the counters to make an official statement about it.)

As you may have noticed, and as this blog title hints, I think, I have a bundle of crossed wires in my head about home, family, community and yiddishkeit. (I think I have just identified the four most crucial concepts/stereotypes in my whole psychic makeup. I should make a plaque or something.) I do idealize the way I was raised, and the haphazardness of my current Jewish/community/activist life does bother me. And my kitchen is a leavened mess, and I may not make it to a seder this year. (My mother and I are planning to eat chicken together on the first night and talk about leaving Mitzrayim. Second night I'm thinking possibly Chabad.)

But I think this is my year for leaving Mitzrayim in my own particular way--through decluttering, and examining with a critical eye what I really want to, and can, bring with me on the cosmic communal road trip. Clearing out my spaces so I'm no longer trapped in a house that's narrowing in on me--OK, I'm a literalist about Mitzrayim here--and freeing my head from preconceived ideas about what I would find out in the desert if I were a better person, (or my mother, grandmother, Emma Goldman, the matriarchs, some woman living in Mea Shearim, or Blu Greenberg) so I can actually go out there and see what I was meant to find.

Gotta go eat some more chametz and throw out old envelopes. See ya baMidbar.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I'm a WOW

That does not stand for Woman of the Wall. (Although I support their efforts, and have some of their swag.)

It stands for Widow of Warcraft. That's World of Warcraft. For those of you who are blissfully ignorant of such, World of Warcraft is a mostly-medieval-fantasy online roleplaying game. Sort of like Dungeons and Dragons, but played online. The Balabusta bought it for the fella for Christmas so he could stop going over to our friends down the street and then vanishing for hours to play on their account. Now he spends basically all hours not spent working or sleeping happily moving his various characters around, dressing them, sending them on quests, and killing things with them.

The hilarious part, from the Balabusta's perspective, is both the problem of trying to communicate with a man whose brain is basically running through the streets of Stormwind, and not entirely absorbing her explanations about dinner, after work meetings, or the house being on fire. Also the weird comments over his headset to the friends he plays with. Oh yeah. The weird comments.

"No one wants to see gnome nipple." That was earlier today. (As I was typing this, he added, unaware that I was posting, "That's not something I want to see. Gnome love."

"One gold, three silver, two mithril bars. I said, one gold, three silver, two mithril bars..." Repeat for about five minutes. I think something was wrong with the headset.

"I just jumped off the elevator. Oh yeah. I'm gonna die."

"Come on, loot this guy. See if he has the whatever it is."

"When the goblin respawns, he drops a letter."

Helpfully, he often plays with the boyfriend of a friend of mine, and we sometimes can have a sort of phone conversation passing messages between our respective men. We've set up dinner dates like this.

"Go kill that guy over there and then join us. Balabusta says Italian is fine."

"It might take three shots to kill it. Do you want to meet us here or at the Plaza?"

"OK, eight o'clock. Yep. Yeah, you hit level ten. You're going to have to go back to Stormwind anyway."

"But there's a rabbit in the road."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Youth Culture For Our Times

Not only do my students listen to Matisyahu--oh, and per Time Magazine, Michelle Wie does too...but also...

1. They covet grills, those gaudy precious-metal tooth decorations worn by rappers with more money than sense, and subsequently by fans with, still apparently, more money than sense. Because they're in middle school, they can't actually afford solid-gold bridges with their names picked out in diamonds, so they improvise.

Improvise means that they take the silver foil wrapping from sticks of gum, and mold these over the upper or lower row of their teeth, smoothing them out so that each tooth shows through the foil. When I catch them at this, they have to throw the foil away. "But it's my grill," they plead.

Silvery grins all over the classroom. And chewing gum all the while.

2. They love Hot Cheetos, and will risk detention in order to eat these in class. They will sometimes eat Hot Cheetos in class with cheese dip. I have found cheese dip in the damndest places.

3. They have interesting ideas of revenge. A coworker has a student, quite a large young man for the seventh grade, who was being picked on by a measly little sixth-grader. Hassled beyond endurance, unwilling to seek adult help, and apparently not willing to just punch a child half his size, this boy seized his tormentor's backpack, threw it in a urinal, and urinated on it.

4. They have interesting ideas of entertainment. The same coworker had a student who was suspended while a sub had care of the class, for refusing to surrender a piece of paper handed to him. The piece of paper read 'The penis game. Pass it on.'

For those of you unfamiliar with the Penis Game, it is a form of group entertainment in which the kids in a class all chant the word 'penis' quietly, but with increasing volume, until they are caught or otherwise in trouble.

5. They want to smell good. Unfortunately, to them, this means spraying Axe, or Jovan's Sex Appeal (depending on gender), ALL OVER THEIR CLOTHES, in large quantities, IN CLASS. I have kids with allergies. The reek produced from this is amazing--one large part rubbing alcohol to one large part cheap cologne. I have had boys caught with the Axe tell me 'that's what a real man smells like'. I have had to tell them that no, whatever a real man smells like, that is not it. "How do you know?" one boy asked me.

I gotta get out of this place.